For his part, Rory Swann had been having a great time up until this group of thugs decided to chase a panicked girl into his favorite bar.

That reminded Swann of far too many bad memories.

The metallic plates of the turian's face screeched as Swann dragged the merc across the table, his cybernetic arm still latched onto the turian's upper arm. The turian crashed into dozens of glasses, spilling whiskey and glass shards everywhere as the nearby patrons jumped to their feet.

"Back off, pal!" Swann barked, yanking the turian back and hurling him to the floor. "The lady said no!"

The mercenary growled, but Swann swiftly turned, twisting at the hip and hurling the merc away.

"Hey, boys! These assholes wanna kidnap this girl!" Swann called out, as the rest of the mercenaries tensed.

With a shift, a motley mix of the Terran patrons stood up from their seats, and gathered loosely around Swann in a clatter of armor plates and scowling faces. About a half-dozen were in armor, the others resting their hands on holstered revolvers.

"I told you, she's wanted on Illium for corporate theft!" the mercenary shouted, shakily clambering to his feet as he wiped blood away from his mandibles.

"Fuck off!" one of the Terrans shouted, shaking a CMC-clad fist at the merc. "If C-Sec wants her, they can pick her up here!"

"I didn't mean to cause a problem," the quarian mumbled from behind Swann, as she glanced at the line of armored and unarmored Terrans in front of her. "But I'm not going with them."

"Don't worry, darlin'," Swann rumbled, scowling at the mercs. "We won't let 'em."

"No choice," the turian mercenary growled, clenching a fist. "Take her."

Half of the mercs yanked out guns, unfolding shotguns and sidearms that fit the close quarters nature of the bar. One of the Asari hurled a twisting orb of space-time at the Terrans, blasting the unarmored ones aside and staggering the others.

The quarian was launched off the table with a startled cry, slamming into the racks of alcohol above the bar and dropping out of sight behind the bar.

"Get 'em, boys!" Swann roared, pulling out a revolver with a glowing battery in place of a chamber.

With a roar, the CMC-clad Terrans charged straight into the mass of mercenaries, slamming into the other side with a titanic ring of neosteel on neosteel. Several of the mercs opened fire as the Terrans came at them, and one of the Terrans collapsed as his chest detonated from a dozen micro-explosions.

Blood splashed on the beaten hardwood floor of the bar.

The cluster of mercs spread out with disciplined practice, Turians with agile Raider armor leaping forward to handle the brawling CMC-plated Terrans. They exchanged fluid kicks and talon-strikes, but the agility of their suits was hampered by the tight spaces of the reinforced tables.

Other patrons of the bar reacted quickly, but one of the asari started shrieking as a stray flechette sliced across her upper arm and nearly severed it. The trio of aged salarians, their eyes wide, tried to run for the door.

The other Terrans flipped their tables, yanking out heavy revolvers and blasters as the asari and turian mercenaries did the same, while in the middle of the room, power armored turians and Terrans traded blows in a furious melee.

Agile and sleek, the suits of Raider armor danced in between punches, but returned almost equal amounts of force in stabs and slashes of taloned gauntlets. When one of the Terrans could get in close enough, though, the smashing blows of their suits dented power armor and crushed limbs.

Shepard swore violently as gunfire erupted.

"Weapons tight, watch for friendlies!" she warned, shoving her flak pistol back into her thigh storage compartment. "Hand to hand!"

Sergeant Weber was already ahead of her, sprinting flat out and crashing into a turian from behind in a tackle, slamming him into the floor. The hardwood managed to hold against the sudden weight, but parts started to splinter as Weber smashed a harsh blow into the turian's upper back.

Kaidan quickly shoved his flak pistol into its compartment, but Ashley had elected to simply hurl hers at the closest merc, stunning the asari as the hefty pistol clocked her in the head.

Shepard dashed headlong into the heart of the brawl, as the pings of incoming fire from the white-armored mercenaries started to ring in her ears. She managed to deck a turian in the jaw, but another one shoved her from the side, before stabbing his sharpened gauntlets into her underarm.

A blare and a flashing red diagnostic lit up in Shepard's visor, and a sliver of something stabbed into her side. Gritting her teeth, she twisted away from the turian, as a shiny black liquid sprayed from a severed tube. She took one step away, then another Terran collided with her, launching her out of the standing brawl and onto a table.

The table held for a split second, then collapsed with a crunch. Dazed, Shepard blinked quickly as the merc stepped out of the brawl, lunging forward with his talons. Shepard lifted her arms, but they just weren't fast enough.

Then two fast, taloned gauntlets shot in, snatching the mercenary's outstretched arm and yanking him away.

The merc tried to twist around to throw his other arm at the newcomer, but one of the taloned gauntlets latched onto the long swept-back fringe of the merc's helmet and wrenched it to one side.

The merc slammed into the ground as his neck twisted sharply to one side. He spasmed on the ground for second, then a black-painted boot stomped on his neck.

"Damn punks," Shepard heard a flanging drawl say. "C'mon, Terran. There are still bad guys to fight."

Grunting as her side pinched, Shepard shoved herself off the floor.

Another white clad turian had emerged from the crowded brawl, but two more turians in black Raider armor tackled him, smashing his helmet into the floor. A tall black-armored turian stood in front of her, trading blows with the unhelmed mercenary leader that she'd seen barking orders earlier.

Hand to hand combat in CMC suits was hampered by a lack of flexibility. Turian Raider armor had no such problems. A turian could throw a flying roundhouse kick just as easily as he could throw a punch.

The two turians before her were putting their suits through unbearably hard treatment, forearms denting as they deflected blows, kneeplates cracking as they checked kicks, and paint being scraped off by sheer force. The white-clad mercenary grimaced as the black-clad one raced through a whirling combination of strikes, his dark helmet scratched along one side.

Shepard paused for a moment, then threw herself at the white-clad one, clamping down on his arm with her left hand as she smashed her right one into his stomach.

The turian's air left him in an explosive gasp, and Shepard immediately slammed another blow into his stomach.

She pulled down with her left hand, yanking the turian towards her and bowing at the waist. With a muted thud, the ridge-like top of her helmet crunched into the turian's bare head.

The turian fell bonelessly to the floor, and Shepard stepped back from his immobile form.

She paused, blinking rapidly as she dismissed the red diagnostic highlighting the breech in her armor, and turned back to the black Raider armor of the strange turians who had helped her.

Six of them were noticeable, exchanging lightning-fast blows with their white-armored counterparts.

The closest finished his off with a quick one-two throat-gut combo, then stepped back from the melee. Another mercenary jumped forward from his side, claw outstretched to stab under his helmet.

Without thinking, Shepard dashed forward, shoulder-charging the white-armored mercenary.

She slammed him into the ground, and the black-clad turian quickly stepped forward, kicking the merc's chest.

A black taloned gauntlet, the paint chipping and peeling away, stretched out before her.

Shepard seized it, and the turian yanked her to her feet.

"Damned Eighth!" he roared, as the melee split into a dozen smaller fights.

With a grin beneath her helmet, Shepard followed the turian forward, into another clump of mercs.

"Stay down!" the older man cautioned Tali, waving a hand at her as he ducked down.

