Wing Commander: End of an Era
Chapter 17

Horse Head Nebula
Pax System

In the year 2183 Alliance Admiral Steven Hackett contacted Spectre Jane Shepard aboard the original Normandy with a request to undertake an assignment that would take place on the surface of Earth's moon. The mission required her and her team to breach an Alliance training facility run by a Virtual Intelligence that simulated enemy tactics and drills in live fire exercises.

The VI had failed to heed override commands and apparently gone rouge. With the entire base on a closed network the only way to now deactivate the VI was to infiltrate the base, fight through a multitude of assault and rocket drones, and manually shut down the core.

Stressing the point that this was a simple assignment from the Alliance brass and not worth the entire teams' effort, Shepard only had Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams and Staff Lieutenant Kaiden Alenko accompany her in the Mako and assault the bunker.

That was nothing more than a convenient lie.

Less than a dozen people in the entire Alliance military knew the truth surrounding the facility and the reason Shepard was chosen by Admiral Hackett to undertake this dangerous assignment was because she was in on the base's secret from its initial construction. In order to keep the galaxy in the dark, only Alliance personal could be trusted.

The bunker was a training ground but not for the Alliance soldiers sent there. The base's Virtual Intelligence, named Hannibal, was the one in training to become a fully capable battlefield Artificial Intelligence.

To circumvent the laws against the research and creation of AI's in Citadel space, the Systems Alliance turned to the independent corporations on the planet Noveria for help. Contacting the company Synthetic Insights, Ltd. allowed them to construct a VI built specifically for the purposes of slowly evolving it into a fully sentient intelligence.

Once this VI was activated, to further keep its existence a secret, a small team of Alliance marines were sent to Noveria to escort the intelligence to its new home on Earth's moon. The leader of this team was none other than a freshly minted N7 marine named Jane Shepard.

After the VI's successful installation on the moon's surface, a then First Lieutenant Jane Shepard, was one of the people responsible for the top secret programs first few weeks of operation.

She was chosen to be a part of the program primarily due to her actions in the field.

As an infiltrator and the primary fire support for her squads, Shepard always had a unique view in every engagement. Her duty as a marine sniper meant that she was always the one farthest away from the ongoing battle and was the one providing real time updates to her fellow marines on enemy troop deployments. In the instances where her fellow soldiers were forced to operate in smaller numbers or on the rare occasions they would face stiffer resistance than expected, it was Shepard's duty to call in the support. Said support would almost always be in the form of VI controlled assault and rocket drones and Shepard would then be required to direct these drones across the battlefield to the areas they were needed most.

It was this experience working with unmanned drones that the Alliance required from her. The VI's base combat programing was actually designed around her exact experiences and personal input from her times ordering drones around in real combat scenarios.

Shepard was very proud of her work on the program. She had spent a lot of time during the earlier parts of her career stressing to her superiors that the Alliance should do more to improve their unmanned ground and space forces. The more VI or AI controlled units available for the Alliance to deploy meant greater security for their colonies and better support for their troops.

In her opinion the fears of an AI revolution were completely unwarranted. Even when presented with the Quarian-Geth war she would always respond the same way. 'The Quarians fired the first shot.'

So when she was contacted by Admiral Hackett and then given the order to undo all the time and effort she and the others had put into 'Hannibal', she was understandably upset.

The mission to shut down the lunar facility was no easy feat. It took her, Williams and Alenko over three hours to fight through the multitude of drones and manually shut down the core and none of them finished the fight without taking a bullet to some part of their bodies or have a piece of their armor charred black from a close call with a missile's explosion.

What concerned Shepard just as much as her team's injuries was the event that occurred immediately after she destroyed the last power conduit. A burst of white noise was heard over her team's radios and a series of ones and zeroes appeared on her hardsuit's heads-up display. The same binary sequence repeated over and over, blanketing every frequency.

Shepard quickly used her omni-tool to translate the text of binary into English so she could understand what was being displayed before her. What her omni-tool gave back to her was something she wasn't prepared to see. In its last moments 'Hannibal' cried out one word…


Returning to the Normandy SR1 Shepard had her wounds quickly treated by Dr. Chakwas before shutting herself away in her cabin to contact Admiral Hackett and formally debrief him.

What had confused Shepard during the assignment was why the VI had turned hostile. It was specifically designed to learn combat tactics and eventually evolve to the point of self-awareness. Once it became a true artificial intelligence the Alliance would then initiate the second phase of the project which was the slow process of teaching the AI about the galaxy at large. Once it understood who it was and what it was designed to do, and judged to be stable, it would be integrated into the Alliance military.

Based on what Shepard knew of the program, with many of its finer details having her personal input, there was no reason for it to suddenly turn hostile. She wanted to know exactly what steps the Alliance military had taken before resorting to contacting her and requesting she forcibly shut the VI down. Admiral Hackett's response left her speechless.

The decision to forcibly shut down the VI was made immediately after it stopped following directed commands. The current powers behind the project took that as a sign of intended hostility and contacted Alliance command shortly after they judged the VI as 'rouge'. They had deemed the project a failure and wanted to eliminate the evidence before word leaked out and the Council got wind of the Alliance's efforts.

