A Base on Nepheron

"The old base on Nepheron was one of the ones you and Shepard cleaned out," Miranda said, reading off her omni-tool as the shuttle broke through Nepheron's atmosphere. "Before they became overly interested in the Alliance, they were tasked with determining new warfare methods."

"So ... biological agents?"

She nodded at Garrus' questions. "Mainly targeted at turians. My apologies."

"Accepted." He nodded, then chuckled dryly. "I've never been happier to have come down with a flu before."

"Yeah. You were sick when we landed here that time," Tali said, checking her gun.

"And you trust your agent's information?" Kaidan asked, from where he was examining a copy of Miranda's datapad.

She nodded. "Hartwell is an ass, but he's reliable."

"What are we going to need to do to get in before the mainframe is wiped?"

"We'll need to move quickly. As soon as someone hits an alarm, either the wipe will start or a countdown for it will. Procedure varied even under Cerberus, and I don't doubt Echidna went a similar route."

"So ... what are they after now?" Garrus asked. "Just this base, really. We know what Echidna's after."

"I'd assume the same thing as before, since they already had the setup."

"Oh. Well, if no one minds." Garrus snapped his breather helmet on, completely hiding his features. "I'm just going to wear this, then."

"Wouldn't want that ugly ass face of yours getting fucked up any more," Jack replied.

"You're always so touching," he replied.

"Major, we're pulling in," Steve called back, glancing over his shoulder.

"Get as close as you can," Kaidan ordered, standing and making his way to the shuttle cockpit to watch."

"I can drop you right on top of 'em."

"Good."

"About how long does a mainframe wipe take?" Tali asked, clipping her gun back onto its harness.

"It depends on how much information they're storing," Miranda replied. "Fortunately what we're looking for would be considered lower-priority data strings and will probably not be wiped until last. Even an incomplete string would put us far closer to where they are keeping Shepard and Moreau."

Zaeed made a huffing noise as the shuttle settled and landed. "What's the plan? Go in shootin'?"

"Any of the higher-ups will be the back," Kaidan replied. "If someone surrenders, don't shoot them. If they don't, they're fair game. And just in case, don't shoot any canisters. We don't want Garrus choking on his own spit."

"You're so nice to me."

"Just to be safe, everyone should probably wear their masks," he continued, pointedly pulling on his own. With a few grumbles from Jack, everyone but Tali fastened their environmental headgear.

The shuttle hovered a little over the ground, and they dropped out. ::I'll be in radio distance,:: Steve said, before the shuttle darted back into the air. Kaidan nodded and waved them forward to the entrance.

Garrus waited until everyone was in position, then at Kaidan's nod slammed his rifle into the lock. He swung around, clearing the doorway, then waved Zaeed, Grunt, Jack and Javik right behind him. The other three would bring up the rear.

The base was much as he remembered it. The front room was empty except for a few automated defenses that Tali quickly took care of before a single shot was fired.

"Just what bioweapon were they dealing with here?" Kaidan asked quietly, as they hesitated at the entrance. Miranda shook her head.

"Apart from the fact that it was focused on turians, I don't know. I want to say it was a modified botulism, but I do not remember."

"We used botulism as seasoning in my cycle."

Miranda glared at him. "I'm certain that they did not think to formulate it for Protheans, Javik."

"Ready?"

"Remember, if we hear an alarm we need to move fast."

"Sure," Jack replied. She was already flared, and he was tempted to just let her and Grunt through the door first. The krogan replied with his chilling laugh, the rest with nods.

Kaidan slammed his hand into the opening mechanism and they were in the main lab. In the center a forcefield rose to the ceiling, as before, though instead of creatures there were multiple lab stations, each with a refrigerated unit and a stack of crates. They would need to get the field down, eventually, but Kaidan knew that the terminals they were looking for would be back in the dormitories, away from the laboratories. They had barely stepped through the door when someone must have spotted them, and an alarm sounded through the base. "Damn it!" Miranda snapped.

