Fight for the Lost

The Collector Ship: Engagement

Location: Hades Nexus Cluster, Pamyat System, Disabled Collector Ship

The Kodiak moved slowly along the length of the cruiser, moving farther away from the Normandy and closer to its first destination. Floodlights from both the shuttle and the frigate lit up the large ship as they searched for the predicted entrance.

Inside the dropship, the assembled squad members were mentally preparing themselves for anything they could possibly conceive. They were also extremely aware of the two dozen small bombs and one large one they carried were active and counting down.

-oOo-

Mission: Investigate the Collector Ship

A Collector vessel has been found floating adrift, evidently damaged by a turian patrol. This is a rare chance to retrieve intelligence about the Collectors.

-Ingress and reconnoiter the Collector ship and look for useful information

-'Spectre' team: Set the DX-57 Tactical Bomb deep within the vessel to scuttle the ship

-'Cerberus' team: Set demo charges within key areas to disable the ship should DX-57 fail to detonate

-Egress back to the Normandy within 2 hours

-oOo-

Spectre Team

Time to Detonation: 2 hours

"Approaching OP-1. Stand by," Goldstein reported.

Shepard and his team gripped their weapons in anticipation and prepared to secure their landing zone. Moments later, they felt the shuttle lurch slightly as it landed inside the enemy vessel.

"Touchdown!" Hawthorne called out.

"Go!" Shepard ordered. He and Garrus ran out of the shuttle, sweeping the immediate area while Jack and Samara pushed a little further to see if anyone was coming down the corridor.

"LZ is clear," Shepard said. He turned back to the shuttle and nodded.

Grunt lumbered out of the shuttle. He shifted the heavy bomb on his back and held his M-8 ready.

"Alright. Cerberus team, we have 1 hour 58 minutes. Get to work," Shepard ordered.

"Good luck, Shepard," Miranda said before the doors closed and the shuttle took off.

"Kodiak heading for OP-2. Good hunting, Spectre team," Hawthorne said as he pulled out.

"I have never seen a ship like this before," Samara confessed as she watched the surrounding area warily.

"Love what they've done with the place," Garrus said sarcastically.

"Looks like a giant insect hive," Jack observed.

"Stay frosty everyone. Horizon was one thing, but this is another. We're on their turf now. Let's move out." Shepard took point and led his team deeper inside. The lack of atmosphere and artificial gravity was expected with the shipwide power loss, but it was the silence that remained that felt foreboding.

The team observed everything critically. Parts of walls were metal; others were decidedly biological, warm and moist. The vessel was incredibly unique, unlike like any other ship in known space. The Spectre team moved slowly, aware of their time limit, but not willing run headlong into anything nasty. The organic components of the ceiling dripped with a viscous liquid and the organic components of the floor pulsed unevenly and unnervingly as they continued deeper in.

Everyone was on edge. They peered around corners carefully, fully expecting something leap out at them, only to see nothing at all. The sounds of their footfalls seemed unnaturally loud, as if it echoed through the entire ship. Light was provided from some silvery biological sacs, though it appeared to create shadows rather than illuminate them. The darkness created an element of claustrophobia compounded by the heavy atmosphere. The moist organic parts of the ship made the humid air feel uncomfortably dense, almost feeling like it was pressing down on the small group.

After several tense minutes of cautious exploration through the alien ship, the stillness was broken with EDI's sudden report. "Penetrating scans have detected an access node to uplink with the Collector databanks. Uploading to your omni-tool now."

"Son of a bitch!" Jack cursed in surprise.

Shepard took a deep breath to calm himself down. "Anything else of note you can tell about this ship?" he asked as evenly as he could without snapping at the AI.

"I have analyzed the ship's EM signature. It is the same vessel you encountered on Horizon."

"Interesting," Shepard mused.

"The missing colonists might be aboard," Garrus said.

"If they're still alive," Jack pessimistically replied.

No one had any argument against her.

-oOo-

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

Time to Detonation: 1 hour, 51 minutes

"Are you sure it's the same ship from Horizon?" Joker asked for the umpteenth time.

"My calculations are accurate, Mr. Moreau. This is the same vessel," EDI insisted matter-of-factly.

There was something that was bothering him. For once, it wasn't the ever present AI floating at his elbow, but rather what it said.

"What's wrong?" Hadley asked nearby from the bridge.

"I don't know," he mumbled. "It just seems hinky."

Matthews leaned back in his seat to see down the bridge and at the cockpit. "What does it matter? So it's the same ship, so what? The defense towers softened it up for the turians and they crippled it."

"Yeah, the defense towers 'softened' a ship by not penetrating its kinetic barriers before it took off, for a turian patrol that disabled a ship without destroying the hull. And instead of going back through the Omega-4 Relay for repairs after Horizon, they decide to pick a fight with the turians instead of humans just to shake things up, while we were relaxing on Illium for a week," Joker listed off sarcastically. "Something isn't right and it isn't the fact that this smells like a setup."

"What are you thinking?" Hadley asked.

"Do you guys think it's strange that the same ship we fought on Horizon is right here? Seriously, why not use another ship?"

Hadley shrugged and jerked his thumb at Matthews. "Maybe to let us assume we tore them a new one on Horizon?"

