Title: Of All the Gin Joints in All the World
Author: texaswatermelon
Fandom: Mass Effect
Pairing: femShepard/Ashley Williams
Rating: R
Summary: A retelling and reworking of some key events of ME1, with a femslashy twist. Abigaile Shepard: Vanguard, Colonist, Ruthless. Renegon, because I don't believe that anyone is completely impenetrable and incapable of change. Rating for language and content. FemShep/Ashley.
Disclaimer: Mass Effect, its characters, quests, names, dialogue, and all other content are property of Bioware.
Word Count: 7,463
A/N: This is a repost of an earlier attempt to novelize the game/series. My first attempt was abysmal, so I've come at it from a slightly different angle. I'll be changing and adding things as I see fit in order to make the story a bit more realistic and fix the things that I didn't like about the series. The main pairing is FemShep/Ashley, but I will be adding a bunch of other pairings as the series goes on.

Unbeta'd. All mistakes are my own.

Title taken from Fall Out Boy's, "Of All the Gin Joints in All the World."

2nd AN: So, I just wanted to say before we start this chapter that I've gone through and changed the entire story to present tense and re-uploaded all of the chapters with some minor fixes and tweaks, so you may like to go back and reread it all, though that isn't actually necessary. Just didn't want anyone to be confused as to why shit was in present tense now. I find it very hard to write in the past tense, so I wanted this to be easier for me to write. And, as you can see, I'm still working on it, so. Thanks for sticking with me.

xx

if you built yourself a myth
you'd know just what to give
what comes after this
momentary bliss
the consequence
of what you do to me

help me to name it
help me to name it

Beach House, "Myth"

xx

They blow the labs on Noveria to hell. Shepard can only hope she never sees a rachni again as long as she lives. She doesn't even bother patching the Council through when they get back to the ship. She already knows they're going to give her endless shit for releasing the rachni queen, and she definitely can't deal with that at the moment.

Dr. Chakwas is furious with the amount of injuries they'd sustained on Noveria. She runs back and forth from cot to cot, tending cuts, burns, fractures, and gunshot wounds, muttering about how reckless they all are and don't any of them know how to take cover? Shepard tells her she should just be happy that they're all on her tables instead of in coffins.

Shepard's biggest concern now is Liara. The girl has refused all medical treatment, opting instead to lock herself in the medical stockroom with no real signs of emerging. Despite the fact that she knows there was no other choice, Shepard feels truly awful for being the one to pull the final trigger on Benezia. No matter how much Liara claims to have come to peace with her mother before the battle, Shepard knows that it's still devastating. She decides to give Liara some time before barging in on her to apologize.

When she finally does emerge almost a full day later, Liara finds the ship mostly dark and quiet. Dr. Chakwas has apparently gone to bed for the night. Only Garrus is still in the med bay, fast asleep. His wounded leg is heavily wrapped.

She ventures out into the mess hall, where she finds Ashley nursing a cup of coffee. Ashley's head snaps up at the sound of her footsteps. She looks surprised, as if she'd forgotten that Liara was even on the ship.

"Blue," Ashley breathes, assessing Liara quickly. She looks okay for the most part. Sad, of course, but very composed. Ashley respects that.

"Hello, Chief Williams," Liara says politely.

Ashley takes a deep breath, inhaling the steam of her coffee. "Listen, Blue, I wanted to say that I'm sorry about your mom. It shouldn't have had to end like that. She deserved better than to become Saren's puppet."

The sincerity of Ashley's voice shakes Liara more than she's expecting. For as much as she apparently dislikes aliens, it seems that she's still capable of caring about their feelings, maybe even becoming friends with them if the nickname is any indication. Liara can't hide the waver in her voice when she responds.

"Thank you, Chief."

"Call me Ashley."

Liara stands stunned for a moment, before a small smile graces her lips.

"Very well. Have a good night, Ashley," she says.

Ashley grins. "You too, Blue."

Without really thinking, Liara allows her feet to carry her up past the CIC and into the cockpit. Joker is still awake and she finds herself wondering if he ever really sleeps. She slips into the co-pilot seat beside him and he turns to face her.

"How's it going, Doc?" he asks, tone as playful as ever. Liara finds it extremely comforting.

"I am well, Joker, thank you," she replies.

"Well you look like hell," Joker says bluntly. Liara glares at him, but he merely stares back, completely sincere. "When's the last time you ate or slept?"

She realizes very suddenly that he's actually concerned for her and not just being his usual abrasive self. It makes her soften.

"I do not know," she admits quietly.

Joker shakes his head. "No good, Doc. You've got to keep your strength up."

"Why is that?" she asks tiredly.

"Because if you let yourself waste away, it means your mom died for nothing," he says simply. Liara finds herself struck by surprise again. Joker shrugs. "Sorry I don't have anything prettier or more inspiring to say."

