"Sovereign wants an update," Matriarch Benezia said, her face impassive. "There has been little word from Eden Prime since the attack began. How did the assault go?

Stepping out of her dropship, Matriarch Benezia strode forward with the poise and grace of an ancient being, her blue hands clasped over her stomach and her face unperturbed by the sight of the orange krogan blood splattered liberally across the bay. Spent heatsinks rolled across the deck as the launch-cradle moved Benezia's dropship alongside Saren's.

Sitting on the other end of the bay, Saren shook his head, closing his right hand repeatedly with the clack of talons as Benezia slowly walked forward, her heels clicking as she moved away from her docked dropship.

The cargo bay of Saren's ship was abandoned save for the two of them. The air was tense, as Saren glared at the docking ramp at the far end of the bay, where dozens of C-14 Impaler spikes still stuck out of the dark deck plating – a lingering sign of his failure.

"I accessed the Beacon, but a Terran platoon showed up before we could take it aboard. The Beacon took some damage, and it exploded shortly after we left… but not before one of the Terrans accessed it," Saren detailed slowly, his words harsh. "We got lucky. The Terrans who found us were only militia – baseline armor, without even a simple kinetic barrier. If we had tried this on New Korhal…"

He trailed off, clenching his hand once more, opening and closing it repeatedly as Benezia sat down beside him on the crate, glancing briefly at the damaged light fixture flickering above the turian Spectre.

"You ran into a Spectre," Benezia noted, her sympathetic tone betraying her thought. "Nihlus."

Saren growled, and his augmented left arm slammed into the durable neosteel crate, leaving a solid dent between the two of them. Benezia glanced at the dent, and for a moment she started to reach out to touch Saren, but withdrew the hand before it touched.

"It wasn't a problem," Saren ground out. "I killed him, crushed his omni-tool, and destroyed the body. There won't be anything to lead them to us."

"Did anyone see you?" she questioned.

"No. By the time the Terrans got close enough, I had already taken the ship up. From that height, there was no way they could have seen my face."

"Good. Sovereign's patience is running low. What did the Beacon show you?"

He sighed, rubbing a talon along his fringe.

"Madness," Saren muttered. "The Beacon's message was disjointed, bizarre… it was insane. Without knowledge of what really happened to the Protheans, I would have had no chance of understanding it. But if you wanted actual information, then no, I didn't get anything."

"Unfortunate," Benezia observed. "However, the operation appears to have otherwise been a success, so we shoul–"

"Should what?" Saren snarled, glaring at the asari Matriarch. "We've lost our main weapon, Benezia. This raid was a failure, and now the Council will be investigating the death of a Spectre. Any other Prothean beacons are going to be retrieved the moment they appear, and the other Spectres will be out for blood – even if he hadn't been a Spectre, Nihlus was well-liked. How long do you think we have before Vasir puts the word out to the merc groups, or to the Shadow Broker? Before Bau 'asks' the Hanar to send a few Drell agents to look into Nihlus's death? Spectres aren't just good field agents, Matriarch – most of us are filthy rich, and we know the criminal underworld like the back of our hands. No expense will be spared to find Nihlus's killer."

Benezia stared blankly at him, and Saren felt a slight shudder of fear course through the tip of his fringe. What had Sovereign done to her? She acted more like a machine every time he saw her – it was good that she had retreated from Asari society, or someone would have noticed the difference by now.

"Nonetheless, we will continue," Benezia said, as if she hadn't heard Saren. "There are other Beacons. When they are found, we will bring them to the cloning facility. You should return there, to await Sovereign's commands."


"…No?" Benezia repeatedly slowly, a hint of confusion entering her voice.

"We have lost total surprise, but we still have options. I will head to the Citadel as quickly as is safe, and from there, I may be able to salvage this situation. I was Nihlus's mentor, so they will expect me to be furious at his death," Saren informed her. "From there, I might be able to control their reaction. Channel them down paths useful to us, minimize casualties. The less damaged the Council is when we convince them bow down, the more likely Sovereign will be to accept us as servants.

The asari Matriarch nodded in agreement, and rose smoothly to her feet.

"Continue with your plans," she instructed. "I will return to Sovereign."

Benezia walked back to her dropship without another word. Saren watched her warily as she left, absentmindedly pulling his helmet on and stand up. With a simple gesture of his omni-tool, his boots magnetized.

As soon as the door of Benezia's elegant asari dropship had sealed shut, Saren vented the atmosphere and gravity of the bay with the press of button. The bay's ramp opened with the flash of warning klaxons, and the dropship coasted out of the bay on maneuvering thrusters, the powerful engines firing as soon as the dropship was far enough from Saren's vessel.

Scowling, Saren watched burnt-out thermal clips tumble in zero-g for a long moment, as the ramp slid closed. The stars twinkled as the slab of metal moved to block them, and Saren wondered when he'd lost his wonder at the sight of open space.

Then the floating thermal clips dropped to the deck as gravity reasserted itself, and the air hissed as atmosphere flowed back into the dark cargo bay.

Saren ambled forward, his gait uneven as he strode through the blood of his cloned men. He tossed his helm aside carelessly, before kneeling down at the very end of the cargo bay, on the edge of the ramp.

His right hand stretched forward, talons scratching at the deck as he stared silently at the spot.

For a moment, Saren saw the shadow of a young turian soldier, grim and bitter after his third reassignment. Belittled, chewed out, it was no wonder Nihlus had been so angry when Saren first met him.

Nihlus had been right, too… following his instincts, pinpointing weaknesses and exploiting mistakes with a natural grace that had brought the soldier to Saren's attention.

Saren remembered the smile on Nihlus's face whenever he would see him appear – in the bar after a brutal mission, or in field.

He'd provided a shoulder to lean on for the fledgling soldier, and in return, he'd gained a brother. A true brother, not like the strange, sickly madman that Desolas had turned into, towards the end of his life.

"I'm… sorry, Nihlus," Saren whispered, rasping as his throat tightened. "Spirits… I never meant for you to get caught up in this."

He lingered there for a while, the docking bay silent and still as he knelt.

After some time had passed, he stiffly straightened up, his legs aching in protest as he wandered over to his helmet, carefully picking it up and inspecting it for damage.

"You wanted me, Battlemaster?" the krogan asked, nodding respectfully to Saren as it stepped out of the elevator.

"Yes," Saren replied, stretching his jet-black cybernetic arm out. "I need a sparring partner. Take off your armor, then come here."

Dutifully, the krogan did as ordered, peeling off the plates of its old-fashioned hardsuit and placing them carefully on the crate next to Saren's other cybernetic arm.

"You are using a different arm, Battlemaster," the krogan said, pointing at the arm of Geth cybernetic musculature. "Why do you choose to weaken yourself?"

"Because I need to get used to this arm," Saren told him, rolling his left shoulder and inspecting the Hierarchy-made cybernetic he was currently wearing. "While it is not as strong, it will allow me to operate in Citadel space without raising suspicion."

The krogan looked confused, but Saren struck before it could speak again, sending a fast combination of jabs and round-kicks that forced the krogan backwards.

The last kick was slower, and the krogan wrapped it up neatly, trapping it against the bulk of its leg. It stepped back, twisting at the hips and throwing Saren to the side.

Armored only in cloth, Saren's back smashed against the deck – but the Spectre was on his head in an instant, jabbing once with his right and smashing an open-palm strike with his cybernetic right into the krogan's throat.

Stumbling back, the krogan managed to dodge the next punch, but Saren's leg lashed out like a whip, sweeping out the overextended front leg and dropping the krogan to the ground.

Darting forward, Saren closed the black talons of his cybernetic around the krogan's throat, his right hand holding an imaginary pistol to its eyes.

"Dead," Saren grunted, rising after a momentary pause. "Can't you do any better?"

"The tank taught me that would work," the krogan responded, his voice curious. "Why didn't it?"

"The tank probably assumed someone couldn't get up fast enough," Saren shrugged, pacing back as the krogan sluggishly clambered to its feet.

"How did you?" the krogan asked.

"Training," Saren muttered. "Never ending training. With enough training, something like that move that becomes instinct."

"The tank didn't give me instincts," the krogan said, thoughtfully. "Knowledge, but no instincts. Why?"

Saren struck as the krogan spoke, but the krogan deflected it quickly, sweeping his arm to the side and stepping in with a powerful strike. The turian skipped to the side, snatching the krogan's fist with his cybernetic limb and twisting, locking the krogan's arm and jolting it off balance.

The Spectre stepped forward, his front leg smashing into the krogan's chest and sending it backwards, spacing the two combatants out.

"Because instincts are hard," Saren dismissed with a snort. "Easier to give knowledge. Reaction times are slower, but for a mass-produced soldier, that is an acceptable trade off."

The krogan roared a challenge, dropping its shoulder and charging, as it had seen countless other krogan do.

Saren side-stepped as the krogan closed, his left arm shooting out as his leg smacked out the back of the krogan's leg.

Its feet flying out from under it, the krogan had a brief glimpse of the ceiling before Saren choke-slammed it into the deck plating.

Once again, Saren knelt on the krogan's chest, his cybernetic hand wrapped around the krogan's throat.

"Dead," Saren repeated. "Too obvious, too blunt. Do that on the battlefield, and you will die."

"Krogan charge," the Krogan replied, though it sounded unsure. "It is what krogan do. Harness the blood-rage and pummel everything into submission."

"And did that work for you?" Saren questioned, moving away once more, his motions lithe compared to the krogan's clumsy movements.

"No," the Krogan answered. "It didn't."

"You are a hammer," Saren lectured, his tone shifting as he instructed the krogan. "Unsubtle and crude, easy to slip behind, and easy to cripple. You hesitate, you do not adapt, and that is why you are dead."

"How do I adapt?" the Krogan asked.

Saren chuckled, stretching out his arm once more before responding.

"Ignore everything the tank taught you, and attack me," he encouraged, opening his arms and beckoning the Krogan forward with the tips of his talons.

Frowning, the Krogan stepped forward hesitantly, its eyes switching back and forth between Saren's face and his hands.

After another few moments of hesitation, the Krogan darted forward, throwing out a crude jab. Saren moved to block it with his normal arm, but the Krogan snatched his hand and shifted its weight backwards, yanking Saren off balance with its weight.

A krogan fist shot forward, smashing into Saren's stomach and driving the wind from his lungs.

Saren groaned as his air unwillingly left, but he changed tactics swiftly, bringing his cybernetic arm down to the side of the Krogan's head, cuffing it right in the eye. Moving rapidly, Saren swept the arm back, chopping into the krogan's left wrist, breaking bone and freeing his own hand.

Growling, Saren pivoted at the hips, driving his newly freed right fist into the krogan's throat.

The black talons stabbed through the krogan's flimsy undershirt, piercing flesh and tearing into its lungs.

Orange blood spilled from the krogan's chest, splashing over the deck.

"You'll regen," Saren remarked, as the Krogan backed up, pressing a hand to its chest. "But you're still dead – you hesitated after I struck. Still, it was an improvement."

"What should I have done instead?" the Krogan asked, as its skin slowly knit back together.

"You hesitated after you hit me," Saren informed him, turning away from the krogan and pacing forward, glancing at the wall as he spoke. "You should have followed up immediately. Stomp the knee in, if Terran, Asari, or Drell. A head-butt, if Turian, or a throat-punch, if Krogan. Something to immobilize, to limit their movement. That will allow you enough time for yet another strike. Keep the enemy off-balance, and prevent him from attacking you."

"I hesitated," the student repeated. "How do I make sure it doesn't happen again?"

"Imagine the same scenario happening," Saren said. "Strive for efficiency – hesitation is normally caused by notions of wrongness – which means that you still think of something as wrong, as improper. You have to come to terms with being cruel and harsh."

"Winning is all that matters, right?" the student asked, his voice slightly sardonic. "No matter the price?"

"Not always," Saren admitted, his throat tightening again. "But most of the time. We walk a slippery path, and sometimes the call is hard to make. You can hesitate when you're alone, where no one can see. But in a fight? No hesitation – kill everything that stands before you."

"Is that how you fight?" the student inquired, his usual mercenary-raised drawl missing from his speech.

"Yes," Saren replied, shrugging. "It works. I know you may not like it, Nihlus, but you're going to have to accept it.

"Was Nihlus the turian you killed?" the student asked, in a krogan's voice.

Saren spun around, staring at the Krogan as his heart leapt. For a moment, he couldn't speak.

"Yes," Saren whispered, wincing. "Yes, he was."

The sharp tang of antiseptic stung at her nose.

Instinctively, Shepard wrinkled her nose, while the regular, slow beeping of a heart monitor chimed in the background.

Wincing as she sluggishly prized her eyes open, Lieutenant Shepard squinted as the harsh light briefly blinded her.

Shepard blinked rapidly, glancing around as her surroundings slowly came into focus.

The walls were a soothing shade of dark blue, and Shepard could see another couple beds lying parallel to hers. The brush of a refreshing breeze trickled in through an open window somewhere, and the faint echo of grinding machines and thumping construction followed. A wall plaque had something written on, but the letter were strange, twisted things, and she couldn't make heads or tails of them.

A nurse wandered by, marking something off on a clipboard, and Shepard called out to her, her dry throat morphing her words.

At least, that's what she thought happened. The words that came out of her mouth were harsh and strict, vowels curling and resonating in odd ways. The words felt… familiar, somehow, but they were incomprehensible nonetheless, like a make-believe language.

The nurse looked up, confused. Shepard saw his mouth move, but the words that came out were bizarre and unrecognizable.

Shepard winced, clutching her head as a spike of pain lanced through it. A few moments later, the pain slowly faded away, leaving a dull ache lingering behind.

"Sorry," she said, relieved to hear normal words coming from her lips. "I… I don't know what that was."

"Well, at least you're awake," the nurse noted, tucking the clipboard away. "Here, let me get you some water."

Shepard nodded with thanks, carefully taking the cup from the nurse and sipping slowly at it. What were those words, she wondered. They seemed hauntingly familiar, but… Shepard focused, shoving those thoughts away. Focus on the here and now, she scolded herself.

"You're in Harborview," the nurse informed Shepard, his lips quirking into an awkward smile, before he glanced down at the board clipped to her bed. "Looks like you've been in here for a good half-day – militia, right?"

"Yeah," Shepard grunted, before coughing again.

"Hey, easy now. Don't want to choke out in the hospital," the nurse smiled. "That's pretty embarrassing, take it from me. Anyway, don't worry about the fighting. The General announced that everything was safe at dawn."

"How… how many wounded?" Shepard asked, her voice rough.

The nurse shook his head.

"I haven't seen any numbers," he murmured. "But we're full up here, and Saint Joe's is putting people in the corridors, from what I hear. Must be hell on infection vectors, but most of those are walking wounded, so I'm told. Excuse me, I should go tell the doctors that you're awake."

She nodded in thanks to the nurse, and he smiled sheepishly again before moving off at a determined shuffle, brushing past the sliding door and past the framed paintings on the corridor walls.

With slow, careful movements, Shepard sat up, pulling back her covers and glancing at the simple clothes she'd been garbed in – a loose set of dark cloth pants and a plain green militia shirt. They weren't hers, but at least they weren't one of those horrible hospital gowns.

A few small bandages adorned her limbs, but none of them seemed very serious. She felt a twinge of pain when she tried to move her right leg, but other than that, they appeared to be nothing but scratches or scrapes.

"Try not to move around," a warm, deep voice drawled. "I've always found that it helps with the recovery."

Shepard glanced up at the large, bulky set of desert-camouflaged CMC-armor blocking the doorway. The man's thick white mustache was the first thing to catch her eye, and Shepard hurriedly saluted as she recognized the General.

"General Warfield, sir!" she burst out, stiffening to attention as much as she could in the bed. "I didn't see you come in, sir."

Warfield chuckled, returning a crisp salute of his own.

"That's alright, Lieutenant," he said. "Relax, you're just fine. I thought you might like a debrief after that hell you went through yesterday."

"My platoon," Shepard realized suddenly. "General, I – that is –"

"Your platoon took some losses taking the starport," Warfield told her, his expression turning sad. "I've already read Robert's report, and it told me enough. Don't worry, Lieutenant, I'm sure you did the best you could."

For a moment, Shepard felt a horrible sense of unease. Who was this Robert, and how did the General know him?

"Oh," she muttered, blinking as the realization struck. "Sergeant's Weber's report?"

"I've known him for a while," Warfield replied, his eyes twinkling slightly. "Fought off the Zerg incursion on Torus with him, back in Koprulu. His report was detailed, but I'm curious about what happened with this Beacon. We'll talk on the way."

"On the way, sir?" Shepard repeated, a slight hesitancy in her words. "Where are we going?"

"This isn't a conversation that should had in a hospital," Warfield simply warned. You've been cleared for light duty, but we'll take it slow."

Shepard's leg ached slightly as she twisted her hips around, but she buried the pain quickly, slipping on the combat boots by her bed and quietly moving to the General.

Warfield nodded as she approached, then opened the CMC-clad arm, revealing a small pill bottle and a water bottle.

"Pain-killers, if you need them," he informed her.

Shepard shook her head, and together they moved through the quiet hospital corridors. She glanced in a couple rooms, but nothing she saw reassured her. One room held a family, clustered together around a young boy with his right leg missing, while another room simply held four still bodies in beds. She couldn't tell if they were asleep, or in coma, but she tried to reassure herself, considering that if they were dead, the hospital wouldn't be wasting the bed space for them.

The warm, humid weather of the croplands hit Shepard like a wet towel as she stepped out of the air-conditioned hospital. She blinked a few times, then set her shoulders and moved on. She still wasn't used to humidity, but she wasn't going to tell the General that.

"So, what happened with the Beacon?" Warfield questioned quietly, as they walked through the streets, nodding to the CMC-clad militia members in their green armor as they passed them.

"I… I don't know," Shepard responded softly, glancing down at the battered concrete, noting idly the size difference between her booted foot and the General's armored boot. "When Nihlus died, I was thrown clear by Sergeant Weber. The explosion… must've done something to the Beacon. The next thing I knew, my armor was in the air – the Beacon lifted me up, like a teek could do."

Warfield nodded, and Shepard looked away as the bright sun of Utopia bounced off the General's helmet, blinding her for a moment.

"Did it feel like you were pinned in place?" he asked. "Psionics can't 'lift' you, but they can 'pull' you up, pin you in place."

"No," Shepard answered, shaking her head again. "It was more like a mass effect field – no weight at all, just… floating."

"Hmmm…" Warfield mused. "Go on. What happened next?"

"To be honest General, I don't really know," Shepard scowled. "It… it felt I was remembering something. I couldn't see anything, and then… I just fainted. It was like a migraine, but a thousand times worse. I just… sorry, General, but I can't really describe it, because… I don't really understand it."

"That's alright, Shepard," Warfield eased, nodding. "Psionic phenomena can have that effect sometimes."

"General… if the Beacon was psionic, why wasn't a Ghost sent to retrieve it?"

