Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

The Collector Ship: Preparation

Location: Unknown

The Illusive Man was facing the bi-colored sun when Shepard arrived. The bright star cast a dark shadow over most of his features, save for his eyes, which glowed unnaturally. He turned his head slightly, stealing a glance at Shepard before turning away. It was the only reaction that he presented to show that he was even aware Shepard was there. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out an expensive looking lighter and brought it to his face. Finally, he turned slightly to the side, showing his profile to his guest while smoking from a freshly lit cigarette.

Shepard crossed his arms, unimpressed with the theatrics and impatient to get to the matter at hand.

"Shepard – we caught a break," he said. "I intercepted a distress call from a turian patrol. They stumbled on to a Collector ship beyond the Pamyat System." He finally turned around to face Shepard. "The turians were wiped out, but not before they crippled the Collector vessel." He calmly walked to his chair, moving through the myriad of holo-monitors surrounding it. After making himself comfortable, he looked up at the Spectre. "I need you to board that ship and get some hard data on the Collectors. Find us a way to get to their homeworld."

"I'm having trouble believing that a turian patrol could disable a Collector ship," Shepard bluntly stated.

"Reports indicate the hull's intact, but all systems seem to be offline," he replied. "They could be making repairs as we speak. I'm not saying it won't be dangerous, but we can't let an opportunity like this slip by."

"The hull is intact?" Shepard repeated skeptically.

"So our reports claim."

Narrowing his eyes at the enigmatic figure before him, Shepard could already tell something was off. Given what he knew about turian tactics, the only way they would ever disable a vessel is by putting large holes in one. Turian strategy was simple in concept, but difficult in practice. If they were forced to withdraw, they would ensure the enemy would be firmly discouraged from following. Organized retreats, support fire, even ambushes if they could manage it. If they were aware that they were about to be defeated, suicide runs and an all-out attack was to be expected. Subtly was rarely employed unless they had the advantage and the means. "If they had a patrol out there, why aren't the turians sending a recon team in?" he probed.

"They will. Eventually," came the prompt response. "I intercepted the transmissions. While you're investigating, we're feeding them false reports. It should buy you enough time to be in and out before the turians learn the truth."

That much, Shepard could believe. If there was any organization that could pull the wool over any non-human military group, it would have to be Cerberus. But still…

A disabled, intact Collector ship.

The information they could learn about their foe would be incredible if the databases were still functioning. All of their technology, weaknesses, locations, long-term goals, even why they're targeting humanity could be there. If they were lucky, maybe information about the Reapers could be found as well.

Too good to be true.

"Are you sure this information is good?" he asked dubiously.

"Information is my weapon, Shepard," the Illusive Man stated with supreme confidence. "It's good."

Shepard stared at him stonily for another minute. The Illusive Man didn't even bat an eye at the intense scrutiny he was under. He coolly took a smoke during the lull. Eventually, Shepard came to a decision.

Trap or not, this is too good to pass up.

"Send the coordinates."

"Already sent," he said. "Once you're aboard the ship, establish an uplink with EDI. She'll mine their data for information regarding the Omega 4 Relay." He paused to take another smoke. "Good luck, Shepard."

With that said, he tapped a button and ended the transmission.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Normandy SR-2

"EDI, status of the Silaris Armor?" Shepard requested quickly.

"Armor installation is complete. Diagnostics are estimated to be completed in three hours," she dutifully reported. "No problems have been reported thus far."

"Make it two hours. The Thanix Cannon?"

"According to Chief Zorah's latest report, all weapons systems are currently offline. Maintenance, upgrades, and diagnostics are expected to be completed in one week."

Shepard cursed under his breath. "Fine. Nothing we can do about it. Recall everyone. Leave has ended. We're heading out in three hours," he commanded.

"Please be aware, the weapons will not be ready by the time we arrive at the Pamyat System," EDI cautioned.

"If we wait, the Collector ship might not be there. This is our only chance to get some real intelligence about them. Ready or not, we're doing this."

"Understood, Captain. Recalling all crewmen back to the Normandy immediately."

"Also, put me in contact with Liara. Right now."

"Contacting… connection established. Standby."

Shepard moved away from the center of the room. A few seconds later, Liara's visage appeared where he was standing moments before.

"Shepard?" she asked drowsily. "What's wrong?"

"Sorry about the hour, Liara, but I just received new intelligence about my mission. We're leaving in three hours," he informed.

Suddenly more alert, she peered at him, waiting for him to continue.

"I need you to get in contact with Kasumi. She needs to be ready in two hours. Otherwise, I'm leaving her," he stated.

She rubbed her eyes to wake herself up and nodded. "I'll contact her and update you in 30 minutes."

"Thanks."

The table and chairs returned to their original positions as Shepard contemplated all variables in this mission and how best to approach the situation. "All officers not aboard the Normandy have responded your orders and are en route to assist with departure, Captain," EDI reported. "Operative Taylor is at his station in the Armory. Chief Zorah is at her station in the Engine Room."

"Thanks, EDI. Keep me apprised for any problems," he distractedly replied, still mentally analyzing every angle he could conceive.

"Understood, Captain. Logging you out."

Walking swiftly from the Comm. Room, Shepard entered the armory to see Jacob finishing his duties.

"On me," Shepard ordered as he turned right and headed for the airlock.

"On your six," Jacob replied instantly. He turned off his terminal and fell in step.

"Make preparations to leave. I want us off of Illium in three hours."

Jacob knew better than to ask questions when his superior officer seemed like he was in a rush. "Aye, aye."

Both left the Normandy and started ordering the crewmen that weren't on leave to begin arrangements for departure. The Cerberus workers that were still left to finish some of the mundane jobs: paint, visual checks, and last minute reports, were tasked to assist in their speedy preparations.

Ten minutes later, the rest of squad and a great deal of Normandy crewmen arrived at the hangar with their luggage. Despite the flurry of activity, everyone moved with purpose as they conducted their duties. Bags, personal items, and purchases were placed at their designated areas. Ordinance, spare parts, and fuels cells were loaded and secured. The Hammerhead and Kodiak were returned to their original places within the Normandy, while various other crewmen were at their stations, assisting with pre-flight checks to get the Normandy as space-worthy as quickly as possible.

Exactly 30 minutes later, Liara called Shepard while he was overseeing the multitude of tasks occurring around him within the hangar. "Shepard here," he said briefly as a greeting.

"Kasumi has agreed to meet. She'll be waiting at the prearranged meeting spot in one hour," Liara informed quickly.

"I'm a bit busy here, Liara. I'm not in the mood for games. You said she was ready to come with us immediately," Shepard testily replied. A loud boom was heard when an unsecured crate slipped off the forklift. "Damn it! Get that crate up and on the ship! Move it!" he yelled.

"Kasumi didn't get to where she is without exercising caution. My word won't be enough. You have indulge her this one time, I'm afraid."

"Sorry, sir! I'll get it!"

Shepard sighed impatiently. "Fine. Only because you're recommending her," he said to Liara while tersely nodding to the Cerberus worker.

"I'm sorry I can't go with you…" she started to say.

"I'm already asking a lot of you," he responded in a softer tone. "You've helped me a lot since I arrived. I can take it from here."

"Good luck, Shepard. Stay safe."

"Your 'mission' is just as dangerous. Watch out, yourself," he countered. "If you need any help, contact me. I'll help you in any way I can."

"I will. Until next time."

Finishing his call, Shepard turned to the nearest officer. "Jacob!"

"What's up? !" he called back.

"We're getting another recruit! You're with me!"

Jacob looked perplexed at the sudden news, but jumped off the crate he was on and jogged up to his commanding officer. "Another?"

"She's going to be waiting for us at the transit hub. I just want to bring an extra gun and another pair of eyes for the meet, that's all."

"I'll get my sidearm." Snapping off a quick salute, Jacob sprinted back into the Normandy.

"Tali," Shepard called into the radio.

"Tali here," she acknowledged.

"Status?"

"If you're asking about the weapons, we're working as fast as we can, but if you're asking about departure, we're almost ready. 20 minutes."

