Chapter Twenty-Two - Therum Heat

SSV Normandy, Artemis Tau Cluster

April 11, 2183

The dark forest stretched up to the smoky sky, skeletal, eery, dangerous. Red lightning raced through the clouds, angry and vengeful.

In the middle of a small clearing, surrounded on all sides by tall trees stood Riley. It took her a moment to gather her wits about her. Looking down, she found that she was dressed in her armor, but all of her weapons were missing. Something about this was familiar to her, but she couldn't put a finger on what it was.

"Hello?" She called out, feeling completely at peace even as the oppressive feeling of death and decay surrounded her, pushing down on her.

"You need to come with me, Shepard." Nihlus' voice echoed through the forest, seeming to come from both everywhere and nowhere at once.

"Nhilus?" Riley spun, looking around the forest for Nihlus. "Nhilus? Where are you?"

"Over here." The voice echoed from the left.

Turning, Riley followed the sound of the voice, through the trees, up a hill, and over increasingly rocky terrain. Before she knew it, she had started to climb and found herself hanging from the side a sheer cliff face, desperately struggling to stay alive. Harsh winds struck at her, threatening to pull her right from the cliff face.

"Nihlus! Help me!" Riley cried out.

She was met with nothing but silence.

Riley struggled to hold on, but slowly and surely, she started to climb again. There was no other choice.

Even as she made progress though, thunder and lightning broke the sky, letting loose a flood of rain that soaked through her armor, plastering her hair to her scalp, freezing her to the bone. The cliff became slippery and icy, but somehow, Riley managed. There was no other choice.

She climbed higher and higher, until she couldn't see the forest below her anymore, surrounded by the angry, roiling clouds.

Nearing the top, Riley slipped, dangling by one hand, only barely managing to catch herself.

"Help!" Riley called out, desperate.

"There is no help for you."

A deep voice rumbled out from above her, breaking the roiling clouds.

A hand reached out and caught her just before she let go. It lifted her up effortlessly, holding her in the air by a single hand.

"No one is coming to your aid. You are alone." Lifting her up higher, her savior revealed herself. A faceless figure, dressed immaculately, glaring at her.

Riley struggled against the figure's grip, but it was a futile gesture. She could no more break free of him than a planet could choose to stop orbiting its sun.

"The time has come at last for our plans to be set into motion." The figure held her up even higher, before dropping her and catching her by her neck. He started to squeeze. "A storm is gathering, to cleanse the galaxy of its filth, and you shall be our instrument."

"Never!" Riley managed to choke out, struggling to breath.

"You do not have a choice." The figure simply let go, and Riley fell.

She fell, and she fell, and she fell.

Screaming, Riley hit the surface of a freezing ocean, sinking deeper and deeper. She couldn't breathe.

###

Riley woke, gasping for breath, struggling against her sheets. She wondered for a moment who was screaming, before realizing much to her embarrassment that it was her.

It took her a moment, but she calmed when she realized where she was, slumping bonelessly back into her bed. Catching her breath, she glanced over at the only light source in the room, a gentle glowing holo-display that simply proclaimed the time as 3:40 AM.

Riley tried to catch her breath, slowly coming to realize how soaked with sweat her bed was.

Looking at the clock with a glare, she decided to roll out of bed, shedding her pajamas for a set of simple work out clothes. She wasn't going to be able to get anymore sleep. Might as well do something productive with her newfound time.

As she left her room, a shiver ran down her spine. Just for a second, she felt the crushing weight of a cold ocean bearing down on her shoulders.

###

Riley emerged from the freight elevator of the Normandy onto the hanger deck. She looked around and found much to her pleasure that it was just as empty as the crew deck was. Everyone was either asleep or on duty in the CIC. Thank Celestia for C-Shift.

It was absolutely perfect. She didn't want company. Not right now.

The sudden clink of dumb bells made her realize that her initial thought must have been wrong. Someone else was here. Not so perfect than.

Stepping into the small workout room, Riley found Garrus setting his barbells back into their right place. He looked up when he heard her enter. He straightened, saluting in that strange Turian way.

"Commander!" He relaxed after she saluted back.

"Please, just call me Riley." She wasn't going to be alone, apparently, but there was worse company she could have when she was trying to be alone. "You're not Alliance military."

"Alright then, Riley." Garrus nodded, perfectly alright with that.

