Aria, of course, was a power-mad freakazoid who honestly thought that her handful of armed guards could keep me from killing her and living to tell about it. I wasn’t about to disabuse her of that notion because she’d convinced most of the station to believe her delusions. That made her a valuable contact, at least in the short term. I could always take her out later if she kept telling me how important and amazing she was. That sort of thing got under my skin: nobody loves a braggart.
For all her bluster she didn’t hesitate to blab about the scientist and the other guy I was looking for, a turian vigilante that everyone called Archangel. A quick circuit of the bar revealed that Joker had stood me up so there was nothing for it but to head straight for our objectives.
Naturally, neither the good doctor nor Archangel could be reached directly. It seemed that a plague and a confederation of mercenaries stood in the way of my respective recruitment efforts. Since every mission I’ve undertaken since becoming Commander on the old Normandy had gone this way I was wasn’t in the least surprised. My only concern was taking the wonder twins into combat. If their style of dress was any indication Miranda and Jacob would probably shoot each other instead of the bad guys. I had to hope that the forces with which Jacob had trained hadn’t been the kind of special that involved remedial toilet training.
I checked that my shiny new sniper was rifle ready to go and announced that the mercs came first on the agenda. I wanted to see if I could replace Dr. Frankenstein-ette with someone so good that he pissed off three rival bands badly enough for them to work together to take him down. I’d rather trust a talented stranger than some woman who’d had her fingers in my intestines and seemed determined to keep my shit under her thumb.
To give them credit, they performed much better than I’d expected. We worked our way in as cannon fodder for hire, sabotaged some of their equipment, and shot a pile of guys in the back under the watchful gaze of Archangel’s scope. That he chose to let us cross the no-man’s-land splattered with blood in several colors boded well for our chances of success. I led the way up his stairs and we mopped up another wave of fools. Apparently mercenaries skipped tactical training in their indoctrination. The Turian paused dramatically for no reason that I could see and then whipped off his helmet.
I just about fell over—first Tali on Freedom’s Progress and now my closest friend, my sniping buddy, the turian apple of my combat eye, Garrus Vakarian was Archangel. Don’t tell anyone, but I let out a girly squeal when I recognized him. He tried to act casual but I could see his pointy little mandibles flapping. He obviously hadn’t known I was coming so at least I wasn’t the only one who’d been kept in the dark. I grinned like an idiot and punched him on the shoulder as he clapped me on the back hard enough to make me stagger. Not only had I added my favorite gun-toting Turian to my new team but I could definitely send Miranda back to the ship while we fetched Mordin Solus. Of course, we had to get out of the rat trap in which Garrus had managed to corner himself.
We kicked a lot of ass that afternoon. The battle ‘bot I’d hacked on the way in helped, as well, mowing down a surprised-looking troop of its supposed allies before they managed to fry it. You can’t beat the satisfaction of an ambush well done, I always say. Garrus and I were having about as much fun as you can while getting shot. I ducked downstairs with Jacob and locked down the back doors while Garrus babysat Miranda and picked off more trash. She held her own with her biotics but I’d seen Kaidan hammer out worse damage with a dismissive flick of his wrist. I wasn’t that easy to impress.
Things were going well until the gunship appeared. I’d earlier prevented the mechanic from finishing all of the repairs but it still had dual machine guns and kept us pinned behind the furniture. Just as we were finishing it off Garrus popped out of cover to take a shot. This hot dog behavior was new and I hoped he wasn’t showing off for my benefit. I got as far as “stop being a…” before some asshole with a rocket launcher shot him in the face.
Garrus slumped as Jacob sprayed the gunship and its occupants with slugs and I let loose with the grenade launcher Cerberus had thoughtfully provided. The thing exploded and dropped out of sight. In the quiet that followed I dove for Garrus, scooping medigel out of my first aid pack and cursing wildly. At first I thought he was dead, considering the pool of deep blue blood spreading beneath his head. Then he gasped and I poured goo on his cheek while I called Joker on the radio to have a medic meet us.
The gunship had been a last-ditch effort and Jacob dragged Garrus out on a makeshift stretcher while Miranda and I took out the few mercs that hadn’t run away. This had all taken a lot longer than I’d planned and the scientist was just going to have to wait while we dealt with the far more important matter of Garrus not being dead, yet. By the time we got him back to the Normandy and into Dr. Chakwas’s care his already pale plates had turned chalky. She whisked him off to the med bay with promises to keep him alive and I trudged back up to the bridge.
