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 is 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 writers, 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 of ME2 obviously this is very much an AU. However some elements / scenes / characters of ME2 will make it into here so I guess there will be some spoilers.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Rising From the Ashes
By Elizabeth Carter


Chapter 28
Memories Diverging


They came they always came. The seekers, the swarm, there was no hiding, no running, battle was futile. Frozen bodies, silence, cold, isolation, terror, snatching, burning, hacking tearing…changing. They come…collecting.

The dark…it is always there. Always hunting. Always taking. So many taken. Whole worlds gone. Changing. They change who you are. What you are. Soulless ones. Fingers on the spine, whispers in the ear, poison in the mind.

Must be a way to stop them!

They trap… the Citadel. They lure… the mass relays. They make complacent. Fight it. Fight. Beware the monsters of Id. Beware the hidden ones. Beware the changed ones. They hunt… collect. We are diverse. Collect the diverse, slay others. Testing, plaguing. Destroying. Collect. Hunters bring the seekers, seekers bring the collectors, collectors bring the Reapers. Reapers bring the end of all things. The ruin of worlds.

Retreat to Ilos. Hide. Keep silent, play dead. Conduit. Stop the keepers, change the signal. Close shut the gate. Oblivion comes. It comes. Never ending cycle. Ruin of life, Hope is dead, warn the future. The line is broken. Send the beacons. Warn. Warn. Warn. Safe keep the vinculum. One last breath, one last bastion, one last spark of life. They come! Too late! Too late!


"What the hell was that?" Williams barked out breathlessly.

"The vinculum." Ksad Ishan answered mechanically.

The companions had not left the base of the pyramid where their captain had fallen and was now in the protective arms of Liara. Around them the chrome orbs flared to life in burning purple-black light of element zero. They connected to one another forming a grid of sorts not unlike Tesla coils sparking lightning. Only what they had produced wasn't lightning but a three-dimensional holographic projection of images previously only seen in the beacons. For the first time outside an asari mind meld others had seen what plagued the Spectre's mind in all of its graphic detail.

All save Liara stared in compassionate wonder at their leader. To be constantly tormented by such horrific visions, to have to sort through the evisceration and remain sane was a feat beyond words. Liara wept behind her helmet's faceplate. She had experienced these images, the nightmares with Samantha for more nights now than she cared to count.

The room flared to life once more, as the six were plunged back into visions. They saw the dragons teeth impaling Protheans, teeth-claws snatching flesh and flaying it from bone, swarms of small insects, thousands of people running for their lives fleeing hopelessly for cover. They saw pod like constructs cocooning others, large insectoid beings with diamond shaped heads staring out with four unblinking eyes. Worlds upon worlds decimated by extinction level events. Warnings, of the keepers, the Citadel and the mass relays, in the end they saw the dark familiar silhouette of Sovereign.

"Keelah! She's looping. Liara can't you stop it?" Tali pleaded.

"I am trying but she is locked in this nightmare." The asari turned to the holographic turian. "This is your doing!" she accused once more. "You knew what this is. You knew what it would do to my bond mate!" she gently shifted Samantha from her lap to the flagstones allowing a very angry woman to rise, her body shimmering in the blue energy of biotics. "You brought her to this! I don't forgive that. Ever."

"I only brought her the knowledge she demanded to have." Ksad Ishan answered defensively taking several steps back for each one Liara advanced. His holographic face turned to Williams. "Can you not stop her?"

In a weak bland uninterested voice, Williams said: "Liara stop." Armored shoulders shrugged. "Guess not. Sorry. I tried."

"You will release her." Liara seethed.

Aleena was on her feet ready with her own biotics not knowing what to expect, Tali reacted just as swiftly as if Ksad Ishan somehow succumbed to geth programming she was ready to hack into the CPU and shut it down. None of them however, not even the marine or the C-sec officer had prepared for what happened next.

"I cannot for I have not captured her!" Ksad Ishan retorted taking yet another step backwards.

"That is the wrong answer." Liara's reaction was instantaneous. She venomously attacked Ksad Ishan with a biotic pulse that sent the AI's geth body slamming into the sloping wall of the pyramid face. The force of the impact so powerful it cracked the marble surface into a spider's web of rubble. "You cannot have her!" Liara snarled, sending another blast of dark energy into the body of the geth. Head torn from torso: both flung in opposite directions. The center of the geth's chest a gaping hole of slag, the stink of molten metal ripped through the air stinging the nostrils before the olfactory filters of the hardsuits truncated the offensive odor.

Sam's mind was falling in on itself. Her body felt heavy, immovable as if she was lying at the bottom of a gravity well.

"NO!" Samantha shouted out once more, her body flared in brilliant cyan. Instinct drove the Spectre to protect herself. Shield herself. A force field of pure biotic energy enveloped her as a blanket. The woman saw only the swarm looming before her eyes, coming for her people to change them.

Liara spun on her heel forgetting the burning carcass of the geth body focusing instead on that of her beloved. Once more she took position of caregiver cradling Samantha's head upon her lap.

Monsters of Id come to taint the pure minds. The harvesting...the collecting of bodies. There was no avoiding the swarm…

They came without warning: a swarm of monsters and tech jumping across space and time sent by their leaders, the Reapers, through an effort of pure will. They did not choose to announce themselves the way the former enemies had, nor did they delay their invasions to puzzle out Protheankind's strengths, weakness, quirks and foibles. There was no need to determine whether the Empire did or did not have that which they sought, the changed ones already altered them to the uniqueness of Prothean bio-diversity, the missing element of Reaper reproduction. All that was required was the harvesting of organic material. They were only components. It was all that they were. The cycle of extinction began anew.

