The Measure of a Hero
Author's Note: No, your eyes do not deceive you. After a constant and occasionally inconsistent—specifically things like the review count—clamour, the Heroverse has finally gotten to the last ME2 DLC.
Getting to this stage would have been challenging, to say the least, without the assistance and contribution of a couple individuals. Specifically, I would like to thank Chu.e, who took the time and effort to take my save file and play through this DLC as well as Mass Effect 3. I must also acknowledge project 501D13R, who pointed out that in fan fiction, Shepard doesn't necessarily have to break in and out of prison alone.
And, of course, a special thanks to Chris Dee for acting as a sounding board, a beta reader and a cover picture artist. Without her input, Shepard wouldn't be the adorable kleptomaniac he is today.
A word of caution: despite any creative additions or changes I may have made, this novelization will adhere fairly closely to the source material—up to and including the outcome. Readers should therefore consider themselves forewarned.
The fact that there was so little evidence pointing to the existence of the Reapers is testament to their relentless, thorough and brutal efficiency. Granted, there were some signs. The discoveries of an archaeologist, dismissed as wild theories that flew in the face of centuries of established academic 'fact.' The experiences of a human soldier, dismissed as an indication that he'd finally become unhinged from years of harrowing adventures and the prospect of more to come. That sort of thing.
Yet for many sapients, the first indication of the Reapers and their activities was a pivotal event that occurred at the beginning of the year 2186. While the outcome is now a matter of public fact, and much of the events surrounding Aratoht and the Bahak system have since come to light, there is a great deal that remains unclear or incomplete. Chief amongst those mysteries is the role of one Commander Shepard, which has sadly been muddied and clouded by need-to-know classification, rampant hearsay, deliberate and accidental misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories—some of which persist to this very day. I offer this compilation of personal logs, to those individuals with sufficient security clearance, in an effort to address and counter such misunderstandings.
Readers can be reassured that I have continued Admiral Anderson's practise of editing these logs into chapters for easier reading, and added explanatory footnotes and additional observations where appropriate. As always, I accept full responsibility for any inaccuracies or errors.
Dr. Liara T'Soni
Chapter 1: Innocuous Beginnings
It started off quite innocently. I'd recently thwarted a Cerberus plot, exposed a previously unknown Cerberus operation and acquired some nifty data. Granted, we were still studying said data, but at least we had it and Cerberus did not. With that accomplishment under my belt, I thought I'd pay Liara another visit.
There wasn't much to find this time, unfortunately. Quite a change. Back then, after killing the Shadow Broker and his flunkies, I thought I'd stumbled across the mother lode. A fresh, seemingly renewable source of new tech that I didn't need to hack my way in to find. Constant shipments of minerals that didn't require hours of tedious probing and inevitable sexual jokes. Scintillating conversations with the newest residents of the Shadow Broker base.
Now? No tech, I was lucky if I got any eezo and any chit-chat usually started and ended with 'Shepard, I'm glad you came.' (1)
So I returned to the Normandy. Made my rounds. Harassed the men and women who had the poor luck to be stuck with me or the poor sense to volunteer for the crazy comedy of errors that passed for my life. I was just about to head up and feed my fish when…
"Commander? You have a new message waiting at your private terminal."
That was Kelly. Hand-picked by TIMmy to tell me when I had new e-mails, inform me of any squadmates who might be having issues and provide psychological counseling whenever… yeah, I never actually saw her do that last part. And local scuttlebutt suggested that she was in no shape to do that. Still having nightmares, apparently. Couldn't blame her, really: if I'd been abducted, trapped in a pod and forced to watch while hundreds of other humans in similar situations got liquefied one by one before my very eyes, I'd probably be having nightmares myself. But she could still perform her other duties as well as any other VI.
Normally, I'd say OK and read it later in my cabin. But there was a light blinking at my terminal. It looked like… wait a second…
It looked like this wasn't an e-mail. It was a live, real-time comm signal. And whoever was on the other end was waiting right now for me to pick up. And had been waiting for who knows how long.
Now I was curious. I walked over and opened the comm channel.
"Incoming message from Admiral Steven Hackett, Alliance HQ," a bodiless voice told me. Either it was an actual comm officer or Alliance VI voice protocols had substantially improved in the last few years. "Please stand by."
I didn't have to wait long. "Commander Shepard. I need to discuss a sensitive matter with you. Privately."
