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 39
Justice, Duty and the Spectre Way

Screams thundered over the streets of the Presidium, creatures changing shapes just like the beings of light. Shards of Sovereign raining down all over the Citadel destroying the safety the Council had promised. Voices cried out in the dark, fists pounded upon the Sanctuary door begging the Regent to be allowed in. Sour yellow mist curled around dead bodies, around the corpses of little blue babies.

Packs of three headed hounds nipped at the heels of a blue silhouette so perfect in form and shape. The hounds baying created the sounds of a baby crying, the wails of grieving mothers. Force fields sprang up, the destroyed streets of the Presidium blocked by heavy kinetic barriers, and the entity had been thrown back, swallowed up by a floating sapphire bubble. But it had been so close, it had saved the woman, it was getting through. It had been gaining command. It almost had it. The woman had almost obeyed the will of the wife. And now this.

In the darkness in the never ending rain of debris it heard the sound of armored boots approaching. A shape appeared in the cloying mists as a manta ray rising out of the ocean floor.

It drew nearer and it spoke. 'What are you?'

The entity stirred like the Progenitor in the deep tidal pool. It was too exhausted to flee. 'I am the Renegade of the Dark.' It hissed in a sound that was not a sound. 'Who are you?'

"I am The Spectre.'

'They would have killed her wife, they did kill her unborn child!" the creature lunged, and met the defying resistance of the blue hovering bubble it was in. 'Think of all the deaths they have caused, the chaos, the destruction. They will never stand by her, never support her. When the Reapers come they will cry out for her to save them even as they now forsake her. I am that which will stand by her, give her the power to survive. I will give her the power to overcome her enemies. All of them. I am her power. Who are you to stop me?"

"She created me. I am LAW. I watch her, I have always done so, I will always do so. You will not force murder, you will not force lawlessness."

"What kind of sentient creates their own Spectre?"

"One who is utterly terrified of the dark."

This brought great satisfaction to the entity "And so she should be." It laughed with great joy.

"You didn't copy that correctly. Transmissions must be garbled. My creation was not to keep the dark out, but in, contained, incarcerated, imprisoned. You may choose your descriptor. I guard the dark side. Imagine how strong I must be, how powerful.' The Spectre stepped into the light; short black hair framed the light caramel skin of an angular face. Solid cyan eyes glowed in the low light.

The entity scuttled away but the confines of the security bubble stopped it movements, fear awash on its face. The Spectre leaned in, cerulean eyes glowing ominously, 'You have no dominion here! Now get the hell off my ship!'

Sam burst from the dream. Sweat gleamed off her tanned body, her breath churning heavily from her lungs. She looked over to the bed, Liara was in a deep asleep. Mostly due to the sedatives Chakwas had prescribed for her to help her sleep. Leaning over she placed a soft kiss upon tender purple lips before she rose from the bed.

Padding over to the walk-in wardrobe she grabbed a pair of track-suit bottoms and slipped them over her boxers, she didn't bother with socks or boots but shrugged on a tank top over her sports bra.

The images of the dream burned like acid in her mind. There could be no sleep for her now. She slipped out the door but didn't go for the elevator instead she hit the access maintenance shaft. She put her feet on either side of the ladder and slid down it. She ran the narrow maintenance shafts until she hit another ladder and slid down it and continued the same routine even if it meant she had to crawl on all fours until she reached the crew deck. She crawled out of the hatch and continued to run. She ran the length and breadth of the ship, every deck ordering people to make a hole allowing her to pass. She ran and ran until her lungs burned and her body begged her to stop, to rest but she did not. The physical pain and exhaustion was bliss compared to the mental anguish. But still it wasn't enough to rid herself of the images haunting from the dream. To purge it she poured herself deeper and deeper into physical and biotic exertion.

Sweat freely dripped from the Spectre's body as she assaulted a heavy punching bag that had more duct tape than vinyl canvas. Her hands and feet were wrapped in boxing tape to offer minimal protection, despite it there was splotches of deep red about her the tops of her knuckles where her skin had split open. Her body flared blue as she struck the bag again and again. She tried to still the haunting images, the voices echoing in her memory.

One who is utterly terrified of the dark. My creation was not to keep the dark out, but in, contained, incarcerated, imprisoned. I guard the dark side. I will give her the power to overcome her enemies. All of them. I am her power.

Images of her daughter's tiny body taken away by Dr. Chakwas, of a pool of purple blood, Liara's screams of pain, her body wracked in agony haunted Sam, even as she shut her eyes to blot them from her mind. Her ears continued to hear the anguish of the severed bonds of mother and child.

The dream was a spawn of the memories, of the screams of her beloved Liara. If Sam embraced the darkness within her, she would have the power to crush her enemies. It would be so easy to go down to the brig and carry out Liara's ultimatum. It was so easy to embrace the darker side of her nature, to be far more ruthless. She knew the power that the darkness within her gave her. Was it not easier to use intimidation than silver tongued charm?

Fear. Nietzsche said it is better to be feared than loved. Fear kept your enemies from overtaking you, it forced them to prepare against you. It kept the plebs in line and dominated far quicker than a more virtuous paragon solution. Yet what in the end did it yield but rebellion? The martyr becomes the tyrant?

