Dilan - Fiancee

Buratrum - Turian version of hell.

82 Days ASR

"I love what they've done with the place," Nihlus muttered to himself. Shepard glanced his way, but her dilan appeared to just be settling all his mental armour into place. She certainly couldn't deny he needed it; they all would.

"This place looks like a fucking termite mound." The vaulted ceilings disappeared into a fetid gloom. The termite-mound-styled ick built up on everything bounced Jack's voice around, baffling it down until badass sounded young and terrified. "You always take us to the nicest places, Shepard."

Dim groans and warbles echoed through the hive-like structures, warping and bending into a low susurrus of pained moans drifting on a chill silence.

"Yeah, I know. You owe me a nice five-star dinner, Jack." Shepard rolled her neck, then her shoulders and straightened, fighting the urge to hunker down as small as possible. She stepped down out of the shuttle and took a long, bracing breath.

Dear gods, nothing she'd seen in any of her beacon visions came close to the sheer 'what the fuck is this crap coating everything?' gross creepiness. A thick, heavy shudder travelled the length of Shepard's spine, the muscles locking up around the implants. For a moment, it took every ounce of control to keep a scream trammeled behind her teeth. Metal sank into meat, an internal iron maiden.

"Along ceiling looks like honeycomb more than termite mound. Some sort of resin." Mordin appeared in front of her, his omnitool a fire burning into her retinas as he scanned her. Glancing away for a second, he turned his attention to the odd-looking pods even as his fingers keyed in a deeper scan of her spine. "Perhaps same element used in stasis pods. Need to take samples."

The spasm eased, and she reached up, shoving his hand aside. "I'm fine, Mordin, it's just the implants along my spine." She stepped past the salarian. "EDI, how are the scans going? Do you have a bead on a terminal with mainframe access?"

"Sending coordinates to your omnitool now, Shepard," EDI replied.

A small map appeared on Shepard's HUD, a red dot indicating a location a fair distance from their position. Crap, she'd hoped to minimize their time aboard. She'd bet her hide they'd find reaper orbs throughout, and her people had already faced those demons too many times. "This is as close as you can get us?"

"It is. Most of their computer nodes are for direct mental interface only, like the beacons." The AI paused, her voice tilted hard to smartass when she continued, "I assumed you didn't wish to repeat that experience."

"Yeah, thanks for that." Shepard snatched at Mordin's upper arm as the salarian hurried past, his specimen kit at the ready. "Stay in our eyeline, Doc. No wandering off after fascinating finds." He scoffed, as if the entire idea amounted to a madness too far beneath him to deserve comment.

"From a distance, the cruiser just looks like an asteroid, just some random hunk of rock," Cortez said on the mission channel, "but now we're close, I can make out her lines beneath the corruption. She must have been something to see fifty thousand years ago."

The prothean members of Shepard's team walked past her, Giran looking around at the ship, Dasik's stare prowling for the slightest sign of attack. "I served aboard one of her sisters when I graduated the academy at thirteen," Giran said, her voice soft and sad. "The Walav Kahalok gleamed with a beauty that makes this abomination cut so much deeper." The prothean stepped up and trailed her fingers along a bare section of the bulkhead. "Nothing of them remains."

Tashac translated the prothean cruiser's name—Fearless—in the back of Shepard's mind as the captain scuffed her toe across the floor, brushing aside centuries of dust. "Some of the original deck plating is visible. I've never seen metal like this. She was indeed a beauty before the reapers corrupted her."

Scrambling sounds and muttered salarian curses drew her attention to Mordin, the scientist clinging to an outcropping of the husk-like crust while he stretched, reaching for the resin pods to get his sample. Shepard winced; he'd kill himself. Glancing over at Wrex while lifting her hand to activate her comms, she said, "Keep an eye on the over-enthusiastic salarian while I check in on the other squads, please, Wrex."

She turned her attention to the mission, trusting Wrex to keep Mordin contained. "Beta and Charlie squads, report in."

Garrus answered first. "Beta Squad is aboard and en route to our objective. No resistance so far. The dust is disturbed. Looks like boot prints rather than collectors. We'll follow it, see if we can locate Chief Williams' squad. Beta, over."

"Understood, Beta. Keep your eyes on your six, and stay in contact. Shepard, out."

Miranda came in hard and fast on the general's heels. "Charlie is aboard and en route to the drive core. No sign of collectors. Charlie, over."

"Roger that, Charlie. Alpha is aboard and have a bead on our objective. No collectors yet, but I expect them to wait until we're deep into the cruiser before they spring their trap. We'll keep you apprised. Shepard, out."

