DISCLAIMER: Bioware owns the concept of Mass Effect and all of its characters. This fanfic is for entertainment and no profit what-so-ever.
AUTHORS NOTES: It seemed that Shepard would have been a bit more banged up than seen at the epilogue of the Paragon: saving the Council ending. I drew out the drama a bit more. Inspired by the Sam-bashing in SG1 episodes this pays homage to that as well.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Rising From the Ashes
By Elizabeth Carter


Chapter 14
Planet Fall the return to Ilos

In the black void of space the Victory was all but invisible to the naked eye. Surrounded by a self-generated mass effect field and traveling nearly eighty times faster than the speed of light, it was little more than a flickering blur, a slight wavering in the fabric of the continuum of time and space. A few minor course adjustments sent the ship hurtling toward the Mu mass relay, nearly five billion kilometers away.

"Approach vector just under fifteen-hundred kay." Joker announced, pleased with himself. The Victory had three times the speed and power of the Normandy but the controls were nearly identical, which made piloting her easier. She was a sensitive touch, and very responsive, indeed she took all of Joker's skills to keep her under control. There only a few other pilots on board that matched him in skill and talent. Still Joker felt that the Victory favored him. She liked him.

Where the Normandy had been the best and the fastest warship in the Systems Alliance fleet, Victory was so with the Citadel Fleet. It was speed and stealth that gave the ship all the advantages. Anything larger would undermine the Spectre's need to be clandestine. Shadow operatives needed stealth, speed and maneuverability.

While the Victory was the flagship of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance unit other agents would have access to their own Wavecrest-class ships as soon as they were made available. Like the Normandy, the Victory was a test ship. Yes Spectres worked alone or in very small units, however access to Wavecrests could only be an asset to the Citadel Council's shadow operatives.

It wouldn't take long now before the Victory's destination was in range. When they were ten thousand kilometers out from their target Joker would take the three Tantalus element-zero drive cores off-line to disengage the mass effect fields.

Blue-shifted energy waves radiated off the ship as it dropped out of FTL, igniting the darkness of space like a flare. The illumination of the blazing ship reflected off the mass relays growing steadily larger on the horizon.

"Fifteen-hundred. That's good. Go in silent Joker, I fully expect hostiles on the other end; I do not want to engage if we can slip by. Make sure we do." Shepard said staring out at the porthole on the bridge before she turned her back on Joker and headed down the corridor to the CIC.

Joker turned to Ashley who had taken a seat in the co-pilot's chair. As the Victory's executive officer she was required to have a working knowledge of all the systems and thus was getting a crash course in astronavigation and piloting.

"Is it just me or is she getting to be more and more like Nillus and Captain Anderson?" the man shook his head.

"Never met the late Spectre Nillus. And it's Councilor Anderson." Williams corrected. "Besides the skipper just paid you a compliment and you're bitching because it wasn't all gushing and gooey? Your ego in that much of a need of a stroke Joker?"

"It's not that." Joker said. "It's just a weird déjà vu. Before we touched down in Eden Prime, Nillus said exactly the same thing to me. And the captain sounds more and more like… well… she sounds more Spectrey than before."

"'Spectrey' isn't even a word." Williams gave the pilot a reproachful glance.

"You know what I mean, Williams. Shepard is really getting into it. It's like she's changed from the commander. It has nothing to do with the hype from the media and all but… I don't know she's really embraced the Spectre thing wholeheartedly. I always kinda thought her becoming a Spectre was just a bone tossed to humanity and she was playing along, like she was just a shill. "

"She's not a shill and it isn't for show, they made her a Spectre for a reason, Joker. She has everything they look for in a Spectre: ingenuity, self-reliance, courage, cunning, integrity, intelligence, wisdom, strength. If she sounds more… Spectrey it's because that what she is - a Spectre."

"I guess. I figured she'd always be our commander… well captain. But you know what I mean. It's like she gave up on the military for the Council. She's an N-Seven for crying out loud! She beat even Anderson's records when she went to Arcturus for special ops training. And he held it for like twenty odd years before she same along and busted all of em'… well by a hair but she still beat him out. Top of her class… and now she's … well the Council's attack dog it's like a step down… er… well it feels like it anyway. She could have made admiral if she hadn't given up her commission."

Ashley stood up so quickly Joker flinched assuming he was going to get slugged. "That's insubordination, Lieutenant Monroe. Captain Shepard is loyal to the Systems Alliance! But now her call is to a higher service. She serves to protect all of us. That means the entire galaxy numb-nuts, not just humans. Why the hell do you think we're chasing after any scrap of intelligence that will help us stop the Reapers? For humanity? We're out here with our Spectre to save all organic life, because right now we're the only ones who can.

"We're the only ones who fully know the truth of what Sovereign is. Fuck, the Systems Alliance Intelligence are not fully convinced Sovereign was sentient for crying out loud. They think it's only an advanced AI and once more the thick-heads think they can get their hands on one of them just like Saren did and repurpose it to control the geth. Shit, ExoGeni is probably spilling out propaganda they can do just that. The only threat the Alliance sees is the geth. We know the truth. More than any of us the skipper knows the truth! If I hear one more word of your whining about her being too 'Spectrey' you'll be on KP duty for the entity of the mission! You get me soldier?"

"Loud and clear ma'am." Joker saluted crisply. Ever since Shepard and Williams got over their row, the Lieutenant was more protective of their captain. Williams always pushed herself hard before but now… just as Shepard was becoming more 'Spectrey' Williams was becoming more 'Military'. She'd make one hell of a drill instructor.

