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 31
Knights, Promises and Beliefs

In the elevator heading down to the labs Shepard tilted her head side to side relieving the tension building up in her shoulders. "So how just how did you get me back to the ship?" her question was generalized relating to anyone of the ground team with the answer.

"Once Liana proclaimed you free of the vinculum I carried you, Captain." Garrus answered. "While Williams was able to fling you over her shoulder in a fireman's carry, I was simply able to carry you rather like a child. I have to say, so fully armored and so fully armed you are remarkably light weight, Shepard."

"Smooth Garrus, real smooth." Williams teased. "A woman always likes to know about her weight."

"I was only stating a fact." The turian defended. "With all she was carrying, Shepard is not nearly as heavy as I thought she would be."

Liara placed a hand on his arm. "If I was you, I'd stop right there, or you are going to need a very large shovel to dig yourself out. My bondmate is not known to take such things lightly."

Garrus's mandibles fanned out in embarrassment. It suddenly occurred to him that he was the only male in a very small-very confined space filled with five women, and if looks could kill... Perhaps his words should have been better audited. "I….I… I'm stopping now."

The others laughed, including the Spectre. "I appreciate the intent, Garrus." she said light-heartedly letting him off the hook Having carried Ash over her shoulder in heavy armour and fully armed in the extraction on Virmire the Spectre could truly appreciate the comment for its practicality.

Entering the lab, the Spectre wasn't surprised to see the table in which the geth head rested upon encased behind a forcefield. What did surprise the woman was the state it was in - practically obliterated. And that was being polite. One side of its flashlight head was crushed as if it had been made out of aluminium. What wasn't smashed in looked as if it had been blasted with a plasma ray - melted metal and wires hung out of the carapace like so much slag.

Shepard spun around giving her wife a look of appreciation for the sheer biotic power she wielded. "Damn…" she gasped turning back to the remnants on the lab-table. "You must have been seriously pissed off."

Shiala only stared at the remains. To do this the young maiden had to have summoned massive amounts of inner energy. She had only heard of matriarchs doing such things; Benezia came to mind. The powerful matriarch had done something very similar as a demonstration of her power both to the geth and the krogan warlords Saren had taken on Sovereign. Only it was a colossus the matriarch had pulverized with her biotics not a prime, but still…to have that much power coursing through the younger asari was noteworthy indeed. Was it because Liara was pureblood or was it because of the gestalt or was it because of the knowledge of Prothean biotics in the cipher's memories? A combination of all? This would need study.

"You should have seen her." Williams piped up. "Flash of blue then bang! That clanker was sent into the side of the pyramid in chunks of shrapnel and slag. There was barely anything left of the body itself. Most of it was imbedded in the walls of the sanctuary and in that pyramid vinculum thingy. One thing is sure; you don't screw around with Miss Prothean Expert's woman."

Liara blushed slightly at the praise and the truth behind the words, 'I am protective of what is mine. Just as you my love. I understand your conviction to play the role of protector far better now than ever before. When you were becoming lost to me, there was no greater need within me than to protect you.'

Liara felt a flush of awe and wonder emanating from her bondmate. Sam had no words to say to such a vow of devotion. Her silver tongue seemed quite tied up. Her mind boggled: when had their roles shifted and reversed? Wasn't she the one who was the Spectre in shining armour? Wasn't Liara the fair maiden? Perhaps that cool reserved role of protector was always there, simply cloaked by the soft voice, innocent doe eyes and gentle demeanour. Or perhaps the pregnancy simply unleashed the mamma bear within.

"Is any of what Vigil was recoverable?" Sam brought the subject back to hand.

"I can attempt it, but I have my doubts, Shepard." Tali said. "The positronic brain is fried as is the memory core. The only thing this piece of scrap is now good for is research and study into the geth. Vigil is gone Captain, anything we have left of the AI is the data files we saved to our hardsuit computers and OSDs."

"Crap." the Spectre muttered. "The Council's going to love this."

Liara looked slightly abashed of what troubled censured path lay in store for her bondmate in the Council chambers, it was only a fleeting expression. Something in her eyes revealed she had no true remorse over the destruction of the synthetic. It had crossed the line and dared bring harm to her love. Beyond that haunted look there was something more, something far colder that spoke of similar fates should anyone else dare do the same. They would burn…they would burn until there was nothing left of them. May they find peace in the embrace of the Goddess for they would find none in Liara T'soni.

