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 19
Truth Will Out

The ground teams had gathered at the base camp. It was three hours in the aftermath of the fracas with Cerberus and Shepard wanted a headcount and sitrep from all the team leaders.

The sisters Williams had found each other. The younger sister had born witness to the battle from the vantage point of her team's excavation point. They did as the marines escorting them had ordered, digging themselves in and not interfering with the battle taking place below them. Still Abby Williams had felt the exhilaration of the battle surging through her heart and felt it still.

"No wonder you joined up Ash. It was amazing! The explosions, the ship crashing down, it was an incredible battle! The Captain … she's amazing how she worked all of it out. I mean using the whole Trojan horse thing. … and the outflanking and making the bad guys think they had backup and all… it's incredible and I didn't even fight, I just saw it!"

Ash smiled at her sister then grimaced as she dug into her MRE. It had read beef stroganoff on the wrapper but looked like some dubious brown-sludge that was pretending very hard to be considered food. "It doesn't get old." Going back into the MRE's foil pack the lieutenant opened the tiny bottle of green-chili Tabasco and poured it into her meal and on a second thought opened the tiny red bottle of said Tabasco sauce and poured it in too. Salt and pepper followed in a vain attempt to make her food palatable. "The food occasionally does." Ash joked a little and took a large bite of her meal and tried to chew and swallow without having to taste it.

The young lieutenant gave a small thought to Liara T'soni who had spent the last fifty years eating MRE goop. How the asari could stomach it Williams didn't know. In fact there was a lot about T'soni that puzzled the young lieutenant. Ever since she hooked up with the Skipper, Shepard had changed. Not that Williams had a great deal of interaction with the Spectre before Therum, still there was a change. It was like she was more powerful in her biotics. Like Joker said Captain Samantha Shepard was more … 'Spectre-y'.

Abby followed her sister's staring gaze and smiled. "I don't think Lynn is the only Williams woman in love with Captain Shepard."

Ash turned on her sister and gave her a look. "Keep your teeth together." She said haughtily. "Before you say something really stupid."

"You said it before; if Shepard were male she would be love of your life. Why didn't you go for her? Because she was already hooked up with Dr. T'soni, or because she's sly and you're not and you were too afraid to take the leap to Girl's Town? You could have given it a shot; you could have had a something truly meaningful, something real. Don't tell me regulations made you think twice about going for her."

"I'm not talking about this."

"I know she's married now, but…"

Ash slammed the duroplastic spork into her foil pack and chucked the whole thing into the fire. "I told you to shut it! Now as the XO, I'm ordering you to, Doctor Williams." She stalked off mumbling something about inspecting the picket. Of course it wasn't her watch but that didn't stop the young woman from patrolling.

Abby knew better than to answer her knee-jerk reaction and go after her elder sister. When Ash got like this it was best to let her cool down on her own. The younger Williams knew she had hit pretty close to the mark to get her sis all riled up like she had. The geologist turned her attention away from her sister's retreating form to the Spectre who was leaning against a plinth with her arms folded over her chest listing to a report given to her by Abby's own team leader Dr. Lizbeth Baynham.

Abby thought there was a great deal to tell but exo-paleobotany and geology couldn't have held any true interest for a woman like the Spectre. Still Abby was proud of what they discovered. Granted like her mother she was a geologist, but she still knew the value of the plant life they uncovered and what it could mean for pharmaceutical sciences. The sedimentary studies Abby explored had uncovered much of the worlds the Protheans found suitable for colonization.

The galaxy had significantly changed in fifty-thousand years. All those planets the Protheans had colonized during the height of their empire revealed a great deal about what the Protheans were before the Reapers opened the doors to oblivion. Like humans, asari and turians the Protheans thrived on planets with an Earth-like nitrogen-oxygen mix in the atmosphere.

Abby had been studying exo-geology since graduate school and having uncovered Prothean data disks and ruins on other planets with fossil records that revealed classic pre-garden terrestrial worlds with conditions similar to those on Earth millions of years ago. Having seen signs of Prothean colonies it would seem the ancient race was highly adaptive to a host of different environments. They could live on worlds where it was hot, humid and the atmosphere mainly composed of nitrogen and carbon dioxide just as easily as they could on worlds like Novaria, Ilos, Faros and Virmire. The fossil finds her team had recovered on Ilos would prove invaluable to understanding the Protheans at large and how they became so prolific in their colorizations and scientific advancements.

Abby continued to watch the team-leader briefing with mild amusement at the very animated scientists and one slightly bored Spectre. Shepard was a lot like Ash that way. While fully fascinated by some aspects of history and sciences they both could become bored while the 'science geeks' talked shop. The Spectre was listening to the reports because it was required of her and thus not something she could delegate; though it looked as if she would prefer to have had that option.

Dr. Ororo, one of the few female salarians serving on Victory was more animated than even her species were known for. The astrophysicist in charge of one of the tech-recovery teams became enthralled with Ksad Ishan. To be fair everyone at base camp was, even Wrex who pretended not to be impressed by the Protheans, though that was evidently a lie.

"This is astonishing Spectre, truly astonishing! We have a working Prothean AI, Just think of what we can uncover! Isn't this exciting?!" Dr Ororo had the type of voice that could exclaim a question. It seemed to have an excited squeal permanently screwed to it. Her faceted eyes blinked several times in jubilation.

'Ah well she was press-ganged for her astrophysical skills not her oratory abilities.' Shepard reminded herself. So far the only animated and highly-over-excited scientist that didn't wrack her nerves was Liara. 'But she is so cute when she gets into babble mode. How can you not fall for that?' her hindbrain said while her forebrain smiled and nodded at the salarian woman.