"I don't need darkness to make my enemies fear me!" she snarled slamming a right hook into the bag. Again and again she smashed her fists into the bag. Sam twisted her body into side kicks, front kicks, and sweeps. She used her whole body as a weapon, forearms, elbows, palms as well as fists.

"I will make sure of my defenses. I will not sacrifice my integrity, my values. I will not! I can not!" she threw a biotic punch so fiercely it shattered the punching bag, spreading sawdust and polystyrene beads everywhere. Her sweat-soaked body became a magnet for the fine dust, giving her an almost feral look. She fell to her knees pure exhaustion overcoming her at last, her hands now bleeding more readily for the abuse they had withstood from her brutal assaults. "I can't do that. I can't lose myself. I won't give them that."

"Then do not." Liara said to her bondmate. She placed her hands on Samantha's shoulders as she approached from behind. "I want vengeance, I want blood, I want justice. That man sits in the brig and hasn't paid! Why didn't you carry out your duty, Samantha? You let Merkson get away what he did!"

"He will pay, Liara. He'll be paying for the rest of his life. Stevenson is pregnant. For her part she will be imprisoned long enough to have the child before it becomes a ward of the state, then she will be executed for treason. I have condemned Merkson to life, Liara." Sam responded tersely.

"Life?" the maiden scoffed. "You show him mercy and you call it condemnation?"

"Yes it is. Merkson will live on knowing his greed caused the destruction of his family. He had a choice, he could have stepped forward and reported Stevenson to me, warned me that she had a recording of me and of her plans to give it to the media and Udina. He could have told her no don't go through with the betrayal. Even if she had gone through with it and he had stepped up and done the right thing he would have had custody of his child. Now he will not even know the sex of it once it is born. Take it from me the vast majority of human males want a male heir. Even in this modern age most of the men of my species value sons more than daughters. They want someone to carry on their name. But his family's legacy will die with him. That child even if born male will never pass on the name Merkson or Stevenson, for that matter. He'll never see it. Never know it. It is no mercy to keep him alive Liara; in fact it is far from it."

For a moment Liara remained silent. She quietly took Sam's hands into hers just as she had after her lover's Great Hunt. This time however the Spectre wasn't shivering from the cold, but trembling from the sheer physical demands she pressed upon her body.

Tenderly Liara led the human to the first aid bay within the gym and without a word she slowly began unwrapping the abused hands. She dropped the bloody rags onto the table, snapped the duroplastic locks open on the medical kit withdrew antiseptic wash and opened sterilized pouches of gauze wipes and began to tend to the wounds.

"You're filthy." Liara said quietly changing the subject.

Sam simply watched her wife mend her knuckles, noting indeed that her sweaty body had a fine layer of sawdust and polystyrene balls sticking to it.

"You're not crawling back into our bed like that." Liara said

"Don't worry; I'll hit the showers as soon as we get back to the loft."

The asari nodded her head. "Your nightmares have returned."

"This one was different. It wasn't about the visions from the beacons or memories from the cipher."

'Show me the dream.' Liara sent through their bond.

Sam shook her head. 'I'd rather share other memories, tonight.'

They linked minds that night sharing the memories of their very first night together exploring their love. The Night before Ilos.

Shepard had convened a senior officer briefing later that morning. She knew her flagship team had initiated a response to the blackmailing news feed. She had to know precisely what actions they had taken and what if any fall out she had to deal with.

No one spoke of the death of Secura, Joker's indiscretion or Merkson's betrayal. For that both the Spectre and Liara were entirely grateful. It was Shiala who opened the briefing with a SitRep.

"It was decided to use Garrus's underworld contacts to make a connection with an agent of The Wizard to negate the newscast. Tali was in charge of the task, she was accompanied by Abby Williams, they were successful."

Shepard turned her attention to the young quarian. "Tali, what's the story?"

"Abby and I went to the Zakera Wards and established contact with the duct rats known and Varren and Roach, they gave us the name of one of their leaders called Mouse."

"Mouse?" Shepard folded her arms over her chest, her eyebrow cocked in curiousity. "These duct rats take names of vermin? How trustworthy are they Garrus?"

"Good. Most of them…okay nearly all of them are kids. They are the ignored, those who are not seen but see much. They are a very good spy network, Shepard."

"Kids? You're using kids?" The disapproval in her voice wasn't at all masked.

"It's not exploitation, not really. I'm simply using all sources available. These kids belong to the poorer populations; they run around in the ducts, keeping them out is nearly impossible it's why they are called duct rats. They take the name further by assuming identities of vermin." The turian explained. "They are a good source of info."

"I see. And their trustworthiness?"

"Reasonable, though they are loyal pretty much only to each other. They might be a gang of kids who can be bribed with food, clothes and meds, but they aren't hoodlums. They are the lost. But I've never been betrayed by one of them and Mouse is a fairly good kid. His rap sheet is filled with minor things: petty theft, B and E, selling illegal VI and selling bootleg sim-games as well as ticket scalping for consorts, sports even the theatre."

