A/N: Very sorry this took so long. I had a chapter ready to go, but the Editing Gang felt it didn't flow well, and I had to rewrite it. Personal crap meant I didn't get that done before the Death March was upon us. This year was particularly bad, and I was amazed I managed to pull my incompetent stuff together enough to make something good.

This is the very last chapter before the re-bonding and Citadel stuff. Promise.

I apologize for nothing with Rolan Quarn.

Have a happy New Year celebration, and I hope everyone has a great 2020.

Read the works of SLotH4, Nolanstar, Xabiar, Pallan Minerva, Aberron, and Katkiller-V or else I will make the Editing Gang read more bad fanfic. (EG: "It's really horrible stuff, save us please!")


'The things we do for love. Like going insane and having conversations with ourselves in a bathtub surrounded by a couple of million credits worth of eezo.'

'But the sex is worth it, yes?'

'I dunno. Let's find out.'

-Shepard and Liara


After the meeting, Shepard walked over to Liara. "Ready?"

Liara gave her a nervous and somewhat sour look. "Yes and no. My stomach feels like a flock of flip-fish on the shore leaping about."

Shepard smiled. "Mine too. Did you get a chance to eat yet?"

Liara shook her head. "I was not hungry. I did not know if that was necessary… or would interfere."

Shepard snorted. "Well, go eat. I gotta make sure everything is ready to go for the trip and talk to Pressly, then I'll meet up with you." She squeezed Liara's hand, and then turned to walk over to Pressly.

"Charles, what else needs to be looked at or done before we move out to meet with the asari, and then to the Citadel? Asking now, since I'm probably going to be tied up until we leave and we don't want any problems down the line."

He looked up from his padd. "About that… we just got a priority message in from the asari." He paused, frowning at the padd. "They sent a very confusing message about half an hour ago, stating that we would be meeting with the AES Athame's Grace – unless something changed, that's the personal dreadnought of Matriarch Uressa T'Shora."

She arched an eyebrow. "…Huh. Anything else we know about it?"

He nodded slowly. "Yes, ma'am. It's the flagship of the actual asari fleet, and it is staffed by only the most skilled officers. It is almost always accompanied by a short squadron of storm cruisers and raiders from the Church of Athame, and the message said the Solarch will be coming with her."

Shepard blinked at that, then shrugged. "Wasn't looking forward to talking with the Council of Bitchtriarchs anyway, and Uressa was…" She trailed off, remembering the brief meeting with her before her wedding, the depth of age in that serenely beautiful face, then shrugged again. "She was classy. Maybe it's a good sign."

She exhaled. "But that throws a wrench into my plans to deal with this… mind stuff and the bond now. Fuck." She pinched the bridge of her nose, then tapped her comm-link. "Matriarch Trellani."

The asari's voice had a thin edge to it. "This is perhaps not the best time, Shepard, as I am involved in setting up the ritual."

Shepard sighed. "Yeah, on that. We have to wait – Uressa herself is coming to meet us, ahead of schedule."

There was silence for several seconds, then Trellani's voice sounded, low and almost amused. "That is… significant. I was expecting a few Matriarchs and a large pile of Justicars. Is this a simple trip or something more elaborate? And where does she intend to have this reunion?"

Pressly spoke up. "She's incoming on the Athame's Grace, Matriarch. We've been instructed to meet them in deep space, off the main shipping lanes. We don't know the escort but we know the Solarch is accompanying her."

Trellani's voice sounded harder. "Well, well, well. This could be good… or extremely bad. The presence of the Solarch makes things more difficult – even if everyone in Cerberus and our associates were healthy we wouldn't last a good minute fighting that insane fanatic." Trellani made a slight humming sound and then her voice sounded again, more cheerful. "But very well. I presume we are launching the Normandy to meet them?"

Shepard nodded, then rolled her eyes at how stupid that was and spoke instead. "Yeah. Probably in an hour or so, once refueling is complete. I'll take your, uh, body… and Liara, and I guess Doc Sedanya and probably Telanya as well."

Trellani's sharp inhale was audible. "I need to be there as well."

Shepard's eyebrows shot up, her mouth falling open. "…Lady, I knew you were batshit insane, but exactly why in fuck would you want to be close to this operation when we're trying to convince them you are dead?!"

Trellani laughed, a bitter noise that sent a ripple of goosebumps down Shepard's spine. "My deception will fool the Justicars that will come along. It will fool Thana Vathan – for all her vaunted power and skill, she has no depth. It will fool genescans, DNA tests, and every manner of science and mythological claptrap they will use.

"It will not, I assure you, fool Uressa. She has… abilities… not available to others."

Shepard gritted her teeth. "So they sent her to call our bluff, fuck." She turned to Pressly, but Trellani spoke once more.

"Not at all, Shepard. Uressa called for my death with the rest, but she was also the only one who disagreed – vehemently – at the cruel murder of my family, bondmate, and associates. She did what she could to help my business partners escape the Republic… and if my hunch is right, she'll not give the game up to the other asari, but will ask to speak with you privately and have them all leave. When that happens… I will step out and we will talk."

Shepard grimaced. "And if she does call you out?"

Trellani took another deep breath. "That is the second reason why I am going. If my ruse is detected, the asari will stop at nothing to destroy you and the Normandy and Cerberus as a whole. If my ruse is detected… I will surrender myself to the asari. I have already made provisions for this if it comes to pass, and Jack is… aware of my intent."

Shepard stared at the comm-link on her wrist in a mix of shock and faint admiration. "You believe in this whole mess enough to die for it?"

Trellani's tone took on a somber note. "If we do not stop the Reapers, the crimes of the asari and my revenge will both be dust on the faintest of interstellar winds. Revenge is of no moment. I do not want to die, but it is racing for me if I go or don't. Twenty years is a short time to have left to live, and frankly, losing such is a cost I will have to pay if needed."

Shepard traded glances with Pressly. "Alright. I'll be in contact. Shepard out." She clicked off, then bugged her eyes out. "Have I ever said that bitch is fucking crazy?"

Pressly tapped through his padd. "Well since we're in a hurry now… mm." He scanned through lists, then spoke rapidly.

"The Normandy itself is fully prepped – all battle damage has been repaired and the Illusive Man loaded on some cutting-edge volus M/AM flek hyper-velocity torpedoes to go with the Kyles. Bigger than the Narwhal by about thirty percent, each one hits harder and has a phasic pulse device to bypass some shielding. We've also laid in additional medical supplies, blood plasma, regenerators, and emergency cybernetics for every known race, including vorcha and hanar. Just in case you pick up any more people."

She snorted. "Collecting weird alien crew members is our speciality. Speaking of which, what is the readiness of the crew?"

Pressly nodded. "I vetted six more crew – three engineers, a combat and trauma medic to help Sedanya, and an old friend of mine for a navigator. Garrus and his people have filled the gunnery and ops tech stations as well as infowar, and between Sedanya, Krul, Melenis, Miranda, and Mordin, we have plenty of medical staff. Everyone is pretty shot up still from Ilium, but the flight to meet the asari shouldn't tax anyone heavily."

She gave a second, more pleased nod. "And the flight to the Citadel?"

He shrugged. "So far, we've received clearances from the Nenas-Ralx Trade Lane all the way to the Widow Relay, and both Commissariat and C-Sec ships will be at each relay for security. The Alliance has confirmed that Prince Windsor and his daughter will be transferred to our custody on the Citadel – they've revoked his citizenship and hers, and say that if we want them we can deal with them. The turians and salarians have already posted information to AVINA and the Citadel News Network about our arrival."

She exhaled. "Make sure Prince Windsor and Eliza have suitable fancy-ass quarters on the base here – finally, finally, all the stupid luxury Harper blows his money on will come in handy."

Pressly gave a chuckle. "I didn't think about that. Good idea."

She gasped. "I thought of something you didn't already? I don't know if I'm getting better or you're slipping, Charles." She grinned and ran her fingers through her hair, pushing it back. "Anything else that's hot?"

The bald man gave a rueful smile. "I'm still putting together my lists with Ms. Lawson, but quite a bit, ma'am. I think we can handle most of it ourselves, as she's a very good organizer, but there are a few things that are more complicated."

She nodded. "Alright, swing by my office in ten… I'm going up to comms. Go ahead and pulse a message to the team: Liara, Sedanya, Aethyta, whoever Aethyta wants to take, Tela, Garrus, and Mordin." She paused. "Grunt as well, Okeer may come in handy. Have them prepped for a short flight in half an hour; we'll be coming back to the base before heading out so no need for packing. I'll meet you after."

He nodded, tucking his padd away and smiling. "I'll see you in ten."

He turned to the far exit, while she went to the nearest door. As she exited the meeting room, she had to side-step a slowly limping Mierin and stopped, leaning against the wall as she did so. Mierin's left leg was tightly wrapped in medi-gel bandages and a medical nanonics package, while her right arm, left shoulder and torso were also bandaged. An ugly line of stitches crossed her lower jaw on the left, and she swayed as she came to a stop.

"You okay there?" Shepard frowned, ready to steady the other person, but the slender asari sniper nodded, a rueful smile on her lips.

"I'm a little sore, but okay – sent Sensat and the rest with Sidonis to get him back into medical. He took a near hit from a hi-ex missile down there; he's still in pretty rough shape. I'm just busted up from glancing hits, although the last five minutes were… ugly down there. Glad we all got out alive."

Shepard nodded. "You need help getting to medical then?"

Mierin shook her head. "No, I can make it. Just came up from hydroponics to check my cuttings – various herbs and things I use in cooking." She paused. "Butler said that Angel was hurt more than he let on – he was able to get to the meeting and walking around, but they have him scheduled for cybernetic surgery, and me too. No one's spoken to us about that yet – do you know anything?"

Shepard sighed. "No, I haven't had time for a med debrief yet – and I probably won't. We just found out that the Asari Republic moved up the meeting with their reps, and now we have to meet Matriarch Uressa T'Shora in a few hours."

Mierin's eyes widened and her mouth opened. "Oh Goddess… uh." She forced herself straighter. "I know I have hardly talked to you, and you hardly know me, but… is there any way I could go? I've always wanted to meet her, but I was just clanless garbage…"

Shepard made a slashing motion. "Clanless aren't 'garbage' here. And…" She paused, thinking, then nodded. "I don't see why not. Get clearance from Sedanya first – and tell her to make sure she's prepped, because she's going too."

Mierin gave a whoop, a rakish smile lighting her features and she nodded a second later. "Thank you, Lady Sara. Thank you so much."

Shepard rolled her eyes and patted the smaller asari on the shoulder. "Be careful walking on that leg of yours, and it's not a problem. We'll be swinging back here before we head to the Citadel so let people know."

Shepard walked off, taking a few minutes to check her messages and then entered the comms center, which was empty. Heading to the QEC console, she tapped her entry code and requested Harper. It took almost a full five minutes for his image to shimmer into view over the QEC repeater, and she folded her arms as he did so.

"Shepard. The last communication I had from Miranda indicated that you'd decided on pushing ahead with your… re-bonding to Doctor T'Soni. Is that proceeding apace?"

She snorted. "Got sidetracked. The asari want to meet now – instead of Justicars and a bunch of Matriarchs, they're sending some big asari ship with Uressa T'Shora and the Solarch on board. Your girlfriend says she wants to be on the ship and thinks Uressa will want to talk to her. I've told her that was a big risk… but she's firm on going."

Harper lit a cigarette, although Shepard noticed his expression was tightly empty and his hands were not as smooth as usual in their motions.

And boy, if even I can see it, he must be fucking pissed.

His voice was even as usual, although it had a flat note in it she didn't think she'd heard before. "We've had this discussion, although… I was under the impression that such a dangerous event would be months or possibly years in the future. Did she explain why she would do this?"

Shepard made a face. "Sort of? Some shit about it being important and that Uressa would know it was a fake. How, she didn't say."

Harper's expression twisted slightly, his voice taking on a deeper and more concerned tone. "We have fragmentary evidence that Uressa is not like the other Matriarchs and may have abilities we are blind to."

She shrugged. "Pretty much what she said too. I'm letting you know because we are leaving in a half-hour or so. If you want to try and talk her out of this shit—"

Harper gave a grim smile. "You will find, Shepard, that Trellani is not very liable to changing her mind on things." He looked away, and for a split second she saw not the cunning plotter, the ruthless industrialist turned terrorist, but a tired, aging man on an emotional roller coaster, on the cusp of losing the last person in life that he cared about a second time in less than a week.

The sight of Jack Harper looking so utterly human twisted something deep inside her, and she gave a shaky exhale of her own before speaking. "…Having watched my wife die, and having found her again despite all odds, Jack, I can kinda relate to what this kind of bullshit must do to you. She almost died on Ilium and now she's dashing back out to some more shit where she could die. She even said if it came down to it, she was willing to do so to make sure the asari played ball with us."

She folded her arms. "I'm not gonna say I agree with the repulsive shit she's done, no matter what the cause of it was. But I'll make sure she comes back alive… and if the asari have a problem with that, we'll deal with it after you can have something to say about it."

The blue-ringed eyes met hers, and he was silent for a long second before puffing on the cigarette. "I believe once a reporter accused you, in the aftermath of Torfan, of having all the empathy of a pre-Iron car tire. Clearly things have changed, or I am more rattled than I realized, for you to say such a thing."

He gave the faintest of smiles. "I appreciate the heads-up… and the sentiment. I hope we can achieve what we need without having to… sacrifice her."

Shepard paused for a second. "…If I had to let Liara die, in order to stop the Reapers… fuck. Please let's hope that never happens." She glanced back up. "Anything you need me to say to Uressa or the Solarch?"

He puffed again, regaining his normal composure. "Assuming the ruse with her body holds, inform them that Cerberus has additional… interesting information in regards to certain activities in batarian slave markets and the Nightwind. If further leverage is needed, I've had the information sent to Vigil."

Shepard felt a burning sensation in her stomach. "I've read the write-ups… fuck." She wiped her mouth and glared up at the display. "When we have the time I want the locations."

Harper smiled more widely. "Vigil has those too… but please, let's handle the asari, the Citadel trip, and putting an end to the Broker before you go on any more anti-slaver rampages." He paused. "Also, contact me before your flight to the Citadel – I've arranged some security for your landing, but I need to coordinate times."

She huffed. "Fine… and Harper?"

"Yes, Shepard?"

"…She's coming back alive. Shepard out."

She killed the comms unit, then walked out of the room and down the small stairway to the left, wondering who in fuck actually made handrails out of real wood, coming out in front of her office in ops. The pain in her stomach flared, and the ache in her shoulder made her glad they'd wasted the money when she reached the bottom of the stairs.

She entered her massively oversized office, seeing Pressly already seated, and walked around the wide desk to sit in the sinfully comfortable liquid-gimbal leather chair. "Ugh, I feel like a goddamned supervillain in this place."

Pressly managed to smother his laughter, although his expression was clearly amused. "Yes, ma'am."

She glanced at the tall haptic display showing the status of the base and the Normandy, seeing the ship was ready to go. "Alright, make this quick, since I ran long getting a hold of Harper. Very fast rundown and then I gotta grab a shower and head down to the ship. Urgent stuff only."

