Buratrum - The realm of the spirits of dishonourable association. Equivalent of hell. It consists of twelve levels, the deepest two of which are so deep as to be unknowable and reserved for evils so horrific as to be unspeakable.

Torin - Torini plural. Male turian of the age of majority (15)

Tarin - Tarini plural. Female turian of the age of majority (15)

Fratrin - Brother, but one of honour, friendship, or of oath rather than one of blood relation. Refers to the bond of karifratrus.

Filitrin - Sister, but one of honour, friendship, or of oath rather than one of blood relation. Refers to the bond of karifratrus.

Ylasiun - The ancient turian version of heaven. The realm where all honourable warriors spent eternity.

Derra - Wife

Verro - Husband

Previously on Future Imperfect: Garrus and Shepard married in a sweet ceremony in his parent's backyard the day after discovering a massive collector base under Cipritine. They then headed off to help Miranda save her sister from an evil Cerberus stooge of a father. Orianna and her family are now working on the Sanctuary project. As soon as they recovered, Nihlus and Shepard bonded.

Now, while Garrus and his father investigate the Andromeda Initiative, Shepard and Nihlus are leading teams to investigate reported husks sighting on the slopes of Mount Fuji. On the way, their shuttle was shot down. When Shepard awoke, she'd been pulled from the wreckage by a husk named Marion. Yup, a talking, aware husk.

And now …


91 Days ASR 2213 hrs

"Shepard? Shepard, do you read?" Nihlus shivered, the black forest pressing in, and turned up the heater in his armour. "Captain Jane Shepard, squawk if you're reading this message but can't reply." Nihlus turned from his pacing route, a five metre path of trampled bush. He answered the silence with a rumbling keen. Where in the pits of buratrum was she? Surely, even if she was unconscious after the crash … well, it had been nine hours.

Nine hours: the sun long surrendered to the frozen dark of night. Nine hours wasted conducting a search while both blind and deaf. He hadn't realized how dependent he'd become on EDI's overwatching eyes in such a short time.

"Tarc!" He clenched his mandibles against his face. Shepard was fine.

He glanced over at Sol. A few metres away, his filitrin wrapped her right ankle in an instant cast. "You need help with that?" he asked. He'd carried her the four klicks from the crash site, the ankle hanging at a truly gruesome angle.

She shook her head and tried for cocky despite the pained rictus that glued her mandibles to her mouth. "Back off obluvis. It'll be a dry day during monsoon season on the flooded coast when I let those meat hooks maul my delicate digits."

A soft rumble from Thane announced the drell's return, the ex-assassin a spectre coalescing out of the darkness. "I located the other half of the shuttle—it landed three kilometers northwest of the main crash—but Captain Shepard was not in the wreckage." The drell offered the Spectre a sharp nod in answer to his worried subvocal. "Large squads of soldiers are searching both sites. It's Cerberus." He hummed, an almost-growl rumbling deep in his throat. "And it's fair to say they know we're here."

Nihlus chuffed. "Fair to say. We made quite the entrance, no doubt due to missiles they launched at us. We were too far from the LZ to be collectors."

"Yeah," Sol agreed, "the park's too busy for Collectors to be wandering everywhere. We'd have a ton of reports from hikers about the scary bug people."

The Spectre paced another lap of his track. "Cerberus." The name came out riding the front wave of a belly-deep growl. "What the mabul is Cerberus doing here, shooting at incoming shuttles? If the base is spitting out husks, it has to be the Collectors. What does Cerberus get out of turning people into husks?" After indulging his anger for a moment, he shook his head, trying to break its hold. It served no purpose other than clouding his mind.

"Great," Sol grumbled as she sealed the end of the cast. "Collectors … Cerberus … missing sister …." She stood, testing her ankle as the cast set with a series of sharp clicks. "Can we start today over?"

"Indeed." Thane stepped to Solana's side. "How badly is it broken?"

She chuffed and looped an arm around the drell's neck. A single shake of her head dismissed their concern. "It was dislocated, not broken, but I set it. It'll hurt like buratrum, but it'll bear my weight."

"Sol, seriously, are you going to be able to move at speed? Fight?" Nihlus asked, doubting she'd tell him the truth even if she'd shattered the thing into powder. "We're three hours past check in. Anderson will come looking. We can set up a defensive perimeter here and wait for him to evac you." Despite his words, he stepped toward her, offering her his arm. She shook her head, but didn't pull away.

"Thanks, big fratrin, but if I try to walk dangling from your shoulders, I'll dislocate the rest of me." She tipped her head to rest against Thane's brow. "Handsome, silent, and deadly over here's got me."

Thane cleared his throat, snapping that subject off at the root. "I located several tracks amidst the mess Cerberus made at the second site." He paused, his attention jerking to the darkness beyond the radius of their lights. Without a word, he guided Sol over to a log and sat her down behind it before, in swift silence, the drell vanished.

