Chapter 88

Ilos, Pangaea Expanse, January 2183

Unlike anywhere in the Migrant Fleet, this place was built to have space. Thousands of soldiers could marshall in this area and still have room between them and others. So when Tesai decided to start singing, Tali jumped right into a giant pit of Asari and Humans. Some Batarians were on the edges, clapping and growling and stamping their feet. Krogan would humm, their deep throated noises making everyone's suit tingle with the sonic vibrations. Hanar did something with colors and spinning tentacles that was just as entertaining to watch as it was to be blinded by. It was exciting to see so many different races coming together and enjoying themselves.

Tali had selected a decently tall male Quarian to partner with, He had a thin set of shoulders, but his hips and legs were what Auntie Raan would call 'fit to dream about'. Tali wiggled her feet and offered him the position to her left, the tassels of her Alliance officer markings swaying as she danced. She was proud of them, but never had she been proven if they were proud of her. The dancing helped some, but as she started dancing with this male he started stumbling, and she had to slow down to be respectful of her choice in him.

It let her mind drift. Let her think about all the things that could go wrong. All of the problems that had hounded her since she had received her first suit. Since her father had shown her how to harvest organs and bone marrow. Since her mother had passed the point of no return, and fleet protocol had stated that her body needed to be harvested before the immune system fully collapsed. The dark memories came to her sometimes, when she had run out of things to do or her mind wandered. Shaking her mind out of it, she started dancing closer to the nice male. She still didn't know his name. He just had nice hips. She reached out, brushing his arm. He flinched, twitching away from her. Just like all the rest. She stopped dancing, stepping off the dance floor.

The male with the nice hips was long gone by the time she had refocused enough to turn around. Bosh'tet. Yervf nar Rayya was like that too. Most of the Quarians she met were terrified of her. Terrified of her family, and what they had done. She groaned in frustration. She had killed a Reaper, and she was still being treated like death walking. She no longer felt like dancing, even though Tesai was right there. The real thing, and she didn't even feel like dancing to a live performance. Some Quarian she was.

She felt someone tapping her arm. It was such an odd feeling that it didn't feel real at first. When she turned to face whoever had the courage to do it, she found herself looking at a Quarian. Male, tall, with some kind of armor reinforcement over his encounter suit. In fact, the armor was reinforced more than any other Quarian she had ever met, but only around his joints. Odd, since armor was supposed to stop people from killing you, not reinforce your own joints. The armor was colored black, while his hood was a faded red color. His hips were not quite as shapely as the insult she had been dancing with, but were very much in the acceptable range.

"Hey!" He half-shouted, so that she clearly heard him over the music. "Who was that bosh that just left the pretty girl?"

"No idea." Tali said without any emotion. She was wary that this could be just some kind of play between males. Sometimes the guys would do this kind of stupid offensive thing to get a girl's attention. "Who are you?"

"Captain Shev'rash vas Lucky Break." The stitches on her stomach quivered along with the rest of her muscles. Captain of the shipyard? "I'm kind of in awe."

"Awe of what?" Tali's voice didn't even quiver once. She silently smiled behind her vizor. Shev'rash was one of the louder voices in the Conclave, even though he rarely deigned to say anything. He was openly disdainful of the Conclave and their traditions. He openly disagreed with her father. It would be terrible for her father to see them speaking.

"I'm kind of into booze and explosives. Something that causes a big explosion? With enough force to kill a Reaper? I've got some of my private stock of spirits and I want to know every detail about a bomb that good." He was holding some kind of vial, with a blue tint to it. "Eh?"

Tali gave her hips a good swagger as she approached him. "How familiar are you with element zero that is refined and then processed?"

"I should mention," Shev'rash stated, "That I'm part of the reason that Quarians are not allowed near Korlus any longer. Apparently when you try to mix a Salarian fusion plant and a Human Omni-gel forge, you can create quite the explosion." He chuckled, a dark laugh that revealed more about his character than anything else. There had been rumors that he had been involved in some kind of explosion as a child and gotten sent on his pilgrimage early. Very early. "So, what do you say, Tali'Zorah vas…?"

"I haven't chosen a ship yet!" She had turned off her Omni-tool. "Zaal'Koris and my father are arguing over it already, and Han'gerrel is offering me something too." She shuddered. Four Admirals all wanted her. The only one who hadn't made an offer was Daro'Xen. "I haven't even finished reading the message."

"Well, I won't offer you a spot on the Lucky Break. Have to save those for the weak and the damaged. Don't want them to end up on your father's operating tables, eh?" He chuckled again, openly mentioning taboo. "You're too good for my ship. Taking you in would ruin all kinds of shit I've put together. I've got a reputation, you know?"

She finally took the offered vial, letting her suit scan it for dangerous substances. It registered as a possible dangerous substance, with enough alcohol in it to knock her right out. She set it to be diluted with some water. "So what, then? You want a ship that will be full of invalid workers and crippled technicians in ten years?"

