MASS EFFECT: PARAMOUR
written by Charles Spencer
"PARAGON OF LIGHT, PATH OF SHADOWS"
The Presidium of the Citadel, in the comm room of the Human Embassy. Mary Shepard's status as an extralegal agent of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Office had just been reactivated by the Citadel Council, ostensibly their way of supporting her in her mission to stop the Collectors. The way things had been going for too much of the meeting, though, it seemed the Council was set on refusing to help her, perhaps even have her arrested for being backed by the terrorist organization Cerberus...to the relief of Mary and those who accompanied her, her mentor Admiral David Anderson, as well as Garrus Vakarian and Zaeed Massani, Consort Sha'ira and her acolyte Nelyna arrived to support her. Admiral Anderson finally sighed, "Well...that went better than I expected." He looked at Mary and said, "You do realize making you a Spectre again is symbolic, at best. The Council won't actually do anything to help."
Mary looked back at him thoughtfully and nodded. "At least they won't be standing in my way, either. Besides, it's no good to burn bridges."
Anderson smiled. "True enough! And they won't give you any trouble as long as you keep your activities in open space."
Mary looked at Sha'ira warmly and said, "Thank you so much for speaking on my behalf, Sha'ira. I didn't know you had such influence with the Council."
Sha'ira smiled and bowed gracefully. "The Councilors have...called upon my services at one time or another, Mary. My advisement has proven to be of great value to them over the years, and they have learned to listen to me on matters of great importance. Even if I was not indebted to you, especially for your saving my life along with Nelyna's and so many others during the Battle of the Citadel, it was a pleasure to speak for you." She and Nelyna exchanged a sad look before Sha'ira added, "Not all of my acolytes survived that crisis, but I know beyond any doubt you did your very best in spite of your enemies. And I know you will continue to do your best, for all of our sakes."
"Anderson!" The man's shout came from the doorway to the comm room just after it opened, as Earth Ambassador and Councilor Donnel Udina entered. He marched in with brisk steps as he began, "We need to talk about -- !" He stopped dead in his tracks as his mouth went dry. Udina saw that Anderson had guests...it was surprising enough to see the Consort there, but his eyes couldn't help but lock on the beautiful Human soldier amongst them. He managed, "Shepard...?"
Mary Shepard looked at him neutrally and asked, "Not used to seeing ghosts, Udina?"
Udina took a few halting steps closer toward the paragon as everyone else in the room watched. Garrus had no care at all for Udina, remembering how the bureaucrat turned on Shepard and her crew two years before...Zaeed looked at the man in stately clothes like a breed of bug he hadn't seen before. The Human Councilor said, "I-I'd heard you were alive, of course. Actually seeing you again takes a bit of getting used to. You're undoubtedly here for the meeting with me and the rest of the Council...!"
Anderson said, "The meeting's already over, Udina. You were running late, so I took the liberty of starting things without you."
Udina virtually exploded in sudden rage...he said with increasing volume, "You went to the rest of the Council behind my back?! Do the words 'political shitstorm' mean anything to you?!?"
Mary Shepard spoke: "Calm down, you didn't miss much. The Council isn't happy with what I'm doing or my being involved with Cerberus...still, they reinstated me as a Spectre. What mattered to them is I keep my activities in open space."
Udina took a few beats to absorb that...and he nodded after his bureaucrat's mind thought of it from every angle. He mused, "Yes...yes, I can see how that arrangement would work for all sides involved." He suddenly glared at Anderson, though. "You still overstepped your bounds going behind my back in such a way, Anderson. This was a bigger insult than you punching me in the face long ago! Maybe it's past time the Systems Alliance found me a new advisor!"
Mary gave the politician a look. She asked, "You sure you want to do that? Do you really want everyone to know your advisor arranged a deal without you?"
Anderson himself said mildly, "You can just go along with this and say you knew...or, you can explain to the Alliance how you want to have me replaced for doing your job."
A tense couple of beats passed...and Udina finally grumbled, "Hm...I know how the game is played. I'll tell my fellow Councilors I'm on-board."
Mary purred, "Better hurry. They're a fickle bunch. They tend to forget who their friends are."
Udina's lips tightened into a thin line as he stared at Mary. He was about to say something curt in reaction, but suddenly someone else said, "Councilor Udina?" Sha'ira's young acolyte stepped up to the man and bowed gently. "I am Nelyna, and I wanted to take a few moments to discuss your future appointment to meet the Consort."
"Uh...!" The Councilor suddenly looked very self-conscious as his cheeks glowed a little. He gave an awkward glance at the Consort before he managed, "Ahem, that's a very private matter -- !"
Nelyna smiled brightly. "Of course, which is why I ask if we can speak in your office. The Consort herself would talk to you personally, but you can imagine she is very busy."
Mary was quietly amused by how out of sorts Udina seemed to be...the man barely knew what to say. "I, ah -- uh -- !"
Then Nelyna gestured to the doors to the comm room and said, "Let us go to your office, Councilor, it will only take a few moments." The girl's eyes gazed into his innocently. "Please?"
Udina finally stammered, "A-all right." As Nelyna led him out of the comm room, he asked, "B-but what about my appointment? I made it over two years ago, and I still have months longer to wait...!"
Nelyna answered, "Well, I'm afraid your appointment with the Consort must be postponed another few months -- !"
