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: I've gotten some extensive aid from a reader who has an excellent grasp on real-world science and physics and has helped me understand the real-world applications of a gravity leveler, which a far cry from the cinema-effects of the same device used in Ultraviolet which I have borrowed. I have taken extreme liberties with real-world science but then so do many sci-fi writes, after all explosions as seen in Star Wars / Star Trek / BSG/ Star Gate/ Mass Effect can not truly happen in the vacuum of space. Oh yes and due to the events leaked for ME2 obviously this is very much an AU.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Rising From the Ashes
By Elizabeth Carter


Chapter 26
Testing Boundaries

The M26 mako bounced on the hard surface of the unique ringed planet of Chasca, of the Matano system in the Maroon Sea. Chasca is a large, but low density world, fundamentally similar to its inner neighbor Inti. Like Inti, Chasca was tidally-locked to Matano. The same side always faces the sun, resulting in a scorching day side and a frozen night side. In the temperate areas around the equator, temperatures average around thirty degrees Celsius. Combined with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, this slender band of habitable terrain allows limited colonization by humans. It was here in what seemed decades ago the crew of the Normandy had discovered the tiny human colony had become a colony of the dead, inhabited by husks - the undead remnants of life created by the geth.

It had been months now since the attack of Saran's geth, the Alliance military on the behest of Admiral Hackett had sent out investigators headed by none other than Clerk Bosker. Bosker was a name recognized by Shepard, Williams and Tali to be the man who had attempted to hold Serviceman Narali Bhatia's body because it had husk related injuries during the attack on Eden Prime. That was of course until Shepard put the fear of the Spectre and a bit of a guilt trip into Bosker and made him release her body to her husband Sameash. Apparently Bosker had moved on, though his investigation had not. His presence in the 'Colony of the Dead' was of no concern to the Spectre.

Before the geth had arrived the few pioneer teams scattered across the surface had started to collate information about native hazards and ecology. At the time a massive colonist recruiting drive was gearing up back on Earth. The Department of Colonization had bragged about the uniqueness of Chasca's rings. It was unique in that it wasn't a ring such as Saturn or Uranus. It appears to be, for lack of a better term, a massive piece of alien 'installation art.' The rings were made of small pieces of synthetic material, and were almost invisible from space. From the ground however they caught and scattered the light of Matano in picturesque ways. It was not known who created the ring or when. Now however not even the splendor of the rings could encourage colonists to settle a world where the geth had once stormed and turned everyone into a husk.

The lack of interference made the planet ideal to test the G.L.s in the makos. Shepard threw the wheel, turning the mako around in a dead run for the cliff's side. If it didn't work the repulsers would lift the rover down, the Spectre was impulsive but she wasn't a fool. The mako was well equipped to handle the rugged terrain of the planet with the standard issue repulser lifts and mass accelerators even without the G.L.'s activated. Makos were designed for intense exploration ops and could scale almost any rocky surface; the G.L. would further augment that potential.

"Williams, activate the G.L.. Lets see what this baby can do."

"Aye, aye Skipper." The young lieutenant snapped the switch that powered the gravity leveler. Inside there was no outward change to indicate it was working. Shepard banked the wall of the cliff, all at once the horizon changed.

"Damn!" Shepard smirked. "This feels hell of a lot like sitting inside a fighter's cockpit." The young woman had many fine qualities which made her a very valuable asset in the ranks of the Spectres, but she was only an average pilot. Williams was a mite better at piloting the mako, it was however the captain's prerogative that gave the privilege of testing the new G.L.

Up, up the mako climbed the face of the canyon wall, it was a good first run, if not slightly prosaic. A true test of the G.L, must be in a combat situation. Even a simulated one.

"There's the other team in the M35." Williams said as if reading her skipper's mind. "We can radio them and engage in a war-game."

The other mako contained Wrex, Garrus and Karrahe. The M36 crew consisted of Shepard, Williams, Tali, Nual, Aleena and Liara. The latter was absolutely adamant she join the squad, her argument with "Dr. S'thasa" present, the risk to her or the child was kept at a minimum. Shepard suspected her wife's true motive was directly related to the fact the sclera of her eyes hadn't completely cleared to pure white. Liara feared a biotic flare-up. If it did happen, the young asari wanted to be hands on to stop it from progressing further - she wanted to be there to calm the storm.

Reaching the top of the mesa, Tali scanned the region from the mako's ops-control. An almost gleeful tone entered her voice. "You wanted a test, Captain I think we have it."

"Well would you look at that." Shepard said as she looked out the front-viewer. "What do you think, Williams?"

"Possibly. Probably one of the bigger ones." The lieutenant said.

Nual not having the close connection the others of the crew had with Shepard, frowned missing the subtlety of the conversation. She looked out the mako's window; all she saw was an enclosed canyon. Completely flat. What did they see that she did not?

"I agree. Being able to remain on the canyon walls will be an added advantage as we will not be as vulnerable as a ground assault will place us if we do engage." This came from Dr. S'thasa. "We will be out of range of its sonic disturbance and it will not be able to erupt beneath us."

Nual looked at the physician curiously. She hadn't been with the crew any longer than the maiden had and yet the elder asari understood what it was the others were discussing. Despite her relative age to Liara, she had spent most of that time cloistered in the T'soni Bastion, learning the skills of a priestess. Privately she was a little distressed that Liara was more of a huntress than she. The matriarch T'soni's daughter had forsaken that path more than sixty years ago. But now T'soni the younger was a true warrior.

"We can go around." Dr. T'soni commented, her face pulled into a tight frown. "While, I admit we need to test the G.L., actively engaging it seems to be a needless endeavor. It is of no threat to us."

