I'm sorry. I really enjoy writing this story, and I enjoy the feedback I get, but I've fallen in to this bad habit of not updating this one for long periods of time. I apologize. College, life, writer's block, and other stories that I'm writing are all factors, but I still could have tried. I'll do my best to update this one more frequently, especially since I'm almost done with college. Of course, I'll have other obligations once that happens, but I'll try.

Cycles Upon Cycles

Chapter 31

Walking the Line

Welcome back to UNN, this is Kate Lockwell. Stocks continue to plummet after a scandal in the Department of Finance on Korhal resulted in the layoffs of over four thousand government employees, nearly a thousand of which were then arrested on charges of corruption. While economists predict that the market will recover in a few months, many citizens are now keeping a closer eye on their money.

Focusing now on a story outside of our borders, reports are coming in that a civil war has broken out within the Bahak system, where the Batarians have been quarantined since the end of the war. Information is sketchy at the moment, but it appears that the revolutionaries are opposing the governing body, which is currently led by the Hegemony's ambassador-turned-de-facto-leader, Jath'Amon. While the Batarians are no longer considered a military threat, there is a chance that the conflict could draw in other factions. Jath'Amon was being investigated by the Council for possibly being connected to Saren, and a source within Council space has informed us that a case was ready to be presented. This begs the question, is this civil war a smokescreen for something else? We'll keep you informed of any further developments. Until then, this has been Kate Lockwell, for UNN.

SPECTRE Outpost Theta-12 (Decommissioned)

When Shepard, Kasumi, Jacob, James and Ashley stepped out of their dropship, they had a far warmer welcome than they'd anticipated.

"Commander Shepard, good to see you again." Nihlus grabbed Shepard's hand in a firm shake. "It's been too long."

"Yeah, it has." Shepard grinned. "Looks like you're back in fighting shape. Does this mean we won't have to carry your sorry ass through the whole mission this time?"

Nihlus laughed, and so did the Strikers. The only one who looked uncomfortable was the young Turian who stood behind Nihlus; he shifted in place, and kept a firm grip on his rifle. From his demeanor, and the way he kept looking at the Strikers, he hadn't had much interaction with Terrans, if any.

"Let me introduce you to my partner for this mission," Nihlus said, gesturing to the other Turian. "Lieutenant Tarquin Victus. He's a candidate for Hierarchy SPECTRE status, and this mission is a good way to evaluate him."

"Sir!" Victus saluted, first to Nihlus, and then to Shepard. "It's an honor to be working with you both."

Shepard raised an eyebrow, then turned to Nihlus, who sighed. "He's been doing that since yesterday, and I can't get him to stop."

Ashley groaned. "Crap, it's like Jenkins, back when he was the FNG."

Kasumi snickered, and Shepard grinned before getting serious. "All right, let's get our heads in the game. Nihlus, our briefing was… well, brief. All we know is the name of our VIP, but we don't even know where we're going, or what the situation is."

"Sorry about that," Nihlus said. "Hierarchy Intelligence wanted to put together a more extensive file, but time was of the essence. I had to call in a favor with STG to get this, but I think it's worth it.

"Our new friend is named Mordin Solus." Nihlus activated his omni-tool and brought up a hologram of an aged, weathered Salarian. He was scarred, and one of his horns was missing. "He was an STG operative, served for years and was part of some of their riskiest missions, then retired, though he occasionally consulted on various projects and operations. As of a year ago, however, he disappeared off the face of the galaxy; he recently resurfaced in the Bahak system, trying to help the civilians caught in the middle of the Batarians' civil war."

"And we've gotta get him out of that mess?" Shepard sighed. "Great. I don't suppose your people or the Alliance could institute a military intervention?"

"Too risky," Nihlus immediately replied. "The Batarians are still quarantined, both as a punishment and for their own protection; the Zerg haven't exactly kept it a secret that they'd like to finish what they started. If we started landing troops, some of the more zealous Batarians might try to steal a ship and start trouble. It's better to send in a small team and not risk as many lives."

"Fine. But how are we going to get on the planet? They'll see our dropship coming."

Nihlus pointed to the small ship on the other side of the hangar. "Don't worry, the one we brought has enough stealth systems to get us past the Batarians' sensors."

Kasumi frowned and looked between Nihlus and his ship. "It doesn't cloak, does it?"

Nihlus tilted his head. "No, it just fools scanners into thinking that it's not there."

James grimaced. "That means that all it takes to blow our cover is one Batarian looking up." He crossed his arms. "I hope you have a plan."

Nihlus glanced over at Victus, who saw it as his cue to speak. "Actually, our plan is to land far outside of where Professor Solus is, and then make the rest of the trip on foot."

"That means we'll have to move fast," Shepard said. "James, Jacob, looks like you're grabbing your new light gear after all."

Jacob sighed. "Still not sure all the kinks are worked out, Commander."

"Stop complaining, man," James said, playfully elbowing the other man. "We get to play with new toys!"

"New for you, maybe," Jacob muttered. "You designed yours."

While those two bickered as they returned to the dropship, Nihlus drew Shepard aside for a private conversation. "While I am glad that you're back, Commander, I have a few questions that I need to ask."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "That you need to ask, or your bosses?"

Nihlus sighed. "Both, actually. They want information, and I want to keep trusting you."