"You think those people would survive if they had to beg for a position somewhere else? I'm giving people hope, here. I was one of those cripples! We don't have many biotics, Tali. May I call you that?" He offered her a moment to nod. "There are maybe a dozen of us that reached adulthood in the fleet. I'm the one who not only made a name for myself, but I plan on getting rid of the stigma that we already ascribe to this. I represent a medical cost that your father normally wouldn't justify. But since I'm a biotic badass, they actually shell out for my medical necessities. But for these cripples and invalids, I am the best chance they've got to have a normal life. I don't care what the fleet says or what bullshit they want to push on me. I am not liquefying my crew into antibiotics just because someone else claims they have nothing useful to offer."

"I see." Tali said. She didn't know what to think, and the repairs on the Normandy that had been done at the Lucky Break had been rather high in quality. "When they worked on my ship they seemed rather competent."

"Hope." Shev'rash took another vial and attached it to his intake systems. There was already one there, on a different port. "If they believe they are capable, then they are going to do their best. Elitism without all the arrogance of someone that gets to be on the Rayya or one of the other liveships. Chief Director Bastard made me a Captain. I'm going to show him and the Conclave how much they will regret that decision!"

"How many of those vials have you had?" She asked, finally sipping from her nutrient tube of whatever he had made. If he was taking entire vials of the stuff she should be able to handle some .. woah. Her tongue exploded with taste, and she let out a very loud screech. It was also a laugh.

"Oh ho! The lady of the hour finally tries it. It's my take on Turian brandy, mixed with some of the Kreshk fiber leaves from Rannoch." Shev'rash said. "I have had only a few swigs of the main stuff. This has real taste to it, while the other Quarian friendly drinks were made from Brohg tubers. Tasteless, but some kick to it." Tali could feel a heady feeling as she took another sip.

"It's good! I've never had anything like it!" She gave him an odd look. "How did you get Kreshk fibers? Aren't those purely for use in the liveships?"

"I traded some plants from Rannoch. Chief Bastard went there to go get something, didn't read the fine print when he decided to bring me along. We took four hundred fresh specimens from Rannoch back to the liveships. Since they are different enough genetically, we can use them to fill in the problems our own crop has been having. But with that I was able to trade for what I think the Turians are going to call Nectar wine."

"You've been to the homeworld!" All thought stopped, as she accidentally sipped another heady burst of flavor. "How!" She blinked. "Why?!"

"Oh." Was his reply. "Chief Bastard wanted to get something from the planet. We took the SR-2 and slipped past the Geth detection nets. Probably aren't going to be able to do that again. Either way, we got some art and plants, and the Conclave shat themselves."

Tali's legs decided to feel a bit weak at the idea of someone stepping foot on Rannoch. A biotic ability kept her from falling. "What was it like?" She asked, almost a whisper.

"Like we belong there." Shev'rash looked up through the windows at the sun. "The light filtered better. There was pollens in the air that I keep in a small vial in my suit. We all scraped ourselves down afterwards to test for anything, but mostly so each of us could have samples of the air and the pollens. Next time I have a few days off I'm going to take my helmet off and test those out." He sighed in contentment. Then his face took a dour turn, his eyes halfway closing and his chin tilting. "The Geth have maintained all of our buildings, but none of the colors. All of the flags and decorations that are in the old pictures are gone. We took four statues that were hand carved, though. One of them is on the Lucky Break."

She could feel a slight pressure in her head, and she wasn't sure if it was the drink or the man in front of her. "Please, tell me more."

"After you lock your knee joints so I don't have to Pull you up again. And!" He swayed a bit himself, but his own knee joints already locked to support him. "After you tell me about how you fought at the Citadel. I want to know what it took to kill one of these bosh'tet Reapers." Tali smirked. Popularity and opportunity were shining on her today.


Chamber of Contemplation, Ilos, Pangaea Expanse, January 2183

Joker had tried none of the newfangled drinks that were being offered. Well, 'tried' in the marine sense. Sipping was totally occurring. He just wasn't chugging anything like the other Normandy crew. But he was very much going to be buying some of this 'blood elixir' the Batarians had brought to this party. That stuff was tart, but t the same time had a great burn. He wheeled his chair back over, coming in front of a giant wooden cask.

"Human." The shirtless Batarian in control of the cask. "You find our swill worthy of your tongue?"

"I demand some more." Julia had explained to him one night on the Normandy that the words 'please' and 'thank you' did not exist in their language. They had like thirty forms of the word 'demand', though. "That stuff is a unique experience." Flattery of course existed in every language.

The Batarian turned up his lips, but didn't show his teeth. A good sign. "For you? You honor my work. Your demands shall be met." Instead of a little cup, he handed Joker a pint. "With all the honor you deserve."

