Chapter Five: The Crew I Never Asked For

The bridge of the Cerberus was bigger than Shepard had been expecting from such an economically designed ship - it was at least the size of the old Ambassador bridge, if not bigger. The helm, tactical and Ops consoles lined the walls at the front of the bridge rather than being isolated in the middle of the room. There were auxiliary stations at the back where junior officers stood, and more lined into the wall, each one displaying tactical status reports and other combat minutiae, and Shepard had no doubt that any one of those stations could become an auxiliary tactical, helm or Ops station the minute the primary one was disabled. It was, in short, a ship designed for war, just as Shepard had expected.

He walked over to the command seat, Joker standing next to him with a sort of worriedly expectant half smile on his face, like he wasn't sure whether Shepard was alright. Shepard didn't know what to tell him - he wasn't alright, really. Seeing Joker again was a positive, but it was only one thing against a pile of changes he wasn't sure he liked.

A woman with blonde hair set into a neat bob walked up and stood to attention in front of him, disrupting his thoughts. Though she wore an operations uniform, she had no rank insignia. Shepard couldn't help but notice that there was something off about her gait - it was too stiff, almost mechanical.

"Captain Shepard," she said, her voice oddly stilted. "Welcome aboard the USS Cerberus. I am the Enhanced Defensive Intelligence Hologram..."

"Yeah, yeah," Joker said, cutting her off with a wave of his hand and a derisive snort at the title. "This is Edi, short for that dumb acronym she just spouted - we usually drop the H, or it'd sound weird." He gave a crooked grin. "She's our emergency support system. She also talks too much, but in general she's ok."

"Emergency support system?" Shepard repeated.

"I am, as I said, a hologram," Edi replied. "Based on an experimental design from Lewis Zimmerman. During combat situations, I am linked into the tactical systems to provide improved response time between a situation developing and the Captain being informed. This updates the Captain with an estimated ten to twenty percent reduction in delay."

"So if critical systems are damaged, I know faster?" Shepard asked, and Edi nodded. "What if the holoprojection system is damaged?"

"She has a portable holo-emitter installed," a stern voice cut across the conversation, and Miranda walked up to the group. "Captain. I'll be serving as your XO for this mission."

"Very good Commander," Shepard replied coolly. "I was just acquainting myself with Edi."

"It's impressive technology," Miranda said.

"Yeah, she is," Joker put in, frowning at Miranda slightly. "Anyway, I've got a ship to fly."

He walked over to the helm, leaving Edi, Miranda and Shepard by the command chair.

"He's a bit sentimental, isn't he?" Miranda asked Shepard, raising an eyebrow slightly in an almost Vulcan way.

"He's one of the best officers I've ever served with, Commander Lawson," Shepard replied, his voice lowering by degrees. The other officer's eyebrows both shot up into her hairline.

"Very well, Captain," she said shortly. "If you'll excuse me, I have duties to perform."

With that, she walked off, leaving Edi - still stood at attention - with Shepard. The Captain slumped into the command chair - the moment of first sitting in a new ship's command chair completely passing him by - wondering how else he was going to screw up today.

"Is there anything I can help you with, Edi?" he asked the hologram.

"No sir," she replied. "Do you require anything at present?"

"Not right now, no," Shepard replied. He thought for a moment. "I'll speak with you later regarding optimal use of your functions, just so I know when to call on you."

"Yes sir," the hologram said with a nod. "If you'll excuse me."

She walked off, leaving Shepard shaking his head. If that didn't beat all - a holographic crewmember.

"Captain," an officer at the Ops console said, interrupting his thoughts. "Admiral Harper on Eagle is hailing."

"On screen," Shepard replied immediately, sitting up slightly.

Harper's face popped into view on the front screen, clearly still sat in his ready room.

"Captain," he said. "How is she?"

"The Cerberus is well put together, Admiral," Shepard replied, faking professional enthusiasm as best he could. "I'm looking forward to taking her for a spin."

Harper didn't look like he believed Shepard, but he wasn't questioning him on it either. "As I said, Captain, Professor Mordin Solus on Omega is a good place to start when searching for ways to combat the Grigari. I'd advise starting there."

"Good advice," Shepard nodded. He didn't really like to say so - he didn't really want to seem like he agreed with anything in this situation - but he did think the idea was sound. If these Grigari had such advanced tech, then defeating them required brilliant minds. "I'll set a course immediately."

"See that you do," Harper said. "Other than that, you have free reign to combat the Grigari threat and investigate their attacks as best you can. Good luck, Captain."

