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 38

Shepard crouched against the bulkhead; her body quaked with remorse, with deep seated guilt. A great sadness settled upon her and could not even by Herculean effort be lifted. All she could hear were the words: bond, biotic flare up, hadn't been wounded. Secura died because of her, her arrogance, her carelessness whilst in the midst of battle. It. Was. Her. Fault.

Some shadow drifted over her yet the origin remained alien to the Spectre. She didn't dare lift her head. She felt Liara's presence hover within her consciousness, seeping into her heart. She tried to block her bondmate afraid to feel the accusations that surely must be with in the young maiden that should be a mother if not for her actions.

She felt a hand touch the bottom of her chin; she felt the gentle pressure of benign force lift her head. Liara looked deep into blue eyes. "Did you even want this child?"

Samantha sucked in a breath, she felt as if she took a quantum singularity directly into the gut.

"Of course I wanted Sparrow!" she all but snapped. Her head fell despite Liara holding up her chin. "I had these little fantasies. I day-dreamed little images of our life together. Of the three of us. I fantasized about dressing her in those warm onesies with the feet in them and zipping her up. I dreamed of wrapping a little blanket around her. The sort that's made of teddy bear fur, you know the real fuzzy and warm and cuddly type. I fantasised of waking up at oh-two-hundred hours and taking our daughter from her cradle and huddling her close whispering 'Hush Sparrow, Mommy needs her sleep. But I'm here. Mamma's here. Arda's here. And I'd feed her from a warm bottle.

"I dreamed of having Chakwas make me lactate so I could feed her properly like a mother not just with a bottle. I even thought about stinky dippers, and fussy teething. I dreamed of her teetering first steps and encouraging her to walk to Mamma even if Mommy was right there. I'm so sorry that was selfish but…but even together her first words would be of me. Mamma. It's so easy on the infant tongue. Ma ma ma. And I saw her sitting up in a highchair and tossing applesauce all over her head and giving her a warm bath… I…I wanted her Liara. I wanted our daughter. I...I had these little fantasies…"

Shepard gulped past the thick lump in her throat, her head resting upon folded arms over upraised knees. Over and over she whispered in hacked breaths. "I had these little fantasies."

Liara pressed her lips to her bondmate's; kissing her with such fierceness it stole Sam's breath from her lungs. "I had those fantasies too. I dreamed of spying you with our babe in your arms much like you held Maysa. Of seeing you cuddled together as you read her a story or you two having fallen asleep on the sofa doing just that. I fantasized of holding her in my arms of feeding her the milk from my breast, of explaining to her why Mamma has 'head fur' and not a crest. I dreamed of teaching her to walk, to talk. I dreamed of her tiny fingers wrapping around one of my own." Liara choked back a sob, "I wanted her so badly…"

Sam looked down to the blue hands resting upon her knees. "She's dead because of me Liara, how can you not hate me?"

At that instant, rage did fill the asari but it was not directed at Sam, though it was directed at humans. "She's dead because of human politics not because of you Samantha. Never you! She was created out of a bond that was necessary. A bond we still do not fully grasp. She is dead because of a weak heart. Am I to blame because in my eagerness to keep you alive I jumpstarted my reproductive process, because I could not let you go? My body wasn't fully ready to reproduce and yet it did. These are dangers of early asari pregnancies. I sink in my grief Samantha. I am lost to it. We are broken."

The Spectre looked up then, seeing her beloved's tear stained face. She took her into her arms. "…death shall have no dominion." she whispered almost to herself though keen asari ears picked it up.

"Not unless we allow it." Liara whispered back.

Sam only nodded. She had been beaten down before, lost lives before. All those on Elysium she could not save, Jenkins and others on Eden Prime, Kaiden and all those on the Citadel. They had died because she had failed to be fast enough, keen enough. She had to make hard choices and as a result those under her protection died, some needlessly, others sacrificed. Secura was now amongst those numbers.

"Not one more." Sam almost growled. "They will not take one more. I will find them, I will make them burn."

"Start with that male in the brig." Liara's anger was palpable. "Show him the meaning of anguish. Take from his mother that which was taken from us. Let her be childless and point to Udina and tell her it is because of his machinations her child had to die. If you do not, I will!"

Khalisah Al-Jilani made her name famous or rather infamous due to her rough blunt-weapon style of in-your face reporting. It had gained her more than a few bruises and even broken bones from the humans, krogan and volus she interviewed. She had even been flung by a biotic wave from a very angry asari commando. To top that a hanar practically strangled her for suggesting their meek politeness was all for show and the only reason they saved the drell from complete annihilation was to turn them into slaves for the sole purpose of carrying out assassinations to order.

Now it seems her very name was going to earn her more than simple battery it was going to cost her her life. The ironic thing of it all was that it wasn't even she who had done the reporting but her colleague Robin Lasky. But she had done it in Khalisah's name!

"She's going to kill me!" Khalisah roared at the blonde woman sitting behind her desk in her office as soon as she stormed in. "You ever think of that? Shepard is going to tear me apart, bit by bit with her biotics. She is going to kill me!"

Robin looked up and gave her a smarmy grin. "Please. I did what you were afraid to do. You like to ambush her on camera. But she made you look the fool the first time and the second time you looked like some idiot that endorses the neglect and abuse of alien children at the hands of humans."

Khalisah snorted. "That story on Kyle Gou did no such thing. I was illustrating a point, that Shepard doesn't even think herself as human anymore. You think I wanted that little baby girl treated like that because she wasn't human? You're wrong. And in the first one I was exposing the Council shill Shepard is. I'm not anti-alien; I just don't think we should be dominated by them. And now….because of what you did…Shepard will think I helped set her up, that I wanted her pregnant bondmate hunted down like some rabid dog!"

