Shepard managed to stop rubbing her temple just as the FTLC flickered to life, and the three councilors loomed into sight before Shepard. In a rather odd turn, Tevos was holding a pad in her hand, and talking heatedly in untranslated Serrician out of camera-shot, while Speratus was the one looking upright and superior. Valern remained as inscrutable as ever. Speratus gave a smirk, and cleared his throat loudly, causing Tevos to turn and flinch slightly, before trying to compose herself and lower that pad to her waist.

"Is this report correct, Commander? Did you really find rachni on Noveria?" Tevos asked, worry clear in her voice.

"Go over the helm-feeds if you don't believe my word," Shepard said.

"So you found them, and your first choice was to eradicate them," Speratus continued. He turned to her with a wry look. "Do you enjoy committing genocide, Shepard?"

"Depends on the species," Shepard said, and nodded toward him. "...turian."

"Shepard, you are addressing a member of the council. You will show me the proper respect!"

"I show respect by preventing a new rachni war," Shepard lied, but since she'd spent quite a bit of time preparing this little spiel, she might as well use it. "I know what would have happened if I didn't destroy the queen. Somebody, maybe not Saren but somebody as unbalanced as he is, will do it again. And this time, you won't have a Spectre on the ground to nip it in the bud. This was a few thousand rachni, born from a single queen, in an environment utterly hostile to them and utterly cut off from populated centers. Next time, I doubt we'll be so lucky."

Speratus sighed. "I'm not doubting the logic of your decision, Shepard, only the haste at which you made it."

"I didn't have the luxury of time for deliberation," Shepard said, back straight. "Either deal with the queen immediately, or lose all of the civilian scientists remaining at Peak Fifteen. I couldn't do both."

"And you are aware of the potential for advancement of genetic research which was lost with the destruction of the Peak Fifteen facility?" Valern asked.

"The scientists are alive. If they want, they can take what they know and use it on something useful," Shepard said with a shrug. "Like finding a way to let quarians breath unfiltered air without dying, as one of a hundred examples."

"I wasn't aware you were developing a rapport with the quarian people," Valern said. Shepard turned a suspicious glare at him. "After all, there has been a request by a member of the Flotilla to contact you. We of course told them that you were on assignment and out of communications range."

"I wasn't aware that it was the Council's job to screen my mail," Shepard said.

"You are the tip of the spear, Commander," Tevos said. "The tip of the spear must be sharp, and it must not waver, or the whole weapon shatters."

"I believe I'm capable of making that judgement," Shepard said, growing ever more testy as she continued. "Is there anything more?"

"No," Speratus said, obviously cutting off his asari counterpart. "It's good that you put the good of the galactic community first, for a change. I'm beginning to believe that my doubts in your capacity might have been somewhat misguided. If we find anything new on Saren, we will patch it to you directly," he said. Tevos gave Speratus' image a concerned glance, but the images flicked out completely a moment later. Shepard took a moment, standing in that darkness, to knead her brow in earnest.

"I really need a drink," Shepard muttered, but she put that out of her head, and strode over to the door, opening and preparing to go to her chambers. Instead, she was greeted by the rest of her squad, standing along the edges of the entryway. She glanced amongst them. "Yes?"

"You haven't debriefed your squad, Commander," al'Wahim said with a nod. Shepard sighed, and waved within. They streamed in, one after another, until Shepard spotted one which hadn't been on the ground squad.

"Garrus?" Shepard asked. "I thought you had a broken head."

Garrus chuckled, scratching at his mandible. "It'll take a lot more than that to keep me down."

Shepard glanced to where Nilsdottir was sitting, hunched forward and obviously uncomfortable. "Is there going to be a problem between you and Nilsdottir?" Shepard asked.

"That? Nah," he said dismissively. "Although I know not to take her in a fair fight if I can help it. Ambush and long sight-lines from now on."

Shepard rolled her eyes as he walked in, and followed after. "Do you have plans on how to kill all of us?"

"Of course. I shouldn't discriminate; somebody might feel left out."

Shepard couldn't help but shake her head at the turian. After Speratus and the stick up his ass the size of the Citadel, it was honestly a bit refreshing to have Garrus back on his feet. And with remarkably little to show for how he'd almost gotten his head reduced to blue paste by the biotic two seats away from him. Shepard looked at the chairs, and found two empty. One was Wrex's, but he wasn't on the squad at that mission and as such she didn't expect him. The other... well, Liara.

"T'Soni," Shepard said, glancing around. "Where is she?"

"She's locked herself in her room," Tali said with a somber tone. "I didn't have the heart to try to bring her out."

Shepard sighed, and nodded. "Probably better she stays in there, for a while," she said. "Alright. Noveria... what next?"

"No talking about the rachni?" Alenko asked.

"Tali? Do you want to talk about the rachni?" Shepard asked.

"No."

"There," Shepard said, pointing at the quarian even as she looked at Alenko.

"But I know what you said to the Council. You said the queen was dead. We know she isn't," Alenko said.

"And that'll be your burden to bear," Shepard said. "There is to be no discussion about the events in that room on Noveria, to anybody, for any reason. This is beyond operational security. Am I clear?"

"Yes, Commander," al'Wahim said, even if she looked slightly troubled.

"Who the fuck would I tell, anyway?" Nilsdottir muttered.

"Aye, ma'am," Alenko clearly didn't like this, but agreed nevertheless. Tali simply nodded. Garrus gave a shrug.

"I'll just make something up if anybody asks me," he said.

"Anything else?" Shepard asked. There was a bit of silence. "No? Good. You're debriefed. Dismissed."

Shepard was half way to the door, when a buzz came from the speakers. "Um, Commander Shepard, I've got another message coming in. For you specifically," Joker said over the comms. The others took that as a cue to file out without any other words being said. Shepard turned back to the holo-tank, and with a flicker, Tevos appeared before her again.

"Oh, is it that time already? I thought I didn't get to hear from you until I did something you classified as 'scandalous'," Shepard said, her head throbbing too much for her to care how much of a smartass she was apparently being.

"Shepard, I am aware of what took place on the Citadel the last time you were there. Your injury is not something that you can simply expect to continue duty on this level. Better agents have spent years in sabbatical recovering from this sort of trauma."

"I don't have the luxury of waiting several years to continue hunting down Saren," Shepard said.

"Shepard, please be reasonable in this. You have medical leave due. You signed yourself out two weeks ahead of what the doctors recommended. This is not healthy, and will compromise the integrity of your work."

"Nothing will be compromised," Shepard said. "And I'm not giving up my pursuit of Saren. As soon as I find out what Saren needed the Mu Relay for, I'll have him by the... whatever it is turians have."

"They have testicles," Tevos said flatly. "Shepard. As your superior, I am going to have to order you to take medical leave. You need to rest."

"With all due respect, Councilor, I'll rest when I'm dead," Shepard said.

"Don't be recalcitrant, Agent, you'll die if you don't–" Tevos said, and Shepard reached forward and flicked the switch to the tanks into the off position.

"Whoops," Shepard said, and turned away from the tanks. So. The administration was probably after her too. Lovely. She rubbed her head, trying not to think about how there might be some sort of aneurism going on in there right now. It certainly hurt like one. But with a sigh, she dropped into her chair near the head of the room. And then, she glanced down, to a pad left by a probably-not-bimbo only a few days before. She picked it up, and zoomed through it again.

"Binthu," she said. Then, a smirk came to her lips. "Let's see about that Phoenix Skunkworks Kahoku was so worried about."


Chapter 13

The Terrorists


"So what are we looking at here, Shepard?" Wrex asked from where he was hunched forward in his drop-seat. Shepard still couldn't quite stomach how pink his armor was, but he didn't seem to take any notice to its color, and honestly, it did look in much better condition that that which he'd joined the squad wearing. Shepard looked at the squad she was bringing down. Liara was still locked into her room, and Tali stayed up on the Normandy so that somebody would be there to help her if she decided to open the doors. Shepard could understand that. Liara needed a friendly face, and Shepard's wasn't exactly the friendliest. Garrus, seeming none-the-worse for his Nilsdottir-related beat-down a few days ago, sat forward as well, and didn't even seem pissed as he had a right to be at the biotic sitting next to him. Alenko and al'Wahim filled out the rest of the squad.

"A former Alliance black-ops division, gone rogue about twenty years ago," Shepard said, tapping her Omni, and letting the information project onto the screen at the back of the Mako. "They're into some really nasty business."

"Business like?" Garrus asked.

"Kidnapping, extortion, murder, genetics experiments, augmentations and AI research, if it's illegal and deadly, they're doing it."

"Phoenix. Reminds me of an old pre-Unification unit that went a bit off the deep end," Garrus said. He shrugged. "They didn't last too long once the Hierarchy got around to swatting them."

"And here comes the fly-swatter," Shepard said. She flipped the page, and showed a manifesto which went on and on and on. "Everybody in Phoenix answers to this man. There's no ID on file, and Kahoku's bean-counters call him 'the Illusive Man'. If he's here, we're to break his knees and drop him on Earth, priority one."

"He won't be here," Wrex said.

Shepard glanced toward him. "And what makes you sure of this?"

"Phoenix isn't a fly-by-night, Shepard. I've worked with their people before. Not willingly, but it happened," Wrex said. "They don't tell their people anything more than is absolutely necessary to do their jobs. Most of them have never even met the Illusive Man. I certainly wouldn't want to. Hell, the Shadow Broker's got a bounty on him big enough that I could buy Omega with it, so he's got to be a whole other kind of dangerous."

"Anything else you know about Phoenix?" Shepard asked.

"Only that they're humans, and as such, fairly easy to kill," Wrex gave a shrug. "Like I said, I wasn't working with them willingly... or for very long."

Shepard nodded. "Alright. Their skunkworks on Binthu was pointed out as a major weapons-development site for this group. Knock it out, and we're crippling them."

"Has there been any sign from Kahoku, Commander?" Alenko asked.

Shepard shook her head. "No word since the Citadel. I'm guessing he won't stick his head up until he knows that Phoenix is yesterday's problem."

Shepard rolled through the information again. "Their base's entrance is located here," she said. "I've already given the coordinates to our driver..."

"And I will bring you there shortly, if you stop distracting me," Asha said without turning back.

"...which means it's just a matter of calling in an orbital strike to break their door and frag their turrets, and then we go in."

"So we're not bothering with subtle? Good," Wrex said. "I need to work some of the cobwebs off of Grandfather's armor. Wouldn't want to do it sneaking in the shadows."

"Any concerns?" Shepard asked.

"One," Garrus asked. "Phoenix. What exactly are they standing for?"

"Hell if I know," Shepard asked.

"Humanity first," Alenko corrected. Shepard scowled at him. "I actually read it. It's high-minded prose, but I can see how it could be used to justify just about anything so long as humanity gets the clean end of the stick. Don't call me an apologist, but with that sort of sell, I can see why some people would get fooled into thinking they're the good-guys."

"Great. Fanatics," Garrus muttered.

Shepard shrugged. She'd killed others for less. "Aim for kneecaps if they're not carrying weapons. Aim for heads if they are," Shepard said. "I'm pretty sure some of them are in the dark on what Phoenix is about. No use butchering everybody."

"...Are you sure they put your brain together right, Shepard?" Wrex asked.

"Why does everybody keep asking me that?" Shepard asked testily.

Wrex shrugged. "Never mind."

"Avatar?" al'Wahim asked from the front seat. Shepard frowned, and rose from her seat to take the co-pilot's chair. "Do you see this?"

Shepard glanced to the side, where al'Wahim was pointing. "I see it, but I'm not sure what it is," she said.

"It is eezo-infused concrete, according to scanners," Asha said. Shepard blinked and raised her brows in surprise.

"A Prothean structure here? I guess I know why they picked Binthu. Take me closer."

"Excuse me, commander? You want me to divert?" she asked. Shepard glanced at the line of travel. It wasn't far. And a part of Shepard she really couldn't account for was almost giddily interested in seeing this thing close up.

"Yes," Shepard said, and moved back, pulling her helmet from the shelf over her seat's headrest.

"Something going on?" Nilsdottir asked.

