Chapter 90

Evrysse Towers, Ilium, February 2183

The scope clearly captured what was happening. Asari and Turians were getting into armored air cars, and heading somewhere. Dahlia Dantius was in the arms of one young Turian, whose armor had a distinct coloration and shape. Thane did not like this new development. This slaver, this child-abductor, had somehow convinced a Spectre to protect her. Thane had been looking for the older Turian, since he had disappeared with his target. Tracking him was nearly impossible. But after seeing the younger Spectre, Thane decided to make his job easier.

The memories flashed into his mind, unbidden, as he remembered seeing him enter the bar. Seeing him step on his micro-trackers. It had been simple after that, he only had to wait. The micro-trackers would fall off at specific intervals, releasing their message without making notice of armor or suit detectors or barriers. Thane did not have to get into any kind of car or chase them down. The trackers would do their job. But unbidden his memories brought back the image of the Turian's face. The intensity of his look, the weight of his steps, they all showed something more. Thane recognized that he would be dangerous. The sniper rifle on his back looked like something meant to remove gunships, not infantry. Thane had no trust that he could survive that.

And now the very same Turian was guarding his target. He had a few hours left before he was out of time. Nassana had hired him in exchange for providing for the eighty surviving children and Mouse. He knew they wouldn't survive for long on Ilium without being snatched up by gangs or labor providers. The ways they survived on the Citadel wouldn't work here. They had no useful skills to provide. Nassana promised to give them an education, housing, protection. Thane could not risk failure. Being asked to put down a slaver with that many kills and captures under her belt would serve Kalahira well.

Thane took a deep breath and let his cheeks fill, resting his head forward so that his airways opened completely. Three long breaths was enough for his memories to stop flashing that Spectre's face in front of his vision. "Garrus Vakarian." Thane said. "Spectre. Sniper. Not an ideal opponent." Thane could deal with the old man. But he had kept his guard up the entire conversation. He didn't have a shot on Dahlia at all. Thane holstered the sniper rifle he had been looking through. It took a few moments before he thumbed his Omni-tool. He was not used to having help. "Mouse. I need the contents of Crate 5."

"Yeah?" Mouse responded after a minute. Possibly three. Thane was lost in thought , considering the methods that would work against a Spectre. Two Spectres. STG operatives, Turian Armigier Legionnaires, Asari. "Thane, this is…"

"Yes." He replied. There was only one way to defeat Dahlia. One way that wasn't going to fail. "I'll need all of the canisters. They have what I need."

"I'll have them ready for you when you get back."

"I'll have a set of coordinates ready for you. Bring them." Thane said. "Use a cab without markings." He ended the connection, standing up and getting off of the tiny railing. It was the work of a moment to open the window and crawl through into the high rise apartment and off the balcony. The stunned Asari couple inside the room were still unconscious, and Thane had added a healthy dose of incense and drugs to keep them asleep for another few hours. They did not even see him when he came in through their door. He left them on their lounge chair, arms entwined symmetrically and faces leaning into both sides of a thick pillow. Their faces were serene, uncaring, and so youthful. Just to be kind, he placed a hand as if there were tears to be brushed away on the other's face.

The room had already been cleaned up, thanks to earlier efforts of the two living here. They kept a clean home. There were small touches, things that showed that they cared for one another. The scent of tea in the air, picture displays of the two of them, and a portrait of a young Asari. That one was printed, perhaps an oil painting. It left a permanent status, a statement of being more than just a picture. Thane's eyes centered on a small plaque underneath the painting. Aeriel Ushoran. There was a pair of dates lined up next to the name. It must have been some kind of accident. The young girl, for that was who it must be, only survived for forty years. Four decades in an Asari lifespan was tragically short. Thane closed his eyes, the tangible pain associated with the picture too much to bear. Reminding him of his own failures, his own child.

"Kalahira, bless these mothers. The soul of their child has been gone for eight long years. Help them with their pain, and ease it with the coming of the tide." He stepped back, moving their hands back to the closest position to each other's hearts. He lit the incense candle, letting the room glow. "Arashu, I only ask that you let them find the hope to try again. To not forget the past, but to find hope with the future." The incense smelled unfamiliar, but the symbolism was close enough to his memories of the birth of Kolyat. Of Irikah.

It was more than a couple of minutes before he had the courage to leave the apartment. His soul had hope for a future that involved raising children. He had forty of them on his ship, and if his body failed to kill his target, he would have little choice but to raise them himself. Kolyat would not appreciate forty foster siblings. As the door shut, Thane left his soul behind. His body stepped forward, devoid of guilt, of sorrow, and hesitation.

Perseus Veil, February 2183

When Julia awoke, it was with a gasping start. It happened again. She wasn't in the same position as when she went to sleep. She coughed, her throat burning like it had been punched. Swaying, she leaned over from the couch she was sitting in to cough into her elbow. Nothing but spittle came out, even though she felt the pain. With a groan, she stretched and straightened. She had fallen asleep in her bed, just as the painkillers had kicked in. Now she was sitting in a chair, the plush leather already conformed to her shape. "Alright." She groaned. "What time is it." Raising her wrist to check the time, she saw a new message on her Omni-tool, right next to a ship-board time of 0335. The sender of the message was her very own address. It was sent at 0334.

