Hero's Dozen

Editorial Note:

Throughout the decades and centuries, I have noted that change can be one of the most exciting and terrifying constants in the universe. It can be seen in the rarified halls of academia, when a lowly researcher dares to present a controversial and novel theory. It can be witnessed on the battlefield, when a new weapon or a new tactical doctrine is introduced. It can be witnessed in something as simple as the handover of editorial duties from one individual to the next.

After submitting my own editorial revisions and commentary on one of Shepard's missions, I was approached by Admiral David Anderson, who proposed that I take over as permanent editor of Shepard's personal logs. As thrilled as I was to be presented with such an opportunity, I must admit that I found the prospect to be quite daunting. I had literally just released my edited logs to a select group of readers, after all. Readers who were used to Anderson's particular style, what he responded to and, just as important, how he responded. How would they react to my interpretation? Would they reject me as a usurper? An ever-so-arrogant asari who presumed to impose her opinions and judgements on the masses?

Thankfully, I found the reception much more welcoming. Whether it was the titillating idea of an asari perspective or the satisfaction of reading the reactions of one of Shepard's comrades-in-arms, I cannot say, though I suspect it may be a combination of the two.

It is with this encouragement that I submit a new collection of Shepard's personal logs for readers with the appropriate security clearance. As always, I have grouped the logs into chapters where appropriate and offered whatever insights I could provide where appropriate. Goddess willing, my work will meet with a similar reception. Any failure to properly convey what happened is mine and mine alone.

Sincerely,

Dr. Liara T'Soni.


Chapter 1: Mission Briefing

When I look back, I don't think I've ever visited the Citadel for fun.

The first time I went to the Citadel, it was at the behest of the Council. TPTB wanted answers on how a potential Spectre candidate, from an upstart race that had caused more headaches in the last couple decades than any other race had in the last couple centuries, managed to botch a supposedly simple mission and let a Spectre die on his watch. (1) Not exactly a friendly invite. The reception wasn't that warm either, though the fact that Anderson and I were accusing their golden boy Saren of treason probably had something to do with that.

My subsequent visits were mostly by choice: I chose to return to the Citadel to bring Anderson up to speed while he was stuck behind a desk. I chose to return and see the latest guns and goodies that were being sold—and then promptly sell off all the excess guns and goodies that I'd picked up here and there. I chose to return to Udina, confirm all the stories he'd heard about my progress and watch his face turn various shades of purple. At no point was I invited to drop by for an idle chat.

Then I died. Yeah, that happened. Never did get the T-shirt. (2)

Next thing I know, I'm being summoned back to the Citadel. Why? Because TPTB had heard that I'd popped up on the radar after a two-year hiatus, saw that I was in the company of Cerberus and promptly decided that I'd gone rogue and was working with the enemy. If it wasn't for Anderson, they'd have voted me guilty in absentia. As it was, they reinstated me as a Spectre and sent me off to investigate all the colony abductions in the Terminus Systems, a token gesture considering that Spectres had no authority out there, they didn't want me to come back to Citadel space and they didn't want to hear how I was doing.

I came back to Citadel space anyway—heck, I went back to the Citadel itself—but mostly for shopping. And by that I mean gadgets that could ruin other people's day or upgrade my increasingly nasty arsenal. No casual get-togethers for me.

It was with that in mind that I opened my e-mail inbox. After sifting through the junk mail that EDI's ever-evolving filters didn't quite catch, I was left with only a dozen relevant e-mails. One of them was from Anderson. I opened it, hoping against hope that the universe was throwing me a bone. Maybe Anderson wanted to reminisce about the good ol' days. Maybe he got tickets to some sports game on the Citadel:

Shepard,

There have been a lot of developments over the last couple months. I need to talk to you in person to discuss one of those changes and what to do about it. In my opinion, it is right up your alley.

If you have a moment, you can find me on the Citadel.

Admiral David Anderson

So much for that idea. At least the universe was consistent.


"It's that last part that bothers me."

Miranda had said that several times now. To be fair, so had I. And for good reason: "I know. You're sure there isn't anything in the news?"

She shook her head. "Nothing that would explain Anderson's resignation from the Citadel Council. Or his promotion to Admiral."

"Other than the fact that he was sidelined by the rest of the Council and was stuck politicking and talking instead of actually doing something," I snorted.

"At least there's an explanation for his promotion to Admiral," Miranda pointed out. "He had a proven and sterling track record and was on the short list of candidates for years. The only reason he wasn't already an Admiral when you became his XO was that he kept turning down promotions in favour of postings like the Normandy."

"If anyone deserves it, it's him," I agreed. "Even if he was fighting it every step of the way."