Praise the sweet baby Jesus that they'd still had so many people on the Ypres, enough to send one team after Ash, one to rig the power core with a neutron pulse to kill all the collectors aboard, and her team … to get EDI into the computers and seize control of the ship. It was one hell of a plan, one worked over for nearly half a day, but as Nihlus loved to remind her … even the best laid plans went straight out the window after about a minute.

Just as Shepard looked back to her team, Jack jumped, letting out a muffled screech. "Ewww, Jesus fuck." She swiped at the shoulder of her armour, glaring in reply to Shepard's curious stare. "One of those sap pod things just pissed on me."

Grinning, Shepard shook her head. "Glad I make you wear armour now, aren't you?" She glanced over at Mordin. "Come on, Doc. We're moving out before any more resin pees on Jack."

"Shepard," EDI cut in, "I've compared the vessel's EM signature to known collector signatures. It does not match any of the collector ships on record."

"So that makes what? Four … five?" Shepard shook her head and lifted her Mattock into low ready, starting down the corridor. At one point, the passage must have been a lot wider, because the build up made it appear to run a sinuous, winding course despite flat, true sections where the metal showed through.

"At least, with as many as seven possible since not all the vessels encountered during the Archangel evacuations were catalogued," the AI replied.

Shepard stopped just under a hole in the ceiling, shuddering again as a scream echoed, faint and distant. Her alarm flared at the base of her skull, burning like a flare. She looked up, through what must have been several decks of the resin pods and long tendrils like webbing.

The ship whispered in the back of her head, almost memories … almost deja vu, but not. Tashac remembered ships like that one, but before the eons of collector habitation. Still, that wasn't the feeling tracing the length of Shepard's spine with a cold finger. She shrugged it off with an effort.

"Come on," Nihlus whispered next to her ear. "The longer we stay here, letting our imaginations get the best of us …." His hand gripped her shoulder just above her pauldron.

"Yeah." She took a deep breath. "Wrex, you've got drag. Mordin, Giran, and Dasik, right behind me. Jack and Nihlus, watch our flanks. Keep it tight, and stay alert. Let's move." Lifting into a jog, Shepard took point, moving down the maze of corridors marked on her HUD.

"Pods," Mordin called less than five minutes in. He ducked out of line and jogged over to a couple of open, empty pods, Nihlus hard on his heels. "No resin cap, occupants removed." He waved his omnitool through the faint mist rising from the inside. "Pod appears to be maintaining breathable atmosphere. Occupants kept alive. Hopeful."

"Hopeful?" Jack stepped up beside him and peered down inside. "A fucking nightmare, you mean. Trapped in there, helpless, completely at the mercy of those bastards."

"Come on, we have an objective," Shepard reminded them, pushing on. "Once the ship's captured, you can study it 'til your heart's content." She jogged along the rough edge of a hole that fell down through too many decks to see the bottom. "Looks like it's had the shit kicked out of it at some point." She pointed to the beams sticking out of the muck.

"What in the name of buratrum …?" Nihlus pointed to a small platform a deck down, the entire surface covered in broken pods and a pile of suppurating … filth? "Tarc," he whispered after a second, "those are limbs. It's a pile of bodies."

Shepard looked up, nodding a little as she saw the lower half of a body in Phoenix armour sticking out of another pile. Pressing her eyes closed, she tossed out one of her Hail Mary passes … a prayer thrown into the universe, just in case someone listened.

Please let Garrus find Ash alive.

"Let's move on. Hey, Mordin … wait for the rest of the class. Don't make me force you to hold your buddy's hand." She followed the salarian toward another pile of bodies, stopping to stare down at an arm lying all by itself in the middle of the deck. Somewhere, out in the dim haze, someone shouted, the words lost as they drifted through the ship, skeletal sounds scraping over the ship's remains.

"Disgusting," the salarian mumbled. "Despicable." His boots made strange, almost cheery little plopping sounds as he ran over to the pile of bodies, ever-present omnitool already scanning.

Shepard glanced at her HUD. There must be a little air present for her to be able to hear Mordin's footsteps and the ghostly noises of the ship. Still, no one could pay her enough to take off her helmet. A sharp, bitter laugh bit into the back of her throat: that made for one hell of a deviation from the norm.

"Why are these piles of bodies just left lying?" Jack muttered, shying away from the very arm Shepard couldn't tear her eyes off of.

"Test subjects from control group," Mordin supplied. "Discarded after completion of experiment."

That broke the arm's hold on Shepard, and she tore her eyes away, starting back down the corridor. "They might just be the lucky ones. Back in formation." She glanced at Giran, the prothean silent and outwardly calm. Still, the eyes that looked back into Shepard's mirrored the group's horror.

"Uniformed officers. Alliance," Nihlus pointed out a couple of bodies in dress blues as they ran past a small cluster of the disposed. "All the colonies they've taken have been in the Terminus."

