Author's Note:

This is a fiction that should span the events from the first game to the third, however, it is not a simple regurgitation of the games. You will be able to follow events and recognize the plot but there will be some changes. I am not writing the game.

This is being mirror-published on another site with an MA rating. Here I've softened the language and violence and changed some scenes (and some scenes have been completely deleted) to fit into the ratings guidelines for publication. There is mention of drinking and drug use. If you would like to read the original version message me and I will send you the link. I'm writing this with the idea in mind that anyone reading it has probably played the games at least once.

I'm also winging this off the cuff so please be gentle. This will be a Shepard/Liara romance.

I also don't own Mass Effect or its characters, it's all Bioware's baby…yada yada legalese.

I hope you enjoy.

EDIT: For some reason my page-breaks were removed. I've re-added them. Sorry about that :)

The music was a heavy, thumping beat that seemed to pulse through his chest even before he'd set foot in the club. Club…if this place could be called a club. As beaten up and used over as the people who lurked within, the building should have been condemned. In fact, the whole neighborhood should have been torn down ages ago.

Glancing down at the faint glow of the small digital pad, the courier double-checked the address, absolutely sure it wasn't right, disappointed once more to find that it was.

The smell was a torpid combination of fried food, booze, sweat, cigarette smoke without the benefit of air purification filters, and urine. Urine, of all things.

His stomach did a slow roil as he approached the door, and he grit his teeth.

A pair of men talking just outside paused in their conversation to turn their eyes on him. Their greasy hair was shaved close, great slabs of grimy scalp visible through the thin, angry bristles. One had a cybernetic eye half-visible through a reddened, infected lid. Seeing the nervous courier glance his way, he hawked up a mouthful of foulness and spat it on the ground, then grinned.

The courier hoped the Alliance decal on his shoulder was enough to prevent the two uglies from twisting him into a pretzel. Adam's apple bobbing a bit, he tried not to hold his breath as he stepped past them and into the club.

It was a mass of writhing human bodies dancing to the thunderous music, wreathed with smoke. Battered tables leaned against one wall, people clustered around dirty plates of fried food, dingy pitchers of beer, pinch-boxes of red sand.

The courier, barely more than a boy, had never seen anything like this outside of extranet vids of places like Omega. Here on Earth…it seemed impossible, merely some nightmare of hedonism and violence.

As he double-checked his small pad again nervously, someone gripped his arm. The bouncer, not an ounce more attractive than the men outside, glared at him.

"What you want, Alliance?" he demanded in a loud, rumbling voice, still barely heard over the music. Shakily, the courier told him, and with a grunt, the bouncer pointed to a distant corner.

Weaving through the drunk, high, oblivious mass of humanity was a daunting venture. Overwhelmed by the body odor and tobacco, he fought not to vomit once again…then wondered if it would even be noticed if he did. An elbow found his ribcage painfully and he squirmed as close to the wall as he was able to, inching his way along.

A figure sat alone in the far corner, on a seat that was little more than an old-fashioned wooden milk crate set on its side. She was hunched like a forgotten doll, pale fingers plucking at a wooden guitar, a wreath of cigar smoke obscuring what portion of her face could be seen under the leaning swagman hat.

Approaching, the courier cleared his throat, and then cleared it again before attempting to speak.

"Commander Shepard?"

No response. He could barely hear his own voice above the booming music. His Adam's apple bobbed again as he tried once more, louder.

"Commander Shepard?"

The hat tilted upward. Brown eyes regarded him as the pale fingers fell still on the strings. Lifting her hand, the woman took the nearly spent cigar stub out from between her lips.

"I'm on leave," she stated. The courier held the pad out toward her.

"Orders from Admiral Hackett. Leave has been cancelled. You are to report to New York Launch at 0800."

She accepted the pad and looked it over. As she did he felt he should say something. "They tried to contact you directly, but you didn't answer…"

"I turned it off," she said, setting the guitar in the case that was laying at her feet. The thing had to be a serious antique. He didn't think they made non-HI guitars any more.

She scrubbed the remains of her cigar against the wall and then flicked it in the vague direction of an overflowing garbage can before she got to her feet. Standing, she wasn't much taller than the young courier. The pad vanished into her jacket before she snapped up the guitar case and slung it over her shoulder.

Not bothering to speak again, she gestured toward the door of the bar before stepping past him. Grateful for the breakwater she provided, he followed along in her wake, eager to be out of this place.

Once outside he let the relatively fresh air wash over him, gulping at it eagerly. She paused just a few feet away, digging out a small battered silver case, drawing out another cigar.

"New to this part of New York?" she asked with some amusement at his behavior.

"Yes, sir. I…to be honest, sir, I didn't think places like this existed any more on Earth."

"Well, now you know better," she said, lighting the stogie with a quick, efficient puff. His brows creased.

"Permission…to speak candidly sir?"

She grunted what he took to be an affirmative, and he gestured. "Smoking is hardly within the health regs of the Alliance. I'm surprised to see a marine-"

"Lecture me about it when you've seen enough of this galaxy to walk through that bar and not look like you're about to puke," she replied. Her brown eyes looked nearly black as she measured him. "Let me take a wild stab. You're a ship-kid, aren't you? Grew up on bases and Alliance stations and on nice clean Alliance transports."

"I don't think that has anything to do with-"

"Course it does. But it's all right. I can see you're itching to get out of here so why don't you walk me back to base? Escort a lady home, as it were? These are dangerous streets."

He stiffened, schooling his own irritation as he snapped off a salute. "Yes, sir. I have a car, sir. Just this way."

"You got a name, Lance Coolie?" she asked as she followed him away from the club at a far more leisurely gait than the one he adopted. If the kid stood any straighter he was going to snap his own spine in half.

"That's Lance Corporal, sir," he replied acerbically. "Lance Corporal James Haley, sir."

"Relax, kid. You're far to tense for an enlisted man."

"Here we are, sir," he replied as he approached a small waiting air-car.

"Fair enough," she murmured, flicking away the cigar and stowing the guitar case before settling into the passenger seat.

As he started the car and directed it to the base she pulled out the small pad and read it over again. Cancelled shore leave for some shiny new ship's shakedown. Anderson had mentioned the Normandy once or twice but the shakedown hadn't been scheduled for another three weeks. He hadn't even been sure he was going to get command of it, just that his name had been mentioned.

That the command was suddenly his, and that Hackett was cancelling shore-leave for a shakedown with a brand new crew all but put it out in neon that something far more serious was going on.

Slipping the pad away into her pocket again she tucked her hat down over her eyes and tried to doze, even though it would be only minutes before they landed at base. It was already past 0100. She'd just have time to pack up, grab a shower and a nap and maybe a quick bite before she had to report in at the Launch.

She had a disquieting feeling that life was about to get very complicated.

The guitar case landed on the tiny bunk in the cramped quarters at New Rochelle. The swagman landed atop it a breath before Shepard's palm hit the pad on the wall. The door to the miniscule bathroom slid open and in moments her civvies were in a heap on the floor.

Tiny as the room was, it was downright luxurious compared to some of the accommodations she'd found herself in. Just the fact it sported a shower of its own made it a Hilton in her book.

Starting the hot water she stepped under the spray and began to wash away the miasma from the club. Her short, dark brown hair slicked to ebony black, water tracing over her shoulders. She grabbed the soap, her fingers lingering a moment on the hook-shaped scar on her collar bone as she began to lather.

Scream, you little rat!

It was hardly the most shocking of her scars. That title went to the deep star-burst on the left side of her abdomen…compliments of a Batarian battle-blade. This scar, however, was the oldest.

Lathering up, she scrubbed at her hair, savoring the hot water until it started to cool. Rinsing off she stepped out of the shower, threw on a robe, and then began to pack. She didn't have much in the way of personal items, which made this easier. Her guitar, her hat. Some civvies. Her beaten cigar case. And the most sentimental item she owned: a carefully folded crayon drawing.

Unfolding it gingerly, she looked at it. It showed two stick figures, one larger and one smaller, holding hands. There was a painstakingly etched heart plastered in red between the two. Written in shaky hand in bright sunshine yellow were the words 'To Del. Bestust buds.'

Folding it up carefully again, she slid it in her pack and then zipped it shut. Setting her PDA to wake her at 0630 she laid back on the bunk and closed her eyes.

"To be honest, yes, I am concerned."

David Anderson's gaze was shadowed in the yellow light of his desk lamp as it turned toward the woman sitting in the chair opposite. She had a kind, forgiving kind of face…pretty in a way that was aging gracefully. A face that smiled easily, it was now faintly lined in the same worry that reflected in her accented voice.

"What seems to be the problem, doctor? You can speak candidly with me," he replied.

"I know that you have worked with her before, Captain…and I'm a medical doctor, not a psychologist, but to be absolutely frank, I don't see how Commander Shepard is…well, is even possible."

"How do you mean, 'possible'?"

"She was abandoned on the streets when she was six years old," Helen Chakwas stated bluntly. "She lived in the old subway system under New York…no, not the subway system. The subway ventilation system…until she was twelve or thirteen. She was arrested six times for petty larceny and malicious mischief. One of the arrest reports contains a psychiatric evaluation that actually contains the word 'feral'. It says she bit a regulations officer on the arm and wouldn't let go. They had to pry her off."

"Go on."

His neutral tone flustered her slightly. She tapped the slim data pad in front of her. "Please tell me I needn't remind you of Torfan. What they call her-"

"She has been through more than one psych eval," Leaning forward, he folded his hands on the desk, speaking evenly. "She never would have made it this far in the Alliance if there were concerns as to her mental stability."

"That is what I mean by 'she shouldn't be possible,' Captain," she pointed out. "Her childhood alone would have left any other child with horrible emotional and mental scars. She showed signs as a youth of an aggressive and unstable personality. And yet in her Alliance records I see only praise and accommodations. What she did on Torfan was sadly necessary, however I have seen hard-as-nails marines fall apart over lesser trauma. That's not even considering the murder-"

"I appreciate you bringing me your concerns, doctor, I really do," Anderson interrupted. "But speaking not only just as her commanding officer, but as her friend…Commander Shepard is the best of the best of the Alliance. She has endured nightmares the like of which I hope I never have to face, it is true…but in all my years in the military I have never met a more dedicated, more honest, more determined individual. I would trust her with my life, without hesitation."

Sitting back a little he tapped his fingers lightly on the desk in thought. "Get to know her, Doctor. Talk to her. You are not a psychologist but from what I understand you are an excellent judge of character. If at the end of this shakedown run you still have concerns regarding Del Shepard I will be happy to entertain them again and forward any report you might have to Alliance medical. If she behaves in any way that makes you even remotely uncomfortable, come to me immediately, all right?"

"Yes, Captain, of course."

She slid the data pad into her hand as she rose, Anderson, as a gentleman, instinctively rising along with her. He smiled warmly.

"I look forward to working with you, doctor."

"Thank you Captain. As do I you."

Inclining her head politely she stepped out of the office and crossed the mess hall toward her new infirmary. Servicemen were bustling everywhere, preparing for departure in less than an hour, and she herself still had to finish inventory on the medical supplies. She hoped that would take her mind off this concern about Del Shepard. She knew it hadn't been his intention, but she felt that Anderson simply wasn't taking her seriously.

As she stepped into the infirmary, the faint smell of metal, ozone, and medi-gel embraced her like an old friend. Tossing the data pad down on the desk she sighed and sat, calling up the medical stores on the computer. Anderson had told her to watch Shepard closely, to give the woman a chance…and Helen meant to. She had treated marines for years that had suffered all kinds of trauma and horrific stress. She simply could not fathom how anyone could have gone through what this commander had endured and come out stable on the other end. It simply wasn't possible.

"I take it this is good for humanity?"

"It shows just how far we've come."

Heavy boots came down into the soft soil of Eden Prime, crushing young grass. A haven, a blessing…paradise. As heaven, it had once been a perfection of peace.

Now, however, the demons of the underworld had revolted, broken their chains and their Gate, and swept up on these blessed shores. Fire lit the sky. The distant thunder of weapons echoed endlessly in the blue.

Flames lashed out beyond the distant ridge. Their reflection rippled over the visor of her helmet, flaring her brown eyes golden. For a moment, Alenko couldn't decide if she was the avenging angel come to save paradise…or one of the devils come to claim it.

Wordlessly, Shepard gestured along the sloping path, indicating the rocks for cover. Though there was little chance of their movements being heard amid the echoes of the colony's defense guns, all three of the marines moved with quick, stealth efficiency.

It was hot, a brilliant summer's day here on Eden Prime. The temperature soared to at least 32c. Despite his armor's climate control, Alenko felt nervous sweat gathering at the back of his neck, dampening his brow. He struggled to ignore its itching. He wondered how the kid was faring but dared not take his eyes off every possible inch of cover that might hide a lurking assassin.

He caught Shepard's gesture to stop out of the corner of his eye and immediately obeyed, dropping into a crouch behind the rocks. Jenkins mirrored his action, however there were indications of his built up tension. The way he shifted slightly from foot to foot, the way his posture stiffened and relaxed. Not that Alenko could really blame him. Not only was this the kid's first realgroundside mission, he had grown up here. It could not be easy watching your home colony under attack, to know that people you had grown up with were possibly being slaughtered only a couple of hillsides away.

Shepard's brown eyes narrowed behind her face-plate as she scrutinized the path ahead. The grass was thin, dirt showing unhurried footprints that were vague and rounded, softened by the wind and not recent. There was no sign of any threat, and yet her gut was tense and heated. If Shepard had learned nothing else in life, one lesson would never be forgotten.

Always trust your gut.

No fresh prints didn't rule out air cars, drones, shuttles, anti-grav bikes, or easily a half-dozen other reasons an entire battalion couldn't have gone past here without setting a single foot on the ground.

Carefully sheathing her pistol she drew out the small sniper on her shoulder, flipping the scope on and lifting her face plate. The distant slope of the path leapt forward in sharp focus through the barrel of the scope. Scanning slowly, she scrutinized each rock and leaf, determined to find any hint of shadow, flesh, cloth, or metal that did not belong.

Nothing presented itself. She was just about to lower the sniper when she caught the faintest metallic gleam, amongst the branches of a tree. It was there and gone again, just a flash, a sliver.

The muzzle of the sniper braced on the rock in front of her, she kept her finger on the trigger, one hand lifting faintly to gesture to Alenko that she had seen something. Tense and eager, Jenkins mistook her gesture as one to move forward, and rushed out into the path.

There was the swift, wasp-like buzz of gunfire. Her finger squeezed and the shot ripped through the drone in a shatter of steel. As it dropped out of sight she heard Alenko fire as well, punctuated by Jenkins's hoarse scream.

Dropping the sniper as if it were nothing more than a used tissue, she swept her pistol out again. Two more drones where rushing up the pathway, hovering vipers spitting bullets among the rocks. She and Alenko both fired again in almost the same motion.

One drone spun away, shedding fire like a child's sparkle-disc on New Year's. The other dipped and turned, its stream of bullets shredding the foliage overhead and sending a rain of twigs and leaves down on the marines. As it tried to correct, its wild spray thumped dirt and then granite as it beat along the rocks. Shepard fired twice more and the drone dissolved into a confetti of broken electronics.


Satisfied the path was clear of drones, Shepard shipped her pistol and joined Alenko at the fallen boy's side. Gripping him lightly, she steadied his head as Alenko gingerly pulled off the boy's helmet.

His gaze was confused, pained, his eyelashes fluttering with rapid half-blinks. A rattling, wet sound punctuated the frantic breath he drew in, eyes shifting from Alenko to Shepard. His face had gone ashen pale, his chin a gore of crimson, teeth stained pink with blood.

"I'm sorry, I don't-" he gulped weakly.

"It's all right, Richard," Alenko soothed. "We'll get-"

Shepard gripped his shoulder as the boy made one last, faint sound…an unasked question that would never be answered. The light faded from his eyes.

In vids when someone died, those gathered around would simply pass their hand over their open eyes and they would gently close, the actor timing the motion with the sweeping hand. In real life it never worked that way. Even if she closed his eyes, they would simply open again in a few seconds as muscles contracted. In ancient times, they used to put coins over the eyelids to hold them shut. They called it 'fare for the Ferryman'.

Shepard didn't have the luxury of coins. As Alenko slumped into a sit and removed his helmet, cradling his forehead in his hand, Shepard clinically pulled off Jenkins' glove and draped it over his fixed gaze.

"I should have…I should have stoppedhim. He was just a kid…he never had a chance…"

"Hey." Del reached out, gripping Alenko's shoulder again, her brown eyes intense but her tone not unkind as he looked at her. "Keep it together. We've still got a mission."


"We'll get him taken care of, I promise. But right now I need your head in the game if we want to stop anyone else from dying. Pull it together, marine."

Grief would have to wait. Grief alwayshad to wait. Nothing could be done for the kid now, and if they stayed here they would likely be dead themselves very shortly. She rose to her feet as Alenko pulled his helmet back on and did likewise.

"Steady?" she asked, and he nodded.

"Steady, Commander."

"Weapons ready," she murmured, pistol already back in her hand. She paused only long enough to snag her sniper again and ship it before they continued on.

The path was a winding meander that would have been incredibly scenic under any other circumstances. Topping the cliff-side it wove through trees and around rocks, and offered a spectacular view of the valley floor far below. Scarlet, emerald, rich browns and golds were laid out in a stunning vista, patterned by geometric farmland and dominated by the great white buildings and towers of the colony 'downtown'.

It was, however, not tranquil. The defense guns on the towers still thundered with heavy fire, directed at something unseen around the far side of the ridge. Columns of smoke created thick smudges into the air, and occasionally flashes of smaller weapons-fire could be seen in the streets.

Shepard still did not know what kind of enemy they were up against. The drones meant nothing, and could have been programmed by anyone from a human mercenary to a Batarian extremist. They could round a corner at any time and come upon a full battle mech, a horde of krogan, or sniper ready to take their heads off. She had to be prepared for anything. Shepard was still alive because she prepared for anything.

Once the ground leveled out sharp spits of gunfire lit up just beyond the tree line. Shepard swept forward, she and Alenko parting as they took cover behind a pair of trees. Crouching, she cautiously looked around.

The hillside sloped down into a wide clearing, broken up by those damn rocks. From this vantage Shepard could finally see the closest buildings of the far colony fringe, perhaps half a mile further on. The clearing itself was not natural. Straight, even ranks of laser boring lining the rock walls was proof of long-term digging. Parts of the thicker granite intrusion had clearly been blasted away. They'd reached the archeology dig site.

A soldier was running up the slope, a marine non-comm by the look of her armor. She reached the largest rock intrusion, sliding behind it with all the swift grace of a zero-G ball player skidding into home. Gunfire chewed up the edge of the rock as she made cover, barely missing her helmet. Gesturing firmly at Alenko, Shepard headed her direction in a crouched run, pistol ready.

Alenko's cover fire was sharp and precise. As she reached the intrusion Shepard barked at the non-comm without so much as a glance.

"Stay down!"

She opened a spat of her own cover fire as Alenko emerged from the tree line. There was a grinding whine as her bullets hit home, and then silence. Pointing at the non-comm firmly as she looked at Alenko, Shepard cautiously approached the strange figure they'd downed lying on the ground.

For a moment, she thought it was simply odd armor hiding the alien inside. Metal was ripped and a power cell spit faintly. Portions of it looked flexible, greasy, and somehow gave the impression of writhing even while motionless. A thick, white puss-like discharge bubbled from the torn armor and oozed down to puddle beneath it. It wasn't until she reached out and touched the oddly hooked 'head' that she realized it wasn't organic at all, but some kind of machine. Bipedal, incredibly sophisticated, vaguely familiar.

