Author's Note: This is meant to be a continuous tale of Commander Jonathan Shepard from events approximately one month prior to those in Mass Effect 1 to the end of Mass Effect 3. The story is not meant to be a straight up shipping piece, since it's meant to be as true to the overall plot of the series as possible, but not to the mechanics of the game. During the events of ME1: Jonathan "John" Shepard becomes involved with Liara but her character's transformation in the events between ME1 and ME2 drive him away and toward Tali. The primary point of view characters are Tali'Zorah, Jonathan Shepard, and Garrus Vakarian. In addition some original material is added to give roles to other major characters throughout all three games, like occasional ship to ship engagements for Joker and Pressley in ME1 and so forth.

The story will be divided into five parts. Part I is the events of Mass Effect 1, Part II is the period between Mass Effect 1 and 2 including Shepard's death and the fate of the other POV characters. Part III is Mass Effect 2 up until the destruction of the Collector Base and Part IV are the DLCs in the period between Mass Effect 2 and 3. Part V is Mass Effect 3.

Disclaimer: Mass Effect is the intellectual property of Bioware.

Reminder: All my stories are on a monthly update schedule. Please see my profile for the schedule.

Mass Effect: Break the Cycle

Part I

Chapter 1: Project Normandy

Ambassador Donnel Udina leaned back in the plush chair behind his desk, glancing at the half dozen data-slates scattered before the terminal. Opposite him were two humans and a tall turian with bright white facial markings clad in red and black armor.

"Nihlus, you've already shot down our first two proposals." Udina muttered, looking at the turian. "Captain Joe Sheridan's performance on Elysium showed he had remarkable talents as a soldier."

Nihlus's mandibles flexed for a moment. "A spectre is not a soldier, Ambassador. Moreover all of the candidates you've put forward are a bit too high profile for a member of a 'shadow organization.'" The turian glanced at the humans beside him. "An assessment the less, politically minded members of this meeting probably agree with."

Udina frowned and looked back at his desk, looking for the data-slate for the man that Captain Anderson had suggested. He picked it up and skimmed it for a second, "Well, what about Shepard? He's a spacer… lived aboard starships most of his life."

Captain Anderson straightened. "Military service runs in the family, both his parents were in the navy."

Admiral Hackett tapped the data-slate in his hand and frowned. "He saw his whole unit die on Akuze, he could have some serious emotional scars."

Udina watched as Anderson glanced at the Admiral. "Every soldier has scars, Shepard's a survivor."

Udina leaned forward and looked at the two of them, "Is that the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?"

Anderson met Udina's eyes, his voice becoming more animate, "That's the only kind of person that can protect the galaxy."

Udina looked at the turian who had remained silent. His tone sounded grudgingly as he leaned back in the chair. "I'll make the call."

Nihlus continued to scan the data-slate reading the service record. "Well ambassador, he still needs to be approved by the council and… tested for suitability." He stepped back and looked between Captain Anderson and Admiral Hackett. "The incident at Akuze is well known, but not as something a politician could use to advance an agenda." His mandibles curled upward in a turian smile as he glanced back at the data-slate. "Being the sole survivor of the attack seems to have driven him: acceptance and graduation from N7 combat training, a dozen covert assignments over the years which have been kept out of the public eye, and a series of promotions due to his exemplary service." Nihlus looked at Anderson for a long moment, "And now assigned to the Normandy as your Executive Officer. I trust your advancement of him isn't simply due to a friendship with yourself."

"No, Nihlus, he's the best soldier I've seen, an excellent field leader and infiltration specialist." Anderson stated as the turian walked round him, still studying the data-slate.

"Biotic training, L3 implants, full N7 training specializing in infiltration and assault techniques, two incidents of ending a standoff diplomatically with no casualties…" The turian nodded again. "Overall an exceptional record, I would like to meet him."

Blue flames sheathed his leg as Shepard kicked the door. His foot hit hard, its mass augmented by the mass-effect fields of his biotics, knocking it off the hinges and dropping it into the room.

John rushed into the room, the M7 Lancer Assault Rifle held tight to his shoulder as he entered followed behind by Jenkins with a second assault rifle up and Kaiden with a pistol bringing up the rear.

Carbon composite silhouette targets popped up from behind crates and Shepard let loose with a quick burst from the rifle dropping two of them as Jenkins let loose with a long burst, a second later his weapon steam hissed from its top exhaust port and an irritating beeping sound came from the weapon. He had swung his rifle to the fourth target but his weapon refused to fire. The fifth target dropped as a trio of pistol shots smashed into the target's center from Kaiden's pistol.

Shepard wheeled and let loose with a three shot burst into Jenkin's target removing it as a threat. "Jenkins, keep cool. Switch up while it cools down." Damn kid is going to go and get himself killed one of these days.

"Right sir!" The corporal answered stowing the rifle and pulling out a shotgun.