At its most basic level, Admiral Hackett had just explained to her that she had followed the Quarian's example. She had fired the first shot.

Without another word Shepard deactivated her call with the Admiral and leaned back in her chair where she stayed for the next five hours simply starring into nothing. Her crew never learned the truth behind the event and merely took her five hour exile from command as simple exhaustion from the mission.

Now two years later Shepard was once again visiting Noveria. And just like her previous visits during her escort of the 'Hannibal' VI, alongside her time chasing Saren and Matriarch Benezia, she was having a blast dealing with Noveria's security.

The Normandy had docked in Port Hanshan, Noveria's capital, the previous day and Shepard had allowed her crew leave off the ship to stretch their legs and relax. Shepard had spent the first day still aboard in her cabin as she tried to setup a meeting with the people who could get her started on her new project.

Now finally off the ship, she was once again being held at the front gate into Port Hanshan and being questioned about her business.

"Is this really necessary, Captain Matsuo?" Shepard asked through chattering teeth. "I'm still a Spectre and this time here on business for Noveria."

The docking bay that the Normandy was currently occupying kept the worst of Noveria's snow and wind away but the cold was another matter. Seeing as how Shepard was actually on the planet to conduct business and not assault an enemy base, thanks to Kasumi's bubbly influence, she was dressed for the part.

Refusing to wear a dress on the grounds that everyone else wore them, Shepard was wearing a black pant suit with a lavender under shirt and her heels. Leaving the Normandy wearing this had earned her an open mouth stare from Joker before he burst into a fit of laughter. He first called her crazy for walking around a frozen world in that get up and then complimented her greatly on her choice of accessories. The whole professional look Shepard was going for was completely thrown out by the holster strapped to her right thigh which held her laser pistol.

It was the pistol that now earned her the questions at the front gate by Noveria's security chief.

Captain Matsuo stood firm with two Turians flanking behind her, "It's bad enough with a Spectre walking around Noveria making everyone nervous and the last time you were here you completely destroyed the research station in Peak 15. Now you want entrance into Port Hanshan carrying a weapon that gives you a significant advantage against my entire security force."

Shepard rolled her eyes, "As I just said, I'm not here to cause any problems. I'm here to meet with one of your corporations and conduct business in a private environment. Isn't that the purpose behind this planet's existence?"

Captain Matsuo frowned and then asked, "Where did you get the laser weapon and why do you feel the need to flaunt it in front of every person that sees you?"

"The first is classified and the second is self-explanatory," Shepard replied in a bored tone. "Would you mess with a Spectre who also happens to be carrying around one of the most advanced weapons in Citadel space?"

"Are you expecting trouble within Port Hanshan?" Captain Matsuo asked her frown deepening.

Shepard smirked, "It safer if I do and prepare for it."

Captain Matsuo sighed at her reply, "Very well, Spectre. You may proceed into the port."

Shepard nodded her thanks and quickly headed for the warmth provided by the complex. Making her way inside she, once again, ignored the alarms from the security checkpoints scanners and rode the first glass elevator to the port's main plaza.

Steadily making her way through Port Hanshan to her destination she took a moment to admire her surroundings. Port Hanshan wasn't the most colorful of destinations, with the main interior being a stone grey color, but it was peaceful. The large rock gardens alongside several steaming waterfalls and ponds gave off a, sort of, tranquil feeling. If it weren't for the raging blizzards outside and the fact this planet conducted some of the galaxy's most dangerous and top secret research, someone could almost let their guard down here.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Shepard had been to Noveria before and understood that behind the peaceful exterior a cold and calculating business was being conducted with near ruthless efficiency. After all, that's why she was here now.

A trip inside her second glass elevator allowed Shepard to reach her destination. This section of Port Hanshan was wholly owned and operated by the company Synthetic Insights and as Shepard stepped out of the elevator a familiar face was waiting to greet her.

"Shepard, good to see you again," Lorik Qui'in, a Turian and the local Synthetics Insights manager, greeted her.

As she made her way towards him he continued, "It is a relief to see you looking so radiant. Not that your armor doesn't suit you but it does ease my nerves knowing you don't plan on blowing up my office again."

She shrugged back with a smile, "Hey, I tried to keep the blood stains off the carpeting but with all the gunfire I couldn't keep track of where every body fell. As for the outfit, you can thank a new member of my crew. She has been not so subtly pushing me to dress for certain occasions."

Lorik Qui'in chuckled lightly, "Well I am glad to be able to witness one of the wonders of the galaxy; Jane Shepard out of her armor…Though the pistol is a nice touch."

Shepard smiled politely, "So I've been told."

Lorik nodded and motioned for her to follow him, "I'm sure you would like to get started then. Please follow me to my office."

As they both made their way through Synthetic Insights, Shepard couldn't help but notice the general lack of employees going about their work. By the time she and Lorik were seated in his private office she figured they must have only passed a dozen people at the most. It seemed the rumors of the company's struggles in the wake of the Geth attack were true after all.