"Or maybe…" Joker said before trailing off in thought. After a few minutes, he turned to EDI. "Run through the databases of the SSV Normandy. Everything we scanned on the ship that attacked us and then match it against this ship. I got a bad feeling here."

"You think this is the same ship that attacked you two years ago?" Matthews skeptically asked.

Joker just stared intently at the monitors in front of him as EDI began her scan.

-oOo-

Location: Hades Nexus Cluster, Pamyat System, Disabled Collector Ship

Spectre Team

Time to Detonation: 1 hour, 49 minutes

"Cerberus team to Spectre Team. We've successfully infiltrated OP-2 and are laying demo charges now," Miranda reported.

"Understood, Cerberus. EDI might've gotten an idea where we're supposed to go. We're moving now," Shepard responded. He led the way, going a little quicker, but paused when he spotted a pod ahead. It was open and laying on its side. It was empty. "Look."

"Here too," Grunt called out.

Shepard turned to see a few more also cast aside and empty.

"All of them are empty," Garrus said, voicing Shepard's thoughts.

"Being trapped like this…" Jack said. "I can't believe it, but I'm thinking prison was better."

"It's small, like my tank. Bet they begged for mercy," Grunt replied. "Who knows what the hell the bugs want. Or would do."

"I think I have the answer to that question," Samara said. "Over here." She was standing before a large batch of human bodies, all of which were dead.

"Nasty," Jack commented as she approached.

"What a mess," Grunt added. "Lots of dead meat."

Garrus took a look around. "Over there. More." He pointed out to another pile of corpses further on. "This can't be a good sign…"

Samara knelt down to inspect the bodies more closely. "Some of them are very recent. Others have been left here for weeks, at least."

"Why would the Collectors leave a pile of bodies lying around?" Jack wondered.

"Testing," Grunt said immediately. "Like Okeer did. These weren't worthy and were discarded."

Shepard shook his head and turned away, not wanting to speculate as to what happened and why. "EDI, do you detect any life signs on board? Human and otherwise?"

"I am afraid not."

"I don't think this will be a rescue mission, Shepard," Garrus said. "We should focus on our objectives."

It was a cold thing to say, but Shepard knew he was just being realistic. Just because EDI couldn't detect anything didn't mean there wasn't danger. Looking around, he spotted a console at the end of the corridor. "Over there. Something's still working."

Everyone approached the lit terminal. Next to it was a pod similar to the others they've seen, but instead of a human, like they expected, a dead Collector was inside. Judging from the large size and thick armor, it was a Collector Guardian.

"Whoa. Are these bastards experimenting on one their own?" Jack asked as she peered into the pod.

"Carving into their own… what do you think they're looking for?" Grunt asked.

Shepard walked up to the glowing terminal and used his omni-tool to interface with it. "EDI, I'm uploading the data from this terminal. See if you can figure out what they're up to."

"Data received. Analyzing."

The group looked around the area they were in while EDI was working. There were several more pods, placed carelessly around the room. Only three were attached to the terminal EDI was interfacing with and only one was 'occupied'.

Checking his chrono, Shepard saw that there was an hour and 43 minutes left on the clock.

Jack wandered ahead and spotted something on the ground buried in some debris. As she bent over to pick it up, EDI chimed in with her results.

"The Collectors were running baseline genetic comparisons between their species and humanity," EDI reported.

"Are they looking for similarities or something?" Shepard asked.

"I have no hypothesis on their motivations. All I have are the preliminary results. They reveal something remarkable."

Shepard activated his omni-tool as EDI transmitted her findings. A display of an alien DNA strand was shown.

"A quad-strand genetic structure, identical to traces collected from ancient ruins. Only one race is known to have this structure: the Protheans."

"My god…" Shepard breathed out. His mind tried to wrap around the implications. The shock was almost as bad as learning about the existence of the Reapers and his meeting with Sovereign. "The Protheans weren't harvested. They're working for the Reapers now."

"Wait, you're saying that the Reapers turned them into some kind fucked-up bug things?" Jack asked. She walked back to the group carrying an intact Collector Assault Rifle. Her omni-tool was on and scanning the abnormal weapon.

"Slaves," Garrus muttered. "But why? That AI on Ilos said the Reapers wiped them all out. Harvested them. Why would they need them as slaves?"

"They are no longer Protheans. Their genes show distinct signs of extensive genetic rewrite. The Reapers have repurposed them to suit their needs," EDI said.

"Maybe the Reapers harvested a few trillion and kept the rest as slaves, just like the Keepers," Shepard theorized. He looked down on the dead Collector Guardian. "But you'd think somebody would've picked up on this."

"No one has had an opportunity to study a Collector genetic code in this detail," EDI reminded. "I have already matched two thousand alleles to recorded fragments. This Collector likely descends from a Prothean colony in the Styx Theta Cluster."

"Not exactly how I imagined what a Prothean looked like," Garrus commented.

"There are signs of extreme alteration. Three fewer chromosomes. Reduced heterochromatin structure. Elimination of superfluous 'junk' sequences," she listed off.

"So, we either die and get harvested or live as some kind of mutated slave," Shepard summed up in disgust. "At this point, killing a Collector seems like a mercy."

