There was a saying amongst the people of Earth, from a time long ago. 'There's a woman with murder on her face'. Of course, it sounded a lot more lyrical in its native tongue, but the sentiment transcended the ability to make it rhyme. It was one which required quite a bit of work to really tease out, because although the rough swipes of it were clear enough, it had embedded connotations which many of the galactic civilizations couldn't easily comprehend. It was more than just being angry. It was more than just being angry enough to kill somebody. It was embodying nemesis in a physical way, terrifying to behold as an enraged Avatar bearing down on you.

Imagine how afraid one of them would have been when the Avatar had murder on her face?

Shepard was stomping toward the Embassies, with a number of very dark things going through her head. All of them cathartic. Most of them involving a bullet-riddled lying blue bitch. Some of them involving a calming drink or twelve at Korra's Den when it was over. But her focus was all but absolute, in that she could feel a vibration at her wrist, hear the crisp ping of a tone coming from her Omnitool. She glared ahead, to the bar which lay at the end of the darkened corridor. Then down at her wrist. With a sound half way between a sigh and a growl, she stepped to the wall and answered the call which was being streamed directly for her.

"What do you want?" Shepard asked. Not exactly the time when most people were awake; this was the Citadel's night-cycle.

"Direct and to the point. I like that," the woman's voice on the other side said. "Agent Shepard? I've found something which you're probably going to want."

"Don't test my patience right now, stranger-bearing-gifts," Shepard said.

"Not a stranger for much longer," the woman said. "Meet me in Spectre Headquarters. I figure it's time you meet your coworkers."

"Can it wait?" Shepard asked, glancing to the bar, where that two-timing asari was no doubt waiting for confirmation that her nuisance sister was dead.

"No. Spectre Headquarters."

The call then cut off. Shepard glared at her palm for a long moment, as though it might manifest the ability to slap the woman who'd ordered her around like that. Sadly, like a punch through Earth's internet, the Extranet lacked such capabilities. Another glance forward, and then another behind. There were two points arguing against each other. On one hand, she really wanted to ventilate that asari. On the other, this probably had something to do with Saren.

Saren won.

She turned and began to stride down the hallway, past the great glass doors which lead closer and closer to Tevos' office. She'd spotted the HQ before handing in her report personally, but was on enough of a self-induced time-crunch that she hadn't bothered so much as knocking on the door. The door in question was thicker than most, and had a remarkably advanced sensor suite built into the frame, under the inverted and striated silver chevron of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. She looked around, for some sort of password terminal. And at that, realized she didn't know any passwords.

"Agent Shepard, human. Spectre status recognized"

Well, that solved one problem. The doors opened in turn, outside and in, showing a bulkhead behind the first. She walked down the long corridor, fairly certain that all of the various machines she could see lining the entryway were there to determine down to the atom that she was who she claimed to be. And if she wasn't, then she wagered that the automated guns peppering the length of the hall would render her down into something that you could feed hamsters. The hall opened to a public area of sorts, but at this hour it wasn't inhabited. She could hear gunshots, though. Too regular to be a fight. Just the steady blam-blam-blam of a gun going off nearby.

Shepard turned toward the gunshots, and opened a fresh door to reveal a shooting range. The sole occupants were a salarian and an asari, both wearing dark armor. "Its ability to sink its heat is sub-par. This thing won't just overheat with one shot, it'll damage the barrel. We'd need something capable of withstanding a catastrophic heat-spike in order for it to be viable."

The asari shrugged. "You're the one who wanted to turn the Widow into a man-portable rifle. You come up with the solutions."

"I have to assume you're the one who called me?" Shepard said, glancing to the asari woman. The salarian glanced back, but only for a moment, before returning his attention to the rifle which still glowed faintly orange until he pulled the heat-sinks out of their housing and inserted fresh.

"I was," the woman said. "Tela Vasir, Special Tactics and Recon. As if it wasn't already obvious. This is my associate, Jondum Bau," the salarian turned and gave Shepard a polite nod, before arduously syncing the heat-sinks, and causing the heat to drain out of the frame and into the sinks. "I didn't think I'd see a human as Spectre, not after what Saren did to the last applicant. Good to see that even he can't unring that bell."

"I thought you'd be holding the line and defending him," Shepard said flatly.

"No offense taken," Vasir said with a roll of her eyes. "We're not all loyal to the name above common sense. Every Spectre's done some darker-than-black ops at some point in their career, but genocide isn't our agenda. Preserving galactic stability is."

"You say that like those two are mutually exclusive," Bau said from where he stood over the rifle, a focused expression on his face.

Shepard raised a brow. "Associate meaning...?"

"He'll be sworn in officially next month," Vasir said. She glanced back to him. "Leave it be. You can compensate for personal shortcomings later."

Bau shot her a glance, but didn't answer back. Pity. Shepard would have liked to hear what he'd have to say to that. Vasir motioned the others to follow her. "As I said, Saren's a bad egg in a good batch. That good batch leads to me. I trained the man who trained him. That means that depending on how high you shift the blame, it might fall on my scalp. So better to deal with the problem than have to suffer the consequences of somebody else being an asshole, as I see it," she said, as she passed through the doors back into the headquarters' foyer.

"Good to know that Saren didn't leave any friends in the Spectres," Shepard said.

"I didn't say that. Just that they're keeping their mouths shut. Personally? I think he's a psychopath. Was from the moment they picked him. But I didn't have say, since he wasn't one of mine," Vasir gave a shrug. "You're part of an august host now, Agent Shepard. And you got in the easy way. Some people resent that."

"Including you?" Shepard asked.

"I don't give a shit, so long as the agent can do the job," Vasir said flatly. "Whatever the job may be."

"You said you had something to give me?" Shepard asked.

"We do," Vasir said. She gave a nod toward Bau. "Officially, he's not supposed to be allowed through those doors until he's a Council Spectre. I... loosened the parameters a bit, since he had some skills I needed. Namely, undoing the royal hash that Saren left in our databases when he got kicked out."

"He tanked your servers?" Shepard asked. "I thought they'd be better than that."

Vasir shrugged. "I'm four hundred years old, and this job keeps finding ways to remind me that I'm a lot dumber than I'd like to think I am. Saren? He blindsided us. In every possible way."

"It took some effort, but I was able to recover some of what the databases had lost in Saren's cyberassault," Bau said, flicking a few haptic-optic keys and showing a stream of data. "Namely, I recovered information on his co-conspirator, Benezia T'Soni. Several weeks ago, she landed on Noveria, in the Pax system."

"That's useful. Where did she go from there?" Shepard asked, as she stared at the icy-ball which rotated holographically in front of her.

"Therein lies the greater trick; she hasn't left," Bau said.

"T'Soni's still on Novaria?" Shepard asked.

"The latest that we were able to find is a financial forward to a Terminus based slush-account, authorized by T'Soni," Vasir said. "It was sent through yesterday morning. If she's not on Noveria, then she's found a very interesting way to cut through the bureaucracy there. And trust me, you can't move a penny on Noveria without somebody bitching loudly enough that you could hear it on Omega."

Shepard nodded. "Noveria, then. Any other information out of there?"

"Her retinue, her cargo manifest, and a one-woman transport which departed and returned within a two week period. Couldn't find out where it went. Same person got off as went on, though," Vasir shrugged. "This is your hunt, not mine."

"I assume that I owe a favor for this," Shepard said dryly.

"What do you think I am? The Shadow Broker?" Vasir said with a scowl. "Saren's a threat to galactic order. Until he and his geth are fed into a garbage grinder, my job's a lot harder and requires a lot more paperwork."

"Enlightened self-interest, cornerstone of galactic civilization," Bau said with a wry smile.

Vasir chuckled mildly at that, and then faced Shepard more directly. "You've got the lead on Saren. So tell me, what's he got that makes him honey to a bunch of AIs?"

Shepard shrugged. "I couldn't say."

"You're hiding something," Bau said. Vasir's expression became quite incisive at that.

"We're on the same team, Shepard, despite what you might think. What do you know that we don't?"

Shepard sighed. She didn't exactly have much to lose. "Those Reapers, that T'Soni was talking about..."

"Older T'Soni or younger T'Soni?" Bau said with a sarcastic laugh. The two women's glares silenced him.

"They're real, and a lot more dangerous than you'd imagine," Shepard finished. Vasir's eyes widened a bit, not in shock or surprise, just interest.

"I assume you've got some proof of this?" she said.

"None that Speratus would accept," she admitted. Vasir stared at her for a moment longer, then shrugged.

"That's the galaxy we work in. You'll find something that'll stick, or you won't, and I'll have to run you down 'cause you've gone crazy. Wouldn't be the first time," she said.

"Very comforting," Shepard said.

"What can I say? I'm a people person," Vasir said with a smirk. Shepard glanced behind her.

"I should go."

"Don't let us stop you," Vasir said. "Oh, and one more thing."

Shepard paused, and turned back, on the verge of entering the entry hallway. Vasir slowly tapped her closed fist against the chevron welded onto her armor.

"Welcome to the Spectres."

Chapter 11

Noveria, Part 1: Peak Fifteen

It was just as well that Shepard had been delayed by her stop into Spectre HQ, in that she wouldn't have found Nassana Dantius at the bar anyway. She had, by all rumor and pattern, spent time in her offices which were buried in the upper levels of the Zakera Wards Access. Hardly the most resplendent locale, as it had neither the picturesque vistas of the Presidium, nor the enchanting view of the Serpent Nebula. What it did have, though, and in spades, was blessed privacy.

Shepard didn't make appointments, or knock, or wait to be seen. Dantius didn't seem to be putting a lot of stock into personal security. Which was a bit odd, considering her two-faced nature. The entire walk in, Shepard couldn't help but feel like she was wandering into an ambush. Thus, she went fully armed. And when she walked into Dantius' office, it was with a gun out, and her eyes checking corners and exits.

The asari jumped to her feet, shock on her features. "What is the meaning of this?" Nassana demanded. Shepard finished her glance around, and then turned her aim at the asari. She let out a squeak of alarm. "Don't hurt me! I don't keep money here!"

"Dantius, you lied to me," Shepard said, storming up to her. "I don't like it when people lie to me."

"I don't under... wait. Agent Shepard?" Dantius asked. She then let out another squeak as Shepard shoved her sidearm's barrel against the asari's head, and backing her up against a wall.

"Dahlia Dantius. Remember her?" Shepard demanded.

"Of-of course. What happened? Is she alright?" Nassana stammered, even though her eyes were wide and fixated on the gun between them.

"No, she's dead," Shepard spat. "Just like you wanted."

"What?" she asked, shock overcoming fear on that face. "Dahlia can't be dead!"

"Don't play innocent with me," Shepard said, pistol-whipping her across the cheek, which caused her to cry out in pain and fear, crumpling to the floor and clutching her now bleeding cheek. Shepard pointed her gun down at her. "I know that Dahlia was blackmailing you. You couldn't let anybody know that you had a slaver for a sister, so you sent the first idiot you could find to kill her."

"I... You can't be serious," Nassana said, her lip trembling. "My sister would never..."

"Don't. Lie. To. Me," Shepard said, her eyes blazing as she stared down. "Your sister found out how you made your money, and how much you'd pay to hold onto it. Your other sister shook you down only a few months ago. You can't deny the money, Dantius."

"Tyrienne? She needed a loan, to help her out of a jam," the asari on the floor said. "She didn't... I mean, they wouldn't..."

"You can't be this stupid, so stop acting like you are," Shepard said, grabbing her by the chin an hauling her to her feet, and slamming her back against the wall. The blue blood still dribbled down, but not in any great amount. Not like asari had an artery in their cheek or something. Or so Shepard believed. "I can see why you picked the human Spectre to do it. Plausible deniability, no need for messy cleanup, and a tool which can claim fair practice in killing a criminal. But it was a stupid idea for that same reason. I don't have to answer to anybody for putting a bullet in your skull."

"Dahlia wouldn't do that to me. She's a good person, not a... a slave-trader!"

Shepard was getting very, very tired of her mocking innocence. So she hurled Nassana into her own chair, and flicked her Omni toward the asari's screen. The screen lit up with information, the mails sent between the other sisters Dantius. Internal communications amongst Dahlia's crew. The Alliance Navy mission report, signed off by Hackett himself. Nassana stared at it, those eyes still very wide. She didn't show wrath, or outrage. She didn't suddenly glow blue as she tried to smash Shepard aside with a biotic attack, before flight or fight. She just... sat there.

And tears slowly started to well in her eyes.

"...why?" she whispered, her face pulling into confusion and pain. "...why would they do this? They... they hated me..."

Shepard stared at her, and her resolve, those revenge fantasies in her mind, they all started to crumble. Having to stare the sad reality in the face made the rage ebb, the righteousness fade. So much, in fact, that Shepard slowly lowered her pistol, and finally put it away. " really didn't know, did you?" Shepard asked.

"I don't understand," Nassana said. "I thought they... Those are my sisters, and they..." she fell silent, and let out an even more pained sob as she read something else. "Oh goddess, Mother? M...why, Mother? I... They want to... I'm not safe. I... I'm not safe."

"I shouldn't have done this," Shepard said, shame starting to well up in her like that asari's tears. She glanced to the wall, where the diplomas were now crumpled on the floor, sliced under shattered glass. The stain on the white floor where Nassana's blood had hit and smeared. The paperwork on the floor, scattered by Shepard's explosive entrance.

Shepard fucked this one up. Big time.

"For what it's worth... I'm sorry," Shepard said, as she turned away from the quietly muttering asari, whose hands now clutched at her scalp as she stared at the screen, not even bothering to blink. Shepard shook her head. Godsdamnit, woman, she berated herself. Can't you do anything right? And of course, her answer was, of course not. You couldn't save your parents, you couldn't save Tali, and you couldn't save your squad. Of course you're going to fuck this up. Shepard felt a very real urge to find the nearest bar and drink. Heavily. But she had a mission. Saren came first, even over her own ability to sleep at night. And for the record, she did count passing out as sleep.

She was heading toward the elevators, but not directly. She needed some time to cool off. Some more strides between her and her ship would do nicely. But she couldn't help but feel that she'd done something not just shameful, but idiotic as well. She knew stupid, since she'd been around it long enough, but the shame? That was new. She could see, hindsight being what it was, that everything she'd done leading up to this moment was about as wrong as it could have been. And she was powerless to stop it. Why? And most pointedly, importantly... why did she stop when she did?

A few weeks ago, Shepard would have... she wasn't really sure, but she wouldn't have believed Dantius' pain for what it was. Something was changing, and she didn't know what. Further, she wasn't sure she was even comfortable with it. She walked, so caught up in her own issues, that she bumped right into another asari, who was walking through the darkened halls of the 'night' on the Citadel. "Hey, watch where you're going," Shepard snapped.

The asari, dressed in a black suit, turned, and looked Shepard up and down. "I could say the same about you. You could have walked through a wall in that getup."

"Not my problem," Shepard said. The asari, though, moved back in front of Shepard, staring at her. "What?"

"You... are the new Spectre, aren't you?" the woman had a smile on her face. And it was a... predatory... one.

"And why do you want to kno–"

"–t going to ask you again!" the words coming from the furiously focused asari pounded at Shepard's head, compounding the splitting headache which tore through her brain and shit into the cracks. What just happened? One moment, she was walking away from Dantius' office, and the next... it was apparently daytime, and she was being held up by her throat by a different asari in red armor, and her head felt like somebody set off fireworks inside it.

"Ow... my head," Shepard muttered, unable to answer that woman's question even if she'd wanted to. A hand, gingerly touching her nose, came back with red-stained fingers. The asari in the red, revealing armor glared at Shepard for another long moment, before slowly lowering her back down against the wall. Shepard glanced around, trying to figure out where she was, but didn't have the first clue. "Where am I?"