Over the comm-system the voice of the very woman they had been discussing was heard. "Flight crew to stations for pre-flight preps, once we enter the Refuge System, I want all birds ready to be dropped. We'll be cloaked but our presence will not go unnoticed once we hit Ilos. When we are in orbit you will be deployed, your mission is not cover fire for Victory but the mako drops. Once we have secured the area Victory will deploy the assault teams first. Mako crews and assault teams will scout and secure; then and only then will the science crews disembark. All personnel will be expected to be in hard suits, no exceptions. Let's get to work people, there's a galaxy to be saved."

To the Spectre the mass relays always looked a tuning fork with a gyroscope at its spherical center. The twin concentric rings in the center of the mass relay spun around a single axis. Each ring was nearly five kilometers across, and two fifteen-kilometer arms protruded out from the end of the constantly rotating middle. The entire super-structure sparked and flashed with white bursts of crackling energy.

The Victory was less than five hundred kilometers away when the Mu relay fired. A discharge of dark energy swept out from the spinning rings like a wave, engulfing the ship. It shimmered momentarily, then vanished like a whiff of smoke or cloud-mist. Instantaneously, the ship winked back into existence from the apparent void with a bright white-blue kawoosh in the vicinity of a completely different relay in the Terminus systems.

The three Tantalus drive cores of the Victory roared to life and it jumped to FTL, vanishing into the darkness with a red-shifted burst of heat and radiation. Behind them the relay's rings at the center were already decelerating as the relay was powering down.

"We've cleared the mass relay." Joker's voice came over the intercom, "Engaging drive cores. ETA to Ilos twenty-three minutes."

The cargo hold was a hive of organized activity though it might have to the untrained eye looked like chaos. Shiala was barking orders for her flight crew to scramble into their ships. The four raptor-class gunships had a crew of three and could squeeze in a squad up to six personnel. For this mission however it was crew only - with heavy ordnance designed to take out geth drop ships and orbitals.

Each of the wedged-shaped V-wing: viper-class fighters were primed and ready for the pilots, one of which was Shiala. She was yes a priestess, a disciple, and scientist but she had been the captain of Benezia's commandos thus a skilled fighter-pilot. Indeed all of Benezia's former disciples were fighter-pilots, the Matriarch had insisted upon it. No doubt a throwback to what happened 106 years ago.

Shepard was going over the final pre-drop checks on her mako when she was approached by Liara. The Spectre didn't even have to turn to know her wife was behind her. "Be safe, my love." Liara said softly.

Shepard turned, her hand cupping the asari's blue cheek. Her gloved thumb going over the soft lilac lips before she leaned in and kissed Liara. "Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. This time we know what to expect and we're not up against the clock, not like before."

Liara gave a look to the crew assembling near the Spectre's mako. Garrus, Wrex, Tali, and two asari commandos whose names had escaped the archeologist's memory. Liara knew only they were once amongst Benezia's disciples who had opted to stay behind when their matriarch went after Saren. Since Samantha had gone to great lengths to restore the Matriarch's honor, the remaining disciples vowed to aid the Spectre in her quest in the name of their beloved Benezia's memory.

"Ashley is not amongst your crew." The observation seemed to trouble the young asari.

"Nope." Reading the worry in her wife's eyes, Shepard explained. "Matters between us are settled, this has nothing to do with that. I need to spread my people out in the most efficient and effective formations. That means putting Ash on the other M36 with a squad of humans and turians of her own. She's a tank and I need her on the field of battle.

"Captain Kirrahe and Commander Rentola along with the rest of the salarian STGs will spread out and scout ahead in the M35s. And you my brilliant Prothean Expert will wait until we give the all clear."

Liara looked indignant. "You know what I am capable of in a fire-fight."

"Exactly the reason you're staying back with the scientists. They may be the heads of their fields and team leaders but in battle they're still green. And I don't trust their skills in a stand-up fight let alone one fought in the shadows. You were there when Lizbeth took a shot at us on Faros. She can't tell the difference between an organic biped, a varren or a geth. I don't know what the others can or cannot do in a firefight, that wasn't why they were drafted. I rather you be at my side love, but I have to be pragmatic. I need someone with battle-skills I trust without hesitation to stay with the scientists and keep them under control. I can assign any number of assault-troopers to protect them, but they will not be able to keep a leash on them, you can. Besides, the bookworms need to understand the chain of command both in and out of the labs and the ship. You are their CO and they as well as you need to keep a firm hold on that realization."

Liara smirked. "The bookworms? Not the most aesthetic term I've been compared to."

"You know me, I go for the bookish sort." The Spectre winked. "By the way have I told you lately how sexy you are in red and black armor?"

Liara flashed Samantha a demure smile. "Not lately no."

"Consider it done." Samantha kissed the tip of her wife's nose. "Speaking of armor - make sure your people are wearing armor and not their lab-gear. I don't care if you have to kick their collective arses to make them do it, just make sure they do. I don't want scientist guts all over the ruins because someone doesn't like to be encumbered. We have more than enough Onyx, Guardian, and Phoenix light-armor hardsuits to go around. I had Williams install medical and environmental weaves in all of them. Don't worry she didn't muck around with yours, she knows what you like.

