The bombardment exploded across the small ship’s forward windows, a red flower that withered as soon as it bloomed. That kind of metaphorical bullshit didn’t usually do it for Shepard, but in times like these she could get a bit sentimental.
By the time she called for Jack and EDI to cease fire, the cruiser was dead in space. This should have been an easy hit; their intel had confirmed the location of the ship with its holds full of stolen Blue Sun red sand, still nursing its wounds. Shepard was only here to relieve them of their cargo and let them go on their merry way; after all, she had two ships under her command, and could have wiped out the smaller frigate with the Normandy alone.
But apparently someone on board had eaten their Wheaties that morning, and what should have been a guaranteed surrender became a brutal last-stand that ended with Shepard blowing half of the smaller ship to kingdom come. Well, she'd tried playing nice. The days when she mourned her morals were long past.
Joker glanced at her over his shoulder, his eyes bright. "We've got enough juice to keep this up forever, Commander."
"I'm picking up life signs from the enemy ship," EDI said, her voice as cool as ever. "I detect no signs of casualties."
"Good. Status of their systems?"
"Aw, come on, Shepard!" Jack's voice crackled over the intercom. "They put a big dent in my brand new left engine. Let's just blow them to pieces!"
Shepard could picture her now, pacing back and forth on the bridge of the Vengeful Bitch like a caged animal, her biotics flaring purple-blue in want of something to crush into putty. The image put a smile on Shepard’s face. "Murder and mayhem is fun and all, Jack, but I came here to get paid."
"Their hull has been breached at several points," EDI continued. "My readings suggest their engines are permanently disabled. Weapons are online, but it seems they are reconsidering their decision to die needlessly."
"Well, better late than never. Open a comm channel." Shepard sank back into the seat of her command chair, her wrists dangling over the arms. "This is Commander Shepard of the Normandy. Should I take the fact that you're no longer shooting at us to mean you've decided to surrender?"
No response. Leaning forward, Shepard squinted at the floating hull before them, jets of ignited air sputtering out into darkness. "Alternatively, I can pass this decision on to my second in command, who’d be more than happy to liberate our guns and wipe you off this plane of existence. Your call."
A crackle from the comms. Just dead air. The high of battle was quickly souring into impatience. Shepard didn't particularly feel like killing everyone on board, but she also didn't like being made to wait. "Alright, Jack—"
"Wait." The voice was rough, filtered through an EVA suit and the comm link, but the word was clear.
A slow grin spread across Shepard's face. "I'm giving the orders here. Do you want to rephrase that?"
Another crackle of static. For a moment Shepard almost thought the person on the other end of the comm, who had already been overconfident or egotistical or downright stupid enough to test her in the first place, wouldn't find the words to beg. But then the comm channel clicked open and the voice said flatly, "We surrender."
"That's more like it." On her gesture, EDI cut the comms channel short as Shepard rose to her feet. She straightened her spine, stretching out her shoulders and arms before lifting her helmet from its place at the foot of her chair. "Jack, put a team together. We're boarding them hot."
"Damn right. I hope they think they can catch us off guard."
"You know what to do if they try. Joker, EDI, keep a bead on their systems. I want to hear about it two minutes before they try anything funny."
Jacob was already waiting by the elevator. He nodded as she stepped in beside him, the gesture short but respectful. He'd never been all that friendly, even before things went to shit. As long as he respected her enough to follow her orders, that was all that mattered.
"Mordin's got the lab ready to stabilize the sand," he said as the doors slid closed. Shepard stood with her arms clasped loosely behind her back, enjoying the thrum of adrenaline in her veins. She could feel Jacob watching her from the corner of his eye, and knew he hadn't failed to miss her muted excitement. "You sure this is a smart move, Commander? They already put up a hell of a fight. Seems unlikely they're just going to roll over now."
Shepard shot him a sideways glance, raising one eyebrow. "Feels a bit more sportsmanlike to at least give them the chance to pull some shit, instead of blowing them out through a hull breach."
