Warnings: Violence, some discussions of slavery, prostitution, and other facts of life on Omega
Summary: Kaidan teams up with a mysterious Alliance operative to continue the fight against the Reapers, but may have bitten off more than he can chew. Especially when that agent is Miranda and the Reapers have a plan of their own.
The ship had been Feron's. The Plain Dealer had been rechristened the Silver Zephyr, her registration and ID signal changed to foil any Shadow Broker agents. Liara's final gift to us. She said she hadn't needed the ship were she was going. It reminded her of Feron and the choice the Collectors had forced her to make. She'd never said as much, but I knew how to read people, even asari. Ridiculous to feel guilty over a lying, backstabbing drell who nearly got her killed more than once, but I wasn't going to turn down a fast, relatively inconspicuous vessel. Our bags had already been taken aboard. A pity about the destination.
But, perhaps, not the company. I glanced at Kaidan out of the corner of my eye. He was wearing the dark, well-tailored suit he'd been given as part of his cover as Mikael Seta, owner of a small but prosperous import-export business and fence of choice for the discerning thief who wanted to dispose of unique items. He hadn't with shaved in three days. Another piece of the disguise. He kept running his fingers over the beginnings of his beard, as if he couldn't quite believe it was there.
"Don't do that," I whispered. The docking bay was not especially crowded at this hour, but there was no such thing as being too cautious in undercover work. "You'll draw attention to yourself."
His lips thinned. Irritation and a hint of embarrassment, but he was trying not to show either. "Sorry. Just not used to it yet. I haven't tried to grow a beard since I was fourteen."
I didn't answer right away. Kaidan made the mission more complicated. He was a mission objective, just as the Reaper tech was. He was the reason I was here instead of on Lazarus Station. The Illusive Man believed that he would be an asset to Cerberus. I was inclined to agree. He was a decorated soldier and a highly skilled biotic. More importantly, he believed in the Reapers and knew what was at stake. He'd managed to keep his position despite those in power denying that the Reapers existed. Not the sort of man who was likely to be dominated by his emotions. His psych profile suggested he had a relatively positive view of aliens. Good. Too many people confused the advancement of humanity with rampant xenophobia. He'd be perfect for us.
If I could recruit him. Which meant I needed him to like me. I'd never been good at that. I'd never particularly wanted my subordinates to like me. Respect was adequate. I couldn't manipulate him like I had my occasional mark, not if I wanted a working relationship with him later.
You could always seduce him. He'd certainly seemed interested the first time we met. I gave him credit for at least trying not to act like a dog in heat. My looks were yet another thing my father had given me. He'd hired researchers to calculate the traits most attractive to the average heterosexual human male and given them to his daughters. He had to keep the bloodline going somehow. It had proved useful in my line of work, though not in the way you would think. I'd promised myself after I left Omega for the first time that I'd never sleep with anyone unless I wanted to. I honored my promises. Flirtation was another matter. Not that it would be much of a hardship to flirt with Kaidan. And, perhaps, there would be more later, if he was everything he was supposed to be and it didn't compromise the mission. Maybe.
I quirked my lips upward slightly. "Scruffy is a good look for you."
I was rewarded with a slow, easy grin that unfurled across Kaidan's face. No, this wasn't going to be a hardship at all. "Come on."
The Zephyr was as cramped as I remembered. She smelled of metal and the various fluids necessary to keep even a small smuggling vessel operational. At least someone had managed to find room for a second chair. The cargo hold was filled with unregistered small arms and bags of red sand. Another piece of our cover and material for bribery, if it came to that. She wasn't the most comfortable ship I'd ever been on, but she would serve well enough for the ten hour trip to Omega.
Kaidan took in the scene at a glance. I watched as his gaze fell on the small box I'd half-hidden under the pilot's seat. "What's that? It can't be cargo or you would have hidden it better."
My eyebrows went up. I'd placed the box there as a small test; I wanted to see how long it would take Kaidan to notice. He had exceeded my expectations considerably. I'd planned on giving him the contents once we reached on Omega, but perhaps he deserved a reward. "Actually, it's for you." I knelt, retrieved the box, and opened it. The omni-tool inside lay inert, with only the logo of the Serrice Manufacturing Council suggesting anything out of the ordinary. Kaidan shot me a surprised look when he saw it. "The Nexus 2300. Fastest, most efficient omni-tool in existence. It won't even be available to the general public for another four months."
