Fight for the Lost

Horizon

Location: Unknown

Shepard found himself back in the darkened office of the Illusive Man, humanity's self-appointed emissary. The Illusive Man appeared to be comfortably seated and was facing Shepard's projection. He was smoking casually with the star behind him and myriad of holo-monitors providing the only sources of illumination within the room.

The Illusive Man took a smoke before speaking. "Shepard. I think we have them!"

Shepard's posture was alert when the Illusive Man said 'them'.

A miniature galaxy map appeared at the Illusive Man's left. It zoomed in to show a garden planet. "Horizon – one of our colonies in the Terminus Systems – just went silent," he said. "If it isn't under attack, it soon will be. Has Mordin delivered the countermeasure for the seeker swarms?"

"I don't know. He said he made a breakthrough and locked the lab," Shepard responded, making a mental note to ask EDI for geological maps of the colony in question.

"Let's hope he works well under pressure," the Illusive Man said. "There's something else you should know."

Shepard crossed his arms as he waited for the Illusive Man to tell him.

Pausing to inhale from his cigarette, he continued. "One of your former crew, Ashley Williams – she's stationed on Horizon."

Shepard tilted his head. "Ash is with the Alliance. Why is she out in the Terminus Systems?"

"Officially, it's an outreach program to improve Alliance relations with the colonies," the Illusive Man answered.

"And unofficially?" Shepard asked when his host stopped speaking.

"The Alliance is up to something. And if they sent Chief Williams, it must be big," came the short and uninformative answer. "Perhaps you should take it up with her," he suggested.

Shepard shook his head. "The Collectors just happened to pick a colony with one of my former crew? I don't buy it."

Tapping his cigarette into his ash tray, the Illusive Man said, "It shouldn't be a surprise the Collectors are interested in you. Especially if they're working for the Reapers." He looked up and met Shepard's eyes. "They might be going after her to get to you," he ominously added.

"We should send a message to the Citadel. The Alliance can give us reinforcements," Shepard suggested.

"Not until you investigate. I don't want the Alliance getting in our way," the Illusive Man promptly responded.

"The Collectors tore the Normandy apart last time. I don't want to take any chances," Shepard shot back.

"Once you have the situation under control, I'll send the message personally," the Illusive Man said. "We need any information we can get; otherwise, the Collectors will continue to have the advantage of secrecy. You've been most successful against them so far, I'm hoping that trend will continue."

Shepard narrowed his eyes, but knew if the Alliance got there first, any investigation they would attempt could take months. Shepard nodded slowly, accepting the Illusive Man's words reluctantly. "Fine. Send the coordinates. We'll head straight there."

"This is the most warning we've ever had, Shepard," the Illusive Man said. "Good luck."

Tapping a button, he cut the link.

~o~O~o~

Location: Hourglass Nebula, Osun System, Near the Mass Relay, Normandy

After the projection of the Illusive Man and his office faded away, Shepard called out to the ever present AI and his XO via intercom as the cylindrical scanner retracted into the floor. "EDI, battle stations. Miranda, access the galaxy map and set course for Horizon. I've got to go see the professor."

"Understood, Commander. Setting course for Horizon," Miranda acknowledged.

"Understood, Commander," EDI chimed in.

Throughout the ship, both on-duty and off-duty crewmen looked up as EDI relayed Shepard's orders. "General quarters, general quarters, all hands man their battle stations."

The Normandy was a flurry of activity as everyone reported to their duty stations. Anxiety ran high since the only reason they could conceive for their sudden alert status in-flight was their primary mission against the Collectors was about to begin.

"Commander," Joker called as Shepard left the Comm. room. "Course is set for Horizon. ETA: Two hours."

Using his authority to unlock the lab, Shepard walked in to see Mordin observing a single seeker drone inside a plastic case. Walking up to him, Shepard looked into the case as well. "How did you get this?"

"Cloned. Studied Collector tech for any weaknesses. Managed to derive a seeker swarm from genetic material," Mordin said without turning his gaze from the observation box.

"Tell me you have something," Shepard said.

Mordin stood up and turned to face him. His triumphant grin spoke volumes. Turning to his terminal, an image of an inter-weave for their armor was projected.

"This is it?" Shepard asked.

"Oh, yes," Mordin said proudly before he started to explain how to use it.

~o~O~o~

Location: Shadow Sea Nebula, Iera System, Horizon

Ignoring the less-than-subtle hostile looks from the various colonists, Ashley looked for the only redeeming person on Horizon. "Lilith!" she yelled.

"Still can't calibrate the targeting matrix?" Lilith asked when Ashley ran up to her.

"Those defense towers are useless if we don't figure it out," Ashley said, bumping shoulders with another disgruntled colonist.

Lilith glared at the man and he quickly scurried away. "Sorry, Chief. Getting our comm. systems back online takes priority," Lilith apologized.

Ashley nodded her head in acceptance. "Yeah, okay. Surprised people haven't tried to blame that one on me, too," she said without malice.

"People out here don't trust the Alliance. It's nothing personal against you."

Ashley smiled before frowning when a flock of birds started screeching and flying away in a panic. Moments later, a low rumbling sound was heard, almost right above them.

"What is that?" Lilith asked as she squinted to find the source of the disturbance.

Ashley pulled out her M-8 and used the built-in scope to scan the clouds above them.

What began as a shadow soon became a shape that grew larger and more menacing as she watched it come into view. Everything suddenly became clear for Ashley and she realized what had broken through the clouds was a ship that she had seen in a report two years ago. It was the report that had delivered the final verdict on Commander Shepard's fate. The cruiser that had destroyed the SSV Normandy SR-1 and ended his life as detailed in that report was similar to the cruiser that was now bearing down on the settlement.

"Get everyone to the safe house," Ashley ordered calmly. Seeing a flying swarm of bugs coming straight toward them, Ashley started firing without hesitation. "I'll cover you! Run!"

The various colonists ceased their gawking and started running and screaming as the swarm descended upon them.

Ashley continued to fire into the thickest part of the flock, even when the bugs started to scatter and attack the civilians around her. Hearing Lilith scream, Ash glanced behind her to see Lilith on the ground trying to get back up. Turning around, Ash bent down and hauled Lilith to her feet quickly. "Run!" Ashley yelled before letting out a grunt of pain. Reaching behind her neck, she grasped the bug that stung her and threw it to the ground before stomping on it. She tried to raise her rifle again when she felt her muscles freeze completely. Goddamn bug must've injected me with some sort of toxin! Ashley thought frantically. She tried in vain to get her body to respond, but it wouldn't obey. All she could do was watch as human after human fell prey to their attackers.

~o~O~o~

Location: The Collector Space Station

Within the confines of a control room, one lone Collector managed numerous terminals and consoles. It was different from its brethren in more ways than one. The head was larger, the body shorter, and it had a multitude of limbs to operate the command interfaces that surrounded it. Its eyes glowed with a sinister golden light.

Scuttling around the central group of consoles, a powerful, ancient, and familiar voice resonated within.

"ASSUMING CONTROL."

~o~O~o~

Location: Shadow Sea Nebula, Iera System, Horizon

A Collector was moving through the colony, checking to see if there were any humans that managed to escape the seeker swarm when it stumbled. It bent over, as if it was in pain before jerking around in an apparent seizure. Trails of glowing orange and yellow lines emerged along its entire body. Bursts of energy randomly surfaced, almost appearing like a cross between fire and lightning. The carapace grew darker and the Collector arched its spine as it floated several inches from the ground. One last surge of energy exploded out before the Collector landed on its feet.

The various Collectors tasked with gathering the humans continued to work, completely ignoring or were oblivious as one of their kind underwent its transformation.

Eerie glowing eyes observed the paralyzed humans.The voice of their master echoed through the minds of the Collectors.

"WE ARE THE HARBINGER OF THEIR PERFECTION. PREPARE THESE HUMANS FOR ASCENSION."

~o~O~o~

Location: Shadow Sea Nebula, Iera System, En Route to Horizon, Normandy

"This is where we're going," Shepard said without preamble the moment everyone entered the Briefing/Comm. Room.

The miniature holographic image of the Normandy situated at the center of the table changed to the planet of Horizon, before zooming into the human colony stationed there.

"EDI, give us a quick rundown of the colony were going to," Shepard requested as he readjusted his armor.

"The colony of Horizon was founded in 2168. Since then, the colony itself has only been attacked once by pirates, but the colonists were able to repel the attack. Horizon boasts a population of 654,930 civilians. Records show that the Alliance has recently fitted the colony with GARDIAN lasers," EDI reported.

"Wait, hold up," Jacob interrupted. "GARDIAN's? Then the colony should be able to defend itself, right?"

"Not unless the Collectors disabled it before they attacked. Remember, all the other colonies had their defenses and communications disabled before their disappearance," Miranda reminded him.

"According to the Illusive Man, communications just went silent. Either the colony is under attack or it soon will be. We'll have to assume that the turrets are down. If we can get them working, then we'll have the advantage," Shepard said.

"According to Alliance reports submitted by your former squad member, Operations Chief Ashley Williams, the targeting matrix is malfunctioning, Commander," EDI inputted. "In order to activate the turrets and target the enemy ship, the most expedient way would be to uplink the main control terminal of the GARDIAN turrets to the Normandy. I will then make the necessary corrections."

