Author's Note: I wasn't planning to update this so quickly, but Hackett insisted he get some on-screen time.


Joker's voice jolted her out of sleep. "Commander, we've arrived at Noveria." She glanced blearily at the clock next to her bed, a nice, solid piece of Terran engineering. No holograms for her. "They're demanding to know why a Spectre is here." 5 am?

"Joker, did you even sleep?" she asked, knowing she sounded like she just woke up.

"Of course I did, Commander."

"I meant in your sleeping pod, not in the pilot's chair," she said, rubbing a hand over her face.

He didn't respond, which was probably just as well. She washed her face off quickly, putting on a new uniform and stepping out of her office to find Kaidan sitting at the mess table. "Alenko? What are you doing up at this hour?"

"Migraine," he said simply and quietly. "Something up, ma'am?"

"Noverian authorities being major pains in my ass, that's all. You up to accompanying me?"

He considered it for a moment, before nodding and rising to follow her up to the CIC. She detoured just a little, up to Joker's chair, and put a hand gently on his shoulder. "Keep my ship in one piece, Moreau," she said, "I'll be back after I kick some arrogant bureaucrat's ass."

"Understood, Commander." She was surprised for a moment that he didn't say more, but then again, it took Joker leaving for Cerberus before he was really willing to open up to her before.

Stepping outside, she literally winced at the cold air. It was still inside the hangar bay, no powerful gusts like outside, but it was still cold enough she swore it was freezing her breath before it got out of her mouth. She knew she should have stopped to get her armor on. "We're handling this quickly, then I'm getting the rest of my sleep," she told Kaidan as they approached the security officers.

The challenge went pretty much as it had before, with Parasini stopping the blond with the bloodlust from starting something, and she gratefully stepped inside into the still cold but vastly warmer building. Parasini was helpful, Anoleis was still the worst stereotype of a salarian, and she restrained her desire to fling him into the ceiling with a singularity.

Four hours later, feeling somewhat more rested, and took the entire squad with her. Getting the evidence didn't even require going into Lorik's office; all she did was snitch out the blond (whose name she still couldn't remember, not that it mattered), convince Lorik not to piss off a Spectre, and because she had skipped all the side missions, the storm hadn't started up.

In fact, Benezia had only arrived the day before, rather than a full week before. "Liara, I know this is going to be difficult for you," she said as they rode in a larger, treaded vehicle. She'd decided to be nice and let Wrex drive it. "You heard everything I said about the reapers?"

"I listened to it this morning," the asari responded. She looked so small and frail, so unlike her Shadow Broker self, it made Shepard want to hug her and tell her everything would be okay. "I can't see any reason for my mother to help Saren or the Reapers without being indoctrinated." Her eyes met Shepard's, full of fear and sorrow. "Are you sure there's no cure for indoctrination?"

She sighed, closing her eyes. "The Protheans didn't have one," knowing the reference to the ancient race would do a better job of convincing the archaeologist than anything she could come up with herself. "If there is a way, I don't know what it is." She opened her eyes and looked forward, past Wrex at the sharp outlines of the facility as they approached it. "I want to take her alive, so that if there's a cure, we can help her. But I can't make any promises either way."

"What about the geth serving Nazara?" Tali asked suddenly. "Are they vulnerable to indoctrination as well?"

Shepard was surprised at this, enough to actually stop and think about it. "I don't know. I think they're volunteers. I mean, Saren seems to be purporting himself as some kind of Reaper messiah, so it's possible that some of the geth took that as seriously as some humans take Christianity or Islam, or asari take Athame." She shrugged. "I know that geth can be hacked by Reapers far better than they can be hacked by us, but that only makes sense."

Wrex slammed on the brakes, bringing their transport to a halt. "We're here," he pointed out. "So now what happens?"

"You ever fight a rachni?" Shepard asked, pulling out her pistol and flexing her fingers to ready her biotics.

"Wait a minute," Garrus blurted out. "There's rachni here? They're supposed to be extinct!"

Ashley shook her head, prepping her assault rifle. "Gee, the crazy turian used the billion-year-old machine to help him bring back an exterminated race. What a shocker."

Wrex was overjoyed. "Hah! I got so sick of my clan talking about the rachni wars when I was young. Now I get to make some tales of my own!" Readying his shotgun, he smacked the door into the facility, nearly getting blown in half by the trio of geth waiting for them in the next room.

It didn't take them too long to clear through the facility, restarting the VI and the fusion plants. The survivors were all present and accounted for, though this time, Shepard smacked the asari traitor with a singularity and had Wrex and Kaidan slap her in restraints as soon as it wore off before making up the cure for the scientists.

Blowing their way through the maddened rachni and geth was fairly easy, and by the time they reached Benezia the whole squad was loaded down with loot. The quartermaster is going to loathe me Shepard thought as they paused before the last door. "She's in there," she said simply. "She's got two squads of asari commandos, too, though their indoctrination was heavy-handed enough we don't need to worry about their normally superior tactics."

Everyone but Wrex still looked slightly worried at this. "What … what is our plan?" Liara asked, nervously wringing her own hand on her pistol.

Shepard hefted a grenade, and the asari blanched. "Relax, these aren't explosive. I had Doctor Chakwas whip up some nice, aerosolized asari-specific sedative. I chuck a couple of these around your mom, she takes a nap, and we deal with the commandos and geth with extreme prejudice."

"Then we smash the rachni queen!" Wrex said excitedly.

"No." Everyone stared at her in shock, mixed with a little anger from the krogan. "I am not helping the Council commit xenocide again."

Garrus blinked, thought about the airlock comment, and suddenly laughed. "You've got another ace in the hole," he said.

"Something like that," she agreed. "Everyone ready?"

They opened the door, the grenades in the air almost before Benezia could even turn to look at them. The asari commandos came bursting in, met by gunfire and biotics, and their two waves were defeated with no more than minor injuries. Heading up the stairs to the platform, Liara swayed, and then also crumpled into sleep. "Damn, Chakwas doesn't mess around," Kaidan said.

"Nope. Garrus, you might want to stay back, or at least turn on suit filtration," Shepard said. "I don't know how this stuff interacts with dextro species." She walked calmly over to Benezia, ignoring the slight stink of rotten bananas that the sedative cloud smelled of, and slapped three sets of restraints on the matriarch. Taking a deep breath, she walked over to the side of the cage holding the rachni queen.

Before, she'd never linked up with the queen, always talking to her through dead or almost dead puppets. This time, she put a hand on the glass, staring into the eyes of the queen, and felt the mental contact. It was strange, but at the same time, incredibly relaxing. The entire universe had sounds and colors she'd never experienced and would never be able to put into words. Closing her eyes and pressing her forehead to the glass, she brought up the images of the Reapers.

Yes, I see them. My children here are lost to me. You did not take my life before, and I aided you against these metal monsters. Shall we do the same again? The voice of the queen was like listening to an entire choir of angels singing in her head, and she could vaguely make out Garrus and Ashley arguing in the background.

Her eyes cracked open just enough to find the release switch, unlocking the doors to the cage and allowing the queen her freedom. You'll let me know how to contact you? Shepard asked as the queen moved to leave.

Give me six months to build a hive, and everything I can produce will be at your disposal, she answered, and the world returned to a normal that seemed very drab, quiet, and boring. Shepard moved to step away from the cage, only to stagger the first steps, regaining her balance just as Garrus and Kaidan reached her sides. "I'm okay, I'm okay," she protested. "I just didn't know … how overwhelming it is to talk to them."

"You let them go?" Ashley was ash-faced in horror. "They nearly destroyed the galaxy before!"

