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The Zeppo Effect: A Mass Effect/BTVS tale

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The Zeppo Effect - A BTVS/ Mass Effect Tale

Author: B.H. Ramsay

Disclaimer: I own nothing; I claim nothing - what will YOU get if you sue me - nothing. Consider yourself disclaimed

Rating: Teen

Pairings(s) maybe

Spoilers: many

Summary: A series of oneshots and vignettes about our favorite White Knight's quest to show the galaxy's newest hero how battling extinction level apocalypse is done with style ... well style and a little help from a few very, very powerful friends.

***
Choices, we all make them . good, bad, right, wrong. All the horror and all the beauty that we are capable of is because of our choices. I've learned a lot of things in my time. some lessons better then others but the one truth that I could never escape, never avoid , the truth that has stayed with me though all the tears and all the years...making choices is easy, living with them - that can be a lot harder.


"Yesterday was my birthday." Xander Harris said weakly,

"Don't speak," Dawn Summers snapped. choking back frightened sobs, not a good sign.

Xander tried to focus past the pain of the wound that was obviously killing him. He could hear other voices. No more crying or sobbing except for Dawn in fact he can hear some cries of joy.

They'd won The Brawl-for-it-all, Xander's little nickname for their pivotal battle against evil. Every major force for good finally tired of being picked off by the bad guys or watching loved ones abused and harassed. They'd all gone to war and finally after almost a year and a half of bloody drawn out conflict ... the last of the biggies was finished.

There had been casualties of course, No war is without casualties but the world was safe now, considering how many friends and allies had met theirend, if Xander didn't make it out of this one ...well then he was in very honored company "... Gonna get me a nice table in Club Valhalla." Xander thought to himself. Hell, he'd been absolutely sure he wouldn't make it out of high school alive let alone surviving long enough to stand beside earth mightiest heroes in their darkest hour. Xander Harris was luckier by far then he had any right to expect.

"Damn it Buffy - it's Xander." Willow's voice - she was angry.

"You tried this once before," Buffy snapped back, "... You do remember what almost happened."

"Buffy, its Xander."

"You keep saying that."

"... Because that should be the only thing that matters. Now are you going to help me?"

"Why can't we just heal him like normal?" Buffy asked.

"Are you kidding, the weapon that did this was meant originally to kill Gods with a capital G. Even Superman would barely survive a wound from a weapon like that, never mind Xander."

"So you're going to take primal energy ..."

"The force that makes you a Slayer and allows me to use magic ... Yeah That's exactly what I want to do ... it will work Buffy. Trust me, Xander will survie this."

"...And you don't think this is going to come back and bite us in the ass?"

"Buffy we just drop kicked every dark force that has ever looked at us crosswise off this plane of existence ...you think I'm really scared of the karmic backlash for saving my friend...our friend ... the person who stood by us even when the rest of the world was going to hell ... ?"

"Enough, All right Willis I'll help."

Xander groaned, "Dawn - how bad is it?" He asked Buffy's little sister, who would have thought that relationship would end up being the one that worked out and somehow broken his curse of dangerous women and weird romances.

"Its not so bad really," She lied, "just a scratch."

"Dawn you really need to learn how to lie better, you suck really bad at it ... Damn, I hate being impaled."

Willow and Buffy were there "Dawnie," Buffy said to her sister, "I need to you go back to the base camp."

"No," Dawn snapped her voice thick with emotion, "I don't want to leave him. I want to be here."

"You can't, not for this. it's dangerous enough. Willow has a plan, if it works we'll all be joining you and if not ... you can say your goodbyes then."

"What are you going to do?"

"If Willow is right , save his life."

Xander grunted as pain shot though him. "Don't move Xander you're dying." Willow whispered, "Buffy and me - we're going to fix you, fix it so it will be like you were never hurt."

"Bad Idea guys, we don't screw with the universe anymore, Remember. It gets really pissed with us when we do that."

"Shhh, you lie back, Buffy and me will handle it. It will be on us but we can't let you go. We won't let you go."

Willow's voice was echoing with power. She was speaking words ancient and powerful.

He heard Buffy now, looked into her eyes. As Willow chanted, they began to glow with power - or was that love ...for him? , it couldn't be. The universe would not play thatjoke on him now of all times.

"Think of this as a belated birthday gift Xand, happy birthday." Buffy said and kissed him softly. "Will is right Honey we can't let you go. We won't let you go. Not when we've come so far and done so much."

Suddenly the dull pain of dying was replaced by something very different and much more painful. Xander screamed and he couldn't help thinking that his scream sounded odd as if it was echoing down though a long long hallway he might never see the end of.


183 years later ...


As Commander Joan Shepard opened the door of the latrine the foul stench inside hit her. "Sargent Harris could I have a word." She gasped.

"If that word is gross you won't be the only one who's used it." Harris shouted from the depths of the building. She watched as his tall lanky form detached itself form the shadows. He looked like he did in all the vids, youthful face, athletic build ...she had even seen an extranet picture file that showed him posed without his shirt on. His body was covered by a web of scars that read like a historian combat primer.

"Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy. You hear about us out here yet."

"Co-developed Deep Scout Frigate, Turian-Human hybrid... Shepard , You fought at Torfan right? You led the final assult on the slaver base there."

"...and?" Shepard waited expectantly, by now she'd heard all the comments, all the theories and even the not so subtle accusations and self-righteous posing whenever her actions during the Siege of Torfan came up for discussion.

"...And nothing, I'm not a big fan of slavery myself and I'm told Batarians don't exactly truck with the whole rules of engagement jive."

"They have Rules of Engagement," Shepard replied, "... So do I - I just prefer my rules to theirs."

Xander tossed a scrub brush over his shoulder with a casual flick of his wrist. The brush hit the bucket dead center dropping in.

"Nothing but Net." he muttered, he didn't so much as glance in the direction of the target. "Welcome to Fort Chuckles, Commander." He said to his visitor.

"Thanks, I wondered why you were cleaning latrines but if you called Fort Charles - Fort Chuckles infront of Gunny Ellison it makes sense."

"Oh this, no - Ellison has me conducting Hostile Environment Exercises, apperently if you can survive your unit getting eaten by Thresher Maws they think you can teach Assault and Survival Techniques to the FNG's." Xander gestured to the latrine, "This Commander Shepard, is what happens when you play Skllyian Five Poker against someone who I've begun to think is actually FROM Elysium."

Shepard held up a PDA, information scrolling across the amber screen. "Captain David Anderson is going to ask you to join the crew of the Normandy, How do you feel about ditching the latrines and getting some space time again."

Xander grimaced, "I can pound ground with the best of them ma'am."

Shepard smiled and shook her head, "There may be the occasional bit of ground pounding sailor but its your technical expertise we really need. We need a man at the tech station feeding Chief Engineer Adams real time data so he can make sure engines are operating at peak efficiency. Normandy's also got some big guns and I'd like to make sure Joker doesn't have to divide his attentions between flying the ship and shooting."

"I like big guns I cannot lie." Harris with with a blank look.

"Slow down there Tex," Shepard replied, "As a covert recon vessel our aim is to avoid engagement as much as possible."

"...Requiring use of Normandy's IES stealth systems. I'm told that when the heat sinks are full the ship's interior temperature is somewheres just south of an oven. quite the design flaw don't you think?"

Shepard nodded, "Your average Turian would feel so at home in a sauna or steam bath its not funny, complaining about the ship being too hot would seem ..."

"...Like more whining from the Earthers, " He assumed a mocking voice, "Oh the cutting edge ship is too hot wha, wha, wah."

Shepard laughed, she was finding that laughter came easily around this crewman. "...And now the boring stuff, Akuze - Anderson asked me to ask you so I'm asking."

"You know the same story everybody else does. Colony went dark - nobody knows why - Fifty Marines hit dirt to find the answers and boom - As first species encounters go; it ranks high on the scale of suck."

"When they found you, you were half starved... and talking to people who weren't there."

"At first it was just the other guys in the unit, after a while I started hallucinating people from back home. People I haven't seen ...in a long, long, time. It sounds crazy but it kept me going. talking to them it...kept me sane."

"Maybe even kept you alive."

"It takes a lot to kill me Commander." Xander looked at the Shepard's raised eyebrow, "That's not me being arrogant exactly - I just mean I've become very good at staying alive." Harris amended quickly.

"At least you didn't become some boring god boy afterward."

"... Let's just say I've learned that believeing only in what you can see or touch or taste is not a wise plan ... the universe is just waiting to kick people like that in the ass. I've spent too much time getting my ass kicked. I don't like it."

"It says here you're well educated - degrees in a dozen different fields." Shepard scrolled down the list, "Mechanical engineering, anthropology, linguistics ... what was basket weaving and thumb twirling full?"

"Have you seen the reading list for basket weaving? Trust me, studying a thousand year old dead language and culture is way easier."

"You can even speak several alien languages without the aid of the translator." Shepherd marveled.

Xander thought about correcting her, he didn't just speak a few alien languages ... something about the energies that sustained him over these last two centuries allowed him to speak them all.

"So Why would a brainiac want to serve and then seemingly avoid officer training?" Shepard asked.

Harris startled at her use of that word. Had it really been so long that people no longer remembered the demented twelfth level artificial intelligence. He noticed she was looking at him and he remembered he had not actually responded to her question. ... too many memories way, way too many he thought before answering her

"Cause I want to work for a living ma'am." Xander said "So can I ask, did you really manage to flip a Mako I mean really flip it?

Shepard rolled her eyes, "Do they still talk about that?" she sighed.

Xander snorted, "You rolled a vehicle that was designed- specifically - so that it would not roll over and you wonder why anyone still remembers it, you have to be kidding me?" The Serviceman laughed, "There's rumor anyone willing to duplicate the feat will win an appointment with the Asari Consort, paid for by the enlisted guys."

"Were you hoping to collect?"

"Have you seen an asari? they are all like an eleven on the hot scale and you can find one shaking her ass on a stage of every night club and strip bar in civilized space and beyond yet they have ONE who people are willing to wait for months just to talk to ... there has to be a reason for that."

"You do realize Asari don't JUST produce strippers and good time girls. they're well represented in every major mercenary group in operation today. And those are the ones who don't make the cut as Asari Commandos."

"Rumor has it they even have an elite sect of cops - Justicars I think they're called, the training for that carries a pretty scary mortality rate." Harris sighed, "You know. with my track record I'd meet one of them or a Commando before I ever get to meet a stripper."

Shepard shook her head, typical male she thought. Still the fact he'd taken the time to learn as much about Asari culture as he had put him way out in front of must of the horn-dog males who spent their extranet access mouth breathing over the universally attractive blue alien species.

"Our navigator Jeff Moreau mentioned your name." She continued, "...Says you might be the best weapons and tech guy he's ever come across."

"Joker?"

"I'm curious how would you two have ever met, you're ground side - he's flight."

"Friend of the family ... One of his cousins used to date a very old and dear friend. before we ...lost touch."

"Is Joker from the Santa Angeles Megaplex?"

"Huh?"

"Your file says you come from Santa Angeles. I assume you come from the megaplex."

"I grew up in Sunnydale."

"The lake?"

Xander blinked before sucking his teeth in annoyance, "Yeah Sorry about that I mean I grew up NEAR Sunnydale."

"Your parents were anti establishment too huh?, That was why mine moved out to the Traverse and settled on Mindior."

"Ouch, I can see why you're touchy about the whole Torfan thing If I'd watched my neighbours being stuffed into slaves pens It might not go well if I found myself fighting the guys I blamed for that."

"There were humans involved with the raid against Elysium and I killed a more then a few human pirates when we raided Torfan." Shepard gave a dismissive wave,"Anyway, unless you have other plans, Captain Anderson will take care of the paperwork. You'll need a few days of orientation aboard ship then its showtime. I'm hearing we'll be posting picket duty maybe with the 63rd Scout Flotilla under Admiral Mikhailovich which means they'll have us staring at the Terminus Systems all day long."

"Oh if we get out to Omega we should hit The Afterlife - great little club, stay away from the drinks in the lower bar though. The Batarian down there serves a drink that goes down like ground glass."


... And that was how it began just another routine recruit for what was supposed to be a routine mission. of course they always say that before a mission starts. Its the weird stuff that happens during the mission and how you respond that make it not so routine.

Chapter Text

AN -- huge thanks to Reikson who's swift and enthusiastic bata reading skills have already made this much better then it has any right to be Now on with the show.


Our routine mission started with a pick-up on Eden Prime. Kaiden Alenko and I deployed to the surface to retrieve an ancient artifact of a long dead race, The Protheans. I figured Kaiden's powerful biotic abilities might come in handy, as it turns out, I was right. Instead of a nice peaceful farming colony, we walked into a war zone. The colony was under attack by the Geth, an army of synthetics lead by a Turian named Saren Arcterius, an agent of the Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance or SPECTRE for short.

In the confusion, Kaiden and I rescued an Alliance Marine, Ashley Williams. Her unit had been massacred by the Geth. leaving her the only survivor. I watched her face as the Geth turned several of them into mindless zombie-like creatures, Husks. Stripped of all humanity, little more then raw animal instinct warped to serve Saren's demented will. I figured it was even worse for Williams. She'd served beside these people and now was forced to put them out of their misery or die by their hands.

I tried to stop Saren from escaping but was hit by some kind of discharge from the Prothean artifact. The blast uploaded a vision of war and impending doom into my mind. We returned to the Citadel to inform the council of what happened and demand they do something about their out of control Spectre. They flatly refused to even believe their best and most well known operative could be involved in the attack against the human colony. Since the Council refused to do anything without tangible proof of the threat Saren posed I was going to need hard evidence.

Xander often says "Fate has a way of handing you a gimme every once in a while." I'd be inclined to disbelieve him except it turned out he was right


The neon lights of the lower words made a nice counter to Xander's bleak mood. Harris was grumbling as he trailed after Hobbs the Normandy's Requisitions Officer. Xander's skill with languages had won him this particular assignment. Hobbs could only speak the common trade language but it was a fairly open secret that the better discounts and "special items" were reserved for those customers familiar with local languages and customs.

They'd stopped close to another of the station's omnipresent keepers, strange bio-mechanical creatures that silently maintained the Citadel's many functions. They often seemed completely unaware of the many alien creatures that surrounded them, often going about their tasks in seeming ignorance they were sharing the space with anyone at all. Xander rebalanced several packages in his over burdened hands.

"OK, Hobbs, seriously how much shopping do you really need to do?" he whined.

"Commander Shepard said you'd help me pick up a few items from the wards."

"A few Hobbs ,,, a few ... not the entire damn ward. I think we hit every merchant in this entire station." Harris complained. "Do you really need to buy this much stuff?"

"The Gunnery Chief expressed some ... dissatisfaction ... with my selection of mods." Hobbs answered.

"So it's Ashley I have to blame for the fact I'll be needing the icy-hot when we get back." Xander grumbled.

"It's a miracle I can find any decent mods at all." Hobbs replied thoughtfully, "Fist controls the local trade in illegal weapon mods."

"Anyone with the balls to refer to themselves seriously as Fist - needs to have their asses kicked just on general principle." Xander replied before being distracted by a beeping on his comlink. when he answered, deafening gunfire could be heard over the audio link. There was a battle going on somewhere.

"This is a general distress to any Normandy personnel in the vicinity of the lower wards." It was Shepard's voice."Come on, answer me dammit."

"Shepard? its Harris, what's your position - what's going on?"

"Harris! Never mind where I am. I need you to get to the alleyways near Chora's Den - on the double Mister. You'll find a Quarian civilian carrying precious cargo. You'll secure that cargo and protect the civilian at all costs."

Xander shoved all of the heavy packages in his hands into Hobbs' startled grasp. "I'm on my way Commander." he answered running full tilt across the ward past several startled passersby. He noticed Ashley and Kaiden coming down the stairs from a club with the annoyingly upbeat name of Flux. They were already at a full run.

"You heard I take it." He shouted as the three fell in step.

"It was on wide band broadcast," Kaiden snapped "I think people back on Earth heard."

The trio ran through the crowded wards and down a flight of stairs, barreling though a door. Kaiden was about to cross a bridge stretching over a vast chasm. On the other side was Chora's Den, gentleman's club and rumored HQ for much of the crime that transpired aboard the Citadel. Gunfire could be heard coming from the seedy club along with cries of pain and torment that were fair indicators that Shepard was doing what she did best ... but Xander veered right heading up a narrow flight of steps.

"Where are you going, Fist's club is this way?" Kaiden pointed.

Xander didn't even break stride, "The Quarian's in the alleyway and the alleyway is this way."

"You said you've never been to the Citadel before." Williams snapped as She and Kaiden switched direction to dash after him.

"I haven't, Shepard made me help some Salarian with his Keeper scanning project, had me crawling though every damn nook and cranny in this place."

They burst through a door and charged down a shadowy hallway arriving at bizzare scene. Three assassins in custom body armor menacing a young looking Quarian. She ducked away from them, using a concussion grenade to scatter the group of thugs.

Xander brought up a pistol, firing at one of the Salarians. The mercenary's head rocked backward from the impact of Xander's shots. The assassin dropped in a heap on the deck floor. His fellow Salarian partner chattered angrily at Harris before pointing his omni-tool sheathed arm at him. The suddenly overheated pistol in Xander's hands clicked uselessly, Xander swore in ancient Sumerian as he dived for cover.

Ashley slid smoothly into cover, her trusty assault rifle unfolding from its inactive state like a deadly rose in her hands. The Lancer screamed fire through the hallway, mass accelerated gunfire pounding on the remaining salarian's chest, knocking him to the ground, the rifle's modded rounds sparking as they skidded across the merc's kinetic barrier.

His Turian buddy scrambled for shelter desperately trying to avoid being chewed to ribbons by Ash's gunfire. Ashley switched back and forth between both mercs keeping them cowering behind a keeper who tapped away at its console blissfully ignoring the firefight going on around it.

Kaiden gestured, the blue fire of a biotic field swirling around him. The Salarian Thug was picked up and slammed with unforgiving force into a bulkhead. The kinetic barrier of the merc's hardsuit sparkled briefly before failing. The merc panicked stabbing uselessly at his hardsuit controls trying to get his shield back up. Ashley smiled grimly as she aimed a burst of AR fire that caused the salarian to dance backward sprawling like a rag doll.

The suddenly outnumbered Turian concentrated his gunfire on the Quarian again who angrily returned fire Instead of cowering, launching blasts of fire from the shotgun in her hands.

Xander tapped at the omnitool on his wrist, His earlier trips through the Citadel's hallways and corridors had let him know how sensitive the local environment was to being sabotaged. Pointing the tool at a service conduit behind the Turian, Xander watched with satisfaction as the coolant system overloaded and a pipe exploded spewing liquid gas all over the merc flash-freezing both his exo-suit and naturally toughened flesh underneath. The merc cried out in pain even as The Quarian racked another round in her shotgun firing at the mercenary. The Turian's armor shattered and burst open. The Quarian's following shots hitting him solidly leaving him dead on the floor.

"That damn Fist I knew I couldn't trust him." The Quarian snapped angrily in the strange mechanically-assisted phasing unique to all Quarians.

Shepard finally arrived, her armor smelling of smoke and battle.

"Don't worry about Fist," Shepard was saying, "he got what was coming to him."

"You missed the party." Xander pointed out dryly.

"I had a party of my own to get out of, over at Fist's place," Shepard riposted, grimacing.
"You know how it is. You make a big enough impression on people and they just
don't want you to leave. Thank God I had some backup."

At her heels, the blue armored Turian Xander had seen lingering outside the Citadel Council Chambers, Garrus something-or-other and a giant of a Krogan. This one had been at Citadel Security HQ Xander had heard him called Wrex - some kind of Bounty Hunter. Xander knew without asking that the station's population in paid thugs had taken a severe dip in the last few minutes.

"We should have tried to take him alive." Garrus was complaining. "What he knew about local crime could close half the open cases on C-Sec's books."

"The Shadow Broker paid me to kill Fist." Wrex replied, "I always fulfill my contracts. Besides if Shepard doesn't have a problem with it, why do you care C-Sec-boy?"

"Fist is dead?" The Quarian asked, "then I guess there's two things I owe you for, who are you?"

"Commander Shepard of the Systems Alliance, I'm looking for evidence against Saren, evidence I'm told you have."

"Tali, Tali Zorah nar Rayya." The Quarian answered .

With introductions out of the way the group marched back up toward the presidium and Ambassador Udina's office.

"Not to be the voice of gloom and doom," Xander muttered to Shepard, "but I'm guessing Ambassa-dork Udina will be a little upset with us, and that C-Sec Dude, the one in charge ... did not strike me as the kind of guy who likes it when people go all vigilante on his watch."

"His name is Pallin - Executor Pallin," Garrus hissed. "and no, you do not get to be head of C-Sec by looking the other way when 'upstart aliens' shoot up the wards and kill random thugs. You'd think considering how much he hates the SPECTRE's he'd be happy to see one brought down,"

Shepard sneered, "If this Quarian's evidence can really nail Saren, I could give a crap what a rule book quoting bureaucrat and a disingenuous smooth talker have to say about HOW I got it."

Garrus' eyes flared and Xander could tell the young turian had just fallen in love or at least met the person he would be modeling his life after. Xander also noticed Kaiden noticing Shepard and Garrus. A slightly annoyed eye twitch and grimace the only sign of the biotic's jealousy. Xander gave a silent prayer of thanks to whatever Gods still listened that he'd apparently dropped his notorious habit of falling for unattainable women. The line forming to win Shepard's affections was obviously getting a little crowded as far as Xander could tell.

Xander shrugged and dropped back to fall in step with the young Quarian.

"Thank you as well for your help." she whispered, Xander nodded.

"I oughtta be thanking you, you got me out of a particularly nasty situation. Our requisitions officer had me running errands." Xander shuddered, "I really hate shopping."

"I have to admit I find all this use of credits to administrate the distribution of gods to be a little strange " Tali murmured.

"What, your people don't buy or sell things?"

"Back on the flotilla, when someone no longer needs something he places it in the central market aboard his or her ship. Whoever does need it can simple take it. Within reason of course, food and medicines are strictly controlled but everything else is shared among us."

"So how's a girl just off the flotilla end up in a alleyway with murderous thugs?"

"I stumbled across evidence of this Saren's activities. I didn't even know he was a SPECTRE until I arrived at The Citadel and people started trying to kill me. In hindsight maybe trying to trade with The Shadow Broker was a bad idea."

"Taking on local crooks, dealing with shadowy information dealers and pretty good with a shotgun - Daddy must be so proud."

Tali shivered, "I doubt it, if father knew I was involved in any of this he'd go crazy ... At least a long and drawn out lecture; Then punishment detail scouring engine grime or maybe realigning the power couplings?"

"How bad can that be?"

"There are several hundred ships in the Quarian Flotilla, father would expect me to help maintain them all."

A huge smile spread across Xander's face "Daddy issues as well? Tali Zorah I think you and I are going to have a whole lot of laughs."


... With Tali's evidence, pulled from the memory files of a disabled Geth, we could finally link Saren to the attack on Eden Prime. But the Council was still reluctant to expend their full military might on capturing their rouge SPECTRE.

Their solution to the problem - make me a SPECTRE, The first human one.

I now had extra-territorial authority to go wherever I wanted and do whatever it took to take down Saren. It was everything I could have dreamed of ... leave it to Harris to put a damper on my joy by reminding me of an ancient bit of wisdom he says he swears by. - Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

Chapter Text


"Harris, I need you for a errand." Shepard shoved a data pad into his hands. "I need you to run that over to the ambassadorial suites. You're looking for a Elcor named Xeltan, he'll be the one whining about the Asari Consort."

"Why me?" Xander asked suspiciously.

"...Because you're a valuable part of my team and the only one I can trust with an important job like this."

Xander nodded. "...Right, and the real reason is...?"

"Liara pulled a hissy fit in the middle of the Consort's office and she's been getting positively bitchy about the fact I'm even doing Sha'ira a favor at all."

"Aha, so you and the good Doctor..."

Shepard shook her head, "Definitely not right now and probably not if I go anywhere near Sha'ira's office again." Noticing the amusement on his face, she hissed, "...and don't think that the irony of this situation has not dawned on me. "

"So a spiritualist-slash-psychologist and high-end escort wanted a favor from you and you're delegating that task to me so you can keep your girlfriend happy?"

"No, I'm delegating the task to you because I'm your superior officer, which means I can order you to risk your life. Besides, You were the one that said you wanted to meet the Consort, anyway."

"Wait a minute, don't tell me that the great Commander Shepard is scared of a hundred-six year old bookworm." Xander snickered.

"That hundred-six year old bookworm threw a Krogan BattleMaster into a reinforced bulkhead hard enough to dent it." Shepard growled.

"Oh, come on. You can't tell me that Wrex didn't have that one coming," Xander snickered.

Wrex's constant needling of the Asari Scientist had finally bubbled over into a frustration-fueled demonstration of why the Asari were both feared and respected for their biotic prowess. Even Wrex, once he'd recovered consciousness, had applauded her finally standing up to him. Still, everyone was thankful that the both of them had taken to staying a deck apart from each other at all times.

Xander sighed. "Fine. Just call me Mister Step-and-Fetch."

Shepard nodded as Xander headed toward the embassies, dodging past some C-Sec Officer arguing with some Hanar. The jellyfish was apparently preaching illegally and there was something about evangelical permits... where were the Turians when mankind need them? A couple thousand years of bloody history could've been avoided by licensing and controlling religious expression.

Xander headed up a flight of stairs past Udina's office and into the shared space of the Elcor/Volus embassy. As promised, he saw the huge elephantine form of an Elcor complaining to his ambassador.

At least, he assumed that it was complaining. Expressing the emotional content of their speech only managed to confuse Xander, more then anything else. I mean, it wasn't like one would say "...with insincerity" before lying to you, was it?

"Frustrated: yes, human, what is it?" The Elcor asked.

"Xeltan, right? I've got proof that Sha'ira had nothing to do with your secret going public. You got ratted out by a Turian General named Septimus Oraka."

"Unbelieving; I know this Turian. The only way he could have learned my secrets is from the Consort." Xeltran moaned in that bland monotone that all Elcor spoke in.

"Actually, THIS proves that he had to go to the Shadow Broker and apparently had to trade quite a bit of info to get the details on you. You might want to take it as a compliment that the Shadow Broker places such a high value on your personal details."

"Relieved; thank you, human. Dawning shame; oh, dear, I have made several serious accusations about the Consort. With great distress; I will have to withdraw my complaint and apologize to her."

"Hopeful cheer; human, would you be so kind as to deliver this datapad to the Consort and assure her that the withdrawal of Xeltan's complaint will be formalized by the end of the day." The Elcor Ambassador moaned.

Xander hung his head and stuck out a hand, motioning for the datapad, He headed down the stairs and caught sight of Ashley hugging a middle-aged Indian man. Kaidan was standing with her.

He thought about joining him, then remembered where he was going. There was no way he could explain this assignment that was not going to bite him in the ass. He gave the three of them a wide berth as he headed across the bridge to the Consort's office.

Nelyna, a pretty Asari at the door, gestured him past. At the confusion on his face, she only said, "The Consort has been expecting you."

Curious, he headed up the stairs to the lavish offices occupied by the famous (or infamous) Asari Consort.

She was being dressed by a young human girl who blushed at the sight of Xander, hastily closing the robe and cinching it tight around the Consorts waist so quickly that Xander had almost missed the luscious curves underneath.

"Sergeant Harris, thank you for coming." she glanced at the human girl. "Thank you, Ruth. Can you give us a moment?"

The girl retreated with a nod closing the door behind her. "Lovely girl. You should speak with her some time, Sergeant. Her passion for old earth popular entertainment is extensive."

"No offense, ma'am, but I can't see myself making an appointment four months in advance just to talk about old pop culture."

Sha'ira smiled widely. "Of course. I have to say your species' view of what space would've been like is interesting. I find the movie series about that monastic warrior monk order particularly fascinating. This... Force that they speak of, is an interesting concept."

Xander gaped at the alien, "Wait, you're telling me that she turned you onto Star Wars." he asked unbelieving.

"She owns a copy of every version released. Everything from the originals in the twentieth century to the animated versions made in the mid-twenty-first century. I understand that they are somewhat controversial."

"Yeah. it was based on notes in Lucas' last will and testament. They completely changed the whole story and made some crap-tastic excuse that Lucas only made the first version the way he did because of the limitations of live actors and and live-action technology."

"So, is talking to her worth a four-month appointment now, Sergeant?"

Xander stared after Ruth longingly before something dawned on him.

"Wait a minute. How'd you know?"

"You carry your years very well, Still long lived humans are a rare enough sight that the few I've met stand out. I'm curious why you all seem so determined to remain unnoticed."

"You know who I am? ...What I am?"

Sha'ira slid up to him and plucked the datapad from his nerveless fingers. Her lips near his ear, she whispered, "There is a very good reason that I have a months-long line outside my door, Xander. A VERY good reason."

She read the contents of the pad and then tossed it aside, "I got a lovely note from Septimus and according to this, I should getting a very contrite Elcor on my doorstep very soon. Our newest Spectre does very good work. Doctor T'soni is luckier than she knows."

"You know about that too, huh?"

"I'm very good at my work, Xander. The idea that someone like the infamous Commander Shepard would care enough about someone else's feelings enough to send you in her stead says a lot about how much she's changed. And I'd just as soon like to stay on the Doctor's good side."

"Why would YOU care about being on Liara's good side?"

"You see a cloistered researcher; young, naive, and overwhelmed by the adventure that she has found herself in. But there is so much more to her. You of all people should appreciate that."

She took his arm and lead him down the stairs and through the receiving parlour. "Be patient with Chief Williams. You've been putting yourself on the front lines of a secret war between order and chaos for so long that you forget it sometimes takes a lot of faith to fight that kind of battle. Faith in yourself and in those that you fight alongside."

"I thought I was done with that part of my life." Xander muttered.

"Your course was set in stone a long time ago Xander. You have never faltered in your journey, not really, no matter how much the journey has cost you."

"S'one hell of a trip," Xander whispered.

"...And you've still a ways to go yet. Have faith in your new friends. You'll find them a match for any of those you once marched beside." Sha'ira paused, "Remember Commander Shepard might not be the kind of hero that you remember, but she can be her own kind of hero. If you let her."

Sha'ira walked him to the door just as Williams and Alenko were walking past. Ashley did a double take. What are you doing here." she asked.

Xander panicked, "I was...I was ...well ...it was like...this..." he stuttered.

Sha'ira interrupted his stammering, "Xander has been with me. Commander Shepard wanted a private matter dealt with and she discharged Xander here to see to it." The Consort explained, "Incidentally I have a reward, see what you make of it."

She dropped a small trinket into his hand closing his palm around it while she smiled at him, "It came into my possession, I have never learned it's true use or purpose but something tells me you will have much better luck finding it's owner .:. And now if you will excuse me I have other clients to see today."

"So got any more errands our fearless leader wants taken care of?" Ashley asked Xander, a wry smirk on her face.

"Well one of the gambling machines in Flux was acting all weird, funneling money to somewheres." Xander answered, "I tracked the signal all the way up here to the presidium but then Shepard grabbed me."

"Well lets go find our data thief." Ashley proclaimed and Kaiden trailed after her.

Xander looked down at the ring in his hand small innocuous. It was easy to see why Sha'ira called it a trinket. it was de-powered and an unpowered Lantern Corps ring was little more then costume jewelry.

"Hey little guy I wish I had a power battery for you. Unfortunately they all disappeared around the same time Hal and Sinestro had their last big throw down."

Xander applied his will to the ring but beyond a vauge tingling sensation the ring made no move in his palm. "Looks like your real owner is out there somewheres and if Shepard's visions are accurate, We're going to need to find them."

Chapter Text

Xander was showing Liara around the ship. Shepard would have done it but Hackett had ordered her to take care of some hostage situation. Alenko had gone along since the culprits were biotic extremists.

"i am surprised your people haven't developed a more progressive attitude about biotics thus far." Liara said in that gently chiding tone Xander noticed many Asari used when speaking to pretty much every other species in the galaxy.

"Well we've only had biotics for about thirty years." Xander answered, "I mean would you believe that less then a few hundred years ago we were still locking people up for having minor genetic abnormalities. I mean we even used to use them as a form of cheap labour. I'd be ashamed of our species if I thought something like that still went on today." He gave Liara a meaningful stare.

Liara wasn't so closeted she had never heard of Ardat-Yakshi or how those who had the condition were treated, if you could call choosing between a life of imprisonment or death at the hands of a Justicar, treatment. She recalled Shepard mentioning Harris was very well read for a human, apparently he was very, very well read.

Xander for his part silently thanked Dawn Summers again as he often did whenever he was able to make use of the vast well spring of knowledge she'd encouraged him to acquire. You could never tell when knowing obscure facts about a species considered to be socially superior would let you win socially awkward arguments.

"So Shepard took Lieutenant Alenko along with her?" Liara asked hoping to change the subject.

"OH yeah Shepard's hoping Kaiden can talk the biotics down ... otherwise she'll go with plan B."

"Excuse me, plan B?"

"I believe the Asari equivalent would be Kill-Them-All-And-Let-The-Goddess-Sort-It-Out. Anyway here we have the cargo hold and of course your equipment locker." Xander gestured , "Note the lovely and scenic view of the MAKO. Hobbs will set you up with some away mission clothes and Chief Williams will set you up with some hardware."

Several crew members gave the Asari scientist a wide berth nor did they even look at her as they reported in "Sargent, repair teams have finished fixing any damage we picked up on Therum - it was mostly superficial."

Xander's eyes narrowed, "Mostly? mostly gets us dead when a hairline fracture ruptures while we're at FTL or on a reentry vector. How's about you check again and see if you can get me a definitive yea or nay so We can fix any problems BEFORE we are spread like thin jam across every LY between here and the Terminus Systems." Harris hissed.

The men saluted sharply and scuttled off.

Liara watched them leave. "Your crewmates are uncomfortable with me Sargent Harris."

"It's just Xander Doc and don't worry about it. The Boss trusts you so that's should be good enough for everybody else."

Garrus caught sight of them and stomped over to Xander gesturing wildly. "What did you do to the Mako I had the suspension calibrated perfectly - perfectly."

"Relax Cuttlebone," Wrex laughed, as he joined them. "your precious tank did it's job pulling our quads out of the fire. quite literally in fact."

Xander bleached, "Wrex? we agreed we weren't going to discuss this in front of Garrus."

"You and Williams agreed, Shepard and I - not so much."

Garrus rounded on the Krogan. "By the Spirits, Please tell me he didn't actually drive the thing INTO a volcano ... Please?"

"Look Garrus," Xander explained, "we were surrounded by Geth, the weapons had overheated and there were these two armatures baring down on us. I figured large vehicle - high speed - dangerous environmental hazard behind the enemy - what could go wrong?"

Garrus gaped at Xander in disbelief, "You crashed the MAKO INTO a Geth armature?"

"Two Geth Armatures," Wrex laughed, "Then drove them both into a lava pool - managed to stop the tank just before we hit the magma. That move alone would earn you a evening in Shiagur's bed."

Xander paused, "OK I know Shiagur was a female warlord but I have to ask , scale of one to ten - how hot was she?"

"Easily a Ten Boy you think anything less and she could lead hundreds of warriors in battle?"

Garrus snorted, "Just so you know - a ten by Krogan standards is not the same as a ten for the rest of the civilized space."

"I have never understood the unhealthy obsession males have to what is essentially a simple act of procreation." Liara muttered, to a room of blank stares.

"I'm guessing you've never done it, have you Girly." Wrex snickered.

"Of course not," Liara snapped haughtily, "such unions are special. They should be meaningful events not just ... random encounters." She shuddered in disgust at the thought.

"Spoken like a true virgin," The Krogan sneered, "well if our great leader has actually taken notice of how hard you stare at her all the time you might end up finding out why everyone obsesses over that simple-act-of-procreation."

Liara actually blushed and hurried away Wrex's laughter ringing off the deck plates.

The Elevator opened and Ashley entered the Cargo Deck. As much as he detested the white and pink colour scheme of every armor class Sirta Foundation made, Xander had to admit the Gunnery Chief did rock that outfit exceptionally well. She vanished into the cubby near her gun smithing station and when she emerged again she was dressed more causally, Xander pulled Williams aside.

"So you didn't say how the big talk went," He asked delicately.

Ashley was something of an earth first type. Not a racist exactly just uncomfortable around the Normandy's alien crew members, specifically Garrus and Wrex. She'd held her tongue as long as she could before bringing her concerns to Shepard.

"She listened to my rant, compared me to a Terra Firma party pamphlet, told me She understood my concerns then drags me planet side on a mission with the Krogan." Ash sighed, "at least I still have a job."

"Well this is a multi-species mission Ash. All of the species have directly helped the Commander at one point or another. Tali's evidence got her the goods on Saren, Wrex and Garrus have proved they'd willingly march into hell for her and Liara ..."

"... Is an Asari." Ashley said with a wry look on her face.

Xander glanced over to where Liara was holding a hard suit against herself obviously thinking of making it her regular away mission outfit.

"I'll admit you're not wrong Ash." Xander admitted, "She's an Asari but the heart wants what it wants - and when what the heart wants happens to look good in Ursa light combat armor, I can't really argue that the heart is wrong."

"Her mom is the enemy Xander, I don't care how great her ass looks in armor if your mom was responsible for aiding a terrorist I'd be a little cautious."

Xander grimaced, "If my Mother was helping a terrorist it would be more of an effort then she ever put into anything she ever did...ever," memories of his dysfunctional childhood still rankled him some two centuries after their death, "Still I heard your argument but I think its wrong."

"What the dog bear thing? let me guess ... you think I'm am a racist too?"

"No I just think you're thinking of things from an exclusively human point of view. ...for instance A Turian would agree with your tactical view of the situation. If a bear attacks you and the only way to survive is sic your dog on it and run you do it not out of hatred for the dog but because its the most efficient tactical solution ..of course they'd then bomb the forest down the roots to ensure the bear and its kin were no threat any more."

"Excuse me?

"Then there's the Salarians who would uplift and empower the other creatures of the forest to help confront the bear. Great idea until the other forest creatures then turn around and use the power they now have to become a threat as bad or worse then the bear."

"Maybe "

"Apparently the Quarian solution would be to create a synthetic dog, make it stronger, and smarter then when it's smart enough it bites you and forces you out of your home. The Asari would see you, the dog and the bear as a single entity and try and negotiate a peace between you the dog and the bear."

"Hmm thought you go with the more obvious one " Ashley snickered.

"...That would come after, once they had achieved social political dominance over the forest. Let's face it we are all more open to suggestion when the tingling naughty parts are doing the thinking."

"That's pretty big picture of you. I thought all you cared about was old vids, cracking jokes and chasing tail."

"You wound me," Xander mocked, "and here I was wondering why you seemed so charm proof."

"Look Xander I'm flattered, really I am but there are rules and this mission will be hard enough without..."

"The frat rules are supposed to keep senior officers from taking advantage of junior officers or enlisted personnel. You and I are of equal rank ...more or less."

"There's equal and then there is equal. I mean It hasn't escaped my notice she drags you everywhere."

"You said you went to Macapa Boot Camp which means you heard all the same stories I did. You want HER to drive the MAKO cause If the stories are true, if it had been her at the wheel we might have ended up IN the lava pool. Besides I'm naturally witty. Women love wit it can make up for a glaring lack of real intelligence."

They snickered together. finally Xander paused, "Look I don't know exactly why you feel a need to be the most battle hardened Nun in Citadel space but whatever the reason I'm not going to push. I've lived long enough to know the difference between a no, and not-right-now and you ma'am are definitely putting out not-right-now vibes."

Liara showed up to save him from further conversation. She was looking for mods for her weapons. Ashley looked at the Asari up and down for a moment.

"You like to burn things or freeze 'em? I mean we could go with straight weapons damage, but that's boring."

"What does the Commander prefer?" Liara asked hesitantly

"The commander likes freezing things. Me, I prefer burning 'em. You burn someone, even a glancing blow will take someone out of action. You freeze 'em, and then you have to waste an extra bullet or two to shatter them."

Xander stared at the two females, OK Ash was female Liara maintained she wasn't exactly a woman.

"Okay, I'm going to go look at my engines with their nice normal power transfer rates now, because THIS is, by far, the strangest conversation that I've had to witness in a long, long time."

What Xander didn't mention was that he didn't know whether to be aroused or frightened at how much Ashley reminded him of Faith Lahane ... well a Faith would could bullseye targets at more then a hundred meters. Still thinking of Faith made him think of Dawn. It had been a hundred and fifty years since the younger Summers death. Not a day of those years had passed he did not remember some little thing about Dawn that made him smile. Still she would have wanted him to date again. He hadn't exactly been a monk these last several decades. Still a one night stand here or there to take the edge off wasn't what he wanted.

Maybe waiting until the mission was over wasn't such a bad idea.

Chapter Text



ExoGeni's Zhu's Hope Colony on Feros was a typical corporate colonial setup, meaning the colonists were on Feros ultimately to improve ExoGeni's bottom line. They were always under pressure to find something, anything, that would justify the incredible expense of setting up and maintaining a colony in a hostile intergalactic area. We arrived to find the colony under threat from Geth and Krogan thugs. The colonists were determined to fight for their homes and families, especially their leader Fai-Dan. I'd grown up in a colony just like this one and I'd watched it die, There was nothing I could do to save Mindoir so I was determined to do whatever it took to save Zhu's Hope.


Xander took in the destroyed room strewn with debris and the occasional body of an Exo-Geni employee not lucky enough to escape the Geth forces besieging the tower, dominating the containment room, a huge metallic claw sticking out a large bay door left open to the air. That claw anchored a Geth dropship to the side of the miles high tower. ExoGeni used the tower as their headquarters on Feros, whatever use the protheans had for the tower was a long forgotten memory. That dropship was the reason Shepard, Xander, Liara and Tali had penetrated this far into the Geth's heavily fortified position. The ship's internal systems powered a force shield that blocked off all access to Zhu's Hope and the Normandy. If they wanted to defeat the Geth or ever see their beloved ship again; the dropship would have to be destroyed and the forcefield disrupted.

"Wow Exo-Geni really spared no expense to make it look like they don't give a crap."Xander noted. his comment, sarcasm aside, had a certain honest truth to it. Somehow Xander could not make himself believe all this ruined interior had taken place in the few days the Geth had been running wild

"Colonies like this don't exist to look good Xander," Shepard responded. "... they exist to make money for the sponsoring company. Colonial Development is a huge tax dodge and everybody knows it. You slam a few billion credits into a colonial start-up, submit your expenses to the government revenue office, then you sit back and wait for your big tax refund payday."

"Surely ExoGeni must be interested in scientific discovery?" Tali asked.

Shepard snorted,"Of course they are, since Exo-Geni owns the colony anything discovered or invented because of research done here becomes ExoGeni property. If the colonists try and cash in the company sics their corporate lawyers on them. Corp Lawyers can be as bad as varren."

"You mean they're vicious or that they taste gross." Xander snorted.

"You've eaten varren meat." Liara looked at him with disgust.

"On Akuze," Xander shrugged, "and it was either eat the varren or try eating a thresher maw and varren are easier to catch."

Shepard had noted that for all the lightheartedness of Xander's tone, the man seemed to take an almost sadistic glee in killing the dog-like creatures who had the temperament of sewer rats and the size and mass of pit bull terriers.

Shepard marched ahead to collect Liara who had a habit of wandering into danger. She'd already come face to face with several Krogan mercenaries because she had been too busy cooing over every piece of Prothean architecture and design. Xander noticed Tali looking at one of several terminals he'd seen scattered around the building.

The young Quarian answered his questioning gaze. "Geth Data Nodes," She said, "they help the Geth process thousands of petabytes of information." She ran her fingers delicately over the node.

"Should I leave the two of you alone." Xander quietly mocked.

For someone who wore a full body enviro-suit, Tali Zorah's body language conveyed embarrassment surprisingly well,

"I was raised to hate these creatures." the Quarian explained, "The Geth, near-mythical figures of dread from my childhood, but the first one I'd ever been up close to was the one I disabled to get that data on Saren." She tapped at the node's holographic display. "I should see if I can access this. If the Geth had any orders from Saren some of them might still be logged in the system."

Tali looked hesitant Xander watched the young Quarian engineer, she seemed almost apprehensive .

"You OK over there Tali?" Xander asked.

"Shepard wants to get back to the Normandy." Tali answered, "Hacking this terminal might take awhile." The Quarian was a little in awe of the Commander as most of the Normandy's crew was. Something about being near Shepard brought out the need to do and be your best. even Xander occasionally felt it.

Xander wordlessly stepped up to the node and tapped at his omni-tool. "Give me a second, I'll run a decryption algorithm "

Tali snorted, "Xander, this is a Geth node you aren't slicing a public extranet terminal. Their most basic encryption will consist of character strings of 120 to 240 it would take you ..." Tali was interrupted by beeping from the terminal

"About five seconds ...and that's being generous." Xander said with a triumphant smirk.

Tali looked at the assistant tech in shock, "Keelah ... how did you do that?" she asked.

"My omni-tool has a few off market apps, I got them from a Doctor I know, he gave me a few upgrades including to the decryption and hacking protocols."

Tali looked through the data streams sighing contentedly,"This is interesting."

"Anything about Saren or why the Geth are here?" Xander asked.

"Nothing we don't already know; the Geth refer to the objective as Species 37 just like ExoGeni does. No the interesting thing is a notation on file. There is a return message to Saren advising him to avoid the Armstrong cluster. They're warning Saren to avoid contact with the listening posts in that area "

"Who's Listening Posts?"

"Geth ... there are Geth Listening Posts in the Armstrong Cluster. This makes no sense, the Geth here on Feros often refer to the ones in the Armstrong cluster as ... the closest translation I can think of would be... The Blasphemous or the Faithless. The Geth have evolved religious factional thinking? Oh this is not good."

"The Geth have religion," Xander grimaced. "...And here I thought they were intelligent."

"You don't think highly of religious faith?" Tali asked, Quarians had a deep sense of spirituality. One of the few things that remained of their culture despite the many centuries they'd been wandering though space.

"I have no problem with Faith Tali," Xander soothed, "its religion I'm not fond of. I've seen some pretty screwed up things done in the name of religion."

They were interrupted by Shepard's shout, "Would either of you gear-heads know what the under-over is for a standard Stellar-Dynamics Hydraulic Pressure System?"

Xander bellowed back, "Depends! Usually it's fine at 30 pounds per square inch! Anything over 35 and the system resets when it isn't maintained properly! Why?"

Shepard made an adjustment to technical systems in front of her, "You guys might want to back up." she pressed a switch and a metal door dropped down, its mass amplified by the faulty pressure settings allowed the partition to slice into the claw anchoring the Geth Ship to the room. The room , hell the entire building, shook as the dropship's weight shifted dangerously. The squad watched with mixed emotions as the ship dropped down the side of the miles high building to crash in a fiery heap.

"That was seriously cool Boss," Xander was impressed, "How the hell did you know that would work?" he asked.

"Maintenance work order," Shepard gestured behind her, "looks like they never got around to fixing the pressure equalization, good thing too."

"I hope that ship was filled with those Geth bastards." Tali spat.

Xander shook his head, "Don't feel you gotta hold back Tali, tell us how you REALLY feel." he muttered.

Chapter Text

The Geth were not the biggest problem on Feros, the colonist were possessed. It seems Exo-Geni's science team had discovered a sapient species of plant called the Thorian, well it called itself The Thorian, the thing was alive. by blowing out spores that lesser beings inhaled this giant alien weed could control any organic beings nearby. including the colonists living on the planet.

We descended into the lower levels of the colony and I found myself confronting a previously unknown alien species, a truly unique lifeform ...and trying to kill

...Or as Xander called it in his after-action report ... a slow Tuesday.


The team walked through the dark underground hallways. Shepard had point, aiming the bright beam of her omni-tool's flashlight into the thick shadows.

Liara trailed behind the SPECTRE, obviously nervous and even more obviously not wanting Shepard to see her nervousness.

"I cannot believe that man Fai-dan ...that he could just shoot himself like that." The Asari scientist whispered.

"He didn't just shot himself." Shepard hissed.

"You saw him Doc," Xander replied, "he was fighting this Thorian's influence the whole time. It was forcing him to do it's will. Killing himself was the only escape."

"I'm not letting that thing do that to anymore of the colonists, The Thorian is going to die." Shepard vowed.

Xander glanced at his omni tool's scanners, "I'm reading a large open structure up ahead." he said.

"That's our target people . keep it tight and check targets. it's close quarters down here and I'd rather not take a bullet fired in a panic."

Xander snorted, "Panic? Boss - panic does not even begin to capture how I feel right this second."

"It will be fine," Tali said confidently, "We just need to find this Thorian and determine...what it...what it ... Oh Keelah ..." she trailed off.

Her shock was shared by the rest of the team before them was a thing unlike any creature any of them had ever seen before. Worse yet, it had secured itself to the under-structure of the colony and Xander could see tendrils branching off and meandering into the distance he had little doubt, there were pieces of this thing all across Feros.

"We are going to need bigger guns." Shepard muttered. amazed at the sight of the alien life form.

"This is a plant?" Liara's disbelieving voice echoed the question on all their minds.

"What the hell was Exo-Geni thinking," Xander snapped,

"If they were thinking at all - it was all about their third quarter profit margin." Shepard growled.

"The structure of this thing stretches beyond this room," Tali reported.

"How much beyond?" Shepard asked.

"kilometers easily, " the Quarian answered, "I'm still reading plant matter at the extreme limit of the scanner range."

"The good news," Xander added, " is the main body of the thing will be here. Why else were the colonists so hot to defend this place."

They approached a formation that resembled a head with large thick tendrils hanging down from an opening that suggested a mouth. suddenly it began to convulse. a thick gooey discharge come out of the mouth. The squad jumped back as an Asari dropped to the floor, at least the figure looked like an asari, dressed in the body hugging hardsuits favored by Asari Commandos, one huge difference was the clone's pale and sickly looking green skin.

"Invaders," the clone shouted at them, "A thousand feelers appraise you as meat fit only to dig or to decompose. you are within and before The Thorian, it commands that you be in awe."

"I can do awe," Xander whispered, "Awe is very easy right now."

"I speak for the old growth as I did for Saren." The Clone declared.

"You gave something to Saren, something I need." Shepard snapped.

"Saren sought knowledge of those who are gone. trades were made then cold ones began killing the flesh that was to tend the next cycle flesh fairly given."

"Anybody speak plant?" Shepard growled impatiently.

"Saren made a deal for information," Xander answered, "once he had what he wanted he sent the Geth to destroy the Thorian, of course to do that, they had to wipe out the colonists first."

Years spent watching Giles and Willow poring over obscure prophecies and portends , you picked up the knack of figuring it out when the bad guys made with the mystic mumbo-jumbo.

"No wonder Fai-Dan wanted us to go to Exo-Geni, this thing was hoping we'd kill the Geth before dying ourselves." Shepard snarled, before turning back to the clone. "I don't negotiate with plants give me what I want NOW."

"The Thorian is a piece of this world you can no more kill it then you could cut the sky." a biotic field swelled and shimmered around the clone. "No more will the Thorian listen to those that scurry. your lives are short but have gone on too long."

Shepard whipped up her pistol firing a single shot that shook the clone. but it continued to stare at her with hate.

"Your lives will feed the new growth." The Clone hissed.

Suddenly it was rocked backward and went sailing though the air into the pit underneath. Liara stood looking, a biotic field still swirling around her fist.

"Not bad Doc," Shepard smiled. Liara blushed even as she obviously enjoyed Shepard's praise. Xander watched them, Liara reminded him a lot of Tara, powerful yet still coming to terms with just how powerful she really was.

A low moaning filled the dark corridors , Xander tuned to see a crowd of deformed begins shuffling toward them. their twisted bodies a grotesque mix of plant and human. Xander got the squad's attention,

"Yeah - can she do that about a hundred or so more times." Xander pointed.

The creepers raised clawed hands and began to run at the squad.

"Have I mentioned lately how much I hate zombies." Xander shouted as he fired round after round trying to keep the creepers back. Shepard nailed head shot after head shot. As each shot hit home, the creepers would die but two more seemed to fill any gap in the wall enclosing them.

"They look like the husks I saw on Eden Prime,,,but more organic looking." Shepard muttered as she fired her shotgun, it blast caused her target to explode in a greenish mist.

The squad fell back to an alcove, Shepard and Xander providing cover as Tali and Liara searched for a way out of the basement.

Tali noted the thick bundles attached to the wall "Those nodes," The Quarian engineer pointed, "perhaps if those could be dislodged?"

Shepard unleashed her sniper rifle, Xander recalled the commander's fetish for modding the hyper accurate weapon's payload with high explosive rounds. Shepard snapped off a shot and Xander watched as the wall exploded with great force dislodging the node, a loud cry echoed through the chamber.

"It did NOT like that." Xander shouted firing his pistol on several creepers who were getting too close.

Indeed the Thorian convulsed again and another clone slid out of it's mouth already un-holstering the shotgun at its back. It fired a shot that punched Tali in the stomach. The Quarian fell to the ground with a pain-filled cry as a Creeper loomed over her. It mouth opened and a sickly green foam vomited forth covering the Quarian who panicked.

Xander could see she was trying to protect a rupture in her suit. For a human or Asari a puncture in a hard suit was serious, for a Quarian it was a potential death sentence, toss in whatever sick crap was in the noxious goo covering the Quarian and her fear was more then justified.

Xander dived to cover her with his body feeling several shots impacting with his own suit, he felt fire blossoming along his side, one of the shots had punched through the suit's kinetic barrier.

Shepard, hemmed in trying to keep both herself and Liara alive, was shocked when Xander stood up and pulled his arm back. A hard light blade slid out of his omni-tool. He swept his arm forward cutting the creeper's head off - he spun around in an elegant almost dance-like move, sweeping the blade up and out to cut down two more that were threatening Tali.

The blade retreated back into the omni-tool as Xander looked around the room.

"I got an idea." Xander shouted. as he tapped at his omni-tool again. Suddenly a low rumble was just barely audible. Xander slid his fingers across the control screen and the creepers dropped to the ground screeching.

"What are you doing?" Shepard shouted.

"The foundation is made out of ferro-concrete and since I'm guessing Exo-Geni went with the cheapest building materials they could find, I'm betting they used an unstable metal composite. One neat thing about cheapo composite materials is it only takes a a little high frequency ultrasound to start them vibrating ... and since The Thorian has attached itself to the walls that vibration is echoing though its entire form." Xander sneered a look of dark determination on his face.

The creepers were crying out some exploded in gooey mists as they died. The clone shrieked and cursed at them. One by one the tendrils yanked on the walls jerking the nodes free of the painful vibration the huge creature finally dropped into the pit underneath.

Shepard and Xander looked down into the pit. "You think its dead Boss." Xander asked.

Shepard pulled an incendiary grenade off her belt. she primed it and tossed it down into the pit. Seconds later, a fiery explosion tossed heat and light in their faces.

"If it isn't dead, then it's having a really bad day." Shepard sneered. She tossed Xander another incendiary explosive, "Make sure it's a really really bad day."

"Shepard, we found a survivor." Liara was tending to an Asari who looked a lot like the clones they had been fighting. save that she possessed the more traditional blue skin Shepard associated with "Normal Asari"

"All right, let's hear it. Who are you and how'd you get down here?" Shepard snapped, her gun almost but not quite pointed at the cowering asari.

"My name is Shiala, I served Matriarch Benezia. When she joined with Saren, I did as well. I was sacrificed to secure an alliance."

"...and why did Saren need an alliance with a plant?" Shepard asked.

"To gain access to the Cipher."

"OK lady start talking, What is the Cipher and trust me lady, your answer better be high on the clear and concise and low on the mystic crap."

"if only it was always THAT easy." Xander grumbled.


Shiala, like all Asari, possessed the ability to form a neurochemical bond with any species, an ability that allowed them to procreate but also let Asari share thoughts, feelings and even memories on a mental and almost spiritual level.

Xander called it mind melding and I honestly can't think of a better term.

Shiala had used this ability to take from The Thorian knowledge of the Protheans that had lived on Feros fifty thousand years ago. This was The Cipher - the distilled essence of an entire species, it's memories, it's culture, it's language. It sounded like crap to me but if Saren had been willing go to this much trouble to try and keep me from getting a hold of it, The Cipher was something I was going to want. Shiala used the asari joining to give me the Cipher but it was Liara with her knowledge of the protheans who really helped me. by joining with me she was able to help me organize and even begin to process the barrage of images the beacon on Eden Prime had given me. The experience of Joining was ... not unpleasant and it helped cement my growing attraction to our young (relatively speaking) Asari scientist.

From that point onward Xander would often greet her with the phrase "live long and prosper" - apparently a reference to an old earth television program.

The other reason that fight stood out in my mind was that during it Xander took a shot meant for Tali. She was down for a few days from a minor illness she got as a result of exposure to the Creeper's toxic goo and the damage to her suit. Still it might have been worse if not for Xander's putting himself in harm's way. I could have sworn Xander had also taken a petty serious shot but afterward there was no trace of any wound on his person. which stood out in my mind because I saw his hardsuit and the damaged area on a human could have killed him and should at least have wounded him severely but he seemed ignorant he'd been hurt in any way.

I've also run checks across the extranet. The only hard light omni-blades are still in the testing phase, they wouldn't be ready for another four or five years and the only people working on a high frequency sound generator for a omni-tool say their version is still in the early stages of design ... so how had Xander gotten a hold of the one he had?

Chapter Text



The Mako fell through the skies of Edolus, a mere hundred meters above the ground the tank's jump jets flared bright as the vehicle hit the ground with a soft bounce.

"I gotta say Harris you do one hell of a MAKO drop. This tech I trained with at Fort Charles, I'd swear he did more damage to anyone unlucky enough to be doing a suborbital drop with him then he ever did in combat." Williams commented.

"It's all in the timing Chief," Xander replied, "you go full burn just before you hit ground and the MEF Generator lets you soft-land this sucker."

"Triangulating that Alliance signal," Shepard said as she looked at the on board scanner map.

"Where we going Boss?" Xander asked

"Big open area, should be about two kliks from the drop site." Shepard pointed at the screen.

"Then away we go." Xander opened the throttle and let the Mako leap ahead. The vehicle bounced over rock and hills with Xander giving the occasional rebel yell as the tank cleared a rise, catching air before landing on the soft sand of a big open patch of land.

"That's our target," Shepard pointed at the still smoldering hulk of a M29 Grizzly. Xander slowed the Mako to a stop next to the Mako's squat all-terrain vehicle bastard cousin. As the squad climbed from the Mako, Xander saw bodies laying around They were dressed in the drab colors of the Systems Alliance.

"I recognize this unit patch." Ashley said quietly, "These were Kahoku's men."

"What the hell were they doing way out here?" Xander asked as he ran his hands over the beacon sitting unattended.

"There's the beacon," Shepard wondered."...but what happened to them?"

Xander wandered over to the Grizzly. His fingers trailed over the pitted and scarred hull. Suddenly it came to him, he bent to look closer. The scarring on the Grizzly's armor, it sparked a memory, screams in the dark, men and women running for their lives and the monstrous shapes dragging men to their deaths underground or watching them scream, as powerful acid ate it's way past kinetic barriers and the armor underneath.

Harris bent to look at the bodies, their hardsuits were riddled with holes, the kind of damage Xander remembered all too well. Xander dropped to the ground. his fingers brushed earth at his feet. he felt the pulsing, that oh so familiar pulsing, Xander's blood ran cold.

"We have to leave , we have to leave right now." Xander snapped

"We haven't finished investigating." Shepard replied.

"We don't need to investigate, I know what happened - they landed near the beacon, just like we did. They got out to investigate it, just like we did. ... and just like before, THEY were waiting."

"Who was waiting," Shepard asked him. "What are you talking about Harris?"

Suddenly a mind-numbing roar shook them to the bone. The ground several meters away churned and exploded as a huge worm tore itself free of the earth.

"Thresher Maw!" Xander yelled.

"Get to the Mako!" Shepard shouted. They fled for the safety of the M35. Xander gunned the engine into life, spinning the thing around and heading for a rocky out cropping that formed a kind of perimeter for the plain.

The Thresher Maw retreated underground. So rapid and complete was it's disappearance that no trace seemed left of the grotesque hulk.

It's gone," Ashley sighed

"That's what it likes you to think." Xander growled. He floored it, driving the tank across the plain so fast the vehicle would catch air from even the smallest deviations in the terrain. Xander suddenly felt a sicking vibration swelling under his feet. He cranked the stick over hard, weaving the tank away from his course only a split-second before the Thresher Maw tore its way out of the ground in their path.

So close was the creature to them that the Thresher struck out with its huge talons. The reinforced hull clanged loudly as the single claw struck the tank a glancing blow. The tank bounced as it was thrown through the air, rolling and bouncing across the plain several times before landing on its top, wheels spinning.

Xander could see the creature drop into the ground and reappear close by, its huge bulk reared back as it claws came swinging down toward the helpless vehicle. Xander gunned the jump-jets hard and the Mako slid across the sand until its gyro-stabilizer system kicked in and the vehicle flipped over to land on its wheels.

Xander reversed but everyone was jolted hard when the Mako hit an obstacle - the stationary Grizzly. He gunned the engine, in theory the tank should have been able to easily scale the junked vehicle behind but the facts were cripplingly clear. the Grizzly wasn't going anywhere, the Mako could get no purchase in the soft and shifting sand, and if he didn't do something in seconds they'd be dead.

"All wheel drive my bony ASS." Xander cursed, as he opened the throttle, the Mako jolted forward toward the Thresher Maw. the creature roared in joy as they drew closer and reared back. Its head snapped forward and Xander saw the thick gooey mass of greenish liquid sail through the air toward them but Xander veered away and the tank slid out of the path of the viscous goo the creature spit at them. Harris spun the vehicle around then stopped.

"What are you doing?" Williams snapped

"It can track us and pop up underneath us anywhere we go in the area." He gunned the jump jets to avoid another splashing by the acidic goo the Thresher maw used. "... but It won't go underground as long as we stay here."

"Great so if we're sitting ducks it will be happy." Ashley snapped as she grabbed the gunnery position firing the mounted chaingun right down the Thresher Maw's huge mouth until the weapon would overheat, then she'd switch to firing blasts from the mass accelerator cannon, hardened slugs exploded with great force across the thick hide of the monster.

Shepard however knew and understood what was in Xander's mind "You sure about this Sailor, absolutely sure?" She asked quietly.

Xander answered her by scrambling away from the controls. "Grab those jump jet controls Boss, see that big sack near its mouth, when you see it contract its about toe spit hit the jets and we should be fine. Can I borrow that sniper rifle?"

Shepard nodded and handed him her Volkov. "Williams keep firing, aim for the head." Shepard ordered.

Xander kicked open the entry door hopping out the side.

Williams screamed, "Now where the hell do you think you're going?"

Xander didn't answer, just walked a short distance from the Mako.

Ashley shouted at Shepard who shook her head "It's fine Williams, just think of it as confrontation therapy." The commander said and pointed.

Xander lined up the sniper rifle, through the scope he could look right into the things face, "From Hell's heart I stab at thee." he whispered and squeezed the trigger. The shot exploded in the maw's face and the creature let out a final wail before crashing to the ground.

Ashley stopped her assault but Xander just approached the thing closer while wrenching the slide on the weapon, a blast of steam bathing his face as he flushed the heat sink.

He stared at the creature for a long time. Memories of his old squad ran through his head. That night on Akuze. The long days afterward surviving, waiting for rescue and wondering if this was the universes big joke, that he'd survived vampires, demons and Hell Gods just to rot here on this lonely patch of ground surrounded by the accusing eyes of the dead. "Why did it have to be you," they screamed, "Why not Faith or Buffy, Buffy would have saved us."

He aimed again, "For hate's sake, " Xander whispered, "I spit my last breath at thee. " The explosive shell boomed and the carcass of the maw shuddered but stayed where it was, its huge talons anchoring its dead weight above ground.

Xander wrenched the slide again obviously bent on firing at the carcass again and again. As if by obliteration of the body he could purge the memories it conjured. Suddenly Shepard's hand was there, the gentle weight of her hand riding the sniper rifle away from his face.

"... He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." She whispered gently as she took the Sniper rifle in her stronger grip. Xander released the weapon. "How long you been carrying that around inside you?" She asked.

"I wasn't even supposed to be there you know," Xander explained, "One of the other guys in the unit, his wife went into labour so I subbed in for him. Traded away my leave so he could watch his wife squeeze out another unit. I figured, what could go wrong, its just their communication systems down, we get down there and it will be fine - what could take out an entire colony so fast no one has a chance to signal or call for help? - Guess I forgot, I'm Xander Harris - Universal Butt Monkey."

"You OK?" Shepard asked

"Yeah, feel good, better then, actually." Xander said quietly. He moved forward pulling his service knife from his belt and cutting into the flesh securing the blotted acid sac to the body of the thing.

"What are you doing, now you want a trophy?" Ashley asked

"It's for Wrex. Bringing down a Thresher Maw was considered a sign of great virility even before the genophage."

"Krogan would willingly try and fight these things?" Ashley didn't know whether that news scared or amazed her.

"Some people are a little easier to impress then you are Chief." Xander mocked gently, "anyway we should tell Kahoku we found his Marine unit."

"An Alliance beacon used as bait, to trap a marine unit in a thresher maw nest " Shepard muttered

"A marine unit scouting the system for clues about a possible Alliance black op." Xander reminded her.

"Come on," Shepard growled, "we should get back to the our ship Joker can get us back to The Citadel and we can get some answers about what's going on."

"Neat, " Xander replied, "Hey maybe creepy stalker guy will be there. Conrad whatshisname. "

Xander had aquired a new and much resented ability to imitate the star struck Conrad Verner, he would often slip into the mans voice, "No one will believe i met the beautiful Commander Shepard unless I have a picture." Xander mocked.

Shepard looked at Xander balefully, "Don't start Harris or I swear to God..."

Xander held up his hands to forestall her explosion, She shook her head and smiled. They headed back toward the Mako.

Shepard laid her hand on Harris shoulder. "You did good, Kahoku's men will rest easier now."

"They won't be the only ones." Xander answered.

"Is that the first time you've seen one since..." Shepard trailed off. her meaning clear.

Xander nodded, "Don't worry about me Commander, I know how Moby Dick ends ... I ain't ending up like Ahab it's just ..."

"I know," Shepard smiled "it's good knowing what kind of man I have watching my back in combat. and obsession can be healthy in low doses."

"Should I get you two a room" Williams muttered.

Shepard flipped Ashley off .

"Now Commander," Xander joked. "that is so not very lady-like."

"...and when exactly did I leave you with the impression that I was a lady." Shepard sneered.

Williams climbed back in the Mako and tried hard not to think about the flare of jealousy that had blossomed when Shepard and Xander were bantering. The Commander was spending way too much time with the Asari for it not to be obvious which team SHE played for, so Ashley figured she needn't be that worried about Shepard and Xander logging bunk-time ... still, just for a second, she'd been feeling almost ...territorial.

Hours later Shepard was prowling the CIC when she saw an environmental alert pinging. she tapped the tech who was at the console. he gulped under her stern look.

"Ma'am, Technical Sargent Harris said the internal systems were malfunctioning and that it might give false readings. He said he'd check any alerts out personally.

"Oh he did, did he?" Shepard growled.

Shepard headed down to the cargo hold and sure enough Xander and Wrex were sitting over a field burner the cargo hold was filled with a rancid stench whose only source could be the thresher meat cooking on the burner.

"Would one of you idiots like to tell me who gave you permission to start a fire on my ship." Shepard snapped.

"Shepard, You had a Thresher Hunt and didn't invite me? I'm hurt, figuratively speaking." Wrex replied, His voice had that thick quality that, along with the open bottle of ryncol, The Krogan liquor of choice , next to him meant he was drunk or pretty damn close to it.

"Don't look at me," Xander explained, "I just gave him the meat, then he said I had to stay while he cooked it up then I had to join him I hate thresher meat and I not a big drinker but I figured it would be rude to just leave and ... I'm going to be on extra duties aren't I?"

"I seem to recall someone putting in for extra manpower so Adams could recalibrate the engine conduits ...i think you can handle that on your own now. And it you disable internal security again I'll shove your ass in an airlock. .. Now open Williams locker I know she's hiding some booze and I am not drinking alone Harris so suck it up."

The three of them toasted the fallen on Edolus , then they drank a toast to Xander's unit on Akuze and then Wrex felt Xander and Shepard needed to hear about his most epic battle, the one that had ended with the death of Wrex's father after the old Krogan had tried to kill him. After that, Xander felt a another round needed drinking because ... if there was one thing he understood, it was the pain of your father letting you down.

Chapter Text

UNC: Major Kyle

As the door to her cubbyhole burst open, jack's biotics flared and she slammed her intruder up against the bulkhead. That she barely glanced up from the omni-tool she was tapping away at to do it was a lot of the reason why she was the most powerful biotic in the isolated commune. It was also a reminder to Pasha, the East Indian currently struggling for her next breath that there was a reason you didn't bother Jack in her personal space, or really bother her at all. It was already pretty obvious with her volatile temper and staggering level of biotic power that unless you had gotten tired of living, Jack was best left alone at all times. She'd made it abundantly clear she had no problem killing ANYONE who so much as glanced at her wrong.

"Jack, Jack - please ... it's me Pasha let me go." The girl gasped, "Father Kyle is in danger. There are more Alliance troops. they just arrived."

"Shit, How many of these assholes do I have to kill anyway?" The tattooed woman snarled. Pasha recognized a few of the tattoos Jack sported. The story they told of where she had been, what she had done and who she'd done it to, was a story Pasha was kind of scared of hearing.

"They say it was some soldier Kyle used to know. They call her the Butcher of Torfan, she's told him plain as day that if he doesn't give up, she'll kill every one of us and she sounded serious. I think she'd do it too."

"She could try it." Jack growled.

"Jack you didn't see her eyes, there was something dark in there ... if the stories about Torfan are true, I wouldn't mess with this chick or the crew she's brought with her. If she's really the Butcher - I think she'd kill anyone she had to."

"Pasha living is hard - death is simple ... easy ... fucking on-off switch. "

"Whatever Jack I'm scared for Father."

Jack looked at Pasha and shook her head, Pasha was a follower through and through. That was how she'd ended up on this god forsaken rock in the midst of a biotic cult compound in the first place. Pasha had followed another biotic here, another lost soul lured by Father Kyle's promises of safety and community. Hell that was why Jack was here.

Father liked to think they were all equal and special little snowflakes. Jack knew better, you get a group together and someone always needs to establish dominance, needs to show they have control over everyone else. That wasn't just her talking it was millions of years of human evolution talking.

That was Pasha's ...well boyfriend didn't really capture the disparity between them did it, call it what it was, Pasha's owner, the latest of several - Jack had little doubt. Some people thought their lives were better when someone else made the choices for them. They come off like bullies just like Pasha's little boytoy had. His name was Reno emphasis on the was ... He'd done what a lot of stupid people do. He looked at Jack's tattoos, her beestung lips, her bald head and slight but athletic figure and saw something he could control and intimidate. Reno has set out to fuck with her to prove he was the stronger of the two, there was only one problem with that scenario, he wasn't stronger - he had no idea how very weak he was or how much he looked like one of the men who had hurt her, abused her, and ironically turned her into the bad-ass biotic bitch she was now.

Jack had actually been looking forward to it , even enjoyed it a little when he came for her. It had felt so good to just let go, she'd made a show of it. Reno had a small group of followers, people like Reno always had followers , they couldn't function without an audience. Jack had started with them, she'd left them alive however. jack had wanted them to see what she did to Reno, see his humiliation, his fear and when she was finished toying with him, she made him grovel like a dog before she ended it.

No one fucked with her after that.

It hadn't taken long for Pasha to come around to Jack after that. That was what her kind did, find the strongest and hang on to them hoping for protection. Reno had been that protection but with Reno dead she needed someone new but Jack was no protector. What Jack was however, was someone with enough life experience to know that people like Pasha had their uses ... even if it was just as something to trade when creds weren't available or acceptable.

Jack put the finishing touches on a new haiku. She had no idea why she liked poetry, no idea why she liked reading it or writing it but sometimes reading about pain and loss expressed in lyrical form made it seem less real. She had a few pieces posted on the extranet under a screen name. Jacqueline Naught, had a small group of readers most were posers acting like they knew shit. she dismissed most of them except for one guy ... SunnyD-boi, whoever he was he had a taste for beat poetry. They traded barbed comments back and forth. Whoever he was he wasn't some kiss ass who thoughtlessly heaped false praise on crappy work or a poser who crapped all over people more talented then he was. He even had a few works posted. She was reading one now. another reprint of a dead poet he called William The Bloody, Jack liked the guy's stuff She had to respect anyone with the balls to use effulgent - not an easy word to find a rhyming scheme for.

"Jack, Father needs us." Pasha whined.

"Fine let's go deal with this shit so I can get back to doing something fun." Jack snarled, "Gimme a smoke!" Another nice thing about having a shadow was Pasha could score shit for her. It was sometimes nice getting things without having to steal them herself or kill someone else for them. Pasha never complained when Jack sent her on missions, her kind never did. Considering the kind of shit Reno had her doing, scamming smokes for Jack was a vacation. She pulled out a carefully hidden smoke, handing it to Jack who lit it up. Jack took huge satisfying drags as they walked toward the central meeting area. Pasha walked a little behind Jack , a bit of a swagger in her stride. Jack knew that Pasha hinted to some they'd been intimate, It wasn't true and Jack might have to put a stop to it by publicly slapping her down but the rumors served to intimidate some. Jack liked it when people were a little afraid of her, it made them less inclined to fuck with her.

Father was there alright looking serene and calm, of course he was calm. Jack was there, that meant he wouldn't have to get his hands dirty doing the actual killing. Jack had done the last two idiots as well.

Jack would have dismissed Father Kyle as just another user out for what he could grab but he'd avoided one big misstep, the most important as far as Jack was concerned. As far as Jack knew, Kyle didn't mess with the other girls. She'd watched Pasha and a few others try but Kyle had avoided their advances so far ... so far. Lets face it Kyle was a man and with a man it always came down to sex. Jack was sure he'd slip up one day. It didn't matter to Jack as long as he kept his hands off her, Jack had a special hate inside her for guys who didn't know how to keep their hands to themselves around her ...and a couple of special tricks she'd come up with over the years, skilfull application of a biotic field could do a lot of damge to a man. You did it wrong and they were dead, but if you did it right - they could still walk afterward, they just never wanted to ever again remove their clothes in someone else's presence.

"My children," Father Kyle said in that deep voice of his, "When this Shepard comes do not do anything to provoke her."

"What if she tries and hurts you Father" Pasha asked.

Father Kyle smiled oddly "I assure you Pasha, with Shepard there is no such thing as try. There's a legend of a great warrior back on Earth. It was said that so great was his fighting skill he could kill anyone he wanted. If he set out to kill God then God would die. I think that could be said of Shepard. In combat she is the most frightening warrior I have ever known, entirely without mercy or pity. That is why I tell you again, unless she attacks you first, do nothing to provoke her." Father Kyle looked at Jack then, his meaning clear.

"What the fuck-ever." Jack sneered.

The door to the room opened then and a small squad entered. a Turian and two human. The male looked around the room.

"Isolated location-check, mindless droogs with near religious devotion -check, loudspeaker for preaching to the socially mal-adjusted - check ... this idiot is running the Jonestown playbook step-by-step."

"A cultist leader from Earth's history I take it?" the Turian drawled.

The male nodded "That one did not end well." He caught sight of Jack and waved, "Hunny, could I get my poisoned koolaid in grape flavour please - twist of lime and some ice?"

Jack resolved right then to kill him first when the time came to stop screwing around. Then she saw HER. Jack found she could not look away from those eyes. her aura, Jack was a killer several times over but in that moment, when those eyes ran over her apprising her and then dismissing her, she felt very small. This woman was a Killer with a capital K, she'd killed and killed again and become something entirely different in the process.

"The Butcher Of Torfan," Father Kyle said with a slight smile, "... so they sent you - did they Joan?"

The chick startled at Father's words, "You knew someone would come especially after you killed those other alliance reps." Shepard said. her voice filled with cold menace.

Kyle nodded, the regret in his voice almost sounded sincere, "They spoke against me, against my children, they spoke blasphemy. I had to deal with them." the cult leader replied.

"Did you kill them?" Shepard asked, her gaze burned.

Kyle looked away from Jack as he answered Shepard, "I promise you Shepard they did not suffer, their end was quick and painless."

"I thought as much," Shepard folded her arms and looked with disgust at Father as if he were a small and pitiful thing, "You want to log a Section Eight discharge, you do it on your own time Kyle. I know you aren't crazy no matter what Hackett and the others say. You're no madman and you sure as hell never cared a damn for biotics when I knew you. What you are Kyle, is a coward - pure and simple. You were a coward five years ago on Torfan. You're a coward now; and the only thing that will likely change about you is you'll become an even bigger coward and eventually knock up one of these deluded idiots and she'll push out a few children who will be as cowardly as their father."

The silence in the room was almost tangible. Finally, it was broken by the mouthy male, who said, "Geez, boss, personal issues much? You might want to dial it back a little. I don't think these guys will like you talking that way about their leader."

"Harris if they were going to do anything they'd already be moving. I bet he's told them to stand back because he knows what will happen if anyone in this room raises a biotic field to so much as scratch their nose, I will raze this building and everyone in it down to the dust. How am I doing Major? Did you warn them not to move - not to breath unless I fire first?"

"They aren't to blame for what happened they are pure, innocent - please leave them be Shepard?"

"I don't care about them Kyle, I'm here to being you in. If they stay fine - if they go fine, but if they stand in my way - God help them. and God damn you if you're such a coward that you'd make them die for you."

"I'm sorry- Shepard." Kyle whispered.

"I'm five years past giving a crap about you and your sorry. You have one hour, if you aren't in front of this compound waiting for the Sixth Fleet detachment; then I will come back for you Kyle and I swear by all that is holy I will make you watch ... you will live to see the price others pay for your cowardice."

Shepard turned on her heel and walked out.

"I love it when she does that." The Turian sighed.

"You have a creepy shrine somewhere, don't you?" The male human asked wryly, and the Turian's body language screamed embarrassment.

"She's our leader I admire her." The Turian explained.

"Would you like a picture? You know that nobody will believe that you know the Beautiful Commander Shepard if you don't have a picture," he taunted gently.

The turian looked at him, "OK now's its starting to creep ME out how much like Verner you sound when you do that."

The male paused "Actually it's starting to creep me out a little too." he muttered as they left.

"What the fuck just happened?" Jack snapped.

"Pasha, if you could tell the others ... I'll be giving myself over to the Alliance. This has gone too far. I'll not see the rest of you hurt because of my mistakes."

Jack sneered, "You really bending over and taking it from that bitch, she doesn't scare me."

Kyle looked at her, "Jack I know you aren't stupid so I'll assume your lying to yourself about that. Don't do it, You've killed and you do it well but you aren't in Shepard's league. Maybe one day you will be but that day is not today."

"Fine I'm out of here."

Pasha trailed after her, "If your leaving maybe I could come with you, you know in case you need backup. You going to Omega?"

"That's the idea " Jack smiled, she knew the kind of ship captains who went to Omega liked their poorer female passengers to pay in installments for passage. Pasha would be useful cred for getting them there then she could be dumped as soon as Jack could get another ride.


Xander dropped a datpad in front of Shepard who was staring into a cup of coffee like it was the future. She was fingering another data pad

"Hackett just sent word, Kyle gave himself up. The Biotics are heading for the hills. you may officially consider yourself covered in glory."

"Yah me, " Shepard drawled, "Have Joker plot exit vectors for as many of them as we can. Might as well let Alliance High Command know a bunch of pissed-off biotics are running around with head full of Kyle's anti-social garbage."

"You were a little harsh down there don't you think."

"Meaning?"

"You practically threatened to kill every man woman and child down there if Kyle didn't give himself up."

"That's why I like bringing my own personal moral compass along on missions."

"Kaiden is the boyscout Boss, I get your whole Ends-Justify-the Means mentality but ... "

Shepard held up her hand to interrupt him, "One of those - pure and innocent - people killed two Alliance personnel who's only crime was not seeing Kyle for what he really is. Not all of us find it easy to let something like that go Xander."

"You were bluffing right, you wouldn't have really killed every one there just to punish Kyle for sticking you with the bag for everything that went down at Torfan."

Shepard looked at Harris, her cold gaze was all the answer Xander would ever need. Xander sometimes wondered if Torfan had created Shepard, or had it just given her a stage so the person she really was inside could finally come out to play. Suddenly Xander's omni-tool bleeped, about an incoming E-mail.

"More mail from your angsty poetess?" Shepard asked with an amused grin.

"Ah, Jacqueline is OK she's even kind of talented. I mean she sounds like a thirteen year old who dresses in black and cuts herself but she's still pretty good." He scanned the email and cursed, "How in hell could she possibly like Spike's poetry."

"Old friend?" Shepard asked,

"Very old and gone now like most of them. I used to hate him but if he showed up now I'd hug him, then I punch him out but the hug would be genuine and from the heart."

Such thoughts just depressed him so he changed the subject by sliding the datapad he'd brought closer to Shepard. "incidentally," Xander reported "Garrus and I did a little due diligence, He pressed some of his contacts at C-Sec and they confirm Kahoku's dropped out of sight. It's like the galaxy swallowed him whole."

"The Galaxy or Cerberus?" Shepard asked

"Either way no one has seen him or heard from him."

Shepard nodded and handed Xander the datapad in already in her hands.

"Run that up to Joker, its the co-ordinates for that research world Cerberus is using. I'm thinking its time to find out just how deep this particular rabbit hole goes."

Chapter Text

Shepard and Williams waited tense and impatient while Xander and Kaiden cut through the door lock controlling access to X57's main control facility.

"I'm telling you Boss something weird is going on." Xander insisted. for the umpteenth time since they'd hit dirt-side in response to a priority one distress call.

"You mean weirder then Batarian Extremists trying to drop a rock the size of a small planet on a couple of million innocent people?" Shepard replied.

"Look I get it Boss, batarians bad - but something doesn't add up. That woman Kate Bowman she said there were three active fusion torches pushing this rock toward Terra Nova, so who shut down the second one? Who took out the squad of batarians who were manning that torch? We found the other members of the mining team safe and sound. Who took out the batarian squads hunting them down? I'm telling you Boss there is someone else on this rock."

"That's got it" Kaiden muttered as the lock fell away. Kaiden's biotics flared as he channeled a blast of force at the door pushing it open far enough that he and Xander could get a grip and pull the door aside.

"Finally, what was the problem?" Shepard grumbled.

"Someone jammed the door," Alenko explained, "Screwed the mechanism up completely. But it was how it was jammed that's weird. Someone ripped the door out of its housing then put it back and jammed it shut. I had to hit it with a pretty strong biotic kick just to get the door open again."

"Why rip the door apart? why not use the key or just omni-gel that sucker?" Ashley asked.

"Maybe they didn't have the front door key like we did." Xander pointed out. "Still there is something kinky about all of this."

There was something very familiar about the way the batarians had been neutralized. Whoever had done it had not fired a single round of ammo. The Batarians had all been taken down at close range with overwhelming force.

Shepard grimaced, "Fine, we may not be the only ones on this rock fighting the batarians. Check your targets and try NOT to hit our friendly, but neutralizing the batarian threat has to be our top priority."

The quartet marched into the main facility to find batarians strewn all over the room.

"Someone hit this place hard " Kaiden whispered.

"They hit the batarians pretty hard too." Xander agreed, "I'm no doctor but I'm thinking bodies don't work too good when you have as many broken bones as this guy does."

He gestured to a Batarian laying moaning on the floor. Like his fellow terrorists, he'd been the victim of blunt force trauma. Every bone in his arms and legs clearly broken to keep him from escaping.

"You humans are more trouble then your worth." A new voice hissed. A Batarian flanked by several scared looking thugs plus few of the dog-like varren.

Shepard's gun came up shooting even as a kinetic barrier spring to life separating them. "Balak I take it?" the Spectre hissed.

"I don't know how you managed to take out my people, but you're too late. I have the facility wired; your friends are trapped."

Balak waved toward a room. Xander could see several people sealed inside. The beeping from his omni-tool's scanner confirmed his worst fears.

"There's a bomb," he reported, "going off out here, would be bad, If it goes off in there with the hostages ..." Xander trailed off.

Shepard's cold eyes were resolute. "That's not how this works Balak. You don't get to walk away after trying to pull off an asteroid drop."

"This is nothing," Balak shouted, "You humans have done far worse to the batarians, stealing our resources, forcing us to live on scraps, the war was declared long ago, I'm just firing back."

"You do realize its crap like this that makes everybody think Batarians are scum right?" Xander growled

"I thought they were scum long before this." Ashley replied.

"I'm from Mindior I KNOW they're scum." Shepard snarled.

"Ah Mindior," Balak sneered, "you humans always trumpet that battle as if we didn't give your Systems Alliance fair warning of our territorial claims. Of course you ignored us, your people always ignore us; we had no choice, we had to get your attention..."

"Was that what Elysium was," Shepard snorted, "trying to get our attention? Funny, but after you got it; you run like cowards and hid on Torfan."

"You would know about that wouldn't you?" Balak ranted, "The Great Commander Shepard - The Butcher Of Torfan, how many innocent civilians did you personally gun down?"

"There were no innocents on Torfan," Shepard snorted, "Slavers, drug dealers, pirates, they're all criminals and monsters in my books and I can kill monsters."

"Even the women and children?"

"Funny, You didn't seem concerned about the women and children living on Mindior ... on Elysium."

"Funny, you humans don't seem to have a problem with the Asari practicing slavery or don't you think of indentured servitude as slavery?" Balak sneered.

Xander snorted, "I'm no expert on indentured servitude but the fact you get PAID , that you have to agree to it , and the decided lack of painful brain implantation are a couple of big arguments in favour of the Asari method."

"Enough, you couldn't understand ...or maybe it's just you don't want to understand." Balak shouted.

"I understand an Alliance Citizen, Kate Bowman was taken hostage she had better be in one piece Balak." Shepard snapped.

She was executed as an enemy of the Batarian State, as for her coward brother ... If you don't get out of my way, he and everyone else in that room DIE." Balak's fingers dangled over the controls of his omni-tool. the meaning painfully clear.

"Maybe we should think about it Boss." Xander whispered.

"Alliance policy is clear ... so is Citadel policy; we don't negotiate with extremists." Shepard turned to Balak, "Do what you want with the hostages Balak but it WILL be the last thing you EVER do."

Balak smiled and tapped a command into his Omni-tool

Suddenly a scream cut the air as a blond headed blur few at the door to the room with the hostages.

Buffy?" Xander whispered unbelieving.

Buffy Summers plunged her fingers into the metal door like it was made of paper and ripped it off its housing. She shoved the sheet of metal that had been a door into the room slamming the junked door against the bomb and trapping it against the bulkhead wall.

There was a muffled explosion followed by whining from the station's VI "Explosive decompression, explosive decompression, kinetic barriers are in place - please contact facility control."

"Buffy?" Xander repeated.

Buffy ignored him, instead - dropping the door she'd used to muffle the explosion and protect the hostages. She marched across the room, blurring again as she moved too quickly for human eyes to track. She raked her fingers across the kinetic barrier shorting it out.

The varren at Balak's side jumped at the Slayer's throat. She punched her fist down the beast's throat and Xander heard a sickening wet crunch from deep inside the creature. It fell dead on the floor.

The troops with Balak raised weapons to try and shoot her. Xander reacted instantly shorting out their weapons with his omni-tool while Kaiden used his to overload their shields. Shepard and Williams gunned them down in a heartbeat.

Balak ran but his was a pitiable mortal speed against a pissed off Vampire Slayer, Summers snatched him up violently shaking him by the throat.

"You killed Katie ... " she shrieked, "right in front of her brother, you killed Katie."

"Buffy?" Aaron scrambled from the room. At his back the other survivors unsure of how or why they were still breathing but thankful nevertheless.

Buffy ignored him, She slammed Balak against a bulkhead and Xander could hear his ribs snapping. If Batarian's HAD ribs Balak had just a lost a few of his.

"You and me Four-Eyes, are going to have a hell of a time." Buffy hissed.

"No arguments from me." Shepard sneered, her voice husky with her own hatred and bloodlust.

"Buffy, leave him alone." Aaron shook her.

"He killed Katie." Buffy snarled. her rage, her hate was almost palpable.

"I know," Aaron whispered, "she, ... when they came I just wanted us to hide but she ... she was brave, braver them me."

"He killed Katie right in front of you." Buffy repeated shaking Balak again.

"I know but Katie wouldn't want this " Aaron insisted.

"Katie's not around to ask is she?" Buffy shouted.

"Katie believed in justice not revenge," Aaron answered; standing defiant in front of Buffy, "If you care about her, if you love her, you would honor her memory ...don't let them make you something you're not."

"This is what I am - this is what I'm supposed to be doing. Defending people like Katie from monsters like THIS." Buffy answered him. She slammed Balak against the bulkhead again. another bone snapped, maybe another rib this time or was it a shoulder.

"He's not a monster Buffy," Aaron responded quietly, "he's a sad angry man. Don't give in to him, please don't use Katie's death as an excuse for that. Katie deserved better and so do you."

Buffy dropped him on the floor. with a frustrated sob.

"You think you can keep him from running away now." Buffy grumbled at the soldiers as she walked toward Aaron.

"He won't be doing any running when I'm done with him." Shepard's grim face was set as she pulled her gun.

Aaron rushed past Buffy to stand in front of the Spectre.

"He's been captured," Bowman argued, "... arrest him, let the law handle it from here."

"You would actually put yourself in harm's way for this piece of garbage?" Shepard asked.

"Yes I would," Aaron snapped, "the question is, would you really hurt me just so you can kill him?"

Shepard looked at the small man. finally she turned her head, "I'm sorry for your loss Mister Bowman - if you'll excuse me, my people need to take the prisoner into custody."

Aaron kept shaking until Buffy came over and he threw his arms around her and they wept openly into each others shoulders.

Shepard took control of the situation then, handing Balak over to Alliance Authorities.

Ashley was still amazed at what Buffy had done, Kaiden not so much.

"A lot of Untrained Biotics when they start out instinctively channel their abilities to create mass effect fields that allow them to perform feats of strength." he explained.

Xander had to admit, untrained biotic sounded a hell of a lot better then gang member on PCP or the other unlikely justifications he'd heard for the strange things he had seen in his lifetime.

Eventually the time came to depart, Shepard seemed uncomfortable around Aaron and made it clear Normandy would depart sooner rather then later. Aaron Bowman and Buffy joined them at the space dock to saw them off. Buffy was amazed at the sight of the high tech Normandy.

"Listen Buff, I'm sorry about Katie, I wish we'd been able to get to her sooner." Xander whispered when they had a moment alone.

"I should have come sooner." Buffy heaved a sad sigh, "I was listening to colony comm traffic when I heard the alert. It took me a while to steal a shuttle and get up to that damn space rock."

"So you and Aaron huh?" Xander asked

"He's ...normal very , very normal." Buffy sighed. "When he and Katie found out ... about me ... they didn't freak out. They just dealt with it, you know?"

"That sounds familiar." Xander replied.

"So dear Brother-in-Law," Buffy said pointedly, "I haven't seen you since you were laid up at Arcturus Medical Station, I thought you were going to leave the military after that whole space worm thing."

"A very wise woman once used her powers of resolve face on me. Kept quoting Spider-Man at me. Now every time I think of slacking off or running away, I hear her voice."

"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility." Buffy smiled "Dawn believed in you so much. and here you are ..."

"... following around another champion on a mission to stop another apocalypse. Except this one's galactic-scale," Xander sighed. "I sense a theme developing in my life."

"Now you sense it," Buffy snorted "It's only been like what? ...two centuries?"

Xander hugged Buffy then, "I'm sorry I was such a basket case back then. I lost a wife but you lost a sister I should have been..."

Buffy cut him off "She said you'd be a little wacky afterward, begged me not to give up on you. She would have been proud to see you running around the galaxy saving people."

"Sometimes we save people," Xander replied, "Shepard's kind of hardcore if you hadn't noticed. If you hadn't been there, she would have let the hostages die to keep Balak from escaping." He shuddered at the thought.

"I was on Elysium during The Blitz. I know what we're up against out here." Buffy whispered.

"The Angel of Elysium?" Xander asked disbelieving. "That was you?"

Buffy nodded, "You know how it goes, wrong place right time. The tricky part was keeping anyone from seeing my face. Last thing I need was anyone remembering me."

"Instead, they have a memorial to the unknown hero who saved the colony." Xander muttered.

"Oh really, I should get out there and see it." Buffy replied.

"It's a popular spot for couples to get married " Xander said, the implication heavy in his voice.

"Leave it alone," Buffy punched him in the arm, "we're in a good place right now. Why get a piece of paper?"

Xander snorted, "He's working himself up to it but you aren't sure you want to."

"Xander its been Two Hundred Years - I barely have any gray hairs. It tore you apart watching Dawn ..." Buffy paused, "I just don't know if I could go through that..."

"Then you take joy in every day you do have. You thank God for it and hold on to them." Xander insisted his own resolve face set.

"Wow, way to hallmark card the moment Xander," Buffy gently mocked him, "who told you that?"

"You did, the day before I proposed to Dawn. We ended up having a ton of great years together. I think Sunnydale High's Class Protector deserves no less."

Buffy was touched, "I think I still have that parasol around somewheres."

Chapter Text


Xander knocked gently on Shepard's office door. He barely heard her soft whisper, "Enter."

She sat in the room's only comfortable chair; looking out the window at the cold black of space just beyond the re-enforced plasti-steel.

"We passed a comm buoy when we transited through that last system." Xander reported, "Lieutenant Girard sent an update on that girl Talitha. She seems to be doing okay ... Keeps asking if her angel will come again?"

"Eight years old Xander," Shepard's whisper was harsh, "she was eight when they took her, enslaved her , turned her into ... I hate them, I hate every damn one of them. "

She looked into Xander's eyes now. "I have no idea how Aaron Bowman and your friend Buffy can be so forgiving. How do you just ...let that much rage and hate go?"

Xander looked lost for a while. Shepard stared at him as his face took on an expression of world-weary sadness that she had never seen on him before. Finally, he said, "Remember Edolus? You asked me, after the fact, how it was that I didn't wet myself?"

Shepard nodded, "Not that I'm complaining about it but, an uncharted world, dead marines killed by a Thresher Maw? If anyone would have reason to freak out it would be you? And don't give me that guff about needing to look good for Williams' benefit."

Xander sat the small desk. "The truth is - I learned a long time ago that you have to control your emotions, especially the fears or they control you. If I lose it while we're on a mission. If I give in to what scares me or pisses me off, you or whoever else is depending on me, might get killed. My point is part of me is scared by Thresher Maws, by the weird creatures we run into out here, by Liara's ... occasionally piss poor aim during fire fights, but that part lives in service of the part of me that needs to get things done."

"Every time I see a batarian," Shepard snarled, "I remember Mindoir. I remember the people I lost on Torfan. Guys I served with, guys I respected. Guys who might still be alive right now if we wasted less time trying to show the galaxy including those four-eyed bastards how noble and self-sacrificing we can be."

"You hate Batarians, you really, REALLY hate them. I get that, I really do," Xander responded, "but It's like you said to Girard, hating the batarians doesn't help Talitha, listening to her, talking her out of hurting herself or someone else ... that's how you saved her life on that docking bay."

She looked up at him, her eyes not quite betraying her emotions. "Thanks, Harris. What's our status?"

"We just entered Argos Rho, there's a supply depot but it's not on any of the official maps and its not transmitting its IFF, in fact the thing seems to be dead in space ... and it isn't answering hails."

"Standard protocols state I'm obligated to investigate and render assistance if necessary."

"Aren't we the least bit curious how an ancient - and supposedly extinct alien species - managed to wind up being shipped to the ass-end of space so they could completely devastate two listening posts and the marines guarding them?"

"Oh, we're very curious, Harris. We're very, very curious," Shepard replied.

"Well if there is one thing we are doing out here; it's satisfying our curiosity." Xander drawled. He turned to leave when her next words stopped him cold.

"Incidentally, Fredricks was using his extranet access to post pictures of your girlfriend ...Buffy?"

Xander turned back slowly, "Buffy isn't my Girlfriend, she's my sister-in-law."

"You're married?"

"Not anymore, now I'm a widower. Dawn passed on ...a long time ago,"

"Was she a UDB as well?"

Xander was confused, "UDB?"

Shepard sighed, "Biotic ... undocumented, you know, like her sister."

"Oh that" Xander groaned.

"Oh that he says," Shepard sneered, "Xander I know the Alliance hasn't always handled biotics well, hell it shocks me Kaiden isn't more angry about what happened - but undocumenteds are dangerous to themselves and other people."

Xander smiled, "Trust me Buffy can take care of herself. I pity the poor fool who goes to Terra Nova looking to make trouble by trying to drag Buffy away some some kind of brain-camp - she is very , very experienced at dealing with troublemakers."

Shepard looked at Xander, "Assuming she really is the Angel of Elysium I believe you."

Xander stopped smiling, a chill running down his spine at her words.

"You heard us talking about that?" Xander replied, a thousand fear-filled scenarios ran though his mind about where this conversation could lead.

"Fredricks was posting to a conspiracy site one of their topics of interest is the identity of the person or persons unknown who saved Elysium during The Blitz. Jenkins used to talk about it all the time remember?"

Xander did indeed recall the rookie gunnery chief whose death on Eden Prime had shocked and saddened the Normandy's crew.

Crossing his arms, Xander kept his tone calm and flat, "Hypothetically... if Buffy was this Angel... and that is not an admission by the way, But if she were, she'd be responsible for saving hundreds of lives. She's probably living a quiet life away from prying eyes. The last thing she'd want is to end up being poked and prodded like some lab rat; especially when all she did, was what any sane person would do in that kind of situation. Do the best you can to help everyone who might be in danger."

"I guess I can respect that," Shepard mused aloud.

"Did Fredricks post those pictures?" Xander asked.

Shepard snickered, "Of course not ... Have you never heard the tale? No one has ever seen the Angel. No one remembers the face, all photographs seem to have vanished and any new ones do as well. It's like the extranet just swallows any and all tangible references to the Angel of Elysium whole ...it part of the mystery. Now c'mon, let's go see what Cerberus was up to out here."

Chapter Text

Twelve light years away, a small vessel skipped through the eternal void. At the controls was Cerberus Operative Miranda Lawson and she was not happy.

Her enhanced mind ... thank you Father for forcing that on me along with all the other myriad upgrades she had to her body ... could calculate down to the half-credit the cost in time, effort, and resources that had gone up in flames following The Normandy crews sudden and violent assault on the research facilities in the Voyager Cluster.

"Thank You Commander Shepard." She hissed. and cursed again.

One would think with Saren running around attacking human colonies, the Citadel's newest Spectre would have more important things to be doing then kicking in doors on isolated research worlds.

A bleeping sounded through the pressurized cabin signaling the real time call she was trying to setup was ready to go. She flicked a switch and the static ridden screen resolved itself into the weathered face of the Illusive Man - the head of the vast organization called Cerberus - and her boss.

A man of few words he was straight to the point, "Miranda, what news do you have for me?" As always he was smoking. A brand made with tobacco grown only on the Earth. The Illusive Man took his commitment to humanity and the Earth seriously.

"Our outposts in the Voyager Cluster have been destroyed and assuming the reports of Normandy being in Styx Theta Cluster are accurate then its only a matter of time before they find the Sigma 66 depot."

"Unfortunate, still we did get valuable research data. We now know the Rachni are useless unless we can secure and control the Master Control Unit."

"...and that's on Novaria," Lawson replied. "... assuming it isn't in Saren's hands already."

"Ah Saren, the gift that just keeps on giving. His activities make Cerberus' claims seem much more legitimate. The Systems Alliance can hardly pretend the alien agenda is a benign one when Saren attacks us - seemingly with the approval of the Citadel Council." Was that bitter cynicism, in the Illusive Man's voice? Miranda wondered.

"We are going to have to do something about Shepard soon. This can't go on." Miranda insisted.

"With Sigma 66 gone, I think Shepard will find the trail goes cold."

"How can you be so sure?" Miranda asked, She was both committed and loyal but she was not blind and definitely not stupid.

"Because I saw to it that all the personnel I suspected might be disloyal were transferred to the the Supply Depot or the Voyager Cluster, I'm sure it will not come as any surprise to you Miss Lawson that the locations of both found their way into the hands of the Shadow Broker; his mole, whoever it was, will be dead now."

"You wanted Shepard to do the house cleaning for you." Lawson mused, "tactically sound - if a tad ruthless."

"Miranda if we want to remain an Illusive Empire then we have to make sure our secrets stay secret."

"I'd like to repeat my objection to your use of Operative Kai Leng to deal with the Admiral, I could have approached him. This might even have been handled discreetly, instead Kahoku's death just served to spur Shepard on."

"You were right, words I am sure you never tire of hearing." The Illusive Man replied with a chuckle in his voice.

"Then you will let me clean up this mess?"

"Shepard's attack has provided an unexpected side benefit. Corporal Toombs escaped containment."

"Do you want me to retrieve ... Mister Toombs?"

"Not just yet," The Illusive Man answered, "Mister Toombs escaped with some project data, names, locations of a few assets, If a few questionable elements are winnowed out of the organization; then his escape might even prove useful in the long run. What I would like Miranda, is if you could keep an eye on the situation and should the opportunity present itself see that Commander Shepard is allowed to find out about the determined Mister Toombs."

"If you are trying to arrange a scenario to deal with Commander Shepard I can find you assets more reliable then a traumatized soldier."

"Miranda, it's not always about Shepard, in this case it's about her crew specifically one Alexander Harris."

"The soldier who survived the Akuze Incident? Why?"

The Illusive Man paused then smiled, "...Because Mister Harris likes keeping secrets. He needs to learn what happens when you keep secrets ... and I intend to be his teacher."

The Illusive Man broke the connection and Miranda Lawson was left to wonder, what was so special about Harris that warranted the Illusive Man's personal attention? Fortunately Miranda had the most important tool for satisfying her curiosity, a great deal of high level access.

Miranda brought the Ship VI online syncing it to the extranet. "VI, run a secured search across all the usual sources - including Cerberus databases. Give me a full workup on Alexander Harris. Everything he's done, everywhere he's gone, every person he's ever spoken with."

The Vi buzzed, "Alert, alert viral infection detected - any attempt to access this data will result in viral infection do you wish to continue?"

Miranda was intrigued now. "Source of viral infection?"

"Any attempt to access this data will result in viral infection do you wish to continue?"

"Nature of virus?"

"Virus sets up trace programs within infected units allowing third party access as well as deletion of any files related to database query."

"So asking about Harris opens my machine to external access, by whom?"

"Any attempt to access this data will result in viral infection do you wish to continue?"

"How is it you can tell me about this attack?"

"You requested a secured search?"

So if I had just done a normal search for Alexander Harris, my system would be infected right now?"

"Correct."

"Vi is there any other individuals with this specific kind of protection?"

"Yes."

"Is there anything you can tell me about these people anything that connects them ... a word in the database."

"One phrase can be found in all database search strings ... torchwood."

"What is a Torchwood?"

"Torchwood - old earth broadcast vid entertainment. circa early twenty-first century

"What does an old earth tv show have to do with Alexander Harris?" Miranda asked.

"Any attempt to access this data will result in viral infection do you wish to continue?"

If not for Miranda's obsession with security, her system would be compromised but she had to know who it was that was so determined to protect Alexander Harris. Then she had a thought and a wonderfully evil idea.

She opened another protected line and waited, soon enough a haggard looking older man picked up the line.

"Miri," the man said with a yawn, "is that you? it's three in the morning here."

"Sorry to bother you so late Niket but I need you to do me a favour."

"What is it?"

"Run a background check on someone for me - Alexander Harris. Don't do it now under no circumstances use any system you have regular contact with or can be traced to ... unless you can mange to use Father's computer."

Niket snorted, "You think He lets me anywhere near his system Miri."

"Just do what you can and store what you find on a closed system with no extranet access. I'll contact you in a few days."

"Miranda ... What's this about?" Niket asked."how are you. are you in any kind of trouble?"

"I'm, fine Niket," she wasn't very good at this type of thing, the personable stuff that other people took for granted."...I'm just doing a favour for a friend. By the way could you do me one more favour track down all known episodes of an old TV show its called Torchwood "

That one will be easier, one of the guys in the office is mad for those old TV programs and their ideas of what aliens are like."

"Did any of the programs have anything to do with hacking or viruses?"

"Torchwood was a secret organization. On the show, they maintained that secret by creating a virus that would edit any mention of the characters or the organization itself from the world wide web ... of course to do that sort of thing today you'd need a pretty sophisticated AI

"As I said I'll contact you in a few days." Miranda said before cutting the line. She sat back to gaze into space

"Who are you Alexander Harris, "Miranda murmured to herself, "who are you and more importantly Who is protecting you and why?"

Chapter Text

Noveria

In hindsight, Xander would admit that there was a buttload of foreshadowing that this trip wasn't going to end well. After all, there was trouble less then five minutes after after they'd left the Normandy.

First, there was that real-life Mexican Standoff in the Port Hanshan Docking Bay. Elanus Risk Control Services Officer Maeko Matsuo either did not know or did not care that the Citadel Council had seen fit to bestow its badge of authority on a grunt marine. After all, her second-in-command, Kaira Stirling, had called Shepard's claim of Council Spectre status a 'load of horse crap'.

Port Hanshan had a strict no-weapons policy and Matsuo wasn't about to compromise her tight security for anyone's sake, let alone some random stranger making ridiculous claims, going so far as to demand that the squad surrender their weapons. When Shepard refused, everyone's guns had come up. For several tense moments, Xander thought that he'd been transported into a Sergio Leone cult-classic aching to mutate into a Quentin Tarantino violence-fest. It was only through the quick words and quicker wit of Gianna Parasini, secretary to Port Hanshan's Administrator, that had defused the situation before things got nasty.

Then, there was Rannadril Ghan Swa Fulsoom Karaten Narr Eadi Bel Anoleis; Administrator Anoleis, for short. A Salarian whose passion for corruption knew few equals, he'd kicked off his meeting with Shepard by letting them know that Saren, and Benezia by extension, carried a awful lot of weight on Noveria by virtue of the rogue Spectre investing heavily in Binary-Helix's research.

So, no; they would not be getting any help or cooperation from the Administrator, and could they please get the hell out of his office because he had things far more important to do then entertain a tax-dodging colonial and her team of brainless stormtroopers.

Xander was impressed by Shepard's self-control. She waited all of ten minutes ( the time it took to get to the hotel bar and order a stiff, overpriced drink ) before embroiling the squad in a complex plot to bring down the Administrator. She'd even managed to screw over the whole of Binary Helix in an epic act of subterfuge that was awe-inspiring in both its scope and its simplicity.

Parasini had proved helpful here as well; arresting Anoleis after it was revealed she was actually an Agent with Noveria Internal Affairs who'd been spying on Anoleis for months in the hopes of nailing him for his rampant corruption.

Shepard had even managed to deal with several mercenary elements within the ERCS security staff, including Kaira Stirling. Stirling had already put herself on Shepard's radar over the docking bay incident, but upon learning that she was also Anoleis' paid thug... well, Shepard wasn't a big fan of mercenaries at the best of times, so having Stirling's idiot brigade pull weapons on her? Well, to Shepard's point of view, anyone stupid enough to pull a gun on her just proved that they were too stupid to live; so killing them was just doing God's Good Work.

But it was the bookish Doctor Liara T'soni who'd done the heavy lifting on this one; quite literally. Watching her tear apart Stirling's squad, followed by Stirling herself shortly thereafter, was a sight that Xander would carry to his grave. Well, assuming that he ever reached one.

So by the time the squad was ready to leave Port Hanshan after a Geth ambush and a showdown with a pissed-off Krogan bounty hunter, Matsuo's polite farewell hid a profound and obvious sense of relief at seeing them gone.

During the Mako ride into the Skadi Mountains towards BH's remote research facility of Peak 15, Xander had commented that Shepard had a bit of a vindictive streak.

Shepard snorted. "I didn't hear you complain when that Internal Affairs Agent laid that kiss on you in the hotel bar."

An unintended side-effect of Parasini's need to maintain her cover was that Xander had been drafted to provide her an excuse for meeting with the Commander. to avoid suspicious eyes at one point she had kissed him, and this was no weak-ass peck on the cheek; mouths had opened and tongues had wrestled for dominance. While Xander had no problems in general with being kissed by beautiful women, the smirk on Shepard's face told him that she was never going to let him live it down.

"That kiss meant nothing, it was just window dressing to help establish her undercover identity," was Xander's unconvincing reply.

Shepard nodded sagely. "It meant nothing, huh? Okay. When we get back, let's ask Gunnery Chief Williams if SHE thinks it was nothing." She didn't bother hiding her smirk.

"If you do, can I get a two- or three-hundred meter head start?" Xander pleaded.

"What good would that do you? She could still nail you between the eyes at that distance. I know I could."

"You're a real source of comfort in moments of stress, Boss." Xander groaned. "I just thought you should know that."

"While we're on the subject... Back in the docking bay, you said something... it sounded familiar..." She noticed that Xander's left eye twitched very slightly. "It was a quote from an old Earth actor, Charlton Heston."

"Obviously a human who understands the need to always negotiate from a position of strength." Wrex laughed.

"It was, perhaps, a little more confrontational than we needed to be. At the time, anyway." Liara mused quietly.

"...says the woman who literally painted the walls with an entire merc squad." Xander riposted dryly.

Despite her pride, Liara had the grace to blush just a little, while Shepard leaned closer to her.

"Don't listen to him, Liara. You were amazing back there." The Spectre whispered in the Asari's ear.

At that moment, the Asari archaeologist felt as if that ear had suddenly become the point of contact for every nerve ending in her entire body. To have this woman's attention, Liara was quite sure that she would've happily taken on every mercenary in Council space and beyond. She tried to still the wild beating of her heart while Wrex was still reveling in Xander's discomfort with his... over-excitement during the Port Hanshan confrontation.

"...You can get our guns when you take them from our cold, dead hands," Wrex chuckled. "That is officially my favorite Earth saying."

"I was caught up in the moment," Xander's tone was defensive. "God as my witness, I honestly thought she was going to back down, Boss. You're practically a media celebrity, for God's sake."

"This is why I like hanging around you, Shepard," Wrex mused. "There's no shortage of idiots who need to be killed and who're willing to give you an excuse to do it."

They soon arrived at Peak 15's Central Station, only to find the place overrun with Geth and Rachni. Xander pulled off a bit of technical magic and got the place running again, at least enough so that they could use the tramway to follow Benezia to the Hot Labs at Rift Station. The source of the Rachni infestation, Rift Station was probably where they could finally find a clue about what Saren wanted with an army of relentless killer insects.

Chapter Text



"Welcome to Rift Station, your one-stop shop for illegal research, immoral experiments and, if we're lucky, one dangerous and genocidal Asari matriarch. Everybody- OOF!" Shepard jabbed a elbow into Xander's belly, effectively ending his jokes. She then shot a meaningful glance at Liara, whose frustration had grown exponentially ever since they'd learned Benezia was close at hand.

"Hey, Doc, I'm sorry," Xander soothed. "I'm sure your mom's fine. She might even have a reasonable explanation for everything she's been up to."

"A reasonable explanation for helping Saren murder and destroy?" Liara snapped, annoyance evident in her voice. "An explanation for allowing his Geth to try and kidnap or kill me? Giving her loyal followers like Shiala to an alien plant, not to mention whatever's going on with these Rachni? That will have to be some explanation, Xander. I'm looking forward to hearing it, almost as much as you appear to be." Liara's response underlined the bitter anger in her voice.

She walked ahead, leaving the others behind. "Ohh-kay, she's in a bad mood," Xander said dryly.

"Ya think?" Shepard hissed and raced ahead to stop the archaeologist from wandering into some danger or other.

"I think it's an improvement," Wrex rumbled. "At least now we know she's taking that Asari bitch seriously."

"I think she might be a little conflicted about having to fight her mom, Wrex." Xander pointed out.

"I was conflicted about dealing with my father until he tried to kill me," the Krogan reminded Xander. "I didn't feel so conflicted after that."

Xander shuddered. He'd always wondered. If the destruction of Sunnydale hadn't ended any reason for him to deal his parents, might he have had a final confrontation with Tony Harris much like the one Wrex had been forced to survive?

The squad found the only working elevator in the place and traveled up several floors. As near as Xander could tell, they were still far from the heart of the vast glacier that housed the Peak 15 facility.

The doors opened and the squad found itself facing a wall of guns pointed at them. It was a comment on how hectic Xander's life had become that he no longer panicked about such things.

"Stand down!" an older balding man in armor shouted as he stepped forward. "Captain Ventralis, head of security."

"Shepard, Joan; Special Tactics and Reconnaissance," Shepard replied. "...and, no, I'm not giving you my gun."

Ventralis laughed. "Someone's met Captain Matsuo. She's kind of a hard-ass, but she does good work."

"She'll have to do it short-handed," Shepard snapped. "Her staff's a lot smaller now."

"Ouch," Ventralis laughed. "Hope that bitch who works for Matsuo was one of the causalities. Hell of a biotic, but cold as ice."

"You mean Stirling? Yeah, she's a lot colder now," Xander snickered. "Good pro-tip; when betting on a fight between biotics, you always put your money on the blue girl."

"I'm sure that, with her skill, she'd have been quite intimidating... when I was a child." Liara gave a cold smile.

"So, Ventralis... can we talk straight?" Shepard asked. "What the hell is going on around here?"

"A bunch of eggheads were screwing around in Lab Pod Gamma. Next thing I know, I got creepy-crawlies all over. My staff was a lot bigger back then."

"I'm looking for an Asari matriarch. You seen her?"

Ventralis nodded. "Yeah, she showed up after the lockdown began. I noticed that she was packing lots of heat and a few of those commandos. Looked like they were heading into hell. I haven't heard a peep since then."

Shepard turned to Liara. "What do you think, Doc?"

"My mother is almost a thousand years old, Shepard," Liara answered. "You don't reach the Matriarch stage without learning how to survive things that would kill most other species."

Ventralis handed Shepard an security access card. "She's in Pod Gamma. Once she's secured, you should activate the the neutron purge system."

Xander perked up at his words. "Wait, you have a neutron purge system in place and you're still sitting around fighting bugs?"

Ventralis snickered. "You've never worked corporate, I see. When the suits drop a few billion creds into a project, the last person you want to be is the guy who fries said project, even if it's your ass if you don't."

Xander gaped at the man. "...who runs this company, Lex Luthor?"

Shepard shook her head. "I've never heard of a Purge System like that, what's it do?" she asked.

"The main reactor's programmed to release a massive radiation burst," Ventralis explained.

Xander nodded, "...All the fun and games of a nuke without all of the inconvenient property damage afterwards. You don't even have to worry about burial; High levels of neutron radiation and organic tissue do not a fun mix make."

Shepard shook her head. "What the hell? Are you people bored? Is that the problem?"

Ventralis just shrugged. "I've seen them working on some scary crap in those labs, stuff that makes me really, really nervous," the Captain muttered. "Why do think we built this place into a glacier? You drop the heat on anything far enough and it will freeze."

Xander snorted, So what? You were hoping anything that can survive high levels of radiation poisoning will keel over cause it's too cold?

Ventralis grimaced, "I keep my head down, my mouth shut and bank my credits." The Captain retorted "BH has always been a little weird ... and that was before we went into business with that Council Spectre. You know what they're like; no offense."

Shepard waved him off. "I'm not like Saren."

"Thank God for that. I've heard that if you piss off a Spectre, they don't just kill you; they kill your friends, your family, and your house pets."

"Don't worry about Saren," Shepard growled. "His life expectancy is getting shorter by the day." She snapped, before stalking away.

"No offense," Ventralis muttered. "...but your boss is kind of scary."

"You wouldn't be the first to say that." Xander sighed. He recalled both Gianna's and Maeko's reactions to Shepard's occasionally-impulsive behavior. "You wouldn't even be the first person to say that TODAY."

The squad descended into Lab Pod Gamma, where they found no Benezia waiting. Instead, they were besieged by Rachni. Wrex's ancestors had hunted them to extinction, and enough war stories survived from that time so that the ancient Battlemaster was invaluable help in dealing with the incredibly aggressive creatures. There was no way that they'd be able to escape the lab without dealing with the aggressive bugs.

Shepard activated the Neutron Purge using the code that Ventralis had provided.

At which point, the lift system shut itself down.

"Well, that's a surprise," Xander said dryly. "We're trapped in a secure hot-lab, surrounded by Rachni, and our only way out isn't working..."

"Ventralis!" Shepard barked into her radio. "What the Hell's going on? The elevator's locked down and we can't get out of the hot lab!"

"Yeah, sorry about this, Shepard." Ventralis' voice said over their radios. "Saren's offering a lot of money for your head; as in retire-to-Thessia-and-stare-at-sexy-blue-ass-for-the-rest-of-my-life kind of money."

"You think Saren or Benezia will let you survive long enough to spend that kind of money? Don't be an idiot!"

"I'm not a fool, Shepard. As soon as I have my money, I'll deal with Benezia and her Commandos. My guys now control all of the access points in and out of that lab. Now I want you to relax, Shepard. Neutron radiation is a pretty quick and painless way to go."

"You'll be seeing me again, Ventralis. Count on it," Shepard snarled.

"Unless you can find a way to rewire the lift system in under a minute, I don't think so." Ventralis laughed before he cut the connection.

Xander ripped the panel off the wall and searched the viper's nest of circuitry, looking for their salvation. "Boss, the system's fried. I could fix it if we had ten or fifteen minutes..."

"...which we don't have." Shepard snapped.

"Then we need a quick and dirty bypass." Xander replied.

"We're going die down here trapped with these beasts?" Liara whined.

"On the upside, " Xander responded, "seeing as we're pretty close to the main reactor, there won't be that much left of any of us."

"Strangely enough Xander I do not find THAT comforting." Liara shot back at him.

"There must be something!" Shepard insisted. "C'mon, you're the miracle worker; the go-to-guy. There has to be some trick, some work-around! Think!"

Xander looked at the internal guts of the system. "Well... there's a way, but you won't like it."

"Do it." Shepard snapped.

"You don't even know what it is!" he squawked in protest.

"It's your idea, which means it'll be dangerous and stupid. But if you do it, we just might get out of this."

"Good point. All right; Wrex, Doc, into the elevator. When this things starts moving, you do not want to be left behind." Xander pointed at the elevator controls. "Boss, that power panel is about to surge big time. When it does, hold that button down no matter what else happens."

"What are you going to do?" Liara asked, shooting a few Rachni who'd gotten too close to the elevator.

"Like the boss-lady said... something dangerous and stupid," he breathed in and out several times, psyching himself up. "This is gonna hurt... see y'all in a few minutes."

Xander reached into the wall panel and the lights in the elevator flickered on, just as he started screaming. He spasmed in place, his whole body rocked by convulsions, and Shepard thought that she could see tiny arcs of electricity dancing between his teeth.

Liara screamed and Wrex reached out to drag him away, but Xander cried out, "NO! ONLY WAY... PRESS IT, PRESS THE BUTTON!" he screamed as thousands of watts continued to flow through his body.

Shepard hammered on the switch and the elevator doors snapped shut and the car began to rise. But Xander would not release the power lead. His death grip on the metal protrusion made it rattle violently in sympathy to the convulsions he was experiencing as raw power arced over his entire body. The elevator ride only took a few minutes, but his agonized screaming would echo in her memories for years to come.

The elevator doors opened and Xander's body rocketed backwards, out of the elevator, landing in a heap on the floor.

Thin wisps of smoke wreathed his body while the faint odor of burning flesh left a sour stench in the air.

Shepard dropped to her knees and instantly tried CPR.

But Xander's heart had stopped.

He was dead.

It seemed almost unreal.

The best male human friend that she'd made in years, and he'd gone; committing suicide to save them, he'd died for her , died for the mission he hadn't even flinched when he'd done it either.

What was she supposed to do?

What was she supposed to think?

How could she tell his blonde friend... Buffy, was it? that her brother-in-law was dead?

Liara's eyes shimmered. "Find peace in the embrace of the goddess," she whispered. She remembered that Xander had been the first of Shepard's crew to accept her. She'd come to respect his bravery and cleverness despite his penchant for annoying jokes and obsession with pop-culture minutiae.

Wrex gave a silent salute to the boy. He'd lived as a human, but died like a krogan; unflinching and doing credit to Shepard, his Battlemaster.

The old Krogan watched Shepard as a hundred emotions flowed through her. Watching a subordinate sacrifice his or her own self for the sake of their Battlemaster was never easy, not even for a Krogan with an ounce of common sense.

Finally, she stood up.

There was still a mission, after all.

Xander was a soldier under her command and entirely expendable if it accomplished the goal.

But somehow, she couldn't make herself walk away.

She couldn't make herself be cold and distant, even now.

Even as his face no longer had that pinched look of death and had relaxed.

Strange. He looked like he was sleeping. Almost as if he might just wake up any second.

Suddenly his body arched upwards and his eyes shot open. Liara shrieked girlishly in fright, while a wide-eyed Shepard pulled out her pistol and pointed it at him. Wrex had already pulled out his shotgun, pointed it at the coughing boy. Xander's mouth was wide open; a loud, desperate gasp ripping out of his body. He gulped, taking in much-needed air in mighty heaves, as his eyes looking around in fear and terror.

Seeing nothing immediately problematic, he slumped back onto the floor. Still on his back, he groaned. "God, I forgot how much I hate dying by electrocution..."

Naturally, that's when he noticed Shepard and the others staring and pointing weapons at him. He blinked. So did they.

Finally, he asked them, "Weren't you supposed to be gone by now?"

"Weren't you supposed to be dead?" Shepard riposted.

Wrex shrugged. "Redundant nervous system. Well, there's a shock. I thought you humans were too brittle for that."

"Humans don't have a redundant nervous system. Usually..." Shepard replied, heavy meaning in her voice when she said that last word.

"I don't got a redundant anything, boss." Xander said calmly.

"Well then, why are you still alive? Some insulation in your hard suit, some kind of hidden biotic ability, a mutation?"

"Nope, nope, and no. I'm pretty much as mommy Harris made me. Except for one minor thing; I'm a fixed point in time and space, an unalterable fact of Creation."

"In layman's terms, Sargent..." Shepard snapped.

"He's an immortal... an actual living immortal." Liara explained in a shocked voice. "I've heard rumors but I never dreamed ..."

Xander grimaced, "Personally I hate that term," he replied, "it implies I'm NEVER EVER going to die."

Wrex chuckled, "You say that like it's a bad thing."

"Imagine eating your favorite meal. now picture eating it for every meal every day - morning, noon and night and even for snacks; and knowing that you aren't ever going to eat anything else for a long, long time...still sound like fun?"

"That's what it's like for you?" Liara asked.

Xander shook his head, "It's not all bad ... I used the extra time to pick up a metric ton of education over the years; Dawn's idea."

"And how did this... happen?" Shepard asked.

"THAT is a long story which, if I explain in detail, will distract you from what you really want to be doing right this second."

"And that is...?" Shepard asked.

"Ventralis thinks that we're dead in that hot lab. Which means that he'll be really surprised when you put a bullet in his head... assuming you meant it when you said he'd be seeing you again."

Shepard nodded. She was good at compartmentalizing and processing, after all. "Fine, we deal with you later. First, let's go find the good captain. Someone needs my boot up his ass."

Chapter Text



Ventralis was really shocked to see them again. That look surprise was still etched on his face when Shepard shot him in the head.

Xander took plenty of mental photographs upon meeting his first Asari Matriarch. He wouldn't have said so in front of Liara, but those piercing eyes, that curve-hugging full-length pinstripe dress with the plunging neckline with the impressive cleavage to fill it, and the deadly biotic powers... well, Benezia was the total package.

She was definitely an easy ten on the scale of hotness. He mentally maneuvered Benezia onto his all-time greats list, right behind Anya and Ashley, but in front of Aria T'Loak and Harmony Kendell. That allowed him to finally kick Miss French, the giant praying mantis demon, off the list once and for all.

"You do not know the power of being a mother," Benezia intoned. "To take a life, and turn it toward happiness or despair." She gestured to the captive Rachni Queen. "Her children were to be ours, raised to hunt and slay Saren's enemies."

Benezia strolled toward them. "I will not be moved to sympathy, no matter who you bring into this confrontation."

"That's not why Liara's here." Shepard snarled.

"It's not?" Xander asked. "...'cuz I totally thought the whole not-killing-us-on-sight factor was what we were going for."

"Indeed? What have you told them about me, Liara?"

"What could I say, mother?" Liara demanded. "Should I have explained how to kill you? That you're insane? Tell me, mother! What could I say?" She was all but screaming when she finished talking.

"If I have a vote, I say all of the above." Xander muttered.

"Your insolence is a poor mask for your fear, immortal." Benezia snapped at Harris.

"I think of it less as a mask and more of a goes-with-anything accessory-" Xander paused. "Wait...what did you just call me?"

Benezia snorted, "The Butcher Of Torfan, the newest Council Spectre, arriving with an Urdnot. One of the greatest tactical minds that the Krogan have ever produced, and my daughter? Who just happens to be an expert in ancient and lost civilizations? You want me to believe it a mere coincidence that they're accompanied by an immortal. Do you take me for a fool?" the Matriarch snapped.

"...Then YOU know what he is." Shepard said, suspiciously.

"Indeed... him and all those like him. Was that why you joined with them against me, Liara? In the hope that you'll learn the secrets of creation? The answers to all of the lost mysteries?"

"Enough, Mother, this is getting us nowhere," Liara cut her off. "What are you and Saren trying to accomplish? Surely you cannot believe that all of the destruction you've unleashed is for the greater good."

"Oh, but it is, Little Wing, " Benezia smiled, a fanatical gleam in her eye. "Thanks to Saren, I see now that it is only through the return of the Reapers that the Asari can reach their full potential. The unworthy will be swept aside in order to make room for a new Asari Matriarchy. We will no longer dominate from the shadows, but from on high. We will be Goddesses. Submit yourselves now, and a place may be found for you in the new order."

Xander's slow clapping broke the silence that followed. "Nice," he said with scorn "Do you know how long it's been since I heard a decent bad-guy monologue?"

Shepard shook her head as she laughed. "We just killed our way through your army of rent-a-thugs. Do you really think that this will be any different?"

Benezia's smile was cold. "You killed a few disposable minions. Hardly the challenge that one would expect from an eleventh-hour battle."

Wrex snickered. "I was beginning to wonder when this was going to get interesting."

Benezia looked at them. "Have you ever faced an Asari Commando unit before? Few humans have. The least-trained among them spend decades... not years, but decades, learning combat skills. After that, comes training in the use of biotics. And we Asari have had thousands of generations to perfect our biotic training. And by the time an Asari reaches my age, her combat skill and power easily eclipses anything that you humans have ever produced."

Xander felt a odd sensation, a nagging feeling that he was missing something. He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, recalling his many lessons with Willow in fighting mental domination. That's when he felt it; the screen on his perception, the cloud that had been blinding them to danger.

"Boss!" he shouted. "She's been messing with our heads! Concentrate! Focus, and you'll see them!"

Shepard looked around as the room seemed to shimmer like it was an oasis coming into focus. Surrounding them on all sides was an army of Geth Troopers and Asari commandos. Benezia had not only been prepared for their arrival, but had somehow found a way to shield the true strength of her forces from the squad's eyes.

Shepard looked around at the guns facing her, and then turned back to regard Benezia. "You really expect me to believe that you'd kill your own daughter?"

Benezia shrugged. "I now realize that I should've been stricter with her."

Shepard looked around the room, and then leaned over to Xander. "If you've got a way out of this, now would be the time to spring it."

"Sorry, boss, I'm all out of miracles." Xander muttered.

"What are you worried about? You'll survive this, anyway." Wrex pointed out.

"It still hurts when I die, Wrex, and the only thing worse then dying in the middle of a firefight is waking up in the middle of one." Xander snapped.

Life has a way of tossing you a gimme every so often. Xander had seen that happen a thousand times and had come to believe it wholeheartedly. Still, what happened next ranked a hard eleven, even his scale of weird.

Xander's omnitool gave a determined bleep. In hindsight, he recalled setting the thing for silent alerts, specifically so he would not be distracted during tense moments like the one that he was currently experiencing. He looked at it and saw an incoming email from Wicca-girl. Willow's old email account.

That should have been impossible; he hadn't seen Willow since Dawn's funeral. He'd spoken with her infrequently since then, but the last message they'd exchanged was a few decades back.

It'd been a heads-up about that artifact procurement gig on Shanxi. She'd described it as easy job that would be perfect for him. Instead, he'd ended up being at Ground Zero for a pivotal battle of the First Contact War, fighting for his life alongside a trio of mercenaries fighting a group of Turians that had been trying to capture a mysterious and dangerous artifact.

Xander looked at her message, which had a single command in the title; Get Down. Xander still remembered the rules; when Willow Rosenberg tells you to get down, you get the hell down.

"Boss, stop and drop right now!" he screamed as he hit the deck.

Shepard, Liara, and Wrex followed him to the floor just as every lighting fixture in the room overloaded and sent arcs of electricity everywhere. The arcs jumped from one Geth Trooper to another, frying all of them in a timespan of seconds. Several of them even blew up, the explosions taking out nearby Asari commandos; in a single moment, the tide of battle had been completely reversed.

Benezia struggled to get up off the floor, from where the explosions had thrown her. Fury was etched on her face.

Shepard sneered at her. "You'll give up now and tell me what Saren's up to, or this is gonna get ugly."

Her only response was to flare her biotics, and suddenly the debris of her troops rose off the floor. A windstorm tossed the flotsam and jetsam through the air with increasing speed. Liara concentrated and a Barrier flared into existence. The objects battered at the protective shield as they picked up speed.

"Ah, Little Wing," Benezia sneered. "Your Barriers weren't nearly this strong when last we sparred. What has made you so strong? Surely, it can't be the humans. Such short lives... they have maybe a century and they're gone. But maybe that's what you love; knowing that it'll be over before you're forced to feel anything real."

The bubble surrounding the team wavered. Benezia's mini-hurricane swirled ever closer.

"That's it, isn't it?" Benezia sneered, "You actually think that you're falling in love with one of them."

Xander saw several of the objects gouging holes in the walls. Shepard reached out and put her hand on Liara.

"Liara, don't listen to her. Block it out. You have what it takes to beat her, I know you do. TAKE HER DOWN! THAT'S AN ORDER!"

Liara closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the awkward hundred-and-six year-old archaeologist was gone. The Asari in her place narrowed her eyes. "Yes, Commander," she hissed as she fought back. The bubble firmed and began to push back against the storm.

"Xander... her feet," Liara managed. Xander looked down and saw a power lead sparking behind Benezia.

"On it, Doc," Xander reported, training his omni-tool on the lead. A burst of power quickly caused the thing to explode, making it jump and strike Benezia with whip-like force. The Matriarch shuddered, the pain of being electrocuted broke her concentration. The whirlwind in the room faltered for a few critical moments.

"Wrex, take her down!" Shepard shouted.

The Krogan broke from cover and charged the Matriarch, slamming into her with all the force of a truck. Benezia quickly found her body being hurled into a plasteel cage that dominated the room, before being sprawled upon the ground, gasping for breath.

Benezia looked up at the beast within the cage. Her ears ringing from the force of Wrex's blow. Slowly, Benezia could make out a kind of music just at the edge of hearing. The growing and swelling melody drowned out another song. A song that she hadn't even noticed, a melody in her mind with black and ugly notes. The black tune was being pushed aside by this new and brighter harmony. Benezia looked around as if she was seeing the world for the first time in months.

"Liara?" Benezia whispered.

Liara knelt by her mother as Benezia stared unblinking at the huge Rachni Queen.

"What is she doing?" Shepard growled.

"Waiting for me to kill her." Wrex sneered and started forward, but Xander held up his hand, pressing it against the massive lizard's armored chest.

"Wait, I think they're communicating," Xander explained.

"Wait, you can understand that thing?" Shepard asked.

Xander shrugged, "A Doctor friend that I know once explained that the reason we don't understand each other is because we just don't listen enough. Considering I have yet to see a language that he can't speak, I think that he might have a point." He explained as he tapped at his omni-tool.

"What are you doing?" Shepard asked him.

"Writing an app. You want to hear what I can hear, Boss? Well, short of making you like me, the only other way is to fix it so you can listen."

Suddenly the room was filled with a sweet singing. "...B-I-N-G-O and bingo was his name-oh." Xander sang happily.

Shepard gaped at the loudspeaker before turning back to Xander, "Are you kidding me? You re-wrote the universal translator?"

"I've had a LONG time to learn how do all the stuff that used to be amazing to me, Boss. and I do mean a long... long time."

Benezia bowed before the Rachni Queen's cage. Its strange melodies left a smile of joy on the Matriarch's face. "Thank you." She whispered.

"What is it doing?" Liara asked. "Mother?"

"Her song is countering the indoctrination." Benezia explained.

Shiala, Benezia's acolyte on Feros, had explained that Saren's compelling personality was being amplified by his vessel Sovereign. Somehow, just being near Sovereign made you WANT to follow Saren's commands and do his bidding. His cause became yours, his morals became your law, and this force had caused Shiala to willingly give herself to the Thorian. Even though she knew what kind of danger that she'd likely to be in.

"You mean her song cuts off the indoctrination?" Shepard asked.

"No," an odd voice came from the rooms' loudspeakers. "The Black Song... still hums... in the deepest reaches... of her mind. At best, I can... keep it at bay... given her strength."

Shepard approached the cage. "You're the Rachni Queen? You control the Rachni we've been fighting?"

"No... the needle men... took our children... from us. They could not... hear their mother. Their minds... were lost... to fear... and silence."

Shepard rolled her eyes. "Xander, translation please?"

"The BH science team snatched her eggs as soon as she popped them out. I'm guessing that Rachni Queens start teaching their kids in-utero, soi to speak. She sings over the eggs, that's how they learn... well, everything that a Rachni needs to know. BH must have separated them from her as soon as they could, so they could try establishing control themselves. Thing is, once separated from their mom, the kids went feral."

Wrex nodded. "My people used to say that Rachni Queens could control their offspring from long distances. But if you killed the queen before the eggs had developed or hatched, the Rachni came out insane, they'd attack like wild varren." the Krogan rumbled.

" ...sort of like what's been going on around here, Boss." Xander filled in.

"Was this what you'd hoped to accomplish, Benezia?" Shepard hissed angrily. But the Asari shook her head.

"My goal was the location of the lost Mu Relay."

"Okay, I'll bite," Xander sighed. "What's so important about finding a lost Mass Relay? And how the Hell did you manage to lose a Mass Relay? They're kind of hard to miss, what with the largeness and all."

"The Conduit, a really big explosion, and an even bigger ball of dust." Benezia's response was unusually human in its light sarcasm.

Something about her reply made Xander burst into laughter. "I like her! Can we keep her? Please?"

"She was serving Saren not too long ago." Shepard pointed out,

"I still hear Saren's whispers in my mind. With the help of the Rachni Queen, I have more control. But I will never entirely be free, not until Sovereign is destroyed. And perhaps not even then."

"If you... permit me... to leave this place... I will keep... the Black Song... from her." The Rachni Queen offered.

"What?" Shepard was mystified. "After everything she's done to you, you'd still trust her and protect her?"

"Our Mothers... sang of the Black Song... Crying... as it soured... our souls... making us black and sick... turning us to seeding chaos... and destruction... across the sea of stars."

Xander didn't even wait for Shepard to ask.

"Whatever Saren's screwing around with may have started the Rachni War."

"She's blaming the Rachni War on the Reapers?"

"Makes sense when you think about it, Boss," Xander replied. "If we're too busy fighting each other, it only leaves us weaker for when the Reapers finally show up."

"...And Saren has the location of the Mu Relay. Which means that whatever system it links to is the location of The Conduit, and the key to the return of the Reapers."

"We must inform the Council." Liara insisted. "With this information, they can protect the Queen and keep it from harm."

"Keep it from harm?" Wrex sneered. "Are you an idiot? Rachni are dangerous! Millions of my people died to put these things down. Now you and the idiot humans want to bring them back?"

Shepard looked at Xander, "Aren't you going to chime in here?"

"One of my closest friends, someone I came to trust with my life... well, she once tried to kill me. Came damn close to doing it, too. My life was saved by someone that I would've happily seen dead. I might not be here right now if I'd gotten my way."

"...and your point is?"

"Boss, I learned a long time ago that sometimes you have to trust your instincts. You do that, and you almost never screw up."

Shepard nodded, "Well then I guess I know what I have to do." She said as she reached for the controls.


Shepard's thoughts...

Saren needed the Mu Relay to find the Conduit. Benezia had taken the Relay's location from the Rachni Queen's mind. Apparently, since her people had once controlled that area of space and thus remembered the location, the Queen could somehow remember it as well.

And once I had the location of the Relay, I knew that I had to find Saren soon. He'd been one step ahead of me all this time and that had to change. I still didn't know where Saren was heading off to beyond the Mu Relay. And in the meantime, I had other problems on my plate. Xander could not have timed his revelation any better if he'd tried. I was close enough on Saren's heels and just dependent enough on my entire crew including Xander I literally did not have the time or resources to be suspicious of his motives for keeping what he was from me. I had to deal with the more immediate fallout of my choices.


"Is this report accurate, Commander? You found Rachni on Noveria?"

"...and then released the Queen?" the Turian Councilor snarled. "What were you thinking?"

Shepard's reply was fairly smart-ass free. For her, anyway. "Since Saren's plans seemed to hinge on keeping her tortured and imprisoned, I figured that going the other way might be a good idea."

The Asari councilor sighed. One consistency that she'd noticed was that Shepard's reports to the Council stayed polite and congenial; that is, until her Turian counterpart opened his big, fat mouth to say anything.

"...and what of Benezia, Commander? Did you manage to apprehend her?" The Asari Councilor interjected, mostly to head off the inevitable argument that would end up with Shepard abruptly disconnecting their conversation, as had become her habit when she was annoyed by the Turian councilor's chronic poor choice of words.

"Benezia was in the hotlab when BH's Neutron Purge System was activated. According to my Tech Sergeant, there won't be much left of her, given how close she was to the reactor."

"We understand." The Salarian Councilor replied.

"Please extend our sympathies to Doctor T'soni." The Asari Councilor said "I'm sure she is upset by the outcome."

"... Assuming she wasn't a part of this from the very beginning." The Turian Councilor sneered, "Honestly, Commander, how can you let her just wander around the Normandy unsupervised? What kind of puppy-and-horse operation are you running over there?"

As if given a cue, Shepard rolled her eyes, "The term, Councilor, is Dog-and-Pony show, and I think that technical glitch with our communication system is back. Isn't that right, Joker?" the Commander said.

The holographic image of the Council de-rezzed as Joker answered, "Oh, yeah... Sorry about that! Signal lost, Commander." She could hear his snickering, and smirked.

Shepard turned to Xander. "So what happened in the Hot Lab? I thought we were done?"

"So did I. I'm not sure what happened. If you need to call it something, call it a miracle."

"Is this kind of stuff going to keep happening?" Shepard asked.

Xander snorted. "Weird and unexplainable things happening while chasing ancient, lost secrets? Yeah, you'll get used to that. So, are WE good?" he asked.

"You have a special ability," Shepard replied. "...just like everybody else aboard this ship and you'll notice that I make use of their skills. You can't be killed by conventional means. I'm sure I'll find a way to make use of that at some point."

"It's not a party trick, Boss. It's like I said to Wrex, I feel it every time I die; the pain, the fear... everything. I mean, to quote a really outrageous man... I have died so many times." Xander's face took on that world-weary expression again.

Shepard was stunned. She'd never really associated her wisecracking tech specialist with the type of exhaustion that she usually saw in veterans of the Skyllian Blitz or the Torfan Assault.

"Being... dragged back to life..." Xander murmured. "It's like every last aspect of your entire self suddenly being thrown onto broken glass. And the worst part is that I get to wake up and know that, somewhere down the road, I'll get to experience that all over again. So I actually try and avoid death whenever possible."

Feeling sobered by this raw declaration, Shepard could only shrug. "That's a very human reaction, makes me inclined to keep trusting you. You're scared to die and you fight hard to avoid it."

"So what happens when the Council finds out you let Benezia go, along with the Rachni Queen?"

"If I left the Queen to the mercy of the Council, she'd end up exploited. If being on Noveria taught me anything, it's that." Shepard answered. "As long as Benezia is with the Queen, she's free of Saren's control. Letting them go hurts him and anything that hurts him is a good thing."

Xander handed her a datapad. "Hackett called, he wants you to look into some missing scientists."

Shepard nodded. "...They were all working on the same project and the last one is somewhere in the Kepler-Verge system."

Xander startled at his commander's advanced knowledge. "You already know?" he asked.

"Someone sent me the same massage while we were at Port Hanshan. Whoever it was covered their tracks pretty well. They even included a detail that Hackett might not know; the project that they were all working on, turns out that they were all on Akuze right around the same time."

"Akuze?" Xander stared into space. Her words seemed to transport him to another place, another time.

"Whatever Saren's up to, I'm going to need your head in the game, Harris." Shepard replied. "If accomplishing that means dealing with this, then I'm fine with that."

She watched Xander's face and the emotions playing across it. Shepard nodded, musing to herself, "Definitely a human reaction," as she left him behind in the comm room.

His omnitool bleeped again with another message from Willow. She'd relayed an alert from Noveria traffic control. An executive-class shuttle had disappeared from Binary-Helix's exclusive landing pad. Obviously wherever she was, Willow was tracking the escaping Rachni Queen and Benezia.

Xander thought about asking Willow about the Shanxi Job. Did she know what had happened to that merc, Jack Harper? Or Saren's brother, Desolas? Did she know what that Artifact had really been? What it could do?

In the end, he just sent back a message asking if she was okay. Her only response was a simple phrase before terminating the connection. It told him everything he needed to know about what his oldest and dearest friend was up to; that she was, in many ways, still the girl he'd grown up with in Sunnydale for all those many years. And, just how different and dangerous Willow Rosenberg had become over the centuries.

"The net is both vast and infinite... I'm always watching, so be good."

Chapter Text

Shepard forced open the reluctant door. the soft gasp of its hydraulics yielding to the woman's determined strength.

Xander slid aside, with the door hacked open, the hard-light construct of his omnitool winked out of sight.

Wrex racked the slide on his shotgun, exposing its heatsink and causing a plume of steam to escape. All for the sake of drama, really; he could've just let the heat sink itself naturally. "Dead and done, just the way I like 'em." He sneered.

Bodies littered the room behind them. Mercenary scum too stupid to notice how outmatched they were against the Normandy squad.

Wrex's desire to be included on this, and Shepard's acceptance of his aid, was an unspoken relaxing of the tense atmosphere that had erupted after Shepard's decision to let the Rachni Queen live. The Krogan had been furious and spewed a lot of verbal venom before dropping the subject and refusing to discuss it further. Urdnot Wrex was a proud Krogan and he had every intention to go on being proud, but that didn't mean that he didn't know who was the Battlemaster aboard the Normandy.

A tense scene unfolded before them; a man pointing a gun to another man's head. The scientist wore the rumpled and stained uniform of his profession, his thinning hair scrambled to cover a brow slick with sweat; a nervous reaction no doubt due to the large gun, the muzzle of which rested on the ridge of the scientist's brow.Still, it was the other man who grabbed Xander's attention. His build was thin and pale with ghost-like skin stretched over taut muscles. His hardsuit had seen better days, a low-end model that mercenary thugs favored for the flimsy aura of badass that you gained by owning something with the laughable name of Assassin in the title.But it wasn't the bargain-basement hardsuit that caught Xander's attention, but rather the man himself.

A dead man; or at least, he was supposed to be dead.

Dead, along with the fifty other marines whose lives ended on that night of screaming and fear on Akuze.

"Stay back!" he screamed. "All I want is this bastard!"

Shepard's gun came up to cover both of them. "Drop the weapon and step away from the doctor, soldier!" she said with cold finality. "Or I will fire!"

"You fire and I might end up shooting him anyway!" The man snarled, his nervous stance and the tensed muscles of his body giving away the truth about his pretended confidence.

"Toombs?" Xander squawked as he stepped out from behind Shepard. She turned her gaze just enough to notice the absolute shock on the immortal man's face.

Toombs looked up. That voice... it couldn't be. "Harris? I saw you die! The Thresher Maw's claw... it went right through you!"

"The claw went straight through! I almost bled out, but I survived!" Xander lied effortlessly as he looked at Toombs, agape. "But I saw you dragged under by the Thresher Maw right after that."

"They took me, Harris. The scientists... guys like this asshole."

"You can't believe this man!" The doctor cried out. "He's delusional!"

"They were studying the Thresher Maws!" Toombs ranted. "They LET them hit our unit, just to see what would happen! I woke up in a holding cell. They were delighted that I'd survived. Now they had someone that they could run tests on."

"What did they do to you, soldier?" Shepard asked, ever the picture of calm.

"There's no proof of any of this! I demand a fair trial!" the scientist shouted.

"Sergeant Harris was on Akuze." Shepard snapped, "And, up until now, everyone assumed that he was the only survivor."

Toombs continued his tale. "He's part of some secret organization," he snarled. "They call themselves Cerberus."

They all started at that revelation. Cerberus again? It was starting to seem like every dark and depraved sight they'd witnessed on this trip had involved Cerberus in some way.

"They've been treating me like a lab animal. I'd probably still be locked up, but someone attacked a bunch of their bases and in all the confusion, I got free. He deserves to die, Harris! For you... for me... for everyone in the unit... are you with me?" Toombs was almost frantic in his fanaticism.

Xander shook his head. "No, Toombs. I... we have to take him in. We have to... Toombs, you're not a murderer. You're better then this."

"Don't tell me who I am!" Toombs snapped, spittle flying from his lips. "Have you ever had Thresher Maw acid in YOUR veins? You got out with a few scratches and a scary reputation! I was tortured for years! You can't judge me! You don't have the right!"

Xander suddenly rushed Toombs, who panicked and swung his gun around. But Xander's hand locked around the wrist of his gun hand, cranking the arm backwards till it groaned in protest and the gun dropped to the ground. His foot kicked hard and Toombs crashed to the floor, Xander's weight on top of him.

Shepard watched as that hard light blade Xander had slid into view. Its point indenting the skin at the man's throat.

Shepard quickly grabbed the scientist and twisted an arm behind the man's back before shoving him into Wrex's arms.

The Krogan obliged her by latching onto the wriggling doctor, shoving the muzzle of his shotgun up against the base of the man's skull. Leaning down, he rumbled menacingly, "Don't move. My trigger finger gets itchy easily and we Krogan do NOT like doctors and scientists."

Shepard nodded and turned back toward Xander, and found herself staring at a stranger wearing the face of a man that she thought she had known. Rage curled his boyish features into a vicious snarl, his body was tense and trembling. Hell Shepard could've sworn that his eyes were even glowing.

"Don't have the right?" Xander snarled at Toombs. "I have every right! I have a right to know what happened to my comrades! I have a right to know if it really was my fault that our friends died!"

Images of The Initiative flashed before his mind's eye.

"I have a right to know if I serve a government that would feed its own soldiers to animals just for sake of project data!"

Harris ranted, remembering a group of high-ranking Generals and US Senators who'd done just that.

"I have a right to know who profited from the deaths of our brothers and sisters ... our unit! And if this SOB knows anything at all, then I swear he's going to see the inside of a courtroom even if I have to drag his lying carcass there personally! He's going to tell what he knows, he's going to tell what he did to you, and what he did to the rest of them!"

Toombs wriggled futilely against Xander's restraining weight before snapping,

"Are you kidding me, Harris? Weren't you listening? It was a secret project! I don't know who or what Cerberus is, but they'll never let their Ops go public! If he knew anything that could hurt them, you think they'd have let me get this close? If we don't avenge the unit now, they might never get justice!"

"...And if you kill him, then whoever was behind HIM stays protected in the shadows! If you kill him, then they get away with what they did! Maybe one day, they arrange for you to commit suicide in some out-of-the-way place that would never be traced back to them!"

Toombs froze up. "Huh. Never thought of it like that..." he mumbled. "Okay... I'm no killer. They couldn't make me one. I'm a soldier. I'll...I'll do my duty. I'll tell them what I know."

Nodding, Xander rose from the floor, the blade from his omni-tool sliding back into hiding. Xander reached out to pull Toombs off the ground before pulling him into a tight embrace.

"Those bastards can't hurt you anymore, Toombs." Xander whispered.

Toombs started weeping, sobs shaking his tortured body.

Wayne breathed a sigh of relief until Shepard's cold eyes locked onto him. At a nod from her, Wrex's shotgun dug into his skull.

"Feeling lucky to be alive, huh, Doc?" she hissed. "Enjoy it while it lasts, 'cuz if you really were working for Cerberus, then you and I both know that your only hope in Hell of living long enough to testify is to give the Alliance enough intel to justify keeping you safe from the people that Cerberus can send after you."

Dr. Wayne turned his head enough to look at her, and Shepard felt a strange surge of pleasure and satisfaction at the look of raw fear in his face. But as he turned to watch Xander, she noticed something else... was that recognition she saw in Wayne's eyes?

Was the good doctor finally remembering?

Finally putting a face to the name?

Finally seeing not the solder standing before him, but a corpse that he'd checked and dismissed five years ago, leaving Xander for dead?

***

An hour later, Ashley found Xander perched on top of the Mako. He was headfirst inside the machine's internal systems.

She pulled him out of the tank, "I thought the Skipper took you off-duty until we reached Virmire?" She grumbled while still managing a smile.

"She did. This is just a little preventative maintenance, Ash." Xander replied. His quiet voice and nervous twitching was so out of character for him.

Ashley found herself at a loss. She wondered again why Shepard had insisted on her delivering the datapad clutched in her hand.

"Hackett's people just took charge of Toombs and the good doctor," Ashley reported. "Wayne's already screaming that he wants all kinds of immunity and, of course, protection. You'd think that the Devil himself was waiting in the wings for him."

Xander sighed. "Nah, the Devil doesn't sweat small details like him. The Father Of Lies has badder fish to fry."

"If it matters, I think you did the right thing; Toombs doesn't know it now, but you saved him." Williams commented.

"I screwed the pooch, Ash. I risked the hostages' life and... I'm tired, Ash. I'm really... really tired."

Williams shook her head, "Why not grab some rack time? There's no telling what we're walking into on Virmire. You might need the rest."

"No, I mean... I'm tired of being the guy who lived. The guy who got lucky. I'm tired of being the guy who didn't DIE and that's it." Xander took a long, deep breath. "All I ever wanted was to help people, and make a difference. How did everything get so screwed up?"

Ashley chuckled bleakly. "I'm tired, too. Tired of being afraid to be anything less then the best, tired of living in my grandfather's shadow, of feeling like nothing I do will ever wash away the stink of being related to the guy who lost Shanxi."

"Actually, your grandfather was a pretty cool dude," Xander froze, realizing what he'd said. "I - I mean, he seemed like a cool dude... from what I read... in the history books, 'cuz that's the only way I could know about a guy who's thirty years years older then me, and I'm going to stop talking now."

Ashley chuckled. "Either you're really bad at this or this Dawn was one hell of a woman."

"There is option C, you know. I'm really bad at this AND Dawn was one hell of a woman."

"This is why I like poetry. Other people say what I feel better then I ever could."

"I still like poetry. Got way into the beatnik for a while back when I was in school. I was going to leave school and travel the land. Experience life; I was going to be like Kerouac and Burroughs and Cassidy."

"What happened?"

"Got into an old car which broke down near Oxnard, I've tried to purge the memory of the rest of that summer from my mind... especially the male stripping."

"You had an actual car? With an internal combustion engine? Wow, I thought those were decommissioned years ago?"

"It was my uncle's... he liked old things. He's gone now. Like everything else."

"Do you remember any of it? The poetry, I mean?"

Xander closed his eyes in thought. "I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up. Running from one falling star to another 'til I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion."

He opened his eyes to see Ashley gazing off into some unknown middle distance. He shrugged. "I guess Kerouac isn't for everyone."

Ashley punched him in the arm. "I like it, you dope. I'm just picturing it. Trying to see what he must've been like. What you must've been like, back then."

"Pretty much the same butt-monkey I am now, it seems." Xander sighed, bitterness in his voice.

"Xander, you aren't the product of some twist of fate. Who you are as a person got you the love of a good woman - this Dawn woman that I've heard so much about. Your drive and talents got you though school and training, your character and personality, that's how you survived on Akuze and that got you here ... serving on the most advanced warship in the fleet. Every step on the journey that got you here; you had to choose to be the best you could be. Own that, don't hide from it; 'cuz it's nothing to be ashamed of... It's why I like you."

"You like me?"

"You sound shocked."

"The kind of girls I end up with are usually demonic in nature, temperament, or both."

"Oh, I can be a demon, Xander Harris. " Ashley said, "Trust me on this."

She leaned on and claimed his lips in a fiery kiss. Xander's shock passed quickly and his hands slid down Ashley's back, hands curving around to hold and caress the muscles of her back and sides. He pulled her into his body, feeling her warmth molding and melding with his own heat. He suddenly had a rational moment and backed his head away from hers, but her hand came up curving through his hair and holding him in place.

As she had told him once, The women in her family; and Ashley especially, did things when they were ready; not before and definitely not after. Ashley was ready; end of story.

She looked up at him through hooded eyes; a predatory smile on her face.

"You aren't just a survivor, Xander. Anyone can survive; you beat the odds and you won."

Xander looked into her eyes and surrendered to her grip.

"I can get into winning. Winning's very cool," he mumbled as she guided his head back down for another incendiary kiss.

And he let himself go; let himself feel it again. That flush of passion at being with someone who wanted him just for being himself ... he'd almost forgotten what it was like. To be lost in that hot moment.

It felt good

***

Kaidan Alenko backed away, slipping into the shadows. Every instinct had told him not to follow Ashley, that what she was going to do down here wasn't his business, but he had totally failed to follow his own advice.

It wasn't like she hadn't warned him. She'd been honest and even compassionate; she hadn't lied about where her heart was beginning to lean. He found his way back to the service access shafts that some of the crew used to bypass the notoriously slow elevators.

She had made her choice and he could be cool with that.

Xander wasn't a bad guy; a little goofy, but he had a inner strength that even Kaidan could admire.

Coming in second to someone like that was as much a compliment as it was a disappointment.

Chapter Text


Kaidan Alenko's first impression of the surface of Virmire was its resemblance to the Vancouver beach front property that his father had retired to, except for the strange spider-like creatures that walked about on thin delicate looking legs.

Waves of water crashed ceaselessly against the shore while the alien creatures barely reacted to the Mako as Xander piloted the machine past them at near suicidal speeds and down a riverbed, bracketed on one side by a steep cliff face jutting into the air and on the other side by rocky reefs. A deep, deep, impenetrable ocean lay just beyond those rocks. The Mako's sensors refused to say what lurked in those cold dark waters and Alenko tugged nervously at the safety restraints holding him in place.

The Normandy arrived on Virmire and found the remote planet under siege. Antiaircraft guns formed the backbone of a static defense grid the likes of which none of the crew had ever seen before.

Shepard was impressed; the Seige of Torfan might have ended very differently if those degenerate pirate bastards had protection like this.

"Scanners picking up multiple dropships, Commander." Tali reported, "...and a large structure, massive power output."

"The kind of power output that could take out an Alliance Frigate?" Shepard asked.

Tali nodded. "Easily..." she muttered aloud. "I don't see any dropships ahead, but that doesn't mean anything."

"Maybe we got lucky." Kaidan pondered. "Maybe their force is stretched too thin?"

Xander snorted. "If you're going to take bets like that, Alenko, then remind me not to let you go gambling at Flux."

"Meaning?"

It was Tali who answered him. "Geth can power themselves down to conceal themselves, Lieutenant Alenko. Their modular nature means that you could easily fit dozens of Geth into a space the size of this tank's interior. That was how Lady Benezia managed to slip hundreds of those things past the weapons screening on Noveria."

Kaidan looked at the scanner images in front of him. "So there aren't just a few dozen Geth up ahead, there might actually be a...."

"A few hundred," Tali replied. "And as soon as we fight any of them, from the smallest drone right up to a colossus... well, their networked intelligence will know we are here."

"...And right after that, Saren." Shepard snarled.

"And just to keep that warm and fuzzy feeling going," Xander reminded her, "...we're picking up Krogan. Lots and lots of Krogan."

"Keelah." Tali whispered as she watched the scenery whipping by her in a blur.

"Nervous?" Kaidan asked her.

"I know that Saren has to be stopped." The young Quarian mechanic shook her head. "But to command the loyalty of so many Geth... it galls me to think of this crazy Turian... the Geth belong to the Quarians and someday they will again."

"Tali, I don't think that the Geth belong to anyone at this point." Xander sighed. "They've clearly chosen to follow Saren."

"That is because of his vessel. No, when this is over, we have to find a way to bring the Geth back under Quarian control. That is the only way to prevent another attack like Eden Prime from happening again."

"You think we can prevent another Eden Prime by enslaving the Geth ... again?" Xander asked her wryly.

"Their sentience is a mistake, Xander. An error of programming. If your omnitool malfunctioned, you wouldn't just let it keep malfunctioning, would you? Especially if your life depended on it. No, you would fix it."

Xander looked at Tali like she had grown a second head. "Tali, there are about six different arguments that I could make right now. But they'd all sound a little hypocritical since I'm planning on killing a ton of Geth today, so lets just go with the whole agree to disagree thing, okay?"

Shepard decided to head off Tali's inevitable explosion whenever the topic of the Geth came up.

"Tali, you've done more for your people in the last few weeks by helping me stop Saren then anything that any Quarian has done in three hundred years."

"I want to thank you again for giving me that Geth system data, Commander."

Shepard smiled. "You manage to decrypt it yet?"

"I'm a long way from a solution," Tali looked at Xander. "...it would go faster if someone would let me borrow their omni-tool's decryption programs." The Quarian grumbled, her meaning clear.

"I'm sure the Tech Sergeant would be more then happy to help." Shepard replied.

"I wanted to ask last night, but Xander was... busy." Tali muttered. "I believe he and Chief Williams were engaged in... routine maintenance."

IShepard snickered, "If your maintence is -- only routine -- then I hope the Gunnery Chief wasn't too disappointed."

Xander shot her a dark look before braking to avoid sailing the Mako past the rocky shoals.

"Geez, Harris, you in a hurry to meet your maker?" Kaidan hissed, antsy at having avoided death by drowning with only inches to spare.

Xander ignored him as the Mako rounded the natural curve of the riverbed to reveal a pair of Geth Armatures. The two machines started blasting away at them with plasma fire.

Xander gunned the engine and swerved around a rocky outcropping, letting the weathered stone take the blast that would've shattered the Mako's shields.

"Boss, if you could grab the turret, please?" Xander snarled. "I'd try and outrun them, but Mister Backseat over there hates my reckless driving."

Shepard snickered as she slid into the gunnery position. "Now, now, kids, be nice or I'll turn us around right now."

Harris had been on edge ever since they had entered the system. The situation with Toombs had clearly left a mark on him somehow, and Kaidan was sure that SOMETHING had happened on Noveria. But Shepard wasn't saying anything and the rest of the Noveria ground team were equally closemouthed. But Liara had an odd look in her eyes whenever she looked at Xander.

"Lieutenant, their shields please!" Shepard shouted, snapping him out of his thoughts as she blazed away with the Mako's chaingun. "Tali, shut down their weapons."

"On it, ma'am!" Alenko shouted as he and the Quarian popped out of the tank and aiming their omnitools at the pair of heavy Geth weapons platforms.

Their kinetic barriers shimmered and sparked as they were overloaded and their weapons died. Shepard's hail of fire promptly tore into the metal-polymer shell of their armor, dropping the both of them.

Suddenly, a huge Geth rose to replace the smaller weapons platforms; a quadrupedal design known as a Colossus.

"Join the Marines, see the galaxy, meet interesting people..." Xander griped at the top of his lungs as he drove the Mako straight toward the synthetic.

"...and blow them up!" Kaidan and Shepard chorused. Shepard turned the Mako's main rail-cannon upon the giant Geth. The explosive discharge from the heavy slug slammed into the Colossus and blasted its heavy bulk. It dropped into the swiftly flowing water, giving a high loud whine, and started struggling back to its feet.

"When I say the word, bail out." Xander growled as he drove the Mako at the Colossus while Shepard poured chaingun fire into the beast.

"Bail out?" Tali shouted, "Are you serious?"

"...As a heart attack, Tali." Xander snapped.

Kaidan would've argued, but Shepard was already cranking the hatchway open.

"Now!" Xander screamed.

He slowed the Mako enough and Tali, Kaidan, and Shepard, all bailed out of the still-moving Armored Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

When they were clear, Xander gunned the engine and crashed into the walking tank again, bowling it over as he parked the tank right on top of the Colossus. The synthetic beast roared in its strange machine language, its legs thrashing about in a futile attempt at regaining its footing. If it followed protocol it would not use its weapons now until it managed to free itself from the Mako's weight.

"It's down! Hit it hard!" Shepard shouted, unleashing deadly fire from the Spectre prototype rifle that she'd been using lately.

"Understood!" Tali cried aloud as she reached behind her and pulled out an assault rifle that Kaidan had never seen before.

"What the hell is that?!?" Kaidan asked.

"I picked it up while we were in the Armstrong cluster!" Tali chirped cheerfully. "Xander helped me rebuild a Geth Assault Rifle!"

She raised the weapon to her shoulder and blazed away at the still-writhing Colossus. Kaidan could see the weapon's phasic rounds ripping right through the Geth's shielding; searing holes into the Colossus' dark armored skin.

Briefly wondering if Xander could get him one, he pulled out his own pistol, and the whole team hit the huge Geth with everything they had. It gave a final wailing cry before slumping to the ground, the light of its single eye fading as the synthetic beast died.

Xander backed the Mako away from the wreckage and then hopped out of it, dusting his hands off. "We came, we saw, we kicked Geth ass." He announced, looking smug.

Shepard snorted. "We took out ONE Geth, Harris. There's a whole army on this planet and Saren's in the middle of them. How's about we take out those AA guns, and find ourselves a rouge Spectre before we crack the champagne bottles?" she said, smirking at him.

"Way to harsh my buzz, Captain Downer." Xander grumbled.

"What was that, Sergeant? I'm not sure I heard you." The implied menace in her voice was unmistakable.

"I signaled my readiness to continue the mission, ma'am!" Xander shouted, reflexively standing at attention.

"That's what I thought, Sergeant." Shepard sneered. Strangely, nobody missed the hint of a smile on her face.

Xander would sass Gods and Demons, but even he knew not to cross the line with Shepard. Walk it, yes. Dance along it, occasionally. Cross it... never.

Tali insisted on probing the fallen Geth for any system data that might have survived the frying of their memory cores. Kaidan stood at her side, nervously scanning a distant structure with an AA gun perched on its roof.

Shepard pulled Xander back inside the Mako. "What's with you, Harris? Is there a problem I should know about?"

"I don't want to say." the Sergeant replied.

"I sent Williams down to see you last night. Did something happen?"

Xander scowled. "I've got a bad feeling about this one, Boss," he sighed, gritting his teeth as he gunned the engine.

Shepard reminded herself that Xander had seen a lot in his time, and his nervousness was probably a deeply-ingrained survival instinct. That having been said, though, Saren had to be their top priority.

"Maintain the objective, Harris." Shepard reminded him. "Maintain your focus, that's the real reason you've survived all these years."

"C'mon, Boss. You have to be wondering yourself; what's really going on? Why is he still here? It's not like I want to see the galaxy burn, but if you were Saren... Why would you still be sitting around on this rock, waiting to be discovered?"

Shepard paused."It would have to be important, something that I'd be willing to risk being captured over. When we find him, we can ask him; assuming I let him live that long."

"Experience says we aren't going to like the answers. Assuming we get any."

Shepard decided to follow her own advice. "Mount up, people!" she cried out.

Tali and Kaidan climbed back inside the Mako and sealed the hatch.

"Okay, people! We take down the static defenses and then rendezvous with the Salarians! Whatever Saren is up to on this planet, it stops today! Am I clear?!?"

Moments Later ....

Saren marched through the monitoring station, noticing that the Geth manning its consoles seemed agitated. He could understand when they were upset. And now, something clearly had them concerned.

"Show me," he snapped at one of the Geth, who pointed at the defense grid layout display.

One of the AA guns read as being offline. Saren interfaced with the controls bringing the vidmonitors online, he saw the Normandy sailing past the nonfunctional AA Guns unchallenged. As the rogue Spectre watched the display, scanners tracked the ship slipping in through the tiny hole in the defense grid's coverage.

Saren was no fool. "Shepard..." he hissed. "Remote command those guns! Get them back online and someone get me telemetry on where the rest of those damn Salarians are held up!"

He headed toward his inner sanctum, the Geth making way for him. He was the prophet bringing about the return of the Old Machines, after all.

"I thought I had more time," he muttered to himself. "But it would seem that our departure will be ahead of schedule."

The Geth in the room chattered around him. "Begin moving all essential equipment to Sovereign. All the supplies. " The ex-Spectre ordered, "I want all necessities loaded so we can depart for the Mu Relay. I will seek wiser counsel as to our next move."

He left them and took an elevator up to his private lab. The human scientist... what was her name? Ah yes, Burkle, Winifred Burkle... sat at her desk, her gaze fixed on a computer on her desk and ignoring him as she often did everything except her partner.

The Asari scientist, Rana Thanoptis, gasped upon seeing him and cringed. Obviously, she was hoping he'd ignore her. For that reason alone, he decided to give her some orders.

"Doctor Thanoptis, see to it that the Salarian test subjects are released from containment. Make sure that they're armed as well."

"Excuse me?!? You want to arm those... idiots?!? They'd be more likely to kill us then anyone who might be in the base!" She shrilled.

"Rana," Burkle snapped, "Do as the Turian commands. His mindless drones will not harm us."

"Yes, Mistress." Rana gulped and nodded at Saren, "I'll see to it myself, sir." she simpered.

"Once you're finished with that, come back here. I might have more duties for you." Saren hissed.

"I was thinking..."

Saren cut her off. "Don't make me send the Geth to find you, Doctor Thanoptis. Their experience with the Quarians has left them with a tendency to be rough with organics."

Thanoptis gulped. After looking fearfully at her partner, she scuttled out of the room.

Saren turned to the other scientist. "Doctor Burkle," he snapped, "I want to see the results data that you've gathered from the test subjects."

"Shall I put it into layman's terms for you, Turian? If you are not under the sway of that vessel yet, then you soon will be. At which point, you are screwed; scientifically speaking." Fred gave him a baleful look, her deep blue eyes shimmering. She snatched up a datapad and thrust it into his hands, sneering, "Right now, the plant on my desk has more independent thoughts then you do. The process will only get worse as time passes."

She turned back to the desk plant sitting next to her computer, muttering under her breath. If Saren didn't know better, he could've sworn the woman was ... talking to the plant.

Still, her work was staggeringly brilliant. More so then Thanoptis, The Asari also seemed to be the only one able to keep Burkle on task, he wondered if Thanoptis had taken the human as a bondmate, it was not unheard of and would explain Burkle's occasionally highhanded treatment of the Asari. He had even heard Burkle refer to Rana as "pet"

Still Saren had more immediate concerns so he dismissed his worries about his eccentric staff. focusing instead on his more immediate problem; indoctrination. He thought that he'd have more time. More time to prepare, to make sure that he was protected.

Then, IT spoke. "You should not have delayed. Your organic foolishness has left you vulnerable to the humans." IT was the voice, the same one that he'd been hearing for twenty years. "The humans have tracked you here. Perhaps it is they who should be offered the opportunity to serve. Perhaps it is they who can best be trusted to see our plans to completion."

"Have faith. Shepard and her people will not breach this facility until long after we have escaped. Your plans can not be stopped."

"Organics require faith, Saren." Sovereign boomed flatly. 'You need to believe in that which you cannot see, because you see just how small and pathetic you truly are. You seek meaning and purpose, surrounding your continued existence with illusions of meaning so that you can blind yourselves to the truth; that your only purpose is to serve those greater then you and ultimately to die in that service."

"Then allow me to serve. Let me prove my worth as I have done so in the past. Surely I've already shown that the Turians could be useful tools, that we should be given the chance to survive and to serve you."

"I have scanned those infiltrating this world, Saren. There are already signs that I have allowed you to waste too much time. The imperfection that you organics carry has manifested itself. It must be purged."

"And it will be purged." Saren snapped. "The human race will be wiped clean from the galaxy, along with all others who would oppose you. Then the Turians can take their rightful place as your new and true servants."

"It is true that some amongst the Protheans eventually proved useful to us. They were allowed some autonomy after we improved them." Sovereign rumbled.

"Continue to further our goals, Saren," the ancient starship added. "Prove yourself, and your people will be allowed to serve and survive."

But just as hope rose in his chest, Sovereign added a dark caveat. "Fail me, and the Turians will be as forgotten as have all other races that came before the Protheans." He could feel his fringes twitching as a strange chill ran down his back.

Chapter Text

Thanks to Reikson for the help and advice and support, to the reviewers and PM's your good wishes and comments are helping me keep this work on track ... I will eventually return to the oneshot format but Virmire is such a goldmine of narrative opportunity I just couldn't half-ass it ...plus a certain character needed some screen time.

 

Shepard climbed from the Mako. In front of her was a large camp, with a ship standing off to the side and covered in some kind of heavy cloth. The camp was filled with Salarians, and one of the them marched up to Shepard.

"Captain Kirrahe, Salarian Special Tasks Group."

"Joan Shepard, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. We got your message. Most of it, anyway. What's the situation?"

"You and your men have just landed in the middle of a hot zone. Every AA gun within ten miles knows you're here and will blast you out of the sky if you try and escape."

Shepard cursed, "What are we supposed to do now?"

Kirahee puffed in annoyance. "We sit tight and wait for the troops. I assume that the rest of the Council's forces are in high orbit?"

Xander snickered, but it was Kaidan who answered.

"Sorry, Captain, but WE are your reinforcements." Alenko explained.

"What? You're ALL they sent? I requested a fleet!" The Salarian gasped.

"Your transmission came in on a mission-critical channel but was little more then static." Shepard explained. "Since they already have me searching for Saren, they figured it was best to send me to find out what was going on."

"Hey, at least you know that when they're sitting around doing nothing, it doesn't just piss US off." Xander muttered.

Kaidan tried being diplomatic. "It's a balancing act, it has to be. You can't expect the Council to just drop everything on our say-so."

"Why not?!?" Xander ranted. "Why give someone the authority of a Spectre if you're just going to ignore them until it's too late to do anything about it?!?"

"We don't even know what Saren is doing here and you want to unleash hell on the planet?!?" Kaidan barked back.

"He's building an army of Krogan warriors." Captain Kirrahe announced. His words were like a bomb, silencing everyone.

"Great. Krogan mercenaries," Xander sighed. "How is a guy on the run for his life affording the cost of Krogan Mercs?"

"...By promising them a cure for the genophage." the Salarian replied.

A deathly silence fell. "I'm sorry, what did you say?" Shepard asked quietly.

"Saren's claiming to have a cure for the Genophage. It's lured many to his banner. At this point, he has a veritable horde of Krogan warriors."

"Well, now we know where all the Krogan we're picking up came from." Shepard sighed,

"I sent several of my men to obtain a sample of the cure. None of them made it back, but the last transmission I got indicate that it's some kind of injection."

"A cure for the Genophage." Wrex rumbled. "How is that even possible?"

"It took the original team almost a year of study to invent the original virus, not to mention the debate about making it in the first place... How Saren managed to find a cure in such a short time..." The captain trailed off, lost in thought.

"Wasn't Binary-Helix working on a cure? There was something about it in the news, I'm sure." Kaidan muttered.

"They failed," Kirahee said. "Trust me, the Genophage wasn't easy to make. Its complexity would take years to understand, never mind curing it. I don't know how the Turian managed it."

"What does it matter?" Wrex snarled. "What matters is that there's a cure. As long as we're here, let's take it."

Kirrahe shook his head. "If that cure leaves this planet, the Krogan will become unstoppable ... Again. I won't make the same mistake."

"We are not a mistake, Salarian!" Wrex roared in Kirrahe's face before stomping off.

Xander snorted. "Oh, great! We got an army of pissed off Krogan between us and a genocidal whack-job! ...And Admiral Ackbar here decides to piss off the only one willing to work WITH us! Great strategic thinking there, you-..."

"Harris!" Shepard's shout cut him off from saying something crass.

"Sorry, got carried away." Xander mumbled.

"Carry yourself back." Shepard snarled.

"Is the Krogan going to be a problem, Spectre?"

"Not your problem. I'll take care of it." Shepard spun on her heel, eating up the distance between herself and Wrex with huge strides.

Kaidan couldn't hear their words, but their body language spoke loudly enough for those with eyes to see them.

The cold set of Shepard's face said that she was being hard-nosed about things. The base and the cure had to be destroyed. Wrex could either get with the program or face the consequences.

Wrex's back stiffened, his fists clenching. He wouldn't back down, not this time. It was his people's future at stake.

They pulled weapons on each other.

Ashley started to expand her shotgun, but Xander laid a hand on her shoulder. "Let them work it out, Ash. She's got this, you know her."

"He's pulled a gun on her."

"Remember your sister Sarah? Same thing here."

"Wrex isn't a schoolyard bully and wannabe-rapist. he's a pissed off Krogan and This is a military operation."

"It is the same, you let Sarah handle the jackass who tried to attack her on her own terms and it worked out. Let Shepard take care of this her way."

"We let her handle Lord Darius her way." Ashley reminded Xander, "You do recall how that worked out right?"

The Alliance had pulled Shepard in to handle what Admiral Hackett maintained was a simple trade negotiation, Shepard had brought Xander along to as she put it, "keep me from doing something I'll regret having to explain in an After-Action Report."

In that respect he had failed spectacularly. Lord Darius and his men were no more and Shepard had razed the base to the ground for good measure.

"HER way usually consists of a bullet to the brain," The Gunnery Chief snapped, "or threatening someone WITH a bullet to the brain."

"...And as negotiating tactics go, you'll notice it's been damn effective." Xander pointed out.

They watched as Shepard stepped in close. The wind carried not a hint of her whispers, but you could see the moment that Wrex's body shuddered and his gun dropped.

"I'll be damned. Xander's right." Kaidan whispered.

"It happens from time to time, Alenko. You'll get used to it." Xander said, smirking.

"Yeah, like the coming of Halley's Comet." Ashley snickered.

Xander looked at her. "Ah, jokes at my expense. Well, now I know it's love." he sighed.

Kirrahe's plan was simple. A frontal assault on Saren's base that drew away his main force, leaving a small hole through which a small strike team could slip through...hopefully unnoticed.

Xander made his displeasure known right away. "So the plan is for you guys to stand out there, getting mauled by Saren's army, while we stealth our way into the base and hope that all his troops will be so focused on killing you that they ignore the nuclear device we're shoving up their cloaca? That has to be the stupidest idea that I've ever heard IN MY LIFE."

"...And that's saying something." Shepard sniggered.

Kaidan didn't know what was more disturbing; her laughter, or the glare that Xander shot her way.

"I don't know what the joke is, but I don't think I want to know." He sighed.

"If you have another way to get a twenty kiloton jury-rigged explosive past massive static defenses AND an army of fanatic Krogan and Geth, then... Please, human. Feel free to enlighten us." Kirrahe sneered.

"Just because I don't have a better plan doesn't mean there isn't one." Xander snapped back.

"Since it's the best plan we have right now, we go with it." Shepard said, her voice putting an end to Xander's argument with Kirrahe.

Then she turned to the Salarian Captain. "That being said, however, my Tech Sergeant makes a valid point; your plan seems to be a tad high-risk."

"There's always the possibility of failure; neither team might make it, or we both could die. Which is why my next request is especially difficult; I'll need one of your men to help me coordinate the attack."

"You expect me to commit one of MY men to your command." Shepard snorted at Kirrahe's request.

"They would be leading one of the three teams that will hit the facility. Should anything happen to me, they would take operational command of the frontal assault."

"Commander, it really is the most efficient way to make sure all the teams are operating past peak. I volunteer." Kaidan offered.

"Not so fast, L-T." Ashley piped up."The Commander's gonna need you to arm the nuke. I'll take this one."

"With all due respect, Gunnery Chief, it's not your place to decide." Kaidan reminded her.

"Why is it that when someone says '...with all due respect,' they really mean 'kiss my ass'?" Ashley shot back.

"Please. This needs a professional touch. I have operational and logistical experience with small-unit tactics." Harris said.

Shepard shook her head. "Sergeant, I think the Captain would prefer to work with someone who's opinion of his tactical skill wasn't aired infront of his troops, so that opts you out. Gunnery Chief, you're up. You know what I expect from you and I know you won't let me down."

"Understood, skipper."

"Alenko, you're with me and Harris. Between the two of you, any technical hurdles should be easy to handle."

Shepard turned to the rest of the team. "Wrex, Garrus... you're on the shadow team as well, Liara too."

"We'll handle it, Shepard." the rogue Turian nodded.

"Tali, you're with the Salarians. Help them uncouple the drive core. Whatever bang it has now, I want it more powerful by the time we're ready to deploy."

Tali nodded. "Understood, Commander."

"How good is she, Spectre?" Kirrahe asked. like practically every one else in the galaxy Kirrahe saw Quarian and assumed untrustworthy vagrant.

Shepard heard the tone in the Salarian's voice and narrowed her eyes in annoyance "Captain, Tali'Zorah here can craft drive-core parts from what's in your pockets right now. So I'm pretty sure that she can do wonders with your bomb."

Chapter Text

Thanks to Reikson for the help and advice and support.

 


Shepard's Thoughts...

It was like we'd been preparing for this, for all the months that we'd fought together. The assault went off without a hitch. Xander, Wrex, and Garrus, all went in through the basement.

Meanwhile, I took Alenko and Liara to knock on the back door. What we found waiting for us turned out to be disturbing in ways that none of us had ever seen before.

Funny thing was that the biggest challenge, the thing that almost destroyed us, wasn't the fanatical synthetics or the brainwashed troops. The thing that almost broke us was a little thing that was so simple that I missed it until it was too late. After everything we had seen and done. After everything we had been through.

I'd honestly thought that I had the trust of the whole group, that they would follow my lead without question... more the fool I, it would seem. That mistake almost lost me the war right there, costing me the life of the bravest and most honorable soldier that I'd ever known.

 

A roar filled the air as a fuel depot went up in flames. Garrus watched through the scope of his sniper rifle as a hulking Geth model, a bipedal design built like a linebacker in armor, reacted to the sound by charging their position. He waited until its glowing eye filled the viewfinder of his rifle scope before gently squeezing the trigger. A modded round slammed into the Geth's eyepiece... another perfect headshot.

He grinned at Wrex, who snorted. "What do you want, an award?" the old Krogan sneered.

"Yeah, 'cuz you make kills like that every day... oh, wait. You don't because you can't." Garrus sneered back.

Wrex didn't answer. Instead, he smoothly stepped out from behind his cover and gestured at a group of Geth firing on him. The electric blue of a biotic field suddenly flared into existence, as Wrex's Lift snared four Geth Troopers and disrupting their personal gravity. As they floated upward, he hit all three of them dead center with blasts from his shotgun.

He'd turned to make a joke at the Turian when another of the huge Geth models stepped out from behind cover, firing a rocket that exploded hard enough to knock the old Krogan Battlemaster to the ground.

"What the hell was that!?" Xander yelled as he joined them.

"Geth Prime!" Garrus bellowed back.

"...firing a Goddamn rocket at us?!?" Xander squawked. "When did they start doing that?!?"

Wrex struggled back to his feet and roared as he threw a Warp at the Geth Prime. Xander watched at the synthetic's blood red armor cracked and twisted under opposing gravitational fields and as the Krogan brought up his shotgun and fired a single blast into the Geth's body that tore the synthetic beast in half.

"You can keep your sniper rifle, cuttlebone." the old Krogan sneered. "Me, I like it up close and personal."

"Now, now, you two," Xander soothed, smirking. "If you two don't stop all that flirting, people will start to talk."

"So you took out the fuel depot, then." Garrus guessed.

Xander nodded. "Got a ton of their Recon Drones in the process. Ashley's team should have an easier time of it."

"Nice explosion. Your woman will be pleased." Wrex said, muted appreciation in his deep voice.

"Ashley isn't MY WOMAN, Wrex. We humans don't control our females."

Wrex snorted. "As if that much wasn't obvious. Looking at Shepard and Williams, they can take more pain then your males. They carry the children to term and they seem to fight better."

"I've heard that they live longer then your males as well." Garrus added, chuckling.

"Well... that might not be true in EVERY male's case." Wrex then added, sniggering.

As part of the Noveria ground team, Wrex, Liara, and Shepard were the only ones who knew of Xander's unique nature. He knew that might eventually HAVE to change, but there was still a small and defiant part of him that was determined to keep his immortality a secret for as long as possible. He was determined to hold on to the joy of having people treat him like the normal guy he used to be.

Xander shot the Krogan a warning look, but the old warrior only smirked at him. "She's chosen well, though. You seem like you'd make good breeding stock."

"That's practically a proposal of marriage from a Krogan," Garrus chuckled. "Williams had better appreciate the trouble that you've gone to. Last time I checked, the point of a diversion was to draw the enemy's attention AWAY from you."

"She's on a diversionary team, Garrus, not a suicide run. If I can make life easier for her and Admiral Ackbar, then I will."

The Turian shook his head, muttering, "Fine, fine. It's time for us to make our entrance anyway." Checking his chronograph, he then said, "T'soni and Alenko should be helping Shepard draw their attention. Right... about... now."

Xander nodded and walked over to the door, his omni-tool flaring to life as he hacked the internal components of its lock. The door slid open and the three squad mates trekked down into the sub-cellar, filthy sewage swirling around their booted feet.

Needless to say, the three of them were glad that they had helmets with respirators that blocked out the sewer's stench. But the irony of his situation had Xander sighing. "In another sewer, looking for another big bad. It's nice to know that some things in my life will never, ever change."

They reached a doorway and another hackable security panel. Xander made short work of the panel and the door slid aside, letting them into a large room with stairs lead upward to a door with a large security console in front of it. Along the railing overlooking their position were several Salarians looked down at them.

"Where'd they come from?" Xander asked.

"Didn't that Captain say that he'd lost several men investigating this place?" Garrus speculated aloud.

Xander shrugged, saying, "I assumed they were dead."

Then the Salarians raised weapons and began shooting at them.

"Dead, no. Switched sides? Definitely!" Wrex snarled, yanking Xander back out of the line of fire.

"You think Shepard knows?!?" Xander bellowed over the gunfire.

"If she hasn't figured it out by now, then she'll know soon enough!" Garrus snapped back while trying to keep the Salarian's heads down with his assault rifle's suppressing fire.

"They're not fighting right!" Wrex suddenly shouted. "No tactics, no organization... they smell wrong, too!"

A shot made Xander duck his head. "Less talky, more shootie!" he bellowed back.

Garrus aimed his sniper rifle, taking out three of the Salarians in as many seconds. But a fourth jumped to the bottom of the stairs, running wildly toward them.

"It wants you dead! It needs me to kill you!" The Salarian screamed.

Xander pointed his omnitool and the Salarian's gun went quiet. Wrex unleashed a blast of biotic energy and the Salarian was thrown across the room and crashed against the far wall with bone-jarring force.

The STG operative writhed on the floor, murmuring to himself. Xander bent down and listened.

"What's he saying?" Garrus asked. "What does he want?"

Xander straightened up, a look of shock on his face. "To die. He wants us to kill him."

Chapter Text

Thanks to Reikson.

 

Kaidan Alenko hacked his way through a door that lead into a warehouse. They should be two floors above Xander's team and would meet them inside.

The door opened reveal to a Geth Shock Trooper handling a shotgun. A burst of plasma streaked across the narrow space and Kaidan reflexively raised a Barrier but the shot exploded against a force shield before it ever reached him.

He looked around and noticed Liara T'soni standing just behind him, a hand raised and her eyes glowing with power. She had generated the force field.

"Nice, Doc. As Xander is fond of saying; always bet on the blue girl." Shepard smirked.

Kaidan nodded. "Get ready to drop your Barrier, Doctor T'soni." he said, raising his omni-tool, ready to fire an Overload at the Geth.

At his nod, Liara's Barrier shimmered and died as Kaidan made the Geth's shield short out. Shepard brought up her shotgun, hurling the Geth backwards with a fiery blast of incendiary-modded shot.

But several Salarians were now charging them, their guns barking. Shepard fired another blast at a nearby containment pod, which exploded and sent cryogenic gas spewing into the air.

The Salarians stumbled but kept on coming, screeching incoherently as they ran towards them. Liara's arms swept forward, moving like a ballerina as her biotic energies swirled around her. Several of the attacking Salarians were thrown into the air, smacking into walls and floors.

Kaidan felt a little jealous. For humans, biotics were still a raw, new thing, a tool and sometimes a weapon. For Asari, biotic power was an extension of their bodies; a part of the self.

A sweeping hand created a Pull field that snatched a weapon from the hands of its dazed owner.

A sweeping foot created a Lift field or a Throw that tossed enemies around the room like they were toys.

A palm thrust sent a Warp at the few remaining Geth, a violent storm of gravitational power ripping several of them apart.

Freezing others in their place with powerful Stasis fields.

Watching Liara use her abilities was like watching... magic. Or, at least, what Kaidan thought that real magic, if such a thing existed, would look like.

Shepard looked at the Salarians lying on the floor.

"Captain Kirrahe's men. But why are they fighting with the Geth?"

"Brainwashing, maybe? But can you brainwash a Salarian? I thought they were, like, super-smart." Kaidan pondered.

"Intelligence is no protection against mental domination, Lieutenant," Liara
explained. "One needs only to have a will strong enough to overpower a mind's defenses."

"Can you do it?"

Liara shook her head. "No, my abilities are more combat-oriented."

Kaidan sensed the Asari was holding something back. "...But you've heard of the ability. You've heard of Asari who have that ability?"

"My mother has the ability. Abilities like Dominate will often appear in families with..." She paused, as if embarrassed, "Purebloods... they often retain abilities like Reave as well."

"You say that like it's a bad thing." he speculated.

"Purebloods are prone to certain genetic abnormalities that are considered... shameful. The biotic abilites they possess are often seen as signs of their genetic weakness, a mark of their inferiority."

"Genetic weakness? Inferiority? You've got to be shitting me." Disbelief colored Kaidan's words.

"I am not... shitting... you, Lieutenant." Liara replied flatly. "The Asari place great value in genetic and cultural diversity. Conversely, Asari see pureblood offspring as... promoting weakness and stagnation; they are... embarrassments."

"Doesn't that seem a little... bigoted?" he ventured, not really wanting to tread what was clearly a sensitive subject.

"I assure you, Lieutenant, few Asari would ever discuss things like this openly with an outsider."

"...and yet you seem okay with talking about it. Why?"

"I am a pureblood. I see no shame in what I am and as for how I am treated by my own kind... well, there's a reason that I've spent the last fifty years on isolated worlds studying a dead species."

Shepard was silent. She'd discussed most of this with Liara in private, especially after encountering Benezia on Noveria. To hear Liara talk about it so openly, however, with her voice raw and stripped of emotion... It was sobering to hear Liara speak so openly.

A part of her, that she'd tried to ignore for a long time, began to tug at her insides. That part of her wanted to reach out to the young Asari, to hold her and, if she could, to protect her as well.

Kaidan kept the rest of his thoughts to himself as the three of them moved further into the base. Opening a door, they could look down and saw a series of cages. Shepard could see Salarians sealed in them, murmuring to themselves.

"They're just like the others. They barely know we're here, Commander," Kaidan whispered.

"I'm beginning to wonder if breeding Krogan is all they do here?" T'soni mused.

Shepard looked and saw a doorway. "The entrance is through the next room. I want to check this out."

They moved through a door, hearing gunfire in the distance.

"That sounds like Team Two. Let's get this mystery solved before Xander gets here."

Kaidan listed to the sounds. "Sounds as though they're upstairs from us. How'd they get ahead?"

"We'll ask when we see them," Shepard snapped. "Let's focus on the detention level right now."

They opened a door and Liara gasped. The sight of several Salarians crouched in cages and whispering to themselves was horrifying. Shepard grimaced as she walked past them, ignored by all save for a single Salarian in a cage off to the side.

"Hello, is anyone there?" he asked hesitantly.

"Shepard, Council Spectre."

"A Council Spectre out here? On the fringes of Terminus Space?"

"You're STG, right? We got your call for help. The Council thought that sending me was better than a whole fleet. Your Captain's attacking the front of the base, we're the shadow team."

"Gonto Imnes. I was captured while on recon. If I know the Captain, he'll be planning on blowing the facility."

Shepard nodded. "That's the plan. You know where the breeding pens are?"

"Breeding," Imness snorted. "The Krogan aren't nearly the threat that the indoctrination is."

"I was wondering about that. I've met some of your fellows. They're fighting for Saren now."

"They've been indoctrinated, all of them. I've never seen anything like it. Good men turned into mindless husks."

"How?"

"Most succumbed within a week. Some kind of energy field, I've even detected signs of infrasound. Saren's doing something else with the Krogan. Injections; the substance is some kind of nanotech suspended in a fluidic compound. One hit and a process that normally takes days happens in seconds."

"His genophage cure." Shepard realized.

Imness nodded. "I don't know how it works, but it only takes one injection. And the Asari that I spoke to, she said that once it's in their system, it'll not only affects them but any progeny that they produce."

"Asari? You mean Benezia or someone else?"

Imness shook his head. "Her name's Rana Thanoptis. She's a researcher. Saren keeps her and that human doctor busy upstairs, but she came down here today, let out a bunch of my people, and armed them."

"You mean your fellow soldiers? They've all had this done to them? What could've possessed Saren to do something this despicable?" Liara asked, her voice a mix of fear and disgust.

"I think he's testing it, trying to find a way to control the process or even..."

"...reverse it," Shepard whispered. Then it hit her. "He isn't in control. He must be afraid of relying on it too much."

A door opened at the top and they looked up to see Xander, Wrex, and Garrus crossing the balcony.

"Sorry, boss!" Xander called out. "We got a little ahead, busted up a lab, and killed ourselves a Krogan scientist."

Garrus sighed, "Krogan and scientist... there's two words that I never thought I'd hear together."

"Anyhow," Xander said pointedly. "Wrex got a hold of that genophage cure."

Kaidan saw Shepard's lips curl in anger. "Did he take it?" she demanded.

"Nah, he wanted to see how it works first. Maybe figure out how to make more of it." Garrus rumbled.

"Get down here, NOW!" she snarled.

The three jogged back through the lab and came though the door. Shepard reached out and grabbed Wrex, force-marching him bodily across the floor and steering him to look at the Salarians.

"This is what your damn cure does. This is what you become. He injected that garbage into them and he did the same to your people, Wrex. It turns them into these mindless lumps!"

Wrex looked at the Salarians and the way they were staring at the open door of their cell and how they didn't react at all.

"They're barely alive, Wrex," she hissed. "They'd let varren gnaw off their limbs if Saren told them to ignore it. So is that what you want for them? Is this all that you think the Krogan are worth?"

"I'd rather be dead then live like that." Wrex muttered.

Shepard held out her hand. "Give it to me, then," she ordered.

Wrex dropped the vial, glowing with a sinister blue light, into her hand. She tossed the vial into the air, drew her pistol, and shattered the fragile tube with a single shot.

"I get that you want to free your people, Wrex. But this... this isn't freedom. It's the worst kind of slavery. And if this is what the Krogan have to become, they'd be better off dead."

They looked at each other a moment before Shepard nodded decisively and turned to Xander.

"Sergeant, if you could let Mister Imness out of his cell? I'm sure that he'd like to get as far away from this facility as possible before it's a smoking crater."

Xander opened Imness's cell and watched the Salarian as he stepped out and walked past the cell with his fellow soldiers. The immortal wondered if the shudder that went through Imness was from weakness or the pain of seeing what had happened to his fellow soldiers.

"Don't look back and hope to avoid the blast, huh? A better chance then I had before you showed up. Good luck, human. I think you'll need it."

Kaidan watched the other Salarians sadly. "Are you sure there's nothing we can do for them?"

"Leaving them to die in the blast seems cruel," Liara said. "But I suppose it can't be helped."

Xander thought about the months that he'd spent as slave and personal servant to Dracula. Finally, he said, "I'd rather be dead than be left like this."

"Wrex?" Shepard's voice was curt, but her meaning abundantly clear.

Wrex shuddered, still looking at the Salarians with a haunted look on his face. Finally, he said, "Make it quick, Shepard. They're warriors, and once fought like warriors. They deserve to die like warriors as well."

"Agreed." Shepard nodded, taking her pistol in hand.

Kaidan looked at his commander, shocked. "Ma'am, are you sure about this? I mean, just mowing them down, that just seems a little..."

"...no, Lieutenant, it's a lot." she snapped as she fired two rounds into each of the brainwashed Salarians. "You'd honestly leave a fellow soldier to suffer like this? Just so your hands stay clean?" she asked him, her voice cold.

"I took an oath, ma'am. I... I have to live with my conscience."

"...and what happens when your oath and your duty conflict with your conscience? What if the life of your squad depends on you putting your conscience aside for the good of the mission?"

"Thankfully, that hasn't happened."

"Yet, you mean. And that happened to me, Kaidan, and there are soldiers alive today because I did the right thing for them. Not for my conscience, for the people under my command who depended on me for leadership. If I have any regrets about Torfan, it's that I waited too long to do what was necessary."

Then she got in Kaidan's face, his hardsuit in her grip, her lips curled into a snarl.

"I became the Butcher of Torfan by choice, Alenko. But I also did it out of necessity. One day, you'll have to decide what's more important; your clean conscience or your duty. I hope, for the sake of the men depending on you for leadership, that you do the right thing."

Kaidan paled. "Ma'am, I never meant to imply..."

"...Damn right, you did." Shepard hissed. "When you're in command, you get to make that judgment call. But until then, you follow my lead. Is that in any way unclear Lieutenant?"

Then she turned to the rest of the squad. "We're done here, people. Move out."

Chapter Text

Thanks to Reikson for the awesome ideas and the great bata work and to my many kind reviewers -- your support has made it a hell of a lot easier to do this. Thank you All :-)

 

The group passed through a destroyed chamber that still reeked of the faint traces of ammonia that marked it as a lab. Xander looked back and noticed Wrex staring at a dead Krogan. The scientist who'd been running the lab. A low rumbling snarl built up in the old Krogan's throat.

"You okay, Big Guy?" Xander asked the old mercenary quietly.

"The Council made us slaves once." Wrex sneered bitterly. "We wiped out the Rachni for them and they thanked us by neutering us all. Now this scum would've make us slaves again. And to a Turian, of all things. He's not even worth feeding to a nathak."

The old Battlemaster paused, looking at the his fellow Krogan before spitting on the corpse in disgust.

"Wrex, can it!" Shepard snapped. "You're with Harris and Alenko on point! I want to make sure every trace of Saren's so-called cure is gone."

The old Krogan nodded as Xander and Kaidan went ahead, moving down a narrow walkway that looked like a bridge. Idly, Xander noticed a second bridge off to the side.

The sound of gunfire echoed, off in the distance.

"Sounds like Ash and the Captain are giving them what for." Xander commented, mostly to fill the air. Alenko's silence was creeping him out.

"I can't believe she picked you, of all people." Kaidan snapped.

"Ashley or Shepard?" Xander sighed.

"What, you think I'm some lovesick teenager?" Kaidan sneered. "Of course, I mean Shepard. Or have you been playing moral compass for any other Council Spectres?"

"Ah. I'd wondered where that eight-hundred pound gorilla had gotten off to." Xander sighed.

"See that? Right there! That's my point!" Kaidan snapped back. "I get using humor as a coping mechanism, but you act like the world exists as a nonstop set-up for your jokes."

"Oh, and you'd prefer that I took life seriously and sit around in righteous moral judgment of someone who's saved my life more then a few times?" Xander sneered back.

"You think she was right to kill those Salarians? You can't think she was right!" the biotic snarled.

"Of course I think it was right! I've been a slave... well, it was a long time ago and it doesn't matter anymore. The point is, I've seen what being a slave does to people, and I wouldn't leave my worst enemy like that."

"So just mow them down, a quick little double tap and away we go, that's better?!? How can you just rationalize that away?"

"I trust her, Kaidan. It's not much more complicated then that. She's earned my trust. We're through the looking glass here. Right, wrong... stuff like that gets fuzzy on the level that we're now playing on. So trust is all that we can rely on. And I trust her, Kaidan. "

"I've seen what happens when you start looking the other way, Xander. It's not pretty. It usually doesn't end well for the people depending on-"

Their conversation was interrupted as they reached the far side of the walkway. Kaidan was in full rant as Geth Recon Drones flew at them, firing phasic rounds at blitzkrieg speeds.

"Pull back, Goddamnit!" Xander bellowed. But even as he moved to sprint away, giant servos whined as the first bridge swung away leaving the pathway behind them a yawning chasm. Xander and Kaidan stumbled onto the second bridge as it slid into place, while Wrex fell against a doorway behind them.

The rest of the squad was cut off from all three of them. Kaidan could see Garrus prodding the bridge controls on their side of the chasm. A high machine whining began and Kaidan could feel the bridge he was standing on moving.

It took a few moments for him to realize the bridges were not coming together. As the first one slid back into place, the second bridge lowered itself, leaving Wrex trapped next to the door, and both Kaidan and Xander trapped out in the open.

"Oh, isn't that nice!" Xander snarled. "Moving bridges and, of course, when one is in position, the other isn't! Which means that we're now sitting ducks out here!"

"...And here's me thinking the slaughterhouse was out front with Ash and Salarians!" Kaidan yelled back as the two men fired on the swiftly moving Drones.

"Get to the other side of the bridge!" Xander bellowed.

"What?!? Have you lost your mind?!?" Kaidan roared back.

"We're in a crap position! We either stay here in the open and let the Drones gun us down, or move down the bridge to the only cover we've got! That alcove!"

Kaidan looked ahead and saw a trio of Krogan firing wildly in their direction. "Krogan incoming!" he yelled. "Looks like they're indoctrinated!"

"We gonna take the Krogan or the Geth?!?" Xander bellowed back.

"Krogan!" Kaidan decided on the fly. "The Drones can actually hit us!"

So the two of them made a break for the alcove, dodging Geth weapons fire as they ran and continued shooting. Wrex could see across the vast space, while Shepard and the rest of the team hunkered down to lay a hail of suppressing fire on all the Drones they could see.

Now under assault from above and below, the Drones split up. Several of them broke off from trying to kill Xander and Kaidan in order to engage Shepard's team.

Wrex found himself under assault from two of the Recon Drones at once. He fired his oversized shotgun at the one of the drones firing at him, sending it spinning away to crash somewhere in a fiery mess.

The other Drone weaved through the air, its shots falling around Wrex like a deadly rainstorm. Cursing, the old Krogan broke cover and leapt into the air, grabbing onto the remaining drone. The thing was unprepared for the bold tactic and his greater weight, and its overstressed hover engines whined as he rode it down to the second bridge.

Jumping off of the Drone, he twisted in midair so that he could continue firing his pistol at the hovering machine. He watched with some satisfaction as the thing exploded, just before he landed hard on the bridge, back first, and began cursing.

Meanwhile, a single Drone was keeping up the steady rain of rocket fire on Kaidan and Xander.

"What the hell are those things?!?" Kaidan yelled.

"I don't know!" Xander yelled back, reflexively ducking as a rocket streaked past them and exploded behind them. "But they've got a Hell of a bang for their buck!"

Kaidan used biotic punches to knock the Krogan down to the ground as they passed, allowing them to slip into the dubious cover of the alcove.

Meanwhile, Wrex was too far away to make effective use of his Shotgun, and was not prepared to expose himself to the deadly Rocket Drone. So he began firing pistol rounds at the other Krogan menacing Xander and Kaidan, allowing the two of them to deal with the last Drone.

"I got this." Xander snapped and channeled an Overload at the Drone, making its shield shimmer and die.

That was when Kaidan first noticed it; a smaller, spherical drone buzzing around the larger Rocket Drone. "Damn it! Repair drones!" the biotic cursed. "God does not like us today!" He tried targeting the thing, but it seemed to almost sense when it was being threatened. It would swoop back and forth, in and out of the cover provided by the larger Rocket Drone's protective shielding.

"Now you see WHY I've had to develop a sense of humor about my life?!?" Xander roared at him. "I'd go crazy otherwise!"

Whenever they tagged the Rocket Drone, the smaller one would fire some kind of beam at its larger comrade, regenerating its shields and armor and letting it start attacking again.

"Double team!" Xander snapped. "I break cover and draw the Rocket Drone's fire, and you take out the Repair Drone!"

"No, we should stick to cover! It can't get at us that well while we stay here!"
Xander nodded. "Fine, L-T, we'll try it your way! But first..." and he broke from cover, running as fast as he could. The Rocket Drone swiveled in the air and went after him, firing rockets at his heels.

Kaidan cursed as he began running after them, firing shots at the Repair Drone and sending it falling to the rocky reefs far below.

Xander saw another Krogan warrior right in front of him. The walking tank snarled wordlessly in rage as it barreled toward him in full Charge. He dropped to the ground, sliding between the Krogan's pumping legs just as the Drone unleashed another rocket attack. The rocket blew the Krogan off its feet and hurled it over the railing.

Xander leaned back, priming his omni-tool again. This time, the Overload charge slammed into the Rocket Drone, dropping its shields enough for Kaidan to hit it with an EM Pulse. The drone fell, exploding as it disappeared into the watery depths.

Xander lay on his back, panting heavily. "Nice, L-T! Don't you love it when a plan comes together?"

"That was reckless, foolhardy, and... just about the ballsiest thing I've ever seen." Kaidan bent down to help Xander up and was thus caught off-balance when a huge Krogan barreled into him and sent both of them over the railing.

"Kaidan!" Xander cried out as he got to the railing and saw the biotic dangling from the edge of the railing, with the Krogan grabbing his feet.

Kaidan's grip on the railing slipped, and Xander reached out and grabbed his arms to hold him in place. But the sudden jerk of his stop dislodged the Krogan and sent it plummeting to the reefs below. Xander tried to pull Kaidan up, but was hit from behind and nearly let him fall again.

The attacking Krogan, who'd been blasted off the bridge by the Geth Drone only seconds earlier, had survived his close encounter with a rocket and pulled his still smoldering body back onto the bridge to batter at Xander with his shotgun stock.

If Xander was the count-your-blessings type, he might've considered it lucky the Krogan was so maddened by its pain that it seemed determined to club him to death with the shotgun, as opposed to shooting him. Xander tried kicking back, but the brainwashed Krogan was single-minded.

"Let go of my hand!" Kaiden yelled up at him.

"Screw that! I'm not dropping you to save my own ass!"

"I don't want you to drop me, you idiot! I need a hand free! Biotic here, remember?"

"Oh, yeah." Xander replied sheepishly.

Xander freed one of Kaidan's hands, and the biotic balled up his fist and threw a ball of biotic power that sent the Krogan flying into the air, off the bridge, and into the waters below.

Finally unhindered, Xander yanked Alenko back up onto the bridge.

"When you tell people about this..." Xander panted, on his hands and knees. "...and you will, make no mistake about that... could you leave out the part where I forgot you're a biotic? That's mildly embarrassing."

Kaidan looked at him. "You kidding me? I'm totally going to tell them that you were screaming like a little girl."

"I don't scream like a girl! My screaming's very butch!" Xander squawked.

They stared at each before they both broke into laughter.

"If I didn't know better..." Wrex rumbled as he walked up to them. "I would say that SOMEONE was using humor as a coping mechanism for the stress of his near-death experience."

"What about YOUR near-death experience?!?" Xander demanded. "Last I saw, you were in bad cover and ready to get picked off!"

Wrex shrugged. "As my first Battlemaster taught me; when you have no defense, attack."

"What about you, Harris?" Kaidan asked. "What possessed you to run out into enemy fire like that?"

Xander shrugged. "I don't know. It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Why do I get the impression you use THAT excuse a lot?" Kaidan groaned.

Xander shrugged as Wrex looked over at the distant second bridge and the rest of their squadmates. "How are we going to get the bridge back up to the other platform?"

"Easy-peasy," Xander pointed. "That console over there should do the trick. The real problem's that Shepard's going to be waiting for us, and I don't think she'll be happy that we got into a whole firefight and didn't invite her. You know how she hates being left out of the action."

Kaidan looked up and saw Shepard staring down on them. He could feel her stare, even from this distance. "No offense, Xander, but she likes you better. So I'm totally blaming this on you."

"Not if I talk to her first, you won't." Xander vowed.

 

next up: When Old Machines and Old Ones meet -- sparks fly. Saren shows he's smarter then the average Geth and Team Normandy loses one of its own.

Chapter Text

AN - Thanks to Reikson as always, especially as these were some long chapters but I am happy with how they turned out. Hope you all share my enthusiasm --- thanks to the all for the continued support and I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank the gang up keeping Mass Effect Wiki. I'm guessing all of the decent fics and half of the sucky ones owe their existence to the people who faithfully upkeep and maintain this treasure trove of Mass Effect Knowledge.

 

***
Shepard's Thoughts...

 

Harris and Alenko's sudden attack of esprit de corps was heartwarming, but not the biggest thing on my mind.

Not for long, anyway. At various points on this trip, various people had warned me that my immortal friend was not the only weird and unique thing that I'd encounter on this trip.

I'd listened, but not really understood.

I'd wondered what could be stranger then a soldier who couldn't die in battle?

Answer ... How about a God who'd been fighting our real enemy since long before man took his first steps?

***

Rana Thanoptis cowered on the floor under her desk. Illyria, still disguised as Fred, seemed uninterested in the fighting outside.

It was limiting being Fred, even after all these years, but Winifred Burkle still served a purpose. She could still go places that Illyria would never be welcomed in. At least, not without annoying levels of violence.

"We should've left. We could've run." Rana whimpered. Fear and misery had her hugging her legs.

Illyria sighed. She hoped that Rana would not start crying again. The noise was bothersome.

As a pet, the Asari was merely adequate. She had none of Spike's spirit, or his humor. And the diminished Old One seriously doubted that Thanoptis could even take a punch without whining like a child.

"We have little to fear from men with guns," Illyria said dryly as she sniffed the air. "Besides, I smell something... familiar..." she trailed off as a memory twinged in her mind.

"Familiar or not," Rana complained. "...you're a God, Mistress. You don't have to be... afraid, like the rest of us. We can die."

"Believe me when I say that even Gods can die." Illyria said coldly. "I've seen it happen, and I've been the cause of it."

Illyria walked over to a weapons locker.

"If you'd like, I can give you the code, Mistress. It's..."

"No need," Illyria snapped as she yanked the door right off its hinges. She then threw the twisted mass of the door on the ground and pulled out a pistol, tossing it to the frightened Asari.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" Rana cried.

"If there is violence, you will be able to defend yourself. Do you feel better now?"

"I'd feel better if we could just leave. Please, Mistress."

"We will leave soon. I have to speak with someone about the future. Now, do you have the code to the Turian's private lab?"

Rana nodded, shoving the data pad at the Goddess.

"Then put the weapon away. It will cause trouble when those who hunt him arrive and see you armed." Illyria snapped.

Rana looked fearful and only lowered her gun, not putting it away. That's why the gun was in her hands when Shepard's squad burst in the door.

Shepard's weapon came up without hesitation. "Drop the weapon!" she snarled, firing a shot over Rana's head. "Drop it now!"

Rana screamed and cringed, firing by accident. Her bullet whizzed by Xander's shoulder, causing him to squawk in startled protest. Wrex simply leveled his shotgun and fired back, out of instinct.

Illyria's eyes flared a bright blue, and the shell that the galaxy knew as Winifred Burkle vanished, allowing Illyria the God-King of the Primordium to walk among pitiful mortals once more.

For Xander, the world seemed to slow to a crawl and he gasped in recognition.

It was Illyria as he'd seen her during that last battle. Clad in that strange red leather bodysuit, fury etched on her face. She'd joined the last survivors for that final stage of the Brawl-For-It-All, wanting revenge for the death of Spike and that weird Stygian beast that she'd inexplicably dubbed Pancakes.

Illyria marched over to Rana, and pulled her out of the path of Wrex's now-slow moving gunfire.

"Fred- I mean, Illyria..." Xander found himself stumbling over the confused relationship between the sweet girl he'd met once and the cold God-Being she'd become, thanks to Wolfram and Hart's treachery.

"What the Hell... what are YOU doing here?" he finally asked.

Illyria narrowed her eyes, looking at Xander. "You. The one who thinks that he is funnier than he actually is. Spike often spoke of copulating with your betrothed. The tale of your cuckolding brought him great amusement. Why are you here?"

"We're looking for Saren. Are you... are you working for him?"

Illyria shuddered involuntarily, sneering at herself for doing so. "...the girl... Winifred... she dreamed of exploring new worlds, seeing what lay beneath alien stars. When mankind moved out into the galaxy, it amused me to indulge her wish."

"You're exploring the galaxy to make Fred happy... she's still in there?"

"Sergeant, who is this and why is she here?" Shepard snarled, her gun still trained on Illyria.

"Her name is... Illyria. Illyria the Merciless, Illyria the God-King... honestly, Boss, Illyria's got titles coming out the wazoo."

Illyria nodded. "Saren hired Rana and I to investigate the indoctrination process, to find him a means of protecting himself. Of course, there is no real defense. For normal people, anyway."

"You were helping him?" Liara asked

"It wasn't as if we had many options," Rana snapped. "Our first test subject was the man I replaced. Now I just want to get out of here before he dissects my brain."

"Rana, I shall accompany them to Saren's private lab. You will remain here with the others."

"But, Mistress, I was..."

Illyria's eyes suddenly flared with electric blue energy. "Do as I say," she hissed, her voice soft and menacing.

As the Asari researcher squeaked and nodded, Illyria spun around and marched to the elevator. "Are you coming or not?" she snapped.

"Can we trust her?" Shepard whispered.

"She's never tried to kill ME, that's a huge plus in the win column as far as I'm concerned." Xander replied.

Shepard snorted. "By that standard, Saren's harmless. Someday we'll have to discuss your tactical threat-assessment scale." Then she sighed. "Alenko, Garrus, Wrex... stay here and hold this room. And keep Miss Thanoptis out of trouble."

The three of them did not answer, gaping at the leather clad humanoid who could seemingly move faster then weapons fire and seemed to know Xander.

"How did she do that thing where she... she was there one second, then she was..." Garrus sputtered his confusion plain.

Xander sighed. "Short answer? She can manipulate time," he explained as he followed Shepard into the elevator. "Actually, she can do a lot of really freaky stuff. I'd love to stay and explain the whole backstory, but she has zero impulse control, and even less patience."

The doors closed on the group. Garrus turned to Rana. "All right, maybe you can explain."

Rana nodded. "She's an anthropomorphic manifestation of one of Earth's primordial deity figures."

Garrus sighed. "A little less complicated, please?"

"Some of Earth's gods are corporeal beings. That woman was infused with the essence of one such figure about two hundred years ago and has been the host for that god even since."

"So some mad woman tells you she's God and you believed her?" Kaiden laughed.

"As a matter of fact... no, I didn't. At first, I thought she was crazy. Then I watched her rip apart a bunch of Krogan hopped up on Ryncol and battle-rage."

"Combat training and biotics could explain-" Kaidan groped for an alternate explanation.

Rana snorted. "I'm not a first-year student, I'm a damn scientist. Obviously, I base my statements on hard, empirical data."

"Which would be?" Kaiden asked.

"I've personally watched her manipulate time. Freezing it, running it backwards and forwards in localized areas... trust me, biotics and technology can account for a hell of a lot of things that I've seen that woman do. But making an entire room of hungry scientists freeze in place? Just so that we can raid the buffet table unmolested? If she isn't a god, then she's something powerful enough to pass the muster, for my use."

"Okay..." Kaidan butted in, massaging his head. "Just so that my headache can reach ridiculous proportions... you're telling me that she defeated a bunch of amped-up Krogan singlehandedly, and then raided the buffet table... on a whim?"

 

"The funny thing is that she doesn't need to eat, she rarely sleeps, and I get the impression that she maintains her human appearance out of... well, I guess... sentiment... would be the right word." Rana said, as she began pacing back and forth.

"If it weren't for her, I might've been killed by the wandering Geth."

"The Geth attacked you?"

"Once. She picked one up and used its body to reduce the others to scrap."

"Excuse me?" Garrus asked.

"I've seen her do some pretty vicious things ever since I met her... I've chosen not to ask too many questions anymore." She shuddered, clearly in the grip of some ugly memories. Finally she shook her head vigorously, trying to shake herself free of the memory in question.

"But Saren... does he know about her?" Wrex asked.

Rana shook her head. "Saren thinks she's just an extremely eccentric scientist. She does the work he asks of her and doesn't bother him with details or questions, so he hasn't ever had need to look beyond her disguise."

"A goddess? Really?" the old Krogan mumbled in wonder.

"I'm not sure what she is, exactly... but if she wants to say that she's a goddess, then I'll go with that until you can find me a rational explanation for the things that I've see her do."

"What about that whole thing of calling you pet? What's that about?" Kaidan asked.

Rana sighed, rubbing the skin folds at the top of her head. "She seems to crave social interaction, but she still has trouble relating to people outside of whatever radically-defined power dynamic that she's used to. And... well, she takes care of me. She protects me, and I follow her everywhere and do what she tells me to do... if she wants to call me Pet, I'll go with it as long as I'm still breathing at the end of the day."

"But that just seems impossible." Garrus sighed.

Wrex snorted, thinking of Xander Harris and the impossibility of the Tech Sergeant's existence. "Possible, impossible... both of you might want to broaden your horizons a little." he rumbled thoughtfully.

***

Saren watched the monitors as they signaled that his private lab had been breached. He turned to the Geth scurrying around the room.

"Faster, all of you!" he roared at them. "Blast your synthetic hides, faster! Sovereign must not be delayed!"

The Geth chattered and moved faster with the preparations for his departure. He decided he was making all of this far too easy for Shepard. It was time to remind the human that she wasn't the only one who could command the loyalty of sacrificial pawns.

"Dahlia." He called to the Asari standing behind him.

A blue hand slid possessively over his shoulder. Unlike many others, Saren held no great fascination for Asari. But the young Dantius sister didn't need to know that.

"So..." Dahlia cooed sensuously in his ear. "Finally realized that you can't rely on religious fanatics and brainless Krogan? If you want the job done right, then you have to send the best."

"I sent Benezia." Saren pointed out dryly.

"And look where that got you." she purred condescendingly. "You need me. Me, not that doddering old fool."

The Turian sneered at her. "Benezia had her uses and she tended to draw a little less attention then a known slaver."

"I didn't hear you complaining when my slaver ring brought you all those subjects for your little experiments." she snapped.

"...And I didn't hear you complain when my people got you off Sharjila before your sister could have you killed." Saren shot back.

"I didn't think the bitch had it in her to be THAT ruthless. If I didn't love to see Nassana squirm so very much, I'd have returned the favor." Dahlia hissed.

"Then, now is your chance to show me that my efforts were not wasted." Saren sneered back.

The Turian brought up a scan of the facility. "Shepard's Shadow team will be making a run for the AA guns and their power generator here." He pointed on the map.

"Give me some of your Drones for air support and I'll have them flank Shepard's team. They can take the Spectre down."

"Dahlia, have you never heard the stories of Torfan? Shepard is a trained Alliance Marine, an N7 operative, AND she absolutely HATES slavers with a passion. If you underestimate her, she'll turn your people into varren feed."

"Then what do you want me to do?"

"Your people will hang back while the Geth and Krogan lure her into a prepared killzone."

"What's your plan? What's Shepard after?"

"She's making for the reservoir near the Krogan breeding trenches. That's the only place where she can land that ship of hers. Your people will wait in concealment there. Wait until the Normandy is on the ground, then spring your trap."

"I'll handle it."

"This is your chance, Dahlia. The team that I dispatched to retrieve T'soni failed me. Shiala failed me by giving Shepard the Prothean Cipher. Even Benezia failed me."

"I'm smarter then they are, and better. Shepard won't live past the day."

"I might even give you the Spectre's ship as a reward. If the rumors about its abilities are true, I think you'd find it useful."

"A ship like that, I'd have enough power to challenge Aria T'loak herself. Then we'll see who the Pirate Queen of the Terminus Systems really is."

Saren let the Asari entertain her delusions of grandeur. Truth be told, the rogue Spectre doubted that Dahlia would last even five minutes in a fight against Shepard. But those five minutes would keep Shepard busy. Dahlia's only purpose, other then taking as many of Shepard's people as she could before her inevitable death, was to buy him more time.

***

The elevator rattled as it passed through the facility. Shepard glared at Illyria every so often, but had apparently decided to file the Old One away as part of a growing list of things that weren't nearly as important to her as finding and killing Saren.

Liara was also fascinated by the Old One, finally leaning over to her while clearing her throat nervously.

"So... Miss... Illyria." she started. "You are... really... a goddess? An actual living, breathing deity?"

"I do not breathe, as you put it, but... yes, I am." Illyria's face screwed up in frustration. "Or... I was... a god."

"Well, god might be a tad dramatic," Xander muttered. "Truth be told, the Old Ones were just really, really powerful..." he quickly felt Illyria's harsh stare burring into him.

"Never mind me," he said dryly. "She was totally a goddess."

Illyria nodded, with arrogant satisfaction.

"A goddess who spent over a bazillion years locked in a box at the bottom of a deep-ass well," Xander added, in a loud whisper.. "...but, hey. Splitting hairs."

"You will forgive my skepticism, but what little I know of Earth history makes little mention of their deity figures being anything more then metaphors and allegorical story icons. And there are no records of anyone called Illyria." Liara said softly.

"My empire was lost and forgotten, due to treachery and infighting amongst the others of my kind. I, who once commanded thousands, reduced to a few pitiful minions. And then, the world was allowed to forget about us after the war and the few of my brethren who didn't flee were sealed away two hundred years ago."

Shepard snorted. "You want me to believe that mankind just forgot that there was a war? With gods and goddesses running around?"

"Your people did not JUST forget," Illyria snapped. "You all chose to forget, and he and his kind let you." she pointed at Xander.

Xander simply raised his hands in surrender. "Don't look at me, boss lady," he drawled. "Not my call."

"Then who makes that kind of call?" Shepard demanded.

"There was no conspiracy, no secret cabal." Xander said dryly. "It wasn't like anyone waved their hands and made the world forget. It's just the way the world works. When bad things happen that people can't or don't want to deal with, they allow themselves to forget. Enough people do the same, and suddenly nobody remembers that Sunnydale used to be a small town with an alarmingly high murder rate before it was a lake."

Shepard recalled him making that mistake when they'd first met. She'd dismissed it at the time, as an unimportant mistake on his part. Of course, she didn't know then what she knew now about Xander Harris.

"Nobody but you," Shepard said, slowly understanding. "...and you remember, because you used to live there. Whatever happened to it is connected to the reason why you're... what you are now."

Xander shrugged. Shepard hadn't gotten it right, but he wasn't about to begrudge her jumping to that conclusion.

Liara was still disturbed by Xander's words. "But the past is important. History is important. The things this woman has seen, the stories she could tell... shouldn't they be preserved?"

Xander snorted. "You look at Illyria and see proof of the wonderful and rich hidden history of Earth. I look at her and see living proof of what happens when people, with no regard for life, suddenly decide they want power and will do anything to get it. Make no mistake, Doc. A good woman had to die so that Illyria could live. Winifred Burkle, the real girl who used to live in that body... she was smart and funny. She was a good person who deserved a hell of a lot more than to wind up as little more than a... goddamn photograph."

"Not everyone's like that, Xander." Liara chided. "Surely, you can't think that Shepard and I are like that."

"You and boss lady are exceptions to a rule that I've had drilled into my head for a long, long time. And don't call me Shirley."

Shepard snickered as Liara rolled her eyes. "I assume this is more of your humor?" she sighed.

Xander sighed. Leslie Nielsen was legendary, but some people didn't properly appreciate the classics anymore.

"Look, Doc. Saren found an ancient dreadnought," Xander decided on another tack to make his point with Liara. "But does he try and help people with it? No, not him. He saw a path to power and he took it. And all of us might pay the price for it."

Shepard sighed. "Liara, I know it's crappy to hear this, but I agree with him. Look at Kaidan. His life was almost ruined because somebody somewhere decided that humanity gaining greater biotic power was worth screwing up a child's entire life. You saw what Illyria could do. How far do you think the Asari would go to gain control over abilities like that? Because I don't even want to think about how far I KNOW the Alliance would go to exploit powers like hers for their own use."

"Goddess forgive me, but you're right. I know you're right. But it just seems so wrong to hide secrets of this magnitude from the rest of the galaxy."

"Galaxy can be an ugly place, Doc," Shepard sighed. "If I could, I'd protect you from things like this. Xander's used his gifts to make the galaxy a better place. Imagine what someone like Saren would do if he couldn't be killed. If he was ageless and immortal."

"Your insight into the Turian does you credit." Illyria sneered as she strode out of the elevator and into the main lab.

The group followed after her and found themselves instantly transfixed by the room's only notable decoration.

"Is that... a Prothean beacon?" Liara asked aloud, reverence in her voice. "Goddess, look at it the detail. This is fifty thousand years old, and in perfect working condition."

"Hey, Doc, you cart this into Serrice U, and I'll bet all those tightasses who laughed at your theories would eat their hearts out to see something like this." Xander mused aloud.

"I assure you, Xander, that there are no cannibals on the Serrice University executive board. "

"Doc, I meant-"

"I know what you meant, I'm attempting to be humorous." She grinned impishly at him.

"Her style could use some work, but I give her points for effort and execution." Shepard added, smirking.

"Yeah, I think the judge might be a little biased." Xander riposted dryly.

Liara ran her hands lovingly over the object's surface. "What's remarkable is how well preserved this is. Something like this should be in a museum."

"Sorry, Doc," Shepard nodded sympathetically. "I'd like to indulge you, but I doubt Saren's going to let us just walk away with it. Even if we could cart it out of here."

Illyria snorted dismissively. "Yes. Most impressive for the Prothean equivalent of a telepathic text message."

Shepard ignored the Old One as she stepped forward, interfacing with the beacon's simple controls. She was suddenly grabbed by a strong force, just like on Eden Prime. And just like before, she felt her body go rigid as her mind opened up and let the universe rush in.

Xander watched. He'd only heard about this secondhand from both Kaidan and Ashley, so seeing it firsthand it was bizarre.

When the beacon finally released Shepard, she collapsed to the ground. Liara rushed to her side, concern written across the young Asari's face.

"Shepard, please let me help you." she begged. With a nod, Shepard relaxed into the Asari's hands.

"Calm breaths, Commander. Go to a place of peace, a place of serenity," she intoned, just as her eyes went black. "Embrace eternity!"

Liara stood on a hundred worlds, looking up into the skies of each of them and seeing dark shapes filling the sky. They resembled giant metallic squid, with huge tentacles reaching down towards the ground. From the ends of each tentacle were destructive beams of light and power that speared downwards, leveling whole buildings in a single blast. And in the midst of this horror, she could see Shepard staring upwards.

No, not Shepard, but it wore her face.

Shepard was seeing what this being had seen, and Liara was perceiving the vision as it was being directed by the Commander. There was no doubt that the Shepard in the real world was only seeing disjointed images flashing before her eyes.

What looked like Shepard, but was not, closed her eyes and the scene shifted. Giant worm-like beings, almost like thresher maws but with long tentacles and a sinister intellect, glared down at the two of them.

"Why should we protect you?" one such figure rumbled. "These old machines are of no threat to us. Begone."

"The Conduit! We would give you the means to cross the stars!" Shepard cried out.

The other huge beasts turned to the one that had first spoken. "Yes, brother, just what you've always needed; the means to flee!" it proclaimed grandly.

Liara desperately swallowed the bile that had risen to her mouth unbidden. Everything about these figures just screamed that something was... wrong, with them.

"Flee to the stars!" the creature continued. "Illyria fell easily enough! Now it is time for you to run and hide from our rebellion!"

The two turned to regard each other, hostility emanating from them in waves like heat.

"I fear nothing, brother." the first figure snarled. "If these old machines come, they will fall before me."

"Only if I deign to leave you any to kill." the second figure sneered. "Perhaps I shall slay them all and take their power for my own."

Shepard sank to her knees, unable to tear her eyes away from the vision. "Slavery or death..." she whispered brokenly. "Is this the only way?"

"The Conduit, please show me the Conduit." Liara pleaded and Shepard nodded.

Suddenly they stood under an alien sky, where the stars winked and seethed in the sky's inky darkness.

"What is this?" Liara asked aloud.

"An empire dying." Shepard replied. Her voice was flat, distant. "Each light is a Prothean world being snuffed out, subjugated, or completely annihilated. Our empire is lost. But if the Protheans must die, then we will strike one last, desperate blow in our death. If any hope remains, it is here on Ilos; the Conduit. If we cannot have salvation, then we shall have our revenge. The Conduit is the key."

There was a flash and Liara found herself back in her body as she gasped. "It's Ilos. The Conduit is on Ilos! That's why Saren needed to find the Mu Relay! That is the only way to reach the star system that has Ilos!"

"What else did you see, Doc?" Xander asked.

"There were two messages layered over each other. Both about the Reapers. One was a message from Ilos, informing anyone still listening to the system, about the Conduit. The second message was from Protheans on Earth, who traveled there in search of aid from the Old Ones. All that were left of them after they betrayed Illyria, at any rate..." Liara reported.

"The Protheans begged those left behind for aid?" Illyria sneered.

"They offered themselves in servitude to those Old Ones left after your defeat and imprisonment." Liara explained.

"Those fools would doubtlessly have no use for Mass Relay technology," the ancient God-King mused.

"Yeah, why find new planets to live on? Especially when you could kill everyone that opposed you and take the planet Earth for your own? If you're ruthless enough." Xander sneered.

You were actually alive to see the Reapers sweep through the galaxy?" Liara asked.

"You've never told them the tale?" Illyria asked. "Amazing. Little wonder that they are so unprepared for what is to come."

"It's been a few decades since I had to give the speech last time, sue me." Xander said dryly. "But, please. Feel free to take it away."

"Your world, your galaxy..." Illyria began. "They are all older then you can possibly imagine. That age saw the appearance of powerful beings living in it. Some, even as powerful as I."

Illyria sighed.as if fondly recalling something other then the absolute hell Xander knew that period of history to be, "Once, we Old Ones fought for dominance and power." The Old One continued, "Before us, there were the Eternals and their endless games of death and chance."

"And before them... who came before them?"

"Some whisper that once, long ago, Lords of Time and Space held the shadows at bay before they were defeated and destroyed by one of their own as punishment for their arrogance. But always, just at the fringes and lurking in the shadows... there were the Old Machines; what you call Reapers."

"You are not Saren." A deep voice echoed through the chamber. Looking up, the group noticed a hologram.

Shepard startled, this was what she had seen in the visions from the beacon.

To Xander, it looked like an armored cuttlefish and took up most of the room.

As they ran up the walkways to the image, the hologram pulsed in time to the teeth-rattling bass of its voice as it continued to speak.

"Rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh," the image's voice sneered. "You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. And now you bring this abomination to further corrupt the perfection and harmony of my sanctuary."

Illyria snorted. "You are the abomination here, Machine. Were you hiding in fear of me? When I worked under your arms for the last several months?"

"We have no need of hiding," the Voice snarled. "Not from you." The basso profondo of its voice hadn't changed a whit, but Xander thought he could hear anger. "I am Sovereign! Our armies scorched your cities and annihilated your slaves and your assets-"

"You bore me, machine." Illyria sneered. "Come and reveal yourself, so that I can tear you apart with my bare hands as I did a score of your brethren. You were as dust hurling yourselves against the wall of my greatness."

A sharp whistle rent the air and everything fell silent. Xander was a little shocked that he could bring the rampant one-upmanship to a stop, with a single sound.

"Not bad, Sergeant." Shepard whispered.

"Thank you." Xander nodded, before turning back to Illyria. "Just so we're clear, you ARE talking to Sovereign? The Reaper ship that Saren found, you're talking to it and it's talking back to you?"

Illyria laughed at him. "All this time, the woman has had the message of the beacon replaying in her head and you're saying that you've not once paid attention to its message? Is it only now do you begin to understand what it is that you face?"

"Sovereign isn't just some Reaper ship Saren found..." Shepard whispered, dumbstruck. "It's an actual Reaper."

"Wait," Xander interrupted. "You mean to tell me that the big bad we're fighting... that huge-ass spaceship that wiped out chunks of Eden Prime in a single blast, THAT thing is alive? THAT's a Reaper?!?"

"Reaper; a superstitious label originating with the Protheans." Sovereign rumbled, arrogant satisfaction in its voice. "In the end, what they choose to call us was irrelevant. We simply... are."

"Oh, that's not good." Xander groaned. "This is SO not good."

"The nature of our existence is so far beyond your comprehension that you cannot even conceive of it." Sovereign sneered.

"Your arrogance is unfounded, Little Machine," Illyria snapped. "You have been warned; your time will come soon enough. If these pitiful mortals do not rend you apart, then I surely will."

"It has to be lying," Liara insisted. "The Protheans vanished fifty thousand years ago. Illyria was... restrained, but you... you would have to be... no, it's impossible. You couldn't have been there."

"Organic life is a genetic mutation." Sovereign rumbled. "An accident. You wither and die; your lives measured in years and decades. We are eternal, the pinnacle of evolution. Long after your civilization is eradicated and forgotten, we will endure."

"There's a whole galaxy of races ready to stop a dead end like you." Shepard snarled.

"Confidence born of ignorance. The cycle cannot be broken."

"Cycle? What cycle?" Xander demanded.

"The pattern has repeated itself more times then you can imagine. Organic civilizations rise. Evolve. Advance. And at the apex of their glory, they are extinguished."

Xander blinked as some very unpleasant pieces began to fall into place. But Sovereign was still bragging. "The Protheans did not build the Citadel. They did not forge the Mass Relays. They only found them; the legacy of my kind."

Shepard snorted. "That's ridiculous. Why would you build the Mass Relays and then leave them for someone else to find?"

Illyria chuckled condescendingly. "That should be obvious, even to one of your kind. You are like herd beasts, being lead to your slaughter along a pathway of technological evolution. If you only know what they want you to know, then you learn only what they wish you to learn. And when they decide that knowledge has become too much of a threat..."

"...they wipe out any space-faring race before they can become a threat." Xander whispered. Anger and horror surged in him, quickly fighting with disgust.

"They're harvesting us," Liara whispered. "They let us advance to where we can produce resources and materials that they can use, then they kill us off before we get too powerful to be controlled."

"Your civilization is based on the technology of the Mass Relays, OUR technology. By using it, you evolve along the paths we desire. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it." Sovereign sneered.

"Their kind have invaded before." Illyria mused. "Every fifty thousand years they've come, seeking power and resources. Invariably, they found their way to Earth where they met..."

"The Old Ones... who I'm assuming kicked their asses." Xander mused.

Sovereign spoke again. "They did not defeat us. Our battles resulted in stalemate upon stalemate." Xander thought he could hear a touch of defensiveness in Sovereign's electronically distorted voice.

"They could not defeat us," Illyria continued. "Nor could we stop our eternal conflicts with each other, long enough to reach beyond the Earth to smite them once and for all. Besides, we had what we desired; an empire, unchallenged, with slaves to serve our needs."

"Yeah, slaves who ultimately rebelled against you and locked you in a box at the bottom of a damn hole in the ground." Xander sneered.

Illyria's warning growl was all the warning Xander got before a stinging backhanded slap knocked him back.

Liara helped him off the ground from where Illyria's blow had thrown him. The blood on his lip from her strike was already drying, the broken skin closing up until not even a scar could be seen.

"Hey, figured I owed you one after you threw what happened between Anya and Peroxide-Boy in my face." Xander snapped.

"So, the Reapers never conquered Earth because of the Old Ones." Shepard said in realization.

Liara nodded in understanding. "...and the Old Ones never left Earth because they were too busy fighting each other to try and conquer the rest of the galaxy."

"...but now you face the machines. This time, you do so without us to protect you as we did for generations." Illyria snorted.

"You're not even alive," Shepard snapped at Sovereign. "You're just a machine. And machines can be broken."

"I am the vanguard of your destruction." Sovereign sneered smugly. "Our armies will darken the skies of every world. You cannot escape us. You will finally be brought to heel. This exchange is over."

And the hologram cut out, while the console exploded with enough force to take out the windows of the room.

"Well, that was needlessly dramatic." Xander sighed.

"Normandy to Shepard! Come in, Commander!" Joker's voice came through the com. If he was breaking radio silence, it could only be for some dire emergency.

"That you, Joker?"

"I don't know what you did down there, but Sovereign just started moving! It pulled a turn that would tear any of our ships in half, and it's bearing down on your location, coming in hard! You'd better wrap things up in there, ASAP!"

"Then we make for the breeding facility and blow this place to hell and gone."

"What about her?" Xander asked, jerking his thumb at Illyria.

"What about her?" Shepard shrugged. "I'm guessing that anything that could kill her is well out of our reach." She then turned to Illyria. "Take Rana and get out of here. If you're lucky, you and I won't see each other again.''

"If you don't survive what is to come, then you're right; you and I won't be seeing each other again." Illyria sneered before walking off to the elevator.

Chapter Text

AN- Thanks to Reikson for the help, support and assisstance keeping me on track . I've been PM'ed about this enough I'll answer it here for now and eventually in-story -- Shepard looks like the lovely Gina Torres -- think Zoe Washburne with her hair pulled back

 

Illyria retrieved Rana and they escaped.

Xander thanked the Powers-that-Be that he was the only one who saw Illyria stepping through some kind of tear in subspace that she'd opened, dragging the still whining Rana along after her. Explaining Illyria's powers of temporal manipulation was bad enough without adding the need to explain teleportation as well.

Shepard's face was a study in grim determination. As Xander watched her, he found himself thinking back to those last few battles in Sunnydale. Back when it seemed like beating Caleb and the First wasn't just a matter of protection or survival, but seemed like Buffy's entire reason for even breathing.