"I don't understand, Captain." Nual said. Why was Dr. T'soni so adamantly disapproving? "What is it?" She took a position behind the captain's chair and the second's, her hands holding to the head-rests of both. She squinted her eyes as if to see through the solid rock.

"A possible thresher maw nest." Shepard pointed at the hollow in the canyon floor below. "See the flatness of that ravine? The jagged peaks of the surrounding canyon walls makes a nest defendable and it boxes those acid-spitting slugs in. Now it may not be a nest but it has all the signs of being one."

"Do we engage?" Williams asked.

Shepard paused a moment studying the pit below. In the far past the military had a bad reputation for liberal use of animal testing; things had changed slightly in this modern age. Typically VI drones were used to test military armaments and equipment. The Luna base was a testament to such achievements. However, the only drones at the crew's current disposal were the recon-parameter variety and not practical for true test.

"We engage but do not shoot to kill. I want to see how maneuverable we will be. As it stands even without G.L, maintaining an optimal firing solution isn't always possible when clinging to a canyon wall. I don't want to be placed in a situation of unnecessary risk. Consider this an evasion exercise." The Spectre commanded.


The rumble, thumping hum of life. Prey. Dull, soft things. Slow. The hunter waited. It was good at waiting. As were all its kind. Its last meal was so recent. Only three months ago, but it could always eat more. Those that scurry always had such brittle bones, warm sweet blood once its hard metallic shell was broken open. Soft shells, easily shattered.

The rumbling was so close. Climbers. The primitive mind cataloged the prey. Climbers, scurrying upon the walls as if to avoid the nest--the earth-crèche. Not that it mattered to the hunter. To it the prey had one true function, to feed the nest. The hunter swam through the earth. It erupted through the stony surface, where the rumbling hum was the loudest.

The thresher maw rose up, up, up swift as a missile. The rover spun on its multiple wheels clinging to the side of the canyon walls. The great wyrm roared spitting its acidic venom, it struck so hard, so fast, sharp and sudden. The mako was forced to use its thrusters to make the leap off ground zero of the nest.

The climber escaped the first attack; it would not escape a second. The blood rallied, it cried out. The climber spat back. The blast kicked up rock, plumbs of dust, striking close but not hitting. But climbers didn't know earth-crèche like the hunter. It pushed back into the earth, the warmth, the coolness of earth. It surrounded the hunter as it slithered beneath it.

From inside the mako the ground team watched the thresher maw submerge back into the earth like a terrestrial submarine.

"It's back down again." Tali said stating the obvious. Only rubble remained where the maw had erupted and disappeared again. For something so massive, its bulk moved with surprising grace and ease beneath the surface of the planet.

"Give it a volley." Williams ordered Nual.

The asari thumbed the trigger controls on the turrets: spitfire shots rang out on the ground where the beast had vanished. Fortunately aiming at this point wasn't an issue or the huntress would have missed her target by overshooting. Despite the G.L. holding the mako in place finding a firing solution when your perception was skewed was challenging to say the least. It took a talented gunner to overcome instinctual responses and fight the enemy as was needed. It was not unlike finding a target in the cockpit of a fighter, you ignored the horizon. It was only artifice.

The hunter shifted, it felt the vibrations of the climber's feeble attempts to attack, its venom harmless. The hunter crashed through more rock into the air of earth-above. Intent now on taking the interlopers more than just food now it had called a challenge. The ground shook once more as the great girth of the beast rose, rearing to strike out. The Climber was in range directly above its head. Goaded the hunter lashed out at the climber, its spit hitting the hard shell. It spat its tiny stingers in retaliation. It must be a hatchling for its strikes missed time and time again. One hit. The hunter roared and shook, lunging for the climber.

It jumped from its perch, instead of going down into the nest it was climbing higher out of range of venom.

The hunter's food seeking tongue lashed out in anger the prey was escaping. Mandibles flared fanning in and out, lusting to snatch the shelled climber, tear it open and eat the small meat inside. There would be no kill tonight.

The Illusive man watched behind the picture window separating the operations room from the surgical theater one storey below. Three of his specialists hovered around a tall lanky African-American commando with a buzz cut hair-do and beard. The young man had volunteered for the test procedures with promises that a large sum of credits would be granted to his family, enough for his son to go to an upscale university and make something of himself.

The Illusive Man had made the same sort of promises to six other operatives, it made for more pliable subjects, if they thought they stood on some moral high-ground. Incur favor with the minions and you own them.

"Let's do this thing," the young man said.

The lead doctor, a ginger haired woman with a limp in her left leg, took a hypo-gun from an attending nurse and injected the young man a dozen times with a viscous silver-green liquid. He remained conscious throughout; apparently pain was not something he felt. Ever cool the young commando didn't even flinch when the thirteenth needle was brought into his view. Three inches long, thick and sharp this was no needle for the arm. The physician brought it up to his temple, and without hesitation or warning punched it through the bone and into the brain. The liquid fed into the skull cavity …

….and the young man's cool resolve shattered. His eyes bulged as he began to scream, as if suffering a burning-searing pain so sharp, so strong and deep no soul had ever before experienced it. He fought the restraints as the strange solution mixed with his bloodstream flowing through his brainstem and into his nervous system.

The Illusive Man smiled as he witnessed the solution working through the subject's body it was as if the face had become CGIed as it changed in texture, colour and elasticity.

Beside the Illusive Man was the director of Cerberus's medical team, Dr. Henrico Vorschslagg. He had shoulder length platinum blonde hair slicked back into a tight pony tail. His face sallow and pinched, with a nose that seemed to have been broken at least twice. Brown eyes stared under heavy lids, and thick brows. The only unremarkable thing about the man was his average build. If not for the colour of this man's obviously dyed hair he could have easily slipped into any crowd and gone utterly unnoticed.