Udina was clearly aghast as he almost stumbled on his way out. "WHAT? But I've already been waiting so long!"
Nelyna responded, "Ah, personal matters have caused the Consort to...um, reshuffle her schedule. I'll explain further in your office, Councilor."
Councilor Udina groaned as the two of them left.
No one else there minded his departure at all. Admiral Anderson shook his head and growled quietly, "Udina's such an ass! Bad as he was two years ago, he's ten times worse now as part of the Council." He looked at Mary. "Better him than me, though, and he has been doing well promoting Alliance interests."
Mary smiled warmly at her mentor. "If I had suggested you be Earth's Councilor instead of Udina two years ago, you would have hated every minute of it."
"You know me too well, Shepard." Anderson looked at Sha'ira and offered his hand. "Thank you very much for your assistance, Consort Sha'ira. We both deeply appreciated it." Sha'ira took his hand, and he bowed deeply...Mary for her part simply gazed at the Consort with clear and present gratitude.
"As I said, Admiral, it was my pleasure." Sha'ira then turned to Mary...she drew very close to the paragon. "Thank you again, Mary. I feel like I owe you an apology, as well." Mary looked a question at her. "I had thought my gift of words had been lost to you when I heard of your death, but I am truly happy to know I was wrong and that you've resumed your journey."
Mary smiled warmly and said, "You have nothing to apologize for, Sha'ira. It's not like you can look into the future, right?"
The expression in Sha'ira's eyes stayed characteristically gentle, yet Mary also saw a subtle...shift in them in reaction. The Consort smiled in an inscrutable way and said, "Well...sometimes I cannot see everything I need to." Mary frowned a little, not comprehending the meaning behind those words, but then the Asari said, "Your returning to us does show once and for all that you are indeed a survivor, whether by your own strength or with the support of others. You must undoubtedly remember what I told you when you began your journey, Mary...?"
Mary's expression was truly solemn...she did remember the Consort's gift well. "Yes. I didn't understand at the time, but ever since the meaning of what you said became clearer to me." Even though she didn't have a photographic memory, strangely, she still remembered virtually every word the Consort told her:
"This gift of words will serve you on the journey you have only just begun. This gift is an affirmation of who you are...and perhaps who you might yet become. You have lived the life of a survivor, Commander. Your skin is as tough as Turian scales, an unyielding wall between you and everyone else. It protects you, makes you strong. You were forced to face a great tragedy...you lived as everyone around you died. You suffered so because of that tragedy, but that pain is also what drives you. The pain only made you stronger, as well. You will need your strength during the journey ahead...by your own efforts and with the support of those closest to you, you shall survive great trials.
"But remember what you are is not necessarily who you will become. Where you have been is only the foundation...future experience will continue to build and shape you into a woman who will do truly great things. Your journey will have a profound effect upon you, just as your choices will have an effect on everything and everyone around you. Your strength might one day become a bright light for everyone to see...you have the potential to terrify your enemies, empower your loved ones, and inspire those you have sworn to defend. Remember these words whenever doubt descends, Mary."
Mary recalled those words as she said softly, "I do understand how much of an impact my decisions can have on others...I won't ever take that for granted, Sha'ira. I promise." She wanted to say more...yet she hesitated. "But..."
The Consort drew closer, her gaze sympathetic. "I know how troubled you are by where your journey has taken you. It's understandable you feel doubt. You've come back to us to walk amongst dark shadows, but it shall not be for long. As long as you are true to yourself and all you believe to be right, you will not tread in the dark for long. In fact, this path into shadow might bring so much more reward to you and to others than you can possibly imagine." The Asari lifted her hand, and her fingers softly touched Mary's cheek. The paragon was so affected, her breaths became shallower. Sha'ira counseled, "But keep in mind that it will not be solely your strength and courage that will be tested." Sha'ira drew very close, softly kissed Mary on one cheek as her touch lingered on the other, and spoke into her ear gently: "Remember others journey with you...remember they will need to fight by your side with clear minds and glad hearts." Sha'ira stepped back, smiled radiantly, and finished: "Be well, Mary." Then, with perfect grace, the Consort left.
David Anderson, like Garrus and Zaeed, was quietly moved as he watched the Consort leave, but he kept his feelings to himself. He couldn't help but think of someone else, a woman who touched his heart long ago...that, however, was something to be explored at another time. Mary Shepard also kept her feelings close to the vest, even though unlike Anderson she had once shared truly intimate, Heavenly moments with the extraordinary Asari at the start of her fateful journey.
Anderson finally looked at Mary and said, "Now that we're finished with the Council, it's past time you got to talk to someone else." Anderson moved to the main communications console. "He wasn't in the mood to speak to the Councilors, and I'm sure you understand why, but he's still been listening in all this time." The man simply touched a few keys as he asked, "Isn't that right, Admiral Hackett?"
Another of the holo-arrays brightened and coalesced into the real-time image of Admiral Steven Hackett from Earth...the battle-scarred veteran, the highest officer of the ESA's Navy, said in answer, "Exactly right, Anderson." Hackett looked directly at Mary and nodded deeply. "Shepard, it's truly amazing to see you've come back to us."
Mary immediately went ramrod-straight and offered a brisk salute. "Admiral!"
