"Damn key," the salarian grumbled as he gave the lock another futile swipe. Shepard watched a curling strip of paint on the door bobble as he mashed the card into the reader. "Need to get the chip replaced - ah, there." He pushed the door open with a shoulder, and it groaned loudly in protest.

"Come in, come in." He held the door wide as the auto-triggered lights began flickering on. "It's not much, I'm afraid."

'Not much' felt like a bold understatement to Shepard. Stacks of ancient tech were balanced in precarious columns on every available surface, including most of the floor. She could spot omnitools, vehicle nav modules, even a few milspec targeting systems. All models that had been obsolete at least ten years before she'd been born. The smell of dust and rusting battery cases was all-pervasive. Two camp beds had been erected in a hastily cleared area near the room's only window. The blinds drawn over the pane seemed decorative only, as the layer of fine red dirt coating the outside made it as transparent as her hand.

"Well, its got a bathroom that works, for the most part. It was originally a lab, so the shower was for chemical emergencies. Just don't expect the Grondian Falls."

Shepard slung her kit with practiced ease under one of the beds. "It'll be fine."

The salarian wrung the abused key between his hands. "I'd offer something better than a storeroom, but this town only has one hotel. I didn't think you'd want to risk exposure -" he continued nervously.

"It's fine. We've both slept in worse." Garrus walked past and dumped his gear on the other bed. A pile of antique physical keyboards cascaded off a nearby desk onto his pillow. Shepard winced as he brushed them carelessly to the floor, hundreds of plastic keys clacking. So he still wasn't in the most sociable of moods.

"Oh." The salarian looked from Garrus to the Commander, and back again. "I could try and organise a double, if you'd prefer."

Shepard held up a hand, heat shooting up her neck. Damn salarians and their complete ignorance of social cues. "That won't be necessary. Let's just start the debrief."

"Agreed." Their guide maneuvered himself to the middle of the room and tried to look composed with one foot either side of a teetering mound of datapads. A flick of his omnitool had a holo topographic map rising out of his forearm.

"Beautiful Boomtown of Kiprin's Burden. I don't know how much Jareet told you, but you've come to the gutter drain of the galaxy here. The air is foul, there are dust storms more often than sunrises, and temperatures range between hot and death by heatstroke. The handful of permanent residents hate this place as much as the transitory workers. There are only two upsides; the asteroids are making a lot of people very rich, and there hasn't been a Reaper sighted in the entire system. I figure even they think this place is worthless."

Shepard sat on the edge of her cot and steepled her hands between her knees. "That'll change if we can't stop them, I guarantee it," she said heavily.

"Well." The salarian smiled at her around the edge of his map. "That's your department, Commander. I'm not selling the farm while we've got you leading the charge."

She returned the smile as best she could.

"Anyway, STG started maintaining a presence here about six Cit-standard months ago. At the moment our operation is, uh, limited. I'm the only agent on the ground right now and my budget is outstripped by Presidium menu prices. Won't I be glad to see the back of this place -"

"Enough of this," Garrus interrupted from a spot next to the window, tone grating with impatience. "Look... what did you say your name was?"

The salarian's eyes narrowed as he withdrew his map with a sharp tap. "Ferdin."

"Ferdin, we're not here because we're interested in the trials of your backwater posting. We're here for Cerberus." Garrus started rummaging through the pockets of his bag, pulling out a small omni drive and tossing it to the operative. "All we need from you is any intel you've collected on Cerberus in this hellhole, and then you need to get out of our way."

Shepard stood with a mental sigh, preparing for another diplomatic battle. Ferdin, however, seemed to be made of stronger stuff than his office counterpart. He stepped over the datapad mound, mouth a tight line.

"Then I'll save you some time. There's none. No data on Cerberus activities has ever been recorded here." He neatly tossed the holo drive back onto Garrus' kit. "All you've got is Boomtown, or thousands of kilometres of desert. If you want to start looking for evidence of Cerberus in the latter, be my guest." He waved an arm towards the dirt-caked window. "If not, then your only lead is somewhere in my backwater post."

Garrus seemed momentarily without an answer, a rare and enjoyable sight for Shepard. He glanced at her as though for backup, to which she only raised her eyebrows in a distinct 'you're on your own'.

He turned back to the agent, obviously not content to back down. "And what can you tell me about the ship that landed here? Why the hell did you lose sight of the tracker?"

