Disclaimer: I don't own Mass Effect! I don't own Neal Asher! I only own a faulty USB stick!

A/N: ARGH. That was the sound my computer made when it ate my original USB stick with all my writing on it. I'm not kidding about the noise either. Then, to make matters worse, the summer ended and I had to do stuff that took up most of my early-morning writing time, like eating breakfast, and running around trying to catch buses. I apologise copiously for the long break, and for the fact that despite this chapter is the longest I've written yet it still doesn't finish the action scene. Thank you, all of you, for reading and reviewing and all the other wonderful things you've done during my hiatus. I hope you enjoy this chapter, and the rest of the fic.

Also, side-note. I'm ignoring Leviathan. That's right – ignoring it. I won't say anything, in case of spoilers, but I disagree with some of the concepts, both from a 'canon' perspective, and within my own fanon that I'm making up. If you want, I can post a coherent argument as to why on my profile, but unless people are really going to take umbrage over this I won't.

Chapter Twelve: Morningstar, Part Four

They'd come through the wall like furies.

It'd been a pretty simple plan – use Shruiken to cut holes in walls, get EDI to boost the frag grenade's power output with the lab, then bring the wall down. Tali had helped by identifying the load-bearing points, and by suggesting that they just use the Thanix. However, EDI, after a moment of calculation, had said that the backwash of heat from using it in such an enclosed space would cook them all.

In the meantime, Shepard had had to work out how to get Shruiken to attack things without at her command, as opposed to it just doing it by itself. She had just aimed it at the Banshee and it had shot through and come back on some sort of VI autopilot – here she wanted something more precise. She felt certain it could do it. She just wasn't sure how it could.

So she used her little technical skill to access what she figured was the Shruiken control module on her arm...only to discover it was just a glorified rail launcher. Carefully looking through the new programs installed on her omnitool was actually what was needed, though without any sort of guide she'd almost decapitated herself.

She simply needed to guide it with her mind.

It was breathtakingly simple once one got the hang of it – think, and the weapon sped towards the indicated location, spinning and moving as desired. A small camera could even be activated in her HUD, showing her what it 'saw', allowing it to be used as a scout, especially given that it had access to something similar to Geth's Hunter Mode. It had a certain freedom in interpretation – if you were to declare a lab table a hostile it would simply cut into it on autopilot, but if you wanted to aim for a particular spot, you just thought-aimed the weapon towards it.

In fact, practicing with Shruiken in many ways made up for the void Shepard could still feel in her tactics due to the lack of her biotics. I mean, it's as close as I can get for now. Super powerful and guided by my brain, set patterns within which I can work, but also scope for originality. Very like biotics.

So, after half an hour of work, and futilely trying communications which were obviously blocked, Shepard pressed the button on four souped up grenades, vaulted over a desk, and crouched on the ground waiting for the boom.

Then, the three of them exploded through the dust and rubble of the wall into roughly thirty Cannibals being escorted by ten Marauders and five...new husks. With strange helmeted faces, crests upon their heads, tapering pointed fingers, strangely powerful guns and –

- she rolled under another fucking pull, god, did these guys ever give up? It had been a relatively long time since Shepard had fought any biotic willing to risk using tactics that didn't work through shields – Tela Vasir had once or twice, but other than that she had to think back to the hunt for Saren, back before her death and before anti-biotic shielding and armour had been invented. Most biotic fields simply slid off the modified shield or ablative plates, with the exception of Warp, making it the most popular biotic attack in the last few years.

These new husks didn't seem to care.

A ratatat, and her shield strength dropped like a stone. Her Mattock was already at her shoulder, blasting through the smoke at the shapes in front of her. Shruiken sliced through yet another Marauder, cutting him in half and spinning on, slicing open the back bulge of a Cannibal. EDI's Phalanx roared, as did Tali's Claymore. Occasionally flames or the flicker of an overload would surge over the swarm of incoming hostiles.

If I still could use my biotics, one good charge-nova would knock them all over – another maybe kill the Cannibals. She squashed the thought, and fired a concussive round into a Cannibal, knocking it to the ground, then stamped fiercely on its head. Another new husk, gun firing – she launched herself into a combat roll across the uneven rubble, pushing herself up into its face, hand already coming back, omni-blade triggering and slamming into its face. It staggered backwards, but Shruiken was already there, slicing off its head. She wasn't controlling it now, not enough time – it was simply running on whatever the hell its auto-pilot actually was.

Suddenly a blue flash, something hitting her and Shepard felt herself rise off the ground, arms spinning to try and stay upright. How the hell...? Her shields had just recharged – there should have been no way a biotic could use a successful lift. She spun gently, view of the floor twisting to the stone and steel wall, ceiling, floor, husk, ceiling –

Her gun was already twisting round even as the rounds hammered into her shields. Her Mattock fired five times in rapid succession, the first going over the target's head, the second to its left, two slamming its barriers into nothing, and the last blowing clean out the back of its head. The field around her ended, and suddenly she slammed into the floor, breath knocked out of her and bruised.

No time for that. She kicked herself up to her feet. The smoke had cleared now, and she could clearly see the carnage they'd wrought. The husk's bodies lay thick underfoot in the corridor.

'EDI, Tali, those new husks can use biotics that can get through a shield, or round it. Be careful, and keep an eye out for them – make them priority targets, like Cerberus Engineers.' Shruiken was already buzzing back from the slaughter, dripping with liquid and pieces of flesh and bone. It hovered beside her, retracted its blades, and when it withdrew them they were clean again. She held up her arm like a falconer, and it flew to her wrist, sliding into place with a click. 'We need to move up to the landing area now we're out of there – if we encounter the Reaper, we hit it with the Thanix. But we do our best not to – we want to get out of here and bombard this place from orbit if possible.'

'It's the only way to be sure,' Tali said solemnly.

'I should never have shown you that vid.'

'Hey, do you think we'll find a small child named after an amphibian hiding in these labs? Who you can then adopt as your own?'

'Ah, stow it.' Shepard was becoming nervous, the haze of thoughts of the mission fading to be replaced by the worry she had felt before. How can I care for a child during such a war? In fact, how can I care for a kid, period? I just...can't see myself doing it well. Previously when she'd thought of being a parent she'd just seen children, her children, well, playing. Not much else.

But now she was thinking, of all the troubles that could beset her child. What if people hurt her to get to me, or just hurt her? What if she gets hurt? I already tend to go a little crazy when my friends are hurt, and a whole lot of crazy when Liara is. What will happen with her?

And what if I don't? What if something's terribly wrong with me and I don't love my child, because Cerberus never expected me to have children and didn't properly repair that bit of my brain? What if I'm just incapable, too worried about her to really care for her?

And for that matter, where's Liara? After the communications blackout she obviously hadn't been in touch, but Shepard was still concerned that something might have gone wrong. There were so many husks, and those new biotic ones too...

