Hackett's dossier on the biotic extremists indicated the group rented a merchant ship, the MSV Ontario, from an agency on the Citadel a little less than two weeks prior. They laundered the transaction through an unidentified third party, and so nobody caught it when it entered Arcturus airspace. From there, using a small shuttle attached to the ship, the extremists boarded the station, caught Burns on the way to his home during the late evening hours, and left the system shortly thereafter in a perfectly legal, open, and approved way. It was the next morning before anyone realized Burns was missing, by which time the Ontario was long gone.

Shepard skimmed the description of how intelligence forensics traced the ship. It was fascinating, but irrelevant to her part of this mission. The long and short of it was that the evidence pointed to the Hades Gamma cluster, known rather more romantically as the Crab Nebula in centuries past, today a nexus for galactic trade. The Anansi-Ishtar shipping lane wound between the Farinata and Cacus systems, bringing with it an ample crowd of vessels in which to hide. Not all of them were traders. There were refueling ships, supply haulers, even entertainment. Amid all that, the commander wasn't optimistic about quickly identifying one ship making an effort to disguise its signal.

They were about a day out from Farinata. And Shepard was out of excuses for a less pleasant chore. She set down the datapad, shrugged into her leather jacket, and left her cabin, heading for the stairs.

Specialist Lowe saluted. "Commander. What can I do for you?"

"At ease, Specialist. I need to make a transmission to the SSV Kilimanjaro."

"Of course, ma'am." Lowe entered a command into her terminal. "The call is for her commanding officer?"

"No, the executive officer, Captain Shepard."

Lowe paused and started to ask the question, then caught sight of her face and swallowed it. "Yes, ma'am. It should take twenty minutes or so to clear it through channels."

"Page me when you have it." Shepard left the CIC and made her way to the bridge.

There wasn't much for a pilot to do while they were cruising at FTL speeds between destinations. Once a course was plotted, only equipment malfunctions or large uncharted celestial objects would do much to alter it. Joker was leaning back in his pleather couch, watching a news vid.

Shepard rested her arms on the back of the seat. "Flight Lieutenant."

He glanced up. "Hey, Commander. You really ruffled some feathers back on the Citadel. I don't think ANN has stopped running that clip."

A smug grin crossed her lips. "Good."

"Sometimes, ma'am, I think you get a sadistic kick out of making people uncomfortable."

"You know what feeling uncomfortable means, Joker?" She glanced from the news report to her pilot. "It means people are thinking about their assumptions. It's not supposed to be comfortable."

"Well, whatever it means, you've got people talking. They're talking about Feros, too."

"Is that right?" Even as she spoke, the report flipped to a holo they'd taken at the colonists' request, of the crew grinning in front of the Normandy. The population of Feros was very grateful regardless of the official ExoGeni, Alliance, or Council stance.

"They're careful to give us credit for saving their asses, but…"

She sighed. "But what?"

"A lot of them are asking how we managed to let Saren slip away a second time. People are angry, Commander."

"Saren wasn't even planetside by the time we got there," she protested.

"Don't have to convince me, ma'am." Joker dismissed the vid screen, replacing it with an operations summary of Normandy's systems. "They sent a frigate to fight a war. You get what you pay for."

"We're going to get this bastard, Joker. I don't care how many ships or units he has."

"I don't doubt it, ma'am. Honestly pissing you off while packing anything less than a full armada is bringing a knife to a gunfight."

"There's cause for anger, sure. But that's not why we're going to win."

Joker rolled his eyes. "Is this the point where I hold myself at attention and just zone out for twenty minutes while you spout some patriotic mumbo-jumbo? 'Cause I got enough of that back in basic."

"I looked up some things about Saren. He was a golden boy of the Hierarchy, one of the youngest spectres ever appointed, the cherished son of the strongest military in the galaxy. He's been showered with accolades, money, and prestige. Great in a firefight, but he's never had to really fight for anything he wanted, not once in his entire life."

"So he's got a sense of entitlement to make teenaged heiress blush. So what?"

"Think about it, Joker. He didn't come after us with one boat and a sense of conviction. He planned this for years and only tipped his hand after he had an army. He's cocky, he's cautious, and he's never been on the outside. This is a whole new world." Her smile was small, grim, and fierce. "I'm scrappy, I'm stubborn, I'm a complete pain the ass, this is my turf and I am quite simply better at this than him. That's why we'll win."

The comm crackled from the ceiling. "Ma'am, your transmission is ready in the comm room."

"Got it." She clapped Joker on the shoulder. "As you were, Flight Lieutenant."

She walked the length of the ship aft to the comm room, letting the hatch shut behind her, and took a deep breath before hitting the switch. Zabaleta's bizarre claim made for a nice reason to call, but the truth was they only spoke a few times a year. They were due another conversation.