Glancing around she saw Alenko had the non-comm's helmet off, the woman sitting against the intrusion. Her face glistened with sweat and she was trying to catch her breath. Striding over Shepard looked down at her.

"You all right?"

"Fine, ma'am," the non-comm panted. Her eyes looked hollow and exhausted. She lifted an arm and saluted sharply. "Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams of the 212 ma'am."

"You're not hurt?" Alenko pressed. She shook her head.

"Nothing worth writing home about," she replied with a terse, mirthless smile. "Wish I could say the same for the rest of my unit. Those…things slaughtered them or…or worse."

"Don't think I like the sound of the 'or worse'," Alenko murmured, glancing up at Shepard.

"Make sure we're not about to be surprised," Shepard ordered. Alenko rose with a nod and stepped away to clear the area. Shepard's helmet landed lightly on the grass besides Williams' as she removed it and crouched down.

"I need everything you know. What are we up against?"

"Pretty sure they're geth," Williams said, before she cleared her throat faintly, the muscles in her jaw cording with tension a moment before loosening again. "The attack was so fast, no one knew what was happening. I didn't see a ship but we could hear it, feelit almost, cutting through our heads. I can't describe it…it was tortured, crippling. Half of us were dead before we could even think. We tried to get to the civvies, dig in. Sent off a warning...a distress signal. But they kept coming. No pain, no fear…we didn't even realize they were artificial at first."

"And you're certain they're geth?"

"Almost certain, ma'am…I think they must be. What I can't understand is, why here and now? After so long keeping to themselves? I mean, obviously it's got to be the Beacon but…what is that to them?"

"The same thing it is to any of us. A chance to gain an edge."

"There's…something else too. Something that…well, it's probably best just to show you." Williams bobbed her head faintly, and then climbed to her feet, one hand holding her side a moment before it dropped. "I'm five-by now. I just needed to catch my breath."

Shepard straightened as well, picking up her helmet. "After you then, Chief."

The 'something else' lay further down the slope. Alenko re-joined them as they edged down toward it, and Shepard could feel her own jaw tense at the sight of it.

She'd seen a lot of disturbing things in her day, but this took the cake. It was sophisticated and yet primitively barbaric at the same time; a great spike, glistening with electronics, that rose nearly seven meters into the air. Impaled at the tip was a human man dressed in civvies. A thin gray cloud of flies had already gathered.

"They did this to everyone they got hold of…everyone still alive, anyway." Williams' voice was schooled but thick. The heat of the day, coupled with her exertions, made the dark hair at her temples and the back of her neck cling to her skin. "There are at least a dozen of these things, maybe more."

"That's…that's just torture," Alenko determined, the tone of righteous indignation in his voice making Shepard blink. "Do synthetics even comprehendtorture?"

"Ask the Quarians," Shepard replied dryly, fastening her helmet down again. "We'd better keep on moving. Williams, you're with us. We need to get to the Beacon."

"Yes, ma'am. It's not too far, just a bit further down the dig."

Cautiously, the trio continued on, the non-comm taking the lead. Shepard wondered if Nihlus had seen these spikes and their impaled victims. She couldn't imagine how he hadn't, and yet he had not said a word of it to them. They were ordered on radio silence unless absolutely necessary, but apparently she and the Turian had different ideas as to what was 'necessary'.

Knowing they were fighting synthetics -synthetics that were impaling people as some kind of grotesque warning- felt pretty 'necessary' to her.

Almost as if her thoughts had summoned him, the Spectre's voice suddenly filled her ear.

{Shepard, I'm at the edge of the main colony. It seems the fighting is dying down. I can see a small space port ahead. I'm going on ahead and I'll meet you there.}

"Understood," she replied, touching the transmit. "Be advised, the enemy appear to be geth."


He was gone again. Not a hint, not a cluein his voice that he already knew who the enemy were. He might as well have been taking a stroll after a picnic.

"Damn it!"

Ashley's sharp bark lifted Shepard's pistol slightly before she lowered it again. Trotting ahead a step or two she halted at the non-comm's side.

"What is it?"

"It's gone. The Beacon I mean. It was right there, we should be able to see it. Bastards must have taken it already."

"The archeologists may have moved it," Alenko pointed out. "They were expecting us to come for it after all."

"Archaeologists or geth, the most likely place either would have taken it would be that space port," Shepard told them. "Either way means we need to hurry."

"We'll have to cut over the hill through the dig camp…that's the fastest way. But it'll likely be crawling," Ashley warned, before the three of them moved forward at a jog.

Shepard's gut was tightening again, coiling into a slick, hot weight. Popping out the thermal from her pistol, she slapped a fresh one into place, taking the few rock stairs that had been carved along the sloping path two at a time.

She had just passed Williams as they reached the top of the hill, and the scene that greeted her sucked all the heat out of the summer day.

A handful of pre-fabs were scattered about…home base for the archeologists and scientists working the dig. What grass there was had been mostly worn away to dirt, any thicker vegetation clear-cut away. A small garden stood nearby, newly sprouting plants torn up and trampled. A dozen of those wicked spikes stood in a precise circle around the center of the camp, grim sentinels overlooking the scattered corpses cast about. Dirt had been churned to thick mud by the sheer amount of blood, and the humming drone of flies was all-pervasive. Not for the first time in her life was Shepard grateful her helmet was impervious to outside odor. This much death in this hot of a sun would hardly be perfume.

The bodies hadn't just been shot. Some had been gashed, ripped almost. This was more than just synthetics after the Beacon. These wounds had been caused by blades, claws perhaps. This slaughter was personal.

Most of them were civvies. A few marines. But even the massacre strewn over the ground wasn't the worst of it.

Half of the spikes were still standing tall and still. Three seemed to be in the process of retracting, sending arcs of plasma energy snapping like hot white tongues into the air, bearing their impaled victims toward the ground. A further three were already completely retracted, the bodies on them shifting and…moving?

"They're still alive?" Alenko hissed through clenched teeth.

It didn't seem possible and yet they weremoving, staggering to their feet, dying snaps of plasma energy caressing them like withering lovers. They were hairless, gray as ash, coiled with black ropes of some squirming material that gleamed here and there with bright blue light.

Shepard's throat felt dry as the first abomination turned toward her, the same baleful cyan beaming from its eyes. As its mouth dropped open to an inhuman extent, a scream like tearing steel ripped through the air.

Teeth clenched so tightly her jaw ached, Shepard snarled, "Light 'em up!"

The weapons of all three marines ignited, bullets tearing into the thing, shredding it. A normal human would have been soup in a heartbeat under the barrage, but the thing managed to stagger forward nearly four or five steps before it finally collapsed, grey flesh puffing up like dust from a mummy.

As it fell, others were ripping themselves off of lowered spikes, more of those shrieks filling the air. The spikes that had been fully extended just a moment ago also started to lower, promising to send another half dozen abominations into the fray.

"Shepard!" Williams suddenly shouted, drawing the commander's attention. In the shadows near one pre-fab, a pair of clearly wounded civvies were struggling to reach the door control. Three of the beasts had been drawn by the motion and were heading their way.

Shepard shifted her aim toward the nearest of the three, stitching a line across its back even as she began to stride forward. It staggered down to one knee and then tried to struggle up again, to keep on. Her next three shots landed with vicious precision, putting it down for good.

As it fell there was the sudden sensation of pressure, and the very air around a second one seemed to ripple and contract, bearing the thing off its feet and sending it smashing into one of the pre-fabs as if it had been hit by a krogan. Shepard only half-blinked; she'd forgotten than Alenko was a biotic.

The third was close to the civilians…tooclose. The civvies hugged each other, one screaming as they tried to scramble back from it. Shepard, still firing, felt a sudden jolt that staggered her to one side. Arms rasped like sandpaper over her armor, her shielding flaring and lighting with the same plasma bursts from the spikes. She saw the gaping mouth, looked into the ghost-fire light where eyes should be. With a grunt, she lifted an elbow and drove it as hard as she could into the thing's chest, twisting and then throwing her fist directly into its face in almost the same motion. As it tore back from her and hit the ground, she unloaded her pistol into its head with determination.

Turning back to the civvies, her weapon smoking, she saw Williams had taken care of the third monstrosity and stood now in front of the civvies, firing at a final monstrosity already being ripped apart by Alenko's weapon. Shepard ejected her thermal, snapping another one into place even as she scanned for more of the things.

The area was clear. Shepard strode over and smacked the panel for the pre-fab's door. The civvies, both scientists by the look of their tattered and dirt-stained clothing, were both weeping and frantically gushing 'thank you's as Williams helped them up to their feet.

Shepard cleared the pre-fab with a quick sweep of her pistol, then jerked her chin at Williams. "In here."

Herding the two, the non-comm moved them inside.

Shepard glanced over at Alenko as Williams checked the civilians. He was crouched, examining one of the things where it lay twisted and still on the dirt.

"They're all right, Commander," Williams reported. "Shaken up, scared to death, but nothing more than some bumps and bruises."

"We're going to lock you in," Shepard told the pair. "This area is clear now and you will be safe. We'll send a med-team to get you the moment we have the sector secure, just hold tight."

"Thank you," the young man said in a shaky voice, wiping his eyes self-consciously. The other, an older woman, gripped his hand with white-knuckle intensity.

"I don't know what we'd have done if…we owe you our lives," she murmured.

"You'll be all right," Shepard said gently, before stepping back and allowing Williams to exit. As soon as she was clear, she closed and secure-locked the door.

"I can't tell what they are, Commander," Alenko said, straightening as Shepard walked over to him. "I mean, they were human, that much is clear but…this is a technology I've never seen before. I don't think anyonehas."

Wordlessly, Shepard lit her omni-tool and passed a scan-beam over the corpse. When it had finished, she saved the information and forwarded it to the Normandy.

"This will have to be enough for right now," she said. "Hopefully the Alliance can retrieve these remains and make more sense of them…for right now we need to get our asses to that space-port. We-"

She broke off, her head snapping around as a single rifle shot tore through the air. It was distant, but not as distant as she would have liked. It was striking in that it was even audible, and she realized that the colony defense guns and the sounds of distant battle had stopped. The afternoon was almost preternaturally still and silent.

"Look at that…" Williams suddenly breathed.

A ship was lifting off, a huge black leviathan the size of Moon Orbital 2. Clouds of acrid black smoke billowed as it began to gain momentum, the sunlight washing over a surface that seemed to shift and shine like crude oil. For a single breath, as the light hit it just right, a pale rainbow ringed it in a flare of color, and then disappeared.

The very ground beneath their feet trembled at the great rumble of its engines, so deep it was feeling more than sound. In moments it was gone, vanished into the azure, the coiling column of black smoke twisting and roiling in its wake.

Silently Shepard lowered her gaze and gestured. The other two fell in behind her as they started down toward the space port.

More bodies trailed down the hill, some no older than Jenkins. Shepard's stride was mechanical as she passed a boy sprawled on the steps up to the first shipping dock, eyes staring lifelessly.

It was the body that lay just beyond him that stopped her. The pool around this one was a deep navy blue rather than red. Sharp teeth lay bared to the sun in a grimace of surprise.

"Commander?" Alenko questioned, his voice shocked. Shepard took a step forward, went down on a knee. Her gloved hand lightly touched the rough, scaled ridges over the blank yellow eyes.

"What's a turian doing here?" Williams asked with a blink.

"It's Nihlus," Shepard stated. "He was part of our team."

That wasn't exactly true, but now was hardly the time to explain it. As she drew her hand back she heard a faint sound. Instantly she was on her feet again, pistol snapping up to aim at the pale-faced civvie that stood staring at them as if he'd never seen another human being.

Her finger eased off the trigger as she glowered. "Goddamn it, do you know how closeyou came to having a hole in your face?"

"I'm…I'm sorry, I…" he stammered, trembling hands in the air as his eyes darted between the three of them with rapid, nervous motion.

She lowered the pistol, the scowl not clearing from her face as she gestured at the body. "You know what happened? You see anything?"

"I..." he licked his lips, eyes falling to the body a moment before his gaze skittered away. Slowly, unconsciously, his hands lowered to fall at his sides.

"We're not going to hurt you," Alenko soothed calmly. "We just want to know what happened."

"There were twoof them," the dockworker blurted. "One was waiting here, and then this one came. They knew each other, talked a moment...c-called each other by name-"

"Two of them? You mean, two turians," Shepard clarified. The man's head bobbed frantically.

"Y-yes, turians. The first one called this one N-Nihlus, and he called the other one Saren, I think."

"What happened after they talked?"

"He...he turned around, looked that way." The man pointed a shaking finger first at the body, then back up the hill in the direction they'd just come from. "Then the other one...S-Saren, sh-shot him, j-just shothim..."

Shepard looked down at Nihlus once more. He had been looking for them. Had they moved just a little faster, they might have been able to help him.

Another turian. Here with the geth, or at least aware of them and willing to take advantage of the situation long enough to murder Nihlus. Saren...I won't forget that name.

"Where did he go, this 'Saren'," she asked. "After he shot Nihlus?"

"The cargo train, to the other side of the docks. It's just that way, around the corner. I can't...I can't look at him anymore. Can I go?"

"In one second," Shepard said sternly. "First, what's your name?"

"Powell," he replied. He rubbed at his neck, his eyes less frantic now and more exhausted.

"Powell," she echoed with a nod. "Ok, Powell. Did you see the Beacon? Did Saren have it with him?"

At the man's blank look, Ashley chimed in. "It would have been about three meters tall, thin...metal that looked like stonework, alien in design."

Confusion clarified into understanding. "No, no...they took it through early this morning...feels like a hundred years ago. To the other side, the docking platform over there. He...that must be where he was going. The cargo train-"

"We have to move," Shepard intoned. Looking at Powell she told him, "Stay here. Alliance rescue teams should be through soon."

"Yeah, okay," he mumbled, withered and seeming aged beyond his years, his gaze falling to the silent body once more. "Okay."

"I'm supposed to be on shore leave," Shepard grumbled under her breath as the butt of her rifle slammed into the corner of the panel. Just behind her, Alenko and Williams were laying down a blanket of weapons-fire so loud she almost couldn't hear herself. What she couldhear, however, was each beep as the holographic display shimmering in front of the panel counted down another second.

Salted bomb. The entire dock was wired. They hadn't even tried to hide it. It was beyond insane. A pocket nuke purposefully salted with cobalt, it was like the murders of those civvies…indisputably personal. The nuke itself was only powerful enough to take out the transport hub and docking station. As soon as it went off, however, the nuke's tamper would blanket the entire colony in enough cobalt-fueled gamma radiation to make death for any organic creature a terrible, agonizing certainty. No quick, clean death, it was designed with the sole purpose of making them suffer.

Another slam with the butt of her rifle and the casing finally bent enough for her to get a grip on it. Ripping it off, the holographic display shorting out, she all but tore a small circuit board free and snatched a small tool from her belt.

"Commander!" Alenko shouted.

"Thirty seconds," she snapped back without looking around or pausing her work. Painstakingly she severed a small connection and then began to bypass the electronic pulse trigger signal.

Shore leave!

The small power unit sparked and then died, the tiny surge meant to trigger the bomb simply looping on itself as she finished the bypass. Blasting out a sigh of relief she gave the circuit board a tug, tearing it free from its connections and tossing it disdainfully on the ground. Tucking the tool away she pulled out her pistol and joined the other two as they took down the last of the synthetics.

Williams swept ahead, scanning the ramp, and then gave the all-clear. Shepard shipped her pistol as Alenko glanced back at the remains of the bomb trigger.

"Someone wanted to make absolutelysure every organic in a hundred mile radius was made very dead," Shepard told him.

"Is it safe?"

"It's shielded enough, or else our radiation alarms would be sounding," she said, tapping the tiny indicator in the collar of her armor-suit. "You could probably play zero-g with the nuke now and it would be fine, but let's not try that."

"Commander, the platform is secure," Williams reported as she returned to her companions. "But get this…the Beacon is still there."

Shepard's puzzled look was unmistakable. What was all this about, if not the Beacon? And if that's what they were after, why go through this much trouble just to leave it behind? She'd been sure that huge ship had it on board.

Following after Williams they headed down the ramp to the docking platform. At the far end it stood, tall, thin, and unmistakably alien. It was wreathed in a thin green aura, a brighter spotlight lancing straight up into the air. She could feel a faint hum through her boots, like the pulse of a small machine working very hard.

"It sure wasn't doing that the last time I saw it," Williams said as she shed her helmet, smoothing some hair back from her damp cheeks. She squinted at the ethereal green-yellow light. "It's kind of cool…in a creepy sort of way."

"Alenko, do a full sweep. Make sure we don't have any more surprises waiting for us; particularly of the exploding kind," Shepard ordered. As he lit up his omni-tool and stepped away, she switched her helmet-com over to the ship band.

"Normandy, we have the Beacon. Securing it now. Be advised we have radioactive material at our location, we'll need a full clean-up."

{Radioactive material?}Anderson sounded surprised.

"Someone set up a cobalt salted pocket nuke to take out this entire colony. I took out its trigger and it's well-shielded but best not to take any chances."

{Understood. We'll be at your location in five minutes for a pick-up, Shepard. Normandy out.}

Hauling her helmet off she wiped a wrist over her brow, then gave a weary chuckle as she caught William's eye. The non-comm half-grinned as well.

"Hell of a day, ma'am," she said, the exhaustion that had previously only been visible in her eyes now clear in her voice.

"You can say that twice, Gunny," Shepard agreed. Looking past her to where Alenko was finishing his sweep she called, "We five-by?"

"All clear, Commander," he replied, switching off his omni-tool as he turned away from the edge of the dock, only feet from the Beacon.

The air suddenly shimmered, rippling in distortions similar to heat waves, the emerald light around the beacon growing in intensity. As the distortion reached Alenko he gasped, jolting forward and then backward as if lassoed around the waist, stumbling to regain his balance.

Her helmet clattered to the ground as Shepard ran forward, nearly knocking Williams down in her haste. As she reached the edge of the distortion field herself it was as if time suddenly stretched and then compressed.

Her shoulder collided with Alenko's and instinctively she shoved. She was barely aware of him hitting the ground, sliding beyond the boundary of the field. As if she were attached to elastic she was snapped backward.

The universe spun in a drunken stupor. Green light filled her eyes, burned through her brain, laid her bare.

Muscles bound as rigid as steel around bones that blistered and swelled and cracked with heat. She screamed, a silent rush of desert wind that scattered her like ash. Guttural, violent noise rumbled and shrieked through her ears. A form, a being drifted out of the dark. She reached for it, and at her touch it fell away and dissolved.

Metal shone and glistened like oil. A rainbow winked across the sky. Buildings collapsed, screaming bodies crushed beneath falling stone and iron.

Is this what is best for humanity?

Anderson smiled warmly in the glow of comm room displays. The weight of his hand on her shoulder was fatherly, affectionate, reliable.

If anyone can do this, it's you Del. The first human Spectre…if you pull this off, it shows just how far humanity has come.

His brown eyes glistened, his warm smile softening.

It shows just how far you have come.

We'll be working together for a while, Shepard. It will take time to prove to the Council that you are exactly what the galaxy needs.

Nihlus's yellow eyes were steady. It was hard to tell with turians, they always looked so stern anyway, but his stoicism seemed sincere.

He melted away like a candle. Anderson turned ashen and fell apart like burned leaves. His voice whispered like sand.

We unearthed a Prothean Beacon, Shepard. This mission is all yours.

Her lungs ached as she ran through fiery rain. The sky was coming down, great metal hands reaching from heaven, tearing the world asunder with lightning.