"Too many thoughts! Too many memories!" The Spectre's voice was harsh gravel, strained as if fighting inflammation of the throat. "NO! NO! NO!" she clutched her head, wincing. Pain lanced sharply crawling viciously in a violent migraine. Sparkles of light flashed before her eyes, vertigo set in. Her ears rang with a tone only she heard. "I …I am…I am Samantha Secura Shepard. Wife. Spectre. Captain. Alliance. Human. "

"We have to get Shepard out of here." Garrus said. His breath was heavy and panting after the third showing of the nightmare visions. He wasn't sure he could withstand another bout. The others grouped around him appeared to be about the same. Each of them exhausted from just witnessing the events, never mind having to live with them for a year as the Spectre had.

"I don't think we can, not while she's locked into that thing." Aleena advised, her own mind shuddering from the experience of the holographic movie. "We have no idea what it will do to her."

"We have no idea what it is doing to her if she remains connected to it!" Ash countered. For all we know it's rewriting all her memories with the fucking Prothean ones."

"All the more reason to get her as far away from that vinculum thing as possible." Garrus said. His worry clearly heard in his voice even if his face was masked behind the faceplate of his helmet.

Shadows crept up to her in muffled voices, calling her name in desperation. Shepard couldn't hear properly, she didn't understand the words directed at her, she knew only that panic and pain came from one of them. Her mind became plagued with memories not her own.

It was the smell of metal. It became the forefront of memory. It brought it all forward into her mind retaking newer alien thoughts. Shepard was in her own past.

They had landed. Goddamn-son-of-bitching pirates. Impacts already hit five outlying suburban areas of Elysium. Heavy damage to rural locations. They had already taken out the FTL-comm systems by destroying the comm buoys in orbit. It was going to be a fire-sale. SOP invasion tactics, a three-tier system of attack to the infrastructure of a world. Step one take out all the transportation. Step two the financial base extranet and FLT-comms, step three you get rid of all the utilities: eezo, electricity, water, nuclear... pretty much anything run by computers, which is pretty much everything. This was why it was called a fire-sale because everything must go. If you took out one thing the system could recover, if you take all of them the system crashes.

If they hit the city proper nothing would be left. The bogus tornado warning she had made ERS (Emergency-Response-Systems) send out could have saved some of the colonists. Hopefully the majority of the satellite suburbs would survive the strike. Her priority was saving everyone else in Elysium.

Humanity had already had dealings with pirates and slaver bands, having confronted them on a dozen different planets. Mindoir never recovered. That was six years ago. Shepard would never allow that to happen here, not as long as she drew breath. Even if she died to defend the colony, they would not take one more. As a child, a teenager, a young adult her father continuously told her: 'A Shepard protects those who can not protect themselves. A Shepard is a guardian. The job description is in the name. It's our sworn duty: a Shepard isn't a hero, we are guardians, protectors. It is why a Shepard serves. No Shepard ever shirked duty, ever. No matter the cost, even if it means your death.'

Too many voices, too many thoughts - too many memories. All converging meshing, amalgamating. Sam clung onto the strength of her father's words. They had helped her on Elysium to hold strong, confident, to give her a true perspective on what she must do. They helped her conquer her fear as she faced off that entire platoon by herself, to hold the line until reinforcements arrived. She clung to them now to hold strong to whom she was, what she was.

The worst thing about surviving impossible odds were the memories that survived with you. If only one could erase them, switch them off somehow. But Shepard knew she couldn't; sometimes those memories were more frightening than ghosts, than anything imagination could conjure up. And they couldn't be outrun…

"That…that wasn't…the Protheans." Tali said. "What did we just see?"

"Her own memories." Liara's voice cracked with heartache.

"I recognized the skyline. That was Elysium." Ash answered. "I think…I think it was during the Blitz."

"I am Samantha Secura Shepard. Wife. Spectre. Captain. Alliance. Human." The Spectre murmured desperately trying to hold on to her true identity. She sounded so soulweak it was if the spirit had been leached out of her.

"You are more than that." Liara said holding on tightly to her beloved. "Much more." Skin contact was impossible through their armor but nevertheless Liara took hold taking the Spectre's hand into her own gloved one.

"A Shepard…isn't a hero. They are guardians. Protectors." Sam said almost wistfully as if she hadn't fully woken from deep sleep.

Fortunately when the first wave hit the starlight suburbs she was in the market district at Sun Loa's weapon Outfitters getting custom mods for her shiny new N7-Onyx armor and Hahne-Kedar assault rifle and sidearm. She told the proprietor to give her access to his comm systems; she had to get hold of the government lines and talk to the Governor. Elysium had both a civilian evac-alert plan as well as an emergency-weather control alert using both in conjunction would maximize the effectiveness to get people into safety. She convinced the governor it was the only way to stop another Mindoir from happening again.

*Solid plan Lieutenant, first alarm will have all civilians scrambling for their own shelters or public safe houses. They seal from the inside once locked and are well supplied to hold out for a long siege. Once the alarm is set off, it immediately sends out a distress beacon to the Arcturus station.*

"Good, what other defenses are there?"

*Each public security bunker has two defensive turrets, six assault drones, and four LOKI mechs. And then there is the Alliance garrison, with a platoon of twenty marines.*

"Governor, if and when the primary defense grid goes down they will strike the secondary grid. We need to isolate it from the main source. It's the only way to save it and the colony. The pirates will expect it to be blown along with the primary; it will give them one hell of a surprise when it comes back on line."

*Lieutenant that will leave the colony vulnerable. The destruction the pirates will do could be catastrophic.*

"Buildings only, Governor. The seven minute window for damage is minor compared to having no system at all. I need you to give me the authorization codes to shut it down. It's the only way to save it. Sir, this is our only option. We need to save the colony. Sir, I promise I will not let it fall to ruin. You are going to have to trust me to do my job."