"You're only pissed because I took over your witch hunt and won where you failed so abysmally. I burned the alien loving asari-wanna-be at the stake just as it was needed."

Perhaps for the first time Khalisah felt the quicksilver anger rise in her as it had so many of those she had previous interviewed. She reached out and slapped Robin in the face.

"You bitch!"

Robin's hand reached up tenderly stroking the burning flesh where the dark haired reporter had struck her. "I'll forget you did that you gutless cow. I did what was necessary. Humanity needs a real Spectre, not an alien sympathizer. You're right she is just a shill for the Council. I see it. As do many others. The love the Council had for her is waning thanks in no small part to her deluded rantings of some great evil coming from the deep shadows of dark space. She's mad with this 'Reaper' paranoia. She is…she isn't the person we need now."

"The person we need?" Khalisah ventured tentatively. "What does that mean?"

"We need people like Charles Sarancino; he is a voice for the human colonies. You saw what happened with Eden Prime and Zhu's Hope. The Council didn't want to become involved with what they think is a purely internal human problem. But Sarancino is a man who can be their voice. If not here then back home on Earth."

"Sarancino?" Khalisah scoffed. "He's the voice of a snake in a pack of jackals."

"That's not the impression you give on the air."

"My personal feelings have nothing to do with what I report. I think Shepard is a hero, but I also think that all heroes have to live up to a better standard than the rest of us."

"As do I, 'Lisah. Humanity placed their trust in her and she is failing us. She sacrificed hundreds of human lives for a very ungrateful Council - a Council that will never do anything for us but give empty platitudes and puppet representatives. Shepard is a shill and Anderson is figurehead.

"If Donnel Udina had been give the position as it should have been he would never allow the Council to railroad us. He would do what is necessary for humanity's progress even if it means sacrificing our only Spectre to do it. Anderson doesn't know a damn thing about politics. It's why the Council is running him in circles and will always do so. They have no respect for him or Shepard. And because of that those two have no power to help us. But there are those that have power and will do anything and everything to make sure humanity is safe. If there is a greater danger out there than the geth then it will take something more than shills and puppets to face it."

"Something or someone? Udina has been dismissed as the Alliance's ambassadorship to the Citadel for impounding a Spectre ship; he can't do anything for the rise of human progress. Do you think the leader of the Terra Firma party is this person?" Al-Jilani scoffed.

"I said more than puppets, 'Lisah. No, I'm talking about Cerberus."

Brown eyes narrowed. "They are called a terrorist organization for a reason, Robin." Al-Jilani folded her arms over her chest. "I have no huge love for aliens…"

"That's bullshit. I know about you and your asari lover. Don't tell me you're not a fan."

"So what? I'm not the only one who enjoys their company. Udina your patron saint of politics loved going to Cora's Den when it was open and watching the strippers." Al-Jilani sighed. "But Cerberus, Robin? They go too far, they are extremists."

"Perhaps. But they are only called so by the aliens."

"And by Alliance military! And by a lot of other humans!"

"Cerberus is the only one who gives a damn about humanity!! At least their motives concerning human progress are pure, unadulterated and genuine. The Alliance military…they will bow to whatever Steven Hackett tells them to do and Hackett does whatever Shepard tells him to do, and she does whatever the Council tells her to do, especially if it's Lei'cree Tevos doing the telling." Robin growled bitterly. "Shepard's love for aliens, especially of the asari will be the destruction of humanity. Mark my words."

Khalisah Al-Jilani took one long hard look at the woman who was perhaps her closest friend, one whom she had shared a dorm room with at university, who had shared all her journalistic classes with. There was a time when Lasky was a very integral person, one who did the hardcore war correspondence. But since her return from her imprisonment at the hands of clan Urdnot on Tuchanka, Robin had understandably changed. It didn't help that Urdnot Wrex was a member and trusted companion of Shepard's crew. Or course Robin automatically despised the Spectre for that alone. There was a time Lasky was bipartisan when dealing with other species now it seemed she was very firmly in the clutches of the most hated pro-human organization group in the galaxy.

"Even if you're right Robin, a pregnant woman didn't deserve that and neither did Shepard." With that Khalisah left her colleague's office, but before she disappeared all together she turned and added in a hushed tone. "Shepard, Dr. T'soni and their baby had nothing to do with what happened to you on Tuchanka."

Merkson had scarcely moved since they hauled Joker out a day ago. He sat hunched on his bunk his knees drawn up to his chest his mind a constant whirl of where it had all gone so horribly wrong.

Between the time Joker was released and now he had only one visitor, Dr. S'thasa who had come to see to his ear. After all he should be hale and hearty for his trial…if he got a trial. He half expected to be killed within his cell before he was even granted his tribunal. He doubted he'd even get the informal hearing of a Captain's Mast.

He had been given proper fare for a military prisoner of course he'd wager that one or two of his human guards probably spat in food and it was what he would have done. He didn't blame them if they had. Still he hadn't been neglected. It was if the captain was going out of her way to ensure everything was by-the-book. No doubt so he could have it thrown at him without any mistrial. He should at least be grateful for that.

When the doors to the brig slid open he tilted his head up curious to see who had come in at this late hour. When he registered who it was his brown eyes widened within their sockets, he lurched from his cot and stood at rigid attention before his captain. Military prisoners didn't have the right to salute but they were expected to come to attention. That being said it was difficult not to salute after all the years of service and training. Shepard as was her due didn't even acknowledge it nor did she discipline him for the robotic action.

