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 47


For something that was supposed to be the ending of things, it sure as hell had birthed a great deal of beginnings. Blue Sun slavers harvesting humans for the Collectors, Cerberus agents lurking about, a plague in the Kokomo Plaza. And now the presence of a Council Spectre on the hunt. That was far too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence. They were all linked that was blatantly obvious. The Question was - how?

The Collectors came, and then the Cerberus agent not long after she left a plague broke out. The logical leap was to assume Cerberus had something to do with the plague that had no affect on humans. There was a small part of Aria's mind that wondered if Lawson had been here to set the plague in motion or to simply oversee those who were to incite the epidemic or observe the onset of its early stages and report back to her master the Illusive Man?

And now a Council Spectre had set foot in the Pirate Queen's dominion. Not any Spectre but none other than Shepard. The Hero of Elysium and Eden Prime, the Saviour of the Citadel, was coming here. Her daughter murdered within the womb of her bondmate by Cerberus. Aria understood that kind of retribution, anyone touched Liselle or any of her other daughters, she wouldn't stop until her vengeance was sated. She didn't begrudge the Spectre a bit of payback; hell the Pirate Queen was feeling generous enough to even point Shepard in the right direction.

Aria wasn't a bit surprised when Sanak came back mumbling the human Spectre was impertinent, insufferably arrogant and pretentious, but then again she was human. They were all like that. Like many bartarians, Sanak despised humans for simply being human. Aria thought it short sighted, it was like assuming krogan were all slow witted and blood thirsty. Of course those that said that never held discourse with a female, especially one of their clan leaders. Sanak was hired for his ability to follow orders, not hold a dialogue.

Aria T'Loak knew she would not wait long before Shepard came to her court. They all eventually obeyed the summoning. No doubt the young human wanted to get a feel for the land as it were. Typically she and her entourage, in this Dr. T'Soni, in fact Normandy's flagship ground team were with her in addition to a squad of asari commandos. What did take Aria a bit by surprise was the appearance of her younger sister, Aleena. Of course she was in disguise, her beautiful violet skin was green, as were her eyes, but it was Aleena. When the Pirate Queen first heard that Aleena had been 'taken care of' she had assumed her sister to be dead. Seeds of vengeance began to take root, but then her network of informants said they thought they had seen someone matching Aleena's description but they weren't quite sure. And now Aria knew why. This caused T'Loak to become increasingly curious, not only by Shepard but why her sister seemed to be truly devoted to the human. Because once Aleena was outed to be a bounty hunter the smart course would have been to terminate the threat. So why hadn't Shepard? Did she see an opportunity in Aleena, or had Aleena seen something in the human?

The Pirate Queen's mind circled back to the Collectors presence on Omega. Were they somehow connected to the Reapers, the human Spectre was always ranting about? Aria knew from Tevos that the Council had completely dismissed Shepard's claims that Sovereign was a vanguard of a race of sentient starships that had previously wiped out the Protheans and other uplifted sentients of their cycle. The Council maintained it was a geth dreadnought, yes they may have repurposed a derelict Reaper ship, just as many races had done with Prothean finds. But it was no monster from beyond dark space bent on the extinction of all organic life.

But there was cause to wonder. The Collectors wanted human subjects, in fact with reports on the human population of various colonies including Earth, they wanted them all. For what purpose? Whatever it was, it was going to be big, and if it was going to be big, Shepard was going to be deeply involved.

It was already big. Collectors harvesting human slaves, a highly contagious and lethal plague that doesn't afflict humans, Cerberus on location and now Shepard on the hunt. There was always something going on, on Omega.

"Shepard, before you meet with Aria there is a few things you should know about her. As I said before I ran with her crew a century or so ago, I know how she operates." Aleena whispered pulling Shepard into an alleyway away from prying eyes and inquisitive ears. "You've met a number of matriarchs, right?

"Yeah, Councilor Tevos, Sha'ira the consort on the Citadel, Matriarch Lidanya commander of the Destiny Ascension, a few others who presided over the decision to allow me to take the Great Hunt, and for a moment Matriarch Benezia when she escaped Sovereign's indoctrination. Why?"

"Because Aria is absolutely nothing like them. And she'll use your expectations of matriarchs against you. Trust me. Talk to her as your normal self Shepard, not like you're addressing one of your admirals. Give her respect but don't pander. And for the love of the goddess don't address her as Matriarch!"

A bemused grin teased the corners of Shepard's lips. "Anything else I should know?"

"She's my sister."

Shepard snapped her mouth closed with a click of her teeth. "What?"

"We are sisters."

"Wait a minute Aleena; I thought you said your elder sister was a CEO of a major operation out here in the Terminus Systems."

"I'd say Omega is a major operation."

"Don't get coy with me now, Aleena." Shepard snapped. "Your sister is the fracking Pirate Queen and you didn't think this is information I needed to know? Tell me why I shouldn't just dump your ass on this station?"

"No good reason why you shouldn't." the bounty hunter said. "You are beginning to think in the ways of the enemy, you no longer need my counsel. That being said, I am more of an asset on your crew than left behind. Should you allow me to stay I will continue my role and I will do that which you can not do."

"What is that?" The Spectre was now nose to nose with the bounty hunter.

"Allow the dark-within out of its prison. Yours is still incarcerated; you struggle to keep it there. Even if you touched it, tempted it, you have not fully embraced it. But mine has long escaped the internal penal system. I have learned to use it indiscriminately when I need to, as my sister does. You need not with yours. You may keep your scruples fully intact.

