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 21
Legacy of the Eccentric

"So they are going to send another Spectre after Udina?" Williams asked as she took her seat alongside Shepard, Liara, Shiala and Tali in the comm-room. Wrex, Garrus and Kirrahe were already seated and waiting for the women to settle to the meeting.

"That's what they said. However we are to keep our eyes open for any movement Udina might make as well as operations of Cerberus and the Illusive Man. If we discover anything of Cerberus's or the Illusive Man's actions we are to follow the lead to its end and stop them." Shepard said leaning against the railing near the comms unit's holographic projector, her arms folded as customary over her chest.

"So we just give up on Udina, just like that after what he did?" Williams was incensed. The expression was mirrored on Liara and Shiala's faces as well.

"I don't like it anymore than you do Lieutenant, but they are right Udina isn't our prime concern. Our mission against the Reapers is the prime focus. Trust me Udina won't get away from my justice, and I won't give up the hunt for Cerberus or this Illusive Man. But they could easily become a distraction from our true goal." said the Spectre.

"You are right, Captain." Liara said diplomatically. "Klencory awaits us."

"Aren't you forgetting something Dr. T'soni we still need that little Jahleed's uncle to give us permission to touch ground." Garrus said.

"Why wait, I say we just go in and do what needs to be done." Wrex scoffed at the turian.

"No, I think the direct route, red tape and all is what is called for. Besides we can use Mr. Shol's resources to aid us. He's been hunting for these lost crypts for the past twenty years, everything he's learned over that time will be extremely helpful." The Spectre moved to her seat between her XO and her wife.

"Whatever you say, Shepard. Me, I'd go in bashing some skulls together and make someone's day a whole lot worse."

"That's your answer for everything, krogan." Garrus snorted.

"It's worked for me so far."

Shepard closed her ears to the bickering of the males. It amused her to think this was how they founded their friendship though she knew both would protest loudly if it was ever pointed out to them.

"Klencory is not a very hospitable planet." Shiala said. "The atmosphere is composed of chlorine and argon. The frozen surface is mainly composed of potassium with deposits of iron. The surface temp is minus one hundred and nine centigrade. The gravity is point eight-two g, the atmospheric pressure: one point one atm. It carries both a toxic and cold damage level one." To give such reports to Shepard was a familiar task for she had done the same with Matriarch Benezia as her disciple. This task was both bitter and sweet much like Sorrow's Companion. Yet the Huntress would perform her duty as diligently and efficiently for her Spectre as she had for her matriarch.

In many respects the planet was very similar to the planet Xawin where the valiant crew of the Normandy found the privateers and a geth beacon. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which planets were the worst, the frozen ones or the arid ones. Of course the poisonous frozen one below them was the main problem.

"Which means even in full faced hardsuits there are considerable dangers, we can only be exposed outside the mako for very short times, a minute at the most. How Kumun Shol survived a whole decade on such a poisoned planet will be very valuable information and one that begs an answer." Shepard commented.

"The volus homeworld of Irune has an ammonia-based ecology with a high-pressure atmosphere." Liara answered the question. "Save for the temperature he is probably very comfortable. Our hardsuits can double as pressure suits can they not?"

"With some tweaking, yeah. Maybe," Ashley said. "I'm a little more concerned about bursting open."

Liara's hand instinctively went to her belly covering the tiny swell of where her daughter lay. She could feel Samantha's thoughts enter her mind caressing her as surely as she caressed her womb.

"Didn't we find pressure suits in the Prothean stash - can't you scientists figure something out so they can be worn over the hardsuits?" Wrex asked. There were times when seeing things at their simplest level was the best solution through a difficult situation.

Many of the scientists would be poring over the new finds from Ilos including Liara which Shepard preferred her to do rather than go running around on a forsaken planet. If the scientists could somehow adapt or retro-engineer the Prothean pressure suits it would ease things considerably.

"I'll have my teams start immediately." Liara announced. "We may not be able fully adapt the Prothean suits to our needs but we might be able to adapt something suitable that can extend exposure times to the hardsuits."

"What like environmental kinetic barriers?" Ashley asked, "Or medical exoskeletons?"

"Hopefully, yes." Liara answered.

"Cool. I know a thing or two about hardsuits need any input just ask."

"A military perspective will be very valuable." The asari smiled.

"Ha," Wrex barked "T'soni only wants you for a lab rat."

Liara shook her head vigorously, "Oh no, I would not!"

"Relax Miss Prothean Expert; I know you wouldn't deliberately put me in harm's way. And besides I have no intention of being anyone's guinea pig. But all you egg heads are going to need someone who knows how hardsuits operate more than on a theoretical level. Like someone whose had extensive practical use of them. I know guns and armor, and if I or the Captain are going to be using whatever it is you come up with I want to know how it works on the ground level."

"Get to work on that, you have three days." Shepard said.

"Captain, I do have one question." Garrus asked turning the attention back to him. "Why do you think we can find these crypts when this Shol character hasn't? Like you said he's been here for the past two decades diligently searching for them."

"Because we have three things he doesn't. A Prothean expert, knowledge of what the 'machine devils' are and we have a Prothean AI. Even if these 'Beings of Light' are not Prothean, they had to have some knowledge of them. And we know now about biotically sealed doors. Maybe Shol found sconces along a ruined wall like those we found on Ilos and didn't think anything more of them and dismissed them as nothing more than inoperable lighting fixtures. Regardless, I believe it's a worthy avenue of investigation.