She didn't even look at him as she began speaking her tone terse and chilling. "Private Marina Stevenson has been arrested by Alliance MPs for conspiracy, breaking medical confidentiality clauses, aiding and abetting in the attempted murder of Dr. Liara T'soni and the death of Secura Shepard T'soni. She will be executed." Shepard said it so matter-of-factly it was if she had commented on the weather.

She continued in her dead voice: "Khalisah Al-Jilani was taken into custody by C-Sec as she was leaving the Westerland News studio and Robin Lasky was arrested within the same. The latter will probably be slated for execution just as your whore is, if not a very very long incarceration. This time however no news network will be there to bail her out." Shepard approached Merkson's cell. "I already know it was Udina that put you up to this. I suspect it was bribe of sorts, getting your hands on some exclusive licenses for the more elusive merchants. No doubt some of those licenses were for asari manufactures as well as perhaps turian or drell? Or was it perhaps a private kiosk on a station or planet."

When she spoke of this Merkson blanched. That was it exactly. "Yes." he answered in a torn voice. "A kiosk on Horizon. It was Robin Lasky not Ambassador Udina who gave me the offer; though she said she could pull strings because she knew the right people. She said she wanted something that was titillating. I told her Mari' had a recoding of you saying what everyone already knew…that…that…confirmed how protective you are of Dr. T'soni." he was unable to resist the dire urge to drop his head at the tonnage of guilt that now lay upon his shoulders. "I'm due to end my tour in four months. I was going to go back to civilian life with Marina. We saved enough to buy a prefab. She wanted to move to Horizon to be closer to her father. We were going to get married. She's...she's pregnant." he visibly winced; the word was now ever bitter upon the tongue and tasted of ash. "We wanted to start a life together. It was just supposed to be tabloid hooey… sensationalistic junk. I never thought it was…this. Lasky just wanted a story."

He expected the captain to yell: to start throwing accusations about his lack of honor, trust and duty. To seethe about his blood money. She did none of these things. He lifted his head just a little not to meet her gaze but to face her accusations. He could give her that at least. But she remained silent.

He watched with nervous apprehension as the Spectre paced back and forth in front of his cell. She reminded him of a great white shark he had once seen in a Sea World aquarium. It constantly circled the plate-glass viewing window as if attempting to find a way past the glass to devour him. The fear he held for the monster of the deep was the very same he held now for his captain. The shark of course never reached him, but the Spectre could very well do so. He swallowed hard causing his Adams apple to bob almost comically.

After what seemed like ages her voice a dark whisper broke the stillness like waves crashing upon rocks. "The Council in their infinite wisdom decreed the Reaper threat is at best farcical, something created by Saren and his geth. They classified Sovereign as a new class of geth dreadnought and decreed we are at war with them. War. Merkson. You know what that means. Under Alliance Military regulations the flag officer has broad authority aboard her vessel in a time of war. As a Spectre I have the same rights. In fact I am duty bound to do so.

"I have ever done my duty. A Spectre does what is right, not what is pleasant. Sometimes you break a few noses, a knee to the groin or shoot kneecaps and threaten to let them bleed out. Sometimes you throw people through windows. Sometimes you break their necks with a simple twist of the foot when they are at your mercy upon the ground. Sometimes you target moving shipping crates above your enemies' heads to crush them. Being a Spectre isn't about being nice, it's about doing what is right. What is Just! Justice is never pretty. Blind but not pretty and it is never ever nice."

She stopped pacing, turned facing him now a deadly predatory gleam in her eyes. "Shall I make an example of you, Merkson? Did you know in days past in ancient maritime law mutineer was keel hauled? Though in the dead of space I don't think it will be as effective as it was back then. Perhaps I should simply space you instead. As I understand it, it isn't a good way to die. Even if I were merciful enough to allow you a hardsuit, eventually the oxygen would become depleted; your lungs seize up, your major organs simultaneously fail. Your body freezing before the radiation burns you alive. They say you're aware of it the entire time, even if such a death only takes seconds the pain is immeasurable. Definitely not a good way to die. Personally I can think of a hundred different preferable deaths than being spaced. One of them includes being torn apart by a thresher maw."

"Ca…captain…." Merkson swallowed hard, the stench of his fear radiating off him like that of feces.

"Did you know that I felt my daughter die? I was connected to her via a meld. The way she died…it was if she had been spaced just exactly as I described to you. I felt her soul fade into oblivion. The silence afterwards was so profound…it was if a void swallowed me whole."

"I'm so sorry!" the man in the cell cried out. "I'm so sorry…Oh God!" he wailed over and over. "It wasn't supposed to be like this. Oh God. It wasn't supposed to be like this!"

"What was it supposed to be like Merkson you and your girl: a cozy little family of traitors living the life on a colony world that has forsaken the Alliance? Did it never occur to you why Westerland News wanted this 'titillating tabloid hooey' in the first place? And why they were willing to pay so much for it?"

"Lasky said…she said it was off the books, it wasn't Westerland News it was just her. She wanted the scoop on the first human Spectre. She said she wanted to beat Emily Wong's news stories on you. She even wanted to beat out Al-Jilani. She's a war correspondent…I thought …I made myself believe it was because we were on the frontlines fighting Saren and his geth army. Everything about Spectres is confidential. Not even Alliance Brass can touch you now. I didn't want to think too much behind it." Merkson finally admitted. "It was just supposed to be a story about what you're like as a Spectre."

