Interloper 2: Chapter 1
This story is the second of the Interloper series. If you have come here from the first, Mass Effect: Interloper, then welcome! If you have not yet read the first story, then I advise you to give it a go. Literally tens of people have enjoyed it. So, with that out of the way, on to the story. Don't hesitate to drop a review or a PM, follow this story, or send chocolates.
The pale early morning light of Cook's Landing shone upon the well-worn tools and electrical components that lay spread across the beaten metal surface of the garage's workbench. The light found me working on a recent project of mine, something to distract me from the ill news. Or lack of news. It had been almost two and a half years since Commander Shepard, first human Spectre, daughter of the colonies and hero of Elysium, had been reported lost. Almost six months overdue was her triumphant return to the living. And so I worked on my project, even in the early hours before my daily tasks began. I stifled a yawn and put down my tools. It would be time to start work soon. Even now I could hear some of the other hands moving about in the wide and sandy courtyard. The pleasant lilt of the local accent filled the air as men and women worked to rig up boats and the other various tools of the trade.
Cook's Progress was a relatively small one, a tropical world wreathed in a wide ocean. One the biggest cluster of islands, the capital city rose right up to the sandy shores. Here on one of the smaller islands, agriculture flourished. The Romano's farm specialized in the local citrus fruits that fetched a high price on nearby planets. Farming was much harder work than I had guessed upon accepting the job, but it came with room and board, and more importantly, an extranet connection. I started to stand; soon I would be called to attend my morning duties. Something rustled behind me. I whirled, worn red pistol in hand. I met the blinking face of the youngest daughter of the Romano family, Elisabeth. I quickly stowed the weapon, smiling sheepishly.
"I really wish you would stop sneaking up on me like that?" I said. Liz gave me an easy smile and walked past me to sit on the workbench.
"And I really wish you'd tell me how you got so jumpy." The girl teased. "Anyway, you're going to miss breakfast."
"Can't have that." I murmured. I went for the door, expecting the girl to follow me. She didn't. I turned back. Liz stood by the workbench, eying my latest project appraisingly, a finger entangling itself in her shoulder length coils of light brown hair.
"Is this the new one then?" She asked when she found me looking at her.
"It is." I picked up the long white rifle, an M-96 Mattock, from the table. For now its casing lay open, exposing the wires and field generators within.
"Looks like you're trying to rig it up to accept those new expendable heat clips." She noted as she traced a finger over the ruggedized circuits. "I don't know why you would though."
"New militia standards." I said quickly.
"Liar," She accused sunnily. "If the militia got its hands on new guns, dad would be up the wall in excitement. I groaned. Elisabeth was especially proficient in ferreting out my little fictions. It didn't help that she was the daughter of my employer, the man who was also head of the local island cluster's small militia force. "And anyway, this configuration wouldn't work. The way you have it, the sink will melt the ejector leads, right here." She pointed at a silvery line that ran across the rifle, bridging the gap between the small power source and the servos that would fling expended clips from the weapon. After perusal, I saw that she was right. I groaned again. Even at several years my junior, the girl was almost a prodigy when it came to fiddling with electronics. When her dad was in a joking mood, he liked to say that she had been dropped off by the Flotilla as an infant, giving her slight frame and narrow face as further evidence.
"I'll have to fix that." I admitted, "It's not a finished product. Now, you said something about breakfast?"
The Romano home was cozy for a series of prefabs bolted together. The long table of local wood was laden with palettes of protein rations, synthetic eggs, and slices of the pale lilac citrus fruit. Into these, the other hands tucked in with relish. I picked at my own food.
"Not hungry today?" Mrs. Romano asked as she cleared a finished dish from the table.
"Not really." I lied, "Just thinking, I wanted to talk to the boss about…"
"About what?" the owner of the farm came in through the doorway. He was a short man, with thin hair on top of his head and a thick mustache below his nose. He was also strong, and powerfully built. As head of militia he still kept to the fierce exercise regime of the Alliance marines, even as his hair began to grey.
"I was hoping to get the day off today, sir?" I asked politely. "It's June again." Mr. Romano regarded me, thick thumbnail in his mouth. He was a combat veteran; he had always respected my feelings about today.
"Tell you what," he said after some thought. "I need some packages picked up at the spaceport. Why don't you run into town and take care of that, then you can take the rest of the day off?" I nodded thankfully.
"Thank you, Sir." The man made a gruff sound and moved to his own place at the table, pausing to clap a farmhand on the back or tousle one of his children's hair. I returned my attention to my plate and managed to get down a ration cake and a swig of fruit juice before excusing myself from the table. I left the farmhouse for the road that lay aside it, starting the walk into town.