"We have a firm plan for now. Alright everyone dismissed. But I want you Liara, Ash and Shiala to hang back for a moment." Shepard announced. She waited until everyone had filed out of the comm-room before she spoke once more. "Lieutenant Williams, what are the regulations concerning those serving aboard a starship who happen to be pregnant?" azure eyes held their gaze upon the two asari in the room.

Because it had caught her off guard the question momentarily shook the younger woman before she composed herself enough to answer. "No pregnant crewmember aboard a warship will be engaged in groundside combat or be deployed in hostile or potentially hostile territory without said area being secured. No pregnant personnel will be deployed in fighter and engage in theater."

"You're grounding me?" Shiala was incensed. "That is preposterous. With all due respect Captain this is not an Alliance ship. Despite the ranking officers and commanding officer are Alliance military. Those regulations do not apply to the asari. Even when we are heavy with our daughters we serve our ships in the capacity …"

"I was once told that when someone says with all due respect most of the time they are really saying kiss my ass. And 'with all due respect' Shiala this isn't an asari vessel either. Despite the fact it was designed and heavily influenced by asari engineers. This is a Council warship with a Council Spectre as captain. I've made my orders pretty clear. You'll still serve as the CAG. You will still run escort on board raptors in non-combat missions as well as training simulations and flybys and painting targets but you will not engage in combat. Even if I went by asari regs, viper cockpits and hardsuits don't come in maternity sizes so you're still grounded. As for you Liara, your pregnancy is at high risk. I don't care how skilled or powerful your biotics are for the sake of our daughter you don't go on recons and you're not to be deployed to any site until the area is secured."

Once the initial response over the order had passed the knee-jerk reaction of rebellion was quickly quashed in the realization and need of the order. Shepard could not be seen giving favoritism to Liara either by the young Prothean expert herself or by others of the crew. Relying on familiar regulations was a quick, efficient and non-argumentative solution to solve any conflict that may arise.

"I will concede to your wisdom and need to adhere to those regulations familiar to the Alliance and recognized by other military factions." Shiala said eyeing Liara. She had to agree with Shepard. There was a great deal to be concerned with Liara's pregnancy. She was far too young, her body might have responded to the intensity to of the gestalt but Liara wasn't physically mature enough to carry a daughter safely to term. The scientist was barely more than a child. To protect the young life growing within the maiden, Shiala would adhere to the more strict Alliance military regulations concerning pregnancy.

"I'll note it in the duty logs, Skipper." Williams said.

"Liara, you have anything to add?" Shepard said in her captain's voice distinguishing herself from the more marital side.

"Nothing." The young asari answered. She shared her wife's concern and further understood it. "Besides I do believe I shall have my hands quite full with our new discoveries. In truth I am rather reluctant to leave such glorious finds to trudge groundside. After all they have landed directly into my lap why abandon them now?" there was a playful smile upon her lips.

"You just want to play with your new toys." Ash teased. "And you don't want to share with the other nerdy kids; the regs just give you the excuse."

Liara grinned. "Indeed."

Shepard visibly relaxed. She had mentally prepared herself for a verbal battle; she hadn't anticipated acquiescence from Liara or Shiala so quickly.

"Skipper, this does bring up a question about …um …well to put it bluntly, this isn't a generational ship like a dreadnought or even a cruiser. Two pregnancies we can cope with but any more and we run out of room, not to mention the dangers of the mission." Ashley said trying to take the sting her words may have inflicted. She knew Liara's pregnancy was an accident. Not having the details over Shiala's she couldn't say for certain but she was fairly sure this was not planned pregnancy either. Both Saren and the thorian had mentally raped the poor woman by way of indoctrination. Williams knew that much. Either one of them could have left with her with an unwanted pregnancy; the young officer wagered it was the latter that had 'sired' the child.

"I know. I was thinking about this dilemma myself." Shepard sighed rubbing the muscles in the back of her neck, already feeling the tension building back up. "I'll have to put out a general order mandate that prohibits further procreation. It will come off as a double standard being both my wife and my mentor are with child, but there is nothing for it. Like you said we don't have the room or resources to cater to families.

"What kind of regs are there aboard asari ships?" Williams asked Shiala, she knew asking Liara was more or less futile as far as the young human knew Miss Prothean Expert had only served as a crewmember onboard the Normandy and now the Victory.

"Like humans we do have generational ships such as our dreadnoughts. For instance the Destiny Ascension has many families onboard. But as you can see by the design of the Victory - the wavecrest class isn't manufactured for such. If an asari huntress is assigned to a frigate she forgoes the rights to mother a daughter. If she already is a mother she will leave her daughter or daughters in the custody of family or preferably to the mentors at a bastion of high priestess so the children can continue their training or begin it as the case maybe. I do not foresee any difficulties with the huntresses obeying the mandate if that is your concern." Shiala said.

"Yeah the Alliance has similar regs. Only dreadnoughts are large enough to carry nonessential personal like kids. When my mom was assigned to the Einstein, I didn't see her much during that tour, I stayed with my father onboard a space station. Sometimes you may see a very few families on cruisers but generally it's the only dreadnoughts that are generational. Giving the order to any Alliance personnel won't make waves either. And I don't see a problem with the salarians. I don't know about the volas or the turians though. All the same the order will have to be given in case anyone gets it into their heads it had been suspended." The Spectre stated with muted emotion. "It's still going to come off as a double standard. I don't like that."

"If any have an issue with the orders and the fact I am carrying our daughter," Liara said hesitantly, "perhaps you can play the Spectre card. Rule, regulations and laws can be dismissed in your case."