"Thank you, sir," Shepard replied, and then Harper disappeared, leaving the view of the Eagle. After a moment, the other ship cloaked, vanishing into the blackness of space.

"Joker," Shepard said. "Set course for Omega. Relay and maximum warp."

"Aye sir," Joker replied, inputting commands on his console. "Course set."

"Engage," Shepard said. A moment later, the familiar feeling of FTL travel hit him - the subtle shift in the way a ship felt - and he knew they were underway. "I'll be in my ready room."

He stood up and turned to go, but nearly ran into a diminutive woman with short hair in an operations uniform. She was young - very young - and she held a PADD in her hand.

"Captain!" the woman exclaimed, standing to attention. "I'm Yeoman Kelly Chambers. I'm in charge of your personal messages and crew rosters."

"Yeoman," Shepard said with a soft smile. "I need you to do me a favour - I'd like to arrange meetings with Commander Lawson, Lieutenant Taylor and Mr Reed on our journey to Omega."

"Yes sir, I'll arrange that immediately!" Chambers said chirpily. "And may I say, it's an honour to be serving with you, Captain."

"I'll try to live up to that," the Captain replied, sounding vaguely tired. With that, he headed for his ready room. Chambers started making notes on her PADD, a thoughtful frown on her face.

The ready room was bare and unpersonalised, and Shepard had no intention of fixing that any time soon. He sat down in his chair, leant back, and sighed. He was filled with a kind of ennui, and felt like every decision he was making, every action he was taking, was just him coasting along, almost running on autopilot. That had to change. Too much was riding on him. Shaking his head and trying to clear his feelings of despondency, he activated his computer and began entering search parameters for the Grigari - he needed to know everything.

As it turned out, there wasn't much to go on. They occasionally acted as mercenaries it seemed, but so little was known about them that anything he found could at best be labelled conjecture. There must have been more to it though...

An hour passed as he researched, when his door beeped.

"Come in," he called.

Miranda Lawson walked into Shepard's ready room, standing to attention before his desk. Shepard turned his computer off, and nodded at her.

"Commander Lawson," he said in greeting, trying his best to sound friendly. "I'm glad you could make it."

"Indeed," Miranda said, frowning slightly. "I should warn you sir, if this is an attempt to socialise with me or get to know me, I usually prefer not to do that on assignments."

"I need to know my crew, Commander," Shepard replied, his voice cooling slightly. "I need to know I can trust you. Especially since I didn't pick this crew and didn't pick this assignment.'

Miranda seemed to consider this. "Alright then," she said finally. "That seems fair enough. What would you like to know?"

"Your service record seems fairly nondescript prior to what I assume is the start of your Section 31 career," Shepard began. "Biotic corp, usual damn fixing, emergency support at disasters, other such things. What's interesting is that you gained most of your promotions following the 'assignment to Admiral Harper's staff'."

"I did certain operations for Section 31," Miranda replied. "That is all on a need-to-know basis. Suffice it to say the Admiral was impressed, hence my current assignment."

"He trusts you with his most important missions then?" Shepard asked.

"He trusts me to get things done," Miranda replied bluntly, surprising Shepard. "Others said you couldn't be revived. I got it done, with the best team the fleet could assemble. Now he trusts me to keep you alive so that you can get things done."

"So you're a bodyguard, as well as an XO," Shepard said uncertainly.

"I have a wide range of objectives," Miranda replied. "The completion of this mission, your survival, the rest of the crew's survival."

"Seems a lot to place on one person's shoulders," Shepard commented. "I'm sure you're more than competent, but you're only one officer."

"I am an exceptionally good officer," Miranda replied evenly, "with exceptional skills and abilities. I can do whatever is asked of me."

"Would 'lightening up' come under that?" Shepard asked with a wry grin. Miranda gave a small half smile.

"I can certainly try sir," she replied. "Now if that's all."

"Dismissed," Shepard said with a nod.

Shepard sat back in his chair as Jacob Taylor walked in and stood to attention.

"Mr Taylor," Shepard said with a smile. "Just been going over your service record. All exemplary."

"Just doing my duty, sir," Jacob said modestly. "Any officer would."

"I doubt any other officer has quite this kind of service record," Shepard said. "Repeated frontline actions aboard USS Sussex during the Dominion war. Special commendations for bravery, good tactical thinking and a dozen other similar remarks all paint quite the picture."

Jacob stood there, waiting for Shepard to finish. He seemed somewhat uncomfortable being reminded of his accomplishments.

"Your record seems the textbook definition of spotless," Shepard summed up. He leant forward slightly. "Begs the question - you're working or Section 31. Why?"

