DISCLAIMER: Mass Effect is the property of Bioware. This series is done purely for fun and I am making no profit off of this in any way. The series will cover the already known Mass Effect Universe with some (obvious) tweaking. While I will attempt to stay close to canon there will obviously be some artistic liberties taken to conform this series to my liking. This series is also going to portray love and sex between two or more women with minor references to some m/f pairings. There will be multiple f/f pairings and yes, this will eventually be a harem fic of sorts, so if that is not your thing then please move on. This story will also contain scenes of violence, death, and other content of dark nature (no rape however) further down the road.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Just a reminder here folks that some creative liberties have been taken with this story. My goal is to stay within the main thread of the ME storyline, but with some deviations that won't change the entire course of the canon. Thank you once again for all the feedback and emails! Glad you are enjoying the story so far.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To xfiredancerx[at]gmail.com

Six Degrees of Separation Series
Book 1: Tangled

By Firedancer


Chapter 24: Badge of Honor

Everyone blinked, trying to get their vision to refocus as the blinding light died down, and the massive room returned to its blank canvas. Around the room, various soldiers began to slowly pick themselves up off the ground, all of them looking for and then staring over at the tightly clustered group still huddled under Liara's shield.

"You can let go of the shield now Liara," Shepard panted.

With a gasp, the young asari let the barrier dissolve and swayed slightly as Wrex tightened his grip on her shoulder to keep her steady. Truth be told, though he would never admit it, even he was feeling drained at the moment. He had no idea that the asari could even do what she did, let alone sap so much from him. "Did it work?" he grunted out.

"I…have no…idea," Liara admitted breathlessly.

Still out of breath and exhaustion slamming into all of them, the entire group stayed on their knees for a few more minutes while the rest of their fellow shipmates gathered around them. No one spoke a word as everyone tried to digest what they had just witnessed. Finally, the entrance doors opened and Admiral Ahern entered the room, clapping slowly and shaking his head in disbelief.

Garvey held his arm out, and after looking at it for a second, Shepard grinned and allowed the hand up. The rest of the team was aided back to their feet…except Wrex who glared and then growled at the two Marines that had offered him a hand and then just as quickly retracted them. Shepard straightened as the Admiral approached. "Admiral on deck!" she called out, causing everyone else to snap to attention…even the Quarians.

"At ease," he said quickly shaking his head. He looked around the room and then looked Shepard straight in the eye. "It's a damn good thing I run training grounds that are holographic, Shepard. Letting you train anywhere else would get real costly, real quick. You are all certifiably insane."

Shepard's smirk grew at the comment. "Aye, Admiral. I take it that we survived that last blast then?"

"I have no idea how you pulled it off Dr. T'Soni, but according to the sensors, there was little that could have penetrated that shield. The specialists are foaming at the mouth, dying to figure out how you managed that. And you," he began with a somewhat scolding tone as he leveled his gaze at Tali and raised an accusing finger. "That was a dangerous stunt you pulled tapping into the main programming like that. What if your virus has taken out the safeties?"

Tali shrugged unconcerned. "The virus targeted only parts of the simulation…not the program code itself. I accessed the main program yes, but there I only accessed certain files and made minor alterations to unimportant programming. By the way, you really should look into that. You might have made it near impossible to breach the programmed security of the simulated base, but the encryption and firewalls surrounding the lines of code for the actual simulation as a whole is outdated and laughably easy to get through."

Ahern's eyes flashed angrily and there was a tense moment where it could have gone either way. But Tali backed down. "I do not mean to insult Admiral. We are very grateful to be extended the courtesy to utilize such an amazing training facility. However, if I can break into it, surely there are others. And it has come to my attention that not everyone who is allowed access to this facility are as honorable as Commander Shepard."

Ahern exhaled slowly, letting go of his anger. "Or the rest of her team. I'm not happy about what you did, and I am warning you right now that for as long as your people are onboard this station, no one is to try and pull that stunt again….unless specifically allowed to by myself alone. In the meantime, thank you for pointing out an obviously glaring hole in our security. It's just that no one has ever tried what you did until today. Rest assured my people are already looking into it."

"Should you require any assistance…testing any upgrades before we leave, I would be happy to offer you my services Admiral Ahern," Tali said with a small bow of respect.

"I may just take you up on that Tali Zorah. Well Shepard, I'm guessing you would like to do a debriefing. Do you wish to do that before or after everyone gears down and cleans up?"

Shepard looked over at Garvey and Reegar. "Gentlemen?"

"Whatever you recommend ma'am."

"I too am open either option Commander," Reegar said, much to the disappointment of a few of his people.

Shepard noted this and hesitated. Then she took pity on the assembled group. Besides, a few of her own people were looking a little tired, and she hadn't missed that Ashley was favoring one leg, or that her own shoulder was a tad stiff. It was probably best to let everyone get looked after, give them all time to process the day's events and then debrief in the morning when everyone was fresh. "Normally, we do debriefings right after, but today was a bit of an exception. Admiral, if we may utilize one of the station's conference rooms tomorrow morning?"

"I will see to it that you are scheduled in."

"Thank you sir. Alright people, check and stow your gear, hit the showers, see the Doc if you need it, and get a good meal and a good nights sleep. We'll meet at the assigned briefing room at 0800 station time. Oh and Garvey? Reegar? Your team is picking up our tab tonight," Shepard informed them with a smirk and teasing glint in her eye. Both men chuckled and shook their heads.

The next two weeks flew by rapidly, the days filled with drills of various types that pushed human and quarian alike to their limits and then some. Under the careful tutelage of Shepard and her team, everyone began to quickly step up in their performance and more importantly- their confidence. Feeling more comfortable while conditions were controlled, Shepard even allowed Garvey to lead a team for at least half the drills, with either herself or Ash tagging along to observe and then give pointers afterwards. Shepard had to grudgingly admit that the young officer might be green, but he wasn't as bad off as she'd first feared. He had potential, he just needed the experience that came with time out in the field. The rest of the squad had already seen quite a bit of action and most of them had been assigned to different squads over their military career, so Shepard was very pleased to see the rest of the group slide into place with ease. There were still misunderstandings at times, and tempers flared on occasion, but everyone seemed blend together like a well oiled machine by the end of the training.

Shepard also enjoyed watching Tali help the quarian engineers and techs find their own brand of confidence in themselves and their abilities while under fire. It had taken Tali nearly a week to finally start convincing Kal Reegar that the integrated squads could work. But there had been a turning point during one particular skirmish, where the techs had managed to hold off Reegar's more seasoned Marines for the assigned amount of time. That had bolstered their flagging moral, and Shepard and Tali had chuckled quietly as they watched the excited group leave the battlefield, receiving compliments and pats on the back from the Marines. Having won a little respect and feeling a little bit of pride in themselves and their skills, they returned the next day to fight another fierce battle. This time it was a more physical fight, and while they hadn't won, it had been a long drawn out fight to a very close finish. By then, even Reegar had openly commended them for a job well done, and the new quarian additions to the Marine compliment threw themselves into the rest of the training.

When Shepard's people went up against Reegar's on the last day, it had been one hell of a fight. Her techs had been kept on their toes, and Shepard had been forced to change tactics twice. In the end, her squad won, but the quarians had given them hell and it had cost them considerably before they'd won the objective. All things considered however, Shepard was pleased with the progress of everyone. Her people had performed admirably, and she felt more confident about going out into actual battle with the new detachment of Marines. She also felt a bit more relief about Tali's upcoming assignment. Her people were about as prepared as they could be and the Marines now trusted and respected the techs and engineers that were a part of their numbers. They were a solid group of soldiers now and she felt Tali's chances of success had gone up considerably.

And then there had been the small bits of downtime she'd been able to spend with her entire team. It had been a bit cathartic somehow. Even though Shepard knew that the time was rapidly approaching for Tali to leave once more, this time it wasn't nearly as painful and things felt more…settled between them. So their last night aboard station, the Heroes of the Citadel Battle gathered in the station's most prominent club to live it up one last time.

"Yanno…we should…like commemorate this somehow," a fairly drunk Williams decided as she dropped into her seat after having danced the last half hour with several others from the crew that were present.

"Commemorate training?" Wrex asked as he slammed back his twenty third bottle of beer of the evening.

"Not training…us!" Williams clarified as she sipped on her tenth…or was it eleventh beer.

"What'd you have in mind Chief?" Shepard asked, her words starting to slur ever so slightly.

"How 'bout a tat?"

The aliens at the table all looked confused but Shepard burst out laughing. "You want to get matching tattoos?!"

"Awww come-on Shep…it'd be fun!"

Wrex immediately protested, Liara and Garrus looked intrigued, and Tali raised her hand. "Ahhhh that won't be possible for me."

Ashley frowned for a minute, forgetting about that small detail. But Liara came to the rescue. "Actually, most tattoo shops have a variety of methods and styles for giving someone a permanent mark. Asari for example quite commonly acquire various body markings to denote certain things about them that only other asari know. There are a combination of factors though, that make the traditional method of injecting the ink under the skin a poor choice. We typically use a type of body paint that is fairly permanent, but can also be applied by one's self periodically over time. This method is favored by several other species and has actually been adapted for use by a number of quarians over the centuries. I believe a favored spot for a mark is somewhere on one's body armor."

Shepard stared at Liara and wondered how the woman could be that detailed and informative while being well into her cups.

"There ya go!" Ashley stated happily.

"I am not getting a tattoo."

Everyone looked over at Wrex who glared. Shepard suddenly smirked. "Is our big bad Krogan Battlemaster afraid of a needle?"

"Shepard," he growled warningly at her.

The rest of the women began snickering or giggling, and Shepard's smirk grew. Wrex pretended to ignore her for a good five minutes while the rest of the group began discussing potential designs.

"Well, we either all get one or none of us do," Shepard declared finally as she continued to stare Wrex down.

He narrowed his eyes at her. The rest of the team, who had apparently warmed up to the idea a lot, now began protesting. Then they began giving Wrex a hard time and he finally growled in irritation. "Fine! He grumbled. "I'll get the damn tattoo, but I have final say as to where it goes on my body and I have to approve of the design."

"Sweet!" Williams grinned in triumph.

"You have any recommendations for design?" Garrus asked, very curious as to what the Krogan might come up with.

Wrex smirked. "Nothing Stick Girl's father would approve of if she went back to her flotilla," he chuckled.

"Mind if I make a suggestion?" an all too familiar voice chimed in from the next table over.

Shepard turned and raised an eyebrow at her helmsman. "Why does the thought of anything you suggest I put permanently on my body scare me?"

He grinned. "Because my mind proudly lives in the gutter? But hey, I can be serious every great once in awhile. Tat's are serious business!"

Williams quirked a brow at him. "You're inked?"

"Have you met an Alliance Officer or Marine that isn't? And does it honestly surprise you that a cocky stick jockey like me hasn't gotten at least one tattoo to commemorate his accomplishments?"

"Guess not," Ash nodded. "So what do ya have in mind?"

He grabbed his bar napkin and pulled a pen from his pocket and began to sketch out a design. The group looked at each other, intrigued and wary of what he might come up with. His table companion, Dr. Chakwas, was the only one who has a clear view of the design and she nodded in approval. When he was done he sat back and looked at it for a moment, seeing if he thought it might need anything else. She pointed to the pen and napkin. "May I?" she asked

"Sure Doc."

Now everyone's eyebrows were raised as they watched the older woman add a few more details before pushing it back towards him. "What's it say?" he asked looking at the foreign words she'd added.

She smirked. "I believe Dr. T'Soni could answer that."

Joker handed off the napkin to Shepard who was the closest and she actually gasped a little bit. "Well, Lieutenant, it appears we have just discovered a little known talent of yours. This is incredible Jeff," she said in true admiration of the design.