Shepard gave her wife a look that translated as 'not only no but hell no.' "I will deal with any morale fall out if it comes up, for now the order will go out as it is. Make it so, Williams."

"Aye, aye Ma'am." Williams turned to obey the order then hesitated. "I may be out of line with this question Liara, but maybe you should ask your sister about some of the precautions she took with her little one. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around being a century old is too young to have a kid, but I bet she may have some insights the docs can only theorize on, having been there and done that."

"Perhaps I shall ask Racen. Ashley, I must clarify something however. Her mother maybe my sire-parent but Maiden Racen is not my sister."

"I don't follow. Doesn't that make you sisters?" the marine asked.

"No." the asari shook her head. "We do not share DNA, not like you and Abigail do."

"But what about the whole genetic memory thingy …"

"Perhaps I can better explain." Shiala stepped in, receiving a very grateful look from her student. "Unlike dual-sexed species we asari do not engage in sexual intercourse to procreate, this much I believe you understand or at least have grasped. I have four birth sisters, each of us have different siring parents. Take as an example my youngest sister; her siring parent is a hanar. If she were to encounter any of that hanar's progeny they would not be her siblings."

"Putting it in that kind of context puts a different perspective on things." Ash said. "But what about the genetic link, there is something there right?"

Liara picked up the explanation albeit in a hushed tone. "Genetic memory is of the species not the individual. The best qualities come from the blending of melded genes, which is why intraspecies conception is frowned upon for no new generic traits are passed on, no genetic diversity, the blending is wasted."

"I wouldn't call you wasted Miss Prothean Expert. And apparently Maiden Racen and Matriarch Lidanya don't think that either or why did they have a kid together?" Ash said meaning it. "Matriarch Lidanya did claim Mayas as her offspring. And I know the Skipper said she's the little one's arda."

Liara smiled warmly at that as she looked to her wife who was grinning back at her. "Yes she did. That affectionate honorific is given to one's partner who has taken the vows of hand-fasting or other such marriage and becomes directly involved in a daughter's life. The arda may or may not have been the one to have given the genetic memory in her creation. As conventional wisdom concerning Union has changed it will be more the former rather than the latter, if the couple in question are both asari."

"Sorta like a step-parent then. I get it." Ash filled in the gap. "So Shiala when you said you have four birth sisters does that mean you have a load of step-sisters?"

"Hand-fasted sisters. Yes, I have five. They are the daughters of my arda who yes is another asari. Intraspecies conception maybe frowned upon but not intraspecies hand-fasting. When a couple decides to have daughters they will choose together the partner their mate will take to create the daughter. It was such with my mother and arda. They agreed to have five daughters each. I am the eldest to my first hand-fasted sister by five hours. My parents decided to have their daughters at the same time to share in the experiences, which is a common practice. This way I bonded with my arda as did my first hand-fasted sister with my mother. Such bonding generally occurs during breast-feeding when a mother links to her by the physical nature of the feedings and though mind-melds."

No one said anything but all eyes fell on the Spectre.

"I have no intention to go look for a sperm donor to have a kid. I want our little one, Li. I do. But that doesn't mean I'm going out to get myself pregnant just to share the experience. With the nature of our bond, I experience practically everything you do, when you're not placing up mental barriers, that is."

"That is true. The Bond you two share is uniquely strong," Shiala said. "Have you considered though you could bond with your daughter not only through melds but though breast feeding."

Shepard raised an eyebrow at that. She looked skeptically to her mentor and then to her wife. "Humans don't spontaneously lactate. That isn't going to happen."

"Asari do not spontaneously lactate either, however we can be stimulated to. I'd imagine that humans can as well. That is …is if you wish to do so." Liara said softly. Once more her self-confidence went AWOL.

Shepard touched the soft blue cheeks, tracing the counters with the pad of her thumb. "We'll give it considerable thought when you draw nearer to your time to deliver my love. I'm not opposed to the idea, know that. Right now however it isn't an issue--making sure you and our baby are safe and healthy are. This is why I need to push the regulations so hard. It's important." The Spectre laid a soft kiss on the light lilac lips. "Ash was right you know." Shepard added. "She's also right about asking Racen and Lidanya about little Mayas. Racen is just as young as you; getting INTEL on what they faced will only add to S'thasa and Chakwas knowledge to help you and Sparrow."

"I'll ask." was all the scientist said.

Shepard sighed feeling the weight of stress leave her. "Now that is out of the way, we've got work to do, so let's get to it people." It was a dismissal.

Shiala and Ash were the first to leave, each for their introspective duty stations. Liara a half a step behind her wife quickly caught up then looped her arm around Samantha's.

'I know you dislike having to pull rank with me, just as I dislike it when I place you in that position.' Liara sent. 'Though at the same time I am gratified to know that you will do so, it draws me further into the ranks of the crew. It affirms to the others I am not coddled as they might assume. When they think such things it diminishes me in their eyes."

'Liara … I know you're not accustomed to people or social situations but I wouldn't have made you head of sciences if I didn't believe in your skills, abilities and talents. I told you that before.'

Liara smiled. "Yes I know." She squeezed her beloved's arm before she kissed her." Just as I have told you several times I don't need a protector."

"Maybe you don't, but our little Sparrow does."

Liara's hand once more instinctively covered her abdomen. "Indeed she does."

Samantha placed her own hand against her wife's belly. "Well she has the both of us to see to that."

"I can assume Ashley will contribute to our daughter's protection as well. I cannot see she would do otherwise."

"No she wouldn't. She even vowed to watch over you and Sparrow."

Liara froze in step and pulled Samantha aside nearly pushing the human into the bulkhead. "That sort of vow is made only if you thought something horrid would happen to you!"

"Li, I'm a soldier, a warrior. I'm a Spectre. I have to prepare for all contingences and one of them is my death."

"Samantha!" Liara hissed. "Don't you even think of such a thing!"

"We both know that is a possibility, we'd be fools if we pretended otherwise. I'm not looking for it. I have no death wish I simply know it's a possibility. You know it too."

"It is not something I wish to dwell on," the asari said haughtily. "And you are not to dwell on it either." Liara slipped her arm free from Samantha's and entered the turbolift by herself. "This discussion is over."

The Spectre was half tempted to answer her wife with a 'yes dear' but stopped short on account of a heady dose of wisdom. Saying something like that to a pregnant woman was probably not the best option one could choose.

"Sir?" Hieronymus Terraxsus sergeant of the turian mercenary clan Guizhou approached his employer with an expression only other turians could see as utter confusion on his bare-face. Okay he worked for a very eccentric volas for the past ten years so very few things were able to take him by surprise anymore let alone stymied him. But that was what he was, stymied, perplexed call it whatever you want - Terraxsus was befuddled.

"What is it?" Shol's replicated voice snapped. "I can't work with all these distractions. What do you want?"

"We received communications sir, from a Citadel Council ship. More specifically from a Spectre."

Shol who had been examining scrolls of writings he had uncovered from the Beings of Light paused, slowly turned and faced the tall un-tattooed face of his mercenary sergeant. "You will repeat that Palaven-clan."

"A Spectre. Here. They want to talk directly to you."

"A Spectre …coming here? Did he say what he wanted?"

"He was a she and no, not directly. Only that your nephew was a member of her crew and she has insight on your quest. She wants a meeting." The mercenary looked down at his very wealthy employer and for the first time in a decade pressed his overbearing stature against the round sentient. "This isn't something you want to cast out of turn because you hate distractions. A Spectre is not one to trifle with. They have no understanding of patience and they are ALLOWED to break the law. They answer only to the Council - no other. She will come down here sir by invite or by conquest. I for one don't want things to get bloody. I looked her up. Captain Samantha Shepard is a very powerful biotic who travels with asari commandos and C-sec most of them turian agents as well as salarian STG. It is in your best interests to answer this call instead of dismissing it as you did other Council investigators. And if you deny her, I and my men won't fight, we'll stand down."

"Shepard? Sounds like an Earth-clan name. Are you sure she's a Spectre? As far as I know there are no Earth-clan Spectres."

"She is the first. She killed Agent Saren who had gone rogue."

"I know of Saren he's the best of the Spectres." Shol said. "And Shepard killed him?"

"From what I heard she also cut down his krogan battlemasters and geth hordes by the dozens. As I said sir, either you give her this meeting or me and my men pull out. You don't pay us enough to battle a Spectre with full command over biotics."

"I never thought to hear a Palaven-clan to act so cowardly, especially towards Earth-clan" Shol scoffed. "You've fought biotics before, but you yield to this one?"

"It's not cowardly, it's simple smarts. Shepard isn't one of those crazy human L2s, she's a Spectre and that means the Council. If she goes down they will send in another. Best get it over with just like ripping off a dermal-patch."

"Fine, fine - tell the Spectre she can have her audience." Shol waved his three digit hand dismissively before returning to his computer.

"Good news Spectre, after our three day lay-over our round-tound little eccentric has finally answered our hails and granted us an audience with his squatness." Joker announced when he caught sight of Shepard striding as confidently as ever onto the Bridge.

"It's about time." She said with out a trace of patience. "I hope for his sake he is in a forthcoming mood."

Joker didn't know if he should be slightly alarmed when he saw a smirk slip onto the Spectre's face. Mostly he was curious.

She even chuckled. "Let's give our little friend something to think about. I want you to do a flyby on his encampment with a two raptor escort. Swing up and pass by again dropping one of the M36 makos twenty meters from their camp perimeter. Perhaps twenty years removed from the grid made him forget what a Spectre is."

Joker's face lit up, his own smile large and toothy. "Got to love your ideas when you get them Captain! You got it. Slowing down to approach vector now."

Shiala smiled behind the helmet of her hardsuit. It wouldn't be long before she was completely grounded so what little flight time she had she took enthusiastically, even if it was just a babysitting job in a flyby. Of course she wasn't completely out of flying; she took her shifts at times on the bridge taking the helm of the Victory. But there was something wholly different about being in a bird. Granted the raptors were nothing like sitting in the seat of a viper, still the huntress loved the freedom of a smaller ship, the power of it.

The young Naga'sadow was flying her wing on the starboard side of the Victory. The younger huntress was an accomplished pilot and could easily handle the mission. As CAG it was apart of Shiala's duties to know her flight crew and she knew the battle over Ilos had shaken the younger asari a bit. This flyby should just be the trick to get her comfortable behind a fighter's yoke once more. Of course she had all her crew do extensive simulator maneuvers but sometimes there was no substitute for the real thing.

A slight commotion near the soon to be dropped mako caught the huntress's keen eye. Shepard was there along with Garrus, Wrex, Tali, and Nual and a protesting Jahleed. She heard the Spectre's voice growing very wearing almost growling.

"Look either you get on that ship agreeably or I have Wrex bowl your ass into the cargo hold, your choice Jahleed."

"Captain …I…my uncle may not wish to see me. He doesn't get along with my father you see and well I am my father's son and …and..."stammered the quickly panicking volas.

