Author's note:

Been having a lot of trouble focusing on any one story lately. It's been driving me nuts. I suppose there's some good news, in that Road to Recovery has a second chapter posted and there's another ME story in the works starting with a 17-year-old Shepard on the Einstein post-Mindoir. That one's AU compared to FDEWB and has him meeting some of his future team earlier in life, though diehard Talimancers might want to slap me for giving her some competition. Also, work is slowly progressing on the ME1 prequel to FDEWB, though it remains frustratingly nameless.

I'd been looking forward to writing this one but ended up having a lot of trouble. I'll rewrite it in the future, probably. For now, posting it so I can move on. Chapter 30 is already half-written.

Chapter 3 has been updated, which was the second major reason for the delay. Some sort of OCD thing about not wanting to post a new chapter without updating an old one. It gave me fits. Finally gave up and went for some tweaking instead of a rewrite. It's amazing how bad I used to be about switching between points of view, and I was surprised to see myself changing tenses a few times. Bad Colossus.

As useful as agility and speed were for a thief, the ability to maintain calm stillness was an absolute necessity. Under bright lights or with certain backgrounds even her brilliantly engineered cloak could leave behind a subtle shimmer, the effect amplified by the slightest movement. Despite her easygoing nature and penchant for flip humor, Kasumi prided herself on her discipline and control. But as she watched the eerie, cavernous spaces of the Collector ship drawing nearer on the viewscreen she couldn't help but fidget.

"What's wrong?" Jacob asked quietly from his place beside her.

"This just really isn't my kind of party," she admitted, giving him a wry smirk from the shadows of her hood. "Wide open spaces and evil bugs with particle weapons are a lot creepier than that statue Shep had sent to his place."


She grinned and pulled up a picture of the statue in question, two meters of one hell of an ugly ogre-like creature that had been in Hock's vault. "Nice, isn't it?"

"Nasty son of a bitch," Jacob muttered, laughing quietly. "But you mean to tell me you guys looted the place when you were finished? Why didn't we know about that?"

She shrugged and shut down her omni-tool. "Hock wasn't going to miss any of it, so we contracted some disreputable types to do a little shipping for us. And I don't think Shep trusted you guys yet. I think he sent a krogan statue to Tuchanka, some turian art to Palaven, and some smaller stuff back to some place he has on... Intai'sei?"

"That man loves to scavenge," Garrus remarked from her other side as he stood and drew his rifle. "Puts quarians to shame." The turian checked his helmet seal and turned to the others. "Get ready."

Even Jack and Zaeed had been quiet and serious on the short shuttle ride, and for once the biotic had no protests about donning a suit of light armor. Despite the team's tendency to keep things loose, Kasumi had a feeling everyone else had the same ominous feeling that she'd felt as soon as she'd laid eyes on the drifting Collector Ship. When their shuttle touched down beside Shepard's everyone exited quickly, falling into a loose formation at Garrus' practiced direction. Kasumi grimaced at the soft, spongy feel of the 'deck' beneath her boots. Rock had given way to something disturbing.

"This is disgusting," she murmured to Jacob. "It feels..."

"Organic," he replied, equally quiet and grim. "Like we're inside a hive or something."

"This is nasty shit," Jack agreed, clutching her shotgun tightly.

"We got some detailed scans on the way in," Shepard's spoke up over the comm. "This ship's a damned maze, so change of plans. Garrus, see if you can find anything interesting but don't wander far from the shuttles. I want you covering the exits and available for backup. We're heading for what looks like an operations center. And I don't give a damn how empty this ship is: expect trouble."

"Acknowledged. And I always do."

"It'll be a lot harder to steal everything that's not bolted down if we can't wander," Kasumi said brightly, attempting to break the tension. But the answering chuckles were as weak as her own voice had sounded while they slowly headed in the opposite direction of Shepard's team, carefully scanning every shadow.

Liara shuddered again when some oily looking liquid dripped from the ceiling and nearly landed on her hand. The cavernous spaces had few straight lines, looking as if they had been bored by some giant worm and then worn smooth by thousands of scuttling feet that left ooze in their tracks. Her flat boots made a disgusting sucking sound each time she lifted her feet and she soon found herself envying quarian biology when Tali's split-toed boots came free with only a soft squish. The entire ship seemed to be built to unsettle anything that wasn't a Collector.

"This is too quiet," Miranda said quietly. "Where's the crew? Where's the battle damage?"

Hearing the cool and collected Cerberus officer voicing her worries and suspicions did little for Liara's nerves, though she felt a touch of relief that she wasn't the only one left with crawling skin from being inside such a discomforting vessel.

"Yeah," Grunt replied from his place beside Shepard at the front. "This feels wrong. We should have seen some corpses by now."

"Perhaps there was a life support accident after they repaired the ship that led to depressurization," Samara theorized. "The atmosphere is thin by the standards of any species. And your mission report from Horizon did indicate that the Collector corpses disintegrated."

"Collector physiology still an unknown," Mordin answered with a sniff of annoyance at the lack of data. "Possibly adaptable like vorcha. Need more data. Preferably from live samples. Fresh corpses also acceptable."

"Normally I'd agree, Mordin." Liara was oddly relieved to hear the same tension in Tali's voice. "But I think I'd be okay with not having any opportunities to gather data on them this time."

They fell into silence, continuing their trek deeper into the dark bowels of the ship. Unable to shake the feeling that they were being watched, Liara gripped her submachine gun tighter.

