STARCRAFT DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. MASS EFFECT DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. I'M RUNNING OUT OF TEST SUBJECTS FOR CREATING PSYCHIC SOLDIERS, SO I GUESS BLIZZARD CAN KEEP THAT ONE.

Where was I? Oh, right! The scary, emotionless zealot just showed up.

Cycles Upon Cycles

Chapter 32

The Devil's Due

Welcome back to UNN, Kate Lockwell here, and we have breaking news. Apparently, elements of the Golden Armada have been deployed to the Bahak system, along with a large amount of Council ships, to contain the violence breaking out within the Batarian Hegemony. As a precaution, Dominion alertness ratings have been increased, and all citizens are reminded to attend evacuation drills whenever they are held.

Details surrounding the fighting in the Bahak system are still sketchy, but we have unconfirmed reports that as many as two million Batarians have taken up arms against… well, everyone. Due to the volatile nature of the situation, we haven't been able to learn much, but we'll keep you informed of any further developments. Until then, this has been Kate Lockwell, for UNN.

Yunaca, Bahak System

"Commander, don't trust her." Of all the things that Nihlus, someone who had spent years being untrustworthy, to say, that wasn't what Shepard had expected.

"Who says I do?" he replied. "But I'm willing to at least hear her out."

Samara inclined her head. "Thank you." Her serene expression didn't change, but everyone tensed when she looked at Nihlus. "SPECTRE Kryik. I did not expect to see you here."

Nihlus didn't take his talon off his trigger. "I'm guessing that whatever you're hunting is a big deal; otherwise, I'm sure you'd want to finish what we started."

"You speak the truth." Samara turned back to Shepard. "I am hunting a monster, an aberration of my own people, known as an Ardat-Yakshi."

"Old Asari dialect," Nihlus muttered. "It means 'demon of the night winds'."

"Spooky," Kasumi said, "but what's so bad about this Asari?"

"Her name is Morinth," Samara said, though the name came out like a curse. "She is a manipulator, a deceiver, and feeds off the bonding process in a way that is unnatural to my species. It kills whoever she is with."

Shepard glanced down at the dead Batarian on the floor. "This is her handiwork?"

"Yes. I would recognize it anywhere." Samara took a breath. "I have tracked Morinth for centuries. This is the closest I have come to finding her. As long as this system is engulfed in chaos, she will not leave; she is drawn to such places, as it is where she can find the best 'prey'." She glanced at the team. "You have no reason to believe me, or to help me."

"Oh, I believe you about Morinth." Shepard grinned when Samara finally reacted with some surprise. "I read your mind. These Ardat-Yakshi are pretty interesting."

"How…?" Samara's hand twitched toward her pistol.

"I guess she doesn't know much about psionics," James said.

"She's a Justicar," Nihlus said. "Enforcers of their own special code within Asari territory. They're usually pretty isolated, so I'm not surprised that she doesn't know much about you. The details, anyway."

"Now that that's out of the way," Shepard said, "there's something I want to know, Samara. You want us to help kill Morinth, but other than taking down a dangerous killer, what do we get out of this deal? This seems to benefit you more than anyone else."

Samara had regained her self-control and merely raised an eyebrow. "From what I have heard, the Alliance says that it is a force for justice. Was I wrong?"

Shepard wanted to laugh. The Alliance was many things—pragmatic, protective, ruthless when it had to be—but a 'force for justice' wasn't exactly on the resume.

Mordin coughed to get their attention. "Will have me. Removal of Morinth will make area safer for patients. Can leave once they are more secure. Will agree to all Alliance requests once that is done."

"And I will do whatever I can to assist as well," Thane added. "I pledged my services to Professor Solus; his cause is my cause."

Shepard nodded. "All right, I won't say no to volunteers. Looks like we have a deal, Samara."

"Excellent," Samara said. "We should resume the hunt, before the trail goes cold."

"You and Thane know this area better than we do," Shepard said. "You two lead the way." As soon as the group began to head out, Shepard switched to a private comm-channel with Nihlus. "You want to tell me what kind of history you two have? I didn't get a whole lot from Samara, but she does not like you."

"The feeling is mutual, Commander." Nihlus sighed. "It was years ago. I was hunting a weapons smuggler, and I'd cornered him on an Asari colony. He was dangerous, so I killed him. Samara was there, however, and thought that I'd killed an innocent man. We chased each other for days, but I miscalculated; she would have killed me, so I engineered a situation where she had to choose between some of the colonists and me. She chose the colonists, and I escaped."