"Come on Shepard, I hadn't tossed a volas in a long time, I can cram his sorry ass in the hold easy." Wrex took one menacing step forward causing the cowering volas to stumble backwards, bumbling into the overly large wheel of the mako.

"Save room if you did stuff him in the hold, Skipper means more room in the crew pit, and means I can join the ground team."

"Sorry Lieutenant, even if there were room, regs say you have the deck. Shiala's running escort, I can't have all my command crew off the ship."

Shiala couldn't pick up what the gruff younger female said but by her body language said she clearly wasn't happy about being left behind, especially not on a hostile planet where 'her' skipper could run afoul of something dangerous. Thinking for a moment about the situation, Shiala made a snap decision. Putting her own pleasures aside she strode up to the Spectre and the rest of the mako crew. Besides with Ashley Williams at Shepard's side, Liara was less likely to overly fret over her wife's welfare which was better for the baby growing within her.

"Spectre, may I have a quick word?"

"Yeah." The answer was short but not short of tone.

"Naga'sadow needs the flight-time but I believe it best if Odan-urr accompanies her on the run. They work well together but they still need cohesion as each other wings. Flying escort might seem to be as an easy task but they still need the time. With your permission I will stand down from the mission."

Williams grinned, and Shepard smirked slightly. She tilted her head in a slight acknowledgment of what was truly being offered then turned to her XO. "Williams suit up, Shiala you have the deck."

"As you wish, Captain."

"Aye, aye Skipper."

"Aw see now you have a full crew, there isn't room for me." Jahleed said still trying to back out of the mission.

"What are you truly afraid of, Jahleed? And I warn you lie to me this time and you won't have to worry about being tossed into a cargo hold by a krogan because I'll toss you into the brig for misinterpretation, dereliction of duty and fraud." The Spectre crossed her arms over her chest her gaze glacial.

"As I said Uncle Kumun and father had a falling out when he set out for this expedition. My father is the elder son and thus the inheritor of the tribe. He—he disowned my uncle and wanted to commit him for this lunacy over his visions of the Beings of Light. It darkens the status of our tribe you see. My father even considered trading him in the markets to gain back that loss status. My uncle is a wealthy by his own means but he still answers to birth order of our tribe or he should. But because he's way out here in the Kepler Verge he poses no bartering threat to the tribe as a whole so my father can't favorably trade him. Uncle Kumun may hold a grudge over me for being my father son. So you see I could be endangering the mission if I come along. He isn't very cooperative at the best of times."

"Why didn't you mention this before!" Williams snapped.

Jahleed wrung his hands nervously. "Because….I…you terrify me even as you inspire me Captain Shepard. I didn't want you angry with me for lying to you again after what happened with the keepers. I wanted to help, I believe in this mission to stop the Reapers. I never thought you'd actually make me confront my uncle."

"If Kumun Shol is truly uncooperative, Captain we can always trade Jahleed for the information we seek." Garrus said in all seriousness. "The volus do not see slavery as odious as perhaps the humans or other sentients do. To them trading other tribe members is as normal as arranged marriages."

"You… you wouldn't would you?" Jahleed was nearly in a full blown panic attack. "Earth–clan abhors the idea of slavery!"

"I don't deal in the slave trade, I won't abide it. That doesn't mean we can't pull a Jahleed and Chorban and rearrange the truth to suit our needs, say allow Kumun Shol to believe we might be leaning towards it if necessary. Sometimes duplicity is the only way to get what you need or achieve the objective." Unfolding her arms Shepard approached the now quivering volas. "Alright Jahleed, you made a point you stand relieved of duty. For now. But I warn you pull any more of this crap and I'll pull out some very old traditions of 'Earth-clan' maritime customs and maroon you on the next planet and you find your own way back to the Citadel. Is that clear?"

"Yes ma'am!" The thick neck wobbled as Jahleed nodded his head vigorously.


As quickly as he could the still shuddering volas waddled his way out of the flight deck.

"You would truly maroon him on some lone planet, Captain?" Nual spoke up for the first time since the argument with the volas started. For the asari's answer all she got was a smirking Spectre, as she climbed into the cockpit of the mako.

"I think you can count that as a yes." Tali said. "It isn't wise to test the resolve of our Captain Shepard. She is very decisive in her actions."

"Pissing off a Spectre--not a healthy choice if you ask me. Doing so repeatedly is just plain stupid." Wrex added as he too climbed into the mako. "I wish she would drop his sorry ass off someplace, here is as good a place as any. That little lard-ball is starting to get in my craw. I don't even know why she puts up with him."

"Of this we are in an agreement, krogan." Gaurus said following the battlemaster into the mako's crew-pit.

On the bridge Joker adjusted the velocity and let the ship fall into the planet's gravity well, angling towards the planet's southern hemisphere where storms tattered edges meant wind and snow and numbing cold. The heat shielding held up against reentry, but flared in amber on the holographic readout on the viewscreen. He turned off the alarms and hung on while the ship buckled down through the churning atmosphere. The pilot interface translated into mere numbers the hazards of wind sheer and gravity and all kinds of resistance so his struggle to keep the ship from spinning was more mental than physical. Still the muscles of his arms tensed anyway corded with effort even though his touch remained light and nimble on the controls. Fortunately the inertial dampers held so they weren't pulled into two directions at the same time when the ship barrel-rolled and the internal gravity fought with the planet's. Joker got the Victory flying straight and upright again, skimming a ceiling of rolling clouds and buffeted by sheets of frozen rain.