Shepard nodded. "Got it, EDI."

"Hold on," Garrus interjected. "Can't you just hack your way into the network or something and do it all remotely?"

Shepard turned to Mordin. "Professor? If you'll explain."

"Ah, yes. Studies show that seeker swarms emit mild disruption fields. One seeker, no problem. Small swarms, small problems. Large swarms, large problems. In any case, expect disruptions in communications," Mordin listed off quickly.

Jacob fiddled around with the collar of his Cerberus Assault Armor. "In other words, if there are a lot of those flying bugs, we can't communicate with the Normandy?"

Mordin nodded. "Yes. Depending on number of seeker swarms, individual radios may not function."

Garrus shifted his armor in an attempt to adjust it again. "And this armor weave is supposed to protect us from the seeker swarms? Will it really work?"

Unlike Garrus and the rest of the squad save Grunt, Mordin looked comfortable in his armor. "Certainty impossible. But in limited numbers, should cause confuse detection, make us invisible to swarms," Mordin explained before pausing. "In theory," he added as an afterthought.

Miranda shifted uncomfortably in her own Cerberus Assault Armor. "In theory," she repeated doubtfully.

"That sounds promising," Garrus grumbled.

Mordin shrugged. "Experimental technology. Only test is contact with seeker swarms. Have to test them in person." He took a breath in anticipation. "Should be exciting."

Jack derisively snorted. "And people think I'm crazy," she said. Adjusting the chest plate and pauldrons of her new Terminus Assault Armor for the umpteenth time, she glared at Jacob. "This is the best you could do?"

Jacob was trying to adjust his own Cerberus Assault Armor with little success. "Hey, I had to size you up by eye and then I had to put in this new weave," he defended. "If I had more time, it might've been better but I don't. Deal with it," he shot back.

Jack snarled, but under Shepard's glare, she refrained from killing him.

"Look, we're all uncomfortable here," Shepard started.

"Speak for yourself," Grunt said, looking as comfortable as Mordin in his armor.

Guess he doesn't feel it or something, Shepard guessed. "But it's better than the alternative. We'll make the proper adjustments after the mission," he continued as if he wasn't interrupted. "Does anyone have any more questions?"

"Is a Collector hard to kill?" Jack asked.

Grunt grinned at her. "Scared?"

"Fuck off," Jack retorted. "I didn't live this long by being stupid as a krogan."

Grunt growled and took a menacing step toward her before Shepard interjected. "Collectors are pretty much an unknown. We have no idea of the capability of their shields, armor, or weaponry. So we're walking into uncharted territory here. As far as the footage goes from Freedom's Progress, they're still sapient organics, just like us. Just fight the way you know how and we'll take it from there."

"Bah! They just look like giant bugs. We'll crush them like one," Grunt dismissed. "Just gotta find out the best way how."

"Commander," EDI said. Her avatar appeared in front of Shepard at the head of the table. "We're approaching Horizon now. Long-range scanners have detected what appears to be a cruiser on the planet's surface, right in the middle of the colony."

"A cruiser?" Miranda asked, startled.

"You're serious?" Garrus asked incredulously.

Shepard understood their shock, but wasn't really surprised himself. Cruisers were considered to have too much tonnage to be able to land on most planets unless it had very low gravity. Having seen Sovereign, a reaper that easily classified itself as a dreadnought class, land on Eden Prime, it wasn't difficult to comprehend that the Collectors could possess similar tech.

He cursed at the news that the enemy was already planet-side though. "That means the attack is underway. Are we running silent?"

"The IES Stealth Systems are engaged, Commander, but given that the Collectors were able to identify and destroy the SSV Normandy SR-1, I cannot say for certain if they have detected and are tracking our approach," EDI said. "At the very least, I can say that their ship has not reacted to our presence."

"Joker, maintain safe distance from the planet. We'll take the shuttle to the surface," Shepard ordered.

"Roger, Commander," Joker said. "We're about 30 minutes out."

"Any last questions?" Shepard asked the group.

"Numbers?" Jacob asked.

"At our current distance, scanners are unable to provide accurate numbers, Operative Taylor," EDI answered.

"Your best estimate, then," Miranda requested.

"On the surface, expect approximately 500 Collectors. That is the minimum number I can provide, since it would take the equivalent 'human' personnel to capture so many prisoners on to a ship within a reasonable amount of time. However, I do not know if the Collectors have technology that would make the physical labor any easier or quicker. Within the Collector ship, I cannot provide any estimate without knowing the layout inside. It is probable that the Collector vessel could contain thousands," EDI answered.

"Good," Grunt said happily. "No shortage of victims."

"Just try not to get in our way," Jack said to him.

Grunt growled at her again.

"Enough. Let's get to the shuttle," Shepard said. As they all filed out of the Briefing Room, Shepard called into his radio. "Hawthorne, Goldstein, is the shuttle prepped?"

"As you ordered, Commander," Hawthorne, their shuttle pilot, reported.

"I was stationed at Horizon, Commander. I know a good spot to land at," the co-pilot, Goldstein offered. "It'll be next to the colony's capital, Discovery."

"From the navigational data Miss Goldstein uploaded, I would recommend that location, Commander. According to Alliance construction plans, the main control terminal for the GARDIAN turrets is in that vicinity," EDI concurred.

"Set the course," Shepard commanded as everyone entered the elevator and made their way to the hangar.

"Roger," Goldstein and Hawthorne acknowledged simultaneously.

~o~O~o~

Mission: Horizon

The colony of Horizon is under attack by the Collectors. This is a chance to stop an attack, rather than investigate the results.

Explore the colony and rescue any civilians.

Head for the Main Control Hub of the GARDIAN turrets.

Reactivate the GARDIAN turrets to repel the Collector vessel.

~o~O~o~

Location: Shadow Sea Nebula, Iera System, Horizon

The shuttle skimmed close to the ground in an attempt to use the terrain to mask their approach and avoid enemy detection. The ship shuddered as it endured the subsequent turbulence from flying so low. The occupants inside were going through their final equipment checks before touchdown.

"Sir, we're approaching the LZ. ETA: Five minutes," Goldstein reported. "We have a visual on the enemy ship. You should see it through the starboard window, sir."

Shepard turned his head to see what they were about to go up against. His eyes widened in shock. "I know that ship…"

"As far as Cerberus intelligence goes, that's the only class of vessel the Collectors use to fly through the Terminus Systems," Miranda said. "You may know of 'a' ship like that since it was the Collectors that destroyed the first Normandy, but we honestly have no idea how many ships they really have. For all we know, they could have an armada to rival all of Citadel space."

"Encouraging thought," Shepard said sarcastically, his gaze still locked on the Collector cruiser.

It was nothing like any ship he'd seen produced by any of the species in Citadel Space, or elsewhere for that matter. It appeared to be a hybrid of organic protrusions built into a metal superstructure. The cruiser was shaped cylindrically, with the organic constructs forming smooth points to cover the bow of the vessel, as if they were stalagmites in a cave. Hidden within the organic plates of the ship, Shepard knew that the powerful main gun of the Collectors was right in the middle. Currently, the cruiser was firmly planted on the surface. The bow was pointed at the sky, with the stern resting on the ground, making the ship look like a needle was placed right next to the colony.

Hawthorne's voice interrupted Shepard's study of the Collector cruiser. "One minute!"

Shepard took a deep breath and focused himself. "Helmets," he ordered before securing his own. Taking a look around the cabin to see if everyone was ready, he said, "Coms check."

"Miranda here, I read you."

"Jacob here. Loud and clear, Commander."

"Garrus. I read you, Shepard."

"Yes, yes. Mordin here. Hearing you. Loud and clear."

"I hear you," Grunt said impatiently.

"Yeah, yeah. I heard you boss man," Jack said.

Gripping their respective weapons, everyone waited in tense silence. The Kodiak lurched as it suddenly gained altitude before dropping rapidly. Shepard looked out the window again to see that they were now flying over farmland.

"10 seconds!"

The shuttle opened the hatch a few meters above the ground. Shepard and Jacob jumped out simultaneously and scanned their surroundings for any hostile forces.

"Clear!" Jacob called out as he moved away from the shuttle before kneeling and keeping alert.

The others took that as their cue to disembark quickly with their weapons out and ready.

"We're groundside," Shepard said to their pilots the moment everyone was out.

"Roger that. Good hunting!" Hawthorne responded.

The ground team moved several meters away from the shuttle as it fired up its thrusters and began leaving as quickly as it arrived.

"All right. Move out," Shepard ordered.

The troupe made their way across the grassy plain they had landed on toward the buildings and the Collector cruiser in the distance.

"No seeker swarms so far," Jacob commented.

"So far, so good then," Shepard replied. "If they're not actively hunting us, they're ignoring us. Your countermeasure seems to be working, Mordin."

"Best test is the encounter seeker swarm. Must see if they become aware of presence visually as well," Mordin excitedly responded.

Circling a wall, Shepard saw they were entering some sort of loading area. A truck was sitting in the middle of a field of crates. His gaze swept the area, but saw no one. His ears perked up when he heard a distinct buzzing sound. "Anyone hear that?"

"I hear it… What is it?" Miranda asked.

