Of Citadels And Castles, Part 16: Enemy Spotted

By C. Mage



When the Normandy and the Tin Star arrived at the Citadel, there were people waiting for them. In fact, there was a small crowd waiting for them. Machias turned to the rest of the crew, both physical and digital. "Jenny, Harry, until we know for certain about the motivations of the Powers-That-Keep-Order around here, let's keep the fact that you two can do magic under our respective hats. I've already had encounters with people who seem to think that our being Wizards and magic-users should be used as an excuse to claim superiority over other alien races. The last thing I want to do is give them any more wood for the fire."

They nodded and he turned to Megani and Tali. "Be careful when disembarking. Having a crowd that size waiting for us might be trouble."

"I recognize some of the uniforms they're wearing. Most of the men and women there work with courier services," Megani observed.

"Courier services?" Machias turned to look at the crowd through the viewscreen. "Don't people use that electronic messaging stuff now?"

"Some people use couriers to make sure their messages don't get intercepted. Also good for packages, too." Megani turned as she heard footsteps, showing Saren and Benezia making an appearance. "Looks like they may have heard about the Matriarch arriving."

"Not sure how. I didn't spill the beans." Machias put on his hat. "Let's go meet up with Shepard. There's someone on his crew who really wants to see you again."

As they disembarked and walked down the ramp, Machias caught sight of Liara running up the ramp towards her mother and wisely stepped out of the way as Liara slowed to a stop in front of Benezia. "Mother! I...I cannot say…"

Benezia smiled. "I am well again, and my mind is clear once more. And, thanks to Machias and his associates, I return with a deeper understanding of what happened to me." She stood there, looking down at Liara with a smile as Liara looked up at her mother with tears in her eyes.

"Aw fer Pete's SAKE." Jenny walked over, placing one hand on the Matriarch's back and the other on Liara's, then pushed them together in an impromptu embrace. Both the them looked astonished, but Liara didn't hesitate too long and wrapped her arms around her mother. Benezia looked down, then hugged Liara in return.

Machais looked at Jenny as she moved back to his side. "Subtle, isn't she?" Harry drawled.

"As a stick of dynamite in a barrel of chicken feed," Machias responded.

Jenny just grinned. "It was necessary and they were the only two people on the Citadel who didn't realize it. Come on, Mac. We got things to do."

"If you'll excuse me for a time, there's a few things I need to attend to, myself. I'm sure I have some personal and business matters that will require my attention." Megani held out a hand to Machias. "Don't go off facing down the inconceivable without me?"

"Heaven FORBID." Machias shook Megani's hand. "This feels too much like I'm saying goodbye with a handshake."

"I have a professional reputation to maintain. A hug might be a bit too…"

"Familiar. Right." Machias smiled. "Thanks for all your help, Megani. I'd have been lost at sea without your guidance, and that's not something I'm going to forget anytime soon. I'll be looking forward to seeing you again."

"Likewise….wizard." Megani grinned and walked off, disappearing into the crowd.

"If you're done flirting with your doctor, Mac?" Jenny drawled.

"I was NOT 'flirting'. She's my friend and a medical professional. I trust her."

"I dunno, Mac. She seems kinda taken with you...but then, she's an alien...among many," Harry noted, looking around at the vast diversity of aliens on the Citadel just in the immediate area. "This is gonna take some getting used to…"

As they moved out of the dock, Machias, Jenny and Harry were surprised to see that almost all of the crowd moved towards Machias. "Whoa, easy now, one at a time!" he said loudly. The couriers moved into a line, each one handing Machias either a box or an envelope, and he found himself writing his signature more often than he'd expected.

But the greatest of the unexpected turned out to be that Machias apparently had FANS. Several humans, asari, quarians, even a few turians and a few krogan, wanted to meet Machias for various reasons. Most of them wanted autographs, others wanted to shake his hand, particularly the quarians. One of the krogans was a representative of a shaman from Tuchanka who wanted to have a chat with Machias. There were a few that were mysterious at best, suggesting private meetings for confidential subjects.

"Were you ever this popular as a Marshal?" Harry asked with the hint of a grin on his lips.

"Don't be ridiculous...barely anyone knew me outside of my work," Machias said dismissively.

"Yeah, but he was a lot more popular than he lets on. A reputation can do that for you," Jenny added. "Sounds like a bunch of them are asking for money, now that word of your sudden windfall's leaked. You should be getting an offer for the Brooklyn Bridge any day now."

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Machias said with a dry tone in his voice.

"Who, me?" Jenny said innocently.

Harry laughed. "Hanging out with you two is going to get interesting, I can tell that already. So what's the plan?"

"I'm going to need to sort all this out while Shepard and his people are figuring out what to do next. With any luck, they'll notify us of any new developments. Hopefully all this…" Machias gestured to the stack of packages and envelopes with his name on them. "...will help me get some perspective on all this." He stopped. "I'm going to need an office."