"Ships go missing all the time," Jack said, disdain dripping through the words. "Think the Alliance is going to admit that they're losing ships … actual fucking useful members of their little tribe ... to the collectors?"

Shepard let that pass. Hackett might know about those sorts of things, but she doubted he confided in Anderson much anymore. She needed to contact the Alliance and the council soon. They probably already knew about her return, but it might be a bonus to make it official.

Another two corridors and the deck opened into a wider area. At the far end of the platform, a row of medical scanning beds lined the edge in a loose semi-circle. Collectors laid out on a few, pods on the remainder.

"Mordin!" Shepard waved the salarian away from a computer interface along the side wall that held him rapt. Answering his annoyance with a sharp smile, she shook her head. "Trust me, you're going to want to see this." She turned to the scanning pod, scrolling through the files, searching for anything that triggered recognition from Tashac.

"Medical stations," Mordin said, his voice high with scientific excitement. He hurried down the line, going from one bed to the next. "Their own species." Fingers flying over the interface of his tool, he settled into muttering to himself. At least some things never changed.

Shepard let out a frustrated growl when Tashac gave her nothing. Apparently, turning the collectors into drones had supplanted the prothean language with something else.

"Holy fucking Enkindlers." She didn't respond to all the stares prompted by her outburst. Instead, maintaining her focus on the files, she asked, "EDI, is this reaper language?"

"Comparing to code retrieved from Sovereign and reaper technology from the Thessian base. Analyzing," the AI said. "Stand by."

While waiting for EDI to draw her conclusions, Shepard dove into the files, praying that the organization process didn't deviate too far from what she considered intuitive. The first three files just threw up walls of the collector text and what appeared to be numbers. Data?

"I was able to read some of the information on Thessia," she said, not caring who offered a possible explanation.

"That computer was assembled from prothean technology," EDI replied. "Tashac—"

Shepard sighed. "Right, sorry, EDI. Tashac assembled it from prothean tech."

Giran stepped up next to Shepard. "Is it strange that I very much feel my mother's presence?"

Shepard smiled and squeezed the prothean's shoulder. "Not at all. I feel her with me every moment."

Looking back to the computer, she scrolled down, hitting a file with a decidedly different looking name. A map opened. Sliding the map across to a large vid screen between the computer terminals, Shepard stepped in close. "It's a galaxy map."

Nihlus closed in behind her, his talons skating across the small of her back, the casual support wrapping a thread of comfort around her as he pressed close to her side. After a second, he pointed out several sites with the same blue glyphs. "All these clusters have been hit."

Nodding, Shepard gestured to several others that bore the same marking, but in white. "These are human colonies, but the rest aren't."

"Two of these clusters have turian colonies in them, and this third has a series of multi-racial science bases studying a solar abnormality," Nihlus said, pointing them out. He shrugged when she raised a questioning eyebrow at him. "Corporate espionage case for Councillor Tevos." That explained, he filled his lungs, broad shoulders rolling back, the Spectre at work. Spirits, she'd missed the Spectre … her partner … the torin who made everyone around him feel as though he had everything under control.

"This one has an asari science base," he said, leaning on one hip. He crossed his arms, his head jutting forward as he stared at the projection. "Even though I don't know most of the marked sites, they must all possess some commonality." His voice dropped, subvocals thickening. After thirty seconds, he reached past her, zooming in on the Crescent Nebula, then on Tasale. "Look, Illium is marked."

"Noveria?" she asked, his spark of inspiration igniting a matching one inside her skull. Standing back, she allowed him manipulate the image. After a second, she let out a short, sharp breath, her gut twisting, an old flagpole rag in a gale. "Yep, it's tagged."

Without needing her to ask, Nihlus zoomed out, and then in on Widow. "The Citadel too." He shook his head, his subvocal negating the need for words. "I bet all of these marked colonies and all of the ones that have disappeared so far were ones with Leviathan orbs."

Shepard nodded, knowing her dilan's stomach was tied just as tight as hers. "I wouldn't take that bet. EDI, when you get a chance, investigate that connection, please."

"I can already confirm that both people and leviathan indoctrination orbs were removed from all the human colonies that have been abducted to date," EDI replied. "Extrapolating from your interest, I would guess that you're hypothesizing that they are investigating a means to counteract the leviathan indoctrination."

Shepard nodded at the statement. "Is that what they're doing with these pods?" She looked down at the dead collector in the closest one, taking a single step to close in on it. "But why would they be studying themselves?"

"I have been able to ascertain that the collectors were running baseline genetic comparisons between their species and humanity," EDI replied. "From the preliminary data, I surmise that your guess is correct, Shepard. They are seeking ways to change human neural pathways to better replace leviathan indoctrination with the reaper version. I will continue to examine the data."

