DISCLAIMER – I do not own Mass Effect franchise, the story, or any of its characters. All rights go to Bioware.


AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Say Happy birthday to this story!

It's been a full year since it started, can you believe it? I wish to thank you all for your continuous support with your reviews, favs, and follows. It's the best feeling to know that your story and what you write is considered good and often awesome by many of you guys. This story has also crossed 400 reviews. It was like another milestone. I hope all of them are broken someday.

So, without further ado, here comes the continuation…

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Chapter posted on 13.11.2017.

Main Tags: Action, Sci-fi, Adventure, Friendship building, Love.

Additional Tags: Slowly turning AU, Technology-heavy, Geopolitical themes, Economic themes, Intrigue, Militaristic…

Rated M – for mature and adult content.

Enjoy…


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Chapter 29 – The Corporate Conspiracy

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A barely-perceptible shudder went through the ship's superstructure, the slight vertigo of deceleration feeling almost as if the brakes were applied. Jaina reached her hand to her ear.

"Report," she called.

"Just finished the relay transit, Commander, we're in the Widow system," Joker reported. "I'm seeing lots of traffic; we seem to have dropped during the rush hour. ETA to Citadel: 15 minutes."

"Take it slow, Jeff; we're in no rush," she commanded.

Ending the comm, she returned her focus on the datapad in hand.

"So, what's the verdict?" she asked.

"Good as new, ma'am," the technician that crouched next to her said as he wiped his hands from finishing work, then examined the part he had just replaced. "The nanothyristor regulator was straining because we've augmented our powergrid. All that power was overheating it. I've placed a new one and rigged the thing to compensate. Should be fine for a long while… it's not perfect, though."

"Suggestions?"

He scratched behind his ear. "Well, installing the TET-76 model instead of the standard one would be best, but that one's not on the official Alliance requisitions supply chain…"

"Say no more," Jaina said, bearing all the wisdom of a great commandant, and spoke to the datapad she held, "Input TET-76 nanothyristor to the Spectre requisitions list."

The datapad chirped, and she gave a happy, smug smirk to the crewman. "Using family benefits to its greatest!"

"Here's to that!" he cheered after her as she turned on her heel and exited the chamber with a spring in her step. Having a spouse in high places and having a carte blanche to take advantage of that power? Priceless!

She exited the sensor housings chamber that was located all the way at the front of the ship, beyond the crew quarters sections. Pausing, she fished out a candy bar from her pocket, unwrapped it, and held it between her lips as she munched it, using both hands to update several of her lists on the datapad.

Munching the bar and typing away at the same time, the various conversations from the four-person crew cabins that were arrayed on either side of the corridor were reaching her, and she couldn't help but keep employing half an ear to listen. A legacy of her grunt years; no one knew when a scuttlebutt would yield something useful. And besides, the juiciest things would be heard right here rather than elsewhere.

Sometimes, though, some of the things simply made zero sense!

"You felt the deceleration just then?" came from one cabin just a couple of paces away. Johnson's voice.

"Yeah, we must've passed into the Widow system," Harada replied.

"Damn. The Citadel. You think Mom and Dad will let us have a shore leave? It's been a while."

"Shit, that still sounds a bit weird."

Johnson barked a laugh. "But it's accurate as hell, and we all know it! Besides, it's too late now; it's stuck forever."

"True that. Who came up with it anyway?"

"Joker – who else?!"

"Stupid question," Harada muttered, then sighed. "But yeah, in any case, you have a point. It sure'd be nice to have a day off."

"Here's hoping…"

'Mom and dad'? Jaina wondered absentmindedly. Joker inventing stuff? What the heck were those two on about? Sometimes, some things in the crew quarters sounded just too weird for logic. Oh well…

Though the idea a shore leave sure did sound good, she had to admit. They've been out in the field for almost a month, nonstop! The crew deserved it.

Finishing the update of her to-do lists and finally sucking up the last of the candy bar, she walked up to the closest cabin and palmed the opening hologram to throw the candy wrapping to their trash bin.

Stepping back out, she checked the cabin occupants' names. Fredericks, Marciano, Alonzo, and Polanski. Two of them were on duty, and the voices of the other two were coming from next door.

Humming a happy tune with a spring in her step, Jaina strode into the neighboring cabin where Fredericks and Polanski were chatting up the three present female crewmembers. Paying no mind to the three women that immediately surged to their feet, she grabbed both men by the ears with an iron grip and dragged them out with her.

"Oh, shhh-!" Fredericks exclaimed, both him and Polanski realizing just whose steel grip was ripping their ears off.

She drove the two men before her like a slave mistress and herded them into their cabin, pausing just past the doors and pulling the two half-bent men's heads close together to her mouth.

"Well now," she spoke with a soft smile, the caress of her warm breath a confusingly tantalizing contrast to the sharp pain in their ears. "What do we have here, hmm?"

"Um, uhh…" Polanski stammered.

"It's, ah… a room that's not up to snuff, ma'am," Fredericks struggled out.

"Hmm? A room not up to snuff?" she wondered innocently. "I think it's a bit more than 'not up to snuff', don't you? So, once more – what do we have here then?"

"A… a room that looks like a bomb went off, ma'am," Polanski supplied in defeat.

"And is that what an Alliance soldier's room is supposed to look like?" she asked, raising her eyebrow, her voice the sweetest, most pleasant tone that only came from a woman that was about to rip someone's head off.

"No, ma'am," both men quickly supplied.

"That's right," she dipped her head solemnly. "And you're going to spend the next ten minutes making this room so squeaky clean that you could eat marshmallows from the floor itself – riiiight?" she wrenched their ears harder.

"Yes, mo-uh… ma'am!" Polanski replied hurriedly.

"And you'll be good boys and spend the entire next week on crew deck cleaning duty, together with the other two roommates, to atone for this mistake – correct?"

"Yes, ma'am!" They both shot out.

"Good," Jaina chirped happily, then added more sternly, "Because if I'm not happy with your room when I get back, you can forget about having a shore leave on the Citadel; I'll be grounding you for the rest of your life." She released their ears. "Go get 'em, tigers!"

The two men scrambled to work with absolute speed and dedication.

She turned around and stepped out of the room to see every cabin's doors open and crewmembers peeking out, and spoke out, glancing at her chrono:

"In nine minutes, forty seconds, there will be a flash inspection of the crew quarters. Carry on," she beamed a dazzling smile and walked away.

There was a total general scramble as everyone went to work. She sighed contently. Ahh, the perks of being a person in power! She tapped her earbud and called on a private channel:

"Hey, Marcus, whatcha doing?"

A moment later, came a response:

"I'm here in the cargo hold, teaching a few of our boys on how to maintain the Scorpions; they'll need this in the future. Was that us exiting the relay transit a minute ago?"

"Right! We've crossed into the Widow; ETA to Citadel some 13 minutes."

"I'll go and prepare everything we have for the Council then," he said. "Also, there are a few chores that the ground team wanted to do on the Citadel; we'll separate into groups and send them off while Liara takes the two of us to the meeting with her contact."

"Sounds efficient," she agreed. "Also, we ought to give some shore leave. It's been a month on the field; the kids need some downtime. They need to get wasted and get laid! It's not fair that the only ones that get to do that are mom and d…"

There was an extended pause.

"… Jay?"

"Honey, let me call you right back in one, quick, teensy bit?" she pleaded sweetly, then hung up without waiting for a response and dialed a different line. "Karin? Will you please be so kind to send an automated medical stretcher to the cockpit?"

"Why? Did something happen to Jeff?" Chakwas demanded worriedly.

"Oh, no!" Jaina responded. "Just tell him that mom sent it and that she'll be with him shortly."

There was a pregnant pause, and then Karin exploded into a glorious cackle.

"Traitor," Jaina grumbled and ended the comm.

As the shore parties went on to prepare, the Normandy glided gently through the expanse of the dense nebula, weaving through the throng of the dense Citadel traffic somewhat slower and less recklessly than usual.

