A/N: I've just recently finished playing the Mass Effect franchise for the first time last week, and I thought, 'Hey, this is some really good science fiction stuff'. My mind then shifted to the other science fiction game I've been playing last month, in Classic Ironman mode, and thought 'Hey, wouldn't it be really cool if I combined these sci-fi goodness into one really neat package, starting with Mass Effect 2?'

And that's how this fic is born.

Of course, here's the mandatory, most important Commander Shepard details: (note: I'm shocked. shocked, at how common a male Shepard with a Colonist+War Hero background is in fanfictions, and how common the first name 'John' is too. In an effort to be different, I changed some details of Shepard's background significantly, but I hope it doesn't ruin the story)

First Name: Andrei

Background: Colonist, War Hero

Class: Infiltrator (a little bit of a mix between the Sniper and Spy class from TF2, with some tech skills thrown in).

Who did he save on Virmire?: Ashley (Kaidan is just too darned average, Ash makes for a better soldier).

Did he save the Council?: He did. Such a loyal Spectre he is.

Who did he put in the Council to represent humans?: Anderson, of course.

Did Ashley or Liara go up to his cabin before Ilos for a cuddle?: Nope, he's a little too busy checking over his equipment and updating his insurance.

Does he have some notable personality quirks?: Yes, he used to hate batarians, but he tries to be better. He also likes freezing temperatures and wintry environments. He perceives himself as something of a big game hunter, which he (sort of) was back in Mindoir.

Well, there you have it. Enjoy.

Extradimensional Assistance

Chapter I: Hello, Commander

En-Route to Triton Station, March 29th, 2185, 17:51 Terran Coordinated Universal Time

He idly fiddled with the safety lock of his sniper rifle as he opened his mouth to talk. "Could you tell me more about this…" He searched his mind for the two words he was looking for, observing his two 'friends' all the while. "…'Lazarus Project', of yours?"

She was quite wary of answering the commander's question, but yet she soldiered on, knowing well that earning his trust would be vital to her group's ultimate goal. "The Lazarus Project; an exorbitant venture that took two years and four billion credits to bring a single soldier back from the grip of death, formulated by a human-survivalist organization infamously known as Cerberus."

The former Systems Alliance Commander Andrei Shepard was reminded once again as to whom he owes his life. "Yeah, I get it. While we're busy fighting our way out of the station, your partner over there told me who you are already." The commander uneasily shifted on his shuttle seat, more than a little puzzled as to why Cerberus bothered to revive an enemy soldier.

Cerberus Operative Miranda Lawson spared an annoyed glare at her partner, Jacob Taylor. The dark-skinned former Alliance Marine tried hard not to flinch under her withering stare. "I think he deserves to know." He squeaked out. "After all, we're supposed to be stuck with him, right?"

Miranda ignored Jacob and shifted her attention back to Shepard. "Look, I know you have several questions that you're itching to ask, but before you do, I'll have to conduct a memory test to see if the project could be considered a success or not."

"Is this really necessary, Miranda?" Jacob carefully asked. "Way I saw Shepard fight, the project was more than a success."

Miranda's answer was swift. "Bloody hell it is. Normally, a team of scientists should conduct numerous different tests on the commander for weeks on end – not to mention a few months of physiotherapy, mental conditioning and extensive combat training. But since we don't have that option anymore, this'll have to suffice."

Shepard wasn't sure himself if his personality and his memories remained intact after his brush with death, so he decided to get the test over and done with. "Alright then, lay it on me."

"Right." The operative took a lungful of recycled air as she reviewed Shepard's background from a datapad. "You were born on the colony of Mindoir. You were raised mostly by your Russian grandfather, who hunted large game for a living; which is where you've acquired your skills as an expert marksman and tracker. Unfortunately, you were right there when your whole family, your grandfather included, was massacred by batarian slavers in 2170. Alliance records state that you and your grandfather provided sniper support for the marines tasked with defending the colony, which resulted in the old man's death after he was singled out by another enemy sniper. Is that right?"

Shepard instantly remembered. He would never forget the dreadful day that turned his idyllic, peaceful existence into an unrecognizable mess of a life.

After a prolonged silence, he mustered enough strength to talk. "…That's right; I remember using my old hunting rifle to defend my family's estate from the balcony. For several hours, I shot quite a few of them before a squad of marines arrived to relieve me. I was sixteen back then, and I was really scared during the whole thing. In fact, I was so terrified, that more than once did my shaking hands mess up my aim. But by the end of the day, I wasn't scared anymore. I've got nowhere else to come back to, so I enlisted with the marines the first opportunity I've got." The commander paused; taking a sharp breath before his features gradually adopted a gloomy expression. "…My dedushka, he died well. He probably couldn't have asked for a better way to go than passing away in his sleep. He always hated picturing himself that."

Jacob was impressed, yet found himself troubled at Shepard's words. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry, commander. I know what it's like to lose someone you looked up to, but that's nothing compared to losing your whole family as well."

The commander chuckled quietly to himself to shake his mind away from his past, which he already had partial success in moving on. "It's okay, Taylor. That happened a long time ago, and unless you're actually the one who killed my family, you've got nothing to apologize about."

Jacob did a half-smile, but the memories of his own father disappearing still lingered on his mind. "I doubt that I'd be engaging in piracy while I'm still in my teens; too busy thinking about getting laid to think about those sorts of things."

"Uh-huh. On the other hand, I was too busy running away from giant boar-mammoth-bear things while my grandfather, who was supposed to shoot the damn thing, sits back with a bottle of wodka and laughs at me." The two former soldiers shared a short-lived chuckle, only stopping when the other occupant of the shuttle slapped the back of Jacob's head.

"Are you two quite done?" Miranda interposed. "I've still got a few more questions for Shepard, and we don't have much time before we receive our first objective from the Illusive Man."

Shepard was getting rather tired of Miranda's attitude, but he kept himself from doing anything rash. After all, he has quite a lot of questions for Cerberus' leader. "Make it quick, then."

Before continuing, Miranda stared Jacob down again. "Fairly early in your military career, you were on shore leave in the colony of Elysium in 2176, which was… regrettably, chosen as the site of an invasion by a collection of mercenaries and pirates. You rallied your fellow marines into repulsing the enemy force until allied reinforcements arrived. You were hailed as a hero on that day, dubbed as the 'White Death', by Alliance propagandists, and you've earned yourself the Star of Terra; the highest honor a soldier could achieve in the Alliance military. Is that correct?"

"Yeah, that's true, but not in the way that I remembered it." Inwardly, Shepard frowned. The Alliance sure loved to sugar-coat the harsh realities of war. "When I saw batarians among the turians, I lost control of myself. I ignored how many of them are there, or how much of my own blood and my fellow soldiers I've lost." The commander's tone was solemn, as if recalling his actions distressed him. "I just mindlessly rushed in and killed them in the most violent ways my mind could ever come up with. My thoughts were so consumed by hatred and bloodlust that I didn't even notice that the rest of my comrades were cheering and praising me on as I killed..." Shepard heaved a mournful sigh. "They shouldn't have. They should've knocked me on the head and hauled my ass back to safety; I was breaking formation after all, not mention that I am a designated marksman; I'm supposed to be as far away from the enemy as possible, not engage them in melee. And after the attack, they gave me medals and called me a hero. In other circumstances, they would've court-martialed me for insubordination called me a lunatic."

Miranda hummed and droned as she listened to Shepard's account of the Skyllian Blitz, seemingly aloof and uninterested, which was unsurprising. After he concluded his story, she seemed to be satisfied. "Why did they choose your title of 'White Death', anyway? Last I've checked, there are no less than a couple of thousand Terminus pirates with that moniker."

Shepard shrugged. "To be honest, I don't really know. Maybe it's because I always wore the winterized version of the Alliance's standard-issue anti-projectile armor, or how I seem to prefer being assigned to colonies like Noveria, Valhalla or New Scandinavia."

The Cerberus operative absent-mindedly glanced over Shepard's form on his seat. Indeed, he had somehow acquired a suit of winterized N7 armor, which he had probably taken from the Lazarus Station's armory, abandoning the normal, unmodified one he was issued in the medbay earlier. In almost all aspects, the winterized N7 armor is quite similar to its unmodified version, but it had a built-in heating system that lets the wearer survive for indefinite amounts of time in even Noveria's harsh blizzard-infested weather, as well as a white camouflage pattern to hide the wearer in the snowy environment.

"Is that cloak standard-issue as well?" Asked Jacob, looking at the object in hand attached to Shepard's armor.

"For designated marksmen of my caliber, yeah." Said Shepard. "This isn't just an ordinary cloak. If I find myself unable to use my tactical cloak module for some reason, this cloak is made with precisely nine-thousand and one interweaving ribbons of light-absorbing, color shifting material which name I find hard to pronounce."

Jacob nodded, and Miranda opened her mouth to talk again. "I've got just one more question for you, Shepard. Are you ready?"

The commander sank on his seat again. "Sure. Fire away, Lawson."

"Do you know anything about Cerberus, like what we do, or what we're after? We brought you back to life, so do you trust us?"

Of course, the third part about Miranda's question was just her trying to see if Shepard suffered brain damage. If he did say 'yes', then the project would be considered a failure, no questions asked.

Shepard had been expecting this question, and he answered readily and without hesitation. As he talked, his piercing, analytic eyes glared at Miranda, making sure he has her undivided attention. "Cerberus is an organization that believes that humanity ought to have a greater, more powerful role in the galactic community, and that the Alliance is too bogged down by red tape and public opinion to actually stand a chance against the Council." The commander's facial features contorted into a stern, disapproving look. "From what I've personally seen, you'll do whatever it takes to reach your goal, no matter how unethical or wrong your methods are. I think you already know if I trust you or not."

If Miranda was either pleased or irritated at the commander's answer, she did not show it. In fact, she did not show any emotion at all, as evidenced by the tone of her voice. "That settles it, then. You're still a hundred percent of your old self. I can now safely say that the Lazarus Project is a resounding success."

Jacob could do nothing but roll his eyes as he nursed his head. He took another look outside the shuttle. The former marine smiled at what he saw behind it. "That's the station over there. Load up, people, we're here."

Triton Station, 18:27 TCUT

Commander Shepard walked away from the room after his talk with the Illusive Man. After getting a good look at the man's eyes and noticing how he acts like he's on top of everything, Shepard couldn't help but feel a little wary of anything related to Cerberus.

Miranda and Jacob were in a middle of a conversation when they saw Shepard heading for the shuttle again. They assumed that he already knew what to do, so they followed him.

"How'd it go, Shepard?" Asked Jacob, trying to make a good impression of Cerberus by acting nice.

"He wants us to investigate a colony called 'Freedom's Progress', which was recently attacked, from what I've heard. The three of us are going to look for clues to determine who or what were the perpetrators of the attack." The commander answered as he slipped on his helmet, taking a seat inside the shuttle as he did so.

"We've got our orders from the Illusive Man, but what are your orders for the mission, Shepard?" Asked Miranda, trying to be as forthright as possible.

The commander's answer was quick and straightforward. "If you two see any survivors, try to protect them if there's danger present." He took his rifle from his back, which unfolded on his lap. "But if you're given a choice of saving civilians or completing the mission, you'll go for the mission. It always comes first."

This time, Miranda gave a faint smile, which the commander recognized as approval. "Anything else the Illusive Man told you?" She asked.

Shepard sat silent for a second. He thought of ways to condense the Illusive Man's secondary orders to Miranda and Jacob. "Yeah… there is something else. He also told me about some strange readings his scouts found on the colony's general area. Your boss wants us to investigate two locations: one's a few meters west of Gallagher Street, and another one in a courtyard near our LZ."

That was the best he could think of without making it sound utterly ridiculous.

The Cerberus operative shrugged, finding nothing out of the ordinary. "That's hardly a cause for concern. Let's get it done."

"That's not all, though." Shepard continued, giving Miranda an annoyed look behind his helmet. "The Illusive Man also thought that there's something highly dangerous lurking in those areas, so he'll be giving us two six-man squads of his field operatives as support," He then gave the same look to Jacob. "Meaning that he'll have more eyes on me." The commander sighed, from a combination of fatigue and remorse at the situation he was in, knowing that he couldn't do anything much but cooperate with what used to be his enemy. "Great."

Downed Skyranger, Gallagher Street, Freedom's Progress, 19:57 TCUT

"T1.5 PE systems rebooted and online."

A faint, soothing hum could be faintly heard.

