To Survive: Terminus Coalition
Chapter 49 : Deal with the Devil
"Mordin messaged me and said that he and Hardon were looking at the QEC tech. He mentioned something about the entangled particles being part of a crystalline structure that was organic in nature."
Garrus cringed as they walked into the Normandy and through the CIC, "Cerberus always was into messed up shit. Was it alive?"
"I don't think so. I'll ask the Illusive Man when we chat. Mordin doesn't think they can replicate it, so it'll be good to start there." He replied, walking along the right side of the galaxy map where Kasumi blocked their way. "Kasumi, could you tell Tali to meet me in the comm room as soon as she can? I'm going to be having a chat with our dear friend the Illusive Man, and I'm going to want to speak with her when I'm done." Shepard requested after bumping into Kasumi on the CIC, Garrus stopping beside him.
"That was a pretty stupid thing you did…" Kasumi replied while crossing her arms like a child intentionally trying to irritate him.
"What are you talking about?" He asked firmly.
"The news! You know, when you were caught coming out of that asari's apartment. What were you doing in there? Who was she? You sure shoved off that reporter quick, like, like-"
"Whoa, whoa whoa! Tell me what you think I would be doing?" Shepard replied offensively with crossed brows.
"I'll tell you what I would be thinking if I were Tali, and I'd be demanding answers!" Kasumi replied passionately, her voice even managing to crack.
Shepard wasn't in the mood, "This is stupid! You really think that Tali doesn't trust me enough to give me the benefit of the doubt? That she would freak out before even speaking to me about it?" Garrus came up behind him with a pat on the shoulder.
"Do you even know how sensitive Tali is to this sort of thing? Or did you forget that she's a quarian?" Kasumi sniped.
"No one knows her better than me!" Shepard shouted back at her, his voice resonating through the hall. "Look, I get it. You think I've somehow hurt Tali, but you need to understand your place in all of this. Tali is my wife, and I am her lifemate. If she's going to be mad at me, let her be mad. She doesn't need you protecting her from me, and I don't need you telling me how to treat my wife unless I ask for your advice."
"What's going on? I thought I heard you shouting from the engineering deck." Tali interrupted when the elevator opened.
"Well, Shep. Now it's time to explain." Kasumi answered, irritating Shepard immensely.
Shepard didn't give her the satisfaction of a glare, but turned to face his wife, "Tali, did you see a segment on the news about me and an asari you didn't know?" Shepard asked, stepping closer as if it were just they together.
Tali nodded, "Yes," she replied without any strain.
"Did it worry you?" Shepard asked with a shrug, understanding that her body language didn't portray any such doubt.
Tali's eyes fell and she took a moment more to formulate her response, "… Should I have been?" she asked with a small tinge of fear creeping in that tore at Shepard's heart.
"Of course not!" He spouted back, upset that this conversation was even happening, let alone in the middle of the CIC. "It was another message from our friend on Noveria that she couldn't talk about in public, which I'd like to talk to you about by the way. Kasumi thought that you would automatically jump to some absurd conclusions." Shepard answered.
Tali leaned her head forward, and Shepard accepted the invitation by tapping his forehead against her visor. It had a calming effect on Shepard as he let his anger subside. She patted Shepard to move aside so she could speak to Kasumi tactfully. Of course, the countless others unquestionably eavesdropping on the entire ordeal wouldn't be excluded, not the least of which was Kelly.
"I trust John." She began to speak to her friend whom already had her head bowed and was nodding humbly in apology. Tali continued nonetheless, "I know for certain that he would never do anything as foolish as that news lady was suggesting. He loves me, and it wouldn't be healthy for either of us if I didn't trust him. If I'm uncomfortable, I'll let him know and I know for certain that he will respect my anxieties." Tali explained appropriately to Kasumi.
"I, uh…. I'm sorry Tali… and you too, Shep. I just didn't want you thinking it was okay to be negligent of the way Tali feels."
"You may know Tali a lot better than you know me, but I never disregard the way Tali's feeling. If that's all resolved, I've got to head to the comm room. Tali, are you free enough to come with Garrus and I? I need to talk to you about the things our friend from Noveria told me."
Tali turned back to Kasumi, "I'm glad you care." She smiled behind her visor, lifting Kasumi's embarrassment. "You lead, I'll follow," she replied to Shepard with her still smiling voice.
It wasn't long before they were in the comm room and EDI was establishing a link with the address provided in the message Shepard received. They didn't dare use the QEC again. Audio was all they needed.
His stoic voice came through quite clearly, "Shepard, I was hoping you wouldn't ignore me. We are on the same side, after all."
