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

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Somebody mentioned that they would like to see some gunpoint diplomacy in this chapter. I really liked hearing that. It feels good to hear that there are other people out there that share the same idea as I did when I wrote this chapter. Great minds think alike.

And this great mind also happens to be wondering: what would it be like if one were to open up a side-tab to youtube and let the following two OSTs play in the background while they read this chapter:

-Mass Effect Noveria OST (or 'Port Hanshan plaza ambient music'), and,

-Mass Effect 2 - The Illusive suite. (Hint-hint!)

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Chapter posted on 27.11.2017.

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 30 – Noveria – Pt I

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A shimmer of a blue mass effect trail flashed next to the Pax System mass relay. The sleek frigate slashed past the massive structure and arced toward the inner system, its stealth drive going into full power before the sentry satellites even managed to catch the flash.

Marcus and Jaina stood next to each other on the command platform, examining the system's overlay and the diverse signals that were traversing to and from the second planet in the system.

"Not as much traffic as I thought there would be," he commented. "You'd think that a base for a bunch of multi-trillion corporations would have a lot of transport businesses in and about."

"I'm not surprised," she said. "Noveria isn't an industrial center but a rent-a-lab business renting high-end lab complexes to various corps. A thousand creds say they're doing some ethically-questionable research in half of them, and if that's the case, then I'd be very careful as to who I let on and off of that planet."

"Comms too," he said. "They can't allow anything to slip them by."

"Agreed. Any comings or goings would have to be precisely scheduled, and there'd have to be at least some kind of security to enforce it."

He nodded, reaching out to their sensors overlay and pointing out several of the signals on the 3D sensor map.

"Here, here, and this group next to the planet proper, here," he said, rounding the signals up with his forefinger. "Patrols. What do you think? Corvettes?"

"Judging by their movements and signature strength, yes," She replied with a nod, then pointed to another set of signals. "This group that protects the planet proper is a wolfpack of frigates, though, no doubt about it."

"Looks like twenty-four ships in total, not including the defense platforms," Marcus said. "That's a lot of firepower for an icy chunk of a planet."

"I think it's meant as nothing more than a deterrent," she replied, giving him a significant look. "A show of force to sway pirates and slavers away from attacking it. I'd bet those ships are nothing more than privately-built ships with basic armaments. The frigates might have spinal-mounted guns, but that would be it. Their armor would be sub-par compared to any standard military one."

He nodded absentmindedly, his eyes riveted to the overlay, then called out:

"Sensors, how long until sufficient data is collected for an ID?"

"Just about, sir," the sensors operator called. "The VI's finishing up with the signature and silhouette identification now."

An icon in the overlay's corner flashed once, and Jaina pressed it, bringing up the silhouette and thermal pattern capture, and compared them with the known ships in the databases. Two 3D projections popped up in front of them – one a corvette, the other a frigate.

"87% match," she murmured as they both frowned at the images. "It says these are privately-built ships, but…"

He shook his head, then waved an accusing finger at the images. "Those ain't your average private patrol ships, those are full-fledged warships."

"I agree," she said seriously. "Their thermal signature is high as hell; we're talking military-grade powerplant here. And look at the manufacturer."

"Cord-Hislop Aerospace. Aren't they a human firm?"

"Based on Earth, yeah," she said with a frown. "The Alliance has contracts with them for ship production, and it's obvious they copied our standard Alamo class."

"I don't like seeing a potentially high-grade military type of frigates in private hands," Marcus replied.

"Yeah, neither do I," she murmured, frowning as she examined the frigate blueprints. "Why would the NDC even need ships like these? I think it'd be wise for us to keep our stealth field up."

"Agreed," he said, then issued the order out loud. "Maintain our stealth field until I give the clear."

"Aye-aye, sir," the operator replied.

"Pressly, set us up for a close flyby near those frigates," he said. "I want a closer look with our passive scans."

"Yes, sir," Pressly confirmed, setting down to adjusting the approach vectors and maneuvering nodes.

"Sound general quarters," Marcus called.

"Sound general quarters!" Jaina repeated, and the ship was promptly flooded with the dull claxons calling to battle stations.

Thirty-some minutes later, the Normandy was sliding silently and undetected into the orbit of Noveria, at no more than three kilometers behind the five-frigate patrol group.

"What can you tell me?" Marcus asked as the myriad of passive scanners picked up the tiny atoms of the frigate's surface.

"This close, I'm detecting gravitational distortion factor of 12 micro g-s from each of their ships, sir," the sensors operator reported.

"Definitely a military frigate-grade eezo core," Jaina noted.

"Same goes for their armor and weapons, ma'am," the operator added. "By the luminous refraction, I'm pretty sure they use the standard Alliance ship armor composite, and I'm detecting standard Alliance point defense lasers and weapon hatches as well."

"Are these ships' identification codes even in our databases?" Jaina asked.

"No ma'am," the tactical officer replied pointedly. "What's more, their IFFs flag them as civilian vessels sporting defense armaments only!"

"If those Javelin missile pods are defense armaments, then I'm Blasto, the Hanar Spectre," Marcus spoke grimly, then addressed their comm officer. "What have you been picking up on the chatter?"

"Nothing but the standard ship-to-ship exchange from the frigates, sir," she replied. "The surface-to-space communication is scarce, save for the corporate channels. We've already hacked into those, but the VI is not picking up anything interesting in the airwaves."

"Alright," Marcus spoke up, deciding on the course of action. "Weapons and defenses on alert standby. Prepare to drop the stealth field on my mark and open all heat and radiation vents. Sensors, I want you to initiate a full active sweep on those ships the moment we break cover; I want to know what their crew had for breakfast."

A chorus of yessir-s echoed across the CIC, followed by the rapid chatter of preparations.

"Main gun and javelin launchers ready!"

"Point defense lasers charged!"

"Barriers at full power!"

"Sensor sweep ready and at standby!"

"Stealth system ready!" the last report came.

Marcus spoke up:

"Break cover, engage the vents and scans."

The Normandy flared on the sensors like a supernova, swiping the unknown frigates with a powerful multi-spectrum active scan.

For a few seconds, there was no reaction. And then, the frigate wolfpack spun in place, beginning to turn in full toward the Normandy.

"Engage the active sensor disruption matrix," Marcus ordered, and the Normandy's hull polarized and began to bounce off the active sensor scans of the frigate wolfpack just as theirs too had blocked the Normandy's sensors in turn.

"Sir, they're hailing us," the comms officer called.

Marcus nodded, and an angry human male voice came through the speakers:

"Alliance vessel, this is Captain Steve Muller of the Noveria Defense Flotilla! We are tracking you with our weapons. Unless you want to be fired upon, you will state your business, and explain how the hell have you managed to get behind us without detection!"

"This is Commander Marcus Shepard of the SSV Normandy, here on Spectre business," Marcus spoke coolly. "As for the latter, you do not get to know. You do, however, get to explain exactly why I am seeing five frigates with military grade weapons, armor, and barriers transmitting IFF-s reserved for unarmed civilian vessels which are not in our databases."

There was a moment of pause.

"Commander Shepard, these ships are privately-owned property, orbiting a privately owned planet, and outside of both Citadel and Alliance jurisdiction," the man responded. "We are not in the need to oblige to your requests."

"Charge the main gun, open missile hatches," Marcus called out, intended for Muller to be able to hear as well.

Muller barked an incredulous laugh. "Are you serious? We outnumber you five t –"

"Here's what's going to happen," Marcus spoke loudly on top of him. "You're going to look at your sensors operator and see him panicking. He's then going to inform you of our main gun muzzle energy bleed, and then he's going to inform you of our eezo core gravitational distortion."

He waited for the span of three breaths.

"Now that the length measurement has found you lacking, we can get down to business," he continued. "One: your transponder signals are fake. Two: Faking a transponder signal is a direct act of piracy. Three: Pirates are to be shot on sight. You have thirty seconds to strike your colors."

He cut the comm.