"Ksad Ishan will be instrumental in uncovering and deciphering ancient astronomical maps and star maps my team recovered from the database. Not to mention the library of data disks the Council possesses as well as the archives on Jaëto and Mannovai!"

Shepard held up her hand forestalling the salarian. "For now we need to keep this information quarantined to the Victory and the Council. We can not afford to lose the advantage of anonymity. We've taken great pains to keep Ksad Ishan disguised and for now it remains that way. Not all hands on Victory will know the full truth of our guest, it is on a need-to-know-basis and I decide who needs to know. This is a direct order, I know most of you are not military but this is a military mission and a military decision given to you by a Council Spectre. And as a Spectre, Ksad Ishan is under my jurisdiction thus that of the Council not the Alliance. So don't any of you get it into your heads that's what's going on, because it isn't. There are no negotiations in this people, and no room for argument. Those who violate the order will be dealt with harshly and permanently under Council law." She gave them all a hard look projecting a warning that the first one who challenged this would have a very hard time of it indeed.

"As resident Prothean expert and the Director of Sciences onboard Victory, Dr. T'soni will be in full command of all research and interaction with Ksad Ishan, then sanctioned by me." Shepard continued.

"While I concur with you, Dr Ororo about using Ksad Ishan to aid in recovery and interpretation of the Prothean disks already uncovered and all such future discoveries, this research is under the guidance of Dr. T'soni. On that note I will be leading salvage teams to a Prothean temple where we recovered the geth Prime. The teams that will be accompanying me will be as follows: my own with the exception of Lt. Nual who sustained an injury during our last mission, Dr. T'soni's as well as your team Dr. Ororo.

"Dr. Baynham … Lizbeth not you Juliana, I'll be taking doctors Palon and Williams as well. Their expertise in toxicology and geology will be vital to the mission. I want to know what kind of dangers I'm leading my people into when we open that temple. After dismissal I want the all those teams involved to be ready to roll out at oh-four-hundred hours tomorrow morning. All gear and personnel will be ready, make sure your people are well rested and fed. We have enough assault teams where not everyone has to walk the picket. Dismissed."

It wasn't strictly necessary that Lieutenant Williams be present for the briefing. After all Pressly had never been present during the briefings after each mission the last time. Still, it was odd that she hadn't been there. It had Shepard wondering why this was. Word had it Williams took to stalking the picket line and checking the perimeter. This was a duty that could be delegated, so why hadn't Williams been present at the briefing? But then the XO had been a little odd since … since she had been told about the pregnancy.

Shepard tried to fathom what William's thought processes might be. Williams would never allow her personal thoughts to come between her and duty, but she had to have a moment to work it out. How better to work through deep cerebral, spiritual things than to walk the picket. It allowed one the time to think through things and still perform your duty. It was like cleaning one's gun. You disassembled it, cleaned and serviced each part, put it back together again so many times you didn't have to really think about it. It allowed you to think about other things, things that had been eating at your mind.

Shepard envied her junior officer for the moment of freedom in her moments to patrol the pickets to clear her brain, while the Spectre was stuck in her own brain - stuck in the nauseating replaying of the nightmares of the beacons.

The last time on Ilos there wasn't enough time to become assaulted by the ghosts of the Prothean memories. Now there was a plethora of time to be haunted by the memories. A Spectre haunted by specters; it might have been humorous, if extremely inebriated … as it was, it was only a very bad pun on real life. No wonder Saren went mad.

The Spectre almost, but did not quite sigh, forcing the clawing hands of the Prothean's legacy back into the recesses of her mind where they belonged. The Specter moved fluidly towards the picket line, offering absent nods and greetings to the crew members she passed. Samantha paused as her crystalline gaze easily found her XO's agitated form, Ash's steps graceful yet determined. The Lieutenant had not seen her Captain yet and the Specter preferred it so. "What's bothering you Ash?" Shepard questioned the dry, acrid air of Ilos, knowing no answer would be forthcoming. Exhaling softly, the first human Spectre moved towards her XO hoping to offer her services as a sounding board, or perhaps a helping hand.

Williams had begrudgingly accepted aliens on the Normandy. It was hard going what with the legacy her grandfather had left her, what First Contact had left her. Later Williams had learned to accept the friendship and later romantic relationship between her skipper and Miss Prothean Expert. It was fine as long as there wasn't a marriage. But there had been a marriage. But that was fine, T'soni had bled with them, had to confront, battle and finally kill her own mother because that was where the mission led them. Yes, marriage was fine as long as there were no children. In Williams' hindbrain there could be no chance of a child as both partners were female, despite her forebrain knowing that wasn't true at least not with an asari. And now there was a child. And as she had with the marriage Williams had accepted a role in the new development. It was as if the young woman was battling two sides of herself: there was the part that rejoiced and was happy for her skipper … her friend, and the other part that had to live with the fizz of disquieting mistrust of aliens and jealousy, because T'soni had what Williams wanted. The love of Samantha Shepard.

It was enough to make one go spare. Yep no doubt about it, a good walk of the picket was a very good way to clear the head.

"How's the line?" the Spectre said coming up to the younger woman.

"Five by five, Ma'am," Williams easily reported.

Shepard nodded. "You didn't miss anything vital at the briefing. It was only status reports from the recovery teams. I've placed a level six security quarantine on Ksad Ishan's true identity. The cover story for the rest of the crew of the Victory and others is that he was recruited specifically by Liara for his achievements in Prothean technology; he will pose as her apprentice."

"But the teams knew we were looking for a geth prime, how are we covering that up?"