"Elerium reserves at 99.17 percent capacity. Synthetic muscle strands functioning properly. Slight operational damages to chestplate, faceplate and left gauntlet detected. Beginning field repairs. Tactical assessment: Good to go."

The soldier slowly came back into consciousness.

"Welcome back, Echo Two."

The first things that he saw were his armored feet, which were magnetically locked to the Skyranger's floor. Soon enough, a detailed, blue-tinted medical report of himself popped up on his vision behind his helmet's visor, delivered by his Titan V1.5 Powered Exoframe's built-in AI.

"The damages to your chestplate and your left gauntlet have been temporarily remedied with alien epoxy." The cheerful, synthesized female voice of the AI chirped as the soldier kept reading the medical report. "The faceplate has been too damaged to repair; recommend a swift end to current operation so proper repairs could commence at Dr. Shen's workshop."

He studied the report for a moment before willing it away; besides a couple of cracked ribs, some bruises that'll undoubtedly start to sting later and some minor lacerations on some parts of his body, the information indicated that he will be fine, more or less, so he thanked God for the rapid-acting regenerative gene-mods his body possessed. After a while, he realized that he was looking down, so with difficulty, he righted his head and scrutinized his surroundings. He couldn't see very well because of some cracks on his helmet's faceplate, as well as a few pieces of dirt and grime picked up from his last mission, but he could see well enough to dismiss the issue.

The soldier could see all five his teammates for the ill-fated mission he partook in were still settled secure to their seats, their heads hung low. He couldn't tell if they're still alive or not, so he asked the AI for the answer.

"Echo Two and Five are still in operation." The AI's voice gave him the news. "Echo One, Three, Four and Six do not possess any lifesigns, as well as Little Sky. Tactical assessment: Operation Event Horizon is in extreme danger of failing. Recommend a change in tactics. With the death of Little Sky, exfiltration is rendered impossible. Good luck, agents."

Echo Two frowned bitterly and sighed; it's only him and a single squadmate left. He slowly reached for the side of his helmet and pushed the tiny knob labelled 'AI', silencing the voice for the moment. Next, he pushed another knob hidden under a compartment on his armor's thigh, which was labelled 'Unlock Armor'.

The armor made a metallic clunking sound. Moments later, his feet didn't feel like they were bolted in place anymore, and the fluidity of the his limbs returned, allowing him to easily tear off his seatbelt with a gauntleted hand, augmented by the extra strength provided to him by his armor, along with the strength-enhancing gene-mods implanted to his body. He stood up and cautiously removed his deceased teammates' holo-tags as a sign of respect, muttering his farewells as he did so. First was Echo One, or as she was named: Claire Wilson, the Irishwoman. She was Echo Squad's highest-ranking member at colonel, so it was natural that she was the leader. It had helped that she also possessed the 'Gift', as indicated by a small, purple-hued, ornate badge shaped like a human skull permanently attached to her armor's chest area. In addition, she was also a Category Beta Plus – the third-highest category for ranking Gifted individuals.

The second was Lieutenant Gerard Buskirk, or Echo Three. He was the team's Dutch corpsman, and at the age of fifty-three, the oldest one as well. He was not the nicest person around, not by a longshot, but his age didn't stop him from doing really insane stunts to keep the team alive, such as running across a field to attend to an injured rookie without any sort of cover while Mutons and Floaters take potshots at him.

Next was Lieutenant Amitabh Gasebonwe, the team's South African CQC specialist. Instead of being previously an enlisted soldier like the rest of the squad, Amitabh was just an exceptionally athletic civilian recruited by his organization who just happened to have a really good aim with a shotgun.

The last member of Echo Squad whom had since passed on was Sergeant Xiao Chen Li, who was designated as Echo Six, the newest member of the squad. She supposedly had really good technical expertise, in addition to her role of providing suppressing fire, but she didn't live long enough to show her skills.

After the solemn deed was over and done with, Two undid Echo Five's seatbelt and carried her out of the Skyranger, into the outskirts of a small Swiss town, from what Central had told everyone just before they jumped off the Skyranger.

Two stood still as he stepped out of the aircraft, shielding his eyes from a lamppost's glare. After his eyes adjusted to the light, He took a quick, cursory look at his environment for a while. From his observation, the place certainly doesn't exactly look like a town. Instead, it looks like a temporary hab-station of some sort, like what scientists use as shelter in the field. However, the area proved desolate; devoid of any and all signs of life besides a few scattered sheets of paper on the ground here and there.

So this is what Switzerland really looks like.

Remembering that he still has a wounded teammate in his arms, he soon smothered the disappointed feeling within the pit of his stomach and walked off to find a place to set Five down to check the extent of her injuries.

Two found a good spot after a minute's worth of walking. He laid Five against a concrete wall and removed her helmet. She is holding relatively stable, but she is unconscious, no doubt because of the crash. Her condition might deteriorate without proper medication, and their current location might not be as safe as it appeared, so the soldier concluded that he needed his weapon. He walked back to the Skyranger to retrieve his gun, a Snapdragon Mk. IV Plasma Minigun. The Snapdragon is connected to a specially designed backpack that provides the necessary power needed to fire the gun in full-auto. Normally, the Snapdragon is to be mounted on aircraft and used as an air-to-air weapon, but Two's extraordinary size and strength allowed him to use the hulking weapon like a normal squad-support firearm, at the cost of sacrificing the ability to carry a Blaster Launcher.

To his relief, Two found the gun to be mostly unharmed where he left it: inside a large, locked compartment near the seat closest to the exit. He put the backpack on and carried the weapon itself on his arms, savoring the grip's familiar metallic touch on his fingers. Since he could afford to carry much more, Two also seized an Avocet-pattern alloy cannon from the Skyranger floor, attaching the mag-lock to his hip. If he managed to run out of power on his chargepack, he'd have another weapon to use besides his pistol. Without much hesitation, he left the Skyranger to tend to Five, feeling safer than ever now that he had something to defend the remnants of Echo Squad with.

When he returned to the unconscious markswoman's location, however, he nearly had a heart attack.

Converging on Five's position are a small fireteam of what looked like bipedal humanoid robots with two red circles on where their faces should be. The robots were all armed with pistol-like firearms from a design that the soldier had never seen before.

Running noiselessly to Five's unconscious form, the soldier dragged her by her armor's collar to cover behind an overturned, oddly-designed dumpster, just in case these robots turn out to be the newest type of attack drones made by the Ethereals.

Silently, Two opened up a radio channel using his helmet's built-in comm-bead. He tried to call for Xenobane Squad, which was in another Skyranger. Judging from what he saw from his own aircraft's windows as it plunged to the ground, Xenobane Squad's Skyranger had a clipped, heavily damaged wing, as well as a missing tail rotor. It was safe to assume that they'd be stranded on this location with Echo Squad.

"Xenobane Lead, this is Major Heinrich," He said, with a pronounced German accent. "Everyone in Echo is dead except for me and Claudia, and she's out cold at the moment. It looks like I'm about to go in combat again, so if you're there, I'd really appreciate it if you'd try finding us. I'm in…" Schafer studied a nearby street sign, licking his lips when he saw that it was in English and in three other languages he can't recognize. "A street called Gallagher. This is Heinrich, over and out."

Setting his message out in a repeating loop, Heinrich checked his weapon for ammo, which he found to be at 48% charge, to his relief. It was probably more than enough to dispatch these robots.

"Lifeform detected. Searching…" A mechanical voice pierced the silence. Heinrich tensed up and brought his weapon downrange, ready to fire.

Clanking sounds were heard, becoming louder and louder each second. One of the robots turned its head to see Heinrich pointing his weapon's barrel end at it. It stopped on its tracks like a deer on the path of an incoming truck. It studied the soldier for a split-second before saying: "Unauthorized lifeform spotted." It raised its pistol and fired, forcing Heinrich to dive into cover behind a metal crate. "Please vacate the premises immediately. A fine of five hundred credits will be issued to you momentarily."

Heinrich was left dumbfounded as the bullets pinged behind the crate he was hiding behind. It was talking in English and was warning me to go away as it gave me a fine? He doesn't have any time to ponder about that, though; there's a fight that needed winning. The major waited for the guns to stop firing before popping out of cover and squeezing his Snapdragon's firing stud, optimistic about his weapon's effectiveness against his new enemy.

Brilliant green plasma fire in the dozens emerged from the minigun's barrel with a swooshing sound, engulfing the closest of the hostile machines, which promptly fell apart in several scorching pieces. The major arched both of his eyebrows in amazement at that one. He was expecting the robots to be promptly destroyed by plasma fire, but not that easily; these ET-made robots are rather fragile.

The three remaining robots took the 'death' of their comrade with little care as they continued marching forwards, firing their weapons without any intention of finding cover. It turns out, not only are these robots delicate, but their programming is stupid as well, as if the Sectoids who made them just didn't care. Heinrich also learned quickly that the robots' pistols were of little use to his armor, so he opted to just finish the fight then and there.

Pushing the crate aside, the major fired at the machines in controlled bursts to minimize energy loss. Immediately, a robot was decapitated by a plasma bolt, which dropped to the ground and exploded like a grenade. Another bolt tore off a robot's arm, which was followed by another that took off the other arm and the majority of its torso. Still, it continued marching as if it still had something to kill Heinrich with. The fourth robot was ripped apart by a barrage of plasma bolts. There was virtually nothing left of it, being only a smoldering pair of disembodied metal legs.

The last, armless robot stopped advancing just a few meters in front of the major, as if it wants to be put out of its misery. Heinrich obliged by delivering a gauntleted clout to the robot's head, literally flattening the front of its mechanical face. Acting quickly, he shoved the machine away, which exploded harmlessly in the distance.

That fight was really strange and disconcerting to the major. Normally, anything made by the Ethereals were built to be durable as all hell, shrugging plasma bolts like they were mere annoyances, as evidenced by the new 'Mechtoid' alien type and the updated MKII Sectopods. But these robots were easily destroyed; a single plasma bolt to the head seemed to be enough, but destroying them in that way causes them to detonate in a fairly small radius. That fight was too easy to be considered a fight at all, and in fact, calling for backup from Xenobane Squad seems like an unnecessary option.

Suddenly, an ear-shattering, piercing wail-like sound filled the air, followed by loud, clanking noises that grew louder and louder in short order. Immediately, Heinrich sprinted for protection again. He couldn't make it to cover without some damage, though, as several bullets slammed on his Snapdragon's chargepack while he ran.

About three dozen robots appeared, supported by a dozen fast-running, four-legged, dog-shaped robots. Their functions elude the major's scrutiny, besides that they were supposed to be frontline close-combat troops, like Chryssalids or Berserkers.

Heinrich fired a quick burst of plasma fire upon the ones closest to him before he ran back to Claudia's position. He activated the mag-lock on his armor's thigh and attached his weapon to it, which made a metallic thud as his armor magnetically fastened it. Immediately after, he carried his unconscious teammate away from the robots as fast as he can, being fired upon all the way. More than several times did he feel their bullets graze and impact his Salazarite alloy armor, to little effect.

After a few minutes' worth of running, the major found a hab with a good view of the advancing machines, with plenty of cover to hide behind. Heinrich quickly but gently laid his teammate down behind a metal fence, careful not to worsen her condition by rubbing one of her wounds the wrong way. Once he was sure she was safe, Heinrich went out of the building again to deal with the robots.

Once he was outside, though, he found something that he wasn't expecting. It's as if the machines had the ability to double their numbers. In fact, the whole street was just so crowded with them, that missing a shot was next to impossible. However, the Snapdragon wouldn't have enough charge to dispatch every robot present, so Heinrich would have to eventually resort to using his sidearms or he'd risk being overrun in overwhelming numbers.

Small arms fire peppered Heinrich's position without any signs of stopping. He could only do so much as peek out of cover for a second, wait a minute for the bullets to stop, then fire for another second before repeating what he just did. Sometimes, he'd chuck away one of his grenades, but he couldn't squint out of cover to see if they had any effect. Little by little, the machines' ranks were being thinned, but at the same time, the major could feel the wounds being inflicted on him to finally take their effects on him. The metallic dark gray luster that his armor once possessed could no longer be found, its surface littered with pockmarks and scorch marks alike. Heinrich couldn't take much more.

In desperation, he called for help once more from Xenobane Squad, despite not knowing if they're actually listening. He even tried pinging HQ, but for some reason, only the 'No Signal - Too Far' sign is displayed over his HUD. Calling for help from Xenobane proved futile, as he was only met with disturbing amounts of static.