"Were the colonists in real danger?" Shepard asked.

"Just a simple fire that scared them," Nihlus said. "Once they calmed down, they would have just opened a path with a biotic barrier. Thankfully for me, it all happened so fast that Samara had to make a split-second decision."

On the one hand, Shepard was angry at Nihlus for endangering civilians. On the other hand, he'd killed innocent people before, and Nihlus had only pretended to put people in harm's way. When he thought about it like that, Shepard realized that Nihlus might actually be a better person than him.

"Is Samara a threat?" Shepard believed she was, but Nihlus had actually fought her before.

"At the moment, she isn't," Nihlus said. "However, as soon as her mission is over, or this Morinth gets away, she will turn against us. Justicars have a very black-and-white view of things, Commander, and even if she doesn't know much about the Alliance, your association with me damns you in her eyes."

Shepard sighed. "Let me guess: When we're done, we're either going to have to kill her, or get out of here really fast."

"Exactly."

"God damn it."

"I would have said 'Spirits damn it', but I still agree."

General Victus had only fought briefly during the war with the Alliance, and he had only seen footage from the Battle of the Citadel, so seeing the Protoss in action was quite the experience. Despite their heavy armor, the axe-wielding Zealots moved with grace as they carved through waves of clones. An entire district had been cleared out in less than an hour, and the Protoss had only deployed their first wave of troops.

"I'm glad we're not enemies anymore, Executor," he said.

{You are fortunate,} Selendis replied, barely glancing at him. {What you are seeing is a glimpse of my people when we were at the height of our power. When we have finished rebuilding, pray that we never have a reason to fight you again.} She tilted her head, something that Victus had realized meant that she was having an intense discussion with another psychic. {My warriors have engaged the enemy in the third district. The clones are entrenched, and possess stronger armaments than in previous engagements. I am sending in heavier elements to drive them out.}

A column of enormous Colossi strode from an open warp portal in the Protoss base situated at the edge of the city. Behind the robotic walkers came Stalkers, Dragoons, and Immortals, followed by a much slower column of slug-like Reavers. Above the ground forces, squadrons of Phoenixes and flights of Corsairs dominated the skies. It was the biggest display of military might ever seen from the Protoss, save for, perhaps, the Spear of Adun.

Victus knew that the Batarians' plight was not the reason for the Protoss using so much firepower. This was as much a statement as it was securing a troubled region of space. It was a statement of power, and though it went against his Turian pride, Victus knew that he had to let it happen, or else many of his own men would die in the ensuing battle.

"I'll send in some recon elements to accompany them," he said tiredly. "They'll watch out for your flanks."

Selendis barely looked at him. {Very well.}

Victus sighed; he had a feeling that it was going to be a long day.

Shepard's group paused at the sound of a large explosion, followed by a crumbling building.

"What did that?" Tarquin asked. "It didn't seem like any explosive I'm aware of."

"Sounded like a Reaver," Shepard said, then noticed the looks he was getting from those not from the Koprulu Sector. "Protoss heavy unit. They build small robots that explode, kind of like Terran spider mines."

"I didn't know they Protoss still made those," Jacob said.

"They're older models, and they were replaced by the Colossi for a while." Shepard shrugged. "They were good demolition units, and this is an urban area."

James snorted. "Right, because we can't all have Siege Tanks."

Kasumi shuddered. "I don't even want to think about what an infested Siege Tank looks like."

"I've seen it." Shepard tried not to picture it in his head, but failed. "Infestors really suck."

Samara's gaze kept jumping from one Terran to another, then turned to Mordin. "I do not know what they are talking about."

Mordin, despite walking through the remains of a burned-out building, was taking notes on his omni-tool. "Protoss and Zerg have abilities—technological and biological, respectively—far beyond what Council races capable of. Very fascinating."

Nihlus kept pace with Shepard. "I hope your Protoss friends are making sure not to attack civilians, Commander."

Shepard barely glanced at him. "The clones' minds are pretty distinctive in their own way, Nihlus; they're easy to identify, and the Protoss won't resort to indiscriminate fire unless there's a serious threat to them." He then subtly nodded in Samara's direction. "And do you really want to mention attacking civilians near her?"

Nihlus grimaced. "Good point, I—"

"Contact!" Kasumi hissed, and the entire group took cover.

"What was it?" Shepard asked.

"Not sure, it moved too fast." Kasumi concentrated. "Feels like a clone mind, though; probably a scout."