For a moment Shepard held her voice. Part of her couldn't fault the young man's naivety deliberate or otherwise. Believing the information he and Stevenson handed over simply because it was Intel on Spectres one of the most clandestine orders in the galaxy. Maybe he did fully believe it. He was conned not only by a news whore but by his own girlfriend who the Spectre knew to be a part of the Terra Firma party. The separatists party that holds the bar when it came to their pro-human /anti human agenda as well as their racist propaganda which in their protests every Armistice Day they called out in alarming regularity.

Stevenson had to have known this was more than sensationalistic journalism, that there were deep political overtones and agendas attached. And even if she hadn't she did willingly hand over classified information. That alone could very well buy her life in prison. No wonder she wanted to flee to Horizon. The Alliance and the Citadel therefore the Spectres has no jurisdiction there. And human colonies out in the Terminus Systems did not extradite prisoners, especially if they were facing life in prison or the death penalty.

"It's ironic isn't it? My bondmate and I will never see our daughter grow to womanhood, and you…and Stevenson will never see your child either. Fitting."

Leaving the brig Shepard returned not to the sick bay but to the CIC. Here she felt at ease. She looked down at the galaxy map at its point and go nav-system. Illium. They had to go there. The ship needed its upgrades and so did her captain.

Before the incident on the Presidium Shepard and the senior officers had a briefing as to what should be done for the ship. Tali had come up with an entire shopping list of upgrades the Normandy needed to fend off their next encounter with a Reaper ship. To tell the truth, Shepard had been looking forward to upgrading.

There was the new asari Silaris plating to be attached to the ship's superstructure. Tali said it will help the ship hold together if hit by a blast powerful enough to penetrate its shields.

When asked about specifics about the Silaris armor it wasn't Tali who answered but Commander Shiala. The asari matron related that 'The Destiny Ascension is covered in the same armor. It allows the ship to resist even the most tremendous heat and kinetic energy of starship weapons. This is because the armor is nearly unsurpassed in strength because its central material, carbon nanotube sheets woven with diamond Chemical Vapor Deposition, are crushed by mass effect fields into super-dense layers able to withstand extreme temperatures. That process also compensates for diamond's brittleness.

Shiala also reported: 'The diamond armor itself has two limiting disadvantages. First, whilst nanotubes and CVD-diamond construction have become cheaper in recent years, it remains prohibitively expensive to coat starships or aircraft larger than fighters in Silaris material. This is why only our fighters and a handful of wavecrest class frigates tend to be coated. The Destiny Ascension is a large exception. To coat the Normandy will be quite expensive. However with current ship's resources we can manage it.'

'What is the second limitation?' Shepard pressed.

'The second is that the armor must be attached to the ship's superstructure, so shock waves from massive firepower can still destroy the metals beneath the armor itself.'

'So we have to dry dock.'

'Correct. Mallene Calis has negotiated a contract on Illium with a Silaris contractor and for a good price. They've had dealings in the past; she got us a very good price.'

'Will this interfere with our stealth drive?' Williams asked 'I thought the diamond composition of the armor makes everything all sparkly.'

'That is a misconception, Lieutenant.' Shiala explained. 'In fact, atmospheric nitrogen impurities during the super-hot forging process gave the armor a metallic gray as is seen with the Destiny Ascension or yellow sheen which many of the asari fighters take on. As for it interfering with the stealth drives no it won't.'

In addition to this, Tali wanted to add Cyclone shield tech. The engineer said it was designed it to create rapidly oscillating kinetic obstructions of (CBT) or Cyclonic Barrier Technology. According to her it was designed to survive blasts like those that destroyed original Normandy.

'CBT attempts to solve the higher-end limitations of traditional kinetic barriers. Traditional barriers cannot block high-level kinetic energy attacks such as disruptor torpedoes because torpedo mass effect fields add mass. The CBT violently slaps aside rather than halting incoming linear force. By rotationally firing their mass effect field projectors, the Normandy once upgraded will create rapidly oscillating kinetic barriers instead of static ones. Shooting through the CBT is like trying to shoot at a target inside a spinning ball.'

When asked about any significant drawbacks, Tali only commented that: 'Current CBT configuration prevents its use on anything other than frigates and fighters. Fortunately the Normandy is a frigate so that isn't an issue. What can be problematic are its many high-frequency sensors and emitters require frequent maintenance and replacement. A partially damaged CBT can endanger its operator, who is surrounded by rotating mass effect fields skewing in unpredictable directions. Fortunately, if an emitter is damaged, the CBT corrects to become a traditional shield array, a safety feature that makes it most effective during opening volleys.'

Garrus had his own ideas on how to upgrade the main batteries. Following the Battle of the Citadel, human and turian volunteers conducted a massive three-month survey effort to clear the station's orbit of debris. Secretly, the turian Office of Technological Reconnaissance "volunteers" were technology recovery specialists salvaging the main weapon of the geth flagship Sovereign, and large amounts of its valuable element zero core.

Contrary to popular belief, Sovereign's main Thanix gun was not a directed energy weapon. Rather, its massive element zero core powered an electromagnetic field suspending a liquid iron-uranium-tungsten alloy that shaped into armor-piercing projectiles when fired. The jet of molten metal, accelerated to a fraction of the speed of light, destroys targets by impact force and irresistible heat.

The Office of Technological Reconnaissance were still working on developing a miniaturized version of Sovereign's gun, it wouldn't be ready for another eleven months. However the Prothean technology recovered from both Ilos and Quana had Thanix cannon armaments. It was necessary for any truly effective offensive strikes against the Reapers. It could fire reliably every five seconds, rivaling a cruiser's firepower but mountable on a fighter or frigate. That fact alone had Tali run the numbers to have Thanix cannons mounted on all four viper fighters: as well as the two kodiak UT-47 drop-shuttles, the four raptor interceptors as well as two A-61 Mantis gunships, and the M-44 Hammerhead. The smaller crafts would also be covered with the Silaris plating and Cyclone shield tech. The makos would not be so equipped.

