It is the sleep of the dead. You simmer, dormant, suspended in the hazy soup of warm chemical oblivion.
It is...nice...to Not Be.
And then there is a disturbance. Something moves in the black mist, and like detritus caught in floodwaters you are picked up and swirled around in the murk and there is a thrum in your eardrums and a hole in your stomach and a crust in your throat and the stink of stale ethanol and dried sweat and you piece your fucking self together and string together the web of neurons that has been cursed with metacognition and you are Commander Shepard
You wish you were dead.
Your door is pinging you. The apartment VI, now aware that you are awake, says "There's a Captain Anderson here to see you."
[PAIN THRESHOLD] - It feels like a krogan is repeatedly stomping on your skull. You remain limp on your couch.
The door pings you again.
[ENDURANCE] - You pull yourself up from the couch. Your organs are in revolt. Down with standing up!
[INLAND EMPIRE] - They will storm the Bastille tonight, tearing the demon called metacognition out from your prefrontal cortex, dragging it through the winding grey streets to the guillotine. You shall gladly let it happen.
You pat yourself down; the crumpled clothes you fell asleep in seem to lack any noticeable stains from piss or vomit. This is good enough. You stumble through the dim apartment, reaching blindly for the door, opening it to reveal the bright sterility of the Presidium's false day.
Two men are standing on the external walkway. One of them is Captain David Anderson - former commanding officer, an old friend. The other one you don't recognize - he's shorter than you though not by much. Thinner. Glasses, the lenses thick and round. Dusky orange bomber jacket. Dark green pants. C-SEC badge.
[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] - This man would throw himself in front of a bullet. Just as a matter of course.
ANDERSON - "You look like shit, Shepard."
[EMPATHY] - Sadness and pity behind those words. He doesn't like seeing you like this.
[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] - Cause he never learned how to PARTYYYYYY!
[ESPIRIT D'CORPSE] - Enough. At attention, soldier.
SHEPARD - "I feel like shit, Captain."
The words slur together and come out as a rough croak.
[INLAND EMPIRE] - Like a bullfrog dying in a polluted stream.
Anderson's eyes harden for a fraction of a second.
[ESPIRIT D'CORPSE] - He wants to reprimand you. He holds back.
[EMPATHY] He knows what you've seen. Why your apartment is filled with bottles of Commodore Red.
[COLONIST] - Mindoir.
[WAR HERO] - Elysium.
You glance to Anderson's companion. He shifts his weight slightly from one foot to the other. Not nervously. Extends his hand to shake.
KIM - "Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, Precinct 57."
[SHIVERS] - Precinct 57. Martinaise Ward, on the border of the Revachol Industrial Harbor. A volus merchant frigate just arrived in port. The teamsters cluster at dock, praying that their number is called. Humans, vorcha, krogan, quarian, shoulders hunched and faces sweat-stained, straining to hear the announcement over the tinny speakers. Somewhere, a man is learning of the tumor growing on his pancreas. Lovers, intertwined, share a last few moments in bed, in a studio apartment above a kebab shop. An old vorcha, their mind nearly gone, watches the pigeons. An asari in a dive bar strums a guitar with scarred fingers and starts singing "Solidarity Forever".
You shake his hand best as you can manage. What accent is that, French? It's French.
ANDERSON - "I'm afraid I'm here on official business. May we come in?"
Your mind is still swaddled in its haze, but you're cogent enough to know that whatever Anderson is here for, it can't possibly be good. But you are well past caring about consequences anymore, aren't you?
You nod, invite them into your apartment. You keep the lights dimmed for your own sake, and make a half-effort at clearing a space among old takeout containers, bottles, cans, clothing, garbage. The holo on the wall, having detected additional persons in the apartment, has reverted back to am empty tropical beach - nary an unclad asari to be found.
[ENCYCLOPEDIA] - Asari do not have nipples. They are not mammals.
Neither of your guests sit down. You do, and your swimming head thanks you. Kim wordlessly navigates through the garbage towards the kitchen.
ANDERSON - "Officially, this is a wellness check. Unofficially, we have a crisis brewing on our hands.
