I don't own Mass Effect.


Interlude:
Another Version of the Truth

The Destroyer


Shepard didn't know what she was doing here.

The air was thick with humidity and reeked of bloodshed and with every staggering breath that she took, the throbbing pain in her lip intensified. An entire cheek had darkened with bruise and dried blood caught at the corner of her mouth, and she wondered for the first time if she'd need stitches after all of this was said and done.

The floor beneath Shepard's boots was metallic, painted white and rusted; an awning ran over their heads, and the commander was grateful for this, because it shielded her eyes from the blaze of the planet's sun. Dirt was loose in the air and the environment was stuffy; she could smell salt and iron on the wind. Breathing was difficult, the oxygen levels not quite what she was used to (and she was certain that the height of the structure they had secured didn't help this) – but she was thankful that she hadn't had to stuff her head in a helmet.

An itch fired its way up the commander's back and she found it impossible to think about anything other than the hands that had been all over her the night before. She had been dealing with it the entire mission, the times when it would flare up and cause her to twitch completely inconsistent; it was a passing burn, but every time it came back, it raged.

Shepard wouldn't allow it to affect her performance on this mission, and as the rash bit at her skin, she gritted her teeth. Sweat poured down her face and back in rivulets, irritating both her rash and the fresh cuts that marred her flesh. She steadied her rifle against rusted white railing and pulled back from the scope, taking the moment to puff off of the cigarette that had previously been dangling from her mouth. A new enemy hadn't revealed themselves in the past fifteen minutes, and while Shepard wasn't exactly comfortable, in this moment, she definitely appreciated being alive.

The crude building they'd gained control over had ended up making an excellent bird's nest, which had thus far allowed the woman to pick them off, one by one. Commander Shepard took comfort in the location of her comrades behind her; they were to guard the door in case any of the little fuckers actually made it that far. She tossed her cigarette and bit back a grin with a grimace – the bleeding had just stopped, and she had no interest in splitting her lip further.

The path to this building was vast, empty space, and if any of the mercs wanted to get to them, they had to cross it first. The only problem was that this applied to Shepard as well: it was unlikely that they'd be able to move from this spot easily. The enemy compound comprised of five other buildings that needed to be secured, all of them stark white and flat. The plant life on this planet was sparse, and the ground below was arid and tan. Dust blew in the wind, and Commander Shepard waited.

She checked her life scans again; there were roughly over two hundred enemies left, and considering where the number had been, she and her team weren't faring too bad. Shepard could manage picking a few more off from this position for a little while – but eventually, they'd need to move. The commander wasn't looking forward to it.

Shepard's knees popped and her thighs burned as she shifted from her stoop to a crouch, readjusting the sniper rifle that she'd slung over her shoulder nearly an hour ago. Jacob made a derisive comment to the right of her, and to her left, Miranda snorted; as it turned out, for this part of the mission, the both of them were pretty fucking useless when it came to things other than being a pain in her ass.

Shepard wiggled her toes to make certain that she really couldn't feel them before tossing out a comment that was equally as derisive, earning another snort from Miranda.

Their situation was pretty fucking fantastic.

The mission had been simple enough: invade merc base, clear out merc base, take anything of use and destroy the rest. It was run of the mill, just another simple mission amongst the many. Except somewhere along the line, things had gotten fucked up. The three of them had made their way to the base, their intent to infiltrate this building first – and they'd tripped an alarm in the process.

Jacob had failed to breech the locks without alerting enemy combatants.

Miranda's intel had been wrong.

Shepard was lost in her own head.

A lot of things had gone wrong, and Shepard was the only one who wasn't pointing fingers. Miranda and Jacob had been at each other's necks the moment shit had gone bad, and as entertaining as it had been at first, the commander found more and more that she couldn't tolerate it – at least, not for much longer. Placing blame wasn't going to do anything other than cause more mistakes. Jacob grunted another complaint, to which Shepard promptly ordered him to shut the fuck up.