Getting on the treadmill, Riley started to run. There was nothing better to get horrific thoughts and memories out of her head than exercising to the point of exhaustion. Garrus joined her on the other.

"I have to thank you, Riley." Garrus said.

"What for?" She asked, shaking her head.

"For bringing me on board." Garrus was silent for a moment, settling into a nice speed. "I knew working with a Spectre would be better than life at C-SEC. You don't have to deal with any of the red-tape that job so awful."

"So, you joined my mission because you didn't want to do anymore paperwork?" Riley glanced at him, settling into a comfortable running speed.

"I guess..." If Garrus could blush, he would. Instead, his mandibles flared and he looked away, a little embarrassed. "That would be yes."

"At least you're honest about it." Riley shrugged. That was about the best she could hope for. Riley took a breath, moving the speed up on her treadmill. "Have you worked with a Spectre before?"

"Well, no, but I know what they're like." Garrus took a deep breath, what passing for a Turian smile filling his face. "Spectres make their own rules. You're free to handle things your way. At C-Sec, you're buried by rules. The damn bureaucrats are always on your back."

"Rules are usually there for a reason." She had dealt with naivety before. It had been awhile, but she knew she would have to beat that out of his head, and fast. "Stopping complete anarchy and civilization degrading into a mad wasteland. That type of thing."

"Maybe. But sometimes it feels like the rules are the only thing there to stop me from doing my work. If I'm trying to take down a suspect, it shouldn't matter how I do it, as long as it gets done. But C-SEC wants it done their way. Protocol and procedure come first. That's why I left."

"So you just quit because you didn't like the way they did things?" Riley resisted the urge to face palm.

"Technically..." Garrus glanced over at her, waving his hand in a so-so manner. "I'm just on extended leave, and there's more to it than that. It didn't start out so bad, but as I rose the ranks I got saddled with more and more red tape. C-SECs handling of Saren was typical. I just couldn't take it anymore."

"I hope you made the right choice. I'd hate for you to regret it later." Riley sped up her treadmill.

"Well, that's sort of why I teamed up with you. It's a chance for me to get off the Citadel, see how things are done outside of C-SEC." Garrus sounded excited. "Either way, I plan to make the most of this. And without C-SEC headquarters looking over my shoulder, well, maybe I can get the job done for a change."

"If getting the job done means endangering innocent people, then no. We get the job done right, not fast. Got it?" Riley made sure she made eye contact with him, wanting him to get her point.

"I wasn't trying to..." Garrus did a little embarrassed look away, catching her point. "I mean… I… Yes, I understand, Commander."

###

Rainbow Dash had been trying to get back to sleep for what felt like hours. Her wound was itching, the pod felt too cramped after several days of sleeping in the med bay under the watchful eye of Dr. Chakwas, she was too hot, and when she turned on the air conditioning inside her sleeper pod, she felt like she was freezing.

It was time to admit it. She wasn't getting anymore sleep, and what little she had had was fitful and not very restful.

"Ah, buck it," Rainbow muttered, scowling. Leaning over, she typed in the commands to raise the pod from its sleeping position. As it started to rise up, she used her wings to control her slide down to the bottom. The sound proof lid to the pod slid up and out of the way, letting her step out. Even as she jumped the small distance to the floor, Rainbow grumbled the entire way. "Stupid sleeping pod. Stupid body, won't let me get comfortable. Grr."

Rainbow paused, realizing that she had said the 'grr'' aloud, quickly checking to make sure no one had seen her. Relived to find herself alone, she shook her head and checked her omni-tool.

4:00 a.m. it blinked back. Way too early, even for a Pegasus like herself.

Still, there was nothing she could do for it. Grumbling under her breath, she made the short trip to the kitchen to get breakfast.

Taking the short flight of steps onto the main crew deck, she started tifling through the cabinets. As she did so, Rainbow stretched first one wing then the other, moaning a little as her muscles loosened up and her bones cracked. It was about as much a morning ritual as she had ever had.

Finding a vegetarian MRE hidden at the back of the first box, she grabbed it with her teeth and brought it to the table. There would be a warm breakfast later in the day, but for now she was hungry and no one else was up, much less the cook.

As she made the turn to go sit at one of the tables (the closest of course), she found herself bouncing to the floor after her muzzle ran right into someone's legs.

Looking up, she found the new Quarian standing over her, looking down embarrassedly down at her. At least she took it as embarrassment. Rainbow couldn't actually tell because of the mask.