After another moment, Shepard turned away from the console and the bed with its deceased collector subject. "Come on, we can add this to the list of things we can worry about once we capture this thing." She turned to Giran. "You holding up okay?"

The prothean nodded, her face twisted into a furious grimace. "These things are a sick mockery of my people." She glanced around and shuddered. "I regret asking to accompany you. To witness the sick mockery the reapers have made of my people ..." She struck out across the space to a door on the far side, its two halves sealed open by crud.

Shepard followed, pausing just inside the doors, her eyes catching a glint of painted steel. A pile of weapons lay discarded in the filth, including a Widow, very like Legion's. She grinned and heaved the massive weapon up off the floor. After looking it over, she passed it to Nihlus. "Carry this, please?"

He took it from her hands. "A present for Garrus?" After examining it, he let out a grunt of approval and holstered it on his back. "Don't suppose you see a nice shotgun in there?"

Shepard rooted for a second, then shook her head. "Sorry, old guy. You've already got one of all these." She patted his arm. "Come on, let's get the holy living fuck out of here."

Jack muscled in behind Shepard. "What? Are you fucking kidding me? You're going to leave a Claymore lying here?" The biotic snatched it out of the muck and held it up, examining it like some priceless gem. "Damn, this thing weighs a fucking ton." She turned toward Wrex, a wide grin replacing the usual snarl. "Get your ass in here. There's a Revenant for Christ's sake!" She glared at Shepard as if she'd walked away from a litter of orphaned puppies in a snow bank.

Letting out a laugh that turned into something twisted and gnarled as the space warped it, Shepard pressed on. "Grab what you want and let's get to that damned computer uplink."

An eerie silence seeped into the vacuum left behind when Jack and Wrex stopped fighting over the pile of weapons. Screams and indistinct yells led them on, ghostly wails in the dim light. A couple of corridors in, a long, tiered ramp led upward.

"Looks like we're heading toward some central part of the ship," Shepard muttered, mostly to herself.

"There are pods all along the ceiling," Mordin mused. He held up his omnitool. "Ninety-five percent filled. Occupants dead."

"I can't help but count that a blessing," Nihlus replied, his voice soft and flat. Shepard dropped one hand from her Mattock, holding it behind her. His talons closed around it, the pressure comforting in that endless graveyard.

For that was what it amounted to. Nothing but stillness, sounds that her brain translated as wind and ghostly shrieks, the damned reaching out with spectral arms, skeletal fingers scraping down her spine.

Shepard turned the corner at the top of the ramps, stopping so suddenly that her toe caught on the edge of a crust-tile. The space around her stretched … she didn't have words to describe the size of that massive open area. "Wha …?"

"Ship bays," Giran supplied, walking past Shepard. "A cruiser this size carried hundreds of fighters and light frigates. The exterior was the living space, labs, offices, and control rooms for twelve thousand protheans at the height of its service." A soft, musical sigh paled as it escaped, another specter amidst thousands. "Just like my people, the reapers turned it into a monster, a decayed insult to its true nature and purpose."

"Are those pods?" Nihlus asked, gesturing to the glowing, amber-coloured walls, millions … no billions … of them coating the inner surface. "Spirits, they could take every human off every colony and still not fill the smallest fraction of them." He closed on Shepard, one hand pressing into the small of her back.

She understood his need for connection. The space breathed and groaned, as if they stood inside the belly of a vast creature, its appetite so great that it could devour entire planets and just keep eating. A shiver ran down her spine, her chest aching, her fingers tingling and numb, suddenly cold. Reality whispered on that wind, screaming through baffles made from the trapped and dead, but she couldn't force the words up her throat.

"Even a dozen of these things could wipe out the homeworlds," Jack said, joining them, her arm pressed against Shepard's, her voice tiny and sounding so very young again. "They're going after Earth, aren't they?"

Nodding, Shepard wrapped an arm around Jack's shoulders. "They think they are, but we'll stop them." The young woman allowed the contact for almost two seconds, before shoving Shepard away. The captain nodded, resolute, as she said, "All this means … " She waved at the pods, a wide, aggressive gesture. "... is that they underestimate us. That gives us one hell of an advantage."

"Can we get on with the springing the trap and killing collectors?" Wrex grumbled, breaking the spell. Enkindlers bless the old grump.

"Definitely." Mattock back at low ready, Shepard set out, keeping her gaze on her footing rather than letting the void above her head, and the terror that it provoked, suck her in. The path led alongside the cavernous docking bay for another hundred metres, the red blip on Shepard's HUD tantalizingly close. A ramp led down into a circular space, massive conduits arching over the bulkheads to feed a computer console on an open platform.

"Lack of collector bodies supports trap hypothesis," Mordin said, his SMG replacing his omnitool. "Suggest extreme caution."

