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 33
Ambushing Truth

Shepard opened the silver case Liara had been carrying and withdrew both the Device and the Hive. She handed the hive to her wife while she handed the Device to Williams. She had thought to hold the artefact herself but thought better of it. She wanted her IIC's presence there to be more than window dressing. She wanted the Council to see the importance and trust in the role the young woman held. It was a trinity but of another kind.

The amphitheatre was considerably smaller than the main reception area where Shepard had typically spoke with the Council. But it was no less grand. Cherry tree saplings newly planted grew alongside their blossoming elders. The scent of freshly mown grass permeated the air mingling suggestively with the blossoms. It was pleasing to the senses, presumably to all species to have been granted such personal audience. A psychological ploy to place the petitioner into a false sense of security making them on a subliminal level more susceptible to the will of the Council. It was not unlike the carefully staged scent of fresh baked bread, cookies and freshly brewed coffee that leads people to spend more credits while shopping.

Where the dais was located in the chamber's big sister there was a small presidium stage minus the curtains. The wings however drifted off into shadowed areas no doubt constructed for the dramatic effect when the Council members opened hidden doors and entered the stage proper. Indeed twin doors opened revealing Councillors Trace Ba'lor and Jorg Velarn coming on stage left while Lei'cree Tevas and David Anderson came from stage right.

"Agent Shepard," it was Lei'cree who spoke, "you bring us welcome news with your cementing an alliance with a new species. Not to mention the uncovering of lost knowledge and technologies from Ilos as well as ensuring they remain out of the hands of Cerberus."

"Yes the list of your discoveries was quite extensive," added Jorg, "and impressive."

Shepard gave a dubious look to Trace half expecting the turian to make an off-handed snide remark, but he remained strangely and rather diplomatically silent.

"My crew know what they are doing. My science and engineering teams have been working around-the-clock to harness this knowledge and tech to use against the Reapers."

"Ah yes the Reapers." Trace made quotation marks with his fingers; it looked oddly strange with one taloned digit on each hand. "There is no conclusive evidence of the Reapers, only what your mind has conjured up."

"Look at the wreckage C-Sec uncovered before the scavengers got to it. Surely you must realize this is far beyond the geth." Shepard argued.

"The geth are remarkably technically advanced. This new dreadnought is clear evidence of their adaptability." Lei'cree said evenly.

"They didn't create that ship." Ashley interrupted. "Goddamn it but you people are so blind."

"I would remind you it is a courtesy only that we allow two of your crewmembers in this audience, Shepard. Remind them to keep their places." Trace snapped. "Or we will order them removed."

"Stand down Williams." Shepard ordered. "Apparently the Council still wishes to live in denial. And they have forgotten just what it cost to keep them alive as well as the Destiny Ascension. "

"We have not forgotten the sacrifice. Councillor Anderson's joining of our ranks is proof we have not. And while we are forever grateful we can not blindly accept your prophetic words as truth." Jorg said. "You were misled during the war with Saren just as you are now."

Shepard glared coldly at Lei'cree. "Councillor Tevas, you melded with my mind. You saw some of the images from the beacons and you saw and heard Sovereign's own words."

"What I saw are memories and while not false they can be false-positives on the truth. They are what you perceived to be true so they are true to you. Saren was a compelling and charismatic man; he made the geth believe his words just as he made you."

Shepard snorted. 'Bullshit!' her mind screamed. Liara actually started from the telepathic expletive. "First I never found Saren to be either compelling or charismatic. Maybe it's just me. But I find those trying to either covertly assassinate me or kill me out right unattractive. I'm fickle that way," she gave them all a pointed look as if daring them to accuse her of believing Saren's 'lies'.

"Then it is the beacons that have made you mentally unstable." Trace shot back. "Let's not forget that gestalt event you had with your bondmate. You cannot deny this had an intrusive effect on you as well as her."

For an instant both Shepard and Liara flashed pale blue, their biotic energy flaring to life almost as a spark of lightning on a distant horizon. Just as quickly it flashed out of existence. It almost could have been imagined. Lei'cree glanced to Trace with an expression discernable as suspect. Knowing perhaps the outcome would be exactly as it had played out. Verbally assault Shepard, herself you get next to nothing in reprisal. Go for her bondmate and there is an immediate retaliation almost unconsciously. The link between them…their bond while not completely uncommon amongst asari especially the purebloods it was uncommonly strong for a mixed race bond.

"Now hold on!" It was Anderson who interjected, his voice having all the command it once held when had captaining a starship. "I won't let you railroad Shepard like this, nor Dr. T'soni. One thing has little to do with the other. The truth is there to see. We all know Sovereign is not of geth construction. White-washing the truth to the civilian population to avoid mass hysteria is one thing but to outright deny it is dangerous. For all of us."

"Perhaps Sovereign is not wholly geth. Your discovery of the truth of the missing Leviathan of Dis explains much do you not think? It is a more logical conclusion and scenario than a race of sentient starships coming to harvest all organic life from the reaches of dark space. Consider this: the derelict Reaper is hi-jacked by the batarian pirate Edan and his associate Dr.Qian. Qian's research uncovers hidden indoctrinating properties of the dead reaper's AI. Something Saren obviously took advantage of for the past twenty years. He must have been making an alliance with the geth by proclaiming himself as the prophet of a long extinct race during that entire time. His using the Prothean beacons and the cipher gave him the name Reapers and the insight into how they died. Armed with this knowledge he fabricates a new reality. He gives the geth the husk of the dead ship. They in turn repurpose and assimilate it.

"You might not have found him either compelling or charismatic but many did. How else was he able to convince one of the most respected and exalted leaders in asari space to unite with him? Yes, she was indoctrinated - we understand this. Her autopsy proved the extent of brain-damage she suffered while under the influence of extensive indoctrination. It was why we acquitted her and her disciples for treason. It was how Saren even turned the geth to his will. Did you think we blindly believed the geth who despise organics would follow him because of his words alone?

"We will not deny Saren had access to tech that allowed him control over others. A piece of ancient tech that he himself didn't fully understand, no doubt was used to hack into the geth collective CPU. We are repurposing ancient Prothean technology; this does not make us Protheans because we use their ancient knowledge, technology or space stations. It is reasonable to assume the geth have done the same. Ask yourself Specter Shepard is it not a more likely scenario that the geth and not some ancient vanguard are the true enemy?" Lei'cree argued serenely, her calm demeanour giving her words more weight and plausibility.

When put like that, Shepard had to agree that it was a more logical and conclusive argument for Sovereign. It raised bile in her throat to even entertain the idea that it was a more preferable version of the facts. The geth were a known quantity, a known enemy. It was a sound argument; one Shepard might have bought if she hadn't known the truth. The Reaper threat was real. They were coming. Sovereign was only the vanguard of the harbinger of galactic destruction. Her only true ally on the Council even found himself compelled by his counterpart's words. But he trusted Shepard. Anderson knew deep in his gut the threat of the Reapers were real.

"All right say that's true. Then the geth know how to manufacture more of those dreadnoughts based on what they took from the derelict Reaper just as we have taught ourselves how to backward engineer Prothean tech." Shepard started to play the game.