A flash from down the corridor ahead of them. Her shields flared suddenly, kinetic barriers crumpling and collapsing. EDI was already throwing herself to the ground with inhuman speed, gunshots peppering the hallway ahead of them. Tali was crouching into cover, and Shepard realised she'd triggered her Adrenaline module again. Certainly she could now see the second projectile, hurtling towards her, and despite her reflexes she wasn't quite going to get out of the way in time.

She took the impact to the shoulder, letting it pulverise the flesh there. Already the numbing soothing flow of medigel was reaching to plug the gap, the armour self repair system beginning to seal the hole. Her Black Widow was in her hands, scope coming up to her eye as she pushed herself down to the ground. Her shoulder screamed in protest from the movement, but she ignored it.

Obviously whatever had shot at her was cloaked, which either meant some form of betrayal, or cloaked husks. So the new ones have several tricks up their sleeves. While the uniform colour of the hallway prevented her from spotting the tell tale shimmer of the Chamelon systems of cloaking, the thermal and ultra-violet imager on the scope of her Sniper Rifle should easily expose them.

Or not. The hallway through the scope still seemed blank and empty. As the adrenaline burst wore off, a third shot echoed from down the hallway. The low burbles of noise that had been in the background resolved into speech from EDI and Tali, Tali's mostly being very fast swearing, some of it too fast for the translator to catch.

'- no sign of enemies – my shots are not connecting with anything, though so far ten of them have disappeared.' EDI's omnitool lit up as she launched an incinerate tech-mine.

Shepard scanned the corridor again, rolling aside from a fourth shot. Her shoulder was itching underneath the layer of medigel, meaning it had begun to heal up. 'Tali, could Chittika give us a hand here?' She launched Shruiken out from her wrist, hoping that its scanners could pick up something she couldn't. No such luck – the small view in her HUD that was from its point of view showed nothing other than the corridor as it rocketed backwards and forwards at her command, trying to hit whatever was there.

A flicker, and for half a second something seemed to appear, a thin horned grey shape. It disappeared, but an arm remained, falling to the ground and leaking fluid as Shruiken continued to rocket back and forth. Horns...Salarian? Definitely a husk though, and not one of the new ones we fought previously...

Her thoughts were interrupted as her shields shattered again under another shot. Swearing, she pulled herself into cover behind one of the absurd potted plants that lined the hallways of the laboratory. The shots were silent – almost a feat on its own. It was almost impossible to silence mass effect powered weapons, though there had been attempts. Something about the kinetic surge cancelling any attempt at muffling. Then again, this is Reaper tech.

Shruiken had buzzed back around and cut towards where Shepard was certain the husk was. Again, a flicker, Shruiken disappearing from view, then a thin grey figure appeared, sliced neatly in two. Shepard covered it for a couple of seconds with her Mattock, before moving up to look at the husk.

It definitely was based on a salarian, unlike the biotic one. It had the horns – the whole damn body shape, in fact. The only difference was the vast eye in the centre of its forehead and the exposed bones in the arms.

And of course the vast rifle wired into said arms. Long and sleek, it looked alarmingly like a Geth Javelin, except in black, and with various seemingly extraneous spines.

'I thought there weren't Salarian husks?' Tali peered down at the body. 'I mean, shouldn't we have seen them earlier?'

'The signal blocker likely caused the Reapers to readjust their strategies and send out new troops to test. Of course, they would have lost contact with them due to the signal blocker. Now however, they can see their effectiveness, or lack thereof, and choose to continue to make them or not.' EDI too leant over to look at the husk.

'Could these new troops include this mini Reaper Kirrahe said he saw?' Shepard poked the rifle with a boot. It was a large bore, with a huge, almost fluted, barrel stuck on the end. The wires were blue, and examination indicated that they were filled with liquid – probably some sort of coolant. The husk's whole body is the thermal clip...it probably uses the heat from each shot to power the more advanced cloaking device or maybe its shields.

Shruiken suddenly whizzed past her head and cut an onrushing husk in half. The corridor seemed suddenly full of them as they burst out from round corners – mainly Marauders and Cannibals, but a sudden instant drop in EDI's shield strength showed that the new salarian husks were out there too.

Then there was a blue rippling and bodies flew, and a pink shape stormed into view, blades glistening silver on his armour. Ksano's submachine gun stuttered out a burst that tore away the side of a Marauder's face, then turning he punched a Cannibal, fist and omnitool aglow. The husk's head collapsed, spraying shards of bone and brain.

There was another roar and a squat red figure barrelled around the corner, a curving sleek shape held in its hands. The gun roared and a single brilliant blue burst slammed into a patch of air that collapsed, revealing the salarian husk that had stood there. The yahg swung its arm around, knocking aside husks like they were bowling pins.

Shepard grinned, and fired into the crowd with her Mattock, rounds punching through one husk to impact against the next. 'Thank you, cavalry!'

'Merely completing the mission, Commander.' The batarian's omnitool glowed and something shot from it, a wide cone of blades that embedded themselves in the husks before them. 'Extraction has been moved to point two. I and Yassik were sent to retrieve you.' His barriers flared as a shot impacted them.

'Commander, tribe leader. Assist.' The yahg blocked a clumsy blow from a Cannibal with its silvered arm, before grabbing the husk's arm and ripping it off. A swift kick to the thing's chest sent it flying away into the crowd.

'Ok people, let's move!' Forming a line beside Shepard, the five of them opened up into the crowd, husks collapsing before they could even get close. They slowly strode backward, covering each other and moving towards extraction.

Don't give up, ever. It wasn't quite an official family motto, but it was as damn close as it got within the T'Soni family. Certainly it was a catchphrase, something her mother had repeated to her over and over in her childhood, something that had kept her going through her archaeological degree and her graduate studies, and something that had kept her alive in the last few hectic years.

Thus, when the Banshee drew back its arm, Liara did too, and brought hers forward pulsing with biotic power.

The biotic punch was an incredibly simple idea in theory – playing with mass effect fields around one's own body, one could massively increase the force of the punch, much like happened in a gun to give the bullet its force. In practice it was a little more challenging, especially when one was sticking a rolling ball of mass effect fields on the end of that punch to add a little more oomph to it.

The Warp ignited the Banshee's barriers, shattering what was left of them. The punch knocked it backwards, causing it to lose its concentration on the mass effect field holding her, letting her fall to the ground. She landed awkwardly, on her bad shoulder, and suppressed a gasp of pain. Get up, GET UP. She stumbled to her feet, gun raised and pulled the trigger.

The sharp bleep from the gun told her all she needed to know.

The Banshee shrieked, drawing back its arms to strike her, and she stumbled backwards, barely dodging the blow. Her head was a nightmarish prison, her skull three sizes too small, her mouth a vast endless burning plain, a desert, no, the surface of a star. Her hands frantically searched for thermal clips across belt around her waist, and brushed across empty holders.

'Shit.' She backpedalled, dodging another lunging strike from the husk. It was almost dead, body battered, but still it strode towards her, implacable and shrieking.