"Alright, good job. Thanks," Shepard replied shortly. He looked around the hangar for his turian friend. He spotted him and Thane nearby. "Garrus! Thane!" he called out and waved them both over.

Both men put down whatever they were doing and jogged up to him. "What's up?" Garrus asked quickly.

"I need you two to buy some 'special' ordinance. Be back in one hour," Shepard requested. He sent the details to them via omni-tool.

Garrus looked down at the list and twitched his mandibles thoughtfully. "This stuff isn't exactly found at the local shopping kiosks."

"Thane, tell me you have contacts that can help," Shepard requested.

"I believe there are several individuals I can speak to that will provide what you seek," Thane assured.

"Garrus, help him."

"On it."

After both aliens left, Jacob came back with his pistol secured. "Ready to go, Shepard."

Nodding in response, he looked around the hangar one last time and spotted Miranda. He was about to call out to her as well when his mind abruptly and acutely recollected their last meeting, only a few scant hours ago. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before regaining control of himself. Forcing himself to remain impassive and professional, he tried calling out again. "Lawson!" Internally, he cringed at how awkward he felt, calling her by her surname.

Miranda turned around and her eyes held an uncertain look, before a cool, neutral expression settled on her features as well. She walked briskly toward him and nodded. "Sir," she greeted neutrally, almost coldly.

He noted that she never called him 'sir', before. She had always called him by his rank or name, but never 'sir' unless it was to answer his questions or acknowledge his orders in a professional capacity.

Jacob looked between the two in confusion, uncomfortable with the sudden change in atmosphere.

"Jacob and I are going to pick up one more recruit. You're in charge. Make sure you get a head count to confirm all crewmen are present and accounted for," Shepard ordered evenly. "We should be back soon."

"Of course, Captain. I'll see to it right away."

"If there any problems, no matter how small, let me know."

"Understood." She nodded curtly and left.

"Let's go, Jacob," Shepard said. He started walking toward the exit.

"Um… right. I mean, right behind you," Jacob answered back uncertainly. He followed in Shepard's footsteps, occasionally glancing back at Miranda before they left the hangar.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Transportation Hub

"Explorer ships have reported seeing vessels of an unknown make, but whose silhouette strongly resembles ancient rachni ship profiles. The few ships sighted have been small scouting vessels that rapidly retreated. The Council has pledged a full investigation."

Shepard hid his smile from Jacob as he quickly made his way past the news terminal and to the arranged meeting.

"So," Jacob started to say before trailing off. He glanced tentatively at Shepard as they rapidly made their way to the transit hub.

"What?" Shepard asked.

"What's the deal with… the new recruit?" Jacob asked.

Shepard turned his head to look at Jacob out of the corner of his eye. He had a sneaking suspicion that he wanted to ask a different question, but decided to let it slide. "Liara put me in contact with her. She's a thief."

"A thief?" Jacob asked incredulously. "We're recruiting a thief?"

They entered the transportation hub. Shepard glanced around to see if there was anything amiss. "Liara vouched for her. I trust her judgment."

"I get that, but are you sure…" Jacob started to ask when he was interrupted by a nearby ad terminal.

"Captain Shepard. Enter the password and receive a free gift!"

"Damn, I hate those stupid things," Jacob griped.

Shepard turned his head and examined the ad terminal. A hooded woman was displayed. Judging from her accent, he placed her as someone with strong Asian roots, maybe even someone with full Japanese ancestry.

With a name like Kasumi, I guess this is her.

"What's up, Shepard?" Jacob asked in confusion.

"Got problems with collectors? Try Kasumi's credit services!"

Shepard turned away from the ad terminal and observed the hub carefully. He couldn't see anyone or anything out of the ordinary. An itching sensation was running down his neck, giving him the feeling that he was being watched.

If we're supposed to meet her here, we probably are.

"Captain Shepard. We have the finest companions waiting for you. Perhaps something petite, smart, and Japanese would be your style?"

Turing back to the terminal, he regarded the image in equal parts annoyance and amusement.

All of this was lost on Jacob, though. "Why are we standing in front of this ad terminal? I mean, she's cute, but aren't we supposed to be finding your thief?"

"Why thank you. You're not so bad yourself."

Jacob jumped back when the image spoke directly to him.

"I always like my men tall, dark, and handsome," the ad flirted teasingly.

"What the hell?" Jacob breathed out and trying to get his heart rate under control.

"For future reference," Shepard said to Jacob and the image. "Ad terminals don't display the same individual to announce different advertisements." He smirked with suppressed humor. "Just something to think about, especially if you're trying to be low-key."

"Hmm…" Kasumi tilted her head. "That's a good point. Guess I'm too clever for my own good."

Shepard shrugged. "It happens. Silence is golden."

"Good to finally meet you, Captain Shepard. Kasumi Goto. I'm a fan," she said. "And who's your friend?"

"Jacob," the Cerberus Operative introduced himself. "Jacob Taylor."

"Nice to meet you too," she replied in a friendly voice.

"Is all this sneaking around really necessary?" Shepard asked with a hint of impatience. "I have a warship to oversee. We need to get going ASAP."

"I'm the best thief in the business, not the most famous," she explained. "Need to watch my step to keep it that way."

"I don't get it," Jacob said.

"You can't arrest what you don't know," Kasumi quipped. "Ego is the most dangerous kind of hubris, followed by greed. Once you're caught, the authorities have a name and face to find you with." She smiled cattily. "Some people are in this business for the fame. Me? I'm in it because I'm attracted to rare, beautiful, and expensive things. Shiny works too."

"Oh," Jacob simply replied. "Heavy risks, but the prize, huh?"

"A man after my own heart," she playfully complimented. "I also needed to make sure all of this is legit. Not that I don't trust Liara, but I like to see things with my own eyes." She nodded decisively at the Spectre. "And I have no doubts now – You're the real Captain Shepard."

"What makes you so sure?" the man in question asked.

"There's a certain… aura about you," she said, trying to put her feelings to words. "Like you've seen things no one else has. Even without knowing what you looked like, I knew it was you."

"I doubt you're seeing my 'aura' though an ad terminal," Shepard said. "Now that you know who I am, why don't we do this face-to-face?"

"Awww," she pouted playfully. "You never know. Maybe I can. Maybe I'm just that good."

Shepard rubbed the back of his neck again to rid himself of his gut instinct. He looked around the station again, but still saw nothing.

"Wow, you're really good. Most people don't even know I was ever there," Kasumi commented as she observed Shepard's agitation.

"I understand that you're ready to join up with me. We're leaving soon. Very soon," he stressed when he turned back to face the ad terminal again. "As in right now."

"So I heard."

Both men whirled around to see Kasumi Goto, in the flesh, standing inches behind them.

"Damn!" Jacob involuntarily shouted.

Kasumi laughed at their expressions. "Sorry about that. I can't help myself sometimes." She placed her hand on her hip as she considered the both of them. "No need for violence. I was just having a bit of fun."

Shepard and Jacob had instinctively reached for their pistols, though they didn't draw them. They released their grip on their weapons and stared at the petite woman.

"Yeah, I can see why you'd want her on the team, Shepard," Jacob said in admiration. "She's pretty good."

"Thank you. You're reaction time was pretty spot on too," she replied approvingly. She turned to Shepard. "Liara called me. Said it was urgent that I meet with you earlier than planned, but if I wanted more information, I'd have to pay her or talk to you. I've taken the liberty of slipping my things aboard your ship."

Shepard crossed his arms. "I'm really curious to know how you managed that."

"Come on, Shep. A girl's got to have some secrets," she said impishly.

"Captain?" Miranda called.

Shepard put his hand to his ear. "Shepard, here. Go ahead."

"There's something you should know. I was taking inventory of our supplies when I noticed a small discrepancy."

"What discrepancy?"

"The shipping manifest says we were expecting to have 9 crates designated as 'explosive', the labels we use to identify munitions, armaments, and the like. I counted 10. The extra crate's shipping label identified it as grenades. I had the crate opened to reveal artwork and a luggage bag. There are some paintings, sculptures, that kind of thing. The bag contained a change of clothes and some weaponry. The shipping label itself was a forgery. A very well-done forgery, I might add."