"Cloak us! Veer off!" he called out.

A ping of engaging IES echoed through the CIC as the Normandy disappeared from all sensors and maneuvered away from its last known location, its spinal gun staying firmly locked on its targets through the motion.

"I've got the bead on them, Commander," Joker reported calmly.

"Sir," the comm officer called, a frown on her face. "I'm pretty sure I'm detecting an encrypted transmission directed off-system. Strangely, it's not heading toward the relay, but deeper into the Horsehead Nebula. The refraction's off-angle; I can't determine the exact direction."

He merely nodded, the countdown timer Jaina set up firmly in the corner of his eye.

Finally, as the final seconds drew to a close, the sensors operator called:

"Sir! Hostiles powering down their engines; powergrid going down to 25%; vent output reducing!"

As soon as he finished, the transmission came through, with Muller sounding much more subdued than before:

"This is Captain Muller of the Noveria Defense Flotilla. We surrender to Spectre authority."

Marcus ordered for the IES to disengage and reactivated the comm lines.

"The fake transponders – explain," he said succinctly.

"We… were hoping to keep a low profile against possible pirate attacks. We were hoping that the fake IFFs would make them lower their guard, giving us an edge."

"Still sounds like a bullshit excuse to me," Marcus said. "But you're not my target, so I don't have the time. Your hull scans, specs, and energy signatures have been sent to the Alliance Command. Noveria being in their front yard, this stunt with five military-grade frigates faking their IFFs, you can be sure they'll send a full patrol through here to have a word with you. Do not leave the system; if you do, it'll cement your guilt. Now patch me through to Noveria Flight Control for an approach vector and a berth."

"Understood, Spectre," the man replied tightly. "patching you through now. I am obligated to inform you that your identity will need to be confirmed. If confirmation cannot be established, your vessel will be impounded."

Marcus merely barked an audible laugh, then cut the comm to him and spoke into the comms, "Joker, get us down to that planet, and make the maneuvers flashy."

"Aye-aye, Commander," came Joker's voice, a smile evident in the tone. "One display of shock and awe coming right up!"

"All crews, set Condition 3*!" Marcus called through the comms.

The Normandy spun and shot out like a bullet round arcing and diving into the atmosphere within seconds, its mass effect emissions leaving a blazing trail on other ship's sensors.

The ship pierced the cold atmosphere, diving beneath the cloud band and into the swirling mass of wind-swept snowflakes.

"I don't like the fact that those ships were there," Marcus said. "It reeks of something shady."

"I know," Jaina agreed and raised her head from where she was typing away on the console. "I've taken the liberty of writing up a report and recommendation to the Alliance Command to place the Horsehead Nebula under better surveillance. I just need your stamp."

"As efficient as ever," he said, smirking as he stepped up and gave his electronic signature.

Jaina just looked up at him silently, her eyes smiling brightly, soundless words passing between them.

There was a slight jolt through the ground, and Joker's voice came through the comms:

"We have a touchdown. Is it just me, or are those docking clamps purposefully made to jolt us up a bit?"

"A prelude to a welcoming committee," Jaina muttered dryly.

"No doubt about it," Marcus said, then tapped the comms. "Ground specialist team, gear up and meet me at the CIC." He removed his finger from the comm button, and spoke to Jaina, "You too."

"Yes, sir," she replied.

Ten minutes later, the entire team was ready and waiting next to the airlock as Marcus and Jaina stepped pass them toward the exit, all of them fully armed and armored.

Marcus and Jaina were the first to exit the ship, and they stopped just as they stepped out of the gangplank and took a broad, sweeping look all around and above them throughout the docking pier. Wafts of cold air from the main ship entrance were washing over them in waves, ignored in entirety by the hardened men and women who now walked toward the main entrance of the nigh-infamous Port Hanshan.

"Company," Wrex was the first to speak up, noticing a contingent of security personnel waiting for them in the broad open space in front of the entrance.

"Looks like the main welcoming committee you spoke of," Marcus murmured, addressing Jaina.

"Looks like," she smirked mirthlessly.

"Shit, Shepards, I've felt more like a VIP in the last month than in the previous hundred years," Wrex spoke up wryly.

They reached the security envoys, a squad of eight in total, including their apparent head of security, a typically cute east-asian woman of the typically undeterminable age, who stood imperiously at the dead center of the welcoming group.

"That's far enough," she spoke up, raising her hand with the other being held behind her back as if she was some sort of commissar, and her voice cold and unemotional like the carved stone walls that surrounded them. "I am Captain Maeko Matsuo, head of Port Hanshan security."

"Captain Muller has already notified you who I am," Marcus stated.

"You are an unscheduled arrival," the Asian woman spoke. "We need to confirm your credentials."

"If you really have taken the time to confirm my credentials, you would have received an alert flag long before now," Marcus retorted, looking pointedly at the woman. "I suggest you find a better explanation and stop stalling."

"Hey!" a blonde woman, part of the Asian woman's entourage spoke up, her tone rude and sounding as if she had had one drink too many the previous night. "We are the law here! Show some respect."

"I am a Spectre," Marcus replied pointedly. "You show some wisdom."

"A load of horse crap, ma'am," the blonde replied. "There are no human Spectres."

"Shepard has been a Spectre for two months," Garrus stepped up, his deathly glare narrowing down on the blonde woman. "Even the lowest slum rat on Omega has heard of it, so you can cut the crap. I am a police officer; we all know you're stalling."

The blonde sneered at him. Matsuo spoke up instead:

"The comm traffic in and out of Noveria is strictly monitored and controlled by the NDC. It will take some time for your credentials to be confirmed."

"Sounds like more stalling to me," Wrex spoke up.

"Call it what you will, but this is how it is," Matsuo replied. "You can wait with us at the precinct while the issue is resolved. Also, since weapons are not allowed on Noveria, we will need to confiscate them. Sergeant Stirling, relieve them of their weapons."

The blonde woman moved to step forward with an ugly smirk on her face, and then an armored fist smashed into her face, sending her tumbling down on the floor. There was a rush of weapon clicks, and by the time Stirling managed to get her bearings and look up from where she bathing the floor with the blood from her broken nose, Captain Matsuo was looking down the barrel of Marcus's pistol and into his cold, unblinking eyes.

Marcus spoke slowly,

"What misbegotten logic made you think a Spectre would allow you to relieve him of his weapons?"

Matsuo held on to her stony face, but her eyes were dancing around rapidly.

"Commander Shepard, you're in violation of Noveria's law," she said, a hint of tension in her voice.

"Oh, believe me, there will be many more things I will violate today if you don't cut the crap," Marcus retorted coldly, his eyes unblinking beneath his thick frown.

"I have a whole platoon waiting right behind those –"

"Meat to the grinder – all of them," he cut her off gruffly. "My team has faced whole battalions of slavers, terrorists, and geth, time and time again. We've seen more action in the past two months than most soldiers see in their lifetime. A platoon of private troops? Nothing but target practice."

There was a moment of utter silence, broken only by Stirling's sniffs and shuffling as she tried to staunch her nosebleed through a still lingering daze. Matsuo opened her mouth. Her voice was shaky.

"I'm gonna count to three –"

Fury flashed in Marcus's eyes.

"No, I'm gonna count to three!" he growled, pushing the gun closer to her face.

"…One,"

"TWO!" He barked.

Suddenly, there was a crackle from a nearby set of speakers, and a woman's voice came through:

"Captain Matsuo, stand down! Their credentials have been confirmed. Spectres will have full cooperation of the NDC."

Matsuo swallowed, then slowly motioned for her men to stand down, her eyes riveted to Marcus's vortices of rage that held her like a death trap. He held her like that at his gunpoint for a moment more before he finally holstered his gun, followed by the rest of the Normandy's team.

Matsuo finally spoke:

"Parasini-san will greet you at the security station at the lobby," she said simply, motioning with her hand toward the entrance.