We are the vanguard of your destruction. You fumble in ignorance.

The ground disappeared in a fall of rock. A skinned face wept thick white tears amongst a nest of electronics, synthetic agony, synthetic fear.

Scream, you little rat!

The Room was small, dirty. The Woman was sick, her skin yellow, eyes and lips tinged a blotchy red. She reached forward with bony, hot little hands to grasp frantically at the Man.

Please…some credits. I'm hungry...

The Man slapped her away, spittle foaming his lips.

We'd have more food if it weren't for the brat!

Sharp hot pain in her arm as he snatched her from the corner. He smelled of urine and sweat and rotten teeth. His breath was a hot furnace. The blade that cut into her collar bone was even hotter.

Scream, you little rat!

Crawling away. Dizzy. The knife shining again.

Scream! Scream or die you pathetic little pest!

The scream that ripped out of her heated her throat and lungs and rang in her ears as huge steel fingers tore the Room away and left only darkness.

The great black corridor undulated and coiled like the intestines of some enormous beast petrified into steel and stone. Her small hand could feel a deep, rhythmic sound pulsing through the bulkhead; a great, slumbering heart-beat.

"00100100, 00111111, 01101010, 10001000, 10000101, 10100011, 00001000, 11010011…"

The human woman was small, thin in a way that did not seem healthy. Her blonde hair was a pretty enough shade but unkempt and raggedly cut. Her skin had a dusky, leathery texture to it that testified to far too long spent out in solar radiation without protection. It made her look older than she was. Her eyes, quick and muddy green, were sunk into hollows, yet almost fever-bright. She was mumbling the numbers to herself as she walked, her hand trailing along the wall. Between the first two fingers of her other hand, curlicues of smoke danced from the tip of a lit cigarette that was crumbling to ash, forgotten.

The sound of something hard hitting the wall beyond a doorway up ahead halted her murmurs and lifted her gaze. Intrigued, she mindlessly flicked the butt across the corridor and then drifted closer to the open door, poking her head around the corner.

Benezia was as collected and statuesque as always, standing with the cool confidence only asari seemed capable of. The turian snarling at her was far less composed, his talons gripping her head as if he meant to break her neck. He grumbled something low under his breath, something she could not hear from this vantage, and then released the asari, stalking away.

With a calm indicative of her near-millennia in age , Benezia turned and walked across the room, the asari's blue eyes swiftly focusing on the human woman watching silently from the shadow of the doorway. She said nothing, only the faintest arch of one brow displaying her curiosity to the human as she stepped past and into the corridor.

"You told him about that soldier using the Beacon," the blonde stated as she fell in behind her. "He should have made sure it was destroyed before he departed Eden Prime, not waited in the hopes the nuke would take it out."

"Believe it or not, he does listen to you on occasion," Benezia stated evenly. "There was a separate device wired to the Beacon. It…did not detonate as swiftly as expected."

"That's what happens when you rely on these synthetics," her companion replied with a faint grunt.

"The geth have been extremely reliable so far."

"There's a very basic difference in how a synthetic intelligence operates when compared to an organic," she sniped, rolling her shoulders as if a weight rested uncomfortably upon them. "Most of the time that may prove favorable, but obviously there are going to be situations when their motivations, methods and results are going to be incomprehensible to normal, average organic simpletons."

"Gellian, I suspect you are not including yourself among these 'normal, average organic simpletons'," Benezia said with mild amusement.

"I nearly, purposefully, removed half my brain when I was ten years old," Gellian replied in irritation. "Had I done so, it might have actually been more realistic to say I even approached the class of so-called 'normal' organic intelligence. For example, did you know that every system in this ship vibrates at a pulsation frequency that identically matches the binary translation of Pi?"

Benezia's concern wasn't with the pulsation frequency, nor was she in any way startled to know that Gellian Osco knew the binary translation of Pi off the top of her head. Instead her concern was far more pragmatic.

"Gellian, you have taken your medication?"

Osco's smirk was wry and mirthless. "Time spent on this ship seems to affect the potency of my 'medication', as you diplomatically put it. I wonder how Saren's research would fare if he knew that little bit of trivia. So, what does he intend to do about this random soldier and his unfortunate use of the Beacon?"

"Her," Benezia corrected. "The 'random soldier' is one of Captain Anderson's crew. I researched her dossier a moment ago…a Commander Delilah Shepard. He wishes her eliminated."

"The Butcher of Torfan," Gellian smirked. A butcher of a different kind in her own right, Gellian's muddy green eyes sparkled with dangerous depths. "Well, if she activated the Beacon and even manages to partially translate the information it will lead her in the same direction it is leading us. I look forward to dissecting her brain. What about your daughter?"

Only the most astute observer would have noticed the ever so slight stiffening of Benezia's gait, the subtle shift deep in her aging blue eyes.

"She has information that could prove most valuable," she answered. "She is being retrieved. Saren has promised she will not be harmed."

"The promises of the mad to the mad," Gellian chuckled.

"His decision is the correct one. I cannot be blinded by familial affection."

"Those aren't your words, nor are they his," Gellian told her sternly, pausing at a junction. "Pi isn't the only thing this ship knows, 'Zia. I feel its claws too."

Benezia's gaze was stern but silent. The little human doctor, quite unique among her species, nodded in respect to the Matriarch. "If you want, I can go get her," she offered.

"He has already sent a team."

"Then I had best go quickly. I could use the time off the ship anyway. Perhaps the 'medication' will regain its potency."

The asari's lashes trembled ever so faintly, the most show of emotion Gellian had ever seen from her. "Go," she said at last. "And if his team harms her…"

The blonde only smiled, inclining her head in respectful agreement before she turned on her heel and strode away.

Dr. Chakwas turned away from the drawer as the bustle reached the infirmary door, the small handful of tools in her hand clattering into a tray as she indicated the nearest bed.

"Put her there, quickly."

Alenko did not miss a beat in his stride, an unfamiliar marine at his heels as he lay the limp form in his arms onto the nearest bio-bed. They had not removed her helmet, but that didn't lessen her irritation.

"You should have waited for a hover-gurney," she chided as she swiftly accessed the bed's holographic interface. As the full scan began, a yellow light sweeping down over the prone form, Alenko stammered a nervous apology.

"W-we thought it best to get her here as quickly as possible-"

"If she was hit by an explosion, Lieutenant, there could very well be spinal damage. Lifting and carrying her like that could have killed her, or rendered her permanently paralyzed."

Her glance at his face, however, quickly softened her expression. "I'm sorry, Kaidan, you didn't deserve that. Here, give me a hand."

He came up to the opposite side of the bed, and at her direction, gently held down Shepard's shoulders as Chakwas carefully unfastened the latches to her helmet and began easing it off. The unfamiliar marine lingered silently in the doorway, watching.

"It wasn't just the explosion that…that Beacon did something to her. It…it was the strangest thing I'd ever seen," Alenko informed her as the helmet slowly slid free.

Chakwas had not yet met Shepard officially. Though she had read her file and expressed her concerns to the Captain in his office, she hadn't actually yet been faced with the woman herself. She had only caught a glimpse of her in passing as Shepard crossed the mess hall, her first thought then only that Shepard seemed a little shorter than she had expected her to be.

She had classic features, lovely but not knock-down gorgeous. Her skin, normally a warm tan, was pale and clammy, rings under her eyes reddened and deepening to faintly purple closer to the lids. She had one of the old Earth Native American tribes in her heritage, Chakwas thought. The genetics brought with them a kind of…noble solemnity.

A strange, ugly bruise darkened one temple, forming a starburst pattern of purples and black. Beneath their lids, her eyes were rolling wildly back and forth. Plucking the tiny pen light up from the tray she peeled back one lid.

The dark brown iris flared chocolate as the light passed over it. Her pupil was tight and non-responsive to the light. The rolling motion continued, and she showed no sign of regaining consciousness.

As Helen checked the other eye, Anderson strode in, his face grim as he regarded his limp XO. "Doctor?"

"There are no broken bones, no internal injuries," Chakwas reported, her eyes lifting to the completed bio-bed scan. "Her brain activity is nearly off the chart, and this eye activity…it's almost as if she's dreaming, but entire sections of her brain are lighting up erratically in ways that just shouldn't be possible. She has a mild concussion, but that hardly explains anything I'm seeing."

"What happened, soldier?" he asked gruffly, his stern eyes shifting from Shepard to the unfamiliar marine. She immediately saluted.

"Chief Ashley Williams, sir," she stated. "It was the Beacon, sir. I've never seen anything like it."

"It was my fault, Captain," Alenko replied, straightening to attention as he turned to face Anderson. "It put out some kind of energy field. It almost felt like it…like it reached out and grabbed me sir. For a second it felt like my implant was going to burn its way right out of my skull. Next thing I knew Shepard was knocking me out of the way of the field."

"It completely suspended her, sir," Williams added. "Lifted her a full meter in the air and then just…held her there."

"Then it exploded?"

"Yes, sir," Alenko answered. "Knocked us off our feet, and it threw her clear across the platform. There wasn't enough of it left to tell if it simply overloaded or if the explosion was deliberate sabotage."

"If this Saren was working with the geth, I wouldn't put it past-" Ashley began, only to break off as Anderson's suddenly icy glare whipped to her.

"Did you say Saren?"

"Yes, sir," Alenko responded in her stead. "A dockworker witnessed another turian kill Nihlus. He said that Nihlus called him Saren."

"Did you see this 'Saren?'"

"No, sir. He was gone before we reached the Beacon. Do you know him, sir?"

"In a way. He's another Spectre. This is just terrific…" His voice lowered to a grumble and he rubbed his forehead in irritation a moment before he dropped his hand. "Alenko, go stow your gear. I want a full report in two hours. Williams, was it? I'll need the contact information for your direct superior. You're to remain on board until I speak to them."

"Yes, sir."

"Doctor?" He looked back at Chakwas and her patient, his voice softening slightly as she looked up at him. "Is she going to be all right?"

"Well, medi-gel should help take care of her concussion and this nasty contusion on her head," she said with a puzzled sigh. "As for the rest…I can't say for certain. This brain-wave activity is so strange, I've never seen the like of it…but all the rest of her vitals suggest she is merely sleeping, even if I can't wake her. All we can really do at this point is wait, see if she wakes up on her own."

"Understood. Let me know the moment anything changes. I've got to report to Admiral Hackett and the Council what's happened."

{Sir, the Olympiad and the Montreal have just entered orbit,} the pilot's voice sounded over the comm. {Medical and clean-up teams are deploying dirt-side.}

"Understood, Joker. I'll be right up."

"Jenkins, sir…" Alenko ventured wearily.

"I've already got men heading out to bring him home," Anderson murmured, then reached out and put his hand on the biotic's shoulder sympathetically. "Go get settled, Kaidan. It's all right."

As the two marines left the infirmary, Anderson lingered a moment, stepping over to the bio-bed and looking down at Del. As Chakwas watched, he reached out and lightly touched the woman's limp hand.

"Come back to us, marine," he murmured. Then his shoulder's squared and he looked at Helen. "Take good care of her, doctor."

"I will, Captain," she promised, watching him solemnly as he turned and strode out.

Color was the first to return, soaking into the endless black like water into a sponge. Blurs of light sent lances dancing through her head, sharp teeth digging into her eyes. Sound swiftly followed, a rush at first like a distant river, then muffled voices swathed in wet cotton.

Instinct rose before sense, and her hands lashed outward, a grunt of anxiety erupting unbidden from her throat.

"Commander! Commander, you're all right," a muffled voice soothed as her left hand was caught. The back of her right caught against something hard and edged, and the thin lance of pain that flared through it seemed to burn away the dusky fog.

She blinked once, twice, at the woman looming over her. "Doctor…" she murmured.

"Yes, Dr. Chakwas," the woman replied with a faint smile. "It's good to have you back."

She clenched her eyes shut a moment, then blinked rapidly, trying to focus through the throbbing pain in her head. As she shifted to sit up a gentle hand on her shoulder halted her. "Not so fast," Chakwas chided gently. "There's no hurry. How are you feeling?"

"Like I've got the worst hang-over in the world," Del grumbled with a faint smirk. "But I take it something more happened to me than a night on the town."

"You were on Eden Prime," Chakwas explained. "The Beacon…do you recall?"

The Beacon…yes, that was it. Memory bled through her aching mind. The nuke. The Beacon, left behind on the platform, lit up in sickly greens and yellows. Alenko…something had happened to Alenko, and she'd run forward, and then-

Screams. Pain. Great hands of black metal, stretching from the tortured sky.

"Yes," she murmured, lifting the heel of her hand to press into her forehead, trying to ease the sharpening of that ache, to erase the strange images that flashed through her mind. "Something happened…Alenko, and then-…is Alenko all right?"

"I'm fine, Commander."

Having just stepped into the infirmary, the lieutenant came to join Chakwas at the edge of the bio-bed. He looked haggard, and tired, but probably a far-sight better than she did at the moment. His forehead was wrinkled in concern.

"Kaidan wasn't hurt," Chakwas told her. "Whatever it was that happened, you got him out of the way before it could really affect him."

"I'm sorry, Commander," Alenko apologized. "I was careless. I must have activated some kind of defense mechanism or energy shield. Then the Beacon exploded and you were knocked cold."

"The Beacon is gone?" she asked, levering herself up on her elbows. The bruise on her forehead was gone thanks to Chakwas' ministrations, but with her mussed hair hanging into her eyes and the still pale tint to her skin, she looked far younger than her actual years. She shook her head, and when Chakwas didn't stop her, continued pushing herself up into a sit. The throb in her head increased for a few heart-beats, a great painful drum that pulsed red, and then died down again. "It was hardly your fault, lieutenant. There was no way to anticipate what happened."

His shoulders slumped a little, but that worried little crease on his forehead didn't ease. "Even so-"

"No more apologies," she said sternly, waiting for his nod of agreement before she looked at the doctor. "So how bad was it?"

"Strange, more than bad," Chakwas answered. "No broken bones or soft tissue impact trauma…you can thank your shields for that. You had a mild concussion which has been resolved."

The odd look on the doctor's face caused Shepard to gently prod, "But…?"

"We recorded some rather unusual brain activity," she admitted. "In all my years as a doctor, I haven't seen anything like it. Nearly your entire brain lit up at once; cerebral cortex, cerebellum, even your entire limbic system. Given the brain waves you should not only have been conscious, but having a mental cascade seizure at the same time."

"What's a 'mental cascade seizure?'" Alenko asked before Shepard could.

"It's an extremely rare phenomenon seen in those suffering from Petit Wahler's Complex…those that survive infancy, that is. Usually around adolescence, their brains suddenly overload in cascade seizures as every synapse abruptly fires at once. Their brain activity goes off the chart, and during the period they are coherent they will start verbally 'dumping' data in an attempt to compensate for the confusion. They'll start frantically reciting the alphabet, whole books worth of text that they've read, blurting out memories or actually reliving past events, usually traumatic, but in the end they experience full synaptic failure as their brain tears itself apart."

At the look on Shepard and Kaidan's face she blinked. "Not…not that this is going to happen here!" she quickly amended. "Shepard doesn't have Petit Wahler's, I was merely commenting on the similarity of brain activity. There is no sign of synaptic breakdown of any kind, and no indications that it will happen again."

"Well, that's good to know," Shepard joked dryly.

Shaking her head, still flustered at her faux pas, Chakwas cleared her throat. "You were also experiencing a great deal of rapid eye movement, normally a sign of dreaming. In fact most indications showed you were sleeping, rather than unconscious, but we could not wake you."

"Dreaming? I don't…"

The ache in her head renewed itself. Dreaming. Yes, there had been something, hadn't there?

"I…all I can remember is a confused jumble. Noises, images…I…synthetics? I think there were synthetics…attacking, pain…organics fleeing, torn apart."

"Sounds like a hell of a dream," Alenko lifted his brows. "And a logical one, considering what we'd just seen on Eden Prime."

"I…suppose so. I'm not usually one for bad dreams…"

"Perhaps it wasn't a bad dream," Chakwas ventured. "We have no idea what that Beacon did to you. It was created thousands of years ago, by an alien race we know almost nothing about."

"I should go notify the Captain that she's awake," Alenko excused himself before walking out, giving Shepard a faint smile and a nod as he did so.

"He's been very worried about you," Chakwas confessed after he'd gone. "Guilt, I think."

"Wasn't his fault," Shepard reiterated. "Besides, I have a head like granite. Would take more than a little skull-knock to do any real harm."

Threading a hand behind her neck she stretched and cracked her head sharply from side to side. It helped the lingering headache, but only a little. "How long until I'm fit for duty again?"

"Final say is up to Anderson. Your stats are all normal though no doubt your head is still a bit unhappy."

"Nothing I can't handle. Little headache is nothing."

"No doubt, but even so, no need to suffer needlessly."

Chakwas poured a glass of water and then brought over a small pill, handing them both to Shepard. "Analgesic. Should get rid of the headache in just a couple of minutes."

Obediently Shepard downed the pill, chasing it with a swallow of water. "I appreciate everything you've done, Doc."

"My duty, nothing more…but you're welcome. The crew's morale hasn't been the best since…well, since we received news of Corporal Jenkins. They'll be relieved they don't have to mourn their commander as well."

Though she schooled it exceptionally well, Chakwas could see the woman's jaw tense a little, the light in her eyes dimming ever so slightly.

She's feeling his loss, she noted silently.

"I know that it isn't easy to lose someone under your command," she murmured sympathetically. "From what I understand, there was nothing you could have done."

"There's always something that could have been done," Shepard replied, meeting the doctor's eyes a moment before her gaze shifted to the infirmary door. Anderson stepped in, traces of relief appearing on his face.

"Good to see you awake, Commander." His smile was faint and brief, but more than genuine. "You had us all concerned."

"Well, you did pull me off of shore leave, Captain," she joked dryly. "I was bound and determined to get a hang-over one way or another."

"I see. Well, I suppose your brains can't get any more scrambled than they usually are, anyway."

"Sir, ha ha, sir," she retorted with a smirk and a sarcastic salute.

"Dr. Chakwas, I need to speak to Shepard in private," he probed, looking at his medical officer. The doctor nodded, answering his unspoken question.

"Well, judging by her sense of humor, she should be more than up for it. I suggest she take it easy for the next few hours but I see no reason she can't return to light duty, or discuss weighty matters with her commanding officer. I feel the need for some coffee, at any rate. I'll be in the mess if I'm needed."

As Chakwas left them alone, Shepard got to her feet. Anderson ignored his first instinct, which was to reach out and help her. He had been raised a gentleman, and even now had to sometimes remind himself that female marines…and most especially Shepard…considered such chivalry as a sign that they were viewed as weak. Female or not, Shepard hated relying on anyone, and took even the faintest feelings she had of helplessness as a personal insult. Though she still looked slightly pale, with gray shadows under her eyes, she showed no sign of dizziness or weakness.

On her feet, she nonchalantly leaned against an equipment bay, folding her arms. Though not as bulky as a lot of marines got, Shepard was in top shape, a fact that was only emphasized by the posture she stood in. The muscles and tendons on her arms displayed as if they were carved in marble, and he thought with some internal humor that, in this stance, she looked like a bouncer at a dust-bar in the slums.

"Jenkins…" she ventured softly, after a moment's silence.

"Was not your fault," Anderson said firmly.

"So everyone keeps telling me. He was under my command. I'm responsible."

"The geth are responsible. You're not a goddess, Shepard. You cannot see all ends, no one can. You can't control the galaxy, can't fix it. Like the rest of us you can only do what you can and hope for the best."