A minute later she jumped at the sound of Joker's voice over the comm. She really hadn't spent enough time in dark, dangerous places recently. "Commander, you're not going to believe this."

Shepard stopped, the team spreading out on the slope they'd been ascending. "What is it, Joker?"

"On a hunch, I had EDI analyze the readings from the original Normandy."

"They are an exact match," the AI stated. Shepard's eyes met Tali's from behind his visor, the azure shade dulled by the dim light.

"Definitely not a coincidence," he replied grimly. "I had a feeling when you confirmed it was the same ship we saw on Horizon."

Tali took a step closer to him, her shoulders tense. "I don't like this, Shepard. The same ship's been after you for two years?"

"At the bidding of the Reapers, no doubt," Liara added, feeling her heart begin to pound. She knew Shepard was well aware that Alchera and Horizon were likely traps laid for him.

"Shepard, you have the weirdest fan club," Jack commented over the comm. "But let's not stick around for autographs. Hurry up so we can get the hell out of here."

"Works for me," Shepard agreed, hefting his rifle. "Come on, let's move."

They crested the top of the slope a minute later. "Ah, excellent," Mordin said. "Information terminals ahead." When they drew near, his voice brightened even further. "Still powered. Should provide useful data."

"Terminals beat corpses any day," Tali admitted, walking up to one beside Mordin while Miranda took Grunt and Samara to keep watch. Just as quickly as she reached the terminal, she recoiled. "Keelah! I think I spoke too soon." Shepard and Liara stepped up, exchanging a surprised glance when they saw the dead Collector that lay in a pod beside the terminals.

"Ah, excellent!" Mordin exclaimed joyously. "Intact corpse!" He pulled up his omni-tool in a flash and began scanning.

"Never expected a salarian to get excited over dead things," Grunt muttered. "Guess the STG is good for something."

"Oh, God," Miranda said, her disgust evident. "Shepard, there's a pile of... corpses over here. Human." They all turned to see her backing away from a pile of bodies a meter high, stiffened grey limbs sticking out at awkward angles, the few visible faces frozen in open-mouthed horror.

Shepard followed Mordin over. The rest kept their distance. "If the crew's dead already, they got off easy compared to what I'd do to them," Shepard uttered darkly. Grunt chuckled viciously, but the rest remained silent. The Spectre watched Mordin scan for a moment before his patience ran out. "What were they doing, Mordin? Were these rejects for... whatever the hell they're doing?"

The salarian shook his head. "Test subjects, most likely. Possibly a control group. Discarded when no longer useful."

Liara shook her head to clear the nausea taking hold in her stomach, focusing her attention on the terminal Tali was examining. "Perhaps it was related to this dead Collector. They do take an interest in genetic abnormalities." Scrolling down through the data, she nodded when her hypothesis was confirmed. "Yes, they were running DNA comparisons between their species and the... humans."

Shepard walked up to the other terminal and began scrolling. "Yeah. There's also some data on small arms, but not nearly as much as the genetics. But why so damn interested?" Frowning, he tapped on the terminal. "EDI, I'm initiating an uplink. You can go through this a lot faster than we can, and I don't want to spend all our time just sitting here."


"Wait," Tali spoke up. "You two can read what's on this? I haven't even been able to decipher it yet!"

"I never thought I would have to tell you to upgrade your software," Liara joked, giving her a brief smile.

"That software upgrade would have to include a Prothean translation program," EDI stated.

Shepard met Liara's gaze, a puzzled frown furrowing his brow. "Prothean? Why would the Collectors use a dead language?"

"I believe I can answer that," EDI replied. "According to the data, the Collectors have a quad-strand genetic structure. Based on ancient samples, only one race is known to have this structure."

"The Protheans," Shepard breathed in stunned realization, taking a slow step back from the corpse with dawning horror.

"That is correct."

Liara's jaw fell open. "But... that's impossible!" Ilos and Vigil had made it perfectly clear what had happened to the focus of decades of her life, all the mysteries and unanswered questions finally solved. They had been exterminated... hadn't they?

Shepard turned to her, his voice grim. "You remember the warning from the beacons, Liara. Now I understand why these things make me so uneasy. Some of the images were of Protheans being... converted."

Closing her eyes, she let her mind slip back in to the disjointed images her meld with Shepard had given her. After only a moment she stiffened in shock, forcing the gruesome vision out of her mind. "Goddess. You're right."

"I guess that explains why you can both read the terminals," Tali said uneasily. "I think I could live without having that particular translation program in my head."

Shepard shook his head, his eyes clearing behind his visor. "A topic for another time. Whatever the Protheans were, they're all dead now. These are just their husks." He took one last look at the dead Collector, then started moving.

"Shepard!" Grunt called eagerly. "Over here!"

The krogan's excitement attracted the attention of the others and they wandered over to the stack of weapons and stripped armor the krogan was rummaging through. Yanking something out, Grunt held a heavy shotgun aloft. "Look at this!" Though the weapon was battered and scratched, a red 'M-300' could be seen painted on the stock.

"Claymore. Nice," Shepard admitted, taking a double take at the pile. The heavy shotgun had a beastly reputation but he was content to leave it to the only other person strong enough to handle the recoil without pain. "Wait a minute..." Reaching in, he grunted and tugged out a thick octagonal tube in a tan color almost as worn as Grunt's new weapon. "I'll be damned. Garrus and Zaeed are going to hate me."

"Why?" the turian in question asked over the comm channel they'd kept open.