The blare of the warning horns echoed across the pier as the sleek vessel glided through the containment barrier, the docking clams extending with a hiss and a clack as they latched onto the hull. Almost as soon as they did, the cargo hold began to open, and the joint crews immediately began the initial checks, maintenance, and resupply works.

Amidst the hubbub of the lower level, Marcus and Jaina exited the Normandy, their ground team in tow, walking down the gangplank and onto the main pier.

"Have you noticed Joker wasn't the one piloting?" Garrus asked. "I was half expecting a goodbye joke."

"Said he had a sudden onset of diarrhea," Kaidan replied, shrugging helplessly.

"And he decided to use the woman's bathroom?" Ashley demanded crossly. "I saw him bee-lining for it with a speed I wouldn't expect from him."

"So that's where he was hiding – where I'd least expect," Jaina grumbled quietly.

"What was that, Commander?" Garrus asked.

"Oh, nuthin'," Jaina replied, smiling innocently.

"Well, jokers aside, it feels damn good to be in the civilization again," Kaidan said, nodding toward the amazing view of the orange-glowing streets of the Wards pulsing like veins against the violet backdrop of the nebula.

Wrex snorted. "Civilization. Yeah right. Whenever I came back to the civilization, I ended up being invited to a conversation with the C-Sec."

"That's because we like krogan," Garrus said.

"And I'm a vorcha," Wrex growled.

"Hmm… won't deny that, but what I meant was that whenever a krogan gets detained, we confiscate so many illegal arms that we could outfit a platoon! You'd be surprised how much funding goes into our bank through the legalized selling of those same weapons."

Wrex gave him a stink-eye. "Wiseass."

"Well, he's not wrong, you know," Tali chirped sagely. "Just look at yourself! You're carrying a machine gun, a claymore, and a one-handed flamethrower!"

"I have to," the battlemaster said. "We wouldn't want the C-Sec to start viewing the krogan in a different light, now would we?"

"I don't know, Wrex," Kaidan started, "you do not seem like what anyone would've expected of a krogan in general."

"Right," Wrex said, curling his upper lip, then turned and gave Kaidan a big krogan lizard stink-eye. "Because you humans have a wide range of cultures and attitudes, and all krogan think and act exactly alike."

Kaidan laughed out loud.

"Yeah, that doesn't work anymore Wrex," he said.

"Maybe if you hadn't used it three times already to scare him to death…" Ashley groused.

Wrex looked from one to the other, then grumbled, "Thank Kalros I'm off that ship; you people aren't fun anymore."

Laughter all around.

"Don't worry, Wrex," Tali said, slapping his shoulder and giggling. "I'm sure that now that you're on the Citadel, there'll be plenty of people terrified by your very presence!"

"I sure hope so!" Wrex barked. "Things on the Normandy are a little too tame in between the missions. The gunfights are good, but I've been aching for some good old fistfight for a while now. None of you hotheads on the Normandy wanted to."

Jaina looked at him incredulously.

"Is that why you've been randomly getting into other crewmembers' faces these past couple of days?" she asked.

"I did," he rumbled. "But I forgot that you humans don't have the same challenge culture as us krogan do. I just wanted to blow off some steam in a friendly bout. Was that so wrong to ask?"

"No, but I hope you won't go picking fights with random people on the streets," Marcus warned as they reached the end of the pier and began to pile into the elevator.

"What? No!" Wrex said. "Picking fights – that's what you do when you're young and stupid. When you get older, you realize that the best fights will come to you."

"Well, I'm glad to hear to hear that the honest people of the Citadel will be safe from the big, bad krogan," Liara declared.

"Course they will!" Wrex said. "What kind of a gung-ho, fight-loving, artillery-packing gun-for-hire do you think I am? I have some class! I don't glare at ordinary people on the street… most of the time."

Liara inclined her head, smiling. "Like I said, I'm glad to hear it."

"I'll just go to Chora's Den, instead," he continued in the same breath. "It got reopened, and the moment I step in, they'll be bound to attack me. Hehehehehehe."

"Oh, for the love of…" Liara muttered, palming her face and smirking. "I shouldn't have asked."

Wrex barked a laugh. "What? You can't tell me that spending your whole adult life studying old Prothean junk is better than a random bar fight, can you? You gotta live a little, Liara! A random bar fight shouldn't phase you anymore; you've been doing great so far on the Normandy!"

"Well, I would prefer fewer explosions," she retorted.

"It's good for ya," he countered. "An explosion every now and then keeps the mind sharp. Same as fights. You should go and have a bout or two with someone on the Normandy, just to keep things sharp and ready for the following mission."

"Do krogan go about sizing everyone and everything for a fight?" Kaidan wondered. "Even friends and allies?"

"Yes," Wrex shrugged as if it was the most natural thing in the world. "It is only natural. Your human military ranks might serve you to have order in peace times, but when in the heat of battle, only the most level-headed, cunning, and capable fighter can lead the army – the one who is not afraid to use any means necessary to ensure survival, and that's how krogan settle their hierarchy."

"I don't think going about and challenging your superior officer to a fight would work," Kaidan said. "That kind of thing tends to get you thrown into the brig."

"Really?" Garrus asked in genuine wonder. "Humans don't organize full-contact battle arenas on their ships or tours of duty? Such a thing is expected on turian ships. I always thought that no such fights happened on the Normandy only because we were all constantly busy."

Wrex chuckled. "Well, there you have it," he said, then turned his look to where Marcus and Jaina were standing. "So, Marcus, Jaina – who'd win in a fight between you two?"

"Oh, I always let him win!" Jaina chirped. "We need to keep our Spectre's ego high and mighty."

Marcus narrowed his eyes down at her. She gave him a little shoulder dance, looking coyly at him.

"What she means by that is that she likes when I'm on top," he drawled.

"How come I get the feeling they aren't talking about sparring?" Garrus remarked.

"Oh, we are," Jaina commented. "Sorta."

"So – sparring mats are getting installed into the cargo hold before the day is over?" Marcus ventured.

"Oh, you better believe it," she hissed huskily, the two of them never losing eye contact.

Wrex chuckled, looking at others pointedly and motioning with his head toward the two commanders.

"See that?" he said. "Healthy competition and confidence in victory. That's why they run this show."

The elevator dinged and the doors opened, the crew stepping out into the C-Sec area.

"A recap," Marcus called, turning serious, and the group formed a broad circle. "Jaina, Liara, and I will meet the contact, followed by a Council meeting. Garrus? You mentioned a side-job."

"A C-sec friend of mine, Chellick, has asked me to help him out with a case. It's a covert pickup for illegal mods. He needed someone off the grid to play the criminal party."

"Then take Wrex and Tali with you," Marcus said. "That should give you enough of a 'not C-sec' vibe if needed. Ashley, Kaidan, you have your chores: the Embassy has a prepared OSD with Alliance patrols. Bring it to us."

"Yes, sir," Kaidan replied.

"Buldoze through the pencil pushers if needed; remember you got Spectre clearance," he added.

"Oh, that'll be a pleasure," Ashley grinned.

"If no other orders are received from me or Jaina, report back to the Normandy after the chores are done, after which you'll have the rest of the day off. Move out!"

As the groups slowly separated, he unconsciously placed his palms on Liara's and Jaina's lower backs, gently herding them forth, with the two women fell in naturally close to his side.

They didn't notice Wrex's and Garrus's keen eyes looking at them sideways. The big krogan snorted knowingly. Garrus twitched his mandible uncertainly, looking back at Wrex.

"Come on, whelp," Wrex rumbled. "Don't we have a job to do?"

Garrus nodded. "Right. This way."

The groups each grabbed a cab and, one by one, lifted off of the parking lot and turned, each going their own way.

"Have there been any new messages in the interim?" Marcus asked as he drove the car they were in.