'Shit.' She couldn't use biotics, she'd likely give herself a brain haemorrhage. Her omnitool didn't have the capacity to make an omni-blade. She skipped backwards again, hand moving to her Phalanx and drawing that, hoping that it still had a thermal clip in it. She pulled the trigger three times.

A boom, and the Banshee staggered in its long stride. Another, and a pulse of light shot past it. On the third pull an echoing beep rang from the gun.

The Banshee still wasn't dead.

'Shit!' She turned and ran, just avoiding another clawstroke as it swung towards her.

It shrieked, gathering biotic energy around it and outwards in a sphere of force that caught her in the back, eating away at her shields and barrier. She stumbled, and kept on running, legs aching, breath short.

A door on her left – she activated it and dived through, virtually crashing into a set of armour. It wobbled, gloves tumbling out of suspensors and to the ground, but she was already scanning the walls, searching for something, anything she could use as a weapon.

She didn't have to look far.

Recently, her memories of swords were somewhat marred by Cerberus, both by Kai Leng and by the Phantoms. But swords, or at least something similar, were a very large part of Asari culture. Back before the government of Thessia had been unified, the predecessors of the Justicars had roamed the land with bladed weapons not dissimilar to them. They fought solely with these and with their biotics, knights free from any control, only holding to the high moral code that they had developed themselves. As technology progressed, the swords were eventually discarded, but several Asari still studied and learnt how to master a blade.

It had been a small club at university, many years ago now, and she hadn't been the best at it then. But she still remembered how to hold a blade, how to strike with one, how to block. Her fingers closed around the hilt of the gently curved sword as she lifted it from the stand.

The Banshee was already at the doorway. It strode towards her. Its mouth opened in a piercing shriek that echoed inside her already burning head, turning the deep low throb of pain into a sharp spike of agony. It raised its hand to launch its biotics at her.

She spun, cutting down as she did so. The blade stopped for a moment against its hard grey skin, then sliced through its body as easily as if it were paper. It collapsed, burning up as its own energy consumed it, its shriek impotent, already dying away.

Liara gave herself a moment, leaning against the desk. Her altercation had likely drawn more attention from the husks, and she probably couldn't deal with many more. Her biotics were still overtaxed, and she still didn't have any ammunition.

But I do have a sword. Carefully, she moved out of the lab, blade in hand.


He removed the weapon from under opponent's destroyed throat, spun, launched a kick into a smaller one. Blade flashing, he carved down through their open blue mouths, splitting their worn flesh. Fired off one of the rockets within the weapon on his arm – watched as the metallic gibbering creature with an upraised arm is turned into fine paste. Brought the ga'tharn'ikta up once more into ready position, then down and around, using his other hand to guide it through and attack that knocked aside those around him.

Bahranik didn't think he'd ever had so much fun. He wasn't like Yassik, obsessed with status, or Tehruk, foolish idealist. He wasn't like Paryatanik either, so in love with the idea of knowledge as power that he failed to see the honourable solution.

No, he loved the fight. Every single twisting second of it. He'd been bred for it, and while he'd fought many many battles in Paryatanik's name, they had been more like raids. Launching surprise attacks on foes who felt they had better equipment but didn't eventually had lost something of its appeal, despite the initial rush.

And they had been so damned short too. He and his brother would engage the guards while the others grabbed whatever piece of technology they'd been looking for from the tribe, and then they'd flee into the night.

This? He'd been fighting non-stop almost since the bodies began to move. And none of this 'combined arms' nonsense he'd been forced to use back at his home. No need to crouch behind some rock because some other idiot was, to not feel the savage thrill of blood on claw. He'd deliberately taken weapons from the aliens that allowed him to fight in the way of his tribe. Ga'tharn'ikta in hand, and rockets on the other arm.

A roar alerted him to the presence of another one of the large armoured enemies. He fired another shrieking rocket at it, already rolling aside from a burst of red fire launched by one of the insect-things. His legs pushed him down out of his roll, up and towards the wall, hands changing grip on the ga'tharn'ikta's pole. He hit the wall feet first and pushed up and off, spinning as he did so, raising his weapon over his head.

He would not deny it, Paryatanik was a brilliant engineer. One of the first things Bahranik had seen him do was to take his old ga'tharn'ikta and turn into a weapon of singular majesty. He'd strengthened the haft and grip, changed the shape of the end spike to give more fearful wounds, and had added something to the blade that made it vibrate at high speeds. All Bahranik had needed to know was that it could cut through almost any armour any tribe possessed back home.

The blade stabbed down, cutting deep into the armoured creature's narrow neck. Bahranik was already swinging around onto its back, shoving his right arm against its skin and unloading the weapon called Claymore attached to his wrist. Paryatanik had shown him how to link this weapon to the omnitool the aliens had installed, and now with but a thought he fired, hearing the satisfying boom of its blast.

He was already in motion again, not stopping to watch the foe fall. Charging, nimbly dodging shrieking alien shapes who tried to grab hold of his legs, he powered towards the insect thing. Lines of blue through the air traced to him – like the laser sights on several tribes' weapons in our home, and roaring pulses of red fire launched themselves towards him.

Bahranik had already rolled under them, curled into a ball around his ga'tharn'ikta, weapon blade protruding from his left hand side and cutting foes asunder as he span. He rolled to his feet once again, but by then it was too late to simply land a blow on the insect-beast; instead he hit it with the full force of his massively heavy and strong body. The disc on the front of it bent inwards with a crunch, and with a shriek it began to dissolve into green liquid which he nimbly sidestepped. He'd already discovered what it could do.

Out the doorway, into the corridor, flicking the thermal clip out of the Claymore, sliding another in. Just in time, a spiky-headed-metal alien stepped into his path – he lowered his right arm and fired, the thing's head dissolving into a fine spray of brain and bone. A quick roll evaded another red blast from the insect-acid enemies, another rocket and a charge and it was dead too.

He hadn't seen much of the others since he'd started this battle. Paryatanik had wandered off – something about finding the aliens. Tehruk and Yassik had obeyed, slaves that they were. He'd briefly seen the group called 'Shieldwall', as they raced below him, a moving machine of death, but they hadn't seen him. He almost respected their efficiency – of course it was nothing in comparison to his, as they required large numbers to hand out the same destruction, but it was impressive, nevertheless.

Round a corner, and into a group of the human-like ones. They tried to seize him, obviously not intelligent enough to realise that with a sweep of his arm he could shatter their flesh, that their strength was nothing in his comparison to his.

He gave a roar, switched his ga'tharn'ikta to one hand, sliced, kicked, grabbed one and used it to beat another into the ground. A gibber – a spiky headed one approached, gun chattering, the little blue flickers around him indicating that the shields he had been given were failing.