"Actually his VI is how we are getting in touch with The Wizard. It links directly to The Wizard if you enter the correct pass code." Tali said. "And um Shepard I don't know how you're going to take this. But er…perhaps I should just show you." Tali activated her OMNI tool and linked with the briefing room's holo imaging system and downloaded the VI.

A full color hologram blinked into existence. It was Shepard dressed in N7 armor. "Justice, Duty and the Spectre Way. What do you need done?" the VI said in a perfect imitation of the Spectre's voice.

"You've got to be kidding me!" the real Shepard exclaimed incensed. "THIS is the VI that links directly to The Wizard? What the hell!?"

"It is a good likeness." Liara said a small smile crept upon her purple lips.

"Hey babe." the VI flashed a charming smile to the asari. "I wouldn't mind handling any of your problems."

"Back off you two-gigabyte counterfeit." the real one practically snarled. "Tali turn that god damn thing off."

The room carried the sound of snickering which caused the Spectre's frown to deepen. Clearly she was not amused. This only caused her crew to giggle, chuckle and chortle all the more.

"You know I delete trivial problems like you on the way to real trouble." the holograph flashed Shepard's very cocky 'I've got an idea' smile as it confronted its corporeal self.

"NOW Tali!" A scathing glare from Shepard was incentive enough for Tali to scurry and obey her captain.

The holograph vanished with a blink. The room was still filled with laughter. The Spectre brooded.

"You mean to tell me this duct rat is selling copies of this…this mockery?" the tone of the Spectre had dropped several degrees. At first she hadn't minded the VI but when it had come on to her wife it stirred something in her. "It makes me sound like a letch wanting to bed every asari I see!"

'There is only one asari in this room it responded to and it was not Shiala. Perhaps it is programmed to respond to me. Or Goddess forbid a VI of me if this Mouse created one.'

'Well…that isn't so bad. But still…that's borderline pornography if that is the case. And it is a complete misinterpretation of my character.'

"Skipper before you go high and to the right, Tali did find something else about the VI." Williams interjected.

"What is it?" Shepard addressed the young engineer.

"Mouse reported that it was extremely glitchy. He has a few Volus techs working on it but apparently there is a phrase that once uttered causes the VI to relate warnings and information about the Reapers. The VI reports in such a way it doesn't come off as delusional propaganda but almost like a report on the stock market exchange or a weather update. People will listen."

"Let's hear it." the Spectre commanded.

Tali nodded her hooded head and reactivated the hologram. Once more it blinked on.

"Justice, Duty and the Spectre Way. What do you need done." it repeated its greeting.

"Please tell me it can say something else." Shepard sighed. "That is going to get old real fast."

"If you want me to say something else, please consult your owner's manual" it said.

"You're a bloody illegal VI you don't HAVE an owner's manual." the real Shepard snapped back.

"Aren't you intelligent enough to use another VI's manual?" It answered. "We're all pretty much the same in that regard."

Shepard's eyebrows shot up into her forelock. Everyone else tried to stifle their amusement. After a fashion even Shepard smiled. "I don't believe it, I was just given lip by a VI."

The VI in question folded her arms over her photonic chest. "So what's the mission? I can't do anything for you if you don't give me a SitRep."

"Tali, open her up to the Wizard."

"Aye, aye Captain. And therefore it is said that enlightened rulers deliberate upon the plans, and good generals execute them." Tali said quoting age old texts.

The VI shifted slightly as if the holoemitters glitched and attempted to realign the projection matrix. The hologram now wore a helmet. "If not in the interests of the State, do not act. If you cannot succeed, do not use troops. If you are not in danger, do not fight."

Tali responded once more: "A sovereign cannot raise an army because he is enraged, nor can a general fight because he is resentful. For while an angered man may again be happy, and a resentful man again be pleased, a State that has perished cannot be restored, nor the dead be brought back to life."

The VI Shepard apparently had response to this as well. "Therefore, the enlightened ruler is prudent and the good general warned against rash action. Thus the State is kept secure and the army preserved."

The real Shepard was taken aback. 'It quotes Sun Tzu? Talk about your omens.' "Isn't this a little over the top? Clichéd cloak and dagger code phrases?"

"I find it difficult to believe that a duct rat is well versed in the human's Sun Tzu." Liara asked incredulously. "Even if he is a human. It does not seem highly probable."

"No." Tali shook her head. "Mouse said that The Wizard initiated contact with him. Then confiscated the Shepard VI and then sent it back to him with new programming. Mouse said the way to open a chain of dialog with the Wizard was to unravel a small puzzle. 'Only by knowing chapter and verse of War's Way of Fire, sixteen through nineteen will the Shepard user reach desired connections'." the quarian shrugged. "I know it's all a little too dramatic.

"I searched the extranet with the key phrases of Fire as a chapter heading and then numbered verses. It kicked out a lot of human's Christian biblical references but one it did pull up was the Sun Tzu's the Art of War. That seemed the most probable. So I downloaded a copy onto my OMNI tool. When I first attempted it, it gave the responses you heard. I continued with the subsequent verses until it blinked on and off with the helmet on and the voice had changed just as it has now."

"It is the only way to facilitate security." the holographic Shepard took Tali's explanation a step further. "Such things can not be chanced upon by accident but by design. Chapter and verse must be known to activate lines of communication.