"Yes," Liara replied, powering up her omnitool. "We've been given an address – a café-restaurant in Bahjret Ward."

She flicked the icon from her omni-tool to Jaina's who began correlating it against the 3D maps.

"Second floor of a building next to a small plaza," Jaina said. "Smart. The place is tucked in with a perfect overview of the place and has zero sniper prospects. And there's a C-Sec precinct right across. Very smart."

"We shouldn't be surprised," Liara said. "Enyota was a commando before going into the private sector on Illium. She's practically written the rulebook of the game."

"She was Benezia's follower once, right?"

"Up until a couple of decades ago. They remained close, and I know for certain that Benezia looked her up when she joined Saren, but that Enyota refused."

"Reasons?" Marcus asked.

"She had already established her own small security outfit that she wants to grow as big as the Eclipse someday. Dropping it all to go on crazy quests with Saren wasn't an option."

"What guarantees do we have she's not double-crossing us by giving us bad info for Saren's sake now, though? " Jaina asked.

"Only that Enyota is very ambitious and cautious," Liara said. "And she's not an idiot; she knows Saren's the enemy number one. Being associated with him would jeopardize her rep and future prospects, especially in Council space.

"Personally, though, I don't think she's trying to conn us. The trouble she went to organize this meet-and-greet proves she's concerned for her safety."

Marcus nodded. "Fair enough. Nonetheless, I intend to take everything she says with a grain of salt. None of us got this far due to blind trust."

The car buzzed through the busy Citadel traffic, surging through the middle levels of Bahjret Ward toward the ground. They passed into the lower level, driving through the Ward's traffic tunnels, finally exiting into the Trennen district.

Marcus gave the indicators and banked, pitching gently down into a broad spiral until he leveled out a few meters above the parking lot. Descending, he shut down the engines and the trio exited the car, taking a moment to scan the unfamiliar part of the Citadel.

It was a spacious square with a fountain in the middle, surrounded by a small shopping mall, cafes and apartment buildings, with many people milling about.

"Spotter, two o'clock high," Jaina said. "Another one, fountain."

Marcus noticed the asari on one of the balconies and a turian who sat on a bench that encircled the fountain, both watching them while seeming inconspicuous about it. Turian was speaking through a comm link. It was invisible to an untrained eye.

"Enyota's people," Liara said. "This way."

She led them up the stairs to a balcony catwalk, then across the skyway onto a fancy open-top café-restaurant. There were few customers at this time, but another asari spotter could be seen watching over the lower area from one of the tables.

Liara looked around and spotted the person she was looking for at a tucked-away desk that had clear lines toward several exits.

"Over there," Liara pointed with her chin, leading Marcus and Jaina toward the woman.

The asari that waited for them sat casually at the bench, ankle across the knee and one arm draped across the backrest, dressed in clothes one might expect of an ex-military: pants, t-shirt, leather jacket, and knee-high boots.

Despite the casual posture she sat in, an air of a professional radiated from her keen, calculating eyes as she scrutinized the oncoming party.

"Enyota," Liara greeted her with a nod.

"You're different," Enyota deadpanned, almost accusing.

"I'm not sure I follow," Liara challenged, crossing her arms.

Enyota nodded at her. "That. You look a hundred years older. More confident."

Liara looked smug. "Why, thank you."

"Hmm," Enyota commented pensively, looking between the two humans and scrutinizing Liara in turn with a small smirk on her lips before nodding toward the seats. "Take a seat. Let's do business."

The three visitors seated themselves across from Enyota. She was silent for a few moments, then spoke:

"To be frank, kiddo, I didn't know what to expect when you first contacted me when all this started. I thought the shy little mouse would walk through that door looking all flustered and outta place. I had no idea what someone like you would possibly want this intel for. Now, though… What happened to you?"

"Explosions," Liara deadpanned. "It's good for ya. It keeps the mind sharp. Then there's geth shooting at you every other day, blasting apart mercs and pirates, getting yourself a boyfriend and a girlfriend," she said with a little smirk as she nodded sideways toward Marcus and Jaina. "It kinda puts things in perspective."

"Hah!" Enyota barked. "In other words, running, gunning, and shagging – what any decent young maiden should do, but doing it in style. Way to go, kiddo. Way to go."

Liara played it cool about the shagging part and turned to business instead.

"You know why we're here, Enyota. What do you have for us?"

Enyota leaned forward against the table and laced her fingers, looking at each of the individuals.

"Tell me, what do you know about Binary Helix?" she asked.

"A corporation that specializes in biogenetic research and development," Liara said. "Why?"

"Because Saren is a major shareholder, and the Council has no idea about it."

Marcus tilted his head, narrowing his eyes at her. "That doesn't make any sense. Binary Helix is a Council-licensed corporation. Council's investigation teams would have made the connection to Saren by now."

"No, they wouldn't," Enyota replied, then leaned back, crossing her legs. "You see, the problem is that Binary Helix isn't a corporation. It's a consortium. It is organized around large, self-contained member firms and groups. Each one functions on a separate line of funding, having their own banks, their own internal exchange and paperwork."

"I find it had to believe that the Council investigators would have missed Saren's involvement in it despite that," Liara challenged.

"And if the member corporations were solely from Citadel space, that would hold true, but many of them are not. They come from Terminus, Traverse, and the Verge, and as such, the Council cannot touch them."

Liara's eyes widened, and she shared a look with Marcus and Jaina. Enyota nodded at seeing this.

"You realize it too," the older asari said. "And thus we come to the greatest problem of capitalism: as long as the money is being raked in, the governments are willing to turn a blind eye and only do a half-assed job in the investigation. See no evil, hear no evil. And this is why Saren has managed to retain his link to that consortium without being noticed and maintain business with them."

"Wouldn't the STG still be able to discover Saren's involvement?" Jaina wondered.

"They would if they knew that they needed to look at Binary Helix specifically," Enyota said. "But as it stands, they have absolutely no clue about it."

"Then how could someone like you possibly know?" Marcus interrupted, leaning forward with a dangerous look in his ice-blue eyes. "Explain to me how can a leader of a small, private security outfit know things that have slipped the STG's grasp."

She leaned forward against the table, returning a solid look.

"A person in my business needs to know the filed. I must know not only my clients and their backgrounds, but the competition and the clients that hire them as well. The clients, in my case, are the corporations that want a new facility secured, or ensure a safe transportation of sensitive goods. The competition, however, are hundreds of small mercenary groups that operate throughout the Attican Traverse and the Terminus. They're cheap and don't ask questions, and are more than willing to do shady work. My good rep and the quality of future ventures depends on knowing both. How does this tie to Saren you ask?

"See, when I opened up for business, things were pretty stable and unchanging. Then, several years ago, the landscape in the field began to alter. Many of the mercenary companies started going off the grid, leaving a vacuum. Obviously, this got me worried, so I put a few ears to the ground and discovered that none other than Saren was recruiting big time and sending them off to do goddess-knows-what throughout the Terminus and the Traverse. Naturally, I kept tabs on things. I couldn't find out much, unfortunately, 'cause Saren was good at a cover-up, but because I watched both the competition and their clients, I got lucky; A piece of information from another contact cast light into where Saren was getting the money from to keep paying all those mercenaries for so long."

"Binary Helix," Jaina said, narrowing her eyes.

"Exactly," Enyota replied. "A thing this big piqued my interest, so I kept close ties with a contact that worked in Binary Helix. Then, about six months ago, I found out that Saren began to clean house. Most mercenary groups that worked for him ended up dead. I figured: hey, it's rotten as fuck but it's Spectre business; I better not get involved. Then, two months ago, Eden Prime happens, and not long after, you contact me. So, here I am."

"Has Saren still kept his business with the Binary Helix?" Marcus asked.

"As of yesterday, very much so, and it's a big business alright," she said.

"Of what kind?"

