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Mass Effect: A Hero Rises

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“Wake up, Commander.”

I opened my eyes at the sound of the rather urgent voice. I expected to see… well, dark space, perhaps a few twinkling stars in the distance, the remains of my ship as it burned up in the atmosphere of the nearby planets. I didn’t expect to look around and find myself in some sort of laboratory. It definitely wasn’t a hospital, at least.

"Shepard, do you hear me? Get off that table now. This facility is under attack!"

What facility? Where the hell am I? Still, I heard at least one explosion so figured I should get up. Heaving myself up, I sat on the edge of the table, looking down to see my groin was covered, but I was otherwise naked. I took a moment to look up and down my body. There was some scarring, but not scars I recognised. Running a finger over a couple, I swear there was something glowing under my skin. Raising a hand to my face, I trailed a fingertip along what felt like another scar.

"Shepard. Your scars aren't healed but I need to get you moving."

Looking around, there wasn’t anything I could dress myself in, nor arm myself to stop whatever was causing the explosions. “Need a little help here, lady!”

"Your armour is in a locker nearby. You should find a pistol in there as well."

"Pistol? Forget that. What about an assault rifle?"

"Not necessary, Shepard. Now hurry!"

Not necessary? Like fuck it isn’t if I’m under attack! But it wasn’t really the time to argue, walking towards and opening the locker. There was some underwear, a t-shirt I could throw on, before I assembled myself in the armour. It was fairly basic, jet black, without any markings. Grabbing the pistol, my eye immediately took in the design. Something wasn’t right. There was no heat sink.

“What’s up with this pistol?” I wondered.

“New design, Shepard. I can’t explain it, but you’ll have to find a thermal clip.”

“Clip? You mean ammo now runs out? That’s just…”

I heard the groan. “Now isn’t the time, Shepard. Just find a clip.”

“Could really do with an assault rifle,” I muttered, head down as I made my way out of what seemed to be a med bay.

It didn’t take long to run into the enemy, a bunch of mechs that walked like zombies, intent on filling me with plenty of holes. I knew they were more VI than AI so figured they’d been hacked. That just left me with more questions as I glanced to see at least three of them converging. “I’m stuck here without any ammo!”

Use your biotics.”

“I’m not a fucking biotic!”

“You are now. Try a control gesture and throw a warp. All you need to do is focus and your biotics will work.”

I had no real idea what she meant but I figured it couldn’t hurt. Waiting until they stopped firing for a second, I stood up and threw what I thought was a warp. Whatever I did throw was bloody powerful, as two of them went down, the third swinging around to fire at me. I waited until the perfect time and did the same thing. Once that was also on the ground, I quickly leapt out of cover and grabbed a thermal clip, slipping it into my pistol, grabbing a few spares at the same time. Well, this is just bloody stupid…

Moving forward, I kept to cover, taking down any mech dumb enough to get in the way. As I moved, the voice directed me where to go, letting me know when mechs were closing on my position, explaining that I needed to get to the shuttle bay. I definitely wasn’t in a hospital, so was left wondering exactly where I was.

I eventually found a grenade launcher, which didn’t have enough ammo to bother keeping it for long. As I moved on, I did quickly check terminals for any indication as to where I was. But there was nothing about that gave me a clue. All I knew is that mechs were trying to kill me and the lady guiding me seemed to have my best interests in mind, though she was rather short and abrupt most of the time.

Then I stumbled across the first survivor of whatever was happening and I recognised the symbol immediately, sitting on his chest. Before I could ask any questions, or just put a bullet through his head, we came under fire from more mechs, so it seemed the mechs didn’t care who they were shooting at. Once they were all dead, surprising I could send a warp across the clearing, I turned and grabbed him by the throat, lifting him up and surprising myself as I soon had his feet dangling off the ground.

“You’re Cerberus!” I growled, “Give me one good reason I don’t throw you over the edge right now.”

“Everyone else gave up on you, Commander,” he wheezed, “Cerberus didn’t.”

Shit… Even though I was amazed by my own strength, I met his eyes and they appeared honest. I’d never spoken to many Cerberus operatives. I’d usually killed them without much thought. But I still remembered everything they’d done. Lowering him down, I released his throat, though kept my pistol in hand. “Right, explain to me now what the fuck is going on.”