He took it and strapped it on to his left arm with the ease of long practice. "I, ah, guess there are advantages to your line of work."
"You have no idea." Why not give him a taste of the wonders Cerberus was producing right now? Something to blot out the memory of our bases on Binthu and Sigma-23. Something unambiguously beneficial. "Our scientists have prototyped a subdermal omni-tool implant keyed directly to an individual's nervous system. Even higher performance and less conspicuous." I fought the urge to rub my arm. The operation had hurt only slightly less than the one that given me my biotics, but it had been worth it to have an omni-tool that was undetectable to all but the most advanced scans.
He thought for a moment. "I can see why the AIS would like that. Harder for any enemy agents to remove in case you get captured. A twenty-second century skeleton key."
I sat in the pilot's chair while Kaidan took the other one. Neither of us spoke as I performed the necessary safety checks. Kaidan seemed content to watch me, and I was grateful. Too many people I'd been forced to work with spoke for the sake of speaking instead of for an actual reason. Kaidan was full of pleasant surprises today. I could only hope they continued once we reached the Terminus Systems.
"As I'll ever be."
It was another thirty-five minutes before Citadel Control cleared us to take off. The roar of the engines and drive core filled my ears and we were off. It was marvelous to be flying again. For six months, I had been confined to Lazarus Station for six months, with only my staff and Shepard's corpse for company. Now I was hurtling through the infinite void of space toward a relay that could take me almost anywhere in the galaxy. The Zephyr was a fast ship, and she seemed to know what I wanted her to do almost the moment I decided. I could feel a fierce, wild joy springing up within me. It was as if I were a greyhound that had been caged for too long and suddenly allowed to run free.
I'd never been quite certain how I felt about Omega. As a teenager, I had seen it as a symbol of everything my own life wasn't. Species from every corner of the galaxy mingled freely. There were no rules except what you made yourself, no schedules planned down to the last minute. Even the station's very architecture was chaotic, a mishmash of styles collected over the millennia. Every year, millions of immigrants flocked to the station in search of a better life. Some of them even found it. Romantic fool that I was, I had believed the perfect place to hide from my father. It was one of the costliest mistakes I'd ever made.
Even knowing the truth, I couldn't deny Omega retained a certain rough grandeur. It was vast and millennia older than any sapient being now alive. It had played host to everything from miners to exiled kings and outlasted them all. Even from this distance, thousands of lights were visible. And there was a rough, brutal form of order here, enforced by Aria T'Loak. More than you could say for most of the Terminus, and it provided a staging base for illegal but essential activity. It was as necessary in its own way as the Citadel.
Kaidan leaned forward in his seat, taking in the sight before him. I couldn't blame him. The sight was impressive. Sensors picked up twenty-seven ships within a hundred thousand kilometers of Omega. Half of those were within visible range. Most of them were small, dirty freighters of one kind or another. The only exception was a ship of turian design about three quarters the size of an Alliance frigate. The ship was battered, but this served only to expose the multitude of weapons bristling from its hull.
Kaidan's eyes widened almost imperceptibly. "Pirates or slavers. Are we in any danger?"
"We would be if we weren't so close to Omega." The Zephyr had been built for speed and maneuverability, but even she couldn't outrun a disruptor torpedo at this distance. She was lightly armed and armored, too. We'd be helpless in a firefight. "Aria would obliterate anyone who attacked a ship this close to her territory."
Kaidan leaned back and gave a short bark of laughter. "When I was a kid, I used to watch this vid show—Galactic Defender, or something like that—about a bunch of guys who flew around the galaxy fighting pirates. It was always enough to blow them out of the sky. No mention of crime lords keeping them in check. I ate it up. Guess kids like easy answers."