That confirmed it. The Reaper had taken over again. The taste of bile came to her bruised throat, thinking about that thing squatting inside her head like some vagrant. Before she dared open that file, she wanted a drink. But the Reaper had already prepared her something. It smelled like brandy and it was in a cup within reach. It made her throat feel slightly better, somehow. Once the drink settled in her stomach, she thumbed the button on her haptic interface. A raspy cough came out of the message first.

"Somehow I feel like this bruising is my fault. I'm gonna sound like a hyena with this new voice. Alright, I've tried everything to get back to my old body, my old existence, any of it. So, I'm not exactly a patient person. Impatient, usually. Like, all the time. So, awkward as this is, we're kind of like a parasite. Both of us think the other doesn't or shouldn't exist. So we're equals. We equally hate each other but like a lot of things about how we live. Like sex, or chocolate. So I don't go further insane, I'm just going to talk into this thing and tell you who and what I am. Before things get more weird or awkward." She heard her own throat clear. No wonder it felt sore.

"My name is Gwyndolen A. Shepard. Daughter of Hannah and John Shepard. I am the first Spectre from the Human Systems Alliance, and was the Council's most ardent defender against the Reapers. Which is why, after we had lost everything, and I was faced with a choice, ugh." She coughed. "You deserve a bit more than that. Since you're kind of me, you might need some more information. The Citadel is a giant relay, yeah. You got that. I assume you got that, or else you don't deserve to understand this stuff. It's also the center of the network that governs and controls the Reapers. The force that governs them is called the Catalyst, and acts like some kind of moral code for them to follow. It gave me a couple of choices. When the end was in sight, I had been through some really bad business. I wasn't sure that the guy I loved was going to make it, and I was injured and most definitely infected from wounds inflicted by a guy named Kai Leng. Bastard poisoned his weapon. So I wasn't in my right mind, but hey. This isn't an apology or something. Whatever. I'm not excusing my actions, I just think you should understand me."

She coughed some more, a raspy sound that echoed through her chambers. "So I was offered two choices. Become the controlling mind of the Reapers, guiding their moral codes and becoming one of them for all intents and purposes, or destroying them all, as well as every piece of technology connected to element zero and its discoveries. Not that I could trust the thing, but I could either take its word that my half-broken pistol could kill all the Reapers by shooting some cooling vent; Or I could grab onto some sparking deathtrap that supposedly linked my brain to theirs and gave me control. If I had the Everest pointed right at this mechanism maybe I might have been more comfortable trying to kill them. I was bleeding out so I decided to take life by the horns. Next thing I knew, I was a Reaper. One made out of every Human life taken during the entire war. My voice was loud, sure, but compared to all of them I barely could control the Reaper much less the entire fleet."

The rasping cough returned, Julia joining her in coughing. Dual echoes went across the room as she took another sip. "Anyways. So that's why you have a Reaper in your head. But I identify as Human first. Human badass Spectre. Who is also a Reaper. Damn, that sounds terrible as a pickup line. Gotta work on that, I think. Anyways, I kind of wanted to introduce myself and say sorry for causing any extra complications in your life. Not that you'll believe me or take me seriously. See, this whole thing is a shot in the dark. I've got memories of people who are dead, yet in this experience they aren't. Or maybe they are and I am just the mirror between them and their future. Damn it, I don't know. My brain isn't at the right level for this. Yours is stuck on top of some designer model body that I keep accidentally stubbing my toe in or something. Also, sorry, I fell of the bed. Kind of cut your hand a bit on something, but I bandaged it." Julia gave the slim bandage on her wrist a glance. It was well applied. Peeling it back, she could see a thin film of medi-gel over the wound.

"Argh, I'm not drunk enough and this is surreal. But maybe you're the only one who will understand where I am coming from. We can't both be awake at the same time, and we both want to survive. I kind of had my own plans on how to take over the galaxy, and the Reapers didn't love them. But Humanity seems to. Or did. Or still does. Again, it's all over my head." She coughed again, the sound reverberating through her. This didn't sound like a Reaper. But then again, those things could be lying to her on every level. "So, those plans are in jeopardy, and I want to complete them. I'm not awake enough to really do that, but so much has been set in motion. Thousands of years of effort, and it's all coming down to the wire. Just so you know, I don't want Harbie to win. He's a dick and my plan is better. But while I'm in your body I don't want to put our existence at risk. So, partner, parasite, whatever you want to be called, my name is Gwyn. I'm not exactly your friend, but I don't want us to be enemies. I also had to create a damn guest user on your Omni-tool because you have complicated and annoying passwords. Alright, I feel like this is making my throat raw. I'm starting to lose it. Here's a drink, here's a bit about me, reply if you're amicable." There was the sound of someone cursing and fumbling for something, and the feed cut.

