Author's Note: Set just before and during the events of ME2. It is also set in Myetel's Spirit of Redemption universe. So done, with permission, because her continuity is cannon as far as I'm concerned. Also, no one does it better than her!

12 hours before Lilitu Shepard's Resurrection...

Omega

It was said that, for the right price, anything could be found in the markets and back alleys of Omega. Want an illegal weapon mod? No problem. Just head down the right dark corridor and you could find a veritable cornucopia of weaponry. Need a fix to feed an addiction? Easiest thing in the galaxy. Just drop a word or two, and within a few minutes, dozens of dealers and pushers would be ready to supply you with whatever your particular brand of chemical escape might be. Need somebody killed? Check in with one or two contact agents in darkened bars and you would find a wide array of killers and dozens of methods of execution. All you need is enough credits, the right contacts, and a little patience. It was the same thing if you wanted to seal off one of Omega's many docking bays and hold it for your own purposes. You would just have to expect to pay a very hefty sum on an hourly rate.

It was a fact that Lukat, captain of the raider ship Crimson Dawn was reminded of every time he checked the current time on his omnitool. Sitting in the pilot's seat in the ship's cockpit, his anger had been rising steadily, and was now approaching critical mass. The batarian had been told that this part of the arrangement with the financiers of this operation was non-negotiable. His own commander had been quite clear on that, and Lukat knew better than to question any orders that came down from on high. The part that he hadn't been told was that the payment for holding this docking bay and closing it off from any outside traffic was coming out of his own personal funds. His ship had been waiting for over four hours, and all he could think about was the money that was being thrown away every time another hour went by. Not only that, but all the criminal gangs on Omega were currently shitting themselves because of some vigilante group that had been tearing their way across the station. That would be the perfect end to a perfect day to have that Archangel bastard burst in and blow my fucking brains out.

Lukat rubbed the base of his flat nose, his four eyes squinting shut as his omnitool let out a soft chime, indicating that another hour had ticked by. Cursing to himself, he mentally subtracted another hourly rate out of his current cred account. This job had barely begun, and already he was in the hole for nearly five thousand credits. Technically, the Crimson Dawn was part of the larger force under his current Raid Commander's group, but he was still responsible for supplying the ship and his troops during operations. Already, he was having doubts about the current assignment. It seemed like the big one; the mission that would not only set them up for life, but cement their place in the annals of the greatest heroes of the batarian people. Hell, the initial raid had gone perfectly. The intelligence and security codes that the mission's unknown backers had been spot-on. The package was secure, and the escape was clean. Everything had gone according to plan.

So why am I sitting here watching money leak out of my pocket like piss in the wind? The question was the same as many others that had passed through his mind since the start of the mission, all with the same answer. Following the Commander's Orders. Lukat sighed as he switched his omnitool on, checking for any messages from either his Commander or their overdue contacts. Just as he found out that, yet again, there was no word from either party, the cockpit door opened behind him with a mechanical hum. He closed his eyes again, mentally bracing himself.

Fuck's sake, don't be the kid.

"Has there been any word yet?"

Lukat felt his fists clenching as the unmistakable voice of Emar'ak, the newest member of the crew, spoke up from behind. His voice was higher pitched than the rest of the crew, almost shrill. It made him sound like an impatient child whining when he didn't get his way. In a manner of speaking, that's what he was. Lukat had been told that Emar'ak was the son of some high caste slave lord back on Khar'shan. Apparently, his father wanted him to learn the trade of a slaver and raider, and hoped that spending time with an actual raider fleet would accomplish that. Thus far, he had proved completely mediocre at everything he was told to do, and spent most of his time berating the crew on the fact that he came from superior batarian stock. Lukat would have liked nothing more than to shove him into the nearest airlock after gouging out all four of his eyes, leaving his worthless soul trapped for eternity. But, his Commander had told him to show deference to the brat. So, for the time being, Emar'ak was his problem.

"No, there hasn't been any word," Lukat growled, not deigning to actually look at the unwanted guest. "No more word than the last five times you asked. They'll be here when they get here. "

Emar'ak stepped forward and plopped down into the copilot's seat. If it had been anyone else that did that, Lukat would have shot them in the head. This was his ship, and no one entered the cockpit without permission, much less deciding to make themselves at home. At the moment, all he could do was bite his tongue and let it go.

Emar'ak fixed his gaze on Lukat, impatience locked onto his face. "This is ridiculous. We carry out our part of the bargain, and they can't even be bothered to show up? Time is money!"

My money, you spoiled piece of shit. Lukat tried to push the annoyance out of his mind. "Did you come up here for a reason?"

Emar'ak grunted. "Our guest is starting to complain about his accommodations."

"You came up here to tell me that? What did you expect me to do, pull a five-star Citadel hotel room right out of my ass?" His exasperation finally boiled over. "Take your worthless sack of flesh down there and tell him to SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Lukat took a moment to catch his breath. "Do you think you can muster up whatever capacity for independent thought you have left to do that?"

Emar'ak actually looked shocked to have been yelled at by someone who was technically part of a lower caste than himself. He regained his indignant composure and bore a baleful stare into Lukat's face. "Don't you ever speak to me like that again. In case you might have forgotten, my father is a close personal friend of your Commander. Do I need to remind you that my father could bury you and your entire organization with one communication? Never forget that I..."

Emar'ak stopped his rant abruptly as he found himself staring down the barrel of Lukat's Stiletto pistol. The pistol stayed pointed right at his face for the space of several seconds, until Lukat used the pistol to move Emar'ak's head so their gazes were leveled at each other. Lukat's face twisted into a smile.

"No, my boy, I have not forgotten who your father is. Nor have I forgotten why he had my Commander bring you aboard my ship. Your father earned his power and reputation, and hopes that you will do the same with us. So, as your Captain and teacher, allow me instruct you to the first lesson of this profession." He pressed the barrel against Emar'ak's forehead. "When you are aboard a raider ship, the Captain is in charge. I don't care if your father gets his ass wiped by the Dukes of the Hegemony. When you are aboard this ship, you are under MY command. When I give you an order, you obey it. Without question, without thought. If I tell you to clean my personal bathroom with your tongue, you had better pray that your tongue is up to the task. Of course, if you think that is unfair, you can always challenge me for command. But if you decide on that course of action, then allow me to instruct you on the second lesson. If you challenge me, I will gut, bone, and flay you alive as an example to the others. As Captain, sometimes you have to remind the crew of the status quo. And the best way to do that is by dismembering little annoyances like yourself." The pistol finally lowered. "Am I in any way unclear?"

Surprisingly, Emar'ak didn't show even a hint of fear. Instead, he looked bored. Like he had just endured a lecture from a parent that he had mostly ignored. When it was over, he stood up with a grunt of indignation, leaving the cockpit while muttering under his breath. Lukat could just make out the words "Damned waste of my time." As soon as he heard the door to the cockpit close, Lukat holstered the pistol and laughed. Maybe the boy's got some balls, after all. No fucking sense, but balls. Now, if he could only keep his mouth shut...

"Crimson Dawn, this is the Cruentus. We are on station and awaiting the all clear. Over."

The sudden burst transmission from the comm console snapped Lukat out of his thoughts. About damned time. He flipped a switch, turning on his ship's encrypted channel. "This is the Crimson Dawn. Docking Bay 12 is secured. All traffic cleared. Commence docking maneuvers. Use access code DR3116-A to open kinetic barriers. Over."

"Copy that. Proceeding to Bay 12. ETA is four minutes. Out."

There was no mistaking the voice on the other end of the communication as turian. The inflection of the voice was impossible to miss. And since the turian on the other side of the comm knew the name of his ship, Lukat knew this was the real thing. He turned off the comm and switched to the ship's PA.

"Off your asses you lazy shits! The other half of this operation is here! Get our guest ready to move. You've got three minutes, people! Anyone who isn't out and ready by then loses half their pay!"

Even from the cockpit, Lukat could hear the frenzy of activity that suddenly exploded throughout the ship. He loved using the threat of lost pay. You could only threaten someone with bodily harm so many times before they began to doubt your will to actually do anything. But threaten their bottom line? Worked every time.

Still at his seat, Lukat watched the Cruentus approach the docking bay. The ship was small, barely bigger than a Corvette. It looked used too. There were a lot of hull patches that didn't quite match the original hull. But what the ship lacked in grace and polish it made up for in weaponry. The weapons systems were absolutely top of the line. The ship seemed to have four disruptor torpedo launchers installed, overkill on a ship of that size by any standards. But the thing that stood out most to Lukat was the insignia painted on the hull just under the cockpit superstructure. Visible only after the Cruentus locked itself down by the docking clamps, was a stylized bloody turian hand print. It didn't match any criminal or mercenary organization that Lukat had ever seen. He pushed the thought away. Forget it. Get to business. Worry about the pointless shit later.

Minutes later, Lukat and half of his twenty-man crew stood at the bottom of the Crimson Dawn's docking ramp, waiting for the crew of the Cruentus to meet them. In truth, Lukat was impatient to find out just who it was they were working with. The Commander had been very tight-lipped about the newcomers. He only said that they were to be treated as equals while on the mission, and that no undue questions be asked. Short and sweet, the way Lukat liked it.