Shepard extended the weapon, lifting it to his shoulder and peering through the scope. "Found a Widow." The anti materiel rifle was heavier than the Mantis and kicked like a mule, but he had taken out a target from five kilometers away using one during his N6 tour. Rather explosively, at that.

"An M-98?" Zaeed exclaimed. "Bastard. You get all the luck."

Shepard pulled his Mantis from his back, attaching it to Grunt's armor and holstering the new rifle. "Yeah, choking to death in vacuum was a lot of fun." He paused and looked over at Tali, his eyes softening after a moment. "Still, you might be right. Come on, let's go."

Liara couldn't help but smile when Tali's eyes brightened behind her visor.

"Protheans," Jack muttered, shaking her head. She stood guard next to Kasumi, who was extracting tech samples from some Collector machinery. "Fucking nightmare. How much you want to bet that's what the Collectors want to do to us? Turn us all into Reaper slaves?" She aimed her shotgun at a shadowed niche in the wall, shivering when a trickle of moisture ran down the moist surface. The Collector Ship felt more confining than her prison cell, and a hell of a lot creepier.

Garrus shook his head. "I wouldn't bet against you. What I'm wondering is why they're so focused on humans. Krogan would make better shock troops. Asari are natural biotics. And my people have an innate resistance to radiation."

"Collectors more interested in genetics than physical composition," Mordin answered. "Humans the most variable of all known species. Also highly adaptable."

"Might also have something to do with Shepard and the Fifth Fleet," Jacob theorized. "You can bet Sovereign's death caught their attention. That Reaper that kept possessing drones on Horizon-"

"Just call the damn thing Harbinger," Zaeed grumbled. "Chatty bastard seemed to like that word."

"Harbinger, then," Jacob agreed. "It fits. Anyways, that thing spent most of its time ignoring us and going after Shepard."

"Knew enough about him to use that spunky brunette for bait, too." Zaeed added, setting off beside Garrus when Kasumi finished her scans.

"Oh yeah, the Alliance cheerleader," Jack said with a snort. "Glad she turned you down, Shepard. One is enough."

"Cut the chatter," Shepard rebuked sternly. "The Collectors have already laid two traps for me and mine. You want to bet your lives this isn't a third?"

"Still no life readings, Shep," Kasumi argued. "This whole ship is in some sort of standby mode and we're the only things with heartbeats." She paused for a moment. "But..."

"There's always a 'but' if we're involved," Garrus muttered. "Count on it."

The squad fell silent again, advancing slowly through the ship, giving each dark corner a wary look.

The Collector ship reminded him of some children's story his father had read to him as a boy, as if he was trapped in the maw of some cold, indifferent entity that could end his life at any moment by simply moving its tongue. What he saw when they entered the immense cavern that formed the heart of the ship made the vessel feel positively malevolent.

"Keelah," Tali breathed, speaking for all of them as the squad stared up at the thousands upon thousands of pods attached to the surface of the bored-out center of the ship in huge swaths. "There must be hundreds of thousands... maybe millions!"

"Enough to take every human in the Terminus Systems," Miranda said in quiet horror.

"They want Earth," Grunt added in his gravelly timbre.

Shepard brushed past Miranda, his blood running cold. "I don't give a damn what they want," he said, his voice icy. "Their race isn't going to last that long." He didn't look back, advancing toward a dark hexagonal platform with a data terminal at its center. Though a few vertical tubes of some unidentifiable machinery flanked it, it was strangely small for an operations center, a thought that aroused his suspicion. "EDI?"

"Yes, Shepard?"

"Are you sure this is the right place? There's not much here." He frowned, looking back at Tali and Liara and pointing at the terminal. They quickly moved up to begin their analysis and he switched to his new sniper rifle, scanning their surroundings.

"According to my readings, it is the central data hub. There are numerous smaller nodes throughout the ship, but-"

"Got it." Frowning, he shook his head.

"You think they'd be stupid enough to let us into their computers before they spring a trap?" Grunt asked dubiously, following his commander's lead and replacing his shotgun with his rifle.

"Probably not," he admitted, watching Tali begin the upload to the Normandy with Liara's linguistic assistance. "But arrogance seems to be a Reaper trait. Wouldn't surprise me if their servants had it, too."

"Never hurts to be cautious," Mordin commented, scanning the terminal with his omni-tool. "Old STG captain had a saying: Always expect trouble. Failing that, create-"

The seven of them rocked suddenly on their feet when a shudder ran through the platform under their feet and the tubes around them came alive with motion. The data terminal flickered and died for a moment, then returned to normal operation while Tali and Liara exchanged a worried look.

"What the hell just happened?" Shepard demanded, though he could damn well guess.

"Major power surge," Joker replied. "Everything's back to normal, though."

"I managed to divert most of the overload into non-critical systems," EDI added. "Shepard, this was not a malfunction. It was-"

"A trap," he finished, smirking humorlessly. "I'm shocked. Garrus, get your team back to the shuttles to cover our exit. EDI, how much longer on the upload?"

"Approximately three minutes."

"Uh, we got a problem!" Joker announced tersely. "I'm picking up some serious power readings from that ship. It's coming back online."

Shepard cursed. "Joker, keep the cannons warmed up. As soon as we're off this ship we'll take care of one problem, at least."

"What if there are survivors in some of those pods?" Tali asked over her shoulder. He could only grimace and shake his head.

