MASS EFFECT: PARAMOUR
written by Charles Spencer
When she watched Mary Shepard punch Zaeed Massani with a hard right to his scarred face, Kelly Chambers wasn't one bit surprised...hell, she was glad to see the paragon hit the mercenary after what he pulled.
From the first moment Mary, Zaeed and Kasumi Goto were delivered by a shuttlecraft and made their insertion in the jungles of Zorya, just outside of the perimeter of the natural gas refinery they came to liberate from the Blue Suns mercenary organization, Zaeed visibly became withdrawn from his comrades and much more intense than usual. Mary had hoped the battle-scarred veteran would finally tell her what exactly was so personal between him and the Blue Suns' leader, Vido Santiago, but he still never volunteered any information. So she finally had her squad pause just before they made their final advance on the refinery after sweeping through a hostile squad of mercs. Mary coaxed the man into telling her what provoked the rage that burned in his heart...
...and Zaeed Massani revealed that he lived with that rage for twenty years, ever since he last saw Vido Santiago. Mary was surprised when Zaeed revealed to her and Kasumi that he and Vido founded the Blue Suns. But where Zaeed had a code of honor, Vido didn't...in fact, Vido had no scruples or morality governing him at all. Zaeed was given many warnings, but even he had no idea how cold-blooded and power-hungry his partner was until he was betrayed in a singularly brutal moment. Vido had six mercs loyal only to him hold Zaeed down so the bastard could shoot him in the head, and then he effectively took over the Blue Suns.
But Zaeed lived, his face permanently, harshly scarred...worse, he discovered his every record as co-founder of the organization had been erased, and just like that he suddenly found himself alone. Vido often led the Suns by proxy, delegating responsibility to lieutenants who at one time or another played the part of the group's leader as he stayed safely detatched from events and raked in the profits. Zaeed knew Vido also took such steps to seclude himself, keep his location unknown from the man he almost murdered. Zaeed spent nearly every waking moment of the two decades since anticipating, hoping, desperately yearning for his chance at revenge. Fortunately for him, in recent years, Vido had become less and less careful, more sure of his own superiority and that Zaeed couldn't touch him...it was the only way to explain why Vido began taking visible command of rackets such as this siege on the Zorya refinery, threatening to kill its workers unless the company capitulated to his demands. Vido warned the company that any attempt to call for help from the authorites, especially the Alliance Navy, would have gotten the hostages killed.
But the company had other options, specifically calling upon freelance specialists...and Zaeed Massani eagerly responded. This might well have been his one and only chance, yet he couldn't execute the contract all by himself...he needed the help of someone he could trust and had the skills needed for such operation. Zaeed had always been a loner since Vido tried to kill him, he usually worked solo, and those few the man did trust enough for help were either unavailable or dead. The timing was almost miraculous, something close to fate when Cerberus approached him to undertake a virtual suicide mission, and he made a deal with them to get the needed support to complete his contract and get to Vido. Zaeed was as surprised as anyone could have been (although one couldn't tell because his scarred face seemed set like granite) that he'd be supported by Commander Mary Shepard herself, back from the dead. But Mary saw the rage burning so bright in the veteran merc's eyes, and she had the bad feeling for a while now that the one real obstacle to saving the refinery workers and stopping Vido was Zaeed himself.
Right after Mary, Zaeed and Kasumi infiltrated the refinery through one of its main entry points, a large force of Blue Suns led by Vido himself nearly ambushed them. But only nearly because Vido arrogantly wanted to insult his longtime enemy first...Zaeed surprised the enemy by firing on a reserve tank close to Vido's position with his Vindicator rifle, touching it off in a massive explosion that almost singed the merc leader, distracting the Blue Suns and giving the three the chance to find cover. Vido cowardly ran as he ordered the rest of his men to stay behind and kill the intruders. But Zaeed surprised everyone then, especially Mary and Kasumi, with what he did next. Mary had hoped Zaeed would stay professional, remember that they were here to save the hostages Vido was holding, look out for their safety along with the safety of his squadmates. She had hoped that, but Zaeed broke a nearby control valve for one of the main pipelines in the area, which happened to run close to where the remaining enemy force was situated. The entire line went up in a chain of detonations that decimated the Blue Suns threatening them...and then went further into the refinery.
Safe (but only relatively so) for the moment, Kasumi watched awkwardly as Mary screamed at Zaeed, "What the HELL have you done?!?"
Zaeed said neutrally, "I gave us a way in."
Mary stalked toward him, upset, as she yelled, "That was unbelievably STUPID! This is a gas refinery, and that means combustible elements! What you just did risked the three of us and maybe the hostages we're here to save! What if that stunt literally blew up in your own face?! There had to be a better way! There's always a better way!"
As Mary reached him, Zaeed was defiant: "You want to waste time being safe? You're that worried about people I couldn't give two shits about?! You and the thief go ahead and do whatever you want! I'm going to kill Vido -- !"
That was when Mary punched Zaeed with a solid right hook.
Surprisingly, Zaeed wasn't knocked out by Mary's punch...even though her strength (recently boosted by a cybernetic upgrade) was enhanced twice over by her N7 armor. Most Humans would have been dealt a knockout blow. Not Zaeed...his fury had been chilled only a little by surprise as Mary snarled at him, "You selfish, reckless bastard!"