"No species should have to suffer through this," Samara agreed wholeheartedly.

"So we're still blowing this place?" Grunt asked impatiently. "We need to give these bastards a lesson."

"Whatever they used to be, the Collectors work for the Reapers now. And we still have to stop them," Shepard affirmed. "EDI, forward everything you've learned to Cerberus team. The rest of you, let's find what we need and get the hell out of here. Move out."

-oOo-

Cerberus Team

Time to Detonation: 1 hour, 39 minutes

"I don't believe it," Miranda whispered in disbelief.

"We've been fighting the Protheans the entire time?" Jacob said in shock.

"So much to process! Learned about the continued existence of three extinct species in one week!" Mordin excitedly said. His rapid breathing matched his rapid speech as he thought about all the possibilities of research, of how much he could learn. "Completely unexpected. Thought I joined to help fight against Collectors. But to learn so much!"

"At least someone is excited to be here," Tali mumbled as she placed a charge near a conduit.

"I understand your enthusiasm, Professor," Thane interjected before Mordin could continue voicing his thoughts. "But we are on something of a schedule."

"Krios is right," Miranda concurred. She turned to the newest recruit. "You're sure you know how to arm the charges, Goto?"

"Of course," Kasumi replied confidently. "And I thought I asked you to call me 'Kasumi'?"

"Let's just hurry, Kasumi," Miranda said. She attached a charge to a support structure on the wall and activated it. "We haven't run into trouble yet, but it's only a matter of time."

"We haven't run into anything," Jacob reminded. "And that's what's worrying me. There's no sign of any of the crew here." Setting another demo charge himself, he turned to the thief. "So how do you know how to handle explosives?"

"You sound surprised," Kasumi teased.

"I just thought that you'd be all stealthy and stuff. Explosions tend to be… y'know, loud," Jacob reasoned.

"Which make them excellent diversions," she pointed out. "Also, some vaults tend to be stubborn. Explosives can usually solve that."

"Nice," Jacob chuckled.

"Cerberus team, this is Spectre team. Status?"

"Miranda here. We've placed demo charges near the stern, close to the main propulsion system. We're moving forward toward the midline soon."

"Alright. EDI's identified what might be what we're looking for. We're heading there now. Prepare yourselves."

"You too, Shepard. Cerberus team, out."

"Keelah… Everyone, get over here! You have to see this!"

Miranda had a bad feeling as she ran toward Tali and whatever she discovered.

-oOo-

Spectre Team

Time to Detonation: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Goddamn…

That was the only word floating through Shepard's head as he gazed at the room they were in. Cargo hold didn't seem like the appropriate term. Hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million, pods were lining the chamber they had entered.

"Spectre team! We found something. You're not going to believe this," Miranda said.

"I think I will," Shepard said as he tried to absorb the scope of the Collector's ambitions.

"Holy shit…" Jack whispered.

"This is… big," Grunt uttered in agreement.

"We found some sort of giant storage facility. Inside–"

"- Is a lot of pods. As far as the eye can see," Shepard finished.

"You found another?"

"Either that or you're at the other end of the same room we're in. Way, way at the other end."

"They could take every human in the Terminus and not have enough to fill this room," Samara said, her normally peaceful voice struck with awe as she started to understand the breath of the Collector's crimes.

"Earth," Jacob whispered in realization. "They're going to hit Earth."

"You guys don't kid around," Kasumi said, her voice unusually serious, even a bit somber, for once. "This is practically evidence of a declaration of war."

"Not if we stop them. Let's get to work. Cerberus team, finish setting the charges and we'll get the DX-57 ready," Shepard ordered over the radio. "Spectre team, out."

Shepard's team trekked deeper inside, their weapons ready. But their weariness of the gravity of each new revelation and the deadly quiet of their surroundings continued to build. The stillness remained constant, a steady pressure on their nerves as they pushed on.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, an odd thought popped into Shepard's mind, prompting him to physically shake his head to refocus.

Garrus caught the motion. "What?"

"It's nothing," Shepard replied.

"You sure?"

Shepard snorted to himself. "I was thinking of the hanar for some reason. The 'Enkindlers'. If they ever learned what really happened to the Protheans…"

Garrus chuckled appreciatively. "That'll be a nightmare to deal with."

They fell silent, moving along the carved out, seemingly twisting walkway toward their objective.

Jack started lagging behind, prompting Grunt to turn around and shout at her. "What the hell are you doing? You're falling behind!"

"I'm just checking this thing out," Jack retorted. The Collector rifle was still in her hands. A big chunk was now missing from the foregrip, exposing the inner workings of the weapon. Despite the organic skin covering the outside, there was a mechanical component as well. She was scanning that part with her omni-tool while attempting to tear more of the outer cover off.

"We need to hurry, Jack," Shepard said. "One hour, 23 minutes left."

"I'm coming, Boss Man. Just wait a sec." After physically tearing another piece off the foregrip and another off the grip, she jogged up to the rest of the team. Her omni-tool continued to scan the rifle.

Making a mental note to ask what she's doing later, Shepard led the way again. His eyes kept glancing at the massive amount of pods lining the walls, the ceiling, and the large drop far below the walkway they were traversing.

"Fuck," Jack said as she stared at the room. "How many do you think are in there?"