It was going to be one hell of a mako drop just as it had been on Ilos on their first time. Fortunately the mass-effect generator on the mako would make things go smoothly - hopefully. All the same it would be one impressive show of power and determination. The pilot didn't envy the ground crew one moment they would be forced to endure on this forsaken planet. The high air pressure alone would have crushed his brittle bones into a fine powder. Even with the newly enhanced Prothean medical and kenotic exoskeleton inlays in the hardsuits the ground team would be pressed hard to even walk without taxing their body to the limits. Because of the lower gravity they would all feel as if someone had tied lead weights to their ankles and told them to go deep sea diving.

Kumun Shol's first reaction when he saw the sleek lines of a Thessia-clan frigate escorted by two Palaven -clan raptors was to flee and order his men to attack. He watched the three ships zoom past the camp only to swing by once more this time the frigate dropped an Earth-clan mako not twenty meters from their base camp. Dust billowed up around him coating the volas in a cloak of cloying swirls obscuring his view of the rover. The roar of the frigate's maneuvering thrusters fired up and taking once more to a low orbital position overpowered the sound of the land vehicle so much so Kumun was shocked to see it was now parked not five meters from where he stood. It had slowly crawled up to the edge of the camp reminding the billionaire of a stalking predator tasting the air for its prey as it moved in for the ambush and kill. It took the volas a moment to realize the air-show was all a distraction – a well maneuvered one at that for it allowed the mako to creep up on him and his band of mercenaries. If the Spectre wanted him dead, the camp would have been laid to waste by now. It was an obvious show of power. Why else have the frigate escorted by two raptors?

It was clearly a mistake to underestimate this Spectre simply because she was Earth-clan. He watched as the hatch opened with a pneumatic hiss, but even before it was fully opened out stepped a lone female figure in a black and red colossus hardsuit. Three beats later two other females appeared at her right and left flanks. It was so difficult from this vantage point to see whether the female figures were Earth or Thessia clan. Their faces completely covered by their helmets they looked exactly the same. What was unmistakable was the Migrant-fleet clan, Pavilion and Tuchanka clans closing in the ranks. All of them to varying degrees of weight were wearing matching colossus hard-suits.

His eyes behind the protective helmet of his own environmental suit never fell from watching the Spectre. She moved as if the very cold and toxicity of the planet and its low gravity wasn't a factor for her at all. She moved as freely as if she were striding across the Presidium of the Citadel.

"Mr. Kumun Shol, I am Spectre agent Shepard. And I have a proposition for you. I know and have faced the synthetic 'machine devils' your Beings of Light were created to protect against. Shall we have a chat?"

Kumun was so put off his game he found he could only nod his head. He led the sextet of strangers into his large circular habitat. It was one of the more popular habitations used by colonists for both domestic and scientific purposes. Like the sealed environment inside land vehicles such as makos the habitation was heated and hermetically sealed against the frigid and toxic wastes of Klencory. While the atmosphere was not toxic to the volas it was to the Pavilion-clan mercenaries he employed. To keep their morale up he allowed the atmosphere and lower air-pressure within the bottom-half of the large habitat to accommodate their respiratory needs rather than his own. Of course his own private suite on the upper floor held a secondary hermetic seal which held no such adaptations apart from heating and he was free to move about without being contained in his pressure suit.

Kumun entertained the idea of taking the Spectre up to his suite and making her and her strange entourage wear their suits while he moved about freely. He thought it only fair considering the wreck the Spectre had placed his nerves in. Let her be the uncomfortable one. Of course if he did that he wouldn't be able to read her facial expressions and it was already difficult enough to read her eyes. No, it was better if she and her crew were more comfortable in the Pavilion-clan section of the habitat. Allowing someone to be at ease was just as telling and perhaps more so than to have them on high alert. He had worked with mercenaries for the better part of twenty years now. He knew how warriors moved, thought and positioned themselves when they were at their peek alertness. It was when they were in a relaxed state that their movements and positioning were far far more telling of their true natures.

The HUD computer within the hardsuit revealed an earth-like atmosphere within the habitat. It shouldn't have surprised Shepard but it did. She had expected Shol to keep the ammonia-based ecology and the high pressure atmosphere of the outside within the complex. Assessing the reasons the Spectre concluded the eccentric billionaire was seeing to the needs of his employees rather than to his own comforts. After all keeping a band of mercenaries in high morale was paramount if you wanted to keep them loyal. Of course a hefty payroll helped as well. But sometimes that didn't help if your 'army' was in constant physical distress. There would be desertions and perhaps even mutiny.

"Let's get to the meat of the matter as to why you are here Agent Shepard. You said you had faced one of these synthetic machine devils? I find that difficult to believe." The respirator clicked and hissed after each intake of air.

Shepard contemplated a sarcastic reply about being so far removed from Citadel Space proper it was obvious he didn't get the news of recent events. Once more wisdom came to her in a heady dose of 'don't do that. It will be counterproductive to the cause.' Instead she went for diplomacy and a silver tongue. She activated the seals on her helmet deliberately as she addressed the male before her. "I assure you it's the truth. Saren's flagship was one such thing." She summarized the events of the war with Sovereign, Saren and the geth and the revelation of what lay beyond dark space. She even gave him a hologram of Sovereign as well as an OSD taken from compiled footage of the battle over the Citadel as well as Eden Prime and Virmire.

When she had finished her tale Shol remained so still, so silent she didn't know if he had drifted off to sleep or was transfixed by the dread of what the implications of thousands of these machine devils waking up and breaching the boundaries of dark space would truly mean for all organic life. The only sign of life came when he activated his Omni tool and watched the battle for himself, even after the third play-through the volas was slow to react at first.

