Author's note: I know I promised that I would finish the story no matter what, but it seems that I've completely burned myself out as a writer. Sorry, but this will be the last chapter.

Chapter 20: What cause is righteous?

Location: Normandy SR-2, the cabin of Farseer Maeteris. The next morning.

M'tarr woke up, yawned heavily and shook her head, driving the remnants of her sleep away. She stood up from her blanket and stretched her limbs. M'tarr looked herself over and noticed that the fur on her left side was slightly ruffled. As usual, she started to licking herself to bring her fur in order and as she did so, M'tarr was remembering the many wondrous events from the day before.

To say that she learned many interesting things about the world would be a gross understatement.

M'tarr felt psychic resonance nearby and looked at Farseer Maeteris, who was sitting on the floor nearby. It seemed that the Farseer was performing some kind of ritual, because M'tarr saw runes floating around Maeteris. Once again M'tarr felt an odd sense of familiarity with the Farseer, but she dismissed it - Maeteris felt familiar simply because she reminded M'tarr of the Spirit Walkers.

Suddenly, the runes around Maeteris slowed down until they stopped completely. The ethereal glow in Farseer's eyes disappeared. The Eldar raised her hand palm up and the runes gathered on it. Maeteris deftly caught the runes and placed them in one of her pouches. The eldar rubbed her temples and sighed heavily. M'tarr was only starting to learn the expressions of the many aliens on the Normandy, but already she could tell that Maeteris was troubled by something.

"Something bothers Maeteris?" M'tarr asked telepathically.

The Farseer opened her eyes, looked at M'tarr and smiled. "Hello, M'tarr. I hope you slept well."

"M'tarr did. The blanket Kelly gave is very soft."

"I am certain it is. And you are correct — something has been bothering me lately. I seem to have reached my limits regarding how far I can gaze into the future events. Not that my current reach does not give us a great advantage, but being able to see further is infinitely more preferable."

"Can M'tarr help? M'tarr doesn't know how but M'tarr will help if she can."

The Farseer looked thoughtful. "Yes, there might be a way you can help and I appreciate the offer. But, another time, perhaps."

With that, the eldar stood up and approached the locker where her belonging were stored.

"Right now, let us go find Commander Shepard." Maeteris said as she searched for something in her locker.

"It seems that you are in luck – the next world we will visit will be a lush planet. I am certain that you will get a perfect chance to hunt there."

M'tarr waved her tail as she heard the news. "M'tarr is overjoyed! Maeteris thinks Commander Shepard will allow me to go and hunt?"

"Knowing the Commander I am certain she would not mind."

Maeteris seemed to have finally found what she was looking for as she pulled out some sort of trinket from her locker. She then used it to fix the fur on her head (or "hair", as bipeds seem to like to call it) in a particular pattern. M'tarr had seen several human females wear it the same way.

However, the most interesting thing happened after Maeteris finished fixing her hair — the eldar's black hair changed into red!

"How do I look?" Maeteris asked.

"M'tarr likes it! The eldar can change fur color like the Hunters?"

"I am not really changing the color of my hair. It is the hairpin, see?"

Maeteris removed the trinket from her hair and it changed its color back to black.

"What about you, M'tarr? You say that Hunters can change the color of their fur. I heard about something like that but I have never witnessed it myself. Can you do that?"

"No, M'tarr have not mastered it yet. Only most skilled Hunters can do that, especially Moaran Shaharess."

"Moaran – the First Hunter, correct?"

M'tarr waved her tail approvingly.

"Well, I hope you will master this skill one day." Maeteris said as she fixed her hair once again. "Come, the members of the crew already gather in the hall and Commander Shepard is among them."

They both left Maeteris' room and M'tarr saw that indeed the crew of the Normandy was already gathering around Gardner for their morning meal.

M'tarr didn't like Gardner at first because she thought he was a food hoarder, and that is something her kind shunned. However, Maeteris quickly explained that Gardner was a "cook" – someone who made raw food into something tastier. M'tarr still struggled with the reason for doing something like that, but she could not deny that the meat pieces Gardner made for her were great.

"Oh, good morning, M'tarr and… Maeteris?" M'tarr heard the jovial but somewhat confused voice of Kelly, the redheaded human. "When did you manage to dye your hair? I mean, I love the change, but I don't remember us buying any hair dyes on Illium."

"Hair dyes? Oh, you mean the chemical dyes you humans use. I have no need for such things." Maeteris replied and showed her how her hairpin worked, the same way she showed M'tarr before.

"Oh, this is like the coolest thing ever." Kasumi said as she and Shepard approached them.