Behind you, there's the splash of water from the faucet. Kim returns with a glass.
KIM - "You are going to need this, I think."
[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] - You have known this man for less than ninety seconds and you would die to protect him.
ANDERSON - "Here's the situation as we know it: eighteen hours ago, a geth ship was detected in the Utopia system.
[ENCYCLOPEDIA] - Utopia System, Exodus Cluster. Relay connections to the Arcturus Stream, Horsehead Nebula, Hades Gamma, and so on. Five planets - Arcadia, Eden Prime, Nirvana, Xanadu, Zion. System capital at Eden Prime, planetary population 3.7 million. They put it on postcards.
[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - The core of human-controlled space. The geth shouldn't be anywhere close to it.
ANDERSON - We had one ship in-system at the time, the frigate *Saramiriza*. It was discharging its drive core around Zion when the geth vessel was detected, and so wasn't able to engage immediately. That left the geth ship unopposed on the approach to Eden Prime and allowed it to land ground troops around the Prothean ruins on the southeastern continent. Local security forces and the Alliance garrison were deployed and were able to interrupt the operation. The *Saramiriza* engaged the geth vessel in orbit, at which point it activated its mass effect drive and fled the system. Geth units on the ground self-terminated.
[INLAND EMPIRE] - KA-BOOM!
[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - Typical for the geth. Stranded platforms fry themselves to prevent anything useful falling into enemy hands.
[LOGIC] - This doesn't add up.
SHEPARD - Do we have any theories on their objective?
ANDERSON - Not exactly. The geth forces were seen loading prothean artifacts onto their shuttles when our troopers reached the site, but what they were going after in particular, if they had a specific target, we don't know.
[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - The geth have displayed no prior interest in the protheans. None. They have ignored every ruin site within their sphere of influence, as best as the monitoring posts can tell.
[LOGIC] - This doesn't add up.
ANDERSON - Our troops were able to recover one of the artifacts that the geth were preparing to remove from the site. It's currently in transit, along with the soldiers who recovered it.
SHEPARD - Do you know what it is?
ANDERSON - No.
[INLAND EMPIRE] - A magic box! A ~~ mystery ~~ box!
ANDERSON - All told, there were sixteen casualties on our side. Eleven civilians present at or around the ruins, and five Alliance marines.
[EMPATHY] - Sixteen beds in the morgue.
SHEPARD - This doesn't add up.
ANDERSON - There's one more complication, unfortunately: helmet video from our troops clearly shows Saren Arterius present with the geth on the ground.
[HALF-LIGHT] - FUCK
[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - Spectre. Poster child of the entire operation. Veteran of the Contact War. Well-deserved reputation for brutality. Service record dipped in ink to save time. Outspoken anti-humanist.
SHEPHARD - Did you contact the Council?
ANDERSON - We have. The video was dismissed as a fake, drummed up by one of our many conspiratorial factions as part of anti-Citadel propaganda. As a courtesy, they issued an investigation through C-SEC into Saren's whereabouts. Gave us an alibi less than an hour later. According to them, he has been taking extended leave on Illium for the last four months. They have witnesses, financial records, direct testimony.
[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - And any Spectre would have half a dozen stories like that set aside, just in case.
[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - They know we know, and they don't care. They hold the high ground here. There is no such thing as legal accountability for a Spectre.
ANDERSON - None of this is public information. For the time being, our cover story of a terror attack by protheodeist dominionists is holding up.
[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - Worship of the protheans is not limited to the hanar. Among humans, the movement has intersected neatly with anti-alien and anti-Alliance sentiment. Attacks by far-right Christian-Protheodeist terrorists killed over 1206 people across human space in the last year.
ANDERSON - Udina is furious. He's been eating up the embassy's bandwidth allotment in calls with Arcturus Station. He's desperate for any sort of leverage against the Council.
[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - The Systems Alliance Parliament has been in a stalemate for the last decade, pulled between pro-Citadel and anti-Citadel factions. Prime Minister Ikari has remained neutral so far but word from the clerks is that he's leaning towards the anti-Citadel platform. More extreme proponents have called for withdrawing from the Citadel entirely and pulled out of the Treaty of Farixen.
