A/N: This randomly occurred to me while trying to Krogan-smash my way through writer's block on The Space Race. Have to admit, playing ME2 I so badly wanted to do this.
NEEMA, MIGRANT FLEET - AUGUST 16
In summary: Retrieval of objective Veetor'Nara nar Celisus successful despite Cerberus ground team operating in colony. Ground team led by individual alpha masquerading as deceased Spectre, Commander Natasha'Shepard vas Normandy. Marine Prazza'Oron vas Omboro submitted for court-martial for disobedience of orders that led to the deaths of Kaeli'Selim vas Omboro, Maru'Nostro vas Kerrita, Aemi'Nostro vas Kerrita, Oskah'Timu vas Rayya and Soma'Telan vas Neema. End report.
Tali shut down her Omnitool and closed her eyes, thinking. That thing running around with Cerberus guns and goons couldn't be Shepard, her Shepard. But it was a very convincing facsimile. The black hair and tanned skin were all the same but her scar from Torfan was gone, replaced by a fine tracery of cybernetics glowing through the cracks in her visage. She had spoken like Shepard too, soft even tones that could calm a charging Krogan or a scandalised Hanar and convince someone to link suit environments with a Vorcha, the smooth mirror surface of her complete calm broken only by the odd flash of her trademark dry wit. She had seen that voice at work on Noveria, the Citadel, even Virmire. It wasn't a stretch to imagine her voice tolling in the helmets of the soldiers she had sent to their deaths on Torfan, urging them onwards with the gentle unstoppability of a glacier even as they were gunned down by desperate slavers. The Cerberus clone, or synthetic, or impersonator, whatever it was, had the same aura of quiet implacability that had allowed her Commander to end a thousand battles without firing a shot.
She had to admit, for a while she had thought Shepard was the real thing. It had taken a long time to learn to read Shepard's moods on the SR1 through her unflappable veneer but she had gotten the hang of it. It was all in the eyes, and when that Cerberus whore had tried to take Veetor away Shepard's eyes had burned with murderous intent. But the more she thought about it the more she was convinced it could not be Shepard. The eyes were key. She had seen Shepard's eyes while they were raiding Cerberus bases back on the SR1 and the mere thought of being on the wrong end of that rage had made her want to curl up into a very small ball. There was no way she would ever work for Cerberus.
Tali's Omnitool buzzed and she glanced down at it, frowning slightly. The sender was marked as an unintelligible line of code in a digital language she didn't recognise. Intrigued, she opened the message. The body of the text was a meaningless slew of numbers that almost looked like strings of co-ordinates. Then she saw the subject line and almost fainted.
TAK-3112/45/7 A.M.V. V23XXY/41
The line was meaningless apart from three letters. A.M.V. She had never expected to see those letters again. It could only mean one thing. Natasha Shepard was alive. And she wanted to talk.
Pulling her old, battered paper copy of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot out of one of her suit's many pouches, she started to decode the message.
URDNOT CITY, TUCHANKA - AUGUST 16
"Clan Quash pledges one hundred and fifty Warriors and three Battlemasters to Warlord Urdnot Wrex."
Wrex nodded contentedly. Three full companies. Clan Quash's territory straddled the wreck of the Fist of Bostra, a Turian dreadnought brought down by ground fire at the close of the Rebellions. Even today eezo still leaked from the gargantuan ship's drive core, meaning Clan Quash produced some of the most powerful Krogan biotics. Although the clan wasn't as large as Urdnot, Weyrloc or Ravanor they made a powerful ally. His army already measured almost twenty thousand crests strong and only his refusal to name the target of his Oorloc, or Blood War, was stopping the other clans from aligning against him. Nevertheless he had to remain vigilant. The Quash warriors could be stationed at the southern outposts, which were at the moment manned almost entirely by Ravanor and faced the bulk of Weyrloc territory. Ravanor and Quash had little bad blood between them and even Weyrloc would think twice before raiding another outpost if he stationed them there. However his western border was patrolled mainly by untrained crests and Gatatog, whose loyalty was anything but assured. Perhaps one of the companies could shore up that border and intimidate the Gatatog into paying more than lip service to his cause.
"Clan Raik pledges forty Warriors and Weaponmaster Katannu to Warlord Urdnot Wrex."
That dedication was little more than symbolic - Raik was a sub-clan of Urdnot in everything but name. Nevertheless they produced some of the most ferocious warriors he had ever seen. Their distinctive black crests, blue warpaint and deep navy eyes burned with the fury of ten thousand years of warrior tradition. Having Raik on his side had already spurred Drogal and Tarn to align with him also. The Weaponmaster would be an interesting one to have though. Only time would tell if Katannu would see things Wrex's way or if he would be another destruction obsessed stick-in-the-sand like Fortack.
"Clan Kellar pledges forty scouts to Warlord Urdnot Wrex."