"Half truths: we needed the prime's memory core to down load Vigil's data banks." Shepard gave her XO an appraising look. "Anyone found breaking the direct order will be sent into solitary confinement and quite possibly a more permanent resolution."

Williams blanched. "Ma'am? Execution?"

"Lieutenant, I have a traitor on my ship that has links to those who sent God knows how many bounty hunters on my tail, on Liara's! That someone wants her dead, just to get back at me. Cerberus was here trying to get DNA samples of the Protheans to add to their genetic soup to create their fracking super soldiers. They are rogue. What they are doing isn't for the Alliance Military it's for some megalomaniac Machiavellian psychopath. They murdered Admiral Kohoku! We're trying to prevent the extinction of all sentients, Lieutenant. You bloody well bet I'll command the execution of a traitor!"

Ashley held her captain's stern gaze as a stony silence descended between them.

"Citadel law is pretty clear on the matters of treason, ma'am. One would have to be pretty stupid to go up against it and the Spectre that enforces it."

The stony silence started to crack. In two heartbeats it crumbled, in a breath it was dust.

"We're rolling out early, four-hundred-hours. We're going back down to the temple; I need everything ready to go."

Ash knew what the next order was going to be. 'I need you to stay and take command of the base camp.' Well why not? It was standard operating procedure. She was the XO of Victory and since Kaiden fell she was the second in command of ground teams. The days of riding shotgun and covering her skipper's six were over. A small part of her became bitter at that. Liara took her skipper away from her on a personal level. Because she was the XO she was now being parted from her on a professional level.

"Ash, I need you to …"

"I know Skipper, take command of the base camp."

"Actually no, I need you with the salvage teams. I need you at my six. I'll be swimming in an overabundance of scientists; I need a bit of normalcy with me. Wrex and Garrus are warriors but they aren't … marines." What the Spectre didn't say was: 'they're not you. You're my person, Ash, I need you.' As the younger woman's CO she couldn't cross that line, no matter how she felt. Those words could never be uttered allowed while on active duty. Both knew it. What the Spectre did say was: "I need my Trusted at my six because this place is fracking around with my head. There are too many ghosts. I need someone there to be objective, Liara won't be. She has the cipher the same as me and additionally there's our bond… you get the picture. We share memories, thoughts and dreams; it will be difficult for her to pull back. I need your fresh, untainted perspective on this."

Williams smiled brightly, her heart swelled in pride and something a bit more. She ignored the nagging bit of her hindbrain that said she was treading in a landmine of trouble. Her skipper needed her and she wasn't about to let the Spectre down just because her sister opened up something Ash worked hard to keep buried. Then something hit the lieutenant. Hard. 'This place is fracking around with my head. There are too many ghosts.' "Skipper … if you returned to the ship …"

"No. That's out of the question." The Spectre shook her head. "I just have to center myself. The meditations help sort it all out."

"It's the memories from the beacons isn't it?"

"Yes. Only more so. The cipher and the beacons, all that death, screams of the dying lasting for centuries then suddenly silenced. It echoes in my mind in a frantic playback loop. I hear the warnings of the twelve, the silent deaths of thousands as their cryogenic chambers were shut down by the dozens and the hundreds. Their voices echo like a faint white noise in my mind. The truth is they have ever since Eden Prime, but it's worse here. Ilos is the heart of disparity."

Ash came up to her skipper and placed a worrying hand upon the older woman's shoulder. "Sam?" Ash ventured softly knowing she was teetering on the edge of protocol. But it was on a small level allowable for the XO to address the CO by first name when in private. Williams had a difficult time uttering the single word; Skipper was easier on the tongue and the mind. But worry motivated the lieutenant.

The Spectre shook her head again. "Never mind me Ash, as soon as we get off this fracking rock I'll be right as rain." She took in a deep breath of air and exhaled it slowly. "Come on, there's a fair bit to do before we roll out in the morning. Some chow and shuteye will do a world of good."

The Spectre turned a glance over her shoulder, "Ash, promise me this, whatever the future holds for any of us, for me- -- you finish this mission. I need your promise that you will finish it. I feel it deep in my gut. The future is going to be … problematic."

Ash opened her mouth to protest, to reassure her skipper that it was only nightmares; that she would succeed but stopped the words before they were birthed. That wasn't the reassurance Samantha Shepard needed, she needed a promise. "You've got it, Skipper. I promise I'll see this through to the end." Ashley hesitated for a moment then decided her beloved skipper needed to hear this. "Skipper … Sam, I promise you this too. I'll look out for Miss Prothean Expert and your little one too. One Marine to another - I'll always have their six."

Samantha turned for in this private moment between the two the Spectre allowed herself, allowed Ashley this moment. "That's why you were and are and always will be my Trusted, Ash."

Ash grinned. And in a hairs breath grimaced within knowing full well she had a full on blush creeping up along her neck, hitting her ears and about to take a foothold on her cheeks. "So how about a game of pool once we get back to our ship?"

The moment was defused for both of them.

Shepard smirked. "How 'bout poker?"

"Aw no fair, Skipper! You'll clean my clock!"

"No more fair you skunking me at pool, Lieutenant."

Ash grinned brightly, things were back to normal. Relatively speaking that was.

Quietly the Spectre entered into the medical habitat. Operation Trojan Horse had been a swift mission but it wasn't without it victims. Fortunately no casualties had mounted up but it had been close. Three members of Russan's team had been gravely wounded as had one of Kirrahe's STGs. More had various wounds that had not been prevented by kinetic barriers. Before Shepard had put together the team briefing she had consulted Aleena on the butcher's bill. Now she was here for an update.