"Room clear." Kaiden Alenko said.

"Right, Lieutenant, that door has a lock on it… if you wouldn't mind?" Shepard gestured to the hatch at the other end of the room. With a sigh he leaned against the battered cement walls of the practice building. Three of us on a ship specifically designed for infiltration and stealth, and I get a wet behind the ears corporal and a Lieutenant several years my senior who is more about biotics and tech then actual combat. He rubbed his helmet and sighed. "Corporal, this next room I expect no more than six round bursts from your weapon, understand?"

Jenkins jerked a bit and nodded. "Yes sir."

"You let your weapon overheat in the field like that and the whole squad could be in a mess of trouble," Shepard said. He checked the Lancer rifle again and stood. "How is that door coming?"

"Almost there." Kaiden said. His hand danced over his omni-tool as he stood beside the door and a beep came from the device. "Lock disengaged."

"Alright, just as before and no more screw ups or the only thing you'll be using that rifle for is as a push up bar Jenkins." Shepard said. "Stack up. I'm point." Next time I'm taking them to the practice center on Luna. Damn, better make sure they're both vacuum qualified first. He grimaced as he readied the weapon and hit the door activation stud.

"Son of a bitch!" Joker growled as he leaned against the door to the Normandy's med-bay and glared at the turian beside him. "You know my bones are brittle? No natural armor bonus for me, no sir." He grumbled as he looked down at his arm that hung at a wrong angle inside the crutches. Then he leaned against the other brace heavily and sighed. "Damn it."

"Flight Officer Moreau, I did apologize, you are aware that this is a joint Hierarchy-Alliance project, are you not?" The turian tech asked as he hit the activation stud beside the door. "Are you sure this medical bay is operational enough to treat your injury?"

"Yes, now go work on something else." He gestured to the door with his head. "Get the drives working so I have something to do maybe?"

"Right." The turian backed up and turned away. Joker glared after the alien figure for a moment then sighed. The crew deck was a mess, fresh welds and crate upon crate of equipment waiting to be installed. Shake down in a month they said. Hell, he doubted they'd be ready in a year at this rate.

"Here already Jeff?" a stiff female voice said from the medical bay. "Good thing I thought to make sure this new equipment worked before I allowed you onboard."

"Gee Doc, it hurts whenever I crack my arm… you know?" He hobbled into the med-bay and the door hissed shut behind him. Then he looked up at Doctor Chakwas and shook his head. "Damn prawn kicked the brace…"

"And broke your arm I see." She smiled and shook her head. "I doubt it was intentional, the turians the Hierarchy assigned to this project have been rather eager to please and polite."

"For turians, maybe. They all sound like they've got a stick up their ass if you ask me." He hobbled to one of the beds and leaned against it heavily. "Captain Anderson seems nice compared to them."

"Well Jeff, I doubt they're all like that." Doctor Chakwas said. She took a cast from a drawer beneath the bed while she waved over his arm with her omni-tool. "The only person with a longer medical record then you on this ship is the XO, and his injuries tend to involve bullets. Single fracture, may need to pin it… I wonder how many alarms you set off when you walk through security with all the pins holding you together."

Joker smiled. "Every single time, but it gives me a great excuse to keep em from searching me."

"Are you suggesting you're sneaking contraband aboard?" Chakwas smiled at him. "You know I'd have to report that."

"Doctor – patient confidentiality has its uses." Joker grinned. "Now could you please put me back together before I fall and turn into humpty-dumpty."

"Sure thing Jeff." Chakwas said. "You know some species have got problems that make yours seem trivial."

"Yeah? Like who?"

Tali moaned quietly, her eyes closed tight. Her mind was clouded, and she could hear voices above her.

"She's coming around. Good thing you doubled the anesthetic. It would have been trouble if she woke up during the implantation."

"Yes, quite resilient, scanner indicates no bacterial infection, though her immune system will take a while to adjust to the implant. Admiral Raan said that we needed to be careful about that." Another female voice answered and Tali jerked awake as she felt a pair of gloved fingers touch her exposed back. "It's alright Miss Zorah, how are you feeling?"

Tali blinked away the sleep from her eyes and stared down at the sterile deck plating. She felt a cold metal lump in her shoulder, something that hadn't been there before. There was a shock of pain as she winced from her muscles tightening around it. The implant, right the new implant. She sighed as the cold air hit her face and her back. "Cold…" and like someone shoved a bolt in my shoulder blade.

"We can adjust the temperature controls up, Lova and I will be keeping you here for observation to insure you don't have an allergic reaction." The doctor said quietly. "Your suit is being modified as we speak."

Tali reached over her shoulder trying to touch the implant and sighed. "So what does this one do again?"