She made a non-committal sound, then met his eyes. "I take it Alenko filed a report and you need me to fill in the holes?"

"Both Alenko and Williams have been debriefed, and to be honest what they have told me is more than a little disturbing. A geth invasion, Nihlus murdered by one of his own…not to mention the horrors inflicted on the colonists and scientists."

"Williams is aboard?"

"Her entire unit was killed. I spoke with Alliance Brass and her superiors. She has been officially transferred to the Normandy at my request. According to Kaidan she more than held her own dirt-side."

"She's a fine soldier. If I had a dozen more like her there wouldn't be a race out there that would dare look cross-eyed at the Alliance, or its colonies."

He smirked. "You always did have a way of putting things, Del."

She regarded him with her dark eyes. "What is it I'm not going to like?" she asked. "You never devolve to first names unless you think something's going to piss me off."

He sighed, scrubbing the palm of his hand over his lips a moment. "I'm not going to lie. This is bad, Shep. The Beacon is rubble, Nihlus- murdered. Geth, who haven't been seen in two hundred years, suddenly invading our colony, perpetuating unspeakable horrors on our people. I have Alliance brass breathing down my neck wanting to know what went wrong, and this could be all the excuse needed to bin any hope of a human Spectre for the next five decades."

"And what else should I have done?" She demanded hotly. He lifted his hands.

"I don't blame you, Shep. No one should. At the very least, because of you the colony is still standing instead of blanketed in fall-out. You're a hero, anyone with eyes can see it. But even getting the Council this far has been like pulling teeth from an angry rhino. This will be more than enough for the Council races to decide humanity is not ready, to open a huge investigation that will tear everything we've done apart to be scrutinized."

"I'll talk to them, then. Explain what happened," she replied. "I'll file any report or submit to any interview I need to."

"It's already being done. We're on our way to the Citadel right now. Ambassador Udina has been trying to run interference, give us an audience with the Council. Hopefully they'll listen, but they aren't going to like this, Shepard. Especially since our accusations will land directly upon one of their own."

"That turian, the one that shot Nihlus," she murmured. "Saren."

"Saren Arterius," Anderson echoed, the faintest hint of a growl in his deep voice. "Unfortunately one of the longest serving and most respected of the Council Spectres."

"He's a murderer is what he is," Shepard retorted hotly. "A murderer and a coward."

"And the only proof we have that he was even there is that dockworker, Powell. And as much as I hope I'm wrong, I doubt the half-sureties of some terrified human is going to pull much sway."

The muscles on either side of her jaw were cording under tension, but her voice was soft and even…a dangerous sign to those who knew her well, an ill-boding to anyone who stood in her way.

"I will find a way to convince them."

"I hope so, Shep," he replied. "I wish the Beacon hadn't been destroyed. Knowing what information was contained in it would have helped, shown what it was that the geth, at least, were after. There was no hint as to what was recorded in it? No clue?"

Should she tell him about the dream? It was still so confusing, nothing but shards of broken images, like shattered glass. Even trying to recall them now brought up nothing but a jumble of death, pain, and destruction that made her stomach clench and her skin go cold.

Licking her lips, she dropped her arms at her side, gripping the edge of the equipment bank. "I saw…something. For all I know, it was simply a strange nightmare caused by my concussion…that blast. Some kind of dream."

"A dream?" His brows lifted in surprise. "About what?"

She shook her head helplessly. "It makes no sense. Mostly just images, sounds, smells…pictures and feelings scattered around. It was like, I was being killed, massacred, in a thousand different ways. Enormous synthetics, I think, tearing the sky apart, and fire…"

He was scrutinizing her intensely. She made no mention about the other images, shreds of past traumas, old wounds well-buried and best forgotten. Those parts had at least felt like her. The rest had felt like something else.

"Perhaps the Beacon was malfunctioning, attempting to impart to you the information it carried," he ventured after a moment. "The sky tearing apart, fire…perhaps there were plans for some massive weapon, hidden in the Beacon, buried away from those who would try and use it. It would explain why Saren and the geth would want it. We need to tell the Council of this as well."

She groaned faintly, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Because that won't sound crazy at all."

"I need to include this in the report, Shepard," Anderson insisted. She made a helpless gesture of commiseration. His gaze softened.

"Look, it's just after 2200. We won't be to the Citadel for at least another nine hours. Get some rest. Report back for duty at 0600."

I could use a cigar and a stiff drink…or three, she thought, knowing she would have neither aboard ship. The analgesic had helped but her head still gave off a red-hot pulse now and again, and her thoughts couldn't seem to settle. Straightening she stood at attention and saluted. "Yes, sir."

He lifted his hand to his brow in return, then stepped over, placing an affectionate hand on her shoulder. "We'll get it done, Shep. We always do."

Shepard had been to nearly every hairy, sweaty armpit-hole in Alliance space…most of which, sadly, were on Earth. Her old crew-mates and those of her friends…what few friends she had…had always wondered why she chose to spend her shore-leave in such disgusting places, though none would dare ask her directly.

Truth was, they were the only places off-ship where Shepard actually felt at home.

She'd have taken the worst of them right this moment, rather than be in this clean, white, sterilized office.

The air was surprisingly fresh for a space-station. Artificial sunlight poured over the wide balcony, the smell of grass, water, and the rustle of trees floating in. Alenko and Williams were at the railing, admiring the view and doing their best not to intrude on the rather terse conversation behind them.

The only difference, Shepard decided, between the man standing in front of her and the slimiest reprobate from the darkest slum on Earth was a sharp suit. Politicians were only another kind of criminal. She preferred the ones that were at least honest about themselves.

And he was giving her a dressing down. This skinny, sour-faced grey-haired little bastard that looked as if she could snap him in half over her knee…he was giving her a dressing down.

"I know you marines, more brawn than brain-cells," he was yapping. "You would rather hit a problem than deal with it properly, and what have you to show for it? A dead Spectre? A decimated colony? I hope you are proud of yourself, Commander. You single-handedly set your entire race back to the Stone Age as far as the Council is concerned. You-"

Seeing the hot, dangerous little sparks starting to light in Shepard's eyes, Anderson wisely ran interference. "You cannot blame her for this. Shepard's the only reason the Eden Prime colony is still standing. And the Council is at least willing to hear us out."

He gestured at the holographic pads, where just a moment ago the three Councilors had been projected. They hadn't sounded even remotely pleased, but at least they were granting an audience. It was a toe in the door, if nothing else. Ambassador Udina, however, didn't seem to see it that way.

"Likely only to prove to everyone just how primitive and unreliable we humans are," Udina retorted. "If we had sent a mentally-deviant shaved gorilla to Eden Prime we'd have had better results!"

"Unfortunately, one wasn't available, sir," Shepard said, her voice deadly calm. Udina's eyes narrowed, and then he flapped a hand dismissively.

"We will just have to hope Citadel Security finds evidence against Saren Arterius, enough to at least lend weight to our claims. I'm not even sure I am convinced of them myself. All we have is a dockworker and a bad dream."

"Saren is a traitor. You know that as well as I, Ambassador," Anderson accused sharply. "Shepard has always served the Alliance proudly. If she says it was Saren, then it was Saren."

"Oh, yes. I'm sure the men and women who died on Torfan would have nothing but accolades to shower down on Shepard."

There was a faint creak as Shepard's gloved right hand clenched into a fist, her only reaction to his words.

"That's not fair," Anderson said angrily. "And it has nothing to do with the current situation."

"Yes, it does. You had better believe the Council will have it in mind when we meet with them," Udina warned. "True or not, fair or not, all they will do is look at this mess and remember Torfan. Do you know what I had to go through just to get them to even entertain the notion of Shepard as a Spectre?"

"I'm sure it was torturous for you," Anderson replied. To his credit, only a hint of sarcasm shone through in his words.

The Ambassador made a sound to show the tone had not escaped him, before he scratched at his short gray hair. "At this point, all we can do is try and run interference, salvage what we can of the situation and hope that that Council is open-minded enough to listen to us. I expect you and Shepard to be at the meeting in one hour."

His baleful, watery gaze fixed Shepard's. "I do trust you know how to read a watch properly, Commander?"

She inclined her head slightly. "I do. I also know how to break down and reassemble sixteen different types of weapons, configure and repair a Mark-1 navigational drive, and snap a man's neck with one hand. Sir."

"Yes, well…" His eyes narrowed even further as he tried to decide if that was a threat, or not. Giving another weak flap of his hand he mumbled, "Dismissed until the meeting. Anderson, I want you to stay here. We have a lot to discuss."

"Yes, sir," Anderson replied, and then stepped a few feet away with Shepard.

"Don't let him get to you. He's under a lot of stress."

"He'd have to give me a reason to care about his opinion, sir," Del told him. "So far, I would take the words of a lobotomized Chankan toad more to heart than his."

"Yes, well," Anderson couldn't help the momentary grin, before he shook his head. "Unfortunately, he's right about the Council. Hopefully we can get them to listen to reason, but our evidence is thin at best. I will see you on the Presidium in an hour, Commander."

She saluted with a nod, then turned and headed out of the far too white office, Williams and Alenko retreating after her. As soon as the door had closed, Williams let out an angry breath.

"You have far more patience than I have, Commander," she confessed. "Had he said something like that to me, he'd be counting his teeth."

"Satisfying as that would have been, the court-martial afterward would have been less amusing," Alenko pointed out.

"I'd rather not give that little worm the satisfaction," Shepard replied. "C'mon. We have an hour and it won't take nearly that long to get to the Council chambers. Time to dawdle."

Williams laughed at Shepard's thin grin. "Dawdling it is."

"Funny, I never took you for a dawdler," Alenko chimed in with a chuckle as they headed down the stairs to street-level.

"Alenko," Shepard crooned with amusement. "The things that you don't know about me could fill a universe."

The meeting with Udina had left a sour taste in her mouth, and the bright cheerfulness of the Citadel she found only grating.

She had been there only once before in her life, and it was clear from the way they were gawking about that Williams and Alenko had never before visited. Everything…at least, everything here on the Presidium, was clean and cheerful and bright, with vivid colors standing out against the white walkways.

A patchwork of faces formed a sea of races that spanned almost the entirety of the galaxy. Most were asari, turian and salarian; the three Council races. Only slightly less common were human and the squat, round volus. Elcor moved like great slow islands in this sea, and now and again the shimmering pink of a hanar surfaced and then vanished.

On the whole, Shepard had no problem with other species. Way she figured it, they were just folk trying to get by, like anyone else. As most anyone from Earth she had a lingering suspicion of turians that stemmed back to the First Contact War, and a slightly stronger animosity toward the batarians thanks to Torfan. Batarians, however, were never seen on the Citadel; she'd have to head out to the Terminus to run into that lot.

Of all of them, she supposed the asari were the ones that most fascinated her. A monogendered species, asari appeared elegantly female. Even the mercenaries had an unnatural grace about them, and a sort of wisdom glimmered deep in the eyes of even the youngest of them. She had read a lot about asari culture, finding herself fascinated most especially by their distant past. Thousands of years ago, before they had progressed to the point they were able to leave their home world, the asari had a strong tribal culture that shone through even now, something that appealed to her sense of commonality. Though Shepard did not truly know who here parents were, part of the Alliance medical exams was full genetic scanning. The scans revealed that while she had some Nordic, some Turkish, and a touch of Slavic in her blood, predominantly she shared markers with the Old Earth Native American tribes, the Choctaw in particular.

Spying a small deli that seemed to have predominantly human patrons, Shepard excused herself from the other two and went inside, determined to clear that sour taste from her mouth. While a warm sake would be ideal, she would have to settle for something non-alcoholic for now.

Williams and Alenko lingered just outside, talking together while Shepard went in and purchased a small bottle of boba tea.

Cracking it open she turned to step out of the diner just as someone entered hastily, bumping into her sharply. Barely managing to prevent her tea from spilling she lightly caught the man's arm as they steadied themselves.

"You ok?" she asked, but he didn't even look at her, mumbling an apology that seemed more habit than conscious thought as he quickly continued on his chosen path.

The man was middle-aged, with closely cropped dark hair that was liberally going to gray. Neatly groomed, she could tell he was normally of fairly dignified bearing. Right now, however, his face was flushed, his eyes reddened. Pausing, she narrowed her eyes as she watched him.

He stalked up to a table where a younger man sat by himself, reading off a thin pad and sipping at a cup of coffee. The older man tapped a finger sharply on the table. "This…this is unacceptable, Mr. Bosker," he blurted, his accented voice tense with emotion. He cast down another small pad after he drew it from his pocket, threw it in front of the younger man. "You see? I am refused! How can they refuse me?"

"Mr. Bhatia, please, calm down," Bosker soothed. "I explained to you that this might happen. Sad as it is-"

"Sad?" Mr. Bhatia demanded loudly, his voice ragged. "Is that all you have to say to me? This is sad?"

Patrons were looking up from their meals. Bosker, clearly trying to avoid a scene, held up his hands and murmured quietly. "Mr. Bhatia, please, sit down. Let me get you something to drink-"

"I don't want something to drink, I want this to be fixed! I want my wife home, do you understand?"

"Please, calm down. I want to help, I do…please sit down-"

"Stop telling me to sit! I sat on a transport for two days to get here. I sat in a lobby at the ambassador's office for three hours only to be told to see you. You tell me to sit and wait at the Alliance Relations office until they regretfully say there is nothing they can do, and now you want me to sit again?"

"Mr. Bhatia-"

Shepard started forward, setting the boba tea on a table as the older man plucked up the pad he had cast down, and threw it at Bosker's chest. As Bosker caught it, startled, Bhatia grabbed the front of his suit, half pulling the younger man out of his chair.

"I don't want to hear how sad it is again! I want you to fix this!"

"Hey, hey, calm down there," Shepard grabbed the man's arm gently but firmly, forcing him to release Bosker. As Bosker stood up she remained between them, holding a palm toward the younger man but facing the older. "What's going on?"

"They have taken my wife and refuse to give her back," Bhatia half-shouted, half-sobbed, jabbing a finger over her shoulder at Bosker.

"Look, I want to help," Shepard told him, ducking her head to the side to make eye-contact with him. "Listen to me. I will help you. But I need you to explain to me what's going on. Take a deep breath, and calm down."

As he met her eyes, his shoulders and head seemed to sag in exhaustion. She could see the dark circles under his eyes, the emotion lining every crease of his face. As he stepped back a pace, lifting a hand to rub over his face, Shepard glanced over his shoulder to see Alenko and Williams, drawn by the commotion, were watching near one wall.

Without moving out from between the two men, Shepard turned her head and looked at Bosker. "Tell me what's going on. What's this about his wife?"

"Mr. Bhatia is simply upset, and with good reason," Bosker said. "His wife was recently…well, she recently passed away."

"She was killed on Eden Prime," Bhatia interjected, lifting his head. "She was a marine, protecting an archeology dig site when they were invaded. The Alliance recovered the bodies and then I was told she had been brought here. I have been sent across half of this station but no one will help me. I just want to bring her back home for proper burial, but they keep turning me away…say that she is being held, that they want to run experiments-"

"What?" Shepard's sympathetic gaze turned as hard as stone as she looked at Bosker again.

"The Eden Prime colony was the victim of a…unique kind of attack," Bosker hedged, clearly aware of his civilian audience as the other diners watched the commotion. "Mrs. Bhatia's body has injuries of a kind the Alliance has never before seen. She is being held at this time for study, to understand the kinds of weapons that yield such damage-"

"Cut the crap," Shepard said in a low, calm voice that foretold danger and pain. "I'm a marine, if you couldn't tell by the uniform. I was on Eden Prime."

"Then you should understand what I'm talking about," Bosker replied gently. "And understand the need we have to study-"

"Bull. Clean-up crews scanned every inch of that colony, every single body that was found. I scanned one or two myself. Samples were taken, every iota of technology even slightly strange confiscated. No doubt final autopsy scans were taken as well. There's absolutely no need to hold anyone for dissection."

"With all due respect, you are a soldier, not a doctor," Bosker answered timidly. "Our scientists have determined that Mrs. Bhatia's wounds are one-of-a-kind, even compared to the other victims. We need the chance to examine them in more detail. It could take years, and it could possibly help us to develop weapons that could counter-act-"

"Enough. Let me speak to you as a soldier then, Mr. Bosker, since you don't seem to be listening to me as a human being. If his wife was a marine, then she was a hero. She gave her life so people just like you could dress up in nice suits and push papers and gush about how sympathetic you are. People like us die every day for people like you. They deserve more than being cut up like guinea pigs in return. Or are you honestly going to look me in the eye and tell me that's all that she is to you?"

Bosker didn't seem able to look her in the eye at all. He swallowed convulsively, his brow wrinkling, smoothing, and then wrinkling again before he finally cleared his throat. "I…will speak to my superiors again. I will do what I can to get her body released this afternoon."

"Good," she replied, and then snatched up the thin PDA from the table, tapping into its HI. "This is the contact information for Captain David Anderson, and Admiral Steven Hackett. You tell your superiors to call them if they have any problems with what we've discussed here. Understand?"

"Yes, of- of course."

She tossed the pad back down on the table, then turned to Bhatia. "They give you any more grief, you remember those names. Captain David Anderson, Admiral Steven Hackett. Hell, I'll escort you personally to the Ambassador's office if I need too."

"I…thank you. I don't know what to say. I...thank you."

"No," Shepard shook her head once, firmly. "Your wife is the one that needs to be thanked, not me."

Stepping past him she snatched up her tea again and strode out of the diner. Williams and Alenko exchanged confused glances as they chased after her.

"What was that all about?" Alenko asked, revealing the altercation hadn't been quite as loud as Shepard had thought.

"Nothing. Just reminding a suit how grateful he should be for Alliance Marines."

"Let it go, LT," Williams said as Shepard took a draught of her tea. "I'm sure Shepard did the right thing."

"Course she did," Alenko replied. "It's just…breaking up fights on the Citadel is for C-Sec, not us. A military censure-"

"We need to get moving if we're going to be to the meeting on time," Shepard interrupted sternly. "I don't want to be late for being lectured again by politicians. I do love me a lecture."

Her pointed glower fixed his gaze and he nodded slowly. "Point taken, Commander."

The Council chambers were beautiful, though Williams did point out in true, military fashion the defensibility of the place. The promontory on which the Council themselves stood was separated from the platform the lowly humans were relegated too. A great red hologram of a turian seemed to scowl down at the scene from on high, towering over even the Council members. Shepard needed no introduction to know this was Saren Arterius himself, and the meeting went about as she had expected.

Their evidence was torn apart with barely a breath. Even Powell's testimony was cast aside as worthless, the turian Councilor even snidely suggesting,-when Udina questioned how a dock-worker could even know Saren's name unless he had overheard it-that perhaps the dock-worker had gotten the name from Captain Anderson, implying that the man was coached.

Shepard remained silent through most of it, speaking only when directly asked a question. Most of her attention was focused on the hologram, committing every crag and scar of the face to memory.

The Council dismissed them, citing lack of proof…hardly surprising. Udina was red-hot under the collar as a result, Anderson frustrated. In the midst of the arguing, Udina suddenly shifted the blame onto Anderson, suggesting that it was his history with Saren that caused the whole thing to fall apart. Shepard, silent and uninvolved until that point, could no longer remain so.

"Look, I told you they weren't going to believe the evidence we had. A single dock-worker and a bad dream? You're lucky they didn't have the lot of us committed. I don't know how Anderson knows Saren and to be frank, I don't really care, but this isn't his fault. If you want to get anywhere then I suggest we find some actual hard evidence."

