April 9, 2185
SSV Normandy, Inc., Corporate Headquarters

"Have suggestion," Mordin announced.

Shepard looked up from his meal and gestured Mordin into the seat opposite him. Regardless of anything else, Rupert's cooking was worth taking time away from his desk. Mordin taking time away from his lab was something else entirely. Even Fred spent less time in his lab than Mordin, which was saying something.

"Tell me about it," Shepard said.

"Cerberus assault misfired," Mordin said. "Considered assumptions. Communications traffic key, yes. Find single feed, not many."

"Hmm," Shepard mused. There was some merit to the idea. They had clearly not taken out Cerberus headquarters. A major communications hub, yes, but not the Illusive Man's headquarters. "So, we should be looking for a spot that's blacked out except for one single comm relay?"

"Already found," Mordin said. "Traffic analyzed. All encrypted. Geth searching mainframe data for encryption keys. Excellent laboratory assistants. Not so good as collaborators. If Cerberus keys fit traffic, headquarters found."

"Excellent work, Mordin," Shepard said. "Thank you."

"Opportunity to free galaxy of blight," Mordin said. "Feels good."

"Yes, it does, doesn't it?" Shepard said, smiling. "I'll wait to tell Miranda until you've confirmed it, though."

"Yes," Mordin said. "Avoid giving false hope. Better to wait, confirm. Is that varren steak?"

"Rupert!" Shepard called. "Is this varren?"

"You guessed!" Rupert called back. "Darn!"

"Blame Mordin!" Shepard called back, laughing. "I was certain it was sirloin."

"Requires top-notch cook to make varren edible," Mordin said. "Will have to try."

Rupert set up a plate and carried it to the table, placed it in front of Mordin, and said, "Here you go."

Mordin cut off a piece, bit into it, then smiled and said, "Top-notch cook."

"Umm, Commander?" Joker called, his voice unsteady. "You'd better get up here."

"Up here?" Shepard asked. "Joker, are you still aboard ship?"

"Of course!" Joker replied. "Where else would I be?"

"I don't know," Shepard said. "Maybe in your office in drydock?"

"Why?" Joker asked. "I can't pilot the drydock."

"You know," Shepard muttered, "I'm beginning to see what Fred means about his 'bang head here' spot."

"Fred?" a vaguely familiar feminine voice called over the radio. "Are you here?"

"Ri?" Fred's voice replied. "What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here?" Ri replied. "It's been nearly ten months! We finally asked Kevin to go over the math, and he gave us what we needed to get here."

"D'oh!" Fred replied. Shepard could almost see him smacking himself in the forehead. "Of course! How long did it take him?"

"Nearly a week," Ri voice replied.

"Nearly a week?" Shepard thought. "This Kevin must be a certifiable prodigy. Between Edgar and the geth, Fred hasn't been able to get the math right in over a month."

"Nearly a week?" Fred asked. "So it really was as hard as I thought."

"OK, this Kevin really isa prodigy, if that'sFred's reaction," Shepard thought.

"It really was," Ri said. "So where are you, anyway? Hel couldn't come – something about it not being her universe – so she made me promise to keep you safe. Elsie stayed home for the same reason. Miri insisted on Mike coming, so he could take care of Tali. Atsuko's between jobs, so she came with Mike, of course. Max is parked in Hold One – "

"Hi, Dad," a male voice interjected. "I heard you were having even more fun than hunting Scylla."

"Alex insisted on coming, even though it meant leaving her harem at home," Ri continued, ignoring the interruption. "Irene and Whimsy came, Cal and MJ got permission from Miri to come, as long as they listen to you and me. Well, mostly me, but that's always the way it is, isn't it?" She laughed indulgently. Shepard could understand that: the idea of Fred being in charge of children was one that sent a shudder down his spine. "So where are you?"

"If Max is in Hold One, you brought Howard, right?" Fred asked.

"That's right," Ri said.

"I'll come out and meet you," Fred said. "Joker's already shitting his pants, I think. Don't want the geth to freak, too."

"Geth do not 'freak'," Nat declared. He paused, then continued, in a voice that even Shepard could tell was notably less certain, "Over any ship less than a kilometer in diameter."

"I'm just a little surprised, that's all," Joker said. "You didn't tell me you had a ship that was as big as a Reaper."

"Howard?" Fred asked. "Nah, he's only a mile in diameter. Besides, he's a freighter. And research lab, but the lab is his, not mine."

"Oh god," Joker groaned. "His ship, with more weapons than a cruiser, is a freighter. And it has its own lab."

"His own lab," a male voice with a distinct Texas twang said. "I like to tinker."

"Commander?" Joker pleaded.

"I'm on my way," Shepard said, delivering his plate to the dishwasher.


"Seriously!" Fred said, to a crowd of disbelieving people – mostly women, Shepard noticed – gathered in one of the drydock's larger rooms, "the only FTL system these people have is the flat space system. Not a single variety of hyperdrive in the lot. No hyperdrive, no fold drive, the closest thing they have to jump gates are these mass relays that produce a tube of flat space between linked relays, then fire the ship through the tube like a bullet through a gun barrel, not even a chappa'ai."

"How ever did you survive?" one of the women – shorter than Tali, with olive skin and mahogany hair in a calf-length braid, asked teasingly.

"By meeting the most irresistible quarra ever," Fred said, grinning. "She's an engineer, and she helped me get up to speed on their tech, as well as helping me stay sane when things got difficult the first couple days."

"Shepard?" Miranda asked as she walked into the room, "Who are all these people, and where did that enormous flying saucer come from?"

"Good question," Shepard asked. "Fred! Would you care to introduce your friends?"

"Yeah!" Fred called back. He ruffled the hair on a green-eyed, red-haired boy with more freckles than Shepard had ever seen in one place before, who was barefoot, and wearing bib coveralls and a t-shirt with a picture of a Valkyrie on it. "This is my son, Caelestis MacManus."

"Daddy!" the boy said, "Everyone calls me Cal!"

"Of course, squirt," Fred agreed, chuckling. Then he scooped up a girl with olive skin, hazel eyes, and wavy brown hair, wearing sneakers, khaki shorts, a safari shirt, and a backpack almost as big as she was, who hugged him, then squirmed until he put her down so she could shoot off between the adults and investigate every part of the room. "This is my daughter, Miriam. Everyone calls her MJ."

"MJ?" Shepard asked.

"Miriam Junior," Fred said, grinning proudly at the girl, who seemed absolutely incapable of standing still. He drew a pale-skinned woman, with black hair and two sets of ears – one set human, and another set, perched near the top of her head, that looked remarkably like skunk ears – into a quick, but clearly heartfelt, embrace, and said, "This is my wife, Kad'rianna Salustan MacManus."

"Call me Ri," she said as she blushed and smiled happily, with her ears tilted forward. Shepard had to admit, she made a trenchcoat look good. She reminded him of a film noir P.I., except for being a woman. With skunk ears.

"The crazy Gypsy," Fred said, pointing at the short woman with mahogany hair, wearing suede boots with heels higher than Miranda's, a calf-length black broomstick-pleated skirt, and an emerald green silk peasant blouse that was held in place only by the fact that it was tucked into her skirt, "is Alexandra Cooper, also known as Sparrowhawk. Or Alex. She'll let you know which she prefers."

"Alex works just fine," she said, while looking Miranda over with the same interest Shepard had seen in a good portion of the male members of the crew.

"The good-looking guy over there," Fred said, pointing at a slender man in a lab coat, who stood over two meters tall, with blond hair in a shoulder-length ponytail, "is Michael Gryphon, M.D. He's our planet's foremost genetic engineer, as well as being a kick-ass doctor. He and Mordin should get along famously."

"And I have something for Tali," Dr. Gryphon said.

"The sexy Japanese woman with Mike," Fred said, as the woman indicated rolled her eyes good-naturedly, "is Atsuko Hayashibara Gryphon, one of the hottest models on Earth, and Mike's wife."

"And a notorious crime lord," Atsuko added, "if you believe the DSS-controlled media."

"The cute blonde over there," Fred waved at a girl who looked as if she were in her mid-teens, who was nearly as tall as Dr. Gryphon, with blonde hair tied back in a thigh-length ponytail, pointed ears, and a build even more slender and athletic than Dr. Gryphon's, "is Irene Paine. Whimsy will introduce herself when she's good and ready, I suspect."

"Hi," Irene said, smiling and waving. She was wearing a satchel that appeared to be full of lots of objects about the size of grenades, blue jeans, and a flannel shirt with something heavy in the pocket.

The pocket moved, and something climbed out, up the front of the shirt, and sat on Irene's shoulder. It took a moment for what he was seeing to register, and when it did, Shepard looked at Miranda to verify that she saw it, too. Miranda was looking at him at the same moment, and the two shrugged at each other, then looked again. Sitting on Irene's shoulder was a girl, about six inches tall, who looked as if she were about the same age as Irene. No, make that a cat girl, about six inches tall. A six inch tall cat girl who had a rocket launcher slung across her back.

"How many kittens came along?" Fred asked, looking at Ri.

"As many as could either get their mother's permission or sneak away behind their mother's back," Ri said, with the longsuffering tone that said she was used to this situation. "At least the Powers' came along to supervise them."

"All right, kittens!" Fred called. "If you don't come out now, you don't get to help blow up Reapers!"

"Awww!" came from several directions, as kittens began slinking toward Fred. The first one to get to Fred looked up at him and asked, clear as day, "You wouldn't keep us from shredding bad things, would you?" Then, Shepard could have sworn, it pouted at Fred.

"All right," Fred sighed, with the same longsuffering tone Ri had used, "I wouldn't try to keep you from shredding bad things. That would be mean. But it's rude to not say hello to friends when you go on their ships. You know that."

While Fred was speaking to the first kitten, several more joined it. Then several more joined those. Shepard gave up counting when he realized he'd counted the same kitten four times.

"I count at least four dozen, ranging from barely weaned to almost too old to be called kittens," Miranda whispered.