Shepard hesitated for an instant; Kasumi, who was still able to hear the conversation, gave him the telepathic equivalent of a comforting pat on the back.

"Ask away," Shepard said. "I can't promise I can give you an answer, though."

"Fair enough." Nihlus glanced down at Shepard's right arm. "Are the Protoss and Terrans sharing technology now?"

Shepard raised his arm and slowly opened and closed his hand. "Nah, this was a gift. It's not like the Protoss need anything from us Humans; their tech is still centuries ahead of ours."

Nihlus didn't say anything at first, but he didn't need to; Shepard already knew what he was thinking. The Protoss had mostly provided naval support during the war with the Council races, and only engaged on the ground a handful of times; the possibility that they had even more tricks up their sleeves was very disturbing to the Turian.

"Anything else?" Shepard asked.

Nihlus nodded. "There was very little intel provided by the Alliance about what happened to Saren at the end. I was hoping you could enlighten me."

Shepard was very careful not to let his expression or his posture change. "He was somehow controlled remotely by Sovereign; his Harvester implants made him bigger and stronger, and he nearly killed all of us. I was able to destroy Saren with my psionics, and that damaged Sovereign's mind, while the Protoss killed his body."

Nihlus had been nothing but earnest when he'd helped the Strikers against Saren, and Shepard couldn't bring himself to outright lie to the man. As such, everything he'd said was technically true; he just omitted certain details.

"That the Harvesters are capable of something like that is disturbing," Nihlus said quietly. "Do you think that any Harvester creature can be possessed like that?"

Shepard shook his head. "Probably not, or every single Husk we fought would have been like that. It might just be advanced 'projects' like Saren. Or maybe every Harvester is a unique case? We encountered a 'Harbinger' that could do something similar with Collectors, but on a weaker scale, and more often, but still only one at a time."

Nihlus' mandibles twitched as he thought. "I'll discuss it with my superiors once this mission is over. Speaking of which, we should get moving."

"Yeah, we should." Shepard turned to look over his shoulder. "Jacob! James? You guys ready yet?"

"Just about, Commander." James' visor opened up to reveal his grinning face. "What do you think?"

Instead of their usual Herc and Marauder armor, Jacob and James were wearing standard CMC suits, which would allow them to keep up with the rest of the team. However, rather than gauss rifles, the two men were armed with different weapons. Jacob had a Quarian shotgun attached to each wrist, and a bandolier of stun grenades.

James had an unusual weapon, one that he had created himself, and was using the mission as an excuse to test the prototype. It was shaped vaguely like Ashley's minigun, but instead of several rotating barrels, it had one very large one, and a long, armored tube that connected the gun to a bulky pack that was attached to James' back.

Shepard, along with Miranda, Ashley, and Garrus, had studied James' design before Shepard had given him the go-ahead to build the prototype. If it worked, the engineers aboard the Normandy would build more for the Marines who would be sent into places too cramped for Marauders to follow, as well as just giving them more firepower.

"I think it looks like you're compensating for something," Ashley deadpanned.

"No, it doesn't!" James protested.

"Yeah, it kinda does," Kasumi said, trying not to giggle. "Is that what you're calling it? The Compensator?"

James scowled. "It's called the Cain, thank you very much."

Shepard took a deep breath to calm down. "Okay, guys, keep it professional; we're moving out."

The four Terrans saluted. "Yes, sir!"

Yunaca, Bahak System

Everything was going wrong. Of course, if the soldiers that hid behind a wall had had more time to reflect, they would have realized that things had been going wrong for years. They were under heavy fire, however, so the point was moot.

"When's that damn gunship going to get here!?" one soldier demanded.

"Five minutes, give or take!" another shouted back as he raised his assault rifle over the edge of the wall and fired a burst.

"Give or take what?"

"Give or take if they get shot down first!"

The first soldier growled, not that anyone could hear him over the sound of gunfire and explosions. "Damn those idiots!"

The rest of the squad didn't know who 'those idiots' were, and frankly, they didn't care. They were too tired, too scared, and too angry. All they wanted was to wake up to find that the last few years had all been a bad dream.

Despite their exile to the Bahak system, what was left of the Batarian Hegemony had actually done a good job of rebuilding their civilization, or at least creating a good substitute. All five of the system's planets were now colonized, had at least one large city and several smaller towns. Yunaca, the third planet in the system and the first to be colonized, was the new capital world, and until recently, the reconstruction efforts were going well. Rule under Jath'Amon was harsh, but equally so, so it was hard to complain.

Then the rebellions had started. It was small, at first, as so many rebellions were—a protest here, a riot there, all easily put down by the pirates-and-mercenaries-turned-soldiers that acted as the Hegemony's army. Then things got worse; the protesters began arming themselves and attacked government buildings, dragged officials into the streets for execution, and generally destabilized everything the Batarians were trying to rebuild.

The worst part was that no one knew why it was happening. Captured rebels killed themselves before giving up information, and the few that were prevented from committing suicide only spat out mindless drivel about ending a corrupt government. That didn't exactly explain anything; before the war, the Hegemony had always been corrupt. If anything, the need to rebuild had lessened the corruption!