Shepard understood their hostility; inwardly, she was as frustrated as they were.

This was supposed to have been a small base – fifteen to twenty-five mercs tops. The objective had been to break up an illegal weapons trade that had apparently made itself problematic, but Shepard got the feeling that they'd stumbled onto something much larger. There had been at least four hundred of the little bastards, and although they'd successfully secured this structure, they were pinned down and starved for answers.

Although Shepard was distant and her mind was scattered, she was far from blaming herself for the situation that they were in; Commander Shepard was well aware that her focus was shot to hell, but she'd had the foresight to bring Miranda Lawson along, because the operative was supposed to have known everything that Shepard didn't care to know. Shepard had stopped reading the datapads on missions like these a long time ago – because it was all the same anyway.

Commander Shepard was always being pointed into a certain direction and told to shoot.

And all of it had become so inane.

And everything so monotonous.

Save this person, get that data, blow up that ship, save these goods, disable that bomb, deliver this package, destroy that package, save a hostage, kill a hostage, investigate these mercenar—

Another merc wandered into view and his form bounced about as the commander's scope hovered – the trigger was pulled without hesitation and her shoulder jerked as the rifle pulsed for yet another time, as yet another faceless person's existence was obliterated by the miniscule movement of her index finger.

Shepard's scream of agony had been delayed because she'd bit it back for a moment, the sound initially covered up by an expulsion of air. She gritted her teeth and swallowed it down, her eyes rolling as Jacob's voice once again sounded from behind her.

"That's nature telling you not to do stupid shit, Commander."

"Tacking on 'Commander' at the end of your statement doesn't make what you said any less disrespectful, Jacob," Miranda answered. "We're on a mission – act like it."

Shepard's chest swelled at Miranda's immediate defense of her – but Jacob kind of had a point.

Shepard had broken three of the four fingers that it had taken to make a fist on a vanguard's helmeted face; on the first strike, the ceramic plating of her gauntlet had shattered, and though she had known that the protective material beneath would not be enough to shield her bone from the repeated impact, she'd kept going until she couldn't feel bone at all – kept going because it had felt right.

And now

Whatever, she'd broken her fingers before – her fist curled around her rifle regardless. Spots encompassed her vision and she fired at nothing.

"Regardless, and with all due respect – I still don't understand why you didn't use biotics, Commander," Miranda said as Shepard fired off another round, this time catching a merc in the forehead. "You would have taken out that mercenary unscathed."

"It doesn't matter now. We all know that my impulsiveness often leads to stupidity and…" She fired again, a grunt this time the only indication of the pain that she felt with every tightening of her grip. At least her index finger hadn't been broken. "And I can't take it back."

Shepard only used biotics when she had to. The commander liked being near to her enemy – she liked how powerful it made her feel and she liked having the upper hand despite her fragility. Doing otherwise felt a little like cheating, and although she wasn't opposed to it, she liked doing things the hard way.

…No, that wasn't true.

Commander Shepard frowned to herself, her lip once again igniting as sharp throbs pounded away at torn flesh. A stray hair tickled at her nose, and though she longed to brush it away from her face, she ignored it in favor of keeping her rifle steady. A wave of self-loathing blanketed over the commander and she gritted her teeth. Even she was starting to buy into her own bullshit.

It's just that…

Biotics were far from being second nature to the commander. Shepard's instinct said to punch, not to utilize her control over energy that she hadn't even realized she'd had until she was a weepy eighteen year old cracking under the intensity of her training – the training that had made biotics her reflex impulse for the better part of her military career.

Until she'd died, of course.

And now her reflexes weren't so sharp, and her control wasn't so steady, and sometimes her biotics went a little overboard, and sometimes they fizzled, because…

They didn't feel the same.

Because Commander Shepard was not the same person she used to be.

Yes – that was it.

The Savior of the Citadel was having an identity crisis.