"Well, considering the eldar use music to build cities I don't think we should be surprised, but it still looks impressive." Shepard agreed. "Is it another optical illusion?"

"No, the hair-clip actually changes the color of my hair." Maeteris replied.

"Really? How does that work? Can I try it?" asked Kasumi.

"I'm afraid it only works for those with eldar physiology."

"Aw, that is simply not fair." Kasumi pouted.

Kelly looked at M'tarr. "So, M'tarr how was your first sleep on the Normandy? Did you like the blanket?"

M'tarr purred and waved her tail.

"I'll take that as yes." Kelly smiled and reached out with her hand. "Do you want scratchings?"

M'tarr leaned closer to human's hand, allowing Kelly to scratch her behind ears and under her chin. M'tarr liked when humans and Maeteris did that. The only way she could scratch herself in those places was by using her hind paws. This could hardly compare with Kelly's agile fingers.

M'tarr was once again reminded of this particular trait the all bipeds shared – their seemingly weak, claw-less (unless the bipeds are turians, like the one called Garrus) hands were, apparently, one of the bipeds' main strengths. They were not only useful for grabbing and holding things, but they used various items as instruments to do... well, almost anything. Most surprisingly, the bipeds used them to craft many things that compensated for whatever weaknesses they had.

They created various vessels for storing water – that way when they were thirsty they didn't have to look for a stream, lake or a puddle. They created "clothes", which they put on when they were cold or needed protection from rain. And if it was hot, they could easily easily take the clothes off, although as Maeteris explained, they never fully took of their clothes "for the sake of decency". M'tarr did not fully understand what decency was, but apparently the bipeds didn't like being seen completely without clothes, nor did they like seeing other bipeds without clothes.

Also, when bipeds needed protection they created hard shells they called "armor" and wore them just like clothes. Although M'tarr was certain the armor restricted their movements, it hardly mattered because bipeds created tools they called "guns" that caused harm over a great distance. M'tarr was surprised and a bit frightened to know that the sting throwers (apparently they were called "tranquilizer guns") were among the least dangerous guns.

And all this was but a small part of things that bipeds could create – all of the glass and metal mountains M'tarr saw on Illium were built by bipeds, and there were many more similar hives on other worlds. Bipeds also built various means of conveyance that allowed them to swim in water, fly in the skies and even reach the stars.

Normandy, this enormous artificial bird was among the many thousands of other vessels that traversed the void between the worlds.

Despite not being Gifted in the way M'tarr was, the bipeds were gifted with many other traits that made them both scary and amazing at the same time.

"Commander, M'tarr and I have another favor to ask of you." Maeteris interrupted M'tarr's musings as she addressed Shepard.

"Sure, what is it?" Shepard picked up her tray from Gardner.

She noticed that the Mess Sergeant had already prepared the large bowl of meat chops for M'tarr.

"M'tarr would like to go down with your team on the next mission." Maeteris said as she picked up her tray as well as M'tarr's bowl, without displaying any sign of effort, once again reminding Victoria just how deceiving the eldar's grace was.

"Uh, I'm certain that you're aware that it might be dangerous down there. As well as I know that M'tarr can take care of herself but I still think I should remind you that we're not going there for sightseeing."

"I assure you, M'tarr will not be a burden. She just needs this opportunity to hunt in the wild once more."

Shepard stared at Maeteris, then at M'tarr, then at M'tarr's bowl. "Before I point out the rather obvious fact that we have no shortage of food on the Normandy…"

"Remember how I said I will explain why M'tarr and her people refer to themselves as 'Hunters'?"

"Yeah, I was wondering when you'll tell us. Guess this is as good time as any." Victoria said as she motioned towards one of the vacant tables.

As they took their seats, Miranda joined them.

"Morning everyone," the XO said. "That is nice change of color, Farseer Maeteris. And before anyone says anything – I know about the hairpin. EDI already informed me."

"Morning, Miranda. Any news from Tim?" Shepard asked.

"Nothing, unfortunately. Or perhaps fortunately, considering the fact that it gives us time to help Jacob's in his matter."

"True that," Victoria said and looked at M'tarr and Maeteris. "Well now, what is it about M'tarr and her need to hunt?"

"There is really no elaborate reason behind it," Maeteris replied. "But M'tarr and her people believe that unless you are a child, an infirm or a Spirit Walker, the hunter always has to get his food by himself. It helps them stay in shape and further develop their psychic powers."

"You mean what we already witnessed was not the end of it?" Miranda asked, referring to yesterday's incident with Grunt.