"Well maybe they'll be so distracted by our new little friends they'll forget all about Vigil." Williams said optimistically. "Hopefully first contact with them will be a hell of a lot better than it was with us and the turians. God knows those buzzards like to bomb everything in sight."

"I'm standing right here, Lieutenant." Garrus said

"I…I only meant Trace. He's always riding the Skipper's ass about everything she does. Everyone knows just because she's a human he never wanted Shepard to be a Spectre."

"Right. Of course that's what you meant." His mandibles twitched in amusement for having caught the young woman out. Not that the ex-C-Sec officer blamed Williams. There were plenty of his fellow turians that still felt resentment over the humans' swift rise to power, both political and in other areas of government service. Since the attack on the Citadel the humans practically ran C-Sec. No doubt there were Ward Intendents candidates that rallied the other races to 'take back their Citadel' during their up-coming election campaigns.

"Speaking of them, I'll have to meet with Weareth'Bol and prep them for their conference with the Council." Shepard commented.

The others traded glances with Liara, who in turn looked at her wife with concern awash in her ever expressive eyes. "Do you truly think that is wise, will this not aggravate the condition?" she said.

"I won't sustain a prolonged connection, you can monitor it. But I'm the captain, I initiated first contact, they trust me. So yes I have to be the one to go in, and wise or not I am. Look Chakwas said to meditate and to take a more aggressive motivation to train my biotics further. This is a step in that direction."

"As well as two in the direction she said to stay away from." Liara argued.

"This conversation is over, Liara. And that goes for the rest of you as well. I am not some earthbound wallflower." Shepard folded her arms over her chest her own azure eyes burning with the icy aura of command. "I'm not in Klencory's Ee-Zo polluted atmosphere. Nor is this a Prothean device. Besides, if I have a flare up you'll pull me out. End of discussion," her tone taking on more of the command voice none dare rally against.

The Spectre looked back to the disembodied head of the geth. "Take what you can from it Tali, then space it."

"Um, Captain I was wondering if I could not send it back to my father. He sent me a message telling me he's heading a scientific team researching the geth. The information we recovered was a great boon of fortune. It's given hope to the Flotilla that one day we may be able to take back our home world. If I make sure it is safe for transport will you allow it?"

"You're looking for vulnerabilities in their defences." Shepard said more than asked.

The young quarian nodded. "Will you allow it?"

"How will he pick it up?"

"I can send him a missive on a drop-point. Perhaps on Illium, though the Flotilla isn't allowed near the planet individual scout ships are allowed to trade."

"Why isn't the Flotilla allowed there?" asked Williams.

"For the same reason we are heavily scrutinized anywhere we go. The other races tend to think of us as thieves and scavengers. Why should one planet be any different than any other? You think it is difficult being a human amongst the Citadel races, try being a quarian." Tali said, her tone unusually venomous. "The only time I found complete acceptance among other races is here on this ship and that's because it's your ship, Captain."

Shepard placed a sisterly hand on the younger woman, leaned in and whispered, "You're family Tali, and besides you're the best engineer I've ever seen. Better than Adams and he's very good. Hell he even asked me once why you aren't the Chief of Engineering; he told me he feels like a bloody novice in comparison. I want those little miracle working hands here on my ship, holding her together. I know if I gave you a circuit board, hunks of metal and some Ee-Zo and you'll have it making jumps in no time."

Tali grinned behind her helmet. "You better believe it, Shepard."

"As for the geth head, yeah go ahead. I suppose if we encounter any more geth in our travels there will be bits left over from it. If you make damn sure it's safe I'll allow you to do the same. Not whole bodies, nothing that can be reanimated. We're treading on a thin line of ethics here, Tali. I know it's hypocritical at this point considering what we did with the geth-prime and Vigil but I don't want to go further down that road. It can lead to all sorts of war-crimes that are too easily justified. I did it once, I can't do it again. And I won't."