Shepard was far too proud to admit to any of it; she couldn't face the fact that her combat abilities had suffered. All of her training was wasted, and she felt lucky to even know how to shoot a gun. The commander would never understand it, and she'd likely never confess to it openly – but she was not the soldier she used to be, and it killed her. She put on a real tough act, but she didn't want to confess to anyone that she was…incapable.

Commander Shepard didn't want to believe that Project Lazarus had failed – she wanted to be alive. But she wasn't now, and she never would be again. Thane had been a good distraction, and for a short time, he'd staved off the creeping feeling that Shepard was not the same Shepard that she had been. But the more he'd idolized her, put her on a fucking pedestal, spoken of her as if she were an angel doing the bidding of a God – the more she felt her cracks begin to show.

Eventually, somebody was gonna figure it out.

Another merc bounced about in the focus of her scope, and bemusedly, Shepard took note of how the humanoid creature aimed at her. This one had been the first to show any indication of being aware of where the sniping was coming from.

Shepard let him aim for a little longer, and a bullet clinked off of the railing a few inches to her right.

In Thane's eyes, Shepard was…

A tenacious—

Shepard squeezed the trigger and a body was left behind.

protector.

Shepard pulled away from the scope once more and brushed bangs from her eyes, taking a second to shift her position. She looked over a shoulder, gaining the eye contact of Miranda and Jacob, and licked at the warmth of blood that had once again began to ooze from the wound on her lower lip. "I've only got about fifteen clips left."

"Oh, that's bloody great."

"I take it you wanna head out after this?" Jacob said; he hunkered down even lower than he had been as a stray slug fired passed him.

In Thane's eyes she was…

"Yeah. We search the building before we go." Shepard peered back into her scope. In the time that it had taken for her to look back at her squad, six mercs had poured out of one of the bunkers. They ran in opposite directions, some headed toward the secured position, others toward the southern bunker. All of them sprayed fire. Shepard smirked before she downed two of them – at least they were finally showing some semblance of strategy.

It was hopeless, though – even if Shepard were a novice sniper and the ones headed her way did manage to make it across the field, breech the locks Jacob had set into place, and make it into the building, all of them would be dead before they were even able to reach the staircase.

A warrior-angel of the Goddess Arashu.

Fierce in—

Bang.

Bang.

Bang.

And the more she thought about it, the more it pissed her off.

Who were any of them to say who was worthy of protecting, worthy of killing, worthy of sparing—

Bang.

The more none of it made sense.

Commander Shepard killed arbitrarily. She had no moral code that dictated who she spared or killed – her emotions would not allow it. Shepard granted no fairness, no justice – if it felt right, she did it. And the commander didn't know why. She could find no source for the feeling; if asked to justify a kill, she would never be able to do it. Some things felt good, some things felt bad – that was the extent of it. Commander Shepard had found herself unable to process beyond that, because the reasoning got convoluted; you either followed a strict moral code and found some kind of justification for your actions, or you didn't. And Shepard was one of those who didn't.

Shepard had shot a hundred traitors, and yet she'd felt compelled to tell Miranda to spare Niket – Niket, the man who had been willing to hand Oriana over to a mad man on the basis of familial ties despite everything he had known of Miranda's father. Shepard had never hesitated to kill a traitor before, and yet with Mordin, she had done so again – she had prevented the doctor from killing Maelon. Allowing either of them to do so wouldn't have felt right. Killing Niket and Maelon wouldn't have been acceptable, where countless other times, such actions would have been.

Commander Shepard couldn't resolve the difference in her head – why killing one traitor while sparing another was perfectly acceptable behavior. The lines were blurry; she knew that the black and white of morality wouldn't allow for this kind of hypocrisy. The commander routinely killed without second thought, the list of people she'd allowed to survive much smaller than that of the people she had killed. And still, Shepard was heralded as a savior – as a protector.

But these mercs, these people who were guilty of guarding, of being paid to protect – killing them was acceptable. They did as Shepard did, although Shepard was not always certain of what it was that she was protecting. The commander was also certain that many of these specific mercs had never killed a day in their lives (this situation was evidence enough to the commander that these mercs were fresh from the fucking farm), although they certainly didn't lack for trying once she had forced her way into the picture.

