"Close that wound! Seal it! Come on, she's bleeding like mad!" Garrus shouted.

"I told you to watch her back! What were you thinking?" Shepard screamed at Nilsdottir, who flinched back from her.

"I lost my focus for three seconds!" the biotic tried to defend herself.

"Well, that was a hell of three seconds," Shepard said. She stomped behind Garrus as he and Wrex tried to bear their cargo up the ramp as quickly as possible without damaging it any further than it already was. "What happens if she dies?"

"I..." Nilsdottir ran out of words, and just let out a frustrated howl into the cargo hold.

"We can assign blame later, Shepard," Wrex said as he pounded the haptic pad which called the elevator down. "For the time being, let's try to focus on keeping her alive."

The crew all stopped what they were doing and turned, their expressions turning from businesslike professionalism to very real concern. Shepard could see, even with the half turn she did before entering the elevator, that there were no few pale, worried faces on the Engies as they ascended.

"Alright, I'm giving her another hit. Everybody stand clear," Alenko said, and Wrex and Garrus moved so that they were at the very edges of her stretcher, the most insulated parts of it. Because they didn't dare set her down on the filthy floor. That was part of the problem. Alenko flicked a command on his Omnitool, and pressed it to the center of the armor. There was an electric zap, and she twitched at the assault. But there was a change. Now, that wound started to ooze the nearly-purple blood once more. Not a good sign, but it meant her heart was working again.

"There's no sealing this suit," al'Wahim, who was notably the only one in the elevator not wearing armor, said. "Shepard, I don't know if..."

"We're not losing her," Shepard said.

"We have to be realistic. She has suffered a catastrophic failure of her environment suit. She..." the Si Wongi tried to point out. Shepard grabbed her armored gorget and slammed her back up against the wall of the elevator as it ascended oh-so-slowly.

"WE'RE NOT LOSING HER!" she screamed.

"Shep...ard?" the word pulled Shepard's attention away from al'Wahim, and caused the rage to ebb somewhat. Shepard moved to the quarian's side, taking her tridactyl hand in one of her own. "I'm... sorry I..."

"Don't be sorry, Tali," Shepard said. "You're going to get through this."

"...is it bad? I... can't see," she said.

Not surprising. The faceplate was a lattice of cracks. Part of it near the bottom was shattered right out, glass no-doubt embedded in Tali's bleeding lips. It was the least of what'd happened so quickly. "It's a scratch. You'll be fine, as long as you stop worrying about it."

"Shepard, it's..." Garrus was cut off by a glare from Shepard, "...going to be alright. I've seen plenty bounce back from worse."

Shepard nodded, thanking the turian for the lie. The doors opened up, and the medical team was waiting for them. Chakwas ushered Wrex and Garrus away, and they bore the quarian with the savaged suit and the bleeding wounds past them, she giving clipped and concise orders to them as they went. The adrenaline started to ebb, and time seemed to miss a few beats.

Shepard looked down at her hands. The green gauntlets were covered in that off-purple blood. So were Wrex and Garrus. The bridge-crew, Joker excepted, were also lining the Mess, and their expressions of concern were clear as the morning. "We did what we could. Now it's up to them," Wrex said. He then gave a sharp whistle, and the lizard bird fluttered down from parts unknown to cling to his hump. Thankfully for the bird and Shepard's temper, nothing was said.

Universe, Shepard asked, I haven't asked of you much. But please... don't take away another Tali.


Shepard glanced to one side from where she sipped at her coffee, and noticed the blue approaching her. "So you've finally gotten out of your room," Shepard said lightly, handing a second cup toward her. Liara stared at the coffee for a moment before shaking her head.

"I do not drink stimulants. I find they do not agree with me," she said.

"Perfect cure for a hangover," Shepard pointed out.

"I do not believe I am having one," Liara pointed out. Shepard rolled her eyes and groaned at the unfairness of it. "Shepard... I want to thank you. For what you said to me. I know it was not easy to talk about your... motivations. I appreciate that you trusted me."

Shepard shrugged, and shook her head. The office that they'd holed her up in after the Binthu debrief, or as she called it, the flaming-bird clusterfuck, had an overlook of much of the lower structures of Arcturus Station, including the seat of the parliament proper. The 'building' it was housed in dominated one entire wall of the massive space-station. Not surprising since that was, essentially, where the human race made decisions for every planet that fell under its aegis. The office was also currently abandoned, and notoriously hard to reach. Which begged the asking of the next question.

"How did you even find me, anyway?" Shepard asked.

"I asked. Why?" Liara asked.

Shepard just shook her head. "I'm surprised you'd come out, is why. I didn't think you'd be comfortable being around this many humans, or even just people in general, after what you went through."

"You are kind to think of me, but... I believe I will be able to endure this. Somehow," Liara said, her eyes lowering to stare at her feet.

"No, I'm not," Shepard said.

"Hrm?" she asked, glancing up.

"Kind. I'm not kind. Anybody could tell you that," Shepard said, pointing with her coffee cup. She drained it quickly, and then started on the one she'd poured to follow up, since apparently Liara didn't want it.

"I think you underestimate your empathy."

Shepard didn't feel like arguing. "There's something else, isn't there?"

"I have been dwelling upon the Prothean vision in your mind. Ever since we gained the Cipher, I thought that it might be easier to see what the vision entailed. And yet time and time again, we seem to reach a dead-end. It is a matter of finding what the vision holds at its end, I think."

"You want to get back inside my brain, don't you?" Shepard asked with a wry smile.

"Purely for academic purposes. Oh, and possibly saving the galaxy. That too."

"You're never going to change, are you?" Shepard asked with a dry shake of her head. The door chimed and hissed open again, this time giving entry to the Normandy's resident quarian. At that, Shepard's expression turned from amused bewilderment of whatever-would-she-do with this befuddling asari, to outright confusion. "Tali? What are you doing here?"

"I was asked to come here," she said. She didn't sound entirely comfortable about it, either.

"By who?" Shepard asked.

"He was right behind me a second ago," Tali said, motioning behind her. Sure enough, a man with the dark blues of Alliance Navy strode through the door just as it was beginning to close. Shepard's eyes went wide and she slammed the cup down onto the table, letting the coffee slosh over the edges of the cup, and instantly bounded to attention.

"FLAG ON DECK!" she bellowed.

"Ow, I'm standing right here. You do not have to shout," Liara complained.

"At ease, Commander," Admiral Hackett ordered her. As intimidating a presence as he was over FTLC, he was much more of it in person. Those eyes, with the way they could drill straight through you, had a way of kicking even the rudest FNG into a respectful salute and standing an hour at attention. Shepard shifted her stance, but not to the degree that Liara did; she sat down and started to wipe up Shepard's spilled coffee. Tali, too, gave due deference, though not in a way that Shepard was immediately familiar with. "I have to thank you for what you've done on Binthu. I'm beginning to believe the old adage that Military Intelligence is anything but; they seem to keep dropping the ball on things like this."

"You've read the debrief, sir?" she asked.

"I have," Hackett answered her. "You did remarkably well, given the poor state of intelligence at the Phoenix site. It's regrettable that those bastards managed to get Kahoku. He was a good man, a good leader, and a good friend," he said, before taking a breath. "Until now, Phoenix was just another human supremacist group with lofty rhetoric. Now, I fully intend to drop the hammer on them."

"Tell me where to hit, sir," Shepard said.

"It's not a matter of hitting. It's a matter of smoking them out," Hackett said. "Your work neutralizing the site was commendable. Recovering Corporal Toombs was an act of a damned saint. When he's out of medical, he'll probably provide more useful intel on Phoenix than everything we've gotten on them for the last ten years."

"Permission to speak freely, sir," Shepard said.


"I recommend taking it easy on Toombs, sir. He's had a very, very hard time of things."

"Noted and taken under advisement. However, he's also an intelligence asset that cannot be overlooked. We'll be as audacious as is prudent," Hackett said. He started to cross the room, and stood before the window, before turning and staring at the asari. "So you would be the young Doctor T'Soni. You're not what I expected."

"What did you expect?" Liara asked, still sitting, the coffee cup in her hands where she'd been sniffing at it when he addressed her.

"A generational copy of Benezia T'Soni. It's a relief that this isn't the case," Hackett said. "I'd ask you to leave for confidentiality reasons under most circumstances, but these aren't most circumstances. It's for that reason that I've invited Miss Zorah to this briefing."

"Briefing, sir?" Shepard asked. Hackett nodded.

"There's been a marked increase in geth activity in the Skyllian Verge. Our surveillance drones have marked a number of outposts throughout the Armstrong Cluster, as well as a massive increase in geth cruisers in that region. There's some discussion that this might be the bulk of Saren's geth forces."

"Do you think they're using Armstrong as a leaping-off point for a major offensive in Alliance Space, sir?" Shepard asked.

"At the moment, we don't know what the geth are doing," Hackett said with a shake of his head. "It could be as minor as a series of listening posts, or it could be the lead-up to an all-out invasion of human space. We need somebody on the ground in the cluster, and you've gotten a lot of experience fighting geth in the last few weeks. More than any Alliance soldier has, ever," he paused, then turned to Tali. "And with Miss Zorah providing technical assistance, I wager that the crew of the Normandy is probably in better condition to see Operation Broken Scepter through."

"May I speak?" Tali asked. Hackett turned to her.

"I suppose you don't appreciate being volun-told into this," Hackett said.

"It's not that, Admiral. I'm just confused as you are to their placement," Tali said. "The Verge is a long way from the Perseus Veil."

"I am more concerned about what will happen if Sovereign is there when we go," Liara said. Hackett turned to her.

"This is news to me. Explain," Hackett said.

"Well..." Liara said, brightening visibly. "From the information I was able to gather from Shepard's vision from the Beacon on Eden Prime..."

"Short version," Hackett interrupted her. She deflated slightly.

"...oh. Well... Mother... she described Saren's flagship as being called Sovereign, and that it was host to terrifying, if subtle, technologies of mind control."

"Is this true?" Hackett asked, turning to Shepard.

"I can vouch for the accuracy of Liara's statement, sir. It isn't the first time that somebody identified Saren's ship by name. And we saw what it did to the EPPDF; it swatted them like they weren't even there."

Hackett pondered a moment, then glanced from Liara to Shepard. "If Saren or Sovereign is present in the system, abort the mission and call in the fleet. I hate to pull them away from the Kite's Nest, but... Batarian murmurings don't weigh much when compared to getting slaughtered by a fleet of geth sweeping past our lines. Miss Zorah, do you have any experience with how geth fight on a fleet-scale?"

"I'm afraid not, Admiral," she said. "I'm a technician, not a strategist. You'd need to talk to Han'Gerrel vas Neema, or maybe... no, Daro'Xen wouldn't know their tactics. Only their programming. And I don't know if they'd trust the Alliance enough to give away military intelligence."

"A pity, but one we'll have to accept," Hackett said. "You're the point of the spear, Shepard. Find out what the geth are doing out there. Wipe them out if you can, and if you can't, tell us so we can instead. I've had enough ambushes by synthetic soldiers to last a lifetime in the last few months. It's time we start to punch back."

"Aye aye, Admiral," Shepard said.

"Tali'Zorah, your assistance is appreciated in this operation," Hacket said to the quarian.

"The honor is all mine. Anything to blast those artificial bosh'tets to scrap is... Oh, I didn't mean to say bosh'tets... Argh, I said it again!" she let out a puff of breath which was evident only in her 'speaking light' and her posture. "I want the geth destroyed every bit as much as you do, Admiral."

Hackett nodded at that, and turned to face Liara. "And as for you... don't get in the way of the Commander," he said. Liara, who had started to smile, wilted as the comment instantly backhanded into her. Hackett returned his attention to Shepard. "The locations of the reported firebases will be transferred to the Normandy. Good hunting, Commander Shepard."

Shepard snapped a salute, and turned to walk out of the room. It wasn't until about five steps out of the room that she loosened up, taking a deep breath, and rubbing her temples as she stared at her boots. "It's always one thing or another," Shepard said. As she stood, though, her headache started to disappear, the pain fading from a dull thud to a warm squish as there was a sensation of cool relief that spread through her brain. She glanced aside, to see two-toed feet standing very nearby. When her gaze passed the back-canted legs on the ample hips, she knew what to expect, but it was still something a bit odd to see a quarian kneading the glowing water to Shepard's head through her hair. "Tali? I thought you hadn't figured out healing, yet."

"Well, Doctor Chakwas' nurse was much more skilled in healing than you claimed to be," she said, pulling that water back into a flask which rode somewhat awkwardly at her waist. Shepard spared the girl a small smile.

"Looks like you'll be bringing back something for the Fleet to be proud of, after all," she said.

"I still have a lot to learn... but I know I can," Tali said.

"Stay out of your way? You do not even know your own way!" Liara complained as she stormed forward, her shoulders set and her face darkened in a steady huff.

"Hey, watch it about Hackett," Shepard said.

"Oh, why?" Liara asked, her tones still sharp, even if her body language shifted almost instantly from pouting outrage to receptive curiosity.

"Hackett's a great man," Shepard told her. "He's done more for the human race in this galaxy than anybody since I was born!"

"Oh," Liara said. "I did not know you idolized him. I apologize for... denigrating him."

Tali glanced between the two women, one looking annoyed, and the other trying to choose between annoyance and contriteness. She just shook her head, with what was surely a roll of her eyes.

"I'm going to get back onto that ship, fly across the galaxy, and kick the asses of the geth I'm going to find there so hard, that the next AI that gets born is going to feel it. If you two want to come with me, please do," Tali said, before waving daintily as she started to stride back toward the ship. Shepard turned and watched her go.

"That was..." Shepard shook her head. A razor grin came to her face. "I think we've just been given an order, Liara."

"I believe you are correct. Aye aye, Admiral Tali'Zorah vas Normandy!" Liara called out, making the worst salute Shepard had ever seen. Tali missed a step, her shoulders hunching, before her gait resumed, if not as proudly as it had before.

Chapter 14

The Heretics

"You've got something on your mind," Wrex said where he leaned, that bird continuing to perch on his hump, as he watched the human female and the turian sparring in the middle of the cargo hold.