"I'm sorry!" The Quarian stammered, "I didn't see you there. Are you hurt? Did I hurt you? Are you okay? Let me help you up."

Without any thoughts or propriety or further embarrassment, the Quarian picked Rainbow up by her barrel, jerking, as if surprised at how light the Pegasus was. She shook it off quickly though, setting Rainbow on all four of her hooves.

"Who are you?" Rainbow asked, deciding to ignore the indignity of what just happened and pretend the last few seconds never occurred. The blush on her cheeks let her know that she wasn't fully successful.

"My name is Tali," the Quarian said, nodding her head as if in affirmation. "Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. Captain Shepard brought me onboard to help search for Saren. I promise that I'm not spying. I'm here to help."

"Okay..." Rainbow just raised an eyebrow. "Sure."

Not quite sure what to make of her rambling, Rainbow stepped around Tali and trotted over to the table. Tali just stood there, not quite sure whether she had been brushed off or not.

Sitting down, Rainbow looked back at her. "Are you going to get something to eat, or are you just wandering the ship at four in the morning?"

Tali shuffled on her feet for a moment before going to the cupboards. It took her a minute, but she finally found a box of turian rations, sealed and purified. Thankful, she took it and brought it over to the table, sitting down across from Rainbow.

Starting their meals, they both quietly sat there, not quite sure what to do with the other. The only sound was the crinkling of plastic containers as they both struggled to open their breakfast.

"It's Commander," Rainbow finally said after the silence grew unbearably long.

"I'm sorry?" Tali tilted her head a little, missing what Rainbow was saying.

"Shepard is a Commander, not a Captain." Rainbow explained, taking a bite of the blandest tofu she had ever eaten. The Systems Alliance didn't make their rations with flavor or enjoyment in mind, and definitely not for a herbivore species. She made a mental note to stock up on some palatable food when the next time she had a chance.

"I don't understand." Tali gave up wrestling with her own rations for a moment. "She is in control of the Normandy, isn't she?"

"Yeah." Rainbow nodded, swallowing down another dull bite.

"Then that makes her the Captain." The way Tali said it made it sound like it was the most obvious thing in the galaxy.

"No. She's got another rank to go before she'll be Captain." Gesturing with her hoof, Rainbow shrugged. "It's a military thing."

"Oh…"

Rainbow took another bite of her meal. "You're up kind of early. You know you don't need to be up for like… another few hours."

"I couldn't sleep." Tali ducked her head, more than a little embarrassed.

"Huh…" Rainbow could relate to that. She was having the same problem after all. "Why not?"

"This ship…" Tali hunched her shoulders ever so slightly, drawing into herself. "It's too quiet."

"Too quiet?" Rainbow raised an eyebrow, wondering if she was being serious or not. She scowled, glancing off towards the sleeper pods. "Are you kidding? I had to dial up the sound proofing on my sleeping pod before I could even fall asleep. It's way too loud."

"Too loud?" Tali almost sounded outraged at that. "Are you joking with me?"

"Uh... No?" Rainbow leaned back a little, surprised at Tali's depth of feeling over the matter.

"Back on the Flotilla, if a ship was this quiet, it would mean that something had gone horribly wrong and we were probably all about to die." Tali's voice was full of emotion, and it wasn't too hard to figure that she was speaking of things she had actually experienced. "It's unsettling. Unnatural."

"Yeah, okay…" Rainbow didn't feel like saying much of anything else.

"This ship is amazing, though." As if she realized how crazy she had sounded just a moment ago, Tali tactfully switched the conversation. "I've never seen a drive core like that one before. I can't believe you were able to fit it into a ship this small! And don't even get me started on the Equestrian cooling crystals."

"Well, I didn't put it in myself. The Normandy's a prototype." The Normandy was indeed a marvel of engineering, but Rainbow preferred her own wings to sitting still inside of a machine that moved faster than her. It seemed unnatural to the Pegasus.

"I'm starting to understand why the humans have been so successful. I had no idea Alliance vessels were so advanced." There were practically stars in Tali's eyes.

"Yeah, well, you should see an Equestrian built one!" She might not like spaceships, but she still had pride in her homeworld after all.

"I would love too!" Tali leaned forward, practically bouncing in her seat. "I've heard rumors of how beautiful they are, but I would give anything to crawl through an engine."