"Get back to the server," Kaidan ordered. "Grunt, Jack, Vega, clear a route."

"With pleasure," Jack replied sharply, as Grunt barrelled past them with a loud roar and slammed into a nearby armored commando. As Jack shot forward and slammed a few more into the ceiling, James sighed. "Why me, Sparkles."

"Just get going." Vega opened fire as he followed Jack, catching a man sneaking up on the biotic just before she turned and grabbed onto him, snapping his neck against one of the workstations outside the field.

"I'll stay out here," Garrus said. "Get through to the server."

"Be careful."

Garrus replaced his assault rifle with his sniper and checked the clip. "You're the one running through hell, Alenko."

They skirted along the edge of the chaos created by the others and into the back, after which they ended up in a hallway that went to either side, a closed door on either end.

"Which way?" Tali asked. Kaidan glanced between the two, trying to remember. And what if they picked wrong?

"You go right. I'll go left." He waved Miranda with Tali and jogged to the left door with Javik. Another nod and he slammed his hand into the door, letting Javik sweep the room. It was a simple barracks entryway, comprised of a galley and a small living area. "Not here," Javik announced.

"Whoa!"

They spun as Tali and Miranda slammed back onto either side of the door, gunfire ricocheting into the hallway.

"Found it!" Tali called as Miranda reached out around the doorway, pulling someone into the hallway. Kaidan flared, shooting him as he ran. He tucked a barrier around himself and charged, Javik on his heels.

The people holding out in the main server room were suddenly surprised by an extremely angry, rushed Spectre and a Prothean. A couple in lab coats decided to cut their losses and hit the ground, throwing aside their firearms. A few rounds ricocheted off Kaidan's barrier but he ignored them, swinging the butt of his rifle into someone's face as he slammed another into the ceiling. There was the rapid fire of an SMG as Miranda swung back around the doorframe, joining Javik's assault on the left side of the room. Tali's shotgun retorted as another tried to sneak up on Kaidan, her omni-tool flaring as it hacked the remaining weapons in the area.

Over the gunfire was a slow beeping noise, coming from the server access terminal in the back.

Kaidan snapped the last man's neck before sprinting to the terminal, Miranda on his heels.

"It looks like the wipe's already started," she said, as Javik motioned the two scientists onto their feet, and back against the wall. "We'll have to move quickly."

"Do it." Kaidan opened his comm. "How's things?"

::Area's secure,:: Garrus replied. ::Find the server?::

"Miranda's on it. Any prisoners?"

::Nah. They weren't fond of us. Probably should tell you though—::

"Son of a bitch!" Miranda slammed her hand into the terminal as it finally stopped beeping. "Son of a bitch!"

"What." Kaidan's voice was flat.

"The bloody wipe just ended." Her omni-tool flared around her wrist as she began to back-hack the terminal. "I'll see if I can find anything. Tali?"

"Right there." The quarian joined her, omni-tool still open.

Kaidan swore, turning away and rubbing his forehead heavily. This wasn't supposed to be happening. This shouldn't be happening. There had to be something —

"Um, I wouldn't —" One of their prisoners started. His words were suddenly drowned by a loud beeping, and an announcement.

"Warning. Warning. Base set to self-destruct in two minutes."

"Oh fuck me," Tali muttered.

"Out!" Kaidan barked, pulling both back from the console and pushing them towards the door. Miranda had already been on her way, pulling the quarian with her. "Javik!"

"Out, primitives," Javik ordered calmly, jogging after them as the two scientists bolted.

The beeping had fortunately echoed through the base, so the other four were already disappearing. Kaidan reopened his comm to Steve, yelling into it as they ran.

"Steve, get back here now! We need an immediate pickup and we'll need to get out fast!"

"Seriously fast," Miranda added. "If that's a Cerberus mechanism then that means there's at least a two kiloton nuclear weapon underneath the base."