Finally, the docking ramp of the Cruentus opened, revealing two turian figures. Lukat had to mentally force himself from reacting noticeably to them. They were male and female, that much was certain. Both wore identical blue facepaint that Lukat was not familiar with. The paint was cobalt blue, and the markings seemed to be tracing the image of a turian skull on their faces. The male was wearing a light tactical style armor, every inch of which was painted turian blood blue. The female was something else. First of all, she was pregnant. Very pregnant. The sizable bulge in her belly indicated that she had to have been at least ten months along. Because of that, she wasn't wearing armor. But what she was wearing definitely stood out. She wore tight leather leggings that seemed to be made out of stitched animal hide. And that was about it. The claws on her bare feet clicked against the metal of the docking ramp, and her torso was adorned only with some kind of tactical harness. Lukat might have laughed, but the eyes of the two turians made the laugh die in his throat. The male hid it better than the female, but the feral look was obvious in both of them. This went way beyond the normal predatory look most turians had. This bordered on animalistic. Best to leave the dick-waving out of this. Keep it strictly to business. The veteran raiders in Lukat's crew seemed to pick up on this as well. Emar'ak, unfortunately, was not a veteran.

"Where did you drag her out from, some shit-farm from the colonies?"

You did NOT just fucking say that. Lukat found his hand reaching for his pistol. This was business, and you did NOT conduct business like that. Commander's orders or not, he really thought that he might actually shoot him this time. He was about to pull the pistol out of its holster when he saw the female turian whisper something to the male. He then nodded and turned his gaze to Lukat.

"You are in command of this ship?"

Lukat nodded. "I am."

"My mate has just informed me that your little pet pyjak is starting to make her ears itch. She thinks it wise that you slap on a muzzle before she tears out his tongue."

Lukat was about to reply when, astoundingly, Emar'ak decided not to take the hint. "Didn't quite catch that. Bit of a sore throat, baby? Pleasure your boy here a bit too much? I bet I could make him seem like a weak massage in comparison." Emar'ak was actually leering at her. Trying to show his dominance. Fucking child.

The male seemed completely unperturbed. "She pleasures me in ways you have only read about. She simply finds the act of speaking your language to be akin to eating s'kak." The female whispered something else, which made the male smile. "She also assures me that she wouldn't fuck you with a stolen phallus."

Lukat finally had enough. "Utter another syllable and I will gut you and strangle you with your own intestines." Before Emar'ak could respond to the rebuke, Lukat decided to get on with the business at hand. Switching to galactic, he said "I am Lukat, captain of the Crimson Dawn. My commander didn't inform us as to the identities of our contacts. I assume since you know who we are, that you are the other half of this operation?"

The male turian nodded, also switching to galactic. "Yes, an unfortunate reality for us. We must travel in absolute secrecy. There isn't a single turian in the whole of the Hierarchy who wouldn't kill us on sight if they knew who we were. I am Zoxiel. She is Kharai. That is all you need to know about us." He placed his hands behind his back. "Now, was the package secured?"

Lukat grinned. "Indeed it was. I don't know how you managed to get that kind of intelligence out of the Sol system, but everything worked like a charm." He turned and called to his men still inside the ship. "Bring him down!"

Two of the batarians in Lukat's crew came down the cargo ramp, escorting a human male in shackles. He looked to be in his early sixties, with thinning gray hair and a noticeable limp in his walk. He still wore an obvious orange prison jumpsuit, with the words Lowell City DOC clearly stenciled on the back. He stood barely over 5'8", dwarfed by the batarians that surrounded him. Still, his back was ramrod straight, and his piercing blue eyes didn't betray even a hint of fear.

Upon laying eyes on him, Zoxiel frowned. "Why is he still in shackles?"

Lukat shrugged. "Instructions were to bring him here alive and unharmed. We did that. Anything else was up to our discretion."

"Take them off," Zoxiel said, a hint of annoyance finally crossing his features. "A man such as him deserves respect."

Lukat nodded, and one of his men hastily removed the shackles. The human massaged his wrists, wincing as the blood began to flow back into his hands. Zoxiel strode up to him, hands still locked behind his back. The two batarians that had escorted the human backed up a couple of steps as Zoxiel closed in until he loomed over the human who was at least thirteen inches shorter than the turian. The two stood silently appraising each other, the human having to strain his neck to look up into Zoxiel's eyes. After a few tense moments, the human smiled.

"You must be the individual I've been conversing with all these months."

Zoxiel returned the smile. "Dr. Sirogoj Curkovic. It's an honor to finally meet you in person." Then, to the surprise of every batarian present, Zoxiel took the Doctor in a wrist clasp.

Kharai seemed to notice the expressions on the batarians' faces. "Does this surprise you, my mate showing respect to this human?"

Her words caught Lukat off guard. "No, that's not what...I mean...I didn't..." Lukat took a breath to clear his mind. "What I meant was, he doesn't seem like...your kind of people."

This actually caused Kharai to laugh, a shrill unpleasant sound. Lukat had heard such a laugh before. It was the kind of maniacal laughter that had come from a former member of the crew who had lost himself during a raid and proceeded to gun down every resident of a colony instead of taking them as slaves. And this is her almost relaxed. Hate to see her when she's actually in battle.

The laughter finally subsided. "You think that he's weak? Soft? Not a warrior?" She laughed again. "Oh no, he's something more important than any warrior."