"Crawl through an engine? That's definitely commitment." A commitment that Rainbow would never indulge in.

Tali sighed, her happiness over her situation crashing down over her. "A month ago, I was patching a makeshift fuel line into a converted tug ship in the flotilla. Now, I'm sitting on board one of the most advanced vessels in Citadel space."

"I'm sorry," Tali paused, realizing that she didn't get Rainbow's name. "I didn't get your name."

"I'm Rainbow Dash." She stuck out her hoof for Tali to shake. "Fastest pegasus ever born, and youngest Wonderbolt ever recruited."

Tali blinked at the Pegasus' ego, but took her hoof with her three-fingered hand anyway, giving it a firm shake. "It's good to meet you."

"Hey, likewise." Rainbow took a big bite of her food, smiling around it and generally being pretty oblivious about how that looked.

###

Covering a large yawn with his fist, Joker hobbled down the neck of the Normandy to the bridge, leaning heavily on his cane. Somewhere behind him, Spitfire was trailing after him, balancing two large cups of coffee on her wings, one for her and one for him.

"Alright, boys and girls, we've got it from here," Joker said, his voice an octave deeper than normal from too little sleep.

In the seats, the two c-shift pilots relinquished the controls, standing out of the chairs and getting out of the way.

"And hey, look at that!" Joker muttered to himself as the two pilots walked the way they came from. "They didn't crash my ship."

Stopping, one of the pilots turned to face Joker, standing a good foot over the other man, a deep scowl set on his face. "What a surprise, I'm not breaking every bone in your body."

"Knock it off." Spitfire spoke up, falling back into her drill instructor days. She narrowed her eyes at the two. "Joker, keep your more wonderful tendencies to yourself. You, get off my bridge."

Both Joker and the C-Shift pilot held up their hands, not wanting to piss off the suddenly much more dangerous looking Pegasus. A tense second passed, and then it was over. The two C-Shift pilots left the bridge, and Joker and Spitfire took their seats.

Joker did a cursory run over of the crewman's flight report, a scowl on his face. He got into the grove of things, pressing the button that got his seat back into all of his prefigurations.

"Bunch of jackasses," he murmured, only half pleased by what he was seeing. He could have done it better.

"You don't help any." Spitfire shot back at him, not even bothering to look at him.

"Yeah, well, they mess up my chair." He knew he didn't have a leg to stand on (sometimes literally), but he was angry anyway.

Pressing another button on his console, Joker shifted the entire ship into day watch lighting, and activated the comms. "Crew of the Normandy, be advised that it is now 7:00am. C-Watch is relieved. A-Watch will now take their positions. Commander Shepard, we're approaching Therum. We'll be entering the atmosphere within the hour."

"I've got a good feeling about this one." Joker looks over at Spitfire, who had just finished resetting her seat to her specifications. She didn't have to do much, being the only one on the ship who could use her ship (as Rainbow Dash wasn't a pilot).

"Hmm?" Spitfire didn't actually catch his question, distracted.

"I've got a good feeling." He repeated.

"You see," Spitfire said, scowling. "That right there… That's what's going to screw us over."

"What?" Glancing at her, Joker frowned. "All I said was that I had a good feeling."

"Yeah, and how often does the universe pander to your expectations?"

" Yeah, well, shut up."

"Of course." Spitfire rolled her eyes, turning back to her work. It had become a common part of her job to wrangle Joker and his various moods.

"Ground team, grab your kit and meet in the hanger in thirty." Commander Shepard's voice rang through the ship through the intercoms.

"God…" A wry look passed over Joker's face, and a little laugh passed through his lips. "I'm not going to be getting that thought out of my head."

"What?" Spitfire wasn't sure whether she wanted to or not.

"The Commander in her armor." He rolled his head to look at her, grinning. He waved his hands in an hourglass shape. "All the right curves in all the right places."

"Real classy there, Joker." Spitfire snorted, shaking her head.

###

Riley couldn't have been happier as she finished putting on her armor. It was one of the first times she was going to be using it in actual combat, and she was still having to get used to how light it felt, and the way it moved. Like her old armor, it had the red and white stripe, but instead of the N7 insignia, the Spectre badge sat above her right breast.

"That's some expensive armor you have there, Shepard."

Riley glanced back to see Wrex finishing what passed as a 'breakfast' for a Krogan, sitting on a pile of crates. For anyone else, it would mean eating five helpings of what passed as eggs and sausage from the kitchen, chasing it down with a gallon and a half of powdered orange juice.