"I can actually help with that. There's gotta be hotels and such that provide business-class accommodations, where you can rest and work." Harry smiled. "Leave it to me."

"If you say so." Machias shook his head. "Just when I'm starting to think I'm getting the knack of this, there's always something new."

"Don't worry, partner." Jenny clapped him on the shoulder. "We'll get it sussed out."

Harry was as good as his word. Thanks to his conversational "magic" and Machias' coffers, the trio found themselves in an apartment with over two thousand square feet of space. Jenny walked around, a little dazed. "Mac, this place is bigger than your old HOUSE."

"Before we all start seeing what all the buttons do, HARRY...don't touch anything. I'm having something sent over that'll enable you to use some of the technology here without shorting out a whole city block. Take it from hard experience; the technology here does NOT like wizards. Jenny can use the technology without problems, but not us."

"Then how do you manage?" Harry asked, sitting on one of the three beds in the suite.

Machias held up his hand, showing a silver ring. "This. We used these in the Marshals to block the power of magically-inclined criminals. It blocks their power, making them unable to use magic. As a by-product, it allows a wizard wearing it to use technology here without damaging it." He sat down at a desk with a terminal, piling his packages on the desk. "I'm having some of our old gear sent over from my personal effects I had put in a safe-deposit box at the local bank. Most of it's your old gear, partner, but there's also a couple of rings and other restraints. Don't worry, Harry, not going to make you a prisoner; you'll be able to put the ring on and remove it at will."

Harry breathed a sigh of relief. "So I can relax now?"

Machias chuckled. "Not yet. I have to check to see if any of these things are dangerous." He reached into one of his pouches, pulling out a stone on a cord, holding it over each package and envelope. "You'd be surprised what gets sent through Pony Express…"

"Aren't you being a little paranoid?" Harry asked.

Machias continued on, and the stone didn't react over any of them...until he got to the last one. As he moved the stone over it, it turned blood-red. "Not particularly more than usual…"

"What's in there?" Jenny asked.

"Haven't the foggiest, but whatever is in that package, it was put there with malicious intent with the threat of immediate harm, so I'm pretty sure it's not going to be something I'm going to enjoy." He turned to Jenny. "Go to that panel over there, press the yellow button and ask for 'C-Sec' to come up here."

"Okay…" She watched the package as Machias cleared everything from the desk to give the people who knew more about future explosives all the space they needed. Machias then moved the other packages and message to the table on the other side of the room.

"Harry?" Jenny said carefully.

"If you say anything that sounds even REMOTELY like the words, 'don't use fire magic on the explosive device', you and I are gonna have WORDS."

As C-Sec worked to disarm the bomb, Machias, Jenny and Harry decided to go over their options…in another hotel. Machias still paid for the night; it wasn't the hotel's fault, and decided to relocate to a place with heavier security, and more discretion. Just in case.

"Is life always this interesting with him?" Harry asked idly, lying back on the bed.

"Are you kidding? This is a Sunday morning walk to church for us." Jenny chuckled. "If someone didn't try to kill us at least once every few days, it'd feel like we went on vacation and nobody told us. And even then, somebody might still try to kill at least one of us every couple of weeks." She turned to Machias. "Any idea who it came from?"

Machias sighed. "No. Those C-Sec fellas wouldn't let me get close, and the stuff the bomber used was far too new for me to figure out a style, and even if I was able to try to find out who handled it as a lead, there's still the whole 'object goes BOOM' problem." He shook his head. "I've got a bad feeling that there's some criminal details that I can't fathom. Everything is too far advanced."

"Well, then, you're in luck. Not only am I up on some of the more modern stuff, but I've also watched Star Trek. I can help you with futuristic concepts." Harry smiled.

"Good. Good." He sighed, looking at the messages and packages. "I may need some assistance with this."

Harry and Jenny held out their hands. Machias gave them a portion of the messages in the pile and started opening them.

"Here's one from a...Councillor Tevos." Harry kept reading. "She wants to have a long talk with you about arranging a cultural exchange. She is 'deeply interested in pursuing an in-depth understanding of the relationship between Terran magic and the biotic condition of the asari'. Looks like some sort of diplomatic talk here...wait a minute." Harry looked up. "Don't the asari have the ability to mate with just about any intelligent being, and have asari children?"

"Yeah, w….wait. You're not saying what I think you're saying, are you?" Machias said, looking a tad stricken.

"Sounds to me the Councillor is interested in seeing if wizard abilities can be adopted by asari bloodlines. Even taking into account that wizards are born, not made, and the asari don't know that, I think the Councillor may be not so much interested in you...and more interested in your 'wand'."