Pressly nodded, pulling out a dataslate. "Very good. There's nothing alarmingly urgent, but I do need to cover a bit of the medical stuff and prep for the Citadel trip."

She nodded, and he continued. "First, medical conditions. The doctors are not happy with yours, as you still have some tiny bits of armor fragments in your liver and the walls of your heart are still damaged. They can't fix the damage to your cybernetic eye without full isolation and replacement, which would take you out of commission for at least two full days, so you'll have to make due. You also blew out some cybernetic components and Doctor Six-Hawks is running blood and tissue tests to see how long they need to keep you on DTPA and the rest of the anti-rad medication."

He coughed. "He, ah, also said the drugs might make you somewhat off-balance. Furthermore, they had to disconnect some of your heatsinks for repairs and your biotics are going to be limited. They did a full replacement on your arm connections – we had drones head to the battle site while evacing the team and managed to salvage your arm, and most of it is actually okay. However, Doctor Hyrim says your shoulder is still damaged and we had to completely redo the neural interfaces for it."

He sighed. "Altogether, I'd recommend taking several bodyguards with you to the Citadel – you aren't in top shape."

Shepard laughed. "Shit, I know that. Static in my left eye, aches in my back and chest, and really sharp pain in the side. I'll make it, but I won't go at this stupid. I am not at full and I'm aware of my limits, so Grunt is going to be right beside me the whole time."

He nodded. "The rest of the team… everyone took damage down there. The doctors are… willing but not happy to release Liara, Telanya, Zaeed, and Melenis. Angel is still in surgery, Mierin has several severe injuries, and they gave me a hard 'no' on Erash due to his infection still being treated, as well as Tali, Dost, Kiala, Jack, Sidonis, and Ezno. All of them are severely wounded – badly enough that if there was any kind of fighting we'd have issues."

She nodded thoughtfully. "Ran into Mierin, she looked like hammered shit. She should be fine to go on the trip to see Uressa, but I agree the Citadel is too rough. And I talked to Harper; he said that he'd have guards available when we landed. Have, uh… have Doc Andira do a rundown of the injuries and see which ones could tag along if they wanted. I don't mind leaving most of them, but I kinda would like Kiala and Tali to be there, as well as Sidonis."

Pressly tapped on his padd. "We'll see. It's up to Doctor Sedanya, and you know how she gets about things. Plus, not to be negative, ma'am, but the Citadel isn't going to be safe. I'd feel a lot more comfortable if everyone you took along could at least defend themselves."

Shepard sighed. "You're right. And it worries me too. The flip side of that is that Vigil will be there, and I don't think they're stupid enough to start a fight or try to arrest me."

Pressly muttered something about the stupidity of the Council in the past and she laughed.

"Point taken, Charles. What about the rest of the team? Who can I take with me on this trip to see the asari?"

He shook his head. "Quite a few people simply are not viable at the moment. Both DACT have their conversion therapies and operations scheduled in three hours. The main repair workups should be done for Mr. Taylor and Jack's bionetic knee replacement in a few hours as well, so they're down. Dost, both our quarian ladies, Sidonis, and probably Ezno should not go on the trip. Everyone else is hurt but… should be okay."

She nodded, checking her own padd on the desk, tapping a few items to clear them. "I'll need Miranda to stay behind and keep things moving along at the base, you'll be on the Normandy. Anything else?"

Pressly's eyes narrowed. "I don't want to sound, ah, paranoid… but how sure are we that this whole 'New Cerberus' thing is real? Just because we haven't seen him do anything terrible doesn't mean he won't or hasn't and kept it quiet."

She shrugged. "I'm not sure. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt because he got his own guys killed saving asari from the fucking Justicars, and if his speech is the truth then we're on the same page. And if it's not…" She trailed off. "I dunno. I'm bad at reading people. I just saw him look pretty worried about Trellani… but that only means he's not a complete asshole, not that he's telling it to us straight. What did you think?"

Pressly exhaled. "I don't know. I get that we don't have choices. I get the Systems Alliance certainly isn't an option, and my thoughts on the Council has language not to be used around ladies." Shepard snorted back laughter at this, and he shrugged. "But Jack Harper is a man who is focused on goals more than the path to get to said goals. I don't doubt for a minute his sincerity to stop the Reapers, or to deal with the High Lords of Sol, who are altogether far worse."

He straightened his shoulders. "I can't help but worry that everything is simply going too smoothly and that you haven't had to pin his ears back for pulling some shady shit. It's hard for me to trust in him when I can't read him. And yes, I get that we need to trust to some degree – that at some point doubting the only person putting forward effort is counterproductive. It's just that his little speech just felt a bit too slick for my tastes. Most of the, ah, others ate it up, though."

Shepard sighed. "Can you blame them? Pressly, everyone here – including you and me – is someone that got thrown the fuck away by their own people. Even back when I was a Spectre and working for the Alliance we got shit for support, smoke blown up our asses and we had to commit fucking mutiny to stop Benezia. Harper is handing out cash, custom ships, mil-spec weapons, and top-end cybernetics like fucking candy for free, recruiting entire alien battalions and basically saying he's going to kick the rich fucks who run things in the nuts. Of course people eat that shit up."

She shrugged. "We take it as it goes. If he's on the up-and-up, we're cool. Let's just hope it stays that way. We're stuck with them and that's not likely to change."

His expression soured, but he folded his arms. "I'll keep an eye out, ma'am. Do you think he's going to pull a fast one?"

Shepard smirked. "Not really. I think Tali had him pegged – he's a guy who is willing to do anything, but he wants to do the right thing. Picking Saren back in the Benezia Incident and almost getting us all killed shook him pretty bad. And in any event, at least he's trying to fix it, instead of doubling down on the idiot ball tea. And if…"

She looked away, smirk fading and said nothing for a long moment. "…if he's sincere about this, I'm not sure I won't back him the whole way." She pushed up from the chair. "Alright. I'm going to scarf down a sandwich and take a shower – have everyone ready to go at…" She glanced at the wall chrono. "…1300."

Pressly nodded sharply. "Yes, ma'am."

O-TWCD-O

Uthitha T'Koro was not usually a nervous asari. A career naval officer who'd spent the last century as a senior fleet commander, Uthitha had only recently been promoted to the highest non-flag rank, taelsaress, that one without heavy influence in the Council of Matriarchs could realistically hold.

Having to escort the Solarch and the most beloved Matriarch of the Asari Republic, however, made her more than a little nervous.

As she gazed around the semi-luxurious interior of the heart of the ship, seated in a flanth-leather command chair that cost more than some aircars, she wondered just how she'd gotten to her current position. Merit was one thing, but House T'Koro was hardly on the level of the House of Storms who usually sent someone to command this vessel.

Being placed in command of the most powerful warship in the asari navy after the Destiny Ascension, and the ship that acted as the personal flagship of the Solarch and of Uressa T'Shora, was an honor she'd not expected or prepared mentally for. As she stood up from the comfortable chair to gaze out across the command deck of the Athame's Grace, however, she sourly noted she didn't expect things to be this odd either.

Her ship had been literally snatched from patrol, with 'high urgent' orders bearing the personal chop of the collective Council of Matriarchs, with patrol ships frantically clearing trade lanes to allow the flagship to reach Thessia in record time. No sooner than they'd made orbit had an entire flotilla of shuttles erupted from the surface to dock.

The Solarch herself had come in the wake of Uressa, along with half-a-dozen Everchosen Justicars, two Godtalkers, and a staggering sixteen Royal Paladins from half-a-dozen Houses. Beyond that there was a good half-dozen of the Temple Guard, flanking a hover-tray filled with scanning instruments and various medical devices she didn't recognize.

The trip from Thessia had been quiet and nerve-wracking – Uressa stayed in her quarters, but her entourage did not, and the rumor mill flew high. Most of the rumors circulated around the presumed death of Trellani, but some were whispering that the Council had intended on sending someone else to meet this so-called Shepard, and Uressa had insisted on coming instead.

Uthitha didn't know if that boded well or not. She'd seen the video from Ilium, of course – everyone had, at this point. Shepard and her allies were certainly powerful. But if the Council of Matriarchs felt Shepard was so dangerous that the Solarch herself and Uressa – two of the strongest biotics in asari history – were needed to oppose her, this little trip could get dicey.

She kept her expression cool and collected, not showing her worry. As the ship came out of the relay jump, she gazed down at the plot and across the deck, nodding to herself in satisfaction. Her officers moved around the command deck efficiently, the high and sweet voice of the mistress-at-station sounding out briskly.

"Taelsaress, jump maneuver complete. Charge capacity at forty-three disav, recommend discharge at the nearest moon before rendezvous. Jump drift… fifty-one thousand stanlengths. No active sensor detects within fifteen sun-minutes."

Uthitha nodded. "Stand down from Silver Moon to Shaded Star alert, shift to conventional FTL and approach the rendezvous point. Maintain full kinetics and remain at internal boarding security stations. Navigator, we will drop charge after the meeting is completed."

She turned to face the science console, the willowy form of her senior most officer standing there with hands flying over the smooth panels. "Science, status?"

The science officer scanned her board. "No sign of any other activity. The Ativa Relay is showing recent jump emission. No mass detected on the scanner, LADAR coming back clean. A scout may have jumped out-system. No comms signals or buoys detected within thirty sun-minutes… slight solar wind perturbation. From the direction of the relay. Probably old traces."

Remembering the many reports she'd hastily read on the way here, Uthitha shook her head. "Perhaps not. This new Normandy has a magnetically isolated space-frame, heat and optic cloaking, and probably whatever else Vigil can do. As I said, keep kinetic barriers at full and wait for further orders."

The doorway to the bridge slid open, the slender beauty of Uressa T'Shora entering a second later. "Graceful days, Taelsaress Uthitha. I believe we have finished the relay jump?"

Uthitha bowed. "Yes, Matriarch. We are beginning a preliminary scan—"

Uressa gave her a gentle smile. "That is unneeded. Please open a communication channel."

Swallowing, Uthitha keyed a control on her comm panel. "Line open, Matriarch."

"Cerberus vessel, this is Uressa T'Shora. We are prepared to send over a shuttle and dock with you upon reply to this message. Please reply."

Uthitha frowned. "…Matriarch, we're the only ones here. They have cloaking but we…"

She trailed off as space not ten kilometers off the bow began deforming, the light twisting and then with a flash, the arrow-sharp raptor that was the Normandy appeared in lines of gold, white, and black. The menacing shape hung almost arrogantly in space, lined up on a perfect kill vector for a torpedo shot and banking turn.

The tactical officer cursed. "They have full kinetics, and we are detecting multiple magnetar particle wakes – they have armed Kyle-class torpedoes." She turned to face Uthitha. "And they're using cyclonic barrier shields, three-phase. Nothing we have outside the main gun will even damage that level of kinetics."

A second later, the comm console chimed. The hard, familiar but alien features of a human male appeared, his bald head and cool gaze a match for his flinty voice, his white and gold uniform decorated with the Cerberus hexagon. "Welcome, Matriarch Uressa. The Normandy is prepared to receive a shuttle. A detail will meet your entourage at landing. We ask you keep your party less than fifteen persons… and that there will be no need for heavy weapons at a diplomatic meeting."

Uressa inclined her head. "Myself, the Solarch, and the investigating justicars will have warp swords, but the rest of my retinue that I will be bringing with me is unarmed. Assuming there are not any issues that would require hostilities, I agree heavy weapons are unneeded, but as Cerberus has a… reputation, I'd prefer not to be completely unarmed. I trust that will not be an issue?"

The human gave a short nod, a wry smile crossing his hard features. "It will not, Matriarch. Normandy out."

Uressa half turned. "Have the shuttle prepped immediately. I'll inform the team we're headed out."

Uthitha watched the small shuttle depart a few minutes later, then quietly went over to her comms console and triggered a message to the Council of Matriarchs.

O-TWCD-O

The QEC room had been converted to a meeting room, a Cerberus-themed tablecloth covering the table-like projector and comfortable leather chairs arranged around the room. The bulky form of the stasis pod holding Trellani dominated the space atop the table, several power cables making footing awkward as the asari party slowly entered.

Shepard stood at the far side of the room, dressed in flat black Cerberus BDUs with no weapons. To her left, Liara and Telnaya sat quietly, while Sedanya and a still injured but neatly uniformed Mierin stood behind them. To her right was the hulking form of Grunt, the odd expression on his face and stillness a clue that Okeer was out in front, and the much smaller form of Mordin, ostensibly there to provide more medical information than Sedanya could. Garrus was sitting at the back, a wary set to his mandibles.

Uressa stood on the other side of the room, flanked by two asari with black veils and heavy black robes. Her own dress was simple, white silk robes and a pale green shawl, belted at the waist with a chain of silver seashells and a black leather belt holding the scabbard of her warp sword, Serenity.

Next to those two, the Solarch leaned almost indolently against the doorframe, her barely-clothed form half hidden behind the justicars moving the scanning equipment into place, white-painted skin and muscular limbs chased with complex tattoos even more complex than Trellani's had been.

Uressa looked around the room, then at Shepard, tilting her head. "Thank you for making haste to meet with us. Your… communication in the wake of the tragedy at Ilium was of maximal importance to us. Matriarch Trellani's long darkness and misguided actions have cost the lives of thousands of innocents, and her death is hardly worthy of tears."

The matriarch gestured in a siari gesture. "While we have much to discuss – your own reappearance, the issue of the Reapers, and your issues with the Shadow Broker – our primary goal is confirming Trellani's death… as well as why, given her rumored relationship with Jack Harper, you would surrender her to us."

Shepard shrugged and gestured to the stasis tube. "What she did was criminal. I have a reputation about criminals, and she was one of the worst I've heard of – blowing up entire moons, mass murder, and who knows what else."

Shepard blew out a breath. "It was a source of friction for some time. Before now, it wasn't my call to make, but she's dead. Turning over a body wasn't a hard call. I guess you guys already figured out where I got my sword-dancing and biotic skills from, and while I got nothing out of her head, the bitch was crazy. She never told anyone that I know of what her big secret was, and as far as I'm concerned the Reapers are more important – it can stay dead with her."

She folded her arms. "If she's the price to make nice with the Council of Bitchriarchs, so be it."

One of the justicar techs let out a snicker at that, drawing an arch glance from the Solarch and a distinctly amused quirk of Uressa's lips.

"Very well, Shepard. Let us see. Scan the… body. And Shepard and her people as well."

Liara bit her lip as the left-most justicar deactivated the stasis field, and the shattered corpse of Trellani's original body was revealed, still clad in blood spattered and riven armor. Uressa winced at the brutal sight, while the techs behind the Solarch moved forward to start operating their scanning equipment.

The Solarch stepped forward as well, placing her hand on the body's head. "Still warm. Disturbing." Thana Vathan closed her eyes for several seconds, then withdrew her hand, heaving a deep, relieved sigh. "It is her, Gracious Uressa."