"They will show no fear, no remorse, that area of the frontal lobe is inert. The self-preservation instincts within the cerebral cortex have been neutralized. They will feel the same whether they ate an ice-cream cone, stepped on an ant or took a life. It wouldn't matter if that life was some little blue-skinned nun in a convent, their own child or a hardened cannibalistic serial killer." The scouse dialect betrayed his origins to be of Liverpool, England despite the Spanish-Germanic name.

The test-subjects had been preconditioned with the WNISCE, (white noise indoctrination stimulus control experimentation) leaving them open to suggestion and control. With the solution - the sheer strength, tenacity of combat would be unparalleled. Perfect ground forces to accompany Cerberus biotic Special Forces.

"The mutations?" The Illusive Man demurred.

"Minimal." The doctor answered. "We are unable to eliminate them all and still enhance the subjects. Their skin has not only thickened but hardened, not unlike the hide of a rhinoceros or a krogan for that matter. They now have the speed of a turtle-head battlemaster's adrenaline rush. Much like biotics, the new soldiers have an extremely high metabolism. My team have concocted an adrenal-based pharmaceutical supplement to bolster their needs. In fact it will aid the biotics as well, if you wish to purse that avenue."

The expression on the Illusive Man's face was difficult to read, and impossible to name. But it petrified the Director of Cerberus Medical.

"Have them prepped for deployment."

Kirrahe wasn't a happy man. During the field exercise his team had lost. Both Garrus and Wrex had warned the STG captain that Shepard was duplicitous when in combat. Do not trust what you see or hear if you face her in opposition. Kirrahe was confident in his expertise as a commanding officer of Special Tasks Groups. His expertise as an intelligence agent would give him the all the tactical advantage over the young human, even if she was a Spectre. His techniques served him well in Virmire against a rogue Spectre. Surely they would against a human.

The krogan had said: 'There was a reason they made the Spectres. Who, they select to fill their ranks and why Shepard is one of them.'

Kirrahe had reminded them he had seen her in battle on Virmire. Lest they have forgotten. The other two males threw up their hands surrendering to the salarian and his foolishness in dismissing them so readily. It never occurred to the STG captain, that Shepard had commandeered one of Bosker's makos, had Tali remove and replace the GPS unit from the Spectre's mako onto the confiscated one. Nor had he suspected the pit Bosker's mako was in was a benign one whereas Shepard hovered near the one with the thresher maw.

"Wrex, remember Edolus." That was the only transmission, the Spectre sent after setting up the war game.

Kirrahe groaned as he replaced his hard suit in his locker, his muscles were aching for every movement. It grated on him that he had been so easily outwitted.

The krogan had tried to tell him of the set up Cerberus had made with the false distress call right in the pit of a thresher maw nest. So when he saw the GPS signal coming from a wrecked mako he didn't take the bait, the warning was given in the Spectre's message. He ordered Garrus to leave, suspecting an on –foot ambush near the downed rover. What he didn't suspect was to drive directly into the true thresher maw nest or the true Spectre's mako laying in wait in the lea of the cliff face upside-down like a basking sting ray in the shade of a coral reef.

In narrowly escaping the enraged thresher maw, Kirrahe drove directly into the path of the waiting Spectre, who had neutralized not only his mako, but in the mock battle had 'killed' the team.

The Spectre had opened the hatch of the M35 mako and smiled, 'I told you to remember Edolus, and yet you drove directly into the nest of a thresher maw anyway. Tsk tsk.'

Kirrahe had overplayed his own hand, his expertise and ignored the warnings given by the members of the flagship team. When in battle Shepard was duplicitous, out-maneuvering her operatives with sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. What Shepard allowed you to see wasn't always true and sometimes it was the truth she created and only allowed you to see a glimpse of it and your mind made up the rest. That was exactly what had happened on Chasca.

"See Dr. Chakwas or S'thasa about that shoulder, Captain." Shepard said when she rounded the corner.

"You knew I would go into that nest." The STG captain said.

"Of course. Salarians discount krogans, which was why I told Wrex to remember Edolus. He wasn't with me on that mission. Garrus was. You would have listened to a turrian, what with him being in C-Sec and one of the council races. But a krogan…" Shepard paused and smirked. "…your arrogance and prejudices would have completely discounted anything he said, especially about my tactics. I counted on that. It got you and your ground team 'killed' and the tech now in the hands of the 'enemy.' It is exactly the same tactics I used against the batarian pirates and their cohorts on Elysium."

The expression on the salarian changed from irritation to one of awe and admiration. "What your people say about you is true. You are a commander who is resourceful, thoughtful, and good at seizing opportunities for combat. Of the two of us, I clearly see who is the more sagacious. I find it fascinating that in the short time we have spent together you know my every response, my every reaction and action and yet I still do not know or understand your thought processes. How is that? I trained my entire adult life to spot such nuances, details. It is what being a member of the STG means. I cannot read you, why?"

She shrugged slightly. "Presuming what I would and would not, gets those who stand opposed killed."

"And yet you did the same with me."

This time there was a mischievous smile. "And so I did." She started to turn and walk away, but not before repeating her early command. "Go see one of the docs, get that shoulder seen to, Kirrahe."

