Chapter 91

Illium Government Center, Novera, February 2183

"Your sister Nassana, does she have any connections we should know about?" Garrus asked, arm draped over the Asari next to him. "Besides the sniper tailing us?"

"She has some contracts with Eclipse, but not here. Mother doesn't like her having any kind of military strength within a light year of her headquarters." Dahlia spoke over the radio, as she and Velena had switched armors. Velena had not complained at being placed in the position of bait. She preened under the attention, actually. When they stepped out of the aircar, Velena stood taller than he had ever seen her. Those acting courses were coming in handy, indeed. She only started having trouble when he draped his arm over her.

"Calm down." He whispered. "We are almost to the admin building." There was no activity here. It was quiet and silent. Not the eerie kind, but the way that a government building was when no work needed to be done. A silent edifice of purpose and intent. The Asari government building was shaped like a twisting braid, rising into the sky almost a half mile. At its base was a giant open chamber, in itself perhaps one hundred feet tall. The chamber was supported by fluted columns, each one holding up the gigantic structure. The three roots of the braids seemed to keep the structure from falling, while the fluted columns supported the rest. He guessed that Element Zero was at work here. Each column created the effect of making the building appear to be floating above the world when the sunlight hit it.

A small security station was set up nearby, blocking access to the grounds. Low grade kinetic barriers kept people from entering the place.

"We apologize, but the grounds are closed." The Asari maiden in the security office said over a speaker system. "Please return tomorrow." It sounded rote.

"We need to enter this building." Garrus said, standing tall enough under the lamplight to let the security officer see his rank chevrons and symbols.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but there is nothing I can do for you. These offices are under a security lockdown for the next eight hours. I cannot release that lockdown unless the legal authority releases it, and they won't be in session until the morning."

"Who can I call about this?"

"Matriarch Elia successfully voted that until everyone has had a chance to release tensions, the courts would not be in session-" Anything further this young maiden had to say was just going to be rote memorization and not helpful. Garrus cut her off, growling.

"I am a Council Spectre and I need to get into this secure facility."

"And I'm a Matriarch with the power to grant your request." If she wasn't behind four security doors this maiden would be getting a piece of his mandible. "Since the Citadel is destroyed I can't very well verify your identity." She gave a tired sigh. "So you should just come back in the morning."

Desolous was snickering behind him. "Fine. I will find a Matriarch willing to listen. Then I'll see if I can't conscript you for being a pain in the cloaca." Garrus turned back to his full team, along with Velena and Dahlia. They had switched armor, but that wouldn't do much against a dedicated sniper. Perhaps delay his shots for a moment. He was concerned about putting Velena into the line of fire, but Dahlia's armor had better kinetic barriers. "Desolous." He muttered, not liking being in the open in front of a government building. "Find this Matriarch Elia and get me her number. Better yet, you call and explain the situation."

"Booty call, coming right up." Desolous was making loud enough sounds with his talons against the skin under the haptics that everyone could hear him typing into his Omni-tool. There was even some kind of annoying background music playing. Garrus ignored it, glancing around them. They were exposed, and he had only a quick armor change and extended kinetic barriers to keep them safe. "Hello!" Desolous said loudly enough for the entire neighborhood to hear. "This is your old friend Big Talons."

Garrus closed his eyes at this. Desolous had a flair for the dramatic, and didn't contain himself to any kind of limits. "Why are you calling me, Desolous." Whoever the Asari was, they did not sound happy or pleased.

"Oh, well, we were just at your administration building, trying to actually do my damn job. But I can't."

"Why in Athame is this my problem?" She replied groggily.

"Because your lockdown is keeping two Council Spectres from doing their job. We need you to release the lockdown on your administration building so that we can perform our job. Sorry, Elia, this isn't a pleasure call."

There was a good pause on the other end of the line. "I'm going to send my codes. Whatever you need, Desolous, you always can find it here. We're old friends, and I want to keep that in mind in these troubled time."

"Friends with benefits, I hope." Desolous responded.

"Of course, so long as you don't get cramps in that bad leg of yours again." The line cut off, but Desolous was smiling. The Asari at the front desk inside the building was looking affronted as the security codes hit her station, and the kinetic barrier curtain dropped.

"I have transferred security access tokens to your Omni-tools." The security officer said. "Have a pleasant evening." She said without feeling.

Garrus rested his arm on Velena again. "Just let us know if anything gets suspicious." He grunted at the security officer. Velena was shaking as they entered the fluted columns, and started walking towards the elevators at the corner of one of the braided tower bases. "Armigers, move forward. Cover lines of attack and secure the elevator. Send another pair to the emergency access stairwell."

Commander Scipii started running forward, her squad of four keeping pace with her. Two branched off to find the stairs, while she and the remaining pair ran to secure the elevator. Mordin, his Salarians, and the Volus had all gone ahead to the Solus family vessel. It left him with the Armigers, Desolous, and three Asari. Velena was playing the part of Dahlia, while Leily was next to Desolous as a secondary piece of bait. She didn't appreciate the old man's hands all over her, but it was a risk that he felt confident exposing her to. Of all the people at risk from a sniper, she was the one in the safest hands.

Even if those hands were Desolous'. They had barely gotten into the columns when something went wrong. There was a sharp *crack* and people reacted. The report of a sniper rifle echoed through the massive chamber, but before a second shot could go out Garrus slammed Velena into cover. The second shot wasn't for him, fortunately. Two of his Armigers dropped, their armor sparking and faltering. "Sniper!" As if it weren't obvious, Leily had to call it out.

"Take cover! He's found us." Garrus called out, calmly. Being a sniper, he understood what it meant to fight someone like himself. "Take your time, move quietly. He might be repositioning himself."

"I've got sight-" Another Armiger went down, scales and blood decorating a wall as their mandible got clipped. Garrus growled, slamming Velena into the floor and drawing his anti-gunship heavy rifle.

