"Anomoly detected."

Miranda let out a silent cheer. They had been surveying the Caleon Nebula for the last three days. It was rich in eezo, and they never had enough of that. That didn't make mining it any less soul crushingly monotonous. Stopping a missile from destroying a colony or recovering stolen cargo from mercenaries would be almost refreshing. If she were lucky, maybe she would get to shoot a few Eclipse mercs.

"What have we got, EDI?" Shepard sounded almost as eager as she felt.

"Scans are picking up two sets of radio chatter, as well as what appears to be a crude research facility. The first set of transmissions is using a slightly modified version of encryption protocols that were once standard for Cerberus operations requiring the highest security clearance. However, this particular protocol has not been in use for over five years."

That was odd. Encryption keys were changed every six months, more often if the Illusive Man felt that the Alliance or the Council was getting too close to cracking one. It was a constant arms race, and one every Cerberus agent took seriously. They were nobler than people like Jack believed, but they did things that governments were unable or unwilling to do. Secrecy was vital. Something serious must have happened. Or they were dealing with yet another rogue cell that didn't have access to current security measures. "You said there were two sets of chatter. What about the second?"

"It manages known Blue Suns protocols, though activity appears to be usually frequent. Would you like to patch you in?"

"Yes," said Shepard and Miranda simultaneously. They looked at each other, and Shepard smiled slightly before returning his attention to the CIC. "This should be good."

There was a crackle of static as they tuned in. "Requesting reinforcements at my position," a woman said calmly. These Cerberus bastards have me pinned down. Sorasky and Chen are down. That acid of theirs cuts right through our armor." Gunfire rang in the background.

"Affirmative. I'm down to one man, LT. Hope that's enough for you."

"Enough to cover us as we get the hell out of here, maybe."

"Oh, for the love of God!" cut in a new voice. "I'm not paying you to retreat. You told me there were six lab techs and scientists in there. My mother could handle them, Lieutenant Carver. I'm coming in there."

"You're welcome to try, Mister Toombs. God help you."

The channel fell silent. "Damn it, corporal." Shepard whispered. "What are you up to now?"

"Given Corporal Toombs psychological profile and personal history, as well as the fighting apparently ongoing, it is likely he believes those working at the facility are in some way responsible for the massacre on Akuze and is attempting to extract vengeance."

"That was a rhetorical question, EDI." He shook his head. "It looks like I didn't get them all. I want the shuttle ready in five minutes. Samara, you're with me."

"As you wish." Both of them marched toward the elevator.

"I'm going with you," Miranda said quickly. "If these people are responsible for Akuze, I want to deal with them myself. Cerberus takes care of its own, including its own problems." And I will prove to you once and for all that Cerberus is not responsible for what happened to you.

"Have it your way. Word of advice: don't tell Toombs who you work for. Say you're a bounty hunter I hired on Omega or something. He's not as discriminating as I am."

She had to hand it to the scientists. Taviz was the perfect planet if you wanted to be left alone to conduct illegal or unethical research. It was an unremarkable place, barely larger than an asteroid and completely devoid of economic or strategic value. The atmosphere was a thin layer of argon, and the environment was inhospitable to life of any kind. The planet was also bloody cold. The chill bit through her armor and worked its way inside her skin. Ice covered the ground as far as the eye could see. Whatever was happening inside the research facility, she hoped the heat still worked.

The facility itself stretched across a flat plain. It had definitely been a Cerberus installation at one time. Like all their secret facilities, it had been constructed from interchangeable, off the shelf modules, but there were patterns and markers even in anonymity: the placement of the entrance on the far side of the easiest approach so that intruders would be under fire longer, strategically placed crates and other objects ensured those intruders couldn't make a straight shot for the door, dummy communications towers that hid antitank guns. The remains of those guns sat watch over the landscape, twisted black metal against a sea of white. Whatever problems the Blue Suns were currently having, entering the facility hadn't been one of them.

The door control had been blown off, and the door itself stood open. Shooting the lock off instead of picking it. Miranda frowned. This was closer to Blood Pack handiwork than that of the Blue Suns. They usually preferred more finesse. Toombs must've wanted this job done quickly. Haste had made them sloppy. If they'd taken their time with the door, they might have retained the element of surprise. Idiots.

The corridors were long, bare, and clinically white. Her helmet's breathers filtered the worst of the smell, but the stench of burning flesh filled the air. Two bodies had been left to lie where they fell. The chest plates of their armor had been eaten away. Miranda could see their skin, red and puckered like hamburger meat. "What the hell happened here?"

"I think I know." Shepard knelt before one of the bodies. His voice sounded very far away. "It's thresher maw venom. I'd recognize the marks anywhere. Looks like Cerberus is up to its old tricks. No wonder Toombs wants to slaughter them." He rose. "He isn't the only one."

Weaponized thresher maw venom? Lovely. One hit from that would cut through kinetic barriers and kill or disable anything short of a tank. It was no wonder a group of unarmored scientists had been able to hold off a band of mercenaries. The only way to survive would be not to get hit, and that would require luck. Miranda had always preferred being good being lucky. "Follow me. We don't stand a chance if we go in blind."

Cerberus facilities were like krogan. Everything had a backup. If one part was destroyed or overrun, then the secondary system could be accessed in an emergency. This included the security console. She should be able to find it and access the cameras get a better idea of what they were up against. Maybe she'd even find something that could help them. "Look for a room with a single terminal. No VIs, no extranet capability, but plenty of monitors."

She could hear the faint sound of gunfire coming from the west, so Miranda headed in the opposite direction. There was no sense looking for trouble. They passed storage rooms, offices, and what might have been a medical bay. Miranda kept one eye out for additional mercenaries or scientists, but they encountered nothing, not even so much as a combat drone. Were it not for the increasingly distant sounds of battle, she could almost believe that the facility was deserted.

Her other eye, she kept on Shepard. There was a tension in him that she had never seen before, not even when they were fighting for their lives on Horizon. It was not the coiling of a serpent waiting to strike. This was the preparation of someone who expected to be struck. His psych profile made no mention of posttraumatic stress disorder, but the Alliance and its soldiers was notorious for sticking their fingers in their ears when it came to mental disorders. The last thing she needed was for him to have a flashback if he did see acid flying at him again. "Are you going to be able to deal with this?"

"I've killed a Reaper. I think I can handle a few scientists." She could hear the smirk in his voice.

"That wasn't what I meant."

"I know." He sobered. "I can deal with it. I don't have a choice."

"Excuse me," Samara called from some distance ahead of them, "but I believe I have found something."

Miranda and Shepard jogged forward to find him standing at the entrance of a room about the size of a walk-in closet. It was empty except for a single terminal that would have been out of date a decade ago and a bank of monitors. Jackpot. Shepard eyed the computer clinically and activated his omni-tool. "I haven't seen anything this crude in years. You would think that the Illusive Man would have sprung for top of the line."

"It doesn't have to be top of the line. It just has to work. She pushed past him. "I suggest you find somewhere comfortable to stand. It will take some time to override the system."

The console beeped. "Access to all systems granted."

Miranda whipped her head around to stare at Shepard. "How did you do that?"

He shrugged. "I'm trained to hack into things. Well, and make weapons malfunction. Mostly hacking."

She shook her head. "Can you use that training of yours and get me logs or data or something to give me an idea of what's going on here?"

He could.

June 17, 2177

Alliance encounter with thresher maw a success. 49 casualties within 9.3 hours. Venom extremely effective against conventional armor. Recovered corpses have had their epidermis stripped away in areas they came in contact with venom. Have recovered one living subject for use in further tests.

August 24, 2177

We have begun injections into Subject 1. Venom appears to cause extreme pain when introduced into the bloodstream. Subject scream and appears to suffer convulsions. Mild cellular degeneration detected, but long-term effects are unclear. Further tests recommended.

November 21, 2180 -- Elijah Wayne's Personal Log

Toombs has escaped. I have ordered my team to scatter for the time being. He's likely to come after us, but I refuse to give up on weaponizing this venom. The potential is too great. [Reference to off-site personnel. Project lead access required] was right. We could revolutionize warfare. I've kept most of her and our notes. We should be able to reconstitute our findings easily enough.