"Aria raised me since I was a young maiden, after our mother was murdered by one of the Dantius sisters. I learned how to harness my biotics to become a huntress. She gave me a code to follow. You don't kill children, or pregnant women. Keep innocents out of the line of fire when you can. A grateful innocent can be a commodity to later harvest. Make sure you take a trophy or two to show your strength when it is questioned or doubted.

"Use all skills at your command and exploit every expectation your enemy has against them. Convert those you can to your cause, neutralize those you can not. Neutralization isn't always death. Dignity is a commodity many covet and in the dark reaches of the galaxy it is a commodity very few have. When you have it, wield it as a blade against those that do not. Think like a woman of action; act as a woman of thought.

"She taught me that sometimes it is better to disappear than be forced to kill someone." Aleena's voice became soft, wistful lost in the past.

In its hearing Shepard turned her attention to Wrex who was bartering or to put a finer point to it bickering with a bartarian merchant at the Omega markets. Shepard recalled the asari and old battlemaster had been more than old friends, they had been lovers. And rather than finish the mission to kill each other on that old salarian space station because of the contract a volus diplomat held, Aleena had disappeared. Though not without the fleeting taunt. 'Better luck next time.'

"Your sister thinks I killed you." The Spectre said. "I boasted as much."

Aleena shook her head. "All you said was that I was 'taken care of' yes it plants seeds of the assumption you killed me, which was why you worded it that way, was it not?"

To that Shepard nodded.

"As for Aria's thoughts, I 'took care of that'. I allowed a few reports slip for her eyes only that I'm alive under your command albeit undercover. You can count on her playing on it though, just to see if you squirm. Aria isn't unreasonable, in fact quite the opposite. And she will make for a very very powerful ally. She responds well to a more witty-sarcastic charm, up to a point. Be clever but don't be belligerent. And …no overt military bravado, that will be one of the quickest and surest ways to irritate her."

"Right. Got it. I can pull out the charm on this one." Shepard smirked.

"I surely hope so. Be witty but not flirty. If you get her to warm up a bit, she may even let you in on a few things."

"Like what?" Shepard couldn't help the intrigue that crept into her voice.

"Like answers to questions about herself. Information is a very prized commodity to hold. Or better yet access to a few of her resources which is even more of a prize."

"It is indeed." Shepard said, her eyes were drawn to her bondmate.

For a small moment Sam entertained the idea that Liara being some sort of information broker would be a hell of a lot safer than roaming the galaxy with her on the hunt to stop Cerberus, going after the Collectors and diving into the fray against the Reapers. But when it came to Liara, Sam Shepard was ultimately a selfish woman; she wanted her beloved with her. Liara gave her strength to face any enemy, including the Reapers. A bit of a cliché but it was the truth all the same. Liara T'Soni was her heart.

Liara felt the tingle of the bond. She turned with a warm sweet smile upon her face as she met the blue eyes of her beloved. 'I know your thoughts my heart. Even if I were to become the Shadow Broker, I'd spin my web aboard the Normandy, though I may have to ask Tali to create one of her drones to act as my assistant. I will not leave you, Samantha. Vanquish such thoughts from that stubborn mind of yours.'

Sam couldn't help but smile. 'Yes dear.'

'Oh very funny, Shepard. I now know the context of that phrase.'

'It was Joker wasn't it?'

'You believe I'd make a good information broker? I know I'd be a very good information broker.'

'Thinking of a career change, T'Soni?'

'It is tempting.'

'Hmm…my bondmate the next Shadow Broker… One enemy at a time my love. Let's not get too ambitious.'

'Still, I can use the contacts my mother harvested over the centuries as my own sources. If you need an information broker, you need but say.'

'Liara, if you're serious about branching out, go for it. We need all the angles we can get if we are going to defeat the Reapers. But seriously you want to do this I'll back you Angel Eyes."

'This is a discussion for later, My Heart. For now concentrate on the Pirate Queen. Heed Aleena's words concerning Aria. Treat her as a matriarch without treating her as a matriarch.'

'How the hell do I do that?'

'Do what you do best. Make it up as you go along.'

'Meaning I should improvise. Phft, child's play.'

Liara laughed aloud causing more than a few heads to turn in her direction.

Their conversation lasted a moment but long enough for the bounty hunter to catch on to what that the Spectre and Prothean Expert were doing. "Yeah, I'd keep that little trick to yourselves for now." Aleena said drawing Shepard's full attention back to her.

"Hey, relax I know how to play poker" Shepard's voice carried a hint of arrogance to it.

"So does Aria. And right now you need to be the ray, not the shark."

Shepard frowned not catching the inference. "What?"

"Nevermind. Look do with Aria as you did with me before you knew what allegiance I held and you'll be fine more than that you'll gain her respect. And that is a commodity definitely worth having."

"What role do you intend to play in this, Aleena?" Shepard asked.

"I go in cloaked, avoid her men, but be there at your side, watching. Get her to give you a private audience, I pull the reveal and Aria suddenly becomes a little more interested in your overall mission. Like I said she's a commodity worth having and when you go up against the Reapers, you'll want her on your side. People you'd never expect pay her a great deal of respect. You're going to want those connections. I can help crack open the door but it will be up to you to open it all the way. Aria won't do it for me, even as her sister and if you use my connection that door will slam shut faster than getting spaced through a hull breach."

"I got it." Shepard said. "Alright come on, step two. We'll hit the markets later. Mustn't keep Her Majesty waiting after all."