Julia stood up, her body aching. It was trying to talk to her. What the hell did it think it was, some kind of friend? Damn it, she needed something more. Glancing down at the drink, she decided that wasn't enough. Her throat burned, and this ship was driving her insane. It's probably a sign of the Reaper taking over her life. The thought of that alone had her rushing out of her room and to the bathroom across the hall. It was occupied, but she didn't care. She made it to a stall and the brandy and bile came out of her throat in a rush.

"Some boys try and some boys lie," Miranda was shouting at the top of her lungs with two other voices. "But I don't let the play!" Some people were handing the long hours in stealth by reading or catching up on paperwork. Her sister must have been up to something else.

"No way, no way!" That had to be Tesai. The Quarian lilt to the voice gave it away. She focused on that, rather than think about that damn parasite in her head.

"Only boys who save their pennies make my rainy day!" Miranda and Kasumi, Julia now realized, belted out at the top of their lungs while Julia puked noisily. This mission was a mistake. One gigantic mistake. She was a walking liability, and one that they couldn't afford going into Rannoch of all places. Any further thoughts were washed away by the chorus line of the classic Madonna song.

The only words that Julia could hear over her own retching was 'Material girl'. This mission was going to be hell.

Perseus Veil, February 2183

It had been almost fifty hours of drifting and hiding to get close enough to the final relay to Rannoch. Every time a mas relay would light up with an unknown contact, everyone would notice. It wasn't like the giant blue streak of light wasn't enough, but there were Geth monitoring stations closely looking at energy signatures. They were all new. Apparently this ship had been through here before, and had gotten past all of the Geth defenses once. There were now angled to catch any refraction of light, or of energy. Joker had to pull every trick in the book and then some to get through this. The Geth were relentless, tough, and exacting. There were three relay jumps between the Sahrabarik system and Rannoch.

Behind the first relay there was monitoring posts. Along with a damn minefield. The Geth had made concentric circles of space dust around the relay exit. For hundreds of thousands of kilometers there was a clear line of space dust, leaving clear paths of where any ships had traveled. It was a virtual minefield. Ships would leave a clear disruption path. Machines like the Geth could analyze the dispersal patterns, and figure out mass and ship speed based on the results. That was just the first hurdle. It was easy enough to cross, so long as your drift as you came out of the relay was more than the area of space covered by the dust.

The next relay had actual ships actively scanning for dispersal patterns. That took thirty hours to navigate. How the Geth had gotten that much dust and space rocks in place and not in motion was beyond Joker's understanding. It was simply mind boggling the amount of effort involved. The resources to spread that seemed insurmountable until Joker got to the second system. Here, there was layers of space dust set up like a minefield, as in the last system. Then there were roving patrols of Geth cruisers and frigates, ready to light up sections of space. They had defenses pointed towards the mass relay as well as the other direction. The Geth were prepared for anything to hit them from any side, and had defenses extending far above and below the circumstellar disc. Any invader would be hit by heavy kinetic strikes from oblique angles as they tried to attack.

The opposite relay was now surrounded by a cloud of hydrogen. Water droplets filled the area, and streaks were left from where the Geth ships were travelling through. It was unlike anything Joker had ever seen. A nebula of hydrogen had been created in a matter of months. Not a small nebula, either. It surrounded the relay for thousands of kilometers. You couldn't actually see the relay. What you could see was the net the Geth had made. It kept the nebula from spreading, forming what Joker could officially say was the galaxy's nastiest minefield yet. There was only two entrances to that net, and both were secured by a massive space station. It looked like a whale's blowhole, only opening to let ships in and out.

"Damn." He muttered. "We are close enough to see where we need to go, but I don't know how we are going to get through that."

"You got us this far, Joker." Kaidan said, sitting next to him. Everyone had started taking shifts sitting in the cockpit with him, to help with the stress. Being in enemy territory like this would eat at you. Like every single time a ship lit up within two hundred thousand kilometers your heart would stop. You would stare at the sensor feed, watching the ships moving around. The SR-2's passive sensors couldn't pick up too much. Sometimes ships would blink out of their reach, and then appear closer. Those were the worst. After Joker nearly experienced a panic attack on the first system, one or two people would sit with him.

"No one else could get us through this." Joker shuddered. The other reason he was going to have a panic attack. Kasumi had settled her weight on the arm of his chair. It wasn't that it was unwelcome, but Joker had never had someone romantically interested in him. He didn't know how to deal with it in a normal environment, much less in his place of work. "You said their sensors could pick up a grain of sand that's out of place?"

"Yeah." Joker said. "We brushed up against some of those space dust chunks when we first came through. They know we are here, and we have to slowly vent our heat out. Thankfully we have Prothean tech on this ship, the SR-1 can't do this."

Kasumi breathed into his ear. "I'm sure that you can just follow those Geth ships right into their station." Joker went slightly cross-eyed as he kept his focus on the haptics.

