In case any of you fear that this story will now turn into a boring retelling, let me assure you, that is definitely not the plan. The missions will be different and fewer, concentrating on the characters that we know and love and new ones and characters that we don't know enough of. I hope you will stay with this story.
Thanks to Credete for editing.
Garrus's grip on the wrench slipped and his elbow hit hard against the underside of the Mako. Lucky for him, he still wore his armor. He was trying to replace some of the electrical connections, before they got damaged too much. Parts of the underside of the vehicle looked like it had been roasted in an open fire, no wonder Joker had gotten so angry.
Garrus rolled out from under the Mako, next to the strong legs of his girlfriend. She wore no armor and the Alliance clothes hugged her tightly. She leaned against the Mako, her arms crossed over her chest and looked down towards him with a smile. He didn't get up right away, he liked the view.
"Don't you M'am me, turian. I'll have you thrown into the brig." She gave him her best Commander look through her lashes and it did things to his insides that should be illegal. No one should feel like a horny teenager all the time.
He rolled out completely and leaned his side against the Mako so that he could see her face. She looked like she had something on her mind and Garrus waited for her to talk, singing a soft tone.
"I did something bad," she said with a lopsided smile.
"I hung up on the Council."
"The Citadel Council?"
"Spirits, do you need a political scandal on your back?" Garrus imagined how the Councillors reacted to that and he had to chuckle. "I wish I could have seen Councillor Sparatus's face."
"Oh, he was pissed!" Shepard said and she looked quite proud of that. "It was just so..." she threw her arms up, "we fought our asses off, barely got out. My feet were literally on fire for fucks sake! We even saved Benezia's daughter and all they worried about was that the prothean ruins got destroyed. Well, I'm so fucking sorry that your precious protheans built their shit inside of a volcano!"
"So, do you think anything will come from that?" Garrus asked, taking off his gloves to let his finger trail along her cheek.
"Oh, it already has." She leaned her cheek into his touch, her eyes half closing. "It only took thirty seconds for Anderson to call me and berate me on my behaviour and just two minutes for a fucking admiral to give me a firm talking to."
"An admiral, impressive."
Her eyes sprang open. "Yes, definitely impressive. Admiral Hackett. Never met him but I was standing to attention from his voice alone." She straightened her posture, as if she heard the admiral scolding her right now.
Garrus looked her over, while she looked stressed, she did not appear overly worried. "Are you ok?"
Shepard waved the question off. "Oh sure, that wasn't the first firm talking to I have gotten, my 'Yes, Sir!' face is impenetrable."
Garrus internally congratulated himself on his correct assessment of her mood. His expertise in human expressions still worked, even on his girlfriend.
She came closer to him, leaning against the shell of his armor. He wondered if it hurt her.
A loud rumbling came from her stomach and for a second he thought that she had developed subharmonics. But then he remembered that stomach noises were a sign of hunger in humans. She held a hand on her stomach as if she hoped to quiet it down that way.
She grinned sheepishly at him. "Are you done here? Want to join me in the mess?"
Garrus realized that he was hungry too. "Actually, yes. I can always finish this later."
"I saw Ashley and Liara sitting there before I came down, maybe..."
"Well, Liara T'Soni and I didn't exactly get off on a good start. She did this melding thing with me, the councillors wanted to know if she could make sense of the vision. You know how I hate that." She shuddered on the memory. "But I let her do it, let her in. It felt so weird. And afterwards..."
Garrus waited for her to continue as they walked over to the elevator. He chirped a short question with his subharmonics when she stayed quiet.
"Well," Shepard sighed, "I think I told you how I had that experience once before and how that asari looked at me afterwards like she was scared of me."
Shepard pulled her shoulders up and her voice got very quiet. "Same thing with Liara. I don't know what she saw but she looked at me like I'm a monster. And it was not because of the vision, she couldn't make any more sense of that than me. Fucking useless, the whole process." Her eyebrows narrowed angrily. "The councillors were not happy either and then they complained about the fucking ruins..."
"I see why you hung up on them."
"Yeah... by the way," she stopped and faced him with an angry scowl, "next time I have to talk to the Council, you are there with me, Mister Advisor of the Turian Hierarchy! I'm not doing this alone again."
"Futuo," he mumbled, adding an extra trill of annoyance to the swear word. "Yes, if Madam Spectre insists."
She punched his arm with a loud laugh, only to wince as she hurt her hand on his armor. "This Madam Spectre might make wearing armor on board against the law."
"I don't think Spectres have legislative authority."
"Damn, useless Spectre status." She turned back towards the elevator. "You know what? Let's ask the rest of our ragtag team to come too. I know Jinala got some nice food for us on the Citadel, there is no reason to let that spoil." She leaned past him to look at Wrex, who looked at something on his omni-tool. "Wrex, we are having dinner in the mess, do you want to join us?"