Ferdin held up his hands. "Hey, that's not on me. The entire town has had major electrical disturbances for weeks now. I think it's the dust storms. Your bogey came down right in the thick of one of them. They might as well have leapt into subspace for all I'd have been able to track a single ship in that."

"Perfect cover." Shepard murmured.

"And the perfect barrier to prevent anyone stumbling across them unintentionally," Ferdin added. "No one ventures outside Boomtown without a lot of gear and a very good reason. Hell, I'm still having trouble believing they're really here. I've combed sat feeds from all over this planet for months now looking for batarian pirate LZs, and gotten nothing for the trouble but storms, rocks, and a lot of boredom."

Garrus shook his head. "If they're here, they can be found. Not even Cerberus can operate completely invisibly. They need raw materials, power, transport. Someone here has to know something."

"We just need to find the weak link in the chain." Shepard concluded. She turned to Ferdin. "That's where we'll need your help. Can you think of any possible places to start? Someone well-connected we could lean on?"

The agent crossed his arms, tapping his fingers absently on his forearm. "Hmm. Maybe one. I've got no idea how much she knows, but... there's an asari by the name of Yvera. She's a freelance surveyor who takes contracts to prospect new claims on the asteroids. She's worked for almost every company trading on the planet. If one of them has some side business they shouldn't, then she's bound to have caught a whiff." Ferdin suddenly turned to Garrus with a wide, smug grin. "And you're in luck. I've heard she loves turians."

The turian sighed. Shepard felt her gut tighten a little at Ferdin's unknowingly poor choice of words. She glanced at Garrus, but he didn't seem disturbed. Maybe he's forgotten about it, she reasoned with what she knew was futile hope.

"Where can we find her?" Garrus asked.

"Right now? Don't you want to settle in first -"

"The sooner we start asking questions, the sooner we... do what we came here to do." He glanced at Shepard, and she nodded, understanding his meaning. They would do it her way. They could begin the hunt proper.

Ferdin's brow ridge raised. "If you say so." He checked the clock on his omnitool. "About now she's probably in the Cantina, the upmarket bar in town. It's where the company drones usually try to dull the pain at the end of the day."

"Is there a chance we'll be recognised?" Shepard touched the insignia on her armour's chestplate.

The salarian shrugged. "You're famous even out here, but our news feeds are spotty at best. Just don't wear that armour you're always wearing in the vids, maybe change that - what's it called, on top of your head? Hair? Don't stare too many people in the eye and you should be fine. As for your friend, well, all turians look alike to me."

"What a coincidence, just like all salarians to me," Garrus shot back without looking at them, already pulling his civilian clothes out of the cavity of his kitbag.

Ferdin smiled at Shepard rather wickedly before retreating back across the minefield of junked equipment. "I'll be in touch. Oh, almost forgot." He turned at the door and threw the battered keycard to Shepard, who caught it with one hand. "Don't lose that. Good luck, Commander." He pulled the door closed behind him with a obnoxious creak.

Shepard pocketed the key with a smile. She was glad that the STG had unwittingly left a competent agent in this dead end assignment. She had a feeling they would need his help searching for their needle in a haystack.

There was a rustle behind her. "Here's the deal," came Garrus' voice over her shoulder, interrupting her thoughts. She turned to see him perched on the edge of the flimsy cot, unstrapping his shin plates. "Whatever we do here, we do to find Solanna. No side objectives, no new parameters." His armour hit the linoleum with a clunk. "As long as this is a search and rescue, then we'll do it your way."

Shepard breathed a little easier for the first time since they'd disembarked. Too many years as a squad commander told her that even the best laid plans went awry when the whole team wasn't pulling in the same direction, and no amount of discipline saved those missions. "We're getting her back, Vakarian. You've got my word."

He seemed to consider this for a moment, then reached out a hand in a distinctly human gesture. Shepard took his arm in a soldier's grip. If a truce was the best they could do for now, she'd take it gladly.

She pulled her kit back onto the bed and began scavenging through the weaponry and tools for a set of clothes that wouldn't immediately betray her as military. She frowned as she burrowed deeper, past rattling heatsinks and cans of medigel. The pickings were slim, to say the least. At last, a sadly neglected but suitable outfit appeared, and she emancipated the clothes from the bottom of her bag. A few smears of oil here and there wouldn't draw too much attention, she hoped.