Liara shakes her head. "No. I think that was perfect." Joker grins and turns back to the controls.

"Want to learn how to fly a ship?"

xx

Shepard's in the cargo hold again. Ashley knows it even before the elevator has descended. She seems to have gained the ability to sense when Shepard's near, like some sort of radar. The commander's cleaning her guns again. Her head perks up the moment she hears the lift gate open.

"Williams," she greets, without even turning around to see who's actually there. Ashley finds it a bit unsettling. It seems the radar goes both ways.

"Commander," she replies, moving to take a seat beside Shepard. Shepard says nothing else, so Ashley sits in silence and watches her clean her guns for a while. "I talked to Liara."

Shepard's green eyes find hers very slowly. Ashley remembers when she'd first met the commander how scared she'd been to really look Shepard in the eye. Those green orbs are always such a blaze; swirling with secrets and stories she fears she'll never know. Now she holds Shepard's gaze unwaveringly. It gets easier with time.

"How is she?" Shepard asks quietly.

"Upset, obviously. But I think she'll be okay. She's surprisingly tough."

Shepard nods thoughtfully. "She is that." Ashley frowns at the serious expression on her face, but doesn't comment. After several moments, Shepard speaks again. "You know, I had a sister named Ashlee."

Ashley's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. For all the times they've spoken down here on this deck, Shepard has never once mentioned her family.

"She was so quiet and smart. Innocent, too. Every time my siblings and I would go out to get into some sort of trouble, Ashlee would always stay behind with her nose buried in some book or another. She would get this look in her eyes sometimes, and I couldn't help thinking that she must have known the secrets of the universe, and she was just waiting for the rest of the galaxy to get our heads out of our asses and catch up. Liara reminds me of her a lot."

"I'm sorry," Ashley says. "It must be difficult."

"Sometimes," Shepard replies. "Mostly it's kind of comforting. It's like I get a second chance at being a sister." She stalls and her expression turns dark. "I'm not as good at it as I used to be."

Ashley frowns as she tries to come up with a response to that, but there's only one thing on her mind. "I have a sister named Abby."

Shepard shoots her a look, and then her face breaks out in an unexpected grin. "You never told me that."

"Seemed weird," Ashley says with a shrug. "It's even weirder now that I know you had an Ashlee."

"Hmm," Shepard hums. "Maybe it's fate, Williams. Maybe you were meant to be on my ship no matter what."

"You don't believe in fate, Shepard," Ashley says skeptically.

"Of course I fucking don't," Shepard replies immediately. "But you do, don't you?"

"I believe in God," Ashley corrects. "I'm not sure if they're the same thing."

"Well if you find out, keep that shit to yourself. If someone or something is determining my course in life, I don't want to know about it. Might provoke me to do something stupid just to challenge their power."

Ashley smirks and shakes her head. "I can honestly say I've never met anyone quite like you, Commander. But I'm glad I got the opportunity."

"You'd better be. I can still drop your ass back off on Eden Prime," Shepard warns. Her smile is playful and dangerous, and it makes Ashley's breath catch in her chest.

"Understood, ma'am," she says dutifully. Shepard rolls her eyes.

"Shut the hell up, Williams; you're not a soldier right now. You're just as bad as Alenko. Now make yourself useful and start cleaning some guns."

xx

Garrus wakes to the sound of the med bay doors sliding open. He looks up to see Tali coming towards him. She hops up onto the cot beside him.

"How's your leg?" she asks, looking down at the appendage in question.

"Well, it certainly doesn't appreciate being shot," Garrus replies wryly, "but with enough medi-gel it's down to a dull throb." Tali chuckles. "Dr. Chakwas says I'm out of action for a while, though."

"That's probably best," Tali muses. "That asari commando unit put up one hell of a fight."

"Makes you wonder what other sorts of armies Saren has under his spell," Garrus says. "How are you doing? You took a nasty hit with that crate."

"Quarian enviro-suits are pretty durable, thankfully. I've got some bruises, but I'll be fine."

"I'm glad. I was… worried about you," Garrus admits stiltedly.

Tali feels herself blush hotly under her mask. "Me? I wasn't the one shot!"

Garrus chuckles. "At least I'm getting some action. It's more than I can say for my time at C-Sec."

"You didn't like your job?" Tali asks curiously.

"It was alright," Garrus shrugs. "I never really felt like I was doing any good there, though. At least with Shepard I can actually make a difference."

"I know what you mean. This Pilgrimage is certainly more exciting than I had ever imagined."

Garrus has half a mind to say something, to tell Tali that she shouldn't be risking her life on such a dangerous mission when she's on her Pilgrimage, but the door to the med bay opens again before he can get the words out.

"You still sitting on your lazy ass, Vakarian?" Shepard booms as she breezes in. "I told you the asari would tear it to pieces."