Nihlus vaulted over the nearest fallen tree, using its blanket of vines and moss as cover. Shotgun settling easily in his hands, he followed Thane's lead, watching the north side of their tiny clearing. For a couple of minutes, he didn't hear anything other than the soft twitters and chirps of the forest's nocturnal occupants. Just as he started to think Thane was imagining things, he heard it.

Footsteps. Slow and even, just skimming the foliage. The footsteps of hunters closing in on their quarry.

Closing his eyes, he heightened the rest of his senses to make up for his lack of sight. How many footsteps? A stumble and a quick breath? The almost imperceptible hum of biotics?

"There isn't more than a squad out there," Sol whispered. "Three biotics. Two giants. Four of them are charging heavy overloads. Too organized for mercs."

Nihlus trammeled a snide comeback behind his teeth. According to the galaxy, Archangel amounted to a mob of mercs, and they were pretty damned organized.

"It's them, trust me." The whisper barely registered over the rustling leaves.

"Nihlus Kryik?" A deep, familiar voice caught hold of Nihlus's fringe, dragging him a half step toward the incoming bodies.

"Nihlus? Thane Krios? Friendlies incoming."

Nihlus straightened and let out the breath he'd been holding. "Anderson?" He stepped out of cover without lowering his weapon.

Like a peal of thunder compared to their earlier silence, the squad dropped all attempts at stealth.

Martin crashed through the foliage in two leaps. "Ha! Told you it was them. These eyes see everything. Nihlus?" The kid grabbed the Spectre in a crushing hug. "We thought you guys were all goners when we couldn't raise you on comms. Guess Kasumi was right. Blanket blackout." Dropping Nihlus, he spun toward Sol, sliding a metre on his knees to fuss over her cast. "What happened?"

Sol captured the kid's shoulders, giving him a hard shake. "Spirits, calm down, kid. You're going to kill me flailing around in that mechanical monstrosity." She held him until he calmed down a little. "I dislocated it in the crash, but popped it back in."

Nihlus glanced over at his filitrin on the way to meet Anderson and his mixed squad: it included Miranda's team but not Alenko's. He greeted Anderson with a hurried handshake, looking past the captain to Operative Lawson. "Have you heard anything from Shepard?"

Anderson sharpened. "She's not with you?"

"The shuttle broke apart when we were hit," Sol answered, shoving Martin away from her leg. "Thane found the wreckage, but no Shepard. We've got to find her."

"Sister with a broken leg … wife missing. Shepard's out there …. I can't go back and tell the general …." A heavy groan rolled out hot on the tail of Martin's pre-eulogy.

Nihlus bit back a gutful of impatience. They needed to move, not talk. They'd wasted hours fumbling around. They could fill the others in after they found Shepard and solved the mystery of the roaming husks.

He took a breath, swallowing his frustration. More people could only be a good thing. Besides, Shepard was fine.

Slicing the conversation off before Martin could start a campaign to find Shepard, Nihlus said, "We have Cerberus charging up on us and who knows what hell is waiting under the mountain." He spun to face Thane who'd remained back, out of the light and noise. "You were going to say something about tracks at the other crash site?"

"I located two sets that didn't match the equipment or direction of the Cerberus team," the drell reported. "They led into the forest down slope."

"We've got three missions, three directions." Nihlus sent silent gratitude out into the darkness when no one spoke. Now, who to send where? He turned to Anderson. "Do you have shuttle support?"

Anderson nodded, but his attention clearly remained focused on his own process of solving the list of problems ahead of them. "Shuttle's an hour back at the second LZ. I brought it in when everyone missed their check in times. I found Lawson's team two hours in, shuttle damaged but they managed to land it. No word from Alenko's team, but there wouldn't be."

After rolling all the assets and liabilities around for a moment, Nihlus began to slot them. "Martin, you'll take Sol back to the shuttle. You'll fly out of jamming range and send in our sitrep. If EDI can find a way to establish comms, get it done." Nihlus held the kid's stare long enough to ram home the command decisions Martin would have to make, flying solo for the first time. "Avoid getting shot down if at all possible."

Turning to the Normandy's captain, he continued, "Anderson, you and Lawson will divide up the remainder here and hit the base. If the jamming comes down, see about getting Alliance backup. Maybe if they see what's down there, they'll start cooperating a bit more." Nihlus nodded, their paths set. "Krios and I will search for Shepard and take out any comms and security equipment we find ... make things easier for the rest of you."

Anderson nodded as if Nihlus had just voiced his thoughts, then turned to Lawson, orders falling from his lips with the ease of decades of command. To her credit, Lawson remained silent. Nihlus chuffed. Maybe the Cerberus operative had realized how easily she could be disposed of out there, her body never found amidst the trees.

Sending Thane ahead to scout, the Spectre waited for the rest of them to organize and move out.