"Precisely that. And as I am sure you can understand ever since she was abducted, M'tarr did not have an opportunity to hunt properly for some time."

Shepard considered it and made her decision.

"Okay, but I have several conditions. First, M'tarr, you cannot wander too far away from the place where we will initially land. Second, we will give a communicator. If something happens and you hear me or any other member of my team to return immediately, you stop doing everything, no matter how important it is and return to the landing zone. Do you agree to these conditions?"

To her slight surprise, M'tarr actually nodded.

"Good. Welcome to the team then."

Miranda sighed. "If people of Horizon thought we were an odd group, they should see us now."

Victoria saw as the door to Gallardi's cabin opened and its owner entered the mess-hall, but instead of joining the rest of the crew, the Captain quickly marched towards the elevator. He briefly slowed down when he, apparently, noticed the change in Maeteris, but then he resumed his pace.

Judging by the saber in his hand, Gallardi was once again planning to practice his fencing.

"Anyone else noticed-," Kelly began as soon as they heard the elevator doors close.

"That Gallardi seems distant lately?" Shepard finished her yeoman's question.

"Exactly. Ever since Illium he seems to be avoiding other people's company." Kelly nodded. "I asked him this morning if everything was alright and he did a very job of saying 'yes' while keeping a straight face but he didn't fool me for a second. Something's definitely bothering him. I would bet something that happened on Illium but I was certain that, despite everything, things were resolved quite positively back there. Did I miss something?"

"No, I don't think so." Shepard shrugged. "I thought everything went pretty smoothly myself."

"That is how you see it." Maeteris suddenly spoke. "You must always remember how fundamentally different Captain Gallardi's beliefs are when compared to your own."

"Yeah, I know that, but I thought that he was, you know, starting to come around."

"Perhaps he is. But I think you should understand that it cannot be a simple process. When someone who is so deeply set in his beliefs starts to doubt one of the cornerstones of his religion, he cannot do it without starting to doubt everything else."

"I pity him." Maeteris added. "His closed mind once gave him a clear purpose, but now he begins to realize that it is a prison. And the worst thing is that he is uncertain that he wants to escape."

Shepard sighed. "I'll... I'll go talk to him."

"Perhaps it would be best if Kelly tries first?" Miranda suggested. "It is her specialty, after all."

"Muh-huh," Kelly shook her head negatively as she chewed on her dinner. "As a specialist I can assure you that in this case you don't need a counselor, you need a priest."

"A priest?"

"Yep. A priest of the God Emperor, to be precise." Kelly clarified. "You all remember that he comes from a theocratic state, and we already know that Gallardi is very religious. I can speculate that he doesn't even know what a counselor is."

"I will agree with Kelly Chambers' assessment — the Imperials place great trust in their spiritual leaders." Maeteris said.

"Well, we aren't getting a priests any time soon," Miranda said, shrugging. "Or I could be wrong and a priest will arrive the same way the Farseer and Gallardi did. Maybe he'll land right behind me."

Everyone looked behind Miranda, waiting for another miracle to occur. When nothing happened they returned to their meal.

"Well, it was a possibility." Shepard said. "Any other advice, Kelly?"

"You talking to him would be our best bet. Gallardi is a soldier through and through. His brothers-in-arm will be on the top of the list of the people he would open up to." The yeoman replied.

"Let's hope that this is indeed the case. Wish me luck," Shepard said as she stood up. She picked up her tray, returned it to Gardner with her thanks and went towards the elevator.

When she arrived at cargo hold, Victoria saw that Gallardi had already started his training. Four empty crates acted as corner markers for his improvised training area. Gallardi started warming up as soon as he discarded his jacket and shirt.

The only other person present in the cargo hold was Goldstein, who was busy working on one of the shuttle's engines.

Gallardi unsheathed his sword and started practicing various types of swings and thrusts. For a moment, he was standing with his back to Shepard. Instead of interrupting the man's workout, Victoria approached one of the larger crates and climbed atop it. There she sat down and resumed watching Gallardi's training, waiting for him to notice her presence.

As Victoria studied Gallardi's movements, she realized that even though she was certainly no expert on the matter, the man's moves lacked a pattern, there was no repetition one would expect from a training regime. His moves looked more like a random collection of thrusts, slashes and dodges... the latter were particularly odd since Gallardi didn't have a sparring partner. However, when he turned to face Victoria, Shepard noticed another thing – Gallardi's eyes were closed.

Then it dawned on her – Gallardi was training by reliving his old fights. Which was probably the best thing the man would get besides getting an actual sparring partner and Shepard doubted that anyone present on the ship could provide an actual challenge to Gallardi. Besides Farseer Maeteris.

