It was too easy.
Garrus didn’t like it. Easy made his plates itch.
It wasn’t even that they’d come expecting trouble—the mission brief had been straightforward enough. Land near an abandoned station. Recover some intel Hackett believed was important enough for Shepard herself to collect. (Garrus was of the rather insubordinate belief that the Admiral thought any number of ridiculous tasks required Shepard’s personal attention when they could just as easily have been handled by someone not attempting to oh, broker peace amongst Council races and gather fleets for war against the Reapers. Sure. Playing courier seemed like a perfectly worthwhile use of her time. On one hand? Cure the genophage. On the other? Run along out to the edge of the galaxy to pick up a datapad.)
Drop. Collect. Leave. No enemies reported. No trouble expected.
Right. Since when did the universe ever give them easy? Trouble was Shepard’s middle name, whether she wanted it to be or not. Everyone who served on her crew knew it, and expected complications even on the most routine runs. Refueling? Reapers. Swing by the Citadel? Cerberus. There was always something. Of course, the crew assumed she’d get them out of the trouble, but no one doubted the existence of it in the first place.
Really, it was a good thing Shepard’s impeccable timing made up for all the bullshit the galaxy threw her way. She had a hell of a knack for showing up just when she was needed, guns blazing, refusing to take no for an answer or to consider failure an option.
He rubbed absently at the scarred side of his face, and thought maybe the trade-off was equal after all. She’d arrived just in time to pull his ass out of the fire. More than once.
But this mission? Something wasn’t right.
He just couldn’t quite figure out why.
So even as they laughed about the mediocre encryption on the files they’d come for, and good-naturedly bemoaned the distinct lack of hostiles to take care of (“Not that either of you suffers from lack of action,” Tali said, just a little pointedly. Shepard replied, “Sorry there aren’t any husks, Tali. I know how you love husks.” Tali shuddered. Violently.) Garrus couldn’t help the uneasiness that crept along his spine. He had to stop himself from looking over his shoulder every two minutes, and his trigger-finger twitched relentlessly.
Nothing jumped out of the shadows. Each room they entered was as empty as the last, the silence broken only by the sound of their footsteps.
The feeling didn’t go away. Not even as they wound their way back through the abandoned station and out to the extraction point, where—wonder of wonders—the shuttle was still waiting, Cortez sitting in the front, finishing off a snack. He brushed the crumbs from his lap and sent a penitent smile over his shoulder. Garrus couldn’t figure out why he looked ashamed until he realized it probably went against regulations to eat on duty. Fair enough.
“What, no exploding buildings and last-minute daring escapes?” Cortez asked. “Nothing shooting at us from the sky?”
“Sorry to disappoint.” Shepard reached up to grab the edge of the open door frame, flipping herself gracefully into the hold. Garrus clambered in after her, followed by Tali. “Did you save some of that for the rest of the class? I’m starving.”
Cortez shrugged, an apologetic tilt to his brows. “Looks like it’s disappointment all around.”
Garrus chuckled. “All that doing nothing worked up an appetite?”
Shepard rolled her eyes before crouching beside one of the supply creates. “I skipped breakfast.” After a moment of rifling and muttered cursing, she rose, holding a bar of… something triumphantly aloft. The metallic wrapper gleamed in the dim light. Whatever it was, it had no smell he could detect. Alarming. He didn’t always appreciate the scent of her strange food, but usually it gave off some kind of odor. Garrus snatched it from her hand and knocked it against the wall. The metal panel clanged its annoyance at being so accosted. The… food remained entirely unaffected.
Cortez laughed as he turned back to the control console. “We’ll be back before you know it, Commander. You could always hold out for something a little less likely to break your teeth.”
Shepard scowled as she reached for the rations, but Garrus flung it over her head. Tali caught it, giggling, and then proceeded to examine it from every angle. “Shepard, this isn’t food. This is a weapon. You could kill someone with it.”
Tali tossed it back to him as soon as Shepard turned toward her, and Garrus deftly pulled it from the air. Even when he clenched his hand around it, the brick didn’t so much as budge. He couldn’t actually imagine Shepard’s blunt teeth managing to gnaw a piece off. Still, he sighed and held it out to her.
“Javik would tell you to throw it out the airlock.” Garrus adopted a poor imitation of the prothean’s accent. “In my cycle, our rations were superior, human. This is not fit for consumption. I would feed it to my enemies.”
Shepard barked a laugh, her mirth sudden and warm and enough to make his mandibles flare in pleased answer. “It’d hardly be a surprise. Javik tells me to throw everything out the airlock. You lot included. But you’re right about waiting. Maybe if I ask really nicely, Vega’ll take pity and cook huevos rancheros for me.”
Tali gave a theatrically exaggerated shudder. “I think I’d throw myself out the airlock before I could bring myself to eat that.”
Garrus agreed, but Shepard had such a look of longing on her face he couldn’t bring himself to say anything that might burst her wistful, disgusting-levo-food bubble.
She strapped herself into the seat next to him, bar of rations abandoned. Then, just loud enough for him to hear, she said, “I blame you for my missing breakfast, by the way.”
He grinned, brushing his shoulder against hers, and she laughed as her stomach gave a growling, hungry protest. “Worth it.”
On a scowl he felt pretty certain she didn’t mean, she said, “I don’t know. I’m really hungry.”