[Communication from off-site personnel. Project lead access required.]

November 16, 2183 -- George Kemble's Personal Log

Wayne's dead. Can't say I miss him. He always treated me like dirt. He always treated me Turns out the other guy who survived the original attack is a Spectre now. I'm the last survivor of the original Project Ares. The Illusive Man would tell me we've already lost too many operatives on this, but I refuse to let their deaths be in vain. I'm going to finish what we started six years ago. If I have to kill another squad of Marines, I will.

April 23, 2185

Success. Prototype hand cannon is ready for field test.

April 25, 2185

Blue Suns mercenary team inbound. They'll do.

Miranda closed her eyes. More rouges and monsters. There was only one way to deal with them. "I promise you that I will personally purge this facility. What happened to you, Toombs, and the rest of your squad will never happen again. I swear it."

"Fighting to avenge Cerberus' good name, Operative Lawson?"

Not just that. "Of course. I told you, we take care of our own problems." She returned her attention to the terminal. "Let's see if we can find Kemble, shall we? I want a look at the security footage."

One of the monitors flickered to life. The picture was grainy, but Miranda could make out what was happening well enough. A man in a Cerberus uniform was crouched behind a long metal table, flanked by a pair of THOR mechs. Their appearance was cruder than that of LOKIs -- these bore a striking resemblance to Robbie the Robot-- but their aim was almost as good. The one on the left shot and hit a Blue Suns merc in the chest. He fell. Wonderful. Now they have to deal with not only the armed scientists, but an unknown number of mechs.

Mechs. Wait a minute. Wilson had shown her how easily mechs could be turned against their masters, and he had been able to reverse their friend/foe targeting en masse. If Shepard could do the same thing, it would make their job much easier.

Shepard must have had the same idea. He activated his omni-tool and studied the readings. "I might be able to use this terminal to broadcast a signal that will screw with their targeting computers. It'll be just like Lazarus Station. Fun times."

"Do it." Miranda watched as the mechs turned on the scientists. The resulting battle was short and bloody. Most of the scientists didn't even have time to be surprised. Miranda almost felt sorry for them. Almost. Shepard was right. They have gone rogue. For all she knew, they wanted to recreate Akuze. They deserved their deaths. This was the only justice some people ever received.

The sound of footsteps and labored, mechanical breathing startled Miranda from her reverie. A figure covered from head to toe in battered and scarred Blue Suns armor rushed down the corridor. Miranda put one hand on her pistol and saw the others do likewise. The figure didn't notice any of them until it had almost passed. Then it stopped short and stared at them. The next thing Maranda knew, she was staring down the end of an assault rifle. She drew her own weapon in response.

"Who are you?" said a woman Miranda recognized as Lieutenant Carver. "Nobody's supposed to be here except for the scientists, and you sure aren't one of those. You have until the count of three to identify yourself. One..."

"Easy," said Shepard. "We're on your side. Our ship picked up some of your radio chatter, and it sounded like you could use a hand."

"Two..."

"I'm Commander Shepard of the Normandy."

"Thr -- did you say Shepard?" Shepard nodded, and she lowered her rifle a fraction of an inch. "You're supposed to be dead."

"I get that a lot. And you are?"

"Lieutenant Natalie Carver, Blue Suns. You sound like Shepard. I was with the Dresden during the Battle of the Citadel." She lowered her gun the rest of the way. "I knew something was up. The Council pushed you to the side way too fast after you died. Six months later, and it was like you'd never existed. But some of us remember what you did. You're a damned hero." She shook her head. "Toombs is pissed at you, though. Thinks you joined up with Cerberus."

"Commander Shepard is part of a deep cover operation working to undermine Cerberus from within." The best cover was what your target wanted to believe in the first place. Miranda extended her hand. "Miranda Lawson, Systems Alliance Intelligence Command. Why can you tell us about what happened here?"

"Toombs hired us to clear this place out, said the scientists here were working on something really disgusting. His credits were good, and it sounded better than most of the jobs I've been on. My team went in fast and hard just like he wanted. It was supposed to be easy. But the scientists, they..." She trailed off.

