For the ones who tried before.
Requiem of the Goddess
Mass Effect 1
"Hope Overture" from Requiem for a Dream
I. Center of the Universe
Center of my scope.
Center of the universe.
Right in my crosshairs.
Thin as the threads threading us all together.
The same threads that I denied each day, yet they pulled at me like strings anyway, determined to make me think one way, speak this way, act some way:
Resisting was the only way for me to stay alive.
Hiding, slithering, crawling: I had clawed my way through these vents in Chora's Den here on the Citadel, down in the Wards, following a lead, and chasing after Saren Arterius, a rogue Spectre who needed to be stopped. Muted blues and beaming reds, the asari and human women dancers still lined the place—along the walls, along the raised platform in the center—performing for the customers and the army of mercs here. These mercs were really here to have a good time, not guard the one who'd hired them.
Alone, I stayed here in these vents, scouting out the scene in this gentleman's club. As slim and flexible as I was in my stealth suit, all-black, these small spaces weren't a problem for me. Only the weight of my sniper rifle over my back could have ever posed a problem. Liberated from that now, I had the length posted along the run of this vent, pointed through a filter with just enough room to shoot from. With my hair pulled back into a long tail behind me, I was free to focus.
My one lead, the club's lowlife owner named Fist, was through here in his office, hiding behind all of these loaded mercs and their guns. Not wanting to cause a scene in a club full of civilians, I had told my squad to wait outside. I needed to find a more covert path to Fist's office instead. But, with this last blockade in my way where there shouldn't have been, I knew we had Fist scared—enough to block off all ventilation to his office if it meant keeping someone like me away from him.
Those familiar threads thrummed and drummed in minor spasms in my hold, rumbled by the bass of the music within these walls.
Tinned against the metal all around me, the music filtered through my ears as a silver haze, silvered more as I took one final count of all of the mercs here in the club.
Spying through my scope, I spotted at least a dozen of them, distracted as they all were by the music, the drinking, the dancing, and the temptations of a hookup or two taking them away from their duties.
I couldn't afford to wait for them to leave on their own.
Most of them seemed drunk enough: staggering and slurring, we could take them out now and be done with it.
I radioed my squad on standby outside: "Wrex, Ashley—do you copy?"
"Loud and clear, Shepard," grunted Wrex, the depths of his baritone almost blending in with the bass blasting through my ears. "Say the word and we'll go. That coward Fist better be waiting for my gun."
"Ready and able, Commander," stated Ashley, clearer, straight-forward, the rasp of her voice almost getting to me in this lustful atmosphere. "Take it you weren't able to find a quicker way through?"
"Fist blocked the vent with some indestructible material. Short of letting him suffocate in his office, we have to storm the club. I'll take the first shot. Should scare off the civilians. Once they're gone, I want you two to launch an assault on the rest of the mercs. Then we'll head for Fist's office and get the info we're looking for. Kill him or don't—doesn't matter. We need that intel on the quarian before anything."
Wrex chuckled in sadistic satisfaction. "This should be fun. Those mercs had enough to drink yet?"
"Most of them are wasted. We'll hit them hard and fast before they have a chance to escape. If we get overwhelmed, I'll call Garrus and Kaidan for backup. For now, they're staying at their posts to keep any more civilians from entering this area."
"Sounds good," agreed Ashley. "Waiting for your signal."
"As soon as you hear my shot, run in."
One human merc, a man without a face, the red of it in this lighting hidden behind his beer bottle:
He sat in a chair, his hand at his groin, watching as an asari danced on a pole right in front of him.
The slight swing of my scope as I kept him in my center, right between his dilated eyes so fixated on the woman validating his existence. This sensitivity kept me grounded. This difficulty kept me focused. The slight, sensitive, difficult familiarity of this movement dissipated my breaths to silence, dimmed the music to nothing; diluted all of my worries to nihilism.
Just this single shot, this precision, this signal—
Readying, and firing, the loudness, echoing hard in this vent, and the kickback—
The blast of his head, popping as a fleshy balloon of blood, spattering and sticking against the wall—
And the backlash as the civilians screamed.
Ashley and Wrex rushed in against the wave of their panicking.
They ran through the cries rippling out from the peoples' throats heated by alcohol and drugs and more.
Sober in their shooting, my squad blasted through the mercs without issues, the element of surprise going a long way, farther than even how wasted the enemies were.
Limited as this space was, I picked off what mercs I could, what with the center platform in my way. Keeping my own surprise, no one was aware enough to spot the sniper shots coming out from the vent. Up at this height, I bolstered Ashley and Wrex, getting to anyone in their blind spots.
Only barely, I heard shouting and screaming filtering in from Fist's office, echoing through to me.
One last groan of death from a merc, and my squad holstered their weapons.
"That's it," called Ashley. "Bag 'em and tag 'em! Commander, you still there?"
Wrex looked around. "Hey, Shepard, where the hell are you?"
I kicked the metallic filter out from in front of me. The clang of the steel hit the ground right as I jumped from the vent. Sniper rifle in-hand, I landed on the balls of my feet, legs bent, my fall softened with my limbs as my hydraulics. Noticing the shocked looks my squad gave me, I folded my rifle over my back.
Ashley expressed her awe: "Is that how you do things when we're not out in the field, Ma'am?"