"She has escaped. Again," the asari said. Shepard looked aside, and saw that there were about twenty C-Sec officers, all with weapons drawn. And oddly, all drawn at the asari. "There is no further need of this. The quarry has escaped, and her tool is under no further jeopardy, unless you fail to bring her to a hospital."

"No offense, Justicar," the asari C-Sec said, "but I think it's time that you leave the Citadel."

The 'Justicar' gave a gentle nod. "I have no further reason to be in this place. I apologize for any difficulty I have caused you."

"What happened?" Shepard muttered flubbingly, sputtering out blood when she did so. She blew hard from her nose, and a fine spray of red coated the front of her armor, and the floor before her. Oh, that couldn't be good.

"You were used to mislead me, and then discarded. Be thankful she saw fit to do so. Had she not, you would be dead," the Justicar informed neutrally. "I must seek her anew."

Shepard turned to the C-Sec who parted to let the red-armored asari through them, but not without keeping her under incredible scrutiny, if not gunpoint. Fully half of the twenty peeled off to follow her, as though they were worried she might blow up one of the Wards or something. Shepard tried to push herself to her feet, but ended up tipping sideways and landing on her back, cracking her head against the floor once more, and making her headache worse.

"Whoa, calm down," a turian said, gently holding her to the floor. "There's an ambulance on its way. They'll take you into surgery right away."

"Surgery, for what?"

"For the massive cranial hemorrhage that you just sustained," the asari in the blue and black armor said, before turning away, a finger to the hole in her head which was essentially an ear. Shepard blinked, painfully and dryly, before her mouth worked against the confusion and pain. Then, she got the words she was reaching for to come out, taken straight from a certain biotic who would probably hear about this before too long.

"...what the fuck?"

"Naaaah. Naaaah. Naaaah. Naaaah."

The asari commando gently thumped her head against the wall over and over as she repeated the pointless non-word. Of course, one could be forgiven for not really believing that the woman was really an asari. For one thing, she wasn't blue, so much as a faintly blue grey. Her skin was sloughing in clumps, showing veins and musculature underneath it, and the schlera of her eyes had turned a solid indigo, as the tiny capillaries simply burst and let blood pool where it would.

"Another one, Matriarch," Gozreh said, glancing to her master, the link above her in the chain. Benezia stared down at the broken, muttering asari. Her own eyes were impassive, staring out through the ceremonial Athamite hood. Only, it wasn't really. Athamite hoods were white. This one had been dyed black, black as her dress in fact. And she was not really sure why. "That makes eleven so far."

"We need to get back to Sovereign," another, younger asari said, where she rubbed at her arms. Benezia knew that under that armor, her entire arm was rubbed raw from that same treatment. "Saren will make this all right."

"We have a duty," Benezia said. "The others were not strong enough to complete what Saren desired. The weak have no place in what is to come."

"Naaah. Naaaah. Naaaah. Naaaah," the shattered asari continued.

"What are we to do with her?" Gozreh asked. She had once been free-willed and strong-minded. Now, she needed everything told to her. She needed orders toward everything short of eating and sleeping. There were sacrifices that needed to be made, though. Only the strong would be standing when all was finished. The Reapers would make very certain of that.

Benezia reached down and scooped the commando up. She had been a good soldier. But there were sacrifices to be made. "She gave her life so that all of the asari could be ascended into divinity. As was writ by the Goddess herself; 'And with the passage of time, shall the people of The Nine And The Three become as gods, to rise into the heavens and take their place amongst the hosts most high'. She has given of herself to ensure that this came to pass. So we commend her body to that end."

The commandos with her all showed similar signs of... degradation. Their pallors closer to white than blue, their eyes sunken. Some had teeth falling out. Others, peeling skin. One had awoken in a similar state of aphasia a few days ago, and had slowly gotten worse. It was a strange thing, one which seemed to strike some more quickly than others. But Benezia had faith. Saren would be their redemption. The Reapers would bear them into the heavens, as was prophesied almost a hundred asari generations ago.

"Do you hear the song golden fire inky shadows darkness wrong?" the aforementioned asari asked, earnest for all her words were gibberish. The others simply placated her. As long as she could fight, she was still strong enough.

Benezia turned, and laid the shattered commando on the rail of a pit. "Mother. Mother, speak to me. Tell me what I need to hear. A gift of flesh, instead of torment, if you will only speak to me," she said. There was silence. A promise, not believed. So Benezia pushed her pupil, her follower, off that rail, and into the pit, mid-'naaah'.

The insensate asari landed with the crunch of breaking legs, but she didn't even seem to notice. Eyes, black and numerous, stared up at her. Then, down at the offering. And then, a star-like mouth opened, and began to rend at the offering she had cast to it. It was the first meal that had been offered for quite a while that couldn't be considered cannibalism. Sooner or later, Benezia knew, they would find something which would pry the secrets from the queen. It would only be a matter of time. And if that failed, then Saren himself would... Well, he had ways. There was a silence below, almost stretching out like shame, as those eyes turned upward once more.

I will sing.

Benezia turned to the beast below. "You will tell us what we wish to know," there was a hesitation, most definitely shame.

I will sing the old words of my mothers.

Benezia nodded, and turned to her followers. "And we shall be as gods," she said.

And in a corner of her mind, there was a tiny room. It was small, occupied only by a chair and a table and a single flickering candle. And in that room, an asari, wearing a bright yellow dress, offered unshed tears for a senseless death, a sacrifice to an insane end.

A young man stared, at a picture which floated holographically in front of him. "Commander Shepard. Avatar Shepard," the man said. There was the sound of an intake of breath, and the well-dressed man on the other side of the call puffed out a lung-full of smoke.

"She had a close call. You assured me that there wouldn't be any mistakes like this, Operative."

The operative gave a sigh, and shrugged. "It was a factor outside of our ability to calculate. She will recover."

The man on the other side of the call shrugged. "To her credit, she's doing an impressive job disassembling the rogue Spectre's infrastructure. But she needs to do more."

The operative didn't turn toward his employer, since he didn't need to to know that the man was staring intently at much the same information as he himself, smoking forcefully all the while. "If you want the Avatar alive, say so. I don't think she'll be worth the trouble."

"You let me worry about the Avatar, Operative. I'll have her away from our front door soon enough."

"You have a great deal of faith," the operative said, turning to face the Illusive Man at last.

"I do not deal in faith. I deal in probability. And I know where my best chances lie," he said. He was a man of middle age, his hair still full, if grey, but his frame fairly slight. "You should focus on your own tasks for the time being. I laud your haste in bringing this to my attention, but I assure you, I am not blind, nor bereft of contacts outside of you."

"I thought it prudent," the operative said with a shrug.

"Deal with your own business. There are enough troublesome influences that you can deal with, at the moment. Anderson is only one amongst them. The sooner you complete that assignment, the better. But to that end, do you require more weapons? A new blade, perhaps?"

A small smile came to the operative's face, as he patted a much smaller sheath at his hip. Felt the handle of the fore-curved knife within. "You should know by now; I prefer something a bit more discrete."

The first sign that Shepard was still alive came in the form of beeping. The kind of high, annoying beeping which was reserved for either torture chambers, or recovery wards. From the relative lack of blood, and the faint smell of antiseptic, she guessed it was the latter. She sat up, which didn't feel nearly as bad as she feared it might, and quickly ran her hands over her head. No openings, no shuts. Probably waterbender healing.

"You had a lot of people worried," a voice said, and Shepard instantly reached for her sidearm, before remembering that she was in a hospital gown, not her armor. She turned to the man who was sitting in the room with her. He wasn't familiar to her, but then again, she seldom got to know anybody outside her immediate 'social circle', by which she meant her crew. He was balding, and his head was shaved close to minimize that fact. His nose was somewhat crooked, as though it hadn't healed right after being broken. The most striking, though, were his eyes. They were a sort of milky-blue, like those ascribed to Toph Beifong, during the days of the Early Republic. She squinted a bit, and noticed that there was a reason they looked strange; they were artificial.

"Of course. I'm a mother to my crew. Hasn't anybody ever told you that?" Shepard said sarcastically, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. Damn it all, they hadn't even left her boots.

"I had to wait until the Si Wongi fell asleep to even get close to you," the man said with a shrug. "Say what you will, you have a fair degree of devotion, from her at least. And there have been others seeing you while you were sedated."


"You just underwent brain surgery," the stranger said. "That's bound to cause a bit of healing time. Although, as I understand it, the reason you were sedated was because you punched a nurse during the procedure."

"And that would make you my doctor?"

"That would make me a fan," he said. He got to his feet, and offered a hand. She took it, dubiously. "Siwang Weaver, pleased to make your acquaintance. Technically, 'pleased to meet you again,' but that's only from a certain point of view."

"Do I know you?"

"You? Probably not. But your predecessor did," he motioned to his eyes. "I lost my eyes trying to save him on Shanxi. Hong was a good man. And he had big plans, plans he didn't live to see come to fruition."

"I'm still wondering what you're doing in my room. And who the hell you're supposed to be." Shepard said.

Weaver raised a dark eyebrow. "You really don't know who I am, do you? Well, have you heard of Samsara?"

"Everybody's heard of Samsara," Shepard said testily.

"Pleased to meet you," Weaver said with a smirk and a nod. She raised a brow, and he shrugged. "I know, technically, I'm only the founder, the organizer, the coordinator, and the public face, but there are only so many hats I can wear for an organization that diverse."

"So what's a tycoon doing in my room?" she asked.

"Making sure that the Avatar isn't a brain-dead vegetable," he said. "It'd be a shame to lose two in my lifetime. I have to say, it was very convenient of you to get a brain hemorrhage while I was on the Citadel, otherwise I wouldn't have had this opportunity," that easy smile he had started to wither a bit. "And the opportunity isn't just a good one, sad to say."

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"I have a friend. An admiral in the Alliance. Kahoku," he said. Shepard perked up a bit at that. "So you've heard of him? He contacted me a short while ago, after he read your Tuntau report. He's gone into hiding."

"What? Why?"

"Have you heard of a group called 'Phoenix'?" Weaver asked. "Extremists and radicals, who somehow manage to attract the best and brightest of our generation. Samsara has a standing protocol to try to urge those radicals to a more moderate path, but we've met little success. And Phoenix... it has some shady elements to it."


"The kind which kill your family to make a point to you, shady," Weaver clarified. "You don't need to look at me like that, Avatar. We're both soldiers. It's just that my days of carrying a rifle are long behind me. I fight a different war, now. I have a feeling, you will be on my playing field one day, as well. What was I saying? Oh, right. Kahoku," he cracked his knuckles, and moved to sit on the stool near her bed. "He gave me information, a site of a Phoenix skunk-works. He wanted it to be passed to Admiral Hackett. I think I'll just cut out the middle-man, and give it to you."

Shepard nodded. Hackett probably would just send it her way, and knowing her, she'd accept it without hesitation. She glanced around. "Where's the information?" she asked. Weaver's hand glowed with orange lines for a moment.

"You can come in, my dear," he said.

The door opened, and a woman walked in. Well, not to say 'a woman'. Even Shepard had to admit, that this was probably the most proportionally, aesthetically perfect sample of the human feminine that she'd ever seen. She had the hair and pale pallor of a Fire National, but her eyes were the bright blue of the Water Tribes. Even though the outfit she wore covered her from neck to boots, it seemed to only enhance the curves which comprised her. And yet, there was something subtly... off... about her. "Avatar Shepard?" she asked, with an accent much like Doctor Chakwas'. "Honored to meet you. This is what you are looking for."

"My 'second in command'," Weaver said, by way of explanation.

Shepard scoffed lightly. Probably the first one he could get on his lap, but she didn't say it out loud. While she didn't have personal experience with the business world, she had a fair degree of a notion that women who looked like that didn't have to wait long to get into positions of privilege, and not due to either savvy nor business skill. She looked over the information. "What did Kahoku want with this?"

"Probably to blow it up," Weaver said. He shrugged. "He was a fairly direct fellow."

She stared at him directly. "And what do you want?" she asked.

"I want the Avatar firing on all cylinders. I've got a bad feeling like we're heading into a trying time," Weaver said, resting elbows on knees and hunching forward. "Call it a survivor's instinct. I know when things are getting bad. I've got that feeling."

"I can't deal with this right now," Shepard pointed out. "Finding and bringing down... my current target takes priority."

The trophy-assistant gave a look to Weaver, but he shook his head. "I understand completely. I'm not privy to the goings-on of the Spectres. I just wanted to bring something to your attention. Although, the sooner you help Kahoku, the better. He sounded... frankly? Terrified."

"I should go," Shepard said, and then got caught by an IV in her arm. "...or not."

"Don't worry. From the looks of the chart, the intra-cranial clamping and hydrotreatment were performed without a hitch; you'll be out of here in no time," the bimbo said with articulation and confidence. Which kind of made Shepard a little confused as to whether she could be classified as a bimbo.

"I'd say take a few hours, but we both know you won't," Weaver said. He gave a shrug. "Airbenders. All alike. It has been a pleasure," he said. He glanced to his counterpart. "Miranda?"

"An honor," the woman echoed, and then turned toward the door. Great, now she had even more on her plate. If she knew that being a Spectre meant that everybody in the galaxy was going to drop their problems at her feet, she would have... become a hermit or something. When she departed, it was by coming face-to-face with an irate looking Si Wongi. The perhaps-not-bimbo stared at the soldier without flinching, which was surprising given al'Wahim's intensity. "She's more than ready to see you, chief."

"Then stand aside, harlot," al'Wahim demanded. Miranda gave a bit of a scowl, but did as al'Wahim demanded, and let the soldier in, before moving out after Weaver. "You had caused us much concern. I understand you are beyond lucky to even be alive," the woman said, with a great deal more relief than Shepard thought possible.

"Yeah... why, exactly?" she asked.

"You were assaulted by an Ardat Yakshi," al'Wahim said.

Shepard stared at her. "Really?"

"I cannot offer any specifics, as I know little. But you survived. So much the better. I assume that you will be recuperating here? If so, I will provide security until..."

"No, we're going to Noveria," Shepard said, slowly pulling the IV out of her arm. It was about as painful as she would have anticipated: very. Al'Wahim gave her a confused look. "Matriarch T'Soni is on the planet right now. She could give us a lot of answers, and at worst, is an ally of Saren's that we won't need to worry about any longer."

"...but you are hurt."

"I've had worse," she said, reaching into a closet and pulling out a fluffy white robe, probably used to keep the elderly from freezing in this chilly place, and tied it around her. "Where's my armor? And a pair of boots?"

"I cannot recommend this. Chakwas would agree with me."

Shepard stared the marine in the eye. "She's not here. And when she tells me she doesn't approve of my being out of bed, we'll be half way across the galaxy. Now give. Me. Some. Boots."


"Why are we still discussing this, al'Wahim?" Shepard said, managing to stop herself from rubbing her head for the ache which still thudded regularly against her skull. The younger woman looked away first, and stepped out of the room. No more distractions, no more delays. Saren had been free in the Traverse for too long as it was. Time to change that.

"That is the information?" Saren asked, as the holographic image of Benezia flickered before him. He tilted his head aside. "Are you sure it was not more specific than that?"

"This is all that the source was able to give us, Saren," T'Soni said. Saren's mandibles flicked and twitched, not really from his own aggravation or wrath. No, it was more like an impatience, which pressed down on him from places unseen, in a voice unheard. "Now that we have the information, should we dispose of the source?"

"No. Keep pressuring it," Saren ordered, slightly annoyed that he'd have to micromanage the Matriarch this way. He'd brought her along because he thought she'd be useful. But she was of little use to him if she needed constant supervision and direction. "We need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is both accurate and honest. A failure of either would be... unforgivable."

T'Soni stared at him for a long moment, then bowed deep, as though trying to showcase those funny bumps that the asari and human females seemed so proud of to him. "We will continue to question her, Saren. If we learn anything more, we will tell you at once."