Without knowing what the rebels even wanted, Jath'Amon decided to take the heavy-handed approach and unleashed the full might, as it was, of the Hegemony's military. What was supposed to be a swift and utter victory turned into a nightmare. Soldiers were ambushed, supplies were stolen, and in one instance, a Batarian frigate was captured and had to be destroyed by one of the few remaining ships the Hegemony had left.

The rebellion spread across all five planets, but though Jath'Amon feared that the civilians would rise up alongside the rebels, it never happened. All the insurgents seemed to care about was causing destruction and chaos, without caring who was caught in the crossfire. Early estimates placed the civilian deaths at over five thousand in less than three weeks.

What scared everyone was how the rebels seemed to have limitless numbers. Every squad the army wiped out was seemingly replaced by three more the next day. They were fearless, aggressive, and hit harder than any ragtag militia should have been capable of.

Two planets had already been deemed lost, though the forces that were withdrawn and reassigned were able to keep the other three at least partially secure.

That was little comfort to the squad that was currently under attack.

"I see at least eight, coming from the west," the squad leader said grimly. "Looks like they've got a grenade launcher."

Without being ordered to do so, the Batarian with a sniper rifle punched a hole in the crumbling wall and set up his weapon. A moment later, he fired twice.

"Got him," he reported. "And the guy behind him."

"Good work," the squad leader said. "Any word from that gunship?"

The low whine of their air support's engine was his answer. The gunship strafed the rebel squad for several seconds, then called the relieved Batarians to confirm the kills. Thankfully, the rebels were actually dead; more than once, insurgents had hidden among the corpses of their fellows before taking up a rocket launcher to shoot down the victorious gunships.

"Okay, good news and bad news," the squad leader said a moment later. "The good news is that the Council is sending in ships to keep this mess from getting any worse."

Most of the squad sighed in relief; as furious as many Batarians were about the Council abandoning them—even if they knew that wasn't completely the case—it would be good to have reinforcements with weapons that weren't almost a decade old.

One Batarian, however, scowled. "What's the bad news?"

"It's still going to be a few hours before boots hit the ground," the squad leader said. "And until then, we need to move on to the next sector; Squad Six is in even worse shape than us."

The squad grimly picked up their weapons and moved out.

Mordin Solus was a busy Salarian, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.

"Professor, I have three more coming in! One's missing a leg, and the other two have fractured skulls and shrapnel wounds."

"Prep transfusion procedure four, divert med-tech to skull fractures, could have brain damage. If shrapnel isn't critical, send to outpatient surgery once skulls are assessed."

"Of course, Professor."

He could have done without all the blood, though; it had been almost two days since he'd seen the white tiles, and now they were covered in gore and various bodily fluids.

Mordin had hoped that opening a healthcare clinic for the Batarians would do some good, both for them and for him. Thanks to the rebellion, he had saved hundreds of lives in a very short amount of time, so he was getting more than he'd bargained for. Even he would have been overwhelmed, if not for quite a few willing volunteers; many of them were civilians with only the most basic medical training, but Mordin was able to teach them to perform several procedures by rote, and all of them now had plenty of firsthand experience.

"Professor." A soft, gravelly voice spoke from a position that Mordin knew had been empty two seconds earlier. "I found another."

That was enough to make Mordin pause. "Same physiological discrepancies?" He shook his head before he got an answer. "Of course. Wouldn't have mentioned it otherwise. Other victims?"

"Three, less than a block away. All rebels. Two died from gunshot wounds, the other from a biotic; nothing else crushes a skull like that."

Mordin nodded. "Thank you. Will add data to predictive algorithm. Must stop killer before they strike again."

Thane Krios said nothing; the Drell had been Mordin's companion since just before he'd come to the Bahak system. Other than payment for necessities, like food, the only thing he'd asked for was 'a chance to do some good'. In the early days of the rebellion, Thane had rescued dozens of civilians, and aided Hegemony troops in fights that would have ended in their deaths if he hadn't intervened. The best part, for the assassin, anyway, was that no one ever knew he'd even been there.

Things had changed for both of them nearly two weeks ago. Bodies began turning up, but never near any fighting. The first body would seem almost drained of life, but without a mark on it; several hours later, other bodies would be discovered nearby, all dead from gunfire, biotics, or snapped necks. Mordin had concluded that there was a murderer on the loose, and an unusual one at that, and someone else was hunting them, interrogating and then executing any leads.

While the police would find it hard to identify both the predator and the prey when all of the witnesses kept dying, Mordin was quickly discovering a pattern. The murderer's 'hunting ground' was within New Khar'shan, the capital city of Yunaca—specifically, a ten-kilometer circle that covered the poorest district. With every new kill, Mordin was able to narrow the search further, and more accurately predict when the killer would strike next.

When that happened, the rebels wouldn't be the only ones sending bodies to the morgue.

Bahak System

Ashley looked up from the datapad in her hands. "How did things go to hell this fast?"

Victus shrugged. "We're still not sure. The Bahak system was stable, if only just; then people just started shooting each other down there."

"People don't start a war for no reason," Shepard said as he finished reassembling his rifle. "We're missing something. If we run into a rebel fighter, I'd like to read his mind and see if I can get some answers."

"Our mission is to retrieve Professor Solus," Nihlus reminded him from the cockpit. "Gathering intel is secondary."

"Since when do we care about these four-eyed bastards?" Ashley asked. "They're a bunch of slavers and pirates."