The major prepared himself for a last stand. A death by being swarmed by mechanical monstrosities isn't a death he expected; he was expecting Echo Squad's death to be more heroic, glorious and awe-inspiring, but he doesn't have any choice in the matter. He'd fight these machines with his fists if even his sidearm's charge would run out.

Abruptly, the robots' right flank collapsed under a hail of bullets, and the robots in the center were torn apart by successive series of explosions, which was likely from several grenades thrown in synchronization with each other. The charging, dog-like robots stopped on their tracks and changed direction, and the humanoid robots shifted positions to cover their now-exposed flank.

Major Heinrich squinted under his piece of cover, and his eyes landed on something that he was praying quite hard to show up: friendlies.

There were a dozen of them, huddling behind anything they could use as cover, exchanging fire with the machines with strange projectile weapons varying from assault rifles to shotguns. Standing in the middle of them is the squad leader, who doesn't resort to using a weapon like her other colleagues, but she had an orange hologram around her arm, which she uses to somehow project electrical shocks at the machines' ranks. Heinrich even saw her being able to somehow hack into some of the robots, programming them to attack one another while ignoring its former enemies.

Now, why the hell do we not have one of those? The major thought. He idly considered that if his organization had access to this sort of technology years ago, a lot of rookies might've been saved. In a way, he was not surprised; everyone should be reverse-engineering Ethereal tech by now if they wanted to live through the invasion, and even the most technologically backwards countries should be able to devise their own version of anti-Ethereal weaponry, and it's quite understandable if they didn't want to share their technology with anyone, seeing that their creations might get turned against them if the aliens were fought off.

Heinrich couldn't see very well, that much was obvious, but he could see that they look a little… strange, to be Swiss soldiers. He was expecting them to be wearing winter gear, but their uniform closely resembled intricately decorated, full-body hazmat suits from what he could tell, with murky, opaque visors for vision.

Come to think of it, this place isn't even slightly chilly. Maybe this isn't Switzerland after all. Heinrich contemplated, before being rudely set upon by one of the dog-like robots.

It stood still for a split-second before emitting an electrostatic charge, which knocked the major back from the sudden attack. It was a shallow victory, though. The dog-machine didn't survive a second under Heinrich's attention.

Kicking the robot's plasma-burnt husk away, Heinrich waited for his enemies to finally ignore him to completely focus on their most immediate threat: his erstwhile allies. Once the small-arms fire on his position died down, he quickly made a dash to the soldiers, with the intent of saving them from being overwhelmed. Heinrich figured the squad leader would be more effective if she made use of a weapon, and the Avocet he possessed should be the easiest one to wield.

Gallagher Street, Freedom's Progress, 20:32 TCUT

"This is the stupidest plan you've ever come up with for today!" Prazza shouted from behind a concrete pillar.

"Would you please just shut up and do your job? I can't stand you complaining for every step we take for the entire damn mission!" Tali shouted back to her subordinate while she overloaded a nearby LOKI mech, jumping under cover again after she did so.

"But he isn't–" A hail of gunfire forced Prazza to stick back to cover. "But he isn't what we came down here for!" He continued.

Tali could do nothing but run a palm through her faceplate. "Just do what I tell you, Prazza. You damn well know that we aren't going past that YMIR with just what we have at hand. You've seen what he can do, we could use his help."

Prazza only grumbled in response before lobbing an anti-synthetic grenade at the mechs' general direction.

"Watch out, we've got incoming!" One of Prazza's men suddenly cried out, pointing at a group of charging FENRIS mechs. Everyone got ready to move away and find new cover, but energy weapons fire promptly consumed the dog-like mechs before they even got close.

Prazza stood slack-jawed behind his helmet at what he just witnessed. "Holy…" He turned around to look at the source of the bright green projectiles.

Tali was in the middle of checking her suit for damages when she saw Prazza staring at her, seemingly in astonishment. She was about to ask him if he's going to complain again but she decided against it, merely sending him an irritated look behind her visor.

A rumbling, robotic cough from behind her nearly sent her jumping away in surprise; it was audible enough to be heard with all the guns firing. She spun around, looked up and stood visor-to-visor with the heavily armed and armored human, who was surely a head and a half taller than her. A barrage of bullets forced the two into cover, and the human promptly tried to hand Tali something that resembled a weapon.

He must've noticed I don't have anything besides my omni-tool. She mused, temporarily forgetting about the LOKIs trying to kill everyone. He, on the other hand, must have noticed her awestruck expression from behind her mask, because he roughly shoved the gun to her chest and immediately began shooting again, with the rest of Prazza's marines contributing their fire.

The quarian mechanic studied the object on her hands for a moment as she hid behind cover. Usually, she'd already be back in the fight, but the weapon's unfamiliar design piqued her curiosity. It was oddly light for its large size, and the materials used to manufacture it were unknown to her. In a way, it was simple enough; it had every part a gun could have. Still, Tali had no idea of what the weapon fires exactly. Popping out of cover, she decided to give it a try. She hoped it was a shotgun.

When she pulled the trigger, what came out of the weapon's barrel end wasn't plasma, that's for sure. Tali couldn't make what it really was because it was too fast, but she knew it was a thick, slug-like projectile of some sort. Whatever it was, its effects on the LOKIs were devastating; the projectile smashed through a robot, utterly annihilating its chest and doing the same to the four mechs behind it. Tali had no doubt that if there were more mechs lined up, the projectile… or perhaps projectiles (so it really WAS a shotgun. Who knew?), wouldn't have any problems going through them.

"Keep the pressure up, 'Zorah! Let's see that again!" The marine next to Tali exclaimed. Her voice was filled with amazement.

"Prazza, there's a cluster of mechs on my right flank, and my left flank's exposed! I'm completely swarmed over here!" A panicked marine shouted over his radio. "What the- how did he- argh... never mind." He restated after he witnessed their new ally reducing the group of clustered mechs into charred metal husks in short order, allowing him to shift position safely.

"Cut the chatter, you idiots!" Prazza shouted into his radio, making sure his voice was loud enough to be heard over the gunfire from both sides. "Stop talking and get back to killing. There's plenty more of these Ancestors-damned synthetics to shoot!"

A chorus of swift affirmatives swarmed the channel as the marines logged off and went back to fighting.

In the span of twenty-four seconds, a battle that should've lasted minutes was concluded with the last remaining mechs being mangled apart by combined weapons fire. Tali and Prazza were expecting casualties and a few suit ruptures, but they were relieved to find that there were fewer than they expected, with no significant suit ruptures to speak of, only a few glancing shots here and there.

As soon as the quarians finished checking their suits for damages, their heads turned to observe the subject of their endeavor, who was currently doing something to his helmet. When he noticed, the human stopped what he was doing and observed back.

The staring contest lasted for a minute before everyone realized that there's really no way to see if anyone blinked. The human broke the silence by speaking up first.

If only the quarians understood what he said, though. It appears that he's speaking in a language that isn't English, the most used human language.

"I can understand him." A female voice unexpectedly whispered into the radio, breaking the silence. She had her external speakers disabled, so her words didn't make it to the human's ears, only her team's.

Each and every quarian present turned their head to Tali, who nodded with confidence. "When I was with my human captain... I tried to be, um, prepared." Her confidence faltered in short order. "I took the time to download several translation programs about some major human languages."

"Well? What did he say, 'Zorah?" Prazza asked. "And what's he speaking in? We could download the same program you did."

"I think he's saying thanks, from what I heard." Tali responded. "And he's speaking in a language called 'German'. I've sent everyone a link to the program to your omni-tools. It should take a few seconds to download, even if the extranet connection here is as slow as a turning liveship."

20:39 TCUT

Major Heinrich could only stare at the Swiss (?) soldiers in confusion. So far, they haven't uttered a word to him, and now, it seems that everyone except the squad leader was now fiddling with orange holograms around their arms. He still couldn't see clearly, but he could've sworn their fingers were… funny looking. Their body shapes were humanoid, with males and females being clear enough to distinguish, but the major couldn't help but feel a little unnerved at how they seem a little off.

Also, these soldiers seem to be fielding some advanced technologies that even his organization hasn't even come close to making. More than once did he expect one of the soldiers to fall under sustained fire, but they seemed to be protected by their very own personal shields. Not the sort of psychic shields that Sectoids and Ethereals use, as they appear to be purely technological. Also, the orange holograms that appeared around their arms appear to be capable of doing a multitude of tasks, whether they are combat-oriented tasks or not.

Moreover, Heinrich had always believed that the Swiss people had German as an official language. The soldiers clearly did not understood what he said, which only further reinforced his roving suspicion that he isn't really in Switzerland. Surely there must be a single person who knew a few phrases in his native language. He opted instead to speak in English.

"Err, I'm sorry. Do any of you speak English?" He asked, a little hopeful for a 'yes'.

Abruptly, almost in unison, the holograms around the soldiers' arms disappeared as they dropped their arms and turned their faceplates to Schafer. They were obviously surprised.

A soldier in a bone-white hazmat suit approached him cautiously, rifle in hand. He stopped just a few meters short from the major and said, "Well, we don't. But every one of us had English in our translators right now." He spoke in a vague Eastern European accent, from what Heinrich could tell.

Silence reigned for seconds.

"…Excuse me, uh… translators?" The major asked.

"Yes, human. Not to offend, but you should know this by now if you keep up with the current technological trends." The soldier responded, with a tone like that of an adult explaining complicated matters to a child. "So, what are you doing in Freedom's Progress? Are you part of this colony's security detail, or are you with the Alliance?"

Heinrich was once again confused. "Freedom's Progress? Alliance? What are you getting…"

The major just realized something. "Why are you calling me 'human'? Are you–"

The soldier sighed from behind his mask, a sigh that was a little too somber to be just from exasperation. "Yes, me and my friends here," He looked to his fellows, taking a prolonged, dirty look at the squad leader. It was obvious to Heinrich that this soldier doesn't like his superior very much. "Are not human. You see, we're what you'd call aliens. In a way, I'm not surprised; not many of your kind see our kind in person, what with the current state of the quarian people." The soldier raised a hand from his rifle, for Heinrich to see. "Do you see how many digits do I have?"

That was an odd question to ask, the major thought. He cleared his vision, letting his suit's internal scrubbers to remove the debris speckling his helmet's visor from the inside, while using a gauntleted hand to coarsely do away with the dirt from the outside. What he saw startled him, to say the least. He could barely prevent himself from doing something decidedly unpleasant to these 'quarians', and he's not thinking about using his weapon, oh no. That would be all too easy.

He's a Category Beta Minus psionic.

Fortunately for everybody, the Great Ethereal War has yet to harden Heinrich to the point of thinking that everything that isn't from Earth is definitely looking forward to reducing all humans into ash with a Fusion Lance. His instincts told him to do what he had always done when it came down to extraterrestrials, but his brain told him that if these ones hadn't tried to riddle him with bullets yet, they might have no intentions of doing so in the future anyway. Besides, these aliens probably know more about Heinrich's situation than he does. If they suddenly dropped dead due to an inexplicable case of cerebral hemorrhage, Heinrich might find himself trapped in his location indefinitely, not to mention that he still has an injured teammate that needed medical attention.

"Look," The major clamped his gun to his armor. "I don't know why you're not trying to kill me right now, or why you don't seem to have access to plasma weaponry, but I'm going to need your help." He motioned for the aliens to follow him to Claudia's position. They followed cautiously.

As the group walked, the alien squad leader chose to speak up after thinking over her words carefully. "So… we haven't really introduced ourselves yet."

"Indeed, we haven't." Heinrich agreed. "My friends call me 'Rook', but you could just call me Heinrich." He paused, letting his words sink in. "While I think that your names might just go over my head, I'm still willing to listen."

"Very well…" The alien inhaled a lungful of air. "My name is Tali'Zorah vas Neema." Seeing the major shaking his head, the quarian sighed. "…Or, you could just call me by my friends do: Tali."

The alien in the bone-white suit snorted. "Good. That means that I don't have to call you Tali." He said, his tone full of spite.

"And that's Prazza. He's such an upbeat member of the team." Tali deadpanned.

Prazza ignored his superior and directed his sights on the major's back. "You still have not answered my question from earlier. What are you doing in this colony?"

This alien's attitude is doing a fine job of souring Heinrich's mood even more. He was lucky that he could restrain himself from giving him the worst headache he could ever experience in his life. "I was originally part of a six-man squad of alien hun-" He cut himself off. The quarians didn't seem to notice, to his relief. "…a six-man squad of troopers. All that's left of my squad is myself, and an injured sniper. Do you have medical supplies that work on humans?"