Looking around for the source of the strange sound, Shepard could swear that it was getting louder. "It's coming closer. It sounds like wings I think."

The moment Shepard said "wings", understanding rippled through all of them. Looking up, they finally saw the enemy they've been tasked to hunt.

Four Collectors were hovering nearby with more flying in. The wings on their backs were flapping rapidly, creating buzzing sound much like a bee or a fly would make. Given the advantage of altitude, the Collectors easily spotted them and opened fire first.

"Take cover!" Shepard yelled.

Everyone scrambled behind the various crates and other materials lining the organized chaos of the cargo bay they were in.

Popping out of cover, Shepard used his HMWA to fire back. The Collectors weren't versatile enough in flight to avoid the counterattack and were getting shot down one after another. "Return fire! They're easy targets up there!"

A storm of bullets, biotics, and tech began dropping Collectors one after another from the open air, prompting them to land immediately and take cover themselves.

Shepard took the opportunity to shoot down one Collector Jacob had biotically lifted in the air, only to see several more Collectors land nearby. "More incoming!" he declared as he took cover. Peeking out from the side, he saw Grunt had somehow managed to flank the reinforcements and was thundering away with his shotgun.

A stray shot nicked the krogan, inciting his rage and causing him to charge directly into the middle of the group, heedless of the danger. Mordin and Jacob ran after him, igniting any Collectors in their way with Incinerate tech and incendiary rounds respectively.

All of a sudden, a thunderous crash echoed around the battlefield. Shepard whipped his head around trying to locate the source. Jack was standing away from her cover, her biotic glow fading away. A large crate some of the Collectors were using to hide behind was now flush against a wall. Morbidly, a few bug-like limbs were sticking out from the sides of the crate.

"Squish," Jack commented victoriously.

Returning his attention to the battlefield, Shepard turned to assist Miranda and Garrus. Three more Collectors were left hiding behind the truck. Focusing his biotics, Shepard used Pull the moment Garrus used Overload to disable their shields. All three Collectors floated helplessly into the air. Between the three of them, they finished off the remaining Collectors easily, securing a temporary victory.

"I think that's all for now, Shepard," Garrus reported as he scanned the area.

A loud crunch was heard. Shepard reflexively raised his weapon at the source, only to see Grunt sauntering up to them after stepping on a Collector's head that was in his path. "Just like bugs," he affirmed. "Anyone hungry?"

"Let's move. More will be coming soon," Shepard said, ignoring the mutilated carcass and the krogan's comments. Mordin and Jacob subtly sidestepped the gory mess.

Everyone regrouped and trudged forward. They kept their ears open for the telltale sounds of wings and occasionally scanned the sky, now that they were aware that the Collectors can fly.

"Well. At least we can confirm that the Collectors aren't beyond our ability to engage," Miranda noted as the team moved past the various empty buildings.

"Yeah. I was bit worried that their tech might be beyond us," Shepard admitted. "One step at a time though. Taking out infantry is one thing, but their ship is definitely going to require some creativity."

"Above us! Seeker swarm!" Garrus warned.

Shepard stopped and kneeled in the high grass, keeping his weapon trained on the dark cloud of bugs flitting about near them before instructing his team to do the same.

Everyone moved into the grass with him and knelt down to observe the swarm cautiously.

Sudden piercing sounds of static filled Shepard's ears. Hissing in annoyance, he shook his head, trying to clear the pain. Looking around, he saw everyone else experiencing similar problems. Jacob started using Alliance military semaphore to convey his message.

-Radios disabled.

Miranda added a few gestures of her own.

-Enemy is disrupting our communications.

Shepard nodded before using more conventional hand gestures for the benefit of the rest of his squad.

-Stay down and stay silent.

Everyone nodded and watched as the swarms hovered over them for a few more moments before flying off.

Jacob spoke up first. "Looks like the weave worked," he said out loud through his voice module.

Everyone took that as their cue to reengage their own voice modules.

"Excellent work, Professor," Miranda respectfully said to the salarian.

Mordin accepted her praise modestly. "Yes. Thank you. Very exciting. Glad to still be alive."

More static bursts from the radio crackled in Shepard's ear though Joker's voice could be heard in small bursts. "Comman… tting all kinds… ference. We can't maintain…" he said before the signal faded.

"We're on our own," Shepard said before standing up and leading the squad deeper into the colony.

"Can we communicate with the Normandy at the control hub?" Garrus asked.

"We should," Jacob assured as he fell in step with the turian. "Our personal radios aren't that powerful and we still got a small bit from Joker. The transmitters at the hub are way more powerful. Should reach Normandy at least."

"I hear something," Jack suddenly said.

Shepard cocked his head, but didn't hear the sounds of flapping wings. Instead, he heard moaning. It was a sound he heard several times in his hunt for Saren and his geth. "Shit… husks!"

Running around a corner at full tilt were a dozen husks, shambling toward them in a reckless charge. Right behind them was a small group of Collectors, appearing even more armored than the earlier ones they fought.

"Jack, on me! Shockwave on the husks!" Shepard ordered. "The rest of you, suppressing fire on the Collectors!"

Both Jack and Shepard conjured their respective Shockwaves on the charging husks. The explosive biotic energies effortlessly destroyed or scattered the mechanical corpses. The difference of experience was clear however. Shepard's effort stopped right at the group of husks while Jack easily traveled the distance toward the Collectors, disrupting their charge and allowing everyone to push forward with their attack.

I really got to work on my technique Shepard thought to himself as he began to appreciate the destructive power of Shockwave.

"More incoming!" Jacob called out.

Shepard ducked down as a rapid fire volley of energy beams struck his cover.

"Watch it! Heavy weapon!" Garrus yelled.

Shepard chanced a peek only to duck back as the heavy weapon the Collector was using appeared inexhaustible. He was saved with a crack of a sniper rifle and the cease-fire of the Collector heavy weapon. "Nice shot, Garrus!"

The last Collector was brought down with Miranda's Warp. It was crawled around feebly before Grunt stepped on its back, placed his shotgun on the back of its head and pulled the trigger.

Surveying the area carefully, Shepard couldn't see any more signs of trouble. "Those things look like the husks the geth used on Eden Prime," he said when his eyes fixed on the remains of a husk.

"The geth got that technology from Sovereign," Garrus commented.

"Then the Illusive Man was correct. The Collectors are agents of the Reapers," Miranda concluded.

"Shepard! Here! Observe!" Mordin called.

Shepard crossed the field and saw a husk that was still in one piece, more or less.

"Husks have human characteristics. Possible repurposed colonists?" Mordin theorized.

Jacob walked up, shaking his head. "No. On Eden Prime, they used giant spikes to turn people into husks. Marines started calling them Dragon's Teeth. I don't see any here."

"The Collectors must have brought the husks. They're taking the colonists alive for something else," Miranda speculated.

"Makes sense," Shepard said. "I doubt they'd go through all this trouble to take humans alive just to make husks. Besides, these aren't the same as the ones I fought on Eden Prime. They're more advanced. Evolved even."

"Still die when you shoot'em," Grunt said.

Stepping away from the husk, Shepard shook his head in frustration. "The Collectors must be experimenting on the colonists. What are they up to?" he thought out loud.

"Sounds almost worse than what Cerberus did to me," Jack commented with a pointed look at Miranda.

Miranda studiously ignored the jibe, opting to follow Shepard's lead and keeping her rifle up for danger.

"Move out," Shepard ordered. "We're not letting these bastards get any more victims here."

Jack shrugged before hefting her shotgun. "Whatever you say, boss man."

Everyone moved slowly around the walls and warehouses as they made their way to the residential area of the colony. After a few minutes, the silence felt pervading. It almost felt like their footsteps could be heard from miles away.

"Damn it's quiet. Peaceful. Usually takes a lot of chemicals for me to get this kind of quiet," Jack commented softly, as if her voice would carry all the way to the Collector cruiser.

"Yeah, all these empty buildings… it's unsettling," Garrus agreed quietly.

"Just like Freedom's Progress. Whole colony… gone," Jacob whispered.

Shepard kept his breathing even and steady, but it still felt loud in his ears within his helmet. Besides their earlier fights, there were no other signs of life, specifically human. Approaching the residential area, Shepard stopped at a corner and peered around carefully. "I see one. Probably more around the corner though," he whispered.

"Can we sneak by? Ambush them?" Jacob asked.

Shepard shook his head while keeping his eye on the lone sentry. "No. It'll definitely see us. Especially Grunt. We'll have to fight our way through. Garrus, drop him," he said before looking back at the rest of his squad. "The rest of you: get ready to run to that building across the way and dig in when I give the word."

Garrus brought up his sniper rifle while Shepard readied his Blackstorm. "Do it."

The moment the Blackstorm began to whine, Garrus squeezed the trigger, killing the lone guard and judging from the chattering noises, alerted the rest of the Collectors as predicted.

Shepard fired his heavy weapon just as several Collectors ran in to investigate the source of the gunshot. "Move!" Shepard yelled.

Jacob led the way, skirting the edge of the moving singularity. The Collector's were trapped by its influence were shooting wildly in every direction. "Hurry! It's gonna blow!"