"Too many," Shepard said in a low tone.

"I detect no signs of life in the pods," EDI said.

"You said you didn't detect any life at all," Garrus reminded pointedly. "It's like this entire ship is dead."

"It is probable that the occupants within expired when the ship lost primary power."

"No way it's that easy," Grunt argued.

"We'll find out soon enough," Shepard said with finality.

"Besides that test subject, I don't see anything else. No other Collector bodies, no signs of the crew…" Garrus pointed out. He took a look at the pods scattered around and saw that they were empty. "No other humans…"

"I concur," Samara said. "Something is wrong."

"Captain, Joker here!"

"What is it, Joker?" Shepard asked. He stopped at a rise and saw a hexagonal platform ahead.

"You gotta hear this! On a hunch, I asked EDI to run an analysis on this ship!" he rapidly said.

EDI took over the explanations. "I compared the EM profile against data recorded by the original Normandy two years ago. They are an exact match."

Shepard narrowed his eyes. "The same ship dogging me for two years? Way beyond coincidence."

"Something really doesn't up, Captain. Watch your back," Joker warned.

"They attack Horizon first because Ashley is there and now we got this…" Shepard said aloud.

"They're really after you with a vengeance," Garrus commented.

"Come on. It looks like we finally found the control panel EDI told us about," Shepard ordered. He pointed at the pipes surrounding a metal hexagonal platform overlooking the massive storage room of pods. Three consoles were situated at the center, angled from each other and running parallel to one of the sides of the hexagonal dais. The center console was lit with a soft green light. Five hexagonal shapes were displayed, with alien symbols were flashing through each of them. Their meaning was a mystery to the boarding party.

Shepard stepped up to what he guessed to be the command console and engaged his omni-tool. "Cerberus team? EDI? I'm setting up the bridge now. Be ready."

"Ready, Spectre team," Miranda acknowledged. "We're almost finished and will egress to the rendezvous point soon."

Seconds after Shepard established the link, EDI's avatar appeared on top of the console. "I am mining the data banks now," she reported.

The alien symbols changed to become something only marginally more comprehensible. At the very least, it was now a language Shepard could read, but the fast-moving data was far too technical for him to even begin to decipher.

"Data-mine in progress, Captain."

Moments after she said that, all five monitors flickered once before displaying nothing but static. EDI had also vanished.

Shepard glanced down at his omni-tool to double-check if the link was still active. "EDI? What's going on? Are you-"

The holographic interface glowed briefly. However, instead of EDI's familiar blue orb, an image of a Collector appeared on the console. Shepard took an involuntary step back. This Collector appeared different from the others. It was short and stout, the head was disproportionally larger than the rest of its body, and it possessed several extra appendages. Unlike the other Collectors he'd fought up to this point, this Collector didn't seem geared toward combat, but rather logistics or perhaps intelligence.

"EDI?" Shepard called out again.

The radio crackled and Joker's dismayed voice was heard. "Uh… This can't be good…"

Goddamn it.

The pipes around them started pumping. The cavern echoed with the sudden noise, a stark contrast to the dead silence moments ago. The floor began vibrating as the supposedly disabled ship began coming back to life.

The team raised their weapons, anticipating an attack. They swiveled their heads, looking for any signs of the enemy.

"What the hell just happened? ! Report!" Shepard called out.

"Major power surge! Everything went dark, but we're back up now," Joker answered.

"I managed to divert the majority of the overload to non-critical systems. The engineering staff is handling the rest," EDI said. "This was not a malfunction. This was a trap."

"Did you see that?" Garrus suddenly asked. He was aiming his assault rifle at a ledge high above their position.

"What?" Grunt asked, scanning the area the turian was pointing at.

"I saw it," Samara said. "Something moved up there."

"Tell us something we don't know, EDI," Shepard said as he held his HMWA ready.

"There is someone else in the system attempting to shut down the link. Multiple incoming hostiles are now visible on my scanners," she reported. "They are approaching both your position, as well as Cerberus team.

"Cerberus team, finish up and get the hell out!" Shepard ordered just before the platform beneath his feet started moving.

"What the hell? !"

"What's going on? !

"Hold on!"

The team tried to stay on their feet as the platform started floating and took them deeper into the ship. The height they were flying at ensured that getting off was not a favorable option.

"Cerberus team, here! We're under attack!" Miranda reported frantically. Sounds of gunfire could be heard. "They ambushed us, but we're able to fight them off. We're falling back to the rendezvous point!"

"We need a little help here, EDI," Shepard stressed. He gripped one of the consoles to keep his balance.

"I am attempting to regain control of the system. Stand by."

The platform suddenly stopped in midair. Grunt roared as he lost balance and fell, luckily landing on his side, to prevent damaging the bomb. Garrus and Samara both knelt down and hauled him to his feet while Jack spotted the incoming platform.

"We got company!" she shouted. Dropping the now useless Collector rifle, she armed her shotgun and watched as the Collectors closed in on them.

"I must finish the download before I can override any systems," EDI warned.

"Then get it done fast, EDI. Grunt, put that bomb down! This is as good as we're gonna get!" Shepard ordered. "Let's light'em up!"