Martin scooped Sol up in his arms, but stopped next to Nihlus before heading for the shuttle. "Find her."

Nihlus clapped the kid's shoulder. "She's fine. Don't worry. You just get my baby filitrin out of here in one piece." He paused, dropping his subvocals into a menacing rumble. "I don't want to have to kill you."

Martin scoffed, but surprised Nihlus when he loped out into the trees without leaving behind a smart ass comment.

Anderson clapped the Spectre's shoulder. "Take care of yourself out there. We'll be in contact as soon as we have comms."

"You take care as well." Biting back an admonition to stick to recon and call for backup before setting into the base, Nihlus spun toward the spot where Thane had vanished into the darkness.

Five minutes into braving the Jukai alone, Nihlus understood why people called it haunted. The trees breathed, whispers drifting on every exhalation. Their constant movement drew his eyes to his six, three, five … his head on the proverbial swivel. Twigs cracked under invisible feet, shattering the silence of so many lonesome graves. He shuddered, using the action to shake off a few of the scaly, frigid-toed monsters clawing their way up his spinal cord. Thank the spirits, Martin took Sol back to the shuttle. He'd never live down acting like a terrified drellak fawn mincing its way through ungentira territory.

"Never spent much time in the forest?" Thane asked, a phantasm materializing to walk at Nihlus's elbow. To his credit, the drell didn't show any sign of noticing the Spectre's startled jump. "While not native to this terrain, I find wooded areas calming," the drell said without waiting for an answer. "You appear to find this forest menacing."

"Yeah." Nihlus chuffed, a soft crackle of phlegm rolling in the back of his throat. "I grew up in this sort of terrain, but there's nothing calming about this forest." He hesitated, checking their six. After a second of held breath, he continued, his head cocked to better hear the whispers. "Let's just get out of here."

"The tracks are moving as a pair. One appears to be injured, moving erratically." Thane nodded and trotted back out onto point.

Nihlus followed the drell into the darkness, his world narrowing down to the ghost-pale beam of his flashlight. Stumps covered in moss and ivy reached out into his path, skeletal fingers snatching at his boots. Spirits, he needed to calm the mabul down.

The trees weren't trying to eat him, and Shepard was fine.

Shadows, they made their way toward the lower slopes, their progress as painfully slow as it was silent. The trails, when they could find them, weren't hiking trails and hadn't been groomed in a long time, if ever. Roots, vines, and fallen timber tangled into a combination obstacle course and maze. Come sunrise they should be able to pick up speed.

Peering between the blotchy silver trunks into the deep pools of black, he couldn't recall the last time he'd been immersed in such absolute absence. No, that was a lie. He remembered all too well. Haestrom.

He didn't know how Garrus dealt with it and kept going, his entire life just business as usual. One look into his open chest: heart beating, lungs blue and wet …. Nihlus shuddered and turned up his armor heater. It all still lurked half a breath away, clinging chill and damp: a morumplacus's robes. He drank his way through the first weeks, then Shepard returned … impossible but there. Her presence drove back the nightmares, and taking care of her eased him through his days.

Nihlus ran up Thane's heels before he realized that the drell had stopped, his omnitool casting a sickly pall over the greenery. Tarc. Of all the times and places to lapse into a self-pity spiral.

"What?" he asked, keeping his inquiry to a pressed whisper. He turned to watch their six.

"Electronics equipment, I believe." Thane picked his way toward a gnarled monster of a tree.

Halfway to it, Nihlus saw the reason for the drell's interest: metal gleamed through the bark, winding up the trunk and into the branches. One cleverly disguised antenna, check.

Thane didn't pause, he just jumped in and began disabling it. "This doesn't look like Reaper tech."

"No," Nihlus agreed, "nor collector tech." He closed in on the tree, keeping his eyes scanning the rest of the forest. "Alliance? Cerberus?" The glare off the drell's flashlight destroyed any chance to see markings.

"Not Alliance; they wouldn't bother making their tech this untraceable." Thane grunted softly. "There."

"Kryik to Anderson. Do you read?" After waiting for a moment, Nihlus shook his head.

Thane turned to face Nihlus, the glow from his omnitool making the shadows dance. "This emitter is part of a larger network. It's possible that taking enough if them down will weaken the signal." He cleared his throat, a rolling grumble. "However, it is probable that Cerberus is registering the failure of this node."

"And dispatching security," Nihlus finished. "Repair too. We'd better get moving."

A thick shower of sparks rained down, pauper's fireworks. "Repair is no longer an option." The drell turned back onto their path, his head set at an angle that practically screamed how much he wished Solana had been there.

"Two of a kind. Spirits, show me mercy."

Thane answered Nihlus's mutter with a warm chuckle.

