PROLOGUE 1: A self-diagnosis

No one is going to fault Shepard for bending the truth with Cerberus people.

Miranda's "field test" in the shuttle from the Lazarus station had been easy, leading questions. Did she feel shitty about leaving Ashley Williams to die on Virmire? Yeah, she did. Thinking about it gave her a familiar knot in her unfamiliar new cyborg gut. Truly, there was no way Miranda could have guessed what kinds of questions would have been real tests.

"What colour was the sky on Virmire?"

"What is your ideal shower water temperature?"

"Describe the sound of your mother's voice."

Shepard would have been forced to stall, to clear her throat, because the answer to those questions would have been: "I have no fucking idea."

Her mind was equipped with a lot of facts about herself. Some memories — like Virmire — even had feelings associated with them. But there was something deeply wrong with the thought contents of her reconstructed brain, rattling like burnt chestnuts in a charred tin can. The quality was missing. The qualia. She knew who she was, but she didn't know how it felt to be her. Which means she wasn't totally confident about what she was.

Her mind wrestled with the name 'Wrex' and couldn't put a face to it.

Cerberus had realized a miracle of life, but like so many of their projects, there was something hollow about it.

Luckily Commander Shepard had enough spark to spare. And the good sense not to tell Miranda, who might have taken it as her own failure and tried to retroactively terminate the project.

Shepard's last moments, during the destruction of the Normandy — moments that were already two years old — were her only vivid memories of how it felt to be the natural-born Shepard: what her body felt like, the athleticism of her gait, what the inside of her helmet smelled like, the sensation of locking eyes with Liara to communicate reassurance as the Normandy went up in flames around them. Her adrenaline-laced terror never had the chance to be shunted into long-term memory before she got fried in atmosphere, and so those moments never underwent the same sterile reconstruction by Cerberus tech as the rest of her lifetime did.

Her only real memory was of dying, and that made her one fearless motherfucker.

PROLOGUE 2: A lover's observations

This is not to say that Shepard was not Shepard. The je ne sais quoi components of life experience are, as it turns out, not necessary to maintain the essential qualities of personality and behaviour. Shepard was still Shepard, just as the Illusive Man had desired. And it was the very Shepard-like qualities that she still possessed which enabled her to carry on with business, despite silently realizing the emptiness of the memories rattling in her brain. Shepard had never been particularly sentimental. On the contrary, she was harsh with herself and dismissive of emotions beyond 'righteous rage' and 'spontaneous delight'. All else was simply not utilitarian. She was fiercely intellectual, solutions-oriented, and private with her weakness.

This description makes her sound like a terrifying warrior — but it fails to capture the je ne sais quois of her comportment. Part of the reason why she was almost never recognized during her comings and goings despite being a legendary war hero several times over is that she was generally bereft of any type of heroic presence. Her charisma was of a disarming sort, so long as she had no particular intentions with you. She was unapologetically feminine, entirely unsoldier-like — until it was too late for her opponent. This, too, had served her well.

All of these discussions somehow illustrate that the sensual qualities of life — the things that are difficult to describe, the things that make life something that we inhabit rather than simply observe — are simultaneously elusive and irrelevant, and also deeply, fundamentally important.

Shepard mused on these themes a great deal.

I loved her for it.

Thane sensed his pursuers like a pressure wave that moved at the speed of sand. Their advance was as slow and relentless as the dunes of Rakhana. Any sprint race to the top of Dantius Towers, he would win: his silent, solitary fang-strikes allowed him to needle his way through the opposition, bypassing any confrontations too large to be worth the time. His pursuers, however, engulfed everything in their wake — even systematically freeing the pockets of salarians he'd locked in safety, now free to wander off through the recently sanitized lower levels.

Unable to resist his curiosity, he paused in an air vent and allowed the trio of human soldiers to catch up to him. Reconnaissance, he justified to himself. But to his surprise, only one of them really resembled the term 'soldier': a gray-haired, gray-faced man whose slightly obsolete assault rifle punched through enemies with a shameless brat-tat-tat. Zaeed Massani: the name came to him with the image of an old mark briefly advertised in the right wrong places. Thane was rarely wrong about that sort of thing. The man's identity explained the fierceness with which he took down the mercs in his path.

