AN-Thanks to Reikson for helping me get this far. We are in the home stretch folks ...Courage.
Shepard's Thought's Anderson had a plan, a last desperate gambit. It was risky and had the decidedly dangerous side-effect of effective committing treason.
But, as he insisted on pointing out, either we risk it and maybe save the galaxy or watch the entire galaxy die. I knew what my choice was, but if Virmire had shown me anything, it was that I couldn't take the crew's trust for granted.
I needed to know where they stood. So, with a weary heart, I walked into the private room at Flux that the Normandy's crew had commandeered for that last evening.
I didn't know what I was going to say.
But, as I looked around the room, I spontaneously decided... well, don't tell Xander this, but I decided to channel HIM a little, as far as tactics go. I think it worked.
Shepard stood up from her chair, looking over her whole crew.
"Ears up, Marines!" Ashley barked, and the room went silent.
"Everyone eaten?" Shepard asked. There were a few positive murmurs and she nodded. "Everyone still sober?" A few laughs were her answer. "Close enough, I suppose."
"You all remember a few months ago, when I took command of the Normandy? I promised you that I would stop Saren no matter what the cost." She stepped away from the railing and began to walk slowly through the room. "But it would seem that fate has chosen to test my resolve and I don't intend for it to find me lacking."
"Now, thanks to Miss al-Jilani, most of you... Hell, most of Citadel space knows that the Normandy's been locked down until further notice," she sneered. "Meanwhile, the Citadel Fleets are moving to secure local space because they think that Saren and his armies can be stopped with a simple blockade."
Pacing back and forth, she added, "I'll be blunt; I think they're wrong, AND I think that they're risking the lives of every man, woman, and child in Citadel space with this bout of idiocy."
Shepard took a deep breath. "Repairs to the Normandy are scheduled to be completed at 0900 tomorrow morning. At 0930, Captain Anderson intends to secure the ambassadorial suite and effect the cancellation of the lockout of Normandy's primary systems. We know that this will be an act of treason, so we'll have to honor his sacrifice accordingly."
As the crew looked at each other in concern, she added, "Simultaneously, a digital signal will be sent to a monitoring device planted in Citadel Control. This jamming signal will cause the tracking computers to become inoperative for a period of approximately thirty minutes, during which coordinating any organized response to the Normandy's departure will be next to impossible."
Now her away-team squad of specialists were exchanging glances. "Once these two events have taken place, the Normandy will leave the Citadel, making best speed for the Mu Relay and the planet Ilos. This will be considered an act of mutiny, also a capital offense."
Now Shepard leaned onto the railing by her forearms. "This is not a decision to be made lightly, people!" she barked. "The fate of billions hangs on the choices that I make, but your lives... your careers are important as well! Don't throw away your lives without considering the full weight of what you're doing!"
Suddenly looking tired, she added, "The balloon goes up at 0930 hours, people! Anyone wishing to remain behind is to report to the SSV Madrid and surrender yourselves! Understand that I bear you no ill will and respect your choice! However, for the rest of you..." and here, her voice grew soft. "...for those of you who have followed me thus far, and intend to follow me just a little further... I thank you for your support."
"Now if you'll excuse me, I have quite the busy day planned. Best I get some rack time so that I'll be ready to face it." Shepard picked up a glass of wine and saluted her crew before heading for her quarters.
There was a buzz of hushed conversation around the room. Suddenly, Xander yawned before saying loudly, "Well, I think that I've reached my limit. I'm turning in for the night; got a busy day tomorrow."
He was heading for the door when Tali and Garrus both stood up to join him. The renegade Turian drawled, "We're going to be pretty busy tomorrow as well... we'd better get some rest." Ashley followed after them, while Wrex tossed back one last drink before he also left his seat, giving a defiant glare to the rest of the room.
Soon enough, every member of the Normandy's crew had left Flux. Yet, Rita and her sister found that, in all of the confusion, several people had left behind larger-than-average tips.