There was a massive line outside the doors to Afterlife. All of them waiting to get in some hopefuls tried dropping the name of the Pirate Queen to the elcor gatekeeper claiming that Aria was waiting for them. Of course this tactic didn't work.

When Shepard approached the double doors she was clearly identified. "Go in Shepard, Aria is waiting for you," a bartarian bouncer said opening the doors to the night club to the Spectre and her entourage.

The passageway was meant to look perhaps like the gates of hell. Holographic fires burned along the bulkheads which cast a gloomy if not damning ruby haze.

"Homey." Tali jibbed. "It sorta has this whole infernal thing going."

"Yeah, I was going to decorate the Loft like this but hellfire is so last year." Shepard grinned.

"I'll put up with your toy ships and dolls but I draw the line holographic flames." Liara said in a wifely tone.

"For the last time they are NOT dolls! They are action figures! Mint condition, and I might add, still in their boxes. They were given to me by that shopkeeper on Elysium if you recall. And I don't play with toy ships; they are models--perfect miniature replicas. Putting them together isn't play, it's micro-engineering skills at work. Putting them together builds up one's patience. And besides you have those weird-ass cabbages from Ilos…you don't see me calling you a hobbyist botanist because you tinker around with those things."

"My 'cabbages' are safely sealed in a hydroponics container. I do not tinker, I nurture."


Ash, Garrus and Wrex all looked at one another and started chuckling. Tali actually snorted behind her mask. And there was a ghostly snicker somewhere off to Liara's left.

"What?" Both Liara and Shepard said in unison, each possessing a rather befuddled expression on their faces which caused only more laughter amongst the others.

"Nothing Skipper." Ash grinned. "Just thinking how married you two sound."

Maybe because we are?" Sam shot back.

"Honestly do none of you have nothing better to do than to torment us?" this came from Liara.

"No." Wrex's lips pulled back in to a crocodilian smile.

"Oh come now," Garrus's mandibles flickered in a turian's equivalent of a smirk.

"You're not trying to deprive us of living vicariously by your matrimonial bliss are you?"

"I do believe we are the butt of a joke, Samantha." Liara huffed.

"At least you're catching on, Doc." Wrex barked out laughing. "You're not the easy target you used to be."

They were all still chuckling when a group of bartarians decided it was a good idea to get into Shepard's path. "Whatta' you lookn at human?" He was surrounded by six others all armed with shotguns and heavy pistols. And most of them were drunk.

Behind her Ash silently withdrew her pistol, Garrus, Wrex and Tali their shotguns. Liara and Shepard's bodies glowed cyan. Well hidden under the cloaking device, Aleena was prepared to act if required.

*Pirate world, pirate rules.* the bounty hunter whispered into the Spectre's earpiece.

Time to bring out the nasty. The dark headed Spectre nodded in understanding.

"Are you that fucking stupid?" Shepard spat stepping forward. "You blind in all four of your eyes?" she sent out a small pulse that sent Leader stumbling back into his cronies. "Don't you see how well armed we are, and I'm not talking about the firepower at my back."

The leader teetered forwarded, his hand reaching for his gun but in his drunken stupor his hand slipped twice before he got a hold of the butt of his gun.

"Our mistake," one in the back said. Even drunk he was smart enough to pull back.

"Boss, I say we let these ones go." another with only three eyes said.

"Yeah alright. You're off the hook for now, human." the leader sneered.

"Oh you're generous." Shepard said facing the leader, sarcasm dripping from her lips.

"You trying to be funny or somethin'?" Boss Man sneered.

"No. Council Spectres don't have a sense of humor that I'm aware of." Shepard grinned.

Behind her Shepard heard her team snickering. They didn't let up on the hold on their guns but they all saw the fight go out of the bartarian hoodlums.

One in back grabbed Boss Man's arm and shook it, "We want no trouble from a Spectre."

"They gots no jurisdiction here." Boss Man burbled, his speech slurring due to the amount of alcohol he had guzzled down.

"Spectres don't have to follow the rules, even Aria's. They go after their quarry like a rabid varren. Smart thing; don't get between her and her prey Boss, lest you become her prey." Three Eyes pointed out.

"She's trying to make me the fool!" Boss Man groused. "Human scum!"

"You don't need any help from me, four man." Shepard shot back almost benignly.

"That's right!" Boss Man growled back puffing out his chest.

This caused the Normandy crew to laugh and even a few of the bartarians as well.

"Fuck you Spectre, you aint worth the effort." Boss Man attempted more bravo but even his men saw through the farce. Most decided to abandoned him to his fate if he was stupid enough to engage the wrath of a Council Spectre.

Deciding to ignore the man and his waning lackeys, Shepard led her team into the bar without so much as a backwards glance to the bartarian thugs. The inner doors opened with a blast of techno music, the cacophony of voices trying to be heard over the pulsating rhythms.

Navigating through the throng of bodies was little different than any other nightclub Shepard had been to, well save here there were far more guns. Finding Aria's 'audience chamber' wasn't that difficult. It was the one balcony that offered the spectacular view of the entire night club. It also has a small squad of guards. One on either side of the first stairwells, another pair on the second landing and four more along Aria's seat of power.

Behind her on raised platforms was double the guard's number in asari dancers. On the outside they were just was they seemed—strippers. But Shepard trusted her gut that said, they were far more than mere eye-candy-they were commando mercs and utterly devoted to their mistress. The threat you could see armed turians and bartarians were one thing, they were the eye-candy. The true threat was the hidden weapon, the one you didn't suspect and thus came quite a shock to you when you ended up on the wrong side of Death via a warp-field flung at you so hard it ripped out your spine.