"Yeah, this is where they'll spring it," Shepard agreed, standing before the glowing interface. "EDI, get through their firewalls and take control of everything you can as fast as you can. Doors and access ways in particular. We'll need you to control the flow of bad guys."

"Understood, Shepard."

Leaning over the controls, Shepard hurried through the uplink. Thank goodness all the actual hardware controls were written in prothean.

"I'm in," EDI said before the captain could ask. "I've located Chief Williams's team. Registering three erratic life signs. Sending coordinates to General Vakarian's team. Mapping route to—"

"What the hell was that?" Lt. Cortez shouted in Shepard's ear. "EDI, the collectors are using your uplink to infiltrate our systems.

The platform shook, the conduits around its edge letting out massive bangs, the reverberation so strong that it tossed Jack onto her backside.

Shepard clung to the console and managed to stay on her feet. "What's going on up there?" she demanded as she turned to watch the ramp for any sign of collectors.

"A massive power surge, Captain," Cortez replied. "EDI managed to bleed it off through non-critical systems, but they're still trying to burrow into the Ypres's computers."

"Hold them off, EDI." No sooner had the words escaped Shepard's mouth and the platform began to turn beneath them. "Weapons hot, people," she called, hanging onto the console once again. "Here we go." The platform twisted several more times, lifting up like a screw backing out of wood. When it stopped turning, it soared upward, leaving Shepard's gut three decks down.

"We need your help here, EDI," she called as the platform stopped a good fifty or so metres up.

"I'm working as fast as I can, Shepard. Linking Legion in."

Shepard scarcely had time to breathe before the AI reported back that Legion and the chia had joined her efforts, but the specifics flew past her as she focused on the line of platforms soaring toward them.

"Holy fuck," Jack whispered. She glanced at Giran. "You said twelve thousand protheans lived on ships like this?"

"I did," Giran answered, the prothean's voice solid and determined. "They'll finally know the peace of the antecessors' embrace."

"Jesus fuck, I'm more worried about meeting my ancestors," the biotic said, going from whisper to holler in under five seconds. "There's no fucking way to keep them off us out here, Shepard."

Shepard nodded, but gripped Jack's shoulder, trying to ease her down. They needed to focus and stay cool. "EDI, get us down on the ground."

Three of the collector platforms swooped in, butting up against theirs on three sides. "Wrex, Mordin take the right. Giran, Jack, Dasik the center. Nihlus, you and I'll cover the left." Her people ran to take duck down behind the three-sided console, bullets and powers flying even before they reached cover.

"Use throw, concussive shot, and shockwave," Jack yelled over the splendid symphony of firearms. "Teach these fuckers to fly!" Crowing at the top of her lungs, the young biotic sent three collectors flying into the air and right over the side of their platforms.

The collectors didn't scream as they fell, that fact more unsettling the massive husk amalgams lumbering across the platforms, their one husk-arm firing heavy cryo blasts.

Shepard focused her shots on the two visible heads, waiting for the cannon to fire before popping up to respawn her drone and fire off a heat sink's worth of rounds. "EDI! What's happening?" She launched Droney on the right and tossed her defense turret out left.

"Beta and Charlie squads are taking fire. Controlling collector attack corridors," the AI reported. "We are simultaneously fighting firewalls and brute force attacks."

Five more platforms swooped in, latching onto the first three, their occupants—about eight collectors per—weaving around knee wall defenses and computer consoles. Luckily, that gave her people the opportunity to pick them off a few at a time.

"Come on, EDI," Shepard called. "You've got this."

"Shepard, large unit coming in at your two."

Shepard popped up out of cover to empty a clip in the giant just in time to take a cryo blast from its cannon. She staggered back, the cold searing through her armour even as it locked up its joints. Damn. She bit through her bottom lip, staggering to keep her balance. Nihlus reached up and dragged her down behind the cover. The thirty seconds or so it took for her armour to thaw felt like fifteen years.

"Move to outside cover," Nihlus shouted. "They're coming in from behind." He hooked a hand under Shepard's armpit and hauled her up. "Jack stay with Shepard, keep the frontside clear."

"Four more platforms coming in from behind!" Wrex hollered, his tone one of celebration rather than worry. He slapped Nihlus's shoulder, nearly dropping the Spectre to the deck. "You ready for this, princess?" His taunts and war cries shattered and melted the sheets of ice wrapped around all of Shepard's internal organs.

She laughed and slapped a heat sink into her weapon. "Bring them on, Uncle Urdnot. Bring them on. Team pyjak locked and loaded."

EDI broke through Nihlus's protest that he needed a designation that didn't include a tiara. "I have partial control of collector systems, Shepard. All berthed flying platforms are locked down. Powering down deployed platforms."