As Gallardi performed a particularly vicious combination of strikes, one that made Victoria pity whoever was unfortunate enough to stand in Gallardi's way, the Captain ended up standing outside the borders of his improvised arena. Shepard wondered if she should point that out to him, but it turns out Gallardi was aware of his position even with his eyes closed. He sheathed his saber and opened his eyes so that he could return to his initial position and then he finally spotted Victoria.

"Shepard." Gallardi said with a slight nod and went to the center of the arena.

"How's it going, Gallardi?" Victoria smiled and started dangling her legs left and right.

Gallardi unsheathed his sword again and made a couple of simple swings.

"We need to get ourselves a fencing servitor." Gallardi said with a sigh after a small pause.

Aware of what a servitor was, Victoria shook her head. "I doubt that even Omega's black market would be selling any of those."

"Yes, I guess it wouldn't." Gallardi agreed.

"May I interrupt, Commander Shepard?" EDI asked all of a sudden.

"What's going on, EDI?" Shepard asked.

"Nothing unusual, Commander, I apologize if my query caused a false alarm," the AI replied. "I was simply listening to the conversation you had with Captain Gallardi and while technically you are correct, the fencing servitors are not available for purchase anywhere in the known Galaxy, there are other options you and Captain Gallardi might consider."

Victoria looked at Gallardi and saw that EDI's words attracted the man's curiosity.

"Okay, EDI, you have our attention. What are those 'other options' you're talking about?"

"Although judging by your Extranet preferences, Commander, you are not interested in such things, I am certain that you are familiar with at least one of the melee dueling tournaments the Citadel space has."

"The holographic simulators, right?" Victoria clarified. She watched a couple of those but didn't find them too exciting. Guns and explosives were always her preference in this kind of entertainment.

"Correct, although before the advent of holographic entertainment, the duels were purely physical. First introduced by the Krogan they were eventually restricted to their non-lethal forms due to high mortality rates until holographic simulators were introduced. Sometime later, the Batarians also tried to reintroduce the conventional variant, as gladiator fights are rather popular in their culture. Needless to say that the latter are banned in the majority of civilized space."

"That's good to know, EDI, but I don't think that holographic simulation is really something Captain Gallardi looks for." Shepard remarked.

"It was not my intention to offer an installation of a holo-simulator. While all of the actual fights happen in the simulated environment, the training regimen of the athletes is a combination of the sessions in the simulator and the actual fencing training." EDI explained. "However, only the wealthiest of athletes can afford the services of a skillful coach. Aspiring athletes could attend fencing schools, but not all planets have them. The third option is a series of training mechs specifically designed for this purpose."

"So, what you're saying is that we have our own version of fencing servitors?" Victoria asked.

"I lack the information about the technical parameters and capabilities of Imperial fencing servitors to make an accurate comparison, but I can estimate that the most advanced training mech models should provide Captain Gallardi with an acceptable challenge."

Shepard looked at Gallardi. The man just shrugged and tried to look indifferent, but he didn't fool Victoria.

"See if you can get us some of those mechs, EDI," Shepard told the AI. "The most advanced models like you said, and some spare parts to keep them running for a while."

"Affirmative, Commander."

"Thank you," Gallardi gave Victoria a grateful nod. "Both of you," he added, a bit louder for EDI's benefit.

"You are quite welcome, Captain." EDI replied.

"Well, you did kill two Krogan with your sword so I think the whole team would benefit if you stay in shape," Victoria said with a smile.

Gallardi nodded and resumed his training.

"Fine, I guess I'll be the one to start this conversation. So, what's eating you, Captain?"

Gallardi stopped and looked down at his chest and legs.

"Nothing, as far as I'm aware," he said as he looked back at Victoria. "Or were you speaking figuratively?"

"Yes, I was speaking figuratively. So?"

"The answer is still 'nothing'," the Captain said before trying to resume his practice once more.

"Look, Gallardi, we're both line officers. We're both aware of the concept of a unit's morale. Kelly said that you're doing a very good job of trying to look alright, but you're not fooling anyone: not me, not Kelly and certainly not Farseer Maeteris, so-,"

"Do you think we did well on Illium?" Gallardi asked as he abruptly turned to face Victoria. He sheathed his sword with a loud clicking sound.

"Beg your pardon?" Victoria asked, caught off guard.

"Did we do well on Illium? I mean the second day, not the first one. I think we both agree that our pissing contest was stupid and unprofessional." Gallardi elaborated his question.

"Yes, I think we did pretty good," Shepard replied.