“Two years, Commander.”

“Two years what?”

“You were spaced, Commander. When you were brought back here, you were dead, or as dead as dead can be. Nothing but a meat bag. Cerberus has spent two years rebuilding you. Alliance declared you KIA within a few days of the attack. Council and Alliance gave up on you. We didn’t.”

“What about my team?”

The other man shrugged. “Spread to the four winds, far as I know. I don’t really know the details.”

I could have put a bullet in him and been done with it, but if even half of what he said was true, then I had few allies remaining. Though I wouldn’t give Cerberus the time of day. Until I was off wherever I was though, I would have to make do with what was available. “Right, I don’t know my way around here. I’m going to need your help.”

“That’s why I’m here, Commander.”

Before he could continue, his radio crackled into life, speaking to someone called Wilson. After a quick conversation, we moved on, and that’s when I asked him about the stupid new design. What he told me made at least a little sense.

“The turians designed a universal heat sink that could be used in any weapon. A heat sink that can be used in a pistol can be used in a sniper rifle and vice versa. Once a weapon has expended the energy of the heat sink, it will automatically pop and a new heat sink can be placed within seconds. It's certainly a more efficient design and overheating is no longer a problem.”

“Hmmm. Not so sure about that but I’ll take your word for it.”

“Might take getting used to but you’ll soon see it’s worth it.”

We moved on, taking down more mechs as explosions continued to echo around us. I was left thinking wherever we were was bound to blow up eventually. The other male finally introduced himself during a moment of silence, his name being Jacob Taylor, a Cerberus operative. He certainly had training, with biotic capabilities, and I was left thinking he must have had at least some form of military training. We certainly managed to link up more than once.

“I’m sure the biotics are a surprise,” he stated, “We’ll organise some training later on so you can adapt.”

“What sort of biotic am I?”

“A vanguard, Commander. You’ll definitely need some training to understand your new capabilities.”

“And why am I now a biotic?”

“It was a decision taken by the Illusive Man during your reconstruction. You’ve been given the best biotic implant possible. No headaches, unbelievable power. Once you begin to learn and master your abilities, you’ll give most asari a run for their money.”

“No shit?”

“I don’t know the whole story, Commander, but billions have been spent to bring you back.” That’s when he finally met my eyes. “And you’ll know why.”

Thankfully, I wasn’t completely stupid. “The Reapers.”

He nodded. “Aye, the Reapers. The Illusive Man believes, Commander.”

As we moved on, we ran into another survivor by the name of Wilson. He mentioned another possible survivor by the name of Miranda, left believing she was the voice that had guided me at the beginning, though I hadn’t heard her voice in quite a while. With three of us, we mowed down the mechs without any difficulty, though I didn’t lead the way. They might have spent billions on me, but I didn’t trust any of them enough not to take a bullet in the back, so I let Jacob lead the way forward, keeping my eye on both with me.

Finally making it to the shuttle bay, the door opened to reveal an attractive, raven-haired though rather pale woman, dressed in a white and black skin-tight suit, with what I immediately recognised as a fantastic set of tits. She turned towards us, raised her weapon, and fired. The bullet passed myself and Jacob, hitting Wilson in the head. I raised my weapon straight away. “The fuck?”

“He was a traitor,” she replied simply.

I kept my weapon raised as I glanced at Jacob. “You reckon?”

“Miranda is rarely wrong, Commander.”

I glanced back at her, a smirk forming. “Jacob, I’m never wrong. And I don’t like having a weapon aimed at me, Commander.”

“You’re Cerberus.”

She sighed, looking back at Jacob. The dark-skinned man shrugged. “He figured it out himself. Thought he was going to kill me, to be honest.”

“Still deciding on that,” I muttered, not lowering my weapon, “Who are you?” I asked.

“Miranda Lawson. The is Project Lazarus. I’ve spent two years putting you back together, Commander. Are you going to lower your weapon or not?”

“That depends on you. I have one simply question. Why?”

She shrugged. “Not for me to say. You’ll have to ask the Illusive Man.” She thumbed behind her. “There’s a shuttle that can take us so you can speak with him.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Well, you can stay here if you want.”

“I have the gun. I can easily leave you two here.”