"Remember, kids," Fred said, "they don't have bubasti here. So you're going to want to make a good impression on them, right?"

All the kittens nodded in unison, their eyes wide. Shepard doubted he could withstand the sheer cuteness without his mind giving way, and wondered how Fred managed it.

"In order to lose sanity, you have to have it to begin with, right?" Miranda murmured, while keeping her expression perfectly neutral.

"Damn it, Miranda," Shepard muttered, biting his tongue to keep from laughing, "I'm trying to be respectful here."

Fred laughed. "Remember, kids, I have a hatchling and a puppy at home. It's going to take a lot more than the big eyes to melt my brain."

"Daddy doesn't even melt to my big eyes any more," Cal pouted.

Shepard lost it at that. He laughed, hard enough to slide down the wall to the floor.

"You broke it, you bought it," a black-haired woman with pointed ears, amber eyes and a pointed tail commented to Fred, pointing at Shepard with her tail.

"His girlfriend might object to that," Fred shot back. "Not that I've met her yet, but the way he says her name, I'm not going to be mean."

"Fred?" Tali called as she entered the room between Miranda and Shepard. "Is that Howard out ... there?" She stopped and looked around the room, then let out a happy gasp. "Ri!"

"Tali!" Ri called back, a smile on her face and her ears pointed forward. "That's right! Kevin worked out the math to let us get here, so here we are!"

Tali crossed the room and hugged Ri, laughing. "I thought I wouldn't get to meet you in person until we made our way to your universe!"

"James?" Fred said, apparently to thin air. "Yeah, I tried Theresa but she's apparently busy. I've got some files I'd like you to pass to Theresa's protege. We don't have the key for them, so she'd have to work out the encryption on her own. Do you think she'd like that? Yeah, that's what I thought, too. Just a sec. EDI? Could you give Edgar a copy of the comm traffic?"

"Already done, Dad," Edgar said. "Uploading to James now."

"Some days, it seems like I'm just slowing down progress," Fred said, shaking his head and smiling.

"We got tired of waiting," Ri said, "so we gave the math to Kevin to work out. He had it working inside of a week."

"Wow!" Tali said. "You told me Kevin was good with math, but I didn't realize he was that good."

"Yeah," Ri said softly, her ears drooping. "We try to not push his limits in other areas, but math makes him happy."

"Hey," Tali said. "You're here now, so we know we can get there any time, right?"

"That's right," Ri said. She smiled, and her ears perked up and swung forward. "All we have to do is convince Fred that it's OK to go home." She laughed softly. "He has this thing about finishing whatever it was he set out to do when he arrived in the new universe."

"In that case," Tali asked, "how many more ... non-combat ... ships can you bring over?"

"Oh!" Ri laughed, hard enough to lean on Tali for support. "You've experienced Fred's idea of adequate weaponry, too?"

"He designed a runabout," Tali said, throwing her hands up in the air, "with fire-linked laser cannons, and four – count them, four! – particle beam turrets! And a full GARDIAN system!" She glanced at Fred and added, "And he says it's not intended for combat."

"Yup," Ri giggled. "That's Fred. He actually said that a Klingon cruiser had almost half as many weapons as it needed. That was just before he used its bridge like a baseball bat and detonated their main reactor. Of course, he also said the IPS Valiant had almost a quarter as many weapons as it needed. I'm not sure what Captain Tenjou's reaction to that was, but I'm sure it had to have been interesting. I was in cryo-sleep at the time, in a smuggling crate that Big Fire had managed to get into the Valiant's hold."

"I take it the Valiant is heavily armed?" Tali asked, giggling.

"Four pulse phaser cannons," Ri said, "two strip-collimated phaser arrays, two photon torpedo launchers, composite reinforced tritanium alloy hull, Mark II deflector array, impulse drive, warp drive, hyperdrive, and metaspace transition point generator, yeah, she's one of the most advanced ships in my universe."

"And way undergunned," Fred said. Ri stuck her tongue out at him. "Later." Ri's pale face went as red as Cal's hair.

"Wait a minute," Shepard said, walking into the room. "Phaser cannons? Photon torpedoes? How useful would these be against Reapers?"

"Extremely," Fred said. "But I was working with your native technology, so I could get the Normandy built quickly enough to be of use. We can build more ships, now that we know the Normandy's functional, and use some of the additional tech. I gave you hyperdrive because it's the easiest FTL technology to install. Warp drives are a pain in the ass to tune and balance, and metaspace is so weird it makes hyperspace look sane. Phasers, deflectors, photon torpedoes, those will all come in time. And they'll make your company more powerful than the Citadel fleet. I've given you a small taste of how a phaser works already, back on the dead Reaper."

"Your 'just a gram of antimatter' stunt?" Miranda asked.

"Yup," Fred said. "That wasn't exactly a phaser, but it uses a similar principal."

"I see," Miranda said. "Does it involve fewer explosions?"

"Depends on the energy setting," Fred said, grinning shamelessly.

"I don't know why I even bother," Miranda said, throwing up her hands. "I swear, he's determined to act like an annoying older brother."

"And this is a problem, exactly how?" Fred asked. "Oh, don't worry, Commander. Now that some of my Knights are here, we'll have you fixed up with proper ships in no time. Tali, where's Nat?"

"He said something about meeting Howard," Tali said. "That's who's parked outside, right?"

"Yup," Fred said. "That's Howard. OK, then. Nat said the first of the new Companion platforms are ready. Do they have designations yet?" He paused, looking off into the distance, then said, "OK, good. Shepard, I've uploaded some basic ship designs to the drydock's hub. We'll invite some of the kids to come and play while the new ships are being built, but you're going to have to see about recruiting crews for the new ships. The geth will provide platforms to fill in the gaps, but they'd prefer if organics provided the bulk of the crews. They're worried about negative reactions from the organics, and they'll be using some of the data to update their own ships, which will need crews of their own if they're going to be of any use supporting you."

"Thank you," Shepard said. "Now if only we could get this data to the rachni."

"You have rachni?" Fred asked, in unison with Alex. Both had smiles on their faces.

"I can find them," Alex volunteered. "I remember where they were back home, and I have songs."

"Go for it," Fred said. "Max, you'll take Alex, right?"

"Of course, Dad," came the voice Shepard had heard in the company cafeteria. "Maybe these rachni will have new songs to add to our collection."

"I hope so," Alex said. She danced out of the room, whistling cheerfully and blowing a kiss to Miranda as she passed.

"You know the rachni?" Shepard asked. "And you're not afraid of them?"

"Why would we be?" Fred asked. "They're some of the nicest people out there. And their songs are amazing, especially given that they're better than half telepathic. Sure, they're scary to look at, first time you see them, but that doesn't change their basicly sweet nature."

"He can't be talking about the rachni," Jacob said from the doorway.

'He is," Shepard said. "It was in my official report on Peak 15. When I found the rachni queen, I freed her. She and her children have been preparing for our war against the Reapers ever since."

"The rachni queen?" Fred asked, shocked. "What happened? Why was there only one?"

"The rachni first appeared two thousand years ago," Jacob said, "when some explorers opened relays into their space. They boiled out of those relays and nearly wiped out Citadel space. Only the discovery of the krogan saved the rest of the galaxy."

"The rachni were being controlled by the Reapers," Shepard said. "She told me that something soured their singing, and that she believes what we are gearing up to fight is the same thing that soured their songs."

"The Reapers …. controlled … the rachni?" Fred asked, his face darkening with rage. Suddenly, he snapped out, in a barely-controlled snarl, "Peter! I want everyone who's not needed on scylla patrol over here, with every weapon they can lay their hands on! Fill them up with all the ammo we can spare!"

Fred paced, his hands clenched into fists, his shoulders hunched as he visibly fought to control his rage. Ri laid a hand on his arm and spoke softly to him. He spun, his face wild, toward her, then let out a sob and embraced her, hard enough to make her white face more pale. Tali moved in and touched his shoulder, speaking softly. Fred replied, just as softly, as he let Ri breathe.

"Telling Dad about the rachni might have been a mistake," Edgar commented over the radio. "They've always been one of his favorite species. Something actually made them violent, two thousand years ago?"

"They nearly wiped out Citadel space," Jacob repeated. "The rachni are a menace!"

"The rachni are peaceful, artistic, and reclusive," Edgar shot back. "They only go to war if someone threatens their hive. If you approach them as friends, they will give you the shirt off their backs – figuratively speaking. Shepard, you did the best thing you could possibly have done when you freed the queen. I can't believe they were down to only one queen!"

"They were down to none," Jacob growled. "And should have stayed that way."

"The rachni were extinct," Shepard said. "Until a genetic engineering company found a ship with eggs aboard. The egg that they hatched was a queen's egg. The idiots at the company tried to turn her children into weapons, by taking them away from her when they hatched. She told me they had been driven insane by the lack of her songs, and asked me to put them out of their misery. I freed her and killed her children. I don't know where she is, but if your friend can find her, I guarantee, no one in our company will harm them. Do I make myself clear, Jacob?"

"They took the hatchlings away from their mother?" Edgar asked, a clear tone of shock in his voice. "My god, the poor things must have been driven insane from terror. Rachni hatchlings need the songs of their mother in order to soothe them against the terrors of the world. How stupid are your people?"

"Crystal, Commander," Jacob said, a look of resentment on his face.

"Not stupid," Shepard said. "Ignorant. The only thing we knew of rachni was what we learned in our history classes. The Rachni Wars established the image of the rachni for every other race. The threat was so great that the krogan were uplifted by the salarians in order to fight the rachni."

"That's just insane!" Edgar said. "Who else is going to colonize the toxic worlds? The rachni love them! And they love art, from music to sculpture. I hope Alex isn't too upset when she finds their old worlds have been wiped out. That could be … bad."

"Umm … Commander?" Joker called, clearly unsettled again. "I think you should look out the nearest window."