Before they began Lorik reached into his pocket and removed a cylindrical device. He placed it on his desk and activated it. After a two second delay it chimed and apparently that was what he had been waiting for.

"There we are. The room if still secure," he said happily. "Never can be too careful on Noveria. Even if we have a new Hanshan administrator running things now. Well then Shepard, what brings you to Synthetic Insights…again," he finished knowingly.

Shepard grinned at that while she settled into her chair and crossed her legs. It was true that her military career had taken her all across the galaxy but usually never to the same place more than once. Noveria was proving to be an exception.

First travelling here to collect the Hannibal AI for the Systems Alliance, then returning to the planet in her chase of Saren and Matriarch Benezia, and now again because of her work fighting the Collectors and Reapers. And all three times she had gotten involved with Synthetic Insights and met the Turian leading the local branch of the corporation. Lorik Qui'in.

"Yeah and about that previous visit two years ago," she began gratefully. "Thanks for playing dumb and pretending we hadn't seen each other before that day I came asking for your garage pass."

Lorik just waved the comment away, "Think nothing of it. The Alliance paid generously to keep the VI we built for you a secret and I knew when you arrived that day, years after your previous visit, that you weren't here to discuss what we did. I know when to keep my mouth shut, or as you humans would put it, 'juggle the eagle's nest."

Shepard just stared back, "Seriously?"

Lorik cocked his head, "What?"

"Never mind," she replied with a sigh. "I wanted to meet with you because I have a business arrangement I would like to make with Synthetic Insights."

"A business arrangement?" Lorik repeated. "What sort of arrangement are we talking about?"

Shepard looked him straight in the eye, "I want Synthetics Insights to build me Hannibal-class VI's. I'm going to need them to fight off the Collectors, Reapers and anyone or anything else that stands in my way."

Lorik looked at her steadily, "You are not here on behalf of the Citadel Council or the Systems Alliance, are you?"

"Nope," she replied back.

"What you are asking for is highly illegal in Citadel space," Lorik explained in a neutral tone. "Your status as Spectre will do little to help in the event you are caught in the possession of AI's."

"Don't care," she instantly responded.

"Intriguing." Lorik brought a hand to his chin in thought, "But a VI designed to slowly evolve into a sentient AI cannot very well help you in the middle of a battlefield on its own. What do you intend to do with these creations?"

"That's the second part of our arrangement," Shepard explained. "Once the VI's are built I will then need Synthetic Insights to help me create a new class of combat mechs. I'm not talking about upgraded LOKI or YMIR mechs but actual, built from the ground up, mechs that are armored, shielded, understand advanced strategic and tactical maneuvers, and for the love of god, know how to use cover. When we are done it should only take a handful of these new mechs to take out an army of those brainless LOKI and YMIR mechs in battle. Or anyone else they happen to be fighting."

At this point Lorik was looking back at her with an amused but careful expression, "What you are describing to me sounds like a second army of Geth."

Shepard shook her head, "Not in the slightest. Geth are not self-independent AI's. They need others of their kind to be in close proximity to complete higher level tasks. One Geth trooper on its own is no match for even the most inept organic soldier. I told you I want the Hannibal VI's so every new mech will eventually become a fully self-aware and self-sustaining soldier."

"That would be highly dangerous, Shepard," Lorik explained slowly. "If every VI under your command will eventual evolve into a free thinking AI, how do you know if you could even trust them from not stabbing you in the back?"

"I know what I'm doing," she replied quickly. "You forget I was a part of the original Hannibal program. I understand how a VI's programming works and I have done enough research to ensure that their evolution to AI's has them remaining stable. Besides that, I have already taken the time to prepare a line of programming code that will make these new mechs utterly loyal to me. Combine all that with the help one of my crewmates has provided to me and the new AI's will also be nearly impervious to all forms of hacking."

She looked at Lorik seriously, "I'm running out of allies in this galaxy and the few I have left are constantly in danger. Once these mechs are complete I will be relying on them heavily to augment my current forces. I've put a lot of time and effort into checking every last detail. They will be robust, they will be deadly and they will be mine to command and mine alone."

Lorik leaned back in his chair and studied her intently before saying, "It sounds to me that you have put a lot of work into this project of yours; a project that perfectly suits the resources and capabilities of Synthetic Insights. Unfortunately, our discussion of this topic in moot. What you are asking for would not be cheap. I happen to know for a fact that a Spectre's salary cannot cover what you ask for," he finished with another knowing smile.

Shepard sighed in reply, "Spectres are paid with the Council's empty praises of a job well done. But I wouldn't come here just to waste your valuable time. I recently came into a large sum of money that should be able to cover Synthetic Insights bill."

"Just how large of a sum of money have you come across?" Lorik asked.

"Does the word 'obscene' exist in the Turian's language?" she answered with a smirk.

Lorik's smile widened, "It does. It seems we are in business together once again Shepard. Synthetic Insights will be able to easily construct more Hannibal-class VI's for your use. The construction of the mechs themselves is another matter. We don't have the resources on hand to build something on the scale you require."