There were other upgrades to improve fuel consumption. The Heed Industries Helios thruster module was intended for next-generation fighter craft. The propulsion system far outpaced the typical liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen reactions that powered a frigate's maneuvering thrusters. By using metastable metallic hydrogen, the Helios boasted a fuel that burned at far greater efficiency than liquid H2/O2. Navigators could execute the numerous small course corrections inherent to any long-distance travel without fear of exhausting the ship's fuel supplies. This net gain extended to forward impulse as well: a ship powered by antiprotons could coast temporarily using the Helios to reach an inferior but highly sustainable speed. Such efficiency lowered antiproton consumption, a constant concern for any warship.

When a Helios-propelled ship had to refuel, however, it typically relied on a large carrier or nearby planetary factory to synthesize the metallic hydrogen. This process used extremely dense mass effect fields to create the metal under pressures of over a million Earth atmospheres, an activity most safely done while planetside. While that process may seem like a drawback compared to "skimmer ships" that could gather hydrogen and oxygen from anywhere in the universe, the combat superiority of the Helios' maneuvering capabilities was often a worthwhile trade-off. The same efficiency that allowed for microburn course correction could power rapid bursts of motion. Once a pilot became used to the ship's new energetic responses, she could easily put the ship wherever and at whatever angle she desired.

The Ayndroid Group's properties Argus Plate Scan Technology was to be integrated into the ship's systems to speed up the planet-scanning process. In addition to the scanning array, Tali had a way to double probe capacity.

The Silaris plating on the Normandy alone would take upwards of a week to install – the additional upgrades would involve another two weeks on top of that. If Tali's calculations were correct everything was going to take a month, best time. That gave Shepard enough time for her own surgery and recovery time.

The Spectre's mind hit a wall. Illium was supposed…to fix everything. Make the ship ready to face the Reapers, make her ready. Make it so she wasn't a danger to herself, to Liara to their child. But what was the point now? Their child was dead because of her, because of the choices she made, the chances she took. Because she didn't fully understand the bond she shared with Liara and what she had shared with Sparrow, her little girl was now lost to them.

'You're pretty pathetic wallowing in self-pity, Shepard.' the Spectre chastised herself using the overtones of her father's voice. 'A Shepard isn't a hero they protect. You failed to protect your family, so don't fuck up again. Fix it. Get off your sorry ass, be a real Spectre, a real Shepard, a real N-Seven marine and get the goddamn job done!'

She did what she had done Elysium, on Virmire and on the Citadel; she pushed her pain down deep so deep she could focus on what mattered. Her blue eyes locked onto the spiral arms of the holographic galaxy. The sparkling blues reminded her of the speckled shades of cerulean in Liara's crest, the dark spots of her beloved's freckles. Shepard found her eyes tearing up even as the corners of her lips turned up imagining as she had a dozen times before that Secura would have the same adorable splash of freckles across her cheeks.

The pain of losing her child surfaced once more, despite the great efforts to bury it within her. In the grief counseling support groups she occasionally attended she was doing exactly the opposite of what they prescribed as healthy. Burying it didn't make it go away. But wallowing in it wasn't healthy either. She had to find something to focus on and yet at the same time ensure she didn't push Liara away or accept being pushed away by her wife.

The Spectre dragged her thoughts away from the inward turn they had taken and returned to the galaxy map. She had a mission priority but until she dealt with Udina and Cerberus they would become a constant harrowing distraction. One that could very well lose her the battle against the Reapers.

'First rule of engagement: know all you can know about a potential enemy, as swiftly as you are able to know it.' Words spoke over a thousand years ago by Sun Tzu. 'All warfare is based on deception. A skilled general must be master of the complementary arts of simulation and dissimulation while creating shapes to confuse and delude the enemy he conceals his true dispositions and ultimate intent.'

Her thoughts moved past Udina. He was nothing but the gun. The one holding the gun was the one to be concerned about. The Illusive Man: TIM. He was targeting her mind, making glorious attempts at unbalancing her. He had approached her indirectly by going through Udina. TIM had by Sun Tzu's own philosophies taken the battle. By the selection of devious and distant routes the Illusive Man had manoeuvred so expertly he had ensured Udina had become the primary distraction. He had used the ambassador and the bounty hunters to manipulate the Spectre's actions just as Barla Von said.

Shepard ground her teeth. Secura's death wasn't vengeance it was a means to an end. Ultimately Udina wanted what the false news report had manufactured, but that was not Cerberus's intent. They wanted something more. Whatever The Illusive Man's agenda was it was very different than what Udina wanted, Shepard was positive on that mark. This wasn't petty vengeance for her shutting down several of their operations and neutralizing their men. And despite what Udina believed it had very little to do with how his career ended. Just as Lasky used Stevenson and Merkson, TIM was using Udina. Unlike her former crewmembers however the ambassador was anything but a naive patsy, he was a very willing slave to Cerberus. He probably didn't even mind that TIM's ultimate agenda was not akin to his own just so long as Shepard paid for his downfall.

'What game is it that every player claims the same pawn?' Shepard continued to stare at the galaxy map. 'What game indeed? If you don't fully know the rules of the game your enemy is playing - change it, cheat, put in mods that alter the way the game is played. She knew the Art of War backwards and forwards as thoroughly as any N7. It was rare she encountered someone who not only knew the ancient tome but lived it as readily as the Illusive Man. He was attempting to shape her, observing her, probing her and taking all precautions not to be shaped by her.