"Spectre Shepard you should know contact between yourself and The Wizard can be considered an illegal act though your status grants you certain privileges and dispensations regarding the law." The voice coming from the VI was not wholly that of Shepard's own but layered with another's.

"Am I to assume this is The Wizard?"

"It is more accurate to say I am the voice of The Wizard's drone. I am capable of establishing real time communications if the user has the facilities, the finances for such and the wiliness to face judiciary consequences if caught out. A connection to this Shepard VI however does not guarantee The Wizard will respond. After all authoritative regulatory figures have tried this route to capture my master. Precautions must be met."

"Then tell The Wizard that the Hero of the Citadel's enemies have conspired to ruin her and the mission to stop the threat of the Reapers. They are real and they are coming. There is proof of this. Once a true connection between myself and The Wizard is made I will give this proof of the conspiracy. To start with all The Wizard has to do is take a look at the C-Sec footage of the battle that happened on the Presidium to know what I speak of. I'm certain The Wizard has already seen it. This conversation is over. VI deactivate."

"Logging you out."

Shepard kept her tongue; her mind was not so still. The seemingly omnisentient extranet hacker had gone to great lengths to confiscate her illegal VI. It was obvious that there was a very clear message in that act. Using tenets of the Art of War was clearly another. The Wizard had chosen those stanzas purposely: do not act precipitously, out of rage or resentment least it endanger the State…the people. 'A State that has perished cannot be restored, nor the dead be brought back to life.'

"Don't bring harm to those you are trying to protect by rash acts." Shiara broke the silence as if she was plucking the very thoughts from Shepard's mind. "I have read this ancient human war thesis as have many in the Asari military. The Wizard who to some is viewed as head of the governmental conspiracy theorists seems to be supporting the government with the chosen stanzas. If it doesn't interest the State do not act, and if you cannot succeed do not use troops. This war we have against the Reapers seems to be nigh on impossible to win and yet if we do not act we will perish.

"I have to wonder is this a warning to all users who unlock the connection to The Wizard or simply you, Shepard? Is it a coincidence that such warnings come so soon after the attack against your family or by design?"

"You believe this is some sort of subtle hint for the Skipper not to enact rightful vengeance? Udina deserves to die! Cerberus needs to be burned, their agents are traitors, and traitors are executed! Sam and Liara have every right to act, to seek justice" Ash all but roared.

Shepard smiled at her closest friend truly appreciating the sentiment. She then looked to Liara. "Vengeance and retribution for my family is of a personal nature, for me - for Liara." she stood touched Ash on the shoulder and whispered "and for my sister." In a clearer louder voice she continued, her tone that of a commander. "I will not act precipitously but with all justice at my hand and in the time of my choosing. The enemy wishes me to lash out. Believe me that is exactly what I want to do. But I will not act contrary to my own principles. I will see them fall. To the very last.

"The concerns for my ship hold precedence or we will suffer the same fate as the original Normandy. I have never hidden it from you all that I have some…medical issues that also need attending to, all of this will happen on Ilium. We depart as soon as we are given leave by the Council.

"Once this has been seen to, we strike Cerberus. We will harass their bases just as we did before when they assassinated Admiral Kahoku. I have a dossier on one of their topmost operatives. Her name is Miranda Lawson. Each of you will be given relevant information on her to facilitate her capture." Shepard activated her OMNI tool and set it to project a holographic representation of the Australian woman before them.

"You should know she has considerable genetic modifications and has a great deal of bio-synthetic upgrades more than the typical soldier or civilian. She will live half again as long as the normal human. From what the Shadow Broker has given me on her, I think she's a true test-tube baby grown out of a vat of designer genes. She's a very powerful biotic, and a talented administrator, though it seems she has the personality of an iceberg. I'll admit she's drop-dead gorgeous, once more she knows it and will use her considerable sexuality to her advantage. We can use that arrogance against her."

Ash looked at the holo-image of the grey-eyed brunette. The Skipper was right Lawson was very good looking. Her form fitting black and white uniform hugged her curves, leaving very little to the imagination. It seemed designed to specifically show off the woman's ass and breasts "A Cerberus cheerleader parading around like a whore. Makes you wonder if it's by choice or TIM makes his female agents wear that get-up?"

"Do not underestimate this woman based solely on her wardrobe. She's Cerberus's topmost operative for a reason and isn't because she turns tricks for TIM. She is highly educated and very talented both martially and biotically. Take her seriously, very seriously. She will not be easy to apprehend. But this must be done.

"Cerberus is not just my enemy but the avowed enemy of all of us and I am not simply speaking of Council Space. Their pro-human mission will destroy any hope of building a foundation to create an armada strong enough to defeat the Reapers. In order to neutralize the power of Cerberus we have to understand them. To that end we need Miranda Lawson. Study her dossier, know this woman, how she fights, how she thinks, how she moves."

She gained a chorus of aye ayes before she moved the meeting forward. "Garrus what did you learn during the interrogation, anything new?"