"I just figured it was up to me to show you what a real injury looks like after all that whining you did about your shoulder, Shepard," Garrus shoots back.

Shepard smirks. "I'll be sure to have the doctor alert me when you're ready to start walking around again so I can assist you with your physical therapy." Garrus barks out a laugh. "You're looking better, Tali."

"Yes, Shepard, I'm fine," Tali replies, amused at the bantering between the two soldiers.

"Glad to hear it." Shepard stalls and looks to the storage room door. "Is she in there?"

"I think so," Garrus says. "Haven't seen her myself, though."

Shepard frowns. "If you two will excuse me, then."

They both nod and Shepard enters the storage room. Liara is sitting at her desk. She looks to be doing research as usual, but she turns at Shepard's entrance.

"Hey, kid," Shepard greets softly. Liara offers her a small smile.

"Good morning, Shepard. How are you feeling?"

Shepard shrugs. "I've had worse injuries than a dislocated shoulder before, and it's not the first time I've been shot. I think I'll probably survive."

"I am glad," Liara says. Shepard is silent. She looks at the asari before her with an expression of intense indecision. "I know what you are here to discuss, Shepard."

Shepard nods. "I'm sorry," she says gravely.

"I know," Liara assures her. "I do not blame you for what happened. You did what was necessary."

"Still, I… I shouldn't have brought you on that mission. It wasn't right."

"I wanted to be there," Liara insists, standing to face Shepard fully. "It was… comforting, to get the chance to see my mother as her former self, if only for a moment."

Shepard still doesn't look convinced, and the look of remorse on her face is painful. Liara isn't accustomed to the proper human protocols for a situation like this, but it feels natural to place her hand on Shepard's arm, so she does.

"I am fine, Shepard. I promise," she says firmly. Shepard searches her wide blue eyes for several moments before nodding.

"I'd like to keep you aboard until we stop Saren," she says finally. "I think it'll be safer for you and you're a hell of an asset in battle. And… well, I like having you here." Shepard clears her throat uncomfortably at the admission.

"I would like that very much," Liara says with a smile.

Shepard grins. "Good. Besides, I think Joker's becoming fond of you. Anything that keeps him from being any more of a pain in my ass than he is already is a necessity."

Liara blushes slightly. "I enjoy his company as well. He attempted to teach me how to fly. I do not think I have a future in it."

"So I hear," Shepard says with a laugh. "Stick to your strengths, kid."

"I am still older than you, Shepard," Liara says indignantly, though she appreciates the camaraderie.

"Yeah, well you're still a kid to me," Shepard replies. "A scary, powerful kid when you're pissed off, but a kid nonetheless." Liara smiles shyly and Shepard squeezes her shoulder briefly. "I'll see you later."

"Goodbye, Shepard," Liara says as she leaves.

xx

By the time dinner rolls around, Shepard has received an urgent transmission from Admiral Kahoku requesting that she investigate the disappearance of his team.

"Last I heard, they had intercepted a distress signal and were headed for Edolus. I haven't been able to contact them since, and I'm unable to go looking for them myself."

"I'll check it out for you, Admiral," Shepard assures him.

"Much appreciated, Commander. Let me know what you find. Kahoku out."

Shepard looks down at Joker, who's in the pilot's seat beside her. "Plot a course for Edolus, Joker."

"Aye, aye, Commander," he says. "Should take about four hours to get there."

"Do you think something bad happened to them?" Liara asks. She's taken to spending her free time in the co-pilot's seat.

"Hard to say," Shepard replies.

"Maybe they had to make an emergency landing and lost communications," Joker speculates.

"Let's hope that's all it is," Shepard says, turning back towards the CIC. "You two should come down to the mess for dinner while we still have time."

xx

Joker is spot on with his time estimate, and four hours later they're nearing the planet Edolus.

"Hey, Commander, I think we're picking up that distress signal the Admiral was talking about," Joker says over the comm.

"Shouldn't that have been deactivated by now if Kahoku's team responded?" Alenko asks from his station.

"Yes," Shepard says with a frown. "Take us in quiet, Joker. We'll take the Mako."

"Aye, aye."

"Let's go, Alenko," Shepard orders. Alenko is hot on her heels as she takes the lift down to the cargo bay. "Williams, suit up. You too, Wrex. We're going down to check on this signal."

Wrex grunts and begins checking over his shotgun. Ashley salutes, heading to the storage lockers with Alenko to get ready. A few minutes later, they're powering up the Mako as Joker brings them to their drop point.

"What do you expect we'll find, Commander?" Ashley asks as Alenko guides the vehicle over rocky terrain.

"I hope we'll find a malfunctioning distress signal that some lazy bastard forgot to turn off," Shepard replies. "I think we'll find a squad of dead marines."

Ashley grimaces.

"We're nearing the coordinates of the beacon," Alenko announces.

"I don't see anything," Wrex grouses.