No sooner than when Grunt cleared the doorway as the last one through, the miniature black hole exploded. A few of the remains flew through the open windows and splattered messily along the walls.

Shepard looked through his window before bringing his assault rifle up. "In the house across from us!"

Everyone stood up and ran toward an open window or door and started their attack. Several Collectors attempted to resist, but the Shepard's initial attack scattered their ranks. Many began to fall back into the house to regroup.

Shepard saw that Jacob was about to use his missile launcher to take them all out in one explosion. "Stand down, Jacob! We don't know if there are civilians inside!"

Jacob cursed his mistake and brought out his shotgun again.

"You and Grunt, on me! The rest of you, cover us!" Shepard yelled. Trading his assault rifle for his shotgun, Shepard carefully made his way to the door as the rest of the squad began taking down any threat that presented themselves. As soon as Grunt and Jacob shuffled behind him, Shepard nodded.

All three sprang from the doorway and rushed across the short, but dangerous road, firing at any Collector that was still standing. Coming up to the house, Shepard paused at the doorway and glanced inside before ducking back when the hostiles entrenched inside retaliated. "About five. Grunt, you lead the way. Jacob and I will cover."

Grunt grinned before dashing past Jacob and Shepard and charged headlong into the room. Shepard and Jacob followed the designated 'meat shield' and attacked the Collectors hard and fast. Three shotguns pounded away at shields and armor, the booming sounds interspaced with the squeals of the Collectors and Grunt's roar.

Panting slightly, Shepard quickly took stock of the bottom floor of the home they were in while Jacob and Grunt ran up the stairs to verify the immediate threat was cleared.

"Clear upstairs!" Jacob yelled.

Shepard strode over to the doorway. "Clear inside!" he called out to the others.

Miranda led the rest of the squad to regroup, keeping her eyes open for any Collector they might have missed, but her caution was unfounded. Everything was eerily quiet once again, a stark contrast to their gunfire and explosion moments ago.

"Commander, you gotta see this," Jacob ominously said from the back door.

Shepard strode forward and saw what caught Jacob's attention.

A human, male colonist was completely frozen. He was bent over, trying to help a young woman back to her feet. His daughter, if Shepard had to guess, given the likeness the two shared. Like her father, she was frozen as well. A strange, dark cloud hovered around them.

"Good call, Commander. Any high impact explosion might've killed them," Jacob acknowledged.

Shepard nodded absently as he stepped closer to the colonists. He jerked back involuntarily when the man's eyes darted back and forth before making eye contact. "He's still alive! Mordin!" Shepard said, calling the professor.

Mordin ran up and started to scan the colonist with his omni-tool. "Trapped in stasis field of some kind. Completely immobile. Cognitive functions still intact. Your hypothesis is correct. Still conscious and fully aware of their environment. Fascinating."

"Are they all right?" Miranda asked.

"Vital signs remain strong. Likely to survive," Mordin nodded.

"Is there anything we can do for them?" Garrus asked.

Shepard shook his head. "No. Leave them. They're safe for now. We can't waste time trying to figure out how to free everyone. Plus, having them running around with armed hostiles only makes things worse."

Garrus nodded in acceptance.

"Hey! Check this out!" Jack called back.

Shepard moved around the colonists and out the back door. He saw Jack hovering over an organic pod of some sort. The pod was sealed, but the top half of the lid was transparent, allowing everyone to see what was inside. A human female, frozen like the rest of the colony, stared back at them.

"This must be how they're getting all the people out," Jack commented. She began waving her hand over the trapped colonist's face. The prisoner's eyes were tracking Jack's every movement, silently pleading for help.

"Maybe that's what the husks are for then. Labor," Grunt said. "Moving all the people out one-by-one in these pods would take a while without help."

Shepard looked around and saw dozens of pods around them. Some were flat on the ground like the one they were crowded around; others were upright, leaning against various walls. "Move out," Shepard ordered, moving away from the pod.

Everyone cautiously made their way through the various houses, keeping out of sight as much as possible. Thankfully, no reinforcements appeared to be en route. They did pass by more colonists; each and every one of them was frozen, though their eyes were tracking the squad's movements. Some were hiding behind shelves, under beds and tables, or cowering in corners. Fear dominated all of their expressions.

"I swear, if I see any more of these creepy ass stares, I'm going to kill someone," Jack growled silently as they passed by a man with his hands over his head. He was watching them pass by to the next house unblinkingly.

"Take it easy," Shepard shot back. "They've probably been like this a long time."

"No more houses," Garrus whispered from the front. "Lots of open ground though."

"See anything?" Shepard asked.

"No, but I hear wings."

Shepard cursed silently.

"We're not far from the central hub," Jacob optimistically said. "We'll just blow through these bugs, husks and whatever else they throw at us, get the turrets working, help the colonists, and call it a day."

"You probably just fucked us by saying that out loud, you know," Jack pessimistically countered.

Shepard shuffled up to Garrus and took point. "Over there. Looks like a warehouse. We could make our way there."

"Door looks reinforced. Good place to hole up in. Might even have some colonists that are still kicking," Garrus concurred.

"Garrus, you stay with me. The rest of you stay here and get ready to move once we've established it's clear of hostiles or support us if we're under attack," Shepard said.

When everyone nodded, Shepard lifted up his assault rifle and treaded carefully through the open field with Garrus mimicking his movements. Shepard heard the telltale humming of rapidly beating wings which, unfortunately, grew louder.

"Shit," Garrus cursed.

Both prepared to run and fight when they saw only one solitary Collector land some distance away from them. The Collector stood up slowly, but didn't make any threatening gestures. Its strange looking rifle was held casually, but nowhere in their general direction.

Shepard and Garrus remained on their guard though and pointed their rifles at the Collector, a hair trigger away from killing it.

Suddenly, the Collector began staggering before doubling over. It appeared to be in the midst of a seizure. The Collector started to float several inches above the ground before arching its back. Fiery glowing lines manifested throughout its body before the Collector erupted with a sudden power neither human nor turian had ever seen.

"I AM ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL."

Both men were stunned from the transformation as well as the voice emanating from the Collector. It didn't seem like the words were produced by vocal cords or a mouth. The words seemed to be produced from the Collector itself, as if it was projecting sounds from its body.

Shepard recognized the Collector in front of him. The appearance of fire that it produced, an aura of flames that burned around it.

Like a biotic. This Collector is the same as the one from Freedom's Progress.

There was something about its voice though. The voice sounded ancient, but familiar. A voice that made everything it said sound like it was a fact, inevitable and unstoppable.

"Who are you?" Shepard shouted across the distance between them. He knew it was a gamble, but if this Collector could speak, maybe he could reason with it. I hope. Shepard could feel Garrus' incredulous look at the back of his head.

The Collector tilted its head, as if studying the two before it. It seemed indifferent to the weapons pointed in its direction.

"WE ARE HARBINGER."

"Are you the leader of the Collectors?"

"WE ARE THE HARBINGER OF YOUR ASCENDENCE."

"Ascendance to what? Why are you taking these people?" Shepard demanded. The rest of his squad left the building they were huddled in and spread themselves apart, but kept their weapons trained on 'Harbinger'.

"YOU DO NOT YET COMPREHEND YOUR PLACE."

"So tell me then! What don't we comprehend?"

"YOU ARE IGNORANT. WE ARE KNOWING. WE ARE YOUR GENETIC DESTINY. YOUR WORLDS WILL BECOME OUR LABORORIES."

"Why are you working for the Reapers? What do mean by 'genetic destiny'? Why are you attacking humanity?

"WE ARE THE BEGINNING, YOU ARE THE END."

Shepard sucked in his breath as comprehension dawned on him. He could feel Garrus tense up next to him. Similar words were spoken to them two years ago. "You're not a Collector… You're a Reaper…" Shepard whispered.

Harbinger's eyes, all four of them, bored into Shepard's helmeted face. It was searching for something, a confirmation of some sort. Apparently, it seemed satisfied with what it found because it cast aside its rifle and flared its fiery aura brightly.

"SHEPARD, YOUR INTERFERANCE HAS ENDED."

"Light him up!" Shepard roared.

Both Harbinger and Shepard thrust their arms out simultaneously. A dark red and a bright blue orb passed within inches of each other before striking their targets.

Harbinger merely staggered from Shepard's attack while the Specter fell to his knees screaming when the burning orb shattered his shields and dispelled its energies into him.

"Cover Shepard!" Miranda ordered.

Everyone executed their strongest attacks into the possessed Collector. Biotics, tech, and specialized bullets tore into Harbinger without hesitation. However, its shields absorbed the damage with little trouble, almost appearing inexhaustible.

Grunt was the next to go down. Harbinger's attack sent the krogan flying several feet back. Grunt growled and climbed to his feet slowly, pain etched into his face.

Shepard struggled to his feet, forcing adrenaline into his body to keep the pain at bay. He groaned to himself when the sounds of more wings reached his ears and stumbled to the nearest piece of defilade he could find.

"More giant cockroaches incoming!" Jack yelled from behind a wall, confirming Shepard's suspicions. She screamed in pain moments later when Harbinger destroyed the wall and blasted her to the ground.

Jacob and Grunt wasted no time. Jacob dropped his Eviscerator and pulled out his ML-77. He started shooting missiles indiscriminately at the approaching Collectors and Harbinger with Grunt supporting him.