"S'thasa, how are they doing?"

"I stabilized the most critical, Captain. They will now be able be moved back the Victory where Dr. Chakwas will be able to care for them."

The Spectre looked at the four soldiers: one salarian, two turians and one human. Multispecies missions meant multispecies wounded. Had not a single human been wounded it could have turned political. Political meant acerbic ambassadors, and those types of ambassadors always, always made things worse, at least as far as the Spectre was concerned. All you had to do was to look at Udina. Hell even the turian councilor was caustic with Shepard, always judging her decisions in hindsight. It made her wonder if he was this way with all Spectres or singled out the human one for his barbed comments.

Shepard stared at other wounded: salarian, turians and human. The Spectre resisted the sing-song 'oh my' in her head. Oh and one asari if you counted in a healing dislocated shoulder.

"Good work, Doctor."

For a moment Aleena hesitated before she spoke. All the wounded were heavily sedated. The medics after seeing to their rounds had left the tent and had gone out seeking something to eat. They were alone, relatively speaking.

She is playing the blind woman, watching for me to betray myself. "Spectre … you know don't you. You know."

A smile slipped upon the human's ruby lips. The Spectre had wondered about this moment for some time. "Maybe you should clarify that question, doctor."

"THAT!" the huntress nearly bellowed, or would have if not for the whispered tone. "That right there. You … you know about me the real me and you still call me doctor!"

"Yes. I know. I know what you are bounty hunter. I even suspect I know who you are."

"But I'm still alive. Why?"

"Because what I don't know is who sent you."

"What?" the bounty hunter stared agog.

"You are the huntress known as Aleena aren't you? Wrex doesn't recognize you, so I'm guessing you underwent a bit of cosmetic surgery including something to change your pheromones so he doesn't take your scent."

The huntress only nodded.

"See there in lies the problem. I know what and who you are but not who sent you. Back on Elysium you could have taken out Liara or even me in that alley and made your escape. We were on a colony filled with thousands and you had every opportunity then to disappear. You even had opportunities for transport off the rock to escape. But you didn't take it. Why? That is the real question. Why didn't you take it? This made me wonder who truly sent you. I mean if I was a bounty hunter after a catch I'd integrate myself into their company, make myself indispensable to my prey, that way I could protect my mark from other hunters and take them out at my convenience.

"Now here's the thing. If I was a bounty hunter I would have taken my catch back on Elysium, a very convenient location. You however didn't make a move. So I was left with who sent you? The Consort Shiala, perhaps even the asari councilor. Or was it Matriarch Lidanya and her wife Racean who is Liara's half-sister? Perhaps out of some wild speculation even Councilor Anderson, who might have had a heads up or speculation of what Udina was up to or would do. If they sent you, they would need to do so covertly, otherwise it gets political."

Aleena was still staring, still stymied. "That is why you hesitate? You don't know who sent me, so you waited to see if I would lead you to my client. Just as you hesitate to move against the traitor on the ship in hopes they will lead you to your true target."

"Yes." The Spectre folded her arms over her chest.

Aleena sat down on one of the empty bunks. "I've never had contract like this. Working with you, fighting at your side, getting to know you and Dr. T'soni. I … I didn't want to complete the contract."

"So it was Udina that sent you."

The huntress nodded. She waited for the shark to attack. It was the only thing for it. And unlike her confrontation on the old salarian space station, Aleena wouldn't fight back. She had begun to believe in the Spectre, in her mission. This hunt was wrong, everything about it was wrong. And now there was a child. Aleena had always been a bit of a softy when it came to the innocent. That wasn't going to change no matter how much she would have made in completing the contract. Better to die then.

The silence was all the confirmation Shepard needed. "I want names, the numbers of the opposition and what the others are capable of, as well as techniques. I want to know the ratio of battlemasters, tanks, how many biotics and how many stealth fighters I'm up against."

"And after that Spectre, what then?"

"Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa continues to serve the Victory's crew in the capacity she signed on for. XO Williams and Dr. T'soni as well as Huntress Shiala will know the truth about you, Aleena."

"And if I don't capitulate?"

"Then you stay on this rock, alive or dead. That depends on how the battle plays out. I know how you took Wrex to an abandoned salarian space station overrun with mercs and pirates so innocents wouldn't get caught in the cross-fire. It didn't stop either you or the krogan from killing the mercs or destroying the station. I know how you barricaded yourself in the medical bay patching yourself up and that you escaped the station's ultimate destruction. But this isn't a station filled with mercs; it's an encampment with a Spectre, asari commandos, C-sec officers, the Council's STG elite and turian warriors as well as human marines and one krogan biotic battlemaster merc who might want a rematch. The odds are stacked against one asari commando merc, but they are more lenient to a field-medic who made a decision she perhaps aught not have made. The round goes back to you, Huntress. Who are you going to be?"

Aleena took a moment to ponder the question before her. She wasn't weighing the pros and cons and the odds as one might first assume. She was stymied as to why the Spectre was giving her this chance. Wasn't this the perfect opportunity for the ray to ambush? Or was this a twist on the battle oath she had laid out before Wrex. Only there was no biotic headbutt, this was a bold challenge nonetheless. Like Wrex, Aleena had the choice to capitulate to the Spectre's demands or take the fight.

"How do you know I haven't been in contact with Cerberus or that I haven't given up our position? Why are you giving me a choice? "

"Why didn't you take the shot in that alleyway? As far as contacting Cerberus, I doubt it. That isn't your M.O. at all. You hunt alone others would simply get in your way. By your own admission you joined the crew to keep other hunters from taking your prey. So I ask you again, why didn't you take that shot?"