Shields. What a misleading term. For yahg, shields were weapons of attack and defence, a mighty bulwark that required great skill. As far as Bahranik could tell, all these required were batteries. He had not been happy with the idea of them. Paryatanik had done an extranet search however, and come up with a solution of sorts.

With a flick of his omnitool, Bahranik triggered the detonation of his shields. The human-shaped foes crumpled, the spiked one staggered, but only for an instant as Bahranik's powerful fist drove through his body. He shook it off, blackened machinery and internal organs spilling from the wound.

'Still a brutal as ever.'

Bahranik, turned, inclined his head. 'It is my skill, just as yours is your precious knowledge.'

Paryatanik nodded. 'It is why I let you serve me.' A garbled noise in the corridor behind, and he turned, fired a pulsing stream of blue lights round the corner. 'We must get to the extraction area.'

Bahranik inclined his head. In truth, as much as he wanted to believe it wasn't, he would not ever rise against Paryatanik. Not out of any loyalty, for there was none, but merely because he knew he would lose. In a straight fight, he would win, for that was where his mind lay, but Paryatanik never, ever played fair. There would be no straight fight, merely the endless war against an unseen enemy who would destroy him in every way, piece by piece. In the end, despite their differences, it would not be worth it. Maybe one day Paryatanik would slip, but until then...

'I obey, leader.' He fed another thermal clip into the shotgun, moved up beside Paryatanik. 'This weapon is somewhat inefficient.'

'It is powerful, which is what you wanted. Personally, I would have set up a belt fed system to feed into it, but this did not occur to me until we had already left, and in many ways it is too clever. Commander would have noticed.'

'What arrogance these aliens have, to name one of their own as leader from birth.' Bahranik fired the Claymore at the first shape that appeared at them. It collapsed.

'It is not her name. Sufficient searches of the extranet have shown that we misunderstood the system when we first arrived – Commander is her title. She is of the tribe Shepard, with her name as Alice. It appears to be the custom among the aliens to address each other by tribe name in formal circumstances, one's own name being more personal than it is among us.'

'Bizarre.' They clattered down a flight of stairs, knocking foes aside as they ran.

'To us. It is, as ever, a matter of perspective. However, if it were here name it would be appropriate. She is a good leader. Few have died under her, and there are even fewer engagements she has lost.'

'She is an alien.'

'I am not saying she is worthy of survival, Ranikhressen. I am saying that she is a dangerous foe. You are, as ever, impatient. Very soon, they will be able to understand every word we say, even within our own tongue. They have machines capable of decoding any cipher we can come up with. We must all play our part, and I do not want it to be one that ends in failure because of you. You must control yourself, or I will make you wish that your end was your brother's. Do you understand me?' Paryatanik's purple-black face was only inches away from his own, eyes matching his, a challenge.

He flicked his ears in assent.

'Good.' Paryatanik fired a long burst, clearing the foes aside. 'Then act like it.'

With a growl, Bahranik followed. And some day you too will slip, and then I will make you wish that you had failed here to these soft pathetic aliens.

'Stein! I'd better not see that barrier flicker again or I'll shove a warp so far up your ass your breath will taste of gravity fields! Dean! You were meant to be directing that last blast, what the shit went wrong? No, don't tell me, I don't care, deal with it. Prangley, how're we doing on energy drinks?'

'Ten bottles left.'

'Right, we're on rations then. I'll direct from now on, you guys provide the juice. We ready?'

'Yes sir!'

She still couldn't get used to that. To her, sir was what you called a bad guy. An asshole. It was a sign of servility, and she'd never done it unless threatened with imminent death, and even then reluctantly.

So to hear her kids chorus it at her – well, it was weird. For one thing, she was in authority, she liked that, she liked that they knew that and worked well with it. On the other hand, she kept on getting uneasy and feeling like maybe she was all those things she'd hated.

Philosophising later, Jack. Biotics now.

Biotic Artillery was an idea that she was very proud of, containing as it did insane levels of destruction. It also required insane levels of concentration, something she was less good at, but hey ho. With Minoru gone she was the best of her squad at guiding the damn thing, merely through practice. And, well, she dealt with the power a little better.

The thing with the principle was it required power sharing, which was really difficult if you were human. In order to get everyone doing exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, in exactly the right way, one had to – well, put all ones power into not doing much of anything with their biotics. Then, theoretically, the guide could simply shape all of the loose mass effect fields lying around into the attack, and launch it. One joint powered biotic attack.

Except in practice it was fucking impossible. Manipulating that many different fields, even if people were just creating them and not controlling them at all, required a strength of biotics that only she could really pull off. And what if she was shot, or knocked out? Well, then their biggest gun would be out too. She'd gone to the Alliance with the problem, who'd gone to the asari, who'd talked to the Salarians, who'd come up with a solution.

Of sorts.

'Ok, everyone link up!'

The squad's omnitools flashed, and suddenly she could feel her kids, not just outside in terms of their mass, their barriers, but inside them too, hear the whispery electricity of their thoughts, their pain, their exhaustion. They were one now, her squad, one being with her at their head.

Cause that's how this works. Omnitools link into the nervous system – link omnitools and you can theoretically link entire minds, just like the asari. And once you've linked a whole bunch of biotics together, well...

Care to stop woolgathering and get on with it, boss? Prangley's mind snapped.

Jack grinned, and activated her kids biotics. All seven of them blazed blue, shimmering fields massing above them. She shaped it carefully, held it, then pushed her own floodgates open, watching and feeling the attack shape into enormity. A slam this time I think...

She released it.

The husks in front of them in a vast circle began to rise from the ground. Even those whose armour would protect them from biotic attacks did, because Jack wasn't putting the field around them – she was putting it around the area. The tech just stops direct biotic attacks, not attacking the area around it. The edges of the field are too far away to slide off the thing. Damn Alliance shitwits still haven't figured that out – and it looks like the Reapers haven't either. Brutes, Husks, Cannibals, more, they all rose into the air. For a second they hung there, perfectly exposed to the weapons fire that raked across them.

Then she slammed the lot back into the ground.

The resulting explosion from over a hundred bodies hitting the ground at just subsonic was enough to take out several more around. Body parts flew, some chunks of armour from the Brutes being enough to decapitate a Banshee. In short, she'd turned the husks into a fucking micro artillery shell.

It's a good technique. I'll try it again next time, but now...

'Energy drinks!' The link had collapsed as soon as they'd launched – that was how it worked. 'Individual for now, we don't want to waste our energy. Stein, how's the barrier going?'

The blue dome that encircled them flickered under the constant onslaught. 'Holding – just – '

'Mancha, take over.' Victor nodded, then extended his hands, and the barrier renewed itself. Stein collapsed, blonde hair flicking across his face. With a heave, Jack pulled him up and leant him against their cover.

'Where the hell is Shepard?' Prangley fired a burst from her Avenger.

Now that is a good question.

They'd fought their way to the second shuttle, her and the kids smashing things, Kirrahe and the geth guy sniping them, and Grunt and company...doing more smashing, as well as acting as shields.