The location was marked, and Garrus grinned as he aimed through the pillar he was taking cover behind. "I hope you survive this…" He grunted, before pulling the trigger. An entire thermal clip whined its way out of the cannon, and Velena shrieked as it fired. A hole was plowed through the pillar, across the room, and into the sniper's roost. "Because I have questions for you."

"S'kak." Scipii murmured over the channel. "Spectres pack heat. But I'm not seeing any blood."

"Scout with drones, map out all heat sources!" It was past nightfall, so that might help find out where this sniper was. Or if Garrus had just atomized his next lead, they would tell him. There was another sharp crack tearing through the air as the drone was brought down, this time by a rifle on the complete opposite side of the plaza.

"We're in a shooting gallery." Velena said, underneath his arm. "Goddess."

The columns prevented a good angle on him. But to an experienced sniper this was just a large series of funnels, drawing his people into exposed lanes of fire. "I hate Asari architecture." He grumbled. "Desolous! Harden your barrier and get back out of here!"

The old man didn't complain, but no sooner had he stood up then a concussive round took him out, sliding him and Leily down to crash loudly at the foot of another column. "Not on my watch!" Desolous cried out, his screech of pain louder as he surrounded Leily with his body. Two more shots came, hitting Desolous but not breaching his kinetic barriers. One shot even hit him, glancing off his helmet and his tough barriers.

"Someone give me a headcount!" Garrus roared.

"I count nine rifles." Dahlia said calmly over the channel. "They are on small floating drones, and interlinked. The actual sniper isn't even here. He's just got us cornered."

Garrus growled. Drones he could handle. But he couldn't do it while protecting Velena like this. "Focus your barrier." He grunted at her. "Tight as you can." His cannon slipped back into its position on his back, and he drew his Viper. "Team, mark the drones and share amongst the comm."

There were three more shots fired, as his team all let their Omni-tools rise up to scan the enemy. Dahlia marked four before she took a shot to the arm, making her hiss in pain and fall back into cover. "Scipii, you and your team perform cover fire. Take out the closest marks." Seven enemy drones had been marked, and he took a deep breath. "Cover me now!"

The entire team rose up from cover, military standard drilling taking over. He stood up, firing as he went. His visor locked onto every drone in his angle of fire, all four red circles linking up with his reticule from his rifle. One, two, and three drones went down under his fire, and he began firing at the fourth. The rifle couldn't handle the strain of continuing, and so Garrus had to take a knee and take cover again. The entire team had low shields, with Commander Ren Scipii injured. She had taken three shots from the coordinated sniper fire, with her team having taken down one enemy drone in total.

Desolous has moved back into cover with their help, but Leily had no barriers left. They would need a minute to recover. The two remaining rifles pointed at them would be able to have an angle sooner than that. "Good work!" He yelled. "Now we just have to-" His helmet got slammed by something. Biotic ability, concussive round, whatever it was. It came through the hole he made with his cannon and slammed into the back of his head, slamming him mandible-first into the tiled floor and skidding a few meters. "Son of a-" The other rifle helped, passing through his barriers and glancing off the armor of his crotch plate.

He rolled, another shot hitting the tile next to him as he arrived behind another column, leaving Velena exposed. "Desolous, I don't like him very much!"

"The bastard shot my cane!" The old man growled. "The barrel is warped!"

This Thane was aggravating. He was toying with them. Drones alone had reduced Garrus to cowering in cover. "Dahlia, Ren, I want you to change this up. Fire off thrusters with your people and go up a level, blow out a window if you have to. But get out of this mess. Building security should assist us once you are there. The rest of us are going to stay in cover until you can flank him."

"As you say!" Ren and Dahlia got off the ground, their thrusters kicking into high gear to get them off the ground. Ren took a concussive round, while Dahlia took a much more lethal shot. Her barrier held, however. The moment that shot hit her, all of the guns went silent. Garrus could feel his plates grind as the silence went on, only broken by the sound of shattered glass from Dahlia's entry on the upper level.

"Amonkira has heard me." Garrus caught. His helmet could pick up the sound of something large being broken open. "May only one soul die this night." The sound of something rattling and sliding across the tile got his attention, as large blocks of what appeared to be ice slid along the lanes of columns. On top of each block of ice was some kind of explosive, while the ice itself looked odd. It was filled with red flecks, with a brick of some kind of paste stuck along the edges.

Shooting it might cause it to detonate prematurely or worse. Garrus just rolled into cover, grinning as he got a pillar between him and the ice block. His grin ended when another of the damned things slid up to him, and then detonated. Pellets of ice and something radioactive hit his armor, and a thick fog filled the entire area.

"That was dry ice, with red sand eezo inside of it!" Ren called out. "My scanners can't see anything!"

"Velena!" Garrus roared, coming to his feet. He came around the column seeing the Asari standing already, her helmet off. "Why is your helmet off?"

She looked addled, her eyes twitching. It looked like the clasps of her helmet had been broken by a pistol or something small. The actual faceplate had been ripped off. "Leily!" Desolous cried out, before his dead weight slammed into Garrus. He and the old man rolled to their feet, and got over to Leily as quickly as they could. Her helmet had also been ripped off, and she sat there, eyes twitching as she breathed in the fog. "He knows she isn't here." Desolous muttered. "He's only hunting his target."

"Anyone combat ineffective, get these two out of here! Anyone not ineffective assemble at the base of the tower!" Garrus sprinted, the gyros in his legs cranking as he came out of the fog at forty kilometers per hour. A Turian at full sprint could keep going for a while, but this was the desperate kind of sprint. When he got there, one of the Armigers and Commander Scipii had already assembled at the elevator in the cover of fog. As the elevator slowly arrived, Desolous caught up. The old man was angry and huffing, his good leg carrying him.

With a musical quadruple tone, the elevator opened. The entire team of four threw themselves into the elevator, meant for at least twice that many. "Which floor?" Desolous muttered.

