"Do I look like a bloody tech to you?""Right this minute, you look a lot more like a sniveling little bitch, actually."Miranda Lawson and Zaeed Massani glowered at each other across a tiny Alliance apartment.Thane Krios, seated comfortably in the corner of the hard little couch that dominated the majority of the tiny, Alliance-provided apartment that was currently serving as an unlikely base of operations for Team Lazarus's benched players, looked up from his folded hands. "Perhaps I can assist," he offered diplomatically, gesturing slightly with one steady hand toward the data pad Lawson had been brandishing toward Massani like a dagger.Lawson glared at Massani for a moment longer - a glare he easily met ice-for-ice - then abruptly whirled around and thrust the data pad at Krios. Massani muttered something foul, even by his standards, and went back to leaning against the wall, one leg over the other and his sidearm sitting under loose fingers at his side."The Normandy's making a set of relay jumps to throw us off," she said without preamble. "It looks like EDI has temporarily spoofed the ship's transponder signal. They look like another ship as they go through the relays. We should be able to confirm ship identity based on physical characteristics logged at relay initialization but..." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "We don't have that data readily available to us at this time.""Their goal is to hide their final destination," Krios summarized, accepting the data pad and scrolling through its contents, inscrutably dark eyes zipping quickly from left to right. "It suggests that Commander Shepard does not wish our interference, Miranda. She may have good cause. In fact, I daresay she most assuredly does as she rarely acts without it. Perhaps it is best to -""It suggests," spoke up Massani, voice blasé, "that the daft bitch doesn't want our interference but fully expects that one" - and he leveled a thick, calloused, accusatory finger at Lawson - "to try to give it anyway. Spoofing a transponder signal is child's play.""Quite," agreed Krios, "and the fact that so simple a method has been employed indicates that her interest is merely in delaying us rather than truly disappearing without us." He cocked his head to the side, gazing at Lawson. "It is clearly a temporary condition, Miranda, and more than likely, it is indicative of a very short-term mission. It may be best simply to wait for the Normandy to return.""And if it doesn't?" Lawson's voice was matter-of-fact. "If the Normandy doesn't return? If Shepard falls? Again? This is obviously one of her side missions, something she is doing for someone who has asked it of her for no other reason than Commander Shepard, Hero of Elysium and Savior of the Citadel, is a cold-blooded killer with a heart of gold. The galaxy as a whole benefits from the former and we, those closest to her who are in a position to ask her for personal boons that she seems incapable of denying, benefit from the latter. But the two of you know as well as I do that our missions rarely go as expected... even the 'simple' ones like rescuing your son, Thane, or going after Vido, Massani. Or finding my sister." She turned back to her collection of data pads. "If the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan - as it somehow invariably does when Shepard is involved - I would like for there to be at least some goodunexpected development... and if that good unexpected development happens to be the three of us showing up when she finds she needs us the most, then we will have done our part in helping her save the galaxy as we know it."There was a moment of silence."That and she cost four billion credits to rebuild," said Lawson. "Four billioncredits. Do you have any idea how the shareholders will react when I tell them I've lost their four billioncredit investment?""Probably more positively than your leash holder," Massani commented. "One can only imagine how thrilled he'd be if he knew Shepard can so easily fly off into the sunset without her guard dog."Krios spoke up once again, expertly cutting off any reply Lawson could make. "This data is almost two hours old.""Well, as Mr. Massani has so kindly pointed out, it's not like I have all my normal resources readily available," Lawson shot back, frustration evident in her voice. "It's one thing for Shepard to do things her way; the Illusive Man accepted the risks when he had her reconstructed as she was without any control chips. But it's quite another thing if she's gone rogue. If he thinks for a second that Shepard might need to be considered an enemy, all bets are off. I won't be able to protect her... and I can't start looking for her through my normal channels without giving away the fact that I've lost her. We'll have to take what we get... which, in this case, is two-hour-old data that we had to beg like dirty street urchins to get."Krios accepted that with a calm steadiness that was a stark opposite of Lawson's rising agitation. "Your desire to protect Shepard is admirable," he said. "I had not realized you -""Cared?" interrupted Lawson sharply, eyes