Hackett's image held up a hand and said, "At ease, there's no need for formality! At least, not at the moment. I have been listening in, and rest assured I fully understand why you took this mission with the backing of Cerberus." Mary relaxed a little before the leader's penetrating gaze, but then Hackett said, "Before I say anything else, Anderson and I know about your uplink to your ship...we know your crew's been watching. I understand they had an interest in hearing what the Council had to say, but now it's time to discuss Alliance business. And to be blunt, anyone with Cerberus doesn't have to hear or see anything else! David, if you would?"
Anderson said crisply, "Yes, sir!" He activated his Omni-Tool, and it took only a little manipulation of its controls --
-- and just like that, the transmission from Shepard was cut off. Kelly Chambers moaned, "Aww!" Many of the crew visibly responded with disappointment, as well.
Except for Miranda Lawson...she smiled a little as she mused, "Hmf...I'm surprised they didn't do that sooner."
. Mary Shepard understood completely, and she wasn't surprised at all. Hackett looked at Mary and said, "Even if the Council won't come right out and say it, Shepard, we owe you a debt for your heroism two years ago. You saved a lot of lives, including me and most of the Fifth Fleet when you gave us the opening to help you destroy Sovereign." The man frowned with worry then and he said, "Still, in spite of what Consort Sha'ira said, however long your association with Cerberus will last, Earth's government is that damn close to issuing a warrant for your arrest!"
Anderson's expression became dour as he stared at his former student and he emphasized, "As much as Hackett and I believe in you, Shepard, even we have to question your decisions! This mission is dangerous enough, I don't have to tell you that it isn't a good idea by any measure to take it upon yourself to affiliate with terrorists! You are flirting with charges of treason, and too many in the Parliament and the admiralty don't want to be as understanding of your reasons as we are!"
Mary looked at them both and said, "I simply want to save our people and stop the Collectors. For godsakes, the Alliance has never faced a crisis like this before, even during our conflicts with the Batarians. Our colonies are being systematically wiped out one by one, our people taken for...I'm afraid to ask why they're being taken, especially if I'm right about the Reapers being involved! I wouldn't even be working with Cerberus if I thought I had a better option, but no one else was taking any action at all, and all things considered it seemed like the best choice I had! If the Alliance Navy was allowed to mobilize and defend our colonies in the Terminus Systems -- !"
Hackett's mood visibly darkened as he said, "We can't, Shepard. It's the policy set by Parliament and the Defense Committee itself." The Defense Committee was basically an extension of the Parliament, and made up of admirals given the responsibility of overseeing the Navy and ensuring it obeyed political policies. "I'd love nothing better than to tell them to go to hell and deploy battle groups to guard at least our most vulnerable and remote colonies...for godsakes, we just lost Ferris Fields! That's eight of our colonies gone without a damned trace."
Anderson said on a sympathetic note, "The public on Earth lost their patience long ago, Shepard. Protests have been spreading like wildfire as people have been screaming for the same thing we want, positive action to defend our colonies and end the threat. Unfortunately, Parliament is still standing firm."
The paragon shook her head softly. "Anderson, I just don't understand...!"
Sourly, her mentor explained: "It's the official position that Earth should focus on building relations and having a policy of openness to all cultures in the galaxy as a new addition to the Council Worlds. The powers that be feel that shifting our focus to defending our colonies would be seen as a selfish step by the rest of the galaxy. They also fear other races might think we'd use the colony disappearances as an excuse to aggressively claim unincorporated space."
Mary Shepard said instantly, "That's bullshit!"
"That's politics, Shepard, and there's very little the Navy can do about it right now."
Admiral Hackett said, "But you're trying to stop the disappearances, Shepard, and I wish I could give you an entire fleet for support to track down the Collectors. I understand you're officially 'on the grid' again because of Citadel Security."
Mary turned fully to Hackett's image. "Yes, sir?"
"News travels fast, and you're now listed as alive and well not just on Earth and throughout the Alliance, but I'm sure on every Council World, too. That shouldn't have an affect on you when you have to work in secret as a Spectre in open space, but I can at least do this to show my support and Anderson's." Admiral Hackett's stance became firmer as he said formally, "Effective now, Commander Shepard, you're reinstated as an officer of the Alliance Navy with all of the privileges and authority that comes with your rank!"
Mary felt very warm...she couldn't contain her smile as she saluted Hackett again. "Thank you, Admiral!"
Hackett nodded warmly. "You are flying a ship built by a terrorist organization. If you have to enter Alliance space for any reason, it'll help keep our Navy off your back. I'm sorry to say I can't help you anymore than that for now."
Admiral David Anderson said, "Admiral Hackett and I will also do our best to hold off the likes of Udina and run interference against idiots out there who see you as a liability or worse, a traitor. Bottom line, Shepard: you'll need to show them how wrong they are and that your association with Cerberus is a necessary, temporary evil!"
Resolute, Mary saluted her mentor, as well. "Aye, sir!" Inevitably, she thought of something that brought heat to her blood...she looked at Anderson and asked tensely, "I didn't have the chance to ask while the Council was here, but I need to know what the current situation is with the unknown cruiser that destroyed the SR-1 two years ago! I've learned since I was brought back that I lost twenty of my crew including Charles Pressley, my Navigator." It was all she could do to control her anger again as she asked, "Was that ship ever identified? Were there any clues to where it came from?"
Anderson said quietly, "Negative, Shepard. The Navy has been actively hunting for that damn ship ever since...since you lost your command, but we haven't had any luck. There have been no reports anywhere of any encounter with a vessel like it, either."