The smile that tugs at Jacob's mouth is reluctant, but genuine. "I didn't know you had a sportsmanlike bone in your body, Commander."
"Eh, you're right. I just want a chance to shoot some stuff." The elevator slid open before Jacob could reply, revealing the rest of the squad waiting by the Hammerhead. Miranda leaned against its side, as nonchalant as if they were about to take a ride to the Presidium; Zaeed acknowledged them with a grunt before sighting down the barrel of his pistol, checking the scope alignment. Shepard came to a halt in front of them. No one sprang to attention, offered any salutes or titles. No military discipline here; not anymore. "We pick up Jack's team on the Bitch before heading over to the target. That’ll give their crew a few extra minutes to sweat under the threat of our guns. You know what to do. If anyone tries anything, put a bullet in them."
"You always did have a way with words, Shepard," Zaeed rasped, his words punctuated by the click of his thermal clip sliding into place.
"Words are cheap, Zaeed. I'll stick with bullets when I can."
The ship's crew had already isolated the hull breaches by the time Shepard and Jack took their squads through the airlock. Their squad surged forward like a torrent of water, spread out around the room to surround the small group of people huddled in its center. "On your knees!" Jack shouted. "Grab some scalp, assholes!"
The ship's crew dropped almost instantly. Jack’s battle voice had that effect on people. A crack split the air as her boot made hard contact with a batarian's knee as he didn't move fast enough. He hit the ground hard with a cry of pain, and Jack's face split open in a viscous grin. From his place guarding the perimeter, Grunt laughed.
Shepard watched coolly as her crew corralled the prisoners, until they all knelt in a straight line with their hands laced behind their heads. At her side, Jacob waited, his gun training over each figure just waiting for the wrong twitch. The air filtered through their helmets smelled of burning things; an unwelcome prickle ran up and down Shepard's spine, but she fought it down. She'd been on derelicts before, wrecks held together only by the twisted melted-down metal left over from the Normandy's guns. The vacuum of space was far away yet.
"Jacob. Miranda." They stepped forward, silent and efficient. "Search them for weapons."
They worked fast, moving from prisoner to prisoner. Twelve of them total; even outnumbering them, it was clear none of their adversaries planned on putting up a fight. Some were leaning on each other, visibly burned or bleeding. Good. If they were already in pain, that was half the fight gone out of them already. As much as Jack might have craved bloodshed, Shepard got little enjoyment out of shooting people with no chance of fighting back. Unless they really pissed her off.
"Clear," Jacob said, straightening up at last. Shepard nodded at him and Miranda before stepping forward herself. The ship's crew kept their eyes on the ground in front of them, not even glancing up as Shepard's boots came to a stop in front of the line. She was surprised to see what a mixed bag it was, humans and batarians and asari, with a couple turians thrown in to boot. Her intel said they weren't affiliated with any gang, but it was hard to imagine what else could bring such a colorful bunch of suicidal shitheads together.
Standing above the line of prisoners, she reached up to remove her helmet. She took her time with the clasps, relishing the hiss of air as the seals released and she pulled it off her head to inspect each crewmember individually. She saw a couple widened eyes, or people who blinked a few times too many—her reputation preceded her.
"I see a few of you know who I am," she said, beginning to amble down the line of prisoners before her. "Good. That'll save us time." Few were meeting her eyes. In all honestly, Shepard had come to love this part. Every one of them knew that their lives were in her hands; she took her time walking from one end of the line to the other, scrutinizing each of their faces. "Bit of a motley bunch."
"Ugly, too," Jack said.
"Oh, now let's not be cruel. Not when we're guests on this fine vessel of theirs." Shepard paused halfway down the line. "None of you will come to any harm, as long as you do exactly as I say. We came here for your cargo. You put up a fight, and we had to do something about that. Now as long as you don't get any other colossally stupid ideas into your heads, I'm sure we'll all get along just fine."