"But I don't use a...OH, that is DISGUSTING!" Machias glared at Harry. "I can't believe you said that!"

"Hey, don't look at me, your mind was dirty enough to understand the joke," Harry chuckled.

Machias looked up. "Lord, I apologize for my sinful thoughts, please forgive me and give me strength."

Harry turned to Jenny. "You weren't kidding when you said he was a 'God-fearin' man'."

"Toldja." She picked up a message. "Let's see. Oh, here's one from a LOVELY young lady who…" She gave a snerk sound and laughed, "Mac, I got a MARRIAGE PROPOSAL here. For Pete's SAKE, I've got socks older than this girl!"

"Toss it," Machias said grimly. "Wonderful. Past or future, a gold-digger is still a gold-digger."

"Let's see...marriage proposal...marriage proposal…" Jenny raised one in particular. "One night of unbridled passion...if you don't want them, Mac, I'll be more than happy to take them off your hands," she said with a grin.

"Your choice, your social life. We need to break these down, separate the wheat from the chaff."

"Let us, Mac." Jenny smiled. "I think you need to rest a spell."

"Well, we've gone through the messages, finally, and here's what we've got." Harry walked over to one pile. "These are what I call the 'Searching for Mister Right' pile. Innocent enough, if a bit enthusiastic."

"What's the smaller pile next to it?" Jenny asked.

"That's the 'Searching For Mister Right Now'. More than half of the offers are from asari, and from the language, they're all promising…"

"'A night I'll never forget'?" Machias asked, trying to raise his spirits.

"More like a week...or a month. The words, 'all your fantasies fulfilled' show up a lot in those. The ones that aren't from asari are from quarians. Apparently they've grown up on stories of the, what did you call them, prisi'lai and think you're looking for your very own harem for what you did on that living planet. So either they're exceedingly grateful for what you did and think you're requiring compensation and offering to, ahem, take one for the quarians...or there are some very kinky quarians out there."

Machias looked at Harry. "What's the term you used the other day? 'HARD PASS'?"

"Hey, don't shoot the messenger." He walked over to the next pile, which was smaller. "This is what I'd call your 'Spam Folder'."

"My what?"

"They're messages offering deals, advertisements, con-artists and scammers trying to prove the old adage, 'a fool and his money are soon parted'." He picked up one. "You gotta be kidding me...hey, Mac, seems a batarian prince needs your help."

"Ugh. NEXT."

"This one is the pile that bothers me." He indicated a smaller pile, with only sixteen messages there. "Death threats. People accusing you of being a fraud or a fake. And these are just the ones coming from the people bold or powerful enough to actually sign their names. I'm sure what passes for the internet around here are probably humming with people willing to spout idiocy under the protection of anonymity."

"And that worries you?" Machias asked, incredulous.

"All it takes is just one moron with a portable explosive and a cause, Machias. You didn't run into people like this before, Mac, but while you were gone, they invented a new kind of asshole. They're called, 'terrorists'. These are people willing to kill themselves, and others, in order to make their message heard. You need to be aware of this, even if you don't hold much respect for it."

Machias blinked. "How do these 'terrorists' work?"

"Basically, cause all kinds of mass death or destruction, then claim responsibility and threaten more death and destruction if their demands aren't met."

Machias stared at Harry. "That's not funny."

"I'm not joking."

Machias sat there for a long time, trying to digest the enormity of this insanity. "I am VERY far from home…" he sighed.

"We'll toss these after scanning them, so if we see any more, we can use their writing patterns to narrow down who's sending them," Harry went to the last pile, smaller than the rest. "And this is the unknowns. People needing help and not knowing where to turn. Desperate people, people gone missing, hurt. People looking for a last resort. Lost causes."

Machias smiled a little. "THAT sounds more like my speed."

"You're not giving up on chasing after the Reapers, are you?" Jenny asked.

"No, not yet...but I need to remember where I started, do what I can for the people that need my help. I can't just forsake them just because of...what was the term, the 'big picture'? I need to reconnect, remind myself why I became a Marshall to begin with…before I lose myself in this Reaper business."

"Sounds like fun. Count me in," Harry said with a smile. "I've been away from being a regular detective for too long. I need to get back in the game."

Machias laid out the messages, looking them over, then picking one up, wincing slightly. "This one." He opened it up and looked it over. "Uh, Jenny, Harry?"

"Yes?" Jenny asked.

"In your studies of this era...either of you heard of a place called, 'Omega'?"

Jenny frowned. "Yeah. It's got the right name for it. It's the last place anyone wants to be. Think of a place like the Citadel, and populate it with criminals, mercenaries and other kinds of scum."

"'You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,'" Harry said ominously.

"You know that place?" Jenny looked at Harry, left eyebrow cocked.

"No, but I know someplace like it." Harry grinned.

