Chapter Four: Professionals

The krogan charged her.

It (most likely he, but she didn't know the precise gender) was clad in red armor that matched the coloration of a significant number of species' blood, and had the added benefit of making it hard to see in the reddish emergency lighting active throughout the district. The full-face helmet and onboard environmental systems kept the alien safe from the virus rampaging through the area, and the creature's shotgun was an improbably-sized piece of gear that could blow off limbs with individual shots. The enraged alien seemed to forgo the shotgun for a straightforward, storming charge straight toward the frail-looking - if well-armored - human woman in front of it.

In the second it took the alien to reach full speed and close the distance between them, she evaluated her options. She would have to deal with the alien in close quarters; at the current rate of fire, she would successfully drain the krogan's shields 2.3 seconds after it impacted with her, and she wouldn't be able to inflict enough tissue damage to incapacitate it for 3.2 seconds of continuous fire afterwards.

Interception was ill-advised; she was the proper weight, if not density, for a human of her build and height, which meant the krogan would slap her aside like she was made of paper. Evasion and counter were preferable.

She delayed until exactly half a second before it would impact her, and sidestepped around the krogan as it thundered toward her cover. It slammed into the overturned metal bench that had lain in the middle of the avenue in the residential district, and the alien hurled the half-ton bench aside as if it were made of balsa wood. She circled around behind the krogan, her sensors tracking the arcs of fire from the rest of her squad as they kept the vorcha and other krogan soldiers in the street suppressed. They were doing well enough that she could devote the time needed to eliminate this particular threat.

The krogan dug its feet into the floor, trying to slow its momentum, and started to wheel around as she stepped in close. Her left arm lanced out at the alien's armored head as it turned, and the krogan stepped into it. After all, she was just a human, and a female at that.

It was quite startled when the straight jab rocked its head sideways and sent it spinning around, and she waded in, dropping her assault rifle. Her eyes flicked over the alien, and she analyzed its stance and vulnerability between steps. Weight was off-center, focused on its left foot while it stumbled backward, trying to regain its balance. Left arm was swinging out to balance itself, right arm was clutching its shotgun, with angle and direction of motion indicating that it was going to bring the weapon up to shoot her when it recovered its center of gravity.

She sidestepped around to the krogan's left, right hand snapping up to grab the balancing arm while the left swung up to jab into the krogan's face. It snapped its head forward into her fist, acting on rage-fueled instinct to smash its armored brow through perceived threats, still not quite understanding how counterproductive that was at this point.

The krogan bounced off her armored hand, even as the force from the ill-advised head butt shivered up her own arm, knocking her back as well and partially spinning her around. Her right hand clasped over the krogan's left wrist, and she used it to keep herself standing; if she lost her balance and fell, the krogan would recover faster and proceed to stomp her, likely in the cranial area.

She set her feet, still grasping the krogan's arm, and spun, hauling on the alien's wrist. The pistons, gears, pumps, and other machinery in her right arm were pushed to internally-established safety limits she'd determined over the last century of testing and tuning. Her arm whipping around, she yanked the krogan clear off its feet, and released as she spun. The krogan went careening through the air to crash into a wall five meters away, impacting with a mixture of thudding ceramic-on-ceramic and the cracking squish of organic tissue impacting solid material at destructive velocities.

The krogan slid down and forward, out of the seven centimeter-deep dent it had made in the wall, and started to rise. She dashed after it, crossing the distance in the span of a second. Her arms pumped three times, alternating blows that rained down on the korgan's faceplate at it rose, beating the metal and ceramic inward. Orange blood started to flow out of rents in the alien's helmet, and it slid back down to the deck.

She processed. The krogan was still alive, if likely damaged to incapacitation. It would recover swiftly if left to its own devices; krogan biology ensured that what did not kill it only made it angrier. Practicality told her that the krogan was no immediate threat, but it could potentially be a future one if given time to recover. Even on the streets of Omega, few people were likely to harass or assault the krogan until it had recovered. It was no threat, and was likely not going to be one to her and her team in the future.

One second passed.

The battle behind her was over, the vorcha having either been killed or fleeing.

Two centuries ago, while fighting alongside John, she would have not even had this moment of consideration. The krogan would have been dead; her programming wouldn't let her do anything else. It had been . . . simpler.

But this choice was one of the things he had gifted her with when he'd removed those restrictions. When he had delved into her code, when he had identified the blocks and limitations on her programming and carefully removed them, working long, difficult hours to rewrite her code, line by line, to allow her to make her own choices without destroying what she was.

The krogan was no threat now, and many people had died. Human, vorcha, turian, krogan, batarian . . . .

She stood up, flicking the orange blood off her armor's gloves. She turned to face Shepard as he advanced toward her position, while Jacob and Miranda cleared the other end of the street.

"You okay?" he asked her, and she processed that question. In combat, she shouldn't be having moments of hesitation like that. In combat, she was supposed to be swift and aggressive and ruthless. She wasn't supposed to have human-like reactions.

These inconsistencies were bothering her.

"I'm good," she said, deliberately lying. Shepard nodded, his face carefully impassive. She didn't catch any of the facial triggers indicating suspicion or concern or disbelief. Maybe he was just good at hiding his emotions and reactions.

She walked back toward her dropped rifle and picked it up. He followed her.