"Just load it on the Normandy, Lawson. I'll explain it later," Shepard ordered with a significant look at Kasumi.

Jacob raised his eyebrow at the unfamiliar manner Shepard was speaking toward the XO.

"There was also another container shipped to us. This time the shipping manifest corresponds to this shipment, but EDI and none of the crewmen I've questioned made such an order. It was supposed to be shipment of Javelin Disruptor Torpedoes."

"Let me guess: they weren't."

"Believe it or not, it's a large statue of Saren."

"Saren," Shepard deadpanned. He was glowering at the Asian woman now.

"Oops," was all she said in response.

"EDI ran a check on the manifest and confirms that someone hacked their way into Illium Shipping Customs to add this to the manifest and have it sent to us. Orders?"

"Still standing. Load it on the Normandy. I'll explain later." Shepard crossed his arms. "We found your crate and your container. Artwork? A statue of Saren?"

"Busted," she said with a shrug and a smile. "Whoever that was, he must be pretty thorough. Then again, my fault for underestimating the crew of a warship. Usually, I just sneak onto merchant vessels and freighters to get from place to place. Much less security and too much cargo to keep track of that no one notices an extra piece here and there."

"She," Shepard corrected automatically. "The executive officer, Miranda Lawson." Unbidden, his mind remembered the feeling he had when he kissed her. Shutting down that line of thought immediately, he checked the time. "Shall we get going then," he said. It wasn't a question.

Kasumi nodded. "Lead the way," she chirped.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Trading Room Floor, En Route to Normandy SR-2

Shepard walked at a brisk stride, setting the pace on the trip back to the hangar. On the way, Shepard remembered the price for securing Kasumi's services. "Liara told me that you need help with something in return for your assistance. I'm guessing it has something to do with the luggage you tried to smuggle in."

"I'm looking for my old partner's graybox. A man named Donovan Hock took it and I'm planning to get it back."

"You mean steal it back," Jacob translated.

She shrugged. "Same difference."

"Graybox?" Shepard prodded.

"It's a neural implant," she explained. She tapped the side of her head. A holographic visor appeared over her eyes, signifying that she had her own graybox to interface with. "Illegal in most places. Stores memories, thoughts… secret codes, illicit information." She turned off her visor. "This one in particular belonged to my partner, Keiji Okuda. We worked together for a long time, before Hock killed him."

"Revenge? You don't want to kill him, do you?" Jacob asked in concern.

Kasumi shook her head. "Not the way I do things. If I happen to kill him in 'self-defense', that's a different story. For now, I just want Keiji's graybox."

"Sounds like he meant a lot to you," Jacob observed.

"Keiji was the best hacker and entry man I've ever known," she said with pride before frowning. "Unfortunately, he slipped up and made himself infamous."

"Name and a face," Shepard parroted.

"Yeah. He slipped up and stole something he shouldn't."

"What did he steal?" Jacob asked.

"I don't know. He warned me it was bad, something that could spark interstellar war if it got out." She bowed her head. "That information… got him killed."

"I'm sorry about your partner," Jacob offered sympathetically.

"Thanks," Kasumi replied with a smile, obviously trying to stay upbeat.

"Do you know what he found?" Shepard asked.

"He wouldn't say what it was, just that it was dangerous. He said if it got out, humanity would be in trouble," she answered ominously.

Both Shepard and Jacob glanced at each other, each wondering what kind of information could do something like that.

"He encrypted it, wrapped it up in his own memories," Kasumi continued. "To decode the information, you have to sift through all the time we spent together. Now all those memories are all that's left of him."

"I can see why you'd want it back," Jacob commented.

"Getting it back will be easier with help," she added. "That's where you come in, Shep."

"Fine," Shepard agreed. "Tell me about the heist."

Kasumi surreptitiously looked around. Despite being in the dead of night, people were still out and about and enjoying themselves to whatever pleasures Illium offered. "Not here. You'll get a briefing when the time comes. I need time to nail down the details, anyway."

"Fine. Just try not to make it last minute," he said. "What can tell me about Donovan Hock?"

"Mr. Hock is a well-respected 'businessman'," she said evenly. Both men could easily hear the distaste in her voice though. "Arms dealer, murderer, generally not a great guy."

"We know the type," Jacob stated.

"His mansion's famous for being hard to crack," she continued. "But I have a way in and I think you're going to love it."

"Now I got bad feeling about this," Shepard said semi-seriously.

"And I thought it was just me," Jacob added.

"I doubt Hock's the kind of guy who takes kindly to people sneaking into his house," Shepard deduced.

"I always expect trouble. That's why you're here," Kasumi remarked.

"In my experience, I think you're guaranteed trouble now that Shepard's on the job," Jacob observed.

"Funny man," Shepard replied sarcastically.

"Oh yes, are you busy in two weeks?" Kasumi suddenly blurted out. "That's when our window of opportunity presents itself."

"I have no idea," Shepard admitted. "We'll see though."

"Try to free up your schedule of saving the galaxy, then," she said. "I should let you know, I've taken the liberty of getting you some evening wear. You'll want to look presentable."

"My bad feeling just got worse," Shepard muttered. "Undercover in a party?"

"Oh, come on!" she protested cutely. Her eyes glinted with undisguised glee, though. "It'll be fun! I made sure it was tailored to your size!"

Nearing the hangar, Shepard whipped his head to gape at the feisty thief. "How the hell could you get information like that?"

"You're famous, Shep. You'd be surprised what kind of information you can find on the extranet now. Especially if you know where to look."

Jacob started laughing at his CO's expression.

Shepard tried to ignore Jacob's mirth and remained focused on the subject at hand to avoid any more potential embarrassment. "So, just to be clear, we're just stealing this graybox? We're not trying to go after Hock or anything?"

"I'm not adverse to the idea of something bad happening to the man, but he's the type to have a small army on hand. Fighting him would be a bit unwise unless you're offering to bring in your entire squad to help me storm the place."

"Another time."

"Pity," she said with a shrug. "Don't worry. If we're lucky, you won't even have to draw your gun."

They entered the hangar to see it much emptier now that they were prepared to leave. The assembled team was standing around Miranda and was asking her questions about the sudden recall. She was trying to placate them when she spotted the trio and waved them over. Nearby, Garrus and Thane had arrived in a truck and were directing the unloading of several more crates. Several Cerberus workers were still outside of the Normandy putting on the final touches and completing their business on Illium. All of the crewmen, except the ones helping Garrus and Thane, were on board and at their stations.

"Preparations are almost complete. All crewmen are accounted for except Joker," she reported.

Shepard furrowed his brow. "Where is he?"

"Over here!"

Everyone turned to see Joker hobbling as fast as he dared toward them. Following behind him at a more sedate pace was a well-dressed purple-skinned asari.

"You're cutting it close, Joker," Shepard reprimanded.

"Yeah, I know. Sorry," Joker panted. "You won't believe how hard it is to get a damn taxi!" He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "This asari, Siris, was nice enough to give me a lift though."

"Right," Shepard said with a grateful nod to the asari. She appeared calm and placid with the events around her and nodded back silently. He gestured to the bubbly thief at his side. "This is Kasumi Goto, newest member of our team."

"Pleasure," she greeted.

"I was unaware of another recruit," Miranda said.

"Last second addition. Liara put me in touch with her. She's a professional thief."

"A thief?" Garrus asked skeptically.

"She has the Thane's skills and Tali's knowledge," Jacob explained. "She's sneaky, knows her tech, and can get the drop on people to take them out."

Garrus considered his words before nodding. "That works."

"Lawson, be sure to give her a copy of Cerberus' findings on the Collectors," Shepard ordered.

"Of course, Captain." Miranda engaged her omni-tool and sent the information to Kasumi.

The squad, even Kasumi, looked at Shepard and Miranda in confusion or in interest. It was easily apparent that something was between them, an invisible barrier of some sort that forced them out of sync. Their attitudes were strictly professional, even distant, than to what it had been before, though it was a bit forced and artificial.