Machias looked at Jenny and Harry. "We're talking about going someplace lawless, and if either of you smile any bigger, the tops of your heads are going to open up like a coffeepot lid. This worries me."

"Don't tell me you don't miss how things were back when we were the only law west of the Pecos River. Besides, it's for a good cause."

"...true. I guess it's time to see if the decoy works."

As Machias went to check out of the hotel, Harry and Jenny turned to each other. "Decoy?" they asked each other in unison.

"Mac...what is this?"

Machias smiled as he walked to the smaller ship docked within the Tin Star. "It occurred to me that showing up in a brand-new ship in a 'bad part of town' might not be the smartest tactic. So I had this made up. Simple Alliance design, durable, much more capable than it looks…"

"It would almost HAVE to be…" Harry stared. "What's the name of the ship, the Moronium Falcon? This thing looks like a piece of junk!"

"And it's supposed to." He smiled as Tali came over, her omnitool active. "Think this'll get us a berth at Omega?"

"And get us out in short order. I made sure that any thief with a shred of pride would look for other ships to steal. Hopefully, we won't stay long enough to endure a more thorough inspection of the ship."

"Good work, Tali'Zorah." Machias nodded. "Excellent work. We all packed?"

"Of course. We can stash the ship inside one of the many mined-out asteroids and take this ship to Omega without alerting Aria T'loak."

As they walked to the Tin Star, Machias turned to Tali. "How much do you know about this Aria person?"

Tali pulled up her omnitool, a screen showing a picture of an attractive asari wearing a rather severe expression. "Aria T'Loak, THE person in charge. Ruthless, cunning and vicious. Started out as a dancer at Omega, but it didn't take long for her to start making waves when she killed the owner of the club she was working at and took over. The Afterlife Club became her base of operations, and she slowly became, through greed and fear, the previous ruler of Omega. As a means of her showing her power, she called him 'the Patriarch', a veiled insult. Since then she's only gotten more and more control, and every mercenary there has to pay homage to Aria first and their chosen group second."

"Lovely. Hopefully, we can stay out of her way. I'm bound to enforce the law, but I don't think I'd be able to stomach enforcing HER laws."

"Life just keeps getting more and more interesting." Harry grinned. "How soon can we take off?"

"Tomorrow night, day after at the latest. I've come to expect that things do not so smoothly for me, as a general rule, so I prepare for the worst. Besides, we can use the time to get to know more about the Citadel. This place...there's a lot of secrets here. This place was just floating in space until it was discovered. There were these mass relays left behind thousands of years ago, and when people started exploring them, they eventually found the Citadel and the Keepers, who then hustled to make the Citadel home for them…" Machias' voice trails off.

Jenny sat down, looking over at Harry, who had the same look on his face. "All right, you too, spill. What is it?"

Harry spoke first. "Okay. An alien race develops space flight and finds ruins that lead to a mass relay or a mass relay itself. From what I hear, this happens a LOT. A race always seems to find these ruins nearby. Like a nearby planet or something. And they get to the mass relays and figure out how to use these incredibly advanced pieces of technology...QUICKLY. They come to the Citadel, and the information and accommodations are just...GIVEN to them. Nobody knows how old the Citadel is, or the mass relays. A lot of people say some race called the Protheans made all these things, but more say that the Citadel and the relays are millions of years old. MILLIONS." He considered. "And now these Reaper things are coming. Mac, you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"I think so, but a lot of this is going over my head without even touching my hat. I just feel there's something wrong with how this culture, these cultures, developed."

"Let me put it a different way." Harry considered a moment. "Let's say that you're the Reapers. Maybe you've been doing this for a very long time. You know that, eventually, some race will come up with something unexpected to use to defend themselves. So how do you stop that from happening?" He turned to Jenny. "You make sure their inventions and technology are based off something YOU control. So when you attack, you know exactly what they're going to use against you. And that gives you an edge."

Jenny took a deep breath. "Ancestors...you really think that's what's happening?"

"All of this came too easily. The mass relays, mass effect weapons, the Keepers. Everyone's technological development is based off what was given to them." Harry took a deep breath. "It's like they were domesticated."

"And if we take this line of reasoning to the Council, they'll do to us exactly what they did to Shepard. No. We need to find proof," Machias said firmly.

Jenny sighed. "Actually, folks, if you don't mind, I think we should find something at least a hundred proof. Too much heavy thinking, and we need to relax. I hear the Citadel has some truly excellent saloons here. I think we should check them out. Thoroughly."

"Let's just stick to one, partner. I don't want to re-enact what happened in Montana. You get rowdy when you're drunk."

"That is nothing less than vicious slander…!" Jenny protested, but she was smiling as she spoke.

"A casino...well, it's quieter than the bars," Machias mused as they walked in.

"Could've been worse. We could've gone to that arcade…" Harry mused aloud. "They did name it after you, after all."