"Indeed. The galaxy can be a very rough place, and idealism can make people feel better about it." Kaidan Alenko could be a very idealistic man, from all accounts. He'd counseled Shepard to go out of her way to help an internal affairs agent on Noveria and undertake truly heroic measures to save Feros. I didn't think he was noble to the point of being stupid. He had suggested leaving the Rachni Queen for Council experts to deal with. It had been Shepard who let her go. Still, it was best to make certain things clear. "We're here for the Reaper tech. Nothing else matters. No heroics. Understood?"
"Understood." His voice was slow and measured. "You'd think someone somewhere could find a way to do more to help the people down there. We can train people to move things with their mind, but we can only take isolated shots at slavers. Instead, humanity acts like the biggest bully on the playground. It's like the only thing that matters is power." He shrugged. "The strong enforcing their will on the weak and ignoring the big problems like the Reapers. I guess it really is inherent in the system."
I couldn't let an opening like that go to waste. The ship sped toward Omega. We'd be at the Talon docking bay within minutes. "Sometimes you have to go outside the system. There are people who are trying to fight the Reapers, but they're branded as traitors, murderers, and madmen. The galaxy is facing extinction. If we have to bend a few rules to save ourselves, so be it."
He took his time answering. Maybe too much time. "Sometimes the rules are there for a reason. How much does the AIS know about an organization called Cerberus?"
The subject was bound to come up sooner or later. Shepard had destroyed three of our projects, costing us millions of credits and killing several key personnel. She had also eliminated the last member of the rogue cell that had been responsible for the atrocity on Akuze, but neither she nor Kaidan had any way of knowing that. It was only natural that he had some misconceptions about the organization. The Alliance had alternated between painting us as terrorists and discreetly accepting our help since long before I joined.
"Let's just say we've crossed paths on occasion," I said. "What's on your mind?"
He ran his fingers through his hair. It was the first time I had seen him truly agitated. "We were investigating some strange samples ExoGeni sent to the Chasca colony. We were afraid they might have been overrun by more Thorian creepers. It turned out that the entire colony had been turned to husks. Cerberus was behind it. We found dragon's teeth scattered all over the place. A hundred and fifty colonists killed for no good reason. If the rules can stop things like that, then they're worth it."
They did what? When I had been assigned to the Lazarus Project, I had been briefed on the cells Shepard and her team had encountered. The team at Chasca had been assigned to the colony after it had been wiped out by a plague. They were to convert the bodies into husks and learn as much as they could about the process so we could defend against it. With luck, we would even have some shock troops use against the Reapers. No mention had been made of the Cerberus team actually killing them. Kaidan must have been mistaken. Or yet another project lead had gone beyond mission parameters. It was a risk Cerberus took. We gave the most brilliant minds in the galaxy nearly unlimited resources with limited oversight. Some abused that privilege. We dealt with them. I made a mental note to find out who had been in charge of the project and ask them a few questions. If they were so foolish as Kaidan implied them to be, then they had made my job recruiting him and gaining Shepard's trust that much harder. I was certain the Illusive Man would express his... displeasure in the strongest possible terms if he knew.
"We know what they did." I kept my voice neutral, allowing only a slight hint of disgust to slip through. "The worst thing is that nothing came of it. We stole a copy of the project files, and Cerberus still doesn't know any more about husks than they did before. We need to study our enemy so we can defeat them."
His brows knitted in thought. "I'm not saying we shouldn't. Just that we shouldn't cut corners. Cerberus cuts too many corners. Yes, I'm not able to do everything I'd like, but it's good that there's a system that can stop people from turning into monsters. Even when I hate that system," he muttered softly.
"And if you could find a group that fought the Reapers and actually protected the humans you're sworn to defend without cutting corners? What would you do then?"
"Pinch myself, probably." He smiled as he said it.
I smiled, too. I knew how I could win him over now. I was methodical. I'd tortured and killed. I didn't deny that. Mostly slavers and the other scum the Alliance spent most of its time fighting. Kaidan could hardly object to that. There were a few Luddites who would be convinced that the Lazarus Project would be going too far, but they were largely the same people that decried biotics as unnatural. Kaidan wouldn't share their belief. The construction of the SR-2 was harming no one. All I had to do was convince him that people like me were the true face of Cerberus and that those he had encountered before were aberrations. It wouldn't be hard. "I'll just have to see if I can find you one."