"They had weapons you didn't expect," Shepard prompted.

She nodded. "Weird silver hand cannon things that cut through our shields and armor like butter. Chen looked like he'd been burned alive. I thought I was dead for sure, but the mechs started firing on the scientists. Was that you?"

Shepard nodded. "What about Toombs? Where's he now?"

"Labs. Down the hall to your right. He said he was looking for, and I quote: 'the bitch who started all this.' He screamed about Akuze a lot, seemed to think she had something to do with that, too. I wasn't listening too closely. Getting my men killed is not good for my attention span. I'm doing what I can to see if any of my men survived, and then I am out of here. Toombs can go to hell."

She left. "Guess that's our cue to leave," Shepard said. "Whatever Kemble was working on died with him, and Toombs can take care of himself."

"Our job isn't done. Not quite. We need to get to the labs." Rogue or not, this facility contained top secret Cerberus project data. She couldn't let it fall into the wrong hands. "I want to know what 'off-site personnel thought it was a good idea to send Alliance Marines to their deaths."

"I quite agree," Samara said. "Whoever ordered these experiments is just as much at fault as those who carried them out."

"Fine. But if there is someone else involved..." Shepard looked down at his pistol. "You remember what I promised?"

The labs turned out to be a large room. Two long metal tables covered with all manner of instruments and equipment dominated the room. A door at the back led to a private office. Tanks and canisters lined the wall. Liquid the color of vomit bubbled ominously within. Terminals beeped and whirred, still processing data that no one would ever examine. And then, there were the bodies: six men and women in Cerberus uniform lay scattered around the room. There flesh had been burned away where the venom had struck them, and the remains of THOR mechs littered the floor

As promised, there was one living figure among the carnage. An armored figure that she assumed was Toombs knelt over one of the bodies. "Which one are you? You can't hide from me forever. There's got to be ID cards or personnel records or something."

Shepard cleared his throat. "I don't think they have ID cards, corporal. Secrecy would have been paramount."

Toombs rocketed upward and rounded on them. For the second time in five minutes, someone was pointing a gun at them. This gun, however, was like none she'd ever seen before. It was roughly the shape of a hand cannon but large, silver, and bulky. He must have lifted it from one of the scientists. "Shepard! You lying, traitorous Cerberus bastard! I thought you'd know better than to show your face here."

"I'm not working with Cerberus. I'm..." he inclined his head slightly toward Miranda. "... undercover. Working to bring Cerberus down from within."

His suit gave Toombs laugh a tinny, hollow quality. "Do you expect me to believe that?"

Shepard stepped forward. "You know me, corporal. You know what they did to us. You saw me kill Wayne. Do you really think I would work with the people who wiped out my entire squad?" He extended his hand. "I was the one who set the mechs on the scientists. I want them dead much as you do."

Toombs didn't take it. "Then prove it. I didn't come here just shut down this facility and stop them from making these babies." He tilted his gun to the side. "That's just gravy. I finally found out who sicced the thresher maw on us in the first place. Help me find her, and I might start believing you. I want a nice long look at her corpse."

"You aren't the only one. Who are we looking for?"

Toombs spit out the words as if they were rotten varren meat. "Miranda Lawson. What happened on Akuze was her idea."

Time stopped. Miranda see nothing, hear nothing. Her entire world had narrowed to that one sentence: "What happened on Akuze was her idea." It wasn't true. It couldn't be true. She would never condone what had happened to those Marines. Killing them would have done nothing to advance the cause of humanity. And she would never do anything to harm the commander. The closest she had ever come was one memorandum on bioweaponry a decade.

Wait. She had suggested weaponizing the thresher maw venom in that memo. This facility had successfully weaponized thresher maw venom. This facility was a rogue Cerberus installation. Something vast and cold and empty clawed at her. That memo had only ever been shown to the Illusive Men, and he had dismissed it. He had the only copy, and it was virtually impossible to hack into his private databases. This has to be a coincidence. Dr. Wayne or one of his associates must have hit upon the idea independently. She was separate from rouge elements like him and the Teltin facility by a wall a mile wide and an inch deep. Never the twain shall meet.