"Dahlia wasn't going to stay put even if I ordered her to." Garrus replied. With a simple program he had on his Omni-tool he logged into their security system, and could track all of the elevators in the building. Two others were in use, both heading for the 45th floor. "She's going after her sister, and so are we." He thumbed the button for the 45th floor, as well as the safety override on the elevator speed. "I just don't trust Dahlia to be completely on our side." Using the security system, he had both elevators freeze. Only one followed his order, while the other seemed to ignore it. "Found him."

Kinetic barriers had recharged some by the time the doors opened. "He's coming up the other shaft! Secure the room!" All four took cover behind decorative desks and a Tupari dispenser. They waited, as the elevator arrived. Then it went past them, opening up onto the floor above. "High angle, armor piercing!" He barked, as the entire team opened up on the lobby above with armor piercing rounds. They pierced the floor, hammering the upper floor with tiny grains and refracting on the doors of the elevators. For a full thirty second period his squad hammered the upper lobby, before he held up a fist. With discipline the entire squad stopped. "Desolous?"

The old man grinned. "I hope he isn't dead, young Tarn. But somehow I doubt it. No lifesigns detected."

"He could be using a disruption net to disguise himself." Garrus spoke up. "Desolous, find the other Dantius." Alarms were now ringing throughout the building, and their security teams were probably two minutes out from being combat effective. Asari were damned slow on their discipline. "Ren, go with him. Take your man and sweep for the most defensible location. I'm willing to bet she is in a safe room or something on lockdown."

He could hear footsteps, but not from above. He swivelled, his rifle locked onto the emergency access doors leading to the stairs. They were thrown open by an enraged Dahlia. "You soulless bastard!" She yelled. "You locked me in an elevator with that damn red sand!"

"Sorry. Maybe if you hadn't have run off on your own I might be more concerned. Now that you're here, you should take cover. Thane got off on the floor above us, near as we can tell."

"He's good." She ran up to his side, letting Garrus be close enough to save her from anything. "But I know my sister. If we can get to her first, we've won."

"I'm not sure what I'm winning here." Garrus quipped. "Besides your help against my enemies once I've cleared yours."

"Found a sealed section of the building, looks like we need different codes to break through!" Ren Scipii called. Her voice seemed enthusiastic.

"Is that where your sister would be?" He asked quietly.

"Does it have a good view?"

"It would have a good view of the mountains. Not really anything else."

Dahlia shook her head. "She likes the view of the ocean. Has to have it. She's also a micromanager. She can't handle not knowing about things. She will want to manage the hit on me."

"Search the oceanside hallways!" Garrus barked. "Life sign detectors can't be trusted, use your intuition!" He grabbed Dahlia's shoulder, holding up one finger. Quietly, he stepped into a side hallway and placed a tech mine on the doorframe. Then he gave a short hop and placed another one on the roof near a ventilation hatch. Dahlia had never served in the Turian military, but Garrus knew the Asari hand signals for moving forward. He made a fist, motioning to the hallway ahead. Dahlia rolled her eyes and flipped him off, moving forwards.

If he were an assassin, Garrus considered, he would want to hit them from behind. Or move ahead and ambush them from one of the cross-connecting hallways. That was logical. And yet so far everything that this Thane had done was not what an assassin would do. Direct confrontation, flanking maneuvers, anti-squad tactics, he was acting in ways that went against all traditional methods. So he held up his taloned fist again, and pointed to a set of stairs. Dahlia gave him a look of annoyance. But he held up his hand, letting his visor go active. The single eye was taking in information from all sources, and as he stood still it went into overclocked mode.

Every single grain of sand on the floor was analyzed, every single floorboard and tile in view was suspected. Microcameras sticking through cell walls of ceilings would be noticed by this. Krios was tracking Dahlia somehow, and his eye would see momentarily. He had to be using cameras, or some kind of thermal imaging photoreceptors coming through the walls and floors. He waited, frowning. Only one piece of unwelcome technology was sighted, a small camera sighting on him from the very end of the hallway, with signal being relayed to a single room. "Found you." Garrus whispered, adrenaline rushing as he finally got a leg up in this rat race. "Squad, on me. My barriers can take the hit of whatever it is he is using. Form up, follow me in. Barge in with caution. There are civilians taking cover in many of these rooms."

He squeezed Dahlia's hand. Slowly, he drew the Spectre-grade shotgun that he never got enough opportunities to use. Then he was off, the ground itself rippling as he went into his fastest sprint. Boots slammed into the tiles as hydraulics in his armor compensated for his explosion of motion. Long gouges in the carpet were carved by his boots. His shoulder dipped, and then the other as he reduced his profile and hit his full sprint. The underbarrel of his gun barked, his tech grenade and Carnage round firing as one. At top sprint he knew his barriers would not enjoy the experience.

The door ahead of him was blown open by the force of the shot, and the smoke and the fire concealed him. His barriers drained down a significant portion, but he sensed motion from the other side. Two individuals, one of whom was taking a position in front of the busted door. He ran over that person, not even seeing who it was in the smoke. Whoever it was weighed nothing, screaming as they were sent sliding. The second person he landed on with both knees, carrying them and himself into a pile of chairs. Expensive and tough hardwood chairs held, as he came to a stop on top of an Asari wearing high quality armor. Her helmet was off, and she was dazed from the explosion.

He swept the room, kicking her hand close to the chair leg and deploying a quick tie to her wrist. It bonded with the chair leg, and he rolled. The other figure had come to their senses, and used some kind of biotic ability in his direction. His squad sight marker already showed someone coming up behind them, and he trilled as Dahlia was the second one in. An Asari soon careened out of the smoke, her black and purple armor trailing pieces of ash as she slammed into the far wall with force. Ren Scipii and her Armiger piled in after Dahlia, and they swept the room for trouble.

"They aren't security. No IFF tags to mark them. Must be some kind of private security." Commander Scipii mentioned. "This one hasn't finished latching up her armor. Whatever they are here for, we surprised them."

"That makes it more imperative that we lock them in a closet or something until we and security have found the assassin." Garrus muttered, now glancing at the vents. "Bad call, bad call. We hit the wrong location and Krios is probably on his way over." He pointed at the door. "Don't bother securing that. Lock down bathroom grates, internal access panels, and mine the door while we figure out what to do with these two."