"Kasumi, let the poor guy focus." Kaidan asked for what had to be the tenth time. That day. Joker groaned, knowing that the regulations had been thrown out the window. There was nothing keeping him from getting screwed into this fantastic leather chair. There was nothing better than that on this new craft. A real leather chair that was supportive in all the right places, and for all kinds of activities. Kasumi chewed on his ear, making his eyelid twitch. Only then did she pull back, sliding into the chair on the other side.

"We aren't going anywhere." Kasumi pointed out. "It's not like you and Julia keep yourselves from going at it in the showers."

Kaidan turned bright red. "What!"

"I'm not a voyeur, you know." Kasumi made some motions with her fingers that were highly suggestive. "But I had to stay cloaked until you both were done, otherwise my poor sister wouldn't get what she wanted." Her almond shaped eyes twinkled with a bit of mischief. "But you pass my inspection."

Joker wisely kept his eyes on the haptic feeds. Kaidan, for some reason, was easily flustered by Kasumi. "Well," Kaidan said, returning his gaze to the screens. "How would Daro'Xen get past this? Her stealth drive doesn't last as long as ours."

"Quarians have been in space six centuries longer than us." Joker replied. "Xen is going to have some kind of plan in place."

"Could she have planned for this, though?" Kaidan wondered aloud. "I mean, how do we get through that tight of a nebula?"

"Best idea anyone's had is by blowing the net and letting the Geth try to contain the hydrogen. But that is going to take more munitions than our ship or Xen's ship can carry." It would take a fleet to break down that net keeping the nebula contained. "Even if we blasted that station, it's only the airlock. The actual net controls are a second station that is behind it, which also acts as the second layer of airlock to keep track of objects entering and exiting." Joker explained, again. One talk with Tali and this had all become apparent, but now he had to explain it all while Tali got to handle all of the engineering problems. "Daro'Xen's stealth craft is less than ten meters wide. It can slip through the net."

"Can we?"

"No." Joker spun his fingers around. "Xen could fit through the larger gaps, but those only exist along the equator of the net, between the two gates. This crap isn't even the worst part. It's the coming back after that becomes the struggle. We've got to go through when that net over there isn't up, or we somehow manage to undershoot the massive thousands of kilometers wide nebula that is going to light up our position."

"You sound hopeless." The voice that came out of nowhere didn't even spook Joker. With Kasumi around his senses had long since become used to surprise. Julia didn't sound unhappy, but she probably heard Kasumi mentioning the shower bit. "Still nothing?"

"We're within range, enough that I could reach the nebula containing the mass relay in minutes. We just can't get close enough to the relay to use it."

"Does the net cancel out signals?"

"No, it doesn't. But it's not like we can daisy chain our way to the relay and make it think we're right next to it."

"The Geth are starting to piss me off." Julia muttered. "They cover their weaknesses. How could they have set this up so quickly?"

"Tali says that their fleet size is unknown." She would be the expert on them. "But this sounds like something they would have had prepared in some form. Or theorized."

"Joker." Tali's voice came over the improved intercom system. You could hear people crystal clear on it. "I think I know what Xen did to get past the Geth here."

"She's already past us?"

"She's done something to the Geth communication network." Tali said. "Either that or the Geth are fighting something inside of their network. Every so often the Geth have to sync with the rest of their network. It's how they disseminate all of their collected knowledge and skills." Tali sounded distracted. "But every time the Geth sync, there is a massive fluctuation of signals crossing through the network. Like someone has figured out how to disrupt it."

"That sounds like a Quarian maneuver." Kasumi purred into his ear. Joker tensed, not realizing that Kasumi has snuck up on him yet again. "Tali, what kind of delay between syncs?"

"It's a seemingly random amount of time. I don't know. Based on activity spikes I would say between one hour and four hours."

"How long does the sync last?" Julia asked with seriousness.

"A few minutes. But I don't think we'll have a better shot. Whatever Xen did to disrupt the network is going to be countered or patched eventually."

"You can reliably say that this lasts a few minutes?"

"Positive." Tali said with vigor. "The Geth network is currently disrupted. They will still be paying attention to their sensor nets, but their higher end processes are busy."

"What about the net?" Joker asked. "Going in there is suicide."

"Just get me close, Joker. With the Geth network disrupted I will get a signal through." How she was going to do that with a whole new ship to familiarize themselves with he did not know. Joker hated the bathrooms on this. They were designed by Quarians, which already pissed him off. For example, all of the toilet seats were designed by people with digitigrade legs. So the seats were closer to the floor than normal, and made Joker feel like he was squatting rather than sitting. For his knees, he was going to need that skeletal replacement. Speaking of which, he was at least ten hours late to his appointment.

"What do you think?" He asked, looking from Kaidan to Julia. "Let's get a consensus from the captains." With Shev'rash, Julia, and Kaidan all apparently of equal or high rank in the new organization, he figured it was safe to pass responsibility. It would ease his mind if they were all going to risk their lives.

"I say stay." Kaidan said. He wasn't a risk taker unless it involved his girlfriend.

"I say go." Julia said. "I trust Tali." She added as an afterthought.