"They are providing him with specialized equipment for genetic and biochemical research, cloning vats, as well as a great deal of Lishteni cyber-augmentation tech. To what purposes? None of my informants know. And, to be frank, I'm not sure I'd want to know, either."

"Closing your eyes and hoping that makes the monsters from the dark just go away?" Marcus asked rhetorically. "Because that always works."

Enyota snorted. "Yeah, point taken."

"So – cloning vats and biological research equipment," he said. "What quantities are we talking about here?"

"Shiploads," she said. "The gear is mixed with other cargo to cover it up, but from what I'm getting, we're talking hundreds of units."

"All you're saying makes it look as if Saren is building himself an army," Jaina commented. "A genetically-enhanced army – probably with lots of cybernetics too. The question is why, if he already has geth troops?"

"For getting where geth can't – infiltration, most likely," Marcus replied. "Imagine covertly filling up a place like the Citadel with your own people over several months, then suddenly staging a coup." He nodded at Enyota. "What else have you found out?"

"Only that most of his genetic tech comes from Binary Helix's labs on Noveria," she said, then smirked. "They have a sweet deal out there, you see. Noveria Development Corporation is actually something we asari call a histeya."

Marcus and Jaina frowned.

"A keiretsu? That's a human term," he said.

"Ah, it must be the translators," Enyota said, then nodded. "Histeya, keiretsu – guess it's similar enough. The NDC is like that – several firms working together but having fingers into each other's pie, such as owning each other's shares for financial security purposes. Binary Helix consortium joined this. The NDC has provided them with large labs in the planet's icy desert. It is here that the entirety of their work for Saren is centered at – right in front of Council's nose, but way away from their eyes."

Marcus leaned back into his seat, looking up, and his mind churning this new information around. Enyota homed in for the kill:

"Do you want to know what the biggest kicker is?" she asked.

He nodded.

"The kicker is that everyone above the lowest level on Noveria knows that Saren has a lab in the mountains doing his work." When everyone looked at her incredulously, she continued. "If you were to ask around Port Hanshan, any man or woman out there would tell you that as if it's the most natural thing in the world, because they don't' give a fuck about the Council, and they have the leverage to do so. The only thing that can make Noveria dance to your tune is money – or the threat of losing it, for that matter – and since the politicians work with them for mutual profit, nobody cares enough to actually check whether they've been bad boys."

Marcus flicked his tongue against the inside of his cheek, slowly turning his head to share an incredulous look with Jaina.

"Well, then," he spoke after a few moments of silence, "Now we have our new mark."

"Yeah, good luck with that," Enyota said wryly.

"Why?"

Liara answered instead, "Because Noveria is not a part of Council space. Noveria treaty ensures it remains independent, operating solely as a private property under Noveria Development Corporation."

"Yeah, well, something tells me they don't get to play dumb," he said knowingly. "Not when it comes to this." He looked to Jaina and Liara, speaking, "We'll need to run this with the Council and then make preparations."

"Thanks for this, Enyota," Liara said. "You'll find that the funds have been transferred to your account. I'm also extending an invitation for further businesses, not just for Saren but for everything that will be coming our way."

"Will?" Enyota intoned.

Liara gave her a silent, serious look. Enyota watched her silently for a few moments.

"You know, I've known you since you were born, kiddo. In the entire century since you could speak, you've always been fanatical about the Protheans; the park incident clearly showed that. Yet now, I see a fledgling information broker before me. The Protheans, the academics, the ruins – you've practically thrown it all away," she snapped her fingers. "Just like that. And you never were the one to abandon one thing before getting all the way down to the truth of it. What changed? And don't tell me it's because of the explosions, geth, and a good nookie."

Liara looked down at the tabletop, the grim expression in her eyes not lost on Enyota.

"Let's just say that what I've uncovered about the Protheans is far more than I have bargained for," Liara said, then raised her eyes.

Enyota was silent for a moment.

"And Saren and Benezia are connected to it, aren't they," she stated more than asked.

"And if they succeed in what they plan to do with it," Marcus spoke up, "no matter how hard you or anyone else keep your eyes shut, you're gonna be swept fully into the storm."

Enyota looked at his eyes. His grim frown was all she needed to see.

"Alright," she said with a nod. "I'll help you, kiddo. We'll keep in touch."

Liara smiled. "Keep posting me about anything of relevance to this, then. If the situation changes, I will be the one to notify you of new points of interest."

The four of them stood up from their seats, shuffling away from the table and walking out of the bar. As Marcus, Jaina, and Liara went to their car, Enyota's lookouts retreated one by one and moved off to regroup with their boss.

"So, what now?" Jaina asked as they piled into the cab.

"We meet the Council," Marcus replied. "They were already notified that we found out about Virmire. I want to see what they have done about it."

The skycar spun gracefully through the air, and sped down the path from which they originally came, with Marcus punching in the direction of the Citadel Tower.

.


The three-person group exited the main Tower elevator and turned down the non-descript corridor, with Marcus flashing his credentials as they passed the armed guards.

They walked to a non-descript door and entered a large chamber that functioned as the Council's private conference office. All three of the Councilors were already there, with Valern and Sparatus sitting at comfortable armchairs around a broad round glass table, examining some reports, and Tevos standing a few paces to the side, next to a large window.

Marcus noticed another individual standing in the corner of the room, as well. It was a salarian, wearing a non-descript black armor.

"Commander," Sparatus greeted him neutrally, replacing a datapad on the desktop.

"I trust you've read our findings concerning Virmire," Marcus spoke without preamble. "I need to know what course of action you plan to take."

Sparatus arched a brow.

"Straight to the business at hand, then," he commented. "Very well. I trust that you've familiarized yourself with the background concerning the planet?"

"Naturally," he replied.

"Then you understand the delicacy of the situation," Tevos spoke up as she turned away from the large window, and walked regally toward the desk. "Any large-scale action on our part could very well cause a chain reaction that could lead to a war with the Terminus systems."

"Large-scale action?" Marcus exclaimed. He shook his head. "Whoever said anything about a large-scale action?"

The Councilors looked taken aback.

"I'm surprised, Commander," Sparatus spoke first. "I'd expect that, as a human, you'd be eager for a payback to a man that has slaughtered thousands on one of your colonies."

Marcus raised his eyebrows and shared an incredulous look with Jaina.

"Well the fact that I want him dead doesn't suddenly mean that all my military education just flew out the window with my brain and that I transformed into a mindless bloodhound," he retorted with an impatient glare as he crossed his arms. "Have you really thought that I'd be crazy enough to send a fleet into a dark area that we have no tactical info about? That's just calling to be ambushed."

"Saren still has contacts around," Jaina picked up. "He'll know the moment the fleet even starts to muster. He'll be able to retreat even before the fleet is fully assembled, and set up shop elsewhere while leaving a few nasty surprises in his wake. End result? We achieve nothing and are actually thrown five steps back. Right now, we know he's on Virmire and we mustn't rush until we have a clear layout. Every tactician knows this. After that, we can hopefully eliminate him with a precision strike."

The Councilors straightened, looking at each other in silence. Marcus and Jaina were beginning to slowly discern small, almost imperceptible cues the Councilors were giving each other and assumed Valern was the one to speak next.

"You… have obviously given this some thought already," the salarian said slowly. "We assume you have an idea of your own?"

Marcus swiped his hand toward the second salarian that stood off to the side in the shadows. "The same idea you envisioned, obviously – to send an STG to scout it out. That's what they're for. I don't understand why you didn't think I'd want to do that in the first place."

The Councilors were looking at him silently for a second, unmoving, before Tevos took word.

"We have obviously misjudged your method of approach to situations like these," she said, raising an eyebrow. "You will forgive us, but our only experience dealing with human matters comes through your ambassador. We know he was very vocal about the Council taking… an extreme course of action."

Jaina sniggered next to Marcus. "Assuming that soldiers would behave the same as politicians do? The same politicians who send soldiers to death while sitting comfily in their armchairs?" She snorted derisively. "Please, Councilors."