She sighed, no doubt already exasperated. “Look, Commander. All I know is that I’ve just spent two years of my life putting you back together. We’ve made you stronger, faster, better. Given you new abilities. You are now capable of great feats. We need you in the fight against the Reapers.”

That made his weapon lower slightly. “And the biotics?”

“I understand it’s a surprise, but it was a decision taken in your interests only.” I scoffed which made her scowl. “Look, believe me or don’t, I honestly don’t care. But I think you owe it to the Illusive Man to at least hear him out considering he’s the only one who bothered bringing you back.”

I met her eyes for more than a few seconds. “Shit,” I muttered, finally lowered the weapon completely, “Guess you have a point.”

“I figured you’d see it that way.” She gestured with her head. “Pilot is already on board. Jacob, you coming too?”

I let her go first, still not wanting to expose myself. I figured if they were telling the truth, they wouldn’t put a bullet in my back, but I wasn’t willing to trust Cerberus, though I was left wondering what the Illusive Man actually wanted with me…

The massive red but dying star of Anadius provided the only light in the otherwise dark room. A bank of holographic screens provided an almost unlimited supply of information regarding activities around the galaxy. Maybe a coup in one system. An assassination in another. A successful scientific experiment completed. Perhaps the embezzlement of a few million credits in another front company. It was all there, yet he had no eye for these at the moment.

The middle-aged human male sat in his expensive yet rather simple looking chair with his back to the screens, only darkness in front of him. In his right hand was a cigarette. He brought it to his mouth and took a long drag, sucking the smoke deep down into his lungs, savouring the taste, before he blew out, expelling the smoke as it slowly faded away. He loved smoking. He loved it as it pissed off a lot of people, having been outlawed in many places throughout the galaxy. Because he loved smoking, he always smoked the most expensive brand. And the best.

To his left on a small side table was a glass tumbler. Within the tumbler were four large ice cubes. Surrounding the ice cubes was an amber liquid. Bourbon. On the rocks. The best, and as far as he was concerned, the only way to drink bourbon. But it had to be good bourbon. Expensive bourbon. Smooth down the throat, with only a slight burning sensation as it settled in your stomach.

He flicked ash from the cigarette into an ashtray as he took another drag of his cigarette and continued to wait. He was a patient man. He had already been notified of events that happened on Lazarus Station. He was aware that Commander Shepard had managed to escape with the help of two of his operatives. Miranda has done well. Far better than even I expected. She will go far with us. Jacob has proven to be a worthy addition to the cause. Shame the trust is not there but as long as he does the business, then it's a paycheque at the end of the day. But they did their jobs.

Shepard is alive.

Commander Shepard alive was step one. Investing Commander Shepard in his mission was step two. And far more difficult, in his opinion, than step one. He was more than aware of the Commander's one-man war against his organisation while he chased Saren two years before. Shepard still didn't know the whole truth about Cerberus. And that suited the Illusive Man just fine. Whether Shepard would ever become a believer in his cause was doubtful. But to have Shepard as an ally? The possibilities were endless if that came to pass.

"Boss, Commander Shepard is attempting communication," called one of his staff. He was simply known as 'Boss'. Being called 'The Illusive Man' would just sound silly. And absolutely no-one knew of his personal history before Cerberus. No-one knew his name, where he was born or even what he did prior to Cerberus. Anyone who did manage to find out would find themselves in a deep, dark hole in a far-away planet, lonely and forgotten. The past was not worth worrying about as far as the Illusive Man was concerned. It was only about the future.

Humanity's future.

He took another drag of his cigarette as assorted lights on the ceiling started to shine, illuminating his features slightly, as the holographic display of Commander Shepard, looking around slightly confused, appeared before him.

"Commander Shepard."

He watched the hologram of Shepard look ahead as his own display would now appear to him. He watched him fold his arms across his chest, a smirk appearing across his face. "Ah, so you're the Illusive Man. I thought we'd be meeting face-to-face. Though I'm sure you'd know how that would end. Very quickly." Shepard took out his pistol and looked at it almost reverently. "A bullet from this gun would enter your face and then I would have to resist pissing on your corpse."

The Illusive Man took another drag of his cigarette as he took in his words. I was expecting hostility but even this is a surprise. I wonder how Miranda and Jacob handled him.