Something settled in Nihlus's gut as he followed the swift, silent drell. According to Thane, they'd cut Shepard and her companion/captor's lead to less than an hour. Two places showed clear evidence of where their quarry stopped to rest, so either one or both were injured. Nihlus stepped up his pace. If Shepard was a prisoner, her captor could be moving slowly so that Cerberus had time to catch up.

His heart dropped, but he caught it before it splashed down to squelch in the darkness. No more freaking out. No more self-pity. He'd been a Spectre for nearly three decades and a badass for a lot longer than that. Time to finish the mission and meet Garrus in Vancouver. Shepard was fine. She could more than handle herself, even injured. They had far worse to deal with than some forest-dwelling Cerberus before they headed home. He shuddered, that one completely called for: politicians. Dear spirits.

At least he'd get to watch Shepard doing what she did best: torturing the people who pissed her off.

The pair disabled another five emitters before they closed in on Shepard … or what he hoped was Shepard. Whoever they found, if it wasn't Shepard, would want to be actively involved in running their precorin ass off in any direction he wasn't. More than likely, he'd enhance their speed with a hail of bullets hammering them in the ass.

"We're definitely tracking the captain," Thane said in that certain almost-whisper that made Nihlus wonder if drell weren't psychic. An enigmatic smile as his only explanation, the ex-assassin nodded toward another emitter disguised as a tree. "She seems to be following the network."

Nihlus's nod sliced the air. Of course she was. His derra remained the best Spectre and commando he'd ever known. Under the circumstances, she'd look for a way past the comms blackout. She'd look for a way back to her family, and she'd find it. As soon as Thane found the wreckage without a body, Nihlus just knew. Maybe that's why he hadn't been frantic with worry.

'Or maybe you kept yourself freaking out about something else … something you could dismiss as fantasy.'

Tarc, even her voice inside his head called him on his crap. A soft chuckle rolled deep in his throat. His derra. Who knew that bond would negotiate so many peace treaties inside his head and his heart? Or that he could love someone so much. His derra. She was fine. Injured, probably, but nothing she couldn't handle herself through.

The familiar shower of sparks let him know the drell was ready to move on. So close now.

Thane moved out, but at true speed for the first time. Trusting the ex-assassin's sense of urgency, Nihlus bolted, hurdling fallen trees, dodging stumps, and hopping roots. Tarc, he'd be lucky to get to Shepard without breaking both legs.

"Nihlus?"

Soft, tentative, his name whispered from behind a tangle of earth and roots. He slid to a stop, talons digging deep furrows through the soft loam. "Shepard?" He took cover behind a stump, the moss bleeding the scents of ancient must and speckled sunshine. "Are you all right?"

A chuckle, laced with shards of bitterness and relief, answered him. "Yes, cikabeknai, I'm alive and kicking. How about you? You sound like you're moving okay."

"I'm fine," Nihlus assured her. "Thane and I came through with a few scratches."

Shepard nodded. "Before you come any closer, I need you guys—hi, Thane—to promise not to shoot my companion."

Nihlus swung out onto the trail, shotgun leading. "What's going on? Are you being held prisoner? Give me your beta recog code, or I'll consider you under duress." He paused, never so glad for her ridiculous code system. "Soggy cornflakes."

"No, love, I'm not a prisoner." She hesitated, muttering under her breath for a second. "Umm … soggy cornflakes … . Come on, head trauma … . Oh! The eighth level of hell."

"The eighth level of hell," he repeated, the words sliding out on a sigh. "Okay."

Shepard stood and stepped out into the open. "Someone pulled me out of the crash and treated my injuries." Nihlus's derra held out her hands, but didn't look at him.

Three lunging steps closed the distance enough for him to see the medigel-coated burns that both reddened and blackened her face. A mewling keen escaped his second larynx before he could stomp it back down into his gut.

Shepard's hands flew up again, as if to buffet her from his rage or something worse. "I know, love, but my injuries are all from the shuttle blowing up in my face."

Nihlus choked down another keen, this one because he realized why she didn't meet his stare. She couldn't see.

"The person who rescued me is a victim of Cerberus experiments as invasive as the one that brought me back and as horrifying as what they did to Al, and you and Garrus." One hand reached out, fingers flexing. "Cikabeknai, please just let Marion explain before you start shooting?"

"Of course." He closed the metres between them in an instant, wrapping his talons around her fingers. "Why would you …?" And then understanding stepped into his peripherals.

"She's afraid you'll shoot me because I look like the enemy." A husk stepped from behind one of the ancient trees. If it speaking—her diction clear if robotic in tone—wasn't quite mad enough, the thing shrugged and actually managed to look apprehensive through all the desiccated flesh, metal, and tubes. "Or one of them, at least."

"Her name is Marion, and trust me, she's still very much human inside that chassis." Shepard squeezed his hand. "Once we get out of here, we need to hear what she has to say, Nihlus. Cerberus is making serious movements to fuck up our war against the collectors and the reapers, and we're two years behind them."