"That's what I think as well," Gallardi said. He turned away from Victoria, took out his saber and rested it horizontally on the edge of his palm. Then he released the sword's handle from his grasp, but the saber stayed horizontal – the blade's balance was perfect.

"Or I should say that that's what I'd like to think," the Captain added absentmindedly.

"But you really aren't?" Victioria asked.

Gallardi threw the blade up in the air a little and deftly caught it by the handle. "It could have gone very wrong, wouldn't you agree?"

"There is always a chance of that, true," Shepard nodded.

"Instead of trying to use my own weapon against me, the alien could have retreated with it immediately, leaving his men to slow us down. He could have left the planet before we even reached the Normandy." Gallardi paused. "If all that happened, I would have essentially traded an invaluable technology for the lives of a couple of aliens."

Victoria couldn't help but sigh heavily. She really hoped that they were getting somewhere with Gallardi's attitude towards the aliens. "Back on Illium, you said that-"

Gallardi abruptly turned to face her. "I know what I said on Illium, alright? I'm not going back on my own words," the man said and this time there was anger in his voice. "It's just that…"

He stopped abruptly and sighed. "You know, back home, the Guardsmen who ran out of ammunition and knew that they were about to be overrun would sabotage their own weapons so that the enemy could not use them. This is especially important when you're fighting against the Archenemy and the rebels – every working piece of equipment can be salvaged and used against the forces of the Imperium later. Some of the xenos, particularly Orks, are also not shy of using Imperial technologies."

He paused again and Victoria noticed that he balled his good fist. Whatever Gallardi was thinking about was a really not pleasant memory.

"On Loki Prime, during the initial deployment, we were dropped on the outskirts of a small hive-city because there was a spaceport there and we had to pry it out of the Orks' hands. One of our platoons missed the landing zone by a huge margin and landed in Ork territory," Gallardi continued, his voice tense. "There was no way for us to send a relief force – the spaceport was too much of a priority and everyone knew it, including the guys in that platoon. They also had no way of sneaking past the Orks as they had to engage the aliens the moment they landed. So they did the only thing the Emperor could ask from them – they decided not to sell their lives cheaply."

"They barricaded themselves in one of the buildings and managed to last for slightly more than an hour. They would have lasted less if they didn't have a heavy weapon team who carried a lascannon with them. When we eventually retook that part of the city we found out that they managed to destroy six Ork vehicles, including a stolen Leman Russ tank. Later, Power Mustache-," Gallardi stopped abruptly and corrected himself. "I mean, the late Colonel Gloryhound, Emperor bless his soul, told us that during their last vox dispatch they promised that they would not let the lascannon fall into the Orks' hands. And they held their promise – we found only a pile of rubble where the building they defended was supposed to be. It looked like they rigged the lascannon's last power pack and turned it into a small bomb."

There was another heavy pause before Gallardi continued.

"Sergeant Dorens. Corporals Lenier and Jefferson. Guardsmen Gurral, Terrer, Solario, Stanton, Galaher, Lebres, Farner, Nimert, Dorenson, and Varien. They were all good people." Gallardi said and shook his head. "Thinking about what I did on Illium makes me feel as if I spat on their sacrifice."

"You know that's not true." Victoria argued.

"It's not?"

"You didn't plan on giving your lasgun to the enemy, right? You wanted to use it as a distraction so that you could save lives," Shepard said. "Let's look at the whole thing this way – what if they weren't Asari? Would you have felt easier if they were humans?"

"Honestly? Yes, it would have been easier." Gallardi replied.

"Would you have tried to save them?"

"Of course I would have."

"Would you have tried a different tactic?"

Gallardi looked thoughtful. "No, I think I would have done the same thing anyway," he said after a small pause.

"Then why does it really matter?"

"In this particular case, no, it probably doesn't matter, but it's the principle that bothers me."

"What principle?" Victoria asked.

"That I stop seeing the difference between the aliens and humans," Gallardi replied.

"You make it sound as if it's such a terrible thing."

"Maybe it's not. Not for you and not for most of humans in this Galaxy. Now, I know that I'll have to make some concessions and accept certain changes, but…" Gallardi stopped again. He then took a seat on one of the crates and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"But?" Shepard asked carefully.

The Captain sighed. "I don't want to be a heretic. I don't want to betray the ideals my fellow Guardsmen fought and died for. I understand that things are different here, but how do I know where that thin line that I should never cross lies ? Two days ago, I made a choice to risk committing treason in order to save two aliens. What if tomorrow I'llbe forced to make a choice between sparing the life of a human and sparing the life of an alien? And the said human will be a heartless murderer and the alien will be an innocent child. How am I expected to make that decision?"