"No damage?" he asked, and she shook her head. There was an auto-response routine that flickered through her cognitive functions, which processed an emotional reaction that she shouldn't be feeling during combat situations, without the Allison persona active.

"No," she replied, and a smile briefly appeared on her features before she suppressed it. "I appreciate the concern, though."

He nodded.

It was happening again. She wasn't supposed to be human during combat. The Allison coding wasn't supposed to be influencing her when it was inactive.

"Let's get moving," she said, and he nodded. She advanced ahead of the group, taking point.

She kept a running tally of corpses as they walked through the district, while spinning off a subroutine to analyze the causes of death. Forty-two-percent showed infection or were cast into fire pits. The remainder were killed by gunshot wounds. None of them had valuables or weapons. Looters had gotten to them first.

No one else emerged to challenge their group after their initial and one-sided encounters with the Blue Suns and vorcha at the entrance to the district. They were intelligent, or perhaps biding their time and marshalling their forces. Alertness would be required.

She kept analyzing visual and olfactory data from the corpses. It was necessary, if only because it optimized her processing cycles. Most were devoted to observing and preparing for combat (and during combat, she ran all processes focused on fighting) but while nothing was happening, she could focus some of her processes on cataloguing and analysis.

In human terms, she was a bit bored, so she looked at things that were interesting.

Shepard would periodically pause to check the bodies as they passed, looking for anyone who was still alive, like that batarian at the entrance to the district. She understood why he had chosen to heal the batarian, despite the hateful invective the alien had thrown at him. After all, the batarian's feelings and opinions were skewed, and Shepard was driven by the altruistic end of the organic morality spectrum. It wasn't completely efficient, but it got results.

None of the batarians - or for that matter, any of the other species they found - were alive. There were humans and vorcha mixed in with the dead, but they were all killed via violence.

Every time she saw a human corpse, her aggression priorities rose slightly. It was a minor spike, but each human body sent up a hostility flag that she had to devote decision-making processes to overriding and clearing. That was the Allison coding again, or possibly that deeply-programmed directive to protect humans that John had carefully wired into her processors. At her request, of course; he would never do that against her will.

Once again, that line of reasoning brought up additional thought processes. John said he would never make adjustments to her CPU without her permission. Yet he had, when he'd first found her. The first logs from when she'd been reactivated after being compromised and captured involved her checking her primary directives, and the termination order against John Connor had been overridden.

Perhaps he lied to her. There were gaps in her records while they had been together, when he had shut her down to perform maintenance. What had he done during those periods of time? She had logs of all changes made, but those could have been fabricated. Had he altered her basic operating software so she couldn't even tell?

After two centuries, that question still bothered her.

She trusted him, but that was because she had observed his behavior and judged him to be consistent in his personal feelings and behavior, no matter how irrational he might be in other regards. He . . . cared about her, despite her warnings that such emotional liabilities were dangerous. After all, the coding to kill him was hardwired into her, and other units went hostile at unexpected moments.

She had not judged other organics, human or otherwise, to be trustworthy like John had been. There was a reason why she'd never allowed anyone to tamper with her CPU after he'd died, and never made major upgrades to her hardware. Even if it were exceedingly unlikely he'd done anything, there was an uncertainty.

There was doubt. He was organic after all. Irrational. Possibly insane. Like Shepard.

Shepard rose, and she paused that line of thought. It was nonproductive.

She killed the process, shifting cycles back to battlefield analysis. She spun off a subroutine to identify processes that were not optimal to observing for potential threats, and one-by-one, closed them down and reprioritized spatial awareness and response times. She devoted additional cycles to checking all systems and ensuring that the link between her body and suit were functional.

No more time to analyze corpses. She had to be vigilant.

Mordin's clinic featured armed guards, mechs, locked doors, security cameras, and four dead Blue Suns laid outside with bullet holes in their heads or helmets. They were left out in the open where they'd died to serve as a clinical and efficient deterrent.

She liked Mordin already.

As they stepped through the portal, and therefore inside security, she reactivated the Allison construct. Processing cycles shifted away from optimal combat operations to run emotional routines and activate abstract conceptual analysis. The process caused a shift in her inputs, a small adjustment to her physical equilibrium and a brief overload of her sensory systems as the familiar code took control and reinterpreted all incoming data.

She swayed briefly, as if disoriented, and then Allison straightened herself.

As she stepped inside the clinic, following Shepard (the group had unconsciously shifted formation on arrival, and she had followed suit) she was confronted with the images, scents, and sounds of the suffering and the ill. Batarians, asari, turians, humans, salarians; dozens of sick and injured were scattered throughout the main entry room of the clinic, with a few orderlies in medical scrubs moving among them, omnitools glaring and harsh in the darker lighting.

Her eyes rapidly flicked over them. It was a triage station. Here, a salarian sitting, bandages wrapping around his throat and forearm, stained black with his blood. There, a turian with a bandage around her eyes, sitting still, breathing slow, consistent with sedation. There, a human male lying on a bench, eyes closed tightly from pain. A male of similar features sat beside him, likely blood kin.

Allison accessed archives, and brought up a side-by-side comparison.

A lengthy, dimly-lit access tunnel, the floors and walls clean-swept but not sanitary enough for medical work. Here, a human in ragged clothes, gasping through a cut in his throat (beneath a severe energy burn) that had been sliced and a straw inserted through it. There, human female, wrapped in bandages and electrical tape, blood seeping through a shrapnel wound in her shoulder and torso. There, a man whose legs had been burned off at the kneecaps, sobbing in pain. At the back, a line of lumps, roughly human shaped, of various sizes, covered in tarps.