"Tali and Garrus are here with me. Now, what did you need to tell me?" Shepard answered, getting straight to it.
"This proposition is meant for your ears only-"
"Get over it. They're not leaving." Shepard replied swiftly before the head of Cerberus could continue.
"Very well. I've gotten recent word that your comrade Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams is paralyzed. How would you respond if I had the facilities to heal her?" He asked leadingly.
"I would call your bullshit. I was assured that the best doctors in Council Space couldn't perform the operation. The research isn't there. Are you done wasting my time?" Shepard responded, hoping to move on to his questions about the QEC.
"You might forget that you were dead." He responded, Shepard looking back to see his family's reaction to the statement. "We did the research then. Our operation repaired your spine and fixed you up better than before." He paused and his whiff of tobacco smoke could be heard faintly through the speaker. "Ms. Lawson can attest to our capability. All I would need in return is two small favours."
Shepard kept his gaze on the other two, shifting his attention between their eyes. Garrus lightly shook his head, but he could see that Tali understood exactly what he was thinking. How could I not? I let it go because there was nothing I could do… but what about now? Don't I owe it to her to at least try?
"What would you need me to do if I agreed? Check out the rachni situation?" Shepard proposed, hoping that he could fake something when he actually did head out to rachni space.
"Yes, and I have another, more pressing matter. I would like to include some of my operatives in your coalition. Specifically, I want you to set up one of my operatives as an ambassador to the batarian hegemony."
Shepard sighed, "They would kill us all if we brought a Cerberus operative. Why the batarians? I'll get you an ambassador to the krogan, and we'll see how he makes out."
"This is business, and I don't really care for your attempts at humour. Don't tell them he's a Cerberus operative, it's as simple as that. I'll send one of my best." The Illusive Man assured.
Garrus was getting more adamant about refusing, shaking his hands furiously in a gesture that well communicated his disapproval.
"Why do you want this?" Shepard asked, hearing in the back of his mind that Cerberus was going to screw him over if he accepted. He just wasn't ready to let the opportunity to save Ashley go.
"I've got nothing against the alliances you're setting up. Anything that pushes humanity toward preparing for war is beneficial in my eyes. My operative will help and will give me information on the batarians that will only benefit us further. No one has had an operative on the batarian homeworld in a while. This can only benefit everyone."
"Just like leaking the Collector data benefited humanity? Thousands of men, women and children died in riots because of you."
"To save countless more. It is because of that leak, humanity and the Council are actually doing their jobs. You've seen the progress made first hand. It may not be substantial, but at least it's off the ground." He replied confidently.
Shepard bit his lip and remained silent for a moment as he considered. Is this a risk I'm willing to take?
"I'll call you back," Shepard responded quickly shutting down the link, and turning to sit on the table.
"Are you really considering this?" Garrus asked genuinely. "Cerberus isn't exactly known for its honourable business dealings. He could put some control chip in Ash and provoke the batarians, screwing us from all angles. I'm sure you remember Jracht's warning. If they find out we've got anything to do with Cerberus, it's over."
"I know…" Shepard sighed in frustration. "I can't just let it go, though. If there is even the slightest chance of getting Ash back in the fight, shouldn't I take it? I could ask Miranda to keep an eye on her and oversee the project, and we could kill the Cerberus guy if he really poses a threat."
"When did Ash become more important than preparing this galaxy with as few issues as possible? We all knew the risks, and we all hate to recognize it, but soldiers get wounded and die sometimes. You know that better than most."
Shepard nodded. Everything Garrus said was true, "Tali?"
"I know how much this means to you…. Garrus is right, but I understand if you need to do this, and I'll be with you the whole way." Tali responded generously.
"Garrus, all Ash ever asked for was the ability to fight and die well. I can't drop the possibility that I'm even partially responsible for taking that away from her."
Garrus came close and put his palm on Shepard's shoulder, "I'm sorry we weren't there. You know I'll be with you whatever you choose, and I'll be ready for another betrayal from Cerberus at all times."
Shepard's heart was in his throat. He thought he had let it go; that Ash's condition could become another part of his suffering-soaked past. He was wrong. He couldn't leave her in the lurch. I have the opportunity to fix this, and I'm damned if I don't take it.
After a moment calming down, they re-established the link with EDI's assistance.
The Illusive Man wasted no time. "Have you made your decision?"
"I accept on one condition." Shepard replied.
"I want Miranda Lawson to accompany Ashley to wherever it is she'll be taken for this, and I want her in charge of the operation: the same role she had in the Lazarus Project."