Zaeed simply looked up at her and growled, "You sure you want to do this, Shepard?"
Mary fired back, "I'm sure I want to keep knocking your ass down until you stay down, you fool -- !" Suddenly, a thudding series of explosions deeper in the refinery that shook the ground under her feet. Mary whirled to look at the master thief and she yelled, "Kasumi, what's going on?! Can you hack into the refinery's main computer?"
Kasumi Goto quickly responded, "On it, Shep!" Kasumi's right hand flew to her the gauntlet on her raised left arm, touched a simple, hidden control, and her Omni-Tool manifested brightly around her forearm. A highly advanced construct that used the same principles of solid light as most control interfaces and terminals across the known galaxy, the Omni-Tool had a multitude of functions...for instance, Kasumi used it to remotely hack into the refinery's computer mainframe. As she bypassed firewalls like they weren't even there, the master thief smiled. "Ha-ha, this won't take long, the refinery's security programs are as basic as you can get...!" She paused for a few seconds, and the smile dropped from her face as she stared at her Omni-Tool's display. "Oh, this isn't good. Mister Reckless just set off a chain reaction that's causing system failures across the refinery! Safety protocols are trying to catch up...dammit, they'll be too slow!" Kasumi looked at Mary. "Shep, this refinery is minutes away from going up in a big ball of fire!"
Mary asked urgently, "Can we get the hostages out in time?!" Kasumi frowned dubiously. "Shit!" The paragon turned back to Zaeed, who was standing finally, and she shouted, "We're here to save these people from Vido Santiago, but now because of YOU we've got to work even harder to accomplish that!"
Zaeed suddenly roared back, "No! I couldn't give a damn less about anyone else! VIDO DIES, NO MATTER THE COST!"
To Kasumi's quiet amazement, Mary Shepard got into Zaeed's face, her own dark eyes burning with anger...only centimeters separated them as she yelled, "That's not why we're here, Zaeed! OUR MISSION IS TO SAVE LIVES! That's the contract you signed up for, remember?!?" In spite of his own rage, he was visibly taken aback by the paragon's passion. "That comes first before anything else, and if you don't follow my lead I swear to god I'll tie you up to one of these pipes and leave you behind, and you'll NEVER see Vido and have another chance to kill him again! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME!" As she watched, as she felt cold sweat on the back of her neck, Kelly Chambers saw to her relief that Zaeed's mood was moderating...but would the man finally see sense? Was it already too late for that?
Suddenly, a voice spoke that Kelly and the squad heard over the primary comm line: "Commander, it's Joker, just calling to give you a head's up! Ship's sensors are detecting a gunship approaching the refinery fast from the east! Could be enemy reinforcements!"
Never taking her eyes from their withering gaze into Zaeed's, Mary ordered, "Keep an eye on them for me, Joker!"
"Shep." Mary glanced at Kasumi, and her Omni-Tool was still glowing bright as the lovely thief operated it quickly. "The Blue Suns had the place's security systems disabled, but I've got them back online. I'm tracking Vido...he's moving deeper into the refinery...looks like he's heading for a shuttle pad on the opposite side!"
"That gunship," Mary Shepard said thoughtfully. "They could be coming to take Vido out of here...!"
Alarmed by the idea, Zaeed's voice was dangerous as he shouted, "We've got to follow him, we've got to STOP him!"
Mary said with authority, "Oh, we will, but along the way we're going to fix the damage you caused! Can you find a way to stop the system failures, Kasumi?"
Kasumi's voice was steady, full of confidence as she reported, "I'm already working on it, Shep!"
Mary said, "Then let's move!" The three of them moved deeper into the refinery...and encountered more squads of Blue Suns mercs. For their own defense, Mary and her comrades cut down their enemies. All the while, sporadic detonations near and far warned them how short their time was.
Finally, as they reached an exterior part of the refinery, after seeing one of the workers they had to save barely get clear of an explosion, Kasumi was accessing her Omni-Tool again as she said, "Shep, I've got it figured out! We can stop the chain reaction!"
Mary stopped where she was as Zaeed was forced to pause too, and his eyes were full of impatience. The paragon said, "Tell me, Kasumi."
The master thief and expert hacker brought up a mini-map of the refinery...it showed their relative position in the facility. "The safety protocols are moving too slow, but there are key terminals for regulating gas pressure here, here and here!" Three small beacons lighted on the map, and fortunately they weren't far away, almost along the route they needed to take to catch up to Vido. "I can bring the needed systems back online through each of those terminals, but I have to do it manually!"
Zaeed snapped, "That will take too long, girl! We'll never catch up with Vido!"
Kasumi said unkindly to the merc, "Hey, you're the one who caused this whole mess, Scarface!"
Mary's expression was firm. "Exactly! And we will fix this, one way or the other!"
"Dammit to hell...!" Reluctantly, angrily, Zaeed said, "All right! If we're going to do this, then let's stop wasting time talking about it and get it done!"