"It's designed to augment your body's immune system and act as an injection point for the new human medical invention, medi-gel… don't worry it'll automatically sterilize and purify it if you need to use it." The doctor reassured her as she jerked at the mention of an alien medicine being used on her body. "The humans even make a version compatible with turians and us, never seen anything quite like it, very effective."

Tali bit her lip. "Sergeant Reegar said that it saved a friend of his."

"It's probably saved more than one marine." The doctor walked around to stand before her, though all she saw were the two three toed boots from her vantage point. Slowly she craned her neck and looked up at the doctor clad in her environmental suit, her eyes glowing behind the visor. "Hopefully you won't have to use it, but going on Pilgrimage is dangerous, especially for a daughter of the Admiralty."

Tali glared at her for a long moment before glancing at a one-way mirror on the other side of the chamber. "I suppose you're right." She winced as she felt the implant with a finger and sighed. "This debt of resources will be repaid."

"That which is freely given is no debt. This is a standard implant these days anyway." The doctor said. "Do you want us to leave? I know how hard it can be to bare one's face to strangers…"

Tali nodded slowly. As the two turned toward the air lock she asked, "Will my omni-tool interfere, with anything in here?"

"No, go ahead." The doctor said before stepping into the airlock and sealing it behind her.

The omni-tool flared to life, its holographic interface encircling her arm as she tapped a few keys on it and a second display popped up as she began to skim the extra-net.

Behind the one-way glass, Shala'Raan smiled in her helmet. Tali was a strong girl, like her mother. Her own omni-tool glowed as she keyed in a communications link; the familiar green holographic image of Rael'Zorah shimmered to life. "Bond-sister? I'm surprised at your contact."

"Really Rael, you're surprised I contacted you? Why aren't you here? Your own daughter just got her last implant before her pilgrimage." Shala felt an icy edge slip into her voice.

"I doubt Tali was in any danger, it's been years since a child was lost due to an implant." Rael said.

"That is not why you should be here. You're her father; if her mother was still alive she'd be giving you a tongue lashing or would have dragged you here herself. If I didn't live on the Tonbay I would have done it." Shala said.

"I suppose you're right, my research has kept me quite busy. I rarely have time to go to the Rayya." Rael seemed to shrink a bit in the hologram. "How is she?"

"Fine, she's already messing with her omni-tool." Shala said. "I heard you assigned a commando to give her some weapon training before her departure." Good thing I talk to Tali, seven years of training with a commando and you never even mentioned it to me?

"Yes, young lad named Reegar. He's been helping her off and on for a few years now. I'm waiting for one more report from him before allowing her on pilgrimage. There are always those that might try to use her to harm the fleet."

Shala nodded, and this way she'd be more trouble to catch then she'd be worth. "Alright Rael, I'll let you get back to your research." With that she closed the connection and the holographic light died. She took a step forward and polarized the windows to give Tali some privacy. The room brightened as a door hissed open.

A gruff voice echoed in the small room. "Admiral, you wanted to see me?"

Shala smiled. If Rael had been setting up this young lad as a bond mate his choice had been terrible. Kal'Reegar was a marine, hard-nosed, stubborn, and deferential to almost all authority, even the daughter of an Admiral. He was incapable of seeing her as bonding material.

"Admiral Rael'Zorah asked you to train his daughter for the last… seven years or so?" Shala turned to the marine in his red environment suit. "What is your assessment of her ability to defend herself?"

The twin eyes behind the black visor blinked then twisted up into a smile. "Ma'am, seven years of training is more than most every marine I've served with ever got before going into combat. She's quite skilled with a shotgun or pistol and cool in the simulations but simulations can't give you the full measure of someone's abilities when something actually happens. Until she's tried in actual combat it'll be impossible to say for sure."

Shala nodded. Rael had probably hoped to mold his daughter into a marine, though I've never once heard of her having any interest in that career. "I hope those are skills she won't need to use."

"So do I ma'am." Reegar said grimly, remembering his own pilgrimage eight years previously.

Shala glanced at him and shrugged. "I suppose I should ask, what is your opinion of her?"

"Ma'am?" Reegar asked.

"Just in general." Shala said.

"She's smarter then I, and a master at tech. Good kid, but not Marine material. Might make a good combat engineer but I don't think that'd be what she wants." Reegar said.

Not Marine material. Shala smiled in her helmet and shook her head. "And the pressure of being an Admiral's daughter?"

"I don't think that's fully set in yet ma'am." Kal said.

"Everyone will expect her to bring back something truly great: a new ship maybe or the key to destroying the geth once and for all." Shala crossed her arms and looked at the polarized windows. "Most pilgrims come back with little more than salvage or ore claims, sometimes I wonder if sending them out there is worth the risk. Most of the galaxy already has decided we should just roll over and die."

"Ma'am?" Reegar asked.

"Never mind, just the musings of the old." Shala said.