"Much as I dislike your attitude, you are correct," Udina glared. "This comes down to proof, and we do not have it. C-Sec was conducting its own investigation. The officer in charge seemed to think he was close to coming up with something, perhaps we should talk to him and see if he has any leads we can follow."

Shepard wasn't fooled. "'We' meaning 'me', I take it."

"Contrary to what you might believe, Shepard, I am an extremely busy man," Udina shot. "And I can't have Anderson running around the Citadel asking questions and further proving that he has some kind of vendetta against Arterius. So yes, I mean you."

"You sure a 'shaved gorilla' like me can handle it?"

"That's enough," Anderson broke in, pointing at her firmly.

"You need to talk with your XO, Captain," Udina snorted. "She is forgetting her place. I have work I need to get done. Can I trust you to handle this?"

Anderson's jaw flexed tightly, even as he nodded. Udina smirked and turned on his heel, heading away. The blast of air the Captain let out as soon as he was gone sounded remarkably like a muffled insult. He rubbed his face.

"Look, Shepard, I know he's…difficult, but he is the Ambassador. Sometimes even I feel like decking him but spending the rest of my life in a cell on a prison colony somewhere is less appealing."

"As you say," she grumped, folding her arms.

"You're a good soldier, Shepard, and a good person. You're above the likes of him, so don't let him get to you. As for this investigation…I don't know the name of the C-Sec officer in charge, and it's probably not a wise idea to go asking for him directly at C-Sec headquarters either, not if we want to keep as low a profile as possible. There's a human officer by the name of Harkness. He's a drunk with the brains of a boiled fish. He's on suspension right now but it's still likely he'll be able to give us a name, and he's less likely to go spilling to C-Sec or anyone important that we asked him. I'd start with him. He lives in an apartment block on the Wards, and spends most of his nights in Chora's Den, a dive bar nearby." Anderson smirked. "And I know how much you hate dive bars."

Despite herself she chuckled. "Didn't know they had them on the Citadel. I'll start there, poke around a bit."

"Do so. I'll either meet you back aboard the Normandy after 1500 or in the Ambassador's office. I'll have my phone on me if you need me."

Saluting, she gave him a grin before she turned and headed out of the chambers. Alenko and Williams were both still waiting, lingering near a fountain. Alenko was perched on a bench and seemed merely to be people-watching, but Williams looked downright impatient. Spotting Shepard she immediately headed for her.


"Went about as good as I'd hoped. At least the Council didn't wet themselves laughing at us."

"So what now?" Alenko asked, getting to his feet.

"So now we find something even the Council can't laugh at," Shepard replied. "And it involves going to a bar."

Williams grinned, falling in behind her as Shepard headed toward a transit terminal. Alenko blinked, certain he hadn't heard right. "A bar?"

"You coming or not?" Shepard called to him as she selected a call for a taxi. He trotted a few steps to catch up to them as the taxi swung in and landed.

"Are we really going to a bar?"

"I sure hope so," Williams said, slapping him lightly on the back. "I could use a drink, and given how stiff your spine is, I'm sure you can use one yourself. Or ten."

"We're on duty-"

"Would you relax and get in?" Shepard ordered. "C'mon, Alenko, she's joking."

"I-…yeah, ok, I just…well, sometimes it's hard to tell with you two."

There is a particular sound produced when a head meets a solid object with force. When heard, the sound was either satisfying or horrible…in this case, it was most satisfying.

The smack as Harkness's head met the bar-top was loud enough to be heard even over the thundering music. The asari dancer over the bar, skin-tight cat-suit shimmering in the strobing lights, even halted her gyrations for a moment , startled.

"None of that in my bar," the turian bartender grumped, his mandibles flapping in irritation.

"Don't worry, this is done with," Shepard said calmly as she crouched. Her fingers curled in the front of Harkness's shirt as she yanked the dazed man close. His forehead was bleeding impressively.

"You're crazy," he spat, and tried half-heartedly to tug away. She gave him another yank.

"This is done with, isn't it?" she growled.

"Ow…yeah…" Lifting a hand he pressed it to the wound. "You gave me a concussion-"

"You think this uniform is for show?" Shepard narrowed her eyes angrily. "You need to learn some respect, for the uniform and for women in general, don't you think?"

"Yeah…yeah, whatever you say…"

"Now let's start again and see if we can't manage a conversation without you trying to grab me. Who is in charge of the C-Sec investigation into Saren Arterius?"

"T-turian," he stammered. "Stick-in-the-mud named Garrus…Garrus Vakarian. Empty job, there was no way he was going to be able to find anything…Spectre activities are so classified they fart and you need forms in triplicate and a Councilor's permission just to smell it. Frustrated the hell out of him-"

"I'll bet." She released him and stood up. As she turned to go he weakly grabbed a barstool and pulled himself to his feet again.

"He won't be at the department." He grimaced as he probed the cut on his head again, snatching up a napkin and pressing it to the wound. "He was in here twenty minutes ago, asking questions."

"What questions?" she asked as she paused and glared at him.

"I don't know! I didn't hear them. I did hear the name 'Michel' though, before he left. Probably that annoying simpering doctor at the clinic over on Fleet, in the Wards. What a whiny doctor has to do with Arterius I couldn't tell you."

Without a word Shepard continued on her way out, weaving through the crowd to the door. As soon as it slid shut behind her the music cut off as if someone had thrown a switch. Whatever else one could say about the Citadel, its sound dampening system was top notch.

She was alone for now. Alenko and Williams were out chasing up a couple of other leads. She called up a taxi and as soon as she was inside she drew her battered cigar case from a pouch on her belt and tapped one out.

At the first detection of smoke a gentle 'bing' sounded before a pleasant, artificial voice filtered through the air. "Citadel Transportation Services would like to remind all passengers there is no smoking in public transport vehicles. Thank you for your cooperation."

Shepard took a long draw on the stogie and purposefully blew at the tiny detectors. The bing repeated again, as did the message. Smirking without mirth, she carefully scrubbed out the cherry, then replaced the smoke back in the tin.

The trip to Fleet in the Wards only took a few minutes. When the taxi landed it only took a moment to find the small medical clinic in the public directory.

The faint smell of antiseptic and medi-gel wafted over her as the doors parted, revealing a most curious scene.

"Who are you?"

Shepard's pistol snapped up to aim at the thug's forehead, even as turned his own pistol toward her, his other arm still clamped around the neck of a petite, redheaded civvie in scrubs. Hostage. And Thug wasn't alone. At least two others stood nearby, blinking stupidly at her.

Shepard's eyes didn't move from the one with the hostage, not even giving the slightest flicker toward the turian crouched, hidden behind a short wall-partition. When she spoke, her voice was deadly business.

"Let her go."

"Not likely," Thug growled as his two compatriots finally started drawing their side-arms.

The hidden turian swung around, his pistol flashing once. Even as Thug's head snapped back, his arms going limp. Shepard coolly adjusted her aim, and pulled the trigger twice.

The civvie, the doctor, stumbled back on weak legs, catching herself on the wall in an attempt to keep from falling. Her face as white as paper, she stared at the trio of dead men and the dark rivers of crimson slowly drifting over the floor.

"Dr. Michel, are you all right?" the turian asked, shipping his gun and striding over, catching hold of her. She blinked at him in shock, not resisting as he lowered her into a chair.

"Wh-what? Y-yes, I…I think I'm all right," she breathed, and mopped a trembling hand over her forehead. Shepard grimly looked over the dead men before she shipped her own pistol and looked at the turian.

"Vakarian, I'm assuming." She folded her arms. "That was a nice shot."

"Yours weren't too bad either," he said, and looked at her. "I'm sorry, you have me at a disadvantage…"

"Commander Del Shepard. Been looking for you." Her gaze shifted to the woman. "Dr. Michel, right? Who were these losers?"

"They were s-sent…they were asking about T-Telli, or Tuli…I-I forget her name, the…the quarian. Fist-.."

"Fist sent them?" Vakarian scowled a bit. "What's this about a quarian?"

"She showed up at the clinic last night. She'd been shot, begged me not to contact C-Sec. I know I should have, but-"

"It's all right," Vakarian reassured.

Her eyes were hollowed, her face still a little pale. She kept looking at the bodies on the ground, her eyes dancing away only to return to them. Since she was a doctor it was probably not the blood that seemed to fascinate her. She was still trying to process the fact that someone had held a gun to her head and she was still alive.

Crouching over one of the bodies, Shepard began rifling his pockets as Michel continued.

"She…the quarian…said she had some information on the Geth…she wanted to trade it to the Shadow Broker for protection. I…I set up a call with Fist for her…he's an agent."

"The Geth, you're sure?" Shepard looked up. Crouched over the body, her dark eyes narrowed and keenly intent, she looked remarkably predatorial. Michel shrank back a little, hugging herself.

"Y-yes, that's what she said."

"Fist isn't a Broker agent anymore," Vakarian said angrily. "Word in the ducts is he's working for Arterius now."

"This Fist isn't the brightest fly in the jar, is he?" Shepard grunted. "Might as well have signed his own death warrant."

"He's a two bit thug," Vakarian agreed. "More muscle than brains. The only reason he has any pull or respect is because he owns Chora's Den, and because he's a known agent."

Shepard straightened from her search. The asshole was clean, not even a pocket id. "Looks like I'm heading back to the strip club, then. There's at least one more head that deserves to meet the bar-top."

"I'll come with you," Vakarian straightened.

"I don't need a tagalong."

"Look, I know who you are and what you're trying to do," Vakarian replied tersely. "We have the same goal. I've been given this case and everything I've managed to dig up says only one thing to me; Saren's dirty. I don't like being stonewalled but that's what's been happening every step of the way. I'm not going to stay here like a good little lap dog on the word of one human Alliance soldier."

"Is that so?"

"That is most inarguably so," he growled.

"You'd be shocked at what I can argue, turian," she snapped. "As it is, you're at least a half-way decent shot, and I know how it feels to be slapped in the face with bureaucracy…and you know this Fist. So get yourself squared up if you're coming along."

One mandible shifted slightly in what could be classified, in turians, as a sardonic grin, and he nodded. Turning to Michele he said, "Stay here. I'm sending for a C-Sec team to come in to the clinic. They'll get our 'friends' here taken care of and take a statement, all right?"

The doctor nodded. "Yes…yes, thank you. And…help that quarian if you can. She seemed like a sweet girl, and scared."

"We'll do what we can," he said. Shepard was already heading for the door as he called up his omni-tool and sent the message off to C-Sec, stepping over the body of the man he'd shot as if it wasn't even there.

The turian was sullen, quiet as they made their way through the Wards and back toward the club. That sat just fine with Shepard, who was hardly interested in conversation. She was far more concerned with the krogan.

In the shifting clots of people along the sidewalks, the krogan was doing a remarkably good job at following them and being inconspicuous. It had taken her a while to even notice him…and krogan were made to stick out.

Eight feet tall and mortared with mean, krogan were built for one thing: fighting. Not the lithe, aristocratic battle of the asari or the stealthy, precise strikes of the salarians, krogan were walking tanks, mountains of muscle, thick skin, hard plate. She had little direct experience with them, but it had been drilled into her head from the moment she entered boot; to fight a krogan, you stayed as far away from them as possible and hit them with the biggest ammo you could, as fast as you could. You got in close, and you might as well break your own neck and save everyone the trouble.

This particular krogan seemed weathered, battered, and more than intent, yet he did not part the crowds like a boulder in water. He moved with them, accepting the flow, melding with it. He did not fight nature, and knew how to keep out of sight. Even the turian hadn't noticed him.

"Your people are coming?" Vakarian asked, breaking the silence.

"Williams and Alenko will meet us there," she confirmed. "How hard are we going to have to lean on this Fist?"

"Not hard. Like most thugs he thinks he farts gold dust but he's a coward at heart. Shove a gun in his face, maybe break a couple of fingers, he'll spill his guts."

She eyed him. "You sound a bit merc for a cop," she noted.

"If it gets us what we're after, I'll be as merc as you need," he grumbled back.

"Here. Cut through here," she gestured at a small side alley, one that was far quieter than the street. The turian shook his head, barely glancing at it.

"That way will take twice as long. We're nearly there."

"You want to be merc, C-Sec? Then shut your flaps. The alley."

Without waiting to see if he'd follow she shoved past him and strode into the side street. Within steps the steady rumble of the crowd dimmed. Her eyes flicked over all the doorways, each alcove, nook or shady spot that presented itself. Predictably, C-Sec had followed her.

"What are we doing?"

"There, go." She grabbed his arm and pushed him toward one of the doorways. A pile of crates stood nearby. With a hop she was on top of them, squatting down. Drawing out the stogie she'd started in the taxi, she lit it.

The turian, clearly confused, nevertheless faded into the doorway, mandibles working in agitation. A few moments later, the krogan strode openly into the alleyway. The shifting lights dimmed his scarred face into shadow but lit his eyes like fire. Though he carried half a dozen weapons on his back, he made no move to draw any of them, smirking a little as he drew to a halt. His voice was like gravel, deep enough almost to be felt more than heard.

"So, you did notice I was following you. Impressive for a human."

"I'll add it to my resume," she replied calmly. She held her cigar case out. "You smoke?"

"Not that weak leaf," he scoffed. "Stuff I would smoke would make your mouth bleed and your lungs hemorrhage."

"Suit yourself." She tucked the case away again.

"How do you know I'm not here to kill you?" he demanded.

"If I was the one you were really after, I doubt we'd even be having a conversation. Krogan didn't really strike me as the type to chat before turning their prey into a smear on the wall."

"Don't be stupid, turian," he rumbled in return, barely glancing toward the shadowed doorway as Vakarian tried to ease his gun out. "I'd win."

Garrus scowled but moved his hand away from his gun. Shepard shifted until she sat flat on the crate, legs dangling.

"You hired muscle?" she asked the brute. "If you're following me but I'm not your target, you're after one of four things. You either want to get to Fist, you want to get to the quarian, you want Saren, or you think I'm especially cute."

"Lady, I'd break you in half," the krogan replied with a faint chuckle.

"Promise?" Shepard asked wickedly, then waved her hand a little, making the smoke from her stogie coil and slither like a snake. "My money is on Fist. Do I win?"

He rumbled thoughtfully, then bobbed his head. "I was hired by the Shadow Broker to 'educate' Fist."

"Is Fist going to survive this education?"

"You don't hire a krogan if you want survival," the merc pointed out.

"Well, far be it for me to interfere in the Broker's business. But I need some intel from Fist and I can't have you twisting his head off before I get it."

"Tell you what. We get to Fist and you can ask him whatever you want before I air him out. Broker just wants him dead. I don't care what the canary sings before I pluck him."

"I think we have an understanding then."

She scuffed out the butt of her smoke, pitching it aside as she hopped off the crate. "Name's Shepard. The turian is Garrus."

"Wrex," he rumbled with a faint nod of introduction.

"Yes, I'm sure you do," Shepard smirked. Her radio crackled and she tapped the receiver.


{Commander? Williams,} Ashley's voice filled her ear. {Alenko and I are here but it looks like the club is shut down, sealed tight. Feels hinky…if I had to guess I'd say Fist knows we're coming.}

"Stay in position. We'll be there in a few minutes. Out."

"You knew he was following us?" Vakarian asked as he stepped back out into the alleyway, watching the krogan distrustfully.

"Surprises me is that you didn't, C-Sec. You're too used to petty criminals and gangsters. You need to learn how to recognize a real predator when it's behind you."

"Or in front of you," Wrex murmured as Shepard stepped past and headed toward the mouth of the alleyway.

Williams and Alenko were hunkered on the walkway that crossed to the entrance of the club. The entire block was deserted, the club closed, even its neon dark. Williams had been right; the whole thing felt hinky as hell.

"Picking up strays?" Williams asked in surprise as Shepard crouched beside them, eyeing Vakarian and Wrex.

"My rule is, if they follow me home I get to keep them," Del joked dryly. "We got any idea what's inside?"

"Not really, haven't seen a soul go in or out."

"My guess would be hired meatheads used to pushing around civvies," Kaidan told her. "Still, in enough numbers and with the cover they'll have in there, could be rough."

"We'll take it careful. I want you two in flanking, laying down cover-fire as the three of us go in. Kaidan left, Williams right, follow the clock once we're through the door. Our aim is the back office."

"Aye ma'am."

"Curtain's up. Let's go."

Shepard drew her rifle, keeping under cover but focusing on the door as Williams and Alenko moved into position. The turian, his own rifle drawn, mirrored her position on the opposite side of the walkway. Both marines flanked the door, Williams activating her omni-tool and reaching out only long enough to short the door lock.

As soon as it slid open, gunfire bloomed from the darkness beyond. Shepard pegged two gray shadows just inside and Vakarian downed a third as the marines swung in low. The krogan, seemingly unconcerned with the gunfire, strode straight down the middle, shotgun igniting with a booming roar of flame. He laughed.

"Follow the walking suit of armor," Shepard shouted at Garrus, then headed in for the door, keeping her scope up.

The marines followed the clock, Williams circling the club counter-clockwise, Alenko clockwise, staying as close to the wall as they were able and putting a bullet in anyone that popped up with a gun. Wrex strode right up the middle, barking a laugh each time his shotgun ignited.

The faintest motion drew her attention, and Shepard's scope snapped to focus on the form lurking on the stripper platform over the bar. Barely had the meathead there lifted his gun than she put him down.

Twenty seconds. That was all the time it took from the moment the door popped open until the first shouts of 'clear!' were filling the air. A dozen hired meatheads lay dead or incapacitated, littering the room.

Without lowering her weapon, Shepard swung it to focus on the door to the back offices, gesturing to Williams to unlock it. As it popped open, no gunfire came. Only a faintly dim light and silence greeted them.

She edged in, tensing when a suddenly shaking hand lifted a gun up over an overturned table. Large eyes in a pale face peeked over at her as the trembling weapon seemed to aim everywhere but at its target. "Don't…don't come any further," a tremulous voice warned. "I'll…I'll shoot!"

"You have got to be kidding me," she murmured, lowering her scope. Striding forward she pushed the table out of the way, easily snatching the pistol from the man's hand.

He looked like a fry-cook or a janitor, barely more than a kid and shaking like a leaf. He squeaked as she snatched his gun away, then cowered, hands waving frantically. "Don't shoot!" he screamed. "Don't kill me!"

"Get out of here, kid," she barked. "Find a new job."

Scrambling away from her he managed to get to his feet, bolting past Williams and Alenko. As he neared the door Wrex appeared and the boy shrieked in surprise. The krogan made no move to hurt him, just lowered his head and growled.


The cook jumped back, crashing into the door-jamb. Gasping, mouth flapping frantically but unable to make any sound, he finally managed to get enough control back to flee.

Now Del was angry. Shorting the final door easily with her own omni-tool, she shipped her rifle and pulled her pistol, making sure everyone was out of line of sight before slapping the door open.

Fire bloomed amongst the rapid, chain-link cough of an automatic turret. It chewed up the far wall but didn't even come close to hitting flesh. Crouching, she listened for a second, closing her eyes.

Cheap beta-class, probably twenty years old. By the angle of fire and the sound of its old ratchets, it's right about…

Snapping around the corner she planted a bullet right in the turret's power source. A sharp bang and a whiff of smoke, and the machine died.


"Niiiice," she heard Williams murmur under her breath. Shepard pointed at her, then gestured to the right, then at herself, and to the left. Williams bobbed her head once, and the two women swept in.

Fist wasn't hard to find. He was hiding behind his desk. He managed two pot-shots at them before Shepard hit him high in the shoulder, sending him gasping and whining to the ground. Williams' foot swept his weapon away and by the time the three men entered, the exciting part was done with.

