Just a reminder that, for the purposes of this story, only ME 1+2 are canon- the DLC, comics, and other extended universe stuff is considered non-canon until it is introduced (for example, Shadow Broker will be incorporated, Arrival will not be). There are a few reasons for this. One, I feel that much of the ME extended fiction is completely rubbish. That comic with the Illusive Man, for instance, completely retcons whole swaths of the backstory in an unnecessary and, in my opinion, rather stupid way, and Arrival just introduces a whole mess of plotholes that I don't want to have to patch up for the ME writing team. Also, anything from the recent ME3 leak is non-canon until I say otherwise. We're gonna be going way off the canon rails in a few chapters anyway.

Same deal for Halo: mainline games are canon, expanded fiction is pick-and-choose. If you are a canon purist who gets annoyed at deviations from canon, you... might want to leave now. Sorry, although considering the premise, I suppose it shouldn't be too much of a surprise. I'm not going to do anything too ridiculous, but I don't like stories that rigorously shackle themselves to canon to the detriment of what the author is trying to do. Plus, my intended plot won't really work if I keep all the canon elements, especially Cryptum. Fall of Reach, however, is canon, and overrides the game in certain ways. One example is that the PoA was already in orbit, like in the book, and Noble Six just delivered the Cortana fragment to a shuttle going up to the ship. Another example is that the Long Night of Solace was in orbit above the planet before the arrival of the rest of the Fleet of Particular Justice and was destroyed by Jorge with the slipspace bomb like in the game, but it never landed on the surface, as I felt that that broke previously established canon for the Covenant military capabilities a little too much- a ship several miles longer than Manhattan, capable of cloaking so good it can sneak onto humanity's second most important and well defended planet with no one noticing long enough to set up jammers and a massive invasion force? Riiight. You wouldn't be able to pull that off on modern day Earth. Something that massive would cause its own weather patterns, and...alright, I'm probably overthinking this, but it still makes no damn sense.

Also, big round of applause to my betas, Evil Chocolate of Doom and jarhead762.

That was a long Author's Note, huh? Now, on with the show.

No matter how long one trained, no matter how many missions one completed, no matter how much experience you had with the sort, inserting onto a deserted, soundless ship was always an eerie, unnerving experience.

Especially with experience, Shepard thought as his boots touched silently to the metal floor of the Dawn's hanger, the slight vibration up his suit and the sticking sensation of his magnetic boots the only indication of touchdown. Wordlessly, he gestured how he wanted his team to spread. Smoothly, they slid into position- with the exception of Jack, who made a beeline for the nearest wall. Shepard allowed it. Jack had been a violent criminal before Shepard had convinced her (begrudgingly on both sides) to join the Normandy's crew, not a trained soldier, and her lack of formal training frequently made itself known on the battlefield. She would obsessively stick to the comforting presence of walls and barriers when out of combat, as if she was trying to hide from pursuers, and would then explode-often literally-into action once contact was made, a maelstrom of bullets and whirling blue energy, never stopping or slowing until those who stood against her were reduced to well-trained bloody smears and military-grade scrap metal.

Being perhaps the most powerful human biotic in the galaxy with an explosively hair-trigger temper and a deep (and to the opinion of most everyone except Miranda and a few other hard-line Cerberus crew members, justified) hatred of the builder of the ship she currently resided on, Shepard did not press the issue. Jack always fought well and, despite a brief argument with Miranda that had come to biotic-powered blows that Shepard had barely managed to defuse and Samara's constant reminders that she would kill Jack for her crimes as soon as Shepard released her from his service, had mostly kept to herself, only occasionally surfacing from her rathole in Engineering for enough food so she wouldn't have to emerge for another week or to swap stories with Zaeed. Per usual, the rest of the team, who did have extensive military training, mostly ignored her, only paying enough mind to be aware of her position and not be in the way should she decide to fire a biotic shockwave.