Yep, that was Hackett all right. No one else had his deep, gravelly commanding voice. And no one else would contact me for the sole purpose of sending me off on some random assignment. At least I wasn't doing anything important this time. (2) "I'll take this in my quarters, Kelly," I told her.
"I'll transfer the vid-comm call up," Kelly nodded.
Vid-comm? That meant actual real-time visual communication as well as audio. Fancy.
When I got up to my quarters, I tapped a few controls on my terminal. The lights illuminating my model ships slowly went out. A message blinked **Initializing contact.** That's right. The case holding my ships wasn't just there to indulge my penchant for collecting models. It also doubled as a display monitor. I'd only discovered that recently, after my attempts to move a model accidentally flipped a switch and turned it on. Then I discovered that whatever Cerberus flunky set this up had a fondness for one of those music vid channels. No taste. Yet another reason why I left.
But I digress.
A second later, Hackett appeared on the monitor. He cut a stern, commanding figure, the way he was decked out in Alliance dress blues. His mustache and beard—which were trimmed to military standard length, of course—sported a mix of silver and white. A bit early, considering he was in his early fifties, but that only added to his authoritative presence. The scar under his right eye was new, though. At least, I thought it was new. I hadn't seen him in person since… well, before I became a Spectre, actually. Damn, it had been a while.
Before I knew it, I'd stood to attention and threw a salute. Old habits die hard, I guess. "Sir."
Hackett was gracious enough to salute me back. "Commander. Thank you for your time. I'll keep this brief: we have a deep-cover operative out in batarian space. Her name is Doctor Amanda Kenson. She recently reported that she found evidence of an imminent Reaper invasion. Just this morning, I received word that the batarians arrested her. They're holding her in a secret prison outpost on terrorism charges. I need you to infiltrate the prison and extract her."
Yep, that was brief all right. And, once again, Hackett was calling me for help. Seemed just like old times. Though the Reaper invasion intel and infiltrating batarian territory bits were new.
"As a favour to me, I'm asking you to go in alone."
That was definitely new. "Sir, I have a hell of a squad with me. I'm sure they'd help me out."
"I've thought of that," Hackett acknowledged, "and I know how restrictive this mission parameter might be."
"Then you know that the chances of success would dramatically improve if I had some backup," I reminded him.
"And you know that if the batarians see a squad of armed soldiers, they'd kill her. (3) That's why I asked for you—because you have experience with these sorts of operations. Go in with discretion, or don't go in at all."
Now I wasn't planning on bumbling through the prison with a marching band or anything stupid like that. But it had been a long time since I'd done solo ops. And there were several reasons why I didn't like them, besides the fact that I'd have no one to talk to but myself. "What can you tell me about Dr. Kenson?" I tried, going for a different tack.
"Amanda is a top scientist and Alliance agent who often runs deep-cover operations in hostile territory," Hackett replied. "She's usually assigned high-risk, if not deadly assignments, mainly because she's one of the few men and women up to the challenge."
He paused, leaning forward ever-so-slightly. "I'll be honest with you, Commander: she and I go back pretty far. She's one of my closest friends. I won't let her rot away in a batarian torture camp."
Aha. I didn't get the sense that there was anything romantic going on here, but there was still a personal connection nonetheless. Hence the private nature of this conversation and asking to do this as a favour for one of the most powerful men in Alliance military and political circles. Not that I'd bring that up, of course.
Though that did clarify another point, one that I could safely voice out loud without pissing him off: "A human in batarian custody is bad enough. Finding out she's Alliance would be even worse. And if they find out that the Alliance is breaking into one of their secret prisons to rescue her…"
"..they'd be extremely upset," Hackett finished, voicing the conclusions I'd already come to. "Relations between humanity and the batarians are bad enough as it is. Which is why this is not an officially-sanctioned Alliance operation. This is one person with no recognized ties or affiliations going in to save a friend."
Right. Just an ex-Alliance guy who may have been reinstated as a Council Spectre and may have been working with—not for—a certain pro-human terrorist group going in on his own to rescue a fellow human with no official backup whatsoever. Story of my goddamn life. At least Hackett didn't open that old wound.
"You keep this quiet, Shepard, and there's nothing to worry about."
Uh huh. I was usually pretty good at keeping things quiet, but that still gave me plenty of things to worry about. Usually because they were trying to kill me. "What exactly is she doing out there?"
"She was investigating a rumour of an artifact in batarian space," Hackett said. "Her last report said her team had found it, out in the Bahak system."