Wrex looked up with a start, he seemed to have been totally engrossed with what ever he had looked at on his omni-tool. "I'll come later, Shepard."
Shepard nodded and stepped into the elevator with Garrus. She initiated a vid-call on her omni-tool and the shiny faceplate of Tali's helmet appeared in miniature on her arm.
"We are having a team dinner in the mess hall and I know that I have some nice dextro shakes for you in the pantry, want to join us?"
"Oh, yes, but I have to..."
"The drive core is not going to explode just because you spend some time away from it."
Another face appeared on the translucent display on Shepard's arm, Engineer Adams leaned in front of the camera to say: "I wouldn't be so sure about that, Commander, ever since Tali has gotten hold of the drive core's interface, it's been purring like a cat and runs more efficient. It might get offended if she leaves it alone."
He disappeared from the display and Tali looked after him, her voice sounding insecure. "Sir, it's not possible for the drive core to feel -"
"That was a joke, Tali," Shepard interrupted with a grin, "Engineer Adams is quite aware of the lack of emotions in the drive core."
"Oh!" Tali tilted her head in what must be quarian body language for embarrassment.
"So are you coming?" Shepard asked, giving her a bright smile.
"Yes, Commander, I will be there in a little while."
"Ok." By the end of the call, the elevator finally released them on the deck. They saw Liara T'Soni and Ashley Williams sitting opposite each other at the table as they came around the corner. Ashley was looking at pictures on a datapad and waved them over when she noticed Shepard and Garrus approaching the table.
"Skipper, this looks just like a part of that beacon on Eden Prime."
Shepard leaned over and enlarged a part of the picture. "You are right, these marks look the same."
"You saw the letters on the beacon?" Liara asked with a gasp.
"I was quite close to it, you know." Shepard said with a slightly forced smile.
"Of course, Commander."
"Call me Shepard, Dr. T'Soni."
"Only if you call me Liara."
Shepard smiled at her. "Of course, Liara, would you like something to eat? I thought we could all have dinner together, I also invited Wrex and Tali and let me just call Kaidan over."
The voice of the pilot came over the speakers. "Don't mind me, Commander, I'm not hungry."
"Didn't I tell you not to spy, Joker?" Shepard asked with a stern voice. "And I would have asked you to come but I happen to know that you can't leave your shift right now."
"No more spying, Joker."
"Alright, Commander." The pilot sounded quite disappointed.
Garrus got himself a blue coded dextro meal from the pantry and placed it into the heater. Liara took one with the characteristic purple lid that indicated an asari meal and Ashley took one with a red color and placed them both in the heater too. Garrus also saw many big containers with an orange coding for krogan food and bottles with blue and pink stripes that had a special nozzle that could be connected to a quarian induction port. All in all, he had never seen such a well stocked pantry before.
Shepard spoke to Kaidan, who worked on a terminal next to the door to the captains quarters. Shepard had told Garrus that she still called it that, even though they were now her quarters. She left Kaidan at his station and picked a box out of the pantry as well.
"Kaidan wants to finish whatever he's doing there first." She put another red coded meal on top of the others and turned on the heating unit. A soft hum indicated that it worked.
Garrus looked over to Kaidan, who peered at the screen with a frown. "Do you think I should offer to help him?" Garrus asked Shepard.
Shepard shook her head and spoke quietly. "It's not about the console. It's about him controlling his surroundings, don't take that away from him. Control... is very important for him."
"Why?" Ashley asked.
"I suggest you talk to him yourself, Chief. Maybe he'll tell you." Shepard said.
The heating unit made a short beep and she handed out the food containers to everyone. Liara and Ashley sat down on their seats again, Garrus picked the chair next to Ashley after a short hesitation and was surprised by the friendly look she gave him. Shepard sat down opposite to him, next to Liara. They ate in silence for a little while but Garrus could tell that Shepard was working on something to say.
Finally she broke the silence. "I'm sorry I snapped at you, Liara."
"I understand, Comm... Shepard. It was very tiring for me too. The vision from the beacon is very powerful." Liara hesitated, her face showing something like fear but Garrus wasn't sure if she feared the vision or Shepard. "You... you must be incredibly strong willed, Commander Shepard. A weaker mind would have been unable to hold the vision without going mad. You were touched by real prothean technology and survived."
"It was.. it is..." Shepard's hands clenched around her fork. "It still feels like there is something in my head, something foreign."
Liara nodded in understanding. "The vision, the message, was constructed for a prothean mind. It can not be understood by a human mind, not without some kind of translation system. Not even I understood it."
Ashley and Shepard both looked at her with one eyebrow raised. Liara's face turned slightly purple, it made Garrus realize that he had never seen an asari blush before. "No, I didn't mean to make it sound like asari are superior!" she stammered. "Our geneticists assume that asari share genetic traits with protheans. So an asari brain might be more compatible..."