"I understand. I promise I'll ensure it is safe," Tali vowed. "I won't endanger this ship or my Flotilla. My father would never do so either. We just want to find a way to neutralize the geth and take back the homeworld. I know it will never happen in my lifetime, that it's only a pipedream. My father once promised to build me a house on our world, even if it is a fantasy I want to believe in it. But perhaps the future children of the Flotilla will know the soil of our true home."

Shepard found a sad smile forming at the corners of her mouth. She had rarely heard the young engineer speak with such passion before. Her heart wanted to help Tali's father make good on his promise. It was impractical as it was improbable but the urge was still there. "We'll do what we can."

"Thank you, Captain!" the youth in the other woman shining through in her excitement.

"So am I right in guessing there was nothing truly salvageable in the prime other than the head?" the Spectre asked.

The others save for Shiala shook their heads.

"Like I said Skipper, it was mostly slag and shrapnel. Liara gave it one hell of a biotic punch. If she can do that, I think she's been holding out on us." Ash commented.

"Or perhaps she had not previously been properly motivated." Shiala voiced her thoughts for the first time. "It is not uncommon for bonded asari to display very protective natures when their mate is in grave danger. Add the factor of the pregnancy which furthers those more aggressive displays and desires to protect your family."

Liara felt a hand upon her arm. No words or thoughts exchanged the message was all in the touch. Sam understood all to well that burning desire to protect. She had felt that way for a long time even before they were true lovers. When Liara was taken down by one of Benezia's commando's Sam practically became lost in a berserker's rage.

"Speaking of protection, Captain there is something I need to speak to you and Commander Shiala about." Williams said.

"I get the feeling this is going to need a bit of privacy." Shepard said.

At the nod of the younger woman's head, Shepard gestured for the others to leave the lab. Liara was about to follow the others but was caught short by Ash's hand on her arm. "You may as well stay, there's something else we'll need to talk about after this."

"Ash what's going on?" Shepard questioned leaning against one of the lab tables with her arms neatly folded over her chest.

The young marine took in a deep breath, "Okay. Skipper, I've put a lot of thought into this, and you've given me a great chance to rise up above my grandfather's legacy. And I feel I have risen to the occasion at least I hope I have." Ashley had worked so hard to gain Shepard's respect, it was something she valued practically above all else, nearly more than her family's name.

"Ash?" Shepard unfolded her arms; her stymied expression steadily became one of concern.

"What happened on Klencory and then again in that cursed sanctuary proved it, you don't need me as your XO, you need me to be at your six. Skipper you and I both know what the regs say about the commander and the XO being deployed in the same mission and on the same ground team. Despite the fact we have…" She shrugged. "Look Shiala's been grounded since her pregnancy and she's been doing most of the more administrative aspects of the XO's duties anyway and most of the crew have already started to see her in that role. Why not make it official?"

"Ash, you actually want a demotion?" Shepard was agog. "You've earned your place as a lieutenant… as well your position here on the ship as its XO. I would never have given it to you if I didn't for a moment believe you couldn't handle it."

"I know. It's not going to be a demotion. Not exactly. Look I just…" she sighed. This was more difficult than she had imagined. She wanted to convey her deepest thoughts logically but the words were all becoming jumbled, making her feel the fool she sounded like. Or at least in her more self-critical mind it was thus.

"She does not desire to be parted from you in battle." Shiala explained knowingly. "This I understand. I felt the same when I was serving Matriarch Benezia. Sometimes a huntress prefers to be at the side of her commander in battle rather than in command of her troops and parted from her."

"And what of you Shiala, you are already shouldering the duties of CAG. If you become XO a new CAG will have to be chosen. Even grounded as you are you fulfil that role remarkably well." Shepard said. "I'm not saying I'm opposed to this change of position, but think of what this will look like in your files, Ash. It will appear you cannot handle the pressures of command." Shepard pointed out.

"Not if you document the truth." Liara said. "You need her as your Two-IC in the flagship ground team and such a position is prohibited for one individual to be both the Two-IC of the same team the captain is on and the XO according to Alliance military regulations. You are placing her where she most effective. As Ashley stated - covering your six. " 'And I am more comfortable knowing she is there for you when I cannot be.' Liara added through their bond.

"Who then shall be CAG?" Shepard asked for recommendations.