Ashley found Xander standing on the docking cradle, looking out onto the wards and the Citadel Tower off in the distance. They stood together silently, deliberately not watching as the Normandy's crew returned to their ship.
Xander watched her for a moment before sighing. "Could you just hit me and get it over with?"
"You lied about meeting my grandfather, didn't you?"
"That's actually the only lie I told you."
"What was he like?"
"He was a great guy, Ash. I think he didn't JUST roll over, you know, he wanted to keep going." Sighing, he sat down on a nearby shipping crate. "Hell, his men wanted to keep going, and probably would've kept going if Parliament had supported him instead of compromising. I was there when he faced down Saren's brother, General Desolas Arterius. He didn't let that ranting psychopath intimidate him one whit."
Looking over at her, he smiled sadly. "Your grandfather once told me that honor was the most important thing that a marine could have, far more than any weapon or armor suit or equipment. And I swear, on my honor as a marine, that everything else I've told you is the truth."
Ashley looked at Xander. "I've fought long and hard to get what I wanted in life. To get here, as Gunnery Chief." Then she sighed, exhausted beyond her own understanding. "But to do that, I put aside a lot things. And in all that time, I've never once felt that I was fighting for anything worthwhile."
Turning her gaze to the Normandy, she stared at it for a while before saying, "But this fight... this is worthwhile. Being with you has made me feel like I was worth something. So if we do this..."
"Ash, there are parts of my life that will scare the crap out of you," Xander sighed. Then he added, "There are parts of my life that you'll never understand. Parts that you won't WANT to understand. Just know this; I've been fighting this war for a long time, since I was sixteen. And I don't know how to do anything else. I don't know how to look the other way when people need help."
"So this craziness is always going to be a part of your life?" Ashley asked aloud.
"This craziness is always going to be a part of OUR lives... if you're cool with that, then I honestly can't think of anyone else with whom I'd face Hell."
Ashley chuckled. "Xander Harris, you do know how to sweet-talk a girl." She leaned in and kissed him, and they stood there frozen before breaking apart.
"W- wow!" Xander sputtered.
"Grab some rack time, sailor. Skipper's going to need all hands on deck tomorrow." Ashley teased, smirking at him.
Xander saluted her. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am. I apologize for our earlier miscommunication."
"If we manage to pull off our op tomorrow, you can make it up to me with a little physical endurance training," she teased.
Xander watched her leave, waiting until she'd gone through the airlock before rolling his eyes heavenward, groaning, "All Hell's breaking loose, the galaxy might be overrun... of course, I'm going to get some now. Why do you task me like this?"
Shepard sat in her cabin, looking at her uniform jacket. By tomorrow, she'd no longer have the right to wear it. There were some amongst the Alliance Military, who'd say she didn't deserve to wear it, even now. Behind her, on the computer, was a message for Coleman Hobbs to find when he came on shift. If many of the crew had elected to stay behind, then he would have to know why they were there.
She added a notation to the letter, telling Hobbs to give anyone who chose to do so a Commendation for Loyalty to the Alliance. Then she scoffed. A commendation from a disgraced officer wouldn't carry much weight, but it was something.
"Nice move, ma'am," Kaidan Alenko rasped behind her, causing her to turn her chair around and point a pistol at a ghost. "...you left them and yourself an out."
"Just like you were always saying." Shepard sighed, letting her weapon fall. This wasn't the first time the faces of the those she'd failed to save came back to haunt her. Normally a good stiff drink or three banished the demons for a while. She been catching glimpses of the lieutenant since The Normandy had been locked down.
"Normally, I'd love to indulge my guilt Lieutenant, but I've had a lot to drink and tomorrow's going to be problematic."
"Then I'll make this quick. The Powers-that-Be have a message for you."
Shepard looked up from where she'd been ready to nod off. "Wait, you mean this isn't... you're really here, but you're dead?" she sputtered.
