Chapter 9: Waltzing Out the Front Door

After who knows how much waiting, the bad guys we were expecting had finally arrived. In less than a minute, they'd be arriving at the safe house to gear up. First, they had to gain access by entering the keycode. The keycode that randomly changed. Like, say, after Garrus and Jack had sauntered in a couple days ago. If the people approaching the safe house were who we thought they were, then their keycode would be considered invalid and there would be a very big and messy explosion. Blowing up terrorists wasn't a big problem in my book. Blowing myself up and my squadmates... that was another story entirely.

Aw, crap. "Uh, Garrus, you still remember the keycode you used to get in here the first time?"

"Yeah. Why... crap."

"Exactly," I said, trying to keep the dread out of my voice. "Send it to my omni-tool and keep an eye on our guests. We gotta reset the lock before they arrive."

I turned towards the computer, only to see Kasumi had beat me to it. "Hope you don't mind," she said, somewhat absently, "but I think I have more experience with locks than you do."

She had a point. Most of the time, I just brute-forced my way in, took what I want and left, leaving behind enough digital evidence to alert even the most unimaginative of sapients because I got the credits, I got the schematics, I got the door open—WOOHOO!


"Keycode sent. ETA: fifty seconds."

"Got it," I confirmed. "Kasumi, I'm ready when you are."

"I know I'm fantastic, but I'm also human," Kasumi replied.

Translation: she'd be ready when she was ready and not a second sooner.

"Forty seconds."

Which would give us plenty of time. It probably wasn't a complicated task or anything.

"Thirty seconds."

Even if she didn't reset locks every hour of every day of—

"Got it," Kasumi announced. "What's the code?"

"Twenty seconds."

"1, 7, 3, 4," I started.

"Yep," Kasumi confirmed.

"6, 7, 3, 2."

"You can go faster than that."

"1, 4, 7, 6... Charlie, 3, 2, 7... 8, 9, 7, 7... 7, 6, 4, 3... Tango, 7, 3, 2." I recited, picking up speed near the end as I saw that she could handle it.

"Done," Kasumi said with a little bit of satisfaction. We gave each other a high-five. (1)

"Ten," Garrus warned. "Nine... eight..."

"Places, everyone," I said. Kasumi activated her cloak and disappeared from view. Thane... where the heck had he gone. Last I checked, he didn't have a cloaking system, yet he still managed to vanish into thin air. One of these days, I'd have to get him to teach me that trick.

"Four... three... two..."

But that could wait.

"They're at the door," Garrus reported. "And... they're entering the keycode now. Miranda: move Team 1B into position. We'll follow suit shortly."

I waited until the last second before activating my own cloak, cognizant as always of its short life span. Four men, like Garrus said, entered the safe house—one blond Caucasian, one who had some Middle Eastern ancestry—and, by the way, was totally bald—and two of Eurasian descent—one of whom was trying valiantly to grow a beard. Not that that meant anything, considering how much intermingling humanity had gotten up to in the last century or two.

"Seems empty," Blondy frowned.

"Take it up with Trask when we see him," Sorta Beard said. "There's probably something in one of those crates," he added, noting the half-dozen crates we'd left behind.

The four of them walked towards said crates. They were about halfway into the safe house when my cloak ran out of juice. It was kinda funny to see them all jump in unison as I shimmered into view. "Hi there!" I said brightly.

They gawked. And stared.

"How's it going?"

More gawking and staring. Stunning conversationalists they were not.

"Who the hell are you?" Baldy managed at last.

At least it was a relevant question. I wondered if I should continue using my Carmichael alias. Tempting, but... nah. I'd had my fun with false names and legends. Time to stop hiding. "Commander Shepard," I introduced yourself.

"Aren't you supposed to be dead?" No Beard asked.

Chalk one up for compartmentalization of information. Not to mention the power of scuttlebutt. "I got better," I shrugged.


Yep. Definitely not stunning conversationalists. Guess I'd have to take over on that front. "I'm sure you're wondering what I'm doing here," I said. "If our roles were reversed, and I was the bad guy, this would be the part where I commit the classic villain mistake of explaining my devious master plan in one big, gimungeous monologue. But since I'm an equal-opportunity kind of guy, I'm just gonna tell you anyway.