To go toe to toe with the Reapers and the Cerberus, Shepard knew she had to re-establish her connection to the words of Sun Tzu and live it as deeply as TIM. She had to manipulate the situations to her advantage. In the past whenever in theater she had done just so. Using a defunct geth dropship to literally drop on the Cerberus encampment was one such instance. It had been a two fold strike take out the enemy as well as feed them false information, make them go after an different target, make them believe that for the moment Ilos was too hot until the Citadel could establish a stronghold.

This was no different than any other engagement she had been in. She had to weigh the situation before she moved, not blunder aimlessly into baited traps. Be prudent, but not hesitant. She had always taken calculated risks; which was why she had freed the Queen of the rachni back on Novaria. She had trusted the Queen when she spoke of the truth behind the rachni wars. They were of the Reaper's doing not the rachni themselves. The Queens had been indoctrinated with 'sour yellow notes' into warring against the rest of the galaxy. It had been a great risk to unleash the rachni back into the galaxy, but one Sam believed in. She believed in the words of the Novarian rachni Queen when she said she would teach her children of the Spectre's mercy and generosity.

Sam knew she had to become far more adaptable like water, conform to the ground around her and be just as flexible in order to win the double fronted battle. Cerberus was trying to give her enough rope to hang herself with, the trick was now was to turn the rope on the hangman and drop them instead. That was going to be very difficult but catching this Miranda Lawson was step in that direction. No doubt the Cerberus operative was trained to withstand mind altering drugs, interrogations and even brainwashing, just as any N7. But Lawson had to have some weakness that could be exploited. Once it was, it would further open weak spots within Cerberus itself. It was after all exactly what had happened to Shepard.

Cerberus and by extension Udina had selected and advanced to the spot where Shepard's resistance was the weakest. They knew how to avoid or by-pass a strong defense and to assault a weak spot: Liara and Secura. They had detoured and outflanked Shepard. Confusing her by attacking at one point to divert her attention while actually advancing on another. She had been outmaneuvered by one of her favored ploys, it was far more than jarring, it was a kick to the head and the ass. Gunny Ellison would be so very disappointed in her 'goldbricking' when she should have been paying more attention. She was a N7 marine, a Spectre for crying out loud. Saying she should have acted sooner, she should never been caught so off guard, never been so distracted was counter productive. Even if it was all true.

The Illusive Man was an expert at using clandestine approaches, no doubt he knew not only about her strengthened biotics but they were going to deteriorate her body and mind. He knew that her devotion to Liara was unwavering. These had been perceived as weaknesses, not only by TIM but by the ambassador and the Council as well. Each in their own way had attempted to remove Liara from her side.

But Liara was not a weakness; she was Sam's greatest strength. The Spectre's biotics were not going to be a deterrent to her or her family any longer. Her eyes once more looked to the map, more specifically to the Crescent Nebula. Pulling it up she centered on the Ondeste system and brought up Illium. She charted the course, finding it was only a few jumps from the Citadel relay.

Shepard activated her uniform radio: "Naga'sadow once we get clearance from the Council call up the coordinates in the nav-system and head for Illium with all due speed."

'Aye-aye Captain.' the young asari responded. 'Course laid and set, ready on your order.'

Since Joker was still confined to quarters the young asari maiden had taken over the duties as main helmsmen. That was another issue Shepard had to tackle, Joker's complete indiscretion over security protocols.

Running lights illuminated the corridors as if guiding Shepard's way, giving her direction. As she passed various crewmembers they stilled their actions and snapped to attention. It was strange it didn't take long before a consensus was formulated amongst the various species. Asari, turian, volus, and the salarian had all adopted the human form of saluting their commanding officer. At first the Spectre wondered if had bothered the non-humans that they had conformed to this practice but then she reasoned that Commander Shiala would have said something if that were the case, she was after all the XO, before that the CAG. She was an experienced officer of the asari military. She knew how to listen for dissidence within the crew.

To look at her crew now she saw reflected in their eyes their pity and unease for the words they lacked to express their regret over the loss of hers and Liara's daughter. Shepard ignored the looks and continued along her path. She took the elevator down to the crew deck, the running lights continued to lead her to her destination even as she had no will to truly go. What she wanted was to go back to her love, to hold Liara in her arms and shut out the rest of the galaxy. But the galaxy didn't wait for warriors to lick their wounds.

"Attention on deck!" Service Chief Gabrielle Daniels cried out as soon as she saw the captain enter the communal quarters.

All around her off duty personnel jumped up from the table, their racks and stood at rigid attention, amongst their numbers were the salarians: Chorban, Shells, and Ororo. Of the present turians were Lilihierax known to most as Lee, former C-Sec officers Vlirigel as well as Galdor, both women Shepard knew to be excellent officers. The rest were humans, including Joker.

The helmsmen tried to lift himself off the bottom rack but was halted by the fact both of his legs were in braces.

"As you were." Shepard said dismissively allowing everyone to relax their stance. "In fact give us the room."

She heard the rustle of clothing as the rest of the crew scrambled out leaving her alone with the crippled lieutenant. Her attention focused solely upon the pilot until he began to squirm under her scrutiny.

"Permission to speak freely, Captain?"