"Oh and make sure each of your crew have those upgraded pistols with improved sighting scopes. They shine a little red light; all the bookworms have to do is aim the beam of light at their target and fire. No more misfires. Williams also put recoil dampers in each of them so they won't get startled by the kick-back. If they whine about armor and guns they don't get off Victory. Understood Dr. T'soni?" Just like that the Spectre had stepped out of the shadow of Liara's wife and taken command.

"It will be so Captain." Liara responded in kind. They had such a natural way of slipping between the happily married couple to commander and subordinate they never had to think about it. It was as natural as blinking or taking a breath of air. "I'll see to it now."

Those who saw the transformation respected it. One to have just witnessed it was Aleene. Under her alias as Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa she was accompanying the science teams on the planet. After all one of her merits that got her her station was experience in field-medicine. As it was she had been kitting up when she happened to witness the exchange between Samantha and Liara go to Captain Shepard and Dr. T'soni. They made a formidable couple. It was no wonder that Aleene's employer feared them. There was something, the huntress couldn't quite put her finger on it, about the bond between the Spectre and Prothean expert. It was old… ancient and completely binding. Kill one and you have killed the other. She was sure of it. But what would happen if one died naturally? Had Liara given up nine-hundred years for her human partner or was Shepard going to live as long as an asari? Or was it more philosophical than physical? Killing one would kill the other yes, but was it a physical death and not the death of the heart, the spirit?

"S'thasa, there you are, I wanted to speak to you." the shout from the Spectre made Aleene jump in her own skin. "Sorry didn't mean to give you a start." The human smiled apologetically.

"Quite all right I was lost in meditations. I may look as if…"

"You're standing idle I know believe I've seen it before."

"Dr. T'soni of course."

"Actually I was referring to Dr. Alestria Iallis. She was in the same state when I first encountered her on Novaria. She's dead now. Turned out she was an indoctrinated sleeper agent for the late Matriarch Benezia. Alestria was sent to assassinate me. Or at least she and her geth sidekicks made the attempt. "

Aleene's green skin paled to a near yellow, her mind racing to discover how had she outed herself to the Spectre? "A sleeper agent for Matriarch Benezia?"

"Yes, but that's in the past. What I wanted to talk to you about is something a little different. Liara is brilliant in her field and nearly as powerful as her mother in biotics. She has command of the science team but no practical training in - well - the commanding of troops. You're a matron who's been a part of commando squads before, even took younglings on their Great Hunt, twice. I don't want you to take over, but guide Liara in shaping up your fellow scientists to hold their own in a fire-fight if it comes down to it."

Shepard placed a hand on the emerald skinned older woman. The asari were a very tactile people, the touch would be fully accepted for what it was; a touch from a superior officer to her junior. But right now the touch conveyed so much more, it said: 'I have the power, you don't and I'm watching.'

"I don't want to hear my wife was shot because of some friendly-fire from a bookworm idiot who didn't check their line of sight. I don't want to hear any of the scientists coming to harm for that matter, but I'd be more than pissed if I found out some dull stone was responsible for friendly-fire. I can rely on you to be discreet?"

Aleene was utterly confused. Had the Spectre discovered her motive for her being on the Victory or was this a straight up request? Was this a warning because the Spectre knew Aleene was a bounty hunter, or a warning on a different level?

Her perplexity must have been evident on the asari's face. "Watch over Liara's command but don't look like you are watching over her. Act as you have been around her, you know casually." And there again was that strange enigmatic smile. What the hell did it mean?! Did the Spectre know or didn't she? Did she suspect and was now fishing for clues to confirm her suspicions or…or was this on the level?

"Believe me, Captain I know how to be discreet." The bounty-hunter-cum-doctor said neutrally.

"Yes, I am sure you do."

This paranoia was going to drive Aleene to distraction, make her do something stupid such as out her alias. If she did the Spectre needed no further proof to act, hell the Spectre could rightful execute Aleene on the spot.

There was nothing else that was said by the Spectre who now moved back towards the crew pits and the squad leaders to collect reports on their progress, which left Aleene to contemplate her new role as Liara T'soni's second in command forced upon her by the Spectre.

"Approaching Ilos, we are clocked." crackled the intercom. "Some geth chatter, they have not detected Victory." The word 'yet' clung to the air. "Scans show two bayships."

Geth. That was grim news even if it was expected. Bayships were geth dreadnoughts. They were perhaps in a way more efficient than any ship in any organic fleet. For attached to their keels like a tick on a hound were two dropships that would unclamp themselves from their moorings, drop into the orbit of any given planet and deploy their troopers. The bayships would remain in orbit ether taking out heavier ships of any organic foe or wait until the dropships returned having completed their mission objective. Even if the dropships were destroyed groundside the bayships had many more troopers available, more than that the bayships contained at least three squadrons of raiders in the geth version of a one person fighter.

It was going to be a tough battle all around.

At least they were going in hard, if not hot. Shepard slammed the visor down to shield her face, and the rest of the crew followed suit. A minute later, they felt the turbulence as the ship entered the planet's atmosphere. At a nod from the Spectre her team made a final weapons, com and shields check. They were all secured in the restraints of the newer larger mako.

The air group had already been deployed, the quick darting vipers making sweeps along with both Victory and raptors so far their reports on enemy visuals were in the negative. That was a good sign as they had yet be discovered. Again the word 'yet' sat there in the sentence heavily.

A few seconds after the fly-by reports there was a heavy thump as the mako touched down. The drops always made Shepard feel a bit nauseous; as if her teeth had been jarred from her skull before the inertial dampers came on line and compensated.