Wrex ignored the derisive snorts of the other clan leaders as the scout captain presented his loyalty stone to Wrex. Fighting alongside Shepard had taught him the value of scouts. A single word and that slippery little Quarian girl of hers would be off like a shot, returning five minutes later with the positions of every Geth in the area. The Kellar scouts all carried enormous sniper rifles on their backs and braces of grenades round their chests. Wrex had a flashback to that Vakarian kid pulling off headshots with his much beloved rifle and the Quarian detonating grenades she had snuck into place fifteen minutes earlier, blowing Geth into the air or cracking their cover into fragments. Shepard had used her squad like a precision instrument, each component performing a different duty that fit together to obliterate Geth positions that could have destroyed twenty charging Krogan before they got in shotgun range. It wasn't very Krogan of him but Wrex needed more scouts. The Kellar were a mountain clan, used to moving around and scaling cliffs any other Krogan would be a fool to attempt. They would be a useful addition to his army.
"No more pledges to hear today, Warlord. How would you like to deploy the new additions?"
His mind quickly ran through his options.
"Move two companies of Quash to the southern outposts and the other company along with the Raik warriors to the western outposts. The Kellar can be folded into our scout unit."
As always, Gatatog Uvenk was the first to protest.
"My warriors have the western border well in hand! We require no reinforcement!"
"Reinforcement? Try replacement. I've decided to rotate the Gatatog to the Tomkah divisions."
Uvenk racked his brain for ways to take offence at the statement and couldn't come up with anything, so he said nothing. Under Wrex's leadership the Tomkah divisions had been transformed from a collection of ramshackle transport trucks to an elite assault legion, the Tomkahs themselves coated in thick armour plate and bristling with cannons, packed full of hardened warriors armed to the teeth with shotguns, machine guns and heavy weapons. The Tomkahs would charge the enemy positions, blitzing them with mounted weapons as they rammed through, then the warriors would pour out, guns blazing. The additional use of the Tomkah divisions was that they were under Wrex's personal command and every Krogan who joined the divisions came out loyal to Wrex, sometimes even over their own clan leaders. Uvenk was in a spot. To refuse would lose him the respect of his warriors, to agree would lose him their loyalty. He eventually concurred.
Wrex called the deliberations short as he received a message on his Omnitool and took it to his private heap of rubble to read. He almost instantly recognised the subject line.
RVM-9624/4/12 H.M.R. X13IOT/11
He chuckled to himself as he plodded over to an old battered metal chest and fished his paper copy of Homer's Illiad out.
"Should have known the void would spit you right back out, Shepard."
He ran a clawed thumb along the edge of the page.
"Page 311 ... Fifth line ... Eigth word ..."
TERCVARA DISTRICT, OMEGA - AUGUST 16
Garrus had been bent over his copy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy for almost four hours now, glancing back and forth between it and his Omnitool and flipping through the pages. Eventually Erash walked up to him, blinking his four eyes.
"What are you doing, Boss?"
He glanced up at the Batarian techie.
"Decoding a message."
He showed Erash his Omnitool, with a message open on it that was nothing but a string of numbers.
And so on.
"It's a Human code language called book code."
He tapped a talon on the paper book.
"Each set of numbers is page number, line number and word number. You go through the set book and find each word that the numbers correspond to and they make up the message. Unless someone has the correct edition of the correct book they can't decode it. A Human I worked with a couple of years back used to send messages in book code. Pain in the mandibles to decode but completely secure."
"So what does the message say?"
Garrus looked up and saw Sensat, Melanis, Mierin and Grundan Krul had also gathered round to see what the fuss was about. He favoured them with a grin.
"One of my old buddies wants my help stealing a frigate from Cerberus."
CIC, NORMANDY SR2, AUGUST 17
"There's a couple of messages at your private terminal, Commander."
Natasha turned to Kelly, letting the redhead see the fire in her eyes. She knew that despite the utter calm she enforced on herself her eyes betrayed her tightly leashed emotions. She used it to her advantage, shutting the usually perky Chambers down with an entertaining squeak.
"I know you read all my messages. Who from?"
"Cerberus Command. The messages are Level One classified, for your eyes only. Even Miranda can't read those ones."
Natasha favoured Kelly with a small smile.
"Thank you for your honesty Kelly. Please could you return these to Miranda? I found them in my room and I think they belong to her."
She felt a twist of wry amusement as she dropped the plastic bag full of bugs and cameras in Kelly's hands. She memorised Kelly's reaction and replayed it in her head - good. She got them all.
Padding over to her private terminal, she checked the trio of messages. Three replies. She uploaded the messages to her Omnitool, then read them through, her eidetic memory flipping through the pages of the books and translating the messages as she read. The first one was from Tali.
Codebook: Homer's Illiad
It is you! I doubted it really was when we met on freedom progress but now I am certain. I am glad you have returned.
I have spoken to the leaders and they agree to send me with nine warriors to rescue your ship. Tell us a time and we will find you on the city of rock where all things end. We will take the sailors without death if you command it.
So happy you have returned.
She smiled as she deleted the message, already committed the contents to memory, and opened up the second one.
Codebook: The Bible
Shepherd! Should have known you would not stay in heaven. It is past time you got back to the kingdom of the living.