"Not all of them," Shepard said, a warning in his tone. "Most of the ones the Zerg left alive are civvies and anyone smart enough to surrender."

Ashley didn't reply, but she still backed down. Kasumi, who'd been reading the file in Ashley's hands, frowned.

"It says that this guy is running a clinic to help people," she said. "What happens when we pull him out of there?"

Victus shrugged again. "In order to cover our mission, the Hierarchy is sending in troops to stabilize the situation. Even if Professor Solus' clinic isn't around, there will be enough triage centers to make up for it."

"Why didn't you guys move in troops earlier?" Jacob asked.

"Because the Hegemony withdrew from the Council, making them a sovereign nation. Unless someone is invited in or they go to war, no one can enter Batarian territory." Shepard rolled his eyes. "It's bullshit, I know."

"The speed of the rebels is worrying," Nihlus added, "which is one reason why something is being done now. As Lieutenant Victus said, it also makes for good cover for us. Also, as of three hours ago, the Hegemony officially asked for help." He laughed bitterly. "They didn't even ask for that when the Zerg were annihilating them. If the Batarians weren't becoming an endangered species, a lot of my people would be very smug right now."

The Strikers remained quiet after that; it felt odd to suddenly be aiding a race that, until recently, everyone in the galaxy saw as the 'bad guy'. Then again, the Alliance was founded by three races that had tried to exterminate each other, but this wasn't even a case of helping someone who used to be an enemy. As far as the Alliance was concerned, the Batarians were still an enemy, albeit one that wasn't much of a threat anymore.

"Entering Yunaca's atmosphere," Nihlus reported. "Honestly, if these readings of New Khar'shan are right, we could have taken your dropship."

"Why's that?" James asked.

"The fighting is pretty bad. Most of the places that might have housed sensors to detect incoming ships are damaged; they wouldn't have seen us coming."

"Then get us on the ground," Shepard ordered, "before you jinx us."

Thankfully, the ship landed without incident, but that didn't stop the Strikers from being extra cautious as they disembarked. They relaxed a little when no one shot at them.

"Somebody remember where we parked," James joked, then hefted his gun. "Where to, Commander?"

Shepard glanced at Nihlus. "Well?"

Nihlus pointed at the city a few miles away; Turian transports were heading towards a column of smoke, and sirens could be heard even from their position.

"If we can link up with the Turian forces on the ground, we'll have an easy way in and out of the city."

Shepard nodded. "Then let's go."

"Where did she go?"

"Do you have any idea what she'd do to me if she found out I said anything?"

"That does not matter to me. Tell me what I want to know."

"Or what? You're gonna torture me? I'm not telling you—ah! AH! AHHHH!"

"Speak, and the pain will cease."

"D-district eleven! She said she was going to district eleven! M-my arm! Look what you did to my arm!"

"Find peace in the embrace of the Goddess."

"Wait, what? I gave you—urk!"

Shepard had expected many things when he had entered the city—an ambush, primarily—but an awkward family reunion was about as far off as he could have predicted.

"Honestly, I didn't think I'd see you again so quickly, son," Adrien Victus said as he looked Tarquin up and down. "That SPECTRE gear looks good on you."

Shepard didn't need to be a psychic to know that the elder Victus' words had to be forced out. Clearly, family bonding wasn't something father and son did very often.

"Thank you, sir," Tarquin said awkwardly. He didn't move, but it was obvious that he was looking for a way out of the situation.

Not long after the team had entered New Khar'shan, they ran into a squad of Turians, who then took them to their commanding officer. It was then that they found out it was Tarquin's father who was in command.

After taking pity on the younger Victus, Shepard intervened. "General, I hate to interrupt, but we're on the clock."

General Victus nodded. "Of course. And you are…?"

"Commander Shepard." After all that had happened with Saren, Shepard was sure that Victus would know who he was. "I'm working with SPECTRE Kryik on a mission."

"I was wondering what the Alliance was doing here." General Victus hummed thoughtfully. "What do you need from me? My men and I are going to have our talons full dealing with these rebels and helping the Batarians."

"Keeping the heat off of us is more than enough," Shepard assured him.

Everyone tensed when gunfire erupted from across the street. A Turian died before another fired a rocket launcher into an alley, destroying both the alley and anyone inside it.

"We'll do our best," General Victus said, then turned to direct his troops. "Kryik!"

Nihlus paused. "Yes, sir?"

"Keep an eye on my son."

Even under his helmet, Tarquin looked faintly embarrassed, but Nihlus nodded. "Of course, sir."

"Just don't get shot again!" James called out as he took point; when a rebel squad came around the corner, he aimed his new weapon. "Fire in the hole!"

With a muted whump, a grenade shot out of the launcher; as soon as it hit the ground, it exploded in a ball of fire and shrapnel, killing all but two of the rebels.

"Hey, the frag grenades work!" James looked like he would have rubbed his hands together if he hadn't been using his weapon. "I can't wait to test the others!"

"How many others do you have?" Shepard asked, once he and Kasumi finished off the surviving rebels.

"Armor-piercing, incendiary, and plasma," James said, so casually he could have been discussing the weather.

"Where did he even have time to make all the stuff?" Ashley wondered.

"Hey, I had to do something while the Commander was gone," James said, even though he hadn't been directly asked.