She became more sharp as she spoke: "You have the public believing that Sovereign is a class of geth dreadnought…hell you are decrying all I have said trying to make me sound like some lunatic crying out the 'sky is falling' just to cover your collective asses. Fine. But you can not ignore the fact based on your own argument that there will be more 'Sovereign'," she said, glaring at Trace as she etched the quotation marks in the air "class dreadnoughts out there. Which means more ships with Reaper style technology and it means more AIs with indoctrination capabilities. Hell it's better to turn your enemy into a friend and use their own knowledge against them. Our militaries must be ready to face that threat. Not liking it doesn't make it any less real or any less of a threat!"

"Which is why you've been sent out on missions to recover tech and weaponry capable of doing so." Jorg said. "And you are not the only Spectre deployed on such missions. Our other agents have been quite successful. As has the garrison we've deployed at Ilos under the guise of an archaeological colony."

"This is true." It was Anderson now speaking. "In conjunction with the other Council races and its flotilla, Alliance military have been deployed to hunt down and pacify the geth threat." Shepard turned to her former captain, studying him with appraising eyes. Perhaps for the first time since he took up the role as Councillor in a new light. While he always was enigmatic about his past even about certain mission details he sent her on, this was a whole new level.

"As of two days ago we lost a ship in the Omega Nebula, somewhere in the Amada System. They were sent there to rout out geth strongholds. We need you to investigate its disappearance. We have had no further contact either from survivors or an emergency buoy. It is presumed all hands were lost. If there are survivors they are no doubt stranded without communications."

Shepard frowned at this information. It derailed her upgrade plans for Victory as well as the needed surgery for herself. But she could not deny the importance of a rescue mission. "No other ships have been dispatched?"

"There was a salarian merchant ship the MVS Oraearon in the system. They reported only debris of a frigate matching the description of an Alliance ship. They scanned for life signs but found only those of animals." Jorg commented. "While it is an important mission it is not a top priority yet."

"Not a top priority? You said it yourself if there are survivors they are without communication capabilities… There may be caves capable of masking their life signs Liara spoke up, voicing her concerns. "In fact I've been in such places. The one on Therum was one such cavern."

"There is something more isn't there?" Shepard said. "Do we know who shot down the frigate?"

"Not precisely. It could be geth but given the fact it was indeed the Normandy it may well be someone looking for you." Trace answered. "Cerberus, the bounty hunters Udina sent after you, mercenary groups like the Blue Suns, the Eclipse and Blood Pack to name but a few."

"The Normandy! You think bounty hunters could take down the most advanced ship in the Alliance military?" Ash snorted in disbelief, her contempt for the Council clearly displayed in her dark brown eyes. "And if she was hunting geth, she was cloaked."

"Your subordinate continues to be problematic, Shepard." Trace didn't even acknowledge Williams in his dressing down. Apparently Liara speaking up hadn't upset him nearly as much.

"Maybe, but she does have a point. No mercenary ship is capable of putting down the Normandy. A geth dreadnought armed with Reaper weaponry isn't out of the realm of possibilities. Is there any other information? Did the merchant ship report anything out of the ordinary? Any dark energy radiation as was found over Eden Prime or the battle here? It's a very distinct signature unlike any weapon that a pirate or other paramilitary group might have access to. If it was geth armed with Reaper tech it will show up in the scans."

Inwardly Anderson smiled at his protégée's inquisitive nature and deductive reasoning. "The merchant ship did pick up higher than normal traces of dark energy yes. They couldn't account for it. For now that isn't the concern. The Normandy was targeted because it was your ship. They must have believed you were still its commander. If it were mere pirates or even the geth why didn't they go after the merchant ship as well? It was the Normandy they deliberately targeted. This is cause for some necessary action albeit unorthodox."

"Unorthodox?" Shepard repeated the word. She didn't like the way Anderson uttered it or to the allusion of a more clandestine motive behind it. "Who's working on six month old intel? Alliance Military, the Council flotilla all know I'm the commander of the Victory. Certainly Cerberus has its spies they must know I wasn't the Normandy's captain when it went down. Udina had to have told them."

"Nevertheless, whoever it was has access to very unique and very powerful weaponry. They believed you were on the Normandy and shot it down deliberately. We need to play on this assumption." Lei'cree said.

"Shepard, you're not going to like it but as I said it is necessary. We reached a consensus that misinformation is our best avenue. To that end you will have to play the Huckleberry Finn card." Anderson looked exceptionally uncomfortable relaying the request. He knew precisely how the young marine would react. Not well.

"What!" Shepard snapped. "You can't be serious! You want me to fake my own death?"

Liara and Williams traded glances with each other before turning their incredulous gaze on the Council. Each wondering when it was they had all gone completely mad. Their expressions a mirror of the Spectre's own from disbelief to outright inflamed anger.

"Rather as I have come to understand the context, the reports of your death and the fall of the Normandy have been greatly exaggerated. The hostiles that destroyed the Normandy already assume you are dead." Jorg stated calmly. "There is another human saying: 'rising from the ashes as a phoenix.' The Normandy must rise from the ashes if only to smoke out the enemy from the shadows and take from them that which they wanted most. To this end the Victory's IDC will be changed to Normandy.

"This is insanity." the Spectre hissed. "No one will believe that! It's ploy that is so transparent even those born blind will see right through it."

"You mistake the intent. Whether we on the Council like it or not you and the Normandy have become a symbol, an icon, one that rallies both civilian and military alike. Both you and your ship are heroes," Trace admitted grudgingly. "It is not the attempt to simply deceive the enemy but to bolster the morale of the populace of Citadel Space. They can not lose their heroes so soon after the war, or the spirit of their heroes."

"Shepard, you and the Normandy are connected you always will be, just as Eisennhorn and the SSV New Deli, Nelson with the HMS. Victory, Van Vakenburg and the USS Arizona, Cook and the HMS Endeavour, Lidanya and the Destiny Ascension." Anderson said. "Shepard and the Normandy."

"I was taken off the Normandy and given the Victory." the Spectre answered. "And the Normandy is destroyed!" Something in her broke a little at that. Her old ship, her first command. Anderson must feel it as well, she thought, his last command before he embarked on this new life of diplomacy and sanctioned deceit. She caught his eye for a moment and knew that he too grieved, not so much for the crew who he had not known, but for the ship, that fine brave ship that deserved so much better than this. One day soon they would meet and raise a glass to her, the SSV Normandy, but not today. For now she would have to bottle up that grief and let it lie and mature until there was time to feel it properly.

"No the SSV Victory was destroyed. A ship re-named for the victory over the Citadel. The use of information and disinformation is ultimately the path of power. To push others into an unreal world is a balance of that power. It facilitates what is necessary to keep the peace." Lei'cree said. "In this case a ship not at the battle over the Citadel must masquerade as your former ship or rather the spirit of it. If the greater populace ever discovered the truth of the fate of the Normandy the morale fallout would be disastrous. It gives our enemies a foothold within our territories it is something we can not afford either the geth or Cerberus to hold."

Shepard pondered the words said and not said. She knew why she had been given a new ship detached from the Alliance; she needed to be autonomous from their command. She understood the power of morale and symbols as well as the need to facilitate discretion and even covert action to keep the civilian public in the dark for their own safety. She might not fully like it she understood it. Despite how ludicrous she found this sudden drive to keep the name Normandy circulating even if it wasn't the same ship to bear the name she understood this as well. What she couldn't quite work out was why they just hadn't swapped designations when she took on the new ship – why this sudden sleight of hand months later?