The airlock doors opened at that point, indicating that the usual docking and decontamination procedures were complete. "Logged: the commanding officer is ashore," EDI announced. "Garrus Vakarian has the deck. Commencing ship-wide calibration." (3)

The last thing Miranda and I heard before the airlock doors closed were the sounds of the bridge bursting into laughter. I turned to Miranda. "Your hearing's better than mine. Did EDI say anything about that being a joke?"

"Actually, she did," Miranda replied.

"You think she'll stop appending her jokes with that clarification?"

"Maybe," Miranda shrugged. "Stranger things have happened."

"Yeah, I guess."

With that done, there was nothing left but to walk to the skycar, get in, fly to the nearest C-Sec customs site, get through the C-Sec customs site, find another skycar and fly to the Presidium. While I could see how such measures could have been instituted in the name of security, it all seemed a little excessive and inefficient. And by that, I mean it seemed flat-out stupid. But they don't pay me to—actually, scratch that. They don't pay me at all. (4)

As we walked, I found myself paying attention to the people. That, in itself, was a bit unusual. Most people—civvie or otherwise—who visit the Citadel on an infrequent basis tend to look at the scenery first. The way it looked so modern and cutting-edge, despite the fact that it was built millennia ago. The way it stretched so high, you could actually believe you were on a planet looking up at the sky.

Every time, I looked at the scenery though, I kept looking at it from a tactical perspective. Points of ingress or egress. Sniper perches and sight lines. Traffic movements. Behavioural quirks and tells that distinguished security officers—plainclothes as well as official—from the usual mix of civvies and military personnel.

After a while, I managed to push it to the background, subconsciously detecting and logging all of that while focusing on the people themselves. Men and women, old and young, all from different species. Passing each other in the midst of their daily routine. Stopping to greet each other. Going about their lives. I'm not sure why I found this so fascinating. Maybe it was because it all seemed so… normal. Growing up as a navy brat, bouncing from ship to station to ship, I never experienced anything like that growing up. Everything was so homogenous—I don't just mean that I spent my childhood amongst nothing but humans, though that was entirely true. It's just that, all my life, I'd been surrounded by Alliance military and the children of Alliance military. Chatting and wheeling and dealing with anyone else? Civvies? Aliens? I never experienced anything so normal until well into adulthood.

I know that some people wouldn't regard that as normal. Some people would find that too busy. Too hectic and cosmopolitan. But for me… I guess there was part of me that yearned to have that kind of life. Something I never had. Or maybe I was drawn to all that constant movement, that lack of permanence that was so reminiscent of my youth.

It was at that moment that I noticed Miranda looking at me. I filled her in on my thoughts.

"I've been thinking the same thing," Miranda admitted, "though my childhood gave me a different perspective."

Right. Childhood lost while being trained and bred to be the perfect woman. Not surprising that she might look at things from that less-than-rosy set of lens. It wasn't unreasonable to assume that she might get depressed again. She had had an extremely difficult and, some would say, emotionally abusive childhood. Virtually her whole life had been spent trying to get out of the shadow of expectations cast by her genetic potential. I started thinking of something to do or say to lift her spirits.

Turned out I didn't need to. Maybe she decided that there was no need to burden both of us with her past. (5) "You know, that turian should do a better job of blending in," she said casually. "He stands out like a sore thumb, the way he stands so stiffly."

"And that batarian over there?"

"The one glowering at the asari diplomat?"

"Yep. Everyone's so focused on him that they're ignoring the human 'merchant'."

"Judging by the way his fingers are tapping, either he's secretly accessing his omni-tool or he's got a nervous twitch."

"Speaking of humans, what do you make of the one over there?"

"Female? Redhead?"

"Yeah, that one. She seems very interested in us."

"Ignore her. Acknowledging her in any way would only encourage her."

I glanced at Miranda curiously. She had this long-suffering look of aggravation and annoyance that was somehow slipping out of her usual façade of self-control. "I take it you recognize her."

"Sadly, yes."


We spent the next half hour identifying people who were trying to stay undercover. Easier and safer topics of conversation, I guess. Miranda still hadn't told me about that last e-mail in the Shadow Broker's dossiers. It was still one big mystery to me. Part of me wished she'd just tell me what it was all about. Maybe I could help. Of course, that was probably my curiosity rearing its ugly head again. Normally, I don't really mind poking around in other people's business. But Miranda wasn't just 'other people,' was she?

I wasn't any better. Liara's conversation about saying how I really felt still echoed with me. I still hadn't opened my big mouth yet. Was it because it was just too soon? Or was I just being one big coward? Sadly, I didn't have any firm answers to that mystery either.