*Alright Lieutenant you made your case. I'll send Operations Chief Daniel Bossa to rendezvous with you at the secondary power station.*

Security and police forces were to covertly and quickly evacuate everyone they could into deep underground environmental bunkers. Raiders hadn't landed yet but they soon would. Comm systems were already being destroyed.

She knew that the pirates would be monitoring and jamming comm-traffic. Despite the distress beacon being sent out, Shepard wanted additional assurance that the Alliance knew of the raid. Before the raiders destroyed the comm-systems altogether she was able to get a real-time message to the only person she knew would be above suspicion by eavesdropping pirates.

She had to be covert, but Mom would pick up on the code. She asked how her dog Jolly Roger was, saying he'd love it here on Elysium. She reminded her mother they were supposed to be on leave together and how soon should she expect her? Hours could seem like days. Mom told her she completely understood her Sam's impatience but she wasn't sure when she'd arrange suitable transport. It might be a month maybe half that. Oh by the way Uncle Sam was in the area he'd like to catch up with his little name sake. She'd relay the message to him on the MSV Black Pearl first chance she got to confirm that he was welcome to tag along for a few hours. In fact he might see her sooner, as he was closer.

Sam said she understood and had no problem with it and seeing Uncle Sam would pass the time faster, anyway.

A young corporal named Julian Uriagus of the Hundred-Thirty-First Infantry had been on leave the same time Shepard had taken hers. Elysium had their police force and a permanent security garrison where they were Shepard didn't know. But she guessed they were near the suburbs holding back the raiding parties. Locally there was the police force. It would have to do.

Both she and the corporal were in the market district when the first sound of fire hit ground. They had scrambled weapons and armor, rushed out of the shop and assembled a small troop of cops.

The blast was almost on top of them. The bombardment took out the Elysium spaceport. Ships and transports became smoldering hulks. A secondary blast took out the adjacent customs and debarkation zone until all that was left was a smoking ruin. Chunks of metal exploded in molten shards. It wasn't a strike of destruction but designed to cause the maximum of terror. Cannon fire lanced through the hanger decks from all directions and new alarms blared wildly. Standard attack: destroy defenses and communications. Block paths of escape.

'Remember your training Shepard. We can't win in open ground, they have the numbers. Closed in spaces, so we have to bottleneck them, deceive them. Hold out baits to entice them. Attack where they are unprepared, appear where you are not expected.'

Uriagus stood at her side in stupor of astonishment. "They took out the whole space Port!"

Behind them were the bands of security officers Shepard had rallied. The majority of the police and security were still evacuating the city into underground bunkers and securing them. They were the last line of defense if the raiders got past Shepard's makeshift team.

"I need all of your eyes on me. There is nothing we can do for them right now. I don't like it any more than any of you but we can't help the dead. The only thing we can do is focus on what we can do for the living. We can stop the raid! They have superior numbers, but they don't know the terrain - you do. They are targeting the defenses. That means we won't be able to hold the central defense command as all heavy firepower will be concentrated there. It is absolutely paramount that we seize the secondary command node before the main grid is destroyed.

"They will target high population areas once all defenses are down. They are scavengers, slavers not monsters, they can be killed, they can be stopped. Remember that. We need to cut them off. We will cut them off. I promise you this, this will not be another Mindoir!"

"How?" A young woman asked her voice quaked with the fear the others were feeling. "You're an N-Seven marine; we're only beat-cops. I'm… I'm only a rookie! We didn't train for this! It's impossible."

"What's your name, Officer?" Shepard's voice took the note of an officer full of confidence in everything she said and did.

"Bannon, Ma'am"

"No you're not a soldier, Bannon, but you did train to protect and serve. That is what you will do. And this isn't impossible. It can and will be done. We win by deception. Right now those pirates are overconfident, just as we need them to be. We use that arrogance against them. They're slavers with no honor or sense of duty. They think they have already won the battle by taking out communications and the space port. They'll be concentrating on harvesting and transporting cargo. I don't need to remind you it is human cargo. That won't happen. I won't let it. As I said we need to take control of the secondary command, and we take out their first landing zone, cripple their transports. Fight guerilla style; ambush them with sniper fire and any heavy weapons we can recover even if it means breaking into the stores of weapon traders and taking them from the hands of dead pirates. Take what we find to the secondary control. We need only to hold them off for the next twenty-four hours, quite possibly only twelve hours. The Alliance will be here. They know we're in trouble. I got a message to the XO of the dreadnought Kilimanjaro personally and the evac-call made a standard distress call to Arcturus. SOP leaves them ten hours away. We are not alone. We need only hold the line until they get here."

Several million lives counted on her to make good on that promise.

The EPD weren't the only ones willing to make a stand, able bodied men and women of the colony took up weapons ready to follow the young lieutenant. Some of their weapons were outdated; if they had armor it was equally outdated. It was irrelevant; they would not allow Elysium to become Mindoir. They believed in Shepard's promise. She sent them to collect as much ordinance as they could find. And if they could manage it, take a chapter out of the Anarchist's Cookbook and make it. They already confiscated riot countermeasures from one of the security depots in the market. Tear gas, concussion grenades, stunners… none of them would do damage to the raiders but it would slow them down and cause disruptions and confusion and that was a weapon worth having.

Concealment was paramount. She had to move her seven conscripts from one covered area to the next. The mission: Take control of the secondary node, and take out the transport shuttles as quickly as possible. Cover wasn't difficult to find nearing the batarian's operations platform in the warehouse district's shipping yard. Fortunate since the fastest way to the secondary command was to take a shortcut through that same district.