“I’ll make it up to you later. After you eat. Obviously.”
Tali sighed. Loudly. “You know you two are never actually as quiet as you think you’re being, right?”
From the cockpit, Cortez laughed, and the Kodiak began its ascent.
It was too easy.
For once, a simple intel-gathering side-trip was just that. Simple. No traps. No ambushes. No surprises. No guardian mechs. No rivers of lava. The abandoned station was actually abandoned, and between the three of them, decrypting the data was child’s play. They made a game of it. Tali won.
Too damned easy.
She should have known.
Nothing ever went according to plan.
This time the wrench in the gears came in the form of Joker’s crackling voice suddenly bleating over the comm. He sounded just a little breathless, and Shepard’s hackles rose. “Hey, Commander. So. Little hiccup.”
Strapped into the seat beside her, Garrus stiffened. Shepard couldn’t say she blamed him. She exhaled through her nose, preparing for whatever shit it was to hit the fan it would then become her responsibility to fix. “I don’t like the sound of that, Joker.”
“Would’ve told you earlier, but the planet’s atmosphere wasn’t letting me patch through. I did warn you that might happen. Anyway. We picked up a distress call.”
“Must’ve been an old one. The station was definitely empty.”
“Not from the station. From a ship. Turian. Came limping into range right after you landed. When we tried to scan it, we, uh, may have alerted some unwanted company. Running from Reapers doesn’t leave a lot of time for chit-chat, Commander.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose, even though the gesture was entirely futile and did nothing to soothe the headache building behind her eyes. “Report, Joker. Without the color commentary, if you please. And Cortez, keep an eye out as we break atmo.”
“Already on it, Commander. Not picking up Reaper signals. Think I’m catching that turian distress call, though.”
“We’ll look into it in a minute, Lieutenant. Joker?”
“We caught the Reapers’ attention, and they followed us. Gave ‘em the runaround. Think we’ve lost them now, and we didn’t have to go too far off course to do it, so ETA in a couple of hours, none the worse for wear. Didn’t want to push it, in case we hadn’t lost our tail.”
“Keep your eyes open. Thinking you’ve lost them won’t get you far if you’re wrong.” Shepard dragged her fingers through her hair, giving her scalp a squeeze. It didn’t help any more than pinching her nose had done. “And the turians?”
“Pretty sure we picked up life signs before we had to run. Don’t know if the Reapers were the reason for the distress call, but EDI says it seems likely. Probability high or something. Statistics were involved. Frankly, I was too busy getting us the hell out of there to pay much attention to the numbers. I think whatever the Reapers were doing, we interrupted them.”
“Why does this sound familiar?” Garrus’ tone was wry; his expression anything but. Tense mandibles and the too-rapid blinking of his eyes betrayed his concern. “It’s not like we’ve ever been lured into a trap by a false distress signal before. Oh. Wait. It just hasn’t happened yet this week.”
Tali’s omni-tool filled the small cabin with orange light as she called it up and began tapping furiously. It cast strange shadows across the purple of her mask. Shepard paid attention to Tali’s faint muttering, but didn’t interrupt; they were mostly quarian curse words she didn’t need to understand anyway. The feeling behind them was more than clear. “I don’t know, Shepard,” Tali said at last, as the omni-tool’s interface winked out. “I looked at it as many ways as I could. It seems legitimate. But the distress call that brought us to the Collectors seemed legitimate, too.”
For a moment, Shepard considered leaving the ship behind, distress call or not. Wouldn’t be the first or last crew sacrificed on the altar of necessity or expediency during this conflict. Questions of cost and risk and benefit tried to drive mercy from her head; her least favorite kind of pros and cons list. That ruthless calculus of war. Again.
Three years ago, she wouldn’t have hesitated to look for survivors. She wouldn’t have considered the alternative. It wouldn’t have occurred to her to consider the alternative. She’d already have given the order to intercept and board. She’d have been hoping for the best, and that hope might even have outweighed dread.
One more thing she hated this war for stealing. Life signs were life signs. The girl from Mindoir, shivering and in shock, remembered what rescue felt like when it arrived once all hope of rescue had passed. The girl from Mindoir would be sick to see her hesitating now. Hell, so would the Hero of the Blitz, for that matter. She’d held the line against all odds—but it wouldn’t have meant anything if the Agincourt had given them up for dead. If she didn’t have her compassion, what the hell was she left with? A fancy gun? What was she? A weapon?
Shepard didn’t want to be just a weapon.
“Dammit.” She drove a fist into her thigh and then shook out her hand. “Joker, rendezvous as soon as you’re able. For the love of God, don’t scan anything. Cortez, you know the drill. Bring us in quiet as you can. First sign of trouble, we bolt. Got it? No risks. From either of you.”
“By the time we get the first sign of trouble it’s usually too late,” Garrus muttered, but Shepard thought she detected the faintest hint of gratitude under the gloom and the worry—no one knew as well as he did how high a price the turians were paying in this war—so she only leaned back against the bulkhead and said, “Noted. I think we still owe it to them to check.”
Easy, Hackett had said. Practically a vacation, after some of the places you’ve been and things you’ve done.
Right. Abandoned planet with a side of distressed turian warship. All it was missing was the tropical drink complete with paper umbrella.
She didn’t like it. She didn’t like it one bit.