Finally, the phasic rounds inside Miranda's Pulse Rifle breached Harbinger's Barrier and began impacting against its armor. Harbinger retaliated with a biotic Push that sent Miranda flying to impact against a wall with a sickening crack. She slid down the wall and groaned in pain.

Emboldened with Miranda's success against Harbinger's Barrier, everyone redoubled their efforts and continued the barrage against it. The shield around it flickered from the combined fire from Jacob's missiles, Garrus' Reverent, and Shepard's HMWA.

Harbinger turned its attention to Garrus and was about to launch its attack when a blast of ice obscured its vision, allowing the turian to scramble out of way.

"Shouldn't underestimate!" Mordin taunted. He fired away with his M-9 Tempest, the rapid fire bullets creating a staccato sound when they struck Harbinger's shields.

"Keep it up!" Shepard ordered as he tossed a grenade at Harbinger's feet.

The explosion rocked the assembled Collectors. Harbinger stood tall and prepared to attack again when another missile struck its weakened Barrier and shattered it.

"Got him!" Jacob crowed.

"Finish him off!" Shepard yelled.

Jack was already back on her feet and managed to launch her strongest Shockwave yet. The Collectors was scattered like leaves in a wind while Harbinger staggered from the force of the attack.

Miranda picked herself up and used Warp to try to break through Harbinger's armor.

Even as the unstable biotic energies crackled against it, it stood tall to face Shepard.

"YOU ONLY DAMAGE THE VESSEL, YOU CANNOT HURT ME."

"I can damn well try!" Shepard snarled.

Harbinger's rebuttal was to launch its Warp attack once again.

Abandoning finesse and taking a page out of Grunt's book, Shepard ran directly at Harbinger, using his own biotics to pick up a Collector and throw it in the path of the biotic attack and straight at the Reaper. Harbinger was knocked off its feet from unexpected projectile. Taking advantage of its prone position, Shepard mounted both Harbinger and the Collector and fired his assault rifle at point blank range.

The rest of the Collectors tried to converge on the Spectre but Mordin took the opportunity to throw another Cryo Blast in their midst. After a group of Collectors were frozen, Grunt followed up with his shotgun, shattering the last of the threats.

"RELEASING THIS FORM."

Shepard ejected his spent thermal clip before firing twice more into the mess that used to be two Collector's heads. The possessed Collector was still, the glowing lines fading away making the corpse left behind match the others littered about the battlefield.

Breathing heavily, Shepard stood up and looked over his team. "Is everyone alright?"

Jack walked to him and fired once into the Collector corpse of Harbinger with her pistol. "Yeah. But fuck, that shit hurt, even through my armor."

"Miranda? You okay?" Shepard asked.

"Fine. My armor absorbed most of the impact, but I'll feel it in the morning," she assured.

"What about you, Shepard? That attack looked like it hurt," Garrus asked, concern in his voice.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Shepard casually dismissed. "That was nothing like any Warp I've ever been hit with though."

"Not just Collector tech. Reaper tech," Mordin commented.

"They're supposed to be in dark space. Well beyond the borders of our galaxy," Miranda said in amazement. "To be able to communicate across such a distance… The level of technology they possess is unimaginable."

"And now they're trying to kill us with it," Jacob grouched as he checked how much ammo he had left in his missile launcher.

Grunt growled angrily before stomping hard on the former Harbinger's chest, caving it in and making a crunching sound followed by a gory squelch. "Tough bastard. They definitely need to die."

Shepard looked around again. Satisfied that his team was alright and the immediate area was clear, he marched toward the warehouse. "Locked. Surprise, surprise. Garrus."

Garrus walked up to the door and started the bypass. "Do you think we'll see Harbinger again?" he asked as he typed the commands into his omni-tool.

"With my luck, yeah," Shepard responded neutrally.

"Probability high. Suggested that it could control any Collector it wishes. Some form of remote control. Cybernetic implants perhaps? Hive mind?" Mordin answered before mumbling to himself as he theorized about Harbinger.

While Garrus worked on opening the door, Jack rounded on Jacob. "Just blow right through them, huh? I hope you're fucking happy."

~o~O~o~

Grunt and Jacob entered the warehouse first and swept the entryway for any threats. Miranda and Mordin stepped past them after they revealed no hostiles and started to check the interior for any signs of trouble.

"Company!" Miranda reported. She pointed her rifle at the back corner of room.

Shepard walked in and stopped next to her. "Come out! Hands in the air!"

Two hands slowly preceded a human male as he stepped out from behind a shelf.

"Possible civilian, hold fire. Continue to secure the area," Shepard ordered to his squad. "You, don't move," he said, pointing at the colonist with his pistol.

The man kept his hands in air and nodded nervously as Miranda stepped up and started to pat him down.

"All clear!" Jacob reported from the rear as Garrus closed and locked the door.

"Clear!" Mordin said after he finished sweeping the room and checking the other door.

"He's clean," Miranda added.

Satisfied that they were in no immediate danger Shepard asked the man, "You're all alone here?"

"You're… you're human! What are you doing here? You'll lead them right here!" the colonist said with a touch of hysteria.

"Relax. We took care of the Collector's so far. You're safe now," Shepard assured.

The man's eyes widened in shock before he turned away to face the wall. "Those things are Collectors? They're real?" he mumbled to himself.

Must be in shock.

"I thought they were just made up. You know – propaganda. To keep us in Alliance Space," he continued before his head snapped up. "No! They got Lilith! I saw her go down! Sten, too! They got damn near everybody!"

"We need to know what we're up against here. Tell me everything you remember," Shepard demanded.

The colonist took a rattling breath. "We lost our comm. signals a few hours ago. I came down to check on the main grid. Then I heard screaming," he started with a shudder. "I looked outside and there was… swarms of bugs. Everyone they touched just froze. I… I sealed the doors." He started to pace agitatedly. "Damn it – it's the Alliance's fault! They stationed that Chief Williams here and built those defense towers. It made us a target!" he declared angrily.

Shepard's eyes widened. It was the first mention of Ashley he'd heard since landing. Keeping his voice even, he asked, "Tell me about this Alliance Rep."

Garrus and Jacob both stepped forward, much more interested in conversation now.

"Chief Williams? Heard she was some kind of hero or something," he shrugged. "Didn't mean nothing to me though. Would've rather she just stayed back in Council Space."

"What is she doing here?" Garrus asked him.

"Supposed to be helping us get the defense towers up and running," he answered before scowling. "I got the feeling she was here for something else. Spying on us, maybe."

"The main transmitter is near us, right?" Miranda asked.

"Yeah…" the colonist answered cautiously.

Miranda nodded before turning to Shepard. "We should communicate with Normandy and get the turrets online ASAP."

"You'll need to calibrate the targeting system first. It's never worked right. The Alliance just gave us a bunch of giant guns that couldn't shoot straight. Stupid sons-of-bitches," he vehemently commented.

"Shut up," Shepard growled, tired of his complaints. He pointedly turned his back on the man to address his team. "Once we get to the towers, the Collectors will definitely know what we're up to…"

"If they don't already," Grunt interrupted.

"So expect heavy resistance," Shepard said before glancing at Grunt, "Either way."

Jacob walked up the other door and tapped on the nearby panel. He waited until everyone stacked up next to the door and the colonist ran and hid in another corner of the room before opening it.

"Let's go," Shepard said when the coast was clear. Taking point, he led everyone deeper into the colony.

Everyone remained tense since there was a constant buzzing sound in the distance, reminding them of the new potential danger of the Collectors. Even Grunt was quiet, his youthful arrogance curbed by a grudging respect for the strength of the enemy.

Shepard led his team through between alleys, inside buildings, and through the shadows. As they neared the industrial sector of the colony and their destination, Shepard distinctly heard ghastly moans nearby.

"Husks," Jacob said, confirming Shepard's guess. "Damn it. We're almost there too."

Sidling up to a corner, Shepard peeked around and saw a small group of Collectors managing a larger group of husks. Several husks were pushing pods in the direction of the Collector cruiser under direction from their masters.

Looks like Grunt was right. The husks are here for manual labor.

In the center, Shepard could easily see the domed building that was definitely Alliance-make in comparison to the civilian structures of Horizon.

That has to be it.

Shepard turned back to face everyone. "About six Collectors, but there might be more on the second floor. About 20 husks, pushing the pods. Most importantly, the central hub for the turrets is right there. " He paused a moment, frowning in thought before coming to a decision. "Grunt, Jack, you two take out the husks. Don't hurt the civilians," he warned. "The rest of us will focus on the Collectors. If Mordin is right, then Harbinger might make an appearance and ruin our day. We need to be quick and take them all down before that happens." When nobody questioned him, Shepard resolutely nodded. "Once the area is secured, I'll set up the uplink with Normandy and get the GARDIAN turrets up and running. Remember to check your fire," Shepard ordered. "Let's go Garrus. We'll snipe as many as can."

Both Shepard and Garrus pulled out their sniper rifles and picked out the farthest Collectors they could see. Jack and Grunt moved away from the group and started to make their way around the perimeter of the open courtyard toward the husks.

Miranda, Jacob, and Mordin stood ready next to the snipers.

"On your word, Shepard," Garrus said.

