Interlude(2): In the middle of Something
AN -- Thanks to Reikson and Drakependragon
interlude: In the Middle of Something (2)
Xander had been right to let Willow do ‘The Speech’ as the big ‘this-is-what-the-world-is-really-like’ talk sounded better coming from someone brainy.
Giles did it the best; yet another reason Xander missed him.
Toiling near the subdeck afterwards, he heard a scrabbling noise that told him that someone was watch him from behind.
“You don’t really think that you can sneak up on me, do you, Simone?”
“What would I know?” Simone Doffler drawled. “I’m just a simple old farm girl from a colony in the ass-end of space.”
“That might have been of true of whoever owned that body to begin with,” the immortal Scooby said coldly, standing up from where he’d been working.
At her confused frown, he rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know it’s you, Simone. The real you.”
Silence stayed between the two of them for a minute or two. “What gave me away?” she asked finally.
“What, other than the fact that you’re still totally bat-shit crazy?”
“Watch your mouth, Harris, or would you like me to start telling Shepard about all of the little secrets that I’m sure you’ve been keeping?”
“Oh, here we go,” he rolled his eyes. “Five minutes back in the real world and the whole ‘I-am-Slayer-hear-me-roar’ crap rears its ugly head. I could do without it, thanks.”
“It’s not crap,” she snarled, her new omnitool lighting up and making him quirk an eyebrow in spite of himself. “I mean, Slayers have all this power and we’re supposed to waste it defending a bunch of dusty old farts that use us and then throw us away?”
“No, Simone, you’re supposed to use those powers to help people,” he grunted, turning his back on her and making measurements for another shower. “For example, there was that incident on Horizon just now. Didn’t you feel just a teensy bit satisfied for their thanks?”
“What did they
do to deserve my help?” she snapped, her boots clanking back and forth on the subdeck’s floor in her pacing. “You should see what the kid who used to drive this carcass had to put up with, and that was after she became a Slayer.”
“Uh-huh,” was his noncommittal response.
“I won’t trouble your little Watcher brain with all the ways that farmboys like to pass the time, out here in the great wide open.”
“Don’t do me any favors,” the immortal Scooby scoffed, noting some measurements.
“So here’s the deal; you get me someplace safe and I won’t tell your new pet Slayer that you’ve been lying to her.”
“You don’t get it, Simone,” he snapped, still not looking at her. “This isn’t the twenty-first century anymore. You won’t be able to run off and take over a goddamn island like what you did after that armory raid. The Reapers are real, and the Collectors are real. I saw what they want to do to the entire galaxy; there won’t be anywhere out there you can hide.”
“This ain’t one of your damn comic books, Harris.” Simone snapped. “I ain’t risking my neck for a world that hates and fears me.”
“One, I’ve neither hated nor feared you,” he shot back, his omnitool’s flashlight now darting across several pipes. “Two, try to run and you’re as good as dead.”
She grabbed the back of his shirt and slammed him up against the wall, priming a silicon-carbide blade from her own omnitool. “Is that a threat, Harris?”
“No, it’s a promise,” he said coldly, his own hard-light omniblade jabbing her side just hard enough to get her attention. “If you try to leave, you’re dead.”
At her furious glare, he rolled his eyes. “Oh, I don’t mean me and I don’t mean Shepard either. For the record, though, I’ve seen that woman take down things older and more deadly then you can possibly imagine off-hand.”
She scowled, knowing that he wouldn’t make that assertion lightly. “I’m not even talking about the fact that this ship’s packed to the gills with people could give you a run for your money all by themselves. Working together, they could turn you into a messy spot on the wall.”
“Then what are
you talking about?”
“Cerberus, the terrorist group that built this ship?” he pointed out. “It’s run by a guy with the resources to find you and bring you down so he can study you.”
As she grimaced at the idea, he pressed on relentlessly. “I’m betting it’s what he wants to do with Shepard, but he can’t afford to have her working against him yet.”