The woman who materialized on the pad could have been Shepard, aged thirty years. There were some cursory differences- her short, silvered hair, the fine lines at her eyes and mouth, the alabaster skin Shepard had too much of her father's blood to match- but the fine bone structure of their faces, the twilight blue of their eyes, even their remarkable height and bearing were nearly identical. Her dress uniform, standard for high-ranking officers aboard dreadnoughts, was clean and pressed.

"This is the X.O.," she said crisply, before taking in who was calling. Then she was dismissive. "Oh, hi. I'm on duty. I can't exactly talk right now."

"It's fine, I'm busy too." After so long, Shepard no longer allowed her mother's brusqueness to bother her.

Hannah, however, seemed to feel a touch of remorse. "I'm sorry I haven't called. The Fifth Fleet's been stretched thin as cobwebs since the invasion. Did you get the flowers?"

"I did." She paused, willing herself to say a simple thank you and move on, but the temptation for sarcasm was overwhelming. "The daisies were an especially nice touch."

Her brow furrowed. "What's wrong with-"

"I'm allergic to daisies, mom." Shepard was exasperated. "They give me hives."

"Oh." Hannah was chagrined. "Of course you are, I'd... Your father always handled all the doctor's appointments and forms… Well. Congratulations all the same."

Shepard buried her disappointment alongside the feeble hope she entertained every single time they spoke, despite her better judgment. "Just forget it."

"Sweetheart, I'm sorry."

"I said it's not a big deal." Before they could continue down that path, Shepard grasped at a new topic. "How are you?"

"There's not much I can talk about. High Command has everyone out on patrol, but there's just not enough of us." Hannah blew out a breath. "How do you like having your own ship?"

"It's…" Shepard trailed off, shrugging into her jacket. A lot more work than I thought it would be. A lot more worrying, too. Being responsible for the lives of a handful of people for a few days at a time is a whole other thing from more than forty, all the time. Everything's riding on me and I'm hardly closer to stopping Saren or finding the conduit than I was when I got the mission. Statistically, on a job like this some of them are going to die, and I don't want it to be because I wasn't sure what to do.

But she knew how those conversations went. Mom would say something bracing about keeping her chin up or her head in the game, brush it off as something every officer experienced, or spin some tangential yarn from her own service that was supposed to teach Shepard a lesson. Hannah was well-meaning- indeed, it would hurt her to know the advice wasn't always received in that spirit- but Shepard wearied of being lectured over every small disclosure.

"It's great," she said brightly. "The ship is phenomenal, and Anderson picked out a terrific team."

"David's always had a soft spot for you. But I'm shocked he's letting you run your mouth like I've seen lately. Also, your uniform was rumpled."

There it was, the inevitable chastisement. She rubbed her forehead. "For god's sake, mom."

"You know better, Nathaly. It's not your job to set policy for the navy."

"I don't believe I was, ma'am."

"There's no need to take a tone." Hannah was indignant. "You have a big podium now. Take some care in how you use it. You've got to keep it together, sweetheart, because when you have hysterics it reflects on us all."

"Hysterics," Shepard echoed, flatly.

Hannah adopted an air of patience, as though her daughter were the one being unreasonable. "All I meant was that you are a commissioned officer, and there's something to be said for acting like it, instead of a-"

"I'm just going to stop you right there." She swallowed and pressed on before her temper could get the better of her. Hannah always seemed to win those rounds by sheer maternal right of way. "I'm calling because I ran into this guy, Zabaleta? He claimed he was an old friend of yours. I wouldn't have bothered you, but these days more and more people are trying to get something out of abusing my name."

"Ernesto?" She was taken aback. "He was a marine guard in the CIC, back on the Einstein. We shared a watch for years. How is he?"

"Not well. He was begging for credits outside the Alliance outpost."

Her face fell. "I'm sorry to hear that. He was one of the first boots down on Mindoir during the batarian raid… He was never the same afterwards."

"That was the year after dad got hurt, right?" Shepard shook her head. "That was a bad business. Small wonder the Council ended up ruling for the Alliance on colonization in the Skyllian Verge, after that."

"The vids couldn't show the half of it. Those slaver bastards culled anyone too old or young to be useful, or putting up too much of a fight to be worth the trouble. The rest they implanted with control rods, directly into the brainstem, without anesthetic. I coordinated the orbital offense, preventing their ships from escaping, and just listening to what was happening on the ground…" Hannah trailed off, her eyes distant. "It was horrifying."

A few choice horrors flashed through Shepard's mind, courtesy of her own memory banks. Some of the atrocities on Elysium weren't that different and the Terminus made the batarians look squeamish. She tried to be fair. Her mother wasn't a marine, and she sure as hell wasn't special forces. Zabaleta was just a guard. "So, what, he has PTSD from what he saw?"

"Wouldn't anyone?"

Shepard gritted her teeth. "I don't." And I never got half this much sympathy from you about it, either.

Her mother sighed. "Most people aren't as strong as you, Nathaly. It's a gift. Lt. Zabaleta doesn't have it. He tried to keep going, to be a good soldier, but it rode him- showed up late, showed up drunk. Eventually we couldn't cover for him anymore."