Shepard's gaze bored into her. She could feel him mentally stripping away her armor layer by layer. His face was inscrutable behind his mask. Did he believe Toombs' ridiculous assertions? No, they were preposterous. This whole situation was preposterous. He knew her. Damn these stupid helmets. And damn her for wanting to see his face so much. Finally, he spoke, "Never heard of her." His tone was easy, casual, as if they were discussing nothing more important than quasar strategy.

"I figure she's got to be pretty high up in the organization. If you didn't just kill her, I bet she's stashed away on some garden world sipping piƱa coladas. Probably laughing about what she put us through. But I'll find her, and you and your crew are going to help me. I need someone to get into the terminal back there." He gestured at the office. "It's locked so that only the project director can get in. If there's any info on Lawson, it'll be in there. I figured that since you took care of the mechs, you might be able to get in."

I assure you that I am not laughing. "Our pleasure."

"Thought so. I need to find Carver. She has the access codes to the ship."

Toombs left. Shepard turned on her. His moves were halting and jerky, like the Tin Man in the remastered vids of the Wizard of Oz she had seen as a child. His shoulders hunched as he bowed his head. "It's not true, is it?"

"Of course not. I'll prove it." Toombs was right about one thing. If there was any information about who had ordered Akuze, it would be part of Kemble's private, encrypted files. She would find out who was responsible. This wasn't about Cerberus or rogue cells anymore. She needed to know for her own sake. If she refused to look, she would always wonder if it might somehow be true. So would Shepard. Miranda refused to be a coward. "I just need you to get me a look at those files."

The office was small and impersonal. There were no photographs of family or pets or unusual paperweights, nothing to break up the endless sea of gray and white. It could have passed for Miranda's own office on Lazarus Station. The thought made her feel faintly ill. Perhaps she would buy a plant the next time she was on the Citadel. "You can get them, right?"

"Of course I can," Shepard snapped as he pulled up a chair. He pressed a button on his omni-tool and was rewarded with a loud, high-pitched beep. "Damn it! I suggest you do find somewhere comfortable to stand this time. This is going to take a while."

Miranda walked back to the main laboratory. The bodies were easier to look at than Shepard. One of the mercenaries was sprawled face up in front of her. His chest had been burned away so that Miranda could see the bone sticking out. She had been right about one thing. The thresher maw venom was a brutally effective weapon in the proper hands. Humanity needed every possible advantage to maintain its independence. Galactic cooperation was all well and good, but only equals could cooperate. If the Alliance could not maintain military parity, they would become the Council's servants instead of their partners. To do that, humanity had to do what it did best: innovate. And they had.

Samara studied her intently, and Miranda instinctively straightened. The justicar had always made her slightly uncomfortable. Certainly, she admired her keen sense of purpose. Her competence was unquestionable, and she was considerably more stable than Jack. That didn't change the fact that she would kill the entire crew of the Normandy where they stood were it not for her oath. There was no room for Cerberus' gray in her black and white world. "Yes?"

"I was merely thinking about the accusations levied against you. You are holding up remarkably well for someone accused of murdering forty-nine people."

"That's because I didn't murder anyone. I only kill people who deserve it or when there's no other way. Sending those marines to their deaths made no sense. It drew too much attention." If she had been allowed to pursue her suggestions, she would have ordered tests against pirates or slavers. No one would miss them, and the galaxy would be a better place. But she hadn't been put in charge. Her memorandum was sitting safe and unread in the Illusive Man's databases.

"That depends on your definition of 'sense,' does it not? A military target would provide the best showcase of the thresher maw's power. If you want to know a weapon's capability you must test it against the strongest possible opponent. As for the attention, it took six years for anyone to know Akuze was anything other than a random and tragic attack by a wild animal."

Miranda opened her moth to respond, but was interrupted by a loud crash coming from the direction of Kemble's office. "Miranda!" Shepard yelled. He had found something, but it didn't sound like anything she wanted to hear. Miranda raced after him.