Shepard made her way to the CIC and the galaxy map. She activated the Mantano system they were currently in, pulled out of the Marroon Sea and into the spiral arms of the Milky Way. She studied it for a time, knowing she had to go to the Citadel soon. The Council was anxious to meet both Ksad Ishan and Weareth'Bol. They were also quite anxious to see for themselves the finds from Ilos. She called up the Serpent Nebula, Window and then the Citadel itself. It would be easy to confirm the flight plan and order the Victory to the nearest mass relay and head for the nebula. Shepard shifted the galaxy map once more showed the spiral arms of the Milky Way, zeroed in Attican Beta Cluster further into Theseus System. Five planets in the system, one made her shudder. Feros. A planet that left permanent scars on so many people. A part of her mistrusted that the 'Old Growth' still did not linger somehow, someway. Spores perhaps waiting for the right time to sprout, perhaps all it needed to grow once more was an indeterminate incubation period.

ExoGeni had collected enough samples to create legions of thorian creepers. It would be a surprise if the corporation had not collected samples of the Old Growth itself and incited a cloning sequence. In fact she was sure it was so, but there was no proof and without proof the Council wouldn't budge. Still she had warned the Council of her suspicions. For the moment there were other concerns warranting her attention.

Shepard turned from the massive holographic display of the galaxy map to Shiala's station. One soul had suffered more than most at the clutches of the Old Growth. The nightmare existence she suffered was clearly evident in those haunted green eyes.

Feros wasn't the target this time. It was its sister planet Quana. Reading the dossier the Spectre found the atmosphere was composed of nitrogen and carbon monoxide. The frozen surface was rich with heavy metals, and the planet's higher than average density suggested further mineral richness in the depths. It was the reason there was a well-developed Prothean mining infrastructure dotting the planet. Their abandoned mines were still connected to dead cities by collapsed maglev lines.

Unlike the crumbling skyscrapers of Feros, Quana's ruins were reasonably intact. Unfortunately, this only made it easier for looters to strip the silent necropoli of anything valuable. That was the official report. Liara was positive there was more there than met the eye. It had to do with hidden doors behind dark energy locks.

One more planet then back to the Citadel. Besides it would be another coup if they came back with more Prothean finds in their means to defeat the Reapers. If there was a hidden vault like they found on Ilos then a detour was well worth it. Sometimes it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Shepard accessed the course which would send a direct link to the bridge, thus issuing the change of course to Joker.

Sitting in the pilot's chair Joker frowned slightly at the command his HUD had given him.

"What is it?" the question came from Naga'sadow who was sitting second chair.

"The Captain plotted a course to the Theseus system, to Quana."

"Why is that out of the ordinary?" The young huntress asked.

"I just figured we'd be going back to the Citadel after the mako test. I'm fairly certain the Council wanted us back."

"Perhaps they do, or perhaps our Spectre received orders we are not privy to. You are not always on shift; she could have received a private communiqué when you were off shift thus unaware of any transmissions. Of course speculation is a fool's game. We are given orders and we obey them without questioning the motives of our commanding officer."

"Yeah? I still think it's weird to suddenly change course. What's on Quana anyway but frozen rocks and dead cities?"

"We found the beings of light on a planet of ice, who is to say what discoveries we will make on Quana?" the asari responded. "Is it customary for human junior officers to always question their commanding officer as you constantly do with the Spectre?"

"No. Actually it can piss them off big time and can get you tossed in the brig for insubordination."

"Then why do so with the Spectre?" Naga'sadow's tone was almost demanding, her pale blue eyes narrowing in suspicion. In her mind she heard the warming of Matron Morwen speaking of enemies within as well as without.

Joker's youthful face pulled into a frown. "I wasn't… I mean I wasn't really questioning her, I only wonder why the sudden changes, is all. I know the science team came up with a list of planets we have to visit: there was an itinerary. Now she's gone off that itinerary and spontaneously going to these planets. I guess it's a Spectre thing."

Once more Naga'sadow's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Perhaps as a Spectre she does not wish to be so easily tracked. There are those who do not wish for her to succeed. Cerberus for example." The asari said, dropping the temperature on the bridge a few degrees.

"That makes perfect sense, lay a false trail. Bad guys go one direction, we another. Being spontaneous makes us hard to track."

"I believe that is the point, is it not?"

'We were all disciples of Matriarch Benezia now we follow her daughter's wife. We will not disrespect our stations, duty or our oaths of service…The waves speak rumors of it. It is foolish to think one of them had not sent a sleeper agent on board… As we were vigilant with Matriarch Benezia T'soni so shall we be with Samantha Shepard.' The words of Matron Morwen echoed loudly in the maiden's mind. 'In Matriarch Benezia's legacy, I will commit myself to service of the Spectre.' Her own words vibrated in her heart.

The young huntress also recalled words her former matriarch once told her disciples. 'A noble nature attracts dark forces, those susceptible to the shadow world. There are those who follow this path of nobility and those who follow her. There are those who stand against the tide of the course of the river and attempt to alter the course of that darkness. This is their calling, to stand against it—to calm the raging river of malevolence but not destroy it. Sometimes it comes upon a huntress to protect that nobility who attracts the dark forces, especially when she sees not that she is in need of that protection.'

To commit herself to this oath, Naga'sadow vowed to have her off-day flight rotation on the bridge. Vigilance had to be maintained against those who would stand against the Spectre. The only thing that didn't fit into the huntress's mind was why someone like male called Joker seemingly devoted to his captain, would betray her?

It seemed to Ash that the missions were becoming almost formulaic. Find the most uninhabitable planet and scrounge it for Prothean caches, allies or other 'trinkets' that would help the fight against the Reapers.

Two days ago it was testing the mako with the new G.L., now they were on route to a new frozen planet in the hopes its secrets would now be revealed.

Of course there was something on the young marine's mind that was far from formulaic.

The trinity.