"Hey hey!" Joker said appreciatively. "I'll be sure to come back!"

The Batarian grinned. "The SIU would be agreeable to your presence." Joker's good feeling faltered. "You are welcome to visit us upon the planet Spekilas in the Harsa system as an honored guest. Our pilots would benefit from your experience."

"I'll keep that in mind." Joker said, nodding as he moved his wheelchair away from him. At no point in the conversation did he show his teeth. That was important, with these guys. The Special Interrogation Unit were the kind of bad dudes that gave the Batarian military their creepy vibe. Their combat doctrine was something like victory at any cost. Worse than the Salarians, in fact. Unlike the Salarian STG, though, the SIU didn't have a combat doctrine that defined civilian or unacceptable casualties. Hell, they didn't even take prisoners unless they had value. Those guys were souped up thugs. Well, he amended mentally, thugs with hundreds of years of experience and a technological advantage.

His chair had to go around a massive pile of people dancing. He gave any Krogan or Hanar he saw a wide berth. No point messing around with those things. Krogan because the freaking obvious, and Hanar because he saw what one of those things could do alone on the Normandy. Some of his nightmares featured that thing coming out of a vent with a surgical instrument. He gave anything with tentacles a wide berth these days. As he went around a particularly large pack of murder-jellies, he came across something he didn't expect to see. Other people in wheelchairs.

One of them was a female with green skin. A Drell, but he had only seen that kind of species when browsing Fornax. She had bandages and a wrap over her arm. Her eyes focused on everything, it seemed like. It was like a bug staring at a room. The second chair held a Human, with brown hair that seemed a bit scruffy. The chin though, it got his attention. It was familiar. "Holy crap." Joker stopped his chair in front of the two. "Jenkins?"

Jenkins didn't respond. He didn't even look at him. "Buddy?" Joker said quietly. "You're still a buddy of mine, right? The shooting and stealing of the ship thing, that's just in the past. Right?"

"Good luck with him." An older man appeared from out of nowhere, a goatee and graying hair concealing blue eyes that glanced over Joker sharply. "He's so doped up that he can't even notice how cheap this beer is. He heard a Harper speaking and, well, the old mental reprogramming kicked in and his adrenaline levels spiked. We're still working on it, but when he's lucid he seems quite guilty. He has wanted to apologize to some of you about his actions. Can't figure out his thyroid issue yet, and with all those implants at the base of his spine I have to be more careful." He held out his hand. "Henry Lawson."

"Dr. Heart?" Joker corrected.

"An alias, I am afraid." The man said. Now that Joker was paying attention, this guy had more of an accent than Dr. Heart did. "Now, m'boy, as your doctor I have to recommend you don't mention any of the director's family by name around this one. He has small fits of rage whenever he sees something that triggers a memory of them. It wasn't done using any Human methods, and the Hanar aren't sure where Finds-Secrets found this scientific process."

"Isn't this supposed to be the most advanced scientific lab in the galaxy or something?" Joker asked. "You don't know what's implanted into his head?"

"I didn't say that I wasn't aware, only that we aren't sure. My gut is on Collector technology. It's too much like grayboxes and nerve spikes, those awful things Batarians developed. Not without help, of course. Needed the Collectors to take their slavery into the space-age, that they did." Henry seemed jovial, even though he was talking about a man's ruined life. "So, I need to keep both of these projects under control before I get to work on the near-total skeleton replacement I have scheduled in a few days."

Skeleton replacement? Joker's lips pulled back in panic. "Whoa! I haven't even picked yet!"

"Then you're a fool." Henry said callously. "I design you a fully functional skeleton that addresses every single weakness you've ever had, and gives you bones that can block biotic bullshit, and you have the gall to complain? You want to live anything less than a full life?"

"No!" Joker responded quickly. "I just don't want to work for a guy that kills millions of people!" Jack Harper might dress nice, but that guy was trouble. At least in the Alliance you had the assurance that the pain in the ass above you in the command chain was liable to not kill you. Harper didn't have that. He could make any of them disappear at any time, and he wouldn't bat an eyelid. Joker didn't trust people like that on principle, and even with the fantastic offer, there was no way that Joker could ever become complacent. Not when this guy was in charge.

"Too bad!" Henry said back. "Huerta is going to either carve a trail of blood to save his administration with you as his scapegoat, or you can become more than an expensive paperweight and fly again. Jack isn't planning on keeping you here. These Reapers are going to end, one way or another. Or if we shall end, then I won't consider myself useless or worse, guilty because I never acted where I could have." Henry had a tired voice, but there was fire there. "I have squandered my life's work just for the chance to live. My family and I were held hostage for a decade. My patents and technology doesn't belong to me. I'm a regular Philo Farnsworth! No credit for bringing modern medical science up to par! So, even though I know I'm working for a mass murderer and a jackass, I still know that I have a future. Maybe one day, that future will include me on a beach smothering my grandchildren with my well-deserved love! So, you'll keep your god-damned appointment with me. It's going to take more than 72 hours to fully replace your skeleton, and I expect you to co-operate with me on that. Or you can just become the Alliance's most expensive paperweight." There was a pause.