Not that that was a particular worry at the present. The hanger was almost entirely empty. Only a few crates that had been strapped to the deck, bulky, stub-winged aircraft secured in their holds above their heads, a few support pillars, and a single access station, looking rather out of place by itself in the middle of the floor, occupied the cavernous space. This did not ease Shepard's mind. Nearly all of his missions lately featured an ambush or four, and he rather doubted that this one would be any different.

He approached the access station, and mentally punched himself for not bringing Tali, who was the most skilled hacker on the team besides EDI. He was about to call Joker to request the AI's assistance when a light exploded out of the access panel and quickly formed into a blue form of a young woman. Had he not been magnetically stuck to the floor and his suit secured into his boots, he very well might have jumped out of them.

"Hello. My name is Cortana," a female voice said over his comm., "I'm glad to see my message was received."

Mordin, who had bolted over as soon as the lightshow began, immediately began talking before Shepard could say a word.

"Holographic technology appears to be on par with high-end Council devices. AI itself shows remarkably lifelike speech and simulated body language of human female, age 25-35, far beyond all but special-purpose research constructs. Very realistic facial anim-" Mordin cut off suddenly on realizing that Shepard, Jacob, and the AI were all staring at him in various states of exasperation or bemusement. He blinked once behind his helmet. "Ah, apologies. Was recording notes for study."

"No, no, I don't mind at all. Actually, while we are getting to know each other, can I ask you a few questions?" At a nod, the AI began shooting rapid-fire questions at the professor, so fast that even he couldn't get a word in. "What is your species? I don't know of anything quite like you, and I've seen a lot. What kind of technology do you have there on your arm? What's your relationship with humanity? You seem to be the only one of your kind here. Do you have a central spinal cord and endoskeleton, or do you use hydrostatic fluid support system?"

That last one struck Shepard as rather a non sequitor, but the thought was quickly buried under his growing irritation. He coughed pointedly. Both Mordin and the AI turned towards him.

"We'll have time for introductions later. Are there any human survivors on board? You said that there were two survivors in your distress beacon."

"Yes and no. They aren't actually human. I'm assuming that, since you didn't recognize those names and you are accompanied by an alien species I don't recognize that you are unfamiliar with the UNSC or Covenant." The smile that the AI then gave was friendly and open. "Congratulations. You are speaking to the first intelligence from another reality."

Jack's voice crackled over the comm. "Yeah, can we get this over with and break out the party hats when we get back on our ship? I'm not likin' the feeling this place is givin' me."

The little blue woman shrugged. "Sure. We can leave in a little bit; the Sangheili should be here in a few seconds. They should be just on the other side of those doors." She pointed to a set of heavy looking blast doors on the far back wall, near Jack. As if on cue, they began to slide apart.

Before they were halfway open, two huge figures- one black, one gold- rocketed into the room. Jack barked in alarm and nearly fired off a shockwave out of reflex as they flew past her. They made a beeline for the access panel. Shepard raised his rifle to point at the gold colored alien, simultaneously readying his biotics to supplement his suit's shield with a barrier of his own. As they approached, they began to slow, and landed with surprising grace five meters from Shepard and the access panel. Now that they were stationary, Shepard could see that both were about two and a half meters tall and one wide. The one in black armor was carrying what looked like a hardcase made out of an iridescent purple and green metal as long as Shepard was tall. Their legs resembled a turian's, only much larger and more bent. They appeared to have two knees. One bent backwards like a human, the other forwards like an ostrich. Their heads were encased in different helmets. The one in black wore a sleek helmet that tapered into two points, one on top of the other, at the front, with two slit-like reflective patches that Shepard assumed where eyepieces. The gold one had a helmet with a wide blue front. After a moment, Shepard realized that it was actually a translucent visor, and he could see a smooth-skinned reptilian head behind the material. He could see what looked like sharp, needle-like teeth at the bottom of the helmet, but he couldn't make sense of the jaw area.

This gold one took another step towards Shepard, waving one hand. In this four-digit hand, the alien held some kind of metallic device. but Shepard didn't recognize it at all. He pointed his gun at this one's helmet.