"You know enough about me by now, Williams," I told her, heading down the hall to Fist's office; knowing that the dark brown of her eyes tracked my hair, my hips as I went. "Better get used to it."
Grumbling in disapproval, Wrex followed after me. "Can't you just be straightforward, Shepard? Why all the sneaking around? Never understood your kind. What's the point of fighting if no one sees you?"
"Commander Shepard's among the best in the Alliance," boasted Ashley—on my behalf—as she stepped over a few merc corpses to keep up with us. "The best of the best, really. N7 Infiltrator with glowing commendations, graduated at the top of her class. The commander wiped out every single batarian on Torfan without being spotted, not once! All they heard was her sniping. Those bastards didn't know what hit them until it was too late. Serves them right for what they did to us during the Skyllian Blitz."
"Oh, yeah, I heard about Torfan," remembered Wrex, sounding impressed enough. "That was Shepard?"
"The one and only!"
"Huh. Well, then, I take back what I said. Guess we all have our methods of getting the job done."
Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams would always be the first to sing my praises.
Passing through these dark halls on the way to Fist's office, I felt the shift about her: how much of her own words had reflected back in on her, making Ashley look into a mirror she didn't quite want to face.
I couldn't let myself wonder about the truth there.
Then again, there was no need to wonder.
I knew, and I felt it from her—like fire blazing out from the sun itself—yet I turned away.
Even I knew better than to stare straight into the sun.
As another door halved and opened for us, a pair of so-called guards aimed their lousy pistols at us.
I pulled out my sidearm.
Ashley and Wrex backed me up, assault rifle and shotgun raring to go.
"Oh, shit," freaked one of the guards. "You guys are the real deal!"
"Fuck that," said the other one, trying to sound tough. "We're here to protect Fist!"
Gesturing behind me, I pointed out, "We just killed all of those mercs to get here. What do you think we'll do to you?"
"Ugh, forget it—Fist doesn't pay us enough for this."
They went on their way.
Wrex seemed confused. "Would've been faster to just kill 'em."
I disagreed—"We only kill when it's justified. If you're going to stick with me, Wrex, you'd better drill that into your head. This isn't the mercenary life you're used to. Not anymore."
"When you're a krogan, killing is a way of life. Starts not to matter once you're as old as I am."
Making a point, I stopped to look him right in the eye. "I get it: you're a krogan battlemaster. That doesn't mean you have to stay stuck in your ways! Like I said earlier, you're free to kill Fist once we get what we need. With anything else, I expect you to use your head before you fire your gun. Am I clear?"
Undeniable ire of the red of his eyes, narrowed in wrath.
Wrex snarled, the mangle of the scarred, mangled skin over his wide mouth rumbling in a low roar.
Watching in horror, Ashley looked torn between breaking us up and staying frozen where she was.
I pierced his rage with a glare of my own, holding nothing back. The same focus I kept in my scope; the same concentration I put into every single shot as I lined them up, I gave to him.
Grumbling in concession, Wrex stepped back from me.
"Fine," he allowed. "Have it your way, Shepard. I'll follow you."
Ashley let out a breath. "Damn, you two. That was…intense."
"Let's move on," I ordered, heading to the final door to the office. "We'll get in here, wear Fist down, and get the information we need on that quarian. Be ready."
Clicks and shifts of weight from Ashley's rifle and Wrex's shotgun—at the ready.
Busting through the door, I let my squad go through first, drawing Fist's fire. He shouted at us, trying to break our focus, while he hid behind his ridiculous automated turrets. Such limited space in here—I popped out from cover where I could, shooting my pistol at the turrets to disable them.
Constant, loud, banging from the heat of projectiles flying out from our guns, endless noise, until Fist quickly fell to the ground, done in by a shot to the arm from Ashley.
Wrex stepped over to him, shotgun primed. "The Shadow Broker says hello. It's been a long time coming."
"Wait, wait!" cried Fist, shielding himself with his uninjured arm. "Can't we talk this through?!"
I pressed him, "Where's the quarian? We heard you set up a meeting between her and the Broker."
"Yeah, I set up the meeting… B-But it's not what she thinks. No one meets the Shadow Broker, not in person. She doesn't know that. Some of Saren's agents will be there instead…waiting to ambush her."
"You son of a bitch," I hissed. "Where is she?!"
"She…she should be at the meeting now, in the back alley, near the markets. If you hurry, you might—"
Blast of blood and heat, and Wrex fired his gun, leaving Fist a gory mess on the office floor.
Ashley almost gagged from the suddenness, yelling, "Damnit, Wrex, was that really necessary?!"
Wrex shrugged. "He gave us the info, didn't he? At least I waited."
"We don't have time for this," I said, bolting from the office. "Let's move, people!"
Already I had dashed down the hall, running back into the club.
Around the circular platform in the middle and back outside.
We couldn't lag behind.
We couldn't risk something happening to this quarian—our final, final lead now that Fist was dead.
I heard Ashley and Wrex calling out to me:
"Shepard, wait! Commander! We're not that fast!"
"Hang on a minute, why don't you?!"
Ashley running, but slowed down by her hardsuit, trying and failing to catch up;
Wrex lumbering after her, breaths heaving in his heavy weight compared to me;
They could catch up on their own time.