The path the three took was uneven, perilous, full of fire and smoke...Kasumi kept track of Vido's location as he rushed through the refinery somewhere ahead, and they were lagging behind more and more. But they reached each terminal, and one by one, Mary and Kasumi saw with relief that bringing the regulation protocols back to nominal were getting results. By the time they were done with the last one, the rumbling explosions had stopped...alarm klaxons went still...because Kasumi kept track monitoring the security cameras, Mary was grateful to see that the hostages that couldn't get out immediately were safe as others escaped unharmed. Zaeed was in a sullen mood by this point until he realized that they could still catch up to his nemesis if they double-timed it the rest of the way!
However. Vido had left a large force, his remaining men in the refinery, to hold off Mary's squad. And they had a heavy YMIR mech with them, just because there never could be too much bullshit. It was the toughest battle yet on Zorya for Mary, Kasumi and Zaeed, and it took them a few minutes to clear out the enemies and break through...
...a few minutes too long, because by the time Mary and the others got outside, they saw Vido Santiago over 75 meters away at the shuttle pad. The gunship, a VTOL craft that resembled a wasp, had just touched down. As its cargo door opened, Vido took one glance back and saw his enemies far away...he grinned like the Devil as he gloated, "So long, you pathetic old fucker. Maybe I'll see you in another twenty years!" He began to step inside...
Still too far away, Zaeed began to run faster as he roared, "Goddamn it, Vido's getting away!"
But Mary called after him, "No, he isn't!" Zaeed stopped and turned...to see Mary was standing still. Kasumi stood close by Mary, giving the paragon a curiouis look. Mary lifted a hand to her ear and said, "Shepard to Joker!"
Joker answered, "Standing by, Commander!"
Mary said, "I have a gunship on the shuttle pad ahead of our position about to take off. I don't want them to leave, do you copy?"
In the cockpit of the SR-2, which was in a static hover high in the sky, Jeff 'Joker' Moreau answered, "Understood, Commander, moving in now!" He keyed the ship's thrusters and began to arrow the Normandy downward toward the shuttle pad below. Joker looked to the side and said, "Garrus!"
The tall Turian Garrus Vakarian was seated at a weapons station on one side of the cockpit...as he worked his controls, he said, "Just a moment, Joker...all right!" He then keyed his own comm and reported, "Shepard, I have a missile locked on that gunship and ready to fly! Just say the word!"
Mary said, "Copy that, Garrus!" She and Kasumi walked to Zaeed, whose eyes expressed pure confusion as he stared at the paragon. Mary Shepard had arranged for this contigency before the mission's start, motivated by simple common sense, to be executed just in case the enemy tried to make a getaway. The paragon looked at Zaeed, noticed his expression, and asked, "What? I like to prepare for anything." She remembered something else bitterly, and she wished she had been able to take a precaution like this when she crossed swords with that Batarian terrorist Balak and his forces that tried to destroy the Human colony Terra Nova two years ago. Then she had to let him go in order to save innocent hostages, but by the time she was able to secure their safety, Balak had already gotten away.
Mary Shepard swore that ever since, she'd never let an enemy escape like that again. She ordered, "Fire at will!"
Vido Santiago had only started to strap into a flight harness and prepare for takeoff with the handful of his Blue Suns left when alarms sounded from the cockpit...annoyed, Vido moved there and looked over his pilot's shoulder. The pilot reported, "Sir, incoming contact approaching fast -- Jesus Christ, MISSILE INBOUND! MISSILE INBOUND!" Vido and the pilot looked up through the cockpit's glass and saw the same thing: the Normandy charging hard on a nearly vertical dive from the clouds above, and the bright blue flare of the exhaust of the missile the frigate just fired that was traveling even faster and would reach them in seconds!
Vido wisely panicked and cried, "Holy SHIT! TAKE OFF AND EVADE THAT MISSILE!"
The pilot yelped, "I-I can't, sir, it's locked onto us -- !"
The Blue Suns leader raged, "Fuck this!" And so he ran...he scampered from the pilot and between his men in the cargo area -- they were only starting to realize what was happening and were furiously trying to get out of their flight harnesses. Vido was the only one not strapped in, so he ran out alone...the coward left his own men behind, unsurprisingly.
Barely two seconds later, no one else had gotten out and Vido wasn't quite far enough away when the missile reached the gunship...the craft's detonation lit up the shuttlepad and blasted it to pieces too, and the leader of the Blue Suns was hit hard by the explosion's concussive force. If he hadn't been wearing his blue and white hard suit and had its mass effect field active, he would have been killed. As it was, he landed hard close to some reserve fuel tanks...one of them was pierced by shrapnel and began leaking liquid dangerously...
Zaeed took it all in with astonishment. Then he heard a soft voice ask, "What are you waiting for?" He turned to Commander Shepard, still standing close to Kasumi. Mary said, "Ordinarily I never just watch one person kill another, but I know you're so driven to settle the score, you won't listen to me ask you not to." A beat passed, and the lady added, "And I won't stand in your way." A long moment passed as Zaeed's eyes softened as he looked at the paragon...he was honestly at a loss for words...until he nodded deeply, quietly turned and strode toward his enemy. To settle the score.