Ash lay with her arms folded under her head cushioning it as she stared up at the ceiling. Her mind going over and over the images, thoughts and emotions Liara had given to her during the mind meld.

Everything she wanted, or nearly wanted was there in her grasp, all she had to do was to reach out and snatch it and it was hers. The love of her life…hers. Not completely hers, though, she would have to share with Liara. Or rather it was Liara willing to share, Sam willing to share. Both wanting to. So what was so wrong?

It wasn't taboo for Liara's people, nor for Sam. But Ash…for her there was the taboo not only of her faith, but her own moral code. You don't interfere with a perfect marriage; you don't take someone else's wife as a lover.

"But I won't be a lover." Ash argued to herself. "I'm not the bit on the side." She sighed. "In effect I will be married to both of them, just as they will to me." Another sigh. "Married. That's what this will be a marriage. Not a fling…a marriage or it won't work. God forgive me but I am so much trouble. I love her so much… Just tell me what the hell I'm supposed to do!"

A growling cry of frustration, Ash removed the pillow from under her head and covered her face with it. Right about now she could use a few shots of the skippers twelve-year old bourbon. What she got instead was a bleep.

"Come in." a muffled sound.

Another bleep.

Ash groaned, tossed the pillow that had still covered her face to the floor and stood up to answer the door.

"Yes?" it was a snap.

Abby who was standing outside her sister's door took a shocked step back before pressing forward. "Good to see you too sis."

Ash would be the first to admit she loved and adored her sisters. There wasn't anything she wouldn't do for any of them. She would also be the first to admit sometimes they annoyed the hell out of her.

"Sorry. What do you need?"

"Nothing, just come to see you before you go on shift. Despite the fact we're on the same ship it's like we keep passing each other in the night."

"Duty calls you know that."

"Which is why, I was hoping to catch you, maybe take lunch together?" the younger Williams smiled the exact same smile Ashley on occasion sported herself.

"Not hungry." Ash admitted. "I've got a few things I have to work through. They never tell you how much paper work an XO actually has to do."

"Okay, that's an excuse. What eating you?"

Williams studied her sister for a long moment, before drawing breath and daring to broach the subject that was indeed eating away at her. "Before I say anything, you have to swear never to utter another word about this to anyone, not Mom, not the sisters, no one. Not even me, unless I bring it up."

"Ash you're spooking me."

"Swear it"

Abby held up her pinky offering it to her sister, "Okay I swear."

They hooked pinkies in an age old tradition of siblings. It was then Ash revealed everything concerning the offered trinity. Liara coming to her, the talk, and the mind meld even hinting at the nightmares she was allowed to see.

After Ashley had finished speaking Abby who by now was sitting on the edge of the bed sat staring at the floor.

"Well? Say something damn it!" The elder sister demanded hotly.

"Ash …what can I say?"

"Should I go for it?"

"Do you want to?"

"Yes! God yes!"

"But you're not. I can see why. It feels like cheating. But apparently it's not. I knew the asari were promiscuous, I didn't think they were in marriage as well."

"They aren't."

"But they breed with anyone, any gender."

"If you bothered to ask thick-head you'd know their mating isn't sexual its mind melds." Ash all but snapped. "Asari are naturally sensual. If I hear you call Liara a slut, I'll deck you so hard Mom will feel it."

"Okay - sheesh. I'm sorry. I only meant…I mean you hear things….they say…." Abby grew silent each word she uttered was making her sister's expression grow darker and more angry. "You have a thing for Liara as well I take it." she said at last.

"I - I care for her." Ashley calmed down and took a place on the bed beside her sister. "I may not be in love with her, but yes…she is important to me."

"Okay so maybe this isn't exactly what our faith says about marriage, but think back even the ancient Hebrews had multiple wives. From the Hebrews came the Jews and from the Jews the Christians came. So …it's not unheard of. And there other religions from Earth that have multiple wives, so what if all concerned are women?"

"So you have no problem with this?" Ash mumbled.

"It's not up to me big sis. If you think the three of you can be happy…then go for it."

"It's not just happiness, involved. There are careers involved. The Top Brass won't like this."

"But Shepard isn't in the Alliance Military anymore."

"But I am. They can transfer me and the skipper can't argue the point."

"She's a Spectre she can demand your presence is necessary. And…and there is another option…."

"Are you suggesting…suggesting I give up my commission?"

"It's a thought." Abby looked at the woebegone expression on her sister's face.

"I can't do that."

"No, I don't suppose you can." Abby put an arm around the older Williams. "It's really not fair they put you in this position. Offering what you want even knowing there could be a high price to pay. Do you think they thought of it?"

"The skipper would have." Came another mumbled answer. "Of course marginally we can claim cultural-faith immunity. Being the daughter of a highly respected matriarch, even deceased gives Liara some heavy clout. And the fact her sire parent is a highly respected consort adds to that clout, it will grant us some freedom. Sam's a Spectre so she isn't in the line of fire for the Brass though the Council may have something to say about it. I know they've give her guff about Liara. If we accepted this Trinity they might go high and to the right."

"So the Skipper and Miss Prothean Expert aren't so free and clear either."

"You don't get to call them that. To you it's captain and Dr. T'soni."

"My my… possessive aren't we."

There was a frown.

Abby tossed her hands up in surrender. "Sorry."

The frown remained.

"Really, Ash I'm sorry. Though it shows how much you are linked to them. Maybe you three are already a trinity. All that remains is that you consummate it. Ash, you have to know the lower deck scuttlebutt already says the three of you are in a ménage-a-troi, why not bite the bullet and go for it?"