Without further word, Marcus motioned his team to follow him, and the eight people walked out from the cold air of Noveria's docks into the warm interior of the Port Hanshan proper, walking past the assembled backup team of ERCS guards that filled the lobby.

Matsuo watched them go, and finally slumped with a sigh of relief.

"Captain?" one of her men, a turian, called to her questioningly.

"Send word to other ERCS teams spread across town," Matsuo spoke listlessly. "They are to keep a close eye on the Spectre and his people."

"Yes, ma'am," the turian replied with a nod.

"And someone help Stirling," Matsuo added, then moved to walk away, leaving Stirling to angrily shrug off other people's help as she struggled to stand up.

Marcus and his group had crossed the small lobby area by that time and had approached a small security station. A woman in her thirties, with an elegantly beautiful Mediterranean face, her hair styled in a bun and wearing an equally elegant magenta dress and a knowing smirk on her glossy lips waited for them.

"Commander Shepard," she spoke up as she walked toward them. "My name is Gianna Parasini, an assistant to Port Hanshan's administrator, Anoleis. Allow me to welcome you to Port Hanshan and to apologize for the inconvenience at the entrance."

She raised her hand for a handshake.

Marcus glanced blankly at her hand, then slowly unclasped and removed his gauntlet, and took her hand in his.

The chemical imprints in her body crossed the threshold and sent a burst of memories through Marcus's mind.

He saw her as what she really was – a corporate police officer, one specialized in white crime, and undercover as Anoleis's secretary for the search of evidence that Anoleis was taking a cut that he wasn't supposed to. All the suspicions of what the salarian was doing were suddenly known to Marcus, from the small bribes and thefts, down to major breakings of procedure by ordering the closedown of Synthetic Insights offices for the purpose of his own gains. Terrific. A slimeball salarian.

And she expected him to play by this man's and Noveria's rules? They were delusional.

"I don't like to be intentionally stalled like that, Miss Parasini," Marcus said coldly, pointedly not letting go of her hand. "Make sure it is not done again, and the apology will be accepted."

He released her hand and went on to replace his gauntlet.

"I'm sorry, Commander, it's just that Noveria works by certain unique regulations, and a Spectre's presence disrupts those," Gianna said. "We needed to make sure proper arrangements were met…"

Marcus sighed impatiently and very audibly.

"… but, I see how that could have made us look," she added. "One of my duties is orientation of new arrivals. May I inquire as to the nature of your visit to Noveria?"

"You can't possibly tell me you don't know, or cannot guess as to why I came here," Marcus said with a shake of his head.

Gianna inclined her head in acquiescence. "True, but I did not wish to assume," she said. "If it is Spectre Saren you wish to talk about, then I can only point you to a higher authority, in this case, Administrator Anoleis."

Marcus thought on something, then exchanged a silent glance with Jaina. Unspoken words passed between them. It was then that Garrus took a step forward and spoke out loud:

"If you are in charge of the orientation of the new arrivals, then you are also required to know who and when is arriving at Noveria at any given time. You are also in a position to requisition any and all detailed data on their whereabouts – especially someone as important as Saren."

Gianna looked slightly surprised.

"You seem to be knowledgeable in administrative police work, Mr…?" she trailed off.

"Garrus Vakarian," he said. "Don't let my phantom-class armor fool you, I am still an active officer of the Citadel Security."

Gianna inclined her head. "I suppose you know what you're talking about, then," she said, then nodded. "True, I do have access to that data. If you require exact dates and movements of our people, I will have to consult our databases. However, I can tell you outright that Saren Arterius has not visited Noveria in the last three months. The only recent visit was from his associate, Matriarch Benezia, and that was some six or seven days ago."

Liara pushed her way forward.

"Benezia was here on Noveria?!" she asked in alarm.

Gianna looked momentarily taken aback by the outburst.

"She still is," she replied, looking around at confusion. "The last I heard, she went out to Peak 15, a Binary Helix private lab complex. Is there a problem?"

"Matriarch Benezia is confirmed to be Saren's accomplice in Eden Prime attack," Jaina replied grimly. "Now that we know she's here, we're not leaving until we bring her in or bring her down."

"Corporate Executives don't like having outside problems dumped in their lap," Giana spoke in haughty warning, looking at her. "Miss...?"

"Missus. Commander Jaina Shepard, the wife," she said, nodding her head sideways toward Marcus. "And stop trying to play corporate bureaucracy bullshit. The Corporate Executives have dumped this particular hot problem in their own lap. They've known exactly what Saren has done on Eden Prime all this time. Them playing mum about Saren being one of Binary Helix Noveria's major shareholders has put them in the very bad spotlight with a certain very powerful trio on the Citadel."

Gianna cast a sobered gaze from Marcus to Jaina, then spoke:

"I'm afraid that for anything of that regard, you'd need to speak with Administrator Anoleis directly."

Marcus raised his hand invitingly. "Lead the way," he said.

The woman motioned them with her hand and led the way out toward the elevators.

All nine of them managed to pile up neatly into a spacious elevator and were quickly transported to the huge lobby that Gianna called the Plaza.

As it turned out, the entirety of Port Hanshan was built inside of a single huge structure that incorporated spaceport docks, large hotel complex, private apartments, garages, as well as numerous corporate offices, bars, restaurants and trading emporiums arranged around a large in-doors plaza they were traversing right now.

Marcus noted the odd monolithic and angular architecture made of thick concrete walls. The plaza was built on several levels connected by stairs and stone bridges that crossed hot water flows, with warm steam rising up from them to bring warmth to the air. Still, a sense of chill remained as wind-driven snow drifts flew across the massive windows that domed the whole area.

"Nice décor here," Kaidan noted as the glanced around. "Expensive, but tasteful."

"Yeah, I get what you're saying, Lt," Ashley spoke up, nodding. "Rock gardens and waterfalls – very zen."

"Do not be fooled by these civilized surroundings, Chief," Liara spoke knowingly, looking at her. "This place may look nice, but it is shrouded in secrets and lies."

"She has a point," Garrus agreed. "Corporations at places like this like to hire their own private security forces; makes it easier for them to hide the fact that they're breaking the law."

"I'll say," Wrex spoke wryly. "I used to do a lotta freelance business out here some years back. The fastest way to climb the corporate ladder is to eliminate the guy above you. Guess who they called for that. Heh… these people will smile to your face while they stab you in the back."

"Not to the customer, though," Tali said. "It's bad for business."

"Sounds like you speak from experience," Jaina noted.

"My people have dealt with corporations on Noveria in the past," the young quarian explained. "They were always expensive, but they never asked any questions."

"Exactly the problem; it makes you wonder how much they know about Saren, yet kept to themselves," Jaina said pointedly to Marcus.

"What matters right know is that they know everything we need to know about Benezia," he replied. "She is the one that holds the keys to Saren."

Gianna led them into a lobby that led to a set of offices. She walked up to a desk and spoke:

"Administrator Anoleis's office is right behind mine, that way. I'll let him know you're here, immediately."

Marcus moved to walk around, but Gianna stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

"Oh, and before you go in, please, allow me to give you a friendly advice, Commander," she said. "I understand your methods of operation as a soldier, but you can't just bludgeon your way through Corporate bureaucracy. You should learn to use subtler methods."

Marcus gave her a measuring look, then spoke calmly:

"Do not worry about that, Miss Parasini. The last Corporate Executive who tried to use bureaucracy against me died thirty seconds later from a bullet wound. But, how about this," he said and pointed at her terminal with his chin. "Keep an ear as to my conversation with the Administrator. I suspect that it will reward your endeavors with your business concerning the Administrator greatly."

Gianna's eyes were wide, and she swallowed a lump. Removing her hand from his shoulder, she composed herself, and then pressed a button at her terminal.

"Administrator Anoleis?" she queried through the comm, her voice honey-sweet.

There was a moment of pause, before a somewhat irritated voice came through, obviously belonging to a salarian:

"Yes, what, what?!" the man questioned.

"Commander Shepard is here to see you," she replied.