When they'd arrived, they'd found a tall green angry looking thing with eight eyes that apparently was a yahg. It had been shooting the husks with an absolute bastard of a machine gun, and only had a couple of scratches on it in comparison to its hideous kill count. Note to self – do not fuck with these guys. They'd all lined up around the shuttle, the husks around them, and begun to wait for the last few guys – Shepard's squad, Liara, the other yahg and Ksano – to show up.

And waited.

And waited.

Jack picked up her Widow from her bag. She wasn't really into snipers, but what the hell, it was big and loud, and that was good enough for her. Sighting along it, she peered over the wall she'd been behind.

Husks stretched for miles in a dense crowd. Their numbers were being thinned – by blue grenades, roaring laughter and a constant stream of fire and explosions – but every second more poured up from the vast mass that stretched into the distance. She wasn't even looking at the facility behind her.

At least they're close enough together that almost anything with an area of effect fucks up a tonne of them. She gestured with one tired hand and a Field Reave pulled up over a group of Cannibals. Seconds later it detonated as Prangley hurled a throw at it, tossing the Cannibals apart, and sending other husks flying. She fired, the shot going straight through the Marauder she'd aimed at, punching through the husk behind him, then smashing into one of those sneaky invisible salarian dudes and pulverising him.

She flared blue and began to rise into the air, but a quick warp to the air around her detonated the biotic husk's field. She couldn't spot the asshat, but since it didn't happen again she had to assume someone had got him. Well, when I said the Reapers hadn't figured out anti-biotics – heh, antibiotics, good one – obviously they worked it out in time to make those guys. When will they stop coming up with new shit?

'How much longer can we hold out, Miss?' Molly was the youngest of the lot of them, and still tended to think of Jack as a teacher, a thought almost as weird as Jack as a sir. She was also very very good at precision biotics – not a lot of juice though. She looked grey and exhausted, and her hands shook slightly. Burnout...damnit. If we push her much more her she'll start bleeding out of her brain. She knows it too. Good kid – better than me. Knows her limits.

'As long as we need to. Get some rest, have some more energy drinks. Try not to get shot or anything. I'm going to go talk to Kirrahe, see what the guy thinks.' Because I'm not going to lose anyone else. What the hell is taking them so long?

She crawl shuffled along the wall, out of the biotic field barrier Mancha was holding up, then rolled across the gap. For a breath second the world spun, and she felt a hail of shots slam into her barrier, then she was across and under the supply barrier that Kirrahe had set up. STG has some fancy toys...man-portable kinetic shield bubble? She'd poked it too, testing how good it was – the fucking thing could probably slow her down.

Beneath it stood fifteen krogan and a kakliosaur, along with a geth, a yahg and a salarian. It honestly looked like something out of a bad vid. Almost all the krogan were shooting away from the facility, into the horde on that side. A couple guarded their backs, ensuring that the husks spilling from the Morningstar Research labs didn't assfuck them.

'How much longer do you think it will take?' she shouted. Her hair had gotten out of its damn ponytail and into her eyes during that last roll, and once again she wondered why she'd let it grow out. At least when I was bald I didn't get pissed off at my own hair.

Kirrahe looked round at her. He too looked a little worn around the edges, but that might have just been because of his arm. 'As long as it needs to.' He fired over his shoulder into the crowd. Not much point in aiming, I guess.

'Care to cut the bullshit and give us an estimate?'

'A minute.' Kirrahe was now looking towards the facility, rather than away from it.

Jack looked too.

There appeared to be some sort of mincing machine stuck inside the husks there, because body parts were flying left right and centre. Other husks were on fire, or spinning away in pulses of blue plasma or shockwaves. And through it all, sliding over walls like a pro, came Commander Girlscout Shepard, with the quarian and the sexbot at her heels. And Ksano and some other yahg bringing up the rear.

Fuck yeah!

Shepard vaulted down beside them. 'How are we doing?' Something silvery flashed overhead and sliced into the husks beyond.

'Same as always, battlemaster.' Grunt was grinning. 'Just the large human, the other two yahg and the asari and we're done.'

And the award for tactlessness goes to the krogan! Fuckin' idiot, Shepard's crazy about the blue bitch. Watch, she's going to run off and try and find her. Certainly, Shepard was starting to get to her feet again from the crouch she'd been in. Tali was now beside them, some massive contraption on her back, shotgun cradled in her arms and booming away at the crowd. EDI too was there, shooting tech mines, overloads, decoys, whatever random tech shit she could make. Ksano had arrived a little further away, but he was joining in as well.

'I should probably make sure –' Whatever Shepard was about to say was cut off as a pair of blue beams struck the shield. It whirred, popped, and died.

'Praetorians!' Grunt shouted.

Praetorians? As in, plural? Jack turned, and almost instantly ducked as a vast grey shape landed in front of them in an explosion of biotic energy. Its blue eyes fixed on her, and its mouth opened, revealing the rows of dead human heads that were much of its construction.

Her Eviscerator was in her hands, body glowing blue as she drew on her last reserves. Warp, fire, roll away, come up, warp again, fire. The thing was glowing, about to start doing its pulsing melee thing that had almost killed her back on Horizon. I hate HATE these things!

On the other hand, on Horizon she hadn't had as much back up as this. Grunt was charging the fucking thing, head lowered, arm pumping, the geth dude was firing as fast as he could, and all the krogan were turning their guns on it. Everyone's fire, for a few brief seconds, was directed on the one husk. Explosions burst across its surface, its thick armour cracking as the rounds tore through it.

It melted apart into ash in seconds, its death screech echoing. But already, beams of brilliant blue light were smashing down into their lines, kinetic barriers flickering under the assault.

'I've got to get back to my kids.' She could see a pair of praetorians bearing down on them. Warps and gunfire smashed into them, but the damn things were tough, and getting closer. And there's all the other husks still out there as well.

'Ok.' Shepard looked round at Tali. 'We need these husks cleared away – a long way away. I know we were going to save it but –'

'You're serious?' Jack could virtually hear the quarian's grin. 'I've been wanting to use this baby since I picked it up. Garrus is going to throw a hissy fit when he finds out I got the massive cannon.' She reached up and pulled the huge thing off her back. 'I am going to need to brace this thing though.'

'What is that?' Kirrahe eyed the thing for a second, before a praetorian's attack forced him to refocus his attention on the fight.

'Something that will buy us some time.' Shepard raised her Mattock and snapped off a clip's worth of shots in under a second. She always was fucking fast with that thing. 'Ok, everyone focus fire on the praetorians. When I say duck, duck, because otherwise you're going to be dead. Jack, go back, help your squad.'

Jack nodded, and ran, ducking out from under the blue bubble of the shield and across and into the flickering blue of the over barrier Mancha was still holding up. A praetorian was almost on it, and with a roar Jack fully triggered her biotics, slamming a warp that could've taken apart a shuttle into the praetorian's armoured body. It staggered back, projected armour strength leaching away in her HUD. A roar of her shotgun and it was ash.