Shots rang out, and the crash of metal on metal rang out as the two groups collided. Tali risked a glance over the top of the bar, and got an eyeful of a chaotic frenzy. Expensive power armor was everywhere, and the inner engineer in her couldn't help but wince as she saw wires tear as blows struck structural weaknesses.

"I have to do something," Tali murmured, ducking back down.


She looked up, just as the bartender pressed a button on the underside of the counter. Tali blinked as the wooden paneling beneath the bar slid away, revealing half a dozen weapons on racks. The grizzled bartender snatched up a battered M-15 Vindicator, before tossing it to her and snatching up another one for himself.

Tali caught the rifle numbly, fumbling it as the bartender activated his kinetic barriers with a tap of his omni-tool, before springing up and loosing a salvo of shots.

For a moment, she paused there, as the Terran towered above her, firing at something out of sight. After firing a trio of bursts, the bartender ducked down before the cover of the bar.

He glanced at her, huddling there against the wall clutching her rifle.

He didn't say anything, but before he could have the chance, Tali gritted her teeth and jumped to her feet. She quickly blasted off a trio of shots at the closest white-armored mercenary, but the asari matron barely flinched as her barriers took the bullets.

Tali scowled beneath her helmet, then reached out with her left hand and punched the air.

A burning ball of orange fire howled as it flashed into being, racing forward and slamming into the exposed asari. Tali thought she heard the asari cry out, but after a moment, the sound vanished with the asari.

She shivered, ducking beneath the bar as the sight of a gutted, blackened boot burned itself into her vision.

But then another salvo of shots slammed into her cover, jolting her as the thick slab of neosteel stopped the round dead.

Tali blinked, swallowed, and then stood back up and returned fire.

Weber snarled, then pivoted on his front foot and hurled his weight into a haymaker that caught the turian merc in the middle of his chest.

The turian left the ground, his angular chestplate dented inwards. He flew a couple of yards, then slammed into a table, sending it sliding one way as he tumbled the other.

The turian skidded to a stop near the back corner of the bar, next to a series of high-walled booths set into the wall. Glancing at the looming figure of Weber stomping towards him through the jungle of thrown neosteel and hardwood furniture, the merc thought fast. He scrambled to his feet, dashed to the only booth that still had its privacy curtain drawn, and ripped it back, as he yanked out a grenade with his other hand.

"Don't move!" the merc yelled, his suit's speakers amplifying his words.

Weber paused, and the merc glanced briefly at the booth's interior. He caught a quick glance of a green felt table. There was a scattering of cards and poker chips on the table, and two turians, the oldest looking salarian he'd ever seen, and a Terran with the glowing eyes of active psionics sat around it. He quickly glanced back at Weber, but the Terran had frozen in place the moment he'd seen the grenade.

Then a hand clamped down on his outstretched arm.

The merc reacted instantly, squeezing his fist around the grenade. There was a flash of grey-blue, and the merc heard a sudden snap-hiss of thrumming energy.

He couldn't tell what happened next, but one moment he was tightening his thumb on the grenade's detonator, and the next his arm was on the ground a few meters away.

The merc gaped, his other hand reaching for his pistol instinctively as a searing agony ripped through the stump of his arm.

He barely noticed the long gray-skinned fingers clamping down his shoulder, as a flashing neon-blue blade appeared out of nowhere and buried itself in his gut.

With a feeble grunt, the turian slumped as the psionic blade burned right through his Raider armor and sliced a hole clean through him, severing his spinal cord in a clinically precise maneuver.

The white-clad merc slumped to the floor as the tall form of the Protoss pulled his psi-blade out of the turian's guts.

The Protoss paused as the turian died at his feet, taking in the scene of the brawl spreading across the entire bar. The other members of the poker game immediately reached for their guns, as the sound-dampening fields collapsed with privacy curtain pulled back.

Weber managed to keep his eyes off the cooling corpse of the merc at the Protoss's golden boots, his hand instinctively staying to the revolver in his thigh compartment. A tense moment passed as the Khalai's intense blue gaze swept over the scene, and then he stepped forward, igniting his other psi-blade with a distinctive snap-hiss.

Impulsively, Weber drew his revolver, keeping it leveled at the Khalai's chest.

"En Taro Raynor!" the Protoss boomed, lifting one of his arms in salute.

Weber blinked, and before he could say anything in return, the Khalai shot forward, leaping over the collapsed tables with a pump of his long legs and diving into the fray.

The Khalai entered the whirling brawl like a dagger, sliding perfectly through the opening between two white-armored mercenaries. His feet carried him forward as he planted his blades in their upper chests, physically lifting them upwards before slamming them into the ground.

The nearby mercs, already dwindling rapidly in number, immediately turned to face this new threat. A shotgun boomed and a turian's talons flashed towards the smooth, unguarded skin of the Protoss's elongated head.

The Protoss ducked, one psi-blade vanishing as he twisted into a handstand. The shotgun's spray roared over his head, and the Khalai pushed with his supporting arm. His feet shot out, kicking into the closer turian's arm and knocking it upwards, as the Protoss effortlessly flung himself back to his feet in a smooth cartwheel.

Neon-blue light flashed against golden armor as the Protoss twisted and spun, dodging the few incoming shots with a simple flip. His gray-blue muscles tensed and shifted under his armor, and sent the Protoss into a tight spin of blades and metal.

If CMC-clad Marines were lumbering boxers, and turians in Raider armor were martial artists, then the Protoss were fucking acrobats.

A psi-blade snapped into being, separating an arm from its socket at the shoulder. The other sliced the tip of a fringe from a turian's head, cutting right through the merc's white helmet, before a spinning hook kick slammed into the turian into the floor.

None of the mercenaries had ever seen a Protoss fight. They paused in shock as two of their members fell to the ground, one of them screaming and clutching his shoulder.

That split-second pause was all it took for the Terrans to smash into the few remaining mercs, knocking them out or outright killing them with haymakers as they took their eyes off their opponents to stare at the Protoss.

As the last merc smashed into the ground, tackled by Ashley Williams, the loose group of Terrans all collectively backed up a step. Each one drew his or her sidearm and aimed straight at the Protoss standing in the middle of four bodies.

"I mean you no harm," the Protoss rumbled, his psi-blades dissipating. "But I protest the abduction of the innocent."

The Protoss turned, inclining his head to the shaking figure of Tali'Zorah nar Rayya as she emerged from behind the bar, her helmet shifting back and forth as she numbly gazed at the broken bodies of the mercenary platoon on the floor.

"Tali'Zorah?" one of the Terrans said, her visor lifting and exposing a short cut red hairstyle. "I'm Commander Shepard, and I'm here to escort you to C-Sec."

"If they want her, they can come get her here!" one of the other Terrans barked, stepping in front of Tali and glaring at Shepard.

"Excuse me!" someone called from behind the crowd of hulking figures in power armor, as a slim figure in a blue longcoat squeezed between the crowd. "I'm Officer T'ayn, C-Sec Investigations! The Executor sent Commander Shepard and her squad along with me in case we ran into trouble."

The asari glanced down at the severed arm in white Raider armor, then looked up, grimacing.

"I can call the Executor if you want confirmation," T'ayn offered. "But we need to get Miss Zorah out of the open immediately."

As she finished, the doors to the bar thudded against the wall. Everyone spun, and an impressive amount of firearms leveled on the lone krogan entering the room.

The krogan took in the broken tables, unconscious and dead mercs, and raised sidearms with a single look. Then he laughed.

"Now this is my kind of bar!" the krogan boomed, chuckling. "Bartender, get me some ryncol!"

Everyone relaxed as the krogan walked around the large ground, picked up a barstool from the ground, and plopped his old red armored ass down in it.

"Miss Zorah?" Shepard asked, holstering her sidearm and holding out her hand. "Please, we need to get you to safety."

Tali'Zorah paused, then nodded. She stepped forward, but not before plucking a rifle from a dead asari's fingers. She checked that it was loaded, then nodded once more.

"Let's go," she said, a barely noticeable tremble in her voice.




"What happened?" he asked, the barely distinguishable growl the only indication of his anger.

The merc shrugged.

"Told'ja it wasn't gonna work," the merc remarked. "Your turian boy, Mordecai, Malachai, whatever his name was, was a complete idiot. Botched the whole damn thing from the start."

"Mordecai was one of the top men in my service," Saren replied tightly.

"That about sums it up, then," the merc shrugged. "Like I said. A complete idiot."

Saren glared at him from across the dimly lit warehouse, then sighed. The walls felt thin to him, but he trusted his counter-surveillance to work.

"Shit," he muttered. "Alright, I can accept that. What happened?"

"The initial snatch and grab was a fucking mess," the merc growled, leaning back against the wall. "His approach was goddamn awful – should've split his group into fireteams, but he clustered 'em as a single mass. Idiot said something about remaining undetected – like no one's gonna notice thirty mercs marching down the concourse."

"Specifics," Saren requested, closing his eyes. "What happened specifically?"

"His group found the quarian before I did. Told him to wait for me, but he didn't listen. He should've split his group, surrounded the escort. Instead, he hit them straight on, and the quarian bolted down an unsecured side-street," the merc recounted.

"Mm, okay," Saren replied slowly. "Then she found the bar."

"Can't really the blame the idiot for that one," the merc admitted. "Smart move on her part – Terrans are better in close quarters. Mordecai ran his group into a fucking killzone. By the time I got there, everyone was dead or unconscious. And there was a Protoss."

"A Protoss?" Saren repeated, glancing up quickly. "Dammit, did he get a read on you?"

"Nah. Picked up dissembling a couple years back on a job for the Academy. Keep it up constantly," the merc said. "Constant vigilance pays off dividends."

"Good, good," Saren muttered, before sighing. "So, what did you do?"

"The Protoss had already noticed me," the merc shrugged. "There was another psionic, a Terran – maybe two. Couldn't just walk away suspiciously. So I walked in and got a drink."

Saren stood up from his seat on a crate and slowly started to pace. The krogan merc's eyes followed him as he slowly stalked through the room, his black turian-made cybernetic gleaming in the half-light.

"I think…" Saren said slowly, a talon lingering near his chin in a Terran gesture, "that we can't salvage this situation any more."

"If they aren't in the Presidium yet, they'll have a thick guard," the grizzled krogan mused. "Matrons, Freezers, Stunners. The works."

"Yes – plus the marines from this 'Commander Shepard' that Nihlus warned me about," Saren added.

The krogan tilted his head, but didn't say anything as Saren casually namedropped the other Spectre. This just got a little interesting, the krogan thought to himself.

"Our contract?" the krogan asked, casually resting his hand on the shotgun on his hip.

"Still in effect," Saren replied. "I'd prefer to keep you on retainer. Hard to find good men these days."

"You've got a lot less men to pay, too," the krogan noted.

"That too," Saren shrugged carelessly.

"The problem with that…" the krogan drawled slowly. "I'm gonna need some details. Minimal info is fine for a snatch, but retainer is riskier."

Saren nodded, then paused as he glanced back at the krogan.

"Tell me, Wrex," he asked, walking over to the old krogan. "How would you like to rebuild your people?"

"Wouldn't work," Wrex replied sourly. "No krogan wants it – and all the clans are too dumb to understand that they need it."

"Who said I was giving them a choice?" Saren asked, a grin tugging at his mandibles.

Wrex stared at the turian Spectre before him, then let out a long sigh.

"And just how would you get the krogan to do anything?" Wrex asked slowly, squinting at Saren.

Saren grinned.

"Commander Shepard," Captain Anderson greeted. "I thought you'd still be with the Council? I heard something about a firefight in Sweezy's."

"Long story, Captain," Shepard said, saluting as her boots clanged on the Normandy's boarding ramp.

"Is there a short version?" Anderson asked as they stepped inside the bay.

"Captain on deck!" Sergeant Rodriguez barked, as the Marines in the bay snapped to attention.

"At ease," Anderson waved. "Shepard?"

"The Council agreed to give us some support, and it looks like the first priority is finding whoever organized the attack on Eden Prime," Shepard explained, stomping over to her locker.

With a careful step, she backed into the grooves of the booth, extending her arms upwards until the armor locked into place. Internal mechanisms disengaged with a mishmash of clicks and whirrs as the upper torso detached from the legs.

"Give me a minute, Cap," Shepard muttered, reaching up and gripping the worn rungs set above her armor and hoisted herself out of her disjointed armor with a grunt.

Her legs carefully tugged out of the constricting armor, Shepard carefully lowered herself down onto the deck, her sweat-matted clothing clinging to her body.

"Don't worry, Commander, I'm used to it," Anderson shrugged, tossing her a towel lightly.

Shepard smiled wryly as she dried herself off as best she could.

"The Marshall and the Council seemed to think that there was something important about that Prothean Beacon," Shepard said. "We were in the middle of planning when we got a C-Sec report about a quarian with data about the attack. Something she'd gotten from a Geth, she said."

"From a Geth?" Anderson repeated, frowning. "Seems a little improbable."

"C-Sec was bringing her in to verify the data when the girl's escort was attacked. Mercs. Turian and asari, apparently a smash and grab," Shepard explained, rubbing her hair with the towel. "The Executor sent my squad in as reinforcements – that's the bar fight you heard about."

"From the sounds of it, you wrecked the best damn bar on the Citadel," Anderson replied.

"It got a little dicey in there," Shepard admitted. "We got the quarian out, but the data was highly encrypted – from her account, she got partial fragments from individual Geth, but after the first one, they started to encrypt their files. The explanation flew over my head, but the Salarian Councilor agreed with it. The Marshall got Valern to promise STG aid in decoding the data, but they said it would take time."

"And the quarian?" Anderson asked, as Lieutenant Alenko walked over, similarly attired in a stained undershirt and pants.

"She's in protective custody," Kaidan chipped in, nodding respectfully to Anderson. "Whoever sent the mercenaries after her will undoubtedly send more – plus, I think Swann gave her a job offer."

"Where does that leave us?" Anderson asked. "I haven't gotten any orders from New Korhal command or the Marshall."

"The Marshall's orders should arrive soon – he gave me the quick version when we brought Tali back to C-Sec," Shepard told him.

"Tali?" Anderson asked, glancing at her.

"The quarian girl," Kaidan explained.

"STG, the Ghosts, and the Spectres are on a fox hunt, and we're off to New Korhal," Ashley Williams chimed in from across the bay, as she stepped out of her old CMC-300 armor.

"New Korhal?" Anderson asked, blinking. "Oh – the Marshall thinks the Academy can help?"