The nearly inaudible whine of a cloak discharging drew his attention to the second figure. A woman, petite and hooded, laughed easily to herself, having returned to squad lines before her victim had time to collapse. No name came readily for her as it did for the large older man, but there was something familiar in the ways the bodies fell. Also, few indeed had such a high-end cloak, and as finely tuned. It was beyond military grade, to the very top of the black markets. Custom, if his ears did not betray him. They rarely did.

Strategically, the two couldn't be further apart. Stealth and brawn in forms that were discordant rather than complementary. Yet they were both taking cues from one source: the third figure, hanging back, the weft that held together their tenuous weave.

The field was splayed with the blazing trails of fireballs, punctuated by combat drones darting to and fro, criss-crossed by precision pistol shots in a manner that made the chaos coherent. This third soldier, positioned well in the rear, did not need to navigate the battlefield: she managed it. Her tactics transformed the frantic movements of enemy mercs into a text unfolding before his eyes, which she could read as fluently as she could execute the people within it. From his overhead vantage point, so could he. It was beautiful.

The part of Thane's mind which habitually counted bodies as they fell, made a note that it was this figure responsible for most of the body count, with the other two serving as distraction and cleanup duty respectively.

She, he thought. This warrior is a she.

It should not have surprised him. The drell are accustomed to strong female figures. Their pantheon of gods was skewed towards feminine avatars. Why did his thoughts wander to his deities? Arashu, his mind whispered to him, all tangled up in memories. But the woman firing death from her omni-tool was small, with a tightly coiled presence. Mortal, fragile. Her armour was a jewel-toned blue. She huddled behind the cover of a bulkhead. It was a strategically sound position — optimal, in fact, given the layout of the room — but it still made her look so small, so vulnerable.

This dichotomy with her combat deadliness fascinated him.

Suddenly he was spurred to action, a fire lit within him from embers he long thought dead. He took off through the darkness. He spiralled higher and higher, daring to confront Arashu herself in the Illium skies.

The sound of her voice nearly threw him off. It had a certain richness that wasn't often expressed in the voices of humans, a people often mocked for their stridency by other species. Her tone was also straightforward; she didn't play games. "I'm not an assassin, Nassana, though I am looking for one." Thane permitted himself a private smile, listening from a maintenance shaft in the ceiling.

Do you know I am here, warrior? Do you know I am right above you? Are your words now for her, or for me?

He took a moment to pray, then moved into swift action. He sent off two guards to investigate the sound of not-Thane. He decided to slip down into the room to take out the remaining three. He killed them each consecutively, from noiseless neck-twist to throat-punch to pistol shot. He spun Nassana and placed the gun elegantly at her waist. The bullet pierced organs consecutively, one to the next until death.

As he laid her down, he felt three sets of eyes on him, appraising him. The fluidity of his executions had been so precise, seemingly perfect: but he knew all of the other ways he could have done it. He had chosen one that he thought she would appreciate.

Something that would please her eyes.

He bent his head, praying forgiveness of Amonkira for his vanity.

At first, Shepard had no idea what use an assassin would be when the mission was a strike against the Collectors. Everyone else had more or less made sense: a scientist, to create countermeasures against the advanced technology they'd be facing; various beefy murderous gun-toting types; requisite Cerberus watchdogs. She went along with the arguments for Kasumi's talents for stealth, since she was generally in favour of diversity in skillsets, and she was delighted she had done so. The thief turned out to be one of the Commander's closest friends and allies, as good for a laugh on the ship as for reliable support in the field. It was partly Kasumi's persuasive daily demonstration of the usefulness of invisible recon that made Shepard decide to pick up the assassin on her way to finding the asari super-biotic.