Shepard shook her head, "That, I'm afraid, isn't good enough. I need this to remain a secret. Synthetic Insights will have to be responsible for the VI's construction along with the construction of the new mechs they will inhabit. And all of this must be done here on Noveria. No other branch of the corporation can know."

Lorik frowned slightly as he drummed his talons on the desk deep in thought. After a moment he spoke, "What you are asking could be accomplished. It would require Synthetic Insights to lease out another station on Noveria's frigid landscape. We could then convert it into a factory to build your new mechs. This will however take time to pass through Noveria's Executive Board. It will also become a heavy expense for us to undertake…"

Shepard smiled internally as she read between the lines, "Did I say I had an obscene amount of money before? Change that to a 'ridiculously obscene' amount. You undertake this project for me and Synthetic Insights won't need to take another client here on Noveria for the rest of the duration."

"We have a deal then," Lorik stated happily. "After the transfer of credits and your exact specifications on the new VI's and mechs is confirmed, we will begin on the task you have set before us."

Shepard activated her omni-tool on her left wrist and began the transfer of data to Lorik's desk computer. Once the data transfer had begun and Lorik was already deeply involved in studying over Shepard's specifications, a thought occurred to her.

Speaking up, she asked, "While you're at it do you think you could build me another set of omni-tools? I have this one right now that has a number of impressive technological advancements given to me by the Alliance but I have already found several flaws to upgrade; the biggest being that I have two wrists and only one tool."

Without looking up from his computer Lorik just nodded, "Of course Shepard. Compared to the construction of VI's the completion of some new omni-tools will be simple. Just let me know what programs you want installed and we will get right on it, free of charge, for old time's sake."

"Thanks," she replied back as she stood from her chair. As she prepared to leave the office she stopped and added, "Oh, and just a thought, could you make the new tools purple instead of the boring orange color?"

Lorik glanced up from his computer caught off guard and looking confused, "Why purple?"

Shepard smiled as she looked at her reflection in Lorik's glass office door, "Because in purple, I'm stunning."

Shrike Abyssal
Kyzil System

Kal Shintahr Graldak nar Sutaghi hated this world.

He hated the heat. He hated the active volcanoes. He hated the toxic gases filling the air. He hated the lack of wildlife and foliage. He hated everything about this desolate ball of rock labeled a planet.

A curious feeling indeed for a Kilrathi to have since everything that made up Heshtok perfectly described the home world, Kilrah.

Kilrah was also hot, barren, volcanic, tectonically active and dangerous.

Graldak found himself on Heshtok in the name of duty for the Kilrathi Empire. The planet had something that could be of some use to them and if Graldak did his job right, it could very well guarantee Kilrathi military dominance in the galaxy.

That resource was the eight billion Vorcha that called the planet home.

He was currently in the planet's capital city of Hatash and standing in the capital building, and he used the term 'capital' loosely. Most of the structures were rundown and damaged. He had spent the last two hours here meeting with the local leaders of the Vorcha tribes who fancied themselves more civilized than the rest of their race, and Graldak used the term civilized loosely.

The Vorcha were considered a pestilence to the galaxy at large and Graldak could hardly find the means to argue that point. The Vorcha were primitive, warlike, short lived and quick to anger. And that's exactly what the Kilrathi needed.

Graldak was standing in the main room of the capital building. It was large and open, free of any tables or chairs. The only feature of note was the long railing near the back of the room that the ten Vorcha tribe leaders stood behind while listening to visitors speak their piece.

To Graldak's left was the only remaining thing standing between him and his goal. An Asari diplomat, whose job was to be stationed on the Vorcha home world and try to improve relations and provide aid to the planet's primitive populace.

If Graldak had to guess, he would also claim that Ambassador Dalia Seloni wasn't just a diplomat. Upon his first meeting with the blue skinned woman, as soon as their eyes met, his natural warrior instincts screamed danger. She stood tall, walked with purpose, wore the armor of her people and carried a pistol for personal defense. But above all else, Graldak recognized one clear fact; she had survived on this planet alone far longer than some of its inhabitants had been alive...An impressive feat indeed.

Ambassador Seloni faced the ten tribal leaders, "Please, my friends, you must understand who it is that stands before you. The Kilrathi are nothing more than butchers who slaughter all those in their path. Only days ago they bombed the surface of Illium with nuclear ordinance leaving tens of millions dead."

The recognized leader of the ten Vorcha named Sheesk or Shekkes, Graldak couldn't remember, faced him, "Did you? Did Kilrathi bomb Illium?"

Graldak stood straighter in his armor and made of a show of playing with his red cape as if he were bored, "Of course we did. This is a war, is it not? That's what you do in a war. You kill your opponent. Pummel them brutally until they submit to your power and dominance. Do the Vorcha not do the same thing?"

A number of the tribal leaders hissed out murmurs of agreement much to Graldak's pleasure.