The justicar scanned the readouts carefully as the techs ran through tests, one swiping blood and tissue, the other one doing a gene scan with an injected probe. After about twenty seconds of tense silence, the tech on the right nodded, her pretty features slack with relieved joy. "Confirmed. One hundred percent genetic match. No clonal or flash-segment breaks detected. X-rays show expected breaks."

The other tech nodded as well. "Also confirmed. Genetic serials from the bioware muscular augs in the chest and arms match exactly. No signs of FTL-accelerated cell drift. This is definitely her." She looked at the screen. "There's signs that some life-saving emergency surgery was attempted – blood clotting agents, nerve blocks, and what looks like several drug boosters. But more than half her lung capacity is gone, both of her sevi organs are mush, and there are more than fifty armor fragments embedded in her heart, lungs, and body. The ential veins in both legs are damaged. She was dead from the moment this amount of damage hit her."

The taller of the two justicars turned to face Shepard. "Given your own return to life, and that of your companions, how can we be sure that you can't bring her back from the dead?"

Shepard smiled thinly. "For one, the process requires the complete body. As you can see, no organs are missing, and you can take the body with you. I understand the armor and sword belong to the Temple anyway. Harper isn't real happy about that, but we tried our best to save her life and it didn't work – no point in hanging on to the body. Secondly, Garrus, Liara, and Telanya were never dead – currently, the process only works on humans. If it were possible to bring her back, I'm sure Harper would have tried."

Uressa only nodded, while the Solarch straightened. "You are being rather cooperative in this, given your tone when dealing with the other governments you've contacted." The Solarch's expression took on a hint of a smile. "Particularly your own people, from what we've heard."

Shepard gave a sigh, leaning back against the wall. "Yeah, well, the Lords of Sol are actually even more shit than Trellani was. But I won't make points by not playing nice with you ladies. You have no way to be sure I am who I claim to be. Your justicars already threatened the life of my wife once before and never rescinded that. I'm pretty sure the Council of Matriarchs doesn't care for me much given that I told Matriarch T'Armal to go fuck herself."

She pushed off the wall, leaning forward over the table. "But I also figured you didn't put a two billion-credit bounty on Trellani without whatever the fuck she was into being bad. I've already found out a lot of repulsive shit – like, say, the fact that you actually have the audacity to complain about ardats when you buy slaves by the bulk freighter to feed your sick goddamned Nightwind. I am playing ball because I need the asari, not because I like you – from my point of view, you aren't much better than this crazy bitch was."

Uressa raised a hand to stop the expected reaction from her companion. "Solarch Vathan… please." She turned to the two techs. "Your scan of Shepard and Doctor T'Soni?"

The shorter of the two techs, probably a Clan engineer, only tapped the main display on her scanner stack. "With the exception of portions of the lungs and human digestive system, she's not displaying any flash-clone or clonal-parity markers. DNA matches. Biomorphic scans conform to the Spectre identity data. The others also check out. This is not top flight equipment for humans, so…" She trailed off, and the Solarch snorted.

Uressa gave a dignified nod. "Very well. Justicar Ameris, take the criminal's corpse and transmit the following at full power on all Fleet signals. 'The long eclipse is over.' " She glanced back at Shepard. "How did she die?"

Shepard rubbed her aching shoulder. "Tetrimus caught her by surprise. She died saving the rest of the team."

Uressa nodded at that, and the Solarch winced. "Trellani was… very strong. But even the strongest tide must eventually recede." She turned to Uressa. "Am I needed for the negotiating? Even as defiled as she is…" she gestured to the Cerberus sigils on the armor, "…there are rites to be done before laying her corpse to rest in Remembrance."

Uressa waved a hand. "No. Take your staff and return to the ship. I will be accompanying Shepard to the Citadel."

Shepard frowned, and both Liara and Telanya tensed. Shepard's voice was wary. "That was not part of the arrangement. I'm not willing to reveal my… base of operation's location at this time to anyone."

Uressa smiled, a serene expression. "It is only myself, and my two servants, who are Godtalkers and thus blind. I am not trained in navigation, and in any event would make sure to remain in a place from which I cannot see what trade lanes or courses are taken."

She bowed her head slightly. "There will already be a great deal of resistance to the concept of the dead returning to life, not to mention at the head of an organization like Cerberus, with its cruel history and dubious goals. Your people, however, died to save clanless. They died to defy a… mistake in judgment I allowed to happen. And if you are Shepard, as my people say you are, then you have been ignored, hurt, and belittled long enough."

The asari lifted her chin, the silver eyes piercing. "And there are discussions with others in your retinue that would not be conducive to have in public."

Shepard felt her stomach constrict, but kept her expression steady. "You'll be scanned for tracking and tracing devices. And if we're doing this, I expect you to make it a public statement; I don't want any kind of shit about how I kidnapped you or something."

Uressa nodded, and undid her sword belt, handing the weapon to the Solarch. "There is a tracking device in the hilt, in case the weapon was stolen. I will reclaim it once I return to the Temple."

The Solarch frowned, taking the weapon. "You will be unarmed on a Cerberus vessel surrounded by people who thought listening to Trellani was a good idea."

Uressa smiled. "No, I will be on a ship with a woman who died in agony rather than let the innocent suffer, and whose first action upon returning to life was to free those who suffered at the hands of the cruel." The smile widened, and Uressa gestured in siari farewell. "Inform Matriarch Thana of my decision. She is unlikely to take it well, so remind her of our last discussion."

The Solarch hesitated, glancing over Shepard and resting her gaze on Liara for several seconds, before bowing deeply. "Your will, Divine Uressa."

She turned on a heel, her gauzy outfit billowing behind her, and the rest of the group followed, the two techs pushing the hovering stasis tube carrying Trellani's body.

The doors hissed shut, and Uressa folded her arms. "I thank you for agreeing to my… request. I am aware this is sudden, but there are events occurring that you cannot be aware of. I feel that you were once a force for good and justice… and that you can be again, but I must assess that for myself."

Shepard nodded warily, then tapped her comm-link. "Shepard to Bridge. The asari delegation is leaving, minus Uressa and two others. Have the guest suite on deck four prepped. Once the asari shuttle is clear of the shuttle bay and on course for the Athame's Grace, go ahead and plot a course back to the base. Have the base set aside a suite for her use."

Pressly's voice sounded a bit strained. "Understood. I will engage blackout comms protocols and use the secondary navpath."

Shepard clicked off. "I would suggest you and I sit down and thrash things out… do you require your, uh, assistants?"

The two Godtalkers stood motionless, but one of them spoke. "Child, we can already feel the spirit of Trellani aboard this vessel. There is no need to dissemble, Uressa felt her even as we approached your ship. If the Divine One wishes to speak, she can do so with or without us, we are simply here as witnesses."

Shepard concealed her shock, but Liara's voice was soft and upset. "If you knew, why—"

Uressa raised a hand. "Because the alternative was revolting. I was… asked… to use certain methods to kill Trellani, as well as your aithntar and her Black Blades, and possibly you, as a threat to the Thirty. I declined to use such methods. The details are not important."

The silver gaze turned to Shepard. "In the ugly realization that the Reaper menace is real, Trellani's mistakes are not important. Petty matriarchal politics are not important. Even your resurrection is not important. The Reapers threaten everything we have, and thus we must fight that darkness with everything we have. That being said, I would like a chance to speak with her, after you have told me what you have found regarding the Reapers and their threat."

Shepard sighed, tapping her comm-link again. "Gardner, throw together the meal I asked about earlier and have it sent up to my quarters."

O-TWCD-O

Having the second most powerful asari in the galaxy sitting across from you on a leather couch eating four hundred credit a plate fish was a slightly surreal experience for Shepard. It didn't help that Gardner, of all people, was clearly nervous about how the nigh-royalty of Uressa would react to his decidedly uncertain first attempt at asari-style cuisine.

Then again, she thought sourly, if the worst thing that happens is she doesn't like the fish, I'll count myself well off.

The Athame's Grace had departed swiftly, while the Normandy headed back to base via an alternative route. Twice they went to full stealth to check for pursuit, while Shepard escorted Uressa and her eerily capable Godtalkers – who, while supposedly blind, didn't act like it – through the nearly empty corridors of the ship.

They settled into Shepard's private cabin, with Uressa sitting on the left side of the couch and Shepard on the right, next to Liara. The two Godtalkers stood at the door with a nervous looking Mierin, while Mordin had wandered off, leaving only Grunt and Telanya remaining.

Uressa politely sampled the fish Gardner had brought in, then smiled brilliantly and complimented him on the daring but well done choice of spicing and texturing, making the usually taciturn older man turn nearly scarlet with pleased embarrassment. After he left, Shepard managed to smother a smile and exhaled sharply.

"So, you're here because you know the truth."

Uressa nodded, something in her posture both simple and yet tired. "Yes. Trellani was once the most acclaimed of our order in deciphering things long past, and many of these finds and documents were presented to her by… others of the Temple, seeking to find long-lost techniques. For various reasons, however, I… know of many such things as well."

The doors hissed open, and Trellani entered, dressed in a simple black half-gown with a dark gray bodysuit beneath, black boots, and a dark orange shawl over one shoulder. For long seconds, she simply stood there, the expression in her newly youthful eyes unreadable, and then she made a deep asari-style bow.

"Divine one. You have come."

Uressa's smile faltered slightly and she narrowed her eyes. "…So you have used the most filthy and profane of my sister's fallen arts to survive. Yet you look as you did when we first inducted you into the Order of the Sun – is this some cosmetic surgery to hide the body you must have stolen from some innocent?"

There was a pulsing anger in Uressa's tone that sent a shiver of alarm down Shepard's back, but Trellani's laughter sliced through it. "The body, Divine one, is a flash-clone."

Uressa's mouth fell open, anger gone as her eyes widened in shock and some other emotion. Her voice was faint and horrified. "…But that will last…"

Trellani smiled. "Twenty spans, give or take a few months. If I am lucky. Less, due to cancer, if I am not. A moment's breath compared to what I have lived… but long enough to chase a comforting dream, to pass on my skills, and to prepare for the coming darkness. That is all that matters now."

Uressa sighed. "It… it is good you have not fallen into the same darkness as my errant sibling. My apologies for… suggesting such. There is…" She straightened. "…there is no time for such matters now, I suppose. But I trust you have not… told the others?"

Trellani's smile became barbed, her voice almost pleasantly amused. "I have informed your old pupil of absolutely everything. She will do what she likes with the information. If the Thirty betray us out of spite, the dagger over your midnight remains poised. I also told Aethyta. If, by some miracle, we triumph over the Reapers, she will end the lives of those who can… trigger the threat. Other than that…"

She sighed, and walked forward, placing a slender hand on Shepard's shoulder. "I cannot tell them. In the arts-sharing, I did not bond with Shepard, but the texture of her soul stood out cleanly even in death. If she knew, Shepard would kill you all, and any battle between Cerberus and the Thirty would end in our destruction. The Reaper menace is more important than the… horror you represent over the entire species."

Shepard glanced at Liara, who looked confused, then between the two asari. "I feel like I'm missing a lot of context here, Trellani. And I don't like hearing things like I would go after the asari if I knew whatever this… is." She made a vague motion with her hands.

Grunt's voice lanced out with Okeer's words. "It is a thing you do not need to know, mighty Shepard." Uressa's head whipped around at the sound of the krogan's baritone, but he continued. "I knew… some of it, I believe. I would suggest pursuit of such things is unlikely to end in anything but the collapse of galactic society… and I am not given to exaggeration."

Uressa's voice was strained. "Who are you, krogan? You sound like…"

Okeer laughed. "As I once told you before, Sun-dancer, life and death are not opposites. Suffice it to say that my death was real enough, but that I made… precautions. A technological method not dissimilar to what Matriarch Trellani has done. For the moment, I am keeping my survival, such as it is, a secret." He bent to pick up a piece of fish, Grunt's bright blue eyes amused.

Shepard frowned. "You two can catch up later – I still don't like not knowing this if it's that bad."

Trellani nodded. "And as I already told you, is your soul and spirit not blackened enough knowing the vile crimes of the High Lords, the SIX, the machinations of the League and the batarians? I assure you, you do not need – or want – to know more. This is a tale I have long sought to tell, but not to you and yours. It is an asari crime, and to resolve it is therefore equally an asari matter. To reveal any of it to outsiders would result in you killing us all, or us you."

Uressa ate a piece of fish, her eyes narrowed in thought. "While I am relieved this is still… contained, I must confess that Aethyta is not someone who should know. I distrust her objectivity, as much as that is the fault of the Council of Matriarchs for abusing her trust."

Trellani's sarcastic tone drew a wince from Shepard. "I disagree. Who better to judge and execute a pack of murderers than a murderer? And honestly, you should agree to her knowing as well – without the trigger, you can be the perfect lovely flower of siari and light you always presented yourself as."

The last was said in such acid tones that even Telanya winced and made a sign of siari disagreement.

Uressa's expression fell, and Trellani's hand came off of Shepard's shoulder. "I had questions, or so I thought. I'm sure you did as well. But I realize, I think, even you, do not have the answers I seek – why have you allowed this… disgusting game, this travesty, the endless corruption and death and all of it to occur. Looking at you, hearing you…"

She then gave a shallow bow. "I suppose it doesn't matter now. Funny, I've asked myself a million times since you and yours murdered my family if you regretted not simply explaining to me. But Benezia—"

Uressa stood. "Was wrong." Her voice was firm – tired, almost pained, but firm. "We were all wrong. And I have always regretted it. You were the living proof that Dilanaga was wrong – that the Clans, the clanless, the Thirty, the Lessers, all of it was… divisive and meaningless. You were to be the moon-rising star, the steel intellect and drive paired with Benezia's charisma and iron will and Thana's fire and glory."

Uressa made a siari sign Shepard didn't recognize. "Instead, I let… fear and worry and anger overwhelm what I should be. I let my… mortality and my weakness go against what I knew I should have done, because I was scared to gainsay it. It happened with Aleema, and with the brutal murder of Benezia's turian spouse. I turned my face away from so many crimes because I felt trapped. And so… I did not fight. I let it happen again, with you. With your family. With framing you for crimes. With the suppression of Thiana."

She raised her head. "And I proved my craven, worthless nature by not stopping the horrors that lead to Ilium burning. I was wrong, and I am sorry. But you are also wrong. To murder those who had no part or even knowledge of the crime done simply because they are the Thirty is just as evil."

Trellani was silent for long seconds. "There is no answer that can repair the tears in my soul, and it is far too late for apologies or regrets, Divine one." A tear rolled down her cheek. "My daughter was burned alive, along with my five-month-old granddaughter. What crime did they commit? My bondmate tormented, driven insane, and then cut apart by justicars – for knowing me. My sisters were killed and all my family either given to the Nightwind or worse – and I had not spoken to my eldest sister in over two hundred years. What was the crime they committed that made you 'panic' and resulted in my kin being given to batarian slavers?"

Her eyes were pools of black sorrow, her features twisted. "My works, burned and destroyed. My acolytes – some of which even told you where I had gone – you let Tazzik murder. My very name was used to actually cover up the crimes your precious Thirty committed! And in all of it, I already know that no one asked if what they were doing was just or unjust. There is no law in the Republic, Divine one… save that of the feral shores – might equals authority, and the spear-tip is righteousness."