Truthfully, their only mistake was being in the way.

They had no identity.

They had no face.

They were nameless.

They were peons.

They were just another kill under Shepard's belt.

More blood on my hands.

And no one who mattered gave a damn about them.

Shepard's actions were no more worthy of praise than that of a hired gun.

Another merc bounded across the field before halting; he stopped behind one of the few areas of cover, seemingly unaware of how visible he still was to the commander. She wished she could see his face. Shepard closed her eyes and smiled.

His name was Bill – he had a wife and three kids who lived off-world; they were colonists who had thus far not been hit by the Collectors – and their lives were hard. Bill had joined a merc group in order to support his family, and he had only completed training a few weeks ago.

Bang.

Sometimes the commander liked to imagine what the people behind those helmets were like – she named them, gave them families, gave them reasons. Shepard knew that every one of these people were not lacking in depth, although it was far too easy to imagine that it was so – and many in her position did in order to absolve themselves of guilt. Not that Shepard felt guilty over things that had to be done. It was just that Shepard did not need to pretend that these people were nobodies in order to do her job.

When she had shot Bill, it hadn't felt wrong.

And that was why she was confused.

Maelon had a face, a name, a chance to explain himself – and so had Niket. And thus, they had been spared. These mercenaries didn't get the chance to explain. Shepard did not hear out these helmeted people – she simply aimed and shot. It didn't seem to Shepard that Arashu would rely on such a woman to do Her bidding, because Shepard couldn't imagine that her actions were Arashu's bidding at all.

Siha.

Thane was wrong about her. Shepard did not protect – she crippled and maimed beyond all repair. She was no angel – let alone one who did the bidding of Thane's goddess. Arashu – mother, protector. The Savior of the Citadel had taken more lives than she could remember. Shepard broke things, because she was broken – she couldn't even bare life. She just took it. Commander Shepard was a destroyer.

Siha.

The nickname sometimes made her sick.

Bang.

Shepard dealt in death just as Thane did, the differences being that Shepard's actions were her own and a good kill was only a good kill if it felt right. Commander Shepard operated not from logic or some deluded sense of justice, but from emotion. The commander was not a bit detached. Everything about the way that Shepard killed was wrong. Shepard killed because she could, because she wanted to, because it felt right – and how could she be right in the assassin's eyes where truths like these were facts and truths like Thane's were…illusions, to be sure, because the assassin had clearly been blinded by his feelings for her.

Shepard swallowed and pulled the trigger, but this time, it was not the pain of recoil that she felt.

When moods like this struck her, siha raised bile in the back of her throat. But she would never speak a word of it – Shepard would never attempt to correct Thane in his assessment of her, wrong though it would always be. The commander feared too greatly the possibility of dispelling whatever illusions Thane had about her; she did not want to face his judgment.

She did not want him to leave.

Commander Shepard would encourage the lie for as long as she possibly could, because she was as self-serving as she was destructive – and sometimes, it felt wrong. But it was who she was now. Shepard's shoulders twitched as she unloaded her final clip into the last merc that she would snipe that day. Her thighs throbbed, the muscles aching from the strain of continued motionlessness, but she still trotted down the stairs with a bounce in her step.

The lower level of the building was dank and virtually lightless; one bulb hang in the center of the vast space, and its wattage was hardly enough to bring light to one corner of the room, let alone all of it. This was why Shepard and her team had avoided searching the building when they'd initially entered – that, and the alarms had drawn every damn merc on the base to their position.

The commander doubted very seriously that there was anything of import in the area; apart from the alarm, it hadn't even been guarded – but she'd learned that in this business, it was always better safe than sorry. Footfalls echoed down the staircase behind her and Miranda and Jacob were both soon at her side; she motioned for the two of them to split up, and the three of them walked in different directions.