She slid into cover next to Prangley. 'How're we doing?'

'Same as always.'

'Fuck. Well, Shepard's back. When she says duck, you hit the floor, ok? That goes for all of you. Victor, for fuck's sake sit down and let me take over the barrier. Hit the bastard flying things, ignore everything else, and don't die.' She raised her hands and blue force washed from them rippling round into a familiar hemisphere around her and her kids.

Just like the Collector base. Except, you know, instead of ten billion angry death bugs I've got to keep out several million shots. You know what Shepard, fuck you. Fuck you for giving me a conscience. I mean, when I was younger I wouldn't have given a shit about these guys so fuck you. Already she could feel the energy slipping from her and into the shield. Then again...there are some advantages. She thought of the way they obeyed her, the way she could teach them to be strong.

Then the praetorian opened fire again.

It was like she'd run a marathon in ten seconds. Suddenly her skin was drenched in sweat, her breath short, her muscles aching. The back of her head felt like someone was stabbing it with an omniblade. I seem to be back at 'Shepard, fuck you.'

A hand on her shoulder. 'Miss – '

'Just shoot the fucking thing.' It wasn't even a command she was so weary. You can do it Jack. You're the strongest human biotic. Ever. Cerberus did that to you, and the Reapers turned out to control Cerberus. So. These guys here are the bastards responsible for you being a fucked up crazy bitch. You gonna let them through? Hell no! 'Could I get an energy drink, or is that too much to ask?' She poured more strength into the barrier. Get through that you cocksucker. The other husks were almost on it as well, almost under the praetorian's feet.

'Duck!' A distant cry, and Jack bent over to find she was already sitting down and it wasn't really necessary.

Then a brilliant blue beam swept across the husks. It wasn't hindered by them, smashing them to ash and moving on to the next, kilometres back. It passed so close to her she could feel the unendurable heat of it, especially as it collapsed her barrier into shreds. The praetorian was too low, was caught by it. For a moment there was simply a hole punched through it, then it burst apart into nothingness. The beam swept back and forth once, then stopped.

The fuck was that? But the others were all cheering, and she could see why. The vast horde of husks that had been advancing was now little more than a line in the distance. Its front had been shattered, turned to ash. Two praetorians had been caught by it, the rest too high, but the thing had smashed Banshees, Brutes, Ravagers, all of it like it was nothing.

Then the praetorians swooped down again.

Liara was not a fool. She knew very well that when the husks within the laboratories woke, those vast hills of them outside would have too. So, before she went outside, she carefully checked the situation, probing with cautious and weak mass effect fields to get the lay of the land.

And was promptly surprised when a massive, ship-class mass effect field suddenly appeared and swept across her vision, smashing her biotic probes aside. Peering round the doorway she could see a burnt landscape of ash, and many cheering people, and several strange flying insectoid husks. Obviously one of the weapons from the lab destroyed a lot of the husks. Wait...the man-portable Thanix?

She smiled. 'You are so smart, Alice.' The beam was nearly ship-grade in terms of strength – she'd seen the projections on Tali's omnitool. It could have taken apart the army of husks in seconds. But why not the flying ones? The only explanation is that they must have flown over it. Looking she could see them using some form of heavy beam weapon, smashing into a krogan warrior and out the other side.

But how tough are these insectoid husks' armour? This sword cut through a banshee with some ease. I think that maybe, maybe I might be able to help.

Though I'll need to get there first.

While the threat of the husks had been diminished by the application of overwhelming firepower, many were still pouring from the building, and while the teams' attentions were on the flying husks, there was a risk they'd be flanked.

I cannot kill them all myself...but maybe I can put a dent in their numbers.

Liara had, after three corridors, two laboratories, and three husks, checked the sword to see if it was one of the more heavily modified ones they had found rather than those identical to the ones the Cerberus Phantoms used.

It was, thankfully. Less joyfully, it was the one meant to be used by a tech expert, with careful links for omnitool coding. But given how weak her biotics were due to her constant attempts to use them, she could barely hold up a barrier. Perhaps this was better.

Of course I've still got to work out how to use it, because currently all I know is that it somehow channels and releases electricity. She flicked open her omnitool, and cautiously scanned for devices she could link into. The sword appeared, and she selected it.

It hummed in her hand.

The omnitool wasn't much use – it didn't tell her much other than that the device was now powered, and to utilise it as was required. Even running a program she'd picked up from her ship on Hagalaz merely informed her that the sword would now do whatever it was supposed to do.

Looking round the doorway revealed the situation was much the same. Several more flying ones had appeared, along with the more familiar silhouettes of Harvesters. The husks from the facility were being cut down by something, someone, but it was not halting their advance. I must do something. I might tip the balance in their favour.

A flash of red hair in the chaos made up Liara's mind. I'll let Shepard see what I can do. I'll let her see that I'm fine. I'll let her see that being pregnant, being in love with her, being here will not hinder me, it will drive me on, it will help her. Something she should damn well know by now.

She stepped out and into the sun, the dazzle glaring against her eyes for a second. But she was already stepping forward, legs jarring with each impact, running down the slope of the entrance, sidestepping the rubble and fire. Her path was blocked by a Cannibal, mouth open in a distorted roar of rage. Liara brought the sword up in a sweeping cut, slicing open the Cannibal's front and sending it staggering backwards.

Then her omnitool registered a drop in power and suddenly the sword shimmered blue with flickering sparks. Something shot from it whip fast, and then there was an overload burst in front of her, electricity wrapping round the concrete and the Cannibal's flesh, launching it into the air, then another beyond it sending another two flying, a third staggering a Marauder, a fourth detonating against only empty air. A small bar at the edge of her HUD began to fill itself.

So that's what it does. Suddenly her chances against the crowd of husks who'd noticed her didn't seem so bad. The bar crept towards fullness as she ran forward, her backswing catching the Marauder's neck and slicing off its head. A Ravager's laser sights swung towards her, and she ducked into cover, map warning her of the husk that rounded the corner. The bar was almost full, so she merely hammered it in the face with the hilt, watching it stagger back, then – swing.

The second time it was even more impressive, the bursts sending the mass of bodies hurtling in all directions. Even the Ravager staggered against such an assault. Her HUD flickered through the projected strength displays – the human Husks were outright dead, the Cannibals too. All the others were weakened.

A gun stutter and her shields shrank and she ducked back down again. Idiot, don't just stand there, or they'll shoot you. A quick peak round the corner revealed the source of the shots to be a group of the biotic husks, several aiming towards Shepard, the rest down towards her. She ducked back as they fired again. One even grazed the edge of her kinetic barriers, slamming through a weakness in the concrete block she hid behind. Her legs burned as she propelled herself upright and over the cover, shots smacking into it around her.