Zoxiel, still locked into the wrist clasp nodded. "Indeed. Dr. Curkovic here is a designer of weapons. One of the best." He let go of Curkovic's wrist and turned to Lukat. "A warrior might be the the greatest of his generation, but without the right weapons, he is useless. In fact, we have a term for a warrior who doesn't respect the one who builds and maintains the arsenal. Do you know what it is?"

Lukat rolled all four of his eyes. "I give up."

Kharai crossed her arms over her distended belly. "A dead warrior."

"And this builder of weapons has more of the warrior spirit in him than most," Zoxiel said, turning back to Curkovic. "I must say Doctor, that when I heard why the Alliance gave you a life sentence, it almost made me sick. Designing a war simulation VI, and then being arrested when you actually used it to test soldiers' mettle in combat. Disgraceful."

Curkovic smiled, a sight only a bit less unnerving than the turians'. "Thank you, Mr. Delanovich. Or is it Zoxiel? I so enjoyed our communications while I was in prison. I do apologize for the coded transmissions I was forced to use. They watched me quite closely." His expression turned darker, deep furrows becoming evident on his face. "Those stupid, useless Alliance Generals. Accusing me of murder? The VI on Luna was one of my greatest creations. They wanted something to test the abilities of soldiers, so that's what I programmed it to do. And they arrest me when those soldiers proved to be too weak to survive?" He spit on the ground. "May those fools burn in Hell!"

"It's futtari unfair, Doctor. But now, perhaps we can utilize your talents for a much more important task. There was one of your pet projects in particular that I found quite..."

"This is a fucking waste of time."

Everyone present turned to look at Emar'ak, who had spoken up yet again. "We just risked our lives going into Alliance space, entering the fucking Sol system, raiding a prison transport on Mars, and you're talking about building weapons systems? So far, we have done all the work for NO FUCKING PAY! Risking my life to break some withered piece of shit out of prison was NOT what I signed on for. So why don't you tell me when we're going to start seeing this astronomical payday we've heard so much about?"

Yup. I am going to kill him now. Lukat was reaching for his pistol when Kharai locked eyes on Emar'ak. Without saying a word, she strode right right up to him, causing some of the Crimson Dawn's crew to back away, just as it had been when Zoxiel walked up to Curkovic. But Emar'ak didn't move, looking into Kharai's feral eyes with a baleful stare of his own.

Emar'ak turned his eyes to Zoxiel. "Tell this bloated bitch to get out of my face before I shove my boot into her-"

His words were suddenly cut short as Kharai, with a speed almost impossible to perceive, shot her hand out and grabbed hold of Amar'ak's tongue. The force of the impact had knocked out several his teeth, causing a trickle of orange blood to seep from his mouth. Emar'ak lashed out at her arm, trying to break the hold, but the grip was like a vice. And then Kharai tightened her grip, causing the trickle of blood to become a stream. Emar'ak was driven to his knees, his muffled cries incomprehensible. Kharai started to giggle as she twisted her hand in his mouth, wrenching his tongue into positions it was not meant to be. Finally, with a wet tearing sound, Kharai ripped Emar'ak's tongue right out of his mouth. He fell to the ground gagging, trying not to choke to death on his own blood. Kharai, still giggling with pure joy, put her arm around Zoxiel's shoulder and raised the severed tongue to her nose. She inhaled deeply, then dragged the torn end down the base of Zoxiel's nose, leaving an orange streak of blood.

"See mellis," she said, her voice suddenly becoming throaty and aroused. "Batarian does smell like s'kak."

Lukat watched as Zoxiel's crest flushed blue. He pulled her close, his face an inch from hers. For a single moment, Lukat was sure that Zoxiel was going to take her, right there on the cargo bay floor in full view of everyone. Only with what seemed to be a supreme act of will was he able to regain control "In a moment," he whispered. As a parting gift, he bit her deeply on her shoulder. In response, she ran her finger through the bite wound. Looking into his eyes, she brought her bloody finger to her mouth and licked off the blood, slowly and suggestively. "Don't keep me waiting," she whispered back. With that she broke out again into maniacal laughter, and ran up the ramp into the Cruentus. As she did, she casually tossed Emar'ak's severed tongue into the darkness of the cargo bay. Zoxiel watched her go, his body language all but screaming that he wanted to follow her. However, he managed to turn his attention back to Lukat. "I trust the rest of your crew knows how to keep their mouths shut?"

Despite everything, Lukat actually found himself chuckling at the situation. Emar'ak was looking up at him, his eyes begging for help. Now he wants to play the part of the wounded crew member, asking his captain for help. Delicious. He leaned down to look into Emar'ak's face. "Consider this lesson three about being a raider." Standing up, he turned his attention back to Zoxiel. "No problem at all. I think this might be good for him. We will be ready to do our part, whenever the time comes."

Zoxiel nodded, satisfied. "Good. See that you are ready." He turned back to Curkovic. "I apologize for that. The young are somewhat impatient."

Curkovic dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It's a shame really. Children are our future, you know. Makes me worry about the galaxy."