Shepard generally preferred to kill people before they knew she was there, when she had the option. This style was demonstrated in her favourite manoeuvre of dropping a combat drone behind an unwitting enemy and then sniping them in the back of the head when they turn to face it. It was efficient, and more importantly, it was safe. You don't save the galaxy and live to fight another day by charging into the middle of every situation. It might work for some of the crazy biotic-types, but not for this N7. She never had anything but her wits to keep her alive. Luckily she had a damn talented mind.

Thane Krios was arguably the best in the galaxy at murdering people before they realize that he is there. So in the end, it was an easy decision.

Interrupting one of his jobs was the only obvious way to locate him, since he would no doubt go to ground as soon as the job was done, and be off-grid and unfindable for far longer than Shepard was willing to wait. It would also be an interesting way to see how he reacts to their surprise intervention. A character test.

His response to their presence intrigued her.

Shepard had recognized the dialogue way back in the first tower, when a freshly-killed body had fallen through an air shaft to land with a gruesome bounce at their feet — like a cat dropping a bird on your doorstep. She smiled to herself. For me? You shouldn't have.

This assassin was leaving such tantalizing traces of himself for her to find. Each pocket of salarians with their own stories of being safely squirreled away made her anticipate their meeting more and more. The take-no-prisoners attitude of most of the people she'd encountered in the Terminus Systems was certainly effective in its brutality, but it was a breath of fresh air to find signs of someone who genuinely cared about innocent bystanders.

But finally, here she was at the top of Dantius Towers, facing an asari who was anything but innocent. She was almost too impatient to talk to her.

Shepard heard the sound that drew off two of Nassana's guards. The crease in her brow, though, was not of concern for what they might find; it was knowing that they were almost certainly not hearing the assassin. No way. She could already tell he was way too good for that.

And then he dropped from above and slaughtered four people with a dancer's grace.

He was a drell, with enormous dark eyes and Classical proportions to his reptilian face. His head was textured with ridges, and a scaly plate shaped like a flat-edged diamond darkened his forehead like a third eye chakra. A long, inky black jacket with stylish points at the shoulders obscured much of his body in shadow. Apart from his bare upper chest, his sinewy strength was only implied by the raw physicality of his confidence: an understated, powerful presence.

As Nassana's body was falling, Shepard, too, was slain.

Kasumi looked at her with a sly sideways glance.

"Thane Krios?" Shepard asked in the suddenly still air.

"You have found me," he said. His voice had a rich thrum of subharmonics like smooth stones at the bottom of a pool. His diction was as elegant as the deliberate motions of his body.

"I need you for a mission," Shepard said.

"…in my pants," Kasumi muttered under her breath.

Zaeed's inadvertent 'ha!' was quickly strangled in his throat.

Shooting a glance at Kasumi, Shepard's eyes said, "shut it!" while the twist of her lips admitted that it was pretty funny. One of Kasumi's cybernetic eye-lights blinked off briefly in a shadowy wink.

Smoothly turning back to Thane, Shepard continued: "You're familiar with the Collectors?"

"By reputation," Thane replied, thoughtful.

"They're abducting entire human colonies. Freedom's Progress was their handiwork."

"I see."

"We're going after them."

"Attacking the Collectors would require passing through the Omega-4 relay. No ship has ever returned from doing so."

"I have a good one. It's called the Normandy."

It was hard to tell, with those large black-on-black eyes, what the drell was looking at, but he seemed to glance at the N7 emblem on her armour before saying, "I see. Commander Shepard. You are known to me by reputation as well."

Shepard glossed over her notoriety. That was as far as she liked to go with introductions. "I'm assembling a good team, and we have a lot of resources. We'll find a way through the Omega-4 relay."

Thane looked at her for a long moment, then turned away to face the window. Tasale was rising; he was backlit by the dawning light shining weakly into what used to be Nassana Dantius' office.

"This was to be my last job. I'm dying."

Shepard heard the rustle of Kasumi and Zaeed exchanging glances behind her. But the drell continued.

"Low survival odds don't concern me. The abduction of your colonists does."

Shepard felt a tingle go up her spine when the drell said, "I will work for you, Shepard. No charge."