Shepard laughed out. "It's okay, Liara, we get it."
Tali came around the corner and stopped at the table, fidgeting. Shepard got up and led her to the pantry on the side.
"You don't have to ask permission to get food and sit with us, Tali'Zorah," Shepard said.
"Oh, yes, I guess it's kind of a habit." She picked a bottle with the blue and pink stripes from the pantry and took the seat beside Garrus. "Quarians are not exactly loved across the galaxy and we are taught to be humble."
"After releasing the geth on the galaxy," Garrus said, "the quarians have quite the reason to apologize to the rest of the galaxy for creating them."
A silence fell across the table as everyone stopped eating. Tali straightened her back and the bright spots of her eyes behind her tinted mask turned to slits. "We lost our homeworld!" she shouted, louder than he had ever heard her speak. "We are fugitives with nowhere to go, fighting to keep the geth contained in the Terminus and you still think we should apologize? We have apologized for hundreds of years!"
Garrus did not fail to notice the intense stare and raised eyebrow his commanding officer and girlfriend projected at him. Even Ashley looked at him in shock and slightly shook her head. He replayed what he had said in his mind and stretched his neck in embarrassment. "I'm sorry." He added an extra hum of humility to his subharmonics. "I guess that was an old prejudice surfacing. I don't... That's not what I want to think."
Shepard let out an audible breath. "Well, since we are already working on embarrassing our fellow alien friends, let me continue with that trend." She turned to Liara, whose eyes widened in shock at being the center of attention. "Liara, why do you have eyebrows?"
Liara's skin turned dark purple. She raised one of her hands to her face, tracing the contour of the thin black line above her eye. Shepard's look followed her movement.
"I know it is painted on," Shepard said, "it's a kind of permanent paint but it can get changed. I've seen asari with complicated, graphical markings and others with patterns that look random, is there some kind of fashion with it?"
"We get our markings at a young age," Liara said. "In a human it would be the teenage years I think it is called. In some families the markings are designed by the elders of the Sirlina, the clan. Others use a ritual called Lirningion. It is a coming of age ritual, a festive occasion. The highlight is the mixing of two colorful substances in the silver bowl of Athame that are phobic to each other. They don't mix and the pattern that is formed in the end is then painted on the younglings face by one of the matriarchs. In less traditional families, the younglings decide and design their markings themselves."
"And who designed your markings?" Ashley asked.
Liara sighed. "I did."
Both Ashley and Shepard chuckled a little and waited for Liara to continue.
"It was..." Liara hesitated but when she saw the eager looks on Ashley's and Shepard's faces, she continued, "my mother is not a strict follower of the goddess Athame, she followed some rituals, others were silly in her opinion. The Lirningion was one of those she had decided as not worthy to follow. She told me one day to decide on a pattern and have them painted on. I was disappointed to not have the ritual, I had looked forward to the festivities."
Shepard raised her hand and almost touched the painted eyebrow before putting her hand back on the table. "So you had to make a pattern, I get that, but why eyebrows?"
Liara sighed again. "I guess it was a rebellious phase."
Both human women at the table snorted out and laughed heartily. Ashley managed to say between laughs: "Good to know that even asari are just like human teenagers during puberty."
Liara smiled shyly. "Back then, the humans had just appeared, fighting the turians on Shanxi. There was a lot of talk about these new aliens, their looks and how they managed to stand up to the turians." She lowered her head as she continued, "My mother thought they were abhorrent creatures, arrogant and presumptuous." She looked up at Ashley. "I'm sorry."
Shepard put her hand on her arm. "No need to be sorry. You are not responsible for the opinions or actions of your parents or ancestors." A look passed between Ashley and Shepard and before the hardened soldier looked down on her hands, Garrus caught a glint of tears in Ashley's eyes.
"I wanted to annoy my mother," Liara continued, "I thought by making myself look like the humans, she would get angry, yell at me, demand to take on the markings of our family, I guess..." she looked down on her hands opening and closing around each other, "I guess I just wanted a reaction, anything from her to show that she cared." She sighed again and she looked very young. "She didn't react like that at all. She just laughed and said something about me being strange. I left shortly after that to study history and archaeology."
"Why did you never change them?" Shepard asked.
"I never cared much about how I looked. I may have gotten the markings for a silly reason originally but after a while I actually kind of liked them. By now, I consider them part of me. Maybe I will add something to them one day but I think I will keep the lines." Liara's hands stopped fidgeting and she looked at Ashley.
Ashley took a few breaths as if she wanted to say something but stopped herself three times before she finally blurted out: "I think you... they... the markings are very pretty."
"Thank you, Ashley."
The soldiers face turned even darker than usually, a deep crimson glowing on her cheeks. Shepard smiled but didn't comment and turned to face Tali instead.
The quarian had said nothing so far after her outburst after Garrus's insensitive remarks. But she had been watching the exchange and it was unfortunate that no one could tell what she was thinking about it all, hidden behind her mask. Shepard peered into the glass, apparently thinking along the same lines.
"Let's continue with embarrassing questions." Shepard pointed at Tali's faceplate. "Why is that not transparent?"
Tali tilted her head slightly and rested her hand on the side on the table. Garrus wondered how much of her body language was actually deliberate, a code to make up for the lack of facial expressions. Her speaker began to blink, a millisecond before her voice could be heard. "We are very sensitive towards light. Long exposure to unfiltered light makes our eyes hurt."
"That explains it. So that clean room we installed on deck three, where you can take off your suit, you would keep that dark?"
"Almost entirely, yes."
Shepard nodded. "I have another question, about the geth. Don't worry, I'm not making you apologize for them," she said with a smile and a wink towards him and Garrus cringed at thinking about his stupid remark.
She turned her gaze back to Tali. "What are the geth fighting for?"
Tali shifted her position again, a slightly different tilt of her head, a quick movement with her hands. "What? How should I know?"
"Don't you wonder? Do they attack the flotilla?"
Tali hesitated before answering. "The flotilla is very well hidden but, no, unless we get close to Rannoch, the geth don't attack us. They sometimes descend on other planets to get resources but they have most of what they need on Rannoch. We, I mean the quarians back then, built them with the resources at hand."
"So they defend the planet?" Shepard asked.
"Yes, we lost Rannoch to the geth, that's basically our history," Tali said quickly.
"But why?" Shepard's hands began to move, encompassing the world. "I mean they are robots, they don't need air, light, flowers, water... they could live on spaceships, they could float in space with propulsion jets on their feet. Why do they stay on a planet? Why do they fight for a planet they don't really need?"
Tali suddenly got very still. Only now it became obvious how much she usually moved in little ways. "I never thought about that."
Garrus chuckled. "That's Shepard for you, she wonders about things like that."
Shepard raised one finger, "'Know your enemy better than your friend', we humans say." She grinned at him and then turned back towards Tali. "So I was wondering if it was some kind of base programming, some kind of home defence protocol."
Tali's eye-lights suddenly looked brighter. "That could be it, all geth had a base program that they had to protect their owners and their home."
"So now they defend the home-planet by fighting their former owners?" Garrus wondered. "That should cause a programming conflict."
Tali turned to him and he could almost make out her face behind the mask from this close. "Yes, it should. We don't know how they separated themselves from that kind of base programming."
"What exactly were the geth constructed for, originally?" Shepard asked.
"The were servants, some were integrated in construction- or farming machinery, others were helpers around the house, watching over the children."
Ashley looked past Garrus to speak to Tali. "What turns a robot-nanny into a killing machine?"
"That part of our history has been lost, we don't really know what made them turn against us."
"Quarians don't care much about history," Liara said quietly. "Asari historians probably know more about quarian history than the quarians themselves and even we have hardly any records that go back more than a few hundred years."
"A few hundred years is still something." Ashley said.
"Not for an asari," Liara said to Ashley, "a few hundred years is not much for an asari. By human years, I'm only 106 years old, barely older than a child."
"Damn, I wish I look this fresh at a hundred years!" Ashley blurted out, only to turn dark crimson again.
"Smooth, Ashley," Shepard said. Ashley hid her face in her arms on the table and avoided looking at Liara, who had also turned slightly purple.
Shepard shook her head. "Back to the topic. Why do all geth now fight? Not all of them could have had the programming for that."
Tali seemed to think on that question for a while before answering. "What made the geth truly advanced AI was that they were networked, so that they could learn from each other."
"So the geth learned to defend their life and home with weapons and they learned it through the networking. Your ancestors truly fucked that one up." Shepard said. "But now we see them fighting for Saren, they've never done that before, right?" Shepard leaned forward on the table, looking like a wild predator seizing up an enemy. She was getting to the core of her questioning, working like a seasoned investigator. Garrus's breath hitched at the grim purposefulness she had hidden under her calm and friendly demeanor.
"No, I don't think so." Tali tilted her head back, thinking before she continued. "They never fought for someone else since they separated themselves from the quarians."
"So how did he make them do that? Did he reprogram them? Saren is clever but I don't think geth programming is in his repertoire."
"And it's not easy." Tali was vigorously shaking her head. "Very few people know how to do that."
"What if he had a quarian to work for him?"
Tali's eyes flashed angrily. "As I said, it's very difficult, just having a quarian is not enough. Not every quarian knows how to program a geth, we all have different interests and abilities."
Shepard hung her head in true shame. "I'm sorry Tali, here I go again with the fucking stereotypes. Sorry."
Tali's voice was softer now. "It's okay, Shepard, I know you don't mean it this way."
"But I should know better," she said. "So we need to find out how he managed to influence the geth in fighting for whatever cause Saren has in mind. That's another thing I need to figure out, what Saren is getting out of all this."
"You weren't joking with this 'know your enemy'," Tali said.
Shepard straightened her shoulders. "No, I wasn't."
The voice of the pilot came from the ceiling speakers. "Commander, you have a call from the Citadel."
"Route it to the captain quarters, Joker." She turned to the group at the table, "sorry, duty calls, I'll be back in a little while." She gave Garrus an extra smile and hurried towards to the captains quarters doors, nodding at Kaidan on the way.
Ashley spoke up. "I had my doubts about the Commander but now I think she can really bring Saren down."
"Why were you doubting her?" Garrus asked.
Ashley looked him straight in the eyes. "I know she was always held as the rising star of the Alliance, Anderson's protege and a hero of many missions. But I always had my doubts, she doesn't exactly follow the rules, blatantly disregards them a lot of times, as you know." She kept looking at him, probably cataloging his reaction. "I know she still does a good job but I was just raised differently than that. She gets the job done no matter what, no doubt about that but it's always primarily her way, not the Alliance way." She threw a quick look towards Liara before continuing. "I have no problem with her - eh - xenophile... tendencies, you know, I'm just not used to it."
Garrus decided to ignore that last remark. "And now you don't doubt her anymore?"
"Maybe I have just gotten used to her leadership, it's very unusual, in case you don't know, she almost seems too nice. I never had a Commander invite me to dinner in the mess and talk like she does. I thought she would be different, more removed." Ashley said and began cleaning up the food containers. Tali finished her drink and handed the bottle to Ashley who threw everything into the recycling chute.
"Thank you, Chief Williams," she said.
"It's Ashley, I know we may have gotten off on the wrong foot but I hope we can be friends."
"There is a wrong and a right foot?" Tali asked, her head tilted slightly different.
"No. Yes. I mean, we started on a bad note..." Ashley was searching for words when Liara saved her.
"Humans have many expressions in their language that the translators have trouble with."
Garrus chimed in. "I think Ashley wants to say that she wants to start over without any bad feelings from before."
Tali perked up. "Of course, I'd like that Chief, I mean Ashley."
"Good," Ashley said with an audible sigh, "it's been fun ladies and gent but I have to get back to my station."
"Me too," Tali said, "I want to learn more about the stealth drive and see if I can extend the time we can stay in stealth." She made a wave, her two fingers pressed close together and turned away. Garus made a mental note on reading up on quarian body language the next time they had access to an Extranet buoy.
Liara walked up to Ashley. "Can I join you?"
"At the weapons bench?"
"Yes, I would like to see what you do and I have not seen much of the ship so far."
"Oh." Ashley stared at the asari for a few seconds before she collected herself and smiled. "I can give you a quick tour first, if you'd like."
Liara smiled back and Garrus realized that she was quite beautiful.
The two women, or rather the monogendered asari and the human woman left the mess and Garrus looked over to Kaidan, who had stopped working at the console and was looking at something on his omni-tool. A happy smile played on his lips and Garrus decided not to disturb him.
He had a nagging thought in his mind that he needed to ponder. It was about something Ashley had said, about Shepard getting the job done no matter what. They were already on the hunt for a Spectre who was known for getting the job done at any cost. How dangerous was a Spectre with that kind of ethic? They had already seen one go rogue. Were they fighting fire with fire?
Garrus decided that he disliked Noveria even more than the shadiest district of the lower parts of the Citadel. And not because of the cold on this ice planet, the habitat where Port Hanshan was located was kept at a comfortable temperature. But the administration and authorities were even more corrupt and ominous than on the Citadel. They did not even try to hide it.
The Noveria habitat was owned and run by the Noveria Development Corporation and the whole place was just a business venture for them. The corporation made the laws and only worried about the revenue. Morals were not in high demand on Noveria. A hanar merchant had openly asked Shepard, an official Council Spectre, to smuggle something for her. The audacity was almost impressive.
Even though Noveria had an agreement with the Council to allow Spectres access to Noveria, despite not being part of Citadel space, they almost didn't allow the Normandy to dock or Shepard and her team to enter the port. The private security force only stopped harassing them after they got ordered to stand down over the comm system. Garrus was already fed up with with this place and it had not even been five minutes since they entered Port Hanshan.
After having spoken to the administrator about the laboratory Benezia and Saren had rented on Noveria, Shepard was clearly at that point as well. The administrator, an arrogant salarian, straight out refused to give them access to the transport system that would take them to the laboratories. He was ready to punch him in the face and Shepard did not look much calmer.