Why hadn't she? She had them dead to rights, the shot was hers and yet she stayed her hand. She had taken the rival mercenary's head nearly clean off with her well aimed shot when she could have equally taken off Liara's head. But she hadn't. Why hadn't she?

"I don't know to be honest. I gave myself justifications and excuses for not taking the shot. In the end, in this moment does it matter? Now you have me dead to rights and it is you Spectre that stays your hand."

There was a movement from somewhere near the doorway. Liara glowing blue, Williams with her assault rifle in her hands: the finger flagging the trigger. Just as the Spectre had in the cargo bay that long ago day back on the Normandy she had commanded her warriors with silent orders to back her up should she receive an answer to her question not to her liking.

"Yes I do. And yes I am. And that's why I do so. Now what is your decision?"

Rebelling against serving a Spectre with little pay or fulfilling her contract was all a bit superfluous now. If Aleena chose to fight she would be fighting not only the Spectre but one of the most powerful biotics in Council space as well as one of the finest officers in the Alliance Navy. Her mind worked fast, flying in emergency supplies of common sense as asari minds do, to construct a huge anchor in sanity and prove that what had happened hadn't happened the way it had happened. Even if it had happened, it doesn't happen very often. The Spectre was good at duplicity and outflanking her opponent. With the very real possibility of truth, the Spectre had simply told her wife via their telepathic connection to enter the medical tent with Williams at her side. Both were to be armed with their best weapons, make a show of it but ask no questions, just do it.

"Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa at your service Captain Shepard."

Both Liara and Williams relaxed their stance but not their guard. Shepard continued to watch the bounty hunter and began to explain just who the good doctor was. And because she knew the question was still festering in Aleena and no doubt taking root in Williams as well as Liara, the Spectre answered the question as to why the mercenary was still alive.

"She lives not because I've allowed it but because her death serves no one."

Williams was more reluctant to allow her guard down even for a moment. "So what are going to do with her, Captain?" That was a question Aleena wanted herself. Being allowed to live and being free were two different things.

"As I said earlier she remains as Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa."

"I want know why you changed your mind, Huntress." Liara demanded primly.

"I have never killed a child and I'm not about to now." Aleena answered evenly and honestly. "And to be perfectly frank I think this mission we're on is more important than anything I've ever been involved with. When I'm a matriarch looking back on decisions I've made, I don't want to look back and regret. In fact I want to be able to look back. You said my death serves no one, neither does Liara T'soni's. In fact it would be detrimental. To push that frankness further Lieutenant Williams you need someone who thinks like a mercenary bounty hunter." After a moment she added, "Other than Wrex, that is. To be perfectly blunt you do not know how to think like a bastard, I do. It always comes as a shock when others are oathbreakers or sell you out."

That was a valid point if truth be told. Both Shepard and Williams were navy brats. They grew up in a household were regulations, rules and uniform was common place. They had served in the military since their late teens. They knew regulations, laws, and orders. They lived it.

Despite being a Spectre and thus above the law, Shepard still thought in the mindset of a marine officer. It was quite possible she didn't know how to not think of herself as such despite she was no longer in service to the Systems Alliance Military. Yes, she could be devious and even duplicitous as were all good military tacticians but she wasn't an out right bastard.

Now a merc often lived on the fringes of law, making and keeping their own codes. Shepard had come to understand Wrex. He finished a contract despite the moral lines of not shooting someone when they had surrendered as he had with Fist.

"Had Liara not been with child, what then?" The Spectre challenged.

"I don't think I would have carried through even then, Captain. Placing elements into the balances say all sentient organic life on one side and genocidal machines on the second and a revenge-twisted-imbecile on the third which side would you have taken? You stole the Normandy because you believed and rightly so that was the correct course of action. Right now it isn't my very possible death that makes me think, it is the death of all life, including Udina's. Question my motives all you wish, but I have no desire to see all life wiped out. I believe in what you are doing Shepard."

"As I said before, you are to be Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa. Once Aleena steps onboard my ship, she's dead. She might have withstood to epic battles with Wrex, but she has yet to face a Spectre, a hardcore kick-ass marine and a very powerful biotic Prothean expert bent on stopping galactic genocide."

Both Williams and Liara continued to stare at the Spectre even as they were now clear of the medical tent. Shepard suspected she knew what was on the minds of both of the other women even before she opened her mouth to speak.

"After Elysium, I hypothesized we had a bounty hunter on board." The Spectre said as an opener. "As to how I knew we had one on board that was easy. It's like I told S'thasa, if I were a bounty hunter it is exactly what I would have done."

Shepard went on to explain using the same thought process she had given Aleena about integrating herself into the crew and becoming indispensable. She explained the motive of such actions and the logistics of efficiency in doing so.

"Yes but how did you know it was S'thasa who was the merc?" pressed Ash.

"Process of elimination, really. The bounty hunter could not have been one of the original crew members of the Normandy despite the fact the traitor is. Nor could it have been the marine unit we inherited from the Kilimanjaro. They were all personally selected and sent by my mother, the ship's XO. Nor could it have been one of the asari directly from the T'soni bastion. They might not have gone with Benezia when she followed Saren but they are still loyal to her teachings. Their whole motivation for being here is to redeem and avenge her name and her teachings. The bounty hunter isn't one of Karachi's STGs, of that I was certain. It wasn't a volus, hell they don't even have a military force. So that left a handful of asari, turian and salarian commandos and scientists we took on.