“You have time for that drink now, Joker?”
“You bet, Commander. I’ll meet you there in half an hour.”
I knew he was sensitive about people seeing him walk, though his leg braces and Chakwas’s constant attention let him move more freely than most Vrolek’s patients. I agreed to meet him and wandered up to my cabin. While I’d had my own room on the old Normandy there simply hadn’t been space for much in the way of luxuries. While Joker had celebrated the leather seat at his console I found an entire leather couch in my room, along with a bed big enough for three and a bathroom just for me.
My new quarters were on a level all to themselves, pleasing until you realized that it was at the top of the ship and hull breaches would go straight into my closet. I presumed that the wall-sized aquarium doubled as a fire extinguishing and ice-plug system in case of such damage. I worked my way out of the filthy armor, ducked into the shower, and pulled on the first shirt and pants in the drawers. Every single damned thing Cerberus had given me to wear had been emblazoned with their stupid logo but I could hardly start alterations yet.
I bustled over to Afterlife, Aria’s club and the nearest drinking establishment to the docking bay. Joker had already established himself in a booth near the door. A speaker just behind him pumped out loud music. I saw that he’d put his comm unit on top of it so I handed mine to him as well. Aliens of several types wandered past, in various states of undress and intoxication. A barely-clad Asari with shocking-pink paint on her tentacled head brought us drinks and we kicked back a bit. “So, Commander,” Joker said. “Just like old times, huh?”
We talked about the old crew and how much we’d missed the Normandy. He’d been out of the loop for so long that he didn’t have anything helpful to add about where the rest of my team had gone except how they’d scattered after I died. He’d been as surprised as I had when Tali had shown up on Freedom’s Progress much less that our first real challenge had turned out to lead to Garrus.
“Holy crap, Joker, what kind of rinky-dink outfit is this, anyway? I knew they had to be pretty pathetic, considering how easily we tracked and slashed some of their other projects but they’ve got crap for intel on these people. How the hell did they manage me and a new and improved Normandy with this bunch of deranged escapees from a mental institution?”
Joker turned an alarming shade of purple as he choked on an ice cube. “Shit, Commander! The next time you want to tell me what you think wait until I’m not in the middle of a drink.” He laughed and spluttered a little longer. “I hope you don’t mean me.”
“No, you’re the only one who makes sense in this whole operation. I can follow your reasoning, even if I do think you’re an idiot for believing they were going to bring me back from the dead. But Jacob left an elite unit because the Council swept our crew’s work under the rug and half the people on this ship thought I’d magically appear and lead them to victory. How does that make sense? Whatever bullshit they dazzled you all with must have been awfully convincing.”
“Yeah, they not only knew where you’d been spaced and explained how they’d found you but they shared pictures showing the process when they recruited me.” Aw, damnit, I thought. If Joker had had his digital hands on those shots then I knew pictures of my desiccated kidneys had to be wandering about some extranet site. With any luck I wouldn’t be identifiable. How could your average conspiracy theorist distinguish between the flash-frozen livers of total strangers?
“Did they explain why the hell they wanted me so badly in the first place? I just don’t see the point. The Normandy I get. Hell, I’d make a new one, too. But I’m just some Alliance drone.”
Joker shook his head. “Commander, you’re the first human Spectre, the person who led our team all over the galaxy and finally saved the Citadel from certain doom by destroying what had been the best Spectre ever, before you showed up. You’re the most famous Human that ever lived. They want you to carry their flag, to be good PR for Cerberus for once.”
That actually made sense when I stopped to think about it. Most races knew Cerberus as rabid alien haters willing to sacrifice even other Humans in their pursuit of power for our race. They’d perpetrated atrocities and funded research projects that involved torture and mind control. Being able to claim that I was on their side would give them credibility and proclaiming that they were the only ones trying to save the galaxy would garner a lot of sympathy, at least among other Humans.
“Joker, I have got to get away from these people,” I finally said. “We can use the scientist, take him and Garrus back to the Alliance with the data we picked up, but I can’t have people believing I’m a lackey for these nutjobs.”
“Give it a little longer,” Joker answered with a familiar twinkle in his eye that signaled mischief on deck. “Aren’t you curious to see what they’ve got up their tiny-minded little sleeves?”