"You've made your point." Joker said. "I just don't like the price tag." He couldn't trust anyone that made more than him on principle, anyways.

"You, m'boy, have no idea what kind of price tag you carry. We designed this skeleton for you. An entire project just for a pilot. I wasn't convinced of its necessity until you showed off what you're capable of. We aren't buying your loyalty with this skeleton. No, this is going to make you faster, better. Your musculature will need a few modifications to handle what we are doing, but when we are done we are going to address your weaknesses. I'm a perfectionist, and if you aren't the very peak of Human possibility by the time I'm through, you can be the one to rip up my medical license." Henry said with a hint of pride. "Life has a price. Either whine about it or look beyond it."

"Will it hurt?" Joker asked quietly.

Henry grinned, his teeth reflecting the lights from the dance floor. Most of them looked like they were veneers. "Oh yes." He even laughed a little bit. Jenkins finally reacted at the laugh, his eye twitching in panic and his arm clenching. "Oh! Pesky pesky thyroid. Back to bed with you!" He glanced at the other wheelchair. "Kreana, I trust that you can handle yourself?"

The Drell nodded. Joker wheeled himself away, coming out of the crowd over by the elevators. He was very much avoiding the crazy doctor. This explained so much about what the crew muttered about Dr. Heart. His wheels got a little bit of speed as he came around the elevators, a few Batarians leaning on each other in front of one of the tubes. They cried out as someone tumbled out, knocking over a couple of their number. "Joker!" It was Kaidan, but the guy looked terrible. His shoulder was bleeding from some kind of bite mark, and there were long scratches covering his chest. His shirt was missing buttons, and was just hanging open. "Where's a medic?"

Visions of Dr. Henry Lawson working over a good guy like Alenko flashed through his mind. "Yeah, that's a really bad idea." Joker said. "What happened to you?" He reached under his chair, holding up his always-stocked first aid kit.

"Well," Kaidan said, breathing hard. "Things were going fine until we got back to the bedroom."

"Oh ho ho!" Joker cackled, finally finding something pleasant to hear about. He brought his drink up to his lips, taking a long sip from it. "Give me details!"

Kaidan didn't even look offended. It must have been something. "Thanks!" He said, taking the first aid kit, as well as his nice cup of alcohol. Which he promptly poured onto his bleeding shoulder. He gave it back, hissing behind his teeth. "Gah! You might actually be the most reasonable person to talk to about all this."

"Yeah?" Joker replied, unable to stop smirking. Kaidan had used hardly any of his pint. "That looks like teeth marks, man. Didn't know the Commander was so into that-"

"She's not!" Kaidan said quickly. "But Gwyn is."

"Whoa." Joker said. "So, uh, how did that happen?"

"Not important." Kaidan said. "You're pretty good friends with the Commander. Enough to know how she thinks."

"Ah," Joker thought for a second. He wasn't gonna get anything juicy unless he went along with this. "Yeah, you could say that."

"So, first important question. If I had sex with Gwyn, would Julia consider that cheating?"

Joker's face skewed. "That's kind of metaphysical." Huh. "I mean, they share the same body, right? And you kind of paid for it in blood already." Kaidan was bright red in the face. "But Julia is gonna feel great in the morning. Besides the gigantic bruising. So maybe she might have mercy on you for that. She might not like it, but she probably wouldn't blame you. Probably." Joker emphasized. "What did the Reaper say?"

Kaidan looked completely embarrassed. "She only had compliments once the handcuffs came on." He said quietly, before his eyes widened at the realization of what he had admitted. "Um." Neither man met the other's eyes. Joker because he was trying not to laugh, and Kaidan because he was looking at the setting sun rather than anyone he could possibly know. "Uh, second question, sort of important. Would this make Julia feel vulnerable?"

"She's gonna be vulnerable whether or not you did anything, bud. I don't know women, but I do know trauma and recovery. Our Commander isn't ok right now." He tipped his glass towards Kaidan to get his attention back on him. "But the fact that you can deal with her if she gets all nasty might be a point in your favor."

"The worst is that Harper was right." He said. "She's not a Reaper, Joker. She is Human, deep down in there." Alenko closed his eyes, thinking. "She said something, and it's bugging me."

"What did it say?" Joker still hadn't met this Gwyn, and he didn't plan to. Murderous split personalities aside, Julia was terrifying enough on her own.

"She said 'just like before Ilos'. Like we had been together before." Kaidan said. "Like we had been something once. Kept calling me a Spectre."