For Victoria, the decision was rather obvious, but decided to stay silent.

"Back home, everything was so simple… Emperor above, listen to what I say," Gallardi snorted. "I consider the place where I had to face daemons, mutants and bloodthirsty aliens on a daily basis to be a place where everything was simple."

"Yeah, that is ironic, to say the least." Shepard said with a nod. "Look, Gallardi, the situation you and Maeteris found yourself in is unique, like, absolutely unique. Something like this only happens in cheap fiction novels. I don't think that anyone could actually offer a useful advice. All I can tell you is, even though I haven't known you for a long time, I can already tell you that you're smart and, what's more important, your heart is in the right place. So, whenever you have any doubts about what you should do, I think you should trust your instincts and do what you feel is right."

Gallardi chuckled. "That's it? That's your advice?"

"I know it's a very vague advice and you probably wanted to hear something more specific-"

"No, it's alright," Gallardi waved for her to stop. "Just let me tell you something about 'doing what you feel is right'. It happened prior to Loki campaign on Caravella Secundus. A pretty world, one that we classify as Garden World. It's also an extremely wealthy planet, they pay their taxes in Imperial crowns and various produce from numerous factories. How they managed to convince the Mechanicus to not to turn their planet into a toxic wasteland is beyond me, but somehow they did it."

"In any case, like I said before, it's a very wealthy world, they even joke that their poor people are some of the wealthiest poor people in the Imperium. As you can probably guess, the wealthiest person on that world is the planetary governor, they guy in charge. Now, the Caravellans were lucky with most of their planetary governors but centuries of inbreeding did their work and the last one fucked everything up."

Victoria raised her hand.


"I'm sorry, I know it's probably not important but, um, inbreeding?"

"Yes." Gallardi nodded. "On many worlds the nobles like to breed only with other nobles. Eventually everyone becomes everyone's relative. What about it?"

"I know what inbreeding is, but we figured out a long time ago that offspring of inbreeding have much greater chance to be affected by recessive traits. I'm sure Chakwas could give a better explanation, but it's bad for us humans. Did your nobles forget about it?"

"Probably. Anyway, the last governor decided that his city-sized palace wasn't 'properly reflecting the glory of Caravella Secundus' and was no longer fitting for 'the man of his status'. So, he decided he needed a new one. Bigger one. One that would be second only to the Palace of the Emperor himself on Holy Terra. I have no idea how big the last one is but the legends say that the Palace of the Emperor is a continent-size complex."

Victoria whistled. "Why would he need such a big palace? I mean the governor, of course. I'm sure the Emperor has his reasons."

"Why do nobles need anything?" Gallardi asked rhetorically.

"Imagine how many people it would take to sweep the floors in that palace," Shepard wondered. "An entire nation of housemaids, all dressed in housemaid's uniform."

"Better imagine the amount of funds and resources it would take to build such a palace," Gallardi told her.

"I don't think I can. I mean, what we're talking about here is a palace size of a continent. It's like building a large country from scratch or several smaller countries. So, that means we're talking about the yearly budgets of several well developed countries combined and then multiplied by several centuries, because it would take centuries to build that monster. I don't know what the guy was thinking. It's not like he would have lived long enough to see the end of the palace's construction."

"Oh, he knew about that. He knew that even with proper treatments he would not live long enough to see the palace completed on a normal rate so he asked for triple shifts and additional workforce from off world so that the construction process never stopped." The Captain sighed. "Naturally, it raised the total cost even higher and then, surprise-surprise, the governor realized that he didn't have enough money to do it."

"So, he did the most sensible thing he could think of – he implemented an additional tax. Then he realized that it would take roughly a hundred years to build the palace, so he raised the tax even higher. Naturally, the Caravellans didn't like it very much."

"It all started quite civilly – the next day after the tax was announced the Caravellans went on massive strike. Just that, they simply refused to work, unless they worked on some critical facility like the Generatorum. Some gathered at central plazas to protest but there wasn't any violence. Upon hearing about this, the governor probably lost his last wits and started screaming about Chaos incursion. Then he sent his palace guards to crackdown one of the gatherings. The palace guards, being single-minded and utterly loyal to the governor quickly turned it into a bloody massacre."

"The next day everything went to shit. As soon as the news about the bloody crackdown reached another hive-city, massive riots started there. The Arbites did their best to contain the riots but when the PDF got involved in the matter, half of whom ended up supporting the rebels, the Arbites were forced back to their precinct fortresses, where they held siege up until the relief force arrived. The part of the PDF that stayed loyal to the Emperor tried to pacify the rebels, but because they were forced to fight their own people, their morale was somewhere down below and slightly to the left. That's why a request for pacification force was sent."