"That's close enough. If that's a weapon, put it away if you want to keep your brains inside your head."

After a moment where Shepard could practically feel the glare this unknown entity was surely giving him, it nodded and clipped the device onto its belt. Shepard was mildly surprised. "You understand English?" Of course they do, his mind instantly supplied, they're on a human ship and were identified as friendly. "I'm going to broadcast a handshake frequency."

After a moment, and completely without warning, the creature pointed at Cortana and began bellowing something into its communicator. His suit's radio quickly compensated for the volume, but not before Shepard had to suppress the instinct to rip off his helmet to escape the ear-splitting noise.

"Hey! HEY! Stop yelling so damn loud, I can't understand you anyway!"

It stopped suddenly. Both of the aliens stared at Shepard in what was unmistakably confusion.

"They don't understand you. They don't have the translation software," Cortana explained to the two aliens. To Shepard, she said, "Before we leave, the reactor needs to be set to self-destruct; this can only be done from inside it. Where you need to-"

With another bellow, the gold alien yelled at the construct. It then turned to its black-clad companion. Although Shepard couldn't hear what was said over the private connection- not that he'd be able to understand it if it wasn't- what was relayed was clearly an order, as the black armored alien nodded, and moved between Shepard and the door.

Jacob spoke up then for the first time. "Alright, what is going on here?"

Cortana turned to speak to Jacob, but suddenly fizzled out like a candle. After a split second, she returned, with a look of surprise and rage. "How-?" Both her voice-which had suddenly deepened several octaves-and image froze mid word.

"Well, that was a pretty clever trick, trying to fool them into releasing you by using my copy you dismantled," said Cortana. "It's a good thing then that you forgot that that wasn't the real me. Even better that you didn't find the backdoor access I snuck into those copies, just in case you really were this predictable. For something that's supposed to have the combined intelligence of trillions, you have a remarkable tendency for being out-smarted by 'lesser' beings. "

The holographic woman, still frozen like a picture, shrunk in size slightly, and moved to the edge of the projector. Another woman, identical to the first, appeared next to the first Cortana in the emitter. She turned to Shepard, who was sharing a look of bafflement with his crew- and the aliens.

"Alright, the really short version is that that-" she gestured at her immobile twin- " is a copy of me that was stolen by an organism that is the leader of a species called the Flood that can take control of other species and use them as hosts, and it just tried to use you to free it. Now, how about we see what it really looks like." The woman snapped her fingers.

Instantly, her counterpart began to change. Her color changed from a slightly violet blue to a sickly greenish-brown, like a corpse that had been rotting for some time. Her legs merged into one and grew out, the split into a dozen tentacles. Several dozen more erupted from her back as she hunched forward. Her arms shortened and were absorbed into her mutating torso as her hands split between the fingers, themselves elongating into fleshy tentacles which wrapped around her form. Her head began to stretch downwards, like taffy that someone had grabbed one end of. Her features melted into nothingness, hair retreating into her scalp as the skull seemed to melt away beneath the surface. What was left of the head split into fourths like a rotten orange splitting into segments, a wave of holographic blood and ichor spilling out and disappearing into nothingness once it reached the edge of the projector's reach. Finally, what was left was nothing like a human, but a mass of tentacles and bone and rotting flesh.

"This," Cortana said grimly, "Is the Gravemind. It's on this ship right now, and we need to get off." She turned to the gold Elite. "There's a data crystal chip about half way up the holotank. You should be able to see it glowing. Grab it and let's get out of here."

The gold alien nodded, stepped politely around Shepard (who was still starting at the…thing the other AI had become) and reached for the designated place. Just as its gloved fingertips brushed the tank, the floor suddenly lurched sideways. Shepard, his crew, and the aliens lurched to the side as inertia tried to literally rip them off their magnetically clamped feet.

"What the hell was that?" Shepard asked, snapping back to reality. Another shock hit, stronger this time, and wrenched them the other way. His armor's sensors squawked in alarm at the torsion.

"Oh, bugger, I think I pissed it off a little too much, it's breaking free! That was the reactor's blast doors being torn apart!" Her voice and eyes were now wild with fear. The contrast between the cool confidence just a second ago was striking, and Shepard's heart began to pound with adrenaline. The floor began to vibrate slightly, but it was quickly growing in intensity. "Now would be a very, very good time to leave!" The gold alien strode forward, and this time, in succeeded in pulling something roughly the size and shape of a deck of cards from the terminal. The hologram of the true Cortana winked away, but the frozen monster remained on the holotank. In the center of the chip, a circle of light the same color as the AI's hologram pulsed softly.

"Everyone, back to the shuttle now, before it starts coming up through the floor!" Shepard yelled,
"We are not sticking around to find out what else that thing can do!"

"I don't think we have a choice!" Jacob yelled, even as he fired a burst from his M-96 rifle down the hall that the two aliens had just come from. Simultaneously, the two aliens had drawn their own weapons from holsters on their backs: long, narrow, dark blue, with pink spines arraigned neatly in the center, and were rapidly firing down that hallway. The bolts had a bright tracer the same color as the spines.

Coming towards them at an impossibly fast rate were the same sort of tentacles he had seen in the hologram. They writhed and flowed like water invading a drowning ship, a wall of flesh charging towards them. Shepard could see that the rounds were having no effect at all on the mass, the rips in flesh from the combined fire from Shepard's squad and the alien's strange rifles instantly folding into itself and disappearing into the mass. Even Mordin's Neural Shock blasts, which at full power could instantly incapacitate a half-ton krogan, did nearly nothing; Shepard saw the tech attack strike a tentacle, which simply twitched and then continued like nothing had impacted at all. Scant seconds later, the tentacles reached the end of the hall and exploded into the hanger. One raced towards the aliens with clear intent. The gold one pulled out the device it had approached Shepard with earlier. In a flash of light, a white, glowing sword with twin blades appeared where there had been nothing. Shouting in challenge, the alien brought the weapon down on the tentacle that had been about to reach it. It sliced cleanly through, the wound instantly cauterized by the intense heat of the blade. The portion in front of the cut continued forward in the zero gravity and out the open hangar bay, unable to halt its momentum now that it was severed from the whole. The back, seeking easier prey, turned away from the two large aliens (the black warrior was now sporting two smaller blades which spouted from the back of the wrists and had braced itself in a defensive posture) and towards Shepard.

Instinctively, Shepard put his hands forward, and pushed with all his might to form a biotic shield against this and the rest of the mass. The cut tentacle crashed first, followed by the rest of the multitude of limbs into the wall of biotic power, which shimmered dangerously. Shepard staggered back from the effort needed to hold this shield. The arms of the Gravemind paused for just a moment in surprise, then resumed pushing. This was just long enough for Jacob, Samara, and Jack to realize what Shepard was doing, and put their own power into the biotic barrier. Jacob, although above average for a human biotic, was weaker than Shepard; Samara and Jack were both a good deal more powerful- the barrier, which had been about to shatter with just the Commander holding it, snapped into place with a crack of displaced air.

"Everyone who's not supporting this wall, get onto the shuttle now!" Mordin and the aliens, despite the latter's obvious surprise at this latest event, quickly retreated to the waiting shuttle. The Biotics began to walk backwards to the shuttle as well, still holding the barrier. Despite the pounding of the arms against the shield, the wall held. First Shepard, then Jacob, then Samara were all standing by the shuttle, their arms shaking from the strain of holding back dozens of tons of malevolent terror.

Jack, who had separated from the others when they had entered the hangar, was still fifteen meters away. She was beginning to buckle under the strain and was having difficulty moving and holding up her arms at the same time. Shepard and Jacob had already gone to their knees to focus; Samara was still standing, but was beginning to hunch over slightly.

Shepard keyed the pilot. "Take off half a meter. As soon as she's in range, I'm going to pull her in. Samara and Jacob, you need to hold the shield just long enough so we can get away."