Searching the room was kind of like moving through a maze – there were so many crates and boxes stacked up to heights that went far beyond the commander's own head that it made her a little dizzy. The bulk of them were unlocked and empty, their presence something that only served to confuse her.

A grunt sounded from behind her and Shepard pulled her hand cannon and whirled around before running face first into stacked crates – five of them toppled over and blocked her path. A millisecond later, gunfire echoed throughout the building, which was quickly followed by Shepard's shout as she leapt over a crate.

"Status!"

Their voices sounded in her ear less than a second apart and she heaved a sigh of relief.

"Everything is fine on my end, Commander."

"All clear, Commander. There was a merc hiding behind one of these fucking boxes. Keep an eye out."

The commander doubted that there were any left, but she kept her pistol pulled just in case.

Shepard squinted and frowned; the darkness had affected her ability to navigate, although it was a situation that was easily rectified – but fixing the absence of light was not the most intelligent thing to do in her situation. The commander calculated her odds, her eyebrow twitching as she ran her tongue over slick, white teeth. These mercs had thus far proven that they couldn't fight for shit; there really wasn't anything to worry about.

With a shrug, the Commander initialized her omni-tool. The crates she'd knocked over had blocked her into a corner that she wouldn't easily be able to work her way out of. The warmth of biotic energy tickled at the tips of her fingers and she pulled, only to be met with another failed attempt at mastering some sort of connection with her new nervous system. The boxes warbled, but nothing more.

Shepard growled and slammed into another stack of boxes with a shoulder, knocking them over just as easily as she had the last. This time, an array of items spilled from them, and the commander's eyebrows shot upwards with surprise.

"I think I'm gonna need you guys over here."

Shepard squatted and turned one of the objects over in the palm of her hand, and the lines in her forehead deepened. A lot of things about this mission weren't adding up – first and foremost being Miranda's intel slip. Along with that, though, these were the weakest mercenaries Shepard had ever met in battle. She had thought maybe that they'd just hit a base that was crawling with new recruits, but now, she wasn't so sure. There was new and there was amateur, and Commander Shepard was beginning to smell the difference.

And then there was this.

Miranda and Jacob had found her easily enough – and to the former's annoyance, Shepard and Jacob had played Marco Polo while the commander waved her omni-tool around. "You're going to get us all killed," had been one phrase amongst the many to be tossed around within the four or five minutes that it had taken the pair to find her.

"Damn, Commander," Jacob's voice called out and Shepard grinned up at him. "What the hell did you do?"

Shepard spied the silhouettes of her team from across the sea of boxes and tossed the object she'd been toying with in their direction; Miranda's form moved first, and her hand snatched the object out of the air before Jacob had even gotten the chance to flinch.

"You notice anything weird about that, Miri?" Shepard called out to the pair.

"It's fake."

"Yep." Shepard brushed a stray hair from her face. "All of these guns are fake."

Shepard stood up from her stoop and lurched at another stack of crates, the impact jolting through her body as they toppled over and spilled their contents. Miranda plucked another gun up from the pile in order to confirm that it, too, was a fake.

A calculating silence hung in the air, and Jacob was the first to break it. "What the hell are fake guns doing on a base that's used for illegal weapons dealing?"

Miranda snorted. "Leave it to you to ask the penetrating questions, Jacob."

Shepard eyed the both of them, her gaze flicking back and forth from Jacob's silhouette to Miranda's. She shined the light from her omni-tool on them so that she could see their faces. Wisely, and for the first time that day, Jacob bit his tongue. The commander was definitely going to have to have a talk with the pair; ever since Jake had mentioned it, Shepard had noticed that Lawson's behavior toward the man had changed.

Now was clearly not the time, so Shepard quickly interrupted the second silence that had passed, this one the result of awkwardness as opposed to deep thought. "Guess we're gonna find out. You think we're good to move out, XO?"

"Yes, Commander. I believe we've found all that we're going to. We could stay here and wait for the others to approach the building, but that'd take more time than it's worth."