When she stood back and held up the shirt for inspection, she realised Garrus had already shed his armour and was busy peeling off his bodysuit. A question about the visibility of the grease marks died on her lips. She averted her eyes, overcome with a strange, discomforting shyness. It was hardly the first time they'd seen each other naked; dressing wounds in the field left little room for modesty. But something about their cramped quarters, their isolation from the Normandy and her recent drunken confessions had her awareness of his proximity pinging off the charts. Feeling thoroughly stupid, she gathered up her street clothes and made for the bathroom.

Investigating the tiny space, she discovered a single bare bulb above a cracked sink. Porcelain, even. This place is a history museum, she mused. There was a feeling of disconnection about the planet to Shepard, like it had somehow been fumbled and dropped out of modern galactic life. She clicked out the joins on her chestplate and lifted it over her head, glancing at her forearm. Even her state of the art omnitool was awash with static. They were isolated from the rest of civilisation in every sense. Pulling off her undersuit and stepping into the simple button-up and pants, she wondered if she could covertly get a message to Tali. The Normandy had drifted long out of point-to-point range, and she had the feeling her optimistic promise of an overnight return was going to be broken.

She turned the tap and watched the rusty water circle the drain until it flowed clear. The thought of being too long away was like an itch on the roof of her mouth. She was less than useless out here if something happened to them.

"Shepard." His voice came from right outside the door.

She splashed her face a few times. "Just a sec," she called. She struggled to put her concerns aside, gripping the sink. Whatever anxiety she felt about leaving the Normandy could be nothing compared to what Garrus felt right now. She'd made a promise, and like hell she was sitting shipside while the Illusive Man terrorised the family of her best mate, whatever the state of their friendship lately. It was here she was needed.

When she pulled open the door, her cloudy, meandering thoughts came to a screeching halt. She swallowed. She could probably count on one hand the times she'd seen him without armour, but never like this. Black fabric and sharp, tailored lines. Dark blue stripes over his shoulder and down his chest matched his clan markings, casting subtle reflections as he turned to face her. He was a lithe, dangerous shape in silhouette. Even in the dull storeroom lighting, he looked like he'd been transplanted directly from a nightclub in Illium's wealthiest district.

"You ready to move?" he asked vaguely, slipping his visor into place and touching a few buttons.

"Uh -" She dragged her eyes from the way the sleek material stretched over his shoulders. "I'm not sure. Suddenly I feel a little underdressed."

"This?" He adjusted his collar with a finger under the cuff. "Dr. Michel paid for it when I was on the Citadel a few months ago. I told her it was wasted on me, but - " He spread his arms slightly. "She insisted."

I bet she did. Shepard smoothed down the front of her cheap, wrinkled blouse, and was confronted with an alien emotion; wishing she'd packed a skirt.

"It looks..." Amazing. Brilliant. I'd give you the launch codes for my ship right now if you asked. "Expensive. You'll be earmarked for a few muggings later."

"They might be good stress relief." He averted his eyes slightly and fingered the grip on his sidearm. "You know, I feel a little ridiculous in anything other than armour these days. What with my 'natural beauty' and all." He ran a hand over the rough, ragged section on the right side of his face.

Shepard just barely resisted rolling her eyes at the irony. "You don't look ridiculous, Garrus. You might even qualify as attractive to a species other than krogan for once."

"That good, huh?" He tossed her Carnifex over, which she tucked into her waistband. "Seems money really can buy anything."

"Well, let's not get drastic. You're still turian after all," Shepard said with regret, pulling open the creaking door. He passed her with a sardonic tilt of the head, a glimmer of their old banter passing between them. Her hand reached out for his forearm without thinking, stopping him in his tracks.

"Seriously though. You look good. You've always looked good." A flutter of something unknowable stirred in Shepard's stomach as he met her eyes.

To her relief, his mandibles parted in a smile. "Good enough for a dance with a drunk asari?"

She returned the grin. "Let's go and find out."


Finding the Cantina had proven more difficult than finding a bar in a four-street town should have been. The buildings in Boomtown were connected by a labyrinth of makeshift corridors to avoid venturing out while a duststorm was raging, which Shepard had a feeling was more often than not. The corridor walls were layered floor to ceiling with advertisements but otherwise pre-fab and generic, and thus almost impossible to tell apart. They had doubled back once without realising it before finally stumbling over a slurring office worker and extracting directions. The lack of signage or any other kind of local infrastructure gave her some idea of how little the Citadel had influence here. Boomtown appeared to govern itself.