Eventually, we went our separate ways. Miranda was going to a café with extranet access to contact her sister. She'd arrive well before their prearranged contact time, but that was all right considering all the countermeasures she needed to establish to prevent any unwanted busybodies from tapping into the transmission. It was a sheer coincidence that the café was also on the Presidium. Yeah, I didn't buy that either. To be fair, Miranda wasn't trying very hard to pretend.

For my part, I'd arranged to meet Anderson in the Embassy Lounge. It had been over two years since I last set foot in there—and it still looked exactly the same. Still as exclusive and expensive as ever. Guess diplomats like to have at least one thing they can rely on, considering how yesterday's buddies can become tomorrow's worst enemy. Or vice versa, of course.

It took a while to find Anderson. Partly because there were a lot of people in fancy duds and formal outfits milling around for happy hour. (6) Partly because he was sitting at a corner table that was obscured by a large potted plant and a floor-to-ceiling vid-screen displaying an ad for the latest perfume. In fact, his table was placed in such a way that it was impossible for anyone to get a line of sight on him. Not without leaning backwards in a precarious and blatantly obvious position. Or unless someone was practically hugging the wall.

As I approached Anderson, I also noticed he was all dressed up in Alliance-standard formal military attire. More proof, if any was needed, that he wasn't a politician any longer. A subtle hum vibrated through my body as I passed the vid-screen. My vision suddenly blurred, so I had to rely on a tell-tale series of beeps to realize that my omni-tool had abruptly rebooted.

Anderson was kind enough to wait until my optical implants completed a similar reboot—which thankfully finished well before my omni-tool—before rising to his feet. "Shepard!" he greeted me warmly.

"Sir," I responded, snapping to attention and saluting him before I knew what I was doing. Old habits die hard, I guess. (7)

Anderson saluted me back before extending a hand. His handshake was just as warm as his initial greeting. "Please sit down," he said, gesturing to the table. "Sorry about making you meet here."

"Don't be," I replied. "Between the public nature of this café, the location of this table and the unintended ECM provided by that vid-screen, it's a perfect spot for a covert meet." (8)

A waiter came over. Seeing that Anderson had already ordered a cup of coffee, I did the same. "So, how have you been?" Anderson asked when the waiter left.

"Pretty good," I responded. "Staying out of trouble, for once."

We shared a chuckle, though Anderson's sounded a tad more rueful. "I wish I could say the same," Anderson sighed.

"I take it this has something to do with the fact that you no longer respond to 'Councilor'?" I suggested. "Should I be offering congratulations on your promotion to Admiral?"

"Thank you," Anderson nodded graciously. "None of its official yet, so keep it to yourself for now."

"Does this have anything to do with your request to meet me here?" I asked.

"It does," Anderson confirmed. "And there's quite a bit of background to cover, so we'd better get this briefing started."

I motioned for him to continue.

"An old friend of mine contacted me—Kahlee Sanders. We'd met twenty years—no, twenty-one now. Yes, we met twenty-one years ago. She was working on a project to develop AIs before her base got ambushed."

"Wait a minute," I exclaimed, leaning forward. "You mentioned something similar to this before, when command of the Normandy was first handed over to me. Some rogue scientist developing AI technology in the Skyllian Verge, Saren was investigating and you were ordered to tag along since the Alliance had uncovered the latest leads, right?"

"Good memory," Anderson nodded approvingly. "Kahlee was working for that scientist—Dr. Qian. He was careful to disguise the research as an attempt to give humanity a military advantage, compartmentalizing tasks amongst his research staff, but Kahlee pieced together enough facts to determine that it was actually a study on an alien artifact. One that might pre-date the Protheans."

"Alien tech. Pre-dating the Protheans," I repeated. "That has 'Reaper' written all over it."

"In hindsight, I can't see any other conclusion," Anderson agreed. "Especially when you factor in Kahlee's observations that Dr. Qian had become increasingly obsessed with the artifact."

Didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where this was going. "Indoctrination."

"Exactly."

As if on cue, the waiter returned with my cup of coffee. Anderson accepted her offer to refill his cup. The next few seconds were spent in silence as the waiter left and I added a bit of cream and sugar. (9)

"In the course of the investigation, Kahlee got captured by a krogan battlemaster and mercenary," Anderson spoke at last, "who was working for Dr. Qian and a batarian co-investor. "Saren was sent to rescue her and apprehend Dr. Qian. Ambassador Goyle convinced the Council to let me come as well, both to help rescue Kahlee as well as provide a chance for Saren to assess my merits for consideration to join the Spectres. I managed to save Kahlee, but... well, you know the rest."

Yeah. Mission went FUBAR. Doc got whacked. Eezo refinery where Kahlee and Qian were hiding went up in smoke. Lots of people died. Saren made Anderson the scapegoat, costing him and humanity a Spectre position.