His was the first and only unconditional offer of support she had encountered since her… revival. There was no, 'one thing you must do for me', no need for a daring rescue that would put him in her debt. Not even a fee.

It might have been unsettlingly opaque — or perhaps morbid, given the way he casually mentioned that he was dying — if she didn't have the sense that they had already reached an intimate mutual understanding before ever exchanging words.

It also helped that his voice made warm vibrations in her chest.

And that he looked bad ass in black.

The legendary Commander Shepard removed her helmet once inside the skycar they liberated from the rooftop landing pad. Thane's breath caught in his throat at the sight of her slim jawline, high cheekbones, and the hypnotic flutter of those tiny hairs humans have edging their eyelids. The hair atop her head was a crimson shade he had never seen on a human before. It was tied into a once-artful chignon that had been crushed under the weight of her helmet. His eyes drank in the colour, the soft, exotic texture, and he realized he was staring.

Even an adolescent drell knows to just shoot a glance and savour the eidetic memory. He granted himself forgiveness. This was Commander Shepard. Anyone would be off-kilter upon meeting her.

Her reputation was one thing. Council Spectre, saviour of the galaxy with numerous dalliances with saving this or that colony or population, back from the dead. But her comportment belied all of that. The woman relaxed into her seat in an easy slouch. She propped an elbow on the edge of the window and gazed out at the tall buildings flying by. She sighed almost rapturously: "Illium is fucking gorgeous, isn't it?" she said, and Thane began to see why the Alliance had quickly dropped her from their recruitment ads.

It was the same dichotomy of the vulnerable young woman, huddled in cover, while murdering all her opponents with blinding efficiency. A warrior's soul blazed behind feminine features and soft crimson hair. It was a confusing, mixed message for military advertisements. She was a fierce, unstoppable war hero who made you want to hold her in your arms protectively.

Or maybe that was just him.

Certainly it would be dangerous to underestimate her. Perhaps that was another tool she used to make her more deadly. It was an advantage he had exploited a great deal early in his career, in a line of work where targets are more likely to fixate on krogan- or turian-shaped threats.

"Is there anything you need to pick up before we get you settled on the Normandy?" she asked. She was facing him now, twisted around in the front seat to look at him. Goddess of Oceans, she was actually beautiful, in a way he had never imagined another species could be. Her features in delicate proportions, with dark and expressive eyes wide-set and feline, her full lips red like a desert bloom against the pale sand of her skin.

The moment had stretched too long, and Shepard said, "I mean, we can provide you with most of the basic necessities on the ship."

Returning to himself, Thane replied, "I can pick up my kit near the Nos Astra spaceport."

He thought he saw her smile to herself as she turned back to face the window again.

Dry air vented from the pumps of the ship's life support system. A window into the engine core flickered with light that seemed almost aquatic, but the arid atmosphere was kind to his lungs. It was ideally comfortable for the drell.

He set down his two bags: one small rucksack with the tools of his daily ablutions, and a much larger hardcase which he laid on the table and flipped open. Sniper rifles, telescoped and compact, lay in neat rows alongside immaculate SMGs.

His body required only the dimensions of his cot, but the tools of his trade would always be privileged with sufficient and orderly space. Spying a switch by the windowsill, Thane flipped it to trigger the wall-panels to recede into angled racks illuminated by bright, cool-toned white light.

How apropos, that Cerberus would install hidden gun racks in their ships' Life Support rooms.

He laid the rifles on the racks in a symmetry that would rest easily in his vision. This room was to serve as his sleeping quarters, battle tent, and meditation chamber, after all.

She came to visit him just as he had finished unpacking his things. She was in her ship's clothes: a slim-fitting black dress with a diamond-shaped neckline. An elegant colonial style of the Serpent Nebula, sleek and decadent: it suited her, with her aristocratic cheekbones, slender, shapely calves, and her white shoulders round-muscled as a seabird's breast. The fiery red of her hair, controlled and twisted atop her head in artful swirls, asserted civilization, no matter where they might be in the Terminus Systems. Of course; Shepard was from the human colonies, as Thane recalled. She exuded the determination of those who set out to conquer the wilds of space: that entitlement to enforcing order even when nature herself strove against you. Despite this, her presence crackled with physicality, an unpredictable feral energy. Like the obsidian figurines of Arashu from Rakhana, no amount of lovely drapery can tame the image of a warrior-goddess.