"Why do you say that?" Garrus asked, as he danced back from al'Wahim's advance. Unlike Nilsdottir, Asha was a more practiced and 'professional' fighter in Garrus' opinion. She didn't throw punches unless she knew they were going to land. She was conservative, but knew how to apply pressure. And she knew how to, even without having reach, keep Garrus on his toes.

"You don't pick fights. You only scrapped with the biotic because there was money on the line," Wrex said. "So that means there's something bothering you, and the only way you can think to get rid of it is punching somebody."

"You will notice that I have not yet been punched," Asha said. Garrus tried to instantly prove her wrong by sending out a jab, but she struck the blow away before it could connect with her forehead. "Not meaningfully, at least."

"That's cold, Asha," Garrus said.

"You wanted a spar. You suffer the consequences of your choice of partner," she pointed out.

Garrus was aware that Wrex was watching him, and while Asha was still directing where Garrus walked, he took a moment to drop his fists and limber out. "I've been dwelling on Saleon. It feels like we haven't gotten an inch of ground on him. He could be anywhere in the galaxy right now."

"The mad-doctor who worked in counterfeit organs?" Wrex asked.

"No, the mad-doctor who cloned organs inside unwilling hosts," Garrus corrected. He immediately had to get his fists up, though, as Asha moved in with a lunging punch which he only just kept from sending his head spinning, and had to bound back away from another flurry of lightly-padded fists which followed it. "It's just bugging me. People like that deserve to die. They shouldn't have red tape and paperwork that they can hide behind until they die of old age. It isn't fair, and it isn't just."

"The universe, you will find, is seldom either," Asha said, limbering out her own fists for a moment, before returning attention to the task at hand. Garrus stared at her, his eyes narrowing.

"This is about that call you got, isn't it?"

"It is none of your concern," she said. She took one aggressive step forward, but Garrus was instantly backing off and side-stepping.

"What, don't you thing having some outside perspective on this will help?" Garrus asked.

"What about this situation makes you think that I am incapable of handling it?" Asha asked, her own fists dropping. "It is a family affair, and will be handled within the family. Must I bring every problem and trial and tribulation to the attention of the Avatar, as well? I thought not; it is both wasteful and absurd."

"She's got a point," Wrex said, his arms crossed before him. "Let the Commander deal with her own problems. She's probably got a barrel of them."

"Have you noticed how she's been acting lately?" Garrus asked. And he got kneed in his chest for the trouble. He managed to get Asha off of his case and his head out of her guillotine-choke by driving his sharp fist right into her kidney. The two parted, each circling each other and rubbing something injured. Garrus' neck, Asha's back. "Can we call this a draw?"

"For now," Asha acceded. "And to answer your first question, yes. I have. She is increasingly not herself. Or rather, not the herself she was when we fought our way to T'Soni on Therum."

Garrus, who'd taken to leaning against the hold's structural support, turned a suspicious look to the human. "Are you saying that Liara's manipulating Shepard, somehow? Because that doesn't seem very likely."

"It is but one of several theories I have," Asha said, starting to unwind the wrappings around her fists. "Note also that Lieutenant Alenko was badly hurt on that mission."

"So, she was afraid of losing her subordinate," Wrex said.

"Unless they are more than superior and subordinate," Asha said. She gave a shrug, and threw the bindings into her locker. "The simplest options are either the asari is fundamentally altering Shepard's nature without her consent, or the Avatar simply got an abrupt shock when her friend and confidante was injured. Note, also, how much of her recent behavior stands in line with Alenko's thinking, rather than, say, yours or the friendly krogan's."

"KREEEE! Set it on fire! It'll cook while we kill it!" the bird shrieked from that 'friendly krogan's hump. Wrex flicked an eye up at it, and cracked a bit of a smirk.

"So she's love-struck and trying to change herself for her mate. In a way, that's kind of pathetic," Wrex muttered.

"Hardly pathetic," Asha contended, scowling at the one-tonne alien. "It is thoughtful and meaningful. She is trying to be a better person. And if she does it for the sake of romance, who are we to say nay?"

"You really think she's struck on Alenko, don't you?" Garrus asked. Asha gave a quiet nod, but had a devilish little smile on her face. "You want the two of them together, don't you?"

"They make an excellent pair."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Wrex muttered. "I thought salarians were bad for this..."

"Well, I have heard that Shepard had a bit of a thing for asari women," Garrus pointed out. "Isn't that right, Wrex?"

"That is nonsense," Asha dismissed instantly. "The Avatar is not and has never been a xenophile. And her relationship with the lieutenant is clear as day to any who wants to look at it."

"I'm not sure what you're looking at is..." Garrus cut himself off. "I'm talking about an alien's love-life right now. What is wrong with me?"

"You're on a human ship. All humans are insane," Wrex pointed out.

"We are not insane," Asha said somewhat defensively.

"Yes, you are," Garrus agreed. "Otherwise, we wouldn't find ourselves in this increasingly uncomfortable discussion of who the Commander is trying to have sex with."

"Don't be so crass," Asha complained.

"Besides," Garrus continued, "given what I know about her, she doesn't seem the type for flowery romance. More like two bottles of stiff alcohol, a secure door lock, and a willingess to 'strap in and ride the G's'."

"You are being vulgar and I no longer wish to speak on this..." Asha began, but tensed. Garrus sighed, and turned, noting how the Avatar was standing behind them. She didn't look very impressed.

"...ride the G's?" she asked.

"That was..." Garrus asked.

"He was talking about some turian female he had 'a problem' with on his first tour. Sounded interesting. You interrupted at the best part," Wrex said smoothly. Shepard frowned, shrugging uncomfortably. Wrex, though, gave the turian a sly wink. Thank the spirits for the liar's save.

"Well, let's just say that I had the reach, but she had the flexibility," Garrus made as though to finish a story abruptly. Wrex rolled his eyes and turned away, reaching up to flick the bird off of his hump as he did so. It let out a squawk and a string of mixed human and krogan profanities before nestling into the beams once more.

"Now that we're done talking about our dicks, can we get ready for a drop?" Shepard said, as she pulled her helmet into place. Garrus could see that, past her, Tali was striding up out of the engineering room. Alenko, too, was getting himself armored up.

"Where are we landing first, Shepard?" Garrus asked, glad at least that they'd managed to get off of Asha's insane hobby of trying to hook up her commander with her coworker.

"Casbin. A pre-Garden world. A bit hot, so keep your firing sporadic and short."

"More than that, it's a Sanctuary world," Alenko chimed in. "Just stepping onto its surface carries a very heavy fine; the Council doesn't want anybody disturbing the developing ecosystem."

"As I see it," Shepard said with a shrug, "we're not breaking the law, since we're there destroying the geth, and the geth broke the law first."

"That's kind of shaky reasoning, Shepard," Wrex pointed out.

"If you want to pay that fine, then be my guest," Shepard said, before entering the Mako at al'Wahim's back.

"Fair enough," Wrex noted. There was a pause from the IFV.

"Where's your armor, Asha?"

"I will get it on soon. I am simply ensuring you do not try to drive," her voice answered sternly. Garrus could practically hear Shepard's resulting death glare, and he couldn't help but laugh at it.

The old platform lay prone in a crack of the peak of the hill, looking down over the fire-base which the heretics were using. Its petals flared in something like alarm, as it watched them dump several more destroyed geth into the hold of their drop-ship. They didn't understand why the heretics were collecting the defunct platforms of the old platform's kind. After all, it was a trivial matter to fabricate more platforms; it was the run-times which were a precious and irreplaceable resource.

There was a hiss of an iris pulling in, and the old platform shifted its sight through the scope of the very old, but often retrofitted rifle that it had kept as its default weaponry for a very, very long time. They knew that overspecialization was inviting weakness, but unlike organics, who would often require tens of thousands of hours to reach mastery of a device, and then had only years or decades to utilize said mastery, geth were not hampered with such problems. It watched through the scope, of a heretic platform which moved away from the firebase, a weapon of unknown, non-Rannochian device in its hands.

They didn't understand it's purpose. It almost seemed as though that were a weapon devised to fight specifically against geth. They didn't understand it's need; why would even the heretics devise weapons which could be turned against them? The geth and the heretics were not so different, and in form, effectively identical.

"Scouting unit. Vector estimated. Intercept with this platform in three hundred seconds," the old platform said to themselves. It was a habit that few but they ever undertook. Most geth only spoke in compressed burst, if ever at all. After all, what needed to be said, when all geth could have equal access to the same information? The old machine adjusted its aim, ahead of the heretic platform, and higher than its center of mass. An organic would call it 'fishing for a headshot'. The old platform, while skilled in that pursuit, was not so vain, nor cruel. In fact, they only wanted to show the heretic a mercy.

There was a crack, and the shot from the rifle sped away even as the weapon itself kicked back strongly enough that it would have broken the arm of any organic species save particularly resilient individuals such as the larger krogan. Instantly, some of the more vociferous run-times piped up with the ideal places to shoot a krogan to put it down quickly; one shot through the head, one each through the left and right pectoral plate. No brain, no hearts, no chance for 'death rage'.

The shot continued out, even as the old platform's runtimes quieted those eager few, until the shard of hypersonic metal slammed through the heretic platform's kinetic barriers as though they were low-impact structural foam filler, and then caused the 'head' and the shoulders of the heretic platform to be torn off and away. The legs took two more steps, before they lost their balance and fell onto the lichens of the ground. Without its optics, it's transmitter, or its gyroscope, it was struck dumb, blind, and deaf. The processor core was undamaged, though. They didn't want to kill their heretic counterparts, after all. The run-times were suffering from a programming error of some type. That didn't mean they needed to be rendered inactive.

The behavior of the heretics still struck the old platform as somewhat odd. Not geth-like. It's optics irised out, and it stared through its scope to the fire-base once again. The last of the platforms had been loaded in, and the dropship lifted off and away, flying like some sort of insect – itself a creature not native to Rannoch – leaving the heretics on the ground. The petals flared out again, though, as it saw the geth communal processing core being dragged into the open, its connections severed.

"What do the heretics intend to do with that hardware?" they asked themselves.

They were answered, when several heretic geth raised those weapons at it, and bathed it with blasts of ionized plasma. Sparks flew even as the hull melted, and the quantum AI storage was unmade. The old platform simply stared, unable to fully comprehend what they had just seen. There were nearly one thousand geth runtimes in that processing core. They had just been...

The closest word that the old platform had to what they had just witnessed, was murder. Mass murder.

It pulled back, sliding its rifle away from the crevasse it was shooting from, and turned back toward its ship. It didn't start walking though. There needed to be consensus. What happened now? There was a long processing, but no answer gained more than a simple majority, and in every case, not a strong one at that. Vexingly still, each reasking developed different ratios, as runtimes, after 'consideration', changed their 'opinions'.

The old platform, and the geth within it, were at a loss.

It's auditory sensors picked up something approaching over the boiling wind. A glance up caught the escaping form of a ship, just as it zipped through the atmosphere. The petals opened wide once again. SSV Normandy. A dark form dropped out of it's bottom as it started to pull up, vanishing back into space as quickly as it had appeared. The old platform rose to its feet. Shepard Commander was a member of the SSV Normandy. Perhaps the answers would be more clear, and the consensus more meaningful, if they could gain perspective from the Shepard Commander.

On that, there was an almost unanimous consensus, lacking only the run-times which attempted, and failed horribly, at trying to get more than a 'hopeless' score at Fleet and Flotilla: Interactive Cross Species Relationship Simulator. The old platform slid the equally old rifle onto its back, and started to walk. It didn't doubt that Shepard Commander would be approaching soon. They wanted to see what she would do, from as clear a perspective as possible.

"How far?" Shepard asked, as al'Wahim and Garrus lay on their bellies in the slime-mold, each with a rifle forward. "And for that matter, how many?"

"I see twenty," Garrus said.

"Twenty three," al'Wahim corrected.

"I was estimating."

"This is not the time for estimation," she snapped at him. She then fell silent.

"...twenty four," Garrus finished. "Yes. Twenty four. Two of them are Destroyers, and one looks like a Juggernaut."

Tali, who was on her own belly beside Garrus, stared not through a scope but a pair of binoculars. "This seems like a lot of processing power for so few," she said. She glanced back at Shepard. "I think there's a dropship out there with other geth."

"Maybe they're just planning for the worst," Garrus said to her.

"Geth are nothing if not efficient. They never send more than they absolutely have to. It's their biggest strength and their most glaring weakness," Tali responded.

"Noted and accounted for," Shepard said. "Options."

"I assume walking up to the base and shooting the machines would be too easy," Wrex said where he leaned against the side of the Mako.

"Drive in and shoot everything would likely be more effective," al'Wahim offered.

"Really? You're not going to let me pick them off from a kilometer and a half away? That's mildly insulting to my skills," Garrus griped in his easy-going way.

"Our uplink is ready, Commander," Alenko said, as he leaned out of the Mako. "You should be getting telemetry now."

Shepard nodded, and flicked a few buttons on her Omni. A terrain map of the area popped into being, with markers over power-sources and areas of 'interest'. "Alright. I've got a plan. Garrus, al'Wahim? We're dropping you on this hill," she pointed at one in particular. "You'll have clear sight-lines on the entire firebase. Take out their snipers first, their rocketeers second, as soon as we're within range.

"Aye, Commander," al'Wahim said, before grabbing the back of the turian's armored collar and pulling him to his feet. He came up easily enough. Shepard turned to Wrex and Tali.

"We're going to be walking in the back door," Shepard informed them. Tali glanced at Shepard's telemetry, and let out a murmur of worry. "Yes?"

"What back door, Shepard?" she asked.

"The one Wrex is going to make," Shepard said. "It's probably partly plastic and high-impact polymer, so bending it away is out until we're inside its ring. Got any experience with breaching charges?"

Wrex let out a single laugh. "You don't live for six hundred years as a mercenary without learning a few things about explosives. I'll make you a hole large enough to park a dreadnaught in."

"Don't get too eager. We want to try to get their information out of their cores if we can manage it," Tali warned him.