A voice cut through his. "What is the meaning of this!" A third Asari emerged from a side chamber, biotic barrier up and in formal dress. Formal for Asari meant as much skin showing as normal with more embellishments. Dahlia swivelled her gun towards the other Asari.

"Found you, Nassana." She announced calmly.

"Dahlia?" The formally dressed Asari looked down at her defeated and broken guards. "You're supposed to be dead."

Garrus grinned. He had plenty of time on the ride over to arrange what he wanted to say to Nassana Dantius. "Nassana Dantius, for the attempt on your sister's life, and the indirect attempt to interfere with a Spectre's investigation," He deployed a pair of handcuffs from his belt. "You are under arrest, pending investigation of your holdings and claims against the victim."

Nassana stepped back, her eyes going between Garrus and Dahlia. "The Citadel is gone! It's laws don't matter if the entire government is gone!"

"I could list all of the laws you've broken." Garrus mentioned, seeing something moving from the back room. "But I really couldn't give a single S'kak. I'm not here to take you into custody. I'm here to convince you to call off your assassin. He's the one I wanted to talk to, anyways." The motion stopped, and Garrus kept talking. "Nassana you are a tiny prey creature in a much larger world. Call off your hit, so I can hire your assassin for the most important job of his life. We've already exchanged fire, but I hope he isn't injured because of it."

"And you'll leave me alone if I do that?" Nassana stood in the doorframe, having only a bedroom to retreat to.

"The Citadel is gone, as you said. If I convicted you it might be a few hundred years before we get to your legal case. I would have to send you to Clan Marsula's prison in the meantime. Friess Station could handle a few more guests…"

"You'd do this." Nassana spat.

"I would. I'm trying to go after the people behind the destruction of the Citadel. You are hindering that investigation. As a Spectre, I am allowed to do whatever the spirits demand I do to get that done. So call it off, and maybe you'll just get spanked by your mother on the cover of Fornax for this."

"Did you tell her about this?" Nassana and Dahlia looked very concerned at that moment.

Garrus held up his wrist, with the private contact line he had gotten with Julia all those months ago. "I will call her if you don't call this off. She'll have you publicly humiliated tomorrow, and on the front page of Fornax for all of your friends to see. Spirits, I bet I could even be included." He gave the Asari a cold grin. "I'd call it an interrogation, but your mother would call it justice."

Nassana nodded. "I'm calling it off, Spectre." She typed into her wrist, slender fingers being tracked by his eye. The shadow at the edge of his vision started pulling away.

"Please stay, Krios." Garrus said. "I have to ask you a few questions as well."

From directly behind him, Krios stepped out. Garrus felt his blood run cold. No one had seen him. Two of his Armigers were behind him. Turning, he could see them on the floor, twitching from some kind of knockout darts shoved through the thin armor of the neck. "You want to know about Jack Harper."

"He destroyed the Citadel." Garrus said, matter of factly. "Irreplaceably damaged our entire way of life."

"There were Rachni on the Citadel." Thane Krios spoke, finally in view for the first time. The Drell was wearing a set of scorched armor, his shoulder a bloody mess. Even with one arm it didn't seem to slow him down in the slightest. "They had overrun the arms. I saw a Brood warrior myself, and was stalked by them. I evacuated everyone I could with my savings, and I need to find my personal refugees a home."

"So this job was supposed to fix that?"

"I have few options at this time, Spectre. I don't have skills outside of what the Hanar taught me. My hands can only end the lives of others."

"Good." Garrus stated. "I need someone like that. More importantly, you know about who we are going after."

Thane Krios holstered his pistol and took a deep breath. "Ten lives for ten lives, he said. The ten men who wanted my wife dead for ten men who wanted his daughter dead." The Drell said, eyes far away. "You want me to assist you." He glanced up at Garrus.

"I want Harper dead, drawn and quartered if I get him alive. He's squatting somewhere in the Terminus and I want his head. Name your price, Krios. I'll do everything in my power to fulfill what you need."

"You don't want to hire me to go kill him?"

"No. I want someone like you at my side. This isn't the kind of enemy you tackle alone." Better at his side than lost in the wind. He didn't trust Thane, and this just was a good way of keeping him truthful. "Did Harper ever bring you to any of his bases?"

"Our meetings were on Omega." Thane answered. "But that is not to say I did not find the location of a few of his nests." The Drell glanced at Garrus' wrist, for some reason. "Call it insurance."

"What's your price?" Garrus demanded, watching as his people were starting to recover from whatever darts Krios was using.

"Asylum." Thane spoke. "Asylum for my entire race, and our friends."

Garrus could feel something deep in his cloaca loosen. "Why."

"Because the Hanar Illuminated Primacy has joined Jack Harper's Prothean Empire."

Cerberus Foundation, Luna, Sol System February 2183

"We are happy to announce re-opening of the Cerberus Foundation, as this war with the Rachni is now entering a more entrenched phase." The announcer, some A-list movie star, spoke. He was just trying to get attention without actually getting involved in the damn war. All of these people were. Horace ran a finger over his mustache to hide his innate distaste of this event. He shouldn't have been pulled off of Eden Prime for this shite. His men were tracking what might be the last Brood Warrior left on that planet, and here he was at some gala. "With the unfortunate passing of so many on the Citadel, the issues regarding ownership of the old foundation has been resolved. We are pleased to introduce the new director of Cerberus! Here he is, ladies and gentleman! I give you Doctor Conrad Verner!"

The named Doctor was some scrawny blonde man. His suit was ill-fitted, and his face had some terrible goatee covering it. Unlike Horace the man didn't deserve facial hair. You needed to actually bleed red for that. This bastard looked like he had spent his life doing nothing of value except be some egg head.