Presiding over all of them was the woman herself. Aria T'Loak. Her back was turned to Shepard a clear sign she did not consider the Spectre to be a threat, and she wanted Shepard to know it.

"That's close enough." Aria's voice was strong, commanding and brooked no room for disobedience.

There was a part of Shepard that reflected back to her first meeting with the Consort, even the words were the same. She too had her back to the newly minted Spectre not out of a show of prowess but something much different. It was as if the matriarch was attempting to read Shepard without her eyes getting in the way of what she saw. Odd now that Shepard was reflecting she realized Benezia had done the same thing. Her back turned to the human when she first spoke about being a mother. The Spectre's hindbrain locked away the curious behavior of the matriarchs to question Shiala later; right now her full attention had to be on the Game she was playing with T'Loak.

There was a minuscule nod of her violet head. An action that prompted immediate action by one of the bartarians in the upper floor.

"Stand still." Garlak activated his omni tool but he no more than took a step in Shepard's direction when her team all drew their weapons. Which in turn caused Aria's men to draw their own arms.

"Try it and you'll be scanning from the inside of your colon." Shepard's voice dropped an octave.

Aria laughed, she actually laughed at the comment. "I'd actually pay to see that. But regardless no one talks to me without getting scanned."

Shepard turned to the bartarian. If there was one race she despised most it was the bartarians. After hearing what they had done at Mindoir when she was sixteen, the darkest part of her believed they got what they deserved at Tofan under Major Kyle's butchery. Her loathing for them went deeper after the Skillian Blitz.

After what they were going to do at Terra Nova, there was a part of Shepard that agreed with Williams when the younger woman had once said at the time: 'if the Reapers want to wipe out an entire race let if be the four eyed honourless slavering mongrels. They're nothing more than dirty-rotten cockroaches.' For herself, Shepard resented having allowed that mother-fucker Balak go free, but the lives of the hostages were far more important. She'd catch up to him one day and then he'd answer for his crimes.

Shepard tilted her head to the left as she spoke knowing it was a great insult to the bartarians. "If you're looking for weapons, you're not doing a very good job." she pulled out her pistol before flaring her body in dark energy.

"Spectres on Omega…that catches attention." Aria said. "You can't be too careful. That could be anyone wearing your face."

"I was told you were the one to talk to if I had questions." Shepard dismissed the male before her as insignificant, again a subtle insult to his bartarian pride.

Garlak's lips pulled back into a jowly snarl of contempt that he dare not allow to be heard in his voice when he spoke to T'Loak. "They're clean."

Only then did Pirate Queen turned around, she swaggered the three steps separating her from the Spectre. "That depends on the question." Aria answered glibly.

"You run Omega?"

Aria chuckled. Clearly amused she turned once more with her arms outstretched as if to indicate the entirety of the space station. "I am Omega!" she slowly spun on the balls of her feet facing the Spectre, and looked up from under hooded eyelids. "But you need more. Everyone needs more something. And they all come to me. I'm the boss, CEO, Queen…if you're feeling dramatic." Her voice became almost a dismissive whisper, "It doesn't matter. Omega has no titled ruler and only one rule." She slinked to the leather sofa, crossed her legs seductively and with the hands in her lap, her lips pulled into a smile. "Don't fuck with Aria."

Shepard grinned back "I like it. Simple. Easy to remember."

Aleena was right Aria was not your typical matriarch. She never heard those she had met use profanity before, especially not human profanity. That moment of shock was exactly what the Pirate Queen was going for. It was exactly what Aleena had warned Shepard about.

"If you forget there is always someone to remind you." T'Loak shot back giving a pointed look to Garlak.

"And I send your sorry ass out the nearest airlock," Garlak growled.

"No one spoke to you four man!" Wrex snarled getting into the bartarian's face. He knew how this Game was played. It was a bloody pissing contest between the lackeys not the principles. "Our boss lady talks to the Queen here and you bugger off like a good little muzzled junkyard varren and we like her good pets keep our distance." With that he smacked his head hard against the bartarian, sending Garlak stumbling back

"You fucking shellback!" Garlak leapt up but was stilled by a single shake of the asari's head.

"Show Shepard's people to the bar." she flicked her hand, again a show of her 'royal' demeanour. "Their first round is on the house. Make sure they have at least two more."

Wrex bowed his head to the Pirate Queen then to Shepard before turning and leaving the dais, he was slowly followed by the others. Only Liara hesitated.

Aria's lips curled into a smile. She had known Wrex from long ago when he and her sister had been one time lovers. She even liked the old krogan. With a nod of her head, the Pirate Queen gestured for Shepard and Liara to sit next to her on the sofa. The Spectre did so making sure she pushed past the bartarian as if he were nothing but a bit of furniture in her way. Garlak of course had no choice but to obey his mistress. He had clearly been dismissed.

"So what can I do for you, Spectre?" The Pirate Queen said as if the earlier scene had not taken place.

"One scan and we're down to business?" Shepard said taking her seat. She relaxed with one arm over the back of the sofa and her left leg resting top of her right in a figure four, less refined than the asari but just as much at ease.

Liara sat as poised as she had been when she was first in the comm-room aboard the first Normandy a year ago. Only this time she sat very close to Shepard, so close in fact their legs were touching. Sheer display on the scientist's part and one that amused Aria. 'Maidens are always so possessive of their first lover. Not even a matron yet and she's claimed a bondmate.'

"Spectres only come to Omega if they want something. Bodies, goods or leads. Your role in bringing down Saren, Sovereign and the geth was note worthy. I'm curious, but Omega doesn't really care who you are, Shepard." Aria said watching the couple closely. It seemed a little odd to her that it was the maiden T'Soni and not Shepard that bristled however subtle at the slur.

She would not allow it to show but there was some actual concern within T'Loak's mind over Shepard's presence. She was by now the most iconic Spectre the Council had. She was a message that was evidently clear. The Pirate Queen ruled Omega with an iron fist. Her influence stretched far beyond the station, delving deep into the Terminus Systems and beyond even that. It went deep into Council space, with agents on the Citadel and the Council itself.

Omega was well beyond the jurisdiction of the Council but it wouldn't stop them from sending a Spectre for her. The agents of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance were not bound by treaties, laws that shaped intergalactic policy. She knew if the Council truly discovered how deeply involved Aria was in events on the Citadel they would send a Spectre to assassinate her. And who better to send than the one who killed their best agent? Did Shepard realize she was a message? Aria was patient and careful. She had lived well over a thousand years, that was not a feat you accomplished by exposing yourself. And so she waited. She listened. And she tested.

In Shepard's ear piece, Aleena whispered. *Let her have this one, she gave you the last move with the bastered Garka.*

"I need an empty warehouse. Or something like it." The Spectre said as if she had not just been insulted.

Of all the things Shepard could have asked for, Aria had not expected that. She didn't show it but she was taken by surprise. And that didn't happen often. "Why?"

"Staging ground to entrap a Cerberus agent."

"Cerberus?" Aria shifted in her seat a little. Now things were getting interesting. Though she wasn't a bit surprised that Shepard was hunting Cerberus. But did she know one of their agents had already been here? "An ambitious target. What else do you want from me?"

"Nothing." Shepard said honestly.

T'Loak wasn't buying it. "No. You want me to do nothing, which is very different from nothing."

"So it is. Very well I want you to do nothing."

"And if I do this…nothing, what do I gain from it?"

"The deep gratitude of a Council Spectre. From what I hear gratitude is a commodity worth banking."

Aria looked past Shepard's right shoulder to the exact spot Aleena was standing, still very much cloaked.

"Indeed." The Pirate Queen conceded the point. Or rather the inference Shepard had made that Aleena was somehow her adviser. Yes it was a leap of logic but it was…well…logical. Once more it seemed from the Spectre's tone of voice that she wanted Aria to know that her sister was taking such a role. "And if I do something?"

"Then you will not have the deep gratitude of a Council Spectre."

Aria was actually starting to like this human. "Tell me your plan, and I will let you know if I will do nothing."

"It's already in motion. The agent is coming here, no doubt about that. I'm here out of a courtesy to you, mm" she almost said matriarch but stopped herself in time. "I have no intention of causing a…disturbance within your dominion without letting you know about it. But it will happen. I rather it did in a controlled location to avoid in unnecessary violence that might otherwise touch the innocent."

Again, Aria caught the thinly veiled reference of her teachings to her sister. "This is more than a strike of vengeance against the death of your daughter." She lifted her green eyes not to Shepard, or the cloaked Aleena but to Liara.

Shepard nodded. "It is. I need answers; to get them I need the agent alive. Overzealous minions can get you friendly fucked. I'd rather avoid that."

Aria chuckled. "Yes they can. Very well Shepard, I will do nothing. For now. As you said gratitude is a commodity worth banking. I'll give you a nav-point location on your omni-tool for your little battle. How you get there is your own problem. Now is there anything else?"

Shepard contemplated asking more of Aria. Asking her not to become involved in police action against Cerberus had been a coupe but how much more could she push the Pirate Queen of Omega? Shepard had never been one to back down when the odds were not in her favor, and she wasn't actually disfavored by T'Loak.

"Actually yes. I'm looking for a Professor Mordin Solus" Shepard said decisively.

"The salarian doctor? Last I heard he was trying to help plague victims in the quarantine zone. I always liked Mordin." Her words were followed by a smile that actually generated warmth, unlike the previous expressions which were far more cool. "He is as likely to heal you as shoot you."

"What can you tell me about him?" Shepard asked still sitting back and relaxed.

Liara leaned forward watching the older asari's body language, Aleena was right her sister was quite unlike the matriarchs she knew. It was almost as if she was still in the middle of her matron stage. When Aria shifted her body to lean closer to Shepard, Liara noted that Solus truly did have the Pirate Queen's attention and admiration. She cut a glance back to her bondmate and noticed that Shepard had picked up on the subtle shift of weight in T'Loak's body and the tone of which she spoke.

"He used to be apart of the salarian Special Tasks Group. He's brilliant and dangerous." Aria returned to her more dismissive pose. "Just don't get him talking. He never shuts up." Her head turned to study the Spectre. "If you really need to find him, take a shuttle to the quarantine zone. No guarantee they will let you in of course."

'I doubt asking her to let us in will be a good idea.' Liara sent

'Yeah I got that. Don't worry, I'm not going to press her further. We've clearly been dismissed. She's nearly as cool as Tevos when she said "Don't let me detain you." It doesn't matter we got what we came here for.'

Aloud Shepard said: "Thanks for the information." she stood up as did Liara preparing to go but Arias voice shot out.

"Yes, well just try not to bring the plague back with you." there was an unmistakable razor's edge to the voice.

"What kind of plague is this?" Shepard dared to push the boundaries of what had been a fairly cordial discourse.

"Visceral. And if I'm right, and I always am, it was made in a laboratory. Perhaps the sort of laboratory Cerberus has. Humans so far have not been afflicted. It makes one wonder if the humans are responsible or if they were meant to look responsible.

"I have faith in Mordin's capabilities to find a cure. Until then I've ordered the area to be cordoned off and all bodies burned until the plague passes, Mordin cures it or the Blue Suns kill everyone. Either way the problem will be resolved."

"Effective and prudent but I need Mordin." Shepard pressed.

"Why he so important to you? I know it can't be for your Cerberus trap, you wanted him as the professor, not the STG agent he used to be."

*I wouldn't tell her everything.* Aleena uttered advice in the ear piece. *You've gained her favor but only just. Give her too much and you'll never have her respect, and then you will not have her resources when we need them.*

"Collectors are hitting human colonies out here in the Terminus. I will stop them. But I can not do it alone." Shepard responded seemingly divorcing herself from the words of caution Aleena had offered.

Aria's head snapped around, she knew the three events related Collectors, Cerberus and the Spectre. Just as she knew the plague she knew lay at the feet of either the Collectors or Cerberus. She wasn't discounting either one at this point. And she wasn't going to allow either to make such a trespass on her station. The arrival of the Spectre will work to her advantage. Young, naive enough to believe she could still live her life with her honor intact and that justice had true meaning. So very easy to manipulate if you placate that sense of duty, honor and justice.

"You're targeting not only Cerberus but the Collectors as well? You are ambitious and foolish. The first is doable, the second means going through the Omega-Four relay. Are you truly mad enough to believe that is possible?" Aria scoffed. She watched the Spectre's reaction carefully. Committed idealists were always so easy direct, all she had to do plant the seeds and watch them take root.

"Many things are said to be impossible until they are done. They said going to Ilos was impossible and yet I did. And maybe I am mad. It's almost certainly a good thing because half the things I do probably wouldn't work otherwise."

Aria snorted an amused chuckle. "We shall see, Spectre. We shall see. If you are intent of doing the insanely impossible then by all means do so. I'm sure many eyes are watching with great interested anticipation to see if you will fall or you will rise above."

"The possibility of failure isn't an option I can afford to entertain. The Collectors are connected to the Reapers. I don't know exactly how just yet but I will. I have to find someway to stop them. If it means doing crazy-ass things then I'll do crazy ass things like going thorough the Omega-Four relay. Right now it means going into a quarantine zone to recruit a scientist, so that's what I'm going to do."

Aria glanced over the Spectre's left shoulder. "Your friend is quite the idealist." her lips curled into a smile. The seeds had not only been planted into the ground which more than fertile it would produce one hell of a bumper crop. However it would all go to seed if her sister poisoned the soil, though she doubted it would happen. She need only test Aleena's dedication. Easy enough to play inside card, change the face, the ink, the pheromones it had been a trick the Pirate Queen mastered long ago and had taught her sister do to the same. But there was one thing Aleena couldn't fake--true dedication…true belief, not with Aria.

"One of her finer qualities, I have discovered." Aleena answered. A moment later she reappeared having deactivated her cloaking device. "That and her tenacious nature."

"You follow her?"

"I do." Aleena answered without hesitation. She met her sister's stare steadily.

Aria gave a glance to the young human before her. Did Shepard know that in those two very small words how much credibility she had just earned? She didn't, it was clear to read in those expressive blue eyes. The question that now remained was how much Shepard going to bank on it?

Shepard stood up, gave a subtle nod to her head, "Thanks for the information and for the space."

"We'll see if you still feel that way after you're little dance with Cerberus and if you survive your dalliance in the plague zone. Like I said, don't bring it back."

The ground team reconvened in a private room in the lower bar. Shepard had relayed everything that had transpired during her meeting with the Pirate Queen.

"So she's just giving us a space?" Garrus said disbelievingly, "With no strings?"

"The gratitude of a Spectre isn't exactly a freebie, I fully expect her to call in on my 'gratitude' at sometime or another. It doesn't matter, we have what we need." She didn't add the word want but it hung there in the air like an albatross.

"I suggest we investigate the location Aria gave us before venturing into the quarantine zone." Liara advised.

"My thoughts exactly." Shepard nodded. "Going into the plague zone is going to be problematic. Aria has her Blue Sun grunts patrolling it not to mention getting past the gate guards at the front gate. I'd rather not shoot them if possible. They are after all serving a function."

"Containment of the area was a very wise move for T'Loak, on many levels." Liara said. "If this plague reached the rest of the population or worse escaped the station, it would become an unstoppable pandemic." Shepard looked to Liara, before turning her gaze to Garrus, Wrex and Tali.

"Shit. Who the hell designed this plague? I don't think even Cerberus would so something like this." Ash said voicing what the Spectre was thinking. "I know they are seriously anti-alien but this serves no purpose."

"It serves a purpose, Williams." Wrex growled. "Population control. Xenocide Looks to me like the humans are following in the salarian and turian footsteps, only they ain't stopping at one race."

"No, it doesn't make sense. It's made to look like the humans did this, but I don't believe it." Shepard returned. "Someone else, something else did this."

"Despite the fact they are immune to all diseases it can not be the vorcha, they're not intelligent enough to create such a virus." Liara put forth. "I am sorry Samantha. I hate to say it but there is precedence for humanity do something like this. Cerberus has a reputation. Surely you do not think them above suspicion?"

"To tell the truth. No I can't. But what do they gain? There must be something more than xenocide. Okay let us assume they are studying the release of a biological weapon in a dense population, but in preparation for what?"

"I can think of something." Garrus said, his mandibles twitching. "The Citadel. Cerberus wants humanity on top, full domination of galactic space. How better to do that than release a plague that destroys everyone else?"

Shepard shook her head. "I despise Cerberus, but this plague if released on the Citadel…is unthinkable. It leaves too much of a power vacuum, economical, political…the ramifications are astronomical. TIM might attempt a military coup but a xenocidal plague? No. I still don't think so."

"We will not gain answers standing around here debating it." Liara said. "The one person who may have insight is the very person we are trying to reach."

"Dr. Solus." Shepard nodded. "We're going in, but only a human team. It's safer. Tali, you're definitely going back to the ship."

"Shepard, if it is contained in the …"Tali started.

"You have your orders Miss vas Normandy." There was a hardness to Shepard's voice Tali had rarely heard from the human, though she had heard it plenty of times from her father. There was concern in the eyes however that softened the cool edge. She saw it then the fullness of Shepard's fear for her, her care.

"Aye, aye, Captain." Tali saluted. "Permission to go to the bait site. I will be able to place a few of my assault and defensive drones as well as any other mechanical security issues that pop up."

Shepard thought about it for a moment. Her gut said send the girl back but if the contagion had already somehow escaped the quarantine zone, Tali had already been exposed to it. Going to bait site posed no more risk than walking the streets of Omega's markets, which was to say the only true concern was gunfire, the possibility of a knife in the dark or ambush. All things concerned a rather typical day for the crew of the Normandy. Besides Tali had a valid point her technical skills would be invaluable.

"Permission granted. And along the lines of the drones, radio the Normandy and have them send down proximity drones, mines and in case things become hairy I want one of the atlases dropped. Hopefully the location will have a good bird's nest or two. Alright people, move out!"

In the end it took taking a shuttle from the transit hub just outside the nightclub to Aria's warehouse. They did a standard flyby scanning the location into the hardsuit onboard computers and omni-tools.

"Fairly standard layout with a lot of little cubbyholes and warrens to duck into and bunker down." Garrus announced pointing to the blueprint display on his omni-tool. "A number of chokepoints where barricades can easily be set up. Here, here and here." He pointed out three areas on the holographic map along a long stretch of bridge.

"This bridge seems to be the only way in to this loft space. It's a perfect location for funneling the enemy where their numbers work against them." Shepard observed. "We make sure it's the only accessible way in."

It took the better half of the afternoon to thoroughly check the compound. They discovered three main chambers large enough to contain three small battalions as well as a host of smaller antechambers and one bay large enough to contain a gunship or shuttle-craft. Crossing the bridge the ground team found the loft was more than defensible, it was easily fortified. It would take very little effort to place turrets, combat and defensive drones, and set up a perimeter along the upper balcony as well as the lower sections of the apartment complex.

"Look at this place!" Ash exclaimed "Full amenities, a full mess including one of those vending machines, water, racks in the upper quarters, two heads, and an independent power source. A squad can hole up here for weeks and not run out of resources. The gratitude of a Spectre… that's one hell of a favor you're going to have to pay back. I just hope it doesn't take a big chunk out of your ass when she bites."

"That makes two of us." Shepard admitted.

Her keen eyes looked over location before she brought up the schematics on her omni-tool. "We have to find a way to secure the rest of the base." She looked at the balcony and thought of the many steps of the Council chambers. Ash was right all those stairs had made for a good defensive position. Unfortunately by the time Shepard and her small team had arrived on site, the area had been dominated by the geth. "I want defensive drones along the catwalk, here and here." she pointed to two open areas of the upper tier. I want the turrets along the line of the balcony that overlooks the bridge and I want the atlas on the ground floor near the door."

*Shepard,* it was Wrex. He and Aleena had scouted out the lower levels of the bunker in order to secure any vulnerable entry point. *We found three vulnerable areas. Access tunnels, probably maintenance shafts. Stubborn enough person will tunnel their way through. Be easy enough.*

"Is there a way to seal it off, other than close proximity charges?" Shepard asked.

*As a matter fact there are. Shutters will seal the maintenance tunnels.* Aleena said. * If we place proximity mines along the tunnels and the combat drones on both sides of the shutters, then seal them the area will remain secured for the duration of our occupation.*

"Get it done you two and good work." Shepard ordered.

*Shepard, wait. We've got an idea.* Aleena spoke up.

"Alright, lay it on me."

*Not over the comm, wait until we get back up there.* it was Wrex again. *There's something else I need to talk over with you.* there was a seriousness to his voice, Shepard had heard only once and that was back on Virmire.

They didn't have to wait long before the two bounty hunters rejoined the rest of the group. Upon seeing Wrex's mammoth form Shepard tried to gauge his body language, all she read was determination.

"What's going on Wrex?" She said as soon as the old krogan came within hearing range.

"Nothing bad, so you can wipe that expression off your face."

"What expression is that?" Shepard was a little surprised by Wrex's comment or perhaps it was that he had so easily read her as she had been attempting to read him.

"The one where it looked like he kicked your puppy then put it on a spit for roasting." Aleena answered for him.

Shepard scowled, "I did not look like that. Now. What is going on?"

"You know when I was talking to that four-man back in the markets." Wrex started in.

"Yes. I also seem to recall you threatened to blind him in his two right eyes if he didn't lower his prices for you."

"Omega bartering skills, it's expected or you'll get shelled." Wrex made a throaty noise that sounded a bit like forced laughter.

"I think you mean fleeced." Ash said.