"The perks of Spectrehood…" She tilted her head, staring at Wrex in awe. "How in Tartarus are you eating all of that?"

"Simple. Like this." Lifting up his last plate, he simply poured it into his mouth and swallowed without chewing. "I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing that."

"Heh." Laughing, Wrex stood. He grabbed his guns from the pallet below him and attached them to the mag-points on his armor. He plodded over and leaned against the Mako, which shifted ever so slightly under his weight. "I'm ready. Where are the rest of you?"

"You sleep in your armor. Of course you're ready." Riley rolled her eyes, pulling out and looking over her sniper rifle.

"It's not my fault the rest of you ever decide to get out of the only thing that makes it so you aren't all walking fleshy meat-bags." He said it so matter of factly that Riley had no choice but to be impressed by his bull headedness.

"You are… incredibly charming." Shaking her head, she collapsed her sniper rifle and placed it onto the mag clamp on her back.

"Not surprised you think that, Shepard." He grinned at her, an unsettling look. "It's my snappy wit."

Thankfully, the elevator arriving keeps the two of them from continuing that conversation.

Riley looked over, a little desperately, hoping to see someone that could get her out of the entire conversation. Thankfully, it turned out that Tali and Rainbow were there, Rainbow's ears flicked back as she listened to the Quarian yammer on about the Normandy.

The two sisters brightened when they saw each other. At that moment, they were both hoping the exact same thing, that the other would get them out of their conversation.

"Thank Celestia!" Riley muttered to herself.

"What, you don't like talking to Wrex?" Wrex asked, speaking of himself in the third person.

"Rainbow. Miss Zorah." Riley just pretended she didn't hear that and walked forward to greet the two of them. "Glad you could join us."

Tali ducked her head at her name. "Please, call me Tali."

"Of course, Tali." Nodding in understanding, Riley smiled.

Rainbow just scampered on over to the Mako, standing on the other side of Wrex, using him as a barrier between her and Tali.

"That elevator is slower than mom in the morning," she grumbled, the levels of her grumpiness rising.

Riley just rolled her eyes, shifting her helmet to under her other arm.

"I could take a look at it after we get back." Tali offered, wringing her hands together.

"If you want to." Shrugging, Riley didn't try to push anything onto the young Quarian. "It's not part of your job."

"It wouldn't be a problem." Tali did her best to reassure them.

"Alright." Shrugging, Riley turned away.

The elevator arrived again, having gone back up for more. Garrus, Kaidan, and Ashley exited this time, joining the rest of them by the Mako.

It was time for a briefing.

"Alright. This is where we're at." Riley stared at her team, who had formed a semi-circle around them. "We are currently arriving in orbit above Therum. Our mission is to retrieve Dr. Liara T'Soni and figure out what she knows about her mother's actions."

"Question, ma'am?" Ashley asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Aggressively, if necessary." Riley pursed her lips. It wasn't something she liked, but it was necessary. It was in her job description after all. "We do not know where she stands with the Matriarch. What she knows might be the key in capturing Benezia."

She leveled her gaze on them. "If she is combative, non-lethal options only, but I'm not afraid to have to carry her back to the ship."

"Any info on her combat skills?" Garrus asked, wondering just how hard this supposedly simple mission was going to turn into. Asari with a firm grasp on their biotics were not someone you'd want to mess around with. When you were unsure of their loyalties, that just made things a whole lot more tense then they had to be.

"She's an archeologist, but she spent several decades being personally tutored by her mother's commandos." Riley had spent the last few days pouring over what Citadel intelligence had managed to gather about Liara T'Soni. "Expect her to be highly trained, and we'll be happily disappointed if she isn't."

"Are you expecting a fight, ma'am?" Ashley twitched her fingers over the butt of her pistol.

"I'm not expecting anything. We're walking into this pretty blind. We don't know anything about the situation on the ground. Communication with Therum is spotty at best, and the only real intel is from the Alliance cruiser that drops by every few months for a resupply to the colony near the north pole." As an N7 Operator, Riley had worked with worse. Not often, but she'd worked with worse. "T'Soni's dig site is about as far away from there that you can get, and information is even spottier. Her team only shows up every six months, and she's nearly never with them. Citadel Analysts have drawn up a psych profile on her."