The aforementioned Verner took the pulpit, coughing once to sound things out. He brought printed paper to the damn thing. Horace chuckled, snorting. He bothered to print out his speech? What an imbecile. "Ladies and Gentleman." Verner had a decent voice, at least. It sounded like he had a bit of a scratch, but the man at least spoke confidently. "I was assured by my teams that if I tried to run they would hit me with a paralysis net. You see, I really don't like being in public. Public events like this are just not my form of entertainment." He brought up a piece of paper, and folded it. Almost clinically. Then he crumpled it up and tossed it behind him, with more pieces of paper following it. Horace was trying not to laugh. If Verner was trying to impress anyone, he was utterly failing.

Verner brought up his Omni-tool, and tapped it. Each crumpled ball of paper expanded to a size covering fifteen feet, web-like. "T-these are," He coughed, "Kinetic absorption foam. They can be used as deployable cover, blocking mechanisms, and defensive structures. Once deployed, it can withstand most forms of heat. Under concentrated fire the foam will begin to dry and break down, but it was not designed with that in mind." Verner nodded to the side, and a man with a super soaker stepped forward and sprayed the foam. The foam just sucked up the water. Horace huffed, his mustache fluffing. Then the same man sprayed a piece of armor from a tank and Horace watched as rivulets of acid burned it. "This foam is completely immune to the dissociation of cells that occurs when an acid impacts it. In effect, we have created a temporary piece of cover that protects our troops against Rachni acid, which before this point has completely ignored anything other than the heaviest of infantry options." Verner's voice seemed more confident now, and Horace realized that he was leaning forward. Verner had his complete attention.

The hall was silent, as this no name scientist just proved the Rachni's arsenal entirely weakened. The damn bugs were less than totally effective with their guns. They couldn't produce them in mass. Their armor and weapons were always deployed in limited numbers. The acid was the real killer. This no name stuttering imbecile had just saved thousands of marine lives. "This is just the first development of the new Cerberus Foundation. With the deaths of many of the previous holders of intellectual property and the actions of the Huerta Administration, it has been made possible to yet again open the doors of the Cerberus Foundation. Here we shall research and develop whatever we can to stop the Rachni, the Geth, and do so in a uniquely Human way. The other races had the chemical solutions we needed, and they refused to share them. We had to develop this foam on our own."

Verner cleared his throat, swallowing. He really was unsuited to being up on the pulpit. But Horace would give this man whatever time he needed. Verner even took another ten seconds to think about what he was going to say. "This war with the Rachni. The Citadel being gone, and everything else. Things look bad. Things are getting worse. We have food shortages, weapon shortages, armor shortages. Cerberus cannot fix those things. That isn't our job. Our job," He said hesitantly, "Is to provide the future to protect the present. To give the children who are not yet born, and those too young to know a time where we have been strong. I remember a time before Grissom went through the relays. Before we knew we were the newest and weakest in the neighborhood. Humanity as we know it today is the new kid in a much larger town, and we have little to nothing to our name."

There were grumblings in the crowd, and Doctor Verner crumpled up at the pulpit. Horace actually wanted to hear what the man was going to say. That little turnip of a scientist had just saved a few hundred thousand people from dying to Rachni. "Hear hear!" Horace roared, his voice carrying over any grumbling. "Speak up, Doctor!" He added, his table mates looking at him with a smile. He hadn't given two shites about them before, and a quick glance revealed a heavily toned and overly muscled Human male and some Asari on his arm.

Verner smiled up at the pulpit. "Ah, thank you. As I was saying, we are at war. We don't see it back here on Earth. Not yet. But it won't be long before austerity protocols kick in, and rationing on earth will happen. We are going to see a side of our race that hasn't been seen since the Islamic Wars. No one alive can remember another time where our race has been gripped by so much fear and so much worry about our future. We are facing a crossroads, the likes of which our names will either live on and be deified for, or be forgotten in the whirlwind of hate and destruction."

The hall was silent, curious again with his words. "Being a Doctor, most of my life has been spent in schools, residencies, and sitting at desks. I have never once put my life on the line, or placed myself in any position where my life was at risk." He said, confidently. As if admitting his own faults. Horace ignored the whispers around him. "But as I stand at this crossroad, I feel like an old man, looking down from all he has built and watching as the foundations he has constructed fall apart underneath him. The older generation and others in the same position are watching as the younger generations are facing something that they never could be prepared for and never would be able to stop. In the last six months, we have had requests from every surviving research analyst and engineer from the first iteration of the Cerberus Foundation. Every single one has without hesitation requested to come back and do what they did back during the First Contact War. They, like me, are tired of being powerless in the face of such reckless hate. We have all decided that if we cannot be on the front lines and fire a gun at the enemy, we will create solutions that will save the lives of the men we envy and treasure. This is the goal of the Cerberus Foundation."

"I am an orphan. I don't have parents or family to look to for guidance. And so I look to the greatest scientists of the previous generation to face this kind of hatred. I quote Elon Musk, the day of the first Albatross rocket launch. The Albatross series of rockets were what propelled the first equipment to Mars, and what made the Mars settlements possible. 'I will drag the rest of the Human race to Mars, come hell or high water. We will prove that you can survive out there. That we can go out into the dark and come back victorious. I will revive the age of colonialism that our ancestors experienced, and with this rocket I will create a new age of adventure. A new era of exploration is upon us, and even if this rocket fails, with God as my witness I will pick up its shattered pieces and make a new rocket.' By God, I will create a future for all those who cannot. This is the new Cerberus. Today, I declare that I and every other man of means and creative potential will provide the technology and inventions that will take us into the future. Just like we did thirty years ago with Turians at our doorstep, we will work feverishly into the day and night until we have proven that fact. To a scientist there is no such thing as fiction. There is truth and lies. What I offer this administration and to all the different branches of our military is a solemn oath. We will safeguard the future. Ladies and gentlemen, these deployable foam devices are just the beginning. More will come, and to that I toast. To the future!"

Horace was not the only one who stood up to congratulate that scientist. The tan man to his right also stood up, ham fists beating together loudly. "I was about to stand up and say something a bit more rude back there." The man said. "Lt. James Vega."