The local starport was one another island, one much closer to the capital. I had to pick a ride on one of the shuttle busses that filled the skyline of the island city. There had been talk of putting in a series of massive spindly bridges to connect the various parts of the cluster a while back, but with cheap mass effect technology being so prevalent, nothing came of it. I spent the ride in silence, vid disk clutched in hand. Finally my commute was over and I stood before the sprawling and busy port. Transports, freighters, and sleek Alliance patrol boats slid in and out of the massive complex on invisible pillows of negative gravity. It was good that Mr. Romano had assigned me the job of visiting the port; I had a few deliveries of my own to make. I took a wandering route to the local Import/Export office, allowing the crowd to move me along.
"Ah, a fine morning to you Mr. Smith." The salarian postmaster greeted me warmly. The wide spread use of the extranet for communication left him with a lot of free time and a low salary, a problem I occasionally found a way of solving.
"Morning, Riggen. I wanted to check the lost and found for the last week." The salarian smiled broadly.
"Of course, of course. Many things lost last week. Not many interesting, but I think some unfortunate from off planet may have misplaced some very important documents." He drew a blank datapad from under his desk and handed it to me. I waved my Omni-tool over the display. It was weakly encrypted, probably someone's traffic reports or tax returns, but everything was valuable to someone.
"I think I recognize these, I'll make sure they get to the right people. Oh, and here, I think somebody lost a credit chit." I said, handing the small metal rectangle over.
"Happens all the time." Riggen chirped. "I'll take care of this." He slipped the card into his shirt pocket. "Be seeing you later today? Somebody 'lost' a very tasty asari wine."
"Not today, Riggen." I said, "It's June."
"Ah, perhaps you should keep the whole bottle." The postmaster offered.
"Generous, but I'm going to have to decline." I stood and shook the man's three fingered hand. I left the office with the datapad tucked under ad arm and went looking for the Boss' shipment. After checking on the note he had given me, I found my way to one of the out of the way loading docks. I was surprised to find a grey and blur Alliance ship parked in the designated spot, but not nearly surprised as I was when I saw who was organizing the unloading of large grey crates.
"Ashley?" the dark haired marine whirled around and fixed me with a sharp look. As recognition replaced swept across her face, A smile replaced it.
"Michael Liddle, fancy meeting you here. What are you doing out here in the colonies?" her question gave me pause. I was pretty sure I had made it clear were I had intended to go when I left the Normandy, but perhaps she had forgotten, it had been years ago.
"Farming, mostly," I answered, "What are you doing here?"
"New Alliance initiative. We're installing GUARDIAN laser systems in some of the outer colonies to defend against Geth incursions." If her unconvincing surprise had awoken my interest, the cover story poured strong coffee down its throat. On Horizon, the Alliance had used the story to cover up their investigation into Cerberus activity. Was Cerberus on Cook's Landing? Were the Collectors headed here?
"Hello, Liddle? You still there?"
"Huh, what?" I looked up. Ashley was standing with her arms crossed across her chest. "Oh, sorry, lost in thought for a bit. What were you saying?"
"I was wondering if you had any time free today. You know, to catch up. Today is three years since…"
"I actually have the day off. I was going to go to a little place downtown that shows vids, they accept requests." I drew the shiny disk from a pocket. The cover glinted in the sun. Soldiers of the Alliance Frontier was scrawled across it in my own hand.
"I'd like that." Ashley said. "Let me get these guys set up and I'll meet you there. Say, around lunch time?"
Ashley met me at the cozy little theatre shortly after one. I sat outside sipping on a mixture of the local citrus and a dash of something stronger, my fingers drumming on the Romano's package. It was a plastic crate about the size of my head and heavy enough to be a collapsed hardsuit.
"Hey marine!" I turned. Ashley Williams stood there in street clothes, a new sight to me. She had also let her hair out of the severe bun she had always held it in, allowing it to hang prettily just beyond her shoulders. In her hands she held two packs of pale brown bottles. "Hope these are allowed inside, I got a little thirsty on the way over."
"I don't think they'll complain. The owner used to be 109th."
"No shit." Ashley looked amused as I worked my way to my feet. "Today is just full of little coincidences."
"Not really," I said as we walked in. I waved to the owner behind his polished counter and tossed him the disc. He caught it deftly and waved us towards a room at the end of the hallway. "Cook's Landing has an unusually high population of vets; I guess they all enjoy how peaceful it is here."
Ashley and I sat back in comfy padded seats and twisted the caps off of two bottles. Every now and then as the vid played, someone would poke their head into the small theatre. Some would leave, but others would find a seat. I knew a few of them from around town. Somewhere between my second bottle and the bottom of the pack, I raised a reverent toast to the men on the screen. It was in the middle of a brief comedic scene. One he would have liked.
"To Rick." Ashley said a little louder. The bottles clinked as the scene ended dramatically. "God, I miss him. Has it really been three years?"
"Three years without Rick, two and a half without Shepard." I said.
"So you haven't heard anything from her?" Ashley asked suspiciously.
"I haven't learnt to talk to ghosts since I left the Normandy, Ash, so no. Unless you know something I don't." Ashley went slightly redfaced.
"Forget I said anything." She said. We sat silently as the vid continued.