"I thought the Alliance denies the Reaper threat," I said, trying to keep the bitterness out of my voice. "That must be some proof she's found."
"We might not recognize their existence officially," Hackett conceded, "but we recognize the threat they provide and we have been taking certain steps to prepare—unofficially. If nothing else, it's another motivation to rebuild the fleets." (4)
Well at least somebody was willing to listen to me, even if they didn't acknowledge it.
"That's why Dr. Kenson was hand-picked for that mission and why her report raised so many concerns. Amanda believes she found a genuine Reaper device, with additional proof that they are indeed planning to invade. Like I said, I've known her for a long time. If she says she has something, it's worth checking out."
For all the grief that he'd given me back when I was still a recognized soldier in the Alliance and an officially sanctioned Spectre, Hackett always had my back. Even when I'd come back from the dead, he'd supported me, though I didn't find that out until I read a file in the Shadow Broker's dossiers:
From: Major Caleb Antella
To: Admiral Steven Hackett
Subject: Taking Action on Commander Shepard's Return
We've confirmed sightings of Commander Shepard on Omega, and that the Commander is now working for the terrorist organization Cerberus. Several Alliance officials have let it be known that they consider it crucial that we interrogate humanity's first Spectre on his apparent desertion of the Alliance and the Citadel. If we bring Shepard in now, we can gather an account of the Commander's past two years without being pressured by the galactic media to leak potentially sensitive data. In light of this, I am officially requesting that you rescind your orders against Alliance contact with Shepard.
Rest assured our department is dedicated to the Commander's safety. Provided that Shepard is cooperative in furnishing us with a detailed report of his previous whereabouts and current work for Cerberus, we anticipate releasing him from Alliance Custody no later than five to seven months from acquisition.
Respectfully awaiting your reply,
Department of Internal Naval Affairs
Yet another sign that the Alliance was happy with ignoring everything I'd done up to that point, jumping to the worst possible conclusions and itching to lock me away in a deep, dark hole and throw away the key. So you can imagine how shocked and relieved I was to read Hackett's response:
From: Admiral Steven Hackett
To: Major Caleb Antella
Subject: Re: Taking Action on Commander Shepard's Return
That meant a lot. It really did. In five simple words—more if you counted the sender, recipient and subject line—Hackett had made it crystal clear that he trusted me. One of the most powerful and brilliant military minds in the Alliance, one of the most politically influential beacons for humanity—and he trusted me.
Do you know how rare that was? In a galaxy where my name was basically mud, there were only a handful of people, outside a crew that had fought and bled and almost got killed alongside me, who believed me. And most of those weren't even from my own species. I know that shouldn't mean anything in the great galactic community, but it did. In those quiet moments when I wasn't running around fighting hostiles or running for my life or indulging my insatiable curiosity, when there was nothing to distract me from my own thoughts, it mattered. And it hurt.
So if Admiral Hackett had handpicked me for a mission, one that wasn't some random waste of time but might actually provide proof about the impending doom that no one was willing to openly acknowledge, then there was only one thing to say. "All right," I finally agreed. "I'll make this a priority."
"The prison is hidden underground at a batarian outpost on Aratoht. I'll upload the coordinates now."
I saw him enter in a few commands. A few seconds later, a pinging noise confirmed the arrival of a data packet. I gave EDI the okay to download it to my terminal before opening it myself. "Got it," I confirmed.
"Once she's secure, confirm her discovery," Hackett ordered. "We'll debrief you when you're back."
Wow. An actual debriefing. Almost like I was back in the Alliance.
"Got it," I nodded.
"Hackett out." He closed the channel and the monitor faded away, replaced by the display case and all my shiny ships.
Before you undertake any mission, it's important to determine how much intel you have and whether it's enough to successfully complete it. And, of course, whether you can depend on the intel. The less intel you have, the more unknowns, random variables and blind spots will plague you—and the greater the chances that the mission will fail. So that's what I did:
Who was the target? Dr. Amanda Kenson, Alliance.
What was the objective? Extract Dr. Kenson from the batarians. Alive.
Where was Dr. Kenson being held? A secret prison on Aratoht, in the Bahak system, in the Viper Nebula.
Why was it so important that I get her out alive? Because she had intel on some artifact or device that would not only confirm the existence of the Reapers to all those naysayers who'd prefer to stick their heads in the sand but would also suggest that a Reaper invasion was eminent. Which was kinda important—while I knew the Reapers were coming, I didn't know how much time we had to prepare. Might be months, might be years.