Tevos inclined her head acquiescently.

"Very well, Commander," she said. "We are glad that there was no need for any form of persuasive talks to take action. We have, as you say, already decided that sending a single STG team would be the best course of action, and we're glad that you agree. May we introduce Captain Kirrahe."

Marcus turned his head as the thus-far unnamed salarian stepped out of the shadows at the side. He walked up, offering his hand to Marcus, who took up the handshake.

"Tol Kirrahe," the salarian introduced himself. "My team has been assigned to investigate the situation on Virmire, Spectre. I will report my findings to you if we manage to uncover anything."

"What's your crew complement and equipment?" Marcus asked.

"I have an extended company of mixed operatives and covert troopers, flying SUS Rureto, an STG frigate," Salarian said. "We may not be a stealth ship like the Normandy is, but I assure you we know how to slip by undetected. If there is anything amiss on Virmire, my team will discover it."

"Very well, but be advised that I've received intel mere hours ago from my sources indicating that Saren was in the process of procuring vast amounts of heavy biochemical and genetic research, as well as cloning equipment. Reason dictates he's either trying to build a clone army of some kind or that he's developing a bio-weapon to test on the clones. Take appropriate measures."

"I see. Well, it's nothing our team hasn't seen before. We'll be ready for it, I assure you," Kirrahe said with a salarian smile. "We always expect trouble."

"Fair enough," Marcus acquiesced. "How soon are you leaving?"

"In seventeen minutes, if we are finished here," he said, looking questioningly toward the Councilors.

"By all means, Captain," Valern nodded, to what Kirrahe nodded farewell to Marcus, and walked away toward the exit.

"Commander," Valern spoke up, "Your reports never mentioned that Saren was procuring bio-genetic research equipment. Care to explain?"

"That's because that information is new," he replied. "I came to it less than an hour ago, right here on the Citadel. According to my source, Binary Helix Consortium is constructing vast quantities of this equipment for Saren directly, and the numbers are in the hundreds. "

"Then I question the validity of your source, because there's no way that a business of that magnitude would have been kept secret," Sparatus said.

"We have checked all of the Citadel Space based corporations in great depth, Commander," Tevos stated. "None of them have shown any connection to Saren. I assure you, Binary Helix wasn't overlooked."

"Have you checked their businesses on Noveria?" Jaina punched straight to the core.

Tevos blinked.

"I thought so," Marcus rumbled.

Sparatus's head jerked toward the asari Councilor, his eyes glaring. Valern just looked at her questioningly sideways; it had been her part of the job to organize the agents to investigate the white collar connection to Saren.

"Noveria is outside of Council jurisdiction, Commander," Tevos spoke diplomatically, her words meant for all present. "We couldn't perform any checks on them."

"My point exactly," Marcus replied. "Saren is a major shareholder of the Binary Helix."

There was a pause as Marcus purposefully let that sink in.

"How accurate is that information?" Sparatus demanded sharply.

"Very," Marcus replied. "Apparently, the fact that Saren has assets on Noveria is not that big of a secret among the dark corporate world of the Traverse, yet here I am, having to utilize my own resources to discover that."

He paused, then sucked in a full breath before he spoke,

"You know, Councilors, I'm the last person to tell anyone that you shouldn't make deals with the devil if it suits your cause, but I also know that the devil will seek the first opportunity to bite my hand off. Now I know that everyone benefited from whatever deal the Council made with Noveria, I really do, but from where I'm standing, it is woefully clear that you have failed to ensure your own security, and I can't help but wonder what other backdoors to your operations have you left wide open!"

He took a deep breath, calming from his tirade and placing his arms akimbo.

"Now," he continued more measuredly, "the NDC has played you for complete fools. They know Saren's the enemy number one – the whole damn galaxy knows – yet they played dumb." He shook his head. "I don't think they should be allowed to get away with it. That is unless you want all other corporations to see NDC getting away with doing damaging business behind your back and be led by that example to openly do the same – which they will!"

By the time he finished, Tevos's features were stony, Valern's face was troubled, and Sparatus was all but grinding his teeth.

"Obviously, what you've brought to light shows that our relationships with independent consortiums will have to be placed under careful scrutiny," Sparatus spoke through his teeth, emphasizing words, pointedly not looking at Tevos.

"Indeed," Valern said grimly, raising his eyebrows. "If the NDC and Binary Helix have truly covered up their involvement with Saren, then we must investigate the matter immediately. I trust that your goal was to head to Noveria to confront them about Saren's involvement, Commander?"

"It is," he said. "I will be taking the Normandy there as soon as the maintenance is complete," Marcus replied.

There was a moment of silence.

"Very well, Commander," Tevos replied slowly, inclining her head. "But we must warn you: as you've said it yourself, Noveria is not under Council jurisdiction. We have an agreement with Noveria by which Spectres are allowed extraterritorial privileges, but nothing further than that exists. You would be at best… tolerated."

"Oh, they better believe they'll be tolerating me to the extreme," he declared. "They don't get to play dumb with this. And I'm hereby notifying you that I'll be using this excuse to tear them a new one, diplomatic and economic incidents be damned."

Tevos winced, Valern's eyelids blinked conspicuously, and Sparatus just regarded him grimly.

Without any further word, Marcus turned and led the way out of the Council chambers.

.


"I don't think the Council likes the situation in which it is in," Liara commented, as the tree of them were climbing up the elevator toward the Normandy's docking bay.

"You reap what you sow," Marcus said. "They had allowed for NDC to exist, and Saren had used that fact to his utmost profit. Now, they don't know how to proceed."

"What do you think we'll find there?" Jaina asked.

"With all that biogenetics involved?" He snorted mirthlessly. "Hopefully just lots of info about Saren and Virmire, and nothing else," he said, as the elevator doors opened to the docking bays, and the three of them stepped out.

"The corporate heads on Noveria won't let you go about that easily, Marcus," Liara said. "They've got used to having their way, especially since they are practically independent."

"We'll see," Marcus replied as they stepped up to the Normandy's docking berth proper.

Suddenly, Jaina looked alert. "Heads up."

Marcus tracked her gaze to where she pointed with her chin and saw an Alliance Admiral standing in front of the Normandy's entrance, a female officer that worked as his adjutant in tow, and Kaidan and Ashley standing at-ease just to the side of them.

"Liara, you just be chill and proceed straight into the ship," Jaina said. "This is likely some Alliance business and doesn't involve you."

"That looks like Michailovich, from the 63rd Scout Flotilla," Marcus noticed.

"Really? What's he doing here?" Jaina wondered.

As they approached, Liara passed to the side of them and proceeded straight toward the ship's airlock. The two commanders could see a frown on the admiral's face as his eyes tracked the young asari.

Marcus and Jaina walked the few paces up to him, noting his expression of displeasure. They stepped up and gave a by-the-book salute, the Admiral greeting them back in return and speaking up:

"Rear Admiral Michailovich, Fifth Fleet," he said. "This is my adjutant, Ensign Nakano."

"Commander Marcus Shepard, CO to the SSV Normandy," Marcus introduced himself.

"Commander Jaina Shepard, XO to the SSV Normandy," Jaina spoke in turn.

The Admiral looked from one to the other, as if waiting for something.

"You have no idea who I am, do you?" he asked.

"The Commanding Officer of the 63rd Scout Flotilla," Marcus replied simply.

Mikhailovich looked as if he swallowed something sour.

"I wasn't referring to what's common knowledge, Commander," he said irritably. "The Normandy was slated to be assigned to my Task Force. Yet, I see it sitting here, doing the work of those who are not Alliance."

Marcus looked at him askance. He really didn't want to waste time on what, by every sound of it, looked like a caprice of a ranking officer who wanted his hurt ego stroked.

"Admiral," he spoke, keeping his annoyance from being too obvious, "with your Task Force being part of the 5th Fleet, there's no way you cannot know that the Normandy was lend-leased to the Council to serve under me and that those orders come from –"

"From the very top," Mikhailovich spoke on top of him, "yes, I do know, Commander."