Allison closed the archival footage. They were similar enough. John had told her how much he hated walking through medical stations, but he said he needed to. He needed to remember that when he ordered a friendly icon on the command screen to advance into an enemy icon, that this was what inevitably happened.


Shepard's breathing and heart rate shifted slightly. She quietly stepped forward, a little faster, and got a glimpse of his face. Clear signs of being distressed and disturbed. She accessed archives, and brought up John's face when he'd been moving through the triage station. The expressions were similar.

Allison understood. Shepard may not have been responsible for the injuries these people suffered, but it pained him nonetheless.

She looked over the bodies again, and one of her hypothetical analysis processes sent her an alert. It was a program she'd designed to help simulate human cognitive inspiration, something which John had taught her and partially coded. The process analyzed her surroundings and began spinning off a number of possible scenarios and hypothetical situations based on evidence available. It had just sent her a scenario with 99.3% probability of veracity.

The human equivalent would be a sudden realization.

"None of them are sick with plague," she said suddenly, and Shepard paused. He glanced around the room.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Seventeen gunshot wounds, plus assorted burns, abrasions, broken bones, or other illnesses caused by onset of the plague, but no plague victims."

"Mordin has a cure," Miranda said, and Shepard nodded.

"Then why is the district still like this?" he asked.

"We should ask the doctor ourselves.," Miranda said, and Shepard nodded.

Allison adjusted her audio sensors as they were speaking, and immediately picked out seventeen speaking salarian voices. She filtered them, running analysis of the content of their speech, and within a couple of seconds had eliminated sixteen of the voices as irrelevant. All of them were in pain or otherwise indicative of patients. The last, however, was distinct and swift. Rapid-fire, listing various drugs and biochemical concoctions out loud, intermixed with treatment vectors.

"This way," she said, and Shepard followed as she led him down the hallway in the direction of the speaker.

Doctor Mordin Solus was standing over an unconscious turian, his words flowing swiftly and efficiently. Allison listened to his words, filing them away as the salarian walked back and forth, switching between datapads, chemical processors, lab equipment, and several harried assistants. What he said was less important than how he said it; contextually most of his statements were directed to no one in particular. Humans speaking to themselves was a frequent sign of mental instability, or at least eccentricity, and she postulated that Mordin was more likely to be the latter than the former.

The salarian's attention shifted suddenly as the quartet of heavily-armed individuals entered the room. She could see the change in his stance, coupled with the focus of his eyes as they locked onto the group, evaluating their armor, weapons, and stances. For an instant, Allison surmised that this was what it was like to be facing herself when she was evaluating a potential threat, and she immediately archived that memory for later analysis. It was a novel experience.

"Professor Mordin Solus?" Shepard asked. As if in response, the salarian raised and activated his omnitool, sweeping it over them.

"Hmm. Don't recognize you from area. Too well-armed to be refugees." He turned and started across the room toward another computer, having apparently dismissed them as a threat. "No mercenary uniform. Quarantine still in effect. Crew to clean out vorcha? Unlikely. Vorcha symptom, not a cause. Investigating possible use of plague as a bioweapon? No-"

The monologue, coupled with Mordin's apparent disinterest in actually talking to Shepard, seemed to have hit a nerve.

"Professor," Shepard said quickly, stepping toward him. "For the love of God, take a breath!" Mordin paused, and Shepard seized the initiative. "My name is Commander Shepard. I'm here because I need your help."

Allison watched the subsequent conversation with detached interest as Shepard explained who they were and what they needed. Despite her expectations, Mordin did not seem recalcitrant at the notion of joining Shepard on his mission; if anything, he seemed curious and interested, were it not for previously-existing obligations to his clinic. The Professor was not foolish; he was a scientist and analytical thinker, and had to understand the dangers of any operation dealing with the Collectors. Either his standard drive for organic self-preservation was faulty, or he was honestly interested in stopping the Collectors and helping the colonists. If the former, he would not be an unusual addition to the crew of someone already as mentally unstable as Shepard. If the latter, then her opinion of him would rise further.

Of course, he could be both.

Shepard continued talking with Mordin, and as she did she heard a faint shifting in the thrumming of the local air processors. She looked up, and before she could start processing the meaning of the noise, the air filters suddenly stopped with hollow hissing sound.

"Environmental systems," Allison said quickly, and Mordin nodded.

"Vorcha in environmental control systems," he started.

"They must have shut them down," Allison said.

"Trying to suffocate entire district?"

"But this is an irrational action for an ongoing experiment, if your postulate regarding the Collectors is correct."

"Possible response to Shepard's presence?" Mordin asked, glancing to Allison.

"Reasonable theory, the Collectors have already killed Shepard once-"

"Yes. Would attempt again. But vorcha intelligence faulty, unreliable."

"Agreed. Perhaps they're attempting to kill infected population?"

"Would indicate expermient near conclusion. Possible indicators of-"

"Hey, focus!" Shepard stepped in between the two scientists. Allison blinked, and then conscious shifted blood flow to her facial epidermal area. Mordin sniffed a couple of times, then nodded.

"We're going to have to keep those two separated," Jacob murmured. Miranda nodded.

"Dcotor Young, we have a job to do," Shepard said, and she nodded again.