"I simply went fishing for clues. Dr. Ororo cheated on her taxes as well as quasar more than a few times. She also worships the goddess Trelyn. You know the one whose face appears in all those overlapping creators on that planet named for her. The Council considers that particular religion a cult and thus it is less than favored by others in Council space. Ororo fears she will be ridiculed by her peers for her worship of Trelyn, though not skipping out on paying her taxes. Apparently cheating the governing bodies out of credits is par for the course.

"Sergeant Ruusan Vos cheated on his mate with his sister-in-law and the child she carries is his not her husband's. Ahsuka is of pure asari blood just like you Liara. I told her it should not bring her shame for one of the greatest ladies I know shares two asari parents." Shepard smiled at her wife. "And even though Gunnery Chief Phineus Ragnos came from the Kilimanjaro like the rest of his unit, he came to me admitting he had been a part of the Tenth Street Reds back on Earth. It was the only family he had as he never known his parents. Apparently it had been eating away at him, he believed I'd kick him of the ship when if and when I found out." The Spectre gave a long look to her XO, "A bit like someone else I know who had a worry about something in their past dogging their record. I told him he would not have been on the unit or sent over if he hadn't been judged a worthy and capable officer. He believed he had been transferred because of his past not because of his capabilities as a NCO or that he had been hand picked by their Commander Shepard.

"It's amazing the things you discover when people believe you know their darkest secrets." Shepard smiled deviously. "I simply played on their inner fears to make them suspect I would do something about it. I needed … wanted the true hunter to out her or himself. In the end that is exactly what Aleena did."

"Skipper, why didn't you tell me? As XO I had the right to know." Williams said a little harshly.

"I needed you to stay objective, Ash. I didn't tell Liara of who I suspected either if you want to get technical. I needed the suspect to fear the Spectre, not the Alliance Military or the wife of Samantha Shepard. I needed them to fear me. Try to understand that. When they retreated it was because I allowed them to. They saw the Spectre and ran into the shadows where they thought they were safe. In that safety, the suspect might have said or done something in the presence of another because they believed themselves safe. That is when you strike, it was the perfect ambush."

'She is both shark and ray.' The words were Aleena's, the very bounty hunter they were speaking of and until now neither Ashley nor had Liara for that matter truly appreciated what it was to be both such hunters.

"Your action and carefully chosen words forced Aleena to reveal herself to you, as it has with the others." Liara said. "A sound strategy."

"I go with what works." The Spectre said with a hint of a shaky smile tugging at her lips.

"Speaking of what works, I have to hand it to that bond of yours, Skipper." Ash said as the trio made their way across the compound. "Liara comes up to me and in a spooky impersonation of your voice, told me to 'look scary, and take point with my deadliest boom stick, because you need back up now'." The lieutenant said. "Of course she didn't give me more than that before she went all glowy."

"I wasn't given much more information myself, only the words I related to you verbatim and that I was to appear with my biotics readied for pin point accuracy battle. I was to say nothing to anyone else, just you."

The Spectre knew her companions would want answers. "I wagered Aleena would back down but I needed her to see that in a moments notice I had a hell of a lot of firepower at my six. I would leave no doubt in her mind about the position she was in and what I and the two of you were capable of."

"Can we trust her?" Williams looked over her shoulder back to the med-tent.

"No. But she won't go back on her word, I trust her convictions."

"How can you trust a person's convictions and not the person themselves?" Williams wanted to know. For her this seemed a contradiction.

"The same way we started to trust Wrex and Garrus when they first joined up with our crew. The same way I trusted Major Kyle to surrender peacefully after I gave him that hour to speak to his followers. The same way I trusted Saren to commit suicide even after all the crimes and atrocities he committed. I follow my gut instincts."

"And what is it that your 'gut instincts' tell you of Aleena?" Liara pressed.

"She won't betray me or you, or this mission. She understands the greater implications of what we are trying to do. And that I do trust."

That seemed to be the end of the conversation as far as the Spectre was willing to allow it to go. She had told both her companions they were to address the bounty hunter as Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa. They were never to bring up the bounty hunters past contracts in case it was overheard by others, including the traitor.

"Come, let's see if our newest crewmember is finally up and running." The Spectre ordered as she wound her way through the encampment.

"Captain!" Shi'ar exclaimed upon seeing the Spectre enter the habitat that had been set aside for the Vigil / Ksad Ishan project. "We have glorious news." The young asari was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. "I believe we have discovered a way to integrate all of Vigil's previous files along with the recovered data logs and journals recovered from Dr. Ororo's team into a fully interactive data stream. The geth prime's neuronet cortex was able to extrapolate not only the downloaded personality of the late Overseer Ksad Ishan; it will also integrate approximate responses into the matrix." The asari smiled. "You know what this means of course?"

"Vigil will answer exactly like Ksad Ishan. How exactly is this different to how the Protheans set up with Vigil in the first place?" The Spectre asked.

"Essentially more data to extrapolate from." Shi'ar said. "Vigil had been programmed and down-loaded with Overseer Ksad Ishan's personality, but it didn't necessarily have all of the back data that it has now. Even if it had it had been corrupted over time. With the new input and all the Prothean disks we thus uncovered here on Ilos, Ksad Ishan will be able to answer questions that Vigil at the time you encountered it either could not because of corrosion or was incapable of answering because of lack of data. We believe now it can."

Shepard gave a long hard look at the holographic disguised turian superimposed over what she knew to be a geth prime's frame. "Bring it on line. Time to test this thing."

"Yes, Captain." Shi'ar activated her Omni tool causing the synthetic body to convulse before it stood up.