The HUD enhanced imaging display on her helmet let her get a closer look at what she was dealing with. Six troop transport shuttles, each carrying a full squad of thirteen, which made a company of seventy-eight. And more were on their way. There was no time for hesitation or fatalistic views. Time was the greater enemy.

"We advance by leapfrog. We take them by surprise and speed. Check your fire." Shepard ordered, "There still could be friendlies out there! Give a twenty count Corporal then advance."

"Aye, aye Ma'am." Uriagus saluted.

Shepard led the first wave. She drew her Hahne-Kedar Lancer assault rifle, activated her armor's kinetic shields and flung up a dark energy barrier in the same breath. She hopped over a shipping container.

A pirate turned hearing a sound; it came as quite a shock to him when his head exploded. Shepard charged a second batarian wrapped her arm around him, snapped his neck, spun around using his body as a shield as she used his own pistol against a third, fourth and fifth pirate. All of them shot in the head. The dead man's gun overloaded, she dropped it and the corpse and continued her charge.

Shepard paid no attention to the corporal's team. She kept moving with two cops at her flanks. One of them was Bannon, the other she didn't know. But he was good with an omni tool and his combat drone.

Pirates distracted by the drone turned fire on to the magenta orb forgetting they were being fired upon by the human. Shepard flung one of the pirates into the air with a biotic slam, another with a singularity and still she kept moving.

Screams of pain and confusion exploded as successive biotic shockwaves ripped through a squad sized number of batarians. Shepard didn't even hear them. Her assault rifle open with wide dispersal tore into her enemies. Dodging from crate to crate: leap over one, slide into cover behind another, she flung bullets, shockwaves, biotic slams and singularities with visceral accuracy.

A warm body wearing the armor of enemy colors stood in front of Shepard blocking her run. She body-checked first by slamming the side of her rifle into his face, spun on the ball of her right leg as she swept his gut with biotically enhanced left roundhouse kick. He fell with a coup-de-grace bullet in his head. She bent down snatched his pistol with her left hand, in the same fluid movement she slammed her rifle into her weapons pack and retrieved her own sidearm.

She was moving now on pure instinct. Locked and loaded she stormed towards the shuttles. Firing without discretion to the left and right causing pirates to take cover. Behind her Bannon and the other cop repeated her actions. One with a shotgun the other a submachine gun. They never stopped running.

Troops dispersed from one of the transports, all of them firing as they charged. White-gold light flickered, her hardsuit's kinetic barrier shields were losing integrity forcing her to rely more and more on her biotic barriers. She signaled for them to take immediate cover before they lost their protection all together. She slid feet first behind a stack of crates.

"Hold fast, give them no ground." She opened fire into the pirate ranks. Her gun locked, overload. "Frack me!"

Five seconds before it cooled down enough to use again. Five seconds was an eternity. No grenades, no heavy weapons, but she still had biotics. Bannon's carnage shotgun blast took off the head of one of the pirates. But they were reinforcing themselves with varren trained to ferret out and flush their prey into their masters' line of fire.

"We are taking this planet, your resistance is laughable! Give up human; we have biotics as well. We are as fast as you are, and as strong as you are!" taunted a batarian voice.

"Yes, but are you as one-tenth as pissed off as I am?" Shepard shot back. Shepard fired biotic shockwave after shockwave into the pirates with ferocious determination. Her biotic barriers blocking most of the fire as she fought to hold her position.

"Nothing can stop them!" Bannon cried out. "There are just too many, Shepard. Too many! We can't stop them all."

"Haven't you been paying attention?" Shepard shot back. "Killing bad guys is what I do. We can stop them. They will stop. There is no other choice."

"There is!" the young cop bleated in hysterics. "We surrender. At least if they take us as slaves we still live." Bannon felt her head pound and her senses shifted. She didn't know what hit her until she saw Shepard's fist draw back. Her helmet took much of the blow but not all.

"Slavery is no option!" Shepard snarled to the other cop staring at the lieutenant in amazement for having stuck his partner. "The Alliance will be here, they will not let us down! We hold fast until they hit dirt. We need to take control of that grid. We take that grid, and we hold! They will come, they will! "

One of the pirates took the opportunity of the argument's distraction to aim a well placed shot into Shepard's chest.

The last of her armor's shields held but shattered in the second shot that struck her shoulder with such force it flung her back against the earth.

Grunting she rose up shaking her head trying to clear cobwebs and stars, just in time to see a varren leap for her. Again instinct drove her; she flung a singularity so hard, so fast the beast's spine snapped in two. It landed with a dull wet thud several meters away.

She rolled, regained her feet, grateful to see Bannon gunning down not only the batarian who shot her but two others flanking him. Rage overcame the rookie's fear.

They were in the thick of it now. Shots came from almost every angle, every position. From Uriagus's direction explosions tore into the ranks of pirates and their varren hounds. Obviously the second team had found themselves a supply of grenades.

"We need to keep moving." She shouted over the din of gunfire. "Come on, we're almost there! Bannon, keep that combat drone activated."

"Copy that." A nanosecond later the magenta orb sprang from the cop's omni tool.

Someone on Uriagus's team did the same; two more orbs came from their direction. The decoys worked like magic, allowing Shepard an uninterrupted path to the first transport. Pirates still aboard moved to intercept; each took a bullet to the brain for their trouble. It was almost casual the way Shepard pulled the trigger on the pistols she still carried.

"You two: take the guns; we need to destroy the other ships." Shepard ordered going for the helm. She dropped one gun, holstered the other as she took the pilot's chair. Engines flared to life. Shepard pulled up on the yoke raising the transporter off the ground, then cranked to the left causing the ship to bank to port.