Pushing away from him, she watched as his own omniblade faded and hers left a steaming shard of metal quickly cooling on the floor. Popping his neck, he added, “Then there are the other Council races, with a collective reach that’s a lot more extensive than you think. Do you really think that they wouldn’t start hunting you?”
Idly picking up the cooled silicon-carbide blade, she spun its tip around the end of her index finger. Xander pretended not to notice how she wasn’t exactly paying attention. “Beyond that, the Reapers are on the march.”
When he noticed her flinch, he moved in for the coup de grâce. “You saw what Harbinger’s capable of, back on Horizon. Do you really think that he’s gonna let you screw with his plans?”
“I’ll run,” she sneered. At his quirked eyebrow, she clarified, “There’s plenty of places a person can get lost in. I heard about one place, Omega-”
“Omega? Only if you’re suicidal,” the immortal Scooby scoffed. “Aria would find you so fast, your head would spin. She’ll give you two choices; work for her or be a grease stain on the floor.”
She scowled. Xander could out-talk her then, and he hadn’t lost his touch now. “No matter how far you run, the Reapers will find you when they get here.”
Twisting the misericorde, he went for the kill. “If Shepard loses, they’ll destroy you.”
“What do you want, Watcher?” Simone seethed.
He shrugged noncommittally. “Fight for Shepard, you stay alive; plain and simple.”
“If I fight for you, you gotta do something for me.”
“No, I don’t.” He shook his head, making her scowl ferociously. “There’s nothing about this scenario in which you have power here.”
“No deal you can cut, no trick you can play…” her lips curled back into a familiar snarl at his words. “Either you fight for Shepard or you don’t, and she’ll punt you off the ship.”
He found himself enjoying this way too much. He hadn’t been able to give Simone a decent dressing-down before she’d died, never mind before she’d killed Senator Ward. “Then it’s open season on your ass. This ship is quite literally the only place in the galaxy where you’ll be safe.”
“So… what, I get to be a good little Slayer and train and practice for the meat grinder?”
“Training requires trust and you don’t trust me.” He sneered. “Why the Hell would I waste my time trying to train you?”
Gesturing all around them, he added, “I’ve got my hands full just keeping this ship running and helping Shepard. Catering to your paranoia any more than strictly necessary is more trouble than it’s worth.”
Simone gaped at his venom. “What the Hell happened to you?”
“I grew up, Simone. You might want to look into it, could do you some good.”
With his piece said, he stalked out of the subdeck.
Jack watched Willow carefully as the witch's hair bled white. “Okay, I gotta ask; what the Hell are you doing? Is this some kinda witchy thing?”
The redhead smiled slightly as she stretched her fingers forward and the air around them started to move. “I like to think of it as… redecorating. Think of it as Extreme Makeover: Normandy Edition.”
“Ah, reality TV. Unlike Xander, I actually miss some of the better shows.”
Jack watched as loose bits of scrap began to twist and whirl through the launch deck. Blue and white electrical discharges flashed around the room as the scrap melted, twisted, and warped themselves into circular shapes before suddenly slamming itself down upon the floor with great force. She had little doubt that moving the scrap metal, never mind melting and twisting them into shapes while still in midair, would've required more power than what she had on her.
So it was with quite a bit of awe that the bald biotic watched the metal segments slowly build themselves into a series of circles that had been inscribed on the floor.
“It’s a training circle,” the redhead shrugged. “It’s meant to focus a student's perceptions, to let them focus and concentrate their energies on who they're supposed to fight. This design will give them the tools needed to defeat that opponent. Mind you, me and Xander? We got this idea from some old vid, so we couldn't tell you who came up with this idea in the first place.”
“Sounds kinda like pussy-work to me.” Jack shrugged.
“Spoken like someone who doesn't know how to fight. Well, not really.”
“You kiddin’ me? I know how to fight,” the biotic anarchist snapped.
“Really? Bet you I can take you down without raising a hand,” the redhead offered lightly.
“You’re on, bitch!” Jack snarled, hurling a blast of biotics at Willow. The redhead simply bitch-slapped the blast into stardust, still with that thin smile on her face.