"Do it."

Both men fired simultaneously, dropping two Collectors before scoping out others and firing again, bringing the tally to four.

Aware of their presence, the four more Collectors came out of the building and started firing.

Damn it!

Miranda led her team against the sudden numbers as Shepard took aim at group of Collectors. Focusing as hard as he could, he called on his biotics and used Lift to send them all to the sky.

It became a shooting gallery for Miranda's team who took their shots without hesitation.

Inwardly pleased with the results of his progress in biotics, Shepard left Garrus' side and ran for the central hub. Upon reaching the building, he stopped next to the door and glanced around the battlefield to see that Jack and Grunt were systematically tearing their way through the husks. It almost looked like a competition between the two of them to see who could kill the most in the least amount of time. Miranda's team started to search the nearby buildings for any missed enemies with Garrus remaining at his perch, covering everyone within his line of sight.

Convinced that everyone had things well in hand, Shepard entered the building and locked the door before running up to the terminal.

Standard Alliance security protocols… shouldn't be too hard.

In no time at all, Shepard accessed the hub's mainframe and established communication with his ship. "Normandy? Do you copy?"

"Joker here. Signal's weak, Commander, but we got you."

"I'm creating the uplink. Standby."

"Uplink established… security clearance verified… I have successfully connected with the mainframe, Commander," EDI reported.

Sounds of gunfire reached Shepard's ears, signaling that they were in for more trouble again. "The defense towers?" Shepard pressed.

"Errors in the calibration are easily rectified, but it will take time to bring the towers to full power."

Shepard scowled. "Time is something we really don't have here, EDI."

"I am sorry, Commander. There is nothing more I can do. I recommend a defensive posture. I will not be able to mask the increased generator output."

"How long?" Shepard demanded.

"I estimate 10 minutes."

"Anything else I should know?" Shepard asked quickly. The sounds of gunfire became more pervasive, rather than fading, indicated that the battle outside was becoming more deadly.

"Just one. Enemy reinforcements are closing in. I suggest you ready weapons," EDI replied.

Shepard resisted the urge to hit the terminal and instead, picked up his assault rifle and ran for the door. "Joker! Call the Alliance and request reinforcements!"

"Aye, aye!"

"Damn it! Someone cover us!" Miranda shouted. "We have wounded here!"

Shepard ran out of the building to see Jacob carrying Mordin over his left shoulder and holding his pistol in his right. He was running as fast as he could with the wounded salarian toward Shepard's position.

Miranda exited the building a moment later, still firing at whatever was inside. The moment her rifle overheated, she pulled out a grenade and tossed it inside before rolling to the side. She dodged in the nick of time, as evidenced by a strange attack Shepard had never seen rushing through the doorway and through Miranda's last position.

The attack bore similarities to Shockwave, but instead of dark energy, it looked like it resembled crystallized energies of some sort.

Shepard pushed the door open and allowed Jacob to run inside. After clearing the threshold, Jacob carefully placed the professor on the ground and turned on his omni-tool to scan the injuries. Mordin appeared to be alive and conscious, but covered in what looked like dark blue crystals that were already fading away.

"Bypassing fail-safes and attempting emergency power-up. Please hold the defense tower."

"The hell…? It's still alive!" Garrus yelled.

Shepard looked back to see another surprise greet him.

Today is definitely not going well.

A strange new kind of husk left the building Miranda had assaulted. It looked like an amalgam of various husks fused together.

"Grunt! On me!" Shepard ordered, calling for his heaviest hitter. Without waiting to see if Grunt was coming, Shepard started firing directly at the mutated husk that was lumbering toward him.

Two more assault rifles joined in chorus with his as Miranda and Grunt stepped into the fray and mercilessly tore into the husk.

The husk took their attacks in stride however and launched another Shockwave directly at Shepard.

Shepard jumped to the side, but was a bit late. Pain lanced up his leg as his shield failed instantly from the strange attack. Biting back his scream, he muffled his sound of pain with a grunt and continued to fire from his prone position on the ground.

"Garrus! Concussive shot at that thing's legs! Bring it down!" Shepard shouted.

Garrus tapped the appropriate commands into his sniper rifle to prep a concussive round before taking steady aim. Just moments before the husk attacked Shepard again, Garrus squeezed the trigger and shot the husk's knee causing it to kneel in an effort to keep balance.

Grunt exchanged his assault rifle for his shogun and started tapping commands into his weapon as well. To Shepard's surprise, the krogan fired a concussive shot of his own right at the top-heavy husk, toppling it over. Grunt roared and jumped on top of the husk before drawing his knife and stabbed it over and over again.

Shepard gritted his teeth and stood up, testing his leg. The crystalline energy faded away and he could sense nothing was wrong. Feeling combat ready, Shepard yelled, "We got more hostiles coming! Regroup!"

"They're already here!" Miranda yelled as she ran toward some crates nearby and took cover behind them.

Shepard cursed before turning to Jacob. "How is he?" Shepard asked as he guarded the doorway.

"He's alright," Jacob responded before standing up and joining the Spectre.

"Yes, be alright!" Mordin affirmed, slowly standing up. "Shields failed moments before! Caught full brunt of attack!" he explained, more quickly than usual. Taking a breath and shaking his head, he added, "Not pleasant!"

"We need to hold this room! We can't let the Collector's interrupt the startup sequence!" Shepard shouted over the sounds of combat outside.

"How much longer?" Jacob asked.

"Sequential power-up initiated. GARDIAN anti-ship batteries at 20%."

"However long it takes!" Shepard barked.

"Fuck! That Harbinger thing is back again!" Jack yelled from somewhere outside.

Shepard cursed. "Mordin, you stay here! Let's go, Jacob!"

Shepard stepped out the door and almost bumped straight into a Collector. The Collector tried to raise its rifle before Shepard executed a quick right cross. As it staggered back from the blow, the Spectre raised the butt of his rifle slammed it as hard as he could against the Collector's head. The moment the Collector went down, Jacob ended it with a point blank blast from his shotgun.

Shepard's eyes scanned the area. Miranda, Garrus, and Grunt had fallen back inside the building and were engaging the Collectors through the windows. Jack was nowhere to be seen, which was cause for worry since she was the one that spotted Harbinger.

"YOU CANNOT STOP US, SHEPARD."

Aw, hell. "Move!" Shepard shouted to Jacob. Both men ran as Harbinger started its attack on them. They both barely leapt over a short wall to duck down behind when Harbinger's Warp struck.

"YOU WILL KNOW PAIN, SHEPARD."

"Damn, Commander. You're really popular with these guys, huh?" Jacob joked before they both popped up and started shooting.

"Must be my charm," Shepard grumbled, noting that its Barrier was as strong as ever.

"GARDIAN anti-ship batteries at 40%."

The former marines were forced to duck down as Harbinger continued to utilize its unique biotics against them.

A grenade exploded right at Harbinger's feet, staggering it and allowing Shepard and Jacob a breather. They were prepared to attack it when Jack ran up to Harbinger from behind and used her shotgun at point blank range right at its back.

"Die, damn you!" she cursed at it.

Despite several shots, Harbinger stood up and made a retaliatory swipe at the ex-convict.

Jack barely ducked under the physical attack and shuffled backwards, still firing directly at the Reaper-Collector. "Fuck!" Jack yelled out in frustration. Partly from the tenacity of Harbinger and partly from the moment her shotgun overheated. She saw Harbinger preparing to attack her and used her Biotic Charge to shift away from it and appear next to Shepard behind the low wall.

"The fucking bastard is really pissing me off!" Jack growled as she cocked her Scimitar and ejected the spent thermal clip.

"GARDIAN anti-ship batteries at 60%. Syncing targeting protocols to Normandy's systems. Continue to protect the tower."

"Shepard! We got a problem here!" Garrus shouted somewhere amidst the field.

None of them had any idea where Garrus was when he yelled out his warning, but they could see the problem easily enough.

"Day just gets better and better," Jacob growled.

It was a flying husk of some sort, descending on the battlefield. It was big and ugly, resembling a giant beetle with jagged looking claws.

And it's flying right for us. Or me. "Shit," Shepard said out loud.

"FACE YOUR ANNIHILATION."

Deciding on a course of action, Shepard stood and ran. Mostly it was for distraction, though no one could deny that he could be running for his life.

Shepard pushed more synthetic adrenaline into his veins. He could feel his heart hammering in his rib cage, his legs pumping faster, and his awareness increasing.

Harbinger attacked with its Warp, but Shepard easily outran the attack. The large husk fired some sort of beam weapon but by then, Shepard reached the safety of another building. The attack gorged the wall and the ground near him, but thankfully missed.

Shepard chanced a look to see that Jacob and Jack took advantage of the distraction and was throwing everything they had at the large beetle-like husk.

Expanding his HMWSR, Shepard put the scope over his eye and targeted Harbinger. The rifle bucked with recoil, but his aim was true. The explosive round rippled its Barrier. Harbinger attempted to counter-attack, but Shepard squeezed off another shot, the stopping power of his sniper rifle enough to disrupt Harbinger's movements.

"GARDIAN anti-ship batteries at 80%."

Just as Shepard was about to fire again, another explosion caused the ground to tremble, spoiling the shot.