"Can't risk it. We-"

He was interrupted by another violent shudder that rocked them all on their feet and sent Grunt and Miranda sprawling onto the platform. The platform that had suddenly began rising and spinning, moving away from its previous docked position.

"That's not good," Liara muttered while she and Tali kept each other upright in front of the terminal.

Shepard spotted another two platforms moving toward them, one carrying a team of collectors and the other supporting the bulk of two of those immense husks that fired off shockwaves. Scowling, he shouldered his rifle. "It gets better."

"What's going on?" Garrus called over the comm, his breathing a touch labored. "What's your ETA?"

Shepard centered the head of a collector wielding a particle rifle in the sights of the Widow and fired. He had the grim satisfaction of watching a fountain of blood and gore as the scope jerked upward with the heavy recoil. Without the bone and muscle enhancements Miranda had used in his reconstruction, firing the thing freehand would have been painful even through armor.

"Sooner than it'd be if we hadn't found these new weapons," Grunt answered angrily while he rose with Samara's assistance. Mordin helped Miranda to her feet while Shepard reloaded.

"You're missing some good target practice, Garrus," Shepard said quietly, taking aim again. His second shot tore the head off another Collector before the platform rose high enough to conceal the rest.

"Save some for me," Grunt demanded, storming up to wait behind cover, Claymore in hand.

"I don't think that'll be a problem," Tali muttered. "Two and a half minutes."

"Get into cover and let the upload run," Shepard ordered as the platform began to slow and the other two drew near. The jerk their ride made when it came to a sudden stop took Grunt and Tali off their feet, the former roaring in indignation. "EDI, we're stopped in the middle of nowhere!" he growled, pulling Tali to her feet. "Find a way to get us moving."

"I am having trouble maintaining connection. There is someone else in the system."

"Time for shooting, not talking," Mordin advised, taking cover and unleashing a blast of plasma when the first platform docked with theirs. It struck home, igniting a Collector while the other two opened fire with their rifles. It bought the larger threats time to dock and send everyone scrambling for cover when a pair of shockwaves shook their platform.

"I hate these things," Miranda swore, rising out of cover for a moment to unleash a warp attack on one of the two larger husks. Samara quickly detonated the biotic field with an attack of her own but it only shook the two monstrosities and tore off some flesh.

Shepard took the opportunity to blow apart the head of a third Collector while the krogan roared and charged toward the other platform.

"Grunt!" he yelled, but the tank-bred kept barreling into the fire the Collector poured into his shields and armor. When he was meters away the Collector suddenly rose into the air and began glowing a fierce orange, skin splitting open while Grunt skidded to a stop a half-meter from the edge of the platform. "Fuck," Shepard swore, putting a heavy round into the Harbinger-possessed Collector, but its strong barriers absorbed the shot that would have torn open its head.

Miranda's hand on his belt yanked him down when another pair of shockwaves advanced toward them and expended their energy on their cover, leaving Grunt by himself against the burning figure of Harbinger.

"This hurts you."

A loud cry of agonized fury accompanied the blast of Grunt's heavy shotgun. Shepard lifted his head to see smoke rising off Grunt's wrist where Harbinger had it trapped in a burning hand. The possessed Collector turned toward him, four eyes glowing a fierce yellow. "Your attacks are primitive. You will know pain."

The squad opened up on Harbinger, but his barriers were still absorbing the shots while he grabbed Grunt's other wrist and began forcing the howling krogan toward the edge of the platform.

"Shit, that sounds bad," Zaeed swore. They were all listening to the battle over the comm from their positions surrounding the shuttles, Grunt's shouts of pain coming through loudly. "We can't just sit here on our asses!" The scarred merc turned to shoot a glare at Garrus but it was Jacob that spoke up, a worried frown creasing his face while he checked his shotgun again.

"We've got our orders. Shepard and Miranda will get them through." I hope, he added silently. He had faith in the Normandy's commander and XO, but that possessed Collector was a nightmare.

"The battle will be over by the time we got there anyways," Garrus added. "We can't leave our escape route uncovered." He keyed his comm. "Joker, have you got the cannons warmed up?"

The silent beat that came before their pilot responded made Jacob tense. "Not quite. That power surge knocked them offline. Gabby and Ken are working on it."

"So much for your calibrations," Kasumi muttered. Jacob and Jack chuckled quietly when Garrus' eyes narrowed to slits.

"Something is coming," Thane said softly, scanning their surroundings. "A number of them, if I am correct."

Jacob raised his omni-tool to scan, blanching when he saw the readings. "Husks. A whole lot of them."

"And us without Shepard or the krogan," Jack groused.

"Three biotics and some of Zaeed's grenades should thin them out," Jacob said with more calm than he felt while they formed a firing line, waiting as the sounds of moaning and the vibrations of many stomping feet drew nearer.

Grunt's eyes blazed with pain and fury as he unleashed a massive headbutt, slamming his developing brow plate into Harbinger's face. The blow knocked the possessed Collector back a step but didn't loosen the searing grip it had on his wrists. Only Shepard's Widow did that, one shot blowing Harbinger's arm off at the elbow before the heavy barrel came swinging around in a ferocious strike that crushed the Collector's skull and sent its disintegrating body flying off the edge of the platform.

"Get to cover!" Shepard yelled, shoving Grunt down while he reloaded and took aim at one of the Scions, as Samara had dubbed them during she and Miranda's furious biotic attacks. One of them was beginning to fall apart and that was the one he aimed at, his shot bursting open the head sticking from one shoulder. The thing collapsed in a disgusting puddle of orange liquid and split flesh but its remaining brethren took aim at Shepard, firing off a shockwave.