"Right, fine. Come in," he replied.

She ended the comm and pointed them wordlessly where to go.

Marcus led his team around a separating wall and walked into a spacious office. Two assault drones that hovered near the far wall guarded a broad office desk with a single salarian seated on it. Nobody else was there.

Marcus turned his head to look at Tali, giving her a silent cue. The quarian slipped behind Wrex inconspicuously, using his bulk as a shield as she began to work her omni-tool.

"You will forgive me if I don't stand up," the salarian spoke up dismissively as they reached the desk, looking straight at Marcus. "I have no time to entertain refugees from that urban blight called Earth who then fled to be space vagabonds."

Marcus walked up to the desk slowly, not taking his eyes off Anoleis, and sat down leisurely at one of the chairs, with Jaina taking the other one in the same manner. He kept his eyes on the salarian, his gaze boring into him, and he kept his mouth shut, letting the silence rise to uncomfortable levels.

"Well?" Salarian spoke up impatiently after a few moments. "I have lots of important business to attend to, Commander. I have no time to attend your silence."

"Yet, you do have the time to read my service record," Marcus replied.

"Only a fool enters negotiations without knowing everything there is to know about the parties involved," salarian said snidely. "So, yes, I've read your record. I know your tendencies."

Marcus kept staring at him silently. After another few seconds of silence, Anoleis spoke again:

"Every minute of my time that you waste costs the company twelve credits, Commander. I will keep the running tally."

"Wasting?" Marcus asked, then shook his head slowly. "I'm not the one wasting your time at all, Mr. Anoleis."

"Oh, and I suppose I'm the one wasting my own time, now?!" the Salarian asked sarcastically. "How is that, pray tell?"

"You've read my file, Mr. Anoleis," Marcus replied, staring at him unblinkingly. "You've said so yourself. That means that you know exactly as to why I'm here. I am being silent because I am waiting for you to supply me with any and all information you have on Saren and Matriarch Benezia."

"Your fellow Spectre Arterius is a major shareholder to Binary Helix – everyone knows that," Anoleis said in annoyance.

Marcus took a deep breath through his nose, rolling his eyes as he worked to reign in the mounting anger. He began to unclasp his gauntlet as Anoleis kept speaking:

"Same goes for Matriarch Benezia. Everybody knows she is Spectre Saren's executor and that she has all the rights to –"

Marcus jerked forward suddenly, reaching out with his bared hand. Biotics flared, and Anoleis's head was grasped in a negative biotic field, yanking it violently toward Marcus's outstretched hand. One of Anoleis's horns landed in his grasp, and he wrenched it into the desk – hard!

"Waaaa! Yaaaaaarrrrgh!" Anoleis let out a high-pitched squeal as his head slammed into the hard surface.

His arms flew across his desk, instinctively trying to help their body escape the pain, before they settled, pushing against the flat surface.

"What is the meaning of this?!" Anoleis shouted in a mix of pain and anger. "Security will – Aaaaargh!" he squealed as Marcus wrenched his horn again.

Jaina stood up slowly and languidly from the armchair she sat at, and walked a slow circle around the desk, stopping behind and to the side of Anoleis who was sprawled across the desk.

"Let's get something straight, shall we?" she spoke coldly. "First of all, you will cease trying our patience by calling Saren one of our 'fellow Spectres'. Your pretending to not know his Spectre clearance was revoked is not gonna fly. Clear?"

Anoleis was silent, pressing one particular command on his terminal repeatedly instead.

"The drones won't help you now," Jaina said, knowing what the man was trying to do. "Our tech specialist has taken care of them; same with any comms in or out. Now, you have read Spectre Shepard's service record. You've seen what he and the rest of us are capable of. You've seen what he did on Torfan and what he did to ExoGeni CEO on Earth; frankly, I don't understand how you thought you could insult us as much as you did and not end up in a world of hurt. Your life is at our mercy, Anoleis. Understand that. So, cut the bullshit and start telling us what we need to know."

A dark realization crept and settled in Anoleis's bones and guts. He swallowed hard and his eyes bulged open as he remembered the viral extranet clip that showed ExoGeni CEO's execution, and he began to realize the gravity of his predicament.

"Hey, Shepard," Wrex suddenly spoke up in the silence, "I call ribs on his liver."

"It's 'dibs'," Ashley corrected him.

"Right, dibs," Wrex smirked.

Anolies whimpered.

"Alright!" he pleaded. "Alright, I'll tell you everything I know, I swear!"

"Saren," Marcus spoke gruffly.

"The last time he was here or made an open contact was approximately three months ago," Anoleis spoke quickly. "That is all I know of him."

"Benezia?" Marcus queried again.

"She came here seven days ago and went directly to Peak 15, without so much as a bathroom stop. There was some kind of incident there – I don't know what, I swear – but whatever it is, it must be important if Saren sent Benezia to handle it. She came with a personal escort of nineteen asari commandos, all of them unarmed, and three heavy cargo containers, all sealed. I don't know what was in them, but they passed weapons screening, so we never looked."

"What screening hardware did you use?" Tali asked from the sides.

"Ah… a standard ERCS "Velder-3" scanner system," Anoleis replied.

"That junk?!" Tali asked incredulously. "Commander, if they had any geth armatures or primes in there to scramble the signal, a Velder wouldn't pick up a damn thing!"

"Geth?!" Anoleis asked incredulously. "W-we had no reason to assume there'd be geth in those containers!"

"No reason to assume there'd be geth?" Garrus spoke up incredulously. "Nine thousand dead in a vicious geth attack on Eden Prime, confirmed to be led by Saren Arterius, whose confirmed accomplice in the act is Matriarch Benezia?" Garrus shook his head, speaking grimly. "Nobody is that ill-informed. Nobody! That means you had to have been Benezia's accomplice, and that you're purposefully hiding and abating a wanted terrorist."

"No, please, no!" Anoleis wailed. "T-that's not true! We just followed regulations! Yes! That's how the regulations on Noveria are!"

"Don't go hiding behind regulations, you son of a bitch!" Ashley growled angrily as she stepped forward, with Kaidan holding her back. "Nine thousand one hundred and twelve! That's how many human lives were lost! I knew those people!"

"That's enough, Ash," Kaidan urged her calmly, and she obeyed.

"Please, Spectre Shepard," Anoleis whined from where he was pinned against the desk. "Even if I did know what Benezia was transporting, I couldn't have acted. Regulations are clear!"

"Clear?" Marcus asked grimly. "Well, I sincerely hope the NDC Board of Directors explains it like that when the pissed-off Systems Alliance drops a fleet over their heads. I don't think any of you realize how lucky you are that it's me instead of them here. Yet you figured it'd be okay to piss me off. Now, I'm really eager to make your life miserable. I wonder how your precious Board of Directors will feel once they know it was you who was responsible for the twelve-inch probe the Alliance Military shoves up their assess – because also you have allowed geth onto this world."

"Alright! Alright, dammit!" Anoleis squealed. "Maybe we can cut a deal? I apologize, plus give you a very generous compensation for the trouble we put you through!"

"I don't need the small change, I'm a Spectre."

"Not small change, I have almost thirty million stored!"

Jaina snorted. "An ordinary administrator? I don't buy it."

"It's true! I was conning the NDC, using their money for my own trades, reaping the profits and returning the main part back before anybody noticed. That, plus cutting deals to the side, inflating contract prices and putting extra money in my pocket. I'm a wealthy man. If you can forget about this, you can also become wealthier than you are now!"

"Not gonna happen, I'm afraid," came Gianna Parasini's honey-sweet voice from the office doors as she walked through. "Let me reintroduce myself, Mr. Anoleis: Gianna Parasini, Noveria Internal Affairs."

She strutted into the office, stepping behind the prone Anoleis and securing his hands behind his back with a pair of handcuffs, with Marcus finally releasing the salarian's horn.

"Dammit," Anoleis muttered in defeat. "You've listened to everything on the intercom, haven't you? Bitch!"