Shepard hauled him up and slammed him back into his chair. He looked like every other strutting, self-important meathead she'd ever run into, like they had some kind of factory where they kept feeding garbage in one end, pressing it in molds, and popping out ignorant thugs. True to Kaidan's prediction, and like most bullies, the guy was terrified.

"Please…don't kill me," he begged, his eyes darting from face to face, hands up. "I'll…I'll do anything the Broker wants. I-"

"I'm not here for the Broker," Shepard said sternly. She perched on the edge of his desk, foot planting on his knee, pistol aimed at his face. "Dr. Michel put you in contact with a quarian. I need to know where she is."

"What? The-…she…"

"Full sentences if you don't mind. I have very little patience for cowards who would throw a scared kid with a gun in front of trained marines to save his own neck."

"S-Saren paid me to arrange a meeting," he said swiftly, eyes never leaving the gun. "The quarian, his men. He was worried she had some evidence, they're supposed to be meeting right now!"

"Where?" she demanded.

"I d-don't-"

Lowering her foot and moving forward off the desk, her hand planted firmly against the wound in his shoulder, heel of her palm grinding into it. He gasped and cried out, his already pale face getting paler. The muzzle of her pistol no doubt raised a bruise as she pressed it against his cheekbone.

"I asked 'where'," she repeated, dark eyes sparking.

"The alleyway! The alleyway behind Rix! It's just a block away, right behind Rixjeezuspleasedon'tshootme!"

"Not going to," she said, removing her hand and straightening. Using her foot she pushed his chair back away from her. It rolled a few feet and she jabbed her thumb toward Wrex, who was already coming forward, ratcheting his shot gun. "This is Wrex. He is here for the Broker."

Fist only had time to blink and gasp, "Oh…" before the gun ignited.

As Shepard turned and strode to the door she half expected C-Sec to try and arrest Wrex. The expression on Vakarian's face showed that he almost expected himself to try it too. Wisely, however, he didn't, only glaring at the remains of Fist's face.

Probably telling himself the punk deserved it…which he did. There may be hope for that turian yet.

"Come on," she said as she went. "We need to move if we're going to have any hope of saving that quarian."

Seivus could see the quarian waiting there in the dim yellow lights, and inclined his head to watch her. He had only seen a handful of quarians in his life…well, as much as anyone could claim to have 'seen' them, since they were always hidden in those suits of theirs. You might find one or two on Illium, or Omega, but they were a very rare sight on the Citadel. Why this one had fled here to hide, in a place she was almost guaranteed to stand out, was beyond him.

He let her fester a little, before cracking his shoulders and striding forward. Behind him, the two salarian mercs Saren had saddled him with, followed.

Salarians. Like I need the help. I think I can handle one lone little quarian, he thought bitterly.

She noticed them almost immediately. He could not see her expression but her body language told of tension, suspicion.

"Who…are you?" she asked. "Are you…you're not the Broker..?"

"Hardly," he chuckled with a grin. "My name is Seivus Atrian. I'm a bit of a…forward guard, you might say. Making sure things are on the up and up."

"What are you talking about? Where's Fist? He said the Broker would meet me here to make the trade."

"And he will," he soothed warmly, stopping within arm's reach. Even this close, he could not see much inside her helmet. The flash of eyes, now and again…the hint of a nose. "But the Broker is a very important man…has many enemies. You can't begrudge him a little security, hmm? He sent me to make sure there were no lurking baddies hiding in the shadows, you know? And, of course, to verify that your info is legit. He's hardly going to risk his life for useless data. Do you have it with you?"

As he spoke, the lies coming as easy as breath, he wondered how much Saren would mind if he had a little celebration with her once he had hold of the data. Arterius wanted her dead once the information was secure, he'd made that much clear…so what did it matter if Seivus enjoyed himself first? The girl was alone, after all…and he was so terribly curious about what was under that suit.

He had nothing but confidence as he reached out, stroking a hand over her arm. She'd probably even enjoy it. Seivus had never gotten complaints, after all, and-

Her hand slapped out, knocking his hand away from her as if it were a spider, ready to bite. Every shred of his good mood vanished and he scowled.

"Forget it. I'm leaving. Tell Fist the deal's off," she snapped.

With a growl, he reached out and grabbed her arm again, giving her a yank. "I was going to make it quick," he spat, tiny droplets of saliva sprinkling on her face mask. "Be nice and merciful. Now it's going to hurt."

To his surprise, she did not react in fear, didn't cower or start begging like he had hoped. Instead, the heel of her hand slammed into his jaw, staggering him back. Stars filled his eyes as he lost his grip on her. As soon as she was free she plucked a ball of metal from her belt and flung it on the ground, turning and running in the same motion.

He recognized it as a flash-bang a breath before it went off. White light filled his eyes and a sharp ringing echoed through his ears, both sharp and painful. He wailed, shaking his head, and heard gunfire. The salarians.

The quarian had run back toward the dead-end, with nowhere to go. Seivus shook his head again, trying to clear it, and drew his gun. He was going to air this little girl out.

But there was too much gunfire. As he backed up a pace he nearly stumbled over one of the dead salarians. His shields suddenly flared with impact as more gunfire filled the air, throwing him further off balance. He hit the ground, his shields giving with one last snap of power a heartbeat before pain seared its way across his side. He felt it only a moment, then his skull cracked sharply into the ground, and consciousness melted away.

"Come out of there," Shepard ordered, her rifle shifting from the three limp forms sprawled along the alley floor. As her sights focused on the quarian, she lowered her weapon. "You hurt?"

"No, I…" The girl seemed hesitant, watching the group warily. "Who are you?"

"I'm Commander Shepard, Systems Alliance," she said. "We're not here to hurt you. Rumor is you have something we need."

"The Broker sent you?"

"No," Williams replied. "We're looking for evidence against Saren Arterius. The doctor put us on your trail."

"I…" She paused, looking first at the bodies on the ground, then back at Shepard. "Well, I guess I do owe you one. Can…we go somewhere else though? You have someone in authority I can speak to?"

"We can take her back to C-Sec," Vakarian suggested. "She'll be protected there."

"I wouldn't trust them to protect a dead varren," Wrex grunted.

"We'll take you to the Embassies," Shepard said matter-of-factly. The quarian nodded after a pause, then inclined her head.

"You…are rather a motley crew, aren't you?"

Shepard cocked a lopsided smile. "All we need is an asari and a volus and we can start a band. C'mon."

With no illumination on but the desk console, the room was only faintly outlined in soft citrine. Shepard's dark eyes reflected a hint of it around her iris, a glint shimmering off her pupils.

Someone had brought in her duffel, her guitar case. The duffel had been stowed in her locker, the guitar down in storage. Now both were here, the guitar laying on the bed, the duffel beside it.

It was probably Anderson. No one else would care.

The room seemed cavernous in the darkness, black swallowing away the walls so the space seemed to go on forever. It produced a strange, dizzying sensation, as if she stood at the edge of a precipice.

Reaching over, she gently touched the pad near the door.

The room shrank down to normal dimensions as the lights came up, sharply banishing the velvet black.

The captain's quarters. Anderson's quarters, or so they were only a few hours ago. Now they were hers. Now everything had changed.

Walking over to the bed, Shepard flipped the catches on the guitar, opening it. Her fingers passed over the strings lightly, checking them as her eyes assured her there were no scratches, knicks, or gauges in the wood, however small. Satisfied, she carefully closed it again.

Only a few hours. It was astonishing what could happen in only a few hours.

The quarian girl – Tali was her name, Tali'zorah- had called up her omni-tool in the ambassador's office and had changed everything with a few taps of her fingers on the holographic display. Fortune had seemed to line up, some unseen force neatly stacking cards in their favor.

That a quarian so on the ball had been so nearby when that particular geth unit had been destroyed was impressive enough. That she had managed not only to save the data from its core but understood its significance was fortune in itself. That the evidence was stark enough to compel not only Anderson and Udina, but also the Council, was almost unbelievable. Saren's confession, in his own voice (mapped and scrutinized down to the sub-micro-tremors in the voice pattern to prove that no synthetic reproduction or alterations had been made), rang out for all to hear. Vindication.

More, there was not only one voice, but two. Saren and his accomplice…an asari, a matriarch of their people.

And still, that had only been the beginning. Even as the Council grimly condemned Saren and stripped him of his titles, they even more grimly assigned them to Shepard. She could still see the sour look on the turian's face as they swore her in, curious crowds of diplomats and liaisons gathering at this moment…the first human Spectre.

The Normandy, hers now.

Her mission, find what Saren was after, find Saren, his accomplices, his plans…bring them all to justice, stop them in any way she could.

Free reign, full autonomy.

Why then did she have this sour ball in her stomach, this hollow feeling in her chest?

Anderson had been shafted, that was the long and short of it. Relegated to being an errand boy, a paper-pusher for that smug little toad Udina. When she'd found out, her captain (former captain now, Del…former) had seen those familiar heated sparks start in her eyes and had intervened before she could do something she would most certainly regret…like removing every tooth in Udina's head with her knuckles.

The story had come out then, a story she had already more or less pieced together on her own. Anderson being considered for the Spectres. His mission with Arterius. What had happened, and why Udina had snatched hold of the first excuse he could to lever Anderson off the Normandy and into a nice, quiet back room.

Anderson confessed it like admitting he had a disease, or had killed her family single-handedly…like it was something shameful, something dirty. She didn't care…why should she? How many soldiers had she sent to die on Torfan? They all had their mistakes, their pain. No one escaped it. It didn't erase the man he was, the great things he'd done.

The desk display was flashing slightly on one corner. She stepped over and accessed the message, which was simply an update from Joker, the Normandy's pilot. They were out of dock and heading for the black.

Clearing it she straightened, pinching the bridge of her nose. They'd left the Citadel, but they hadn't left alone. Tali, Wrex, and Vakarian were all aboard, that was the most surreal part. Tali and Vakarian she at least understood. The girl was useful, educated, familiar with the geth and a top-notch techie and more, she wanted to help. There were a thousand situations that could crop up where they could use her expertise.

Vakarian had quit C-Sec to come. Shepard didn't blame him, from the sounds of it, his every move was wrapped in so much red-tape it was choking him. Being a turian, he would also share insights about Saren, possible ways of thinking, motivations driven by culture, religion, even anatomy. Shepard didn't like having a turian on board and Vakarian himself seemed a bit wound too tight for her but she could see the logic in the decision.

Wrex was another matter all together. His only reason for being here was because he thought some good chaos would be going down, something big, and he wanted his piece of it. Had he been any other race, Shepard would have shut the airlock in his face. The fact he was a krogan, a big walking wall of mean, well…when going into a battle of any kind, what did you bring if not a big walking wall of mean?

Sitting with an exhausted sigh on the edge of the bed, Shepard bent and pulled off her boots, letting them lay where they fell. Grabbing her duffel she unzipped a small pocket, pulled out the crude crayon drawing. Carefully moving the guitar case, she flopped backward onto the mattress, the drawing held against her chest with one hand as she closed her eyes.

At least Udina and his contacts had been useful for something. They had a few leads on possible geth activity, and a name. Liara T'Soni. An asari archaeologist, the daughter of the matriarch heard on Tali's recording. They were heading her direction now, hoping she had some answers about her mother and Saren, some intel they could use. She was at some lonely, dusty old dig site out in the middle of nowhere.

Turning a little, half-sitting, Shepard pressed the drawing to her lips a moment before she set it on the bedside table, unfolded so she could see it.

Rising she went to the console. She was off-duty for a while, but she put a notification on her console anyway, not to bother her unless it was an emergency. Then she accessed the extranet, swiftly selecting some Opus Ori.

Mellow blues melted into the room, slowly saturating it with soft sax, low guitar, a sorrowful bass. When the singer's gentle tenor began to quietly lament the passing of the day, Shepard lay down again, having stripped off her uniform. Dressed only in dark panties and a tank, she gripped a pillow and plastered it over her head, letting the now barely heard river of music carry her toward sleep.

"Is that really necessary? Stop it!"

The woman's voice echoed through the wide entryway, moving forward even as she did. Soft shoes squeaked on tile that smelled of clean and bright and sterile. The woman herself was short and slightly plump, functionally cut red hair streaked liberally with gray, and crow's feet settling in the corners of her eyes. They were eyes that seemed to smile often, though they were not smiling now.

The two Blue Shirts (as the kids in the street called them) were also decidedly not smiling. Both were out of breath, irritated. Between them they held a girl that couldn't be much older than twelve, all gangly knees and elbows. She was cuffed but struggling, and one of the Shirts had gripped hold of the greasy black hair on the back of her head, craning her head back in an attempt to keep her under control. Her nostrils were flaring, eyes wide to show the whites, like a frantic horse who smells blood. The corner of her mouth was bleeding.

The nurse could see that the girl was from one of the gangs downtown. Her worn clothing was dumpster-scrounge and what they called 'savon-faire' after the patchwork, hand-me-down, tattered clothes most of the poor wore out on Savon Avenue. The right sleeve of her thin jacket was torn off, but the left was still intact, and hand-painted a bright red. Not one of the Savon Avenue Slicks then, but rather a Tenth Street Red.

Seeing the blood on her mouth her gaze accused the Shirts. "Did you hit her?"

"No," one grumped. "Cop that took her down did. Right after they pried her teeth loose from his arm. She's a wildcat, this one. Hasn't stopped fighting us since she was snagged."

"Put her in there," the nurse ordered, pointing at a doorway.

"You gonna dose her?" one asked as they wrestled the girl into the indicated room, the nurse following behind.

"Not if I can avoid it. She's just scared."

The room was small, with no apparent furniture. There was a short metal ring on the wall, and as they entered one of the cops started to attach a thin metal cord to the cuffs, with the intention of hooking the other end on the ring.

"None of that," the nurse ordered. "Just take the cuffs off."

"You're as crazy as she is," the larger cop glowered. "Did you miss the part where we had to pry her teeth loose from someone?"

"I heard it." Her gaze fixed the girl's matter-of-factly. "I said un-cuff her."

The cuffs powered down and came loose, the smaller cop giving the girl a bit of a shove away from him. "I'm done with this. She's your problem now."

He stalked out, his larger partner lingering a moment before the nurse pointed. "Go on. Out."

"Good luck," he snorted, and left the two of them alone.

The girl was balanced on her knees, eyes seeking along every angle and plane of the room. Calmly the nurse touched an HI near the door. Part of the wall quietly opened, a bench sliding out. "Have a seat," she said kindly.

The girl only glared, which didn't surprise the nurse in the slightest. A moment later another, smaller bench eased out from beside the door. "Well, if you aren't going to I hope you don't mind if I do."

She seated herself with a sigh, a smile dancing faintly on her lips as she inclined her head. "What's your name?"

No answer but a glare. She could swear she saw tiny sparks dancing deep in those brown eyes. Poor girl was beyond scrawny. Probably hadn't had a decent meal in months, if ever.

"Well, I'll tell you mine, how's that? My name is Nancy Salgado. I'm a nurse here at the Brooking Center. Do you know why you are here?"

Silence and that fixed, glaring gaze. Undaunted, Nancy continued.

"This isn't a juvenile facility. This is a psychiatric care facility for troubled youth. You're here to be evaluated, treated if necessary. One of our doctors, Dr. Eglet, will be in to see you in a couple of hours. She'll talk to you, ask you some questions, start the evaluation. In the mean-time it's my job to see that you're settled in, taken care of medically, that any questions are answered. Do you have any questions?"

Silence. The girl's gaze was calculating, measuring, switching between Nancy and the closed door. Calmly Nancy shook her head.

"I wouldn't try it. I'm stronger than I look, and armed with a tazer. And unless I deactivate the door you'd just get another shock as soon as you touched it, one strong enough to put you out. It would hurt, and I don't want that. I just want to talk."

Her voice was genuine. She'd seen too many kids, some younger than this, try for that door. She'd gotten black eyes, broken noses from them. She'd wrestled down boys almost twice her size, seen them howl like infants. She'd felt that shock, and it was no laughing matter. She'd take the girl on if she tried it without hesitation, but she was hoping it wouldn't come to that.

The girl's gaze seemed to settle a bit, yet darken at the same time. She slipped back and sat down on the bench, drawing her legs up defensively. Nancy lifted a brow.

"I must say that surprises me," she said, relieved. "You're a fighter, I can see it in your eyes. You've been fighting desperately all your life just to live…but you're not reckless. That's good. Are you hungry? You look like you could use a good meal, or ten."

"You'd feed me?"

The girl's first words were soft and ragged and suspicious. Nancy's brows knit.

"Of course. You'll be fed, cleaned up, given any medications or antibiotics you might need. Sleep on a bed with real sheets…"

As she talked she could see the stone beneath those eyes, unmoving…and yet the tiniest cracks of hope. It was always sad to get a kid in this age, kid who had probably never slept on a real bed.

"What's your name?" she tried again gently. Those deep eyes shifted slightly.

"Del," she said at last. "Shepard."

Nancy smiled happily. "Del Shepard," she repeated. "It's an honor to meet you."

Shepard woke to the soft chiming of the console alarm. She was curled on her side, coiled into a tight ball, hugging the pillow to her chest. Waking and rising almost in the same motion, she cast the pillow aside and touched the console to shut it off. Quickly she pulled up the bridge report and their coordinates. Still a couple hours out from T'Soni's dig-site. It was just past 0500.

She showered and changed into a clean uniform, giving her boots a quick once over with a buffing rag. She a dim, red throbbing in the middle of her skull…the unformed warning of an incipient headache. Stepping out of her quarters she walked over to the mess, quickly fetching up a cup of coffee.

"Good morning, Commander," Williams' voice piped up from one of the tables. Williams had pulled grave the previous night, and was having a bite before bunking. As Shepard glanced over, she saw that Alenko and a couple of privates were at the same table. Vakarian was sitting off on his own a short distance away.

"Morning," Shepard replied, topping off her mug and taking a plate of faceless food. Striding over to the table she asked, "Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all," came the response, and there was a slight shifting as they made room. As she sat down she looked over at the turian.

"Vakarian," she called, drawing his attention. When he glanced up she gestured at the empty space across from her, inviting him over.

"Oh, thank you, Commander, but I'm just finished," he replied, rising with his tray and heading away.

With a mental shrug, she peeled the wrapping off her own food, taking a sip of coffee.

"Commander…do you mind if I speak informally?" Williams asked, drawing Shepard's gaze upward toward hers.

"I excel at off-the-record conversations, Williams," Shepard replied. "I do expect a certain level of formality and professionalism of course but one thing I have learned over the years…there is such a thing as being too rigid. If you're too rigid, you snap in a high wind, dong ma?"

"Dong ma," Alenko echoed with faint amusement. "That's…Chinese, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Shepard replied with a smirk. "All the best space cowboys use it. Anyway, what's up, Williams?"

"I'm just…a little concerned. About Vakarian and Wrex, and that quarian."

"Tali? Concerned how?"

"Well, for all intents and purposes, Commander-"


Williams blinked a bit. "Ma'am?"

"We're talking off the record. My name is Del. Or Shepard."

"Oh. Well, then uh…Shepard, for all intents and purposes we are in the most advanced ship in the Alliance. Cutting edge technology, new design schematics…I'm not entirely sure that having aliens aboard at all is a wise idea, let alone giving them free reign around vital systems."

"You're afraid of espionage? Think that they'll start sending our design schematics to our enemies?"

"It's not that I think they will, but however slim the risk we need to address it. The turians-"

"Helped design this ship," Del said calmly, still eating. "The Council helped fund it. I guarantee you that there is not a single nut or bolt in the hull that is unknown to the asari, turians or salarians."