Ash was silent for a moment. She knew a thing or two about the speed at which lower deck scuttlebutt traveled. She didn't doubt there were rumors about the skipper, Liara and herself already Joined. Hell there were probably some that said Shiala was also involved in someway.

"What do you think Mom will say?" Ashley said at last.

"Ah…um…" the other woman shrugged. "Hard to say. I think she would probably tell you follow your heart. I don't know what Dad would say. You were always the closest to him."

"He'd tell me to 'study it at every angle, tread with care and if it feels right jump in with both feet and don't let anything stop you honey'."

"Yeah he would. I do know what Lynn would say." Abby grinned.

"You lucky bitch?"

Both giggled.

"So what are you going to do?"

A heavy sign escaped Ashley's lips. "I don't know yet. I think I need to study a few more angles, before I make any decisions."

A soft moan of sheer pleasure escaped purple lips as honey-toned fingers pressed down with the right amount of pressure against the small of her back. Liara lay on her belly, her arms folded under a pillow on which she was resting her head. Samantha kneeled above her naked thighs meticulously massaged every muscle in Liara's back, her legs and the soles of her feet, easing the tension in every pressure point.

The Spectre leaned over placing a tender kiss between her wife's' shoulder blades. No words had been exchanged in thought or voice, only touches conveyed the deep love each held for the other.

This was far from tedious routine, but there wasn't a day when they were together that Samantha hadn't taken time either at night or before her duty shift to give her beloved a full body massage. Dr. Chakwas (confirmed by Aleena) had prescribed ointments made by the asari to ease a woman's changing body during her pregnancy. Not only did it ease tender muscles and tension points but it was known to reduce if not completely eradicate stretch marks.

Samantha was as meticulous in caring for her beloved Liara as any soldier cared for their weapons and armor. An odd comparison for some but when you're born to a uniform, born to be a Spectre it wasn't all that strange, considering. In the privacy of their quarters, Samantha lavished attention on her Liara and their unborn daughter. The massage mixed with liberal amounts of trailing kisses against her flesh tended to leave Liara feeling boneless and not a bit sleepy.

"She's developing beautifully." Sam softly whispered into her beloved's ear. After the course was set to their new destination, the two had attended to Liara's weekly check-up. Three months pregnant there was now a clear indication of the fetus's body. The tiny crest had what Samantha termed a cute sweep to it. While it was true asari were pregnant for twelve months, many of the stages were equal to that of a human's development. Anyone looking at either Liara or Shiala could easily tell both women were pregnant.

Liara reached to the bedside table and took a small rectangle holo-print into her hands, involuntarily her lips curled into a smile. Sam leaned over pressing her nude body against the still lithe blue frame, so she might peer over Liara's shoulder to gaze the photo for herself. A century past such pictures of a fetus would have been monochrome blue and grainy. While still monochrome, holo-pics of developing fetuses were far from grainy. This shot was well defined and the child growing within clearly visible. By this time the expecting mothers had a growing photo album of such snapshots. No doubt pulled out at their daughter's expense and possible embarrassment and mothers' pride when she became a teenager. It was after all a tradition amongst human families.

"Yes she is." Liara beamed. She subtly shifted her body telling her wife she wanted to turn over. Sam lifted up slightly but did not fully remove herself from her position. Once Liara was on her back, Sam lowed herself easily back down, the weight of her body still resting on her bent knees. "Sometimes I find myself in awe she is there. We have created life. However accidentally it might have been at the time… she is there, a part of us."

The Spectre's own ruby lips pulled into a full blown grin. "The best part of us." Once more Sam shifted her body weight this time so she could plant a tender kiss on the swell of Liara's abdomen. She gasped as she felt something flutter suddenly against her cheek "She moved!"

"She is starting to become active." Liara nodded. "It feels so strange, at first I didn't know what to make of it. It does not happen often. Dr. Chakwas said it will become more frequent the further Sparrow develops."

The Spectre chuckled. "I still think we need to find a more suitable name for our daughter, Angel Eyes."

Liara giggled. "A name will come to us; we have seven more months to discover it, my love. Perhaps she will let us know what her name is to be."

"Li," Samantha stated as she now moved so she was lying beside her wife. "Before I allow you on that mako…."

"I know you want to make sure it is safe. I understand." Liara took the Spectre's hand and placed it firmly over the swell of her belly. "But if there are no indications of sentient life down there as I suspect, I will join the ground team when they first touch down. I will stay within the mako until you have your marines swarm the place and affirm we are alone. But I want to be there if I can for first touch down. Samantha, I have been to this place before. During that time I have never encountered either raiders or any other salvage teams."

"You stay on the mako until the all clear? Your word?"

'My word, beloved.' Liara sent the words into the Spectre's mind.

For a moment they cuddled close, softly caressing well explored flesh. Each enjoying the touch in the giving and the taking. "Melethril," Liara used the Asarian word for lover. The words that followed were also in her mother tongue. "Im nifred an Shiala. Tulo rinno na he' sad tat ceri na hen. Ha her presto saer."

{I worry for Shiala coming back to this place, what it will do to her. It will affect her bitterly)

Samantha nodded her head. Her fingers tracing the sweeping curves of Liara's crest and folds along her neck. "Im nifred an hen sui eithel. Nnin bereth. Min tat awartho her na baul. Hen nin nos. Hen nin nas. Im berio sabo."

(I worry for her as well, my wife. We will not abandon her to this torment. She is family. She is of my crew. I protect what is mine.)

"Even if they do not need a protector?" Liara returned to galactic standard.

"Especially then." Samantha answered. "I have found that is when they need it the most." She kissed her beloved.

*Captain, ETA to Quana twenty-three minutes.* Joker's voice came over the ship's inner-comm system. It was only way to reach them as being naked there was no way to speak to them via their uniform-radios.