"Dozens of Guard regiments, 511th included, and a squad of Astartes from the Charnel Guard was sent to crush the rebellion." Gallardi continued his tale. "Our arrival boosted somewhat the morale of the loyal PDF, as they were no longer required to lead the assault and were now mostly reserved for logistic, defense and mop-up duties while we did the hard part. The rebels still put up a stiff resistance but they weren't experienced soldiers. And when the Astartes terminated the few competent leaders the rebels had, the movement quickly fell apart. After seven months the last of the major cities surrendered to the Imperial forces."

"No offense, Gallardi but right now I'm on the side of the Caravellans," Victoria told him.

"Yes, I expected that you would be. I guess that if I was an average Caravellan, I would have probably supported the rebels as well." Gallardi shrugged. "But here is where it gets interesting – roughly two month before we finally crushed the rebellion we received news that several Ork Roks somehow slipped past our lines and invaded an Agri-world of Loki Prime. Our pacification force was the closest large unit that could respond. However, the Caravella Secundus was considered a more valuable world, and that's why we could not leave until the situation there was contained. By the time we finally arrived to Loki, the greenskins killed over 200 million people there."

"That's… that's terrible." Shepard said, stunned by the number of casualties. "But you can't honestly blame the Caravellans for those deaths."

"Can't I? If they didn't resist so hard we would have gotten to Loki sooner and saved a lot of people." Gallardi countered.

"So, you're saying they should have just let the obviously retarded governor get away with his bullshit?"

"No, that's not the point I was trying to make. What I'm trying to say is that those people did exactly like you suggested – they fought for what they believed was right. But what did they achieve in the end? Brought ruin to their world and got a lot of people killed." Gallardi said. "And the tax they protested against? It was not abolished because the Imperium needed additional funds to restore both the Caravella Secundus and Loki Prime!"

"Well, at least it wasn't wasted on that ridiculous palace, which is still an achievement." Shepard shrugged.

"They got 200 million people killed!" Gallardi said, raising his voice a little.

"No, the Orks killed them and they would have attacked Loki Prime regardless of how the Caravellans resisted."

"True, but if…"

"But if, but if, but if." Victoria interrupted him. "You're certain that any alternative scenario would have been a better one, but, and let's be honest here, an even worse scenario was equally possible. Like, what if Caravellans didn't start their protest at all? Your pacification force would not have been sent there and when the Orks invaded Loki Prime what large unit would have been the closest one to respond?"

Gallardi didn't reply immediately. "I don't know. The Segmentum Command would have diverted a different fleet, but…"

"But it would have taken them the same two months if not more to get there." Shepard finished for him. "And then who knows – the other fleet could have defeated the Orks faster than you did or they could have failed where you succeeded."

"Besides, if you really want to blame someone for the rebellion on Caravella you should probably blame all the previous generations of Caravellans and their leaders. Those who taught the Caravellans that they should resist when they are treated like shit." Victoria added.

"The Imperium of Man didn't teach them to rebel against the legally appointed rulers!" Gallardi told her, his voice rising further. "Honor His servants, for they speak in His voice. That is what we're being taught since the day we're born!"

"I'm sure you are." Shepard said. "But are you really going to tell me that something similar never happened? That there was never a time when the Imperial government was wrong and the people rebelled against them and were right to do so?"

Gallardi opened his mouth to reply but didn't say anything, looking as if he remembered exactly the case Victoria was asking about. Gallardi then sat down with a sigh on one of the crates and lowered his head. While Shepard was glad to know that she was right, she wondered if she was pushing this argument a bit too much.

"Sorry, I'm probably not doing a very good job," Victoria said apologetically. "I came down here to try and help you, not to confuse you even further."

She jumped down from her porch and approached Gallardi. "Look, Captain, I understand that your faith and ideals of your Imperium are important to you and that finding yourself in a situation like we had on Illium, when you're forced to make compromises, is a tasking experience for you. So, I suggest that from now on you will only deploy on the missions where we have a clear enemy and there is no or next to no contact with the alien civilian populace. Like all of the deployments before Illium."

Gallardi looked up at her and Victoria couldn't help but think that he looked slightly relieved.

"I don't like running away from challenges but-," he stood up. "But I appreciate and accept your offer."