"Glory hallelujah, Sister EDI. You glow with the Enkindlers' very own light." Shepard let out massive hoot as the incoming platforms slewed off course, dumping their collector troops into the void as they dropped like stones to the docking bay floor.

"Captain?" Shepard imagined the pawn-shaped hologram cocking its head off to one side.

Laughing, she translated: God, she loved EDI's so-very-literal soul. "I was just saying thank you, EDI. I knew you'd come through." She let out a long breath, grinning at Wrex as he slapped a huge hand down on her shoulder. "Ready for the next round?"

"Always." He laughed, his slow, dangerous chuckle warming Shepard to the tips of her toes. He slapped Jack's back, knocking her into the console. "You ready, varren runt?"

"Fuck off, old man." Despite her words, Jack grinned ear to ear at her new nickname. "You punch like a salarian."

EDI interrupted the escalation halfway through 'I've got the bigger shotgun'. "Returning your platform to deck level away from collector forces. Plotting your path to the extraction point," the AI replied matter-of-a-factly, as if she performed impossible feats to save her people five times a day.

Shepard sobered. "Wait, EDI, how are the other teams doing? Who's taking the most fire?" She paced to the edge of the platform, staring down at the deck beneath them.

"General Vakarian's squad is currently under heavy fire," the AI responded. "Most of the doors in his current location are sealed open by built up organic matter, and I'm unable to channel the collectors away from his team."

Shepard jumped down before the platform landed, fear for Garrus insisting she move … get to him as fast as possible. Wrex landed at her four, Nihlus at her six. "Plot us a path to link up with his squad." The map before the captain's eyes changed, the arrow helping ease her terror. She had a clear path to his location and a solid team behind her. Time to move.

The squad sprinted, EDI managing to keep the collectors locked away from their route, leaving just stragglers that they killed on the move, the squad racing through without injury. Despite EDI controlling the doors—opening to allow them through then closing them behind—an oppressive pressure began to build at the back of Shepard's skull.

It didn't feel like the spiders … more like a band of drying rawhide wrapped around her head than the greasy hand shoving itself between her brain and skull. She looked to Wrex, the krogan moving with smooth, coordinated strength. When his stare met and locked onto hers, she knew he felt it as well. Trap inception: traps within traps. Invisible jaws closed around them.

"EDI, are you certain that you've got control over these doors?" The corridor narrowed, the ceiling dropping until it became little more than a tunnel through the muck. Shepard ducked down, wishing she could pull a collar up to avoid the resin from dripping onto the back of her neck. Despite the armour, she could swear she felt it trickling over her skin.

"Shepard?"

"I feel like we're being funneled into a trap." As she said the words, Shepard stopped, facing two closed doors. Her skin prickled along the length of her spine. Damn it, she shouldn't have said anything.

"Alpha," Garrus's voice shouted in her ear over the roar of gunfire, "we're pinned down in a large, open area. Two of those massive flying things and ground units. Need assist."

Shepard's heart leaped into her throat, then performed a double twist, one and a half somersaults into the pike position, ending with a fantastic belly flop into her guts.

Way to jinx the entire production, Janey.

"Alpha responding. Hold on." She jogged to the doors, her stare fixed on the map. "Two minutes out and we'll be hitting them from the back side, so check your targets." She switched channels. "Charlie, sitrep."

"Only a few smaller units, Captain, moving well," Miranda replied. "We'll achieve our objective in approximately five minutes. Will contact you again at that point."

"Overriding firewall 84692," EDI said even as Shepard acknowledged Miranda. "Take the door to your right." The AI's unruffled calm felt like a warm hand on the back of Shepard's neck, slowing her frantic pulse. Garrus had a hell of a team with him, and in two minutes her people would have his back.

The door slid open, revealing a small space, glass walls on the far side, and a handful of knee walls arranged so as to make her wonder what the space could have been used for. The placement almost seemed artistic. Distant gunfire pulled Shepard forward to a ramp leading down.

"The grand gallery," Giran said, running her fingers over the wall just inside the door as she ran past. "It used to be a place of great beauty, the spiritual center of the vessel. Vast gardens and art filled this entire section of the ship."

"And it makes one hell of a strategic muster location if fighting off a boarding party," Nihlus added, jogging past Shepard to take point. "Collectors ahead," he called, leading them down, then racing for the nearest cover.

Shepard ran ahead, ducking behind a short wall to Nihlus's right as collectors flew in from above, landing at the far end of the room. She launched Droney and threw her turret out then opened fire. Slowly, the team moved up, taking out the two dozen or so collectors that came at them.

When the last one went down, Shepard jumped up, thighs trembling from spending so much time crouched. Oh well, she'd have to work out their weakness on the move. The corridor led around a corner, then dropped down a good four metres.

"This is where they'll hit us hardest," Wrex muttered before jumping down. "They'll seal up the doors on the far end, and we've got nowhere to go."