"Then, with all due respect, but what is this about, Admiral?" Marcus demanded boldly.

Mikhailovich kept a level glare at Marcus who glared right back, both men near the same height, neither backing off, just projecting that firm aura that made them into the men they were.

"It's about this ship," Mikhailovich spoke slowly, nodding sideways at the Normandy. "When it first set sail, I considered it nothing more than a gimmick, an effort on the politicians to play nice to the turians and spend exorbitant amounts of money in a co-developed boondoggle."

"Yet someone had shown you its operational battle data," Marcus said knowingly.

"They did," Mikhailovich said, then walked a few paces with his hands behind his back, looking sideways to the Normandy. "I couldn't believe it. A ship this small, at 155 meters compared to the Alamo's 232, yet packing enough punch and defenses to give a heavy cruiser a run for its money."

"And now you want it back," Marcus finished.

Mikhailovich stopped dead and turned on his heal toward him.

"No, I do not," he said clearly. "Not this ship, anyway; I do not need it. Another Normandy-class down in the future will replace it in my ranks, and that is why I'm here."

He walked up to Marcus.

"Sometime in the very close future, the Normandies will represent our frigate mainstay, and if we are to lay our trust in them, I want to know just how much of that apparent stellar performance comes from the ship and its Alliance crew, and what comes from the non-Alliance factors.

"I'm here to make an inspection, Commander. I want to see just what makes the Normandy tick, and I want to make it an official memo to the Joint Chiefs." He motioned with his hand to his adjutant, who offered a datapad to Marcus. "This is Alliance Command's official request for the inspection. Obviously, it is stated as such, since the Normandy is not directly under Alliance's command and it still requires you, as its commanding officer, to officially allow it."

Marcus had already scanned through the short document, noting the key points and finding nothing out of order.

"I can agree to this," he said noncommittally, then glared at Mikhailovich from under his eyebrows. "As long as this happens today and doesn't last much longer than your usual inspection. We are pressed for time."

"We can begin right now," Mikhailovich stated pointedly.

Marcus returned the datapad to his adjutant with a sharp motion of his hand, then motioned with his open hand toward the Normandy's entrance.

"Permission to come aboard granted," he said, then nodded sideways toward Ashley and Kaidan who stood patiently at-ease off to the side. "Just let me confer with my men on a mission-sensitive issue first."

Mikhailovich nodded briskly and walked with his adjutant to the Normandy's entrance where he waited them out.

As Marcus and Jaina approached the Kaidan and Ashley, they could see that the two marines looked a bit uncomfortable.

"Lieutenant, Chief," Marcus spoke.

"We sent you to get us the data, and you returned with a grumpy Admiral," Jaina snarked.

"We encountered them at the Embassy, unfortunately," Kaidan spoke.

"Sorry ma'am, sir," Ashley said, looking bashful. "They followed us home, but we promise we don't intend to keep 'em."

Marcus chuckled. "The data?"

Kaidan immediately handed him the OSD. Marcus took one look at it and scanned it with his omni-tool, then glanced at the two marines.

"Alright, get your asses to town; you're off the clock," he said nodding them toward the distant elevators.

Ashley grinned broadly.

"Yes, sir, thank you sir!" and she grabbed Kaidan by the bicep and dragged him off.

With that, Marcus and Jaina returned to Mikhailovich and led him into the Normandy.

"Admiral on deck!" echoed throughout the interior as the small party exited the airlock.

"As you were," Mikhailovich called out before any commotion could spread.

He took one long, sweeping look across the entire area.

"I knew the Normandy had a different layout than a standard Alliance frigate, but this is the first time I'm actually seeing it," he commented.

His eyes settled on the pilot's chair.

"Helmsman," he called.

Joker looked back from the pilot's chair, then pressed the control, pulling the chair back from the console and swiveling around.

With slow and careful motions, he shuffled out of the chair and stood at attention, his face tight and carefully blank.

"Sir," he said, his usual joviality and jabs completely absent.

"Lieutenant Jeff Moreau, I believe?" Mikhailovich said, measuring him from head to toe. "I understand you have a rare condition? One that makes your bones extremely fragile."

Joker clenched his teeth and fury flashed in his eyes.

"Sir, with all due respect, but I have earned my right to be here, and I –"

"Helmsman!" Mikhailovich interrupted sharply. "Do I look like a drill or flight school instructor?"

"No, sir," Joker replied after a heartbeat.

"Damn right I don't, nor I ever intend to be one," Mikhailovich said sternly. "I didn't come here to question whether you're apt to be where you are. If your professors and instructors at flight school said that you are, with flying colors and top scores, then that is so and as far as I'm concerned, you're exactly where you need to be."

He paused, taking a step around the man-at-attention.

"Now. I read your file," he continued. "You have top scores. You even hijacked the Normandy before its maiden flight to show-off your flight skills to Captain Anderson. I'd applaud you if it wasn't practically a felony. And I've seen the simulations of you flying her throughout several skirmishes and battles. And that is why I'm here. I'm here to ask you, the Normandy's pilot, specifically:

"How much of that amazing flight was the Normandy, and how much of it was you?"

Joker's face turned from previous anger to careful deliberation.

"This ship's the best ship in the Galaxy when it comes to agility, hands down," he stated firmly, with fire to his words. "Its speed and maneuverability are off the charts. That being said, you need to be careful; all that power can sneak up on ya, making it buck like a bronco. The ship can fly for itself, yes, but in the heat of battle, you can't rely on autopilot or fly-by-wire. It cannot make the decisions for you; it can only adjust. Any decent pilot knows this and knows how to give a kickass flight. Are you asking me whether any of my fellow Alliance pilots could fly this ship through those battles you saw? Yeah, they could. They'd bring the ship back in one piece more often than not, and with some experience and liberty to fly wild, they might become pretty damn amazing with it… But nobody will ever be as good as I am."

"So what makes you different?" Mikhailovich stabbed deliberately. "You – a boy with fragile bones? You'd be useless in a gunfight, yet you are a maverick at the helm. Why? I want to know."

Joker's face turned furious.

"I don't know," he growled defensively, then added a belated, "sir! I just am!"

"Actually, I have the answer to that," Jaina spoke up from behind Mikhailovich.

Virtually everyone turned to look at her in mild surprise. She shrugged it off like it wasn't there.

"The reason Joker's so good is because of how he moves," she said. "People with Vrolik syndrome mustn't make sudden motions. With their bones fragile, one wrong step could mean a fracture, so ever since birth, they need to learn to move differently than how the healthy people do. Their movements need to be more gentle and flowing into the motion.

"Now, bring that into the ship's cockpit. The controls are razor-sharp. They're made of haptic joysticks and they detect the tiniest of motions, instantly reacting to any change. But us, humans, are built to have quick reactions, so when they fly a ship and a sudden movement is required, the majority of pilots will make a quick jerk that the ship cannot properly follow through. Few pilots manage to overcome it because it requires them to abandon and forget the very thing they grew up around. But Joker never had that. His movements were always careful and flowing. That is why he is the best – because his hands are steady and deliberate even when dreadnoughts are firing at you."

Mikhailovich seemed to genuinely consider this.

"I see," he said absentmindedly, then giving Joker another head-to-toe. "Carry on, Lieutenant."

He turned on his heel and bid Marcus to lead him down the main operations corridor.

Joke exhaled in relief and gave a grateful look to Jaina.

"Thanks, Commander," he murmured.

"Oh, any mother would want to protect her baby boy," she replied with honey-sweet voice through clenched teeth.

Joker choked, going pale. Jaina patted his shoulder gently.

"Now go do your chores; we'll talk about this later," she said sweetly, then followed after Marcus and Mikhailovich.

The two of them had already passed into the CIC section, and the Admiral was looking high and around as he appraised the layout.