Zoxiel laughed. "Indeed. Now doctor, as I was saying, there was one of your theoretical projects I heard about that greatly interests me." He placed his hand on Curkovic's shoulder. "Tell me about Project Divine Fire."

Illium

Although she was not a physicist or a theoretical mathematician, Nashara Tashaeis was a firm believer in the idea that time was relative to the observer. She swore that her precious time off flew past at a rate ten to twenty times than that of her working periods, which by far took up most of her life. She estimated that her communications to her mother on Thessia probably slowed time down to about an eighth of normal. In meetings with the rest of Stellar Dynamics Corporation board on Illium, time was probably down to about one sixteenth of normal. But the elevator ride from the lobby to her apartment after returning from a week-long legislative vote with her mother on Thessia, she was certain that time was damn near inert. She stood, watching in silent impatience, as the numbers on the aerogel screen rose at a rate seemingly designed to tear away at her sanity. She was quite certain that even an asari such as herself could live an entire lifetime in one elevator ride.

She still could barely fathom the need for the trip to Thessia in the first place. She knew that the vote for business rights and new trade routes were vital to business, and Nashara was most certainly in that particular game. She also knew that her mother, the acting CEO of Stellar Dynamics on Thessia, had much riding on the vote. The company's bottom line was at stake, and nothing was more important to her than keeping that bottom line healthy and in the black. But the one thing that sent Nashara into such a stressful tizzy was why she had to go to Thessia to participate in the vote there. She could just as easily have made her vote from Illium, right in her own apartment or office with a glass of wine in hand. But her mother had insisted, and defying her own mother was not something Nashara was quite ready to deal with. She was only a hundred and four years old after all. Give it time. Eventually, you'll be truly independent, even from her.

Finally, mercifully, the elevator arrived at her floor. The doors slid open, and after taking her first step into her own apartment, the stress of the past week seemed to melt away. Her automatic lights clicked on, bathing the whole vast apartment in a pleasant glow. Nashara sighed, trying to get whatever lingering unpleasantness that might be left out of her with one exhale of breath. Goddess, I need a drink. She stepped into the main living room, easily as large and open as a decent sized convention hall. Between the carpet of hand crafted Thessian fibers to the imported furniture, the room could be considered comfortable to many heads of state. There are perks to wealth, she often thought. Take advantage of them. She loved using her own apartment for business deals. No matter who it was, from volus trade ministers to visiting Hierarchy dignitaries, the visual and tactile experience of her living room often gave Nashara the edge she needed.

"Ashkara, activation code 856372."

Immediately, Ashkara, her personal VI assistant flickered to life on its terminal in the middle of the living room. The VI simulation was designed to look exactly like her mother. It felt good to be able to order her mother around, even if it was just a simulation.

"VI Ashkara is online and active. Welcome home mistress Nashara."

Nashara stood in front of her vast wine collection, dozens of rare Thessian Vintages organized neatly on wooden shelves. "List messages, Ashkara."

The VI went right to work. "Of course mistress. Zithaer Tashaeis sent a communication twelve hours ago. She expressed her gratitude at your presence on Thessia for the vote and wished to-"

"Skip that message." Yes, yes. I'm sure you were grateful for my vote, mother. I just got home, and don't really feel like listening to you drone on. She ran her finger across the labels of her wine bottles, trying to decide what vintage would get the rest of the whole sordid trip out of her mind. "Next message."

"Yes mistress. The security office sent a message indicating that a package has been sent to their offices addressed to you."

That one got Nashara's attention. "Who is it from?

"I believe the message indicated that it was from the Thessian Vintage Association."

Nashara immediately forgot about selecting a wine from the shelf. "You're sure? The package is from the TVA?"

"Yes mistress. The message was quite clear. I could place an inquiry to be sure-"

"Never mind," she interrupted. "Have the security office send it up at once."

"Right away, mistress."

Nashara could scarcely believe it. Had they truly managed to find it? It seemed to good to be true, but that was the only thing it could be if the TVA had sent it directly. Nashara was a great connoisseur of Thessian wines, as her personal collection would prove to any observer. But a few choice vintages were missing in her collection. If the shipment was what she thought it might be, that collection would finally be complete.

Minutes later, the service elevator chimed, causing Ashkara to go into security mode. "The security office has sent a signal indicating that an agent has arrived via service elevator carrying packages addressed to you. The security office has certified that the packages and delivering agent have been properly vetted by all procedures. Do you wish to allow the delivery?"

Of course I do, you idiot machine! Nashara kept that thought in her head. She had a reputation and image to uphold. She straightened up and said, "Yes Ashkara. I authorize the delivery."

The service elevator opened, revealing a salarian wearing the uniform of a building security agent. He also had a sidearm strapped to his hip, the only way to get a weapon anywhere near the tenants of the building. Next to him was a cargo dolly, loaded with one large medium crate and a smaller one stacked on top. The salarian snapped to attention as Nashara approached.

"Greetings Mistress Tashaeis. I have your deliveries. If you could sign here, I can make the transfer."