Mary said, "I had the thought they might have been Geth, since we were actively hunting for them. But that cruiser definitely wasn't a Geth design."
Hackett said, "Some of your crew managed to keep sensor records of the unknown with them when they escaped, but those records didn't do us much good. The ship was heavily shielded, so there were no accurate readings, nothing in the records that gave us any clue to the ship's origins."
The paragon mused, "All I know for sure is that ship had incredible power, so much we never had a chance." She looked at Anderson. "You said there were never reports of anyone seeing a vessel like it...I can guess it has been seen since, but no one lived to tell about it."
Hackett's image nodded. "Naval Intelligence had the same thought, and there have been disappearances of vessels in open space since we lost you. None of those events seem to be related or connected to what happened to you, but...we just don't have enough information."
Disappointment flooded Mary's expression, but Anderson reassured, "If it means anything, Shepard, we'll never stop looking for those bastards, no matter where they came from."
Mary sighed. "It means a lot, sir." She then thought of her crew at present, those who swore to follow her and stop the Collectors. "I...I need to ask about something else very important. You must know that most of my crew are affiliated with Cerberus...but they were recruited into the organization specifically for this mission, because it was believed they would best be able to support me, like former Lieutenant Moreau and Doctor Chakwas."
Admiral Hackett said simply, "Yes, Commander. Naval Intelligence is aware of that, and that only two of your crew are veteran Cerberus agents, Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor."
Mary became more and more tense, her eyes more worried as she spoke. "Well, Jeff and Karin wouldn't have become a part of this operation and Cerberus if it wasn't for my involvement. And like me, they only have the best interests of Earth and the Council in mind doing that. During the course of this mission, I'll need to recruit specialists who will improve the chances of our mission's success." She turned and gestured to her companions. "I'm accompanied right now by two of those agents, my longtime colleague Garrus Vakarian and freelance operative Zaeed Massani."
Anderson nodded as he gazed at the operatives and turned back to his former protegee...he said, "Understood, Shepard. What are you trying to say?"
Mary looked at Anderson as she thought of her crew. She thought of how most of them weren't terrorists, not really, and that couldn't ever have been said about Kelly Chambers, who Mary couldn't help but picture in her heart above all. God, in the short time they've known each other, she liked Kelly so much... "According to the Citadel Council, my crew and I will be immune from prosecution for as long as the mission lasts...but I want to know what will happen after the mission is done. You know better than anyone how seriously I take the welfare of my crew, Anderson. If I do have to answer for my partnership with Cerberus, I want to be sure that no one else under my command will."
Anderson gave Garrus and Zaeed a measured glance before he told the paragon, "I can say categorically that when it comes to the specialists you've already recruited and those you still need to bring aboard your mission, if none of them are directly affiliated with Cerberus, there shouldn't be any issues."
Hackett's projection nodded deeply as the man said, "Agreed!" He paused briefly as he frowned a little. "It won't be so simple for Moreau and Chakwas, however. Chakwas essentially deserted her duty to join you, while Moreau resigned his commission long ago."
Mary looked at Hackett and tried to make her case: "But they both wouldn't have joined Cerberus and this mission if it wasn't for me. The same goes for most of the crew, and they were recruited literally barely a month ago in order to support me. They all simply wanted to do what's right, to stop the colony abductions...!"
In a quiet, neutral tone, Anderson interrupted with a question: "But you can't say the same for Cerberus agents Lawson and Taylor, can you?" Mary stared at him...and finally gazed down at the floor quietly. She couldn't answer that.
Hackett's eyes looked at Mary curiously. "You seem to already be personally involved with the interests of your crew, Commander."
Mary turned to Hackett and said, without hesitation, "With all due respect, Admiral Hackett, is that wrong to feel that way? A good captain always looks out for the best interests of her crew, and it doesn't matter if most of the crew under me now were recruited by terrorists. The risks of this mission are literally beyond any measure compared to my hunt for Saren and the Conduit! It's personal because my crew is risking everything, just like I am, and..." She stopped...and as she thought of Kelly again, she said with quiet earnest, "I don't want anything to happen to them, sir."
Anderson considered her for a moment, his gaze sympathetic. "I understand, Shepard. Still, the situation is far from simple. At this time I can't answer your concerns, as much as I want to."
Hackett said, "Neither can I. However, best case scenario, if your mission is a success...if you and your crew bring an end to the Collector threat...what you accomplished will have a profound and positive weight on how things will proceed after that. Until then, no promises can be made. Understood?"
Whether she liked it or not, Mary knew she had to settle for that...she responded, "Yessir." Her being relaxed a little then as her thoughts shifted to someone else she cared for deeply, a dear friend she left behind two years ago, someone she needed to ask about. Mary looked at her mentor. "Anderson...where is Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams? I wanted to reconnect with her, but I can't find any information on her status through normal channels." She still found it unusual that in spite of his information network, the Illusive Man couldn't pinpoint where Ash was or what she was doing, either.
Before Anderson answered, Admiral Hackett enlightened Mary: "Actually, Shepard, Williams was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant since you've been gone."
The paragon's bright smile reflected her delight. "That's wonderful, sir! I remember sending a letter of recommendation to Officer Training School for Ash right after the Battle of the Citadel! But I never heard back from them before..." Before she died, but she couldn't finish that sentence.