Tali yelled his name in alarm, but he was already streaking off in a charge, slamming into the Scion with biotic force that rocked it back on its feet. Without a fresh clip he had little other option but to repeat the attack he'd made on Harbinger, whirling and slamming the heavy rifle into the skull jutting out from its shoulder with a sickening crunch. As it collapsed, vile liquids splashing his boots, he fought off a wave of nausea and turned to run back toward his team.

"How much longer?" he asked, panting quietly for breath while he reloaded. Mordin and Liara were tending to Grunt's charred wrists while Samara and Miranda regained their strength.

"It's done," Liara replied, glancing up at him with relief in her eyes. "Can we wrap up this little sightseeing tour now? It's a bit more than I bargained for."

"Heh heh," Grunt chuckled, waving off the doctors and grabbing his shotgun despite his obvious pain. "Even your asari have a quad, Shepard. I like her."

"Thank you... I think," Liara drawled.

"Shepard, we're engaged with a swarm of husks," Garrus called, his voice tight over the sound of gunfire. "Not too bad yet, but you need to hurry."

Just as he finished, the platform moving once more.

"I have regained control of the platform," EDI announced. To Shepard's mild amusement, she almost sounded proud.

"Good job," he replied, swallowing down a drink from the straw inside his helmet. "Garrus, we're on our way. EDI, did you find anything useful?"

"I have found data that will help us successfully navigate the Omega-4 relay."

Shepard grimaced, meeting Tali's own worried gaze. The relay was exactly what he hoped they wouldn't need to utilize.

"I also found the turian distress call that served as the lure for this trap. The Collectors were the source. It is unusual."

"How do you figure that?" Shepard asked, steadying himself on his feet while the platform docked at the entrance to another tunnel. "It was a trap; of course they'd be the source."

"Turian distress calls use secondary encryption. It is present, but corrupted in the message. There is no way the Illusive Man would have believed it to be genuine."

For the third time since boarding the ship his blood felt as if it had frozen in his veins. He'd expected a trap. But to have his supposed benefactor lie to his face and needlessly endanger his crew? That was a mistake the Illusive Man would pay dearly for... along with anyone else complicit in it. Turning, he fixed Miranda with a hard stare, surprised to find her eyes wide open. "What?" she blurted, her usual composure shattered. "Why are you so sure?"

"I found the anomaly using Cerberus detection protocols. He wrote them."

"That bosh'tet sent us into a trap!" Tali hissed, likewise glaring daggers at their ship's XO.

"That son of a bitch is dead!"Jack yelled over the comm amidst the sounds of gunfire and the moaning of husks.

"There must be a mistake!" Miranda exclaimed, her face ashen. "He wouldn't do that to us!"

"Oh, it was a mistake all right," Shepard said quietly, waving the squad toward the tunnel as he led the way. "One we'll all have a conversation about when we're back on the Normandy." A conversation that could easily lead to an explosion if he didn't handle Jack properly. But it could also play to his advantage once the Cerberus crew knew just how much their boss valued their lives. Provided they made it back to the Normandy and gunfire didn't erupt when tempers flared. And assuming he didn't let it slip that the Illusive Man had moved up to a place just below the Reapers and Collectors on his list of things that needed a bullet.

When the last husk fell dead in a spray of blue fluids, Jack whirled on Jacob but Garrus set a hand lightly on her shoulder, leaning his helmet in close to hers and cutting his comm. "Jack, trust me, there's going to be a reckoning for this, but it'll be at Shepard's hand. Let him handle it." Brown eyes flashed angrily and Jack made to jerk her arm away, but he tightened his grip and raised his voice to a hissing whisper. "Damn it, Jack, if you start blowing up it'll be a distraction, might get you shot, and will tip the Illusive Man off that there's a potential mutiny brewing. Trust me; wait for Shepard."

She glared at him angrily for a long moment before nodding and pulling her arm away. "Fine. But if-" She was interrupted by the wheezing moans of approaching husks.

"Heads up," Jacob called, lining back up. "More on the way."

"Good," Jack muttered, a tiny, wicked smile on her face. "I'm just getting started." Her eyes found themselves on Jacob's back until the first husk came into view. She promptly hurled it with enough biotic force to break it open on the far wall.

"More of them," Samara announced as they entered another open area, a squad of Collectors zipping overhead on their strange wings before dropping to the ground. No sooner did they land than one of them lit up in a fiery display, Harbinger possessing another of its drones.

"I'm already sick of him," Liara muttered as she and Miranda immediately went to work on its powerful biotic barriers with warp attacks. Samara launched a few husks that were running their way while Shepard covered Grunt's advance with a blast from his rifle that ripped through the neck of a collector with a particle rifle.

"I'm really glad I wasn't on Horizon," Tali remarked, summoning her combat drone behind a drone that was well dug-in higher up the slope of the small cavern. Its powerful electrical zaps sent the insectoid creature stumbling out into Grunt's line of fire, who eviscerated it with a blast from his powerful shotgun.

As rewarding as it was to watch his varied and diverse team working so smoothly together, Shepard found himself battling his apprehension. Husks and collector drones, while dangerous, weren't any worse than some of the mixed squads of geth and regenerating krogan they'd battled two years ago. But Harbinger, the Scions, and that large floating creature they'd fought on Horizon were serious threats. And not present in numbers... at least, not yet.

