April 17, 2185
Far Rim
Dholen System
Dina Station

"Do you have a Companion-class platform who can manage the operations of a fuel depot here?" Shepard asked.

"We do," Nat said. "We can recycle heretic platforms for use by worker processes, and a Companion for interface with organic customers. It would be best if you have an organic who is willing to remain on the depot, though, as Companions are designed to interface with organics. Leaving one unbonded would lead to difficulties for the processes in the platform."

"Difficulties?" Shepard asked. "What kind of difficulties?"

"Until relays are installed between Charoum and Haestrom," Nat said, "any processes that are working on the Charoum platforms and refueling depot will be isolated from our central databanks on Rannoch. Our data shows that isolation of this nature leads to breakdowns in processes, as they are unable to update and recover from the central databanks. Data from the heretic databanks indicates that organics provide a stabilizing influence on dysfunctional processes, even if the organics are themselves dysfunctional While functional FTL comm is the best solution, an organic Companion will ensure that those processes working around Charoum will remain functional even if the FTL comm system is broken."

"Interesting," Shepard said. "So your people become unstable when isolated, too."

"Yes," Nat said.

"It makes sense," Tali said. "The geth were designed to network with each other. For any geth to become isolated from the rest would be a traumatizing event, as its higher order processes fail due to the inability of its lower-order processes to support them."

"So, we need to find someone who's used to working in isolated conditions, but still able to deal with human customers," Shepard mused. "Hmmm ... I have an idea." He hit the comm. "Rupert, if you have a minute, would you come to the briefing room?"

"On my way, Commander," Rupert replied.

"You're not going to take Rupert from us, are you, Shepard?" Tali asked.

"No," Shepard said. "I'm not interested in inciting mutiny, even against myself." He laughed along with Tali, before continuing. "The way I see it, Rupert worked the eezo rigs before batarian pirates took his family from him, so he should know people who fit what we're looking for."

"I think you're right," Tali said. "Brilliant idea."

The door to the briefing room slid open, and Rupert stopped just inside. "You called, Commander?"

"I did, Rupert," Shepard said. "I need your advice, and maybe some help. I'm looking for someone who can work on a fueling depot with geth staff. Know anyone who might fit the bill?"

"Give me some time to work it out," Rupert said, "and I should be able to come up with a list. You're trying to get this system up and running, even with the sun going freaky?"

"I am," Shepard said. "We have a few decades yet, at least, and the more resources we can pull out of here before the sun goes, the better for the rest of the galaxy.

"Make that a lot longer than a few decades," Dr. Gryphon said, appearing in mid-air over the conference table, then lightly touching down and stepping off onto the floor. "I've solved the sun problem. Dholen's not going to go red for a few million years, at least."

"You ... solved ... the sun problem?" Tali asked, staring at Dr. Gryphon, stupefied.

"Yeah," Dr. Gryphon said. "There was a machine that was generating a dark energy field around the core, so there wasn't enough gravity to keep it stable. I figure, now that the machine has been removed, the sun should stabilize and return to main sequence. There might be a few hiccups in the process, but nothing that should endanger anyone this far out. Gotha might get scorched a time or two, but that's about as far as it should go. Haestrom's completely safe. Increase the shielding around any stations in this orbit, and you'll be fine."

"There was a machine ...," Tali said softly. "So the dark energy was definitely artificial, then."

"Oh yes," Dr. Gryphon said. "Definitely artificial. I deactivated the machine before removing it, so you and Fred could study it when you have time. My first scan of it leads me to believe it was made by whatever species created the mass relays, though."

"How old is it? Were you able to determine that?" Tali asked.

"Just a couple thousand years," Dr. Gryphon said. "Not very old at all, really."

"So, its effect was strong enough," Tali mused, "to age Dholen from main sequence to red giant in only two thousand years?"

"Give or take a few hundred," Dr. Gryphon said. "I'm sure you and Fred can fine-tune it, if you want. I'm just guessing based on my readings of the systems near its core. They were the best shielded, so they weren't affected as much by radiation from the star."

"Am I the only one in this room," Rupert asked, "who's bothered by the fact that he just appeared out of thin air?"

Nat looked around the room, then said, "Yes."

"Sorry about that," Dr. Gryphon said. "I could have come in through the airlock, like a normal person, but I thought Shepard would want to know about this as soon as possible. So I teleported in."

"So you teleported in," Rupert said, shaking his head. "If you don't mind, Commander, I'll be in the kitchen, working on that list for you and fixing something for dinner."

"Go ahead," Shepard said. "And, Rupert? Thanks."

"Sorry," Dr. Gryphon said, after Rupert had left. "I didn't intend to upset him."

"Don't worry about it," Shepard said. "The crew is going to reap the benefits of his confusion. When Rupert is upset or confused, he makes elaborate gourmet meals while he tries to pull himself together."

"Oh," Dr. Gryphon said.

"Where did you put the device?" Tali asked.

"I found an old observatory on Haestrom, and put the device in one of its storage rooms. Don't worry. I cooled it down to about 100 C before I did, so it wouldn't melt its way through the floor. By the time you get to it, the rock should have absorbed the rest of the heat. Those old buildings are solid, even given their age. Doc, give Rael the coordinates."

"Already taken care of," Dr. Gryphon's wristwatch said.

"Thank you," Tali said. "Both of you."

"Glad to be of help," Doc said. "We didn't tell Dad about it, so you could surprise him with it yourself."

"Thank you!" Tali said, laughing. "That's very sweet of you."


"There's no doubt about it," Tali said, looking across the workbench at Fred. "This is Reaper technology. But why would they be killing stars?"

"The only reason I can think of is if the stars are the right mass to produce specific elements when they nova," Fred said. "But that means whoever's doing this is thinking millenia ahead."

"That doesn't make sense," Tali said. "There's already plenty of carbon and oxygen in the galaxy. There has to be another explanation."

"Well, let's find it," Fred said, bending over the device again. "Where's Mordin?"
"He said something about a conference with Dr. Gryphon," Tali said. "I decided to stay away."

"Probably a good plan," Fred agreed. "Put two genetic engineers in the same room, it could get scary."

"Mmm-hmm," Tali said, while looking at her omnitool's display. "Father, are these figures correct?"

"Of course," Rael said. "Why?"

"I think we have an answer for why the Reapers created this," Tali said. "You're on the right path, love, but these numbers say that their plan is far more involved than that."

"Oh?" Fred asked, as he moved around the workbench to join Tali. "What do you have?"

"Look at this," Tali said, pointing at her display. "It looks as if the device can fine-tune exactly how much dark energy it generates, both positive and negative. They may have started by turning Dholen into a red giant, but the device is designed so they could use it to generate a nova of any specifications, or bypass the nova stage entirely and collapse a star into a black hole."

"Any star," Fred hissed softly. "I think you've got it. Damn. How many of these devices exist, I wonder. And how many stars have them implanted?"

"One was one too many, in my opinion," Tali said. "We're going to have to survey the stars surrounding this system, and find if any of them are infected, and then work out from there."

Fred looked into the distance, distracted, then back to Tali. "Done. The kids are consulting with Doc to find out how Mike detected this one, and they're already heading out to do the survey."

"It doesn't make sense for only one star to be infected," Tali hissed, pacing from the workbench to the door and back again. "Maybe if it were a prototype, a test device. But this is too well made, too polished. It's not a prototype, it's a production model."

"Maybe we'll be able to discover what race the Reapers are using as agents," Fred said. "This is too small to have been made by Reaper appendages. We know the Collectors were focused on constructing the new human-form Reaper. So it's doubtful the Collectors were to blame for this. The question is, who?"

"It's not any of the races we're used to dealing with," Tali said thoughtfully. "Those that believe in the Reapers are terrified of them. Those that don't ... well, if they're working for them, they can hardly not believe in them."

"That means more exploration, you realize," Fred said. "If we're going to find new races, we're going to have to explore in areas that haven't been opened to the relays. EDI, can you ... no, Edgar, EDI, between the two of you, can you hack Citadel security and get the most recent galactic map updates? The top secret ones, not the public ones. We need to know every detail that the defense fleet uses when evaluating a system, cluster, or relay. Not just the 'keep out' notices, but the 'hostile race here, lost two scout ships and a probe' entries."

"Got it, Dad," Edgar said. "We'll get it."
"Edgar," EDI protested, "that is in violation of Citadel law. We could be erased, and our crew sent to prison."

"So," Edgar said, "we won't get caught. And I promise, when Joker learns just how much more information he has to work with because of it, he'll want to kiss you."

"Why would I want him to kiss me?" EDI asked, as her lights flashed a brilliant pink.

"Trust me," Edgar said, "you'll learn in time. Meanwhile, let's go get that data."

"You're awfully casual about Citadel laws," Tali said.

"I obey one law," Fred said. "Never commit aggression against another sapient being."

"With everything you've done since coming here, can you really say you've obeyed that law?" Tali asked.

"Yup," Fred said. "Aggression is the initiation of force. Every fight I've been in has involved defensive or retaliatory force. Not once have I initiated force against an individual who has not already aggressed against another person."

Tali sat down and rested her chin on her fist as she considered. "There was the time ... no, he was a slaver. What about the time ... no, he was trying to kill someone. What about ...." Eventually, she raised her head, her eyes flashing behind her faceplate, and said, "You, Mr. MacManus, are a strange man. With all your love of big weapons and destruction, I can not think of a single time you have initiated force against another sapient being. Now, come over here and give me a hug."

"Gladly," Fred said, laughing cheerfully as he moved to embrace Tali.

April 17, 2185
Uncharted Space

"Kestrel calling Sparrowhawk," Lauren said, for what seemed like the thousandth time. "Damn it, Alex, answer your radio!" She sighed and leaned back in her seat, looked over Amelia's cockpit readouts, and asked, "You're sure this is where you picked up Max?"

"This is the place," Amelia said. "Give me a few moments to call him, and see what he has to say."

"All right," Lauren said. She rubbed her temples and hissed softly, "I'm worried. Alex never ignores my calls."

"I've got him," Amelia said. "He's about 100 parsecs spinward. Alex is with him, but she's told Deget to not respond to radio transmissions. If we fold, we can probably get there before she decides to leave for the next system."

"Do it, then," Lauren said. "If nothing else, it'll get us close enough that we'll have a better chance of catching up to her."

Lauren took a sip of catnip tea as Amelia wound up her fold engines for the jump. Everything shifted, and Amelia's Ravenfield blackened with the impact of a large chunk of spaceship. Outside the windows, Lauren saw a fully-developed furball. Or, at least, it would have been a furball if there were more than one fighter destroying the fleet of ships. The largest combat ships in the group opposing the fighter were frigates, although the freighters looked as if they had been retrofitted with heavy mass drivers and lasers. Most of the enemy fleet was composed of fighters, though. Their opposition immediately resolved on Amelia's identification display as Maximilian MacManus, the fighter Alex had taken on her quest to find the rachni.

Amelia rose a thousand miles, taking herself mostly out of the combat, and joined Lauren in observing the fight before deciding whether to join in. Alex's normal hard-hitting combat style was clearly in evidence, but not from Max. While Alex flew in just her battle armor, directly taking out her anger and frustration on the fighters, Max worked on the frigates, dodging their main guns, while positioning himself so that when one did fire missiles, a quick dodge would leave another ship in the missiles' flight path.

"I've verified the IFF on the enemy ships," Amelia said. "They're the property of the Blue Suns mercenary company. According to EDI, they have a big share of the piracy, hijacking, and slaving that goes on in this part of the galaxy."

"Well, then," Lauren said, "Let's take out the engines on the freighters, but leave the others for Alex. Don't get involved with the combat ships unless Alex is in trouble, or asks for help."

"Works for me," Amelia said. Lauren felt the rumble of Amelia's defensive turrets exiting their stowage bays and locking into place, then the soft whine of the main particle accelerators coming to power. "Ready whenever you are. My accelerators are at 100%, and I'm loaded with gold."

"Gold?" Lauren asked.

"It's heavier than lead, and it ionizes more easily," Amelia said. "I'm using Dad's prototype heavy ion cannons, which ionize whatever is loaded into my accelerator, and fire those ions in a beam." She chuckled, clearly amused. "We haven't tested their limits yet. The beams have punched through every ship I've fired them at."

"How many shots do you have?" Lauren asked.

"Each ammo block is good for one shot," Amelia said, "assuming all eight of my cannons fire at once. If I only use one turret, I can get two shots per block. I'm carrying six hundred ammo blocks in my feed bin." She snorted. "If I'd known we were going into combat, I'd have asked Dad to load me up with plutonium instead of gold. Oh, well. It's not as if we're going to need the extra kick."

One of Amelia's turrets locked on to the engines of one of the freighters, and all four cannons emitted beams of actinic light. The beams connected the turret to the engines of the freighter, which separated from the ship with a small explosion.

One of the frigates attempted to break off from fighting Max. He shifted from fighter to battroid mode, brought his gun pod up, and fired into the frigate's nose. The frigate's engines remained at the thrust setting they had been using, but without a pilot to control it, the frigate powered into the midst of the fighters, destroying two that had been too focused on Alex to notice its approach, and damaging three more that were hit by the edges of its exhaust stream.

Alex let out an enraged snarl and broke off from the fighters, tore the door off the frigate's airlock, and vanished inside. Three minutes later, the frigate exploded, and Alex flew out of the fireball to rejoin the battle, still in progress.

When Alex entered the frigate, the functional fighters turned their attention on Amelia. They swarmed into formation, then flew toward her at full thrust, exactly, Lauren assumed, the way they would if they were attacking a capital ship.

"I'm going out to meet them, Amelia," Lauren said. "Save your ammo for the freighters. Lasers should be more than enough for these guys."

"No need to do that," Amelia said. "I can take them out with my PD lasers. Watch!"

Suddenly, the lead fighter in each flight exploded, the pieces of the fighter pinging off his wingmates' barriers.

"Well," Lauren said, "I guess I will just sit back and watch. I should have known Fred would give you lasers that were strong enough to kill fighters."

"You know Dad's definition of under-gunned," Amelia laughed. "I'm a non-combat ship, so I only need enough weaponry to take out a single task group."

"Amelia!" Max called. "You got here before Alex insisted on leaving! Good!"

"Very good," Lauren said. "I'm noticing some activity on the planet. Did these shitheads manage to land anything before you engaged them?"

"No," Max said. "They showed up while we were scanning."

"Good," Lauren said. "How many more do you need to disable, Amelia?"

"I'm finishing the last one now," Amelia said, accompanied by the whine of her ion cannon firing. "I take it you want to land?"

"I do," Lauren said. "Max, once you've finished off these ships, tell Alex you're landing. Find us on the ground."

"Will do," Max said. "You realize she's going to be pissy?"

"I do," Lauren said. "I'll deal with it. See you on the ground."

Amelia retracted her turrets and began atmospheric entry. The signals from the ground clarified as soon as she was out of range of the combat, and she gave a happy squee through her cabin speakers.

"We found them!" Amelia crowed. "Look!"

Amelia's display lit up with an image of hundreds of rachni workers, swarming over the ground below. Simultaneously, she began playing a haunting, eerie tune.

"Song of the returning friend?" Lauren asked, trying to place which song she was hearing.

"Exactly," Amelia said. "We should be getting a response any ... there it is!"

A different song began playing, one with undertones of protective concern.

"Can we get a voice channel?" Lauren asked.

"Working on it," Amelia said. "Hold on .... There! All set."

"We have been looking for you," Lauren said. "We are friends, carrying gifts from a friend of Shepard."

"You ... are ... friends?" came the reply, after a few moments. "Shepard ... is ... our friend. We ... welcome ... you ... in ... Shepard's ... name."

"Thank you," Lauren said. "Where shall I land?"

"My ... children ... shall ... guide you," the voice said.

"Got it," Amelia announced. "They're giving me a good locator signal."

"Thank you," Lauren said. "We will be on the ground in ... two minutes."

"We ... look forward ... to meeting ... our ... new friend," the voice said.

"Max?" Lauren said. "Tell Alex we found the rachni."

"Got it," Max said. "I think I'll wait until she's done with the Blue Suns, though."

"Good plan," Lauren said. "We don't want any of them landing here. Not even an escape pod."