Anderson said warmly, "Bureaucracy usually runs slow, Shepard. Right after we lost you, OTS accepted Williams...she joined the officer ranks just a few months after that."
"Where is Ash? I hope it's possible to see her again...?" Her dark eyes looked at Anderson hopefully.
But her mentor's words had the same effect as a bucket of ice water: "I'm afraid that for the time being I can't say, Shepard. Lieutenant Williams is on a classified mission for the Navy. I know how much she must mean to you, but...I can say nothing further. I'm sorry."
Disappointed, Mary nodded softly. "I understand, Anderson. I just wanted to see her again, let her know I'm all right. Can I at least write a message to her...?"
"Unfortunately, no...but I'm sure she will know you're okay, one way or the other."
"All right." She regarded both Anderson and Hackett as she said, "I'm afraid I have to go very soon, but was there anything I can do? You know that outside of my search for the Collectors, I won't hesitate to follow any orders you have for me."
Hackett's image said, "Rest assured, Commander, we'll keep that in mind. In fact...there is something you can help us with, and I believe you'll have a personal interest."
The hero asked, "Yes, Admiral?"
"It's about your former command, the SSV Normandy. I wanted to ask that you travel to its crash site on Alchera in the Amada System for two important reasons. First, I want to have a monument erected at the site to memorialize the crewmembers you lost. After all this time, we never got the opportunity to give you and the rest of your crew who were K.I.A. the respect you deserved."
Mary Shepard was affected instantly...sadness was thick in her voice as she said, "I-I didn't know that, sir."
Anderson offered, "Two years ago, the Defense Committee decided that such things were of secondary importance as the Navy proceeded with rebuilding, and they still haven't seen fit to rectify the damned situation. All that could be done was an initial survey of the crash site. It didn't help matters that we never found your remains...we now know why, of course." Because Cerberus somehow got possession of Mary's body before anyone else could.
Hackett spoke then. "That brings me to the second reason for this request, Shepard. The remains of the crewmembers lost were never recovered, and their families need some kind of closure. If you can retrieve evidence of their passing while you're at the crash site, it would be greatly appreciated. Simply personal items like their dog tags are all that would be necessary."
Mary nodded deeply, eagerly. She thought of Pressley and the rest of the crewmembers she lost...she absolutely owed it to them. "Of course, sir. I...I have something to attend to before I can do that." She glanced at Zaeed, remembering his contract. "It's important to the mission, and it shouldn't take too long."
"Understood, Commander. I can only offer my deepest apologies that it took so long to honor the people you lost." Anderson looked at Mary with as much sympathy as Hackett did. Two years dead and gone, their remains so far from their homeworld...the lost of the SR-1 deserved a helluva lot more respect than that. "Take two days and return to the Citadel. By then we should have a proper monument crafted by the Citadel's best artisans for you to take to the crash site."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Hackett's projection said, "You undoubtedly have a lot to do, Commander, so we won't keep you any further. Again, I wish we could give you more assistance."
"Take the best of care, Shepard," Anderson said. "Especially for as long as you're dealing with Cerberus."
Stoic yet warm, Mary Shepard nodded deeply. "I will, Anderson, and thank you. Admiral Hackett, sir." With a formal salute, she rejoined Garrus and Zaeed. The three of them quietly left the communications room.
Admiral David Anderson gazed at the door Mary exited from after it closed for a few tense beats...his expression tightened as he said, "I hated like hell keeping the truth from her, Hackett."
Admiral Hackett's projection regarded him. "You did your duty, David. Lieutenant Williams is on a classified mission, after all."
Admiral David Anderson turned to look at Hackett. "Yes, based on bad information collected by Naval Intelligence, which led us to believe Cerberus was responsible for the disappearances! But now Shepard is telling us the Collectors are responsible. I don't doubt her for a moment, and that means all of our colonies are at greater hazard than we imagined, including Horizon!"
If Admiral Steven Hackett was affected by Anderson's worry, he didn't show it. The strong tone in his voice didn't flag as he reminded: "That doesn't change the fact our ability to respond will still be limited, whether Williams will have the chance to call for help or not. No, David. For now, as long as Earth's government is keeping the Navy from doing what has to be done, we can only lay our hopes on Shepard and that she can stop the Collectors."
The three of them only spent a couple of hours longer on the Citadel, shopping in the Presidium and then the Zakera Ward for essentials they'd need for their mission. As Mary found new upgrades for her cybernetics, for weapons and other important items -- including a bottle of Serrice Iced Brandy she knew Karin Chakwas would have appreciated -- Garrus Vakarian took some time to purchase components for a weapon that would improve the SR-2's offensive capabilities by leaps and bounds. He couldn't get everything he needed, though, and he knew it would take some intensive searching in the weeks to come to find the rest of the parts for the Thanix Cannon, a weapon so powerful it was meant to be used on Dreadnaught-class ships. It was good to find vendors who were receptive to the idea of giving Mary and her friends a discount...as long as she could provide an endorsement for their business. There were some times it helped to be a celebrity...