"They're slowing us down," Shepard uttered through gritted teeth while he ducked behind cover to avoid one of Harbinger's plasma attacks, feeling the heat wash over him when it impacted the low stone wall. The fodder was being thrown at Garrus' team to keep them distracted while Harbinger and his drones delayed them, giving them time to get their dreadnought powered up. "We need to pick up the pace."

"I'm open to suggestions!" Tali yelled while she blasted Harbinger in the face with a powerful charge from her shotgun that sent the possessed collector stumbling.

Shepard replaced his rifle with his shotgun and leaped over cover, charging at a drone behind Harbinger in a streak of azure light. Spinning around behind it, he wrapped his arm around its neck and twisted violently, snapping vertebrae while his glowing enemy turned to fire off another ball of plasma. Shoving the dead collector forward, it took the impact and immediately burst into flames. When it fell and cleared his line of fire, he leveled his shotgun at Harbinger's face and pulled the trigger from point-blank range, splattering flesh, bone, and fire. He had no idea where the Reaper's voice came from, but it spoke up in its usual unnerving hollow bass timbre as the body disintegrated. "Releasing control."

"Good suggestion, Shepard" Grunt said, chuckling viciously. "Heh heh. Come on!" The insatiable krogan led the way in a run as the others fell in with him, his burned wrists apparently not bothering him.

"Garrus, status report!" Shepard called into his comm.

"Holding, but they keep throwing husks at us. And if you run into red ones, don't let them get close. They, uh... explode when they die."

"Explode?" The news kept getting better.

"Yeah, as if they're filled with incendiaries. Jack and Zaeed got a little singed."

"Commander, what's your ETA?" Joker called anxiously. "That ship's still powering up!"

Shepard paused, taking in the sight of another open area down below them leading to another large door. Another kill zone. He frowned. "We're not exactly sightseeing here, Joker! But if it gets down to the wire, Garrus, get on the shuttle, get back to the Normandy and go report to Anderson and Hackett about what happened."

"Right, like I'm really going to follow that order," Garrus drawled, putting a tight smile on Shepard's face as he dropped down to a lower level and caught Tali's shotgun before she followed, landing easily on her quarian legs.

"That's what I thought. Shepard out." Passing back the shotgun, he eyed the far door cautiously and started advancing toward a slope leading down to the lower level.

"Expect trouble." Grunt voiced the thought, apparently picking up on his commander's concerns. For a tank-bred krogan only a few weeks old, he was far more intuitive than he let on.

"That's practically our motto," Liara replied dryly. As soon as she finished speaking, the doors flew open and a large midnight blue shape floated in to the sound of a chilling howl. The Horizon veterans stiffened momentarily but dove for cover, Shepard yanking Tali and Miranda doing the same for Liara just as two fierce blue beams raked past where they had been standing.

"Keelah, what is that thing?" Tali cried as their three true biotics fired off warp attacks at its powerful barrier.

"Bad news," Shepard said grimly, pulling his arc projector from his back.

"And there's not much cover," Miranda added, her voice tight with fatigue and anxiety as another beam heated up the stone they hid behind.

"It's moving to flank us," Samara noted as Shepard fired a powerful charge from the electric weapon. The barriers flickered but held strong, chilling his blood.

"Oh, crap," Kasumi breathed, barreling into Jack and knocking her to the ground as two powerful shockwaves rippled along the stone where they had just been standing. They struck the shuttle behind them with a resounding clang.

"Zaeed, grenades!" Garrus ordered as he opened up with his rifle. Between Jacob's incendiary shotgun rounds and the mercenary's thermite grenades the two Scions were quickly set ablaze, but they simply kept shambling forward, raising their arms again.

Jacob swore and stepped out in front, dropping to a knee and raising both hands. Kasumi could only gape as the two powerful biotic attacks rippled toward the Cerberus operative, watching in stunned silence. The first shockwave struck the barrier and rocked him on his heels, but the shield held. The second shattered it with a roar, blasting Jacob off his feet to slam into the side of the shuttle. He fell to the ground limply, one leg twisted in a gruesome angle.

"Shit," Jack swore, pushing a shocked Kasumi off her and firing off a powerful shockwave of her own that sent a Scion stumbling back a meter.

"Jack, we could use another barrier!" Garrus called urgently, yanking Kasumi to her feet and continuing to pour fire into one of the recharging Scions alongside a growling Zaeed. "Kasumi, help Jacob!"

"Just kill the fucking things!" Jack yelled, panting and throwing up a barrier just in time to get heavily rocked by two shockwaves. The barrier flickered but held as sweat beaded on her temples.

"We are working on it," Thane said quietly between blasts from his rifle, each shot tearing chunks from a flaming Scion head. His calm stood in stark contrast to those of the thief. Her hands shook while she administered medi-gel to Jacob, his normally dark skin abnormally pale behind his visor. She failed to notice Jack's abbreviated scream before a shockwave slammed her forward into the shuttle's hatch hard enough to make all go black.

As he expected, the monstrosity's energy beams tracked only him. Leaving Tali and Liara to yell his name in alarm, Shepard fired one last blast from his arc projector before he tossed the weapon to Grunt and sprinted down the slope, hearing the energetic sizzling sound of the beam approaching him rapidly from behind. He threw himself to the ground behind cover just in time to feel the heat passing overhead, rolling down the slope and slamming against a rock hard enough to crack something, making him grunt in pain.

