A/N: My deepest apologies for not updating this sooner. I honestly have no excuse, beyond the usual.
"You can't sweep this under the carpet, Councilor!"
The words could have been intended for any one of the three Councilors – himself not included – in the room, but Anderson meant them specifically for Valern, the Councilor from the Turian Hierarchy. The said turian just snorted – what served his race for a snort anyway.
"Sweep what up, Anderson? All you have are the reported movements of a geth dreadnaught operating outside the veil. A security concern, certainly, but nothing that would need to be hidden."
"You know as well as I do that that's not true" Anderson argued angrily. "It was a Reaper, just like Sovereign. It took fire from an entire battle group on its way out of a planetary gravity well, didn't even bother fighting back, and didn't have a scratch to show for it."
"The geth are capable of remarkable technological feats, Sovereign and this new warship are proof of that" the asari councilor, Tevos, said in a reasonable tone. "However, as you well know, there is no proof that the Reapers are, or ever were, anything but a fantasy."
"You know what evidence has been presented" Anderson said stiffly. "If Saren and Sovereign invading this Citadel and attempting to activate a mass relay haven't at least made you consider the possibility-"
"We have considered it, Anderson" Valern said scornfully. "And after due consideration, we have dismissed it."
"'Due consideration' being the time it took to discredit the man who saved all your lives" Anderson said, angry again.
"We appreciate the sacrifices Commander Shepard and the Alliance made on our behalf" the salarian counselor said. "Our own intelligence however, has never confirmed the existence of Shepard's 'Reapers.' Should we take the word of single man in a matter this important, even a Spectre?"
"If it's the right man, then yes" Anderson retorted. "Had Saren given you that report, wouldn't you have believed him?"
It was obvious that the discussion was going nowhere, and after a few more minutes argument, it was over. Shortly thereafter, he was sitting in his office again, going over reports he was sure Udina would be better suited to review. Unfortunately, the ambassador was 'otherwise engaged.'
His console beeped.
Annoyed, he checked the alert, then double checked it. His annoyance vanished at once. The communications request was from one of his operatives in the field, specifically, Operations Chief Ashley Williams. His attempts to contact her while the Reaper was on Horizon had gotten no response. Nor had she reported in before that very moment. Quickly, he approved the request. After several seconds, Williams' face appeared on his console, he couldn't see anything in the background.
"Operations Chief" he greeted her. "It's good to see you alive, we'd heard that Horizon was visited by a Reaper."
She winced. "It was, Sir." She hesitated. "Sir, something else happened. You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Told me what?"
Never before had Anderson seen the marine, usually confident and straightforward, looking so hesitant. It put him on guard.
"Sir," that hesitation again. "Sir, I'm not on Horizon."
Sudden suspicion crept into his mind. "Operations Chief, where are you?"
The order left no room for interpretation, and Williams answered automatically. "I'm on board the Reaper, Sir."
Well, she could have phrased that better.
Right, Shepard. How exactly do you phrase something like that better?
John watched Ashley trying to explain her situation to the Capt-Councilor, but he wasn't really listening. He knew how it had to go, Anderson couldn't afford to trust her, not when he knew about indoctrination. But she had to try, anyway. Instead, he watched Ash, studying her features, committing them to memory.
She had changed since the last time he saw her, almost imperceptibly, but the changes were there. Even though two years wasn't a whole lot of time for a body to age, she still appeared older. Was it her bearing, her tone of voice? Hell, any change he attributed to her was probably because he had been altered drastically. Probably because she was in an unimaginably stressful position.
Ash tried to keep a calm, confident note in her voice, but the strain was showing clear through. Anderson may want to believe her, but could never afford to. Still, it was probably better to get it out in the open. Well, some of it.
"Operations Chief, do you honestly want me to believe that this Reaper is really on our side?" Anderson demanded. Ashley winced at his tone.
"I – I don't know, Sir. I know I could be indoctrinated, but I've seen the way he's acted, and how he's spoken to me. I think he's genuine."
"He?" Anderson asked sharply. "Machines don't have genders, Williams."
"Sir, that's how he's presented himself to me. It seems as though a Reaper's central processing unit is actually the consciousness of an organic being, incorporated into the Reaper shell itself." She left out that she knew exactly who that consciousness was.
Anderson frowned. "You mean that Reapers were once living beings?"
"Something like that, Sir. That's why this Reaper opposes the others. Sir, did it attack any of the warships sent to Horizon?" Anderson didn't answer, but his expression conveyed the whole story. "The Reaper took fire from the Horizon defenses, and from the Alliance reinforcements, but didn't return fire. And… it's said some things that make me think it's telling the truth."
"Anything you say is suspect, Williams" Anderson said. "You have to know that."
"I know, Sir" Ashley said. "I and know I can't ask you to just let the Reaper wander around freely. But I believe he'll prove himself, eventually."
Anderson regarded her through the display with a frown. Eventually, he spoke. "I hope for your sake that you're right, Operations Chief. Is there anything else?"
There was a lot more 'else,' but nothing Ashley could put into words, and nothing that Anderson could afford to believe. So she shook her head. "No sir."
