A/N: Well, I managed to update again! Consider this part of the RP Gift Spree.

This chapter is not as long as many, because the second half is still coming together, but that won't take half a year. A lot of this involves characters from the RP we are running. There's a few surprises.

Read the following authors when you get a chance, you won't regret it: SLotH4, Nolanstar, Xabiar, Pallan Minerva, Aberron, TungstenCat, Exstarsis, and YukiKazami.

"Shepard reminded me of me before that meeting with Adkins, except without the slightest clue. And she is about to have a surprise meeting with Adkins. She has both my sympathies for the upcoming joder, and jealousy that she'll get the therapy of destroying everyone foolish enough to get in her way."

-General Jaime Herrero, private conversation with Alina Dachman

In the narrow hallways of the passage that led from the Council Chambers to the secure area where confidential SPECTRE briefings were held, Tela Vasir walked calmly alongside Matriarchs Hazama and Pacifia. Her hands were bound behind her back and Hazuma had clapped a field disruptor on her armor, but she had a faint smile on her face.

Pacifia looked troubled, and Hazuma took her eyes off of Tela long enough to frown. "You are quiet, Pacifia."

The other asari sighed. "I am trying to parse what we just saw in the Council room, Matriarch, and I do not like the conclusions I am reaching."

Hazuma inclined her head. "The part where Shepard was agreeable instead of a nexa in a bad mood, or the part where one of their high command figures threw seawater in our faces?"

Pacifia's expression twisted. "The latter. Branson showed no signs or tells of lying… or of stress. If he had done this on his own without backup, he would have been worried. If he had tried to hack the data package, or sell it off, he'd have shown signs of lying and stress. He displayed neither, and that means that he was following orders, and that denying the package to Shepard was worth Council ire."

Hazuma snorted. "From what little I have heard of this Branson, he seems a glory-chasing child, obsessed with his own legend and displaying very little in the way of strategic competence or political savvy. His family is noble but minor, like a lesser house. He may simply be a throwaway."

Pacifia's voice took on an urgent undertone. "Yes, I agree, but that makes no sense! Why would you elevate such a figure to command, knowing they would draw aggravation and cause issues? There are lesser house daughters elevated above their competence and every race has some problematic postings driven by politics, but this is supposed to be the supreme fleet commander."

Tela gave a little chuckle. "Magistra, you have become far too used to working with logical and competent people in the SPECTRE corps and the turian and asari military. The human one is a mess."

Pacifia's voice was dry, with an irritated undertone, as if she had no desire to hear her comments. A suspicion which was likely true. "A mess? Vasir, I've worked with all manner of military commands, black operations groups, and off-the-books cleanup squads. None of them put sand-blind fools in charge."

Tela smiled. "Ahern has told me quite a bit about human command. The Lords see their military not only as a tool but a possible threat, and fear a military revolt or revolution. The position of High Admiral is not, as one might expect, for strategic or tactical command – he is basically a political officer. They isolate their major command structure from politics. I suspect he was chosen because his father held the same role. Except Branson's father did not perfectly obey the Lords. This one does."

Hazuma pushed down her irritation at Tela and forced herself to speak calmly. "I'm aware of humans' odd preference for centralized control over multiple political and social domains. I think the problem is that if he is just a political agent, then his command to undermine SPECTRE operations by not forwarding the data package to Shepard indicates he either acted of his own accord for some reason, or orders were given from the Lords of Sol directly." She considered Tela for a long second. "What does that tell you, Vasir?"

Tela's smile was sad. "Branson would not act on his own. So it tells me that the Lords of Sol fear Shepard, or at least something she knew back then. That they feared she already had something on them – this much I know – and that, honestly, they didn't want her to have access to SPECTRE intel. And that they're willing to derail everything now to prevent it from happening."

Pacifia's expression tightened. "…That implies this stunt they pulled was to ensure Shepard was not reinstated as a full SPECTRE and that deputization was their goal. What in the name of the Goddess could they – or Branson – fear so much of Shepard finding out?"

"An interesting question to be sure," Hazuma's voice was musing. "Yet I don't think they planned it that way at all. They appear to have been caught as utterly off-guard by her true identity as anyone else, and this event occurred prior to her death. More than likely, they know enough about the SPECTRE program to realize that her being reinstated was almost an impossibility. Udina is clever."

She made a sign of siari separation. "What is more concerning to me is that there are other troubling things that have happened in human governance that indicates this is a larger issue. The death of Spectre Ross, hints of events after Magog, the fact their AIS is aimed almost entirely inwards, the findings of Spectre Lazan regarding their minimal investigation into Shepard's death…"

After a moment, she continued in a darker tone of voice. "Whatever drove them to look the other way as she was killed, it was a risk. One they choose to take, even knowing it would draw the ire and attention of both the Council and the SPECTRE corps."

Pacifia frowned. "So… something critical."

The aged matriarch gave a shrug. "We are guessing at tides in the dark night without a moon. But it strikes me that it was something Shepard must have learned after she was a Spectre, either in the hunt for Saren and Benezia or in the short time before her death. After all, if she was a threat all this time, logic leads me to ask why they agreed to nominate her in the first place?"

Tela glanced away, her expression closing off. Pacifia's eyes narrowed. "You know something."

The former Spectre laughed bitterly. "I have suspicions, Magistra. Ahern said that Shepard was troubled because she had learned something. He wouldn't elaborate on what, only that she should have taken his advice and stopped looking. The Lords have been an issue of concern since the end of the Relay 314 Incident, with their secrecy and the messes of Damocles and Magog. You should have looked at them a long time ago."

Pacifia sighed. "It is not our place to interfere in internal human affairs if they didn't violate galactic law and the stability of the Citadel. Every species does things that are perhaps not entirely legal, but unless they are a danger to the stability of the Citadel, we don't get involved."

Tela shrugged. "Yes, I know the script. And all I am saying is that whatever has the High Lords scared of Shepard might be tied up with that. Or with why Lord Kyle killed himself, or why Lord General Kinnix vanished with his entire house, or a bunch of other fouled tides Tradius has ranted about to me about in the past. Shepard used to be a hardcore Alliance supporter and now she's not."