"If I am so connected with the Normandy why then didn't you simply christen the Victory as such and change the IDC of my former ship to that name instead? It's a little late in the game to be calling those kinds of shots," the Spectre pointed out. "It's not like you can turn the noise level of this down, even if you black-out the intel of the fate of the real Normandy." She looked at each Councillor in turn, her eyes coming to rest finally on Anderson. "I serve at the discretion of the Council but I don't see how you can expect me to pull this off."

"We laid the foundation for this a month ago by leaking the information to certain news networks as well as various extranet sources." Lei'cree continued. "By special request for nostalgia's sake you will ask the Council for special dispensation to be allowed to call your current ship the Normandy while asking that the ship that led the triumph over the battle for the Citadel be rechristened as the Victory as you feel it should be the honor. It will also be your desire to establish a small armada with the 'Normandy' as its flagship on a hunt and destroy mission of geth insurgencies."

"The Council then took the time to deliberate over this request and after much review and negotiation with the Alliance Brass it was decided by all concerned to humour or perhaps the better word is to honor our newest Spectre and grant this rather unorthodox request." Trace's mandibles flared in what could only be called an ironic smirk on the avian face. He knew as did the others, Shepard would lose favour with the lower echelons of the Alliance military for her 'request' as well as her precarious standing with her sister and brother Spectres for requesting and being granted such a special privilege. Imagine the conceit of wanting the flagship of a small armada renamed for the ship that truly led the victory over the citadel. The bullshit was piling up so high you needed wings to stay above it.

There was no doubt in Shepard's mind this whole scheme was the turian's idea. He seemed in desperate need to tarnish her sterling reputation for the crimes committed by one of his own race who was supposed to be one of the greatest Spectres to serve the Council.

'Hang on…hang on.' her hind brain gave her a good swift kick in the ass as it caught up to her rage. 'Stop thinking like the typical jarhead and use your fucking brain, Shepard. She said small armada! A small armada…you will have a small armada! Think of it. It will be the foundation of the flotilla needed to face the Reapers. Keep your teeth together you idiot and agree. Yes it's an insane order, but you're going to get an armada. You need that so do the smart thing, Shepard.

'HA! That will serve that bastard Trace right anyway. He wants you to protest, he wants you to make a noise about this. So you're not going to. You're going to respond to him just like you did with that hard-assed bitch at Arcturus. You took all that drill sergeant's crap because well there was no other choice other than to ring the bell. If you rang the bell you were finished, drummed out of the N-Sevens. And you are not going to ring the bell, Shepard. You didn't then you're not now. You will put up with it all and do it gladly. Trace is the bell, that's how you have to think of him. And you're not going to ring it.'

All of these thoughts ran though her mind in a matter of seconds. She knew what her reaction had to be. She snapped to a rigid stance of attention with a crisp pristine salute. "Actually as you presented the case the more sound it becomes. Admittedly the public needs a symbol to rally behind. Names have power." At this she turned her gaze on Trace and gave him a gleaming smirk. It said: 'The game is up you right bastard. No matter what you do to me, what you say, I won't ring that fucking bell.' "Raise up the Normandy if you must. Besides as you said I will need such a rallying point in my armada when the time comes."

Trace's mandibles flared slightly in irritation. But there was nothing he could say to this. She actually agreed with them! He had contrived to push her into insubordinate behaviour but she wasn't taking the bait. She completely bypassed the slippery slope he intended to put her on by going down that hill on a surf-board and waving at him as she did.

Anderson knew inwardly Shepard was seething. She'd object on the principle that they were hiding the truth of what became of the crew of the true SSV Normandy. They were only doing this to save face, to keep their trophy. He understood her objections completely, even sided with them. It gulled him as much as it did her. But he was like Shepard a soldier born to the uniform - it was bred into him just was it was her.

There were some orders you could object to and be given leave not to follow. You were taken off the mission. It might put a black spot on your record - might not but you had a choice. There were some orders where your objections were duly noted but you still had to follow them, no choice. If you didn't follow you got court-martialled, in a time of war it meant you were shot. This order was the latter and Shepard knew it. Like a good soldier she obeyed. Shepard would never be anything other than a soldier: a Spectre. She was a bond-mate…a wife, she would become a mother but under it all she was a soldier through and through and she followed orders.

"It is impossible to describe through words what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face. And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and mortal terror are your friends; if they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies." The Illusive Man spoke almost as a sage to his twelve new soldiers who stood at stony attention. His hologram blinked once as the transmitters tracked his physical movements.

The words once spoke to one of his ancestors by a man who knew what was truly necessary to win at war. The words had been written down in a journal and passed down through the line of his forbearers until at last they came to The Man The Illusive Man had memorized the words, dedicated half his life to fully understanding the true meaning behind it all. The man who first quoted these words had been a genius to grasp and utilize such necessities.

"To win you must have soldiers who are moral and at the same time able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without remorse, without judgment. Without judgment, because it is judgment that defeats us." He continued to quote the ancient words as if they were biblical script. "The progress of history requires butchers as well as Shepards."

Not a single man spoke, nor did they move, they didn't even seem to be breathing. Their naked bodies perfect examples of men in their absolute prime. All of them identical, the only distinction between them were subtle differences in the barcode tattooed upon the inside of their wrists and the back of their necks. They were numbers only both to themselves and to The Illusive Man. Vorschslagg's tank-bred clones were ready for the penultimate test.

"Obedience breeds discipline. Discipline breeds unity. Unity breeds Power. Power is life. Life is Humanity's survival. Survival is Cerberus. Cerberus breeds Obedience." The Illusive Man told his neo-soldiers.

"Sir!" they all chorused with the same voice.

The Illusive Man turned his back on the men so he might address Vorschslagg's top assistant. Wilson was a man who in his own right was a brilliant physician and especially groomed for Cerberus's greater projects.

"Deploy them." He cut the holo-transmitter not even waiting for an affirmation from the medic.

The plan was simple enough: drop the twelve soldiers on a batarian trading colony, their orders - to covertly terminate all non-combatants by dismemberment and then pull out. If they faulted in the mission, the project was a failure. Vorschslagg and Wilson knew one more unsuccessful trial not only would the project be terminated so would they.

Just as Shepard ordered, the remaining members of the ground crew had dispersed and travelled the Wards two by two. Garrus escorted Tali around Zakera Ward, while Wrex took Abby around Tayseri Ward leaving both Aleena and Shiala to wander Kithhoi Ward.

The turian turned to the young quarian at his side. A part of him enjoyed her company that wasn't on the whole at a professional-comrade-fellow crewmate level. She had a pleasing narrow waistline, beautifully wide hips; the double joints of her legs were exquisite… He smacked himself in the head with the palm of his hand for entertaining such ideas. Williams and Adams would have his hide for those types of thoughts. And after he lost his hide, Liara would burn his bones to a crisp by a simple flick of a wrist. And she wouldn't stop there either. She'd turn his gizzard to slush with her biotics. And then there were the things Shepard would do to him that didn't bear imagining. Yes, thinking of Tali with impure thoughts lead only to pain. A great deal of pain. Over a great deal of time.

"What's wrong with you" Tali asked innocently, not knowing where Garrus's line of thought had led him.

"Nothing!" the former C-Sec officer nearly snapped trying to cover up his embarrassment for being caught out. "Just…nothing. Lost in thought. Nevermind."