"Shepard, get up!" Tali shrieked, but he was already twisting and shoving off the ground to look up at the approaching enemy, its eyes already glowing in preparation for another blast. With very little time to jump back behind cover, he grit his teeth and charged it, slamming into its barrier with an explosion of biotic energy powerful enough to interrupt its firing. But it was fast, dropping to the ground with a shriek and a blast of energy that sent him flying, tumbling backward over the stone as pain erupted from innumerable places in his body.

"Idiot!" Grunt roared, firing a blast from the arc projector that finally drained the damn thing's barrier. "Get up! And watch out!"

Scrambling painfully to his feet, his shotgun lost somewhere behind him, he turned to see a trio of husks running toward him like a gift from the gods. It was far easier for him to charge a target than an empty location. When he took note of the red coloration and rippling air surrounding one of them, though, he cursed and glanced back at the insectoid collector that was approaching on sharp-looking legs. When it was only meters away he charged one of the husks, slamming a glowing fist into its head to send it flying. A kick did the same to the other, leaving him with the red abomination that skidded to a stop to turn his way. Sudden inspiration struck him, pulling his lips into a tight grin. Running toward the glowing husk, he grabbed it by the upper arms, silently praying they only exploded on death. Ignoring the rising heat in his gloves and the thing's furious howling and twisting, he kept running, summoning biotic energy and launching the thing at the approaching collector. The husk struck it just as blue energy was unleashed from its eyes, resulting in a fiery explosion that made it shriek and fall backward in a tumble, ending up on its back.

"Kill the damn thing!" Shepard ordered. Grunt and the others obliged, striking its exposed underbelly with a fusillade of biotic attacks and gunfire. With one last ear-splitting shriek, it began glowing with unconstrained energy before vaporizing in a shower of blue sparks. Panting, and suddenly aware of sharp pains in his side, hands, and ankle, he pulled his rifle and gestured to the door as the squad approached at a run. "Come on, we don't have much time."

"We're going to have a talk about your tactics when we get back to the Normandy," Tali muttered, glaring at him. He could only chuckle weakly, opening up comms to the other squad.

"Garrus, status report."

"Not good," came the grim reply. "A pair of Scions took down Jacob, Jack, and Kasumi. Thane's injured but can still pull a trigger and Zaeed's okay. But the others are hurt bad, Shepard."

He heard the unspoken request clearly, grimacing. "Make sure our shuttle's locked up and then get them all back to the Normandy. Joker, tell Chakwas to get ready for casualties. We're a few minutes out."


As they approached the doors the dangerous collector had emerged from, they slammed shut in Miranda's face, sending her stumbling backward. "Damn it. EDI, we need a little help!" The AI's long-winded explanation of firewall difficulties went largely unheard, as Tali grabbed him by the wrist and slathered some medi-gel on his gloves, which were nearly burned away. When another door opened, he had to practically yank his hands free, shaking his head at his protective lover. First aid would have to wait.

They set out for the next corridor at a run, glowing thermal clips bouncing on the stone as they reloaded on the fly.

They ran into only one more team of collectors on their way, fortunate to have the cover they had been sorely lacking in the previous fight. But that worked both ways, giving Harbinger the time to possess two collectors and leave Miranda, Liara and Samara all breathing heavily and near exhaustion from heavy use of their biotics. Fortunately, they were only a minute from the shuttle... but their trackers were also picking up heavy moment surrounding it.

"That's a lot of husks," Liara managed between pants as they neared a turn and a slope that would lead straight down to their arrival point, slowed from a run to a jog.

Shepard shook his head and glanced over at Grunt, who had a fierce gleam in his icy blue eyes and a subtle grin on his face despite the charred flesh around his wrists from Harbinger's grasp. "Grunt can thin them out with the arc projector."

Grunt snorted. "One problem, Shepard: It's out of ammo."

Scowling, the commander shook his head. "Great. Fine, then just-"

He was cut off by a swarm of husks rounding the corner at their usual awkward, arm-swinging run, cybernetic eyes glowing an eerie blue as a cacophony of groans announced their imminent attacks. Liara reacted first, summoning a singularity in the middle of the line that grabbed four of them. A throw from Samara detonated the field, killing a half dozen, but more were pouring around the bend.

"Just prime them!" Shepard yelled, waiting until Miranda had struck one with a warp attack before he created another explosion with a throw. Grunt immediately opened fire with his rifle, igniting others alongside Mordin's own plasma attacks with his incendiary rounds, but the husks barely slowed and the squad was already backing up.

"Shepard, their weapons are almost charged!" Joker yelled frantically over the comm. "You've got to get out of there!"

"No shit," the commander panted, summoning all his patience to wait until an exhausted Liara created a singularity that picked up some husks only a few meters away while he emptied his Mattock. Miranda was already being supported by Tali, who kept frantically shocking husks with her battered drone, and he didn't have the control to summon wide fields like Samara did. His rifle empty, only one idea came to mind, and it wasn't really a good one.

"Fuck it," he muttered. Pulling his knife, he charged into Liara's singularity, sending husks flying as the field collapsed and exploded. He immediately turned and slashed the throat of an approaching husk, whirled to smash another with his rifle, and kicked a third before Samara had a few tugged off their feet. In short order it was mayhem among the lines of the relentless husks, Mordin and Grunt's incendiaries giving him burning enemies to dodge or bash aside while claws raked across his armor and scraped his visor every time his barriers dropped. Only the repeated opportunity to charge and create explosions kept him from being overwhelmed.