"Got it." Shepard waved her over. "You and I will cloak up and take a look. Everyone else, stay here; if we engage, move in after we soften them up."

"I know this area well, Commander." Thane took a sniper rifle off his back. "I can guide everyone to the best ambush points."

"Do it; signal us when you're in position." Shepard nodded at Kasumi. "Let's go."

After they cloaked, Shepard and Kasumi moved forward, silently moving past or over rubble in their path. It wasn't long before they found a small team of Batarian clones, setting up a mortar behind a pair of manned turrets.

"I make eleven hostiles," Shepard said into the comms. "I don't see an officer, though. I'll take out the gunner on the left; Thane, take the right. James, as soon as I give the order, drop rounds on the mortar; everyone else, keep the enemy from scattering."

Shepard received a series of affirmatives; a moment later, he also got a signal telling him that the team was ready to engage. Shepard steadied his rifle, then fired, popping his target's head like a blood-filled balloon. Thane's kill wasn't quite as messy, but the Batarian still died.

"Now," Shepard ordered.

James' grenade from the Cain was his new incendiary, which set off the mortar's charges and set two Batarians on fire. The rest were gunned down by Ashley and long-range biotics from Samara.

"That was interesting." Kasumi relaxed, but didn't holster her weapons. "Did anyone else notice that they didn't make any noise at all?"

"Yeah, I thought that was weird." Shepard waited for the others to join them. "A couple of them were being burned alive, but I didn't hear a single scream. Even the Zerg scream when they're set on fire."

"It could be some kind of extreme conditioning," Nihlus offered. "The clones might be trained to never speak unless they have to, and that could include screaming. Seeing an army that doesn't react to pain can be unnerving."

Shepard frowned. "I don't know. Something just doesn't feel right. Next chance we get, I want to try something; don't engage unless you have to."

It wasn't hard to find another group of clones; the arrival of the Protoss and Council forces had been enough to draw thousands of them from their hiding places. This particular squad was heading towards the far-off sound of combat, but though they moved quickly, there was no real enthusiasm; it was like a group of robots had simply been told to move faster.

Shepard, still cloaked, got close to one of the Batarians and scanned his mind. He pushed past the few surface thoughts, and dug deeper. While most of the mind was clean, at its core was a dark, pulsing mass, one that Shepard recognized. Without waiting for the rest of the team, he opened fire, killing three Batarians before the rest realized what was happening. Another clone died from having his neck telekinetically snapped, and the rest were quickly decapitated by Shepard's psi-blade.

"Excessive, don't you think, sir?" Ashley commented. "Not that I'm complaining."

"We have a new problem," Shepard said grimly, ignoring Ashley's words. "These clones were all indoctrinated."

Nihlus hissed. "Are you sure, Commander?"

"Absolutely. I sensed Sovereign's mark; he might be dead, but that son of a bitch is still causing us problems."

Jacob kicked one of the bodies. "Why are they acting like this? Wouldn't it be better to lay low for a while?"

Shepard grimaced. "I've got a theory on that. I think that Sovereign was keeping them in check, but without him, they're falling back to their basic programming. Unfortunately, their 'basic programming' is to kill everyone."

"Sovereign died months ago," Kasumi said. "Why are they acting like this now?"

"No clue," Shepard admitted. "Maybe someone was checking on the clones and pushed the wrong button."

"Perhaps failsafe?" Mordin offered. "After death of Sovereign, clones acted as sleeper agents, or had mental countdown. Without a way to make them stop, clones will continue to fight."

Tarquin raised his hand, almost like he was in class. "Sirs? I just had a thought."

Shepard shared an amused glance with Nihlus. "Well, don't make me read your mind, kid, tell us what's up."

"Well, I was briefed on the Harvesters' indoctrination." Tarquin had his helmet on, but everyone could tell that he was worried. "What if it isn't just the clones that are affected? What if there are other sleeper agents among the civilians, or in the government?"

After a moment of staring, James summed it up nicely. "Aw, shit."

Shepard sought out the nearest Protoss mind and explained the situation; the entire Protoss force would know soon enough. "The armies here can handle this; we can't do anything more."

"If you are done," Samara said, sounding a little annoyed, "we must move past these distractions. Every moment we waste is one that Morinth may use to escape."

Shepard nodded; they had all been so caught up with the recent discovery that they had forgotten the reason they were still on the planet. "Right, let's move."