The Illusive Man simply chuckled for a mere moment. "Well consider this a necessary precaution. Not unusual for people who know what you and I know."

"If you're expecting a 'thank you' for me being alive, then you're going to be extremely disappointed. I was quite content being dead. I'd done my job. My duty. All I ever wanted after I died was for my body to be burned up and then stuck in a hole in the ground and quietly forgotten. And if you think I'm ever going to trust you or any of the clowns you have working for you," Shepard chuckled, "You are seriously mistaken."

"You need to put your personal feelings aside, Shepard."

"Fuck you. And that's Commander to you, as well. While we're at it, why don't I list my personal feelings." He watched as the Commander held up a hand and subsequent fingers, counting them off. "Admiral Kahoku. Corporal Toombs. Edolus. Binthu. Nepheron. Chasca. Nodacrux. Should I continue?"

He didn't miss the fact Shepard left his middle finger up at the end. The Illusive Man took another drag of his cigarette. This is going to be more difficult than even I imagined. "Commander, humanity is up against the greatest threat of our brief existence."

The smirk disappeared from his face as Shepard raised an eyebrow and nodded. "The Reapers," he stated matter-of-factly. That got his attention. At least he remembers that.

"Good to see your memory's still intact. How are you feeling?"

"How about we just get down to business as I'm obviously here for a reason. I know you've invested money in me so you think you've earned the right to ask me personal questions. You haven't. Just tell me whatever it is you have to say."

"Cerberus isn't as evil as you believe, Commander. You and I are on the same side; we just have different methods."

"Could have fooled me. Although I did spend nearly a year killing many of your operatives. So I guess I was doing some good at least. Yeah, those are some fond memories. Really enjoyed wiping out some of your operations. You hired some right fucking assholes."


Shepard sighed. "Fine. What are the Reapers up to that made you decide to bring me back?"

Finally, we can get to business. I wonder if he's going to be this hostile going forward. He'd better not be otherwise I'll have to reconsider. He stood up out of his chair, taking another drag from his cigarette as he approached the hologram. "We're at war, Commander. No-one wants to admit it, but humanity is under attack."

He could see that perked his interests as Shepard appeared thoughtful for a moment. "How do you mean?"

"While you've been sleeping, entire colonies have been disappearing. Human colonies. We believe it is someone working for the Reapers. Just as Saren and the geth aided Sovereign. You've seen it yourself. You bested all of them. That's just one reason why we chose you."

"I'm just one man. Why don't you work with the Alliance? They have plenty of forces that can be mobilised for protection."

"The Alliance suffered substantial losses fighting Sovereign. They're rebuilding and are stretched too thin to waste resources verifying the Reaper threat."

"That I remember," Shepard said quietly, and the Illusive Man took note of the bitterness in his tone.

"They're currently blaming these abductions on mercenaries and pirates. Far easier and more convenient."

"And a possible explanation and far easier to believe than a Reaper threat." Shepard was quiet for a moment, as if deep in thought, while the Illusive Man took another drag from his cigarette. He simply waited for his next question. "Okay, level with me here. Why me? For the amount of credits you spent bringing me back, you could have funded an entire army. And, let's be honest, I don't like you. Yeah, yeah, I don't actually know you. But seriously, I don't like you. And I definitely don't like your organisation. You should know I'm not going to cooperate with you."

"That we'll see, Commander. However, as to why. Let's just say that you're unique. Not just in ability or what you've experienced. It's what you represent. You stood for humanity at a key moment. You're more than a soldier. You're a symbol."

Shepard shook his head. "I'm not a hero. I'm not a symbol. I'm just a soldier. I'm just one man…"

"That's where you're wrong, Commander. You're much more than just a man to many people. Not just in the Alliance but also within my organisation. I don't know if the Reapers understand fear, but you killed one. They have to respect that."

"But a few missing colonists isn't exactly harvesting all organic life in the galaxy."

"Hundreds of thousands of colonists have vanished, Commander. I'd say that fits the definition of 'harvesting'."

"Seriously? Hundreds of thousands?"

The Illusive Man nodded. He's interested at least. If he wasn't, he wouldn't be asking questions otherwise. 

"And no-one has noticed a pattern?"

