Garrus knocked at the door to Shepard's cabin. "You OK in there, Shepard?"
"Not yet," called a muffled voice, "but I will be."
He hesitated, momentarily unsure of himself. "Can I come in?"
"Sure, but I might not be all that sociable right now." The lock changed from red to green.
She was on the couch, her hands clasped and trembling slightly in a controlled fury.
He sat on the bed, roughly opposite her. Of course, he wanted to embrace her, and she probably wanted that too, but she didn't need a hug. She needed a rational conversation. Their eyes met, and she silently thanked him for understanding.
"I'm still going over it in my head, Vakarian."
Garrus nodded. "Yeah, me too."
"What is he doing?"
"He" referred to the Illusive Man, of course. Since the events on Eden Prime, there was little else on anyone's mind.
Garrus sighed. "I don't know, Shepard. I could barely keep track of his motivations when we were 'working' for him."
"With him, you mean," she gently corrected.
Neither of them could think of anything to say for a moment. The room felt charged with a staticky buildup of undirected anger and confusion.
He looked into her eyes, clinically this time. They had that ragged, bloodshot appearance that humans tended to get from insufficient sleep. "How long have you been sitting here?"
Shepard shrugged. "Too long. Joints hurt. Probably several hours at least." She got up and stretched her arms a bit. "Did you come up here for a reason, or did you just want to talk?"
That jogged his memory. "Yeah, sorry, I totally forgot. Hackett has something for you."
"He found Cerberus already?"
The turian shook his head. "I don't think so, from what he said." He stood as well, and took her hand. "But let me tell you something, Shepard. The Illusive Man is not getting away with this. The two of us, we're going to bring him to justice, make him pay for everything he's done."
The Shepard of a couple of years ago probably would have lectured him about retribution being beyond the legitimate reach of the state, but the woman in front of him simply nodded. "Of course."
Another long moment elapsed, but this time the emotions felt ever so slightly more positive.
"I guess I have to go talk to Hackett now, huh?"
Garrus flicked his mandible back and forth in a noncommittal gesture. "Probably. But I think you'll have to let go of my talon first." She was gripping it rather tightly.
"I don't know, Vakarian. That's kind of a hard sell." She gave his talon a half-squeeze before releasing it. This was a human gesture of affection, according to the extranet. "I'll only be a few minutes," said Shepard. "Wait for me?"
"Of course," he replied.
The elevator clicked shut behind her. The soft whirring of the Normandy's mechanisms filled the enclosed space.
Garrus is right. I can't go to pieces every time we suffer a major loss, thought Shepard. Maybe I do need to take another look at that "ruthless calculus" of his. If only to help me sleep a little easier at night...
The door beeped, and opened onto the CIC. She waved to Privates Westmoreland and Campbell as she passed through the security scanner, and nodded to Victus and Tevos as she walked by. The other councilors had evidently found somewhere else to be for the moment. Finally, she arrived at the Comms Room. Hackett's hologram was waiting for her.
"Commander," he greeted.
"Admiral. I'm told we don't have anything on Cerberus yet?"
Hackett shook his head. "The cruiser was long gone by the time we arrived. But that's not why I called you. Some students from the Alliance's Ascension Project contacted us and requested an escort to the Citadel. They claim to have unique biotic skills and want to participate in the war."
"Students? How old?" asked Shepard.
"Not as old as I'd like, honestly," replied Hackett. "But the reapers are an existential threat. We don't have the luxury of turning minors away. Or anyone else, for that matter."
Shepard shook her head in annoyance. "You're right. Doesn't make it feel any better."
"We can talk about how it feels after we defeat the reapers, Commander," said Hackett. "For now, I need you to go and evaluate their progress."
"What kind of standard am I using?" asked Shepard.
"An objective standard. Would these guys do well on a real battlefield?"
"Understood, sir," replied Shepard. "I'll proceed to the Petra Nebula immediately." She paused. "One other thing, Admiral. I'm sure you already know, but when we get back, there probably won't be time for any more missions before the war summit, and that could take a while."
Hackett nodded. "Yes, we have the Normandy blocked as unavailable for a few days, minimum. We'll do our best to hold down the fort without you, Commander. Dismissed."