Shepard worked his way through the crowd in the room, past Fred, Tali, and Ri, and looked out the window. Outside, mixed in with all the geth ships, new ships were beginning to appear. Mostly, they were flying saucers, like the enormous one, but there were also fighters, ships that looked vaguely like armed shuttles, and at least a dozen designs Shepard did not recognize.

"I take it these are from your world?" Shepard asked.

"Oh yes," Fred hissed. "We're going to make the Reapers pay …."

"You know," Shepard muttered under his breath, "he's kind of scary when he's like this."

"I know," Edgar replied. "We all do. But he's our dad, so we watch out for him. And besides, the Reapers hurt the rachni. We all volunteered for this bug hunt. Peter had to insist on some of us staying home to mind the store and keep Mom from getting lonely."

"Mom?" Shepard asked.

"Miri," Edgar said. "MJ's mother, Cal's adoptive mother, and the virtual mother of almost all of us. She's a fighter jock, and a forensic pathologist. Speaking of which, Miranda, do you need a forensic accountant to help you figure out Hartford's books? With a little poking, we can make the case that you and Oriana inherit the company, given that the authorities on Elysium already know he created heirs from his own DNA."

"What would we do with it?" Miranda asked, a look of disgust on her face. "Whatever's left of it after the authorities get done with it, that is."

"Besides deny Cerberus the funding he was giving them, and funnel it here, instead?" Edgar asked. "There's got to be a lot of money in the patents and research the company owns. Maybe even some useful discoveries that can help the Normandy and its crew."

"He has a point," Shepard pointed out. "Even if you don't want to run it yourself, if he has access to a forensic accountant, you could get the books cleaned up, find out where all the bones are buried, and turn it into something you can be proud of."

"I'll have to talk with Oriana first," Miranda said thoughtfully. "But if you'd contact your accountant we may just take you up on that offer."

"No problem," Edgar said. "I've put in the call, along with a warning that it may take a week or two before you contact him yourself, what with the time differential."

"Thank you," Miranda said. "What's going on over there?"

Shepard looked toward where Miranda's gaze had fallen, and saw the dark-haired woman with the tail, talking with one of the geth troopers, comparing a rifle, that she had produced from who knows where, to the trooper's sniper's rifle.

"Why don't you go find out?" Shepard suggested. "It looks friendly, so far."

"That's Willow," Edgar said. "DSS called her Experimental Hybridization Subject Zero. Her mother was an elf, her father was a pit fiend. She chose the name Willow after she escaped their facility, as a reminder of how flexible she would have to be in order to survive and succeed at hunting down the people responsible for creating her."

"You seriously expect us to believe that elves and demons are real in your universe?" Miranda scoffed.

"As real as dragons and cyborgs," Edgar said. "Cal's a dragon. Hatchling, actually. He's eight years old now. One of his favorite playtime activities is hunting scylla – without a ship. He just armors up and goes at it. Scylla are more terrified of him than they are of Eve. She's not here, though. The Berkeleys stayed home in case the scylla decide to test our defenses, with so many of us here."

"Dragon," Miranda said. "Uh-huh."

Cal turned from the equations he was drawing on one of the windows, for the benefit of a geth worker, and looked at Miranda. He tilted his head curiously at her, then chattered at the worker, exactly the way Fred did when he was distracted by work. The worker chattered back, and Cal nodded. Then he stumped across the room to look up at Miranda with the defiant look only an eight-year-old boy could manage.

"Why you not believe Cal is real?" Cal demanded.

"I believe you're real," Miranda said. "I just think that whoever told you you're a dragon was being mean."

"Nobody told Cal," Cal said. "Cal is! You come!"

Shepard chuckled and shooed Miranda off after the boy. She'd invited this one all by herself. Given what he'd seen and experienced, Shepard was disinclined to outright disbelieve anything, no matter how far-fetched.

Cal headed for the airlock, Miranda close behind, and worked the controls with the calm assurance of someone who'd used similar controls many times before. When the door opened, he grabbed Miranda's arm and pulled her in behind him. Shepared watched the lights that indicated the lock was cycling, and then Tali was at the window, letting out an awe-filled cry.

"It's beautiful!" Tali cried. "What is it?"

"Not what," Ri said, as a wall of ruby red, sparkling like it was made of millions of tiny crystals, moved past the window, "who. That's Cal."

"That's Cal?" Shepard blurted out, too stunned to remain quiet.

"Cal, honey," Ri called. "They need to see your face in order to know that it's really you."

"Cal already showed gainax lady," Cal said. "Who else needs to see?"

The ruby wall flexed as it moved, then dove below the window. Suddenly, a head appeared in the window, on the end of a long neck. The head and neck were the same gem tone as the moving wall had been, with a dual row of ridges down the back of the neck, and the head had large, emerald green eyes, and a muzzle and mouth large enough to bite through a thresher maw.

Shepard felt a presence touching his mind, the way he had on Noveria when the rachni queen had spoken to him. He could have sworn it was laughing.

"Everyone see now?" Cal asked, "or does Cal need to give more rides, like he did for gainax lady?"

It took a moment for Shepard to figure out who Cal was talking about. When he did, he let out a snort of laughter. Trust a child to name her for a feature that adults feared to mention within her hearing. Outside the window, Miranda was grimly clutching ridges on the the … Shepard had to admit it: that creature out there looked exactly like what he imagined a dragon would … dragon's neck, the look of terror on her face clear even through her breather mask.

"Be nice, Cal," Ri said. "Put the poor lady back in the airlock."

"But she say Cal not real!" Cal answered, the petulance in his voice so strong that Shepard could imagine the creature out there stomping its foot.

"You're real! You're real!" Miranda cried out, the terror on her face also coming through in her voice.

"Oh, all right," Cal said. Shepard tried to imagine the dragon pouting, and felt himself dangerously close to laughter.

Tali laughed, and Ri shook her head, an indulgent smile on her face. Fred's face began to lose its look of rage, and instead acquired a look of amused calculation.

"Cal," Fred said, "I think Miranda needs to see how many ships came over. Why not take her on a tour around the ships, and introduce her to the ones who want to talk?"

"I'm going to get you, Fred!" Miranda called. "You are dead, you hear me? Dead!"

"Uh-huh," Fred said. "Enjoy your tour!"

"That was mean, sweetheart," Ri chided Fred, laughing.

Tali was laughing so hard, she couldn't say anything. She leaned against Ri, her head bowed, her whole body shaking with laughter.

"Big brothers are supposed to be mean," Fred said, joining in the laughter. "Thanks, squirt."

"Yay!" Cal crowed. "Cal made Daddy laugh!"

"Big brothers?" Ri asked, confused.

"It's a long story, love," Fred said. "Let's just say, I put an old ghost to rest while I was here. Now, let's see what we can do about putting a fleet into shape for taking on the Reapers."

"Commander?" Joker called. "Requesting permission to see Dr. Chakwas."

"What for?" Shepard asked. If Joker was requesting permission to see her, rather than just getting out of his chair to see her, something must be wrong.

"I'd like to see if she can give me something for hallucinations," Joker said.

"That's not a hallucination," Shepard laughed. "That's an eight year old boy."

"A dragon the size of a frigate, with Miranda clinging to its neck, is an eight year old boy?" Joker asked, his voice cracking. "I think I'd like permission to have a nervous breakdown now."

"Why you afraid?" Cal asked. "Cal want to know where best place is for asteroid racing!"

"For … asteroid racing?" Joker asked, his voice still unsteady, but the curiosity was enough to keep him from the edge.

"That right!" Cal said. "Cal is Solar System Champion in Unprotected/Vacc Suit Class!"

"What is asteroid racing?" Joker asked.

"Daddy! Explain!" Cal demanded as he did a barrel roll around a geth scout ship and zoomed off, Miranda still clinging to his neck.

"We find an asteroid belt that's got a really high density," Fred said. "Then we mark out a course through it, hitting all the densest pockets as waypoints. Then, we get the craziest fighter jocks out there to lay down entry fees, and the first – sometimes only – one to get to the finish line is the winner. The only rules are that you cannot directly attack the other racers, either with your own ship or with ally ships, and you have to hit all the waypoints – in order – before crossing the finish line."

"And you let your eight-year-old son do this?" Shepard asked, surprised.

"Can you imagine me stopping him?" Fred asked. "Besides, it keeps him in practice for playing with scylla."

"It's actually fun," Ri said. "We have several classes, from factory stock to unlimited, with different weight classes in each main class. I usually do pretty good in the 100-ton Stock class. Fred's the master of Unlimited Fighter class, of course. Miri's top of the ranks in Stock Fighter. She's usually not so sure about the mods Fred makes to his racers, and sticks to flying Manfred when she's racing."

"Manfred?" Shepard asked.

"He's a Valkyrie," Ri said. "He's also the reincarnation of the Red Baron, whoever that is. A real gentleman, even when he's trying to shoot you out of the sky. I've actually seen him offer scylla a chance to surrender, before blowing them into luggage."

"That sounds like it could be fun," Joker mused. "Commander, do you think …?"

"It's part of how we weed out prospective fighter jocks," Fred said. "We lay out our course in an asteroid cluster that's as dense as the Collector debris field. The wannabes never make it out the starting gate. Anyone who makes it to the finish, regardless of how, is guaranteed a job in our fighter squadrons. The winners can pretty much write their ticket with any company that needs space pilots." Fred gestured out the window. "All the organic pilots out there are asteroid racing contenders. Most of them have stepped up into the unlimited classes, too. If you need someone to fly something – anywhere – there's plenty of them available."

"You know," Zaeed commented, "something like this would go over big on Omega. The belt's dense enough, and the house percentage on the gambling would make whoever controlled it a small fortune."

"Aria would insist on her percentage," Shepard mused. "Still, it has potential. We need to recruit crews for our new ships. Omega is as good a place to start as any."

April 13, 2185
Omega Nebula
Sahrabarik System

"You want me to do what?" Aria asked, giving Shepard a look that showed she thought he was insane.