Vido felt like crap as he tried to stand and gather himself in his damaged, beaten armor...he didn't realize that his hard suit's protective field was inert. Unsteady, with a drunken pace, he got to his feet and looked at the pyre that was once the shuttle pad and the gunship that sat on it for a few moments...he finally got the idea to turn and try to walk in some direction, any direction, but when he turned toward the refinery, he saw Zaeed Massani, barely twenty paces away and closing fast. The bottom dropped out of his gut as he grunted, "Z-Zaeed...oh, shit!" How the hell did things go so bad so quickly?! He took a step back, not noticing his footstep made a splash, as he lifted his hands defensively and began to cry, "Wuh-wait -- !" His Vindicator rifle in his big hands, Zaeed's face was stone as he fired once and shot his enemy in his left knee...the projectile sheared through his armor and his kneecap, and Vido realized his suit's defenses were gone as he descended into pain and screamed, "AHHH!" He fell backward on his ass, and panic gripped his excuse for a heart again...frantic, he held his hands up defensively and roared, "FUCKING WAIT, GODDAMN IT! You know it wasn't anything personal, Zaeed! It was j-just business, I swear!" In response, Zaeed fired again, shooting the Blue Suns leader once in his right leg. Vido didn't know which leg to favor more as he screamed again: "AAGGHHH!"
Zaeed drew ever closer...he said in a quiet tone, "Yeah. Your 'hostile takeover' of the Blue Suns was a bullet in my head."
Vido screamed in genuine outrage, "IT WAS TWENTY YEARS AGO, FOR GODSAKE!" Like time honestly made a difference.
Zaeed said coolly, "Feels just like yesterday to me, Vido." He stopped at the edge of the massive, growing puddle of fuel that had leaked from the reserve tank and spread to cover a wide area of ground.
Vido didn't realize he was deep in that deadly puddle, backing up awkwardly on his ass like a crab. He was pathetic as he whined, "Zaeed...please...please don't! You can't just fucking kill me!"
The battle-scarred merc frowned. "I can't? Why the hell not? What makes you any better than me?" He clenched his rifle at the ready in both hands very tightly.
Vido's backward crawl came to a clumsy stop; his keening voice pleaded, "P-please...! I-I-I'll give you anything you want, man!" But his eyes, furitive and anxious, told a slightly different story...and one of his hands was slowly edging toward his holstered sidearm. Zaeed seemed to be fixed wholly on his enemy's face, and so Vido thought he had a slim chance...his hand was nearly wrapped around his gun, ready to deploy it as he stammered, "J-just tell me what you want, I'm sure we can settle things in a civilized way, right?!"
But from a distance, Mary Shepard didn't miss what was happening. Neither did Kelly Chambers who, seeing through the surveillance systems of Mary's armor, had zoomed in on the sight of Zaeed and Vido...the Yeoman quickly breathed, "Mary, that jerk's trying something!"
But before Mary could do anything, Zaeed Massani proved not to be as blind or stupid as Vido Santiago thought he was. On the contrary. The veteran merc snarled, "I want your life, you son of a bitch!" Then the man did something Vido didn't expect, but then he was still so distracted by Zaeed, so fixated on killing him, he didn't realize he was in a deep puddle of highly combustible fuel. Zaeed, who knew full and well, simply ejected a glowing-red heat sink from his Vindicator. Advanced races across the galaxy, from Asari to Turians to Humans, more recent additions to the galactic community, shared technology for the most part, even when it came to small arms weaponry. (It made trade between worlds, for instance, much simpler by necessity.) The heat sink was a pivotal part of weapons tech in that it absorbed the heat that ordinarily would have worn down or damaged other components with extended use. And Zaeed used his assault rifle liberally this day: the small, burning cylinder flew through the air in an arc. Zaeed was already turning from his enemy as the heat sink landed between Vido's legs. And into the fuel.
The fuel touched off and Vido Santiago was claimed instantly by the resultant inferno, which backlit Zaeed Massani as he began walking stoically back to Mary and Kasumi. Vido screamed, but only for a few seconds as he burned to a crisp in his armored suit. But the fire spread fast...by the time Vido stopped screaming and was very, very dead, the flames reached the reserve tanks. KRAK-THOOM! The combined detonation was incredible, almost bigger than the destruction of the gunship, and startled Mary and Kasumi...Zaeed whirled in time to see something big and heavy flying at him...
...and a piece of thick support beam landed on him hard, sending him sprawling...it was so big and heavy, the beam kept him pinned down. Zaeed cried, "ARGHHH! Damn it...!" He was hurt, but his hard suit's protective systems were holding.
Not far away, Mary cried, "Zaeed!"
Zaeed looked back at her and Kasumi and barked, "I'm all right, Shepard, but don't just...uhh!...don't just stand there! Help me with this shit!"
Kasumi asked Mary, "Want a hand, Shep?"
Mary regarded Zaeed as she said, "I've got this, Kasumi." The paragon then turned to the master thief and said warmly, "And thank you."
Kasumi nodded deeply as she smiled back. She said, "My pleasure." She pointed in another direction and added, "Um, I'll be standing over here. Where there's no fire!"
The flames from Vido's impromptu funeral pyre and the blasted reserve tanks were spreading slowly, inexorably, toward Zaeed. Still, Mary Shepard calmly took her time to reach the merc's position. She stood over him, assessed the man with a quiet look, and said, "You know something? I'm not sure if I need a man like you on my ship."