Jacob shrugged. "Got assigned as the tactical officer of that station by higher ups. The Sec 31 element didn't come up until later."

Shepard nodded. "And if I asked you what you thought of the organisation?"

Jacob looked a little uncomfortable at that.

"Off the record, sir?" he asked.

"Entirely," Shepard assured him.

"Then, I don't know if I like the organisation's methods," Jacob said immediately. "The mandate is fine - defending the Federation is what I signed up for after all. But doing it the way these guys do it - the secrecy, the covert ops, the freaky missions like that Thorian thing - that's different."

Shepard smiled.

"I believe we're on the same page, Mr Taylor," he said.

"Good to know sir," Jacob nodded. "I want to say, I'm honoured to be serving with you on this mission."

"The feeling is mutual, Mr Taylor," Shepard replied. "Dismissed."

When Reed walked into Shepard's ready room, he was in full duty uniform, looking for all the world like the most respectable Starfleet officer you could imagine. Perhaps this was partly due to some desire to make a good impression - as if he had a chance in hell of doing that, Shepard thought to himself, but he quickly dismissed that thought. He had to work with the man, so he needed to give him a fair chance.

Reed stood at parade rest in front of Shepard's desk, waiting for his Captain to speak.

Shepard sighed, deciding to offer an olive branch.

"At ease, Reed," he ordered softly.

The man hesitated for a moment, then relaxed.

"You wanted to see me, sir?" he asked.

"I like to know my crew," Shepard replied. "And let's be honest, our previous interactions prior to this assignment were... troublesome. I need to know I can trust you."

"To follow your orders?" Reed asked, sounding vaguely offended at the idea that he might not. "I have two pips. You have four. End of that discussion."

"Is it?" Shepard asked, not a little sceptical.

"You're my superior officer, Shepard," Reed replied, sounding deadly serious. "I'll follow your orders to the letter, whether they be naive, or I disagree with them, or even if they're just plain stupid. It's what I do, and what I have done all my career."

Shepard nodded slowly, accepting the man's word.

"Alright," he said, leaning back in his chair. He motioned for Reed to take a seat, and the Section 31 agent did so. "Been meaning to ask. That synth-leather jacket of yours, the names on it. Campaigns you fought in?"

Reed smirked slightly. "Yeah, that was a custom uniform design a few veterans got made. Me, Jacob, a bloke called Reese, a few others. The names are the battles we survived - leastways the ones I could talk about. I performed a few commando raids on Betazed, frontline on AR-558, and served on the USS Eagle for the fleet battles at Chin'toka and Cardassia, plus being part of the ground landing on Cardassia as well, though that was thankfully truncated. Others did lots more. Being Sec 31 kept me off of the frontline most days."

"I thought about reading up on the war," Shepard said slowly, "but I want to hear it from someone. What was it like?"

Reed hesitated, looking faintly uncomfortable. "Other people could tell you."

"I didn't ask them," Shepard pointed out. "I asked you."

Reed, to his credit, nodded. "Alright then. How much do you know about the Dominion?"

"Less than I should," Shepard replied. "Most of my intel was old, and I didn't keep up to date. Too focused on the Reapers and Borg."

"Which was fair enough at the time," Reed replied. "So I guess you wouldn't know much about the Founders?"

"Shapeshifters, yeah?" Shepard asked, frowning as he thought back to old briefings about the strange alien race.

"Yup," Reed nodded. He leant back in his chair, seemingly thinking about what he was going to say. "The Founders were highly intelligent, highly advanced. No one knows quite how, but they genetically engineered themselves several servant races - the Jem Hadar, the Vorta - and formed an empire."

"The Dominion," Shepard nodded.

"Right," Reed said. "There was a big thing about them a few years ago when the Odyssey was destroyed. Dunno if you remember all the crazy hype about shapeshifters invading Earth and what have you, but people were tense. Fortunately, we had the saving grace that the Dominion had never developed relay tech."

"Any idea why?" Shepard asked.

Reed shrugged. "Best anyone could tell, they preferred using tech they had developed themselves or had been developed by their vassals, not tech developed by some dead 'solids'. They relied on their own ingenuity exclusively."

"So how did they become a threat over here?" Shepard asked. "Relay tech is the only way to travel long distances that quickly."

"Bajoran Wormhole," Reed replied. "Stable wormhole, right between us and them. Became both our saving grace and our worst weakness. Saving grace because the thing bottle necked their invasion. Worst weakness because we kept needing to defend the entrance."

"Miranda mentioned that DS9 was captured," Shepard noted.

"It was," Reed said."Opening move of the war."