"No, wait, I think I see the beacon out there," Ashley says. "There's nothing around it, though. No debris or anything. It's like someone dropped it in the middle of nowhere and turned it on."

"That's exactly what they did," Shepard confirms as the first body comes into view. "Hold it here, Alenko."

The Mako comes to a halt just in front of the body. Shepard climbs out first, followed by Ashley and Wrex. She looks down at the body, which is unrecognizable, but the uniform it's wearing is unmistakable.

"More bodies over there, Shepard," Wrex says, directing her attention to two more dead marines in the distance.

"Go check it out, see if you can find anything," Shepard says. He nods and ambles off.

"He's been totally mutilated," Ashley says with disgust. "What the hell did this?"

Shepard can name at least twenty different creatures that could be capable of something like this, but she doesn't care to speculate at the moment.

"Look for something useful here while I go disable that beacon," she tells the chief. "Wrex, what did you find?"

"Nothing but a pile of leftovers," he says over the comm. "Only one thing I know of that leaves bodies like this, Shepard. Thresher maw."

"Alright, everyone stay alert. If it is a maw, there's a good chance it didn't stray too far from its last kill. Wrex, retrieve the dog tags off of those soldiers so they can be sent back to their families. Same goes for you, Williams."

Shepard begins the simple work of deactivating the distress signal over the sound of Ashley's murmured acknowledgement. After a few seconds of fiddling with the control panel, the circuits pop and fizzle out. The beacon stills.

"Signal's down, Commander," Alenko tells her.

"Copy that, Alenko."

She begins walking back towards the Mako, but stops once she feels the ground start to rumble beneath her feet.

"Commander?" Ashley asks uncertainly.

"I felt it. Everyone stay fucking still," she orders through gritted teeth.

The rumbling returns, closer this time. The earth is shaking hard enough that it takes a great deal of effort just to stay upright. Suddenly, the ground breaks open about thirty yards away from them and a monstrous thresher maw shoots upwards with a furious roar.

"Holy shit," Ashley breathes.

"Everyone get back to the fucking Mako now!" Shepard bellows, sprinting towards the vehicle. Ashley and Wrex are already in by the time she reaches it and she tosses herself in unceremoniously. "Drive, Alenko!"

The Mako jolts forward, throwing them off balance. The thresher maw is making a ton of noise. It rears its head back and launches a huge stream of acidic spit at them.

"We're going to take a hit, Shepard," Wrex growls.

"Everyone brace yourselves," Shepard yells as the acid slams into the Mako, shaking it violently and causing the systems to flicker.

"Shields are down, Commander," Ashley announces.

"Push forward, Alenko, as hard as this piece of shit can handle. Wrex, shoot that motherfucker. Joker, come in."

"Here, Commander," Joker responds. "What the hell is going on down there?"

"We're being attacked by a thresher maw. We need immediate extraction," Shepard says.

"Aye, aye, Commander. We're on our way."

Wrex is happily firing off rockets at the thresher maw behind them. The creature takes a few hits and screeches before diving under the ground.

"Is it dead?" Ashley asks hopefully.

"No," Wrex and Shepard say in unison.

The ground explodes almost directly in front of them. Alenko pulls the Mako to the right as hard as he can, almost causing the vehicle to roll as it rocks unsteadily on its wheels. The thresher maw opens its giant mouth to spit at them again. Shepard aims the turret and sprays at least a hundred bullets down its throat. The maw chokes on the attack and staggers a bit.

"Hit it with everything you've got, Wrex."

"My pleasure," Wrex says with a toothy grin, unleashing four more rockets directly at the thing's head. Its deafening roar dies out quite suddenly, and it falls on its side, smashing to the ground in a pile of smoking meat and acid. Wrex laughs loudly at his victory while the others attempt to calm the adrenalin coursing through their veins.

"Fucking psychotic lizard," Shepard mutters, rolling her eyes at the krogan.

The Normandy appears out of the sky and swoops down to pick them up.

xx

Shepard has the distinct displeasure of informing Kahoku that his team is dead.

"I feared as much," he says grimly. "What was it?"

"Thresher maw, sir. It looked like the distress beacon was placed right in the middle of its nest in order to lure them there," Shepard replies. Kahoku looks thoughtful, but doesn't respond. "We recovered the soldiers' tags. I'll have them sent to you next time we dock."

"Thank you, Commander. I'll be in touch. Kahoku out."

Shepard sighs and walks out of the comm room. She's ordered her squad to get some much-needed sleep after the run in with the thresher maw. Most of the crew is also readying themselves for bed while the night shift prepares to take over. All is quiet.

She steps up to the galaxy map and navigates to the Attican Traverse without really thinking. Within seconds, the image of a small, brownish planet fills the map. Shepard has spent so many nights standing in front of this image, staring at it relentlessly while she thinks about things, that she knows every feature on its surface. She can pinpoint every valley, every lake and plantation field. It keeps her grounded when she's feeling like too many things are getting out of control. She stares at it now as she considers the lives of the soldiers they found on Edolus this evening. She's so lost in thought that she doesn't even notice someone hovering behind her.