Cannon fire lanced all around it as the remaining drop-team tried to bring it down. The cops ignored it; they concentrated all fire power on the remaining ships' engines. Shepard fought to keep control, fighting the steering the ship shuddered beneath resisting her touch. She needed to give her teammates time to destroy the other ships. With no shields to protect the other ships it wasn't difficult to rip through their hulls. Concentrated fire hammered into them, causing sparks and smoke to explode from one ship, sending it reeling into the others.

The concussive explosions were immense. Over the warehouse rooftops three conjoined mushroom clouds rocketed into the night air. It was followed by several more explosions sympathetic to the destruction of the transports. Whatever ammunitions were in the unloaded crates were obliterated. Shockwaves of shrapnel and uncontrollable firestorms reverberated like ripples in a pond after a stone thrown into it. More than seventy-five unseen pirates had their lives ended that night. Some torn apart by shrapnel, others burned alive, more merely vaporized by the blast radius.

Shepard piloted the transport away from the warehouses, the destruction would surely bring others, there was precious few minutes to waste poking around the ruins. Still she needed answers.

"Corporal Uriagus, if there are any survivors capture them; see to their wounds, we need to interrogate them."

*Aye, aye Lieutenant,* the young man answered. *May I say Ma'am, you have the devil's own luck at your back.*

"I tend to think of it as making my own luck, Uriagus. Don't take more than seven minutes to locate a prisoner. If you can't find one bug out, meet us at these coordinates."

*Aye, aye.*

Shepard jammed the thrusters forward all the way and the transport rocketed away from the battlefield and carnage below. She had to get to station ASAP. The helm screens blinking warnings at her, the drive generator was shot and there were no shields, fortunately they were only going a very short distance.

From the outside it was an ordinary warehouse. The inside just as ordinary, containing shipping crates just as one might expect. The difference was that one of the massive five meter long cargo containers was a front for the bunker entrance of the secondary defense power node. Shepard keyed in the code that not only opened the doors to the cargo container but popped the hatch of the trap door.

Tapping the side of her helmet she activated its night vision visor so she might actually see where she was going. Bannon and the other cop did the same. She hustled down the metal steps to a second secured door and again paused long enough to type into the keypad the access code. It unlocked with a pneumatic hiss as the meter thick metal door eased open. Light flared causing her and the others to grunt in momentary disorientation as the night vision visors overloaded. Switching them off restored their lost sight.

Shepard kept her pace at a brisk jog along the short corridor beyond the door. Once inside it seemed as if the three had been transported inside the very hub of a power station. Once more Shepard wasted little time reaching her target.

"What's the plan Lieutenant?" Bannon asked.

"I need to shut down the power junction to the core." Shepard moved for the facilities circular core interface.

"WHAT!" cried the cop, whose name she never bothered to learn. "You do that and you doom us all!" he raised his shotgun level with her head. "You're a traitor! You're selling us out!"

"No I'm not, now put that gun down!" Shepard snapped back. "You have to trust me; this is the only way to save the colony."

"I can't let you…" He didn't even finish his sentence before he found himself flung back by a biotic throw that sent his body skittering across the floor like a badly tossed bowling ball.

"Rookie!" He screamed at Bannon, trying to climb to his feet. "Shoot her! She was in on the Goddamn raid the whole time."

"No sir, she isn't." The young woman said. "I know what she needs to do. It's the right thing to do."

"I'll shoot you both. Now back away!"

"I have exactly no time for this!" Shepard snapped. Again he was tossed, this time into a bulkhead with enough force to knock him out. Shepard winced. "I'll apologize later."

Without wasting any more time Shepard activated the hardsuit's omni tool and typed in the access code for the core sending the emergency shutdown sequence that would cut off all power to the secondary grid by ejecting the fuel lines to the secondary reactor. The whole computer system went cold. More than that, it was cut off from the primary power conduit. When the pirates destroyed the primary systems the secondary system was safely isolated. All it would take was a manual reboot to reactivate the entire system. The defense towers, automated drones and mechs at that time would be back online and completely operational, taking the pirates completely by surprise.

Now all they had to do was wait for word that the primary defenses were down.

"Lieutenant," Bannon started hesitantly. "I wanted… I wanted to thank you for what you did back there." She cleared her throat. "You know… knocking sense into me?"

Shepard shook her head. "I only did what I saw my DI do during my N-Seven training to another squad-mate. He went into a panic attack. It seemed to snap him out of it. Pretty harsh, but it got results."

Bannon nodded, "Can't argue there. Anyway, thanks. You're right slavery isn't an option."

Shepard only nodded. "So the other cop, what's his name?"

"Officer Joe Harbison. Normally he's pretty solid guy."

"Good, when he wakes up we'll need that kind of man to help hold this position." Shepard looked at the screens then back to the rookie. "You seemed to know what I was doing and how it works."

"Beat cop doesn't mean stupid." Bannon said almost defensively. "Besides my brother's a computer program designer for the corps, Mom's a VI programmer; I picked up a few things."

Shepard nodded again. "Good, then you know what needs to be done and when. I'm going topside to secure this location. I'll radio when it's time. Keep the door locked behind me, open it only on confirmed code."

The cop nodded her head. Shepard turned heading back for the entrance.

"Lieutenant? What's the code?"

Shepard thought a moment; a smile appeared on the corner of her lips, "Fried shoelaces marinated in spider venom."

"Aint no one gonna guess that one." Bannon laughed.

"That's the whole point." Shepard checked her rifle and slammed a new thermo clip home before turning her attention to the other woman. "Are there any other exits from this place?"

Bannon nodded, "Yeah, an emergency exit that leads from a closet in the office of the director of operations in the cargo processing plant."