Even through his visor, Shepard could see beads of sweat so closely spaced on Jacob's forehead that they were nearly a solid layer. "Just …a few more…" he ground out, his arm held out unnaturally stiff in front of him. Although Jacob was by far the physically fittest human on the ship, the human body was not made to cope with the kind of stress of creating mass effect fields within it, and his was crumbling under the strain. He had locked his armor to keep his arm raised; he would have collapsed already without it. For just an instant, his biotic power bucked under the stress, and quickly snapped back to full force.

It was a small wavering, but it was enough. One tentacle surged forward through the hole, and cut straight to Jack. She had no time to react as it enveloped her and cut her off from view. The tentacles that had enveloped her spasmed and great arcs of biotic charge burst through the gaps. As they watched from the shuttle, the necrotic flesh began to melt and boil under the point-blank power of Jack's desperate defense. There was a silent explosion, and bits of bubbling flesh flew about. For an instant, Shepard could see Jack standing, arms outstretched, wreathed in electrical flames. But her temporary reprieve did not last long. The full attention of the monster that had hidden of the Dawn was now on this slight human that had resisted its efforts so well. A dozen tentacles reared up like a herd of monstrous horses, then crashed down on Jack's position. Instantly, Jack's face on Shepard's hud winked grey, then solid black, indicating total loss of lifesigns. The barrier, divorced from Jack, began to bow under the combined force of the rest of the tentacles.

"Shit!"Shepard yelled. The pilot, seeing that the shield was about to fail, accelerated rapidly away from the hangar. Shepard and Jacob were nearly thrown from the still-open door of the shuttle, when they were grabbed from behind by massive hands. Looking up, Shepard saw the black helmet of the subordinate alien looking down at them, and back out to the receding spot on the deck where Jack had been. It looked back at Shepard, and shook its head grimly. Outside, the many limbs reached out for the shuttle, but it was already well clear of the ship. The turned back, spreading over the surface of the ship.

"Shit," Shepard said again. He was used to casualties; one could not be an officer in a military force without being prepared for them. Men died under your command all the time, it was a simple fact of warfare. But that didn't make it easy. Especially when you could have saved them.

"I'm sorry, Commander," Taylor said weakly from the floor.

"It's not your fault, Jacob," Shepard said wearily. "You did everything you could."

He grimaced behind his mask. "It just wasn't good enough."

Samara turned her lidded, unblinking gaze to Jacob. Her voice, although reserved, was slightly softer than her normal distant coldness. "The criminal's death is not to be laid on your head. The Goddesses have decided to mete her punishment now. Nothing that we could have done would have stopped it. She has paid for her crimes, and she will rest in peace. I will meditate and pray for her when we return."

Shepard could see the aliens tense, but as they would not be understood, they said nothing.

Shepard turned to look at the aliens. The black one was looking about the shuttle, as well as at Mordin and Samara, with a curious tilt of the head Shepard found oddly dog-like. The one with the visor, however, was staring intently at Shepard. He had a distinct feeling that his soul was being weighed by the cat's-pupil eyes he could just make out behind the visor. After several more seconds, the alien snorted and turned its attention to Mordin.

"Glad I pass muster," Shepard muttered to himself. To his surprise, the alien glanced back at him sidelong, then joined its companion in inspecting a medi-gel dispenser on the wall. Shepard hadn't realized his comm was still open.

"Which one of you is the 'Arbiter?'" Shepard asked, mentally cursing his mistake. The one with the golden helmet turned its head to him (Shepard noticed for the first time just how long their necks were) nodded in confirmation. "Do you have a name, or just a title?"

The alien paused for a fraction of a second, and shook his head in the negative.

Shepard turned to his companion. "So that makes you… N'thro?"

"N'tho," the black-armored alien corrected. He then began to say something else, but the Arbiter waved him off dismissively.

Shepard gestured to the glowing chip in the Arbiter's hand. "Once we get back to the ship. I'll have EDI take a look at that. If your AI was so keen on making sure that this…Gravemind didn't get that chip, it has to be important."