Kasumi looked between the Captain and XO for a few seconds longer before smirking. "If you don't mind, I think I'll settle in at the Observation Room on the portside. It's on Deck 3, right?"

Shepard blinked. "How did you know the layout of the Normandy?"

"I was in here earlier. Just checking the place out, you know?"

"Wait, you were here and we didn't detect you?" Jacob asked in astonishment.

"Like I said, I'm the best," she stated confidently. She grinned at Shepard. "By the way, nice room. Love the aquarium. The tiny model ships are cute too."

Joker shook his head. "Okay. I like her, but why do I feel like I need to check Illium or even the Citadel for parts she may have pawned?"

The asari suddenly cleared her throat, getting everyone's attention. "My apologies for intruding, but I had an ulterior motive for coming here."

"What? Really?" Joker asked in shock before huffing. "I knew getting a free ride was too good to be true."

"My apologies, Mr. Moreau. I came here because I wished to speak to your friend. Since you were in a rush to return, I thought it would be to our mutual benefit to travel together."

The Spectre crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. "How did you two meet?"

Joker stopped muttering to himself to answer. "Outside the hotel. With the crew leaving in exodus, all the taxis were gone. She offered to give me a ride, free of charge."

Shepard shook his head.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Mom always said never to take rides from strangers, but your message said we were leaving and I was getting a bit desperate," he said defensively.

"We're in something of a hurry here, so whatever you wanted to talk about, you need to make it quick," Shepard said to the asari.

The asari bowed respectfully. "My name is Siris," she said. Her smile matched Samara's in tranquility as she studied the Spectre. "Even if I didn't know who you are, I could tell, just by your aura alone. I'd recognize you anywhere, Agent Shepard."

"See? I told you," Kasumi said triumphantly.

Shepard scoffed to himself. "What is it about my 'aura' today?"

"Maybe you should've checked your horoscope," Joker suggested.

"I was asked to give you a message if I saw you. It's from a friend you made on Noveria."

Garrus, Tali, and Shepard perked up at that. "I've met a lot of people on Noveria. Could you be more specific?" Shepard asked.

She smiled mysteriously. "I believe the message itself should make it clear." She closed her eyes and took deep breath. When her eyes opened, they were rolled up to the back of her head. Her entire demeanor was stiff and jerky.

The last time Shepard saw this on Noveria, the body of a dying Asari Commando had been possessed by the rachni queen. He took an involuntary step back.

Siris began speaking in a raspy voice, exactly like the possessed asari back on Noveria. "Shepard. We hide. We burrow. We build. But we know that you seek those who soured the songs of our mothers. When the time comes, our voice will join with yours, and our crescendo will burn the darkness clean. Thank you, Shepard. The rachni will sing again, because of you."

There was a moment of silence as everyone processed what the asari said before they burst out with questions.

"You know about the rachni?" Garrus asked.

"Did you see her?" Tali added. "Is she still on Noveria?"

"I thought the krogan clans killed them all," Grunt said.

"Impossible. Rachni extinct. Message must be incorrect or falsified," Mordin dismissed. He whirled on Tali and Garrus when he picked up their questions. "You saw rachni? When? How?"

Shepard let out a shrill whistle to restore order while Siris blinked and seemingly returned to her senses. "Okay, everyone calm down!" He turned to face Siris. "You okay? This is you, isn't it?"

"Yes. The rachni queen does not control my thoughts. That was merely the message I was asked to deliver."

"I recall the report you gave to the Council," Miranda said thoughtfully. "They weren't happy that you released the rachni, though I suppose that they would be equally displeased if you chose to complete the rachni genocide as well."

"Politics," Jacob grumbled. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." Garrus snickered a bit in agreement.

"All traces of the rachni vanished from Noveria shortly after that incident. How did you find them?" Miranda asked interestedly.

"I encountered her on an uncharted world," Siris answered. "She saved my life. More than that, she gave me purpose." She smiled again, wistfully. "They are an amazing people, Shepard. The galaxy owes you a great debt for giving them a second chance."

"I'm just as interested to know how you found them," Shepard asked. He resisted the urge to glance at Miranda. "Some details, please?"

"I was working as a courier. Pirates ambushed my ship and I was forced down on an uncharted planet," she explained. "I was badly injured and near death… then they found me. The saved me."

"You obviously got off-world again. Did the rachni give you a ship?"

"No, countless workers repaired my ship. It runs better now than it did before." She looked thoughtful. "They remind me of the keepers on the Citadel, in a way. All working together, each with a purpose."

"I'm sorry," Miranda interrupted with raised hands. "Did you say 'countless'?"

"They are growing in numbers again, but are content to keep to themselves." She shook her head. "If you're wondering where they are, I cannot help you. I don't have the information any longer." She pressed her hand to her head in remembrance. Or lack thereof. "After I met the rachni queen, that information was… removed. It's not painful, but I simply don't remember." She smiled gently. "I'll remember when I need to. And her caution is understandable. The galaxy isn't yet ready for the return of the rachni."

"What happened to the pirates who attacked you?" Samara asked intently.

"They were obliterated, Justicar. As they should have been," Siris answered without remorse. "The rachni are not aggressive, but they do what they must."

"You said the queen gave you a purpose. What do you mean?" Shepard asked. "You're working with her now?"

"The queen shared her song with me as I recovered. I saw the rachni as only an asari could. They are so beautiful… and so vulnerable."

"Fascinating," Mordin whispered in scientific reverence. He looked like he was conflicted between all the new knowledge he'd learned in the last few hours. "First Thorian, now rachni. Extraordinary. Incredible. Phenomenal. Truly exciting."

"Definitely not the impression I had when we fought either of them," Garrus whispered to Tali. She silently nodded in agreement.

"They needed someone to purchase things they cannot make themselves. Someone to work within the system. An agent, if you will," Siris continued. "I am happy to help. My life as a courier was empty and shallow. Now I'm helping a great race rebuild itself."

"You're really comfortable walking away from your old life?" Shepard asked carefully.

"You're concerned that the queen is controlling me," she astutely deduced.

Shepard shrugged, but didn't refute the claim.

"I understand, but it doesn't work like that," she explained patiently. "Our minds were in perfect harmony. I saw their beautiful spirit and their need. I knew what I had to do. If some part of that is suggestion, then it was a side-effect from their efforts to save my life. I am happy."

"Okay…" Shepard said uncertainly. "I got that she was grateful. What else was her message saying?"

"That the first Rachni War was a mistake. Something soured the voices of her people," she tried to explain. "In rachni psychology, that would be like mind control, I think. It doesn't really translate. Anyway, she believes you are fighting the ones that did that. And she promises to help."

"Mind control, huh?" Shepard muttered to himself.

"You're thinking it's the Reapers that caused the Rachni War?" Garrus asked.

"Yeah," Shepard distractedly said. His mind buzzed at the possibilities and scenarios.

"That's… surprisingly good news," Tali said. "I meant the part with the rachni helping us," she hastily added.

"The queen didn't mention the Reapers specifically?" Shepard asked.

Siris shrugged. "I can't say for sure. But she was certain that her ancestors were forced into war against their will. Her people aren't naturally aggressive. If they made war, it was not of their own doing."

Shepard nodded and checked the time. "Thank you for delivering that message. I'm glad she's doing well."

"Be well, Agent Shepard," Siris said. She bowed respectfully again. "You will not see me again."

"We'll see," Shepard replied. After she left, he turned to his squad and issued his orders before they could speak. "We're leaving. Finish up here and board the Normandy. Report to the Briefing Room. Joker, get to the helm. We need to hurry."

They all complied with his directions and quickly entered the frigate, though Mordin looked reluctant. He looked like he was on the verge of firing off dozens of questions within a minute.

Half an hour later, the Normandy finally took to the sky and eventually flew into the vast empty space beyond Illium.

-oOo-

Location: Normandy SR-2, En Route to Hades Nexus Cluster, Pamyat System

"Coordinates punched in. ETA: Two days, five hours. Let's go find us a Collector ship," Joker said from the cockpit.