"She's a nervous little girl who is shy to the extreme and too smart for her own good, and prefers to keep to herself after being burned too often." Finishing, Wrex leaned back and crossed his arms.

Everyone just stared at him, silence falling over the hanger.

" Pretty much, yeah." Riley nodded.

Moving right along.

"It's too hot for Normandy to make a landing, not that there's a stable surface large enough to accommodate her anyway. We're going to be doing a mako drop."

Collectively, Ashley, Kaidan, and Garrus groaned. Wrex simply didn't care. Tali had no idea what a mako drop was and she raised a hand.

"Commander?" Tali asked.

"You don't need to raise your hand, Tali," Riley said, a small laugh escaping her lips.

"What's a mako drop?" Tali lowered her hand.

"We all pile into this tin can and strap ourselves in." Ashley sighed and patted the mako behind them. She then pointed at the hanger door behind them. "Joker opens the hanger door and does a flyby of the landing zone. The Commander drives right out of the hanger, and we drop."

"Oh…" If she wasn't wearing a mask, it would have been very obvious that she had gone completely pale.

She suddenly didn't look so sure of her place aboard the Normandy.

"Don't worry, Tali." Riley did her best to reassure the girl. "This is standard procedure. We do it all the time."

" Turians too." Garrus shook his head, crossing his arms. "Regrettably. And mandatorily."

"You're all a bunch of scaredy cats." Rainbow snorted, all too amused at her land bound comrades. "I could do this in my sleep without the ship, or the mako!"

"Don't tempt me." Riley eyed her, unimpressed. "I'll make you do it, just to see it."

Rainbow rolled her eyes and busied herself with fitting her helmet on instead. No sense in tempting her older sister any further.

[i]"Hitting the drop point in two minutes, Commander."[/i] Joker's voice rang through the Normandy's intercom in the hanger.

"Roger that Joker." Riley said, activating her omni-tool comms. "Alright. You heard the man. Everyone in the death brick."

"Death brick?" Tali's voice cracked, and she stared at the mako with much more trepidation.

"Don't ask." Kaidan shook his head, sighing before he pulled his own helmet on.

Garrus hit the opening button for the mako and they all clambered inside. Wrex, Kaidan, Ashley, Garrus, Rainbow, Tali, and Riley all in such a tight place made for a tight squeeze, just barely under the limit for how many the tank/troop carrier could hold. Maybe.

Possibly.

No sense in telling Tali that.

"Cozy." Wrex wiggled in his too small seat, trying and failing to get comfortable while adjusting the straps across his bulk.

In the driver's seat, Riley started the engines. Next to her, Kaidan shut the rear entrance hatch with the press of a button, sealing the mako and pressurizing the atmosphere.

"We are good to go, ma'am." Kaidan said, checking over his monitors. "All lights are green, and jump jets are good."

"Good work, Lt." Nodding, Riley glanced over her shoulder and looked at Ashley. "Williams, you take the gun. I'm not expecting any resistance, but just in case let's not let anyone catch us with our pants down, flapping in the breeze."

"Aye aye, ma'am." Ashley pulled a slim, mechanical arm down from in-between her seat and Tali's, unfolding it until a small bar sat suspended in front of her. A holographic display and haptic interface appeared before her, projected from the bar, slaving themselves to her suits sensors and helmet's heads up display. "Good to go."

"Get ready to jump," Joker's voice rang in the mako. "In five… four… three… two… one… drop!"

A short acceleration of the mako, and they're in free fall.

Tali simply shrieked as her stomach dropped from under her, grabbing onto her harness like her life depended on it, which to her, it very well might have seemed that way. She didn't notice that no one else shared her panic, though they all looked uncomfortable, shifting in their seats.

Wrex looked like he could take a nap.

Or eat lunch.

Or both. He wasn't picky.

"Brace yourselves." Riley said, as calm as anyone could be. "Hitting jump jets… now."

The massive acceleration downwards halted, just for a moment giving a sense of weightlessness before it was replaced by a much more gradual descent.

Tali's scream slowly petered out until it died, just as the wheels gently touched down on the ground.

"And we're down." Riley turned in her seat and made a bow. "Welcome to Therum everyone. It is currently a balmy fifty-nine degrees celsius, or 138 degrees fahrenheit for you heathens from North America."

Riley started driving, even as Ashley leaned forward what little she could in her harness.

"I resent that, ma'am!" Ashley called out.