"Oh, tut-tut," Gianna chastised sweetly. "The Board of Directors now has the proof it needed of your corruption." She turned to Marcus. "Thanks, Shepard; I didn't even have to change out of my dress. How did you really know who I am?"

"I have resources," Marcus said noncommittally as he replaced his gauntlet back over his hand.

"One of those 'if I tell you, I'd need to kill you' things?" she asked, raising her hands. "Forget it, I don't want to know. But, why did you help me?"

"Because, unlike Anoleis, you are in a position to help me," he said.

"I'm… not sure how much more information I can give you, Commander," Parasini replied dubiously. "What Anoleis told you is the truth, and that includes the fact that we don't know what exactly is going on at Peak 15. I…"

She trailed off suddenly, her finger reaching out to a hidden earbud in her ear as a set of instructions was being delivered.

"Understood," she replied to the unknown party, then moved to input some commands into Anoleis's desk terminal.

"It seems that my bosses are interested in helping you out, Commander," she said. "They said an interested party wants to talk to you about Peak 15. Let me just set up this conference real quick."

"Like I said," Marcus bluffed, taking advantage of the development, "you are in a position to help me, Miss Parasini."

She paused in her typing to level a shocked expression his way before she hurriedly finished setting up the conference.

A holographic projector mounted on the ceiling sent a holographic beam down onto the center of the room, with Marcus and his group moving to make a semi-circle a few paces away from it. Gianna, meanwhile, grabbed Anoleis and began dragging him out of the office.

"See you around the Galaxy, Commander!" she called. "I owe you a beer!"

The doors closed behind her, and Marcus and his group turned their full attention toward the holographic beam. There was an electronic chirp, and the hologram slowly materialized into a full figure of a middle-aged human man, gray-haired and immaculately dressed, sporting a cigar between the fingers of his hand, and an air of unscrupulous confidence.

Marcus recognized those cold blue cybernetic eyes immediately. It was the same man whose holographic projection he'd seen at ExoGeni headquarters almost two months before; it was not someone who could be easily forgotten.

"Commander Shepard," the man said, exhaling the cigarette smoke.

Marcus took a couple of steps toward the hologram, his eyes glaring daggers at the mysterious man.

"Why am I not surprised to see you at a place like this," he stated more than asked.

"My company has a broad spectrum of ventures throughout the galaxy, Commander," the man replied. "It is only logical for us to have our own research facilities on Noveria."

"I've seen you on ExoGeni headquarters meeting, but you're not ExoGeni," Marcus stated, walking around the holographic projection slowly. "Are you Binary Helix? Never mind; I couldn't trust you even if you did answer truthfully. You were there when I warned you of what would happen if I found you experimenting with living humans again, yet, here you are, apparently a member of Noveria's Executive Board."

"An associate, more accurately," the man said, dragging from the cigarette. "As for the experiments, I can assure you that we're doing none that are in the spirit of the one ExoGeni did on Feros. And I can assure you I'm not Binary Helix, either. The truth of the matter is that Saren Arterius and I have a history – an unpleasant history from the period of the First Contact War, long ago. As such, I have taken steps to ensure my interests are protected from him. One of such steps was planting informants in the Binary Helix corp, specifically the Peak 15 research facility."

"You want to trade information," Jaina said, narrowing her eyes.

"No," the mysterious man replied. "I want to give you information, free of charge."

"Why?" Marcus asked warily.

"Because despite whatever misgivings you might have, I am a human patriot," the man stated. "And whatever Saren is trying to do will definitely end with many more humans getting killed."

Marcus shared a brief, wordless conversation with Jaina.

"Speak your piece," he said, turning back to the man.

"Before the weather closed in, Hanshan received a Code Omega from the Peak 15," the man spoke. "Code Omega means a terminal breach in safety protocols. No one goes up until the crew sends an all-clear."

"That much was obvious," Marcus said. "You need to tell me more than that."

"And I will," the man replied. "The Peak 15 was developed for the purpose of researching bio-weapons – specifically, the ones that live, breathe and walk."

"Alien franchise much?" Ashley spoke up, drawing the attention of her teammates.

"I'm afraid that unlike the vintage movies, what we're dealing with here is very much real, Miss Williams," the man said.

Marcus narrowed his eyes.

"You seem to be too well informed," he said, not trying to hide both suspicion and hostility. "I don't like dealing with people if my cards are turned face up."

"Your team's complement is not exactly a top secret, Commander," the man replied. "One needs only look at a few very public records and vid recordings to find out exactly who everyone on your team is, and then to find their public service records. As you might as well imagine, I value my privacy very much, and like to know who I'm dealing with, too."

Marcus was silent for a moment.

"Fair enough," he acquiesced. "Tell me what is all this with Peak 15 facility. What kind of bio weapons were they developing?"

The mysterious man took a drag of his cigarette, tapped the ashes off of it, and then exhaled, saying only one word:

"Rachni."

"What?!" Wrex barked roughly, unfolding his crossed arms and stepping forward.

"I assure you it's true, Urdnot Wrex," the man said. "Even though I have no verified images, recordings, or data, no sane man would joke about something like this, and that includes my inside informant."

"Maybe," Marcus nodded. "But we are here, and you're there, hidden behind your anonymity. This could all be a poor attempt at a hoax, and we wouldn't know who or where you are, or the name of your company or organization."

The mysterious man was taking another inhale of his cigarette.

"True on all accounts," he said. "But false or not, your mission parameters don't change. You will go to the Peak 15 whatever the case. But I have given you this information free of charge – a courtesy to relay friendly intentions – so that if we happen to do business in the future, you can rest assured that my goals are aligned with yours – in protecting humanity against threats like these, or of any other kind."

There was pointedness at that last statement that neither Marcus nor Jaina missed, sharing a silent glance of understanding.

"In any case," the mysterious man continued, "I have also stepped in to ensure you have clearances to leave Port Hanshan via surface route in a ground terrain vehicle since the shuttles are grounded due to blizzard. With this, I have given you my two cents of information. What you do with it is up to you entirely, but I do hope you prevail in your endeavors against Saren… and the Reapers."

His holographic hand touched an invisible command and the hologram winked out of existence.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Reapers aren't exactly a public knowledge," Garrus spoke ominously. "How did that man know about them?"

"I can think of a number of ways," Jaina said. "But whatever it is, one thing is for sure: that man is not a corporate director."

"Agreed," Marcus said. "He has all the traits of a shadowman – a person behind the curtains that pulls the strings of governments and corporations."

"Maybe he's the Shadow Broker," Kaidan offered.

"That guy?" Wrex grunted. "No way. He might work for him, but he's not the one. I've been around and did a lot of business for the Shadow Broker. This guy ain't it."

"How can you be so sure?" Garrus asked.

Wrex looked around the high office walls pointedly.

"I'd prefer not to spill my trade secrets here," he said. "No way to know who's watching, as you might as well have witnessed. We've spent several sentences too long in this place already."

"Fair enough," Marcus nodded. "We need to get to Peak 15. That is our main goal now, and this mysterious human is something else entirely. We will take the Scorpions up there and use them to clear any geth presence that might happen to be outside of the compound."

"Uh, but the blizzard…?" Ashley asked innocently. "Aren't shuttles grounded because flying isn't possible?"

"Please, Chief," Tali spoke with haughty confidence, "Our Scorpions use Rhinok 550-H hover engines that are used on helium-3 collectors. We can withstand a Jovian giant class gale, remember? This little blizzard is just a nuisance."

"Huh. I guess having high-end gear really does pay off," Ash said.

Fifteen minutes later, the two Scorpions flew out of the Port Hanshan main docking bays, arcing toward the Aleutsk Valley, their mighty drives helping them tear through the violent snow storm like bolts.

"So, Wrex, why don't you tell us what you had to say about the Shadow Broker," Marcus asked via tight-beamed comm so that all eight of people in the two vehicles could be a part of the conversations.