"We've got several applications of medi-gel with us," Tali informed, "We should have enough for your friend for her condition be stabilized. What's her condition?"

"She's out cold, and I think she's also suffering from internal injuries." Heinrich replied matter-of-factly. "Our medic had supplies that could help, but last I've checked, he used up all of it trying to keep us alive."

"Your weapon," Prazza interposed. "You humans have access to energy weapons now? And is that some sort of powered exoskeleton you're wearing?"

Heinrich was confused once more. "Um, is that significant?" Suddenly, he realized something important. "Has your race, by any chance, encountered any Ethereal forces yet?" The major asked, just as the group had just arrived at the house where Claudia rested.

"'Ethereal'? We don't know of this." One of the aliens from behind spoke up. "I have no idea what is an Ethereal." Another said. "Is it a new race the Council hasn't heard about, yet?" Another one asked.

Words cannot express the relief that flooded Heinrich's senses. He felt his battle-ready stance slacken considerably, as if a colossal weight has been lifted off his shoulders. There are no Ethereal forces here.

However, that also meant another thing: it seems that Dr. Vahlen's predictions are correct; the Ethereals are trying open up a rift from other universes, and it appears that the remnants of Echo Squad and possibly Xenobane squad are stuck in this particular universe. Still, the thought of having to fight the Ethereals no longer was a relaxing prospect.

"Hey," Tali's voice snapped Heinrich out of his trance. "Are you alright? You just stood still for a moment there."

With a tired smile behind his faceplate, Heinrich spoke as he opened the door to the room where he left Claudia. "Yes, yes. I'm quite alright."

But just as the door went open, Major Heinrich spotted something that he was hoping he wouldn't. It was a barely visible, ghostly silhouette in the form of a humanoid menacingly pointing a plasma pistol at the aliens' general direction.

Time went deathly still. Heinrich knew that preventing the silhouette from firing its pistol is out of the question; it was quite the gunslinger. He also knew that its aim always proved true, no matter how improbable the shot is. With these things implanted dearly in his mind, out of reflex, the major shoved the unfortunate alien that the silhouette had made its target to the floor. He had acted just in time; the alien will live to see another day, with only a minor concussion as a consequence.

The plasma bolt arced in the air, impacting a metal wall and blowing a three-meter wide hole in it. Heinrich immediately lunged at the silhouette and grasped its arm in a gentle (for his strength) grip, which was strong enough to cause the pistol it was holding to slip out of its hand. It clattered lightly on the hab's floor.

The quarians stood still in shock at first, trying the piece together what happened, but in another second, they scrambled for cover and warily trained their firearms at the armored female human that seemingly materialized out of thin air, being restrained by the giant of a man that is Heinrich.

"Easy there, Claudia…" Heinrich spoke in a calming voice. "It's alright; nothing's going to hurt you." He spoke in his native tongue to prove that he isn't being mind-controlled.

Claudia Vogel tried to squirm out of her sole surviving teammate's grasp, but her wounds coupled with fatigue reduced her efforts into pathetic, limp flailing. "What are you doing, Heinrich? There's a couple of X-rays right behind you." Her voice was weak and raspy, like she isn't one to talk much. "Let me go."

"It's okay, these ones aren't with the Ethereals. They're friendly." Slowly, Heinrich settled his teammate down, slouched on a wall. "It's a long story, but you've got to trust me on this one."

"Heinrich… what're you planning to…" Claudia's eyelids went low, and she faded once more into unconsciousness.

Heinrich breathed a sigh of relief. He was just about to walk over to the alien he previously pushed to the ground to check on him and apologize when the door to the hab suddenly folded itself open. A group of humans, both old and new, stepped inside, weapons aimed downrange and at the ready.

Cerberus Landing Zone, Freedom's Progress, 20:22 TCUT

30 Minutes Earlier…

Commander Shepard followed Miranda and Jacob out of the shuttle. Out of instinct, he scanned his surroundings with a hunter's eye, trying to find anything that could pose a threat.

Freedom's Progress is just a fledgling colony, with virtually nothing to distinguish itself from other colonies just starting out. At the start, habs were the only things that could be erected as shelter for the colonists, in substitute for actual houses. Concrete pillars that were to be built as houses stood like guardians to an important figure, and crates of supplies and building materials were scattered around, unattended and unremembered.

The Illusive Man's words were correct; whomever or whatever abducted the colonists left no evidence that they were there at all, except for the missing colonists themselves.

Just as Shepard finished his scan, two other shuttles painted in Cerberus colors landed next to his. A moment later, a six-man squad of Cerberus soldiers stepped out of each shuttle. Miranda and Jacob came to greet them. They exchanged a few words, after which every one of the soldiers saluted in perfect harmony before making their way to Shepard.

"Commander Shepard," One of the troopers, a lanky figure donned in a suit of Ceberus' standard-issue officer combat armor talked in a robotic, grating voice, not unlike that of a drell's. "You can call me Lieutenant Lars, and I'm the one tasked with leading these soldiers. We've been assigned by the Illusive Man to serve as your escorts as you traversed the colony. He suggested that we investigate the courtyard for answers first, as it's the closest to our location."

Shepard couldn't help but be unnerved at how the soldier spoke. "Alright, lieutenant. Lead the way to the courtyard, we'll be right behind you."

The soldier remained unmoving. "I'm not in charge, commander. You are. We'll follow your lead if you decided to proceed to Gallagher Street first, not the courtyard."

"Commander," Miranda added herself to the conversation. "I strongly recommend that we head to the courtyard first. That way if things go awry, our retreat shouldn't be that far away."

Jacob also joined in. "If civilians are still around, I think they'll be heading there, but it's your choice, Shepard."

"Fine," The commander agreed. "Lieutenant, Jacob, take point. Miranda, with me. First squad, go with the lieutenant and Jacob. Second squad, watch our rear. Let's move, spear formation."

Ten minutes later…

"It looks like a crashed, banged-up, old VTOL…" Miranda voiced. "Now, what the bloody hell would be an aircraft that isn't capable of spaceflight doing here?"

"More importantly, what caused it to crash?" Shepard cut in. "Everyone, move forward. Find some cover if you can, whatever's in here could be host-"

Suddenly, a massive humanoid synthetic appeared in view. It was heavily armored, but it moved with fluidity and speed that was disturbingly unfitting for its size. On its three-fingered hands is a firearm-shaped weapon; it was boxy and had a glowing, rotating piece of machinery in the middle. On its back is a mounted gun of some sort, with a glowing, canister-shaped device next to it. The final device it was equipped with is a vambrace of a sort, attached to its left arm. Its head is shaped like that of a fully-enclosed, futuristic combat helmet, and it was painted in urban camouflage colors, which made it stand out like a sore thumb amidst the gray and white.

It seemed to be patrolling the crashed VTOL's perimeter, like a guard dog of some kind. Furthermore, there seems to be the strange, unmistakable sound of old, human-style music being played, and it was emanating from the mech itself.

"Hey, that sounds familiar," One of the troopers spoke up. "That sounds like-"

"Korobeiniki." Shepard interrupted, his voice strangely lacking any emotion.

"Yeah, that old Tetris theme." Jacob talked. "Now, why the hell would some combat mech have an old Russian folk song playing on its external speakers?"

The former marine's question was left hanging in the air, as the Cerberus group kept observing the machine, and how it continued patrolling the crashed VTOL's perimeter. In fact, the silence was so thick and oppressive, that Shepard just had to break the silence to get his mind to linger away from some bad memories brought on by the strange melody.

"Whatever made that mech must be responsible for the abducted colonists," He muttered. "The colonists' defense mechs must've caused the aircraft to crash."

"But it doesn't add up." Whispered Miranda. "That VTOL isn't capable of spaceflight, meaning that wherever that mech came from, it's not from off-world."

"I don't like this." Said Shepard. "There's only one way to find out what's it doing here, and that's to either kill it and strip it to pieces for answers, or we could get out there and talk to it, and I'm inclined to talk."

Miranda shook her head, a bit disapprovingly. "Like you always do, Commander."

"I think we should scrap it." The Cerberus lieutenant stated his views. "Besides, I think its makers are behind the abductions anyway."

Jacob agreed, nodding his head. "It's a bit too risky if we just walked up to it to ask questions. Who knows, it could be programmed to shoot anything that moved on sight."

"No," Shepard snapped sharply. He had his personal reasons why he needed to talk to the mech. "We'll talk to it first. Get ready to move."

The Cerberus group did a quick weapons check before moving out. They stealthily relocated from cover to cover, making themselves utterly silent as possible. Sneaking about is one of the things that Shepard was naturally good at, being an infiltrator. Miranda was just as good as the commander when it comes to stealth, but her outfit's design and excessive… glossiness, made it a bit difficult for her. Jacob also had a bit of infiltration tactics training back when he was enlisted as a marine in the Alliance. The rest of the Cerberus troopers were the only ones having noticeable difficulty at trying to make themselves covert because their armor is made for direct conflict, not stealth. Alas, it proved to be their undoing.

One of the troopers, as she moved from cover to cover, flopped over to the ground after tripping on what appears to be an abandoned lunchbox. As she was wearing heavy armor, the sound it made as it impacted the concrete was very audible.

The synthetic snapped around and as it did so, it immediately spotted the Cerberus group making its way towards it. It levelled its gigantic weapon downrange and held the trigger down on the closest trooper.

At first, only a tiny, whitish-blue beam of light emerged from the weapon's barrel. It hovered on the trooper's chestplate, like a laser sight. But then, a split second later, something bright and powerful left the barrel. It arced through the air at incomprehensible speeds before scoring a direct hit to the trooper's torso.

The lance of searing blue light went right through to poor trooper's chest, leaving a gaping, smoking hole in its wake, scorching the trooper's innards to non-existence. The beam didn't stop there. It continued arcing; killing a pair of troopers who were unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time before completely obliterating a hab's front end, exposing the interiors.

The machine's actions left Commander Shepard no other choice.

"Goddammit, return fire!" He ordered before quickly taking a swift snap of his rifle at the hostile synthetic.

Instantly, the rest of the troopers broke out of their stunned, horror-stricken state and heeded Shepard's orders. Shepard activated his cloaking device to reposition while Miranda and Jacob unleashed their biotics at the beleaguered robot.

The synthetic buckled under continuous enemy fire, but whatever material its armor is made of, it proved to be durable enough to absorb a wall of small arms fire coupled with biotic attacks. The machine blocked its head with its enormous hand before doing what Shepard and his people wasn't expecting it to.

Instead of taking cover, like Lieutenant Lars predicted, the machine actually charged at him, obviously recognizing his status as an officer. One of the braver troopers he commanded threw away his assault rifle and took out his shotgun before putting himself between the Lars and the charging synthetic. The trooper emptied the bulk of his Eviscerator's clip into the synthetic, but like all projectiles thrown at it, it shrugged it off; the mass accelerated slugs doing nothing but messing up its paintjob.

Once the synthetic was close enough to get in melee range, it held up its left arm, the one equipped with a vambrace-like device. It was then that three rockets revealed themselves from each side of the vambrace from a hidden compartment, and the device itself took the shape of a robotic fist.

Lars couldn't stop his jaw from dropping from its hinges as the synthetic propelled the rocket-assisted fist straight to the trooper's torso. The armor the trooper was wearing could theoretically stop ML-77 missiles, but against a Kinetic Strike Module accelerating at exactly three quarters of a thousand miles per hour, it was practically nothing.

With a garbled yell of pain, the trooper was literally thrown several meters away from the sheer impact of the force. In fact, the force was so strong, that his armor's chestplate might as well have been merged with his chest cavity. The synthetic then pulled a switch on its weapon, and in an instant, an oversized, green-hued bayonet made out of what seems like pure energy emerged from underneath the weapon. Whatever race made this machine must have technology that surpassed anything the galaxy has ever seen before.

"Lieutenant!" Miranda cried out to the stunned Lars. "Get the hell out of there; it's coming right for you!"

But it was too late. The machine stepped back to get some momentum before swiftly spearing the energy bayonet into Lars' throat. Boiling hot blood sprayed all over the ground, splattering some of the troopers who were at close proximity to the lieutenant.

Lars is certainly dead, that much was obvious, but to everyone's fear and surprise, instead of pulling the bayonet back, as if it had some sick, twisted mind of its own, the synthetic dragged the energy blade further down, splitting Lars' body in two from the throat down.

"Gah, fuck! Kill it, kill it!" A trooper shouted in a curious mix of fear and anger. "It just… did that?" Another muttered to himself in disgust and disbelief.