Zaeed visibly flinched...he didn't feel like being given a talking-to at the moment and growled, "If you didn't need me, you would have left me on Omega, right?! Cerberus thought you needed me, otherwise they wouldn't have paid my fee! If you're angry about before, if you have doubts you can rely on me, rest assured that I've been paid to follow your orders and that's what I'll do, nothing more or less! Now as much as I'd love to continue this conversation, I'd like to go before that damn fire gets any closer!"
Mary could feel the heat getting closer, but her dark eyes were fixed on Zaeed. She shouted, "We were here to fulfill your contract and liberate this facility! You should have done what you were being paid to do here, but you were so obsessed with getting revenge, you almost killed the people we were meant to save! You put yourself ahead of the mission, Zaeed. You should know that's not the way things work, and I don't want this to happen again!"
Zaeed winced...his stony expression crumbled a little. He said, "I've survived the past twenty years watching my own back and getting what I needed. There was no percentage in worrying about anyone else! Uh -- !"
The man stopped awkwardly because Mary Shepard had her Predator pistol firmly in her right fist...and she was aiming it at Zaeed's scarred face.
The merc's eyes narrowed as he tried to read Mary's dark eyes...was she going to kill him?
Mary asked quietly, "Is that a fact? So if I followed that same line of thought, I shouldn't worry about you?" She let those words sink in for the man, and she hoped they did, once and for all. "You're a part of a team, Zaeed...you're under my command..." Then the paragon slowly, deliberately lifted the pistol's barrel skyward. Her eyes burned into his as she finished, "...and the only way we're going to stop the Collectors is if we work together!"
"You...!" Zaeed was tempted to be angry, but he couldn't be...he knew the paragon was right. He said hesitantly, since he was full of stubborn pride, "Y-you have a point. I dreamed of revenge for twenty damn years, and I let that get in the way of what I am...and what I do. And if it wasn't for your support, I wouldn't have gotten Vido." Once, he would have hated to say something like that...but it didn't feel as bad to say as he thought it would have.
For her part, Mary quietly holstered her Predator and began to help Zaeed...it took some effort from them both, but they managed to move the beam enough for him to get out from under it. Mary then helped the old merc stand, and that didn't feel so bad, either. Zaeed gazed into the paragon's eyes, and the man's expression seemed a little softer. A little more at peace. He mused, "Because of you, I can finally dream about things besides revenge, and I'll never ever forget that." His eyes perceptibly hardened again, and his voice became resolute: "I'm not just with you because I'm being paid to, Shepard. From this moment on I will be working with you, and you've got all of my focus on your mission to stop the Collectors. You have my word of honor on that!" Mary looked back at Zaeed and nodded deeply...she believed the hardened veteran. Zaeed Massani finally asked, "Let's get the hell out of here, huh?"
To Kasumi's relief, the two of them began moving to the relative safety of her position, away from the fire...Mary called in the Normandy to pick them up.
Later. As the Normandy had almost reached the local Mass Relay that would slingshot them to the Widow Nebula and the Citadel. In her Captain's Quarters, Mary answered a door chime...she opened her door to see her lovely Yeoman. With her naturally warm smile, Kelly Chambers greeted, "Hi, Mary."
Mary smiled back. "Kelly, hi. I was about to turn in, is everything all right?"
"Oh, everything's good! I wanted to see how you're doing."
Mary asked, "As our unofficial counselor?"
Kelly answered, "Kind of. I-I won't be long, may I...?"
Without hesitation, Mary stepped to one side and offered, "Please."
The redhead in her black and white uniform stepped in slowly, her hands clasped behind her back. Kelly said carefully, "I mainly wanted to ask about how you felt after that rough patch you and Zaeed ran into. It got pretty intense for a while there, and I wasn't exactly prepared for it!"
Mary eased closer to Kelly after she entered...her steps slow, careful. "Fortunately, I was...I'm just happy it all worked out in the end."
Kelly enthusiastically said, "Me, too." The girl's green eyes shifted, seemed to gently examine the paragon. "Why didn't you stop Zaeed from killing Santiago?"
"Do you feel I should have stopped him?"
"Why ask how I feel about it?"
Mary stared at Kelly for a couple of beats...then: "You didn't answer my question, Kelly."
Kelly crossed her arms, her smile still gentle, as she said, "Which is only fair, since you didn't answer my question first."
Mary looked away for a moment as she stifled a soft laugh. "Ha-ha...yeah. That's only fair." Just like that, she felt herself relax...it was so easy to do that around Kelly. She gazed at her Yeoman and offered, "I could have told Zaeed not to kill Santiago if I wanted to. But would he have listened to me, honestly?"
Kelly frowned. "Doubtful."
Mary nodded. "Zaeed lived with his dreams of revenge for twenty years. I decided that whatever he was going to do, whether he killed Santiago or not, I knew it was what Zaeed needed. For a moment, right after he shot Santiago in his legs, I was sorely tempted to stop him anyway. I think the only way I could have stopped Zaeed was to shoot him, though, and I couldn't do that. But then I realized that Santiago was trying for his gun..."
Kelly said, "Yeah, I saw that, too. Santiago might as well have made the choice for Zaeed. And for you." Mary looked a question at her. Kelly smiled sweetly and offered, "You're definitely not someone who would simply watch one person murder another, Mary."