Councilor Tevos gazed into the War Room's central display. To the casual observer, it would appear she was concentrating intently on the reaper situation. The casual observer would be wrong.
The words of the Shadow Broker's turian pilot echoed in her ears. "The Broker knows about the Temple of Athame. Make your government come clean, or he'll go public. You have one week."
When she'd asked what he was talking about, he'd shrugged. "Broker doesn't tell me things I don't need to know."
"But if I don't know anything, and you can't tell me anything, what does the Broker expect me to do?"
"That's your problem, lady. Go talk to your boss and figure something out."
She sighed as the memory melted away. It hadn't been strictly true, her supposed ignorance. She was aware that the asari military was doing some kind of secret work in the Temple. But it was all classified well above her level. I guess the war is finally bringing these things into the fold.
This still left the problem of what to do about it. She could simply escalate to Asari High Command, as the pilot had suggested, and let them handle it. But it seemed unlikely they would allow her to remain involved. No, they would conduct an investigation, identify the source of the leak, and either destroy the evidence or cut some kind of deal with the Shadow Broker to hush it all up. Her own career would not benefit. And regardless, it probably wouldn't be the best outcome for the galaxy. The Broker has openly supported the resistance, a rare partisan move for him, but I imagine the total destruction of galactic society would have a deleterious effect on his business model. It is unlikely he would contact me personally unless he felt it critical for galactic integrity.
She might ask the Broker directly, but then he would cut her out of the deal. The Broker would not want to risk revealing his sources, so he would refuse to tell her anything, and with no knowledge, she would be useless to him. He'd contact someone higher up in the system, and she'd be left with nothing. I already told his underling that I don't know anything. But for all he knows, that was a lie, and an obvious one at that. He contacted me because he believes I know something. I need to maintain that fiction for as long as possible.
Instead, she would put out feelers. Slowly, methodically, she would unravel the secret herself, working within the system to identify the truth and then... what? Going public with it would destroy her career, and quite possibly land her in prison. Keeping it hidden could doom the galaxy. She would have to strike a balance. Leak it to Shepard and perhaps a few others. Yes, they would know what to do next, and no one could accuse the Councilor of acting in her own self interest.
But she needed more time. She straightened up, pushing herself away from the console, and walked over to the Comms Room. She needlessly checked over her shoulder, but of course there wasn't anyone behind her. "EDI," she said in a low voice, "I need to speak with the Shadow Broker. Can you contact him?"
"The Shadow Broker is somewhat reclusive, Councilor," replied the AI. In peaceful times, of course, they would have ripped EDI's servers out of the Normandy the moment they had learned of her existence. But these were dark days, and they had to prioritize their bugaboos.
"However," continued EDI, "the Broker did provide us with a QEC some time ago, and recently notified us that you might make use of it. Please stand by."
A vaguely humanoid figure appeared before her, shrouded in darkness and clothed in an overlarge robe which betrayed little of its wearer's anatomy. It spoke in the deeply distorted tones that she'd heard many times before. "Ready to fulfil my ultimatum?"
She shook her head. "I cannot. If I handle this at all inartfully, my superiors will simply cover it up. I will need time to investigate the situation on Thessia and plan my next move carefully. One week is not enough."
The Broker sighed, a strange sound under the layers of modulation. This told her less than one might expect. Since body language didn't translate automatically, and often provided more nuance than spoken language, it had to be learned and internalized by everyone who did business with other races, at least to the extent it would aid in negotiations. In theory, sudden exhalation to indicate disappointment was a human gesture. In practice, it had been absorbed into the common lexicon shortly after the humans had joined the galactic community a few decades ago, to the point that any species might sigh to any other species just as easily as the humans did to one another. It still felt like a fad, by asari standards, but she knew the humans had been doing it for hundreds if not thousands of their generations, and weren't about to give it up.
"So you don't know," said the Broker. "You'll have to discover it for yourself, since I doubt you would believe me otherwise. When you've grasped the enormity of the secret your race is keeping, I'm sure you will agree with me that the galaxy must know of it. But work quickly. If this secret is kept for much longer, it will undermine the war effort. Your decision not to contact your superiors was the correct one. Continue to make good choices, and don't make me go to someone else." The image dissolved.