Spotting the entrance to the back alley, I was about to radio Garrus and Kaidan. One of them rounded the corner to the alley; I nearly ran them over, but didn't stop. Only when I pushed through the door and recalled the distinct sight of a turian's scales and the color blue, did I realize who it was.
"Hey, Commander!" shouted Garrus. "Where's the fire?!"
Somewhere in the near distance, Kaidan radioed Ashley and Wrex for an explanation—"What's going on?! Did we find the quarian? Shepard just sprinted by us like a bolt of lightning!"
Still on this frequency, I overheard Ashley's breathless summary, yet I had to block it out.
Slowing, quieting, I reached the back alley, and found our target.
Hiding by a few crates, I scoped out the scene.
From behind, I had a view of the quarian: the blue-violet of her suit sticking out against the beaming red filter of the light in this place. One of Saren's turian thugs stood close to her—way too close to her—feeling her up while trying to get her to hand over the intel she had.
Whatever that intel was, it would be enough to land Saren in hot water.
If he got his hands on it before I could, then my entire operation was finished.
"C'mon, baby," whispered the thug, leering at her. "Why don't you give me that info now? I'll make it worth your while—"
Unimpressed and uncomfortable, the quarian slapped the thug's wandering hand away from her.
"No way," she stated, to-the-point. "The deal's off."
She sounded young, but this girl wasn't stupid.
In over her head, maybe—I spotted more thugs approaching the scene, ready to take the quarian out.
I pulled out my sniper rifle and lined up my shots.
The quarian screamed when my first shot burst through the turian's head.
His bloodied flesh spattered against the hard material of her helmet.
The quarian scrambled back in a panic; I took out the rest of the thugs in the distance. She heaved for breath, holding her head as if to cover her ears from the booming, the panicking from those thugs, until their bodies fell to the ground, and left only silence.
By the time I holstered my rifle over my back, the quarian was on the ground, sitting and rocking herself.
Not liking any of this, I went over to her anyway.
"Hey," I said. "I've been looking for you. What's your name?"
"You…you—" The quarian fought to keep breathing. "You sniped those thugs like they were nothing! And you are looking for me? Keelah!"
I grit my teeth.
"Look, I'm not here to hurt you," I tried, hoping my squad would get here soon. "You have something that I need. Now what's your name—?"
The quarian choked back a sob. "Goddamn you!" she shouted at me. "You have no idea what I've seen, what I've gone through to get here! I had to deal with racist C-Sec officers who wouldn't listen to my pleas for help, I lost one of my friends while thinking I could be next, and now here you are, yet another insensitive bosh'tet who needs something from me! Why is everyone in this galaxy so heartless?!"
I had no idea what the fuck a bosh'tet was, but it sounded like something that should've pissed me off!
Before I could explode, my squad hurried through to us.
"Shepard!" cried Ashley, sounding relieved. She collapsed against the nearest wall, exhausted. "Thank God…there you are!"
Wrex leaned over to catch his breath. "Is that…that the quarian we're looking for?"
"Looks like it," noted Garrus, not nearly as winded. "Hmm, she seems upset. Everything all right?"
Kaidan recognized my quiet struggle here, and came over to us. "Hey there," he said to the quarian, gentle, as he knelt down with her. "I'm Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, with the Alliance. This here's Commander Shepard, our leader. Are you okay? You're a little shaken up."
"Only a little, huh?" mused the quarian, trying to wipe the blood and spattered brains from her helmet. "I guess that's not so bad… I could be doing worse."
"A lot worse, yeah, I agree," humored Kaidan, placing his hand over her shoulder. "What's your name?"
"Tali. Tali'Zorah nar Rayya."
"Well, Tali'Zorah, we've been looking for you. We heard you have some information on the Spectre named Saren. But, I think that can wait for now. Commander, we should get her to the med clinic here in the Wards. She may need medical attention."
"She's fine, Lieutenant," I pointed out. "I made sure no one hurt her. Don't you see the bodies?"
With respect, Kaidan countered, "Yes, Commander, I see them. It's just, not all wounds are physical. She's clearly seen some things she shouldn't have. Dr. Michel should take a look at her."
I really didn't want to delay this business with taking Saren down.
But with Garrus, Ashley and even Wrex looking over at me as if they agreed with Kaidan, I had no choice.
Alenko helped Tali'Zorah to her feet.
We all escorted her over to the med clinic, accepting this delay.
Inside the med clinic, my squad stood nearest around Tali'Zorah as Dr. Michel cleaned her up.
They listened to her story about how she was on her Pilgrimage, a rite of passage for quarians in the Migrant Fleet, and her tale of how she and her friend had come across a geth memory core.
Realizing the danger and the value of the information they found within the core, they first went to Illium to report this to the authorities. The racist jackasses wouldn't take them seriously, so they stowed away on a freighter to reach the Citadel instead.
After more struggles and more setbacks, they learned that the Council couldn't help them—not any time soon—as the average waiting time to have an audience with them was at least nine months. So they turned to the Shadow Broker instead, hoping to have better luck, only to get tricked by Fist in the end, and nearly taken in by Saren's thugs—until I showed up.
Tali'Zorah had lost her friend in the middle of all of this. Like she'd said, she could have been next.
Leaning against a far wall, away from almost everyone, I could only wonder what it was like to feel that fear.