As they stepped out of the office, Shepard fuming with anger, stomping loudly across the plaza, a voice he hadn't heard in a while called him. "Vakarian, hey, Birdy!"
Every single turian in the plaza snapped around, angrily searching for the human who dared to call a turian with such a cussword.
Garrus knew only one person who would call him like that. "Frank Johnson, you dirty monkeyman!" He turned around and saw Frank leaning against the wall by the door, grinning at him. His brown hair had gotten a little longer and he had a faint stubble on his face but other than that, he looked exactly the same. He pushed himself off the wall and walked the few steps over to him and pulled Garrus into a tight hug. He wore armor, just like him, so they more or less clanked and scratched against each other like two vehicles but the gesture still meant a lot.
Shepard came up to them and put a hand on Frank's shoulder when they stepped apart. "Frank, it's good to see you." She looked his armor over and smiled appreciative. "Nice armor, Frank. Is that necessary for a reporter nowadays?"
"Good to see you too, Shepard. And if you spent some time here or any other non Council place, you'll see that armor is very much necessary. I feel like my life has gotten much more dangerous since I left C-Sec."
"What brings you here on this damn ice-planet?" Garrus asked.
"You already hate it here, don't you, Birdy?"
"Spirits, yes, like a crack in the cowl."
Shepard laughed out. "It's not my favorite place either," she said, "but Saren has been here and Benezia might still be here." Shepard had taken Frank's hand and shook it with a warm smile. Frank smiled back at her, a short nod passing like a story between them.
"Oh, and let me guess," Frank said, "you have met Administrator Bel Anoleis and he doesn't want to help you."
"Is that his name? He didn't even tell us that much."
"I might know someone who could help you."
"I'm all ears," Shepard said. That expression formed a very strange picture in Garrus mind.
"The administrator has a secretary, her name is Gianna Parasini, she... she is my contact here."
"What exactly are you doing here?" Garrus wondered.
Frank ruffled his hair and then gestured them to follow him as he took them across the plaza towards the noise of a busy bar. "After I had worked with Emily Wong on a huge story about corruption on the Citadel, we decided to broaden our scope. Emily is going to come in a few days, I'm sort of putting out the feelers around here." He led them to a table in the bar and they ordered drinks from the waiter. "Worlds like this, entirely corporational, are truly the worst of the evil. They barely adhere to the most basic laws, they have slavery and hardly any safety regulations. You almost can't call the system corrupt because that would imply that there is a lawful system in place to corrupt in the first place."
He opened his omni-tool and showed them the people in the bar, discreetly zooming in on the faces.
"Over there, that's Gianna Parasini, she... I'm pretty sure she has some kind of secret agenda but so far she is helping me by feeding me valuable information." He aimed the camera at another woman, blonde with a harsh look on her face. "There we have Kaira Stirling, head of security."
"Oh we met her," Shepard interrupted, "she was almost eager to shoot us when we arrived."
Frank nodded. "She's a cowboy."
Garrus searched his memory for that word because his translator made absolutely no sense, hinting at cattle and a boy. Then he remembered that Frank had explained to him one day that someone who is trigger-happy was called a cowboy. He made an addendum to the translation entry and sent it as a suggestion to the company that made the software.
The camera focused on a salarian now. "Over there we have Jillik Rark, a merchant who doesn't like to speak about his merchandise. There is a hanar at the port who works with him." Frank turned the camera to a turian, who sat alone at a small table, wearing the most expensive and elegant clothes Garrus had ever seen. "There we have Lorik Quinn, business man. Actually one of the few people here on Noveria who I would classify as mostly good guy. If you can get on his good side, things can work better around here."
He pointed out a few other people, shady people of all species. Garrus hated this place more by the minute. He could see that Shepard felt the same way but she also adapted to this place. Her charisma was like adaptive camouflage, making her look like she fit right into this cesspool of evil, despite wearing Alliance armor. When she got up to speak to Gianna Parasini, she walked like she owned the place, drawing hungry looks from almost everyone she passed.
Gianna Parasini had indeed an idea how they could get access to the transport system, they had to help Lorik Quinn with a problem and he would get them a garage pass. Shepard growled angrily at that, saying that she had kind of important things to do but Parasini convinced her that this was the fastest way to get access. Even on a corporate world like this, you could not cheat the bureaucracy.
Lorik Quinn was a suave man, well versed in his behaviour towards all species. He took Shepard's hand like Septimus Oraka had done with Dr. Chakwas and kind of blew over it? Garrus made a mental not once again to really look that up. Under all the elegance, he seemed to be a genuinely good person and Garrus wondered how someone like him ended up in a place like this.