The Normandy pulled into Grissom Academy's exterior docking port. An enclosed tunnel linked the frigate's airlock with the Academy's pressurized interior. To avoid the spread of germs, and to guard against pressure differences, Garrus, Shepard, and Victus had to wait for the airlock to cycle normally, instead of opening both the doors at once. Finally, the outer door opened and they passed through the security cordon next to the dock, which was unmanned. They continued towards the school's proper entrance.
"You sure about leaving the politicians behind on this one?" asked Victus. "Not that I mind."
"Primarch," replied Shepard, "this is a military matter. If we're going to work together, we need to know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Frankly, the Council would just treat this as a photo op, and I don't have time for that."
"Besides," added Garrus, "Sparatus needs some time to cool off after the transporter incident."
Victus considered this for a moment and then shot Garrus a sidelong look. "Watch your metaphors, Vakarian. You've been spending so much time with the humans that you're starting to talk like them."
"Wait, why is that a bad thing?" asked Shepard.
"Because," replied Victus, "the average turian would take that as a joke at Sparatus's expense."
Garrus shrugged. "Wasn't entirely unintentional. Wordplay, the humans call it."
"Do you guys have to think about this stuff all the time when you talk to other races?" asked Shepard.
"Yes," chorused Garrus and Victus.
They passed through another door into the school's atrium. A blonde woman introduced herself as Dr. Kahlee Sanders, an old friend of Admiral Anderson.
"So, where are these students I've been hearing so much about?" asked Shepard.
"I had them assemble in Orion Hall with our head instructor," replied Sanders. "Right this way."
She led them through a series of corridors to a large common area with benches and an upper balcony. A group of students in Alliance uniforms stood at attention. In front of them was a woman in a rather unusual outfit.
"Shepard?" said Jack. "What's the Queen of the Girl Scouts doing here?"
"Jack?" replied Shepard in disbelief. "You're... the instructor?"
"Yeah. You got a problem with that?" snapped Jack. "Oh, by the way, you heard about Eden Prime, right? Didn't I tell you not to trust Cerberus?"
Garrus nodded. "Repeatedly. And it's not like we were best friends with them in the first place."
"Bite me, Garrus. Better yet, bite her." She flashed an evil grin. "You two are into that, right?"
"Jack," said Sanders in an annoyed tone. "Could you please have this conversation, I don't know, anywhere other than right in front of your students?" A few of the said students giggled.
"All right, enough joking around," said Shepard. "Let's get organized. I'm told you had some biotic techniques to show us?"
Jack nodded and turned to her students. "All right, people, go upstairs, get into groups of five, and line up."
The students arranged themselves as instructed.
"Now," continued Jack, "everybody still down here, take a few steps back and give 'em room to work." She waited a moment for Shepard and the others to do this. "First group, give us an artillery strike."
After the last strike rained down on the now thoroughly destroyed tile flooring, Sanders dismissed the students. Victus watched as they filtered out of the room. The door shut behind the last one.
"Well, as far as the assessment is concerned, I'd say they pass," said Shepard.
"Of course they passed," replied Jack. "I was teaching them."
The woman's arrogance was a bit grating, but Victus had to agree with her. The students were excellently trained, and would clearly be a significant asset on any battlefield.
"I hear a 'but' coming," added Sanders.
"They're children, by your standards," said Garrus. "I thought humans felt strongly about that taboo."
"We do," replied Shepard. "And that's why I'm hesitant."
Both turians and humans regarded children as civilians, unfit for duty in their respective militaries. But, Victus surmised, the humans apparently used a broader definition of "children" than the turians. By turian standards, these students were adolescents, practically adults. Had they been raised on Palaven, they would either be preparing for boot camp, or already attending it. This was also the first Victus had heard of a "taboo." While the turians did not allow children to serve, that was because they were physically or mentally incapable of serving, not because it was morally wrong to put children in uniform. These students clearly checked both boxes, and would easily make it into the military by turian standards. Best not to ask questions just yet. Go along with it for now, and research it later.