She shuddered and mastered her temper, her voice dropping. "So I did not act as I have, Lady Uressa, out of mere revenge. I doubt anyone has suffered the bond-shocks and losses I have in the past century from deliberate torture and murder. I didn't act because I was angry, or because I was righteous, but because I believe I was driven insane. I only came to realize this in this mockery of a new body, without the bond-shards of pain driving me."

A final, ugly smile. "And thus all of the blood on my hands… is yours."

Trellani gave the same bow as before. "If you want to apologize, the only safety is in your own demise, Divine one. You are why this entire sickness endures. I know you would not have the nerve – or mental freedom – to address that by removing yourself from play. So if you are truly sorry, then at least have the decency to ensure the success and acceptance of Shepard, and the horror within your very existence will die unspoken by my lips. If there is nothing else?"

Uressa's stricken expression didn't waver, and then she lowered her gaze. "…No, brave Trellani. That… that is all I need. I… I remain sorry. As much of a nothingness as that word is – an exhalation of no moment, against the dark tapestry of your sorrow – it is all I have."

She lifted her gaze to Trellani once more. "And if that is all I can do, then you have my word I will ensure Shepard's success. That is my own highest goal as well, in the end. I had no choices in what I did or did not do."

Trellani's smile turned bitter. "Nor do we all, even though you immediately assumed I stole some poor victim's body rather than use a clone. I will survive without the apology." The matriarch turned to Shepard. "I will retire to my quarters, if there is nothing else…?"

Shepard waved a hand. "Go." She waited until the former Stellarch was out of the room before squaring her shoulders and staring hard at Uressa. "I don't know what went on or why. I don't know who or what died, or the reasons, but whatever they were doesn't justify killing thousands of people. It seems everyone is doing stupid, evil shit for idiotic reasons. I've said more than once that Trellani is crazy as fuck and this whole conversation just hammered home to me why."

She leaned back. "But she's right. I have too much vile bullshit in my mind about humans and salarians and fucking volus as it is. I don't like it… but after hearing that, I don't want to know either… and as long as you don't double-cross me, it's not my business. And I'm very happy you didn't tell the rest of the asari she's still alive."

Her gaze hardened. "I'll tell you now, though, once I'm done with the Reapers, if we survive… whatever it is you've done that would drive someone as skilled and talented as her batshit insane isn't going to end well."

Uressa nodded. "The crimes she speaks of are ancient and modern. It is a black stain that contaminates all of asari culture… and it is nothing we can speak of. As for Trellani, her tale… will be told, one day, in full truth. But her spite is… well placed."

She made a gesture of siari closure. "The tides move onwards. You claim you have information regarding the Reapers, Collectors, and the Broker?"

Shepard spent almost a full hour going over the materials – the scans of husks matching identically between Eden Prime and Horizon, the damning reality that Collectors were once Protheans, the data and money streams showing the Broker was aware of what colonies the Collectors would hit before they hit them. She went into detail about how Tela Vasir had told her the Broker's false data to have the old Normandy taken out by the Collectors, and the Broker's involvement with ardat-yakshi like Midnight's Kiss.

She covered the decrypted comms of Broker agents found by Liara and Telanya on Ilium, of the Broker Network bankrolling and funding breakaway enclaves of asari and then selling the locations to batarian slavers, or how Vigil's analysis of the Broker's so-called mass inferometers couldn't pick up visible activity to give any kind of update because the Reapers were in many galaxies further out than Andromeda but could jump back at any moment.

Finally, Shepard dropped the information Vigil had deciphered from Broker comms – that Nassana Dantius had been selling information to the STG, the Deathwatch, the AIS, Cerberus, and many other groups to destabilize Ilium, and that she'd fled with the Broker's people.

Laying out her last OSD with more proof of Broker connections, she leaned back. "The Broker very nearly killed everyone I love. That alone would be enough to make me want to kill him. He set up an entire warship to die just to get at me, which is worse. He's involved in slave trading, assassinations, brainwashing cults, organlegging, and who the fuck knows what else, which is more than enough for me to want to make him suffer before he dies."

Her jaw tightened. "But he's making money off the Collectors who killed an entire world, and if they're keeping an eye on us for the Reapers, it means there's more than just Nazara to worry about. If my vision from the Beacon is right, a lot more."

Shepard lifted her chin. "No one is doing jack shit all to prepare for it because the Broker is telling them there's nothing to worry about – but we need to start a massive buildup now. One Reaper wiped out an entire Citadel task force by itself. And if Vigil can create entire fleets from scratch and says he's not a match for a Reaper, what can we do if we face fifty Reapers, or five hundred, with our current forces?"

Uressa's beautiful features looked troubled, and she looked at one of her Godtalkers. "Your assessment, Sianth?"

The Godtalker's rough voice lanced into the room. "She believes in her data completely. And the visions we have… an endless rain of night-black leaves, against a backdrop of a cloud of billowing, red-lit darkness… fit. Her old master, Kyle, spoke at length with She-Who-Walks-In-Darkness, of Alliance discoveries of Dilanaga's expedition. Her star charts indicated seventeen galaxies with the leaf glyph and the Nazara glyph – and that was thousands of years ago. And despite what Kyle had us look into, I continue to question if the High Lords had him silenced due to his politics… or because they have been compromised."

She gestured to the data. "Unless the entire galaxy has taken leave of its senses, I question why no one else has seen what Harper and his people have. We have warned before of the possibility of Reaper indoctrination being greater than expected. This may be a sign of such."

The other Godtalker bowed her hooded head. "Divine Uressa, the Broker has been untrustworthy since the old one fell. He has gone from an amoral data broker with a sideline in assassination to being increasingly involved in crime and various corruptions of many governments. His utilization of Midnight's Kiss alone should illustrate how far he has fallen, and the data we have from the Discerning also fits Shepard's data."

The second Godtalker lifted her head, lips curling into a faint smile. "And increasingly the Sight shows us the same as the Wheel Priests, and the Palavanus, and the Loa Spirits. This is not coincidence. The danger is real. To turn aside due to the distaste one has for the messenger strikes me as unwise, Divine one."

Uressa turned back to Shepard. "What do you want from me? I have already pledged to declare you are who you claim to be. I am… constrained in how I act, in a fashion difficult to explain. But I will do what I can."

Shepard gave a short huff. "I need a free hand to deal with the Broker, and to be able to speak to both the Council and to the leaders of the various races. I need to get people moving on preparing for an invasion force – both with prepping ships and defenses as well as researching new technology. Ultimately, I need to stop whatever the Collectors are up to, which means operating in the Traverse and cooperating with that bitch Aria."

Uressa gave a faint, nostalgic smile. "Aria was not always so… lost in the darkness, Shepard. Few have your strength of will and spirit, to fight when not only all is lost but when you have been defiled and cast aside. She has made mistakes, but so have we all. And forgiveness is better than revenge, wrath, and violence."

Shepard sighed. "And she was over the asari who talked my dad into selling me to sex slavers. I keep hearing people make excuses for doing evil shit – 'survival,' or 'pragmatism,' or 'she wasn't always a murderous tramp,' or 'duty.' It's all excuses for being a selfish cruel fuck who believes you can only get your happiness and success by smashing it out of other people."

Uressa sighed, her smile fading. "And how has clinging to your hate and loss improved your spirit, and made you better?" Watching the expression on Shepard's face twist, her voice gentled. "I cannot argue that Aria has done many a vile thing. Some of it was for the same reason you stated, because her every attempt to find happiness the normal way was stolen from her. Her own mother had her lover and child put to death for the 'crime' of being clanless, her friends were murdered or driven off… and in the end, I can only blame myself for that."

The beautiful asari spread her hands. "Healing the scars that life cuts into our souls is only done by being better than we were yesterday, Shepard. Those who excuse their evil and glory in their vileness – yes, mercy to those is a wasted effort. For all the death you have brought unto those who faced you, you gave them a chance to surrender, and targeted the most vile and heartless. But Aria… is not such a simple tale."

Shepard shook her head. "Look, I get it. It's not like I'm any better, with my past. Hell, given the shit most of us have been through the past few years, I don't have much of a place to stand on calling others out. But Harper trotted out the same justification to me, and I didn't buy his version either. You have to try and change to make yourself better. Liara changed who I was and I'm glad of that, and I'm sure losing her kid and lover didn't make her any more stable than losing Liara did to me.

Shepard pushed away. "But at the end of the day, Aria did more than just 'survive,' she organized the criminals of the galaxy and is responsible for millions of deaths, slavery raids, drug overdoses, and worse. If her excuse is she had it hard, so did lots of others and we didn't take it to the scale she has." Shepard shook her head a second time. "Sorry, but I won't let fear, or pain, or loss define and twist who I am – and telling me to get over mine when she's not done the same isn't a good argument."

Uressa's expression fell slightly. "Perhaps you are right. It is… there is often so much darkness, hate, and loss in the galaxy and our poor species that I focus on pushing through it to the idea of redemption. To not focus on the negative. To do something for my part that improves things at the end of the day… instead of focusing on the losses."

Shepard gave a jerky shrug. "And you've done a lot of good for a lot of people. More than I have, that's for sure. If Aria shows me she's willing not to be a fucking sociopathic slavery and murder queen, then I'll keep an open mind – but until then, I'd rather suffer my hate and protect those that would be abused than let it go because of my own issues."

Uressa gave a solemn nod. "Then I hope you will keep in mind this conversation if you are ever given an unpalatable choice that mars your personal ethics, Sara Shepard. My whole existence is a collection of such tragedies." She made a sign of siari dismissal. "As for your requests… I will be happy to help you win over the Council. I have long been troubled and worried by the Reaper threat, and the… governments of the galaxy are still too enthralled by power games, shadow wars, and atrocities in the name of credits or honor – or worse, as my assistant said, possibly indoctrinated. In that, I agree with you."

She picked up another piece of fish. "We are like small children, playing with meaningless toys and unaware of the responsibility and duty of adult life. To us, playing in the warm ocean or the feel of moss-weed between your fingers is more important than 'adult things.' But we must all grow up sometime, and the innocence of childhood is not always a good thing." She sighed. "But no matter my words, I fear that many will simply see the black history of Cerberus, however, as a reason to distrust anything you say, for good or ill."

Silent up until now, the nervous figure of Mierin spoke. "D-Divine one… I'm just a clanless. But my mate once said something I think fits here… 'good isn't what you say, or what you do. It's why you keep going at it when everyone else gives up.' I know we probably come off as frightening. Cerberus has a bad history. But they saved our lives. And they fought on Ilium to help people. Most of us wear the Hexagon because… at least Cerberus is doing something. Doesn't that matter?"

Uressa's nod was gentle. "…You should not feel lesser or ashamed of your birth, or your lack of Clan. Life is always a gift. Your place in my estimation is always a matter of if you fight for the Light or merely take advantage of it." She made a gesture of siari. "And you are also correct. Those who oppose your task will do so out of selfishness, fear, or darker motives. I will not claim to have the right to pass judgment on any group, person, or act. I will only act as I feel I must, to focus on the greatest good."

Shepard nodded. "…Mordin Solus told me in a galaxy of shades of gray, all we can do is pick the brightest one and do what we can to make it brighter."

Uressa's smile faded. "…There is that. But too often we do so by draining the light from elsewhere, and then claiming all is well with the world. Your own words about Aria… remind me of that." She shook her head. "It does not matter in the end. All that matters is that good stood against darkness, and if that means others disapprove of me, then I will at least be in the good company of others outcast for trying to do the right thing."

Telanya gave a bitter smile at that, and Liara looked pained.

Shepard blew out a breath and stood. "In that case… I think we are all in agreement. In return for your help, we'll provide additional information regarding—"

Uressa held up a hand. "You have already brought closure to the issue of Trellani in the eyes of the Council of Matriarchs. It is not for me to finalize such negotiating. We will revisit this upon the Citadel, along with one other… sizable matter."

Shepard shrugged. "…Sure. What's that?"

Uressa gave her a strange smile. "Due to the… delicacy of the information Trellani held over our heads, the Asari Republic put a massive bounty on her head." Her eyes flicked to Liara. "Your cousin Suliasa forced the issue, you see, given that she said you were… ah yes. 'Destitute.' "

She turned back to Shepard. "The bounty is roughly two point four billion credits. Do you prefer to use the Systems Alliance Galactic Bank or Vol Prime for your financial services?"

The gentle amusement in her expression only heightened at Shepard's slack jawed expression. The leftmost Godtalker actually gave a snort. "Divine one, I think you broke her."

O-TWCD-O

Despite the furor and reactions of the populace at the idea that Sara Shepard had returned, it took several days for the reality of that to set in. The fall of Ilium, the horror of the aftermath and the resultant adjustment made in everyone's opinion of the asari came first.

Yet no one forgot her dramatic reveal, or the insane fury of the battle fought between her and Tetrimus, all of which was caught on high definition drone recordings. The vicious contest was so far beyond the power level, speed, and ability of normal people that much of the martial arts clashes and biotic combat between the two had to be slowed down.

And people wondered. As Ilium was evacuated and scientists began concocting ideas about how the geth could have jumped into the system, and as politicos and talking heads made empty noises regarding the 'asari situation,' the public and the media refocused on Shepard herself.

Or at least, those who believed her. Many did not. And the divide soured talk shows and personal interactions for days, with fallout all along the galaxy.

Some doubted. Aliens, more than humans, were skeptical.

On Tuchanka, Urdnot Wrex dealt with recalcitrant clan lords and lesser battle-masters, questioning his connection to a figure who had killed the Eldest. While the krogan in general approved of anything leading to Okeer's death, the fact that a mere human had done so in single combat infuriated some who felt humans were soft. The ugly fact that she'd actually fought him with a blade – even if it was a warp sword – was further insult, as Okeer had never been beaten in straight melee combat save thrice, and all three times he'd been without armor or his hammer God-Splitter.

That a human could take him when krogan could not was a wound to their already battered pride that left many krogan wondering if following Wrex and his insane idea of rebuilding krogan society was even worth it.

Wrex was left torn between cursing the fact that Okeer's death had struck a subtle but critical shatterpoint in krogan society, and secretly laughing at the idea of his friend literally beating Okeer to death, probably talking shit while she did it. He cursed the fact the drone footage had no audio so he could have heard the taunting.

The STG was castigated by the SIX for missing what Cerberus had been up to in the past two years. The STG Master had already argued the point: "Vigil had been able to obfuscate and confuse everyone, including the Broker and the League of Zero, for more than two years. To be able to penetrate the Butcher's identity with zero insight into the workings of Cerberus was an unrealistic expectation. Mordin Solus had not filed any reports using the drop system they'd set up for him, but doing so and being caught would effectively seal any hope of getting information from that route."

The idea of 'reviving the dead' was enough to make logical salarian science stand on its head, with the Reach Research Compound scrambling to determine exactly what had been done with Shepard and other people thought long-dead. Fragmentary scans and video from Ilium were analyzed while STG hackers and informants cast a net far and wide trying to bring back data… only to find there was nothing out there, and that more than once, promising leads evaporated with the image of a silvery sphere and a recording of mocking laughter.

