The enemy is pressing forward. Blackened hands crawl up from the abyss. Hideous, twisted faces scream as the husks rush toward Miranda’s position, but the heavy bang of Shepard’s rifle rings out. Blam. A head explodes.
The palms of Miranda’s hands warm up. Shepard’s a crack shot, but there are too many of these things, too fast. If they get close, it's over. So she gathers up a ball of biotic energy, places it in their path, and watches the mindless creatures sprint forward to their death. Shepard picks a few off with her rifle, while a burst of gunfire from Kasumi takes out the rest. The scraps of their corrupted forms dangle in the air.
The commander’s eyes flash red in the dark. “Nice,” she breathes, and a wide grin splits her face. The cybernetic cracks in her cheeks are glowing.
“There's more of them,” Miranda warns. She can hear the substructures groaning with the weight of more bodies. Fighting these things is tiresome in a way that few other enemies are. They just keep coming, soaking up round after round of ammunition with little attempt to evade. Shepard is the juggernaut of this group, far more heavily armed and armored than Miranda or Kasumi. She's practically a krogan. She should be on the front line.
But it's the commander’s call. Her well-timed headshots have saved Miranda’s hide more than once today. She's hanging back behind cover, nearly invisible in the darkness, while Kasumi scouts ahead and Miranda holds the center. If the situation demands it, Shepard will come charging out with SMGs ablaze and take the lead once more.
A humming whine pierces the air. Kasumi’s the first to call it. “Praetorian!”
Shepard sets down her rifle, eyes rolling. “Playtime’s over.” The commander is just as happy with a submachine gun in her hands, though. She peeks out from cover, waiting for the Praetorian to wander into her sights.
Miranda’s biotics and Kasumi’s short-range stealth maneuvers aren't much use against the behemoth; as another wave of husks begins to surface from the depths, Miranda focuses her fire on them. Best to keep them off Shepard while she takes the big one out. They’re easy enough to knock back down where they came from, but that might not keep them down for good; they haven’t stopped to look down and see how far the fall is. Miranda takes them out with slow, measured shots from her pistol, each one neat through the head. Kasumi picks off a straggler with her blade.
“Ungh!” Shepard's grunt comes over the comm, and Miranda whips her head around. She can't see the commander. Just the Praetorian, advancing toward Shepard’s position.
“Might want to move out of cover, Shepard,” Miranda shouts. She turns her biotics on the Praetorian quickly, warping and damaging some of its thick armor. It howls in rage. Shepard has an arm up on the railing, ready to vault over, but she raises her gun for one more burst of fire before she goes. Right into the weak spot.
Four glowing blue eyes—if that's what they are—narrow in on Shepard. The Praetorian rears back and fires. The particle beam sears through her weakened shields, her armor plating. The commander roars in pain. She tosses a grenade at the creature, then another. They burst in a halo of fire, and the Praetorian crumples to the ground. It begins to dissipate into a smoldering blue ash. But Shepard is still slumped behind the cover. Miranda can’t see her.
“Shepard’s down,” Miranda barks into the comm as she picks off one of the remaining husks. Kasumi nods in the shadows, readying an application of medi-gel. Unseen, she darts over to the commander’s location.
At last, there’s a moment of relative quiet. The groaning from below has died down. Miranda toes at a dead husk’s hand, pushing it back over the edge, and rushes behind the railing. “Is she okay?”
Kasumi is crouched on the ground, her hooded face invisible. The corner where Shepard was hiding is burned black. She’s not here—just her SMG, lying on the ground like a broken toy. Black dust swirls around Kasumi’s splayed fingers. Around the heels of Miranda’s boots.
“She’s gone,” Kasumi whispers.
There’s no time to mourn, to plan, to process. Miranda grabs Kasumi by the shoulder. “We have to keep moving,” she declares. There’s a slight tremor in her voice, but it’s firm. “We need to get back to the ship. Come on.”