I hadn't felt that in so long.
Not in years.
"Sounds like a hell of a time," commiserated Garrus. "How'd you manage to make it out alive?"
Sitting up in her bed now, Tali'Zorah buried her face—helmet—in her hands. "I don't know, honestly," she grieved. "I was so caught up in trying to do the right thing. Going to the authorities. Reporting what I had heard about Saren. I had no idea that the galaxy outside the Flotilla was such a cold, hard place."
Wrex sounded sympathetic enough. "You'll need some tougher skin to survive out here, Tali," he advised. "Sometimes it's not so bad. You can find some good people, comrades you can trust. Other times, it's worse. Best to be prepared for anything."
"That's the thing," said Tali. "Whenever I knew what to expect, whether it was fighting the geth or figuring out our next transportation, I was fine. My mistake was believing that Illium's police force or C-Sec would actually listen to me. They dismissed my concerns and called me a suit rat! Before I began my Pilgrimage, I'd heard of such things happening. Not from the police, from people we should trust!"
Garrus knew better. "C-Sec isn't all it's cracked up to be," he counseled. "A lot of them are a bunch of assholes who couldn't survive a day out in the real world. So they put other people down whenever they can, all to make themselves feel better. It's a vicious cycle of power and abuse."
"Yeah," agreed Kaidan. "I've heard the same thing… Sorry you had to go through that, Tali'Zorah."
"Thanks," accepted Tali, sounding better. "I appreciate it. You've all been so kind to me. Well—" She stopped herself. I was over here by a medi-gel dispenser; Ashley was with me, avoiding the conversation to stay by my side. "Most of you, anyway. I'll grow that tougher skin you mentioned, Wrex."
Wrex chuckled. "If you need any help, feel free to let me know. I'm an old fossil. Plenty of stories to tell."
Tali laughed with him, adding, "Sure. Maybe I'll do just that."
"If you're up for it, Tali," offered Garrus, "We could bring you to the human embassy on the Presidium, get you an audience with Ambassador Udina instead. If your evidence is compelling enough, we could bring this information directly to the Council—without that nine-month waiting period, mind you."
Kaidan smiled over her delight. "Yup, really!" he assured her. "We've got friends in high places. Or, uh, at least Commander Shepard does. She's in charge of this mission."
Ashley finally had something to say, "No joke. The Commander's under special consideration to become a Spectre when this is all over. Your intel could be just what we need to get her over the finish line."
Tali'Zorah took a moment to regard my team, one by one. She took note of the people I'd chosen to surround myself with: how encouraging they were to her, how nice they were to her. Even Ashley was polite enough, at least, once she did speak up.
I felt the beginning, a slice of her benefit of the doubt as she looked on at me.
It didn't matter that I couldn't actually see her face, or what her expression was.
All I knew was that she had made up her mind:
I couldn't have been all that bad if these were the people who chose to follow me.
"I think it might be," offered Tali, well enough to get up from her bed. "I see why you were in such a hurry before, Commander. Sorry for slowing you down. We can head over whenever you're ready."
Garrus worried for her, "You sure you're fit to go?"
"Yes, Garrus, I'm sure. I'll be fine, I promise. We have more important things to worry about."
"Then let's head out," I ordered, leaving the med clinic with everyone.
Taking the rapid transit to the Presidium with everyone in the same car might've been a mistake.
Everyone except for Ashley sitting next to me had warmed up to Tali'Zorah quite quickly, with each of them telling her the story of how they had met me. As if I couldn't hear them, they went on about their first impressions of me—"She can be a real hardass;" "she's damned skilled and it's an honor to know her;" "I wouldn't wind up alone with her in a back alley again if I were you"—all to make Tali laugh, to help her feel welcome with us.
I hadn't even formally invited her to join up with us, but it looked like they had all decided for me.
Reaching the Presidium and getting out of that car was a godsend. But Ashley kept following directly after me, closer than usual for some reason—making me wonder too much about this, and about her. Again, there was so much from Ashley, her emotions shouting in silence: for me to look at her, for me to acknowledge the way she walked right next to me, close enough to cause these fumes to rise from my chest, so painful in pleasure and in pressure, nearly bursting from this dam over my heart.
I didn't know enough about her.
And I was her commanding officer.
She needed me to be her leader—or really, I needed to be her leader, and nothing more.
No matter how beautiful Ashley was in her curiosities, and no matter how much she sparked my imagination—how she would glance over at me, wondering about me, too—I couldn't let myself give in.
I knew for a fact that she was straight. She had to be.
All I wanted was to get on with the mission—not waste time with these…pointless thoughts of her.
Ambassador Udina and Captain Anderson were here waiting in the spick and span of the all-white embassy office, willing to listen to Tali's evidence and testimony of how she'd acquired this recording of hers—the perfect recording of Saren, and some other woman I didn't know, admitting to their plans:
"Eden Prime was a major victory. The beacon has brought us one step closer to finding the Conduit."
"And one step closer to the return of the Reapers."
"This evidence is irrefutable!" declared Udina. "It proves that Saren's gone rogue. We must bring this to the Council at once!"
Anderson puzzled over the second voice. "I'm not sure who that woman is," he mentioned. "And what's this about the Reapers? What could they be?"