"Skipper?"

Shepard's head turns at the sound of Ashley's voice.

"Williams. You need something?"

Ashley hesitates. "I… no, not really, ma'am. I was just thinking."

Shepard raises an eyebrow when nothing more is forthcoming. "Did you care to share those thoughts, or did you just want to assure me that you actually have a brain?" she asks, but there's no malice behind it.

"Somebody set those soldiers up," Ashley says, taking a deep breath. "They purposely lured them out there so that they would be attacked by that thresher maw."

"Yes," Shepard nods simply.

"Who would do that?" Ashley asks angrily. Shepard is silent for a moment.

"Come up here, Williams," she says finally, moving over slightly so that Ashley can stand next to her in front of the map. Ashley frowns, but does as she's told. They stand shoulder to shoulder, facing the map. Shepard points at the planet in front of them. "You know what that is?" Ashley shakes her head.

"No, ma'am."

"It's Mindoir," Shepard tells her. She watches the realization spark in Ashley's eyes. "This," she says, pointing to a spot in the southern hemisphere of the planet, "is where I was born. My father owned a hardware store. My mother sold strawberries. I had five siblings, but I never met a single person on the colony that I wouldn't consider to be family. Everyone helped each other out." Ashley swallows thickly. She's not really sure why Shepard is telling her this, but she's hanging on to every word like it's her lifeline. "We were outside playing tackle-ball when the batarians came. Me, Grace, Billy, Brian, my sister's boyfriend Jason, and a few other kids from down the street. Ashlee was inside reading, as usual. Laura was helping our mother make strawberry shortcake. Daddy was reading the news."

"Shepard," Ashley whispers, but she doesn't really know what to say. What can she say? Shepard's green eyes are boring into hers and it makes her feel like she can't breathe.

"That's what the batarians attacked, Ashley," Shepard continues. The sound of her first name coming out of Shepard's mouth nearly makes her heart stop for reasons she can't even begin to describe. "They attacked a bunch of kids playing outside in the summer heat. They attacked honest people doing hard work. They attacked mothers baking desert with their daughters."

"Why are you telling me this?" Ashley asks hoarsely.

"Because those marines we found today are no different from my family and friends on Mindoir," Shepard replies. "They were just going about their own business, trying to help someone who might be in trouble, and they got killed for it. People don't need a reason to kill other people. All they need are people to kill, and the means to do it. I think you saw enough of that on Eden Prime to understand what I'm saying."

Ashley nods slowly and turns back to the map.

"Have you been back since?"

"Yes. After Torfan, I went back to try to make peace," Shepard says. "But nothing was the same. I didn't even recognize it. I didn't recognize me."

Ashley isn't sure how far she can take this before Shepard shuts her out again, but she doesn't want to waste the opportunity.

"Did it help, taking out the batarians on Torfan?" she asks cautiously.

Shepard shakes her head. "It made me want to go out and hunt down more batarians, until there wasn't a single one of them left in the galaxy. And it didn't bring my family back." She reaches out and clears the galaxy map to its original position. "Get some sleep, Ashley. I have a feeling the opportunities for it are going to become increasingly scarce."

Ashley salutes. "Goodnight, Skipper."

"Goodnight, Ash."

xx

"You need to get to Feros, Shepard," Anderson says over the comm link the next morning. "The geth are hitting it hard."

"What could Saren possibly want with another human colony?" Shepard asks angrily. "Is there another beacon there?"

"Not that we know of," Anderson replies. "ExoGeni has a fairly large research lab there, though."

"You think they have something there? Some kind of research or experiment involving the Reapers?"

"Hard to say, but if there is something there that Saren wants, you need to find it, Shepard. If he gets one more step ahead of us, we're out of this game," he says gravely. "You need to get in there a.s.a.p. before Feros ends up just like Eden Prime."

"That's not going to happen, sir," Shepard promises. "I'll have Joker plot a course immediately."

"Get it done, Shepard," Anderson orders. Shepard salutes and he cuts the link.

She turns and strides out of the comm room, almost running into Garrus in the process as he hobbles towards her.

"Shepard," he says, leaning onto the wall for support.

"Praying mantis," she greets, stopping to appraise him.

"Funny," he smirks. "You've got a look. Where are we headed?"

"Feros," she answers seriously.

"The human colony? What's happening there?" he asks with confusion.

"The geth are ripping it apart. There's obviously something there that Saren wants, and we need to figure out what it is."

"I want to go with you," Garrus says.

Shepard raises an eyebrow and looks down at his injured leg. "And what does the doc have to say about that?"

"I'm fine, Shepard," he insists.