"Two names come to my mind, Captain." Shiala said. "Both are excellent pilots, strategists and can take command. While young Naga'sadow has an amenable personality and will easily conform to your style of command and she is highly adaptive to improvisation during battle. The other is a matron, more fixed in her demeanour but has skills in leading others and bolstering their courage. She is in fact on your own ground team."

"Morwen." Shepard concluded.

"The same."

The Spectre nodded. "Any other ideas? What is your assessment of Russan Vos? You flew with him in battle over Ilos, Shiala. What's he truly like under the pressure of combat?"

"As all turians he follows the orders of his commander even if he doesn't like them. He might complain but he will follow them. He is highly observant and watchful of his allies in theatre. I would go as far as to say he has a knack perhaps even a sixth-sense for tracking the actions of both enemy and ally in a dog-fight. He seems a capable enough ranking officer. The others in the air-group have a healthy respect for his abilities."

Once more Shepard seemed to mull over the offered name. She knew his record as a fighter-pilot it was one of the reasons she had recruited him. That had he had once served with Garrus and the former C-sec officer seemed to have an open respect for the man was also a recommending factor.

"Place Morwen in the open spot in air group, and Russan as its CAG. For now it's a probational position, neither he nor the others need know this. If he doesn't work, Morwen becomes the CAG. Ash, Shiala set the paperwork in motion, I'll sign off on it."

Ash was grinning widely. "Thank you Skipper." a breath later, "I…I hope I haven't disappointed you."

The Spectre shook her head. "To tell you the truth I was wondering how long it was before you asked for this transfer. I sort had a gut feeling it was going to happen, just not when." the older woman smiled back.

"You…you knew!" Ash stuttered. "And you didn't tell me?"

"Hell Ash I know you prefer shooting things with your boom-stick apposed to playing watch-dog over a ship and pushing papers while the skipper is groundside playing in the muck."

Ash's smiled brightened as she let out a breath she felt she had been holding for a millennia. The pent up anxiety she had been holding back for some time had become terrible—toxic and she wanted rid of it. To do that she had to she had to confront a rather weighty elephant in the room. One not so easily dispatched as the other had been. It had been her rather late night conversation with Priestess Kerubiel that had been the catalyst to tackle the issues setting as a stone in her heart.

Not long after the crew returned from groundside, Ash had come to the chapel…seeking she didn't know what… answers perhaps. Wasn't that where you were supposed to go when you were lost? The chapel was warmly lit with several score of candles something it seemed many religions had in common. Rosewood incense burned near one of the altars off to the right where a smallish golden Buddha was nestled, similar scented incense smouldered near an emerald -marble statue of Athame mounted upon a fraxon shark in the opposite corner giving the chamber a comforting atmosphere rather than cloying.

One of the first things Ash did when she entered was go to the small tapers of white candles, set the wick a flame with a whispered prayer that her Skipper would be okay, and five by five in no time. Her chocolate brown eyes watched the flickering flames of dozens of offering candles, mesmerised by their silent dance.

"The Captain is resilient; she will pull through this new dilemma. Have faith in our good doctor and her skills." A soft voice interrupted Ash's inner thoughts.

Ash turned to see Priestess Kerubiel approach, garbed in the snug fitting black robes of her Order. She wasn't wearing exactly the same sort headdress Benezia had sported but something akin to a nun's cowl. "Isn't that a strange thing for someone of the Cloth to say? Aren't you supposed to be telling me something religious and full of piety?"

"Am I?" the asari smiled a grandmother's smile despite the fact the face that expressed it was still quite young looking. She looked maybe to be in her mid-thirties but one could never tell with an asari. She could be well over five hundred years old for all Ash knew. "And what solace would that give you now? Have you not already offered a prayer to your All-Mighty? You came here seeking answers to questions you do not want answered and yet need them nevertheless."

The young lieutenant almost got lost in that comment until she deconstructed it and found herself agreeing with it. "Yeah you can say that again." Ash shook her head, her gaze still fixed safely on the flames of the burning candles. "What are your thoughts on a trinity?"

"Trinity?" Kerubiel cocked her head. "I gather this is not a theoretical theological query. You speak of an asari bonded trinity?"

"Er yeah ... sorry I should have clarified that."

"Bonded trinities are exceedingly rare. They only occur when three hearts have truly bonded and find only pain in separation. By asking me this question am I to gather that Captain Shepard and Dr. T'soni have asked you to join their bonding?"