It wasn't fear written into the down-turned faces on either side of her; anger made their features tight, lips pressed together. No, this wasn't some bunch of mercs in it for the cash alone. There was belief in those faces. And that was damn dangerous.
"Who's in command?" No one spoke. Not even a guilty dart of the eyes. Shepard put her hands on her hips and let out a sigh for effect. "Well, see now—I can't allow that. Because I asked you a question, and ignoring me is just rude." Her right hand moved to loosen her assault rifle in its holster. She saw the throat of the nearest asari bob nervously.
"That won't be necessary."
Shepard recognized the voice from the comms immediately, even with the turian flanging suddenly apparent. The turian at the end of the line raised his head, his blue armor matched by the blocky familial markings spread across his face plates. Unlike his crew, he met her eyes without hesitation. She saw the anger written into his team's faces directed back at her tenfold.
Shepard's hand eased off her gun. The irreverent grin returned to her features, as much a part of her armor as her helmet. She stepped right up to him, just a little too close to be comfortable, and returned the appraising gaze. Kneeling as he was, she had the benefit of looking down on him. He blinked, but that was it. Not even a twitch of the mandibles. Credit to him for that. Most people couldn't help but shrink away from the scars burning out of her face like a lighter held under a sheet of paper. "You've heard my name. What's yours?"
"Most people call me Archangel."
The laugh tore out of Shepard's throat before she could care to stop it, echoed by her squad behind her. She turned around to shoot them all a theatrical head-shake before turning back to the turian. "Not the Archangel?"
"Well listen to that, Shepard," Jack drawled. "We’ve caught ourselves a celebrity."
"And here I didn't bring a pen for an autograph." Honestly, the look on the turian's face was priceless: about one part cold anger and two parts chagrin. "Sure, we've heard of you, Archangel. You've been fucking with our favorite prey for almost a year now. I just expected something a little..." She let her eyes wander up and down his armored frame again, before glancing at the wreck that was his ship. "...more."
When he spoke, Archangel’s voice was level. "Two on one isn't really a fair fight. If you’re looking for a challenge, you could hand me a gun and see which of us walks away."
Shepard whistled low under her breath, grinning at the jeers that rose from her squad. "You've got some fight in you—for all the good it did you."
Her hand snaked out. Faster than he could pull away, she had Archangel by his plated chin. His mandibles flared in surprise, his eyes widening, but Shepard held him fast as she leaned into his space. His eyes bored into hers, unflinching. "If you know what's good for you and your crew, you'll forget every ounce of that fight right now."
At last he jerked away, and Shepard stepped back with a laugh. "So. If you don't mind, we'll be helping ourselves to your cargo now."
Archangel stared up at her. Even with those flat turian plates, his expression was suspiciously blank. "Cargo?"
"Don't play dumb with me." Shepard bent forward to brace her hands on her knees, bringing herself to his eye level. "The red sand. Where is it?"
"Oh... that cargo," Archangel drawled. His voice was remarkably calm for a turian surrounded by armed pirates. "Might want to look out a window. While you took your time preparing to board, we vented it all. Maybe if you spend a few months vacuuming up this quadrant, you could scrape together a barrel or two."
Shepard went rigid. When she spoke, her voice was deadly quiet. "I sincerely hope you're joking."
If Archangel saw the danger in the hardening lines of her face, he didn't change his expression. "Afraid not," he said, his voice still infuriatingly flippant. Shepard could already hear the disbelieving mutters from her squad behind them.
She reached up to tap her ear, her eyes never leaving the turian before her. “EDI, can you confirm?”
A brief but telling pause. “…I detect only trace residues of red sand on board the vessel, Commander.”
Shepard lowered her hand, mouth a thin line. “That was a very stupid thing to do.”
"We didn't steal all that red sand from the Blood Pack just to have a bunch of lowlife scavengers sell it right back to them."