Jath'Amon stared out the window of his estate, watching as smoke billowed up from burning buildings. Casualties among his people had been light since the relief forces had arrived, but sparing non-clone Batarians was about all the restraint the Protoss were willing to employ. Thousands of people would be homeless when this was all over, unless the Council forces stayed long enough to set up some prefabricated structures.

But none of that mattered. All Jath'Amon cared about was that his people were once again on the receiving end of a calamity, except this time, he couldn't blame an outside force. No, this was all his fault. He had trusted Saren, and all it had earned his people was more death.

The worst part, however, was that he knew there was nothing he could do to fix it. Nothing he said or did would ever make up for what was happening.

He supposed it didn't matter. He had already written down his remorse in his journals, which would be sent to the proper recipients soon enough. All it would take was for his omni-tool to stop reading his biometrics. It was a trick that many affluent Batarians had used; if they died prematurely, all the dirty secrets they had on their rivals would be revealed. This time, however, Jath'Amon was using it to tell as many people as he could how sorry he was.

"I pray that my people will live on," he murmured, and then lifted a pistol to his head.

He pulled the trigger.

"She is here." Samara's tight grip on her pistol was the only sign of how tense she was. "I can feel it."

Shepard doubted she 'felt it'; it wasn't like Samara was psionic. It was probably a mix of centuries of experience, instinct, and the fact that Thane was positive that they were in the middle of Morinth's hunting ground.

Still, even discounting the Harvester presence, meager though it was, Shepard felt something… off. It was like two energies that were never supposed to mix were desperately trying to do just that.

"Stay alert," he said quietly. "Thane, find a quiet place and keep an eye out; Mordin, stay with him, this whole mission is pointless if you get killed. Everyone else, spread out and search, but don't engage without backup; no one takes any chances."

Thane led Mordin to a mostly-intact building, while the rest of them headed out. Shepard and Kasumi were cloaked, but they didn't let their guard down. After the cyber-Quarians' stealth-cracking capabilities, they weren't taking chances.

The search was slow, but Shepard didn't mind; it was far better to be patient and successful than rushing ahead and getting killed. As he moved, he felt the unnatural presence getting closer. Was it possible that Morinth—and Shepard wasn't sure what else it could be—could sense him?

He decided to take a calculated risk; once he was close enough—inside the home of a rich Batarian, if the furniture was anything to go by—he decloaked.

"All right, I think we both know the other is here," he called out softly. "Why don't you come out where I can see you?"

The sound of boots on the floor reached his ears. He turned and saw an Asari coming down the stairs. At first glance, he thought he was looking at Samara; her face matched the Justicar's perfectly. Unlike Samara, this Asari wore a more modest outfit of black armor that still managed to show off some curves. Shepard also noticed that she was unarmed, but an Asari didn't need guns to be dangerous.

"A Terran," the Asari said quietly, and smiled. "I've never seen one of your kind before. How interesting. Well, you found me; my name is Morinth. What's yours?"

As soon as Morinth began to speak, Shepard felt a presence intruding into his mind. While Morinth's own mind was strong, Shepard's was far stronger, and he easily kept her out; in fact, he was able to fool her into thinking that she had already ensnared him.

That wasn't the worrisome part, however; what truly surprised him was the fact that Morinth had psionic abilities! He knew that it shouldn't have been possible; it was a fact that Element Zero killed off a being's psychic potential, but the impossible was literally walking towards him. Then again, he was a fragment of a dead god, so he wasn't one to talk about what was impossible.

Still, he didn't let any of it show. "My name… is Aaron Shepard," he said dully, pretending to be under her thrall.

"Shepard, hmmm?" Morinth smiled again. "Well, Shepard, why don't you tell me what a Terran is doing on a Batarian world? Here to finish the job the Zerg started? That's what all the Batarians are afraid will happen."

"I was sent here… to keep an eye on them," Shepard lied, even as he spoke directly into his teammates' minds.

{Target located. She's right in front of me, get over here now!}

Morinth was just outside of Shepard's reach with his psi-blade; if he tried to shoot her, he would have to drop his façade, and that might be just enough for her to escape. He had to stall until he was sure that that wouldn't happen.

"Really?" Morinth looked amused. "Someone as dangerous as you, merely observing? I doubt that. What are you?"

"I don't… understand." This time, he was telling the truth.

"You shine, like a star." Morinth began to pace, though she didn't get any closer. "I can sense it—burning, twisting, a danger to everyone, but under control. I was always able to sense these things, but that just meant I was a monster. The others like me, the ones who stayed locked up… I could sense them, but they weren't like you. So tell me: what are you?"

By the end of Morinth's little rant, Shepard had come to two conclusions. First, Morinth was almost completely overwhelmed by her own psychic power; what little control she had was self-taught. Second, that inability to shut out another being's essence meant that just being in Shepard's presence was driving her insane.

{Shep, we're in position,} Kasumi reported. {Just give us the word, and we'll—what the hell is Samara doing!?}

Shepard's control slipped, just by a hair, but Samara's name was at the forefront of his mind, and Morinth picked it up.

"No!" She looked absolutely furious. "You came here with her!?"

Shepard didn't have time to raise his weapon; instead, he pushed Morinth back with a psionic blast. A second later, Samara shot out a window and dove through.

"That's enough, Morinth!" she shouted.

"Hiring aliens to help kill me, Mother?" Morinth sneered as biotic energy wrapped around her. "Not very true to the Code, is it?"

I thought there was a family resemblance. Shepard would have sighed if he wasn't in the middle of a fight.

"Do not call me that!" Samara hurled a wave of biotic power at her daughter, but only succeeded in pushing her back a few inches. "You are a monster, and it is my duty to stop you!"

"I can't help that you're my mother," Morinth sneered, then sent her own biotic blast that sent Samara reeling. "And I can't help what I am! The rest of our people fear what I can do, so I must be destroyed!"

Morinth was strong, that much was obvious; in fact, it appeared that she was more than a little stronger than Samara. However, Samara had centuries of experience on her side, and unlike Morinth, she was far more stable. She also wasn't fighting alone.

Shepard took his chance to intervene, putting a psi-enhanced shot through Morinth's shoulder, nearly severing the entire arm. Morinth didn't even have time to scream before Samara lifted her into the air for a moment, then slammed her into the floor. She twitched once, but didn't get up; she was still breathing, but with the amount of blood pouring from her wound, she wouldn't be for long.

"Target is down," Shepard said into the comms. "Move in."

Most of the team was inside within seconds; Thane had to help Mordin out of their shared perch, so it took them a little longer to join the others.

"You okay, boss?" James asked.

"I'm fine," Shepard said, then knelt down to examine the dying Morinth. "She's not. I give her two minutes, tops."

"Stand aside." Samara lifted her daughter up and gently laid her on her back. "Morinth, can you hear me?"

Morinth's eyes flickered open. "M-Mother?" She laughed weakly. "Of all the people I thought I'd see when I died, I didn't expect you. Here to offer me a chance to repent?"

"It would not do you any good." Samara seemed to struggle with herself for a moment, until she came to a decision. "You are beyond any sort of redemption. However, I will grant you peace."

Morinth laughed again. "After all I've done, I think peace is the last thing I'll get. But if it makes you feel better, go on and finish me off." A feverish light grew in her eyes. "But you won't stop others like me. We're the future."

"Not so long as I live." Samara aimed her pistol at Morinth's head, then hesitated, before shifting to her heart. "Find peace in the embrace of the goddess."

Samara fired a single shot. Without her barriers, the high-powered round easily punched through Morinth's armor and into her heart. Shepard didn't need to check her vitals to know that she was dead.

Mordin was the first to speak. "Killer dead. Good. One less thing for Batarians to worry about when rebuilding. Justice for victims."

Shepard nodded; Morinth was dead, the clones would be handled soon enough, and Mordin was ready to go. As far as he was concerned, the mission was a success.

Still, he raised an eyebrow when Tarquin began examining Morinth's body. Thankfully, Samara had retreated to the far side of the room and seemed to be meditating, so she didn't react. "What's up, kid?"

"Something has been bothering me," Tarquin said. "The Bahak system has been under heavy scrutiny since the war; visitors are closely monitored, as are supplies sent in. Do we have any idea how she got here? You'd think that an Asari on an all-Batarian planet would stand out."

"She had the ability to manipulate thoughts," Shepard said, "at least, to some degree. The weird part was that what she did was a psionic ability."

Kasumi blinked. "Isn't that impossible for a biotic?"

"That's what I thought," Shepard said, "but Morinth definitely had psychic abilities; raw and untrained, but very powerful. It was like the Element Zero was working with the psionics, instead of destroying them."

Nihlus' mandibles slowly opened and closed; to Shepard, it looked like the Turian equivalent of chewing his lip.

"The Asari are very careful about keeping the Ardat-Yakshi a secret, but I have learned a little." He glanced at Samara, but she didn't react. "They seem to be suffering from some kind of mutation that fully activates once they meld with someone; once that happens, it becomes an addiction that they can never break."

Shepard thought about what he knew about the Asari, biotics, and psionics; he had looked at the information before, but that kind of knowledge was beyond his skill-set.

"I wonder if the Alliance would mind studying the body?" Tarquin wondered as he detached Morinth's omni-tool.

Shepard winced; that was the absolute worst thing the SPECTRE candidate could have said.

"No." The entire room shuddered from Samara's biotic pulse. "This is an Asari matter. You will not interfere, Turian."

"Even if it means figuring out why this sort of thing happens?" Ashley had a tight grip on her minigun.

"Why it happens does not matter," Samara said. "The Ardat-Yakshi are too dangerous. Those that cannot be contained must be destroyed."

Shepard sent a quick telepathic warning to the squad, but didn't make any threatening moves. "You were pretty flexible about working with someone you obviously didn't like. Why the sudden hostility?"

"Stopping Morinth required me to be somewhat… liberal with the Code." Samara glared at Nihlus. "But I have not forgotten your sins, Kryik, and now that this matter is closed—"

"You can't be serious," Jacob interrupted. "You're outnumbered and outgunned, and you still want to pick a fight?"

If Samara was anyone else, she might have smirked. Instead, she simply raised one hand.

"Take cover!" Shepard ordered, but not everyone was fast enough to avoid being locked in place by Samara's biotics. Only he, Kasumi, Nihlus and Thane remained free, and they were all on the defensive.

"This is between me and Kryik," Samara said. "The rest of you need not be involved."

"Yeah, no," Shepard replied. "We kind of like him, and you're being a bitch, so we have a problem."

Rather than continue to talk, Samara drew her pistol and fired at Shepard, while simultaneously blocking Thane's biotics with her own, then leaping into a spinning kick that connected solidly with Nihlus' side.

Shepard ducked under the shot aimed for his head, then returned fire with a controlled burst from his rifle. Unlike typical biotic barriers, which covered the body equally, Samara used a clever trick to keep herself protected—she focused her powers into one small spot, condensing the barrier's strength enough to block the high-powered rounds. The weakness to that, however, was that it left her open to other attackers.

"Surprise!" Kasumi chirped, ducking under Samara's fist before jumping away; it wasn't until Samara glanced down that she realized that Kasumi had left a flash-bang grenade at her feet.

The others, who had been waiting for Kasumi to do just that, closed their eyes just in time, and were able to keep fighting. Samara showed her centuries of experience, however, because she was barely slowed by her temporary blindness. She gave herself time to recover by sending a biotic wave in every direction; it wasn't enough to seriously hurt anyone, but it did throw them off-balance.

Shepard took a chance and got in close; using his psi-blade, he sliced away Samara's pistol, along with two of her fingers. To his surprise, she barely reacted, and used her uninjured hand to punch him in the gut hard enough to crack his armor and wind him.

Before Samara could ram a biotics-charged fist through Shepard's face, Kasumi flipped overhead, putting a bullet through Samara's shoulder, then kicked her in the knee to stagger her. Samara recovered, but now it was Thane who hit her, using a quick series of punches and kicks to keep her on the defensive.

By that time, the stasis was wearing off of the others, and the injured Samara would soon be attacked by three angry Terrans, a Turian, and a Salarian that was as smart as she was experienced.

Growing desperate, Samara threw a grenade, but Nihlus did something with his omni-tool that kept it from going off. For his trouble, Nihlus was thrown into the ceiling by Samara's biotics, and then hurled into the floor; the crack of broken bones was heard over the sound of fighting.

"Hey, bitch!" Samara barely dove out of the way of a hail of bullets from Ashley, only to stumble when Tarquin and Jacob tore a chunk out of her uninjured shoulder with their shotguns.

Bleeding heavily and with nowhere to run, Samara faced her opponents calmly. "I have lived my life by the Code. I knew that I would die the same way."

At first, Shepard wanted to scoff; he hardly knew anything about the Justicars, but the absolute nature of their Code seemed ridiculous. But then he paused; it took a certain kind of strength to live by a strict set of rules and never waver, and even more strength to be willing to die for it. A quick scan of Samara's mind revealed that she wasn't just mindlessly following doctrine, either; she was a person who had had her faith tested, had nearly broken, but had come out of her trials stronger. For that, if nothing else, Shepard respected her.

"No," he said, after a moment. "We're not going to kill you."