"Sponsor an asteroid race," Shepard said. "It'll bring in more customers, you'll get a decent take from your percentage of the house on the gambling, and it'll clear out some of the local hotheads so your staff don't have to do it."

"This sounds too easy," Aria said. "What's the catch?"

"The catch," Shepard said, chuckling, "as you put it, is that you'll have to keep the course clear of spectators and interlopers during the race." Then he grinned, before adding, "Or my people could keep it clear for you."

"Your people?" Aria asked. "The last I knew, your people consisted of the crew of the Normandy."

"Things change," Shepard said. He reached up to key his radio and said, "Bring 'em in." He smiled at Aria and said, "As I said, things change. Your people can update you on what just arrived. If you're interested, give me a call. I'm going shopping." He stood and walked away, Jacob and Miranda flanking him on his way across the club.

"That was cruel," Miranda said, amused.

"She's not going to know what to do with us," Jacob said. "We're big enough to compete with the merc companies now."

"Good," Shepard said. "Aria's too comfortable. She needs some excitement in her life."

"And we're just the group to give it to her," Miranda said. She laughed and keyed her radio. "Cal, honey? Do you and MJ want to go shopping with me?"

"Ooh! Aunt Miranda gonna take us shopping?" Cal replied, his voice filled with excited happiness.

"You want to take two children shopping in Omega?" Jacob asked, giving Miranda a look of surprise.

"No," Miranda said, grinning. "I want to take Cal and MJ shopping in Omega. It'll be fun."

"Aunt Miranda, huh?" Shepard asked, chuckling.

"Cal's a good kid," Miranda said. "I like him. He knows how to show a grown-up a good time."

The trio made their way to the docking ring, through the usual beggars and pickpockets that littered this district of Omega, without leaving any additional dead bodies behind.

Jacob stepped over an unconscious pickpocket and said, "You could have just broken his arm, you know."

"I know," Miranda said. "But then he'd be unable to work for weeks, at the least."

"He's a pickpocket!" Jacob said. "His idea of work is stealing from people."

"Yes," Miranda said. "Your point?"

They were almost at the Normandy's port when Cal and MJ nearly bowled Miranda over with excited cries.

"Aunt Miranda!" Cal cried happily.

"Aunt Miranda!" MJ cried.

Miranda crouched and hugged both children, a happy smile such as Shepard had never seen before on her face. When she stood, one child holding each hand, she turned toward Shepard and Jacob, and announced, "We'll catch up later. The market district is calling."

"What will you do if you run into trouble?" Jacob asked.

Cal pulled a gun out of a pocket – a pocket that was much too small to have held it. MJ giggled and grinned with an "I've got a secret" look on her face. Miranda smiled, her old familiar smugness back, then winked at Jacob and led the children toward the market district.

Shepard chuckled and turned back to the port, Jacob close behind.


"Aunt Miranda?" MJ asked, looking up with big eyes, while standing over claw-marked chunks of a batarian's body. "Will Mommy Ri be mad that I broke the batarian?"

"No, sweetie," Miranda said. "She won't be mad. You did a good thing."

"OK!" MJ said, bounding ahead toward an open-air food stand. "I'm hungry!"

Miranda chuckled indulgently as she and Cal followed MJ to the food stand. "Give us three orders of skewers, and a plate of steaks," Miranda told the salarian behind the counter, while MJ and Cal clambered up onto stools.

The salarian looked nervously from MJ to Miranda, then scampered to fill the order. MJ polished off her skewers and steaks, and half of Miranda's skewers, in the time it took Miranda and Cal to eat theirs. Lunch finished, the three wandered off, each with a large Slushie in hand.

Cal ran ahead, to the booth that Miranda remembered had been occupied by a young quarian on Pilgrimage when Shepard had first come here, but was now being used by other booths as a place to store their excess products. MJ followed him and dove into the piles, letting out squeals of excitement at various discoveries, mostly mysterious to Miranda.

"Oooh!" MJ squealed happily as she stood up, holding a small arthropod in one hand. The creature snapped uselessly at her with its claws, while making squealing noises. She stuffed it into her backpack, while exclaiming, "Uncle Mike's gonna love this!"

"Uncle Mike's going to love that?" Miranda asked. "It's just a kratykt. Batarian answer to rats."

"Rats are boring!" MJ declared. "Only the Qlets like them!"

"The Qlets?" Miranda asked.

"Q and Qella's hatchlings," Cal said, as MJ dove back into the piles. "They only come into this world when their mommy or daddy comes."

"Only come into this world?" Miranda asked.

"They live in Dreamland," Cal said, sounding serious for the first time since she'd met him. "Couatls. They protect humans from Things."

"Things?" Miranda asked. "What kind of Things?"

"Things Man Was Not Meant To Know," Cal said. Miranda hadn't thought a child was capable of capitalizing words that way, but he'd pulled it off, somehow. Whatever it was, he obviously thought it was important – more important than Reapers, even.

"Things are fun!" MJ announced, reappearing from the piles. Then she pouted. "Mommy only lets me shred them when grown-ups are around."

"Things are not fun," Cal declared. "Things are dangerous."

That took Miranda aback. Cal, who had not yet seemed particularly perturbed by anything he'd encountered, who was nearly as large as the Normandy 2 had been, considered these … Things … dangerous. That was kind of frightening.

"Duh!" MJ declared. "That's why they stink!"

"That's why they stink?" Miranda asked.

"Cynocephaloi detect evil," Cal said. "Not as good as bubasti, but good enough. Evil smells bad. The worse the evil, the more it stinks."

"Cynocephaloi?" Miranda asked. "Is that what MJ is?"

"Yup!" Cal declared. "Mommy, and MJ, and Alex." He shook his head sadly. "The only ones we know of still alive. DSS killed Alex's family. They were the only ones who would have known if there are more." He grinned. "Daddy is, too, sort of. Daddy's lots of things."

"All done!" MJ announced, moving to join Miranda and Cal. She looked up at Miranda and said, "Let's go! I wanna see the big guy's shop!"

"The big guy …," Miranda mused, before realizing that MJ had to be talking about Harrot, the elcor who ran a shop near the food stand where they'd picked up lunch. "All right, let's go."

MJ bounced ahead, laughing cheerfully. She jumped up on the counter in Harrot's Emporium and poked at the elcor. "What's your name? Where are you from? I never met someone like you. Do you have good stuff to sell?"

"Confused: you look like a human, but do not smell like one," Harrot said. "Curious: what species are you?"

"I'm a Child of Yinepu!" MJ declared. "I'm from Earth, just like humans! My name is MJ!"

"Amazed: I did not know Earth had more than one sapient species," Harrot said. "Friendly: My name is Harrot. I am an elcor. My species comes from Dekuuna. I sell salvaged goods."

"Yay!" MJ declared, hugged one of Harrot's front legs, and asked, "What kind of neat stuff do you have?"

"Sly amusement: You will have to look through my stock to see what you like," Harrot said. "I will give you the same discount I give your friend Shepard."

"You know Uncle Shepard?" MJ asked. Miranda had to laugh at that. She was going to have to tease Shepard about it when she got back to the Normandy.

"Proudly: Commander Shepard buys salvage from me whenever he comes to Omega," Harrot said. That was stretching the truth a bit, Miranda knew, but they did buy from Harrot whenever he had something useful.

"Yay!" MJ squealed, and dove into Harrot's stock.


"What did you buy?" Fred asked, looking at MJ and Cal's combined haul.

"Good stuff!" MJ replied, bouncing excitedly. "We know what you like!"

Fred picked through the pile, grinning as he identified a number of useful items, ranging from some pristine processor chips to droid parts that could be recycled into spare parts for worker platforms.

"You did good!" Fred said, giving MJ and Cal a matching set of hugs. "You're right! You know exactly what Daddy likes."

MJ grinned and hugged Fred back, then bounded off to join Aunt Miranda, who was examining something interesting. Cal hugged Fred back and grinned happily.

"Daddy's gonna have asteroid races?" Cal demanded excitedly.

"Yup!" Fred said. "Shepard's got it all set up. We're looking over the entrants right now. You're the only one who's entered in the Unprotected class, so I guess you get to set the record for everyone else to shoot for."

"Daddy won't enter?" Cal asked.

"Daddy's going to enter in Stock Fighter class," Fred said. "Daddy's new Valkyrie hasn't Awakened yet."

"Wow …," Cal said, surprised. "Valkyries never take this long to Awaken!"

"I know," Fred said, sounding worried. "Something's not right. So far, Rael's the only one who's Awakened. It's just not right."

"Maybe we too far away from other species?" Cal asked "Spirits not know where to find us?"

"Maybe, squirt," Fred said seriously. "That could be the case. We'll just have to wait and see what happens." He grinned. "So, you gonna put a bet down on Mommy Ri's race?"

"Daddy!" Cal protested, laughing. "That's like stealing chocolate from scylla!"

"Yup!" Fred said, grinning. "So how much do you want to put down?"

"How much is Daddy putting down?" Cal shot back.

"Daddy's going to wait until he sees how many people bet against her," Fred said.

"Daddy's learning!" Cal crowed, and hugged Fred. "Uncle Sven would be proud!"

"Uh-oh," Fred teased. "Uncle Sven would be proud? I think I'm in trouble."

"Silly Daddy!" Cal laughed. "Cal go find Mommy Tali now. Uncle Mike said we not bother her yesterday. Yesterday over."

"Be nice," Fred laughed, ruffling Cal's hair. "Go have fun, squirt."

Cal bounded off happily, and Fred went back to picking through the haul he and MJ had brought. Damn, he was proud of those two! They were growing up right, with an eye for good parts, a strong sense of who they were, and didn't take guff from anyone, including their old man. He felt a tear of happiness and pride coming to his eye.

"Let's see," Miranda commented. "I just saw Cal bounding off to find 'Mommy Tali', and MJ just left me to find 'something interesting' when my blueprints no longer gave her any mistakes to point out, so this must be the sight of paternal pride I see."