Ash nodded silently.

"You lament over what is right in accordance to your Faith and what you desire?"

"Yeah. No. Not exactly. To me…that sort of thing is simple, you don't mess with the sanctity of marriage and yet Liara's faith allows for it. Even the Skipper's does. She was raised as a druid for crying out loud. Miss Prothean Expert even pointed out there are or rather were more than a few polygamy agreeable religions on Earth that supported this practise as well."

"Those faiths are your not faith." The priestess concluded. "And this troubles you?"

"What troubles me is that I'm so damn tempted. One of my sisters asked me once if Shepard were a man what would she be and I said without blinking an eye the love of my life. Before her I never was even drawn to my own sex. I mean I ...I was curious when I was a teenager. Any girl tells you otherwise is lying. But Lynn is the bonafide Williams lesbian not me. Then I met Shepard, served with her and …I found myself drawn to her.

"Skipper has a way to make you see things, believe things you normally wouldn't. She can turn the world upside down and inside out. Falling in love with her wasn't part of the plan. Then she goes and gets married, is about to be a mom…and then of all things when I think I got a handle on my emotions, Liara comes and presents this blasted trinity thing."

"This I suspect becoming involved sexually with another woman is not that which waylays you. Liara, then. You have a history of not trusting non-humans. I can imagine being intimate with one is disconcerting. Do not look so astonished lieutenant, that I know this. When I was assigned as a part of the clergy of this ship I made myself quite well aware of the nuances of all her crew. I cannot other wise perform my theological duties if I am blind to the ideologies of each crewmember."

Ash shifted her feet. "I trust Liara implicitly. I trust the other's on my ground-team with my life."

"That is not an answer to my question."

"I care for Liara." was all Ash offered.

"T'is obvious you've made up your mind Lieutenant Williams, they await your answer do they not? Go and do what needs to be done to settle the matter once and for all. To linger so does a disservice not only to yourself but to the two women waiting your decision."

"Sam." Ash tempted the rarely used first name of her Skipper. "Liara, I have to say this now. There is something between the three of us that needs to be resolved."

Shiala knew this was one conversation she need not be present for, with a slight bow she said. "I'll inform those directly affected by the new orders personally and note the changes in the ship's logs, Captain."

Shepard returned the comment with a nod. "Thank you, Shiala." Her eyes however never shifted from Ashley.

Ash looked behind her and moved to a small flight of stairs leading to the upper deck of the laboratory and sat down, with her elbows resting upon her knees. It wasn't long before both Sam and Liara followed suit. Neither one of them uttered a word, preferring to wait for Ashley to speak.

Ash opened her mouth then closed it again; her words seemingly vanished in the air like so much smoke and vapour. For a moment she almost wished her long black hair was free from the regulation bun so it would fall forward and veil her face. Unfortunately she had no place to find cover overall not a good defensive manoeuvre

"Ash we're completely off the record, whatever you need to say you're free to do so." Shepard placed a hand on her friend's arm.

Ash took in a second deep breath. "Yeah, I know. That cursed sanctuary put more than my position on this ship into perspective for me it put our relationship, the three of us into perspective as well. Inside I went as apeshit as Liara when that fracking clanker outlined his intent. Liara was faster on the draw but God help me I had my rifle out and aimed ready to blow that toaster into dust!

"Then we saw those memories-- first those of that Prothean woman then yours. Liara was so desperate to pull you out of those of the Regent, we all were. But Liara…when she held your still form as she did … I knew the truth. She's your wife and you're hers. But that word wife…it's too weak to carry the truth of what you two are to each other. Wife is such a small word, such a common word. You two are so much more to each other. Sam, I can be your Galahad but I can't be your Lancelot. I won't. I can't." Ashley raised her head her dark brown eyes met the cerulean of Samantha's.

"I do not know the subject of the metaphor but I think I understand the context. You are refusing the Union of the trinity." Liara said.

Both humans nodded. Shepard reached over and squeezed Ash's hand, holding it for the moment. It was she who gave the explanation.