"Shepard, you have an immortal on your crew, you've met a powerful demon lord, and you're going into battle against ancient and powerful sentient warship. Is a ghost really THAT surprising?" Kaidan Alenko asked wryly.
"Was the universe always this weird and I just didn't notice?" she groaned.
"Xander and his friends did a lot to keep a lid on the weird, but the weird..." Kaidan sighed. "Well, the weird is getting restless AND it's getting hungry. The Reapers are the tip of a very large iceberg. This time, Earth won't be enough for them. They want it all back Shepard; They want entire galaxy as their oyster."
"They're not getting it," Shepard snapped. "...it's just that simple."
"You may not know it, Shepard, but the Universe hears things like that and it listens. But I came to warn you."
"When you get to Ilos, don't take Xander with you. He cannot set foot on Ilos, under any circumstance."
"Because, Shepard, if there's one thing that I've learned from the whole 'being-dead' thing, it's that there are things out there. Old and powerful things," Kaidan shuddered. "They're mostly asleep, but when they wake up, they're hungry. And one of them is waiting on Ilos. If Xander goes down there, he'll wake it up, and you're not ready to face it. Not yet."
"You expect me to make a tactical decision, based on a ghostly portent of doom?" she sneered.
"I expect you to do what you've always done, Shepard; follow your best instincts."
"My instincts are what got me into this!" she roared at him. "They got you killed!"
"They also kept you alive and let you survive," Kaidan riposted, shutting her up. "Trust your gut, Shepard. It's lead you this far. Don't start second-guessing it now."
Shepard marched into the CIC, her eyes cold and hard. Sleep had been elusive and she'd briefly considered going to find Liara.
The many bleary eyes looking back at her from the sensor pits and workstations made it clear she was not the only one unable to find restful sleep last night.
Xander had been creeping around the ship till very, very late. His steps seemed to constantly bring him back to that one malfunctioning atmospheric control pad Kaiden had seemed so obsessive about. Finaly at 0300 while retrieving her umpteenth glass of cold water. she'd found him surrounded by disassembled parts and cursing softly at the flickering holgraphic displays.
Eventually she was forced to make it a direct order that he grab some sleep or else face the consequences ie. another through examination from Doctor Chakwas. She'd headed off to bed herself after that and slept fairly lightly.
Dreams and anxieties mish-mashed in her mind till her REM sleep was a carnival of surreal images. At 0730, her beeping alarm had woken her from a standard pursuit dream. She had been cool with the giant Reaper pursuing her but the odd man following her about with the plate of cheese slices ... that had been just a little TOO creepy
Finally accepting that she had done her best to get a good nights sleep she took a long hot shower before donning her dress blues which she promptly removed replaced, removed again and finally settled on the uniform jacket left hanging open over the outfit many in service dubbed the uni-casual.
It was in this ensemble she greeted the morning shift of repair workers who arrived to finish their tasks aboard ship. Now an hour and change later she was as ready as she was likely to be.
"Joker, repair status," she barked. as she mounted the ramp to the Galaxy Map bringing up the holographic representation of the local space.
"The last of the repair crews just bugged out a few minutes ago," he said over the com.
Pressley walked up to her and handed over a datapad. "Duty shift assignments, ma'am. Thought you'd want take a quick look before I sign off."
Duty assignment should've been almost routine, requiring little more then a quick signature, but they did have one important function that was particularly important to her today. At a glance, she could determine who was, and more importantly who was NOT, available for assignment. Those members of her crew that had left the ship and her fool plans behind for good.
She gaped at the form. "Pressley, I think you might want to go over this again. According to this, I have a full crew requesting duty assignments TODAY."
Pressley glanced at the pad for half a beat. "No, ma'am, that's no mistake. It seems that we have a full boat today. You might want to let XO Hobbs know that he has no need to waste his time getting up to look at an empty airlock."
"I see." Shepard walked over the comm station next to Joker, and was about to address the crew.