Ashley leaned over, curious and her mouth dropped. "Wow."

Liara reached over to pluck the napkin from her lover and felt her own words fail her for a moment. "You are a talented artist Joker," she finally managed. Then she translated the words and chuckled as she looked up at Dr. Chakwas. "It appears your hours of assisting me in my research have been paying off Dr. Chakwas."

"So what's it say?" Joker asked impatiently as Garrus reached for the napkin so he and Wrex could check out the design. Both males grunted and nodded in approval of the design and looked back at Liara for translation.

She gave them a slightly feral grin. "It is written in Prothean and it says "Vanguard Against the Reapers."

Shepard laughed at that. "Combined with that design, definitely a nice touch Doc. You're not so bad in the art department." She looked the group over, including Joker and Chakwas. "So what do you guys think?"

"I could agree to have that marked on my body," Wrex answered with slightly more enthusiasm.

"It's very….dangerous looking," Liara remarked as she glanced at the design that now lay face up on the center of their table. "I like it," she added with a grin.

"It's a kick ass design. I am totally in for it," Williams answered, raising her mostly empty bottle in salute.

"While I am not sure my father will completely approve, I think I have earned the right to wear a badge of honor such as this. Besides, it will give Reegar and his Marines something to be reminded of if they start pissing me off," Tali chuckled.

"I like it," Garrus simply stated.

"I suppose you two would like to accompany us?" Shepard asked of Joker and Chakwas.

"We wouldn't want to impose on your team Commander," Chakwas said quickly as she laid a restraining hand on Joker's shoulder. Shepard watched the younger man slump in his seat slightly and noted the slightly wistful smile on the Doc's lips and couldn't help but chuckle.

"Doc, our team probably wouldn't still be alive if it weren't for you. And Joker, try not to let this go to that already swelled ego of yours, but you've earned your spot with us as well. You are the best damn pilot in the fleet and you saved our asses more than enough times. Besides, you drew the damn thing."

"Really?" he asked hopefully. When Shepard nodded, he grinned. "Awesome!"

Williams was on her feet after that. "What are we waiting for? Let's do this before someone becomes too sober to talk us out of it!"

The group laughed and everyone rose to their feet, most of them a bit unsteadily and made their way out of the club, talking and laughing amongst themselves.

Three hours later the group was standing around admiring the new art that was adorning their bodies. The method of application had varied between them, and location had been a choice of personal preference, but they all shared the same design. A jagged skull with a ragged SR1 making up the eye and nasal sockets. Clenched between its toothy grinning jaw was the remains of a crushed Reaper. The thin decorative banner waved beneath it with the Prothean lettering. The only alteration to each design, was the skull on each individual was representative to their own race…something Joker had allowed for in the original design.

Tali fingered the new addition to her armor and grinned wildly under her mask. Her skull resembled a human skull, but it was shrouded by the standard quarian headdress, with the faceplate broken out to show off the skull and dead Reaper in its teeth. Liara was right….it was dangerous looking, and Tali absolutely loved it.

Tali looked back at her friends, all of them laughing and grinning at each other as they bonded over their new marks, and soaked up the moment. She was going to miss all of them dearly…even Wrex. But this time, Tali knew her departure would not be as painful as her last goodbye. Now she knew for sure that she was a part of their family, and she had the mark to prove it.

Shepard sauntered over to her and slung her arm around her shoulders as she looked down at Tali's new decorative mark. "You know…I think yours wins the best bad-ass looking tat contest. Something about the faceplate being broken out and the jagged glass edges just gives it that extra little menacing touch," she said with a grin.

Tali nodded in Dr. Chakwas' direction. "The mark that adorns her skull, what does it mean? I know I have seen it before, but never understood what it meant."

"In one of Earth's ancient cultures, it was a symbol of a mythological deity that was said to be the god of healing or medicine. It's not as widely used back on Earth anymore, but anyone or anything bearing the rod of Asclepius, is somehow related to the medical field. I think the Doc's tat takes runner-up in the badass department because it's a bit of a contradiction for her."

Tali nodded, smirking under her faceplate. "She has sworn the Healer's Oath to do no harm, and yet she would willingly set that aside in the case of the Reapers."

"And as I have come to learn over the months, she is not a woman to be trifled with," Shepard chuckled. Then she looked back at Tali. "So when do you guys head out tomorrow?"

"Kal wishes to undock by noon, station time. If we push it, we can reach the flotilla in just under a week and then head back out after a few days layover."

"A few days? I figured you would just drop off your delivery and then push right back out."

Tali chuckled. "As soon as the Admiralty heard of our special training they wished to see a…demonstration. I am told one of the older derelict ships that we keep just for those purposes is being outfitted even now. And my father insisted that I be present for the unpacking and cataloging of the shipment."

"Well then, I guess I had better see to it that those crates are in your hold bright and early. I'll oversee their transportation at 0800 station time. There isn't much, so it shouldn't take any time at all. Figure you'll still have time to come aboard the Normandy and say goodbye to everyone again."

"I would appreciate that Commander. Will you be tied up with undocking procedures by then?"

"Not too busy to take a few minutes out to say a proper farewell to one of my best friends. Once you have the shipment stored away and have said the rest of your goodbyes, I expect to see you in my quarters Tali Zorah."

"You can count on it," she answered with quiet sincerity.

Shepard nodded to the crew members who settled the last crate into place and secured it with the rest. "Thank you for your help gentlemen," she said as they filed past her, Ashley, Liara and Tali.

"No problem Commander. It was a pleasure and an honor training with you and your crew. Thank you once again for the opportunity."

Shepard nodded once more and the small work crew filtered out of the cargo hold leaving Shepard alone with Tali, Liara, and Ashley. She looked over at Tali. "We have to get back on board the Normandy to start our pre-flight checklists since we will be pushing out an hour before you guys. Have a few minutes to spare to say goodbye?"

"Reegar isn't expecting me on the bridge for another hour, and I got a head start on all my pre-flight checks earlier this morning."

The women smiled at her and then with a nod, Shepard lead them all back to the Normandy. Idle conversation passed between the four of them, and Shepard noted how much more relaxed everyone seemed this time around. There was a note of sadness yes, but not the uncertainty and hurt that had marked Tali's last departure. For that she was relieved. Once onboard, she turned to Tali. "I'll let you make the rounds, but when you are done, come find me in my quarters."

Tali nodded and then they all parted ways for a little while. Half an hour later, Shepard looked up when her door chimed and granted entry to Tali, who was trailed by Liara. Shepard smiled at them and then flicked on her comm. "Joker, have the Chief report to my quarters please."

"Aye aye Commander."

A couple of minutes later Ashley joined the small group and Shepard finally stepped up to Tali and took her hands in her own. "You already know that I wish to hell that you didn't have to leave. But we both know that you have to go….your role is a critical one Tali and I know you will accomplish great things. You've come such a long way and I am so damn proud of you." She leaned her forehead against Tali's glass plated one and smiled warmly at the silver eyes shining brightly back at her. The young woman's features were mostly indiscernible, even this close up, but she knew for a fact that the Tali was wearing a massive smile of pride.

Tali's hands came up to rest on Shepard's hips and then she circled them around Alex's waist and hugged her fiercely. "I could not have asked for a better teacher. I will miss you Alex, but I am certain that our paths will cross again and I look forward to it. Until then," she stepped back and looked at the other two and held out her hands to pull them in for a firm hug as well. "Take good care of each other."

Ashley stepped out of the embrace and made room for Liara who held her quarian friend for a long while before stepping back with a warm smile on her face. "We have a gift for you Tali….if you wish to accept it."

"A gift?" she asked looking between the three women. She did not see them walk in with anything extra.

Shepard reached into the collar of her uniform and pulled out the second set of dog tags that she was wearing and lifted them over her head. Early this morning, she and Ashley had each taken one of their own tags and slipped it onto a new sturdy chain. Reaching out, Shepard slipped the chain over Tali's head. Tali looked down at the tags and felt tears come to her eyes. Blasted suit! She thought to herself as a few tears tickled her cheeks as they spilled over at the touching gesture. Then her attention was captured as Shepard stepped back and allowed for Liara to take her place once more.

Her dear asari friend took her hands in her own and looked straight into her eyes and held them for several long seconds before she whispered "Embrace Eternity". Tali gasped, caught off guard by the sudden connection, but she did not resist it. In fact it was all she could do not to bodily throw herself at Liara as for the first time in her life, she felt a true connection to another being that shredded away the barriers of her suit. It was the most amazing experience of her young life, and she fervently hoped that the moment would not end.

I'm afraid it must eventually, Liara chuckled into her mind. Do not worry my friend, this is only a light level of Joining and I can only discern the most surface of thoughts, she reassured.

This is incredible! Tali thought with a mental laugh of pure joy.

It is indeed. Tali, I wish to share something with you, but you must trust me so that I can take us deeper into the connection.

Liara…you were the first person I truly trusted after I left on my Pilgrimage. I know you would never betray me..

Then relax and see what awaits you when our duties to our people will no longer demand so much from us.

Tali did as she was told and then stiffened with a gasp as strong emotions swept through her. Love, warmth, affection, tenderness….these all flooded her mind along with images that would definitely fuel her fantasies for a long time to come. Images of her three friends loving one another, and wistfully wishing that Tali could have shared those moments with them in person. It was acceptance on a level that Tali had never experienced before and she swayed with the power of it as a joyful sob caught in her chest. The images began to ease and fade, so as not to jar her with an abrupt ending to the Joining. The last thoughts that filled her mind before the connection dissolved completely was their love for her, and their conviction that one day, she would be able to return and stay.

Tali knew that it would not be easy….there was so much going against any quarian who wished to pursue a physical relationship with someone. But she vowed that she would find a way. It took her several moments to find her voice. "Thank you…thank you all for this."

Ashley stepped forward and hugged the younger woman fiercely. "You watch your six while you are out there Tali."

"I will Ashley. You do the same….and try to keep Shepard out of too much trouble."

Ashley grinned widely. "That's a tall order, but I'll do what I can," she said with a chuckle and a wink.

Shepard hugged her once more, and the embrace lasted for several long moments as the other two women watched on with a fond smile. No more words were spoken, but their touch and their eyes conveyed everything that needed to be shared before they stepped apart. "Well ladies, I suppose we should head out. I'm sure the boys have already been down harassing Joker for the last several minutes while waiting for you to depart," Shepard said with a chuckle.

"Maybe I should linger a bit longer then," Tali retorted, the smirk clear in her tone.

The other three women laughed, but Shepard shook her head. "As much as I want to just chain you to my engine room, I doubt that would go over well with your new CO. Besides, we've played on Admiral Ahern's station long enough. If I have to listen to Command and the Council whine at me one more time because they want us out there, I'm gonna shoot somebody that I shouldn't."

With that, the group left Shepard's quarters. Tali waved to Dr. Chakwas once more and the few other crew that had been milling about in the Mess, before they stepped onto the elevator and headed up to the Command Deck. Sure enough, Garrus and Wrex had been pestering Joker, who looked infinitely relieved to see the women.

Tali chuckled at the look on Joker's face, but then reached over the back of his chair to give the annoying but talented pilot a hug goodbye. "Take care of our girl Joker. I better not see any scratches on her when we next cross paths."

The pilot looked up at the quarian and grinned. He could see Shepard's eyes narrowing behind her and managed to curtail any inappropriate remarks. With a knowing and fond smile to Tali he nodded. "You know I will do everything in my power to keep her safe and sound Tali," he promised. "You take care of yourself out there and hopefully we'll see each other soon."

Tali nodded and then turned and bid the other two males goodbye before Shepard escorted her off the ship and over to a patiently waiting Kal Reegar. The soldiers traded final pleasantries and farewells. Then they parted ways as Shepard turned back to the Normandy and the two quarians returned to their own ship. Aboard the Normandy, Shepard noted that the rest of the team had already gone below decks to finish final flight preparations, and she slid into the co-pilot's seat and pulled up the control panel and began scanning over the data.

"All departments are checking in now Commander and everything is green so far. Barring any last minute issues, we should be clear to depart in fifteen minutes," Joker reported.

"Excellent. Since I have managed to keep up with my paperwork I'll help you with pre-flight."

"Sounds good Commander."

They worked in tandem for the next several minutes, going through the final pre-flight checks. By then all departments reported in ready to go and Shepard herself keyed up the comm system. "Control this is Normandy. We are green for undocking."

"Understood Normandy. Departure approved for T minus three minutes. Uploading course requirement to avoid incoming traffic."

Shepard waited for a moment and then saw Joker nod. "Course received and laid in Control. T minus three minutes." She flipped a switch that killed the link to the station and queued up the ship's intercom. "All hands prepare for departure in three minutes. We will hit the mass relay in…one hour," she informed them as she consulted her screen. She switched back over to the station channel and pulled up the Normandy's guidance systems.

Joker noted this and grinned. "Feeling like taking her out yourself Commander?"

"And scratch the paint?" Shepard chuckled quietly.

"I've seen your simulator results. You might be scary with the Mako but I think you could handle the Normandy," he said with none of his usual sarcasm.

She arched an eyebrow at him. "You'll keep your controls live just in case?"

"Hell yeah. I can't go back on my promise to Tali! Besides, half of it is already laid in. All you gotta do is make minute course corrections and then lay in the final course to the relay once we are clear of the station."

She hesitated. "Normandy this is control, you are cleared for departure."

With a grin Shepard reached forward. "What the hell," she muttered to herself as she keyed the controls live, and re-activated her comm. "Copy, control. Releasing docking clamps…now." There was a mechanical clank as the ship was released and she keyed in another button. "Firing port thrusters…."

Joker watched, secretly fascinated, as her gaze intensified and her hands grew more confident across the controls. He hadn't had much chance to really see Shepard in action, but he knew he was seeing the same kind of focus right now. He doubted a bomb going off right now would faze her. "Rotation complete, switching to aft thrusters."

Sliding his glance back to his own panel he noted a minor deviance from their path. He waited a few seconds as it was very minor to see if she would catch it. She did. "Drift of point zero two degrees, correcting…now."

He nodded in approval and sat back. "Firing lateral thrusters in three, two, one…." she continued.

There was another minute of silence before she called out another set of minor corrections and then they were clear. "Control, this is Normandy we are in the clear."

They were greeted by Ahern's voice over the comms. "Copy that Commander. Nice flying. It was a pleasure having you visit. Good luck and god speed."

"Thank you Admiral."

Shepard killed the link and then began punching in the final commands that would lay in their course to the relay. Two minutes later she tapped the interface one last time and sat back with a pleased grin. "Course laid in and executed Lieutenant."

Joker looked over his own panel and then nodded. "Course confirmed. Very nice Commander," he told her with one of his rare sincere smiles.

She grinned back, looking and feeling pleased with herself. It had been a long time since she'd touched the controls of her ship and this had been the first time that she'd actually taken them out of port…a task that required considerable more diligence than if they were cruising along on a pre-set course. "Guess I had a good teacher."

He beamed at the praise, and she chuckled and stood up. She paused at his chair and looked down at him. His comment about his promise to Tali had raised a question in her mind. She knew that her crew and Joker in particular were some of the best and brightest that the Alliance had to offer. She had seen them all go out of their way to look the other way when she interacted with Ashley in more casual settings. Well, everyone except for Joker. She would catch him throwing them knowing looks, grins, and winks, and while he never said anything to her, she was aware that both Liara and Ashley had endured some good natured ribbing by the cocky pilot when no one else was around. But Joker was known to push the lines, and she'd seen the brief war in his eyes earlier when Tali had made her parting statement- which had clearly had a double meaning to it.

But he'd curtailed his instinct, and had instead made a similarly innocent enough reply that had also carried a promise that had touched her heart. She rested her hand on his shoulder. "Thank you for earlier Jeff," she said quietly.

She was graced with another genuine smile. "Family takes care of family," was his simple reply. She nodded and then began moving aft.

"Time for me to report in with the brass before we hit the relay. See if you can get me through to the Council first. I'll take it in the briefing room."

"Aye aye, Commander."


Chapter 25: Survival Instincts

Shepard pulled her helmet off and surveyed the carnage with a satisfied smirk playing at her lips. Something twitched at her feet and she casually pulled her sidearm and fired it three times down into the dying merc without even sparing him a glance. With a wet gurgle, his chest rose and fell for the last time and she slipped her gun back into place. Garvey looked over at Ashley, who just chuckled and shook her head. He couldn't help but mirror the action as he looked around at the smoking ruins of the base they'd stumbled across. It wasn't Geth, but it had been good practice for the squad.

He watched as Shepard's perusal stopped when something caught her attention and she began walking forward with purpose in her stride. Williams nudged him and he gestured for the rest of the team to keep an eye out while he and Williams jogged off after the Commander to keep an eye on her six. They watched her slow as she approached what first looked to be some kind of ancient decorative piece of art that was half buried in the rubble. Shepard moved to shove the flimsy plascrete wall that had partially fallen on it away and then stared hard at the object.

"Commander?" Garvey asked, somewhat confused.

Williams recognized the look and stepped closer to him. "Give her a minute. She's recalling and she can't hear you when she does that."


Williams shrugged. "I don't know what the technical term is. But she's digging through the memories that the Prothean beacon imbedded into her mind."

"You saying that object is Prothean?"

Shepard suddenly jerked from her memories and turned around to face them. "Nope…it pre-dates the Protheans," she answered as she reached up to key on her comms. "Pressely, we have eliminated all hostiles down here and are conducting final sweeps. How'd it go up there?"

"No contest. Three small freighters tried to take us on, but their weapons were no match for the Normandy's, Commander. Guns destroyed two, and disabled the third. Wrex took Garrus and a small boarding party to secure the vessel. They just reported back that they have control. No casualties."

"Excellent. Take the mercs into custody, and then have Joker bring the Normandy in. In the meantime please alert Dr. T'Soni that her presence is required here at the compound. Got something here she might want to take a look at. Tell her to bring a full field kit."

"Aye Aye, Commander. What should I do with the prisoners?"

"Throw 'em in the brig and contact the Alliance. See if they have a vessel in the general vicinity that can take them off our hands. I'd rather not waste more time having to travel all the way back to Council territory."

"Copy that Commander. Pressley, out."

"Older than the Protheans?" Garvey asked, looking skeptically between Williams and Shepard.

"Dr. T'Soni is the foremost expert on the Prothean culture. Before we had even started with all that nonsense last year with Saren and the Reapers, her findings had led her to believe that the Protheans were not the first civilized race in our galaxy. After starting to understand the warning message that was burned into my head by the beacon, and then having our little chat with Sovereign, we learned she was right. The Reapers have allowed civilization after civilization come into its power and then summarily wiped them out for who knows how many millennia. The Protheans seemed to be the only ones however who managed to set up a warning system for those who would follow in their path."

"If they left this warning system behind, then why is the Council and everyone else so hell-bent to sweep the threat of the Reapers under the carpet?"

"Because unfortunately the system has some…design flaws. The beacons were built based upon Prothean anatomy. The warnings are downloaded directly into a person's brain…and that kind of information overload has a serious threat of overloading the recipient's brain. It took me weeks to try and decipher even a fraction of what I was shown. Over a year later and still don't understand half of it…but the general message is clear. Unfortunately, I am also the only one who has gone through this process that is still alive."

"But…what about that VI you guys found on Ilos?"

"The one that is so badly damaged, that no one but me can understand now?"

"I…am starting to see a trend here."

Shepard sighed. "You have no idea how frustrating it is…for me or this crew. But at least part of my orders as a Spectre were to find proof that the Reapers are who I say they are. Which is why something as trivial as this seemingly decorative piece of art, can be a very important key to backing up our claims."

Garvey nodded in understanding. "What are your orders Commander?"

"I want a thorough sweep of the compound. Make sure no one is left hiding. Then drag the bodies to the courtyard and burn them. Chief?"

"Yes Ma'am?"

"When Dr. T'Soni arrives, assist her with setting up her field lab. It appears they were almost done with their excavation site but Liara might find a bit more. Inform her she will have 72 hours to complete whatever research she can here. In the meantime, I want you to see if there are any quarters that might still be functional for temporary use. Garvey," she continued swinging her gaze back to him. "Once things are wrapped up here, I want a perimeter alert system set up. Normandy didn't detect any other life signs on the planet, so I don't expect any trouble, but always best to be safe. Then you and the rest of the squad can head back to the ship. The Chief and I will keep an eye on Dr. T'Soni and make sure she stays out of trouble while she works. Trust me, it's about as exciting as watching paint dry."

"It would be no trouble at all, Commander."

"Good man, Lieutenant. But you and the rest of the squad have been doing a good job these last few weeks. So good it seems we are running out of Geth to track now and all we're left with are these scum," she said nudging a dead merc with her boot. "You've earned your downtime. Besides Dr. T'Soni can get a little…particular about her stuff while she's in full archeologist mode. Bored Marines start to play with things and that pisses her off. You've seen that pissing her off is not a good idea."

He chuckled ruefully at that memory. "No Ma'am. I certainly don't want to push any of her buttons." Then he straightened and snapped a salute. "I'll get right on those orders Commander." Then he jogged off towards the rest of the squad.

"What are you planning to do Commander?"

"Keeping tabs on me Chief?"

"Just wondering what trouble you were thinking on getting yourself into Skipper."

"Trouble? Me?"

She grinned as Ashley fought not to burst out laughing. "Not looking for any trouble here Chief. Just going to poke around a little more in this rubble and see if there might be anything else of interest to point out to Liara. As you look for some temporary quarters keep an eye out as well."

Ashley snapped a salute and nodded. "Yes Ma'am." Then she too was heading off to follow her orders. Shepard turned back to the ancient artifact and stared at it for a moment longer before she too began digging around the temporary base camp for further relics.

An hour later an unhappy Dr. T'Soni was staring at the ruins around her. "You had no idea that this was a dig site when you and your Marines decided to blow everything up?" she asked in a very displease voice.

The young Lieutenant, who had helped deliver some of Dr. T'Soni's equipment to the surface felt his eyes widen. Sure, he had seen the mild mannered asari in battle and he knew what she was capable of. But she had actually enjoyed that. He'd never seen her angry. He watched as Shepard almost flinched when icy blue eyes turned her way. The woman who had gone up against a rogue Spectre, a Reaper and an armada of Geth, was suddenly shifting a bit nervously under the disapproving glare of the asari scientist. Garvey suddenly found himself fighting a grin. Thankfully, common sense told him that if he even hinted at his own internal amusement at the situation, both women would reduce him to a pile of ash with nothing but a mere look. So he took his queue from Williams and discreetly placed himself further away from the line of fire and pretended to be busy.

"No, it was clear that there was a dig site. But when two dozen mercs came pouring out of every doorway around the camp firing at us, we were all a little occupied with preserving our lives and not the site. Mercs aren't usually involved with excavation, so I had figured they'd probably come across the original team here and slaughtered them in hopes of finding whatever they had uncovered," Shepard answered, justifying her actions.

Dr. T'Soni looked around the smoking ruins and sighed heavily, the anger leaving her eyes finally, but her disappointment still easily read. "Did you have to blow up almost everything?" she asked in frustration.