Shepard nodded, putting a bit of steel in her voice. "They won't this time. This queen knows that if she screws up at all, what we'll do this time will be far worse than what the krogan did last time." As her two helpers let go of her arms, she gestured to Benezia. "The rachni in the facility are … damaged. Think of a child locked in a closet until they hit teenage years. We have to wipe them out, but in the future, when we deal with the rachni, it'll be peaceful."

Wrex lumbered over to her, staring into her eyes. "I hope you know what you're doing, Shepard," he growled. "You're the craziest human, hell, the craziest sapient I've met, and that's saying a lot. But this?" He gestured at the now-empty glass walled cage. "If this goes wrong, the Council might just decide the turians had the right idea with that little incident at Shanxi."

She nodded, and the krogan picked up the unconscious matriarch. "I'm well aware of that. I'm also quite sure they'll come to that conclusion when I unveil my master plan for the galaxy." Shrugging, she led the way out of the labs. "The Council already thinks I'm a little bit nuts. The Council can go fuck themselves."

"Now there's a sentiment we can all get behind," Tali chimed in. "How do we take out the rest of the rachni?"

"There's a neutron pulse built in to the facility. We activate it, run like hell, and take the train back to the main station." Shepard glanced over her shoulder as she tapped the button for yet another goddamn elevator. Heh, "goddamn" elevator. I should look up Zaeed's prices.

That task didn't take long, and six hours after they left the Normandy they were back aboard. Benezia had awoken strapped to a bed in the medical bay. "I know what you've said, Commander," Chakwas said crossly, "but none of my scans have showed up anything physiological that would influence her behavior."

Shepard sighed, and Liara looked, well, not ashen, but a much paler shade of blue than normal. "I wasn't sure there would be, doctor. I don't know if we just don't know what to look for, or if it's subtle enough to avoid our scans." She gestured to Tali, and an impromptu energy field sprang up around Benezia. "I know that will at least stop the Reaper from reaching out to her further. In the meantime, she was able to fight it enough to record the location of Ilos," she held up the tiny data module with said info, "so we have a destination."

She turned to leave the med bay, only to be interrupted by Pressley. "Commander, Admiral Hackett is here aboard the Kilimanjaro," her XO said over the comm. "He's requesting permission to come aboard."

Shepard blinked. She couldn't remember meeting Hackett in person until after the whole Alpha Relay thing, while she was recovering. "Understood. Bring him aboard, I'll be up to the CIC momentarily." Turning back to Liara and Chakwas, she said simply, "Good luck."

She bounded up the stairs two at a time, arriving in the CIC just in time to hear Hackett piped aboard. Trying vainly to straighten out the creases her armor had put in her jumpsuit, she snapped to attention with everyone else when Pressley called, "Admiral on deck!"

Hackett walked the length of the ship quickly without making it look rushed. As he came to a halt in front of Shepard, she saluted, and he returned it, finally saying, "As you were." The crew quickly moved back to their stations, and Hackett gestured her towards the briefing room. "Shepard, I'm impressed with the information you've already forwarded to me, and just as you said, the Crucible plans were found in the archives." The door swished closed behind them, and he pulled out a small jamming device.

She raised an eyebrow. "Feeling paranoid, admiral?" He just smirked, activating it, and a buzz of white noise filled the background. She waited for him to take a seat first before sitting down across from him. "What do you need, sir?"

"Anderson and I go way back. He was my navigator when I was just a captain. He ever tell you that?" Shepard nodded slowly, trying to see where this was going. "He doesn't keep secrets from me. So he passed along your message that you somehow sent yourself backwards from the future." He glanced closely at her face. "I know you've got gene mods, like half the Alliance military, but you still don't look like you went through a war with the Reapers."

She swallowed, a little nervously. Hackett had been a very friendly, approachable superior during the Reaper war, but he was still one of humanity's best decorated officers. "I'm not sure of the mechanics of it all, sir, but as far as I can tell, the only thing sent back was my … consciousness, for lack of a better word."