"So here goes: I was having a nice day, minding my own business, when I heard that you guys were on Illium. Well, not you guys specifically. I mean Cerberus. You know that. Right? Right. Well, once I heard you were up to no good—'cuz, let's face it, you guys are usually up to no good. That's what bad guys usually do. I know you don't see yourselves as the bad guys. Drink enough of the Cerberus punch and you'll be firmly convinced that you're all misunderstood heroes fighting the good fight on behalf of the human underdog against the evil alien oppressors, blah, blah, blah.

"Where was I? Oh yeah. Up to no good. Once I found out you were up to no good, I just had to stick my nose in your business. Now you might ask why? Which is a good question. Wish I had a good answer. Best I can do is, well, because I just can't help it. Major character defect, I guess. Like I said, not a good answer. Should really see a shrink about that. That's what everyone keeps telling me. Eh, maybe next time.

"But I'm getting off-track. You guys really shouldn't let me do that. Right: Cerberus. Illium. Up to no good. Nosy. Shrink. So off I went to thwart your evil scheme. Had to wait a while: you guys took ages to get here. Couldn't you take a faster transport or something? I had to wait three whole days. I was so bored. And you don't want me to get bored. No one does. Idle hands are the devil's workshop, after all. Which is why this place is so empty. Used to be packed to the brim. Shelves packed with guns and gadgets. And you guys weren't here to use them because, like I said, you took your sweet time showing up. So I took 'em all. Every single thing. That's what happens when you take your sweet time: you snooze, you lose. Moral of the story and so on and so forth and by the way, you're surrounded."

The Cerberus team was so busy trying to keep up with my babble that they didn't quite hear me at first. By the time they did, Kasumi had decloaked, Thane had reappeared from wherever he was hiding, and the rest of the squad had crowded into the safe house behind them. All of whom were holding guns, aimed squarely at the unarmed pro-human terrorists. Blondy, Baldy, Sorta Beard and No Beard looked around them.

"Oh shit," Blondy said.

"Now what?" Baldy asked.

"Think, think, think," Sorta Beard muttered fervently.

"Think faster," No Beard urged. "We're kinda surrounded here."

"I know that, damn it!" Sorta Beard exploded.

"Look," I sighed, realizing I'd have to hold their hands and guide them to the inevitable conclusion, "either you surrender now and I treat you as my prisoners, or you raise a fuss. Aside from the fact that it would be stupid considering that you're all unarmed and we're not, there's the minor niggling detail where I'd have to treat you as my enemies."

"You don't want him as your enemy," Miranda said.

"They have a way of dying," Garrus explained delicately.

The Cerberus thugs said squat. Big surprise. But it was clear they weren't convinced. At the very least, they weren't about to roll over and cry uncle. It was hard to figure out how to persuade them, though, considering they weren't really saying anything.

"There is a high statistical probability of death by gunshot."

Everyone in the room—human, nonhuman, Cerberus, non-Cerberus—turned to look at Legion. "A punch to the face is also likely," they added helpfully.

The Cerberus thugs looked at each other. Shrugged. Then, one by one, they raised their hands up in the air.

Maybe they all had glass jaws or something.

So Phase Three wrapped up with a surprising lack of blood or charred bodies. With any luck, Phase Four would go just as well.

I met Cathka and the other Blue Suns—another batarian, one turian and three humans—a couple blocks from Nos Astra Starport. After some consultation, the squad had decided that I'd go alone. The fewer faces they could associate with 'Charles Carmichael' and the Alliance, the better. I wasn't alone, though: Garrus had a few guys covering me. Not that anything would happen, of course, but better safe than sorry.

The Blue Suns made good time, considering the fact that they'd come from the Grand Mirage and I'd only contacted Cathka an hour ago. Traffic was starting let up, I guess.

"Tell me you want to hire us," Cathka growled. "All of us. Preferably something with a big paycheck so we won't have to go back and listen to Little Nicky yammer on about improving efficiency."

"I want to hire you," I said dutifully. "All of you. The pay will be, actually, I don't know how big it is, but it does include the price of a ticket offworld. So you won't have to go back and listen to 'Little Nicky' yammer on about efficiency. Whoever Nicky is," I added, as if I honestly didn't have a clue. Didn't want them figuring out that I had another source or two of information.