Nodding in satisfaction, Shepard stepped away from the galaxy map and toward the Briefing Room where his squad was waiting. Once there, he strode up to the head of the table and sat down. "Listen up. Cerberus has found a disabled Collector ship."

A round of surprised mutterings filled the room as everyone assimilated that bombshell.

Shepard raised his hands for silence. "Evidently, a turian patrol managed to do it, before they were wiped out."

"Wait," Garrus interrupted. "You said a turian patrol stopped a Collector ship?"

"It gets better," Shepard said. "The hull is supposed to be intact as well."

"This is a trap," Garrus replied instantly.

"Probably," Shepard agreed whole-heartedly.

"Whoa! Hold on!" Jack called out. "If this is a trap, what are we doing? We're not going, are we?"

"We have to," Miranda said. "We don't know enough about the Collectors. If we can access their ship, we might find out everything we need to know on how to fight them."

"Fuck you. This won't help us if we get ourselves killed," Jack argued.

"We have no choice. We can't just keep flying around forever. If we have to take this fight to them, we need something to go on," Miranda countered hotly.

"Enough!" Shepard ordered, raising his voice above the din. "We're doing this, trap or no," he resolutely stated with a look that brooked no argument. "Either they know we need information or they're simply presenting a target of opportunity, doesn't matter." He looked around the room to ensure he had everyone's undivided attention. "That ship might have everything we need, so we can't ignore this. Our mission: Infiltrate the Collector vessel, locate the bridge or whatever they store their databases and establish an uplink with EDI so she can get the data we want or need. And then, escape."

"Oh, good. And here, I was worried things were going to be complicated," Kasumi commented with a touch of humor.

"Just board their ship, steal their data, and run," Garrus summed up.

"No way it's going to be that fucking easy," Jack said.

Shepard shrugged. "You said you were a pirate once, so this should be easy for you."

"Fuck you too," Jack retorted. She didn't argue further, however.

"Is this wise?" Thane asked. "I understand that the Normandy's weapons are currently not functioning. Should the Collectors attack, we would be almost defenseless."

"I'll get to that in a moment. Time to go over the details then," Shepard said when everyone quieted down. "Because this is trap, I won't risk the entire squad to fetch the data. I'm taking our heaviest hitters in. Hopefully, we'll blow through whatever the Collectors have in store for us with sheer brute force." He started pointing at the chosen few. "Garrus, Grunt, Jack, and Samara. You're with me."

Garrus and Samara nodded seriously while Grunt grinned maniacally, obviously eager for some action. Jack pretended to look disinterested, though her lips curled into a slight frown. She maintained her silence, though.

Tapping on his omni-tool, Shepard accessed the hologram in the center of the table to display a metal cylindrical canister. The hologram played out, showing the canister opening to reveal a blue painted metal dodecahedron suspended within. Half of the pentagonal faces had metal rods extending away from the polyhedron.

Only some of the squad members recognized it for what it was. "A DX-57 Tactical Bomb," Miranda said with shock. "When did we get this?"

"Just now," Shepard informed. "I had Garrus and Thane make a last second run."

"What the hell is that thing?" Jack asked.

"A DX-57 bomb is a very powerful conventional explosive. It produces a blast radius over 300 meters," Miranda explained in a lecturing voice. "The advantage of a DX-57 is that it's small and portable. It's a little over a meter in length, though it weighs 70 kilos."

"Exactly," Shepard said, regaining everyone's attention. "We all know that the Normandy's weapons are offline. Not that I'm blaming you or your team, Tali," he hurriedly said to the quarian engineer. "It's something we can't help. To that end, once we retrieve the data, we're going to use one of the DX-57's and scuttle the ship."

Grunt laughed in glee. "We're going to shoot our way in and blow our way out! This is getting good!"

"Pretty excessive," Tali commented nervously.

Shepard shrugged. "We have no choice. The trap is more than just luring us in. The Normandy will be in range of the enemy ship's weapons as well. Without weapons, she'll be unable to fight back." He smiled in morbid humor. "And I really think that getting shot at is a poor way to test our new armor."

No one had any real argument against his logic and remained silent.

Miranda cleared her throat. "And the rest of us? We're to be on standby?"

"You're not that lucky," Shepard said seriously. "My team will establish the uplink. We're not failing in that regard, but there's a real chance that we'll be unable to arm the DX-57." He looked over at the remaining squad members. "To that end, Garrus and Thane have also secured demolition charges. If this ship is like the one on Horizon, I doubt demo charges will destroy a vessel that big. I'll settle for crippling it. At the very least, that'll give the Normandy a chance to escape."

"That's where we come in," Miranda guessed.

"My team will be going deep inside the ship," Shepard explained. He nodded at Miranda. "You'll be leading the rest of the squad to other critical areas to set the charges. Mostly likely they'll send smaller squads to fight you while the bulk of their forces engage us."

"Either destroy the ship or cripple it," Mordin simplified.

"Whatever comes first," Shepard affirmed.

"Shouldn't be too hard," Jacob mused.

"It gets worse," Shepard countered.

"How much worse can we be talking here?" Jack complained.

"The Collectors have proven that they can jam our communications. There's a chance they can stop remote detonation as well."

"Which means that planting all these bombs will be useless," Garrus said in confusion.

"Unless they're set on a timer," Shepard corrected. "The moment the mission begins, the moment we leave the Normandy, all explosives are on a two-hour countdown."

"Just two hours?" Thane asked.

Shepard nodded. "If we're still on the Collector ship by then, something has gone horribly, horribly, wrong."

Everyone shuffled in their seats.

"There are the stakes. Does anyone have any questions?"

"When will the guns be up?" Jacob asked.

Tali shook her head. "Some of the components require my staff and I to go into the maintenance shafts replace the nessessary components. A week at the earliest, but realistically, I'm expecting the upgrades to be done in two."

"We don't know how long the Collector ship will be there. For all we know, we might not get there in time and the ship will be gone. That's why we're doing this now," Shepard explained. "We need this data."

No one spoke up.

"All right, dismissed. Get some sleep," Shepard ordered. As everyone filed out of the room, he laid on hand on Miranda's hand before she could get up and leave. Both of them nearly flinched at the contact. "I need a word. Go over a few details," he said. It was only half of the truth.

Miranda nodded stiffly and sat back down. A few people straggled at the doorway, namely Garrus, Jacob, Tali, and Kasumi. Shepard's stare got them moving again.

After everyone left and the door closed, Shepard rubbed his eyes tiredly and fidgeted in agitation. Miranda barely looked any better. "We should talk," he invited.

"Yes, I think we should," she readily agreed.

After that announcement, they lapsed into silence. Both were reluctant to start first. They shot furtive glances at each other when they weren't avoiding eye contact.

Miranda broke the stalemate first. "About what happened earlier tonight…"

"Yeah. That was… um…" He forced himself to look back up to meet her eyes.

She flushed a bit. "Yes. That was…" she trailed off.

Shepard swallowed the lump in throat and nodded. He could think several words to describe their kiss. Part of him thought it was electrifying, exciting, exhilarating. Another part of him was much more self-recriminating when his thoughts turned to Ashley: He was a jerk, an asshole, a bastard. "We should probably talk about it later?" he suggested. "After we clear our heads?"

"Good idea. We have a mission. We can't afford to be distracted."

"Okay." He took a deep breath. "Look, are we alright? I can get past this if you're willing to."

"We're fine," she assured. "After the mission, we'll sit down and talk about this like rational adults."

"Okay," Shepard repeated. He chuckled a bit when some of the awkwardness between them vanished. "Glad we cleared that up."

Miranda smiled in response. "It was just… unexpected, that's all."

"'Unexpected', you say." He shook his head. "I'm not sure that's how I would describe it, but I'm glad we're able or… going to be able to work through it. I don't think we were very discreet about our dilemma."

She nodded in agreement. "I just hope the rest of the crew doesn't catch wind of this. The last thing we need are rumors spreading through the ship."

"Right. So…" he trailed off, unsure where to go next.

"Down to business, Shepard."