Hazuma slowly nodded, making a sign of siari agreement. "I will reach out to Matriarch Anola. If nothing else, she can give me details about what Shepard has become. As for investigating the Lords, I will need to determine if this Branson overstepped his authority and misread the situation – an honest if stupid mistake – or if he was… ordered to do such a thing."

Grimacing, she glanced at Tela. "…Your insight is appreciated. And your willingness to admit your guilt is… admirable, even if it ultimately changes nothing."

Tela actually laughed. "Of course it doesn't, Matriarch. I went into this mess expecting Shepard or my sister to kill me. You know why I agreed to this."

Pacifia looked confused, but Hazuma shook her head. "Irrelevant. Was it worth it?"

Tela stopped, half-turning to look at the two. "…You are both so filled with duty and focus on what you are that you don't even see the emptiness in what we do. I spent centuries as a SPECTRE, and what did I get for it? Scorn from my family. Isolation. The loss of almost every single person I cared about. My life was an empty, pointless mess of my own making, and I was the one who made it worse, but none of you ever bother to ask what that does to your SPECTREs."

Pacifia snarled but again, Hazuma held up a hand, appraising her inquisitively; face as unreadable as her voice inscrutable. "You place the blame on us?"

Tela shook her head, walking again. "No, Matriarch. I place the blame on myself for my own actions. But I suggest, strongly, you start actually asking what this duty does to your agents. Saren was the best of us and he fell. I was the longest serving SPECTRE after you and I fell."

Pacifia's voice was icy. "You will have a very long time to reflect on what you did and why, and assuming you survive the mind-rip, to make amends."

Tela once again merely smiled. "Death is the fear that keeps most people in line, Magistra. What then when such a thing is no longer seen as a punishment, but a respite?"

Pacifia's lips twitched at that, but she seemed to hold her tongue, clearly seeing the elder Matriarch was considering her own answer. Hazuma paused her walk and appraised Tela carefully, her expression unchanged, her eyes cold; boring into Tela's own. She did not speak for an uncomfortable period of time, unblinking. Tela could not tell if she was being viewed with judgment or contempt.

Perhaps both.

"You are not the first traitor among us," Hazuma finally said. "I have heard many reasons for why they acted, why they turned; excuses upon excuses, but one I find most interesting is those who blame their job for their own failures of mind and character."

A small, humorless, smile graced the older Matriarch's lips. "What does this duty do to us, Vasir? Do you presume ignorance? Were you not told what this work would entail? Did you perhaps think you would be a hero? That we were the heroes in shining armor protecting the Council against the darkness?"

The smile faded. "No. No you did not. SPECTREs are many things, but we do not hide what we are to ourselves. You knew what we would do, how far we would go, and what lines would be crossed. You knew that, and did it anyway, and we accept it because it is necessary for the good of galactic civilization. But I will humor you for a moment, Vasir, let us say that the reality of what we do was too much. Let us say I believe you."

She made a sign of siari curiosity. "Then why did you not leave? Why did you not transition elsewhere? You could have done many things, yet instead, you elected to become the thing you decry. You embrace what you see are our worst aspects for… what, I wonder? If this is truly your excuse, then you are either weak to a disappointing degree – or you are lying."

Her fingers laced together. "So tell me, Vasir, why you did it. Tell me an excuse I have not heard, or a reason I have not contemplated. Tell me, or it is best you maintain your silence. Do not insult us with tired revelations, nor degrade yourself more than you already have."

She waited for an answer.

Tela gave an almost mocking snort. "Because I figured the decision would be that letting the Broker proceed with whatever he had planned was more likely than the SPECTRE corps going to war with the Broker. Because after all these years of watching the Council look the other way when things went down, of being sent out to kill and silence innocent people to maintain the ever-so-fucking-important status quo, I felt it was a lot more likely Shepard would just get written off anyway. Even if I had obeyed the Mandate, the Council would have done nothing except draft a letter of condolences, a useless gesture, and as for Liara; after Tevos spoke with the Thirty, they'd have offered to help the Broker."

She laughed. "The Broker would have killed her no matter what I did, and likely Liara too. In my mind I didn't have a choice."

Pacifia stared at her, then shook her head, making a sign of siari rejection. "Blaming outright betrayal of everything we stand for on moral fatigue, and under the impression that we would write off one of our own is…" She shook her head again, disgust and contempt coloring her voice. "Disappointing. Pathetic. I struggle with words adequate enough. Be thankful you have an advocate in Shepard, and the mercy of the matriarch. It is one thing to betray for wealth, ideology, or emotion, but to do so out of apathy…"

She trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. Not needing to say anything more. Tela offered nothing more in defense, perhaps knowing there was nothing else to be said.

Hazuma exhaled, as they reached the end of the passage, two doors in heavy durasteel flanking a third made of Silaris. "Enough. Pacifia, go ahead and bring up Internal Audit Teams Two and Three to review all of Tela's accounts and transactions. Have her apartment, ship, and offices searched, packed, and sealed. Have the crew of the ship interviewed, then pay them and terminate their employment." She paused. "Have Tela's clothing and her personal non-weapons items brought here. There is no reason to be needlessly cruel as long as she cooperates."

Pacifia nodded, straightening, her stance and expression all business. "And the mind-rip? You don't have to do it."

Hazuma shook her head. "I do. There's… something we will discuss, later. Once I'm done, she'll be transferred to Secure Cell Six until we can set up a more permanent locale." She tapped in a code to the middle door, and it slid open, revealing a semicircular room filled with medical equipment and an elevated padded chair with restraints.

Tela swallowed and stepped inside, and Hazuma followed, pausing to half-turn and glance at Pacifia. "And if you have the time, go ahead and have a SPECTRE start loose surveillance around the people who seem to have issues with Shepard and see what we can dig up. Branson's interference can't be the first time her superiors have betrayed her."

Pacifia nodded. "And do we do any kind of workup or monitoring on Shepard herself?"