When did I have to rescue Dr. Kenson? The sooner, the better. She'd been captured by the batarians on terrorism charges. That meant interrogation, of the physical, rock-em'-sock-em', probably illegal if it ever saw the light of day torture variety. The only upside was that, if she truly was a deep-cover agent, then she'd have been trained in recognizing and resisting those techniques. Which meant I didn't have to worry about her volunteering every single secret in her noggin within the first couple minutes.
That left me with a lot of unknowns, though. Where exactly was this secret underground prison? Aratoht was a big planet, after all. How deep underground was it, exactly? What was the layout like? Where was Dr. Kenson being held within the prison? How many guards were there? What kind of weapons did they have? How many ways were there to get in and out? And, most importantly, could I do this on my own?
Now that I had ID'd the gaps in my intel, it was time to plug them. Preferably with something more substantial than wishful thinking, hope and a prayer. Fortunately for me, I was right on top of a base dedicated to gathering, analyzing and applying intel.
So down to Deck Five, into the Kodiak, through the volatile storms of Hagalaz and back to the Shadow Broker base I went. "Hi, Liara!"
"Shepard, I'm glad you came—wait. Weren't you just here?"
Glad she finally noticed. "Just got a mission. From Hackett."
"Admiral Hackett?" Liara said. "From the Alliance?"
"That's the one," I confirmed.
She thought about that. "Remember when we kept getting sidelined and pulled from our hunt for Saren because of all those requests from Admiral Hackett?" (5)
"Yes," I said, rolling my eyes. "This time, though, it's a bit more serious." I quickly outlined everything Shepard had told me. "It would help if I knew a bit more about this prison."
"I would agree," Liara nodded. "Icon, can you come over here please?"
A drone—the one that the previous Shadow Broker had used as a data processing VI and personal assistant—floated towards us. "Icon?" I repeated.
"I decided that it needed a name that was more personal than 'info drone'," Liara explained. "I've been trying different names for a while now."
"You have been referring to this drone as 'Icon' for the last six days, fifteen hours and nine minutes, Shadow Broker," the drone elaborated, drifting to a stop before us. "Before that, you called us 'Augur' for three days, four hours, eighteen minutes. Before that, you called us 'Oracle' for—"
"Got it," I interrupted. "Still calling everyone 'Shadow Broker,' huh?"
"It's a work in progress," Liara admitted.
"Fair enough," I said. "Now then: what can you tell me about Aratoht?"
Once Liara and Icon—or Augur or Oracle or whatever the hell he/it was called—did some digging and got some more intel, I went back to the Normandy to brief the squad.
I guess you could argue that I was informing the squad because they'd want to know what trouble their fearless and brain-damaged leader had found this time. Besides, EDI had likely eavesdropped on my conversation with Hackett. And since EDI wasn't bound and shackled by Cerberus protocols, she was free to do whatever she liked with that intel. Which meant alerting whoever she thought should know about this latest mission. One way or another, they'd find out, and it would look better if I told them first. All of which was true, of course.
The other reason was that they were my squad and I was their leader. It was my job and my responsibility to know when to keep intel to myself, when to share the love—not to mention stress, fear and barely-concealed panic—and how to navigate the nebulous gray line in between. (6) At the moment, it seemed wise to err on the side of bringing them into the loop.
"So what did you find out from Liara," Miranda asked after I brought the squad up to speed.
In response, I brought up a holo of Aratoht. "Aratoht: second planet from the sun in the Bahak system. One of many planets claimed by both the Systems Alliance and the Batarian Hegemony. During the 2160s, Admiral Jon Grissom conducted a fact-finding mission to determine whether it was a good site for human colonization, and whether it was worth wasting any more time bickering with the Hegemony over it."
"How did they fight?" Grunt asked eagerly.
"With words in the Citadel Council Committee on Habitable Worlds," I replied, "not with fists or bullets."
"Boring," Grunt dismissed.
"Yeah," Jack agreed.
"Grissom's team ultimately determined that Aratoht's atmospheric pressure and oxygen content were too low," I continued, "and decided that the Alliance was better off concentrating on other planets. Say, ones that didn't require pressurized habitat domes or rebreathers. Since the other planets in the Bahak system were only good for resource mining or drive core discharging—something that could be done in other, more accessible and desirable, systems—the Alliance ultimately ceded control of the entire Bahak system to the Hegemony. Humans saw it as a wise and prudent use of taxpayer money; batarians saw it as a display of cowardice and lack of fortitude that demonstrated yet another example of their superiority."