"Yeah, that's kind of creepy." Joker admitted. "But that doesn't make it Human."

"Reapers don't compliment you for," Kaidan trailed off, licking his lips. "Anyways. Something is going on with Gwyn and it's got me thinking. If I go back to the Alliance right now, they're going to toss me in a brig. Probably for a long time while they sort out who did what and what I've done. No matter what, I'm still looking at jail and worse. Even if they didn't send me to jail, they would send me out after you guys."

Joker flinched. Yeah, that was all kinds of messed up. "You assume I've made up my mind?"

"If I were in your shoes, I would take it." Kaidan said. "I'm a political officer, Joker. I spent most of the last decade dealing with politicians and admirals. I know what will happen to those who go back. You would be lucky to fly a shuttle, much less a capital ship. Pressley is in for worse. He's got black marks on his record. Insubordination during the First Contact War, and a host of small offences. Some of them are questionable, but it's enough to bury him." Kaidan gave a sigh. "If you don't take this, I'll be disappointed."

"Really?"

"Really." He said. "You deserve some kind of recognition. Perhaps not the infamy, but certainly the recognition."

"Of course I do!" Joker agreed. "But you're the guy who just slept with a Reaper." He gently elbowed him. "So, are you staying? I don't want to do this without someone I know." They both glanced out at the crowd of people around them. Very few were familiar faces. "It would be hard to know who to trust." Most of the crew hadn't made it. Most of the people he had gotten to know were dead, now.

"It wouldn't be anything we don't already live with. They're going to view anyone who joins them with suspicion and barely any trust. Unless you're recognized as being somebody to this crowd, you're going to be facing a tough path."

"You say that like you're preparing yourself for it." Joker said. "Or is this how you sports jocks prepare for a competition?"

"I may be a jock, but that doesn't mean I can't be smart. I'm still on the fence, especially after she bit me." He glanced down at his chest, using the first aid kit to finally cover up the bite mark. "But I realize that she might need someone to keep people safe from her alter ego."

"Mm hmm." Joker said. "It's not about the hot girlfriend?"

"Joker, I could land myself into a bed in forty seconds. Julia is not just any kind of girl that you can sleep with and move onto something else." Kaidan angled his head, motioning towards a small group of Asari that were looking them over. Maybe just looking over Kaidan. The only woman to give Joker any kind of attention today had been the little Asian one. That one has some kind of godlike core strength. "So don't bring that up again. Especially if you plan on hooking up with her sister."

"Wait, wait wait." Joker's mental processes came to a shuddering halt. "Break that down for me?"

Kaidan gave him a large grin. "That girl who jumped into your lap earlier? Julia's step-sister." It was Joker's turn to look flustered. "She's kind of possessive, if I am correctly understanding what Julia told me. So be nice, Joker. She can take the Commander in close combat." His chuckle was not shared by Joker. Joker just had visions of some hot Asian girl murdering him, or Julia doing it.


Nos Astra, Illium, Crescent Nebula

Strobe lights beat down on dancers, though the floor was not as full as it should be on a weekend. Normally this place was packed to the gills. But too many people had their eyes glued to the news feeds, or their wrists. Illium was a primary hub for information coming through the Terminus and into Asari space. In the wake of everything that had happened, revelry of all kinds had become subdued. Fornax was observing three days of mourning over the deaths of so many people. Fornax of all companies was in mourning. Garrus could hardly believe it.

But it did mean that his prey had been flushed out of hiding. Desolous was going to be out here somewhere. This was the tenth bar that Garrus had walked into. Turians were not around in any serious numbers, as each of these bars were catering mostly to Asari. Leily was down there, as his eyes and ears. She was not a great choice. She had the cuteness necessary to be a lure for Desolous, but she didn't have any great instincts for finding the wily old man. Velena was her backup, while Garrus was observing them.

"Any luck, Digna?" He asked into his wrist, as he saw Leily miss another possible hiding place for Desolous. She really didn't have the right mindset for this. But she was what he had. Velena was not willing to dress up at all. She was completely unsuited for tracking Desolous. She was raised at Palaven, and had Turian mannerisms. Even the other Asari noticed in the way she walked and expressed herself. Velena was good as a bodyguard for Leily at best.

"Lots of police reports coming in. There are a couple of interesting reports. One about a Volus being threatened by a Justicar. That will do nothing for good relations." Digna Vol had fewer breaths in his sentences than other Volus. "I also have received notification that a vid-call is to be forwarded to you from the ship. Local channels don't have the required encryptions. Would you like to accept?"

Garrus considered. Encrypted channel meant that it had to be from command. Either way, not a comfortable conversation to be having in a lounge chair inside of a bar. "Commander Vakarian speaking." He said quietly.

"See, Solana, patience wears away any bone." Garrus could feel his crop tighten in the back of his throat. "My son! Such joy it brings me to see you alive." His mother was looking aware and awake today. "When we heard the news we feared the worst!"