"That can all be arranged. The facility is on Earth; so don't fear that it's somewhere completely obscure. I'll send you the coordinates." The Illusive Man responded. "My operative will meet you on the Citadel in a couple of days. I will forward you the details so you can pick him up at your leisure. He will have the instructions for where Ms. Williams and Ms. Lawson will proceed."
"You wouldn't mind answering a few other questions for me?" Shepard asked with his arms crossed, hoping to have everything answered before they shut the link. He hated the very idea of getting information from the Illusive Man or any part of Cerberus, but it was necessary.
The Illusive Man took a large swig of his expensive liquor; the clanking of the ice could be heard clearly, "I'll see what I can do for you. Despite what you might believe, Cerberus does want you to succeed in most respects. So long as you don't get in the way of our efforts to repel the Reapers, we may as well be allies."
"I don't care how you see this, I'm not your ally. I just need answers."
"Get on with it, Shepard. We both have a galaxy to prepare." He responded perturbed.
Shepard continued, "How did you make the crystal in the QEC?"
"The crystal wasn't made, it was harvested and recalibrated. I'm sure you remember the experiments on the rachni you put an end to three years ago. The rachni queen entangles part of its mind with each one of its offspring. After a long enough exposure at close proximity, the bond crystallizes. The crystal is stable and can easily be calibrated with other crystals. They can't be harvested from newborn rachni drones, but only ones that have matured alongside the queen for a few weeks at least. The full potential of the research was not completed by the time it was shutdown, and the amount of the organic crystal we were able to harvest was limited."
"So what did you expect me to do to the rachni when I head that way? Capture some, because I don't think it would be the best idea to provoke a species like the rachni right before a Reaper invasion." Shepard countered.
"Only one rachni vessel was ever detected, and we were unsure how strong they had built up. No rachni queen was ever found, so perhaps you could have hunted down the queen before things got out of hand. It's likely an increasing problem since every merc group we've sent out that way hasn't returned."
"If you never had a queen, how did you get a live rachni?"
"It was cloned from rachni tissue recovered on Noveria. It was the only live one we ever created. We soon realized that it would have no crystal, and only the corpses harvested from Noveria would, though many were lost to extensive damage from neutron radiation," He took a long smoke and exhaled, "but I'm sure you know all about that. It also implied that a queen was housed there, but we never recovered a corpse."
Shepard was quite surprised, "How the hell did you know about Noveria and get there before the Council sent someone to clean up the mess?"
"It's simple Shepard: some people in your crew knew that we'd use the information for the betterment of humanity. We tracked every one of your missions; you really shouldn't be surprised."
"I guess not. Why would I expect you to be anything less than the shadiest organization in the Terminus?" Shepard scoffed.
"Was there anything else?" He replied impatiently.
"That's all I needed to hear." Shepard answered, holding back a mention of his gratitude.
"I'll be in touch." The Illusive Man finished, shutting down the link himself.
Tali stepped forward getting Shepard's attention as he turned, "Are you going to tell Ashley?" She asked.
"She wouldn't accept it if I did. Ashley would never trust Cerberus with something like this. The only way she'll ever go through with it is if I don't tell her." Shepard answered.
"Don't you think you should leave it up to her?" Garrus asked, confused why this would be an issue to him. Clearly Tali knew how her injury had impacted him much more.
"I trust Miranda to get her through this, even if Ashley doesn't. How can I let her stubbornness disallow her from receiving treatment that would give her another fighting chance?"
"Alright." Garrus sighed.
"EDI, is Miranda aboard?" Shepard asked.
"Negative, Miranda Lawson is partaking in her shore leave on the Citadel."
"Has Captain Anderson settled in?" He decided to ask.
"Captain Anderson is moving his belongings into the crew quarters with the aid of most of the navigation crew. He is down in the crew quarters now." She replied.
"Thanks EDI. I think I'll go see how he's doing then track down Miranda. I want to be off this station in twelve hours. EDI, you can notify the crew. Get some rest while you can." Shepard addressed his friends.
"How are you liking the SR2?" Shepard asked Anderson, stepping into the crew quarters on the 3rd deck.
"She's a fine ship. Almost as nice as the original Normandy." He smiled.
"If you mean better in every way, I suppose you're right. At least, ever since we scrubbed off that Cerberus emblem and removed all of the bugs. You just miss your old ship."
"No denying that. There were many expeditions we never got to go on together. She did well in your hands, all the same." He mused with a gentle grin.
"The crew is treating you with respect?" Shepard asked casually.