"He was discharged."

"Yes." She stared at the ground. "I spoke at his hearing. We managed to get him a medical discharge rather than a dishonorable, so he could get the help he needed, but he's never taken advantage of it. It's a shame."

"He let one experience ruin his entire life."

"Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," her mother chided.

Shepard bristled. "An event that changes your life is different from destroying it."

"I should get back to the CIC," Hannah said, not wanting to reopen old arguments. "I know you must be working twenty hour days, but we should try to schedule time soon for a real talk."

"Sure," she said, not meaning it. "I'll talk to you later."

She reached for the button to terminate the call. Her mother looked up. "Nathaly, I also wanted to say this- I'm so very proud of you. I don't think I tell you that enough."

Shepard's expression softened, marginally. She wanted to be irritated by her mother's laissez-faire approach to family, enjoy feeling justified and angry for a little while, and then mom went and said something like that. Damn it. "Thanks. I'm… I'm trying."

"You try better than anyone I've ever met." That was a left-handed compliment if Shepard ever heard one. "Kilimanjaro out."

The link went dead. Shepard blew out a long breath, leaning forward and staring down at the pad. It was hard to reconcile the woman who'd thrown her handmade art in the trash because "cards become clutter once they're read" with the one who hugged her like her life depended on it when she came home from a deployment. The years weren't making it any easier.

She always hoped it would, that somehow her forward venture into adulthood would cross trajectories with Hannah's stately tumble into age, but it never seemed to happen. Shepard was used to seeing to herself; she grew up on ships and space stations, not infrequently under minimal supervision, and all but put herself through school with educational vids and workbooks. It was one reason why she had so many difficulties assimilating into a standard high school on Mars. Personal responsibility was a skill she mastered before she measured her age in double-digits. She didn't need an elder female figure who might commiserate or offer sage guidance.

But sometimes, the idea sounded really, really nice.

The hatch slid open, admitting Tali'Zorah. "I'm sorry, am I interrupting?"

"No. Just stupidly wishing my mom knew how to bake cookies."

Tali strayed closer. "That was your mother?"

Shepard rubbed her face, looked down at the pad. "Yeah. It always feels more like talking to a C.O. than a parent."

Tali grimaced. "My father… he's a difficult man. I don't think I've ever seen him smile. You have my sympathy."

She narrowly avoided the obvious, and insensitive, question about the masks, and instead asked, "You've mentioned he's some kind of leader. I'm not familiar with how the flotilla's government works."

Tali twisted her hands, and unconscious gesture. "My father, Rael'Zorah, is one of five high-ranking military officers who form the Admiralty Board. Technically, the flotilla is still under martial law, but three hundred years is a long time. These days, most of our laws are decided by the Conclave, whose members are elected from each ship."

Shepard blinked. "So, your father essentially heads the quarian military fleet?"

"…something like that." Tali was embarrassed. "They also advise the Conclave, and can overrule them in dire circumstances. But the decision must be unanimous, and all five admirals resign following."

She processed that. "Hypothetically speaking, if the Normandy came under attack with you on board, just how large a diplomatic incident would it create with the Migrant Fleet?"

"It doesn't work like that." The quarian sighed. "I'm just me. My father's rank doesn't confer any special privileges on his daughter. There's always been a lot of expected of me, though."

She sounded wistful. Shepard leaned back against the guardrail. "You know, a few months after my grandmother died, I saw a piece of jewelry in some tourist shop wherever we were living that month. I was about eight years old. It reminded me of her and I started to cry. My mother told me to stop being so dramatic."

"When my mother died, after we were left alone with the body, my father patted my arm and told me I'd be fine. That was all."

"Alright, you win." Shepard shook her head, bemused. "We sound like Liara."

That got a light laugh. "It's not like Liara at all, not really, at least not for me. Everyone respects the asari. Nobody respects us."

"Well, you do strip-mine every promising planet you pass, and sometimes you take other people's jobs with under-the-table deals," Shepard pointed out.

"Nobody owns a job, Shepard. If they can't compete that's not our problem. Besides, that doesn't justify treating us like thieves or vandals."

"I don't believe I said it did. Disliking the business practices of the Migrant Fleet isn't carte blanche for racism." She shrugged, and moved the discussion back to center, curious. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"No. There are seventeen million people living in the flotilla. We have a very strict one child policy that is rarely rescinded."

Shepard raised her eyebrows. Replacement rate was 2.1 children per woman- one child to replace each parent and a little extra to account for child mortality. "The quarians are trying to shrink their population? No offense, but… aren't there kind of not many of you left?"

"The fleet is very crowded." Tali glanced around the comm room. "This ship holds about forty crew? A similar sized vessel back home might house three hundred."

Shepard blinked. She couldn't begin to imagine it. "Fuck me. And people live like that?"

"We're used to it. Both the living conditions, and the law."

"A few nations back on Earth tried similar policies, last century."

Tali tilted her head. "I'm sorry, I think my translator just fritzed... Did you say nation? That's a very archaic word."