As soon as the makos were dropped Victory ascended once more, the geth alerted to their presence by the mako planetfall. Nothing could be done about that save enter the dogfight with guns blazing and shields fully up.

"Two bayships that means two dropships each," Shepard said. "Expect heavy ground reinforcements. All squads ready for hard battle, dig in. First priority destroy the dropships, we can't allow them to get a foothold."

Maneuverability in the ancient ruin with the larger eight-wheeled M-36 mako was difficult but not impossible. Garrus who was slightly better at negotiating the terrain had the driver's seat, leaving the Spectre and Wrex manning the turrets. Tali and Nual had the comm-systems scanning for enemy movements, ready to jam any signal not compliant with Council technology. That meant anyone not from the Victory. Morwen had the co-pilot's chair ready to take over any station as needed.

"I smell trouble!" Tali called out her eyes never leaving the holo-imager. For a moment the scanners blipped then were silent then blipped once more. "Hostiles spotted. Bearing three-three mark four."

"I read them! All makos at the ready!" Shepard ordered.

"Watch it, here they come." Odan-urr of the asari commandos warned. "Coming in at eleven' o'clock. It's the bayships. They are deploying two squads of raiders."

"Maintain visual scanning." Shiala's voice came over the headset. "Remember, they can jam every instrument on your raider except your eyes."

"I see them." Naga'sadow said. "Goddess look at them all!" The gleeful smile of the young asari pilot vanished instantly as she looked around her. The raiders swarmed towards them like nest of wasps. Raiders were to one-person fighters - what armatures and colossuses were to RAVs and tanks. They had no geth pilot inside the cockpit, they were geth!

Shiala turned again and this time saw a geth raider already pursing Naga'sadow's ship. "Naga'sadow!" She shouted, "You've picked one up on your tail…watch it!"

"I cannot see it," came the young huntress's panicked response.

Shiala watched helplessly as Naga'sadow's ship shot away from her flight path closely followed by the geth. The enemy vessel fired steadily at her, each successive bolt seeming to pass a little closer to Naga'sadow's hull.

"It's on me tight," said the voice in Shiala's cockpit, "I cannot shake it." Twisting and spinning into a split-dive maneuver Naga'sadow looped back toward the dogfights, but the pilot trailing her was persistent and showed no sign of relinquishing pursuit.

"Hang on, Lieutenant," Shiala called, wrenching her ship into a roll out turn so sharply and so steeply that straining gyros whined, "I'm coming in."

So absorbed in its pursuit of Naga'sadow was the geth raider that it didn't see Shiala, who barrel-rolled her own ship, flipped, and dropped in behind it. Electronic crosshairs lined up according to the computer-readout instructions and Shiala fired repeatedly. There was a small explosion and the raider was vaporized.

"We've got to get them away from our ground troops." Shiala said. "Let's do some flying. Victory, raptors concentrate on the bayships, all vipers hit the raiders." She shot a ray of energy over the hull of the lead ship, challenging him. She banked a hard right veering for the cannons the Victory. The three geth raiders roared into the cannons.

Shiala made a daring banking maneuver that brought her ship skirling out of the narrow gap between two geth bayships her wingmen copied exactly.

As asari pilots darted in and out of the larger ships, they were followed closely by three squadrons of the geth fighters that veered through the geth bayships in hot pursuit. Suddenly, one of the raiders was fatally scraped by a shapeless chunk of detritus and spun off in another direction, hopelessly out of control. The other two in the wing continued their chase, accompanied by the last two squadrons.

Shiala glimpsed the pursing ships through the windows of her cockpit as she spun her craft around, speeding under a bayship, then bringing the viper back to its right side up position. With expert precision, the commander steered her ship toward still another giant formation, summoning all the skill that had made her reputation known throughout the asari commandos, she maneuvered the viper so that other only object between it and the other fighter was the hull of a geth bayship.

There was only a brief, brilliant flare of light, then nothing the shattered remains of the two riders spiraled into space in an inorganic bloom.

Garrus floored the accelerator down hard, all eight wheels of the M36 mako spun, kicking out dirt, rocks and foliage as it gunned down the ravine leading to Vigil's alcove. Its shields disintegrating shrapnel and bouncing away laser fire.

Three geth armatures dead ahead, Shepard and Wrex opened fire as soon as the targets came into their crosshairs. One armature sprayed a fan of white-hot sparks as it tore across the skyway for the mako. Rockets slammed into the geth's shielding into the core, forcing it to a shuddering skidding halt that showered the skyway with molten durasteel.

The remaining geth's answer to the attack was a shriek of tortured gyros that wrenched past the prone armature, and a metal-on-metal scream of blades ripping into the skyramp's deckplates. Their gangly momentum shot them straight towards the mako, their own pulse cannons firing, causing the mako to buck and rock against the kinetic force.

"The shields are holding but not for long. We're taking minor damage." Tali called out.

"Nual can you dampen and overload their guns from here? Tali hack into their systems shut them down!" ordered the Spectre.

Asari and quarian worked quickly to heed their orders. Hacking into the geth systems was slightly easier than Nual's task of dampening their weaponry from inside the mako. She had never done such a procedure before from inside a vehicle. She didn't know if it was possible, the best she could hope for was to jam their targeting systems. They would be shooting blind and after all the geth didn't have true eyes to see only photoreceptors and they could be disabled and broken.

Geth and mako raced through the battle, roaring down corridors, shooting through tunnels, skidding and thruster-leaping, springing where the way was clear and screeching into high-powered serpentines where it was not, whipping around knots of geth troopers and bounding over ancient barricades.