"Mmm, that's what I was thinking," Shepard said before she sniffed and shifted on her feet. "But one of you is gonna have to get me out of here."

Jacob barked a laugh, and the noise sounded oddly startled. Shepard just stared as Miranda began to force a pathway through the crates with biotics. "Wait…you're serious? What's wrong with your getter?"

Rude.

"Give it a rest, Jacob. The commander's been injured." As Miranda said it, she caught Shepard's eye – and the look that the operative gave her was full of knowing. Yes, the two of them would definitely be talking later.

"Well, if she'd just slap some medigel on it—"

"Her suit's settings are at optimum for this mission; medigel will be applied when it's needed. Right now, it isn't. There is no need to waste our resources. Stop pressing the issue."

"I'm sorry," the man held his hands up. "I just never expected to see the Savior of the Citadel held back by a couple of boxes."

And that hit closer to home than Jacob would ever realize.

"Fuck you." Shepard walked through the path that Miranda had cleared for her and didn't look back at either of them, fully knowing that the two would follow her. The rest of this mission was going to be hell, she knew, so she squelched out what ever anger she had at Jacob for his comments and saved it for later.

Now was not the time.

They neared the exit and Shepard stayed back, her arms crossed against her chest. Jacob's omni-tool lit up his arm and illuminated the space he was working in, an orange glow reflecting on all of their faces. They'd locked the door inside and out, a precaution which had paid off considering that there had been at least one merc hidden in the small warehouse. Miranda tapped her foot against the ground and Shepard found the clicking to be an odd sort of comfort; she appreciated that it broke the silence, quietness still something that the commander struggled to be at ease in.

The door hissed open and overwhelming brightness enveloped them; Shepard couldn't help the sneeze that had startled its way out of her, her sinuses tickling as her pupils tried to adjust to this new intrusion as quickly as possible. All three of them immediately flattened against the wall and squatted.

Static shot up Shepard's arm as she reactivated her omni-tool; she checked her scanner and sighed. "It looks like the rest of them are concentrated in the building south of our current location. The other buildings are empty now. Some of the mercs I shot were headed in that direction."

"Sounds like we go south, then."

"Ah, yet another keen observation straight from the mouth of Jacob Taylor."

"Speaking of unprofessional…"

"Stop fucking goading each other and move out."

A couple of "aye, ayes" followed her command and they ended up stealthing their way over to the primary building without incident – yet another thing that seemed totally off about this mission, because their "stealthing" was high-tailing it across the field with no cover but their shields. For them, though, doing this wasn't so dangerous – apart from raw numbers, the enemy would have no more of an advantage than they would.

Oh, but that was stupid.

There were so many of the mercs left that it would have been far more advantageous for them to throw themselves at the team; they should have been overwhelmed by now. The trio stopped in their tracks as they neared the largest building in the base, and Shepard pivoted on a foot to face them.

The itching at Shepard's back flared again and she scratched at the sides of her face with gauntleted fingers in order to distract herself from the sensation, her words slightly muffled as she spoke. "This doesn't feel right."

"Tell me about it, Shepard. This mission has been off from the start."

Jacob's only response was to shrug and walk toward the door, his omni-tool already glowing at his side. To everyone's surprise, the door slid open as he touched it; their immediate responses were to dart to either side of the door before chancing a glimpse inside.

"That's certainly foreboding," Miranda's voice called out at Shepard's side.

A part of the commander didn't even want to go in. She wanted to turn around and leave – and doing so would be simple, being that they'd not been met with much resistance in the past hour or so. It was insane; their scanners had to be off or something, because everything about this situation was just fucking weird.

Shepard could certainly justify leaving. The only thing they'd found after all of the hell they'd been put through was some plastic fucking guns, and it was to the point where she didn't even want to find an explanation anymore. She wanted go home. She wanted to take a shower. She wanted to crawl into bed with Thane and sleep for a day straight.

She wanted to kill something.