"A long and beloved story of Earth. It refers to King Arthur Pendragon and his knights of Camelot and his Queen Guinevere, the Holy Grail, Excalibur, and Merlin, the Lady of the Lake and of Avalon and Morgan Le Fey. There are many versions of it. Perhaps too many. But one aspect of the story is central to them all. There was the once and future king of England, her High King. His name was Arthur, he had one knight beloved above all others, his friend, brother in all but blood, and they loved each other. Lancelot was the greatest knight of them all. None could match him in his prowess in battle. But for all his glory Lancelot was fatally flawed." Sam explained. "Arthur had a wife, the beautiful and in many stories she was more than simply beautiful she was intelligent and a political strategist, a true match for Arthur. Her name was Guinevere.

"The king and queen loved each other greatly, but the queen had desires for Lancelot, and he for her. As I said there are many different retellings of the story, but this is also central to it. Lancelot and Genevieve betrayed Arthur, the man they both loved and had an affair. It broke their friendships, the marriage; in fact it shattered their 'trinity.' Though in time the friendships were restored the bond the three once held was never truly fully healed.

"There was however another knight, who sometimes is far over-shadowed. His name was Galahad. He loved his king as deeply as Lancelot and was as devout to his oath to service to his king. Galahad was not the greatest of the knights but he was the truest of them all. I would go as far to say he was the most noble." Shepard let go of the younger woman's hand only to place it upon Ash's shoulder. The meaning clear.

Liara remained silent for a moment before she addressed the younger of the two humans. "Is this truly what you want? For once this is decided…it is a finality, Ashley. Be certain of your heart in this. Is this what you truly desire? "

Ash touched Sam's hand that was still resting on her shoulder before rising up only to kneel before Liara. She took two blue hands into her own. "It is Liara. But I wanted to…needed to thank you for your offering, your willingness to sacrifice. You can't know what it means to me."

Liara leaned foreword slipping one of her hands free to caress the young human's cheek with such tenderness it shocked Ashley to her core that she had actually welcomed it. "You are still family, Ashley. You always will be." She bent forward touching her lavender lips to dark red. "You are dear to us both."

Ash didn't know what startled her more: the kiss or that she was responding to it! Liara ducked back breaking the kiss and gave a look to her bondmate nodded once then gently turned Ash's head so she was looking at her skipper. She slipped past, leaving the two humans alone knowing they needed this moment for themselves.

"Skipper…I…never wanted to hurt you, but please don't try to change my mind on this." Ash said firmly. "I'm okay with it, truly."

Sam said nothing, she took Ash's face between her hands, leaned in closer, so close they could feel each other's breath. Their eyes locked in acknowledgment of sacrificed love, and much more…

Liara had given them this one small moment, it would not last long. Sam's arms were so strong, so warm, her hand touched Ashley's dark hair in the softest of caresses. She leaned in taking her own kiss from Ash's lips. A kiss that wiped away all dark memories, past fears and sorrow: a kiss sealing away a desire that was never given true birth.

Ash felt her heart slam into her chest, her breath a gasp, a moan, a plea. Her hands grabbed her never-to-be-lover's black almost blue hair pressing hard and hungrily into the kiss. Time slowed, each felt as if they were already falling, drifting, intoxicated. For a long wonderful moment they were just Sam and Ash.

Sam's own moan of desire escaped her swollen lips before she pulled gingerly away. It was her first and last kiss to share with Ashley. Sam breathed in Ash's scent, memorizing it before letting it go.

"Galahad it is." Sam smiled sadly yet accepting Ash's heartache decision, her voice soft like a summer breeze. Her lips kissing the tears in Ashley's eyes, knowing full well her own eyes had shed tears of their own Ash was her ground-team's second-in-command, her occasional sparring partner, a woman who saved her ass in a fire fight more times than Sam cared to count, but knew she would time and again without a second's thought.. Ash was her Trusted, her unborn child's godmother, not least of all her truest and closest friend.

"Galahad," Ash uttered in a strained whisper. Her throat thick with emotion.

"What further have you discovered from the refugees we recovered from Virmire?" demanded a cultured aristocratic voice.

"Some of the effects of indoctrination are as the old HAARP." Henrico Vorschslagg said to the holographic interface of the Illusive Man.