The presence of the Prothean memories was now fully aroused for the first time. Samantha Shepard felt the true essence, the true presence of the long dormant Protheans to be wilful. Her instinct was to resist. Her hand of its own volition went to her hip to her sidearm. Yes her scientists had reformatted the synthetic to be a Prothean VI under her orders but this thing still had the posotronic brain of a geth. She hadn't come this far to be overcome by a metal construct.

Unlike the glowing amber willow-the-whips that was Vigil, Ksad Ishan had a far different air about it. Perhaps because now it had a face, eyes, a mouth even if they were holographic. It was more familiar and less disconcerting to talk to and that put the Spectre on edge. She didn't want to feel comfortable around the 'clanker'.

"Ksad Ishan can you respond?" Liara asked for a lack of anything else to say.

Mechanically it tilted its head, waited and then spoke with a turian's reverberated tones. "All systems on line." The voice sounded nearly the same as Vigil's had but the geth's vocalizer made it sound tinny as if speaking though an environmental suit, almost quarian in that respect.

"I'm Captain Shepard: Council Spectre, do you recall our previous encounter?"

"I do Captain." The entity that was once Ksad Ishan turned its attention to the Spectre. It seemed to think before it spoke as if the memories within the journals of the overseer didn't quite fit into the data files downloaded into Vigil by its creator. Perhaps it as if one had discovered old letters and diaries of one's parent before they became a parent. The person in those journals seems to be a stranger even if they were familiar. The secrets within those diaries didn't quite fit with the knowledge you held of your parent.

At last it seemed to make a decision as it said: "So what are you … pawn, savior, redeemer or destroyer? What role do you play, do you even know? You have wandered this galaxy blithely unlocking secrets that have been sealed and forbidden for millennia. The paths you have been treading have been opened to only one race. You don't know what you are, do you?

"I have been many things." Shepard said calmly folding her arms over her chest. "If you find me ignorant enlighten me."

The phantom entity within the turian disguised prime sighed pointedly. "What is the point? The galaxy is ended. The Reapers have culled all. All that is left of our people are contained in cryogenic status and they are but dust."

"No." this word came from Liara. "No, not in this time. The Culling of the Reapers of your era Ksad Ishan has passed and the galaxy is reborn. The twelve remaining top scientific individuals broke the cycle when they traveled to the Citadel and interfered with the signal sent to the keepers. Your plans worked Dr. Ksad Ishan; the galaxy thrives again once more. I regret to say of those valiant twelve their fate is unknown although Vigil hypothesized they starved to death on the Citadel, as the Conduit portal only links one way and there was no food or water on the station at that time. No doubt the keepers had a clean up party after the Citadel was struck. No evidence left behind sort of thing in their protocols. The legacy you left for your peoples brought us to you.

"Captain Shepard was caught first by a beacon on Eden Prime and subsequently the one on Virmire. She was also given the Cipher once held by the thorian on Faros. It was those visions that lead her here. Those secrets you said were closed to all but one race opened to those who held the Cipher," the asari continued to explain. "Now we return here seeking answers to stop the Reapers fully. Sovereign is dead, destroyed by an alliance between our races. We will not capitulate to the prophecy of galactic doom. The cycle will end. Help us with the secrets that still lay hidden and those that we have unearthed."

Ksad Ishan spoke with a wistful yet dismissive tone. "You can not imagine the magnitude of the rapture and the tragedy of this moment and yet you must if the galaxy is to be dragged from the wreckage of its damnation. You must understand my fatalism is firmly ingrained I fear. You and all organics resist the cycle of destruction because you are compelled to—just as we had been—just as the Reapers are compelled to annihilate all organics. History is irredeemable. Drop a stone into a rushing river the current simply courses around it and flows on as if the obstruction were never there. We were, you and all other organics are pebbles, have even less hope of disrupting the time of the Culling.

"The continuum of history is simply too strong, too resilient - except the Citadel." The entity waved a languid hand. "You achieved what we had hoped to do and failed. The mass relay to Dark Space is closed off, perhaps there is hope - perhaps the same sick drama may not need to be played out to its inevitable end. Perhaps organics are not cursed to purgatory."

"This is why we've come back." Shepard felt the compulsive need to repeat the reason for their mission to Ilos. "I carry the cipher as do two others on my ship: my wife Liara and our mentor Shiala. Understanding the language, the genetic memory of a people is a far cry from knowledge you hold. Ksad Ishan, this cycle of destruction doesn't have to be an ending of organics, it can be a prelude to the ending of the Reapers. I have no messianic delusions, I only desire what all organics do: to stop the Reapers from obliterating us."

"Nevertheless you are a crusader, child. And as such you will have those who abhor your deeds and those who will lionize them. It is something I am familiar with or rather I have been familiar with. There will be those who will hand all their hopes to you, trusting you to keep them from oblivion. There will be those who deny the ending of all things, because they find security in their deliberate blindness that anything could possibly be wrong. It is easy to become caught up in such ideals. You seek to understand that which has been given to you.

I see in your eyes a reflection of those who have lionized you as you look upon me; I warn you do not do so. To fathom the true power of knowledge - to see its paths and streams tracing out into the infinite as primitive the words could never contain such hidden truths. But each of us is so much more than we once were as long as a single one of us still stands we are legion."

"I've heard that before and not from you." Shepard said darkly, her hand once more going for the butt of her pistol. Despite all the effort her people had done to make it possible to have a walking Prothean VI she wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet in the clanker's head.

"I understand your meaning but I do not think you understand mine. There was a time when we were indivisible but never divine, child." The entity within Ksad Ishan spoke almost patronisingly as a teacher would a student as he spoke more to Liara than to Shepard. "You have uncovered the past from the beacons, and those ancient relics we left behind. But you know nothing of it. You think we Protheans were all noble, forthright and altruistic? Don't be simple. Our agenda was the same as all living now in this era. We lived, we loved, begot children, studied, battled and explored. We visited our knowledge, our gifts on the unwilling and the wanting both without impunity.