"Not for humans." Shepard laughed. "The other species have had centuries to sort themselves into neatly unified governments across swaths of systems or ships. Out here, it's the Systems Alliance. But back on Earth, they're just one of many. It's a reason the Alliance is headquartered on Arcturus Station instead of Earth. Give it a few more decades, and maybe..."

The comm crackled overhead. "Commander, you've got a strategy session in the CIC."

"Roger that." She rolled her eyes at Tali. "Duty calls. Sorry for tying you up."

"It's not a problem. There's a quarian ship in dock. I have a few contacts aboard, and I thought I'd see if they had any information on the Ontario. You never know."

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

It took some time, but they managed to locate the MSV Ontario hiding quietly behind an asteroid. Asteroid belts weren't terribly crowded, excepting odd cases like the Sparta system where debris rained down on Edolus day and night. They occupied huge swaths of space with the same mass as a terrestrial planet. However, a good-sized planetoid had enough bulk to shield a ship from ladar scans and other detection methods. Even observed head-on the ship would be little more than a blip of heat superimposed against cold rock without much resolution.

Normandy's stealth capabilities were fully engaged as they took some recon on the rented vessel. Shepard had spent the time in transit studying its layout and systems, all publically available information. Now she had scans to confirm the extremists had not altered the ship substantially. They could make educated guesses on where aboard the biotics were holding Burns, but these were approximations only. The ship appeared to lack armaments.

Pressly was in favor of maintaining stealth, forcibly board, and sweep everything out before the extremists knew what hit them. Shepard had to admit the plan had the advantage of simplicity. These people weren't hard-boiled; they'd done this out of desperation, not experience. There was a decent chance that when her marines swarmed the deck they'd panic rather than erect a rational defense. Of course, there was also a chance that panicked or not, their first order of business would be to shoot Burns in the head.

Garrus disagreed vehemently. His experience with C-Sec taught him that if the objective was to keep anyone alive, and there was any chance the enemy was open to negotiation, delicacy and caution were required. In his words, if all they wanted was to send a message and end the crisis, the Normandy could blow up the whole ship from a couple hundred klicks away. He recommended hailing the Ontario and attempting to talk their way on board. Warning the hostiles they were coming, however, significantly raised the risks for Normandy personnel.

Alenko was uncustomarily silent throughout their debate. While he never used twenty words where one would suffice, he was an active contributor in most strategy sessions, offering input on what his team could realistically achieve and pointing out any flaws or advantages he noticed in the plan. Today, he'd hardly said two words unless asked a direct question. Shepard wagered she understood. It was difficult not to sympathize with these people's despair, and she didn't even know any L2s other than Alenko himself nor was she deeply familiar with their plight. In contrast, the mission dossier had included background on the Chairman, and he was a difficult figure to admire; it seemed as though nearly every decision he made was politically motivated rather than aimed to improve the lives of his constituents. Biotics, particularly L2 biotics, were not numerous and they worried ordinary people. The reparations bill had not been popular. Alenko would never fail to do his duty, not unlike Shepard in that regard, but that didn't mean orders always sat well.

Shepard sided with Garrus. Admiral Hackett was clear that any outcome which included Burns' death would be considered a failure, and Shepard didn't fail. They made contact.

The biotics' representative, a nervous dark-haired man with splotches on his face, was startled by their transmission. That didn't indicate much forward-thinking beyond persistence. The idea that the navy might do anything other than accept the loss of Burns or capitulate to their demands seemed not to have entered their minds. Shepard was pleased. It left her room to maneuver.

She coaxed him into agreeing to allow a contingent to board in order to discuss terms of cessation. There was no need to let on that the only terms the commander was willing to accept was their full unconditional surrender or deaths. She argued for a party of five, but the rep stuck stubbornly to three, which told her something about their probable numbers. If they were worried about being outmatched by five trained soldiers, then there weren't that many people behind this abduction.

Garrus' policeman training made him a no-brainer. This wasn't Shepard's first hostage situation but she appreciated the expertise. For her second support, she reluctantly selected Alenko. Liara might outpace him in sheer depth of understanding when it came to the use of biotics, but she wasn't familiar with human politics and Shepard worried if the discussion took a bad turn, she would be unwilling or unable to do what was required. On the other hand, Alenko might share some of the same reservations.

As they cycled through the airlock and waited for Normandy's decontamination protocols to complete, she gave him a sidelong look. "You up for this?"

He stared ahead at the door. "Yes, ma'am."

"You've been pretty quiet. Something weighing on your mind?"

"No, ma'am." He glanced at her, unreadable. "These people kidnapped an MP, and that can't stand. Our orders are clear. There won't be a problem."

Her gaze lingered on him before the VI chimed softly, announcing that they could open the outer hatch.

They stepped into the hostile ship. Two guards toting handguns greeted them barrel-first. Neither wore armor, and both bore implant scars near their hairline. Shepard blessed their inexperience; they didn't try to disarm them as they were escorted into the depths of the ship. Her crew was fully outfitted, including hardsuits, and ready for a fight if needed.