"Yeah, you spent more time making toys, and less time working on your aim," Jacob said, though there was no real heat behind his words.

"What are you talking about?"

"You actually left survivors."

James' visor slid open to show his grin. "Come on, if I did all the work, then you guys wouldn't have anything to do."

Tarquin glanced at Nihlus. "Sir, are they always like this?"

Nihlus chuckled. "Only until they get angry. Then they're a little scary."

"We have company."

Mordin looked up from a cadaver he'd been examining. "Tone indicates non-hostiles."

"You're right. They're not rebels—they're Terrans."

"Interesting." Mordin considered his options. "Alliance opinion on Batarians mixed, from indifferent to hostile. Unlikely that they care about internal conflict. Possibly responsible? No, not in their nature; would rather fight against Batarians in person. Size of group?"

Thane realized that Mordin was talking to him. "Small. A handful of Terrans, and two Turians; they weren't with the Hierarchy reinforcements."

"Special Forces, likely; here to retrieve or destroy something valuable." Mordin took a deep breath. "Probably me."

Thane's hand drifted to his pistol. "Why would they want you?"

"Have theories; did commit crime against Alliance," Mordin admitted. "Retained data on Zerg, technically wasn't supposed to. Most likely option, though I thought the Zerg would be sent, not Terrans."

"I won't let them harm you," Thane said. "I gave you my word that I would keep you safe, Professor."

"Prefer diplomacy before violence," Mordin replied, though he was touched by the assassin's words. "Will try to negotiate Alliance assistance in catching killer before anything else. Will also ensure patients' safety."

Thane only nodded, then returned to his hidden spot outside the clinic; though Mordin seemed less concerned about the situation, he would remain vigilant. He would wait until he had a better understanding of what the Alliance was here to do.

"We're here," Shepard said quietly, even over the comms. Everyone else tensed up, ready for trouble.

"Are you sure?" Nihlus asked; he trusted Shepard, but he wasn't sure how he knew. After all, the clinic looked like any other damaged building in the area, aside from a pair of guards at the door. Then again, if the clinic looked like a place that the rebels had already hit, there was no reason for them to hit it again.

"Salarians have fast thoughts," Shepard said. "It's hard to follow, but easy to identify. There's another alien nearby, but I don't recognize the species. He's staying hidden, though. Kasumi?"

"I've already spotted him." Kasumi had cloaked shortly after the meeting with General Victus, just in case. "He's good, I'll give him that, but I'm better."

"Keep an eye on him," Shepard ordered. "Ash, James, watch the front entrance. Jacob, come with me."

"You too, Victus," Nihlus said. "Keep your eyes open and learn."

The four entered the clinic after a brief chat with the Batarian guards outside. Once they were sure that no one was there to start trouble, they were allowed inside. To Shepard, the inside of the clinic was almost as bad as the outside; the only improvement was that nothing was on fire. There were still plenty of bodies, and too much blood.

"This is a mess, Commander," Jacob commented.

"I know," Shepard said. "Reminds me of infirmaries after a fight with the Zerg, only with less acid."

"You're starting to sound like Zaeed, sir."

"When it comes to fights with the Zerg, everyone sounds like Zaeed." Shepard thought for a moment. "Except for Jenkins, maybe."

Jacob fought a smile. "I'll be sure to tell him that."

Nihlus heard them talk, but he was busy teaching Tarquin. "Tell me, Victus—what do you see? I'm not talking about the bodies. Don't say anything to them, but what can you gather from the wounded here?"

Tarquin's face was hidden by his helmet, so none of the Batarians could see that he was looking at them. "They're scared, sir. All of them; they're scared of us, the rebels… everything. All it would take would be a single shot going off, and these people would panic. How did everything get so bad, so fast?"

"That's one reason why we're here," Nihlus said. "Things were actually starting to improve for the Batarians; for everything to fall apart like this is disturbing, to say the least."

"Hold it!" The four paused before a door, which was guarded by another pair of Batarians, one of whom was now blocking their path. "State your business here, Alliance."

"Actually, they're with me," Nihlus said, moving to the front. "I'm Nihlus Kryik, Hierarchy SPECTRE."

The first Batarian sneered. "Right, the Alliance bastards who nearly killed us all, and the murdering spy who was probably buddies with that bastard, Saren. Give me a reason why I shouldn't shoot you all right now?"

Shepard was very obvious in displaying how calm he appeared. "You mean, besides the fact that you'd be dead before you pulled the trigger?"

The second Batarian raised his rifle. "Is that a threat, Terran?"

"Just stating a fact," Shepard said. "Look, we're not here to start trouble. We just need to talk to Professor Solus."

It turned out that that was the wrong thing to say, if the way the Batarians tensed up was any indication.

"That man has saved countless lives," the first Batarian said, his voice almost desperate. "If you're here for him, you're letting countless more die!"

"The situation is even worse than we thought," Tarquin said over the comms. "We knew it was bad if the Batarians were letting a non-Batarian set up shop here, but if they're actually defending him…"

"All right, guys." Shepard very slowly put away his rifle. "We just want to talk. That's it. We'll explain our situation to him, and whatever happens next is up to him. Is that okay?"

The Batarians looked at each other, then slowly parted. "If we find out you so much as scratched him…" one trailed off threateningly.