And...now! The third slash tore into them, paralysing them as the energy coursed through the remnants of their nervous system. A few seconds of movement and then she was among them, sword swinging up and round. There were eight of them, packed closely together – her first swung cut three of them apart.

But the other husks were attacking too – gunfire from Marauders slammed into her shields, and she ducked back behind the biotic husks, letting them absorb the shots. A fourth and fifth fell, but the sixth launched a warp into her at such close range she couldn't avoid it. She could feel the roiling gravity ripping into her shields as she cleaved through the husk's neck. The other two had backed away and were preparing to fire as she triggered her sword's burst once again, and under the cover of its blue crackling strength, dived into cover.

This isn't quite going as planned. She looked round the corner of the block of stone she was crouched behind. Her shields flickered and died as a storm of shots impacted against them. A roar and a series of heavy footsteps announced a Brute's arrival. Her eyes flickered to the bar that indicated progress towards another burst from her sword – it was still only half full.

Another roar, and something vast and silver and red shot over her. She stood, prepared to cut into it, but a stream of blue from behind her distracted her. A voice rumbled from behind her, polite but firm, speaking Asari with a slight accent. 'I am afraid I do not know your nomenclature, but may I ask you to move out of my line of fire?'

'Liara.' She glared at the yahg, stepped aside, and began to sprint towards Shepard once again, so she wouldn't have to look at or listen to the damned yahg. 'My name is Liara.'

Her muscles were aflame, but it didn't matter, because now Shepard wouldn't know. She'd think it was just the yahg, that Liara couldn't take care of herself, and she would continue to be a complete idiot. Or maybe half of one. Damnit, why did we have the yahg at all?

A husk crossed her path, and her sword cut through it, unleashed its burst of electricity. The explosions smashed through a small clump of Cannibals. Swarmers were crushed underfoot. Her biotics were returning to her slowly, recovering from their overtaxing, and so when a Cannibal opened fire she was able to knock it to the floor for long enough that she could reach it and separate its head from its body.

'Liara!' Shepard, mere metres away, gun roaring as she fired on the flying husks, making an arm gesture back at the laboratory, omnitool glowing. Liara squashed the threads of desire that suddenly flowed together at the sight of her, a flame haired goddess of destruction. 'Get to the shuttle!'

Well, that feeling of warmth went away pretty quickly. 'I'm fine!' She ran the last few places, slid into a rock just before the blue beams hit her.

'Your shoulder's bleeding, your armour's broken in several places, and my HUD's telling me that you've got almost no biotic barrier because you've overtaxed yourself. And no ammo. How you got back here only that hurt is probably some sort of miracle.'

'Or I'm capable of taking care of myself.' Internally some part of her asked her whether this was the best place for a row. She told it to shut up, and then a number of other things she'd heard Vega say about the Reapers. Though she wasn't certain how a part of her psyche could fuck itself sideways with a rake.

'Liara –' Shepard didn't have time to say any more, because it was then that the grey thing dropped out of the sky, eyes glowing blue, skin flickering with purple hexagons, landing between them. It raised its claws and shrieked.

Liara slashed with her sword, already springing upward to her feet despite the protests from her body. Electricity crackled across it, and it took a step backwards, its shriek rising. Her sword cut around and into one of its legs, slicing through it and leaving fluid dripping on the ground, then with a twist of her arms she blocked the next swing. A burst of biotics launched her up onto its back as it tried to take off, and her sword cut deep into its head before it had risen a metre from the ground. It shook frantically, but Liara's hands were clenched tight around the sword and didn't slip from it, wouldn't slip from it. Finally, a burst of electricity ran down the blade, and the creature quivered as its nervous system was fried.

The husk crashed to the ground, Liara atop it. She glared at Shepard who stared at her open-mouthed for a second. 'You're capable of taking care of yourself,' she said finally.

'Thank you.' She slid off the husk.

'Indeed,' came a rumbling voice. 'You – good.'

She turned and found herself face to face with the silver and red shape of the yahg who'd almost strangled her to death. She tried to prevent the shock from showing on her face, prevent her eyes from widening in fear. They can read body language, they can know what I'm thinking, and if it knows I'm afraid of it, then that's bad. They don't respect fear, and what they don't respect they destroy. You know this, you know this! But it couldn't prevent the tightening in her throat, the shiver of cold down her spine.

She made a noise that might have been assent. The thing nodded, then bounded past her and into another one of the huge grey floating things.

And then there was Shepard, her arms around her, her lips on hers. Driving away the darkness, holding back the fear, sealing the breach between them. Drawing away and whispering 'I'm sorry for being an idiot.'

Liara smiled. 'We all are sometimes.'

'If I can interrupt, Commander.' EDI's voice, with a hint of amusement. 'Praetorian forces cleared, and with Liara, Shade, and Bahranik present we are now only waiting for Lieutenant Vega. Once he arrives –'

And then the front of the laboratory exploded.

Shepard had managed to pull Liara to the ground the second that she'd registered the sound of the front of the building collapsing. She hadn't even known what it was at first, not properly, not till her brain disengaged from the warm fuzzy Liara's alive, Liara's alive, Liara's a badass, yay it had been running through. Debris rained around them, huge chunks of concrete and ceramic. She heard a cry from nearby, but the dust cloud was so thick she couldn't see anything other than the edge of Liara that wasn't trapped under her body and the ground.

A long fog-horn blast of noise. A flicker of red light through the dust.

This time it was Liara who dragged her aside just as the beam passed by where they'd been, spraying her with debris. The dust was beginning to clear, but her HUD was now flickering frantically, trying to deal with some sort of interference.

'What –' Liara still managed to look beautiful, covered in white dust, and out of breath from being thrown to the ground.

'Micro-reaper. We think.' Comms were still down – more down than before even. Shruiken had been out by the lab, but appeared to be ok. Certainly the buttons on her HUD still seemed intact, despite the sudden interference. Carefully she linked to its camera.

Darkness. Cracks of light. She cautiously sent the command to begin spinning, and for a second more light became visible. Then the rubble collapsed away from Shruiken, allowing it and her to see out at what was beyond.

The foot was large, enormous from Shruiken's perspective. Objectively Shepard knew that it was tiny for the claw of a Reaper, but her brain was already running calculations. The thing must be over twenty metres tall, at least. The foot shifted.

'We've got incoming,' she shouted. 'Report!'

Tali, appearing out of the dust, Thanix already in her arms. 'Here Commander.' She'd crouched behind some rubble. 'I can't get a good shot with all the dust.' EDI appeared behind her, Hurricane in hand.

Shepard's eyes flicked to the small view of the vast foot. A plan began to form.

'Tali, on my mark, get ready to fire. A long burst – like you did before.'

'I can't see anything!'

She smiled. 'Trust me.' She eased Shruiken forward with her mind, and for the first time really saw it, the micro-reaper. Or don't.