"Hey, imoutochan," Fred said, making no attempt to wipe away the tear. "MJ pointed out mistakes in your plans, huh? I thought you didn't make mistakes."

"I just don't let anyone see it when I make mistakes," Miranda said, chuckling. "Those two are something, aren't they?"

"They sure are," Fred said, proudly. "They seem taken with their Aunt Miranda, too." He paused, thoughtfully. "What about Aunt Oriana, though? I haven't seen her around much."

"She's been working at the main office," Miranda said. "She's decided that if she's going to get dragged into my life, she's going to make herself useful. And the way she sees it, making herself useful means managing our business affairs so us 'batshit crazies with big guns' don't have to."

"I'm never living that one down, am I?" Fred asked, looking as if he didn't particularly care to live it down.

"No, you aren't," Miranda said, grinning. "I should take you on a walk through Omega, just so I can watch what happens when the mercs or vorcha try to jump you."

"You want a bloodbath?" Fred asked, his expression a cross between serious and disappointed. Miranda felt a twinge of guilt at having triggered the disappointed part of that expression. "I've been researching this place. The big three companies alone are enough for me to go in and clean house, except if I did that, the smaller companies that they've been keeping in check would get big ideas and start stomping on the people that the big three have only been extorting protection money from."

"You … have a good point there," Miranda said, softly. She looked down, wondering what had happened to the cold-hearted bitch she had been before getting to know Shepard, until she felt a hand cup her chin and gently force her to raise her gaze.

"Hey, imoutochan," Fred said softly. "We both have pasts we're not happy about, OK? Admittedly, mine doesn't include membership in a terrorist organization, unless you believe the DSS propaganda, but I'm still not going to let you beat yourself up over who you used to be. That woman is dead." He grinned. "And besides, can you imagine trying to explain to Cal or MJ why you're sad?"

"Cal … already knows," Miranda said. "He touched my mind while I was riding him, and my memories kind of all came out before I could stop them. He has … a unique way of looking at things."

"Let me guess," Fred said, with a grin. "You broke it, you fix it, right?"

"Yes," Miranda said softly. She looked into Fred's eyes sadly, as she whispered, her voice cracking, "Some things can't be fixed."

"Has Cal or MJ told you about her ability to smell evil?" Fred asked.

"Why is gainax lady sad?" a small voice asked from behind Miranda. She spun and looked around wildly, then looked down to where the voice continued, from near her feet, "Evil people don't feel sad about bad things they did."

At Miranda's feet was a kitten, with green eyes and black spots against a pale silver background. Its nose, lips, and eyes were outlined in jet black, and the tip of its nose was black. The kitten looked up at her with surprising intelligence in its eyes, and she heard it declare, "Aunt Lauren says everyone deserves a second chance. At least, as long as they don't smell evil. You don't smell evil."

Miranda crouched to scoop up the kitten, which ignored her attempt to lift it, and leaped onto her shoulder, once it was in range. The kitten wrapped itself around the back of her neck and settled in, as if it had decided she needed a purring neck scarf.

"I did bad things before I joined Shepard," Miranda said. "I … was a bad person."

"Not bad anymore," the kitten declared. "You did bad things? You do good things now."

"I try," Miranda said. "It's hard, though, when I know the man I did the bad things for is still out there, still doing bad things to other people."

"We find him," the kitten declared. "We fix!"

"Fred?" Miranda asked. "Would it bother you if I told you that I approved of MJ killing a batarian this afternoon?"

"Nope," Fred said. "She wouldn't do it if he wasn't evil. Even then, she'd mostly just try to avoid him unless he did something to force her to shred him."

"He did," Miranda said. "I think he was trying to kidnap her."

"Kidnap MJ?" Fred asked, laughing. "The only way he'd be able to do that is if he managed to overcome her Ravenfield. Anything less would only give her a chance to get a good sniff of him. And her mother and I have always taught her that a Child of Yinepu is not just allowed, but expected to shred evil things."

"Child of Yinepu," Miranda mused. "That's what she told Harrot she is. Cal called her a cynocephaloi."

"That's right," Fred said. "Just like bubasti are Children of Bast, cynocephaloi are Children of Yinepu." He reached out to scritch the kitten between the ears. "We're from two old lines, species that are literally descended from gods, dedicated to protecting the world from evil."

"So Cal was right when he said you're one, too?" Miranda asked.

"Yup," Fred said, cheerfully. "It's not that simple for me, of course, but that's the basics."

"What do you mean, not that simple?" Miranda asked, idly reaching up to stroke the kitten, which rewarded her with deeper, more intense purring.

"You see," Fred said, "I'm not just a Child of Yinepu. I'm also Raven Firethief." He scowled. "That's why the bastards at DSS are able to banish me. Their sorcerers seem to specialize in banishing spells, which only work on beings of extradimensional nature. Like demons, devils, heroes, gods, and spirits. Including totem spirits, which is what I am."

"Heroes are extradimensional in nature?" Miranda asked, obviously confused.

"Back home," Fred said, "there are two kinds of heroes. There's the mundane kind, which includes ordinary people, of whatever species, who go out of their way to help the innocent. Then there's the old-fashioned, supernatural kind, who are people with divine or demonic blood somewhere in their family tree. You could say that bubasti and cynocephaloi are all heroes, by definition. Other people who qualify as the second kind of hero include people like Arthur Pendragon, who was actually a reincarnation of Sigmund – or was it Siegfried, I can never remember which one came first? - Heracles, the Thunder Twins, Vainamoinen, Ambrosius Aurelianus, hell, even Willow's a hero by the old-fashioned definition, as well as the mundane. Edgar, make a note to have Michael include Willow in that banishment protection magic he's researching."

"Got it covered, Dad," Edgar said. "I hadn't even considered that she'd need to be included."

"Neither had I," Fred said, frowning. "We'd better start making a list of who all needs to be included, before someone else gets caught in one of these spells."

"You realize," Miranda said, "that you are going to have to demonstrate these … spells … to me. Or have one of your friends demonstrate."

"A little skeptical, are we?" Fred chuckled. "Hey, fuzzycuteness. Where's Aunt Theresa?" He paused. "No, wait. Strike that. Where's Michael?"

"Aww," the kitten pouted, its ears playfully tilted forward. "Uncle Fred not want to see Aunt Theresa summon piece of sun?"

"Not in the middle of a getta city, no," Fred said. "I know. Is Aunt Lauren here?"

"Yup!" the kitten announced. "I go fetch!" It proceeded to leap off Miranda's shoulder and vanish down the corridor at a kitten-speed run.

"Wow," Miranda said softly, once the kitten was gone. "My neck feels better than it has in months."

"Kittens know just the right spots to knead," Fred said. "I'd swear it's special kitten magic."

"Not just kittens," said a black woman with amber eyes and an amused – and smug – smile. "We never lose that particular talent. We just get more … particular … about who we use it on."

"Hey, Lauren," Fred said. "Miranda's still skeptical about the whole magic thing, despite being surrounded by bubasti, cynocephaloi, dragons, and elves."

"When you put it that way," Miranda growled at Fred, mock-menacingly. Fred grinned shamelessly back at her.

"Please excuse me if I don't banish Fred somewhere else," Lauren said, "regardless of how tempting it may be at the moment. His wives would kill me."

"Damn," Miranda mock-pouted. "So, you can do these spells Fred talks about?"

"When I have to," Lauren said. "Mostly, I'm an archaeologist. The magic I use is primarily oriented toward helping with my researches."

"Oh," Miranda said. "Like the woman Shepard loves. I understand."

"She's a biotic though, right?" Fred asked. "Entirely different thing."

"How?" Miranda asked.

"Magic involves the manipulation of mana," Fred said. "Remember how I said the Reaper was broadcasting on neural frequencies? Mana can be detected on neural frequencies, as well. At last, the ordinary mana most ordinary spellcasters use can be. What priests and wizards use is something else entirely, that we won't get into right now."

"Mostly," Lauren said, "what I use spells for is simple things, like translating texts I don't recognize, moving debris that's covering an artifact I don't want to risk damaging by uncovering it manually, and flash-frying pirates who think that the delicate little thing, all alone in the desert, is an easy mark."

"So how does that differ from biotics?" Miranda asked. "Other than the translation thing, which we get automatically whenever we connect to the extranet and download the latest language files, the other things you've described are ordinary biotic abilities."

"For starters," Fred said, laughing, "spellslingers don't have to ground themselves out after using magic. At least, they don't have to ground out static charges that could fry a motherboard."

"Better watch it, big brother," Miranda growled, "or the next time I need to ground myself, I'll use you as my grounding rod."

"All you'll do is feed him," Lauren snorted. "Functionally, there's not really a difference. The methodology is different, and depending on how you perform magic, that could be any degree of difference from nonexistent, to fairly extreme."

"Good point," Fred said. "Biotics are more of an innate thing, than spells or rituals. Maybe we should get Michael to demonstrate."

"Or get him to swap places with Q," Lauren suggested. "That would make some of the kittens happy, too."

"Especially if the Qlets come with, eh?" Fred chuckled. "You have a good point there. Oh! Has Aex found them yet?"

"No," Lauren said. "I hope she does, soon. Even over the radio, she's becoming … difficult. Frustrated. Angry. Scared."

"I know how she feels," Fred sighed. "When I learned what happened to them, I wanted nothing more than to hunt down the Reapers and tear them apart for what they did. It's … a good thing Cal and MJ distracted me."

"I'm thinking of getting some basic telepathy scrolls from Michael and going to help Alex," Lauren said. "Mike's needed here, and Cal's got his Daddy to babysit, so I'm all Alex has to help her."

"You have a point," Fred said. "Sally can't talk to them without spells, either, and your self-discipline is infinitely greater than hers. Needless to say, you're the best choice. Do you need me to set you up with one of the kids, to take you out there?"