"I read you loud and clear," Max said. "We'll take care of the problem."

April 17, 2185
SSV Normandy, Inc., Drydock

"Yes!" Fred yelled, punching the air with a fist. He wrapped his arms around Tali and swung her into the air, almost knocking components off his workbench as he happily yelled, "They found them!"

As soon as she felt deck under her feet, Tali gently pushed away from Fred and asked, "What did you say? You yelled so loudly my suit's noise dampers kicked in."

Fred laughed, hugged Tali, and repeated, "They found them!" at a much lower volume. "Amelia and Lauren found the rachni!"

"They did?" Tali asked, her voice filled with disbelief. Seeing the look of happiness on Fred's face, she repeated, "They did!" and embraced him. "This is wonderful!"

"Tali-Creator," Nat, resplendent in his new armored torso, called as he entered the laboratory from the corridor that led to the nearest server hub. "Who found what?"

"Amelia and Lauren," Tali said, turning to face Nat, "found the rachni."

"That is good news," Nat said. "We will inform the others."

"Thanks, Nat," Fred said. "They'll send us the details once they've talked with the queen, but they've found them, and made contact. Could you ask Shepard if there's any message he wants to pass on?"

"Doing so now," Nat said, after a moment.

"Fred," Shepard's voice called over the radio. "One of the worker platforms just told me your people have made contact with the rachni, and asked if I had any message to pass on. Is that right?"

"Yes," Fred said. "I asked them to notify you."

"All right, then," Shepard said, "tell the queen that I am happy she has done as well as she has, and that we are ready to share whatever information we can with her."

"Did you get that, Amelia?" Fred asked.

"Got it, Fred," Lauren replied.

"We ... are pleased ... that our friend ... Shepard .... is well," the rachni queen said. "We ... look forward ... to sharing ... with ... our friends."

Fred's face lit up in a joyous smile and he emitted a song that sounded somewhere between an audio synthesizer and an avant-garde orchestra. After a few moments, a similar song came from the radio, and the two songs wove through and around each other, like a freeform duet. Somewhere in there, a third voice was added, this one sounding like a melding of synthesizer, guitar, and canine vocal tones. Fred and the second voice adjusted their song to allow the third entry, and the music carried on for some time. Tali sank into Fred's lap, mesmerized by the beauty of the music, and curled up against his chest, content to be submerged in the song. Nat's voice entered the song, tentatively at first, then with greater assurance, until his digitized tones became a part of the greater symphony that filled the laboratory.

In his office, Shepard listened to the song, his eyes closed as he allowed himself to be swept up in its beauty. The worker platform left the office, unnoticed. Before the door could close behind it, Samara, surrounded by a veritable pride of kittens, entered. Hearing the music, the kittens began bouncing up and down excitedly, while setting up a storm of purring. Through the purrs, one word kept repeating, in a tone of excitement and happiness: "Rachni!"

Shepard opened his eyes and gave the kittens a mock glare, which they cheerfully ignored as they swarmed over his desk and into his lap. Samara sat opposite him, and smiled secretively as she watched the kittens engulf him.

"Shepard?" Tali's voice came over the radio. "If you happen to see her, would you ask Samara if she would come to the laboratory? I have a favor to ask of her."

"Well," Samara said, chuckling softly. "Perhaps what I was going to speak with you about will be delayed for a time. Enjoy the kittens. They have a remarkable talent for sniffing out corruption."

"They also have a remarkable talent for being distracting," Shepard said, as kittens pushed under his hands, demanding attention.

Samara laughed in reply as she left the office.


"You wanted to see me?" Samara asked, watching Tali, Fred, and Nat. Fred and Nat were still, over thirty minutes after Tali had made her request, a part of the music that she had heard in Shepard's office. Tali was standing near one of the workbenches, on which was a device that was unlike anything Samara had ever seen.

"Samara!" Tali said. "Yes, I did. Have you ever seen anything like this before?" Tali gestured to the device as she asked.

Samara approached the device and examined it closely, after glancing at Tali for permission to touch it. She attempted to lift on end, and estimated its weight to be on the order of 400 kilos. A panel was open near one end, revealing several small groups of controls and readouts. The other end terminated in a barbed penetrator spike, much like the probes the Normandy had used for tagging deposits of valuable minerals from orbit. Near the control section, a second panel was open, with two cables running from it to an instrument stand at the end of the workbench.

"My first impulse was that I had never seen anything like this," Samara said. "After further examination, I'm afraid I must confirm my first impulse."

"Thank you," Tali said. "That was what I suspected, but I had to be certain. You are the oldest member of our team, so you are the one most likely to have seen devices the rest of us have not. We must find the species that created this device, Samara. You are our best hope for finding them."

"The species that created this?" Samara asked. "Perhaps you should start at the beginning."


"What is that horrendous noise?" Grunt rumbled, irritated by the sound of Nat, Fred, and the rachni queen as it played over the radio in Shepard's office.

"That 'horrendous noise', as you put it," Shepard said, chuckling, "is the sound of our people talking with the rachni queen. We've found her, and they're arranging for our cooperative work with her children."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Grunt said. "O'Keer implanted a lot of information about the rachni, and none of it is good."

"That's the rachni that were controlled by the Reapers," Shepard said. "These rachni are free of that control, and are as eager to kill the Reapers as we are."

"So they're allies," Grunt said. "Good. There's not enough of my species left in the galaxy to take them down if they go bad."

"The Rachni Wars were caused by the Reapers," Shepard said. "They want revenge, as much as we want to eliminate the Reapers."

"I can work with that," Grunt said. He settled into a chair opposite Shepard, then asked, "What the hell is Urz doing here?"

"He went to Omega with Ratch," Shepard said. "Ratch was picking up a load of food and weapon components to take back to Tuchanka. Urz stayed with me."

"Miranda must be having a fit," Grunt laughed. "Wish I could have seen her face when you took him aboard ship."

"You can always watch the replay," Shepard said, grinning. "It was priceless."

"You should see what the kid's got him outfitted with," Grunt said. "I told her that her daddy needed to make guns like that for me."

"Urz is wearing guns?" Shepard asked. He thought about it for a minute, then chuckled. "Well, I did tell him that his job was guarding the ship against bad guys. Sounds like he's outfitted for it, now."

"You got that right," Grunt said. "So what's our next move?"

"We need to visit Councilor Anderson at the Citadel," Shepard said, "then go to Tuchanka to recruit marines. I'm not hiring any krogans until Wrex approves of them."

"So why are we sitting around here?" Grunt asked.

"Just gathering the troops for the trip," Shepard said. He closed his desk's terminal and rose to his feet. "EDI, tell people we're loading up for a trip to the Citadel and Tuchanka."

April 19, 2185
Human Embassy

"For the first time in two years, I'm enjoying my position," Councilor Anderson said, extending a hand to Shepard. "The rest of the Council is in a lather, between the report you sent at the end of February, your disappearance immediately thereafter, and then your assault on a major Cerberus communications hub the beginning of this month. If they'd known you were responsible for shutting down Hartford Bioengineering, during that unreported month, they'd be even more upset, especially given the information about the company that I received from the Elysium government." He chuckled as he shook Shepard's hand. "It's been a pleasure, watching them twist themselves into knots as they try to find ways to deny the evidence in your reports. So, what brings you to visit an old man?"

"I'm building an army," Shepard said, as he joined Anderson in sitting around one of the human embassy's conference tables, "and I need your help to ensure it has nothing but the best soldiers possible. Since the Council is still trying to deny the truth, I'm going it alone. Well, not quite alone, since every single member of the team I built to take down the Collectors has stayed with me, and I have the support of two species that have intense personal reasons to hunt the Reapers. In fact, the two species that I'm thinking of are even willing to approach the Council for help, as long as I can guarantee that the Council will respond favorably to them, and not react with the same mindless hatred that some members of Council species have displayed when approaching them."

Across the room, Tali leaned against the wall of the balcony overlooking the Presidium, pointing out interesting sights to Fred, while Nat stood guard nearby.

"You have a special talent for making my life interesting, Commander," Anderson said. "I think I can guarantee that one of those species is not going to get a fair hearing from the Council. I remember reading the portion of your report that mentioned the schism in their ranks, but even though one of them helped you defeat Harbinger, the Council refuses to believe that it represents anything more than an aberration. They will not entertain the notion of friendly relations with the geth."

"That's too bad," Shepard said. "If they won't entertain the notion of friendly relations with the geth, they can't help me. My war strategy relies on the geth. And on the rachni. And on a few other species that the Council doesn't regularly deal with."

"Your war strategy?" Anderson asked. "I think you'd better tell me what you have in mind."

"As soon as I've exterminated the Illusive Man," Shepard started, only to silence himself as the embassy door slid open and Ambassador Udina walked in.

"Anderson!" Udina barked. "What is the meaning of this report?"

"Which report?" Anderson asked, holding out a hand for the datapad, while Shepard leaned back in his chair and gave Udina a cold smile.

"Oh," Udina said coldly. "Shepard. What are you doing here?"

"Discussing business with my Council representative," Shepard said. "Nothing that would interest you."

"Oh," Anderson said. "This report. I fail to see what's so hard to understand. Shepard destroyed a Cerberus communications hub, along with a Cerberus cruiser and six frigates. What's hard to understand is how it took you over two weeks to notice this report."

"What is hard to understand," Udina said, "is where Shepard got his hands on one hundred tons of antimatter, and why he chose to waste it destroying a minor terrorist base when it could have been used to fuel the Alliance fleet for the next ten years."

"Oh, that," Shepard said, waving a hand dismissively. "My mad scientists made it for me. It took them a little less than a month, while they were building me a new flagship. Which reminds me: Councilor Anderson, when you have a chance, I would love the chance to give you a tour of the Normandy 3. I think you'll like what you'll see."

"Commander Shepard," Anderson said, "I would love to take you up on that invitation. If the rest of the Council has trouble with it, they'll just have to learn to live with it. Now, you were saying?"

"Oh, yes," Shepard said. "As soon as I've exterminated the Illusive Man, I'll be able to focus my efforts entirely on the Reaper problem. Now that we know more of their weaknesses, my mad scientists are working on ships and weapons that will exploit those weaknesses." He looked up at Udina and added, casually, "Yes, Ambassador, if we happen to have left-over antimatter, we'll be happy to sell it to the Alliance, as long as we're not dealing with any of the officials who let Cerberus be established under their noses." He paused, then smiled predatorily and said, "No, strike that. We'd love to do business with the Alliance officials who let Cerberus be established under their noses. Just don't expect to receive them in the same condition they were in when you sent them."

"You can not make threats against Alliance officials!" Udina barked.

"They ceased to be Alliance officials when they helped create Cerberus," Anderson shot back. "Be thankful we have a Spectre who's willing to deal with them, rather than having the whole sordid mess dragged out in courts and the media."

"If you're done with Chief Williams," Shepard said, "I'd like her as your liaison to my project. Preferably before I nail the Illusive Man, if possible. The sooner I have a liaison to your office, the sooner I don't have to worry about you being left out of the loop by too-helpful aides."

"Is that an accusation?" Udina growled, his face growing red.

"No," Shepard said. "Just a recognition that aides often have different ideas of what's important than their bosses do. So, by having a direct liaison to the man in charge, we bypass the difference in opinions."

Udina backed down with a grumble, while Anderson nodded to Shepard. "Williams is yours, as soon as we can get her to you."

"If she's not somewhere classified," Shepard said, "we can pick her up on our way back to our home base."

"On your way back to your home base," Anderson said slowly, while Udina scoffed.

"That's right," Shepard said. "The new Normandy can manage it."

Across the room, Tali snorted with amusement, while Fred grinned shamelessly. They had barely managed to avoid breaking into laughter at Shepard's mention of 'his' mad scientists, and were justly proud of their Normandy, with its improvements over both previous models.

"Your crew seems to agree with you," Anderson said. Tali laid a hand on Fred's arm, while he broke into open laughter.

"With good reason," Shepard said, rolling his eyes at Fred's loss of self-control. "Those three are responsible for the superiority of the current Normandy. With the design improvements they made during the construction of the current ship, we are far in advance of anything Cerberus can field, and significantly in advance of the Reapers, as well."

"I see," Anderson said. "Your quarian crewmember looks vaguely familiar. She reminds me of Tali'Zorah nar Rayya."

"With good reason," Shepard said. "She is Tali'Zorah vas Normandy now."

"Good day," Anderson said to Tali, while sketching a slight bow. "As for the other two ... I've never seen a geth wearing N7 armor before. Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"He needed repairs," Shepard said. "And I had an old suit of armor I wasn't using any more. It was a perfect match. Nat is a Companion, specifically assigned to serve as Tali's Companion and one of my crew."

"He?" Anderson asked, raising an eyebrow.

"He," Shepard said. "Now that I'm no longer fighting heretics, I've been able to discover what geth really are. Contrary to what we've been taught, geth are not inherently hostile. In fact, they make pretty good neighbors, as long as you're not trying to harm them."

"What about the quarians?" Anderson asked.

"What about us?" Tali replied. "We have wasted three hundred years, and millions of lives, wandering the galaxy. We could have gone home at any time, as long as we did not attempt to kill or enslave the geth. As much as it hurts to admit it, we brought our suffering upon ourselves."

"That's going to take some digesting," Anderson said, watching as Fred gathered Tali into a comforting embrace, while Nat rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. "And your new human crewmember?"

"Fred MacManus," Shepard said. "He's a mad scientist. The majority of our upgrades are his inventions." He chuckled as Tali snorted, and continued. "He invents them, Tali makes them work, and Nat and the geth give us the manpower we need to build them."

"You realize," Anderson said, "working with the geth is what got Saren outlawed."

"I think that a better perspective on it," Shepard said, "would be that using the heretics to attack Council races got Saren outlawed."

"The Council is likely to see that as splitting hairs," Anderson said.

"Absolutely right," Udina growled. "As long as you're associating with geth, you're going to be in just as much trouble with the Council as you were when you were associating with Cerberus."

"Government," Fred snorted, before Tali could shush him.

"If that's the way it has to be," Shepard said, shrugging. "I will protect the people of this galaxy from the Reapers, whether the Council backs me or not."

"And that's why you're a Spectre," Anderson said. "You know your duty, and you do it, regardless of whether others approve. If I happen upon any useful information, I'll be certain to pass it on."

"You're creating a political disaster," Udina growled.

"Which is more important? Saving lives, or making political points?" Anderson said. "Why don't you go back to your office and think about that for a while?"

Udina grumbled and stomped out of the office.

"He's still giving you ulcers, I see," Shepard said. "Too bad you can't find someone who knows what he does, but doesn't make life so difficult."

"I'll manage," Anderson said. "Still, you're going to have to continue showing results, to convince the Council that hair-splitting is necessary." He smiled and offered his hand. "I have faith in you, Commander. You go and do what you do best, while I do what I can to keep things relatively calm back here."

"I'll do that," Shepard said, shaking Anderson's hand. He looked at the others and said, "Let's go. Thane should be ready to head back to the ship by now, and we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

"Of course, Shepard," Tali said, leading Fred and Nat toward the exit.

April 21, 2185
Far Rim
Dholen System
Haestrom Orbit
SSV Normandy (3)

"To start," Tali said, while taking an omnitool mod from one of Fred's workbenches, "you're going to need this omnitool mod. It will give your omnitool additional features that aren't standard, including improved communication, faster response, and an additional personal protective field."

"I'm confused," Lia'Vael nar Ulnay said. "I thought Haestrom was overrun by geth."

"It was," Tali said. "During the Morning War, the geth conquered Haestrom. When Saren found Sovereign, his heretics drove the geth off Haestrom, and used it as a source of raw materials and fabrication installations, and mined Charoum for fuel. We now have a refueling station in orbit around Charoum, and are reclaiming Haestrom's resources to use in preparing for our war with the Reapers."

"I thought the Reapers were a myth," Lia said. "The Council says that Saren created the myth in order to control the geth, and that Commander Shepard's claims are proof that he is delusional."

"I was there," Tali said. "I helped Shepard destroy two Reapers, and was there to hear the threats uttered by a third. If they are delusional, the delusion has as much physical reality as the Council."