The two aliens tilted their heads at Shepard, puzzled for what reason Shepard couldn't fathom, but then the Arbiter nodded. However, he made no move to offer it to the Commander. Shepard didn't mind; the other ship's AI had entrusted it to him, and he wasn't going to start a needless confrontation.

Shepard's comm chimed. It was the backup shuttle, carrying Grunt and Zaeed. "Go ahead," he said to the pilot.

"Commander, we have docked safely on the Normandy."

"Good. We have two survivors of an unknown alien species, transporting unknown cargo. Jack is KIA, body unrecoverable."

"Understood. Mendoza out."

Shepard then called the forward battery. "Garrus, prep the Thanix and a dozen torpedoes. Aim for the engines. We arenot leaving this thing alive. I also want the Charybdis mine prepped for drop, authorization code SH-1234r-8y. Be ready to fire on my command."

Garrus confirmed the order and closed the link. The shuttle was now entering the Normandy's hanger. "Come with me," Shepard said to the aliens, and strode out onto the Normandy's hanger as soon as his head could clear the door. By the time the two aliens had managed to bend over to escape from the too-small shuttle, Shepard was halfway to the elevator. They recovered the distance in a few strides, ignoring the stares of the crew assembled around the deck, as well as the low growl coming from a large, bulky, obviously non-human figure standing with a heavily scarred human male by a shuttle identical to the one they had just left. As soon as they entered the elevator, Shepard pressed a holographic button on the elevator, then opened his omni-tool to link with the Captain's command station. Once done, he deactivated the holographic orange glove and let his arm fall to his side. He then noticed the two taller aliens staring at his arm questioningly.

"You'll get your own once we get out of this," Shepard said absently. The two aliens nodded crisply and began to quietly discuss something amongst themselves in their own language. N'tho was gesturing at glowing data crystal in the Arbiter's hand, while the other spoke occasionally. Once they reached the command deck, Shepard walked up to his Captain's station. He was about to give the order to open fire on the not-so-abandoned ship when Yeoman Chambers spoke up at her station besides him.

"Commander, we are being hailed by the Forward Unto Dawn, marked "Urgent." Shall I allow it?"

So it managed to fix the communication systems. The AI must have disabled them when it realized it was onboard. But why didn't it stop the distress beacon? "Let it though," he said aloud, "But only after EDI has scrubbed it."

Kelly nodded, and relayed the order to the communications officer. After a moment, the hologram in the center of the room switched from its default of a real-time image of the ship and its status to a video feed from the not-so-derelict.

At first, Shepard could make nothing out besides the timestamp and camera location at the bottom of the screen, identifying the source as "ReactorSec_Walkways_3." Slowly, as his eyes searched for details, be began to make out vague shapes and organic lines intersecting with metal and harsh right angles. He could make out a few catwalks unfurling offscreen like strands of a spider web. Suddenly a large circle of the opposite wall and floor was illuminated as a floodlight next to the camera switched on. Inside the light, Shepard could see some sort of greenish-brown mass had been spread over the walls. It appeared to be the same kind of materials as the tentacles from earlier. He realized nauseously that it was moving, slowly pulsating. There was a sound of movement from off camera, something like the sucking noise of water pulled through a drain and the rustling of dead, wet leaves.

"Unwitting prophet who lives a second time; specter who wears a crown of burrs and wields an elusive blade," rumbled a voice over the connection. It was deep, impossibly so, and it echoed within itself like a cave. It was a voice of endless power and knowledge and age. Even separated by a hundred miles, chills ran up his spine, as well as a feeling of déjà vu. "I stand before you with offerings of unity. You face a threat that I can bring low, divisions that I can mend. Join your voice with mine, and sing a chorus everlasting."

Unconsciously, a wave of blue biotic energy pulsed down his right arm. "I don't give a shit about that or whatever you want to call me. Where's Jack?" The giant aliens that he had brought aboard suddenly stiffened. He turned towards them. The gold one, still holding that strange glowing chip between two fingers each nearly the length of Shepard's forearm, slowly shook its head. Suddenly, Shepard realized that Jack's face on his HUD had returned to full color, but with the words "ERROR: UNKNOWN LIFE SIGN ANOMALY" flashing in red over her head. Shepard hadn't even noticed when it had appeared. The thing on the connection began to speak, and he turned his head back to the screen.

