“What do we know so far?”
On the other side of the vid-link, Miranda saw Liara’s brow furrow. “Not as much as I’d like. The fact that these kidnappings are linked only became apparent recently. It’s hard to separate the signal from the noise these days.”
Miranda understood the problem only too well. Although the galaxy had done an impressive job of pulling itself back together, it was still a much messier place than it had been before the Reaper War. Amidst all the rebuilding, it was only natural that people would move around, often as refugees. Rather than being surprised it had taken Liara so long to realize the disappearances of a dozen human biotics might be connected, Miranda was impressed she had put it together so quickly.
“The abductions themselves have been quite professional,” Liara continued. “There were no witnesses, and no useful forensic evidence left behind. However, my informants have told me they kept hearing a name come up: Evan Dane.”
Miranda raised an eyebrow. “And naturally, you thought of me.”
“Unfortunately, my own information about the man is somewhat limited. I know he was part of Alliance intelligence before he joined up with Cerberus, but although some of my agents brushed up against him over the years, his exact role in the organization remains unclear.”
Miranda’s mouth formed a tight smile. “That’s no surprise. Evan wasn’t in charge of any particular thing at Cerberus. He was more of a facilitator than a leader.”
“But you did know him?”
“Oh, certainly. He helped smuggle some of the nanotechnology I used in the Lazarus Project out of Salarian space. It was a good working relationship, although I wouldn’t say we were friends. We haven’t spoken since I left Cerberus.”
“Do you think he would be receptive to contact?”
“It’s possible, at least if I could find him. He mouthed the right sentiments when he was with Cerberus, but he wasn’t a true believer. For him, it was all about the money, so if he thinks the same is true of me these days, we could probably do business.”
Indeed, Evan’s cynical opportunism was probably why he was still alive, Miranda reflected. All the true believers had gone down with the ship, lost to indoctrination and the suicidal violence of Cerberus’ final days. Only rats had gotten off the sinking ship in time.
“I would appreciate your assistance,” Liara told her. “Whatever Evan wants these biotics for can’t be good, and more than that, this last disappearance hits close to home.”
“What do you mean by that?” Miranda asked, although she didn’t need extra motivation to help. Working as a consultant for the Alliance was a perfectly good job: useful, intellectually stimulating, and mostly safe. And yet, something in her was eager for the return of a little excitement to her life.
“This was brought to my attention because the last three abductions occured in Illyria, on Elysium. One of the victims was a student from Grissom Academy on break.”
Miranda tried not to let her face fall. Little could’ve cooled her enthusiasm for going back in the field again as fast as the knowledge she’d have to deal with Jack. Still, she wasn’t about to let their contentious history stop her. She would get to this bottom of these disappearances, even if it killed her.
Or if I have to kill Jack.
That was a bit of an exaggeration. She and Jack weren’t likely to actually come to blows, although Miranda wouldn’t precisely call them friends either. They kept tabs on each other — all of Shepard’s former squadmates did — but from a cool distance.
Liara gave her a searching look, one which was far too knowing for Miranda’s tastes. “You aren’t re-thinking your offer of help, are you?”
“No, of course not. I’ll deal with with Jack. If one of our missings is a Grissom Academy student, she might be able to offer some valuable insight.”
“That was going to be my next suggestion. I’ll forward you all the information I have already. And please, if you need anything else, let me know.”
“Will do.” Miranda couldn’t help smiling. “Does accepting this mission mean I’m technically a Shadow Broker agent?”
Liara’s eyes widened. “That depends entirely on if you want to be.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I was joking.”
“For now, we can classify you a freelance hire.”
“Liara?” The sound of another voice over the comm startled Miranda at first, but she quickly recognized it. Apparently, Shepard was somewhere in the background. “Liara, I finished dinner! And I didn’t burn it this time.”
Liara adopted a fond look while Miranda chuckled. “So, I assume you need to go?”
“Yes. Shepard has been trying her hand at Thessian cuisine. Some of her attempts have been… more successful than others.”
“Well, here’s to tonight’s meal being one of the successes.”
Liara heaved a sigh. “We can only hope. Goodbye, Miranda.”
“Goodbye. Give Shepard my love.”
The call ended, and Miranda took a moment to breathe. ‘ Give Shepard my love?’ What a banal conversational convention. Who have I become? I hope I’m ready to go back in the field… and god help me if Jack thinks I’ve gone soft.
“Shield up, Garcia! Put some more oomph into it!”
The teenage boy running the obstacle course ducked, avoiding a blast from the mounted turret ahead. He wore armor in case he failed to block any rounds, and so far, his barriers hadn’t done much to impress Jack. She observed him with a frown, fingers clenched into fists.
Garcia threw up another barrier, but the rounds blew through it like tissue paper. It barely flickered to life before dissolving again and he ducked behind cover just in time to avoid another rattling set of rounds from the turret.