"Denied." Shepard snapped. "You don't get to speak. You listen. There will be a formal Captain's Mast within the day, you'll be charged for the records at that time. For now this is what's happening. Lieutenant Williams confined you to quarters until further notice. I agree, in fact you're confined until the refit is finished. XO Shiala, Lieutenants Naga'sadow and Morwen are as equally qualified to pilot this vessel as you are. Your arrogance at the helm is wearing a little thin Lieutenant. Perhaps it's my fault for allowing such leniency with the glibness that allows you to feel free to act as you have.

"You know the first time you actually pissed me off was back on Virmire when you said rather snidely and I quote. 'I know what I'm doing.' I allowed it to slide because frankly I had far more important things on my mind than your back-talk. I wasn't as hard on you as I should have been. I gave you the impression you had more liberties than you had. For the next three months you are cut off from all extranet privileges. Any e-mail you have coming or going will be thoroughly screened, furthermore you will ask permission not only to read your mail and to respond to it by dictation to any mail."

She was silent for a moment, her blue eyes staring at him not with contempt but grave disappointment. "I'm not even going to ask why you did it, Monroe. I know why. Hell I was sorely tempted to do so myself. I owe Cerberus nothing save perhaps a bullet in the head. Don't you think I asked myself a dozen times over about those files we recovered? Why not hand them over to the Shadow Broker if a rear admiral was going to do the same? I almost did. Maybe I'm too devoted to the uniform and it's blinded me. You're not being punished because you sent the files Joker; you're being punished because you betrayed my trust in you. You let me down. The trust that uniform has given you, you let it down." She waited a moment as if deciding she was going to allow him the opportunity to speak or not. Drawing in a long breath she uttered in the darkest of tones. "You have anything to say for yourself?"

Joker nodded ever so slightly. "Yes ma'am."

"You have one minute."

"Even if it means letting you down again, or breaking the trust in this uniform has given me but it keeps you alive, I'll do it again and again. My loyalty is to you, not necessarily the Alliance. I wear the uniform to fly a great bird like the Normandy, to serve you. As for the money, I didn't keep it. I had the Shadow Broker's agent send it to the Shepards."

The Spectre looked at the man before her with incredulous scrutiny. "You what?" she folded her arms over her chest, daring him to continue such a ludicrous explanation. If Joker sent that type of cash to her family she'd would have heard about long before now.

"The Shepards. I'm guessing from your expression you didn't know anything about them. It's a charity organization. Remember your crazy fanboy stalker, Conrad Verner? He started this charity to help orphans and refugees from wars and disaster zones. Verner set it up to honor you, ma'am. They did a lot of good for the victims of the Vallum Blast on Taetrus and before that the lost on the Citadel.

"The money from the Shadow Broker was substantial the Shepards needed it. I didn't take any kick-backs, Captain. I swear it. Some good had to come out of all of that crap Cerberus did. They killed a rear admiral, used faked distress beacons to lures marines to be slaughtered in thresher maws nests. They tuned an entire colony into husks. Captain; we couldn't let them get away with it. And if the Shadow Broker sends some one after you because he thinks you betrayed the Kahoku's deal then the Reapers win. Udina and Cerberus are already trying to destroy you and Dr. T'soni. They practically did! They were already trying to do that a year ago. You don't need more enemies, you need more allies."

Shepard dissected the words Joker said, one phrase in particular stood out. 'My loyalty is to you, not necessarily the Alliance.' "Why did you say that? Your loyalty is to me and not the Alliance?"

"Captain, you said it yourself the loyalty to the uniform is blinding you. Yeah you're the poster-child for recruitment now, but that love isn't going to last, Cap'n. Every one of us that served with you on the old Normandy trusts you, believe in you. They know the truth about the Reapers. The new crewmembers on this ship trust your mission. But the crew isn't the Alliance. Most of them are of the Council races but they follow you because of who you are. This crew has your six.

"But the Council has already denounced everything you said about the Reapers. They have Avina saying the Reapers are nothing but paleo-mythology. The Alliance is saying the same thing: that Sovereign is a new geth dreadnought. Captain they are going to discredit everything you say when push comes to shove. And I saw that news brief just like the rest of the senior officers. If it leaks out, they'll cut you. You have to know that, Captain. You have to be protected just as much as you are protecting all of us. Don't you see that? You're more important than any uniform." In his excitement Joker used the bunk above his own to hoist himself up onto his unsteady broken legs. He teetered before he fell back onto his rack, pain washed across his face.

"Your minute is up. Your actions will be taken in account during the Captain's Mast. For your hearing choose an advocate who knows the law inside and out. Choose well, Joker." Shepard said her tone softer than it had been when she first entered the junior officers' quarters. "You chose to put on that uniform, Joker. You took the oath. Until you muster out you keep that oath. Oh and don't you get off that rack again until Chakwas gives you the green light."

He saluted. "Aye aye."

The helmsmen smiled to himself, he had fucked up but he knew he was back in Shepard's good graces. She had called him Joker!

To the empty room he said. "Captain, you are the uniform. Hell yeah I'll keep my oath. Same oath me, Ash, Garrus, Tali, Adams and Wrex made: protect and serve Samantha Shepard."

The yahg prowled the circular chamber watching the black-mailing film footage on one of the several monitors. "I can not allow this transmission to air. She is a necessary commodity one that is not yet expendable. If this airs that commodity depreciates. However Donnel Undine is no longer an asset. He has outplayed his hand."

"Do you wish to deploy the Hunter-Seeker virus?" came the tinny voice of the floating blue drone at the Shadow Broker's massive shoulder.