He remembered all too well how often Buffy had felt like the weight of responsibility for everyone's life or death was all on her. Xander made a vow to himself; this time, it'd be different. He wouldn't lose anyone like he'd lost Anya, Renee and so many others. This time, he promised himself, everyone would make it home.

They blew the AA gun and made it to the reservoir; a big, open area bordered by large fuel cells and the Krogan Breeding Tanks. They faced just enough resistance to lull them into a sense of security. If anyone thought things were proceeding a little too easily they ignored their misgivings, just like they were supposed to.

Off in the distance, Xander could hear the sound of another big AA gun blowing itself apart. Ashley's team had made it to the second AA tower.

Joker rejoiced and Xander relaxed as he saw the Normandy coasting in low, landing in the reservoir. They were halfway home. Maybe his bad feeling was wrong. Maybe, just this once, the Powers-that-Be weren't going to screw with the good guys.

Tali'Zorah came down the gangway, gingerly hauling the jury-rigged nuke with Requisition Officer Hobbs before putting it down gently.

"Bomb's in position." Kaidan reported.

"I just need a few more minutes for some last calibrations, then we should be good to go." Tali reported.

"Tech Sarge," Xander glanced at Hobbs.

The Req Officer was staring at an old suborbital cargo pod. "This cargo pod, sir. You want anything done with it?" The young man asked. Xander took a look at the pod for himself. It was beaten and had a few streaks of corrosion on it, but...

"Leave it there, Hobbs." Xander finally said. "Help Tali with the bomb while I check out this bad boy. It might come in handy, even if it's just for spare parts, right?"

Hobbs nodded, walking toward the Quarian. Then the Requisitions Officer saw a glint of metal where there shouldn't have been, and darted forward, shoving Tali out of the way even as a bolt tore through his kinetic barrier. He fell, crying out in pain.

Then there was an explosion, and several more shots had them all ducking for cover.

"Damn it all! I thought this area was secure!" Shepard swore.

Several figures had fanned out across a catwalk overlooking the bombsite and were now raining down fire upon them.

Xander found himself huddled with Garrus, next to the nuke.

"I'm not sure this thing should be soaking as much enemy fire as it's doing!" Xander shouted, keeping his head down. "Who are these guys?!?"

"I recognize their uniforms!" Garrus yelled back, spraying assault rifle fire at their attackers. "They're a slaver group that usually runs out of the Artemus Tau cluster!"

"Could you guys please stop shooting at the thermonuclear device?!?" Xander bellowed, ducking to avoid another barrage of bullets before popping out and scoring a headshot that sent a slaver's corpse falling into the rushing waters below.

Shepard's cold voice came over the comlink. "Garrus! -- the fuel tank three meters down from the snipers on the catwalk; can you hit it?"

The former C-Sec officer looked down. He saw that Shepard had noticed a fuel tank that was all but impossible to hit from where she was crouched. But his sniper rifle was perfect for such a shot.

He focused his aim and pulled the trigger. A mighty roar and a blossom of fire and heat hurled the slaver troops, on the catwalk, high up into the air and tossing them like chaff in a fiery whirlwind.

The group's Asari leader screamed in rage, her biotics flaring around her body, as she fired at Garrus. Meanwhile, Xander had dived behind the nuke for cover. As she stalked towards them, keeping up a steady stream of fire, she suddenly found herself being thrown to the side.

Requisitions Officer Hobbs had somehow found a second wind and hurled himself at the slaver, his attack making her shot go wild and bouncing off the bomb casing, only narrowly avoiding Xander.

A blast from Wrex's shotgun spun the Asari through the air, making her land on the ground hard.

Shepard walked over to Hobbs, the boy already coughing up blood.

"Did... I... get... her... ma'am?" he asked weakly, panting with each word.

"You did fine, Hobbs. She's down." Shepard said, holding his hand as he breathed his last.

Shepard rose from where his body had fallen, her eyes darkening with rage. Then she stalked over to Dahlia lying nearby, slamming a boot down onto the slaver's chest, shoving her back into ankle-deep water that flowed over her face. The slaver gurgled and spat, trying to not to drown as she fought against the weight of Shepard's foot keeping her head underwater.

"Where's Saren?" Shepard hissed.

"He's waiting for you on the AA tower."

"You mean the AA tower that just went up in flames, sweetheart? Try again." Shepard drawled coldly, forcing the Asari back underwater before letting her up to grab a quick breath.

"I'm telling you the truth!" the Asari slaver sputtered. "Please let me go! I... I have money! I can give you creds!"

"You think I want a flesh-peddler's money?" Shepard growled. She shoved the Asari's head back under the water. The Slaver's thrashing struggles began to weaken.

"If you want, I can take her to the brig." Kaidan offered quietly.

"The brig?" Shepard sneered.

"We can drop her off with the military. I can arrange for a couple of the guys to watch her." Kaiden insisted. "She's a criminal, we caught her... she should be handed over to the authorities so she can serve her time."

Shepard turned her cold gaze on the Asari. Finally, she said, "I think our resources might be better spent elsewhere, Lieutenant." Just before she shot her captive in the head.

"If you could arrange for Hobbs to be taken care of, for the trip home, I'm sure he and his NEXT OF KIN would appreciate that." She snapped coldly.

Shepard checked the Asari's body. She was some kind of slaver, all right. And she had money; the datapad on her corpse showed that she'd recently got a huge infusion of credits, some kind of blackmail scheme.

"Garrus, does the name Nassana Dantius mean anything to you?" she asked.

"She's a big-time Citadel Diplomat," Garrus explained.

Liara piped up. "She also sits on the Serrice University Executive Board and their Appropriations Committee."

"I heard Harkin say that her family had a few skeletons in their closets." Garrus continued, "I should've pressed for details, but... well... this is Harkin we're talking about, here."

Shepard nodded, agreeing to the Turian's unspoken sentiment. "The man's a repulsive bastard."

Shepard had her own run-in with the drunken disgrace of a C-Sec cop while searching for evidence to nail Saren. If this Nassana was connected to the dead slaver, then it was something that she was definitely going to follow up on.

Heading back to the bomb, she scowled upon finding that its controls were a ruined mess. The bomb had taken enemy fire and had not emerged unscathed.

"Shit," she cursed. "Please tell me the bomb still works."

"You want the bad news or the worse news?" Xander sighed. "Bad news is, the detonator's shot to hell."

"I can fix it, Commander." Tali explained. "But that will take me at least half an hour."

"And Sovereign and the rest of the Geth will be on us by then..." Shepard groaned.

"...at which point, we might as well be dead." Xander finished. "Believe me, boss, I'm not unaware of just how screwed we are."

"All right, what's the worse news?" She groaned.

"We can fix it in less than ten minutes if we cannibalize the timing mechanism. But most of the security would no longer work and the Geth would be able to hack it."

Tali shook her head. "Xander, that's just not practical. Someone would have to stay here and manually set the bomb off and protect it almost until detonation. That would be suicide."

Then Shepard realized why Xander might even want to consider such an action.

"Tech Sergeant, with me." Shepard took him aside. "Tell me you thought this through." she ordered him quietly.

"I'm not that good a liar, Boss." he murmured softly to her.

"There's no guarantee that you'd even survive the explosion." she snapped, her voice a harsh whisper.

"No reason I shouldn't, especially if I stack the deck in my favor. That cargo pod Hobbs found? It's damage-rated for reentry, so I figure it can survive riding a nuclear explosion."

"When they're working, Xander." Shepard hissed. "The key word being 'working' as the most important. That one looks like it's barely ready to survive a stiff breeze, let alone weathering a thermonuclear detonation."

"I'm not trying to jump Mass Relays with it, Boss. It just has to stay in one piece and THAT is something the pod can do. If I'm inside it when the bomb goes off, then my body should stay intact."

"We retrieve the pod, pull you out..."

"...and just hope that the last two hundred years wasn't the universe setting me up for the galaxy's biggest gotcha."

Shepard opened the comm. "Joker, what's Sovereign's ETA?"

"It's coming in hard, Commander!" Joker reported. "I'd say we've got less then fifteen minutes before that dreadnought's on our ass. And do I even need to mention that Geth reinforcements will be on us even faster?"

"Don't you love the hand of fate?" Xander grumbled. "It really sticks it in and breaks it off."

Shepard nodded grimly. "All right. Tali, change of plans. Gut the timing mechanism. Harris, go over that pod with a fine-tooth comb. I want to make sure that it can do what we need it to do."

"Commander, are you sure about this?" Tali asked.

"Do it, Tali. Xander and I have a plan. Just trust me."

"I trust you with my life, Commander," the little Quarian said, loyalty in her voice.

"Thanks, Tali. Hopefully, that won't be necessary. Well, assuming that the next few minutes play out like they should..." Shepard nodded.

Shepard radioed to Ashley. There was no point to secrecy now. "Williams, we're five by five! Get to the rendezvous, on the double!"

"I'm sorry, Shepard," a cold voice came over the line. "Chief Williams' team is unable to respond. She's still alive, but how long she remains that way is completely up to you."

"Saren." she ground out.

"I feel as if we should've spoken before this. You being the junior member of our order and all. Perhaps you can come up to the AA tower. I'm sure that Chief Williams would be very, very happy to see you."

"I'm going to end you." Shepard hissed.

"Don't take too long, Shepard. I doubt Chief Williams could survive my disappointment."

She looked at Xander. "You know it's a trap, right?" the young-looking immortal drawled. "He wants us to waste time fighting him until Sovereign's upon us."

She nodded. "Tell Alenko to get everyone back aboard the Normandy. Get into the air and meet me on the AA tower." Shepard grabbed Xander's shoulder. "Don't let me down Xander, I'm enjoying your track record of pulling off the impossible. I'm counting on you to keep it up."

"Boss, with all due respect... it's me." Xander replied lightly. But she noticed that the cockiness of his words and smile didn't quite reach his eyes. He was just as worried about making it through, as she was.

"That's why I'm worried, Xander." She teased. "See you on the other side."

"Yes, ma'am," he saluted her mockingly. "Understood, ma'am."

She slugged him in the shoulder, chuckling.

 

Kaidan, and the men he'd assigned to transport The Requisition Officer's body, arrived back at the bombsite. While they went about their grim task, the biotic mused about what he'd seen of his commanding officer while on the trip.

He didn't much care about slavers and certainly didn't shed any tears that one was dead.

But there were rules, procedures.

Just because Shepard's extraterritorial authority let her do something, it didn't necessarily follow that she needed to do it.

Kaidan had seen Garrus and Wrex preparing to depart with Shepard.

They were supposed to save Ashley, but he had a sneaking suspicion that if the opportunity to kill Saren showed itself, she'd risk anything to accomplish that goal. The scary thing was that her attitude was spreading to the rest of the team.

Garrus had told everyone about his most troubling cold case; a renegade Salarian geneticist named Doctor Saleon. Shepard had gone after him without hesitation and, while Kaidan would agree that the Salarian's actions were monstrous, he was disturbed by how Shepard had practically goaded the Turian into executing the Doctor.

He recalled that chilling moment with icy clarity; Garrus standing over the dead doctor.

"How's it feel to finally put him down?" Shepard had asked.

"It felt... good." The Turian had muttered.

"Remember that feeling, Garrus." Shepard had said. "When scum like him get what's coming to them... it should always feel like that."

The smile on her face when she'd said it... God help him, but Kaidan had been terrified of her.

He'd shared his own past with Shepard, trying to make her see how he'd felt about bullies like Vyrnnus. Instead, Shepard seemed shocked that he hadn't enjoyed killing the cruel, old Turian.

The truth was that Shepard hated bullies. She despised them with a passion. At some point, she'd begun using her duties as a soldier and Spectre to work out that frustration.

Kaidan looked over and saw Shepard talking with Xander in hushed voices.

He seemed calm.

Devil-may-care, really, and Shepard seemed as focused as ever. Her target was Saren, everything else be damned. And Xander trusted her so completely that he couldn't see that all she cared about was Saren, and that nothing else mattered.

If the chance to kill the rogue Spectre meant tossing all their lives away, even Doctor T'soni, then Shepard would do it in a heartbeat. Of that, he had no doubt.

Shepard, Wrex, and Garrus all departed for the AA tower. Behind her, the group got busy. Xander checked the pod to make sure that it would survive the explosion, while Tali raided the timer for parts needed to repair the detonator.

Kaidan was enough of a tech expert that he could follow what Tali was doing to the bomb. "Tali, are you sure the timer will still work?" he asked her. When the Quarian turned her helmeted gaze on him, he backpedaled. "I mean, the way you have it set now..."

"It's essentially a dead man's switch now, Lieutenant," Tali explained. "Switch it on and wait five minutes... well, it explodes."

"What lunatic volunteered for that job?" Kaidan chuckled.

Tali pointed over to Xander toiling away at the cargo pod. Kaidan gaped, before marching over to Harris.

"Xander, what's this about you staying behind to set-off the bomb?" the biotic demanded. "Are you nuts?!? You can't just throw your life away like that!"

"Trust me when I say it's not a problem, Kaidan." Xander replied calmly.

"You don't need to do this!" the biotic yelled at him.

A high-pitched whine interrupted the two of them, and they looked up to see a Geth Dropship approaching their position.

"Kaidan, we now have zero time to debate this." Xander snapped. "When this is over, you're going have another shot at Ashley."

Then he patted the biotic man's shoulder. "You take care of her, okay? It was fun while it lasted, but you can make her a lot happier than anything that I could've done. I should've realized that from the beginning and not gotten myself involved."

He ran back to the bomb, grabbing an assault rifle and a pistol as he left.

"Go grab Shepard and Ash and get the hell out of here!" Xander yelled back as he ran to defend the bomb. "I'll be fine! Trust me on this one! Shepard has a plan and it'll work!"

Kaiden stood on the gangway as the Normandy took off. He could already see a sea of Geth pouring from the Dropship, swarming towards Xander and the bomb like locusts.

 

Shepard, Garrus, and Wrex arrived to find Saren waiting for them. Ashley knelt at his feet, a pistol jammed into the back of her head.

"This has been an impressive diversion, Shepard." Saren drawled. "My Geth were utterly convinced that the Salarians were the real threat. But I can't let you disrupt what I've accomplished here. You can't possibly understand what's really at stake."

"The Reapers are returning, and you decided they'd be your ticket to whatever power or glory that you think the Reapers will let the Turians take!" she sneered as she took cover. "Instead of finding a way to stop them, like any sane person would, you're just trying to save yourself."

"I'm not doing this for myself!" he snapped. "Don't you see? The Reapers can't be stopped! Not by you, not by anyone! My way is the only way that any of us will survive!"

"...as a slave?!?" she snarled. "Are you insane?!? I'd rather die then live under those things!"

"Then you will die!" he snapped. "Everyone you know and love, everyone that you've ever met... they will all perish! Just like the Protheans! Trillions dead; an entire empire erased virtually overnight!"

Then he became inquisitive, and Shepard found herself confused. "But what if they had surrendered? Might they still exist? Is submission not preferable to extinction? Especially if those that prove useful become the dominant force in the galaxy?"

But those last words cemented her resolve. "The Reapers have been beaten before!" she insisted. "You saw the same visions that I did! The Old Ones did it, we can do it too!"

Saren snorted, sneering at her. "This is what you'd hang the hopes of the entire galaxy? Myth and legends? Now who's the insane one, Shepard?"

"You were a Spectre! You swore an oath-"

"To preserve galactic stability at all costs." Saren sneered. "And look what that's accomplished! The Council; ineffective politicians too interested in their own power, and their fear of losing it, to see beyond their own narrow little minds!"

She could hear him grinning. "How do you think I managed to sway them against Anderson? Why do you think your race is so distrusted especially by the council? They're afraid of you. And what people fear-"

"People come to hate." She realized.

"The Reapers can change all that. The Krogan are a dying people; the genophage has seen to that. But the Krogan here on Virmire are free of the genophage. Their offspring would be free of it, as well. The Rachni need not be an extinct race, if they could be made to serve the Reapers as well."

Saren made a clever argument. If it hadn't been for just one thing...

"You mean, as mindless slaves?" Shepard sneered. "I saw what your so-called cure did. The indoctrination will drain the will of every man, woman, and child in Citadel space! Just like you."

"I'm not indoctrinated!" he snarled.

"Keep telling yourself that." Shepard sneered. "Sovereign's controlling you and you don't even know it."

"Indoctrination lowers intelligence. It's subtle. The more control that Sovereign exerts, the less capable the subject becomes. As long as Sovereign needs me to find the Conduit, my mind is still my own."

"Live in servitude or die? That's my choice?" Shepard snorted.

"If you want to save as many as can be saved, then... Yes, THAT is the choice. Now call your man at the bomb site. Tell him to deactivate that bomb or your Chief Williams will not live to see her sisters again."

"Don't listen to him, ma'am! Take him out!" Ashley screamed.

"Oh, please," Saren sneered. "It's like I told you before, Shepard. Humans aren't ready for the sacrifices necessary to become Spectres and I shall prove it."

Looking up, Saren called out to Xander. "Harris, I know you've been listening! Deactivate the bomb, let my Geth capture it and you, and I'll let Chief Williams go! She'll live to see you again! To see her dear sisters again!"

"Ah, Commander, I'm getting a lot of bullshit on this line!" Xander's voice crackled through the radio. "I could've sworn that you told me to activate the bomb right now."

"That's exactly what I said, Harris." Shepard said flatly. "I'd hoped to take out that ship of his, but this is fine too. Activate the nuke and blow this place back to Hell!"

"Kick his ass, boss lady!" he caroled.

Then, a siren began whining. It was the nuke's final warning.

Shepard smiled. "Oooh, so sorry, Saren. The bomb's already set. It can't be stopped. Not by me, not by you, and certainly not by Xander."

"Harris?" Saren snorted. "Alexander Harris? I'd wondered how you were staying so close to my trail, Shepard. But if Harris was with you all this time, then it all makes sense. My brother underestimated him and he paid the price. Now I see that I've made the same mistake. My Geth should be overwhelming his position right about now. They will capture him for me, and then I'll have both of your secrets."

Shepard looked at Ashley, still locked in Saren's grip. They exchanged a look, and Ashley disconnected the power cell to her suit's kinetic barrier.

Saren didn't even notice because he was so busy sneering at Shepard. "A Spectre, a real Spectre, acts without hesitation. You're no Spectre, Shepard. You don't have what it takes."

"That may have been true once, but I learned from the best." Shepard drawled as she looked at Ashley. "Williams? Do you remember what Gunny Ellison says about pain?"

"Pain's just weakness leaving the body. Do it, ma'am."

Shepard yanked up her gun and fired once. The bullet tore through Ashley's shoulder and hit Saren behind her. He was too close for his kinetic barrier to be of any help, so the shot ripped right through him. Howling in pain, he shoved Ashley at Shepard and hobbled away, shooting back at them. Shepard dived and danced through a hailstorm of gunfire.

Wrex fired shotgun blasts at the Spectre, who hit the Battlemaster with a powerful concussion shot from his weapon. Wrex's shield shimmered and died as Saren lashed out with a biotic push that shoved the old Krogan back.

Saren then fired another biotic attack that sent Wrex into the air. The Battlemaster managed to grab hold of a damaged strut, and held on for dear life as he waited for his personal gravity to pull him back to the rooftop.

"Garrus! Grab Williams now!" Shepard snarled as she ran after Saren, who had slumped onto a rocket sled. But just as it began to rise into the air, Shepard slammed into Saren and began punching him where he'd just been shot.

Yelling in pain, Saren grabbed her head and slammed his forehead into her face. Shepard reeled, seeing stars for a second before lashing out at the bullet wound in Saren's side with another successful punch.

The two of them struggled with each other aboard the rocket sled, lost in a frenzy of hate. Finally, Saren threw Shepard from the rocket sled and she crashed onto a rooftop hard, just hard enough to leave her winded and bruised.

Saren dived after her, grabbing her by the throat and pulling her over to the sheer drop off the roof.

"You would undo my work!" he snarled. "You would rather doom our entire galaxy to extinction? For that... you must die." And his three fingers began to crush Shepard's throat.

She promptly clapped her hands around Saren's head before punching him in the face. The Turian reeled back, dropping her as she was left sprawled to the rooftop and scrambling for her weapon. But Saren had jumped over her to land on his rocket sled, and it quickly carried him away.

Shepard watched him leave, seething, before she turned and raced for the Normandy hovering nearby. Diving through the air, she landed in the cargo hold. Her body rolled across the hard floor of the cargo bay in an attempt to arrest its impact.

When she finally uncurled herself, she ran to an intercom and shouted, "Get us out of here now, Joker!" even as she felt the weight of the ship shift. They were heading skyward.

Wincing at her injuries, she ran through the ship and up to the CIC, heading straight to the pilot's seat. "Joker, tell me that we're going to miss getting fried by that dreadnought."

At his nod, she bent down and hit the shipwide comm. "Alenko! Get everyone to the medbay! Williams is not to budge from that bed 'til Chakwas gives her the all-clear!"

There was no answer. So she went to the comlink.

"Alenko!" she bellowed. "Where are you?!? I need you up here!"

"Just running a retrieval op, ma'am!" his voice called back.

"What the Hell?!? Where the Hell are you?!?" she shrieked into the comlink. Still in the pilot seat, Joker winced.

"I'm down on Virmire, ma'am! I'm getting Xander! I should have enough time to get to him before Sovereign's in range!"

"Are you crazy, Alenko?!? Sovereign's too close! I can't risk bringing the Normandy back to get you! Especially with that bomb about to go off!"

"Well, if you're right, then I guess I'll see you in Hell, ma'am." Kaidan said flatly as he cut off the transmission.

Shepard looked at Joker, who just shook his head. "We'd be chewed into Geth chowder, and that's BEFORE Sovereign got a piece of us."

"Then get us out of here, Joker. Park us in high orbit over the bomb site and hold the Normandy there."

 

Kaidan Alenko dropped out of the Normandy's cargo bay, his body sheathed in a biotic field as he soft-landed on the ground. He had maybe a few minutes, if that, to get to Xander.

He ran, legs pumping and blood racing through his amped-up system. He had to get to Xander, he just had to.

Kaidan lifted himself over a retaining wall to land in the wide open space of the reservoir. In front of him, Xander was battling Geth troopers by the score, an assault rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other as he took shots at anything that moved. Behind him, the bomb site was surrounded by the junked remains of a dozen Geth.

Kaidan reeled back and summoning a ball of force that rolled along the ground, one of Vyrnnus' little tricks that Kaidan hadn't seen a use for when he was still at Brain Camp back at Jump Zero.

Still, it was pretty effective. What he might've called "Bowling Ball" skidded across the ground and collided with the incoming Geth, unfolding into a wave of energy that sent God-knows-how-many Newtons of gravitational force into the incoming waves of Geth Troopers and knocked them to the ground rather effectively.

This was enough for Xander to look up and see Kaidan. "What the Hell?!? Alenko, what are you doing here?!? The bomb's about to go off! Get out of here!"

"Not happening, Harris. You don't get to die today. Now come on, let's get you out of here." The veteran biotic insisted, grabbing Xander's arm and trying to pull him away from the jury-rigged drive core.

Xander yanked his arm away, shoving Kaidan back. "I'm not standing here for my health, Alenko!" he roared, gesturing at the impromptu nuke. "If we leave this thing alone, the Geth will find a way to access its controls and defuse it! The only way to prevent that is to either set it off early or ride out the explosion!"

"...then you're getting out of here." Kaidan determined, grabbing him again.

This time, Xander slugged him, hard enough to knock the biotic back. "You don't get it! Shepard and I have a plan!"

At this point, Kaidan lost his temper and shouted, "You blowing yourself up is not a plan!"

"No, YOU don't understand! I can handle it! Please, just get out of here! I'll try and hold them off as long as I can!"

Kaidan nodded "Okay, I'll go, but first..." He channeled the strongest biotic punch that he could muster into his fist and then slammed it full force into Xander. Reeling from the force of the blow, the other man shook his head as he tried to fight off the instant concussion.

But Kaidan didn't mind. He knew for a fact that Xander could take a lot of punishment. You had to be tough in order to survive a Thresher Maw attack, so he didn't hesitate in hitting the boy again, just as hard. Just to make sure he was unconscious.

Kaidan picked up Xander's body and tossed it into the cargo pod. One of the Geth targeted them both, firing a pulse rifle blast that skidded off Kaidan's biotic-assisted shields and hit the surface of the pod. Kaidan flexed his hand and threw another "Bowling Ball" at the synthetic, tossing it backward.

Kaidan locked the controls of the pod, sealing its contents away from the outside world. The pod then began powering up and Kaidan turned back to scoop up the discarded pistol, firing rounds at the advancing Geth and firing off Pulls that sent them high into the air, or Throws that sent them flying back into their comrades.

Then he heard it; Xander pounding on the pod's glass window. His radio crackled.

"Alenko! Alenko, what the Hell are you doing?!? You idiot! You don't get it! I can't die, don't you understand?!? I'm..." the rest of it was little more than static as the cargo-pod engines flared to life and began pushing its burden skyward.

Kaidan chuckled grimly as he watched the pod climb. Xander was tough, but the idea that he could be immortal was just ridiculous. Besides, he had Ashley to think about as well, not just himself.

Xander slammed his fist at the controls, trying to make them work. Kaidan had done quite a job on them. By the time he finished rewiring the controls, he'd be in orbit. As he looked down at the controls in front of him, he noticed an odd red light blinking away

"...Structural Integrity Alert. Hull compromised," he read aloud from the display.

Xander looked around and saw a hairline fracture in the wall of the pod. He knew, without checking, that the fracture carried through to the surface.

Oh, great, the pod was venting atmosphere. Assuming that he survived the explosion of the bomb and the ride into orbit, he could look froward to spending his last few minutes choking to death as the oxygen bled away.

"Aw, shit. Death by suffocation, death by vacuum exposure, or death by radiation poisoning... and it's not even my birthday." He sighed bitterly.

 

Kaidan Alenko winced as he cradled his side. A Geth bullet had punched through his armor and he could barely see straight from where it had hit his liver. But he defended the bomb site nonetheless, his two pistols picking off Geth with tungsten-modded rounds.

With survival not a possibility, he chuckled grimly as he carefully picked off Geth Troopers in twos and sometimes threes, trying not to let his guns overheat. As he continued shooting, his mind flashed back to Brain Camp for some reason.

Back to his old crush, Rahna.

God, how long had it been since he'd thought about that girl? She'd be a woman now. Probably happily married somewhere.

"Never thought I'd go out like this, Rahna. Right?" And as he heard the nuke's timer wind down, he let his arms and guns fall. Propping his head up against the nuke, he stared up at Virmire's blue skies and couldn't help but think of Earth.

As he closed his eyes, fire blossomed across his back for a split-second of absolute pain.

Then, he felt nothing.

Everything went black.

 

Xander looked back at the shrinking bomb site. He was still looking when the bomb went off. He didn't flinch as the bright flash blinded him. His eyesight would correct itself when he resurrected, but seeing a brave man die for him would happen only once.

 

Shepard fumed.

Kaidan, that idealistic idiot, had gone and ruined a perfectly good plan.

She was going to let the bomb go off, and then come back and pull Xander's hopefully regenerating carcass out of the ruins of the bomb site.

So why in God's name had Kaidan violated her orders?

Of course the answer to that was all too obvious; like everyone else, he saw her as the Butcher of Torfan, that she was tossing Xander's life away thoughtlessly.

"Are we getting ANY signals from the surface?" She asked Joker.

"A cargo pod's trailing us, broadcasting an Alliance IFF. It's Harris' code."

"What about Alenko?" Ashley asked. Her hardsuit had been stripped from her upper body, her arm and shoulder in a sling until Chakwas could get some medigel onto the gunshot wound.

"Sorry, just the one... aw, shit." Joker cursed. "According to scanners, the pod's venting atmo." He gestured meaningfully at the console and Shepard saw the pod had no life signs. She wondered if Joker was in on Xander's secret. That would explain why he, of all people, was choosing now to be circumspect.

"Bring it aboard. Clear the deck and seal off the area. Have Chakwas meet us down in the cargo bay, and tell her I'm on my way down there now. "

Ashley followed her, along with the rest of the command crew. They crowded the elevator and pushed their way into the cargo bay.

"What's going on, Commander Shepard?" Kirrahe demanded, once he noticed her striding into the bay.

"Confidential Alliance business. I'm afraid that you and your men will have to clear out, for the time being."

As the small band of surviving Salarians headed up to the mess hall, Shepard then said, "VI, seal all doors to the cargo bay, authorization: Shepard, Joan L., command code seven-zee-el-two, priority Alpha-Black."

"Cargo bay locked down until further notice," the toneless voice of the VI noted aloud. "Commander Shepard is the only person on the Normandy who is authorized to lift this lockdown order."

"What's going on, Commander?" Ashley wanted to know.

Shepard turned to her. "What you're about to see is... well, you could say that it's classified at the highest levels. Truth is, even Alliance High Command doesn't know what you are about to see."

She then turned to Doctor Chakwas, who'd just shown up. " Helen, I need you to not freak out..."

But Chakwas surprised her by saying aloud, "VI, disable room monitoring equipment, authorization as given by ship's medical officer."

"Authorization logged."

"Delete log, as per the Torchwood Protocol."

"Initiation of Torchwood Protocol accepted."

"What the Hell?" Shepard turned on Chakwas.

"Has he told you about the Watcher's Council yet?" Doctor Chakwas asked.

Shepard shook her head

"Probably hasn't even figured it out himself..." Chakwas sighed. "All right, everyone step back! His longest recorded... death, was ninety minutes, but these are some major injuries."

"What are you talking about?" Ashley demanded, trying to suppress her grief. By that time, the cargo pod had opened up to reveal Xander's body.

Chakwas looked at Xander's corpse with her trained critical eye."Nothing unexpected; vacuum exposure, oxygen deprivation, and it looked like he took some radiation before the pod was thrown clear. You can see the burns."

Ashley looked into his normally handsome face rendered ugly by his death.

"He's gone..." she said, more to herself then anyone else.

"Not for long, little human. Watch and learn." Wrex rumbled.

Ashley watched as the wounds on Xander's body closed up, and color flowed back into his bluish face. Suddenly, his back arched upwards as he gasped loudly.

"Kaidan, you-!" he screamed before he started coughing violently.

"What the Hell happened down there?!?" Shepard demanded.

"Kaiden..." Xander coughed. "...Kaidan showed up, wanted to rescue me. Hit me with a biotic punch when I wouldn't leave the bomb site with him. I woke up in the pod when it was already taking off."

"Damn it!" Shepard cursed.

Ashley gaped, her mouth hanging open and shock written all over her face.

"You... you were dead, Xander!" she sputtered.

"That happens with me sometimes. Just ignore it." Xander replied, sounding exhausted.

"You knew?" Ashley turned to Shepard, pained at what she felt was a betrayal. "You knew and you still let Kaidan-"

"I didn't LET Kaidan do anything, Gunnery Chief!" Shepard exploded. "Kaidan violated my orders! If he'd just trusted me, then all of us would've made it back!"

"If he'd known..."

"I don't exactly advertise, Ash." Xander replied, "You saw Toombs and you heard about the Rachni on Noveria. What do you think would happen to me if the brass ever found out just how unique I really am?"

"The Alliance isn't like that." Ashley said, defensive.

"Keep telling yourself that. I mean, sure, the Systems Alliance scapegoated your grandfather and blackballed your dad." he snapped, sarcastic. "But, hey, High Command can totally be trusted not to exploit or take advantage of someone if they saw a benefit to it."

"That's just an excuse so you can get away with lying to everybody! The Commander! To Kaidan! To me..." her voice trailed off at the end.

"If Kaiden had trusted me and followed my orders, he'd still be alive, Chief." Shepard sighed.

"Jenkins followed your orders on Eden Prime and he died." The accusation went unspoken. "Those soldiers at Torfan followed your orders and they died. Maybe Kaiden was thinking that following YOUR orders wasn't the smartest thing that a person can do."

The room went silent, Xander knew Shepard's one hot button was the Torfan siege. Lord Darius had pressed it and paid the price.

Shepard's fist clenched, rage darkening her eyes. "I make no apologies for what I did on Torfan, Williams. The men who died followed my orders but so did the ones who lived, They followed orders too. MY orders." She hissed. "The colonists who survived Eden Prime did so because you and Kaidan followed orders. MY orders."

Her hand swept across the room. "You're serving on the Normandy because Kaidan and I both told Anderson you were a good soldier! A soldier who could put aside the fact that she'd just seen her entire unit cut to shreds and STILL follow orders! Again, MY orders! You and those Salarians are alive right now because the infiltration team followed MY orders!"

It took Shepard had not to slap some sense into Ashley, so she settled for poking her in the chest.

"Harris and his team were following MY orders when they did what they could to make sure you and the STG teams made it through that frontal assault. We put our asses on the line for you. Harris put his life on the line for you. You're still breathing right now because Xander followed MY orders!"

"VI, disable room lock! Open the cargo doors!" Shepard barked before turning back to Ashley. "Considering how bent out of shape you get over your grandfather's legacy... if I were you, Williams, I'd ask yourself what he would've said about your little outburst."

Ashley spun around and hurried away. Everyone pretended that they didn't hear the sobs as she opened the entrance and left the cargo hold.

"Well, that was fun. In a fucking terrible, sick, not-at-all fun way." Xander grumbled.

"Doctor Chakwas, I think the Technical Sergeant needs a full examination. Be very thorough, if you please."

"Ah, c'mon, boss. You know I don't need-"

"Extremely. Thorough." Shepard snapped before stalking off.

Chakwas carted Xander off toward the Medbay, leaving the rest of the specialist team alone.

"Keelah... what just happened?" Tali asked, shocked.

"You think that's weird? Wait until you hear about the Old God and the whole Reaper thing." Garrus sighed. "We're so out of our depth that it's not even funny."