"I'm not sure I like this," Mikhailovich commented.

"What exactly?" Marcus asked.

Mikhailovich waved his hand around.

"What I see is a CIC and bridge combined in one, yet I don't see why a frigate would need such a thing. A CIC of this size would be expected on a carrier or a dreadnought, but a frigate? No. Ships like these aren't designed to lead fleets; what good is a CIC like this?"

"To perform covert ops," Marcus said simply.

"A CIC this huge for covert ops?" Mikahilovich argued pointedly.

"Precisely," Marcus stood firm. "A stealth ship that operates deep behind enemy lines needs to handle a huge amount of data. This CIC is not here to coordinate other ships but to carefully follow the maneuvers of a multitude of enemy ships throughout the system. One or two operations stations like you'd have on an average frigate's bridge aren't enough for that. Any piece of data that slips through can cause this ship to be discovered, and it would spell a critical mission failure. In addition, all that data that was recovered from an enemy-occupied system needs to be processed and sent back to the fleets. This CIC does just that."

Mikahilovich hummed pensively, then looked around once more.

"I see," he said. "Yet this CIC acts dually as the bridge at the same time. The multiple operations can create unnecessary clutter. I can already see a commanding officer would find it exceptionally difficult to organize an effective execution from where we stand."

"They thought of that already," Marcus said, then motioned him back toward the command platform. "Up here."

The two of them stood side by side at the top of the command platform and overlooked the entire CIC, with a clear view up the front toward the cockpit.

"Ship captains had worked as expert consultants during the design stages of this ship," Marcus said. "They knew the moment they saw it that there would be issues like those you mentioned, so they came up with this.

"This CIC is a modified turian design," he spoke as he brought up the various holographic projections that showed various system statuses. "From here, it is intended for the commanding officer to have a full view of what is going on in the CIC, allowing him far greater capability to oversee and direct his crew than what he could achieve if he were to be stationed on the same level and mingle with them, as is the case with standard Alliance ships. Being all the way at the back and in an elevated position, the CO will know exactly at any given moment where his men are and what they are doing. Likewise, the crew knows exactly at any given moment who and where the person that's giving out orders is, and it gives a better sense of the established hierarchy and chain of command during the battle.

"Also, the command platform enables unprecedented control of the ship itself, enabling the commanding officer to have direct control over the ship's systems if needed: its helm, weapons, engines, sensors – all of it can be rerouted for the CO to assume a direct control in case of an emergency."

"Hmm," Admiral hummed as he scanned the spaciousness of the view around him, noticing for the first time some things that were never present on Alliance ships and the degree of oversight he had. "Yes, I can see the merit of this kind of disposition… What about the crew that's further up front at the weapons and defense section, though? They're too far out to be effectively included in CO's commanding."

Marcus tapped his ear.

"They thought of that too; standard spec ops comm implants," he said. "On this ship, everyone has them, and they are active at all times. This enables even the forward stations to be effectively directed and to provide feedback."

"And if the comm system fails?" Admiral demanded.

Marcus shook his head firmly.

"Can't happen. It draws power from human's own body electricity, and works on a separate system than the rest of the ship."

"And what if an EMP strike happens?" Mikhailovich argued.

"An EMP piercing the ship's outer shell?" Marcus asked pointedly. "An EMP of that magnitude would mean that we'd be irradiated with enough energy to flash cook a dinosaur!"

Admiral looked forward, mulling this through, silently inclining his head in acquiescence.

"I suppose you're right; this isn't the 21st century," he said, then took a deep, relaxing breath. "I think I've seen enough here. I want to see the crew deck."

Marcus led him down the platform and out of the CIC, the two of them followed closely by Jaina and his adjutant.

He spent some time sifting through the crew quarters, searching for any discrepancy or eschew of the protocol on the crew's part, and failing to find any. The entire area was squeaky clean, the crew cabins smooth, tight, and spotless. Even the small observation rooms were kept in proper condition. All that Mikhailovich could see was a ship stocked with the cutting-edge technology and service units.

"I'm glad to see that the crew didn't forget to keep their ship up to snuff even when deep in the field," he commented with satisfaction, then nodded toward the elevator. "To the weapons deck."

Tucked in between the crew deck floor and the outer armor, the weapons deck appeared to be one long, low-ceiling corridor that spanned the entire length of the ship between the crew deck and the cargo bay. The entire length of the main gun ran its course here, with javelin missile storage close behind the wing roots, from where the missiles were automatically transported and loaded into the launch tubes via magnetic rails: four tubes in each of the wings, and four more on either side of the main gun.

"This is… very efficient, actually," Mikhailovich murmured as he examined the location of the javelin missile storage compared to the launch tubes' location. "The Alamo has fewer launchers, and they're far more spaced out to the front and the rear of the storage."

"All sixteen tubes can be reloaded within twenty seconds," Jaina supplied.

Mikhailovich nodded. "Much quicker than the ones on the Alamo, that's for sure," he commented. "I've seen enough here. To the cargo bay, then."

Jaina and Marcus shared a silent look of satisfaction. So far so good, they thought as they packed into the main elevator. If things went as smoothly like this, they'd have Mikhailovich out of their hair in no time!

The elevator dinged and the doors opened, and a huge krogan head popped out straight in front of the admiral's face.

"Hey, Shepard!" Wrex shouted excitedly. "We got those illegal mods from Garrus's buddy, Chellick, and already got 'em installed! We oughtta find some suckers for a test run, lest we blow some holes in our ship, cause this baby's eager for some action," he said, then raised his shotgun next to him high and pumped the action lever, then adjusted his armor codpiece.

Marcus managed not to facepalm. Judging from an audible slap from behind him, Jaina had failed in that regard.

The admiral and his adjutant, though, had failed to hear a single word next to seeing a two-hundred kilogram krogan popping up right in their faces. Mikhailovich's shocked gaze shot past Wrex into the cargo bay, seeing Tali and Garrus working next to one of the parked Scorpions, and Liara, who was packing some of her gear into her locker.

"Commander," Mikhailovich spoke slowly. "What are all these aliens doing on this ship?"

"They are the specialists I've hired," Marcus replied.

Mikhailovich's head shot towards him.

"Hired?!" he choked angrily. "A krogan? Asari? Turian?! This is an Alliance vessel, Commander! What are you thinking?!"

"I'm thinking you're letting your own personal feelings cloud your judgment, Admiral, and that it's unbecoming of an officer," Marcus replied. "These people are valued members of my crew. Trash-talking their respective species and treating them as second-class citizens won't win you any hearts and minds."

"The aliens have done nothing to show their hearts and minds are worth to be won! All they've ever done was meddle in our affairs, doing their damned best to force us to do what they want. What would be unbecoming of an officer would be for me to just let them have their way on this ship!"

"Then there is no problem at all because they're not the ones in command. I am," Marcus stated firmly.

Mikhailovich huffed. "Do you even know what color your blood is, Shepard?"

The moment he said it, Mikhailovich knew he was stepping over the line not even an admiral should cross.

"I'd advise you not to go down that path of conversation, Admiral," Marcus replied in low voice. "I've received more wounds in the line of duty than five of your careers combined; I know exactly what color my blood is."

He turned bodily toward him.

"Now. I get where your concern is coming from. I really do. But that doesn't mean that it's justified. I will not allow it to be the basis on which you put my leadership into question, I will not have you put into question the quality of the people that I bring aboard, and I will not have you assuming the Alliance-trained crew is so inept and intimidated by alien presence that they cannot do their jobs properly and crap their pants at the very sight of them. It'd be insulting to all the men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder as we cleansed the Skillian Verge for the Alliance." He lowered his chin and looked at Mikhailovich from underneath a stormy frown. "I'm sure that that's not what you want."

Mikhailovich ground his jaw silently, his gaze locked with Marcus's and not backing down either.