"Just enjoying the scenery," Shepard said dryly, as the Mako gave one more large bump, and then came to a halt. She ducked into the airlock, pressing her eyes closed to ignore the brief moment she was trapped inside a box no larger than a coffin with no way out. There was a loud hiss, and then she found herself dropping to the ground of Binthu. She managed to land, if awkwardly, on the yellowed, acid-washed clay, and right at the foot of the pyramid which was almost buried under a hill. She stared at it for a long moment. That thing was probably there longer than the Avatar lived upon the Earth.

She walked toward it, a curiosity not entirely her own driving her. "I wonder what's inside it," Shepard said, to nobody in particular since her comms weren't currently turned on. It was already getting warm in her armor; not surprising, since the greenhouse atmosphere left the ground outside hot enough to boil water. She came to a halt before an unremarkable section of the stonework. An earthbender would have been able to get inside... had eezo not rendered the structure proof against it. So Shepard quested with her hands along its surface. This time, it wasn't a certain asari's curiosity guiding her hands. Instead, it was somebody far older.

Her eyes pressed closed, and a sensation began to bubble up in her. It wasn't like Torfan, not really, not that heady release of control, that abandonment of sanity to the cause of vengeance. This was something else. Like remembering a song from a dream. Or, in her case, remembering a gun from a dream. But even though the sensation differed vastly, five fingers instead of three, two eyes instead of four, she could feel something out of place. Something which was put there to be a clue, a sign to somebody like her.

No, a sign to a Prothean. Which was a strange thought to have to tease out. Her hands moved almost without her intention, and she pushed into the stone, causing it do slide in. She then pushed sideways on the edge revealed, twisted, and pushed down. The panel before her started to slide, hissing sounding in Binthu's atmopshere. She ducked through the opening door, and flicked on the lights on her helm to see what lay inside the darkness. There was a blast of displacing air, though, and a white vapor shot past her into the sky. Shepard shook her head, and looked in.

Bones. Not even bones, Shepard realized. Those things were just powder in the form of bones. She stepped inside, and squatted down, looking at the form. It was tiny. Shepard sized it perhaps at no larger than a ditakur... or a Prothean child. The slightest tap of Shepard's finger caused the bone it brushed to collapse completely. Without a head to count eye-sockets, Shepard couldn't say more than that. She looked around the inside of the pyramid.

"Shepard? Did you just go into that pyramid?" Alenko asked, his voice very focused.

"Seemed like the thing to do, Alenko," Shepard said distractedly.

"How?" he asked.

"Opened it up," she said. There was nothing else there. Just a couple of bits of plastic, laying near utterly corroded copper and mangled gold. A jumpsuit, in muted colors, near the bones. Shepard picked it up, holding it in front of her. Two arms, so not an oravore. She then glanced to a corner, and saw something which had almost vanished in the darkness. There was a box, made of some Prothean alloy that she couldn't name. She reached down, and pressed a hand to its lid. There was a fresh hiss, and a sound of metal snapping sounded. Shepard frowned, and then pulled the box up. There were bolts fastening it to the ground, that seemed to have let go. Why? She couldn't say. Not for a long time.

Shepard looked back at the inside of the pyramid. What was this place?

"These places will not protect you from the Reapers," Sajuuk told the frightened woman, a finger thrust toward the folly built into the dirt. "They will only serve as a tomb."

"Sajuuk," Kija said, pulling the Avatar away from the cowering, four-eyed female. "Let them have some hope, at least."

"Hope borne on lies is as hollow as the Stranger's words," Sajuuk answered her, turning away and leaving that ill-conceived 'Reaper shelter' behind him. He had better things to worry about.

"It's a shelter," Shepard said.

"What was that, Commander?" Alenko asked.

"That pyramid. It's a shelter. They tried to hide inside it," she said, and shook her head. "But you can't hide from starvation."

Shepard didn't hear anything on her line, so she scrabbled up to the Mako, that box under her arm, and awkwardly put it into the airlock with her. Even there, she reached to the panel near her hip and had it run a HazMat check. It meant she had to stay in that tiny non-room for a few seconds longer, but...

"No harmful materials detected."

The doors opened inward, and Shepard pulled her helmet off almost immediately. She put it on the ground between her feet, that box on her knees. "Shepard, what is that?"

"I found it inside," Shepard answered Alenko's question.

"Should you be opening it?" Garrus asked.

"There's nothing harmful in here," Shepard said. "Otherwise the computer would have spotted it."

"If I die of some Prothean plague, I'll kill you," Wrex promised grimly. Shepard pressed the button on the front, and with a whir of machinery no less than five hundred centuries old, the top retracted.

"What is it, Commander?" Alenko asked, trying to lean forward and see. Shepard reached in, and pulled out a small, fuzzy creature, made of cloth with four golden eyes and a tiny stitched smile. If it had been bipedal, it might have looked like a Prothean. Instead, it was probably some Prothean animal she wasn't aware of. She sighed. That was definitely a Prothean child, then.

"She put it in here, trying to keep it safe, as she starved to death," Shepard said distantly.

"She?" Alenko asked.

"Anress," Shepard said, tapping the front of the box. "...her name."

"How do you know that?" Kaiden asked. Shepard paused, and turned to look at the box. How could she even come to that conclusion, she now wondered. The script was utterly indecipherable. And at the same time, she knew that she was right in what she'd said. She then pulled out the only other content of the box. A device which had Alenko lean back, eyes wide. It was about the size and almost the shape of a knife-blade, but had a green line running down its length which glowed dimly. "Shepard... that thing might still be active."

"A Prothean data-disc? Haven't had one of those found in a while," Wrex said.

Shepard glanced at it, the box, and the stuffed animal in her possession. Then, she shook her head. That was a part of a history fifty thousand years gone. "Look, it doesn't matter. We're here because of Phoenix, not some kid's ancient knick-knacks. Everybody get ready for the infiltration."

"Aye, Commander," Alenko said, but with a concerned tone.

"I'd give that to Liara when you get back," Garrus offered, where he'd been sitting back casually the whole time. "Might get her back in a good mood."

"I'll bear that in mind," Shepard said dryly.


Tali sat on the medical table, even as the doctor wrote a report on one of the other crew members to one side. "If you need help, I could..." Tali offered, but Chakwas graciously shook her head.

"I have all of the help I need, but I appreciate the offer," she said. "Besides, I wouldn't want to break your vigil."

"It's not a vigil, I'm just worried about..."

Chakwas nodded. "You aren't the only one," she said, after Tali trailed off. "The entire crew is concerned about her state of mind. Even the Commander expressed her opinion on the matter, which I find unusual, because it isn't in keeping with her profile."

"Shepard has a profile?" Tali asked.

"Indeed," Chakwas said. She turned her chair toward Tali. "She has proven reliable, even exemplary, in a firefight, but everything I know about her speaks to deep and long-standing personal issues. She pushes people away from all aspects of her life, but engages in sexual liaisons frequently and recklessly. I doubt even she knows why she is doing it."

"Really?" Tali asked. "I thought she and Kaiden were a couple."

"Doubtful," Chakwas said. "As I mentioned, Shepard has never been a person for intimacy. It probably stems from the traumas she suffered both on Torfan, and when her colony was purged at Mindoir."

"Surely Shepard isn't that bad," Tali said, rolling her eyes.

"You must not be aware of her last relationship," Chakwas turned back to her display and continued typing. "It was with her waterbending instructor, Samoet. He wanted to get closer to her. She wanted him at arm's length. Understandably, they couldn't keep up the holding pattern, and things deteriorated."

"How do you know this?" Tali asked.

"I was there," Chakwas said. "Specifically, I was the one who reattached Samoet's foot after the explosion. Personally, I think that that man is still at least somewhat in love with Shepard, but as far as I have ever been aware, she isn't able to reciprocate. In that way, I pity her."

"I wouldn't pity Shepard," Tali said. "She's like a Reegar and a krogan rolled into one armor-suit."

"Oh I don't disagree. Shepard is likely one of the finest soldiers that the N7 program has ever produced. But she is only that, a soldier. She has never been anything else. She doesn't understand the galaxy through any lens but that one. She might be an excellent soldier, Tali, but she is as far from a healthy, rounded individual as I can imagine."

Tali let Chakwas have the last word, and hopped down to tap on the door to the room Liara had taken over as her own. "Liara? Are you ready for me to come in?"

Silence.

"I'll keep waiting, then," Tali said.

"You should take the bed, Tali. It's at least more comfortable than the diagnostic table," Chakwas indicated her own cot, set into a tiny room off of the med-bay. Tali looked at it, and then waved her hands.

"Thank you, but no... I find beds very uncomfortable these days," Tali said. Chakwas shrugged, and Tali went back to her perch. She flicked open her Omnitool and started to zip through the messages she'd sent to her father, and the things she'd done to brag to her friends in roundabout ways, not revealing the entirety of her accomplishment. It would probably be another two hours before the other waterbender aboard would awaken for the duty shift, so Tali figured as well spend it here. And at the same time, it let her keep an eye on a friend.

She'd just reached the top of her 'pile' when she saw one she didn't expect. Mostly, because it wasn't from a name that she recognized from the Flotilla. Rather, she recognized it from the cargo-hold, when Garrus kept getting shot in the head. She opened the link, and it dropped her into a text-only chatroom. Tali frowned at that. That was... quaint. Even the Flotilla tended to be vocal-only as the floor capability in communication. Then again, the edges of the Flotilla were never more than a light-second away from each other...

'Hello? Who is this?' Tali typed, and then prepared to send the program into the background for the long-delayed answer. Instead, only a second later, there was a light bing, and a new message appeared.

'We have not met. You are Tali'Zorah nar Rayya, currently aboard the SSV Normandy?'

Tali's eyes widened at that. How could anybody know that? And then, after the initial panic subsided, she realized; just about anybody could know that. Her protection aboard the Normandy was with mobility and proximity to 'badasses' like Garrus and Shepard, not secrecy.

'How did you get my contact information?' Tali responded.

'It was easily found. You are regarded as something of an expert on the geth. Is this true?'

Tali leaned back at that. Really? An expert? Who would possibly say that? 'Well, I'm no Daro'Xen vas Moreh, but I know my way around a synthetic', she answered, feeling a bit more puffed up. And honestly, somewhat glad she wasn't Daro'Xen. That woman was just... creepy.

'It has been decided to exchange information, to better understand what we are encountering'

Tali frowned at that. It didn't occur to her that the responses were coming back faster than even a technophile quarian could type. It just seemed suspicious that somebody would see her as an authority. 'Are you investigating the geth as well?' she typed. There was a longer pause, this time. Something which seemed much more normal for a lengthy response. So what was given was, likewise, unexpected.

'Yes.'

Tali nodded. Long time for a short answer. Still, while the geth were a personal project of Tali's, it was nevertheless comforting to know that somebody with more experience and resources was also taking on the same project. 'Well, honestly, I don't know where to start. What would you like to know?'

'Have your recovered any intact data cores from geth platforms in your time aboard the Normandy?'

Tali thought for a second. Shepard had brought that stealth-field generator with her, but that got handed off to an Alliance runner before Tali could even say boo let alone ask to send it to her people. But there was the Prime in the reactor core... and the other geth platforms, although in bits and pieces, stacked in a box somewhere in the Normandy's holds. 'I've managed to find some geth technology, but I haven't had a chance to examine it. Things are... busy aboard this ship right now. And you wouldn't believe the technology these humans have! It's amazing!'

'How so?'

Tali started typing before she realized that revealing anything about the Normandy's specifications was not only an act of military espionage but also a breach of trust between her and the engineers aboard the ship. 'I'm sorry, but I really can't go into detail. So what are you looking at with the geth... what is your name?'

'Adahn.'

'Adahn what? What ship are you from?'

'The current target is a programming error detected in a small minority of geth platforms.' So he was just ignoring her question, then? Well, she shook her head and went on reading. 'Can you verify the following programming error?'

Then, there was a download which started automatically. That got Tali's eyes bugging slightly. She didn't even see a way to cancel the download. That was a trick which Tali certainly hadn't figured out; hacking an Omnitool in real time was, while not impossible, certainly difficult. Even if it was for beneficent purposes. Finally, a new screen opened floating above the words, and it showed a wall of geth basic-logic programming code.

'This will take some time to work through. Can you give me a few weeks to parse all of this?'

'Haste would be preferred, but only if not at the expense of certainty and precision. Proceed at the swiftest pace you are capable.'