James did a double-take. "We're not?"

"Our mission is over." Shepard glanced at Mordin, tucked safely behind Ashley. "Killing you would be pointless, Samara. Go back to the Council forces, get yourself patched up, and go home. Please."

For a moment, it was as if the whole planet was holding in a breath; even the sound of far-off fighting had disappeared. In that instant, Shepard dared to hope that Samara would do the smart thing.

"I live by the Code," Samara said at last, and Shepard felt his stomach drop. "The Code demands that Nihlus Kryik die for his crimes, and I will not stop until that happens."

Samara's last gambit was another biotic pulse, but her injuries prevented her from making it too strong. It was, however, enough to give her an opening, and she rushed at Nihlus; if she was going to die, she would die destroying her perceived enemy.

Tarquin reacted fastest, trying to wrestle Samara to the ground without killing her. However, while Tarquin was skilled, Samara was experienced, and was able to not only weave around him, but she punched his right arm with enough biotic force that it was completely torn off.

That settled the matter for Shepard, but before he could shoot her, Nihlus reacted; his sniper rifle, aimed at near point-blank range, pierced completely through Samara's throat. She fell to the ground, killed instantly. His injuries finally catching up to him, Nihlus collapsed to the floor.

"We need to get them stabilized," Shepard said, more concerned with the living than he was with the dead.

"Agreed." Mordin stepped around Samara's cooling corpse and began helping Tarquin. "SPECTRE Kryik's condition serious, but not critical. Same cannot be said for Lieutenant Victus. Can stop bleeding, but requires Turian aid; current equipment… insufficient."

"All right, do what you can." Shepard reached out to Selendis. {Executor, are you there?}

{I am,} Selendis replied after a moment. {How goes your mission, Commander?}

{Good news and bad news,} Shepard said grimly. {The good news is that our mission is complete. The bad news is that we have two badly injured Turians here. One of them is General Victus' son.}

{Understood. We have mostly contained the situation in the city. I will inform General Victus that medics are required at your position, and I will send escorts to ensure that they arrive.}

{Thank you.} Shepard watched as Mordin did what he could to help Tarquin. {They'd better hurry.}

Several hours later, Shepard's team was resting at a residential block that the Turians had converted into a triage center. Casualties had been light, thanks to the clones having little in the way of strategy, but there were still enough wounded to keep the medics busy. Strangely enough, Tarquin and Nihlus were among the worst of the injured, and the latter was already well enough to hold a conversation.

"Assuming Tarquin isn't discharged, I'm going to recommend he be elevated to full SPECTRE status," he said. "After he gets a new arm, anyway."

Shepard glanced down at his own prosthetic. "What made you pass him?"

"He asked questions, for one." Nihlus smiled. "Everything he asked you and your teammates was something he already knew the answer to, but he got that information from our databases. He wanted to hear it from you, in case there was something we got wrong. He was also careful, he took stock of his surroundings, and he was completely fearless. Not many people are brave enough to get between an Asari Justicar and her prey."

"Here's hoping the kid accepts." Shepard raised his canteen in a toast.

"I share the sentiment." Nihlus sighed. "Tarquin may be young, but he represents the future of the SPECTREs. He'd be the first Turian to join that wasn't 'tainted' by the Citadel Council." He looked down at his hands for a moment, then changed the subject. "I don't remember much after the fight. Did you retrieve the Ardat-Yakshi for study?"

"We did. The Protoss have her body in stasis, and Moebius will see if they can't figure out how an Asari has psionic and biotic powers."

"Honestly, the whole idea scares me." Nihlus shook his head. "Asari are powerful biotics as it is, and I've seen what you can do, Shepard. The idea of someone having both of those abilities… and to top it all off, none of us in Council space have any idea how to train psychics. This is going to be a nightmare."

"That's if the Asari government even acknowledges any of it. They might just try to sweep the whole thing under the rug."

Nihlus blinked. "What? Oh, I think I understand; your Terran sayings are very strange, and I heard plenty back when I was on the Normandy."

Shepard laughed. "You didn't even scratch the surface; we've got sayings for other sayings."

Nihlus looked vaguely horrified. Shepard laughed more, but he quickly sobered.

"So," he said slowly, "about Samara…"

"I understand why she did it, Shepard." Nihlus closed his eyes. "If I watched an Asari nearly burn Turian civilians, I would have nursed a grudge as well. On top of all that, she had just killed her own daughter; no matter how disciplined you are, no one is stable after something like that. We made a mistake in thinking that she would just walk away, and because of that, one of the most promising SPECTRE candidates I've seen in years lost an arm." He shook his head. "I think I'm getting too old for this job; SPECTREs either get sentimental, or they go insane."