"The place with all the noises coming from it?! I'd rather try to stop an avalanche...with my head. If you can deal with all that, be my guest."

"No way, Mac. I learned a very valuable lesson a long time ago…'NEVER split the party'." Harry chuckled. "I'm sticking with you two."

"Fair enough," Machias, Jenny and Harry walked into the casino. The Silver Coast Casino was a wonder to the three of them, with most of the light coming from a central array of rods surrounded by large globes, hanging there without any visible means of support.

As they walked past gambling tables, Jenny remarked, "Hey, they got roulette tables!"

"Down, Jenny, down," Machias cautioned.

"You don't gamble, Mac?" Harry asked.

"Only with his life," Jenny interjected. Her mood lightened as she saw the bar. "Now we're talking."

"Let's get a booth. Suddenly I feel a strong urge to have my back up against a wall."

Machias turned to Harry. "I like your thinking, Harry Dresden." He smiled.

"Really, Mac? That's the rule? Three drinks and no more?" Harry grinned. "What are you, some kind of lightweight?"

"Mac is an EXPERT on staying alert for trouble, even if it's just to dive under the table." Jenny was thoroughly buzzed at this point, but she wasn't slurring her words. Yet.

"Jenny, you have any more of those glowing blue drinks, you're going to end up SLIDING under the table." Machias shook his head, turned slightly to his right, then stopped. "Don't go for your guns, Jenny. We've got company."

"What kind of company?" Jenny asked, looking around.

"Hell...in high heels." He looked up as Miranda Lawson walked over to the booth. "Well, hello, Miss Lawson. Won't you have a seat? We're celebrating."

She blinked, seeing Jenny and Harry. They had changed clothes, but Jenny was still wearing her hat. "What we have to discuss is something for your ears alone."

"There's nothing we can't talk about in front of my friends here, so if you want to talk, talk...but rest assured, if you're aiming for another ambush like our last meeting, well, I'm afraid that I won't be able to guarantee your safety."

"Are you threatening me, Castle?"

"Not in the least." He nodded to Jenny. "SHE is. Miranda Lawson, may I introduce to you my old partner, MARSHAL Jenny Howell. Jenny, this is Miranda Lawson. Last time we met, she tried to dry-gulch me."

"Your...old partner?" Miranda turned to look at Jenny, and saw the same kind of eyes as a hungry mountain lion looking out from tall grass waiting to size her up for a hot meai.

"Rode together for years. And if I know her, right now, she has her mother-of-pearl handled managun out under the table, looking for an excuse to blow you in half. My advice? Don't give her an excuse to go huntin for hair."

To her credit, Miranda looked cool and composed as she asked, "And your other companion?"

"Harry Dresden. Detective...and Wizard." Machias smiled. "There's TWO now."

Her expression flickered. "Another Wizard," she said flatly. "Pull the other one, it plays 'Jingle Bells'."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Why is it that nobody believes I'm a Wizard?"

"Believe what you want, Miss Lawson. But if you came to say something, now would be a good time to start. You think my GUNS have a sensitive hair-trigger, you ain't seen my partner in action."

"Marshal Castle, have you seen the state of the galaxy? You have the luxury of being completely objective, but it's rare for that to be the case for anyone else. They go through this life, trying to make it through, but they are constantly blocked and frustrated by aliens with longer lives and more powerful advantages, all because they happened to win the genetic lottery. Humans are losing their chance to make their mark on the galaxy. There's no human representative on the Council, and you've seen how Ambassador Udina is treated. The human race deserves to have it's place in the Council. It deserves respect."

"And how do you think I'm going to help?"

"When the galaxy realizes that the human race is capable of this kind of power, they'll realize that the human race is strong enough and capable enough to take their place in the Council, and have a say in what happens to them instead of being viewed as second-class citizens..."

"Wait. Hold it." Machias looked at Miranda levelly. "I'll tell you what, Miss Lawson. I'm going to give you a chance to prove you're not 'all hat and no cattle'."

"You will?" Miranda asked.

"You WILL?" echoed Jenny and Harry.

"I will. Miranda Lawson, I'm going to make you a deal. This is our Pact. You come with us and help us do what we choose to do, no matter what you might think of it. While we're doing that, we'll observe you and how you react to certain situations. If you can show that your organization can be respectful, then I'll consider working with it...but before I do, I've got a warning for you. I've been doing some hard thinking about this group you're working for, Cerberus...I'm finding it hard to take the organization seriously."


"Do you know what the name comes from?"

"The three-headed hound of Hades?"

"Sort of. 'Cerberus' comes from the Greek word 'kerberos'...which means, 'spotted'." Machias smothered a smile with one hand. "Your organization's name is, 'Spot'."