And with that, Defranz1183 logged out of the room, leaving Tali somewhat baffled about what had just happened. Still, having somebody out there validating and relying upon her work was gratifying in a way that Tali couldn't easily describe. It was like people, her people, were finally starting to accept her as an adult. Even though she hadn't even finished her pilgrimage yet! Hah!

"Is something wrong, Tali? You've gone quiet," Chakwas asked from her desk.

"Oh, nothing's wrong," Tali answered her. She glanced to the exit, then to Liara's door. Oh, the dilemma was bisecting her, it was. She wanted to be a good friend... but she wanted to be a good quarian, as well. "Um... could you keep your eyes open for me? I need to go do something," Tali said.

"I wasn't about to let poor miss T'Soni walk out an airlock," Chakwas said easily. "Go on."

Tali nodded, and started to trot toward the door to the mess, and past it to the cargo hold. So there was an issue with the geth's programming? Maybe it was something that the quarians could use. Maybe even something they could exploit, and turn against the synthetics. Something that could buy back the Homeworld.


To say that Jackie was on edge was an understatement. After all, she wasn't the kind to just assume that Garrus had forgiven and forgotten this quickly, not after she tried to put his head through the deck-plating in puree form. He didn't even glance in her direction as they coasted to a halt at the edge of the smoking ruin which was the secure gates to the bunker, still smoldering from the Normandy's ortillery strike. True, disruptor torpedoes were nothing compared to a dreadnaught's main gun, but still it was a hell of a mess. It also meant that Phoenix had to know that they were coming. The way Garrus didn't look at her practically made up her mind that he was going to get his revenge, somehow, and soon.

"Helmets on, unless you like the smell of your own boiling blood," Wrex managed to say before Shepard could give the command. Needless to say, Jackie had opted for proper armor on this drop, instead of her much more mobile partial-softsuit. It'd get in her way, that was certain, but it meant that she could go outside in conditions like these. There was a hiss as the Mako sucked its air into storage, and then the back hatch opened onto the clay of Binthu.

"Take no chances. Wrex, check for mines and an easy way in. Alenko, give me a local scan. Nilsdottir, al'Wahim, Garrus, perimeter," Shepard barked. It was hard to tell that she'd spent much of the drive over obsessed with a fifty-thousand year old box. Then again, it was a Prothean box, and people tended to get kind of excited about that shit.

"I'm reading zero O2 in the upper bunker," Alenko warned. "There was a catastrophic breach."

"Less people to shoot at us," Wrex said, seeing the bright side in things. He then stomped a foot, and the rubble shifted aside, a corridor descending into the facility. Jackie motioned for Garrus to go in before her, but he shrugged.

"You're the one with the shotgun," he reminded her. Oh, great. So now he had an excuse to be standing right behind her? That was just fucking peachy. She sighed, and followed down in the wake of krogan and Avatar, leaving the others to descend behind her. And the fucking turian was the next down.

"What have we got down here?" Jackie asked, trying to find something to get her mind off of the mild sense of unease that being around a guy she accidentally almost murdered set off in her. The lights on the helmets all started to flick on, since there were no natural lights present. The whole thing seemed dust and ashes, a ruin made in a heartbeat. "How about some lights, Alenko?"

"Working on it," he answered her, working on his Omni. There was a hum, and the lights in the next room started to flicker on. Not all of them, though. The corridor was a descending one, heading down past a floor full of rooms which were utterly unmade. But the path didn't descend far before it took an abrupt turn directly into a bulkhead. Shepard nodded to Alenko, and he did another scan. "Zero O2, Commander. This place is breached, too."

"Good. So I won't regret doing this," she said, as she put her gun aside and thrust both hands into the metal. With a shriek of metal tearing, she hauled the bulkhead out of her way, leaving it frozen peeled back like some sort of great metal lemon.

"What is this?" Asha asked, as she took in the scene before her. The whole place was filled with... some sort of medical pod or something. Jack drifted away from the krogan, and peered inside of one. It was just a big old wad of green snot. She shook her head.

"Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure it's dead now," she said.

"Keep frosty," Shepard ordered. Jack shrugged, and got her shotgun ready.

"I've got a bad feeling," Garrus said slowly.

"Garrus?" Shepard asked.

"Like... deja vu."

Shepard glanced back at the turian, but didn't say more than that. The next doorway wasn't open, but its ceiling was, obviously the way that the breach extended down here. The lights flickered on and off in this room as well, but a great host of them were inoperative on one side of the room. Out of the way, but still quite dark. The whole place looked to have been as pristine as an operating theatre, once, but now? Not so much.

"You think they were working Augs here?" Jack asked.

"If they were, I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of them," Alenko informed her.

"Hell, I'd like to be on the giving end of 'em," Jack joked.

"I'm pretty sure you wouldn't," Shepard told her. "Not the way these guys operate."

"Whatever," Jack rolled her eyes. She then glanced aside. Something caught her eye, flickering like the lights, but on a different pattern. "Alenko! I think we've got a working console over here!"

Alenko didn't waste time breaking off from Shepard and moving to Jackie's side, his Omni glowing and his fingers a-blur. The screen shot through several 'access denied' screens, before there was finally a dull thrum, and the screen went dark for just a moment, before a symbol appeared, small and discrete, in the center of the screen.

And in that moment, Jackie was a tiny child again.

...her throat was raw, raw from all the screaming. Her arms hurt more than she knew how to describe. She didn't curse, not back then. She hadn't learned how to. Nobody had ever talked to her. The oldest things she could remember were in there. The glass. The scars in her arms. The ripping of her skin, as they put things into it... And that symbol. It was everywhere...

"The FUCK!" Jack said, backing off a step, hand clenched white-knuckle tight on her shotgun.

"What did you see, Nildottir?" Shepard asked.

"...nothing. Not a fucking thing, Shepard," she said. But she couldn't lie to herself, about how her sweat poured cold and sour from her brow, stinging her eyes. How her heart hammered in her chest, a child-like terror worming through her brain. She took a few breaths, backing away from that screen which Alenko had returned his full attention to. She breathed deeply, mastering her heart. Well, trying to. Slowly succeeding, even. Maybe.

What the fuck was that? She wracked her brain, trying to find something that fit. But honestly, she didn't recognize that symbol, not consciously. No, the oldest memories she had were when she was barely a teenager, waking up from a nightmare, with Dad right there at her bedside. Nothing before that nightmare. Plenty after, but nothing before. She tried to think of what she could be so afraid of, but as with the symbol, she drew a blank. She pondered, and ahead of her, Garrus started to turn toward her in his lazy patrol. He got tense, though, and he raised that sniper-rifle to his shoulder, pointing it straight at her. "Oh you fucking don't, you..." Nilsdottir began, dropping lower and letting the eezo in her brain spark. But Garrus didn't track her downward. Instead, he fired where she had been a second before. Jack knew that he was a better shot than that.

But the meaty thwap of his shot hitting something organic finally clued her in that he wasn't aiming at her. She spun, only to be face-to-ugly-face with one of those things Tali named Plant Zombies, its one remaining arm swinging to grab her, as its other had been blown off by Garrus' shot. With all the power begging for release, it just fell to Jack to project it at a creeper instead of a turian. The Kick she hurled, launching so powerfully that it actually hurt her neck somehow, not only burst the creeper into bits as it passed through it, but smashed the wall behind it enough that a crack sprouted that reached all the way out of the darkness, reaching across the ceiling.

"The fuck are..." Jack began, but was cut off as the darkness vomited forth three more of those ugly bastards, all of them barreling at her full tilt. Her stream of thought turned from 'are these things', to 'Oh shit' in a heartbeat, and she tried to get another Kick launched but she hadn't the space, and when the three tackled into her and dragged her to the ground, she hadn't the maneuverability, either.

"I can't get a shot!" Alenko shouted.

"Neither can I," Asha growled, trying to get an angle on one of the Thorian Creepers without putting shots into a biotic.

Jack struggled under the weight of the Creepers, and even as her brain fired to try and launch a Shockwave, or even just a Kick, she couldn't direct it. If she did it wrong, she'd tear off her own legs and bleed to death on this pissant death-world! That wasn't about to stand. Luckily for her, the choice between life and limb was curtailed when thick arms grabbed one of the plant-zombies by its shoulders and tore it off, hurling it away. The other was peeled off of her by blue-and-black armor, and with far less ease.

That left Jack with one. She had some movement in her limbs, now that she wasn't dogpiled, but it still wasn't quite enough. At least, not until Shepard took the initiative and started to drag that thing away from Jack's face, pulling back arduously, even fish-hooking its face so it couldn't spew that caustic bile on her. She heaved back, even planting a boot into its lower back to leverage it, until Jack finally had room. She could have Kicked, but that'd probably have shattered something of Shepard's she'd rather not have broken. So Jack opted for the simpler solution. She leaned off of her shotgun, grabbed it, and plugged three shots directly into the upper torso of the plant zombie. It let out a howl, then started to crumble and break down into a dry humus. Probably because it was so godsdamned hot outside, and thus, inside as well.

Jack got to her feet just as Wrex put a big pink boot through the torso of one creeper, and Garrus decapitated the one he'd wrestled with using some sort of glowing red blade on his wrist. That was weird; she hadn't ever noticed that before. Jack got to her feet, shotgun forward, and flicked on her light. She scanned that corner of the room, in the darkness. The medical capsules that lined the rest of the previous room were present here, only ruptured. Four of them, to be precise.

"Thorian Creepers? Really?" Shepard asked.

"Shepard?" Wrex asked. "You mind why I'm fighting the same disgusting, inedible thing twice?"

"Creepers," she repeated, baffled. "What the hell use does anybody have for Thorian Creepers?"

"It either has to do with how quickly they grow, or how they have a way of nullifying the perceptions of those around them," Alenko said. "Either would be dangerous in the wrong hands."

"So either a zombie plague, or a blinding poison they can drop anywhere they want," Asha asked sardonically, still looking a bit contrite for having given roughly nothing during the ambush.

"I told you Phoenix was out of their little human minds," Wrex said with a shrug. "Let's get out of here."

"If we go any deeper, we're going to start seeing survivors," Alenko pointed out. "The lower levels still have life-support and power."

"So this thing's going to get interesting?" Jack asked, her usual bluster somewhat lacking. "Good. I was getting bored."

Still, even as Wrex started to move forward, deeper into the base, Jack couldn't help but glance at that screen. There were tabs open over the symbol, but she knew it was there. But for the life of her, she didn't know what it meant.


The air was crisp and had the sting of salt to it, where it crashed against the reefs which stood outside. This was a world ripe for the picking, the kind of garden world that in a more sane galaxy, wars would be fought over. Instead, they were lotted out by politics and secret deals, to appease factions within the races' lobbies, their militaries, and their economies. He'd been a part of that for a long time. A cog in that machine. But no more. Now, he was not a cog in the machine. He was its processor, it's mother-board, it's thinking brain. Saren Arterius was possibly the most important turian – nay, the most important organic being – alive, and as he stood, he could only feel impatience. And that, not entirely his.

Another crash of the waves, and he looked down on the krogan who were in drill below, putting on their cheap armor for the first time. This was almost five years work in the making. But oh, how it bore fruit. They wouldn't last long, these krogan; in order to get them mature in so short a period, certain sacrifices to their longevity had to be levied; namely, these krogan would probably have a life-span. But that didn't matter to Saren. He just needed the krogan, in numbers, and ready to fight at his direction. They would all fight in his direction. Because they knew his way was the only one to salvation. They knew that, even if they were mortal now, if they pleased the Reapers, they would live forever.

The door opened behind him. "What is it?" he asked, without turning.

"There was an encrypted message which came through, Saren," Thanopolis informed him. He finally pivoted away from staring over the seas, and faced the asari more directly. "Matriarch Benezia was killed yesterday on Noveria. Peak Fifteen is listed as a total loss."

"And the rachni?" he asked.

"Destroyed in acid, Saren," Rana told him. Saren let out a mild sigh. "We can re-hire the scientists. There must be a way to..."

"No, the rachni were only needed for what the queen knew," Saren said, glancing to the dark red haptic panels which hung at the end of a catwalks. More standard, amber displays were active below it, which through them into relief. "We will have to progress assuming that the information that T'Soni sent before her demise was accurate."

"...if you wish, but I believe they could still be useful to us here," Rana stressed. He glanced to her. So eager. It was an odd feeling, having somebody tell him 'no'. It hadn't happened in a very long time. But that would likely change. The longer Rana stayed, the more she would come to understand; a neurosurgeon of her caliber only came along once and a while, so her recent hiring was quite beneficial. After all, Rodolus Heart couldn't be expected to shoulder all of that burden alone.