Anderson sat down on the closest bunk as Shepard leaned against the round door frame. "Oh, they all know exactly who I am. Or at least, what the vids told them. I was surprised to find out how many of them are former Alliance. They're definitely your crew. That much I could tell."
"That's good to hear."
"I met Kal'Reegar, I believe his name was; my kind of man. Is he the only one maintaining the armoury?"
"Jacob Taylor was in charge of those duties and I put Kal in charge when he left. Ash had been helping out, but yes. He's my only guy now." Shepard answered.
"He wasn't really able to tell me about all of the weapons. I thought we could stock up on some of the new experimental Spectre weapons I still have access to."
Shepard nodded, "Kal's a good man. He knows how to handle weapons but we've picked up some unique pieces in our journeys. I'll be sure to give you a walk through later. I don't think anyone on the ship knows how to handle every one, let alone tell you the tech behind them. You know, I distinctly remember you telling me that you were too old to come with me."
"We're N7, son. I didn't go with you because I thought that I could still make a difference on the Council. You changed that, just like you seem to change everything you get involved in. Soon enough the Council shifted all of their focus back to stopping you. Where I was once the persistent voice pushing them to prepare, you came in stepping on their toes, and I realized just how far from cooperative they always had been."
"Do you think they'll ever come around?"
"I think they're being too political about the whole thing, and will continue to be until they're own people boo them out of office. They're just not willing to take a risk that more and more people are beginning to realize as inevitable. I knew you could get the job done without me, but I wasn't sure the Council could. Now I realize they weren't going to come around whether I was there or not." He said with authoritative resolution.
"So what you're saying is, you can still fight?" Shepard raised an eyebrow and the corner of his lip.
"Do you think you'll ever not be able to fight?" Anderson replied smartly.
Shepard stepped forward and with a grin he waved his finger, "Ah, but I'm Commander Shepard and-"
"This is my favourite store on the Citadel. I've heard it countless times." Anderson cut him off from his own joke. Shepard shook his head in laughter. "I might not have you're endorsements, but I've been in my share of video games ." Anderson replied light-heartedly.
Shepard abandoned his original comeback to pursue the friendly banter, "I know, and you always seem to get a better voice actor than me too."
"Not to mention the more handsome character models."
"Cause there's no bias in that opinion. So you're looking forward to getting back in the action, I take it?" Shepard asked.
Anderson grinned warmly, "You know my answer; it's always been the same. I fight because it's where I can make the most difference. If that path leads me to fight alongside one of my more successful recruits, then you better believe I'm looking forward to getting the job done right."
"It all depends on getting the job done." Shepard nodded in agreement. "I'm grateful to have you here. Hopefully you can pick up the slack now that we're short five of our heavy hitters." Shepard said, including Miranda in his count.
"I'll watch your back." Anderson winked.
"Good to hear, and I might have another room for you so don't get too comfortable here."
"I did wanted to ask your advice on something." Shepard approached his question.
Anderson stood, "Go ahead, son. I'll offer any advice I can muster."
"Cerberus offered me a deal in which they would heal Ash in exchange for setting one of their operatives up as an ambassador to the batarians."
Anderson grasped his chin and stood to pace a couple steps, "Perhaps I'm uninformed, but are you sure they even have the means of healing her? And if they do, do you know what they want with the batarians?"
"They'll be using the same tech that fixed me up. I made sure that Miranda Lawson would oversee the project, but you're right on the last point. I haven't got a clue what they'd want with the batarians." Shepard acknowledged. "They seem to just want to observe the alliance we're forming, and maybe to influence it."
"It's as risky as expecting a krogan to pay back what he owes you. Ashley Williams is a good soldier; she's proven that. It's because of it that I question why she would want this?" Anderson asked in earnest.
"Ash would be more than happy to die for the greater cause, but this is a fate worse than death in her mind. Worse, she made this sacrifice for me, so don't I owe it to her to do what I can?" Shepard counter argued.
"What kind of sacrifice was it if she couldn't own it? She's not a child, Captain. She's an honoured war hero! Let her own up to it, if you can. If not, just never do the same for me."
"We'll be moving against the final insurgent clan soon. You ready to spill krogan blood in a real battle?" Urgen asked.
"I was made ready." Grunt replied fiercely.
"Good. It's imperative that you own your strength and exploit it. Never surrender to your weakness no matter how much it taunts you." Urgen taught.
"I am free of weakness. I stand a head above other krogan and every part of my body was created for destruction. A predator with no equal."
"And if I break your legs, what then? What do you do when I rip your eyes from their sockets? How do you respond when I chain you down and peel your muscles off? Or when a thresher's acid melts your right arm?" Urgen detailed graphically.