"I say go. I've been watching her analyze the data, and she wouldn't bring this up to you unless she knew for certain." Shev'rash said over the comms.

"Well, want to revisit your decision Kaidan?" Joker asked.

"I just think we shouldn't be risking our lives when we are going to be going on a hunch." He says. "I trust Tali, but I don't trust her ability to get through these defenses the Geth have set up. And as you said, Joker, making it back is going to be harder every time we risk getting detected."

"Kaid." Charles Archer said. Joker wasn't used to the guy, but he was down there in the engineering bay with the rest of the gearheads. "I've been running the same data on my Omni-tool. I can confirm it. The Geth are in disarray, and the data feeds are kind of exploding everywhere. If we could get close enough to the backside of that net, I think I can send a message to the relay. We've got some programs that can override normal relay function range."

"Is that how you beat Arcturus?" Julia asked coldly.

"There was a lot at risk. We made a decision, and acted on it. The trash balls were being saved for the attack on the Citadel, to send through if we got enough warning for a few hours action." Charles said, without guilt. "We were going to send them through, with one real asteroid, to get the Citadel to gather their fleets to stop what was going to happen. We didn't get that warning because whatever the enemy did, they avoided all of our detection nets."

"Are we going or not!" Joker yelled.

Kaidan closed his eyes. "Go, Joker."

The ship jumped forward, Joker sending them to full speed. "Three hours left on cloak, jump in two minutes!" The Geth didn't make any motion that reflected detection. Joker stepped on it, taking them to their maximum cruising speed. As they got to the net he gave it a wide berth, careful to not disturb any of the loose particles that slipped through the gaps. The spherical net was simple to follow the correct flight angle. The Geth were methodical, accurate, and even though they randomize patrols they kept to a standard distance from the net. Joker skirted that distance at speed, coming around to the side of the net that had two forks coming off of it. The relay wasn't completely covered up, allowing it to create the massless tunnel that was its function.

There were two craft next to the relay. Both of them were cruisers, with extra antennas. Joker tuned out whatever Julia and Kasumi were whispering over the top of his head and just focused on following the haptics, the gut feeling telling him to stay out of the range of those two Geth cruisers. "This close enough?" He whispered. Even though he knew the Geth couldn't hear through space, the human need to emphasize their feelings in tone and vocal expression came through.

"Still getting nothing through." Tali replied. "Keelah. I can see why, this close. The Geth have coated the relay in," She paused as if she wanted to make sure. "Themselves, I think. We would be sending a signal right to the Geth platforms directly."

"Perhaps we should turn around." Kaidan said, looking directly at the Geth ships outside.

The two Geth cruisers were sitting right on top of the upper fork of the relay. Right on top of a sunken section. "Tali, get to a window." Joker said. "If the relay is covered with Geth, should I be seeing a divot in their layering?" He had stared at relays for years. He knew their shape. This was not the normal shape that a relay should have. "It's maybe a hundred feet long."

"They must have been scraped off." Tali said, after a moment. "I bet we could get a signal through the gap. But I need you to be right on top of it, so nothing intercepts the signal."

Joker gulped. That meant going right in between those two cruisers. "How much longer before the Geth recover from the data burst thing?"

"Just go!" Charles said, sounding harried. Joker kicked the Normandy SR-2 into a slow cruise, taking it the thirty kilometers to the stripped down gap. It was done in seconds, leaving Joker right in between two cruisers, close enough to see with the naked eye. "We've got contact!"

The Geth cruisers reacted, twisting around to face their main cannons towards the SR-2. Laser turrets opened on their backs, and Joker gave a shout as he saw the ships withdrawing their antenna. "We-" Coordinates showed up on his command haptics, and Joker wasted no time in jumping into the massless corridor. "Oh god." He and Kaidan said that at the same time. Rannoch was a mess. Thousands of craft were on patrol, and all of them were headed for the bright blue streak that was the SR-2 arriving.

"Asteroid belt out beyond the relay! Safest direction is the hell away from the star!" Charles yelled. "Dive!" The SR-2 dove back into the depths of space, slipping out of sight, watching as an entire fleet bore down on their position with perfect logical force. Thousands of craft lined up in search patterns, minimizing his chances of getting inside of the system.

"We're at Rannoch!" Joker yelled, taking the ship out behind the relay. Away from the moving Geth ships. "This side doesn't have the same defenses as the others."

"We're here to stop Daro'Xen. If she is crazy enough and desperate enough to take these risks, it has to be something worth the effort." Julia said. "Tesai has mentioned that she is obsessed with making the Quarians strong enough to challenge the Geth. Seeing all of these forces here, I doubt that she would keep going without a damn good reason."

"Well, we're here." Joker sighed. "If that Archer guy is right, it won't be long before we are making landfall. Get some rest, guys. Stealth and tech experts are going down first."

All three of them got up from their seats. Kasumi grinned at Joker. "How forward of you!" She leaned into a hand that was on her hip. Joker held up both of his, neither of which were touching her. "Oh?" Behind her, Julia was reaching into Kasumi's belt. "Magical Girl san!"