narrowed slightly. "Most people don't realize it. Most people don't bother considering it even a possibility." She turned away. "Which is quite appropriate since I do not. If Shepard has in fact gone rogue then she is a dangerous element that the Illusive Man will quite reasonably and rationally want to put down. As you have pointed out, however, it is exceptionally unlikely that she has actually gone rogue. It would be an incredible waste for him to put her down when she is still a known and usable quantity.""I was going to say that I had not realized you were walking such a tenuous line," said Krios after a moment, "and that I've found such things to rarely be comfortable, particularly for those of us burdened with being able to see the traps and pitfalls that line each treacherous side... but it is certainly enlightening to hear your rationale."Lawson's perfect pink lips opened into a tiny 'o' but Krios continued before she could say anything or for the potential embarrassment to take hold. He indicated the data pad she'd given him with a steady, untroubled hand. "I will review this for any patterns which may suggest the Normandy. It is likely, however, that Commander Alenko will be able to get you more current data. Perhaps even real-time."Lawson snorted, nose already in another data pad. "Well, we can't really ask him, can we?" she pointed out frostily. "He is - either inconveniently or conveniently, depending on which side you're on - gone. I daresay he's running to his Alliance handlers as we speak, telling them where we are, giving them every piece of intel he's gathered on us so far, all in exchange for some miserably black-and-white concept of the 'greater good' and getting Shepard back for himself.""From what I hear," Massani spoke up, "he already had Shepard for himself. A few times. Unless the bastard's a shitty lay - and I have a hard time believing that Shepard would do anything but fill a bastard with lead if he didn't give her a good enough go - he probably doesn't need the Alliance to get it again either.""Getting Shepard back for the Alliance," Lawson corrected icily."I find it highly unlikely that Commander Alenko is doing anything of the sort," Krios said gently, voice characteristically unhurried even though he somehow managed once again to interject before Massani and Lawson could start up again. "He may feel compelled to do so eventually but at this time, he shares your concern for Commander Shepard, Miranda. I find it much more likely that he is doing everything in his power to find the commander and determine if she is likely to require aid. Given her current standing with the Alliance, he likely knows as well as we do that we are in a better position to provide said aid than any of his... more conventional... allies. He shares your concern for the Commander; he will not act against that.""I am only remotely concerned about Shepard," Lawson said, her voice clipped and her eyes on the next data pad. "She has plenty of experience doing stupid things. I have every expectation that she will make it through this one more alive than she did the last one. I simply would like to increase the odds in her favor as she seems bound and determined to lower them for no other reason than an adrenaline rush.""Of course," said Krios, inclining his head slightly. "I also suspect Commander Alenko is also doing what he is able to ensure our own continued safety." He held a placating hand out when Lawson's head snapped up and qualified, deep voice soothing and still unhurried, "Our continued nearsafety, rather. We are useful to him only if we are useful to Shepard and we cannot be that if we have been jailed. If my research has proven true" - and he didn't have to mention that his research rarely if ever proved otherwise - "he has access to considerable resources if he is willing to ask for them. Unlike us, however, those who provide his resources at least ostensibly need a paper trail and are at least ostensibly interested in where both ends of the trail lead. I suspect it will take him some time to navigate such treacherous waters. Perhaps we should exercise patience."Lawson sighed abruptly but her shoulders seemed to sag just slightly from their previous haughty position. "You have a great deal of faith in him, Thane," she said, turning back to her data pads."I do not," corrected Krios, "as there has been insufficient time or opportunity for him to earn it... but I do have a great deal of faith in Shepard. She has her reasons for leaving us here. I may not agree with her methods and a small, impetuous part of me may wish to be at her side where I - and I believe all of us - belong, but I have faith nonetheless: either she cannot take us where she is going and she is trusting us to trust her to work in our stead... or there is something more important for us here that she is trusting us to do in herstead. Or perhaps it is both. It is sometimes difficult to know her mind from her actions and it is almost impossible to know her heart from her mind... but her actions, as I have seen them, almost invariably speak to her soul. Perhaps we