"Business is good. I can talk business," Shepard agreed before hesitating for a heartbeat. "Miranda," he finished. Using her given name felt comfortable again, familiar, though he had to mind his thoughts before they started travelling down avenues that were too familiar. "You said that Cerberus is aware that the Collectors use only one kind of ship to go through the Omega-4 relay? That cruiser?"

"Yes. Whether or not it's the same ship we encountered on Horizon is something we don't know, however."

"Same ship or not, they're still similar, right? So let's pull up the scans from the one on Horizon and find out where the data cache might be and where are the best places to plant the demo charges."

She nodded approvingly. "Good idea."

The hologram at the center of the table changed to the scans of the Collector cruiser from Horizon.

Miranda started pointing out her observations while Shepard studied the image intently. "I think there's an entry point we can use here…"

-oOo-

An hour later, Shepard entered the Armory completely exhausted. With two days of hard travelling ahead of them, sleep beckoned. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Jacob, Garrus, Tali, and surprisingly, Kasumi were huddled around and talking. They stopped immediately when he appeared. "Something wrong?"

"No," Tali said quickly. "Just talking."

"Is there something going on between you and Miranda?" Kasumi boldly asked. "I may be new, but I thought I sensed something going on." She pointed at others. "They wanted to know what was going on too."

"No we don't!" Jacob denied immediately.

"There's nothing wrong," Shepard answered quickly before Garrus and Tail could voice their protests. "I don't know what you could be talking about."

Kasumi shrugged. "I just thought I felt a weird vibe."

Shepard turned around at the sound of footsteps behind him. "Miranda? Is there something wrong?"

She raised an elegant eyebrow at the question and glanced at the other occupants in the Armory. "No. Nothing that I can recall."

"You see?" Shepard said. "Just your imaginations."

Miranda sighed. "Really, don't any of you have anything better to do than gossip?" she criticized before heading toward the CIC and presumably, her office. "Good night," she called out.

"Night," Shepard echoed. He turned to the others and chuckled at their bewildered expressions. "Get some sleep. We're gonna need to be well rested." With that said, he left for his cabin.

-oOo-

Despite his exhaustion, sleep eluded Shepard. After only a few hours, he rolled out of his comfortable bed and proceeded to get ready for the day. With the knowledge that he and the others were about to encounter the Collectors again soon, he grabbed a quick breakfast and made his way to the Armory to run maintenance checks on his weaponry. He was a bit surprised to see that he wasn't the only member of his squad that was still awake.

"You're a light sleeper," Shepard commented as a greeting. He walked over to his locker and started gathering his weapons.

Garrus didn't say anything. He continued running diagnostics on his sniper rifle.

"Something bothering you?" Shepard asked with concern.

"I… I didn't sleep," Garrus answered shortly, before remembering who he was talking to. "Well," he added hastily.

Sighing, Shepard placed his armaments on the table across from his friend. "Sidonis? Or your team?"

He didn't answer, though he started punching the terminal keys a little harder than necessary.

Shepard felt like kicking himself. Or better yet, picking up one his guns and shooting himself. He was so preoccupied with the mission that he hadn't given enough consideration to how Garrus was holding himself up. The fact that he didn't complain and continued his duties despite the events on Omega was a testimony to his strength and their friendship. To have survived and fought as well as he did on Omega meant that he had to have been close to the other members of his mercenary squad. In an environment like that, trust was everything. Now he was forced to turn his back on them to help Shepard. In the human's eyes, it was a lot to ask for. Almost too much. "Have you slept at all?"

"A little. Mission is on my mind right now. You didn't get too much sleep either, it seems," Garrus tried to deflect.

He was dissuaded though. "Since you joined me?"

"I'm fine, Shepard."

"You didn't answer my question."

Garrus made a sound of annoyance and impatience and turned away from his work. "You were always a persistent bastard."

"Maybe that's why I'm still alive," Shepard grinned, trying to lighten the mood. "Now, how much do you sleep?"

"Chakwas gives me something to help me sleep. I don't use it when we're about to go on missions, though," he confessed. He rubbed his face tiredly, haggardly. "I keep seeing their faces. All of them. Even Sidonis."

There wasn't anything Shepard could say. He just there and listened, hoping that it would be enough.

Garrus picked up on his reticence, though he interpreted it incorrectly. "You're not going to tell me that I shouldn't kill Sidonis." It sounded like a cross between a question and a demand.

"For now, let's focus on this mission. Getting the data is one thing, but finding something useful is another. We'll have some time while we sort out the relevant intel." Shepard licked his lips before speaking again. "There's nothing redeeming about killing a man in cold blood," he eventually said. "That's my opinion though. This was your squad. I don't have the right to stop you, but…"

"But what?" Garrus nearly growled, but kept his temper in check.

"I don't want anything happening you."

"I'll live with the consequences."

"That's the problem," Shepard pointed out. "I'm not sure I want you to."

Both men lapsed into silence. They simply preoccupied themselves with their preparations.

-oOo-

Finishing his work with his weapons, Shepard left the Armory. He still felt guilty over his inability to see how much Garrus was sacrificing to help him and resolved to do what he could to help when time allowed.

He spent the much of the day in the Briefing Room with Miranda. They poured over every bit of intel Cerberus, the Alliance, or the STG intel Mordin provided on the Collector cruiser. Entry points, extractions, structural weakness, and timing were considered. They called on other members of the squad to assist occasionally. Jacob, Garrus, Kasumi and Thane walked in and out of the Briefing Room to lend their expertise and then go about their own preparations. Shepard and Miranda had stayed put and continued to plan out their respective missions, even eating lunch together. They were more comfortable with each other's presence, but something still lingered in the background. Their 'relationship' for lack of a better term was unclear, but they were functioning together again.

Near evening, Shepard stretched and yawned. He took to walking around the frigate, greeting any off or on duty crewmen. Kelly praised his ability to persuade Samara to join the team. "There is nothing more absolute than the oath of an asari justicar." She explained that she had met with Samara earlier in the day and learned a great deal about the monastic and little known group. Taking a cue from the friendly redhead, Shepard decided to finally speak with the justicar.

He stopped at the starboard Observation Room with the intent to get to know Samara. Upon entering though, he saw that Jacob had beaten him to the punch. He was sitting cross legged directly across from Samara on the floor. His eyes were closed, but blue haze had engulfed his entire body. He continued breathing evenly, appearing unaware of Shepard's presence.

Samara herself was facing Jacob and the open window. It showed a kaleidoscope of colors and energies visible in FTL speeds. She was sitting cross legged at well, but seemed much more comfortable than Jacob. She had her arms slightly held out in front of her and a small orb of dark energy was suspended right in between the palms of her hands. Wisps of the energy not a part of the core of the sphere were orbiting her creation. Despite having her back to him, she called out his name when he entered. "Shepard."

"Am I interrupting?" Shepard asked as he stepped deeper into the room. He saw that Samara's eyes were glowing again, exactly like how they were when she swore her oath to him.

"No. In fact, I do believe we should finish for now. You've made remarkable progress, Jacob," she praised.

Jacob took a deep breath and relaxed. The Barrier he created faded away. He groaned as he stood up, unused to sitting in that position for long periods of time. "Thanks for the help. I can't believe I missed something so obvious."

"It is obvious to the asari," Samara amended gently. "You were on the right track, however. I am glad that I was able to assist you."

"Yeah, well, Ascension never taught us to sit on the floor while we practiced. Maybe I should recommend it," he joked. "All kidding aside, you're a great teacher. I learned a lot."

Samara smiled. "You're quite welcome."

"Captain," Jacob greeted before leaving. He was shaking his legs as he walked, trying to regain feeling in them again.

"That was nice of you," Shepard commended. "He's been trying to figure out Barrier ever since I met him."

"He is an earnest young man. Events will either forge him into a great one or destroy him," she replied.

"I was wondering if we could talk a bit."

"I have spent much of the last 400 years on my own; it is nice to have so many colleagues to chat with," she said. Her entire body glowed gently as the orb she held faded away. She turned her head to smile at the Spectre.

"Long time," Shepard commented. "For a human anyway."

"Indeed. It is a significant amount of time for an asari as well," she agreed. "Forgive me. I may be a bit rusty, but if you are patient, I would love to talk."