"Don't worry; I will do the same for you."

Once more, the synthetic surprised everyone by talking in a deep, synthesized voice. Whatever programming it had, it must be veering dangerously close to true artificial intelligence. Alas, it must be aware of the troopers' astonishment, as the mounted gun it has on its shoulder suddenly aimed itself at a cluster of Cerberus soldiers.

Two quick, successive, green-hued explosions blasted four of the troopers apart. It appears that the mounted gun is a grenade launcher of a sort.

The synthetic didn't even slacken its pace as the smoke began to clear. It continued dismembering limbs, blasting troopers apart or sending them flying with its rocket-fist. Shepard found out that he's running out of ammo for his Mantis, and that he might resort to unorthodox tactics soon. Miranda found herself strained and exhausted from using her biotics a little too much, and Jacob kept shooting and issuing the occasional order and warning from time to time, but the machine proved to be tougher than a whole group of YMIR mechs. Soon, the troopers were all but wiped out, and Shepard's original group found themselves to be the only ones left.

The commander didn't waste his time just emptying clip after clip on the synthetic, however. As he fired, repositioned, reloaded and fired again, a few weak spots were made apparent. One of such weak spots is the left leg. It appears to be damaged from an earlier battle, and a fat, seemingly inconspicuous gray wire could be seen with the help of an enhanced scope mod. Another weak spot is the canister next to the mounted gun. Shepard saw some of the troopers accidentally hit the device, after which a tiny electrical discharge would occur, causing the synthetic to stagger a bit.

"Miranda, Jacob, distract it as long as you can! I've got something!" The commander ordered.

"As you say, Shepard!" Miranda shouted back before unleashing a fresh hail of bullets followed by a biotic blast.

"Will do, commander!" Jacob acknowledged as he went up close with the synthetic to drive its attention towards himself.

The synthetic staggered a bit before resuming its assault. The two operatives struggled to keep the machine back, but it was gaining the upper ground little by little. Unusually, it seemed to recognize this, as it appears to have slowed down its assault slightly, like it was giving Miranda and Jacob a fair fight by giving itself a handicap.

But suddenly, a snap of a sniper rifle rang out, and the synthetic fell on one knee. It stood there for a moment, as if it was actually surprised of its situation. It looked down and saw that its left leg's servomotors had suffered too much damage to function properly. However, its apparent surprise didn't last long; it trained its weapon once more at Shepard, the source of the round that pierced its leg.

The commander barely had the time to roll out of the way before the civilian shuttle he was taking cover behind was set ablaze by the beam that went through it. He activated his cloak once more to reposition behind the now-immobile machine, to target the second weak spot he discovered.

The synthetic was seemingly perplexed that its target disappeared, but it quickly pressed its assault with new targets in mind, namely Miranda and Jacob. The two operatives ducked, sprinted, rolled away and avoided the beams that were being fired at them, but they could feel exhaustion beginning to sink in. More than once did they notice that the beams were getting a little too close to hitting them directly, but this knowledge only motivated the operatives to try their hardest, and soon, they were rewarded with another snap of a rifle echoing in the air.

Shepard hit the canister spot on, causing the synthetic to be engulfed in electrical energies, making it spasm and shudder uncontrollably as 1.21 gigawatts of electricity coursed through its circuits. It continued twitching as it lay on the ground, either dead or otherwise.

"Well, that could've ended better." Said Miranda as she inserted a fresh thermal clip into her submachine gun. "Two whole squads of our finest soldiers plus the three of us to take this mech down?" She sighed before returning to her usual attitude. "I shudder to think about what else could its creators produce."

In truth, whoever made the synthetic, the Cerberus operative was a little glad that they were human, judging from the music it played earlier.

"And I bet you're glad they're human." Shepard deadpanned, but he was a little disappointed at how his plan worked out. "Come on, let's crack this thing open and see if its memory banks had anyth-"

A ball of green energy slammed into the wall that Jacob was leaning against, levelling it and causing the operative to clumsily fall down on his back. A bright blue light illuminated the trio's position, blinding them from seeing the source of the projectile.

"All EXALT personnel, drop your weapons!" An authoritative, gruff, British-accented voice demanded. "You're facing superior weapons and training. Surrender, and you will not be harmed!"

Shepard activated his cloak and jumped into cover while Miranda just did the latter. Jacob stood absolutely still, trying to make himself look as dead as possible.

"Whoever you are, we did not come here to fight you!" Shepard shouted from behind cover, making sure to immediately reposition to not betray his position. "Your mech opened fire on us, we had to defend ourselves!"

The sound of heavy metallic footfalls could be faintly heard. It was becoming more and more audible. Shepard gripped his rifle tightly, preparing for another attack.

"Reveal yourselves so we can get a look at you." The voice commanded. "And don't think you can try anything. A single bolt's enough to reduce your upper torso into a fine bloody mess. We'll see if you're really with EXALT or not."

Warily, Shepard opened up a comm link to Miranda and Jacob.

"You two, stay in cover, but make yourselves seen. I'm gonna try to flank them from the side if they turn hostile." He ordered.

"Really, commander?" Miranda asked, in a tone of voice that suggests disapproval. "If they turn on us, we're done for."

"You got ten seconds!" The voice called out.

The commander weighed his options for a second. "I don't think there's really a choice now, isn't it? If they try to kill us, I don't think we'll be able to fight them off."

"We'll do it, Shepard." Jacob said, trying to put on a brave face. "If things go south, we'd really appreciate it if you'd stay alive.

"We've already spent too much on your life only for you to die now." Miranda said through clenched teeth.

"Aw, you guys really do care." Shepard quipped. "Don't worry, we'll get out of this, I'm sure of it."

"Five seconds!" The voice stated again.

With that said, the two operatives popped out of cover and Shepard started his flanking maneuver. Miranda and Jacob shielded their eyes from the light's harsh glare.

"Sir, I don't think they're with EXALT." A feminine voice with a subtle French accent was heard. "We should turn the lights off now, they can't see us." Strange, Shepard thought. The voice sounded a bit remorseful.

"Is that thing that lady's wearin' standard-issue?" A voice with a slight Texan drawl asked. "If it is, I'd like to know what country we're in…" The voice's tone had a playful tinge to it. "And where do I sign up."

"Shut it, lieutenant." The first voice could be heard growling at the third one. "Lights off, people.

The cruel blue glare intensified for a second before dissipating in another. Miranda and Jacob immediately went to observing the unknown party.

There were three of them, each equipped with some sort of combat powered exoskeleton, and with all of them having some degree of damage to their armor. Two of the soldiers each had a strangely designed firearm with smooth cylindrical curves like a geth's rifle, a small hilt-like device underneath, and parts that glow a bright green. The third soldier had a different weapon entirely; it was boxier and coarser-looking than the ones the other two had, with some parts that glow a yellowish-orange hue.

The soldier in the middle had most of his gear painted a dark crimson red, with the armor possessing an angular, feral-like aesthetic design, like how the gauntlets' digits ended in unusually sharp claws, and how the helmet looked to be wearing an angry scowl, complete with eye sockets that glow red in the center. It was almost like the armor is designed to induce primal fear to those who opposed the soldier who wore it. Moreover, he had two mangled heads of an unknown alien species attached firmly to his belt, like a hunter's trophy from the toughest animals he killed, and his helmet had countless tally-marks crudely scratched on to the side.

The soldier to the right had a slimmer, more elegant-looking armor which matched her body's shape. Her armor looks immaculately maintained, besides the newly scorched areas of it. All of her equipment is painted a greyish-white, with a single red cross painted on one of her shoulderpads, and an unidentified device attached to her hip. The device looks a lot like a cube mounted on a pistol grip.

The third soldier looks a tad unusual; his armor looks poorly sustained, with rust and pockmarks littering its surface, in addition to being unpainted. His quadruple-eyed helmet is hooked up to several wires protruding from a small power supply attached to his upper arm, as well as a meter and a half long, tentacle-like robotic tendril attached to his armor's back, with a multitude of tools and weapons mounted on it. From its movements and appearance, the tendril appears to function almost exactly like a third mechanical arm.

It still wasn't clear what these soldiers are doing in Freedom's Progress, but they were clearly human, that much was clear.

"And who might you be?" Jacob queried as he continued studying the three soldiers. "I don't suppose you're the ones behind all this?"

The soldier in red raised a hand and pulled his helmet's faceplate up, revealing an unshaven, gaunt, heavily scarred face. The soldier would look intimidating, but his face had all the signs associated with extreme exhaustion. "Behind what?" He asked, in a vexed tone. "Look, we just got here, and we don't really know what's going on. If you'd kindly direct us to the closest military installation in this area, our organization would be very grateful."

"Your organization?" Said a disembodied voice. The three soldiers scrambled to find the source, after which Shepard decloaked right next to Jacob, startling him a little. "Mind telling us who do you work for?"

The first soldier was seemingly unfazed, the second soldier let out a chuckle at Jacob's expense, and the third soldier looks to be too astounded to speak.

"Woah, did you see that, colonel?" The third soldier asked the first, who appears to be the leader. "I thought we're the only ones with cloakin' tech!"

The leader ignored his compatriot. "That's classified information, soldier. That reminds me, are you part of this country's armed forces?"

"Yeah, we're soldiers," Jacob started. "But we're-"

"Country?" Miranda perplexedly asked, cutting the former marine off. "What country? We're in the colony of Freedom's Progress in the Terminus Systems, not in some country. This isn't Earth."

The first and the second soldiers seem to have taken Miranda's words with the bluntness of an accelerating bullet train. The first soldier felt his exhaustion take hold of him for a second, and he let his weapon fall from his grip, into the concrete. The second soldier stood absolutely still, letting the Cerberus operative's words sink in, and the third doesn't seem to be affected at all, having merely let out a curious-sounding 'huh', and scratched the top of his helmet with a metallic finger from his tendril.

The leader retrieved his fallen weapon from the ground and steeled himself once more. "Have you encountered any Ethereal forces yet?" Astonishingly, his voice remained calm and gruff. "Do you know anything about these guys?" He unclipped one of the heads on his belt and displayed it for all to see.

"I can't say I have, and I'm pretty sure Miranda and Jacob haven't, either." Shepard answered.

For some reason, the three soldiers' stances relaxed noticeably, with second soldier letting out an audible breath of relief.

"That's great." The leader said, seemingly pleased. "And can any of you tell me what's the date?"

Jacob switched his omni-tool on to see the date, but Miranda beat him to it.

"It's the 29th of March, two-one-eighty-five." She answered. "You're asking us this, why?"

Jacob chuckled to himself. "Maybe they're some sort of time travelers." He jested.

"Don't be stupid, Jacob." Miranda reprimanded her subordinate, but her tone remained neutral. "That sort of stuff happens only on those terrible sci-fi vids you were watching back at Lazarus."

Unbeknownst to the two operatives, two of the soldiers went back to their stunned, frozen state, with the third remaining unaffected. The information they were ingesting is quite hard to take in. It was a few seconds before the leader spoke again.

"No. We aren't 'time travelers', but we're quite close." He said, his voice grave.

"Well then! Now we're making progress." The commander said, all of the sudden. "Would you mind telling us who you are, and what are you doing here? We'd give you a ride back to Earth, if you wish, but we need answers first."

The leader sighed harshly. "Look, uh," He tried to find a name badge somewhere on Shepard's uniform.

"It's Commander Shepard of the Alliance Navy." The commander stated his name. Everyone in the galaxy should know his name or how he looks like right now, but it appears that these people are from another galaxy of their own, and that might just be quite literal.

He then pointed his thumb behind him. "The lady behind me's called Lawson. Miranda Lawson. Her partner over there's Jacob Taylor."

"Right. Look, commander, it's a very long story that shouldn't be shared on a potential firezone. We've just encountered some robots that tried to kill us, but they were dealt with. Right now, we need a safe spot where we could get our bearings and bury our dead. Do you have a place?"

"You have some casualties?" Jacob asked.

"Yes, we do." The second soldier said. "There is supposed to be six of us in a squad, but two of our own didn't live through the crash." She spared a solemn look at the crashed VTOL a few meters away.

"What about that synthetic we just scrapped?" The commander asked. "Is it part of your squad?"

"You mean Alexei? You shot his electropulse generator, didn't you?" The third soldier worriedly asked.

"Yeah, he was trying to kill us back then, and he attacked us first. Our guns couldn't hurt it, so I had to find weak spots. You know how it goes." Shepard found himself confused. "That mech has a name?"