It was a standard Citadel Security Force office, nothing fancy. A desk, some lockers, a couple chairs, and a damn terminal that the Keepers decided to use every other day. Garrus shook his head behind the desk as he tapped at the terminal.

"Three more tons of tainted e-zero in the last week. Jaroth and his gang on Omega have been busy. I've got six more probable drop points for that gang here on the Citadel but I can't get warrants for any of them." Garrus's mandibles clicked in frustration. "Insufficient evidence for a warrant… suspicion alone is not enough…" He sighed. "They said the same thing when I started asking for warrants on that damn Doctor Saleon. Just because his patients looked like a mad scientist's creation on the inside wasn't enough evidence."

His terminal lit up again and a smile slid across his face, his mandibles twitching as he keyed the link. "Doctor Michel?"

"Yes, I have two in here with gunshot wounds. I managed to get them to talk to you if you'd like." The human's voice sounded only slightly edgy; maybe she was finally getting use to the occasional violence on the wards. Medical clinics like hers tended to attract the desperate and criminal, not that their existence was anything bad. Having someone like her, willing to talk some of her patients into speaking with him had helped crack a few crime rings.

"I'll be right over Doctor Michel. Be there in about ten minutes," Garrus answered. He picked up his sidearm from the locker as he headed for the door. "I wonder what it is this time." He tapped his visor and sighed, one of the human officers had suggested a couple old Earth films to him, and he'd watched a few. A couple of the twentieth century ones had been interesting; at least humans knew sometimes you had to break the rules to get the job done.

Shepard sighed as he tossed the M7 Lancer assault rifle into the weapons locker of the transport shuttle. It'd taken half the day but he'd managed to empty the weapon's ammunition block. Already he could feel his shoulder ache a bit as he flexed in his Onyx combat armor. Beside him Jenkins was disassembling his own rifle for cleaning, a tired look on his face. About time, the kid had been so full of energy at the start of the day.

"Did anything in it melt?" Shepard muttered as he sat down heavily on the couch and glanced at Jenkins.

"No sir," Jenkins said, still looking sheepish.

"Jenkins, you need to learn to keep your cool, make aimed shots. Just holding that trigger down isn't going to give you an N7 qualification," Shepard said.

"I'm sorry sir, on a range I can do it but on maneuvers… I just get so wound up." Jenkins sighed.

"You'll get the hang of it, eventually," Shepard said. He leaned against the cushions for a moment as the hatch shut and Kaiden walked over to one of the equipment panels and started up a diagnostic. A pained look flashed across his eyes and he rubbed his temple. "You alright Alenko?"

"It's nothing sir, just a headache." Kaiden answered.

Shepard arched an eyebrow at his subordinate. The three of them sat in the drop shuttle, a ship capable of carrying ten fully loaded soldiers into combat. There was the slight feeling of vertigo as the craft took off and vectored skyward. Frowning a bit, he glanced out the window at the rapidly receding landscape. "You're from Earth, aren't you Alenko?"

"Yes sir."

"What's it like?" Shepard asked. "Outside the bases and training grounds I mean."

Alenko glanced out of the window as the curvature of the Earth came into view. "Depends on where you are sir. Though I think one description could fit most of the planet."

"What's that Alenko?" Shepard asked.

"It's crowded."

Shepard chuckled, what was the population on Earth now? Eleven billion? That was an awful lot of people on a planet, but still it was a planet. "Not sure if it'd be more crowded than being a spacer."

"Probably not, sir, but it's certainly not as healthy living either," Alenko said.

Jenkins began reassembling his weapon. "I heard there's a whole species that just lives on ships. People called Quary…Quarivans?"

"If you call fifteen million people a whole species." Alenko shook his head and glanced at Jenkins. "You mean Quarians, right? Jenkins, did you learn anything in galactic history? They're a refugee population, driven from their homeworld by a race of machines they made. If living in a slum on Earth is bad at least you have terra firma under your feet. Those people are living on ships that date back to before we knew how to fly through the air let alone space."

"Haven't met one myself," Shepard said. "Of course a population of a couple million in a galaxy with a population in the trillions is just a drop in the bucket. I've dealt with the turians more than any other race and I still don't quite understand them, let alone the asari, krogan, or the salarians."

"Not even batarians, sir?" Jenkins asked.

"Never dealt with them outside a combat situation," Shepard answered. "They fought pretty dirty in the engagements I had against them though: using gear that the Citadel Council classes as illegal and so forth."

Through the window a large space station grew in size, covered with dozens of hangars and dry-docks. A few large Alliance warships floated around it, cruisers and even a carrier. There was a turian cruiser hard-docked to the station, the headquarters for the turian portion of the Normandy project.

The shuttle banked toward one of the smaller hangars near the dry-docks and as it did it passed the black and silver outline of the SSV Normandy, dozens of crews were at work on the ship in hard-suits welding and installing equipment. It looked as though two of the thruster assemblies were in the process of being installed as a turian work crew, dressed in harsh white, worked to make sure the connectors are in place.