The biotics did take a different approach to defense. Heavy crates were piled against interior hatches, obstacles that could have eaten up significant time for Shepard's team if they were trying to take the ship, but their guards working together cleared them with ease using their abilities. They came across a few more pairs of armed extremists, maybe eight people total. Shepard wagered there weren't more than a dozen aboard. That was manageable, though their facility in flinging around heavy objects concerned her more than she let on.

Shepard, Garrus, and Alenko were led into a side room where they were met by quite the tableau.

Burns, still dressed in the suit he was wearing back on Arcturus, was on his knees with his hands folded behind his head, staring with resignation at the cross-hatched metal floor. The biotics' negotiator was poised behind him, the snout of a pistol snug against the Chairman's skull. He was flanked by two sullen-faced women, similarly armed, who were aiming directly at Shepard and her team. As they moved into the room, their guards took up positions at the rear corners and raised their guns.

Shepard looked around with an almost bored expression, though her mind was engaged in the crucial calculus of how it would happen if the extremists' fingers got twitchy. She wouldn't bet on any of them being good shots, but on the other hand, she wouldn't bet that the guns were for anything but show, either. It was difficult to look threatening when your real weapons lay entirely within your brain.

Her own people were watching as well. Garrus' attention wandered at regularly intervals between the man and the guards, though Alenko seemed fixated on the guard at the front left. She was staring back him with one of the most disgusted expressions Shepard had ever seen.

Don't do anything stupid, Kaidan. Aloud, she said, "I'm Commander Shepard. Let's not do anything we're going to regret."

"You write a thousand letters and get nowhere," their leader sneered, burying the muzzle yet deeper into Burns' hair. "You kidnap one politico and now I've got a spectre on my ship, negotiating with me. Force is all you people understand."

Shepard crossed her arms, utterly relaxed despite the brandished weaponry. "You wanted someone to listen, and you've got my undivided attention. What do you want to talk about?"

He stared at her, nonplussed. She gave it another try. "I've told you my name. Why don't we start with yours?"

"Jordan Brenner." He cleared his throat.

"Jordan, you have your audience. Speak. I didn't come all this way to hear myself talk."

Naturally, her failure to be impressed by his show of force only irritated him. "You don't know what it's like. What your damn government did to us."

"I know a little, but I don't mind hearing more." Might as well let him blow off steam by ranting a bit.

"They sent out health officers to register us like infected livestock. They told our parents that we were uncontrolled and dangerous, so they'd let the Conatix people play with our brains. Some L2s are crippled by the effects of their implants, and they can't get the help they need."

Here he raised his voice, jamming the gun hard into Burns. "Because this man decided scoring some points with a group of fearful, ignorant-"

"I was trying to help," Burns protested.

"Shut up!" The muscles in Jordan's neck were taunt, a sign of his rising rage. "Ships were detonated over our colonies to deliberately expose us to eezo!"

Shepard lowered her hands to her waist, hooking her thumbs through her utility belt- closer to her weapons but not touching them, not yet.

Garrus said, "There's no need to get loud. We're all friends here."

The woman at the back disengaged from her staring contest with Alenko and laughed, an ugly sound. Her dark cheeks were sunken, her black hair flat and grimy in its tail. "Friends. How friendly were you when you abducted children from their homes and used them as experimental test subjects?"

Shepard started to respond, but Alenko beat her to it. "That's not how it happened, Lamai."

She and Garrus both turned to look at him. His hand had strayed to his sidearm, but his eyes were on the woman. He didn't look angry, only resigned, with a touch of sadness. "You know it's not. Nobody in Brain Camp knew what they were doing, but most of them were honestly trying to help us."

"Kaidan." She was scornful. "I heard you sold out, but until today I didn't believe it. What, the spectre dig you up to try to sweet talk us? That's some quick staff work."

"I was already on the ship," he said placidly. "Come on. You remember Ms. Gillespie and those horrible spaghetti dinners every Sunday, to try to make us feel like a family? Or Mr. Beranek. He used to smuggle in network games for us."

"We were held there for nine years. They had no idea what these implants would do because the government told them there wasn't enough time to test anything-"

"Dr. Deserres lost her job for speaking out against the pace of the surgeries after David died, and she wasn't the only one. They tried to protect-"

"What would Rahna think if she saw you with a gun in your hand?" Lamai spat. There was a cruel edge to the question that Shepard didn't quite follow.

Alenko swallowed. If he had a reply, it died on his lips.

Shepard jumped back in. "The Alliance made some mistakes in how it's treated all of you. But you're making a mistake just as large, right now, that's going to hurt every human biotic from here back to Sol."

Jordan scoffed. "The only mistake we've made was not taking action earlier."

"Think about it," Garrus said. "Take a good look around. Do you think when people read about how you kidnapped and executed a government official they're going to care about your medical problems? Or do you think it'll just make all biotics look like terrorists, maybe lead to more registries and restrictions?"