"I've been through the Galaxy at large for the past four hundred years," he said. "I rose quickly through the throng of all others mercs and bounty hunters, but back then, there was no Shadow Broker. The first Shadow Broker came around some hundred and ten years ago, give or take."

"Wait, what?!" Kaidan spoke up incredulously. "The first one? How do you know there's been more than one? I thought nobody ever met the Shadow Broker."

"True, but though Shadow Broker never appeared in person anywhere, and nobody ever saw him, he did tend to have direct conversations with his agents or customers," Wrex said. "The conversations were always done through a voice modulator, so you could never tell who you were speaking to.

"But, after decades of doing business with the guy, anyone would begin to notice small things that make him distinct. It's not the voice I'm talking about, it's the way in which someone speaks – the words he'd use, the way he makes a sentence, the pauses, the inflections… a voice modulator cannot hide those."

"So, what you're saying is that at some point you've noticed a change in the manner in which the Shadow Broker spoke, isn't it?" Jaina noticed.

"Precisely. It happened about… fifty years ago, now. I was doing a certain assignment for the Shadow Broker, and it demanded that I report in periodically directly to him. After one of the reports, I have noticed that the person who I reported it to was not the same person that I made the previous contact with. I might be one of the few that have deduced that fact, but I was wise enough to keep my mouth shut, at least for the dust to settle."

"You think someone ousted the previous Shadow Broker, or that he just died of old age?" Marcus asked.

Wrex chuckled. "Something tells me you don't get to just die of old age in the shadow business line of work, Shepard."

"A fair point," he acquiesced.

"So, who do you think the first Shadow Broker was?" Ashley asked with interest. "An asari? Salarian? Turian maybe?"

"Personally, I'm pretty sure that the first Shadow Broker was a batarian," Wrex stated.

"You're kidding!" Kaidan exclaimed.

"Not such a big of a stretch, if you think about it," Jaina said. "Batarians are culturally inclined to keep a lot of secrets. Just look at the sheer size of the propaganda machine they have around Hegemony space. Disinformation and hiding the real information are their trade."

"Maybe, but that was not how I got to the conclusion of who he was," Wrex said. "Like I said, it was the way in which he spoke. He spoke imperiously, regally, as if he liked the sound of his own voice, as if he liked building a status around himself. He spoke like a real high ruling caste batarian.

"And then, fifty years ago, a different type of voice answered my report. This other guy spoke in a cold and calculating manner, ruthless and completely devoid of any emotions. He was crisp and to the point. Almost militaristic. But also, there was another thing. See, unlike the first guy, this new guy could tell exactly what you were thinking and feeling just by listening to you speak. Whoever he was, he was a whole new beast. That human we talked with on the hologram acts and speaks like someone else; someone who is not in the information business, but uses the information is a means to an end. Trust me; I know these types. I've been around them enough."

"Well keep that in mind," Marcus said.

"So, why did this guy inform us about the Rachni?" Garrus asked. "Does anyone here think this might be real?"

"Jaina and I do," Marcus said into the comm.

"What makes you say that, Shepard?"

There was a pause.

"Remember that one time when Liara helped me with the Cipher and Beacon images by melding with me?" he asked.

"Right, you spoke of that," Tali spoke up. "That's how we found out that the relay monument is the Conduit, and that the other end leads to Ilos."

"And how do you get to Ilos?" Marcus asked pointedly.

"Through Mu relay," the quarian replied readly. "But that the relay was lost after a supernova, and that the only ones who knew its path trajectory were the…" she trailed off as realization sunk in.

"Rachni," Garrus finished for her.

"Holy shit!" Ashley gasped, grabbing her head. "Is this for real?"

"Saren searching for the Mu relay?" Marcus asked rhetorically. "Saren being a major Binary Helix shareholder? Rachni somehow appearing on Peak 15 which is a Binary Helix research lab, to which Benezia went? This sounds like too much of a coincidence to be fake, Chief."

"But where the hell did the Binary Helix find rachni?" Kaidan asked in disbelief. "Aren't they supposed to be extinct? And how are they even supposed to extract the Mu relay information from the rachni in the first place? Aren't they supposed to be mindless animals?"

"Are you stupid?" Wrex barked. "If rachni were mindless animals, do you think they'd be able to build interstellar vessels and wage war on the entire Council?"

"Well we'll find out what they're like soon enough," Jaina said firmly. "We're closing in to the Peak 15. ETA: three minutes. Keep your senses sharp, people!"

"There," Marcus said as the facility's tall silhouette pierced the blizzard barrier.

"Armatures, dead ahead," Tali warned from where she monitored the radar.

"I guess we now know what was in those crates," Liara commented.

"You know the drill, people," Marcus called, and the two Scorpions moved into a parallel formation dive.

The three armatures set up into a firing position, launching a salvo of heavy plasma rounds. Scorpions' superior hover drive drove the assault vehicles to bank and dodge the volleys harmlessly. The twin machineguns mounted on their sides on the front spun and sent down a hail of heavy rounds into the armatures, defeating their barriers and armor in seconds.

"Bring us down," Marcus commanded, and the vehicles slid to a stop in front of the main garage entrance to the facility.

"Initiate defense protocol on the Scorpions and follow me," he said, and then stepped out of the assault vehicle.

"Damn, it's cold," Jaina murmured as she stepped up right next to him.

"We'll have time to warm up later," he spoke silently back, sporting a smirk on his lips. She kicked his ankle. He chuckled.

The rest of the team walked up to them, weapons drawn and ready.

"Remember, people," Marcus spoke up. "We already know we're dealing with the geth, but on the off chance we encounter rachni, the explosive rounds in our Striker rifles should dispatch them pretty easily."

"And I have a flamethrower," Wrex said, patting it on his belt. "It's said that bugs pop open like koran once exposed to it. I'm eager to see it!"

They took strategic positions around the broad entrance at what was already a well-practiced routine for the eight combatants – Wrex and Marcus up front, Jaina, Garrus and Ash behind, and with biotics at the rear. Tali was to the side, directing her omni-tool through a quick and efficient door hack.

The doors opened with a quick whir and hiss of servos, opening up to the main garage expanse. The seven geth units, alerted to their presence by the armatures outside, were already waiting for them at strategic positioning. So were the four enemy krogan.

Marcus dove to the side, firing short bursts at the hidden geth, as Wrex sprayed a broad wave of suppressive fire from his Devastator at the three krogan. Jaina and Garrus slipped through under the support fire and set their snipers at the geth units that were pummeling Wrex's biotically-enhanced combo of shields and barriers.

The battlemaster ignored the geth. He sensed other threat.

"Shepard!" he hollered. "Get those krogan!"

Marcus switched his targets as the last of their group swung through the entrance and into the nearby cover, spraying the first charging krogan with a long, sustained burst from his modified Mattock, giving Wrex time to switch the devastator for the claymore.

The first krogan dropped, his body a smoking, burning ruin from explosive rounds as Marcus pulled back the action-lever, unclipping the heat sink module and slamming on a new one.

The second krogan bought a point-blank claymore shot to the chest from underneath the shield layer, the shockwave destroying both of his hearts.

The third and fourth krogan dropped from where they had been lifted up by Liara and Kaidan, and were met by violent combined fire from the team, ending their lives in short order.

The geth, though consisting of two hoppers, two juggernauts, and three soldiers, were quickly flanked, and set upon from all sides by a superior team.

The echoes in the garage finally ceased.

"What the hell were krogan doing here?" Marcus asked, angry at a completely surprising situation.

"Mercenaries would be the most likely answer," Jaina offered her two cents. "Wrex, correct me if I'm wrong, but from what you've been telling us, krogan have no problem taking turian money, right?"

"Money is money," Wrex said grimly, "but any sane krogan could smell there's something wrong with Saren and avoid him like the plague, I tell you that. Remember what I told you about how l saw Saren that one time? On that ship? Any krogan could sense that he was rotten to the core."

Garrus walked around the corpses, his gaze scrutinizing them carefully.