"And how did 'batarian superiority' overcome the challenges of colonizing Aratoht," Tali wanted to know.
"First, they had to deal with the fact that the average temperature was 55 degrees Celsius, or 131 degrees Fahrenheit," I began. "They dealt with that by focusing their efforts in the polar regions, which were slightly cooler thanks to all the rainfall they received. Next, they shipped in loads of indentured servants—read: slaves—to build all those colonies. The costs were ridiculously high in terms of credits as well as actual lives, thanks to a string of accidents and piss-poor planning, but the batarians were pretty blasé about the whole thing. Probably because they regarded slaves as cheap and replaceable.
"Slave labour was also used to solve the oxygen problem, mostly by dumping loads of cyanobacteria into the oceans and blanketing the habitable regions with invasive plant species. After 20 years of this, they've managed to raise the average oxygen content by a fraction of a percent. Woohoo. By the way, the Hegemony proudly points to this as an example of their successful terraforming practises and a sign of their eventual triumph."
There were a lot of eye-rolling at that point. Can't imagine why.
"At present, Aratoht's good for two things. The first is its planetary crust, which is loaded with obscenely concentrated lodes of minerals. Naturally, the slaves are busy mining those lodes for the good of the Hegemony. The second are a cluster of several military bases and staging areas. Both of those facts greatly concern the Alliance."
"Yeah, I could see that," Jacob agreed. "Especially since the Bahak system's pretty close to Earth." (7)
"And one of those military bases happens to be the secret prison outpost where Dr. Kenson is being held," I said.
"Aren't all batarian bases secret?" Zaeed pointed out.
He had a point. Chalk one up for institutionalized paranoia. "True," I conceded. "This particular secret base is located in the northern polar region." A click of my omni-tool caused the holo to zoom in on said region, then zoom in again on a clearing located in the midst of trees and rocky terrain until a building complex appeared.
"As you can see, the prison is not, in fact, underground," I said. "Probably more a result of incomplete intel than intentional misinformation. Sadly, it's been the victim of political manoeuvring and overall corruption. It gets funds for expansion, only to lose it as other bases are deemed to be of greater importance to the state. It gets approval for basic maintenance or repair, only to have most of the credits siphoned off into private accounts. It gets an assortment of prisoners deemed important for one reason or another, only to have the most important prisoners transferred so the parties involved can get the political bragging rights, followed by important prisoners, followed by somewhat important prisoners and so on. Today, it only has a handful of prisoners, no more than forty or fifty guards and has fallen into so much disrepair that the whole place is literally leaking like a sieve."
Miranda frowned. "If that's the case, why did Dr. Kenson get sent there? The Hegemony has no love for humans in general, and the Alliance in particular. A human operative from the Alliance caught in batarian space would surely be regarded as a high-value prisoner, one that should be held at an installation with greater defences and security."
"She's right," Zaeed agreed. "You only go to a batarian prison if they don't trust you enough to sell you into slavery. High-priority targets don't go there."
"You're both right," I nodded. "However, the father of one of the batarians who captured Kenson is the warden of that prison. He's been making regular requests for more money, resources or manpower—all of which have been denied. My guess is he regards Dr. Kenson as the answer to all his problems. 'Hey, look at who I found! You want her? You gotta pay for her.' That sort of thing."
"Fifty or sixty hostiles," Grunt growled. "There's thirteen of us. That's four or five for each of us. Hit 'em hard enough and we can blow right through them."
"And all it would take is one bullet to take out Dr. Kenson before we blew through everybody," I reminded him.
Grunt frowned. Thought about it. Thought about it some more. "Oh," he said at last. "Guess we gotta do things the boring way."
"There's no way we can sneak the entire squad through the prison, rescue Dr. Kenson and sneak her back out without someone noticing," I continued. "A smaller team, though, would probably have more luck."
"You're not planning on following Admiral Hackett's stipulation," Miranda stated.
"Maybe I will," I shrugged. "But I'd like to have a couple people standing by, just in case I need someone to keep me company or back me up."
"I have some familiarity with prisons," Thane offered. "Some of my previous assassinations involved targets who had been taken into police custody."
"And I've danced through a couple batarian bases in my time," Kasumi added.
"Perfect," I nodded. I was hoping they'd volunteer. Their names were the first that came to mind for an operation like this.