Jack hurled one bolt after another, and Willow kept slapping them into glitter as she slowly advanced on the bald biotic.
“Biotics are very impressive to a first-timer,” the redhead nodded, eldritch fire dancing off of her fingers. “But when you’ve been in the game for as long as I have? You learn that biotics are really just a simple way of redistributing mass with dark energy-assisted gravitic manipulation thrown in for a show.”
“Don't get me wrong, they're handy,” she shrugged. “But a witch learn those sorts of tricks first off, while a powerful witch masters these techniques… Me? I’m a really, really
Scowling, Jack threw up a barrier. Willow simply reached out and actually sank her fingers into the barrier itself. Then her eyes darkened and Jack suddenly felt a heavy weight pressing down on her body, forcing her to her hands and knees.
“W- what are you-?” the biotic gurgled, barely able to breathe under the sheer weight of the force now threatening to force her to the floor and pulverize her ribs.
Willow cocked her head to one side. She liked seeing Jack on her hands and knees, but then again Xander had found her first. “Witch magic 101; energy cannot be created or destroyed, it simply passes from one state to another.”
Jack managed to look up at her opponent, surprised at the impromptu science lesson. “You’d be surprised at just how much the laws of physics and thermodynamics apply to magic. All the stuff that seems impossible? It’s just displays of physics and thermodynamics that nobody’s been able to explain yet,” the redhead shrugged.
“What I did here with you is that I took all of the energy that you threw at me and redistributed it.” Jack was surprised. That sort of thing was something that only a biotic powerhouse Asari could've possibly pulled off and look like they were doing something simple.
“Right now, I’ve inverted the gravitic fields of your barrier, reversing its outward repulsion effect into an overpowered internal containment field that's actually trying to compress your body. The domed shape of this barrier is why you’re on your hands and knees; if it'd been a ball, you'd simply be suspended in midair.”
The weight crashing down upon her was immense, as though a ship was trying to land itself on her. Never mind that she could only just keep herself propped up, but Willow's stunt with her barrier was something that no Asari matriach could do. It was only through sheer strength of will that she managed to look up at her tormentor, the all-powerful bitch with the ghostly-white hair and the eyes as black as space staring down at her.
Willow crouched down next to Jack's prostrate form, resting a knee on the floor as she kept her hand on the barrier. “So, we haven't had much of a chance to talk lately. You don't mind if I do the whole ‘overprotective-best-friend’ thing and ask you what the Hell you think you're doing with Xander?”
“I-” Jack grunted, gritting her teeth from the sheer effort of talking under such conditions. “I'm not… doin’ anythin’… with Xander.”
“Not yet you’re not, but I’ll bet that you’ve had some naughty thoughts in your head for a while now. Shirtless Xander thoughts… am I right?” Willow pressed.
“I get it, though,” the redhead mused, not waiting for an answer. “He’s a great guy. But he’s also kind of a doofus when it comes to women, he doesn't see how problematic someone like you could be.”
“What the fuck's that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, that you’re dangerous
,” Willow snarled, her eyes flashing a demonic red for a split second as she spat that last word out in a diabolical growl. Closing her eyes and shaking her head, she shook off her anger. “Yes, you’ve had a horrible life, and it's left you with hate and rage, and there’s a part of you that's looking to take out that anger out on the rest of the galaxy. I understand that feeling more then you can possibly ever know, but Xander isn’t like the guys that screwed you over. Remember that. Please.”
“Okay, I get it. Xander’s a nice guy and I’m prison trash. Fine, I’ll stay away.”
“Oh, goddess…” Willow sighed. “Jack, I don’t want you to stay away from Xander. If you’re seriously interested in him, then I want you together. Hell, I'd want you to bang him until his brains come out his ears like pudding.”
Jack’s scowl changed to a look of surprise at this apparent permission, but Willow was too busy talking to notice. “No, what I’m saying is that if you’re one of those stupid girls who’s so angry that you can’t handle being around a nice guy, then walk away and leave before it gets any further. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I get it,” the bald biotic grumbled.