"She is a pretty ship," Alenko said watching the Normandy before the shuttle entered the hangar and slowed to a soft landing.

"That she is," Shepard said and shook his head. "We'll be heading to the Luna test range tomorrow, get you guys some experience in hard-vacuum and open terrain. I expect you in full combat gear in the hangar at 09:00 tomorrow morning." He glanced at the two of them. "Plus if we're lucky we'll be able to try out an M35 Mako. I think they have a couple for us to borrow."

"Yes sir." Jenkins and Alenko said as they grabbed their gear and stepped out of the shuttle. A moment later Shepard followed them out and sighed. He needed a hot shower, some grub, and a beer. No, two beers.

Captain Anderson tried to relax in the cabin of the shuttle. It was just over thirty hours since they'd left the Citadel, and the cramped confines of the cabin offered little amenities, especially when the only other sapient being on the small vessel was a turian Spectre.

He sighed. Getting a ship ready for shakedown was more an exercise in paper work then an actual honest to God job for him. Pressly or Adams alone could cover most of the work. He leaned back in the seat trying to relax.

Nihlus glanced at the human and shook his head. "I read some interesting reports on you, Captain Anderson."

Anderson sighed, "Not all of them were good I take it."

"True, the… incident on Camala is a blot on your record, but then few records are completely spotless." Nihlus focused on the controls for a moment. "I've had my share of failures."

Anderson blinked and leaned forward. "No doubt, but that doesn't make what happened there any easier to bear. Saren Arterius caused the explosion that killed all those people."

"I am sorry Anderson, but I don't completely believe that. Saren was the one that put my own candidacy forward for the Spectres. He is a friend, and though you may blame him for what happened I'm certain there must have been another explanation." Nihlus shrugged. "Thirty minutes to the relay."

Anderson studied the turian, the way he'd phrased it was odd. He hadn't repeated the lie that Saren had used in his report, merely stating that there had to be another explanation. "You don't believe his report then?"

"We all lie in our reports to the Council, they'd rather not know the dark and dirty details of what we do or why, just the results." Nihlus's mandibles twitched. "It was obvious that Saren wasn't telling the whole truth in his report, a human Spectre candidate alerting batarian guards? I may believe your men aren't as well trained as ours but I don't believe you to be that stupid."

"You're not like most turians I've met." Anderson said.

Nihlus nodded. "If I was like most turians, I wouldn't be a Spectre."

Tali pulled on each piece of her suit carefully, its soft inner layers constricting around her body like a glove as each system booted up. The metal forearm guard she wore over one side contained a rebreather unit beneath the silvery shell, hence the long black tube that snaked out from guard to interface with her helmet. She'd seen some of the newer suits, the updated ones, which had hidden away the re-breather on their back bringing it closer to the helmet and lowering the risk it'd be caught on something. Still to update her suit when a new one would be presented to her on the return from the pilgrimage was a waste of resources. She couldn't do that.

The implant had slid into a port with a one-way valve and clicked in place. It still felt weird, as all the implants had the first few weeks, something that was part of her but wasn't. After a few minutes, all that was left was her helmet and realk, the only embellishment to her suit that made it really hers. Even the combination veil and wrapping cloth had functionality to it, on the inside layer were dozens of pockets and containers for everything from food tubes to ammunition blocks between loops for wires and medi-gel canisters to be secured.

Tali sighed and scratched her head idly as she stared at the purple tinted mask. She ran her hand through her curly hair and stared at it for another long moment. The mask offered privacy, but even then not really. Word got around the Rayya faster than rumors on the extranet, and she was sure every soul aboard knew her on sight, even if she was a faceless mask with the helmet on.

The airlock door hissed open and Tali straightened, nervously looking around the room, her eyes glowing slightly in the dim light. She relaxed as she saw the figure by the door in a dark realk bordering on black with white embroidering that gave the illusion of hair falling around her shoulders. "Auntie Raan." A smile flashed on her face. "Is father here?"

Shala slowly shook her head. "I'm afraid not Tali."

Tali sighed and looked down at the floor. "He's never here."

Shala stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it affectionately. "You know he loves you, he's just is terrible at expressing it."

"No he doesn't," Tali sniffed and felt tears running down her cheeks. "I'm never good enough for him."

Shala leaned down and looked at Tali's eyes. "You know how important his work is, he is an Admiral."

"And the fleet comes first, but Auntie Raan, you're an Admiral too and you're here," Tali said.

Shala nodded. "You think I wouldn't take an opportunity to see my favorite niece without a visor over her face?" She wiped the tears from Tali's eyes. "Now… enough of that."

Tali leaned forward and hugged Raan, squeezing her tightly and burying her head in her realk. "I'm sorry… I try so hard and he doesn't notice. I'm never good enough for him." She shook for a moment and sniffed, feeling tears running down her face once more. "Did he want a son or what?"