It was shaped like the bastard lovechild of a lobster and a praying mantis – long dovetailed end, legs folded underneath, stretching up almost vertically till two long claws, doubled and folded, sprouted from its black metal shoulders, crunching into the concrete. Its head was nonexistent, only a malevolent red light set in its chest some fifteen metres above the ground.

It was also stuck. The majority of the building had collapsed on top of it, and its front claws were pulling trying to get it free. Its legs worked desperately in the rubble. For a moment she wondered why it wasn't simply blasting free, then she saw the soft, hurried flickers of its eye. It's trying to be sneaky...huh.

She glanced round with her own eyes and saw Tali, braced but confused, Liara, just confused, and EDI, whose eyes were widening in comprehension.

Now or never.


A blue beam across Shruiken's vision, to the left of the monstrosity. Its claws began to unfold, slowly, ponderously, its body straighten, shedding the building like one might shuck a quilt. 'Tali, move it right.' The beam speared round, searing the front of what was left of the laboratory, moving closer and closer to the thing and then –

- impacting with the glimmers of a rising kinetic barrier for half a second then petering out. 'Keep firing, keep firing!' Its claws raised in the bottom right of her HUD, and she thought that through the fading dust cloud she could see its shadow.

Then the beam hit again, and for a second it staggered back, there was a roar from nearby and a shout in the distance, and then long lines of fire were tracing out its shape against the dust, Krogan battle chants echoing across the sky. Some vast blue ball of light slammed into those kinetic barriers, now visible not just through Shuriken's eyes but her own, so she set the thing loose. A whirring spinning image as it roared towards the micro-reaper.

And then it fired back.

She had about one whole complete instance between seeing something flicker at the end of its claw and the impact. One whole moment in which to swear loudly and internally at the goddamn Catalyst, the Council, her family, batarians, and whatever deities might or might not exist. Then she was hit by the familiar impact she normally associated with orbital strikes in her vicinity, the all-over body punch that made being worked over by a krogan seem like a soothing massage by comparison, and then the inevitable flying through the air. More dust, but now that ringing in her ears she'd come to associate with temporary explosives based deafness.

She began to sit up, and was knocked back down by another dull thud that echoed across her soundscape, shook the ground beneath her. Shruiken's image had vanished in a hailstorm of static – her entire HUD had. Dust, rocks – pieces of metal too, blue and white...the shuttle, fuck, the shuttle's gone. Sitting up, where's Liara, where, hands pushing at the ground, get the fuck UP, and then her Mattock in her hands. Its holographs were gone, and then it folded itself together like a neat wind-up toy, refusing to work. She slapped the release button – nothing.

Something behind her – she could feel it, in that part of her that was still biotic but that she shouldn't use, a mass in her vicinity. Pivoting, attempting to trigger an omni-blade, nothing, fuck, settling for her bare hand.

Shade caught it easily. His Spitfire rested in his hands, and his lips were moving, but all she could hear was a soft growling burble. She gestured forward, pointed at him, and set off herself. He moved to follow her, and she was almost surprised when his gun fired, the piercing sounds cutting through her dull, muffled hearing. Where's Liara?

A dead body – krogan, not Grunt, thank you God, curled up around a vast piece of metal that had punched straight through him, lying curled on the ground. It emerged out of the dust as she moved. Her fingers ached for a weapon, something, anything. Another body, metallic, fragile, eyes closed. Oh no, not EDI...no, no no.

She's fine! She's on the Normandy! That body was like an omnitool – useful, not her. But dread filled her, even as her hearing was restored. Cries through the smoke and dust – bursts of muffled gunfire, the sound of biotics. And that horrible sickening buzzsaw sound, the one that heralded Harbinger's assault on Hammer, and Sovreign, and every other Reaper she'd faced. Growing closer and closer and –

'Fuck!' She dived sideways just in time, an oof behind her telling her that Shade had copied her motion. His burbling was still incomprehensible, but now recognisable as asari. Something's knocked out our omnitools. Informational attack? EMP? They're shielded against both, or should be. The red beam passed so close to her that all it would have taken was a twitch of her leg, and she would've been ash.

A shape through the dust, familiar. Tali, sprinting backwards, Thanix in hand. A steady stream of cursewords pouring from her mouth, familiar in their unfamiliarity. And as she drew close Shepard saw why.

She'd taken off her mask. Tali's purple-tinged skin was exposed to the dust and air and bacteria. As was she.

'Fuck fuck fuck! Shepard, my mask shattered, and then the backup wouldn't work, and the anti-biotics – none of it worked, all the automated systems shut down! My omnitool and Chittika too – oh, bosh'la yutet –'

'You know English?' For English it was, strange, with a completely different accent to the one the translator gave Tali, almost oriental, with shades of turian twang colouring the swearing.

'Never mind that!' Tali was virtually dancing with frustration. 'What do we do about –'

And then Shepard's armour seized up. She could feel it trying to force itself back into its locker position, pushing against unwilling joints. She forced herself to relax as she, once again, keeled over into the dirt. Her arms straightened themselves, her legs too. Her barriers glimmered, then shut down. The sky was faintly visible overhead through the dust.

A foghorn, distant. Tali, shouting something, Shade shouting something else. One by one Shepard felt the modifications Cerberus had made to her begin to shut down. First the cybernetic joints in the legs, then those in the arms. With a sudden shock her organs began to shut up shop as those clever, terrible, dangerous cybernetics seized up. With a blink and stutter her eyesight disappeared, then her hearing, her smell.

Eventually only her mind was left, screaming and winding down towards oblivion, and her biotics. Something fierce and red and violent pulsated their, smacking aside the intrusion that had shut down the rest of her. But she was somewhat preoccupied with other things.

I'm going to die. I'm actually going to die this time, and it really will be for nothing.

A voice. How could she hear anything? But there it was. It took her a little while to work out what it was saying.

'-if I die doing this, you're going to owe me more than a drink at that bar Shepard, you're going to owe me a whole rack of them.' Twanging, angry. 'EDI thought that might happen to you given what happened to her. Thing is, she's smarter than the bug thought. Hold on a second...'

Vision. Light. Alice gasped, a deep intake of air as her back curved off the ground as the pain of her dying, oxygen deprived organs finally hit her, held back by the nervous system failure that had caused their near-destruction. Sound. Her HUD, flickering back into place. Shruiken's camera, flicking on. A vast black shape, rearing over them, weapons fire tracing it. A triumphant chuckle through her in-ear radio.

'Tell Vega I didn't steal this move.'

Then a shuttle dove from the sky like the fist of god and smacked into the micro-reaper's chest, exploding with all the force of a missile.

The thing didn't just stagger. It rocked backwards, over and down onto the ground, like it had been laid out with a punch. The fire still blossomed in the air above it, but from the flame dropped a shape, a shape that suddenly sprouted the blue light of a grav-chute.

Someone in blue armour hit the ground not more than a metre from her, rolled, grav chute slipping off their shoulders.

Garrus flashed her one of those wide as hell, turian-fuck-you grins he was so good at. 'I'm back.'