It was Mary's turn to frown then. "You really feel that way."
"Does that surprise you?"
Self-aware, Mary averted her eyes from Kelly's. "A little...I mean, we just started this mission, and you've seen from your station how many people I've had to kill so far."
Kelly Chambers gazed at Mary and said, "Mary, I've never told you this, but..." The girl paused only for a moment to gather her courage. "You've fascinated me for a long time, ever since I first heard of you two years ago when you became the first Human Spectre, when you started your hunt for Saren Arterius and Sovereign. One thing I quickly understood about you, without a doubt, is that you do something -- or you don't -- for the very best of reasons. It's why so many call you a paragon. You always strive to do what's right. And when you can't do what's right, then you do what's necessary."
Mary felt very warm inside. Self-conscious, careful, she asked, "I've...fascinated you?"
"Y-yeah," Kelly managed, so self-conscious in turn...so innocent. She giggled, "Kasumi's not your only fan, y'know!"
Mary said gently, "I know now, Kelly." Deeply flattered by the girl's words, by the emotion she saw in those amazing green eyes, she said humbly, "I've only wanted to do my best for others, but there's nothing special about me. There really isn't."
Kelly didn't hesitate to say in a heartfelt voice, "Well, I hope you don't mind if I agree to disagree about that, okay?"
So affected, Mary nodded deeply. "Okay...and thank you, Kelly." The paragon's expression turned a bit more serious and she said, "In the end, whether Santiago helped him make his choice or not, it was what Zaeed needed. He had to get out from under all that time dreaming of revenge, and not just for the good of the mission, but for his own good. He needs to be at his best as much as I need him to be."
Kelly Chambers understood. "It was like Consort Sha'ira told you at the Citadel...those fighting with you will need clear minds and glad hearts." Her eyes suddenly brightened with curiosity. "I've been meaning to ask how you met the Consort, by the way! She said something about you helping her...?"
Mary smiled. "The Consort had trouble because of this misunderstanding...it could have turned into something worse, but I simply helped clear the air. That's all." She didn't have to say anymore than that, or go into how the Consort...um, showed her gratitude!
"I see. Well, no matter what the Consort said, I didn't have any problem with you not standing in Zaeed's way." An unsure pause. Kelly said, "How I feel about the whole thing doesn't really matter, though."
Mary's smile shifted, developed a softer, more intimate curve. "How you feel matters, Kelly. It really matters more than you know." The Commander and her Yeoman gazed at each other in the quiet of Mary's quarters for a long moment. It felt so right to be together, they each felt the growing need for one another...yet their feelings were still so new, they were both so hesitant to express them.
Finally, Kelly managed, "A-anyway, Zaeed seems fully committed to the mission now with that personal business done." The girl thought of something and said, "Speaking of personal business! I understand there's something involving Kasumi and a deal...?"
Mary answered, "Yeah, I've been talking to her about it. I can't go into detail about it now, but it's definitely personal for her."
"Oh, okay." Kelly looked at Mary thoughtfully. "You might need to prepare for that from other specialists we recruit. You've been making sure every operative knows how dangerous this mission is before they join us. That might not sink in for them right away. When or if it does, chances are they'll also want to take care of things that are personal to them, like Zaeed and Kasumi."
"I hear you, Kelly. Clear minds and glad hearts. Before this is over, they might have to give their lives to stop the Collectors." Mary didn't say that none of them might survive, the risk factors for the mission on the whole were so extraordinary.
Kelly quickly, lightly said, "Hopefully that won't happen!"
Mary almost laughed, but her eyes were solemn as she nodded. "I hope that too, with all my heart. But you're right. If anyone else we bring on this ship has any personal business that might distract them, they'll need closure. All they need to do is ask, and I'll do anything I can to help them."
Kelly nodded so deeply, it was almost a bow. "I have no doubt you will, Mary. That's the kind of person you are."
Mary wasn't used to such praise, or better to say she was so affected by those words coming from Kelly...her cheeks flushed a little as she felt a burst of warmth in response. She couldn't help but ask, "Did you have anything personal to take care of before the mission goes any further?"
Kelly was genuinely taken aback. Pleasantly flustered, the girl responded: "M-me? Oh no, thank you so much, but I'm okay! My biggest worry is for my sister, and she should be all right on Earth." Kelly smiled softly as she spoke of her sister. "Just as long as Kristy is all right, as long as we can stop the Collectors, I'll be okay." But then the girl's striking green eyes carefully examined Mary. "But what about you, Mary? Do you need any kind of...closure?"
Mary nodded and answered, "I have a few pieces of unfinished business I want to attend to, but I should have plenty of chances to take care of them during the mission." Most prominent of all in her heart was the desire to see those she most cared for, at least one more time. Ash...Liara...Wrex...maybe see dear Tali again... "But there is something very personal I'll be able to take of right after we visit the Citadel."
Kelly asked, "What's that, Mary?"
Mary's words were suddenly quiet as she told the girl, "To pay my respects to lost friends."
The visit to the Citadel was very brief. The frigate was there only long enough to have a large unit of cargo carefully, respectfully loaded into the Normandy's hangar bay by dock workers. In the sealed crate was the memorial statue created to honor the lost crewmembers of the SR-1, just recently finished by the most accomplished and skilled sculptors on the station. After she and Admiral David Anderson finished supervising the loading, Mary and the Normandy left to go to their next destination -- it would take five hours, give or take, to reach the Amada System by Mass Relays.