"Right," Shepard replied. "For now, we're supposed to keep things as quiet as we can – the Council is worried about the integrity of their codes."

"Same old shit," Anderson remarked. "I'll check with the Hyperion. In the mean time, get yourself cleaned up. Shepard, after you've showered, meet me on the bridge."

"Aye aye, sir," Kaidan saluted.

"Alright, Captain," Shepard said, nodding respectfully. "If I can ask, why the bridge?"

"If we're going to the Academy, then we should check in with their administrators, to let them know we're coming," Anderson told her. "Lieutenant Alenko, you handle the re-supply once we hit New Korhal – the Commander and I are probably going to be busy. Nova doesn't like any unnecessary disruptions to the Academy."

Five minutes later, Commander Shepard stepped out of the elevator, freshly attired in a clean uniform. She set her half-eaten food bar down on the edge of the holochart and nodded to Captain Anderson.

"There you are, Commander," Anderson noted, pressing a button on the holochart.

The glowing holomap of the Serpent Nebula flickered, then vanished as a small icon appeared, spinning slowly as the Normandy's external hypercomms activated.

The floating holographic icon paused, then started spinning again. A few words popped up as the icon paused, before repeating the cycle once more.

Searching For Connection, the icon said. Connection Found. Waiting For Pickup.

Shepard glanced at Anderson, but he merely shrugged. They waited there for a few moments, then the icon vanished as a two-dimensional holoscreen stretched out.

The years had treated Nova Terra well. Her hair was bound up in a simplistic ponytail, and her face was unmarred by any kind of scars or age lines. If Shepard hadn't known better, she would have thought that Nova was her own age. She sat behind a rather nice wooden desk, but was clad in a tight-fitting dark bodyglove.

"This is Nova. Make it fast," the Ghost said, her tone clipped and brusque.

"Ma'am, this is Captain Anderson of the Normandy," Anderson said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Commander Shepard here came into contact with a Prothean device on Eden Prime during the attack. She says she's had some kind of vision after, and the Marshall thinks it might be possible to extract that vision from her head."

"Is this true, Commander?" Nova asked, turning her gaze onto Shepard.

Shepard blinked, a little unnerved by the unblinking, unwavering stare. It just felt… unnatural.

"It is, uh, ma'am," Shepard replied, stumbling as she tried to remember what Nova's title actually was.

"Auditory visual, just visual, or just auditory?" Nova questioned.

"Everything, ma'am," Shepard answered firmly. "I felt like I was really there – sight, sound, smell, touch… I felt vibrations in my feet from the landings."

"What landings, Shepard?" Andersons asked, turning to her.

Shepard paused.

"The… landings," she said slowly, as if confused. "You know, skolei isn hattan."

Anderson's brow furrowed, and he stared at Shepard.

"What?" Shepard asked reflexively.

"Shepard, you just said 'skolei is', is – whatever the hell that was, it wasn't English," Anderson told her, frowning.

Nova frowned with him, still staring at Shepard.

"I did?" Shepard asked again, blinking. "Uh, I don't think I –"

"You did, Commander," Nova told her, before reciting, "skolei isn hattan."

"I've got no clue what that means," Shepard said slowly. "I – I don't know."

"You need help," Nova said bluntly. "Unfortunately, all psionic operatives capable of helping are currently deployed. We're all working on finding whoever organized the attack."

"Shit," Anderson muttered. "Anything we can do to help with that?"

"I've got two operatives, Sanford and Deimos, that need retrieval from Tarith in the Crescent Nebula," Nova said. "They're at a Blood Pack comm relay – I got a distress signal from them a couple hours ago. Pick them up, and we'll have enough breathing room to pull a mind specialist off active duty."

"We can do that," Anderson nodded.

"All of your operatives are deployed?" Shepard repeated, tilting her head. "Then who's taking care of the Academy?

"Tosh asked the neighbors if they could babysit," Nova shrugged – a very stiff, mechanical gesture.

"But you're –"

A blaring klaxon cut her off. Shepard and Anderson reacted instinctively, both looking at the emergency alarm in the corner of the room – but the alarm wasn't flashing.

They glanced back at the screen, where Nova was looking at something off-camera as a red flashing light crossed her face.

"Huh," she said, her voice unchanged and unconcerned. "Intruder alarm. Took them long enough."

A phantom echo of gunfire echoed over the holoscreen, and Nova stood up, lifting a rifle that had previously been out of sight underneath the mahogany desk.

"We'll link up on New Korhal," Nova told them, tapping a button.

The screen fizzed for a moment, and then went black, displaying Connection Lost in small script.

Shepard glanced at Anderson, who appeared similarly bemused.

"Nova hasn't changed much, I see," he remarked with a shake of his head.

"You knew her before?" Shepard asked curiously.

"Worked with her a couple times during other joint-ops," Anderson shrugged. "That's one of the main reasons Raynor picked me for the Normandy, actually. She's a bit of a workaholic, once you get to know her. Doesn't really 'get' fun. Still, look's like she's getting better at smiling."




The Citadel was a strange, bizarre place.

Always had been, really.

Saren nodded absentmindedly at the C-Sec Customs officer as she waved him through the doors of the private landing bay – leaving the small, dagger-like shape of his customized shuttle behind, not glancing at the dazzling lights of the Wards above him through the clear bay windows. He paused, then tapped a button, making sure his shuttle was locked with a little double-chirp from his omni-tool.

He frowned to himself as he stepped into the elevator and overrode the speed setting with a wave of omni-tool. The lights of the passing advertisements flashed as they shot by.

"…fighting on Zorya came to an end today, as Blue Suns loyalists drove back the invaders. In other news, a detachment of the Damned Eighth took back the jointly-owned fuel refinery in the Balor system operated by Meinhoff Engineering and Flotilla Industrial, led by none other than the Sergeant Major of the Legion…" a pleasing, asari voice said, her tones carefully soothing, like any good reporter.

There was always news like that – garbage about conflict and war to keep the people frightened. Pah. Same old shit, like Victus would've said. Keep the average citizen content that 'their corner' of the galaxy was safe and secure, and then raise the taxes when they weren't looking.

One ad started to play over the elevators speakers, saying something about an elcor version of a Terran play. For a moment, Saren wondered what Valerian would say about that. Probably something about 'exploring different cultures' or something kind-hearted like that – apt, given that Valerian had likely been the one to provide the text from his personal library.

Shit, did he still have Valerian's Bible back in his room?

Oh, shit, he did. Hadn't really had the chance to return it to him, after the whole media fiasco a year back when everyone found out about Valerian's wife. Back when the rags had tried to accuse Valerian of robbing the University of Thessia of six asari professors for his personal harem - and when Valerian had been forced to reveal that yes, he was, in fact, married happily. Then the rags had tried to accuse him of an affair, and that had (mostly) ended when Jim Raynor had personally vouched for Valerian on live holonews - and at the same time had wound up threatening to give Valerian a black eye if he ever did cheat on his wife.

Of course, the play was probably going to suffer when they had to display Macbeth's head – how did one decapitate an Elcor? And how would another elcor hold it up for the audience? It might just be worth waiting for the play to see the dramatic sword fight between Macduff and the titular Macbeth interpreted by the Elcor. Just because something was novel enough to be interesting didn't automatically make it good, after all.

Then the ad declared that the play was coming in five months, and Saren shrugged. Somehow, he didn't think the play would really be a concern at that point.