"That will not happen. I will kill anything worth fighting, and only what is worth fighting could do that." Grunt reasoned out cyclically.
"You think like a whelp."
Grunt growled threateningly. Jack interrupted from the side, "You get stronger from the pain. You accept it and use it against everyone who fucks with you."
"The human is correct. It is the way of Tuchanka. The suffering makes us stronger, and you should expect no less from this world. You would be a fool to think you will never be outmatched and you will never pay for your weaknesses."
"Grunt, Urgen is one of my finest warriors, and an old friend." Wrex added, watching the training session out of the corner of his eye as he had been conversing with an ambassador from clan Gurchta. "A shameless turian stabbed his lower heart on one of our journeys, but Urgen continued to fight stronger than ever. With one heart, most krogan abandon battle from the permanent fatigue, never lifting a weapon again." Grunt turned to eye up Urgen suspiciously. "He continued to face down a thresher with Wreav and I, and has continued at my right hand." Wrex stepped closer and the two proceeded to smash their plates together.
"Your destroyed heart is a weakness." Grunt accused.
"I feel the fatigue, but I harness the pain. You are not a true krogan unless you can keep fighting with every disadvantage, and end up at the top of the horde. You have no excuse to be weak unless you have both hands cut off and your jaw broken. Hell, a worthy krogan should still find victory." Urgen explained his ruthless expectation.
Grunt looked him in the eye. The krogan didn't look weak, but his body was covered in many scars that undoubtedly spoke of glorious battles. "I understand." He grunted. "I am pure krogan; worthy of my enemies until I am destroyed." He agreed.
"Good boy. Remember that when we make our charge in two days' time. You and Jack will be on the front line with us, leading two hundred of Urdnot's fiercest into battle. Soon all of Tuchanka will stand with Urdnot."
"I'll go to earth with her, Captain. Will you tell me what the Illusive Man asked for in return? This won't be cheap for him, and I know for certain that he wouldn't be doing this unless he thought he could gain from it." Miranda asked after Shepard tracked her down to a fancy bar on the Presidium to make his request. When Shepard had arrived she returned to her formal self.
"You know him better than anyone. Why would he want an agent to be our ambassador to the batarians?" Shepard leaned against the bar.
Miranda shook her head slowly, "I don't know. He's never been overly interested in the batarians. He definitely knows something we don't. If he found out the batarians are planning to attack humans, this might make sense. We've never been able to get an operative into any sort of privileged position in the hegemony for obvious reasons."
"So you don't think he's trying to screw the alliance up." Shepard asked.
"He has no reason to stop it. The more non-human species we get in the coalition, the more aliens there are to throw at the Reapers without sacrificing human lives. The only other explanation I can think of is if one of his experiments needs testing. There were always dozens of projects he had running, most of which I wasn't privy to unfortunately. I can't imagine any that would specifically need a batarian test group, but maybe it's their isolation that's valuable. Worst-case scenario, he's testing a bioweapon that he needs a large test group for but doesn't want it to spread." She guessed as she stirred her drink slowly.
"It's a mystery, then. How about his operative? Do you think I'll be able to coerce an answer out of him?"
"I wouldn't try it. The Illusive Man won't go back on his deal, but the moment you go back he'll make sure we all regret it. The base on earth he'll be sending us to is in plain sight. It's basically an infiltrated hospital being used for Cerberus' tests. I remember it since I spent a good deal of time there when Cerberus was testing the extent of my genetics." Miranda explained as if it were nothing.
"Just to have it on record, what would you do in my position?"
"I wouldn't let Williams' choice affect the greater mission. Just remember that the Illusive Man isn't malevolent, but don't expect things to go your way. He does things you would consider… abominable." Miranda warned.
"I won't let my guard down. If he screws me over once more, I won't be so forgiving. And thanks, Miranda. I appreciate your willingness to do this for me. Could you do me the favour of not telling Ash that her treatment has anything to do with Cerberus? She sees them as nothing but terrorists."
"I'll keep it from her and make sure the Cerberus agents there do the same. You can count on me Shepard, with me in charge, it will all go down without a hitch."
"Ash, I've got some great news." Shepard said as he knocked lightly on her door and creaked it open. The doctors said she was awake, but she didn't answer his initial greeting. Opening the door the rest of the way, he made eye contact with Ashley's sour expression.
"I found someone on earth that says they can heal you." He said hopefully
Ash remained silent, her eyes portraying her deep conflict. She would know that Shepard would never make such a cruel joke if it weren't true. "What?" She asked in disbelief on the brink of tears.