"Good. I'm going to find away to seal off the main access point, but keep that one viably accessible. Listen for my call. It'll be a close window."

"Don't worry, I'll prep everything and hit the last sequence when you radio."

Shepard nodded as she opened the door leading to the corridor just beyond.

"Lieutenant… good luck." Bannon called after the young officer.

Another nod tossed over the shoulder. "You too." She closed her eyes once, whispering a prayer to the Goddess Danu before ascending the steps, whatever was topside, she was most likely going to face it alone. A whole damn swarm of pirates. Time to face it.

Shepard sprang through the outer door of the hidden bunker into a blanket of deep fog…

Fog encapsulated the six companions evaporating the warehouse district. Before them a pyramid glowing in black-purple light of eezo, bringing the conscious back to the present.

"So that's how she started her career path of doing the impossible." Garrus commented earnestly impressed.

Aleena too was impressed. The young woman in the memories barely looked old enough to leave her mother's side. 'Baby-faced' the human's called it and she now understood why the term was coined.

As soon as their collective equilibrium stabilized the fog returned.

They did not choose to announce themselves. All that was required was the harvesting of organic material. They were only components. It was all that they were.

Izu-Chuan studied the screens, the data wasn't lying. So many systems had already fallen. Countless people found themselves homeless after the Reaper's preemptive strike against the colonies; the waste was awash with wanderers, thieves, and madmen. And of course, children: lost, uprooted, orphaned. They and worse than the other groups falling prey to illness, starvation and marauding gangs of the Lost. Occasionally, one would stumble upon such groups in devastated cities or natural shelters—caves, patches of forest, oases—forty or fifty strong, banded together like some feral family. Ancestors help those who tried to disturb their new order! The minds of the indoctrinated slaves of the Reapers had so degraded they became brutal savages, more husk than Prothean. No longer useful as slaves for the Reapers and so they had been abandoned, left to their own dismal devices. They were the Lost.

More disturbing than refugees of the Lost were rising of hives of Collectors. With the Lost a bullet to the head, a singularity to the spine and they were killed. But it took far more than that with the Collectors. And no one out ran the seekers

Izu-Chuan laughed at herself. She was supposed to be the Regent of the Cluster. She already lost one three planet system on her watch. Now they were in her personal system. Sytau was already taken; Faros and Quena were next on the target list if things progressed as they were. Izu-Chaun sent the evacuation notice even knowing it would do little good. The Collectors had weapons that knocked ships out the stars with nothing left but bits of shrapnel.

The Lost gave the Collectors all the coordinates to the Systems controlled by the Empire. The Lost, a name given by the Great Assembly to the indoctrinated as if swept everything away nice and clean: the fools.

The Great Assembly were adept at covering things up so that majority of the populace never knew the truth about the abductions. It worked for centuries. Fools! If they had just acted sooner! They were so far removed in their pretty white tower on the Citadel they lost touch of the truth of what was going on in the fringes of Imperial space. Now it was too late. No doubt they now wished they had listened all those centuries ago when the warnings first came.

But they dismissed them first as ranting of the Guardians who had seen too much battle. The Guardians were the justicars of law and order of the Empire, highly respected and honored. They traversed the entire Galaxy righting injustices. When a few of their number had gone into the outer rim of the galaxy trying to discover why obscure colonies were going missing they had come back mentally unstable, according to the Great Assembly. But the rumors continued to spread like a pandemic. The Great Assembly assured the Empire the vanishings were nothing more than raids of pirates and slavers, or of the splinter group: the Watchers. When whole colonies within the inner core systems started disappearing in such vast quantities, not to mention the sickness of the Lost, (those that became known as Monsters of Id,) the Assembly was forced to act as a cover-up was no longer possible.

Alarms rang throughout the base. Izu-Chuan looked up from the screens. "So, they have come." As dispassionately the Great Assembly decided to ignore the warnings all those years ago, Izu-Chuan watched the militia scramble to the UAV flight pods. In their desperation was their hope. The UAV's had laser and microwave weaponry. They also had more traditional weaponry including. a 105 – to 120 mm cannons with a range of 1.5 kilometers; a 120- to 155 cannon with a range of forty kilometers using 'smart' guided munitions, 120 mm mortar and a 25- to 50mm auto cannons. They were efficient and prolific deterrents against most enemies. They could even stand up to most Collector weaponry for a short time. But the end was inevitable. The city would fall as had all the others. Still the unmanned drones bought time enough for the Regent to fortify the sanctuary long enough to get the most essential personnel safely inside the cryogenic- stasis units within the vinculum. Even if their bodies were destroyed their minds, their souls would be saved into the avatars.

Not a plan so dissimilar to Ksad Ishan's concerning the conduit and the Citadel on Ilos. He laid all his hopes on a single AI: Vigil. Izu-Chuan was more pragmatic than her idealistic colleague. She could save far more lives with the Avatar Program than any notion of sleeping their way through the culling of the Reapers in some vain hope to live beyond the cycle of extinction. The cycle perpetuated with the aid of the Collectors. Vigil wasn't the key to salvation the avatars were. The vinculum was the pinnacle of the Prothean dynasty and the only assurance of continuation. The vinculum collected the consciousness of those who had submitted to the program. The avatars though synthetic were fully articulated bodies, a perfect husk for the consciences to be temporally housed. Once the threat of the Reapers had gone genetic clones of the individual were to be created by the avatars and the consciences transferred into a true organic form.

Izu-Chuan's Avatar Program wasn't to save from primordial future race from the cycle of extinction or lock the Reapers beyond dark space once they retreated. No, it was to preserve the sanctity of the Empire, its people not just their history in scattered data disks and beacons. She meant for the Empire to live on in its people.