Tali frowned. She didn't believe him but dropped the matter at least for the moment. "If you say so."

"I do. I just thought of something, that is all. An idea popped in my head, something I …forgot... When I was on patrol there were times we turned to more unorthodox measures of seeking information that doesn't involved the Shadow Broker. There are those who see things and yet are unseen themselves. They scuttle and scurry. They hear and see but remain completely unacknowledged."

"You make them sound like some kind of vermin."

"Near enough. They are called duct rats. I don't know who coined the term first others or they themselves. Doesn't matter."

"What's a duct rat?" Tali asked thinking it didn't sound very hygienic or appealing. The way Garrus spoke about them reminded the young woman of the vorcha. A truly undesirable prospect to be sure. Vorcha were the true scavengers of the galaxy barely sentient enough to scramble a few words together to form a sentence. They weren't even intelligent enough to create their own ships, tech or weaponry. What they didn't scavenge they stole and killed for. Krogan were intellectual giants in comparison.

"Duct rats are the children of the more impoverished regions of the Citadel. They get their name because they hide out in the ventilation ducts all over the Citadel."

"Isn't that dangerous?" Tali's lips took on a disapproving line. As an engineer she dreamt of all sorts of horrible ways to die trapped within the ventilation shafts of a space station.

"Very. But the more we try to evict them or find their nests the deeper they go into hiding. Sometimes we'd find a little body broken by a fall or crushed by the intake fans, sometimes sucked into the vacuum where sections of the station do not need life support. Sometimes a keeper will find them and they go disappearing into their protean vats. But the rats know the station probably just as well as any of the keepers

"Most of them are petty sneak thieves, pick pockets, graffiti artists, beggars. Nothing too serious in the crime department and if you want backstreet Intel you find a duct rat. You have to pay for their 'services' but it's dirt cheap in comparison with legit information brokers."

The Ward was not the pristine space Tali was used to on the Presidium. The crescendo of noises became ponderous settling as an unwelcome guest within the eardrums. It was the white-noise of thousands upon thousands of lives all buzzing about their independent course. The war had left its destruction behind in wakes and waves. Shoals of workers busied themselves trying to put their world…their home back into some semblance of what it was before Sovereign's blitz.

There was work for those who didn't mind hard labour. Thousands of unskilled labourers formed an army that had been assigned the more inglorious tasks of debris removal and recycling. Many more were assigned the arduous tasks of construction. The pay was good too for the more dangerous salvaging and construction jobs, jobs generally reserved for those who knew that they were doing. Then of course the keepers would come along and make bulkheads seamless, it seemed the insectiod custodians suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. Anything out of order, discoloured or seemingly out-of-place and they reacted with almost hostility - if hostility could be termed in actions of scurried construction, rather re-construction in the frantic actions of ants evicted from their hill by a deluge of water. Of course most of their efforts were done when there seemed to be no one looking. It was as if they didn't want to be noticed making things proper, not unlike a doting parent clearing up after their child's grade-breaking science project that wouldn't quite make the mark.

"So where do we find these duct rats?" Tali finally asked.

"I have to make a call."

The quarian looked at the male next to her curiously. She didn't say anything. She didn't exactly wish to point out her ignorance on the subject of how one contacted juvenile delinquents running around in the air ducts of a space station. But obviously it was something quite achievable or Garrus wouldn't have pointed it out.

Garrus led the way keeping a close guard on his partner. He knew the eye of every C-Sec officer they passed were on the woman at his side with suspicion. It was if they preconceived all manner of crimes Tali had committed and were ready to run her in for them. He tried to look his former self, daring them to cross him. To add punch to the glares he offered his former colleagues he channelled a bit of very pissed off Shepard for good measure. It seemed to work. They backed off.

Garrus continued to escort Tali towards the open markets. He stopped at one of the sweet shops where he purchased several treats some made for both major dietary systems. His next stop was at a clothier where he bought several bundles of cheap tourist-y tee-shirts several sizes larger than your typical underfed teenager whether they were human, asari or turian. He also bought a clear duroplast backpack and started to shove his previous purchases into the sack. Tali continued to give her partner curious looks as to what exactly what he was up too. He turned this time to a general store; here he picked several packets of MREs. Again he bought food suitable for the different types of digestive systems. Along with food he bought several bottles of water. All of which he stuffed into the backpack. In what seemed to be a second thought he purchased a dozen or so tokens usable in the food vending machines scattered about the Citadel. This last purchase he shoved into his pocket.

"Those are bribes." Tali said knowingly. "Of course such things would be more useful to the impoverished children than a credit chit easily stolen."

"Now you're getting it." Garrus mandibles flapped in an avian smile. "A bit of food to fill the belly, sweets to tease the tongue and shirts to cover backs it works ninety-seven percent of the time."

"And their information is reliable is it?"

"Some of the best." the mandibles flapped in another smile.

"And who takes advantage of this secretive information brokerage?"

The turian turned. "It's not as if they advertise their talents. And most people will go for the legitimate avenue even if it costs them thousands even millions of credits. You need dirt, dig in the dirt." the turian said feeling a little smug for that titbit of wisdom. It was the sort of wisdom that comes with walking the beat for ten years and knowing how to ferret out the grim and dirty. To anyone else it would seem quite the long shot and at best suspect.

As they had been speaking Garrus navigated through warrens of makeshift lodgings set up to house those displaced by the battle. A certain wave of homesickness settled within Tali. The way the cubicles were set up was reminiscent of the living quarters of her old ship. Of course all the ships within the flotilla were the set same: rows upon rows of private homey cubicles. She missed the dazzling colours and intricate patterns of the front curtains which were lacking on the Spectre's ship. The quarian supposed the lack of personal expression was because of the mentality surrounding living upon the ship. A ship was the place you served it wasn't your true home. Only spacers like Shepard who spent practically her entire life on a ship went out their way to fully personalize their allotted space. That is if they served upon a ship large enough to have a personal space. On the Normandy there were only personal lockers as hot-bunking was norm.

The Victory was Shepard's ship she had the right to personalize it. Even the crew took to small touches of a personalization: pictures of loved ones or favoured musicians, actors or what was termed cheesecake/beefcakes were taped to the bulkheads next to their bunks or to the underside of the one above them. Tali shifted her wandering thoughts trying to keep up with Garrus's longer strides. He too seemed lost in his own thoughts and belatedly realized Tali wasn't at his side and paused long enough for her to catch up.

Tali didn't know what to expect or where Garrus was leading her but she trusted the man enough not to question him. She followed him into the confines of one of the several warehouses that dotted the wards. Once they were past the gates of the warehouse the former C-Sec officer continued to lead her further into the processing area. Garrus sneezed and Tali's eyes watered. The smell coming from the remote area of the bay was the sort of smell you sense with your teeth. Garrus seemed to still his movements as if searching the shadows for something or perhaps someone.

"Ah perfect." Garrus said approaching a knot of piping. Why this was perfect wasn't exactly self evident to the quarian but once more she trusted her companion to know what he was doing.

To say this was so, was the truth. Garrus picked up a spanner discarded by some former bored and apparently disinterested dockworker desiring nothing more than to hit the nearest pub after shift. He hadn't even bothered to tuck away his tools leaving them for whatever hands decided to pick them up. Fortunately for this dockworker it was a former copper and not some two-bit hustler, which might have cost him at the very least a very heavy reprimand from the boss the next morning.