"Done," one of the humans said immediately.

Cathka backhanded him without even looking. "That's why I'm the boss and you're an idiot," he snapped. "Ignore him," he told me. "He's new. Barely passed his training on Zorya and his first job was this clusterfuck."

"Sorry to hear that," I nodded in commiseration. "We were all newbies once. Doesn't mean we have to get sent on such a craptastic assignment."

"Yeah, well, shit happens," Cathka growled. "Gotta say, watching Little Nicky shit his pants was funny as hell. But back to the job: what do we have to do?"

I turned around and opened the garbage bin behind me. Cathka took a few steps forward and peered down into the bin—and the four men groaning inside. "Who're they?"

"A bunch of low-level thugs from Cerberus," I replied.

Cathka's eyes narrowed. "Cerberus," he repeated. "You're paying us to whack them and get offworld?"

"Nope," I shook my head. "I'm paying you to babysit them offworld, all the way to Arcturus Station."

"Arcturus Station," Cathka repeated. "As in Alliance. You do know that the Blue Suns aren't in their good books since, well, ever."

"I might have figured that out," I agreed. "Which is why you won't be going there as Blue Suns. You'll be going there under the guise of random bounty hunters and handing these terrorists over to make the galaxy a better place. For a price, of course. The Alliance, in turn, will thank you, pay you the appropriate bounty and then you can go off on your merry way."

"Low-level thugs have bounties?" the turian asked. "With a bring-'em-in-alive disclaimer? Since when?"

"Since I sent a couple e-mails to set the whole thing up," I shrugged. "I know a guy who owes me after the last time we played cards and has been itching for a chance to wipe the slate clean. Creating a couple files and backdating them was child's play."

"And you're paying for the tickets," a second human—not the newbie—said.

"Discretionary funds," I lied.

"It's gonna be a long flight," the third human groused, "what with keeping one eye on the prisoners and another eye on all the other passengers."

"There won't be any other passengers," I told him. "I bought out the entire first-class cabin."

Cathka and the other Blue Suns stared at me.

"It seemed neater," I shrugged. "Not to mention saving you guys a lot of grief."

"That must be one big fund," the other batarian breathed.

"You have no idea," I winked.

"Two questions," Cathka said. "First, why are you doing all this?"

"You've been slaves for Cerberus's proxy for four months," I replied. "No one deserves that. (2) What's the second question?"

"Why are they all groaning?"

"I have a… colleague who has some very personal and very deep-seeded issues with Cerberus," I replied. "One who may have taken the opportunity to get a bit of payback by kicking various parts of their bodies. Including the produce section." (3)

The Blue Suns winced in unison.

"It could be worse," I added. "A steel-plated boot might be painful, but it's not quite as permanent as a biotic warp field."

The human who first spoke up doubled over and threw up his last meal. Cathka sighed.

"Can you blame him?" I asked sympathetically.

Cathka opened his mouth. Closed it. Shook his head.

We'd waited. We'd watched Trask drink himself into a stupor. We'd waited some more. We'd apprehended the bad guys. We'd passed the bad guys over to… yesterday's bad guys, today's babysitters and tomorrow's who-knows-what. Now it was time for the fun part.

Now it was time for Phase Five. "Ready?" I asked.

"I believe so," Miranda confirmed, "although the cut of these clothes leave much to be desired."

"Aw, what's the matter, Princess?" Jack mocked. "Doesn't look like it's spray-painted to your ass?"

"Says the convict who used to wear straps around, well, what passes for your breasts," Miranda returned.

Hoo boy. "Ladies..." I tried.

"Not now," they snapped in unison, glaring at me. Then they realized that they spoke at the same time and glared at each other again.

It was all I could do to stop myself from taking a step... actually, scratch that. I did take a step back without thinking. Almost bumped into Kasumi. She was smart enough to keep her mouth shut.

I should explain.

Trask was expecting a team of four to pick up the package. Didn't say what the team looked like. Didn't say how they were dressed. Didn't even say how many men or women there were. But it was specific about the number. And I was pretty sure that all four people had to be human.