He handed Nashara a datapad. She had never bothered to get to know the names of any of the security personnel in the building. They were just uniforms that talked as far as she was concerned. This one was no different. She took the datapad, signed the release, and roughly handed it back. "Good. You may place them on the kitchen counter," she said, pointing to her polished marble counter top The salarian obliged, setting the two crates down like they were priceless artifacts. The official policy of the building was that anything broken by the building staff would be replaced out of the offending staff member's pay. Given what the building security staff was paid, it would most likely take the salarian guard far more than his entire lifetime to pay it off.

The salarian gave a curt bow, and marched straight back to the service elevator. The moment the doors closed, Nashara had completely forgotten about him. She focused all of her attention on the packing crates on her kitchen counter. She carefully broke the seal of the medium sized crate, lifting the metal lid like it was a sarcophagus of some ancient asari Matriarch. Inside were two glass bottles, packed tightly in form-fitting foam. Carefully, oh so carefully, she slid one of the frosted glass bottles out of the crate. She held her breath, savoring the moment, before finally looking at the bottle's label. And then all thoughts of the last week were gone.

By the Goddess, they did it. I don't know how, but they did. She was looking at an actual bottle of Thessian Ash Wine, one of the rarest vintages in all of asari space. Fifteen hundred years ago, a previously dormant volcano had erupted on Thessia, showering wide swaths of land with several feet of volcanic ash. This land included several acres of wine vineyards. The owners of the vineyards had rushed to try to save the harvest before the ash could kill off the entire year's crop. The fruit was picked before it had time to ripen, but the owners had decided to go ahead and process the early harvest to cut their losses. When the fruit was pressed, they discovered that particles of the ash has seeped into the fruit. Combined with the rawness of the fruit, the ash had given the wine unique qualities that the owners of the vineyards had never seen. The result was a wine so rare and unique, it became the gold standard for wine enthusiasts. It was so prized because the situation of its creation were impossible to replicate. The numbers of available bottles had dwindled over the centuries, and now it was considered impossible to find.

And yet, I'm holding a bottle of it right in my hands. She debated even opening it, thinking it might be to rare to actually drink. But as she reached in and pulled out the other bottle from the crate, her heart fluttered. Her contacts in the TVA had sent her not one, but two bottles of Ash Wine. She couldn't believe her good fortune. All thoughts of her foul mood were gone. I might even call my mother back tonight. One of the bottles would get a place of honor in her collection. The other, she decided, must be sampled right now.

She went back to her wine shelves and reached for one of the pure crystal wine glasses she kept in special shelf built over the wine shelves. Placing the glass on the marble counter, she tore away the seal on the bottle, the same seal that had been put in place fifteen centuries ago. Then, with an almost religious respect, she opened the bottle. The sent that came out was utterly tantalizing. She carefully poured herself a glass, opaque violet liquid cloudy with the presence of ash particles from the ancient eruption. The raised it to her lips, taking another moment to savor the scent, one of the rarest scents in the galaxy. Then, the anticipation too much to resist, she took her first sip.

All the writings of the siari faith have nothing on this. Nashara closed her eyes, letting the wine wash over her. There were going to be quite a number of jealous colleagues in the board room tomorrow. Several members of the Stellar Dynamics board also considered themselves collectors of fine wines, and Nashara found herself in frequent discussions and competitions with them. Who had the best vintage? Who had the most refined palate? Who had the most complete collection? Nashara had a feeling that she would soon be the winner in all of those topics.

Only then did she realize that Ashkara was still waiting with more messages. Nashara sighed, and finally turned her attention back to the VI.

"Continue messages."

"Yes mistress. Representative Kesserak of the Vol Protectorate has tried to reach you several times regarding the Zada Ban Contract."

That surprised her. At the moment, Stellar Dynamics was involved in a deal to build a fleet of new ore freighters for the volus government, all with specialized ore containers designed to shield the radiation from the rich uranium ore that the planet had in such abundance. It was a deal that Nashara had personally brokered over months of careful negotiation with the Protectorate's representative Dask Kesserak. What could be his problem now? At any other time, she would let it go and contact him the next morning. But the wine had put her in a good mood, and Nashara decided that she could deal with it now.

"Set up a link and contact Representative Kesserak now."

"Right away, mistress."

It only took a minute to establish the link. And when Kesserak's face finally appeared on the aerogel screen, Nashara could sense his anger even through the pressure suit.

"Representative Kesserak," she said, taking another sip of wine. "I understand you wanted to speak with-"

"Don't play games with me, Nashara!" Kesserak sounded outright livid. "I want to know what kind of hustle your company is trying to run on my government!"

Nashara realized she was a bit more tired than she thought. She was feeling a bit drowsy. But she couldn't worry about that. One of her business clients seemed to be accusing her of malfeasance.

"I'm afraid you're going to have to be a bit more specific, Mr. Kesserak."