"Even as we created a way to cut off the Citadel from their creators, others turned to the contingency plan. Our last hope lay with the very young sentient species. Some of my brethren who took on the name the Watchers wished only to study the primitives of the other worlds. On these primitive worlds we left traces of our knowledge behind so that in time when natural evolution allowed these primitive souls to gain greater understanding they would seed the galaxy with their get. They would become capable of understanding our warnings and perhaps divine a way to survive the Culling and push back the Reapers. As I said, there were others who wished to advance the infant races.

"Here is the schism - the wreck of our memories, of our great knowledges. Instead of merely studying your ancient ancestors, some of our brethren desired to give them power over dark matter. In some races, it was already there for such was the nature of their creation…their evolution." He gave a pointed look to the gathered asari. "But others only had the possibility to call upon dark matter though did not wield it."

Liara looked to her beloved wife and found the same gaze returned to her. Both thought of the chrome sphere on Eletania and the strange vision Shepard beheld when she had placed Shi'ara's 'trinket' into the slotted keyhole in the bottom of the sphere.

"We were no longer indivisible. Those who continued to manipulate the younger races of life did so without the consent of the Elder Council. Their…our profundity was our vanity, our arrogance. It was not noble intention that drove this quest but fear for we all had seen the great Darkness that befell those that came before. Whole galactic civilizations culled to the brink of extinction. Sentient life would be forced to begin anew just as it had done before.

"During the schism those desired this line of experimentation, extracted whole tribes of the primitive races and planted them on planets far from their native worlds. And here they granted their 'wards' with the power over dark matter - some of the 'wards' proved capable of containing the energy but their will over such was not stable, not cohesive enough. By studying the ancient aquarian tribes on a planet called Thessia it was discovered why these females had such a hold over their dark matter. Their bodies were riddled with amplifying nerve clusters for they used such abilities not only for defensive and offensive survival, they used such to procreate. Armed with this knowledge the Divided-Ones came back to their wards and used synthetic means to amplify the nervous systems of their wards and were pleased to discover this improved the control of dark matter, greatly."

Shepard struggled to fathom all she had heard, and found herself unable to do so. Liara so overcome had faltered, nearly toppling to her backside before she sat down hard on the stone steps. These were not the Protheans she had devoted fifty years of her life studying. To be taken as lab specimens, experimented upon was incredible bordering upon the ludicrous. They were not the only ones to be so affected. All the asari had found themselves in various states of terrorized fascination and disgust. They too found they were unable to stand. The others shook their heads as they thought of their own Palaeolithic predecessors being the test subjects of the 'noble' Protheans.

"What…happened to these wards?" Shepard asked for everyone.

"There were some speculations their masters placed them back into the general population from which they were taken from originally to interbreed with those untested, the control group if you will. Or perhaps they were destroyed along with their masters—the Divided-Ones. All that is left of these experiments are the observations spheres." For a moment the entity paused as its holographic eyes caught the glint of Liara's Promise medallion. "I see that you bear one of the keys to the spheres, young one." Ksad-Ishan approached Liara, but the young woman flinched back.

"Do not touch me!" she snarled, her body shimmered in the ominous cyan glow of biotics. Shepard was on her feet a second later, her own body shimmering in biotic power. After her the other asari and even a krogan began to glow in the brilliant blue light. Williams had her assault riffled raised, aimed with her finger flagging the trigger.

The android put its three-taloned hands up in gesture of peace. "I mean no harm. I was only curious to see one of the keys. Be assured I was not party to the Watchers or Divided-Ones' actions, aware of them only but never a part."

"You were the overseer how could you allow such things to continue?" Shepard demanded.

"I had more pressing issues to contend with dear child. The Reapers were my prime and only true concern! I was to find a way to sever the Citadel from their control, make the keepers impotent and preserve my people...and all other organics in the galaxy, including the primitive races. What the Watchers and the Divided-Ones were doing wasn't unkind; their experiments were not cruel or debilitating. The Divided-Ones sought only to find those capable of using dark matter as a means to preserve all organic life from the snares of the Reapers. Can your own races say the same? How did you come to be able to use dark matter, child? This is not natural born as it is with your mate and her sisters but forced upon you is it not? Self-righteous indignation does not become you, Spectre. Mind your accusations."

Ksad Ishan had a point. There could be no argument that her own race had deliberately exposed pregnant women to Ee-Zo so that the children they carried would be born with biotic abilities. The chances of cancer, brain tumors or other maladies were a small price to pay for such advancements according to some scientific and even military doctrinism. Even now Cerberus was conducting unspeakable acts of mutilation, all in the name of preserving humanity. And they were not as kind to their wards as were the Divided-Ones.

"Forgive my outburst. You're right, we can't deny it. It's difficult to realize …" Liara said softly. Her body stopped shimmering and a moment later the other biotics followed suit.

"Your beloved ideals of the Protheans are tarnished – we were not as altruistic as you would have imagined? Do not lionize us child. As I stated before we are not divine. Simply more knowledgeable - that is not the same. Not even those we called the Divided-Ones proclaimed themselves deities nor did we claim their actions evil, only unsanctioned. They were scientists only, they were still purely Prothean. They were never our enemies."

Shepard was too incredulous to believe what she had seen, been told, the truths devolved to her were before her and yet the Spectre struggled in vain to see how the pieces fit together.

Part 20

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