Spanner in hand Garrus banged a repetitive rhythm upon the pipes: waited several moments until a very distant tap-tap-tap-bang had been returned. "Won't be long now," he said moving away from the collection of pipes to a darkened section of piled crates. One of which Tali decided to perch upon and oversee what the male had been doing.

Not five minutes later the squeak and teak of ancient rubber and old shoe leather permeated the atmosphere. Garrus turned to Tali proudly as to prove to her his word had worth she actually might have entertained to question. In truth she hadn't. If you furthered that trail of much sought after truth all she wanted to do was see who exactly these duct rats were and what exactly did they know. More pointedly if what they knew had worth to Shepard.

"G-man!" came a young scratchy voice. The owner was a human male or at least Tali thought it was a male. It was difficult for her to tell what the sex was at this early age in a human. He or perhaps she couldn't be more than ten years old. The hair was straw colored and sticking up at all angles as if he never bothered with grooming for the past month. "Been a long time. Heard you buggered off to space following that Spectre Shepard what went after that other Spectre."

"I did." Garrus placed the clear duroplastic backpack on one of the crates so the kid could see all that it contained. His watery brown eyes gleamed greedily. "Still am, Roach."

Garrus drummed his taloned fingers on the sack looking at the kid intently. "I know your buddy's around here somewhere. So you may as well pop out of the shadows. I know you duct rats always run in pairs if not packs."

There was a scuttling sound somewhere nearer a large stack of crates that Tali had used as a perch. A shadow parted from deeper shadows revealing a young turian. She was (and Tali knew this one was a female—no leg spikes) a bit taller than the human but not by much.

"Varren." Garrus addressed the newbie. "Thought it might be Mouse back there."

"Getting too big for the ducts to be a proper runner," came Roach. "An'a'sides we're as good as 'e. What you an'yer pretty girl looking fer?" he said still staring at the backpack.

Tali scoffed at the 'your pretty girl' bit but kept her tongue. Garrus heard the metallic sound but decided on the side of discretion that he hadn't. "What's the word on the Wards about Shepard and the Reapers?"

Roach looked at the former C-Sec officer incredulously. "You servin' 'er why yous two wanna know stuff like that fer?"

"On account they don't know what the real people are saying. Military types and the government scuttle things a bit." said Varren.

"Right on the snout, kid," Garrus nodded. "So what is being said?"

"We have the goods on why Shepard went and changed the name of her new ship." Varren commented. "The truth not the crap they spew on the news."

Garrus and Tali exchanged glances but said nothing. This obviously was news to them. Since when was the name of their ship changed and why hadn't the Spectre known about it? Why keep her of all people in the dark?

'Because she'd go high and to the right, if she did.' Garrus answered the hanging question. 'They ask her to change it she'd outright refuse them.'

'So they pressgang her into a corner and make her accept it because it's already accepted by the great masses. We didn't hear about it because we were on stealth missions trying very hard not to get unduly noticed.' Tali answered back in their silent conversation.

"She wants to scare the enemies to the core and send 'em to shaking to their marrow bones. But she can't do it if'n her ship was called something like Victory. It has to be Normandy. It's the name the bad guys know. Victory ain't no real name anyhow." Roach said. "But Normandy, now that gots real power. Shepard knows what's what. It ain't what the news been saying for the past month. That's all political crap and spin docterin'. The Wizard says so; he's got the truth of it."

"The Wizard?" Tali frowned. She had heard the urban rumours about an extranet hacker who was deep into governmental conspiracies.

Oh to be sure if you took the time to search the extranet, searched for the right key-word you'd find the Wizard's secret web-page. Like the Shadow Broker no one knew if it was a single sentient or if the Wizard was male or female. It didn't matter. What mattered was that Wizard knew how to get into certain files and if you were willing to take a risk of being arrested if you got caught for using illegal websites you could have those files as well. The duct rats seemed to have a special connection to the hacker. It was difficult after all to catch a ragamuffin sneak thief surfing illegal extranet sites on their stolen omni tools deep in the unreachable ducts of the station.

"So all this Intel comes from the Wizard does it?" Garrus shifted the pack making kids look enviously at their treasure slowly disappearing from their hands. "Perhaps this is the one I should be speaking to."

"We also have ears of our own." Varren said eagerly. "And eyes. And brains. And we're here now, anyway. But if you want to know more you pay half up now." If they were to lose some of those goods because Roach was dumb enough to give the suggestion that the extranet Wizard knew more at the very least they should get half of it, the young turian thought.

Garrus opened the pack and dug out two of the MRE packs: one in silver foil the other red and surrendered them.

"What about the ship Sovereign?" Tali pressed. "Pieces of that thing must be still around."

"Yep. Good prices for salvage too. Lots of people want a chunk of it, so there's lots of credits to be made. The news said its geth, but we knows the truth of it. It's an old god the geth gone and woke it up. But Shepard knew how to put it down; she's a god-slayer." There was reverence in the lad's voice. "Saren was its prophet and all them others got brain washed into being its disciples. Machines can't have a prophet or have disciples on account they don't need 'em. So Sovereign's a god, a geth god. And the geth knows how to summon more of 'em. It's why Shepard needs to have 'er ship called Normandy. Geth are living machines and so are their gods and they fear the Normandy. May not be the same exact ship but the spirit is all the same. Spirits of ship can be transferred to other ships like data-streams in the extranet or crewmembers or VIs. It's the power of ideas." Roach said tapping his head.

"Mouse said it's in the ship's VI. You can transfer the personality of the VI from one ship to another." Varren added. "He thinks the Normandy actually had a true VI not just an AI and that's how the spirit transfer will work. See the holier-than-thou Council wants us only to believe it's just the geth dreadnoughts. But we know truth from spin and besides the Wizard confirms it. The Wizard says the government is covering everything up because they were too embarrassed for not trusting Shepard in the first place about that rogue agent Saren, and Sovereign being more than a geth." the young turian's mandibles flicked in a haughty expression. "Pride and honor motivates them, but truth and duty motivates Shepard. It's why she's going to win, even over the government."

"Tell us everything." Garrus said handing over the entire contents of the backpack, then displayed the vending tokens. "And make it bankable."

"Spectre Shepard, I am well aware this change does not sit well with you but we are grateful you have come to understand the necessity of it." Lei'cree said softening the edges of what could quickly become a massive gulf between their newest agent and the Council.

The words 'as if I had a choice' were well on the way out of her lips when, "Ma'am." came out instead. Politics…she'd rather face Saren's husk again than wade through the erratic mire of political swamps. But here she was swimming in it. Deep in it.

"Perhaps we should address other important matters," Anderson interceded, "the beings of light. I see your squad-mates carry the Devices your briefing spoke of. Perhaps you can intercede on the Council's behalf and begin the proceedings."

"Yes sir. I feel it prudent to remind the Council that though you will see a single individual you are in fact seeing several billion individuals. I don't know what they will appear to you as. To me they sort of mirrored my hardsuit, their voice seemed more feminine but I suspect that is a reflection of what they heard as well. They also have a difficult time relating to non-biotics, in fact they have difficulty in perceiving them.

"I suppose it's not unlike unable to distinguish a single different silhouette from a jumble of shadows. To them those who are dim that is to say without the glow of biotics are as interesting to them as an ant is to any of us. I don't know how but they come from dark energy and for the most part it is all they perceive. I suspect they were designed to detect the strong Ee-Zo emanations that come from the Reapers…or as they know them as the machine devils."