They exchanged uneasy glances. Shepard pressed the point. "If Burns dies, there is nothing I can do for you. Let him go, and you'll have a chance to tell your story, one way or another."

Burns made another plea from the floor. "You're right. I did vote against the bill. I thought you were just another special interest group trying to wring money out of Parliament. But I was wrong, and I'm sorry for it. I'm willing to reconsider."

The biotic leader's hand wavered. "So, what, we walk out of here and trust Burns to keep his word?"

"Oh, no, you're definitely going to prison." On that point, Shepard left no room for objection. "But if you cooperate now, you'll get what you want anyway."

"If you can't trust Burns, trust the Commander," Alenko said, finding his voice again and throwing another dose of persuasion on the growing pile. "She may not be a biotic but she does understand. She'll make sure Burns follows through on his promises."

"And there's this." Shepard followed Alenko's carrot with a stick. "If you move to kill him, while I respect your talents, mine are also fairly impressive. I don't want to shoot anyone but don't think for a moment that will stop me if you don't make the smart choice."

He closed his eyes. The gun drew back a fraction.

Lamai grabbed his arm, holding it in place. "Jordan!"

"This is what we came here to do, Lamai."

"We came here to send a message," she hissed. "And you're letting them steal our stage for a handful of empty words."

"That's not what we discussed." He shook his head. "It's not what Kyle would want us to do."

"Kyle didn't want any of this. If we'd listened to him, we'd still be writing sad notes to Parliament right now." Her tone was pleading. "Jordan, they're doing it again. They're using Ascension to lure in new recruits, you've heard about the graduates disappearing-"

"Alleged disappearances." He took a breath. "No. We've got everything we wanted. It's time to end this." Jordan lowered the pistol. "It's over."

"It's not over until we make this bastard pay for what he did." Lamai swung her weapon towards Burns.

Shepard's hand closed around her gun, but before she could draw Lamai was lifted off her feet and flew the short distance to the far wall, which she struck with some force. Alenko advanced on her with a pistol trained on her head. She stared up at him woozily.

"You never did learn how to keep your barriers up." He sighed. "Time to drop the gun, Lamai."

She spat on the floor, and flung it towards him. It missed. "I supposed I should be grateful you didn't snap my neck."

The expression crossed Alenko's face so quickly that Shepard couldn't be certain she'd seen it at all. It was the angriest look he'd ever worn in her presence, and more than a little ill.

Shepard kept her gun drawn but aimed at the floor. She raised an eyebrow at Jordan.

"Stand down," he ordered his own people, who relaxed immediately. Most of them looked more relieved than upset despite their pending arrest.

"Tell them to lay down their arms," she instructed.

He snapped a look at his crew. "Do it."

Garrus collected the armaments and began binding up their hands. They offered no resistance. Alenko kept watch over Lamai until the turian could reach her.

The commander glanced at Jordan as Garrus secured him. "Who's Kyle?"

"I don't have anything to say about that."

"I think that you will, but it can be someone else's problem." She turned away slightly at put her hand to her ear. "Shepard to Normandy. The hostage is secured, repeat, the hostage is secured. Situation is green. We have taken the perpetrators into custody, prepare to receive."

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

Shepard was on a comm link to Hackett. "No, sir, that's when they capitulated. We've got the extremists in custody and Burns is aboard. We're headed back to Council space."

"Good work, Commander. I'll admit I'm shocked you were able to work things out peacefully."

"These weren't diehards, sir." Shepard folded her hands behind her back smoothly. "These were a handful of desperate individuals who just wanted a little acknowledgement that they'd been wronged and a little money to cope with it, that's all."

"They had enough scruples and conviction to pull off the abduction of a government official from the headquarters of the Systems Alliance, at the heart of human space. Don't kid yourself, Commander- these people are dangerous."

"Children were separated from their families and left without any protection against people who used them as guinea pigs." Shepard met his eyes. "Maybe they shouldn't have used these tactics, but what happened to them was wrong, sir. It was just wrong."

Hackett glanced down. The transmitter didn't render objects in the room, but he appeared to be looking at a desk or terminal. "What can you tell me about this Kyle? Is he some kind of ringleader?"

"They wouldn't elaborate. I was hoping you might have some intel."

"I do." Hackett pursed his lips, looking troubled. "It's all speculation. I'm also not certain it's in your jurisdiction. You got the job done. We can take it from here."

"All the same, sir, I'd still like to know. Collateral damage isn't always easy to predict."

"Fair enough." Hackett made punched a few invisible keys. "We've got reports that a former officer, Major Kyle, founded some kind of colony on the edges of the Traverse to serve as a biotic safe haven."

"Kyle's a biotic?"

"No, strangely. He was on Torfan."

Shepard winced. Torfan was a dodged bullet. It seemed like half of the marines with N-school rankings ended up on Torfan over the course of the two months they kept that meat grinder going. Most of them had scars, physical and psychological. After the unprovoked attack on Elysium and over a decade of mounting hostilities, the Alliance Navy bottled up the last of the batarian resistance on one of their moons. As entrenched as they were, it took a lot of patience and blood to root out the last of them.