Fuck. Valerian never could stop talking about Macbeth. Maybe he should delay Benezia so that Valerian could see one last performance before he died?

But Valerian wasn't going to die, not if his plan for convincing Sovereign worked… right?

Saren closed his eyes slowly, then shut off the advertisements with his omni-tool.

He rode the rest of the way in silence.

When the doors opened, Saren strode out into the well-lit atrium and walked past the line of civilians waiting for the secretaries like he was just another turian returning for a shift in the Embassy level.

No one spared a second look at him save for the asari matron in a C-Sec longcoat stationed by the doors, who nodded politely, a hand straying professionally to the large pistol holstered at her side. A few skittish asari stepped quickly out of his way, one of the younger ones sending a fearful glance at the undisguised black of his battle-scarred cybernetic arm. Maybe he should have gone for a shiny silver paintjob, instead of a black utilitarian one?

Saren sighed in weary resignation as he strolled down the walkway, not bothering to look at the luxuriantly landscaped gardens of the Presidium. Artificial sunlight shined on the bright ceramic and alloy of the Citadel, while the dulled surfaces kept anyone from being literally blinded by the Presidium's beauty.

A monument to life, he'd heard an asari call it once. And yet the only monument in sight was that old, oft-repaired statue of a krogan standing triumphant – the one that Captain Aren claimed to like.

"Blood and tears," Aren had told him, four years ago, after the Blackwatch had promoted him to that lofty rank and they had all gotten drunk with his half-dead squad. "It's not about the Krogan; it's about the blood and tears of the dead ones. That could've been us, Saren, if the Asari had found us instead."

Twitchy bastard always had been a broody drunk.

Shaking his head of old memories, Saren stepped through a large set of sliding double doors and into a broad corridor out of the sunlight. He stepped past the door leading to the Terran embassy, which was directly opposite of the volus embassy suite – because clearly every single embassy needed to be located right next to each other.

It was just another long-standing annoyance of his – but one that was not likely to change because of how stagnant things really were in the Citadel. If the Asari wanted to keep everything the same as when they'd first set it up, then nobody was going to insult Tevos by demanding otherwise; it'd be political suicide to do so.

Fucking asari.

Fucking Citadel.

For the moment, it was a bit of a larger annoyance because it meant he was within range of the smiling blonde Terran 'secretary' – actually a Psi-6 'Ghost' operative – who could probably slice right through his mental defenses if she wanted. It would be a political shitstorm for the Terrans if she did, but it would spell doom for Benezia's plans almost immediately.

That was all it ever came down to, for the Citadel. They could, but they didn't, because of all the goddamn social and cultural norms. They could use Terran psionics to rip the truth right out of known Shadow Broker agents, but that would be 'irresponsible' and 'unethical', and would set a bad precedent for future events, and so they had to tie their fucking hands behind their backs.

Sure, he had to admit that it made sense to apply the same precedent that governed Asari mind-melding to testimony provided by a psionic, but the Council let Spectre Agents all but dance over established laws on trust alone, so why couldn't they trust a psionic? Because it would upset the carefully stacked status quo, like always.

But that didn't matter now – what mattered now was that if he slipped up and let his true thoughts slip through the ever-present filter of mental dissembling, then everything would end here and now.
…which had interesting potential. Hmm.

He sighed, and slowly loosened the clenched talons of his cybernetic before the metal started grinding again.

The door to the Special Tactics and Recon office opened for him automatically, and the voice of the Asari V.I. greeted him in soft, welcoming tones. His building headache eased slightly as he left the eye-aching brightness of the Presidium and re-entered the dim lighting of his preferred workspace.

As was normal, a couple STG operatives detached to liaison were already inside, along with Jondum Bau, all focusing on a table full of orange holograms. Two of the operatives were arguing quietly, but fell silent as Saren approached. He noticed one of them looking at his arm.

"Jondum," Saren greeted, nodding respectfully to the young Salarian. "Dalatrasses have you working the data?"

"Of course," the four-year veteran nodded, before gesturing to his fellow Salarians. "STG's best."

"Any luck so far?" he asked, looking at the screens. "Sparatus hasn't said anything to me, but I'll be damned by the Spirits if I'm going to let Nihlus's killer get away clean."

"Wouldn't have thought you went for that," Jondum remarked with a frown, tilting his head. "Regardless – we've managed to nail down a small section of the code, but barely."

"Surely STG's best can crack Geth code?" Saren nudged, bending down to glance at the central hologram. "It can't be that much more advanced."

"We don't think it's code," Jondum said.

"What?" Saren blinked, faking his surprise.

"It's too… intelligent," Jondum explained. "Not a cypher, a shift, or even a randomized poly-formed proxy array. It's completely isolated, but it jumped onto Farlan's omni-tool when he tried to dissect it, so we locked it in the iso-cube there."

Saren paused, then looked over at through the window that normally held the firing range. A large, opaque white cube sat squarely in the middle of the range, filling up an abnormally large chunk of it. For a moment, Saren wondered how the hell they'd gotten it through the doors, but ignored the question.

"You think it's a Geth V.I.?" he asked instead, looking back at Jondum.

The salarian shook his head.

"Too small. We thought it was a standard encryption at first, but, well. We still haven't actually decoded any of it – all we've managed to do is nail down the first section."

"Nail it down?" Saren repeated, smiling with bemusement. "You make this thing sound like an animal."

Jondum gave him a blank look of unimpressed exasperation.

"Sorry," Saren apologized. "Security coding isn't my forte. Go on, please. When do you think you'll have it cracked?"

The salarian Agent inhaled swiftly as he glanced at the iso-cube.

"Six weeks?" he said tentatively.

"Eight." one of the STG slicers interrupted.

"I'll estimate seven, then," Saren confirmed, before sighing and shaking his head. "Shit. I was hoping we could act on this intel before it became outdated. At this rate, the Ghosts might have it before us."

"They won't," the STG slicer snarled, before turning back to his holo-screen, his fingers flying over the keyboard.

"Thanks," Jondum deadpanned, that unimpressed look returning as he folded his arms over his armored chest. "His shift change was in twenty minutes."

"It's not like he was going to take time off anyway," Saren brushed aside.

"Not the point, Saren," Jondum sighed irritably. "Why are you here? We don't need you."

"I thought I might try something," Saren said. "I happened to have come across a useful little program when I was rummaging through a yard sale a little while back. Might just be able to crack this thing."

"We're using the most advanced cryptography database in the Citadel," Jondum said, his eyes hardening at Saren's irreverent remarks. "Six dozen of the greatest security experts in the galaxy, working in shifts. I don't think one simple program can –"

"It's the same program I used to find and kill the Shadow Broker," Saren said softly.

The salarian's mouth shut with a soft click of his teeth.

The other STG operatives stopped typing for a moment, then pretended to go back to work. Saren's mandibles slowly drew back into grin as the four salarians all paid close attention to him and tried to pretend they weren't.

Jondum looked pensive for a moment, then nodded carefully.

"Thanks," Saren remarked cheerily, walking past the staring salarian agent and striding through the security door with a nonchalant wave.

He glanced at the bolded EMP Quarantine warnings stenciled on the outside of the sterile white iso-cube. After setting his omni-tool on the low bench next to the cube, he held up the slim secondary omni-tool, tapping one claw on the stenciled warnings and nodding to Jondum.