"Not as much as I liked and more than I had hoped for." came the turian's answer. "The Talons in question were based out of Omega. The larger percentage of their numbers were probies - Prospects and thus expendable. The other - the one with the merc facial marking was a vet who had incurred some disgrace within the company and this was his restoration of honor. If he could lead a group of prospects against the mighty Shepard and instigate a battle he'd have his honor restored, even if he died doing it.

"The merc when asked confirmed that his boss, a turian named Vossk was conscripted as we suspected along with a long list of others. Some of whom belong to the names Normandy's STG recovered and those your own source found." Garrus spoke directly to Shepard. "These names we already have, there was one new addition, and one missing: a Helena Blake. It seems as soon as she heard it was your name she bowed out. The Talon didn't know where she went but apparently she was heard to say she wasn't about to cross you despite the amount of hard cash Udina threw at them. She wanted no part of it."

"The Syndicate not into blood money? Since when?" Shepard snorted disbelieving the rumor.

"Apparently since you, Samantha." came Liara's ever eloquent voice. "At very least that is one faction we do not need to concern ourselves with. I assume however the other mercenary companies are still on the hunt?"

Garrus nodded. "We already knew the three major merc bands had picked up the contract, the Blood Pact, Blue Suns and the Eclipse. Though from the latter we now have two names. A bartarian male: Cahhakt and the human female Mirahi. From the other groups no known names yet. And there are a fair few independents as well. Again some of the names we already had, the twin sisters of the Lystheni salarian offshoot calling themselves the Mournful Blades. A new name cropped up a human male calling himself Zaleed. And then there is the krogan Inamorda…"

"Isn't that the guy that hanar merchant in Port Hanshan was dealing with?" Tali asked.

"The same." Shepard nodded. "Not exactly a loquacious conversationalist, he was more of monosyllabic sort of man. But offered to pay more than Opold for the package."

"Practical like any good krogan." Wrex said. "Been on a few opposite ends of marks with him. He's a good hunter. Nothing of Aleena's caliber but good all the same." The aging warlord turned his massive head directing his next question to Garrus. "Speaking of which is she on that list of yours Bird-bones or Shepard's?"

"She is on the Talon's but wasn't on the list Shepard gave us." Garrus answered.

Shepard, Liara, Ash and Shiala all exchanged a glance, holding it for a moment. The Spectre drew in a great breath and puffed it out. "There's a reason for that exactly. It was Aleena who gave me the list, not some information broker."

Wrex was taken aback. His great red eyes narrowed. "What do you mean she gave you the list, Shepard?"

"Just that." She turned her attention to Shiala and with a slight nod of the head which was acknowledged and traded with a similar gesture. The XO immediately made a very quiet call on her uniform's radio. "For the record, I will say this was kept quiet on a need-to-know basis. Only Liara, Lt. Williams and Commander Shiala and Dr. Chakwas other than myself knew of this."

It was the physician's name that sprouted looks of stymied expressions on the remaining members of the team. The looks remained as the briefing room door swooshed open with a pneumatic hiss. And in walked Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa.

"May I present the Huntress: Aleena."

Wrex was on his feet almost immediately. For one with so great a girth and weight he could sure move quickly when properly motivated. His reptilian nostrils flared as he drew in air and the asari's scent.

"You are having better luck it seems." Aleena patted Wrex's cheek affectionately as would a lover. "It is I, old friend." She leaned in close; her emerald hand traced the ridge just under the krogan's jaw with a very knowing hand.

Wrex stepped back, appraising the female standing before him. He looked to Shepard back to Aleena then back to Shepard. His expression was precisely that as it had been on Virmire when Karrahe had announced that Saren had a cure for the genophage. A mixture of rage, betrayal and regret.

"The deception was necessary. It was by my orders to keep the rest of you in the dark which had absolutely nothing to do with the matter of trust. " Shepard now stood between the two non-humans. Her voice addressed the whole of the room but her eyes were fixed solely on the krogan. "Yes, she was hired by Udina but she has fully committed herself to our cause. As surely as any of you have."

"You say it wasn't a matter of trust, I can see why you did not inform the rest of the crew, but why keep us out of the loop?" Garrus sounded hurt.

"In part it was to see if Aleena could truly be trusted. She had after all centuries to build her skills up in deceptions, manipulations and machinations. For all I knew her being outed by me was the artful tactic of building layers upon layers of strategy to take out her intended target. I had my doubts for months after her identity's unveiling on Ilos.

"I had to see her interact with the rest of you without the burden of fear of reprisal from any of your more protective natures." The Spectre turned to Wrex. "You knew her best, Wrex and she still moved under your radar. The skin job and the pheromone change aside you did not recognize her as a threat. In fact you didn't recognize her at all. I needed that unbiased assessment, I'm sorry but I had to use the rest of you as a control group. But it was a command decision and I still stand by it. If I was wrong I knew the rest of you would act accordingly without my decisions clouding your actions or judgments."

"Why?" Wrex's question was directly not to Shepard but to Aleena. He knew the matron would understand the intent of the question.

Her eyes became soft for a moment, wistful even. "Because sometimes it is better to disappear than have to kill someone."

This seemed to satisfy the old warlord. He simply nodded and sat back down. Though the chair was reinforced and built to suit him, it seemed to groan under new weight. "For someone soft and squishy with nothing to hang onto, you were prettier when you were bluish purple." he said at last.