Shepard was laid up with a broken femur at the time. She couldn't claim to regret missing out. "He was discharged?"

"On medical, yes. He feels some kind of kinship with biotics. We think he believes they share an emotional connection, that nobody else can understand what they've experienced. His efforts to help them seem genuine. It's hard to say if his commune poses any threat, but it's worth noting that Kyle's spread a lot of anti-Alliance rhetoric on the extranet. He's encouraging biotics to blame us for their difficulties."

"Alright." Shepard put it aside for the moment. "They also mentioned the Ascension program. That replaced BAaT, right?"

"Not exactly. Ascension is a civilian venture with input from the military, and its records are public. Participation is voluntary. It's true that some of the graduates have fallen off the radar, but we also don't track human biotics compulsively like we did in the old days. This is making mountains out of molehills."

She nodded and allowed the topic to drop. "There's someone waiting to meet us at the Citadel, sir?"

"Security officers are waiting to receive the prisoners, yes. We'll keep the press off you. Parliament can handle the curtain calls on this one."

"Aye aye, sir."

"Hackett out."

The comm went dead. Shepard retreated downstairs to the lounge and the company of her datapad. What she reported was true; the biotics were secured on the lower deck, under guard, while Burns was sleeping off the experience in a hot bunk. The hour was growing late. On a whim, she linked into the Alliance personnel database and looked up Kyle's dossier.

The major was a distinguished officer. He'd earned several commendations for bravery under fire, and had commanded the 104th marine division during the siege, the final unit to leave and the one that took the heaviest casualties driving out the last of the batarian hold-outs. The whole thing was a bloodbath. They had orders not to pull up boots until every hostile was captured or dead, and the only way to fulfill those orders was to send good people to their deaths, a battle of attrition. Torfan was a black mark on the Alliance record. There had been hearings in Parliament and extensive media investigation afterwards, during which the major's decisions were a subject of contention. Small wonder Kyle had cracked.

A few of the crew trickled in, catching a little R&R before hitting their racks. Garrus and Alenko were among them. She answered their curious stares with a summary of her findings. "I don't know whether they were acting on Kyle's orders, but I sure don't like the implications."

"The guy sounds like a nutjob," Garrus said. "He honestly believes he can lead human biotics to safety and acceptance by walling them off in a colony out in the middle of nowhere?"

Alenko leaned over her shoulder, glancing through the dossier. "Gotta admit, it sounds almost like a cult. People with odd abilities living together in secrecy under a leader promising peace and justice."

Shepard snorted. "Kyle's no messiah. He's a troubled officer with a misplaced sense of obligation."

"Maybe he thinks protecting these people will make up for all the soldiers he lost."

"Or maybe he's just crazy." Garrus shook his head. "We've seen men like him on the Citadel. Gang leaders, doctors selling snake oil, self-styled psychologists or prophets claiming to have found the path to enlightenment- all offering a better life to their followers at the cost of their undying loyalty, and not infrequently their wallets."

"Well, whatever Kyle is, he's the Alliance's problem now. We got Burns back. It was a good day." Shepard laid the datapad aside and slouched back in her seat, relaxed.

Garrus crossed his legs. "Surprising there weren't any casualties. When they started surrounding us, my neck started to itch."

"It was a risk to continue with negotiations at that point, but I try not to kill people if I can help it. That's not what my job is about."

"I thought it might also have been because you sympathized with them."

"My job's not about that, either. That's why we've got laws and courts and lawyers. The system gets to decide whether the context merits any consideration."

"You follow orders, just like that. It doesn't matter if they're the right orders?"

Shepard groaned. "Garrus, sometimes my superiors want my input and my judgment, and sometimes they give me a clear directive. The admiral told me what I had to do and left the details up to me. Orders aren't arbitrary. Our rules were developed to try to keep things as fair as possible for everyone."

"You sound like my father. 'Do things right or don't do them at all.'"

"Your father sounds like a wise man."

"Funny you should say that, because he'd hate you. Spectres represent a lot of power with hardly any accountability."

Alenko observed dryly, "Have you really seen a day go by on this mission when someone isn't yelling at the commander for a decision they didn't like?"

"True, but all they can do is yell." Garrus sat forward. "People like Saren don't play by the rules. It takes somebody who isn't restricted by procedures and red tape to bring him down."

Shepard was running short of patience on this particular argument. "I don't need to stoop to Saren's level to stop him, and neither do you. I hope you didn't think resigning from C-Sec was going to be a free pass."

"We'll see." Garrus got up, stretching. "I hope you're right, Shepard, but I also hope you'll be willing to do what it takes if you're not."

He departed with a nod, leaving Shepard and Alenko to their own devices. She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone, our disgruntled detective included, really did just let me do my damn job without telling me how?"

Alenko swallowed a laugh. "We might be better off than you'd think."