The turian wanted them to break into his own office to get files on corruption in the administrative board. Frank's eyes lit up when he heard that and after agreeing to do the job for a garage pass, they left Frank with Quinn to talk about the information he had.
Before they could leave the bar, Frank called Garrus back. "I may have something on Saleon."
Garrus leaned close to him to keep his voice down. "Is he here?"
"No he was, but he left before I got here. But I'll find him again, he leaves traces wherever he goes."
"Keep me updated."
"Sure thing." Frank nodded and turned back to Lorik Quinn.
Shepard and Garrus left the bar. Outside in the plaza, in a quiet area, Shepard sat down on a bench, her face scrunched up in thought. "After we have the garage pass, we are going up to those locked laboratories at Peak 15. We can assume that Benezia is still there."
"Nobody has seen her leave and the laboratories have no spaceport. She must still be there."
"I was thinking of taking Liara with us, what do you think?"
"Have the mother face the daughter?" Garrus thought that scenario over. "It might have an influence but we can't be sure."
Shepard nodded. "I know but it's worth a shot, I think."
She pressed her finger under her ear to open the comm. "Normandy? ... Joker, tell Kaidan to suit up, I want him to come to my position. Just him, it's only a small job. ... patch me through to Chief Williams now, please." She waited until she heard Ashley answer. "Ash, I want you to give Liara a quick training session. You will eventually do this more thoroughly and with Tali too but for now we don't have much time. Teach her about positions, about formation, what words and hand signals mean, the basics. I want to take her with me in a few hours when we go to Benezia and I don't want her to get her head shot off because she stepped into my line of sight." She was about to end the call, when an idea practically lit up her face. "Oh, and do that training in the cargo hold so that Wrex sees it. He should know all that too but he would get pissy if I ordered him to get training. Just let him watch."
She ended the call and grinned. "Wrex will know that I made Ashley do that in front of him on purpose." She giggled. "Oh, he is going to be so pissed!"
She took his hand in hers, even though they both wore armored gloves, it still felt almost too intimate for a place like this. Garrus hid their hands between them to keep them the secret between them.
Garrus slid behind a half sized wall and prepared another Overload blast as a spray of bullets flew over his head. He was glad that Shepard had ordered Kaidan to join them, the simple little break in had turned into a full on close quarters fire fight that left the office mostly in ruins. He wondered if Lorik would regret his decision, once he saw the bulletholes and destroyed furniture.
They were fighting the local security force, which Garrus found kind of ironic. The same woman, who had threatened to shoot them as soon as they had entered the port, was indeed now shooting them.
"Garrus, three ticks left!" The shout from Shepard was enough for him to know where to aim his Overload blast. Without looking, he pointed in the general direction, a bit to the left of his position. The overload cracked on the targets armor and with a scream the woman fell in a rain of shots from Kaidan's and Shepard's pistols.
When he looked to Shepard's last position, she was nowhere to be seen. Garrus hesitated to call for her, the harsh blonde head of security was still hiding under the roof somewhere and her aim was not bad.
Better not draw attention to her.
In the next moment, a gurgling cry came from the top of the gallery under the roof.
There she is.
The blonde woman fell over the golden rail of the gallery and crashed lifeless onto the floor, bleeding from her neck. Shepard's head appeared over the rail, the blue streak in her hair shining in the cold light that came through the glass ceiling, the light framing her.
The Spirit of death. She was as frightening as she was wonderful.
Shepard climbed down like a pyjack, swinging over the rail and jumping from the gallery down the the next level. She went into a room with a private terminal and shortly afterwards, she was back at his side.
"I got Lorik's data. Let's get our damn transport access," she said. "I don't like being the hired gun for questionable people."
They met Parasini in the bar again and Shepard got involved in a longer exchange between her and Lorik until they finally shook hands. Frank had not left their side and had taken notes on his omni-tool. He stayed at the table, and when Shepard came back to where Kaidan and Garrus waited for her she slumped down on a chair.
"Looks like things will change around here," she said, "guess what, Parasini works for Internal Affairs and was sent here to investigate the Administrator. Now it looks like Lorik Quinn could become the new Administrator of Port Hanshan." She pointed to Frank, who had set up a camera floating next to him and was interviewing Quinn. The turian looked delighted.
"What's our plan now?" Kaidan asked.
"We should prepare for deep frost temperatures before we approach the laboratories at Peak 15." Shepard checked her omni-tool. "Ash is not quite done with Liara yet, so we will use the time to relax and prepare. We approach the laboratory in five hours. Kaidan, prepare deep frost equipment for the squad, I sent you the list." She closed the omni-tool. "Garrus and I will check the transport system and how well the pass works."
Kaidan saluted and walked away, as Shepard walked with Garrus over to the garage.