We were almost within hailing distance of the docking bay. I sat up a little straighter in my chair, getting into character. "Most businessmen out in the Terminus consider it beneath them to deal with docking personnel. Let me do the talking. And, whatever you do, don't call me Miranda anymore. And do your best to sound like a condescending idiot."
"Bring her in for a landing, Ms. Locke, and be quick about it." I shivered at the faint condescension in his voice. It reminded me too much of my father.
"Not bad. You're a natural."
His cheeks colored slightly. Charming, really. "Spend enough time on Noveria and you pick up a few things. I still wish I was playing the bodyguard."
My response was cut off by the sound of the radio crackling to life. "This is Terric Levenius of the Talon Mercenary Company. Identify yourself."
“Silver Zephyr. We prepaid for bay 5179. Week in advance."
"Stand by." There was a long pause as the turian confirmed our identity. "There's a problem. Docking fees have gone up a hundred credits a day since you made your deposit. We'll expect you to make up the difference or your vessel will be, ah, impounded."
I barely resisted rolling my eyes. Bribery and extortion were facts of life on Omega, more annoyance than danger. And the Talons were providing a more invaluable service than they could possibly know. This wasn't worth getting upset over. "Mr. Seta will be more than happy to pay, in exchange for adequate care for his vessel and cargo."
"Of course. Pleasure doing business with you. 5179 is fourth from the left, closest level from the top." The radio fell silent.
Kaidan raised an eyebrow. "Is it always like this?"
"Welcome to Omega."
"I thought Aria controlled the docking bays on Omega?"
"Most of them, yeah." I shifted in my seat. I'd changed into body armor an hour ago as the autopilot took us toward the Omega-1 relay. I would have preferred something lighter and more flexible, but looking imposing was more important to my current role than my personal comfort. Omega wasn't a subtle place. A bodyguard didn't just need to be deadly; she needed to be obvious about it. "This ship has a bit of a history behind it. The chance of detection is remote, but I'd prefer that Aria never be given the chance to put two and two together and start asking questions."
"What the hell did you do?"
Saved your CO from something far worse than being spaced. "Something I can't talk about right now."
His jaw clenched almost imperceptibly. "You know, the whole 'beautiful woman who never gives the hero a straight answer' thing isn't nearly as attractive in real life."
"Sorry. You get into the habit of being secretive if you work in clandestine services long enough. And I've been doing this half my life." And I was walking a very delicate tightrope. I couldn't risk compromising Cerberus until we had Kaidan firmly on our side, but the necessary secrecy also risked driving him away. "I'll answer any questions I can. Just not about past missions."
"Fair enough." He thought for a moment. "You said you'd been doing this for half your life. The AIS must've recruited you right out of high school. That doesn't seem common."
"It's not." He was even sharper than I'd given him credit for. I couldn't give him the whole truth, of course, but I had promised to be as honest as I could. A trade, then: a little of my privacy for a little of his trust. "I was a genius with computers growing up. I thought I could use my skills to make my fortune here on Omega. That didn't really work out. I had no idea how to survive in the Terminus. I was forced into petty crime—hacking, pickpocketing, the usual—to survive. Some days, even that was barely enough." If I thought hard enough, I could still smell the stench of unwashed bodies and refuse in the back alleys and remember how it felt not to have eaten in two days. How it felt to be desperate. And that I wasn't willing to share. Not yet, and maybe not ever. "Fortunately, I attracted the attention of some very powerful people. And here I am."
His eyes never left my face as I spoke. He was studying me, analyzing me. Almost as if he wanted to know the answer and this wasn't just some stupid power game. "Thank you."
We pulled into the dock. Showtime. Kaidan smoothed a wrinkle from his suit with one hand and used the other to pat the pistol concealed at his side. It was a civilian model, nearly useless against kinetic barriers, but inconspicuous enough that he wouldn't arouse suspicion if someone saw it. Providing firepower was my role, and one that still felt a little strange. Most of the time, having to fire my gun on a job means that I've already screwed up. My sidearm was a bulky Razer that had been loaded with specially designed antipersonnel rounds. Perfect for intimidation and firefights alike. And both of us could rip a man in half with our biotics if necessary. I hoped it wouldn't be.