Shepard had knocked his chair to the ground. He stood staring at the terminal, unmoving except for clenching and unclenching his fist at regular intervals. "Look at this." He stepped back to allow her to pass. Miranda took a deep breath. She had promised herself that she wouldn't be a coward, but her boots felt as if they were filled with cement as she walked forward. Every instinct screamed at her to run. But there was nowhere to run, was there? She read.

Toombs has escaped. I have ordered my team to scatter for the time being. He's likely to come after us, but I refuse to give up on weaponizing this venom. The potential is too great. Operative Lawson was right. We could revolutionize warfare. I've kept most of her and our notes. We should be able to reconstitute our findings easily enough.

No. No. She wasn't reading this correctly. Or it was a fake. Her hands felt cold and clammy. Let it be a fake. She was supposed to eliminate those responsible for atrocities like Akuze, not inspire one. No one except she and the Illusive Man were ever supposed to know that she had suggested using the venom as a weapon. This wasn't supposed to happen. She kept reading.

Classified STG reports make mention of a creature called a thresher maw. It emits a highly corrosive acid from its mouth that is capable of destroying armored vehicles. I propose we investigate the possibility of replicating and mass producing it. It could prove vital protecting human interest in the Traverse or in case the Council races turn on us again.

Miranda had read enough to recognize her own words. She was the "off-site personnel" she had been looking for. Wayne, Kemble, and the others had twisted her words and arranged Akuze to test her theories. Toombs had been telling the truth. "Oh, God," she whispered.

"So it is true." Shepard turned away from her. His voice had that odd, robotic quality again. He seemed smaller somehow, less legendary, but this time he was anything but approachable.

She would not run. He had always understood her before. She would make him understand now. Miranda rose shakily to her feet and put a hand on his shoulder. "I didn't mean for --"

He jerked his arm away so quickly that Miranda nearly lost her balance. You didn't mean for this to happen?" He laughed, but it came out as something closer to a choked sob. "You wanted them to create more thresher maw venom. How did you think they were going to test it? Set up some targets at a firing range? God, I never thought you were stupid, Lawson. Or maybe it was just me."

"I thought they would be tested on batarian slavers. People who deserved it. Never the Alliance. Never you."

"Well, isn't that refreshing?" He turned back to face her. "You write a memo suggesting developing illegal biological weaponry, send it up the chain of command of a terrorist organization, and then you complain about who those terrorists test it on. I was wrong; you are stupid. How you managed to bring me back to life I will never understand. Tell me, what's the real reason you're in charge? Is the Illusive Man so hung up on creating the perfect human that he hired you for your genome and forgot to check your competence? You're nothing more than a mascot."

Miranda recoiled. So much for him being different from the rest. He would mock her just as cruelly as Jack. No, it was worse. He knew her, knew how hard it had been for that trust him with her insecurities and how much it mattered that he had valued her as a person. And he had thrown it back in her face. "Believe what you want."

"What I want? What I wanted to believe is that you're a good person! I wanted to believe you when you said you'd never do anything like this. I wanted to believe that I wasn't betraying my men because I was falling in love with the woman responsible for sending them to their deaths."

"Falling in --" Wait. That was irrelevant. "I wrote a memo. I sent it to the Illusive Man, but he refused to act on it. What happened afterward is not my concern."

"Always trying to evade responsibility. You are the real Cerberus." His tone was suddenly brisk and official. "But for you, there would have been know massacre on Akuze. Let's see, that's forty-nine counts of manslaughter at the very least, war crimes, and destruction of military property. Possibly treason. I'm still a Spectre. I should arrest you." He shook his head. "No, your kind never get justice."

"You're wrong, Shepard," said Toombs quietly. "They do if we kill them." Miranda heard something click. "Isn't that right, Agent Lawson?"

She and Shepard both turned. Toombs stood in the doorway, pointing the gun at her. "In between telling me how many ways that I could screw myself, Carver happened to mention that the commander here was working with an Alliance agent named Miranda Lawson. I always knew you were a snake, Shepard. Did you bring her here so she could kill me? Hush up the only person who could expose her?"