Aleena chuckled, then demurely stepped up to her lover and stood behind her chair. 'It was in the past.' her lips seemed to have said when she caught the questioning look in Shiala's eyes.

Ash having prior knowledge of who Aleena was taken aback by Wrex's confession of his intimacy with the bounty hunter. You could see her attempting to work out the mechanics of the inferred relationship and she was coming up completely blank. It was if it hurt her head just thinking about it. Even Shepard was a little surprised by it but her face long schooled to hold the mask of command gave no outward appearance of her thoughts.

"As far as the rest of the crew are concerned Aleena remains Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa, just like the story of losing Ksad Ishan back on Quana to an ancient security system, or for that matter that it was a geth body housing a Prothean AI. It is a need-to-know security measure. Right now the only people who need to know are in this room."

"Spectre, if I might be allowed to give a suggestion as to the bounty hunters." Aleena spoke up.

Shepard nodded her head for her to continue. "You did not act before, now however now you must. I suggest this. Go to the reporter from Citadel News Net - Emily Wong. Use her. Reveal the names of all the bounty hunters that you have on the lists. As you humans say: 'point the spot light on them.' I'd go further and name each of the Talons that are either in custody or in the morgue that made the attempt on the Presidium. List Westerland News as being a part of the trap set to kill your bondmate. And tell Wong why.

"I would even say 'sources' reveal that former Ambassador Donnel Udina acting independently from the Alliance has links not only Westerland News and Cerberus but was responsible for contacting as many bounty hunters as he had. For proof, I can give you the missive I received that summoned me and the others on that list. We all met in a private conference room in the upper floors of the Mezzanine hotel on Noveria. I had my Omni tool recording the entire conference.

"I am sure if say an organization such as Cerberus had been in charge of the meeting the room would have been wired with anti-recording equipment. Fortunately it seems that Udina isn't quite so paranoid even if he did use a holographic avatar in attempt to disguise himself. If Wong airs that meeting, things will not only go very wrong for Udina but the bounty hunters will not be so keen on acting once the galaxy has its eyes fixed upon them. No doubt a few persistent and resourceful hunters will still pursue their quarry but few will act unless opportunity presents itself. They will not be so eager to actively hunt as they once were, not even for the amount of credits being offered. The risks do not outweigh the benefits."

"An excellent idea, Doctor." Shepard said deliberately using Aleena's assumed salutation. "Shiala, once we're through here, make the call and set up an exclusive. I've been promising Wong one, time to pay up."

"Hell if this works out we may not even need The Wizard." Ashley commented.

"Good. I don't relish activating that damnable VI again." The Spectre did not disguise or hide her displeasure.

This seemed to ease the tension that had built up during revelation of Aleena's true identity as the others shared a moment of mutual amusement.

Shepard, who was still standing, crossed her arms over her chest and gave each of her friends a look of appreciation. "Before you are dismissed I want to thank you all for everything you each have done for me, for Liara. I am profoundly touched and deeply grateful. Thank you." In her blue eyes you could see how truly humbled she was.

"You walk into hell for each of us, time we pay you back Shepard. It's what a true krant does Shepard. We are your krant and you our battlemaster. That is the way of it." Wrex's deep rumbling baritone answered back.

"We'll always fight for you. Even if you do keep a few things from us." Garrus echoed the sentiment. "No matter the cause, Shepard, saving the galaxy or your family all you have to do is ask."

"Always." Tali finished.

As they filed out, Ash stepped up to her Skipper. "I have something for you, Sam. You're going to like it, I think. Meet me in the armory."

Shepard walked into the armory with Liara at her side. "So what's this surprise you have up your sleeve?" she asked of Williams.

Ash crooked her fingers gesturing for the Spectre to follow her to one of the many work stations. On top of which was a dark case that usually housed her Colossus armor, which at one point Ash had repainted with the N7 design complete with the blood strip down the arm.

"You upgraded my armor?"

"Not exactly. That is to say not your N-Seven one. You know that armor design we were developing after the Ilos cache? I've fine tuned it and finally managed to finish it. There's a unique set for you and for Liara. One that will suit you well. And I think you'll both like the paint jobs." Ash snapped the lid open revealing a cobalt blue cuirass.

Shepard's keen eye picked out the model quickly. "Kestrel?"

"Better than Colossus for the upgrades in mind and it's easily piecemealed with other armaments." Williams quickly explained.

"That's true they make the more highly adaptable armors. How is this better than the Colossus, though?" Shepard asked curiously. The Colossus armor had a very high kinetic barrier ratio, ablative plating as well as links with the onboard computer that aided with weapons damage. With all the makes and models of armor Shepard had worn over her military career it was the Colossus she favored. In fact most of her ground team did, save for Ash and Liara who preferred the Phoenix.

"For one the helmet forgoes traditional transparent visors in favor of a reinforced faceplate with an internal heads-up display. The display connects to microcameras to allow naturalistic vision, and the helmet's weapon autotargeting and shield software provides a substantial boost to performance. Better percentages for headshots, weapon power and shields." Ash began to brief the qualities of the new set before them.