Shepard crouched, pressing her hand to the ground, then eased herself over the edge. She didn't dare do anything crazy, even a jump she could have done with her eyes closed before she died. The sound of gunfire grew louder but not as loud as she expected.

Darting ahead, she took cover behind a low railing overlooking a vast chamber, Garrus's team pinned down behind two of the knee walls near a door on the far side. Shepard opened a channel to Garrus, adding in her squad. "Emergency comms only. General, we're at your twelve, hitting their back side."

Using hand signals, she sent Nihlus and the two protheans down the sloping ramp and into cover in the back corner. The enemy wouldn't be able to circle around and get behind them. She kept Mordin with her, and sent her berserkers down to the floor, taking position where they could support Garrus with their biotics, keeping the ground units back.

"Mordin, we're going to focus on the large units." The rhythm and pulse of battle settled her heart and mind back where they belonged, focusing everything into crystal clarity. Garrus's people held their ground, Martin fighting like a god in his frame armour.

"Hit it with incinerate and then follow up with cryo, see if you can't break down its armour." Even as he muttered his reply about her theory being a sound one, she reached back and shrugged the collector heavy particle beam into her hand. She waited until the closest monster shot its particle beams before she stood and fired, aiming the weapon's beam straight into its eyes. When the beams shut down, she continued firing, counting off the reset time. Her HUD showed the fucking thing taking massive damage, but it just didn't go down. It slammed into the ground five metres away from Garrus, Vincent, and Samara and let out a shockwave that threw them out of cover.

Shepard froze for a half-second when the thing opened its mouth, revealing the dozen or so husk heads inside. They shrieked, a baleful mockery of a choir, the sound throwing out a wave of sound and energy. Garrus scrambled up, counter-intuitively running away from their cover. Snatching at one of Samara's arms, he dragged her after him.

Garrus!

Bending, she picked up a huge chunk of the floor scale and heaved it at the gigantic unit. "Over here, you fucker!" Shepard shouted. It turned, strafing the entire room … all her people's positions but for Nihlus's with its twin particle beams. Wrex went down behind cover, cursing up a storm, his armour smouldering where it had been sliced through.

"Uncle Urdnot, you okay over there?" she shouted, sending in Droney and her turret then checking how much bang she had left in the particle cannon. "Samara, Wrex, Jack, Kaidan, tear down that thing's barriers." She checked her HUD, the rest of the battle playing out behind her eyes. "Once we've got it back down to armour, hit it with everything incendiary you've got. Martin, keep the other one busy with your rocket launcher."

"Don't get close to them," Garrus added, his voice breathy and laced with pain. "That triggers the choir attack."

"You heard the general. Stay clear, and bring them down fast." The biotics working in concert brought the monster's shield down in under five seconds. She sent a blast of incinerate searing into the thing's armour the second she saw the energy barrier fall, then opened fire. The thing exploded into flame, then crashed into a burning pile of slag.

"Excellent work," Shepard hollered. "Next. Same deal." Even as she spoke, the second closed in on Garrus's team, twenty collectors racing in to flank it, covering its recharge cycle. "Baby Jesus H Christ in a handbag, where are they all coming from? EDI, are the doors locked down behind the general's squad?"

"They are, Shepard. The far door on the right leads to a control room. Registering Chief Williams's team behind it." The AI's unflappable tone that had registered as calming minutes before now felt like a cheese grater slicing up Shepard's every last nerve.

"Can you patch me through to the chief, EDI?" Shepard stood, taking fire as she assessed the battlefield. The phalanx of collector legionaries with their praetorian at the head closing in on Garrus faster than her people could whittle them down.

"We've got to pull that thing toward you, Wrex," she called, sidestepping down the curved bit of railing. "Garrus, Martin … when we pull it this way, get your people over on the back wall. We're away from the doors, but at least they can't flank—"

"We've got husks crawling up from below on two sides!" Nihlus hollered. "Garrus, get out of there before you're cut off."

Shepard swapped the particle beam for Ingrid and jumped up, striding down the ramp putting down collectors with headshots. Headshot, reload. Headshot, reload. The gun pounded out the familiar rhythm, but no matter how many she took down, more replaced them from below.

Twelve thousand? That was what Giran said. The thirteen of them couldn't take out twelve thousand. A few of their guns hadn't been changed to the heat sink model, but even so, if a thousand enemy came at them, they'd be dead long before they took down that many.

"Samara's down!" Martin called out. In an act of stupidly reckless heroism, the kid scooped the asari into his arms and raced toward Nihlus's position, knocking husks on their asses on his way through. He leaped the last five metres and crouched to set her down.

"Collector foot units are falling." Shepard moved in behind a massive pillar, giving herself a better angle at the collectors. If they could just thin them out, Garrus could get the rest of the team across the floor.