Muvai Solus brooded darkly on the need to have to work with a group she knew had gotten several family members killed, but was equally chilled by Shepard's hint that she knew of her collaboration with Thessial. Dalatrass Di Dasso had wrenched nearly all control of the situation from Linron, her gentle voice backed up with the iron hard approval of the entirety of the STG – who all saw Cerberus as far more dangerous, competent, and lethal than any other intelligence group, especially with the trolling of Vigil thrown in. The salarians in general shrugged – Shepard hadn't really impacted them culturally, although the news of the disreputable Mordin Solus being involved created whispering scandals in the cant-sheets and the gaming halls of Sur'Kesh.

The turians took the news more prosaically, especially combined with the revelation that Garrus Vakarian was the much admired Archangel. Praetor Invectus Rathaxan summed it up best in a short response to a media interview: "That bitch was way too angry to stay dead." Most turians views on life and death made it a function of the spirits, and the fact that she had thrown down the most reviled outcast in turian history – and, of course, in such a melodramatic manner – made the average turian feel her return to life was something the spirits had assisted with. It also helped she'd kicked in the face of Okeer (who they disliked), took out pirates (who they hated), and terrorized the shit out of Omega (which they held in revulsion).

On the Migrant Fleet, stressed with the demands of colonizing two worlds, reaction was muted and distrustful. Already on edge due to the Admiralty negotiating with figures such as Aria – to say nothing of Golo'Mekk – most took the news with a cynical sense of amusement. Cerberus and its actions had never really impacted the Fleet itself, and most remembered Shepard as being the only figure of power who had actually gone after the geth. Even so, the dead were dead. Best they were left there. Some figured Shepard was like quarians who'd gone on the Last Walk, some kind of Redbox AI copy shoved into a cyborg body. Others, particularly Admiral Daro'Xen, were interested in reaching out to Cerberus for more technical details, an option that the Admiralty did not shut down.

In the wider galaxy, her acts against slavers set many pirates and those on the wrong side of the law on edge, while the shipping and trading indexes and insurance backers had a stock rally unseen in the past year, surging almost twenty percent in a single day of trading. Those who had been making money from the Council's inattention to piracy and clone-legging scrambled to quietly move their money elsewhere before they became like the investors in the Umlor Pirate Group, destitute and looking at possible criminal charges.

The other races had very little to do with Shepard and had equally minor reactions, but the reaction of humanity itself was multifaceted, and evolved as the days passed.

On the planet Dirth, a young girl – one who had seen the Shepard Memorial Flame flicker out, perhaps even at the moment of her death – watched with many other citizens once saved by Shepard as the planetary governor obliterated the plaque stating her death with obvious delight, and the flame was adjusted from the sullen, fallen blue to the fiery yellow-red it had burned at while she lived.

On Neo Berlin there were mass crowds chanting religious slogans and waving banners of Shepard, while Mindoir threw parties that lasted for several days. On Intai'sei the Mayor held a day-long celebration while Shepard Memorial Industries lawyers began looking at the legalities of what would happen if she returned to the Systems Alliance.

There were media interviews, and random videos full of memes, conspiracy theories, and outlandish ideas. There were just as many messy and rant-laden vids loaded to the extranet calling her fake and a plot by any one of a number of groups to do something nefarious.

A few digital sleuths connected the dots between missing experts in cybernetic theory and genetics and wondered openly if Cerberus really had brought her back from death, while the government itself was oddly silent.

After the initial outburst of joy and memes, more serious figures began asking questions.

How had she really come back from the dead, or was this another, crueler hoax?

If this really was Shepard, what did this mean to the idea of her Sainthood?

Why was she associated with Cerberus and where did they come from?

Many doubted. Many did not. Ultimately, it all came down to how she was received by the Citadel.

The minimal contacts Shepard had with the various leaders of the species had been kept very quiet. But the departure of the asari fleet flagship, with Uressa T'Shora, the High Solarch, a large number of asari paladins and several justicars to meet with Shepard directly hit the newscasts like an avalanche.

The news that she was definitely coming to the Citadel, to have her identity verified and to meet with the Council, and that Uressa herself had vouched for her and was coming in support of her, was a thunderbolt. The additional inclusion of some low-resolution scans from her meeting – while very limited and unable to resolve much – also indicated the DNA was definitely Shepard, and not some cloned creature.

Uressa T'Shora was one of, if not the most, beloved figures in the galaxy. Her compassion and grace were only matched by her centuries of being nothing but fully honest, open, and direct. For Uressa to have met with Shepard and believe in her erased the doubts and worries of tens of billions of sapients… and made the governments of more than one race groan in confused misery.

O-TWCD-O

DOWNLOADING: Data feed, prime broadcast segment 492, terminal date 05.27.2185

Manifest dump 99134-core alpha, unclassified

This is an official Systems Alliance data capture dump, replication or rebroadcast is restricted.

Transcript begins, identifiers J: al-Jilani / N: Z.S.G. Nash, IP / C: Cieran Kean, JS / S: Siphor Cran, ROA / F: Joanna Falbrisi, BSNM

Keywords: Butcher, Shepard, Alliance, Ilium, asari

BEGIN:

"Westerlund news! All the news, fit or unfit to print, 24/7!"

J: "Good afternoon. I'm Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani, Westerlund News Network. Ilium is still in a state of chaos, but evacuation is proceeding in an increasingly efficient fashion, and the use of Alliance mechs in building triage centers on the world as well as temporary landing pads has won the Systems Alliance many exclamations of gratitude. By all reports, evacuation should be completed in five more days – a sad end to the once glittering world whose slogan was: 'Anything is Possible on Ilium.' "

J: "However, the fallout from Ilium raises many disturbing questions. Many were shocked at the brutality of the asari Republican Guard and the justicars, and the surprise attack of the geth using technology unseen before is equally frightening as the realization that they can jump longer distances than our own methods can by using relays. But all of this pales before the most shocking revelation, which is no doubt why you've tuned in."

J: "With recent events on Ilium culminating in the revelation of Sara Shepard possibly being alive, the High Lords have decided to meet with her on the Citadel, along with the Citadel Council. This was made into a formal statement this morning, since quite a few people claimed such a meeting was just rumor. As it seems to give the person calling herself Shepard some level of credence, many here in Sol and in the rest of the Systems Alliance have differing takes on this sudden miraculous appearance."

J: "Adding to this confusion, this morning it was announced that the Asari Republic recognized Sara Shepard and was sending Matriarch Uressa T'Shora, the Savior of Sol, as well as high figures from the asari Temple of Athame and the Justicar Order to discuss Shepard's plans, arrival on the Citadel, and the aftermath of Ilium. This was shortly followed by a second announcement – that Uressa herself has said Shepard is who she claims to be, and will actually accompany her to the Citadel."

J: "The pair of asari announcements, especially the latter, was completely unexpected – most figures in high office have so far deferred comment, preferring to wait and see the results of bioscans when – or if – Shepard arrives on the Citadel. The High Lords have not given a response to this announcement as of yet, but the impact it has had on the political arena is clear. If the asari recognize her, then the rest of the galaxy will have to fall in line."

J: "I'm sure the point is not visible to most of our viewers, but Uressa T'Shora's open acceptance of Shepard's claims is surrounded with rumors. The most commonly repeated rumor is that Shepard has either decided to hand over – or has already killed – the highly wanted asari terrorist Matriarch Trellani. Well-known for her brutal destruction of a small moon hosting an asari colony of innocent priestesses and researchers and hundreds of bombings and other attacks, Trellani had long been associated with Cerberus in rumors. If Shepard is handing over Trellani, or her corpse, it raises more questions as to who exactly is in charge of this new Cerberus."

J: "In addition to this, no one has seriously discussed what exactly it means if this really is Shepard. Legal experts, bioethics professors, priests of the Neo Catholic Church, and political figures alike seem to be dodging that very important question – and how the SA should respond. The current coalition government forming the SA Cabinet will be the primary deciders of how the Alliance will respond, but until now, had withheld comment."

J: "Ladies and gentlemen, that silence has ended. To discuss all of this in more detail, we have a wide selection of representatives from the four parties currently forming our coalition government. We're going to break the situation down and – hopefully – get some hard answers to the questions on everyone's mind."

J: "First up, representing the Information party, we have the Lower Senator from America, Doctor Z.S.G. Nash, author of 'Wrestling with the Future' and advisor to three presidents. Doctor Nash is an acclaimed cyberneticist and bioethics researcher, and holds the Musk Chair of Integrated Cyberethics at Harvard."

N: "Glad to be here."

J: "From the widely popular Blue Stars No More movement, we have Joanna Falbrisi, host of 'Spotlight on the SA' and former Solguard information warfare operator. Once Captain Falbrisi of the Texas Rangers Division, she actually served briefly with Shepard during the aftermath of the Battle of Horizon."

F: {inclines head} "Glad to be here as well, Ms. al-Jilani."

J: "From the Rights of All Party, Sir Siphor Cran, DMKoA, SAMC, retired. Sir Cran is a frequent guest on Westerlund News and a noted commentator on the rights and contributions of non-human citizens in the SA, and a retired general of the Alliance Marine Corps."

S: "A pleasure as always, Khalisah."

J: "Lastly, we have a representative from the new Liberated Stars party, the newly elected High Senator from France, Monsieur Cieran Kean, who is also CIO of the rapidly growing BenCore Enterprises."

C: {wry grin} "I love being on trideo. Thank you for having me."

J: "Welcome, all of you. Before we begin, a few things I'd like to bring up: the presidential election and the most recent election cycle. In less than two months, the open elections begin, and by all reports the clear leader in the race is Richard Manswell. Some have raised questions about his murky background, while others have pointed out no Manswell has run for senior office in over a century. His opponent, James McBothan of Arcturus, has been criticized for his warlike plans and steadfast goal of exterminating the geth, while Manswell has suggested a pullback of Alliance forces for refit and recuperation."

J: "Given that the most recent election for the Senate has the dubious distinction of muddling the already conflicting power blocs with four parties that have almost nothing in common, how well will the government be able to work with President Manswell or President McBothan?"

N: "Very carefully, I'd suspect, in regards to Manswell."

{guests laugh}

N: "More seriously, though, it isn't that big of an issue. The platform of Manswell is one all of our parties agree with. Throwing more money at an ever growing fleet, billions on R&D of new weapons when we are mostly at peace and the geth are broken and spent, and disturbing reports of financial misconduct in the AIS have led us all to agree it's time to stand down. McBothan would be ineffectual as nothing he passed would even clear the House of Congress, much less the Senate of Lords – not to mention McBothan's a colonial candidate, and his appeal in Sol is very low."

J: "So the government would work with Manswell?"

F: "The Manswells have always led humanity by influence and by demonstration, and I'm sure Richard won't be any different. He has a very good point that the antics of the former President Windsor were out of place, and that the presidential tasks are to focus on Sol and then the colonies, not traipsing around doing diplomacy or setting up off-the-books chains of command."

F: "McBothan is a caveman savage unfit to be elected dog catcher, who wants to get more of our brave service-people killed in the name of 'revenge against the geth,' whose rampant currency speculations have already cost the taxpayer billions of credits, and who has insulted all of Sol by implying the SA Government should cater to the twelve percent living outside of Sol more than the eighty-eight percent inside Sol."

J: "Yet some Solians are projected to vote for him, particularly the lower classes and the poor."

C: "Sheep without a shepherd – pardon the terrible pun – will often go astray, Ms. al-Jilani. That's no reason to indulge their literally mindless urges, much less attribute anything intellectual to them."

J: "The current arrangement of parties is… curious. Blue Stars No More and Rights of All were not in any kind of common cause for long years, and the traditionalist AB-EF-TF bloc's collapse in the wake of the Windsor scandal has been longer lived than anyone expected. Any thoughts on that?"

C: "Well, I'll be blunt and say the reason these parties are in power is that they represent more fully the wishes of the electorate than the tired patriotism of Alliance Blue or the frankly repulsive isolationism, veiled racism, and rich-people-in-Sol-only view of Earth First and Terra Firma."

F: "People are tired of hearing the same old promises that get trotted out then ignored over and over again, while our brave men and women in uniform die pointlessly in stupid battles. BSNM appreciates that the Information Party, the Rights of All, and Liberated Stars all agree our militarism – and the military budget, given the cost of 6th Fleet – is completely out of control when we have rampant homelessness and crime in our cities and our colonies struggle with economic depression."

N: "There's a lot of reasons we work together, but ultimately the 'old bloc' that was so powerful under former President Windsor fell apart after his disgrace – and they don't offer much more than, as Senator Kean put it, tired old failed policies. We think we can do a good job and we don't have big name egos like Lords of Sol or mega-corporate billionaires to get in the way of working to improve the lives of all of our citizens and secure our way of life."

J: "Interesting viewpoints. We'll see how the election turns out – initial polling puts Manswell at sixty-one percent of the vote, a comfortable lead. Thank you all again for coming, and with that, the main topic: Sara Shepard."

C: {grimaces}

J: "Let's start with the basics – a lot of people are unsure of what to think about Shepard's sudden appearance, and why we are not protesting this likely imposter for what it is. Some are saying it isn't important – others are calling for her immediate arrest. The legalities are a mess not made any simpler by the fact that no one really writes law for people coming back from the dead, as we saw with President Huerta."

J: "Some might wonder why it is such a 'big deal' – but there has never been a situation like this. There are many troubling aspects – not just 'is this really Shepard,' but the issue with the other people believed to be dead, such as Garrus Vakarian and Liara T'Soni-Shepard. There's the issue with Sara Shepard's sainthood by the Neo-Catholic Church. There's also concern about what top secret information Shepard may have given to Cerberus, as well as other factors. The Senate has been very quiet on this issue, so what is the position of the parties making up the current coalition government? Doctor Nash, your view?"

N: "Ms. al-Jilani, first of all we don't know if this person is an impostor or the real thing yet, so guessing is pointless. I know there's been some kind of preliminary scan by Matriarch T'Shora, but that was mobile equipment and could have easily been faked. Relying on such limited scans won't do much to convince anyone. We can't know if she's the real thing until we've had a chance to perform in-depth bioscans and anti-biodeepfake scans in-person. The things you can achieve with morphic nanites and DNA recombination in what we call 'identity deepfakes' nowadays are astonishing, and only the deepest and most intensive scans will show that up."

N: "What we do know is what the person calling themselves Shepard has done – helped fight off Collectors at Horizon, put an end to one of the most disgusting smuggling and slaving rings in the galaxy, and intervened in the chaos at Ilium. Those actions sound very much like what her personal history would suggest she'd do."

J: "So the Information Party believes her claims?"

N: "The Information Party believes in science, and logic, the use of deduction and Occam's Razor. We can't be sure of anything without testing and empirical experiment. The simplest solution is that we scan and find out. The initial scans say it is her, but we need higher resolution ones to be one hundred percent sure. Until that point we are only able to surmise based on actions, and no one yet has suggested her actions are bad."

J: "Quite a few asari take a more hostile view, given her murder of renowned krogan scientist and doctor Ganar Okeer. Ms. Falbrisi, I take it that Blue Stars No More has a less approving view of the situation?"

F: "Yes. We were never supporters of the Butcher of Torfan while she was alive, but at least she was braver than most of the parasitical military elites getting our servicemen and servicewomen killed, and led from the front. That this thing has the audacity to parade around using her face and name is an insult to our intelligence, and her bloody handed campaign – and those of her associates – should tip you off to who this really is. Her supporters, such as the Sisters of Vengeance, are flat-out terrorists, as was Cerberus. Umlor had a population of over half a million people, the majority of which were not directly involved in slave trading. She's a murderer and an impostor, and BSNM recommends her immediate arrest and chemical interrogation."

J: "Strong stuff. Doctor Nash, you support her, while BSNM does not. Has the Rights of All Party taken a stance yet, Sir Cran?"

S: "At the moment, no, Khalisah. We are assessing the situation just like everyone else. I will say that once she was made a Class V citizen, she indicated her voting choice would be our party, so I am… disinclined to directly attack this person and hopeful it really is her. The inclusion of limited genetic and biosignature scans released by Uressa T'Shora seems to match up well within the 0.002% margin of error we use for Spectre verifications, so I suspect it is her."

S: "Regardless, the suggestion that she's a murderer is just melodramatic nonsense – let's be real. No one gives a crap about who died on Umlor, they were making money off of slavery and suffering. Okeer killed billions of krogan with his Genophage and has a reputation of sick experiments on live subjects and shady underworld connections."

S: {adjusts his tie}

S: "Ultimately, the Systems Alliance cannot afford to alienate someone who was of such importance in saving the galaxy from the insane plans of Benezia and Saren, not to mention the savior of Neo Berlin, Dirth, and Horizon, twice. And Ilium itself would have become a charnel house if Cerberus had not intervened, at heavy cost to themselves. So I'm inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, although as Doctor Nash said, waiting for proof is also a good idea."

J: "And Senator Kean? The view of Liberated Stars?"

C: "We have no view one way or the other, right now. To imply the dead can return to life is not such an outlandish notion for our members, the issue is the person doing so claims it was done via technology and not the methods of the stars. I'm sure most don't think our beliefs are realistic, and that's fine. But even if you leave out our beliefs, I believe that this probably is Sara Shepard, based on what she's done, but that's a personal opinion. My larger concern is that I suspect if that is Shepard, she is heavily compromised."

J: "Compromised how?"

C: "Life has an energy and a tempo of its own. This is not mystical claptrap – cybernetic replacements of core systems have peer-reviewed histories and percentages of all kinds of cancers and body malfunctions. Grayboxes cause Alzheimer's, most bionetic augmentation leads to nerve system collapse, and so on. You cannot contaminate and corrupt the spirit without paying a price, and any technology insidious and invasive enough to animate the dead must be contaminated indeed."

N: "Please, there are millions of SA citizens who have heavy levels of cybernetic augmentation—"

C: {interrupting} "I strongly doubt they just had to pop in some silver here and there to get her from frozen corpse to a living person who is walking around, Doctor Nash. Let's be honest – people online are saying it is her based on how she talks and acts. Fine. Let's say it is her – how has being brought back from the dead and slotted into a cyborg body changed someone with her past? That is what no one is making a statement about."

J: "To be fair, the SA government itself has given no real statements on any of the facts of the, ah, issue. Vice President Richard Manswell expressed his disapproval and skepticism, and President Huerta has stated legally she remains dead until the courts can review the case, but for the most part the government hasn't done or said anything firm, why?"

N: "Two reasons. Well, three, but the most obvious one is that people are waiting for the scans to be done at the Citadel. Uressa's recognition is pretty big… but it won't convince everyone. But the main two reasons are simple – one, as you can see, the political parties have differing views on the situation as a whole, and waiting for others to move first is simple prudence. Two, and more importantly, the High Lords have instructed the Senate, via Red Note, to let them handle the situation, as Shepard was a Lord of Sol prior to her death and Liara T'Soni was her wife."

C: "Also, keep in mind our ambassador to the Citadel is James Kyle, who is of a Family known to be partial to Shepard. Our Citadel Counselor, Donnel Udina, owes his position to Shepard, and his military advisor, Commodore David Anderson, was literally like an adoptive father to Shepard. If she is a fake, she won't make it past the scrutiny of those close to her."

N: "Another reason to believe it is her, only a fool would agree to a direct-contact bioscan if they weren't exactly who they claimed to be. And Uressa surely would not be easily fooled."

J: "And if it is her? Doesn't that have religious, moral, and legal challenges we need to face?"

F: "Challenges? Blasphemy more like it. How we respond depends on what she plans. If she's going to be running around in alien space and not endangering our people we don't care who she claims to be or what her goals are. But the Systems Alliance does not need to drag itself through the mud to give this… preposterous criminal impostor an iota of recognition not involving Commissariat interrogation."

F: "I agree with Senator Kean that whatever has allowed this mockery of Shepard to live again is probably some unholy combination of cybernetics and alien experimentation, and that it isn't even human any longer."

S: "Spare me. Look, I'll be as blunt as Ms. Falbrisi. One, hand her to the Commissars and we'll have a bunch of dead Commissars, or worse, they'll end up joining her. Second, the vast majority of humanity is delighted to see Sara Shepard is alive. If it is her – and we'll know in just a couple of days – then the question we need to be asking is why is she allied with Cerberus, and not returning to the Systems Alliance? Our focus needs to be on that, as while Cerberus hasn't done anything terrible so far, I distrust them by their past acts."

J: "Some have openly supported Cerberus in the acts it took. I note now that the group seems heavily, ah, composed of many aliens. Doesn't that change things?"

S: "No, not really. Gaslighting and whitewashing are tactics I'm sure Cerberus is very familiar with, and it strikes me as… intriguing… that everything Cerberus does now paints them in a heroic light. It feels staged, honestly."

N: {arches eyebrow incredulously}

N: "And just how, pray tell, does one stage massive attacks like the ones on Horizon and Ilium, which had fantastical elements such as Collectors destroying a star and the geth superheavy impactor? You are implying that this is some kind of… inane conspiracy?"

S: "No, I'm saying Cerberus probably knows more than it is letting on and it is using these incidents to paint itself in a better light. And that's dangerous. I want to believe this is Shepard, and that things will get better, but I also have to keep in mind we're dealing with a very manipulative group that once thought working with Saren and Benezia was a good idea. Like I said, I want to be hopeful, but we also need to be cautious."

J: "We now have a commercial break, but when we return – discussion on the ethical aspects of this controversial reappearance, and the message from the Pope."

O-TWCD-O

"Do not bother adjusting your haptics, fellow sapients, the signal is in the sign! It's time, time for truth. The P's Truth!"

The turian that appeared on countless haptic entertainment screens across the galaxy was a bizarre juxtaposition of nonsense and terror. He wore a mask over his features, one usually worn in the festival of mourning for the Burning of Palaven, the planes of the mask ash-gray set off by red lines. He wore a formal suit, triple ribbon-lapels and metal-weave cuffs against vantablack cloth with the faintest shimmer to it.

He sat comfortably in some sort of recording studio, with an appalling splash of blue blood against the visible far wall and smoke wafting in from the left. A massive handgun, the cavernous maw still emitting smoke, was tossed almost carelessly atop the desk the turian sat at, and two turian forms in the background were very still and motionless.

"We've had a bit of a production crunch, recently… as crunchy things go, not very tasty. The forces of the aSLUTari and the vivisection frogs are as vigilant as ever, if clumsy, and the less said about the shining bastions of clueless incompetence and chute-tucking that is the so-called Blackwatch, the better. But something has been picking off our little snoopers in the dark, and that something is why we're having this chat today.

"You see, Ban – can I call you Ban? I always wanted a friend called 'Ban,' so I could make claw-less jokes about being banned – the galaxy has been operating in a status quo, or status woe, for centuries. It's dreadfully boring and stupid besides, but all the Biggest of BigBigs have their claws in all kinds of pies and they need stultifying, enervating peace and quiet to make money off the backs of you, the little people. And now, the BigBigs include humans and quarians, so there's even less little people to make money off of!

"Suddenly, though, Peace has gone missing, and somebody shot that bitch Quiet in the head and did dirty things to her body. Stars blown to shit! Whole systems missing. Entire planets bug-napped! Now Ilium, the Jewel of Filth, the Palace of Pretension, has been… how do humans put it? Completely fucking rekt.

"What is the common theme with all these goings on and blowings up? Geth? Collectors? Ice cream? No, no, no, felly jellies and jellettes. The Butcher. The spooky-ookey herself, long thought to be an asari Thirty gone crazy.

"Let me tell you, I've fucked enough crazy asari to know that bitch wasn't asari. I've banged Jona Sederis three times and she only set me on fire once. Even Jona isn't that kind of ca-razy. Asari crazy is a biotic dildo up the chute or a fucking pool of chocolate-covered maidens. This crazy was the kind of crazy you only see in pissed-off krogan once you bake their kids into fruit pies.

"So we – my boss, the Big Man, the Pinnacle of Princely Prudence, the Primarch of Perfectly Planned Puns, the Pentastar of Perplexity in Platitudinous Praise… the man himself, P. and I – did some researching. We dug up all kinds of things – mad science, missing genetics gurus, billions stolen from banks, entire cyber-labs robbed, an upswing in pudding production. The last turned out to be a very tasty lead, but not on the Butcher.

"Lo and behold, what do we find upon Ilium but our lovely Butcher unmasked. And it turns out to be… lolwut? Shepard? Fucking seriously?"

The figure leaned back. "Folks, I have seen some tark-shit. I've seen an elcor devour his own asshole. I saw a salarian get sucked into a hyper-velocity fan. I've seen a vorcha eat another vorcha and then crack jokes about digestion, and then the eaten vorcha clawed its way out of the first one's stomach. I've seen a Vabo fuck a vakar, walk that shit off, snort a fucking half-kilo of red sand, cocaine, and dirthis, and say she was ready to go again. I've seen a volus kick a turian in the groin so hard his dick broke, and I've seen – with my own eyes – Uressa T'Shora's tits.

"But I have never, ever seen a bitch so fucking dead we had to cut her frozen-the-fuck-ass-body out of the wreckage of her own ship with plasma torches – and then seen her walking around looking finer than hell a couple years later. Because we – that is, the Crew of P., the Daughters, the Granddaughters, the Great-Grands, and the fifty-year-olds who are only old enough for blowjobs – we were the ones who found the Great and Mighty Shepard.

"Smushed like a pancake. Teeth all over the floor. Blood splooshed everywhere. Is 'splooshed' a word? What about 'spanged'? 'Flappled'? Whatever. Pitiful sight, can't fap to that, folks."

The image of the turian was blocked, a gory shot of the interior of the Normandy's destroyed cockpit flashing across the screen, the shattered and pitiable corpse in the pilot's seat displayed in a rictus of agony. After a long second, the image of the masked turian returned.

"Now you're telling me this woman – who died hard as fuck, by the way, points for that – this fine ass lentha of a woman, who we loaded into a stasis tube deader than the Primarch's sex life, got the fuck up.

"Walked that shit off.

"Missing hearts ain't no shit to stop her, as the song goes?

"I'd meme some more, but I'm all out of extra lives."

The mask seemed to shift into an ironic expression somehow, the clicking of mandibles beneath it clearly amused. "When we were most cruelly betrayed by that fucking ass Tetrimus – also, ta ta, rest in piss, fucker, you got owned like quarian slave girls in a batarian bazaar – Shepard was, sadly, very dead.

"Dead people do not usually stop suffering from, well, deadness. Usually. I mean, you could stick a head of vanorah leaves in the seat of Subprimarch Andaris and you couldn't really tell the difference, so I have no idea if that's a corpse or if he's just boring as fuck. NOT THE POINT. She was dead.

"Now, we're told she isn't. And she goes from doing mildly impressive shit like not dying instantly while fighting Benezia and managing to bleed on Saren until he choked on his own laughter… to doing ACTS OF RAGING BADASSITUDE?"

He shot to his feet, arms spread wide. "She SOLOED fucking Ganar Okeer? A krogan who once knocked a hole in a vakar-be-damned STARSHIP HULL with his hammer?

"She took down the Umlor Pirates. As a joke? The Umlor have been operating since BEFORE the fucking First Krogan Rebellion. Got wiped out over a few weeks.

"Now we see her going head-to-head with Tetrimus and just walking off being hit with a damned aircar AND blowing up a reactor behind her… and she didn't even have the sirefucking decency to watch her own explosion! Humans."

He sat down, shaking his head.

"The point is, are you actually believing this pile of tark-shit? Oh, I hope you aren't, gentle beings. Because she's festooned with the happy-happy joy-joy symbol everyone knows and loves. Cerberus.

"Cerberus, who I may remind you, butchered seventeen thousand, five hundred and eleven turians, asari, salarians, krogan, drell, volus, and even a fucking YAGH. And six hanar, two lifeforms we've never seen, and NINE THOUSAND of their own people.

"Cerberus, who I may remind you, was found developing medi-gel that would kill you, who sabotaged a fucking salarian hatchery, who blew up an entire moon of asari minding their own business, who poisoned and assassinated hundreds of humans who opposed them, and who have the tasteless and gauche audacity to use the same white and gold as the Palavanus?

"Bitch, please. Like I'mma believe anything Cerberus says. What next, you tell me the goddamned League of Zero, which we all know does not exist, is really a misunderstood elevator VI? That the asari Nightwind, which are clearly an urban legend, are just lonely spinster asari good girls looking for love in all the wrong places?

"Focus on the so-called facts, gentle sapients. Cerberus has found a way to clone the dead and copy memories. The alternative – that they can bring people back from the dead – would be a lot more plausible if the body had been even half-ass intact… although, come to think of it, she did have her entire ass. Hmm. Points to ponder.

"…Digression. Point is, The P's Truth is betting 'Sara Shepard' won't ever show at the Citadel, due to some convenient last minute 'reasons.' Because she's a fake.

"Oh, but I hear the fucking silver spirits bitch-moaning already. 'But, Rolan, you handsome sex beast, what if it is her? What if she shows up, and the scans all pass, and Cerberus CAN bring back the dead?' "

The turian leaned forward. "Folks. You'd best pray to every god, goddess, spirit, loa, ancestor, and dildo you used on that one chick with the crazy eyes. Pray that this is a hoax, that it is bullshit, that it is fake as the Consort's tits. Because if it isn't, then every non-human in the galaxy is now immediately, irrevocably, indisputably, incredibly, increasingly, impossibly, INSANELY FUCKED.

"If they can bring back someone as dead as Shepard, the fuck do we do if they bring back Tyriun no Kage? Victor Manswell? Michael Saracino? Every dead human brought back. Making death a joke? How do you beat a race that cannot die?"

He leaned back, picking up the pistol. "I, for one, have no interest in living in a universe where I can't even kill someone for fucking up my morning seraa pastry and fish toast. If it isn't a joke, we need a lot of answers about this technology, Cerberus intentions, and just how the fuck we deal with the issue of… what is death, and what lies beyond its shadowy doors?