Wrex was growing impatient with the volas inaction so much so he stood up and was about to lumber over to where Shol had pulled himself apart from the others and no doubt make the other male's day a 'whole lot worse'." But he stood down once Shepard shook her head. Grumbling Wrex backed down but didn't return to his position behind the Spectre. If he couldn't thrash the volas for a response he might be able to glower one out of him.

Having dealt with the Council's need to have irrefutable proof to get them to budge on anything Shepard learned the hard way to give evidence first then come up with the hard questions and even demands.

"As I said I have met and dealt with the machine devils or at least one of their vanguards. If your lost crypts of the Beings of Light can even hint at a way to stop them it is paramount to attain it. From what your nephew has told me you had seen visions of a higher being telling you to seek out theses crypts. Tell me, Mr. Shol did these visions come from a beacon or other such device perhaps even a metallic sphere?"

This spurred Shol into action. "What do you know about that!" the hissing was more from the voice than the respirator. "Did my nephew also claim I was mad because I saw these visions? What does he know? Jahleed is just like his father, a tinkering buffoon and a liar."

"All true." Shepard didn't argue. "But no he made no personal claims that you were clinically mad. In fact I believe you about the visions. I've had my own visions; believe me there are days when I thought I might have gone mad when they replay over and over again in my mind. Visions of all organic life being torn apart, shredded until they become indoctrinated husks of life. Of synthetic beings wiping out all advanced life. These visions came to me not by some higher being but by lost and almost forgotten Prothean beacons. I have even encountered a large metallic sphere created by the Protheans that implanted genetic memories of my planet's prehistoric past. Trust me I make no accusations or inference that your visions are not the genuine thing. I simply wanted to know how you came by them."

"You already know as much. I had a vision of a higher being telling me to seek on Klencory the "lost crypts of beings of light." They were supposedly created at the dawn of time to protect organic life from synthetic "machine devils….these Reapers." He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Looking into the ice-blue eyes of the woman before him seemed to stir a deeper reaction from Shol. "I …" he paused once more shifted a little as he came to a decision. There was something familiar in the eyes of this enigmatic Spectre. A familiarity of being on the outside, struggling with knowledge few could ever appreciate and being chastised over possessing it. "Come with me." he said at long last. "You'll want to reactivate your hard-suits my chambers are not suitable for your species."

Shol led the six-person ground team to a lift in the back of the main chamber; it was easier for a volas to use an elevator than it was to climb a flight of stairs spaced apart for someone with a longer stride. Watching a volas climb staircase not suited for them was rather like watching an eighteen month old infant scaling a set of stairs, they were ungainly, ponderous and often had to crawl up them in an undignified fashion.

Once they vacated the lift and entered an airlock, Shepard understood why Shol told her to reseal her helmet. The whole of the upper deck held the same high pressure as the outside and the air was better suited for the volas's comfort. This did not mean however he removed his own helmet from his pressure suit. They wouldn't be staying long.

"This came to me a little more than twenty years ago. Once I understood it I took five years planning this expedition. My visions came from this…this…glorious object, this grand Device. It seems to be some sort of recording device but so much more than an OSD. I believed at first it might be an AI storage device but of that I am even not certain. Perhaps it is some sort of beacon albeit a small one, comparable to those you described to me."

The object in question was a crystal, pyramidal in shape slightly larger than a human's fist. Much like its larger Prothean ruin counterparts that they had found on several planets it had relief designs on the four sides as well as the bottom. Though not exactly the same they were similar enough even the laymen history buff knew one had inspired the other. Hesitantly Shol placed the small pyramid into Shepard's hands. There was an immediate effect. The pyramid started glowing with a milky jade light, a glow which held a warmth at the touch.

"Yes! Yes it did that for me too!" Shol was excited. "Wait and you will see …you will see!"

Jade light washed over the Spectre like a silk sheet, illuminating her until her entire body was glowing. She wasn't moving she barely seemed to be breathing.

Williams's action was immediate she reached over her shoulder, detached the assault rifle from its mount unlocked it and trained it on the volus. She would not hesitate to pull the trigger if so much as a whisper of a sound of agony came from her skipper. "What the hell is happing to her you little troglodyte?!" she snapped. The glow was too much like that of the beacons. The lieutenant knew enough not to touch Shepard but she sure as hell didn't like it. Wrex, Tali and even Nual followed suit though the latter was glowing the sapphire of biotic energy.

"Put away your weapons. She is being visited just as I was. It takes moments but she will not be harmed, I wasn't."

'I wouldn't be so sure of that you little pug. You're as whacked as Saren only you don't know it.' Williams cursed but said nothing of her displeasure though it was clearly shown on her expressive face. "Stand down all of you. Be ready for medical-evac."

"I tell you she is fine, this is the way the High Ones must speak. They will tell her what they told me, they will speak of the crypts of the beings of light. This Device is their avatar."

Williams triggered the command collapsing her rifle back into its compact form before replacing it on her back. Having seen Shepard collapse twice with the beacons and once with that bloody sphere Ash wanted to be there ready to catch her skipper this time when she toppled over.

As soon as Shepard touched the Device she could feel the warmth ebbing into her surrounding her on an instinctive reflex she summoned the dark energy of her biotics to form a barricade around her. The effect wasn't what she anticipated. The Device fed off the energy just as the sconces had back on Ilos. Without hesitating she sent a tendril of energy into the Device. As it has with the biotic barrier it soaked it up greedily causing the milky jade glow to become brighter, the warmth more filling.