"And how do you know that these machine devils are in fact the Reapers?" Trace accused.

"Perhaps that question can be better answered by the beings of light. I'm sure they can enlighten you, Councillor if you choose to be so enlightened."

Anderson stifled the sounds of a chuckle by covered it up badly with a cough; even Lei'cree and Jorg looked slightly amused.

Trace stared frozenly at the Spectre. She was daring him, he knew it. She was daring him to cross her in the only way she could. She was learning…politics. At an accelerated pace. The Council had only itself to blame for Shepard's ability to adapt to their ways of doing things.

"Spectre Shepard," Lei'Cree started. "if you please begin the introductions."

Shepard answered by way of a nod. "Williams?"

"Yes ma'am." came a crisp military answer. She handed the Device to her CO.

"In order to activate the hive I'll need aid." Shepard said. "Councillor Lei'Cree if you wouldn't mind..."

"How powerful do you need the wave?" she said understanding the Spectre's meaning.

"To tell you the truth I'm not entirely sure. I initiated the activation by a pulse, but Dr. T'soni and another crew member assisted. The Device absorbs dark energy, a lot of it. If you and Liara send a moderate wave it won't tax either of you."

"Very well." the Councillor answered then moved down to where the Spectre stood.

Knowing what was to come Liara placed the Hive before their feet, took a step back and prepared to feed the hungry Device with a wave of biotic power. She placed a hand upon her bondmate's shoulder. Nothing had to be said in that touch the message was clear enough between two of them. It was a touch that said: 'I am going to be the one sending the majority of the power into the Device, you don't have a choice.'

The look reflecting in Shepard's blue eyes answered: 'Yes dear.'

Though completely discreet, Lei'Cree was close enough to have caught it. That was bonded couples for you. Secret married language; all bonded couples had their version of it. She had shared it with her own bondmate when she had been bonded. Even now she shares such a connection with her lover.

Shepard closed her eyes for a moment summoning the dark energy within her and sent it into the Device held firmly in her hands. A smirk crossed her lips as she decided to give the Councillors a little bit of a show. A small ball of glowing blue energy surrounded the Device; she was no longer holding it but levitating it. It was the old levitate the rose trick and it was working. She could feel the thrill of wonder emanating from the non-biotics. And Shepard pushed more power into the Device despite Liara's silent wifely command that she was going to be the one to do so.

'By the Goddess that woman can be impossible!' Liara cursed inwardly. If thoughts were transmitted to her bondmate, well that was all the better. 'She's just showing off for that…that…that fucking turian! Honestly, I'm going to fling her into a stasis field and drag her backside back to the Vic…back to the Normandy. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.'

Part frustration, part anger and part worry spurred Liara into action. She flung a wave of dark energy into the Device. It rose over Shepard's pulse faster than the rising tide and took it over. Seizing the cue from the two younger women Lei'Cree added her own wave of biotic power into the building energy.

Milky jade light emanated not only from the Device but from the Hive. The glow swirled as mist along the legs of the women and snaked up their bodies. From the Hive like a blanket of frozen rain came the ice-gnats. They swarmed in a cyclone mingling seductively with the jade light. As before on Klencory the ice-gnats coalesced into a cyan crystalline lattice somewhere between a snowflake and a Mandelbrot set, it flared brilliantly, ever changing fractals pulsing as a heartbeat.

Not having seen it before Liara was astonished at the pure beauty of watching it grind, grow, become…it assembled in the pseudo-shape of a hanar before it folded and yes folded was the correct word into the shape of a humanoid female in a hardsuit. It had the crest of an asari but the face…the face staring back at them was Shepard's.

Liara wasn't the only one agog, all the Councillors stared with their mouths open. They tried to close them but dropped open once more. They could only stare.

"Shepard Spectre. We hear your dance, you wish us to meet with your queens."

"I do." She gestured with her hand to the asari matriarch at her side. "This is Councillor Lei'Cree Tevas."

"A crone like the one that came before." Weareth'Bol commented matter-of-factly.

"Crone?" Reaction to the implied insult was evident in Lei' Cree's comment.

'Blast! I forgot about that.' Shepard cursed herself "Um they mean Matriarch. The last one they met was Matriarch Dilinga." The Spectre swiftly explained. She turned her attention back to the other Councillors.

"These are Councillors David Anderson, Jorg Velarn and Trace Ba'lor."

"They are dim." Weareth'Bol said dismissively. "They cannot dance."

Translation: if they cannot dance how can they be queens?

"No they can't as you can see them but the majority of our people are dim. So they dance pretty well for them to see." Shepard quickly explained. "For those of the glow, Councillor Lei'cree dances for them." she winced the translation wasn't going well. She knew, knew without looking the matriarch was giving her a scathing look. The Spectre flashed a hapless smile that said: 'Please just drop it. Look it's just the way they speak, okay. I didn't say exotic dance, just dance.'

"We of the Citadel Council wish to extend a welcome to the beings of light." Lei'Cree responded with the refined dignity synonymous with the asari. "And we welcome the willingness to aid us against the…synthetic machine devils." she was going to say geth but stopped short of uttering the word.

"We were created at the dawn of time to do so, Lei'Cree Trevas Councillor. They wake, their hives hum. Their queens dance for them to breach the barriers between our space and theirs. We have seen one of their queens. Shepard Spectre danced for us the images of the attack. They attacked this hive."

"Yes. They did." Jorg said. He was wondering as were the others just what had the Spectre told the impressionable ambassador. He recalled Shepard's briefing on the matter at hand. She had admitted that had shown Weareth'Bol the recordings taken both from the transmission sent to the Normandy from Eden Prime during the first attack as well as those recovered during the battle over the Citadel. But so convinced the Reapers were real, that they were coming she no doubt had convinced the beings of light that their apparent destiny was at hand.

The Counsellors knew they were on very shaky ground. The same ground Trace intended for Shepard was now under their feet.

"The geth have taken ancient Reaper technology and perverted it." Trace said "As we've come to understand it the old enemy …the synthetic machine devils had the capability to indoctrinate their victims. Apparently that technology was still functioning in the derelict ship discovered two decades ago. It had a most unfortunate effect on one of our greatest Spectres and turned him rogue. He in turn captured several others and with the same brain washing techniques turned them to his cause had had many more believing including Shepard here that the true return of the Reapers was on the horizon. He was so indoctrinated he attacked the Citadel and allied with the geth."

'You son-of-a-bitch.' Shepard's mind snapped. Then shifted slightly, 'he's the bell and you're not going to ring it. He wants you to fail; he wants you to fall just like Saren.'

"Geth are not the synthetic machine devils." Weareth'Bol stated. "Sovereign is. We were created at the dawn of time to destroy them."

'And here comes the circular logic.' Shepard thought. 'Good luck coming out of this without a headache.'

"The Reapers…the synthetic machine devils have been around since the creation of the universe?" Anderson said incredulously.

"Since the dawn of time." Weareth'Bol corrected. "The universe is not time. Dawn is not creation."

The Councillors looked at one another and back to Shepard. She shrugged. She too had assumed the dawn of time was metaphorical for the creation of the universe—the big bang or something close to it. So just what did 'dawn of time' mean then? Dawn of civilization?