Izu-Chuan turned back to the screens she had been monitoring. Outside the swarms had thickened. The screams coming from the audio feed were not as deafening as the sudden silence. She watched the harvesting. Watched the Collectors snatch bodies that had been frozen, unable to move, placing them into cocoons. Jaw like locks closed around the victims sealing them away forever. She watched as the desperate few still free ran to the temple; forcing the door open with brute biotic force. She watched as they stormed the aisles, looking for the hidden entrance to the sanctuary. She watched them bang on the wall until their hands were bloody. No amount of biotics, no amount of clawing or pounding would open the sealed entrance.

Dispassionate eyes looked to the table near the consoles at the four sconces she had taken from the wall. She had sealed their demise. She forced herself to watch them attacked by the seekers. She watched as they were taken by the Collectors. It was her penance. She watched until the temple had been cleared of bodies. She watched as the city was emptied of her people. The screams of the terrified, of the dying forever burning in her ears, locked forever in her mind. Then Izu-Chuan tuned her back on the monitors, walked towards the vinculum, into its light and disappeared as it swallowed her whole.

Silence weighed heavily in the momentum of truth revealed. The sound was so soft at first it was difficult to make out what it was, where it was coming from. It was the sound of weeping. And it was coming from Shepard!

"Samantha?" Liara cradled her wife tightly, there was no response only weeping. "SAMANTHA!"

The Spectre muttered in Prothean, begging to be forgiven for so many lives lost, for living, for those taken by the Collectors. She wept for the destruction of so many. She wept for those that could not be preserved.

"She's locked in the despair of that memory." Aleena said. "You have to pull her out of it. Try appealing to her, to your Samantha. Reach for her own memories. You must pull them out or this despair will destroy her. These memories that are not hers will take over and she will be forever lost to us, to you. Liara you may have to be forceful, but it must be done. The more potent the memory however painful, or traumatic the greater the chance of success. If you can, try to access those of her time during the Skillian Blitz. We've seen the start of them; perhaps they will be nearer the surface."

The younger asari nodded. "Forgive me beloved for what I must do. I will be as gentle as I can. Know I love you with all my heart. You are my bond-mate, my forever." She pressed her helmet to that of Samantha's. "You're military my love, even if you still do not wear their uniform. You take and give orders, now you will take this one: you will return to me. That is a direct order."

Williams watched in silence. The bond between her Skipper and Miss Prothean Expert was strong, unbreakable. She knew it was strong enough to pull Sam out of the nightmare fog of memories. 'I can't step into that perfection. I can't.'

"Wait!" Ash shouted. "Just wait one second."

All faces turned to the lieutenant.

"There isn't much time." Aleena warned.

"Yeah, I know. But we're about to see some pretty private and probably very intense things about a pretty private woman. Shepard needs our discretion. We make a promise right here, right now never to talk about whatever it is we see. If she wants to, fine but we don't bring it up between ourselves or to her. Save for you Liara being her wife and all. She will probably need to talk to you about them. But for the rest of us, we don't ask questions. And we don't allow what we see to affect how we relate, talk, or see her. Agreed?"

"Agreed," No voice was left out or hesitated in answering.

Liara looked to her wife's Trusted. "Thank you."

Ashley looked down at woman lying in the asari's arms. "It's my job to protect her six. Sometimes that means protecting her on all sides, even the hidden ones. Especially the hidden ones."

"That is an oath I believe we all share." Tali said earnestly. "She will always protect us, watch out for us. Now we protect her, watch out for her."

"Liara," Aleena prompted. "It's time. Get our captain back."

Initiating the meld didn't take physical contact especially between the young couple. "Samantha, let our minds merge, come back to me beloved. I have to find you, it will not be gentle. Forgive me, my heart."

Fog swirled around them once more.

"You're a little freak!" a boy taunted pushing down a very small black haired, blue eyed girl.

The four year old climbed to her feet, tears running down her face. "I am not!" she wiped her eyes and runny nose with her sleeve on the back of her arm.

"Yes you are. You're a freak! A mutant." Another boy jeered and again pushed the girl down, this time hard enough that she smacked the back of her skull against the floor of the class room. "You shouldn't be allowed around us normal kids, Freak! I wished you stayed away. You should have stayed lost when you ran away yesterday. You stinky Freak! When you were born your mommy should have spaced you."

"Better yet your daddy should have flushed you as a baby down the toilet," said the first causing the others even the girls in the playgroup to laugh.

When Sam tried to stand again she was shoved back down. "You know when MP's find out you're a freak, they WILL space you, like they do all freaks. But only after they cut open your brain to see what makes you a freak. They don't want you mucking up us real humans." A third boy laughed. "Freaks are like lice, no one wants them."

"You're not a real human." One of the girls said in a sing song voice. "Real humans aren't freaks."




Tears streamed down the girl's face. "I AM NOT A FREAK!" she screamed. Her body began glowing blue. Sam pushed her tiny hands in front of her wishing the mean boys away. "GO AWAY!" All she wanted was for them to leave her alone.

And they went! Three eight year old boys went flying backwards with such force they slammed against the far wall. None of them moved, they only groaned in pain. The four year old Sam pulled her knees up to her chest and cried. Muttering over and over she wasn't a freak.

Fog swirled once more changing the holographic cinema playing before the companions to shift and alter with a new memory.

Thirteen year old Sam pressed her back against the bulkhead of the common room of their family quarters. She knew it was wrong but she needed to know what was going to happen. She had suffered another flare-up today. Fortunately it had been at home and gained only her mother's attention but it was enough to send her mother in a near panic. The migraine that followed had been so debilitating Sam had been given leave from attending school for the rest of the week and spent the whole day in her rack.