Zaeed lifted his hand as if to volunteer, then lowered it. "You plannin' on shooting your way in and gettin' this doc out in a sea of blood, I'm your guy," he explained his change of heart. "Sneakin' in... you want a small team of specialists. Don't want it to get too big, 'less you wanna trip over each other."
"Appreciate the offer, though," I said.
"What do we know about the guards?" Thane asked, getting down to business. "You mentioned a rough estimate in terms of numbers."
"Fifty or sixty," I repeated, "based on personnel numbers, transfer of personnel and quantities of food and drink. No biotics or mechs from what I saw. Most of the guards are packing M-8 Avengers, though some of the higher-ups have access to M-15 Vindicators.
"As for defences, it looks like they either have the standard shield package or shields plus a set of tech armour. If things go sideways and I have to shoot my way out, it might be a good idea to expand my anti-shield capabilities beyond disruptor mods. Any ideas?"
"We could rig your omni-tool to deliver an electromagnetic pulse," Miranda said speculatively.
"Might require building a couple components, but the Normandy's fabrication systems are more than up to the task," Garrus added.
Tali made a dismissive noise. "I can do better than that," she said. "My omni-tool has a device that drains the energy from any kinetic barrier it's directed towards. Not only does the resulting effect closely mimic an EMP, it also transfers the energy to bolster your own kinetic barriers."
Miranda, Garrus and Kasumi looked very interested. Couldn't blame them, to be honest. "Nice," I approved. "How long would it take for you to make the necessary modifications?"
"Probably an hour," Tali suggested. "More depending on how much fuss you raise on being parted from your omni-tool and how much crap you have installed."
My eyes narrowed. "Crap? I do not have crap installed on my omni-tool."
"I'm not sure, Shepard," Miranda murmured. "I've heard some of your 'music', remember?"
I glared at Miranda. "We'll talk later," I told her. "In private." She smiled sweetly, completely and utterly unconcerned.
Kasumi brought up another concern. "I don't suppose you know where Dr. Kenson is being held."
"'Fraid not," I shook my head, ignoring Miranda for the moment. "But here's a rough schematic of the prison." The exterior was replaced by a wireframe model of the interior. "Cellblocks are here." A bunch of rooms turned red at the tap of a key. "And the interrogation rooms are here." One more tap, highlighted a couple more rooms in orange. "Chances are she's in one of those areas."
"How do you plan on getting in?" Garrus asked. "There's bound to be loads of spy satellites and sensor arrays scattered in orbit around Aratoht. Spirits, every planet in the system probably has them. Even if the Normandy could sneak past all that, she can't land without assistance. That leaves the shuttle—which doesn't have the Normandy's stealth capabilities." (8)
"Garrus has a point," Zaeed agreed. "Insertion's gonna be a bitch. And the Normandy might not be as safe as you think, either. Hegemony's seriously paranoid. They've got tons of tech to detect people and ships doing anything from sneaking around to tryin' to live their goddamn lives. I swear they keep records of every batarian and every slave, right down to what they eat, what they drink and when they go to take a leak. You know, that reminds me—"
"Got that covered," I replied quickly, before Zaeed got sidetracked into reminiscing about the good old days. "Seems the prison warden did a bit of travel outside batarian space before settling down at Aratoht. During that time, he developed a certain... addiction, I guess you could call it."
"Red sand," Jack said firmly.
"Nope," I shook my head.
"Ryncol?" Grunt grinned.
"Porn?" That was Zaeed.
"Some kind of narcotic or alcoholic beverage?" Garrus suggested.
"That's so vague, it's cheating," I told him. "And no."
"Then what vice did the warden fall victim to?" Samara asked.
I got a chorus of "Huh?" and "What's that?" Fair enough—not everyone had heard of it. "It's a highly caffeinated energy drink," I said. "Kinda like 'Red Janey.' It's the favoured drink of teenagers, hackers, caffeine addicts who hate coffee and tea... and, apparently, a certain batarian prison warden."
And, apparently, a certain salarian scientist, considering how Mordin was nodding. Which was slightly alarming, when you thought about it: he was hyper enough without Caf-Pow. Imagining him in the throes of a full-blown Caf-Pow rush was scary as hell. I set that thought aside and continued. "Through various channels and intermediaries, he's arranged for monthly shipments of Caf-Pow to be delivered directly to Aratoht. All we have to do is find out where the Caf-Pow comes from and sneak aboard the transport. Then we sit back and relax until we touch down on Aratoht."