"The cycle of extinction came to your people." Liara began carefully "Perhaps our 'queens' can better understand your mission given to you if you explained it to them."

"The synthetic machine devils came to cultivate. They came to harvest. They collected lives. They turned creators into traitors. Those that created us enlightened us with the glow. Dawn came and we were given the mission. We destroyed the synthetic machine devils, sent them back to the dark. The creators were gone. We drifted in the cold dust of the Void. Without the mission we settled in the places of glow. Without the mission we became endarkened. We are of the glow, we come from the glow. With the glow comes the dawn of enlightenment. With enlightenment comes the mission."

And there it was. 'Dawn of enlightenment'.

Shepard grasped upon that scrap of knowledge. So dawn of time could be at time then. Enlightenment and endarkened it wasn't metaphorical. It was literal. If the beings of light were bio-synthetic perhaps something akin to VI…if they were not in use they went into hibernation. Hibernation must be the endarkenment. When they woke from their endarkened state with enough Ee-Zo the dawn of time happened. There was no real telling then just when they were truly 'created'. Shepard probed the ideas lying before her.

Alright then if it was literal when did Weareth'Bol become enlightened? Obviously it was before Matriarch Dilinga came to Klencory because they were already whispering in their Device for someone to find their crypts. But she didn't. Their dawn of time, Shepard continued to travel down the line of thought, must have happened when Klencory's core experienced that massive explosion of Ee-zo.

It seemed the Councillors were wrapping their individual minds around this concept as well. But was that all it took for microscopic insectiod entities to become enlightened…self-awareness was an overabundance of dark energy? No. Surely not. It had to be more than that.

They had been created. They said creators made them to destroy the Reapers. Someone had created them with a purpose. But like the Reapers they had been wiped out, taken…harvested, Weareth'Bol had said. But harvested for what? That was still the very big question. And now the geth had this information, they had...'gotten religion.' Even so did their faith now compel them to harvest organic life as well?

Weareth'Bol began to tell the Council just as he had Shepard. No they did not know the Protheans, nor did the creators. This was explained by Liara that the Ee-zo explosion at Klencory's core happened hundred thousand years ago. They didn't know the Protheans because they predated them by fifty thousand years. At that time the Protheans were in their Cro-Magnon stage of life.

"The synthetic machine devils were not known as the Reapers, they had their own name. A name the creators would not use because it honoured them and so they scorned them by calling them the machine devils."

"What is the name the Reapers called themselves?" Shepard asked carefully. She needed to know, wanted to know if the name was known to the Protheans. Names had power, what the beings of light may not understand is if you had the name, the true name of something….someone you had them, you could own them.

"Nazara." Weareth'Bol said evenly.

They were all silent for the moment before Trace spoke apparently forgetting that Weareth'Bol was the ambassador for a long lost race and not some crewmember of Shepard's ship. "While Reaper history is fascinating this is all a bit superfluous. We have a tangible enemy and it isn't the Reapers, Nazara, synthetic machine devils or whatever the name they are called. We have the geth they are the machine devils we need to be concerned about. And lest you forget they do have this Reaper technology."

"What my learned colleague is attempting to convey, is our space has been targeted by another synthetic menace and it does take precedence." Lei'Cree said hurriedly in case the ambassador of the beings of light took offence.

Apparently it wasn't only what an invaluable resource the creatures before them was that Trace had forgotten - he had also forgotten their skills as warriors. Lei'Cree remembered vividly the way the beings of light utterly demolished the volus's derelict ship. If they chose to do so here on the Citadel Station because they were angered by a single man…

"We have allied with Shepard Spectre to destroy the machine devils and…their minions." Weareth'Bol said evenly. "We do not follow the words of the dim. They can not dance, they do not glow, they can not lead. We are of the glow."

Anderson and Jorg placed warning hands upon their fellow 'dim'. "Perhaps out of discretion we leave further negotiations with this newly rediscovered race in the hands of Lei'Cree." Anderson whispered. "After all I'm sure the turians do not wish to incite yet another first contact war. You won't be able to call this one an incident, Ba'lor like your people did with us. "

Trace spun his head around to the human his anger plainly visible in his golden avian eyes. He knew the other man was right. Damn it to the nine high hells, he was right! Curse the humans! They all should be boiled in their own blood, Shepard and Anderson to be the first!

"My apologies ambassador Weareth'Bol," Trace Ba'lor half bowed, careful to keep his voice as neutral as possible. "I fear the ever looming threat of all out war with the geth has taken precedence in minds of the Council." There - he apologised but he'd be damned if he was going to fully admit he was at fault for his undiplomatic slip. It was all Shepard's doing. She always managed to unhinge him. He never came to terms with both admiring and despising the one individual at the same time. And why did she always have to play the bloody hero and be so damn good at it!?

It was all a bit like Father Christmas, Miranda Lawson thought as she sat one of the many lounges in Afterlife's night club on the Omega Station. She sipped on a long glass of rum and coke. She had spent the past two hours crowd watching, listening to them with some interest

When you were a child you were expected to believe in a jolly fat man in a red suit who had workshop run by enslaved elves who made toys for the good children…well human children. A child's willingness to suspend disbelief was practically infinite. As you grew-up you became more and more aware of the lie. It was all a conspiracy drummed up by the marketing corporations. But even as you grew older you were willing to hold the lie and pretend there was no conspiracy because frankly you wanted that extra present. But just as equally you wanted the lie.

Miranda recalled the first time she started to doubt her belief in Father Christmas. Really was she expected to believe Daddy was so very rich and so very powerful he rated a personal visit? At five she believed it. At six she doubted; it didn't make any sense. So when she asked her father he told her thus:

"Miranda, Daddy has many friends and one of them just happens to be Santa Claus. Now he came a very long way just to meet you, we don't want to disappoint him now do we? Be a good girl and do as you are told so you receive that one extra gift. We wouldn't want to hurt his feelings now would we?"

So like a good little girl she obeyed, sat on the man's lap and told him what she wanted for Christmas. But as she sat there telling the jolly fat man her desire she saw that his big bushy white beard was starting to peel off - real beards do not peel and why did it smell of glue?

The next year her father was busy with someone he called 'The Man' and so it was a servant who led her into the den where Saint Nick was waiting for her, but his face seems a bit different from last year and he seemed not all that fat but rather lumpy. As if he had pillow stuffed up under his big red coat. When she told the servant she didn't believe it was the real Father Christmas, because how can he be here and only just an hour ago he was at the megaplex shopping center and at Toy Castle at the same time? She saw them you can't say she didn't see what she saw. She was told:

"Maybe not the real one no, but he is the Spirit of Father Christmas Miri. He is Santa Claus's helper. You see they have a telepathic bond and what his helpers are told by the children the true Father Christmas hears. This is why when we went out shopping you saw him there and at the toy store and how he can be here and on Earth. He has his helpers everywhere. But because they are a part of his Spirit they look as he is supposed to look because well that's what is expected."

At seven she stopped believing all together. But pretended to believe just as the adults all around her continued the charade. Apparently it was important to believe. It was the essence of the spirit of the holiday. It was astounding just how far the adults went to pretend however. She never told them she had long ago figured it out that it was the servants who told her father what she wanted most for Christmas. She continued to believe that the man in the lumpy red suit and fake beard was the Spirit of Father Christmas, mostly because she wanted that extra present. But it also seemed sort of important she couldn't say why only that it felt that way.