"No. The abductions are completely random and occur in remote locations."

"Why are they attacking humanity?"

"That's what we don't know and what we intend to find out. I can only assume that you got their attention when you killed one of them."

"Why are you involved?"

"Cerberus are committed to the advancement and preservation of humanity. If the Reapers are targeting us, trying to wipe us out, Cerberus will stop them."

Silence again descended as Shepard appeared to chew on his words. The Illusive Man simply took another drag of his cigarette. You're human, Shepard. It's a human problem. You may not buy into Cerberus but you'll want to help humanity. You'll want to fight. You'll want to protect the innocent. And you'll want to protect the colonists. I know you, Shepard. I've got your entire history on file. This is a fight you will want to be in. This is a fight you will want to win.

He heard Shepard sigh. "If what you say is true, if the Reapers are behind this then and if colonists are disappearing without a known cause, and if... and this is a big fucking if, but if the Alliance and the Council are unable or unwilling to help, then… fuck, I can't believe I'm going to say this, I may consider helping. I'm a human. This is a human problem. I'd feel like a complete ass if I sat on the sidelines and didn't help, though I'm also going to feel like a fucking hypocrite helping you."

The Illusive Man just took a drag on his cigarette, pondering his words. That was almost easier than I expected. I doubt he'll ever trust me but if he does the job, then so be it. The Illusive Man then took another drag of his cigarette as he turned and walked back to his chair, taking a seat as he grabbed hold of his glass tumbler.

"Don't take my word for it, Commander. I'd be disappointed if you accepted any of this without seeing for yourself. I have a shuttle ready to take you to Freedom's Progress, the latest colony to be abducted. Miranda and Jacob will brief you."

Shepard laughed. "You expect me to trust them? Miranda is a cold-hearted bitch. Learned that within a few minutes of talking to her. Jacob's nothing more than a mercenary. Figured he has some military training, but sold out whoever trained him. Quite frankly I'd rather work alone."

"Miranda saved your life in more ways than one. She deserves your thanks, at least. As for Jacob, he's a soldier. One of my best. He's never fully trusted me, and to his credit, he's always been honest about it. You don't have to trust me or them for the moment, Commander. But you'll be fine with them for now."

"Do I have a choice, or am I being 'volunteered'?"

"You always have a choice. If you don't find the evidence we're both looking for, we can part ways. All I can do is ask that you go to Freedom's Progress. Find any clues you can. Who's abducting the colonists? Do they have any connection to the Reapers? I brought you back for one reason, Commander. It's up to you to do the rest."

Shepard said nothing else but gave a slight nod of the head as if in agreement. Satisfied that he had nothing more to say, the Illusive Man keyed a code on a small holographic display on his chair and the hologram of Shepard disappeared. The Illusive Man took a sip of bourbon from his glass tumbler, feeling the liquid slightly burn on its way down his throat before settling in his stomach. He then followed that with another drag from his cigarette before he turned his chair around and looked at the massive red ball glowing only a few million kilometres away.

Miranda and Jacob gave me all the details about the Collectors they could during the shuttle ride to Freedom’s Progress. Apparently it was one of a number of colonies to go silent, though this was the first time Cerberus had opportunity to investigate before the Alliance turned up. Other than that, neither had too much to say, at least for now. Miranda was hopeful, even confident that we’d find something. Jacob tried to be positive but I had a feeling this wasn’t their first rodeo regarding the disappearance of an entire colony.

I led the way out of the shuttle after it had touched down. At least I’d managed to grab some other weapons after speaking with the Illusive Man. Having not had an opportunity to train, Jacob and Miranda had given me the basics, but suggested I just go ‘old school’ to start, Miranda offering to train me in the correct use of my biotics. That made me smirk, she said it was to simply ensure I was making use of all my abilities. Wise words, and I agreed to a heavy training regime after the mission.

The colony was eerily quiet, and I learned what they had before. No bodies. No real sign of what had caused their disappearance. There wasn’t any sign of violence. But there were small signs that something had happened, and quickly. But any thoughts were put to the back of my mind when mechs started to fire upon us.

“They shouldn’t be firing at us!” Miranda muttered as she unleashed her biotics.