"Because we didn't know that it was psionic until you activated it, Lieutenant," Warfield replied. "But now that we do, I think you should see a psionic. It looks like whatever information that Beacon contained is in your head, now, so we'll need that cleared up ASAP."


"You'll be heading to the Citadel, Shepard," Warfield informed her. "There are a few Ghost operatives currently there. They'll debrief you further, and you can take whatever intel they find out straight to Raynor."

Shepard paused, stopping in the middle of the street, her face shocked.

"But the Marshall lives on Shanxi, sir," she said numbly, her eyes wide.

"Not anymore," Warfield shook his head. "This situation is complicated, Lieutenant. Both Marshall Raynor and Prince Valerian are on the Citadel now, in talks with the Council."

"Complicated how?" Shepard questioned, furrowing her brows. "It was just a merc attack, right? The size was bizarre, sure, but… wasn't this just a larger version of New Canton?"

"This was a larger version of that attack," Warfield admitted. "Casualties were higher, but there's one major difference – we didn't get any prisoners."

"That's impossible," Shepard muttered to herself. "Statistics alone…"

"Oh, we captured plenty of mercs," Warfield rumbled, a dark tone entering his voice. "But every single one of them of died before talking. Suicide pills, hidden explosives… one of them rammed his head against a wall until he bled out. That's not normal, even for Blood Pack psychos. I've never seen anything like it."

Shepard shuddered, as she walked around a large pile of rubble that had been a building. The tail-end of a Blood Pack dropship protruded from the barracks – the only surviving sign of the ship.

"Mercs don't do that," she agreed. "There wasn't a single one that chickened out?"

"Not a one," Warfield replied, his face grim. "But enough about that… I think it's time we discussed Nihlus."

Shepard's fist clenched, and she looked away from the General.

"I don't think I can really say anything about him, sir," she said stiffly. "I didn't know him."

"As it happens, I knew him very well. Nihlus was one of the first Council Agents – Spectres, they call themselves – to approach the Alliance with open arms. The rest didn't care to know us. He talked to me, you know, while your platoon was en route to the dig site. Told me what happened at the generator complex.

Coughing, Shepard looked away again, the tinge of a blush lighting up her pale cheeks, matching the scarlet of her hair.

"I, uh, acted as I thought was best at the time, uh, sir," she stumbled, her voice timid.

Warfield laughed.

Surprised, Shepard looked up at him, and was surprised to see the General wiping away a single tear of mirth with the tip of a neosteel finger.

"You misunderstand, Lieutenant," Warfield told her, chuckling. "Nihlus told me about how Trask shit the bed and almost got his men killed. Said that you took control the situation half a second before he did."

"Commander Trask–" Shepard started to say, only for Warfield to cut her off, laying one gauntleted hand lightly on her shoulder.

"Don't apologize for him, girl," Warfield told her, his hand gentle, but firm. "Just because he's higher rank doesn't mean he was right. Don't be afraid to correct those above you, Shepard. Blind obedience gets men killed. It causes abuse of power. Don't you think for a second that you were wrong to step in."

"Ah, okay… General," Shepard nodded slowly, her mouth slightly ajar and her cheeks red again.

"Nihlus was here for two reasons, Lieutenant. The Beacon, obviously, was priority one… but Trask was priority two," Warfield explained, sighing as he did. "He was our first candidate for Council Spectre."

Shepard paled, and a dozen half-formed apologies bubbled out of her lips.

"Atten-hut!" Warfield barked, the whip-like crack of authority roaring out of his voice.

Instantly, Shepard stiffened, her feet whipping into position and her arm snapping up.

"At ease, Lieutenant," Warfield rumbled, glaring lightly at her. "Now, before you do something stupid, listen up. I've already told you once that Trask had messed up. The moment he proposed that suicidal charge, Nihlus had failed him. You had nothing to do with it."

Shepard nodded, slowly, and Warfield returned the gesture. Pointing forward, he strode off, Shepard hurrying to catch up and keep pace with him.

"Confidence is easy to fake, and tactics can be taught," Warfield said, shaking his head slowly. "Until Nihlus saw Trask in action, he had no way of truly knowing the man. You, on the other, Lieutenant… you impressed him."

"I did?" Shepard muttered, before clamping her mouth shut.

"Relax, Shepard," Warfield told her, a ghost of a smile tugging at his lips. "Yes, you did."

She blinked.

"Instinctive commands, strategic thinking, willingness to lead from the front, and healthy dose of respect for the working man," Warfield listed. "Those are just a few of things Nihlus told me. I knew him for more than a decade, Lieutenant – and he wasn't the type to impress easily. If it wasn't for the fact that you've got that Beacon locked up in your head, I'd be sending you off to New Korhal, run you through the Academy, and then ship you off to the Spectres… but right now you're the only one with that intel… and that takes priority."

"The only one?" Shepard questioned, an eyebrow lifting quizzically. "What about the Beacon, sir?"

"The Beacon exploded after you accessed it, Lieutenant," Warfield told her, grimacing. "It's not your fault, but apparently waging a firefight in front of a fifty-thousand year old relic can turn out like that. For what it's worth, it was an acceptable risk – recovering that Beacon was priority one."

"I understand, General," Shepard replied, biting her lip. "But… I lost too many men. Half my platoon was lying on the ground when Nihlus… died. How can you say that isn't my fault?"

"You think I haven't lost men before? That Raynor hasn't?" Warfield lectured. "We all have, Shepard. What makes the difference between you and Trask is that you're going to learn from it. That's just the way you are, Lieutenant – I can see it from here."

They rounded the corner at the end of the street, clambering over the wreckage of a low wall, and Shepard's eyes widened as they came into sight of the long concrete field of the starport.

Though the starport was teeming with activity, one ship in particular stood out to her.
"That's the ship!" Shepard yelled, pointing at the slim, narrow craft near the edge, its boarding ramp lowered. "That's the ship that was at the starport! The one that turian got into!"

Warfield looked back and forth between the ship and Shepard, an ugly scowl forming on his face.

"Shepard," he said, his voice tense. "That was Nihlus's ship. It's a cutting edge prototype that we whipped up with the turians. That can't be the ship you saw."

Shepard shook her head, striding forward and glaring at the ship.

"That's the ship, General," she insisted. "It came in over the hills, right over us, and picked up Nihlus's murderer. Sir, I'm know that that's it."

Warfield sighed, before spitting a globule of spittle onto the concrete.

"Shit," the General muttered, tightening the black neosteel of his cybernetic limb, grinding the plates against each other. "It looks like whoever attacked us managed to steal the blueprints – with the construction time, he must've had them for a year. Goddammit, Raynor needs to know this. I'll inform Nova, but you have to tell Raynor personally – I wouldn't trust this info over a data-link."

A figure appeared at the end of the ship's docking ramp, waving to the pair as they walked closer to the ship. Shepard could make out the uniform of the Terran Navy, but the rest was concealed by the heat-haze coming off the concrete.

Now that she had a chance to actually inspect the ship, she noted the obvious similarities to the slimmer Turian warbirds – the ship lacked the hammerhead prow of a Terran Battlecruiser, and the ships lines were curved ever so slightly. Short wings sprouted from either side of the ship, but they didn't carry any engines – which were mounted in the Terran style, just above the docking ramp in a delta-pattern.

Laser batteries blistered out from the wings instead, complemented by a few more batteries further up towards the bow. The ship's armor panels were sleek and uniform, unlike the rough, ribbed surface of a Battlecruiser. Clearly, this was a ship designed to fly in the turian style, almost like a dogfighter in combat, instead of a hulking cruiser.

"Before you go, Shepard," Warfield called, as the roar of background noise picked up, before tossing something at her.

Shepard caught the package with a jolt, pausing as she inspected the small, fist-sized lump of plastic and paper. She blinked, confused, and carefully tore open one edge of the package with a fingernail, before carefully tipping the contents into her other hand.

A gold oak leaf shined in her palm, the sun's rays glinting off the metal of the symbol.

"Congratulations, Lieutenant Commander!" Warfield boomed, saluting her.

Her eyes wide, Shepard clumsily returned the salute, clutching her new insignia close.

Warfield chuckled one more time, then nodded once and strode away.

Shepard stared at the oak leaf for a moment, then a meek smile appeared on her face, wiping away the depression.

The man from the ship walked over to her, nodding with a bright, knowing smile.

"Congratulations, Commander!" the man called over the noise, extending his hand. "I'm Captain Anderson, of the Normandy."

"Permission to come aboard, Captain?" Shepard asked, smiling back at him as she returned the handshake.

"Permission granted, Commander," Anderson said, as they stepped onto the docking ramp. "Welcome aboard."

Quietly, Shepard closed her footlocker, glancing once more at her bed, before slipping out of the room and shutting the door firmly behind her. It wasn't a particularly large room – space was always at a premium on warships, even for the officers, but it was hers.

"Commander," nodded a crewman respectfully as he passed her in the corridor, his blue-black New Korhal fatigues matching hers.

Shepard nodded back to him, then she walked past him. A deep breath brought several familiar scents to her – the heavenly stink of engine grease slipping up from the cargo bay through the elevator shaft, the lingering smell of sweat, and the subtle tinge of ozone from Engineering. The walls were made of bare neosteel, plain and lacking any decoration, and were dulled down from their original chrome finish.

She smiled, sighing at the warm welcome. Eden Prime had been a good place to settle down for a while, but Shepard was a true spacer, born and bred, and the aroma of a military ship would always be home for her.

"Ah, there you are, Commander," a man said, saluting as he snapped to attention. "Captain Anderson asked me to shown you around. I'm Lieutenant Alenko, first section leader."