Miranda forced herself to keep her breathing slow and even. The first rule of covert operations was never to panic, even if your cover had been blown. The second was to evaluate and eliminate the threat as quickly as possible. The first order of business was to get that gun away from him. She flicked her wrist and sent a biotic pulse to rip it from his hands. Toombs sidestepped. His omni-tool sprang to life. Shepard took a step forward, whether to stop her or Toombs she neither knew nor cared. His own omni-tool was glowing as well. Miranda readied another pulse, larger and strong enough to dislocate Toombs' shoulder, and --

-- pain filled her. Miranda fell to her knees. It wasn't like normal pain. This was something hot and burning, molten lava that raced through her nervous system and enveloped her until it was the only thing left in the world. Miranda bit her lip. She would not scream. She would not give him the satisfaction.

"Try those fancy biotics of yours now." He crossed the room to stand in front of her. Perfect man stopper, they told me. I can deploy it in seconds, and nothing can stop it until it's run its course. "Don't worry, there won't be any permanent damage. Not that it matters. I just want you to know what it's like to be in so much pain that you can't breathe." His voice was suddenly soft. "I lived with it for three years. You can live with it for three minutes."

"Operative Lawson deserves to be punished, but not like this," Samara said. "No one deserves torture." She heard the sound of a clip being loaded.

"Why not? I was tortured on her orders. I want her to know what it was like. The way the venom burns as it runs across your skin. The fear.: He knelt down so they were at eye level. "I want you to beg like I begged. And then I'm going to kill you. And then I am going to kill every other Cerberus bastard I can find."

"Not...Cerberus. Not my fault."

"Shut up! I heard the scientists talking when they thought I was too sick to pay attention. Their Illusive Man wanted a superweapon, something to give them an edge against the Council races. He was going to be so proud of them, long as his 'pet' didn't find out what they were doing."

No, he wouldn't The Illusive Man would never have condoned killing Alliance soldiers unless there was no other way. He had shut down Teltin. He'd promised her that everything Cerberus did was ultimately for the good of humanity. They had standards. But why would Wayne and the others even say the Illusive Man authorized this project? There was no benefit. Toombs wouldn't have cared. The Illusive Man had refused to let pursue the project, and she was more brilliant than Wayne. That made no sense. He always assigned the most competent people to a project.

Unless you were the "pet." Samara's right. Tests on a military target would make more sense. How would you have reacted if he had asked you to organize the attack on Akuze? And how else did your memo make it into Wayne and Kemble's hands? Miranda shook her head. That was insane. The pain was making her delirious. "Rot in hell."

"Enough!" Shepard's voice cut through the air. Miranda could see his boots out of the corner of her eye. He had circled around the left of Toombs. "I'm not going to let you kill her, corporal. It's not worth it. This isn't what I wanted."

Toombs jerked his head around. "Not worth it?" You said so yourself: if it wasn't for her, there would have been no Akuze. It's not like she'll ever see prison. This is the only kind of justice she'll ever see." He pressed the gun to her skull and fired.

Nothing happened. Toombs pulled the trigger again. Still nothing. "What the hell?"

"I'm trained to make weapons malfunction, remember?. Now, stand down! I told you that I don't want her dead."

"It's not about what you want! It's about justice." He tossed the hand cannon to the side. "Guess I'll have to do it the old-fashioned way." Miranda heard the sound of a pistol being unholstered. The sound of a gunshot rang in her ears. She closed her eyes. She was not as frightened as she thought she ought to be. Death was better than pain. Certainly better than doubt. Only... I'm sorry, Oriana. Enjoy college for me.

"You can open you eyes now, Lawson. Toombs is dead."

Toombs was sprawled face up in front of her. A bullet had ripped a ragged hole in the side of his helmet. Shepard knelt beside him. "You deserved better, Corporal Toombs," he said quietly. "I'm going to have to apologize to Jack. I killed the guy who suffered more than I did, after all." He turned his attention to her. "Can you stand?"

Every cell in her body shouted an empathetic no "I... don't think so."

"Samara, help her up." He activated his suit radio. "Normandy, this is Commander Shepard. We have a man down. I want med bay standing by." He stood. "Come on, I've had enough of this place for a lifetime."