"I'd appreciate it," Lauren said. "Amelia knows me, and can carry extra supplies if we need them. Besides, her crew section is a whole lot more appropriate than a fighter's cockpit for the … therapy … I'm going to have to engage in."

"She's that messed up?" Fred asked softly. "Shit. Take whatever you need. Take all the time you need. But, please, for everyone's sake, find them and make sure they're safe."

Lauren nodded, shifted down into a lioness with coal-black fur, and padded toward the rooms Michael and Theresa Powers had claimed, at a pace that was just short of a run.

"Them?" Miranda asked. "Are you talking about the rachni?"

"I am," Fred said, still watching Lauren vanish down the corridor. "They'll find them. They have to find them."

"Why so worried?" Miranda asked.

"Why so worried?" Fred snapped, spinning on her. For just an instant, Miranda worried she would have to defend herself against him. "Shepard told me the Reapers controlled them, forced them to attack other species! They only have one queen left! They're out there in the galaxy, so lost that Alex hasn't been able to find them in the four days she's been out there. She should have found them the first day, as soon as she jumped into their neighborhood. Instead, what's she going to find? No life signs, ruined hives, the obvious signs of battle, and probably some krogan skeletons. By now, she's probably worked up a really good hatred of krogans. You know, figures that the rachni were attacked by some previously unknown species, that wiped them out down to the last hive, and she was too late to help them, but she can damned well take revenge for them."

"That's a pretty bleak view of the situation," Miranda said, while privately agreeing that it made sense.

"I know Alex," Fred said. "If it doesn't involve composing or hunting, she has the patience of a mayfly. Not only that, the rachni are her friends. She never lets anyone hurt her friends, and if she can't stop someone from hurting them, she makes whoever it was pay. No one, but no one, gets away with hurting her friends. Period." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm worried for her almost as much as I am for them. She's perfectly capable of throwing herself into a frontal assault on an entire planet, if the people of that planet hurt her friends. I just hope Amelia can get Lauren out there quickly enough."

"She will," a sultry voice said from the nearest pool of shadows. "Nobody told me how sunny it is here, Fred. Aside from Alex and Lauren, does anyone need immediate aid?"

"Faern'ya," Fred said. "No, nothing else is immediate, that I know of. Did you bring any servants with you?"

"No," Faern'ya said. "I left them behind. I heard we were going into a war zone. There's always plenty of potential servants on a battlefield."

"True," Fred said. "Just try to pick from the enemy's bodies, OK?"

"Of course," Faern'ya said. "People tend to get upset if they see their departed friends among my servants." She chuckled, deep and throaty, a tone that made Miranda's libido sit up and take notice. "So, little sister, or new lover?"

"Little sister," Fred said. "Literally, in a way. So be nice to her."

"I always am," Faern'ya said, as she stepped out of the shadows. Now that she was in the light, Miranda could see why she hadn't been able to make her out in the shadows. She was only a little taller than a volus, but had the same slender, almost ethereal build and pointed ears that Irene had. On top of the delicate frame, she had black – no, make that a very, very dark blue-grey – skin, amethyst eyes, and hair that was so white, she should have stood out like a flare in the darkness. Then, a moment after she stepped into the light, the shadows moved to enfold her, and suddenly she was gone in the darkness again. A moment later, a hand extended, as the voice, more sultry than when she had first appeared, said, "Hello. I am called Faern'ya Rastain. I am delighted to meet you."

Miranda took the hand, and discovered that the appearance of delicacy was nothing more than camouflage. The grip she received from Faern'ya's hand was firm enough that she would not hesitate to rely on it if she were falling. "I am Miranda," she said. "Miranda Laws – Miranda Hartford." Then she chuckled and teased, "Or maybe it's Miranda MacManus. I like that name better than Hartford."

"Works for me," Fred said. "Fae, Miranda's exactly who you should be checking in with, to find out how you can help around here. I'm just one of the batshit crazies with big guns."

"That's usually the way it is," Faern'ya said, laughing musically. "So, you're in charge of volunteers, Miranda? Why don't we find somewhere private, where I can, mmm, discuss my qualifications with you."

If she didn't know better, Miranda would swear Faern'ya was trying to seduce her. Come to think of it, she didn't know better. Of course, from what she'd seen and heard so far, she might not object to what the smaller woman was offering by implication. It had been a while since she'd had a lover, and the males around here all came with complications. A woman, especially one from another universe, might be just the thing to eliminate that problem.

"That," Miranda said, making her decision, "sounds like a wonderful idea. Follow me, and we can have that discussion in my office."

"Would that be the office where the woman who looks like your sister is working?" Faern'ya asked.

"No," Miranda said, "but my office is next to that one."

"Well then," Faern'ya said, as the shadows expanded to engulf Miranda. A moment later, the shadows cleared, and Faern'ya and Miranda were gone.

"You wanted to learn about magic," Fred chuckled, once they were gone. "I think you're going to get a crash course. Should I have told her that Fae is as queer as a three dollar bill?"

"Nah," Edgar said. "If she hasn't figured it out already, she will shortly."

April 15, 2185
Omega Nebula
Sahrabarik System

"Remember," Fred said, "this is just an exhibition race, so there's no need to go all-out."

"Daddy gonna hold back?" Cal demanded.

"No," Fred laughed. "No, I'm not going to hold back."

"Then Cal not hold back, either!" Cal declared.

"Just remember to leave enough of the course for the other racers," Fred said, laughing. Then he hugged Cal, kissed Ri, and called up to the Normandy, "All right, Joker. I'll be dropping the flag in just a minute. You set?"

"Ready and waiting," Joker said, his voice all but vibrating with excitement. "I can't believe so many of the crew volunteered to be a part of this!"

"Are you kidding?" Tali cut in. "A chance to show the rest of the galaxy how the Normandy handles? You would have had to tie us up to keep us away."

"Oriana?" Fred called.

"Just tell me when to close the betting window," Oriana replied. "We still have a line that runs half-way across Afterlife's floor."

"I can't believe we got people to bet on an exhibition," Fred said. "Oh, well. What odds are they putting on Cal and Ri's races?"

"Right now, they're running eight-five to one that Cal's going to hole his suit and have to be rescued," Oriana said. "And two hundred to one that Ri's going to get wiped out by an asteroid."

"Give me enough tickets to cover both of those," Fred said. "How about the Normandy?"

"Betting isn't so heavy there," Oriana said. "Right now, it's running about twenty to one in favor of the Normandy taking a hit."

"Give me enough tickets to cover that, too," Fred said. "I have faith in Joker."


"Your crew has become quite a bit larger," Aria commented, as Shepard settled into his usual seat in her private lounge. "And, quite a bit younger," she added, when MJ danced across the floor, looked into her eyes with the intensity she normally expected only from another matriarch, then flopped onto the couch beside her. She had to admit, even if she would never let anyone else see it, that this child was unsettling. Very unsettling.

"Why sit here?" the child asked. "Boring!"

"It's not always boring," Aria said, chuckling as she looked around at all the excitement that filled Afterlife, and considered the child's pronouncement. Boring, was it?

"Daddy said you probably have the best displays in Omega," the child declared. "I want to see the races!"

"You do, do you?" Aria asked. The child's excitement was infectious, she had to admit that. "Aren't you a bit young for asteroid races?"

"Uh-uh!" the child declared, shaking her head. "Mommy Ri is racing, and Daddy is racing, and Cal is racing, and Uncle Joker is racing, and I don't have my own racer yet, but I will soon, and when I do, I'll get to race, too!"

"Uncle Joker?" Aria asked, raising an eyebrow in Shepard's direction. Shepard laughed softly and nodded in reply. Oh, well. She had seen Normandy listed on the program, but hadn't believed it was Shepard's Normandy. She should have known better, she guessed. She gestured Grizz over and quietly told him, "Put a hundred thouand down on the Normandy." She paused, thoughtfully, then added, "Put it down for completing the course in seventy-five minutes or less."

"But, boss!" Grizz protested. "Nobody's made it through that part of the belt in less than three hours!"

"Seventy-five or less," Aria said. "And I'll expect to see the tickets when you return.."

"Wow!" the child said. "You have faith in Uncle Joker! I only bet for ninety minutes! You really think he'll do seventy-five?"

"I've seen him fly," Aria said, giving the child a smile. "My name is Aria. What's yours?"

"Everyone calls me MJ!" the child said, grinning back at her. "That's for Miriam Junior. I'm named for my Mommy!"

"Your mommy is named Miriam, is she?" Aria asked. "She must be new around here.

"Mommy had to stay home, to keep Mommy Hel from being lonely," MJ said. "Mommy Hel couldn't come cuz it's the wrong universe. Aunt Elsie couldn't come, either. She's gonna be so unhappy! We get to shred stuff and she had to stay home!"

"Like batarians?" Aria asked. She recalled a shopkeeper babbling fearfully about a child suddenly sprouting claws and fangs and turning one of the local batarian chickenhawks into chopped meat.

"He was bad!" MJ declared. "Aunt Miranda said so! Besides, he smelled evil!"

"He smelled evil, did he?" Aria asked.

"Yup!" MJ declared, then climbed up on her knees and looked out over back of the couch, at the club. "Wow! You can see everything from here! Is that the display where we're gonna watch the races?"

"You can watch the races there if you want," Aria said, "but I have my own display up here, where only my friends – and Shepard – get to watch."

Shepard snorted, then nodded, smiling at her. Good. He understood. As for MJ, she gave the lounge a spark of excitement it hadn't had in centuries. Maybe she'd invite Patriarch up to watch the races. Who knew, he might like the little fireball, too.

"Yay!" MJ squee'ed, and turned around to bounce on the couch. "How long til the races start? Oh! Already? Daddy says Mommy Ri is ready to start her race!"

"Is that so?" Aria asked. "You talked to your daddy?"

"Yup!" MJ said, holding up her left hand, so Aria could see an elegant black wristwatch. The wristwatch projected a holographic eye, blinked at her, then went blank. MJ giggled. "Sid says he's watching you!"