Jondum nodded back slowly, then tapped a button. The outer door of the airlock-like quarantine system slid open silently. An odd urge came over him, and he gave the watching salarians a jaunty salute as he stepped through the door.

After the airlock cycled and trapped him in, Saren let out a long, slow hiss and leaned his head against the wall.


The STG-issue omni-tool sitting next to a small OSD on a bare table was hardly the most intimidating thing he'd ever seen, but those salarians outside were so fucking scared of a simple piece of code.

Saren pulled the only chair in the cube closer to him and sat down wearily. For a long moment, he simply stared at it.

Eventually, he shook himself out of his apathetic funk and set the replaceable omni-tool down next to the contaminated one and tapped a floating glyph.

With a quick chirp, a holographic screen popped up above both the tools, and a wave of interference sprang to life.

A long string of integers and letters appeared on the holoscreen – each character changing rapidly, flying through a million permutations, shifting through Terran digits, Asari numerals, Turian script.

Then the digits turned into symbols, and Saren drank in the sight of the Prothean sigils… before the characters turned into another alphabet.

The Inusannon, they had called themselves. The species that the Protheans believed had discovered the Mass Effect and created the Citadel. The Prothean Protheans. Sovereign had told Benezia of them, and she had told him.

Then another alphabet replaced it. Another dead language flashed before Saren's eyes, with its own symbols and idiosyncrasies. Another cycle of dead children.

Each flash was another switch. Not merely numbers, Saren felt – the string of characters and symbols changed in length with each change. The Turian script had been full of in-jokes and references, layered not only by the symbols, but by cultural phrases and sayings. It was not hard to see that the Asari and Terran versions had had their own kind of memetic disguise.

He stared at it for a long time, watching the memories of dead civilizations serve their destroyers

And yet the Salarians claimed they were only eight weeks away from cracking it open. How little they knew.

Saren tapped another control and brought up a rudimentary program. He linked the omni-tools together, then typed a string of input and sent the virtual key.

There was a pause as the code froze on a long-dead alphabet, before the string vanished, and a single icon hovered over the contaminated chunk of Geth data.

"Eden Prime was a major victory," Benezia's voice said. "The Hierarchy codes you provided were invaluable. I was wrong about your usage of the mercenaries."

"It doesn't matter," Saren heard his own voice snarl. "We lost the Beacon, and one of the Terrans accessed it!"

"It is of no consequence. The Reapers will sweep them aside as easily as the Protheans." Benezia's voice said. "Focus on the Conduit. Focus on the goal."

"…Fuck," Saren whispered, leaning back in his chair.

With another tap on his omni-tool, a giant grinning turian face sprang to life above Saren's omni-tool.

"Helllooooooo Palaven!" the giant head boomed. "Welcome back to the Forty-First Inter-Colonial Championship! We've got a damn good match lined up for you!"

Saren smirked, then cut off the recorded announcer with another press of a button.

It was a joke program, really. A gag-gift made in honor of the greatest turian sports-caster ever – designed for recording bombastic messages for your friends to surprise them.

Put simply, it replaced the voice of any male turian or any typed text with the voice of the single most well known turian voice in the galaxy. A harmless toy… unless, say, one wanted to disguise their voice.

He looked at the audio file, then glanced back to his omni-tool, where Jondum's half-finished report on the first section of code sat.

Jondum and his slicers had 'locked down' the first part, identifying which part of the string of characters pertained to which – meaning that while they didn't understand what that part actually contained, they had locked it down to a certain set of values.

If he altered that first section – which looked to end right after Benezia thanked him for providing Hierarchy security-codes to the first wave of mercenary infiltrators – then Jondum would know he had changed something by comparing it to what the slicers had already locked down.

And since the first section was clearly an audio log, he couldn't delete the other sections without Jondum suspecting foul play. At his point, he was lucky that they hadn't said each others names.

That wouldn't stop them from identifying a public figure like Benezia just through a voice analysis, it meant that Saren could change his voice with the sports announcers and no one would be able to say it hadn't always been that way – but he just couldn't do that to Benezia's without implicating himself to Jondum the moment he left the iso-cube.

Damn, but this was a mess. Almost reminded him of Illium a couple months ago, when all those info brokers realized suddenly that it was open season. Heh. The looks on their faces.

There was a faint feeling of something in Saren's gut, like a slowly thawing spike of ice, trickling down his spine, yet slowly becoming less chilling as it melted.

Eight weeks of operational surprise, before they figured out that Benezia was working against them – and started to look at who Benezia had been associating with.

Was that really a bad thing? That Benezia's voice wouldn't be hidden, that she would be revealed, even as he saved his own skin?

No. His skin came first.

"Sorry I couldn't help," Saren apologized, a faint frown on his lean features. "I thought the program could crack it."

"Don't worry. Shouldn't have to apologize for helping," Jondum shrugged. "We got hopeful, but we'll keep working."

"Here," Saren said, holding out another spare omni-tool. "I'd ask you to keep it to yourself, but if it helps STG crack this, then I can give up that personal edge for the cause."

"This isn't the same one you took in there, right?" Jondum questioned, taking the slim 'tool and turning it over in his hand. "Can't break quarantine on this, Saren."

"No, I disposed of that one as per quarantine regs. This one just has a copy of my… special program," Saren said. "I hope it helps."




One of these days, he was going to shoot that Kid.

The Kid's pistol barked, and another vorcha dropped to the ground, missing most of its head. Another booming report, and the vorcha's friend followed him.

"You know, this was supposed to have a loud extraction, not be a loud infiltration," he told the Kid, sighing as they walked through the forced-open blast doors and out of the rampant humidity of the ever-present jungles of Tarith.

Which was a bit of a miracle, really, because ten years ago you wouldn't have been able to walk around Tarith without an independent oxygen supply. Located in the Crescent Nebula, right on the edge of Citadel space, Tarith was a world that had long been passed up for colonization due to how much chlorine was in its atmosphere.

Other than the fact you might die in a toxic cloud, it was pretty damn good for colonizing; which is why Tarith was one of the first projects that Dr. Ariel Hanson took on after creating the Eden Prime Institute of Medicine. Compared to adjusting gravity, orbit, and rotational speed of a planet, terraforming the atmosphere alone was easy.

Granted, the asari corporation that hired Dr. Hanson was a little disturbed when they watched the atmosphere of Tarith spontaneously catch fire, but Hanson managed to calm them down long enough to explain how she was going to fix the planet's atmosphere.

A few tweaks later, and she'd gathered enough interest for the corporation to inquire if she could fix Tarith's nearby neighbor, Euntanta – which was a whole 'nother story that ended pretty abruptly when the doc's terraforming rainstorms woke up a species of scorpion-like carnivores across the parched wasteland of the planet. But that was Henry Callahan's story, and he wasn't telling it.

Now, ten years later, Tarith was a growing world that was mostly run by the asari, like nearby Illium, but still was home to a vast multitude of illegal and criminal enterprises.

Like the Blood Pack Comm. Relay located here. Since the Blood Pack didn't really have a direct leader, they needed to coordinate between warlords, making this a central hub – which meant it was a great place to dig into their communications.

"What?" the Kid protested. "They were in the way, John."