However, Ambassador Seloni angrily countered, "The Vorcha do not murder innocents. They do not slaughter their neighbors simply because they are there. You Kilrathi are responsible for the extinction of several space-faring species and those you haven't simply killed off you have made into slaves."

Graldak didn't even turn to face her, "The strong survive. The weak either perish to their might or carve out a meager existence through utter obedience to their new masters. This is the natural way of things in the galaxy. And it is a way the Vorcha know well. You battle each other for power and control over other tribes. This is also the way of the Kilrathi and why we have taken a special interest in this planet and in you. We share a common system of belief."

Ambassador Seloni glared at him angrily and was about to speak up but the Vorcha leader beat her to it.

"Why you come to Heshtok? Why Kilrathi speak to us?"

Graldak smiled internally. This was proving even easier than he first thought. "I have come here as a representative of the Kilrathi Empire to ask the Vorcha for a formal alliance. The Kilrathi will eventually come to rule over all the stars in this galaxy. Join us now and together we will force all other races to submit to our combined power."

Ambassador Seloni quickly spoke up, "That is preposterous and nothing short of a lie. From what we have learned from our new friends in the Terran Confederation and what we know from your own races actions, is that the Kilrathi will never share any kind of power with another race. You believe yourselves to be superior to all others in this galaxy. Any kind of alliance your race proposes would simply be a cover for enforced slavery. The Vorcha will never be your equals."

Graldak grinned wide revealing his fangs, as he turned to face her, "You are correct, Ambassador. The Vorcha will never be equals to the Kilrathi. But they are worthy of respect and will be treated with honor. They are natural warriors who fight to prove their worth, the same as any Kilrathi."

He then faced the tribal leaders, "If you agree to this alliance your people would always be considered second class citizens in the Kilrathi Empire. But from what I have seen in this region of the galaxy, second class citizens would be a huge step up. As of now every race in this galaxy considers the Vorcha to be nothing more than pests; a nuisance to be controlled and in some cases stamped out. Your people are used as slave warriors for criminal warlords, nothing more than cannon fodder.

"We Kilrathi will not treat you that way. We are warriors just as yourselves. We respect strength and power just as you do. I wouldn't be here offering you the promise of an alliance if the Kilrathi Empire didn't at least respect you enough to believe you are up to the task of fighting in our galactic war. Join us here and now, and be free from the forced limitations of your home world. Join us, and show the rest of the galaxy just how strong the Vorcha people really are."

At the end of his little speech all ten Vorcha leaders began to heatedly argue amongst themselves. Meanwhile, Ambassador Seloni turned to face him in anger, "You are preying on every weakness the Vorcha have. They crave power, they crave the ability of space flight and you are willing to give them both at the cost of hundreds of millions of their people that will die fighting for the Kilrathi military."

Graldak smirked confidently and said softly so as not to allow the Vorcha to overhear, "I am playing them, they will die by the millions for our war and in the end they will have some tiny sliver of power to make them believe it was worth it. The Kilrathi couldn't have asked for a better species for us to use as we see fit."

"You're nothing more than a heartless monster," she spat out.

Graldak frowned slightly, "I am perhaps one of the most honorable Kilrathi you will ever meet. You are lucky I was the one sent on this mission. Any other would have simply killed you and forced the Vorcha to serve us."

"All that tells me is that you are far more cunning in your own conquests," Seloni replied. "You realize a race of beings promised power and equality will fight to the death without question, compared to a race forced into a war at gun point."

Graldak grudgingly gave respect, "You are correct in your assessment of me, Ambassador. But I am still a being of honor. My hearing is far better than yours and in a moment the Vorcha will tell us of their decision to join the Kilrathi Empire. When they do I suggest you depart this planet immediately. I would hate to order them to kill you as their first show of loyalty to the Empire."

Ambassador Seloni's gaze couldn't have been filled with anymore anger or hatred but before she could say more, her attention was brought back to the now decided Vorcha leaders.

The lead Vorcha spoke up, "Kilrathi want Vorcha to fight for them. Kilrathi also promised Vorcha much. You keep your word and all Vorcha fight for you."

Graldak smiled wide and bowed, "We will keep our word. By aligning yourselves with the Kilrathi Empire you have guaranteed Vorcha survival and dominance throughout the ages."

The Vorcha leader nodded happily, "We fight for you. Vorcha join Kilrathi. Vorcha become strong and feared in galaxy! We send others to all the tribes. All Vorcha will fight for strength!"

As the Vorcha leaders cheered, Graldak straightened back up and faced Seloni. "It is time for you to leave, Asari. You are now deep behind enemy lines with a force of billions of Vorcha about to invade the galaxy with Kilrathi ships and technology."

Ambassador Seloni looked up at him in anger with clenched fists. For a moment Graldak actually thought she would try to attack him but suddenly the Asari's shoulders slumped and the fire left her eyes.

Her head dropped and she said sadly, "We were making strides, positive strides. It would have only taken several more generations before the Vorcha may have actually been invited to join the Citadel. Now thanks to you that will never happen. Thanks to the Kilrathi the Vorcha will probably suffer a fate similar to that of the Rachni or Krogan. You have doomed their entire race."