"I'm just getting my knife back." Julia said, trying to ignore how suggestive Kasumi had moved. "You're coming with us. Don't stay up too late."

Hael'Zoris Region, Rannoch, February 2183

The island of Corv'Isti was, according to the Quarian codexes, a technological developer's paradise. The Geth had preserved much of Rannoch's surface, keeping the buildings maintained and the roads fixed. Keeping the environment functional on top of that, it was odd that this island was completely devoid of life. The buildings had been nearly leveled by orbital bombardment, and there was a fenceline keeping anything living out of the area. It looked like a barrier curtain, except it functioned more like a bug zapper than anything else.

Charles was waiting in the hangar, the SR-2 having been on the ground for long enough that things seemed safe. Well, relatively. There was still thousands of warships and fighters in orbit that could glance his direction and just remove him from existence if they felt like it. One entire pot of coffee had just seemed to exacerbate that rather than improve on that fact.

"Archer-san? Area is secure." Kasumi's voice reported. She sounded professional today, and that was just odd. Maybe that pilot fellow was rubbing off on her.

"What about the fence?"

"We will need a programmer or Quarian up here. Stealth teams report that the fence is powered by solar panels, with purely physical access points. Somewhat rusted from the freshwater here, too. Odd that the Geth aren't keeping everything squeaky clean here."

Charles sighed. "Shev'rash?" The Quarian was sulking by the elevator, muttering epithets in regards to how much he hated everyone. "I delegate to you on this. We can go forward now."

"Of course we can!" He threw his arms up. "Because the Humans know my damn homeworld better than I do at this point!" Charles wisely didn't want to make any comments about that. "Alright, all of you." Every Quarian from the SR-1 Normandy lined up, Tali'Zorah standing proudly at their head. "Daro'Xen landed somewhere around here. She is after something, and we took so much time getting through the defenses that we are possibly a day behind. More than likely hours. All of you are on your pilgrimage." Shev'rash pointed out. "Which means I don't want stupid heroics, grand schemes, or attempts to retake the homeworld today! We are going to step onto that soil, find our Admiral, and get out." Charles could see all of the young Quarians quivering in eagerness. "Only once our mission is accomplished may you unseal your masks or gather pollens. I don't want you high out of your minds before we get the job done. We don't know what Daro'Xen is after, nor do we know if the Geth saw us. Assume the worst, and assume that the Geth will be logging whatever you do later. They have improved after every single engagement with us in the past, and that will be true in the future. Don't give them any more reasons to improve."

Shev'rash came to the bottom of the ramp, shuddering as his foot crunched the dirt of Rannoch. "Disembark." He said reverently, as the young Quarians muted their suit audio and stepped onto their homeworld for the first time. Charles decided to step over whatever weeds were growing here, keeping his feet to rocks to avoid killing some holy plant that Shev' was going to make alcohol from. At his side was Tesai. His girlfriend couldn't be happier about being on her homeworld, skipping along in her Prothean-made armor. Behind him walked Miranda Harper, along with Henry Gunn, carrying some gigantic rifle and a backpack full of god knows what.

Every single member of the departing team had a piece of Quarian technological genius. They looked like parasols, strapped to the back of everyone's helmets. A small grid of lasers and lights and displays measured the ground at the wearer's feet, and replicated that measurement and temperature above the person wearing it. The Geth, if they were looking, could only see whatever footprints they left and maybe a hand or foot that reached outside of the cover provided. No one chose to complain about the devices, as they had been invented by Admiral Daro'Xen for travelling under Geth orbital detection grids. 'Their trust in data is what we can always take advantage of', she used to say. Charles hadn't seen any Geth so far, so they must be working.

Charles followed Shev'rash and the giddy young Quarians across the blackened terrain. Within a couple of minutes they had gotten past the shattered outbuildings and to the fence. It had towers hundreds of feet high, with some kind of thin net across the distances between the towers. Each tower had a solar energy collector nearby, powering the nets. At the base of one of the towers were the stealth team. Julia and Kasumi were standing in a ditch created by orbital fire, their heads barely clearing the top.

"What do you see?" Charles asked when they got close.

"Some kind of physical access port on the base of the tower, but we don't know if its booby trapped or not." Julia pointed out. "We can't find any communication relays, either. These towers aren't talking to one another, or to anything in orbit."

"They might have underground cables linking to a better location?" Tali considered. "There is no reason to assume the Geth would make a machine that couldn't talk to the rest of their kind."

Charles was looking at the tower's base. "Is that a lever operated door?" He pointed.

"That can't be possible. Not when the Geth are networked," Tali replied, tilting her head until she too could see it. "Okay, I will admit, that is unique. Geth don't make doors with levers, knobs, or physical controls. You have to hack them open."

Charles looked around at the barren island around them. "Should we just try to open the door?"

"I've got footprints approaching the door." Henry announced, his tech identifying shapes in the hardened dirt. "Quarian."