"Resent it all you want, you're still wrong." Riley shook her head, taking the mako over a short hill.

"You can respectfully bite my ass, ma'am." Ashley shot back.

"Don't make me drive this brick into the lava, Chief." An empty threat, but it never hurt to try and strike the fear of god into her subordinates. "I will. You don't want to test me."

"I'm hot enough already, ma'am. I'm not greedy."

"Sure!" Rainbow just snorted, laughing behind her helmet. She ignored what she assumed was the glare that Ashley sent her.

"Cut the chatter." Shouting, Riley dimmed the interior lights. "I'm reading surface contacts. Williams, be on alert."

Her seriousness cut right through the humor, and they all fell back onto their professionalism.

Tali still had a death grip on her harness from before the fall. "Oh Keelah, I think I'm going to be sick. To all the ancestors and any other bosh'tets out there who might be listening, I swear that I will never jump out of another perfectly good spaceship my entire life. Just let me survive this."

"As the new kid on the block, Tali," Riley called over her shoulder, trying to be as comfortable as possible. "You're going to be in the safest place of all, right in the back. You stick behind Wrex at all times, use him as a bullet sponge if you need to."

"That is possibly the most degrading job I've ever been given." Wrex rumbled, wondering whether or not anyone was even going to be listening to him.

"I can do that." Tali breathed out, relieved.

"Good!" Riley nodded, focussing on her driving, while also speaking over her shoulder to a Quarian who had never received any actual training for military operations. "We don't have time to train you on squad tactics, but stick to Wrex like a rather cute and shapely parasite. Normally, we wouldn't do something like this, taking a civilian into a potential combat zone, but there simply isn't anything for it. You're a quarian, and as such, you have the best chance of getting us through whatever the prothean ruins might throw at us. We can't be held up a computer problem, especially if we're being shot at."

"I-I can do that." Tali nodded again, even though Riley couldn't see her.

"Good."

They rounded a corner in a mako.

"Geth!" Kaidan shouted, hitting the jump jets to avoid the sudden flurry of shots from two Geth armatures, protecting the pass to the ruins.

"I see them," Ashley said as calmly as she could be.

Using the controls in front of her seat, Ashley took control of the top cannon and FIRED!

One of the two geth armatures was knocked off balance, falling backwards, trying futilely to get its balance back, into a slowly encroaching river of lava.

"One down." Riley said, narrowing her eyes.

Before Ashley had the chance to take another shot, Riley RAMMED the front of the mako into the second armature. It crumpled underneath the tank's wheels and Riley just kept on driving, crushing it underneath its wheels.

"And that," Riley said turning in her seat to look over her shoulder at her team. "Ladies, gentleman, assorted aliens, and pony, is how you do it."

"You do know that you're going to have to realign all of the axles after that little stunt, right?" Garrus asked, more than a little incredulously. "They weren't made for running over machines."

"And it sounds like you just volunteered!" Riley sounded far too happy for the amount of work that she just foisted on the poor, unwitting Turian.

"Wait, what?" Garrus blinked.

"Yeah, I heard it too." Wrex nodded in sympathy with Garrus.

"Congratulations, Garrus. You're in charge of Mako maintenance." Riley continued driving, ignoring the surprise behind her.

Garrus blinked, scowling, then slouched down ever so slightly.

"She does that." Rainbow told him, nodding in sympathy.

"And you're helping him, Rainbow." Riley called over her shoulder.

"Dammit." Rainbow followed Garrus in slouching in her seat.

Ashley opened up with the turret again, at a grouping of geth platforms in the distance. The tank round knocked them down like bowling pins, tearing the smaller ones to scrap metal and just forcing the larger ones to the ground.

"I think I can now safely say that this has been upgraded to a combat situation." Riley just kept right on driving, ignoring the geth.

"I think we got that." Kaidan chimed in.

"Are you sassing me, Alenko?" Riley just gave him a side glance.

"No, ma'am." Kaidan shook his head.

"Cause it sounds like you're sassing me, Lt." Riley glanced at him. "Are you sassing me?"

"I would never dream of doing that, ma'am." Kaidan nodded, bitting his lower lip.

"Yeah…" Narrowing her eyes, she glared at him. "Do you want me to give you Garrus' job?"

"I already have a job. I'm not qualified on repair." He shook his head.

"All excellent reasons to keep in mind if you want to keep sassing it up in here." The mako bounced, the shocks not good enough to fully buffer the cabin.