"Colonel Horace J. Shepherd." Horace said, puffing his chest out for all the good it would do compared to this muscled monstrosity. Paying closer attention, he could see a wicked scar on the man's neck. Rachni acid. "How many times did you get hit by acid, Vega?" Horace asked quietly. Most soldiers would remember the pain and grimace when asked. Others would vainly boast about it. Vega just shrugged.

"We were some of the last people off of Fehl Prime." He said proudly. "My team held to the last man, and my boots were the last on the ground before the evac shuttles got everyone left off the colony. This is Doctor Treeya Nuwani, one of the better minds on Prothean culture and philosophy." The brute had a brain. Horace was surprised.

"What got you dragged to this dog and pony show?"

"I'm supposed to go to Buenos Aires after this. Go through the N trials." He smiled faintly. It was a look Horace knew well. "I was just supposed to come here and see what the guys they pulled out of jail have been cooking up."

"Pulled out of jail?" Treeyai asked, confused.

"The men involved with the first Cerberus Foundation were convicted of war crimes." Horace filled in for them both. "If they have been allowed out of prison to participate, then that means that all bets are off for what weapons are going to roll out of here. During the First Contact War marines were allowed to use anything and everything to wipe out the bastards. The scientists that cooked up everything used live subjects captured for the purpose to test their effectiveness. As part of us making peace with the Turians we jailed the scientists and eggheads responsible for the shite-heap." Horace explained. "Oh, and Vega?"

"Yes sir?"

"I'll see you down at Buenos Aires. I might not have the red stripe on today, but I'm N7. Since we know each other, I'm going to ride your ass into the dirt down there and see if you really have what it takes." Horace said threateningly. "With the war, we don't have the time to fully condition and war game the shite out of you. So you're getting the expedited route. Show me you're worth something, and I'll write your commendation myself."

Vega grinned. "I'll see you on the ground sir." His salute was crisp. Horace returned it. Vega quickly left him for some reason. When he turned around and saw ten eggheads behind him and a cart full of weapons and devices, Horace just groaned.

"What's all this?" He asked, as patiently as his tongue dared. "You giving me a better Paladin shield?"

"We've got a lot of weapons and gear for you to field test." Horace felt his entire body twitch. There was no worse word in the vocabulary of any soldier. Taking an untested and unproven weapon into the field was like shoving a live grenade into your shorts. "You seemed very supportive of Doctor Verner's work, and we thought you might be eager to test the first batch!"

"Well!" He blustered. "Well," He bought time, thinking. "I suppose I can test it out on the N training program." That was the only positive line of thought he could come up with. At least he could safely say that he was no longer bored out of his mind. Whatever this new Cerberus came up with, he would give them the chance to prove their viability. With a harrumph he stood up, and walked over to these men. And they were men, he realized. Just as daring as he could be.

Virmire, Hoc System, February 2183

Julia awoke, seeing the bright light coming through the ship's windows. Her body ached, but not with a hangover. Her Omni-tool had no new messages, and the only thing she felt was the lingering pain of being wounded in battle. Needle sharp spikes where a round or bit of acid had punched through, or the lingering ache of a broken rib. With a groan she stood up from her bed, displacing someone else's hand. Coming to a sitting position was more a matter of lightening her mass rather than forcing herself up. Biotics could cheat in their daily lives. Putting more pressure on her ribs didn't sound like fun, though.

Standing was far easier, a small burst of power to bring her to her feet. The cold tile greeted her, but the ship wasn't rumbling. The stealth frigate wasn't running. Wherever they were, it could support a ship at rest. The view was something else though. There was a hangar bay, and outside of it was a beach. Pure black sand going along a coastline for miles. The frigate was tucked into a sloop that had some kind of building over the top of it, and they were docked. Power was being supplied externally.

"Turn it down," She could hear someone say from the bed.

Turning, she could see Miranda's hair looking more like a peacock than a person. Behind it and using some of it as a mustache was Kasumi. "What?" Julia offered.

"Turn down the lights."

"That's a star, Kasumi."

"Tell it to go away!" Kasumi tried to say, covering her eyes with one hand. The other maintained the stupid mustache. "The great and powerful commands it!"

"More like short and hungover." Julia coughed, her throat still feeling ravaged. "We've arrived wherever we are supposed to."

Miranda pulled her hair from Kasumi's lip, standing up in all of her bed hair glory. A flare of biotics and Kasumi was pushed off of her, and her sister came to stand at the window. "Virmire. Heavily contested part of the terminus-traverse border. We built a base here for medical experiments. It's the first time I've been here, since the project is supposed to be something special."

"I've been here." Kasumi added, hiding behind the bed. "Oyabun stores a lot of things in the vault here. This whole island has lots of lead and iron deposits, so it's hard to scan. The base is small but the vault is deep. The codename for the base is Charon."

"Always with the Greek." Miranda groaned. "Naming something after the ferryman to the underworld."

"Well, the staff are nice, though the lead doctor is really forgetful. Doctor Wilson is the guy, really bad taste in everything." Kasumi added, somehow perky. Damnable metabolism was fast. "He's the one who is supposed to fix up Joker."

"Can we see his medical history? Or some kind of license?"

"This is the place! Charon base!" Kasumi sing-songed from the darkness of the bed.

"Alright, whatever." Julia spat. She had spent her evening listening to a creepy version of herself. "First things first, we get our wounded into medical. We find," She looked at Miranda for confirmation. "This Wilson's medical license and history, and make sure he is fit to operate on Joker. As much as I trust Lawson,"

"Which we shouldn't," Miranda adds.

"Which we should!" Julia fires back. "His family is safe and he had the chance to kill me dozens of times across the last few months. We have to trust him and this Wilson fellow with Joker." Julia had to clear her throat. "As well as everyone else." Including her own injuries.

"Then we hit the beach?"

"No!" "Yes!" Julia and Miranda contradicted each other. Miranda had no sense of modesty and was raised by Asari. If she went to a beach, she wouldn't wear a stitch of clothing. In mixed company that would be a catastrophe.