Graldak couldn't help but shake his head, "You are mistaking the situation, Ambassador. The Vorcha are not the ones in danger. They have joined the winning side. Now leave this planet. I must ready our new troops."

Horse Head Nebula
Pax system

Her meeting with Lorik Quinn complete and the process of building her new mechanized force underway, Shepard left the offices of Synthetic Insights and began to make her way to the mezzanine level where a number of her crew were enjoying Port Hanshan's hotel bar.

Before she could make it to her destination however Shepard ended up bumping into another familiar face on Noveria.

"Shepard! What are you doing back on Noveria?"

Shepard turned to see the Noveria Internal Affairs agent, Gianna Parasini, whom she helped prosecute Noveria's previous Port Administrator with charges of corruption, walking across the courtyard toward her.

Gianna continued, "You can't be here about another drink. I bought you a beer back on Illium," she finished with a smile and outstretched hand.

Shepard returned the handshake happily, "Technically since I helped you with that Asari smuggler someone could make an argument that you owe me another. It's nice to see you again."

"Same to you. What brings you back here? Trying to break into another research station on some top secret Spectre mission? Last time we talked I remember you saying you were after the Collectors," Gianna asked jokingly.

Shepard sighed, "Still after them unfortunately but making some slow progress. I'm actually here on Noveria for business and this time I'm sorry to say it's classified. No offense to you but things are pretty tense right now between me and some third parties and I can't afford any mistakes."

Gianna waved the comment away, "No worries. I understand the need for secrecy and I'd rather not become involved in a Spectre's business."

Shepard smiled, "Yeah, I guess with all the undercover work you receive you are the last person I need to explain how complicated things can get keeping secrets from other people. Speaking of work, how's that investigation of yours going? You were looking into some hacking attempts about dark energy weren't you?"

Nodding Gianna said, "About to finish off that investigation actually. We were able to narrow down the hacking attempts to a Binary Helix employee here on Noveria. He should have quite while he was ahead but just yesterday another hack into dark energy and its theoretical reactions with a stars core was detected by our staff and tracked to his desk computer."

"Mind if I tag along?" Shepard asked curiously.

"You want to join me in confronting the man making the hacking attempts?" Gianna asked with a raised eyebrow. "Why do I get the feeling you are far more interested in this than I am?"

Shepard just shrugged, trying to act natural, "Just bored really. It's either this or I go back to my ship and just stare at the walls waiting for time to pass. Besides, what's the harm having a Spectre come and watch you work?"

Gianna sighed shaking her head, "What's the harm, she says. Alright, if you want to come I can't very well stop a Spectre but I want you to know that I can clearly see through this uninterested façade you're putting on. You know something don't you?"

Shepard smiled politely but just stared back at her prompting another sigh out of the internal affairs agent.

"This is going to end up being a mountain of paperwork for me to fill out when this is over." She then turned and started to make her way to Binary Helix's wing of the port. "Come along Shepard. I am morbidly fascinated with how this is going to turn out."

Less than ten minutes later Shepard and Gianna were making their way through the halls of Binary Helix with the intent of confronting the man making the hacking attempts.

Gianna had met with Binary Helix's manager and was able to learn that the employee, Joseph Keel, a human, was currently in his office after checking in for work only a few hours ago.

As they both made their way to his office, Shepard asked, "So how does this work exactly? You just march in and arrest the man all on your own or do you call in for backup once you know he is still in his office?"

Gianna looked at Shepard surprised and then let out a chuckle, "Arrest him? For what, spying on his neighbors? Remember where you are Shepard. This is Noveria. Ninety-percent of what I do relates to corporate espionage. The general rule on Noveria is 'don't rock the boat'. All this man was doing was hacking into some secure files; he didn't even copy or transfer any data. I won't be arresting him for that.

"And as for calling in backup, there is no need. Everyone on Noveria knows how this works. I will walk up to him, ask him a few questions about the hacking attempts and if he tries to deflect the blame elsewhere I will then present the evidence that shows him guilty. He will then admit to his crime, get suspended from work for a minimum of two weeks and Binary Helix will face a small fine. It's really as simple as that."

As the two women turned the corner of the hallway, Shepard spotted a man just beginning to exit an office.

Apparently this was the man they were looking for as Gianna called out, "Mr. Keel! I'm Gianna Parasini, Noveria Internal Affairs. I'd like to talk to you about some hacking attempts - ."

That was all she could get out before Mr. Keel removed a pistol from his shirt pocket and put it to his head. Shepard and Gianna both froze with shock as he then pulled the trigger and ended his own life.

Five minutes later after Captain Matsuo and Noveria's Security force had arrived to seal off the area and remove the body; Shepard was standing at Mr. Keel's desk while Gianna attempted to search through the man's computer for a reason behind his actions.

"This doesn't make any sense," Gianna said frustratingly as she continued to scan through the computer's files. "There is absolutely nothing here to go on."