"Be thankful it's the former," Shepard said. "I'd hate to have another Saren on my hands."

Nihlus chuckled dryly. "Don't worry about that; if a super-ancient AI starts telling me to conquer the galaxy, I'll tell it to shove it… actually, where would a Harvester shove something?"

Shepard grinned and patted Nihlus' shoulder as he stood up. "I think that's the sort of mystery that should stay a mystery. Get some rest, Nihlus; I'll try to keep you in the loop, so you'd better be ready for another fight."

"I will, Commander." Shepard turned to leave, but Nihlus stopped him. "And Shepard?"

"Yeah?"

Nihlus seemed to struggle with himself for a moment, then came to a decision. "I have some information that might be helpful. I made sure to not have a physical copy of it on me, just in case, so…" he tapped his head for emphasis.

Shepard immediately understood, and read Nihlus' mind, searching only for what he wanted Shepard to see. Once he did, he nodded and stood back.

"Thanks, Nihlus; if this is real, it could really help."

Nihlus shrugged. "If it's real, then you get to take out a problem for both the Alliance and the Council. If it's not… well, I've saved up enough to retire, just in case I get dishonorably discharged."

"See you later, Nihlus." Shepard shook his hand once more before leaving. "Now, I have a rabid dog to hunt down."

Unknown Location

"So much information…" a manicured hand ghosted across a console. "With this, I could start a war, overthrow a government… incredible."

"It's a shame that you can't do any of that to the government we want to overthrow," a soft voice growled.

"True, but I can make far better use of this than the previous owner." None of the people in the room spared a glance at the stain on the wall that used to be a large, angry alien.

"What's our next step?" This voice was female, refined, and somehow managed to convey a nonchalant attitude and an eager one at the same time.

"Head to Tartarus; we have enough data to activate the Xel'naga temples, and I want you to ensure that nothing interrupts our work." There was a pause. "Agent Leng?"

"Yes, sir?"

"According to our scientists, the specimens we recovered are now ready for deployment. If it comes to it, you have my authority to use them."

"Sir, are you sure?" The female voice was now concerned. "We only have the three originals; the new ones aren't ready yet."

"Between our standing forces, the specimens, and the two of you, I am certain that any attacking force will be held back long enough for the project to be completed. You're dismissed." The man waited until his two lieutenants left, then turned back to the wall of monitors in front of him. "Finally… we can begin."

Codex Entry: Batarian Quarantine Zone

While the Batarian Hegemony was never demilitarized like the Krogan, its withdrawal from the Council meant that it lost any protection beyond acts of goodwill that were extended to it. Since the Hegemony had a long history of unofficially sanctioning piracy and taking slaves, it was decided that the Bahak system was to be carefully monitored and blockaded. This was primarily done by Council forces, though Alliance vessels do occasionally patrol the area.

Smuggling in and out of the Bahak system is not common, primarily because many of the more aggressive Batarians—typically former military—will seize goods and vessels, but also because many of the smugglers have lost friends or family to Batarian piracy in the past.

So… yeah. Samara is dead. Like I said last chapter, if you like her, I apologize, but she was never going to join the Strikers. I hope I at least gave her an epic last hurrah. I didn't really want to drag this chapter out too much, mostly because it was pretty dark.

And Morinth being both a psionic and a biotic was something that's been in my head for a while now. I mean, how else could she sort-of mind-control people? I don't think that's how Asari melding works. Also, someone explain indoctrination without including psychic powers (don't, actually, you get my point).

Also, small announcement: I know that I don't update as frequently as I—and you—would like, but there's a high chance that I'll be taking more time to post new chapters. This is because I am finishing college, looking for a new job, and I'll be playing Mass Effect Andromeda a lot. I don't care if the game has problems, I really want to play that sucker.

Edit (9/30/17): Okay, so I know that I haven't updated in a really long time. I just want you to know that I am actually working on the next chapter, but it's slow going. Since I'm done with college now, I've been trying to find work (not very successfully), but I created my own website where I'm putting up my own original content. If you like this story, you might want to take a look. The site address is on my profile page. Thanks!

Next Chapter: The Strikers launch an all-out assault on Cerberus, but are unaware of what awaits them…

Bettin' our Muffins on some alien piece of crap don't sit right with me.