"You can barely walk on those chicken legs," she says skeptically. "The geth are going to tear you to pieces, and you're no good to me dead."

"I can't spend one more day on this ship. I'm going crazy sitting around all the time," Garrus says desperately. Shepard sighs.

"Look, we'll scope out the situation when we get there. If it doesn't look too bad, I'll try to find you something to do," she says.

"Thanks, Shepard," he says with relief.

Shepard rolls her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Now get out of here. It's getting too hard for me to resist finding out how much force it would take to topple you over like Humpty Dumpty." Garrus stares at her with vacant eyes. "It's a human nursery rhyme… never mind," she mutters, stomping off towards the cockpit.

"Hello, Shepard," Liara greets her happily from the co-pilot's seat. "Would you like to plot a course to our next destination?"

Shepard's eyebrows fly into her hairline. "Are you off duty or something?" she asks Joker. "Or should I just start coming to Liara from now on whenever we need to go somewhere? I'd be more than happy to replace you with her."

"Oh come on, Commander, you know you'd miss my charming personality," Joker says playfully.

"Charming isn't the word I'd use to describe it. Once you two are done figuring out whose job it is to fly the ship, plot a course for Feros. We need to be there yesterday."

"Aye, aye, Commander. Plotting the course now. We'll be there this afternoon."

"Good. Kid, I want you with me," Shepard instructs. "If you can manage to pull yourself away from Joker's 'charming personality,' that is."

Liara's blush is immediate. Shepard smirks and leaves.

xx

Feros looks almost worse than Eden Prime, in Shepard's opinion. As they fly in, she can see that most of the colony is in ruins, overrun by geth troops and dreadnoughts. There's no one even available to answer their hails, so she instructs Joker to dock at the nearest port where the geth forces are heaviest. It's a safe bet that whatever Saren wants will be there.

As the squad exits the Normandy, they're met by a single dark-skinned human. He's obviously unarmed, and Shepard signals for everyone to lower their weapons.

"We saw your ship coming in," the man says. "Fai Dan wants to speak with you."

"Who the hell is Fai Dan?" Shepard barks.

"He's the leader of Zhu's Hope. You'd better go speak with him so you can—argh!"

The man is gunned down before he can finish his sentence. Two geth storm around the corner, but they're no match for Shepard's entire squad, who fire on sight.

"Alright everyone, stay close and stay alert," Shepard orders. "I'm sure there are more where that came from. Let's go find this Fai Dan and figure out what the fuck is going on around here."

It's easier said than done. Once they find Fai Dan, they're interrupted by another geth attack up in the tower, which takes some time to repel. When that's finally dealt with, Fai Dan informs them that most of the geth forces are coming from the ExoGeni headquarters across the bridge.

"Williams and Tali will come with me to the ExoGeni tower. We'll get rid of the geth drop ship there. The rest of you will stay here and defend the colonists against any other attacks. In the meantime, help them make any necessary repairs and gather supplies. Alenko, you're in charge," Shepard says.

Alenko salutes. Shepard motions for Ashley and Tali to follow her up to the bridge.

xx

Two hours later, Shepard and her team have managed to get rid of the geth. They have an even bigger problem on their hands now, however. Shepard doesn't know what the hell a Thorian is, but it has control of the colonists and it's turned them against her. She can only imagine what they've done to the rest of her squad back at Zhu's Hope. They've been careful to use the anti-Thorian grenades so far, but they're quickly running out. After that, she won't have much of a choice about whether or not she spares the colonists.

"We'll save as many as we can," she says, distributing the rest of the grenades equally between herself, Ashley, and Tali as they come into the camp proper. "After that, it's survival of the fittest. And if they threaten the rest of the team, you shoot to kill."

Once Ashley and Tali have confirmed their understanding, they begin their assault. In the end, only five colonists have to die, including Fai Dan, who sacrifices himself in order to save them. They find the others knocked unconscious inside of The Borealis.

"How the hell did they manage to knock out a krogan battle master without losing half of the colonists?" Ashley mutters, squatting down next to Wrex to dispense some medi-gel.

"I don't know, but you can be damn sure I won't ever let him live this one down," Shepard replies.

"Commander?"

Alenko groans and his eyes flicker open. He tries to sit up, but Shepard stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

"Easy, LT," she says. Liara and Garrus are also beginning to stir. "One of you want to tell us what the hell happened here?"

"The colonists ambushed us," Alenko explains. He tries to sit up again. Shepard lets him this time, helping him lean against the wall. "I was down in the tunnels trying to fix the water pumps. Liara and Wrex were trying to find food and power cells. There were geth down there, but it wasn't too hard to get rid of them all. We left Garrus up here with the colonists, in case there was another attack. I figured he could get to cover and use his sniper without damaging his leg any further. When we came back up, he wasn't around. Didn't think anything of it. Figured he was off helping someone out. But when I went back to Macha to make sure the water was working again, she attacked me. Hit me over the head with something."