"Alexei isn't a 'synthetic', commander." The soldier retorted curtly. "He's a MEC Trooper, which stands for Mechanized Exoskeleton Cybersuit, meaning that yeah, he does look like a robot, but he isn't. A more appropriate term would be 'cyborg'.

Before Shepard and Miranda could say anything about the legality of extensive body-altering cybernetics in Council space, the soldier had already run off to attend to the incapacitated cyborg.

"Back to the current matter at hand, do you have a place where we could lay low for a bit of time?" The leader asked again. "If it's not much to ask, of course. We won't be making any trouble."

Shepard spared a glance at Miranda, who shrugged her shoulders. Jacob was about to say something, but the commander had already opened his mouth to talk to the leader.

"We could take you with us back to Triton Station, but we aren't staying there for long. My acquaintance here had briefed me about a new ship I was being placed in command of. There, we probably have some room for the three-"

"Four." The leader corrected, a bit of force into his voice.

"Four, of you inside. Now tell me, do you know anything about what happened in the past few years, or what happened here?"

The leader looked to his teammate, who shook her head. "Like I told you, I'll tell you everything we know once we have the proper place." He said, as he checked over his weapon, subconsciously letting Shepard on that he's getting impatient.

"I could have the Illusive Man to send some men from Triton to salvage your aircraft and collect your dead." Miranda interposed. "Once we're onboard our ship, you're free to dispose of-"

"No. Absolutely not." The leader stated. "No one's going to salvage our Skyranger or the equipment inside it. It's in no condition to fly, so we're blowing it up after we take every piece of tech we could carry."

"Are you sure about that?" Miranda's tone became a bit low, letting the soldier know that she didn't like his statement. "My organization, Cerberus, would put your tech to good use, protecting-"

"Out of the question, ma'am." The soldier adamantly answered. "It's every agent's duty to prevent capture of Ethereal or reverse-engineered Ethereal technology by any non-XCOM personnel. Don't think you can convince me, I've already got my mind set."

"XCOM, eh? You work for an organization called XCOM, is that right?" Shepard asked, folding his arms across his chest. "What does it stand for?"

The leader looked to his teammate again, who made an 'I'm not here!' gesture. He sighed, seemingly cursing himself for slipping his tongue.

"Damn it. It's classified, I can't tell you anything." He said. "Look, can we just move to that ship of yours? I've already set the charges on the Skyranger to trigger in a few minutes, so we should get moving."

Miranda looked very frustrated at the lack of the answers that she needed, and from the look of his eyes behind his fully enclosed helmet, Shepard too.

Suddenly, the leader's gauntlet issued a series of pings. He hesitated for a moment before pushing a button on the side of his helmet. As soon as the button is pressed, someone's voice could be heard, asking for assistance.

"-Taking heavy small-arms fire! Being overrun by-" A wave of static drowned out the words. It resurfaced after a few seconds. "-nobane Squad, if you can hear me, find me in Gallagher! I'm in-" A heavier wave of static completely distorted the audio, making it inaudible. Over the static, one could hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire and explosions.

Shepard was quite familiar with distress calls, and this sort of distress call often meant that whoever sent that call must already be dead now. It's either that or it's a fake call used to lure in unsuspecting rescuers into a trap.

"That's Fischer." The second soldier said.

"Yeah, looks like we'll have to go and find this Gallagher Street again." He replied before turning to Shepard. "Would you people happen to have a map of the area? We've already scouted ahead, but we can't seem to find Gallagher."

"You're off to Gallagher Street, too? That's good, because we're heading over there as well." Shepard said. "You should come along with us, we could always use extra rifles."

The leader nodded affirmative. "Lead the way, then."

"Colonel!" The third soldier's voice from the distance caused everyone to turn to his direction. Shepard, Miranda and Jacob found themselves coldly surprised when they noticed the cyborg they fought earlier trailing behind him, his damaged left leg having undergone visible makeshift repairs, with the damages to the canister on his back back still untouched.

"Colonel, I've managed to get Alexei back on his feet, but his E.P. generator will need some extensive repairs before we could get it zappin' again."

The leader inspected the mech with an aside glance before focusing back to Shepard's group. "We haven't introduced ourselves yet, so listen up, I'm making it brief. I'm Colonel Graves." He looked to his other teammates, gesturing to the second, the third, and finally, the cyborg.

"This is Captain Bouchard, the squad's second-in-command and medic, Lieutenant Conagher, the squad's tech expert and combat engineer, and Sergeant Dmitriyev, the MEC Trooper you nearly turned into scrap beforehand."

The MEC pilot's domed helmet slid up. Besides the noticeable cybernetic implants welded into his face, the evident exhausted features and the plethora of gnarly scars abound it, the MEC Trooper's face looks human enough, if a little too pale. Shepard can see the edges of his lips turn upwards into a cold smile. The commander was expecting him to speak, but no words left Dmitriyev.

"He's fresh outta Russia." Lieutenant Conagher informed, his tendril resting itself on his armored shoulder. "He can't speak English, but I already told him that your fight earlier was a mistake. He said he's sorry that he killed off most of your friends."

"We heard him speak earlier. Our 'tools translated his words for us." Miranda told the engineer.

"What?" Sergeant Dmitriyev's coarse, robotic voice entered the fray. "You understood what I said earlier?"

"Yeah." Shepard responded nonchalantly. "In my case, it's because I speak your language too. Miranda and Jacob's translators did the work for them."

The MEC Trooper's features showed surprise. He opened his mouth, as if he was about to talk, but he decided against it, resorting instead to falling silent once more.

The commander furrowed his eyebrows at this peculiar group of soldiers before he went back to his objective. "Alright, here's the local map," He held a holographic key on his omni-tool, which brought up an orange-tinted map of Freedom's Progress. "Here's where we are, and here's Gallagher Street. The path should lead us through several habs, through several groups of the colony's defense mechs. They shouldn't be hostile, so there's nothing to worry about." The commander removed his finger on the key, and the hologram dissipated. "Everyone ready? Let's get moving."

Simmons Family Hab, Freedom's Progress, 20:52 TCUT

Moments later, present time...

Shepard's words about having 'nothing to worry about' rang true, but not in the way he envisioned. He said there was going to be groups of security mechs they will encounter, but they happen to be strangely missing. The XCOM soldiers trailing behind his group occasionally stopped walking to behold the desolation that is Freedom's Progress, but so far, they haven't said anything. To Shepard's experienced eyes, he knew they had their helmet's speakers disabled so they could talk to one another via radio without having him or Miranda to listen. They could be planning to either attack him and his two Cerberus escorts while their backs are turned, or they could be just confused about what's going on, and preferred to keep to people who were familiar to them, not a trio of strangers.

The commander had just passed a certain threshold on the front porch of a hab they needed to go through. The door automatically folded open, and to his surprise, a group of quarians are revealed to be behind it, with a hulking brute of an armored human among them, tending to another human. Shepard instantly noticed that, from the looks of his armor, he and the other human are from XCOM as well.

As soon as the door opened, Miranda and Jacob had already advanced and taken up firing positions, as well as Colonel Graves' group sans the MEC Trooper, who was too large to get inside.

The quarians, upon seeing Miranda and Jacob's uniforms, also scrambled into position, menacingly training each and every one of their weapons onto Shepard and his mixed Cerberus and XCOM unit. The armored human stood up and stared at the other humans on the other side of the room, near the doorway.

"Stop right there!" One of the quarians commanded.

Shepard only wanted to ask questions, but the quarians looked more and more aggressive. He primed his cloak for use, when one of them appeared to have the courage to put herself between him and the lead quarian, arms outstretched in an attempt to prevent the inevitable.

"Prazza, you said you'd let me handle this!" She said.

That voice. The commander experienced a rush of images from the past two years, back when he was tracking Saren, the rogue turian Spectre. He could remember letting an alien, an enthusiastic quarian, into his ranks. Instantly, Shepard's grip on his rifle slackened. He sighed and adopted a passive stance, his weapon no longer pointed at the aliens.

The quarian turned her head to look at Shepard and his men for the first time. Shepard nearly chuckled when he saw her get promptly rooted to the ground when she finally identified him, still standing with a cocksure pose as if he didn't spaced.

"Wait… Shepard?" Tali mustered all of her strength to speak.

Shepard was about to speak as well, to greet his former comrade, but the XCOM colonel beat him to it.

"Xenobane Squad, fire when ready!" Graves screamed, with audible fury and hatred lacing his voice.

Shepard, Miranda and Jacob whirled around and found the colonel and his men already halfway to pulling the trigger on their rifles. Bouchard and Conagher were all too ready to comply with their commander, and judging from Dmitriyev's reply through the radio, the MEC Trooper's just waiting for his leader's prompt to blow a hole into the hab's walls just so he could get inside.

"Halt! Xenobane Squad, stand down!" The armored human standing with the quarians shouted back to the colonel. From his accent, Shepard perceived him to be of German descent.

The colonel seemed to snap out of his fury when he saw his counterpart. "Fischer? What the hell are you doing there?! You've got goddamn X-rays all around you, get over here if you don't wanna get blasted!"

"No! These ones aren't hostile, damn it! There aren't any Ethereals-"

Graves cut Fischer off abruptly. "Xenobane, shoot the X-rays. Check your damn fire, Echo Two's being mindjacked."

"No one's going to shoot anyone." Shepard's squad had already trained their weapons at Colonel Graves and his soldiers. "I don't know what's your problem with quarians, but I'm gonna have to ask you to stand down. Now."

20:58 TCUT

Tali couldn't believe her eyes, or her ears. Standing right in front of her, arguing with the strangers he brought and commanding his own squad of Cerberus operatives is her old squad leader and friend, the deceased Commander Shepard.

She was just about to ask him how he came to be alive, after vanishing for two years, but for some strange reason, the three strangers he brought in with him adopted combat stances, seemingly preparing for an attack. As usual for his personality, Shepard immediately tried to defuse the situation with words, but he was wise to put some force into his actions.

While Shepard tried to reason with the leader of the strangers, Tali trudged up to the human her group encountered earlier, Heinrich.

"Heinrich?" The quarian mechanic whispered to the major, just loud enough to be heard by him over the other voices. "I observed that your armor has the same pattern and design as those people had. Who are they?"

Heinrich shook his head and sighed. "That's Xenobane Squad, another squad that was assigned by our commander to work with my squad."

With a name like 'Xenobane' as their squad name, Tali already took a disliking to the three strangers. "Go on."

The human took a quick glance at the scene in front of them before coming back to his conversation. "From where I came from, a person who hated aliens is a common thing – hell, it's even encouraged. The man in charge of Xenobane, Colonel Michael Graves, absolutely hates aliens. Do you see those two heads he had clipped to his belt?"

Tali spared a glance at the colonel's belt. She quickly averted her eyes when she saw the two objects Heinrich was talking about. "I haven't seen a species like that before. Looks repulsive."

Heinrich chuckled lightly. "Yes, they do. And I think it's for the best that you haven't yet. Those are Ethereals; the most powerful of the extraterrestrial forces my organization has encountered. I heard Graves personally subdued those two before mindfraying them to death, deliberately disobeying the commander's orders to bring them in alive."

"He did what? 'Mindfray' them to death?" Tali asked incredulously. "Is that some sort of military code word for a specific type of torture?"

"What?" Heinrich tilted his head to look at Tali. "Oh."

Normally, he'd hated sharing XCOM's secrets, but right now, if Dr. Vahlen's correct, he's out of a job.

"This badge," He gestured to the purple badge pinned to his chestplate. "It signifies my status as a Gifted Category Beta Minus individual. Colonel Graves and Captain Bouchard also had the same badge, and they're Categories Alpha Minus and Gamma Plus, respectively. Keep in mind that Graves has the second-highest ranking for Gifted operatives."

"That… doesn't make any sense." Tali admitted, giving Heinrich a confused look from behind her visor.

Heinrich was about to explain further, when Prazza finally snapped after prolonged exposure to Cerberus operatives.

"Enough of this! 'Zorah, two of the humans are with Cerberus, we must take advantage of the situation to take Veetor away while they're still arguing."

"I'm not leaving without getting a decent answer as to why Shepard's still alive, Prazza." Tali curtly responded. "Please, this means a lot to me."

But the quarian marine would not have any of it. He was just about to order his soldiers to follow him out of the hab when he unexpectedly found Heinrich's gauntleted hand on his shoulder. Prazza tried to shake the appendage off, but it was on his shoulder like a vice grip, plus it felt like it weighed as much as a block of solid steel.