should find that sufficient.""You speak like she's one of your goddesses," Lawson muttered.Krios shrugged slightly and even that expression somehow looked graceful on his slim form. "She is not so far off, I think. Solace and sanctuary like an oasis in the desert but as harsh and unforgiving as the desert winds. Righteous at times, vengeful at others. A vision of immortality one moment, insufferably and depravedly human the next." He shook his head slowly, thoughtfully. "She is not so different from the goddesses of old, I think. Perhaps the manner of worship has simply changed over time.""This generation's manifestation of Kalihira?" Lawson asked dryly.An expression of surprise darted across Krios's face and it morphed after just a moment to an almost-smile at his lips. She was surprised by the expression, the uncharacteristically open amusement in it. "You think Shepard like Kalihira, do you?"Lawson looked slightly uncomfortable She was no stranger to causing offense with her directness or to barreling through said offense if necessary... but somehow religion, especially to a dying man, seemed an area too personal to risk striking even in passing. "I don't know enough of your old gods to say," she said, hedging a bit, "but you pray to her after you kill. I've seen you do it. If anyone understands the need for killing or the weight of having to do so, it's Shepard.""I do not pray for atonement, Miranda," said Krios with remarkable gentleness, "and even if I did, Shepard or any goddess like her would not be the one to hear it. There is no absolution to find in what we do. For me, I do it because that is my path and I have resolved myself to it; for Shepard, she does it simply because it must be done. The gods might hear prayers from those such as us but they would not listen; such unchanging ways as ours are not of interest to them.""Then what do you pray for, Thane?"She hadn't meant to ask the question but he smiled at her and she was struck by how calming an effect it had. She wondered for just a brief moment why he didn't smile at her more often. "I pray for many things, Miranda, and meditate upon many more. Perhaps answering 'to whom' would be more helpful than 'for what'," he said. "Kalihira is the goddess of the afterlife, of the oceans."His voice changed slightly, adopting a soft edge that it had not had before, losing what little inflection he had allowed it earlier to show and becoming recitative, almost lyrically so. "She is called Kalihira the Pale by the other gods for they know nothing of her save the revelry she does not share with them, the smiles she does not offer to them, and the shadows of her solitary home in the underworld that only she is willing to brave. She is not concerned with their ignorance; she is not unknowable but she is difficult to know; she is content to remain unknown to those who are too lazy or fearful to truly know."She is called Kalihira the Constant and the Lady of Sacrifice for of all the duties ascribed to the gods, only hers are both constant and unending. She is called upon in times of war and in times of peace; she is called upon for the wicked and for the good; she welcomes all to their eternal home and misses none. She is the Lady of Shadow and she bears the weight silently on pale shoulders."She is called Kalihira the Pitiless by the wicked man for as he finds himself prostrate before her... as she reaches to him with cold, pale hands... as she pulls out his soul and slices a tiny sliver from it with the plain, simple dagger at her wrist... as she slips the sliver between pale lips, as her eyes close and she allows the sliver to dissolve on the moisture of her tongue... only he knows the deep, unending horror as her eyes open, glittering with recognition of his wickedness, and she leads him silently, dispassionately, heedless of his desperate pleas for mercy, with a cold, unerringly steady hand to his eternal fate."She is called Kalihira the Great Host by the good man for as his soul melts like summer fruit across her tongue, her eyes open and are bright with admiration. She pulls him to his feet, standing him tall before her, and steps aside to allow those who have been waiting for him to come forward and welcome him home."The drell's inner eyelids flashed in a quick blink and he seemed to come to himself once again."If I were to compare Shepard to one of my gods, it would not be Kalihira," he finished. "Kalihira is constancy, dispassion, and perfection. Shepard is not.""Who then?" Lawson found herself asking. "Shepard is constant. If anyoneis constant, it's -""I see in Shepard the hallmarks of Arashu, not Kalihira," he said. "Arashu the Protector. Arashu the Unyielding. Arashu the Unforgiving. Great and magnificent and terrible.""And reckless," Lawson interjected though there was no heat in her voice.Krios nodded, granting the point. "And reckless. Arashu is constant because those she protects are constant. Their needs are constant. They ask for her protection - they expecther protection - and she gives it, despite or perhaps because of the fact that it is only a matter of time before they need and expect it from her yet again. She is dispassionate because it is the only way she can be both a protector and an avenger and live to do both another day. She is perfect only in the fact that she recognizes she is not."He smiled slightly at Lawson once again. "Kalihira's constancy, though, is her own. She is not constant because others demand it of her; she is constant because that is who she is. She is dispassionate not because she has to be but because she fears to be anything else. She is perfect because she sits at the very cusp of eternity and knows she can be nothing less."Kalihira sees all of the world at once and through that lens, she might eventually discern individuals," he finished. "Arashu sees the individuals alone and only through them can she eventually derive the world."Lawson was silent for a long moment, brow furrowed almost imperceptibly."You're not going to start calling me Miranda the Constant, are you?" she finally asked, a hint of suspicion in her voice. It was the easiest way to acknowledge just how perceptive he really was... and maybe how appreciative she was that he'd tried. So few did. So few."Unlikely," Krios said. "'Pitiless' is a much better epithet."So much for appreciative. She rolled her eyes and picked her data pad back up."Does Arashu drive all the other gods absolutely crazy?" she asked unexpectedly, some small part of her hoping it wasn't as blasphemous as it sounded.Krios considered that. "Probably," he concluded gravely.Lawson sighed. Somehow it did make her feel just a little better. "Well, that's good. I guess."
She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to ward off the headache she felt budding there, then dragged a hand through her hair. "I don't have the time or the budget to rebuild her again if she decides to get herself killed again.""Temples burn down and need to be rebuilt," said Krios. "The gods who make their homes there do not. A goddess without a temple loses none of her vitality. Her power remains undiminished. Without an earthly manifestation, it simply becomes harder for the mortals who serve her to feel a connection to her.""If Shepard and Miranda are temples for your gods, I'm picturing them both worshipping at each other's temples now," said Massani with a grunt of approval. He clearly did not have any concerns about sounding blasphemous. "Topless. Maybe with the thief too. All feeling connections to earthly manifestations."Lawson made an obvious attempt to ignore Massani but couldn't manage to avoid pursing her lips and flicking disapproving blue eyes his way. She did not deign to honor his comments with a reply of her own, though, instead turning back to Krios."No temples are burning down on my watch," she informed him flatly. "She is a human woman, a mortalwoman, and whether or not she realizes that does not diminish the fact that as a human woman, as a mortal woman, she needs backup. She needs people behind her. She needs us.""She needs you," concluded Krios."Getting better," grunted Massani. "Needing is good.""Of course she needs me," Lawson said, this time having no trouble ignoring Massani. "I'm good. In a lot of different areas, I'm the best. I should be with her. I can help her.""You can help to make sure she does not meet an untimely end as she did before," Krios said."Well, of course!" Lawson was back to sounding impatient. "I spent a lot of time and money to bring her back. She's my responsibility. I have to keep her alive. We needher." She turned back to her data pad. "And she needs us.""She needs you," said Krios again.Lawson heaved a sigh, dropped the data pad to the coffee table with a clatter, and gave her full, if now somewhat sarcastic, attention to the drell. "That's the second time you've said that," she said, folding her hands with cool nonchalance on the table's surface. "What do you want me to say?""I am merely trying to understand if the need you speak of is as reciprocal as your spirit seems to think it is," said Krios mildly. "You need her. For some reason, though, you seem to also need her to need you."Lawson balked slightly, oddly and uncharacteristically off-balance... but if she did in fact show such a telltale reaction, she recovered quickly enough for its existence to be called into question. Her expression closed off immediately. This was why she didn't talk to people. This was why she didn't engage them. One little moment of camaraderie and they wanted to see more, learn more, dig in more, dissect more. Always more. More, more, more."I need her in the same way all sentient life in the galaxy needs her; I, as a single individual however, do not need her," she said, each word enunciated with crisp, icy clarity. "Nor do I want her. Nor do I need her to need me or want her to want me. Nor, for completeness's sake, do I need her to want me or want her to need me. She is merely my responsibility and I do not shirk my responsibilities lightly." Her expression darkened. "Nor do I easily accept them recklessly shirking me.""Then I have misunderstood," said Krios easily, inclining his head deferentially toward her once again. "You have my apologies."
He handed her the data pad she had thrust at him earlier. "Those records show the hops of all ships hitting the Citadel relay in ten minutes before and after the Normandy's departure window, as well as all subsequent hops within the relay network for ships matching those transponder signals. There are twenty-three of them in total. I suspect the Normandy to be one of the following: the thirteenth, fourteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-third.""How do you know that?" Lawson asked, accepting the data pad back and immediately flagging the transponder signals he'd indicated."I do not know; I merely suspect," Krios replied, "and it is through nothing more elegant than the process of elimination. Fourteen of the ships in the initial departure list hit a single relay within the window you reference; if you believe the Normandy to be hiding their final destination, they are likely to make more than one hop. Three of the ships that have made more than one hop are moving along known black market routes to and through a series of secondary couriers within their distribution/trafficking networks; it is very unlikely that the Normandy would attempt to 'blend in' on such routes, especially since the two people most likely to provide actionable intel while doing so - Mr. Massani and I - are here with you."Lawson frowned, doing the math. "That's only twenty-two ships," she said."Ah, well, there is the seventh ship," said Krios, "and that one is neither a single-hop ship nor a trafficker." He folded his hands again in his lap. "I believe that one was hired just to, I believe the term is, 'fuck with you'."Lawson's lips pursed and she scrolled to the list of hops for the seventh ship. It took her a moment... but once she started going through the systems and planets made accessible by the relays used by the seventh ship, it became quite clear.Aeia. Bekenstein. Ilium. Omega. Pragia. Raheel-Leyya. Tuchanka. Zorya.All planets or systems that one or more members of Shepard's ragtag bunch of misfits had asked her to visit. In alphabetical order."I'm going to kill her," Lawson announced."Perhaps we should hold off on trying to assist her then," said Krios, "as her current mission, whatever its nature, may do it for you."Lawson stared at him."Or perhaps you would like the satisfaction of doing it yourself?" he qualified."Yes," she said. "I would. Thank you."Krios nodded, unperturbed. "Then let us redouble our efforts," he said. "There are two possibilities as I see it: either she has embarked upon a mission that would negatively impact one or all of us left behind or she believes that the one person who by default would be left here - Commander Alenko - for some reason requires our protection in her stead."Lawson thrust a hand through her hair again, not even grimacing when a finger hit a snarl. "The only 'mission' on our radar, besides the Collectors, is this whole business around Shepard's biotics. Lazarus, Prometheus, and this mystery third cell. Prometheus Cell: whatwe're trying to do, i.e. build a mass relay. Lazarus Cell: howwe're going to do it, i.e. crack open Shepard's newly-accessible brain and pull out the Prothean breakthroughs from it. And then the third cell, whoever they are, and whywe're doing it."Massani grunted. "The only reason Shepard would move on that is if she figured something out about that third cell," he said. "And the only reason she'd leave us here while she moved on anythingwould be if she thought we'd fuck it up."
"Or if she thought wewould be fucked up," Krios reminded them and somehow, the expletive he repeated did not sound like one. "It would not be the first time that Shepard has asked us to sit out a task 'too close to home', not because she thought us incapable of dealing with it but because she thought it unnecessary for us to have to. There is also the small concern that Commander Alenko does have a significant assassination contract out on him. She may simply have left us here as a guard for him until she could return."Lawson sighed yet again. "Fantastic," she said. "So that has put us at precisely the same point we were at the beginning of this discussion. I don't suppose there's a god for this too?" She was only mostly kidding.Krios shrugged elegantly and if he took offense at her question, it did not show. "I regularly begin my assignments by asking Amonkiri, the lord of hunters, for -"
Games » Mass Effect Rated: M, English, Adventure & Romance, Shepard (F) & Kaidan A., Words: 372k+, Favs: 492, Follows: 526, Published: 2-22-11 Updated: 9-12-12
968 Chapter 78