"We exist together now." There was another wet rustling noise, and the top of a tentacle came into view. A few meters of its length ran up the middle of the screen, then began to slow. "Two corpses…"Shepard's face, formerly flushed with anger and confusion, drained of color like water upended from a glass. Yeoman Chambers gasped and grasped for her console. Several of the bridge crew, who had turned in their seats to watch, men and women who had seen years, sometimes decades of combat with mercenaries and batarians, had witnessed the husks created by the Reapers and geth under their control, rapidly turned away, holding back vomit . Someone screamed. Shepard couldn't tell who it was or what direction it came from, so focused was he on what he now saw. "…In one grave."

Affixed to the tentacle was Jack. She appeared partially submerged in it like liquid. Her right arm and both her legs were below the surface, which, a detached part of Shepard's mind noted, seemed to flow into her, as if she had always existed this way. Her skin still had a human look, but was already acquiring a green hue beneath the tattoo. Her head and left arm hung limply at her side. The skin on her arm was shredded, and with the same soldier's detachment, Shepard noted that the limb looked much longer than he remembered it. Pustules were forming all over her body, but especially on her arm and closest to the edges where her body ended and the tentacle began. Shepard could actually see some of them growing.

"Jesus Christ…" Shepard heard himself say. Jack's head twitched to the side. She moaned softly.

One of the bridge crew yelled out, in alarm and horror, "She's alive!"

Groggily, Jack's head came up to look at the camera. Despite the slowness of her movements, her eyes were focused and alert. The space around her irises was a dark red, like a blood vessel had broken, but was completely uniform in the sclera. She turned her head to look at where the crewman was standing, frozen by the door to Jacob's amory.

"Of course I'm alive, you fuckin' idiot. How else could I be talkin' to you?"

Shepard spoke up with slight hesitation as he fought down his nausea. Shepard was no stranger to this sort of thing; the Reaper's Indoctrination, the thralls of the Thorian, and the Husks worst of all. After seeing Saren's skin burn off to reveal a metal skeleton, human bodies slowly turned to metal by gigantic metal spears, and the general violence and gore of over a decade of military service, he thought that there was nothing that could disturb him anymore. But he'd seen nothing quite like this, a person turned into a monster…and still talk like she was sitting on her cot in the bowels of the ship. He could feel the beads of sweat that had instantly evaporated when he had first seen her over the connection beginning to reform on his forehead. "Jack? How do you feel? Can you move? What happened to you? Can you get away?"

Jack looked at Shepard like he was insane. "What the fuck kind of questions are those? I'm fine." A large blister formed above her eyebrow, wriggling like a worm beneath the skin. It lazily crossed over her forehead to behind her left ear, where it formed a large blister. As the pustule grew, the skin turned blackish-green, until it sank back to its normal dimensions. The color remained. "Is this one of your fuckin' therapy sessions, cause last I checked-" she waved a too-long, blistered arm in front of her. A few bits of ragged flesh, still red but already turning sickly brown, sloughed off. "- there isn't usually an audience." She turned to look at the two massive aliens besides Shepard, who had been the only ones to not react noticeably when Jack had appeared on screen. "So you got the Arbiter on board, eh? Good luck with that. He's royalty to those split-lips. Practically a living god to them, and he's done nothing but fuck up ever since Reach! Fucking rich." She affected a thoughtful look, which made her resemble a cat staring at a caged bird. "Oohhhh, Grunt's gonna get his panties in a twist now that he's not the biggest lizard around!"

Confusion now mingled with horror in Shepard's expression. The Jack-tentacle pulled back slightly from the camera, still staring challengingly at the two massive aliens.