Walking into the Cantina did not dispel the notion. If this was the 'upmarket' bar, she wanted to see what Ferdin called a dive. It appeared to be two demountable buildings that had been crudely sliced open and joined, like a botch repair job on a pipeline. Plastered cracks were opening along the seam, most of which had been abandoned to destiny. The island bar squatting in the centre of the dim room was covered in scuffs and one or two claw marks. Electronic jazz filtered through unseen speakers, the smooth beats glitching slightly whenever the krogan barman plunked down a drink with a little too much enthusiasm. Low, pulsed lighting appeared to be attempting to recreate the fashionable atmosphere of the Citadel clubs, but the illusion was shattered as the pulses turned to erratic flashes. The krogan grunted in annoyance and thumped a wall behind him, returning the lights to their schedule. Shepard was overwhelmed with the impression of a place thrown up in a hurry and never expected to last; a joint used by everyone and valued by no one.

Scattered on the low settees and propping up the bar were a motley assortment of tired faces and cheap suits. No one seemed to pay the newcomers hovering in the doorway much attention, too busy listlessly shuffling their alcohol or slouching deep in their chairs, heads thrown back in exhaustion.

"Thoughts?" she murmured. She might be able to analyse a battlefield in a heartbeat, but no one could read a crowded room like a detective.

He folded his arms, leaning closer to speak near her ear. "Workers, mostly white collar. Underpaid and overworked - I'd say the real money drinks elsewhere. One or two bodyguards for the execs, but no career criminals. Mercs here on contracted stints, probably."

"Anything that says Cerberus?" she asked, eyes narrowed as she scanned the inhabitants for telltale signs of professional soldiers.

"Nothing," he whispered, sighing in frustration.

Shepard clucked her tongue. "Not a surprise." She surreptitiously slipped on the pair of spectacles she'd bought earlier from a vending machine in one of the interminable corridors. "Any reporters?"

"Not that I can see. If they're here, they're blending well."

"Let's not give them a reason to spring out of hiding," she muttered grimly.

They began threading their way to the bar. As soon as Garrus was out of the shadows, the effect was immediate. Almost every head picked up, some with interest, some with wariness. Shepard realised he was probably wearing the priciest thing in the room. She heard a swell of murmurs follow in their wake, mostly female.

They had agreed that he should take the lead, lessening the chance of Shepard being recognised. As she tailed him with head down, she realised they needn't have worried. No one in the room was looking at her.

Garrus reached the bar and signaled the tender over. The krogan's massive brow creased in amusement when he saw who was hailing him, and he sauntered over with a shake of his head.

"Whose boat did'ya fall off? Hope you weren't expecting the Dark Star in here, kid." The barman flipped a ragged towel over his shoulder, chuckling at his own humour.

"I'm looking for an asari called Yvera. You heard of her?"

The jocular attitude hardened in an instant. "And who the hell are you, looking for Yve? You tryin' to bother her?"

Garrus paused only briefly before replying. "Oh, not at all, sir." He laced his hands together and tilted his weight onto the bar, glancing left and right and smiling conspiratorily. " Actually, I'm the operations manager for Pureshot Corporations. You might have heard of them, Noveria-based? I was supposed to meet Yvera before my damn flight got delayed by the duststorm earlier." He gave an exasperated laugh. "I was hoping I could apologise by buying her a drink." His tone was the perfect mix of direct and disdainful. He sounded exactly like a high-powered executive trying to be polite to backwater yokels.

Luckily, the barman was too dull-witted to see through either layer of disguise. He nodded companionably, picking up a glass to polish. "Yeah, the storms'll kill ya out here. Reminds me of Tuchanka on its best days. Yve is over there somewhere." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, already moving towards a batarian tapping the bar.

Shepard fell into step behind him as they followed the direction pointed out, an appropriately humble secretary to his business-like stride. "Pureshot?" she said out of the corner of her mouth, keeping her head lowered.

"Name of my first gun," he muttered. Shepard chuckled towards the carpet.

The back of the bar was lined with dim, low-walled booths, their couches arranged in semi-circles. Again, there was the smack of the cosmopolitan about the decor that didn't stand up to more than a moment's scrutiny. The seat covers were fraying over the corners, tables were covered with an easy clean plastic shield. Even the public terminal screens embedded along the wall were flickering.

Above one booth, clouds of fragant smoke lingered in a fog. As they approached the inhabitant from behind, Shepard caught the distinctive scent of clove cigarettes. It was a human vice that many asari had taken to as a fashion statement, despite having little effect on their biology. She tapped Garrus on the arm but he ignored her, walking straight past the booth as though not in the least interested in its contents. Her brow furrowed as she followed dutifully. He took up a position at the bar, not facing the booths but in full view of whoever sat along the back wall.