Sanders sighed. "I feel so conflicted about this. They've been training for months. They know they're ready for this, and they want to do it. A negative assessment now would be such a setback for them. But if we send them into battle, we might never see them again."
Why did humans so often state the obvious? Of course they might not return. That's what it means to be at war.
"They're definitely eager," added Jack. "But... I dunno, maybe they'd be better off in a support position. Modding ammo, reinforcing barriers, something like that?"
Victus couldn't believe what he was hearing. They were actually going to talk themselves out of it. Actually going to throw away the talent he'd just witnessed. Separate the students out, put them in whatever the humans called a cabal, and relegate them to secondary duties. He couldn't remain silent any longer. "Commander, I don't pretend to understand your people or your culture. I apologize if this comes across as an insult. These students are both willing and able to fight. We all agree on that much. You're considering denying them that right, preventing them from coming to the aid of their loved ones. That is not an act of kindness. It is something a politician would do, to avoid 'image problems' with the war effort. I've read your file, Commander. I know you're better than that."
The humans were staring at him in a mixture of confusion and thoughtfulness. Garrus's expression displayed pride and anxiety in equal measure. He had perhaps said too much.
"Nevertheless, these are your forces," he added. "You must do what is right for your people."
Shepard nodded, just once. "No, you're right. They're going to experience the horrors of this war either way. At least if we put them on the front lines, they can do something about it."
Sanders closed her eyes briefly. "If that's what you think is best, Commander."
"David, do you remember Shepard?" asked Sanders.
Of course he remembered Shepard. The woman had single-handedly ended the hell he'd been enduring at the hands of his brother. Was the question rhetorical? To be on the safe side, he decided to answer it. "You made it quiet," he said to the Commander, making the effort to meet her eyes. The feeling was intensely personal and invasive, as if the other party's gaze was piercing his soul, but he endured it because that was what "normal" people expected.
"Looks like you're doing well," she replied.
They'd told him not to stare at a person's eyes for too long. Neurotypicals were less sensitive to eye contact than him, but they would eventually start to feel discomfort. He averted his gaze, and it landed on Shepard's N7 insignia. Good, that was probably a safe thing to look at.
"You mentioned you were going to close the school," said Shepard to Sanders.
Wait, there was a rule against staring at a woman's chest, wasn't there? He switched to looking at Garrus's chestplate. Hopefully the turians didn't have a similar rule for their males.
The administrator nodded. "It's not safe out here in the Traverse. We're going to get attacked by reapers or Cerberus sooner or later."
Garrus looked at him briefly. There was something off about the turian's movements. It had taken David months to get to the point where he could read human body language, and even now he often got them wrong. Alien body language should have been completely beyond him. But for some reason, Garrus was actually easier to read than the humans. It almost felt like the turian was trying too hard, as if he was consciously acting the motions out. Perhaps he really was doing that. At the moment, he was displaying a mixture of pity and concern, the same feelings neurotypicals so often displayed around David. The condescension hurt every time he saw it, of course, but he could hardly demand that they stop feeling those emotions.
"Does he have somewhere to go?" asked Garrus in a slightly lowered voice.
As usual, the question was addressed to Sanders, not David. He probably would have struggled to answer it, but it would be nice to be included once in a while.
"David and I have talked about that," replied Sanders. "Admiral Hackett told us the Alliance had a complicated engineering project underway, and David decided he wanted to work on it. In the meantime, he will be accompanying us back to the Citadel."
Shepard nodded. "I see. David, welcome back to the Normandy."
[I've deliberately omitted the "square root of 906.01" line because it is an autism stereotype which contributes, so far as I can tell, nothing whatsoever to David's characterization, aside from rather clumsily marking him as a savant. I tried to write David reasonably given my limited knowledge of autism. Hopefully it isn't too offensive or inaccurate. I don't have any beta readers, so I'm basically guessing at this. Apologies to anyone on the Spectrum who may be reading, and please feel free to send reviews if you think anything is grossly wrong.
We never see the Academy's docking area in Mass Effect 3, but Ascension goes into some detail about it, and I've tried to be faithful. In theory they should be talking to a security officer because they bypassed Elysium's customs and immigration, but I doubt a Spectre and a visiting head of state are going to bother with that.]