"Let's try this a little closer!" the Spectre ordered. "At the next right take it for seven clicks then turn left sharply!"

Garrus gained steadily. The geth colossuses had the edge in raw power, but the mako could out turn them and out maneuver them with astonishing speed. Garrus had an uncanny instinct for where Shepard desired to go. The Spectre had a seemingly comprehensive knowledge of useful shortcuts through side tunnels, along sheer walls and over chasms studded with deactivated cryogenic chambers. At times she would cry out for the turian driver to take a turn suddenly bank here or there, drop here or climb there.

The geth tanks roared into a tunnel that seemed to lead straight into the rock of a plateau. The spectre recognized this ravine instantly it would soon lead to the now deactivated conduit. They had taken a labyrinth bypass of Vigil, who was apparently still working, for the impenetrable amber shields were in place. Somehow Shepard knew how to go around. Unfortunately the tunnels were jammed with geth troops, armatures and colossuses, and all manner of detritus, odd groundcars and airspeeders that hadn't been there during their first visit to Ilos. Someone had been busy. Very busy.

Shepard and Wrex blasted right into them, the high-powered cannons chewing through geth and splashing the tunnels walls with chunks of shredded synthetics. Garrus raced along the corridors ramming into anything else that stood in their way. The mako bucked, rocked and turned on the side wheels even at times turning a complete side summersault before the groaning gyroscopes righted the beast back onto all eight wheels.

"Shielding down seventy-six percent!" Tali cried out. "Taking heavy damage. Captain, our scopes are jammed, our guns overloaded."

"Noticed the scopes. Do what you can to repair it; we can't stop, not now." Shepard called back. "Morwen take over." The Spectre jumped from the gunnery station heading for the hatch in the ceiling. In the same fluid movement the violet-skinned asari commando took her place at the gun turrets.

"Where the hell are you going Shepard?" Wrex barked watching the Spectre sprint for the middle of the mako.

"Up. I'm going to do something about those fracking geth hackers. Keep her steady Garrus."

"Captain, your plan is insane!" protested Morwen realizing what the Spectre meant to do. One simply didn't bound from a moving vehicle onto the back of a geth colossus to take its head off! It was a thing unheard of!

"Which is why it's going to work." Shepard shouted as she flung open the ceiling hatchway of the mako.

An open archway showed daylight ahead, Garrus barely made the turn, and they raced side by side along the empty darkened way joined by the spark-spitting weapons of the geth. Shepard clung onto the rails running the length and breadth of the mako, trying to keep her balance as a surfer might with both legs slightly bent and firmly planted. Waiting to pounce, her muscles coiled and twitched in anticipation.

As they cleared the archway to a small, concealed loading deck deep in a private sinkhole, the Spectre summoned her biotic powers, leapt from the top of the mako onto the back of the colossus. She rammed her HMWP-X pistol into the side of the geth's duranium 'withers' and pulled the trigger.

The geth's internal gyros screamed at the sudden impact and shifted off balance. Their shrieks cycled up to bursts of smoke and fragments in a white-hot cascade of sparks. Securing her pistol the Spectre leapt again, her biotics lifting her free of the crash to the other side of the skyway.

The remaining geth's' electronic reflexes sent them out of the out of the blast zone in the opposite direction.

The crippled colossus flipped over the edge of the skyway and into the shadowy abyss of the sinkhole. It trailed smoke all the way down to a distant, delayed and very final crash.

Behind Shepard the mako screamed to a halt with the colossus down they were free of the jamming signal. The mako's turrets unloaded a barrage of firepower on the oncoming troops of white, red and black geth troopers.

"Systems restored! Keelah! We've got more trouble," Tali announced over the headset. "About five hundred more troubles. Not all of them geth!"

"Shepard, get your tail back in here!" barked a nervous krogan. He hated it when his CO took risks he couldn't follow. She'd turn his shell black before the mission was over! By the Great Dragon's clutch she aged him so. Why in the name of that same Mother Dragon did he fret over her as if he were her sire and she naught but a hatchling? Bloody stupid mammals…"Now Shepard!"

New bursts of flak bracketed her path. Shiala reached out with the essence of her biotics, feeling for a safe channel through the swarms of shrapnel and sizzling nets of particle beams. There wasn't one. She locked a snarl behind her teeth, twisting her viper around another explosion that could peel the armor off the backside of a krogan battlemaster's shell.

"Progenitor devour them all!" she cursed.


"Sorry Lieutenant was that out loud?" She looked up through the cockpit canopy to find another asari commando flying inverted, mirroring her so closely that but for the transparisteel between them, they might have touched finger tips.

She took a hand from the viper's control yoke to direct her upside-down compatriot's attention forward, dead ahead, a blue-white light splintered into four distinct ion trails.


Shiala banked to the right. Her junior did the same. But they were inverted to each other: braking right shot her one way while the lieutenant whipped the other way. The geth-raiders' cannons ripped space between them, tracking faster than their vipers could slip.

Her onboard threat display chimed a warning: two of the raiders had remote sensor locks on her the others must have hit her wingman. "Vipers: slip-jaws!" she ordered. "Raptors: razzle-dazzle."

"Copy that." seven other voices chorused.

They blew past the geth-raiders, looping in evasive spirals. The synthetic ships wrenched themselves into pursuit maneuvers that would have killed any living pilot.