Shepard sat down at the spot Jacob just vacated and settled himself in the same position Samara was sitting. "I understand you spoke to some of the crewmen. So what do you think of Cerberus so far?"

"I've yet to form an opinion just yet," she calmly replied. "I've only heard rumors, but learned long ago to form my own impressions. There is too much room for interpretation in the opinions of others."

Shepard frowned. "If you didn't have first-hand knowledge, why are you so willing to work for them?"

"I work for you, Shepard," she corrected. "Our methods may be different, but our goals are not."

"Is there anything you want to ask me about our mission?"

"I have sworn an oath to follow you, and you seek to destroy the Collectors. That is enough for me."

"You don't want to know why the Collectors need to be fought?" Shepard asked.

She bowed her head. "When you live by a code that compels you to harsh action, you learn the dangers of curiosity." She turned her head to see Shepard staring intently at her. "If I must kill a man because he has done wrong, do I really wish to know that he is a devoted father?"

"Ignorance is bliss," he muttered to himself.

"I have heard that saying before," she said. "It carries more wisdom than you think."

"I guess I'm just too curious for my own good then," Shepard admitted. He regarded the aloof woman in front of him. "Can I ask about the criminal you were chasing on Nos Astra?"

Her normally confident and serene eyes held a hint of sadness when he asked. "I hope you will understand if I wish to avoid this topic. It is deeply tied to my Code and beliefs." She stared at him with ancient eyes. "You might say it is personal."

"Will it impact the mission, then?" Shepard carefully asked, not wanting to offend her.

She considered the question carefully. "It will not."

Nodding, he prepared to leave when he hesitated. Sighing to himself, he decided to disclose what he heard from Elnora. "I questioned one of the Eclipse in the base when I was trying to find the name of the ship you were looking for."

Samara regarded him with an unreadable look.

"She mentioned an Ardat-Yakshi. 'Demon of the Night Winds'. All of the mercs seemed to be afraid of her." He blinked and tried to rid himself of the uncomfortable feeling he had as Samara continued staring with unblinking eyes. "I thought I should let you know that I know that much."

"Thank you for telling me," was all she said.

"I should get back to work, then." Standing up and stretching a bit, he watched as Samara briefly glowed with dark energy before her eyes changed and the orb appeared again.

"It has been my pleasure, Captain."

-oOo-

With less than a few hours left until they reached their destination, the entire crew was on edge. Word had passed quickly that they were about to engage to Collectors once again. Except the Normandy wasn't prepared. With the weapons offline, they couldn't shoot the ship and destroy it, even if they wanted to. If the Collectors attack, the only choice would be to run, something that didn't settle well with anyone. Instead, the plan was a daring infiltration to steal some data and then set bombs within. A slim chance of success, but such was the task they were given. Longer shifts and shorter sleeping hours became common. Those that couldn't sleep either hit the gym in the hangar or took to talking in low voices in the Common Area, speaking about anything and everything.

The Engine Room had to be sealed off. Off-duty crewmen would walk by the doors or pop in and ask how the weapons were coming along as casually as they could. Tali had reached the limit of her patience and shouted down an unfortunate and cowering Matthews before closing and locking the doors in his face, threatening to unleash Jack on anyone else 'inspecting' her progress.

Mustering his courage, Shepard used his authority to unlock the doors and entered the Engine Room quietly. Inside, Tali wasn't at her usual station, though Ken and Gabby were. He presumed that Tali was personally replacing the necessary parts to upgrade the conduits somewhere within the maintenance shafts.

"Alright, that should do it," Gabby said with relief.

"What's wrong?" Ken grumbled. "The Boss is already running us down. What other things needed work?"

"The new armor reinforcements really threw off the gravimetric profiles. But the engines are good to go. I rebalanced the Gilbourne coefficients and adjusted the anterior intakes on the second tier stabilizers," she explained. Much of the information went right over Shepard's head.

"I love it when you talk dirty," Ken said teasingly.

Gabby rolled her eyes and didn't bother dignifying him with a retort.

Ken's head snapped up when he thought of something. "Gabby, you'd say the Normandy is a she, not a he, right?"

"Of course. The Normandy's the sweetest girl there is," she agreed.

Shepard crossed his arms from the shadows and continued eavesdropping. He heard Tali walk up right beside him and mimic his actions.

"And EDI's a she. Tali's definitely a she," Ken continued.

Gabby sighed impatiently. "What are you getting at, Kenneth?"

Ken grinned lecherously. "I'm just saying I'm feeling a wee bit threatened here. A lot of female energy and I'm just one man, locked in this room."

"You're such a dick," Gabby snapped back.

He pointed a finger at her. "See! Look where your mind went! I've got to watch out for myself."

"That much is true," Tali said, revealing both her and Shepard's presence.

Ken leapt up in surprise and turned around. "Boss! Captain! Um…"

"I don't want to know. I really, really, don't want to know." She brushed past them and marched to her station. "Run the diagnostics and tell me where we're at."

"Aye, aye, ma'am!" He started typing rapidly at his terminal.

"If you're here about the weapons, I think the GARDIAN Lasers will be back online in a few hours," Tali said to Shepard irritably. "Though tomorrow seems more likely."

"I'm checking on my crew, not the weapons," he informed patiently. "We already have a plan and we're committed to it."

Tali sighed. "Sorry. I'm just a bit on edge, that's all."

"So I heard. I heard Matthews is afraid you now."

She giggled a bit as she remembered Matthews' expression.

"I'm so glad you're proud of yourself," Shepard teased.

"I'm fine. Just a lot of work, right now," she assured.

"Alright. Just be sure to get some rest too, okay?"

"Of course."

-oOo-

Returning to the Common Area, Shepard retrieved his dinner from Mess Sergeant Gardner. He turned to the tables and saw Thane sitting alone at the corner with his back to the wall, his eyes sweeping the room constantly.

"Evening, Thane," Shepard greeted. He sat across from the drell and began eating.

"Good evening," he cordially returned.

They ate in silence for a while. Shepard observed the room to note that the crew that was present was unusually subdued.

Every minute they approached their destination was every minute everyone became more and more quiet. Instead, they focused on their duties with intense commitment. Unlike Horizon, the Normandy herself would be placed in jeopardy and with it, the crew. They all prepared themselves for whatever might happen as they've been trained.

After another minute, Shepard returned his attention to the man in front of him. "If you don't mind me saying, you're not like other assassins I've fought," he commented quietly.

Thane had ghost of a smile. "So I've been told."

"You seem more like a monk," he continued.

"In my experience, those who are truly dangerous don't act like they are. The hanar trained my body for this role since I was six years old."

"Wait, you've been killing since you were six?" Shepard asked incredulously.

"Of course not," Thane said. "I didn't make my first kill until I was 12. They were training me. I was not to be used and thrown away. I was an investment."

Shepard frowned. "I think our definition of 'investment' differs here."

"Perhaps I'm giving you the wrong idea," he amended. "They valued me. Yes, as a resource. But also as a person." He bowed his head. "They… regretted their need for me."

Nodding in acceptance, Shepard continued to frown, though this time in confusion. "I'm a little surprised that the hanar would train you to be an assassin. I mean, they're excessively polite, almost single-mindedly worship the Protheans…"

Thane shrugged. "Every species trains assassins. The hanar are only unusual in that they need other species to do the killing for them." He paused to consume some of his dinner. "They have a strong grip and natural toxins. But have you ever seen one move quickly outside of water or fire a gun?"

"The drell live on the hanar homeworld, don't they?"

"Yes. I know many think the hanar difficult to understand. It's just that they're very formal with those they don't know." He smiled in remembrance. "We know them quite well. If you ever get close enough to a hanar that they'll tell you their Soul Name, you would find them warm."

"I thought hanar talk using bioluminescence. That's more of an obstacle than their politeness," Shepard pointed out.

"True." He tapped the side of his head. "Many drell have had their eyes genetically modified to perceive their higher frequency flashes."

"Did you?"

"Yes. I can't tell the difference between a dark red and black, but I can see ultraviolet light as a silver color."