Anderson seemed to be considering her carefully. Then he nodded. "Good luck, Williams. I hope to see you again soon" the subtle emphasis he put on 'you' made it clear that he didn't hope to see a Reaper speaking through her. And with that, he closed the connection.
Realizing that she had been leaning forward the whole time, Ashley stood back at attention, and turned to Shepard. He was regarding her with an inscrutable look on his face. "Well?" she demanded. "What now?"
"Still trying to figure that out" he said, looking away, his face a study in concentration. "I've got a lot of info stored in my data core, but I'm still trying to figure out how to access all of it. Not even sure what's in there."
Ashley scowled, annoyed. "And how does that help us?"
"It doesn't. But when I do figure it out, hopefully I can find something we can use to stop the Reapers."
"And in the meantime?"
"We're going to go shopping."
Ashley blinked, not sure she had heard him correctly. "I don't suppose you're speaking metaphorically?"
"Not in the least. Well, maybe a little."
That, at least, was what Shepard would have said about the place. Tali was unaware what, exactly, it was supposed to be 'sucking' though. Perhaps that was the point.
It wasn't just the deleterious radiation Haestrom's sun emitted, though that was a major factor. Nor was it the fact that the ghosts of every quarian who had ever lived in the place seemed to be hounding her, personally. It was the geth.
Geth in every variety, geth in every conceivable size, geth with a diverse – and lethal – assortment of weapons. Most importantly, geth in great numbers. They had already killed half her team, and the extermination of the rest of the quarian presence on Haestrom seemed bleakly certain.
Cursing softly under her breath, she tapped commands into her omni-tool as quickly as her fingers would allow. A stream of geth pulse rounds flashed through the open door and slammed into the stone wall behind her. The two marines still with her, Myr'Jorin and Tir'Hatal, fired back. She heard a wet impact, and one of the two yelped.
"Bosh'tets" she hissed, and sent one final command. The door slammed shut.
"Ma'am!" shouted Tir'Hatal. With the immediate threat delayed, the marine had bolted out of cover to tend to his downed comrade. Tali rushed to his side. Myr was lying on his back, blood coating his side. Biting back another curse, Tali helped administer first aid. It wouldn't be enough, she knew. Without better equipment – such as would be found on their ship – Myr'Jorin was doomed.
Tali let out a near-silent sob. It wouldn't matter anyway, the geth would kill them first.
"I'll tend to him, Ma'am" Tir said. Through their visors, they locked eyes. Wordless understanding passed, and Tali rose, shotgun ready. There was one other exit to the room they were entrenched in, leading back to the observatory. That area would shortly be crawling with geth, if it wasn't already. Still, the observatory was reinforced, and would make a better defensive location. A better spot to make a final stand.
It wouldn't be final if Shepard was here.
She shoved the thought aside. Shepard wasn't here, hadn't been for the last two years. She wouldn't be getting any more help from him. She would have to do this herself.
She turned to Tir. "Can we move him?"
"If we have to," he replied over Myr's low moans. "Where are we going?"
She made up her mind. "The observatory, we'll stand a better chance there." She clicked on her radio. "Kal? Kal'Reegar, can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear, Ma'am. We're holed up near the storehouse, geth are everywhere." He was calm and professional, even as she heard explosions and rifle shots ringing in the background.
"I'm here with Tir'Hatal and Myr'Jorin. Myr is wounded, but we're going to try to make a break for the observatory."
"Roger that, Ma'am. We'll try to meet you there." She heard him yell an order to one of his men. For a few more moments, she heard a flurry of fire, a few more explosions and yells. Then silence.
"Still here Ma'am, the geth are pulling back."
'Pulling back,' as it turned out, meant pulling out, seemingly entirely. All the mobile geth platforms evacuated combat areas, boarded their ship, and left without explanation. Fearing a trap, but realizing that they had very little choice, the seven surviving members of Tali's team made a break for their ship. It was still intact. Getting Myr ensconced in a bunk, hooked up to the best medical equipment the flotilla had to offer, they took off as soon as they were able.
Tali watched Haestrom grow steadily smaller, then turned to Kal. "Why did they let us go?"
"I don't know, Ma'am. Maybe some higher priority mission came up, and they had to leave in a hurry."
"Without bothering to finish us first? I don't get it."
"Neither do I, Ma'am. I'm just glad we're alive."
So was she. But one corner of her mind asked her what kind of priority the geth had that would entice them to down an opportunity to butcher more of her people. She had a feeling she wouldn't like it, if she ever found out.
Last chapter, I said that I wouldn't have a chance to write more for another week. This was a very long week.
I have a really long list of excuses for why I didn't write more, but the bottom line is that I have a short attention span, and a great number of distractions (Skyrim.) The only reason why I haven't abandoned this project entirely is that I don't like it when fics I read get dumped. And I don't like being a hypocrite.
Also, I'm writing this late at night. Please direct any flame mails to the sun, who is discourteous enough to only light up the planet half the time. Or to the comment box, whichever is easi – ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL.