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 44
Changing the Game Plan

The Dark Heart of the most nefarious city in known space, Afterlife is the playground of the worst the galaxy has to offer—and home of their de facto leader: Aria T'loak.

Miranda Lawson had done her best to keep out of the Queen of Omega's sights by keeping a very low profile in the Heart of Evil. She seemed as unimportant as anyone else travelling to Omega. She made a note to purchase a few illegal mods and be seen doing it to blend in should the asari's massive army of informants be on her trail.

It was as much of a slight of hand that Shepard had pulled all those long months ago on Ilos, the change of her ships name from the Victory to the Normandy. Not that the Cerberus operative expected the matriarch to be so easily fooled but it didn't hurt to play the part of the chameleon.

Not that the residents of Omega cared for the assassination of an asari's fetus or the near death of a Spectre's bondmate. But they might care if they thought profit could be gained if they sold someone belonging to Cerberus to that very same very vengeful Spectre. And if there was any hint that Aria T'loak believed Cerberus had anything to do with what happened to that Bartarian colony she might be provoked into action, lest they come to her domain and do the same. She would become proactive.

The one of the many skills Lawson possessed was the ability to read people. Frequenting the Afterlife she had watched Aria becoming more and more agitated. And this intrigued and worried Lawson in equal portions. Even the most ruthless leaders have limits. And even the darkest places can get a little bit darker. So when Aria decided to take a tour of the station, Lawson took great note of the matriarch's movements.

Something was happening to give that particular look to the asari. Lawson had seen it more than a few times on The Illusive Mans' face when something occurred within one of the Operations. It was a look he held for almost four months when Shepard had shut down several bases of Operation Stromtrooper.

Something was defiantly amiss. Lawson was highly tempted to tail the pirate queen, but like the Illusive Man T'loak seemed to have a sixth sense that allowed her the ability of foreshadowing. Which meant she'd know if she had a tail on her than Lawson's objective would come to a very swift conclusion and not a happy one for the Cerberus operative.

Blue eyes scanned the lower levels of the markets. The mind behind those eyes knew something wasn't right, in fact something was very very wrong. Aria didn't live as long as she had by ignoring those twinges on the precipice of her sub-consciousness and it had nothing to do with the lurking Cerberus woman or her organization's personal-grudge war with the first human Spectre.

"I think you're overreacting, Boss." Sanak one of her top lieutenants said trailing after her along with another bartarian. Sanak wasn't just one of the Pirate Queen's lieutenants; he was her attack dog, a blunt instrument. "Reports are telling us it's just some Blue Sin mercs. Maybe some slavers—Nothing we can't handle."

Aria didn't slow in her pace, didn't turn as she continued her determined path. "The reports are wrong." It was said in a tone of voice broke no room to challenge her.

"Uh…? You got new Intel?" Sanak's four eyes blinked at once. "What's going on?"

"Not sure. But Omega's my station. I know when something's not right." She paused before a long barely lit corridor that lead directly to Kokomo Plaza's upper levels. Only two of her guns flanking Aria's statement to any would be usurpers was evidently clear. She was not going to be intimidated and anyone attempting to threaten her power was already dead.

"Besides, it's good to make an appearance every now and then. Remind everyone I'm in charge." It wouldn't do to have the three major merc bands or the smaller gangs believe that had power outside what Aria allowed them. Every so often she had flex a little muscle, flaunt Patriarch or a little public execution. Apparently it was time once more to put the plebs back into their place.

Blue eyes narrowed when she saw a rather large assembly below the catwalk the corridor opened up to. So it was the Blue Suns making a push. She should have expected something like this sooner or later.

Below a blonde human male was surrounded by a horde of humans all clutching at each other, terrified. Their fear almost a cloying stink and with good reason. It wasn't the Blue Sun slavers the humans were petrified by but a seven insectiod creatures. Six of them were biped, there was and one massive monster larger than any elcor floating on spindly legs in the middle of the small swarm.

"Damn." Aria hissed upon seeing them. Her mind whirling with a dozen different scenarios on how to neutralize her foe before her lieutenant even opened his mouth to speak. She hadn't spent over seven hundred years on the battlefield and the last four hundred ruler of Omega for nothing. She had a reputation for always being two steps ahead of her rivals. She already knew what they were going to say, or do even before they did it. She always in control.

"Collectors? What are they Blue Suns doing with them?" Sanak questioned. A penitent believer in the Pirate Queen's omnisentient powers the bartarian firmly believed his boss had the answers. It was as if she could gleam it from the very air. It didn't surprise him, he knew her to be well over a thousand years old and capable of any incredible feats.

Aria turned her back on the scene below. Her voice now a low deadly growl. A voice determined and set. Her body tense like panther ready to spring upon her prey. "Change of planes. No one leaves here alive. When I hit the floor…" With no warning, Aria sprung up over the railing, her body glowing with powerful biotics. "…send them to hell!" She landed in a crouch.

It was as if someone had set off a neutron bomb in the plaza. A biotic blast so large so powerful it shattered waves of debris and bodies: human, turrian, bartarian, and Collector in all directions away from the impact crater.

Then everything happened at once. Cacophony of screams of panic, fear and anger, explosions, gunfire and biotic powers assaulted every eardrum. Even over the vulgar explosions voices rose high and distinctly clear.

One of the Blue Suns, the blonde one screamed "Ambush!" All his men started firering.

Above on the gangplanks, Aria's men shouted: "Fire!" blasts immediately rained down from above shooting at anything and everything that wasn't purplish skinned asari indiscriminately.

"Eliminate them!" roared the Collector lieutenant just as he unleashed the power of his own rifle.

From the smoke the massive Collector tank moved directly for the pirate queen. She was its only target.

"Make your move." Aria growled unafraid from the center of the crater. Her body shimmered in her own kenotic barriers.

The hulking bug glowed brilliantly. The Goddess-be-damned thing as a biotic! A shockwave of cyan energy tore through the air aimed directly where Aria was crouched. With nearly equal force she had used seconds ago.

Pure instinct motivated the muscles of the pirate queen's body. One second she was in the center of the crater the nests she had tucked rolled and was somewhere else.

"Protect Aria!" Sanak screeched form his sniper's position on the catwalk. "Converging fire! Focus on the big one!"

Smoke cleared. Aria had recovered she was still crouched, muscles twitched readying to leap. She sprung. The Collector delivered a backhand swipe with its riffle flinging the asari backwards. The Collector followed its initial attack by snagging the Pirate Queen by the throat.

"You are insignificant." It said in a voice devoid of emotion, inflection or even arrogance.

Centuries of reflex took over; a natural biotic Aria was never without a weapon. But this called for something more. She grappled for breathing room, just enough to move, she reached behind her back to one of the many concealed compartments on her wide misleadingly simplistic if not expensive custom made varren leather belt. When she spoke Arian's own voice dripped with cold venom. "Maybe," she whipped her hand out from behind her back, palming a thermal detonator. The next instant she slammed her clutched fist into the maw of the creature holding her.

"But you're dead." It dropped her allowing Aria just enough time to fling the creature from her with a biotic throw so forceful it flew several paces away from her and into his fellows. With a hair's breathe to spare before----


Bodies exploded in a blaze of orange. The whole world seemed to smoulder in black fog. What lay around Aria seemed more like the Tuchanka than Omega. Broken dead bodies, blood, red, blue and black splattered over the war zone.

Her body still glowing cyan as were her eyes. "Nobody fucks with Aria." she began walking towards the bodies of the would-be-slaves. "Nobody."

Sanak sprinted through the mire of rubble and smoke nearly tripping as he made for is boss. "You okay?"

Aria ignored the question. "Report." she demanded. Her face splattered with the blood of her victims as well as her own.

"We lost one man. The humans and the Collectors are all dead. There's a couple Suns still alive."

Aria didn't even turn around when she gave her next orders. "Finish off the Blue Suns. After you find out everything they knew about this deal. I want to know why this happened."

Sanak nodded. He knew better than anyone the penalty for disobeying the Pirate Queen. Death was a mercy. She made examples. And they were always very painful ones. He watched her saunter away as if she just hadn't taken a full biotic blast to the chest, or was pistol whipped by an assault riffle. That perhaps terrified him the most.

Liselle watched her mother stride the Pirate Queen's private quarters. Purple blood cross-hatching her face. The maiden knew it didn't belong to another asari.

The first question that popped into the younger woman's mind was to ask her mother how much pain was she in, how badly was she hurt. But she knew her mother would never tell her. The white and maroon leather jacket was shed and tossed to the sofa in the den.

"See that gets cleaned." she said with out looking.

"Who was it?" Liselle asked, at least she knew she'd get an answer to that particular question.

"Blue Sun slavers. Dealing with Collectors."

"Collectors? Here?" Liselle gasped. "Why?"

"I intend to find out. You don't speak a word of this. To anyone."

"Of course not, Naneth." a word she only speaks here in these chambers. At her mother's insistence, the maiden kept their relationship hidden.

Aria didn't want her enemies to use the knowledge against her, and she didn't want her daughter to go through life with a target on her back. Not even her children knew how many siblings they had or the fact they had an aunt. It was a measure she took to safeguard those she loved, even if it meant decades of estrangement from those very same people.

Liselle watched her mother shed her clothing and head for the ensuite, no doubt to shower off the grime and blood. She could already make out the bruises were barely forming. Sighing heavily she went for the med-kit, specifically going for the muscle creams and topical oils that aided with the healing with bruises and contusions. She also set a side an epi of medi-gel. She knew her mother never would complain or make an issue out of being injured, Aria was more than capable of taking care of herself but that didn't stop a daughter from being worried.

When her mother came out of the bathroom, Liselle was there to great her in the bedroom, ready with the acquirements of first-aid. "Lay on the bed, Naneth and I'll make sure you're presentable to hold court."

Aria nodded. There were very few times when Aria obeyed another voice. She knew her child was worried for her and the show of submitting to medical treatment was an acknowledgment of that concern.

Expert hands administered care spreading the warming muscle cream upon all the purplish busies along the back and shoulders. Aria picked up the traces of hesitantly in the touch and fear in her girl's thoughts.

She turned touched her offspring's cheek. "I breathe, live and I killed my enemy. I'm fine. Now be done with the worry, ield,rél."

Liselle smiled. It wasn't often now that she was an adult, Aria referred to her as daughter. That single word did more for her than all the reassurances the Pirate Queen could have ever had offered.

"News on the Cerberus woman," Liselle suddenly changed the subject. She put the cream aside and moved aside so her mother could rise from the bed. "Just as you suspected she purchased illegal mods mostly from Harrot's Emporium and a few from that salarian black market dealer Ish. It's nothing more than cover just was you suspected. She's just going through the motions."

Aria listened as she clothed herself in new leather pants and soft silk blouse. Each revealed just enough skin to be enticing without looking like one of her dancers.

"And Cerberus's interest here?"

"Reactionary or so it would seem. But that is only the surface. There is something bigger in the works, Naneth, I can feel it. And I think she's here to see it first hand."

Aria titled her head. "Of that ield,rél you are undoubtedly correct. Something bigger is in the works. Keep your ears open and above all keep this from Johnson. He may be apart of the crew but he still strikes something of a discord I do not trust. Do not mistake my immediate inaction for leniency, Liselle. He lives for now because he is useful but I will put him down like a vorcha the very moment he breathes the wrong way. In fact I will order you to do it and I will not allow you to disappear to avoid killing him."

"I understand."

Miranda watched as the crowed parted as in as if in attendance of a royal personage. Four asari handmaidens, five bartarians and three turians filed in two-by-two flanking Arai T'loak. No wonder the crowed parted as they had.

Miranda was close enough to catch the expression of the Pirate Queen which was to one of impartial surveillance she normally cast but one of irritation. The Cerberus operative was also close enough to catch the eye of one of the asari huntresses. That was very very chillingly like the Pirate Queen's. Though mimicking someone was powerful as Aria wasn't unexpected. Several in Cerberus tried to the same with the Illusive Man and only succeeded in making fools of themselves. That handmaiden however did not look the fool; she must be to Aria what Miranda was to the Illusive Man. One to watch, of that there was no doubt.

Word was that Arai bedded her handmaidens; this one seemed to be her favourites. While no one would think to use them against the Pirate Queen as the de facto ruler would more than like kill the 'hostage' in question rather than submit. At the same time anyone who had made said attempt would find themselves dying over a long period of time, and very painfully. Just because Aria viewed the action as a slight against her, personally. One demonstration was all it took for most of the merc bands to understand this.

Rumours said that handful of Blood Puck grunts trying to make a name for themselves had attempted to hold to ransom one of Aria's handmaidens. The five krogan were captured, strung up naked as they day they were hatched and slowly flayed alive over the period of a galactic standard week: starting with their head plates. The captured asari was shot in the head by one of Aria's lieutenants to push the point that hostage negotiations were not tolerated and defiantly not lucrative.

Miranda pondered this tactic of horror and thought of the Illusive Man's operation on the bartarian colony were he had ordered his shook troops to dismember the old and the young without aesthetics not just to terrorize the aliens but to horrify them. And while to a certain extent Lawson understood the Pirate Queen's actions against the Blood Pack thugs she had yet to understand the motive behind the mutualisation of a civilian population that was of no threat.

And the more she thought about it the more she didn't like where her thoughts were leading her.

And there was that blasted 'Thing' again. It had a sneaky way of creeping up on her like sniper, ready to assassinate her since of belonging and duty. She closed her eyes and recited the Cerberus axiom.

'Obedience breeds discipline. Discipline breeds unity. Unity breeds Power. Power is life. Life is Humanity's survival. Survival is Cerberus. Cerberus breeds Obedience.'

Somehow those words…were becoming more and more hollow. Miranda hated it. She hated feeling this displaced sense of disloyalty to the one man that gave her everything. Who gave her freedom from an oppressive, power-bent megalomaniac that only wanted her for a legacy. The Illusive Man gave Miranda a sense of belonging, of worth. He allowed her to become apart of something great.

'Such thoughts are perfidious, Meri and beneath you.' She told herself.

Shutting off the rebellious thoughts, Miranda instead tried to focus on her immediate target. Aria. She must have missed it when one of the Pirate Queen's attack dogs handed her a data padd but whatever was on it, cause the asari matriarch, to pause for a long moment. Perhaps it was the subdued lighting to the night club, but Miranda could have sworn the Illusive Man's face himself that the asari matriarch had visibly paled.

Had Lawson been privy to the Pirate Queen's Intel she'd fully understand why there was such a reaction, despite how minuscule it had been.

"It's done." Sanak said handing his boss the padd. "Anything useful in the data I sent you?"

Aria scanned it, and frowned.

Horizon: 643,325

Omega: 853,245

Freedom's Progress: 912,810

Citadel: 4,491,356

Terra Nova: 4,145,412

Earth: 11, 490,225,106

"Population totals. Human only."

"What do you think it means?" Sanak pressed as much as he dared at this moment. After the day's events, he knew his boss's patients were tethered on a very thin, very short leash.

"It means the Collectors are after much more than slaves. And Humanity has made a dangerous enemy."

"If the Collectors want to take them, then I say let them…."

Sanak didn't finish his words. A fact he knew even before the backhanded blow sent him on his ass leaving him with a broken jaw. Predatorily, Aria walked up his sprawled body, put her boot on his throat effectively pining him to the floor. All it would take was a simple twist of her foot and he'd be dead.

"You're one of my best men, Sanak, but I didn't give you leave to offer your opinion. And don't be so dull." she said it loud enough for any patron near enough to hear her. "See to your post." She never raised her voice, didn't growl, didn't hiss. It was as if she was contemplating what she was going to have for diner.

Then calmly as you please she padded upon silent feet up to her favoured balcony as if nothing had happened. She slipped the data padd into the inner breast pocket of her white and maroon leather coat then ordered a double Serrice ice brandy.

The brandy slipped smoothly, down her throat with the slow comforting burn. Serrice ice brandy was one of her favourites, always so full of flavourer and body. It was always so robust; the taste lingering on the tongue long after it had been swallowed.

Blue fingers trailed along her throat, feeling the pulse beneath her skin. Lilac lips kissed her ear before nipping her earlobe. The hand that was around her throat slipped and took the shifter and lifted to the lips that had been so enticingly kissing her just seconds ago..

"Hummm, good choice." Liara said straddling Sam's legs who had been sitting upon the sofa in their quarters.

"You know me; I like to spoil myself from time to time." Sam watched as Liara swallowed the expensive brandy, the data padd in her hand all but forgotten.

"So it isn't that you enjoy all things asari?"

Sam shrugged. "Could be."

Liara gave a demure look knowing exactly how it affected her bondmate. She took another sip of brandy before relinquishing it back to her beloved. Sam took a hurried gulp and nearly choked on it when Liara resumed her slow trail of kisses and bites. Sly hands took the data padd and tossed it to the side were it bounded once on the cushion of the sofa before sliding back and beneath it.

Liara's slipped her hands beneath her lover's hoodie. Her lazy-day cloths as the Spectre called them. You can't wear the uniform all the time. Liara had laughed at this because to her beloved never took off her uniform even when she was naked. In fact the black fleece hoodie she was wearing was emblazoned with the N7 sigil over the left breast and the left sleeve carried the white and red blood strip. Liara pulled the sweatshirt up and over Sam's head, even as she continued her assault of kisses and nips.

Samantha returned the passionate kisses with her own, trailing her lips across Liara's crest. In a husky voice she breathed out. "Why is it I'm always the one naked first?"

Liara only grinned. "It is because I have developed quite the obsession with seeing my bondmate in all her natural glory."

"Not unhealthy obsession, I take it?" Sam giggled as Liara trailed a line of kisses down Sam's neck to her cleavage.

"Never with you." Liara took Sam's mouth a fierce dominance. "But I will never let you go."

"It's a good thing I don't want to go anywhere." Sam scooted her hands under Liara's bum and picked her up as she was still straddling the spectre's waist. "Well not counting our nice comfy bed."

"I rather like that idea." Liara sized Sam's lips once more, deepening it. Deft fingers removed the sports bra.

Frantic hands made quick work of removing the remaining clothing. Touches and kisses became a dire desperate hunger, a deepening thirst begging to be quenched. They became fully lost in the succulent richness of each other's bodies. Their minds became intoxicated by the passion within their bond.

Sam's moans provoked the fires within Liara reflexively causing her to deepen their bond. One set of eyes solid black, the other a brilliant cyan. In that instant Liara knew what it was to be fully human, to feel the weight of hair upon her head, to have a dampened nervous system, to feel the soft texture of her crest with fingers not her own. To Samantha it was a wash of color, texture, scent and taste. Her nervous system so alive, so vibrant, so attuned she could separate the feel the silk sheet against her skin, the warmth of breathe along her neck, fingers tailing along the lines of velvet crest, the fabulous friction of fingers pumping within the depths of her core. It was an explosion of sensory overload. When azure was touched it was a super nova.

They cried out in their unified release. It was enough to make them both nearly pass out. Bodies slick with sweat and the honey of their lovemaking clutched at each other, breaths labored and painting, skin too sensitive to touch yet so unwilling to let go.

"I don't think I have any bones left in my body." Samantha murmured sleepily against Liara's neck.

Liara only made a muffled response. Sam giggled. What words did not convey thoughts did: 'I think Eternity has been embraced and then some'

They lay there entwined in each others arms drifting into unconsciousness. Not even the dull nagging voice that they both had reports to shift through before they were back on duty motivated them in to action.

When they woke, and a shower shared Shepard returned to the sofa searching for the data pad Liara had tossed aside. "Hon, have you seen my pad? You took it out of my hand now I can't find it."

"Have you checked under the sofa cushions?" floated a soft answer.

Shepard cocked an eyebrow, lifted the seat and found the lost item. "Found it." she held it up as a trophy.

"What were you working on last night before I interrupted you?"

"Mission reports. I was going over Ash's reports of her war-games. During the first mission she followed SOP, splitting the non-combatants with military personal. The second unit she Spelt them into units, scientist against military, and the last she had split them into factions one led by scientists but with military aid, the other led by the military but aided by the scientists. There were some pretty impressive results but expected. The last one, I'm a bit curious about though. It had slightly unexpected results."

"What do you mean?"

Shepard shrugged. "It as if the science crew's whole attack plan was completely improvised. It reads like their agenda was to get the better of the other team by one-upping them…literarily. Now this is something I've gotta hear. How on Earth did Ash allow that to happen to her?"

"Water balloons." Abby answered the question how she overcame a group of highly trained soldiers. "And a bit of commando tactics."

"Excuse me; did you just say water balloons?" Shepard blinked trying to put water balloons and asari commandos in the same context. She couldn't fathom how the two fit together into any equation.

"Oh god, no." Ash bemoaned what was to come.

"Oh now I have to hear this. It sounds rather juicy."

Ash gave another sigh, knowing she was caught.

Abby gave a glance to her sister and smirked in a way that only a sibling could when they were about to spill embarrassing details of their sister's life. "Permission to speak freely?"

"Denied." Ash said quickly.

"Belay that. Report." Shepard quickly overrode her lieutenant. She gave a look to her best friend and junior officer and saw that the younger woman wanted the floor to open up right then and there and swallow her whole

"The summer Ash came back from basic she was a bit full of herself, being a newly minted marine and all. As it happens we had our little cousins came for a visit from Earth so we contrived play a bit of a game to cool off what with the heat and all and at the same time kinda stop Ash from strutting around. Lynn and I and three of our cousins teamed up because Ash was so confident that she could take us all out. She only had Sara and one of our other cousins on her side. They called dibs on bases first and climbed the ladder to the tree house and bunkered down inside. But Lynn and I knew those trees just as much as our big sis so when we all scattered, we circled back around and climbed even higher in neighboring tress and used our old rope swings to go higher.

We had to use our seven year old twin cousins as bait so she wouldn't track us. Ash fell for it. We knew she'd be too arrogant; believing she was top-hunter to look up and see the 'target' had gotten the better of her. She made Sara brake cover and had our twin cousins bombed with a shit-load of water balloons from the tree house vantage point.

But Lynn and I were higher up and snipped Ash and Sara, me with a super soaker bazooka and Lynn with all our water balloons. We startled Ash so much she fell from the tree and broke her arm when she landed wrong but we didn't know that until much later. Sara squealed like a three year old and dodged back into the tree house because after all what can an aikido black belt do against water balloons? Lynn, Korean and I thought Ash was playing opossum on account she didn't cry out when she fell and so we just continued to bomb her with the balloons until she gave up. Even the twins bombed her forgetting they were supposed to be 'dead'.

"I thought of that when Ash had her team took to those big damn trees in the forest, and sure enough it was the water balloons all over again. She didn't look up because she was too cock-sure she was the biggest baddest marine out there on the field. You know because 'it's in the blood'. And well what were a bunch of eggheads with only three asari commandos going to do against full squadrons of soldiers anyhow?" Abby grinned. "I think she completely forgets being a scientist is in the blood too. Mom's side of the family tends to be teachers, librarians or lab-coats. "

She couldn't do it, she simply couldn't do it. Sam had tried to suppress the rising bubbles of laughter as a good commander should but it got the image of a drenched and defeated young Ash bombard by water balloons was simply too funny.

Now years latter she was felled by the same tactic only instead of water it was small biotic pulses. Ash's entire company was dropped, literally.

Ash slunk in her chair glaring at her little sister for the humiliation she suffered. She didn't dare look to her CO in fear her expression would linger upon her face and become insubordination. Still it was a bit funny--felled by a water-balloon tactics and Asari commando know-how.

Shepard grinned not for the thought of Ash being bombard by biotic 'water-balloons' It was the fact her people were working together, coalescing as a full unit. They were using unconventional means and thinking and military strategy as one. For the first time the Spectre truly felt as if they had a chance to defeat their enemies. Pure scientific theory, improvisation or military tactics was not going cut it, but together it was a potent weapon, against Cerberus, against the Illusive Man. against the Reapers.

Garrus's report only cemented that conviction. "I'm not entirely surprised by the results I had with the sim-training but I think a lot of our crew members were. I don't think they realized they had it in them until they were confronted with up-front and personal combat situations. As expected the tech and science crews didn't do well against the stand-up stromtrooping scenarios, even when I had then with a standard baby-sit configuration however they did exceedingly well when confronted with the data-gathering sims and even the hostage extraction scenarios. Pure military groups were a little slower on time but they fulfilled the obligation of data-extraction and of course they were extremely successful when thrown into the neutralization sims and rescue.

"What I think each team mixed or heavy one way or the other discovered is continuity. More so if they came from Wrex's survival course and if they were pitted against each other in Williams' war games there was some animosity with tech verses military but they still cooperated. I think the competitive time-scores fused corporation to the extent they let go of grudges soon after the sims started. Overall I'd call it a success."

Pride beamed in the Spectre's eyes. Pride that her team had the indicative to mount the training exercises and pride in her crew that they had melded together.

"Good work everyone. You are all to be commended for your efforts and what achieved for this crew. I am incredibly impressed, and the fact that you all took it into your own initiative to do so only heightens my esteem for this team. You are all exceptional and brilliant. Thank you."

For a moment if seemed that everyone seemed to sit a little taller. Then, Ashley spoke. "It's like you said ma'am, we're just doing our job."

Shepard's respect for her people went another ten notches. And she accepted the response her praise had on her people. "Of course. Shiala, prep the crew once the last upgrade is installed the Normandy leaves port. It needs to be registered as leaving port; however a contingent will remain behind. This group will meet with the target's sister confront her with the truth of Cerberus and take her into protective custody. Bare in mind we are not taking a hostage, this is no act of terrorism in the strictest sense. Lawson will not know of her sister's confinement until after she sees Tali's compilation. Given Lawson is a devote loyalist to Cerberus she will either excuse or attempt explain it all away. After she does we reveal Oriana who will have been listening to the entire exchange.

"A scene will play out with very high drama. We use that as a tool to start interrogating Lawson. We must bear in mind she will have the same training as any N-Seven marine. Therefore highly resistant to any drug-induced or hypnotic suggestions to make her compliant to more conventional interrogation methods. Apart from ordering an asari to 'not be gentle' with a knowledge-meld I have to use other methods, methods that boarder on morality. This might be considered psychological torture, and as such I can't ask you to volunteer for this, I have to order all of you to do this. If you have objections to these orders note them now, and they will be recorded in the ships logs."

No one spoke.

Shepard knew no one would. It troubled her and emboldened her. She knew she could trust her team to carry out her orders without question yet the fact they did not stop to consider moral implications of what she as going to do, what she had ordered them to do lay heavy upon her. But she was a commanding officer; it was why she said she had to order them to obey this mandate for the guilt of it lay sole upon her. The fall out of this event was her responsibility. It was her morality to suffer the choice.

Shepard took a small movement before she spoke again. "Liara, what do you have?"

The scientists drew in a long breath then in a near detected very clinical voice and began reciting her accounts at the Eternity Club.

"We'll meet with this contact tonight under the guise of a couples evening out. Ash you and your sister likewise have a girl's night out, stay lose, keep watch."

"Specter, if we give leave for the crew to take a day's last furlough it will further the perception that we are on our way to continue our assumed mission of stopping the Geth. Nos Austra hold a great many entertainment venues and truth be told the crew could use this leave before we are back in the thick of it once more. With all the maintenance upgrades and training drills there wasn't a great deal of time to simply relax." Shiala suggested.

"Good idea. Make the announcement." Shepard said giving a look to Tali then to Garrus Liara felt rather than saw the wicked grin spread across her wife's' face and could not help but display one of her own. "If there is nothing else, you're dismissed."

"I'll radio Wrex and order him to recall the troops. Once they return, I'll have medical clear them, and then debrief both on their training and the mission to come. I'll also place them on next rotation though I believe all they will want is a good shower and sleep in their own racks."

"Rouging it out in the wilds is good for everyone, sharpens up those softer corners ship life can leave you with."

"If you fear this crew has become or will become complacent, you needn't. The training sessions became an inspiration. The upgrades we installed were not just for the Normandy but the crew as well. We are ready, Spectre. We will stand up to whatever firestorms come our way or that which we hunt. The crew believes in you, the experiences they had despite how controlled they were they now believe in themselves and each other. They know each are capable of survival, their talents and skills if used properly complement to each other. You knew this when you chose them and they now know it too."

It was within the teachings of Sun Tzu, Shepard and dedicated herself to his teachings as surely as any disciple of any profit.

Before Nos Austra, before the training Shepard knew that there were whispers amongst the troops the scientists had gathered and even her commandos. In-fighting amongst the factions was surely brewing: scientists against the military, not to mention the division amongst the races. The Spectre knew she hadn't lost the full confidence of her crew but it was beginning. And she knew why: Cyan Syndrome. The biotic glow of her eyes could not be fully disguised, but that wasn't all of it.

Exhaustion was another. Chasing after Cerberus wasn't an unnecessary task but it was exhausting her officers causing them to become short-tempered. The death of her child, the attacks of bounty hunters not just on the Presidium but back on Elysium, not to mention the scores of others still out there. No wonder there was whispers amongst her crew, she couldn't blame them.

Securing their loyalty was paramount in obtaining victory. The training and the discipline that came from it was effective method of instruction and perhaps distraction from Shepard's personal family crisis and the CS. Not that the full crew knew about the biotic illness but they knew their captain was not five by five. It had a silent unsettling effect upon them.

The Illusive Man read the report and smiled.

The Alliance was now pushing for more human Spectres. His agents in the office of the Prime Minister as well as those in the Pentagon, and Alien Affairs had all forwarded him a list of potential candidates. One name in particular stood out above all others: a fervent loyalist to the Alliance---to the Marines.

It was in the blood.

How ironic that it would be a Williams to be names as humanities next Spectre. She was no great fan of aliens but had a high enough tolerance for them that she didn't come across as xenophobic. And due to Shepard's machinations she was seen just as much as a hero as the Savior of Elysium was. Not only that Williams was now an awardiee of the Star of Terra, and the ………….. from the Citadel. Granted Shepard had earned the honors as well but while many humans saw Shepard's drifting more and more into the asari ways and beliefs as a betrayal, Williams was one hundred percent loyal to humanity. If push came to shove and Shepard was believed and named a traitor to the Alliance, Williams would name her commander so and side with the Alliance…with humanity. Loyalty to humanity was a foothold to being loyal to Cerberus, if only from the shadows.

The Illusive Man's grin grew a bit deeper for he knew Shepard would urge her junior officer and friend into accepting the promotion. No doubt telling her it was well earned and well deserved. Williams would accept and by doing so she would unwittingly become an asset to Cerberus. Williams was a stubborn personality, she'd never capitulate to the soft indoctrination of alien influences that Shepard had evidently succumbed too.

Oh by his own personal experiences the Illusive Man admitted he knew and quite enjoyed the pleasures an asari gave between the sheets. Matriarch Trellani was exceedingly talented. Hell he had her twice this week already, in between his dalliances with Sani Shelani, voted Illium Entertainment's 'Sexiest Human Alive', Skyball Champion Brooke Karrigar, Vela Vicious, Fornax Dream Girl of 2184 and of course the "Terra Firma Twins" Staci and Stephi Strong, (who to his delight held no compunctions about incest and ménage à trios.)

Despite the fact The Illusive Man enjoyed he'd his liaisons with the asari he'd never abandoned his efforts to protect humanity's interests and needs for a little blue pussy weather or not she was a very agile Fornax Dream Girl or a major corporate executive. Evidently Shepard had succumbed to their vices. He found that curious. The young marine was able to withstand the presence of Sovereign, the Prothean beacons as well as other interfaces with mind melds with Prothean devices unlike Saren and yet she had readily yielded to the physical melds of asari pleasures. Though Saren was able to shield his mind from a Matriarch's mental tempering, yet Shepard was apparently incapable of doing so.

It boggled his mind.

But then there was the gestalt Stevenson had reported. The nurse had clearly and distinctly detailed the meld that kept the Spectre alive. Dr. T'soni full telepathic union with Shepard's mind had fused them so completely that the asari's body had become Shepard's life support system. The Illusive Man mentally waved the notion aside. Shepard's connection to T'soni was no longer a factor. The Specter's status however was of great interest, especially now.

Shepard was an icon. Yes. But icons can change, you use them when they are potent and when they are no longer effective you discard them. Causing Shepard's brake down and discord with Council were still very useful tools. But she needed to die the martyr's death. With Williams taking up her dead commander's flag in humanities name was everything Cerberus needed to secure humanities dominance in Council Space. When that day came the colonies in the Tremens Systems then could generate a greater foothold and stronger position to push back any threat to humanity be they bartarian slaves, asari wiles, turrian bombardments or Reapers.

The Illusive Man was many things, but he was no fool. Dominance for humanity could not be achieved with colonies going mission tin the Terminus systems or the looming factor of the Reapers. And to fight such a threat he needed the icon of Shepard. He needed her primed to chase after the missing colonists, to stop the attacks. The Reapers feared her, The Illusive Man and seen enough been in enough wars to know when an enemy fears you. It wasn't just Udina after Shepard's blood. The Collectors were very interested in getting their claws into her, it wasn't just her figurative blood they were after. They wanted HER.

And then there was the evidence that Jacob Taylor had found on Freedom's Progress. The quarian kid Veetor the team "rescued" had recovered though injured and delusional had managed to piece together astounding evidence that the Collectors were the ones invading and kidnapping human colonists.

Though intensive and persuasive interrogation interviews with the boy had revealed he had gone to Freedom's Progress on his Pilgrimage. To aid a colony build and maintain a stable life was proof he could do the same on a ship. He had value. His gift it seemed was to open up trade negotiations with the colony. Apparently there were sections of the planet that grew enemio dextrose foodstuffs, uneatable to humans but very necessary for the quarians. Apparently he had radioed to his people to start the negations which explained why there was a small detail of quarians planetside when Taylor and his team hit dirt.

According to Taylor the quarians fired first as soon as they spotted the Cerberus insignia on the armor. Taylor said though he attempted a peaceful resolution the aliens were unwilling to open up a dialog and became hostile and had to be neutralized. Taylor's report also stated that the kid they detained had reprogrammed the colony's entire complement of mechs IFF to attack any organic being outside the control bunker.

Once Taylor's squad destroyed the heavy mech, he led the assault on the bunker, found the kid rambling about monsters and they were going to come back for him. The kid was rendered unconscious, prudently taken into custody, and his OMNI tool confiscated.

The kid was obviously suffering mental trauma from what he had witnessed but The Illusive Man insisted his people harvest all they could from him before they released him. Unfortunately the subject had died of pulmonary failure due to the stress. The body was discarded along with his kith on Freedom's Progress. The Illusive Man let it slip that a squad of dead quarian troopers were found by a rescue team when Freedom's Progress had gone silent. He'd allow the space born vagabonds retrieve their deceased as a token of good faith on humanity's part. What came after it might be mildly entertaining but it was of no further concern to Cerberus as far as the Illusive Man was concerned.

What was a concern was the fact he didn't know what the connection between the Collectors and the Reapers were. But clearly there was one, a deep one. Perhaps they were indoctrinated as much as the geth had been. Dr. Chandana was investigating that prospect with the derelict Reaper they had uncovered orbiting the brown dwarf Mnemosyne in the Thorne system of the Hawking Eta cluster.

Why were the Collectors so very interested in humans? And in such qualities? They had never taken so many species before. What were they looking for? No, what had they found? There was something in humanities physiology that set them very far apart form the other races. There was something so evidently but elusive. Now that was irony.

Going over the list of names once more The Illusive Man's mind circled back not to Williams but to Shepard. Perhaps her interaction within Prothean devices and the asari were key to why the Collectors hunting her. Were humans closer to Prothean then other races? Was that possible? Outward physical differences aside what was in the core of DNA that sparked the Collectors interests… not just the Collectors. The Reapers. The better question then what did the Reapers what with humanity. It wasn't revenge. The battle over the Citadel had a dozen differences races pooling together to bring down that monster.

Shepard. The Protheans devices and the gestalt they were tied into some greater puzzle, a conundrum, the Illusive Man had yet to unravel. Like a black hole it all spiraled into one central mass.

The Reapers were well aware of Shepard; because of her they became well aware of humanity. The living ships had send out whole armadas of Collectors to harvest humans. Were they attempting to find more like Shepard? No, no that wasn't it. It was something more basic. Something on the molecular level, but what? And why?

AN: Scenes taken liberally from Mass Effect: Incursion

Part 45

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