Hazuma shook her head. "Given that Vigil is supporting her, and that all indications we have of Shepard's profile shows she would react poorly to surveillance, I think doing so would not only be unwise but probably – if her assertions are correct – unjustified. The last thing we need after her tentative agreement to play by our rules is to give her a reason not to do so."


Shepard wasn't sure what to expect when she and Liara arrived at the given location for meeting Alliance High Command, and the odd-looking short tower, bluntly built into the side of the Presidium's pale white walls, only further confused her. She stepped out of the aircar provided by C-Sec, and Liara exited a second later, smoothing down her dress.

"Well, this looks welcoming." Shepard's voice was dry, and Liara smiled faintly. "Let's get this pile of bullshit over, marazul. Hopefully it will be less stupid than talking to the High Lords."

Liara's smile widened. "I will believe that when I see it, Sara."

They walked forward, down a narrow path of metal tiles set into the grassy square surrounding the front of the building. There was a heavy mechanical door set in place, flanked by a pair of heavily armed DACT. A short, fussy-looking Commissar stood by the door, his uniform immaculate, his voice reedy and proper.

"Baroness. I am sorry, but I was informed the command briefing is intended for you alone."

Shepard drew herself up, her smile fading. "My wife is both a member of the Systems Alliance military and of noble rank herself. You can admit us both, or you can deal with me walking away and telling the High Lords I was not admitted, and that SA High Command apparently thinks the asari of the Thirty are not noble."

The Commissar's expression didn't change as he tapped his comm-link and spoke quietly into it, before shrugging and touching his omni-tool, opening the door. Shepard glanced at Liara, whose expression was cool and neutral but who felt nervous across the bond, and stepped inside.

There was a short corridor, done in plain metal and white decking, and then a wide open space, with several long tables and chairs set up, as well as a tall comm-link stack of computers and monitors. A handful of harried-looking ensigns and a signal yeoman moved around as Shepard took in the room. The walls were bare metal festooned with various traceries of brighter plastic – the sign of signal jammers – and the ceiling was smooth armaplast imprinted with the symbol of the Systems Alliance. Doors exited off the main room, but were shut and had red lights indicating they were locked.

The center table was occupied by the brass. Fleet Master Dragunov sat in the middle, with Admiral Ahern to his left. General Manfred von Khar, the Commander of the Solguard, sat next to Lord General Kirsten Dularis, the General of the Mindoir Marines. The latter gave her a nod, and Shepard returned it, remembering the time – briefly – under her command. On the other side of Ahern was a captain she didn't recognize and a heavy-set older rear admiral with the insignia of the Bureau of Ships on his shoulder that she did, the always grumpy Commodore Jon Urity.

The leftmost table had the AIS Director, Yonis Chu, flanked by two other colonels with AIS uniforms, a man with the gray and blue uniform of the Silver Legion Oversight Corps, and several yeomen and junior officers. All the AIS staff looked uncomfortable or worried, except for Chu, who was meeting her gaze with a placid smiling expression that gave nothing away.

The rightmost table was full of people she didn't immediately recognize, although one of them looked familiar – a powerfully built captain with even, handsome features and the flash of R&D that she could recall as talking to her, named Wilson. He had the sigil of an Eldfell knight on his uniform, and the red cord of a Lord's attaché, which meant his naval rank of captain was just a cover; the man was trusted to speak in the name of a High Lord.

The second figure was a taller, more slender man, dark haired and with haunted eyes. He wore a Lord of Sol pin on his collar and vice admiral's rank boards. After a moment, she recognized the latter as an N7 from her wedding as well, Malcolm Holden. He had an asari wife, she remembered.

The last two – who she was sure she'd never met – were a tall, muscular man in an all black version of the SA dress uniform, and a strikingly attractive Commissar with an artificial cybernetic eye and white hair. They had nearly identical postures, utterly cold eyes and unreadable expressions on their faces. Shepard had a lot of experience in picking up trouble – these two looked like they didn't trust anyone in the room except each other.

Most interesting to Liara was the comms stack, which included a single holoprojector and media pickup, meaning someone was not here in-person but important enough to risk being hacked to keep them in the conversation remotely.

An ensign directed two hulking lancers to bring out comfortable chairs in the center of the room, and Shepard and Liara sat in unison, as the crackle of an anti-spybeam field radiated across the room and the walls illuminated briefly with jamming fields.

Dragunov glanced at one of the ensigns. "Everyone not with comms, out." All but two of the yeomen and the junior officers left, the door clanging shut behind them with a boom.

The leonine features of the Fleet Admiral creased in an unhappy grin. "Pleased to see you alive, but not happy we are here, if you take meaning."

Ahern grunted. "For God's sake, Ivan, turn on the damned translator."

The Fleet Master glared, but Shepard only smiled. "I kind of like it bluntly put, actually. I'm not thrilled to be here either, Admiral. But this – the Broker's bullshit, the Collectors, and ultimately the Reaper threat – is more important than our dislike of one another."

Dragunov nodded. "Well put." He glanced around the room. "Here is all of High Command. This room usually used for secure consult with alien military. Very secure. No recordings being taken."

Liara's voice was soft but firm. "If this is all of Alliance High Command, what of High Admiral Branson?"

The expression of every single officer – and the Commissar – was nearly identical, disdainful amusement. Ahern spoke first. "No point for him to be here. We don't need kids at the damned grownup's table, and besides, he's probably still crying to Max about Donnell slapping the shit out of him."

General Dularis muttered "I've wanted to do that for years."

Dragunov cleared his throat. "Make fun of junior later. Shepard. Ahern is in charge of 5th Fleet, most effective fleet right now. General von Khar and Lord General Dularis, source of best Marines for any assaults. Captain Tason in charge of shipbuilding program. Commodore Urity, in charge of BuShips."

He gestured to the left table. "AIS Director Chu in charge of intel. Director Collins, in charge of Silver Legion. They represent what we know and can do… clandestine."

She nodded. "And them?" She nodded at the table with the commissar.

Dragunov's already sour grin tilted even more. "Bad things. I let them explain later. Sir Captain Wilson in charge of investigating Reaper tech sites. Vice Admiral Holden, researching… older tech. Pre-Prothean. General Herrero and Baroness Commissar Dachman, in charge of… anomalies. Containment."