The slip-jaws maneuver was named for the scissor like mandibles of the Palaven slasher-spider. Geth closing rapidly on their tails, cannonfire stitching space on all sides, the four asari viper pilots pulled their ships though perfectly mirrored rolls that sent them streaking head-on for each other at opposite ends of the Victory.

No one but a natural biotic could pull the maneuver off, it would have been suicide. By the time you could see your wingman viper streaking toward you at respectable fraction of lightspeed it was already too late for non-biotic reflexes to react.

Natural biotic harmony nudged the hands on control yokes and the asari viper pilots twisted and slashed past each other belly-to-belly, close enough to scorch each other's paint. Geth-raiders were the synthetics' latest space-worthy creation. But even the electronic reflexes of the raider's posotronic brain were too slow for this: one of Shiala's pursuers met one of the wingman's head-on. Both vanished in a blossom of flame.

The shockwave of detritus and expanding gas rocked Shiala: she fought the control yoke, barely keeping her viper out of a tumble that would have smeared her across the Victory's hull. Before she could straighten out, her threat display chimed again.

The lieutenant's surviving pursuer had switched targets.

"Commander, you've got two on your tail!"

"Marvelous sense of perception there Lieutenant!" she snapped sardonically. "We have to break them up."

"Commander, bank left." Came Russan's turian voice from a nearby raptor. "Victory's turbolaser off your port bow: thread its guns. I'll take things from there."

"Easy for you to say." Shiala whipped sideways along Victory's superstructure. Fire from the pursing raiders blasted chunks onto the frigate's barriers but did no other damage. "I really do hate being the bait."

"I'm right behind you." Ruusan said. "Gunner, lock on."

Shiala spun her viper between the recoiling turbocannons enough that the energy-scatter made her cockpit thunder like a bass drum, but still the cannonfire flashed past her from the raiders behind.

"They are all over me. If you're going to do something do it now!"

"Dead ahead. Move to the right to clear my shot. Now!"

Shiala flared her port jets and the viper kicked to the right. One of the raiders behind her decided it couldn't follow and went for a ventral slip that took it directly into the blasts of Russan's cannons. It vanished in a boil of superheated gas.

"Good shooing, Gunner."

Clearing the Victory put Shiala on course for the curving hull of one of the geth bayships; space between the two battleships blazed with turbolaser exchanges. Some of those flashing energy blasts were as big around as her entire ship; the merest graze would blow her to into atoms.

Shiala dived right in.

Two raiders pursued Odan-urr chasing after her trying to mimic her every move as they fired their deadly cannons.

"Watch your back Odan-urr" Shiala's voice sounded over the speakers, "fighters above you, coming in. I've got your wing."

Odan-urr continued her dive even as she looked back and spotted the object of Shiala's concern close on her tail. Reluctantly she pulled up and away from her flight path, abandoning her target. Her tormentor was good, however, and continued closing on her. Shiala closed in like a fraxon shark. Odan-urr didn't have to wait for very long. Shiala's gunnery was precise, and the raider vanished brightly shortly thereafter.

"Thank you, Commander." Odan-urr murmured, breathing a little more easily.

Unexpectedly two geth dropped out of the cover of the bayship. One of them even sparked as it grazed the hull with its metal hull. Twisting and banking and turning her ship, Shiala pressed through the narrow gorge between the bayship and Victory. She glanced backward as she spotted a geth fighter slipping in behind her. She tried losing the enemy ship by going into a steep dive to avoid a burst of offensive fire from yet another ship below her. Neither maneuver shook the pursuit.

"I see you." came a reassuring call from Naga'sadow.

Shiala looked up above, below and to the sides, but there was no sign of her wingman. Meanwhile energy bolts from her trailing assailant were passing uncomfortably close.

"Lieutenant where the hell are you?"

Something appeared not to the sides or behind, but almost directly in front of her. It was bright and moving incredibly fast, and then it was firing just above her. Taken completely by surprise, the geth fighter came apart just as the synthetic realized what had happened.

"Good move Lieutenant. Fooled me too." Shiala praised her wingman even as she leveled off, let go of full weaponry as she descended upon another wing of geth fighters. A series of sequential explosions hopscotched across from one ship to the next as the fuselage of the middle ship mushroomed.

"I am just getting started," her junior officer announced as she twisted her ship violently to avoid the fire from below. She hovered into view over Shiala's shoulder and executed a victory roll. "Just point me at the next target." She torqued her ship up finding a new target…her glee turned to terror as she realized she couldn't swerve her craft in time to avoid laser fire striking her hull.

"Naga'sadow, pull up! Pull up!" Shiala bellowed over the comm-unit.

But despite commands to shift course, the automatic pressures wouldn't allow the necessary centrifugal force, her fighter was stalling, plunging into the planet's upper atmosphere.

Shepard's head popped through the hatch in the roof of the rover, "What'd you pick up?"

"The signatures aren't geth; the signals match those of Alliance technology." Tali said.

Shepard still upside down took hold of the topmost rung of the ladder and flipped her legs over head in a summersault and landed inside the mako. "Military?"

"Could be, they don't match Victory coding" Tali answered.

Shepard leaned over the young quarian's shoulder looking at the holo-imager's radar. "So not ours. Bet they belong to the same lot who own those airspeeders and groundcars we saw a few clicks back."

"Do we hail them?"

"No, not yet. Open a secure channel to our other operatives and apprise them of the new arrivals. Just because they have military quality armaments doesn't make them military. If they are raiders let them fight it out with the geth. The enemy of my enemy isn't necessarily my friend; they could simply prove to be a very good and convenient distraction." The Spectre said taking the now vacant co-pilot's chair.