"The fact that the High Slut, Uressa, vouches for her is meaningless. I can say that salarians go well with a nice krarash salad and some tiava sauce, but unless you dine on our little green friends regularly that's, like, just your opinion man. Same thing applies here. Uressa is a lying monster, and if you knew what she really was you'd distrust this so-called Shepard all the more for winning that tramp's trust.

"Now, I hear the thasvar on the way, the blind stupid morons, so we have to cut this short. KEYWORD: DEATHLULZ. Stay insane, lovers. This is Rolan the Ridiculous, and this has been the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… so help me P."

The turian stood up and walked away. Several gunshots echoed loudly before the signal faded.

O-TWCD-O

"Leaving aside the fact we've lost three Master Agents in as many months, do we have any additional useful information at this juncture? Or is this going to be yet another session where we ask why we spend millions on a group that can't even discover that our enemies have achieved surprises on us? The dead coming back to life? Entire datastores missing? Spectres turning up dead? Nassana Dantius making fools of all of us?"

Linron's acerbic voice rang through the room, and then she tilted her head. "Well? And don't tell me 'Vigil,' either. That's an excuse, not an answer."

The STG Master's rigid posture and utter stillness somehow managed to convey both a sense of fatigue and disapproval. Standing in the secure meeting room of the SIX, it glanced at the dalatrasses for a long second before speaking.

"We have several data points my agents are in the process of interpreting now. Much of this data is still being examined more closely, and as usual, there are caveats as far as accuracy and interpretation goes. In short, based on fragmentary data feeds we did obtain from Ilium and Vol Prime, it is clear there are high-level operations being conducted that not only are we not aware of, but indications that certain parties are in possession of information we do not have, making any investigations on our part difficult."

The Master straightened a bit. "We have reached three conclusions."

The slender figure began to pace in front of the ngaggi wood table, its digitized voice utterly neutral and soft. "Cerberus had suffered heavy ship losses at Horizon but were able to field an even larger fleet, with more powerful ships, at Ilium a short time later. Based on the size of the ships, a very large shipyard employing at least several hundred shipfitters and engineering staff would be needed, as well as shipments of chromium, titanium, omni-gel, and other required materials. However, all we have been able to trace are shipments of eezo – run through independent merchants, dropped off in deep space pickups and never to any facility."

It folded its hands behind its back. "Our conclusion to data point one is simple: however Cerberus is obtaining its ships, they are either being assembled, supplied, and staffed entirely from the Traverse, or they are not being assembled conventionally at all. Our highest probability is that the Inusannon AI is somehow utilizing picotechnology to assemble the ships."

Muvai Solus scowled deeply, her eyes narrowed. "Horrific possibility. Percentage of surety?"

The STG Master spread its hands. "Given the Traverse lacks many key ingredients of modern shipbuilding, very high, over ninety percent. One thing is notable – the ships were not affected by asari dazzle-bright jamming designed to overload optronics systems. This implies that these ships are not using optronics at all."

High Dalatrass Linron leaned back. "…While that is concerning, my immediate thought is that if Cerberus can supply us with this technology our vulnerability to the asari control of optronics lessens." She turned to look at the end of the table. "Is that what your visions saw, Vani?"

The simply robed figure in white at the far end of the table inclined his head. "I saw the hand of Cerberus grasp a shining chain of light and break it, and hand the pieces to us and to other aliens. It is often difficult to make sense of what the Wheel shows us without context. I would suggest, however, that it does fit what I saw in a sense, if you look at optronics as chains instead of merely technology."

Linron grunted and leaned forward again. "What else, STG Master?"

The figure in the slender black bodysuit inclined its head. "Data point two: the teams on Ilium itself reported encountering Broker resistance before we even reached the primary site, and Tazzik destroyed the rest of the team, including the Shieldbreaker. The secondary team, however, was successful. We found sixteen ceramic tokens, dating back some eight thousand years, all of which conform to the writings of Matriarch Dilinaga. Primary Archeology and Aythaology translated them. They are sets of instructions to various groups of her disciples and political allies in the Asari Republic, advising them all to prepare for tribulation and to send support to Ilium rapidly."

The room was silent for long seconds, then Dalatrass Yian Ergii spoke, her whispery voice coolly amused. "She does not appear to have been successful in that endeavor."

The STG Master nodded a second time. "Indeed. There were signs here – and at the other site location given to us by Dantius – of heavy fighting, including directed particle beam emissions similar to Collector weapons seen at Horizon. It is likely she died here – we have no information to determine on either account. What matters to me is that Dantius sold this information to multiple parties."

Dalatrass Chara Yaan tapped her fingers on the expensive table lightly. "We've heard murmurs of Nassana's ill-advised attempts at branching out from Ilium. No sooner than those had taken root did the Sisters of Vengeance send Ilium into chaos. But I fear I am missing the point. She sold it to many parties, to what end?"

The STG Master's expressionless mask turned to face her. "We are uncertain. What raises a flag on this issue is that immediately after Ilium, both Broker and Cerberus forces began deployment of teams to search old asari colonial sites. This implies there is something they are looking for tied to this. Our conclusion is that there is something involving Dilinaga and old asari colony sites interesting to both Cerberus and the Broker, and it may be tied to the Collectors. None of our information prior to this point has indicated such. Our only solution is to attempt to obtain the data Dantius sold for analysis… an approach that has thus far not succeeded."

Linron shook her head. "While certainly disturbing – and yet another reason to not trust the asari – I don't see how this and the Cerberus fleet are connected, but your third issue or point?"

The Master tapped its omni-tool. "The last data point is the ongoing situation on Vol Prime. What should have been a low-priority snatch and grab of a minor Cerberus official's daughter turned into a grand battle involving Rasa and more than a dozen Lost Boys, the Deathwatch, Hades, and Inalia T'Rome. There were radiological blasts, hull breaches, and confusing energy readings."

The Master turned to the haptic screen, now showing the image of a young human female with white-blond hair and an arrogant cast to her features. "This is Tiffany Minsta, only daughter of Galen Minsta, and the fifth-heir of Marquis Jaron Minsta. Purportedly on Vol Prime for vacationing with another noble, she was actually gathering information on the volus for Cerberus. She was at the center of this entire mess, and then for reasons unknown, vanished along with Rasa and at least one Lost Boy.

"Ultimately, whatever she was there for, it was important enough for Rasa and many of her Lost Boys to fight Inalia T'Rome. The battle went poorly for everyone involved – T'Rome is now in a medical coma from some poison or toxin from Rasa, while all reports indicate Rasa left in a stasis chamber and was most likely dying. All teams from all parties on the station had near-complete or complete casualties. The problem is that there is nothing on Vol Prime worth that level of combat. Something big happened, and we are completely in the dark on it."

The STG Master turned to face the room. "These are connected facets of the same longer-term issue, Dalatrasses. Cerberus has a goal they are working towards, and we do not have a firm concept of what it is, but Shepard's recent communication implies it is no longer the buttressing and support of the Systems Alliance or the Lords of Sol. They were prepared at Horizon, they were – based on the footage we saw of Cerberus's infantry trashing an entire echelon after dispatching a war priestess as if she was a vorcha – prepared at Ilium, and it seems they were prepared at Vol Prime."

The STG Master folded its thin arms. "They will be prepared at the Citadel. And we are not, instead left to fumble in the dark to try to ascertain what we have missed."

Linron rubbed her horns through the fabric of her cowl. "Is there a summary to this, STG Master, that you are trying to make? Perhaps a recommendation of action?"

The Master shrugged. "I would suggest offering support to Cerberus, and instructing Valern to do so with emphasis."

Muvai's sour expression hardened further. "Already agreed to cooperation. Do not see need for further association with murderers."

The STG Master's voice hardened in response. "No, we agreed to tolerance. I think we need a more coherently positive relationship. Cerberus is in possession of technologies we cannot reproduce, intelligence we have had no chance to review, and if the issue on Vol Prime came about due to their investigations, possible blackmail to use against the volus, or against us. They knew details about the Alteration Framework and the bio-terminator virus vault. I cannot recommend taking a hostile tone towards them."

The Wheel Priest gave a short nod. "Cerberus is not what it once was. All things turn with the Wheel, and at times, the track becomes unrecognizable. To suggest a figure like Harper has had a regeneration of faith is naïveté, but Shepard at least was always a defender of the weak and helpless. If we deal openly and fairly with Shepard, she may reciprocate, or she may not. But if we deal with her in a hostile fashion, I am sure she will do the same. And as the good Master has just illustrated, there is a lot going on we don't know about. Prudence over pride and certainty over supposition."

Linron stared hard at the Master for several seconds before turning to one of the other dalatrasses. "Chara, you have the most outside contacts and are the most comfortable in dealing with aliens. How will it be interpreted if you are sent to deal with Shepard directly? Will anyone see it amiss?"

The aging dalatrass leaned back in her own seat, tracing her fingers across her face. "It is not an easy thing to explain. Though our disdain for Cerberus's actions dates back before the disgraceful horror that was Remembrance, their monetary support of that group was cleverly hidden from public view. No one will be surprised if we go in as if we are seeking more information."

She paused. "Then again, the Master raises a very good point. I doubt the asari have grasped that Shepard may have something to displace optronics, and they tend to see us as merely nosy. If we keep our interactions, shall we say, transactional and business related on the surface, there is likely to be little outright interest. How Shepard will respond I cannot say."

Linron turned to look at the STG Master. "Is that your advice, then?"

The STG Master spread its hands. "I am only able to work with data and known facts, High Dalatrass. Vigil is too powerful and omnipresent for any possible infiltration attempt to succeed and has terrified the League of Zero already. If they become antagonistic, I cannot stop them. Given Shepard's combat power – not to mention the knowledge of the STG she would have gained from Senior Agents Mordin and Erash – I predict the percentage chance of stopping her if she decided on a decapitation strike against the SIX to be thirteen point seven percent."

The actual figure was higher, of course. But the STG Master knew how to twist the reactions of the SIX, and it suppressed a smile behind its mask as the Dalatrasses took that in with visible fear before continuing in a softer voice. "It strikes me that whatever Cerberus is up to is unlikely to be openly malevolent with someone like Shepard involved. It should not be a danger, unlike the very real danger of not knowing what is going on with Cerberus and the Broker Network. Additionally, that so many parties were engaged on Ilium and Vol Prime worries me immensely, and they are the only source of information we could access on this. I'd rather take the known risk."

Linron threw up her hands with ill grace. "Very well. Chara, head to the Citadel to meet with Shepard privately. Go ahead and take the 5th Shieldbreaker Guard and a pair of STG teams as backup, and keep us informed of what actually comes of this pile of fungus. You are authorized full Level Three response – you can agree to share STG intelligence, provide political cover, and make monetary agreements. Anything beyond that, set up a call with the full SIX."

The slender form of Chara Yaan rose elegantly, gathering her robes with one hand. "Your will, High Dalatrass."

Muvai made a sharp inhalation. "Fine. Waste of effort, but logical. Cerberus may know location of surviving Remembrance leaders. If so, will acquiesce. Now what?"

Linron stood as well. "We follow the rest of Vani's advice, and prepare. STG Master, you are dismissed, send in the Force Admirals to explain our options."

O-TWCD-O

The room was almost sepulchral in both color and lines, smooth arches of dark black stone trimmed here and there with cherry wood inserts and the barest hint of red lines in the thick black pile carpet. More cherry wood framed the three massive haptic displays, each showing news feeds and financial markets. The center of the room seemed to curve subtly around the heavy desk, and the man sitting behind it.

Richard Williams examined his cigar critically before stubbing it out, his frame leaning back in the overstuffed armchair in the middle of the room. "Given the news feeds from Vol Prime are full of stories about radiation burns and hull breaches, I presume the cell did not follow the orders you gave, Maliki? I wanted simple surveillance, not all-out war."

The form of his trusted Lieutenant gave a bow. "Indeed, kiongozi. The orders I gave were for simple observation, but the section lead was the one making the calls. According to him, the situation on Vol Prime was supposedly stable when I touched down on Ilium. We lost contact in the chaos and barely escaped alive – I lost two of my data analysts when one of the starscrapers was blown to bits by the asari war priestesses."

Williams scowled, sitting forward. "Disaster after fucking disaster. We had a complete wipe at Mnemosyne. Had to drop a hint to Vandefar to get it cleaned up."

Maliki's left eyebrow rose. "The artifacts?"

Williams waved a hand. "I was going to send them to the Horizon base. Ha. No. Willis was a moron, but he had enough sense to put the useful ones on a ship and get them to Station Seven. No idea why he didn't blow the station, but from the report one of Vandefar's goons sent in, it's clear our security and precautions were not enough. Shit went completely off the rails. Here, read."

He tapped his omni, forwarding a file to Maliki, who read through it swiftly. "Disturbing implications, kiongozi. Two points stand out. This silver spike does not sound familiar."

Richard's eyes narrowed. "I assure you that also caught my attention. I don't know what it is, or how it got there, but I am wondering now if there was actually anything wrong with our equipment and we had a failure… or something induced a failure. If it is the latter, then we have yet another player in the game and I can't even keep up with all the bullshit, backstabbing, and layers of conspiracy as it is, so for now, I can't do anything on that. What else?"

Maliki gave an eloquent shrug. "Given the risk that this was a failure of our isolation techniques, shouldn't we invest in indoctrination sensors?"

Williams shook his head. "No need. I don't plan on keeping anything Earth-side or at our primary bases, and buying the sensors is a blatant red flag that you're doing something. For the places we do deploy, losses are expected."

He leaned back again. "We've shifted all Reaper investigative ops to Alte – the Commander there has orders to put all the artifacts in deep storage. Security will kill all the crew of the ship bringing them and isolate the section, we'll use pure low-tech mechs with remote detonators to handle the artifacts. Slaves will double-verify which ones do and do not cause indoctrination – the dangerous ones we'll scatter around for Vanderfar to scoop up, the useful ones we'll keep and move into the mainline project."

Maliki frowned. "You mean move them to Project ROSETTA?"

Richard smiled. "Yes. We'll see if the combination of the Reaper tech and indoctrination programming can provide additional improvements to the geth project. Plus, if something goes wrong, Alte is far enough out no one will know. Mnemosyne was just too close to the Traverse."

The big man tapped a finger on a haptic panel. "Still… not a good week. We lost two labs at Forkin, lost containment on the Reaper nanotech there. The drop teams on Vasdin Six were killed by the thresher command chip experiments. And Helga is having problems deflecting the goons Max and Aloxius keep sending to keep tabs on Hades."

He looked up. "So, I really needed a simple win on Vol Prime, and handing over a fucking Minsta would put an end to any insight Harper has into the Lords of Sol. But we don't have a win, and I'm not sure I get what went wrong. Clarify it for me."

Maliki's harsh features tightened. "I have only the barest of reports so far, kiongozi. The section lead was the one with all the information, and he is very dead. As I just found out a few minutes ago, so was his backup. The drop agent was taken out by Lost Boys, but the team was shot to pieces by STG and Deathwatch. The only fact of note was that the initial probes were deflected by Lost Boys, but only after probes were sent against Tiffany Minsta – not Rasa."