"You got a first name, Lieutenant?" Shepard asked, returning the salute with a slight smirk.

"Kaidan, Commander," he replied, nodding.

"It's just Shepard, Kaidan. I'm not gonna hold you up with formalities," Shepard said, chuckling.

"I didn't think so," Kaidan shrugged. "From what Weber's said about you – well, maybe I shouldn't mention that."

"Sergeant Weber's here?" Shepard inquired, shifting her weight onto her back foot and crossing her arms. "I'll have to catch up with him later. So, how 'bout that tour?"

Kaidan gestured onward, and the pair moved off through the neosteel corridor, passing underneath a low pipe as they passed through an open bulkhead marked with caution tape on the edges.

"The mess hall's open at all hours if you want something, but Corporal Barkley cooks breakfast and dinner," Kaidan showed her, pointing at the small kitchen shoved in a corner, surrounded by several tables, some of which were occupied. "The med-bay's through that door there. Doc Chakwas runs it like she's still in the UED – but don't tell her I said that."

"Got it," Shepard chuckled, trailing her fingers along one of the bare-metal tables. "I should probably check in with her later, but let's keep going. The last UED doctor I knew had this obsession with having a sterilized workplace. I didn't know there were that many regs about cleanliness."

Shepard nodded in greeting as a few of the men waved, but she didn't move to join them.

"What'd you want to see next?" Kaidan asked, turning to her as they walked off, moving into the elevator.

"I know this only a frigate, but what's the bridge like?" she inquired, as Kaidan gently punched the button for the second level.

"Well, it isn't much of a bridge," Kaidan replied, as the elevator doors opened. "More like a… command center."

The room was surprisingly small, centered around a low holo-table in the center of the room, right in front of the Captain's chair. The ship's pilot sat just in front of the table, his fingers flying across holographic interfaces and his lips tight in concentration as he deftly piloted his ship through a maze of incoming missiles. The room's lights were dimmed, and the light radiating from the pilot's main screen was just enough for Shepard to make out the outline of an embossed word on the back on the pilot's high-backed chair.

Shepard blinked, and was just opening her mouth to say something when a lucky missile smashed into the pilot's miniscule ship. Immediately, the pilot let out a howl of frustration, throwing his hands up and swearing irritably.

Next to her, Kaidan sighed deeply, his shoulders sagging as he strode over to the pilot's chair.

"Joker," the Lieutenant rumbled wearily, placing his hand on the pilot's shoulder. "You know you're not supposed to play games while on duty."

Joker yelped as Kaidan loomed over him, a disappointed frown on his face.

"I was this close to beating Swann's score, El-tee!" Joker protested, as Shepard moved closer, a glance confirming that that the top score, did in fact belong to someone named 'RSWANN'. "Besides, you know that I've got it covered."

With a lazy wave, Joker brushed aside the game, revealing a detailed system scan running in the background. His fingers flew across the keyboard once more, pulling up a dense block of readings.

"We've got ten ships in system at the moment," Joker informed them, enlarging the tac-map as he spoke. "Five are Battlecruisers, one's a diplomatic envoy from the Hanar, two are Elcor merchantmen, one's us, and I think that freighter is a Blood Pack lurker with anxiety issues."

Kaidan leaned in closer, inspecting the freighter, while Shepard suppressed the urge to smile.

"Anxiety issues?" she questioned, quirking an eyebrow at the pilot.

"Sure," Joker shrugged, idly straightening his standard-issue crew cap. "They're keeping way too still, considering there was just a major battle. The Hanar are still waiting to pick up their diplomat, otherwise they'd be gone already. The Elcor are too slow to get out of Dodge, 'cause, you know, Elcor… but every other freighter in the system hightailed it after the Blood Pack showed up. Nobody wants to get tangled up with a full-out battle, right? So I started wondering why these guys were stickin' around."

"Have you informed Command?" Kaidan asked, glancing at Joker.

"Of course," Joker replied, his tone wounded. "Sent a tight-beam flash to Helios II twenty minutes ago – they probably already figured it out, though. Say what you want about Ironsides, but he doesn't skimp on the drills. Heck, I even told 'em that we're approaching the Relay; ETA to the Citadel three hours after jump, in case you were wondering Commander."

"Any thoughts on why they're still here?" Shepard inquired, moving to the pilot's other side.

"My guess? They showed up late to the party and saw Helios cleaning up the orbitals, so they chickened out. The krogan on board probably didn't like that, which explains why the ship hasn't left orbit yet – bet ten credits they're having a brawl over the controls."

"But that's just a guess," Kaidan pointed out.

Joker smirked, turning his head over to the small holo-projector mounted to the left of his main screen.

"Addy, when'd that freighter show up?" Joker questioned, flicking the projector's base as it stirred to life.

With a whir, a blue emotionless head sprang to life above the projector; its holographic avatar a lingering affection of the older-model Adjutants.

"Targeted freighter arrived in system approximately one hour a-go, Pilot Moreau," the Adjutant replied, its voice stilted and irregular. "It then arrived in high orbit approximately thirty minutes ago."

"Thirty minutes from the Relay to high-orbit?" Kaidan repeated, frowning. "That's fast for sub-light… Adjutant, did the freighter use micro-jumps?"

"Confirmed," the Adjutant replied tonelessly.

"Definitely Blood Pack, then. Civilians aren't going to risk new warp drives on risky micro-jumps," Shepard noted.

Joker turned in his seat, glancing up at her. He squinted quizzically, tilting his head.

"I'm spacer-born," Shepard told him, shrugging. "The engine profile's the standard delta-pattern of a warp drive, and that emission reading is way too clean to be anything other than a new piece of equipment. Makes me wonder where the Blood Pack got the money for a new warp drive."

"Pass that back to Helios, Adjutant," Kaidan ordered. "Tell them to take a look at the freighter's engines."

"Order confirmed," the Adjutant replied.

"Y'know, 'Addy' doesn't really work as a name," Joker mused, scratching his scraggly beard. "Just doesn't quite sound right. And that monotone… jeez, did the turians design the Adjutant? Bad enough they fiddled with my baby's weapons."

"You got a problem with turians?" Shepard inquired, resting one elbow on the tall back of Joker's chair.

"Nah," Joker said, shaking his head. "I mean, they've got their heads on right with most weapons, but the Normandy's mainly a laser-boat, and the turians aren't as used to lasers. They might talk big about those GARDIAN systems, but there isn't much overlap with our tech. But nah, I'm not one of those bigots – 'specially after they helped tweak my baby's engines."

"What's so special about the engines?"

"You ever see a turian frigate, Commander? They fly those things like dogfighters. See, you'd expect a frigate to work like a normal warship, right? Not the turians, though – they operate frigates in wolf packs, more like mobile harassment than a proper ship," Joker explained, gesturing with his hands as a grin crawled across his face. "So when they designed the Normandy with Hyperion Engineering, they made her more like a turian frigate than a Terran one – which means I get to fly her like a dogfighter."

"What're the weapons systems like?" Shepard asked, shifting her weight as she leaned more on Joker's seat.

For a moment, Joker didn't reply, instead pulling up a bare-bones schematic of the ship. Another set of button presses, and the weapons systems lit up, highlighted in red.

"We've got two sets of shortened Battlecruiser-class ATA/ATS laser cannons side-mounted on swivels; supposedly, we can use 'em for orbital fire-support, but I think they're a bit temperamental, personally. Sure, they give the Normandy some bite, but they didn't finish testing 'em – had some electrical problems during the shakedown on the way over when we used both the main guns and the others – yeah, we've also got six more sets of smaller burst lasers. Less powerful, but you can fry anything with enough shots. Doesn't quite have give us full coverage, but she's more than maneuverable enough to make up for it."

Shepard nodded, listening intently.

"Impressive," she remarked, tracing the embossed 'Joker' nameplate welded to the back of the chair with a finger. "So, what's with the chair?"

"I did say it was my baby, didn't I?" Joker asked, rubbing his hand on the leather armrest. "I told the Chief I was gonna bring in my own chair, and he just laughed. Next thing I know, he'd already bolted it down and was welding that nameplate there on the back of it. 'Here ya go, Joker, have at it,' he says, like it wasn't anything big. "

"Swann has that affect on people," Shepard observed idly.

"Of course he does!" Joker laughed. "He's Hyperion – those guys are all crazy."

Shepard smirked. For a long moment, she gazed out of the window, as the Normandy slowly approached the Mass Relay.

"Good to meet you, Joker," she said, patting the top of the pilot's chair. "If you'll excuse me, it's past time I go check on my equipment."

"Typical marine," Joker called out jovially. "Her armor's more important than other people. I would never sink that low, right, Addy?"

"Unsure," the Adjutant replied emotionlessly. "Please repeat request."

"Yeah…" Joker sighed. "I've definitely got to get you fixed."

Shepard chuckled as she left Joker and the bemused Lieutenant Alenko behind, trooping over to the elevator.

The elevator jerked momentarily as she pressed the button for the cargo bay, then smoothened out. Sighing, Shepard ran a hand through her short red hair. It'd been a long day in many ways, and she was looking forward to relaxing with an equipment check. Traditionally, most Marines spent their spare time either working out or checking their equipment; it paid off in the long run.

Off the top of her head, she knew that she would probably have to replace most of the servos in the left shoulder, from where that krogan had hit during the storming of the generator complex. The other minor shrapnel damage could be left alone, but her visor had been wrecked during the same scrap, and the replacement had gotten smashed at the starport.

Then, if she couldn't find anything else to fix, she could always fix that problem with her Impalers stock; the darn thing just wouldn't lock in properly, and it shook her aim up when she had to go fully automatic.