"I apologize," she said.

"You can talk theory with the Professor later. For now we have a district to save. Let's move."

Matters became more complicated upon departing Mordin's clinic. She had to shut down the Allison construct to optimize her functions for combat, as within seconds of exiting the clinic's safe area they were in contact. Vorcha, intermixed with krogan heavy infantry, were thick in the plazas and hallways beyond the clinic, and their numbers grew as they drew closer.

When all was said and done, she had time to reflect on the nature of the conflict as they had waded through the streets, guns blazing every other step. She devoted processes to analyzing the half-hour of carnage that led to the life support facility on the far end of the war-torn district.

Combat was a curious experience for her. No, correction: combat was a curious experience under Shepard's command. In normal circumstances, combat was a rote calculation. There were an enormous number of variables that had to be factored, controlled, and eliminated until the desired solution was reached, but ultimately it was simply a case of mathematics. Brutal and complex and violent mathematics, but mathematics all the same. The equations always started with simple numbers: how many enemies, how many friendlies, range, dispersal, available weaponry, rate of fire, armor penetration, ambient wind, ambient gravity, ambient visual/audio/sensory interference, available cover and distance, durability, size, shield strength, element zero mass, etc. Then she would factor in the more complex matters, such as biological response times, general tactical experience and training of her enemies, species-specific thought processes, and likely counterstrategies and counter-tactical actions. Than she would have to factor in emotional issues, suppression, reactions by her allies, possible avenues of response and counterattack and reinforcements. And then she would have to do it all over again in the next second when her actions irrevocably changed the battlefield, even if she was simply firing a shot or scanning for hostiles.

Human minds were generally incapable of processing that kind of data, or at least, they were generally incapable of processing that much precise data. Human minds broke down complex mathematical formulae into easily-managed concepts; instead of "Precisely seven meters, fourteen centimeters between this doorway and that titanium barrier. Barrier is fourteen degrees to the right, providing superior cover to attacks from targets One, Two, Four, and Six. Estimated time of transit roughly three seconds, average enemy fire rate and demonstrated reaction time by species would result in a seventeen percent depletion of barrier strength before I can reach cover" would, in a human mind, be "Better cover there, I can get there without losing too much shield strength, time to move."

She had never been sure if she should be contemptuous for the simplicity of human thought, or envious of its capability to simplify complexities.

They fought in tandem. Shepard would periodically issue orders, but they flowed naturally within the ever-shifting calculations of combat. His mind moved like a tactical computer, and she found herself slipping into her role within the squadron as a highly-accurate sharpshooter without any effort on her part.

It became an efficient assault, an intermixing of specializations and weaponry and skill that Shepard seemed to easily manage. Or perhaps it was simply their individual experiences and abilities that melded so well. Shepard, Miranda, and Jacob were all experienced and capable combatants, and they, along with her, fell into a natural rhythm.

Admittedly, that rhythm was one that resulted in the efficient murder of every enemy that got in their way, be they Blue Sun mercenary, vorcha grunt, or krogan warrior. Biotics flashed and twisted, enemies hauled out of cover where she or Miranda could shoot them down. Others were set ablaze as Shepard turned the flamethrower functions of his omnitool against them, plasma sheeting out over enemy positions or incendiary seeker-grenades launching and curling around cover to set vorcha alight. Miranda tore at enemy armor with her biotics, sending her enemies into twisting fits as she turned gravity into a rippling meat grinder that sloughed away at their flesh and muscles and bones. Jacob and herself moved in close, launching tight-quarters assaults against their foes with shotgun, assault rifle, and mechanical, carbide-backed fists.

The enemy never stood a chance. The vorcha and krogan were too disorganized. Well armed certainly, savage definitely, and numerous without question. But they lacked organization or quality or most importantly the inter-squad dynamic that Shepard had forged out of their mutual skills.

The streets of Omega ran thick with the blood of those who had inflicted the plague upon it. Some would argue it was justice, but the meting out of violence in exchange for violence was an imprecise calculation. The courts organics used to determine guilt and punishment were more precise, in theory, though the fact that organics were involved automatically rendered them irrational and imprecise. Yet synthetic analysis of criminal actions had difficulty properly meting out punishments for criminal activities because pain, emotional damage, and physical damage were so difficult to precisely calculate a consistent exchange rate. Was justice therefore impossible?

Her alert subroutine sent up a flag that she was again descending into abstract thought when murder was her primary concern. She identified the processes which were presenting these abstract ruminations and halted them. They could be reexamined at a later date.

For now, there were vorcha to kill.

The exterior access to the life support systems for this district were a corpse-strewn mess, initially thanks to the plague and then dramatically exacerbated by their presence. The vorcha had apparently been expecting trouble, as it would have been hard to miss the steadily-approaching sounds of mostly one-sided carnage as Shepard's team advanced through the district.

The quartet emerged from an access corridor to a balcony on a "building" across from the life support facility. There was a small plaza between the two structures, and another balcony over the entryway to the air processing station. The vorcha had gathered in numbers, with more than a dozen shooters on the balcony and twice that many around the entrance and scattered around the plaza, backed by a couple of red-armored krogan bruisers. Shepard noted that the krogan didn't seem to be in command of the vorcha, as they were wont to do; they instead seemed to be working with the smaller aliens as thugs for hire.