We fought our way forward, my assault rifle adding to the cacophony of noise, Miranda mixing up biotics with bursts of machine gun fire, Jacob the same, though he preferred a shotgun. Moving our way towards the centre of the colony, we passed through abandoned homes, shops and what looks like warehouses. It was still deadly quiet except for when the mechs woke up. Even I would admit it was a little unsettling…

What I didn’t expect us to run into halfway through the colony was a bunch of quarians, leaving me to wonder What the fuck are they doing here? I thought we were going to end up in a firefight, as the quarians had itchy trigger fingers, while Miranda and Jacob both had weapons raised, ready to fire if necessary… or ordered.

Then from behind the line that had formed stepped someone I remembered. The colour of her suit was something very familiar. As was the voice. And she’d definitely gotten bossy in the intervening two years. He gestured to his colleagues. “Hold fire,” he ordered, immediately noticing the jerk of her head, definitely recognising his voice in return.

"What are quarians doing on Freedom's Progress, Commander?" Miranda asked, which was a reasonable question under the circumstances.

"I'm not sure. Why don't we ask them?" I asked, looking back at Tali as I removed by helmet. I think she almost fainted upon seeing my face. I’d look in a mirror, so could understand the shock. “Long time, no see, Tali.”

“Shepard? Is that you?”

“Yeah, I’m sure you have a whole bunch of questions right about now. But let me answer what I think you want to know. Yes, I’ve been gone two years. I’ve been dead, or as close to it as possible. Meat bag is what I was told. No, I’m not working with Cerberus, despite the fact the people beside me wear that symbol. Long story short, I’ve just woken up, I’ve been sent here to look for colonists, we were not expecting to find quarians instead.”

She lifted her pistol, every other quarian doing the same. “How do I know it’s really you?”

“You were involved in an intimate relationship with Ashley. You also loved looking at Wrex’s massive cock. And we’ve fucked more than once. Plus, I gave you the data as a pilgrimage gift. That sound like someone who wouldn’t know you rather intimately, Tali. I remember I know how to make you squeal, that’s for damn sure.”

The pistol dropped immediately. “Are we seriously going to trust him?” one of her squad asked.

“Trust me, it’s Shepard,” she said in a husky tone. Bet her mind just flooded with memories. Feels like only yesterday for me.

Before Tali could ask any more questions, I took control of situation, asking why they were also present on Freedom’s Progress. Figuring I would at least be helpful, she told me about a young quarian by the name of Veetor who lived within the colony. They were there to look and hopefully rescue him. They’d also run into mechs too, so we agreed to join forces. Neither side was happy about it, though I pulled rank on Jacob and Miranda, while Tali told anyone who didn’t agree could wait in the shuttle. Damn, she’s rather feisty when in charge. Makes her even sexier.

Splitting up, the quarians taking a circle route, while we went straight up the middle, the next few minutes were spent dealing with mechs and investigating the colony. We found no sign of any colonists nor of who had taken them. The fact we found half eaten meals, vidscreens left on, but no sign of any domicile being ransacked, simply left more questions than answers.

Of course, the quarians were never going to agree to working with Cerberus. Didn’t really blame them all that much, but Tali tuned into my radio, not sure how as I never gave her the frequency, and told me that her squad had marched on. I ordered my two to move faster, and we ran out into a large area, which appeared to be a loading dock, with factories and machinery everywhere, and also an enormous mech that was tearing her squad apart.

Without a heavy weapon to use, we had to get creative. Tali was in cover behind some steel crates, doing her best to hack into the mech. Jacob and Miranda were firing warps as its shields. I had biotics but doing the same as them was pointless.

“You can do a biotic charge, Shepard,” Miranda suggested.

“I can a biotic what now?”

“I didn’t want to have you do it in the middle of a battle field, but no time like the present. You’ve got a shotgun?” I nodded. “The charge will have you slam into the mech, taking down its shields, perhaps even knocking it back. That’ll give you time to fire off a few rounds in close. Might even force a few systems to shut down.”

I glanced at Tali. “Reckon you can take its shields?”

“Yes, Shepard. I take those down, you do your charge.”

“Right. Let’s do it then.”