"Watch out for that thing!" Miranda shouted from somewhere. "Keep your distance!"

"AND NOW YOU STAND ALONE, SHEPARD."

Using Lift to pick up a large piece of debris, Shepard threw it directly at Harbinger.

It wasn't fooled this time. Harbinger merely raised its arm at the projectile and halted its momentum easily, letting the debris fall harmlessly to the ground.

"PITIFUL. YOUR ATTACKS ARE PRIMITIVE."

Harbinger stalked forward and rounded the corner of the building Shepard had taken cover in. There was nothing there.

Then he saw nothing.

"I don't know," Shepard quipped, his Tactical Cloak fading away. "I think I have to disagree with you on this. I always thought ambushes never go out of style," he said to the headless corpse as he ejected the thermal clip from his sniper rifle.

As Shepard turned away from the body to join the others fighting the giant beetle-husk, Harbinger whispered from the headless body.

"WE ARE NOT FINISHED…"

~o~O~o~

"GARDIAN anti-ship batteries at 100%. Preparing to fire on the Collector vessel."

Shepard breathed a small sigh of relief. Popping out of cover from window of second floor of the building he was in, he fired his HMWSR at the giant husk before ducking back from its beam weapon.

Garrus took the opportunity for a shot of his own nearby when while it was distracted. "It's nice to be noticed, huh?"

Jacob had long since discarded his missile launcher the moment it ran out of ammo. He and Grunt had commandeered the Collector heavy weapons that were lying around and were continuously firing their beam weapons directly at the husk, culminating in most of the injuries it sustained.

The giant husk was flying unsteadily; it listing heavily on one side, making its aim was erratic and poor.

The husk crashed into the building Shepard and Garrus were in, causing them to stumble. Dropping his sniper rifle, Shepard jumped out of the window and landed on the back of the husk. Pulling out his shotgun, he started shooting at the joint where the head met body.

Jack used her Biotic Charge to land on top of the husk and joined Shepard in creating a hole on the back of the husk.

"That's it!" Shepard shouted over the sounds of the husk's screeching and the turrets attacking the cruiser. "Get your grenades!" he ordered.

Both of them collapsed their weapons and knelt down to keep their balance on the thrashing husk. They started stuffing their remaining grenades inside the hole they'd created as quickly as they could.

"Go! Go! Go!" Shepard frantically shouted.

Jack only offered a cheeky salute before using her Biotic Charge to leave Shepard alone on top of a ticking time bomb.

I really have to learn that.

Shouting in a combination of victory, fear, and jubilation with just a hint of panic, Shepard leapt off the husk. Landing heavily on his feet and rolling with the impact, he and the rest of his team ran for any suitable cover.

Moments later, the husk exploded. Bits of gore and entrails littered the surrounding buildings and fields.

Breathing another sigh of relief, Shepard stayed down when the Collector cruiser ignited its engines, taking off and leaving behind some of its crew and resources.

Bastards still got away with some of the colony! Shepard cursed, pounding the ground in frustration. Sighing again, he rolled out from under the truck he'd taken cover in and stood up. "Who's not dead? Sound off!"

Miranda and Mordin left the central hub.

"Miranda here. I'm fine."

"Mordin here. Fine, fine."

Jacob and Grunt picked themselves up from behind some crates. Both were covered in the remains of the husk. Judging from Jacob's expression through his transparent faceplate, he was more than disgusted with his situation. Grunt took it in stride.

"Son… of… a… bitch," Jacob said, shaking his arms to get some of the viscera off of him.

"Ah, quit your whining," Grunt said, but his tone had a touch of humor to it.

"Bite me," Jacob replied, but his grin belied his words.

Jack left one of the empty buildings next to Shepard. Sauntering up to him, she fell in step as everyone regrouped at the main terminal.

Shepard glanced at Jack and knew she was grinning under her helmet.

"Bet you wished you learned Charge first, huh?" she brazenly said, echoing Shepard's earlier thoughts.

He'd be damned if he was going to admit it though. "I'll live," he deadpanned. "Besides, Shockwave worked well against most of the husks," he said, keeping his voice from sounding defensive.

"Uh huh," Jack answered patronizingly.

Shepard chose to ignore her and turned his attention at the rest of his assembled squad. "Where's Garrus?" he asked. Everyone looked around, but couldn't find any sign of him. "Garrus!" Shepard shouted at the building he and Garrus were sniping from.

"What?" Garrus shouted back as he ran from the building and rejoined the group. "Stop yelling. I'm fine," Garrus said before handing Shepard a cloth bundle. "You dropped this."

Shepard took the bundle from him and unraveled it to reveal his HMWSR. "Thanks," he said gratefully to the turian.

Garrus shrugged. "No problem."

"No! Don't let them get away!"

Everyone raised their weapons at the source of the voice. The colonist that was hiding in the warehouse earlier stopped and raised his hands comically. It looked like he was standing in front of a firing squad.

"Stand down," Shepard said, before shaking his head in exasperation.

"What are you doing? They're getting away!" the colonist screamed, pointing at the fleeing cruiser.

"Well, what the fuck do you expect us to do about it?" Jack asked rhetorically. "We just killed everything in our way to save this colony while you sat in a corner taking a damn piss."

"But half the colony's in there! They took Egan and Sam and… and Lilith. Do something!"

Shepard put a restraining hand on Jack's shoulder before she tore into the distraught man again. Or killed him. "We didn't want it to end this way. We did what we had to in order to save as many people as we could."

"If it wasn't for Shepard, you'd all be on board that ship," Garrus retorted.

"Shepard?" the colonist said, narrowing his eyes in thought. "Wait. I know that name…" He looked at the man in black armor with suspicion. "Sure, I remember you. You're some type of big Alliance hero."

"Commander Shepard."

The man in question snapped his head up at the voice.

Ashley was walking toward him, free of the paralysis from the seeker swarm. "Captain of the SSV Normandy SR-1. Hero of the Skyllian Blitz. The first human Spectre. Savior of the Citadel," Ashley listed off, stopping just at arm's reach to her former CO. She was smiling, her gaze studying him from head to toe.

Shepard took off his helmet and stared at her. Emotions and words welled up in his chest, but he couldn't find his voice.

Ashley turned back to glance at the colonist. "You're in the presence of a god, Delan." Ashley looked back at Shepard. "Back from the dead…" she whispered.

Delan snorted in contempt. "All the good people we lost and you get left behind. Figures." He glared at Shepard and grew angrier when he saw that he was being ignored. "Screw this. I'm done with you Alliance types," he said, before turning away and stomping off.

Shepard didn't hear any of his comments. His attention was solely reserved for the woman in front of him. He continued to stare at his former lover, his mouth slightly open in shock and disbelief.

Ashley smiled wider and took a few steps forward. She reached under Shepard's jaw and closed it.

The action was enough to snap him out of his reverie and whisper, "Ash…"

Ashley wrapped her arms around him tightly. Shepard returned the gesture with equal fervor.

"I thought you were dead, Skipper. We all did," she whispered in his ear.

"Yeah… I heard that too," Shepard softly replied before inhaling her scent. Memories of their time together flooded back easily.

Realizing that there were others watching, Ashley reluctantly let go and stepped back to observe the assembled people before resting her gaze on another old friend. "Garrus," she greeted happily.

Garrus nodded stepped forward and extended his hand. "Chief."

Ashley shook it without hesitation. "You're traveling with Shepard again? You kinda disappeared after everything…"

"Yeah…" Garrus said, but didn't elaborate further.

Ashley got the hint and let the matter drop. Her expression changed to one of concern when her eyes rested on the cloth covering on the side of Garrus' face.

Garrus coughed and scratched his bandage. "It's fine. I had it looked at. And you? You alright? After what happened here I mean."

"Yeah, I'm fine. Those things sent some sort of bugs that sting you. Paralyzes you a moment later. I couldn't move or fight or anything. Looks like it wore off though," she said before looking at Jacob. "I think I recognize you…" she said, staring through his faceplate. Furrowing her brow in thought, she hesitantly asked, "Taylor?"

Jacob nodded. "Chief."

Ashley offered a salute. "The 210 on Eden Prime, right?"

"That's right," he said as he saluted back.

Shepard glanced around him before remembering their perilous situation. Taking charge, he turned to his squad. "Miranda, Mordin, you two help the civilians. As many as you can. Garrus, you take the rest of the team and sweep for any remaining hostiles. They left in a hurry, so there has to be some left. With the cruiser gone though, I doubt Harbinger will make an appearance."

"Our radios are working again," Jacob supplied. "We'll be able to stay in touch."

Shepard nodded. "Any trouble and you call."

Everyone broke into their teams and went about their assigned tasks.

~o~O~o~

Glancing at Ashley, Shepard pointed at the central hub building.

Ashley nodded and walked inside first with Shepard following her closely.

Once inside, he closed the door and waited for the inevitable questions.

She didn't disappoint. "How are you still alive?" she asked, looking straight into his eyes.

Shepard sighed. The hardest question first… I'd rather she asked about the attack instead… "Cerberus," he succinctly said.

"You're with Cerberus now?" she asked incredulously. "No… the reports can't be right."

"They're not," Shepard replied quickly. "Did Anderson tell you?"

"Anderson knew?" Ashley asked.