Tali'Zorah knew: "According to the memory core, the Reapers are a race of sentient machines. They wiped out the Protheans several thousand years ago, leaving next to no trace left behind. The geth seem to worship them as gods."
Udina dismissed the claims. "Sounds like some fairy tale, or a myth!" he blustered. "There's no time to linger on whether or not it's true. This matter with Saren is far more pressing! I will arrange for a meeting with the Council immediately. Now, if you'll excuse me…"
Anderson scowled at the ambassador as he left. "Not even a thank you? No gratitude whatsoever," he soured. He then looked to Tali. "Tali'Zorah, was it?"
"Yes, Captain," replied Tali.
"Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I'm sure it took a lot of effort and skill to extract this recording from that geth's memory core. You've just saved this operation and helped us move our mission forward. Your evidence has turned out to be vital for us."
"You're too kind. I couldn't have done this without the people helping me along the way… I only wish they could have been here to see this, too."
"I completely understand," empathized Anderson. "We're all here thanks to the ones who came before. Don't you think so, Commander?"
"Yeah, Shepard," agreed Wrex, obviously needling me. "Tali's done a great thing for us. Wouldn't have made it this far without her."
Garrus listed off: "Tech expert, crafty and resilient when it matters, able to defend herself in combat… I'd say we have the perfect candidate for a new squad mate. Wouldn't you?"
Lieutenant Alenko wouldn't dare poke fun at me like this.
I felt how much he wanted to chime in with his agreement; saw it in the glow in his eyes.
Ashley only gave a pithy, bitchy laugh, keeping her comments to herself.
Accepting that this was a battle I couldn't win, I went over to Tali.
"We're on a mission to bring down Saren," I informed her. "This recording will help us get his Spectre status rescinded. But that's only the beginning. Whatever he's up to with the geth, the Reapers, and that Conduit he mentioned—we need to put a stop to it. And it sounds to me like your tech skills and knowledge of the geth will be invaluable. Can we count on you in this fight?"
"Absolutely, Shepard," replied Tali, solemn. "That Saren's made my Pilgrimage so far a living hell… It's time I returned the favor in any way I can."
"Welcome aboard, Tali'Zorah," I stated, offering my hand—my left hand, per quarian customs.
Tali warmed to me as she accepted my gesture, shaking my hand with a precision I hadn't expected.
"Thanks for believing in me, Commander. You won't regret this."
I believed her.
Once it was time, we made our way over to the Citadel Tower for our second meeting with the Council.
Again I felt surrounded by the quiet beauty of this place: the eternal dusk of the lighting, the height of the pearl white hallways and balconies all around leading to special Council offices, and the gentle touch of the cherry blossom trees everywhere, forever in bloom.
United against me during our first visit, the asari councilor, the turian councilor, and the salarian councilor had taken Saren's word over mine, refusing to believe that he was up to anything.
Standing here with my squad behind me—Chief Williams, Lieutenant Alenko, Urdnot Wrex, Garrus Vakarian, and now Tali'Zorah—with Ambassador Udina and Captain Anderson at my side, I accepted the weight, the gravity of the truth—that I wouldn't have been here without them, all of them.
Standing here before the Council again, I understood Tali's pain and suffering: how she'd felt betrayed by the authorities, by the ones who were supposed to protect us. Those who had sworn their lives to service were apparently as prejudiced and fucked up as regular people, if not more so.
Remembering the sting of the Council's original rejection of my pleas, I plated up my pain behind my usual shields, pushing forward to this new path instead.
Because now, the Council was far more open-minded. Now, the Council listened as Saren implicated himself in the attack on Eden Prime. Now, the Council corroborated that second voice, supposedly belonging to an asari named Matriarch Benezia, who was Saren's second-in-command.
Both of them were guilty, and both of them were traitors to the Council, to their respective species.
Faced with this undeniable evidence, the Council had no choice but to believe us this time.
"Commander Shepard," said the salarian councilor. "On behalf of the Council, I extend my deepest apologies to you for our disagreements during the last session. You must understand: we cannot blindly believe any and every allegation against our special agents. We require evidence."
"Which you have now provided," agreed the asari councilor. "Saren will be stripped of his Spectre status, effective immediately. Further, we commend your handling of your affairs here on the Citadel, in chasing down your individual leads and arriving to the truth."
The turian councilor clarified: "You completed your tasks while avoiding civilian casualties. While the damage to Chora's Den is unfortunate, we can repair. It is also saddening to learn that the club's owner was so deeply involved in Saren's less-than-legal affairs."
Ambassador Udina pushed the issue for me—"Councilors, has Shepard not proven herself worthy? She has done everything you asked. She has gone above and beyond the call of duty in her commitment to this Council, even in the face of your own doubts! It is past time you rewarded her for her dedication!"
Captain Anderson disapproved of how tactless the ambassador was—"Save it, Udina! This isn't the time for you to bully the Council around!"
"I must agree with the captain," said the turian councilor. "In fact, the more the ambassador speaks, the less willing we are to move forward with this controversial candidacy. You humans are reckless at best, and, at worst, absolute bullies… So, Commander Shepard, make your case—why should we give you the sacred honor of becoming the first human Spectre?"
My ancestors' history.
Too many people judging me because of how pretty I was.
The mixed-race complexion of my skin; my sexual orientation.