Shepard rubbed the back of her neck as she looked around the smoking ruins of the temporary base camp the mercs had set up. Liara was right. "Ok, we might have been a bit overzealous in putting them down."

The asari arched an eyebrow in her direction. "Oh come on Liara! You know we've been bored to tears the last couple of weeks and everyone needed to blow off a little steam….myself included," the Commander and Spectre sighed in exasperation as she tried to defend her team's actions.

From her spot over where she was busy setting up the tables that would hold Liara's equipment, Ashley smirked to herself, thankful her back was turned to the other two women. Alex was so whipped. But then, she was too. She'd taken one look at the brewing storm in those normally warm blue eyes and had quickly found elsewhere to be, leaving Shepard to face Liara's impending wrath alone.

Add chicken-shit to the list too William's, Ashley thought to herself with a self deprecating snort of amusement.

Conversation between Alex and Liara died down and Ashley was smart enough to move swiftly out of the way as Liara stalked towards where her equipment would be set up. "Don't think you are completely off the hook either, Chief," Liara murmured quietly to her in passing.

Ashley cringed at the narrowed eyes that were briefly thrown in her direction and then retreated back to Shepard's side. "Coward," Shepard grumbled in her direction.

Williams smirked ever so slightly. "Self preservation," she replied with a shrug. It earned her a shove from her commander and lover. "She's pretty unhappy," Ashley observed as she watched Liara look around the still smoking ruins with slumped shoulders and then began unpacking her equipment with a little more force than necessary. Garvey finally wandered over towards them, giving the asari doctor wide berth for good measure.

"Sooooo, I guess I should be returning to the ship," he remarked almost cheerfully.

Shepard snorted and Ashley snickered. "Smart man, Lieutenant," Shepard said dryly.

"Should I have Joker scan for life signs if we don't hear from you after 3 days?" he teased.

Four months ago he would have never believed he would be standing in the presence of the Hero of the Citadel Battle, let alone have her as his CO. Two months ago he certainly wouldn't have thought she would have trusted him to tie his boots all by himself, let alone lead the squad into battle and help cover her six. However, through hard work and diplomacy he had managed not only start to earn her trust, but he had finally started to see a glimpse of the woman beneath the soldier's mask. Now he was standing here, joking with her over something that was definitely straying towards her personal life, but not overtly enough to warrant a hostile or defensive reaction from her. It was indeed an honor and privilege to serve under her, and he was beginning to understand why the entire crew was so whole-heartedly devoted and loyal to Shepard.

"If you haven't heard from us by then, then there's probably not much of us left behind to even register from low orbit," Shepard retorted. "All right, get your ass out of here LT. Oh and I am leaving you in charge of making sure Wrex doesn't start wreaking havoc on my crew because he's bored. Last time he got bored, half my engineering crew wound up in sickbay because he challenged ten of them to 'spar' with him and see if they could take him down in a combined effort. Chakwas just about had my head on a silver platter for that."

"Peachy," Garvey muttered under his breath. A raised eyebrow at him had the young Lieutenant forcing a smile and snapping a salute. "Yes Commander. I'll see to it that he doesn't try to take on half the crew again."

"Excellent. Dismissed."

With that he jogged off towards where the Normandy was landed on the nearby plain. Shepard watched him go and then winced as she heard yet another muttered oath from her asari lover. Turning back to where Liara was setting up, she cringed inwardly. This was going to be a long three days if she didn't figure out a way to make things right. A sideways glance to Ashley told her the Chief was thinking the same thing.

"Guess we should head over and smooth some ruffled feathers as best we can. At least we have the one relic fully intact. Maybe we'll find more as we sift through everything a little more thoroughly," Shepard said in a somewhat hopeful voice.

Ashley winced as Liara's anger started to flare enough again that her skin was glowing a faint blue in the waning afternoon light. "We had definitely better do something to make this up to her or she's going to be even more unhappy after she breaks half her equipment before she even gets it set up. Plan Zeta?"

Shepard eyed the situation, looked back to see the Normandy's rear bay doors sealing and the powerful engines hum louder as Joker began to prime the ship for take-off. A slow grin spread on her lips as she looked back at their makeshift camp and the Mako at their disposal. "I'm thinking Plan Omega."

"Ultimate distraction technique. Could be risky in her current frame of mind," Ashley pointed out, though she wasn't rejecting the idea.

"Ahhhh but think of all that pent up frustration focused into something more…enjoyable."

"Lead on, Commander. You know I've definitely got your six," Ashley chuckled in anticipation.


Chapter 26: Releasing a Little Tension

Shepard watched as Ashley slipped back into 'Chief Williams' mode as they got closer to where Liara was slamming things around and muttering under her breath as she unpacked her equipment. The faint smirk that had been playing on Shepard's lips, was quickly erased as she slipped back into her own role as Commander and Spectre.

"Dr. T'Soni, as that is rather expensive equipment that I allowed you to purchase with ship's funds without any hassle, I suggest you curb your temper while handling it," she said in her best Command Voice.

Shepard was hard pressed not to start smirking at the swift response this garnered. Liara spun around and gaped at Shepard for a moment, stunned that she would say something like that. "Excuse me?!" she finally sputtered out, her tone creeping upwards as the blue aura around her flared brighter.

Shepard merely raised an eyebrow and spoke slowly as if she was speaking to someone unable to grasp what she was saying. "I suggested you be a little more careful with my equipment."


Ahhhh, there we go, Shepard thought to herself as she drew Liara away from the fragile equipment. She knew she was playing a dangerous game baiting her asari lover like this. But Liara was already pissed, and like everyone else, she needed an outlet. She and Ashley were about to give it to her. "Considering I'm the one who paid for it, I would consider it my property. I would appreciate it if you would take better care of it in the future," Shepard continued evenly.

"HOW DARE YOU!" Liara declared as she advanced on Shepard.

Shepard crossed her arms and the eyebrow lifted even higher. "Chief Williams."

"Yes Ma'am?"

"Who's ship is the Normandy?"

"Yours, Commander."

"And who is paid for every mission, side job, and deal that is accomplished?"

"You do, Commander."

"And do you think I compensate my crew fairly?"

"More than fairly, Commander."

"And the ship's account, who's pocket does that come out of?"

"Yours, Ma'am."

"So that would mean everyone's equipment that I let them pick up for Normandy missions, is technically mine correct?"

"I suppose so."

"You suppose?"

"Well…unless you have gifted the items over to each individual."

"Good point. Remind me Chief, did I gift that equipment over there to Dr. T'Soni?"

"I believe that is debatable. You allowed her to pick whatever she wanted for her use. While you never said the exact words, I do believe it could be construed as a gift."

Shepard pretended to think about it. "Very well, I suppose I did. Do what you like then with your equipment Dr. T'Soni. Just be aware that I will not be replacing any of it from the ship's account if it is damaged due to your temper tantrum. And I would be sadly disappointed that my generous gesture was tossed away."

Liara was sputtering by now in complete and utter disbelief. "Wh-how…where…just who do you think you are to tell me what to do with my lab equipment?! You're the one who blew the whole damn compound up! Why didn't you just order a tactical strike from orbit? It certainly would have saved me a lot of trouble!" she said as she moved into Shepard's personal space and stabbed a finger into the Commander's armor protected chest…hard.

Shepard fought not to wince at the force behind that small gesture. It certainly came with a biotic wallop- and that was just one finger. She was definitely glad she was wearing her armor, because she was sure this was still gonna hurt a bit, regardless. Grabbing the blue hand before Liara could withdraw it, Shepard applied just enough pressure to send Liara to her one knee as with a gasp. "I suggest you remember who you are addressing before you do that again Dr. T'Soni. I am still the Commander of this ship and a Spectre and I won't have anyone questioning my-,"

That was as far as Shepard got before Liara's head snapped upwards her eyes narrowed. The blonde woman had just enough time to brace herself for the biotic throw that was delivered by the asari's free hand. Shepard flew back a good ten feet before a half torched plascrete wall stopped her flight path. Thankfully, the structure had been weakened and gave out under the impact. Shields blaring at her, Shepard sucked in a breath and slowly crawled to her feet, forcing air back into her lungs.

Liara was advancing on her, a dangerous look still in her eyes, when Ashley clamped a firm hand on Liara's arm, drawing her attention away for a few moments. Ashley met with a similar biotic attack, but it gave Shepard enough time to move in close enough to surprise Liara and throw her off balance enough that she couldn't summon another attack just yet. Shepard smirked at her lover. "That all you got, Blue?"

Liara's eyes narrowed once more and she almost allowed herself to lash out in anger. Then she caught to look of dangerous mischief in her lover's eyes, and the wicked lift of the corners of her lips. Shepard had baited her on purpose! She had willingly allowed Liara to attack her. Stepping back for a moment, but not letting her guard down, Liara's anger abated as she sized up the situation. Shepard knew she was angry, she also probably knew that Liara had been going stir crazy with the lack of things to do as of late. Now she was offering herself and Ashley for a no-holds barred sparring match.

"I believe the phrase is, there's a whole lot more where that came from sister."

"Bring it…bitch," Shepard taunted, though her lips turned upwards completely to let Liara know she was just having fun.

"Gladly," Liara responded before she threw a perfect elbow behind her without looking and hit Ashley square in the ribs. The Chief exhaled noisily, and was thrown back a few steps. Taking advantage of the situation, Liara put some distance between herself and the two human women and began an all out biotic assault that had them scrambling to duck out of the line of fire. Despite knowing how well they worked, Liara was unable to keep them at bay forever. They eventually worked themselves within a few feet of her, making it too dangerous for everyone for Liara to continue using biotic attacks. Once they had her cornered, the fight turned into one of the roughest sparring matches any of them had participated in, in a very long time. When Shepard gauged that everyone was tiring and would be plenty sore in the morning, but all frustrations had vented, she decided to end the fight.

Liara charged at her, and Shepard let her come. She wrapped the asari in a bear hug, allowed Liara's momentum to carry them backwards a few steps and then tripped her lover up sending them both crashing to the ground. A skilled twist of her body and Liara was under her and Shepard moved in to claim her lover's lips with her own in a kiss of passion and intensity. When they finally broke apart greedily sucking air back into their lungs, Ashley chuckled from where she stood nearby.

"Feel better?" she asked Liara, a playful grin on her lips.

Brilliant blue eyes narrowed slightly, but a playful smile danced across the young maiden's lips. "Almost. Perhaps with a little more…apologizing….from you both, I can be persuaded to forgive you."

This statement was met with a hearty laugh from both soldiers, and Ashley reached down to help them both to their feet, kissing each woman thoroughly as they stood. Once she broke away from her embrace with Liara, the brunette turned to Alex. "All our personal gear is already settled into one of the shelters that we managed not to blow to bits. I picked the room with the largest bed," she added with a wink and a grin.

"I like how you think Chief," Shepard chuckled. "Lead the way. We have apologizing to get on with!"

"Aye aye, Skipper," Ashley said in an amused voice as she mock saluted Alex and then offered her elbow to Liara. "M'Lady. May I escort you to our humble abode for the next few days?"

Liara giggled and accepted the gesture and the three set off for the quarters Ashley had selected for them to stay in during their time on the planet.

Shepard blinked as she surveyed the room they stood in. "Wow."

"Yeah I said the same thing. I'm guessing whoever was heading up the dig was based out of here long term, and this was his or her quarters and office all in one. The terminals are all still in working order so maybe you might be able to find some information on them that could be of use, Liara."

"Perhaps, but for now, there are other things I'd much rather focus on. Like the fact that both of you are wearing far too much armor and clothing for proper apologizing."

Within seconds, deft fingers had released numerous catches and various pieces of body armor began clattering to the floor soon to be followed by a trail of clothing that led straight to the generously sized bed. The three women tumbled onto its soft surface, hands, lips and tongues already tracing along heated flesh. Liara found herself wedged happily between her two human lovers as both women devoted themselves to the process of making her completely forget about the wreckage of the dig site.

The afternoon faded into evening, and eventually the lovers fell into an exhausted heap, curling against each other and enjoying the intimacy of the moment as they tried to catch their breaths. It was another half hour before the need for food finally forced Shepard to start to extricate herself from the tangle of arms and legs that she had been contentedly wrapped up in. As she moved, she winced at the stiffness throughout her body. Ashley caught the slight grimace and chuckled.

"Good thing Chakwas isn't around for the next couple of days. You'd be catching hell for that bruising along your side."

Shepard's eyebrow lifted and Liara sat up suddenly, causing Ash to yelp in surprise as she nearly ended up on the floor. "Alex….is that…did I do that when hit you with my biotics?" the archeologist asked, mortified.

"Relax, Liara," Shepard chuckled as she ran a soothing hand along her lover's cheek. "I knew what I was getting into by provoking that temper of yours. It was well worth the bruises. Beside, I'm not the only one sporting a few marks," she said with a rakish grin as her eyes lingered on several of the love bites that marred the asari's own skin.

She watched as Liara flushed a deeper hue of indigo and couldn't help the intensely smug feeling that took over her. It apparently showed enough that Liara's eyes narrowed slightly and she poked Shepard in her injured side just lightly enough to cause a very un-Spectre like noise to escape her lips as she jumped out of bed. Ashley watched the exchange with amusement and wisely waited until she was out of range of both women before she snickered.

"All right ladies…enough loafing around. We reek of sex and I am starving," Shepard declared as she headed for the bathroom.

It was almost an hour later before Shepard finally got around to eating.


Chapter 27: Descent Into Hell

Shepard pushed back from her desk with a frustrated sigh and scrubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. "How the hell did Anderson put up with all this paperwork shit for so long?" she groaned. "Of course, he didn't have to deal with all the Spectre reports," she muttered to herself, as she glared at the half finished report in front of her.

The Council had been hounding her for results, and for once, she had come up short of any answers. They'd been combing this corner of space for two weeks with no sign of any Geth activity or presence. Planet after planet turned up nothing, and Shepard knew her crew was starting to get restless again. At least Liara had her newest discoveries and research to keep her occupied. But Shepard already had to break up two fights down in the bay this week and she knew she would have to find her Marines a real fight soon or crew morale would suffer. Maybe she should have Joker jump them to a seedy part of the galaxy so they could find a nice merc base to raid.

Desperately needing a break, Shepard left her quarters to go see if there was a fresh batch of coffee on in the Mess. A few of the crew were still lingering around despite the lateness of the hour, either chatting quietly in small groups or taking their chances in a game of poker that Garrus seemed to be winning at so far. They nodded to her as she passed by, and she sighed in relief to see that a fresh pot of coffee had just finished brewing.

Garrus watched her out of the corner of his eye, smirking a bit as she took her first sip and all but uttered a prayer of thanks to some unnamed deity. "Paperwork?" he chuckled.

"I take back every snide remark I made about your complaints on all the paperwork you did in C-Sec," she responded.

The Turian laughed, even as he raised his bid, and looked back at his commander and friend. "I'm surprised you haven't managed to find a way to pawn it off on your XO, or just rebel and not do it at all."

"Sadly, I have no excuse to not do it myself. I'm about ready to forget this mission for a week or so and go find us a bunch of mercs or slavers to take on just so we don't all go stir crazy and shoot each other," she said wryly, acknowledging that she was well aware of everyone's mental state, and was feeling restless herself.

"We've been out here for weeks, I don't think either the Council or your Alliance Command would begrudge your crew a little R&R at the least. Omega isn't too far away. Would definitely give the crew a chance to blow off some steam there- in more ways than one."

Shepard was silent for a minute. She'd never been to Omega, but she'd heard plenty of stories about it. Alliance ships didn't ever port there unless it was an absolute emergency, and any respectable soldier wouldn't be caught dead there. But then Shepard's crew wasn't exactly your standard Alliance crew… and they were getting desperate. "Maybe," she said to the surprise of everyone who had been listening to the exchange.

Garrus, who had been joking when he'd made the comment, looked at her. "You do realize it's the den of thieves, mercs, and the scum of the galaxy right? The Asari who runs it, is one of the biggest, and most dangerous warlords in this entire sector of space."

Wrex snorted. "Even the Krogan know better than to cross her," he commented.

Shepard shrugged. "We have to fuel up sometime, and places like that have people coming in from all over. Someone's bound to have intel. Besides, if we ended up at a Council sanctioned station, half this crew would probably find themselves in a brig before their first night of leave was up," Shepard said with a knowing smirk before she downed the last of her coffee and headed towards the infirmary.

She walked in to the dimmed lights of the infirmary and drew up short and smiled. The Doc had obviously been immersed in her own reports when she'd dozed off. Shepard winced at the angle of the older woman's head, knowing the Doc would have a nasty cramp if she didn't move to bed soon. The Commander walked over and laid a hand on her CMO's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Hey Doc, those reports will be there for you in the morning," she said quietly, so as to not startle her friend.

Chakwas blinked and looked around blearily. "Commander?"

"Just stopped in to see Liara and found you as enthralled by your reports as I am by mine," Shepard said with a knowing and sympathetic smile. "Come on Doc, go hit your rack. Never know when Joker might fracture something or I get shot at again."

Chakwas chuckled tiredly and then stood and stretched, trying to work the stiffness and kinks out of her body. "Thank you, Alex. Another half hour and I think I would have a permanent kink in my neck."

"Gotta look out for the woman who works miracles on me on a regular basis. I'd be screwed otherwise," Shepard grinned.

The two women made their way to the back of the infirmary and entered the expanded area that doubled as the lab and sleeping quarters for the two doctors. Liara looked up from where she was pouring over several of her findings and smiled. Chakwas squeezed the Asari's shoulder as she walked by. "You have been at this for hours without rest my dear. Even you Asari have your limits," she admonished gently, a fond smile on her face that made the maiden's heart swell with a warmth that reminded her of her mother.

"I was getting ready to finish for the evening. And I believe I have sufficient cause to be distracted from my work right now anyway," she said with a smile in Shepard's direction.

"Well at least one of us seems to be enjoying their paperwork," Alex grinned. "Care to join me for a stroll around the ship before you retire for the evening Dr. T'Soni?"

"It would be nice to stretch my legs a bit before I turn in."

Shepard looked over at the Doc who was stripping out of her uniform jacket. "Sleep well, Doc."

"You as well, Alex."

"I think I will tonight," she said with a sly glance towards a now blushing Liara. Then the Commander pulled her lover from the room and back into the infirmary proper. Once the door closed, Alex pushed her lover against one of the beds and leaned in for a long and thorough kiss.

Liara responded eagerly, and after several breathtaking minutes, Shepard pulled back, a full smile lighting her face, the tension from her frustration melting away rapidly. "Thank you," she whispered to her lover as she rested her forehead against Liara's.

"Another fight?" Liara asked.

"Almost," Shepard sighed. Joker had thankfully given her a heads up before things had managed to get out of hand a few hours earlier. It had been a close thing. "Thing is, I don't blame any of them. This morning, Wrex made some smart ass remark like he always does, and I found myself ready to slug him for it. The crew knows what our mission is and they are primed for a fight. But this waiting is killing everyone."

"We'll find trouble soon enough my love. Until then, how about we go for that stroll and see if your Chief is still groveling at your boots."

Shepard chuckled and shook her head. "Poor Ash. I feel bad, but she knows I couldn't let her conduct slide."

"I hear Chief Adams has been quite impressed with Ashley's dedication to her punishment detail. Word is that between his bored engineers and your punished Marines, the deepest recesses of the ship will look brand new by the end of the week."

"A sure sign that I need to give my crew some downtime before everyone goes nuts. Come on, let's go find Ash."

The two women took a ride down to the converted Mako bay and Shepard's eyebrows lifted. "Is it just me, or was that ride considerably shorter?"

"Yet another accomplishment by your bored but efficient crew it seems. I overheard several of the engineers and techs working on the issues in the Mess Hall the other day. It would seem they were able to implement the upgrade."


Down in the bay, things were pretty quiet given how close it was to the third watch. The lights were dimmed down to the minimum in the converted barracks area, and most of the newly installed racks were filled with her sleeping crew. A few were still awake and huddled around a stack of crates near the front of the bay by the Mako, and chatting quietly. Ashley was amongst the group and upon seeing Liara and Shepard, she excused herself and made her way over. She stood at attention and saluted her commanding officer who grinned and nodded back at her.

"At ease Chief. So rumor has it you make one hell of a duct rat Williams."

Ash grimaced, and looked at the floor, still ashamed of the actions that had led her to the punishment detail. "You know me Commander, I don't do anything half-assed."

"No….no you certainly don't," Shepard chuckled, remembering the spectacular fight she'd walked in on that involved Ash taking on half of the newly assigned Marine squad. It had taken Shepard, Garvey and Garrus to break up the brawl. Wrex had just stood off to the side, laughing and enjoying the entire debacle.

"Care to join us for a midnight stroll?"

Ashley looked up, her expression hopeful. After the fight last week, Shepard had barely said two words to her, and all of their exchanges had been rather curt this past week. Ash knew that Alex had been disappointed in her, and that she had no choice but to discipline everyone that had been involved…including Ashley herself. She also knew that Shepard had been forced to show that she didn't let any personal attachments to anyone in her crew affect her command ability. Shepard could never be accused of favoritism after the past week.

"I was disappointed that you let some careless remark spark you into a barroom brawl in the middle of my bay Ash," Shepard told her as she moved closer and lowered her voice. "But, I was more than a little proud to see you put half that squad in its place…single-handedly," she admitted with a bit of amusement and pride in her gaze. "Just don't put me in that position again Chief."

"I won't, Commander," Ashley said, a feeling of relief lifting a weight off her shoulders.

"Come on Ash. I've been cooped up on the bridge or in my quarters and have been out of touch on the latest below decks gossip this week. Walk with us."

Together, the three women headed off to go wander the confines of the ship while they caught each other up on what was going on in their various duties and around the ship. After an hour and their fourth lap around the limited space aboard the ship, they bid each other goodnight with promises to meet up the next day for some much needed physical training down in the bay. When Shepard returned to her room, she felt refreshed from the company and the conversation. Spirits lifted from the funk she had been starting to slip into, she decided that tomorrow she would have Joker check out this last portion of the system before she ordered them to port at Omega. For the first time in two weeks, she slept soundly.

Garvey dropped his tray onto the table next to Williams and slid into the empty chair. "Mornin' Chief."

Williams mumbled back at him and took another long sip of her coffee and then grimaced. He watched her for a second and then chuckled. "Coffee as appetizing as my breakfast eh?" he asked as he picked at the rather grayish looking mass on his tray that was supposed to be eggs.

"I don't know how you can stomach that shit every morning," she remarked as she eyed his food with obvious distaste. "MRE's taste better than the food here."

Garrus sat down, his tray loaded with the nauseating looking breakfast. "You humans are too damn picky about your food. Granted it isn't gourmet, but if you had Turian field rations you would never complain again."

"Garrus, just because your race can't taste worth shit doesn't give you the right to gloat. I might bitch about the ship rations, but at least I can truly appreciate a good thing when it does come along. Like chocolate."

"Here we go again," Garrus sighed as he rolled his dark eyes and then dug into his food.

Sensing a story Garvey dug into his own food and then looked expectantly at Williams. The Chief took another long sip of her coffee, grimaced, and then set the mug down to cool a bit. "About a month into our first mission together, the food situation was getting a little desperate…for all of us. Our Req Officer was still trying to get a handle on everyone's varied needs, and we were in the middle of a huge push to find out what Saren's next move would be. The Skipper was still settling in and ships' stores was last on her list of things to worry about, so we were all down to MRE's pretty much. Garrus, Wrex, Tali, and Liara were all fairly new to our food, and half of it wasn't even compatible to their needs, so they were having to make do with what could be scrounged up on or between stops. The crew started trading favors for the chocolate bars in the MRE's, which none of our alien friends here had dared try yet. Well Liara and Chakwas finally analyzed it and realized that all of them…even Tali…could actually consume the chocolate. Liara was the first to try it and…well let's just say that she has been thoroughly corrupted by human sweets," Williams informed him as she spotted her blue skinned lover making her way through the milling breakfast crowd, tray in hand.

Smiling slightly at a private memory that she, Liara and Alex shared back on their leave that involved several other sweet and sticky human confections, Ashley continued with her story. "Tali gave it a shot and I think everyone from Engineering was heartbroken that she stopped giving hers away and began hoarding them," Ashley chuckled. "Wrex of course was all gruff and never admitted to actually liking them….but not even I could get him to trade for them. Garrus here however was the only one to take a bite, shrug and keep tossing them out with the rest of the food he either didn't like or couldn't consume from the MRE."

Garvey gave the Turian a sympathetic look. "Word of advice my friend. Chocolate is the next best thing to eezo to the majority of humans. To women? It's better than eezo. There's chocolate and then there's sex."

If he'd had eyebrows, Garrus would have had them in quirked in amusement. "Really?"

"Educating my alien crew members Lieutenant?" Shepard asked from behind the young officer, who turned bright red and sputtered.

"C-Commander! S-sorry Ma'am I didn't see you there."

"Carry on Lieutenant," Shepard said in amusement, as she slid into a seat next to the now blushing young man. Liara, who was also joined by Chakwas, slid into the seats across from the group. "This conversation was just getting interesting it sounds like," Shepard remarked with a smirk as she dug into her own breakfast.

"The Chief was just telling me that Garrus didn't much care for chocolate is all Commander."

"But apparently I underestimated the true value of the treat," Garrus laughed.

The women all snickered. "You have nooooo idea Garrus," Williams finally managed.

"Do all humans rate it that highly on the food chain?"

"Clinically speaking, most do. And not just humans, though our people have studied it effects extensively for centuries. The consumption of chocolate actually produces a myriad of chemical reactions within the brain that causes a very real and pleasurable physical side effect," Dr. Chakwas informed the Turian as she sipped her own coffee, grimacing at the taste as well.

"As good as sex?" Garrus asked skeptically.

"In some cases…..better," Williams affirmed.

Garrus looked at her with narrowed eyes, not sure to believe her or not. "When I did my own analysis, I discovered that humans aren't the only ones who are effected chemically by chocolate, but as the main ingredient is indigenous to their planet they are most susceptible to its effects," Liara added.

"So it's that powerful but it is not considered a banned substance?" Garrus asked amazed.

The gathered humans laughed at the thought, a few of them giving the idea merit. "It probably should be the way this crew hoards it!" Shepard grinned.

"The reactions it provokes is completely natural and unlike all other banned substances it produces absolutely no harmful side-effects. Well unless one is allergic to it, which is truly a tragedy then."


"It releases some of the same chemicals and hormones into the blood stream that are the same or related to those released during sex. The results can be mild euphoria, an elevated mood, and several other physiological responses that are typically associated with being in love."

"Wow," Garrus blinked, amazed. He was silent for a minute digesting the new information and then looked at Liara. "So…..what species does it work on again?"

"We're wasting our time. Four days searching up and down this sector and we haven't found any sign of Geth activity," Pressely grumbled in a frustrated voice as he scanned a data pad that revealed nothing exciting.

Joker looked back to see the normally calm XO pacing the CIC and looking as frustrated by the lack of activity as the rest of the crew. The pilot didn't blame him, there had been a reason they'd come out here. "Three ships went missing here in the past month. Something happened to 'em," Joker reminded. He didn't bother commenting on the fact that the Geth might have already moved on though.

"My money's on slavers," Pressley dismissed. "The Terminus System is crawling with them."

Joker's next comment was cut off as the panels at the Comm Officer's station suddenly chirped a warning. "Picking up something on the long range scanner. Unidentified vessel….hmmm looks like a cruiser."

The intel was forwarded to Joker's station and he noted that the vessel was closing distance at a tremendous pace. He studied the information. "It doesn't match any known signatures," he called out. Which meant it wasn't the Geth.

The pilot also noted that the ship was on the same course as theirs, which could be a fluke, so he adjusted the Normandy's course. "Cruiser is changing course. Now on intercept trajectory," the Comm Officer said with a hint of concern in her voice.

Pressley frowned and began double checking the Normandy's drive systems. "Can't be. Stealth systems are engaged," he said in disbelief. "There's no way a Geth ship could possibly-"

Joker, who had been monitoring the various readings from the other ship, watched as there was a sudden spike of energy buildup. "It's not the Geth. Brace for emergency maneuvers!" he called out as his board began lighting up and an alarm went off as the Normandy's computers detected a target lock. Joker hit the ship-wide battle alarm and then began frantically trying to bring the Normandy out of the impending line of fire.

He managed to avoid the first several shots, but their unknown enemy was relentless and the Normandy took a direct hit from a weapon beyond the ship's shielding capabilities. Panels exploded all around the CIC and Pressley grunted once as a panel blew up in his face, and then dropped to the deck completely still.

"Pressley!" The Comm Officer cried out, rising from her seat to rush to the fallen XO, only to be caught in a second explosion that sent her to the floor, deathly silent as well.

Joker pushed aside his concerns for his shipmates as he struggled to keep the Normandy away from further harm even as the ship began to suffer catastrophic failures. "Kinetic barriers are down. Multiple hull breaches, weapons off line….somebody get that fire out!" he ordered realizing he was the most senior officer left alive and conscious up on the bridge.

Down in the Mess, the laughing had stopped as soon as the ship lurched and the battle alert flared to life. "Everyone gear up and stand by for orders!" Shepard shouted as the crew scrambled from their seats as the ship shuddered from the first hit.

Shepard ran to her own locker and began pulling her armor on as she called up to the bridge. "Report Lieutenant!"

"Under fire from an unknown enemy, Commander!"

"I thought we were running stealth."

"We were. Whoever this is they have tech superior to ours."

"Where's the XO?"

There was a long pause. "I think he's dead, Commander," Joker answered tightly. "Multiple casualties being reported from all departments… Engineering is requesting medical assistance be sent immediately and…the CIC is venting atmo," he said his voice tight with stress and fear.

"Just try and keep us away from them, Lieutenant," Shepard ordered as she grabbed her helmet and ran towards the nearest control panel. She began pulling up the ship's information, her eyes scanning the damage list and noted that one critical system was offline that could jeopardize the crew's chances of immediate survival if they didn't get the fires out. "I need to fix the fire control system. There's an issue down here that I can reach. I'll be up in a few."

"Aye aye, Commander."

Shepard killed the link and then staggered as the ship lurched twice more with direct hits. Fires began breaking out everywhere and the sounds of her crew screaming in pain and death began to fill the air. "Damn it Jeff, keep us the fuck away from them," Alex swore under her breath as she watched system after system go offline or critically fail.

Within the next twenty seconds she came to the realization that the Normandy was lost. It took her another ten seconds to come to grips with that reality, and then she forced herself to make the decision. "All hands this is the Commander. Abandon ship. This is not a drill. I repeat, all hands report to your designated escape shuttles and abandon ship!"

With the announcement made, Shepard tapped into what was left of the comm system and sent out a distress signal hoping their unknown attacker wasn't somehow jamming it. She also began the preparations for launching the distress beacon. Less than a minute later Ashley came running through the smoke and fire filled Mess area, with helmet in hand. Alex felt a small bit of pride at just how quickly her Chief had geared up and made it back up to the Mess. She must have flown up and down the emergency access ladders between the two decks.

"Shepard!" Ashley called out just before she pulled her helmet on.

Alex turned around pulling her own helmet into place. "Distress beacon is ready for launch."

"Will the Alliance get here in time?" Ashley asked.

It was a good question. Their ship was as good as gone and they would be launching out into the middle of a war zone in small escape shuttles that were useless in a firefight. The ship lurched again and Alex caught Ashley as the Chief was thrown against her. "The Alliance won't abandon us. We just need to hold on," Shepard said, trying to reassure her as she righted them both and then grabbed a fire extinguisher.

She tossed it to Ashley and then made her way towards the main fire suppression pressure valve. "Get everyone onto the escape pods."

"Joker's still in the cockpit. He won't abandon ship. I'm not leaving either," Ashley said stubbornly as she began trying to put out a fire around the fire suppression control panel even as Shepard tried to get the system to come on manually.

Shepard felt her anger flare as she wrenched the valves open and the suppression system sputtered to life, held for several seconds and then began working only sporadically. Realizing there was nothing more that could be done and precious seconds were being wasted the Commander abandoned her efforts and grabbed Ashley. "Get to the damn shuttle! I'll haul Joker's crippled ass out of here."

The ship rocked violently and they staggered away from each other trying to regain their footing. Ashley turned around and watched as Alex righted herself and began frantically working at another panel. "Commander…." she began….her voice tightening in worry.

Inside her helmet, Alex closed her eyes briefly in understanding. She hated what she was about to do next, but she needed to know her lover was going to follow her orders and be safe. Turning around she jabbed her finger in the general direction of the escape pods. "I gave you an order Chief! Engineering needs help clearing their deck. Now get your ass down there and then get the hell off this ship!"

"Aye aye Commander," Ashley snapped back. "Watch your six Ma'am," she added quietly before she ran off to follow Shepard's orders.

Seconds later Liara and Chakwas came running out of the infirmary, Liara fully dressed in her armor and helping a rumpled looking Chakwas carry armloads of emergency medical equipment with the aide of Liara's biotics. "Shepard!" Liara called out as soon as she saw the Commander.

"GO! Both of you! The Doc isn't protected and we have multiple hull breeches! I think Joker's the only one left alive up there and he probably needs someone to help him to the shuttle!"

"Please be careful," Liara said simply before she nudged Chakwas who quickly followed her towards the escape pod.

A minute later Shepard was walking through the deathly silent CIC, her breathing loud and harsh in her ears as she tried not to focus on the death and destruction surrounding her. A massive hole had been ripped right through the center of the CIC, and many of her bridge crew had died within seconds, still strapped into the seats at their posts. A sick feeling rose up in her stomach and she was hard pressed not to lose her breakfast.

When she finally reached her helmsmen, she was relieved to see that he was still alive, and relatively unharmed. But he was in a state of shock and denial and was refusing to see what she'd seen only moments after the attack. When he refused to abandon his post, she finally lost her composure and manhandled the younger man from his seat, ignoring the feeling his fragile arm breaking under her rough grip. He cried out in protest and she relaxed her grasp on him, but continued pushing him towards the shuttle pod even as she watched through one of the portals as the enemy ship came back around for another volley of shots. With one last desperate shove, she managed to get Joker into the shuttle and watched as he collapsed in a seat and pulled the safety bar down even as the Normandy began breaking apart all around them in a fiery and violent death.

Alex felt herself slammed hard into the wall next to the shuttle's control panel and she heard Joker scream her name over the comm in her helmet. There was a loud ringing in Shepard's head, and she felt the warmth of blood begin to trickle down her temple inside her helmet. The control panel danced before her eyes and she twisted her body and slammed her fist into it just as the ship exploded around her and sent her careening off wildly into space, her body impacting several times with hull plating and other pieces of the ship before everything went dark.

"Where's Shepard?!" Garrus shouted amidst the noise of the ship and its crew, dying.

"Rescuing Joker! She ordered us to help Engineering with the evac!"

"They've already lost half their numbers. Garvey lost two of his trying to rescue several engineers that were trapped!" Garrus called out as they ran towards the main engineering doors.

They ran into Garvey who, with another Marine were helping to carry out a gravely wounded engineer. "How many left?"

"My men got most of them. I've already ordered them to another shuttle with the ones not seriously injured. All that's left are Sanchez and Adams! I don't know if either of them are alive and if they are, they won't be for long!"

"Fuck," Ashley swore. "We'll be right behind you!"

"We'll keep the light on!"

Garrus and Ashley charged into the destroyed engine room and both paused at the carnage around them. Bodies littered the floor, several barely recognizable as they were either burned or mangled almost beyond recognition. Ashley knelt next to Sanchez and pressed a gloved hand to the man's throat, tough it was clear that he was most likely dead. A beam had all but severed his leg, and blood surrounded him in a massive pool. According to her suit's sensors, the man had already bled out.

Garrus was checking on Adams who was also trapped under a massive section of twisted metal. But his injuries, while grave, had not yet killed him. Garrus was eyeing the wreckage however. "I don't know if just the two of us can lift this off him!"

"You and I can and Williams can pull him out," Wrex said calmly as he suddenly appeared through the smoke.

Sighing in relief at the Krogan's timely arrival Ashley nodded and crouched down as close to the Chief Engineer as she could get and waited. The two males gripped the metal and with a grunt they lifted it a few feet into the air. Ashley ducked under them, grabbed Adams by his collar and pulled him back and out of the way as her friends let the wreckage collapse back to the deck with a crash.

Wrex then turned and picked up the injured human as carefully as the situation allowed and they all dashed towards the escape pods. Adams was laid on the deck next to two other gravely injured crew members, and Ashley tore off her helmet as she grabbed for a nearby med kit and began pulling out its contents as another of the Marines activated his Omni Tool and began taking readings. Garrus jumped into the pilot's seat at the head of the pod and began the ejection countdown.

Seconds later they were rushing away from the Normandy, the silence in the shuttle broken only by harsh panting, and the quiet discussion between Ashley and the Marine medic as they began treating their 'patients'.

Shepard came to within seconds of the explosion, and groaned as she tried to get her bearings. "Shit," she muttered as she realized the ship's explosion had hurled her towards the nearby planet's atmosphere. Trying to push past the throbbing in her skull, she attempted to orient herself, a feat nearly impossible as what was left of her ship hurtled past her. The Commander managed to catch a glimpse of the evacuation shuttles, and noted with relief that their attacker seemed content with the destruction of the Normandy and was already retreating. The distress call had been sent, help would arrive soon- her crew would be safe. Closing her eyes, Shepard allowed herself a sigh of relief.

And then all hell broke loose.

Alarms flared to life within her battered suit, and Shepard began to feel an immediate change in pressure and temperature. "Shit, shit, SHIT!" she swore as she tried desperately to reach behind her to the hose that attached to her meager oxygen supply that had been compromised by the abuse her suit had taken in the explosion. "This is Commander Shepard to anyone in the escape shuttles I am venting O2 and need assistance immediately! Does anyone copy?!" She shouted into her comm as a bone chilling numbness began to spread through her body. Static was the only response she got, which confirmed her fears that her suit's comm link had also been damaged beyond repair.

Her struggles began to weaken as her vision narrowed, and her body started to freeze from exposure to space. Strangely enough, her only thought was, I wasn't supposed to die like this! With her limbs locking into place, and her last breaths coming in harsh ragged gasps, her rage at the unfairness of everything began to build. Her fractured mind held onto that rage, and something deep within her awoke.

Dr Chakwas looked up from the crewman she was attending to when Liara T'Soni let out an inhuman howl of pain and sagged forward in her seat, her hands clawing at her skull. Those closest to her, were struggling out of their restraints to reach her.

"Everyone back!" Chakwas ordered, as she rushed to Liara's side and helped undo her restraint and laid the increasingly hysterical woman to the floor of the cramped shuttle. "Liara! Liara look at me!" she called out to the young woman, trying to break through her panic. Inside, the older woman was struggling to keep her own composure, dreading the nature of Liara's sudden collapse. "Get on the comm and tell me what is happening with Chief Williams!" she demanded of the crewman piloting the shuttle. "And someone get those damned emergency blankets unpacked and over the injured. MOVE!"

People scrambled as best they could within the confines of the shuttle to do as she ordered, their worried gazes on the young asari maiden as she cried out in what sounded like agony several times, her body convulsing on the floor as Chakwas fought to protect her from any physical harm while trying desperately to get through to her.


"Come on Adams, don't you dare fucking give up!" Williams shouted as she continued rapid compressions on the engineer's chest while Garvey continued to breathe air into his lungs. "Damn it Garrus we need to meet up with the Doc's shuttle!"

"Working on it Chief," Garrus responded as calmly as possible given the situation. He was navigating the debris, the shuttle's controls clumsy and ill-prepared for this kind of maneuvering. He had finally located the shuttle the Doctor was on and had informed the pilot he would be joining with them as soon as possible. It would still take at least another three minutes before they were close enough to maneuver into position where the two shuttles could join.

Wrex had tucked his massive bulk as far into a corner as possible and was watching the drama play out before him, his warrior's mind already accepting the losses that lay on the floor in the middle of the shuttle. There were four injured crew in all, and only one of them showed any real hope of surviving. The other three, Chief Adams included, were far too gravely injured to survive for any length of time without advanced medical intervention. Something he doubted even the talented Dr. Chakwas could provide at the moment. Within seconds, things went from bad to worse as Williams faltered in her valiant efforts to keep Adams alive and then grabbed her head and gasped in shock and pain.

"Chief?" Garvey called out between breaths. "Chief!" he shouted again when he got no response. "Fuck…Cole get in here and take over compressions. Someone look after the Chief!" the young Lieutenant ordered. Wrex was already pulling Ashley out of the way, forcing her into a nearby seat as he hunkered down in front of her.

She was curled in on herself, her body twitching in what appeared to be pain. Wrex grabbed her chin roughly, forcing her gaze to meet his. "Williams!" he barked, his eyes betraying his concern.

"Shepard," was all Williams could gasp out, and then her whole body jerked violently as she collapsed forward, a scream of agony finally tearing itself from her throat.

"Vakarian, get us to the shuttle now!" Wrex ordered as he caught the Chief up against his plated chest and held her sobbing form safely within his firm grasp.

"I'm going as fast as this damn thing can!" the Turian snapped in frustration. His further ranting was cut short by an incoming call and when the shaken pilot on the other end informed him of what was transpiring on the other shuttle, Garrus felt a sick feeling settle in the pit of his stomach.

Glancing back at the pandemonium unfolding behind him, Garrus realized that the moment they boarded the shuttle it was already probably too late to make a difference in the Fates that had just been handed out.



Anger, determination, and willpower. Her entire life, she had refused to give up and this refusal had become an ingrained part of who she was. Now, despite barely being conscious and unable to feel her body, Alex Shepard was begging for some small act of mercy that would put her out of her misery. Unable to close her eyelids, she watched as the planet loomed in front of her, the blue haze of the atmosphere rapidly approaching. A fleeting thought had her wondering why everything seemed so vibrantly blue. Her body managed another desperate gasp of what little air was left in her suit, and unconsciousness continued to elude the dying woman as she became caught in the planet's heavy gravity well.

Within seconds she began to free fall through the planet's atmosphere, and that was when panic and terror finally settled deep within the animal part of her brain that was still barely functioning. The blue haze around her vision flared brighter, and then the horrifying truth hit her. Oh god… no! No, no, no, no, no! she screamed internally as she finally recognized the blue glow for what it was.

She'd been exposed to eezo as a kid, and had tested positive for the slim potential to wield biotic powers. By the time she'd been tested however, she was well past the age for developing such potential, and the results indicated that her abilities would have been minimal at best. But in some sick and cruel twist of fate, her body's desperate struggle to survive had awakened those latent abilities in an attempt to protect her. It had been a biotic barrier that had managed to keep her alive long enough for her to enter the planet's atmosphere, only to doom her to an even more horrific fate than the quick death of space exposure could have given her.

As her body plummeted, she could feel the untrained and uncontrolled barrier rapidly begin to fade. The numbing coldness, was immediately replaced by an intolerable fire as her armor began to overheat during re-entry. The helpless Spectre could only watch as her faceplate started to warp and bubble, pleading with any deity out there that they let her lose consciousness before she burned alive.

Unfortunately, it appeared that her luck had run out completely today. She couldn't even scream as the first bits of armor finally melted through.

Liara and Ashley could however- and scream they did. Wrex held Williams as her body was wracked by unfathomable agony, her vocal cords tearing from the force of her screams. All anyone could do was stare in horrified confusion, their faces blanching at the sight of their normal steady as a rock Gunnery Chief coming completely unhinged. Even the hardened Krogan Battlemaster was unnerved by the tortured and inhuman screams coming from the woman breaking down in his arms.

In the Doctor's shuttle, Liara was wreaking havoc as her biotics flared to life and sent Chakwas into a bulkhead. The older woman grunted and collapsed to the ground holding her forehead as she ordered everyone back from the writhing asari. "Bloody hell," Chakwas grunted as she watched Liara flail and convulse on the floor, her head slamming into the unforgiving metal several times. She finally released one last ear-splitting howl and then went completely limp and silent.

There was a moment of tense silence as everyone held their collective breaths, and when Liara's chest finally began to rise and fall in steady, albeit rapid breaths, there was an exhalation of relief. "Jackson get her secured in her seat," Chakwas ordered as one of the medic trained crew approached her with a small pressure bandage and some tape to hold it in place.

When Liara finally passed out from the agony that she had experienced through her link to Alex, the hold she had on Ashley died out as well. Ashley slumped bonelessly against Wrex, sobbing both from the pain of what she had just suffered through and from the knowledge of just where that pain had originated from. They had only been exposed to a few brief seconds of it, but there was no denying that Alex had just died. Alone and horrifically.

The Krogan Battlemaster held the distraught woman awkwardly, his own hardened heart heavy with the knowledge that he had lost a friend and comrade today. Garrus looked back at him, a questioning look in his eyes and Wrex merely shook his head. The Turian turned back to his controls, his body tense with a grief that he too, would probably never admit to.

"Commander Reegar!"

Kal Reegar paused just before he left the bridge, still checking his sidearm. The rest of the crew that was heading down to the outpost they'd found filed past him to keep heading to the troop drop shuttle. "I don't have all day Lieutenant," Reegar grumbled.

"Sir….the Normandy….she's been lost," the Comm's Officer breathed is shock and dismay.

"What?!" Reegar gasped as he swiftly approached the young Quarian manning the station. "What of the crew?" he demanded.

"A distress beacon was launched and there are reports of survivors but it is not sure how many or their current condition. The Alliance has dispatched one of its frigates headed by an Admiral Hackett. They are the closest ship in any Fleet, but won't reach the area for another hour."

"What is our position in relation to the Normandy's last known coordinates?" Reegar barked at his navigations officer.

The Quarian waited for the data to be transferred to his consul, examined it quickly and shook his head when he looked up. "I'm sorry Commander, but we are two systems away right now. Even with a double jump, it would still take us over eight hours to reach the Normandy's last known position."