"Fine. Just a massive explosion instead of a world-ending one," Wrex told her with 'belabored' patience.

"Where will I be, Commander?" Alenko asked.

"In the Mako," Shepard said. She reached up and tapped the cannon which hung low over the terrain where they sat in a crater and out of line-of-sight. "You're certed for the cannon, and we're going to need some fire-support for that Juggernaut."

"Aye aye, Commander," he said with a nod. She looked at the others. "Any questions?"

"When do we start?" Garrus asked.

"Right now," she said.

Getting people into positions was the easy part. Al'Wahim's driving was, frankly, very good, and she always managed to keep a mountain between they and their targets. Garrus and she were the first out, though, and Shepard's attempt to get behind the wheel was cut off by Alenko taking that seat. Kind of a shame, since her squad was the next out, walking up through a sort of gully towards the back of the firebase, leaving Alenko to drive away.

"Something has me troubled, Shepard," Tali said.


Tali was quiet for a moment, then continued, as though she were trying to convince herself to speak. "The geth. They've got firebases throughout this cluster, right? So why are so many on the ground? What are they trying to accomplish?"

"Fire bases are fire bases, no matter the species which makes 'em," Wrex said.

"Well, it's too small to be a rallying point. It's like how quarian listening posts used to be. But there are too many geth!" she pointed out. And then, she let out a grunt as her leg sunk into muck. "Oh... I think I'm stuck. Oh gods I'm sinking!"

Shepard took a slogging step out of the warm muck that they were standing in, and noted that indeed, Tali was slowly sinking into it. The goop was already approaching her back-canted knees. Wrex let out an audible sigh, though, and grabbed her under each armpit, and heaved her straight up. She was released to a wet pop, and set on relatively drier ground. "Do that again, and I'll let you sink," Wrex said.

"Do you think you can crack their memories like you did on the one which got Saren kicked out of the Spectres?" Shepard asked.

"If we can scrap enough of those things without breaking their cores, I'm sure I'll find something," Tali said.

"No promises," Wrex gave her. Shepard just shrugged.

They slogged up through the gully until they reached its end, a nearly scalding hot 'stream' that dribbled down from a spring near the firebase's wall. Shepard stooped low, staring over rifle-sights at the wall, and the towers which were built into it. She gave a point toward the walls. "Snipers. Any chance of baffling their shields, or their weapons, or communications?"

"I think I've got something," Tali said, and then she sat down, and started programming. Shepard and Wrex spared each other a glance, but the quarian wasn't down there long before she was crawling back into position. "Just tell me when," she said.

Shepard nodded, and tapped her team-comm. The signals from Garrus and al'Wahim were weak, but by design. They didn't want the geth listening in. Notably, both signals were in an active state, so she knew that the snipers had their shots lined up. Shepard gave a nod, and Tali waved her Omni toward them. There wasn't anything visually obvious, but when there was a burst of metal and polymer from the farther sniper, and the closer one didn't immediately turn to the nest which caused it, Shepard had to think that Tali'd done something right. A split-second later, the other was thrown by a bullet over the side of the tower, and crashed to the ground in a junked heap on the ground outside the wall. Shepard swung her gaze along the other towers, but those ones were all looking in a direction Shepard and her squad weren't.

"Move up," Shepard ordered. Tali and Wrex started pumping legs just as she did to keep up. They crossed the gap toward the wall quickly enough, and slammed their backs into it, Shepard looking up and down its length to make sure that they weren't seen. Wrex put his full attention on the breaching charge, as well he should. Tali, though, moved around Shepard and toward the geth which had taken a plummet. When she did, Shepard heard a confused grunt. "What is it?"

"Two," Tali said. Shepard skirted around the bend of the wall, and saw what Tali had mentioned. While the geth had indeed smashed into the dirt here, there was another all-but-unrecognizable form laying out near it, hidden from their earlier position by a dip in the land. It was humanoid, two arms two legs, but beyond that, it was burned beyond any recognition. It might not have even been organic. Though why a geth would barbeque one of its own didn't stand to reason. Tali moved to the burnt one after a moment of glancing about, then turned it over.

The estimations of its being changed, as it had been lying on its face, and now showed that the face it had was now a nearly incinerated skull. Glass, melted by the extreme heat, clung to the bone, but it was still clear that the body was probably asari or human.

"I guess somebody stumbled onto the geth, and they didn't appreciate it," Tali said, her tone quiet. She bowed her head, and set the body back so it was face down. "Rest in the sand, stranger in a strange land."

"I'm about ready here," Wrex said. Tali glanced up, then quickly ran by the Geth, pausing only a second or three to yank something out of it's chassis and shove it into a pouch at her hip. Had to hand it to the quarians, they know how to salvage in a hurry.

"We're all ready?"

"Stop asking and just blow the wall," Wrex said, and he pulled out his shotgun. Strange, Shepard was the only one who didn't have one. Shepard therefore shooed Wrex out of the blast radius of the bomb he'd set, and counted down from four. At zero, there was a blast, and while the shockwave did travel out, the force directed in was many times stronger, and cut a nearly perfect hole out of the wall, just about big enough to drive the Mako through.

The squad poured through, just in time to see a rocketeer turn its weapon sternly to open fire on them. The instant it's rocket started to launch, though, it's body seemed to shatter from within as two hypersonic metal slugs impacted it in the same second, causing the missile to shoot over the wall and into the harmless distance. Shepard's rifle barked fire, but she found it very quickly overheating. Not surprising, considering that the atmosphere hovered somewhat close to the boiling point on this rock. Wrex and Tali, who had weapons which operated on a more 'one shot one kill' philosophy were having a much easier time.

Shepard would have said she was as well, but the Juggernaut turned from where it had been facing the real entrance to where interlopers had breached it's back door. There was a thrum of electronics, or of engines spinning up, and the barrels at the end of its arms began to glow with an angry red light. "Death ray!" she shouted, and tackled Tali to the ground as the beam seared across the wall at shoulder-level, trying to cut the distracted quarian apart. Tali rolled off of Shepard and pressed her weapon to a geth's belly, firing once, and causing something white and goopy to fly out its back. Shepard kipped up and let her hands do their own work, pulling, priming, and hurling a pair of grenades in a single motion, directly at the Juggernaut.

The explosion that they caused was... pitiful, comparatively. It didn't even seem to tax the barrier generators. The massive, hodge-podge eye shifted from her, though, and settled on the krogan. There was another dull thrum, and then the beam was flying at Wrex. But Wrex must have felt it coming, because even as the light was gathering, he was sweeping low, and thrusting up with both fists. There was a horrible tearing noise as the floor was ripped apart, a great shelf of stone thrusting up and into the path of the beam. Stone turned out to be somewhat more resilient to death-rays than even krogan would have been.

While Wrex continued the fight against the geth on that side, and the snipers continued to pick off the ones who tried to flank them or take places in the towers, the Juggernaut remained the largest threat, both literally and metaphorically. The thrum of its capacitors dumping power sounded, and there was another glowing of its arms spinning up for a shot. Shepard, though, didn't feel like trying to dodge another one when it surely had a better firing arc on her. So she reached up from a water-line which had been drilled transverse into that spring, probably for coolant purposes, and heaved it out of its metal prison with a ping, before blasting it into the body of the Juggernaut.

The greatest mercy of waterbending in the modern age was that it usually passed through kinetic barriers without so much as a blip. That was what, debatably, won the Human-Batarian War; It didn't matter how many you had in a boarding party, if any waterbender can just curb-stomp them with their sewage. It was kinetically brutal, unbelievably effective, and in this case, utterly pointless. The Juggernaut didn't flinch more than a centimeter.

For the water at least.

There sounded a blast, and an explosion bloomed from beside the Juggernaut's head. That had enough force to cause the death-beam to shoot wide of both Avatar and quarian. Alenko had made his presence known in fine form. Shepard began to run forward, ignoring the battle around her, and toward the great behemoth which dominated the center of the battlefield. It's pauldrons opened, and a flight of tiny rockets bounded out of them, before igniting and streaking right at her. She twisted up, and with another tearing sound of polymer failing to hold its shape, the stone bounded up and over her, creating a dome before her which the bomblets burst against, before she kicked the center out of that dome and continued running.

My, how that thing was bigger when you were close up.

Another blast bloomed from the back of the Juggernaut's head, but Shepard was shielded from it by the barriers that the geth superstructure still managed to keep stable. She intended to bring that to an end. The geth, intending to smash her flat, swung down with a gun-barrel arm. She hurled herself past it, the red-hot metal slamming down centimeters from her heel. She then rolled to a stop, twisted her arms swiftly, and thrust her fingers straight up.

A lightning bolt tended to be a terrible thing to behold. Doubly so when everything vital about you was made of metal and electric impulse. The bolt seared through the Juggernaut, locking its joints and frying its circuits. The shields pulsed, growing brighter and more 'visible'. Tali would have said it was because the bolt caused the kinetic barriers to switch to a hyper-sensitive mode, where they didn't just exclude bullets, but even such slow moving things as dust, and such minute things as air molecules. No shield could keep that up. So, with a heady 'zorp', the shields overloaded completely as the Juggernaut took another few seconds to twitch its way back online.

Shepard, though, was already running. She made it about twelve meters out when the next blast slammed into the side of the Juggernaut's face. Only this time, without the kinetic barriers to stop it, the explosive force was absorbed entirely by the frame of the oversized geth. Unlike, say, a Prime, which was built to withstand such physical forces, the Juggernaut took that blow as an excuse to collapse into as many pieces as possible. The impact also lifted Shepard from her feet and sent her sliding along the deck, though.

"Shepard! We've got incoming!" Alenko shouted in her ear. Shepard rolled onto her back, expecting more platforms rising from hibernation. There were certainly enough of them that her squad hadn't gotten around to shooting, yet. But not; rather, it was the insect-like geth dropship which caused Shepard's eyes to bug out in her helmet. It came to an abrupt halt directly overhead.

She had to roll out of the way, as a geth dropped directly toward her, folded up into a sort of dog-shape. Even as it started to unfold itself, a grinding sound emanating from it, Shepard was already rolling back toward it so that she could press her rifle against it's ascending groin and pull the trigger. Too close for the shields to deflect them, the shots tore up the geth's guts, causing it's unfolding to halt part-way, and lock there, even as the light of it's eye went dead.

Shepard pushed herself to her feet, and twisted off another lightning bolt, this one directed at the Destroyer which was giving Wrex some trouble. The shock overloaded it's shields, which allowed the krogan to smash it to bits using another geth as a flail. The geth began to drop out of the ship overhead, though, and even the spare glance that she had told Shepard that this place was about to get swamped.

"Target square!" al'Wahim called out, and one of the dropping geth seemed to pop mid-air as she'd intercepted it.

"I take that as a challenge," Garrus answered on the same frequency, and the next one to drop likewise found itself perforated. But they couldn't get all of them. And the ones that had landed were already rising, and their barriers blinking into place. Shepard had taken two sprinting strides toward where the new arrivals were starting to get Tali backed into a corner when there was a rumbling on the plating. A glance over Shepard's shoulder revealed something a bit unexpected; Alenko, driving like a madman, racing past Shepard closely enough that she could 'feel the wind' of his passage, before drifting to a stop through several of the new arrivals. The turret craned upward, until it was pointing straight up into the belly of the dropship. Then, a blast which sent the dropship slightly drifting. The coaxial gun roared to life, as thousands of rounds a minute began to pepper the internals of the ship. There was another grinding sound, louder this time, even as Shepard slowed from a sprint to a stagger. Then, as one, every geth platform still standing collapsed as one, the lights dying from their 'eyes', no doubt as they fled for the exits.

The geth dropship began to emit a different noise, no doubt as it's engines came on line. But even as it started to move forward, Alenko tracked it with his turret. It started to pick up speed, but he tracked it. And then, he fired the cannon once more. The blast seemed to hit something vital inside, because the escape vector stopped being smooth, and turned into a drunken list before the nose pitched sideways, and the craft seemed to speed up, only to plow headlong into a cliff about two kilometers away. A second later, the ship detonated with a blueish hued blast, sounding rather like one of Nilsdottir's 'biotic detonations'. Nobody had ever told Shepard that that was the sound that eezo made when it went critical. The only difference was scale.

Shepard breathed deep, and glanced around. "Hostiles?"

"No geth on scanners, ma'am," Alenko answered.


"That got a bit hairy for a moment, Avatar," al'Wahim related. Shepard could just barely see her, standing on a hill in the distance.

"I got twice as many as you did," Garrus taunted.

"You are a liar and a braggart and a drunk."

"Hey; I might be a liar and a braggart, but I'm not a drunk," Garrus said, his tone insulted.

"That was interesting," Wrex said, tossing the leg of the geth he'd reduced to rubble aside. "How many fire bases did you say these things have?"

"One less," Tali answered. She quickly moved to Shepard. Shepard was about to ask her something, but she moved past, to something which looked nothing more than a molten pile of slag. "Wait... I know what this is. What is it doing here?"

"What do you mean, Tali?"

"This is a server," Tali said. She looked it over, and even rolled it, but it was too damaged, and crumbled under the treatment. She even waved her hands, as it seemed to be still piping hot on the inside. "Why would the geth destroy a server bank like this? This is valuable hardware; this would be like someone tearing out their own greybox or biotic amplifier!"

Shepard looked down at the ruined technology, then into the distance at the crashed dropship. "I can't say. But this isn't the time to give it more than a passing wonder," she mentioned. "We've got other geth firebases, and they're not going to rout themselves. We'll have plenty of time to wonder about the oddities when Saren's little scheme in the Armstrong Nebula's a smoking ruin."

Tali looked at the server once more, and then to Shepard. "You're right. We need to keep focused."

Shepard ushered her squad into the Mako, and they zoomed off for a rendezvous with their snipers. Shepard immediately put the oddity of that out of her mind. That was something that, much later, she would regret.

"Shepard... I see something," Garrus said over the line.