"Well…the krogan then, or the quarians…" Williams knit her brows, sitting back. "Can we trust them?"

"As races? I trust krogan to hit and quarians to talk. Wrex and Tali in particular? Wrex is very straight-forward. He'd consider subterfuge to be cowardly, weak. Tali is honest and genuine. She grew up knowing one thing; never put your ship and crew in danger. She won't do anything to jeopardize us."

"I just-"

"Thank you, Commander," Tali's lightly accented tones interrupted. Williams and Alenko blinked as they looked up to where the young quarian stood, having just entered the mess. Shepard wiped her mouth on her napkin and bobbed her head.

"No thanks needed, Tali," she replied. "It's the honest truth. Williams, you and I can talk more on this later. Your concerns are noted. For now, I need to get up to the CIC and you need rack-time. Alenko, I'm going to need you on the ground team when we hit Therum. Wrex too. Let him know and get suited up. I'll see you in the CIC in one hour."

"Yes ma'am."

Finishing the dregs of her coffee, that red unformed ache in her head dulling down thanks to the caffeine, Shepard cleared her plate and headed out of the mess. With a soft 'excuse me', Williams rose as well, feeling awkward. She should have brought the whole thing up with Shepard in private. She hadn't been expecting Tali to overhear, and was worried that the girl would take it wrong. It wasn't anything personal, it simply wasn't wise to put yourself and your crew at risk on the notion that allies would always remain allies.

Without looking at the quarian she cleared her place and headed to bunk.

Scuts of wind cut across the rough volcanic sand, releasing sheets into the air of the finer grains. They looked like ghosts escaping their graves.

It was hot, stuffy despite the wind, and the stink of sulphur and magma burned faintly at her nose. Wiping a forearm over her damp forehead, Osco peered into the binocs again.

The dig-site entrance vanished into the dark, craggy hillside. At its apex, short broken shafts of stone and concrete marked the ruins that had been all but swallowed up by the small volcano. Not a hundred meters under the deepest parts of the dig a great magma chamber was just waiting…the right tectonic shift, the right pressure, and this small volcano would make itself felt.

Brave place to do an excavation, she thought as she focused the binocs on the entrance. Brave or idiotic.

There was a small crowd gathered at the entrance. Karn, she knew…a krogan merc in Saren's employ. Most of the rest were geth, flashes of light creeping around the dirt and rock like spotlights as they examined the area.

T'Soni was in there. They knew it as well as Gellian knew it, and had arrived only an hour before she had. By now, T'Soni knew it too, since they were hardly being quiet in their attempts to break open the secure door.

Osco was irritated by Saren's continued lack of subtlety. He would have done much better sending in a single person, someone who could approach T'Soni without suspicion and swiftly render her unconscious. The woman was a PhD for pity's sake, not a merc or an assassin or a hardened military commando dug in with ammo to spare. True, she was a talented biotic but she was young, naïve, and trusting. She'd have never seen a good infiltrator coming, and she could have been fetched without a scratch on her.

No. Instead, Saren had sent a krogan merc and a bunch of his flashlights to thump their chests and beat down her door, putting her completely on guard and turning a simple retrieval into a circus. If T'Soni came out in one piece, it would be a miracle.

The door finally came open, the krogan and his lackeys vanishing into the dark tunnel beyond. There was a geth drop-ship nearby, Gellian knew, and the flashlights had taken over the gatehouse compound not three miles away. It was going to be interesting to see if she would be able to retrieve T'Soni unharmed for her mother, before the flashlights retrieved her in pieces for Saren.

Once the area was clear, she stowed her binocs and picked up her small pack, checking the pistol holstered at her hip. Time to get moving.

The air was hot, and close, and smelled of steam and primal rock. In places, the walls of the close tunnel ran with rivulets of water, but the stone itself was warm or even actively hot to the touch. Only a few steps in, Gellian's blonde hair was slicked to her neck and cheeks with sweat, with humidity.

The tunnel was a choke point, the only way in or out of the dig. A smooth, unnatural bore it provided no crevices, no offshoots, not even a pebble to hide behind. She moved at a crouch, slow and steady, the Geth belt around her waist a faint but omnipresent hum.

She had made the belt herself, based on the Geth's camouflage. Some of their larger units had built-in panels of metamaterial that, when energized with electromagnetic or element zero energy, would bend light around themselves, making them more or less invisible. The effect was distorted with motion, like the heat-waves that rose off pavement, giving the illusion of water. Gellian had taken samples of the same metamaterial to make her belt. Powered by its own small electromagnetic generator, it created an cloaking field just large enough to hide her. More than aware of the distortion effect, however, she kept to a crouch and moved carefully.

Such belts and devices were, of course, available outside of the Geth collective, for exorbitant prices. Impractically expensive on a large scale (no one would be cloaking a full ship any time soon), they usually only landed in the hands of the super-rich and the very successful less-than-honest.

Karn had left a single geth unit to guard the narrow entry. Foot by soft foot Osco managed to slowly slip past it without detection, and into the cavern proper.

The wide maw of the dig sailed into an ebony throat, lit in sickly patches with floodlights that more seemed to increase the gloom than banish it. The stone was black and gray, frozen in ripples and folds and eddies like melted faces. In places it was as smooth as glass, and glinted like eyes watching in the dark. Emerging from the frozen sea now and again was a hard edge, an even line, the hint of artifice and order...the old Prothean construction half-swallowed by millennia-old magma.

A series of metal catwalks, platforms, and elevators led down into the gloom. Edging to the railing of the first she peered downward, and grimaced. It would be next to impossible to descend fully into the dig without detection. Karn had spaced geth troops at regular intervals, and even while cloaked, her footsteps would ring like bells on the old rusting metal.

Part of the catwalk followed the cavern wall to the left. As she regarded it, she heard ghostly voices rising up from below…too distant to make out words but tone and cadence was possible.

The deep rumbling voice was Karn, unmistakably. A softer, fainter feminine voice answered. As Karn had only brought salarians and geth with him, the voice had to be that of Dr. T'Soni.

Cursing silently to herself Osco made her way to the left along the catwalk. If Karn had already reached T'Soni they would be exiting soon. Her only hope was to find a vantage point and get a fix with her sniper before they could get Liara out. She'd have to hit Karn first, through the eye if at all possible. Then the salarians and finally the geth, who would not harm T'Soni without direct orders.

It would be impossible, she knew…the krogan would be facing the wrong direction, and even if on pure chance she got in a kill shot, the salarians would be able to react quickly enough to shield themselves and their hostage.

Still, she had promised the matriarch, and she meant to try.

The catwalk curved around to the left, plunging her into nearly instant gloom. A single work light was balanced about ten yards along, but it was inactive. No doubt the lights that were not directly needed for a given work-area were kept powered down to conserve them.

The walk led nowhere, simply ringing the top of the circular shaft…little more than an observation area. From the far side, nestled in blackness, she could see the great Prothean building half-submerged in the igneous rock wall. Several floors below, she could make out figures at the base.

Drawing out a small sniper rifle, she unplugged a bud from its side and tucked it into her ear, before putting the scope to her eye and aiming it downward. The scope itself she switched to low-light, making the forms appear with almost daylight clarity. Pressing the button on the side that activated the supersonic directional microphone, voices were also picked up, piping directly into the earpiece.

Karn, his two salarian buddies, and a pair of the geth were standing clustered in front of what looked like a shimmer of light, blocking off one section of the Prothean construction. It was hard to tell but beyond the light seemed to be a figure, spread-eagle in a strange position.

She tried to shift into a better angle but it was impossible to see the odd figure any more closely. Given the voice, however, it was Liara T'Soni herself.

"…easier on yourself," Karn was saying. "We're gonna find a way in, but if you're smart, you'll let us in before you starve to death in there."

"Just…just go away. I'm…I'm not letting you in."

T'Soni sounded frightened. Osco shifted the scope slightly, crosshairs focusing on the back of Karn's head. No good. The heavy plates there would only bounce the bullet off…would probably barely scuff him. She needed an eye, or the hollow of his throat…impossible while his back was to her.

The salarians she could take out easily, but that would only alert Karn and she'd much rather deal with the salarians and geth hand to hand if it came to it, than the krogan.

Karn chuckled at the asari. "Have it your way then. Saren wants you alive, but when we get in there, I'm gonna snap a limb or two just on principle."

The krogan turned away from the asari, but unfortunately not far enough for Osco to get a decent bead on his eye. He gruffly ordered the geth and grumped away off into the dark. Rising a little, Osco shifted a few feet to the side, trying to get a better look at what T'Soni was doing.

That she had managed to activate some kind of force-field or shielding was obvious. What was less obvious was the cause of her odd position. Even at a new vantage a yard or two to the side, the angle was too steep between the high cat-walk and the ground-level compartment for Osco to see the young archaeologist any closer.

Ah, well. Karn had separated from the others. With luck, she could take out the salarians and geth silently, and pick a new vantage to take out the krogan.

Just as she started to straighten, the faint snap of gunfire caught her attention, lifting her gaze back to the entrance tunnel across the cavern. The geth standing guard there fired up the tunnel twice, then fell in a haze of sparks and a spatter of coolant. Instantly Osco lifted the scope again, focusing on the tunnel entranceway.

Marines. Two of them…and another krogan. They came down out of the tunnel with practiced, efficient ease. The female marine had point, and swept along the catwalk down toward the stairs without missing a step or lowering her weapon. From a lower platform one of the geth spied her and opened fire, only to collapse a second later as the female neatly landed a trio of shots.

It's Delilah Shepard, has to be, Osco thought. The soldier who had used the Beacon, the one that Saren wanted killed. It was no real surprise to see her here, though the fact she had a krogan with her was unexpected.

Osco had a genius IQ, beyond the scope of any human who had existed before…but even an idiot would know better than to insert themselves between well-trained marines and a group of mercs. Osco had little choice but to stay put and see how things played out. With luck the two groups would wipe each other out, leaving her free to fetch T'Soni unharmed.

The screech of metal was horrific, the twisted tortured death-knell of a great ancient beast. Shepard instinctively grabbed the side of the rickety elevator as the floor sagged beneath her feet, tilting drunkenly. A spit of sparks was the final insult before the whole contraption simply halted. Stepping to the grate door she peered through, then hauled it open. They were only a couple of feet from the bottom, and not a geth was in sight.

Nonetheless she gestured to Alenko to sweep right, Wrex to head forward, and she herself clambered over and dropped to the ground on the left. The light attached to her rifle scope swept over rocks and shadows, but revealed no enemy.

"Clear," Alenko announced, a breath before Wrex's far more gravelly "All clear."

"Uh…hello? Could somebody help me please?"

Shepard snapped around at the thin, plaintive female voice. Beyond a mound of debris she could see a shimmering blue light. The voice had come from that direction. Gesturing at the other two to follow, she edged around the broken rocks.

It was one of the strange, almost kidney-shaped rooms of the Prothean building. A curtain of gently wafting blue light completely sealed off the entrance. Behind it and within the chamber itself an asari woman in lab fatigues was suspended off the ground, hovering in what appeared to be a bubble made of the same shifting blue light. From the awkward and rigid way her limbs were extended, it was quite clear she could not move of her own volition.

With Alenko and Wrex watching her back, Shepard stepped toward the odd field of light, lifting a hand and removing her helmet as she did so. Immediately the heat of the chamber assaulted her, damping her skin as if she'd stepped into a sauna. Her hair quickly began to cling to her temples, forehead, the sides of her neck. She squinted toward the asari girl, noting she was in much the same shape…her pale blue skin sheened with moisture that was beginning to darken her fatigues at her chest and underarms.

"Can you hear me?" Shepard asked. "Are you Dr. T'soni?"

"Yes," the girl panted in relief. "Please, you must get me out of here. The shield is a barrier curtain. I…I activated it in a panic when I saw the krogan and the synthetics. I guess I hit one too many controls and I found myself stuck in this bubble. I cannot move to shut either of the systems off."

"You're awfully trusting," Shepard pointed out. "For all you know I could be with the geth."

"Is…is that what they are? They're geth?" T'soni blinked, then shook her head ever so faintly, clearly unable to produce more motion than a subtle shift. "I know you are not. I may be trapped but I am far from stupid, Commander. I can see the Alliance insignia on your armor. The N7 designation is also clear, as is your command ranking. The krogan that was here earlier was a merc, and if those were geth with him then I doubt they are on your side. And so long as they are not, and it will get me out of here, I have no choice but to trust you."

Shepard inclined her head slightly. "Very well. But this trust game goes both directions. Your mother is working with Saren, a former Spectre. They are responsible for an attack on a human colony and are in cooperation with the geth. Now I find the synthetics here. The picture being painted is not pretty."

"I am not my mother!" T'soni said hotly. Shepard couldn't help the slight quirk of her mouth as amusement filled her. She'd met far too many thugs and liars in her life. This girl was neither…her emotion was so instant and heated that it couldn't be anything but genuine, her wide and angry blue eyes completely guileless. "I want nothing to do with Saren or the geth!"

"Fair enough, Tianlán," Shepard replied. "Don't worry. We'll get you out of there."

"I…I don't know how," the girl admitted, flustered. "The controls for both mechanisms are in here, and there is no way in save through the curtain itself, which is impossible. From what I understand it is designed to grow stronger with any force or energy applied to it."

"Leave it to me. You just sit tight, all right?"

From within the bubble, Liara blinked. Sit…tight? Was the human mocking her? She couldn't tell, but it was impossible for her to even move, let alone sit. And how did one sit tightly?

The human turned and disappeared into the shadows with the other two, leaving the asari girl by herself again. The barrier curtain and the bubble did nothing for the tremendous heat, which had only been growing the last few hours. She was uncomfortably damp with sweat. The krogan had mentioned her starving to death but it was far more likely she would succumb to heat stroke, literally cook to death in a few hours if the heat continued to increase.

The human marine was her only hope…if there was any hope to be had at all. Still, it was something to cling too. Liara was young but far past the age of believing in fanciful tales, where the brave and gallant justicar would come riding in at the last moment to save the helpless damsel, but it certainly seemed this Shepard was doing just that. It—

Oh, listen to yourself, T'soni! This heat is getting to you more than you thought.

Trying to calculate how long it might be before the marines managed to somehow break in or circumvent the curtain, she prayed she was able to hold out. It would likely be several hours at the very-

Something loud suddenly rumbled, the very air around her seeming to tremble. Thin spills of rock dust drifted down from between the tiles lining the Prothean chamber, and the echo of the rumble moved off through the rock of the volcano like a grumpy animal retreating further into its den. Frightened for a moment that the volcano itself was about to erupt, she blinked as yet another sound came to her ears. A strange grinding that was getting louder. It stopped after a moment, and then…


Turning her head as far as she was able, which was only a matter of inches, she spotted the marine out of the corner of her eye, heading for the control panel. Shock filled her.


"Used the mining laser to break into the chamber directly below," the marine replied casually, her fingers activating the holographic interface. A breath later and both bubble and curtain vanished. Liara collapsed to the ground, muscles aching in exhaustion. As she shifted up into a sit, a hand appeared in front of her. Grasping it, she allowed Shepard to pull her to her feet.

"I…thank you. I didn't think it was possible to get in here and you did it in a matter of moments. I'm…astonished."

"We aim to please, Tianlán." Shepard's smile was faint and lopsided. Up close Liara could see the sheen of sweat over her skin, the flush of heat on her cheeks. Her hair (hair on other species had always fascinated her), either a dark brown or black, was glistening. She scrubbed a wrist over her forehead as she stepped back a pace from Liara, who frowned in confusion.

"Why do you call me-"

A deeper, more ominous rumble interrupted her as the ground trembled beneath their feet, strong enough to threaten their balance.

"That didn't sound good," the krogan grumped.

"This is an active volcano," Liara said, recovering herself. "The mining laser must have been just enough to trigger seismic activity. We have to get out of here now."

"C'mon," Shepard gripped her arm momentarily, turning her and pushing her deeper into the chamber toward the central tower lift. Liara ran for the controls. The lift was part of the Prothean construction and was thousands of years old. It had only been used once, to help ship the large excavation laser down this far to begin with. She could only pray that it wouldn't choose now to stop working.

The controls lit up as her fingers hit the holographic display, and in moments they were slowly lifting up the central shaft. As she worked to try and get more speed out of it, the deep rumble around them having turned into a more ominous, deeper growl, she could hear Shepard shouting into her radio, talking to someone called 'Joker'.

"Can't this thing move any faster?" the krogan demanded.

"I'm trying, it's very old," Liara said frantically. "If I push it too quickly it could shake itself apart, and the mountain quaking is not helping."

"It's getting hotter," the human man pointed out. It was, the temperature rising quite noticeably...noticeably enough that it was affecting even him in his climate controlled suit. That was far from good.

"C'mon…c'mon…" Shepard seemed to be chanting at the slowly nearing surface as the lift continued to doggedly climb.

Shepard would doubtless never know how close she came to death. Watching and listening through her sniper, Osco had fixed the crosshairs directly on the back of Shepard's skull the moment the marine had her helmet off to speak to T'Soni. Her finger had even tightened on the trigger. A half-ounce of pressure more, and Saren's desire to have the soldier eliminated would have been fulfilled.

Contrary to her own logical desires, that urge to pull the trigger was incredibly and rather queerly strong. It was only by the most monumental of efforts that Osco forced her finger to loosen and ease away.

Silently listening, Osco watched the conversation unfold, then tracked the trio as they trooped down to the lower level, discovered the mining laser, and hacked it. The moment she saw the laser she knew what they were going to do…and what would happen as a result. The volcano might have been a slumbering beast…but it was a light slumber.

Shipping her sniper she was halfway around the cavern toward the exit again when the laser went off and the first solid rumble shook the mountain.

The catwalk was old and not securely bolted. She grabbed at the railing as she felt it shift away from the wall, the bolts edging a thread or two free of the rock. As soon as she had caught her balance again she stabbed a finger at the activation for her geth belt, and shimmered into near-invisibility once more. Carefully, the rumbling around her never truly dying, she continued foot by foot around the room, edging toward the exit.

Loud eruptions of gunfire suddenly filled the cavern. She needn't look to know what had happened. Shepard and her group had come upon Karn.

Dust was choking the air, light fixtures breaking free and tumbling to crash in a rain of sparks and glass as the mountain gave up grumbling and started a full out tantrum. Osco had just reached the main catwalk when figures appeared from the opposite direction.

Knowing the dust would hide any ripple effect from the camouflage belt Osco risked rushing right up to the exit tunnel. The krogan thundered past her without pause, followed swiftly by the male marine. A squeal of metal punctuated the far catwalk stairs ripping free of the wall and sagging like melting cheese down the rock. A breath later and T'Soni was in view, eyes wide and frantic as she swept past Osco with barely a foot of room, completely unaware anyone was even there.

Osco froze to let Shepard past and for a moment the marine paused and looked back into the cavern…looked, in fact, directly into Osco's eyes from less than two feet away. Though she knew the woman's gaze was in truth fixed on the collapsing cavern behind them she nearly felt her own heart stop in panic.

Then Shepard turned away and rushed onward, fleeing for her life up the tunnel.

Osco was no fool. Better risk of discovery than to remain here.

She was only a matter of a yard or two behind the marine, bursting out into fresh air with a cloud of dust on her heels.

Shepard was on the outside ramp, bent forward and gasping for breath, T'Soni and the other two clinging to the end of the same structure in a bid to keep their feet. An Alliance frigate winked against the sun as it turned and lowered, ramp opening. The male marine nearly picked T'soni up and threw her up onto the ramp as it got close enough, before leaping aboard himself, followed by the krogan. Shepard broke into a trot, also jumping aboard.