Her thoughts came to an abrupt halt as the elevator's doors opened and a raucous cheer roared out of the cargo bay.

Blinking, Shepard stared at the assembled Marines, a large number of which were clad in the green-on-gray color scheme of the Eden Prime Militia. A few had already stripped down to their sweat and grease stained undershirts, apparently already at work on fixing their armor.

To a man, every one of them was hollering and cheering, some clapping their calloused hands as Shepard stepped out of the elevator, her expression stunned.

"Alright, there, calm down!" Sergeant Weber barked, appearing out of nowhere and elbowing an enthusiastic Corporal Dempsey out of the way. "C'mon, you dumb apes, give the Commander some fucking courtesy!"

In unison, the mismatched band of Eden Prime and New Korhal Marines stiffened up, saluting in sync as the overwhelmed Commander Shepard firmly returned the salute.

"Relax, boys," Shepard called, waving them down as she walked forward, tossing her new uniform jacket over an abandoned chair and striding amidst her men. "I'm sure the Sergeant's already given you the debrief, so I won't add to it, except to say that we're gonna hit the Relay soon. After that, call it three hours sub-light before we hit the Citadel.

"Make sure you all get at least an hour of rest before we land, and rotate guard shifts by squad after we do – I don't know what Raynor wants with a full platoon on the Citadel, but I think calm is out of the picture. Now, where's my armor?"

Shepard stood on the bridge behind Joker's chair, looking at the video feed on his console. With a few precise commands in his monitor, Joker zoomed out, showing the familiar vast emptiness of space, the black only interrupted by dots of white.

"Boooring," Joker muttered, typing another command. "Addy, can you add some color to this? Use preset 'Shiny' configuration, give us something pretty to look at."

The image on screen blinked, then the sensors re-configured themselves, and lavender-colored light filtered into the picture, showing the normally invisible stellar dust and gas-cloud that made up the Serpent Nebula. Shepard smirked as the pilot leaned back, smiling self-contently.

The long, languid swirls of the Serpent Nebula stretched out before them, a beautiful vista that was only augmented by the shining jewel at its center – the Citadel.

"Incoming Terran vessel, state your business and transmit identification, please," an asari traffic controller requested, her pleasant voice trickling through the quiet, ever-present rumble of the ship's engines.

"Normandy, out of New Korhal," Joker replied, sending her the compressed packet of identifying code. "We're carrying a package for the Council, any chance we can speed things along?"

"We've been expecting you, Normandy," the asari replied, chuckling. "There's a docking berth at the C-Sec Depot in bay D-19 reserved for you, and the Executor is awaiting your VIP."

"Roger that. Thanks, control, Normandy out," Joker confirmed, turning off the comm. with the flip of a switch. "Hear that, Commander? You're a VIP, now. The Council must be eager to hear about that Beacon."

"Quiet down, Joker," Shepard chided, shoving her sudden doubt under the stoic façade of an officer.

It wasn't a massive surprise that she was considered a VIP – after all, she was the only person to experience the Beacon's message – but that hadn't helped her prepare for actually meeting the Council.

As they got closer to the Citadel, the obscuring clouds began to part, and Shepard saw for the first time how large the Citadel was. Like anyone, she'd seen it before on the extranet, but watching the enormous arms stretching out into space, their insides decorated with an intricate mesh of glimmering lights… it was hard not to stare.

Dozens of ships passed them as they follow their approach vector, each sticking to their own lane. It was a ship-spotter's feast, and Shepard marked down Turian cruisers, Elcor freighters, Salarian couriers, and more.

Terran vessels were more rare, due to their comparatively low population, but they made up the more esoteric and experimental vessels, as befitting the creators of warp-travel. 'Traditional' Battlecruisers were nothing like the sleek Citadel designs, and there was more than a few untraditional designs visible to Shepard at the moment. At least four vessels were attempts at fusing together the two design philosophies, but as Joker proudly pointed out, none of them looked as smooth or well-designed as the Normandy – they looked more like a couple hodgepodge tramp freighters with the signature delta-cluster of warp-engines duct taped on.

"Is that the Hyperion?" Joker spoke up, pointing at the screen. "Shit, I guess Raynor's taking this one seriously."

"Warfield told me that both Raynor and Valerian would be here," Shepard told him, frowning. "But the Bucephalus isn't here."

"Might be en route," Joker shrugged. "Still… Raynor, Horner, and Valerian. That protection detail's gotta be crazy paranoid. One lucky potshot, and boom – no more Terran Alliance."

"Let's hope not, then."

Joker brought the Normandy in closer to the C-Sec dock, drifting in on maneuvering thrusters.

They moved towards the dock at the base of the Presidium, while Shepard looked over Joker's shoulder at the shimmering lights of the Wards. Slowly, she distinguished individual buildings and city-blocks, hanging from the edges of the Citadel's arms like stalactites.

A constant stream of short-range hover-cars flowed around the buildings, slipping in and out of a dozen cavern-like passages in the very crust of the Citadel. As they closed on the docking structure, Shepard glanced once more at the towering skyscrapers that soared over the rest of the Wards. Holographic signs were everywhere, lighting the grey metal and ceramic up like multi-colored jewels.

"Weber, Williams, Alenko – you're with me, in case they ask for additional witnesses," Shepard called out, striding into the bustling cargo bay, tossing her uniform jacket on a nearby workbench as the Marines moved out of her way. "Armor up, but no Impalers – double up on flak pistols, though."

"Double flak pistols for a diplomatic meeting?" Kaidan questioned, as Shepard moved to her armor's stand, shucking her boots to the side. "Isn't that a bit… aggressive?"

"Hey, how would you like bein' disarmed, Lieutenant?" Corporal Watts pointed out from his workbench, where he was running a rag along his Impaler, before one of his comrades smacked him lightly on the shoulder and told him to butt out.

A dull thumping shudder ran through the ship as it set down on the Citadel, and the Marines tensed for a moment as the tremor vibrated through their boots. After a moment, the tremor passed, and the Marines slowly went back to their own business.

"Objection noted, Alenko," Shepard told Kaidan sharply, as she gripped the set of handholds above her armor and lifted herself up, grunting as she pulled her legs around and slid them in. "Just do it."

She held herself up with her arms for another moment, as her feet squirmed past the soft inside padding and down, into the boots. Once her lower body was safely shielded and supported by the bulk of her armor, she looked up and lifted her arms. Reaching up, she pressed a worn button on the insides of her torso piece. Whirring softly, the torso descended, as Shepard threaded her arms into their spots. Seals linked and tightened along the armor's hips as the two separate pieces of armor joined together, servos intermeshing smoothly and cleanly.

Shepard's HUD popped up as she swung her arms free of their thin metal restraints. Stretching, she rolled her shoulders lightly as her scuffed and burned shoulder-pads locked into place – the left one was bare of any paint, a lingering reminder of the bomb blast just a day ago.

"Marko, you and your boys are off duty now. Rodriguez, you're in charge of the 'bay until we get back," Shepard said, her comm. activating with a quick blink at the right icon. "Try not to step on the Captain's toes too much."

"Aye aye, Commander," Sergeant Rodriguez replied, saluting jauntily as he clambered up into his own set of armor, flipping switches as the torso section began to lower over his grease-stained shirt. "Hey Torres, Murphy, Dempsey – armor up, you're with me. Hudson, you'll take second shift with Thomas, Hill, and Perry."

"Weber, Ash, you ready?" Shepard questioned, taking a trudging step forward as the gyros and stabilizers in her armor came online.

"Right behind you, skipper," Ash replied, as her thigh plate closed around the flak pistol she placed against it, enclosing it and pulling it inside the integrated holster – from Shepard's perspective, there wasn't the slightest sign that Ash had a pistol in there.

"Ready, Commander," Weber said from his position by the cargo bay doors. "I've already touched base with C-Sec – the Executor's waiting for you inside the Depot, and apparently you're going to link up with the Council via vid-conference."

Shepard nodded, as Ash and Kaidan moved up behind her.

"Reynolds, get the doors," Weber ordered with a jerk of his head.

Corporal Reynolds slammed a button on his console, and the cargo bay doors opened smoothly. Soft neon light from a dozen advertisements washed over the grimy bay as the bottom ramp dropped, and reflections bounced off the numerous unpainted spare neosteel on the walls.

With Shepard at the lead, the four Marines stepped out of the bay, stepping carefully onto the Citadel's surface as a stoic asari walked up, her blue coat trailing slightly in the wind.

"I'm Officer T'ayn," the asari said, nodding curtly as she turned, gesturing back the way she came. "If you don't mind, we can talk on the way."

Shepard nodded, and the asari moved off, her confident gait unaffected by the tall Marines following her.

The hanger bay quickly blended into a crowded concourse, and more than a few people paused to stare at the four war-torn suits of armor in their midst. For their part, the Marines weren't blending in that well, as Shepard and Ash spent a few moments looking around, gazing at the lofty wheel of the Presidium as it 'turned' off in the distance, the elegant white architecture complemented by ample greenery.

"You'd think they never seen a Marine before," T'ayn grumbled, before raising a hand and yelling. "Hey, clear the way! C-Sec, coming through!"

Quickly enough, a rough path through the middle cleared, and they headed off. T'ayn followed the concourse for a short while, then cut to a side-path and up a flight of stairs.

The next walkway was much less crowded, and Shepard could see a couple turian in blue police armor standing guard outside a doorway.

"Oh, Goddess," T'ayn groaned under her breath, as a bright pink being came into sight, floating around the corner as it approached the C-Sec depot. "Base, this is T'ayn – looks like that preacher is back. You might want to send Derkins out to deal with him."