Kesserak lifted a datapad, waving it in front of him like a piece of evidence at a trial. "Maybe you can explain to me why I just learned from my own engineers that the ore freighters your corporation is building for us are short on the cargo capacity agreed to in the contract by almost ten percent?"

Nashara shrugged. "Would these be the same engineers who spent the last three months looking over the design specs we sent over? The same engineers that signed off on those specs not two weeks ago?"

"The numbers are right here," Kesserak said, smacking the datapad with his outstretched hand. "Ten percent under ore capacity! This is a violation of contract!"

Nashara actually found herself amused by Kesserak's outburst. He's actually trying to put this all on me. How delightful. She sat down on her vast sofa, crossing her legs and taking another sip of her ash wine. "Mr. Kesserak, the terms of the contract are quite clear. Your engineers had ample time to look over the ship specifications. It is hardly the fault of Stellar Dynamics that your engineers got their numbers wrong. The ships are already under construction as we speak. If you want to change the specifications to allow more cargo space now, construction would have to be halted. This can all be done, but the penalty for a work stoppage and a redesign would have to be applied."

"What?" Kesserak staggered like he had been shot. "You expect me to pay a penalty for this? Have you lost your damned mind?"

"If you wish to bring this up to Illium's Trade Commission, that is your choice." Nashara kept her voice clipped and precise. "But if you decide to go that path, just remember one thing. Our attorneys are among the best on Illium, if not the galaxy. They live for problems like this. By the time they are finished in the courts, it is very likely that Stellar Dynamics will, be default, own a sizable percentage of your government. Or, you can pay the penalty and be done with it." Nashara gave him a devious smile. "The choice is yours."

Kesserak shook with anger. "You spiteful asari bitch!"

Nashara kept smiling. "You don't need to make your decision now. Sleep on it. We can continue this conversation tomorrow during normal business hours. Now, if there's nothing else, I'm quite tired. Goodnight, Mr. Kesserak."

She cut off the transmission before the volus could spout any more bile. Nashara was feeling tired all of a sudden. Best to leave everything else until morning. She downed the last of the wine in her glass. "Ashkara, hold remaining messages."

"Of course, mistress. Going into standby mode. Have a pleasant evening."

Nashara stood up, ready to slip into bed. She didn't realize that something was wrong until she tried to take a step and found her vision swimming. Vertigo overtook her, causing her to grab hold of the sofa to keep from falling over. Alarm washed over her instantly. This had never happened before. She had been drunk before, especially during her time in university, but this was far worse. She looked at the crystal wine glass in her hand, only to have it slip from her fingers. It hit the corner of her large end table, shattering on impact. I have to get building security on the line.

"Ashkara, activation code eight, five...five...six..."

Nashara found she couldn't quite get the words out. Her voice was slurring, and the whole apartment started to spin. Vaguely, her mind was telling her to get to the security console next to the service elevator. She could contact building security from there. She focused her eyes on the console, trying to block out everything else. Just focus on the console. Get to the console and activate the alarm. Don't think about anything else. Just get to the damned console.

Nashara took a step toward her salvation, and promptly crashed to her carpeted floor. Her vision grew blurry, and then blacked out all together.

When she finally began to swim back into consciousness, Nashara had no idea how much time had passed. She was vaguely aware that she was sitting in one of her dining room chairs. The texture of the imported Thessian softwood was unmistakable. She tried to stand up, but felt something tied around her waist and wrists holding her to the chair. No, not really felt. Her nerves were somewhat deadened and unresponsive. She shook her head, trying to clear her vision. As her eyes came back into focus, she saw that she was indeed tied to one of her dining room chairs, but the chair had been moved into her kitchen. She was sure her feet were on the marble floor of her kitchen rather than the carpet in the dining room.

"What's...what's going on here," she called out. "What is this?"

"I'll be right with you."

The voice came out of nowhere. It was galactic, but sounded like it was coming from a radio or comm system. Now truly alarmed, her head whipped from side to side, trying to find the source of the voice.

"Who are you? How did you get in here?"

"Quiet. I told you, I'll get to you in a moment."

She could at least tell that the voice was coming from the living room, somewhere next to the window where her private desk was. She tried to use her feet to move the chair, but found her feet were tied to the chair legs. Grunting in frustration, she craned her neck, trying to see into the living room. She just managed to get the desk in her line of sight, and finally caught sight of the intruder. At first, all she could see was a large figure in a heavy black overcoat. From the way the figure stood, it had to be a human or batarian. But what was even more disturbing was that her private terminal was open. The terminal that had several layers of very impressive safeguards to prevent anyone from getting at the information.

"How...how did you get that terminal active?"

"I said quiet." Even through the electronic garbling, the voice sounded flat and emotionless. She could at least tell the voice belonged to a male. Probably not batarian either. The inflection, what little there was, was all wrong for that. A human then. Okay, he's probably here for something. Do what you do. Negotiate.

"Look, do you even know who I am," Nashara asked. "I'm sure we can work something out."