"Sid?" Aria asked.

"Yup!" MJ said. "Sid. He says his name is really Siddhartha, but it's OK for me to call him Sid. It's easier to say, anyway."

"You have an AI in your watch?" Aria asked. Shepard cringed. Now, she was curious. She had never seen Shepard cringe before.

"Sid is not artificial!" MJ declared, stomping her foot. "You apologize to him!"

Shepard snickered. Aria had to admit, there was something almost intimidating about this child demanding that she apologize … to her watch, of all things.

The watch projected the eye again, rolled it to look at her, and then said, "Really, it would be best to apologize. Otherwise, MJ is going to continue fuming until you do. She takes insults to her friends very personally."

Well, it didn't sound like an AI. Aria had to wonder how they'd done it.

"Very well," Aria said. "I am sorry I called your friend artificial, little one. He is very obviously a real friend to you."

"Daddy doesn't make artificial intelligences!" MJ said. "He doesn't like slaves. I don't, either."

"Your daddy made this watch? I mean, Sid?" Aria asked.

"That's right!" MJ said, bouncing happily again. The resilience of youth – Aria almost envied her. "We gonna watch Mommy Ri race?"

"All right," Aria said. "Let's see."

Out on the main floor, the central display had changed from its view of her more talented dancers, to the starting area of the asteroid races. Aria pressed a button, and her personal display powered up, showing the same scene, in the center of her private lounge. At the moment, a golden disc-shaped ship, with a quad-turret in the center of each side of the disc, that was occupied by either lasers or particle beam cannons – from this disatnce, she couldn't tell – was occupying the center of the image.

"Yay!" MJ crowed. "Mommy Ri is flying with Hagbard! She's gonna set a record!"

"Hagbard?" Aria asked.

"Yup!" MJ said, pointing at the display. "Hagbard! He likes gold as much as Manfred likes red. Mommy Ri and Hagbard always fly best together."

As the view of the ship changed, Aria noticed that the ship was actually two-tone gold. Either that or one part was polished and one was matte, it was hard to tell. In any case, the surface of the disc had been divided into two, with a peculiar curved dividing line that caused the ship to form one of those odd human shapes. After dredging her memory for a few moments, the name "yin-yang" came to mind. On the shiny side of the line was etched a matte apple, with a shiny "K" embossed on it. On the matte side of the line was etched a shiny pentagon. Aria wondered if both faces of the ship had received the same treatment.

"… hundred ton class," the announcer, a perky feminine voice, said, "is Kad'rianna Salustan MacManus, flying the exploration ship and freighter, Hagbard Celine. I should note here that, back home, Ri and Hagbard have set several records in their class, from sixty minutes in Earth's asteroid belt to one hundred ninety-seven minutes in Imir's belt. Remember, folks, since it's unlikely that an asteroid is going to penetrate the shields on the ships you'll see today, we penalize them for impacting an asteroid by adding five minutes to their time for each asteroid they hit. How they avoid hitting the rocks is up to them, whether it's fancy piloting, excellent gunnery, or a combination of the two. I guarantee you'll see some fine flying out here today, so keep your eyes on your displays, and enjoy."

"That thing flew the Korlus belt in two hundred minutes?" Garka blurted out. "Impossible!"

"We'll just have to see, won't we?" Aria said, smiling. This was already promising to be entertaining, and the race hadn't … there it was. The timer appeared in the top right corner of the display, while the ship leaped from its starting position and bored into the belt, headed for the first waypoint.

MJ sat down, her attention so fully focused on the display that she was even silent, as long as the display remained trained on the ship. Aria had to admit, whoever was flying that ship had real talent. It crossed the finish line, in a time of eighty-four minutes, twenty-two point three seconds, after some amazing feats of piloting, and only two penalties.

"Mommy Ri's gonna be unhappy about that," MJ declared. "She doesn't like making mistakes."

"She could hardly call those penalties mistakes," Aria said. "The rocks tagged her after she'd already flown past them. That was a good run."

"She's still gonna be unhappy," MJ said. "Oooh! Cal's gonna fly now!"

"… Unprotected/Vacc Suit class, contestants are allowed to touch the asteroids, but only with the soles of their feet. If a rock and contestant meet on any other part of the contestant's body, not only do the usual penalties apply, there's also a good chance the contestant may be leaving the course in a body bag. Our contestant in this class is Caelestis MacManus, age eight. Now, we normally don't accept contestants this young, but I believe you'll see, once he's out on the course, that Cal is more than capable of competing with adults. Let's see what kind of record he's going to set."

"That's fucking insane," Anto growled. "Giving a kid a vacc suit's bad enough, but letting him think he can race in that mess?"

"Cal can do it!" MJ declared, giving Anto the closest thing to a death glare Aria had ever seen from a child that young.

In the display, Cal launched himself from the starting area. As he crossed the threshold into the course, Aria rubbed her eyes and looked again. The boy had changed form, into something the size of a heavy fighter, with a long neck, long tail, four legs, and wings. A matched pair of cannons sprouted from his shoulders, which he used to open fire on the rocks directly ahead of him. With those cleared away, he spun, planted his feet on the one asteroid larger than him, and used it to kick off in a different direction. Oh yes, this was going to be a good race. Aria leaned forward, right next to MJ, and let herself be swept up in the intensity of the race.

There was no doubt about it: Cal could do it. The timer read 42:03.17 when it locked down at the instant he crossed into the finish zone, and the cheering that rose from the main floor told Aria that the whole club had been focused on that boy's performance. She didn't know what species he was, but as long as he could fly like that, and still look like a cute little human boy when he wasn't flying, she didn't care.

Aria called up a display of her club accounts, and allowed herself to smile more broadly. As she had suspected, the good cheer among the customers extended to a spike in drink sales, as even those who had lost their bets against the boy joined in the celebratory drinks. It was just like when she had championship prize fights in the lower club: once people were caught up in the excitement, it didn't matter which side they had been on, until they took an accounting later. While they were in the club it was the excitement that drove them. She sent a message down to the storage rooms, ordering several kegs of the fastest-selling beers, as well as several crates of the liquors that were disappearing quickly, moved up to the bars. As long as the drinks kept flowing, people would stay happy. If the flow stopped while the goods were transferred, that could lead to trouble.

"… don't know if you can feel the excitement the way we are, but I tell you, folks, it's like standing under an O1 star out here. And it just keeps getting better. Our next racer is the founder of the Galactic Asteroid Racing Assocation. He's not flying his usual ship, instead using an ordinary factory stock Normandy Inc. VF1S Valkyrie. This one is only three months off the line, folks, and he's already using it for racing. That's how crazy our pilot is. Fred MacManus, callsign Raven, flying the Hugin. Now you'll get to see how a crazy fighter jock handles the course. And, yes, we know that's repetitively redundant."

"Daddy!" MJ crowed, bouncing up and down excitedly.

"That's your daddy, is he?" Aria asked.

"Yup!" MJ said. "Daddy would be flying Max, but Max is helping Aunt Alex."

"Max?" Aria asked.

"Yup!" MJ said. "Max is Daddy's fighter. He's Sid's big brother."

"But he's not flying Max right now," Aria said.

"Nope!" MJ said. "Max is helping Aunt Alex. It's a secret!"

"It is, is it?" Aria asked. This sounded interesting.

"Yup!" MJ said, then turned to the race. "Ooooh! Daddy about to start!"

Shepard chuckled and leaned forward, looking into the display alongside MJ. The first time the fighter transformed into a robot, a collective gasp rose from the crowd, and Aria could almost hear the thoughts whirling through the minds of the various mercs in the place. Did they realize how big a mess they were stirring up with their new fighter design? Given the look on Shepard's face, Aria had to guess the answer was yes, and that they had intended to stir it up. The fighter finished the course in 47:56.89, and a collective "ooh" of excitement rose from the crowd.

"If you're interested in learning how one of these fighters handles in person, find a Normandy recruiter and show us your credentials. We're looking for the best pilots in the galaxy, and if you don't know by now what we're hunting, you haven't been paying attention to the news vids. Rounding out our program is our very own Joker, flying the Normandy Mark Three. As you all know, the first Normandy was destroyed by a Collector cruiser two years ago. But what you may not know is that the second Normandy delivered a four million megaton message to a major Cerberus communications hub, just two weeks ago. Joker is here with the third Normandy, coming up on the end of her shakedown cruise, and is ready to remind Omega why he's the best frigate pilot in the galaxy."

"I don't recognize that voice," Aria said. "One of your new crew?"

"That's right," Shepard said. "Her name is Irene. She's insane. She carries dirsuptor missile warheads as hand grenades."

"You're right," Aria said. "She is insane. And you recruited her?"

"She volunteered," Shepard said, chuckling.

"Aunt Irene is fun!" MJ announced. "Just stand behind her and Aunt Jack!"

"Aunt Jack," Aria mouthed, pinching the bridge of her nose. She could feel a headache coming on. Shepard's laughter didn't help.

"Why does everyone do that when I talk about Aunt Jack?" MJ asked, in the most put-upon voice Aria could imagine coming from a child her age.

Shepard grinned, gesturing to indicate that since Aria had stepped in it, she could handle it. Aria shot him a 'just you wait until later' glare, which didn't faze him the way it should have. She had to admit it: Shepard was just way too much fun to have around. She was seriously risking letting her guard down – especially with the little fireball.

"Aunt Jack is … she has … problems," Aria finished, not quite sure how to break it to the child.

"Oh!" MJ said, dug into her backpack, and pulled out a bag of jerky. "Want some? Are you worried 'cuz Aunt Jack wants to make the rest of the world hurt like she does? I thought everybody knew that!" She ripped open the bag of jerky and shoved a piece in her mouth, then offered Aria the bag while she chewed. The way she tore into that piece of meat reminded Aria of a varren tearing into a steak. It was rather disturbing. She swallowed, and added, "She just needs to visit Uncle Mike. He can make her not hurt so much."