They broke through the base at a dead sprint, the shuttle hovering in front of them. They pushed the two captives in and quickly seated themselves, Kaidan pulling the door closed.

"You've got about a minute," Miranda barked to Steve, who spun the shuttle with a nod and pressed down the throttle. Kaidan dropped down into a seat, feeling his frustration mounting again even as the explosion rocked the shuttle, and Steve hailed the orbiting Normandy. He lifted his head and squinted across the shuttle, eying Garrus and James. The turian's head was back on the seat, mandibles flared slightly as he occasionally waved his hand in front of his face, and James was leaned forward, palms pressing against his eyes and looking like he was routinely swallowing.

Kaidan sighed. "You two didn't ..."

Jack shook her head. "The two dumbasses walked straight into an exploding canister of whatever they were workin' on."

Kaidan shook his head, unfastening and walking over as he opened his omni-tool. "Get Chakwas standing by. Let her know that we've probably got two casualties." He scanned James, then shook his head and did the same to Garrus. "Good work, you two."

"Anytime, Alenko." Garrus flailed his talons a bit, finally landing on Kaidan's arm. "Just tryin' to keep you on your toes. Spirits, does anyone have water or something?"

Kaidan gripped onto one of the holds as the shuttle docked with the Normandy. "Javik, Miranda, we'll take our guests up to one of the cargo holds and try and find some answers."

And note to self, he thought, popping the door and dropping down to the hanger deck, waving Chakwas and her aide forward. Next time, EDI goes groundside.

#

The scientists knew nothing. They had simply picked up the bioweapon experiments Shepard had interrupted several years earlier from where the Alliance had merely not cleaned up well enough, and for not the first time Kaidan really wanted to call up Hackett and tell him that the Alliance was far too good at cutting corners in an extremely sloppy manner.

With the prisoners secure for delivery to the Alliance, he went to check on James and Garrus.

The medbay didn't seem active, he thought as he approached it. As he walked in Chakwas looked up from her desk, the medbay quiet but for the quiet chatter of his two downed men in the back by the server room. "Major."

"How are those two?" He nodded back towards them.

"Acting like small children. What did you expect?" She stood, handing him a pair of datapads. "Both did receive a small dose of the weaponized toxin, but it was mostly filtered out by their hardsuits. They'll be out by morning, I think."

"I didn't realize we kept the antitoxin on board."

"We do. It is one of the more popular weaponized toxins, after all, and has been for over a hundred years." She leaned back on her desk. "I had to play with it a little to make it safe for Garrus, but he'll be fine."

"Good. You say they'll be up by morning?"

"Afternoon at the latest, and I would say some of that will be due to how much they decide to complain about it. You have a very whiny crew, Major."

Kaidan smirked. "Are they really being that bad?"

Chakwas merely nodded her head towards the duo. Kaidan walked back.

"—loco. You're holdin' up two of 'em."

Garrus awkwardly wiggled his talons. "I'm not. I—"

"You ain't got four fingers, so there's no way you're holding four up!"

"I think I know how many I—"

"Okay then, what about me." James held up two of his own. "All right, give me a count, Scars."

"You're, um ..." He squinted slightly. "Two."

"You had to think!"

"I did not."

"Sparkles, back me up here."

Kaidan shook his head, properly deciding to not get involved. "How are you two feeling?"

"Like shit," James volunteered.

"The Doctor says she got to us before it would have been bad," Garrus explained. "So ... that's good."

"Kinda hard to talk though, with the dry mouth and all."

"And I'm still sorting out this double vision thing."

"But we'll be fine."

"Did we get any information on Shepard?"

Kaidan sighed heavily and shook his head. "The scientists didn't know anything, and they triggered the base before finding anything useful."

"Damn. So what now?"

"We hit up Binthu. It's our only other lead, unless Kasumi shows up."