"Our Alliance with the Citadel held them back from attacking us before," Shepard pointed out. "I take it that didn't hold up?"

"You kidding?" Reed smirked. "The Dominion would probably have attacked eventually anyway. The fact that the Borg caused so much damage - dozens of Starfleet and Citadel ships destroyed - was just the icing on the cake." He paused, thinking back. "They launched ships in a simultaneous wormhole attack combined with help from their Cardassian allies. DS9 fell in a day. We just weren't ready - the crew at DS9 managed to launch a minefield to block off the wormhole so they couldn't get any more reserves in the end, but that was it."

"What happened after that?" Shepard asked.

"It was... pretty back-and-forth," Reed said slowly. He held up his hands, as if trying to visualise what he was saying. "It was like this. They were pushing along every front. The Federation didn't have enough ships, so the Fleets were moving constantly, trying to shore up gaps. Eventually, good leadership got us back on the offensive, and then we managed to spare enough ships to use the Mass Relays as a counter offensive weapon, hit them right in their home territories. Once they realised the Mass Relays were able to bypass their defences they started using them counter-offensively - the Cardies, and then the Breen, raided some inner worlds. Course, the minute the Dominion started using Relays, the Citadel Council shat on them - the turians didn't forget Palaven in a hurry. We got tons of support from them. Add to that a big push that besieged Cardassia - and the Cardies figuring out that the Dominion were their slave-masters not their partners - and I guess it got to the point where the war was too much trouble for the shell-heads and their masters to keep fighting. So they withdrew from the Alpha quadrant, and rumour has it they wrecked every Relay they had in their systems to keep us and the turians out." Reed paused. "That's... a simplified view, Captain, but it's essentially correct."

There was a long pause, during which the two men sat in silence, the Captain registering everything the other man had said to him.

"What was the war like?" Shepard asked finally. "To live through I mean."

The events Reed had described were factual, events he could have gotten from a textbook, though Shepard was happier having gotten them from someone who was there.

"What was it like?" Reed repeated. He leant back in his chair, his eyes taking on a faraway look. "I was on AR-558 for weeks. During that time, we lost over a hundred officers to enemy action. We lost twenty more in the final push before we were rotated out. It was a nasty, brutal thing."

"I'd have thought you were used to nasty brutal things, Reed," Shepard said, perhaps slightly unkindly. "What with your work for Section 31."

Reed gave Shepard a look. "If you called me in here for crotch shots, Captain, I'd rather you didn't. And don't make light of the war - you'll make yourself pretty unpopular."

"Don't worry," Shepard said with a wry grin. "Last crotch shot." He paused, thinking of how tout into words what he was thinking. "I don't like you, Reed, and I'm not sure I trust you, but I'm convinced that despite the stuff you've done with Section 31 you're an essentially decent officer: even if I find your methods questionable, your motivation isn't. Therefore, I'm amenable to working with you. But this is my ship - and you don't do anything on my ship that's wouldn't do, regardless of Section 31's idea of acceptable mission parameters. Clear?"

"Crystal, sir," Reed replied coldly. "And thank you for being honest with me. Permission to be dismissed, sir."

"Dismissed, Lieutenant," Shepard said. Without another word, Reed turned and left the room.

Shepard sighed - now that he had ascertained a little more about the Section 31 officers under his command, it was time to see about this mission he had been given. Despite searching through databases in-between meetings, Shepard had yet to find anything concerning the Grigari that he could call "concrete information" (though a lot of it was classified), and that bothered him far more than he cared to admit. He had a brief think about what he might be able to do, and an idea hit him.

He tapped up his personal message system, and he wrote a message addressed to an old friend.

To: David Anderson.

Subject: I'm back+Need help chasing info.

Don't know what you know about this, but I'm not dead.

He felt ridiculous writing that, but he didn't know how one was meant to frame this sort of thing.

Also don't know how much I can tell you if you didn't know. Not why I'm dropping a line however,

I need information concerning the Grigari. Anything and everything in the most classified files you can get me. I have scraps but need a bigger picture.

Shepard paused, unsure what to put next.

I know if you didn't know I was back this will be a shock. It was to me, too. All I can say is, I need that information.

I hope to hear from you soon,

John Shepard, Captain.

He sighed, and sent the message. He didn't know how his old friend would react to it, but hopefully he would accept it and, more importantly, get that information to Shepard in time for it to make a difference.

"Captain," a voice interrupted his thoughts. It was Joker. "We're coming up to Omega now, sir."

"On my way," Shepard replied. It was time to see whether this Mordin Solus was as capable as Harper thought he was.