"Yes, ma'am." Laughing, Kaidan nodded.

Riley sent the Mako flying over a small hill, hitting the jump jets to leap over a cliff wall. They landed on the other side, tires squealing for a moment before catching the ground and going on.

"The dig site is just ahead," Kaidan said, looking over the map.

Sure enough, through the front view-screens of the Mako, signs of the archeology team are everywhere. Pallets of supplies, vehicles, habitation, everything you'd need to support a long term team living far away from civilization. The camp was deserted, and all of its supplies upended and searched through.

Their forward progress was halted by a cliff face with a narrow opening, and there was no other choice but for Riley to bring the Mako to a complete stop.

"It's through there?" Kaidan asked,

"Yep." Nodding, she unbuckled her harness. Riley stood and turned to face her team. "It looks like we're walk from here. Helmets on people. I don't want anyone whining of heat exhaustion, so keep your air conditioning on and drink plenty of fluids."

Kaidan, Ashley, Wrex, and Garrus sealed their helmets. Riley, Rainbow, and of course Tali already had them on and sealed.

Riley opened the back of the tank, and a wave of heat came rolling into the mako. Thankfully, they barely even felt it thanks to their armor. They all piled out, Tali coming out last and sticking behind Wrex, just like she had been told.

Taking the lead, Riley stepped through the thin opening in the cliff face. Her team followed behind her, and she could hear Wrex grumbling to himself as he struggled through the narrow opening.

"Keep your eyes open." Riley murmured. "This is the perfect place for an ambush."

Affirmative confirmation lights blink in her helmet from Kaidan, Ashley, Rainbow, and Garrus.

"The ambush will be up ahead." Wrex said, unfolding his shotgun.

"I agree, but keep a look out anyways. Keep radio silence for now." Together, they continued forward, and they were on the look out for any attack… not that they'd see any coming.

The enemy was the geth. They could hide anywhere, and they can wait perfectly still. In all likelihood, they won't even see their attackers before it happens.

The attack didn't come, not right away, and it grated on everyones nerves even if they didn't show it. They are wondering just what is happening.

The narrow pass opened up into a small twisting valley that led to the dig sit above.

The moment they emerged out, they were met by a hail of coordinated gunfire.

"Fall back!" Riley called out, laying down a cover of gunfire from her assault rifle. "Get into cover!"

They did so, using small outcroppings of rock to get themselves out of the geth firing lines.

"Alenko, use your biotics." Riley ordered, firing blindly. "Push them back, make an opening!"

"Aye aye, ma'am."

Popping out of cover, Kaidan threw a singularity at a large gathering of geth. Riley followed him, popping up as well, throwing a singularity of her own at a smaller group.

The next few moments were a confused and violent and deadly. Tali cowered behind Wrex, following him wherever he went as she typed furiously on her omni-tool. In what felt like no time at all, she had managed to hack part of the geth's network, inserting a virus of her own making.

As she had hoped, the geth started to open fire on each other, IFF tags switched and disabled.

In the confusion, Riley and her team managed to sweep up the last remaining stragglers.

Stepping over the body of one of the geth, Riley looked at the camp that had been set up just beyond. It didn't belong to dig site, and that was obvious just by looking at it. It wasn't permanent. It was designed to be set up quickly and only last for a short stay. No long term hauls here.

"What's wrong with this picture?" Riley asked over her shoulder.

Everyone stopped, focusing on the camp, trying to see what Riley was talking about. When they didn't get it fast enough, Riley spoke up.

"Why have the geth set up a camp?" She pointed at the two tents and the small stack of boxes. "Why do the geth need food? Why do they need water?"

"The geth aren't working on their own." Garrus caught it first. He would have got it if he wasn't so distracted. He was C-Sec Detective after all, and he was good. Very good.

"Exactly." Riley stepped forward, keeping a careful eye out for any booby-traps. "The question is, who would help the geth?"

"It's Krogan." Wrex rumbled, already knowing the answer. "One, maybe two."

Riley nodded in agreement. "Keep your eyes sharp, people. There are going to be more ambushes ahead."

"How do you know that?" Tali asked, wondering just what they were seeing.

"It's what I'd do if I knew a heavily armored squad was coming to try and take my objective." Riley shrugged, before continuing on.

Together, they moved forward, though much more slowly and cautiously than before.