A blast hit the side of the mako rocking her slightly. Fortuitously Tali had managed to restore shields to full power while Shepard had played bronco-rider with the geth. There were still two barely functioning armatures out there.

The mako repaid the assault in kind, unleashing a stream of blaster bolts as fast as a forefinger could pull a trigger on the turret controls. Garrus plowed ahead ramming into the bodies of geth troopers their bodies flung wildly in the air, the shields catching every bolt. Not even slowing down the mako roared down the long corridors to Vigils' alcove.

The mako jolted sideways, Garrus fought the controls to right the beast. He had to use the forward attitude jets to kick the rover into a skew-turn: facing backward to blast the last of the geth armatures on their tail. Now there were only geth troopers and unknown organics to worry about.

A lot of geth and unknown organics.

"Captain, we have a drop ship coming in." Tali announced, "There is no way we can take them all out."

Shepard ignored her, though she did hear the words for she smiled at them. "Garrus lead them through the eye of the needle." Shepard called out as she laid in a course in the navcomputer. "Right through there."

"Lead them where? What needle?" Tail asked as the mako bucked again under enemy fire. She was having difficulties maintaining her lock on the geth as she hacked through system after system.

"Captain! The coordinates you laid in…it is in the thick of it!" Nual protested. "That is not the first rule of combat survival!"

"No choice we have to thin them out. Garrus do it." Shepard snapped.

Whatever expletive Garrus made died on his tongue. He trusted the Spectre. He slipped the mako through the storm of cannonfire. Morwen and Wrex continued to man the turrets, their fire fixed on the geth. They sped through the clouds of glowing plasma on a direct route the Spectre had laid in. Right for the dropship.

"Oh… tell me this is a bad human joke. We're not going through that?" Garrus's reverberating voice almost squeaked like a youngling. His mandibles flared outward in despair, disbelief and a little fear.

The mako slid only meters below the dropship's dorsal hull. Cannon misses from the geth troopers rushing towards them blasted chucks out of the battleship's armor. The battleship wasn't configured for fine point firing as many times it tried to hit the mako it was neutralizing whole squads of it own soldiers. Shepard had manipulated the perfect crossfire.

"That should slow them down!" Shepard smirked pleased her idea worked. She turned from the orange holoscreen to see five stunned faces all staring at her in astonishment. "What?"

Another strike at the mako ruptured the integrity of the shields once more. They were down to sixty-percent. Cannonfire blazed past them, impacting on the support struts of the dropship. Too late to change her mind now: they were committed. They would have to bring the mako through or they would die.

Odan-urr spiraled in her lasers locked on target, finding the gun solution hunting the ship behind Naga'sadow.

Then she was through and clear on the other side. "I'm hit. Not too bad." A rapid check of her controls caused her to frown. "I've got a bad malfunction…" She uttered trying to sound cool-headed.

"Lieutenant, listen to me." Shiala had to calm her down. Her mind raced desperately. "You fed too much fuel from the stall; the engines cannot handle all that power at once. Pull back on the yoke, ratchet the switches to the feeder dump and clear the lines, then seal them anew."

Sweat beaded on her forehead as Naga'sadow tried to comply with her CO's orders. A quick glance at the main and sublevel control panels revealed that all the indicators lights were still red. The systems were overheated. She jammed the yoke back, to cut the power, jettisoned the stabilizer, and switched to an auxiliary mount, pushed the ignition causing the straining ion engines to whine as it zipped up in time to avoid becoming a part of the floating junk yard. She pulled back hard on the yoke causing her ship to level out.

"It worked!"

There was a new set of signals coming in hard and fast.

"Commander there are more of them. Goddess, where are they all coming from?" Odan-urr banked a hard left trying to entice the geth hunters to go after her. She plunged her ship into the fracas, firing all cannons after the enemy squadron. She started her attack run—staying low and waiting until she was right on top of the squadron. What she was trying to do would not be easy. Going in full throttle, she might not have enough time to pull out of the chasm between the larger ships.

Her maneuver avoided most of the volley of attack of the geth assault. She took a direct hit on her main power cell; black, hateful smoke billowed from the ion engines a millimeter closer and her fuselage would have blown. "My ship is losing power. I have to abandon course."

"I have her Commander." Joker said, then all at once the Victory diving for Odan-urr's dying ship. "We have a firing solution, taking out the bayship as soon as we have our lost bird."

Shiala saw the young commando's crippled ship caught up in Victory's tractorbeam, she was safe. Shiala smiled slowly to herself; maybe there really was hope for them all.

In the next instant, a slew of pulsing light swept past her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a new swarm of raiders bearing down on her. "Here they come!"

"Oh Goddess! They're coming in too fast! I can't get a fix!"

Shiala flew past Naga'sadow, slightly to port side. Ion energy bolts from the pursuing geth began to streak close about them. Both women crossed in rolling scissors repeatedly, striving to present as confusing a target as possible. Naga'sadow was fighting with her controls when several small flares and sparks lit her control bard. One small panel exploded, leaving molten slag behind. Somehow she managed to retain control of the ship.