"You need a remedial course in Stealth Infiltration, kid," the Old Man called out as the Kid hurled a grenade through a side door and marched onwards, his Hecuter 10 autopistol raised high. "Still wondering why Nova let you out of the Academy."

Of course, the Kid wasn't really a kid, not at his forty-six years of age – but the Old Man was clocking in at some seventy years of age, so there was the principle of the thing to observe.

The Kid didn't shoot back one of his customary retorts, probably because a gang of vorcha boiled out of the next room before he could, while a blaring klaxon started howling. Caught in the open, the two crazy Terrans barely had a moment to blink before the vorcha opened fire.

The vorcha were inaccurate, blood-crazy, and ill-trained, but they had half a dozen automatic mass effect rifles between them, and more than enough ammo to deal with the intruders.

The Kid jumped, leaping to the ceiling and grabbing hold of a rickety ceiling-fan, leaving his partner to die on the floor.

But the Old Man merely leaned back, twisting his shoulders and dropping one knee to the floor. His eyes glowed, and for an impossible moment, he saw everything.

He saw the eight vorcha in the room and the fourteen in the surrounding area, the two krogan armoring up two floors down, the panicked barracks four floors down, and the flight paths of mass effect rounds that are slowly edging towards him.

It is amazing how little effort he needs to exert to do this trick these days. Like he kept telling those Psi-Index obsessed Kids at the Academy – it's not how much you have…

The rounds zipped by, missing by inches as the Old Man rose back up as the vorcha pause to reload. Without proper weapon discipline, they had wasted their entire heatsink in less than two seconds.

Scrambling to reload, the lead vorcha blinked in surprise as the old Terran sprang to his feet and hurled a –

The barbed hook sunk into the back of the vorcha's head, before the whip-like synthetic line attached to the hook ripped the pack leader's head clean off.

The Kid dropped down from the ceiling and opens fire, spraying rounds into the vorcha pack just as the Old Man leapt into the fray with the long hook in one hand and a knife in the other.

"Kill them!" one of the vorcha screamed.

The Kid shot that one twice.

One of the vorcha in the back stumbled away, eyes wide in horror as he saw his pack-mates get chewed up by two Terrans armed with nothing but pistols. In an astonishing display of intelligence, he immediately turned and ran away – even got four steps before a hook guided by a psionic hand pierced his throat.

The room was a bloody mess after a few seconds, and the Old Man frowned as he wiped his hands off on a dead vorcha's leather harness-thing.

+Almost there, kid+ the Old Man sent, as the Kid's face shifted into a look of wary professionalism. +The database is down one floor. Looks like two more vorcha on duty. I'll take them out, you get the data+

+Got it, John+ the Kid said, a trace of grim acknowledgment clinging to his thoughts. +Watch out for those krogan+

The Old Man nodded, then plucked a slim cloth package from his large utility belt. One of the light panels damaged from the gunfire flickered on and off, bouncing flashes of lights off of his dark teashades as he carefully placed the package on the floor.

With a nod, both Terrans fell back a few meters, and then the Old Man pressed the button on the demo-charge with a mental command.

A torrent of fire of smoke erupted as the charge blasted a great gaping hole in the floor, but a swirl of power from the Kid channeled all those nasty aftereffects down, into the room below them. A couple shrieks were drowned out by the blast, but they were echoed moments later when the two Terran Psionics jumped down into the next room and put the twisted forms of the vorcha inside out of their misery.

Really, the Council thought STG could handle this? Sure, the salarians could hack anything, but the Blood Pack weren't dumb enough to broadcast their secrets on such easily accessible levels. They knew better than to try.

If you wanted to get at their codes and messages, you had to get through a couple hundred vorcha and krogan to get to a hard database, yank the data, and get out before the rest of the Blood Pack forces in the Lusarn System showed up to pound your face in. That would take a full damn Hierarchy division – or two Terran Ghosts.

It was just optimization of assets, that's all.

+I'll get the door+ the Old Man said good-naturedly. +Handle the rest, will you?+

Yellow blood dripped down the walls, but they paid it no heed; blood was hardly the worst they'd seen. Besides, it was hardly splattered, not even painted on the walls like they'd seen once in the great desert of Nevada when that whole debacle when the Dominion assault force tried to pry the remnant of the Confederate Research division dubbed 'Cerberus' from their base – and then the Swarm had arrived, and that had been a real mess.

The Kid's ridiculously impractical trench coat fluttered behind him as he opened the next door and strode through. His custom-tooled pistol dropped down into its holster, and ten slim, handle-less blades slipped out of the inside of his coat – floating in the air in the grasp of an invisible hand.

To their credit, the four vorcha stationed inside the server room were awake, alert, and armed to the teeth. They were already aiming at the only door to the room, and they opened fire the second it opened.

Dozens of pebble-sized beads of metal smashed into the Kid's chest – stopping just before his simple fabric shirt as his kinetic barriers sprang to life. The vorcha in the room made do without, since the Blood Pack wasn't willing to spend hard earned cash on pricey tech. The Academy, however, was more than willing to pay for the best, most advanced kinetic barriers in existence – just like every other aspect of their gear.

The blades shot forward, spearing the vorcha cleanly and slicing right through their heads. A moment later, limb bodies slumped to the ground.

+Hurry up+ the Old Man snapped, stepping through the door and locking it with the wave of an omni-tool. +Those krogan are getting close. They're moving away, but I don't want to risk it+

The Kid quickly stuck a slim device into the blood-splattered servers, and the quiet hum of the servers ground to a halt.

Then another blaring alarm started screaming, and both Terrans looked up abruptly.


The red hologram on the blast-door twitched, then flashed up a warning glyph.

Quietly, the Kid reached over his shoulder and yanked out a short, bulky rifle – a krogan-made Striker assault rifle custom-tooled by some of the best Terran engineers in the business.

There was a wrenching twist of metal shrieking, and the door shuddered as a giant armor-clad fist punched through it.

Krogan are big. Not a contested fact in the galaxy. Terrans, by comparison, were actually average – shorter than the turians, skinnier than the krogan – it was just that they regularly wore CMC-armor, which added a foot to their height and a vast amount of bulk to their chests. It turned the skinniest, wimpiest Terran into a classical Adonis shape.

The Turians had created their own variant, which emphasized speed and mobility – it was only natural that the Krogan variant of CMC-660 Firebat armor turned them into walking tanks.

The Kid opened fire immediately, firing fifteen micro-grenades straight into the hole in the door. The blast door detonated outwards as the Kid pushed with a surge of psionic force, adding fragments of the blastdoor to the already lethal explosion.

Then the krogan charged through the door, his kinetic barriers down and his paintjob ruined – but otherwise completely intact.

Another five micro-grenades slammed into the krogan battlemaster, but he just charged through the explosion, the detonations sliding off his armor without any effect.

The Striker's micro-grenades were highly potent explosives, and they hit the krogan right on his deeply recessed helmet - but almost a quarter of the entire bulk of a Krogan Battlemaster CMC-660 suit was dedicated to two banks of massively redundant kinetic barriers.

Without the sheer rate of fire of a C-14 Impaler rifle and with only the Kid's Striker and the Old Man's shotgun, it was almost impossible to crack the krogan open – even as the Battlemaster roared, his secondary bank of kinetic barriers snapped into existence.

Both arms raised, the krogan roared. The Old Man had just long enough to see the gun barrels sticking out of both gauntlets before they erupted in fire.