He paused. "Comm-link is going to… extra resource. May not need him." He folded his hands on the table in front of him, after tapping his omni-tool. His voice shifted, his language losing the strong Russian accent and becoming precise.

"For the purposes of this discussion, the High Lords have said Branson is not involved in this operation. We need to discuss your situation, how to resolve the problems we have with it. Authority, command, and all of that nonsense. And then we can discuss… the Collectors, the Shadow Broker, and the Reapers."

Shepard took a deep breath. "Clear up what you mean by 'resolve' my situation, Admiral. I'm not real keen on taking orders from the SA right now given some of the shit I've found out."

Ahern spoke. "We don't have time for bullshit, and neither do you. You can go on about how crooked shit is to someone who cares, we're all aware of the problems and we're working past it. Our main issue is that your 'request' for assistance means putting our soldiers and sailors in harm's way with no guarantee of their safety or that Cerberus won't just use 'em as fodder."

Shepard glanced at Liara, then nodded slowly. "I can see that. I'll… clarify. The Illusive Man isn't in charge of me."

General Dularis arched an eyebrow, her voice skeptical. "That sounds a little unlike Jack, ma'am. I know him pretty well, from back in the old Shanxi days, and the man never operates without two ways out and a hole card." She rolled her shoulders and folded her muscled arms over her chest. "And frankly, I don't give a shit how badass you are, that man doesn't buckle under pressure."

Shepard grunted. "No, he doesn't back down. He had enough spine to put himself in reach of me, and I am pretty sure I could have killed him. He did it to make a point, and to point out the people who probably got me killed weren't in hand's reach."

She met the older woman's gaze. "But as far as how he's acting about being in charge…he's changed. Says he's not sure he trusts his own calls anymore. Actually told me to kill him if he fucks up again like he did backing Saren. Beyond that…"

Shepard sighed. "He said that he didn't want to give me orders because he didn't think I'd follow them." She paused. "At the start of this mess, I was going to give him one fuckup then drag his ass back to a jail cell somewhere, or just open his fucking skull. But so far, he's not double-crossed me even once. And he's given me a fuck of a lot more resources, men, and equipment to get the job done than the Alliance ever did."

Liara spoke. "He has also convinced a large number of disparate groups of aliens to accept that Shepard is in charge and that his involvement is minimal. From what I have seen with my own eyes, the Illusive Man does not have a force capable of controlling Shepard – and the base we operate from is under our control, with only a single operative that reports to the Illusive Man directly."

Yonis Chu spread his hands. "And there's not any form of controls, conditioning? Nothing stopping you from turning on him?"

Shepard smiled. It wasn't a happy smile. "He's very good at predicting people, Admiral Chu. Very good. He knew full well I expected stupid bullshit from him, and from what the doctors and staff he gave me said, his orders to them were to never ever disobey me. He feels that if I am free to make my own choices, it's a lot easier for me to work with others – the Citadel, the SPECTRE Corps, STG, and in this case, the Alliance Military – than if I was under his control. The scans showed there is nothing in me that does so, and…" She paused. "Like I said, he has doubts about his own ability to pick the right choices, after his involvement in the Benezia Incident."

Dragunov glanced at Ahern, then nodded. "So you are under your own command. Ships, troops, facilities – all of these answer to you?"

She nodded. "Harper has his own stuff I'm sure – at least one shipbuilding facility and a base of operations, probably more than one. But as part of security, I don't know where any of that is, and the base I operate from is supplied indirectly by third parties he doesn't control directly. Most of my soldiers and operators I picked myself – the bulk of the rest are either ex-Marine or ex-AIS."

Chu frowned. "Ex-AIS? Who?"

She smirked. "Trudy Menrows for one, and most of the staff you decided to gut after the first Collector raids."

Chu winced, and General von Khar spoke. "And your, er, allies? The forces of Archangel, the alien battalion you brought here? All of them answer to you?"

She smiled. "If you really think Garrus would shoot up a bunch of slaving criminal filth on Omega and then turn around and take questionable orders from the Illusive Man over me, you don't get him. Most of the aliens are people I rescued from the fucking slavers after the rest of the galaxy had written them off. They back me since I didn't write them off, even if that costs me."

She felt a flash of guilt and self-disgust at remembering Liara's broken look after she'd woken up in the med-bay, but Liara must have felt it too, and put her hand on Shepard's, speaking in a soft voice. "Sara is the one in charge, General. There are sapients all over the galaxy who are very tired of having to endure while the powerful and those who rule make excuses for why things continue to darken and get worse instead of improve. The Illusive Man is no… ideal figure, and I have my own doubts about his motives. But his actions have been nothing but positive and his words of why he is doing this match my own feelings, and Shepard's."

General Dularis sighed. "Look. We get it. But the ugly reality is that this is already going to be a public relations nightmare. If it turns out he isn't on the up and up and our people get killed, no amount of 'well he seemed nice' is going to fix this problem."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose, her voice tired. "And I get there's concerns about letting a terrorist organization run SA assets. I've already had a stupid conversation about this with the Council – so I'll tell you what I told them. Any assistance you give me is going to be based on me having strategic command. None of my people will be on your ships. Your ship captains and unit officers are going to be in charge of deployment and operations. Your intel officers would stay in charge of your sensors and comms, and if they don't want to agree they can go back home."

For a long second Dularis held Shepard's gaze, then her broad face split into a rueful grin. "Alright, fair enough. I don't give two fucks what the High Lords say – you take my boys and girls out for a fight and I'm going to be with 'em. So you keep to what you said above and we'll have no problems."

Dragunov gave a short, stiff nod. "This is acceptable, for the interim. Your cooperation on this, and your willingness to have us retain tactical and sensor command to avoid any misunderstandings is very much appreciated. But the other half of the problem is a little more complex, Baroness. You have turned your back on the Alliance, yes?"

Sara gave a small, tight smile. "Depending on how you look at it, they turned their back on me."