"Anyway, Kahlee and I went our separate ways. I had my career and Kahlee was reassigned to another classified research project."

Somehow, I had the feeling that Anderson was… disappointed about the way things turned out. The way he referred to Kahlee by her first name—hell, the way he looked whenever he talked about her—suggested that they had been, well, close. (10)

"At some point, Kahlee returned to civilian life and joined the Ascension Project's board of directors. One of her students was a young girl named Gillian Grayson. Unbeknownst to her, Gillian's 'father' was actually a Cerberus operative."

"By the way you say that, I assume this guy wasn't actually her father," I guessed.

"At some point, Cerberus had found a baby with high biotic potential," Anderson nodded. "They gave her to Grayson to raise as his own child with the intent of enrolling her into the Ascension Project, convincing him that she would become the future 'savior' of humanity."

I shook my head. "Cerberus had a facility on Pragia dedicated to developing biotic potential, with all the disregard for morals and human life that you'd expect. After that went bust, they had to focus on keeping tabs on the Ascension Project. Now I know how they did it."

"Between Grayson and Dr. Jiro Toshiwa, a staff member who was also working for Cerberus, they were in an ideal position to learn the latest in Alliance biotic research and training techniques. They also used Gillian—the 'daughter'—as a test subject to inject with experimental serums and medicine in order to accelerate her biotic potential."

And that's why I enjoyed every moment of my time with Cerberus. (11)

"After one of these 'injections' went awry and the identity of this staff member was discovered, Grayson played the part of the distraught parent, insisting that Gillian be withdrawn from the Ascension Project for her own safety. Kahlee insisted that she and one of the Ascension Project security staff accompany them. Their efforts to evade Cerberus led them to seek refuge amongst the quarian Migrant Fleet."

"But Cerberus caught up to them," I interrupted, recalling Tali's revelations.

"They did," Anderson said. "The quarians managed to fight them off, in part thanks to Grayson. Kahlee had managed to convince him that his loyalties to Cerberus were misplaced. After the conflict had ended, Grayson sent a message to the Illusive Man, declaring that he was done with Cerberus and threatening to release all he knew if they went after Gillian or Kahlee."

"That must've been interesting," I said wryly. "The Illusive Man doesn't really like quitters for some reason."

"No, it didn't," Anderson sighed. "That's why Kahlee contacted me. She'd received a message from Grayson, one recorded in the event that he had been captured by Cerberus, complete with an attachment of all the data he had on Cerberus. We arranged a covert meeting on the Citadel to discuss what to do with Grayson's intel. By that point, it was clear that the Alliance had been thoroughly infiltrated by Cerberus."

Yeah. As depressing as that might be, it wasn't hard to imagine. Not after spending so much time working with Cerberus. With, not for. (12)

"So we went to the turians."

I needed a moment to digest that. "Wow," I marveled. "Human-turian relations have been improving,"

"It has been for some time," Anderson reminded me. "Take the partnership in developing the original Normandy, for instance. More importantly, the turians have become significantly more receptive to engaging in joint operations with the Alliance since your recommendation to save the Council."

There was that, I suppose. Nice to see there was some benefit from saving the collective asses of TPTB.

"Besides, I'd come to know one of the turian ambassadors during some recent trade negotiations."

Aha! The real reason came out at last!

"Using Grayson's intel, Ambassador Orinia organized several squads of turian soldiers to strike at high-value Cerberus targets and recover any prisoners. One of the squads reported that they had rescued Grayson… but then they went dark."

Uh oh.

"Kahlee and I decided to return to the base where Cerberus was holding Grayson, with some turian escorts, and find out what happened. What we discovered…"

"Yeah?" I prompted.

"Apparently, Cerberus went back through the Omega-4 relay and sifted through the remnants of the Collector base," Anderson revealed.

"Of course they would."

"They salvaged a great deal and began analyzing it in an effort to better understand Reaper technology. Its strengths, its weaknesses."

"Of course they did."

"And the Illusive Man decided that, since Grayson had betrayed him, that he'd be an ideal test subject to study the effects of Reaper technology on organics."

"Which explains why Grayson and the squad escorting him suddenly vanished," I groaned. It was all so predictable, once you thought about it. "Grayson must have been transformed and indoctrinated, subdued and eliminated the turian squad that was trying to rescue him, and went AWOL. So did you find him?"

"Indirectly, yes. After getting captured by Aria's forces."

Cerberus. Reapers. Anderson working with the Hierarchy. Now Aria. This briefing was just full of twists and turns.

"Aria wanted to kill Grayson for some reason. She lured him to Omega, using Kahlee as bait. The first part succeeded. Unfortunately, everybody had underestimated the extent to which Grayson had been transformed. He slaughtered his way through Aria's forces and escaped. We got free ourselves and began to look for a way off Omega so we could pursue him. Then we bumped into a Cerberus operative."