"How heroic of you." Shepard straightened, debating her options. She could shoot him where he knelt. In her current state of mind, that option was very appealing. But not, unfortunately, very productive.
In an instant her pistol was out of its holster and pressed against Archangel's neck. "I really hate heroes."
From this close, she could tell when Archangel's breathing picked up. So he could feel fear. Well, that was something. The key was pounding that fear through his thick skull.
"Go ahead," he said. "Shoot me, if it makes you feel a bit better about the fact that you lost."
Slowly Shepard lowered her pistol. "Maybe I don't shoot you. Maybe I pick a member of your crew and shoot them instead. How would you feel about that?"
He held her gaze. To Shepard's amazement, the fear was totally gone. Somehow, he knew she wouldn't do it. She wasn't a sadist, no matter her reputation. Times like these, she almost wished she was. But as soon as he opened his damn mouth and called her bluff, she'd have to go and prove him wrong. She couldn't afford to look weak in front of her crew—in front of Jack least of all.
But maybe Archangel was smarter than he looked. After a long moment he broke her gaze to stare down at the floor, like a puppet with his strings cut. "You don't have to do that."
His voice contained no trace of emotion, but it was enough. Shepard relaxed, slowly sliding her pistol back into its holster on her hip. “You’re right. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. And what I want is to turn a profit. Lucky for you, there’s more profit in keeping you alive than smearing this hold with all your insides.”
“Oh, come on Shepard,” Jack snarled, her biotic aura flaring. “These bastards crossed us. No one gets to do that and walk away.” In one smooth motion, Jack stepped forward and grabbed a kneeling human by the back of his shaved skull. The man’s eyes widened until his irises swam in a sea of white terror. The biotic aura enveloped her hand, surrounding his head like a halo. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t blow their fucking skulls open, one by one.”
“Because I fucking told you not to,” Shepard snapped, years of military training making voice a blunt-force weapon. She held Jack’s gaze, ignoring the pulse of biotic energy between them. If any of her hired mercs had dared disobey an order Shepard would have had a bullet in their skull quicker than breathing. But she knew Jack. Jack would fall in line.
“Fuck this.” The words were so quiet Shepard barely heard them. But the flicker of movement in the corner of her eye she’d never have missed. The second turian was stirring, his hand moving—Shepard had her hand on her gun. She hadn’t wanted this, this should have been bloodless, god damn it—
Archangel’s voice was low, but it carried like a roll of thunder. No hard snap of military discipline here. Shepard couldn’t translate subvocals but she didn’t really need to; the sheer force of will set the air humming. Her hand hesitated on her pistol as she stared at the turian, and watched as his hand opened. A quiet ting of metal hitting the floor, and Miranda stepped forward to scoop up the razor-thin blade he’d been hiding in his fringe.
Jack, luckily, had failed to notice this tableau. She was too busy glaring at the man whose brains she was about to turn into confetti. Shepard waited. She saw Jack’s eyes narrow, her fingers digging into the terrified man’s scalp; and then she shoved him forward with a growl of disgust, the biotic bloom around her fist dissipating into nothing.
When Shepard looked back to Archangel, his blue eyes had gone dull. So, the great vigilante had a weak spot when it came to his crew. And as simple as that, she knew she had him.
Shepard smiled; it was not an expression mean to put him at ease. "Well now, Archangel. You just made things a hell of a lot more complicated for us both."
She met Jack's eyes over his head. "Split them up. Half his crew in my brig and half on the Bitch. EDI, Joker, get a tow ready. We're taking this piece of junk with us."
Shepard got no small measure of satisfaction from the growing shock in Archangel's eyes. Whatever he'd expected her to do, it clearly wasn't this. She could imagine the thoughts running through his head, scenarios of his crew being sold to slavers or tortured for information or simply killed for fun—luckily, Shepard’s reputation was far more brutal than she’d ever had cause to be. Being feared saved time and effort.