Now her parents were in their bedroom discussing it. Sam dreaded what was to come. She didn't want be sent away. She heard stories about biotic kids disappearing, taken away by men in white coats. She had read up on it on the extra-net-- how parents deep sixed their kids because to be a biotic was to bring shame to the family.

"I've made an appointment with the Armali Council for Sam. I'm getting her implanted with biotic-amps. "

"Implanted…Hannah? You actually want her to be one of those… those… people? Why? No, amps, they must have suppressors, something to deaden it, something stronger than the drugs. Hannah think about this, those amps will make her...they will worsen her condition."

From outside Sam bit her lower lip. Implanted with amps….did that mean she was going to be sent away after all. Mom…Mom wouldn't send her away. Dad…Dad might but not…not Mom.

"Don't John, just don't. I'm not going to argue with you about this. Not this time. I can't stand by and watch her suffer. The mediations and meds aren't working anymore. Today…today was bad. She called me Mamma today. John, she hasn't done that since she was ten! She's my baby, and I forbid her to suffer anymore. The implants will help regulate her abilities."

Sam listened, her mother was near tears. Her mother never cried…she was always so strong, so potent. Sam wanted to be just like her when she grew up. To know she was crying hit Sam hard. It was her fault her Mom…Mamma was so worried. Sam looked down at her hands, they were glowing blue.

"Damn it, not now!" Sam hissed at herself.

"They have schools, places that can deal with this sickness," her dad said.

"It isn't some goddamn sickness John. She's a biotic. It isn't her fault. Stop treating her as if it is. And stop blaming me."

"Biotics is a sickness Hannah! She isn't normal…she will never be normal!"

Sam winced when she heard the slap. She knew her mother had backhanded her father. It took a lot to piss her mom off that much; Sam had only seen her strike a batarian like that once when they were on a space station.

"You say anything like that, think anything like that again Jonathan Shepard and I swear to my ancestors spirits I will divorce you." Hannah snarled. "I swear it!"

Sam's body shimmered in blue. "No! Control it. Center the mind. Focus, Sam. Focus…" she clutched her fists until her fingernails cut into her palms. "Take control…you idiot." The shimmering dimmed slightly, blood dripped to the floor at her feet. "I'm in control…not the…biotics."

"Hannah I'm…I'm sorry. You know I love our daughter." Her father took a deep sigh. "Maybe you're right, get her the amps. But you know I'm right as well. We can't keep hiding this and we can't do it alone. We need to send her away to one of those institutions. They have this program called BAaT…"

"Brain camp? You do know it's run by turians? No, I won't send our Sam there. Not only no, but hell no. No turian will get their talons on my little girl. Do you think for one moment they won't do something to our children because of the war? If you don't then you're a fool."

"Then there are other choices. Han, be reasonable and hear me out. I was approached by an officer from the Cerberus project. He said there is a special program for kids like Sam. They're looking for biotic kids." Her father suggested. "They are more than willing to take Sam. He said she could go under a special scholarship, we wouldn't even have to pay for it. "

So Dad wanted to send her away! She knew it. Damn it she should have had better control. Concentrated more…she had slipped…she failed.

"Cerberus? That's worse than Brain Camp. N-Seven special forces are one thing, black ops wet works is another. Branches like them give the military a bad name. They were the type of people strapping bombs to dolphins back in the Twentieth. I don't trust them. I won't let them touch my Sam. No one takes my daughter, John. No one! I've seen those pamphlets you've been reading, and I will have none of it. I'll go AWOL and run with my own child before I allow anything like that. I've taken care of it. I've already hired a freelancer." Hannah said in a tone reserved for commanding junior officers or when Sam broke the family regs. "I made the FTL call this afternoon after I had to sedate my baby because the migraine was too intense for her to bear."

"Wait a goddamn minute you won't send Sam to a governmental institute but you will hire a mercenary to teach her?" anger returned to Dad's voice. "You're a damn fucking hypocrite, woman."

"Not a merc, dull stone. A legitimate licensed mentor. She came highly recommended by the Armali Council as well as an asari High Priestess, the same one who helped her when she was just a babe. In fact the asari mentor is coming from the priestess's own bastion. The matriarch promises extreme discretion, but she wished it both ways, and I agreed. Besides whom better to instruct the ways of biotic abilities and gifts than those naturally born to it? Sam isn't going to be sent away, she needs her Mamma…she needs her Daddy. She needs that kind of solidarity when everything around her is changing. She needs an irremovable centre."

There was a long pause.

Sam held her breath. 'Please Danu, don't let him send me away, please don't let him send me away. Please let this mentor thing work out…'

"Okay Hannah. Okay."

"You do of course realize you have no choice. I love you John, but I love Sam more. Duty came before family and Sam comes before you. She always will."

There was another pregnant pause.

She heard her father whisper dejectedly, "I know, Han. I won't interfere in this, even if I don't like it."

"Sam honey, come in here. You know if you lurk outside doors someone may think you're up to something." Hannah Shepard tried bringing levity to her heartbroken child despite the fact she knew it was futile.

Sam obeyed immediately. "Yes, ma'am." She entered her parents' bedroom with her head down, her long black hair covering her face, ashamed that she had been caught eavesdropping. Ashamed that her Dad had never considered her normal…she just wanted to make him proud, make them both proud. But she was biotic and it brought shame to her family. She knew Dad never wanted a child in the first place, when he didn't have a choice he wanted a boy…when he got a girl, he wanted a healthy normal child and she…she was a biotic. A freak.

"I'm sorry…I'm not normal. One day I'll make it up to you, Dad. One day you'll be proud of me." Sam whispered her promise. She looked up meeting her father's saddened eyes, "Right now I'm just me, sir. I don't know how to be anything else."

Part 29

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