Several of the officers frowned, and one started to speak but was cut off by Baroness Dachman. "That's a very loaded statement, Baroness. Could you clarify what that means? You were made a SPECTRE, elevated to nobility, given dispensations to marry your wife, promoted to Major of Marines, and given a battlegroup with no previous small ships experience. The former President even tasked you with personal missions and the Alliance honored your perceived death as best we could. How did any of that equal the Alliance turning its back on you?"

Ahern gave a soft groan and facepalmed, drawing a clearly amused smirk from Liara. Pushing down the surge of amusement she felt, Shepard faced the Commissar directly, her voice level and calm.

"Baroness Dachman, with all due respect, that's all bullshit. I was the very last choice to be a SPECTRE, picked because every other choice had political issues – and I was told straight out that it wasn't even confirmed, I had to prove myself to be formally made one. Then the Alliance, I've just learned, didn't even forward me the entire data package the Council sent to show me all the SPECTRE assets I had."

She leaned forward. "I got absolutely zero support from High Command hunting for Saren and the only reason I got promoted and given the Kazan and my battlegroup was the President. Admiral Ahern was there when the High Admiral suggested I wasn't qualified, and yet I wasn't even finished freezing on Alchera before you gave away my battlegroup to a man who had even less space-side experience than I did."

She glared around the room, her voice taut. "And let's stop this stupid bullshit of pretending the Alliance wasn't involved in my death. Someone inside the Alliance had to be working with the Broker to take out the defenses of Nova Scotia. Someone inside the Alliance had to feed information to the Broker about how the Normandy's IES system worked, and how our ship comm security worked. Someone had to clear the modifications and most of all, someone went to a lot of trouble to cashier my entire crew and fuck them over, like with Commander Pressly and others. I won't even mention how you treated the goddamned President and Eliza."

She exhaled. "I'm sure none of you were directly involved in that, or even in some cases knew about it. But unless you're gonna sit here and honestly tell me that the shit all happened then but can't happen now, then no. I'm not trusting the lives of my friends, family, and wife to the ability of the military not to fuck things up, and dying once was enough, thanks."

Dachman looked vaguely ashamed, and the expression on Dragunov's face was sour, but then Liara spoke. "It is also concerning that you have elements of what I think are part of two Ache Lameo derived groups and what is clearly a member of what was Battlegroup Omega until little more than half a year ago and is now Task Force Aurora. Those groups answer directly to the High Lords. This does not fill either of us with reassurance that politics won't play a role in whatever happens."

General Herrero's voice was even, calm, nearly monotone. "Lady Liara, I won't ask how you know that. But I will assure you, after the past year, I am very insistent that absolutely no political crap or the damned Game the High Lords play will interfere with the tasks I am assigned – or my duties. While Captain Wilson does answer indirectly to Lord Eldfell, it's only due to his assistance and that of Vice Admiral Holden that such influence has been reduced to almost minimal impact."

He paused, his voice deepening. "I have concerns about the safety of working with someone who blatantly uses an Inusannon picotech engine given how… twisted that species was. And about the consequences of what other technology you've kept under wraps, given how you've already alarmed… certain Citadel parties. If any politics happens in our cooperation, it won't be from our end."

Shepard gave a weary smile at that. "I hate politics. If you – whatever it is you do – can keep the operation from being messed up by it, then I'm fine. As for Vigil," she paused, "well, Shiny is irritating, but he's hardly evil. From what little he's said about his creators, though, I can see why you would worry. The rest of the tech we have will eventually be shared, when the time is right."

She saw his still dubious expression and shrugged. "Bottom-line is this, General: if Vigil wanted to start some shit, nothing I know of could stop him. He hasn't, and I don't think he will – and to bring it back to the Alliance, he's treated me a lot better than my own chain of command did."

Ahern took a deep breath. "Alright. Shepard, you and I have a history with this. Dularis is solid, and I've already angled to be the space-side command for any SA operations with you. You can either decide I'm trustworthy and so is she, or you can take a fucking walk. The Alliance is not fucking perfect and everyone in this room has their own doubts, but until someone comes up with an alternative the only thing to do is try to fix it, not just bitch about it." He folded his arms.

She met his gaze. "…Kyle didn't think so, sir."

Ahern flinched at that, and Dragunov fixed her with an angry stare. "This is hardly the time to drag up the past, Baroness. For the moment, our chain of command operates independently, and if we have to work with you, your people will only have planning control. We will deal with your military rank and who you answer to after the bug things are all dead. Is that fair?"

Shepard nodded. "That's fine."

Chu spoke, his voice thin and almost irritated. "Good. Let's establish a working definition of what you want, then, Baroness. There are several elements here – the Broker, Collector Ships, and whatever is beyond the Omega-4 Relay. The Broker is frankly the least of my worries here. We've both butted heads with his people and used his services in the past. We know his operational tempo. His forces tend towards assassins, snipers, bombers, and spies."

One of the AIS officers spoke. "We don't have good intel on the Broker's current actual military forces. He had a little problem with the Shifter six months back that cost him some ships, and you had to have slaughtered almost all of his heavy ground forces."

Liara nodded. "Our own findings indicated that the Broker was being forced to hire mercenary groups to safeguard some of his communication infrastructure. I doubt such groups would continue to back him in the face of a heavy assault."

Shepard frowned. "And ships?"

The two AIS men had a quick whispered conversation before one spoke. "Our estimates are in the thirty to forty-ship-range, although this is somewhat conjectural – it's based on eezo purchases and known shipping to sites where the Broker seems to conduct logistics and transport operations. One dreadnought is confirmed, but based on what we've gotten from scans, it is not third gen equivalent. Fixed defenses in whatever system he's in may be problematic, however."

Shepard leaned back in the comfortable chair. "Yeah, that fits with our projections. And if that's all he's got, I can handle the Broker on my own. I'd rather not drag the Council or the Alliance into the Broker takedown for a number of reasons. I'm certain the stupid bastard has blackmail, and he may even try even dumber crap like assassinations or whatever. If we basically openly announce it's just me coming for him, maybe that won't happen. Might save some lives."

Ahern grunted. "Might cost you some of your soldier's lives too, Shepard. Man didn't survive this long by being a weak-ass."