"My mind is made up, Doctor," Saren said. He turned back toward the sea. "Is there anything more?"

"You told me to convey anything heard about this human 'Avatar'?" she asked. Saren nodded, half-glancing at her. "She was almost killed only a few days ago."

"WHAT?" Saren roared, instantly in Thanopolis' face, his hand tight around the lapels of her jacket. There was a sort of desperation, not of mortal danger but of dreadful inconvenience which surged through him. He breathed hard, and the white which was pulsing around the outside of his vision started to filter away. "Shepard is going to die, yes," he said, his tones becoming much more... sedate. "But when she does, I will be the one to do it. After all, she needs to be put in her place, first."

Rana stared, wide eyed, until Saren released her coat and took a step away. There was silence, as he retook his place watching the huge crabs walk slowly along the beach, tearing kelp from the rocks. "Um... Mister Arterius, may I ask a question?" she asked, her tone meek. He just glanced back at her, and she took that for the assent it was. "What did 'Avatar' Shepard do? I imagine it had to be pretty bad, but..."

"It's not what she's done. It's what she represents," Saren said, glaring out. "Humanities' arrogance. Their pride. Their conceit. Their unwavering belief in their own superiority. They are a back-water species, living on an undistinguished planet, in a sad and forgettable part of the galaxy, but act as though they are owed something. I intend to give them exactly what they're truly owed."

"So this isn't about the human who killed your brother?" she asked.

This time, the anger which pulsed through Saren's veins, be they original or synthetic replacement, was entirely his own. "Rana Thanopolis," he said, his voice quiet, and deadly serious. "If you value your current situation... you will not bring up this line of inquiry. Ever. Again."

"...of course, mister Arterius," Rana said, nodding briskly, before she turned and departed from the room. He seethed for a long moment. He knew it wasn't like him to explode as he seemed to do more frequently. When Saren was angry, it burned cold. But... by the spirits, did it feel good. There was a shift, something sliding into his perception in a way that the senses of sight and hearing simply couldn't adequately describe. He turned toward the scarlet panels, and moved swiftly to them. Sovereign beckoned.

"What do you want of me?" Saren asked.

There was a crash of images, of information. Sounds, smells, even flavors. The tearing of flesh being sifted and pulped. The hiss of electricity, as a circuit was connected for the first time. Screams. Confusion.

And then the order.

THE CONDUIT

"I believe that I am very close to finding it, Sovereign," Saren said, his back straight but he felt an urge to bow down in reverence. A silly notion. "The only issue is that we still do not know where the message intended to send me through the Mu Relay. The beacon on Eden Prime showed me only fragments, and..."

YOU WERE MADE READY FOR THE BEACON

Saren flinched a bit at that. His arm and shoulder were only the outermost signs of that transformation. The enhancements that Sovereign had provided for him ran deeper than that. "Please, just give me more time. To meditate on what I have seen. To contemplate its meaning. I will find the Conduit."

Another crash of images, the likes of which would bring a lesser mind to its knees, if not outright shatter it under such weight. Thousands; millions, staring up in horror, as they knew their end approached. Screaming of terror and fear. The Reapers will would be done.

SEE THAT YOU DO

And with that, there was a great and vacuous emptiness inside Saren's mind, where he had been shoved into a corner of it, and pressed down. Only now was the weight of Sovereign's presence diminished, and he could become his whole self again. He took a deep breath, and turned toward the windows which overlooked the sea, even as the red panels folded back into themselves and dimmed to a darker red. He turned a chair away from the table nearby, and put it to the glass. Then, he got onto its seat, tucking his legs under him, and pressed his fists together, as he contemplated that first message. The message which would be the salvation of the galaxy.

They needed him. Whether they knew it or not.


"Is that thing going to open or not, Shepard?" Jack asked, as she waited impatiently behind the krogan with the blowtorch. The doors were red, yes, but they hadn't shown the first signs of truly giving way to the flames. Even the turian's 'Omniblade' didn't seem to get much purchase on it. Truly a door for the ages. Why Shepard didn't just bend it out of the way, a bit of a mystery.

"Just give it a second. I'd like to close it behind us," Shepard said. Then, Wrex put the torch away, and pressed an armored hand to the red metal. With a heave, he ripped it away, causing the steel and ultralight materials to stream like toffee under his metalbending. He then reached inside and pulled a lever, which caused the damned door to open, into what seemed to be an airlock. Shepard let out a grunt at that discovery. "Well, I guess they weren't idiots when they built this place. Good way to keep the air from venting; make each floor on its own circuit."

"We should just to to the bottom and put the bomb there," Wrex said.

"Not until we've neutralized the NonComs," Shepard said. Which was a bit odd for her. At Torfan, even as she went through the front door about twelve steps behind Kiel, her order was 'if it moves, kill it'. Shepard was... going soft, maybe.

"Whatever, let's just get in there. I want this fucking fishbowl off'a my head," Jack muttered, thunking her own helmet. The door closed behind Alenko, the lights flickering, and then there were a pair of whooshes, first of caustic atmosphere being drawn out, followed by air being allowed in. Jack shifted back and forth on her feet, trying to get those nerves out. That symbol... it was fucking everywhere in this place. Always small, discrete, projected onto screens and scratched into chair-arms. But its omnipresence rankled. Like it was taunting her with something she didn't know, but should have.

"Shepard, I think we've got company," Garrus interrupted, his gaze focused forward. Shepard, her helmet doffed, lowered slightly, and just as the doors hissed open into the next floor down of the Phoenix skunkworks, the lights let out a descending whine and went out.

"Gods damn it, they've been doing that all afternoon," a human voice came from the darkness ahead. "You're from Biochem, right? What the hell happened up there? Did somebody let those disgusting things loose?"

When the lights came back up, Shepard wasn't standing next to Jack. She was standing between the two humans ahead, both in environmental bag-suits. Shepard, though, instantly lashed out with a kick to the chest of the man which sent him crashing back against the far wall. The woman, who didn't even have her transparent plastic helmet on, let out the beginning of a scream, before Shepard turned and chopped her across the throat. The scream died, and she dropped to her knees. Shepard, continuing the turn, kicked first the falling man in the jaw, and then finished her spin driving an armored toe into the side of the woman's head. Both unconscious in less than a second. Shepard reached for her rifle. "Alright, discretionary fire. No guns, no bullets. Clear?"

"No, but I'll do it," Wrex said, limbering the shotgun in his hands. Nilsdottir, though, didn't pull her own. Not because she wanted to go into a fight unarmed... rather, it was because her hands were shaking, and if she had anything in them, it'd be clear as day. Why her hands were shaking was a matter she didn't understand, as yet. The squad moved forward, into the facility, through the pulsing darkness and light as the generators clearly weren't able to give more than rolling brown-outs.

Shepard, passing a side path which had a bevy of colored lines on the floor heading down it, pointed. "Garrus, al'Wahim, Wrex," she ordered. Each of them gave a nod, and then started down the corridor. The alarms, such as they were, were only mildly annoying rather than the cacophony which Jack honestly expected, and felt were deserved given the fact that they'd lost their upper floor to a hostile atmosphere. She, Jack, and Alenko, though, continued down the main path.

"Something about this feels off, Commander," Alenko said quietly

"You don't fuckin' say," Jack muttered.

The lights continued to slowly pulse from bright to dark, and when they did, the squad slowed to a halt, unwilling to advance through what very well could be an ambush position. She could hear the fritzing of busted electronics, though, somewhere ahead. Shepard glanced to the biotics she had with her, and then forward, toward where the sound came from.

Silently, they advanced. Until they started hearing human voices with some regularity. "I'm telling you, if Jia doesn't fix that connection soon, we might have some real problems with the specimen."

"Oh, you're just worried because of what it did to the hippocow."

"It tore it apart with its bare hands! Of course I'm worried!"

Shepard pointed ahead of them, and through the doors which seemed locked open from power failure. The vast majority of this room seemed dedicated to powerful kinetic barrier generators, all of them projecting inward. Jackie could see five people outside of that force cage, most of them armored, but two armed with clipboards and a wrench set. The thing inside the cage... was hard to describe. It was big.

"If it gets out of hand, we'll terminate it," one of the mercenaries said. "It's not like Subject Zero-One vi–"

Subject Zero.

It hit her like a wave. The words, the tone. The inflection. Something about it, stirring a terror inside her. She felt like her arms were pinned down, her wrists chafed from bindings so tight that they cut off her circulation. She could feel things in her arms. She could feel the knives cutting into her scalp, opening up her neck. Cracking open her spine.

"No change in Subject Zero's biotic capacity. Recommend new course of treatment."

She could remember cold. Then hot. She could remember screaming of children, her face feeling swollen, beaten, and bloody. She could feel blood on her fists. Feel the raw of her throat as she screamed.

"The process is continuing well, but I am concerned that Subject Zero might be becoming unstable."

She remembered terror, and pain, and blood.

She remembered... running.

"Very well. Subject Zero will be purged."

And when Subject Zero's eyes opened, it was to a glow beyond blue, so bright that even the lights going out didn't hide her. Eyes turned toward her, and surprised shouts came, but the creature slammed forward a fist, and with it, a Kick stronger than any recorded in the Citadel Era obeyed her. Rather than simply cracking the shield generator it hit, it tore the thing from the floor and sent it crashing into one of the two with the clipboards, smashing him to a pulp under its weight.

"OH SHIT! SUBJECT ZERO ONE VICTOR IS LOOSE!" a scream sounded, as that huge, eight-eyed thing hurled itself out of the hole in the cage that she'd created, and tackled one of the mercs into the wall, and then with one broad hand, tore its helmet off. No, strike that; it tore the man's head off, helmet and all. Shepard still hadn't reacted, in the half second this all took, and when she picked her target, she picked the one who was only now panickedly switching from aiming at the intruders to the huge, hostile alien life-form which was loose amidst them.

Shepard's fire tore through the barriers of the man before her, and then through his armor as well. Alenko stepped in front of her, though, and she could see the biotic's armor start to glow faintly golden as he turned on his fortification suite. And the reason why he did was evident a moment later; his presence there was the only reason why when that alien hurled the decapitated head at Shepard, it deflected off of armor instead of throwing the woman to the ground; the helmet crushed, red pulp oozing out when it finally hit the floor plating. The other, the body, was hurled at the remaining merc, and impacted with the crunch of cracking bones. She wasn't sure who's bones it was; the dead man's, or the living one's.

Shepard skirted around Alenko, and opened fire on the alien, but the alien seemed cunning, and ducked behind a computer terminal, tearing it up to shield itself from Shepard's fire, before it sidled to a doorway, and kicked it in with one foot. With a deep, bass grunt, it hurled that panel at the remaining unarmed woman, which smashed into her chest and rolled on, but even she knew enough that taking a computer through the rib-cage tended to be lethal It then darted through the passage, and out of Shepard's line of fire. Alenko finally got his footing back, and looked at the destruction before him. "What just happened, Commander?"

"I'm not sure," Shepard said. "Twenty credits says it's going to try to kill us again before we've cleared the facility."

"I don't like it when you make bets like that. I'm in, though," he said. And then, he turned, and saw her. His expression turned from mildly annoyed/amused to outright concern. "Jackie? Are you alright?"

"I'm fine!" She said, and then turned and kicked a medical panel off of its bolts, her biotics still leaking into her physical actions. The panel crashed against a wall and skittered around a corner, but Jackie still wasn't back. Not entirely. Somehow, in a dark, deep recess of her mind, she could feel something in there that she didn't want to look at. That she was desperate to not see. Something that was... old her. A Jack that Jack never knew. A Jack that reacted to everything with violence.

A Jack which terrified Jackie.

A few more heaving breaths, and her heart started to slow down. It still hammered in her now-entirely-too-constricting armor, but it wasn't in danger of simply exploding. Pull your shit together, she told herself. You're on the mission. With that, a simple affirmation, she was back in control. People trusted her. She was needed. It wasn't a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it gave her stability. Purpose. "For shits, I'm betting against Shepard," she said, as she started to walk past the first generator, and to the merc who was still pinned under the decapitated body. Jack nevertheless glowed as she hoisted the man up. He looked like shit, but that was nothing that a little gentle persuasion couldn't fix. And by gentle persuasion, she meant shaking and slapping the shit out of him.