"Preacher?" Ash questioned, turning her head to glance at the Hanar as they passed him. "What's so bad about a preacher?"

"He's not the quietest of missionaries. Every time he appears, it's only a matter of time before somebody starts complaining to C-Sec about him 'disturbing the peace.' It's not like we really care about him," T'ayn shrugged, as a smiling Terran male in a blue jacket exited the C-Sec Depot, just before T'ayn's group passed through, entering the enclosed office. "But we've got to do something, so we just send Derkins to talk to him."

"You shall not silence the word of the Enkindlers this time, Derkins!" an irritated voice called, echoing through the door and into the reception area.

"…Huh." Weber grunted, as T'ayn muttered something under her breath.

"Here, right this way Commander," T'ayn beckoned, as they moved past the secretary's desk. "Your women will have to stay outside, though."

"Women?" Kaidan repeated, amused slightly.

T'ayn's normally cobalt face flushed scarlet, and she grimaced.

"Sorry, translator error," the asari apologized.

Shepard chuckled, then stepped past the C-Sec officer and into the office.

The office was fairly large, but the desk inside had been shoved against a wall, and the holo-screen on one wall did a good job making the inside seem much smaller, particularly for someone in armor.

"Good to see you made it," a bored-sounding asari drawled, leaning against the desk and shrugging. "T'ayn's nice, but she gets side-tracked pretty easily. Still, her ass makes up for it."

Shepard paused, blinking, as the asari stepped forward, her long blue overcoat swishing at her ankles. Her mannerisms were lazy, but her brown eyes were sharp, if amused.

"I'm Executor Aethyta," the asari said, nodding. "Sorry for the short introduction, but the Council's been riding my ass for that last thirty minutes, so let's get this shit started."

"Uh… okay," Shepard replied awkwardly, as Aethyta pressed a button on the desk, brining the holo-screen to life.

"Worried?" Aethyta asked, glancing at Shepard. "Don't worry about it. The Council might seem all big and official, but they're still the same as us normal folks. Well, except Valern. He's kind of a dick."

"Thank you, Executor Aethyta," Councilor Valern cut in tersely, as the holo-screen resolved into the Councilor's faces.

Councilor Sparatus's mandibles twitched slightly in amusement and Councilor Tevos sighed wearily as Aethyta's face slipped into a sardonic grin. Shepard stiffened, hurriedly wiping the smirk off her face.

"Always a pleasure, Councilor," Aethyta replied, still grinning.

"Commander Shepard, meet the Council," Aethyta beckoned, waving idly at the holo-screen. "Sparatus, Valern, Tevos. Raynor's supposed to be here, but I guess he's running late."

As she spoke, the holo-screen split once more, and Marshall Jim Raynor's worn features snapped into being alongside the Council. Shepard snapped to attention immediately, saluting sharply. If there was one man whom every single Terran respected, then that man was Marshall Jim Raynor.

"At ease, Commander," Raynor told her, giving her a casual, yet firm salute in reply.

"Marshall," Shepard said politely, nodding as she relaxed out of her stance. "General Warfield sends his best."

"No offense, but I wish he was here," Raynor replied, rubbing a hand over his brow wearily. "He has a way of summing things up that I've find a mite handy before."

"Right to business, then?" Tevos asked.

"To business," Sparatus insisted, leaning forward slightly. "The Council expresses our regrets, but our intelligence on why the Blood Pack assaulted Eden Prime is sorely lacking."

"By which you mean, we've got nothing," Aethyta moaned, slumping. "Shit. I hate it when the bad guys win."

"The Blood Pack hit four additional targets simultaneously," Valern sniffed. "While none of them were major worlds, I hardly think that constitutes 'nothing'. Meanwhile, they hit a Terran mining asteroid, a Turian research station, and two minor colony worlds – one Asari, and one Salarian."

"They also managed to steal blueprints," Shepard informed them, wincing internally as everyone turned to focus on her. "When my platoon found the Beacon, they were in the middle of loading it on board an almost exact copy of the Normandy – the, uh, ship that–"

"The Normandy?" Sparatus repeated, his eyes widening. "Marshall Raynor, that means…"

"Yeah…" Raynor sighed, grimacing. "Commander, the Normandy is a joint Terran-Turian designed ship. You probably already knew that, but that Normandy is more than that – it was a one-of-a-kind ship that took us a year to build. Cost a goddamn lot of money, too."

"Which means that whoever took the blueprints has access to our best scientists- or their records – along with the materials and money to actually build the ship. In addition, they did it covertly; the Spectres didn't find the slightest hint of it," Sparatus continued, shaking his head. "It's easy to see the Blood Pack being tricked into attacking so that the Beacon was exposed… but this revelation about the Normandy makes this into a much more serious threat."

"Uh, excuse me Councilors, but what exactly was the Normandy designed for?" Shepard inquired, crossing her arms and frowning.

"Stealth extraction of undercover operatives," Valern said. "The design was Turian-Terran, but the idea was a joint initiative between the Council and the Alliance."

"Basically, for whenever a Ghost got int'a somethin' above their head," Raynor told Shepard, shrugging. "Biggest ship to have a functional stealth-system. Idea was that the Normandy would sneak in, pick-up whoever needed it, then bug out faster'n anyone could chase."

"Of course, the cost of specialization is firepower," Sparatus grimaced, shaking his head. "Most Council vessels have their main cannon, and almost all Terran ships have large banks of lasers. Our engineers couldn't squeeze as many guns into your ship because the engines and stealth-system take up too much space."

"No wonder it's so cramped," Shepard noted, pursing her lips. "So, the turian used his copy exactly like it was designed."

"And it worked," Sparatus admitted. "We've already got agents looking into the identity of the turian at the spaceport, but we've got no leads so far."

"Wait, how do you know about the turian?" Shepard asked, tilting her head. "I thought I was here to give my report on what happened."

"Warfield transmitted Sergeant Weber's report a few hours back," Raynor explained. "His report went into detail on what your boys ran into, but he couldn't really talk about the Beacon."

"Commander, every example of Prothean technology we have found has been incomplete in some form," Tevos informed her. "We've found one other Beacon – an unusable wreck. From what our sources tell us, Beacons contain massive amounts of information."

Shepard frowned, leaning back on Aethyta's desk and sighing.

"I… I'm not too sure about what happened myself," she admitted, her low voice strengthening as she spoke. "The message was scrambled and weird. Whatever it was, it was… bad. I saw images of death, of destruction. I felt – trapped, like I was just waiting to die. Screaming in my ears, nerves tense, muscles locked up; it felt like I'd been fighting a war."

The Council looked at each other, silent.

"It felt like we were losing," Shepard muttered, glancing down.

Raynor reached up, stroking his beard as he grimaced at the troubling news. Sparatus had crossed his arms, clamping his mandibles tight, and Shepard couldn't tell what he was thinking. Valern had retreated to his voluminous cloak, his eyes barely visible from the depths of his shadowy hood. Tevos was frowning, her delicate features dark.

"Well, shit," Aethyta spoke up, breaking the sudden silence. "Look's like you owe me ten credits, Tevos. Told'ja the Protheans got whacked by someone."

"We finally discover how the Protheans vanish, and you have the temerity to call in a bet?" Sparatus demanded, incredulous.

Aethyta shrugged, reaching into her coat pocket and withdrawing a thin white box with red-lining. She tapped the box against her desk, extending a slim white cylinder before tugging it out with her teeth.

"Yeah," Aethyta shrugged, nibbling at the cigarette but not lighting it. "Here's how I see it: the Protheans are dead. We always knew that they were dead. That doesn't mean that whatever took 'em out is still around. What it does mean is that our xenoarcheologists can stop worrying about uncovering the 'Prothean Plague'. Yeah, we should get ready, but let's not panic just yet."

"You realize that if the race that destroyed the Protheans is still around, they may well destroy us?" Sparatus questioned, his face grim. "We don't know why they decided to exterminate an entire race."

"I get what Aethyta's sayin'," Raynor said, nodding. "Look, this isn't the first time we've faced something this bad. Y'all had the Rachni, and then the Krogan. We've had the Zerg, the Protoss, and our own revolution to worry about."

"The Protheans settled more planets that we have discovered in total, Marshall," Valern pointed out. "If they truly were destroyed, as this Beacon implies, then who is to say that we can defeat this enemy?"

"See, that's the kind of talk that makes you lose," Raynor told him disapprovingly. "Look, you've all got to understand – winning a war honorably and with collateral damage is nice, but when the chips are on the line, you gotta play every single card you've got."

"My people have done that before, Marshall – and my people sorely regret it," Valern replied bitterly. "The lose of life was… tragic. Millions of children, stillborn."

"But it worked," Raynor pointed out. "Listen, I understand morality as well as any man, but there comes a time when you've got to stop fightin' fair and start fighting to win. I wish it weren't so, but when it's your planet or your race, you do what you have to. Hell, why do you think our armor's made to withstand close nuclear bombardment? Back then, we were tossin' nukes around like confetti – sure, it's horrible for both the land and our people, but it was somethin' we had to do. There wasn't a single man who preferred to die in battle, as opposed to in bed."

"This is all hypothetical, of course," Tevos interjected, her tone exasperated. "There may not be cause for a war – and we do not want to cause a panic by mentioning the possibility of one. We have bigger issues to worry about. The Hegemony is expanding into the Skyllian Verge despite our sanctions, the Terminus Systems are getting more inhospitable for merchant ships. We have to focus on the immediate situation over any 'possible' situation."

"You know, I agree with you," Raynor chimed in.