Richard William's features turned from angry to thoughtful as he leaned back "Well, well, well. I knew House Minsta wasn't totally clean, but Galen was always a goddamned mouth-frothing lunatic and I figured he'd isolate himself. If his daughter is in Cerberus too… this explains quite a bit."

Maliki allowed himself an expression of disbelief. "All reports indicate a vapid socialite with a taste for opera and museums."

Richard's voice was droll. "All reports on me indicate I'm a cousin of the Manswells with a fixation on body building and 'minor' cybernetic correction." His voice indicated his amusement and Maliki gave a bow.

"This is true, kiongozi. How do you wish my teams to respond?"

Richard was silent for long seconds. "Harper doesn't make mistakes. He's sending his pet project Shepard to the Citadel where she's vulnerable… that must mean he's already got so much fucking blackmail that even trying to harm her would bring down governments. Goddamned idiots, I warned Maxwell for years Harper was dangerous."

He banged his fist on the desk, and then grimaced, pulling open the rosewood box on his desk and withdrawing another cigar. "For now, observe. As much as I dislike sitting and waiting, we're in no position to respond – we've got to get our own house in order first. We take no action regarding Shepard or Cerberus… until we figure out what is going on. Move your security teams to Alte to oversee Project GOLD. The faster we make progress with that, the easier it will be to placate Max and the rest of the High Lords."

"At once, kiongozi. And the financial teams?"

Richard lit the cigar. "Keep them digging. Send a feeler the Broker's way and give him everything we know on Cerberus, Harper, and Shepard. With any luck, those two will kill each other and solve the entire problem for us. Move everything else to cleaning up the mess on Forkin and Vasdin Six."

He paused, then puffed on the cigar. "And Maliki? In light of what Vandefar found out about the team at Mnemosyne, no survivors… and burn the bodies."

The black man bowed. "Your will, kiongozi."

O-TWCD-O

"So… now what? Shepard is back, and everyone runs around screaming the end is nigh. We need a plan, or an action we take."

The room was an expanse of dingy, blackened durasteel, broken only from monotony by the heavy table in the center of the room ringed by seats and the low quality holoscreen on the wall opposite the only door. The air was smoky as recyclers struggled to clean it, a half-dozen cigars, zho sticks, or other drugs tainting the air.

At the head of the table, the scarred visage of Mura Nakiga gave a tired smile, his Asiatic features drawn in fatigue and worry. He dumped the ashes of his cigar into the ashtray next to his drink and inhaled before speaking. "Plan? We prepare for the worst. The warlords are out. Warcaptain Ymoosk is going to back Aria no matter what, and the rest of the big warlords aren't going to cross him – the only ones who had the ships or men to take on Ymoosk and Aria at the same time died in the Burning or in the Archangel's Ascent."

Weyrloc Vhak spat. "And Aria made it clear she's not going to back us up, is that it?" He turned to the asari who had spoken earlier. "What about the rest of the Circle of the Fallen?"

Ishana T'Koro smiled almost as thinly as Nakiga had before. "The Shifter is awaiting Shepard on the Citadel and has already said he's not getting involved. Golo let us know he and Aria are doing business with Harper that is worth more to them than our networks. Six Sins is still busy dodging Spectres and hasn't been in communication in over a month – she may not even know what is going on… or be alive. Kaltoth and Fen both implied they would be happy to continue business, but at a lower price and pace – and let's face it, neither of them need many slaves or organs."

Nakiga nodded. "Let's be blunt, people. The Black Rim Syndicate is the largest slaving, clone-legging, and piracy ring in the galaxy at this point. Umlor is gone, and Kala fell apart when the Hegemony did. With Ilium destroyed and Omega completely in Aria's grip, we have no safe markets. We can't afford clients to come to us, that will only make us vulnerable, and the new Batarian Empire is not interested in doing business with us."

One of the batarians at the table nodded sourly. "The mid-high brokers who used to do all the dealing all have Imperial Guard minders now. They keep saying the Emperor will open the markets back up, but he's just trying to starve out the stupid indep raiders on the borders to keep the turians off his ass. Things will open back up eventually… but not for months and months, maybe even years."

Nakiga gave a second, grim nod. "Pretty much. We don't have the liquid cash to start up something like that anyway. So, we can continue doing business for some time… but we're the biggest target for someone like Shepard to show off her power, and it won't take long for her to find us. Even if she doesn't, we lost our biggest markets and don't have the cash reserves to just coast for more than a month or two longer."

He held up a hand, and a single finger. "We only have three choices. One, we fight. We saw what that bitch did on Omega, but that was nothing compared to the shit on Ilium. She killed the Broker's point man and walked away. None of us can fight that and we don't have half the combat capable ships we'd need to fend off that fleet of hers, so fighting is out."

He held up a second finger. "Two, we dissolve, break into smaller rings. Problem with that is we can't afford the maintenance on most of our clone-legging facilities without pooling our resources, which is the whole reason we formed in the first place. If Aria won't help and the rest are lukewarm, then we'll probably lose money – and be taken out piecemeal."

Hanluar blinked, the salarian's eyes going wide. "You have a solution, then?"

Nakiga shrugged. "Less of a solution than a new client. I'm not happy about it, but I don't see as we have much choice anyway."

He tapped a button on the table, and the holoscreen lit up with the image of a turian in black and pink face paint, with glowing blue eyes. "Hello, my delightful piratoos and pirateesses. How are we this fine summer day?"

Ishana winced. "We are well, P. I presume you are going to be our new patron?"

The turian arch-criminal leaned back in his chair, the background behind him little more than dark, ill-defined shapes and some kind of cloth banner. "That is the idea. I have so many ideas, though, and it's hard to keep them from running around causing trouble." A shift of his mandibles and his voice sharpened into something approaching lucidity. "But this isn't the time for levity.

"You see… I just don't like Cerberus. The fact that the slut-goddess Uressa is backing them is just further incitement to murder and disdain. And I'm both professionally and morally offended by people just ignoring the fact that they're dead and walking around. I was there when Vakarian and Liara T'Soni died and what in the fuck are they doing alive again? No. That cannot stand; it is terrible for business and completely ruins my trolling."

The expression on Nakiga's face was blank, but Weryloc Vhak's voice was doubtful. "You have a reputation for turning on those who aren't useful to you any longer. Some of us aren't scared of Shepard."

P.'s gaze turned to him, his voice level and normal. "If you aren't scared of Shepard you're crazier than I am. But I digress. I lost a great many assets at Umlor, a great many. Your Black Rim operation has everything I need to spruce up my own business, and the guy holding Shepard's leash is smart enough not to fuck with me at this point.

"For a thirty percent cut – and first choice on all the slaves you take – I'll provide eezo, repairs, funding, and contacts. My own forces can fly escort, and I even know the location of an off-the-charts habitable world you can set up on and bail from your current location. I even have an in with some elements of certain governments who desperately need slaves for, mm, research purposes."

Nakiga gave a single grim nod. "I've run the numbers. It will cost us a little the first year or two, but the savings after that add up. And we have no other choices, do we?"

P.'s eyes flared briefly. "No. You really don't. So welcome aboard, my pirate friends! To dances, plunder, and eyepatches!"

Nakiga twitched. "…Eyepatches?"

P. only nodded. "Yarr, matey. Eyepatches."

The rest of the table gave confused looks or long suffering sighs, while Nakiga facepalmed.

O-TWCD-O

The return to the base was uneventful, even if everyone went out of their way to be polite to Uressa. Grunt had gone to talk to her, so Shepard presumed Okeer had more to say after their initial conversation. She didn't know if that was a good idea or not, but the upcoming rejoining ceremony took most of her attention.

Shepard had managed to get into a comfortable jumpsuit, but still hadn't had lunch yet when she went to find Trellani. By the time Shepard made it to the area of the base where Trellani was doing this ceremony, it had been almost an hour since they'd returned from the meeting with Uressa.

But Trellani said she was still putting together preparations for the ceremony to fix up their bond. Liara was there, having not eaten a late lunch in preference of instead going over her notes on the Broker for more clues.

Since it would likely take at least another thirty minutes to do so, Shepard decided that a meal would be advisable. Conscious of the fact that her body was now bad at letting her know she needed to eat – and wanting Liara to eat something due to how frail and thin she looked – Shepard had the base cooks make a large meal, which Matriarch Aethyta had attended as well.

Aethyta looked tired, her arm still in a sling but out of the cast and with the occasional medi-gel bandage on various scrapes or injuries. Dressed in a tight black Cerberus jumpsuit, her expression was flat as she picked at her food. "Talked to Uressa. She seems… the same. Everything go pretty good?"

Shepard smiled. "We didn't have to fight the Solarch, and the mess with Trellani didn't come out, so… yes? Not sure." She ate a bite of food. "Nervous."

Aethyta nodded. "Understandable. Listen, I know this ceremony is a mental and emotional fuckjob from just the bits Trellani shared. Uressa clued me into more of it. It's only been done a handful of times. Are you two sure you want to push this now?"

Shepard shrugged. "I don't have a choice if I don't want to go crazy or lose Liara. That being said… given that I don't know anything about these… uh, rituals, it's hard to weigh my options. Some of them sound like some old mythological shit to me, do you know much about them?"

Aethyta laughed bitterly. "Not really. The Church of Athame lost a lot of knowledge in the War of Queens, with most of the temples built by the Silent Queen dismantled. We lost more in the Refusals and still more with the rachni and the krogan messes. I saw a few, most of them were for boosting biotic power."

She paused. "Ritual is just a fancy-ass name, Shepard. Most of it can be explained just fine with science – attuning the electromagnetic fields and eezo resonances between two people, going in with meld contacts to remove traumatic memories, shit like that. Some of the old stuff, though… sounded more like magic."

Liara spoke quietly, after taking a sip of water to wash down her fish. "Many of my mother's works speak on rituals designed to augment biotic sensitivity or power. While I agree with my aithntar that the science exists to explain it, most of them were couched in somewhat mystical or poetic frames of reference. I am unsure why."

Aethyta snorted. "Read some kinda novel by a human once, said sufficiently advanced technology and magic look the same if you don't know what either one is. But I think most of it has to do with the fact the Temple is almost as full of melodrama as the turians."

Liara' expression eased slightly as she ate. "There is that. As for the ritual itself, are there details?"

Aethtya shrugged. "Trellani will explain. It's a rebonding though…so it should be simple enough in how it's laid out."

Shepard ate her fish and chewed thoughtfully before swallowing and speaking. "Our, uh, original bond was done during sex… how does this ritual work?"

Aethyta laughed. "Don't worry about that. Much to my disappointment, Trellani told me this one isn't one of the orgy ones."

Shepard looked at Liara. "Remind me to stop asking questions, hon."

Liara smiled thinly. "You did see what happened when you kept asking what else could go wrong back when we were on the Kazan, Sara." She cut a bite of fish and ate it, smile turning almost impish. "You could ask that again, just for nostalgia."

Shepard huffed and wiped her mouth before reaching for her water. "That's a 'no.' "

O-TWCD-O

Shepard stared at the floor of the room, and then at Liara. "Well, that's real fucking comforting."

The area Trellani had used for the ritual was some kind of exercise space, although all the equipment had been removed and black cloth covered the floor. In the center of the room was a shallow tank of water, which glowed faintly with active eezo. Surrounding the tank were circles of runes and lines drawn in crushed eezo, with three fist-sized eezo crystals at the edge.

A power distributor with three Inusannon Power Stars was at the side, thick cables ending in frayed optronic threads that linked to the crystals and the circle. A crash medical cart and defibrillation equipment was next to a stack of medi-gel patches and what looked like the tubes of crème Shepard remembered using for electrical burns.

Trellani herself sat in a smaller circle within the circle, and Aethyta moved to a second, somewhat larger circle as Trellani got up. "Welcome, Shepard, T'Soni. Everything is prepared."

Shepard gestured at the lines of eezo everywhere. "The fuck is this?"

Trellani's youthful features showed amusement, the purple eyes glinting. "A recreation of a Circle of Radiance. A method by which the Everchosen of Athame were ritually bound to service. The circles themselves are the ritual field points."

She pointed to the generator. "Vigil was kind enough to assemble an energy source to power this ritual, since the Temple has… other resources we do not. The outer circle isolates the forces within the circle and focuses the energy. The second circle creates a field of biotic force enhancement, allowing easier biotic flow. The innermost circle creates a biotic field to strengthen the forces focused on the tank."

She pointed to the tank of water. "You will both sit within the water, which is enhanced with more eezo dust as well as other substances to enhance biotic sensitivity. I will focus the flows, while Aethyta pours her energy into them. You will need a full body connection, and move directly from linking to bonding – Liara, this will require you to exert a great deal of mental focus and energy."

Liara swallowed. "And then?"

Trellani sat back down. "Once you've reached that point, we focus the power inward, the biotic fields amplifying both of your own and reciprocating. Your bodies will be overtaken with the force and the bond will warp and at that point I will push on the bond-shards to reform them."

Trellani exhaled. "I will warn you now, there are aspects of this that are likely to be… unpleasant. You will not be able to disentangle yourselves once the bond is being reformed and it is possible you will both go insane. It is possible you will not be able to separate your minds once we are done and will be in a coma for the rest of your lives. It is possible the bond shards may create negative resonances that will attack you."

Shepard spread her hands. "Do we have a choice? One that isn't death, being crazy, or bullshit about us never being together again?"

Trellani met her gaze. "No, you do not. There will be a great deal of both physical stress and mental trauma from this – the power levels needed may cause burns and other… damage. We have prepared for that as well, and Doctor Sedanya is on standby."

Aethyta settled herself in her spot, laying her warp sword across her thighs. "Kiddo… I've seen this thing from a distance, done in the Temple of Athame. This is… kind of a hack. It may go wrong."

Her gaze shifted to Trellani. "If they die or don't wake up, your head is coming off your pretty little shoulders if I survive this."

Trellani's smile was almost as disturbing as it had been in her old body. "If they don't awake I will almost certainly be dead from mental collapse. And don't flirt, it's creepy for the old to proposition the young."

Aethyta looked so flabbergasted by this response that Shepard couldn't help but laugh. "You've been hanging out with Vigil too much, Trellani. Let's… get started?"

Trellani gestured to the water tank. "Yes. Oh, and as I said, full body contact is required."

Shepard and Liara stared at her blankly.

Aethyta huffed. "Oh, for fuck's sake. Get. Naked."

Liara nodded, but Shepard sighed. "…This is just some kind of stunt your dad thought up to see me naked, Li."

Liara pulled off her top and gave a nod. "The thought had crossed my mind…"

"Less talking! More stripping!"

A few minutes later, Shepard and Liara got into the tank. The water was icy cold, and had a grainy feel to it from the eezo powder as it clung to their bodies. Shepard wrapped her arms around Liara, who shivered against her bare flesh, then looked up.

"We're ready."

Trellani gave them a sad look. "No, you are not… but let us begin."

Liara bit her lip, and then lifted her head. "Embrace eternity."