"Yeah, yeah," Jacob pushed past. "Insert horrible death here, we get it."

Leaving the fuming Batarians behind, the four found Mordin leaning over a body that was laid out on a table. The Salarian was muttering to himself and making notes on his omni-tool. He barely glanced up when they entered.

"Terran soldiers," he said absently. "From equipment, one psychic. Tell me—Spectre or Ghost? Differences hard to discern from outsider perspective."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "I'm Commander Shepard, commanding officer of Shepard's Strikers… and I'm a Spectre."

"Ah. Interesting. Would like to know more about differences, but later." Mordin glanced up again, this time to look at Nihlus. "You, I know. Kryik, Nihlus, Hierarchy SPECTRE. Here on mission, I assume. Involves me, perhaps?"

"Sort of, Professor." Nihlus nodded respectfully. "My mission happens to coincide with Alliance interests. The Strikers want to recruit you for a project, while I'm here to figure out what happened here. Assuming you have no objections, we can extract you now."

This time, Mordin stood up straight and shook his head. "No. Cannot leave. Situation in system is too unstable, too many people need help. Besides, troubling development has occurred."

"You mean, other than the civil war that started up overnight?" Shepard asked. "Because that seems kind of troubling."

"No, no." Mordin paused. "Well, yes. Rebel activity disturbing, but not what I meant. Here, look at corpse."

"That's quite the conversation-starter," Jacob muttered, but he and the others crowded around the table. "Okay, it's a dead Batarian. So?"

"Jacob, shut up for a second." Shepard held out one hand over the body. "Okay, that's really weird."

"From my perspective, the body looks… drained, if that makes any sense," Nihlus observed. "Did you notice something else, Commander?"

"Yeah, and it's not good." Shepard withdrew his hand. "It feels like this Batarian's very essence was pulled out. There are only a few things I can think of that can drain a body like this, but all of them would also tear it to pieces. Whatever this thing is, it has a psionic attack."

"There's never been a recorded instance of a psionic in Council territory," Nihlus said. "Could this be the work of some rogue Alliance element?"

"Not a chance," Shepard said confidently. Unless a Primal Zerg leaned table manners… or a Hybrid somehow ended up here. I really hope it's not the second one.

"More to the situation," Mordin cut in. "Clear evidence of someone hunting down killer. Batarians tortured for information, then executed—very unsettling."

"So, we've got a monster that's basically sucking out souls, and a hunter who will do anything to kill it." Shepard almost wished that his helmet was off, so that he could tap his chin. "And we also have this rebellion thing going on, which I don't think anyone can afford right now. Nihlus, how do you want to handle this?"

"Tarquin and I can investigate the rebels in the city," Nihlus said. "I can coordinate with General Victus, while you work with Professor Solus on dealing with these killers."

Mordin's omni-tool suddenly beeped, getting their attention. "Ah, analysis done. May be relevant to situation. Wait a moment." He walked over to two more bodies, which lay next to each other on a pair of tables; between them was a small machine that had vials of blood hooked up. Mordin brought up a holographic screen and tapped at it. "Yes, yes! Found correlation!"

Nihlus looked from the bodies to Mordin. "Professor?"

"Was curious about rebels' numbers, asked local forces to bring me samples from dead rebels to compare." Mordin was speaking so quickly that it was hard to understand him. "Ran comparisons on several bodies. All share same genetic makeup. Exactly the same; impossible to repeat in nature, even in Zerg."

"Impossible to repeat in nature…" Shepard repeated under his breath. "Wait a minute. They're clones, aren't they? Saren's clones!?"

Mordin nodded. "Yes, exactly! Cloning only explanation for rebels' numbers; flash-conditioning would also explain why rebels so fearless in battle."

"I thought we took out Saren's cloning facility," Jacob said.

"Yeah, we took out Saren's place," Shepard said, "but no one thought to check and see if the Batarians had the same thing, did they? The Batarians were low on numbers, and they wanted revenge; they could have used clones to boost their numbers, without actually risking their people."

"Spirits," Tarquin whispered, "considering how quickly Saren bred his army, and how long the Batarians have had, there could be millions of clones, maybe more!"

"This just became a worst-case scenario," Nihlus said. "I'm going to contact General Victus and inform him of the situation; if necessary, the Hierarchy will occupy the system and do a thorough sweep until the cloning facilities are destroyed. The Alliance may be brought in as well."

Shepard nodded. "If that happens, send word that I agree with any recommendation for Alliance involvement. The sooner we get this problem solved, the better."

"Turian military will reduce rebel presence," Mordin said. "Will also bring in supplies and medical support for Batarians. Once problem with murderer is resolved, will listen to Alliance proposal. Will need to bring in associate from outside; he will help."

"Already taken care of, Professor." Shepard activated his comms. "Kasumi, you good?"

"Yep." Everyone, even Mordin, jumped when Kasumi appeared in the room, her hand firmly gripping a Drell by the arm. Kasumi hadn't even been cloaked, yet she had arrived, unnoticed, with a prisoner in tow.

Mordin blinked, then smiled. "Fascinating."