Then Joker interrupted, "If you could manage to avoiding sounding like you're choked up and misty-eyed, I got ten creds riding on you." the helmsman said with a smirk.
"Who said I was going to cry?"
Xander, who'd walked into the cockpit by that point, winced, "I never said she was going to cry, I just said she was going to get emotional."
"...which implies crying." Joker insisted.
"Who else was in on this?!?" Shepard demanded.
"Liara wanted a piece of the action," Joker explained, "but with her obvious advantage we had to handicap her."
"Nothing personal, Boss," Xander quipped. "I had to bet against you to juice the odds."
Shepard just shook her head. "Open a channel, Joker," she said, sighing. "This is Commander Shepard. According to the duty roster, we have all hands today. You have my thanks. Now let's go find us a Conduit."
"Stirring words, ma'am," Joker deadpanned.
"I'm moved," Xander drawled. "I think I'm tearing up a little over here."
"Harris." Shepard growled.
"Reporting for duty, Commander," Liara said, from behind her.
Turning to her new girlfriend, Shepard only said, "Doctor, last I checked, your duty station was in medical."
"It is, but I wanted to see your face when you realized that the whole crew was still aboard," the young Asari replied, an impish grin on her face.
"Well, grab a seat and enjoy the show, Liara, because this should be interesting." Turning to Joker, Shepard only asked, "Time?"
"0930, and we're still locked down."
Suddenly, the indicator lights shifted from red to green.
"Lockdown cancelled." Joker reported.
Shepard turned to Xander. "Harris?"
"Time to see if Tali's Combat drone actually works as advertised," Xander muttered. "Relaying signal... now," the immortal reported, tapping away at his omnitool. "We should be seeing something in three... two... ONE..."
In Citadel Control, a hardlight drone fizzled to life.
As busy as Citadel Control usually was, it was several minutes before anyone noticed the drone. The new drone began relaying a signal directly to the small bug attached to a nearby terminal, which altered its carrier frequency and allowed it to begin broadcasting a jamming signal.
As promised, Citadel Control Technicians started panicking as all of their screens suddenly went offline, all at once. Finally, one of the techs noticed the small drone and waved at it, trying to shoo it away.
The drone turned an angry pink and began discharging bursts of lightning at the tech, sending him flying. Several C-Sec officers quickly converged on the drone and shooting at it, causing it to counterattack with several more bursts of electricity. Then, the drone exploded in a final, forceful detonation that hurled several people away.
It was only afterwards, when reviewing the security feeds of the incident, that anyone noticed that the drone seemed to target males specifically. Any female only had her weapons disabled, but males received the full force of the drone's attacks.
When he saw the footage for himself, Xander whispered, "Thanks, Anya. I guess that's one more I owe you."
"We are go for launch, and engines are hot." Joker reported.
"Take us out, Joker!" Shepard ordered. "Best speed to the relay and don't stop for anything."
The stealth frigate slid out of its docking cradle and jetted away, sailing past several ships swirling aimlessly through the space of the Serpent Nebula while awaiting instructions that were not coming.
"I don't think that anyone's even noticed that we're gone, ma'am." Joker reported as the Normandy approached the Mass Relay. "Sending vector data to the Relay... it's running hot."
The glow of blue lightning arcing off of the Relay's powering-up Mass Effect core filled CIC. Shepard squinted to shield her eyes, while Joker continued to count off until transit began. Unconsciously, Shepard found Liara's hand in hers. The Asari smiled at her in reassurance.
Suddenly, the com system crackled. "SSV Normandy... SSV Normandy, this is the Vigilance. You are in violation of lockdown protocol. Return to dock immediately or you will be fired on."
"Give me a look at her, Joker." Shepard grunted.
"Vigilance; Turian cruiser-class. Pretty hefty," Joker commented. "In a speed run, we'd smoke her no problem, but her weapons array is pretty nasty. Plus, we're sitting ducks out here until the Relay's ready for transit."