Shepard glanced over to her, "You mean there is nothing on his computer that proves he was responsible for the hacks?"

Gianna looked up from the screen, "I mean there is nothing here at all. Mr. Keel was an employee of Binary Helix's for the past eight years. This computer was completely wiped just before we arrived. There is absolutely nothing on it except its original operating software."

With a frown, Shepard folded her arms across her chest and stared out the office's back window as she watched the snow fall outside.

"That's not good," Gianna said lightly as she stared at a brooding Shepard. "You are completely silent on the matter. Normally you are all too happy to state your own opinion. Which leads me to believe even more what I knew from the start…you know something about this don't you?"

"Perhaps…" Shepard replied.

Gianna leaned back in her chair and folded her own arms, "Well then spit it out Spectre. What do you know about my case?"

After a few seconds of silence Shepard let her arms drop with a sigh, "Gianna, he didn't even hesitate. You called out to him and as soon as you mentioned the hacking attempts he pulled out his gun and ended his own life. There wasn't any hesitation on his part, none at all. It was all one swift and fluid motion. People just don't do that."

"That just tells me that he was crazy and mentally unstable," Gianna commented.

Shepard looked back to her, "No, that's not it. I watched his face. He should have given something away; a little tick or micro-facial expression. Everybody gives away their intentions without meaning to do so because it is a simple unconscious thing we do. It takes years of practice and training to notice these things and it's nearly impossible to prevent yourself from giving them off.

"Mr. Keel didn't flinch. There was absolutely nothing in his posture, the way he held his gun, his face could have been made out of stone and his eyes…there was nothing there. That just isn't natural and to be perfectly honest scares the hell out of me," she finished honestly.

"Shepard, what do you know?" Gianna asked again.

"Less than two weeks ago I was out beyond the Perseus Veil looking for a friend of mine," Shepard began to explain as she paced slightly before the desk. "The Far Rim, Dholen system. The Quarians had sent a research team to the planet Haestrom to try and discover why the systems star was prematurely aging. They discovered that dark energy had been artificially inserted into the star's core and that it was responsible for the aging process.

"The only other species in that region of space were the Geth and the Quarians were nearly positive that they weren't responsible. I'm inclined to agree. The Geth have nothing to gain by speeding up the process of a star's life cycle. So who would undertake such an endeavor and more importantly, why would they?"

She stopped pacing and faced Gianna once again. "I want you to close this case," she said seriously. "Mr. Keel was just a crazy man who took his own life when he was caught. If you ever discover anyone else on Noveria trying to research dark energy don't take any action against them and do not confront them. Simply watch from a distance and let me know. I'll handle it."

Gianna stood up from her chair, "Shepard, I appreciate your interest in this case but you have no jurisdiction on Noveria. You don't get to tell me how to do my job. Mr. Keel was involved in something big and the Executive Board is going to want to know what is really going on."

"And I'm telling you to ignore it," Shepard said sternly, taking a step toward the other woman. "You said it yourself on Illium when we last met. 'White collar crime is nice and clean'. You don't see things that keep you up at night. Well this case just entered a literal danger zone and a man took his own life with no hesitation to keep the secret. This is no longer a simple case of corporate espionage. Someone in the galaxy is undertaking dangerous experiments and the people working for him are willing to end their own lives. You're out of your league here Gianna. Close the case and walk away before it's too late."

Shepard could see Gianna clearly wasn't happy with the situation but the urgency in her voice must have reached the woman. After some time Gianna simply nodded, "Alright Shepard. I'll do things your way. Technically all I had on the case was Mr. Keel and he's dead so there is nothing left for me to investigate especially with his computer wiped. The case will be closed and if I hear anything else I'll let you know before proceeding."

15 minutes later…

Normandy SR2
Port Hanshan Docking Bay

Shepard stood shivering in the Normandy's airlock as the interior doors opened allowing her to finally enter her ship.

Holy crap is this planet is cold…she thought to herself as she quickly made her way inside, brushing a few snowflakes off her head. You'd think with all the money at their disposal Noveria could construct internal docking bays for its visiting guests.

"Hey Shepard's back," Joker called out from his seat on the bridge. He swiveled his chair around to face her. "So tell me, how many corrupt businessmen did you have to shoot today?"

"Contrary to what you believe Joker," Shepard replied as she made her way towards him, "I do not always have to employ violence to get what I want."

Reaching the co-pilots seat, Shepard stepped out of her heels and sat down across from her pilot. Pulling her feet under her to try and warm her still cold toes, Shepard then relaxed into the nice leather seat.

"I can't believe you get to sit in these amazing leather seats while all I get in my quarters is a standard office chair," she commented leaning against the back rest.

Joker just snorted, "Says the woman who has her own private room complete with a full size aquarium. How big is your bed again?"

Shepard just smirked, "That's not really important." She then spun her chair to fully face her helmsman and asked with a playful smile, "Joker, you're a pilot right?"

Joker had spun his own chair forward and began to once more work on the holographic displays. At Shepard's question he raised an eyebrow and responded slowly, "Yeah, this thing I do where I sit up here all day and fly the ship around the galaxy would mean I'm a pilot."