--

The next day passed in a haze of painkillers. As Toombs had promised, there was no permanent damage, but her muscles still screamed in protest every time she moved. Chakwas was in and out, but made no attempt at conversation beyond the occasional order to "drink this" or "try flexing your index finger." Miranda was grateful. She doubted she could explain what had happened down there. She could barely explain it to herself.

Toombs' words still nagged at her. She'd always believed that the Illusive Man had humanity's best interest at heart. She had met him only twice, but he had radiated purpose and conviction. Her judgments were always right on the money. And yet, she doubted. If she were wrong, then fifty Alliance marines were dead because she had trusted the wrong man. There was no doubt an e-mail from Cerberus Command waiting for her at her private terminal that would explain all this. Miranda doubted that it would be enough. She needed proof, not assurances. "EDI, can you find any references to Project Ares in Cerberus databanks?"

"I'm sorry, Operative Lawson. The blocks in my programming prevent me from accessing that information."

Miranda sighed. Of course, it wouldn't be that easy. Nothing ever was. There were less obvious channels she could try. Ish owed her a favor for saving him from being murdered by Aria. He had a tendency to overreach occasionally, but there was no denying his brilliance. He could go places and ask questions that she, as a Cerberus officer, couldn't without arousing suspicion. He'd consider it a thrilling test of his abilities.

Then the only question that remained was whether she wanted to ask him. Passing technically classified information to Jacob was one thing. This was something else. Even if Project Ares wasn't authorized, the Illusive Man would not take kindly to snooping. If it was authorized... well, she wouldn't let herself think about that. Perhaps it was better just to accept whatever the official explanation was and concentrate on the Collectors. She was not a child. She didn't need someone to hold her hand and tell her that everything was going to be all right. She was strong enough to deal with this temporary crisis of faith on her own.

Or too frightened to deal with it at all. You don't want the truth. You want to be exonerated. Suppose Ish corroborates everything Toombs said. Shepard would be right. Project Ares would be the real Cerberus. And so would you.

Shepard. She hadn't seen him since they'd returned to the Normandy. Perhaps that was for the best. She had nothing to say to him. Whatever intimacy they had developed over the last two months had been shattered. He had saved her life in the end, yes, but not before grinding her face in the dirt. There was no sense admitting her doubts or weaknesses to him. He would only throw them back in her face. The best she could hope for was the civil and professional relationship of commanding officer and his XO. She should never have wanted anything else. She didn't want anything else.

"Well, if it isn't the poor, crippled cheerleader licking her wounds." Jack's expression bore a striking resemblance to that of a lion faced with a tasty zebra. "Where's the doc?"

"In the mess. Eating dinner with the rest of the crew." Miranda forced herself into a sitting position. "I suggest that you do likewise. I have neither the energy nor the inclination to humor you. Please leave."

"Please." Jack sneered. "Awfully polite now that you don't have the commander around to rescue you. Heard he leaves the room every time someone mentions your name." She sauntered forward. "What happened? Did he finally figure out that you're a Cerberus whore?"

"I told you to leave."

Jack ignored her. "Thought you were a perfect little princess, didn't he? And then he finally figures out that you get off on torturing kids and killing people just the same as the rest of them. I knew it'd happen someday." She paused, obviously waiting for something. "Aren't you going to try to feed me the same old shit about 'rogue cells' and Cerberus not being responsible for anything that's not puppies and rainbows? Or are you finally going to admit that you fucked up my life?"

Miranda closed her eyes. The denial stuck in her throat. Jack wanted her to bow and scrape on Cerberus' behalf. She would be disappointed. Miranda refused to apologize until she knew there was something to apologize for, and she refused to apologize to Jack at all. But the prospect of Cerberus torturing children no longer seemed as remote as it should have, and so the denial would not come. Miranda felt suddenly tired. "You suffered horribly as a child. What they did to you at Teltin is repulsive."

"I don't need sympathy from you. Go to hell." She turned on her heel and left.

Miranda watched her. Or maybe what we did is repulsive. No, she wouldn't let herself think that. She couldn't let herself think that. Not yet. "EDI, I want you to pull up my contacts list. I need to find Ish."

"May I ask your purpose?"

"A... personal matter." She sighed. "Nothing to be concerned over."