Shev'rash brushed past his shoulder, walking right up to the tower. "Alright then. Someone came here already, let's go after them." Without ceremony Shev'rash turned the lever, and the door slid open. Quarian doors, unlike Human ones, were designed with filtration in mind for their entire civilization. The concept of sealed or completely secure areas was not one they developed until they reached spaceflight. These doors weren't sealed either, with air holes allowing for air filtration to occur along the sides of the door. Shev rolled it open, revealing the innards of the towers. Simple, yet elegant tech resided within. Every part of these towers was designed to be operated by physical operators. It was bizarre, almost like the Geth did not intend this place to connect to anything, yet it did a fantastic job of keeping anything living from getting in. The piles of bones from the creatures that had wandered in and died was proof enough.

"Wow." Tali said. "Look at these! Dials and levers to control throughput. No labels, but it is obvious once you look at the cable pathways."

"I've got a device." Julia announced, at the far side of the tower. "Not dusty."

"That's an atmospheric regulator." Shev'rash said. "With a laser attached. Cheap Quarian detection web."

"Someone knows we're here." Henry unslung his rifle. "How soon can we expect a Geth reponse?"

"If they are monitoring all frequencies? Minutes or seconds." Tali replied. "But this device doesn't have anything more than a speaker attached to it. In fact, I can hear a faint buzzing noise."

"Sounds kind of like a dog whistle to me." Miranda spoke up, taking position near the door they had come through. Charles honestly couldn't hear anything. Tesai had destroyed the more sensitive parts of his ears. "But the audio cable is on the other side of the door." The door that led further into the island.

Henry sucked in a breath and kicked the door open, rushing out and into a piece of cover. "Move! Someone knows we are here, and we gotta go!"

Charles followed second to last, Miranda behind him and giving the odd Geth designed building one last look over for anything suspicious. The inside of the fence was dead. Not a blade of grass or any kind of greenery existed. The ground was cracked and broken, looking like a mud plain more than what should have been a fertile area. The analyst in him was distracted when Miranda gave his shoulder a shove. He took off at a run, following after the group. Their footprints disturbed the dust, and small puffs of dirt flowed around their feet. There was a light wind here, and the puffs of dirt and dust carried a few feet before disappearing into nothing.

"Company ahead!" Someone yelled, and Charles took a knee behind a small decorative boulder. "One Quarian, in the shadow of that large entrance."

Using a small telescoping camera, he and Tesia looked over the boulder at the object of interest. "Rek'la colors. There are more than a few of them on the Moreh." Tesai spoke up for the group. "He's got a longer rifle, but he is slumped, inattentive."

"Infiltrator." Shev'rash spoke up. "A biotic charge is going to blow dust all over. Someone who can cloak, get over there and restrain him."

Julia stepped forward, her body disappearing into that zipper effect that cloaking fields normally generated. Charles could barely tell that her footsteps were being left, tiny puffs of dust and some shifting gravel the only signs of her presence. When she decloaked, it was a solid kick to the Quarian's midsection, sending him to the floor and his gun skidding. "Secure!" She said.

Charles moved forward with the last group of people, parasol wiggling in the wind as they all moved across the open field to the old building. Unlike every other structure on Rannoch, this one had been left to be ravaged by the test of time. It even looked like it had been welded shut at one point, a pile of scrap metal off to the side from where holes had been cut in it. "What is wrong with him?" Shev'rash murmured when everyone was by the doors. "I wish I could bend like that."

"I kicked him, but I didn't think he would just die like that. I am not familiar enough with Quarian physiology to know what is or is not safe."

"Well, contrary to Fleet and Flotilla, we can take a hit. But this marine's backbone must be made of liquids rather than solids to bend backwards over itself." Shev demonstrated this by rolling the Quarian back to a slouch, as everyone heard the interior of the suit churn like liquid rather than bend. "Ugh, that's gross. What did that to him?"

"There is liquid behind his visor." Tali'Zorah pointed out. "He must have drowned!"

"But a Quarian body doesn't liquify inside their suit. Even if they die from liver or lung failure, their suit's automatic systems flush liquid from the atmosphere. The bodies you pull from intact suits are dessicated husks." Shev'rash told them. "That isn't normal."

Without any interaction from any of them, the visor of the suit burst open, and liquid from the Quarian spilled outward. Everyone jumped back, as warnings from detection suites warned each user that whatever that was, it was dangerous. No one stopped the liquid as it pooled, and then flooded into the hole that had been made in the door. "Hold your fire." Shev'rash said. "That's not natural. Zorah, check the body."

"I'm an engineer, not a medic."

"Out of all of us, you can diagnose the medically impossible, technological or not." Shev replied. "Tell me what happened to him."

Tali flipped the body over, the weight of the suit no longer difficult. The arms and legs of the suit looked flat and empty. "Hmm." She muttered. The sight was enough to turn Charles a bit green. The inside of the suit only contained skin and greenish bile. Behind him, he could hear Alenko choke up. "Looks like skin and hormone structures were left behind. Whatever came out, it was made from the bone and muscle structure. All of the nerves and nervous system are still in place, but strangely swollen. It looks like the body tried to purge all of their mucus and pollenates. The smell is probably horrific."