-oOo-

Cerberus Team

Time to Detonation: 1 hour, 21 minutes

"Incoming husks!" Jacob shouted.

Miranda chanced a look and grimaced. The Collectors continued to suppress them while the husks ran at their position in a suicidal charge. "Mordin, Kasumi!"

"On it!" Mordin shouted. A flashbang grenade and a blast of ice halted their charge, allowing him and Kasumi to use their Tempest SMGs to tear them apart.

"Fall back! Fall back!" she ordered. She stood up and continued to fire on the advancing Collectors. "Spectre team, we've completed our objective, but we're under heavy attack!"

"Understood, Cerberus! We've sprung the trap over here. We'll try to get back, but it might take a bit of time. Return to the Normandy, ASAP!" Shepard ordered.

"Roger that!" Miranda acknowledged. "Let's go, people! Back to the shuttle!"

Miranda's team began covering each other as they started back down the hallway. The Collectors saw what they were up to and renewed their attack, hoping to stop them.

"Hawthorne, meet us at OP-2! We're coming in hot!" Miranda shouted. She and Thane launched Warp as quickly as they were able, shattering the Barriers the Collectors erected to protect themselves. Jacob and Tali took advantage as best they were able, but their numbers appeared limitless.

"Roger, ma'am! We're on our way!"

"They're still coming!" Tali shouted. She peddled backward, lobbing a grenade at the Drones and husks charging at them.

Thane burst into action. The grenade temporarily halted the enemy's advance, allowing him to close the distance and mount a rapid counterattack. His twin Predators killed a Drone in his path. He gracefully leapt over the falling body, rolled on the ground to avoid a burst of gunfire from a Guardian, and hopped to his feet to rain fire on three more Collectors. His aim was perfect as the Collectors fell against his uncanny skill.

A Collector Assassin fired his Particle Beam weapon, tearing through Thane's shields. He countered with a grenade and fell back. The explosion covered his retreat.

Miranda continued to lead her team back toward the exit. Utilizing her biotics, tech, and weaponry as needed, their withdrawal seemed assured when Tali's pained scream was heard over the radio. She whirled around and saw the younger girl stagger back.

Tali had dropped her shotgun and was clutching her arm. Another group of Collectors were attacking from behind, cutting off their escape route. "They've surrounded us!"

"Tali!" Miranda called out.

"My shields are down!" Tali shouted as she tried to find cover.

One Guardian brought his weapon to bear. Without shields, Tali's light Colossus Armor would hold up against two or three shots at most.

No!

Miranda focused herself and tried to cast Warp. She already knew it would be too late, but failure wasn't something she tolerated. Even more so now since Shepard was counting on her.

Just before the Collector pulled the trigger, its gun was forced up, the series of shots fired erratically at the ceiling.

Miranda finished her motion, her arm thrust out and the biotic attack struck the Guardian, shattering its Barrier.

A flicker of motion and a blade was seen, jutting out of the Collector's back before it was savagely pulled out of its chest. The blade hovered in air before vanishing in a crackle of energy as the body fell limply to the ground.

Tali scrambled back and drew her pistol. Her right arm dangled painfully at her side.

Miranda ran up to her and covered her with a few bursts of fire from her assault rifle. Tali managed to hide behind a metal archway in the confusion. A quick look revealed that the engineer wasn't bleeding at least and her arm had regained some motion.

Jacob, Mordin, and Thane continued to suppress the attacking Collectors, but it was the surprise ambush that captured Miranda's attention.

Two flashes of steel were literally cutting through their ranks. Collector after Collector were falling dead from their attacker, deep cuts marking each corpse. A distortion continued to dance around them, striking down all in its way.

Taking advantage of the chaos, Miranda aimed her Pulse Rifle at the outliers away from the distortion and started firing, thinning the ranks and clearing a path.

"Goddamn it!" Jacob cursed. He was on his back and trying to get his bearings again.

"Jacob's down!" Tali reported.

"Can you get him, Tali? !" Miranda asked. Only a few more Collectors stood behind them. The blades were still cutting through the Collectors despite their best efforts to kill whatever was attacking them.

"On it!" Tali lurched to her feet. Her right arm was clutched tightly against her body, but she managed to cross the distance and grab Jacob and drag him behind cover. "He's okay! The helmet protected him, but it's dented!"

"Son of a bitch!" Jacob growled. He shook his head to clear his dizziness and tried to get back to his feet.

"Kasumi, clear the fire zone!" Miranda ordered to the fast moving distortion.

Kasumi reappeared with a flash of electrical arcs as her cloak fell away. Her twin kodachi flashed and two more Collectors fell dead with deep gashes in their necks. Displaying even more agility than Thane, she somersaulted, leapt, and flipped out of the immediate reach of the Collectors. "Gift for you!" she taunted as she tossed a grenade into the remnants of the ambushing Collectors.

Miranda tossed her own grenade as Kasumi's flashbang grenade went off. The explosion took care of any stragglers. "Path is clear! Fall back!"

Tali raised her pistol and start firing in the general direction of the Collectors. Mordin utilized his Cryo Blast again, trying to stem the charge of the numerous enemies attacking them. Thane helped Jacob get back to his feet and before helping suppress the enemy as well.