Reegar's grip on the Comm console tightened and behind his faceplate he closed his eyes and said a silent prayer on behalf of Commander Shepard and her brave crew. With a heavy sigh he straightened up and made a command decision of his own. "There is nothing we can do at this point to aide in the rescue efforts then. The Geth are probably already aware of our presence and the longer we delay, the more of an advantage we give them. This news does not leave the bridge until after the mission…and Tali is NOT to know of this until AFTER we return. I will inform her myself, in private, once we are all back safely aboard. Is that understood?"

"Yes sir," the Comm's Officer said quietly as she bent her faceplate in a sign of obedience and grief.

"As soon as we are done with this mission, I want us ready to make the jump to those co-ordinates. We may be late, but at the very least we can offer our assistance to any search efforts and our support. I'm sure the Admiralty will approve any efforts that aide Commander Shepard and bolster the growing alliance between our two people. Once we are underway, have a prepared message sent off to the Admiralty detailing what we know and our plans to assist."

"Aye Commander."

With that, Reegar walked off the silent bridge and forced himself to put from his mind the disturbing news. He had a fight of his own to face, and if he and his people were to come out of it safely, he needed to be focused on the task at hand. He would deal with his worries over his new friend's well-fare later.

An hour and twenty three minutes after the distress beacon was launched, an Alliance Frigate began taking on the surviving Normandy crew, with Admiral Steven Hackett overseeing the process personally. As soon as the injured were settled in the infirmary, he went down to check in with Dr. Chakwas who was the most senior ranking officer able to report.

"Doctor?" he asked gently, taking in the woman's battered, bloodstained and haunted expression. He had known Karin for years, and had hand-picked her for the Normandy's initial assignment. She had seen more action and had been on more dangerous tours of duty than almost any other CMO in the Fleet. It had been a relief for him to have her turn down retirement in favor of staying with Shepard's crew after the Normandy's re-deployment. For her to look as…defeated as she was now however, he knew the news would not be good.

He watched as the officer in her forced her professional mask back into place as she straightened to deliver her report. "Of the thirty seven crew members unaccounted for, twenty six were confirmed as killed in action. Lt. Moreau confirmed that XO Pressley was killed instantly on the bridge during the first volley of shots. Five more died due to the nature of their injuries while we awaited rescue. Chief Adam's is in grave condition, and it is unknown if he will last the night. If he pulls through though, he may never walk again. Lt. Moreau suffered a number of broken bones from the firefight and during Shepard's attempt to get him to abandon his post. He'll pull through with a few months recovery and rehabilitation. The majority of the surviving crew have suffered the usual fare of cuts, bruises, concussions, and minor fractures, and most are being treated and released by your CMO. They are still all in shock however, and because of the unusual closeness this particular crew has developed with one another, the emotional trauma is running deeper than usual. It will be some time before any of this crew will be emotionally fit for duty….myself included," the older woman admitted quietly as she looked down at her folded hands.

"The only ones who may not be quite as effected are the new compliment of Marines….however they suffered their own losses and they too had been in the process of becoming a part of the Normandy family. They will require some time as well, though perhaps not quite as much."

"What of Shepard?"

"Officially? She is MIA sir. She was spaced while trying to help Joker into a shuttle."


Chakwas held his gaze for a minute, debating what to tell him. "Please, Karin," he asked softly, dropping ranks.

She looked away and swallowed hard, her fingers absently toying with the edge of the bandage on her temple. "Liara and Alex became close during their leave. Liara was also close to Ashley as well. Because of this I believe that Liara formed a bond with both women," she explained, leaving out that Ashley and Alex had initiated a physical relationship as well. Steven would never ask, and Karin would never tell. "Shortly after the Normandy was destroyed and when I would assume Alex was spaced, Liara became extremely agitated. Within moments she became hysterical and then….and then the screaming began. I believe she somehow experienced a part of Alex's death. Because she is also bonded with Ashley, Ashley suffered the same experience. Ashley is in shock and her body shows signs of severe trauma to both her central nervous system and certain areas of her brain. She was conscious upon rescue, but suffering greatly. I had your CMO sedate her for the time being. Liara is in a coma," Chakwas told him in a voice choked with emotion as she struggled to maintain her professional demeanor.

She watched as Hackett's eyes closed in his own despair, and his head dropped as he exhaled slowly. "There was no communication with her after she was spaced?"

"No sir. And Garrus and the other shuttles scoured the area for any sign of the Commander's suit. Seeing as how the Normandy herself was almost instantly caught up in the planet's gravity well, it is likely that the Commander was also propelled towards the planet. Even if she wasn't, her suit would have only had enough O2 for a few minutes. Given the rather…horrific experience that Liara and Ashley were subject to however, it's my belief that…." Here, Karin had to swallow, hard. "That the Commander was also caught up in the planet's gravity as well. If that was the case, there is no way should would have survived re-entry in just her battle armor."

Hackett closed his eyes, dropped his head and sighed heavily. Both officers were quiet for a long time, allowing themselves a private moment to grieve for a woman that they had both come to admire, respect and care for. Hackett finally lifted his head and reached out to grip Karin's shoulder in a comforting gesture. "I'm sorry Karin," he told her sincerely. "I could tell Alex had come to mean a great deal to you."

"This whole crew has Steven. I've lost nearly three dozen good friends today. Men and women that trusted in me to pull them through no matter what. Five of them bled out on the floor of my bloody shuttle…..and for what?!" Carolyn snapped, her anger and frustrations finally boiling to the surface along with the tears that she had kept at bay during the crisis.

The grip on her shoulder tightened and her old friend pulled her into a tight embrace. "I liked her a lot too," he admitted as she finally let go for a few brief moments and cried into his shoulder, before forcing herself back under control. "I promise you Karin, their deaths will not be in vain. We will get to the bottom of this attack."

Karin wiped at her face and then straightened, looking her superior in the eye. "This wasn't some random attack Admiral. Nor was it the Geth. We had come across some ruins that were being researched by some rather unsavory individuals. Mercs don't just take interest in old Prothean ruins- someone else was behind their research and it for once it wasn't Cerberus. Shepard and Liara felt like we were on the trail of something big, something that could prove without a doubt that the Reapers did exist and perhaps had more of a foothold in our Galaxy than even we thought. The Keepers were just the first of such clues. Shepard was just frustrated that we kept having to stop and check out every little rumor of Geth presence. Yes the Geth are a danger but they shouldn't have been our focus, there are plenty of other Fleet ships that could have handled our assignment. The Reapers should have been our only focus and our primary assignment!"

The doctor halted her rant and closed her eyes a moment, trying to steady her traumatized mind into some order of semblance. She took several calming breaths and silently thanked her old friend's patience. She knew he was silently suffering her same loss, and that he had never seen her this upset and distraught before. It was most likely why he was allowing her to speak so freely. Still, he was her Commanding Officer. Opening her eyes, her next words were spoken much more quietly but just as fervently. "Whatever happens, we have to keep looking Admiral, because those creatures ARE coming and we need to be prepared. That was the cause Shepard had taken up, and I'll be damned if I let that cause slip through the cracks."

"I have already set things in motion to make sure that doesn't happen. It may take some time, but the Council WILL get their proof. I promise you this Karin. Now, it's been a long day, you've been through a trauma and as a physician you know you need some rest and time to deal with all of this. As of right now all Normandy personnel have been placed on Medical Leave until further notice. It's been a horrific year for all of you. Take all the time you need to grieve for her Karin and if you need an ear or a shoulder…," he trailed off leaving the offer open.

Karin Chakwas nodded, wiping at the silent tears that tracked down her cheeks and then patted her old friend's shoulder. "Thank you Steven. I might just take you up on that. So tell me…does this offer come with alcohol?"

Admiral Hackett looked at the lateness of the hour and then gave her a sad smile. Pulling off his hat, he tossed it onto his desk, unbuttoned the top two clasps on his uniform jacket and then walked around his desk and opened the bottom drawer. He pulled out a bottle and two glasses and set them on the desk. "As a matter of fact….it does," he said by way of answer as he poured a very healthy amount in both glasses.

He offered her one and then lifted his own in salute. "To Alexis Shepard. The bravest woman I ever met and the best damn soldier there ever was. God help us all now."

"To Shepard," Karin whispered, her eyes closing as a few more tears made their way down her face. She took a healthy gulp and cherished the burn of the alcohol as it slid down her throat and spread it's warmth in her belly. The grieving doctor fervently hoped the alcohol would take the edge off her pain, but she knew it would not touch the nightmares she was sure to have over the coming nights. Recovering from this would be a long, hard road for them all. Silently, she wondered if some would ever recover.

"Sir, you have a priority transmission coming in from Admiral Waverly."

"Patch it through." The Illusive Man took a long slow drag from his cigarette and waited for the connection to be made.

"Admiral. How nice to hear from you so soon. Decided to hold up your end of the bargain I see?"

"The Normandy's been destroyed," the Admiral said without preamble. He may not have been a fan of Shepard but he knew she was a good officer and they had just lost a valuable ship in the process as well. It was not a good day for the Alliance.

The Illusive Man was silent as he digested that news. "And Shepard?"

"Officially, she has been listed as MIA. But the initial word is she was spaced while trying to save her helmsman. What was left of the Normandy was propelled into the gravity well of a planet they were orbiting. It's believed Shepard re-entered atmo in just her battle armor. Hackett has ordered a full scale search of the area surrounding the attack on the Normandy and the current crash site."

"Details on the attack?"

"Sketchy. The pilot…Lt. Moreau, is the only surviving crew member who really knows what happened since they were hit without any warning. Unfortunately, he's suffered some severe injuries and is sedated right now. The CMO was not on duty at the time of the attack and has little intel other than the condition of the crew. All we know for sure was that they WERE running in stealth mode. Whoever hit them, hit hard and fast and with technology superior than even then Normandy's."

"I see. Thank you for bringing this to my attention immediately, Admiral. Please keep us informed as to what Lt. Moreau has to say about their attackers when he's able to report."

"What are you planning to do with this information."

"What the Alliance can't and won't do Admiral. I look forward to your next report." And with that the connection was killed.

The Illusive Man lit a fresh cigarette and took a long drag from it as he waited for his second in command to move around in front of him. "Is everything in place for Project Lazarus?"

"Mostly. A few minor details that need to be ironed out, but the facility is fully operational. Won't do us much good however if we don't have a body."

"I'll see to it that you get your body. In the meantime, I want you on that station making sure everything is ready to go as soon as Shepard's body is recovered."

"I'll be sure everything on my end is in place."

"Excellent. You know what is at stake here, Miranda. I know you have not always approved of my methods, or that of some of my researchers. But Shepard is the key to survival and winning the upcoming war. Failure is not an option this time around."

"You know me….failure is not something I accept. You get me a body and I will bring you back a living breathing Commander Shepard just as she was." There was a pause and then a smirk. "Well…perhaps a little better and stronger than she was."

"Indeed," he acknowledged as he took a long slow drag on his cigarette and contemplated what the future held now.

Miranda headed towards the door, intent on following her orders to their perfection. "One last thing," The Illusive Man called out just before she reached the threshold. She paused and looked back at him over her shoulder. "Have our contacts keep a close eye on the Normandy survivors. They may be of use to us in future."

There was a pause, and he could sense that she doubted his words somewhat. But she had learned long ago to see his plans through as they always yielded results one way or another. "I'll have my man put people on them right away. Anything in particular you want to know about?"

"Waverly will keep me appraised of their impending debriefings, condition, and assignments. I want to know what even he won't - like who was closest to Shepard personally."

"I see," she answered, mild surprise in her tone as she realized the implications of what he was saying. "I'll contact you as soon as I have something pertinent."

"Excellent. Good luck, luck Miranda."

"You as well, sir."

And with that, the brunette headed off to begin preparing for mankind's greatest achievement.

The End

Stay Tuned for the next book Folks: Unraveled

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