"You've got a smart mouth, Commander," he ground out, then straightened his coat with a sharp tug. "Very well. You've convinced me that the alien… specialists that you, as a Spectre, have hired will not be a disruption to the functioning of this ship. I am willing to leave it at that."

"Glad to know you agree, Admiral," Marcus replied coolly.

Mikhailovich regarded him for a moment more and then nodded toward the engineering bay.

"Show me the ship's core, Commander," he said, mentally throwing the previous argument away.

As Marcus led the Admiral and his adjutant toward the engineering access corridor, Wrex stepped up to Jaina.

"Who's this Grumpy Suit?" he asked, unimpressed.

"A royal pain in the ass," Jaina muttered.

"Well, good to see that your man is calling the shots around here," the krogan replied. "So, about those illegal mods…"

"Good job," Jaina said, clapping him on the shoulder. "So you say you installed them already? Could they be used with our modified weapons without adverse effects?"

"Tali says they're good," he said. "That's good enough for me."

"Good for me, too," she concurred, then glanced toward the engineering, where Marcus was leading the Admiral through the entrance. "I should go."

"Shepard," Wrex nodded and moved off, leaving Jaina who jogged off to engineering.

As she joined up, Mikhailovich was standing in the middle of the spacious deck, gazing up into the swirling mass of element zero suspended between the three arms that generated the containment field.

"Never in my entire life have I seen or heard of the core of this size being stuffed into a ship this small," Mikhailovich said, shaking his head, then went silent for a moment. "Yet, what I find even more incredulous is the sheer effectiveness of it all."

"Its combat records speak for themselves," Marcus said.

"The specs I've received state that its barriers are even more powerful than that of a Berlin-class cruiser," Mikhailovich said.

"Specs say its main gun is about 70%, and its kinetic barriers about 115% as powerful as the ones of a Berlin-class cruiser," Jaina spoke up from the side. "But we have worked out the kinks and optimized the performance during this past couple of months; the ship now has an output as high as 79% and 126% of each, respectively."

Mikhailovich rubbed his lower lip pensively, then looked at Adams who was present for the inspection.

"You're the chief engineer, aren't you?"

"Lieutenant Adams, Gregory, sir," Adams reported.

"Adams," Mikhailovich acknowledged, "I understand the augmentations you've done to the ship are more than just the main gun and barrier output."

"Yes, sir. We've augmented and optimized the powergrid, ensuring that all of our systems can operate above the slated maximum capacity at the same time. We've enhanced the heat sinks, improved on static charge generation, enhanced our engine output – virtually every single system has been improved."

"And what is the reason the Alliance-turian engineering team has failed to incorporate these into the ship?" Mikhailovich asked.

"The ideas for many of those ship improvements actually come from our quarian specialist that the Commander has hired, Tali'Zorah," Adams said. "The engineering team that built the Normandy used standardized methods. We have improved upon that by using quarian experience."

"While I can understand the merit of that, I need to wonder how many regulations have you eschewed in order to achieve this?" Mikhailovich demanded.

"I assure you, Admiral, that I have endeavored to conform the alterations into the Alliance standards. All augments are such that they do not, in any way, disrupt or compromise the standard Alliance systems, methods, or crew operations. The detailed log of augments and alterations has already been sent to Admiral Hackett, and it is being updated regularly when new augments are in store."

"I see," Mikhailovich said pensively, then nodded. "Carry on, Lieutenant."

He made one final glance at the core before he turned back to Marcus.

"I've seen all that I need to see here," he said. "We can return to the CIC. In fact, I believe that I've seen everything that I've needed to see about this ship. Walk me to the exit, Commander."

Marcus inclined his head and escorted Mikhailovich and his adjutant together with Jaina. Soon enough, the four of them stood at the piers right in front of the access gangway. Mikhailovich turned toward them and regarded Marcus and Jaina for a few moments.

"This was an impressive ship," Mikhailovich said. "No doubt about that whatsoever. Although, I'm not sure how the augmentations you've introduced will impact the future members of the class. Though obviously efficient, the augments will need to be given special emphasis in my report to the Joint Military Council; their possible implementation will need to be carefully reviewed by experts.

"And one other thing," he added. "Commander Shepard, when you became a Spectre, your official status within the Alliance was put on ice, everyone knows that, but the fact still remains that you and Jaina Shepard are a couple serving on the same posting. Not that I'm a traditionalist when it comes to interpersonal relationships in the military, but I am still aware that they can complicate matters. I hope you two are and remain very much aware of the risks and dangers this can represent and to always be the exemplar to your subordinates. That is all."

He stood at attention, and Marcus and Jaina followed suit, throwing off a salute which he then returned.

"Godspeed, commanders. Make us proud," he said, then turned on his heal and walked away.

As the admiral and his adjutant left the pier, Marcus blew a sigh of relief and turned to Jaina.

"Well, that went better than I thought it would," he said.

"Sure did," Jaina replied, then she looked toward the airlock, her eyes turning conniving. "And what he said reminded me of something."

She started toward the airlock before Marcus's big hand took hold of her wrist, stopping her.

"Where are you going?" he asked innocently as he gently tugged her back, urging her into his hug.

"Oh, I just wanted to have a word with Joker about this or that," she said noncommittally as she slithered in between his big arms. "Don't worry, it's nothing you need to concern yourself about."

"Oh? Is that so… mom?"

Her head shot up to meet his smug smirk before her eyes turned murderous. In a flash, she was out of his grasp and sending a full-body hook to his face that he parried with a big smile and went into a sparring contest with her.

"You knew!" she shouted and growled as she kept sending combos of fists and low kicks that he fought to contain. "You knew, and you kept silent! Traitor! You, and Karin, and I'm gonna kill Joker!"

He laughed amusedly, finally catching her with a combo and spinning her around to pin her with her back against his front.

"What can I say," he spoke with low voice right next to her ear as they panted from exertion, "You know how I say you're so beautiful when you're mad… I was starting to miss it dearly."

She bucked in his grasp, spinning, delivering a low kick that he parried with his shin, followed by a quick combo.

"Mad. I'll. Giveyou. Mad!" she growled through her clenched teeth as she delivered precise combinations, making what was to him an absolutely adorable, pouting sound.

He laughed, blocking, dodging, and returning in kind, forcing her on the defense until he pinned her against the Normandy's outer hull next to the entrance hatch.

They stood there, her left arm pinned above her head, his thigh pressed against her mound, their faces millimeters apart and panting hard as tiny sparks of sweat were starting to glow on their skin. He enjoyed the moment dearly, gazing deep into her story eyes that glared at him from between her hair bangs that flew with her panting.

"I don't know what you're so mad about," he spoke through heavy breaths. "You know every superior has a nickname between his troops."

"Yeah? Well, I'm only 29! I'm too young to be a mom – especially to a shipload of grownup kids!" she exclaimed in a growl, managing to gain a footing and push him away, the two of them going into a close-in grappling contest.

"Oh yeah?" he challenged, enjoying this too much as he spoke between punching and grappling exchanges. "I actually think it's cute! You, me, the mom and dad… a shipload of kids… Aunt Karin to help us rear them… Uncles Pressly and Adams to help keep them in line, and Grandpa Wrex to lead them into trouble."

Succeeding in a feint, he grabbed her and pinned her once more against his front to whisper in her ear:

"And we can even be called the mature couple that seduced a college student."

Well… she had to admit, all he said sounded too accurate and too amusing, but damn her if she let him get away with it… at least at this moment anyway… later maybe, sure, but now…

She used the opening in the poor positioning he had assumed in order to pin her, slipped her leg against his, pushed, and made him lose his balance. She spun, tackling him, and dropping both of them on the ground with a heavy thud.

"Ugh," he grunted, rubbing the back of his head that had struck the floor. "What happened to always letting me win?" he grumbled.

Drained and panting, she clambered on top of him, straddling his crotch and pinning his wrists to the sides in a symbolic demonstration of victory.

"So," she panted from close to his face. "About those sparring mats…"

..