Victory streaked along the curve of the geth battleship's dorsal hull. Anti-fighter flak burst on all sides as the cruiser's guns tried to pick her off. Victory rolled a right wingover into the lee of the ship's service trench that stretched the length of the cruiser's hull. Victory opened with all her guns to bear, tearing through the barrier-shields of the geth bayship, ripping apart her hull. The geth ship couldn't depress their angle of fire enough to get a shot. Victory continued her assault: shimmering canopies of ion trails, turbolaser busts streaked along the hull's surface showers of sparks flared and quickly died in the vacuum of space.

Victory pitched hard astern, away from the crippled vessel. They had landed critical damage not only to the geth's shields but compromised her hull integrity considerably. Raptors bore done on the coordinates offered up by the Victory's gunners. She arched swiftly and came about once more, again unloading her turbocannons and lasers.

The holographic imager on the Victory flared with light at such a magnitude that Joker was forced to shut his eyes. Even then, the brightness was painful and when he opened them again, the yellow afterimage left him partially blinded for a few seconds.

But he could see enough to know the geth bayship had dissolved into hurling debris beneath the combined firepower of the Spectre's fleet. It careened wildly directly into is sister ship. The explosion caused the deck beneath his feet to shudder.

The mako snapped into a spin and scraped through the crashing dropship and the sinkhole below with only centimeters to spare. The geth troopers tried to follow but they were not swift enough. When the first two impacted, Wrex triggered his cannons in a downward sweep. The evasion maneuvers preprogrammed into the geth's posotronic brains sent them diving away from the mako's lasers - straight into the fireball expanding from the front of the struts.

The mako landed with a horrible metallic crunch. They had landed several meters below the upper sky ramp of the structure, still far from Vigil's alcove but further from the remaining geth and the raiders.

"Captain we can't continue to fight, we have to retreat. I can fix the damage to the mako, but not in the open." Tali lamented, giving her Spectre the news.

She nodded, "Garrus, five clicks there will be a left hand turn into a dead alleyway, take it. We can recover there."

The turian C-sec officer nodded obeying without question. Nual the younger of the two asari on her squad did ask: "How do you know all this, Spectre? I thought the last time you were here you didn't have time to explore."

"The cipher." Shepard answered and would not extrapolate further.

Garrus found the alleyway Shepard had indicated and brought the mako to a halt. Tali with her omni-tool was the first out of the hatch, followed closely by the Spectre and then the rest of the team.

"Tali, Garrus see to the Mako, Nual keep the picket line. Wrex take point, Morwen you and I will patrol the wings. We won't have a great deal of time to move once the Geth have discovered where we went. When in doubt surprise them. I want thermite charges set along the south and east perimeters." She got a chorus of aye ayes from her troops as each of them broke apart to fill their various orders.

Morwen moved to the left of the embankment drop off as Shepard had gone to the right. Purple eyes watched the human with a new found respect. This human had indeed faced off against Matriarch Benezia but prior she had suffered the force of Morwen's sister commandos and survived to battle the Matriarch! Academically, Morwen knew her Lady Benezia had committed suicide by Spectre, but to stand up against a unit of commandos and a squad of geth assassins was no small feat.

"Something on your mind, Lieutenant?" Shepard broke Morwen's speculative thoughts.

"I don't think I have ever met anyone quite like you Spectre." The violet skinned asari said.

"You wouldn't believe how often I hear that." There was a strange lazy smile twitching the corners of the human's rosy lips. She continued to lay down the thermite landmines. Of course the idea of laying the charges down wasn't unique. There wasn't a military unit in all of galactic history including the geth who hadn't used such tactics. It was amazing after all this time that the trick still worked.

'I can see Dr. T'soni's attraction.' Morwen thought to herself. 'She is unique for a human - almost asari in her quality.' "I meant to say… when you leapt from the mako you gave no thought to your own safety, you simply did so, almost out of instinct. You were so sure your plan was going to work. There was no doubt in you at all, no hesitation."

"Yeah well… going on the Great Hunt put a lot of things in perspective for me. Hesitate and you're chum for a shark." She smiled again. "Think your battle plan through thoroughly and quickly and implement it."

Morwen hadn't been present during the Spectre's foray into the asari rites of passage but she had heard of it. At first her mind reeled at the sacrilege but Matriarch Lidanya was so sure of the Spectre that the young huntress felt her uncertainty fade into the fog and dissipate completely. All is one. Why shouldn't the Spectre embrace the ways of Athame if she felt the call? It was only right then that she under go the Great Hunt, to finalize her baptism into asari ways and customs.

The huntress opened her mouth to say something further but the click of a transceiver stilled her tongue.

"Victory to Captain Shepard, Victory to Captain Shepard."

Shepard activated her com-unit inside her helmet. "Shepard here, go ahead Joker."

"The bayships are destroyed, only one of them managed to deploy their dropships we got the others Captain. Two vipers took heavy damage; their pilots are okay but a bit baked. Victory's shields held Captain we took only minor damage."

Shepard was more than pleased. "Pass along my congratulations to the air group. Good work everyone. Lieutenant, what's the butcher's bill?" her words took on a more somber tone in the last sentence.

"No casualties Captain." Joker knew better than to use levity when it came to the butcher's bill. No one could be jocular when reporting about the wounded or dead. "Two pilots have minor second degree burns from slag, several bumps and bruises but nothing serious. The rest of the airgroup have hit planet fall, we're coming in the drop zone."

"Understood. We're five by five for now. We've encountered a group of civilians with Systems Alliance military armaments. I want full details by the time we return to base camp. Joker, as soon as the scientist are deployed return to orbit and remain cloaked around Ilos' moon."

"I copy that, Victory out."

Part 15

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