"Prazza, Tali's your commanding officer for a reason, even if I don't know a single thing about your race's military ranks." The human said. his voice having a whispering, hypnotic tinge. "She probably knows best on what to do right now, and mutinying just because you don't like how she's leading your squad isn't going to make matters any better for everyone."

Tali wasn't in the mood for another fight, and it appears that another one was about to erupt between Prazza and Heinrich.

To her surprise, Prazza didn't lash out. In fact, his posture seems much calmer and less belligerent.

"Yes… maybe you're right." The quarian marine's voice was eerily relaxed, bordering on a monotone. "We'll follow 'Zorah's lead, as you say."

"Danke, schwachkopf." Heinrich released his grip on the quarian's shoulder before turning to look at Tali once more.

"You… you did something to him." Tali observed as she peered into the human's yellow visor, which had two glowing purple dots positioned exactly where his eyes should be. "You've just met him and he doesn't normally listen to anyone, and yet you talked him down. What did you do?"

"Erm, a little bit of mind-control, to be honest." Heinrich answered. "Don't worry, the effects are temporary, and he'll probably have no memory of what happened."

The quarian mechanic couldn't find herself to say anything. Mind control? Mindfray? These humans have the ability to influence minds? No, no. Impossible. This is all too ridiculous to believe. She thought. I'll have to find out how he did that later when I had my talk with Shepard.

21:04 TCUT

By now, Shepard had resolved the situation peacefully with the XCOM soldiers by threatening to leave them behind in the colony. It took the commander every ounce of his skill with manipulation and subtlety to coax Colonel Graves to see reason and stand down. He even gave him and his men a small history lesson of the galaxy to help them understand that aliens are just like humans. However, so far, they haven't told Shepard a single thing about where they came from, and how they came to view aliens in such a hateful, malicious light.

"Argh, I can't believe I'm saying this, but… lower your weapons, men. No hostiles in play…" Graves took a deep breath. Unknown to Shepard and his two squadmates, more than once did he try to assume control of the commander's mind, but for some reason, he shrugged off every attempt like they were nothing. "Well, for now."

"Now that that's settled, we should ask the quarians why they're here, commander." Miranda suggested. "A group of aliens in a human colony can't be good."

"If I hear one more xenophobic remark…" The commander mumbled before composing himself once more.

"Commander Shepard?"

Shepard turned to the synthesized voice behind him, and found Tali.

"Shepard, is that… is it really you?" She asked.

The commander removed the rebreather and the visor attached to his helmet, exposing his weathered features. "It's me, Tali. You remember that geth data I gave you years ago? Did it help you complete your Pilgrimage?"

"Yes… yes it did." She answered.

"That's Commander Shepard?" One of the quarian marines asked, with a bit of doubt in her voice. "Why's your old captain working for Cerberus?"

Tali considered the marine's words. "Shepard wouldn't fake his death and disappear for two years just to work for terrorists. There must be a good reason why he's working for them." From the sound of her tone, Shepard knew she couldn't quite believe it was really himself standing before her. He found himself slightly offended.

"Hey, I'm not working for Cerberus. I'm working with them." He reattached his rebreather and his visor back to his helmet. "I died after I got spaced, and Cerberus spent a whole lot of credits just to bring me back. In exchange, they asked me to investigate these disappearances in human fringe colonies." He explained, a little but more forceful than he intended."

"Likely story." Another one of the quarians said, derision clear in his voice. "No organization would spend so much just to bring back one soldier, no matter how well-funded they are."

"You haven't seen the commander in action, Niko." Tali responded disdainfully. "Trust me, it was money well spent." She then turned to Shepard once again.

"Perhaps we could work together," The quarian suggested. "We're looking for one of our own named Veetor'Nara. He was last seen here on Pilgrimage."

The commander furrowed his eyebrows. "Isn't that a little strange? A quarian visiting a secluded human colony?"

"We quarians can choose where we please to go on Pilgrimage. Veetor liked the idea of helping out a small settlement. He was always erm, nervous, in crowds." Tali explained. "I know it does seem like an unusual trait for a quarian to possess."

"What she means is that Veetor's unstable." One of the taller marines stated straightforwardly. "Paired with the damage done to his suit's CO2 scrubbers, and an infection from an open air exposure, and he's most likely not right in the head right now."

"Well," Tali began to explain. "When he saw us landing, he fled to a warehouse on the far side of town. He'd already programmed the defense mechs to attack anything that moved, but with Heinrich's help,"

Shepard tilted his head from Tali to the human amongst the quarians. The commander was legendary for his Holmes-esque ability of getting detailed information of people with just a quick glance, but unfortunately, the man's helmet prevented him from penetrating his defenses. All he could tell is that he's absolutely enormous, and he's hefting an equally enormous, backpack-fed, minigun-like contraption. Compared to Dmitriyev's massive frame, Heinrich still is a little bit dwarfed, but at least he doesn't look puny compared to the MEC Trooper.

"We killed off most of the mechs. Now, we only have to worry about the missile drones near the warehouse." Tali finished.

"Hmm. Veetor's the only person in this colony to live to see another day. He's the only one who can tell us what happened here. We need our teams to work together to find him."

The quarian nodded. "Good idea. You've already got two teams, but with our support, we can smash through the mechs much easier."

"Wait, now we're working with terrorists?" A spindly-looking marine disbelievingly asked. "I thought a 'Zorah would've known better!"

"No, Rohm. You're working for Prazza, and he's working for me." Tali retorted. "Isn't that right, Prazza?"

Heinrich slanted his head to the right.

"Yes, Tali. Whatever you say." Prazza's disturbing monotone persisted.

Tali, with a triumphant smirk behind her helmet, turned to Shepard. "Head for the warehouse through the center of the colony. We'll circle around the side and draw off some of the drones to clear you a path."

"Good plan, Tali." Shepard unslung his weapon out. "Make sure to keep in radio contact, and… since I've already got myself a-"

The hab's metallic walls near the door collapsing cut Shepard off. When the dust settled, the MEC Trooper's form could be found, still retracting his rocket-fist. To everyone's flat stares, he could only respond, "What? It was lonely outside. I figured I'd shout at someone too."

Graves, Bouchard and Conagher could only roll their eyes. The quarians all asked a variation of 'what did he say?' or 'what is that?' Miranda and Jacob dusted themselves off.

"Like I said," Shepard continued. "I've already got myself an overabundance of soldiers, so you can take Jacob and Miranda with you. Figured you could use some biotic support."

"No, thanks." Tali immediately responded. "I'd like to keep myself as far away from Cerberus as possible. We'll manage."

The quarian then turned to Heinrich, who was just about to pick his unconscious teammate from the floor.

"Oh, and by the way, you should take a look at her." Tali gestured to Claudia. "I don't know much about human physiology, but I think she's really hurt. Get her to a doctor soon."

Shepard spared a glance at the two soldiers. "We will. Come on, we've got an objective to take."

21:14 TCUT

Heinrich walked along the path to the target quarian with his fellow XCOM operatives. He reminded himself to thank Commander Shepard for leaving one of his own to evacuate the wounded Claudia. In a way, he was glad to be back with familiar faces, but then he remembered that if he strayed too far from Tali's group, his mind link with Prazza will be severed, and he'll be back to his uncooperative, hot-headed self. It can be assured that he'll try to assume command of his squad once more.

"Fischer. What the hell were you doing back there?"

Heinrich sighed. He was expecting Graves to have him spill his guts out, but not this early.

"Those aliens saved me and Claudia from a whole street full of hostile robots. I didn't reveal anything important, if that's what you're asking."

"No, I'm not asking you that. One of them had one of our alloy cannons on its person. I can only assume that you gave one to it."

Scheiße. Heinrich cursed internally. He had completely forgotten about the shotgun he gave to Tali, and now, he's about to catch a real tongue-lashing from Graves. Technically, there's a rule in XCOM that sometimes requires an operative to provide a piece of XCOM's technology to forces that still haven't had access to Ethereal tech in order to turn the tide against the extraterrestrial invasion. Sometimes, he'd give a spare plasma pistol or a worn out arc thrower to hapless, under-equipped soldiers, but with no Ethereals in sight, the rule has gone defunct.

"Well? What's your excuse?" Graves prodded on.

"I gave an alloy cannon to it," Heinrich knew full well on how Graves violently reacted to people calling the aliens something other than 'it'. "Because I noticed that it did not have a weapon in hand. I observed that it apparently had a really precise aim with a shotgun."

"You idiot." Graves spat out. "You gave an X-ray a piece of XCOM-issue equipment?"

"I did." Heinrich stated simply, having predicted that no good can come from being deceptive. "I made a tactical decision, and it paid off. Hell, I think it even deserved its own alloy cannon, saving both of our lives like that."

"Listen, you stupid fucking Kraut," Graves grabbed hold of Heinrich's armored collar, pulling him close so that they stood faceplate-to-faceplate. "I don't care what the hell your reasons are. I'm ordering you to retrieve that alloy cannon from it, even if you'd have to mindfuck it to death and pry the damn thing off its claws. Do you hear me, Fischer?!"

So far, Bouchard, Conagher and Dmitriyev stayed out of the two soldiers' conversation, but now, Bouchard appeared to be priming her arc thrower.

To avoid being electrocuted, Heinrich smashed his already damaged faceplate into Graves'. The impact was so strong that the colonel was knocked off his feet.

"As far as I know, there's no more XCOM, colonel. Or should I just call you 'Michael', or 'Graves' now?" Heinrich said in between breaths, just as Graves picked himself up. "Only Claire can order me around, and she's dead. I'm my own man now."

"Hey!" Shepard and Miranda arrived a little too late when they heard the deafening clunk that shattered the silence. "What the hell is going on out here?"

"Nothing, goddammit!" Graves barked at Shepard. He brushed himself off before walking forwards once more. "Move out, Xenobane!" The colonel tapped into his radio and poured every bit of vitriol he could muster in his voice. "I'll have your head for that, Fischer."

Heinrich sighed. "Try if you must. You're going mad with that grudge of yours."

A distorted growl from Graves was what Heinrich heard as his response.

21:17 TCUT

"I don't recommend bringing Colonel Graves with us, commander." Miranda voiced through her radio to Shepard. "He's too unstable for my liking."

"Yeah, he's a bit more of a racist than those Terra Firma spokespeople, and that's a compliment." Shepard quipped. "But I keep my promises. We'll take him back to Triton, where him and his men can hitch a ride to Earth, if that's what he wants."

"Your call, commander." Was all Miranda said before she cut comms. Shepard continued moving towards the objective when his radio came back to life.

"…Commander Shepard?" A new voice entered Shepard's radio channel. "Is this the right channel?"

The commander recognized it. "Ah, Captain Bouchard. Is there something you need?"

"Well… yes." With a sigh, the captain spoke, "I'd like to apologize for Michael's behavior. Take my word for it; he's a lot more reasonable and even-tempered when he's around us humans. When you forced him to work with aliens, I think he didn't take it well."

"I take it that you don't like aliens as well?" Shepard's words formed out of his mouth faster than he could suppress it.

"I can't say I do." Bouchard admitted reluctantly. "Where we came from, the only good thing they brought with them is their technology, which our scientists had reverse-engineered for our own use.

"Hey, uh, Commander Shepard?" Another new voice entered the channel. "Don't let the colonel's belligerence get to ya. That's his way of coping with being the only survivor of an SAS unit overtaken by Chryssalids."

"Lieutenant Conagher, right?" In response, Conagher made a humming sound. Shepard continued, "You said Graves was with the SAS, as in the obsolete British special forces group back in the 20th, 21st and early 22nd centuries, correct?"

"If it helps, it stood for 'Special Air Service', commander. We wouldn't know anything about history here." Bouchard answered.

"Huh, so you really are time travellers, but I didn't see soldiers from a hundred and a half years ago running around with energy weapons and powered armor, trying to push back an alien invasion back in history class."

"Commander, this is Heinrich." And another voice joined in.

Shepard nearly laughed. He was convinced that soon, his channel will become a full-fledged 'idle conversations' channel. "Major Heinrich, I've got Bouchard and Conagher on the line as well, but I'm always willing to listen. You've got something you need to talk about?"

"Yes, commander." The major took a deep breath. "You see, if you asked Graves where all of us came from, he'll most likely say it's classified, or something similar. Fortunately for you, I don't believe that the Council of Nations are still around to court-martial me for revealing 'classified' information."

"What, like you're time travellers or something?" Shepard facetiously proposed.

"Not exactly, commander." Bouchard said. "We're from a parallel univ-"

"Missile drones are inbound on your position, Shepard!" Tali's voice entered the channel.