[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - You know what this is building to...
SHEPARD - What do you need me to do?
ANDERSON - Find evidence of Saren's alliance with the geth. Find out what he is attempting to do. Put a stop to it.
[RENEGADE] - And if necessary, make it look like an accident.
[PARAGON] - Not so soon after the Alliance inquired into him. Too obvious. Can't afford it.
ANDERSON - We won't get help from the Council, and any move the Alliance makes on our own will be under intense scrutiny. You are...I'm afraid you are a deniable asset.
[EMPATHY] - He hates saying that most of all. You are his friend, and he yours, and it is eating him alive to throw you away like this.
[WAR HERO] - You are trapped in a machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.
[COMPOSURE] - You really wish you could cry right now.
[VOLITION] - Later. Focus.
[PARAGON] - Lives at stake.
ANDERSON - We have a cover investigation for you, and Lieutenant Kitsuragi has already been assigned to it. The Normandy and her crew are ready to be transferred back under your command and I've sent further instructions ahead. Operating budget is slim, but it's as much as I can get for you. The rest is up to your discretion.
[ENDURANCE] - You'll make do.
ANDERSON - We'll be in touch. Take care of yourself, Shepard.
And he goes to leave, Kim following behind. You are left alone in your dark apartment, an apartment that cost more than the majority of the galaxy will ever see in their lives, given to you in thanks for the practice of state-sanctioned murder.
[WAR HERO] - A batarian conscript crumples to the cement with a thud, half his head missing.
[WAR HERO] - You hear a gasping voice cry out, begging for his mother.
[WAR HERO] - You can smell burning flesh.
[HALF-LIGHT] - You were magnificent.
[VOLITION] - Hold. Center. Forward, not back. One foot in front of the other.
You stand in the shower for as long as your hot water allotment will allow. You dig decent clothes from out of some storage that hadn't yet been trashed in a blackout rage. Brush your teeth. Drink more water. Put in an order for something cheap and greasy to eat. Drone will bring it. Leave.
Kim is there, on the walkway, looking out over the gardens of the Presidium. Must have stuck around. No sign of Anderson.
He's smoking an actual cigarette. He taps the ashes off, and they fall like faint snowflakes over the railing.
KIM - So. What's the plan?
[RENEGADE] - Hit Saren hard enough that they'll pin a fucking medal on whoever can ID the corpse.
[LOGIC] - Review helmet-camera footage of incident. Get Normandy prepped for departure. Contact Eden Prime survivors and transfer artifact to safe location for study. Interview survivors. Put out feelers. Get team together. Investigate Eden Prime ruin site / reports of geth past the Veil / Saren operations.
SHEPARD - Meet me at the garage in fifteen minutes. We're going down to the Wards on an errand, then to the Normandy. I don't expect that we'll stay on the Citadel for much longer.
KIM - Okay. Meet you then.
He gives you a curt, polite nod, and walks off. You stand there at the railing for a while.
You can feel the fire coming back. Dimly, that half-smothered spark kicks and screams through your alcohol-corroded nervous system.
You have a goal.
[INLAND EMPIRE] - What wonders we have to show you!
You let out a long, death-rattle breath. Try your best to unclench your jaw and loosen your shoulders. You flex your fingers, stretch out your arms.
A goal. A direction to work in.
You can't wait to leave this fucking place.
[SHIVERS] - The asari throws back another shot, re-adjusts herself on the stool, changes chords, moves into a new song.
[SHIVERS] - "There's bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet, no matter where you live..."
[SHIVERS] - You have never met this woman. She wears a red bandanna, though she has no hair. She sews patches into her overalls. Her favorite holo is The Screaming on the Alexis. She has a caricature of Matriarch Benezia stamped on the bottom of her right boot, just in case she steps in dog shit.
[SHIVERS] - The closest you ever came was on January 3rd of this year, where you both went to the same falafel stand in Jamrock two hours and forty-one minutes apart.
[VOLITION] It is time to go to work.