"The cuirass's spinal-mount processor synchronizes artificial torso muscle fibers with limb movements, allowing power to be generated by the legs, channeled through the core, and projected out through the arms. Stabilization of the firing platform assists in autotargeting, and waist-mounted capacitors add to the power of kinetic barriers."

"Cool." Shepard smirked as she held breastplate up for a closer inspection. "And what of the paladins, gauntlets and greaves?"

Ash stood proud as she gave the explanation. "The paladins house backup capacitors for shield generation. Artificial muscle fibers based on spider silk reinforce the shoulders, allowing for more powerful movements. You can give one hell of a biotic punch, ma'am but with this it increases that power by ten percent. You strike them with this they aren't going to get up any time soon. Even a krogan battlemaster will have a hell of a time recovering.

"As for the gauntlets they are just as potent. They have artificial muscle fibers as well. Just like everything else they are controlled by the armor system's central processor allowing for both gross motor movements and precision support of the hands. This steadies aim in a manner compatible with most firearm autotargeting systems. Additional capacitors for shield generation are installed on the ulnar side of the forearm. The greaves have a hip mounted power pack providing emergency energy for kinetic barriers and heavy weapons.

"This is all high end upgrades but what the Protheans had was spectacular. This armor as well as that which I've designed for both you is environmentally sealed with an independent air supply for use in space and extreme planetary conditions, with an onboard "micro-frame" computer capable of running a suite of battle management software. To prevent detection by passive thermal sensors, body heat is channeled to the base of the feet, where it can be dispersed into the ground.

"Tali also had her hands in this implementing some of the tech used for quarian environmental suits. It has a VI dedicated to recognizing signs of stress and medical trauma. This application helps assess your health, but can be useful in any high risk situations." The implication of the recent tragedy hung in the air. And remained their as tangible as an elephant lingering in the corner of the room. "The armor's microframe computer also manages biotic amp and omni-tool power, and microservos help the wearer's movements to counteract the armor's weight."

"I'm trying it on." Sam said with the giddiness of a child on Christmas morn. She lifted the paladins out and noticed the winged crest of the Spectres. "Not in the N-Seven crest?"

"That was my idea my love." Liara said. "All should see you as a Spectre and address you as such. You are no longer a member of the Alliance Military; you have a much higher calling, even to that of your beloved N-Sevens. All must recognize you as you are: a Spectre. It is only right and just you don their colors."

"You're right." Sam passed her thumb across the winged emblem. "Ash make a note. I will no longer be addressed as Captain, but as Spectre." she leaned in wickedly smiling. "Though you can still call me Skipper."

"You know I'd still call you that anyway." Ash jibed causing the three women to laugh.

"Yeah I know." Shepard grinned. "I'd expect no less. So - now what of Liara's armor?"

Where as Sam's armor was blue with white accents, Liara's was white with blue and gray accents, it was not as heavy as Shepard's. The cuirass was pleated not unlike the overlapping scales of a dragon belly. The greaves were seemingly vertically pleated overlying the dark gray underlay. The boots were of similar fashion. On top of it was a long coat that to Sam looked reminiscent of a highway man's coat of the Georgian time back on Earth.

"The abdominal protection is highly fortified." Ash uttered softly almost regrettably. Nothing like fixing a problem after it's no longer an issue.

"Thank you." Liara whispered. "I appreciate the sentiment and the care you give this." the asari ran her hands over the armor. "I think perhaps like Samantha that I shall try it on."

There were only a few asari commandos present within the armory diligently working the hardsuits for the various ground teams. Completely lacking the self consciousness that might have lingered in a human, Liara removed her boots, then stripped down to her bra and panties taking time to fold them as she did. The gray underlay body suit was glove tight fitting her like a second skin. Unlike Sam who started with her cuirass after first putting on the underlay Liara slipped her feet into her new boots, then started for her greaves but was stopped by her bondmate's hand.

"Let me." Sam uttered in a slightly husky tone. She took one of the greaves in hand bent down upon one knee and with deliberate slowness she placed the greave into place. Her hand trailed along the inside of Liara's thigh causing the woman to draw in a hitched breath. Sam smiled as placed a kiss upon her beloved's belly before locking the straps causing the seals to fasten with a hiss. Samantha repeated the process with the left leg.

Liara's hand reached down stroking the dark locks of hair. The act was so sensual it caused Williams to actually blush.

"Perhaps I should leave you two alone." Ash teased. "Or do you simply like being publicly risqué?"

Sam cocked her head slightly looking up from her position a great smile on her face. "I'm just admiring great craftsmanship."

"Oh is that what you call it?" Ash jested.

Sam's only response was her smirk. Rising to her feet she took the cuirass and addressed Liara. "What do you say my love, doesn't Ash's fine work deserve such attention?"

"It does indeed." Liara said.

"Maybe it's not a good time then to say the actually design of Liara's armor isn't mine, but Nual's. It seems her mother is something of an armor fashion designer on Lusia. Apparently our young lieutenant picked up a few tricks of the trade. I just implanted the upgrades."

One of the commandos present was the very woman within their conversation.

"Lieutenant Nual, this is your design?" The Spectre asked as she pressed the seals of the Liara's armor.