"They weren't themselves. They started acting really strange, like they couldn't think straight," Garrus supplies.

"They were being controlled by some creature that lives under the colony," Tali says. "Something called a Thorian."

"Yeah, and we had to kill five colonists because of it," Shepard says darkly. "So now we're going to go find this Thorian and return the favor."

She helps Alenko stand up and then walks around to Wrex, who's still knocked out.

"Get up, princess!" she barks, giving him a swift kick in the quad. Wrex sits up immediately with a vicious growl.

"I'm going to kill those colonists," he roars.

"You're a little late to the party," Ashley says.

"I can't believe you let a bunch of human civilians take you down," Shepard says with a smirk.

"One of them injected me with something. That dirty little salarian! I'll crush its skull with my bare hands."

Shepard rolls her eyes. "Get your pansy ass up and let's go. We've got a Thorian to kill."

Wrex snarls and stands up. He looks a little unsteady at first, but he seems to be able to shake it off with little effort. Tali finds a pile of their weapons in a corner nearby and starts handing them out. Shepard takes Wrex's shotgun from her and tosses it to him.

"Wrex and Williams, come with me so we can see about this creature. Tali, you help the others back to the ship and get Dr. Chakwas to look at them. Vakarian, keep your ass in the med bay until I get back. You've had enough action for today."

They exit the ship to see that the surviving colonists are still unconscious. Shepard spots a control panel nearby and activates it. A large tank is lifted off the ground, revealing a set of stairs that leads underground somewhere.

"Guess we found out where the Thorian's hiding," Ashley muses. Shepard grunts in agreement and leads them down the stairs.

There's a long, dark tunnel that forces them to turn their flashlights on. It opens up into a cavernous room, and Shepard suddenly realizes that the Thorian isn't like any sort of plant she's ever seen in her life.

It's enormous—at least twenty feet tall and taking up almost the entire girth of the cylindrical chamber it resides in. It's suspended in mid-air, holding itself up with vines as thick as tree trunks that are attached to the walls surrounding them. The most disturbing thing is that it's breathing, or engaging in some act that mimics respiration, and dripping some sort of viscous green fluid from what Shepard can only guess is supposed to be its mouth.

"Jesus," Ashley whispers as they approach, almost lowering her weapon in her awe. Shepard silently agrees, but they need to stay alert if they're going to make it out of this one alive. She nudges Ashley's weapon back into position with the barrel of her own. Not that a spray of bullets will probably help them out very much against this thing, she thinks grimly.

Without warning, the mouth of the Thorian contracts and, much to their combined disbelief, spits out an entire asari. A green asari.

"Invaders!" she barks, and it isn't nearly the same as when the rachni queen had taken control of the asari body. Still, Shepard's quickly tiring of alien life forms taking control of others. "Your every step is a transgression. A thousand feelers appraise you as meat, good only to dig or decompose. I speak for the Old Growth, as I did for Saren. You are within and before the Thorian. It commands that you be in awe!"

"The only thing I'm in awe of is the fact that no one has doused your ugly ass with pesticide yet," Shepard snaps. "You have a lot to answer for, Thorian."

"The Old Growth answers to no one, human. It will ingest you as worm food," the asari proclaims, just before pulling out an assault rifle.

Shepard throws out a biotic barrier in order to block the bullets and give her team time to scatter into cover. This asari is just as powerful as any one of Benezia's commandos, and she keeps lobbing powerful biotic attacks in Shepard's direction, interspersed with gunfire.

Wrex and Ashley are busy dealing with the hoard of Thorian creepers that have come seemingly out of nowhere. Wrex is positively covered in toxic green guts by this point, but luckily his armor and thick skin are protecting him from any adverse effects. Ashley, on the other hand, constantly has to dive back into cover in order to avoid the poisonous vomit that the things kept spraying everywhere. Luckily, they're stupid and slightly slower than normal enemies, which makes it a lot easier to dispatch them from a distance with her rifle.

After being knocked on her ass by a particularly powerful warp field that makes her head feel like it's being ripped apart at the seams, Shepard finally uses as much energy as she can muster to charge the asari, blasting a couple of shotgun rounds into her chest. She finally falls to the ground in a heap.

"We need to figure out a way to get rid of this fucking thing," Shepard pants as she regroups with Ashley and Wrex, "otherwise it'll just enslave the colonists again as soon as we leave."

"Well I'm pretty sure we could each fire all the ammo we have into that thing and it wouldn't even make a dent," Ashley says.

"No," Wrex agrees, peering over the ledge that the Thorian is suspended above and seeing nothing but black, "but I bet it would splatter just like a bug if it ever found the bottom of this pit."