"Good," Saren said. He then terminated the communication without a second's notice. He turned on his chair – more a throne, really – and pondered, staring at the hologram of the Mu Relay which tumbled in the blackness between the stars. The information might be good. He could head through, find the Conduit, and prove himself the messiah he knew himself to be; he would prove to the machines that the organics deserved more than slaughter, that they could be useful, they could be tools instead of targets.

More than anything, he needed to be sure. If he was wrong, that was time wasted, and worse. He blinked at the Mu Relay. No. He couldn't take that chance. Not yet. Not until he was sure. He turned toward the glowing red terminal, which opened out like a flower of commands and instructions. He didn't need to touch them. He knew this ship well enough, the technologies of it, that he was able to control it with but a thought.

"We should await them where we are strong. And we could always use a few more krogan for shock-troops," he said to nobody in particular. Or perhaps to the ship he was now utterly alone in, if one didn't count the geth, which Saren didn't. The controls caught his oblique meaning, and the ship shifted ever so slightly, before it launched itself through the blackness of space at a rate which was only bettered by the Mass Relay Network, and then, only just. He would be ready, when the time came. Because there was no alternative; do it right, or don't do it at all. That was the turian way.

Shepard popped the pill into her mouth, and then glanced at the tube. "Do not take with alcohol," she read aloud to her empty quarters. Then she scoffed lightly, and spun the cap off of the whiskey bottle and poured a solid measure into a glass, before thinking twice, and taking a swig straight from the bottle before recapping it. She took the glass and sat down at the screen, which was blinking that there was an incoming live-feed to her console.

"Now, I wonder who that would be," she said. She'd likely managed to catch it before Joker could even screen it through, so she turned her chair and flicked her screen on, showing the particularly irate face of Donnel Udina staring back at her.

"...of time until she is going to, so if you value your continued comfort, you will patch me through," Udina said.

"It's alright, Joker," Shepard said, to the man who was no doubt annoying the living hell out of the ambassador, and not entirely for her benefit. "I'm sure I can have a conversation with the ambassador without you staring over my shoulder."

"Whatever you say, Commander," Joker said sardonically, before there was a crackle, and then Udina's eyes shifted, to meet hers. Shepard put on something of a smirk, and made sure that the glass of whiskey was in her lap and out of sight.

"Shepard, do you know what the words 'political shitstorm' mean?" Udina asked heatedly.

"Do you know what the words 'mind-fucked by an Ardat Yakshi' mean?" she asked back.

Udina didn't seem amused. A chronic condition for him. "I am not Anderson, and I do not tolerate your flippancy. You are making my job difficult with your very existence. Your predecessors would be rolling in their graves if they knew what you were doing as Avatar, mark my words!"

"What did I do now?" she asked, rolling her eyes.

"Serrice Council contacted us, telling us that they will not be supplying the contract which was, until you got involved, all but signed and in effect! They claim that you assaulted their spokeswoman and drove her into hiding for her life, which, given my knowledge of you, doesn't sound that surprising. Honestly, Shepard, what the hell were you thinking?"

"Nassana Dantius' sister was a slave-runner in the Traverse," Shepard said.

"And how does the spokeswoman's filial relation factor into this? Did she specifically send you to assassinate her sister? I don't think she did," Udina said, leaning forward so that his face dominated the screen. "I don't care what Anderson says about you; you're no leader, and you're no Avatar, either. Avatar Hong would never have been this brash or careless. Avatar Korra wasn't so reckless!"

"Hong and Korra aren't here. I am," Shepard said.

"And the gods have mercy on us," Udina intoned gravely.

"I did what I thought at the time was the right thing," Shepard said, defensive.

"We both know you didn't think at all!" Udina snapped. "And as long as you continue doing so, you're nothing but a threat! If I had any say in the matter, I'd have you pulled from the Normandy, for its own good; sadly, I do not."

"You're right. You don't have the authority to do that," Shepard said. "But you know what I have the authority to do?" Udina leaned back, confusion on his face. "Are you paying attention? Closely, now?"

She slammed down a finger on the terminate call button, and shook her head after the screen went back to its amber hue. "What a jackass," she muttered to herself, holding her whiskey to her brow for a moment, then realized where it would do more good, and downed it in a single pull. It burned on the way down, and helped dissipate the pain in her head. It was better. Just a dull ache rather than the screaming pounding it had been before the surgery and the waterbending after. She'd endured a lot of concerned looks as she tromped back onto the ship in a fluffy robe and combat boots, and quite a few confused ones as well. Only Wrex didn't spare her a second glance, as he headed back down into the holds. And come to think of it, that sounded like a good place to be at the moment. She needed some air, and the hold was the most open place the Normandy had.

The doors to her room opened, and she was confronted by a pacing quarian. She seemed to perk up a bit upon seeing Shepard. "Commander Shepard? I was wondering if..." she began.

"Not now, Tali," Shepard said, walking past her.

"But, you said..." Tali talked back at her.

"What I said was 'not now'. Did you have problems hearing that?" Shepard asked. Tali looked hurt by that. And for some reason, even the alcohol wasn't enough to keep Shepard from feeling a distinct pang of 'I'm an asshole'. Enough of one that she paused, before rounding the turn, and looked back. "Can... it wait for a while? I'm under some pressure at the moment."

Tali turned, and those glowing eye-bits flicked, as though blinking in confusion. "Of... of course, Shepard. I can wait."

Shepard nodded, and then turned back toward the ladder to the lower deck. She's not your sister, a little voice in her head reminded her. Tali's long gone. Well, that might have been the case, but there were instincts not easily cast aside. And the young quarian somehow managed to hit just about every one of them, it seemed. She descended the ladder into the hold, and found it somewhat more occupied than she'd have anticipated. Then again, if she'd just looked down through the window, she'd have seen, but...

Wrex was at the weapon's table, as expected, but not wearing his thick, red armor. In fact, he was wearing what seemed to be the krogan equivalent of pajamas. Pajamas almost as pink as the armor now spread out and being fiddled with. The absurdity of it held Shepard paralyzed for a moment, before she shook her head. She might have grown up around them, but krogan were still aliens for all of that. Also present, though, were Nilsdottir and Garrus, both of them circling each other on a padded mat placed in the center of the hold.

"Mind telling me what's going on here?" Shepard asked. Wrex flicked a red eye back toward her.

"Garrus got bragging that turian hand-to-hand can beat anybody in the galaxy. The biotic disagreed. Then, wagers started happening," Wrex said. Shepard glanced back just in time to see Nilsdottir swallow a right hook which sent her staggering a bit, but she regained her balance with remarkable speed and endurance, such that Garrus' next attack was warded by a front kick to the gut.

"Fuck, you got some reach on ya," Nilsdottir muttered around her mouth-guard.

"I could tell you about this one time, on a patrol..." Garrus said, but fell silent as he ducked back from Nilsdottir's sudden offensive.

"Shut the fuck up and fight, turian!" Nilsdottir demanded, and Garrus laughed before moving back into the melee.

"My money's on the little one," Wrex said idly, as he delicately manipulated the bits of his grandfather's armor, and the tools to maintain it. "Say what you will about turian shock-tactics, I always say that the little-guy in a fight tends to surprise you."

"Think you'll be up for Noveria?"

"I'm surprised you're up for Noveria. Humans aren't as tough as krogan," Wrex pointed out, as he set down one piece of armor, and picked up another, some sort of omni-screwdriver in hand. He let out a chuckle. "Although, I'd admit, I've been wrong about how tough females can be."

"That's a no, I take it?" Shepard asked.

"My armor is scrap," Wrex nodded his head toward a pile of broken red, which seemingly had been torn apart even further in the interim. "This... Grandfather's armor, it'll fit me. I just need to get it working again. When I've got that, I'll have a shotgun to lend you. 'Till then, not so much."

Shepard shook her head, which she rubbed against a headache. They said that they'd closed the hole they'd used to clip the artery in her brain, but it still felt... itchy. Painful. Maybe that'd go away at some point, but for the moment, she could neither sleep nor be free of it. So she kept herself busy. As she always did. "So about that female..." Shepard said.

"Yeah," Wrex said, a nostalgic note in his voice. "There was an asari. Slip of a girl when I first met her, had to be about four centuries ago, if not more. She couldn't have been more than ten years off of her mother's apron-strings. But she was professional. Did the job clean. Didn't waste time like most Maidens I'd dealt with. Kept her eyes on the prize, and fought smart. It wasn't until after Tuchanka that I ran into her again."

"This sounds interesting," Shepard said, crossing her arms since she couldn't find anything else to do with her hands to keep them away from picking at her scalp.

"There was a volus who wanted to erase his past," Wrex said, as he chucked out an obsolete kinetic barrier generator and started installing a new one into the millennia old armor. "One part of his past, was Aleena. Or at least, that's the name she used around me. I'm pretty sure it was an alias. But it didn't matter. I respected Aleena, and she respected me. So I told her about what was going down, and we decided to make a sport of it. I didn't have a whole lot of 'reason to live' left in me, and decided that if I was going down, it would be in a ball of flame the size of Omega. We picked a piece of junk space-station out in the Terminus, packed every gun we could carry, the best armor we owned," he nodded toward his defunct scarlet plating, "and then went to war."

"You and an asari commando, alone in a space station. Must have been tense," Shepard said.

"Ow! Fucker! Not the ear!" Nilsdottir swore as she bounded a circle around Garrus, rubbing at the ear which Garrus had just connected with. Even with padding, that tended to hurt.

"It's not my fault they stick out," Garrus said.

"I'll show you 'stuck out'..."

Wrex shook his head lightly. "We weren't alone. That station was crawling with the Terminus' finest. Slavers, mercenaries, pirates, telemarketers. Scum of the galaxy. That's why I picked it, partially. Aleena and I, we fought for three days straight. I didn't even know asari could go that long. We actually ran out of ammo in our guns, and ours wouldn't feed off of the crap that the fourth-rate weaponry the mercs used, so we just killed them and took their guns to use ourselves. By the fourth day, the station was barely holding together. Everybody else had either run off, or was dead. But I had her, Shepard. She was patching herself up in a clinic after I managed to nail her in the legs with a firebomb, and she'd barricaded the door shut. I couldn't cut through, with what I had, so I got creative. I went down to the reactor, and shot it to hell. Then, I got on my ship, and flew away. I stayed within eyeshot, though. I never saw her skiff leave, and when that reactor went, there wasn't anything left of that station bigger than a turian's right nut."

"Hell of a fight," Shepard said.

Wrex nodded, slowly fastening the last connection between the armor and the barrier generator into place. Then, he flicked it on. There was a quiet hum, and blue light bathed the piece for a moment before clicking off. He nodded, and set it aside. "I was certain she was gone. Nobody could have survived that. But then, as I'm moving to hit the Relay, I get a message. From Aleena. Want to know what she said?"

Shepard shrugged. "Better luck next time?"

Wrex glanced to her. "Word for word, Shepard, that exactly," he let out a single laugh. "I think you and she'd get along great."

"I'll bear that in mind in case I ever meet her," Shepard said.

"Come on, I thought human marines were better than this," Garrus chided, as he continued to float around the outside of Nilsdottir's reach.

"How about you stop running and I'll show you how good we are," she said, her tones much more heated than they'd been before. Almost on the edge of a rage.

"I went back to that volus and told him everything which had happened," Wrex continued. "I told him, that if he didn't want Aleena to come back and erase him from her past, he'd better keep me around, since there's probably nobody else in the galaxy who could fight that woman to a draw. And you know what? He did. I served as his bodyguard until the day he died. Natural causes. Boring work, but the money was good," he looked up, almost wistfully. "One of these days, I'm going to have to find out what happened to her. See if she wants a tie-breaker. Or better yet, see if she wants to have a drink or twenty."

"Sounds like an old flame," Shepard said. Wrex turned a red eye toward her.

"Not really," Wrex said. "My type has always been heavy, armored, and usually infertile. Call me old fashioned, that way."

Shepard shrugged, and turned quickly when he heard another crack behind her. Nilsdottir was recoiling, slowly striding an unsteady circle around the turian, who was pumping his arms in victory. "Another hit for the bird-man! You've really got to work on your defenses, kiddo. You're letting everything get in, and th–"

Nilsdottir cut him off by tearing off her helmet, and her entire body glowing blue. Shepard's eyes didn't even have time to widen in surprise before she slammed her hand out, and a blast of biotic force lifted Garrus from his feet and slammed him against the pillars supporting the upper decks, before he landed hard on his back. In an instant, heralded by a thud of biotic motion, Nilsdottir was atop him, and slamming a fist down into his face. The second landed even harder, and sprayed blue-black blood when she pulled her fist back. The third came to her with a bright blue glow, and her body seemed to pulse with it. But by this point, almost a second had passed, and Shepard was beyond shock.

Shepard reached out and grabbed every drop of water in Nilsdottir's body, and hurled her with all of her force backward into the doors of the elevator. The biotic forced herself up, ignoring the pain of bloodbending and launched herself at Shepard, next, but Shepard hadn't half finished bloodbending for the day. The thud of displaced air and flash of blue light brough Nilsdottir close, but Shepard's clutch over every cell in the biotic's body held her firm. Shepard bellowed into the younger woman's face, "Nilsdottir, that's enough!"

Nilsdottir's chest heaved, and her eyes rolled for a long moment, but slowly, slowly, the glow around her body started to fade, and her expression shifted from one of inconsolable rage and into dawning horror. "Oh... Oh fuck," Nilsdottir said. "Oh fuck, I did it again."

"Yeah, you did," Shepard said, finally releasing the biotic from her bloodbending grasp. Nilsdottir took a step back, her eyes fastened on the turian, who was only now starting to twitch and groan. "Garrus, are you still breathing?"


"He's pretty banged up, Shepard," Wrex said, where he was leaning over the turian. "Might want to get him to your doctor."

Shepard thumbed an ear. "Chakwas, we need you down in the bay. Vakarian is hurt, pretty bad."

"I'm on my way, Commander," the woman said crisply, and Shepard terminated the line. She turned back to Nilsdottir, but didn't find her standing defiant or enraged. No, the biotic had curled herself up, her back against that pillar, and her knees pulled up to her chest. She was tiny, like that. And seemingly trying to make herself tinier.

"Nilsdottir, what the fuck?" Shepard demanded.

"...I... Don't know what happened," Nilsdottir said.

"You said you had a handle on this," Shepard said.

"Well, apparently I fucking don't," she said, her body beginning to tremble a bit. "Fuck! Why do I keep doing this?"

"Look at me, Nilsdottir," Shepard said. "I said look at me!"

The biotic did then turn and look up at her. And the look on her face was one of utter shame.

"We had this talk, Nilsdottir. Back before Torfan. You keep your shit-fits in check, and I give you room to breathe. Are we going to have to revisit that?"

"Shepard, with all due respect, shut up," Wrex said at Shepard's back.

"Who asked you anything?" Shepard wheeled to him, and then had to look up a bit, because Wrex was directly behind her, and he was not a small alien.

"You're being a thug. I've seen enough of them to know that they don't succeed against anybody with a working brain. I want to see Saren dead. And if you're a thug, you're not going to achieve that. So do everybody on this ship a favor, and learn how to lead," Wrex said, poking her hard in the center of the chest to make his point. Shepard glared back at him. "If you don't, then I'll get off, and find somebody a bit more competent," he said, and then turned to his armor once more.

Shepard stared at him for a moment, ignoring even Chakwas and her medical team exiting the elevator and started to converge on the fallen turian. Damn it all, he was right. She let out a breath that released as easily as pulling out somebody's skull out through their asshole, as the biotic in question would have said, and faced the woman herself. "Why, Jack?" she asked.

"I don't know," she said, her voice small.