So many more people that judged me for the way I survived back on Earth: the high-paying career I had before, and how I'd hated it the whole damned time, before I enlisted with the Alliance and found my own freedom in service—
And then, this next step of the three most important figures in the galaxy discriminating against me because I was human.
No matter my reservations, I had to make them see me:
"Councilors, this isn't about humanity. This is about who can get the job done! I brought this team together to show you that you're not always right. You don't have all the answers. Sometimes, the truth is hidden way beyond your reach, and it takes hard work to get to reality. I proved that I'm willing to do whatever's necessary for that bottom line—without being reckless! Call me a bully if you want—I only take drastic action when it's absolutely justified, when I can back up my choices with cold, hard facts.
"All I'm asking for is the benefit of the doubt. You don't trust me as a person? Fine, make me work for it more. But if you just don't like me because I'm human? I suggest you take a good, long look at yourselves, and ask if it's worth it. Judge me by my actions. Not by what I look like, and not by what you might assume—not by the things I have no control over. Define me by my work, not by my race!"
The last bastion of prejudice stared me down as the councilors looked to one another, deciding.
Behind me, I sensed my squadmates looking to each other as well, truly contemplating what I'd just said.
The councilors soon reached their decision, pressing a few buttons on their respective panels.
The asari councilor addressed me first: "Commander Shepard, step forward."
Ashley's gasp, and the rest of the murmurs from my squad—
I noticed the sudden congregation of people, of other politicians, and of complete strangers up on the balconies overlooking the proceedings. Knowing that this moment played out in real-time across the galaxy, I could deal with the weight of these strangers, and of my crew showing the emotions that I wasn't allowed to express.
I stepped forward with this knowledge, bearing my control proudly over my chest.
The asari councilor continued, "It is the decision of the Council that you be granted all the powers and privileges of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance branch of the Citadel. You have proven your level-headedness in the face of conflict, your ruthlessness in the face of those deserving of your decisive action, and your consideration for the innocent and the helpless, no matter the circumstances."
The salarian councilor added, "Spectres are not trained, but chosen. Individuals forged in the fire of service and battle; those whose actions elevate them above the rank-and-file. Your special training as an N7 Infiltrator has given you the tools to persevere alone, to survive alone, and to succeed alone—but you have amassed a loyal squad of fighters who believe in your cause, just as we believe in you."
"Spectres are an ideal—a symbol," said the asari councilor. "The embodiment of courage, determination, and self-reliance. They are the right-hand of the Council, instruments of our will."
The turian councilor spoke, "Spectres bear a great burden. They are protectors of galactic peace, both our first and last line of defense. The safety of the galaxy is theirs to uphold. Your work is exemplary, and your history—how you managed to survive such a rough upbringing in your youth back on Earth—are all testaments to your strength of character, and your unwavering spirit."
The asari councilor congratulated me: "You are the first human Spectre, Commander. This is a great accomplishment for you and your entire species. May you forever be a friend to the Council, our protector. And may you forever be a friend and a protector to all in the galaxy who deserve you."
"Thank you, Councilors," I accepted, head bowed; keeping in-check this budding feeling in my chest.
"We're sending you into the Traverse after Saren," relayed the salarian councilor. "He's a fugitive from justice, so you are authorized to use any means necessary to apprehend or eliminate him."
The turian councilor said, "We will forward any relevant files to Ambassador Udina."
The asari councilor concluded: "This meeting of the Council is adjourned."
Arriving to the docking bay with my team and Captain Anderson, I saw how much had changed in such a short time. Right before we'd touched down on Eden Prime, I'd learned that I was a candidate for the Spectres—and now I had earned my place.
Now that Anderson had chosen to step down, I was in charge of the Normandy, of this entire operation.
I had never been the captain of my own ship before.
Commanding my own unit—sure.
Telling everyone to stay down while I cloaked and sniped off on my own—absolutely.
The gentle violet and reds lighting down on the docking bay from the Wards: they calmed me, kept my worries away as I processed these new changes. Underneath this lighting, I watched as Wrex, Ashley, Tali'Zorah, Kaidan, and Garrus made their way back to the Normandy nearby.
I wasn't their executive officer anymore with Captain Anderson in charge.
I couldn't just kick up those other responsibilities up the chain of command.
They would expect more from me—maybe more than I was equipped to give them at this point in time.
Anderson approached me for a final briefing:
Geth sightings on Feros likely pointed to Saren's involvement somehow.
Matriarch Benezia was on Noveria for some reason, probably doing Saren's bidding.
And then there was the matriarch's daughter, Dr. Liara T'Soni, who was out on an expedition on Therum, a mining world.
She may have had some answers about the Protheans that got wiped out by the Reapers. Hopefully, she knew what her mother was up to as well.
Anderson handed me the file on Dr. T'Soni that Udina had given him.
"Therum's out in the Artemis Tau cluster," he informed me. "I've heard the reports coming in from the Alliance… The geth have a massive presence out there. Now that we know the attack on Eden Prime was Saren's doing, we can confirm that the geth are acting under his orders. Dr. T'Soni is Matriarch Benezia's daughter—Saren may be trying to detain her."