"Another one?"

"Yeah. Kai Leng. Former Alliance lieutenant and N7 graduate… before he joined Cerberus. He claimed he could help us apprehend Grayson and reverse what had been done to him."

"Please tell me you didn't believe him," I snorted.

"I'm not that gullible," Anderson smiled grimly. "We pretended to accept his help, followed him to his shuttle, then overpowered him and tied him up at the earliest opportunity. It didn't take long to realize that Grayson—or perhaps I should say the Reapers—was headed for Grissom Academy."

That was where the Ascension Project was stationed. Didn't take a genius to figure out why: "The Reapers wanted to acquire all the students—and their biotic potential—for their own uses."

"We got to Grissom Academy, but we were too late: Gray—the thing Grayson had become beat us there, killed the guards and had begun transmitting data to the Reapers. Kahlee went to evacuate the students while I tried to stop him. Took a while, but I eventually succeeded with the help of Kai Leng—who'd managed to free himself. I wish I could've captured him, but I had to help one of the students before he bled to death. At least I managed to cripple the bastard before he escaped."

"Did Kahlee and the students make it out okay?" I wanted to know.

"Everyone made it out safe and sound," Anderson said, with a sigh of relief. "I decided to form a research team to study Grayson's remains. It's gruesome and possibly unethical, I know. But if there's a chance that some good could come out of all this…"

"It's a tough call," I said sympathetically. "For what it's worth, you didn't do any of this to Grayson. Cerberus—and the Reapers—did. If this research can help stop the Reapers before they do this to the rest of the galaxy, it's worth a shot."

"I agree," Anderson nodded gravely. "About everything you said. Besides, I'll own up to the consequences afterwards. Once this is all over." (13)

"Speaking of consequences," I said, "is that why you're no longer on the Council?"

"Essentially, yes," Anderson said. "The Cerberus raids were conducted under the guise of a joint military exercise. That provided some justification for turian squads to attack targets in Alliance territory."

Yeah. You do need to be a little creative to get around intergalactic politics.

"Unfortunately, there was no way to justify attacking the two Cerberus bases in the Terminus Systems."

Ouch. Representatives from Citadel races striking targets in the Terminus Systems. There were laws against that sort of thing. This minor, unimportant thing called the Citadel Conventions. "That must've gone well," I said dryly. "I gather that caused a political kerfuffle?"

"More like a political storm," Anderson admitted. "I resigned my post as Councilor, shortly before travelling to the Cerberus base with Kahlee."

"How are you doing now?" I asked.

Anderson let out another sigh. "It's for the best. Really. I was getting so frustrated at my 'work,' if you could call it that. Everything was so slow, couched in delicate phrases and euphemisms, implied instead of stated. Nothing was clear-cut, nothing could be relied upon. It just went round in round in circles, rebounding between concerns about offending special interest groups or planetary constituencies. Those trade negotiations I mentioned? Total waste of time. Apparently, no one understood the concept of compromise. "Human, elcor, volus, turian… everybody just wanted to talk. And demand and counter-demand and so on. No one wanted to listen. Really made me long for the good old days in the Alliance. So… if this thing with Kahlee hadn't happened, something else would've been the final straw. It's good to be back in the Alliance. Even if it means becoming an Admiral."

Yeah, now Anderson just had to make sure he didn't become another REMF. (14) "That explains why you're back in Alliance blues. What can I do?"

"Grayson's intel included more than the location of Cerberus bases," Anderson revealed. "We're still sifting through it, but there is one thing that you might be able to help out with right now."

"What is it?"

"We came across an e-mail referring to an exchange between Cerberus operatives."

"Where?"

"A casino on Illium called the Grand Mirage."

Never heard of it. Which didn't mean a lot, considering the fact that I spent my time gambling with my life instead of my credits. "Do we know anything about the operatives?"

"The sender of the e-mail is apparently going to hand something off. We don't know who he or she is. We don't know what this handoff is. It could be a piece of technology, some credits or even a data file for all we know."

"What about the recipients of the e-mail?" I tried. "Any luck there."

"You could say that," Anderson said, his eyes narrowing. "Two operatives were supposed to meet the sender—Ben Pillar and Katie O'Connell. They were killed two days ago in a skycar 'accident' outside Vancouver International Starport on Earth."

Now it was my turn to narrow my eyes. "That's convenient."

"Not really."

"Sir?"

"Let's just say the official cause of death was 'engine failure,'" Anderson said, his voice suddenly becoming grim. "Unofficially, I think they got a bad case of Triple-D."

Ah. Now it all became clear.

I should explain that.