Pulling his derra into a hug, Nihlus pressed her along his length as close as their armor allowed. The entire galaxy could go to hell for a minute or two: she was all right, at least, mostly. The trees and darkness drew back far enough to let air flow through his lungs once more. He pushed her to arm's length, gentle talons checking her over. "Okay, we won't shoot her. How are you, really?"

Shepherd reached up, her hands trembling as they wrapped around his face. "I'm okay. Lots of little dings, and I can't see anything, but I'm okay to keep going." She released him and looked around, her head cocked. "I hear Sere Krios, but where's Sol? Is she okay?" she demanded, her voice brittle to the point of cracking.

"She's fine," Nihlus assured her. "She dislocated her ankle in the crash, so Martin took her back to the shuttle Anderson brought in when all three squads didn't check in."

"Because of jamming, or because we were all shot down?"

"We don't know about Alenko, but Lawson's shuttle took fire as well. They managed to land," Thane assured her as he stepped out of the bush. The drell met Nihlus's gaze with one looking for guidance. "We need to keep moving."

"Yes," Shepard agreed. "Marion can bring you up to speed on the pertinent facts as we move." Shepard slipped her hand into Nihlus's. "We were retracing her escape route to find the security office where she broke out of the mountain. I'm hoping there's comm equipment there to contact the Alliance." She waggled her head a little. "And maybe some intel if EDI is able to do a little digging."

"I'll lead the way," Marion said. The husk stepped around them, giving Nihlus and Thane a wide berth.

"Marion, this is my husband, Spectre Nihlus Kryik, and an associate, Sere Thane Krios." Shepard slipped her arm through Nihlus's elbow. "I swear to you, they're both honorable people and they'll help me find your daughter."

Nihlus cocked a brow plate, a shudder churning its way through his body. Find the husk's daughter? What in the pits was going on under that mountain? Cerberus did this to the woman, not the collectors?

Shepard didn't give him time to consider anything. "If you're not hurt, carrying me will be a lot faster." A soft grunt and wince accompanied the words. "And it'll save my shins."

Every other thought in his head evaporated as Nihlus embraced her. "Always," he whispered, her weight nothing as he lifted his derra to cradle her in his arms.

They moved through the forest far more quickly for Marion's surety and the extra flashlights, taking out another six emitters before the husk lifted a hand to bring the small squad to a halt.

Nihlus understood in the next second as he heard voices from the clearing a hundred metres ahead. He eased Shepard down onto her feet and then into cover. They turned off all their lights, then crept up to get eyes on. A pair of soldiers in white heavy armour loitered half-hidden in the undergrowth.

"They don't appear to be concerned," Shepard whispered, her head cocked. "So either the base isn't under attack, or there are two bases and theirs isn't under attack?"

"How long ago did Marion escape?" Nihlus crouched by Shepard's side, his mouth pressed to her ear.

"Weeks. She's been wandering the mountain trying to get back in. When she escaped, she searched the facility, but couldn't find Amy." Shepard's throat worked for a moment before Nihlus heard her swallow. "The kid's eight, cikabeknai."

His turn to swallow hard as a fist squeezed his heart. Child-sized husks wouldn't be of much use as weapons; only pain awaited Marion under the mountain. He closed his eyes as the image of his baby girl flashed through his head. No. He forced her adorable face to the back of his mind. Still, he allowed a pang of homesickness for the future he'd seen on Thessia. They needed to get the damned war done and over with so his family could get on with their lives. Spirits, he ached for that day.

"You with me, love?" Shepard's hand stroked the length of his neck.

He leaned into her touch and nodded.

"Thane," Shepard whispered, directing the drell through hand signals. A quick nod answered her and then the drell disappeared into the darkness.

Shepard shifted a little. "He's off to dispose of the guards, I take it."

Nihlus pressed in, supporting Shepard against his side. She was fine. She'd always be fine. She would. "Yes."

The first guard disappeared. One second there, yacking at his buddy a few metres away, the next gone. Without a sound. Less than a minute later—not long enough for his partner to wonder why his joke went without a laugh—the second guard disappeared just as silently.

"He's an artist," Nihlus whispered. As much as he liked and respected Thane, sometimes the drell terrified him as well. In an entire galaxy of assassins, no one equalled Thane Krios, even retired.

Just under five minutes passed before Thane reappeared at Shepard's side, only a slight wheeze betraying the drell's exertion. "The door only opens from the inside," he reported. He shrugged. "We've got two sets of armour, but they've got tech wired inside their heads that syncs into their helmets." He paused, a distinctly nauseated expression on his face. "I don't even know that we'd be able to replicate their voices."

"I think this is where I come in." Marion crouched on Nihlus's left. I'll need help getting into the armour, but I can modulate my voice through the synths in the helmet." She let out a soft growl. "They based all our comm upgrades off the same tech."