“Not this one,” she said, as Jacob started to haul Archangel to his feet. “Take him up to my cabin. Archangel and I are going to have a little chat.”
She turned around to grin at the suggestive jeers from Jack’s team. “Enough yapping, assholes. You have your orders.”
Laughing, her crew immediately fell to their tasks. Shepard turned her back on Archangel and his crew while her squad set to binding their hands, instead striding over to the nearest computer terminal and downloading the ship’s diagnostics onto her datapad.
A quick glance was all it took to determine how badly they were fucked. She’d been counting on the income from selling that sand, and their attack on the ship had disabled almost all of its major functions. It was worth little more than scrap metal at this point, unless Shepard planned to sink even more money into repairing it—money she needed, damn it. She didn’t miss her days of working for Cerberus, but she did miss the unlimited resources.
She felt rather than saw Jack approach, the hairs on her arms prickling as the powerful biotic stomped up beside her. “My amp is still itching for a fight,” she grunted. “Hope you’re finding something on their computer to make this shitstorm worth our while.”
Shepard didn’t look up from her datapad. “We can sell the hull for scrap parts on Omega. My guess is we’ll get about 20k for it—”
“20?” Jack exploded, drawing far too many gazes from their nearby crew. “That’s less than a fourth of what we would have gotten for that sand if we’d just killed the bastards before we boarded.” Jack glanced up and noticed the looks some of her squad were shooting her way. “Stop flapping your goddamn gums and get to work,” she snarled at them, sending any other bystanders scurrying away.
Mindful now of listening ears, Jack stepped closer and grabbed Shepard by the arm. “This is bullshit, Shepard. You’re really going to let them fuck with us and then give them a free cab ride to the nearest port? What happens when the people we’re actually against find out we’ve gone so soft?”
Shepard slowly lowered her gaze to the tattooed hand on her arm, until Jack released her and took a step back. Only then did Shepard meet her eye again, her gaze hard. “You have no idea who Archangel is, do you?”
Jack shrugged, crossing her arms over her bare chest. “They didn’t give me a goddamn newspaper on the Purgatory.”
“Fair enough.” Shepard watched as the last of the crew was loaded into the Hammerhead, Archangel among them. His eyes were low, but she watched him scanning her squad out of the edge of his vision, noting weapon placement, identifying marks, anything he could use against them. If she didn’t trust her squad completely, she’d probably have shot him where he knelt. He was intelligent, resourceful, driven—dangerous. Maybe too dangerous. But he had something she needed.
“This is about a lot more than just scrap metal,” she said to Jack. “That turian has been the bane of the three big gangs for over a year and a half. He always knows where to strike to hit them hardest, and his team makes a raid look like a surgical operation.”
“Alright, I get it, you’re totally wet for his methods. You going somewhere other than a sexual fantasy with this?”
“Stuff it, Jack. Archangel’s operation isn’t so successful on blind luck. They have some of the best intel in the game—everything we would need to take our mission to the next level.” A slow smile spread over Shepard’s face. “And I want it.”
“Hmph,” Jack grunted. “Stealing from the good guys so we can be better bad guys. I kinda like it.”
The door to the airlock slid closed. As it did, Archangel’s eyes lifted for a brief moment; they locked with Shepard’s. Blue, and fierce, and above all, defiant. Something passed through her, a jolt like she’d caught herself falling asleep. Like she’d almost remembered something she’d forgotten. But then the doors closed, taking those sharp eyes with them.
It wasn’t long after that when Shepard found it, a glint of something shiny and blue from the rubble and tangled wires on the floor. Bending down, she pulled it out from halfway beneath a crumpled panel and found herself holding the glass screen of a facial visor, its displays flickering weakly without its attached headset and power source. She held it up to the light, wondering why it felt so familiar.
In the end, she slipped it into a pocket and put it out of her mind. There was work to be done.