Luckily for me, I had four humans available. Plus another two posing as guards. Of course, if this war of words escalated, I might have to pull Jacob and Zaeed off guard duty. I had to do something before things mushroomed out of control. Something bold and dramatic and...


...stupid. Undeniably suicidal and stupid. How else would you describe impulsively taking a step forward in between Miranda and Jack? The universe didn't need to work so hard to kill me. I was apparently quite capable of taking on that role all by myself. Didn't even feel the back of my neck tingling until it was too late. "Ladies," I tried again. "I know you really want to do horribly violent and messy things to each other, and I'm not giving examples because neither of you need any more ideas, but could we please save this for later? Say, after thwarting Cerberus's latest evil scheme? We've worked really hard to get to this point, and it seems a shame to let it all go to waste now. So what do you say? Could you do that? For me? Please?"

They glared at me again. "I did say 'please'," I reminded them.

Miranda and Jack went back to glaring at each other. "You're lucky he has a soft spot for strays," Miranda hissed.

"You're lucky that he'd become a pathetic wreck if I spread your guts all the way down the block," Jack hissed back.

"So... we're all good?" I asked hopefully.



I resisted the urge to make them shake hands. Somehow, I had the feeling that I'd pushed my luck far enough for one day. (4) "Okay," I said, trying to keep my knees from shaking. "Let's go rob a casino."

The four of us walked in through the front entrance. Past all the gold silk curtains. And gold-coloured metal... well, everything. And the dark wood tables and paneling. And the mirrors. We walked beneath all the glass and crystal chandeliers, across the black marble floor and up to the check-in counter.

The front door clerk took one look at us and raised an eyebrow. Couldn't blame her. We were the only men and women dressed in nondescript, mismatched hardsuits, sporting helmets with polarized visors and openly carrying heavy pistols. Which was probably why all the security staff was paying very close attention to us. Taking care to move very, very slowly, I put my hands gently on the desk and smiled Hero Smile #3 (Relax, Everything Is Going To Be Okay). "Hi there," I said. "How are you doing?"

"Um... fine?" the clerk tried. She didn't buy Hero Smile #3. Mind you, it had been a while since I used that particular smile, so I was out of practice. The fact that the polarized visor I was using to obscure my identity—in case anyone wondered why a former customer of this establishment was suddenly picking up gigs as a courier—also covered most of my face probably didn't help.

Still, she didn't stab any panic buttons that I could see, so that was a good sign. "Great," I nodded. "We're here from Ocean's Transport Consolidated to pick up something that a client recently deposited at the Grand Mirage."

The clerk focused on her computer and tapped away. Then she looked up. "According to this memo, I'm supposed to ask you a question. When I say the words 'I'm only human,' what would you say?"

"Forty-six." (5)

"Correct," the clerk nodded. "One moment, please."

So we waited. Something I was used to, being a sniper. Kasumi was used to that kind of thing, being a thief. Miranda was reluctantly used to that, because not everyone was as smart and efficient as she was and sometimes you had to wait a while in the business world. Jack, however, was definitely not used to waiting. She managed to pass the time by clenching her fists, grinding her teeth and somehow not killing everyone in the room. I was very proud of her. And grateful. Very grateful.

A couple minutes later, Conrad Trask himself emerged from the elevator to greet us. That part, I'd expected. What I hadn't expected was him to be accompanied by two guards. "Welcome to the Grand Mirage," he greeted us.

"Pleasure," I said with a slight smile. I took care to acknowledge the guards with a simple head-to-toe glance that assessed their threat status and filed it away, as Trask would expect me to, before realizing that the polarized visor made the gesture a lot less effective. Oh well. "You have the package?"

"Right this way."

We followed him back into the elevator. "Level B-1," he said out loud.

"Level B-1," an automated voice acknowledged. The doors closed.

That level was one floor below us. Seemed to take an eternity to get there, though. All the money and tech in the galaxy, and they still couldn't make the damn elevators go any faster. Or improve the music.

Trask must've thought the same thing. "I see the traffic didn't slow you down after all."

Traffic? Right. Message. Delays. Traffic. "Not by much," I shrugged. "Just enough to piss me off. Our... mutual acquaintance had to wait an extra three days. I'd rather not make him wait any longer."