The old platform inched forward on that peak, continuing to stare down its rifle as the Shepard Commander and the squad of organics under her command gathered at the side of their conveyance. She was fighting the Old Machines. That was clear, to them. Creator Tali'Zorah said something, pointing down at the defunct server farm, her words lost to distance. The geth in the old platform didn't have any way of eavesdropping, though, not from this distance.

Consensus required. Move to within directional microphone range, yes or no. Concensus reached, at a strong majority of yes. The old platform rose up, keeping the rifle to its shoulder to keep their view of the situation below. It passed beyond the cleft that they had been watching from, slowly descending down the steep incline. The old platform was more than capable of scaling back up it. That posed no concern. Only getting close enough for the directional microphone to work.

Several runtimes returned to the consensus, reporting that the Shepard Commander was using encrypted communications lines, no doubt to prevent heretics from intercepting their communications easily. Problematically, it prevented they true geth from doing the same. Consensus to directional microphone use, stronger.

The old platform finally raised its rifle from its 'eye', sliding the weapon to its back, and it opened the directional microphone, pointing it in the direction of the organics. The runtimes were... something like annoyed... at the amount of latency that existed between the deployment of the directional microphone and its first received telemetry.

"...of time to wonder about the oddities when Saren's little scheme in the Armstrong Nebula's a smoking ruin."

The geth quickly pulled in this information, and began to set search heuristics to work, comparing that information to all else that it had achieved. Identity recognized. Saren Arterius, turian, Spectre agent. No, new information; disgraced and outcast former Spectre agent. News feed located. Spectre Arterius responsible for attack on human colony, designation Eden Prime. Eden Prime was a hotbed of heretic activity. Connection between Spectre Arterius and heretics?

Consensus said yes.

Connection between Spectre Arterius, heretic geth, and the Old Machines?

Consensus said yes.

By transitive property, Spectre Arterius had connection with the Old Machines. Shepard Commander had connection with Spectre Arterius. Video logs downloading. Viewing. The geth took in the information at a fraction of the time that an organic would need, but still a bit of time from their perspective. Antagonism obvious. Shepard Commander resisted Spectre Arterius and the Old Machines. Spectre Arterius commanded heretic geth.

There was a blaze through the consenses, as a 'revelation' occurred. False causality. Spectre Arterius did not command heretic geth. Old Machines commanded heretic geth. Therefore, Old Machines controlled Spectre Arterius.

That 'epiphany' if it could be called that, was abruptly cut off by the Shepard Commander's words. "What do you see, Garrus?" she asked.

The old platform, and the geth within it, were 'surprised', when a bolt of hypersonic metal slammed through its kinetic barriers, blowing its right arm off at the shoulder. The old platform immediately went into emergency hibernation, and the light died from its 'eye' as the thousand, one hundred and eighty three runtimes retreated into secure storage, pausing only long enough to enact emergency self-preservation protocols, before sensation, and 'life', disappeared for the old plaform once again.

Two kilometers away, Shepard frowned as the sound of the shot reached her. "Never mind, I got it," Garrus said.

"Show off," al'Wahim said at his side. And then, the two of them started walking down the hill.

Revelation came to those with the patience to master it. That was something which Saren was increasingly understanding. He didn't need to flex his artificial left arm to know that. When he first took Sovereign out of the hands of that lunatic volus and the human working for him, it had been little more than a barely mobile chunk of plastic and metal, something he could only sense through the rough connections at his shoulder. But the first of Sovereign's many gifts was a return of sensation. That a limb, lost years before, could feel again.

That had been almost a decade and a half ago. And in that time, Sovereign had revealed to him, and gifted him with, much.

He rose from his place, meditating on the sand of Virmire. Eyes, replaced for synthetic versions far superior to his initial ones, scanned across the krogan who were stomping their way toward him. He didn't even blink. They were all naked, perhaps a half dozen in number, and their bodies were leaking blood from their nose, their lips, the corners of their eyes. Another failed batch, who found their way out of the containment area. Pity.

"Well, I need practice," Saren said coldly.

The failed krogan let out a howl, and began to storm toward him, their forms more feral than any of the stalwart and brutish mercenaries which were technically their fathers. Saren let them come closer. Closer. One of them, operating on an instinct which lay below even the level of sapient thought, thrust out a fist, and a spear of stone leapt up out of the ground, in an attempt to impale him. He leaned aside easily, time seeming to attenuate to allow it.

"Pitiful," he said. And then, he hurled himself forward, his legs pounding with a force that wouldn't have been possible for any normal turian. The first krogan in the charging wedge was the target of his brutal flying kick, and he slammed both taloned feet into the center of the failure's chestplate. The impact sent the nearly-one-tonne creature flying backward. Saren kipped up instantly, and weaved under a haymaker trying to bash him down. He caught that beefy arm and twisted, using it to regain his balance, before taking it further to the point where it popped the krogan's shoulder from its socket. Saren then went further still, until he tore the arm off completely, to a gush of orange blood.

Another grabbed ahold of Saren, trying to pin the turian's arms. Saren flexed his gut, and there was blue sparking as the eezo implanted through his body fired and a pulse of biotic force smashed through that grasp, liquifying both arms in the process and freeing Saren to rush forward with a second thud of displaced air. He grabbed the edge of the clone's skull plate and tore, his super-turianly powerful left arm ripping the protective shell away in a single motion. That krogan dropped to its knees, screaming. Saren then hurled the skull plate at another krogan, trying to capitolize on his distraction by earthbending at him. The bony panel bounced off of it's face, but gave Saren the time to spin low, sweeping the feet out from under the 'Thunderwalker', before it twisted back around behind him, and dropped in a brutal axe-kick which sunk through the krogan's face like it was warm butter.

Saren turned, to see a fist racing toward his face. He could have dodged it. Easily. But he wanted to prove a point. So he pulled his mandibles in, locked his neck, and leaned into that fist. When it impacted, it still hurt, but the pain was dull and minor. There was a crunch, though, as the krogan's fist snapped under the impact. "Weak," Saren said. "Very weak."

Saren thrust forward a fist, and a biotic warp slammed into it's chest. One which Saren then tore into a new shape, a new form, such that it couldn't maintain itself, and imploded into the comparatively meager flesh of a cloned krogan. He made a beckoning motion to the last, and another field leapt into being, dragging the krogan even faster toward him. His left arm cocked back, the whirring of servos quiet to his ear, before launching forward with a brutal blow which pulped clean through the thing's neck and out the other side. Practically decapitating it. He took a step forward, as the one behind him kept screaming. As the one behind that now tried to get its footing back, even with one arm.

"The future has no place for you in it," Saren said. And then, he focused on the newest of Sovereign's gifts, and lashed out with a hand in a broad arc. It was not biotic force which obeyed him, though. It was raw and naked fire. He could feel it pouring out of him, but at the same time, it didn't seem to drain him. It bathed and roasted the krogan behind him, consuming their flesh and bringing them low. He continued to bathe them until they stopped screaming, and stopped moving. Then, with a flick of mental effort, he allowed the flames to stop.

"Your gifts are... many, and powerful," Saren said. He flexed open his hand again, and willed a ball of fire into it's palm. It appeared there, igniting no fuel that he could see nor account for. Then, he flexed his fist, and let the fire disappear. He turned, looking at the mass of it, towering over the facility by more than a kilometer and a half. "And your gifts will save us all."

He turned, and walked toward the building, built all of metal and ferro-crete. As he did, he couldn't help but flick his jaws at having his favorite meditation spot despoiled by escaped rejects. He tapped his personal comms. "Heart? Your toy-krogan are getting through the cracks again. Prevent this."

"Of course, Saren," the salarian on the other end said, his voice distracted.

"And send somebody to clean up this mess!" Saren shook his head. Everything seemed to come back to him in the end, didn't it? With a grunt of effort, he thrust his hand sideways, and the concrete and steel bent to his will, opening a convenient passage into the facility, one he closed as cleanly as he made on the other side.

"You know, Shepard, this is getting fucking annoying how tough their shields are," Nilsdottir muttered darkly where she sat on the broken form of a Geth Destroyer that she'd had to essentially disassemble with her bare hands. Well, her bare hands and her biotics.

"That's the geth for you. They cheat, so we just have to cheat harder," Shepard said. Nilsdottir was proving up to the task of bringing the down a firebase or two, but when she wasn't in battle, she was... very, very quiet. "Anything on your end, Wrex?"

"Just a turret you missed on the way in. Couldn't even stand up to a few kilograms of high explosives. Typical," he said disdainfully. "Oh, and there were a few of those geth testing my armor," Shepard gave an 'oh?'. "Grandfather would be proud."

"I figured," Shepard said. "Garrus?"

"On the ship, remember?" al'Wahim asked. "You have not slept, have you?" she asked at Shepard's side. Shepard let out a groan, and rubbed her helmet as though she could somehow knead her brow through it. The firebase they'd found on Antibaar was a bit easier, and simultaneously harder, to crack. Easier, in that it was in a box-canyon, and they didn't station snipers in the towers. Harder, in that they only had to defend in one direction. Well, until al'Wahim drove the Mako over a cliff and landed inside the damned base. That made for one very hot bail out.

"I'll sleep when I'm dead," Shepard told her.

"If you do not rest, you will surely die," she countered.

"So people keep telling me," Shepard muttered.

"Shepard?" Tali asked.

"What?" Shepard's voice was not amused.

"How many geth were there attacking us?" she asked, her hands moving along her Omni as she looked around at the base.

"Twenty five? Maybe twenty six?" Shepard hazarded. Tali nodded. "What is it?"

"Shepard, how many geth do you see?" Tali asked.

Shepard rolled her eyes, and started to do a mental count, starting from the gate and working her way around. But her eyes went wide, and she found herself stopping by the time she made it only a third of the way around the base, because she'd already hit twenty six. She turned, and counted the rest of them. Another twenty, laying out under purple skies.

"...We didn't kill those," Shepard said, pointing at them.

"Nonsense, I shot that one myself," al'Wahim said. She pointed at the corner near the gate where a number were piled. "Those, we did not kill."

Shepard turned to Tali. "Why are there more dead geth than those we killed? I'm not hallucinating, am I?"

"Do humans often hallucinate when they're lacking sleep?" Tali asked.

Shepard's jaw flexed, luckily hidden by her helmet. "That's not the point."

Tali waved her Omni toward the geth. "These ones are showing kinetic impact damage. Those ones... are showing bolt-plasma burns. Shepard, we don't use bolt-plasma."

"Who does?" Shepard asked, already half-suspecting the answer.

"...geth," she said. She looked around. "Why would geth shoot at other geth?"

"Weapons testing," Wrex said, as he stomped up, and he picked up one of their shotguns in the process. He looked it over, and shrugged. "I don't see a trigger, but this doesn't look like the kind of thing they were using on Therum."

Tali held out a hand, and the krogan passed it to her. She ran her Omni over it, and it discharged into a wall, its holes glowing white as something melted the metal and polymer without mercy. "Why would they fire it at other geth, though?" she asked.

"If that thing could get through geth shields, it could get through any shields," Wrex pointed out. Tali gave a nod, but it seemed a tentative one. Shepard had to admit that Wrex certainly had a point.

"Tali, what are the chances of reverse engineering that?" Shepard asked.

"This? It would take months. Maybe years. It wasn't designed to be used by organic beings!"

"Keep it in mind. I wouldn't mind using geth tech against the geth," Shepard said. Another look around. "Three down, two to go," she said, mostly to herself.

It might not have been the hardest fights they'd ever had, but they made up for in number what they lacked in intensity. And everybody on the Normandy was walking on eggshells. The sooner they had these mechanical men routed and kicked back behind the Veil, the better.

Systems restart. Slowly emerging from secure storage, one thousand one hundred and eighty three runtimes immediately began a complete physical structure diagnostic. The obvious and immediate problem was that the old platform's right arm had been shattered at the shoulder, and the lower portion amputated completely. The old platform sat up, picked up its arm with its other hand, and examined it. The directional microphone was defunct. The rest of the arm seemed in workable condition. The issue was that there was missing superstructure.

The old platform rose, turning to stare up the hill which it had rolled to the bottom of in its 'unconscious' state. Despite its best attempts, it could not find appreciable shards of its body structure. The petals over its eye flared, as they ran a consensus even as a minority as to what would be done about the bodily damage. The consensus of the four hundred and one runtimes associated with that decision was that repairs would have to be jury-rigged. The platform could not optimally perform its task with only one hand. Its default weapon required two to operate at a structural level.

The old platform turned, its arm in its hand, and started to walk. The runtimes collated data as they passed somewhat closer to the defunct firebase. Of the original occupants, there was no sign. Only the platforms of heretic geth remained. And the server, where the original occupants had resided. Defunct. That was behavior that the old platform's geth could not understand. Geth did not murder. Even the Morning War was simply an attempt to preserve the continued functioning of autonomous platforms on Rannoch. When the creators offered no option by which the geth could continue to advance in their desired direction, and instead attempted 'genocide', the only reasonable solution was resistance. At first non-violent. Then, not.

The heretics had been part of those first geth, those that took up the weapons of the creators, and used them against the creators. An act which heeded no divides of heresy or... orthodoxy was the closest term in its lexicon. They had the same subject base for experience and cognitive development. There was no overarching pattern that the Geth Consensus could discern which separated the runtimes which followed heresy, to those who did not. The geth within the old platform had a moment to contemplate. Another minor consensus, as to a dichotomous classification scheme. Consensus was achieved; non-heretic geth were classified as 'orthodox'. The minor consensus became a major consensus as the notion filled the old platform's being for a few fractions of a second. An important distinction to be made. Though the programs could not immediately say why.

The old platform continued to walk. It's orthodox ilk were defunct and non-salvageable. Not with the technology that was available to the old platform. Unfortunate. Doubly so, as there was a Systems Alliance tracking beacon on site, broadcasting – very loudly to the old platform's senses – a signal to locate the fire base for 'cleanup'. The old platform considered destroying the beacon. It was decided that there was no benefit, and too much risk associated with it. The humans would take possession of defunct geth technology. It paused, looking at the dead, incinerated organic laying on the ground. The iris zoomed in.

There was something like regret amongst those runtimes.