Miranda gave me the basics of how to perform a biotic charge. I basically just had to think it, do some sort of gesture, and then it would happen. The biotic flare upon impact would keep me protected, though the mech could still return fire with me close in. I peeked over cover and checked for any weak spots. “What do you think, just its centre mass. Looks relatively unarmoured. Get the barrel in close and blam, job done. Then I’ll get into cover and leave it to you.”

So that’s what we did. Once Tali gave me the go, I did as Miranda instructed and practically flew across the docking bay, shotgun raised, ready for a sickening collision. There was a louder noise than I expected as we collided, but the mech actually staggered back slightly, giving me enough time to raise my shotgun, place it perfectly, then unload the entire clip. Before it could react, I turned and ran for cover as I felt it fire as I ran, leaping over cover. Switching to my assault rifle, I returned fire again, though my charge and shotgun had left it with all manner of problems, watching it spark time and again as tech attacks now rained down on it. I focused on its head, so to speak, with enough bullets eventually shooting the thing off, the mech finally collapsing and exploding into parts.

The others stepped out of cover as Tali immediately started to check on her people. Jacob met my eyes, grinned slightly and shook his head. Miranda returned a blank look as expected, and it didn’t take us too long to find Veeter, secluded in an airtight chamber nearby. He knew we were coming, and was obviously nervous of our presence. I was fairly sure he was in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

It was a question and answer session of what he had seen. I was amazed he was still on the colony, but he played video for us, having hacked the cameras around the colony to show exactly what had taken them all.

"My God. I think it's a Collector!" Miranda gasped.

"What's a Collector?" I asked. Knew what Reapers were, didn’t know what a Collector was.

"They're an alien species from beyond the Omega 4 relay, Commander. No-one has ever really seen one before," Jacob replied.

"They usually work through intermediaries, like slavers or hired mercenaries. If they're involved with the Reapers somehow, it could explain what happened with the colonists, Commander," Miranda added.

"The Collectors have advanced technology. They could have a weapon that disables an entire settlement at once,” Jacob continued.

Watching the video further, it was obvious what the Collectors had done and how the colonists had been taken without leaving a trace of evidence. "The seeker swarms. No-one can hide. The seekers find you. Freeze you. Then the monsters take you away," the quarian explained.

"How did you escape, Veetor?" I asked.

"Swarms couldn't find me. Monsters didn't know I was here."

"Hmmm. Interesting. Maybe it was the enviro-suit worn by the quarians that protected him," Jacob suggested.

"And technology used by the Collectors may be designed to only target humans. It makes sense," Miranda added.

"Okay, Veetor, what happened with the colonists?" I asked.

"The monsters took the people onto the ship, and then they left. The ship flew away. But they'll be back for me. No-one escapes!"

"You'll be okay, Veetor. They are not coming back," I said, hoping to reassure the clearly frightened quarian with a friendly pat on the shoulder, "And thanks. You've been very helpful."

"I studied them. The monsters. The swarms. I recorded them with my omni-tool. Lots of readings. Electro-magnetic. Dark energy," he said as he started keying his omni-tool.

"We need that information, Shepard. Grab the quarian, call the shuttle, and we'll get out of here," Miranda practically ordered. I gave her a look of And who is giving the orders around here?

"Like hell you will!" Tali shouted as she stormed into the room behind us, causing all of us to turn around in surprise. "Veetor needs medical attention. He needs treatment, not an interrogation!"

"We won't hurt him," Jacob stated, trying to placate a clearly furious quarian, which I found more amusing than anything, "We just need to see if he knows anything else. He'll be returned unharmed."

Miranda then spoke up. "Your people tried to betray us once already. If we give him to you, we'll never get the intel we need." Damn it, she’s got a point there.

"Prazza was an idiot, and he and his men paid for it. Take Veetor's omni-tool data, but leave Veetor with us. Shepard, please?" Tali pleaded, only looking at me.

"Of course, Tali." I replied, turning towards my ‘colleagues’. "Veetor goes back to the flotilla. The omni-tool data will have all the information we need. A clearly traumatized person will not be the greatest source of information." Miranda definitely wanted to retort but as I simply said, “Return to the shuttle for departure. I’ll be along shortly. Before you ask, what I’ll be talking about with Tali is none of your damned business.”

“Right away, Commander,” Jacob said, basically having to drag an infuriated Miranda away.