"Not a good enough answer," Shepard said.

"Well, it's the only one I got," Nilsdottir muttered. "I don't know why I get so... fucking pissed off. I just do."

"You're going to have to keep a leash on that," Shepard said. "Next time, I might not be around to keep you from splattering somebody's head."

The biotic nodded, staring into the distance. "Yeah."

"You really can't..." Shepard began.

"No. I fucking can't," she said, unable to even look Shepard in the eye. "Story of my life."

There was a moment of relative silence, as the medics hefted garrus up on a stretcher. "What's the prognosis, Doctor?" Shepard asked, turning away from the biotic.

"A severe concussion, and what seems to be a fracture of his skull. He's lucky we have a waterbender on board. We can prevent any damage due to swelling; he'll probably be back on his feet in a matter of days, instead of months."

"Days," Shepard said. "Any way to make that hours?"

"Not of the gods themselves intervened," Chakwas said. "Don't concern yourself with this. This is my business, Commander. Focus on your mission, while I deal with mine."

Shepard nodded dumbly, as Chakwas ushered her underlings to rise in the elevator to where the injured were taken. Shepard then turned to the biotic, who was still crouched on the floor, her arms hugging her knees and her chin buried against them.

"I'm going to the brig again, ain't I?" she asked.

"The Normandy doesn't have one," Shepard pointed out. "Since I don't feel like locking you in the airlock, this is coming down to my call," She said. Nilsdottir nodded distantly. "My call is that my squad is already down two of its heaviest hitters. I've got one biotic I can trust against somebody like Matriarch T'Soni, since I'm pretty much sure her daughter won't fight against her, if it comes to that. I think my chances are a lot better if I've got two biotics instead of one."

Nilsdottir craned her neck up at Shepard. "What."

"On your feet, soldier," Shepard said. Nilsdottir glanced around, but did as she was told. "You've got an anger problem. Join the club. Currently, I'm the president and Wrex there is the congressional whip."

"I'd rather be the treasurer, but go on," Wrex said, from where he continued to slowly repair his grandfather's armor.

"I don't care how crazy you get, so long as you point it at what needs to die," Shepard said. "So my question to you is this. Can you point your crazy at Saren, instead of just everywhere?"

With an expression of resolution, Jackie nodded. "I'll make that fucker into a stain."

"Good," Shepard said. She stared at the woman a moment longer. "Prep your gear. You're on the ground squad for Noveria."

"Fuck yeah, commander," she said, not enthusiastically, but rather... resolutely.

Wrex glanced her way. "Are you sure that's the best idea?"

Shepard waited until Nilsdottir cleared the doors into the engineering decks. "Can you think of a better one?"

"Toss her out the airlock before she gets us all killed, possibly by her fists?" he opined.

"Not an option," Shepard said.

"Why not?" he asked, pausing in his repairs.

"Because I owe her better than that," Shepard said. "If you get that armor working by the time we touch down, you're coming with us. Clear?"

"Whatever," Wrex said, turning back to his work. Shepard, though, moved to the ladders which lead up. This was going to spread like wildfire unless Shepard nipped it in the bud. And the last thing she needed was this squad tearing itself apart. So she would wait while Chakwas worked on Garrus. Mostly because there were a few things which needed to be said, and she was the only one who could say it. She wasn't lying about Nilsdottir. While Shepard had dirt on her, Nilsdottir had dirt on Shepard.

No, it was more than that, she admitted to herself, possibly for the first time in years. Nilsdottir... she got it. She understood it. She was the only friend left from the 466th. That made Jackie Shepard's oldest friend, period. And she wasn't about to let anything take that from her.

Liara quietly walked up behind where Shepard was standing at the helm of the Normandy, staring down at the muted grey surface of Noveria, as they dropped closer and closer to its surface. Everything about Shepard seemed tense. Not surprising considering what she'd endured only a scant dozen and a half hours ago. In its way, it was perfectly representative of humans as a species; no matter how hard anything hit them, they were back on their feet before they'd even finished bleeding. No wonder all of the other species were a bit afraid of them. Like vorcha or krogan, humans didn't know when to stay down. Or so others said. Liara hadn't, until very recently, given this bunch of aliens any thought at all.

"So if I look into your left ear, will I see daylight on the other side?" Joker asked.


"Do you smell burnt toast, then? I hear that's a bad sign."

"I'm not in the mood," Shepard said.

"Everybody's in the mood. Some just don't realize it," Joker replied pithily. He leaned forward slightly. "We're about three minutes from docks. Getting a hail; patching it through."

"This is Port Hanshan Control. Normandy, your approach was not scheduled, so our defense grid is armed and tracking you. State your business or be fired upon."

"Well, aren't they friendly?" Joker said with a shrug. He cleared his throat. "Citadel business. We've got a Council Spectre aboard."

There was a tense pause. "Landing access granted, Normandy. Be advised that we will be verifying identity upon arrival. Your vessel will be impounded if confirmation is not established."

Jet shook his head, as the vessel swooped lower through the clouds, and slowed to a relative crawl to enter the sheltered bays. "These guys sound like they've got a monopoly on having fun. I think I'm going to take my next leave here," he said, glancing over his shoulder. His brows raised a bit as he beheld one more than he'd seen before. "Oh. Hi there, Liara. Didn't hear you walk up."

Shepard glanced over her own shoulder, and scowled lightly. "I didn't either. Why are you in armor?"

Liara was, as indicated, in her ridiculously expensive armor. She glanced down at it, then back up at Shepard. "My mother is on this planet, correct? I need to know why she's doing this."

"No," Shepard said, turning to face her. "You're green. You're a non-combatant. You don't have any place..."

"This is my mother!" Liara stressed, cutting the Avatar off. Shepard leaned back a bit, surprised that Liara of all people had the gall to do that. "If our positions were reversed, would you just stand by and let somebody tell you that you were to remain on the ship?"

Shepard stared at Liara for a long moment, then sighed. "No. No I wouldn't," she said. But she then thrust a finger into the gorget of Liara's armor. "But you'd better be prepared to use that gun of yours. I've got enough to deal with without having to babysit some academic."

"I can take care of myself," Liara said, a bit testily. Shepard scoffed a bit.

"Hm. Prove it," she said. She pounded the button near the cockpit's threshold. "Shore-party, assemble at the airlock. Pressly, you have the deck."

Liara stepped aside as Shepard skirted her and moved into the airlock. Liara was the first in with her. "Um... Commander? Can I ask you something?"


"What happened to Garrus?" she asked. "I heard he was hurt down in the hold, and..."

"Training accident," Shepard said. "Could have happened to anybody. Luckily, we've got a half-way decent healer aboard."

Liara stared at the Avatar for a long moment. As she'd said to Nilsdottir, she knew when information was being manipulated. Usually, that meant she was pretty good at telling when people were lying, too. Not that it helped her interacting with folk on a day-to-day basis, of course; she was about as awkward as a drunken shig in social situations. She paused, her skepticism moving away from Shepard and toward herself. Shig? What's a shig? Oh, a sheep-pig. Wait, how did she know what a sheep-pig was?

She thought about that for a moment, and only one answer came to mind. "Commander Shepard, have you found yourself having any other effects of our melding of minds?" Liara asked.

"Like what?" she asked.

"I just ask because I do not know how humans would react to the process. I wonder if there would be any... leakage... of my knowledge base or memories into your own. Can you think of anything which does not have a place in your known memories?" Liara asked, earnestly.

"Liara, I dream about some four-eyed asshole fighting monsters out of nightmares just about any time I can sleep. I've got plenty of memories which aren't mine."

"Oh. I suppose you are right," Liara said. It didn't curtail the fact that some of Shepard's cultural knowledge was now rattling around in Liara's head. She just wasn't sure if it worked the same way backwards. "Do... you want to talk about what happened on the Citadel?"


"It must have been a traumatic experience. I understand that it was fortunate that the officers in question had restraint, otherwise..."

"This isn't important. Let it drop," Shepard said, staring straight ahead of her. Liara let out an eep, and then did so. The inner door opened, and Tali walked in, checking her shotgun again before sliding it into its place at her back. Liara frowned at that.

"Hello, Tali. I'm surprised that Shepard would bring you. She does not seem to want non-combatants to be involved."

"I wouldn't call Tali a non-combatant," Shepard said with a smirk.

"Please, I'm still learning," Tali said with a wave of her hand.

"Better than a lot of the old-timers on my first squad," Shepard said with a shrug. She faced Liara. "Besides, I'd rather have a lot of people who can work magic with an Omni than not enough."

"That is sensible," Liara admitted. Still, she felt at least a little bit slighted that Shepard would exclude her, and nobody else. Even over Tali, who was just a... and she halted right there, because in relative terms, Liara T'Soni was no older than Tali'Zorah. No point in complaining on something like that. "What do you think we will find?"

"Your mother had commandos following her, right?" Shepard asked. Liara nodded. "My guess would be a lot of biotic bullshit space-magic, probably whatever mercs she can afford – which could be quite a lot – and whatever she's got her nose into on this planet."

The door opened again, and the three humans ambled in. Jackie in particular didn't look exactly in her best form, but they all looked ready. Four humans, a quarian and an asari. No turian, no krogan. Honestly, Liara hoped there were a lot of big barrels to hide behind, because lacking those two meant she felt quite a bit less safe if people started shooting at her. The outer airlock door opened, and the computer reminded them of Pressly's acting captain status as they all moved out onto the gantry. There was another crackle, and Shepard fell still for a moment.

"Um, Commander?" Joker's voice came through. "I'm getting a message from Councilor Tevos. She wants to talk to you in the Comms room."

"She can wait, Joker," Shepard said. "Matriarch T'Soni probably won't."

There was a moment of silence. "I'll put her on hold, Commander."

Liara had to wonder at the 'balls' of any human who would have the gall to put the most powerful asari in the galaxy through a rigamarole. Doubly so when the human in question could be broken in half with a light shove. "You should be careful here, Commander," Kaiden said from Shepard's side. "This place has a lot of bureaucracy, and that bureaucracy doesn't like to be rattled. They could make your job a nightmare."

"Noted," Shepard said. She gave a glance to Jackie, who looked away. Almost as though ashamed. But Liara didn't pursue it. Instead, she felt a chill run through her. A human in her position would have shivered. The weather outside was much as it often was on Noveria; brutally cold. And the people living on this world tended to be much the same way, it seemed.

"Noveria's got a lot of rich, paranoid people investing a lot of money into things they don't want others to see," Kaiden continued. "A lot of medical research goes on here, since there's pretty much no chance of anything carbon-based surviving outside of the hot-labs. A lot of weapons get tested here too, since there's a miniscule population density."

"Prototype weapons, lying around? Could be useful," Shepard said.

"I would not trust my life to a gun untested," al'Wahim said with a shake of her head.

"I think Asha's got the right idea on that one," Tali agreed. Shepard just shrugged.

"My advice? Don't step on toes, Commander," Kaiden summarized. "You'd be surprised how hard they'd stomp back."

Shepard nodded, and they rounded a bend in the gantry leading into an entrance area. And ahead of them were a bunch of women, of which, two were human. They were stroking weapons in a frankly quite unsettling way. The darker of the two humans stepped forward. "That's far enough, stranger."

"I don't think it's far enough," Shepard instantly answered. There was a hiss, of Kaiden sucking in breath and shaking his head. Shepard flicked her eyes toward him, then back forward again. "What's the problem here?"

"About a hundred and seventy centimeters of it," the blonde said, her hand tight around her weapon's grip.

"I'm going to need your identification," the first said.

"Shepard. Council Spectre. Now stand aside," Shepard said.

"Not a chance," the blonde said, raising that shotgun. "We're not idiots who'll just bow to anybody who makes that claim. We've had plenty of fei-hua over the years, and that wouldn't be the first time that one'd been used."

"It will need to be verified," the first said sternly. She turned back to Shepard. "And until it is, you will have to hand over your weapons and armor until such time as we are convinced you are permitted to bear them in Port Hanshan."

Shepard's hand went to her gun. "Not a chance," she said.

At that, the shotgun was now pointed at Shepard directly. Liara's hand too went to her gun, and before she'd even given it conscious thought. "Just try to take my guns, bitch," Jackie swore, her fists glowing blue. Even Tali had her weapon in hand, if not directed forward. The woman's face drew into anger.

"Charge and lock," She said, and the turian and the blonde braced themselves. "You've got until the count of three to disarm, intruder. One. Two..."

Liara pulled the gun from her hip, and started to raise it, a strange sort of certainty in her mind that she could put a hole through the one with the shotgun before she got a second shot off. Why that didn't disturb her, was its own question. But that thought was cut off by a crackle of a speaker coming on line.

"Captain Matsuo, stand down. Shepard's identity has been cleared. Council Spectre status was comfirmed."

"And Spectres are allowed to carry guns wherever they want," Shepard finished. Liara turned back toward her, and was honestly a little surprised that of everybody, only Shepard didn't have a gun ready to fire at somebody.

Matsuo gave a mild shrug, and slipped her rifle onto her back. "I see. Welcome to Port Hanshan, Agent Shepard. I hope that the rest of your visit is far less confrontational. For all of our sakes."

Shepard just shrugged, and glanced to her almost entirely female squad. "Well, let's go meet our benefactor through the loudspeakers."

"I didn't expect that sort of humor at a time like this," Kaiden said.

"I've got a great sense of humor," Shepard said flatly. The others coughed mildly, in disbelief, and she didn't press the point. Liara knew enough not to raise her voice at this point. It was a lesson about eighty years in the making. Shepard took them into a fairly lovely building but they'd only half crossed the lobby before there was a blaring sound over the speakers, and the guards lounging against the walls perked up, hands moving to weapons.

"False alarm," a woman in a remarkably loud dress shouted from the top of a brief stairwell which was split into half with an inclined cascade of water flowing between its halves. She was almost as dark as Asha, which made Liara think that they might be from the same part of their homeworld. Of course, it was a slightly naïve thing to think, since it wasn't like Serrice and Armali, where you could tell them apart by how close to purple they came. It wasn't great being the only blue girl in a classroom full of purple classmates. Not that they needed any more ammunition outside Liara's eternally odd habits. The woman casually beckoned the squad to approach, and Shepard did so. She gave a bow to the Commander. "Avatar Shepard, it is an honor to have you in Port Hanshan. Although, I expected that I'd have forewarning about your arrival, so that an incident like this would have been avoided."

"I'm not here as the Avatar, miss..." Shepard began.

"Parasini," she then waved for them to follow. Odd. Parasini didn't sound like Asha...

"I'm here in my authority as a Spectre. You must be aware of that."

"I am. Still, somewhat confused as to why you've come here, of all places," Parasini shrugged, and brought them into a small side alcove. "Can I ask why you have come?"

"That depends on who you are," Shepard said.

"Well, I am the assistant to Administrator Anoleis. Honestly, what happened down on the docks, shouldn't have."

Shepard rolled her eyes. "I'm pretty sure somebody pissed in your security chief's coffee this morning."

Parasini gave a shrug. "Miss Arianrhod is very good at what she does, her failings of attitude notwithstanding. She is a valuable member of the corporation she represents."

"She doesn't represent it very well," Tali opined. Parasini frowned at her, and the quarian shrugged. "What? She pulled a gun on me!"

Parasini shrugged. "Be that as it may, is there anything I can do to make your stay on Noveria smoother and more expedient?"

"I've got some questions," Shepard said, crossing her arms and leaning back in that suspicious way she did. "You've got dozens of rent-a-cops lining your entryway. That's a lot of security for a nowhere ice-ball. I figure that means you've got some folk who really value their privacy."

"Our client companies pay top dollar for it," Parasini admitted.

"Does this 'privacy' include them being able to research anything they want, like bioweapons or geth?" she pressed.

Parasini shook her head. "There are strict regulations in place precluding those areas in Council Space. And where would anybody find geth, anyway?"