A high pitched chitter sounded in the background. "He's fine, Mother. Look, he's at a bar. If he were injured this would be a medbay." Her mocking undertone carried through perfectly. "You haven't called us in over a month. We were getting worried."

Garrus laughed, something long and clear and clean. "Don't I always worry you?"

His mother chided them both with a short screech. "We saw that your address was available to call. You should see the night sky here, son. Every mothyard in the system is reactivating ships. They even called the house to see if Sol and I were capable of serving in our old capacities!" Her chortling laugh sounded dusty, like it was incapable of fully carrying. "The older generation are being called forward, into militias. Apparently some Human said something terrible, and everyone is gnashing their teeth over it."

She must have been somewhat lucid when the Citadel fell. Garrus didn't want to think about it. He couldn't think about the fact that General Pallin and the rest of C-sec were gone. Half the men he had looked up to in his childhood had died defending that station. All for nothing. "Command is sending me after that Human, mother."

"Good. The spirits of the dead scream out, and much honor shall be accorded whoever manages to silence their anger." Mother blinked, her eyes losing focus. "Isn't that the Human your father investigated?"

"He never investigated this Human."

"Not that he ever documented. Some Spectre asked him to investigate the death of his brother. Grisly business that happened before he was ever part of C-sec. Part of that Relay 314 damnation." Her eyes weren't even focused on him. "We met because of that investigation. I was a logistics officer, back then. We found an Omni-tool amongst the captured enemy. It wasn't compatible with our systems, and so we made a copy of it and shelved it. Saren Arterius died, and your father needed my help to find out what happened." She refocused on him. "The Human that he investigated was named Harper. He's responsible for a lot more than that. Thinking about it, I can recognize him from that broadcast yesterday."

"He's shamed our family enough." Garrus said harshly. Someone new entered the bar that stood out. Not in the sense that they were different, but in the way they moved. It was a Drell, and he was walking with a certain grace to his steps. "You aren't going to tell me to not go after him?" He asked, when his mother hadn't responded to his earlier statement.

"Of course not. Tarn you may be, but right now you, and you alone it seems, are capable of going after him. Kill him, son. Do us proud. Don't take stupid risks, and don't miss. Come back alive, my son. But don't let your status as a Tarn keep you from acting when you have a chance to." She reached over, and pinched Solanna on the hip. "You can mention your good news, now."

She straightened her back. "As head of the family, I have to alert you when someone asks for me."

Garrus could feel his mandibles digging into the side of his face. "Was it that prat Vanir?"

"Actually it was his younger brother. We've known each other for years, and I'd like for you to talk to him." Solanna had a hard edge in her voice. She had made her decision, already, she just wanted to alert him to it. She was almost daring him to challenge it. "Kaius is a nice guy, and he doesn't have anything to inherit. He's the sixth son."

"What has he done with his life?" Garrus asked, taking the time to consider. "I'd like to hear about him before I look him up in the fleet registry."

"He's a lawmaker. A local provincial one, but he doesn't plan on going back to the war effort. All of his brothers have, so he can't." So, a middle income bureaucrat. No one special or overly controlling. "I don't want you to scare him, Garrus."

"Compared to every other male you've brought home, this one isn't sounding too bad." Garrus said. "What did he do in the military?"

"He was a police sharpshooter." She puffed up her chest.

Garrus loosened his mandibles. "Selective breeding, sister. I will give my blessing as head of the family under three conditions. The first, I want to talk to him. Multiple times, and in person once this blasted situation with the relays is dealt with. The second being that I don't want you to do this without me there. If you have one of our distant relatives present you to him, I would never forgive you." That at least he could threaten. There was no way his only sister would get mated without him there. "Lastly, I want him to take our family name."

His mother opened her mouth in disgust. Sol just looked at him with wide eyes. "This family cannot handle another weakness! I cannot permit it!"

Garrus growled. "Mother. This is for Sol's sake. This way she can keep the house." If he died. There was silence on the other end of the line while his mother and sister stared at him. "The line has to continue."

His mother didn't even give him a glance, as she took herself out of the conversation. Only Sol was left in the view of the camera. "You don't have to do that for me, Garrus. You're coming back. You're going to live."

"I'm a Tarn taking inexperienced support troops up against a massive Prothean Empire. I'm like a Human strike force going up against Manae. The only advantage I have is surprise."

"I didn't want to tell you." Sol said quietly. "Mother is already crying. I've got to go talk to her." She glanced at the screen, her eyes looking focused. "Don't give up on living, please. I don't want to bury my whole family." With her disease, his mother had a few years to live. Garrus didn't expect his children to even know her. Even if he went and found a female that would be willing to 'go for it', by the time his children would be capable of understanding their grandmother's mind would be further gone.