Tali was giving orders to her own people, a couple of quarians appearing to escort Veetor back to their shuttle. Once we were alone, I removed my helmet again and leaned back against the desk. I had no idea how long I’d been awake for now, but it had already been one hell of a long day.

“So, Cerberus, Shepard. Really?”

“I know how it looks, Tali. Trust me, I’ve only been awake a few hours.”

“Wouldn’t have guessed considering what you did out there.” She paused before adding, “You weren’t a biotic before either.”

“Yep, another idea of the Illusive Man.”

“Illusive… You mean the man who runs Cerberus?”

“Yep. Spoken to him already. Full of shit, of course, but when he told me about what’s going on here, I had to come and see for myself. About this, he wasn’t lying.” I stretched, feeling muscles that hadn’t been used in two years starting to tighten up already. “Don’t suppose you can come along?”

“No, Shepard, and not just because of Cerberus. I’ve got my own mission now. It’s important to my people. And you’ve been gone a long time now.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Sure you can trust them?” That question made me laugh, which answered it for her. “Good to see you, Shepard. All I can ask is that you stay safe while working with them, because I remember what we were doing before you died.”

“Oh, he knows all about that. He thinks he can put a leash on me. He’ll learn soon enough I do what I want.” I picked up my helmet and gestured to the door. “Will your people be okay getting out of here?”

“Yes, we’ll be fine. We’ll head straight back for the Fleet, report what we’ve found. If Veetor has anything else, I’ll send it to you.”

“Send it to my old Alliance email account, if it’s still working. I’ll find some way of gaining access to it. Don’t want these idiots getting the information before I see it.”

They’d picked up the bodies, the few survivors waiting on the shuttle for her. We hugged briefly before she stepped onto the shuttle, turning around. “Stay safe, Shepard. And good luck.”

“You too, Tali. I’ll see you soon.”

I waited until their shuttle was in the air, ready to disappear, before I dared walk to my shuttle. Taking off my helmet before boarding, Miranda and Jacob were in place, and soon we were taking off, heading back to where we had left earlier. Minuteman Station, I’d heard Jacob call it. Whatever the case, I just stared out the window and ignored the presence of the other two, racking my brain over what to do next.

Two years is a long time. Everyone I knew would have moved on, and I wasn’t just speaking of those who served with me on the Normandy, though I immediately thought of people like Liara, Shiala and Ashley. Then there was Emily and Gianna…

“Penny for your thoughts, Commander?” Jacob asked.

“I just want to report to the Illusive Man what we’ve found, then what the next step is.”

“You’re convinced.”

“About the abductions? Of course. But it was all too neat. I think he already knew who was behind it. I’m not an idiot, I know when I’m being used.”

“He would have no reason…”

I glared at her and she surprisingly shut up. “Look, I know your head is firmly up his arse but I’m not going to listen to you spin bullshit all the time. You’ve seen my file, you know I won’t put up with anyone’s shit, in particularly someone who thinks he can order me around. I don’t see a rank on his shoulders, and I don’t see one of mine. There is no structure of command I am following, nor am I expected to follow orders. I did this as a goodwill gesture. So unless I am made one hell of a firm fucking offer, I will say thank you for bringing me back, for whatever reasons you have, but I’ll be heading home now.”

“And where is home?” Miranda retorted.

“The Alliance.”

“They gave up on you, Shepard. Within days. To them, you’re dead. Body burned up in space, nothing but a plaque on the wall. The Council gave even less of a shit than you. First human Spectre, barely remembered.”

“Well, aren’t you just fucking peachy.”

“You wanted honesty, Shepard. There’s your honesty. Everyone else gave up on you. Cerberus didn’t. Maybe chew on that for the rest of the shuttle ride.”

Damn, she certainly was feisty and she simply glared back when I met her eyes. So I moved my eyes from there down her face, her neck, over her chest, which was rather ample, down her body, which certainly had curves in all the right places, then down her legs, which she kept crossed, all the way to the boots she wore, with the ridiculous heel, then all the way back up. When I met her eyes again, the look was even better, verging on fury, which simply forced me to return a grin.

“The Illusive Man will want to talk when we get back, Shepard,” Jacob told me.

“Good. Because I’ll be having a few words with him as well.”