"Engage the virus." the massive tri-lipped mouth flanged into a yahg version of a grimace. It was a drastic but necessary measure. All six of his eyes blinked at once as he watched the news feed for the eighth time. He found the subject extremely interesting. Shepard had become a particular project of his for some time now, since before Elysium. The Shadow Broker invested a great deal of time and even credits into her. She had become a pet of sorts.

In the event one of his pet subjects were compromised by a tactic deployed by the either the media or another force the Shadow Broker had developed a set of specialized viruses that hunted out certain files and wiped not only them from the hard drive but the hard drive itself. And like a virus it spread as a disease to other computers that shared that singled out file and wiped that computer's hard drive and so on and so on. It was not as difficult as it might first seem files shared between computers had one thing in common and that was they all went through FTL comm-buoys. The Hunter-Seeker viruses sought out all computers that shared that single file. In this case the news broadcast, it was far too detrimental for his long term goals.

Shepard must remain functional with her heroic status intact for the time being. The first human Spectre represented his best measure to survive the coming genocide of the Reapers. She had no idea how very unique, how special she truly was. And it had absolutely no connection to her being a hero, just her being so was very convenient. It had everything to do with the fact she not only linked with two beacons but with the thorian on Feros and survived with her sanity intact.

And now thanks to one of his agents within the Spectres, he had Shepard's medical files. She was a very unique human. Her biotic abilities now far surpassed Subject Zero formerly the most powerful human biotic. Granted Subject Zero's abilities were engineered both on Eden Prime where she was born and on Pragia by Cerberus.

Shepard's own genetic manipulation was just as enlightening. It seemed Cerberus orchestrated both 'accidental' in-utero exposures to element zero. Their biotic potentials were extraordinary which was why from the early onset Cerberus had plans to kidnap both children. While Subject Zero's mother had been lied to by Cerberus physicians saying the infant died of complications due to the exposure of Ee-Zo, Shepard's mother escaped the abduction plans simply because she had been shipped out on rotation. Young Samantha had escaped Cerberus's clutches.

Young Shepard escaped once more Cerberus when they had attempted to bribe John Shepard into handing over his unwanted daughter to Pragia's Teltin facility under the guise of a scholarship program for biotics. Once again due to Hannah Shepard's intervention it didn't happen. The records of Shepard's past indicated that she was one of the very rare recipients of asari training all due to Hannah Shepard. Apparently the woman was never going to let go of her spawn.

What was more interesting was what had happened to Shepard and the maiden T'soni just after the Battle for the Citadel. Their unique gestalt augmented the human's abilities even further, to the point that she now rivaled an asari commando even if she wasn't as well trained. According to the Spectre he had as an agent, Shepard was even now capable of biotic sight, a talent that only asari possessed because of their unique biology. Apparently the prolonged bond during Shepard's life saving surgery and the resulting gestalt altered both Shepard and T'soni. This made some people even more interested in her and it wasn't just Cerberus. The Collectors wanted Shepard dead or alive, it was her body they were after. T'soni was a bonus paying a very handsome bounty upon delivery. The Shadow Broker intended to do precisely that.

Donnel Udina was another matter entirely. Project DU Sundown was a smear campaign set against the politician. Not only would it ruin all his political clout but the operation was so well orchestrated it would force him to retire from political life. He was of no value to anyone anymore. The only thing you did with dead weight was to jettison it out the airlock.

Liara moved through her quarters as a whisper through a dream. Her eyes fell upon the piled broken model ships on Samantha's desktop. The heavy crystal display case was shattered but the remains had been carefully cleared up. Both the display case and models were obvious victims of a biotic pulse.

There were fresh vacuum-cleaner tread marks on the carpet, indicating that someone had very recently cleaned up, probably the same person who had picked up the debris and stacked Sam's toy ships.

Then her eyes fell upon the corner…Secura's corner. The bassinet was still there, the stack of little blankets, clothing, plush animals, the small shelf of bottles, dippers and the other accoutrements for the care of their child. Seeing them she fell to her knees and let out a soul wrenching howl.

The arms that wrapped themselves around her were blue; she felt her body being pulled into her dame's embrace. "Oh Arda! I cannot bear this pain. I cannot!"

Sha'ira held her child rocking her back in forth, tears streaming down their faces. Arda…the name given to the other parent, it was a name of love, not the formal Dame. The Consort never dreamed to hear the word issued from her firstborn.

To hear it now… was not unlike the tales of human warriors dying crying out for their mothers. Arda…

Liara turned in the embrace clinging to the Consort for all she was worth. Her grief coming in waves upon waves, but through it all she felt a gentle presence blanket her. It was warm, safe and loving. It was the touch of a parent's love, something she thought never to find again. The young maiden held on to the arms holding her even tighter.

The elder woman simply cradled her daughter. She had escorted Liara home, knowing her girl needed her to be there. She knew it because when she had returned to the condo she had shared with Benezia, there had been a nursery. It had crushed her to the very fiber of her soul. It had taken her acolyte Nelyna to help her though what she had believed was the very end of her family. Her soul had been crushed. At the time she knew only her beloved bondmate and her unborn child perished by choices she had made.

For a year her grief had been so deep, so unbearable she filled the hole with a child sired by a client of hers, one that would never confuse her want of a child for anything more than he was: the donor of a new DNA pattern. Racen was born a year later and though she loved her daughter, Sha'ira still mourned Liara's loss. She had until that fatefully day on Thessia when Hannah Shepard urged her to reconnect to her first born. Secura would never return to her parents, their ache would never end even after they had more daughters. Sha'ira vowed to be there for them both; she would help them through this grief.

AN: Information on Normandy's upgrades liberally taken from the in-game codex. I also used the stories within Cerberus Daily News.

Part 39

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