"That would be wise," Trask agreed. "Have you seen what he's done to people who have, shall we say, displeased him?"

"Yep," I nodded. "Not a pretty picture. I'd rather not join that particular club."

"On that we can agree."

"Is that why you've got some security escorting us?"

"More to ensure the safety of the package and its couriers while you're on the premises," Trask reassured me. "We've suffered a string of unforeseen complications—not the least of which was the sudden absence of six of my staff."

Who, at this point, were escorting the real couriers offworld.

"Now arriving at Level B-1."

Finally. The elevator doors opened and we emerged into a... very sleek metal and concrete hallway. Yeesh, even the service levels looked expensive. We went straight, then left, then straight, then right, then left, straight, right, straight, left, left, right, straight, left, right, right, left, straight. Apparently when you're trying to get to the secret elevator that leads to the secret vault, you don't make it simple or direct. Go figure.

But we eventually arrived at the secret elevator. There wasn't any sign that said that, of course. But arriving at a room that was locked and guarded by six guards was a pretty good hint. As was the fact that two of the guards were stationed behind what looked like manually-operated turrets or stripped-down anti-aircraft cannons. Somehow, Jacob and Zaeed hadn't mentioned that during their earlier debrief. Not that I could ask them, of course. "Nice guns," I observed. "New feature?"

"Given all the problems we've had lately, a few changes seemed in order," Trask confirmed. "I also had to restrict vault access to this room and my personal office until further notice. That freed up a lot of guards for other shifts."

Good thing we didn't try accessing the vault elevator from our floor then. Though the absence of guards would have been a hint that something was amiss.

"Now if you'll wait here, I'll get the package," Trask said. He walked up to the guards, looked one of them—presumably the supervisor or senior guard or whatever his job was—in the eye and slowly spoke the words "Typhon's progeny." (6)

The guards stepped aside. Trask walked up to the door, placed his palm on the adjacent panel and hunched over. Probably a retinal and palm print scanner. Wouldn't be surprised if there was a DNA scanner too. The door opened long enough for him to step through before closing. Then we had to wait some more. Which was fine. So far, the only unexpected developments we'd encountered so far were an extra pair of guards tagging along and the extra firepower backing up the other guards at the elevator. Other than that, everything was going according to plan.

I should explain.

Despite all the intel we'd been able to access; there were still too many unknowns. We still didn't know what this package was or what it looked like—how big, how small, how bulky, how fragile, how likely to blow up spectacularly in our faces and smear brains, blood, flesh and bone all over the room. We didn't know its exact location in the vault. We didn't know anything about the safeguards within the vault—where they were, what they did, et cetera. We didn't know how to make the vault stop spinning or moving. We didn't know how to get into the elevator and bypass all the alarms and booby traps. We didn't even know how to get past the guards stationed at the elevator.

But it was a safe bet that Trask did. Trask was the CEO of the Grand Mirage. And he was the head of the Cerberus cell here. If Trask didn't have the authority and clearance to get past the guards, no one would. If he couldn't access the elevator and safely take it down to the vault, no one would. If he couldn't tell the vault to stop spinning willy-nilly, get into the vault, walk safely through said vault, get the mysterious package and bring it back...

...well, you get the idea.

Plus, one of the few things we had managed to learn were the details on all of his contingency plans. One of the plans—the one we'd gone to so much trouble to steer him towards—stipulated that if Trask had the discretionary power and authority to summon a team to Illium to pick up any package. And that Trask would personally hand over the package to said team.

So since time was a little bit of a factor, why go to all the trouble of breaking into the vault, stealing what we wanted and getting out undetected when we could let Trask do all the work for us? It was simpler, safe and a hell of a lot more efficient.

Kasumi was a bit disappointed at first. She really wanted to have the 'fun' of breaking in herself. But she conceded that it would also be fun to have the CEO of a casino break into his own vault. Just one more novelty, on top of having a krogan bodyguard who had to suffer through every random impulse that popped in her head and actually having enough credits to legally buy whatever she wanted.

Besides, it was nice to have a mission where the vast majority of sapients didn't want to shoot me.