"From what info I've been given on the krogan, they tend to stick to merc groups," he said. "Preferably krogan-only merc groups. And these four do seem to wear the same armor type."

"Do you recognize their affiliation by their armor, Wrex?" Marcus asked.

Wrex shook his head.

"No. This ain't gang armor; it's just some generic run-of-the-mill krogan armor." He suddenly frowned, leaning in. "And it's identical between all four. That's not right; krogan like to adorn and brand their armor." The big battlemaster shook his head, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Something's not right here. Pop their helms; I need to smell them."

Garrus kneeled down and popped open the closest dead krogan's helm. They saw a smooth scaly skin, and where headplate crown should have been, a gravelly, unformed surface could be seen. Wrex shook his head sadly.

"Bah, that one was just a pup," he said. "The runt was probably barely out of his Rite of Adulthood."

"What's that on his eyebrow?" Garrus asked, pointing to a sequence of symbols etched into the dead krogan's skin with mechanical precision.

"That's a serial code," Tali said in wonder. "Turians use that kind of code in their industry."

"Hey, guys, this krogan was young as well," Ashley called from where she had removed the other dead krogan's helmet.

"This one as well," Kaidan called from the third one.

Wrex's head turned to the sides in quick succession, and then he took a closer look at one of the other krogan. His eyes widened, and he stepped up to him.

"I'm not a good judge of young krogan's faces, but those two look very similar," Liara noted. "They even share the mark on their eyebrow."

"They're not similar," Wrex said, his aged and wizened voice gaining a rare note of incredulity. "Those two are identical!"

He spun, moving with uncanny swiftness, and checked the remaining two corpses, while Tali scanned them.

"They're the same!" he shouted, his voice laced with upset.

"Krogan quadruplets?" Jaina asked. "How rare is that?"

"Since the genophage?" Wrex growled angrily. "Impossible!"

"Keelah," Tali gasped as she read out her omni-tool. "These are not brothers! These are clones! They're of identical DNA!"

Wrex stepped up to her quickly and read out the omni-tool results. His eyes were wide, his nostrils were flaring. He was beyond upset.

The scarred warrior turned away from her slowly and took a slow, grim step.

"Shepard," he said, his voice even deeper and more gravelly than usual. "I want to know what is going on here."

"You and me both," Marcus murmured grimly.

"I think I know," Jaina said, making everyone turn toward her. "Remember what we found out from your informant, Liara? Of rumors how Saren was buying cloning equipment?"

There was a moment of pause as it sunk in.

"By the goddess," the girl gasped. "He's cloning a krogan army!"

Wrex's mouth spread into an angry sneer.

"Young and untrained," he growled deeply, like boulders breaking off from the mountainside. "Charging moronically into battle – just like these four here – driven by their baser krogan instincts, stupid and blind," He trailed off, and there was a moment of silence as he looked down at the corpses. "I wonder if they could even talk."

"I have a feeling Benezia would know what is going on," Garrus said. "If she really is Saren's second in command, she knows both about these krogan, and as to what is going on in this facility."

"True and true," Marcus said, taking charge. "Move out, people, staggered line, you know the drill."

The group moved out of the garage up the stairs to the security station, noticing the turrets turned the wrong way. Tali scanned them immediately.

"That's the turrets' default position!" she said grimly. "Were scientists held as prisoners here?"

"If you want to look at it that way," Garrus spoke, "I've seen some high-profile companies being very paranoid about what got out of their research facilities."

"And would shoot you if you tried smuggling anything out?" Ashley asked incredulously.

"Welcome to the corporate world, Chief," Marcus said.

They piled up into the elevator and climbed onto the second floor. What greeted them was a cold, snow and ice filled lobby, all of the windows smashed, and the furniture crushed or overturned. There were traces of frozen blood, and zero bodies.

"What happened here?" Kaidan wondered out loud.

"Scan for life signs," Marcus ordered.

The omni-tools went up, sweeping the room in all directions on maximum sensitivity.

"Nothing," Garrus reported. "Strange. Would have expected more signs of battle or body remains if we already saw geth down there."

"Yes, but see those?" Jaina nodded toward bloody trails. "Bodies were dragged through here. And they're going toward a dead end, right next to that wall."

"Not dead end," Tali said. "My sensors tell me that's where the vents are."

"Shit," Kaidan cursed.

"Wrex?" Ashley called to the intent-looking krogan. "Any wisdom in how to fight huge bugs?"

He hummed, nodding.

"If it really is rachni…" he trailed off. "I've heard plenty of stories. Even saw some vid logs. Rachni are fast. They have a pair of extremely strong tentacles hovering above them that they use as whip-like weapons, but that's not their primary weapon. Their primary weapons are bone spikes that they can shoot from their mouths."

"We have barriers for that," Kaidan said.

Wrex shook his head. "Not good enough. The spikes are laden with acid. The barrier will stop it, but it will burst and spray acid around which will go right through. The amount of acid is small, and most armors are strengthened against acidic effects, but the damage is cumulative over a long time. That's why they needed krogan back during the Rachni wars. Asari and salarians needed those armors to fight rachni on their toxic planet, and once the acid ate them away, they needed to retreat. We didn't have to; our skin and lungs were resilient. As for our team now, well, our armors are top-quality. I don't think any of them are in danger of failing unless we literally bathe in the stuff."

Marcus nodded.

"Everyone, check your seals," he said. "Full hardsuit mode. No piece of skin uncovered."

A quick shuffle as the people did a quick check of their suits when Tali's radar suddenly went off.

"I'm detecting something!" she called out sharply, her sensor suite more advanced than the rest. "It's coming from what appears to be a ventilation system. Over there."

"Oh boy," Ashley groaned. "That doesn't sound good."

"Arm up," Marcus called, diverting the team toward the incoming bio signs.

The team went absolutely silent, and soon enough it came:

The sounds of shuffling, skids, and rapid taps across the surface. Like someone slapping a wooden switch against metal. A sound that bored straight into that primeval node in the human brain that screamed that bugs were about to burrow their eggs beneath your skin.

A sudden slam, then another, and a large floor panel in the corner of the room flew up into the air.

The huge insectoid creature literally slid out with smooth and and strikingly quick grace as its myriad of legs danced up and down as the creature took a position in front of the vent. Two other creatures surged right on its heels, flanking it and lowering their heads threateningly at the Normandy team before emitting a huge shriek with their vibrating mandibles.

Nope! Marcus thought.

"Fire!" he roared and depressed the trigger.

The devastating barrage tore into the glistening chitin, the explosive rounds tearing it apart and sending the creatures staggering back in deathly throes.

Just as the bodies were about to fall back into the vent, another mass of dark chitin surged forth from it, a set of tentacles whipping through the dead bodies of its falling comrades and sending them flying as additional, enraged rachni shuffled out of the vent.

They were met with controlled bursts of explosive rounds that quickly and effortlessly tore through them, one at a time, tearing limbs and spraying ichor, but the creatures almost seemed oblivious to pain.

Even as they were falling, the rachni troopers were spreading their mandibles wide, discharging serrated spikes with a pneumatic hiss toward the Normandy team members. Most flew wide, but the few that impacted the barriers did so with surprising force, their large weight lending them a concussive effect that ordinary bullets simply did not have.

Just as the last rachni soldier dropped dead, though, a swarm of small, cat-sized green bugs surged out of the vent and rushed straight toward the team.

Wrex instantly dropped his Devastator machine gun, grabbed his flamethrower pistol and aimed toward the onslaught of bugs.

A second later, the green river of insects was suddenly engulfed in a massive conflagration that covered the entire half of the room.

The air was filled with the sound of shrieking popcorns, followed by Wrex charging through the dissipating flames straight toward the vents. Shoving his weapon into the opening, he pulled the trigger once more, and the corridors were instantly filled with a blazing inferno, followed by the myriad of distant shrieks and cracking carpace. One by one, the additional vent hatches along the walls burst open with blazing fires, and for a moment it seemed like the ancient gates of hell were finally opening, the shrieks of tormented souls heralding the apocalypse.