"And being a pilot, I'm sure you had to study aerodynamics and their relation to mass effect fields, right?" she continued.

"Sure did." Joker responded still on guard. "There is a lot of science that goes into making a ship fly through space and a planet's atmosphere. Where are you going with this, Shepard?"

"Just hoping you could answer a question for me," Shepard answered. "The day we rescued Liara from Illium and retrieved the Shadow Brokers location, I fought a Turian. He was a member of their 26th Armiger Legion; a havoc soldier."

Joker winced, "Ouch. That must have left a mark."

Shepard chuckled, "He did throw me around a little, but I of course won in the end; hence me being here today. But having actually faced one of the Turian's Special Forces in combat and seeing him in action has me wondering some things."

Joker shrugged, "You would get more talking to Garrus, I don't know anything about Turians."

Shepard shook her head, "You're the pilot remember. What I want to know is why hasn't a single species in the galaxy developed a flight capable set of armor for its soldiers?"

Joker froze for a moment and then looked at her, "Say what now?"

"The Turians are the closest to achieving this with their havoc soldiers relying on their suits propulsion jet packs to give them quick bursts of speed in combat," Shepard continued. "But what I'm wondering is, why hasn't anyone ever taken the next step and made a suit of armor capable of actually achieving flight?"

Joker just stared at her, "Ummmm..."

Shepard leaned forward in her seat, "See from the way I look at it, we have everything we need to actually accomplish this. Mass effect fields can lower the mass of an object essentially making it lighter. The lighter a person becomes, the less thrust would be required to achieve flight. That's how all ships fly around today. So how hard would it be to construct a suit of armor that replicates this feat of engineering?"

Shepard waited patiently as Joker continued to stare at her opened mouthed. After nearly a minute of nothing but silence she was beginning to think she may have broken her helmsman.

Shepard raised a hand and waved it in front of his face, "Shepard to Joker, come in Joker…"

"The mass is too great," Joker blurted out. He then seemed to come to and refocused on her, "Depending on the armor there is just too much weight. Most species today use ceramic plates to provide protection. This added alongside a suit's own generators to provide the kinetic barrier that is necessary for stopping a bullet to the head and the armor becomes too heavy for flight.

"If you were to try and build a suit of armor capable of leaving the ground, the size of the generator needed to lower the mass of the armor would make it useless in the field. Not to mention the second generator required just to provide the thrust for flight," Joker finished with a proud smirk having successfully answered Shepard's question.

Shepard frowned to herself as Joker turned back to his display. So the armor is too heavy, the generator to lower the mass of the armor becomes too large and then you have the problem of still creating the thrust…

"Basically it all comes down to the suits of armor already being too heavy," she said softly to herself. She then looked to Joker again, "Well that's easy then. All we need to do is create a new set of armor that offers the same level of protection while only being a fraction of the weight. Once we accomplish that the rest of the pieces will fall into place."

Joker stopped working the controls, "Wait, what? No, that's not what...why..."

He watched as Shepard jumped out of her seat and bent down to retrieve her heels. Standing back up she patted the back of his chair, "Thanks for the help Joker. I'll let you know when I get the armor problem fixed."

Speechless, all Joker could do is spin his chair around and watch as Shepard literally skipped down the hall toward the CIC.

"Great," he mumbled to himself. "Now when she breaks her neck trying to fly through the air guess where everyone will turn. They'll say it was all Jokers' fault; he was the one that first helped her with the idea. The galaxy now faces the threat of the Reapers without Shepard and it's all because he let her go through with her crazy scheme."

"You did help her fix the problem of weight verses thrust, Mr. Moreau," EDI chimed up.

Joker glared at EDI's glowing orb, "Nobody asked you EDI."

Author's Note: Several things occurring in this chapter, so while it could have been longer I decided to leave it here instead of placing a jarring switch between places and characters right at the end.

Shepard is getting mechs! As I explained, it will take time but eventually each new mech will evolve into a fully self aware artificial intelligence. Should add a nice new story dynamic don't you think?

My main reason for including this is because I personally believe the Systems Alliance in the Mass Effect universe are a bunch of weaklings who bow to the Council. Since our Commander Shepards are a reflection of our own choices in game, my Shepard has certain issues with the Alliance and those are being shown throughout the story. Many of you have most likely already seen those elements throughout the chapters already posted.

I was always disappointed that the dark energy plot in Mass Effect 2 never went anywhere, so I intend to fix that.

The Vorcha have allied with the Kilrathi. If you thought they were easy to kill in Mass Effect 2, now imagine them all carrying laser rifles that can kill you with a single shot. They may not be the smartest species in the galaxy but they make up for it with numbers and ferocity.

Shepard's conversation with Joker...I always had this thought in the back of my mind when reading through the codex and playing the game, so there you go. Shepard is, after all, and N7 Special Forces soldier. Why wouldn't she explore every advantage possible in her fight against Reapers and beyond.

Thanks for reading! Hope to see you again next chapter!