The commander was so frustrated that her knuckles whitened; her grip so tight around her M-6 that it creaked. "Fuck this – I'm going in."

All three of them simultaneously initialized their omni-tools, and the commander became immediately aware of the holding cells that lined the walls. That was…strange. They were empty – or at least the ones that they could see seemed to be.

This building was as dark on the inside as the other one had been – but it reeked. Complaints sounded from behind her upon inhaling the stench, and though every bit of her wanted to join the chorus, she kept her mouth shut. Shepard kind of felt like she'd just walked into, and subsequently through, a wall of shit. The air was thick with it, and her stomach flipped as she suppressed the urge she felt to vomit.

There were a lot of things running through her head – a lot of scenarios. She couldn't land on one that fit. She could smell death, though, and it made the hairs on the back of her neck raise. Her team was noticeably quiet; neither Jacob nor Miranda had spoken a word since they'd first entered, and it made Shepard uneasy.

The farther they walked, the more horrible the smell grew; Shepard could eventually hear little whispers of sounds and movement, and before long, her eyes were drawn to a shape that was near to the farther holding cells. It was a hulking mass that jittered and shifted, and the commander's want to get the fuck out of that building increased by a couple thousand times. She knew that her fear was irrational, but that thing was another amongst the many that didn't make a fucking lick of sense about this situation.

The closer they drew to it, the more the commander's fear blossomed – until suddenly, they were near enough to see. Orange glow poured out over everything and Shepard blinked a couple of times before she could fully process anything.

A woman stood before them, and the image that Shepard was met with was far from what she'd been expecting; she felt a brief moment of vertigo hit her as her all of her preconceived notions were shattered. Shepard's pistol was aimed, the trigger cocked, mere fractions of a moment passing, and the woman in yellowed and dirt crusted armor began to speak.

The commander heard no words – her mind was far too preoccupied by the image of the shivering batarian who knelt in front of the woman. Shepard's gaze flickered to the holding cells behind them, and found the source of both the odor and the odd noises that had permeated the air; there were easily hundreds of batarians crammed into the cells and she found it difficult to breathe. So long this race had been vilified, and yet it was her own kind who had the other on his knees before her with a gun pressed to the back of his head.

The level of scorn for this woman that Shepard was experiencing surprised her, but she could feel it burning deep in the pit of her stomach; it wasn't something that she could brush off. This didn't feel right. This woman wasn't right.

"What the hell is this?" There was silence where there hadn't been and Shepard suddenly realized that she'd cut the woman off.

"You're Commander Shepard, aren't you?" The woman's voice was deep and ageless, although Shepard suspected that she was middle aged.

"That depends. Who's asking?"

"Theresa Ro—"

"Take off your helmet," Shepard gestured with her gun, the movement as loose as it was flippant.

The woman kept her own pistol at the back of the batarian's head, one hand working quickly to undo the latches on her helmet. The heavy thing clunked to the floor and the "merc" kicked it aside, her boot landing near enough to the batarian to jar him.

"Start talking, Theresa. You have five minutes before I start shooting."

"You're Commander Shepard – I tried to tell the others. I'm the last one…I tried to tell them that you'd help us, if only you knew—"

"From the beginning. I don't deal well with cryptic."

"We're running a cover operation and we aren't with the Blue Suns—"

"No shit – you're in Eclipse armor." Not only were these people not mercs, but they were apparently uneducated as well. Impossibly, Shepard felt even less good about this situation.

"Well, I'm not a merc! I volunteer for Terra Firma. The people you slaughtered did too. We're the families of the victims of batarian slavers; we caught a bunch of them, Commander, and we were questioning them. We were going to use them to find more slavers, and take them down, too."

Shepard remained quiet, her gun still leveled at the woman's head.

Every part of the commander knew that these batarians weren't slavers – the fact that they'd been overwhelmed by these idiots told her that much. A more likely scenario was that they'd raided a batarian settlement and had taken prisoners as some fucked up kind of revenge because they hadn't the skill or the resources to take on something bigger.