The news of Saren-related clones brought about a swift response from the Turians. General Victus brought in his reserves, and called for reinforcements from Council space; the entirety of the Turian Third Fleet was en route, along with a dozen squads of Asari Commandos and several STG teams. When the rebels' estimated numbers were given, it was decided to call in the Alliance as well, to prevent any one side from bearing the brunt of any counterattack. Unlike previous times that the Alliance worked with the Council races, however, it was not the Terrans who were deployed, but the Protoss.

{It is time for us to show that we can stand on our own,} Executor Selendis, the leader of the Protoss force, said when asked why her people were the ones responding.

While Mordin was fascinated by the Protoss—indeed, he seemed fascinated by everything from the Koprulu Sector—he was worried when he found out that STG was coming.

"Possible that STG will try to extract me before you," he said. "Likely aware that Alliance wants to recruit me, may try to stop you."

Shepard nodded. "All right, so we'll find your killers, stop them, and get out of here before reinforcements arrive." He glanced at Nihlus. "Any problems?"

"If STG really wanted the Professor, they wouldn't have told me where he was," Nihlus said. "Still, it would be a good idea to finish things before they arrive, just so they don't raise a fuss."

Ashley snorted. "And here I thought you guys were all one big, happy family."

Nihlus laughed bitterly. "Not even close. The Salarians are still mad at my people for deploying the genophage, and that was centuries ago."

Mordin, who had been gathering equipment while also tapping away at his omni-tool, paused at that comment. It was only for a moment, and only Shepard's years of espionage training allowed him to catch it. He refrained from asking Mordin about it, or reading his mind; he doubted that it was important to the mission, and he had a feeling that it was a touchy subject. He decided to ask later, once things were calmer.

"We should go," Shepard said. "Every second we spend here, the colder the trail gets."

"Professor Solus and I have already narrowed down the killer's hunting ground," Thane said; his eyes flickered over to Kasumi. "Between all of our various skills, we should be able to track either the murderer, or the person hunting them."

Kasumi grinned, and Shepard did his best not to laugh. While Nihlus was reporting to General Victus, the Strikers had been formally introduced to Thane. Thankfully, he hadn't been offended that Kasumi had so easily located and apprehended him; if anything, he had been intrigued, and very polite about any questions asked of him.

He's like a less-bitchy, less-conceited Miranda, Shepard thought. So, not like Miranda at all.

"Lead the way," Shepard said, then looked at Mordin. "Are you coming with us, Professor?"

Mordin paused. "Hmm? Yes, yes; just leaving instructions for assistants here, and for Turian aid workers. Some patients require special attention."

"Can you fight?" Ashley asked, looking doubtful.

Mordin smiled, but it had a dangerous edge. "Not helpless. Know many ways to kill: guns, knives, once with farming equipment."

"Remember, he was the Salarian version of a Ghost, only with more science, not psychic powers," Shepard reminded Ashley.

"Great, another alien spook," she muttered as she headed for the door.

Mordin hung back, making sure that only Shepard was within earshot. "Teammate dislikes aliens?"

Shepard made a noncommittal noise. "You're more likely to find someone in the Koprulu Sector who lost friends and family to aliens than someone who hasn't. Most of us are just better at keeping the grudges buried."

Mordin blinked, and then smiled. "Very mature. Wish Council races and Krogan had done the same. Perhaps Krogan would not have turned to the Zerg."

"Don't tell them that," Shepard warned. "They're proud of what they are now."

Shepard detected a thought emerge in Mordin's mind, just for a moment. It was of a large, pre-Zerg Krogan, very scarred, that looked particularly angry.

"Excellent advice."

"All right, Jath'Amon," General Victus growled, "I'm going to ask a very simple question, and you're going to give me an honest answer."

The former Hegemony ambassador, now High Governor, sneered from behind his desk. "Why should I do anything you say?"

"Besides the fact that my people are now risking their lives to help yours?" Victus kept going before Jath'Amon could answer. "Because this clone army is a legitimate threat to the region, one that the galaxy can't afford. Because the Protoss are coming, and they've been known to glass entire planets that they consider a threat, and I'm doing all I can to make sure that it doesn't come to that. Because an honest answer might actually stop the Council from cutting off the support for your people, since it looks like you were raising an army that got out of control! Do I need another reason!?"

If Jath'Amon hadn't been sitting down, he would have taken several steps back as Victus' voice rose to a shout. He considered lying, but decided against it; he was too tired to be angry, and his people needed Council support, or they would die out within a few generations.

"All right, I understand!" Jath'Amon took a breath. "After the war, my people were a shadow of what they were. Those that weren't sure that it was the end of our race were focused solely on revenge, and I'll admit that I was one of the latter. During the rebuilding in this system, I was approached by Saren; he said that I could save my species and get revenge on the Alliance if I gave him what he wanted."

Victus leaned in, close enough for Jath'Amon to smell the smoke and blood that clung to the Turian's armor.

"What did he want?" Victus' voice was soft, but full of intense anger.

"Experienced military officers, mostly those who had fought the Alliance. And before you ask, yes, most of them were also pirates, mercenaries, or slavers. I admit it." Jath'Amon looked Victus in the eye. "I swear, all I'm concerned with now is my people's survival; I don't have time to think about anything else."

"I don't care about that," Victus said. "Tell me what you got in exchange."

"Instructions on how to build the cloning facilities, and the materials to construct them." Jath'Amon sighed. "Saren said that if he ever came back, he would take any clones that were already grown, but leave the ones that were still being created. He came by twice and smuggled out a few thousand clones."