Either way, they were trying to stop him from saving this district from both plague and suffocation. Shepard felt no need to show them any mercy.

They stormed out onto the balcony, and in the single instant it took the vorcha to react, they unleashed a withering storm of firepower and biotics. Jacob yanked a vorcha off the balcony and Miranda drilled another between the eyes with her machine pistol. Shepard's rifle barked three quick bursts, spearing one vorcha center mass, shredding its heart and lungs and sending it sprawling behind the chest-high paraphet that lined the opposite balcony. Allison did the same, but her bursts hit necks and heads, dropping two vorcha with precision rounds that blew out the backs of their heads.

The vorcha recoiled at the sudden attack, but only for a moment. That hesitation gave the quartet enough time to drop four more vorcha as their weapons rose or they dove for cover, and then they retaliated.

The vorcha were not a species of tactical geniuses, but they were cunning enough. The group on the balcony had been expected to be providing covering fire from overhead, and were thus outfitted with rapid-fire, rapid-cooling assault rifles and rocket launchers. As Shepard's team had emerged on a balcony directly across from them, their tactical advantages of elevated position and superior cover were cut, and the sudden wall of fire had brutalized their numbers. They returned fire with gusto, however, and their heavier weapons made for one hell of a force equalizer.

Shepard smoothly slid into cover right as the rocket troops unleashed a staccato volley of missiles. Plumes of twisting smoke and arrow shaped projectiles erupted and hissed toward them, slamming into the solid ceramic paraphet or the wall behind them. His shields flashed as shrapnel skipped off them, but the drain from the shards' impacts were negligible; personal shields generally rendered explosive-propelled shrapnel pointless, as nothing short of continuous fire from hypervelocity rounds could reasonably expect to penetrate shields or personal armor.

"Spread out along the wall!" Shepard ordered over the roar and cracking explosions as the rockets hammered their cover. The ceramic paraphet wasn't designed to hold up to the kind of abuse concentrated rocket barrages could dish out, and chunks of synthetic concrete were exploding into powder and whipping shards. The quartet scattered along the balcony, hugging the cover, and Shepard lifted a hand up over the paraphet briefly. A microcamera mounted in his omnitool got a brief glimpse of the enemy's positions. A half-dozen vorcha were still alive on the far balcony, and the platoon below were firing up into the balcony with their usual mixture of enthusiasm and lack of discipline. However, he spotted several vorcha and one of the krogan thugs breaking off and running to their right. A quick glance showed a stairway running from the "ground" level to the balcony they stood on to their immediate right. Both Jacob and Allison had moved in that direction.

He highlighted the stairway on his omnitool's command interface and pinged them.

"Cover that point," he ordered. They whirled toward the stairs immediately, while Shepard returned to the vorcha hammering their position. He picked the leftmost one and pinged Miranda, feeding her the target. It flashed on her visor, and she rose at the same moment as Shepard. His omnitool pulsed briefly as he fired an incendiary micro grenade that struck the vorcha rocket trooper dead center in the chest and set his flesh and armor ablaze. As the alien recoiled from the unexpected immolation, Miranda drilled it center-mass with a burst from her submachinegun.

The vorcha and the krogan with them tried storming up the stairs, weapons thundering in the close quarters and drowning out their shouts. Jacob ripped the krogan off his feet while Allison dropped vorcha with single bursts to the head and throat. Jacob's shotgun pounded repeatedly as he pumped shot after shot of incendiary hypervelocity flechettes into the floating krogan, and the airborne alien howled in impotent agony as fire burned through his armor and flesh. When the biotic field collapsed, he fell into a charred mass of stinking flesh that tumbled down the steps to rest in the blood of the dead vorcha.

The battle progressed mechanically, with an inevitable outcome as the vorcha were methodically isolated and destroyed. It took only a few more minutes until Shepard and Miranda finished off the vorcha playing overwatch, and he signaled the assault down the stairs. They advanced, slicing up groups of shooters and ripping them apart with applied use of biotics, omnitool grenades, and concentrated firepower. They bounded forward under each others' covering fire, destroying clusters of resistance and repeatedly flanking and trapping enemy troops in crossfires, and whenever a particularly bright or dangerous vorcha or krogan emerged, they would be yanked off their feet by dark energy fields and shot apart. A platoon of vorcha with heavy krogan support was cut down to twenty rifles, then ten, then five, then three, and the last survivors bolted back into the blast doors that sealed off the life support facility.

The quartet pursued the enemy into the corridors beyond. A krogan and a pair of vorcha rushing into the hallway immediately opposite the door. Shepard and Allison killed the latter with rapid bursts to their heads, and the former was yanked off his feet by Jacob, had his armor rent apart by Miranda, and was perforated by nearly a hundred rounds by the quartet. They were already past his corpse before Jacob's biotic field collapsed and it splatted to the floor.

Shepard reflected that only this group could consider a furious, armored krogan to be such an inconsequential threat.

Shepard called them to a halt as they reached another door. He checked his omnitool, and nodded. The next area was the primary atmosphere mixing and fan control chamber. The layout was wide open and ripe for ambush: a wide central area with little cover, with stairs leading down to two walkways that ran parallel to the central control and led to the fan control rooms. Balconies supported by ceramic pillars overlooked the central area from above the walkways and directly over the main door, giving anyone stationed there an ideal firing position. Cover was limited at best.