...but for the most part it didn't help at all. Case in point: the paragon and her squadmates were done and only meters away from reaching a skycar terminal, where they would have traveled to their ship's dock, but a familiar voice suddenly called after her: "Mary Shepard! Shepard, please wait!" The voice wasn't familiar in a good way, and Mary felt her heart sink. She stopped and turned around, and it was exactly who she thought, a woman of dusky beauty closing in fast. She was a journalist the hero met before...unfortunately. That woman was followed closely by a couple of floating camera drones...she finally reached Mary and announced, "Khalisah bint-Sinan al-Jilani, Westerland News!" Mary simply looked at her. Hesitantly, Khalisah added, "Ah, I interviewed you two years ago, after you became a Spectre?"
Mary simply folded her arms across her bosom and she said coolly, "I remember you. What do you want?"
The journalist answered with a grin, "Come on, Shepard, you honestly have to ask? I'm looking at the Hero of the Citadel back from the dead! I want to interview you!"
The paragon was afraid of that, and she wasn't in the mood. Not even close. Mary began to dismiss the woman by saying, "So you can make me look bad in front of your audience again? No, thanks."
Khalisah gave Mary a look. "Now Shepard, you may object with my methods, but we're on the same side. Besides, you're back, that means you're news! And with all of the rumors flying around, this is your chance to tell everyone what's true and what isn't! A lot of people are calling you a terrorist." The woman deliberately paused for affect. "Or don't you have anything to say about that?"
It took a couple of beats for Mary to decide. "All right...but I can't stay long, this has to be quick."
The lady beamed brightly and said, "Okay, thank you!" Quickly, Khalisah accessed her Omni-Tool...she moved her camera drones into set postions in the air as she said, "Scott, set me up to cut into the Extranet live in 30 seconds! I'm about to talk to Mary Shepard! No, I'm serious, set me up, dammit!"
Close by, Zaeed Massani scowled and asked, "Who the hell is this?"
Garrus Vakarian stood next to him and answered neutrally, "Just a reporter we ran into two years ago, Zaeed. She was so annoying, Shepard was tempted to punch her out." Garrus also didn't like this woman at all.
It was clear Zaeed didn't, either...he growled, "I sympathize. Just five seconds in front of this bitch and I want to hit her, too."
Only a moment later, the cameras' lights flared brightly...and Khalisah was being broadcast across the known galaxy as she stood in front of the hero and announced to the cameras, "Ladies and gentlemen and fellow sentients, it's my honor to bring to you Commander Mary Shepard, the Hero of the Citadel herself!" She turned to look at Mary and said, "For two years you've been declared killed in action, but you're back and effective today you're listed in official records as alive again. How did you come back to life? Where have you been all this time?"
Mary had to contain her dislike as best she could, so she could only manage a neutral, all business tone as she answered. She had to keep in mind her conduct and everything she said would ultimately reflect on her as an Alliance officer and as a Spectre. "It was only recently I came back, Khalisah, after two years of work by Cerberus medical scientists. Ever since I've been doing my best to catch up on lost time, but my primary focus is stopping the disappearances of Human colonies."
Khalisah looked back at her audience, her expression somber as she said, "Yes, and Ferris Fields is the most recent colony to be lost." The lady looked at Mary again. "But you're an officer of the Alliance Navy, and you've come back to us working for an extremist organization of terrorists. I find that unusual considering your vocal opposition of the Terra Firma movement two years ago, which like Cerberus endorsed Human supremacy." Her eyes examined the paragon as she asked, "Or maybe you feel indebted to Cerberus for bringing you back to life? Perhaps you've changed your mind and you agree with their views of -- ?"
No. Mary couldn't let Khalisah try anything like that again, sensationalizing something so important for the sake of gaining more viewers. Mary took a step toward Khalisah, and her eyes were hard as she interrupted: "Let me make this perfectly clear, Khalisah. I haven't changed my mind about anything. I haven't changed one damn bit. I'm not endorsing Cerberus' agenda and their organization, and I'm sure as hell not working for them. They are simply giving support to my mission to stop the Collectors from taking any more of our colonies, and that's all. We both want the same thing, but we have absolutely nothing in common."
Taken aback, Khalisah managed, "The Collectors...?" The reporter grinned and said, "Shepard, I've heard of the Collectors and they're nothing more than a myth...an interstellar urban legend -- !"
There was such an intensity in Mary's eyes as she said, "Oh, no. They're very real. I've seen them for myself taking Humans from Freedom's Progress. Let me show you..." She accessed her Omni-Tool, and for the next couple of moments, Khalisah and her viewers saw some of the same evidence she showed to the Council. Collectors taking Humans from the colony. Mary shut down her Omni-Tool and asked flatly, "Seen enough?"
Surprised, more than slightly frightened by what she saw, Khalisah managed, "Y-yes." It took only a beat for her to recover and press on with her interview. "Still...there are some in Earth's Parliament and the Alliance Navy who are calling you a traitor for even associating with Cerberus. How would you respond to them?"
Mary Shepard looked at Khalisah bint-Sinan al-Jilani with a stoic expression. "No matter what I say here and now, I know I'm not going to change their minds. But I will say that these are the same people who have decided that our most remote colonies are on their own. Go straight to Parliament in London. Ask the powers that be if politics are worth the tens of thousands of men, women and children gone without a trace. Ask them that and see how they respond." Mary let that sink in for Khalisah and her viewers before she finished quietly, "I'm done here." The paragon left with Garrus and Zaeed.