"Understood, Shepard out."

"Duty calls, beloved." Liara teased.

"Indeed, it does." Samantha rolled off the bed and headed for the head.

"Not getting dressed?" Liara smirked a little.

"I can't show up for duty with the scent of our lovemaking upon me, now can I?"

Liara might have wished for more time so she might join her beloved in the shower. Of course it would lead to more distractions that duty would not allow. By the time the languid asari rolled out of bed, Samantha was walking out of their ensuite a with a towel rubbing the excess water from her hair. In less than a minute she was fully garbed.

Silently, Liara took up a comb and began to groom her beloved's ebony locks into a semblance of order. It was one of the very few sentimentally fawning luxuries they afforded each other. At first Sam had balked at the idea but relented in understanding that such a practice was utterly foreign to a people whose only body hair was very fine eyebrows and eyelashes. Indulging this want was such a very small thing, Samantha found herself unable to say no. After all Liara relented to Samantha's need to give the asari full body massages every night.

"I had Ash redesign a hardsuit for both you and Shiala. It's a larger size than you typically wear; it won't be that much heavier than what you're used to. Don't wear it, you don't go." Sam said as Liara gently yet swiftly raked the comb through the wet hair.

"I understand. I have no problem with it. So will I be wearing the heavy stuff such as our Ashley wears?"

"Close, I had her fix the cuirass with heavy shielding. Ash had to use a size-up from what you typically wear. As I said before they don't make maternity hardsuits, so for now you have to look a little bulky."

"I will adapt, and I shall not complain about it, do not fear." A quick peck on the neck indicated the task of grooming had finished. Shepard now looked like the commanding officer she was.

"I'm going to hold you that that." Sam said leaning in and placing a final kiss on her wife's purple lips before heading out.

Shepard approached Shiala now standing before the galaxy map, unmoving. The Spectre had seen others with similar stance, expressions of face and posture. It was the remembrance of pain. Some called it the face of PTSD. Worn, drawn and filled with a deepening despair. Shiala had been sporting that expression for the past two days since they plotted course to Quana.

"You need not go down." Shepard said as she approached the matron.

"You believe I am uncertain?" the purple skinned asari didn't turn to the new comer or avert her emerald eyes from the galaxy map.

By now the Spectre was standing directly at her side, close enough so the words they shared could only be heard by the two of them.

"As anyone entering the vicinity of where their rape took place, yes. It is natural. Shiala - my mentor, I can not possibly fathom the pain you suffered before. You don't need to be here. I need someone to command the ship when the flagship team is groundside. Williams will come down with me."

Only now did the matron turned her emerald gaze upon the Spectre. "You do not doubt my capacity." It was not a question.

"No. Never. But I know pain when I see it - when I feel it. We are in the same system as of Faros. You suffered greatly here. When we entered this system you feel it still, what the thorian and Saren did to you." In a more hushed an apologetic tone, the human added, "What I was forced to do to stop your clones."

The matron did not deny it. "You said you felt my pain." Shiala's green eyes held the same expression as they had on Faros: wonder, fear and confusion.

"Yes." Shepard nodded. "Maybe it has something do with the transferring of the cipher. I don't know. But there are times I can feel your emotions as strongly as those of Liara."

It was evidently clear that the matron had long ago considered this. There was a connection to Shepard and herself, as it was with all those touched by the cipher. Being touched by nightmare, by darkness, it was a despair that tied the souls deeper than the bone. Its wake left deep scars upon the heart.

"The cipher." Shiala said the word slowly; it was a sharp barbed word. To some it was a mundane word meaning only to understand the images in the beacons. There were those that knew better, that knew in that understanding came the branding of nightmares and memories not of their own. Indoctrination, the cipher, the many 'deaths' Shiala felt at the hands of her 'savior,' the tainting touch of the thorian, tormented the matron deeper than even Shepard's experience. There were times not even Aleena's comforting embrace could ease such pains. The matron wondered if Liara came across such difficulties when confronting the Spectre's terrors. Pushing such dangerous thoughts to the back of her mind, Benezia's former Second, forced her attention on the mission that now lay before them.

"If you are taking Williams with you, one can assume our Head of Sciences will also be accompanying you?"

"Trying to keep her confined on the ship will be counterproductive." Shepard said earnestly. "Because of the nature of the way Ksad Ishan will be traveling, I'm only taking those that know of his true form: S'thasa, Garrus, and Tali. I'm ordering two other ground-team patrols out, Williams will see to the details. I also want a flight team deployed to do regular sweeps. Keep the Victory in a low orbit and cloaked. ExoGeni is still prowling Faros, I don't want them interfering. If they do attempt anything explain it to them that Spectres are the dominion of the Council and no other."

"It will be done, Captain." The matron tilted her head slightly, an equivalent to a human military salute.

Ashley Williams a consummate perfectionist when it came to her duty had not only gone over the readiness of the makos twice but thrice. The safety of her skipper was paramount to her, not simply because it was her duty to cover her CO's six, or that Sam was going to be a mother, or even because the younger marine cared for her skipper more than she should but because it was a sacred trust.

Williams was the XO, technically it should be her and not the captain heading the groundside teams, it was after all regulations. But the captain was a Spectre and Alliance military regulations need not apply. Still trust and duty commanded the young woman in all her actions, it had since the day, she became a part of the crew of the Normandy, as it has since she enlisted.

Knowing they were heading for yet another frozen planet, Williams stockpiled the makos with previsions necessary for an arctic environment. Yes she could have delegated the task to another, but Williams would have none of it. After all the final check was done by Shepard herself, not because she didn't trust her XO to handle the details but out of habit when she held the position. Williams smirked to herself in the knowledge that when Shepard did check everything would be perfect, as did she did the task herself.