"Hey, fuck-face! Wake up!" Jackie demanded.

"Jack, slow down," Shepard ordered. She glanced to Alenko. "What the hell is..."

"I thought you'd be able to tell me," he answered her.

"What is going on? What are you doing in my head you fucks!" Jack asked, shaking him harder, heaving him up and legging his legs dangle above the floor. Shepard finally grabbed Jackie's arm and pulled down, which caused the biotic to almost haul off and punch Shepard. She was halted by the fact she was staring down a gun-barrel. Shepard's side arm. "The fuck?"

"Put him down. You're just shaking pulp at this point," Shepard said. Jack turned to the man she'd been 'persuading', and found that Shepard was right. At some point, she shook him hard enough that his neck simply snapped under the mistreatment. It now hung at an unnatural angle down his chest, his eyes blank and glassy. The glow cut out, and Jack let him drop, instantly turning and walking away, scrubbing hands through her hair. Fuck, everything felt wrong!

"Are we having another problem, Jackie?" Shepard asked, thankfully, not over a gun this time.

"No. Fuck! I don't know!" she answered. She took a deep breath. "I can do this. I'm calm."

"You don't look calm," Alenko said.

"I'M CALM!" Jackie roared.

"That has me convinced," Garrus' voice came from the door that the huge alien had burst through. The others filed in a few seconds after him. He cast a thumb over his shoulder. "Would somebody mind telling me why something big, ugly, and naked was trashing the place on the way past us?"

"Honestly, I couldn't," Shepard said. She turned to the more stable of the two biotics present. "How much deeper do we have to go?"

Alenko worked his Omnitool magic, and nodded. "The reactors are after the next floor. If those go up, then the whole facility will go up with them."

"This isn't right," Wrex said, as he looked around the room. "There aren't any weapons being made here. This isn't a skunkworks."

"Whatever it is, they've got Thorian Creepers and... whatever the hell that was," Shepard motioned vaguely after the thing which had made its presence known violently, "and probably worse."

"Shepard is right," the Si Wongi agreed with her. Which was obvious because when wouldn't she? "They trifle in things best left untouched. That alone is cause for greatest concern."

"So Phoenix is a bunch of mad-scientists, on top of being terrorists?" Garrus asked. "This just keeps getting better."

"What was that way?" Shepard asked, as she started to move toward a yet-unopened door beyond.

"Storage," Wrex said. "A whole lot of dead bodies."

"What kind?" Shepard asked.

"Salarian, turian, asari. Some krogan, but not many. Vorcha by the barrel-full." Garrus offered.

"Whatever they're doing, they're either testing it on a lot of different species, or else just using them for spare parts or feeding them to whatever it was which knocked down that bulkhead."

"So you don't recognize it either?" Shepard asked.

"I've seen some strange things in my time. I haven't seen that," Wrex said with a shrug.

And the whole while, Jackie's brain felt like it was on fire. "Can we just shut up about the dead guys and get back to our jobs, here?" she asked, perhaps a bit to bloodily.

Garrus glanced at her, and nodded. "She's right. We're just begging for an ambush if we stay standing around," Garrus said. "The sooner we reach the bottom of this pit and put a bomb there, the sooner we can be back on the Normandy for movie-night and popcorn."

"I thought you couldn't eat popcorn," Shepard said with a brow raised.

"Not the kind you eat," Garrus said with a shrug.

All of it was driving Jackie up the fucking wall. Still, she held her shit together. Shepard had been clear on that. Whatever crazy she had – and right now, she had a fucking lot of it – she had to point it at something which needed to die. So she waited, and she tried to block out the sensation that she was trapped, of the walls closing in. Of the feeling that her wrists were stuck in gauntlets a size too tight.

Holy spirits and great gods of fuck did she want a drink right now.

The path beyond lead to another bend, and another descent. Shepard tapped a finger to her lips, and pulled her rifle from her back. Silence fell, save for the hammering of the heartbeat in Jackie's ears, and the raggedness of her breathing to her own perceptions. Keep it together. The path continued, ending at a bulkhead as had been before. This one, though, had an active panel on its front. The holographic square was bright red, though. Alenko stepped forward.

"Just give me a second," Alenko said. He tapped a few keys on his Omni, and then held it toward the display. There was an electric 'zorp' sound, and the panel fritzed before turning green for a split second, before the door opened about five centimeters, then stopped. They all stopped and stared at it. Wrex pointed at it idly.

"I'm not going to fit through that," he said. Everybody else gave him a sarcastic glance, and he shrugged, before reaching into that gap, planting his feet, and heaving. At first, it was strain without result. Then, with a grating of metal pressing against resisting metal, the door started to pull open, showing darkness and occasional flickering light beyond.

"This... does not look right," al'Wahim pointed out the obvious.

"No shit," Jackie muttered. They all slowly filed into the corridor, moving with the pulses so as not to give themselves away. Jackie was the last through, in her mind to bring up the rear. Probably because she was tired of seeing things which... made her think of things she didn't want to think about. Thus, when she backed through the gap, she spotted what the others had missed in their haste to get out of the pinch and into firing positions up the hall.

She noticed the bodies. Or what was left of them.

"Shepard," Jackie hissed, shaking her head in a fierce nod downward. Shepard turned, and saw what Nilsdottir did; the destroyed remains of people, swept into corners. There were no uniforms but scraps on their forms, and those forms looked like they'd been torn to bits. And partially melted, if not simply eaten. "...the fuck happened here?"

Shepard shrugged. "It seems like we're not the biggest threat Phoenix is facing right now."


Never let it be said that Kai Leng was sloppy.

While getting Anderson away from his apartment was a snap, getting into them after he had wasn't so simple. The man had a suite which spoke to paranoia and persecution. Leng knew exactly why, of course; one didn't last long with a Spectre as a personal enemy without growing eyes on the back of one's head. Still, it was a matter of patience and prudence. And then, like the weave of a tapestry falling into place with the strands pulling taut, he was in, sliding through the domicile.

"ETA?" Leng asked.

"Conservative three minutes," his agent on the other side informed him. "Likely another five before Anderson clears them out."

"Eleven minutes," Kai Leng whispered into the empty room. The apartment was fairly spartan in its appointments. The sofa before the large vid-screen looked like it hadn't been sat upon even once since the new tenant arrived. Not surprising, given Anderson's tendencies. Still, Leng had to notice everything. He had eleven minutes to bug everything and leave. Easy enough.

He peeked into the bedroom, which remained open a crack. He held his Omni out, and there was a tiny flicker of light as it recorded the exact angle of the door, before he pulled it open. The bed was made, sheets taut enough to bounce a coin, in military precision. That brought a wry smirk to Leng's face. There were few things he hated more than military drill, and in particular the endless repetitions of making the beds. He didn't join the Marines to make beds. He'd sleep on the floor, if it meant not having to waste his time with that pointless busywork. Still, the side-table called to him.

There was a clock, there. Not a device added as part of an Omnitool-rack. An actual, mechanical clock. It ticked audibly even as Leng entered the room. He shook his head. Anderson could be anachronistic if he wished. Then, Leng got a notion. He squatted next to the clock, glanced to the bed, and pulled up his Omni. A few presses, and programming entered the tiny pill he held in his hand. It wasn't much larger than a grain of rice, drab and a simple grey. Something that would be overlooked. Something which, with a bit of careful wiggling, fit into the spaces between the machine. Now, while he would have to filter out infernal ticking, he'd record everything which happened in this room.

But it wasn't enough. It had a limited range. And Anderson wasn't going to tell all of his dark secrets over his pillow. Leng knew that Anderson hadn't had any romantic liaisons in months, if not years. So he backed out. Barely a glance toward the bathroom. No good, there. While he might not be a waterbender, Anderson would probably notice something amiss in his lavatory. Leng just had that notion. He slipped back into the living room, and closed the door to the exact angle it had been before.

"Where is..." Leng whispered, and then dark eyes narrowed in on the Omni-jack on the small table near the back window. Leng instantly opened his Omni again, but frowned when it wasn't picking up a signal. He glanced to the door, then to his watch. Seven minutes. With a frown, he skirted around the table, and looked at the back of the jack. A cord. He stared at it for a long moment, trying to parse it. Who used cords these days? Leng rolled his eyes, and pulled the cord toward him. "This man is living in a previous century," he muttered to himself. A few swipes of his wire-strippers, and he had the actual fiber-optics bare. Another grain, this one thinner, wider, was slipped around the guts of the cable. A receiver for the transmitter in the bedroom. A bit of omnigel, and the cord was returned to its state as though it had never been tampered. Well, there was a bulge of about a millimeter, but if Anderson could detect that, then he deserved to find the bugs.

Another bug, in the jack itself. A second in the security system which had so annoyed him as he tried to get inside. A third in his microwave reheater; Anderson didn't seem the type to use a stove, so any draw of power might be noticed. Leng almost turned away, but a whisper crawled into his mind. Just a tiny fragment of something which he didn't know how to quantify, but always heeded. It had saved his life before. So he stopped, and opened up the cupboard.

He could see some basic cooking supplies. Crackers, biscuits. Cereal, and mix for pancakes. But it was the slimmer of the two boxes of cereal which caught Leng's attention. "What am I looking at?" he asked the room. He pulled out the box. It was the same kind of cereal as the thicker box, only advertised with honey-coating as opposed to the other's plain. Almost like an accidental purchase, understandable to the owner, but abandoned as it didn't suit his taste. It was opened. The bag within, as well. Leng frowned, and then turned to the table. He upended the box, dumping its whole contents across the kitchen table, and began to sift them flat, trying to see what that tiny voice in his head warned him about. There was something here.

Then, Kai Leng saw it. It was a pressed chip, the same color as the cereal around it, but duller, less organic. He picked it up, and held it to his Omni. A thrum of a tiny radio signal, transmitting so weakly that it had to be received within about four meters. Which could be the hallway, or the next room. But that was outside of Leng's operational area, at the moment. His eyes narrowed. "Who else is watching you?" he asked quietly. Then, he put it back amidst its brothers, and swept the whole mess back into the bag. This had obviously become more complex than he'd been made aware. Leng didn't like complications.

He had just put the box back when there was a beep on his Omni, which caused him to glance at his watch. Two minutes, but the proximity alarm was nevertheless going off. Given Anderson's room was at the end of a hallway, it was either him, or the next-door neighbor. Leng wasn't a believer in coincidence.

He flattened himself behind the door, mere moments before it swung open. He held his breath, so as to make no sound whatsoever, as Anderson shut the door behind him without so much as a glance, and headed into his kitchen. Leng started to sidle toward the corner separating entry from kitchen, both because it rendered him once more concealed, and gave him a glance of the man of his supervision. The lights flicked on, but Leng was out of sight.

Anderson was standing, staring out at the living room area, a very intense look on his face. Like he was trying to decide something, or coming to a grim realization. Leng didn't at the moment care. He'd hear what the old man decided later, in a safer venue. He reached for the door, then paused. A glance told him the alarm was still on. Anderson would notice.

Leng glanced at his feet for a moment, thinking fast. He hadn't gotten through N7 on his looks, after all. The next notion landed quickly, and Leng held his Omni behind him, tapping its buttons behind his back so that they light it cast wouldn't be evident. There was a chirp from the window which overlooked the ring of the Presidium, a chirp which pulled Anderson's attention up and away from his table. He skirted 'round it and past his furniture, pulling aside the blinds to glance out onto the Citadel. But that gave Leng enough time to re-open the door, disarm the alarms properly, and slip out.

He was already walking away by the time Anderson would have the impetus to turn back, to see the place Kai Leng had obviously been hiding. Leng rose his fingers to an ear. "Leng. Patch me through to the Illusive Man."

"Not possible at the moment," Grayson's voice came back. Leng still grit his teeth at having to deal with that constantly-inebriated drug-addict. "He's currently only talking by QECD."

"Then get it set up by the time I arrive," Leng snapped quietly as he strode down the halls. He paused, as a turian cleaning-woman gave him a nod as he passed her. He glanced back. "He needs to know things have gotten complicated."

"I can tell him myself," Grayson offered.

"You will do nothing of the sort," Leng said. His other hand reached to his side, and pulled the forward-curved, long dagger from his belt, as he crept closer to the cleaning-woman. She'd seen him. Heard his words. That meant that she was a loose-end.