"Kasumi, plant a demo charge right here!" Miranda pointed at the archway they were hiding behind. "Set it to a short timer! 20 seconds!"

"On it!" she chirped. She twirled her kodachis expertly before sheathing them on the scabbards on her thighs. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out one of the extras they had brought and started fiddling with it quickly.

"Let's go!" Miranda shouted. She started laying down cover fire to assist with their chaotic escape.

Thane guided Jacob down the corridor, firing blindly with one of his pistols when he was sure of a clear line of fire.

Mordin and Tali followed next. Tali dropped her Combat Drone to further buy time for their escape.

"All set!" Kasumi reported. She pulled out her Tempest and started shooting as she and Miranda started shuffling away. They continued firing, stopping only for Kasumi to pick up Tali's shotgun. They acted as the rear guard for the team until they turned a bend.

Miranda threw a grenade as far as she could to hold the Collectors in place before turning around and running as fast as she could. "Live charge planted! 10 seconds left! RUN! ! !"

After leading her team around another bend and mentally counting down the seconds, she held up her arm and crouched. Everyone followed her example.

The explosion was deafening, prompting another string of curses from Jacob as he tried to quell the pain from his pounding head. The ground shook violently. If any of them had been running or standing, he or she would have definitely found themselves on the floor.

"Cerberus team, do you copy? !" Goldstein's voice was thick with worry. "Scanners show a large explosion near your AOE!"

"We're fine, Kodiak. Just leaving a present for our pursuers. Status?" Miranda asked as she looked over her team.

"We lost communication with Spectre team a few minutes ago. EDI's still in contact with them though. They're facing heavy opposition. We're at OP-2 and awaiting your arrival."

"Stand by. We're coming," Miranda assured.

Tali's armor held against the round that struck her shoulder, but she was still in obvious pain. Jacob was no worse for wear. The angles on his helmet deflected much of the force, causing a slight dent and a headache, but he was standing tall again and ready for action. Everyone else had no injuries to speak of.

For now. I hope Shepard has better luck.

"Tali?" she asked in concern.

The quarian shook her head. "I'm fine. I can make it."

Miranda studied the wound a bit more. Fighting with little or no atmosphere was incredibly dangerous. The smallest suit puncture could mean difference between life and death. "If you're sure…"

"I'm sure. My suit integrity is holding. I think my arm might be fractured. I'll get Dr. Chakwas to look at it when we get back."

"Alright." Looking over the others, she nodded decisively. "Let's move out."

-oOo-

Spectre Team

Time to Detonation: 1 hour, 1 minute

Shepard screamed in pain.

Getting blasted off his feet and smashing his back against the console he and his team were trying to defend didn't feel nearly as bad as getting struck with the initial hit of Harbinger's unique biotics.

Gasping for air as he struggled to stand again, making a mental note to update Collector findings. Evidently, depending on what kind of Collector Harbinger possessed, it would be stronger if it used a more elite class of Collector. In this particular case, much to Shepard's dismay, Harbinger was using the body of a Guardian. The power of its biotics was far greater than what it displayed on Horizon.

"THIS HURTS YOU."

Really? No shit. I couldn't tell…

His ribs protested as he took deep breaths to try and keep the pain at bay.

He and his team were floating 150 meters above the ground on a hexagonal platform that was only 25 meters long, defending a console EDI was trying to hack, while simultaneously trying to survive the ambush the Collectors had arranged. Drones, Assassins, Guardians, and Scions had all made an appearance on separate floating platforms that flew in and connected to theirs. That was their only single advantage; the more reinforcements that arrived, the bigger the battleground. The disadvantage was the small army they had to push back.

At the moment though, Shepard's primary concern was Collector Guardian-possessed Harbinger. Victory against a Guardian had seemed assured until it started convulsing. An explosion of fiery energy later and the tables had turned very quickly.

"41% complete."

"Come on, EDI… Speed it up…" Raising his sniper rifle, Shepard tried to counterattack with explosive rounds, but Harbinger's Barrier was as powerful as ever. Every shot sent a shudder through his chest, sending waves of pain throughout his body.

Must've cracked some ribs…

"Another platform coming!" Samara warned from somewhere within the chaos.

Unfortunately, he couldn't count on the others to help him since they were occupied with the flood of reinforcements flying in. Grunt and Samara were holding the front lines against the bulk of the forces while Jack and Garrus were playing keep away with a pair of Scions. Its Shockwave created an additional hazard since getting hit might mean a long drop to the ground.

Harbinger launched its biotic attack again as he continued to stalk the Spectre.

Shepard rolled over the surface of the console and landed heavily on his hands and knees on the other side. The Reaper's attack struck the console and caused the floor to shake slightly. Gritting his teeth in pain as his cracked ribs were pushed harder than safe, he stood up and aimed his rifle again.

Harbinger had stopped next to the DX-57 Grunt left behind and held its hand over the screen. More fiery energies erupted from its hand, but instead of damaging the bomb, it seemed to be interfacing with it.

Firing his HMWSR again and again, Shepard tried to stop it, but it ignored his attack, even when its Barrier started rippling. To his dismay, a few seconds later, the bomb deactivated.

Son of a bitch…

"YOU ARE SHORTSIGHTED. OUR POWER IS UNMATCHED. THE FORCES OF THE UNIVERSE BEND TO US."

It turned its head to face him. Four fiercely glowing eyes met two defiant blue ones hidden beneath the faceplate of Shepard's Kestrel Helmet.

"NOTHING STANDS AGAINST US."

Harbinger prepared engage Shepard once again. Despite the human's best efforts, its Barrier still hadn't fallen.

"84%," EDI said.

"Hurry the fuck up! We need to get out of here!" Jack shouted.

"I am simultaneously fighting Collector firewalls in over 8,000 nodes. I am tasked to capacity."

A biotic attack struck the Reaper-controlled Collector. It turned to see both Garrus and Jack aiming their weapons at it and were shooting nonstop, trying to take it down.

Thrusting out an arm, a wave of power tossed the both of them back onto a different platform. They struck the railings and fell to their hands and knees.

Harbinger focused on Jack as she stood back up and used Warp to try to disable its Barrier.

"HUMAN; VIABLE POSSIBILTY, GREAT BIOTIC POTENTIAL."

It turned to Garrus and launched its own Warp at him.

"TURIAN; YOU ARE CONSIDERED… TOO PRIMITIVE."

Garrus growled in response. Vaulting over the console to shield himself from the biotic attack, he popped back out and continued thundering away at Harbinger with his rifle. The Barrier was flickering tantalizingly, just on the verge of breaking down.

Using his own biotics, Shepard launched his own Warp attack at the weakened Barrier and finally succeeded in shattering it.

"Die, damn it!" Jack shouted. She threw her arm out in an arc, attacking with Shockwave.

Harbinger didn't even flinch from the attack. It launched a trio of fiery energies at the protagonists forcing all of them to duck down.

Shepard popped out his cover to continue the onslaught, but Harbinger had crossed the distance with unnatural speed and stood before him. It reached over the console and gripped Shepard's left arm tightly before lifting the human up by his limb.

He gritted his teeth against the waves of agony as Harbinger started closing its hand around his forearm, threatening to grind the bone into powder despite his hardened bone weave and the protection his gauntlet offered. Dropping his sniper rifle, he drew his HMWP and open fired at point blank range into Harbinger. The rounds ricocheted and bounced off uselessly against the nigh impenetrable carapace.

In response to the futile attack, Harbinger merely flicked its arm and tossed Shepard aside.

Shouting in surprise, Shepard flew across the length of the platform and landed roughly face-first. His ribs screamed out in agony, making every breath a brutal effort. Sliding a short distance, he went over the edge of the small platform and fell. His arms flailed around and managed to grip the edge before he plummeted to almost certain death.

Struggling to climb back up, he saw Harbinger stalking toward him.

"THIS IS WHAT YOU FACE."

Stopping at the edge above Shepard, it raised its arm and another ball of blazing energy gathered in the palm of its outstretched hand, pointing directly at the helpless human.

Just before it finished Shepard off, Jack used her Biotic Charge and rammed it from behind. The sudden attack tipped it over the edge, the falling body just missing Shepard by inches.

Twisting his head, Shepard looked down to see Harbinger plunge toward the ground, only for it to extend its wings and begin to take flight. The crack of a sniper rifle and the explosion of a concussive round clipped its wings and took away all hope of recovery.

"How's that for 'primitive' you son of a bitch," Garrus growled out.

"You're way too popular with these guys, Shepard," Jack said. She used her biotics to lift him back onto the safety of the platform.

"Unlucky me," Shepard managed to gasp out. His ribs continued protesting the abuse he constantly put them through. Thanks to Jack, he managed to scramble back on the platform, but opted to stay on his hands and knees until the pain receded.

"You okay?" Garrus asked in concern.

"I'm still breathing," Shepard assured with a small cough. "Barely." He coughed once more before pointing towards the sounds of gunfire. "Go help the others. I'll be fine."

Garrus hesitated for a moment when Grunt's voice crackled into the radio. "More incoming!" Judging from the sound of his voice, this was a battle he wasn't enjoying at all.

That serious, huh…

His decision made, Garrus picked up his Viper and sprinted off to the others.

"My progress has halted at 94%. Captain, my link to the command console has become tenuous. You must reestablish the link," EDI said.

Forcing adrenaline into his veins to keep the pain at bay, Shepard staggered to his feet and picked up his dropped pistol and sniper rifle on the way to the center console again.

Jack stayed close by to offer additional fire support. Her head cocked to the side when she heard the ever increasing familiar sound of flying hexagonal stages flying toward them. "I don't believe this! There's another goddamn platform coming!" she screamed out in frustration. "This doesn't fucking end!"

"Stand clear!" Samara shouted from somewhere. "I'm creating a Singularity!"

Running as fast as his battered body allowed, Shepard leaned over the console and started hacking his way back into the databases.

"Scratch one!" Garrus crowed.

"Shields down!" Grunt growled.

Almost there…

An Assassin managed to flank them and started firing at Shepard.

Jack launched Warp with one hand to destroy its Barrier while using her other hand to levitate a dead Scion and used its body as a projectile.

Shepard worked furiously as his team continued fighting back the next wave of Collectors.

"Grunt's hit!"

"I'm fine!"

"Got it! It's done!"