"I have her now. She has shared herself, and been justly rewarded. She exists with me, and shall never be troubled again by the demons that haunt her soul. I can heal wounds that time will not touch in an instant. She will not be constrained by the frailties and limits of her body. The peace that has eluded her for so long will soon be easily caught, and her many gifts will not be wasted."

On the screen, Jack slumped slightly. Her skin was almost the same color as the limb that surrounded her now. She sunk another few inches into the putrid flesh.

Shepard opened his mouth to speak, but the Arbiter suddenly stepped in front of him, sharply leaning forward at the hologram and gripping the railing that barely reached his backwards knees. The metal creaked and bent like a green twig. He began to speak very rapidly and loudly in what Shepard assumed was the same language that it had spoken on the ship. After maybe fifteen seconds of this, he was cut off by loud, booming laughter, echoed eerily by Jack's much higher laugh. The alien took a step back to his former position, fists clenched tightly at his side. When the voice spoke again, Jack spoke with it.

"You call me "Parasite," and yet your kind leeched off the creations of my enemy, hung on the words of another that used you to be discarded like broken chattel. The subjects your worship are the executioners of a hundred civilizations, including their own, to halt the progress of the natural path. You followed in the footsteps they left in ash to burn the true heirs to their rusted crown. Nothing, nothing but destruction and purging flame! You end life; I am the ascension of it. I guide my flock from stagnation always reached; you are the wolves that bite at their heels and tear at their wool, savor the taste of iron on your ravishing tongues, and admire their blood on your brother's teeth."

Jack's eyes, rheumy and slightly clouded with milky cataracts speckled with red and brown, turned to Shepard. It dawned on him that this was the Gravemind was staring at him through her eyes. Again, it spoke, both in it's own ancient voice and with Jack's.

"The being that stands beside you now has the blood of billions staining his soul. Thousands he has personally slain to gain the privilege of leading the slaughter. I have ended life, but I return it to those I kill as surely as you have been granted second breath." Jack's hand, now fully putrefied and with tendrills beginning to sprout from the wrist, gestured to the Asari standing behind Shepard at the elevator door. "Allow the Justicar to end their lives, cast them into the void so they may pay for their crimes."

Shepard looked over at the aliens standing besides him, staring defiantly at the Jack-Gravemind. He then looked around at his bridge crew, Mordin, and Samara, who's face had fallen into an expressionless mask. He slowly turned back to look at the monster on the holoscreen. "You want to know something? Even if that's true, I don't really care at the moment. You are going to die, right now. Fire the Thanix and all torpedoes."

Shepard felt the slight thnks of the torpedoes firing, as well as the very slight vibration of the Thanix under his feet. Besides the still-open vid feed, a hologram projection of the Normandy and the Dawn, represented by two squares-one blue, one red- materialized. A dozen this white lines, and one slightly thicker blue line, moving much faster, stretched towards the red square.

The creature spoke again now, but its voice betrayed no fear, only a slight weariness, like a parent listening to the excuses of a child. "Many have tried what you now do. I have survived the Diadact and his armies of millions. I have weathered the firing of the Halos that bleached the galaxy. So too now will I persevere though this present trial. Your 'execution'… is only addition of time to a sentence I do not deserve, but you extend."

On the screen, Jack's body erupted into a biotic corona. Thousands of tendrills shot out from her body, whip-like hairs that thrashed wildly in the biotic flame. As the blue flares arced across her body and into the flesh of the Gravemind, the vidscreen exploded with light as the beam of the Thanix cannon struck the ship, and then went dead. Next to it on the holodisplay, the while streaks also reached the red square. After a moment, the square changed to an "X," and a stream of data spooled out of the changed icon from the ship's targeting computer.

Thanix impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Torpedo impact. Loss of structural integrity in target vessel. Secondary explosion detected; estimate 102.1 TJ detonation. Recalculating... Possibility of survivors: 0% Routing data to central AI for analysis…

A few years ago, Shepard might have trusted that figure. But that was before he had died.

"Joker, set a course for the Citadel. Alert the Council that Specter Shepard has news of urgent matters concerning galactic security. We are leaving. Immediately. "