Jenny and Harry looked at Machias, then at each other, then found themselves resisting the nigh-overpowering urge to laugh themselves silly. Miranda glared at them and said, "It's not THAT funny."

"Oh come now, it's a little funny."

"Clearly, people from your time took pleasure in the simple things in life. It must be so uplifting to be so easily amused," Miranda responded dryly.

Machias chuckled. "Touche. SO...either you're helping me or you're helping Cerberus. One day, you're going to have to make a choice. Because if I'm right about the people you work for, I think they're not really looking out for your best interests. So, one of us may end up proving the other person wrong. Want to stick around long enough to find out which is which?"

Miranda stared at Machias. "What are your terms?"

"First off, don't EVER lie to me. If I ask you something and you don't want to answer and our health and well-being don't ride on the answer, you can just say you don't want to answer. But you look like a smart woman, and I'm sure you can tell the difference between trivial and important. Second, as long as you're a member of my crew, your main job is to work towards the welfare of the ship and its crew. Third, respect is earned. And that goes both ways. Fourth, no ruffling anyone's feathers. If you have a grievance or a complaint, you talk to me directly, like an adult."

"Anything else?" she asked with a neutral tone in her voice.

"Yes. If I find out that you are directly responsible for jeopardizing my ship or any of its crew, I will not hesitate to make sure that you don't do it again. How I choose to do that will depend on three things: the severity of the crime, the amount of damage done…or how close I am to the nearest airlock. Have I made myself abundantly clear?"


"Now, what are your terms?"

Miranda blinked, but recovered quickly. "I want to be able to examine you. I want to know what makes a human a Wizard. I want to know about what magic can do, good and bad. You can keep secrets, but I still want answers, any you can provide. Deal?"

Machias considered. Jenny stared at Machias. "Mac, this is CERBERUS we're talking about. The last time you had to deal with them, they wanted to turn you into some experiment, dump you in a lab somewhere. Don't tell me you're going to just lay down and let them, are you?"

"Of course not. But if we're going to stand against the Reapers, we can't hide who and what we are. The truth always comes out. So, instead of having to be dragged into the fight, we step into it without fear, and hope to inspire others to do the same. Besides...we've got nothing to hide."

"Can you trust her?" Harry chimed in.

Machias turned to look at Miranda. "Guess we're going to find out." He held out his hand and Miranda shook it. "Welcome aboard the Tin Star, Miss Lawson. What can you offer?"

Miranda smiled. "Information, not just the regular information people know by just growing up, but more obscure information, secrets and ways of doing things the usual civilian doesn't know. I have access to resources I can use that can be of considerable help to you."

"Let's get something straight. My deal is with YOU, not Cerberus. I don't want you doing anything that'll obligate me to them, even accidentally."

Miranda nodded. "Fair enough."

"Go get your things. Meet us at the Star." Machias, Jenny and Harry watched as Miranda got up and walked away.

As she left, Harry whistled. "And I thought I was the one who played with fire. What is it with you and women?"

"Hey!" Jenny punched Harry's shoulder. "Be nice! In case you forgot, I'm a woman, too, and I have never so much as entertained such notions."

"Ow! Hey, there, calm down. Just making a joke."

"I think it's time we headed back to our rooms, don't you think?" Machias asked tiredly. "I've had enough of the Citadel saloons for tonight."

The next morning, Machias was prepared for many things; a hangover, more messages from people he didn't know, even finding out that Harry Dresden snored. Loudly. What he wasn't prepared for was Megani. "Wait...I don't understand."

"Mac, you hired me on to help you psychologically and emotionally with your adjustment to this new life, this new era. But this pursuit of the Reapers, your travels around the galaxy…" She sighed. "I'm not up for this. And you seem to need me less and less the further you go."

"Hold your horses, Megani. There's still a lot I don't get, and I do need your help."

Megani smiled. "You've got a lot of people to help you, and I wasn't ready for this. I'm a doctor, not a commando. You throw yourself into new and dangerous situations all the time, and I just can't keep up with you, not right now. I just need some time, Mac. I need to know what I'm doing...and if I need to just stay out of your way and let you be who you are."


She reached up and touched his lips, quieting him. "Mac, please...this is difficult enough. I won't say goodbye. Let's just say, 'until next time', okay, cowboy?"

Machias sighed and nodded. "Until next time." He watched her walk away, hoping that she'd at least turn back to look at him. She walked down the hallway, then turned left without so much as even a glance. He moved back inside the room and closed the door, leaning back against it.

Jenny was in her room, having heard the whole exchange. "Dammit, Meg...why'dja have to blink?" She made a mental note to let Harry know what happened...hopefully, she'd get the message across before Harry went and did something stupid, like ask where Meg went. For now...Machias was going to need a little time.