She shrugged, giving a grim, crooked smile that darkened her expression, her blue eyes hard. "I know that very well, sir. But this is fucking personal. He tried to kill my family, he tried to kill my President for all I know, and the bastard tried to sell my corpse to the fucking Reapers. A lot of the people joining me had him screw them over… and I'm sick and tired of this murdering criminal piece of shit living it up and terrorizing the entire galaxy."

Chu nodded, his expression grave. "I presume if you are not taking any support in this, then accessing what the Broker may or may not know isn't going to be shared either?"

She shook her head. "No, sir. I am not willing to have Citadel or Alliance people trying to grab the Broker's files, so that will not be an option. Whatever he knows about the Collectors, I'll be sure to use, but the rest of it is almost certainly paid for in blood, murders, slavery and torture – I don't need the shit, and neither does anyone else."

Liara smiled. "We may reach out to various intelligence agencies about rolling up the rest of the Broker Network, or we may see if they can be convinced to fight the Collectors. But that is a wave on a shore we cannot even perceive as of yet."

Ahern grunted. "Fine, whatever. Let's get to the goddamned meat, the fucking bugs. You said you needed help, what's your op layout on these things?"

Shepard took a deep breath. "Our research has found a number of things out about the Collectors, we'll cover that in a minute. The most important thing is that Vigil thinks we can't just access the Omega-4 Relay. For us to take the fight to them, we have to capture one of the Collector ships, and use that to get us in. It may have some kind of device, or tech, that transmits an all-clear signal – we won't know until we get our hands on one."

Ahern winced, and Dularis spoke. "Based on the shit we saw at Horizon, that's going to be a pretty tall order. That carrier didn't even look like it was particularly configured for heavy ship-to-ship and it beat the crap out of the Kazan's entire battlegroup. Boarding something that big means having to take out the engines and hope they don't scuttle the thing. I'm guessing the ships you dragged off from the battle didn't have anything useful?"

Shepard shook her head. "We're still examining them at a remote site, but no. And to be honest, the Collectors are the biggest reason I am here. Not sure we can take them on our own, and the Citadel is, as usual, hemming and hawing."

Dragunov glanced at the third table. "Malcolm, what is our intel on the Collectors?"

The man tapped the padd in front of him, sighing. "Unfortunately, not a great deal. We've had no direct or indirect contact with them since Kurgan was indicted and imprisoned for dealing with them, and he's been less than useful with details. We have some video, and a few old records from the SSA era exploration team that ran across a Collector harvesting operation and withdrew without a fight, but that's it."

One of the AIS men spoke. "We've done wreckage analysis on the Normandy and the Kazan. There appear to be three weapons systems – short-range particle beams in the teravolt range, a lower power version of the magneto-hydrodynamic weapon the Reaper at the Battle of the Citadel used, and some kind of drone fighter system using what we can only define as plasma missiles – high energy, very explosive. Ground data is mostly gathered from indirect recordings of the assault on Horizon, so I figure the Baroness and her people have better data."

Shepard nodded. "We have more info, yeah, from the shipwrecks we towed with us. The ships are all constructed of a kind of omni-gel resin impregnated with a biological matrix of some kind. The stuff can heal and regrow, and it's tougher than laser steel. Per Vigil and our own findings, confirmed by Mordin Solus, the Collectors appear to be what's left of the Protheans. Most of them are near mindless clones, being controlled by overseers who are all linked somehow to a Collector… general. Or high leader."

Liara tapped her omni. "Per Vigil, he identified the insectoid appearance as a self-healing combat survival suit, and their ground particle beam weapons have no real counter that we can apply aside from heavy cover mitigation."

General Dularis scowled. "Wonderful. What about heavy assets: DACT, armor, battle-suits?"

Shepard met her gaze. "I deployed to the surface in a HAMRHEAD, and Garrus was in SKYTALON. Both were armor ineffective against the ground rifles. And Vigil says they have heavier infantry weapons."

Dragunov scowled. "Captain Wilson, the husks are also an issue, yes?"

The young man nodded. "That's putting it lightly, Fleet Master. AR&D Project Ahaltocob ran into a HADES installation about a year ago, built directly on the wreck of a dead Reaper they'd somehow found. The husks the team ran into could combine to form completely new and previously unseen forms. They included the ones you saw on Horizon, but others were larger with ad hoc weaponry.

"Studies done after the operation show that the husks have some sort of integral antenna capable of receiving control signals from the Reapers, including instructions to use conventional weaponry. Given that we've seen them deployed on Horizon, there may be tens of thousands of these new husks under the Reapers' command."

General Herrero folded his hands together. "Based on information from… certain highly classified sources, the Collectors have a large space station of some kind behind the Omega-4 Relay. No other details than that, but both my group and the SOG have recovered Prothean and Inusannon writings describing the same thing." He sighed. "Possibly the size of the Citadel."

Dragunov nodded. "As you can see, Baroness, the situation will literally require a full invasion commitment from more than just the Alliance."

Shepard glanced at her wife before speaking cautiously. "I think we can both agree to that, and I am hoping that I can negotiate that with the other Council races. The asari and turians I am pretty sure are already on board. The quarians, maybe. They and the salarians will fall in if humans play ball, I think. So what can you offer?"

Ahern looked at von Khar. "Manfred, the Solguard?"

The Commander of the Solguard looked down, his voice cool. "Per regulations, I cannot dispatch more than one of the Solguard infantry groups. I can cut Battlegroup Omega given the… changes that have occurred. And part of the 4th and 5th Solguard. I can cut DACT and probably a few hundred infowar combat engineers."

Dularis spoke. "1st and 2nd Mindoir are on the jump with two day's notice. Since we've got some leftovers from the 6th Fleet transfer mess a while back, I've got enough transports, but we're light on escorts and medical ships."

General von Khar nodded. "The same. Really, beyond one Solguard group and the DACT, I don't have transports, much less escorts – and the eezo cost will be high."

Shepard waved her hands. "I guarantee we can cover the entire cost of deployment and return. As far as escorts and medical ships, I'll make sure we either have it or get someone else to take it up; volus or maybe the useless-ass salarians. What else?"