The fuel canister finally ran empty, and Wrex quickly backed away, inserting a fresh one.

"Clear," he rumbled after a moment.

As the relative silence returned to the premises, Wrex moved with slow, deliberate steps, until he stood over the carcasses.

"So, it's true," he said with ominous finality. "These are the rachni. I know. Any krogan would know."

"Spirits," Garrus muttered, shaking his head. "To think they're back. How the hellis that possible?"

"That's what we need to find out," Marcus said. "Tali, can you hack anything remotely from here? We need the layout of this place at the very least."

"Way ahead of you, Shepard," the quarian said as she was working her omni-tool, quickly transferring the relevant data to them all. "I've managed to hook up to the emergency system. It appears that the main processor core that controls the facility's VI is down. Without it, I cannot access the more specific areas around the labs, but the damage shouldn't be irreparable. The fact that I am getting this notification is proof enough of that."

"Do you have the core's location?" he asked.

Their interface maps beeped with the update.

"Alright," the Spectre said. "Let's move out! And watch both above and below you! Use what the horror vids have taught us!"

"Horror vids?" Garrus asked as they moved down the hallway. "Is that when a monster or monsters are out to kill some humans, and the whole vid is about them running and dying?"

"Pretty much," Jaina chirped merrily.

Garrus shook his head. "I thought that was just an urban legend about human customs," he said.

"Humans want to be afraid?" Wrex asked.

"Facing one's fears," Ashley said, shrugging. "It builds character. And it makes us ready for something like this."

"Hmm," Wrex rumbled. "Makes sense."

The team quickly reached the room where mainframe core was located, just past the main hall that led to various sections of the facility.

"Secure the area," Marcus directed them, the team fanning out to secure all avenues of approach. "Tali, get in there and do your magic."

"On it," the girl called, diving into the core's housing like a cat into a box.

"The rest of you, set up and prepare to defend this location if this turns out to take too long. Be prepared to protect her from attacks from both above and –"

A sounding startup sequence of the cooling units and electronic system notifications echoed throughout the chamber, the illumination climbing back to optimal levels. A VI hologram in the shape of a woman appeared from a projector near Jaina.

"It seems you're trying to restore this facility," the VI said. "Would you like assistance?"

Marcus raised his eyebrows and looked down only to see Tali exiting the processor core.

"Easy!" she chirped, hopping on her toes.

"Good work," he said, inclining his head, and then walked up to the VI hologram.

"VI, what do you respond to?"

"This system is set up to respond to the name "Mira"," the VI replied. "May I ask who you are?"

Marcus raised his omni-tool and sent out his Spectre credentials toward the system.

"Spectre credentials confirmed," the VI said with a nod. "Access to all of the systems is granted to you, Commander Shepard. Please note that privileged company information is not accessible unless you were to provide a corporate executive code."

"Tali?" he spoke, turning to her. "How long will it take for you to provide us with those codes?"

Tali was happily working away on her omni-tool already, the multiple screens passing through he mid-air with barely any time for him to notice the written commands. Though somewhat skilled in the basic operating system and VI administrative access through his N7 training, Marcus was fascinated with the sheer depth of Tali's access of Mira's subroutines as she activated program after program designed to help her hack into the VI's subsystems.

"Here we go!" Tali said, lifting up a set of codes from the VI's deep hardcoded segments.

"Whoah, hang on a minute!" Kaidan spoke up, raising his hands. "I'm not some big-ass hacker or anything, but I have done my fair share. How the hell did you manage to work through it so fast? It would have taken hours for some of the best guys I know!"

"Pre-programed apps that target specific subroutines," Tali shrugged, raising her omni-tool for emphasis.

"You had routines that could target a VI like this?" Garrus asked. "What's the chance?"

"I hack geth mid-combat," Tali said dryly, without any amusement. "I have routines for all of the VI's in existence!"

"Ah," was all Garrus said.

Marcus shared an amused look with Jaina, and then spoke to Mira:

"Code input: alpha-335-001-757-9."

"Executive code accepted," Mira said. "All privileged information is now available."

The team stepped closer, listening attentively as to what was happening.

"Tell me how did the rachni end up on this facility?" Marcus demanded.

"Date: March 5th, 2182. Location: System 54B-331, Styx Theta cluster. An exploration team found a derelict ship of unknown design drifting at an orbit of approximately 12 AU's of the star. Close inspection of the ship over the next three days determined it was of Rachni origin. A single living egg was found and brought to this facility on March 15th, 2182.

"Executive order number 11-3: The rachni egg is to be allowed to hatch and then cloned for the purposes of researching the rachni.

"Executve order number 11-4: If viable, the cloned specimens are to be used in behavior training and control tests.

"Date: June 3rd, 2182. Location: Rift Station. A rachni queen hatches from the egg. It is placed in confinement. The tests report a surprising amount of intelligence and immunity to behavioral training.

"Date: December 26th, 2182: The queen reaches a mature state. She begins laying eggs using a versatile genetic material pool from various male and female rachni that was stored in her body. Tests indicate that this is how rachni procreate and maintain genetic diversity and resilience."

"Date: December 27th, 2182: All currently and any subsequently laid eggs are removed and grown in isolation.

"Executive order number 12-1: All hatched rachni are to be subjected to high levels of behavior training and control.

"Date: March 18th, 2183: Hatched rachni soldiers do not show any positive reaction to behavior training. Pavlov effect appears to be nonfunctioning. Control is only achieved through herding methods that involve direct application of pain. Further tests are required.

"Marchs 22nd; eight days ago: Stage One alert issued at Hot Labs. Rachni soldiers broke free from the Laboratory Pod Gamma. Emergency protocols implemented. Stage Two alert issued at Hot Labs. Isolation Tube breached. Tram: shutdown. Landlines disconnected. Stage Three alert issued locally; rachni in tram tunnels. Station shutdown and evacuation initiated. Code Omega sent."

Mira fell silent. The team members looked at each other grimly. Jaina spoke up, directing the question to the VI:

"How much time passed from Stage One to Stage Three?"

"Approximately Twenty-two minutes," the VI replied.

"Jesus Christ," Kaidan muttered. "That was a floodgate. How many rachni were there?"

"One hundred and seven soldiers and three hundred and twenty-three worker rachni have been logged before the alert."

"Matriarch Benezia should have arrived at Peak 15," Jaina said. "Do you have her location?"

"Matriarch Benezia has left for the Rift Station labs using the Passenger Tram."

Jaina shared a look with Marcus, and then they looked at Mira.

"How the hell could Benezia use the Passenger Tram if you said that everything's been shut down and landlines disconnected?"

"Matriarch Benezia's personal escort had temporarily activated the generator core and landlines, enabling them to reach the Labs. A squad of eight unknown types of autonomous mechs was left to shut down the generator again after she had reached the Labs."

"More geth then," Jaina said, looking at Marcus. He nodded.

"What is the current location of the ge… the mech units?" he asked.

"All of the mech units are located at the generator."

"No further queries," he said, and then turned to his team, raising his fingers. "Two teams: one will go to the generator core and deal with the geth; I'll lead. Jaina, you take two people and reconnect the landlines."

"Done," she said. "Wrex and Liara on me; I'll need biotics and krogan if we run up to rachni."

"My pleasure," Wrex rumbled.

"Three biotics against the rachni and the mixed tech-soldier team against the geth?" Liara mused as the teams walked back into the access lobby. She smirked. "This should be pretty quick, then."

"Amen to that, sister," Ashley quipped as the teams separated and went to their own directions.

..


*Condition 3 – Based on US Navy practice (Conditions 1 through 5). To put it simply, Condition 1 is a call for full battle stations (general quarters), and Condition 5 is peacetime conditions when the ship is docked. Condition 3 is used in wartime, and it is a condition in which half of ship's weapons are active and manned at all times.

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Thanks for reading!

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