Anderson was referring to Eli David, Deputy Director of Systems Alliance Intelligence. Technically, he 'assisted' Director Langston Graham, occasionally taking over when Graham was absent or incapacitated. In truth, Deputy Director David was probably the scariest guy in the Alliance by far. 'Triple-D,' as he was not-so-affectionately known, kept his thumb firmly on the pulse of the Alliance's intelligence and counter-intelligence activities. Oversaw for most, if not all, of their top-secret projects—official, unofficial and theoretical. Managed just about every covert operation conducted by the Alliance. He was infamous for cajoling, manipulating, coercing and flat-out blackmailing people into doing whatever he wanted—a situation known as getting 'a case of Triple-D.' Sometimes, that condition was debilitating. Oftentimes, it was downright fatal.

I'd met him once upon a time. Back when he was a field agent. He was a sneaky SOB back then, and he'd only gotten sneakier since moving up in the ranks. Oh yeah, and he was the dad of an old friend of mine. One who hadn't seen or talked to her father for several years. For good reason, if you ask me.

I leaned back and ran through everything that Anderson had just told me. "So let me get this straight: an ex-Cerberus operative got captured by Cerberus, experimented upon and was eventually taken down—but not before transmitting a bunch of intel, including a few scant details on some upcoming meet. Triple-D—"

"Deputy Director David," Anderson corrected me mildly. "We should at least play lip-surface with the customary proprieties, Shepard."

"Triple-D got wind of it and decided to pitch in," I continued, undeterred.

"That is typical of Triple-D's playbook," Anderson agreed.

"At least his 'help' didn't take out a couple dozen innocent bystanders," I said, suppressing a grin. "Anyway, I'm guessing you want me and one of my squadmates to take Pillar's and O'Connell's place."

I felt a nudge underneath the table. Reaching down, I felt a pair of OSDs being pressed into my hand. "Passports, starport tickets and room reservations," Anderson murmured. "Courtesy of Alliance Intelligence."

"Triple-D's handing things over to us?" (15)

Anderson shrugged. "Someone under his direction passed all that to me, which I've now passed to you."

He didn't sound all that confused. Neither was I. Triple-D—and Alliance Intelligence—only had to play a small, minor role. I was the one stuck with spinning straw into gold. (16) If I succeeded, Alliance Intelligence got credit for their role in a joint operation that contributed to galactic security. If I screwed things up, they could throw up their hands and innocently proclaim that they were only responsible for their part and nothing else.

"Is there anything else you can tell me?" I pressed.

"I'm afraid not."

Aw, crap. "You realize that we'll be operating blind."

"I know," Anderson apologized. "Believe me, I know. If there was more information, I'd tell you."

Actually, he already did. All that background—stretching all the way back to his first meeting with Kahlee and his sabotaged attempt to become a Spectre—wasn't completely necessary. He could have given a lot less information without breaking the need-to-know classification. The fact that he said as much as he did meant a lot.

"It's okay," I assured him. "I'll think of something."

"I know," Anderson smiled. "You always do."


"There's just one thing I wanna know."

Miranda and I had returned to the Normandy. I contacted Joker en route and told him to recall everybody who might've gone for some shore leave. The squad assembled in the comm room, while I gave them a briefing. The full briefing, same as the one Anderson had just given me.

"Yes, Jack?" I asked mildly.

"Why are you and the fucking princess going undercover?" Jack wanted to know. (17)

"Because Shepard and I know how to conduct ourselves during a covert operation," Miranda replied coldly.

"Unless you and Zaeed wanna try your luck," I added.

There were a lot of groans and winces after that.

"Jack and Zaeed," Mordin said reflectively. "Possible. Would need anti-nausea medication. Bleach. Memory-altering drugs. Best to ensure supplies topped up before departure. Pity we're at the Citadel. Exorbitant prices. Though not as bad as Illium."

Now there were a couple glares added to the mix.

"Seriously," I said, intervening before those glares became lethal, "Anyone replacing Pillar and O'Donnell would have to be human."

"Which eliminates Garrus, Grunt, Legion, Mordin, Samara, Tali and Thane," Miranda added.

"They would need some familiarity with operating out in the field," I continued.

"Which eliminates all the other human crew members who normally handle ship operations. That leaves Shepard, Jack, Jacob, Kasumi, myself, and Zaeed," Miranda said.

"Out of that short list, Miranda and I have had the most experience in assuming aliases and running undercover ops," I said. "We know how to blend in, what to look out for, how to act." At least, I knew I did. I wasn't sure what Miranda did with Cerberus, but it was a safe bet that she could handle herself.