The Old Man's kinetic barriers, top of the line as they were, held off three shots from the gauntlet-mounted shotguns at point-blank before failing.

Unfortunately, the gauntlet-shotguns slammed out seven bursts each before the Old Man dove out of the way. His telekinetic barriers caught another three, and his lightweight body armor stopped one burst before the others sliced right through. Two bursts cut bone and flesh, and the other five missed the Old Man by inches and slammed into the server-bank.

With a horrific rending screech, the humming server ground to a halt. The Terran OSD sputtered to a stop as the Blood Pack server abruptly shut down.

Then the second krogan stomped into the room, carrying a massive, multi-barreled machinegun.







The Cantos of the Protoss or What a Protoss Religion Might Sound Like by Torrar (OMAKE, NON-CANON)

Adun, he who led before. Guardian of the Khala, and Protector of the Dark Templars. The Guide.

Tassadar, he who unified. Together he brought the Khala and Dark Templar, together he slew the Overmind, together he saved all. The Martyr.

Artanis, he who leads now. The fire of youth, the wisdom brought of war, the kindness taught by strangers. The Leader.

Raynor, he who would fight for those not his own. The alien, the warrior, the friend. The Other.

In Reply to the Above Omake

Do you want omakes? Because that's how you get omakes! by Xeno Major (CANON)

"For those just joining us, this is Thessia News Network. Tonight, we explore the mystery of the Protoss, focusing on their religion. Doctor T'reia, could you briefly explain what current experts on the Protoss have come to realize with this latest news from the Citadel?" the serious, yet attractive asari lead anchor asked, turning to the asari in a neat formal gown sitting beside her.

"Certainly. The combined work of the Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology departments of the University of Thessia have allowed us to come to a unanimous agreement based on the evidence gathered," Doctor T'reia announced.

"Most of the galaxy is still wondering about the Protoss ever since Hierarch Artanis, leader of the Protoss 'Khalai' joined the Terran people in the defense of Shanxi," the anchor remarked. "We wondered about their culture, their language, their very being. In the twenty four years since the Protoss arrived on the galactic stage, the biggest question has remained: Why do they associate so closely with the Terrans? What can you tell us, Doctor?"

"A large part of our understanding is combed from extensive interviews with anyone who has encountered a Protoss, as repeated attempts to interview an actual Protoss have all failed. One of the first things we learned, given to us by Councilor Tevos herself, is that the Protoss do not exaggerate. At all. The entire concept of exaggeration is foreign to them!" Doctor T'reia explained, a smile coming to her lips as she spoke.

"What does this mean when combined with the recorded comment from the incident on the Citadel?" the anchor asked.

A vid-clip sprang to life, showing a shaky piece of camera footage from the inside of a smoky bar. There was muted noise in the background, as a Terran in full armor pointed his pistol at the shining Protoss featured prominently in the footage.

"En Taro Raynor!" boomed the Protoss, before leaping forward as he ignited his gauntlets, sending out blades of bright blue plasma.

The clip froze, and the lead anchor turned back to face the Doctor.

"What does that phrase mean, Doctor?"

"Well," T'reia said, "the phrase 'En Taro' is widely believed by experts to be some form of honorific address, much like a traditional greeting of the priestesses of Athame, 'Greetings in the name of the Goddess.' However, while we have encountered two variants of the greeting, we have never before encountered any incident of a non-Protoss being named!"

"Out of curiosity, Doctor, what are the two variations?" the anchor asked, leaning forward slightly.

"The more widespread form seems to be 'En Taro Adun', which we believe relates to the central god of the Protoss religion, Adun. A few reports from soldiers and mercenaries across the galaxy have shown that the second form, 'En Taro Tassadar', seems largely to be reserved for military salutes and action, and relates to the messiah or martyr figure of the Protoss, Tassadar. One exception we've noticed, however, is that whenever a Protoss greets Marshal James Raynor, the de facto head of the Terran Alliance, they greet him with the 'Tassadar' variation, instead of the more common 'Adun' version."

"Do we have any idea why that is, Doctor?"

"While we have no evidence to explain why that is, the leading theory proposes that it is because of Marshal Raynor's military history as the leader of 'Raynor's Raiders', a group of paramilitary freedom fighters from the Terran's home sector."

"So what does the salute of 'En Taro Raynor' indicate?"

"At this time, theories are still in the process of being formed. However, all references to Tassadar indicate that in Protoss religion, Tassadar gave up his life to defend Aiur, the Protoss homeworld. Much more interestingly, many of the narratives refer to the 'friend James Raynor' who accompanied Tassadar both in battle on Aiur, as well as on a journey to the Protoss 'hell' analogue, a volcanic place known only as Char."

"Do you mean that Marshal Raynor is a living religious figure?" the anchor asked incredulously.

"No, of course not!" the Doctor replied quickly. "No, the most popular theory currently is that Marshal Raynor is the latest 'avatar' of the Raynor figure. We suspect that the Protoss update the figure periodically, to single out the 'friend of the Protoss', a title that Executor Selendis of the Protoss once bestowed upon Raynor."

"Could this indicate a widespread shift in the Protoss religion, or do you believe this to be an existing trait?" the anchor asked, leading the questions expertly.

"At this time, we believe that this is a long-standing section of the Protoss mythology," Doctor T'reia answered. "In fact, this revelation goes a long way towards explaining why the Protoss intervened on Shanxi, despite not having any kind of alliance with the Terrans now or then - they weren't aiding the Terrans, they were coming to the defense of Marshal Raynor alone."

In his quiet room on the Hyperion, still docked at the Citadel, Jim Raynor stared at the holo-screen in front of him.

He blinked, then slowly shook his head.

"...huh," he muttered to himself. "Gonna be a bitch explainin' this to Artanis."

Codex - Terrans - Psionic Academy

The Psionic Academy, based on the urban/desert world of New Korhal, is the sole training place for Terran psionics in the galaxy. Psionic children are identified and brought to the Academy at various ages - all seven major Alliance worlds have the technology to detect psionic children by age five. Other Terran colonies are periodically visited by active members of the Academy, which helps to locate most, if not all Psionics.

Though active service in the Academy and the New Korhal Militia is voluntary, all psionics are required to learn how to repress their powers, to prevent potential dangers posed by out-of-control psionics. After they receive this basic training, any further training is completely optional.

As a community, the Academy is highly insular. Lined with a combination of active and passive psionic dampening technology, a psionic is isolated from the 'noisy' thoughts of other Terrans, but is still fully encouraged to have an active lifestyle. Psionics are not prevented from leaving the Academy at any time, and many psionics can be encountered around the city of Port Concord, where the Academy is located. The Academy's day to day operations are run by Henry Callahan.

The revelation to the public of the Academy's location was greeted with controversy when the Academy was finished in 2512, primarily rising from concerns about terrorist strikes on the installation, but Valerian Mengsk indicated that he did not believe security to be an issue. According to him, anyone attempting to attack the Academy "deserved whatever Tosh and Nova decided to do to them," naming the nominal heads of the Academy, Gabriel Tosh and Nova Terra. Horace Warfield once told a reporter that he would rather "assault Char in his boots" than lead any form of attack on the Academy. When Jim Raynor was questioned on the security of the Academy, his only reply was laughter.