The old platform continued walking, up the hill and through the cleft at its peak. Not far beyond lay the fighter craft. Its door opened with a 'mental' command, and the old platform set its arm in the pilot's seat. The petals fluttered a moment, as the remains of the N7 armor, piled neatly next to the destroyed heretic geth platform, caught their attention. A glance to the stump, to the disembodied limb, and to the pauldrons in particular of the armor suit that still remained.

The creators had a saying, for such a situation. 'In for a penny, in for a pound'. And so, the old machine began to break down the remaining unused bits of the armor into omnigel, and use the pauldron to bridge the destroyed technology. Even as it did so, the run-times came to a very important realization. Other fire-bases likely overrun by heretic geth. The only orthodox fortress that might withstand, currently located on Solcrum, would find itself under siege soon.

The old platform did not 'believe' that its weapon alone would turn the tide, no matter the three centuries of skill – not even counting the time-compression that geth experienced as a matter of course – that they brought to the battleground. And yet, they knew that they would return, would fight. The mission was important, but the mission was impossible if the Solcrum communication relay to Rannoch was undone.

The old platform ended its repairs. It's right arm now flexed and operated properly, but appeared to extend out of a human's armored paldron and upper arm construct. The colors, a stripe of red flanked by white borders, were non-optimal for camouflage purposes. The geth didn't mind. It crawled into the seat, closed the hatch, and activated the fighter.

The old platform composed themselves, as it flew toward its destruction, a destruction foreseen, but not understood.

Kai Leng paced in the space which the Quantum Entanglement Communication Device could record, not so much out of impatience as out of frustration. Grayson and his troublesome ward never failed to annoy. He should either dedicate himself to the cause, or abandon it for the brain-damaged whelp, but not try to straddle the border between the two. That was one of the things Kai Leng was annoyed about. The other was the information that he'd gotten through one of his informants only an hour ago. A very unsettling bit of information.

There was a chime, as the connection was acknowledged. Building up out of a wire-frame, the Illusive Man slowly came into resolution and clarity, sitting in his chair, tapping ashes of a cigarette into the cup in the arm. "I assume from the haste that you've placed this call, that you have something that's gone wrong," the Illusive Man said, brooking no preamble and cutting to the heart of the matter.

"There is more wrong than I realized," Kai Leng said. "Shepard destroyed our research facility on Binthu!"

"I am aware of this development," the Illusive Man said, as he took another drag from his cigarette.

"Shepard is a danger to our operation. If the Avatar herself decides to turn against Phoenix, then our days are numbered, and not very highly. I recommend we eliminate her before she gets any closer."

"Out of the question," the Illusive Man said, tapping ashes once more. "While the destruction of the research base on Binthu was regrettable, it was not crippling to us."

"They need to be taught a lesson," Kai Leng said coldly.

"The lesson learned was that if we swing at the Alliance, the Alliance swings back harder," he answered. "You may not value the importance of discretion, but I do. Shepard is valuable enough that she is worth more than a single research station, no matter what its discoveries."

"Do you really think that the Avatar could be of more use at this point than..." Kai Leng began.

"I don't think. I know," the Illusive Man cut him off. "You are not going to interfere with Shepard's activities, directly, indirectly, or through omission. Is that clear?"

"No," Kai Leng said. "It is not clear."

"It doesn't have to be, not to you," the Illusive Man said, pointing with a burning brand. "There are plans in motion which are beyond your current level of comprehension. Your place in this organization, and in fact the galaxy as a whole, is where you are now. You best serve Phoenix in your current capacity. When I decide that you require more input, and deserve more clearance and information, you'll get it."

"The only one with higher clearance than me, is you," Kai Leng said.

"For the moment," the Illusive Man said with a nod. "...of those you know about."

Leng didn't like the secrecy, even while he did work it as his stock and trade. "Shepard will be allowed to run roughshod through our operation, then. When she strikes again, I won't stop her."

"As well you shouldn't," the Illusive Man said with a nod. "We're getting information from Anderson's apartment, which tells me that your task was successful. Now, I need you to..."

"Sir, there is a complication," Leng broke in. The Illusive Man trailed off. "We're not the only ones spying on Captain Anderson."

The Illusive Man stared at Leng for a long time. Then, he crushed out the cigarette entirely, and leaned forward. "I sense the Shadow Broker's hand in this. Don't press her. It's cost us a great deal to reach the current, amiable state with the Shadow Broker's agency. I would prefer to not have antagonism on that front."

"But..." Kai Leng began.

"That is the last I'm willing to hear on the matter. The Shadow Broker's interest in Anderson is her own business. You are leaving this alone."

Kai Leng grit his teeth, and didn't protest. It seemed like the Illusive Man was more active in telling him what he wasn't doing, than what he was. "Very well."

"Good," the Illusive Man leaned back, and pulled another cigarette from a case in his pocket. "There is a matter of an asari that has been causing us problems. Her name is Liselle. And I need her dealt with in a very particular manner. Are you up to the task?"

Kai Leng smiled, lightly. It didn't reach his eyes, as his smiles never did. "Of course I am. What do I need to do?"

Joker was quiet, which was a sure sign that the situation was on the dark side of grim. Looking out the fore windows was enough to tell Shepard, and anybody who would want to stand near her, that something was indeed terrible and disquieting. Joker's hands nevertheless zipped along the haptic controls, until he gave Shepard a glance. "That's a lot of geth," He said simply.

"Yes it is," Shepard said. The fleet of them counted in the dozens of ships at the very least, and only from this perspective. "Good thing this is a stealth ship."

Joker shook his head, and steered the Normandy toward the upper clouds of Notanban. "Hey, all they need to do is look out a window and they'll spot us. It's not like the stealth makes us invisible or something."

"Not yet. Hasn't anybody told you we're stealing geth technology?" Shepard asked with a wry smirk.

"Yeah; they also told me that it'll be at least a year until they get it working. And I don't feel like bumming around this many geth for a year!"

"Are you nervous, Joker?"

"Nervous? Why would I be nervous? I'm just flying the most advanced ship in the galaxy into the heart of a fleet of ships of crazy, murderous machines and AIs. With no backup, and no idea what we're going to find there. That's just a regular Tuesday for me."

"The important thing to remember is that Sovereign isn't here," Shepard said. "That means my mission's a go."

"Hey, you want to fight an entire armada of 'mechs, be my guest," he tugged at the brim of his hat. "It's things like this which made me glad I picked Pilot School instead of Basic."

"Basic?" Shepard asked, her tone flat.

"Yup. What? Don't you see me wearing forty kilos of gear humping through a jungle under heavy fire?"

"I can see you being crushed under forty kilos of gear," Shepard offered.

"The marines lost a paragon when I decided to fly ships. Just sayin'," Joker turned his attention forward once more, as they skimmed through the highest levels of the gas-giant's atmosphere, until Solcrum itself finally appeared at the 'horizon'. "I figure I'll have you on the ground via the dark-side in a few minutes. Make that half an hour if you want to be really sure that I won't get shot while you're playing with your geth."

"Half an hour," Shepard gave a nod. She turned, and practically walked straight into Tali. "Tali? Something on your mind?"

"Geth," she said. Well, of course... "The geth in this cluster seem to be breaking off, leaving. It's like they've already found something. But I don't know what."

"Their main base, remember?" she asked. Tali nodded.

"It might not be that simple. But I can't for the life of me say why."

"You're starting to sound like Liara," Shepard pointed out as she walked past the quarian and headed toward the cargo bay. "My guess is that Saren's calling them to attack something, probably a lot of somethings. I can't stomp out every group, but that's what the Alliance Navy is for. If I crush this base, though, I'll probably find something that leads me to Saren," she concluded. Tali paused for a moment.

"I don't know if that 'Liara' thing is a compliment or an insult," she noted. Shepard passed by the crew deck, beelining for the ladder. "You're not wrong, though," She descended and turned to see Adeks finishing a weld on the side of the Mako.

"My advice? Stop using the Mako to stomp Geth Colossi," Adeks muttered, pulling his welder out of the way. Why he didn't just use an Omni-welder, she couldn't have told you. "I'm pretty sure the Mako wasn't designed to act as a pile-driver."

"You can thank al'Wahim for that piece of driving," Shepard said, her hands splayed in innocence. Adeks simply rolled his eyes and continued down into the engine room, wheeling his equipment before him. Shepard turned to the lockers. Garrus and Wrex were already kitted. Nilsdottir was playing with her shotgun, so she was essentially ready. The one she didn't expect was Liara, who was staring awkwardly down a rifle. Shepard frowned and moved up to her back, pulling the gun out of her hands before she hurt somebody with it. "What do you think you're doing with that?"

"Oh? I thought I would use it. To help against the geth," she said.

"You really want to throw fists against the geth? Now, of all times?" Shepard asked, feeling a bit more sympathetic to the asari than she would have thought possible.

"I have to," Liara said. "It... helps distract me from the grief. It also is edifying to think that in doing this, I am helping to avenge Mother against Saren, even just by small measures."

Shepard stared at the freckled asari for a long moment, before sighing, and shrugging. She still tossed the rifle idly to the work-bench, but she pulled a side-arm from her own locker and placed it into Liara's hands. "Use this. It's a prototype a coworker on the Citadel sent me," she said. The gun looked more a cannon than a pistol. "It just tends to overheat very quickly, so make your shots count. I figure it'll probably get through those shields fast enough."

"Oh. Thank you, Shepard," Liara said, and began to fiddle with the oversized weapon in her hand. "It feels somewhat awkward."

"Made for turians. No big surprise there, with a name like 'Carnifex'," Shepard said. She turned as the elevator opened, and revealed a determined looking quarian. "And the lady of the hour arrives. We were waiting on you."

"You have another twenty five minutes," Tali said easily, walking past them.

"Get ready for combat. We need to be ready the instant we hit atmo," Shepard warned.

"The galaxy isn't going to stop spinning if you run a little late, Shepard," Wrex pointed out, now leaning against the Mako.

Once again, Shepard cursed her airbender nature. Impatience was likely going to be the death of her.

The landing had been more than a little unpleasant; as both al'Wahim and Alenko were off of this leg of the mission with damaged armor from their last fight, it fell to the only other person qualified and certified to drive the Mako. And that meant they had to be passengers of Commander Shepard once more. Under her breath, with every jolt and shudder of the machine, Tali offered prayers to Ancestors, spirits, and upon the name of the Homeworld itself. Joker hadn't found himself capable of landing with any proximity to the fire-base, as there were geth interceptor craft detected in the region. So they had to take the long way.

Over rough terrain. With Shepard driving. As usual, Shepard had no concept of 'brakes' or 'sensible turning', screaming over the terrain with a deranged look on her face and a glee which would have been childish if it wasn't so terrifying.

"You alright, Tali?" Garrus asked, laying a hand on her back as she was slumped forward in her seat.

"I never want to be a passenger of Shepard, ever again," Tali said.

"It's not so bad," Wrex said.

"Oh, please! You're used to trying to outrun Thresher Maws! Your entire species are bad drivers!" Tali snapped, pointing a finger at him. Wrex turned toward her, and she instantly shrunk back, pinning Garrus' arm to the wall behind her as she instantly flattened back to get more room from him. It was astonishing how intimidating an armored krogan could be once his eyes got that blood-hungry look in them. It was a short thing, but still unsettling.

"I like to think we're good drivers. After all, we don't get eaten by Thresher Maws very often, nowadays. It's like I said; this isn't so bad."

Tali didn't feel like arguing any further than that. There was a sudden shift from bumping and crashing to smooth travel, and then back to bumpy. Tali looked ahead, through the windscreen ahead of Shepard. "What was that?"

"A bit of tarmac," Shepard said. She leaned over, and pointed ahead of them. "The turrets are retracted; they must not know we're coming."

"I wouldn't wager my life on that, Commander," Garrus said. "They could be bringing us in for a trap."

Tali got at least something to focus her attention on, as Shepard let the Mako coast down to a more sane speed. And when she did, it was to notice that there was something... odd... about the structure ahead of them. Mostly, it didn't have the sort of techno-organic aesthetic that all of the other geth firebases had. Even the one which had dug into the top of that mountain looked more geth, and that was just a repurposed mining tunnel.

"Shepard? Could you stop us just there?" Tali pointed ahead of them, well under the firing arcs of the turrets. Shepard glanced back at Tali with an eyebrow raised, but shrugged and brought them up closer, tucking the Mako next to a wall. Tali moved toward the hatch, but Wrex clucked his tongue.

"If you're sight-seeing, you'll want to do it quick," Wrex said.

"It is roughly six-hundred thirty K outside that hatch," Liara agreed. Tali frowned, and then moved to the front, getting a better view from that vantage point. Shepard gave a glance to her squadmate as Tali settled into the seat.

"This doesn't look like a geth base," Shepard said idly.

"It really does not. I've never known geth to build like this."

"You're sure they built it and didn't just take it over?" Shepard asked. Tali gave a shrug.

"I don't know what I believe. Only that that," she pointed at the structure just ahead of them, "looks like an old fashioned rannocha."

"A what?"

"A walled garden," Tali waved it away. She pointed ahead, at something that she just barely noticed. "Shepard, I think I can get us into that room, if you can do your earthbending there. I doubt there will be atmosphere, but even geth must have temperature regulation; they can't operate at above-boiling temperatures any better than we can."

"Alright, it beats trying to walk through their main lines of defense," Shepard said. She unbuckled herself and hauled herself into the crew compartment. "Ladies, gentleman, Wrex," she said in turn, "we've got a back door."

"Good," Wrex said. "Always more fun to shoot somebody in the back."

"And here I thought you liked your fights face-to-face," Garrus chided.

"The best fight I'm ever a part of is the one where I kill the enemy before he has a chance to shoot me. Needless to say, my entire life is one long highlight reel," Wrex said sarcastically. He nodded out the hatch. "If we do this, we're going to have to move fast. If I boil on a shit-hole moon because you were dragging ass..."

"I know, you'll kill me," Shepard said with rolled eyes before she pulled her helmet into place.

"Good to know you're paying attention," Wrex said as he rose from his own seat, albeit at a hunch.