Miranda doesn’t wait for a response; she doesn’t expect one. She sets her jaw and moves forward.
As they approach the doors, EDI’s voice comes over the comm. “Miranda, I’ve lost contact with Shepard’s hardsuit. Requesting status update.”
“The Praetorian got her. She’s dead,” Miranda snarls. Having to say it makes it a lot harder to ignore, and that’s what they have to do until they make it out. The Collectors are still throwing everything they’ve got at the pair. It’s a nightmare without Shepard at the vanguard. Miranda’s biotics are powerful, but she’s been pushing them past their limits to keep herself and Kasumi alive. There’s a very real chance that they won’t make it off this ship.
“Joker, come in.” As the two women charge down a sloping hallway, racing to the exit, Miranda puts a hand up to her ear. With her other hand, she fires a pistol shot through the eye of an approaching husk. “We need a pickup now.”
“Yeah. Shuttle’s standing by.” Joker’s voice is hoarse in her earpiece. “Let’s get out of here.”
They can see the end of the tunnel at last. Freedom ahead, death behind. Miranda leaps over the edge, the black vastness of space beneath her feet for a moment, and then she’s in the Normandy’s shuttle. She turns back to ensure that Kasumi makes it across safely. Of course she does. The thief leaps over the gap like a frog, eyes still hidden beneath her hood.
As they sink down in opposite seats, the shuttle doors slide closed. After the blastoff kick, Miranda feels her shoulders relax, her chest deflate in a sigh. Mission complete.
On the short trip up to the Normandy, Kasumi remains perched in the corner, gazing wordlessly out the window. Miranda’s brain works like a pinball machine through her immediate tasks. The Illusive Man has to know what happened. And Miranda has to know why he sent them into a trap. He must have had a good reason to gamble with his greatest resource. Miranda’s never known him to lose a gamble before.
But Shepard’s more than just a resource. Or… she was.
The news of her death has to be spreading across the ship already. They're all loyal to the commander in one way or another. At least Jacob is Cerberus, and Zaeed’s on their payroll. But Tali? Grunt? Jack?
If they don't see the bigger picture fast, there's going to be a mutiny to contend with.
The first crew member that makes eye contact with Miranda gets the order. “Get the whole team in the briefing room, ASAP.” She doesn't wait for an answer, just makes a beeline through the armory where Jacob stands at attention. It's hard to tell with him, because he's always looking grim about something or another. Well, if he doesn’t know yet, he will soon.
For a few blessed moments, Miranda is alone. The quiet and the silver blankness of the briefing room walls are dizzying after all the sensory overload of the past few hours. She closes her eyes and leans her hands against the table. Stay sharp, Miranda. The crew still needs a leader, even if everything else has gone to shit.
Before long, the team filter through the doors, one by one in rapid succession. First Jacob, looking serious as ever. Then Mordin, scratching the side of his head. Garrus and Samara. Thane and Tali. Grunt and Zaeed. Kasumi appears later than expected, finally letting a sliver of light touch her eyes. Then there's a lull.
Of course it's Jack who keeps them waiting.
The room is tense with a silence that no one is willing to break. No one except Grunt. The massive krogan paces left and right, snorting and scanning the others suspiciously. He punches a fist into his palm. “What's this about?” he grumbles. Then, louder: “Where is Shepard?” Across the room, Kasumi’s purple mouth twists into a frown, and Miranda exhales.
“Our mission on the Collector ship was successful,” she begins. She leans forward, hands pressed against the table, and stares at the tips of her thumbs. “We recovered intel that will get us through the Omega 4 relay. But Shepard…”
The door chirps and slides open, and Jack wanders in, her eyes flickering left and right as she takes in the scene. She crosses her arms over her chest and scowls, then leans against the wall. As far from Miranda as possible.
“...Shepard didn't make it back,” Miranda finally says.