The Man himself was seated upon something very akin to a throne, simple in design but a throne nonetheless. A burning cigarette held eloquently between two fingers before he took a long drag, breathing in the cloying smoke allowing it to fill his lungs before letting it out. He removed the cigarette from his mouth with his other hand, tapped the ash off into ashtray inset in the left arm of the throne. He watched his young protégée with keen interest. Though he had summoned the doctor to this conference he allowed another to chair it, figuratively speaking.

"Harp?" frowned a young woman with shoulder-length raven black hair and storm grey eyes. Her arms were folded over her ample chest. It was evident from her expression she had no liking for the scientist. So far his Shocktrooper Project had a decidedly large fail rate. If you took into consideration the majority of his facilities had been infiltrated and destroyed by Spectre Shepard it wasn't hard to figure out why. His rachni, thorian creeper and husk shocktroopers had been completely wiped out by the woman.

In fact it seemed the more recent projects have gone down hill, the Shocktrooper, the Ascension Project; and long before that Project Zero was a massive bust. Ensuring humanity not only survived but thrived was a risky business. One the Illusive Man took quite seriously as did the young Miranda Lawson. So seriously in fact she was willing to hear out the bootlicker if only because her illustrious leader saw value in the man's science. Even if a project failed it brought a wealth of knowledge to the next. Project Zero was restarted under the Alliance's own Ascension Project. The 'bestial' shocktroops led to the enhanced clones.

"HAARP as in High Frequency Active Aural Research Program." Vorschslagg explained: his scouse dialect as thick as ever. "It was a joint program manned by the American Air Force and Navy back in the late twentieth early twenty first century. They were conducting experiments to prove the viability of certain technologies Nicola Tesla discovered, including mind control. It is definitely possible to impair rational thought and induce certain moods - aggression, paranoia - through radio frequencies.

"They discovered that using ten Hertz will induce mood swings and migraines only. For thought control you'd have to be able to hook into brain frequencies - the Theta waves, which are in the seventy Hertz range. The indoctrinations of Sovereign probably piggybacked its mind control frequency on an ELF wave. Extremely low frequency. That was how both Sovereign and the thorian indoctrinated their minions including that asari matriarch. If we amplify the WNISCE with something more akin to ELF and HAARP, I believe we will have hundred percent success rate and forestall the madness our subjects in the WNISCE have been experiencing."

"Your WNISCE subjects have failed to meet expectations." Miranda declared coolly, her upper-class Australian accent gave her voice a sound of arrogance. "How can you guarantee The Illusive Man that your ELF-HAARP subjects will fair any better?"

"The WNISCE, is successful in human subjects, Operative Lawson." the scientist answered defensively. "They were more open to suggestion and control. We all knew using the asari was a calculated risk. It was assumed with their high adaptability, unique nervous system they would be more open. Look how many of their commandos were so easily indoctrinated by the Reaper ship. Not only them but a God-cursed matriarch witch as well. The rumors of their mental prowess are well deserved. The krogan, turian and salarians subjects went utterly mad or completely docile. Neither option is viable for shocktroops. In the end they were no better than the rachni and we were forced to euthanize them.

"May I remind you Lawson not all aspects of the Shocktrooper Project have been a failure. Indeed our human enhanced subjects are coming along marvelously well. Using Saren's tank-bred krogan clones as a base my team has devised a plan to use the HAARP program into tank imprinting our own unit of clones. They will be just as enhanced as the original. In addition their bodies will be augmented by cybernetics. I promise you will have your shocktroopers."

"How many viable units can you create, Dr Vorschslagg and how soon?" The Illusive Man demanded.

"Twelve within the month. More if we forgo the cybernetic implantations."

"No. I want them fully ready for testing."

"Sir?" the scientist frowned rubbing the back of his neck. "Against whom do you plan to test them?"

"The bane of your Project, Doctor. If they can not stand against Shepard, what hope is there to stand against the Reapers and their agents?"

This time the scowl on the British man's face deepened. "You mean to set them against the Spectre? But why? The reapers are only a class of geth dreadnaught ships."

The Illusive Man took a long pull from his cigarette, but did not answer the question. He cut the communications having nothing left to say to his subordinate.

"This is more than a test for the new shocktroops, this is a test for Shepard." Lawson reasoned.

This brought a smile to the Man's lips. "Indeed."

Again it was Lawson who spoke, seemingly to answer her own question. "If she can't stand against Vorschslagg's shocktroopers, she can not stand against the Reapers or their agents."