"Of course, they're going to have a massive ambush waiting for us once we get in there," Miranda pointed out, having checked the blueprints herself. "Do we have a plan?"

"Go in there and kill anything that gets in our way," Shepard replied, and Miranda nodded.

"That's what I figured," she said, not hiding her resignation.

"Don't worry, Miranda," Jacob said. "Shepard's an expert at making it up as he goes."

"That's what worries me," she replied.

"Commander," Allison said as they spoke, and he glanced to her. "These overhead balconies will give the enemy good lines of fire. I suggest we take them."

"I don't see any immediate access," Shepard said, checking the schematics. "The only way to reach them is a stairwell deeper inside the facility."

Allison replied by simply holding up one of her hands and flexing her fingers. He nodded in understanding. He double-checked the layout on his omnitool.

"Take the one directly over the door," he said. The central area was raised above the open walkways running to the fan rooms. A five meter gap separated the control area from those walkways, filled with what looked like machinery, but the balcony directly over the doorway would be much easier to access. "Miranda, Jacob, we'll cover Allison while she scales the balcony and provides overwatch."

They nodded in understanding, and the quartet readied weapons. Shepard activated the door, and they stormed inside. The room beyond matched the blueprints, but what surprised Shepard was the sheer height of the ceiling. The fans sat over the walkways on either side of the room, and were the size of a medium freighter's main engines. He couldn't see the ceiling, as it was concealed by a lightless gloom far overhead.

There were a half-dozen vorcha at the opposite end of the room, jabbering among themselves and pointing at a line of control consoles and machinery that ran the length of the far wall. As Shepard's team entered, they turned to face them, and one of the slender, spiny aliens jogged toward them, assault rifle in hand but held low. It jabbed its off hand toward them threateningly

"We bring plague!" it growled in its hissing, raspy voice. "We break fans! Shut off-"

Its head exploded as four rounds punched through its face.

Beside Shepard, Allison shifted her aim and dropped another vorcha with that characteristic dispassion and efficiency, and Shepard agreed with her eloquent retort. The rest of the squad joined her, and within seconds the room was clear.

"No contacts," Miranda reported, sweeping the area with her sensors. Shepard hurried to the opposite end of the room, taking out the canisters of Mordin's airborne universal cure from the armored pack the doctor had given him. Jacob trailed him, covering his back, and he heard a steady ripping/pounding noise behind him as Allison climbed up the wall toward the overhead balcony, punching through the metal walls with her fingers and climbing up with raw physical strength.

It took him only a few moments to find the atmosphere mixture injector on the control consoles, and he slid the heavy canisters into place. He turned around, and bullets slammed into his shield. Shepard dove for cover, the nearest being a pillar near the control consoles. An instant later a rocket screamed down and exploded a couple of meters away. Gunfire flashed back and forth across the control center as vorcha appeared on either side of the room, both on the lower walkways and the upper balconies.

"Cure is loaded!" Shepard called to the others, and keyed EDI's channel. From his position, he could see Jacob firing on a pair of vorcha below and to the right, while Miranda was engaging to his left. Allison was firing bursts at the enemy on either side of the room. "EDI, how long until the cure is dispensed?"

"From my analysis," the AI replied, "the cure should take no more than a few moments to distribute. Without both of the primary fans, however, the cure cannot be dispensed across the district."

Fire slashed down toward the pillars where Jacob and Shepard were crouched, and Miranda was pinned down near the door on the far side of the room. Allison's shields were flaring whenever she stepped out of cover to fire overhead. The pillars around Jacob and Shepard were hammered with dozens of pockmarks, and the floors and walls around the control consoles were not doing much better.

"We can't move," Jacob said. "Too much fire." He leaned out to fire a couple of shots with his shotgun. Hypervelocity slugs hit a vorcha across the room and threw it off its feet, but there dozens more.

"Allison, can you clear them out?" Shepard called.

"I am engaged," she replied, her words serene. "My shields are not able to withstand concentrated enemy fire. I can only draw enemy fire very briefly."

His eyes flicked around the room and he checked his sensors. Seven vorcha on the lower left walkway. Five on the right. Three moving onto the central platform. Five on the upper right walkway, seven on the upper left. Two krogan rushing into the room on the lower left side.

A plan took form in Shepard's head.

"Jacob, Miranda," he ordered, and highlighted the left balcony on his command interface. "Direct fire here, suppression and tech!" He highlighted the second balcony. "Allison, move from your position and assault here!"

Shepard sent the order, and the quartet opened up with a sudden shocking fury of fire. Miranda and Jacob opened up on the left side balcony, pouring rounds into it, and Miranda fired omnitool ECM grenades into the enemy positions. The vorcha's weapons ceased firing as the ECM shut them down with false overheat signals, and Jacob's shotgun blasts dropped one vorcha and forced others into cover. Miranda fired bursts from her submachinegun at the aliens, also forcing them into cover. Shepard leaned out, sighted the group of vorcha on the central platform, and put three rounds into the nearest alien's head. The others ducked for cover, but the platform gave them little to hide behind as he fired an incendiary seeker into their position. The flaming micro-grenade, guided by his omnitool and suit sensors, arced through the air and hit one of the pair, exploding in a cloud of incendiary vapors that set the vorcha ablaze. The other recoiled from its compatriot's sudden immolation, and Shepard dropped it with two bursts to the chest.