Shala hugged her back and ran a three fingered hand through her short curly hair. "No Tali, the happiest I ever saw your father was when you were born. He loves you, though he forgets sometimes." Slowly she released her and leaned back. "You'll be leaving on Pilgrimage soon, aren't you excited?"

"Yes." Tali wiped her eyes for a moment and grinned. It fell quickly though. "…and a little scared."

"That's okay Tali, I was scared too. A lot of the stories you hear from those coming back make it worse than it is." Shala rubbed her shoulder idly. With her other hand, she reached behind her back and unbuckled a holster from her belt. "I know it's a bit early, but I don't know when I'll see you again."

"Auntie?" Tali asked, blinking.

Shala's eyes seemed to turn upward in a smile as she held out holster wrapped in a simple black cloth. "As was given to me I give unto you."

Tali took the holster and slowly removed the cloth, her eyes widening as she saw the gleaming black weapon beneath, a Striker auto-pistol. "But, but… this is yours. I've seen it on your hip for…"

Shala held up her hand and shook her head. "It is yours now. I have no need of it anymore, and if having it gives you a little more piece of mind on your journey, giving it up was worth it. It's an older model, but very little has changed in terms of weapons since my own pilgrimage."

"Thank you." Tali said quietly, turning the pistol slowly in her hand and thumbing the activation switch watching it expand out to full size and back again. "How, did you get it?"

"That, child, is a long story. Now would you like some help with your helmet?"

"Yes please," Tali said grinning at her. "If I'm to be released I don't want the whole Rayya to know my face."

Shala picked up the heavy helmet and slowly slid it over her head, her mind flashing back to the first time she'd helped Tali into her suit. She could hear the systems engaging one by one, the cleaning and cleansing system for her hair, the linkups between her bio-monitors and hud. She smiled to herself as she linked the re-breather to the helmet and checked the connections. All that was left was the visor and realk.

"So Tali, you think about where you're going to go?" Shala asked as she wound the feeding lines through a series of loops on the realk to where the pockets for food tubes were.

"A little, I'd like to go to the Citadel, but… I've heard there's not much work and lots of hassles, maybe elcor space. Everyone says we should stay away from the humans, the new group." Tali said.

"Perhaps, but we won't learn much if all our pilgrims stay away from them." Shala adjusted the realk making sure it fit properly over her frame and smiled at her.

Tali nodded. "Maybe, lots of choices."

"You'll figure it out." Shala reassured her. Finally, she lifted the final piece of the suit into place. Only the visor remained. The number of people that had seen Tali's face could be counted on one hand now. Even her father wasn't on the list, just Shala and the medical staff. Her mother was with the ancestors now, bless her.

"Auntie Raan? Is something wrong?" Tali asked.

"No, nothing." She slowly lifted the visor into place and heard it seal with a hiss and felt her heart squeeze in her chest. She doesn't know yet, the real curse of our people. The Pilgrimage taught them that too, just what they'd lost in the last three hundred years among the stars.

The M35 Mako bounced along the white powdery surface of Luna, earth's moon. Shepard leaned back in the basket that held the commander's seat of the vehicle, staring through the optic sights of the main gun and watching the haptic interface controls.

In front of him, Corporal Jenkins sat in the driver's seat while Lieutenant Alenko worked the engineering controls including the shield systems and auto-repair functions. Behind them were the two benches that lined the inside of the track, each with full safety harnesses for six humanoids and storage space for a couple hundred kilograms of supplies.

"Lieutenant, I have a question."

Shepard looked down at Jenkins who was glancing at the man in the seat beside him.

"Go ahead Jenkins." Alenko said.

"I know you're a biotic and a tech, but what good are you in terrain like this, don't you have to be pretty close to do anything with biotics?" Jenkins asked.

Kaiden shook his head and chuckled. "Well theoretically I just need line of sight, but getting the precise manipulation to hit anything at long range with a throw or slam is iffy, and you can only accurately throw tech mines so far."

"So you're basically screwed out in the open then?" Jenkins asked.

"Well, biotic barriers help." Kaiden shook his head.

"So, you're a decoy at ranges like this?" Jenkins suggested as the Mako bounced over a ridgeline.

"Decoy?" Shepard glanced down between the two and shook his head. "Jenkins, you want to know a dirty little military secret?"

The Corporal glanced back at his commander for a second looking confused before turning back to the controls. "Sure Commander."

"How Infantry Fight, American military study circa 1945." Shepard glanced back at his controls for a second then back down to his subordinates. "They found that roughly ninety-eight percent of infantrymen were incapable of taking aimed shots in a combat zone. Roughly two-percent of all combatants were responsible for ninety-eight percent of all casualties."

"What sir?" Jenkins said. He sounded confused and Kaiden was looking over his shoulder at their commander.

"To put it simply Jenkins, most people are incapable of killing another sapient, even if that creature isn't human. Combat studies after the First Contact War confirmed that. Basically, if you're not capable of making an aimed shot in a combat situation, you're a decoy for the two-percent who can."

Alenko frowned, slowly realization flashed in his eyes and he looked back at the commander. "Have you had to kill a man sir?"

"Yes, and I'd do it again." Shepard's voice had turned icy and cold and Jenkins involuntarily shivered. "I've read your file Alenko, I know you're capable of pulling a trigger."

"Yes sir." Alenko muttered quietly and glanced at Jenkins.

Jenkins looked as though he'd been frozen to the seat and stared straight ahead. "I, I had no idea sir."

"It's not classified or anything, just people don't want to know. Anyway, what do you think of this thing?" Shepard asked.

"It handles like a bloated whale, sir." Jenkins said.

Alenko tapped his display. "At least it's got damn strong shields and armor for a mere APC. We could probably go toe to toe with a Grizzly in this thing."

Shepard nodded, "Seems like a waste getting a barge like this for the Normandy with only three of us. Can't exactly assault a building and leave the damn thing empty."

"Sir, it's just the shakedown crew sir. I'm sure there'll be more of us once they give us actual missions." Jenkins said.

"That'll be up to Captain Anderson, but I'll be sure to recommend we get a full squad instead of just a three man recon team." Preferably, with N type training he thought as he set the turret in its idle position and yawned. "You did better at the range today Jenkins."

"Thank you sir."

"Take us back to the base so we can grab a shuttle ride home," Shepard said.

In the depths of space, an Alliance frigate lazily flew through the dust lying at the edge of one of the dozens of unclaimed solar systems in the Traverse, that section of space lying between the homeworlds and colonies of the Citadel races and the outer edges of civilization in the Terminus.

Stealth was all but impossible in space, thermal radiation from the drive systems, life support, even running lights all escaped unimpeded from the ship's hull marking it like a beacon. Only the ship now being readied for shake down lacked those problems.

"This is SSV Kursk to unknown vessels, please respond." Flight Officer Tanya Reynolds frowned at her display. "Sir, there's still no response from any of the three contacts."

"Mr. Cassidy, I hope you've got something with your spectral analysis on these contacts, the heat silhouette just keeps saying unknown." The Commander in charge of the ship said as she paced around the cockpit frowning.

"I can tell you the hull composition of the two smaller contacts, but the big one is still registering as unknown." Cassidy said. "And of those two contacts, the only thing we've got on record having the same composition is a couple entries about aging Quarian hulks."

"Their EM signature doesn't match anything those gypsies have though, we're getting lots of electronic chatter." Cassidy added quickly, tapping at the haptic interface nervously. "They have to be able to see us, why are they just ignoring us?"

Commander Misha Gregor scowled as she turned toward the helm. "If we hold course what's the closest they'll come?"

"Twenty thousand kilometers, that's well within visual range. You're hoping for an ID that way ma'am?" The helmsman asked.

"Anything that'll give us a clue," Gregor said.

"Visual range in twenty-seconds," Cassidy called from the sensor console. Behind him, Tanya Reynolds brought up the visual sensor feed going into his console.

Mish glanced at the displays. "Tanya, hook us into a comm-buoy and set up a live data-feed to Alliance Intelligence at Arcturus. Maybe they can make heads or tails of this."

"On it."

"Ten seconds to visual range." Cassidy said, watching the range counter on his console. He rubbed his hands together eagerly. "Let's see what you look like…" Then the image appeared showing three dots against a glowing purple nebula. "Visual contact."

Frowning he tapped the largest of the three objects on the display and watched as the image was magnified and enhanced. Slowly the sensor operator felt a chill roll down his back. The ship was dark, nearly flat black against the stars. It was shaped like a cuttlefish and the dull glowing operating lights he could see gave it a disconcerting red hue only augmented by the purple backdrop of the nebula.

"What the hell is that?" Cassidy asked.

Suddenly the lights flickered and died around them and a sound echoed in the ship, like the sound of something terrible being born. The emergency lighting flashed to life, illuminating all of them in a dull red glow.

The helmsman held up his hands uselessly. "All controls non-responsive, engines thrusting randomly, some kind of power surge?"

"Com-feed lost." Tanya yelled.

"Thermal and spectral sensors down, but optical feed is still online." Cassidy said. His eyes were locked on the ships as they approached. "Commander?"

"Set condition one throughout the ship, action stations!" Misha said.

Cassidy tapped the screen again bringing up magnified views of the two other ships. Each was a steely grey with a curved body that looked almost like squid. As he watched, six more contacts separated from one of the craft. "Six launches from the starboard contact. Size classed frigate or smaller."

The intercom crackled to life. "This is engineering, the mass effect core just off-lined itself, most of our controls here seem to be non-functional. I think we've been hacked."

"Hacked?" Commander Misha Gregor stood, dumbfounded. "Shit, that data-feed we had to Arcturus? They must have patched in that way," and now that the virus was aboard, everything was down. She looked to her left at the front boarding hatch. "All hands, prepare to repel boarders."

All around her the crew just stared at her for a moment before rushing to their lockers for gear, the counter boarding locker was pulled open revealing racks of M7 Lancer assault rifles, Storm shotguns, Kessler auto-pistols, and a couple sniper rifles. Section heads were organizing the crew into combat teams while some struggled with armor and combat gear.

Cassidy sat at his station watching the six ships approach, like a squadron of bullet squid. They'd be here within moments. "Two hundred kilometers now, they're slowing. What the hell are they?"

"In a couple minutes you can ask them." Misha checked the suit seals and pushed his chair. "Go and get your gear. I'll watch the scanner."

Cassidy ran toward his locker as Misha sat down and stared at the displays. The ranging instruments in the optical sensors still worked at least. "Fifty kilometers now and decelerating hard, no visible thrusters… what the hell is it?"

She checked her pistol and scowled. "Hell of a first contact scenario."

Tanya knelt beside her terminal staring at the display. "You can say that again." She glanced back at the display and felt her mouth gape. The large ship, the black ship, it was moving. Not like a ship, the tentacle like features that were visible was moving, opening and closing like… like it was alive. The sight alone sent shivers down her spine.

The whole ship shook and a clang resounded from above. A second later, more metallic clangs echoed across the main hull, like feet scampering outside the vessel. Then with a flash a circular piece of the ceiling ceased to exist and something huge and white dropped into the room. Buzzing filled the air along with an electronic stutter.

The thunder of a pulse rifle fire filled the air as the huge synthetic swung its rifle to bear on the crew firing immediately and incessantly. Cassidy's shields failed and a pair of rounds ripped through his leg dropping him to the floor as he rushed to help. One of the marines lifted her rifle only for her helmet and head to explode from a rocket fired from the monstrosity.

Tanya ran forward, sealing the cockpit behind her screaming, while Misha fired her pistol incessantly at the bulky robot. Each shot flashed against its kinetic barrier before steam hissed from the pistol's vents and a beeping signaled that it had overheated.

Misha stared as the synthetic slowly turned toward her, it had a single glowing optic for an eye which now stared at her, a pair of towering transmitters jutted upward over its shoulders and it's three fingered hands gripped an organic looking weapon. It towered over her; nearly four meters tall it and could only just fit within the room crouched. Around it, smaller versions dropped onto the deck, each around the size of the average humanoid.

The image of the three-fingered hands, single optic, synthetic creature bounced around her brain for a moment as the creature lifted its rifle toward her. Geth, she knew it, and she knew she was about to die.

Cassidy closed his eyes as a single shot rang out and dropped his commanding officer. After a moment, he felt synthetic hands grab him by the armpits and begin to drag him toward the breach in the hull. The intercom crackled to life. "Bridge, respond! Report!"

There was a thump of something heavy and metallic hitting the floor beside him and the Geth lifted him and set him upon it. He felt something cold and sharp at the small of his back as two of the geth held him in place. What are they doing? Why don't they just kill me? Then he felt something stab upwards through his chest and lift him bodily into the air, and then there was nothing but darkness.

Joker lounged in sickbay with a chocolate bar in one hand and a tray of food on his knee. "So doc, everything in here works? This part of the ship is done?"

"For the most part, they might run more wiring or conduits later, but the med and science bay systems all work." Chakwas leaned back in her chair and shook her head. "I think most of the work is being done in engineering now."

"Yeah, probably, they're still working out all the kinks in that drive core. That thing is massive and it spins! Why does it need to spin? Make for a great washing machine impeller."

Chakwas chuckled. "I don't know, maybe it's a washing machine impeller for space time. I may be a doctor but that doesn't mean I studied mass effect field theory in medical school."

"Yeah, I had too, of course." Joker said and shrugged. "Everything about this ship is so bleeding edge that just touching the controls might bring me back here."

"Really Jeff, I didn't know you enjoyed my company." Chakwas said.

"I don't, just your medi-gel."

The door to the mess hissed open and Kaiden walked in and nodded to Joker. "Broke something already?"

"I had to christen her you know." Joker said.

"I believe you're supposed to break the bottle when you do that, not your arm." Kaiden said, shaking his head slowly and smiling. He glanced at Doctor Chakwas, "I need a painkiller, and my spine examined. The Mako is a rough ride."

"So the Luna base actually lent you one then, who was driving?" Joker asked.

"Jenkins." Kaiden said flatly. He shook his head and sighed. "Think I cracked my spine when he ramped us off a cliff."

"Never let me ride with you guys." Joker said.