"Gear, guns and munitions in order, Williams?" Shepard called out as she approached the mako. She was already battle-ready in her red and black Colossus issue armor, HMW assault rifle and shotgun locked on her back and pistol on her hip.

"Aye, aye Skipper, we're locked and loaded---ready for deployment. Short of deliberately hitting an avalanche dead-on we're fully prepped for anything that planet can hurl at us."

The older woman clapped a hand on her XO's shoulder giving her approval. "Carry on then." She said and then did something that surprised the lieutenant; she turned and headed in the direction of the flight crew who were to run escort on the drop-site.


The Spectre, merely gave a hint of a shrug, "As you said, we're ready for deployment, I don't need to double check this is so."

Williams smiled proudly. "Yes, Ma'am."

The younger marine watched her skipper interact with the young asari pilot, Naga'sadow. It was interesting to watch how Shepard adapted to her crew's military background; she barked orders to the turians, growling at them with antiquated words just as Gunnery Sergeant Ellison did to new cadets. To the asari she was very tactile, to the humans she as a little of both. With the salarians she cold and practically dismissive as if she were speaking to a VI and thus beneath her, just as the salarians were of most other species.

Just as Shepard had when Williams was first assigned to the Normandy and thus the flagship ground team, she assured Naga'sadow she as ready for the position she was given--if the huntress wasn't she wouldn't be given the task. Naga'sadow and her crew had to protect the ground team, thus they would protect the ground team.

In response Naga'sadow saluted her captain with a human salute, turned her back and addressed her squad. "You heard our captain, troopers we have our orders. Mount up, we deploy now."

Human, asari, turian rushed the raptors and vipers, climbed into the cockpits, and readied their launch. The hanger-deck became a cacophony of gear, radio and weapons checks as each pilot made roll-call.

Williams was making her own roll-call. It was to her to assign the teams to the makos. The first team chosen was the one she lead on Ilos: the turian female Galador, one of the STG salarians by the name of Kex, an asari huntress, Handir and a human marine Moya Pingilton and talking her place as squad leader was Wrex. She knew them to be trustworthy in their dedication to duty. And leaving Wrex on the ship was not worth the bellyache bitching he'd give if he was left behind. Best take the old hound with them, lest he whine he didn't get to play. Of course if he complained about the cold, Williams thought she could always tell him is nice and warm on the ship, and Garrus wouldn't mind having all the 'fun' by himself.

The second team had also been on Ilos, Urwen, Omeglin, and Ian Carr: two turians and a human. Idril of the STG who served with them on Ilos would be forced to remain on the ship as they were taking one of the M35's, which only had room for three.

Williams drew her attention back to the team assembling near the flagship team's M36, leading them was not Shepard, but Liara. At the Prothean expert's side was the veiled form of Ksad Ishan. Even disguised and reassurances the geth body was a shell only; it still unnerved the young marine to see him so freely walking near her friend. It didn't help matters that it looked like a brute of a turian, either. Without ceremony or word Ksad Ishan, folded his hidden geth form and slid easily, if not compactly into the belly-box of the mako.

"Ready to go Miss Prothean Expert?" Williams said in a way of greeting.

"Indeed I am. I have been to this planet before - numerous times in fact, nearly forty-five years ago." Liara said storing her kit-bag in the belly box near Ksad Ishan. "This time however I believe it will be more productive than previous years."

"Damn, sometimes I forget just how old really you are."

The asari smiled warmly. "You also seem to forget, I am quite young to my own people."

"What are you talking about? You've got my adopted niece in there," Ashley gestured to the other woman's belly, the swell that was the child carefully hidden and protected under a Colossus hardsuit. "You are my people."

The smile retained on the blue face. Liara reached out and touched the proud woman on the shoulder, oddly enough in the exact same spot where the Spectre had touched her. "I feel the same, Muinthel. And thank you for the new suit."

"Hey I have to protect what's mine." Ash said unknowingly repeating the words Samantha had uttered to her earlier.

Liara chuckled softly. "I see it is a commonality you share with your skipper, Muinthel. Perhaps I shall simply have to surrender to it, to otherwise is futile."

Ash beamed at the comparison and became slightly skittish about the closeness that was ensuing between her and Miss Prothean Expert. "So…um about this place when you were here before. I have to ask have you never thought to use those dark-energy sconces?"

"Actually I have, but they did not work. I knew then I was missing something. Something so very close I could not see it for the details."

"So how are we going to be more productive than your previous ventures?"

"Because forty-five years ago I didn't have a Prothean AI or a Council Spectre with me. Both of which have unique ways of looking at things. And because of visions from the beacons and the cipher our Spectre can think as a Prothean."

"But you have the cipher now and you seen the visions."

Liara smiled, "Yes, but we both know Samantha thinks of ways out of situations that is uniquely… hers. Perhaps she will see this puzzle in a very different light, I did not see."

"And if she doesn't, I guess the clanker will come into play." Williams looked to the folded up machine. No matter how you sliced it, it still gave her the creeps. All she could think of was her lost unit the 212, and all those civilians back on Eden Prime slaughtered by the geth.

The young marine watched Liara climb into the mako, a moment later she was followed by the skipper. Rooted on the spot, Williams hadn't moved until she heard Shepard call out: "You joining us, Williams or you staying behind?"

Now that, Ash thought was a loaded question.

Join them? Or remain behind? Perhaps her dilemma might be best answered by seeking advice from Shakespeare.

A heartbeat later Williams was onboard the mako readying for atmo.

Part 27

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