Levenius was waiting for us when we emerged. He was tall, even for a turian, and carried an assault rifle that could probably blow our heads off from fifty meters away. His face bore the blue and white markings of the Gavog colony. That wasn't the most interesting thing. His mandibles were stained a telltale rose. Levenius was a red sand user, probably a heavy one. Those were a credit a dozen here. Kaidan glowered at him, his expression a near-perfect mask of cold superiority. There was something calculating in his expression, too. I could almost believe that he was the man accustomed to sizing people up so he could determine how best to use and discard them.
I glanced around the room. No visible cameras, listening devices, or windows to the outside world. Not surprising since most of the customers valued privacy above all, but it also meant that there would be no witnesses if things got violent.
"Seven hundred credits," Levenius said. I tossed him seven one hundred credit chips. He counted them up and nodded. "Pleasure doing business with you."
I turned to go, but Kiadan held up a hand. "Not yet, Ms. Locke." He could barely keep the disgust from his voice as he turned to Levenius. "I wonder if our... friend here would be willing to tell us if anything interesting has happened on Omega recently. It's been a while since we've been on the station. We might be a bit out of the loop."
It was all I could do not to show surprise. I'd received our most recent intelligence report on the state of Omega before I left for the Citadel, but the balance of power could shift very quickly indeed. I'd planned to discreetly ask my more trusted contacts to tell me what they could about our target. Erinys was small as mercenary companies went but very well-trained and well armed. They were made up of mostly former asari commandos and STG, and it was rumored they were looking to expand. Kaidan could save me valuable time if he didn't get us of shot.
"I'm not the Omega Tourist Board."
"I know. I'd be willing to compensate you for your time. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bag of red sand. I felt my face grow warm. When had he found the time to grab that? Had he had it on him since the Citadel? Why hadn't I noticed?
Levenius looked from the bag to Kaidan and back again. "What do you want to know?"
Kaidan thrust the bag at Levenius, careful not to actually touch him. He was playing the snobbish businessman to perfection. "I'm hoping to do some business with a group called Erinys. What can you tell me about them?"
"Money grubbing, arrogant bastards. Efficient, though. They've been making inroads in some of the districts that the Blue Suns and Eclipse use as a buffer zone. They've started up a nice little racket in the Anzu District. Prostitution, drugs, the usual. They've been stockpiling weapons like crazy. It's making the Suns nervous."
I bit my lip. The apartment I used as a safe house was in the Anzu District. This mission might prove more interesting than I had planned.
"I'll just bet," Kaidan said. He snapped his fingers at me. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Ms. Locke and I have a business deal to arrange."
Laying it on a bit thick, aren't we? I stepped closer to him all the same. Levenius was eating it up. He gave us a curt nod and exited through a side door. Kaidan kept his eyes trained on him until he left. He didn't relax until the turian was gone, and then only by degrees, as if the tension in his muscles was steam escaping from a valve.
"Cleverly done," I said. "Not bad for an amateur at all."
"Thanks." He frowned slightly. "That last bit was too much, wasn't it? I called you like you were a dog. You didn't deserve that. I'm sorry."
I shrugged. "Just don't overplay your hand. The red sand was a nice touch. Ours? I didn't notice you taking any."
It was his turn to shrug. "I picked some up from the cargo bay the last time I went to the bathroom. Thought it might come in handy if Omega's drug problem is as bad as they say. But I noticed that guy was a duster, I figured it couldn't hurt to use it to get some information out of him." He looked at me with a thoughtful, almost pained expression. “It's the sort of thing Shepard would have done."
Shepard. It always came back to Shepard. He'd accepted this mission right after I'd told him that it was what Shepard would have wanted. There had been rumors that she was more than his superior officer, but I’d never found anything to substantiate them. As best I could tell, they'd barely spoken from the time she defeated Saren until her death. And yet, Kaidan seemed obsessed with living up to her memory. It might have been merely his way of mourning a fallen comrade, but it might have been more. Either way, I was determined to find out. "I'm sure she'd approve."
He smiled, and we set off into the great swirling mass that was Omega.