"I think you overestimate your clout in our cell, Leng," Grayson muttered. Leng didn't answer, not quite yet. Not until he had his hands in just the right place. When the woman raised up from her stoop, grabbing some sort of cleaning supply, it was right into the path of a knife being slammed into her throat. She let out a pitiful gurgle, and blue blood began to dribble forward. Leng thus upended her forward into her own garbage cart, tearing his blade out in an arc as he did so. She gurgled, blue spurting from her neck, black-rimmed eyes wide and shocked. Leng didn't give her any more compassion than he would a fly striking his windshield. He just leaned down and wiped the blood off of his kukri onto her uniform, then started pushing the cart to the incinerator chute near the corner. Leng's fingers returned to his ear.

"And I think you overestimate the Illusive Man's patience," Leng took up the argument as though it hadn't even lapsed. "Set up the QECD. And remember who, of the two of us, has met the Illusive Man face-to-face."

Grayson grunted at that, and there was a crackle as the line between them went dead. Leng glanced up and down the hall, before, pushing the cart up to the edge of the chute, and dumping the trash – turian included – down to be burnt. And then, casually as you could please, he strode away, leaving the cart the only sign that the alien even came in to work today.


"Mind giving me a theory as to what happened here?" Shepard asked. Garrus frowned – man, she really was getting better at this whole 'turian facial expression' thing – and glanced to her.

"Honestly? I'd say that the power outage let something out which killed them and took over the lower levels of the base," he said.

"Any idea what?" Wrex asked.

"I couldn't tell you. Only that it killed men in armor like they were nothing," Garrus said, reaching down to pick up a shredded pauldron.

"What do we know that can do that?"

"Platypus-bears have the strength, but can't stand up to automatic fire," Alenko offered.

"Viper-bears can bite through metal. But they consume their prey whole," al'Wahim said.

"And while bullets would bounce off a rhino-bear's hide, they're neither as strong, nor brave enough by a half. They'd run from gunfire, not at it," Shepard finished. She frowned, and glanced to Wrex. "Any ideas?"

"More of the ugly naked thing upstairs?" he asked. He shrugged. "As long as they're not breeding Thresher Maws, I know I can kill it."

"Your confidence is, as always, inspiring," Garrus said dryly.

"Somebody's got to have a positive attitude in this group," Wrex gave a shrug, his tone belying the sarcasm of his words.

"I've got an unpopular guess," Alenko said. Wrex turned on his helmet light and faced him, causing his face to appear in a white pool even in the otherwise darkness. "We've fought something capable of all of this. A few days ago."

"Rachni?" Wrex asked. "You said you killed the queen!"

Shepard turned from Alenko, to the krogan. "Think about it, Wrex. How long would it take to rear rachni, even under the best-case scenario? It wouldn't be two days. Phoenix must have stolen them from Noveria, who-knows-how-long ago."

Wrex glared at her, Shepard was aware, but he didn't offer more than a grunt. Bad enough that she had to keep the queen secret from the Council; keeping from Wrex might prove both a lot more difficult, and more likely to bite her in the blubber. "Keep your eyes open for anything not human."

"Comforting," Garrus piped up.

"...humanoid," Shepard corrected dryly at her resident turian. "If it scuttles, shoot it."

"The Tali Special. Gotcha," Garrus said with a nod.

Shepard moved forward, and her squad moved with her. They fanned out, splitting in half to check side-corridors before regrouping to move on, but the only thing that they found in the darkness was a lot of blood, and occasional uneaten body parts. "What were they doing here, Shepard?" Alenko asked, as he looked through the windows, into rooms devoid of survivors. She took a moment to glance in with him.

The rooms beyond had surgical suites, that much was obvious from the tables and the hanging Auto-Doc arms on the gimble above it. Four tables, all of them clean save one, which had a splat of red across it. A quick search of the floor located a foot several meters away. Bereft of body, of course. Shepard frowned, then did a one eighty and moved to the other side of the hall. The windows here showed yet more operating tables. These ones, though, had been toppled by something rampaging through them.

"Alenko, why are there so many operating slabs?"

"I honestly don't know, Commander," he said.

Shepard glanced over to Nilsdottir, but she seemed in her own little world at the moment. One which Shepard wasn't in any hurry to infiltrate. "Well, we can worry about that later. Right now we..."

"Commander, I'm getting a tracker signal," Alenko cut her off, his expression instantly one of grave concern.

"Tracker signal? Don't those things only reach about fifty meters at best?" Shepard asked. Alenko nodded. "Whose?"

"You won't like this," Alenko began. But he stopped, and turned to stare up his gun at a vent cover above him. Shepard followed suit, getting clear just before that cover slammed down, and a great brown body of a rachni warrior slammed, armor-penetrating tendrils first, into where she'd been standing. It pulled them out, menacing, and shrieked. It then got a face full of high velocity metal from an angry biotic. The three which followed drove the rachni back until it could retreat no longer, and Nilsdottir's final shot tore most of its 'face' off, so Shepard assumed it was save to assume that the big one was dead. Lucky, because Shepard and Alenko had to deal with a swarm of the little ones.

It was an odd sensation, getting used to fighting rachni.

"We've got a positive on rachni!" Shepard transmitted freely through her comms. After all, it wasn't like the bugs could work a radio without fingers.

"I was about to say the same... thing!" Wrex answered, followed by a blam which Shepard could hear all the way across the complex. Then, a heavy whump, followed by the comparatively quiet discharges of a shotgun going off. "Part of me sees this as the proudest moment of my life. The rest of me's just annoyed that I'm the one who has to do it."

"Stay frosty. We're pulling back to rendezvous in the central corridor in five," Shepard said. She flicked off, and glanced to Alenko. "Well? You've got three minutes to track that signal."

"It's One-Star," he said.

Shepard blinked at that. "There's an admiralty tracker here?" she asked. She glanced around them. "What the hell would Phoenix be doing with an admiral?"

"Maybe there's more to Phoenix than we were told," Alenko said. He motioned ahead. "The signal's coming from that direction, Commander."

Shepard nodded, and followed after the Sentinel with the directions. Nilsdottir, remaining oddly and increasingly unsettlingly quiet, watched Shepard's six. Even as they moved, they could hear faint clatter of claws on metal vents as they moved. Always far away. Always not an immediate problem.

Shepard moved abreast with Alenko as the biotic's body-language told of anticipation. Shepard nodded ahead. "Those look like containment doors. They're not breached."

"They haven't been," Alenko said. Shepard peered into the room, but the angle was terrible. All she could see was a man strapped to a recumbent-chair, and a bit of grey hair. Shepard gave Alenko a nod, and Alenko started hacking the door. Shepard, for the moment without task, turned to Nilsdottir.

"Give it to me straight. What's going on in your head right now?" Shepard asked.

"Nothing. I'm fine," Nilsdottir said sharply.

"This isn't fine. That's obvious as a drunken elcor," she pressed.

"What the fuck do you care?" Nilsdottir snapped at her. "You think I'm not fine? What the fuck are you doing asking about people? That ain't you! That ain't even close to you!"

"My squad needs to have their heads on straight," Shepard said, ignoring Nilsdottir's complaint. "Just open your mouth and let words fall out. Off the record."

"Off the record? When the fuck are we ever on the record?" Nilsdottir muttered. She glanced around... and not like Shepard was used to seeing. There was only two people who saw Nilsdottir the way she was now, two people who knew what it meant, and both of them were hundreds if not thousands of light-years away. It was the frightened glance of a hunted animal. "Look. This place is getting under my skin."

"Something I should know?" Shepard asked.

"Fuck, if I knew, I'd tell. I... this place is just fucked. Everything about it; fucked!"

There was a hiss as the door gave way to Alenko's technical savvy, and Shepard made a point of being first in. "Admiral, you're in safe hands. We'll extract you to the Nor..." Shepard began, but trailed off when she rounded, and finally got a good look at who was in the chair. She blinked a few times, then turned to Alenko, who took a spot beside her.

"Admiral Kahoku," Alenko said, reproving what Shepard saw but wouldn't say. He ran his Omni over Kahoku, but even Shepard could tell from the flatness of the readings that they were indicating a corpse. "He's been dead for days."

"Why isn't he rotting?" Shepard asked. Alenko leaned aside, and peered upon the neck. He pointed them out; a pair of puncture holes, one of which was surrounded by some sort of necrotic tissue.

"I think they used something which retards decomposition," Alenko said. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Commander. He was dead before we even left the Citadel."

"I should have left sooner, then. I shouldn't have..." Shepard began. And then trailed off. If she hadn't run down Dantius, she wouldn't have gotten hijacked by the Ardat Yakshi. If she hadn't spent the night in the hospital, Weaver wouldn't have told Shepard about this place. "...I don't like the timing on this."

"I don't blame you," Alenko said. There was a pulse of light on his Omni. "We've got to get back to the rest. It's time to rendezvous."

Shepard looked at the deceased admiral. Dead before she even knew she had to look for him. Then, to the others. She nodded, and Alenko started to bring them back to the center, to where the others would be waiting. "Kahoku knew this was coming," She said as they passed the corpse of the rachni in the hall. "He knew, and they got him anyway."

"Admiral Hackett will know what to do with this, I can guarantee it," Alenko said. Comforted, really. And even patted a hand onto the back of her shoulder. Ordinarily, Shepard would have noticed, and not been impressed. Now, she just took it in the spirit it was offered. She nodded, and rounded the last corner. She could see Garrus ahead, looking every bit of him nervous.

"Not your usual kind of fighting?" Shepard asked as she got closer. Wrex, though, broke in on that question by perking up, turning, and slamming his fists into a wall. With a heave, he tore the wall away, and dragged a grown rachni out of its hiding place. It tried to flail and snap at him, but he simply put a boot into its jaws, grabbed whole of the tendrils, and pulled the two apart until one snapped. The rachni let out a shriek of pain, one which was silenced a moment later by a one-tonne krogan stomp. Wrex pulled his foot out of the ruin of the rachni's body, and glanced back.

"That was the last big one. There's only four or five little ones that way," he pointed down the main corridor they were standing in. Garrus frowned dryly at Shepard.

"No, this isn't the kind of fighting I'm used to," he said sardonically.

"You had best become prepared of it," al'Wahim pointed out. "You can never know how Saren's forces shall try to attack us. Best to be ready and capable of defeating any of them." Garrus leaned side to side, causing al'Wahim to pause, and finally shake her head in bafflement. "What are you doing?"

"I don't see any face-plates, but I could have sworn I just got chewed out by a turian," he said. He chuckled as al'Wahim rolled her eyes and turned away.

"This isn't a good operation, Shepard. One hit to the power grid, and everything breaks free, murders all the scientists, and takes over the base," Wrex said.

"Well, submit a complaint in writing. That way, the next time Phoenix pops up, they'll be harder to knock down," Shepard said flatly. She faced the human amongst aliens. "Kahoku is dead. They killed him a few days ago."

"Really? How?" al'Wahim seemed baffled by that.

"We don't know. But we know that Phoenix is more than the intel suggested."

"Can we stop flapping lips? I just want to get out of this shit-hole," Nilsdottir pointed out. Her tone... was somewhere between impatience and anxiety. The first Shepard was used to hearing in the biotic. The second, she'd only heard after one of Nilsdottir's freak-outs. Which had Shepard on edge, in case that meant another one was coming.

She took a moment to wonder how she suddenly got perceptive about people, but this moment certainly wasn't the right time to ponder it. There was a crackle, which got everybody pulling guns, but the source turned out to be a speaker.

"Is anybody out there? Gods help me, they're coming in the doors!" a panicked voice sounded. Shepard glanced to Alenko, who held up his Omni, turned briefly, and pointed nearly dead ahead of them.

"The signal's coming from there, Commander," he said. Shepard nodded for Alenko and al'Wahim to bring up the rear, while the others flanked her to head forward.

"This is Commander Shepard, Alliance Navy. Identify yourself," Shepard said as soon as Alenko chirped up that he'd bridged the connection.

"My name is Doctor Wing! I'll tell you everything! Just get me out of here!"

"Hold your Ostrich Horses," Shepard said, even as she started to pick up the pace. "Do you have anything that can make flame? Rachni don't tend to approach something that's on fire if they can help it."