Hackett nodded. "I already asked Doctor Chakwas to do a surreptitious scan of you, on the pretext of making sure there weren't any lingering problems from the Prothean beacon." He held up a hand to forestall a probably unwise angry outburst. "You're perfectly normal and healthy. Anderson also told me you dropped your bombshell in front of two aliens, while concealing it from the ambassador and Alliance personnel. I understand wanting to keep Udina in the dark. But why not tell your fellow Alliance?"

So this is it, she thought. Still, Hackett was willing to work with aliens before, he's no bigot. "Sir, both Garrus and Tali worked and fought beside me for four years. Aside from Joker and Chakwas, nobody else has done the same. I know who they are and what they're capable of, and both of them understand the seriousness of the situation. We have to work with the other species of the galaxy on this. Any race that fights alone will die. I saw it happen to the batarians, I nearly saw it happen to us and the turians."

He watched her face, expression a perfect poker blank. "I'm willing to believe you, Commander, but I want to know everything."

A bit nervously, she chuckled. "Covering four years is going to take a while, Admiral."

"I'll make the time." He leaned back in his chair, his own anti-spy device preventing him from making any notes beyond the mental, so she started explaining. Saren's attack on the Citadel, the Council's refusal to listen, her own death and resurrection in a Cerberus lab, the Collectors and the proto-Reaper, the Alpha Relay, and at last the day she had tried so hard to prevent. "This is all quite a story," he finally said when she finished with her tale of the Catalyst. "So what's your plan?"

"You really believe me, sir?" she rasped, throat sore from talking for nearly three non-stop hours.

"You've pulled out enough evidence to give you the benefit of the doubt," Hackett said. "I believe the Reapers exist, I believe this Crucible must do something big if the Protheans made sure to put a copy of it in every data base we've found. The asari pulled out their own copy of the blueprints as well."

She nodded silently. "I need to stop Sovereign first. He could still bring them through the Citadel if I don't. After that, negotiate peace between the geth and the quarians, hopefully between the geth and the Alliance, too. Get the IFF off that crippled Reaper and blow up the Collector base before they can start harvesting humanity. Blow up the Alpha Relay. Then dock the Crucible and see if we can't reprogram the Catalyst to just turn the fucking Reapers off."

"Isn't that all a little much for you to do yourself? Even with a squad you're already trying to grow," Hackett pointed out. "Let me worry about the Alpha Relay. Now that we know how to stop Reaper artifacts from causing indoctrination, we can blow up the damn thing and the relay too." He rose to his feet. "I'd like to speak to a non-hostile geth, as well, but I'm willing to let you make the opening moves there. Most importantly, you know where Cerberus headquarters is?"

She rose with him. "Yes, sir, but I can't take out the Collectors, let alone anything else, without the SR-2. There's a few good people in Cerberus I want to get out, first. Once I've got them, I'm perfectly willing to let you turn the Illusive Man into cosmic space dust."

"What's your next immediate move? Ilos?" He had picked back up the jamming device.

"Yes sir. Preserve the VI, if possible steal the other end of the Conduit, and publicize the location of the planet so that more professional archaeologists can get in there and see what we can salvage from them."

Hackett nodded, turned towards the door, and paused before turning off the jamming device. "Did you notice how all these important things – Conduit, Crucible, Catalyst, Citadel – they all start with the letter 'C'? I feel like a guest on Sesame Street." Without waiting for an answer, he strode out, waving down Pressly before the XO could call the crew to attention again. "Keep me informed, Commander," he called over his shoulder, returning to the dreadnought they were docked with. "Hackett out," he said as he stepped through the airlock.

"I can't believe he even says that in person," Shepard murmured to herself, catching Pressly trying to strangle a chuckle as he overheard her. "Night shift has command, Pressly. Pass down to set course for these coordinates," she linked the Mu relay data to the map. "It'll be a couple of hours to get there from the nearest system."

"Understood, Commander," he said, and she waved a tired acknowledgement. Inside, she set her communications to 'Wake me and I kill you' and dropped onto her bed and into unconsciousness.