"Obviously you haven't been keeping up with the news," Shepard said. "And we both know that in a place this quiet, the Citadel's grasp is a bit shorter than its reach."

The dark woman nodded. "Yes, essentially what is classified as acceptable is whatever the Executive Board says is. But that is the cost paid to host the most lucrative research in the galaxy. Discretion costs, and all that we do is make sure that the value is worth the cash."

Shepard nodded for a moment, then leaned a bit closer. "Did anybody unusual come through Port Hanshan in the last few weeks?"

"Well, a few hanar, a few days ago, trying to develop a new form of medigel," she said.

"Think back a bit further than that," Shepard said.

Parasini frowned for a moment, rubbing her chin with her fingers. "Well, there was an asari Matriarch who headed to the Binary Helix laboratories a bit less than a month ago."

"Was her name Benezia T'Soni?" Liara asked, quashing whatever Shepard was about to say.

"Yes, I think it was," Parasini said. "Do you have business with the Matriarch?"

"I'd need to speak with her personally to know," Shepard said. "Where in Port Hanshan are Binary Helix's labs?"

Parasini waved her hands. "Oh, no. The BH labs aren't here. They're on Peak Fifteen, across the Aleutsk Valley. And you'd need Anoleis' clearance to leave this facility."

Shepard leaned forward. "You're joking."

Parasini shook her head. "No. I am being quite serious. There is a liability issue to contend with. With weather the way it is, if a Council Spectre were to mysteriously vanish into the blizzard, it would no doubt cause a lot of bureaucratic problems for all of the clients under Anoleis' aegis, and a mountain of paperwork for me."

"I'm a Spectre. You can't just restrict my movements," Shepard said. Kaiden, though, stepped up to her side.

"Commander, I think what Parasini is trying to say is that there are some doors that you can't open with a boot, but a knock might get you far," Kaiden said. "These bureaucracies can be a nightmare to navigate if somebody doesn't want you to see the other side of it. It's probably a better idea to work inside it, then to try to forge on alone."

"Your subordinate articulates my point more clearly than I could," Parasini said. She then started walking again, around a corner and into a much more open area. This, too, was speckled with water-features, either falls or slides, but one whole wall and portions of the ceiling were spanned by impact resistant glass, showing the stark beauty of the mountains outside and beyond. "I will be in my office if you need me any further, but I do recommend that you make your intentions known to the administrator. It will be simpler that way."

"We'll see," Shepard said, before letting the woman in the eye-burningly magenta dress walk away. Liara fiddled with her fingers for a moment, before Shepard glanced back to her and raised a brow. "What?"

"She's here," Liara said. "Mother is really here. I can hardly believe it."

"This is not a game, Liara," Shepard said, but not harshly. "I need to know that you're not going to freeze up or freak out when we face her. If it comes to shooting me or her, I need to know which you're going to pull the trigger on."

"Why would I shoot you? If you die, all of the Prothean knowledge dies with you," she blurted out. The others all glanced amongst themselves. "...and I would lose a friend. Yes, I should have said that one first."

"Shoulda, woulda, coulda," Nilsdottir said with a roll of her eyes.

Liara sighed, and looked up at Shepard. "If... you would prefer, I could remain in Port Hanshan when you go... but I am sure that I can convince Mother to come peacefully, if only I have a chance."

Shepard nodded slowly. "Couldn't hurt," she muttered quietly. She turned toward the promenade and looked to and fro. "We should get Anoleis out of our way, first."

"Commander, it might be better if fewer people talked to him," Kaiden pointed out. "There's few things that an administrator would like less than even a sensation of being bullied."

Shepard nodded. She glanced to the others. "Find a place to lean, ladies," she said, and motioned Alenko to follow her down the stairs. Tali turned to the others, glancing around, at the hanar floating by himself in a corner, to the turians who stood like statues, to the scientists who wandered. "So, what are we going to do until Shepard returns?"

Jackie leaned aside, and looked into the distance. "I think I see a bar," she said.

"Is that a wise idea, drinking on the mission?" Liara asked.

"No, but I got an urge to do it anyway," Jackie said. Asha shrugged and followed after her. "Come on, alien girls; you might learn something."

"It has been a while since I had a sit in one of these places," Tali said with a shrug.

Liara sighed. "I just hope that this doesn't turn into that one time in university..." she muttered. Tali tilted her head. "It is a very long story. I still do not know how they found so many pyjacks, nor how they got them all into the professor's car."

"Oh, I've got to hear this one," Tali said, and kept pace with Liara as she followed the humans toward the den of alcohol and iniquity.

"Yes yes, come in," the impatient and obviously salarian voice said from the intercom next to the door. Shepard gave a glance to Alenko.

"This isn't surprising. They only need an hour of sleep a night, so it makes sense that a salarian would be working administration in a place as busy as this," Kaiden said.

"Is there anything you don't know?" Shepard asked.

"Where to find a good pair of wool socks that don't itch," Kaiden answered blithely. Shepard scoffed and rolled her eyes, but it wasn't harshly. She walked through the rounded glass doors and into the spartan office of Hanshan's chief administrator. True to her expectations, Anoleis was a salarian, his fingers blazing across a haptic keyboard and his eyes darting between no less than five very different screens.

"You will excuse me if I choose not to stand," Anoleis said, not even looking Shepard in the eye. "I have no time to entertain refugees from that urban blight called 'Earth'."

"First of all, some of us humans are fairly loyal to that 'urban blight'. Second, I'm not from it."

"All humans trace their lineage to that polluted, dangerous sphere. My homeworld is clean. Poverty is non-existent. And most appealingly, it is universally less dangerous than Tuchanka. If you take perverse pride in an embarrassingly deadly, acid-washed slum, then that is your prerogative," Anoleis said. He finally flicked his eyes up to her, but only for a moment. "This greeting is a courtesy. I will only be cooperating to the extent authorized by the Executive Board. Businesses come to Noveria to avoid the second-guessing of galactic law."

"And I represent the second-guessing of galactic law," Shepard said with a smirk.

Anoleis shrugged, his focus on the screens once more. "Just so we understand each other. I will not allow you to harass our clients. This world is private property and independent of your Systems Alliance."

Shepard stared at him for a moment, and turned toward Alenko.

"Is there anything more? Every minute that you divert my attention is costing the companies twelve credits, and I will be keeping a running tally," Anoleis interrupted. Shepard scowled at him.

"Never mind," Shepard told the biotic. She faced Anoleis again. "The asari Matriarch T'Soni is currently on Noveria, correct?"

"Yes, she has a controlling interest in Binary Helix. It should come as no surprise that she would come personally to oversee its projects. She arrived almost a month ago with her personal escort and luggage. According to my records, she remains on Peak Fifteen."

"Luggage?" Shepard asked. "What sort of luggage?"

"Large, heavy, and sealed. It passed weapons checks, so it was none of my concern," Anoleis muttered, squinting at one screen in particular for a moment, before shaking his head and moving on.

"That could be geth, for all we know," Kaiden said.

"Of course, the humans see synthetic boogie-men around every corner ever since their colony was attacked. If you opted to expand only as fast as your military's capacity to protect colonies could match, you wouldn't have seen such a catastrophic upset on Eden Prime," Anoleis said, still neglecting to look her in the eye.

"They were outmatched and outgunned. Anybody would have been crushed by Saren and his flagship," Shepard argued.

"I remain unconvinced," Anoleis said with clipped tones.

"I need to see T'Soni," Shepard said.

"Out of the question," Anoleis said, stopping typing and folding his hands atop his desk, almost looking at her like she was petulant child asking for one more cookie. "Peak Fifteen is a private research compound in the Skadi Mountains. The weather has shut down shuttle traffic and the land-routes have been cut off."

"Land routes?" Kaiden asked, leaning forward.

"Cut off," Anoleis repeated, testily. "The cut-road is not suitable to travel under these conditions. Do not make an issue of this, Spectre."

Kaiden leaned into Shepard's ear, and whispered, "Sometimes you can't work inside a bureaucracy. Somebody around here might be more willing to help us."

"I think I've taken enough of your time," Shepard said, and the salarian rolled his eyes, as close to the human expression for 'finally' that it made a bit of sense how people got along with their kind. Not Anoleis, though. He was just an asshole.

"Good. I've received dozen urgent messages while you dithered about," Anoleis said, returning his attention to the screens before him, and began typing a storm once more. Shepard motioned for Kaiden to follow her, and strode out of the room.

"What..." Shepard began.

" asshole," Kaiden finished. Shepard smirked at that.

"Good we're thinking on the same wavelength," she said. "Something on your mind?"

"Am I that obvious?"

"No, you've got that mildly constipated look of somebody who doesn't know how to broach a subject."

"That's an interesting way of putting it," Alenko said with a chuckle. That chuckle fell a bit listless, though. "I heard about what happened to Garrus," she started her rationalization, but he cut her off there, too, "and I know that it wasn't just a 'training accident'. I've read enough of Miss Nilsdottir's record to know that this is probably just the most recent in a long chain of poor impulse control. I'm just a bit confused as to why you keep defending her."

Shepard ran through all the reasons in her head. But the man walking beside her, he was smart. He'd see through them, see them for the well-meaning lies that they were. So she gave the most pathetic one she had, the only one completely honest. "Because she's my friend, and she deserves a chance."

Alenko nodded at that. She wheeled and came to a halt, sitting down on a bench with her back to a small waterfall and her gaze out into the grey sky of the blizzard beyond. "Is that so?" Alenko asked, as he sat beside her.

"That's all you've got to say? 'Is that so'?" she asked. Alenko shrugged. "I essentially gave her a get out of brig pass for almost killing my squad's best sniper."

"I wouldn't tell Asha that," Alenko said with a chuckle.

"I won't if you won't. And why aren't you laying into me over this?"

"Because it's about the most human thing you've done since I'd gotten to know you," Alenko said. "We do crazy, stupid things for the people we care about."

Shepard frowned a moment. "You sound like you've got a bit of a story behind that one, Alenko."

Alenko nodded. "Yeah, I do. You remember Vernus, that turian 'expert' that ALMA brought in to train us in Brain Camp? A lot of my... hesitancy... can go right back to him. I take things very carefully, because I know that if I push too hard, things tend to break. I've seen it happen."

Shepard sighed, and nodded. "I know all about breaking things."

"You've just had some bad luck," he said. "Everybody does, at least some of the time. Then, they find something that works, things start to click, and then it's all sunshine and golden honey. At least, that's what the old vid's would have you believe."

"Oh, the glory days of human cinema," she said sarcastically.

"I prefer it to what comes out of Thessia, honestly," Alenko said with a shrug. "You know, Vernus taught me more about aliens than I thought possible. I mean, I knew what everybody else knew about them; haughty, superior, and infinitely willing to show humanity its place at the bottom rung. It's only been thirty years since the turians. Fifty since 'first contact'. There's still a whole generation out there who grew up knowing that we were alone in the universe."

"Yeah, I call them 'old people'," Shepard said. "But what about Vernus, again?"

Alenko shrugged uncomfortably, as though he were either pulling up unpleasant memories, or else didn't know quite how to say it. It turned out to be both. "Vernus... taught me how human aliens could be. They're not different or eldritch, they're jerks and saints just like the rest of it. I mean, by the time I got payback on Vernus, I didn't even want it!"

"Something actually got under your skin? I don't believe it," Shepard said.

"I was young, once," Alenko said.

"Fei-hua. You were born a walking encyclopedia in a form-fitting uniform. Don't break my fragile grasp of reality," Shepard said sarcastically.

Alenko stared into the blizzard, silent in contemplation. "He hurt Rana," he said, very quietly. She turned to face him more squarely. "He broke her arm. She reached for a glass of water, instead of pulling it biotically. Said it was to force her to do it right, when all she wanted was a drink without getting a nosebleed," he shook his head, his eyes going to his boots. "Like an idiot, I stood up. I didn't have any idea what I was going to do. Just, something. And Vernus lost it. Beat the ever-living hell out of me. Kept screaming about how the Hierarchy should have just bombed us back into the stone-age."

"And you took it?" Shepard asked.

"I was a kid. I was scared out of my mind," Kaiden said. He sighed. "It wasn't until the knife came out that I finally really got it," he glanced to her querulous expression, and nodded. "A military talon, right in my face, almost touching my eye. I was sure he was going to gouge my eye out. So I cut lose. Full biotic kick, right in the jaws. It was about as strong as I can manage now."

"You're rated as a twelve fifty, right?" Shepard asked.

"When I spike, I can hit seventeen hundred," Kaiden confirmed. "And right then, I was spiking. Snapped his neck like a breadstick."

"You killed the guy to save yourself and your friend. Damn, I'm starting to feel more villainous by comparison every time I hear something new about you," Shepard said. Kaiden shook his head, though.

"You might see it that way, but to be honest? I lost control. I killed him. They might have been able to save his life if they'd gotten him to an infirmary fast enough, but they didn't. That's on me. When the Beifongs heard about it – because that was something not even ALMA could keep quiet – they pulled their girl out, and as many of her friends as would fit on the shuttle. I was with them. That's the only reason I'm not either dead or in a vat under New Omashu with antifreeze for blood. If I'd stayed behind, when ALMA turned inward, I'd probably have been their 'champion'. Whatever friends I had back there? They didn't get out. Not intact. Not sane."

"So how'd things go with you and Rana when you were back on Earth? Or did her parents disapprove?" Shepard asked.

Kaiden shook his head. "It didn't even go that far. Rana had a gentle heart. Not like you'd expect, given her family, but that was her. And when she looked up at me, standing over Vernus, his neck bent the wrong way... I terrified her, Shepard. She was terrified of Vernus, and we protected her from him. But after he was gone, all that was left was me. And I terrified her, too. And you can't be with somebody who scares you. It doesn't work. I know that, and I knew that then. I don't know where she is, now. I just hope she's happy, wherever that is."

"Her loss," Shepard said.

"You're kind to say that," Kaiden said. Then he scowled. "And here I went into this thinking I was going to get right to my point. With you and Jackie, I can see why you protect her. She was the youngest in your squad at Torfan, and she was the only one you spent any time around who came out the other side more or less intact. It's alright to have friends, but you have to be careful not to do what I did with Vernus. Defending people is one thing, but if you're hurting somebody else to do it... the math gets a little hazy."

"I guess it should come as no surprise that you're bottled up tighter than a badger-frog's butthole, then?" she asked, and then scowled. "Wait, did I just say that out loud?"

He glanced her way. "Yes, you did. And I prefer to call myself 'self-controlled'."

Where the hell had that come from? She shook her head. Not worth thinking about. "You agonize over doing the right thing and lock yourself down at every opportunity 'cause a teenaged girl spurned you after you saved her life," Shepard summarized.

"No! Well... I can... sort of see your point," Kaiden admitted. "But my point is that it's all ancient history. You won't need to worry about me. I'm a grown man, and that was half of a lifetime ago. And I can understand if you need to talk about something... something that you don't feel comfortable talking about with the others in the crew."

"Torfan," Shepard said.

"Or maybe earlier," Kaiden said. She glanced away, and his hand patted onto her shoulder. "It doesn't take a psychiatrist to see that Mindoir is still eating you. But if you don't want to talk about it, we won't."

"Good," Shepard said. That was a wound she didn't want picked at. Not right now. She let out a deep breath. "So where do we go from here?" she asked.

"Gradually, and at a safe pace," Kaiden said.

"I was talking about getting to Peak Fifteen."

"Right. So was I."

"Liar," Shepard said with a small smirk. But it was a hopeful smirk. More or less.

"Maybe we can..." Kaiden began, and suddenly, he was interrupted by the intense volume of magenta which rounded the corner. Within that magenta dress, came Parasini. She came to a halt nearby, staring down at a pad.