"I'll go with Marion," Thane said. "Neither of you will fit the armour."

Shepard reached out, Thane completing the contact when he gripped her fingers. Nihlus's derra shook her head. "I don't like this. Be careful. Marion, say no more than you absolutely need to. Once the door's open, we'll be right behind you."

Nihlus watched the husk, searching past the horrific, skeletal features for traces of the woman. An image flashed through his mind, one of the turian husks with red/brown hide, its white familia notas barely visible through the metal.

"Your friend is good with that canon on his hip?" Marion asked, eyeing Thane's Carnifex. Or at least he thought she was: how did one tell where lights in the center of empty sockets were looking? Spirits, how could someone be so essentially damaged and be alive?

He glanced at Shepard. Judging by the extent of her scarring, Shepard could look just like Marion under her skin, a thin layer of flesh disguising the monster. Even so, he hadn't doubted her for a moment.

"None better. Don't worry, Thane'll have your back." Shepard jerked her head toward the forest. "Get on with it, I need to get Dr. Chakwas."

Nihlus squeezed Thane's shoulder as the drell hurried past, a silent vote of confidence. Once they disappeared into the foliage, Nihlus wrapped his arm around Shepard. "You're sure of her?" he whispered into the sweat-soaked hair caked around her ear. As much as he hated asking because of the larger, unspoken questions, he asked.

Shepard turned to press a soft kiss against his mandible. "As sure as I am of myself." She shrugged and curled into him a little. "What husk remembers itself let alone spending weeks frantically searching for its child? She's important, Nihlus. I can't see why yet, but I know she is."

"Okay." He shifted his weight to his other leg. "When we go in, hang onto my belt. I'll go in on the left, clear left and then right. Stick close and use Garrus's shields if we come under fire."

Shepard chuckled. "You've been hanging around your fratrin too much. His overprotectiveness is contagious."

Nihlus chuffed. "You're blind, haksaya kubenar. This isn't overprotectiveness, it's trying to get you home with your head attached rather than being a carry on."

"Details." Chuckling, Shepard blew a soft raspberry. "There's an awkward conversation with a flight agent."

Nihlus nodded toward Thane and Marion emerging from the spot in the bush where the guards disappeared. So far, so good. They both looked the part despite being shorter than the originals. Unable to see the entrance or hear the exchange, Nihlus judged the pair's success by their body language. It didn't take long before they vanished through a wall of foliage; Marion must have been very convincing.

"Okay, we're up," he said, moving Shepard's hand from his arm to his belt. When he stood, moving low through the trees, Shepard stuck with him, anticipating his movements. Gone was all of the hesitation they'd seen while tracking her through the forest. Without a single misstep, she clung closer than a shadow, one-hundred percent Council Spectre Cpt. Jane Gwendolyn Shepard.

Inside the door, Thane and Marion waited, helmets on, Thane's pistol at low ready.

"I can access base security," Marion announced. "It shook hands with my implants through the helmet as soon as I got within three metres of the entrance. I have access to floor plans, and door locks, and camera feeds." She cocked her head for a moment. "Offsite communication and general server access is in the security wing. I can lead the way."

Shepard moved up on Nihlus's flank a little, her Suppressor in her right hand. "Let's get in there and out before the morning shift starts packing the halls."

Less than ten seconds after coming through the door, the whispers began scratching at the base of Nihlus's skull, threat stalking from every shadow, claws and tentacles slithering out to snatch at his ankles. He shuddered. At least his fear grew out of reality inside the base and its sterile bleached-bone walls: if they captured him, he might not be lucky enough to break a leg part way through their testing. What would become of Nihlus Kryik then?

They paused at a corner, and a firm but gentle hand caressed the length of his neck before urging him forward. Of course Shepard understood. She'd been brought back to life in a nightmare just like that one.

"Twenty metres—" A deafening klaxon blast drowned out the rest of Marion's instructions.

"Our people are moving against the facility," Shepard called. "We're out of time. Marion, use your access to see if you can find Amy. Don't be afraid to shoot your way through the enemy, but your uniform should cover you. Thane, will you go with her? Two will make the search faster."

"Of course, Captain." The drell shifted closer to the husk.

Shepard leaned toward Marion. "Half an hour and meet us back at the entrance if you're coming with us."

"Thank you for your help, Shepard." The husk grasped Shepard's hand. "I never thought I'd find a friend in that wreckage." The husk … Marion turned to Nihlus. "The main security office is twenty metres down and through a set of doors. Another ten metres on, turn left into a main corridor. The office is the first door on the right. The emergency code is 5GSH6499ER2067WWPX79. You'll need a recognized biometric signature."

Spirits, he hoped his suit cam caught that number. "Understood." He waited a second to see the other pair safely away before glancing at his derra. "Ready?"

She nodded. "Move fast, I'll keep up. If we come under fire, I'll shoot to your right."