"You do?" Tevos asked, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. "That makes for a… pleasant change."

"Sure I do," Raynor replied. "We've got to increase security for any ships that passes through our space, and scare the damn pirates back int'a their holes. So I figured we'd kill two birds with one stone. I'm calling up the militia."

"Do you mean the New Korhal militia?" Valern inquired, leaning forward slightly.

"I mean all the militias," Raynor answered, leaning back.

"That seems… drastic," Tevos murmured, raising her hand to her face, as her lips curled downward.

"Of course, it's up to them if they want to arm up or not, but I've called up every one of my buddies an' told em just how bad this could turn out," Raynor continued. "Fact is, we've got no clue why the Blood Pack attacked Eden Prime – it doesn't fit their normal agenda, and that scared the Ghosts… an' anything that scares them sure as hell scares me."

"More troops will help dissuade the Terminus Systems," Sparatus pointed out, grinning slightly. "As well, I'm sure some of your men will welcome to the chance to pull some joint operations with the Hierarchy – to get them back into shape."

"There's a good chance of that," Raynor agreed. "So far, I've gotten word back from the seven Alliance planets, plus a half-dozen other colonies. In other words, shit's coming together."

Shepard couldn't help but smirk a little as Councilor Tevos winced at Raynor's remark. Aethyta let out a little chuckle, before reaching in a pocket. She rustled the interior around for a moment, then withdrew her hand, frowning.

"Take mine," Shepard told her, pulling a stubby lighter from a belt-compartment and flicking it over with her thumb.

The lighter flew above Aethyta's head, but the asari's hand shot up and snatched it out of the air easily.

"Thanks," Aethyta acknowledged, as she pressed a button on her desk, and a fan softly whirred to life above the pair, sucking away the smoke.

"We've got to figure out who's in charge, though," Raynor mused, drawing Shepard's attention back to the holo-screen. "Valern, could I ask your people's help with that? My Ghosts are doing what they can, but they never had the raw numbers STG keeps on hand."

"We would be happy to assist, Marshall," Valern replied graciously. "Of course, the exact degree of involvement will have to be decided by the Dalatrasses, but I don't foresee any major problems."

"Alright, then," Raynor nodded, "First we find 'em, then we smash 'em."

"Heh. I knew there was a reason I liked your species, Raynor," Sparatus said, his mandibles spread in a feral grin.

"Uh, excuse me, but all of this begs the question – Why would the Blood Pack risk so much for the Beacon?" Shepard asked, glancing at the Marshall.

"Normally, I would say that they desired some Prothean technology," Sparatus grunted, leaning on something just out of the holo-screens view. "But that doesn't line up. The Blood Pack is full of stupid, unorganized animals. Spirits, they fight each other almost as much as they fight us."

"Blood Pack leadership… notorious for disorganization," Valern sniffed. "Regional leaders, feuding sub-groups… no clear leader; closer to gang than mercenary organization."

"So finding someone to blame is going to be hard," Shepard concluded. "Damn it."

"Worse'n that, Commander," Raynor added, his face discontented. "Blood Pack don't really take orders that well. Sure, they're great as cheap muscle, but somethin' this scale? Just doesn't add up."

"Agreed, Marshall," Sparatus confirmed. "Krogan and vorcha make for a volatile group. But at the same time, someone must've arranged the attack. Even the krogan aren't dumb enough to attack a Terran world simply because they 'felt like it'."

"So… how'd they convince the Blood Pack to attack?" Shepard questioned, before frowning as a thought struck her. "General Warfield said something about not taking any prisoners."

"As much as I hate to be the dissenting voice, the Blood Pack attacked their home – I doubt any of them felt like capturing prisoners while their families were at risk," Tevos pointed out, tilting her head.

"Warfield's boys are professionals, Councilor," Raynor countered, shaking his head. "Most of the militia's CO's are ex-Dominion officers – they know the value of takin' prisoners when you can."

"It wasn't that they didn't, it was because they couldn't," Shepard explained hurriedly. "The General said that every prisoner they took committed suicide before they could interrogate them."

Tevos glanced at her fellow Councilors, her brows raised in disbelief.

"Makes sense," Valern chirped. "When in danger, prevent any possible loss of information. Only sensible."

"It's a senseless death, that's what it is," Sparatus scowled. "Better to die fighting, where you can make a difference."

"What I'm wondering… is why mercenaries did that," Raynor drawled softly, rubbing his bearded chin as he gazed softly at the screen.

"They were Blood Pack – not exactly the most disciplined soldiers," Shepard agreed.

"Hmm… First thing I think we should do is get that message figured out," Raynor said, looking at Shepard. "Whatever it was, I think that it wouldn't hurt to have a psionic look at it."

"A psionic, sir?" Shepard repeated, blinking in surprise.

"A few of Tosh's men got real good at unraveling and fixin' up re-socced Marines after we settled on Shanxi," Raynor explained. "It's a long shot, but I figure they might be able to help you understand what the Beacon showed you."

"Of course, we should probably re-task her ship while she is on New Korhal," Valern mused.

"What?" Shepard asked, snapping around to face Councilor Valern's holo-screen. "Councilor, that's my ship."

"The Normandy is currently the fastest ship in the galaxy, Shepard. It would be better utilized by a covert unit, such as Spectre agents or by an STG unit –"

"No," Raynor told Valern.

"Marshall, it is more efficient for us to properly utilize our assets – to pin our fastest ship to a mere Commander? Former militia?"

"I said, no, Valern," Raynor snapped, his smile wiped off his face, and a rare look of anger replacing it. "You will not dictate what happens on Terran ships. I might've accepted it if you'd given it as advice – but to just demand it? No, Councilor, that's not gonna happen."

"I agree with your sentiment, Raynor," Sparatus rumbled, scratching his mandibles. "But he does have a point about it being our fastest ship."

"If a spy showed up in one of the most fancy ships in the 'verse, everyone'd know he was with us," Raynor growled, crossing his arms. "The Normandy's distinctive, Valern – it's no good as a goddamn spy boat."

"The plans were designed to provide a fast exfiltration vessel, as you said yourself, Councilor," Shepard pointed out. "What if one of your agents needs an armed pickup? I can fit a base an up-strength platoon out of the Normandy, and we can use her as a first response vessel. Let's be honest, if it needs more than a platoon, it'll need an army."

"The Commander's got a point, Valern," Sparatus drawled approvingly. "You've got my support, Shepard."

"Thanks, Councilor," Shepard replied, smiling briefly.

"You'll be facing a lot of krogan, Commander," Tevos warned, frowning. "Are you sure your men are up to it?"

"We are, Councilor," Shepard answered firmly. "We retook the power plant on Eden Prime in old, outdated suits – if the Marshall decides to send us to New Korhal, we can take that time to upgrade or replace our equipment."

"Wouldn't it be better to simply keep active sector groups patrolling, through?" Tevos questioned. "A few recon couriers could be used as safeties in case communications were destroyed."

"Think of the Normandy as an aggressive reconnaissance unit, Councilor," Shepard urged. "We can extract your men, retrieve data, and bug out before the bulk of the enemy even know we're there."

"I don't like this," Tevos told them frankly. "But in the wake of what's happened, I'll support it. Valern?"

"Terran infantry are notoriously aggressive – not subtle in the slightest," Valern grumbled quietly.

"Valern, one of our primary worlds just got hit, someone's stolen advanced ship designs, and for all we know, there's a whole lot more of the same comin' right at us," Raynor told him bluntly. "We don't need your approval, but I'd like to keep cooperating with the Council. If you don't want to use this plan, we'll do it without you."

"Your plan is… acceptable," Valern grudgingly admitted. "Not as sophisticated as the Dalatrasses would like, but it will do."

"Man up, Valern. You're gonna have to learn how to say 'no' to your Dalatrasses someday."

"Someday," Valern shrugged wearily. "But not while I'm in office. I don't want to be another Quixos."

A sudden chime rang throughout the office, and Shepard glanced around as Aethyta slammed a button on her desk.

"Report!" the C-Sec Executor barked, reacting instinctively for her side-arm.

"Boss, we've got a firefight on Zakera Ward, close to the Presidium!" a young, breathless asari reported, as gunshots buffeted the call. "A quarian approached the local precinct office, claiming she had intel on the Eden Prime attack – we were escorting her to the Presidium, just about to call you when some mercs opened fire on us!"

"Calm down, Lieutenant," Aethyta ordered, glancing at Shepard as she did. "Listen, where's the quarian now?"

"No idea – they must've hacked the ad billboards, overloaded them like flashbangs – we've got two officers down, but the mercs are splitting up. Listen, we've already called for backup, but this quarian sounded like she had something big!"

"Copy that, we're sending backup," Aethyta told her. "Hang in there, ETA three minutes."

Aethyta glanced up as Shepard stared down at her, her eyes wide.

"Well?" Aethyta demanded. "What're ya waiting for?"

The long hallway was quiet. Weber and Kaidan seemed content to wait for their commander in silence, but Ashley had struck up a quiet conversation with their Asari minder, Officer T'ayn. Her old set of white CMC-300 armor made Ash tower over the slim Asari, but Ash kept one eye on the elegant form of the Disciple shotgun at T'ayn's hip.

Everyone glanced up as the door slid open with a hiss, revealing the frowning form of Commander Shepard, who quickly strode forward, her face set firmly in determination.

"Orders, Commander?" Kaidan asked, pushing off the wall and standing up straight, as if at attention.

"Mount up," Shepard told him, gesturing for Ashley and Weber to come closer as she moved briskly through the halls, her right fist clenching and unclenching with the crunch of neosteel fingers. "C-Sec has a lead on who ordered the attack, but we need to move fast."