"Point of origin critical," the supposedly un-caffeinated Mordin said. "Did Liara provide that intel?"
"Not yet," I admitted. "She's narrowed it down, though. Says she should have it within the next hour or so. Once she does, the Normandy can drop Thane, Kasumi and I off. Then we'll sneak aboard, get a free ride to Aratoht and bust Dr. Kenson loose."
"And you're hoping to get out the same way?" Jack asked.
"Something like that," I said. "Either that, or find some other ship. Prison transport, shuttle, that kinda thing."
"There are a lot of unknowns there," Miranda frowned.
"Story of my life," I sighed. "But that's where you guys come in. After you drop us off, I want you to wait around. When the transport takes off, follow it through the mass relay—or relays, if we need to travel through more than one—into the Bahak system."
Miranda's frown quickly became a smile. "Perfect! Any stray emissions or readings that come from exiting the relay would be attributed to the transport instead."
"And your average run-of-the-mill transport wouldn't pick up the Normandy in the first place," Tali added.
"Exactly," I declared. "Once you're in, loiter around the edges of the system. If things go sideways and we need an emergency extraction, we'll contact you. Our comms should be able to stretch out that far."
"And if they do not?" Thane asked. "What if the prison presents some kind of interference? From jamming technology or the composition of its walls?"
I shrugged. "One of us can stay outside and act as a relay while the other two go in, I guess. We'll play it by ear." (9)
That was pretty much it for the briefing. Everyone went back to do whatever they usually did. I dropped by the Armoury. More to reassure myself of my choice in weaponry than anything else—I'd already decided to stick with the Phalanx, the Locust, and the Widow because I was so used to them by now, it would throw my game off if I experimented with another heavy pistol, submachine gun or sniper rifle now—which was why trying my hand with shotguns or assault rifles now was also off the table. Besides, they were extremely effective weapons. I did debate whether to switch out the grenade launcher for another heavy weapon, or whether I should bring one at all—they did weigh a lot, after all. In the end, I kept the grenade launcher. You never know.
Next, I returned to my cabin to decide which of my hardsuits to wear. That's a bit misleading, come to think of it—I didn't have that many hardsuits, after all.
N7 Armour was out from the get-go: wearing something with Alliance colours and a big honkin' N7 logo slapped on the front pretty much defeated the whole exercise of pretending this had nothing to do with the Alliance. Granted, there might be those who thought I was trying to frame the Alliance, but not enough to make it worth the risk.
I quickly nixed my Eclipse armour as well. (10) Never got around to tinkering with it since I first got the damn thing. Downloading all the software upgrades, syncing it to my biometrics and calibrating it to my liking would take way too long.
Believe it or not, I actually debated wearing my Cerberus Assault Armour. Decent protection, decent shields and it effectively boosted the amount of heavy weapon ammo I could carry. And it did sport the colours and logo of that ever-so-wonderful terrorist group. Risking someone casting a suspicious eye at the Alliance wasn't worth it, but Cerberus? Yeah, that I didn't mind so much. But there was still a problem, one of the problems that had discouraged me from wearing it in the first place—it weighed a ton. I could barely move in the damn thing and it made so much noise clomping around that you'd have to be deaf not to hear it. Sure, it was good for soaking up damage. Sneaking around? Not so much.
That left me with the Kestrel Armour. I was already wearing the shoulder pauldrons, gauntlets and leg plates, since it was interchangeable with the modular and therefore customizable N7 armour. Going with the full set would enhance my physical strength, increase the amount of damage I could do and expand my heavy ammo capacity. Most importantly, donning the Kestrel Armour in its entirety boosted my shield capacity by a full twenty-five percent. A winner, in my opinion.
Now I just had to figure out the colour scheme. Brown? Boring. Urban camo pattern? That had possibilities. Something resembling a Blue Suns uniform? Maybe—I was partial to blue. Hey, while I was experimenting, maybe I could try something a little more wacky. Just for kicks. Let's see now... oh, that was hilarious. That one... oh geez.
That was how Miranda found me—picking hilarious choices in colour schemes, looking at the results in the mirror and laughing my head off. "I really hope you're not going like that, Shepard."
I looked down at my current choice. "You think neon green and hot purple stands out?"
"Definitely," she said. "Unless you're colour-blind."
"Fine," I sighed.
There was a pause. Which quickly grew into an awkward silence. "So," I said.