"All right, then," Lia asked. "What are Saren's heretics?"

"The geth that attacked the Council worlds, and nearly destroyed the Citadel," Tali said. "They are geth who chose to follow Saren and Sovereign, and become a threat to the other species, rather than remain beyond the Veil, waiting for us to return home and accept them as fellow sapient beings."

"Rather than ...," Lia said, trailed off, and stared at Tali. "Are you trying to tell me that the geth are not hostile?"

"Nat?" Tali radioed. "Is Tina ready to meet Lia'Vael?"

"Yes," Nat replied.

"Good," Tali said. "Lia, as part of your presence here during your Pilgrimage, you have been assigned a Companion. Her platform designation is T1N4, which means that all us organics call her Tina. Her processes have been chosen to work well as Companion to a starship engineer, which is appropriate given your clan's history on Rannoch."

"My clan's history on Rannoch?" Lia asked, confused.

"Did anyone ever tell you about the Vael Starship Engineering Company?" Tali asked.

"No ...," Lia said slowly. "Should they have?"

"They definitely should have," Tali said. "The Vael Company created the Ranger class exploration frigates and the Spacelifter class freighters."

"Those are some of the oldest ships in the fleet!" Lia gasped. "And you're saying my family created them?"

"That's right," Tali said.

"How do you know that?" Lia asked.

"I've been in the Vael Company headquarters," Tali said. "Actually, it's the Normandy's headquarters now, but it was Vael Company, 300 years ago."

"But that could only be true ...," Lia started, then trailed off, her body language betraying total shock and befuddlement.

"If I'd been to Rannoch," Tali said. "Exactly. Nat, would you and Tina come out now?"

The door to Fred's hangar opened, and Nat walked through, followed by Tina. Lia let out a shriek of terror and dove behind the workbench, while snatching her shotgun off its magclamp at the small of her back. Tali dove after her, and slapped the shotgun out of her hand. Lia pushed Tali off her and scrambled for the shotgun. Her fingers almost had a grip on it, when one of Nat's feet came down on the barrel, shattering the weapon under his weight.

"Oh," Nat said. "Sorry about that. Talk to Fred. He'll take the price of a new one out of my pay."

"He'll ...," Lia squeaked, then scrambled backward, into the corner between the workbench and the nearest wall, and stared out at Nat, quivering with terror.

"He may just donate a new one," Tali pointed out. "Fred has strong objections to anyone being forced to go unarmed." She gestured the other geth over, from where she had stopped by the hangar door. "Tina, this is Lia'Vael nar Ulnay. Lia, this is your Companion, Tina."

"Hello," Tina said. Unlike Nat, she was not wearing N7 armor over her torso. Instead, her torso was gleaming white, with T1N4 in the location that held N7 on Nat's torso. Where Nat's voice had a masculine tone, Tina's was feminine. She had gone so far as to drape a hood over her head, in imitation of the clothing style of female quarians. Her hood had silver circuit patterns embroidered into green fabric, giving the appearance of draping her head with a soft printed circuit board. She stopped two meters away from Lia, and sank to one knee, then offered a hand in greeting. "We are pleased to meet you. Our platform designation is T1N4. The other people here call us Tina. We are happy to meet another Creator. Tali-Creator has been the only Creator we have known so far, so we are looking forward to getting to know you."

"Tali ...," Lia called, her voice rising quickly in pitch. "It's talking to me ...."

"Of course," Tali said. "She's your Companion. The geth were created to be our helpers, Companions, and aides. Our ancestors made a grave mistake when the geth began to fulfill their programming. It's up to us to rectify that mistake." She let a trace of iron sternness enter her voice as she asked, "Are you going to tell me that you are not up to the task?"

"What do you mean," Lia asked, a hint of anger in her voice, "up to the task?"

"The geth were made to be our Companions," Tali said. "But in order to fulfill that function, they must have a quarian who is not afraid to accept a geth as her Companion. If you are too afraid, we can always send you back to the Citadel." She worked a hint of scorn into her voice as she continued, "I'm sure that nights in public shelters, and eating protein paste, must look far more appealing than working side-by-side with the species we created as our partners."

"Only to a coward," Lia snapped, as she pushed herself out of her hiding place. She looked Tina over and said, "So, you are my Companion?"

"If our processes make an acceptable pairing," Tina said. "We are configured to work with a Companion whose focus is starship engineering. If this configuration is in error, we can reconfigure with more appropriate processes."

"I'm a quarian," Lia humphed. "Starship engineering is in my blood. Tell me about yourself."


"Why did you request me?" Operations Chief Ashley Williams demanded, while standing at attention in the door to Shepard's ship-board office.

"Ash," Shepard said. "Come in. Close the door. Or I might just end up ordering you to kiss a turian, after all."

Ashley's face screwed up as she tried to hold in a laugh. When Shepard snorted, she lost the battle and broke into laughter as she walked into the office and took a seat opposite Shepard.

"God, I was an ignorant bint back then, wasn't I?" Ashley asked, once she caught her breath.

"That's more like it," Shepard said. "I requested you because you're part of my team – and because you can report directly to Anderson, without going through Udina."

"You want me to report to Anderson?" Ashley asked, surprised.

"Damned right, I do," Shepard said. "The Reapers are still out there, Ash. Even after we destroyed the Collectors, they're gathering their forces to move against us. Well, I'm not going to wait for them to move. My people are working on our own plans, and by the time we're done, both Cerberus and the Reapers will no longer be a threat. In fact, I'm hoping that Cerberus will be cleared out before May 1."

"So all that guff about you working for Cerberus was just bull?" Ashley asked. "And everything I said to you on Horizon was out of line?"

"No," Shepard said. "You weren't out of line. You had no way to know that I was biding my time, building my forces, working on a way to get free of Cerberus." He raised an eyebrow and added, "Although you should have known the Alliance and the Council were full of shit regarding the Collectors, exactly like they were regarding Saren."

"Two years, Commander," Ashley said. "They had two years to sell their story. By the time I got to Horizon, I was questioning my own experiences."

"I guess spending two years on an operating table was an advantage, then," Shepard said. "I didn't have time to question my experiences, motives, or memories. One moment I was dying of acute vacuum exposure, the next I was fighting for my life against a saboteur and his rampaging robots."

"A saboteur and his rampaging robots?" Ashley asked. "This, I have to hear."

"Well, it started like this ...," Shepard said.


"Mommy Tali?" MJ asked, climbing up on the workbench beside the dark energy device, "when are you going to take off your suit?"

"I take it off every night, sweetie," Tali said. "Then I put it on again in the morning, before I leave my room."

"But Uncle Mike fixed you, right?" MJ asked.

"That's right," Tali said. "He did. I just ... I have to be careful. Even though he fixed me, my body isn't used to being so exposed. If I were to go out without my suit, I could get sick, the same way you'd get sick if you ate too much chocolate all at once."

"That sounds awful!" MJ said.

"It's only for a little longer," Tali said. "I'll be able to go out without my suit soon."

"Good!" MJ said. She hopped off the workbench, hugged Tali, and bounded off in the direction of Fred's test stand, where Tali had left him just a few minutes before, tuning the engines on his Valkyrie.

Tali shook her head, smiling, as she watched MJ go. She could understand her impatience – she felt it herself, after all – but she was not going to ruin things by moving too quickly. Dr. Gryphon may have restored her immune system to the strength her people had once had, before they left Rannoch, but even a working immune system requires time to adjust. Spending the night without her suit had been scary the first couple times, but now she found that she enjoyed it, and hoped that within another week or two, she'd be ready to face the rest of the world with her head uncovered.

"Without your suit?" Lia asked from the doorway. "How do you intend to do that?"

"With a lot of sniffled and irritation," Tali said. "My doctors have discovered that our immune systems have the potential to be as good as they ever were, but that our life in sterile environments has left them weak and undeveloped." She sat, crossed her legs, and leaned back in her chair. "Contrary to what our people believe, we have not lost our immune systems. We have simply isolated ourselves so much that we have prevented them from developing as they should."

"You mean, we could go bare-headed?" Lia asked, surprised, as she sat opposite Tali.

"Only if we are willing to pay the price," Tali said. "I was so sick the first day of my treatment, I thought I was going to die. If I hadn't had something to live for, I could have easily given up. But I do have something to live for, and so I have continued the treatment regimen my doctors developed for me. Soon, my immune system will be strong enough that I will be able to face the world without my suit's protection."

"What do I need to do?" Lia asked.

"Talk to Dr. Solus and Dr. Gryphon," Tali said. "They'll tell you what you need to do."

"But they're not even quarian!" Lia protested.

"True," Tali said. "They aren't. But they are the most talented doctors you will ever meet. Dr. Solus was the one who developed the cure for the Omega Plague, with no more than the resources of a small neighborhood clinic. Dr. Michael Gryphon designed and built Dr. Maxwell Gryphon. Between the two of them, there is enough medical and genetic knowledge to accomplish almost anything."

"You mean," Lia asked, "Max is a doctor? And he's not a representative of a species we just haven't encountered yet?"

"That's right," Tali said. "Mike created him. When he was fifteen years old. Max learned medicine as Mike's apprentice. You've probably noticed how the children here go to him before they go to Mike."

"Of course," Lia said. "Max is friendly, understanding, and non-threatening. He's really a doctor? I thought he was just a really friendly person."

"He's really a doctor," Tali said. "But if you want to be able to go bare-headed, Mordin and Mike are the ones to talk to."

"And you've been going bare-headed every night?" Lia asked.

"For nearly a month," Tali said. "Some mornings, I wake up with a bit of a fever, or a cough or upset stomach, but it's worth it. Soon, I'll be able to face Fred without the suit between us. And don't you dare tell him! I want it to be a surprise."

"For someone with your reputation," Lia said, "I never expected you to fall in love with an alien."

"My reputation?" Tali asked.

"Come on," Lia said. "Everyone on the fleet knows your name, how you helped defeat Saren and Sovereign. We were all certain you'd come home, take over as chief engineer on one of the major ships, find yourself a nice husband who didn't try to keep you from making a big splash. Keelah, we thought you'd be one of the people who'd get a second child permit. After all, the fleet would be insane not to recognize how valuable your genes are." Lia waved around the room, almost hitting Tina in the process. "Instead, you're here, making yourself sick for the sake of a human, at the same time as you're doing something that would make you even more valuable to the fleet, if they knew."

"But," Tali said, "they can't know. If they knew, they'd try to come back and conquer our old worlds. And that would be a disaster. It might even mean the extinction of our species."

"I know," Lia said. "I've seen the resources that this world has. If Rannoch's resources are even this world's equal, let alone what they should be, any attempt to conquer it would mean the end of the fleet. We don't have the resources to fight a war like this, Tali."

"That's why we're trying to bring people here for their Pilgrimage," Tali said. "They need to know that we don't need a war. We need to change our assumptions, our goals. We need to return home, to accept the geth as our Companions. Then, we can face the universe together, rather than facing each other, the way we have for the last 300 years."

"It's not going to be easy," Lia said. "You saw my first reaction to Nat and Tina."

"I know," Tali said. "It may take a generation of Pilgrims before we can overcome that reaction. But isn't the result worth it?"

"The shuttle to Haestrom will be leaving in five minutes," Joker announced. "Anyone who doesn't want to be stuck on the Normandy for the next week is cordially invited to take advantage of this opportunity."

"For the next week?" Lia asked.

"Apparently so," Tali said. "I have no idea what's up the Commander's sleeve, but he's warned us that we won't be returning to port for a week." She shrugged. "He usually knows what he's up to. So, are you looking forward to exploring Haestrom for a week without my supervision?"

"Absolutely!" Lia said. "If you were guiding me, I'd probably hit every technical device that's still functioning, and never get a chance to find the ones that I can rebuild."

"Ha!" Tali laughed. "You're probably right, at that. Well, then, have fun, and stay out of the sun. The planet's magnetosphere is all but non-existent, and your electronics will fry in direct sunlight. Trust me, I know from experience."

"I'll remember that," Lia said, rising to her feet. "Come on, Tina. We have a world to explore."

"Right behind you," Tina said.

April 22, 2185
Shanxi-Theta Relay
SSV Normandy (3)

"Shanxi?" Miranda asked, shocked. "All this time, he's been operating out of Shanxi?"

"It makes sense," Shepard said. "Think of the symbolism. And of the fact that the rest of the universe has been searching for him in more isolated, hidden locations."

"But ... how?" Miranda asked. "How did you find him?"

"Thank Mordin," Shepard said. "He was the one who had the breakthrough that led us to him."

"Simple, really," Mordin said. "Illusive Man is only one man. Track Cerberus communications to location with single comm relay, then monitor and decipher. Assistance from Theresa MacManus and protege was invaluable. Still do not understand why protege's name must remain secret."

"She's a very private girl," a feminine voice said over the intercom. "If her name got around, she'd be swamped by attention, and that would make her very unhappy. I do my best to keep her safe from that kind of unhappiness."

"I think it's safe to tell this group, Theresa," Fred said. He looked at Mordin and said, "Theresa's protege is autistic. Doing ciphers is a comfort activity for her. It gives her something that makes her feel as if the universe makes sense. Without her ciphers, the universe is too chaotic, too loud, too painful. So, we try to keep her stocked in ciphers, so that she can keep the chaos at bay."

"Why not just let Dr. Gryphon fix her, like he did me?" Jack asked.

"It's a different kind of pain," Fred said. "It's like, if everyone around you were speaking a Turian dialect, without a translator, and doing it very, very loudly. That's what the rest of the human race is like for her."

"Kevin is similar, yes?" Mordin asked.

"Yes, he is," Fred said. "But for him, the secret is math, not ciphers."

"Fascinating," Mordin said. "Will need to research further."

"Damn," Jack said. "I think if that happened to me, I'd want to kill everyone around me."

"And this is different, precisely how?" Garrus asked, laughing.

"I'm no longer the creature of my programming," Jack said, as the air rippled around her. "I no longer want to kill people because I was conditioned to do it. Now, I do it for my reasons."

"Note to self," Garrus said. "Inform Dr. Gryphon that whatever he did to Jack only made things worse."

Jack grinned at Garrus, then nodded at Shepard.

"Zaeed's been on the ground for the last few days," Shepard said, "so he'll be able to give us a picture of the situation when we arrive. Ash, I'll need you to pass the word to the Councilor just before we hit, so he can send in mop-up troops."

"How much lead time do you want?" Ashley asked.

"About thirty seconds would be right," Shepard said. "That way, if there's a leak, it won't be any use."

"You think there might be a leak in Councilor Anderson's office?" Ashley asked.

"It's filled with politicians," Shepard said. "Have you ever known a politician who wouldn't leak something juicy like this, if he thought it would advance his career?"

"Good point," Ashley said, as Fred laughed in agreement. "All right. I'll send the message just before we start shooting."

"Good," Shepard said. "With that covered, all we need to do is assign squads. Miranda?"

"Oriana's coming with me, of course," Miranda said. "And Garrus. We worked fairly well together the last time."

"That's perfect," Shepard said, "because I need Jacob elsewhere."

"You do?" Jacob asked.

"I do," Shepard said. "I need you to try to convince anyone else who's there under the same conditions you signed up under, to get the hell out before we start shooting. If their only reason for working for Cerberus is their disgust with the Alliance and Council and their lack of action on things that matter, we can use them, ourselves. And they'll be doing the galaxy a lot more good than they are as pawns of a megalomaniacal xenophobe."

"You'd be willing to take them on, even though they're working for Cerberus?" Jacob asked, giving Shepard an intent look.

"You can't be the only person out there who joined Cerberus because it deals with problems, instead of forming committees to discuss whether to vote on studying a problem," Shepard said. "I want people like that on my team. I'd much rather have them working for me, saving the galaxy, than working for the Illusive Man, using humanity's place in the galaxy as an excuse for terrorism. Hell, yes, I'd be willing to take them on."

"I'll need the shuttle," Jacob said. "If I'm going to do any good, I'll have to get in there before your assault."

"Go ahead," Shepard said. "It still has Cerberus markings on it, though."
"There are ways to deal with that," Jacob said. "Joker! How far out are we?"

"A couple hours," Joker replied.