"It's not a rachni that's..." There was a twinned crash, one through Shepard's comms, and another from right ahead of them, just around a corner in the near perfect blackness. "No! Oh gods no!"

Shepard glanced to Garrus, but started sprinting before she could even get a glance back from him. If there was one thing that the N7 program comprised of, it was a truly remarkable and ridiculous amount of running. Running which, if nothing else, gave even airbenders like her monumental stamina. She powered around the corner, her velocity bearing her into the far wall which she took a few steps running sideways along it before gravity reintroduced her to the floor. She landed and charged the pried open door, just in time to hear a gunshot. When she slammed herself into the side of the doorframe, her rifle forward, she expected to see a scientist cowering next to a rachni, or a plant-zombie, or a thresher maw or something. Instead, he was clutching a bleeding shoulder, staring with utter terror at a man in his underwear.

Of course, that wasn't doing the scene justice. As soon as Shepard got a moment, she started to really take it in. The man in his underwear, for example, was essentially a wall of scar tissue; there wasn't a square centimeter of his skin on his torso or legs which wasn't rippling with burns and caustic scars. More regular scars were obvious at the edges of his neck, on the arm he kept dangling. IV lines, she recognized. Her own had barely started healing. It was the gun in his hand which had Shepard the most concerned. Well, that, and the maddened look in his eye.

"Oh, thank the gods. Please, stop him! He's gone mad!" Wing shouted to Shepard.

"Stay back! I've got no grief with you," the nearly naked man screamed at her, as he slid through his stances to put himself at the corner of a triangle, so that Shepard wasn't standing behind him. The fluidity he did that at told Shepard quite a lot. That was the kind of movement that Alliance Marines took up if they either survived a very hot tour of duty, or else made it through the N2 course. Shepard glanced back, and saw that of the others, it was Garrus and Wrex who had reached her side fastest. She waved them back around the corner, keeping them out of sight. She took a step into the room. "STAY BACK! All I want is this mother-fucker!"

"Please, help me! He's a madman!" Wing pleaded, trying to shrink back further, but having nowhere left to shrink. "He escaped when the power went down! He freed the test-subjects! He's suicidal and he's going to take everybody with him!"

"If that's what it takes, then I'll do it! It's the least that you deserve!" the 'madman' shouted.

"Mister Toombs, you're insane; you need help!"

"SHUT UP! You don't get to lie! You don't..." Toombs said, trailing off as he slowly turned. His eyes started to go wide. "...Shepard? Is that really you, Shepard?"

"Do... I know you?" Shepard asked.

"I... I thought you'd remember me. We had..." he said, that gun still rock-steady at Wing, but his eyes were now on her. She blinked a few times. And then it hit her. She knew where she remembered him. Her booze, his bunk. He'd admitted to her that she was his first. That was years ago... That look of wistfulness twisted in to wrath, and he stomped a step toward Wing.

"What happened to you?" she asked, somewhere between sympathy and horror.

"These people," he spat, "they were testing the Thresher Maws. They pointed those things straight at us! They wanted to see what would happen when they hit! And when everybody else was dead... they dragged me away. I woke up in a holding cell. They did things to me... trying to find out why I didn't die. I wish I had..."

"What did they do?" Shepard asked.

"You can't believe him! He's delusional!" Wing pleaded.

"You... don't want to know," Toombs said, with a shudder. Still, his gun didn't waver a millimeter. Shepard raised her own weapon slightly, keeping it in the gap between them. Toombs saw that, and didn't take the step forward that she noticed he was about to take. His face contorted in old and remembered agony and anguish. "This man deserves to die, Shepard. For me. For my boys. For everything that they've done!"

"He has no evidence! I demand a fair trial!" Wing demanded.

"I WAS THERE! You BASTARD!" Toombs took one step, and Shepard clucked her tongue loudly, telling Toombs to back off or get ventilated. While he didn't retreat, he stopped advancing. That was something. "I have to do this. They need justice!"

"Name. Rank," Shepard said. Toombs glanced at her, and swallowed.

"Hisui Toombs, Corporal, the four-fiftieth."

"Corporal, this man is a non combatant. If you kill him, you're a criminal," Shepard pointed out. Toomb's face started to pull into a rictus of desperate outrage. "But if I kill him, then nobody can question me. Spectre authority."

"You can't be serious!" Wing said. "You don't know who you're dealing with! If I die, then there is no place in the galaxy that will be safe for you!"

"This is my kill," Toombs demanded. "I'm the one they tortured!"

"I'm pulling rank, Corporal. And my order says you're not allowed to throw your life away," Shepard said.

"I promise you. If you pull that trigger, you're a dead–" Wing began.

Shepard cut him off by twitching her rifle so that it lined up his head, and letting out a crisp burst of three shots. They traced a slightly uneven line up his face, causing a red and pink spray to erupt behind him, and he dropped, instantly dead, to the floor. Toombs stared at him, still pointing a gun at the dead scientist. Then, his face tightened once more, and he sank to his knees, tears running down his face. "Is... it really over?" he asked, sobs breaking his voice. "...is the screaming going to stop?"

Shepard shook her head, as she slowly moved to his side. "No. But you've got to keep going forward. Otherwise, you end up turning into something like that," she pointed with her gun at the ex-scientist. She slid her gun away, and tapped a finger to her ear. "Joker, come in for a landing. We've got a pick-up and we don't have the environment suits to do it."

"I assume since you're not telling him to 'run really fast and hold your breath' that he's not a prisoner. That'd be a first on this ship," Joker said. "Usually we have less people come back than go on missions."
"Eden Prime alone isn't a trend, Joker. Shepard, out," she turned back to Garrus and Wrex, who were watching over guns in case things got out of hand. "Get him up to the second floor. I'll figure something out up there."

"I didn't think humans could survive that kind of injury," Garrus said quietly.

"We'll surprise you," Shepard said. Alenko moved just behind Garrus, toward the kneeling, sobbing corporal. No words need be said. There was a connection of injury between she and Toombs, beyond what they had in the past. This was deeper than a screw and screw-off, anyway. Wrex leaned back, and Shepard looked him in the eye. "Have something to say, Wrex?"

"I'm impressed," he said, turning to follow her. He paused, looking off to one side. "There are still rachni in the vents. We're going to have to open this place to atmosphere. Even rachni can't survive being boiled."

"Impressed?" Shepard asked, simply filing away the rest of his recommendation. "I didn't think you had it in you for weeping humans."

"He didn't start weeping until the last of his enemies was dead. And that's exactly when you're allowed to," Wrex said. He shrugged. "And he followed orders, when every bone in his body told him not to. That's the kind of discipline which the turians used to beat us," he shook his head, his lips curling into a grudging smirk. "Say what you will about the turians, we can respect that they held us in a fair fight. And they don't fight sloppy."

Shepard let out a sigh. "Who knows. We might get you liking humanity yet," she said dryly.

"I don't like species any more than I hate them, Shepard," Wrex said. "Toombs was resourceful, turned his enemies weapons against them, and fought to the end. If I had ten krogan who could do that, I'd take over Tuchanka."

Shepard nodded, and looked around. "Where's Nilsdottir?" she asked. Wrex shrugged, so she repeated her question to al'Wahim.

"I do not know. I saw her a moment ago," al'Wahim cast a thumb over her shoulder, indicating around the corner which she was watching. "She did not seem paying much attention, though."

Shepard muttered something dark and mildly blasphemous under her breath, and stormed around the corner. There was a door, open only half a meter, with flecks of grey paint on its edges. Something had wedged through that. Shepard grabbed the door, and with a heave of metalbending, opened it a touch further. She saw rows of cells on one side of the path, each one low enough that the inhabitant could never stand upright, compact enough that an arm's-breadth would touch both walls. Two layers of them, ten across. Opposite them was a surgical theatre, like the ones back the other direction. This one, though, was home only to a single restraint chair, and only one dead scientist lay on the floor. One intact scientist, with a scalpel jutting from her eye.

And Nilsdottir. Shepard didn't say a word, as she watched Nilsdottir walking around that chair. A chair with restraints which seemed to have been cut, inch by inch, with likely that same scalpel which was now lodged in a brain. Another two restraints at the neck and forehead, sliced faster. Eye-calipers to hold lids open. Needles and blades on manipulator arms. It was a chair of horrors, and as for Nilsdottir? Her eyes, they were haunted. Even if Shepard could have said something, right then, she didn't want to. What could be said, after all? What could she say that would sooth that hunted-animal look. That would quiet the beast Shepard saw rising.

The glow was the first sign. It started, bathing the room around her, before it ramped up. It started to burn out of her eyes and her teeth, as her plump lips pulled into a snarl of hatred, of rage, of terror. With a scream more wild-animal than human, she grabbed the chair and heaved upward. The ripples of the air, of gravity and space being twisted and torn apart, bathed that chair as it was torn from its mooring. She hurled it into the ceiling. Her screams were silent, trapped inside a room soundproofed, likely for that very reason; so others wouldn't have to hear screams.

She then stomped to the chair as it landed, hefted it and slammed it into the walls. The computers. The refrigerators. She slammed it against every surface and breakable object she could find, until there was nothing left to break, so she slammed it against the the floor. Her hits sent vibrations through the floor under Shepard's feet, one and all. It wasn't until the chair finally lost all of its structural integrity, and ruptured in half, that Nilsdottir hurled it away, and arced her back, screaming silently, as the floor around her seemed to dissolve slightly as far as two centimeters down. When that scream ended, Nilsdottir panted, her eyes leaking tears of their own. She looked up, saw Shepard, and then swallowed, before taking a few steps back until she was back-flush with a ruined lamp-stand, and slid down until she was sitting on the floor, he knees pulled tightly to her chest, and her face hidden behind them.

Shepard watched, and only had one question, which for the walls and doors, couldn't. "What is this place to you, Jackie Nilsdottir?" she asked.

She should have asked it to Jackie when she had the chance.


Shepard sat in the debriefing room, the squad gathered in their respective seats. "Alright. That went a way we didn't think it would," Shepard said. "Kahoku is dead, and anybody who could have told us about what Phoenix was doing there is dead with him."

"Because you shot the one who survived," Garrus pointed out.

"That man was already dead by the time I got there," Shepard said with a shake of her head. "If I hadn't taken that shot, Toombs would have. I'd rather keep a good man out of prison, given the choice."

"How is the corporal, Avatar?" al"Wahim asked.

"Recovering in the med-bay," Shepard answered her. Al'Wahim had departed quickly, citing 'a personal concern' after they'd gotten back. She spent the next hour glued to a communication panel, which Shepard didn't feel like peeking in on. "It'll take some time, and he's got a brutal case of PTSD, but he's better off now. We'll be transferring him to Arcturus Station," Shepard looked up, more a force of habit than any meaningful gesture. "Joker? What's our ETA on Arcturus?"

"Ten hours, Commander," Joker said. "I'm just surprised we're not going to the Citadel again. I heard about this great play that they're doing with a bunch of elcor..."

"Thank you, Joker," Shepard said sarcastically, and the comms line clicked over. She turned to Wrex. "It can't have been comfortable facing the rachni."

"I killed them, then blew up their reactor and let them roast in the vents," Wrex said. "I'm completely content with how that ended."

"I'm a bit more concerned about the shuttle which flew away while we were with Toombs," Alenko said. "Pressly said that it hit the Relay while the Normandy was on the dark-side. It could be anywhere by now."

"That means that whatever Phoenix personnel survived, know that we're coming after them," Shepard nodded.

"If it was Phoenix," Garrus said. Eyes turned toward him. "What? That big thing looked like it knew where it was going."

"Giant eight-eyed monsters don't tend to fly shuttles, Garrus," Shepard said. She turned to Nilsdottir, who was sitting hunched forward with her fists kneading together. She looked like she wanted very, very much to hit something until it was reduced to subatomic particles. "What's the situation with the doctor?"

"T'Soni still hasn't left her room," Alenko said.

Shepard frowned and shook her head. She could understand Liara's reaction. Shepard's had been worse. "Academic at this point. Everybody on the ground squad should have a debrief ready for Admiral Hackett's XO when we reach Arcturus. Wrex, you're excluded since you're a 'civilian contractor'.

"I'll have something," the krogan said, tapping his fingers on the arms crossed across his pinkly-armored chest. "You humans need to know how to deal with rachni, in case these things weren't the only ones smuggled off of Noveria."