"Do I look like I'm some wooly mammal to you, Williams? I know what I mean. The markets here are not all safe and pretty like those on the Citadel, nor the false subtle faces on Illium. You show raw strength or you get shelled and your liver eaten. Remember that, young Williams."

"Wrex, I suspect you were going somewhere with your exchange with the trader." Shepard drew the conversation back to the start.

"I was, yeah. When you were having your little heart-to-heart with Aleena, I thought I saw a familiar face near that trader's kiosk. By the time I was done with the four-man, the man I thought I saw was gone. Didn't give it another thought until I saw his ugly mug in Afterlife. He was talking to one of Aria's people over a bounty he just brought in. I was right about seeing him back in the markets. Zaeed Massani.

"I ain't seen a meaner, ornery nor uglier bit of human flesh than that old son of a bitch. Like most us bounty hunters, he's self-serving and his moral compass aint exactly pointing in the same direction yours is, Shepard." the old krogan pointed his thumb to himself and Aleena "Unlike the two of us."

"He's what you might have called a gunslinger in your 'Old West' days." Aleena supplied.

"So what this guy is like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickcock or we talking Jessie James and Billy the Kid here?" Williams interceded.

"Yes." answered the asari.

"Wonderful." Shepard puffed out a bit of air. "I wager once he finds out I'm here, he'll be coming after me next."

"Not if we get to him first. " Wrex shook his head. "And recruit him."

"Hold on you just said he was the meanest, orneriest human you've encountered and you want me to recruit him?" Shepard was agog.

"It isn't as if you haven't done the same before." Aleena pointed out.

"Yes, however you are not as you described this male." Liara argued.

"Only because you haven't seen my more malevolent side, Dr. T'Soni. Believe me when I need to be I can be quite unpleasant."

"That aint no lie." Wrex nodded in agreement. "She's been down right agreeable and reasonable so far. Maybe getting bit too soft in her old age." He chuckled. "Or might be that's because she went and got herself domesticated."

"IF I might put things back on track!" Shepard's voice held a commander's sharp edge. "I recognize the name now. He's from that list you gave me, the one with the bounty hunters that signed on with Udina to kill Liara. Tell me why I should recruit him and not put a bullet in his head?"

"Because you don't want to waste what you can use." Aleena said, "You already said you 'took care' of me, your reputation within the circle of bounty hunters will skyrocket when word gets out you press ganged Massani into your cause. Use him as an example when you must just as you did with me. The finer point is as you humans say; Massani is better brought to heel than dogging your tail."

"And you're going to need someone like this son of a bitch for when I leave the Normandy." Wrex said his voice becoming lower and grave.

"Leave the Normandy? Wait. What?"

"I aint abandoning you, Shepard. I put a lot of thought into this. To fight the Reapers, you're going to need more than just one battlemaster; you'll need the full might of the krogan. Remember back on the first Normandy you said I should help my people. I did that once didn't work. But now that Jarred's dead, the Reapers are out there, I need to try again. Not just to fight the monsters, but for the krogan survival. We won't last if we're not united.

"This is something I have to do, you showed me that, and I can't do it on the Normandy. I'm going back to Tuchanka. I'll hold a Crush not just with the other male clan leaders but the female clan leaders; I know a few that will agree with me. This one shaman, she'll know the benefits of a united force. And with her voice other female clans will listen, they listen--the males will. May have to crack a few skulls to make my point but the clans will see reason. May take a year or two, but I'll have them united. And then we go to war and save the galaxy just as we did with the rachni" he chuckled

The disappointment on Shepard's face was washed with admiration and approval. Her old friend was right, the united force of the krogan people was absolutely necessary. She smiled warmly. "I understand. We can drop you off…"

"No need, I'll book passage from here after we get Massani either on the leash or dead." Wrex claimed.

"That soon?" Liara said unable to keep the astonishment out of her voice, even Aleena looked a bit shocked at Wrex's plans for a swift departure.

"Try not to miss my devilishly good looks too much T'Soni, you still have your squishy bondmate to cuddle up to. Way I hear it she kisses better, anyway."

Liara smiled. Shepard's face started to change into a more crimson hue.

"Damn fine idea you old shellback," Garrus complimented. "But don't go thinking we'll miss that mug of yours anytime soon."

"Ha bird-bones. You're just glad you won't have a true rival for the rest of the ladies. You just watch, now that I'm gone they'll all be turning to their own sex for comfort."

"Phft. as if you had any of them swooning before, you old lizard."

"Oh…I don't know." Aleena piped in. "I've enjoyed a tumble or two with a krogan. Maybe you should give it a try sometime, Vakarian. It might be quite illuminating."

The turian coughed and look a bit embarrassed by the taunt. "No thank you, my interests in interspecies intercourse isn't with a krogan." his mandibles twitched involuntarily as he tried to avoid looking in Tali's direction. He coughed again and wished to the Spirits something would blow up or start shooting so everyone would stop staring at him with those evil all-knowing smirks.

"How in the hell did topic of Wrex leaving to unite the krogan end up with sex?" Williams shook her head.

"It's one of two things krogans constantly think about. It's the one thing they have in common with salarians." Garrus said.

"Ain't no calling being that nasty, bird-bones." Wrex snorted. He turned back to Shepard. Who but for a few words had remained mostly quiet. "I'll have your back when the time comes, Shepard. United krogan force or not, you'll not go into that war without me."

The Spectre grabbed Wrex's forearm in a warrior's salutation. "I know. And I'm sure as hell going to miss you Big Guy."

"Of course you will." Wrex barked out a laughter of pure mirth. "Who else is going to pull your scrawny ass out of the fire?"

Part 48

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