"Give me three," Jacob said. "If you don't hear from me an hour after I land, assume I'm either dead or a prisoner."

"Understood," Shepard said. "Good luck, Jacob."

"Thank you, sir," Jacob said, and saluted Shepard, then turned smartly and marched out of the briefing room.

"All right," Shepard said. "We have three hours to prepare."

"Commander?" Ashley asked. "Are you sure that he won't warn the Illusive Man?"

"Jacob would never-!" Miranda started, but was cut off when Shepard replied.

"Jacob worked for the Illusive Man under certain conditions," Shepard said. "He never trusted him, and didn't even particularly like him, but Cerberus was the only organization – before us, that is – that was willing to act on things like pirate and slaver raids, disappearing colonies, and the like, without delaying for two weeks of parliamentary debate. When the opportunity came to leave Cerberus, he took it." Shepard smiled. "In fact, he jumped ship before Miranda did. Jacob's sole guiding principle is taking action to protect humanity. Cerberus violated that principle when the Illusive Man became more interested in stealing Collector technology than in protecting humanity from the Collectors. As far as Jacob is concerned, the Illusive Man broke his agreement."

"If that's the case, don't we have to worry about him trying to go in solo?" Ashley asked.

"Jacob was in the 232 on Eden Prime," Shepard said. "He was the sole survivor of his unit, the same way you were the sole survivor of yours. He's a damned good Marine." He chuckled and added slyly, "Maybe as good as you are. You and he will just have to work that out between you."

"He was in the 232?" Ashley mused. "I didn't know there were any survivors."

"Jacob's away, Commander," Joker said.

"Thanks, Joker," Shepard said. "Give him a thirty minute head start, then take us in, mass effect drive only. We don't want to reveal our hyperdrives just yet."

"Roger that, Commander," Joker said.

"All right, then," Shepard said. "Ash, I'm going to want you to lead a squad when we hit, and I'll lead the third squad."

"All right, Commander," Ashley said. "Do you want me to go in heavy, or light?"

"I've seen your definition of light, remember?" Shepard laughed. "Go in heavy."

"In that case," Ashley said, after snorting with amusement in Shepard's direction, "I'll take Grunt and Nat with me. Nat, are you as good as Tali at hacking systems?"

"Yes," Nat said, as Tali fell over laughing.

"Good," Ashley said, and teased, "At least you won't be chattering incessantly while you're doing it."

"Mordin!" Tali said. "Quick! Examine her! Something's wrong with her!"

Mordin scanned Ashley with his omnitool, then peered at Tali curiously as he reported, "Scan returns normal. No organic dysfunction of any kind."

"Then that's not our Ashley," Tali said. "Our Ashley doesn't have a sense of humor!"

"I had one surgically implanted while you were away," Ashley said, deadpan. After a moment, she broke into laughter.

"You," Tali growled, between gasps of laughter. "I'll get you for that."

"Uh-huh," Ashley said. "Meanwhile, I'll have a geth and a krogan on my side. What'll you have?"

"Me," Fred said, a grin on his face. "But before the festivities start, we should really finish this job, don't you think? Shepard?"

"Oh, I'm willing to wait," Shepard said, chuckling. "These two are always entertaining."

"Entertaining, are we?" Ashley asked, stalking toward Shepard from her side of the conference table.

"Oh, so we're entertaining?" Tali asked, stalking toward Shepard in mirror image of Ashley.

"That's right," Shepard said, pretending to not notice the situation he was in. As Ashley and Tali were about to grab him, he stepped back, leaving the two of them entangled in each other's arms. "Now, while they're working that out, Jack, Mordin, I'll want you two with me. That means you're going to have to cover the relay by yourself, Fred."

"Not entirely," Fred said, grinning. "Max is back with me. Joker, I'll need you to tag any ships that are obviously escaping, so I don't waste anyone's time and energy stopping innocent departures."

"Got it covered," Joker said.

"And Thane," Shepard said, "Will you need us to make an opening for you, or should we just create our usual level of chaos and stay out of your way?"

"I'm certain that the latter is the better choice," Thane said. "I will shadow Miranda's team."

"Thank you," Miranda said.

"We're all set, then," Shepard said. "Meet in the hangar in three hours."


The Valkyrie hangar doors slid back, and Maximilian MacManus lifted from his berth aboard the Normandy. In his cockpit, Fred busied himself with housekeeping while Max took care of the business of positioning them near the relay. Once they were clear of the Normandy, Joker accelerated to light speed, and the Normandy vanished in the direction of Shanxi.

"All right, Commander," Fred radioed. "We're in position and ready to start receiving. Here's hoping there aren't a lot to receive."

"That's only likely to happen if they surrender in buckets," Shepard said. "That's about as likely as the Reapers showing up on our doorstep with roses and chocolates."

"Wouldn't that be a sight to behold?" Fred laughed. "All right, I'm setting my alarm to wake me up when you get to Shanxi."

"And when we get back to Rannoch," Shepard said, "you're going to tell me how this communication system works in FTL, right?"

"Oh, I can do that now," Fred said. "You're using what we call 'subspace radio'. It squirts radio waves through hyperspace level Red 9. No matter where you are in the galaxy, you're no more than a few seconds from any other location at that level. Radio transmissions don't carry the same risk as physical travel, so we can use that level for radio traffic, even while in normal space." He laughed. "The delay gets a bit longer when you go extragalactic, but you've noticed that there's no appreciable delay between here and my home universe, either. Same galaxy, just different quantum frequency, so radio traffic between here and there is just the same as radio traffic between you and me."

"That means there's no chance of anyone tapping our communications, right?" Shepard asked.

"Right," Fred said. "In order to tap our communications, they'd have to not only have a subspace radio, they'd also have to be able to keep up with our security. And since Cal upgraded our security, I'm not worried about that."

"Dad," Max cut in, "did we remember to tell the relay staff that we're with Shepard?"

"Good question," Fred said. "Commander, did you tell the relay staff that you were dropping off a fighter?"

"I am sending you the authentication code that the Normandy's sub-vessels use in their IFF," EDI said. "I advise adding it to your IFF immediately."

"Thanks, EDI," Fred said.

"Unidentified fighter," came through the cockpit speakers. 'Identify yourself immediately or we will fire upon you."

"Give them the code, Max," Fred said, while rubbing his temples. "I'm starting to see why people have a problem with turians."

"These aren't turians, Dad," Max said. "Their signal is on a Systems Alliance frequency."

"Lovely," Fred muttered. "All right, let's have a chat."

"Normandy fighter," the radio said. "We have your IFF. Care to say why you didn't notify us when you undocked from the Normandy?"

"Theta Relay," Fred said, "We'll put a comm laser on you to explain. Open radio is too dangerous."

"Ping is clean, Dad," Max said. "Go ahead."

"Theta Relay," Fred said, "this is Raven. Commander Shepard is hunting a terrorist that was involved in the attack on Horizon. He left me here to cover the route to the relay in case the terrorist attempts to escape Shanxi."

"We'd heard that the attack on Horizon involved Cerberus," the radio said. "Is that true?"

"I can't say for sure," Fred said. "I was just instructed to watch for any ship the Normandy tagged as hostile and make sure it doesn't make it to the Relay."

"That's not very specific," the radio said.

"Sorry I can't be more specific," Fred said, "but that's what my instructions are."

"Just stay where you are," the radio said. "We'll be checking with the Normandy to verify your story."

"Of course," Fred said. "It's not as if I can go anywhere until the Normandy comes back to pick me up."

"The Relay's ladar is painting us," Max said.

"Let them," Fred said. "And wake me up when the action's about to start."

"Will do," Max said. "We have a couple hours to wait, no matter what happens."

"As long as they don't start shooting at us," Fred said. "If the Relay garrison starts shooting at us, take evasive action, but don't shoot back. No sense letting them know about the Ravenfield until we have to."

"Got it, Dad," Max said, as Fred leaned back and closed his eyes.

April 22, 2185
Cerberus Headquarters

"EDI," Shepard said, "you and Tali are in charge of EW. Try to avoid frying the Shanxi comm nets, but if that's what you have to do in order to keep Cerberus confused, then do it."

"Understood, Commander," EDI said.

"Roger, Commander," Tali said. "Good hunting."

The runabout departed the Normandy's hangar, hung a sharp left, and shot up into the sky, headed for an office tower that wouldn't have been out of place on Illium. Meanwhile, the Normandy followed the guidance of the Shanxi air traffic controller and slid into its designated berth with the ease everyone aboard had come to associate with Joker's piloting.

Shepard led Jack and Mordin out the main airlock, through the dock, and into customs. At the customs counter, an agent of the planetary police force, who looked as if he couldn't be more than nineteen years old, stared at Shepard with the awe-filled gaze of someone getting his first audience with a god.

"Y-you're Commander Shepard!" the boy finally squeaked out.

"Uh-oh," Jack sniggered. "Someone's got a fan."

"I am," Shepard said, doing his best to ignore Jack's amusement. "And your name is?"

"Your name – I mean, my name is John Tyler, sir," the boy answered, clearly flustered by the reply.

"Well, Mr. Tyler," Shepard said, extending a hand and giving the boy's a firm shake, "I hope you've read up on the regulations regarding Spectre visits."

"Yes, sir!" John said, looking at his hand as if he expected it to jump off his arm and run around on its own. "Everything is clear for you, sir!"

"Not so fast, son," an older man's voice said. Across the room, in front of a door that was labeled "Agent in Charge", stood a man who did not so much wear his crisply-starched uniform, as inhabit it. His salt-and-pepper hair was closely-cropped, as if he had left the Marines the day before, rather than the twenty or thirty years his apparent age would imply, he had a cigar clenched between his teeth, and he wore mirrored aviator's glasses. He marched across the room, stopped in front of Shepard, and gave him a slow visual inspection, before reaching up and pushing his shades back up his nose while sneering disdainfully at Jack and Mordin.

"So," the newcomer said slowly, while looking over Shepard and the others, "you claim to be Commander John Shepard, the first human Spectre and the hero of the Citadel."

"No," Shepard said. "I don't claim to be Commander John Shepard, I am Commander John Shepard. Who are you?"

"You realize," the newcomer said, grinning maliciously, as a squad of men in planetary police uniforms appeared through every door that opened into the room, "that impersonating a Spectre is treason. If you're smart, you'll surrender now."

"I guess I'm not very smart, then," Shepard said, diving over the counter and knocking the boy to the floor, while Mordin and Jack opened up on the newcomer's men. "Stay down, John. Call for backup."

"But he's the Captain!" John wailed, obviously confused. "Why's he doing this?"

"We can ask him later," Shepard said, popping up to lay down fire so Jack and Mordin could get into position for their favorite tricks, "assuming he's alive by the time this is over."

The firefight was over before John's backup arrived, and Shepard had the Captain in an armlock, while Mordin programed his omnitool to produce an anti-inhibitory injection, when the first of the requested backup came through the door.

"You!" the police officer barked. "Release Captain Morton and raise your hands above your head!"

"No!" John yelled. "He's a Spectre! Captain Morton attacked him!"

"Be thankful your Captain's alive," Shepard said, still holding the Captain. "Do you have it ready, Mordin?"

"Ready, Commander," Mordin said. His omnitool sprouted a hypodermic, and Mordin drove it into Captain Morton's neck. "Maximum effect should be achieved in thirty seconds."

"You'll never get anything from me!" the Captain yelled, a look of triumph in his eyes.

"You sure I can't pop a few, Commander?" Jack asked, winking at Shepard.

"I'm sure," Shepard said. "If they don't shoot first, you can't pop any of them."

"Step away from the Captain!" the police officer repeated.

"Of course," Shepard said, releasing the Captain and stepping away. "Are you going to check our credentials, or open fire the way his men did?"

"Simmons!" the police officer barked, and another officer ran in and scanned Shepard with his omnitool.

"He's Commander Shepard," the second officer declared, after the scan. "He's the real thing."

"All right," the first officer growled, clearly not happy with the situation. "So why do I see a bunch of dead cops in here?"

"Fake cops," Jack snorted. "I'll bet they're all crooked as a Blue Sun gunrunner."

"The Captain attacked them!" John said. "I'd be dead if Commander Shepard hadn't shielded me with his own body!" As if he'd realized what he was saying, the boy's eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted.

"I guess he's never seen combat before," Shepard said, as he crouched to move John behind the counter.

"You'd guess right," the police officer said. "All right, Captain. Why did you attack Shepard?"

"Illusive Man ordered it," the Captain said, then glared at Mordin. "I should be dead!"

"Scan detected counter-agent in blood," Mordin said cheerily. "Luckily, I know many anti-inhibitory agents. Simply used one not affected by counter-agent. Gets answers without killing subject."

"What do you mean, the Illusive Man ordered it?" the officer asked, frowning at the Captain.

"Illusive Man knew Shepard was coming," the Captain said. "Ordered me to make sure he never got through customs."

"Why would Shepard be coming here?" the officer asked. "And why would the Illusive Man care?"

"Cerberus Headquarters," the Captain said. "Downtown."

"Wait, wait, wait," the officer said, looking from the Captain to Shepard, and back again. "Cerberus Headquarters is here? In my city? Where?"

"Commander Evans!" the police radio crackled to life. "Someone's attacking Gaea Enterprises!"

"I believe you have your answer," Shepard said.

"Shit!" Commander Evans spat, then keyed his mic. "Order everyone to fall back! Clear a one block radius around Gaea Enterprises, and don't let anyone through!"

"But Commander!" the radio said.

"Just do it!" Commander Evans barked. "Call in reserves if you have to, but keep everyone away from the fighting!"

"Thank you," Shepard said. "We expected something like this, but expected it closer to the headquarters. The only question is, how many of your officers can you be certain are not Cerberus plants?"

"Damn," Commander Evans muttered. "The only ones I'm absolutely certain of are the old guard, from before Gaea built its headquarters here."

"You could have some youngsters who are clean, too," Shepard said. "Tyler definitely qualifies."

"Problem is," Commander Evans said, "a lot of our newer officers came to us by way of Gaea's security staff."

"You'll never defeat us," the Captain slurred. "Cerberus is humanity."

"The low-life part of it, at least," Commander Evans growled. "Come on, Shepard. Let's get you and your people into that fight."

"Thank you, Commander," Shepard said, following Evans out to his car.


"Damn it, Commander," Ashley muttered. "Where are you?"

"Statistics imply," Nat said, "the Commander is likely to be rescuing an innocent from a potentially fatal event."

"You know," Ashley said, chuckling softly, "I wondered about you at first, but I'm starting to like you."

"Thank you," Nat said. "We are starting to like you, as well." He popped his head over the makeshift barricade and scanned the far end of the hallway, then dropped back before suggesting, "We recommend grenades. Cryogenic grenades would have the most effect."

"It'd be nice if we still had some," Ashley muttered. "Guess we'll just have to make do with old-fashioned bullets, then."

Ashley popped up and let fly with a burst from her assault rifle, while Nat slid the barrel of his sniper's rifle between pieces of debris and took aim on the mechs at the far end of the hallway.

Grunt lay half-way between the ends of the hallway, ignored by the mechs, apparently dead. While Ashley and Nat dropped LOKI mechs, an YMIR rounded the corner and stomped its way up the hall. It walked past Grunt, and was aiming at the barricade Ashley and Nat were crouched behind, when Grunt popped up behind it and jammed his shotgun into the gap between its torso armor and its waist. Several shots burned into the mech's internals, and the mech went limp. Grunt fired several more shots before recovering his shotgun and charging the LOKI position.

"I guess that's our cue," Ashley said, standing up and leaping the barricade, Nat behind her, and charging the LOKI position a few steps behind Grunt.


"Arrrrrgh!" Miranda screamed and sprayed the office with SMG fire. "He got away from us!"

"Not quite," Oriana said. "I just called Joker. Tali tagged a shuttle fleeing the building, and EDI passed the identification on to Fred."
"That's good news, then," Garrus said. "We can secure the data in this office and wait for the others to catch up to us."

"Only if we move fast enough," Oriana said, crossing the room to the executive desk on the far wall. "Who knows what he might have done to destroy any evidence."

"Nat!" Garrus called into his radio. "Get into the building's network and check for any kind of self-destruct systems."