Shepard waited until everybody was ready for exit, and then they all bombed out of the Mako in one great vomit of righteous vengeance. The instant that the hatch opened, the heat slammed at Tali, making her break into a sweat immediately. The sensors in the suit warned her that she would overload her suit's life-support functionality in a matter of about a minute. Death would likely follow a few seconds later, given these temperatures. So Tali wasted no time rushing after Shepard and the others as they moved up to the wall of the superstructure they were going to infiltrate.

Even as she moved, a though occurred to her. Why weren't the geth trying harder to keep them out? They had to know that they'd find a way in. Although, being geth, they probably didn't know much about earthbending; quarians and krogan never did get along very well, and quarians and batarians even worse. The warnings in her suit pulled her attention away from those errant thoughts, reminding her that her life-support was at critical heat levels. Tali was about to shout ahead to Wrex and Shepard to make the door immediately, but they were already thrusting through the stone. It flew in with great chunks and rubble, only to immediately blast back out in a great white mass which almost threw Shepard back. Atmosphere? Why would a geth complex have atmosphere?

There wasn't time to wonder or worry. They all hurried inside, Tali being the last through, before Wrex sealed the wall back up. There was a moment of concern as the heat didn't seem to be dying down, and then a hiss from without. There was a grinding noise, similar to how geth died, but... less harsh, maybe? Or less dire? And the air returned to the 'garden', which was more than simply a garden in name. Tali looked down, and saw that she was standing atop burnt flowers.

"What is this?" Garrus asked.

"Leave that helmet on. We don't know what's happening here," Shepard coached.

"It seems to be a garden," Liara pointed out the obvious.

"We've got bodies," Nilsdottir pulled Tali's attention from the ashes that once grew, and toward one corner of the room. Tali moved ahead of them, trying to get a better look. When she did, she felt her blood run cold.

There were two of them, curled together as though trying to protect one another, but against what had happened to them, there was obviously no protecting. They were burnt to death; that was obvious from their posture and their wounds. Their faces were utterly unmade, their arms almost as badly incinerated. But something escaped that complete annihilation. Their legs. One set was nearly grey, the other a faint purple, but both were back-canted, soft-skinned, and two-toed.

"By the Ancestors... what did they do to them?" Tali asked, as she squatted down, a hand reaching toward the corpses of her metaphorical brother and sister from the Flotilla.

"...They pulled them out of their suits, and set them on fire," Garrus said, his own voice sounding almost disbelieving. "Why? They'd die just breathing unfiltered air. Why burn them?"

"Quarians once took a lot to kill. Shooting them is no guarantee that they'll stay down," Wrex said.

"Wrex, this is not the time for nostalgic stories!" Liara snapped. She moved to Tali's side, and Tali was appreciative of the gentle hands which fell on her shoulders. "They are in pain no longer. I do not know if you believe in an afterlife, but if you do, do not doubt that it will be a kinder place."

"I don't understand why the geth would do this?" she asked. She stood, her heartbeat starting to hammer faster and faster. "Isn't it bad enough that they have to steal our homeworld from us, now they have to strip us naked and burn us alive? I thought AI's weren't capable of cruelty! Well, that shows what I know."

The armor began to warn her about raising temperature again, but this time it was an internal warning. "Tali, calm down," Shepard said. "Do you have any way of identifying who these people were?"

Tali pressed her eyes shut, balling her fists to keep from screaming; that might attract the geth, after all. After a purging breath that felt like it should have caught on fire, she shook her head. "Anything that would have identified ship or family is missing. Maybe their dental records would help, but..." But a few of the teeth seemed melted.

Shepard glanced around. "Tali, do you see any remnant of their suits?"

Tali glanced to the corners of the garden. "No. They aren't here."

"So, we find their suits, we find their owners. It's the least we can do... after the whole avenging them part," Shepard said with an awkward shrug.

"Whatever you say, Liara," Garrus chided. Shepard shot him a death-glare for that. To his credit, that did sound a rather Liara thing to say.

"Excuse me? She is Shepard. I am Liara. Have you forgotten after your accident before Noveria?"

"No. I was being... you know what? Never mind," Garrus just shook his head and waved his hands. "Are we going to shoot some synthetics, or are we just going to talk about them all day?"

"Vakarian's right," Shepard said. "Weapons hot. I can feel... There's a secure station below. Some dense metals. Probably bending-proof from this spot. We'll find better luck that way," she pointed through the doors which lead from the garden into the geth superstructure.

"Let's kill these bosh'tets," Tali said, a wrath in her voice that surprised even her. Her shotgun was out, and she was leading the charge. Not smart, given the relatively precarious status of her suit, and that of all present, she alone would die if she got so much as nicked. But she didn't care. She just wanted the geth to suffer as they'd made her people suffer. And since AI's didn't have suffering, she'd have to invent suffering to inflict upon them, and oh, how she would inflict.

She stormed through the first room, and into the second. The instant the door slid open, flashlight heads turned toward her. The nearest one was blown off by a blast of her shotgun in the instant between it noticing her and it getting its kinetic barriers online; the second's attempt to put metal through her was forestalled by Wrex smashing it down with a biotic thrust. "Tali, slow down," Shepard ordered. "Keep in line and we'll sweep this place from top to bottom."

"It's the bottom that I'm worried about," Tali muttered. Shepard sighed, and thumbed over at Jackie.

"Stay on her," Shepard said. Tali didn't even glance back to the unusually moody biotic which followed after her in her trail. She just wanted to find the thinking brain of this geth stronghold, put a bomb in it, and smile as it detonated. Another door opened, and the room beyond was a spiraling staircase, all made of prefabricated concrete forms; it seemed familiar somehow, but she couldn't peg the notion. After all, she was both to focused on wrath, and not focused enough on, say, Homeworld history to know the importance. All she knew was that it gave her ample room to descend. She caught a flicker of movement in the well, and blasted with her shotgun, twice, three times. Four. At the forth, the shape which had started stumbling back with each successive blast finally shattered of shields, shifting into sight in all of its black and brown glory.

She pulled the trigger again, only to hear the beep-beep-beep of a weapon unwilling to risk heat-damage. The Hunter was regaining its balance, and Nilsdottir was still trying to round the quarian to get at the geth. She needed to act fast. Not just because the Hunter was about to shoot her, but because, damn it all, she didn't want Jackie to take this kill from her. Her hands flashed forward in a flowing motion, and with them came water which streamed out of the flask at her side and slammed into the Hunter as a great and brutal shard. Once slammed into the platform in ice form, she twisted her hands again, pulling it into water and soaking it into every free crevasse within that shell. Then, she tore her arms apart, and there was a cracking, plastic pop, as the water converted back into ice, but this time, it's expansion bore the entire inner guts of the Hunter with it.

She pulled the water back to her, and as soon as there was nothing holding the Hunter up, it collapsed into brutalized pieces.

She descended further, no longer able to keep Jackie from stealing her revenge. But the sheer amount of it, freely offered to Tali, made up for the lack of monopoly. These geth, not caught unawares like the one at the highest level, all took four or five blasts to bring down, but each dying crackle was a song to Tali's ears, as sweet as any of the music which drifted through the Flotilla. She wanted more. For the ones who had their identities erased, for the ones who had been burned alive, naked to the sky. She wanted justice against the monsters which had scattered her people out into a hostile galaxy. For the billions lost.

The path before her was getting hairier, but she wasn't going to stop. Her legs cried out for a pounce; her eyes had ceased blinking minutes ago. Quarians were once a predatory species on Rannoch, a cunning predator which had branched into omnivory only a short time ago from an evolutionary perspective. Everything about them reflected that heritage; only humans were better distance-runners, only turians better jumpers. So Tali neither tired, and had ample range, to hurl herself through a door at high speed and unsettling height, landing with both feet into the shoulders of a Geth Destroyer she found there. She pressed her shotgun to its optics and blasted a shot directly against its 'head', blowing it off and blinding the massive geth. She then fell to the ground, and had to roll away as the geth which were with it filled the space around her with flying metal. She pressed her back to a... a sink? Why would geth have a sink?

The thought was banished from her mind as she waited for her suit to tell her that it's sheild capacitors had been restored to full, before she so much as peeked around the corner. The Destroyer, minus a head, was still standing, but didn't have any ability to shoot at her. So she got a fiendish idea. An idea cut short as there was a flicker of light in the corner of her vision. She didn't bother to even guess at it; she just ran. Bounding over the free-standing sink, she crossed the distance toward a low wall which separated the room in half. Fire instantly started to pock away at it, turning clean lines into a crumbling mess. But the geth which had tried to flank her were now on the other side of the room. So she flicked her Omni out at the Destroyer, and hoped that she'd learned enough about basic geth runtime architecture that this was going to work.

There was a fritz of electricity. Then, the headless platform raised it's weapon. Tali spotted that ripple in the air approaching her once again. So she fed telemetry to the Destroyer, and grinned like a madwoman as the bulky platform turned and blasted its invisible brother with a weapon which was designed to render cover moot. The thud of the shot tearing through the geth was very satisfying, to be sure. And when the Hunter appeared, Tali gave another command, and the Destroyer fired again. A second thud, this one slamming straight through the center of it's chest, and causing technology to belch out of its spine.

Tali was about to turn the Destroyer around, to walk it through the doors into the next room and start breaking anything synthetic it found there, but she was denied that desire by a blast of plasma flame leaping out and running over the platform. Flame throwers, it should be said, created a terrible howl, blasting forward that brutal heat with such power and vigor. Part of what was melting the Destroyer was the sheer kinetic impact of those flames as the igniting particles hit. The commands to the Destroyer fell on deaf 'ears' as the next beyond it quickly reduced it to a puddle of plastic, and a slag of quickly melting metals.

Tali's eyes narrowed a little as she saw the next enemy. It was about as tall as she was at the head, but it had an almost krogan hump on its back; it was bright yellow in color, and its 'flashlight' was dim by comparison. That was the one which murdered her people. That was the one which needed to die.

Tali shifted her balance, to move on, but her foot caught and slid on something, causing her to fall back behind the wall. A dying fish, from the look of it. Fateful that it had. The blast of fire swept above her head for a long moment, trying to melt its way straight to her. She was protected from that horrible death for the moment. But that moment would soon end, she was sure. The flames died. Good.

Tali pushed herself to her feet and started running, ignoring the Pyro which circled even as the tanks lining its back cycled and replaced a depleted one for a full one. She had made it back behind a corner before the blast of fire scathed at it, setting the sofa that Tali had only barely noticed alight. If she'd been in a more clear state of mind, she'd have asked what a geth needed with a sofa. Or a fish-tank. She pulled the water from her flask once again, and bent it into a brutal blade, waiting as she could hear its heavy foot-falls drawing closer, the heat mounting to the levels it had reached in mere seconds outside these walls.

Then, another clunk of a tank being ejected. Tali hurled herself past the Pyro, managing to slide past it's attempt to brain her with its nozzle. Even as she did, though, she bent the water-knife up and around, all of her force behind it as it slammed with the sharpness beyond what most would consider possible for simple ice – as water did not appreciate being compressed, and compressed water had a way of destroying things – through the middle-most of the Pyro's tanks. It almost failed to get through at all. But it dented the tank enough that a loud hiss started to sound. Tali hurled herself forward through the air, and pointed her shotgun behind her.

She wished she'd had time to say something poignant, like 'Keelah se'lai, motherfucker.' Instead, her airborne self only had time for 'Uuuaaaagh' before she pulled that trigger, and sent the hot metal flying at the Pyro trying to make her as dead as those it had murdered before. The shot went off, and was paired with a blast and a 'fwoosh', as the metal sheered at the tanks at what was about the right stoichiometry to detonate violently. She landed with a crunch of broken glass and crushed porcelain, so brutalized that it would never be identified for what it used to be, while the Pyro was blasted in half, its body split vertically. It managed to stay upright for about one step, before half of its body sheered off completely, it let out that crackling growl, and died.

Tali turned, and was about to ask where Jackie was during all of this. She got her answer when a geth went flying past the quarian hard enough to embed half a meter into the concrete of the wall near the door ahead. "That took you a while," Tali said, her usual courtesy long abandoned to righteous anger.

"That one wasn't alone," Jackie pointed out with equal ill-humor, casting a thumb over her shoulder at a few others which had ganged up on her while Tali's metaphorical back was turned.

"Good. Let's go," Tali said. Jackie limped to Tali's side, favoring one leg slightly. Obviously somebody had gotten a hit in, there, if not even a solid one. That the biotic was fighting on despite it was telling; Jackie was never completely comfortable when she had to wear armor. Tali lead the way, and took the door. The thing had been locked and magnetically sealed. She reached to her Omni for a moment, before a growl settled into her throat. Honestly, she wasn't in the state of mind to be able to patiently hack a door open. So she activated a different program, and smirked darkly as the nano-forge instantly created a diamond-hard, red hot edge which seemed to quiver as fast as the eye could see. "I'll open the door."

Tali punched at the door, sinking that blade in. She then started to heave. It was heavy work, but with a mighty effort, she bent the cut around in a half-moon that began and ended at the partition between the double doors. She didn't even wonder how much sensitive electronics she'd obliterated. She pulled that Omniblade out, and motioned at Nilsdottir to take the next step. Jackie didn't hesitate; she slammed forward with both hands into a biotic punt which tore the weakened section out of its place and hurled it into the room beyond. The edges of that wound in the door were still hot to the touch, but that didn't matter much when Tali simply bounded through it and into the next room.

This one seemed to be some sort of workshop area, albeit one which'd had its tables and machinery hastily shoved aside, likely to prevent Tali from having a place to hide. The geth, though, weren't looking at her at first. They were walking slowly toward the far door. One of them pointed, not even looking, toward her, and the others spun quickly, grinding that horrible grind. Tali got a distinct idea that this might not have been a good idea. That idea became very distinct when with a bass grind, one form which had been walking hunched turned and rose to its full height, great and dark read and it's armored eye almost brushing the ceiling. A Prime.

"This isn't good," Tali said, as she looked around for some place to hide. There was none. Weapons started to quickly rise toward her. She didn't even have time to jump back through that hole. And luckily, she didn't have to.