"Good. With luck we should avoid any such incidents until travel through the Omega 4 relay," Victoria continued. "After that, if we survive, I'm certain that the Systems Alliance will ask you to be their consultant, both in the Research and Future Warfare departments and I suggest you take their offer because you will end up being as far away as possible from any aliens. And after that, when the Reapers arrive, we would be all too busy fighting them to worry about anything else. Hell, you'll probably feel more at home at that time."

"As weird as that may sound – I probably would." Gallardi agreed with her.

"It is settled then. Now, about the next deployment – we're going to reach Aeia tomorrow and since it should be an uninhabited planet you should have no problems. Are you up for it?"

"Yes, I am," August nodded. "Are you expecting trouble?"

"Like I said, it's really strange that the emergency beacon went online after such a long period. The only way for it to turn on automatically is for Hugo Gernsback to be completely destroyed. That brings us to a question of where the ship was wandering all this time." Victoria said and shrugged. "The only other option is that someone activated the beacon manually and that once again brings up the question of what they were doing this whole time. Something is definitely off about it."

"This could be a trap. Maybe the ship was boarded and captured by pirates or slavers long ago," Gallardi speculated. "Now they're trying to use it as bait."

"That was my first theory, actually. I just didn't want to voice it in Jacob's presence."

Gallardi simply nodded to that. "Or it could be the- No, never mind. I keep forgetting that you don't use warp travel."

"What it could have been if we did?" Shepard asked him.

"Remember when I said that warp travel is not an exact science? That sometimes you can arrive several years too early or too late for you the time flowed normally?" Gallardi reminded her.

"Oh, yeah. That would have been weird," Shepard smiled. "Imagine for a second the things they would've missed during all those years. Jacob's dad sees his son all grown up. The attack on the Citadel. Humanity getting their seat in the Council."

"And you becoming Humanity's first Spectre." Gallardi added.

"Yeah, that too," Shepard nodded. "Anyway, it was nice talking to you, Captain. Don't let me keep you away from your training."

"Likewise, Commander," Gallardi bowed slightly and went to continue his practice.

With that Victoria decided that there was little else she could do to help Gallardi and took her leave.

Gallardi heard the elevator close, which meant that Commander Shepard left the cargo hold. He sighed, sheathed his saber and once again took a seat on a nearby crate. Usually the fencing helped him clear his mind but today it wasn't so.

He was a bit envious of how skilled Shepard was with words. For a moment he thought that he was about to win the argument but she managed to outmaneuver him and she probably wasn't even aware how she did it. Indeed, there was a time when the Imperium of Man was ruled by a madman, Goge Vandire, and the righteous had to start a rebellion in order to remove him from office. August, of course, was not comparing himself with Saint Sebastian Thor, but he couldn't help but wonder if Thor had doubts whether what he was doing was the right thing. That he wasn't condemning himself and his followers in the eyes of the Emperor because he was leading a rebellion against someone who was technically a legal ruler of the Imperium.

Then again, the scriptures said that Sebastian Thor received visions from the Emperor telling him that his cause was just.

Gallardi wasn't so lucky. Despite spending half of the previous night in prayer, no answer was forthcoming. August knew that between a single guardsman and the entire Imperium of Man the priorities of Him who sits upon the Golden Throne were painfully obvious, but even a small sign would have been nice.

August decided that he wasn't in the mood for fencing and decided to head back to his cabin. He went to pick up his shirt and jacket, but as he was about to put the jacket on, he paused to look at it. It was a simple uniform jacket, with a wreathed skulls and a red and gold officer stripes on its collar, designating the wearier as a Captain of the Imperial Guard.

August remembered what Colonel Gloryhound told him when he promoted Gallardi to Lieutenant.

"Some of the rank and file will tell you that Lieutenant is just a fancy Sergeant but that's a lie. Deep down all Guardsmen consider becoming an officer to be a privilege. From now on, a few will look at you with jealousy but the rest will look at you and believe that you've been touched by the Emperor's grace." The Colonel said and chuckled. "However, by becoming an officer you only get one thing – more duty. Upon donning a Guardsman uniform, we agree to live a life of duty. A duty to our people, our Emperor, our Imperium. But when you put on an officer's uniform, you also accept another duty – duty to your men. Whatever fate may befall us, Lieutenant Gallardi, remember that we're officers of the Imperium of Man's most vaunted Imperial Guard and we must always be a source of inspiration to our men and to everyone else."

"Look at yourself, August. How can you be a source of inspiration if you allow bad mood to get in the way of you training regime." Gallardi muttered to himself. Without any delay he placed his jacket and shirt back on the box and returned to fencing.

A/N: I'm truly grateful for your support and interest in my story. It's been a fun ride. Also, you can find some details about how the story would have progressed on my profile page.