So we waited. In silence. Not for lack of trying. I did make an honest effort to strike up a conversation. (7) "How's it going, guys?"


"Quite a bit of excitement today, huh?"


"Nice weather, huh? Is it always like this?"

I exchanged looks with my squadmates. "Tough crowd," I murmured.

"Quite," Miranda agreed.

"Damn straight," Jack said.

"Yep," Kasumi nodded.

Now that's more like it. Also, I was glad Miranda and Jack hadn't realized they were agreeing with each other again. (8)

The waiting went for another seemingly endless period of time, exacerbated by the fact that Trask had to take the elevator twice. Eventually he emerged. "Here you go," he said, handing the package over.

I did my best to hide my surprise. The package that resulted in the probable murder of two Cerberus agents-for-hire, sent us all the way to Illium and forced us to endure days of tedium interspersed with brief periods of frantic—albeit mostly non-lethal—activity and panic...

...was an optical storage disk. No. It was a bit thicker than that. Two, then. Three at the most. All of this for the digital contents of two or three OSDs.

"This is it?" I asked. "Nothing else I can take back?"

"That's it," Trask said. "This time, at least."

"Okay," I shrugged, pocketing the OSDs. "Least it'll be easy to carry."

Trask laughed, albeit nervously. Guess the stress of the last couple days was still haunting him. "Come on. I'll walk you out."

Trask and the guards led us straight, right, left, left, right, straight, left, right, right, straight, left, straight, right, left, straight, right, up the elevator, past the check-in counter and chandeliers and mirrors and wood and metal and curtains and out the front entrance. I motioned for Miranda, Jack and Kasumi to follow. Phase Five was now—

"One more thing."

So close. I knew it was going too easily. And, in case it needed to be said, aw crap.

"Given all the unexpected problems we've been having, I'd like to make sure the four of you catch your flight safely and without incident," Trask said.

"That won't be necessary," I tried to reassure him. "We're professionals."

"I know," Trask nodded, holding his hands out apologetically. "And I'm sure you've done this before. But, as we discussed earlier, our mutual acquaintance has been inconvenienced enough. I'm just trying to make sure that we don't have any more delays."

At that point, two guards came out the front door. Two very familiar guards. We knew them as Jacob Taylor and Zaeed Massani. Trask knew them as—

"Tom Estes and Frank Morgan," he said, introducing them to us. "They'll be making sure no one gives you any problems."

Well. That solved the problem of figuring out how to extract Jacob and Zaeed. (9) I made a show of giving into the inevitable. "Well, I suppose an extra set of eyes never hurts," I relented. "Or two."

"Thanks for understanding. Oh—before I forget." He looked at Jacob and Zaeed. "Normally an assignment of this importance would not be given to someone with your seniority. However, we are a bit short-staffed at the moment. And your supervisors were very impressed with the competence and dedication you displayed during the last few days."

"Thank you, sir," Jacob nodded. "Happy to help."

Zaeed echoed that. Well, as much as a grunt could echo. I sensed a bit of surprise on his part. Understandable, I thought. You don't often get management making an effort to acknowledge the hard work of the underlings, after all. Not from CEOs of business conglomerates. Not from REMFs screwing around in the military. Not from terrorist operatives bent on wreaking havoc. To see this kind of gesture was unexpected.

"Safe journey," Trask said to me.

"Bye," I said back.

If this was a vid, the six of us would be walking away from the Grand Mirage in slow motion while music played in the background.

"Down in the waves,
she screams again."

At some point, Garrus, Mordin and Tali would join us. Also walking in slow motion.

"Roar at the door.
My mind can't take much more."

Grunt and Thane would follow from stage right.

"I could never drown in..."

And last, but not least, would come Samara and Legion.

"They wanna get my…"

OK. Maybe this was like a vid.

"They wanna get my…"

Except for the slow motion bit. That never happened.

"Gold on the ceiling.
I ain't blind.
Just a matter of time,
before you steal it.
It's alright.
Ain't no guard in my house." (10)

While I was busy stealing the mysterious Cerberus package with the help of my unwitting accomplice Trask, Garrus had contacted the Normandy. To his surprise and delight, he found out that Joker had taken the liberty of parking her next to the mass relay in the Imir system, one short relay jump and a short trip from Illium. At my request, Joker sent the shuttle to pick us up. By that, I mean that the fictional Captain Osbourne of the fictional vessel 'MSV Sunnydale' sent a shuttle down to pick us up at a secluded area—one far away from the base Liara had loaned us. (11)

The ride back was uneventful. Spartan, after the opulent and excessive luxury of Illium. Cramped, after a week of comfort with more leg room than anyone actually needed. But blissfully boring and uneventful.

"Logged: the commanding officer is aboard," EDI announced over the comm upon our return. "Acting captain Moreau stands relieved."

I'll say. You should've seen him. Slightly rumpled clothes, eyes wide open, beard bushier than usual. If I looked carefully and from the right angle, I swear I could see a white hair or two. "Welcome back, Shepard," he greeted me with an audible sigh of relief.

"Good to be back, Joker," I replied. "I see the ship's in one piece."

"Eh, you knew I'd get the hang of it eventually," Joker shrugged.

"True enough," I agreed, patting him—gently, considering his Vrolik's Syndrome—on the shoulder.

"But don't expect me to do this all the time," he retorted. "Not without a raise, at least."

"Done," I nodded. "Two times nothing is... wait, let me see... carry the one..."

Ignoring the curses that trailed from the pilot's seat, I left the cockpit and headed for the comm room. Naturally, the rest of the squad had beaten me there. "We're ready to look at whatever's on those OSDs, Shepard," Jacob told me.

"I had EDI isolate this room and its computers from the rest of the ship," Miranda told me. "Just in case there are any surprises embedded in the files."

"Tali and Legion can handle any decryption that would normally be performed by EDI," Garrus told me.

"Good thinking," I approved. "Let's get to it."

We inserted the OSDs one by one and downloaded the data to the computer. Sure enough, Tali and Legion got to show off their computer skills once again ("I think I've done more hacking in the last week than I have during our preparations to assault the Collector base, Shepard."). Then we had to decompress the data ("Subroutines identified as Systems Alliance standard compression software version , Shepard-Commander."). But we managed to get it all in the end. We looked through the folders and files. Opened a couple here and there. After half an hour, we looked at each other.

"That's it?" Grunt pouted.

"What a fucking waste of time," Jack agreed.

"Not so," Mordin shook his head. "Data fascinating. Expands understanding."

"Agreed," Miranda chimed in, casting a disparaging glance at Jack.

"Not what I expected," I admitted. "But it's definitely interesting. A Prothean codex on the regulation of power in mass relays. Wonder what we could do with that?"

On which enigmatic note, this compilation of logs draws to a close. Once again, I thank readers for their interest and look forward to their response.

(1): A human celebratory hand gesture where an individual raises one hand, usually to head-height. A second individual will reciprocate, after which the two will push, slide or slap one flat palm against the other.

(2): While this meant that the Systems Alliance would be financing a mercenary organization, it also delivered four members of a terrorist organization—and whatever intelligence they might have—into their custody. Furthermore, it would also put six Blue Suns in his debt. Knowing Shepard, however, the reason he voiced was the primary one.

(3): A human slang phrase for the male reproductive organs.

(4): Very wise.

(5): The phrase 'I'm only human' usually implies that one is not perfect and is, in fact, capable of making mistakes. The response that Shepard gave refers to the number of chromosomes found in the human genome.

(6): In Greek and Roman mythology—a reflection of one of the ancient human cultures—Typhon was a winged monster whose bottom half consisted of giant viper coils and whose upper half was that of a giant human. Dragon heads replaced his head or fingers, depending on interpretation. More importantly, he was the 'Father of All Monsters,' including the multi-headed canine guardian Cerberus.

(7): Naturally.

(8): Or they did realize it, but recognized that it was neither the time nor the place to renew their hostilities.

(9): This offers one example where the galaxy did not manipulate events to maximize Shepard's misery and suffering. No doubt he would say it was a random outlier of no significance whatsoever.

(10): 'Gold on the Ceiling,' released by The Black Keys in February 2012. This would not be the first time Shepard played old human music over comm channels.

(11): A reference to the character Daniel 'Oz' Osbourne from the human vid-series 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'