Osco began to run again, grabbing frantically for her belt as the frigate lifted into the air and out of reach. It wasn't her goal anyway. Hitting her shuttle's automated call her booted feet hit dirt at the same moment another roaring explosion erupted behind her.

And 'erupted' was definitely the right word. The ground seemed to lift two or three feet and then drop. Her feet skipped out from beneath her and she crashed down to the dirt, her lip splitting open in a gush of hot copper against a jagged chunk of rock. Behind her the mountain seemed to dissolve, falling inward and then thrusting upward in a great column of black smoke and fiery magma. Dazed, she scrambled to her feet just as her shuttle swung in and began to land, its door lifting open. She dove for it, landing with an oof on metal and skidding a little before crashing into the far wall. Pushing herself to her feet, ignoring the blood running down her chin, she leapt for the controls, swinging the shuttle away just seconds before a lava-bomb sailed past, crashing into the ground.

Only a few minutes later and she had gained the upper atmosphere. Mopping her hand over her chin she turned the shuttle and looked toward the angry black smudge of ash and smoke sparkling with lines of fire…all that remained of the dig-site and easily five miles around it.

"I'll give you this, Shepard," she mumbled thickly, her lip and chin swollen and aching. "You're good. Subtle as a bomb in the middle of Times Square…but good."

Shepard, coughing, peeled off her helmet and dropped it to the floor of the cargo bay. The helmet's filters had, of course, prevented any of the toxic smoke from actually reaching her lungs, but the firefight, the frantic uphill run, and the incredible heat had all served to make her airways feel about as wide as pencil-lead.

From the look of it Alenko was little better, crouched on the floor with one arm around the asari's waist. Wrex, with his damned spare set of lungs, looked only slightly smudged and irritated.

T'Soni herself was on her hands and knees and, if her cough was any indication, she was in worse shape than the three of them combined. She, of course, had not had the benefit of air filters of any kind. Shepard strode over and helped Alenko get her into a sit. Her face was flushed a deeper blue beneath a liberal coating of volcanic dust. Tears cut clean tracks down her cheeks from her streaming eyes, and coughs were ragged.

"Hey, take it easy," Shepard urged, a breath before Joker's voice cut in overhead.

{Too close Commander. The Normandy wasn't designed to land in exploding volcanoes. They tend to fry our sensors and melt our hull. Just for future reference.}

Gripping hold of Shepard's arm, Liara struggled in a breath. "We almost died," she rasped, "and he's making jokes?"

"You should ask him to tap-dance for you," Shepard replied dryly, that lopsided grin making a brief appearance. Glancing up over T'Soni's head she nodded toward Chakwas as the doctor and her assistant rushed in. "Doc's here. She's going to take good care of you."

T'Soni shook her head, still grasping Shepard's arm. "I'll be fine," she coughed.

"No offense, but you sound like you have a ten pack a day habit," Alenko told her gently. "Besides, when was the last time you ate? Or slept?"

"We can talk later. Right now you need treatment," Shepard agreed.

"I'll third that," Chakwas said, having reached their side. She crouched down, looking at the asari's eyes before she looked up at her assistant. "Help her to the medical bay, start treatment for smoke inhalation."

As the assistant helped Liara to her feet her fingers fell reluctantly away from Shepard's arm. Glancing back as she was gently led away she rasped a final "Thank you."

Shepard bobbed her head, then straightened, tugging off a glove and then wiping a hand over her grimy forehead.

"You two should go to the infirmary as well," Chakwas said, looking at the commander critically. Shepard waved a hand slightly.

"I'm fine. Just a little overheated is all."

"Commander, you are the only person I know who can literally outrun an erupting volcano and then claim to be 'just a little overheated," Chakwas said sternly. "Both you and Alenko need to be fully checked out."

"Concentrate on T'Soni for now," Shepard insisted, then jerked her chin toward the biotic LT. "Alenko as well if he needs it. I'll be along as soon as I make sure we're not about to be ambushed by any geth ships."

"I could make it an order, Commander," Chakwas insisted. "As a doctor I am the only person on board this vessel that can pull rank on you."

"Pull all you want, I'm not budging," Shepard replied coolly. "Alenko, go with the doctor to the infirmary. I'll be down directly."

Without waiting any further protest she strode for the door, unsnapping the fastens of her chest-plate as she did so. Chakwas watched her go with a faint huff of irritation.

"The woman's as stubborn as a krogan with no legs," she declared. Wrex, who was still lingering nearby, barked a laugh.

"Lady," he said. "You got no idea."

It was hours before Shepard got down to the infirmary. There had been a small geth drop-ship lurking about…one that took off the moment it realized it was spotted. Shepard had ordered the pursuit and the Normandy had dogged it with determination, before they were finally able to take it out.

As she entered the infirmary Chakwas was leaning against an examination bed, arms folded. Besides her the place was empty. Shepard lifted her brows a little.

"I heard Alenko was cleared," she said. "Where's T'Soni?"

"She's bunking back in the lab," Chakwas told her. "I figured it would give her some privacy. She's asleep…utterly exhausted, but she should be just fine."

"Good to know."

"What I'd like to know is if my commanding officer is also going to be 'just fine,'" Chakwas said pointedly, then straightened and indicated the exam bed. Silently Shepard went over and laid down. Chakwas started up the medical scans, the corners of her mouth tense.

"Something on your mind, Doctor?" Shepard asked.

"To be absolutely frank, Commander…I'm not entirely sure how I feel about you. The jury is still out," she said candidly, watching the scan. "I brought my concerns about you to Captain Anderson before we'd even left dockside."

"I scare you that badly?" Shepard asked, amused.

"No, not scare…you concern me."

"I concern a great many people, Doctor-"


Shepard lifted her brows again, and Chakwas shook her head. "We are having a candid, off-the-record discussion, are we not? I overheard you talking to Williams this morning. My name is Helen."

"Fair enough. Helen. Call me Shepard."

"Not Delilah? Or Del?"

"Nah. Only Anderson ever calls me that, really…and he only does it when he thinks I'm not going to like something."

"Understood. Shepard then. Well, Shepard, it looks like you were correct. From the scan you're just fine, though I daresay you could do with a good night's rest."

Shepard nodded and sat up, but made no move to leave the infirmary. Her dark brown eyes regarded the doctor evenly. "So, lay your concerns on me, Helen. I have no doubt you've read my file…S.O.P for any medical personnel when taking on a new crew. Doubtless that's what brought you to Anderson about me to begin with. That and my lovely little nickname…the Butcher of Torfan. I'm sure the captain told you of my wicked, baby-killing ways, about how I'm on the verge of snapping and madly slaughtering my entire crew."

Chakwas's grey brows knit faintly. "You're mocking me."

Shepard grinned. "I'm joking with you, Helen. Knowing Anderson he probably made me sound like a goddamn girl-scout, a glowing paragon so pristine and saintly that my tears cure cancer and my shit smells like rose and honey."

"Well, he was not so colorful no…but he did express his confidence in you and it was clear he holds a great deal of respect and, I daresay, even affection for you."

"Anderson's a good man. But I don't want to hear his opinion. I want to hear yours."

"Well, to be utterly frank, Comm- -Shepard…as I said, I'm still not decided. On the one hand you seem to have a level head on your shoulders. You listen to your crew, you're thoughtful but decisive when needed…a tad bit stubborn but I've yet to work with any true Alliance soldier that wasn't. You're extremely skilled, almost an artist when it comes to combat…were you anyone else I would say you are a damn fine example of an Alliance soldier and a Commander I can more than respect."

"But I'm the Butcher of Torfan," Shepard hedged.

"I read over the reports from Torfan," Chakwas dismissed with the shake of a head. "What you did…what was done…you had no choice, and it's clear from my experiences with you now that you did not do what you did frivolously or lightly. It was a sad, frustrating situation…there was no good outcome, and there were far worse options on the table. Most leaders would have crumbled under the pressure…you did what had to be done. No, it's not Torfan itself that concerns me in the least."

"Then what's the issue?"

"I know you have passed all of your psych evaluations," she said bluntly. "But as you are no doubt aware, all of your records are included in your service file. Your childhood history, your police record, all there. And Torfan…it's less what you did and more how you feel about what you did that bothers me. What you have been through, Shepard…well, I find it extremely difficult to believe that you are as stable as you appear."

Shepard's lashes fluttered ever so slightly, before she shook her head with a half-smile. "Doc, someone once told me that if you drown, it is pointless to blame the ocean."

"I…am afraid I don't understand."

"When I was a kid, everything that happened…happened to me, not because of me. I had the misfortune of being born in an ocean lashed by a storm, all far out of my control. My parents were addicts, minds so rotten from the drugs that I don't even want to imagine the nightmare that was their reality. I was nothing to them…another mouth that simply appeared one day, miraculously healthy, though given the cocktail of hallucinogens my mother doubtless took all through her pregnancy I shouldn't even be alive. I was just an animal, Helen. Less than an animal to them. I wonder at times if they even realized I was actually real. But it doesn't matter. They died the same way they lived."

She rubbed her forearm a little, gave a faint shrug. "And for a long time, I was very angry. Angry at them, angry at life, angry at whatever force in the universe had done this to me. I lived the best way I could and attacked anything that I saw as a threat, but I was no more right than my folks were. I was fighting an ocean, angry at mindless, unfeeling waves."

"And then you went to the institute," Helen said softly.

"Yes. And I learned how to be a human being. I learned that instead of fighting the ocean, instead of being angry at it just for being an ocean…you gotta learn how to swim. Look, Doc, I'm not perfect. I have a temper. I smoke and drink, and my idea of shore leave is to crawl into the deepest, grungiest hole I can get to and just exist for a while. But I'm swimming. And because of that, I will never be my parents, never hurt someone the way they did."

"I understand the metaphor but you must understand, Shepard…personal and emotional trauma of that magnitude takes a toll on any human being, no matter their philosophy. And since you've grown up, since you've joined the Alliance, you've had to make decisions and live with the consequences of them. Decisions where people died. These were not someone else's choices affecting a helpless innocent…these were your own. Necessary as they may be, sending friends to die would shake even the strongest of souls. And the murder…that poor boy-"

"Doctor, I understand where you're coming from," Shepard said calmly. "But do not mention him to me again."

She got to her feet, rubbing a hand on the back of her neck. She desperately needed a shower. She could still smell sweat and dirt, and her clothes were itchy. "Doc, I was born in the darkest pit anybody can be born in. And one day, someone took my hand and showed me a different world, a different place. That's why I joined the Alliance. I will die to protect what she showed me. I will fight with every last drop of blood and sweat to preserve it. I have a goal, a channel…and it's worked for me. I have the best therapy available. I get to punch in the faces of a universe full of mercs, criminals, and scum…and I get to leave the galaxy around me a little bit better each time I do. I get to make a difference."

Scrubbing at her hair with her fingers she murmured, "I'd best go and get washed. No doubt I smell like a varren. I'll see you later, Doc."

She went to the door, then paused as it slid open, looking back. "And don't worry. I promise if I ever snap and go on a crazy killing rampage, I'll do you the courtesy of letting you know in advance, ok?"

It was the grin that did it. Perpetually lopsided it made her look ten years younger, like a kid opening a Christmas gift. Chakwas couldn't help a faint chuckle as the commander turned and left, heading for the showers and a soft bed.

While the conversation had done little to put her at ease regarding the commander's stability, she could at least understand and respect her viewpoint. As well, she began to understand just what it was that Anderson had been talking about. If nothing else, Shepard was a leader, one that had a sort of magnetism that lead people to follow her without question.

And, after all…she was leading them into Hell. If you had to follow someone there, wasn't it better that they had been there before…and managed to find their way out again?

The low, ever-present pulsating hum of the ship around them formed both a comforting blanket, and a relentless torture. Benezia's feet made no sound as she stepped from the corridor into the room. Only a matriarch could have hidden how she felt so completely as she did at this moment.

The room, like the rest of the ship, was dark and oppressive, with odd angles and almost flowing features. The hum sounded predatory here, eager and waiting. Those gathered looked no less eager.

One watching the matriarch very closely might have noticed the faint loosening of her shoulders, the ever so miniscule flutter of her eyelashes, as she realized the form strapped down on the table was not her daughter. Instead it was a male turian, stripped to the waist and looking a little worse for wear.

Osco hasn't failed yet, then, she said to herself silently, and felt an almost disapproving shift in the feel of the ship around her. Thoughts had little privacy in this place.

Geth were not allowed aboard this ship, instead keeping to their own vessels that followed Sovereign through the black like scavenger fish clinging to the belly of a shark. Two of those in attendance were asari, young commandos who had followed Benezia from Thessia. Young, eager, their gaze was full of worship and a blood-lust the matriarch doubted they knew they had. The third figure was a salarian, a doctor, lingering in a back shadow.

The last present was Saren himself. He stood looking down at the turian spread-eagle on the table as if he were a bug to be dissected. He didn't so much as glance up at Benezia's entrance, and she made no move to interrupt.

"You failed to retrieve the girl and her evidence, Seivus. Now my status as a Spectre has been stripped and more eyes than needed to be are on our little operation."

Seivus blinked one eye, the second lost in a puff of swollen flesh. Gleams of sapphire slowly ran like tears down his cheek. "It wasn't my fault," he said frantically. "Those marines came out of nowhere, they had a krogan with them. I was lucky to get out of there alive! It…it's not like this wasn't going to happen eventually. The Council would have found out what was going on sooner or later-"

"The Council are a bunch of dense politicians who were more than content to stick their fingers in their collective ears and sing la la la, rather than address anything going wrong with their perfect little galaxy, their prize Spectre!" Saren snapped. "They would have remained gleefully oblivious until the day we sailed down their throats if you had done your job properly!"

"The marines-!"

"Weak, soft humans. And the krogan was an old, wretched, battered excuse of the breed."

Saren's eyes narrowed before he straightened and turned toward the doctor. On the table, Seivus continued to blubber.

"I won't fail you again," he promised. "That soldier was there, the one you wanted dead…please, give me another chance. I'll bring you her head on a spike before the week is out! I won't fail you again!"

Saren was deaf to his pleas, and the pitiful Seivus's death was not pleasant to behold. Some part of Benezia deep inside wept at her lack of horror, and she did not bother to shift her gaze.

When Seivus had fallen permanently silent, Saren looked at the salarian doctor and the two commandos, saying simply "Leave."

Benezia didn't even stir herself to step out of the way as the trio passed her and left her and the former Spectre alone.

Ignoring the body, Saren leaned on the edge of the exam table and folded his arms, looking sternly at Benezia. "The team that I sent failed to retrieve your daughter. The volcano erupted."

The matriarch only looked at him silently. She wondered where her grief was, and knew it had been lost to the insistent vibrations of this ship. After only a slight pause, Saren continued.

"However it seems this…Commander Shepard was dirtside right before the eruption. From the reports we have intercepted on the Alliance secure channel, it seems she may have your daughter in her custody. This…Shepard, is becoming a serious thorn in my side."

"She is human," Benezia stated. "They are hot-headed, rash…but no matter how talented this Commander may seem, she will not stand against the united force of the Geth, or even a squad of my own commandos. Do not let her interference distract you from our goal. We must find the Conduit."

Saren nodded slowly. "Indeed. To that end, it looks like our little pet on Noveria may be ready for interrogation. Apparently she and her children are making a nuisance of themselves. I am sending you with a significant contingent of Geth to secure the facility and extract the information we need."

"And what am I to do with her once I have the coordinates?" Benezia asked. Saren barked a laugh, straightening.

"What do I care? Kill her, or better yet…release her and her children. Perhaps they will serve as enough of a distraction to the Council and the Alliance to make up for Seivus's incompetence."

Benezia inclined her head slightly. "What of you?"

"I have a human colony to visit. I would like that crazy little doctor of yours to come along, she may be of use."

"Gellian? She is not aboard. I sent her to take care of some business elsewhere. You are welcome to Shiala instead."

"She does not have the medical degree or the IQ," Saren grumped.

"Perhaps not, but she is very good at…extracting information."

"Very well. Make your arrangements for Noveria. You will leave as soon as possible."

Benezia inclined her head in agreement, then turned and walked out.

The glass window of the Alliance recruitment station pressed the boy's nose, lips, and cheeks flat as he leaned against it, cupping his hands around his temples to cut the glare and see within. The recruitment officer glanced over at him a time or two, shaking her head with a little smirk. He could not hear what was said, but he watched intently.

After what seemed an eternity of time, the dark-haired girl rose and shook the recruiter's hand, then headed his way. Leaving an almost perfect smudge of his face behind, the boy ran over to the door and beamed a grin.

"You did it?" he gushed, clasping his fingers below his chin in glowing joy. "You gonna be a hero, Del?"

Shepard smiled at the twelve year old and bobbed her head. "I'm going to be a hero," she replied affirmatively.

He let out a squeal of happiness, flinging his arms around her and planting a wet kiss on her cheek. She hugged him back tightly with a laugh, then took his hand as they headed back down the street toward home. He swung their joined hands back and forth, every once in a while giving a little skip, the grin on his face never fading.

Paul Salgado was twelve, but in many ways he had never grown beyond six years old. His mother, Nancy, had been accidentally exposed to eezo while she was pregnant with him. A medical nurse, a scanner she'd been working with had been inefficiently repaired, exposing it's eezo core when she went to use it. She herself escaped harm but the embryonic Paul was not so lucky.

Sometimes, kids exposed to eezo in utero were born normally, and grew into biotics. Most were not so fortunate…and Paul was among the 'most'.

At four he had developed his first brain tumor. They were able to remove it, but he was left quite mentally impaired by the operation. His mother was told he would never really progress beyond pre-school age. Two years ago, at ten years old, he had developed a second brain tumor that they had removed. Fortunately this one was not so deep and they excised it without causing further damage, but his prognosis was grim. He would only continue to develop tumors as he grew, and they would worsen drastically with puberty. They did not expect him to live to see twenty.

He was Shepard's best friend, the brother she had never had. His mother Nancy was the nurse who had first welcomed her to the institute when she had been arrested that final time. Now seventeen Shepard had been out of that place for three years and the infinitely kind Nancy had actually insisted the orphan girl stay with her and her son. She'd taken Paul with her on occasion to the institute and she had seen how quickly he'd taken to the troubled Del Shepard, the good he did her.

Paul had often told Shepard, even in the early days of their acquaintance, that she was going to be a hero. He was so matter-of-fact about it, completely convinced. Like most boys he was fascinated with soldiers and space and had declared repeatedly that he wanted to be a soldier, to go to space and be a hero when he grew up. Neither his mother nor Shepard had the heart to tell him that the chances of him actually growing up were slim, and even if he did survive to be an adult, he could sadly never be a soldier.

But Shepard could. The last few months she'd given it a great deal of thought, and finally talked about it with Nancy. The nurse was both supportive and enthusiastic, but when Paul had heard nothing could compare to the boy's excitement. He insisted on walking with her down to the recruiting station but couldn't quite get up the nerve to go in to the building himself.

Now he clung to her hand, skipping and dancing and grinning until Shepard couldn't help but laugh.

They were nearing the stairs to the apartment when she looked up and found their path blocked by a turian. Saren's mandibles clicked faintly, his blue eyes glowing with ethereal light.

"You're no hero," he murmured. "You're nothing but a murderer."

The sky, just moments ago bright and sunny, had darkened to a tortured red. A great metal hand was reaching down from the clouds, and as she turned to grab Paul, to urge him to run, the boy putrefied and rotted in her hands.

"Bestust buds, Del," he slurred as he came apart. "Bestust buds…"