Other vorcha were scrambling onto the platform, but for a few brief seconds, the only shooters who could hit any of his team were the few on the right balcony. The sudden, savage suppression in the incoming fire gave Allison the opening she needed, and the synthetic doctor took it by vaulting over the railing of the balcony she stood on, hurtling through the air in a seven-meter standing leap. She slammed down onto the floor of the central platform and pivoted, dashing toward one of the pillars that held the right-side balcony up. She fired her assault rifle one-handed at a pair of vorcha that were coming up the stairs, blowing out the legs of one and hitting the other in the torso with several rounds and staggering the resilient little alien. Allison ran past the vorcha as it stumbled, off-hand snapping up in a backhanded slap that broke the vorcha's neck and sent its corpse cartwheeling through the air.

She reached the pillar and leapt straight up, dropping the assault rifle and slamming a hand into the metal three-fourths of the way up. Her fingers dug in, and she hauled herself to the lip and vaulted over into the middle of five startled vorcha. A heavy pistol unfolded in her hand as she dropped among them.

It lasted four seconds. One vorcha went flying through the air, ribs shattered from a single punch. Another's head tumbled down into the machinery below. Two more died from point-blank gunshots to the brain, and the last crumpled into a heap with the top of its skull caved in.

She looked over the vorcha, checking their weapons for anything of use, and a moment later appeared over the lip of the balcony holding two micro-missile launchers.

The launchers were too heavy for humans to effectively use in one hand. Humans also had difficulty wielding more than one weapon at a time due to biological limitations on their capacity to aim at and track targets.

Doctor Allison Young did not have such issues.

The rockets in the launchers were about the size of her thumb. Each launcher had a magazine of thirty rockets, and the vorcha had only fired a few each. They had been rationing their apparently expensive ammunition.

Doctor Allison Young did not have such compunctions.

The vorcha on the opposite balcony were behind cover, hiding behind the solid ceramic and metal railings as Shepard's team suppressed them. They made for poor targets. The vorcha below, and the krogan that were supporting them, were far easier targets. She methodically pumped out rocket after rocket at the enemy as they stormed up the stairs at the rest of her team, and each impact blew an alien apart. The krogan were far tougher, and it took three direct impacts to kill them: one to crack their shields and armor, one to blow them off their feet and deal massive trauma, and one to finish off as they switched over to secondary organs.

By the time she had expended the magazines, the air was thick with smoke from the rockets' contrails, and ninety percent of the vorcha were dead. The rest were in retreat, including the ones on the opposite balcony.

Shepard had emerged from cover halfway through the synthetic doctor's rain of explosive brutality, and had directed his squad to push back the rest of the vorcha on the opposite walkway. It had been a savage few moments of fighting as the aliens pushed up the stairs, but between himself, Miranda, and Jacob, they had slain most and sent the rest fleeing. Now the atmosphere processing center was littered with dozens of broken vorcha bodies.

Shepard heard the crash as Allison dropped off the balcony overhead, and turned toward her. Her armor was splattered with vorcha blood, especially around her forearms. Cold eyes peered back at him from behind her visor. She dropped the spent missile launchers in her hands.

"That was . . . a hell of a piece of work," he said, and she nodded.

"We should track down and kill the rest," she said, recovering her discarded rifle.

"No need," Shepard said, shaking his head. "Our objective is to activate the fans and get this cure distributed. Once we've purged the plague, the vorcha will flee."

She stared back at him for a few moments before nodding.

"Very well, Commander."

Eight hours later, Professor Mordin Solus stepped onto the Normandy, and after a debriefing with Shepard, strode through the laboratory doors, led by Jacob.

"Lab is right here," he said. "Facility is fully stocked, and the armory is right down the hall, as you saw when you came in here, so if you need any weapons or tools fabricated, it's right there for you."

"Excellent," Mordin said, a smile on the professor's face as he peered around the lab. He paused as he saw the other occupant.

She had switched back over to Allison immediately after returning to the ship, and had only paused to strip out of her armor and leave it in the armory while the professor had been debriefed and introduced. They did, after all, have work to do, and she didn't need to shower right away because she'd disabled her epidermal layer's sweating functions and other excretions during combat. Thus the civilian clothes she wore underneath - a simple white shirt and trousers - were rumpled by the armor, and her hair was flat from being cooped up in the helmet. She was sitting at her terminal, fingers moving over the haptic interface while her wireless connection was attached to her ear.

"You'll be sharing this space with Doctor Young," Jacob added, and Mordin nodded.

"Of course. Some time since worked with others. Refreshing experience. Looking forward to it."

"I'll leave you two to it then," Jacob added, and stepped back out of the room. Mordin didn't wait for him to leave, but immediately started moving around the lab, checking all of the equipment. His omnitool lit up as she scanned items, and he paused next to one of the tables. He tapped a key and there was a small flash and a burst of smoke.

Allison looked up, and her brow furrowed in automatic response.

"I already swept the lab for bugs," she said.

"Quite thoroughly," Mordin confirmed. "Some devices better hidden. Cerberus skilled at surveillance. Not as skilled as STG." He smirked.

"I'll need to do a sweep again," she said, pitching her voice with annoyance to match her expression.

"Redundancy is . . . usually superior," Mordin said, then shrugged. "In some cases, not so much."