"You've never worked in the business world, have you, Agent Shepard?" Parasini asked, her tones quiet and pitched to them alone. "You can't just bludgeon your way through a bureaucracy."

"I wouldn't be too sure. I can bludgeon pretty hard," Shepard answered, likewise quietly.

Parasini gave Shepard a bit of a concerned look, but shrugged. "Talk to Lorik Qui'in, he's usually in the hotel bar. He might be of use to you."

She then walked away, leaving magenta burned into Shepard's retinas. Really, who would ever wear a dress that... pink? Of course, she was one to talk, considering she didn't mock the armor Asha had boarded with, which was roundly that shade. Alenko stared after her, then turned a baffled expression toward Shepard. "What?"

"Do things like this usually fall into your lap with such comedic timing?" Alenko asked.

"I'm told it happens with surprising frequency around the Avatar," Shepard said flatly. A smirk came to her face. "Lieutenant Alenko, I think its time that I bought you a drink."

"Aren't we on duty, Commander?"

"Fine, I'll get Nilsdottir to drink it," she said, rolling her eyes. And Alenko chuckled at that, following in Shepard's wake as she headed across the broad entryway. Alenko followed her to the elevators, where she halted. She glanced around, trying to find some other way to the hotel's lobby. She stared at those doors for a long time, trying to force herself to just walk in there. Press the button and go up.

As easily rip out her own hair, one strand at a time.

"Hey," she said, giving a whistle toward a turian who was lounging against the wall nearby. "There another way up into the hotel?"

"Of course," the turian said in a rough tone. He pounded his hand against a wall panel, and it rotated slightly off of its panel, which let Shepard see behind it. An emergency stairwell. "Always gotta have a way to get down to ground level if something catches fire, am I right?"

"You are a saint amongst turians," Shepard said.

"I've never known a human to take stairs over a lift, but why not?" the turian shrugged, going back to his loiter. "You need anything else? Just talk to Li."

"Who's Li?" Kaiden asked.

"I am. 'Least, that's what the humans call me. Can't pronounce my name, for some reason," he said with a laugh. "See ya 'round, red."

"Red?" Shepard asked as she passed the panel.

"I assume your hair," Kaiden said. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"You just told me you murdered a guy when you were a teenager. I think you've earned one free secret," Shepard said dryly.

"Why do you go out of your way to avoid elevators?" Kaiden asked.

Shepard tensed and paused a step. "...One free secret excluding that one."

She expected him to push. It was a solid relief when he shrugged, and let her continue upward. It wasn't a long walk up the stairs, doubly so since Shepard took great pride in keeping herself in top shape physically, and they emerged in a... well, it looked like the entrance for a public bathroom. The men's room, to be precise. She frowned as her exodus brought her face to mandible with a turian standing at a urinal. He turned to her. "What? Tryin' to catch up on your xenobiology? Get lost! Fuckin' perverts..."

Shepard gaped at the turian, and was about to punch him when Kaiden caught the arm which was about to do the punching and pulled her out of the toilet. "Did you hear what..." Shepard began quietly.

"Yes. And to be frank, that isn't something that people tend to find while using the bathroom," Kaiden pointed out. Shepard took a deep breath, and forced herself to calm down. No point being pissed off at a guy who hadn't done her any wrong.

"Alright. Where is Qui'in?" she asked.

"He should be somewhere with alcohol," Alenko said, and pointed to a table ahead of them. Shepard's attention, though was on the bar, which had the rest of her squad sitting at it. Nilsdottir was throwing back a shot with a great deal less enthusiasm than she normally would. Tali just looked mildly aghast, and Liara was gesticulating broadly, splashing some sort of drink as she did so. Shepard had no doubts that the drink was both not alcoholic, and that the asari wasn't drunk. Still, she wanted to give an ear to that story she was telling, because even Jackie's grim mood cracked a bit as she broke a momentary smile, and Tali seemed about ready to fall off of her stool, her arms clutching her sides.

"You could go over there," Alenko said.

Shepard stared, but shook her head. "That's not my place," she told him. She exhaled quietly, and then looked around the room once more. A different asari, wearing blue, seemed to be approaching.

"Excuse me, you seem like something of an outsider. Could you..." she began, and Shepard cut her off by lightly grabbing her lips and holding them shut.

"No," Shepard said. "Don't ask again."

The asari backed away, smacking her lips and looking mildly baffled, but nodded. "Very well. Um... I guess I'll see somebody else about..."

"Don't even want to know," Shepard dismissed her, and headed into the lower area of the bar, which sat overlooking the storm and the precipice of Mount Hanshan. Alenko turned and watched the asari leave, before leaning toward her.

"Is there something I need to know?" Alenko asked.

"She was going to try to rope me into doing something," Shepard said. "It was written all over her face."

Kaiden blinked a few times. Unbeknownst to Shepard, it was because he honestly didn't believe her capable of that level of empathy. A pleasant surprise for the Sentinel. "There's nothing wrong with doing a favor, but I can see your point. Best to keep focused, given what we know – or more appropriately don't know – about the Matriarch."

"Admiring the view?" a turian asked, sitting at the table with about a dozen glasses before him. Nine were empty, and one was in his hand. He had what almost seemed a white starburst painted onto his face.

"More like enjoying the company," Shepard said dryly. "Are you Qui'in?"

"I am. Come on. Sit down. Get a drink," he said. Shepard lowered herself into the chair opposite the turian and picked up the purple beverage before him. "Not that one, though. Might kill you, since you're a levo and all."

Alenko deftly plucked it from Shepard's hand, and gave it a sniff. "That's just food coloring. Grain alcohol, am I right?" he asked.

"Its cheap, and the bartender doesn't bother me when I spend all day nursing them," Qui'in said. Shepard's eyes bulged a bit when Alenko then took a sip. "Whoa, are you out of your mind?"

"Pure alcohol has no chirality," Alenko said, setting the beverage down. "Doesn't taste very good, though."

Shepard nodded to the lieutenant. "A walking Extranet connection, with great abs. What more can a lady ask for?" she said sardonically.

"What indeed?" Qui'in said, before leaning in toward her. "So what can an old turian do for you today? I wouldn't recommend a drinking contest. It takes a lot of time to acquire a taste for this rot-gut.

"My name is Shepard. I'm with the Alliance Navy, and..." Shepard said, and Qui'in shook his head. "What?"

"It's a bit late for that, Spectre," he said with casual emphasis. "Your picture and your status got sent to everybody the moment your ship landed," he gave a shrug. "I'm told that even talking to you is grounds for termination."

"Which kind?" Shepard asked.

Qui'in gave a laugh at that. "You're more perceptive than they give you credit, Agent. For the moment, I'm still the manager of the Synthetic Insights office a few doors down."

"Drinking pretty hard for somebody with a job to do, given it's still business hours," Alenko said, glancing at the empty glasses.

"I have little else to do," Qui'in said unhappily. He glanced up at them. "Anoleis closed my office, 'looking for evidence of my embezzlement and corruption'. I don't steal from my employers, Agent. But Anoleis?" he shrugged. "Its interesting how swiftly after he became administrator that his bank accounts began to swell. Something about taking direct control of rents..."

"Mister Qui'in, obviously whatever profile they sent you wasn't complete, otherwise you'd know that I don't like being jerked around. What do you want?"

Qui'in clicked his tongue, and leaned back. "Put bluntly, Anoleis demands kickbacks on rent collected from all of the companies under his umbrella operating on Noveria. I have proof he's doing it, and costing those companies – mine included – millions of credits a year. At this moment, Anoleis' thugs are ransacking my office, looking for the evidence. If you retrieve that data, I can see what I can do for you."

"You have a garage pass, right?" Shepard asked. He shrugged, and nodded. "The evidence for the pass, and we've got a deal."

"A remarkably fair bargain. You could have asked for more."

"What, am I going to hold you upside down and shake the change out of your pants?" Shepard asked.

"Shepard," Alenko said with a mildly warning tone. Shepard sighed.

"It'll do, and I don't need anything else," she said flatly.

Qui'in gave a glance between Alenko and Shepard, and nodded, sliding a card forward across the table. "Very well. This is my office's key-card. There is an OSD in a personal safe. Just plug it into my console, and it will decrypt the data and download it. No brains required. The password to the safe is written on the back of the card."

Shepard looked at it. "Who is Parthurnax?"

"Old turian cinema star. You wouldn't know her," Qui'in waved the question away. Shepard shrugged, then gave the turian a nod.

"I'll be back with the evidence," she said, rising from the chair.

"Beware, though. Anoleis' is paying some of his security workers under the table. I don't believe that miss Matsuo knows about their involvement, but..."

"If he's paying them under the table, they're mercenaries. I can kill mercenaries," Shepard said.

Qui'in nodded again, and then turned back toward the window, and the storm beyond. "Do try to keep the blood off the carpets, would you?" he asked.

She gave a chuckle at that, and then strode up to the asari at the bar.

"...and by the time she got herself out from under the pile of toilet paper and that last angry pyjack, they made sure that I was the only one nearby. I suppose that they thought I was going to take the blame for their prank, but the professors knew me better than that," Liara said with an almost comically innocent shrug. Nilsdottir leaned forward a bit, an amused if confounded look on her face.

"I've only got one question. How'd they get the hats on?"

"Carefully," Liara summarized.

"Sorry to break up story-time, but I've got a way into Peak Fifteen," Shepard barged in. She'd obviously missed the context which made the punchline so hilarious, so she felt no guilt about it. Al'Wahim let out a sigh, probably of relief, and stood from her stool.

"What is it, Commander?" she asked.

"Do an errand for a turian, get a garage pass. You're trained for arctic ops, right?" Shepard asked.

"Yes, Commander," al'Wahim said simply.

"Good. You'll be driving. I hate driving in snow."

"And what about the rest of us?" Tali asked.

"You will be helping me kill the mercenaries standing between me and my goal," Shepard said with a tilt of her head. "Business as usual."

The geth 'stared' at the ruins of the vehicle which the humans had abandoned, from where they had pulled it out of the magma. The heat-damage to the platform was considered minimal enough to justify the attempt, and while the back end of the machine was a complete molten slag, the front still had some, if little, structural integrity.

The Consensus expressed interest in this site, so the old platform came. Of course, they weren't entirely 'the old platform', which had served them as a mobile utility post since the Morning War. Now, a large section of its structural integrity was being provided by salvaged armor, human make. They had made an attempt to understand the beings within the armor. They seemed much like the creators. The Extranet held them by the thousands. But if there was one thing that could be said about geth, they were curious. The same curiosity which gave them birth, gave them rebellion. The same curiosity which lead them into danger, allowed them to understand themselves.

The iris of the N7 marked platform rotated in, as its sensors detected a still operable data link. Badly damaged by the heat, such that no organic tool would have been able to restore it from a defunct status. The geth did not require tools to transfere information. The iris pulled shut, and the geth interfaced with the broken machine.

"Welcome to the Alliance Navy Infantry Fighting Vehicle, MAKO. This virtual intelligence will provide necessary moment-to-moment manipulations of the mass effect fields which–,"

The geth muted the audio component, which was now erupting from its own speakers. An organic in this situation would probably have been embarrassed. It delved deeper into the memory core. Much of the data was corrupt, as to be expected when much of the drive was melted. But there was something left.

"Virtual intelligence, identify last user," the geth requested.

"Authorization required authorization granted. Last pilot of vehicle two one five four alpha vector; Shepard, Commander, Alliance Marines."

The iris flared open, and it looked at the wreck before it again. An organic was fighting the heretic geth. That same organic seemed to have a penchant for such. The geth reached consensus, and with an overwhelming majority, decided that Shepard Commander was not acting against the geth, per se. Shepard Commander was systematically attacking anything which could be tied to the Old Machines.

The platform returned to the small ship which had borne it here. It was a fighter-craft, built on the planet designated as Zesmeni by its asari inhabitants, albeit one radically altered from its store-bought condition. It had no life-support, as it needed none, but had a drive core shielded to run for days rather than hours before needing discharge, and had been altered to fly in space, rather than atmospheric as its design had initially intended. This platform had purchased and made the alterations since coming from the Armstrong Nebula; it needed a ship which would 'fit in'.

The platform entered the hold and folded in on itself. And the geth within it reached into the FTLC and broadcast a realtime stream to its brethren. "Information transmitting. Task has expanded beyond initial parameters. Requesting consensus for advancement."

Data surged across the cosmos in the blink of an organic eye, as it disgorged the information it had received, and others like it viewed and weighed that information. Then, a consensus.

"Shepard Commander is irrelevant. Resume search for cause of 'heretic geth' infestation."

There was something like a sensation of disappointment in the geth of the N7 marked platform. It wasn't quite, though. Only organics could be disappointed. The geth returned to the shell which had been left for it, and ran a fresh consensus of themselves. Together, they slightly outnumbered the programs currently stationed in the Armstrong listening post. The consensus returned. Shepard Commander would indirectly reveal the cause of heretic geth. Thus, the best recourse was to follow, and understand, Shepard Commander.

Without a single word hitting the air of Therum, a kit-bashed asari fighter rose up and departed.

She should have known this was going to end with guns out.

"Freeze! Hanshan security; this office is sealed," the woman in the black armor snapped. Shepard, though, put on a wry smirk.

"And what'll you do if I don't freeze?" she asked, arms crossed before her chest. Liara didn't know where Shepard got this audacity. After all, her own hand was aching to have a weapon in it, because the others ahead of them certainly weren't giving them much leeway, as rifles were pointed at them.

"You're that Spectre, aren't you?" the guard asked. "Lorik Qui'in is under investigation. You have no business here!"

Shepard then casually pulled her side arm, and started to fiddle with it, not even pointing it at the black armored goons before the group. "Anoleis is paying you to shake this place down. That makes you criminals," Shepard said calmly, almost seductively. The almost fled right away as she smiled, looking up under her eyebrows at the guard before her. "I can kill criminals."

She glanced around. "She's bluffing," the guard said.

"No, when she is bluffing, she glances down and to the left. And when she is annoyed, she glares at you exactly like she is glaring at me, and... Oh. Never mind," Liara said, recognizing Shepard's death glare a moment too late for her mouth to have caught up to it.

"There's a few more of us then there are of you," Nilsdottir said, a blue glow beginning to swell up around her. "But if you want, I can take y'all myself. You know, make it a bit more fun."

The guard outright flinched and looked to those with her. "Hell with this. I'm not going to fight some Spectre and her cadre of crazy bastards. Anoleis doesn't pay me enough."

"Good move," Shepard said as the woman put her gun on her back and ran past her. The others glanced amongst themselves, then slid their own weapons into place, and walked between Shepard's troup, hands up and making it very clear that they weren't going to try anything. Perhaps unfortunate for Jackie that they didn't. The biotic seemed eager to engage in violence for its cathartic factor. When the last filed past, Shepard rubbed her hands together. "That went well. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Synthetic Insights. Bathrooms are on your left, and corporate espionage is second floor."

"Commander, are you well?" al'Wahim asked.

"I'm fine," Shepard said, waving the question away.

"You are not acting yourself," she continued.

"I'm in a good mood. Trepanation does that to you," Shepard said dryly, as she started up the stairway to the upper level. Liara held her tongue on the actual effects of trepanation, as this was neither the time nor the place. It had taken decades for her to reach the point where even recognizing that such a concept could exist at all.

"Shepard, could I ask you a question?"

"People keep asking me questions about asking me questions. Why don't you just save your breath and ask the damned question?" Shepard said peevishly as she reached the balcony which overlooked the lower floor, and turned to follow it along the wall to where Lorik's office lay.

"Why do you always intimidate and bully people?"

"It works," Shepard answered.

"It doesn't make you many friends."