"Yes for democracy!" Kasumi adds

"I veto." Julia folded her arms gently, not wanting to touch her ribs. "I am not going out in a swimsuit and bruises."

"Then leave the swimsuit,"

Julia ignored them, grabbing a hairband and a comb. "Prepare to disembark." With another cough, she tapped her wrist. "Joker?"

"Yes?" His voice came over the comm. "We've been parked a few minutes, Commander. Didn't think you would be awake."

"What's the team status." She barked, her voice showing the harshness she reserved for soldiers she was angry with. Between her sisters and Joker, she could at least win this battle.

"Uh, mostly good. The injured are going to be brought off the ship soon, and then we unload supplies for something in the cargo hold."


"Jenkins, I think. I saw Dr. Lawson come onboard, and he told me at the party that he was watching over Jenkins."

She didn't know what to say to that. "Carry on. I'll see you before your surgery."

"Ah, you had to remind me." Joker sounded scared. "Don't worry about me, Commander. I can deal with pain."

"That's not why I'm doing it, Joker." Julia said softly. "We are going to pull his medical history first."

"Ah, Lawson already did that. This Wilson guy is really good. Studied on Sur'kesh and Thessia." Joker admitted. "But I'm good. I can handle this."

"Doesn't mean we won't be there to see you go in. How soon is your operation?"

"Half an hour for preliminaries." Joker said, almost a whisper. Maybe he was afraid. "You're going to come?"

"I'll even bring Kasumi, if it makes you feel better."

There was a long pause on the other line. "Y-yeah. No sweat, right?"

Her fingers flew across her wrist, typing up a memo. "I'll be there, Joker." She clicked the comms off with a pinky. Then she wrote in bold letters. 'JOKER GOES INTO SURGERY IN 30. ATTENDANCE MANDATORY.' Their pilot had sacrificed just as much as anyone else to get here, and she wasn't going to let anyone forget it. The man that had fought a two kilometer dreadnaught and won with a frigate was not going to be forgotten in a time like this.

Miranda stepped up beside her. In the minutes she had been talking, her sister had somehow gathered her hair into something appropriate. "Thirty minutes isn't long enough to look nice. We should hurry."

"Maybe if you take twenty eight minutes in the shower every morning it isn't." Julia fired back, smirking. Within thirty minutes exactly, every single crewman, technician, and staff member were lining the hallways above the operating theatre. Kasumi had posters and hacked haptic screens shouting 'Good Luck!' Where she had got them, Julia didn't know and didn't want to be involved with knowing.

Joker walked with the help of his crutches under the eyes of everyone. His chin was set and his shoulders were straight back. He made eye contact with everyone. "Atten-hut!" Pressley bellowed like an ox, and the entire room came to attention. "We salute the only Human flying ace of the Rachni War!" Joker had five kills on enemy vessels. Two assists. For a stealth frigate that was meant to scout enemy positions, it was unprecedented. Joker as a pilot had more kills than any other pilot in the navy. "May his name never be forgotten! May he become an ace of aces!" Pressley gave a grin. "May he fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood and last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart!"

Joker just seemed to stand a little taller. Julia couldn't help but smile as Joker passed the formations of saluting and honoring fellows. The moment was solemn until Kasumi wolf whistled. Julia snorted. Upon seeing their commanding officer laugh, most couldn't hold in their own laughter. Joker himself even giggled a bit. "At ease!" He managed to let out.

"We've got your back, Joker." Julia rasped. "We aren't leaving here until you can walk up the ramp."

Joker staggered a bit. His eyes were a bit misty when he looked back up at the crew. "T-thanks."

From the doors, Doctor Henry Lawson chuckled. "Such optimism. You'll need it when I pull out your spine." His bedside manner was never a winning feature. "Come on, Mr. Moreau. The fat lady is singing." Julia watched as the two men walked through the operating room doors, the baleful red light of an active surgery turning on seconds after. It reminded her too much of her own experience under Lawson's hands. She made the appearance of saluting along with everyone else, but the moment that Pressley released his hand she was gone. Her cloak activated and she fled.

Crescent Nebula, February 2183

"This is a Salarian Cruiser?" Garrus asked, the moment that the unassuming doors closed behind him.

"Welcome," The bent horn of the Salarian in front of him bobbed as he was led into a central foyer. "To the Geneluese Vueluer. Small for its class, but faster and capable of beating the Stealth Recon vessel that Harper has deployed in the past. Two hundred and thirty meters in length, with twin spinal mounted cannons. Unlikely to need them."

"Oh, I find that having a large gun is always a plus." Garrus touted. "Though I feel like I entered a hotel."

"Aesthetics of these chambers meant for visiting dignitaries." Mordin Solus casually explained, as the airlocks cycled behind them to allow the next series of visitors onboard. "Includes comm suites, planning and war suites, and culinary chambers. It is efficient to be able to entertain the highest ranks of society and the most warlike Turians."

The ship was a pleasant blue and white color, its floors a comfortable metal plate. The walls and the decor were high class, for a Turian. Small sitting areas concealed storage compartments and deployable cover in case of a boarding action. Garrus was also fairly certain that the hanging light source in the middle of the room was also capable of blinding anything without eye protection.

It was still a warship, but with a casual design for comfort. "Fit to entertain any Asari Matriarch."

"The last time that you entertained a Matriarch, she died." Desolous mentioned, coming through the airlock. "Leave the entertaining to me, I think."

"Perhaps entertain you shall." Mordin interrupted before his mentor could humiliate himself more.. "Mission was not entrusted to you, Spectre Arterius. Spectre Vakarian was trusted with the task, and this ship is at his disposal, and not yours." The Salarian turned around lightning quick, as his species were apt to do. "Come with me, Spectre. This vessel should be explained to you."

Garrus followed the quick little fellow, as other Salarians gave nods of the head as they passed. "Will you have enough room onboard for all of us?"