A turian in blue C-Sec armor passed by, shooting an irritable glance at the four armored Terrans in the hall, but luckily he refrained from commenting. To be fair, Shepard admitted to herself, she could see the turian's problem; nobody liked having armored unknowns in their base. T'ayn nodded to the turian as he passed, but he didn't appear any more reassured.

"Reinforcements?" Weber questioned, the boots of his CMC armor clanking as he trotted to catch up. "Wouldn't hurt to have the platoon armor up."

"Agreed. Tell them to do that," Shepard approved, pausing as she glanced back and forth between the elevator and the C-Sec cruiser parked off to the side. "We're headed down to the Wards, ASAP – think C-Sec will mind if we borrow a cruiser?"

"Don't know if that thing can take our weight, Skipper," Ashley noted. "Looks like we're stuck with the elevator."

"I'd rather not replace another cruiser," T'ayn concurred, a slight twitch of her lips betraying her amusement. "And I think it's best if I stick around."

"Never know when you need an extra gun," Weber remarked, nodding as they stepped into one of the freight elevators next to the aircar dock. "What's the plan, commander?"

"C-Sec was escorting a VIP when they hit by unidentified mercs," Shepard said, punching the button for the Zakera Wards. "Two down, but the mercs split up when the quarian vanished. Firefights probably over, but we're playing hide and seek in an urban environment – move quick, pistols out, and try not to run over civilians."

"Hold on, let me fix the speed," T'ayn muttered, sliding a C-Sec id card into a slot in the elevator.

With a jolt, the elevator shot upwards, the scenic vista of the Presidium blurring as it shot past. For a brief moment, the interior of the transparent elevator went dark as they passed out of the Presidium ring, then back into a daze of neon advertisement.

"You guys have a speed override on these things?" Kaidan asked. "Why did nobody tell me this?"

"One of the first things the boss did when she took the post," T'ayn shrugged.

Lurching, the elevator slowed to a jolting stop, the doors sliding open to deposit the mixed Marines and the lone C-Sec officer along an abandoned walkway.

"Looks like the civvies have run off," Weber observed.

"Doesn't matter," Shepard barked. "Spread out, and find that quarian!"

The long hallways of the lower-level Ward were as immaculate as always, but the usual bustling crowds that filled them were absent. Dozens of storefronts line the spacious walkway, but almost all of them are barred and locked. Shepard watched one salarian storekeeper duck behind his store's window as he saw the four Terrans approach.

"Keep your eyes peeled," Shepard instructed her group, as she jogged forward, her boots thumping loudly on the metallic floors.

"Reports indicated professional mercs," Officer T'ayn told them, her service pistol held next to her hip as she matched pace with the Commander. "Mostly turian, but with a few asari mixed in."

"Commandos?" Sergeant Weber questioned, frowning.

"Didn't look like it," T'ayn shrugged. "But that doesn't mean much."

It wasn't long before they reached an intersection. Shepard glanced down the closer path, but the walkway were just as empty.

"Commander, look!" Lieutenant Alenko called, pointing down the other hallway. "You there, stop!"

The white-armored turian turned around to face them, stumbling as he pressed one hand to the side of his head. Shepard's squad jogged over to him, pistols in hand, but as they drew closer, the turian suddenly stiffened up, reaching for a weapon on his back.

"C-Sec, drop the weapon!" Officer T'ayn barked, keeping her pistol leveled at the mercenary.

"Fuck you, bitch!" the turian spat, his rifle unfolding as he whipped it out from behind his back.

The merc hadn't managed to bring his rifle up before Ashley's flak pistol snapped up and blasted out a howling torrent of metal flechettes with an echoing boom. The turian flinched instinctively as dozens of flechettes zipped past him. A few smacked into his shields, but the majority impacted harmlessly against the walls and floors, doing more damage to the nearby windows than to the merc.

Ashley's blast didn't manage to do anything other than distract the turian merc, but that was enough time for Officer T'ayn to toss out a churning wave of biotic power. The wave hit the merc and lifted him up into the air, before slamming him back down against the metal walkway with a crunch.

"Please don't fire that thing again," Officer T'ayn remarked sourly, glancing at Ashley. "Now I've got to file a damage report for the buildings."

Ashley shrugged, before stowing the flak pistol back in the side of her leg armor, as they all trooped over to the groaning mercenary on the floor.

"Urban environment, kids," Weber reminded them, shaking his head. "Use a blaster, not a flak pistol."

"A… 'blaster'?" T'ayn inquired, quirking the ridge of her non-existent eye-brow in a distinctly Terran mannerism.

"Just a pistol, Officer," Weber informed her, holding up his large revolver. "It's a tad better for this kinda precision work."

"Let's keep the collateral to a minimum," Shepard told them, as she knelt down over the turian merc writhing on the ground. "That said… where's the quarian?"

Clasping a gauntlet on the merc's collar, she shook him none too gently, then pressed him back against the ground.

"F-fuck you," the turian gasped softly, as he desperately tried to regain his lost breath.

"Weber, gun."

Shepard held her right hand up, as the bemused Sergeant Weber handed her his revolver. After a quick check to make sure it was loaded, she reached down again and placed the barrel right between the mercenary's eyes.

"I'll ask again," Shepard told the turian. "Where is the quarian?"

The turian's eyes darted back and forth between the revolver's barrel and Shepard's face, but before he could say anything, there was a burst of static from his sparking comm. unit.

"…er, repeat, we found her! Holed up… bar! Repeat, she's… in Sweezy's Bar!"

Shepard glanced up, as Weber blinked.

"I know the place, Commander," Weber said, nodding once. "It's only a short distance."

"Don't let me catch you again," Shepard told the turian merc, passing the blaster over her shoulder to Weber.

Officer T'ayn bent down and slapped a pair of thick handcuffs on the mercenary as Shepard stood back up.

"Don't bother trying to get out of those," T'ayn said, as she pulled her pistol back out of its holster. "Nav-beacon's already transmitting, so don't try running. C-Sec will pick you up in a moment, and even a krogan couldn't rip through these. Trust me, they've tried."

The merc struggled with the cuffs for a moment, then stopped with a huff of frustration.

"Let's move, people!" Shepard barked. "Weber, take point. Ash, Kaidan, keep the flak pistols ready, but try not to make a mess."

"Aye aye, Commander," Kaidan acknowledged, nodding as he sealed his orange glare-visor.

Weber loped forward with the long strides of a veteran, his economy of motion mimicked imprecisely by his fellow Marines. Officer T'ayn, lacking an power armor of her own, resorted to sprinting the tail of her blue C-Sec longcoat whipping out behind her as she tried to keep up.

The Terran's long paces ate up the distance, until Weber rounded the final corner and the squad came into sight of a large neon sign. The lights of the bar were still on and the doors were still open, unlike the majority of the other shops, and Shepard could hear the raucous crowd inside.

As they hurried closer, a sudden roar of crowd noise bellowed out, and the sound of drinks crashing to the floor floated out the door.

"Double-time it, Marines!" Shepard growled, sprinting up to the large doorway and barging through the swinging doors.

The solid wooden doors slammed against their brackets as Shepard charged in, but none of the patrons turned, as their attention was focused solely on the center of the room. Surrounded by other customers, a tiny slip of a quarian was standing on top of a table, screaming and pointing at the gang of white-armored mercenaries before her.

There was at least a dozen of the white-armored turians, and maybe four or five asari amongst them, and each of them was tensed up behind their leader, a taller turian. Unlike the mercenary they'd found outside, these were equipped with the angular, yet bulky forms of Hierarchy-made Raider armor, and they clutched bulky shotguns and rifles uneasily as the patrons around them glared.

The leader stepped forward, opening his palm at the quarian as if to help her down from the table, but the quarian replied with something harsh and loud. Shepard's ears couldn't make out what the quarian was saying, but then again, they didn't need to.

As Shepard stomped forward to meet the bulk of the mercenaries, the quarian girl reached down, plucked up a thick bottle of whiskey and smashed it against the turian's face, shattering the bottle instantly.

The turian recoiled, howling in pain, and his arm shot forward, hand moving to close on the quarian's leg.

Which was about when someone else appeared behind the merc leader's shoulder, reaching up with a curiously familiar cybernetic arm and grabbing onto the merc's upper arm.

Sweezy's Bar was packed, the afternoon's regulars melding with the night crowd as the Citadel transitioned into its night cycle. That meant that when Tali'Zorah nar Rayya smashed a bottle into the white-armored turian's exposed face, the bar had roughly fifty people inside.

To be fair, it was a mixed crowd – Terran bars had grown in popularity with the quieter citizens of the Citadel. They preferred the relaxed atmosphere, as opposed to the louder, flashier clubs. True, the majority of the patrons were still Terran, but only a handful of those were in armor. The rest of the crowd was a blend of older Asari, a few retired Salarians waiting for death, and a squad of turians from the Eighth Division drowning their sorrows after a rough deployment over in the corner.

The turian mercenary growled as he recoiled from the blow, the shards of glass stabbing in the soft spots between his facial plates and the whiskey soaking his face. With another roar, the merc leader shrugged off the blow, and his arm whipped out to grab Tali's leg, to yank it out from under her.

But before the turian could grab Tali's leg, two large pieces of neosteel clamped down on his upper arm, bending the armor plates beneath it as the rough fabric of a welding glove latched onto the mercenary's collar.

The white-armored turian glanced down just long enough to see the diminutive Terran's greying muttonchops and the welding goggles perched on his forehead.

Then Rory Swann slammed the turian's face into the table.