Adding to this urgency, Anderson let me hear the worry in his voice: "I'm concerned about the doctor's safety, Commander. I'd recommend picking her up first before the geth do. Considering the sheer number of hostiles near the mines where Dr. T'Soni is, this may have to be a one-woman job. You know the drill. That file has up-to-date schematics for all known tunnels within those mines."
Just a slight look at her photo on this datapad.
That eye-catching blue of an asari's skin, and the brightness of her eyes, so innocent.
So motherfucking innocent, she seared me with her stare at no one, with this kindness in her likeness.
Only a taste, only a tease: a partial glance, quickly hidden, because I didn't trust myself like this.
"Understood, Sir," I acknowledged, pushing these harsher instincts down. "We'll leave for Therum right away. I'll get in those mines, get her out quietly, and extract her with the Normandy's stealth drive."
"You're in charge now, Commander. You don't report to me anymore. Remember: any debriefings after your mission would merely be a courtesy to me. You only need to debrief the Council going forward."
I was about to leave, to salute my former captain, but I knew him.
This aura about Anderson.
He had more to say.
Or at least, more to give.
Anderson handed me another datapad. "Considering you're in a hurry to get to Dr. T'Soni," he started, "I wrote this for you. You're a lone wolf, and this will be the first time you serve as the head of a full ship and a more long-term crew. Not that you need any advice from anyone, Commander. Take this as a few words of friendly suggestions from your old captain."
"Thank you, Anderson," I accepted. "I'll read this over as soon as I get the chance."
"I appreciate it, Shepard. That's all I can ask for."
I saluted him: his rank, his influence. His willingness to be patient with me and to guide me, even and especially when I refused to budge in my stubbornness. He understood—unlike too many others.
He saluted me back: such pride in his eyes for me, knowing all that I'd accomplished so far.
New objective, new drive: heading back to the Normandy didn't feel any different from every other time I'd returned before. Not with so much on my mind, so much threatening to creep up and consume me, all because of the two datapads in my hands.
This creeping, like heat combusting in and out of my mind, and tearing, so slowly.
Joker was there in his seat at the helm. He chatted with the squad, introducing himself to all of the new faces. Ashley wasn't here, as I had grown to expect, and a convenient fucking turn-off for me. Noticing me, Wrex, Garrus, Kaidan, and Tali'Zorah stepped aside so that I could get to our chief helmsman.
Their presence was convenient: I could brief them all here at once. Except Ashley…wherever she was.
"Joker, get us to Therum in the Artemis Tau cluster," I ordered. "There's a Prothean expert, Dr. T'Soni, who we need to extract from one of the mines there. We can't afford to lose her."
"Oh, shit, Therum?" worried Joker, preparing the ship for takeoff. "I heard the Alliance chatter about all the geth activity out there. Take a look—it's a huge mess, Commander!"
He brought up the live feed on his screen right above the Normandy's controls:
Scores of geth dreadnoughts and fighter ships had surrounded Therum, intimidating in their slick, round silvers and glinting sheens. They took up so much room, we could barely see the planet's surface. In the distance, Alliance ships orbited around the chaos from far enough away, recording the activity while trying to get a better understanding of the situation.
Tali'Zorah worried out loud, "I've never seen so many geth ships in one place before… Not since the vids we would watch of our ancestors losing the homeworld during the Morning War. Isn't Therum just a mining planet?"
"That Prothean expert is there," noted Garrus. "Didn't Udina mention that Matriarch Benezia's daughter is on some research expedition in the mines? Dr. Liara T'Soni, he said."
"That he did," remembered Kaidan. "I get that she's Benezia's daughter. And the matriarch's working with Saren now. Do they need her knowledge of the Protheans that badly? They're practically holding the planet hostage while they look for her!"
Garrus hummed, deep in thought. "Something tells me they need Dr. T'Soni for more than her scientific knowledge. This looks big. Really big."
"No kidding," agreed Tali.
"Yeah, this is some shit," said Wrex, not liking our prospects so far. "Some real shit. How the hell are we supposed to get in there to find this doctor?"
"The Normandy has top-of-the-line stealth systems," bragged Joker. "We can mask our heat emissions to basically make it look like we're not there at all. No one will pick us up on their scanners. Well—unless someone looks out a window or something. Thing is, we can't keep it up for too long, or else we'll get fried to death. Just comes with the territory!" The ship's comm flashed next to Joker's screen. "Commander, incoming message from Admiral Hackett!"
"Patch him through, Joker," I allowed.
Static crumpled and cracked the admiral's voice, yet his urgency made it through nonetheless: "Commander…! This is—Hackett… Alliance fleet—rrounding the mining planet Ther—… Heard you're the—captain of…Normandy. Congratulations on—Spectre stat…has to wait. Earth's mining resources disrupted—…geth activity, civilians in trouble. We need you—…ASAP!"
Looking to Joker, I asked him, "Can you clean this up?"
"Negative, Commander," he replied, trying and failing anyway. "Looks like the geth are disrupting comms out in that entire system."
"Admiral, this is Shepard," I responded. "I hear you, but there's a serious amount of static. Just know that we're on our way to Therum right now. We need to extract a priority target from the mines."
"Of course, Commander—… If you can—Normandy in and disable…jammers. Our forces…handle the geth ships—once we're able—to communicate again. Any ships we send…surface—getting—decimated. We're sitting ducks…—til that happens."