"It is, Captain." the young asari said evidently proud she had so pleased her commanding officer.

"Spectre." Shepard corrected. "For that is my station, I am indeed captain and commander of this vessel but it is not wholly my true rank I am no longer an officer of the Alliance military nor any military but an officer of law to the Council."

"My apologies, Spectre." she bowed her head in supplication.

Imperiously Shepard waved the offence off. "I should have corrected the oversight long ago you were not to know. Nevertheless…I wanted to say this is grand work. Thank you. Both of you." She laid a hand on Ash's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Though it was Nual who answered the praise. "It was my pleasure. Fashionable armor design is something of a hobby of mine. I enjoyed its conception. My mother's company was able to facilitate manufacturing it. She has a small outlet here on the Citadel. They were able to manufacture both yours and Dr. T'soni's armor."

"Then I shall make a note to send on a letter of gratitude." Shepard smiled. With her back turned to Liara she hadn't noticed that her wife had finished dressing, when she turned and saw the coat over the armor she gasped.

"Goddess you're sexy in that!" she walked up to her beloved, took her into her arms and kissed her with great fervor. "How does it feel?"

Liara took a step back from Sam's hold and went into a series of stretches that tested the limits of heavier armors. The vast majority of asari commandos chose to wear light amour for this very reason. Even Shepard tended to prefer the lighter amours they were more combatable with her biotics more so now than ever.

"They are quite suitable. Very fine indeed." she willed a pulse of biotic power to summon forth from her finger tips. "I like it very much." She gave a look to her bondmate. "You look very striking in your new armor as well, Samantha" she leaned in closer kissing her deeply. "Very striking. It suits you most admirably."

"So you approve?"

"Very much so." her fingers traced the Spectre's emblem emblazoned on the paladins. "Show them who you truly are, my love. Let all see the Spectre. Wear this as proudly as you wore the N-Seven., both visibly for all to see and in your heart, and mind Samantha. The galaxy fears the Spectres for a reason. Let them fear reprisal from you should they stand apposed to law. Let them know the acrid taste of justice visited upon them for their crimes. You are a Spectre my love, it is time you fully and truly embraced it."

"Justice, duty and the Spectre way." Samantha echoed her holographic copy. "Let it be done."

*Spectre, you have a real-time call, marked private.* Naga'sadow voice called over the radio. *Do you wish me to patch it though to the briefing room or your quarters?*

"Who is it from?"

*A Captain Hannah Shepard.*

"My quarters, thank you, Naga'sadow." Shepard frowned slightly. 'Since when is Mom a captain?' she snorted in half amusement. 'I guess we both have a lot to catch up on.'

Once in loft, Sam activated the FLT-comm system calling up a miniature holographic projection of her mother. She saw her mother's smiling face and she practically lost it.

"Hey Ma." she said slowly.

*What's wrong, Babe?* a mother knew almost immediately when her child was in pain.

Sam fell heavily onto her office chair, she opened her mouth and it all came out. She told how Liara got pregnant; her fear about telling about the pregnancy because Sam had said her biological clock wasn't ticking and Liara's terror about being rejected because she was with child. Sam spoke of her own fears that Liara thought her to be like Saren which was what had motivated her bondmate to withdraw.

She briefed over the make-up sex in the mako, the declaration of Ash being the godmother, and the choosing of a name…Secura and how she was first nicknamed Little Sparrow. Sam told her mother of all the little fantasies she had for her daughter and the surprise baby shower. Then the tears came when she told her Mamma how Liara had been attacked, why it happened and how little Secura was lost.

*I am so sorry, Baby.* Hannah cooed to her only child. *Look, I just docked at the Citadel. I'm coming aboard. You, me, your sweet Liara and her dame will get through this together. I promise.*

There are times when a child no matter the age or how strong their character still believes in the infallibility of their mother's promises. "Okay." She said in a hushed tone. She frowned a moment later as something occurred to her. "I thought the Kilimanjaro was still out on its good will tour with the Destiny Ascension."

*It is. I'm aboard the Orizaba." the elder Shepard dryly chuckled. *Steven finally grew tired of me loitering in his CIC and threatened to either make me take the promotion to captain or retire my sorry ass.*

"Oh! That's right Captain Shepard." Sam's face slipped into a genuine though weak smile. "I never understood why you didn't take your promotion six years ago when if first came up."

*Go ask that Ashley Williams of yours and you'll get your answer.* Hannah chided. She knew well her daughter's defensive humor mechanisms were in play. * I was the XO of the Alliance Military's flagship directly under Steven Hackett, a man I well respect. I wasn't about to leave The Old Man's side. That's the problem with great commanders; you don't want to leave their command until they force you. Loyalty - sometimes its hell on the career. Apparently the Brass thought it was bad form that I was out ranked by my own kid, even if you did muster out.*

Both Shepard women laughed.

*Now, go wash your face, I'll be there shortly.*

Sam saluted, smiled "Aye aye ma'am." and deactivated the comm-system.

AN: I've combined many of the armors in ME2 and took the color of Tela Vasir's armor to create Sam's new armor. And of course I had to use Liara's very sexy armor in the DLC-LotSB for hers.

Part 40

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