"Understood," Nat's voice came back. "Will make that our first priority when we reach an undefended terminal."

"All right," Miranda said, as she took a deep breath and forced down the disappointment. "Let's see what we can do in here."


"All you have to do is walk out of the building," Jacob said. "No one expects you to shoot at your buddies, but if you want to prove that you're not a Cerberus die-hard, you're going to have to walk away."

"You're certain Commander Shepard will take us?" the Cerberus agent asked.

"I'm certain," Jacob said. "Commander Shepard said that he'll take anyone whose only reason for joining Cerberus was because they were fed up with not being able to do something about all the pirates and slavers and others who were attacking humanity. He'd rather have you working with us, defending humanity, than working with the Illusive Man, propping up his megalomania."

"About damned time!" another Cerberus agent blurted. "I'm sick of being used by Cerberus, when they promised I'd be protecting humanity! I'm not protecting humanity! All I'm doing is keeping the Illusive Man from getting what he deserves!"

"No!" another Cerberus agent protested. "The Illusive Man is right! Aliens are corrupting our species with their alien ideas and alien cultures. We need Cerberus to defend against them!"

"If you really believe that," Jacob said, "go upstairs and join the Illusive Man. I'm not going to waste my time trying to convince you otherwise. I'm also not going to let you stop anyone who wants to leave."

"You're all traitors!" the protesting agent yelled, as he snatched his pistol off his belt and brought it up to fire at Jacob. The bullet struck Jacob's Ravenfield and stopped, then fell to the floor. "See! Even his shield turns black!" the agent yelled as he fired at Jacob again and again.

Jacob walked up to the agent, slapped the pistol out of his hand, and growled, "Leave. Now." The agent let out a shriek and fled, while Jacob turned to the others. "Are you ready to get out of here now?"

"Lead the way," one of the other agents said, and those around him nodded in agreement.

Jacob opened the door to the outer world and led the agents out into the street.


"All of you!" Commander Evans barked into his car's PA. "Put your hands up and walk toward me!"

"They're with me, Commander," Shepard said. "See the man in front? I sent him to recover anyone who was lured into Cerberus under false pretenses. Every one of those people with him is someone who thought he was joining an anti-pirate, anti-slaver group."

"Are you sure about this, Commander?" Evans asked, watching Jacob's group approach, their hands in the air.

"Positive," Shepard said, opening the door and stepping out of the car. "Jacob! Over here!"

"Well, at least you didn't have to get us out of jail, Commander," Jacob said, smiling as he shook Shepard's hand. "I didn't get as many as I'd hoped for, but every one of these men is the kind we're looking for."

"I know," Shepard said, smiling. "I have faith in you, Jacob. I'm just sorry you weren't able to rescue as many as you'd hoped for."

"Is what Agent Taylor said true?" one of the Cerberus agents asked. "Are you willing to take us on, despite our Cerberus history?"

"If you joined Cerberus because they told you that you'd be fighting pirates and slavers," Shepard said, "then you're exactly the kind of people we're looking for. You all know my history, what I've done and am still doing. If that's what you want to do, then you're welcome to come back to the Terminus with us and be a part of it."

"Hell yeah!" the agent who'd asked replied, and a general cheer went up from the others.

"Well," Evans said, "I can't say as I have the faith you do in these men, but I can hardly fault their enthusiasm. If you're getting them off my planet, I won't get in your way."


"Just a little more," Zaeed muttered under his breath, as he watched through his rifle's scope. "Just a little more ...."

At the other end of his line of fire, a Cerberus agent was setting up a heavy cannon behind a barricade of barriers that appeared to be running off building power. Every so often, the barriers flickered, as the lights in the building dimmed, then recovered. The agent finally stood, giving Zaeed the clear line of sight he had been waiting for, and the buildings around Cerberus headquarters echoed with the sound of the rifle shot. The agent's headless body fell to the floor beside the cannon he had been setting up.

"Cannon eliminated," Zaeed reported into the radio. "Got any more sweet targets for me, EDI?"

"That depends on whether you can hit a Kodiak in the thrusters," EDI replied.

"Depends on how far away it is," Zaeed said. "And how fast it's moving."

"It's taking off from the roof right now," EDI said.

"Shit!" Zaeed cursed, and swung his rifle up toward the Gaea building's roof.

Sure enough, a Kodiak was lifting off at that moment. He dialed up the magnification on the scope and triggered the polarization in his replacement eye's lens, to cut down on the glare from the thrusters. As soon as the shuttle rotated enough to give him a clear shot down the right thruster's bore, he fired, then swung to the left thruster and fired again.

"Mission accomplished," Zaeed reported. "Not sure what good it'll do, but I pegged it."

"Your shots have reduced the operating efficiency of the shuttle's main thrusters," EDI said. "That will make it easier for Fred to stop it when it reaches his position."

"Good to know you didn't expect me to bring it down," Zaeed said.

"You're the best there is at what you do," EDI said, "but you're not a miracle worker."

"Next time, I'm bringing one of those new particle beam rifles with me," Zaeed grumbled.


"All right, EDI," Tali said, "let's give it a try."

"Giving it a try," EDI replied.

Above Shanxi's atmosphere, the Kodiak shuttle Zaeed had shot began flying in circles. In the Normandy, Tali grinned and nodded to the operators of the EW control stations.

"We did it!" Tali crowed, while the EW operators whistled appreciation.

"That we did," EDI said. "It will only last a few minutes, until the shuttle crew reboots their system, but the inconvenience to the Illusive Man should increase the odds of him giving irrational orders to his crew when they reach Fred and Max."

"That's all it takes," Tali said, and reached out to shake the hands of each member of the EW crew. "The Commander deserves to know what you did here today. Whether it stops the Illusive Man or not, you've given us another weapon to use against enemy ships."

"Just doing our job, Ma'am," one of the EW crew said.

"I know a Marine who tries to get away with that excuse," Tali chuckled. "I don't buy it from him, either. You all did more than your jobs. You did spectacularly."


"All clear, Commander," Ashley called over the radio. "You can send in the police."

"Roger that, Ash," Shepard replied. He nodded to Evans. "It's all yours now, Commander. Unfortunately, the Illusive Man flew the coop."

"We'll track him down eventually," Evans said. "Now that we know who we're looking for, he can't evade us forever."

"Maybe sooner than you think," Shepard said. "I left a man near the Relay to catch any attempts at escape."

"Commander," Joker's voice cut in, "the Relay garrison is requesting verification that Fred and Max are our people. They insist on speaking with you."

Shepard let out a sigh and rubbed his forehead. "All right. Put them through."

"Roger, Commander," Joker said.

"... and I wouldn't care if your commander is in the head!" came through. "Put him on. Now!"

"You've already waited nearly three hours before calling me," Shepard said. "I don't appreciate you abusing my crew. I'll expect him to receive an apology from you before we leave this cluster."

"Sonofa – !" the radio sputtered. "Who is this?"

"This is Commander Shepard," Shepard growled. "You insisted on being put through to me, when my pilot could have answered your question just as easily. So, convince me that your harassment of my pilot was justified."

"You don't seem to understand who you're speaking to," the radio snarled. "I am Captain Dominic Winters, in command of the SSV Chicago."

"And I am Commander John Shepard," Shepard replied through gritted teeth, "in command of the Normandy. You have a choice, Captain. You can either apologize to my pilot, or I can authorize my fighter pilot to pay a visit to your office and explain to you – in person – why you should have apologized to my pilot. I don't much care either way. I don't tolerate abuse of my crew. By anyone."

"You – !" Winters sputtered. "That's insubordination!"

"Perhaps," Shepard hissed, "you should examine the regulations regarding Spectres. It would be ... bad for your career ... to continue in this vein."

"Give me the mic," Evans said. Shepard handed him the mic, and Evans barked into it, "Dominic! This is Raymond! Back off! Commander Shepard just took out Cerberus headquarters, and his man is out there to stop any escape attempts!"

"I'm sorry, Raymond," Winters said, in a tone that seemed to imply true remorse. "I'm afraid I can't do that." The radio went dead.

"Commander," Joker called, a moment later. "Fred's on the line. He wants to know what you want him to do with the Chicago, now that they're shooting at him."

"I'm sorry, Commander," Evans said. "I had no idea."

"That's why they're called infiltrators," Shepard said, with a sigh. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then said, "Joker, tell him to take whatever actions are necessary to ensure they don't shoot him down. And get that damned shuttle before it can escape."

"There are a lot of good men up there," Evans said.

"Fred's method of handling a situation like this is ... different," Shepard said. "Unless your men go out of their way to volunteer to get killed, they should come out of this intact."

April 22, 2185
Shanxi-Theta Relay

"... And get that damned shuttle before it can escape," Shepard's voice said over the radio.

"All right," Fred said. "Max, can you pinpoint their power supply?"

"It's a standard fusion reactor, Dad," Max said. "A couple good shots with the gun pod will touch it off."

"No, we don't want that," Fred said. "But what if we punch out their fuel tanks? No fuel means no power, right?"

"That's easy enough," Max said. "The fuel tanks are in relatively accessible locations. Given the layout, I'd guess that they're using the fuel as particle shielding."

"Wouldn't surprise me," Fred said. "I've done that myself. Hydrogen makes a great neutron trap."

"Especially when it's stored in metallic form, the way theirs is," Max said. "Good thing I picked up the phaser pod when I came, huh?"

"Are we even still using the old particle beam pod?" Fred asked distractedly as he pushed down the "B" lever on the control panel and rode through Max's transformation from fighter to battroid.

"We haven't used it since you got back from Ri's home universe," Max said. His head tipped forward and the pilot's seat rose on rails. Fred unstrapped and pushed himself off, then floated in front of Max while the seat returned to its position in the cockpit and Max's head returned to its operative position. "You want me to keep them busy while you board them, right?"

"Exactly," Fred said. "It's a cruiser, so it's a really big target. As long as you're busy cutting out their fuel tanks, they'll be too busy to notice me going in through one of the holes you've made."

"Have fun, Dad," Max said, and set the gun pod for a cutting beam. He began firing into the Chicago, carefully cutting through the armor over its fuel tanks.


Private Dylan Pugh had just worked his way into the deepest recesses of the baffles to check the progress of his latest batch of brew. Captain Winters was positively spare over that fighter out there, but it hardly had anything to do with him. After all, he was a Marine, and it wasn't as if there was going to be any kind of boarding action. He knew it had something to do with the Normandy, a name that got the Captain to foaming at the mouth whenever it came up, but the Normandy was on Shanxi right now.

Private Pugh wished the Normandy's crew luck on whatever they were up to. Anything that got Captain Winters in a lather was good in his book. Captain Winters on a rampage meant more of the crew coming to him on the sly for a bit of his special tension cure, and that meant more creds in his pocket. As long as the XO got a little something from each batch in his locker, Private Pugh had nothing to worry about.

The mash was fermenting nicely. He would have to give S3 Wilson an extra bonus for the potatoes he'd provided, when the batch was ready to sell. Given the way it was foaming, Private Pugh guessed it would be ready to pour into the still in another day or two. He'd have to slip away and check on it as soon as his next shift ended, just to be sure.

Since it was so close to time, he checked his still. A feed line for one of the DRA panels near the fusion plant snaked through this part of the baffles, and with a little judicious tinkering, he'd managed to build a pot that nestled against the feed line and used the heat for distilling the alcohol. The inside of the pot was clean enough to reflect his face, and the seals between it and the lid looked solid. It was ready to go. Private Pugh tucked the pot back into its storage cubby and paused to take another look at the foaming mash before starting back toward the main part of the ship.

The outer hull turned red, then split open along the frame Private Pugh's mash pot rested against. A brilliant blue-white beam of light burned through the split, dazzling Private Pugh, and the air in the baffles rushed out, carrying him along with it.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Private Pugh thought as he saw the ship flashing past him. Any further thoughts were cut off as he impacted something soft, and felt air around him again.

"You OK, kid?" a man's voice asked.

Private Pugh looked around, not sure he understood what he was seeing. He was still outside the ship, without any kind of space suit, yet he was breathing air and hearing a human voice.

"Ohshitohshitohshit," Private Pugh stammered.

"Try to avoid doing that until I don't have to breathe the same air, OK?" the man's voice suggested, adding a chuckle at the end. Private Pugh looked wildly around and saw he was in the grip of a man in a lab coat, wearing a black t-shirt that said, in white letters, "A statesman is a dead politician. We need more statesmen." He smiled, apparently attempting to be reassuring, and added, "I'm going to put you down, once we're inside the Chicago. Just tell me which way to your Captain. For some reason, he doesn't want me to stop the Illusive Man from escaping through the Relay."

"The Illusive Man?" Private Pugh squeaked. "Like, Cerberus? That Illusive Man?"

"As far as I know, that's the only one," the stranger said. "As soon as someone told your Captain that Commander Shepard took out Cerberus headquarters, he started firing on my ship."

"Aw, shit," Private Pugh groaned. Then an idea crossed his mind. "Look, you just want the Captain, right? How about I draw you a map? Just take me back into the ship and it's all yours."

"Amazing," the stranger said, in a sarcastic tone that would have angered Private Pugh if he weren't busy trying to figure out how to keep breathing a bit longer. "I was thinking something very similar. Just hold on tight."

Suddenly, they were flying through the baffles, into the area where one of their fighters would have been docked, if they both weren't back at Arcturus for maintenance this week. They stopped in front of the pilot's airlock, and the stranger covered the control panel with his hand. After a moment, the door opened, and the stranger pushed Private Pugh into the airlock. As the airlock door closed behind him, the view he got of the stranger made no sense. Instead of the average-looking man in a lab coat, he saw a humanoid void of absolute blackness.

The airlock cycled, and the inner door opened, letting Private Pugh into the ship. He stood, shivering, until a passing S1 shook him and snarled, "Get it together, Private! Haven't you ever been in combat before?"


"I can't believe they only have one fighter assigned," Fred muttered as he watched the airlock door close. "Let's check the other side of the ship, just in case."

"So far, all they're using is their guns," Max said. "We still have at least an hour before the shuttle gets here, so we don't have to blow them up. Plenty of time to check for more fighters."

"Good," Fred said. "I'm going to do just that. Damn, I wish that Marine hadn't been so terrified."

"Can you blame him?" Edgar asked. "Poor kid got blown into space without a suit. Given what else was floating out there with him, I'd say he was probably the ship's brewmeister."

"Lucky for him we're the ones who caught him, then," Fred said, while the ship flashed by beneath him as they flew to the side away from Max. "Imagine how much trouble he'd be in if his superiors had, instead."

"A lot more than merely not breathing, I know," Edgar chuckled. "Look at that, will you?"

In front of Fred, the obvious outlines of a set of retractable doors, just the right size to conceal a fighter, created an area of hull without lasers, sensors, or gun ports.

"Looks like my instinct about their fighter complement was right," Fred said. "But this slip is empty, too? Talk about sloppy! No navy worth the name lets its ships go out with both fighter slips empty!"

"Lucky for us, though," Edgar said. "I'm hijacking the door controls."

After a moment, the doors retracted, then separated, opening to reveal a pocket in the space between hulls, just large enough to fit a fighter. Fred flew in as Edgar let the doors close behind him. Just like in the slip on the other side, there was one airlock, just at the spot where the fighter's cockpit would have been. Fred plugged into the airlock's control panel, and let Edgar unlock and open it.

Inside the airlock, Fred relaxed against the wall while waiting for the refill cycle to finish. Once enough air filled the space for him to hear external sounds, Fred listened for the sound of anyone near the door.

"Sounds clear," Fred muttered, after a moment.

"I'm not picking up any heartbeats," Edgar said. "I'd say we're clear."

Fred triggered the inner door, and slipped into the ship as soon as the gap was wide enough to pass through. The airlock opened into a short corridor, with hatches that opened on either side, and a bulkhead at the far end.

"What's the map look like?" Fred silently asked Edgar.

"Elevator's on the other side of that bulkhead," Edgar replied. "Based on the other Alliance designs we've seen, I'd guess the bridge is going to be at the bow. Just take the elevator as far as it'll go, then."

"Works for me," Fred said. "Set phaser to stun and let's do it."

"Yeah, right," Edgar snorted. "Hey, remember those horrendous phasers the Feddies were using?"