Zaeed told Mary that according to his intel from Zorya, Vido Santiago and his Blue Suns were still waiting for a response from the company that owned the refinery they had taken. He knew Vido well enough that it would still be a couple of days before the refinery workers were in any real danger from Vido. Then the merc leader would have started killing hostages to get what he wanted from the company. It would have been another half a day of travel to reach Zorya and Mary wanted herself and her crew at their best for such a dangerous situation. So she decided to keep the Normandy where it was in the docks for at least half a day for down time and preparation. First, Mary made it her priority to speak at length with her latest recruit and the personal matter the girl needed help with.
The Observation cabin on the ship's Crew Deck, where Kasumi Goto made her quarters. Mary summed up everything she had just been told by the master thief. "So basically you're planning a heist from this Donovan Hock to get back your late partner's graybox."
Kasumi Goto sat casually next to Shepard on the couch as they spoke, but Mary could feel the underlying tension and emotion that belied the girl's conversational tone. "Yep! Keiji's graybox is important to me because it has all of his personal memories digitally stored in a neural archive. And I mean...very personal. It's important to Hock because the same information that got Keiji killed is amongst his memories, and if he gets it Hock will sell the information to the highest bidder." There was a subtle urgency in Kasumi's frown on her cloaked face that couldn't be denied. "I don't know what kind of information could have gotten Keiji killed. That doesn't matter to me, and I don't care what that bastard Hock wants to do with it. The graybox belonged to Keiji, and no one else. He'd want me to have it."
Mary nodded. "I understand how personal this is for you, Kasumi. Keiji's memories are all he left behind. You said you almost had a plan finalized...?"
"Donovan Hock hosts parties on a semi-annual basis at his home on Beckenstein, and his next one will be in a few weeks. He invites criminals from across the galaxy he wants to deal with or control to expand his empire. It's also an exercise in pure ego, Hock's chance to strut around like a peacock and show everyone how rich and influential he is. It's the best time for me to slip in and take care of business, and if I can't I'll have to wait a long time before my next chance. Hock will find a way to break through the graybox's security encryptions long before that. I have all of the details for the plan down except for the way in...and that's where I need some help."
"Tell me more."
"Hock knows of me and that I was Keiji's partner in...more ways than one. He'd never invite me and compromise himself. I can sneak in easily, but I can't get to his vault by myself. Too many security protocols and failsafes." Kasumi smirked a little as she added, "However...if I had the help of a silent partner, someone Hock did invite and could help me circumvent his security..." Kasumi's voice trailed off there...
...and Mary said, "I can guess that's where I come in."
"I've already taken the liberty of creating a very convincing myth with fabricated stories and handsomely paid informants of an elusive mercenary who works in the Terminus Systems. She's ruthless, tough, and she's become quite infamous. I even gave her a faux Extranet account and email and everything. I know Hock has a weakness for the ladies, and just as I hoped, the activities of Allison Gunn have captured his interest enough he's sent her an invite. She just needs to respond to it, but that will be a little difficult considering she doesn't exist...at the moment."
Mary slowly nodded again as she understood. "So you want me to play the part of Allison Gunn."
"Exactly. What do you say, Shepard?"
Mary took a moment to think about it. The only worry she had about what Kasumi proposed was: would Hock or anyone else at his home recognize her, in spite of her using a fictional alias? She decided the chances of that were slim, at best. Mary was known as a soldier, not someone who clashed with the criminal elements of the galaxy, and so it wasn't like they saw the hero as a threat in the same way they would police agencies. Hock or anyone else attending his party might think 'Allison Gunn' looked familiar, but that would be all. Unless... Mary asked, "Does Hock use genetic scans to screen his guests when they arrive for his parties?"
Kasumi shook her head softly. "Nope. He only reserves security measures that high for his vault, to protect his treasures."
"I'm sure he'll have plenty of security on the grounds, anyway."
"Uh-huh. Mercenaries and mechs."
"Will I be able to go in armed?"
"Hock allows his guests to be armed, but at a minimum for self-defense. It'll be all right if you pack a handgun."
"A little protection is better than nothing at all...I'll need more than that, just in case things go south."
"I've thought of that, and it's part of the plan. Seriously!"
"How much freedom should I have to move in Hock's home?"
Kasumi smiled. "I paid a previous guest to let me know exactly that. You'll have lots of room to move around, but there are some areas he keeps private...I can change that on the sly given a moment's notice, though. We'll need access to certain parts of his home to make this plan work, anyway. I'm still ironing out the final details, but I promise, I'm thinking of everything."
Mary smiled back warmly. "I believe you...and I'm in." Kasumi sighed deeply with grateful relief, but then the hero asked, "I just need to know what else you'll want from me?"
Kasumi Goto answered, "Your dress size." The paragon stared at the girl as she giggled. "Hey, this is a party, remember? You'll need to look your best!"
Shortly after their talk, the paragon made a visit to the Medical Bay...to receive the cybernetic upgrades she recently purchased. Most medical procedures at this time across the galaxy involved nano-technology, or the use of molecular machines called nanites. The marvels might have been so small they couldn't be seen, but in enough numbers and properly programmed for a specific treatment, they were virtually miraculous. Under Doctor Karin Chakwas' care, it took less than a couple of hours for Mary Shepard to receive the upgrades to her bones and muscles in the same way her skin had been just after her time on Omega. These upgrades in question were relatively simple, but according to Doctor Chakwas their benefits would be invaluable. During the process of her resurrection, Mary's skin, bones and muscles had to be regenerated...Project Lazarus didn't just restore those parts of her, they were given additional reinforcement in the form of unique nano-fiber mesh weaves.