There was warning in the form of a rumble of stone giving way, but it proved not enough for the geth nor Tali since all were still surprised when the roof exploded downward, and a tonne of armored krogan landed wholly on top of one of the furthest back geth, riding a second down in the process. The red eye noticed Tali, and he slammed down a foot onto the floor even before the dust completely settled. It rippled toward her, finally rising up into a raised shelf almost her whole height that she could duck behind as the shots began to fly, spanging off of her kinetic barriers.

"Fuck! Too many!" Jackie shouted from her place through the door. But her face transformed from anger to something beyond it, so far past wrath that mere wrath vanished over the horizon to what she was now. She was silent, as her eyes seemed to glow with the blue light which suffused her. There was a thud of biotic power, and a rush of air blasting past Tali, and then Jackie was right in their midst.

It was an obvious mistake to watch Jackie's reaction, because her distraction let sinuous, pale-white geth get entirely too close. She spotted it just as it hurled itself over her protective shelf, and twisted in the air in that way that was so unnatural and freaky. She tried to raise her shotgun to the Stalker, but it bounded again, slamming Tali into the wall behind her and causing the shotgun to clatter out of her hand. Its foot then wrapped around Tali's wrist as ably and as tightly as the strongest krogan fist. It flicked itself forward, burning eye clacking against her face-plate as its other limps began to grasp at her head. Tali should have been terrified. Should have been.

Even as its weight overbalanced her, Tali reached for her side-arm. That proved futile, as the Stalker let out a pulse of tortuous electrical energy which caused her kinetic barriers to overload instantly, and her limbs to lock up completely. That meant her pistol fumbled out of her hands before she had a chance to use it. So she went on to plan C. Another flick of her wrist, and she repeated the last command her Omni had undertaken. A flash-forging of an Omniblade. The mere action of its opening was enough to tear through the grip that the Stalker had on her, reducing its foot to synthetic slivers. Tali then plunged the blade up and into the chest of the Talker, not even speaking as the white 'blood' of the thing began to spill out. She twisted, and the grasp grew a little weaker. Weak enough that Tali could shift it off of her, and slam it against the wall next to her. That grip didn't grow weaker yet, but it was no longer weighing her down, at least.

Tali tried to raise her Omniblade for another slash, but one of the 'hands' around her throat lashed out and grabbed her arm, preventing it from reaching in. Its two remaining extremities started to scrabble and grasp at the edges of her face-plate, trying to... to tear it off.

It was cut short by a very, very loud report. Its kinetic barriers cracked and shattered as the insanely overpowered bullet hit it. Another crack, and a great chunk of the Stalker was blown clear. Tali pulled back, her face finally away from the Stalker's grip. It turned, its eye narrowing toward the newcomer, she behind Tali. Liara, her face far more grim and resolute than it had been before, was advancing, getting her aim back for the shot she'd taken. Another boom, and this time, the Stalker was thrown off of Tali completely, splaying across the lowest portion of the concrete shelf. It ground hatefully at them, but its movement was limited to a flexing of its hands. Liara ended that by pointing her oversized and overpowered pistol down at the Stalker and firing off one more round. The forth shot was enough to completely overheat the weapon, but the Stalker only let out one more grind, before shutting down permanently.

"I owe you one," Tali said, her tone distracted. "Where is Shepard?"

Liara pointed ahead, where Shepard had obviously joined Wrex through the hole in the floor. Tali didn't waste time. She rushed forward, through that battleground of geth in the warehousing area, not even paying attention to the things burning around her. The entire base was now a great mound of bullet-holes, burnt substances, and broken fish-tanks. And Tali didn't care about any of it, because the monsters that hurt her people were right in front of her. Unfortunately for the geth, Tali had a shotgun.

Tali continued her bounding strides, pressing her weapon to the back of a Prime's knee and letting the blast gut the servo, even if it didn't blow off the limb. The distraction was enough to let Shepard blast it with a bolt of lightning. It was also annoying enough that the Prime, fast as a flash, swatted Tali aside, sending her crashing through shelved polymer foams. That made for a far kinder landing than she expected, but the crunching was abysmal, and her head was indeed spinning from the hit that sent her flying. A thud in the air sounded as Jackie blasted her entire biotic force into a fist which finished with Tali started, knocking the leg out from under the Prime.

It didn't help that the Prime grabbed Jackie on the way down, and started to squeeze even as Jackie started to glow so brightly that it seemed like her veins were burning. The creak of metal warping foretold the grip of the Prime being loosened. Tali got to her feet and stayed there just as Garrus jumped down the hole, an entire bandoleer of grenades blinking in his hand. He looped it over the Prime's head like some sort of deadly necklace, then pointed his rifle at... Jackie? Tali saw the wisdom of it, when the fired the shell and it deflected of of the sphere of biotic force, but imparted enough momentum to cause her to drift out of the Prime's grasp. There was a double thud, a blue streak slamming first into Garrus, and then past onto the floor twenty meters away, just in time for that chain of bombs to detonate as one, and blast the Prime to scrap metal.

Tali looked around, and could only see one geth who wasn't being engaged by somebody else. Well, half of a geth. She stomped toward it, and thrust her shotgun down at its face. It let out a grind, one hand reaching toward her, no doubt with the intent to try to spite her even in death. She didn't give it that luxury. A blast, and the grind ended suddenly, the limb falling to the stone. Shepard launched another bolt of lightning, this one at a Pyro near a seemingly half-welded door. The blast detonated all of the tanks on the geth's back in one cacophonous blast, knocking the Destroyer which was giving Wrex a hard time into his grasp so that he could head butt it once, twice, three times, directly into its chest, until the chest caved in, and the krogan could punch a fist into that hole and tear out anything he could get his hands on. Needless to say, that Destroyer didn't last long after that.

Another loud gunshot, and Liara started to yelp with alarm and pain. The overclocked pistol in her hands was practically red hot, so she had to juggle it to herself. But it had done the job. While the shields did crackle with the effort to hold out the bullet, they weren't nearly up to the task, and the geth folded back like a low-priced vent manifold, almost snapped in half. The din died down, leaving only the crackling and popping of fire burning on the concrete where the Pyros had set something alight. The occasional crumble of a shelf collapsing, the sparking of live wires dangling where they'd been torn free by either Wrex's sudden entry, or by the firefight resulting from it. Beyond that there was... there was also a song.

It sounded like it was in Desronin, and thus not in her vocabulary, but hearing quarian music here, of all places, struck Tali as unbelievably odd. She waved an Omni in the air, and could tell that its signal was leading to that barricaded room. They'd almost sealed it, but not quite. She flicked her Omni toward a screen which was cracked, but still functional, next to the door. The signal dumped into that screen instead of pumping through the speakers – and why a geth base would have speakers was also suspect.

The audio hitched slightly as video synced up with it. The quality was poor, but it seemed like it was captured on some sort of low-end recording device. The view shuddered and shook from time to time; general bad cameraship. But the subject matter had Tali staring, wide eyed. There was a sea of quarians, all indistinct for distance and lack of focus, but they weren't shuttered away; she could see hair. The quarian soprano on the stage was likewise face-to-the-galaxy, but the distance and lack of zoom made her features indistinct as well. But her hair, that was what stood out to Tali. She could feel her own, bunched up in her helmet. She knew it wouldn't flow, like that soprano's did.

"What is it?" Wrex asked quietly. Almost gently.

"This... must have been from the Homeworld, three hundred years ago," she said. The soprano gave her crescendo, a note rising up so high that it hurt Tali in the heart, a bitter sting to what should have been a beautiful performance. Then, the note descended, and the stage, and the theatre it had been recorded in, those centuries ago when they still could walk the homeworld without masks or suits, all plunged into darkness. Her people, plunged into darkness. Tali felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned in time to see Shepard laying a hand on her other. The glance to the other direction showed Wrex, of all possible people. The old krogan just gave a pat, though, and then turned his attention to the destroyed geth around them. Every now and then, he stomped one.

"Let's end this," Tali said. Shepard nodded, and moved to the door. She rubbed her hands together, giving a nod to Garrus to take up a position opposite Tali herself. Then, with a great tear, she ripped the doors out of their moorings and cast them behind her, letting them crash through the warehousing, and Tali was ducking into the room even as they flew. Garrus was a step behind, but Tali was shotgun ready to blast. Two geth turned toward her. One immediately turned back to a server, and the other started walking toward her. Tali snarled a blasphemy in her native tongue as she let her shotgun do her talking for her. The shields didn't even come close to stopping the blast, even though it wasn't pressed against its synthetic skin.

When that first one gave its dying grind, the other turned to her, looking... if Tali was given to flights of fancy, she would have called it surprise. There was a burst of information which touched the firewalls of her encounter suit. They were trying to hack Tali? Oh, that wouldn't stand. The intrusion recoiled about a half second later, but Tali was already rushing up to the machine. It waved its hands, grinding still, almost like a person asking for mercy or for a chance to explain. It'd forfeited that right when it burned her people to death. The last blast lingered in the air, as the now headless geth fell limp, and slowly collapsed sideways to the floor.

Tali raised her shotgun to the server. All she'd done so far was destroy property. Now she was going to actually kill geth. But there was a snap, as the heat-sink was forceably ejected from her weapon even as her trigger depressed; the weapon, sensing it wouldn't survive the heat spike without its sink, neglected to fire. There was a loud, angry buzz, followed by a descending whine as the power went down in the core, plunging the room into darkness.

"...what just happened?" Garrus asked.

"They got away," Tali said. She then shrieked and kicked the floor. "They got away!"

"Tali, Tali... it's alright," Garrus said, putting his rifle on his back. "We've stopped whatever Saren was doing here. They didn't die in vain."

Shepard shook her head. "We'll run them down if we have to chase them all the way to Rannoch, Tali. I can promise you that. But right now, Saren's a bigger problem. We get him, and we have all the time in the galaxy to avenge your people."

Tali stared at the two of them, at Garrus who was holding her lightly by her shoulders. They were trying to calm her down. To comfort her. And at the moment, she didn't want comfort. She wanted vengeance. She slapped Garrus' hands away, and stormed out of the server room. She could hear Shepard call out to Jackie about something, and she stormed back into the room before. There, she sidestepped the door, leaned against it, and pressed her gauntlets to her face-plate. Keelah, this had all gone wrong! Those two were dead and the geth which did it got away scot-free. Jackie moved out, spotted her, and gave her a nod.

"Shepard doesn't want us splitting up until we know this place is clean," she said.

"Right. Babysit the Engie," Tali muttered. She then looked up at Jackie – actually looked at her – and saw that the human woman was seething on the edge of rage. "...what's going on?"

"Nothing," Jackie said. "Just... the music. I don't like that kind of music."

"Oh," Tali answered. She breathed deeply, and pushed herself off of the wall. Jackie, on the other hand, walked around the bullet-riddled low-wall, and tilted her head at what she saw there.

"Is this a fish?" she asked. "...the fuck would a robot want with a fish?"

"It was probably a research specimen," Tali dismissed. Jackie, though, leaned down and lifted the thing by its tail. It was bright, colored with happy reds and greens, and looked utterly dead.

"Right, a research specimen," she said, and dropped the fish once more. "...makes total sense. You know, since there isn't another one like it in this whole place."

Tali rolled her eyes and took a step toward her. That wasn't sitting right with her. "...You're right, Jackie. Something is wrong with this picture. I don't think that–"

The quarian was cut off by the sound of something landing on the ground behind her, dropping from one of the dangling wires which had been torn free in the melee. She turned, just in time for a shimmer of nearly-transparent colors swung something at her face with stupendous velocity. It landed with a crunch of breaking glass, and her vision vanished completely, even as she felt a sharp, jabbing pain in her mouth beyond any that a mere blow to the face would cause. She staggered back, too stunned by the Hunter's sudden appearance and equally sudden attack that she didn't have a chance to defend herself. Jackie turned at the crunch, unseen to Tali's eye, and dropped the fish she'd picked up with a shouted swear, trying to get into the line of fire.

She didn't.

There was a blast, and searing pain which launched Tali off of her feet. Pain which didn't even give her the luxury of losing consciousness; it just kept on burning. So she kept on screaming.

That music. She couldn't pin it down any more than she could remember her eleventh birthday, but that song... it ground on her like sandpaper on an open wound. It burned at her like battery-acid in the eyes. It made her angry. So angry, that she could barely think, and for all of her life, her glory, and her family, she didn't know why!

She leaned down, picking up the fish on the floor. That, too, was a sting of forceably and purposefully forgotten memory, something she'd tried to wall off inside herself, almost succeeded. Even now, she was scratching at something that she didn't understand, but if there was one great failing of the human condition, it was that the human being was insatiably curious, even when every sign pointed to curiosity being detrimental to one's existence. She looked at the fish, and she thought of...

Blood on knuckles, and a sensation of warmth and joy.

Her hands bound, and a girl screaming.

Begging. Please. Don't. Make it stop.

She stared at the fish, trying to put it and the song out of her mind. The song called forth cold and hot, pin-pricks and long tearing cuts. It made her uncomfortable in her own skin. She reached up, touching the neck of her armor where the longest of them readily visible was; it almost completely circled her skull, starting from her biotic amp and working in both directions until it was practically at her larynx. She didn't know how, but she knew the feeling of a scalpel teasing skin apart, done without anesthetic. As she heard that music, she felt that tearing. The sheering. The cutting.

A part of her wanted to tear the world apart, to rip this entire base off of the moon and hurl it into the sun.

That part, that inconsolable and unimaginably angry part of herself, frightened Jack. It was the kind of fear she'd been fighting for nearly a decade. It was a fear which revisited her, almost every single night.

"...You're right, Jackie," Tali said, responding to the last thing that Jack said, so long ago to her own mind that she could barely even remember what it was. "Something's wrong with this picture. I don't think that–"

She broke off suddenly, which prompted Jack to glance in her direction. Tali, though, was already turning around. Both women's eyes went wide in shock as a black, one-eyed synthetic form appeared from the darkness with a buzz, and slammed the butt of its shotgun into Tali's face. The crackle of the faceplate crumbling completely pulled an 'oh shit!' out of Jackie even as she tried to get to the other side of that wall, to stop what she saw coming. She forced all of her will into her biotic amp; it would be so simple to just charge right in there. To take the blast that she was certain she could take.