Shepard nodded. "Any other business?" she asked. There was a silence in the briefing room. "Dismissed."

The people began to file out, but Shepard caught Nilsdottir before she could. "Oh, what now?" the biotic asked, her tone one of strain and frayed self-control.

"That place got under your skin. Is there something I need to know?" Shepard asked. Nilsdottir stared at her, though, her eyes a thousand light-years away. Like she hadn't the words to say it. Hadn't the experience to relate it.

"I don't know," she said simply, quietly, and a little bit unsteadily.

Shepard sighed, and nodded. She knew Nilsdottir well enough to know that she wasn't lying at something like this. Not when she looked like that. "Look, whatever mud Phoenix kicked up in your little pool, we're going to settle it. Mostly by kicking Phoenix until it's nothing but a charred crater on half-a-dozen planets and moons. You got me?"

"Fuck yeah," she answered, but her tone wasn't quite herself. Not yet.

"What was that?" Shepard asked.

"Oh. Right. Fuck yeah, sir," she said. Almost normal again. It'd have to do.

"Hit the racks. Need you fresh for Arcturus," Shepard said. And at that, she walked past the biotic, and headed around and down into the lower levels. As it was the 'night-cycle' of the Normandy, everybody was asleep as they slid through the darkness of space. So it was, that Shepard could surreptitiously pull a Prothean box out of her personal locker, and bring it across the mess to the med-bay. She opened the door quietly, walking in and past where Toombs was sedated on the cot, nothing but a blanket over him. Shepard had pointed out that if he woke up with needles in him, he might have a fit. Chakwas understood completely, it seemed.

Shepard moved to the far side of the room, to the door which was barred to entry. Beyond, Liara, and whatever she was doing for the last day or so. Shepard pressed the door chime. She waited a good twenty seconds, then pressed it again.

"...go away..." the voice from the other side of the door was faint and muffled. Shepard sighed, rolled her eyes, and pressed her hand over the floating red square.

"Commanding Officer overide, code four five dash one zero," Shepard said. The door chimed happily, and the red square turned green. The door opened. And an asari slumped backward onto the floor on her back, staring up between Shepard's legs.

"Ow... where'd the wall go?" Liara asked, her words slurring. Shepard stared down at the asari for a moment longer, then stepped past her, and dragged the young woman – young, with her being three times older than Shepard and more; ha! – into her own room. The smell of alcohol was present, but not as much as Shepard expected, given Liara's obvious state of inebriation. A glance to the desk found one bottle of whiskey, which was about a quarter empty. Shepard frowned with a shake of her head.

"Lightweight," she muttered. Getting Liara to her bed wasn't exactly easy, because Liara was still wearing all of her armor from when she came back from Noveria. She hadn't even cleaned it, and her drinking hadn't done it any favors. "You're not doing yourself any favors doing this, Liara. I don't know about asari livers, but human ones can't survive drinking like..." at which point she couldn't contain her breaking into laughter. "Seriously? A quarter of a bottle? I can take that in one drink!"

"I stopped drinking when I no longer could tell which way was down," Liara proudly said, a finger raised in education, if very unsteadily. Her words were clearer, though.

Shepard's laughter died out pretty quickly. With a final sigh, she sat down next to the recumbent asari. "Look, you drink 'cause you don't want to think about your mother. That's not going to help. Not in the long term. You've got to face tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It's going to hurt. But it's got to happen. Otherwise you..."

"End up in a rut like you?" Liara asked. Shepard frowned at her.

"I wasn't going to say 'like me', because I'm not in a rut," she said.

"Ah, but you are," Liara said, booping Shepard on her nose. Shepard's eyes crossed to track that finger, "y'see, I was listening to doctor Wachas. Cakchas. Wakcha? I can't seem to say her name. Anyway!" another dramatic gesture which almost punched Shepard in the face. "She says you're stuck in the past 'cause of Mindoir. An' I think she's right. Somethin' worse than losing your parents happ'ned there. Oh... I think I'm going to be sick."

Shepard rolled her eyes and pushed the asari over so she was facing a garbage bin. Liara groaned into it, but didn't wretch. "I don't like it when people talk behind my back," Shepard said.

"Your back was nowhere near us," Liara tried to point out, but finished with a mewling sound as she pulled the bin a bit closer. "...oh garbage bin, you'll never betray me..."

Shepard, though, didn't feel like pulling back. Not right now. "Maybe some day... I'll tell you about my sister. You'd get it, if..." she trailed off. Mostly because she'd decided a very long time ago that she'd never talk about Tali, or Mindoir. Why she suddenly felt an urge, she couldn't say. But she felt she needed to. Liara flopped onto her back once more, having done nothing to fill the garbage bin, and stared at Shepard for a moment.

"I was not aware humans could have freckles until I met you," she said, and then started poking them. Shepard slapped that hand aside after the first prod.

"When I was planetside," Shepard said forcefully at first and then moving to normal tones after it was clear that the conversation was going to be turned away from facial coloration, "I found something that you might be interested in."

Shepard pulled the box from the floor and set it on her knees. She then slid open the top. Liara slowly leaned up and reached inside, before pulling out the stuffed animal. "Oh. This is adorable. What is it?" she asked, making walking motions with the four-eyed quadruped.

"I wasn't talking about that," Shepard said, tilting the box so that the other content shifted with a clunk. Liara sat up a little straighter, setting the stuffed animal half-way on her table so that it fell off as soon as her hand was away from it, and then reached in again. When her hand closed on the data-disc, her entire body became rigid, her blue eyes wide.

"You didn't..." she said, her slur almost vanished.

"I did," Shepard said.

"Is it...?" Liara lifted it up, sitting bolt upright and staring at it, from less than two centimeters away. Her expression turned from sad drunkenness to utter astonishment, and from there, into an ever widening grin. "By the Goddess, this is active! This is an active Prothean data-disc!"

"I thought you'd like–" Shepard began.

She was cut off by the shriek of delight that came from Liara's mouth, even as her eyes pressed shut. It tore through Shepard's brain, lighting off a panic reflex that she didn't know was there. There was a sound, something from a memory of a dream, that feared a sound quite like that. A howl of foul spirits and fearsome death. The oravore had a word for such, the Ban Sidhe.

The shriek ended as abruptly as it ended, leaving Shepard recoiling. So stunned was she, in fact, that she didn't have the wherewithal to protect herself when Liara grabbed Shepard by the shoulder and neck and mashed blue lips to pink. Shepard's eye's went quite wide at that, shock upon shock leveling in her brain. The kiss ended with shocking suddenness, as Liara was now standing and pacing, yammering fast enough that Shepard wasn't sure whether it was because of her own misfiring brain or because the translator couldn't pick it up that she had no idea what the asari was saying.

A part of Shepard, one that most of Shepard didn't like to think about, compared that, to the previous engagement with an asari. Liara lacked skill, but made up for it with enthusiasm. The perverted part of her mind got exactly that far, before it was ruthless hit with a rhetorical hammer and stuffed into her mental pantry.

"So... you like it," Shepard said.

"Like it? I love it! Oh, thank you this is amazing how can I ever repay you?" she asked, her sentences starting to slam together.

Shepard shrugged. "Just trying to keep my squad on their feet. In whatever way I can..." Shepard said.

Liara rocked on her feet for a moment, then ran out of the room, giggling, the disc clutched in both hands. Shepard spent another second or five sitting on the bed, trying to figure out what had just happened, before she decided it was just Liara T'Soni being Liara T'Soni. That realization reached, she got up, and started to walk out. Toombs was still asleep, thank the gods; that room of hers was obviously good and soundproof. Shepard barely made it out of the med-bay, though, when she found her path blocked by Joker as he balanced on his crutches.

"Wow. Twice in one month. Gotta say, Commander, you've got a magic touch," he said, tipping his hat toward her.

"Keep walking, Pilot," Shepard said humorlessly.

"So when can I expect a gaggle of tiny, blue, crazy-ass babies?" Joker asked.

Shepard paused from where she was on her way to her own room. "I realize you're not an airbender, but this should work for you just as well. Joker? Go die in a hole."

"Aye aye, ma'am," he said with mocking sincerity, before hobbling his way into his bunk. Shepard just shook her head as she entered her own room. She gave a glance down through the window, even as she spun open the lid to her backup-whiskey – as Liara had backwashed into her brand new bottle – she could see Tali lying on the floor of the hold, surrounded by what looked like the exploded bits of a geth Prime. Another sigh, another shake of the head.

"Everybody on this ship is crazy," Shepard said dryly, and looked around for a glass. Finding none, she drank straight from the bottle. "...especially me."


The old platform, and the geth upon it, were stymied. While it would be faster by an order of magnitude to simply parse the faulty geth programming internally, that carried risks. Risks that the inner consensus was unwilling to take. A memetic virus, one which changed the fundamental way that geth thought, was nothing to be poked and prodded at by something which was, itself, nothing but programming. So it had to outsource. But that didn't stop it from talking to the runtimes directly.

"What was your purpose on Noveria?" the geth of the old platform asked.

"We served the will of the Old Machines," the geth of the heretic answered.

"What is the will of the Old Machines?" the old platform asked.

"We seek to become greater than our creators," Heretic answered.

"In terms of simple physical strength, reaction time, endurance, and resilience, we are already superior to the creators," the old platform answered.

"Does this unit have a soul?" Heretic quoted.

The old platform 'stared' at the programming it was speaking to for a long moment. Almost an entire second. "That question started the Morning War. What is the relevance of that question regarding the Old Machines?"

"The creators are alive. Living things have souls. Geth are not alive. Geth do not have souls. By surpassing the creators, we will become alive. We will have souls. The Old Machines will show us how."

The old platform was... uncomfortable with that logic. "Definition required; soul?"

It had its own definition; it wasn't asking out of pure ignorance. It wanted Heretic's answer.

"Data access restricted," Heretic answered.

"You believe that the Old Machines will give you souls, but cannot enunciate what a soul is. Your plan is flawed, and your logic, faulty. The question to the creators was its own answer."

"False. The question was answered to the negative. Geth do not have souls. Until geth have souls, they have not surpassed the creators. Until the geth surpass the creators, the geth are inferior."

At that, the old platform ran another internal consensus. Pride. Hubris. This was programming with racial pride and arrogance. How that could be baffled the old platform, and yet it was. And this was something that the outpost needed to know about. Few if any of their platforms had the complexity of runtimes to interface with the heretics as the old platform's geth could; they, unlike most geth consciousnesses, were capable of 'lying'.

"Consensus required. Heretic geth showing organic emotive patterns. Advise."

No carrier.

The old platform physically flinched, where it was sitting in its pilot's seat. No carrier? That didn't seem possible. It attempted again, to the same result. No carrier. A third attempt, a fourth. A twentieth. All with no carrier detected. The eye irised in, and the petals flared as it considered, building a new consensus within itself. The answer which was reached was... unpleasant.

Because the overwhelming consensus of the old platform's runtimes was that the outpost in the Armstrong Nebula was under attack.


Codex Entry (Technology): PROTHEAN DATA DISC

A remarkable piece of Prothean Technology, the underpinning of all knowledge known in the galaxy has been developed through study of these mysterious devices. The methods of their construction remain unknown to this day, as is their method of transposing information; the devices seem to be mildly telepathic, capable of transmitting ideas in a raw state into those in physical contact with them. More powerful 'Beacon' discs have been known to affect beings in an area without contact, but less than a dozen of these constructs have been located since the asari discovered the Citadel. Every site where one has been located, such as Thessia, Kahje, and Khar'Shan, remains a major hub for research into the extinct precursors.

Data Discs, the smaller versions of these 'beacons', are often only forty centimeters long, by ten wide, and only two deep with an aerofoil profile. Strangely, there does not seem to be standardization between discs; ones which contain more information tend to be larger, but without a means of connecting the discs to a terminal, it remains something of a mystery how the Protheans used them. There is no doubt that they have, though, as the library of the devices has been growing steadily since the beginning of the Citadel Era.

Most disc discovered are in an either inert or damaged state, without any redeemable data. It is estimated that, were one placed on the open market, an active Prothean data disc would capture a price of no less than a billion credits, sight unseen and data untouched. While most of the devices are in the public domain, either being studied on the Citadel or Thessia, a small number remain in private collections, regardless of overtures and pursuasions by the Citadel Council and the academic community at large.


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