"Of course." Solus assured him. "Current crew allotment is only those who have no commitments to put at risk. We do not have many in service on this vessel, and unlike most Salarian vessels, we cannot perform to the same levels you might be used to. Combat doctrine demands that high risks are taken and extreme heat exposure is expected. This vessel is rated for combat, but it's crew are not. Keep this in mind. I brought fifty retired STG with me and another few dozen Solus family retainers."

"We are headed into the Terminus Systems." Garrus said carefully. "Wouldn't that rate a few more eyes pointed at the situation?"

Solus grinned. "STG Network is not blind to your needs. But only those who have nothing to lose by helping you are here. On Sur'Kesh there has been distinct pressure to avoid further conflict with Jack Harper or his allies in the Prothean Empire. Whether it exists or not, the possibility is real that Harper has direct control of every single Prothean beacon in existence. By extension, he has destroyed the Citadel. He may take control the entire relay network with time. There have been rallies and demonstrations on the extranet, and a significant portion of the male population are considering joining Harper." Mordin took a moment to breath, nostrils flaring. "Cannot be allowed to cause catalyst and make things worse. I will not allow my society to fracture."

"Is the Salarian Union really so fractured?"

"Not that can be seen." Mordin admitted. "But elements of our society push for change, for a larger voice. Dalatrasses great and small control almost every element of it, and the few who break apart from their word are lost to history. Names forgotten but legend lives on."

"Like the League of One?"

"Yes." The bent horn bobbed again, as Mordin moved through a revolving doorway. "Most well known example." He paused. "But there are many. Lystheni. The Seventh Step. The Green Dalatrass." He clapped once, waving his arms around to show the room. "And Mordin Solus, of course."

"You would join Harper?"

"No." Mordin said emphatically, and rapidly. "But disagree with direction of my society and culture, perhaps. Those who agree with this are with me. Though we do not want Harper to sway our ranks, we have verbally disagreed with our Dalatrass or have been tracked on our extranet activities and flagged as potential threats to the Union." Garrus just blinked, processing that. The Salarian didn't even wait for him to figure it all out. "Welcome to the Armory."

It was compact. The armory was tight, short, and packed to the brim with every kind of weapon imaginable. "Potential threats to the Union?" He was still hung up on that.

"Every one of us." Mordin said with pride. "But you would be surprised to know that the STG only recruits their field agents that have some threat rating. A normal Salarian is meant to accept the word of his Dalatrass, and live his life as part of a collective social enclave. Never question, never fight the word of his mother or female decision makers. The Special Tasks Group needs those that can think outside the collective. Those that experience the concept of individuality but not the ideal of open rebellion." Mordin grinned at Garrus' reaction. "Of course, mental stability checks are part of monthly reviews, and warning signs are reported. Even with the long traditions and practices put in place, the concept of rebellion lives on in this most unlikely of places."

"So every Salarian on this ship is threatening to your government. Every single one has a high enough threat rating that they would be happier if you might die out here."

It wasn't a question. Mordin didn't even deny it. "We believe in the Wheel. The idea that the galaxy turns and is acted upon. Interpretations differ according to freedom of thought. Not necessarily freedom of thought that drives interpretation, but ability to consider that actions not of your own volition are acceptable to interpretation." He rattled. "Our fear is that our enemies will destroy our way of life. Too much of a shock to the society, maybe enough to cause catastrophic failure among colonies. This is why we came, and why our Dalatrass trusts our judgement. We can think where others would falter. Will falter."

"Alright." Garrus admitted. That at least started to piece together what he suspected. "Now why do you trust me of all people with all of this?"

"Cannot trust a Salarian to have the freedom to consider such monumental decisions. Asari would never consider genocide as a method of success. Therefore I must place my trust into the hands of a Turian. Only Council race that has the mentality and the means to stop them. Or perhaps salvage this."

"Almost every other Turian Spectre is stuck behind a relay, along with almost all of our fleets and every single combat asset capable of taking on Harper. Hardly anyone knows it, but what's left of the Turian fleet is at best a fleet in being. Able to wave our fancy flags around the trade lanes but nothing more than that!" Garrus hissed. "We don't have the means to stop a pirate raid!"

"But you have the mentality. I do not. The Salarians prefer to finish the war before it begins. We never saw the resurrection of the Prothean Empire. We have no doctrines or plans for this. We do not have a military reaction planned against something as powerful as this. If we are to fight someone that can break the entire galactic economy with the push of a button, we," The Salarian faltered. "I cannot perceive of a victory. Four Turian Spectres able to act, and only one with a history of ignoring everything his superiors have said. You, Garrus Vakarian, are the one I must pin my hopes upon." The Salarian took a deep breath, waiting a few seconds before speaking again. "Councillor Tevos and my Dalatrass both believe that you can keep the wheel spinning. I share this trust."

"But I didn't predict he would do this! I am not the kind of Spectre you send to save anybody!" Garrus was nearly yelling now.

"You are the kind of Spectre who will not be balked by threats of the entire galaxy falling apart around him. You were chosen because you have no fear. I have fifty researchers and every single Prothean scientist dossier in the galaxy. My team will find a way to stop Harper from breaking the relays, the beacons, and our peoples. We trust you to make the decisions that give us that chance."

"Then I know where we are going first."

"Pilots ready and waiting." Mordin grinned. "By your word, Spectre."

"Take us to Omega. The Prothean Empire has an office there. I don't plan on destroying it, but we need answers."

"If we do not find what you are searching for?"

"Then we go to Arcturus. I'll abuse every privilege I have and find what we need."

Author's Note

With pleasure I am announcing my return. Things have calmed down a lot and I am writing again. I had to go back through the previous three chapters, and edit out all of the scenes of the team going to Rannoch. So if anyone is a bit shocked, that is what is happening. I highly recommend the works of LogicalPremise, Xabiar, and Sevoris. and and my editing team for all the solid work they have put in. Thanks to Booom, Robotech, Shalum, Pallan, and Natrim.

The quote from Pressley's speech came from Manfred von Richtofen. One of his best, I think. We're going to be hearing a lot more soon, ladies and gentlemen. The muse has finally come back.