Nihlus stood. "Try not to shoot me in the back." A teasing elbow digging in between armour plates set him in motion.

They made it through the double doors before a tide of bodies and weapons swept over them. Platoon and squad leaders moved their people through in focused, orderly lines … too orderly and focused to even notice them. Nihlus let out a long breath, guiding Shepard around the outside, wishing for the first time that he'd adopted Saren's fetish for head gear and capes. Still, not a single head turned their way despite the spectacle they must make.

"Are those upgrades Marion mentioned responsible for the fact no one is noticing us … like, at all?" Shepard whispered. She pressed against Nihlus's back. "Do you think it extends to the unit commanders?"

"What's your plan?" he asked even as he inspected the security station. He entered the code despite knowing that whatever she did next, it would knock the insanity jar off the shelf.

"Hey there, soldier." Shepard stuck her arm out, fumbling for a second before she caught hold of the lieutenant from the head of the next platoon, spinning the man around. She shoved him into the scanner, pausing just long enough for the door to click, then spun him back out into the tide, headed the right direction.

Nihlus pushed the door open, staying low as he ducked through. He held the door, ushering Shepard through under his arm. Outside, the line never paused, the lieutenant reeling for a moment before stumbling into a wall. What in the pits …? The man—if that's what he could still be called—couldn't process what Shepard had done.

"No alarm? Now, that's horrifying," Shepard whispered, her voice hoarse with a terror that gutted Nihlus on the spot. Her hand felt down his back, latching onto his belt, in motion without hesitation. "What in the holy name of fuck are they doing to these people? It's starting to look like Marion got luc—"

Bullets and shrill screams sliced off anything else Shepard intended to say. Nihlus ducked behind a low dividing wall, Shepard slipping right in behind his shoulder, her rounds hitting with remarkable accuracy. He glanced out, taking stock of their situation. Tarc, they should have kept Thane with them. He winced as the screamer upped their decibel level. Dear spirits, someone needed to shut that one up before Nihlus's aural implants blew.

"The main room is a maze of cubicles," he whispered. "Twenty five or so dug into decent cover." He shifted a little, keeping his legs ready to move quick and low.

"We'll just take it slow and by the numbers, cikabeknai." She fired off two shots and swapped sinks. "Okay."

Picking white and gold uniforms from white and gold cubicle walls as bodies ducked and dove for cover—some fleeing, some digging in for battle—proved nauseatingly difficult. The whole room seemed to move, rocking like the deck of a floundering ship. He shuffled forward, keeping his weapon at high ready, but silent, letting the civilians get out. "Collateral," he whispered over his shoulder by means of explanation.

"Take your time; the rest of the base is busy." She settled behind his right arm, their guns only recoil distance apart. The aura of confidence—of trust—she exuded, calmed and humbled him. She believed so completely in both of them that he couldn't doubt the outcome. She drew him back out of his head with a soft touch. "Just call the field as it clears."

Someone killed the lights, and the screaming stopped. No one moved for a few seconds, giving the battlefield time to settle in his head. "Shooters at eleven, one-thirty, and four."

"Got it."

Shepard pressed in close, using his body language to direct her. When he leaned out, he let her deal with the ones he'd tagged, and if blood didn't start splashing the walls. Not first shot, and not every shot hit, but as soon as they returned fire, she put them down.

He'd bonded with the most remarkable person in the entire galaxy.

As one body, they settled into the familiar rhythms of battle, fighting their way across the room like they knew what they were doing. Although Nihlus continued to call out enemy positions, he needn't have bothered. He knew that through a combination of his movements and her hearing, Shepard saw the battlefield as clearly as he did.

"I think we're clear," she whispered, the room warping her voice as it echoed through the baffling effect of cubicle partitions. "Let's get moving."

"Yeah." A thin specter of acrid smoke, sour sweat, and blood crawled into his nose, making itself a home deep inside his skull. He sniffed even knowing it wouldn't move out any time soon. "Stay here, keep an ear out." Moving slowly, Nihlus cleared the rest of the room before calling Shepard out of cover.

He watched her as he returned across the room, fascinated by the process going on behind her sightless eyes and cocked head. Even before he reached her, she set off toward a door in the back corner. What did she hear? None of them knew how extensive her modifications and upgrades had been. Lawson said that her boss wanted the original Shepard, but then they found the modification chip.

"There's a hum from behind that wall," she said, pulling him from his worries. "That's the comm center. Let's get this done."


Their shuttle shuddered, dropping about a half-metre. Shepard lunged for Nihlus's arm, slamming her knuckles into his armour before wedging them through his elbow.

"Sorry folks," Lt. Cortez called back from the pilot's seat. "It's just a little turbulence. There's a series of thunderstorms across the Pacific." He twisted to look back through the door, realization clouding his expression as he saw Shepard's face. "I don't want you to worry, Captain, there are no more VI autopilot crashes for you," the pilot announced. "From now on, I'm taking you door to door. Safer than a baby in its cradle."