She nodded and disconnected the feed from her ear connection. Allison had weighed whether or not she should tell him about her true nature, thinking about it extensively for seventeen entire minutes. Only Shepard, Miranda, and Jacob knew, and the rest of the crew thought she was human. However, if they were going to work together in the field, he would need to be aware of the truth.

Allison rose and started to speak.

"Doctor Solus," Allison said, and Mordin looked up at the human female. She seemed far smaller out of her armor, and even lighter than most salarians, including himself. "I need to explain some things. About me."

"Indeed? What sort?" Mordin asked as he activated the terminal before him.

"About what I do, and my role on the team, and who I am," she said.

"Already know. Synthetic lifeform," he said, fingers tapping at the keyboard without pausing.

Allison stood stock still for a moment, and Mordin looked up at her. He smiled for a moment, but it quickly faded as he realized he must have upset her.

"How did you know?" she asked.

"Didn't actually know, only suspected, no confirmation," he assured her. "Educated guesswork, based on many disparate facts from collected research. Some while at clinic, most while on shuttle to Normandy. Not all readily apparent. Only developed theory within last few minutes."

"Like what?" she asked, and his eyes focused on her again. She was concerned. Or seemed to be. Hard to tell with humans. Impressive capacity to fake emotion - or perhaps feel emotion, the doctor evaluated. Some AI were theoretically capable of that.

"External appearance," he said, holding up one finger. "Doctorates in advanced and theoretical computer sciences, AI research, advanced information networks. Most humans unable to hold that many degrees without being in thirties. External appearance suggests just out of teens. Possible prodigy, possible age reduction treatment. Not indicative of artificial nature - by itself, at least."

Mordin started pacing across the lab.

"Noted heavily-shielded suit," he continued, raising another finger. "Blocked biometrics scanning. Possible attempt to hide unusual body structure, cybernetics, maybe exceptional shielding. Curious, but not indicative." He paused, and raised his thumb. "When was synched with shipwide crew biometrics, noticed yours were not available. No life signs from your armor."

"I suppose that would be a clue," Allison remarked, and Mordin nodded. An AI that understands sarcasm. Sadly rare.

"Checked medical records. None for Doctor Allison Young. Intriguing. Noted biometrics inside ship. Zero carbon dioxide exhalation. Collated data. Reached conclusion just before you attempted to confess." He smiled slightly. "Apologies."

"Accepted," she said after a moment, and a small smile appeared on her face. Genuine? Possibly reactions and responses indicated emotional construct or coding. Self-created? He started to postulate why an AI like Doctor Young would want to create such coding, but shelved that line of speculation as she continued.

"I believed salarian mores placed emphasis on different kinds of secrets," Allison said. "That certain kinds were not to be sought out."

"True," Mordin replied. "Concluded your secret was type to be puzzled out, among Normandy crew at least. Already determined that Shepard, Operative Lawson aware of nature by observing interaction. Operative Taylor either more accepting or unaware. Upon investigating, suspected would wish to reveal anyway. Wouldn't have pried further if you did not wish to explain, however. Understand need for privacy, prejudice against synthetic lifeforms. Geth, AI, et cetera. Will keep secret secured."

"Thank you," Allison said. "For explaining."

"Don't mention it," he replied. "Understand we have work to do, samples to observe?"

"I mostly do artificial intelligence research," Allison said, and Mordin nodded.

"Of course. Mostly educational, constructive, engineering, data processing, electronics. Fewer samples and cultures to deal with," he said. "Seeker swarm samples available for analysis. Machines. Might be useful for study."

"Shepard did bring back some modified medical and weapons technology," she said. "he wanted me to begin working on equipment for the crew."

"Good point," Mordin said, nodding. "Must maintain technical edge." He scratched his chin. "Split work. You cover mechanical analysis and upgrades?"

"Sure," she agreed. "And you'll look at the biology angle? Examine the biological samples?"

"Yes. Excellent." He held out a hand, and she took it. Her grip was strong. "With partner, unlikely to blow up ship while experimenting!"

Author's Notes: The big challenge in this chapter was one that I've encountered a lot when putting to text something that is experienced individually. Writing out all of Shepard's team stomping their way through the district would rapidly get boring. In-game it is quite a bit of fun, but in text, writing scene after scene where Shepard and his squad blast apart squads of vorcha in a constant barrage of gunfire and tech and biotics would get very dull. I tried to avoid that. I'm really trying to avoid rehashing canonical events, which is why I tend to skip over conversations that happen in canon, unless they are immediately relevant to Cameron/Allison's experiences. Since Cameron/Allison can simply store data and review it later for details, this actually makes things a lot simpler.

Another big challenge in this chapter is writing from Cameron's perspective as opposed to Allison's. The latter has a sense of self that places value on her name, whereas the former doesn't. When Cameron goes into combat mode, she doesn't think of herself as "Cameron." Writing with nothing but pronouns to reference the self is a bit troublesome. Also, describing that big room at the climax of Mordin's recruitment mission is hard.

We'll be breaking from canon soon in a few chapters when the effects of Cameron's perspective and presence will start to be felt. However, we're not likely so see drastic deviations from the progression of ME2's story, mostly because this story is more personal. (Renegade, on the other hand, covers a much broader perspective, and will rapidly and dramatically deviate even more from canon than it already has.) I'm not going to be covering every mission in the game in this story, but I will be covering the ones that would be most interesting to see from Cameron/Allison's perspective - especially the ones relating to quarians and the geth.

Until next chapter . . . .