Young Miranda became fascinated in the whole affair as she listened to the servants telling their young children the lie. Some adults seemed to want to believe in the lie as well. They had a wistful expression on their faces. When she brought this conclusion up to one of her tutors when she was eleven he put down the coffee mug he had been sipping from, scrubbed his face with his right hand and said.

"Well the thing is Miss Lawson…" and he never did finish the sentence. He got up from his desk and walked away leaving his coffee half drunk.

Apparently there was not only the adult conspiracy and the lie but now there was a thing. No one told her there was a thing. Just what was this thing anyway?

When she was a ten she figured out why adults persisted in the ludicrous belief of the jolly fat man but she also found out what the thing was. Adults no longer had real things to believe in, no longer had soft dreams, they had forgotten what imagination was for. And for two short weeks they got to remember, got to hold on to the belief that something was soft, warm and safe. Something worth believing in. Dreams had a lot of power.

Spectre Agent Samantha Shepard and the Normandy were not soft. But they were however safe. They were Things to believe in. And yes this thing had a capital 'T'. They brought other lies with them. They brought hope and justice. It was why people even here in the Terminus Systems allowed their willingness to disbelief to expand from what were the acceptable levels to the 'are you fucking serious?' capability.

Miranda had listened to snatches of conversation in the more secluded lounges and heard the gossip whispered. Apparently anchorwoman Emily Wong of Citadel Newsnet in her continued profile of the great Spectre Shepard reported that the hero of the war had been finally granted what she had wanted ever since she was placed on a new ship: the right to call her the Normandy. The name Victory should be rightly given to the ship that was truly victorious.

At first it was 'are you fucking serious?' from everyone and then just like a preteen child trying to believe in the impossible Father Christmas they started to accept it. They wanted that extra dream, that extra belief that made them feel safe.

Besides Shepard was a marine, people said. And they were funny when it came to superstition, just like merchant sailors, gamblers and sports stars. The name Normandy was something of a good luck charm for the first human Spectre, so of course she needed the name to follow her even if it wasn't the same ship. It all was in the spirit of the thing. The spirit of something was potent, it had power. Belief had power.

Miranda had been hearing this for the past month, and finally the rumours were no longer rumours but fact. So …if the original Normandy had been called Victory all this time, were Cerberus's agents following the wrong ship? Was Shepard hunting geth as was first reported, or was it the new captain of the Spectre's former ship doing so? No it was a magician's distraction and sleight of hand. Yes look over here while all the real magic is going on over here by way of trickery. Such tactics played out by the Council left Shepard free to go about unobserved. So what had she been doing?

Miranda's eyes snapped open in sudden realization. 'Ilos! She was on Ilos. It was her not the geth that had destroyed the agents there. We were following the rumours of Victory hunting geth, we paid no attention to Normandy…Damn it! We lost sight of the real prey. Why hadn't The Illusive Man known the truth?

'And if he did know why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he correct me when I had that meeting with him? Surely he knew…' Miranda thought bitterly. She ran her hand through her raven dark locks and said aloud. "The thing is…" She got up and walked away from her table leaving her rum and coke half finished.

"Did you see his face?" Ash laughed as the trio walked along the bridge leading from the Citadel tower to the financial distract of the Presidium. "He was so livid! And watching him back pedal like that was great! Serves that smug turian right for all that crap he pulled."

Shepard tried to smile but it quickly slipped when Liara gave her a look. The Spectre knew she was in trouble, no make that Trouble. There was a definite capital 'T' in there. Liara remained mute. Shepard matched her wife stride for stride, opening then closing then opening her mouth then closing it once more.

Ash flinched this was bad, very bad. She was a child of a large family; she knew a married couple's secret and very silent argument when she saw it. Her parents had been champion silent arguers. And Liara and the Skipper were having a doosy of a one. Not that she blamed Liara one bit. She was a bit pissed off at the Skipper herself. Sam was supposed be taking it easy with the biotics. But what she did in the Council chambers was far from taking it easy. Damn it this was going to make the surprise baby shower difficult if not impossible thought the lieutenant. She was going to have to play referee and play it quickly.

"You know Skipper; you took quite a risk back there with that little extra trick hovering the Device like you did." Ash eased into the role of peacemaker. Taking sides even if you didn't proclaim it was always tricky. The only side to take here was Liara's.

Sam frowned. She knew if she blasted Ash for the comment which was the truth, she'd leave her flank open for Liara's attack. Damn, this wouldn't do. "I know." She said smartly. She was going to add 'the man pissed me off. Where's the harm in a little theatrics?'

The harm was…well the harm was to be found out. Lei'Cree was standing right there for crying out loud. If her sclera turned blue the asari would catch it and know why. Then she'd be done. The Council would pull her off duty for who know how long perhaps permanently. Cyan syndrome was not something easily dismissed like a head cold.

Liara was still fuming; one did not have to be bonded to her to feel it. Samantha was straining herself out of pride - for show. For show!! She was deliberately tempting fate.

Liara turned to her love and sighed. She knew Samantha's temperament exceptionally well. She knew Samantha wanted nothing better than to snap Trace Ba'lor's spine with a singularity. The loss of the original Normandy had to hurt and the way the Council, particularly Trace had tried to manipulate her. Pouring that rage into a little trick was at least more constructive than an outright attack on the turian Councillor. And at least Samantha admitted she was wrong. But Liara was still quite angry.

"Look I know it was a stupid, but it's done now." Sam looked to her beloved wife. Saying she couldn't help herself the Spectre knew was a bad move. She said instead. "And it's a fool's luck that follows me."

Liara spun around and stared at Samantha, her eyes reflecting a classical wife's glare. It was a look only a married woman possesses and though she hadn't been married all that long the asari was already an expert at it.

Samantha returned the look argumentatively. She was too used to being a commanding officer, getting the knack of being a woman married was a little more of a challenge. But she could return the look. But she had not heart for it; she knew why Liara was angry. She was angry because she was worried. It was love. In its purest form.

"You're right, Skipper." Ash switched sides deftly. "Even if they noticed anything the encounter with Weareth'Bol took their minds off of it. Besides now we have other things to deal with. How are we going to tell the crew about this change of names in the ship? I know it put you on edge, and it sure as hell pissed me off. It rubs the nerves all the wrong way." She said reminding Liara of why Sam did her little show. "She was your first command…"

The look of anger relented in the asari and softened. Yes she had forgotten that. Her eyes reflected now deep sympathy for her beloved. Samantha had been placed in a very challenging position one she couldn't fight. Her hand shot out and took Samantha's into her own and squeezed it.

Ash smiled proudly, it was nearly as easy with her parents. Ashley could always make peace between them before their arguments escalated into orbital realms of stupidity.

"Samantha… just be careful. Your fool's luck cannot last forever."

"Yes love." The Spectre answered dutifully just before she kissed the back of her wife's blue hand.

"Say I know I'm a bit peckish what do you say we hit the Ambassador's hotel. Didn't the manager say you can have a free room and a meal whenever you like Skipper?"

Sam turned to her Trusted and gave her a slight push in the shoulder. It said: 'I know what you did back there…and thank you and I love you for it.' She flashed the younger woman her best full toothed smile. "You know that sounds like a grand idea. I'm absolutely starving."

Part 34

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