“Good!” the witch exclaimed, suddenly all perky. "Because if you forget this talk and you hurt him, you and I are gonna have another talk. That particular conversation won’t be all friendly and supportive like this one; it’ll be very unpleasant.”
Reaching out, Willow pulled Jack to her feet and the weight threatening to pulverize her suddenly vanished at the witch’s touch.
“How’d you do that?”
“You want to learn?”
“You’d teach me? But I thought…”
“Xander’s my oldest and bestest friend. Of course I’m gonna mark my territory. But we now understand each other, don’t we?”
Jack looked at her and then chuckled. “I’ll say this for you guys, shit don’t get boring around you.”
“That they don't.” Willow agreed.
The Shadow Broker’s office, for all that its huge data access terminals also framed an awe-inspiring view of the Hagalaz sunset, was little more than a secondary access node for the greatest secrets of the Shadow Broker.
After days of searching, Liara T’Soni had eventually discovered a secret room filled with haptic interfaces, QEC grids and floating displays.
She stood in the center of the room as her fingers moved through the data nodes, watching information on the entire galaxy flow in and be cataloged in the ship’s massive databases.
“Your agents on Illium have sighted Matriarch Aethyta accompanying an individual that has been identified as Matriarch Benezia with ninety-eight percent certainty.” An annoying and unfortunately too-familiar voice droned at her.
She sighed, rubbing at her eyes wearily. She hadn’t slept in days, and the strain was getting to her. “Thank you, info drone,” she said finally.
Remembering what she’d only recently learned, she shuddered involuntarily as a certain idea came to mind. “Inform all Illium assets that they are to maintain their distance and are not to engage those two. If half the stories I’ve heard about them over the years are true, then the only thing that’s more disturbing than what they might be doing together, is what they might do to anyone that disturbs them.”
“At once, Shadow Broker,” the drone affirmed. “Per your instructions, I have archived all video surveillance taken on Horizon. Would you like to go over it now?”
“No. Catalogue the data and contact one of our agents at ANN, see that Emily Wong gets a copy. I think she’ll know what to do.”
“Should a copy be sent to Westerlund News as well, Shadow Broker?”
“Yes, but make sure to leave a half-hour lag between both dispatches. I’m sure it won’t take Miss al-Jilani long to spin saving colonists into something bad.”
A blessedly-silent few minutes passed as Liara shuffled through reams of data. As always, there was too much information to sift through. Exhaustion tugged at her eyes as she found herself longing for a bed. Preferably with Shepard waiting for her in it, but…
“Shadow Broker,” an all-too familiar and annoying voice suddenly broke the blissful moments of silence. “Trevor Phillips Junior, a person of interest, has been seen returning to his hotel suite on Illium with two persons of interest.”
Pinching the bridge of her nose, desperate to ward off the sudden migraine, she snapped blindly, “I don’t care about his decadent depredations.”
“Noted, Shadow Broker.” The drone said blandly.
Then she noticed a file with a strange tag blinking steadily. Her attempt to access it was blocked off, sealed away and only accessible with an encryption key that she did not know.
“Info-drone, why is this file sealed and encrypted?”
“The sealing was conducted at your request, Shadow Broker, and you personally encrypted those files with a programming language that I have not been able to decipher.”
“I’d never-” then she trailed off. There was one person who could’ve pulled off something so sophisticated. “Info-drone, is there any surveillance footage of my encryption request?”
“Of course. Would you like to review footage now?”
“Yes, drone. Display.”
A screen lit up. Liara blinked as she watched Willow lying down in the Normandy's medbay.
At first glance, the red-haired human seemed to be doing nothing.
But on closer inspection, her eyes were milky-white, indicating that she was working her technomagic.
“So… you were remote-accessing the files using your technomancy…” Liara growled. “Info-drone, display all encrypted files.”
Willow had locked Liara out of an entire section of files. In comparison to the total amount of data that she had to look through, they were but the most meager of portions. But the sheer brazenness of the act was what really infuriated her. “Find non-encrypted files with data related to the encrypted data.”