This time, Shepard actually laughed. "Why is it that when someone's gonna say something important, something dangerous happens?" He remarked. "Anyway, let's cut this conversation short for now. We'll have the rest of it back at Triton."

With that, the commander cut comms.

21:22 TCUT

Shepard leaned adjacent to the wall. He ordered Miranda to take cover on the other side, while the XCOM operatives took cover wherever they can. Tali reported that her squad of marines mutinied against her and went straight for Veetor's hideout with reckless abandon. To their misfortune, an YMIR heavy mech and about two dozen LOKI security mechs stood guard in front of the hideout doors.

"Open the doors, Tali!" Shepard shouted through his radio. "Your squad isn't going to last much longer out there!"

The doors to the warehouse complex swiftly slid open, and as expected, the quarian marines were being wiped across the floor by the synthetics.

"Außerirdische schwachkopf…" Heinrich muttered to himself.

Instantly, Graves had already ordered Bouchard and Conagher to draw fire from the YMIR while they thinned the LOKI ranks. Since he's such a large target, Dmitriyev stood behind the wall while he waited for the order to go.

Shepard picked off a mech whenever he can while trying to stay unseen, while Miranda and Heinrich coordinated their attacks to put down a group of clustered mechs.

By the time the LOKI mechs are almost completely wiped out, the MEC Trooper had already begun his sprint towards the heavy mech. He raised his gigantic gauntlet to shield himself from the YMIR's mass accelerator cannons. Once he was close enough, Dmitriyev pummelled the mech to the ground with one swift strike of his KSM, flattening its chest. To prevent the mech from standing up, Dmitriyev clamped down on its torso with a giant, ironclad foot before finishing it off with a point blank particle cannon blast to the head. By now, the MEC trooper knew that destroying an YMIR mech always triggered a sizable explosion, so he safely avoided the following blast by retreating to a safe distance.

Shepard set the last of the mechs to overload explosively. He could only grumble angrily when he found that only a couple of quarian marines survived. "Right, that's the last. Xenobane, stay here. Heinrich, guard the door. Miranda, with me. Let's get our quarian."

Before he opened the door to Veetor, Shepard opened a comm link to Bouchard. "Captain, I heard you're a medic. If you've got some spare medical supplies, can you do me a favor and help Tali out with the wounded? I understand if you refuse, but who knows, they might get a good impression of you, unlike your CO."

"Um, err… I'll see what I can do, commander." The captain responded back. "Michael isn't going to like this."

The commander cut comms and opened the door, revealing Veetor'Nara sitting in front of a wall of display screens displaying some distorted footage of something. As expected, the quarian was in the middle of a bout of delirium and paranoia.

"Monsters coming back. Mechs will protect. Safe from swarms. Have to hide. No monsters, no swarms. Nonononono." He babbled.

"Veetor?" Shepard called out, but the quarian remained seemingly uncaring of the commander his Cerberus escort's presence. He continued tapping away at a holographic keyboard, seemingly for no reason at all.

"No Veetor. Not here, swarms can't find me. Monsters coming. Have to hide." Veetor continued gibbering.

Now, how the hell am I gonna get this kid to pay attention to me? Shepard pondered. Ah, downers. You're a freakin' genius, brain. I swear, getting spaced made you a lot smarter.

"Captain Bouchard? Still there?"

A small wave of static washed over the radio before Bouchard's voice emerged. "I've given an alien a couple of spare canisters of Medmist, her name's Tali, I think. I even had to explain to her how to apply them." She reported quite enthusiastically. "Anyway, is there something you need, commander?"

"Have you got some sedatives with you?" Shepard asked. "I've got a delirious quarian here, and I need him to stop acting like a hyperactive salarian and talk to me."

A minute of listening to Veetor babble like a newborn child later, the door behind Miranda folded open, revealing the captain, clutching something that looked like a cube on a pistol grip.

"Where's this alien?" She asked.

"What's that, the sedatives?" Miranda inquired.

"It's called an arc thrower. If you need an alien electrocuted non-fatally for capture and interrogatio-"

Shepard laughed. "No, I don't need Veetor electrocuted. I just need something to alleviate his delirium so he could talk. Have you got something like that?"

"Aha, well… no." Bouchard stated. "Not in a traditional sense, but I've got something that could be used as a substitute."

For some reason, the captain removed her helmet, revealing her face. It seems that it was common for XCOM operatives to have exhausted-looking, drawn-out features. Yet, despite this, Captain Bouchard still looked sharp, even if she looked like she's going to pass out any minute now. She took out a pair of glasses from a side satchel and perched them on her eyes.

"This is Veetor, no?" She gestured to the feverish quarian.

"Yes, captain." Miranda answered. "What are you planning?"

"This might look unusual." Was Bouchard's only answer.

Captain Bouchard reached for her temple, like she's having a headache. Her eyes, which were a blurry green in one second, suddenly took on a glowing purple hue. She then slowly outstretched her hand to Veetor, like she was reaching out for him.

Almost instantly, the quarian stood up from his seat, just as Bouchard's eyes returned to their original color.

"Veetor?" Shepard called out once more, after he regained his composure after seeing Bouchard's glowing eyes. "Are you alright?"

The quarian turned around. "You're… you're human! How come they didn't find you?"

"Who didn't find us?" Miranda queried.

"The monsters, the swarms. They took everyone." Strange, it appears that Veetor's tone is much more coherent than what a person would expect from a sick quarian. "The colonists were taken by monsters. They didn't fight back because they were… paralyzed.

With that said, Veetor programmed the screens behind him to play the colony's security footage, which looked much more clear now.

"What is that?" Shepard asked, to no one in particular at what he saw. It appeared to be a group of insect-like humanoids, hauling off the paralyzed humans into strange pods.

"My God. That's a Collector, Shepard." Miranda, after a moment's pause, answered.

"I thought the Collectors kept to themselves."

"They typically do, but if they needed something, they usually work through intermediaries, like slavers or hired mercenaries." Miranda informed. "If they're involved with the Reapers somehow, it could explain what happened to the colonies."

"Don't they have some really high-tech weaponry, like some sort of device that disables entire colonies at one go?"

"That's mostly based on rumors, Shepard. Unless we get to personally encounter them, I think we'll never know."

Shepard sighed gravely. "What happened next, Veetor?"

"The monsters took the people onto their ship, and they left. The ship just flew away like they've done this before. That's all I saw."

Miranda huffed. "I think that's all we can learn out of him, Shepard."

Shepard nodded. "We appreciate your help, Veetor. You've been quite helpful."

"Wait, commander." Veetor brought up his omni-tool. "I studied them, the swarms. I recorded them with my omni-tool. I've detected a lot of readings; electromagnetic and dark energy, mostly."

Suddenly, Miranda's attention went from Shepard's scars, to Veetor once more. "Good. We're going to need that data for the Illusive Man. We need you to come with us to the shuttle for… questioning."

The door to Veetor's hideout folded open, and in came Tali. "What? Veetor's injured! He needs treatment, not an interrogation!"

"We won't do anything harmful." Miranda said, with a hint of disdain in her voice. "We just need to see if he knows anything else. After that, we'll bring him back to the Migrant Fleet, good as new."

A fleeting pause later, Miranda continued. "Your people tried to betray us once already. If we give him to you, we'll never get the intel we need."

Tali heaved a frustrated sigh. "Prazza was an idiot. If it weren't for the extra hands Shepard brought, even his men might've paid for his stupidity. You're free to take Veetor's omni-tool data but please, just let me take him!"

"I did a scan on him with my sweeper glasses." Bouchard said, walking over next to the quarian. "Your species' biological construct is quite different compared to humans, but I recognized enough to know that he's traumatized, and he needs immediate medical care."

"Thank you, captain. Miranda, we'll take Veetor's omni-tool data, and Tali can take him to the flotilla." Shepard said.

"Understood, commander…" Was all the Cerberus operative could say, letting enough venom into her voice to let Shepard know that she didn't like his decision.

"Thank you, Shepard." Tali said, quite relieved at how the situation turned out. "I'm glad you're the one still giving the orders. Good luck out there. If I find anything that can help you, I'll let you know. Like always."

Tali then turned to Captain Bouchard. "I think I may have misjudged you, Elise. Thank you for your help earlier. I owe you and Heinrich a lot." The quarian then took Veetor by the shoulder and left the hab.

"Hah, that went well." Shepard said, feeling a little bit better despite having just come back from the dead. "Miranda, call the shuttle. Tell them to land another one too; I don't think putting a giant cyborg with us in the shuttle is a good idea."

March 30th, Triton Station, 00:57 TCUT

The Illusive Man's holographic figure appeared on his usual spot, a cigarette in one hand, and a shot of alcohol in another.

"Shepard. Good work on Freedom's Progress." He took a drag out of his cigarette. "The quarians forwarded their findings from Veetor's debriefing. No new data, but it's a surprising olive branch, given our history. You and I have different methods, but I can't argue with your results."

Shepard leaned on one foot. "You ever think about trying to make nice once in a while?"

"Diplomacy is great when it works, but difficult when everyone already perceives you as a threat. But more importantly, you confirmed the Collectors are behind the abductions in human colonies."

Shepard folded his arms. "Why do I get the feeling that you knew about them already?"

"I had my suspicions. I needed proof, and the Collectors are enigmatic at best." The Illusive Man took another drag. "They periodically travel to the Terminus Systems, looking for seemingly unimportant items or specimens. More usually in exchange for their technology. When their transactions are complete, they disappeared as quickly as they arrived, back to the Omega 4 Relay. Until now, we have no evidence of direct aggression by the Collectors."

The commander shifted his glance to the sun behind the Illusive Man briefly. "You're holding something back. How do you know the Reapers are involved, anyway?"

"The patterns are there, buried in the data. The Council and the Alliance wanted everyone to believe that the Reaper threat died with Sovereign. You and I know better. I won't wait until the Reapers are on the march. We need to take the fight to them."

The commander suddenly got a brilliant idea. "If this is a war, then I'll need an army. Unfortunately, I'm not really trained for sitting pretty in a desk and issuing orders to soldiers I can't see." He leaned forwards. "I need a small group of specialists, the best in their fields."

The Illusive Man nodded. "I've already compiled a list of soldiers, scientists and mercenaries. You'll get dossiers on the best of them and," His mouth formed into a wry smirk. "I think I've already found at least six soldiers for your team of specialists."

"Yeah, I was with them in Freedom's Progress." Shepard confirmed. "They're one of the most highly trained and better-equipped soldiers you could find in this side of the galaxy. I have just one problem, though."

"I've seen your helmet's combat recorder," The Illusive Man said. "Each of the four remaining members of this… 'Xenobane Squad' possess some degree of innate hostility and contempt for aliens, especially the leader, Colonel Graves. However, I can't deny that he makes for a good squad leader, as exemplified by his high rank. Do what you can to convince them to join you, commander. From what I've seen, convincing them alone could be challenging, but you're a natural leader."

"Also if you do manage to convince them, which I have no doubts that you'll do, remember that they are from a parallel universe." The Illusive Man added. "They might eventually have second thoughts about your mission in favor of formulating a plan to go back to where they came from, but you must never forget that you've got a bigger task in hand, and their help would be invaluable."

Shepard nodded half-heartedly. "You worry about the Collectors. I'll make sure my team's ready."

The Illusive Man once again inhaled a drag. "Good. Two things before you go. First, head to Omega and find Dr. Mordin Solus. He's a brilliant salarian scientist. Our intel suggests that he may be able to provide a way to counteract the Collectors' paralyzing seeker swarms."

"Alright," Shepard, having no other options to take, resignedly said. "And the other thing is?"

"I found a pilot I think you might like. I hear he's one of the best," The Illusive Man reached for his console, to cut off his feed. "Someone you could trust."

The holographic figure dematerialized, and Shepard found himself back at Triton's familiar dull white walls.

"Hey, commander."

Shepard turned around, and found the last human being he ever saw during his first life's zenith.

"Just like old times, huh?"

As an added note, all of the OCs depicted in this fic are 'real' operatives (they were actually in a Classic Ironman game, with slightly different names). They served me extremely well, and I've grown attached to them, so I gave them personalities, backgrounds and stuff. Special thanks to my dog, Admiral Kunkka. Who's a good widdle magic sword wielding doggie? Who's a good- oh, crap!

Extra note: If you happen to find some grammatical errors, let me know. I did this on a rush. Thank you.

Extra extra note: This might be updated monthly. Might.