"That's not helpful." Alenko added. He and Julia were standing behind Tali, probably morbidly curious.

"So how did they die?" Shev'rash asked. "What happened to them?"

"Skin samples seem undamaged. I don't see any kind of puncture marks. The pores of the skin tried to push every bit of mucus out all at once, though. I've never seen that. Or heard of that."

"Mucus?" Alenko asked.

"Humans have oils on their skin to keep it moisturized and protected. Quarians have a mucus layer running along underneath our skin that functions as a lymphatic system and skin protection. The body doesn't like to waste that mucus or push it out, unless the limb is necrotic. But I've never seen anything like this before."

"They've been here less than half a day. Whatever did this might be some Geth genetic virus. Though how they got through the encounter suit, I can't tell. It looks perfectly intact." Miranda said, adding her own knowledge to the conversation.

"It came in through the food intake valves." Shev'rash finally identified. "The valves are locked shut. They only do that if something in there is tampered with or broken. A real pain in the ass to fix by yourself."

"Not really." Tali countered. "All it takes is a bit of pressure in the right place and the whole housing pops open."

"Not all of us can be engineers." Shev'rash retorted. His parasol of omni-gel fibers twitched in annoyance, following his shaking head. "Open the visor."

Tali did so, and a wave of torrid sulfuric stench rose from the corpse. For that is what it had to be. She pulled out the Quarian face, one that even as it was exposed to the air was turning charcoal gray-green. "It's… decomposing at a rate that shouldn't be possible." The slight wind in the air brushed what was soon dust out of Tali's hands, flinging it along the wind. "It's like the skin cells were degenerating, or losing cohesion."

Charles was thoroughly grossed out, and pushed past them towards the doorway, not wanting to possibly vomit. Miranda and Kasumi had their guns on the circulation vent that the liquid had moved into, leaving no wet marks or stains behind. "Does the door have power?" The haptic screen was dark, but that could mean anything. Some people actively hid their haptic screens just to keep people out of things. This entrance looked like one going down to a bunker, or a secure area.

HIs familiarity with Quarian tech let him find the actual haptic input, with small Omni-tool inserts. His tool was three hundred years too new to interact with it. When he went back to the body to get one that wasn't, he came back to a mucus pool inside the vizor that Tali was swirling, the bile and blackening mass enough to threaten to make his stomach lurch.

"Ahaha! Can't take seeing the dead, huh?" Shev'rash seemed to relish Charles' discomfort. "Why isn't this door open?"

"I need his Omni-tool." Charles admitted, not looking further at the mucus pile.

There was a tearing sound, and a gruesome mucus and pus dripping suit arm was handed to him. "It's integrated. Have fun."

Charles shuddered. "Eugh…." But the codes were still valid, and he was able to unlock the door leading into the bunker. "It's open." Shev'rash led the way, his parasol of Omni-gel fibers folding back into the armor. "Brave idiots first." The Quarian tightened up his barriers before leading the way. "Eyes open and don't trust your sensors. Whatever that thing was, my sensors didn't see it at all. Everyone comes back alive." Shev'rash intoned.

"By the dust on their feet or the dust they may become." Every other Quarian said at once. "Keelah Se'lai!" Charles followed, a sick feeling of trepidation as he stepped through the ancient portal. The light of Tikkun, the star here, left him. He was worried it might be the last he ever saw.

Author's Note

I am happy to report that for the first time in a year my life is calming down enough for me to write. I spent a year in a pretty demanding living situation, and now I own a house. What a fantastic feeling! Buying a home is like taking a giant risk, and yet I am happier that I have accomplished this. So, a bit of a flash about my life, my kid is growing so fast that my daily routine of running with him never seems to catch up in terms of muscle growth. It's not like I am feeding him lard or sugar. I literally shove indian food, curry, thai, chinese, american, and mexican food down his throat. He doesn't seem to have much opinion about food. He just eats and eats. It's kind of savage, really. I've been working as an IT administrator for a long while, and things are kind of busy. We have had to move our offices four times in 9 months, and for anyone in business they should know that sucks. It is a lot of late nights and long days. We have grown out of our space 3 times and been pushed out once. It is truly an effort when you get shifted around like this. So now I can write again, and things are moving forward professionally and personally. I have a bit more time and I have been a bit more interactive about my projects.

I wanted to thank you all for your patience in all of this. The musical bit above is Madonna's 'Material Girl' and it just spoke to me. It makes sense that they would be singing some kind of kareoke in the bathroom(because on a ship like that its the most acoustic room) and Tesai can just have the song lyrics display on her visor. I love writing Thane. He's just so deeply spiritual, in a way that I originally tried to write Haego but couldn't do that with his contempt for unbelief. I also would like to honor and thank Robotech and my newest editor, Booom. They've done a fantastic job making this story come together and for all of you guys for your messages and kind words of support. Looking forward to your input as we move forward!