"Going in," Mordin called. "Stay in cover."

Right, like she was going to hide behind the pillar while Mr. Crazy-Pants ran off on some salarian suicide mission.

The salarian raced in behind the massive unit, his tall but willowy body making it appear all the more humungus by comparison. He shoved a package—it looked like his belt pouches—up inside one of its leg joints.

"Tactical error," he said, as calm as marshmallows on hot chocolate. Running along beside it as it spun, he yanked on his arm, trying to free it from the machine's inner workings.

"Mordin, get out of there." Bringing Ingrid's scope to her eye, Shepard ran out of cover, peppering its head with constant shots. Too bad machines didn't get pissed off.

One second, she raced for Mordin, the next … the hand of God swept her off the deck plating like someone brushing lint from their shoulder. She felt the vague sense of spinning, then blackness crashed in on her. Fighting against it, clawing at the ground with her fingertips, she screamed into a clenched jaw as the pads peeled off, refusing to pass out. That big bastard hadn't gone down; she couldn't pass out until her people were safe back aboard the Ypres.

Heaving herself up onto her hands and knees she crawled for the nearest cover, a long section of half-wall protecting Nihlus and the protheans. "Wrex? Are you up?" she called, flipping up her visor to take a useless swipe at the blood flowing across her vision. A pile of unmoving frame armour lay slumped against the far wall, the white of Mordin's armour just visible behind it. The kid must have grabbed the salarian, shielding him from the blast. She flipped the visor down and breathed in. "Martin?"

A thin groan answered her. "Alive, but I can't move; armour's motor is fucked. Mordin's unconscious but breathing."

"Mordin's explosion took out Wrex and Jack," Nihlus called over the roar of his shotgun. "Husks have Javik and Alenko down, but Giran's got them covered for now, and Alenko is still throwing his biotics around."

"Fuck." Things were going the way of Virmire. At this point they'd be lucky to get anyone out. "How long was I out?" Reaching behind her she felt only the Mattock and empty particle gun. Shrugging the Mattock into her hands, she checked her heat sinks. Fifteen. Fuck! Fuck the damned heat sinks and the bastards who came up with them.

"Two minutes at most," Nihlus replied between firing his shotgun at anything approaching Garrus's position. "We need reinforcements; the bastards are getting up from below on both sides. Lawson, where's your team?"

Ignoring his conversation with Miranda, Shepard glanced over at Nihlus … the bodies sprawled behind him vague, almost hazy, as if the part of her that could see them didn't want to. Miranda was too far away, and the dead had nothing to offer, the injured even less, their heatsinks already used and gone. Swiping the blood from her eyes again—damn, now she remembered why she hated helmets—she turned back to face the praetorian. Wait … smoking pieces of the thing spread across the floor … Mordin's charge worked.

"Another fucking praetorian? How many of these fucking things do they have?" Giving her head a hard, quick shake she shoved herself up, using the cover to keep herself balanced. "Do you see Ingrid anywhere?" Damn, she needed that gun. As soon as she got back to Archangel, her Mattock was getting a downgrade.

"Who's the asshole who decided on the damned heatsink upgrade?" she muttered under her breath. A grumbling sort of chuckle from Nihlus told her that he heard her. She chuffed, the sound weak even for her usual. "Cover me. There are a few within scrambling range. When I get back to cover, I'll draw its fire while you help Garrus."

Nihlus cussed, the word's vulgarity telling her everything she needed to know about his opinion of her plan. Still, he breathed out, the sound so resolute, it lit the path before her. "I'll draw it's particle beam. The second it goes out, run. You've got—"

"Ten seconds before it recharges," she finished, annoyance crackling through the ten kilo weights dragging from every muscle. "I know. Don't get yourself killed. I really want that wedding." She held one hand behind her, his talons closing around her fingers.

The solid, light abrasion of Nihlus's mouth nuzzled the back of her knuckles, just the faintest brush of hope, and then he pulled away, his boots shuffling across the thick layer of corruption crusted on the deck panels. Pressing her back to the wall, she slid along its length to the end. Glancing out, she plotted her course from heatsink to heatsink, combing her memory she tried to picture the room as they'd fought their way in.

She braced to move, flipped her fucking visor up to swipe at the river of blood running into her eyes. Why hadn't she used medigel? Why did she need to breathe? Halfway to the control, her fingers stalled, the chamber dimming suddenly. Was she passing out? What the in the name of the Enkind—

(A-N: Well, not quite two chapters a week, but this guy turned into a good-sized monster. Hope you enjoy. I wrote it while going through the mission in game. It's the first time I've done that and it was a lot of fun to have the spaces in front of me for designing the battles. :D *hugs and floofy kittens with pink bean toes*)