"Yeah, well, let's take the Normandy out to the Terminus and declare ourselves mercs for hire, and see just how much accountability the Council and the Alliance think I should have. I'm guessing it's more than in Garrus' imagination."

"Or they might say great, let us know when you've conquered it so we can bring the Terminus Systems under the banner of council space." His grin gave away the joke.

"That's absurd. In this scenario, there's no chance I wouldn't keep it for myself." She grinned back.

"All hail Queen Shepard the First?"

"You got it." She picked up her datapad again, popping open her email. Alenko settled into his couch and did the same.

A couple of servicemen took up seats at the far end of the lounge, trading sidelong looks as they passed the pair. Neither offered so much as a friendly wave. It wasn't the first time it had happened in the last two weeks- standoffishness, sudden silences, and funny looks. Alenko's eyes followed them. "Is it my imagination or is everyone acting a little weird lately?"

Shepard had been rather dreading this conversation. She decided to take the awkwardness by the horns and confront the issue head-on, lowering her voice. "You know it's because of Feros, right? I disappeared, you disappeared, we showed up together the next morning… Three guesses how they're filling in the gaps."

"I thought it might be something like that." He sat back and crossed his arms. "I mean, I hoped I just spilled soda on myself or something."

She chuckled. "I'm sorry. It's my fault we got stuck out there, tequila always puts me to sleep."

"I think being up for three days straight put you asleep. But it's fine." He shrugged. "Below deck rumors like that have existed for as long as there have been ships. We didn't do anything wrong. Some new scuttlebutt will take its place soon enough."

She was relieved that he was taking it so well. There wasn't an order she could give that wouldn't make the gossip worse. But there was undeniably a small part of her that sort of wished they had done something wrong, and that part was worried he was unconcerned because the very idea struck him as too absurd to treat seriously. And why should he? Article 218 of the Alliance Uniform Code of Military Justice was crystal clear on the legality of romantic relationships within a chain of command.

Moreover, he was attractive, talented, and a good man. He could do a lot better than a commando with a fucked-up head and she knew it. Shepard shoved away the ugly thought and cleared her throat. "Chakwas says Lamai suffered a small contusion to the back of her head, but she should be fine."

Alenko didn't look up from his datapad. "Of course she will. I didn't hit her that hard."

"I just thought you'd like to know."

"We're responsible for the decisions we make." He blew out a breath. "How we respond to the things that happen to us is part of that. Nobody forced her to abduct Burns."

"She had some choice words for you. Sounded like you knew each other well." Shepard didn't want to push it, but if there was some resentment there, it was important that she didn't allow it fester.

"There weren't that many of us in Brain Camp. We all knew each other inside and out. Most of us lost touch after the program ended. Everyone wanted to get back to having a normal life, you know?"

She did know, but it still struck her odd that a group of people who grew up together and endured a lot of rough predicaments would cut ties like that. The snippets of fact started lining up in her mind. "The Einstein disaster got the reporters off my parents' doorstep." "It turns out it's not ethical to teach a thirteen-year-old kid to slam another kid into the wall." "If I lose control…"

"What would Rahna think?" "I should be grateful you didn't snap my neck."

"I'm a special case, because I was directly involved with the program's termination."

Shepard bit her lip. "What happened to you, Kaidan? The way she was going on… is it possible you… hurt another student?"

He looked up and stared into space for a long moment. "It was an instructor. It was an accident, he died, and they shut down the program afterwards."

"I see." She leaned forward a bit. "You know, it's not-"

"I don't want to talk about this right now." He took a breath, and forced the smallest of smiles. "Shouldn't you be in bed by now, anyway?"

It was Shepard's turn to look away. "Not tired."

He wasn't fooled. "You're having nightmares again, aren't you."

Shepard rubbed her forehead, too weary to argue. "The cipher unlocked a lot of the vision. The Protheans compressed everything they knew about the reapers into this warning. I'm starting to access attacks on multiple worlds, invasion fronts spanning enormous swaths of the galaxy. This was a systemic annihilation of every last trace of civilization."

"Not every," he pointed out. "The relays survived, as did the Citadel, and world ruins like Feros. The Mars archives survived."

"So there was too much evidence for even the reapers to clear," Shepard said dully. "Maybe every habitable system had a relay, way back when. Maybe the Citadel was a rural mail stop. How should I know?"

He studied her. "You know what I think?"

"What?"

"I think you need a couple of hours where you're not planning for galactic invasion, or Saren, or hostage crises or any of the crap that gets dumped to your inbox every day." He glanced over at the vid terminal. "Rama just came out. Let's put it on and not think about anything for a little while."

The offer was not without appeal, but she hesitated all the same. There was an awful lot to do, enough make three hours wasted watching a movie seem indulgent. "Don't you have to sleep?"

"The headaches play hell with my schedule. I'm not even a little tired."

"Alright," she said at last, acquiescing. "You know they butchered the story to add more action sequences, right?"

"So we'll have some fun tearing it apart."