I will certainly send my best followers to help you take the ship. We can meet on hell in the sky any time you choose.
The third message was from Garrus. She hadn't contacted Ash or Liara - she was certain Cerberus had agents throughout the Alliance although she would miss the Gunnery Chief's dry banter and impressive aim, and she had never much liked Liara.
Codebook: I, Robot
Damn glad to have you back boss. Once we kick the dog out we have some catching up to do.
I am already on the station you mentioned with some friends. Give the word and we'll be there.
Nodding in satisfaction, Natasha watched Kelly slink off to the elevator. It was always fun one-upping people who thought they were the smartest person in the room.
Walking into the armoury, she nodded at Jacob and sat down at a workbench she had claimed as her own, littered with gun parts. Jacob snuck a glance at the Commander, seemingly disbelieving of what he was seeing. The woman was a genius, he knew that, but he had never quite appreciated how brilliant she actually was. She had the engineering skills of a Quarian, the biotics of an Asari Matriarch and the weapon skills of a Krogan Battlemaster, a perfect eidetic memory and the ability to read people and then say the right words to bend them to her will. She came along to the armoury and did his job ten times better than he could as a boredom buster, for God's sakes, and she used a dictation VI to write up her after action reports as she went, providing a dry, officious sounding commentary even as she commanded him and Miranda like a precision instrument. After Freedom's Progress she had even taken to simultaneously dictating two documents, her report and Miranda's report. Hearing her dictate 'Subject's reflex time has improved by point two six per cent as a result of nervous integration into synthetic muscle tissue' while backflipping over a YMIR mech's stream of fire and giving Miranda the finger - he really didn't know how to react to that.
Right now she was working on another one of what she affectionately referred to as her 'boomsticks' - turns out she was an accomplished weaponsmith, as evidenced by the self-made LMG, rocket launcher and twin marksman pistols she carried into battle and the number of other eclectic firearms she manufactured. Each weapon was coded to her DNA, meaning only she could fire it. Jacob had yet to work up the courage to ask her to make something for him.
He peered over her shoulder at the weapon she was making. She had disassembled four of their latest shipment of M-22 Eviscerator shotguns and what looked like one of their grenade launchers and was crafting what looked like an enormous triple barrelled shotgun.
"What are you working on, Commander?"
She didn't look up at him, the visor she always wore even in civvies lit up with schematics. He noticed that she had rejected the custom tailored Cerberus uniforms that filled her drawers in her cabin, instead opting for a leather jacket, white tank top with the Alliance logo on the breast and black trousers with leather boots.
"Triple barrelled shotgun."
"You don't use a shotgun."
She used her biotics to assemble a complex component in the air above her hand, each piece slotting into place in a staggering display of biotic control that just made Jacob feel even further from the superhuman sitting at the weapon bench.
"You can't have it, Taylor. Designed for a Krogan. Recoil would pulp your arm."
Her speech was slow, even and measured, having a calming effect on Jacob despite himself and completely banishing his annoyance at not getting his hands on the Commander's latest toy.
"Open document 'Blowback'. Input text. Production of Blowback proceeding as planned. Use of Eviscerator instead of Katana will increase prototype's armour penetration by up to fourteen point one four three per cent. Production of Katana model still viable, however Eviscerator judged preferable. Recoil force continues to be an issue for any species other than Krogan, Elcor or Yahg. Save and close document."
AFTERLIFE, OMEGA - AUGUST 21
"We get in, we get Solus, we get out. Simple as that."
Without another word Commander Shepard led the fuming Miranda and the confused yet amused Jacob onto Omega. A Salarian attempted to accost them before being chased off by a Batarian, the Commander working her magic so well the grouchy Batarian actually thanked her, although none of them were entirely sure what for.
They made their way to Afterlife and paid lip service to the local kingpin, thus far the only person who could resist Shepard's quiet charm. Nevertheless they got what they needed and left the room. Then Natasha felt the need to lead them into a very seedy part of Omega.
Jacob's sense of wrong tingled as he looked up and down the alley the team were walking down.
"Hey Commander. Where are we going?"
"I've just got some housekeeping to do before we head to the Normandy. Remember, NLTs."
Both Jacob and Miranda looked sharply at the Commander's back.
"Non lethal takedowns? Who are we going after?"
Without looking back, Natasha rattled off a string of numbers for no apparent reason and held one hand in the small of her back.
The Flashbang grenade exploded in her hand, her Sentry Interface visor protecting her ears and eyes. Jacob and Miranda weren't so lucky. The grenade blinded and deafened them, reflexively drawing their guns and flaring their biotics just in time to be hit by simultaneous Damping and Sabotage attacks. Jacob froze as he felt the barrel of what was unmistakably one of the Commander's long barrelled marksman pistols, modelled on the antiquated .45 Magnum revolver. Jacob could very faintly hear what sounded like Turian, Krogan and Quarian voices over the silky whispering of the gun.
"You really thought I'd just bend over and be Cerberus's glove puppet? You really should have installed that control chip, Lawson."