Dragunov's voice was slightly sarcastic. "Yes, how exactly can we move such a warforce through the Terminus Systems and to Omega without looking like we're invading? I gather that you would be in strategic command and I am supposing that the gangster bitch on Omega has agreed, but Aria has never had full control of her warlords."

Shepard smiled. "The details are still being worked out. But my main guess is that she'll have her own ships escort us. From what I've been told she hates the Collectors too, so much so that it's the main reason she's agreeing to this shit. On the other hand, it would be helpful if we don't go in aggressively, and keep well away from warlord systems – or Omega Station itself – in our transit. Also depends on how many warships are coming along."

Ahern rubbed his neck. "We already had the discussion on warships, Shepard. The fleets are done in from issues, heavy fighting with the geth, and the operational tempo. 6th Fleet is still behind schedule – there was some political mess with Watson that delayed it being prepared in time – and we're still doing shakedown cruises on 7th Fleet's testbed fourth gen ships. I can cut a squadron or two, maybe shake loose a flotilla, but not much else."

Shepard leaned back in her chair. "We'll probably need more troops than ships. A lot of my force is mechs, and while they're unhackable so far, going in on the home turf of the Collectors with a mech force is asking for trouble. If this station is as big as the damned Citadel, we'll need heavy troop numbers to storm it."

Chu spoke, his voice firm and worried. "And then, Baroness? Not to put too fine a point on it, but your plan seems to leave you – and Cerberus – in charge of both the resources of the Shadow Broker and this Collector… station."

Shepard shook her head. "The Broker's resources are gonna end up in a shallow grave once I get the time. And the main reason I want a lot of troops from the SA and others is because I plan to turn the station over to the Citadel Council. This is proof that no one can deny, it will certainly have tech and, you know, things we can use to even the edge between us and the Reapers. I want to capture it intact, or as intact as we can."

She looked around the room. "I get no one is going to want the Illusive Man – or me – in charge of things that can threaten the ever-so-fucking-important status quo. But if we don't get our shit together now – if we don't find a way to come up with some kind of counter to the Reapers – the status quo won't matter because we'll all be dead as fuck. I'm not here to play games."

Many seemed surprised by this, but Ahern had a small, pleased smirk on his face. Dragunov glanced around the room, then slowly nodded. "I think we can provisionally agree to this. Dularis, send the Lion's Roar in, along with support forces. Manfred, elements from the 3rd Solguard. We'll also dispatch DACT and…" He paused, glancing at the BuShips rep. "How many transports and escorts can we have ready in a month? Enough for the above?"

Commodore Urity tapped a padd, then nodded. "Just under two hundred. We could use some more. Landing packed is dangerous."

Shepard smiled. "I will make sure you have more landing ships, no problems."

Dragunov leaned back. "Then it is time to state what we want in return."

Shepard arched an eyebrow. "I thought the High Lords made it clear what their wishes were."

The Fleet Master snorted. "Half of us in the room would not bat an eyelash if you executed most of the High Lords, and the other half might cheer. Dularis, Herrero, Urity, Dachman, and even Collins have been fucked over multiple times by stupid political games they played. And what Holden is caught up in should be a turian holodrama."

Liara looked as confused as Shepard felt. "But many of you are Lords, in some cases leading Lords or even the scions of High Lords…?"

Shepard's own eyes narrowed. "The little I know about Commissars also makes me wonder if this is legit… or just some kind of scam. My own couldn't even take a break from fighting when they were half-dead due to the shit in their heads. I've promised the High Lords if they don't fuck with me, I'll stay out of their hair. I fully expect them to double-cross me at some point but I'd rather not have them pull this out and say I acted in bad faith."

She paused. "And besides… not to put too fine a point on it, but if you all are acting together on this, you're just as much of a political faction as the assholes running the show right now. I don't want to get involved in politics to unseat one group just to put a different group into power and change nothing."

The Baroness gave her an angled smile. "Hesitance about our goals is understandable, and caution is good. There are reasons. As you noted, most of my kind are complete slaves to their conditioning. Due to the… function of my role and other events, I am not quite so constrained, as I need to be more flexible. That being said, my conditioning forces me to assess reality, not legal codes or intent. And the reality is that the current leadership of the Systems Alliance is taking actions and making choices that will probably force the Citadel to move against us."

The white-haired woman spread her hands. "As for this discussion – and our goals – I assure you that this is not a trap or a setup, and the goal here is not playing political games. Our interests in this align with the good of the Alliance as a whole, not for our own individual ends. We had to expend a great deal of effort to ensure only those who were favorable to our views attended, as to present a single, coherent message."

The Baroness nodded at Liara. "Lady Liara is correct in that some here are Lords. Some who back us are High Lords. But the whole reason we are acting is that the High Lords no longer have the unity of purpose and vision they had in years past, and certain decisions they have made in recent days have drawn unanimous condemnations from the Commissariat, and our feedback has been ignored."

General Herrero's voice was grim. "Bluntly, the Alliance has been tearing itself apart internally since the First Contact War, and recent events have only made that worse. Most of the High Lords are now tied up in a political fight between Prince Eldfell, Prince Manswell, and the Japanese Emperor. This has spread to patronage and support to the point where many elements of the SA government, military, and even colonies are at best, barely working together."

Dragunov grimaced. "We cannot afford to be divided. And the upcoming elections are going to be very bad. Fleet Command is, despite my best efforts, becoming political. The Corporate Court itself is no longer entirely neutral. The revelations about the Collectors being behind the colony disappearances while the High Lords did nothing has soured almost all of the Alliance outside of Sol and the core colonies against them."

Shepard scowled. "So why hasn't anyone done anything to fix it? Why haven't the Black Hats cleaned this up?"

The Commissar, Dachman spoke up again, her voice elegantly refined. "The Commissariat cannot act to fix this. The leadership is distracted, and most of the rank-and-file are conditioned and unable to respond. Those few who are not conditioned have… too much to lose to risk it all to try and stop the High Lords. The Commissariat itself is riven with internal politics." She sighed. "There is no internal party that can be trusted with this, and we cannot let our discord become widely known or other factions such as the STG may take advantage. We do not have enough pure political leverage to unseat them, and the very structure of the Alliance allows no legal avenues. That leaves only one serious path."