"We'll find a way onto the planet and disrupt those jammers, and then your forces will deal with the geth. Got it."
"…in your debt, Shepard. Hackett out—"
"Joker, you know what to do," I told him.
"Heading out now, Commander! ETA to Therum is two hours. I'll do my best to get us there faster."
Two whole hours, sitting with this feeling…
"Understood," I accepted. "Any idea where Chief Williams went? We need to brief her on the mission."
Pushing herself through the crowd of our squad, Ashley announced her presence:
"I'm here, Commander. I was just over in the command center talking with Navigator Pressly earlier. I heard everything so far."
"Good—let's move this down to the comm room. It's getting crowded here."
"Agreed," grumbled Wrex, shifting his large body around to fit in this space.
Gesturing for my squad to go first, I followed behind, with Ashley leading everyone to the comm room.
The rest of the ship's human crew observed our new alien team members with barely-masked suspicion, Navigator Pressly included. They had shown Nihlus, that turian Spectre who joined us on Eden Prime, the same hostility—only they were more obvious about it back then.
This time, the crew knew that they would have to deal with me if they stepped out of line.
So they stayed quiet and only afforded a few thin-eyed glances at my squad, keeping their heads down and focusing on their work.
Standing in the center of the comm room, I looked to my team sitting down around me:
Ashley, Kaidan, Tali'Zorah, Garrus and Wrex seemed like they had put the drama from the Citadel behind them.
Staring up at me with their resolve, they were ready to move forward.
"In a normal situation," I began, "Now would be the time where I give you your work assignments for the ship. This isn't a normal situation—far from it. We need to be prepared for what's waiting for us down on Therum. Saren's sent his geth fleets to get Dr. Liara T'Soni before we arrive."
I saw the concern growing in their faces:
We knew that Dr. T'Soni was a capable biotic. She was bound to come under heavy attack from Saren's geth. Would she be able to hold out and survive?
"Once we land, we're splitting up. I'll head into the mines and find the doctor on my own. If she's taking fire, I'll focus on getting her to a safe location, and then we'll sneak back outside. Meanwhile, I'm sending all of you to deal with those communications jammers. Tali, can we count on you to get those offline? The rest of the squad will cover you as needed."
"Yes, Shepard, I'll get it done," promised Tali.
"We'll cover her, absolutely," affirmed Ashley, as a pleasant surprise. I did my best not to show it.
"Roger that," accepted Garrus. "Those geth won't know what hit them."
Wrex was prepared. "We'll make some hell out there, Shepard."
"Kaidan, I want you in charge of the whole ground team," I assigned. "More than likely, they have those jammers somewhere near our target's location. Take the Mako, fight your way through the geth, and keep Tali'Zorah clear from fire as she takes care of the jammers. Radio me once you're finished and get back to the Mako. We'll coordinate an exit plan with Joker."
Lieutenant Alenko saluted me. "Aye, aye, Ma'am!"
"This will be our first official mission together as a bigger team. I expect you to use your heads and fight smart. I won't be able to speak freely while I'm in the mines, in case I give away my location to the enemy. You'll need to rely on yourselves and on Joker if need be. But, until we get there, you have some free time first. Ashley, Kaidan—if you wouldn't mind showing our new teammates around the ship…"
"Will do, Commander," said Ashley, getting everyone to follow her.
And I had some free time of my own, now that I was alone again.
If I looked at Dr. T'Soni's picture for any real amount of time, I knew I would lose my focus.
Instead, I settled on reading Captain Anderson's digital letter to me on this datapad:
You aren't one for emotions and sentimentality. I only want you to know how positive I am that you'll become a Spectre once this is all over. There's no doubt in my mind that you'll succeed where I wasn't able to years before. The first human Spectre. You'll become a symbol, an icon, and an inspiration for everyone across the galaxy.
With your new status comes new responsibilities. It's no secret that you're not much of a people-person. Do you remember the report you received when you first went from an enlisted soldier to a commissioned officer, not long after you earned your college degree? The higher-ups in the Alliance worried that you might not have the patience to engage with your squad on a personal level, especially during long-term deployments where that kind of thing really makes or breaks team morale.
There's no telling how long it will take you and your team to bring Saren down. This could take weeks, months. Maybe even years.
Now more than ever, your patience and your people skills will be put to the test.
As a friendly recommendation, Commander: be kind to your squad.
I'm not saying you need to sing Kumbaya with everyone in the mess hall. I only ask that you take your team's feelings and concerns into consideration when getting to know them. You're going to have a lot of downtime while traveling back and forth aboard the Normandy. During those hours, I'd like you to really listen to what your team members have on their minds, and for you to help them when they need you the most.
We both know you're a lone wolf. It's why you performed so well during your N7 training. When things got ugly for you back on Earth, it's what helped you survive on your own. But you have to see by now that those old habits won't get you anywhere in your new position.
You're Captain of the Normandy. You're a Spectre. The crew are all looking to you for guidance.
As of right now, yes, your team respects the hell out of you. They live for the legend of Commander Shepard. Over time, though, that fire may begin to dim. If they feel like you don't give a damn about them, then what? You may have lost valuable allies. That's something you need to avoid at all costs.
It's always about gains and liabilities with you. Useful, but it makes you a bit predictable. See what you can do about fixing that.
Forever proud of you,