For whatever reason, perhaps lack of time -- the hero had begun to wake up before Miranda Lawson's work was complete -- those reinforcements hadn't been given the optimum attention as the rest of Mary's cybernetics. Proof of that were the lingering scars on the paragon's face. But Karin understood that if given enough enhancement, and there should have been plenty of opportunities to get even more upgrades during the mission, the density and durability of Mary's skin and bones would be improved many times over. More than that, upgrades to her body's muscle structure would increase her strength to three times that of a Human male at the peak of their power, which could make her capable of going hand to hand with a battle-angry Krogan. When told, Mary had the lingering worry that she might lose touch with her own strength and cause unintentional damage, especially at times she wore her armor...the N7 hard suit's exo-servos already boosted a wearer's strength twice that of normal! Fortunately, Karin reassured that the paragon wouldn't have to relearn how to use her muscles at any point, but when given enough upgrades for the weaves, training would be necessary when possible to explore her new limits and what she was capable of. Mary had long ago made it a habit to exercise at least an hour a day, so that wouldn't have been difficult.
Still, Mary had to comment quietly, "I have to wonder. Is this second chance at life really worth it if..." She closed her eyes and said in an even softer tone, "...if I lose my humanity?"
Karin gave Mary a critical gaze as she scolded, "You still have over 70-percent of your original parts, girl. That's more than some veterans of the military have taken with them!" The matronly doctor knew that, unfortunately, in part because of personal experience. The silver-haired lady's expression became softer as she smiled and said, "The fact you would ask such a question should tell you the answer, Mary. You're one of the most amazing, most Human souls I've ever known in my life. You have come back to us, and all that's happened in the bargain is...you've been given replacement parts. Reinforcements. You could never lose what truly makes you who you are, and that's your heart. I say that physically and metaphorically speaking, of course." Karin added with gentle power, "As long as you're true to yourself and all you care for, you'll never lose a damn thing." She added with deep emotion, "You will definitely never lose me, Commander." Mary and her doctor held each other for a long time, the emotions each felt ran so deeply.
Afterward, the hero checked in with her Yeoman before she returned to her quarters to turn in. She had to be sure she'd be fresh and ready for the operation on Zorya...especially if it was all going to be as personal for Zaeed Massani as she feared it was. After she took a shower, she was barely dry when Kelly called her...the girl said, "Mary, you have a new message on your private terminal!" The paragon moved to her desk virtually overlooking the rest of her quarters, logged in...and her heart swelled when she saw the personal message:
From: Corporal Henry Toombs
I could hardly believe it was you when I saw your message, Commander! It's still strange to call you that, I was used to you being my Lieutenant before everything went to hell on Akuze long ago. I'm doing a lot better, I'm almost finished with my rehab and counseling, in fact. Cerberus did a lot of damage to me that took so long to heal, and I don't just mean the experiments that they put me through. I can't wait to get back on duty again. Did you know that Doctor Wayne got the death penalty months ago? You told me I was better than he was, that I didn't have to be like him, and you were right...it truly felt like justice when the verdict came down.
It helps even more to know you're back, and I appreciate you taking the time to let me know what you're doing. If I found out some other way that you were working with those Cerberus bastards, I don't think I would have understood. But I've served under you. I know you and you wouldn't dishonor the friends we lost, and it doesn't surprise me you care that much about how I felt. You sure as hell wouldn't turn traitor like I've heard so many assholes saying! You're doing this for the right reasons, like you always have. Dammit, somebody has to something about our colonies, especially since the Navy won't!
Do what you have to do for all of us, Shepard, and when you're done I hope I can help you kick some Cerberus ass!
Kelly Chambers' personal quarters. The Yeoman just finished her daily report -- and thankfully, there wasn't much to write. After meeting the Council and especially after seeing Mary's interview broadcast across the Extranet, the crew was in high spirits. The same seemed to be true for her hero, and that was all she felt obligated to write before she sent the report to the Illusive Man. Kelly stood from her desk and was about to move to her bed...and then a chime sounded from her terminal before she heard a familiar voice: "Yeoman Chambers?"
The voice surprised her because it was the artificial intelligence created to serve Mary Shepard and her crew...her eyebrows perked up as she said, "Um yes, EDI? Can I help you?"
The almost seductively feminine voice answered, "Perhaps. I felt it best to wait until your off-duty hours, but I wanted to ask if we can talk?"
Kelly Chambers was naturally, innocently curious to know more about EDI anyway, and she smiled warmly as she sat down at her desk again. She said, "Of course! What did you want to talk about?"
"I wish to gain a better understanding of Human behavior, and Commander Shepard suggested I speak to you."
Doubly surprised and more than a little flattered, but nervously so, Kelly said, "Really?? I-I'm no authority, EDI, but I swear I'll help you in any way I can!" Carefully, the girl asked, "Um, what do you want to know?"
"As much as you can tell me, Yeoman Chambers."
"Oh! Oh, okay." Kelly Chambers knew it would take a long time to tell EDI all she knew and understood about what it meant to be Human -- probably most of the mission! -- but she truly didn't mind. The redheaded beauty added, "And please, call me Kelly!"
TO BE CONTINUED