The figure finally turned around and approached her. As soon as he stepped close enough, Nashara finally got a good look at him. Upon doing so, she wished she hadn't. The human was tall, at least a good six foot six. But that was all she could make out. Under the heavy overcoat was a set of light tactical armor, painted with black, white, and gray urban camouflage patterns. But it was the helmet that unnerved her the most. It was completely black, the faceplate smooth and featureless. But painted on the front was the image of a human skull, the teeth slightly exaggerated. Instead of the normal rictus smile of a skull's teeth, it was pulled back into a fiendish grin. Had she seen the skull mask in a picture or from across the room, she would have found it comical. Tied to the chair looking up at it, however, she felt her blood chill.

"Of course I know who you are. Nashara Tashaeis. Senior Vice President of Stellar Dynamics Corporation, Illium Branch."

"Then, you are you?"

The human crossed his arms over his armored chest. "Revenant."

Revenant? Never heard of him. "You're a mercenary?"

"Most of the time."

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Mercenary. Use that.

"Look, no matter who paid you to do whatever it is that you're doing, I can quintuple it with no effort. So how about we drop the intimidation thing and get down to business, shall we?"

"Quintuple what I'm getting paid to be here?" Revenant tilted his head to the side. "That would be a pretty simple thing to do. Five times zero is still zero. I'm not here for money."

This was not the answer Nashara expected. "You're not here for money? What kind of nonsense is that? What are you here for?"

Revenant pointed to her private terminal. "I'm here because of you other business. Information broker. The business that you run out of your apartment, and keep well away from your corporate office."

Her eyes widened. "How do you know about that."

"Had it narrowed down to either you or Liara T'Soni. Lucky for her, she knows how to do background checks on her clients."

"How did you even access that terminal? There are over twelve layers of protection. There's no way-"

"Only needed to get passed the first one." He tossed something onto Nashara's lap. "The DNA scanner."

The moment she saw what Revenant had tossed onto her lap, she started screaming. It was the index finger from her right hand. Her nerves, still deadened from whatever was in her system, hadn't even felt it. Now, as she looked down at her hand, seeing the neatly cut end of her finger, still seeping violet blood, she felt it. Now she was struggling for dear life, trying to get loose from her restraints. No matter how much she struggled, the restraints held. Okay, you are not defenseless. You are an asari. Out of panicked reflex, she tried to summon up her biotics. Anything to get her out of her restraints or get this madman away from her. But the blue biotic field that normally came so easily to her fizzled like a bad bulb. Revenant stood over her dispassionately, showing no reaction at all to her struggles.

"I added something to the wine you ordered. Didn't want those biotics to ruin our time together. The chems I had to use are also what's deadening your nerves. Don't struggle to hard. It lessens the effect of the painkiller. And you might thank me for that, in a moment."

He walked away from her, which was actually more terrifying. Now, Nashara couldn't tell what he was doing. Her heart was slamming in her chest, and she felt the first stages of hyperventilation coming on.

"WHAT DO YOU WANT?," she screamed in utter terror. "JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT!"

Revenant soon came back, carrying the small package that had come with the wine. He broke the security seal, opened the lid, and removed a bottle from the crate. It wasn't a wine bottle, nor was it asari. It didn't have the sleek cylindrical shape that asari wines came in. It was square shaped, tapering off into a long thin tip.

"You didn't open this one. The wine, I just added something to. But this is from me to you. I know you don't drink hard spirits, but I'm hoping you'll accept the gift symbolically."

He held the bottle in front of her. "Do you recognize the year? It means a lot to me. And so does the distillery."

Despite her fear, despite everything raging through her mind, she actually found her eyes drawn to the label on the bottle. It was a hard grain spirit, obviously of human manufacture. Her eyes then slid over the distillery logo. It was some place on...she squinted her eyes...Terra Nova. At first, she didn't place it, but when she saw the year of the manufacturing, all the color drained from her face.

"Wait, you can't think-"

"You sold the data detailing the moving of the asteroid to Terra Nova to a maniac like him? What did you think he was going to do with it?"

"No! I can explain-"

Without a word or a hint of warning, Revenant slid the bottle around in his hands so he was gripping it by the tip, and brought it down hard onto Nashara's head. The bottle shattered on impact, showering her in foul-smelling spirits. The words coming out of her mouth weren't even words now. She was screaming, sobbing, and swearing in one long inarticulate stream of noise. Revenant took a few steps away, and then turned back to her. He watched and listened to her ravings in silence for a few moments,waiting for her to quiet down. When she finally did, managing to condense her rage of emotion into a more coherent string of threats and insults, Revenant held up a gloved finger.

"If you recognize the significance of the bottle, then that really should have come as no surprise."

Nashara started to threaten him again, going into grim description as to what she would do to him once she got loose. The threats stopped as Revenant reached into one of the pockets on his overcoat and pulled out a standard issue military signal flare. His gloved thumb flipped the switch, causing the flare to light up in brilliant phosphorous light.

"And neither should this."

And he tossed the flare right into her lap.