"Binthu." Garrus' mandibles flared slightly as he thought. "That's where we found the admiral, isn't it?"

"Admiral Kahoku." Kaidan nodded. "Miranda's contact heard they reopened at least one of the bases."

"How many are there?"

"Three."

"Damn. Hope the first one we hit is the right now."

"That's provided they didn't just build a new base."

"Let's hope they haven't had time."

"I doubt they will have." Kaidan interrupted, shaking his head. "Even if they cannibalized the other bases, they've mostly been using original Cerberus infrastructure. Why bother, if it's just there? Cerberus had hundreds of active and inactive bases - we still don't know where all of them are."

"What about the information from Cronos?" Garrus asked, tapping on talon on his cybernetic mandible. "Has anyone decrypted it?"

"Not as far as I know. I—" Kaidan suddenly fell silent, closing his jaw and staring off into space. Garrus and James traded a glance, which nearly made the turian fall over.

"Contact me if you need me," he finished suddenly, turning on his heel and stalking out. "EDI, meet me in the war room."

"What did you do?" James hissed. Garrus shrugged.

"I didn't do a damn thing, Vega."

#

Even the name Cronos Station still managed to give him pause.

It had been the last night, one of huge uncertainty. And as he waited for his call to Hackett to go through, rocked slightly back and forth on his heels, thinking back to everything – the look on Shepard's face when she'd given him her reply; the way she had been when they found Lazarus recordings; then, when she'd left him standing, hopeless, on the Normandy's docking bay ramp as she ran for the beam –

"You asked for me, Major?"

"EDI." He turned to face her. "You know essentially every Cerberus encryption, eh?"

"I do. And the 'essentially' is not required."

"Good."

Hackett's image shuddered into view, and Kaidan turned and saluted. ::Major.::

"Admiral." He lowered his hand. "I have a request."

::Is—::

"It's related to the ... to looking for Echidna." Hackett nodded, and he continued. "Has the Alliance finished going through the records from Cronos Station?"

::We have not,:: Hackett replied. ::Do you think there—::

"It may be possible that there's a list of Cerberus bases in there," he replied. "Most of them will probably be abandoned, but it at least gives us a place to start."

Hackett was quiet for a while, then nodded. ::I will have the records we have yet to decrypt sent over. I am sure EDI will have no problem with them.::

"I will not."

::Major.:: Hackett's tone took a completely different direction almost instantly, as it usually did when speaking of Shepard. ::Any sign of Shepard?::

Kaidan swallowed heavily. "No. And some of the things we're determining about Echidna is making me more worried."

Hackett blinked slowly, then straightened again. ::What have you found?::

"The last base we were at was working on weaponizing human biological agents for alien species. Garrus and Vega both got hit with it. They're fine - it got diluted going through their hardsuits — but the fact that it even made it through—"

::Is concerning.:: He crossed his arms, raising a hand to his mouth as he did when thinking. ::Were you able to recover any information from the base?::

"No. The wipe was complete by the time we found the mainframe, and trying to see if anything was left triggered a self destruct."

::Of the console?::

"No. The, uh, entire base."

Hackett was quiet again. ::Then there isn't even rubble?::

"Not as far as we could tell. We're on our way to Binthu next. One of Miranda's contacts said that they'd reopened one of the bases there."

::Hm.:: Hackett was completely unreadable. ::AIS has begun placing agents again. I'll see if anything has bled through the network and inform you. Alenko.:: Kaidan nodded. ::The likelihood is that they are not keeping her with the leader.::

"I know. I've considered that possibility. If she does manage to break out, it'll simply put him in danger."

::Exactly. You've seen her most recently. What is the likelihood that she will make a move?::

Kaidan froze, remembering how she had been the day they'd landed on the Citadel — when they'd traded words that he inherently regretted now. Sure, he may find her again — but the galaxy was a big place, and that likelihood always existed ...

"Honestly, sir?" he finally offered. "Extremely high."