Jenny closed her eyes and rested there a while longer, then got up, took a deep breath, then opened the door again, looking around carefully. Machias wasn't there. Likely gone back to his room, she thought, then decided to get dressed.

Today was shaping up to be a very long day and it hadn't even started yet.

When Machias, Jenny and Harry showed up at the docks, Miranda, Tali and another woman were waiting. Miranda was still wearing close-fitting clothing like her Cerberus uniform, but she had shed the Cerberus yellow and white colors and logo. The woman next to her was dressed in a uniform that didn't look like the primary component of the clothing was paint, like Miranda's, but more modest-looking. "I thought Megani would be coming with us."

"She's not," Machias said simply.

Jenny knew that tone all too well. "She's taking a leave of absence while she works out a few personal things," she added swiftly. "In the meantime, think introductions are in order, don't you?"

Miranda nodded. "This is Kelly Chambers, one of my associates. She's qualified to act as liasion for you, Marshal Castle, help keep your messages and packages screened and organized. She is also a qualified psychologist with aptitude and experience in providing psychological care for all known sapient and sentient races. I'm sure she will be of considerable assistance."

Machias nodded. "The woman to my right is Jennifer Howell, my partner for many years. There is no one I've known longer or trusted more. The gentlemen to my left is Harry Dresden, skilled detective and a Wizard in his own right. They're both rather new to this, only slightly newer than myself, so there's likely going to be a lot of explanations in your future, Miss Chambers."

Kelly smiled. "I look forward to the challenge, Marshal Castle."

"Then you've got a lot to look forward to, Miss Chambers. Let's get aboard. Omega is waiting for us."

As they made their way to the Terminus Systems, Machias called everyone together into the conference room. After everyone was seated, Machias took the floor. "We're going over two things today; where we're going and why we're going there. I've pulled up the publicly-known information on the extranet. Now I want to know the REAL score. Aria T'Loak. If we go in, trying to help someone out, how likely is she going to want to get involved?"

"Unless the target is a part of Aria's operations, she's unlikely to give a damn. She's got enough trouble keeping the people that matter to her in line." Miranda looked at Machias. "You're not planning to do the whole 'there's a new sheriff in town' routine, are you?"

"Not hardly. I don't enforce other people's laws, and from what I've heard, there's only rule in Omega: 'don't mess with Aria'. So unless I see any of the Laws of Magic being broken, I'm unlikely to be someone she'll notice."

Jenny chuckled. "Oh, sure, you don't stand out in a crowd hardly 'tall."

"Next, is Aria the type to look for people to target, look for trouble?"

Tali shook her head. "She has enough of it come looking for her without going out of her way to find it. Why?"

"I'd like to avoid having my reputation make my introductions for me. My reputation isn't quite as diplomatic." Machias caught sight of Jenny snickering. "No comments needed, partner."

"I swear, I have NO idea what you're referring to…"

"Right. Next, does she target people showing conspicuous signs of wealth?"

"Only if she already has a plan to take it. There's more than one mercenary group that might try to target you, Castle, but if Aria thinks that targeting you is going to cause trouble for her, she'll make sure anyone going after you has her permission first. You've heard the old dodge, 'better to ask forgiveness than permission'? Aria T'Loak doesn't DO 'forgiveness'."

Machias nodded. "Now for the reason for going to Omega. There's a woman there whose child was murdered. We're going to find the killer."

Kelly Chambers looked at Machias with all kinds of questions on her face. "Marshal Castle, with all due respect, this is Omega we're talking about. You can get shot or stabbed just walking down the street there."

"This is different. Jenny, could you bring up the pictures of the crime scene that the mother sent us?" Jenny nodded, tapping away at the terminal attached to the conference table. The wood-grain surface displayed four photos. "Harry, what do you see here?"

Harry looked through the pictures. "Hmmm...showing an entry wound. Looks like a knife…but there's not enough blood. She was killed before she was stabbed. No signs of a struggle." He looked closer. "She's showing signs of very light electrical burns all over her body, but nothing indicating electrocution. I'd need to look at an autopsy report to verify cause of death, like poison. But this is Omega, a place with no police force to speak of...why would anyone work so hard to conceal cause of death in a place with no police?"

"That's the question we need to answer." Machias smiled. "Nice work, Dresden. You don't disappoint."

"We're going to Omega...to solve a murder? That's it?" Miranda asked.

Machias turned to her. "That's not reason enough? Someone murdered that girl. Look at her face. That's fear there, and pain. However she died, she didn't go quietly. She died alone and afraid and in pain and someone needs to answer for that. So if that's not enough for you, feel free to stay on the ship while we're there."

Miranda held up a hand. "I'm just making sure. I'll come with you and I'll help, of course."

"Good. Anything else I should know about this place?" Machias asked.

"Have you ever been to a town that needed cleaning up?" Harry asked idly.

Jenny replied with a laugh, "You just described more than half the towns we've been ta!"

"Then expect every con-man, sob story and petty thief to come out of the woodwork as soon as we show up," Harry said, a slight tone of warning in his voice.

Machias blinked. "As opposed to what?" He looked around. "Anyone else? No? Good. Make sure not to wear your Sunday-going-to-church clothes. Dress down, not up. And Jenny...we're going to have to go without our hats."

"...is that offer to stay on the ship still on the table?" Jenny groused.

"Sorry, no. Everyone get some rest. We'll be 'changing horses' in the morning."

When they paused and changed to the less-luxurious ship, registered as the Busted Flush, Jenny insisted on wearing her hat all the way up until they had to leave the ship to enter Omega. The other members of the crew were more than willing to dress the part, with Kelly wearing something revealing as well as a little ragged. Miranda and Tali wore armor and clothing that looked different from their normal fare, so there was no way anyone would likely mistake them for Cerberus operatives.

Machias has chosen clothing that looked like his original clothes over armor, but armor without the extra frills, like a shield generator. He still wore his badge underneath the armor, as well as his crystal pendant, and he knew Jenny was wearing hers, and Harry, his.

As they disembarked, it didn't take long for them to be greeted by a group of three batarians, two of them carrying assault rifles. They didn't look dirty or poor, but their weapons looked like they could've benefited from a little maintenance. "HEY! You! He pointed at Machias.

"Something I can help you boys with?" Machias said, not sounding like he wanted to help them at all.

"Yeah. Which of you two," the batarian indicated Machias and Harry, "is the owner of your slaves?"

Machias responded in a tone so cold, it was a wonder that frost didn't form on the viewports in the docking hallway. "They aren't slaves, friend. And if I were you, I'd drop the subject like it was red hot, unless you hate the idea of seeing tomorrow."

"I've got a better idea. Why don't you just give them to us, and we won't kill you?"

A new voice came from behind them, a female voice. "I've got an even better idea. How about you drop YOUR weapons, and we won't drop YOU?" The batarians turned to see four asari and two turians, all with pistols and shotguns out. "Ylrat, Ylrat...you were warned about this, weren't you? You keep thinking humans are easy targets, and it's gotten you into trouble before…"

"Lisselle…!" Ylrat began to stammer, and his companions began to back away from him, lowering their weapons. "Look, I need the credits, you know what it's been like since…"

"I know lots of things, Ylrat. I know you've been trying to run your shakedowns on every new face that shows up here. I know you were warned by Aria not to do that anymore, and here you are. I told her you were too smart to openly defy her, but it looks like both of us were wrong." She shook her head. "And now I have to live with that. But the bad news is…" She looked up at Ylrat. "...you won't have to."

Ylrat had just enough time to look surprised before the asari and turians fired in unison, nearly cutting him in half as their weapons each belched fire and death at him. He dropped to the floor, leaving a bloody mess. Harry and Kelly flinched at the sight. Tali actually jumped behind Machias, saying "KEELAH!" in shock.

Lisselle sighed, turning to look at Machias' group. "Sorry about that. You try to keep things civil, keep things running smoothly, but there's just some people who make the mistake of thinking the rules don't apply to them." She came closer, the lighting revealing that she was a young-looking asari, attractive in the fashion of her race, with very few facial tattoos. She looked Machias over. "And you are…?"

"Trying to enter Omega unmolested," Machias finished. "I came here to talk to Diana, Nef's mother."

"Oh, yeah." Lisselle actually looked regretful for a moment. "I heard. It's one thing to get caught up in combat, but that...that was pretty rough." She looked at Machias and the others. "What's your interest?"

"Diana asked me to look into the matter."

Her eyes narrowed. "I didn't think she could afford mercenaries."

"She didn't. We're private detectives."

"'Private detectives'? Explain the concept?"

Harry smiled. "We solve criminal mysteries, bring the perpetrators to justice."

"Is that what you do?" Lisselle smiled slightly. "Sounds interesting. Very well, but rest assured, you go looking for trouble, I can guarantee you'll find more than you can handle."

"We're not here to make trouble," Miranda reassured Lisselle.

"Ask me how many times I hear that a day?" Lisselle nodded and her companions put their weapons away. "Just watch yourselves. Behave...or be varren chow." She waved a hand in a circle and her shooters turned and walked back into Omega.

"Well, Mac, you sure seem to have a knack for attracting trouble," Miranda said with a smirk.

"We're wasting time. Come on."

As they walked into Omega, Jenny's senses pricked up. She knew when another predator was looking at her, and she knew that Machias could feel it, too. They moved in and passed by the Afterlife Club, heading towards the residential areas. As they did, the watcher stepped forward, following them at a fair distance, like a hunter following its prey…

...and she would not leave Omega until she confronted Machias Castle.