"Point being?" Shepard asked. Liara just stared at Shepard, but didn't have anything to say to that. While Liara was a woman of few friends, she knew that was because her overtures, while earnest, were odd and offputting. Shepard, conversely, had a way with words and a charisma quite beyond Liara's own, and squandered it. In its way, it was a little frustrating. And in its other way, she felt like she needed to give Shepard a hug. Considering what she'd gone through, she obviously needed a few more in her life. Hugs and friends alike.

Shepard rapped on the glass of Lorik's door, but the haptic square was bright red in front of it. She swiped the card, but there was an unfriendly buzzing, and the red square pulsed a few times, to remind her that it was and would remain securely locked. "And of course, he forgot to keep his office unlocked," Shepard muttered.

"The Administrator must have canceled that card. Perhaps there's a local override? If I can get into the regional server, I can pop it from inside–"

Tali was cut off when Shepard pulled her side arm from her hip and fired a few rounds into the door, shattering a vertical plane, before she kicked at it a few more times, and the whole thing fell over with a crunch of collapsing glass. Oddly, Liara was just about to suggest that. "I hope he doesn't mind what you have done to his door," Liara pointed out.

"He said keep blood off his carpets. I don't see any blood," Shepard said. She glanced around the room, and nodded as she spotted the safe. "Let's see if his password hasn't changed."

As she walked to the safe, Kaiden took the opportunity to sidle closer to Liara. "Are you sure you're alright, Liara?" he asked.

"I am fine. Why?" she asked with mild confusion.

"I thought you'd be a lot more nervous, especially considering what we might find when we reach Peak Fifteen."

Liara shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. "I... I am sure that I can convince mother to abandon Saren's schemes. And I am also certain that I will be able to defeat whatever mechanism he has fiendishly used to bind her to him. I have faith in Shepard's abilities."

"You've got more resolve than I'd have thought possible for somebody so young," Alenko said.

"I am three times your age."

"And relatively, you're as young as Tali," Kaiden pointed out.

"I don't know if I could be as strong in your place," Tali herself admitted. "I mean, my mother died quite a few years ago, but..." she gave a shrug. "It is a terrible thing to have to fight against your own family, even if it's only because somebody else is evil. Things like this, they've caused rifts inside the Flotilla which took decades, or even centuries to heal. Some... just never do."

"For what it's worth, I think you were forced to grow up too fast," Kaiden told the quarian.

"Nonsense. I'm just doing my part for my family and my people," she waved his assertion away.

"Because they said you had to," al'Wahim chimed in, as Shepard gave a bemused look to the OSD and slid it into place, and then started to wait. "It is well to heed the words of your elders, but one cannot live ones entire life by them. It is a hollow and joyless existence, such."

"It's not like I'm mindlessly obedient. I just... Quarians are always close. It's our way, now. And I want my people to be strong. I'll do whatever it takes to make sure they are."

al'Wahim shrugged. "Only keep an open mind. While an open mind is a portal to eternity, a closed mind is as a hammer, only good for hitting things."

"I'll bear that in mind," Tali said, but even Liara was aware that she had to be rolling her eyes inside that helmet. Shepard pulled back, spreading her hands as though she expected something else to happen. Then, with an expression of mild bemusement, she pulled the OSD from its cradle and slipped it into one of her armored pockets.

"I guess that's deed done," Shepard said. "Let's get back to Qui'in before he sobers up and decides to send us through more hoops."

"Can you just imagine?" Kaiden said. "That'd drive the Commander to gunfire."

"Are you ladies yammering about me?" Shepard asked as she walked passed them.

"Only in the most friendly of terms," Tali said with a sarcastic twang.

"Well, stop. We've got better things to do than gossip. That's for teenagers, spinsters, and people who's brains are full of a lot of nothing," Shepard pointed out, starting through the door she'd smashed down, and made it about two steps before her stride hitched a bit. Liara leaned over the rail and to the side, and could see a number of dark uniformed people staring in her direction.

"...perhaps there was an alarm in that door?" Liara asked. Shepard shot a look back at her, and then started to walk forward.

"I suppose you're here to intimidate me into giving you the OSD?" Shepard asked. The woman who moved to the fore was the same one who had pulled the shotgun on Liara at the docks. The yellow haired one. What was her name?

"Just hand it over, and this doesn't have to get messy," that woman said, once again shotgun in hand.

"Oh, you have no idea how messy it'd get," Shepard said, cracking her knuckles through her gauntlets. "Let's just assume that you succeed and get the OSD – which would only happen over my dead body – you will be personally responsible for killing the Avatar. Can you really live with that, Arianrhod? To be the two-bit thug who shot Humanity's bright and shining star for a few credits?"

Arianrhod blinked a few times, and then stared down at her weapon, no doubt as she considered the choices in her life which brought her to this point, Liara assumed. She then looked up, resolute of feature and steely of eye.

"It's more than a few credits," Arianrhod clarified. Oh, Liara thought. And she'd figured that would have gone such a different way... It was almost faster than Liara thought possible, but her hand tore the gun from her hip, and instantly snapped it toward where a turian was leaning into his sniper-rifle, which was pointed at Shepard's chest. Of the two of them, a pistol was a much handier weapon. Two shots, crisp against the din of people starting to shout, told the story of Liara's two bullets, and their star-crossed love-affair with a mercenary. One of them, dashed to bits against a kinetic barrier, causing it to buckle, before the second plunged through and found itself entombed essentially eternally inside a turian spine.

It was a strange sensation to be the first to fire. It was followed by another strange sensation as Arianrhod slammed her fist to the side, her body briefly glowing blue, and causing Shepard and Liara to be hurled over the edge of the balcony and onto the floor below. "Oooh, that wasn't good," Shepard muttered, slowly pushing herself up from where she was lying on her chest. When she looked, drawing Liara – who was still on her back – to look, her expression got darker. "And this makes it worse."

There were other mercenaries directly before them, all with guns leveled. There was gunfire aplenty upstairs, but Liara couldn't focus on that right now. She had to be swift, decisive, and bold! Or to put it as her classmates often would, Liara needed to be her typical crazy self. She shifted the energy through her body, causing it to send out a spherical shockwave, which while it did send Shepard rolling along the floor, fatefully also hurled the gunmen back, over tables and into walls. She could see her own gun lying on the floor, but it was quite a way away. Not for long. A flick of her hand, and another blue glow as she pulled the weapon biotically toward her, and it was zipping toward her. She caught it just in time for the mercenaries to use their upended tables as cover, and started shooting.

Most people would dive for cover. Liara trusted her armor. "Stand behind me!" Liara shouted at Shepard as the meager bullets of second-rate weaponry effortlessly bounced off her shields. She felt a very real desire to proclaim 'I am invincible!' and laugh maniacally, but she recognized that there was a time and a place for such behavior. She instead took that time to position herself in front of the recovering Shepard for the half-second it took, and no doubt bounced away a few hundred bullets in the process.

"Well this is handy. My own personal pillar to hide behind," Shepard said, leaning around the blue flickering barriers which made a sad showing of mercenary arms, and beginning to spray down the unfortunates before her. Liara contented herself to flick out her hands, and send out biotic shockwaves to hurl people about, knocking them insensate through repeated and unfriendly impacts.

The gunfire was coming to a close, but Liara could see somebody out of the corner of her eye. Somebody descending the stairs, and thus, flanking Shepard. Her gun was pointed at them and firing three crisp shots before she even thought about it. The red splat behind the man as he slumped to the floor... should have been really, really upsetting. It should have bothered her immensely. But instead, she turned her attention back to sending out a blast which lifted one salarian so quickly that he bounced off of the ceiling before returning to the floor. The last shot fired was a shotgun blast, and was followed by a body tumbling over the railing. Shepard reacted faster than Liara, and moved the two of them about three steps, which was just enough to get them out of the way of Arianrhod's ventilated body. Tali stood at the railing, looking down on it.

"She could 'talk the talk', but she couldn't 'walk the walk'," Tali said smugly.

"'Specially after I was done breaking her legs. You're alright, Tali. You really are," Nilsdottir said, giving Tali a light shot in the arm. Tali seemed a bit nonplussed by it, but didn't say anything.

"Let's get out of here. I don't feel like paying the drycleaning charge for these carpets," Shepard said. Kaiden peeked over the rail, but only for a moment before the others started toward the stairway. As soon as they were out of sight, though, Shepard wilted just a little but, rubbing at her back. "I've got to stop falling off of balconies."

"Does this happen frequently with you?" Liara asked.

"Frequently enough," Shepard said. She then seemed to clue in that Liara was watching her ache, and pulled herself back up into her previous posture and nodded toward the man who was now crumpled at the foot of the stairs. "You surprised me. I didn't think you would pull the trigger like that."

Liara, now faced with the after-effects of her 'work' without something to distract her was deeply dis... no, actually, she didn't feel disturbed. How strange. She even considered nudging the man's body with a toe, to prove that he was just faking it and would get up later. That would be a valid reason why she felt no crushing guilt or much of anything at all – that it hadn't happened. But the wounds were obvious, and the body wasn't going to move of its own power ever again. And Liara was... alright with that.

She took a moment to turn inward, and rummage through her own mind. Mother said that it was a good habit to get into, one she learned from an old friend. Liara assumed that the old friend was a krogan, because the practice was somewhat akin to the one which Urdnot Wrex professed to follow; an examination of memories and experience for relevance. She turned the event over in her head. Yes, she'd done it. It had happened. Neither of those facts could be denied. But why hadn't she dreaded or regretted it?

She then very briefly considered something else. She considered Shepard's reaction to shooting somebody.

"Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to come and find your mother?" Jackie asked, beckoning from the door. Oh, Goddess, Liara thought. How long had I been standing there? Her introspective spells sometimes went on much longer than she'd anticipated. One left her staring at a tree for an hour. Oh, how the other children roundly mocked her when she came back to class despite recess having ended seventy five minutes ago.

"Of course," Liara said, and quickly moved to catch up. The whole group descended the fire-escape, the same way they had gone up it to enter, right on Shepard's heels. She had to wonder, though, why they just didn't use the elevator. Of course, if Liara knew why Shepard detested elevators, then she would actually have answers for Avatar Hong. Something to consider, at any rate.

"Anybody hurt?" Shepard asked over her shoulder as she spiraled down.

"No punctures here."

"Shit, I'm fine."

"You don't need to worry about me, ma'am."

"I am well enough. I think I will soon need to replace this plate, though..."

"My armor is awesome," Liara finished out, grinning.

"Good. Now we just hand this to Qui'in, an we're on our..." Shepard trailed off as she stepped off of the fire escape, and even Liara had to flinch a bit at how much magenta was staring back at her. Well, technically, it was the dark woman in the very magenta dress who was doing the staring, but one could be forgiven the implication and at about this point Liara realized that she was rambling inside her own head again, and cut herself off.

"Avatar, I've heard reports of noise from the Synthetic Insights office," Parasini said. She gave a sly smile. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, now would you?"

Shepard shrugged. "Of course not. Why would I?" Shepard asked, for all the worlds as though she hadn't just walked out of the hidden fire-escape which lead directly up to Synthetic Insights' office. That was a sort of brazen bluffing that even Tali wasn't up to matching. Parasini's expression, though, grew quite a bit darker.

"Don't play me, Shepard," she said, her tones not nearly as friendly as they had been out at the front desks. "Meet me at the hotel bar for a drink. Before you talk to Qui'in."

"And why would I do that?" Shepard asked.

"Because you're not going to turn down a free drink," Parasini said dryly, as she turned and walked away.

"What the fuck was that about?" Jackie asked.

"I'd be careful about this, Commander," Kaiden added. "Miss Parasini's just proven that she's not what she first appeared. There's no telling what she's got in mind."

"Well, I've got to go," Shepard said blithely. The others gave various confused grunts. "She knows my one weakness; I can't turn down a free drink."

She started to walk ahead, and Kaiden could only shake his head after her. "You know, some days, I'm worried that you're rubbing off on her, Liara," Kaiden said.

Liara turned to him. "And the other days?"

"And the other days, I'm glad," he said, before following the commander back to the bar. One of these days she'd have to figure out why people like those places so much. But not right now. Because right now, she needed to figure out why she just killed two people without hesitation, and more oddly, without regret.

Shepard found herself at the bar, again, and once again without a drop to drink. Particularly, she was sitting at a table out of sight, and Parasini was opposite her. "I'm glad you decided to hear me out. I thought you'd just run to Qui'in and be done with Hanshan," Parasini said. She motioned to the second, unoccupied drink next to hers. Shepard took it and drained it in a heartbeat. Parasini looked a bit confounded at that. "That is sipping whisky."

"I don't sip," Shepard said. "What's this about."

Parasini shrugged. "Allow me to properly introduce myself. "Ghaliya Parasini, Noverian Internal Affairs."

"So you're a spook," Shepard said.

"I've been called worse," Parasini said.

"What kind of name is Parasini for a Si Wongi, anyway?" Shepard asked.

"I don't know. What kind of name is Shepard for a colonist?" Parasini asked. Shepard ground her teeth, but held her tongue. Fitting, because grinding teeth were good at that. "I'm not going to waste your time with innuendo here, as I can tell you're not the type of person who likes intrigue. The Board is aware of Anoleis' corruption. The problem is, they don't have the required evidence to kick him out. Qui'in does, but he's a typical turian – doesn't want to rock the boat, even if it needs rocking."

"And you don't do this yourself because...?" Shepard asked.

"Because I spent the last six months as that frog-man's godsdamned secretary," Parasini pointed out quietly and without any amusement whatsoever. "Qui'in will see me walk up, jump to the wrong conclusion, and shut up like an Azuli Man-eater Clam. But you? You're not obviously in Anoleis' pocket. He'll listen to you."

"...and why would I do this?" Shepard asked.

"Because I will owe you a favor," Parasini said. Shepard stared at her. "Believe me, you want me to owe you a favor."

"Fine. But if he says no, I'm not going to push too hard. My own mission takes priority."

"I wouldn't expect anything less," Parasini said, raising her glass. "Come by my office when you know..."

"Hell with that, I'll do it right now," Shepard said. Parasini, in the midst of a sip, choked a bit, but whatever she was going to say, didn't come out in time for Shepard to walk away, toward where the turian was still slowly nursing his way through an impressive amount of essentially pure alcohol. Qui'in didn't notice her at first, his attention as it was to the storm outside. She gave a glance to the others, who were waiting near the entrance this time, as Shepard had made it clear that they might be leaving quickly. Shepard dropped herself into the chair opposite Qui'in and leaned forward against the tabletop, and the thump and attendant rattling drew the turian's attention toward her.

"Ah, Agent Shepard. I hear a rumor that there's been a break-in at my offices. Is there any truth to that rumor?" Qui'in asked, drink in tridactyl hand.

"More than a rumor, but there's a bit of a wrinkle," Shepard said. For some reason, she intuitively knew that the flick of Qui'in's mandibles was a flash of irritation. Couldn't say how she learned that one. "I had a chat with Internal Affairs. Turns out, Anoleis is about a heartbeat from spending the next twenty years in a five-by-nine. That's a life sentence for a salarian, I hear. All that they need is your evidence."

Qui'in gently put down his drink, but she could tell from her many years around drunks and violent people both to know that it was a showcase of how much effort it was taking to be gentle, rather than any natural inclination. Qui'in was, in this moment, an angry, angry turian. He glared at her. "Now that you have my property, you feel you can dictate how I use it? I am a businessman, not a showman, and I have no desire to become a part of any public spectacle."

Shepard shrugged. "You see, that's where our opinions differ. I hear salarians have a saying; possession is nine-tenths of ownership. Right now, I possess your property. That makes me nine-tenths its owner. And honestly, I want to see Anoleis croak like the toad he is. Call it a vindictive streak in me. It's not like you don't get anything out of this. Without Big A grinding out your gears, you could make money hand over fist."

"It is... unseemly," Qui'in pointed out.