"Frank wants to meet us later on, he said that he had something to talk about," Shepard said, pulling Garrus into the garage. This area was noticeably colder than the plaza and Garrus turned up the heating unit in his armor to stay comfortable.
The pass had opened the door to the garage without problems but Shepard also wanted to test it on one of the trains. It took a few tries but they finally managed to get into one. It was still powered down but the mechanic had promised them that it would be ready in five hours.
As they stepped out, Shepard suddenly knelt down and checked something on the floor. "Look at this, what is that?" She scanned a puddle of greyish fluids. "It's synthetic."
Garrus looked at the substance. "I have seen that before, on the turian vessel that came through the Widow relay. That's geth fluid."
Shepard had her pistol ready before he had even finished the sentence. She motioned him to follow and Garrus readied his gun too. He looked at the two of them, how they mirrored each others movement. He imagined how they must look to an outsider, like a creature with two bodies and one mind. How he wished he could see it, they way they worked so perfectly with each other.
They found a few more puddles of geth fluid, leading them towards a large door at the end of the garage. They closed their helmets before Shepard opened the doors so that the icy wind could not hurt them.
The extreme cold still felt like an icy grip on his armor, making every surface creak in contraction. Shepard held her head low against the wind, letting it blow snow over her back. He followed the blue lights on her back, staying as close as possible to not lose her in the snow drift.
After twenty steps, the door behind them had disappeared, hidden by the snowstorm. In front of them was only white, like a wall moving in front of them just an arm's length away. The cold began to creep into the joints of his armor and he turned up the heating once more.
"Did I ever tell you that turians don't like the cold?" he grated through his teeth.
"You may have mentioned it," Shepard answered over the comm. "I wonder what the geth wanted out here, I don't get any readings, there is just..."
Around them, a ring of fire rose from the ground, hot and bright against the ice. He thought that it looked beautiful before he registered the sound of the explosion and that the ground was gone.
They fell into the whiteness below for endless seconds until they crashed hard on the ground in some kind of cavity under the icy surface. Garrus rolled to the side before he could get buried by the snow falling down through a hole above them. His hands found the hardness of Shepard's armor and he desperately felt around for life signs from her.
The snow stopped sliding down and he became aware of the eerie quiet. Not even his armor made any sound and he realized with a very real chill that the heating unit in his armor did not work anymore. He already felt his plates painfully contract from the cold.
Shepard finally moved, groaning as she sat up. Garrus sat up beside her and curled up as much as he could to keep from losing all his core heat. Shepard on the other hand seemed to be almost unaffected by the cold.
"At least we're protected from the wind down here." She checked her omnitool. "It's only 18 degrees under freezing point, not exactly tropical but not too bad." They had fallen into some kind of snowtunnel, maybe an underground passageway. It looked like it had not been in use for a while, the walls were crumbling.
Garrus was losing feeling in his legs and he couldn't stop shivering. "Not bad? I thought humans don't like the cold either."
"Yeah, we don't like it much but this won't kill us." She turned to Garrus and he could see worry fall on her face behind her helmet's faceplate. "What's the matter, Angel, it's not that cold."
Garrus could almost not move his mouth anymore, the muscles all over his body tensing. "I guess, turians don't deal with the cold like humans. I'm cooling down too fast."
"Already?" In a wave of snow she slid on her knees to his side.
"My heating unit broke," Garrus hissed out through his clenched teeth, now shaking all over.
Shepard ripped off her frontplate and removed his as well and pulled him tight to her body. Her body, usually so much colder than his, felt like a scorching fire on his cowl and he could even take a much needed breath without painful cramps. Her helmet scratched against his, her voice, tight like an overdrawn spring, still came from the comm. "What happens if you get colder?"
"Asphyxia." His face felt like stone and he couldn't stop his subharmonics screaming.
"How long till that happens?"
Garrus tried to absorb as much heat as he could from her, pulling her tighter. She gasped, probably getting hurt by his keel bone. He tried to tell her that he was sorry, tried to sing it to her, but his voice was gone.
She took off her helmet and looked at him. "How long?" she almost shouted.
Garrus looked at her, the edge of his vision turning dark. "Maybe two hours..." he pressed out, the cold burning in his mouth.
"Garrus, no! This can't be..."
Her voice faded, drowned out by the rushing of his blood in his ears as his heart tried to keep up with the temperature loss in his body. He knew that he should worry, worry about the tiredness in his bones, how he couldn't remember how he got here and why this Spirit was talking to him. But he had forgotten how.
Numbness made his world smaller, the edges of his vision sinking into grey fog. He fell back, the shivering had stopped and he didn't feel anymore. He wanted to sleep, to wait for something but a strange sound pulled him along the edge of consciousness. He turned his head to see where that sound came from. His vision turned darker, contracting until all he could see was that bright face, surrounded by white ice.
My Spirit of death.