“This will take a few moments. In the meantime, Operative Feron would like to speak with you. Perhaps you can attend to him while I collate data.”
Liara turned to see Feron waiting behind her. “The news from the Citadel systems is chaotic,” he croaked. “I have no idea how, but the Normandy crew just went from ‘under the radar’ to ‘high-profile’ in about the time it took me to say this sentence.”
“I’ll have the drone process all high-priority Council species communiqués and monitor the extranet.” Liara instantly scrambled to a nearby console.
Tapping commands into it, she added, “Maybe we can find out what the other races are doing before they try and interfere with Joan’s mission.”
“I’ll try and work some leads.” Feron nodded. “There’s an info-dealer on Omega that I know. He’s a Salarian, and not what I’d call trustworthy, but he’s well-informed.”
“Thank you, Feron, I appreciate your help,” she sighed, massaging her brow again to try and ward off a migraine. “This would’ve been a lot harder if you weren’t helping me.”
“It’s my pleasure,” he croaked, wincing slightly at the phantom pains still running through his body. “I’m grateful to you, and your efforts. I want to help as much as I can.”
“Feron, I know that you’ve been through a lot. I’ll understand if you need more time before going back to work.”
“I’m fine, Liara,” he waved her off, starting to walk towards another distant console. “I… I want to work. I need to work. When I sit around for too long, I… I start to think that I’m back in that chair again.”
Liara stared sadly after his retreating form, regretting that he’d been hurt. What she also regretted was her need to learn as much about the resource that she had taken control of; which meant that she couldn’t afford to lose Feron if he was willing to help.
“What about the crew? Any problems among the surviving mercenaries?”
Feron shook his head. “They all think that Shepard and the Broker came to an understanding. The story is that Shepard’s giving the Broker access to Cerberus in return for calling off his feud with you. They seem to have accepted it.”
“It amuses them to think of Joan being on the Shadow Broker’s leash,” she mused. A brief moment of inspiration from Xander’s off-hand comments and Joker’s extranet bookmarks provided a certain image that had her shivering with desire before she shook off her lust. “I need to find excuses to send them away one by one until it’s just us. I don’t need a few dozen mercs with a grudge guarding my back.”
“We might need new guards, though. People we can trust,” he pointed.
“I’ll go through the databases. I’m sure Willow was spec’ing people for just such an occurrence.”
“Is there a problem?” Feron looked concerned.
“Willow’s locked me out of several systems and files,” she shook her head. “It shouldn’t take long to crack her encryption, but what really galls me is that Xander has Joan all but convinced that Willow’s trustworthy and then she goes and does something like this.”
“I have to admit, encrypting the internal network goes against protocol,” the Drell shook his head. “I’m sure Willow had a reason.”
“I am, too, but until the Normandy returns, I don’t know what that reason is.”
Feron turned to regard her with concern. “I’m… I’m going to check on the men. I’ll start seeing to their departures.”
Liara stared at the files in front of her until she heard the door close. Only then did she glance up at the door. Feron was emotionally vulnerable; he needed a friend, someone that he could be close to.
Someone who wasn’t her.
Liara barely understood her own emotions about Joan, so dealing with the Drell’s crush…
“Data collation complete, Shadow Broker,” the VI-shell reported. “Would you like to review its contents?”
“Yes. Thank you, infodrone.”
On her terminal screen, several files were displayed. Going through them one-by-one, Liara noticed that Willow had been focusing on genealogical data for a long time.
Then she frowned when she noticed that the redhead been particularly interested in certain genealogical datafeeds from Thessia. Given that the Asari Republics were known to track non-Asari unions, ostensibly to ease bureaucratic movement for their own people, nobody would take a second look at the data.
What the galaxy didn’t know was that the Asari government tracked all Asari/non-Asari unions in order to see which types of unions produced particularly-strong biotics.
Liara frowned as she realized that Willow had been tracking these births and cross-referencing the human partners in Asari-Human unions against data from her encrypted files.
“Send a message to Joan Shepard, her eyes only. I need her back here as soon as possible.”