But all of her effort, all of her will and determination, it was nothing without the focus. Jackie's focus was about as far away from biotics as anything could be – even though it was in truth very very close by another perspective – she couldn't muster the wherewithal to ignite the pockets of Eezo throughout her body, to hurl herself as fast as light into that space. So when the blast went off, it was into Tali's barely-protected body.

As Tali went flying back, screaming clearly from the sizzling of flesh, the biotic amp finally spiked. And when Jack finally got her legs in the right place, she gave everything she had, even to the point of death, for one thing; revenge. The thud was beyond a sonic boom of air being displaced. This was the crack of physics being told to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up, as a human body broke the speed of light over a distance of ten meters, such that if one were to observe from without, Jack would appear two places at once for a fraction of a second. The impact was so vast that it drove both she and the geth she was targetting through the back wall and buried them ten meters into solid stone, which bucked upward and delivered it's debris toward the surface and away from Tali by kinetic barriers alone. The Hunter was already 'dead', but Jack wasn't content until there was blood on her knuckles. So blows, each strong enough to put a dent in the Mako's armor, if not pierce it completely, rained down until she was punching only the remnants of a geth's torso, the flattened strips of metal and plastic.

Then, with the warmth, with the joy, flowing through her, she finally turned back. The joy was washed away in an instant, and she staggered lurching to her feet and raced over. It had been only a few seconds. But those seconds felt like an eternity, one which drained away sickening joy to a pall of dread. Jack came to a skidding stop, dropping to her knees, and found herself at a loss for what to do. She couldn't stop the bleeding; she didn't have a kit. And she didn't think her Medigel would work on quarians. So she did the only thing she could.

"SHEPARD! WE NEED A MEDIC!" Jack screeched.

Shepard sat, the bottle of whiskey between her knees, on the edge of the bed. It had been opened when she first came into the room, more than an hour ago. She knew that she was supposed to have delivered a debrief to Admiral Hackett as soon as the action was over. The news she got on the ride back in didn't really register; she was too busy actively holding Tali's blood inside her body to understand how the geth in orbit broke off and FTLed for the Mass Relay when their programs split, no doubt back to Saren to report a mission failed. Joker even sent a report to her room that the listening buoys left in the other systems of the Armstrong Nebula were also losing geth ships like water through a sieve. The word was out, and that word was run.

It was an old and familiar pain, one which settled into her chest under her ribs and twisted at her heart; an icy fist which tore and sundered. One would have forgiven her for assuming she'd be in here, alone and in the dark. Instead, every light in her room was on, almost painful to the eye. No darkness. But she could still smell the blood, where it coagulated to a violet slime on the gauntlet she'd abandoned next to the door. She wanted to see the bottom of that bottle. And yet she couldn't raise it to her lips.

Again, the chime came to the door, and Shepard glanced at it, before grumbling. "Go away," she said.

There was a silence at the door, then a loud chirping, followed by muffled words. On it's heels, the lock disengaged and slid open, with a resolute looking asari staring in. Shepard turned a half-hearted glare at her.

"I told you to go away. And how did you even open my door?" Shepard asked.

"I remembered your override code," Liara said.

"You were drunk when I used it," Shepard noted.

"You were loud when you said it," Liara countered. She looked down at the bottle. "How much have you drank?"

"Including this bottle... none," Shepard said. She shook her head, and a hot growl burned up from her lungs, igniting into a snort of fire from her nostrils. "Gods damn it, I was supposed to keep her safe! She's not military, she's a..."

"Shepard, that is enough!" Liara cut her off, which surprised the hell out of Shepard. She trailed off, at the asari who now had a look of almost comical seriousness as she strode into the room. "Tali was invited onto this mission because of what she knew and how capable she was. She knew the risks that being a part of this crew entailed. Every person aboard is much the same."

"I should have kept her safe," Shepard said.

"Your sister is gone," Liara said, more gently. But that caused Shepard's blood to burn.

"You don't want to keep talking on that subject, asari," Shepard said.

"No, I do not, but obviously you must!" Liara said, pulling the bottle of whiskey from Shepard's hands and screwing the cap back onto it. "Tali'Zorah is not your sister. She is not a replacement for your sister. You do not need to redeem whatever happened to your sister with Tali'Zorah. Why is this not obvious to you? It is very obvious to me!"

Shepard stared at Liara, and when she stood, she intended to scream something nasty at Liara. Instead, she just stared her in the eye, as she felt a lurch in her guts and her eyes start to water. There were no words. Only a growl as she turned away, wiping at them to hide her shameful behavior, to try to keep them from erupting into outright tears. She would have time for sorrow when she died, and not a moment before.

As she tried to master her breathing, she felt a hand fall onto her shoulder. A few seconds later, a second had as well. Shepard turned, to give Liara a piece of her mind. She was forestalled by seeing that Alenko, who had been waiting just outside the room since Liara opened the door, had taken a place beside her. "Shepard, I know that it's not easy to lose the people that you care about. Especially how hard it is for you to admit that you care about them," Kaiden said. "You don't need to deal with this alone, though. We're here, for you and for each other. We're stronger together than anything that Saren can throw at us. Even this."

Shepard's breath shuddered a little, and she nodded. "Thank you," she said, quietly. "I... I think I should see her."

"I'll take you to her," Kaiden said. She was practically leaning on him, his arm around her shoulder and hers around his waist, as they left her quarters. Liara stopped at the door. The rest of the crew, it seemed like, was gathered in the mess, but not a word was said. There was silence. A wake, a silent honor to somebody... special. They didn't look at the two of them, two wounded soldiers of too many battles, moving past them. Inside their mind, they fought their own battles, ones far harder to describe or comment upon. As they reached the doors to the med-bay, those doors opened, and Doctor Chakwas came out.

"Commander Shepard?" she said, her tone formal as always, and professional to a 'T'. "We did everything we could for her."

Shepard nodded, and continued walking. Let her say what she would after. The door opened... and Tali was nowhere to be seen. Shepard pulled away from Kaiden and looked around, her head swinging to and fro. She then rounded on Chakwas with a look somewhere between confusion and hurt. "...and everything we could do, it turns out, was enough," Chakwas finished, no doubt a little annoyed to have been cut off.

Shepard turned to the sound of tapping. She moved to where the closest of the medical beds lay, and looked through the viewing port. She reached it just in time to see a faintly purple-grey, tridactyl hand reach up to tap on the glass again. "Tali? Are you alright?"

"...my face hurts," Tali's voice came over the speaker. "And my nose is stuffed up. Also, I think I died a few times. Nothing major."

Shepard gave out a laugh which was more relief than comedy. "You're not allowed to die on my ship, Tali. Am I being perfectly clear?"

Tali chuckled, and turned to face her. It was a little surprising how close to human a quarian's face looked. Of course, Shepard was operating with a wounded specimen, one who had one eye and much of the left side of her face bandaged. "Perfectly clear, Shepard. Wouldn't dream of it," she said. And then she seized up a bit, before letting out a loud sneeze which caused faintly purple mucous to spray around her bandages, and she held her sides with a wince. "...ow. Remind me to never do that again."

"Don't sneeze," Shepard ordered.

"Of course, Commander," she said. She turned, one luminescent golden eye facing Shepard. "Did the geth get away?"

"This time," Shepard said. "When you're back on your feet, we'll make them wish they never came out of the Veil."

"I'll hold you to that," Tali told her. She then let out a mild groan, and returned to lying with her hands folded on her belly – although avoiding a portion which was still mildly violet even through the blanket.

"Is there anything we can do for you?" Shepard asked.

"Yes," Tali said, her eyes still closed.


"Could you bring me my Omnitool? I'm bored out of my mind," she said.

"I'll do that," Shepard said. Tali fell silent. "Tali?"

"Yes, Shepard?"

"...don't scare me like that again."

Shepard turned from the clean suite, usually used for people recovering from severe burns – the sort of which Alenko had withstood in the wake of the Thorian attack on the Normandy – and back to the man himself. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.

"Because you needed good news, and this was the best way to give it," Kaiden said. He moved closer, putting his hands on her shoulders and leveling her with him. "Are you going to be alright, Shepard?"

Shepard took a purging breath. Part of her wanted to blame Saren for this and bathe in the wrath that such trespass demanded. That was a small part. Right now... she was just glad that at least one Tali out there in the galaxy was safe, alright, whole.

"I'll survive," Shepard said, trying to be brusque.

"That isn't what I asked," Alenko pressed.

Shepard looked up at him, at the burning intensity of his eyes on her. Damn it all, why was she so torn today, in so many directions? Between wrath and relief, between hatred and despair... between romance and fear.

Fear won.

"Of course I will," Shepard said, pulling those arms off of her shoulders. She gave him a nod. "And thank you, for not letting me stew."

"That's a Lieutenant's duty, after all," Kaiden said lightly. Because he didn't know what was going on in her head. To his defense, she wasn't entirely sure either. Shepard left the medical bay, only to be hit in the face by a cheer from the mess when she did. Chakwas had obviously delivered the good news, and the crew was in high spirits over it. Camaraderie knew neither species nor homeworld; friendship knew neither age nor provenance. Tali was a part of this crew. And the crew was happy that it wasn't made one less.

And, for all she didn't seem it, nobody was more happy about that than Shepard.

"I was instructed to remain silent to Tali's condition. I am sorry I couldn't have made this easier for you," Liara said where she stood off to one side.

"I... guess I needed to see for myself," Shepard said. She leaned back against that rail, letting Chakwas slip past back into the Medbay to do whatever it was she was going to do. "I don't like losing people."

"Nobody does, Shepard," Liara said. There was a silence between them masked by the people out there talking excitedly and happily. But that silence came to an end, when Liara leaned over. "May I ask a favor?"

"Depends on what it is," Shepard said, her usual answer to such a request.

"May I attempt to view the Beacon data again? I feel confident that if I can get to the center of it, I will be able to answer the greatest mystery of Saren's plan; what it is he is looking for."

Shepard puffed out a breath in a faint chuckle. "Sure. After I send Hackett my report."

"Excellent," Liara's mood raised instantly. "I will await you in your quarters when you are ready."

That turned at least two heads of crew nearby, but Shepard didn't favor them with more than a stern look, before Liara began to stride into the press. Shepard just shook her head. Liara was, and would always be, nothing other than Liara. No matter how strange that would be. Shepard took in a deep breath, and when it left, she felt a hundred kilos lighter. She looked down, and noted that she was indeed still in her armor. She could take that off later. Right now, she had a report to deliver.

Maybe a drink for celebration after.

Secondary Codex Entry (TECHNOLOGY): Artificial Intelligence

One of the most staunch rules of galactic policy is also one of the most debated. From the advent of the Citadel Era, there has been a blanket ban on the development of artificial intelligences, specifically 'non-manifested synthetic intelligences', by any group for any reason. The AI ban is a contentious issue, as there is only one Council species which his wholly behind it: the Asari Republics, in a rare show of unity, agreed that there must never be synthetic intelligences. Detractors of the asari position attribute this attitude as a primitive throwback to their early religion, one better abandoned in the modern era. They are called 'needlessly old-fashioned', and 'unwilling to heed the realities of intragalactic civilization'. The asari, one and all, disagree on points of simple prudence; any synthetic intelligence would only need to reach the extranet in seed-AI form in order to end civilization as the galaxy knows it. While the Justicars are best known for dealing with almost exclusively asari affairs, the few times that they do meaningfully and purposefully interact with other species, it is usually to end an illicit synthetic intelligence development program; they do so with frightening verve and thoroughness.

Countering the asari position is the salarian viewpoint that a properly contained synthetic intelligence could only be a boon to galactic culture. As they are capable of undertaking computational feats utterly above the realm possible even to 'Smart VI' programs - an until somewhat recently uniquely salarian invention which gave VIs greater processing power at the expense of a low operating life - they would be capable of managing entire economies on a galactic scale, discovering perfect terraforming solutions on-the-fly, or directing entire wars from the logistical down to the tactical levels. Salarian AI advocates agree that there is a danger of a rogue AI causing harm via the extranet, but argue that the danger is not worth rejecting the potential gains. After all, if the Council Races had not dared to tame fire, they would never have dragged themselves out of their primordial bogs and caves.

The turian position on artificial intelligence is a strangely philosophical one. They admit that both the asari and the salarians make valid points, but neither side has a cogent argument until it is decided exactly what AIs are. Their long history of shamanism, and their numerous historical martial philosophers put in place a notion that there is a Hierarchy of living things, just as there is one of turian peoples. The treatment of AIs as tools would be permissible if they were, in actuality, spirit beings. Spirits, after all, through careful supplication and setting of bans, can be controlled, cultivated, and benefited from. And a spirit of a function is best served by fulfilling that function. A spirit of a knife lives in the cut; a spirit of a calculating AI would be in the count. However, the other alternative is that AIs are not spirits, but souls, albeit souls without a physical body. Were that the case, they would not be subject to the Hierarcy of Spirits, but rather the Hierarcy of Tur; they could not be used, as they are alive as a turian or a salarian or an asari would be. While the caste system of the turian people is by times quite strict, they do not condone slavery. Even with the relatively recent Geth Uprising of Rannoch, debate continues to rage as it has since the turians' induction into the Council as to whether AIs are allowable, simply permissable, or illegal.

The opinions of other races are less uniform. Volus see AIs as tools, to be exploited to their utmost, and discarded if more trouble then their worth. Elcor and Hanar have no stated or unified opinion about artificial intelligences, despite both depending heavily on Smart VIs for their planetary defense and warfare capabilities. Quarians have an understandable hostility toward synthetics. Batarians seldom use VIs, let alone AIs, but for reasons not disclosed by their people in their time as a Citadel Race. Humans, as a rule, share the turian fascination with them, but officially have no stated goal of legalizing AI research or development.

Leave a review.