I pulled up the data from the OSDs Anderson gave me and displayed them on the table's holo-projector. "The travel itinerary for Ben Pillar and Katie O'Donnell specifies a brief stop at the Citadel before taking a passenger ship to Illium, where a skycar will take them to the Grand Mirage. The meet is set for three days after they check in at the Grand Mirage.

"That brings me to the next point. Since the Normandy's much faster than any civilian transport—"

"Hell, it's the fastest damn ship in the Alliance fleet!" Joker butted in. "I'd bet it could beat any ship in Citadel space! Or the Terminus Systems!"

"Then there's no reason why the Normandy can't beat us to Illium," I said smoothly.

"Regrettably, the crew will have to stay onboard," Miranda added. "We can't risk Cerberus finding out that their meeting has been compromised simply because they spotted a member of the Normandy out on R&R."

"The exception will be the squad," I added. "Partly because you guys have a better chance of spotting and evading any Cerberus surveillance. Mostly because we need you to do some ground work."

"We definitely need as much time as possible," Kasumi agreed. "There's a lot we don't know right now. We don't know who we're meeting or what the package is. We don't even know where exactly we're meeting in the Grand Mirage. If we can pin down other details—like the layout, security routines and vid-cam locations—then we stand a better chance of pulling this off."

"Exactly," I nodded. "Miranda and I will be depending on you guys to fill in some of the gaps. Which reminds me…"

"Uh oh," Garrus and Jacob said in unison.

"Yep," I grinned. "Miranda and I won't be able to give any orders while we're travelling to Illium first class."

"Business class," Miranda corrected me.

I looked at her. "Seriously? I thought we were going first class."

"Last minute change to their itinerary."

This was just getting better and better. "Fine. Miranda and I won't be able to give any orders while we're travelling to Illium business class. And it'll be really hard to keep track of the overall picture and give the appropriate orders when we're at the Grand Mirage—"

"—since we'll have to focus on maintaining our cover—" Miranda explained.

"—which means someone else will have to be in charge. That means you, Garrus!"

"I was afraid of that," Garrus groaned.

"Yeah," Joker chimed in. "We already had one ship-wide calibration. Don't think the crew can handle any more."

Garrus glared at the speakers. Then he brightened up. "Wait. Once we touch down on Illium, you'll need someone to lead the intelligence gathering on the ground."

"True," I conceded. "In which case Jacob's next."

"All right, maggots! Shirts off! Drop and give me twenty!"

Now it was Jacob's turn to glare.

"Unless Garrus needs an assistant squad leader," Miranda said casually. "That means command would fall to…"

"Joker," we finished in unison.

"Me?" Joker managed at last.


The rest of the briefing was spent dealing with squadmates who were suddenly very, very eager to come up with reasons to get off the Normandy upon arrival at Illium. And an uncharacteristically silent Joker. I'm not sure which was weirder.

Once I dismissed everybody, Miranda handed me a datapad. "What's this?" I asked.

"List of clothes you'll need for your cover."

"What's wrong with what I've got?" I wanted to know.

She shot me an incredulous look. "You're not serious?"

"Well…" I closed my mouth. "I guess not."

"Good."

I activated the datapad and took a look at—"Miranda!" I exclaimed. "Have you seen the prices for some of these things?"

"A one-star hotel or casino on Illium is a three-star or higher on any other planet," Miranda said. "The Grand Mirage is a four-star. You have to look the part."

"What's wrong with what I've got?"

"Some of the clothes we have on the Normandy would be appropriate if you need to play the part of someone down on his luck," Miranda conceded. "Which, depending on which areas of Illium you visit, would account for 58 to 84% of the population. The tuxedo Kasumi acquired for you is perfect for the Grand Mirage. But you can't go around wearing it all the time."

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not rolling in credits."

"I know," Miranda smiled. "Being a Spectre doesn't come with an enviable or impressive paycheck. But don't worry: I've done the math. You'll just have to rob a few more safes during each mission. Or pick up a few more datapads. At your usual rate, you should be able to acquire enough credits to make up the difference."

"Are you trying to be funny?" I demanded.

"Well, if you're really hard on your luck, you can always try the cargo crates."

Great. She was trying to be funny. I guess it's true what they say: you really should be careful what you wish for.

Without any other choice, I left the Normandy, returned to the Citadel and started shopping. At least I knew what to look for: Miranda had carefully outlined where to get each item of clothing and how much it would cost. I kept my eye out for similar items at other shops. It didn't take long to find out that Miranda had already determined what shops had the best deals. All it took was a quick in-and-out at each stop.

Oddly enough, virtually all the shops offered free delivery service. Every time I bought some clothes, the store clerks assured me that they would be delivered to the Normandy so I wouldn't have to be bothered with lugging them around. They all had extranet shopping functions as well. Which meant someone could order all these clothes online and ship them directly to his or her ship. Surely Miranda would have known that. So why have me run around like this? Unless she wanted to get me off the ship to set up some surprise.