"You mean," Shepard asked, "she's literally still in pain?"

"Duh!" MJ said. "Can't you smell it?" She blushed. "Oops. Sorry. I forgot that you can't. She really really hurts. But she won't tell anyone. That's dumb! How can anyone fix it if she doesn't tell?"

"Did you talk to Uncle Mike?" Shepard asked.

"Wow!" MJ squee'ed. "Did you see that? Joker made the Normandy do something impossible!"

"That's why he's her pilot," Shepard said.

"I think she's right," Aria said. She opened a secondary display and replayed the last few seconds. MJ was right: Joker had somehow managed to get the Normandy to wrap around an asteroid, while traveling at a speed comparable to Fred's in his fighter. She dismissed the secondary display and sat back to enjoy the rest of the run, already anticipating the additional credits that would be entering her account at the finish. When the final time of 64:08.10 displayed, Aria chuckled and looked past MJ at Shepard.

"Congratulations, Shepard," Aria said. "Your ship just earned me two million credits. That's a very nice finish to my day."

"Always happy to help," Shepard said, chuckling. "Shall we go find your daddy, MJ?"

"Yup!" MJ said, bouncing to her feet and putting her backpack on. She looked at Aria intently and said, "You be good!" Then she bounded off across the club, Shepard chuckling as he followed her, leaving Aria feeling a bit nonplussed.


"How is the recruiting going?" Shepard asked Oriana.

Oriana looked up from her seat in the stall she had rented when the Normandy and company had arrived that morning. "Not bad, Shepard. We'll have to weed them out, I'm sure, but we have enough that we can afford to."

"Excellent," Shepard said. "We can start on it tomorrow." He looked around and pinched the bridge of his nose. "MJ got distracted again, apparently."

"This is Omega," Oriana said. "Just listen for the reports of people being shredded."

"You don't seem particularly bothered," Shepard said.

"Why should I be?" Oriana asked. "MJ's a good kid. If she shreds someone, I'm going to assume they had it coming. Maybe not as readily as I would if a kitten shredded someone, but she's not going to deliberately kill someone who's not evil."

"She told Aria to be good," Shepard chuckled.

Oriana laughed.

"Aria," Zaeed said, and joined Oriana in laughter.

"It is, however, significant that she did not kill her," Samara said. "That would imply the capacity for change, perhaps even reformation."

"Wouldn't that be something?" Jack asked. "So, we got any bites?"

"Plenty," Oriana said. "We'll go through them tomorrow, unless you're feeling particularly sleepless tonight."

"Are you kidding?" Jack asked. "After that, I'm all wound up! Gimme those files, and I'll weed out the pussies so you don't have to deal with them."

Oriana gave Jack a thoughtful look, then nodded and handed the files over. "Thank you, Jack. I really appreciate this."

"Don't think I'm gonna do this every time you get new suckers," Jack said, as she took the files. "I'm no paper-pushing wimp."

"Of course not," Oriana said. "I'm much happier knowing that you'll kill anyone who threatens the cheerleader."

Jack stopped, turned, and looked at Oriana for a moment, then a smile slowly lit up her face. "Count on it, sugar. She may be the cheerleader, but she's our cheerleader, damn it."

"Jack," Shepard said, "If you get the chance, would you stop in and say hello to Dr. Gryphon?"

"He's the guy who fixed up Tali, right?" Jack asked. When Shepard nodded, she nodded in return. "All right. He fixed up Tali. That makes him all right in my book." She hefted the stack of files and said, "I'll bug him when I'm done with these."

Once Jack was out of view, Shepard asked Oriana, "How did you know that was Jack's nickname for Miranda?"

"She told me," Oriana said. "The day after you rescued me from the Eclipse ship, Jack came to me and said … let me see if I can get this right …," she continued, in a dead-on impersonation of Jack's voice and mannerisms, "So you're the cheerleader's sister, huh? You'd better be worth the tears you cost her, cuz if you aren't, I'm gonna have to kick your ass." Returning to her own voice, she added, "It was kind of sweet, actually."

"I notice neither of you has killed the other, yet," Shepard said.

"No need," Oriana said, smiling faintly. "I told her that if I ever end up not being worth the tears I cost Miranda, she's more than welcome to kick my ass, but until then, I'd kick her ass if she makes Miranda cry. She seemed to accept that as a suitable answer."

MJ bounded up at that point, a tiger-striped varren in tow. "He followed me home! He says his name is Urz! Can I keep him?"

"Urz?" Shepard asked, his face betraying shock, as he turned toward MJ and her friend. "Urz!" Shepard dropped to one knee and held out a hand. "Hey, buddy! How'd you get off Tuchanka?"

"He insisted on coming with me when I came on a buying trip," a krogan rumbled, barely-suppressed laughter adding an additional timbre to his voice. "Now I know why. He's a smart one, he is."

Urz slunk up to Shepard and sniffed his hand, then slobbered all over his face in an enthusiastic tongue bath. Shepard joined in the laughter, realizing how ludicrous he must appear, with a varren slurping his face so vigorously.

"Ratch!" Shepard said, laughing as he scratched vigorously between Urz's eyes. "Did you see the racing exhibition?"

"See it?" Ratch asked, his tone and expression indicating the absurdity of the question. "I won a total of a hundred thouand creds on it. I still can't believe there were idiots willing to bet against the Normandy. That's like betting against gravity. And those other pilots – I don't know where you got them, but you've got the start of a good little fleet there. You know where to go if you need marines, right?"

"Damned straight," Shepard agreed. "Just have to clear it with Wrex. Don't want to do anything that'll weaken Urdnot."

"Well, shit," Ratch said, grinning. "You got more brains than half the warriors in Urdnot. Anyway, I've got a ship full of goods I need to get home, and you've got a varren who's decided to stay with you. Seems like a good trade to me." His laughter rumbled through the stall. "See you on Tuchanka. Soon. You still have to tell the shaman that you didn't kill Grunt in whatever fool stunt you needed him for."

"You're right," Shepard said, rising to his feet and extending a hand. "I'll see you on Tuchanka, Ratch. Tell them I'm coming, will you?"

"Sure will." Ratch said, then grinned. "Your little girl is no ordinary human, you know. Given her scent, I'd say she's not human at all, regardless of how she looks."

"You're right," Shepard said. "She's not human at all. And it looks like she and Urz are getting along just fine. Maybe I'll let her be his babysitter when I'm not around."

"That could be trouble," Ratch laughed. "But you'll figure that out for yourself." He gripped Shepard's hand, shook it firmly, and said, "I'm out of here. See you back home."

"You'll let me babysit Urz?" MJ asked, bouncing happily. "I'll take real good care of him. I promise!"

"I know you will," Shepard said. "Now, we need to head back to the ship, so Aunt Miranda can have a cow about a varren messing up her nice clean floors."

"Urz won't do that!" MJ declared. "I'll teach him where to go."

"Aunt Miranda will have a cow anyway," Shepard said, laughing. "It's one of her jobs, right after reminding me how stupid whatever I'm planning to do is, and right before reminding me how much it's going to cost the company."

Oriana, caught in the act of drinking from her coffee mug, baptized Zaeed, Shepard, and Urz. Samara and MJ somehow managed to not be caught in the spray.

"You did that on purpose!" Oriana accused Shepard.

"If I had done it on purpose," Shepard pointed out, while wiping coffee off his face, "I would have moved out of the spray zone first." He grimaced. "Ug. I need a shower. I'm heading back to the ship."

"You and me, both," Zaeed said. "At least your varren can give himself a bath."

Urz looked up at Oriana reproachfully, then sat down and began licking himself clean.


"A varren," Miranda said, disbelieving. "You brought a varren aboard the Normandy."

"Not just any varren," Shepard said. "I brought Urz aboard the Normandy."

"Fine," Miranda said, throwing her hands up. "you brought Urz aboard the Normandy. He's still a varren!"

Shepard made a show of inspecting Urz, who stood patiently while the inspection proceeded, then scratched him between the eyes as he announced, "Yes, indeed. He is definitely a varren."

"He is an exceptional example of the species," EDI stated. "According to his records, Urz was a champion pit fighter for several years, longer than the lifespan of most varren, let alone most varren pit fighters."

"Wonderful!" Miranda grumbled. "Not only is it a varren, it's an exceptionally vicious varren."

"Does this look vicious to you?" Shepard asked, crouching to give Urz a proper scratching between his shoulders. "He's a sweetheart! And MJ's already made friends with him, and she'll be teaching him where to make his messes so that you don't have to deal with them."

"Oh, wonderful," Miranda groaned, rubbing her forehead. "MJ's going to teach him. Will the ship hold together?"

"Only if she doesn't teach him how to hold a screwdriver," Shepard said. "He's smart enough, we should be thankful he doesn't have opposable thumbs."

"You're so reassuring," Miranda groaned, while Urz looked up at Shepard with an excited posture.

"Sorry, buddy," Shepard said, scratching between Urz's eyes. "Unless you can demonstrate telekinetic power, I'm afraid tools aren't your friends. They're all designed for people with opposable thumbs." Urz let out a soft whine and curled up at Shepard's feet. "But look at the bright side. You won't be expected to earn your keep, except by keeping watch for bad guys. I know you can do that."

"You're talking to the varren like it's intelligent," Miranda pointed out.

"He is," Shepard said. "He's smarter than some humans I've met, if you ask me." Urz licked his hand. "Now, if you don't mind, I have a date with my shower. Your sister baptized me in coffee."

"That explains your bedraggled look," Miranda said. "I'd thought your new pet had slobbered all over you." She paused and did a double-take. "Wait. Why did Oriana dump coffee on you?"

"Sprayed it, actually," Shepard said, as he and Urz stepped into the elevator. "She got me, Zaeed, and Urz. It had something to do with my description of your primary duties aboard ship." The doors closed, leaving Miranda fuming in the corridor, while Shepard and Urz rode up to Shepard's quarters.