"Very perceptive."

"Despite her motivations, Shepard is humanity's best hope of survival. She did everything right, everything we could ever hope for and more. Saving the Citadel, even saving the Council we've earned the respect of the entire galaxy. And still it's not enough. They are sending her after Prothean trinkets to fight the geth. The geth! We both know they are not the true threat. The Council and the Alliance would never follow Cerberus, but they would follow Shepard, she's a hero, a bloody icon but she is just one woman. If we lose her humanity might well follow."

The Illusive Man touched a button on the armrest's computer counsel activating a small hologram of the human Spectre. He was fascinated by her. She was unique. Not just in ability or in what she experienced but in what she represented. She stood for humanity at a key moment. She is far more than a soldier, she is a symbol. He didn't know if the Reapers understood fear but she killed one that they have to respect. He certainly did.

"Then see to it we do not lose her." He ordered staring at the image of the woman, smoke circled around the Illusive Man's head like a crown.

Miranda was devout to the Illusive Man, a hardened follower of Cerberus. She owed them so much, not least of all her freedom from her controlling father. Her father created her to be the perfect woman with the only intent she was to be his legacy. Her mother was a test tube. She was created to be smart, beautiful and ruthless. She fled after discovering the truth. It was the Illusive Man himself she ran too, for she knew her father to be a major investor in Cerberus. In return for her freedom from her father, she promised servitude the Illusive Man and had quickly become his favourite operative.

Miranda owed more than her own freedom to the Illusive Man she owned her genetic twin Oriana's freedom. The girl was now with a loving family knowing nothing of her origins or in fact Miranda herself. When the Illusive Man ordered her to secure Shepard, Miranda had not hesitated. To do this however was no simple task, which was why no doubt it was left in Miranda's very capable hands.

The Illusive Man had already started the ground work for Miranda's mission though mostly unknown to the young woman. She needed credible deniability. Allowing Udina to run his hunt and the creation of the Shepard-Caesar in the eyes of the public had been the first step. It would take just a seed, just a spark and the flame would roar to life and would infect like a disease. The Spectre's course had to be set, must be set - directed so it led directly to Cerberus. They would be there for her when the love of the public, the Alliance and the Council were no longer hers.

Alone in their quarters, Shepard stood before her workstation looking at the collection of a dozen or so miniature starships. Her mind mulling over Ash, the decision regarding the trinity, seeing Liara first kiss Ash and then kissing her herself.

'You endure you're heartache well my love.' Liara sent through their bond. She wrapped her arms around the thin waist of her bondmate.

Samantha turned in those arms and kissed Liara warmly upon the lips, savouring the soft silken texture. "You think I should be bound to despair?" the Spectre shook her head. "No. We agreed we would yield to her decision in this. My heart would be broken had Ash decided to join the trinity out of loyalty rather then what was in her heart. And she is right, it would not have worked. You two do not share the same feelings for each other. Caring from one another simply isn't enough. While I do love her, my heart is yours, there in no room in it for another. Our daughter…holds her own place there as she does in yours but that is hardly the same."

"I must admit, I was conflicted then in what I felt for her as I am now." Liara confessed. "She is a balance."

"A Balance." Sam repeated the word. "Yes she is that. But perhaps we misunderstood that role…as you said she is family. Liara I told you no lie when I said I was …am attracted to her, that I have feelings for her. But when I touch you, feel you, draw in your scent, hear your voice I am blind, deaf and dumb to all others, for there is only you. That isn't fair to her, to you or me. It would destroy us in the end. Still…there is something there."

"She has a place in our lives," Liara whispered agreeing with Sam's earlier remark, "but not the place we believed. Love is not diminished."

"No not diminished."

Liara knew without asking that both humans had shared a kiss of intimacy. She had deliberately tugged at the threads of their bond almost inspiring her bondmate to share such a touch. It was why she had kissed Ashley first; it was a blessing of sorts to take this moment, for there would not be another. Liara knew well that moment would not be carried beyond the kiss. Not simply for the metaphor of knights but because it would be a betrayal of what was drawn into consensus and promised. Ashley was Samantha's most 'trusted knight', much beloved but not to be the lover.

Part 32

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