There's a quiet chorus of gasps. Not from everyone; some had already pieced together the somber atmosphere and the commander’s conspicuous absence, but Miranda recognizes the sharp sound of Tali inhaling through her mask, the dignified shock as Samara releases a held breath.
“Keelah, this can't be true…” Tali’s shoulders slump.
After an almost-appropriate length of respectful silence, Zaeed whistles through his teeth. “Damn. Didn’t think anything could take her down.”
“It was a Praetorian,” Miranda explains, pushing herself off from the table. “Like the one we faced on Horizon. I know you all have questions, but—”
“No shit, we have questions.” Jack storms forward all at once, eyes looking bloodshot, and slams the heel of her hand on the table. “How fast can I be off this goddamn Cerberus ship?”
Her mention of the word Cerberus sends a ripple of murmurs across the room. Miranda shares a glance with Jacob, then returns Jack’s stare. Even making eye contact with her feels like a power struggle. “This has always been a Cerberus ship, and you’ve never had to answer to the Illusive Man. That’s not going to change.” She grits her teeth. “You don’t have to like me , but we need to see this mission through. Shepard would want that.”
“She wouldn’t want the Illusive Man’s pet grabbing the fucking reins before her body’s cold.”
There is no body, Miranda thinks, knitting her brow. But that’s both sad and beside the point. “There’s no time to mourn right now. The Collectors aren’t going to wait. And I’m the most qualified leader on this ship.” Her eyes scan across the room. Jacob is meeting her eyes, grim but faithful. The rest are distracted: Thane in prayer, Grunt pacing furiously, Garrus staring a hole in the floor. And Jack is still laser-focused on her.
“We can put it to a vote if you like. If anyone thinks they can do a better job, speak up.” Miranda folds her arms. She watches Jack’s head swivel left, then right in the silence. Her lips curl in frustration, and Miranda can’t help but feel a little satisfied.
“So that’s settled. If anyone needs to speak with me, I’ll be in my office. Later,” Miranda adds firmly. Now that she’s asserted her dominance, she allows her shoulders to drop just a bit, her voice to soften. “There are some calls I need to make. You’re all dismissed.”
It takes a moment for her words to sink in, but eventually, the crowd begins to dissipate. They trudge out of the briefing room one by one. Tali doesn't seem to notice what's going on until Garrus gently taps her on the back, guiding her toward the door. Jack shoulders her way through the line with fists clenched. She keeps her head squarely forward, but Miranda notices her eyes flash in her direction one last time. Miranda’s lip twitches.
Jacob is the last to remain. He watches the doors close behind Kasumi’s silent retreat, then turns to Miranda. “...Commander.”
“Don't start with that, Jacob.” She rubs her right temple. “I'm not Shepard.”
“I know, Miranda.” Jacob crosses his arms, and his lip twists as he puts his next thought together. “You just… tend to get caught up in your work. Don't run yourself into the ground. You don't have to do this alone.”
“Shepard did.” The words come out quieter than Miranda intended. Her fingers curl in on themselves for just a moment.
“Shepard was always making rounds on the ship, checking up on the crew. And she had Garrus, Jack, you.” Jacob leans forward against the table. “She's… she was an incredible woman. But not a one-woman army.”
“I have no idea how she made the time for it. ” Miranda huffs a laugh despite herself, shaking her head. “You think small talk is going to save humanity?”
“Maybe not humanity. Maybe just you.” Jacob cracks a hint of a smile, but his eyes are still dead serious. “I'll let you get to work. Miranda.” He leaves her with a salute.
At last she has the room to herself—other than the ubiquitous presence of EDI, who's mercifully silent at the moment. Miranda exhales and braces herself against the console.
She closes her eyes, allowing herself a moment of rest. Just a moment. Who knows when the next chance will be. Miranda can still see Shepard's eyes, burning red in the dark.
Finally, she straightens her back and speaks into the console. “Get me the Illusive Man.”