I'm not sure if I liked that. Over the years, most of the surprises I've encountered have been of the thoroughly unpleasant and unwelcome variety. Heck, most of the surprises that I sprang on other people were equally unpleasant and unwelcome. Though I'd like to think that some of my pranks weren't that serious. If you could take a joke, of course.

It was with that in mind that I returned to the Normandy, fed my fish and began my usual rounds. I visited Deck Two, checked in on everybody, exchanged the usual chit-chat—well, except for Joker. He'd started talking again, but he was still a long way from the usual smart-ass banter. I decided to give him a little more time. Being the boss is a scary thing, after all.

Then I went to Deck Three. Usual rounds, usual amount of chatting. Nothing too surprising. Thane was taking another stroll down memory lane—courtesy of his eidetic memory—and needed a reminder that that wasn't healthy. Kasumi was... also taking another trip down memory lane—courtesy of her greybox—and also needed a reminder that that wasn't healthy. Hmm. Unexpected peas in a pod, those two.

I was still pondering that when I walked into Miranda's office and...

...

...well...

...

...uh...

...

...she was tucking the smallest pistol I'd ever seen into her black leather boots, ones that had at least a two-inch heel and went up almost to her knee. Fishnet stockings clung to her amazing legs which, regrettably, were mostly covered by the boots and her dress. Her fire-engine red dress, that clung to every curve of her body and matched the colour of her lipstick. And she'd...

...

…she'd changed her hair colour to blonde.

Miranda noticed that she'd captured my attention, as evidenced by my imitation of the fish in my quarters. She shot me a dazzling smile and a salacious wink.

There was really only one thing I could say:

"Heyyo!"


(1): An acronym for 'The Powers That Be,' Shepard's less-than-complimentary nickname for the Council and their tendency to make pronouncements or statements that partly or completely disregarded Shepard's observations or reports.

(2): The complete phrase is 'Been there, done that, got the T-shirt'. It suggests that the event that has just been described was not very interesting or significant. Obviously this is not true, considering how traumatic this experience is, not to mention Shepard's penchant for self-deprecation.

(3): This statement would typically be made by an Alliance ship's VI whenever the commanding officer left the vessel, thus confirming who would be in command during his or her absence. The last sentence was a running joke referring to Garrus's dedication to maintaining the Normandy's weapons, something that highlights EDI's growing independence and developing sense of humour.

(4): A complaint that was often uttered amongst Spectres was that they did not enjoy a pay scale commiserate to either the high degree of publicity associated with their position or the extreme level of secrecy and danger that typically accompanied their assignments.

(5): More likely that she was starting to grow beyond defining herself by her genetics and her father's ideal legacy. While she might 'relapse' from time to time, it was certainly an encouraging development.

(6): A human marketing term for a period of time, typically in the late afternoon before dinner, during which an establishment will offer discounts on alcoholic beverages. It may have originated as a phrase employed by the United States Navy during the early twentieth century, but entered into civilian use by 1960.

(7): While Anderson might have returned to the Systems Alliance, Shepard had not. Furthermore, Shepard's Spectre authority had been reinstated. Both of those reasons meant that, technically, he was no longer required to recognize Anderson as a superior officer.

(8): A human acronym for Electronic Counter-Measure.

(9): When I asked Anderson, he explained that Shepard added a startling amount of sugar to his coffee. The only reason he didn't add a similar quantity of cream was that the cup wasn't large enough.

(10): Shepard's suspicions were correct, as usual.

(11): I feel the need to emphasize that this was sarcasm, for the benefit of the more literal-minded or overly critical readers.

(12): Shepard regularly made this distinction, both to himself and to others.

(13): Statements such as this demonstrate why Anderson was such a powerful and positive mentor in Shepard's life, despite the fact that they spent very little time together.

(14): A derisive human acronym used in military circles for "Rear Echelon Mother-Fucker." It refers to an individual with no frontline or combat experience—or someone who did have such experiences in the past but subsequently forgot the lessons learned from them—who subsequently makes poor decisions or huge errors at the expense of soldiers' lives.

(15): This less-than-affectionate nickname was commonly used amongst those who knew of Eli David and his methods.

(16): A reference to the human fairy tale 'Rumplestiltskin.' Shepard means that he is being given a task that normally would be considered impossible, an understandable analogy given how little information he had to work with.

(17): Jack used to call Miranda the 'Cheerleader' for her role as senior Cerberus officer and staunch defender of that organization. Once Miranda left Cerberus, that nickname no longer held any relevance, so Jack switched to another nickname, one that referred to her perfectionism.