"Hey, I think you overshot the target," she said quietly as she slid onto a stool.

"Trust me," he replied calmly, flicking through the autoserve dextro menu and making a selection. The machine whirred, raising a full glass through a hatch that opened in the countertop. He leaned one side up against the bar, crossing his ankles and sipping his drink with bored disinterest. Shepard followed suit with the levo menu, using the pretense of dropping her straw to take a look at her surroundings. There was a gaggle of female office workers over Garrus' shoulder who were shooting him glances over their cocktails and intermittently dissolving into giggles. They seemed to be trying to goad one of their group into approaching. Next to them, an argument was developing between a pair of quarians; the woman was outright ignoring her date in favour of staring openly at the turian. The man's posture was sullen as he sunk back into a couch, looking defeated.

"Anything interesting?" Garrus asked, stirring his drink lazily.

Shepard reseated herself and took a belt of her own, something fruity and too sweet. "Good news. If the asari doesn't talk, we can always put you on the street corner and gather intel the old-fashioned way."

"If my academy-age self could hear that, he'd be thrilled. And terrified."

"And what about jaded and ancient Garrus?" Shepard asked.

"Just terrified." He grinned over his liquor.

Shepard rolled her eyes. "Yeah, you seem it. I know full well that you didn't always need your badge and gun to get a female to talk to you."

"Once, maybe," he corrected, not quite meeting her eyes.

"Still," she repeated firmly.

He met her gaze after a few moments. His expression changed to something a little more somber. "Shepard, we need to talk-"

"Not now. Show time," she interrupted, gulping down the rest of her drink in haste. Privately, she thanked the asari currently stumbling their way for her timing. She wasn't sure she wanted to hear what he had been about to say.

Garrus straightened. He held his hand under the counter and made their combat signal to indicate he was taking point. Shepard nodded.

The asari approached them in a waft of pungent clove smoke. Her flowery perfume did little to mask the acrid smell of cigarettes and industrial soot. A tight, restrictive dress had seen better days but still looked out of place against the shabby Cantina backdrop. She reminded Shepard instantly of the female marines at an Alliance ball; trying desperately to convince onlookers that they were delicate, feminine lilies for one night despite their hard muscles and sunburns.

"So are you two here on business, or pleasure?" she said with apparent disinterest, coming up to the bar on Shepard's side and touching a selection on the autoserve. Her eyes kept sliding sideways to Garrus.

"Business, of course." Garrus took a long sip, letting his eyes wander briefly down the asari's body. "I don't see myself coming here for pleasure."

"Me neither. I can't wait to be off this rock." She sighed heavily. "Give me the Reapers any day if it means I can have the Citadel clubs back. There is no scene here worth my time."

"Maybe I can help make it worthwhile," Garrus replied, putting his glass down. He reached over Shepard and covered the payment scanner with a hand just as the asari was moving the chip embedded in her wrist towards the machine. "I'll pay for your drink if you tell me your name." His voice had turned languid and playful.

Shepard kept her head down, struggling not to scoff. The asari giggled.

"Yvera." She drew the syllables of her name out. "And you are?" she asked coyly.

"Dimark." He stood and pulled up the hem of a glove, waving his hand over the counter. The autoserve beeped.

"And this is your... girlfriend?" she said, gesturing at Shepard, barely sparing her a glance.

He laughed dismissively. "My assistant. I picked her up on Illium."

"Oh?" The subtext of that statement did not seem to be lost on the asari. "One of those assistants."

"Mm. Humans aren't my taste, so to speak," he said pointedly.

She picked up her drink and sauntered to his side. They began exchanging flirtations that bordered on comically absurd to Shepard, but Yvera seemed to be eating it up. It wasn't long before she took his arm and pulled him back towards her booth, disappearing into the low lighting and lingering smoke. Shepard watched them go with a strange taste in her mouth that she was pretty sure wasn't just the week old fruit in her cocktail. From her vantage point, she could still hear the rumble of Garrus' laughter and the playful rebukes of the asari, amidst peals of drunken giggles. She slipped off her stool. Somehow, sitting around like an obedient slave no longer seemed appealing.

She walked back around to the front, well out of view and earshot of the booths. She tapped two fingers on the bar, calling the krogan over. To hell with the risk of exposure, she needed a real drink.