He looks over his shoulder and spots one of the arms of the Thorian attached to the wall just up the ramp. Walking over to it, he starts shooting at the arm with his gun. After several rounds, the thing finally gives way and falls limply to the Thorian's side while the creature squeals in outrage.

"New mission objective: destroy every one of this thing's supports until falls," Shepard orders, running up the ramp. She's just barely made it to the second landing when she's thrown backwards by another biotic blast. She shakes her head to try to straighten out her vision, and looks up to find an exact copy of the asari she'd killed only minutes before. "Oh shit."

xx

It turns out that the Thorian can reproduce as many copies of that asari as it needs, which only makes it that much harder for the three of them to destroy its supports. They manage, finally, after much struggle and nearly losing Ashley over the edge of the pit. Shepard is never so satisfied as when she watches the Thorian disappear into the blackness below them. They descend down the ramps to the bottom of the complex to find the same asari waiting for them, proper blue this time and looking a little sick.

"You freed me," she breathes, holding a hand to her stomach as though she' in pain. "I—thank you."

"Don't be so hasty to thank me," Shepard growls, gun trained on the asari. "I haven't decided if I'm going to let you live yet. You'd better start talking so we can find out."

The asari looks wary, but nods anyway.

"My name is Shiala. I follow… followed Matriarch Benezia. When she aligned with Saren, so did I."

"Why did she do it? Why did she join Saren?" Shepard asks. It isn't that she particularly cares for her own sake, but it might be something that Liara would like to know in the future.

"Matriarch Benezia foresaw that Saren would be entangled in certain destructive events. She sought to guide him away from this path. But we underestimated him," Shiala says wearily. "His ship is capable of devastating mind control. By the time Saren brought me to this planet, I was a willing slave."

"What was he doing here? What did he want with the Thorian?"

"He wanted to make a deal with it. He needed my biotics to communicate with the Old—with the Thorian. It had a Cipher that he needed in order to make sense of the images given to him by the Prothean beacon. He traded me in exchange for the information," Shiala explains.

"Wait, back up," Shepard interrupts. "What Cipher?"

Shiala is being very patient for her part, but then again Shepard's pretty sure she lacks the energy to argue or fight with them.

"The beacon that both you and Saren interacted with on Eden Prime was not meant for use by non-Prothean races. In order to understand the information it contains, one must understand the Protheans—their language, their culture… their entire existence."

"And the Thorian had all of this?" Ashley asks skeptically.

"The Thorian has been around for thousands of years. It has seen the coming and going of the Protheans, studied them from the darkness as it studies our races now," Shiala says.

"And so once Saren got what he needed, he sent his geth here to try to destroy the Thorian," Shepard guesses. "Slimy prick."

"Saren knows that you are after the Conduit. He knows that you follow wherever he goes. He did not want to leave the Thorian as a loose end."

"He didn't," Shepard says, glancing into the pit below them. "But he did leave you. I need that Cipher."

Even as she says it, she's well aware that it isn't something that can simply be told or explained. If that were the case, Saren would never have needed to bring Shiala along. No, this is going to be a process similar to what she'd done with Liara before, though probably considerably more painful since Shiala is going to inject her brain with more Prothean trash. The last thing she wants is to have someone else poking around in her brain, but if she's going to have any hope of stopping Saren, she'll need to know everything that he knows.

"Try to relax, Commander," Shiala instructs, and then she's no longer alone within her own mind.

She sees flashes of things, of a thousand years' worth of culture, at least. She feels the entirety of a people melding and melting into her mind, inserting themselves into the dark spaces of her brain where she may never see them again, or only see them when she least expects it. It's over in a second, though it feels like an eternity or more. When she opens her eyes, she finds Shiala staring back at her, looking even weaker than before, but satisfied that the job is done. It isn't as painful as Shepard thought it might be, but she still doesn't understand any more than she had before.

"Are you alright, Skipper?" Ashley asks with concern. "You look like you're going to be sick."

"Fine," Shepard says lowly, waving her off. That isn't entirely true. It does feel like she's going to heave up her entire last meal at any second.

"It is not an easy process, but it was the only way," Shiala explains. "You now have the Cipher just as it was given to Saren. It will take some time, but eventually you will understand the message delivered to you in the beacon as you grow to understand lessons that you were taught as a child and could not yet fully grasp."

"Thanks," Shepard mutters with as much sarcasm as she can muster. It's hardly any at all. "We can't stay here any longer, not while Saren is still searching for the Conduit."

"I wish you good luck, but you must stop him," Shiala says. "As for me, I would stay here with the colonists if I may. I wish to undo the wrongs that I have helped bring upon them."

"Then I guess you'll have to take that up with them," Shepard says. "They need someone to help them get back on their feet and fight with them in case anything else tries to come back and finish the job Saren started here. You deserve whatever fate they bestow upon you."

Shiala nods, but says nothing further. Shepard turns to her squad and motions for them to head back the way they came, out into the light of the colony once more.