"Saren has been dead for months," Victus growled. "Are you telling me that you've been making clones all this time?"

Jath'Amon sighed again. "Not just that. We built more facilities, all hidden underneath the cities, and made even more. We used the supplies the Council delivered to feed them, and kept the citizens fed with our own agriculture."

Victus was furious. He had seen the reports of the supply deliveries; he had always thought that the numbers didn't add up, but his concerns had been brushed aside by aid groups that were determined to help the 'poor refugees'. As if the Batarians weren't already well on their way to rebuilding their civilization.

"What possessed you to create so many clones!?" he demanded.

Jath'Amon laughed humorlessly. "Fear. Ask any of my people what they're most afraid of, and they'll say it's the Alliance. You know what happened to us during the war; the Zerg alone swept through us. What would happen if the entire Alliance decided to get rid of us for good? The Council stepped aside last time, and we needed some way to defend ourselves!" He closed his eyes. "The idea of a disposable army of unthinking clones was appealing to the government."

Now it was Victus who laughed. "And now your army of guardians are attacking the very people they were supposed to protect."

"They are." Jath'Amon stood with all dignity he could muster. "I will resign once this crisis is over. I will even turn myself over to Council judgment, if that's what you want. All I ask is that you save my people."

Victus tilted his head; the Batarian had more backbone than he'd first thought. "Your fate isn't up to me to decide, but we will help your people. To do that, I need to know where the cloning facilities are; that's where the clones are based, and we need to hit them where it counts."

"Very well." Jath'Amon smiled, and this time, it had a little hope mixed in. "As long as my people survive, I'll be happy to see those places burn."

It wasn't hard for the group to pick up the killer's trail; all Mordin had to do was ask around the neighborhood, and they were quickly directed to another murder.

"Tragic waste of life," Mordin said as he inspected the body. "Batarians barely stable, both socially and numerically. Every loss hurts future of species."

"Sorry, Professor, but you'll have to mourn later." Shepard scanned the room for any clues. "Can you tell how long ago the victim died?"

"Less than an hour ago. No defensive wounds; from position of body, appears that victim allowed attack to happen." Mordin frowned. "No sign of drugs inside other victims. Not sure why they would allow this to happen."

"There are some Terran psionic techniques that can alter a person's thoughts," Shepard offered, "but I've never seen one do this. It would take something with the power of a Dark Archon to pull off something like this, and even then, it's happening too fast."

"I found something," Thane called out softly; he and Kasumi were standing by a pair of old chairs. "It appears that the victim and the killer sat together for a while."

"Could have been another Batarian," James suggested. "Maybe the dead guy had a lady friend over?"

Mordin shook his head. "No. Spoke with neighbors; victim lived alone, preferred isolation. Killer likely persuaded victim into allowing entrance."

"I would not be surprised if that were the case." The person who spoke was not a member of the team; everyone immediately drew their weapons and aimed at the door.

An Asari stepped forwards, her posture calm, but anyone could tell that she was ready to spring into action in an instant. She wore a slim suit of red armor that, at first glance, was simple, but Shepard's sharp eyes spotted lines of Asari script carefully etched across every surface.

{How did we not spot her?} Shepard asked telepathically.

{No clue,} Kasumi said, sounding ashamed. {Whoever she is, she's good.}

"Do not be alarmed," the Asari said. "I mean you no harm. In fact, I believe that we are hunting the same killer."

"Hunter," Mordin hissed. "Killed many people during pursuit; some likely innocent."

"An unfortunate result of my task," the Asari said, though it didn't sound like she cared at all. "The trail led me here, and to you."

Shepard didn't lower his rifle. "Tell me who you are, and why I shouldn't just kill you."

The Asari actually looked a little intrigued. "My name is Samara. As for why you should not kill me… for one thing, I will not die easily. For another, there is a monster on the loose. Would you rather kill her, or the one sent to stop her?"

For a long moment, Shepard didn't move; finally, he put his weapon away. "Start talking."

Codex Entry: Cloning

Cloning has been a part of traditional science for many years. Generally, this process is only for organs for transplants. However, the creation of a fully-realized clone has been prohibited by Council law since cloning was first introduced, to prevent the creation of an army. Obviously, the former SPECTRE, Saren Arterius, ignored this law when creating his forces. After the Battle of the Citadel, more scrutiny was placed on any facility or personnel capable of creating clones.

It is unknown what the Alliance's views on cloning are. At the very least, it is obvious that the Zerg don't need it.

Again, I want to apologize for not updating sooner. I also want to apologize for this chapter being relatively short. However, I at least have an excu—reason! I mean reason for why it's shorter. After some thought, I realized that if I kept this entire thing in one chapter, it would be around 17000 words or more, and that's a pain in the butt to edit. Instead, I decided to break it up into two chapters, the second of which I hope to have done soon.

Anyway, this chapter brought in a lot of characters: Tarquin Victus, Mordin, Thane, and Samara. With the latter three, the entire ME2 cast has been introduced. Hooray, I guess? I'm not exactly a huge fan of Samara, and I apologize to the people who are. I'll try not to let that show in how I write her.

Next Chapter: Shepard hunts a monster in the middle of a war, but there's more than one out there…

None will ever dispute my Muffins again…