As the barman poured her a shot of Sur'kesh sour malt, there was a sudden, dark pang behind her eyes. Pain suddenly dumped over her senses like a bucket of water thrown on her head. Every throb of her heartbeat became a streak of lightning, illuminating the forest. The boy stood on a high hill, and watched as drips of poison fell out of the mouths of the ghosts. They were laughing at her again.

God, please, not now, she begged the shady figures. Her head felt like it was about to crack open at the seams. Not here. Torment me later.

There was a tap on her shoulder, and the forest fell away into mist. Her hand jerked for her gun, the other fist clenching over the shot glass like a claw.

A heavyset batarian was staring at her, his four eyes unblinking. She forced herself to relax, remembering that indentured servants usually didn't pull Carnifexes out of their pants at the drop of a hat. "You need a hand?" she ventured, as he continued to stand and stare impassively.

"Have you got elcor family?" he said abruptly, after a minute of silence.

Shepard twisted on her stool, completely nonplussed. "Uh-"

"You said 'Dekuuna' just then." He scratched a growth on his chin. "It's Reaper country now."

Shepard looked down into the dregs of her liquor. An unfamiliar, spectacled reflection looked back. "No. I haven't got family there."

"Be glad, then." He started walking away, gait stilted with a limp. "Come with me, Commander."

Shepard's heartrate shot up on his last word. She looked back over to the booths, but there was no sign of Garrus emerging any time soon. She stood, waving her chip over the scanner for the drink, and made some fast calculations. If she pulled a weapon and blew their cover now, they could be alerting the active cells on Kiprin's Burden before they'd gotten even a toehold on Solanna's whereabouts. Then again, the batarian could be Cerberus and it was all for naught anyway. He wasn't a typical agent for the Illusive Man, but who knew how he recruited these days.

The batarian was waiting patiently near the door, watching her. She couldn't spot a weapon and she couldn't hear backup moving into position. With one last glance at the back of the bar, she decided to risk it.

He silently gestured outside as she approached. She pulled the gun tucked under her shirt a little freer as he stepped through in front.

There was a bubbled, transparent force field arched out over the doors as a shield against the dust and polluted air. At that moment it was doing double duty as a guard against the rain, which had begun to pour down in thick, slightly greenish sheets. Despite the shield and the dry, recycled air blowing through the doors of the Cantina, she could smell sulfur.

"It's acid rain." There was a figure just beyond the throw of light from the bar, facing out into the motley jumble of colony buildings.

Shepard glanced left and right. No drawn muzzles in ambush. Journalists, then? Undercover C-Sec?

"That rain'll burn a hole right through your skin." The figure turned. "For all our brains, nature'll still fry us up for dinner whenever the bitch wants."

A woman about her mother's age stepped into the light. She had brown, wind-leathered skin and thick black hair shot through with grey. A rash of small scars over her forehead and down one cheek told Shepard she'd had history with a shrapnel explosion. When she smiled, her teeth shone gleaming white. "Good'ta meet ya, friend." A hand came towards her.

Shepard took it cautiously. "Who are you? Do you... know who I am?"

The woman moved to a low bench under a scrolling ad for Lingual Language Mods. The batarian took her arm and guided her to the seat carefully. A heavy sigh exhaled through her nose. "I'm Maggie. You're Commander Shepard, and you're trying to stop the Reapers. Sound about right?"

"How did you-"

Maggie tapped an ear. "We were sitting near you and that turian boy. You learn to remember voices when other parts of you don't work, and you're about the only voice I hear on the feeds these days." For the first time, Shepard noticed that her eyes were focused into the middle distance, aimlessly sliding left and right.

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose, feeling suddenly very tired. So much for undercover. "That's about right."

"Well, Aborigines return to the dirt they was born on to die. And I ain't dead yet, so you better save Australia for me. You're the only shot I got'a ever seeing Gilgandra again. So to speak." Another thousand watt smile that didn't quite reach the shifting, blinking eyes.

Shepard wished she could say something heroic. Definitive. Absolutely, it's all under control.

"I'll do my best." So empty and trite, but it was all she could offer that still sounded like the truth. "I'm sorry, Maggie."

"Don't be sorry," she said with a wave of a hand. "They're here now. Nothing you can do about that except try. But that's not why I had Bezerick get you out here." The Aboriginal leaned foward, resting elbows on knees. "I need your help, Commander."