"How do you like it?" she asked, vaguely.

It took an instant for him to realize she was referring to the room. "This is more than sufficient," he replied, watching her take a seat at the table across from him as though she owned it. Effectively, I suppose she does, Thane thought. This was her ship.

"I wanted to ask about your disease," she said without hesitation or discomfort, and then regarded him silently. Apparently no actual question was forthcoming.

"Yes," he said. This explanation ought to have been well practiced, but in truth he had rarely discussed his health with others. "You needn't worry. Kepral's Syndrome is not communicable, even to other drell. It is a consequence of my species' relocation to the hanar homeworld. We are native to an arid planet, but Kahje is humid, and it rains every day. Over time, our lung tissue loses the ability to absorb oxygen. It becomes harder to breathe. Eventually, we suffocate."

Shepard sat quietly and listened. Her dark, almond eyes were soft and sympathetic. She blinked, slowly, with those hypnotic feathery eyelashes. Humans have only one set of eyelids; it was so mammalian, so vulnerably sylvan.

"And a dry environment will slow its progress," she asked, but it was pitched like a statement.

"Yes, although the disease is cumulative and the damage is impossible to heal." His voice was even, emotionally unswayed by facts that might have been callous for some, bitterly melancholy for most. He, however, had long been resigned to his fate.

She rested her elbows on the table, her fingers interlocked, pressing her lips to her thumbs as she thought. She had a surprisingly contemplative manner, for a soldier.

"I'm sorry I have to ask, but: are you going to be alright until the end of the mission?"

The question was necessary; that she should apologize for asking it, quirked pleasantly at Thane's honour-driven sensibilities. That she should ask only after already accommodating him on her ship, he found intriguingly noble.

"I should be fine for another eight to twelve months. I think it's safe to say that by the time my body is incapacitated, we will be victorious. …Or dead. Either way," he said, not fully able to strip the bitterness from creeping into his voice, "I won't be a burden to you."

She was looking at him, her eyes moving across his face, studying him. She seemed to come to a conclusion, and a glimmer in her dark eyes was like sunlight on river stones. "Funny thing about irreversible medical conditions. They usually say death by atmospheric re-entry is irreversible, too. The world is full of surprises."

She stood from the table, started for the door. Thane's eyes tracked her with the intensity of a sighted target — but who was the contractor, if not himself?

She paused by the door. "Please, let me know if there's anything I can do to help," she said, her voice low, earnest, musical.

And he saw he was fixed in the perfect laser target of Shepard's legendary charisma. The woman who could talk down raging krogan was gazing at him like he was the only thing in the world that mattered. He was frozen prey, caught in her sights. He felt time stop, as though he were falling into a memory.

A breath, and he realized nothing could ever be the same. He could suddenly distinguish new dreams, because he had been snapped from a battle-sleep he had not even recognized.

Their business on Illium was not concluded. There was another person, another cultural outsider Shepard had decided to recruit. An asari justicar.

In the conference room, Shepard selected her squad. "Garrus, I want you on this with me, because we're going to be interfacing with local law enforcement. You're best at chatting them up. Thane, you know Nos Astra better than any of us, so you're up too."

Shepard liked to take out new recruits right away. It accelerated everything about getting to know each other. Thane, though, didn't feel much like a recruit. The notable absence of any type of transactional quality to his joining the Normandy crew made him feel like a collaborator rather than a subordinate — some sort of third party contractor without a contract.

But she had established the habit, and saw no reason to break it. It would still be useful to see him in action as part of a squad rather than a solitary agent.

Privately, Shepard also wanted Garrus to size him up. She trusted his opinion.

There was also an outside chance of the sniper's equivalent of a pissing contest, and she was dying to see that.