Xander checked his tactical screens, "We start playing run-and-gun out here, with all that civilian traffic, and someone might get hurt in the crossfire."
"Better them then us, right?" one of the servicemen shouted from the sensor pits.
"Put 'em on." Shepard snapped. A moment later, she heard the flanged voice of the Vigilant's commanding officer quite clearly.
"This is Normandy actual, Commander Shepard speaking. Who am I talking to?"
"Executor Goran, Vigilance-actual. Power down your ship and return to dock, Commander. This is an act of mutiny and will be treated as such." Everyone in the cockpit promptly assessed the Vigilant's CO as a typical Turian hardass.
"Goran, you sound like you've got two braincells to rub together, which puts you way ahead of Councilor Valern. Saren's out there and he has to be stopped."
"That is what WE are doing out here, human," Goran sneered. "The pride of the Citadel Fleet is going to stop him, not some delusional troublemaker with a scary reputation. Now heave to, or you will be fired upon."
"Goran, take a look at your LADAR," Shepard snarled. "You're surrounded by a few hundred civilian vessels that just lost contact with Citadel Control. You and I both know that tracking arrivals at this station is a bitch and a half at the best of times. So if you want to be a real hero today, then you might want to help keep these civilian craft from flying into each other."
Then her voice affected a cruel condescension as she then added, "But, hey, that's your choice."
There was silence as the Normandy approached the Relay, as the power-up for transit started. Suddenly she heard Goran on the line again.
"This isn't over, human," Goran snarled. "Count on that. I'll see you again at your court-martial."
"Assuming any of us survive Goran; I'll make sure you get a really good seat," Shepard snapped before cutting the connection.
Joker activated the transit codes and the Normandy leapt away in a flash of blue light.
Chellick stormed into Pallin's office. "Citadel Control is plotting escape vectors but for right now the Normandy has gotten away." Chellick reported.
"Have Bailey go through the security footage of the Traffic Control Center. we'll see if we can find out when and how Shepard got into the systems." Pallin looked up from his console. "Have you processed Anderson yet?"
"He's sitting in a cell," Chellick snapped.
"Good. if and when the Alliance Navy calls, we'll tell them that Anderson stays behind bars. No special deals, no nothing; he's charged with a capital offense."
"For assaulting his own ambassador?"
"...Which resulted in a criminal escaping custody. The whole galaxy will see what the Spectres are now; what Shepard is."
"Kolnar has submitted his resignation and I've accepted it." Chellick grunted, moving past Pallin in order to look out at the Presidium.
"A little presumptuous of you," Pallin observed. "Changes to personnel should be vetted through my office first."
"He's disgraced the badge, his team, and his Executor. His off-hour deviance is his business, but when it affects his job performance..." Chellick grumbled. "...well, that's when his business becomes my problems. He's gone."
"Fine, you seem set on your course," Pallin dismissed Chellick's justification. "I can't say that I was enormously fond of the boy myself."
Chellick turned back, glaring at Pallin in disgust. "I wonder..." Chellick speculated aloud. "If Kolnar saw you just give him up without a fight, would he have been so eager to help you violate his oaths and his duty just so you could have your petty vengeance?"
"That will be all, Officer Chellick!" Pallin roared.
"No, that WILL NOT be all, Executor Pallin!" Chellick snapped. "The only reason that Kolnar disgraced himself was his belief that you were going to protect him!" he barked, pointing a claw at his superior officer. "And you didn't even have the Spirits-be-damned courage to admit to ME as to what you'd egged him into doing!"
"I never told him to let the woman in the Council Chambers." Pallin sneered.
"But you knew that it was happening!" Chellick roared. "You could've stopped him, but no! Anything that make the Spectres look bad makes C-Sec look good, right?!?"
Pallin was out of his seat by now, his three-fingered hands slammed down upon his desk. "The Spectres are out of control and Shepard could actually be the worst of them! Worse than Saren!" he roared.