During that time, Mary became more distant from everyone, much more somber in mood...even from Kelly, and the girl understood perfectly.
They finally reached Alchera, and Mary felt herself shudder as she saw it from the cockpit...the last time she saw this planet, the SR-1 had been destroyed, and --
It took all of her willpower to not dwell on that memory.
Jeff 'Joker' Moreau only had to take one look at the paragon's expression. Seeing her, recalling his own memories of that terrible day, the ace pilot was much quieter than usual. And this was no occasion for his singular sense of humor. Joker personally took Mary and the memorial statue to the crash site by Kodiak shuttlecraft.
After they landed, Mary Shepard left the shuttle by herself at first, sealed in her hardsuit. It...didn't feel real to stand there in the midst of the wreckage of her former command. The original Normandy. The wreckage was spread out over a huge area of this polar region, the ice gleaming under the gorgeous, unending borealis that illuminated the starry sky. The overall feeling was truly spectral, unworldly as she moved carefully on the icy, lifeless surface of this planet.
She was in the open tomb of twenty brave souls who gave everything for her.
Mary began the slow, careful process of finding what little had to be left of her lost crew, left here unprotected and forgotten for two years. Thankfully, the task wasn't too difficult...over the next couple of hours with the help of her Omni-Tool's scanners, she found what little was left of them. For the most part, there was nothing of the deceased that could really be recognizable as Human. Or once alive. But she did find each and every one of their dog tags, which all servicemen in the Alliance Navy wore for such a final eventuality. Testaments of who they were...and where they fell.
Her own breathing sounded so loud in her helmet.
Mary didn't realize she was crying until her sight began to blur.
The paragon soldiered on, completely committed to fulfilling this last obligation to those fallen. When finished, she walked back to the shuttle, where Joker already had the monument prepared for moving by an antigrav lift-and-carry system that he manipulated remotely with his Omni-Tool. He joined Mary and carefully followed her instructions on where to place the monument. It was finally set down and settled into the icy terrain firmly...its tall base had engraved upon it twenty names, topped by a stylized, graceful image of the lost frigate itself soaring upward into the heavens.
Joker didn't care about how long they spent here...he remembered Pressley and the others in his own way as Mary knelt before the monument...her gloved fingers slowly, carefully traced over each engraved name...she took her time...
Finally, Mary stood. Without a word, she returned to the shuttle. Joker followed her.
When the Kodiak returned to the SR-2's Hangar Bay, some of her people were there...most prominent among them were Kelly, Garrus, Karin, Ken and Gabby from Engineering, and a handful of others. Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor were there, too...they both had concerns about how the paragon might have felt, as well, but they knew they were still relative strangers to her, and so were a bit more distant than the rest, trying to be unintrusive. Mary left the shuttle with Joker close behind and she began to bypass everyone, in spite of their expressions of empathy and concern. Joker stopped and said to the others, "Hey, guys. The Commander told me we're gonna go get the next recruit, that Krogan Okeer?" Okeer, like Mordin Solus, was a scientist whose expertise might have been incredibly important to the mission's success...even though according to his dossier, his fellow Krogan had a standing death warrant against him for what were essentially war crimes. "But until we get there, uh, she needs some time to herself, all right?"
Kelly's green eyes were full of sympathy and warmth for her hero...but as the paragon passed by, the girl couldn't help but say softly, "Mary?" The woman in armor paused in her steps...she still wore her helmet, her face couldn't have been seen...and yet she didn't look at her Yeoman in response. Kelly gently reminded the lady, "I-if you need anything...you know I'm here for you." Mary turned briefly to the girl, nodded deeply, and moved with a quickened pace out of the Hangar Bay. Kelly Chambers reluctantly stayed where she was as she watched the paragon leave.
Mary Shepard began to lose her every defense to the sadness and grief as she ascended in the elevator to her quarters on Deck One. The moment she walked through the door, she eagerly took off her helmet, and her cheeks were so wet with tears...her breaths hitched loudly, mournfully as she wept, as she hurriedly stripped the rest of her N7 armor off. She had to get out of that damn armor as quickly as she could, it reminded her too much of those last moments when the SR-1 suffered that last devastating blast and she was thrown clear...only to begin to suffocate in the cold empty of space...it felt like she was experiencing that trauma all over again, and she hoped getting the armor off would help.
But it didn't as, down to her sleeveless tee and panties on her beautiful, athletic form, Mary cried harder as her bare feet stepped down into the sunken portion of her quarters. Her slender hands covered her face as she drew closer to her bed, trying and failing to stifle her sobs. Oh god, it was Hell to flash back to her last moments in her previous life like this, but that wasn't why she was sinking into the depths of despair. It wasn't why her legs felt weaker and weaker and she finally stumbled and fell upon the mattress as she was overwhelmed by her emotions, as she buried her wet face in her sheets to stifle her tormented weeping, as her hands clutched and fiercely took hold of them. Her entire lithe body shuddered as she cried and let go to the soul-wracking emotion. She could only think one coherent thought repeatedly as she laid there...
I don't deserve to be alive.