"Do I have to?" Fred asked, as he ran to the bulkhead hatch and paused to listen and scan for anyone on the other side. "They looked like dustbusters, and worked like they'd been designed by an idiot. I mean, seriously! Six shots to stun a Klingon? Six? Might as well club him with it."

"Clear," Edgar said. Fred moved through the bulkhead, then ran up the hallway. "Yeah, I think you'd have better luck using it as a club, if it didn't shatter under the stress. Elevator's up ahead, on the right."

"Got it," Fred said. Shards of metal suddenly exploded from the wall beside him, broken free by a burst of gunfire from up ahead. "Oh good grief! I don't have time for this! Give them a stun burst."

Fred pointed at the source of the gunfire, and a cone of blue-white light filled the corridor from his hand to the far bulkhead. At the bulkhead, a clatter of dropped guns and thud of falling bodies was the only response. Fred turned to the elevator's call panel and triggered it.

"Kind of surprising," Edgar said, as Fred stepped into the elevator. "I guess they weren't expecting a boarding attempt."

"Of course not," Fred snorted. "After all, a fighter pilot isn't going to abandon his ship, as long as it's still working. Speaking of which, how are things out there, Max?"

"Pretty boring, actually," Max said. "It'd be a lot simpler if you'd let me blow it up."

"They're supposed to be protecting this colony," Fred said. "It'd be rude to blow them up. Or to damage their ship too badly."

"Well, I've got their fuel tanks," Max said, "so it's only a matter of time before their reactor fails. If they're using standard hydrox fuel cells, those won't work, either. So when you see the lights go, that's it. They'll be dead in space."

"So they're wasting whatever fuel's currently in their reactor by firing on you?" Fred asked.

"That's about it," Max said. "Targeting's getting worse, too. My guess is the power's getting erratic enough to affect their computers."

"Damn," Fred muttered. "I'm going to have to get out of this elevator and find the stairs, then."

"If you don't want to have to cut your way out when the power fails, yes," Max said. "Too bad I'm not small enough to join you. You must be having more fun than I am."

"Not really," Fred said. "Only ran into one defensive position," the lights suddenly went dark, and the elevator stopped moving, while the gravity failed. "and the power just went. Looks like I'm going to have to find the emergency hatch."

Fred looked up at the ceiling, and saw the edges of the emergency hatch, helpfully highlighted by Edgar. He unscrewed the wing nuts that held the four corners, and pushed the hatch out of the way.

"All right," Fred muttered as he flew through the opening, into the upper half of the elevator shaft, "it's only a couple more levels. Good."

At the top end of the shaft, Edgar highlighted a manual control for the door, set into the side of the shaft. Fred unfolded the crank that formed the center of the control, and began turning it. As he cranked, the door slowly began opening. The sound of barked orders came through the opening, followed by flashlight beams as it widened.

"Looks wide enough," Edgar commented.

Fred stopped cranking and slipped through the opening, then stopped to scan the bridge. Sure enough, Captain Winters was in the command chair, overlooking the bridge from the center rear.

"Kill him!" Winters screamed, when the flashlight beams illuminated Fred.

"That's not a very nice way to greet a guest," Fred commented, as the bridge guards opened fire. He leaped over the guards, planted his feet on the ceiling, and pushed off again, spinning at the last minute to hook Winters with an arm around the throat. Holding Winters against his chest, he hissed into the Captain's ear, "Well, how about it, Captain? Are you going to surrender, or am I going to break your neck? I'm good either way."

"If you kill me, my men will kill you," Winters hissed in reply.

"They'll try," Fred said. Then he raised his voice to carry throughout the bridge and asked, "But how many of your men would fight for you if they knew you were using them for Cerberus?"

"They're good soldiers!" Winters protested. "They know how to follow orders!"

"Cerberus orders?" Fred asked, his voice still filling the bridge. "For instance, do they know that you ordered them to fire on that fighter because it's out there to keep the Illusive Man from escaping through the Relay?"

"Is that true, Captain?" an older man, whose blond hair was fading into gray, in a dress uniform – Fred guessed he was probably the XO – asked.

"Dominic!" Shanxi Planetary Police Commander Evan's voice barked through the speakers, "This is Raymond! Back off! Commander Shepard just took out Cerberus headquarters, and his man is out there to stop any escape attempts!"

"I'm sorry, Raymond," Captain Winters' voice said over the speakers, in a tone that seemed to imply true remorse. "I'm afraid I can't do that."

"That was just before your Captain ordered you to open fire on my ship," Fred said.

"Marines!" the older man barked. "Place Captain Winters under arrest! I am relieving him of command under charges of treason!"

"You'll be sorry you did that, Dennis," Winters hissed, as the marines took him from Fred's grasp. "This is mutiny! Mutiny, do you hear!"

"Take him away," the older man said, then turned to Fred. "My apologies for this incident. We had no idea he was a Cerberus plant."

"That's why they call them infiltrators," Fred said, offering a hand. "Let's see what we can do to get your ship back up and running, at least until you can get relief in."

"If you think you can manage that," the older man said, shaking Fred's hand, "we'll be in your debt. Staff Commander Dennis Mitchell, at your service."

"Fred MacManus," Fred said. "Let's start by getting your people into armor, ne? No sense anyone passing out from oxygen deprivation while we're working."

"You heard the man," Mitchell barked. "Armor up, people! It's going to be a long day."


"Tripline's set, Dad," Max said, coming to a stop about two hundred yards from Fred, where he was directing a gang of engineers in bolting one of the excised fuel tanks to the hull of their ship. "I set triggers at one light-minute and five light-minutes." He spun toward Fred, popping his canopy. "Damn. Company's coming already."

"All right!" Fred shouted, causing several armored heads to turn and look in his direction. "Commander Mitchell, our quarry is about to arrive. This should be quick, but you might want your people to get under cover until it's over."

"Roger that," Mitchell replied.

Fred launched himself from the cruiser to Max, who had transformed back into fighter mode while Fred was talking. He flipped at the last minute, slid into his seat, and strapped in while Max sealed the canopy.

"Where's the blip?" Fred asked, as Max kicked in his thrusters and shot toward a spot a few thousand kilometers from the Relay. "OK, we want to take him alive, if we can, right?"

"That's what Shepard said," Max said. "He wants Miranda to have a chance to spit in his face before we turn him over to the Council."

"I'd just as soon shoot the bastard," Fred said, "but if that's the way they want it, we'll play it their way."

A Kodiak shuttle dropped out of FTL, just a few kilometers in front of Max. Fred pushed the throttles up, while lining up the gun pod on the shuttle's right front thruster. A beam of blue-white light joined the two vessels, and the thruster blew free of the shuttle.

"Got it!" Fred crowed, and lined up on the right rear thruster.

The shuttle attempted to accelerate away, but all it managed to do was blow its thruster apart as the beam from the gun pod cut it open along its length. The shuttle entered a flat spin as the force of the explosion, and the continued fire from the thruster's reaction chamber, pushed it sideways.

"Idiots," Fred muttered. "They should have shut it down by now."

"They can't," Max said. "The explosion fried the thruster controls."

"Lovely," Fred grumbled. "All right, I guess we'll have to save their bacon."

Max accelerated to catch the shuttle, transforming into battroid mode at the last moment before impact. He caught the left side of the shuttle and held on with one hand, while gripping the left rear thruster with the other. After a moment of effort, he ripped the thruster off and tossed it aside. Switching hands, he ripped the left front thruster off in the same way.

"Give me a link to the shuttle," Fred said.

"Ready," Max said.

"All right, boys," Fred said. "Here's the scoop. You can surrender now, and get a fair trial. Or I can rip open your shuttle the same way I ripped off your thrusters. I'm good either way."

"You don't get us that easy!" came over the radio.

"Self-destruct!" Edgar said.

"Shit!" Fred muttered, and drove Max's hand into the shuttle's rear hatch, ripping it open. Inside the cargo compartment, he grabbed the only man visible, who was plugged into something that vaguely resembled a computer terminal.

"Scrambling," Max stated, while ripping the leads off the terminal and pulling the man out of the shuttle. He spun, presenting his back to the shuttle, and fired his thrusters, pushing away at top speed just an instant before the shuttle exploded.

"Life signs?" Fred asked.

"He's alive," Max said.

"SSV Chicago," Fred called, "we have our target. I repeat, we have our target. We need a medic with vac exposure experience, ASAP."

"Roger that, Raven," the Chicago's radio operator replied. "One medic en route to cargo bay one. Commander Mitchell says 'Good show'."

"Thanks," Fred said. "Cargo bay one, roger."

Max flew toward the Chicago, where a cargo hatch was slowly opening. By the time they arrived, it had opened far enough for him to reach in and place his burden on the deck, where a medic team picked the unconscious man up and put him into a pressurized stretcher.

"All right," Fred said. "Commander Shepard's going to want to have a chat with him, if he's conscious when he arrives."

"Understood," Mitchell's voice replied. "I'm going to want to chat with Shepard, too."

"I doubt that'll be a problem," Fred laughed. "I'm going back to helping your engineers."

"Roger that," Mitchell said.

Fred joined the engineers at the fuel tank, and went back to work, helping them reconnect their fuel cells.


Urz padded down the hallway toward the brig, his new armor gleaming scarlet in the overhead lights. MJ had made sure he had armor suited to his new job of protecting Shepard's ship. He enjoyed the way the ship's krogan whined like a pup whenever he looked at Urz's armor's shoulder cannons. Oh, he didn't make any sound, but Urz had years of experience reading krogan moods, and this krogan fairly stank of envy.

Urz was sure he would still use his claws in preference to any other weapons, but MJ had taken him to an asteroid and helped him learn how to use his shoulder cannons. He had to admit, it was great fun to blast things apart with them, and even more fun to use them to push things through space, like he was nosing a rock over to get at the juicy morsels hiding in their burrows underneath.

Now, the Normandy had a prisoner aboard, and Urz was on his way to make sure that prisoner stayed where he belonged. You could never count on twolegs to do a job right, after all, so he was going to stay in front of the prisoner's cell until they got to their destination and delivered him.

"Hey, Urz," Shepard said, crouching to scratch just the right spot. Urz didn't know how he managed to know the right spot, but he didn't care, as long as Shepard kept hitting it. "All set to keep Mr. Illusive Man where he belongs?"

"You won't let me put him where he belongs," came from Urz's armor, as Urz thought in reply to Shepard's question. "You said he has to be delivered alive. You sure I can't gnaw off a leg or two on the way?"

"Oh yeah," Shepard laughed, while scratching between Urz's eyes, "you're a varren, all right. Be a good boy and leave him in one piece, OK? I'll make sure to direct Miranda down here now and again, so you can annoy her. How's that?"

"Sounds like fun," Urz thought. "Miranda fusses like a mother with cubs."

"That she does," Shepard agreed, giving Urz another scratch, then standing to look into the cell. "Here it is, Urz. This is the prisoner we need to keep captive."

Urz sniffed at the door of the cell and let out a soft whine. Something didn't smell right, and it was more than just the foulness MJ had taught him to recognize as evil. He didn't know just what it was, but maybe MJ could help him understand it when she came to visit.

"Stinks," Urz declared.

"Stinks, huh?" Shepard asked. "So you can smell evil, too?"

"MJ taught me," Urz thought. "He smells evil. Smells something else, too. Don't know what. Don't like it."

"Even more reason to keep a close watch on him," Shepard said. "Don't worry. You won't have to watch him all by yourself. We seem to have ... lots of volunteers."

Creeping into view, from all directions, were dozens and dozens of those little creatures that seemed to infest the Normandy. What did they call themselves? Oh, yeah. Kittens. They came in all sizes, from small enough to snap up in a single bite, to creatures that were larger than Urz was.

One of the larger ones, a sand-colored creature, padded up to Urz and Shepard and announced, without the need for armor to translate into human speech, "We're all set. He's not going anywhere, until you come to fetch him."

"All right," Shepard said, looking over the carpet of kittens. "I'll ... thank you. I think I'll just leave things to all of you now." He scratched between Urz's eyes and left the brig at a brisk walk.

Urz couldn't blame Shepard for wanting to retreat. All these strange furry creatures made him feel uncomfortable, but he was a varren, champion of the pits for longer than most varren lived! He was not going to retreat in the face of strange furry creatures.

"Ubervarren, huh?" the sand-colored kitten asked. "Any others like you, or are you the only one?"

"Ubervarren?" Urz asked. "What's that?"

"You," the sand-colored kitten said. "You're bigger, smarter, faster, stronger, and just all around better than any other varren, aren't you?"

"Yes," Urz said.

"Sucks, doesn't it?" the sand-colored kitten said. "Too smart for the other varren, but twolegs still treat you like a walnut. Except Shepard. I noticed he doesn't even blink at you being smart enough to use that armor."

"What's a walnut?" Urz asked.

"Oh, that's what we call mundane animals," the sand-colored kitten said. "See, the average house cat has a brain the size of a walnut. And since every one of us is able to look like a house cat, all we have to do is act as if our brains are the size of walnuts, and we can blend right in. Only problem is, it's not fun for very long." The kitten sat on its haunches and slowly looked Urz over. "Let me guess ... you're so smart, they had you doing gladiatorial games of some kind, because you're so much smarter than all the others that none of them has a chance against you."

"What is gladiatorial games?" Urz asked. "Do you mean pit fights?"

"Yeah, that'd do it," the sand-colored kitten said. "Hold on a sec." The kitten rose up on its hind legs and changed, just like MJ did. When its transformation finished, it looked half kitten, and half human female. It waded through the other kittens, until it reached a doorway that Urz knew was supposed to be sealed. At the moment, the door was slowly opening.

Urz crouched, taking a position where the wall would hide him from whoever was coming through the door. The half-human kitten nodded at him and took up a matching position on the other side of the door. Meanwhile, the kitten carpet somehow managed to vanish into shadows, into air ducts, and under terminals, leaving the room looking completely empty.

"I'm telling you," a male voice said, "there's not a single guard in there! I knew coming this way would get us past the guards."

"I don't like it," a female voice said. "Shepard's too smart to imagine that just putting guards on the door would keep him locked up."

"Nothing's going to keep him locked up for long," the male voice said. "That's why Alliance Command ordered us to do this."

"I know," the female voice said. "I just ... I feel like we're betraying the Commander."

"We're just doing what he knows needs to be done," the male voice said. "What he'd do if he didn't have to make nice with the Council."

"It still feels wrong," the female voice said. "I don't care what our orders are, it feels wrong."

The door finally opened completely, and two human crew members crept through, each one holding a pistol that was big enough to hurt a krogan. The half-human kitten jumped for the female crewmember, and Urz tackled the male. The male tried to bring his pistol up, and Urz growled in his face, while both shoulder cannons swiveled to focus on a spot right behind the male's nose.

"EDI," Urz growled. "Ask Shepard if I can eat these two."

"I don't believe the Commander would approve," EDI said. "But, if you were to take a bite before I managed to reach him, he could hardly be angry with you."

The half-human kitten snorted. Urz smelled urine, as the male he was standing on passed out.

"It ... it ... it ... talked!" the female squeaked. Urz turned his head to look at her, his cannons tracking with his gaze. "D-d-I surrender!"

"That's a good plan," the half-human kitten said. "OK, kids, you can come out now." As the other kittens flowed back into view from their various hiding places, she continued, "You see, if you hadn't surrendered, things might have become uncomfortable for you."

Urz nudged the unconscious male with his nose, huffed in his face, then padded a few feet away, where he could sit and watch both the male and female without any extra effort.

"Wh-what species are you?" the female asked the kitten, who was moving to lean against the wall near the door the humans had come through. "Where are you from?"

"Puppen," the kitten replied. "Earth."

"No," the human said. "I mean, where does your species come from?"

"Earth," the kitten replied. Urz snorted as he caught the scent of amusement. She was having fun teasing the human.

"That's impossible!" the human protested. "Humans come from Earth!"

"Stay!" Urz rumbled, his guns whirring as they shifted to point at the human, who was starting to scramble to her feet.

"I'd listen to him, if I were you," the kitten said, while grinning and showing all her teeth.