A human terrorist group that wasn't a part of Cerberus – that was certainly a new one.

"Theresa, I didn't get to where I am right now by being stupid. These batarians aren't slavers anymore than you're a part of the Blue Suns." The woman fidgeted and Shepard's eyes narrowed. "You shoot that batarian and we're all gonna unload on you. There are others back there – killing this one won't make a damn bit of difference. You really wanna die over this? Drop the gun."

The woman hesitated before pulling her pistol away from the batarian's head and dropping it beside her helmet.

"Good. If you can run faster than I can shoot you, you live."

"But you're with Cerberus now, my crew saw the emblems, and I told them—"

"Go."

Theresa startled before breaking off into a dead run toward the exit, and Shepard pivoted on a heel as she brought her arm around to aim between the woman's shoulder blades; the commander pulled the trigger without a moment's hesitation, and the kick from her M-6 felt good. Her forearm flexed and trembled as it absorbed the recoil, and the woman's armored form landed with a dull thud; a groan escaped her lips before she stopped breathing.

"Shit, Shepard – what the hell!"

Jacob's exclamation didn't surprise her, but Miranda's silence did.

"Miranda, comm Joker – let him know we'll need an evac shuttle. Both of you just poke around and see what you can find. We'll talk about this later."

Miranda's lightly accented voice filled the room as she followed orders, but the commander was too focused on the man in front of her to note what the operative was saying. Shepard took a few steps toward the creature and squatted before him, her attempt at eye contact an act in futility as the batarian continued to keep his head down. She frowned. "Look at me. I'm going to help you. What's your name?"

"Janak."

"Okay, Janak. Where are you from?"

"You wouldn't know if I said, human."

Her frown deepened, but she wasn't in the mood to press. Shepard would find out when she needed to, and when this batarian realized that she intended on sending them home, he'd cooperate.

"What were they going to do with you?"

"Aren't you going to kill us, human?"

"You're all civilians. You abide by the laws of your government, but what more are you guilty of? What you've done to be here is none of my damn business unless you make it my business, and we wouldn't want that." She smiled at him, although she was sure it was wasted. "I'm here to help."

The man before her appeared to pause in thought for a moment before the words came pouring out. "They raided our colony a few weeks ago. They took prisoners, killed the rest. They've been planning something – they recently got in a shipment of nukes, and they were talking about developing biological weapons, something about a disease that had spread on the streets of Omega that looked promising. They were planning on dropping them, on destroying as many batarian settlements as possible. That's all I heard, human. That's all I can tell you."

"Do you know if there are more of them?"

"No."

"Well, Janak, we've killed every human that was on this base unless you're hiding any of them back there with you." Shepard leaned out of her squat and held her hand out to the batarian. "Stand up for me. We're gonna get you out of here."

Her hand went ignored and the batarian braced his own hands on his knees to pick himself up, and as he walked over to the holding cells, Shepard began to lose herself again. This whole situation was…well, Shepard didn't know quite what to think. Things like this were not reported on. The commander had never heard of the batarian victims of warfare – she'd only heard the horror stories of batarian slavers and the results of their fucked up governmental system.

The fact that a human political party had funded this mess somehow didn't surprise her, but this was another one of those situations where she was confused by her own actions. These Terra Firma people had only been seeking vengeance for their families, and revenge was something that the commander knew well. She was not opposed to it – had even dealt in it, and yet this was enough to make her heart pound and her stomach feel upset.

Commander Shepard didn't understand; all she knew was that none of this felt right. Thinking beyond that, she couldn't handle. She couldn't justify it. She couldn't rationalize it. It wouldn't make a difference. Nothing would change the circumstances, or what she had done, or what they had done. Shepard couldn't think up anything that would make this situation better – the outcome would never change. Thinking beyond what she felt, truly and honest to god felt, wouldn't change her into anything other than what she was; she would still be a cold blooded killer, a monster – a destroyer.

Siha.

Nothing would ever change that.