Shepard felt like she had been kicked in the stomach. "You cannot be serious. You want me to, what, arrest them? I don't really think that will take."

The Fleet Master's smile was grimly cold. "I am thinking a much more permanent solution is called for, Shepard."

For a long second, Shepard said nothing. Then her eyes narrowed even further. "…You want me to take the High Lords out. Don't tease a girl with promises you can't keep."

Ahern gave a sharp bark of laughter at this, and Dularis actually grinned.

Dragunov shook his head. "No. At least, not all of them." A long, somber pause. "And not yet. But when time comes, if we are left with no other choices? A decapitation strike is something the former President considered having you do, I believe, due to your Spectre-status."

Ahern coughed. "It's a bullshit situation, Shepard. But the amount of fucking incoherent stupidity that's gone down since Magog…"

Shepard glanced at Liara, who spoke. "An altercation involving… several anomalous control groups. Little is known for certain, save that an entire solar system was destroyed, Lord General Kinnix was killed, and there was a great deal of political agitation." She glanced to the table with Herrero, Wilson, and Holden, and her eyes narrowed. "And the fact that all three unit commanders involved with it are here does not bode well."

Holden smiled wryly. "It's a long story. Assuming we live through this and you prove to us you're on the level, I might even tell it to you."

Dragunov gave a short nod. "Then we are in accord." He glanced at the comm-stack with the remote connection. "That being said, you need to prepare Operation Deliverance at once, Doctor Garson. The High Lords have approved the expenditure. If our efforts here fail…"

An elegant, educated voice answered. "Of course. Doctor Mason's paper regarding eezo interactions and efficiencies allows most of the ideas we had to become practical. I'll begin at once."

Shepard arched an eyebrow, but Dragunov merely leaned back. "That is the balance of discussion. Our tactical planning staff will be in contact with… hmm. Who should we reach out to?"

Shepard glanced at Liara, then shrugged. "Me, for now. Once I'm back at base. I'll give you all a comsignal handle to use. What about the media?"

Dragunov smoothed his uniform. "The Japanese Emperor will handle all public affairs regarding this operation. It would be a positive thing if you merely refrained from commenting at all beyond the fact you are working with Alliance officials to ensure the Collector threat will be dealt with."

Shepard smiled. "Good enough for me." She tilted her head. "Now what?"

Dragunov glanced around the room. "Further questions or clarifications from the Baroness should be brought up now, not at the last second."

Admiral Chu checked the padd in front of him, then gave a thin smile. "One more minor issue that I think we need to clear the air about. You are being given permanent liaisons. For military issues, that will be Commodore Anderson, since he's no longer cleared for command. For legal and… operational issues, I have been informed your former Commissars have been remanded to your service. In the event you need intelligence support that the Citadel is unable – or unwilling – to provide, AIS will provide support. Intelligence support in terms of data and resources, not personnel. I'll coordinate that."

Shepard nodded. "Thank you, Admiral. I'll keep that in mind."

Dragunov gave a thin smile. "Then I believe we are done here." He tapped his omni again. "Our PR people will handle media. Try to stick to 'no comment.' "

Shepard stood, Liara following a moment later. She didn't bother saluting or anything, instead merely walking back out, through the narrow corridor and out the front door. She exhaled as the doors closed behind them, and didn't say anything as she and Liara walked back to the aircar and got in.

Liara tapped her omni, triggering her anti-spying routines, and spoke. Her voice was soft. "You are troubled."

Sara gave a weak laugh. "Yeah. I wasn't expecting them to basically say they want me to kill the fucking High Lords, Liara. I'm glad they're willing to work with me and didn't try anything stupid, like arresting me or making a big deal of me not being willing to wear the blue, but what in the actual fuck has been going on? None of Harper's goddamned files had anything like this in them!"

Liara nodded. "I suspect that is due to the fact that Harper's only insight into internal Lord of Sol politics is channeled through House Minsta – a house known for not getting entangled in politics to any real degree. Some of what is being described has been in the media… but you are not the kind of person who usually pursues political intrigue, so the Illusive Man may know more and simply did not brief you since he has plans to handle it."

T'Soni made a gesture of siari separation. "As far as what is occurring, it mostly developed… after your death. The situation in Vancouver and Arcturus has not been at the front of my attention, but some things Telanya and I found out while going through the files of some of the Broker's operatives. Many of the High Lords back Prince Manswell, but some are now instead allies with the Houses of Yamato and Eldfell – and this is within the past year. There are rumors of assassinations and other plots, and several nobles have been killed, exiled, or even arrested and executed."

Sara pinched the bridge of her nose. "And that means we don't have a unified set of leaders right when things are getting stupid, great." She made a vague gesture toward the building. "Some of those people… not sure why they were even there."

Liara leaned back in the aircar seat as Shepard tapped the autopilot to take them back to the Citadel Tower. "I suspect their presence is related to the agitation among the Lords of Sol. It is very telling that the AIS, at least one Commissar, and most of the military seem to be involved with this – and that none of the supporters of Prince Manswell were at the meeting. Admiral Hackett, Admiral Thanenzi, Admiral Okuda, General Collins – none of them. I cannot imagine this was mere coincidence."

Shepard grimaced. "Great, more fucking politics." She paused. "Would Prince James be able to decipher this mess? He should at least know who all the players are, and if this is just a bunch of talk or a mess I really need to deal with before Nazara's buddies show up."

Liara shrugged. "Perhaps. I would also recommend talking with Doctor Minsta, and as I said, perhaps even the Illusive Man. I do not think either would have failed to notify us of this possibility – acting directly against the High Lords – if they had any serious expectations it would happen."

Shepard sighed. "Which means they didn't see it coming either, double fuck." She gave a weak smile. "Dealing with trying to convince the Council to listen got Tela arrested, now this pile of political crap and everyone saying they don't have the ships or people… the fuck else is going to go wrong?"

Shepard's comm-link chimed softly, and Liara smothered a smile as her wife erupted in curses. "You should have known better than to ask that, Sara."