I wrapped up every loose end I could, slashing my cash reserves down to the bone, and burned fuel and probes like mad to make sure I was ready. Jacob and I worked out weapon improvements, Garrus calibrated the main guns to an exactitude even Mordin would admire, and in general my crew did everything they could to make the SR-2 as ready as she could get. The only thing I couldn't bring myself to do was to respond to Kaidan's message. I felt like I owed him something more than the silent treatment after all we'd been to each other. But what could I write to him?
“Dear Kaidan, I appreciate your message and agree that we should talk if I live through the next few days. If I don't, thanks for the memories.” Nope.
“Kaidan, you always were all about keeping open the options you could. Sorry for the months of silence but I've been busy falling for...” Ai!
“Kaidan, I love you but…”
I must have started and deleted a hundred variations. I didn't want to hurt him any more than I already had and I didn't want to give him some false encouragement that would only make things harder no matter what the outcome of this suicide mission. I prided myself on being forthright and brave but this was one situation where I found running away to be an acceptable solution. There would be time enough for facing this music if I lived long enough to do so.
I logged out of my terminal in disgust and returned to the CIC in time for Joker to announce that we'd reached our destination, the last loose end before we turned to the Omega 4 relay. It was something for which Zaeed had been waiting since he joined my crew—the annihilation of the Blue Suns and their leader where they'd seized a refinery on Zorya. I turned to head for the docking bay when Miranda popped out of the elevator. It was unusual to see her so far from her quarters so I waited to see what could be so important that she'd come to see me instead of trying to order me to her office.
“This is a heavily fortified base,” she began. “We need to bring more firepower than usual if we're going to avoid civilian casualties.” I narrowed my eyes and nodded, wondering what she would propose. “We should bring the whole team on this mission,” she said.
“We took on an entire abandoned Reaper with three people, wiped out dozens of mercenaries and Vorcha on Omega with three people, and cleared out the entire Eclipse base on Illium with—that’s right, Miranda—three people. Now you want to take a dozen to mop up an occupied refinery.”
Before I could pose an actual question, EDI spoke. “Commander Shepard, the IFF is ready for activation.” it said. Suddenly all I wanted to was to get this whole mess finished. I didn’t care what Miranda had up her sleeve. If taking the whole team would get us in and out faster then, by all means, we would take them.
Everyone and their weapons packed into the shuttle. I got a lot of strange looks but all I offered by way of explanation was, “Ask Miranda why you’re all here.” She had engrossed herself in conversation with Jacob and fobbed off any inquiries for “later”. And she expected me to just trust her and Cerberus when such bizarre behavior kept cropping up from them. I mentally rolled my eyes.
After landing, we worked our way from the shuttle to the refinery. I’d always thought of Zaeed as a bit unstable, especially considering how many of his stories ended with, “…and I was the only one who survived,” and how I’d met him beating on an unarmed man he’d taken into custody. He’d done good work on missions and had seemed relatively dependable since then.
He showed his true colors when we encountered Vido Santiago on the mezzanine overlooking the entry of the building, though. Instead of letting Thane take a snipe at the man from cover he blew some valves and set the whole place on fire in an attempt to kill the his old partner. I could understand wanting revenge for being shot in the head but Zaeed behaved completely irrationally. Vido ran off as the facility was engulfed in flames.
“We have to go after him,” shouted Zaeed, as though I gave a crap about Vido just then. We hadn’t come here to reclaim the facility by burning it to the ground and I could hear the workers screaming inside. I grabbed him by the collar and shoved my pistol into the soft skin under his jaw.
“You had better go and get him, because if I have to keep looking at you while we fix what you just broke you may not live out the afternoon.” I shoved him away in disgust. “Thane, go with him and see if you can keep him from blowing up any more civilians. Jacob and Miranda, you go with them. Samara, Mordin, Tali, Kasumi, and Legion go around the other side and see if you can work your way in through the back. Jack, Garrus, and Grunt you’re with me.”
My fury drove me through the flames without waiting for acknowledgement. No one who carelessly endangered innocent people stayed on my team. I would find a way to kick Zaeed off of the Normandy as soon as we’d weathered this crisis. Until then I could not afford to let his stupidity distract me.
The four of us worked our way through corridors lined with red-hot pipes, plumes of burning fuel spraying from weak joints. There were valves throughout the facility that would turn off the flow but we had to get to them. Some staff trapped in a fireproofed room managed to signal that there was an extinguishing system somewhere on the other side of the building if we could only get there. If the heat and smoke weren’t bad enough, mercenaries stood their ground in the inferno and took pot shots at us. This pluperfect hell fit my mood perfectly and I flung myself, snarling, into the fight.
I ducked as a gout of flame shot from a nearby pipe. Joker’s voice came from my comm unit but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. “Joker, I’m literally on fire, here. This had better be important,” I shouted.
“We’re being boarded by Collectors,” he responded. “Is that important enough?”
“If this is a joke I’m going to tap dance on your legs,” I said, my patience frayed to the point of snapping. I was in no mood for his sarcasm.
“No joke, Commander,” came his reply. I could hear him breathing heavily. “I’m crawling through a duct right now on my way to let EDI off her leash.”
I signaled Garrus to close a nearby valve as I cursed the whole situation. Had Miranda known that this was coming? I couldn’t help but suspect this was the reason she’d demanded the whole team leave the ship together. It all seemed too handy. Cerberus could get of most of the witnesses to our investigations in one fell swoop, preventing me from shipping them off to a safe port while the team and I went through the Omega relay. Maybe The Illusive Man didn’t believe that we could make it back after all. I already suspected him of colluding with the Collectors after the oh-so-convenient timing of the Horizon attack. This seemed like further proof. If Miranda didn’t have some convincing arguments to the contrary she might have a date with Zaeed in an airlock in her near future.
I couldn’t take the time to talk, however. There were too many Blue Suns and explosions nearby and no way that I could fix the problems on the Normandy, too. “You and EDI save my ship,” I told Joker. “We don’t have time to build an SR-3.”
“I’m trying, Commander,” he replied. “EDI sounds like she has a plan. I’ll let you know our status as soon as we’ve got one.”
She? I thought. Joker should spend more time with Jack and less with the AI. Then I turned my attention back to putting out the fire that threatened my ground team and hundreds of other lives. We worked our way through to the heart of the building just as the extinguishing system kicked on and blessedly-cool water parboiled us in our armor. The others rushed in as we stumbled toward the back door, burned, drenched, and shot.
One look at Zaeed’s face told me that he’d exacted his vengeance and was prepared to face any consequences. He’d just have to wait until I had time to deal them out to him. Thane caught me around the waist, pulling my arm over his shoulder, and carried me into the fresh air. By the time he set me down he was breathing as hard as I was. We collapsed together while Mordin made the rounds with what oxygen packs and medi-gel we’d had in the shuttle.
Steam hissed from the building and terrified workers made their way out of the ruin looking shocked to be alive. We didn’t have enough first aid to go around so I handed off my canned air to a coughing man on my right. Thane made to do the same but I could hear his breathing over the crashing beams inside and I forced him to keep the clean air to himself, hoping to dry his lungs a bit. Had he made the Kepral’s Syndrome worse coming into the refinery after me? I couldn’t bear the thought of what the soot may have done to him.
As soon as I had my breath back, I tried to raise Joker on my comm unit. “Joker, status report!” I gasped.
“They’re gone, Commander. They’re all gone.” I’d never heard despair in Joker’s voice before, not even as the first Normandy had sheared apart around us. “I couldn’t save them and they’re gone.”
“Come and pick us up, Joker,” I said gently. “We’re going to go and get them.”