"So," Miranda echoed.
"What do you think of the plan?" I asked, in an effort to move this conversation along.
"You've acquired as much intel as you could, formulated a plan with a reasonable chance of success and addressed most of the concerns," Miranda replied. "At this point, waiting for any more intel would have diminishing returns, particularly while Dr. Kenson is rotting away on Aratoht at the tender mercies of the batarians."
"And you're okay with..." I trailed off.
"Not being part of your team?" Miranda finished. She shook her head. "No. Disappointed, perhaps. But I must concede that this mission requires a more specialized skill set than I can offer. Thane and Kasumi are the optimal teammates. Furthermore, they're part of Team One, so they're used to anticipating and reacting to your decisions."
That was true. And I expected nothing less from her. The Miranda I met back when I was first waking up might not have set her ego aside so willingly, but this Miranda was another matter. Still, no matter how much she might have changed or grown, it couldn't have been easy coming to those conclusions. Which was why I needed to voice something else: "If something unexpected does come up, it'll be a relief knowing that the Normandy's in the hands of someone who can keep everyone in one piece and figure out the best contingency scenario. Your hands."
"You don't need to state the obvious, you know," Miranda said, breaking into a slight smile.
"No," I agreed, "but I want to. Because..."
I trailed off. This was my chance to say something. Maybe it was important to say it. Maybe it wasn't. But if there was a time to say it, this might be it. (11)
"Yes, Shepard?" Miranda prompted.
Say it, Shepard. Say it.
"... because... credit should be given where credit's due."
A part of me sagged in relief. The rest of me face palmed in disbelief.
Miranda smiled a little more. "Thanks, Shepard. I have some things to do, so I'll leave you to... explore your options. Hopefully your final choice won't be quite so conspicuous."
"No promises," I replied. Miranda rolled her eyes and left the cabin.
I looked back at the mirror. Was it just me, or was my reflection accusing me of something. "What?" I asked out loud, staring my reflection in the eye.
My reflection stared back.
"Look. It's no big deal."
My reflection continued to stare.
"It can wait until I get back."
My reflection continued to stare. I ignored it and switched to a hot pink and taupe pattern. Because I was right. Whatever I had to say, it could wait. I had time to figure out what exactly to say and how to say it.
(1): Actually, Shepard did acquire 1250 units of element zero during his last visit. Sadly, he did not find any new schematics or upgrades. I'm chagrined to admit that his recollection of my contribution to our brief conversation was correct, right down to the last word.
(2): During Shepard's hunt for Saren, he often complained that Admiral Hackett had a habit of contacting him over the comm and requesting his assistance on assignments of comparatively lower, sometimes seemingly trivial, importance and priority. Nonetheless, he maintained a great deal of respect for Hackett, a gesture that was reciprocated.
(3): Hackett later informed me that he had teams from the 103rd Marine Division standing by in case Shepard declined to help. Ironically, he was reluctant to send them because initial casualty projections were high.
(4): The First, Third and Fifth Fleets rallied to defend the Citadel Council during the Battle of the Citadel in 2183, sacrificing a third of their ships—and the men and women who served aboard them—in the process. By 2186, the Alliance was still trying to rebuild the fleets to their former strength.
(5): Hackett later admitted that, in hindsight, most of those requests did not justify pulling Shepard off his primary assignment. However, he also explained that he went back to Shepard time and time again because of the twin allure of the lack of paperwork and authorization required, coupled with the undeniable efficiency and efficacy of Shepard's performance.
(6): Astute readers will recognize that the trust Hackett had in Shepard was being echoed by Shepard's trust in his squad and his crew.
(7): Specifically, the Viper Nebula was one relay jump from the Exodus Cluster—which houses Arcturus Station, the military headquarters for the Alliance Navy and the headquarters for the Alliance Parliament—and two jumps from the Sol system, birthplace of humanity.
(8): A fact that was being addressed, though Shepard and the others would not find out until later that year.
(9): A human saying meaning to make decisions in an impromptu or improvisational manner as the situation develops, rather than planning out a contingency in advance, something that Shepard was intimately familiar with.
(10): Shepard acquired a set of Eclipse armour while thwarting a hijacking and piracy operation from that mercenary group. The events of that mission are covered in another set of personal logs and need not concern us at this time.
(11): Specifically, this would be a good time for Shepard to tell Miranda—out loud—how he truly felt, something that he hadn't done up to this point.