And then he turned just in time to be bashed in the helmet by a husk and knocked into the arms of two others, who shrieked as their claws tore into the vulnerable weaves at his shoulders and elbows between armor plates. He was only vaguely aware of Tali yelling his name, struggling as he was with every ounce of strength his cybernetic upgrades and dwindling biotic energy could muster. He finally tore his arms free in a wave of hot agony below one bicep, summoning all the dark energy he could manage. He slammed his fist into a leaping husk with a primal roar, the biotic blast nearly deafening him. When he blinked his eyes to clear them of the nearly blinding azure light, he found his surroundings completely clear.

A mighty arm grabbed him by his wounded elbow and yanked him off his knees despite his shout of pain. "Come on, move!" Grunt growled, practically pulling him along as they started running down the slope. He heard the chatter of a rifle behind him and started to turn but Grunt kept tugging. "She's fine! Keep moving!"

When the krogan shoved him into the shuttle ten seconds later he turned to see who he was talking about. Tali had appropriated Grunt's rifle, igniting the straggling husks for Mordin to detonate with plasma attacks as they covered their retreat. But the husks were nearly on top of them as she and Mordin backpedaled the last few meters.

"Get in, damn it!" he shouted, yanking his pistol from his belt and taking aim over Tali's shoulder. He dropped one husk, but as she and Mordin spun around to leap inside a hard blow from another sent her stumbling and barreling into him as she cried out in pain. A blast from Grunt's shotgun kept the hatch clear as it slammed shut.

"Getting us the hell out of here!" Miranda yelled as the shuttle turned and shot out of the collector ship with a speed that would have done Joker proud. Shepard's heart was pounding in his chest as he grabbed one of Tali's torso straps with his good hand to spin her around, and he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw only thin scratches on her suit and a deep gouge in one strap.

"God, finally!" their pilot shouted, distracting him from Tali. "They're already trying to turn to get us in their sights! I'm going to use up all our thruster fuel sticking close to them so they can't cut us in half!"

Shepard rose unsteadily with Tali's help and stumbled into the cockpit, grabbing the back of Miranda's chair with one hand. The other arm still didn't seem to be responding properly. "Can you get a firing solution on their ship?"

"Are you fucking kidding?"

"You want them to grab another colony, Joker?" he snapped.

"Brace," Miranda called a moment before the Kodiak practically slammed onto the hangar deck of the Normandy, metal squealing in protest as it slid to a stop in a messy combat landing. The commander was already storming for the opening hatch, leaping out in a run toward the elevator.

"Shepard, the distance required to safely fire upon the collector vessel would open us up to attack," EDI commented in her irritatingly matter-of-fact voice.

"And the cannons aren't fully charged yet," Garrus added angrily. Scowling, Shepard slammed the key for deck two. Only Miranda made it into the elevator with him, the door shutting in Tali and Mordin's faces as the ship seemed to sway beneath their feet.

"I can't keep hugging their belly like this!" Joker protested. "Now they're trying to ram us!"

"You executed a hundred meter drop in twenty, Joker!" Shepard replied, frowning when his left arm wouldn't reach up with his right to unseal his helmet. Miranda's eyes dropped and widened at him but he sprinted out of the opening elevator doors without asking, ignoring Kelly's similarly alarmed look.

"Shepard, come on, we need to get out of here!" Joker shouted as he approached the cockpit, boots pounding on the deck grating. "Shit!" His stomach protested at the sudden lurching that the inertial dampeners didn't quite eliminate as the pilot scrambled to avoid a collision.

Staring out the window at the ugly tan stone and jutting metal spikes of the collector ship, Shepard clenched one fist with red-hot anger. How long would it be until their next chance to end or at least reduce the threat to their colonies? A week? A month?

But one lucky shot could cut eviscerate the Normandy just as easily as the first. The armor they needed was still in crates in the hangar. And their enemy had finally managed to shake the Normandy far enough away to open fire, that blinding yellow beam lancing through the space they had just vacated as Joker twisted them through a maneuver that unsettled his stomach.

"Get us out of here, Joker," he said quietly. The words felt like an admission of failure and hung heavy in his heart.

While his pilot battled with the AI over a destination for their FTL jump, he stared at the disgusting ship and its sickly yellow beam until it vanished. Unlike their first encounter, they had survived, this time coming away with a massive amount of data that could hold the key to annihilating the Collectors and perhaps even the Reapers. The Illusive Man would, no doubt, be quite pleased. But Shepard felt tired and hollow.

"It's a victory, Shepard," Miranda said quietly, her voice tight and exhausted. "The information we collected probably holds the key to eliminating them entirely."

"It had better!" Joker exclaimed angrily, turning his chair. "We nearly got killed because your boss... holy shit!"

"What?" the commander asked dully, slowly tearing his eyes from the display to gaze down at where Miranda was doing something to the inside of his elbow, her gloves completely covered in blood. He blinked at the sight of the black weave of his armor's secondary layer ripped open, revealing muscle and the white of bone, and enough flowing blood to form a pool on the deck by his feet. "...Oh. Shit." He didn't feel her touch

"Yes," Miranda murmured distantly as she removed his forearm plating and wrapped both hands tightly around his elbow to staunch the bleeding, a touch he couldn't even feel. "Come on, you need a lot of medi-gel."

He walked in step with her back through the bridge and CIC, following the trail of blood he'd left and making another. Neither said anything, both preoccupied with their own thoughts as the crew watched them with wide eyes, speaking anxiously among themselves with subdued voices.