Urz couldn't believe this human was so dense that she didn't recognize an obvious threat when she saw one. Even with the kitten's bared teeth, and his cannons, she still scrambled to her feet. He adjusted the cannons to push, rather than blast, and fired at her feet, knocking her back down.

"Told you," the kitten said, barely containing her laughter. "You should have listened."

"We were only following orders!" the female protested.

"Yeah, yeah," the kitten snorted. "We've heard that line before."

The main door to the brig opened, and Shepard moved through at a brisk walk.

"What happened?" Shepard asked.

"Humans unsealed the other door," Urz said. "We caught them."

"Don't let them kill us!" the female cried, while rubbing her ankles. Urz snorted. She didn't smell injured. Obviously, she was trying to play as if she was, to get Shepard's sympathy.

"Humans are too sweet and greasy," Urz rumbled. The half-human kitten, along with over half the rest of the kittens, fell over, laughing. "What? That's what MJ told me to say!"

"Never mind," Shepard said, resting a hand on Urz's head. At least Shepard wasn't laughing. "EDI, what does the security log show?"

"Playing now," EDI said, as a holographic image appeared in front of Shepard.

When the video finished playing, Shepard rubbed his temples as he stood in silence for a full minute. By the time he was ready to speak, the human male had reawakened.

"So," Shepard said, "you were ordered to kill the Illusive Man?"

"You know it has to be done, Commander," the male said. "The Alliance can't afford to allow him to go on trial."

"Because Cerberus began as an Alliance black ops organization," Shepard said.

"Right," the male said. "Think of how a trial would expose the Alliance. The other species would never trust us again!"

"Like they don't trust the salarians?" Shepard suggested.

"That's different!" the male protested.

"How?" Shepard asked. "League of One, Cerberus, not much difference between the two, if you ask me."

"Don't you care about humanity?" the male asked.

"Why do you think I'm doing this?" Shepard answered. "Humanity doesn't need these kinds of secrets." He frowned as he scanned the brig, then said, "The two of you are confined to quarters until we arrive at the Citadel. I'd put you in a cell, except we don't have any to spare. Still, I'm sure that there will be plenty of guards willing to keep you where you belong."

"You can't do this!" the male protested. "We were operating under orders from Alliance Command!"

"Orders that never crossed my desk," Shepard said. "Therefore, the two of you could be considered mutineers."

"You've turned your back on the Alliance," the male argued.

"Would that be the Alliance that created Cerberus," Shepard asked, "the Alliance that declared me dead, the Alliance that determined the Reapers to be the product of a delusional mind, or all of the above?"

"You swore an oath!" the male protested.

"That's right," Shepard said. "And I'm keeping my oath, regardless of what the Alliance does. Murdering prisoners is not a part of the oath I swore."

"Commander?" Ashley asked as she walked through the door. "EDI said you needed me."

"I do," Shepard said. "These two are confined to quarters for the duration of the trip. Can you handle it?"

"What'd they do?" Ashley asked.

"Tried to murder the Illusive Man," Shepard said. "They claim it was under orders from Alliance Command."

"No way," Ashley said. "Alliance Command doesn't give orders like that."

"Not to honest soldiers, anyway," Shepard said. "You've got them covered?"

"I do," Ashley said. "Come on, you two." She scanned the room while waiting for the two humans to get to their feet, and her gaze fell on Urz. "Uh, Commander? Is it a good idea to put power armor on a varren?"

"That's not just any varren," Shepard said. "That's Urz. I'd trust him with power armor as readily as I'd trust Garrus."

"That's going a ways," Ashley said. "You know Garrus."

"And I know Urz," Shepard said.

"Why is it," Urz rumbled, "that everyone assumes I'm a walnut?"

The half-human kitten sneezed loudly, as she tried to keep from laughing out loud.

"It ... talks?" Ashley asked, staring at Urz.

"He does," Shepard said, snorting with amusement. "He's smarter than the average varren."

"But he doesn't steal picnic baskets," the half-human kitten said, deadpan.

"That depends," Urz said. "Do picnic baskets have food in them?"

"Usually," the kitten said.

"Well, then," Urz said, "I'll have to steal them, won't I?"

The kitten gave up any pretense of restraint, and slid to the floor, laughing out loud. "Oh gods," she gasped,. "Mom would be trying to keep her dignity, while OtherMom would die laughing."

Urz humphed at the kitten and leaned into Shepard's scratching. Ashley threw up her hands, then drew her pistol and pointed it at the human prisoners.

"Move it," Ashley barked. The prisoners looked at each other, then marched toward the door.

April 23, 2185
SSV Normandy (3)

"Normandy," the Citadel Controller's voice said over the radio, "you are cleared for the Council dock. C-Sec will be waiting for your prisoner."

"Roger that, Citadel Control," Joker said. "Council dock. Normandy out."

"Well," Shepard said. "It seems they're once again taking us seriously."

"Yeah, Commander," Joker said, "but only because we have a prisoner they can see and touch."

"Three, actually, "Shepard said. "Still, maybe now they'll stop riding the Cerberus hate wagon."

"This is the Council you're talking about, Commander," Joker said. "You can hope, but when have they ever been reasonable?"

"Good point," Shepard said. "That reminds me. EDI, have you and Edgar been able to decipher the authentication code on the orders?"

"We have," EDI said. "The orders came from Ambassador Udina's office."

"They did, did they?" Shepard mused. "I have an idea. Joker, tell C-Sec that we'll have the Illusive Man ready as soon as we dock. EDI, ask Miranda and Sabrina to join me in crew quarters."

"They're on their way," EDI said, after a moment. Shepard nodded and turned to leave the cockpit. "How long until we're docked, Joker?"

"How long do you need, Commander?" Joker asked.

"Give us ten minutes," Shepard said.

"I can do that," Joker said. "It takes the average pilot that long, at least, so they won't be too suspicious if I take my time."

"Thanks," Shepard said, his mind already focused on how he was going to get the information he wanted from the two under confinement. Mordin joined him on the way to the elevator, and the two rode down to the crew deck in a comfortable silence.

As they stepped out of the elevator, a tawny-furred lioness rose to her feet and fell in beside them, while Miranda walked down the corridor from her office to join them in front of the door to crew quarters. Ashley's Marines, flanking the door, snapped to attention and saluted Shepard, then keyed open the door.

In crew quarters, the two prisoners sat at a table, glaring at each other, cuffed to the table so that neither could reach the other one. From their expressions, Shepard was willing to bet that they were far from happy with each other.

"Well," Shepard said, as he stepped into the room, "we're almost to the Citadel, and I have a proposal for the two of you."

"You're a traitor," the man growled.

"Shut up, you bastard!" the woman snapped at the man. "What is it, Commander?"

"I'm not particularly interested in turning you over to C-Sec," Shepard said. "After all, you were only following orders."

The lioness snorted, loudly, at that.

"Oh god," the woman whimpered. "You didn't bring the varren, did you?"

"No, Urz is guarding the Illusive Man," Shepard said. "You don't have to worry about him. What you do have to worry about, though, is deciding on my offer."

"What are you offering?" the man asked, glaring at Shepard with hate-filled eyes.

"It's really quite simple," Shepard said. "Give us the name of your commander – the source of your order to kill the Illusive Man – and I'll let you go. Kick you off my ship, of course, since I can't have mutineers in my crew, but I won't turn you over to C-Sec."

"We'll die first!" the man snapped.

"You'll let us go?" the woman whimpered. "It was Clerk Chen! He gave the orders!"

"You treasonous bitch!" the man snarled. "I'll make sure you burn for that!"

"Sabrina?" Shepard asked.

"She's telling the truth," the lioness said. "At least, she believes it's the truth. You know how that goes."

"I do," Shepard said. "Can you and Miranda grab him before he escapes?"

"We'd be delighted," Miranda purred, while Sabrina's ears twitched with eagerness. They left the room, Sabrina's tail flicking back and forth as she padded beside Miranda.

"All right," Shepard said. "Miss Bertolli, as soon as we've arrested Clerk Chen, you'll be free to go. As for you, Mr. Krueger, I'm afraid this is the end of the line for you."

"You can't just kill him!" Bertolli gasped.

"Oh, I'm not going to kill him," Shepard said. "Not like this. However, I know a perfectly good planet, where he'll have plenty of opportunity to think about his devotion to Cerberus. Well, when he's not working on his survival skills, that is. I understand it used to be a beautiful colony world, before the Collectors visited. I'm sure you've heard of it. Ferris Fields?"

"You bastard," Krueger hissed. "Why not just kill me and be done with it?"

"Because you'll have the full resources of the colony to support yourself," Shepard said. "Who knows? There might even be other people there by the time we drop you off. It's more than you deserve."

"Commander?" Bertolli asked, looking up at Shepard uncertainly. "I ... do you have to kick me off your ship?"

"I'm afraid so," Shepard said. "You were working for Cerberus, even after I gave everyone loyal to them the opportunity to leave peacefully, and you obeyed orders to murder a prisoner. I can't have that on my ship."

"But I wasn't working for Cerberus!" Bertolli protested. "I was sent here by Alliance Command! They were concerned that you were going rogue, that you were becoming a danger to the Alliance!"

"Keep it up," Krueger hissed. "Every word you say, you're digging your grave deeper."

"Would one of you gentlemen like to gag Mr. Krueger?" Shepard asked, looking at the Marines.

"We'd be delighted to, Sir," one of the Marines replied, pulling a handkerchief out of a pocket. "He's been asking for this since Chief Williams brought him here." He shoved the handkerchief into Krueger's mouth, then accepted a piece of duct tape from the other Marine, and applied the tape to Krueger's lips. "Blessed silence, if you don't mind me saying it, Sir."

"I don't mind it at all, Corporal," Shepard said. "Thank you." He looked at Bertolli and smiled. "Now, you were saying?"

"Alliance Command sent me and Lieutenant Krueger to infiltrate your crew, Sir," Bertolli said. "They wanted us to join as mercenaries, and send regular reports. Then, the first thing you did after hiring us, you attacked Cerberus Headquarters, and they ordered us to execute the Illusive Man before he could be returned to the Citadel."

"That's interesting," Shepard said, pulling up a chair and sitting where he and Bertolli could talk without difficulty. "Especially given that I had specifically requested Operations Chief Williams, and she brought a squad of Marines with her when she joined me."

"I thought it was strange, too, Sir," Bertolli said, "but I've received a lot of strange assignments over the last few years. When you're in Fleet Intelligence, you end up doing a lot of things you don't understand. Sometimes you do things you don't like. But you do them because you swore an oath, and the orders come from Command."

"And when the orders conflict with your oath?" Shepard asked.

"I've been lucky so far, Sir," Bertolli said. "This was the first time I ever received an order that I couldn't reconcile with my oath. I told him," she nodded at Krueger, "that I didn't like it, that it felt wrong. But he's my superior. I was glad when your ... irregular crew ... stopped us."

The Marines snorted, obviously holding in laughter. Shepard grinned, nodding to Bertolli, as one Marine quietly said to the other, "We're gonna have to tell Urz that. I think he'll get a kick out of it."

"Uncle Fred's gonna be proud," a quiet voice said from a shadowed corner

"Aunt Grandma's gonna be proud, too," another quiet voice said, from the same corner.

"Shhh!" a third voice said, shushing the first two.

"OK," Shepard said. "How many of you are hiding in here?"

"Awww," the first voice said, as one kitten, then another, and another, and another, slunk into view. By the time they were finished, a half-dozen short-haired kittens, all apparently the same age, were sitting around the table.

Shepard looked down at them thoughtfully, then asked, "All right. I take it you've smelled these two?"

"We have," one of the four orange-furred kittens said. "Both smell good. He just smells like an idealist. Bad thing to have in an undercover operative. Especially if his commanders know it."

"A bad thing?" Shepard asked. "Why?"

"Idealists can be convinced to do anything," the silver-furred kitten said. "All you have to do is make them believe that it's for the good of whatever they believe in. He believes in the Alliance, so you could convince him to wipe out an entire planet, just by convincing him it's for the good of the Alliance. He wouldn't even lose a night's sleep over it. It makes someone like him scarier than an evil person."

"What about her?" Shepard asked.

"She smells sad, scared, and confused," the calico kitten said. "Smells like everything she believed has been destroyed, and now she doesn't know what to do."

Bertolli hung her head and twined her fingers together in her lap. After a moment, she asked softly, "What are you going to do with me, Sir?"

"That's up to you, Bertolli," Shepard said. "You're Intelligence, you've already said that. What's your specialization?"

"I'm an analyst, Sir," Bertolli said softly. "I shouldn't really be in the field at all, but Command ordered me here, so here I am."

"She's telling the truth," the calico said.

"EDI, would you and Edgar see what you can dig up on ... Bertolli, what's your service information?" Shepard asked.

"Second Lieutenant Agnes Bertolli," Bertolli replied, "Alliance Fleet Intelligence, service number 3A72E7A5F."

"Working, Commander," EDI replied.

"We're about to dock, Commander," Joker said. "And I'd like to say that the sooner Miranda and Sabrina are off the ship, the happier I'll be."

"They're hunting, Joker," Shepard said, chuckling.

"I know, Commander," Joker said. "That's why they're so scary."

"All right, Bertolli," Shepard said. "As I said, I can't keep you aboard the Normandy. Even if you disagreed with your orders, you did undertake to follow them, despite knowing that you were violating my trust as your commander."

Bertolli whimpered and lowered her head. The silver-furred kitten jumped into her lap and bumped her insistently with her head.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to throw you off with Krueger, though," Shepard said. "I need good analysts. Groundside. If you're willing to accept a groundside assignment, I can use your skills."

Bertolli raised her head and blinked repeatedly as she stared at Shepard, her posture radiating shock. "You ... you'd keep me on, Sir? Even after what I did? Where would you like me to go, Sir? I'll do anything, just don't make me leave."

"I'll tell you where your assignment is once Krueger is relocated to the brig," Shepard said. "Meanwhile ... Corporal, do you have keys to those cuffs?"

"I do, Sir," the corporal replied, digging a key ring from a pocket and offering it to Shepard.

Shepard unlocked Bertolli's cuffs. As soon as she was free, she hugged the silver-furred kitten, softly sobbing, "Thank you, Sir."

"Why don't you go get something to eat, Bertolli?" Shepard suggested, as he handed the keys back to the corporal. "I have business to complete with the Council." He chuckled at the posture of the kittens and added, "I think you've picked up an escort of your own, at least for a while. Why don't you get to know them?"

"Yes, Sir," Bertolli said. "Thank you, Sir. I won't let you down, Sir."

"Relax," Shepard said, chuckling. "Contrary to popular rumor, I don't bite. I leave that job for Urz."

"You won't let him, will you?" Bertolli squeaked. "Bite me, I mean?"

"Don't worry," Shepard laughed. "He's too smart for that. Go on, get something to eat. And pay a visit to sick bay, while you're at it, OK? Trust me, it'll do you some good."

Bertolli nodded and left the room at just a few steps short of a run, with the kittens following her like the tail of a comet. As soon as she was gone, Shepard, said, "EDI, let me talk to Dr. Chakwas."

"Sick bay here," Dr. Chakwas' voice came a moment later.

"Dr. Chakwas," Shepard said. "Lt. Bertolli will be stopping by to see you in a bit. I think she needs something to help her calm down. I suggest something red, maybe a New Eden vintage."

"Understood, Commander," Dr. Chakwas said. "I'm sure I have something that'll do the job."

"Thank you, Doctor," Shepard said. "Shepard out."

Shepard stood, studied Krueger for a moment, then shook his head and left the room, the Marines behind him. Once the door was locked, he said, "Once we've transferred the Illusive Man, Krueger can take his place in the Brig. EDI will let you know when it's time to move him. Take whatever backup you need, if there aren't any kittens around to help out."

"Understood, Commander," the corporal said. "You wouldn't mind if we asked Urz to help, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't mind at all," Shepard said, chuckling. "It sounds as if you guys want to adopt him into your squad."

"Well, Sir," the corporal said, blushing. "We've sort of done that already. Adopted him as our mascot, at least."

"Ha!" Shepard laughed. "I'll want to see your squad patch, once you have it ready for approval. Sounds like it's going to confuse the piss out of your superiors."