“Faster!” Jack hollered. “You think the enemy’ll give you time to prep? I said shield up!”
He tried again, and this time, his barrier held against the barrage. Quickly, he rushed forward, taking out the turret with a well-timed warp, and Jack beamed with pride. The repair techs would have a fun time putting that mess back together tonight.
“That’s more like it,” she said as Garcia ran up the stairs toward her, panting but smiling behind his helmet visor. “Three minutes and thirty two seconds. Not bad. But you gotta get your shields up faster. No one’s gonna wait around while you have your thumb up your a— uh, butt.”
Garcia chuckled along with the small group of other students who had been watching the exercise. “Yes, ma’am.”
A voice from behind her caused Jack to spin. For a moment, her heart rate spiked, and she had to suppress the instinct to surround herself with biotics. “Shit, Rodriguez. Didn’t hear you.”
Rodriguez grinned. She looked much the same as she had back when she’d been Jack’s student, but now she was a junior instructor at Grissom, helping mentor some of the beginners. “Sorry, Ma’am.”
Jack rolled her eyes. “Knock it off with the ‘ma’am’ shit, Rodriguez. What’s up?”
“Your one thirty appointment’s here.”
Garcia chuckled. “You her secretary or something?”
Jack gave him a piercing look. “She might only be a few years older than you, but that woman could flay you alive, so show some respect.”
A round of ‘ooohs’ from the other students followed, and Garcia looked suitably chastened. Yet Jack wasn’t really thinking about whether or not he’d learned his lesson. She knew who her one thirty was, which was probably the reason she’d been busting her students’ balls all day. Something about Miranda Lawson got under her skin, even though they’d eventually decided not to rip each other’s heads off.
It’s ‘cause she’s an arrogant tight ass who thinks that just because she’s got fantastic tits, everyone should jump when she says so.
Thinking up new epithets to add to that description kept Jack busy all the way to her office. She’d run through ‘obnoxious,’ ‘frigid,’ and ‘stuck-up’ by the time she reached the door, but when she opened it, all of them fled. It had been nearly a year since she’d last seen Miranda in the flesh, which was time enough to forget just how striking the operative could be. Especially when she was standing there dressed in an ostensibly professional but definitely flattering white blouse and dark skirt, hand on her hip, a little ‘oomph’ in her stance…
Fuck me sideways.
Fortunately, a derisive comment was always at hand to cover for Jack’s surprise. “You always wait for people looking like you’re posing for Fornax?”
Miranda rolled her eyes. “It’s nice to see you too, Jack. And don’t flatter yourself. I was just standing. Anything else is a product of your perverted imagination.”
In spite of her denials, she sounded flustered, which was only fair. As much as Jack didn’t want it to be the case, irritation wasn’t the only reaction Miranda could cause in her. For a long time, she’d denied the attraction, but she wasn’t exactly convincing.
Jack could still remember the teasing Shepard had subjected them to at that party on the Citadel, and the Girl Scout had a point. But just because Miranda had a great ass didn’t mean Jack wanted to deal with the stick up it. “Whatever you say, cheerleader. Liara told me you’re here looking for Chalmers.”
Miranda sounded relieved to be on less personal ground. “I am. What can you tell me about him?”
“He’s talented, but pretty full of himself. A whitebread kid from the ‘burbs who woke up one day with all this biotic power and he thought it made him invincible. I knocked him on his ass a few times, but I don’t think the message has gotten through his thick skull just yet.”
“So you’d describe him as reckless? Someone who might’ve been lured into a trap, for example? Before I came here, I visited the club on Elysium he was last seen in. Two patrons there told me that he was talking to a tall, purple skinned asari.”
“Some of my other kids mentioned that. Could be he was just trying to get laid.”
“Or that’s what it was supposed to look like.”
Jack gave a derisive snort. “Yeah, Chalmers would’ve fallen for that one. Kid did have a high opinion of himself.”
“Sounds like you don’t.”
“That’s not it.” Jack threw up her hands, trying to figure out how to give her feelings form. “I mean, yeah, he’s kind of a dumbass, but he’s a good kid. He’ll figure out how to handle this shit eventually. At least if he comes back in one piece.”
Miranda’s face displayed a rare softness. “Don’t worry, Jack. Nobody goes through the trouble of kidnapping biotics just to kill them. He’s out there somewhere, and I’ll find him.”
At once, Jack came to a decision. She crossed her arms over her chest and declared, “No. We’ll find him.”
But Miranda only shook her head. “I don’t think so. Undercover work requires a certain amount of subtlety and you’re about as subtle as a warp blast to the side of the head.”
“You’re one to talk, cheerleader. Strutting around like that.”
Miranda’s blue eyes flashed lightning, although her face remained smooth and impassive as always, as if she didn’t want to give Jack the satisfaction of a visible reaction. However, Jack didn’t miss the slight twitching of her fingers on her hip, as though she wanted to clench them a little more tightly.
“‘Strutting’. That’s a loaded verb choice, isn’t it?”
“Accurate, though.” Jack pursed her lips and folded her arms, meeting Miranda’s stare with her own. “Anyway, what makes you think you’ll be so much better at this than me?”
“Besides my years of experience as a covert operative?”
“Try being a fugitive,” Jack replied, without missing a beat. “Or an abused kid, for that matter. That’ll teach you how to lie pretty damn well.”
In that moment, Jack realized she’d overplayed her hand. She knew she’d been caught when Miranda’s brow knitted with something like concern — an emotion Jack took several beats to identify. She waited with her mouth open, unsure how to course-correct, until Miranda spoke.
“I understand your desire to help. It comes from a good place, but for now, can you do the most good by answering some more questions about your missing student. Any information you can provide might prove invaluable.”
Jack watched Miranda closely, waiting for some kind of trap, but part of her knew this wasn’t one. Miranda was being sincere rather than sarcastic, and as much as Jack hated the idea of being pitied because of her past, she had to agree with Miranda’s assessment: perhaps she did have some information that could help.
“I want Chalmers found. He’s one of mine, you know?”
Miranda dipped her head. “Of course. When was the last time you saw him?”
“Before the mid-year break, same as my other kids.”
“And how was his behavior then?”
“Normal,” Jack said. “I mean, normal for him. Like I said, he had a cocky streak.” She winced, realizing too late that she’d used the past tense. Come on, don’t give up on him yet.
The corners of Miranda’s mouth quirked up. “Sounds like someone else I know.”
Since the comment was delivered softly and without any audible scorn, Jack chuckled in agreement. “There’s a difference between cocky and reckless. After the shit I’ve been through with Shepard, I think I deserve to be cocky. Honestly, we all do.”
A moment blossomed between them then, one of surprising connection. Despite their differences, they were bonded through the trauma of war, the adventures they’d shared, and their loyalty to Shepard.
“I would agree with that,” Miranda said at last. “What about his biotic abilities?”
“Compared to the general population? He’s a prodigy. Most of the students at Grissom are. Compared to the kids here? Middle of the pack. It can be…” She paused, considering her phrasing. “An adjustment.”
Jack had seen it play out many times before. Privileged kids who hadn’t been immersed in environments of terror and shame regarding their biotics came in thinking they were hot shit, only to discover they weren’t the only ones with the ability to crush a mech one-handed. Some of them took it harder than others, but Chalmers had still been in the overconfident phase when he disappeared.
“So, you think he might have wanted to prove himself?” Miranda asked.
“Him and everyone else here,” Jack said. “It’s part of Grissom’s culture.”
“I mean, do you think he was showing off.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Just trying to ascertain whether he came to someone’s attention on the spur of the moment, at one of his last known locations, or whether he was targeted in advance.”
Jack’s stomach dropped. Targeted in advance. If that was the case… “You think someone here might be involved? Or that someone might’ve hacked our records? Spied on us?”
Miranda studied her carefully.
“I don’t know. Cerberus had a lot of moles, and it’s possible that one of them is still embedded at Grissom Academy.”
“The fuck do you mean, ‘Cerberus?’” Jack’s spine stiffened and her eyes narrowed. The mention of the group that had stolen her childhood kindled fierce rage inside her, and Miranda took a step back in the face of it.
“I misspoke,” she said, choosing her words more carefully. “Cerberus died with the Illusive Man.”
Jack’s fists clenched so tight that her nails bit into the flesh. She scarcely noticed. “Then what the hell are you talking about?”
Miranda held up her hands defensively. “Liara believes that a former Cerberus operative named Evan Dane may be involved in the kidnappings. That’s all.”
“That’s all?!” The idea that Cerberus, or even its ex-members, was still out there, taking kids like her… Jack barely kept her biotics from leaping out and smashing her office to bits. “And just what is this Dane fucker is doing with the biotics?”
“I’m not sure,” Miranda admitted.
Sparks floated off Jack’s body, unable to be restrained any longer. “Whatever. If he’s connected to Cerberus, I’m not letting him have my kid.”
Miranda shook her head. “Look, Jack. I know how much you hate Cerberus. I know how difficult it must be to imagine one of their former members holding a student of yours. But anger isn’t going to fix anything. This kind of mission is what I’m good at, so why don’t you answer my questions and let me take care of the rest?”
Because I don’t trust anyone else to get this right .
Jack made a split-second decision. She’d play along. Give Miranda whatever information she could. But there was no way she was going to be left out of the investigation. Chalmers was her student, her responsibility, and Jack would be damned before she’d trust an ex-Cerberus flunky to bring him home.