"You first. What reports are you talking about?"

"Alliance intel said Cerberus could be behind our missing colonies. We got a tip that this one could be the next to get hit," she explained.

A tip? I wonder… Shepard thought, a suspicion already forming in his mind.

"I went to Anderson, but he wouldn't talk. But there were rumors that you weren't dead. Worse: you were working for the enemy," she continued studying Shepard's reaction.

"I talked to Anderson a couple of weeks ago. Him and the council. They're aware that I'm using Cerberus resources right now," Shepard explained. "They reinstated my Spectre status so I wouldn't be in any trouble." He looked around the room they were in, realization dawning on him. "Building the defense towers was just a cover story. The Alliance sent you here to investigate me, didn't they?" he asked bitterly. Backstabbing me again… Unbelievable.

"I was sent here to investigate Cerberus, not you," Ashley defended. "I wanted to believe you were alive… I just never expected anything like this."

"Believe me… neither did I," Shepard said before sighing. "I couldn't even begin to tell you. I'm not even sure of all the details yet myself."

"So why Cerberus? And why didn't you try to contact me if you talked to Anderson? Why didn't you let me know you were alive?" Ashley asked, her questions spilling out.

"I was clinically dead, Ash. It took two years for Cerberus to revive me. I wanted to contact you. Contact everyone, really. But after the destruction of the Normandy, you all split up and moved on with your lives while I was just catching up to the fact that I lost two years of my life," Shepard said before leaning on the console. "I suppose the main reason I couldn't contact you was because I was working with Cerberus and you're investigating them. Anderson stonewalled me. He knew you were here, but he wouldn't tell me. 'Classified', he said."

"Cerberus brought you back?" Ashley asked skeptically.

"I don't know all the details," Shepard answered. "Chakwas might know more."

"Dr. Chakwas? She's with Cerberus too?" she asked disbelievingly.

"Not with Cerberus, with me," Shepard corrected. "Joker too."

Ashley walked over and sat next to Shepard. "What's Cerberus' take on this?"

"I don't know," Shepard admitted. "But I know I won't like where it's heading."

"Then why not come back to the Alliance?"

"Because they're not going to do anything to help me, just like the council. As hard as it was to admit it; right now, the only ones taking action is Cerberus," Shepard answered.

"You'd betray the Alliance?" Ashley accused.

"Who betrayed who?" Shepard countered. "The Alliance ignored everything I'd warned them about the Reapers and Saren. They're the ones that locked us down when we should've been chasing Saren to Ilos. Kaidan died on Virmire to stop that krogan cloning facility and they just complained about that nuke. And now they disbanded everyone on the Normandy and reassigned them. When was the last time you heard about the Reapers?"

Ashley stayed silent.

Shepard could guess the answer though. "The Alliance, the Council; no one is helping me." Shepard stood up and paced around the small room angrily. "Thousands of people are missing and they think its pirates and slavers? And then, the only time they even think it was Cerberus was when my name got attached!"

"Are the Reapers behind this?" Ashley asked.

Shepard nodded. "The aliens that attacked this colony were the Collectors. Like the geth, they're agents for the Reapers too. And yes, I'm sure," Shepard said, anticipating Ashley's next question. He stopped his pacing and looked directly at her. "One of the Collector's, it changed… it became something more… it was stronger, more dangerous. More importantly, it talked. Called itself Harbinger. It talked just like Sovereign."

"Is that why Cerberus brought you back? To fight the… Collectors?"

"Yeah. I don't care much for them. If you talked to the Illusive Man, the head of Cerberus, your opinion of them would drop even lower. But they have the means, resources, and drive to see this mission through. I can't let these attacks go, not if I can stop them."

"I noticed you were with Garrus and a krogan," she commented.

"Cerberus is still pro-human. But they realized that they need help if we're going to fight the Collectors. That means accepting help from people they would never consider," Shepard replied.

"And Jacob? He's with Cerberus now?"

"In short, yeah. But that's his story to tell. He's not into Cerberus' pro-human, crazy experiment, terrorist ideals if that's what you're worried about. He just hates politics more than you."

This time, it was Ashley's turn to sigh. "What are you going to do now?"

Shepard shrugged. "I'm a Spectre. The Alliance can't touch me and the Council doesn't care what I do so long as it doesn't cause trouble for them. For the time being, I'll have to work with Cerberus a little while longer." He sat back down next to her. "What about you?"

"I need to report back to the Citadel and the Alliance. They need to know what's going on," she replied.

"It's best if you leave out the Reapers for now. Until I get concrete proof, anything you say might be ignored at best. At worst, they blackball you from any other assignment," Shepard advised. "Just mention the Collectors, Cerberus, and me for now. There are enough witnesses here to vouch for you."

"Yeah. That sounds like a good idea," she agreed.

"Shepard, sweep is clear. Just a few holdouts. The defenses came back online and the security bots are mopping up the rest," Garrus reported.

Shepard put his hand to his ear. "Understood, Garrus. Come back." Switching frequencies, he called his shuttle. "Hawthorne, we need a pickup."

"Understood, Commander. We're tracking your signal. ETA: Two minutes."

"I understand you got promoted. Congratulations. Your mom and your sisters must've been proud," Shepard commented.

Ashley was confused at the sudden topic change before smiling. "Thanks, Skipper."

"You deserved it."

"No, I really mean it. Thank you. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have gotten as far as I have," she elaborated. "Thank you."

Shepard smiled. "You're welcome." They both fell silent again until he asked hesitantly, "So what happens now?"

Ashley hesitated as well before sighed despondently. "I care about you, Skipper, but if you're with Cerberus, then I can't be with you."

"Because I'm a traitor?" Shepard asked evenly.

"No. Because it would make me one," she said. "You're doing what you think is right. You always have. But I need to do I think is right, too. I have my loyalties and none of them go anywhere near Cerberus."

"So we go our separate ways," he said softly.

"Yeah," she agreed sadly, standing up and facing him fully. "We're not cutting ties entirely. I'd like to stay as friends."

Shepard thought about the consequences of continuing their relationship. "I've already admitted that I'm working with Cerberus to Anderson and the Council. I suspect even Udina knows. If you're seen with me, you're done. You'll either get a dishonorable discharge or a full court-marshal. The Alliance can't do anything to me, but they have plenty to throw at you."

"Pretty much," Ashley said. "Will I ever see you again?" she asked quietly.

"I won't lie, Ash. The chances of surviving are… slim," Shepard admitted. "We don't know anything about the Collectors, except that they're working for the Reapers. That fact alone makes them dangerous, but after what my team and I encountered here…" he said before trailing off. "The Collectors travel through the Omega-4 Relay. No ship ever returned from that relay." Shepard stopped and looked into her eyes. She didn't want an explanation, just the truth. "Probably not, no."

She looked liked she wanted to say something, anything, but nothing came out. They just stared at one another, unable to think of anything to say. Eventually, the moment was stolen by the high-pitched whine of the Kodiak landing nearby.

"Are we all right?" Shepard asked quietly.

"It's been two years. I've moved on," Ashley said before humorlessly chuckling. "But you… you make it damn hard."

"Commander? Shuttle has arrived. Some of the colonists are injured, but alive. Most are still trapped inside the pods, but we don't have the means or numbers to free them," Miranda reported.

"I need to go," Shepard said to Ashley. Standing up and putting his hand to his ear, he replied to Miranda. "I'm on my way."

Before he left though, Ashley stepped forward and embraced him again. "Be careful this time. Please?" she said into his ear.

Shepard hugged her back. "I'll try."

"At the very least, I'd like to stay friends. Distant friends, but I won't forget what you've done for me," she promised.

"I'd like that," Shepard said before releasing her.

They both stepped out to see the squad boarding the shuttle.

Ashley walked up to Garrus gave him a hug too. "Good luck on your mission Garrus. Take care of yourself, alright?"

Garrus looked started at the gesture, but returned it all the same. "You too, Chief. Take care."

Ashley gave a respectful nod to Jacob before giving Shepard one last parting look. No more words were exchanged between them.

Stepping into the shuttle last, Shepard banged on the door, signaling the pilots to take off.

~o~O~o~

*ENCYPTED*

Collectors escaped with approximately one third of Horizon's population.

Front corporation will funnel supplies, monetary aid to colonial survivors.

Collector leader, possibly remotely controlled by a Reaper, Harbinger, demonstrates a personal interest in Shepard.

Unclear whether his ability to possess his minions is cybernetic override, indication of hive mind among Collectors, or even Reaper technology at work.

Salvage teams captured Collector bodies and husks for study.

~o~O~o~

Whew! I did it! I finally did it! I completed another story arc! Whoohoo! I'm actually rather proud of this one. Not to mention the fact that I made it this far.

I few references I need to make. Immortality by Ronnie James Dio, Starship Troopers, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

I sincerely hope that you like the new interaction between Ashley and Shepard. BioWare often does an amazing job, but this was a low point for me. Your LI in ME1 just calls you a traitor, leaves and… what? That's it? Lame! Though the email was nice and very flattering. (Ashley's. Kaidan's was okay...)

Please read/review. I'd love to hear your comments and criticisms about this. If your concerns are valid, I'll add/remove/modify as needed and give the proper credit.

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