"I won't." Garrus said, as his sister ended the call. It just hurt to think about. "I won't." He said, just to himself. He didn't even know how long it would be until any of the Turians on this side of the relays could get back to Palaven. Years, some were saying. He didn't want to think about the possibility that there would be no mother to return home to, victorious or not.

"Commander, this is Digna Vol." The Volus was speaking as if he were in motion, breathing hard. "We've found Spectre Arterius."

"Where?" Garrus stood up, waving at Leily and Velena. Leily didn't even notice him, requiring Velena to fetch her from the dance floor.

"He is interred at the local hospital, Sir." The Volus said, sighing. "He passed out while in the company of three Asari. They couldn't rouse him, and he was taken to the hospital." He huffed for a few seconds. "We have secured the hallway. I've got our shuttle flying outside, watching for a jumper." He waited a moment, his breath slowing. "Entering the room now."

"He doesn't shoot people very often." Garrus said helpfully. "Make sure you have backup. We're ten minutes out."

"Hello?" Digna said loudly. Giggling could be heard in the background.

"You're not the nurse I was asking for!" Desolous said in the background. "I asked for that hot little number with the nice waist. Not a Volus."

"Sir and Madam," The Volus paused to take a breath. "And Madam and Madam. I request that you all don your clothing so that I may speak to you of an important matter." There was some shuffling. "Especially you, Sir."

"If I put my pants back on, then there is a zero percent chance of this happy time continuing. So, whatever you are going to say, you're saying it to my wrinkled sagging skin." Garrus blinked, as Digna Vol accidentally activated his video input. It went right into his eye piece.

"Ahh!"

"That's right! You walk in on happy times, you have to deal with the consequences! Don't think I don't hear you, Garrus!" The vision of old Turian genitals was in his eye piece. "Now you listen to me! I'm going to finish this lovely misadventure, and then I'm going to grab some allies for you. I've got a few favors that I can call in. Now, kindly get out and meet me in eight hours at docking bay 412."

"Just," Garrus had the good sense to close his eyes as the Volus kept his focus on his naked mentor. "Do what he says." The video feed was still coming in, and Garrus shuddered. "Turn off your video input, Digna."

"Regulations state that-" Garrus ended the call, growling. The last thing he wanted to deal with was a passive aggressive Volus. Digna Vol was going to be a pain in the cloaca. He didn't want to be there, and by the spirits he was finding creative ways to express that. Whether it was the single latrine assigned to their team being repaired at the slowest pace possible to taking six hours to perform weapons maintenance. The man could wield regulations like a lawmaker, but unlike those stalwart individuals Digna looked for every loop hole in the book. He did everything he was asked, but to the very literal extent of what the law allowed.

None of his people were excited to have the mission they did. All of them expressed this in different ways, but Digna was the most aggravating. The man was capable, extremely so. Getting him to actually engage himself was the impossible task. He let his head rest against the wall next to an aircar terminal. He could hear giggling from behind him, and he turned to the other problematic people in his squad. Velena was smiling, keeping her laughter behind her teeth. Leily was not so contained. She was giggling at his exasperation. He cleared his throat, and both of them came to attention. "Alright. Primary mission objective complete. We found Spectre Arterius. Thankfully this didn't involve chasing him down inside of Fornax." Velena stopped smiling. Leily was only giggling harder, but maintaining her composure. "Our secondary objective is to pick up a group of mercenaries that are all ex-Armiger legion." Velena brightened at that. "They are not at all associated with the military, and we will be purchasing their services. Their entire unit was discharged for insubordination."

"Then why are we approaching people that we can't trust?"

Garrus grinned. "Not us." He looked at both of the Asari with a hint of pride. But mostly eagerness. "I cannot be seen to be in charge of anything. Velena, you're going to offer to service their gear instead of providing sexual favors. Leily, you're going to hire them for their standard rate. I need some real troops, and the Admirals have no intention of giving me anyone capable. So I want you to hire these mercenaries through whatever means necessary. My report will not include any promises you make, only the material cost."

"Are you ordering me to.." Leily started to say, both her face and Velena's slightly colored.

"No. I'm giving you the power to make deals with mercenaries that the Turian military would normally never consider. With Palaven no longer accessible, we could even offer pardons and reinstatement under the right reasons. Don't offer your body unless you plan on doing that for a good cause. Namely a personal one." He could see her sigh in relief. "Velena, offer to fix their gear only if they sign on. I know you worked with the legion before, and the gear hasn't changed much in the last decade. I picked this group because they have come to our techs in the past for gear repair."

"Okay." Leily said, more comfortable. "I can do that."

"I trust you." Garrus lied. "Let's go."