For over an hour she laid there, lost to any sense of time...her crying only subsided to softer whimpers...her lovely form didn't move, couldn't move, until...
"Commander Shepard?" It was EDI's voice in the air. "Please respond, Commander. Are you all right?"
"Ohh...snff..." Mary's face lifted from her sheets...her red eyes looked up at the blue holographic orb not far away. She managed, "E-EDI, you...you caught me at a really bad time..."
EDI tentatively said, "I can see that, Commander. Please forgive me for intruding, I..."
"No, you're okay." The paragon quickly rose and sat on her knees on the mattress. She wiped at her cheeks furiously with both hands as she composed herself as best she could. She had returned most of the way to herself as she said in a stronger voice, "I-I'm all right...snff!" She took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself further, though. "You wouldn't be calling me if it wasn't important, EDI. What's wrong?"
"We have received a high-priority communication from the Illusive Man. He wishes to speak directly to you."
Mary flinched. It wasn't an answer she expected or wanted. "Dammit." She got out of bed and got a robe from one of her drawers...she quickly put it on as she strode up the short stairs to her desk. Maybe he had to see her, but he didn't need to see so much of her. Mary ordered, "Put him through to the main monitor in my quarters."
There was a glass display above her desk that gave her a view of the rest of her quarters...it also served as a large monitor that flared to life as she reached her desk, and she quickly saw the visage of the Illusive Man himself, the leader of Cerberus. The man was smoking a cigarette as he greeted simply, "Commander Shepard."
The robed woman crossed her arms as she stood there and answered neutrally, "Illusive Man." She still couldn't trust this man...she certainly couldn't bring herself to like him. "I can guess this isn't a courtesy call?"
The man with bright cybernetic eyes said, "Far from it, Shepard. Cerberus has something of a crisis on its hands, and I believe you may be the best person to make things right again."
Mary frowned. "What are you talking about? We agreed I wouldn't assist any of your organization's activities in any way!"
"That was part of our agreement, and I'm not attempting to invalidate it. This isn't about supporting Cerberus. It's about saving lives...if that's even possible now."
Mary Shepard stared at his image. "What do you mean?"
"We've lost contact with our Overlord Cell...they've been conducting experiments in a remote system in The Phoenix Massing."
"What kind of experiments?"
A trace of annoyance infiltrated the Illusive Man's voice when he answered, "The kind of a highly classified nature. I can say that the project they were undertaking was extremely hazardous, and there were signs that things were going wrong before Overlord went silent. I need you to lead a squad to investigate the facility and determine if there are any survivors -- "
Suddenly, strongly, Mary interrupted him: "No! I'm not just going to rush wherever not knowing what I'm going to be dealing with, and I wouldn't ask anyone else to do that!"
Cerberus' leader gave the paragon a look. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Shepard, but one day you and your crew will have to traverse the Omega-4 Relay, and you won't know -- !"
"That's different! We're still recruiting specialists and gathering intelligence on the Collectors! By the time we use the Omega-4 Relay, we should have some kind of idea of where we'll be going and what we'll face!" Mary Shepard took a step toward the monitor and said in an unyielding, angry tone, "But I'm not going to put anyone in my command at risk for something we can't know about because it's highly classified! You either give me a little more to work with and prepare for, or I'll end this conversation right now!"
The Illusive Man sat forward in his chair and quickly said, "You don't have to do that, Shepard."
The lady stared at him as she said, "Then give me something, Illusive Man."
It took only a beat for him to calculate a response...he told her, "It's very likely you'll have to contend with a rogue artificial intelligence. I can't give all of the details for security's sake, but Project Overlord involved the creation of a countermeasure against the Geth. The project is substantial in size and involves over a hundred scientists and technicians, and they might be dying as we speak." The man grimly added, "And if anything has gone wrong, it won't just be Overlord that's at risk."
Mary asked, "More people could be threatened?"
"If I'm right, the entire galaxy could be threatened...therefore, you'll understand the urgency of my request. You're at liberty to refuse to go, if you wish." His expression shifted as he sat back, as his bright eyes examined Mary. "But will you ignore the fact that over a hundred lives are in danger, if they're not dead already?"
Mary looked down at the floor as she stood there. She thought carefully about it for a few beats but in the end, for her, it was no choice at all. If he was telling the truth, if this was as important as he said and it meant saving lives...she looked at the monitor again and said, "You know I can't ignore something like that. Give us the destination coordinates and we'll check it out." She still had a vague feeling of discomfort, though...was the Illusive Man giving her enough information to prepare?
The Illusive Man nodded, a small, satisfied smile on his face. "Thank you, Commander. I'm sending coordinates to EDI now. Good luck." His image disappeared as the monitor deactivated.
Mary took a deep breath and finally whispered, "Asshole." She looked to another holographic projector for her ship's A.I. and asked, "EDI, do you have the coordinates?"
EDI's holo-representation appeared and answered efficiently, "Yes, Commander. Project Overlord is on the planet Aite, in the remote Typhon System of The Phoenix Massing."
Mary Shepard nodded and activated her comm system...she spoke crisply, "Joker, it's Shepard!" The paragon wondered if her unease was a foreboding as she told her pilot, "There's been a change of plans..."
TO BE CONTINUED