"Stow it, Pallin! I saw the files!" Chellick bellowed back. Part of him noticed how his commanding officer's mandibles suddenly fluttered in anxiety. "I saw how many times you applied! And that they turned you down, each and every time, for the exact same reason; a lack of original thinking and creativity!"
Noticing the way Pallin's mandibles flared broadly, Chellick jumped on it. "That's it, isn't it? This wasn't about justice, or rules, or anything of the sort! This was revenge! They refused you and gave Spectre status to a human, of all things, and you were going to make them pay for it!"
"There is no way that you'll ever be able to prove anything." Pallin sneered, suddenly calming down. "Spectre records are sealed and Kolnar can say what he wants. But, in the end, it was his code that al-Jilani used to get into the Council chambers."
"Then you'd better pray that Saren isn't on his way to the Citadel with an army large enough to conquer the whole station." Chellick sneered back. "Because now, thanks to you, everybody knows that Shepard warned them that Saren was coming and that they didn't listen. So, to save face and not look bad after Saren attacks, they'll need to offer up a scapegoat."
Now Chellick leaned in, just enough to violate Pallin's personal space, as he sneered, "And a bitter, old Executor, that exceeded his authority, would just about satisfy the public lust for blood if this all goes... tits-up, as the humans say."
Straightening himself up again, Chellick adjusted the rim-collar of his SWAT-type medium C-Sec armor. "And the public will want blood, al-Jilani will see to that. She knows that you used her, and I can bet that she won't be pleased if your nonsense makes her look bad in front of the camera. That one's going to scream long and loud, and if she does it long enough, then it'll hurt C-Sec."
Chellick now made his way out of Pallin's office, but stopped just as the doors opened. Looking back, he leveled a parting shot. "I won't let this organization go down in flames because of you and your petty schemes. Enjoy that chair while you can, Pallin. I promise that you won't be in it long." With that, he stalked out.
Pallin snorted, unconcerned by Chellick's threats. He only activated his personal VI and said, "Record new standing personal memory note."
"Ready," the program intoned blandly.
The old Turian then said, "Find a way to demote Detective Chellick. End note."
Miranda Lawson's digital form resolved itself in the inner sanctum of the Illusive Man.
As always, he was genial in his greetings. "Miranda, what can I do for you?"
"A curious report just came from the Citadel. It seems that our human Spectre just stole her own ship and departed for parts unknown. Alliance HQ's officially saying little, but all Listening Posts in the fringes of Terminus space have been put on high alert but told NOT to do anything; just report if they see her."
The Illusive Man chuckled. "Good old Xander. I knew that we could count on him to work his usual magic." Then he frowned and lit another cigarette. "Have OUR listening posts put on high alert as well. Plot possible course vectors. I want to know where they're going."
"You want the Conduit, whatever it is?" Miranda asked, somewhat unnecessarily.
"Considering how much humanity has suffered because of it," the Illusive Man sneered. "...I'd say that we're entitled to first crack at studying its secrets and whatever else might be on Ilos."
"Incidentally, I received a report from an operative on Terra Nova," the genetically-enhanced woman added. "...he says that Buffy Summers left Terra Nova yesterday, and it took him so long to report this because she filed a bogus flight plan and traveled under a false ID. She could be heading towards the Citadel, even as we speak."
"Then the end game is starting, Miranda," he mused aloud. Then he focused his gaze upon her again. "Have our people on the Citadel facilitate her arrival, if she does arrive there. I want her to have as little trouble at customs as possible."
"What is it about those two?" Miranda wanted to know. Buffy Summers and Xander Harris were two perennial figures of obsession for the Illusive Man, and secrets kept from her was not something that she liked or entertained in her position as one of Cerberus' highest-ranking agents.
"Miranda, there was a time when those two were humanity's greatest weapon and best defense," he replied, with all of the paternal indulgence of a father. "...but it has been a long time for the both of them. I want to see if they still have what it takes."