Chamber of Contemplation, Ilos, Pangaea Expanse

Pressley had found that glaring at anything and anyone had finally driven off those surrounding him. Some crewmen had approached him, but a glare that could peel paint was enough to keep them away. The last attempt to approach him had been a few minutes ago, and he had kept everyone else back. He had waited a few extra minutes while surreptitiously checking for cloaked people. He was far away from any power outlets, or any place where they could recharge their cloaking fields. When he was finally sure that he had enough privacy, he activated his Omni-tool and slipped in an OSD that he normally kept hidden inside his belt buckle.

Communication protocols that he didn't write activated, and he could see a connection forming. It chimed happily, letting him know that the connection here on wherever-the-hell-they-were was better than when he was last able to call using this protocol. Typical that whatever Harper was using had a better connection than Arcturus. It took a few minutes to resolve the call connection, a grainy picture resolving into his wife soon enough. "Becca." She was sitting at their desk at home, wearing an oil stained shirt. "Are you repainting again?"

"No!" She said quickly. "A woman is allowed to wear grungy shirts on occasion!" She gave him a withering glance, taking in his appearance. "How far into the drink are you?"

"That's not why I'm calling."

"Chuck!" She said with a bit of venom. "You said you'd never call me drunk." Some things were better off left unsaid. Especially when he got into the drink. "What the hell is this about, then?" She asked, after a long silence.

"We survived." He said. "We won."

"I'm as happy as a saint." She said, frowning. "The rest of the Alliance ships didn't make it out of the nebula."

"We didn't either. We had to ask for help." He said, panning the view of the camera around. "I'm at the main base of Jack Harper."

"Are you sure?" Becca sounded serious. "Completely sure?"

"I found the Prothean base he's been using."

"So you're safe? Everybody make it alright?"

"No." Pressley said. "All of the marines they gave me died. Most of the crew died." He said sourly. "Lots of injuries on the survivors." He shuddered. "I almost got spaced."

"Are they holding you hostage?"

"No." He replied reasonably fast. "Not that you would accept that. After sparing our lives, he offered me a job. Vice Admiral of a fleet he's putting together."

"So, is this a social call or a ransom note?"

"I'm trying to think, woman!" He said harshly. "I don't know what to do!"

Becca's tone changed, becoming more serious. "Stop panicking and tell me what he offered you."

"Vice Admiral of his fleet. Not sure who the main admiral is. But he is throwing around Prothean technology casually, like he can just produce it. He wants to put me in charge of ships with the stuff." He sighed. "He doesn't even care if I have an open line back to Arcturus."

"So you can call me every day like a not-shitty drunk husband?" Rebecca said seriously. "Give me a minute to calm the hell down. You stay there." During that minute, Pressley drank like his life depended on it. When he brought the cup up to his lips he was able to glance around to see if anyone was nearby. Becca came back soon enough, looking even more angry. "I just talked to my brother Henry. I don't like what he told me but it makes a damn lot of sense." Rebecca would have divorced him long ago if not for their orders. "Take the job. Become indispensable. Then, we can talk about me coming out there and helping you." Pressley never reported to White. His next in the chain of intelligence officers was Becca.

"Fine!" He yelled, real and fake anger bleeding into his voice. "You just don't want me to come back to the house I'm paying for!"

"Oh yeah?"

"Admit it!"

"You can call me in a few weeks. I don't want to hear from you until you've cleaned up your shit." Becca warned. "See you, Chuck." She ended the call. Their cover was maintained. He was terribly drunk, and now wanted nothing more than to lay down somewhere. Uncle Henry was a code that Becca used to describe her orders as coming from the administration. This came from Huerta and his goons.

"So be it." Pressley said. "Just like the rest of my guddamned life. Just a pissing soap opera." He would take this job. He would be damn good at it. Then, when the moment was right, he would see what Becca's play would be. Letting her aboard Harper's Acheron had been a goldmine of information. If she could come here, it would only give her that much more of a benefit. At the end of the day, Charles Pressley was a company man. The Alliance could trust him, had trusted him in sensitive posts for near thirty years. This one would be no different. He would drink himself silly, and then hem and haw, but in the end his decision was made. "Surrender to love, let's forget about the stars." He sang to himself. Anyone with an Omni-tool could figure out what he was singing, as he pounded the last of his cup. "Let's forget about the stars." One thing was for sure. He needed more swill. Something to really knock him on his ass. "Let's forget about the stars." He could barely remember the rest of the song, but the last chorus he could keep together fine, always. His feet took him loyally back to the giant barrels of moral solvent. "What have you got that will knock me right out?" He asked the Krogan directing all of this. His name was Kol.

"You want to try some Ryncol?" the beast asked. "I'm pretty sure you can't handle it." His tone wasn't mocking in any way.

"My body can handle it, so long as you aren't hitting me with Salarian blood or something like that." A substance that gave off fumes like old petroleum was poured into his cup. It was heady, something that already warned him that this would be a bad idea. There was maybe an ounce in there. "Surrender to love" Pressley hummed, before pinching his nose and drinking.