"Huh," was all Shepard could say. "And Soul Names? I imagine that if the hanar were willing to train you to be an assassin, you would be close to some of them."

"You would be correct. Most of my commissions were for the hanar. I grew close to my regular contacts."

He and Shepard finished their dinners. Picking up their trays and dropping it off with Rupert, they walked toward the Life Support Plant.

"Soul Names tend to be poetic," he continued. "A hanar known for its cynicism might take a name that means "Illuminates the Folly of the Dancers."

"Long name."

"For those that speak aloud using sounds, yes, but it is quite normal for the hanar given their preferred method of speech."

Both men sat down at the table provided for Thane. "The hanar used your talents frequently?" Shepard asked.

He nodded. "You might say that I am their military might. If pirates or slavers attacked any hanar colonies, I am contracted with finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice."

"I suppose that makes sense," Shepard said. "But you were six when you were trained. Why did your parents agree to that?"

"The agreement was made under the Compact. It was an honor for our family."

"The Compact?"

"We live on the hanar homeworld because they rescued us," he started to say before bowing to head. "Some of us – from extinction. We owe them our lives. That is the Compact."

Shepard easily remembered the drell species introduction into Citadel space since it was, more or less, recent history. It had only happened a little more than a century ago. The hanar used hundreds of ships to transport thousands of drell from the overpopulated and dying world of Rakhana. As it stands, drell only number in the hundreds of thousands, making them the most endangered sapient species in Citadel space, more so than the quarians. "So what exactly are the terms of the Compact?"

"There are many things the hanar can't do, even with mechanical aid. They ask drell to assist them," he patiently explained.

"They just ask, right?" Shepard clarified. "You can refuse if you want?"

"We're not slaves, if that's what you're worried about," he assured. "Anyone can refuse to serve. Few do. We owe our existence to the hanar. We are proud to repay the debt," he stated proudly.

"So… you becoming an assassin? It's an honor for you?"

"Indeed it is."

Shepard leaned back in his chair, still curious about the perplexing nature Thane presented himself. "From your dossier, you're a freelance assassin now. If you don't work for the hanar, then something changed."

"I was asleep for a long time, yes. I paid no attention to what my body was asked to do. But then –" All of a sudden, Thane sat up straight. His eyes appeared intently focused on something that Shepard couldn't see. He began talking rapidly. /"Laser dot trembles on his skull. One finger-twitch, he dies. Then the smell of spice on the spring wind. Sunset-colored eyes defiant in the scope. The laser dances away."/ He closed his eyes and took a breath. "My apologies. Drell slip into memories so easily."

Shepard looked bewildered at the strange behavior. Before he could question it, EDI contacted him.

"Captain. We are approximately two hours away from the location of the Collector ship the Illusive Man provided for us."

"Understood, EDI. Bring us up to battle stations," he ordered. "Engage stealth systems and order the ground teams to report to the hangar in two hours."

"Understood, Captain," EDI acknowledged. Her voice echoed throughout the ship. "General quarters, general quarters, all hands man their battle stations."

Loud thumping noises could be heard outside Thane's room as the entire crew of the Normandy rushed to the duty stations.

Shepard turned to Thane. "We should get ready."

"Yes. I would prefer if we talk later as well. I've wasted too much of your time," he said.

"It was my time to waste," Shepard said easily. "I'll see you at the shuttle in two hours."

"IES Stealth Systems are engaged, Captain. We are running silent," EDI reported.

"Thanks, EDI." He stood up and quickly made his way to his cabin to retrieve his armor.

-oOo-

Location: Hades Nexus Cluster, Pamyat System, Normandy SR-2

The Normandy flew at a steady pace. As reported, the pseudo-organic cruiser was there. It simply floated, apparently dead in space as the Normandy approached from its stern.

All too soon, she flew along the broadside of the inactive vessel. The size difference was clear. It looked as if the Collector cruiser would come alive and consume the stealth frigate whole. Approaching the first infiltration zone, a floodlight was activated, shining light on the opposing ship. The enemy vessel didn't react at all.

Coming to a stop, just slightly past the midline of the Collector vessel, the Normandy bravely held her position against the monstrous size of her opponent.

-oOo-

Shepard was the first to enter the hangar and promptly made his way to Kodiak.

At the shuttle, Hawthorne and Goldstein were standing nearby.

"The Captain has put together an impressive team. I've never worked with so many aliens before," Hawthorne admitted.

"They're as tough as an army. We might just pull this off," Goldstein said optimistically. She looked past Hawthorne's shoulder and snapped off a salute. Hawthorne followed her example moments later.

After saluting them back, Shepard waited for the others to arrive.

"We're at OP-1, Captain," Joker reported.

"Very low emissions. Passive infrared temperatures suggest most systems are offline. Thrusters are cold," EDI informed.

"This thing is massive. How the hell did the turians take it out?" Joker breathed out.

"If they even disabled it at all," Miranda said, announcing her presence. Jacob and Garrus were trailing behind her. "What else can you detect, EDI?"

"LADAR scans do not detect any hull breaches on the side facing us. I detect no mass effect field distortions. It appears the drive core is offline," she reported.

"And any signs of the turian patrol?" Shepard pressed. "Debris? Signs of battle? Anything at all?"

"There are signs of at least six other ships nearby, Captain. All are destroyed."

"And the Collector cruiser has no visible signs of damage?" Shepard asked.

"None that I can detect."

"Six ships and no visible damage..." Miranda muttered.

"This is getting better and better," Jack grumbled as she approached the shuttle. The rest of the squad had finally reached the hangar.

"Yeah. Exciting, isn't it?" Grunt said. His attitude was a definite counterpoint to Jack's.

"Grunt, you have the DX-57?" Shepard asked.

The krogan turned around to show he was carrying a long bag on his back. He was also equipped with a missile launcher taken from the Eclipse base back on Illium. It was an inferior model compared to the Cerberus modified version Jacob was packing, but it was better than nothing.

"Your team have the demo charges?" Shepard asked Miranda.

She nodded. "We're ready," she assured.

He turned to address the squad as a whole. "Right. Remember: My team is 'Spectre'; Miranda's is 'Cerberus'. The moment the shuttle leaves the Normandy, the two hour mark begins." He engaged his omni-tool. "Alright, everyone. Sync your chronos." Everyone turned on their omni-tools and waited as Shepard sent out the commands from his omni-tool. "Done." He turned to Miranda, his face serious. "Remember what we talked about. If I'm not back within the two hour limit, you know what to do."

She took a breath to steady her nerves. "Of course. Save the ship."

Shepard grinned. "No, you come get me."

Miranda blinked before she realized he wasn't serious. "And risk the ship? I think not. She's very expensive. Certainly costs more than you," she retorted.

The assembled crew chuckled and felt a bit of the tension drop a bit.

Shepard nodded to everyone. "Alright. Let's go."

-oOo-

Author's Notes:

Dodecahedron is any polyhedron with twelve flat faces, usually composed of 12 regular pentagonal faces. It is one of the five platonic solids in geometry.

DX-57 was something I took from Soldier, starring Kurt Russell. Not a bad movie, per se, but I needed something to show how you can get a big explosion with something you can carry. Obviously, I'm not going for the whole bang shown in the movie. For those savvy enough to figure it out, you probably know that this isn't the only time I'm introducing this particular explosive.

As I was writing this chapter, it started getting obscenely long. To that end, I'm breaking it up. Preparation is about mental condition just as it is physical. Everyone is on edge with the thought of the Collectors and the majority of the squad has their minds on their "loyalty missions". This was something I couldn't ignore writing.

Next chapter, "Engagement" will be coming very soon.

I hope that I explained the Thanix Cannon well. It made no sense that you could acquire it from Garrus BEFORE you boarded the Collector ship. If that was the case, why not shoot the crap out of it instead of running away? One less problem during the suicide mission, right?

Credit goes to nitefyre410 for helping me remember the Firefly reference. See if you can't spot it.

EDIT: After looking at a video, there were ships around the cruiser. I changed the story a bit to reflect that. Thanks to Lord Europe and BiowareFan for pointing that out.

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