Shepard chuckled, but her grip on Nihlus's arm didn't loosen. "Thanks, Tex. That's great to know." Wriggling in closer, she sighed for Nihlus's ears only. "I need something to take my mind off the amazing bronc shuttle." She looked up out of habit, even though she still reported no returning sight. "EDI, any word from the teams in the base?"

"Admiral Hackett's reinforcements have arrived, Shepard. Friendly casualties are light. Captain Anderson's last check-in estimated another four hours to completely clean out the base. Also, judging by the speed of Mordin Solus's report delivery, he seems pleased with the specimens and data his science team is collecting."

Nihlus laughed and hugged Shepard closer. He could only imagine. That nightmare would be the scientist's version of ylasiun.

"Excellent." Shepard gingerly rested her head on his shoulder. "Have Marion and Thane met up with Mordin's group?"

Nihlus nodded, also concerned. The pair had been unable to locate Marion's daughter. Instead, they'd discovered a great many projects in various stages of transformation between human and husk. Most proved too far gone: insane, in unbelievable agony, or fully converted and mindless. The moment Shepard heard about more innocent victims, she called Mordin, insisting he put together a team and raid the base for humanitarian purposes. She'd given him orders to transport everyone he deemed fit for rehabilitation to Omega. Marion and Thane would return with them.

Spirits. Nihlus sighed and leaned into his derra a little. As if the reapers and collectors weren't horror enough. Cerberus seemed set to outdo them both. His gut rolled. As much as they needed to go through every letter and number EDI dragged out of the Cerberus computers, he knew it meant the fog of war falling away and a call to arms. They weren't ready. Spirits, they'd never be ready.

Thunder crashed in on them from all sides, the lights in the hold blacking out for five racing heartbeats. The shuttle bucked again, doing its best to throw them from their seats. Sure enough, a second later, Steve whistled. "That was lightning folks, we're going to head up above it before our livers get shaken loose." As the shuttle began to climb, the telltale boom and crackle of a thunderstorm beating against the hull worsened.

Shepard's grip tightened, the child lost in the storm in the Scottish highlands once more. She gulped hard with every jolt, but her voice remained steady when she asked, "EDI, how goes the data mining?"

"I've uncovered a great deal of disturbing information, Captain. There's too much to cover while fighting multiple AI-assisted firewalls, but I believe this extranet speech given by the Illusive Man to Cerberus donors will give you the gist."

"The gist?" Shepard scoffed, the phlegmy cough eclipsing the storm. "Since when do you give gists?"

Nihlus braced for the incoming smartass. Shepard couldn't help infect everyone around her.

"I'm attempting to integrate more vernacular into my speech patterns to better facilitate my ascension to galactic overlord and master," the AI reported in her matter of fact way. Nihlus swore he wasn't just imagining the undercurrent of self-congratulatory wiseass.

"Nice," Shepard said, her voice warm, rolling with unexpressed laughter. In an instant, the thunderstorm building inside the shuttle dissipated, her stranglehold on Nihlus's arm easing.

Thank the spirits for EDI.

"Read me that bastard's speech, cikabeknai." Shepard wriggled in closer. "Fury's a good antidote to fear of being blown out the shuttle door."

Nihlus nuzzled the back of her head. "Only if you promise to let my arm have its blood back." When she laughed and loosened her grip on his arm, he opened the file from EDI. He read down the transcript, ignoring all the preliminary jargon and introductory nonsense. When he found the meat of the speech, he cleared his throat.

"We need not fear the harvest to come, instead we must stride boldly forward to prepare. While the races and Archangel struggle to find ways to destroy what they can not even fathom, Cerberus has already made great strides forward in not only replicating the reapers' technology, but subverting it. Our people on Mars continue to dig into the treasure trove of what the protheans left us, and what they're discovering is nothing less than revolutionary."

Swallowing, Nihlus struggled to find enough moisture in his mouth to speak. How in all the levels of buratrum had he and Garrus and all their sources missed this?

"Nihlus?" Shepard's grip on his arm tightened.

He nodded, then cleared his throat. "Right. Okay." Another rumble and he continued, "All of these fairy tales and myths through the ages haven't just been to warn us or embed the reapers into our collective unconscious." The speech's madness dug frozen, steel talons into his skull, scraping along the bone. "Instead, I believe they are laced with clues about how we must prepare, how humanity must be enhanced and improved in order to take control of the reapers. Humanity has been offered a manifest destiny … to not only excel but to rule. All we need is the courage to reach out and take what is ours."

A-N: Wow, it's super hard to believe it's been two years, but it has, and I apologize to you, my awesome readers. I'm going to really work on getting this and a couple of other projects finished. Pray for me. :D And I loveses you all.