Shepard knew now what she held. It was a repository of lost and forgotten knowledge. Unlike the beacons this was different. It hadn't been constructed to transmit information but store it, a digital matrix imprinted with the personalities of those who constructed it. It was more than an OSD recording of facts, information and data much more than that, what exactly the Spectre could only speculate.

The Device began to sparkle and shimmer in response to Shepard's meditative touch. From her point a view a small beam of jade-green light projected out from the top surrounding her in tendrils of scattered and defused particles of illumination. Yet it was only the light she saw, her surroundings fallen away in the Spectre's sight leaving her in a void of pure whiteness, a vastness that stretched out in all directions with no end. There was no way to judge distance. She felt as if she were floating in a soap bubble, free-floating in shimmering iridescence.

In that void the jade light grew larger and larger, looking not unlike a hanar. It flickered, shimmered its hanar-jellyfish appearance morphed once more to an emerald version of Vigil when Shepard had first encountered the Prothean AI, to finally take the shape of an angelic being from Earth's Christian bible.

"Seek out the Beings of Light in their lost crypts. From the beginning of time they were created to seek and destroy the synthetic machine devils, the hungerers, the eaters of life, the bane of organic life. The devils from the dark, from the void will come, they will cull, they will reap. Seek not to rise above those who created the mass relays it beckons the devils. The cycle repeats always. They come and reap, seek instead the lost crypts of Beings of Light, Klencory holds their lost light, they will destroy the machine devils."

"Are you an AI or a VI?"

"Seek out the lost crypts of the Beings of Light"

"A recording then, like the messages in the beacons," Shepard concluded. "If something is lost then it can be found again." The Spectre added more to herself. "It can't be that simple or Shol would have found it by now. So what's missing? Okay brain start thinking like Liara. What's there? What isn't there? What is so hidden only an archeologist would see it?"

The entity changed shape once more, this time it was an asari child no more than five years old, but with eyes old as time itself. "Seek out the Beings of Light in their lost crypts. From the beginning of time they were created to seek and destroy the synthetic machine devils, the hungerers, the eaters of life, the bane of organic life." The entity repeated the words.

"Yes I got that bit. Okay so now you're looping, and you changed from one of my races' religious icons to that of my wife's on the mention of her name and the thought of her. Interesting." The Spectre frowned. "I only wish I understood it significance. There has to be one or what's the point?"

Once more the entity changed this time it was a combination of all she had seen before: flickering tendrils of light emanating from great angelic wings on the back of an asari huntress. "You've fought the Machine Devils but you cannot do it again. Not alone. Seek out the Beings of Light in their lost crypts. From the beginning of time they were created to seek and destroy the synthetic machine devils."

Shepard heard the words—but they brought her up short, staggered her a little because she heard them twice: once from the entity, and once a fraction before that, in her own head. The echo was discordant, grating. The jade light seemed to make everything float, fathomless and she seemed drawn towards it. She was being pulled, lulled and eased by it. It razed the warrior within her, she rebelled against the lull, fought it.

And she fell. Something caught her because she never hit the floor. Opening her eyes the Spectre was staring into the deep brown eyes of a very concerned Ashley Williams. For a small moment Shepard allowed the comfort of the arms holding her before she rose fully to her feet. She forced the queasy feeling back down into the pit of her stomach giving a direct order not to rise again.

"You alright, Skipper?" Ash whispered so only Shepard would hear.

"I'm fine."

"What happened? What did you see?" Tali asked urgently.

"A higher being telling me to see out the lost crypts of the Beings of Light here on Klencory," Shepard answered.

"See! See, just as I have seen." Shol become excited at the prospect that someone else had seen what he had. Been touched, been blessed by the higher ones.

"It's similar to the beacons, it contains a looping message but its more than that, something is there under it all. It's almost subliminal, the image changed a few times, adapting. It's an interface. If we are meant to find the lost crypts I'm positive it's through this …Device."

"What do you mean?" Shol was apprehensive to let his Device out of his hands. Yet if the Spectre wanted to confiscate it, there was little he could do to stop her.

"I want to study this more. However your suite isn't suitable I think you can understand why."

"I…I couldn't let that leave my encampment." Shol wrung his hands nervously fearing the motives of the Spectre's plan for her more in-depth study.

"The mercenary quarters will be fine." Shepard said dismissing the male's fears of something of a trivial nature. The key to the riddle of the lost crypts lay in the Device, Shepard was sure of it and she wasn't about to let it go.

Once back in the regulated lower pressure and oxygenated air of the squads' barracks the ground crew visibly relaxed. Despite the renovations to the hardsuits it was unsettling to know the very air you were in was poisonous, the air pressure deadly.

Shepard held the pyramid out on the palm of her hand. It had responded to dark energy perhaps this was why it had reacted differently to her than it had to Shol. It was drawing her once more, beckoning her to answer its call. Shaking her head, Shepard forced herself to clear her mind. First things first.

"Williams, Wrex, Garrus, I want you to check out the rest of the camp, if we are going to be a part of this expedition I want to know what sort of resources there are from the men who are the true labor force." She gave a look to the hovering volus. "No offence, Mr. Shol but in my experience those in administrative positions are not that objective to their pet projects. I'm sure sir in the spirit of cooperation you will give my people all maps you've made in the past twenty years. You can hand them over to Nual and Tali for analysis; I know you've been working on this for the past twenty years but fresh eyes may see things you have not."

Shepard's eyes fell once more upon the pyramid in her hands. And smiled.

Part 22

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