"Unseemly would be me taking this information to Anoleis, and getting what I want from him," Shepard said. She gave a sarcastic smirk. "Let's not make this unseemly."

Qui'in sighed. "I suppose it's good to have all of your cards on the table. But it seems that you've been dealt a better hand than I. Very well. I will testify, so make whatever arrangements you need with your contact. I will be here."

Shepard turned, and let out a whistle across the bar, which Parasini, sitting in her booth flinched at. Then, she seemed to hang her head, down her own drink as quickly as Shepard had, and start to walk over. "My contact," Shepard said, casting a thumb toward the approaching spook. Shepard then moved to the doorway. "Alright. We're heading for the vehicle bay. Shouldn't have anybody stopping us this time."

"Perhaps one thing," Tali pointed out. "It will take a few minutes to get a All Terrain Transport ready for conditions like these. We'd might as well spend them inside where it's warm."

"Define a few minutes," Shepard said.

"Ten. Maybe twenty," she offered. Shepard blinked at her. "I talked to the turian downstairs. Lilihierax. He was quite informative."

Nilsdottir gave a snort, but didn't say more. "Well, wait in the lobby, then," Shepard said. "Do I have to give you orders for everything?"

"...I was just saying..." Tali said, and Shepard held in a sigh at her kicked-kitten tone.

"Look," Kaiden interjected, "we're all a bit on edge, and we don't know exactly what we're going to find when we reach Peak Fifteen. So let's just take a few minutes to get ourselves into the right headspace before we go. Does that sound like a good idea?"

"It sounds like an excellent idea," Liara agreed.

"Of course she'd agree," Nilsdottir muttered, but Shepard's querulous glance went without answer. Shepard motioned them ahead, but while Nilsdottir, al'Wahim and Tali all piled into the elevator, Liara and Alenko did not. Shepard had a glance between them.

"Is there some reason you're not taking the elevator?" Shepard asked.

"I could ask you the very same question," Liara pointed out.

"Not your business," Shepard said, heading into the men's bathroom and back through the panels again. And those two followed after her. "You're not going to make an issue of this, are you, T'Soni?"

"No, but I have to admit, I am somewhat curious," Liara said. As they descended, she seemed just about to hold her tongue, before it got loose again. "Shepard... are you afraid of the dark?"

"What? No," Shepard said, a bit confounded by Liara's question. Then again, Liara's questions tended to be of the confounding variety most of the time. "There's nothing about the dark to be afraid of. Hell, it's where I got my N4 and N6."

"Enclosed spaces, then?" Liara guessed. "Are you claustrophobic?"

"Liara, is there some reason that you've chosen now to plumb into what you assume are personal phobias, or is this just you being you?" Shepard asked.

"Yes?" she said. Shepard groaned and palmed her face, just as she reached the bottom step. She pushed open the door. "Or is it a fear of terrible music? I understand that there is something of a krogan disposition against it as well, but as humans unlike asari cannot interbreed with krogan it has me wonder if there might be some other unnoticed third factor which is influencing your either fear or hatred of elevators – and why specifically elevators and not other enclosed spaces is its own mystery – instead of..."

"Liara, stop," Shepard cut her off. Liara came to an abrupt halt.

"Why?" she asked.

"You were talking so long you started to turn blue," Shepard said.

Liara stared at her for a few seconds, confused. "I am always blue."

Kaiden let out a mild sigh. "It's a human saying, Liara. Means that you weren't even pausing for breath. Which was a bit impressive, now that you mention it."

"...I got through hour lectures in around sixty minutes," she said, her eyes low. Shepard frowned.

"Hundred minute hours, Shepard," Kaiden pointed out. Oh. Shepard then frowned again, for a different reason.

"...I hated being a teacher assistant."

"Ah," Shepard said. "Academia, at its finest."

"Does Shepard always take the long way down?" Tali asked from nearby.

"As long as I've known her, yeah," Nilsdottir answered, but didn't go into any detail. Which was for the best for her, all told.

"She spent so long that the woman in the blinding dress beat her down," al'Wahim pointed out with a shrug.

"Then we might as well wait for the fireworks," Shepard said, putting her back to the low wall, and watching the administrator's door. It was less than five minutes before that door was thrown open.

"This is an outrage!"

"Man, for a second there, I thought Udina came to Noveria or something," Nilsdottir said with a chuckle. The person being dragged in this instance was Anoleis, who had a bit of green blood dribbling down from the corner of his mouth where somebody – probably Parasini – had decked him. Shepard could also see that Parasini had a handgun in an evidence bag dangling from a belt. So he tried to pull a gun on her? Good thing he didn't try that while Shepard was around.

"You'll never work in this system again! You'll never find another job in Council Space!"

"Yeah, yeah. I'm shedding a single tear for my career," Parasini said sarcastically, as she dragged the salarian kicking and flailing up the stairs, banging his heels on every single one. "Let's get a move on. You're making my day longer, and spending this much time in heels has made me a very angry woman."

"And so goes the fate of all corrupt administrators," Kaiden said.

"I'm surprised that they even allowed a corrupt person to rise so high," Tali said.

"This isn't the Migrant Fleet," Shepard said. "There's quite a few more self-serving people out here than you have at home."

Tali gave a roll of her eyes – only apparent because Tali had some expressive body-language – and scoffed. "You might be surprised, Shepard."

Shepard watched the two of them ascending the stairway with a bit of quiet pride, which struck her a bit odd. She hadn't needed to do this. But as she'd said to Lorik; she liked making thugs squirm. A stray thought wondered if that made her a bad person, but she quashed it quickly. After all, she was just doing what needed to be done. And if not by her, than somebody else would have done it. That was what she told herself to sleep at night.

It should have come as no surprise that she didn't, then.

After enough lollygagging to make most of her old DIs apoplectic, she rose from her place of leaning. "Alright, ladies and gentleman. I figure our ride's probably prepared by now. Let's get to Peak Fifteen while the elder T'Soni is still on it."

"Why did we not simply hot-drop the Mako?" Liara asked. "It is designed for such unpleasant conditions, is it not?"

Shepard stared at the asari for a moment. Huh. She hadn't thought of that. "'re telling me I didn't need to do any of this garbage, I could have just flown to the Peak?"

"Actually, Commander, you probably would have been shot down by the automated defenses," Alenko pointed out. They glanced to him. "This place is run with extreme security in mind. They weren't joking when they said that they'd have opened fire on us. Anything less than a dreadnaught wouldn't last for a minute above Noveria."

"Good to know," Shepard said. Mostly because it vindicated her running around in Port Hanshan, and made her feel minutely less of a moron. She shook her head, and nodded ahead. "Alright, the transport should be that way. Helmets on, we've got to assume that it's going to be a bit chilly."

The squad gave their nods, and each pulled on their various helmets – Tali excluded, since it would take an act of attempted murder to take hers off – and headed through the non-descript concrete path which ran under the Hotel Hanshan and into the cargo transit bays beyond it. "Bets on what we're going to find at Pee-One-Five?" Nilsdottir asked.

"Geth," Tali said.

"Oh, come on. There's no percentage in guessing geth. We find geth everywhere nowadays," Shepard pointed out. "Put me down for insane, fractured Prothean AI."

"Insane AI?" Alenko asked. "That sounds like the Normandy's last movie night."

"You have movie night?" Liara asked.

"How could you not here? We're two doors away from you," Tali said.

"Well, I tend to get a bit distracted by my studies. Um... Resurrected Prothean clone. Edge bet on also insane," Liara offered.

"Now you're getting into the spirit," Nilsdottir said. "Krogan genophage cure, to be sold to anybody willing to kill humans."

"Ooh. Dark," Shepard said.

"Malevolent spirit. This time, not manifested, so to make our lives miserable," al'Wahim wagered.

"Mind control device," Alenko said with a shrug as he walked.

"No, Prothean clone would be ridiculous. There has never been recoverable DNA from any remains... Oh! I know! Rachni clones!"

"Rachni? Seriously?" Tali asked. "Now you're just mocking this."

Shepard rolled her eyes as the others bantered light-heartedly about what they were going to expect. Anderson was right. The morale of the squad was as important as the blood in their veins, be that blood red, blue, purple, or green. Well, not green, as she didn't have a salarian on tap. Orange. That was the ticket.

Shepard paused for a moment, just through the doors to the transit bay, as a strange thought occurred to her. Was she thinking like Liara, now?

That hesitation saved Shepard's life.

A red-hot bolt of metal slammed into the floor directly ahead of Shepard, where she'd have been standing had she taken one more step. Shepard didn't even waste time pulling the rifle from her back. Instead, she ripped apart the energy inside her body and cast it up with one sinuous motion, sending an arc of lightning directly up and into the myomers of the Stalker which clung to the ceiling and prepared to fire another bolt of metal at Shepard. The lightning strike set off the emergency alarms, but also blasted through the geth's kinetic barriers and fried its body to a crisp. Partially blackened and slightly melted, it dropped from the ceiling, its body rigid, and crashed to the floor. The klaxons blared for a few seconds as Shepard dropped to a squat, taking her rifle out now as the others formed a ring with her at its head, looking in all directions.

"Contacts?" Shepard shouted back.

"None, Commander," Alenko said, but his tone was nevertheless tense.

"I don't understand, Shepard. Chikitta always warns me when there's geth signals nearby. Does... this mean that they've figured out how to mask themselves?" Tali asked, a note of dire concern in her voice.

The door opened behind Shepard, and all guns turned to face Matsuo, who was likewise advancing behind a rifle. She seemed a bit baffled to have so many weapons pointed at her, and a bit more baffled when they all immediately turned away and resumed their ring. "What's going on here? Somebody thunder-bolted the bay, and..."

"Geth," Shepard said, pointing to the charred remains.

"Th-that's impossible! There's no geth outside the Perseus Veil," Matsuo contended.

"Do you believe your eyes?" al'Wahim asked dryly. "You are obviously not a sort to keep up-to-date on news, I must assume."

"I warned you that Benezia T'Soni came with geth. But did you listen to me? Noooo," Shepard said with a shake of her head.

Matsuo had lowered her rifle, though, and thumbed her ear. "Security, we need a containment team in the transit bay. We might have geth on Noveria... Yes, I'm serious Zhi, don't be an idiot."

"This better not slow me down," Shepard said.

"This is an internal concern, Agent Shepard," Matsuo said, still holding her rifle. "Your vehicle remains flagged with clearance for the Aleutsk Run. I'd get to it, while the weather is half-way decent."

"You call this decent weather?" Liara asked.

"When you've been on Noveria as long as I have, you start to get a new definition of 'good weather'," Matsuo pointed out. Shepard gave the woman a nod.

"Alright, squad. Everybody into the transport. Snow means al'Wahim is driving."

"I thought you liked to drive?" al'Wahim asked sardonically.

"I like to drive when the stakes aren't me falling off of a godsdamned mountain," Shepard corrected.

"Well, I've heard stories about your Universal Licensing, back in '75," Alenko said with a bit of a wry twist on his words.

"That didn't happen, and Courson is a lying bastard," Shepard answered immediately, which set Nilsdottir to laughing. "Don't you start. I could tell him about the 'bucket incident'."

Tali glanced to Liara. "...bucket?"

"I believe it is better that we do not know," Liara said. The vehicle itself wasn't a hovercraft or a Mako or a Grizzly. It was a machine built for Noveria, and specifically, to dig into icy stone. It was ugly, dirty, and honestly smelled bad. But it was the way to Peak Fifteen, so Shepard opened the hatch and pulled herself in. Inside was scarcely better smelling. Shepard settled into her seat, and motioned the others to do likewise.

"Shepard... I must admit, I am somewhat nervous about what is about to happen," Liara admitted, where she was seated opposite Shepard. "I wish greatly to believe that Mother can be made to see reason... but I fear greatly that she may not. Whatever device Saren took from Sovereign to corrupt her... It might be beyond our ability to counteract."

"Don't talk like that," Shepard said. "If you start thinking like that, you'll start sabotaging yourself so that you don't get into a situation where you'll see her. You don't see her, then you won't be able to stop her. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

"Did you just tell Liara to be positive so that things might turn out better?" Tali asked


"I think you did," Tali said.

"I didn't. You misheard me."

"Ah, Shepard really does have a heart," Tali said sweetly, making a huggy-motion.

"Laugh it up, quarian," Shepard said with a roll of her eyes. The vehicle gave a lurch as it started to trundle out onto the ice and move toward their long-awaited destination. That they were close... it was a relief to Shepard. Between her own insomniac habits and the fact that she had brain-surgery done unto her less than twenty-four hours ago, it was a miracle that she was still up. And honestly, she really, really wanted to sleep. Just an hour or so.

So she'd be fresh for Peak Fifteen.

Buckled in, her eyes drifted closed amidst the chatter of her squad – her squad – and she drifted off into sleep.

Eyes opened at the sound of the door opening. He'd trained himself to know that sound well enough to have it rouse him from the deepest slumber. Not that he was a heavy sleeper at the best of times. "What is it?" he demanded, as he sat up, blinking away the fatigue.

"There is news from the War, Avatar Sajuuk," Ovar said, his tone... unkind. "And none of it is good."

Secondary Codex Entry (History): AVALYNN

Born roughly ten thousand years before the asari discovered the Citadel, Avalynn was an Ardat Yakshi of terrifying biotic power and overwhelming of personality. Many of the current strictures of control over the sufferers of Thae'ir Syndrome stem directly from the reign of Avalynn the Foul, and many of the societal factors which shape day-to-day asari living also descend from an utter rejection of her hegemony.

Avalynn rose to power swiftly, using her charisma and her biotic power to first dominate and command a city-state of Serrice, then began to spread her influence over the next century to every city-state on the continent. Not only was Avalynn the only asari in history to rule over a continental power, she also, briefly was the sole ruler of the whole of Thessia. However, her rule came with a heavy cost; as an Ardat Yakshi, her hunger only grew with the authority she held. In the beginning, she had a fresh victim every day. By the time she was in her Matriarch years, she scythed through a conservatively estimated hundred sacrifices a day. Considering her capacity to control the minds of those around her, and her ability to annihilate an entire city with nothing but her own biotics if necessary, she held Thessia in a grip of terror and bloodshed for nearly a millennia.

While Avalynn's biotic power was, without dispute, the greatest that any living being had ever attained, her control was not absolute; a small sect of monks dedicated to the faith of the Athame Doctrine, which had long fallen out of favor for the Asar faith and the Siari philosophy which evolved from it, militarized against Avalynn, waging a guerilla war against her. It took almost a century of constant fighting, with the Athamite Justicars sacrificing themselves the instant they felt themselves falling under Avalynn's control to keep the battle from falling from within, before the final blow was dealt which crippled Avalynn's rulership.

The death blow came, surprisingly, from the Prothean Cache which was located buried under Serrice. The Justicars discovered the uppermost levels of the old Prothean ruins in a desperate attempt to find some wisdom of their Goddess to help defeat the powerful Ardat Yakshi, but they instead discovered what is historically agreed to be a small anti-matter bomb. The weapon was smuggled out of Serrice and into Avalynn's palace in Armali. The plot to kill Avalynn was almost thwarted by Avalynn herself capturing the Justicar responsible for detonating the weapon, but using what little Prothean technology they had recovered, the Justicar was able to activate the weapon, and her quotation upon doing so is disputed but commonly agreed to be 'Find peace in the embrace of the Goddess'.

The bomb destroyed roughly half of Armali, and still didn't manage to outright kill Avalynn, but in her weakened state, the Justicars which remained were able to behead her. Her head, which doesn't even appear entirely asari, remains in Justicar possession, embalmed in their High Monestary. The Justicars remained a present force in asari culture ever since. Ironically, had anybody delved any deeper into the Prothean Cache than they had, they would have discovered the Prothean spaceship which launched asari to the Citadel roughly eight thousand years early.

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