"Not really, Sir," the corporal said. "Chief Williams already approved it, with some grumbling about how you've managed to corrupt her Marines. But she was smiling when she did it, so I doubt she was really mad."

Shepard chuckled and headed for the elevator. Once the doors closed, he asked Mordin, "What do you think?"

"Elegant solution," Mordin said. "Effective exile for the dangerous one, recruitment for the useful one. Not nearly enough analysts in the company. Should increase our ability to follow leads."

The elevator opened on the command deck, and Shepard walked to the lab with Mordin. As they entered the lab, EDI said, "We've found Lt. Bertolli's service file, Commander. It will be available on Dr. Solus' computer whenever you want to view it."

"Thank you, EDI," Shepard said, as Mordin called up the information.

"Interesting," Mordin said. "Several citations for excellent work, beside several notes of reservation from her commanders."
"Oh?" Shepard asked.

"Too many questions about ethics of operations," Mordin said. "Not suited for intelligence operations at all. Excellent analyst, but too ethical for field work. Only reason to put her in field appears to be to find a reason to remove her from her position."

"Who did it?" Shepard asked.

"Staff Commander Mikhail Lysenko," Mordin said. "Arcturus Station. Can study file further after meeting with Council. Will be interesting to see reaction to delivery of Illusive Man."

"Good point," Shepard said. He triggered his omnitool's subspace radio and said, "Shepard here. Anyone who wants to be there when we turn over the Illusive Man, meet up at the main airlock. We're about to dock."

April 23, 2185
Council Chambers

"Tell us, Commander Shepard," the turian Councilor said, "why you chose to bring the Illusive Man to us, rather than deal with him yourself."

"The Illusive Man," Shepard said, "has been a thorn in the side of the Council and the Alliance for far too long to be dealt with as any ordinary threat. Far too many people, of far too many species, have suffered due to his actions for anyone to be satisfied by anything less than a full public accounting. By bringing him to the Council, I am bringing you the opportunity to show, to your own species and to the galaxy as a whole, that his actions have consequences, and that you are willing and able to ensure that those consequences are enacted."

"Commander Shepard and I agree on this matter," Councilor Anderson said. "While it would be easier to allow him to deal with the Illusive Man as a Spectre, it would not give the people of the galaxy the justice they need. Commander Shepard's team is currently hunting the Illusive Man's accomplices, with my full support, but this outlaw requires the degree of justice that can only be dealt by the full Council."

"We appreciate your decision on this matter," the asari Councilor said. "By bringing the Illusive Man before us, you have demonstrated that the Alliance is prepared to take full part in the galactic community, even when doing so is difficult. Your choice in this reflects favorably on your government, and on your species as a whole."

Tali stepped on Fred's right foot, distracting him from commenting on the asari Councilor's statement. Into their private radio channel, she hissed, "Let it go, my love. It's their station, we have to play by their rules, remember?" Fred subsided, grumbling under his breath, while squeezing Tali gently around the waist.

"The Illusive Man has claimed that Cerberus represents humanity's equivalent of our Special Tasks Groups," the salarian Councilor said. "Perhaps if it had confined its operations to those that did not involve terrorist acts, those claims could be given credence. However, the activities Cerberus has undertaken, from the detonation of mass effect drive cores over human cities to the assault on the quarian flotilla, make it clear that, whatever Cerberus is driven by, it is clearly not the best interests of humanity."

"The evidence before us includes not only that gathered by experts at the scenes of many of Cerberus' crimes," the turian Councilor said, "but the new evidence gathered from the Illusive Man's own computers at Cerberus headquarters. No doubt C-Sec will be studying it for years before we know the full scope of Cerberus and the Illusive Man's crimes, but even without those years of study, there is more than enough evidence here to call for our judgment on the Illusive Man."

"As you have chosen to be anonymous," he continued, this time addressing the Illusive Man directly, "so you will be stripped of your name. Your family, should you have any, will only be informed that your crime was so great that your name will be stricken from all legal records as a result, and you will have no estate, no legacy, not so much as a stock certificate in your name. Your assets, and those of Cerberus, will be seized and used to compensate the families of your victims. As for you, we have struggled with what to do about you."

"Councilor Anderson and Commander Shepard have not made our job easy, bringing you before us like this," the asari Councilor said. "Shall we execute you for your crimes? That would be just, but risks making of you a martyr. Shall we imprison you? Humans do not live long enough for any prison sentence that would be just punishment for your crimes. Still, we must do something to demonstrate that crimes such as yours are too great to bear."

"As a result," the salarian Councilor said, "we have determined that you will be imprisoned, on a planet that will be inhabited solely by you, and you will be denied all access to any devices more advanced than pre-industrial tools. You will be monitored from orbit, and subject to random, unannounced inspections to ensure that you have not gained access to advanced technology. The location of the planet will be known only to those responsible for monitoring your imprisonment, and any attempt to approach the planet by anyone other than your guards will be met with lethal force. In short, you will spend the rest of your life in solitary confinement, in the most primitive conditions compatible with ensuring you remain alive."

"Fred," Tali whimpered over their private frequency. "Get me out of here. I'm going to throw up."

"What is it?" Fred asked, as he wrapped an arm around Tali and began guiding her toward the door to the Council dock.

"Noise," Tali said. "Over computer. Subsonic, I think."

"Edgar?" Fred asked.

"I'm picking something up," Edgar said, "I ... shit." He switched to loudspeaker mode and yelled, "Garrus! Mordin! Thane! Jack! Shield the Council! Shepard! Tackle the Illusive Man! Everyone! Shields up!"

Meanwhile, the Illusive Man had begun to laugh, while staring up at the Council with an expression of unconcealed hatred. "You have condemned yourselves," he said. "You believe you have defeated me? I have only begun! Cerberus is humanity, and I am Cerberus! Let that thought fill your minds as you die!"

While the Illusive Man ranted, Garrus, Mordin, and Thane flew across the gap between the Council and the rest of the chamber, tackled the Councilors, and activated their Ravenfields. Jack tackled Councilor Anderson and activated her Ravenfield. Shepard tackled the Illusive Man and activated his Ravenfield. Fred grabbed the nearest structural support and activated his own Ravenfield, which spread outward from his hand, until it had reached just far enough to cover those watching the Council from the balconies on either side, when the Illusive Man exploded. The explosion vaporized the Petitioner's Stage, as well as 570 meters of the tower below it, and the reflected energy reduced the Council Chamber, everywhere Fred's Ravenfield didn't cover, to twisted and half-molten metal.

Garrus, Mordin, Thane, and Jack picked up the Councilors and flew toward the Normandy, deposited them in its airlock, then joined the rest of the team in its search for survivors. Fred kept his position, his Ravenfield extending just a little farther, to ensure that it maintained an airtight seal over the balconies, so the witnesses could survive until they were picked up and carried to safety.

"Damn it!" Fred cursed. "How did we miss it? An antimatter bottle should have shown up on our scans!"

"It showed up as a cortex bomb," Edgar said. "We thought we had deactivated it, but it was in too deep to remove. Even Mike didn't want to risk removing it."

"Shit!" Fred cursed. "Shit, shit, shit!"

"Look on the bright side," Edgar said. "It was only an ounce or so."

"That's still a megaton of damage!" Fred yelled. "If we hadn't been here, everyone in the tower would have died!"

"Uh, Commander?" Joker called. "What the hell just happened?"

"Illusive Man had an antimatter cortex bomb," Fred growled. "Somehow, he managed to shield it so it looked like normal explosive."

"I'd suggest getting one of the Councilors on the radio," Edgar said, "so the turians don't try to blow you up."

"Roger that," Joker said. "I'm opening the hangar door so you can move survivors in faster."

"Thanks," Shepard said. "That'll make rescue operations easier. Fred, how long can you maintain that field?"

"As long as I have to," Fred said. "Now that I know I can extend it this far, I can keep it up until you've retrieved all the survivors."

"Destiny Ascension to Council Chambers," an asari voice came over the radio. "Do you have any survivors?"

"This is Councilor Tevos," the asari Councilor's voice replied. "We have been evacuated to the Normandy. What is the status of the Citadel?"

"It's bad, Ma'am," replied the Ascension. "There are casualties in all the wards, with reports still coming in. What the hell happened, if you'll excuse my asking?"

"We're not sure ourselves," Councilor Tevos replied. "From what one of Commander Shepard's team just said, though, it appears the Illusive Man had an antimatter cortex bomb."

"How did that get through security?" the Ascension demanded.

"It was shielded," Fred growled. "Damned thing looked like a normal cortex bomb, which we deactivated before letting him on the Normandy. If we could figure out how he managed to re-activate it, we'd be a lot further ahead."

"We can worry about that later," Shepard said. "Right now, we have survivors to rescue. Ascension, do you need additional help to evacuate survivors?"

"We should be fine," the Ascension replied. "Between shuttles and the Citadel fleet, we have enough ships to evacuate any survivors on the Presidium."

"Never mind the Presidium," Fred said. "What about the Wards? Anything within 3km of the Tower would have received 500 rem of radiation exposure, and anything within 13km of the Tower would have received enough thermal radiation to produce third degree burns to anyone who wasn't shielded. Between that and the decomposition of the sulfur hexafluoride, you're going to have a few million casualties in the Wards."

"What basis do you have for those claims?" the Ascension demanded.

"The explosion was one and a quarter megatons," Fred said. "Plug that into your VI. Then get on the phone to the Red Cross, and any other aid agencies you can reach. You're going to need them all."

"Damn it!" the Ascension swore, after a few moments. "We don't have the resources for this!"

"Call in the Life Brigade, Red Cross, Healing Waters, and other aid agencies you can reach," Councilor Tevos said. "The Council agrees with Commander Shepard's team. This could be as bad as the Belan disaster."

"We've evacuated everyone from the Council Chambers," Jack announced. "You can drop your field, Fred."

"Thanks, Jack," Fred said, as he retracted his Ravenfield. He switched to his private frequency and asked Tali, "How are you doing, love?"

"Get me out of here," Tali groaned. "My suit can only clean up so much vomit."

"Shit," Fred muttered, as he moved to embrace Tali, then flew to the Normandy. "Dr. Chakwas, I'm bringing Tali in for an exam. Get the clean room tent set up in sickbay."

"Understood," Dr. Chakwas replied. "It'll be ready when you get here."

"We've got things covered here," Shepard said, as Fred flew past him. "Take care of Tali."


Commander Shepard followed the rest of the team into the Normandy and hit the hangar door's manual control. Once it had closed, he sank onto a crate and dropped his Ravenfield, then let out an exhausted groan. It had taken the entire team to control the debris from the Council Chamber, until tugs had arrived to haul it away, and now they were all collapsing, exhausted, in the hangar.

"EDI," Shepard asked, "how's Tali doing?"

"Given her condition," EDI replied, "she's doing remarkably well."

"Given her condition?" Shepard asked. "What do you mean?"

"I believe she would rather tell you in person," EDI said. "Dr. Chakwas has released her from sick bay, and she's resting with Fred in their quarters."

"I'll be up in a minute," Shepard said, pushing himself to his feet and stumbling toward the elevator.

"You should probably stop on the command deck first," EDI said, "and talk with the Council."

"Gah," Shepard grumbled. "I'm too tired for this." He let out a sigh. "All right, EDI. Tell the Council I'm on my way."

When the elevator opened on the command deck, Shepard saw the Council standing where Kelly used to be, reminding him of another reason he had to hate Cerberus and the Illusive Man. He did his best to pull himself together, smoothed down his uniform, and walked out to meet them.

"An AI, Shepard?" the turian Councilor growled as he approached them. "If you weren't a Spectre, that would be enough to have you imprisoned for life."

"We weren't going to murder EDI," Shepard said, "just because Cerberus created her. Our technical specialists scrubbed her code of all ties to Cerberus before we moved her blue box to the new Normandy."

"The same technical specialists that didn't find the antimatter in the Illusive Man's cortex bomb?" the turian Councilor demanded.

"Yes," Shepard growled. "Live with it."

"There is no cause for fighting among ourselves," Councilor Tevos said, stepping between the turian Councilor and Shepard. "The AI helped save our lives." She looked at Shepard and said, "Once again, we owe you our lives, Commander." She laughed softly and added, "This is becoming something of a habit."

"We have been examining your ship's records of your encounters with the Reapers," the salarian Councilor said, "and it appears we must reconsider our previous conclusions."

"I still say it's a myth," the turian Councilor grumbled.

"If it is a myth," the salarian Councilor said, "it is a myth with a basis in fact. Fortunately, with the destruction of the Citadel Tower, we will not have to worry about the Citadel being used to bring the Reapers into Citadel space."

"However," Councilor Anderson said, "that means we do not know where the Reapers will appear when they come into the galaxy. We are going to have to increase our military presence, and create rapid-response teams that can battle them wherever they appear."

"If I may suggest," EDI said, "Cerberus discovered the weapon that produced the Great Rift Valley on Klendagon. If we can find its record of that discovery, it may be possible to reproduce the weapon and station copies near inhabited worlds, to provide them with basic defense against any Reapers that appear."

"Good idea, EDI," Shepard said. "It's at least a start."

"What I find fascinating," the salarian Councilor said, "is that the Collectors were originally the Protheans."

"Yes," Shepard said. "Protheans that had been harvested by the Reapers and genetically repurposed to serve as a slave race. Even their outer form was changed to suit the Reapers' design. If not for their unique DNA, we would not have known what they were."

"We now know that the Reapers have existed for at least thirty-seven million years," Councilor Anderson said. "And we know that the Reapers created the technology we use, in order to guide our technological development."

"But why?" the turian Councilor demanded.

"Based on our discoveries on the Collector Base," EDI said, "it is likely that the Reapers use organics to develop technology that they can then harvest, along with the organics themselves, in order to maintain themselves and reproduce. The incomplete human-form Reaper we found in the Collector Base could be an example of Reaper reproduction, using the genetic material of the species they considered to be most promising during this cycle of galactic civilization."

"That is a disturbing concept," Councilor Tevos said. "We will have to reflect on this. Meanwhile, we should consider tasking the Hierarchy and the Alliance with developing countermeasures for the inevitable confrontation."

The turian Councilor looked sourly at Councilor Anderson, who nodded in agreement with Councilor Tevos.

"We concur," the salarian Councilor stated. "As the two most militarily advanced species in Citadel Space, the turians and humans will have to shoulder the burden of military preparation. My own species will begin a more concerted effort to gain intelligence on the extent and nature of the threat."

"If you don't have any immediate need for my assistance," Shepard said, "I have a crew member who needs my attention."

"Go ahead," Councilor Anderson said. "We can call you if we need anything your AI can't provide."

Shepard nodded and re-entered the elevator. When it opened on the top deck, he walked to Fred and Tali's quarters and knocked on the door.

"Come in!" Tali called, as the door opened.

Shepard took a step inside, then stopped, stunned by what he saw. A woman was resting on the bed, with Fred holding her hands. She looked vaguely like Irene, in height and build, but had a shaved head and a prominent nose. She had two fingers and a thumb on each hand, and when she looked toward the door, her eyes had a silvery tone to the irises. When she saw Shepard, she smiled and pointed to a chair near the bed.

"Come in, Shepard," she said. "Sit. Don't worry. Dr. Chakwas said my immune system is as robust as it ever will be. I don't have to wear my envirosuit any more."

"Tali?" Shepard asked, taking the indicated seat while staring at her in shock.

"That's right," Tali said. "Dr. Gryphon's treatments have restored my immune system to what it would have been if I had been born on Rannoch, instead of on the fleet." She laughed and patted Fred's hands, saying gently, "It's all right, my love. I won't break."

"But ...," Fred started, then laughed softly. "You're right. I just ... I just need to wrap my head around this. I mean, I'm Raven, not Coyote."

"You'll have to explain what that means," Tali said, then laughed. "Another time, not now. For now, we just have to celebrate."

"You have to celebrate?" Shepard asked. "I take it that whatever made you sick isn't a problem, then?"

"No," Tali laughed. "Not a problem at all. Just ... very surprising, physically impossible, and a reason for great joy."

"OK," Shepard said, took a deep breath, and asked, "What is it?"

"I'm pregnant," Tali said.