The green displays glowed briefly before EDI's image reappeared. "I have control."

"Shut down the platforms! Redirect them, let them fall, whatever you can do!" Shepard ordered. "Just get rid of them!"

"Stand by."

All at once, the approaching platforms stopped moving. They hovered in place for a few seconds before flying toward other areas of the ship. Where they were going, Shepard didn't care, so long as it was far from his current position.

"Thanks, EDI. I knew you wouldn't let us down," he said gratefully.

"I always work at optimal capacity."

"Regroup," he ordered. He looked over his team with a critical eye. Samara was gingerly favoring her right side and clutching her ribs. Grunt was rotating his left arm, but appeared unbothered by whatever wound he received. Jack and Garrus were relatively unhurt. "Everyone alright?"

Various positive answers floated back to him.

"Get us outta here, EDI." As their platform floated toward another section of the large chamber, Shepard looked down at the bomb and tried to activate the timer again. After a few minutes, he shook his head. "It's dead. There's no way we can reactivate it." He turned to the console display. "Did you get what we needed, EDI?"

"I believe I have found data that could help us successfully navigate the Omega-4 Relay. It will take time to sort through all the information," EDI said. "I have also found the turian distress call that served as the lure for this trap. The Collectors were the source. It is unusual."

Garrus cocked his head to the side. "Seems logical to me that they would've sent the initial message as bait."

The platform landed safely some distance away from where they entered. Narrowing his eyes, Shepard dreaded to ask. "What are you getting at?"

EDI displayed a series of numbers and graphs. "Turian emergency channels have secondary encryption." Another series of graphs overlaid with the first. "It is present, but corrupted in the message. It is not possible that the Illusive Man would believe the distress call was genuine."

"What makes you say that?" Shepard asked.

"I found the anomaly with Cerberus detection protocols. He wrote them."

"He knew it was a trap?" Joker's astonished voice chimed in. "Why would he send into a trap?"

"Same reason we decided to walk into one. We need this data," Shepard explained before growling. "But he didn't say anything to me… He wanted to send us into Collector hands on purpose."

"Son of a bitch!" Jack cursed. "I knew Cerberus would screw me again. I'm going to crush his head."

"And here I thought I had my betrayal and attempted murder quota filled for this year," Garrus said with a shake of his head.

A humming sound suddenly could be heard all around them. The ground vibrated slightly as the various electrical equipment activated.

"I doubt this is a good sign," he commented dejectedly.

"EDI? Joker? Is this what I think it means?" Shepard asked.

"Big problem, Captain. The Collector ship is powering up."

"It seems our trials have not yet ended," Samara said.

"You need to get out before their weapons come online. I'm not losing another Normandy!" Joker said.

"They don't want the Normandy. They want me," Shepard ominously said. "Anything else is just a bonus."

"I do not have full controls of their systems," EDI cautioned. "I will do what I can. Sending coordinates for shuttle extraction."

Shepard knew his crew wanted answers from the Illusive Man, and he did as well. But those answers would have to wait, there were more important things to deal with first, like getting out alive. "Come on. Time to move!" he ordered as he hopped of the platform and started moving toward the door. "Cerberus team, status!"

"We're almost to our extraction point. We've encountered some resistance and we have wounded."

"We retrieved the data and are making our way to our extraction point. No resistance yet. Harbinger deactivated the DX-57, though. We'll need to settle for crippling this ship instead."

"Roger. See you soon."

Shepard and his team approached a fork in the corridor.

"Take the door on your right."

Just like that, the door opened, allowing them entry.

Maybe we finally caught a break.

Samara and Garrus had taken point now. Shepard's ribs were hurting far too much for him to run at a steady pace.

"Incoming!" Garrus said.

Several Collectors were flying in from an opening in the ceiling. The door shut on one of them when it tried to enter the fray, cleaving it in half.

"I will attempt to slow the bulk of their forces," EDI announced.

"Thanks, EDI… Aw, damn it." The other Collectors had renewed their assault. "Take'em out before Harbinger comes back!" Shepard ordered.

-oOo-

Cerberus Team

Time to Detonation: 48 minutes

"There's the shuttle!" Kasumi said. "Almost there, Tali!"

"Contact left!" Miranda shouted. "Mordin, move!"

Without hesitating, Mordin dove to the side without even bothering to see what was attacking him. His decision to trust Miranda's words paid off when another Scion unleashed its deadly Shockwave at him. Rolling to his back, he used Cryo Blast to try to bring the top heavy husk to the ground.

It stumbled from the ice, but remained upright. Tandem Warps from Miranda and Thane struck the Scion, but it managed to endure the biotic attacks to unleash another Shockwave at the prone salarian just as he was trying to get up.

Thane acted instantly. He crossed the distance quickly and pushed Mordin out of the line of fire, just as the Shockwave ripped right through his right leg. He could hear the sounds of broken bones, even with the atmosphere as thin as it was.

Hitting the ground with a grunt of pain, he tried to move, but his mangled leg impeded his progress.

"Cover Krios!" Miranda ordered. She and Jacob immediately launched a counterattack against the Scion and surrounding Collectors. Kasumi left Tali at the shuttle and regrouped with the rest of the team to assist.

"Go get them, Chiktikka!" Tali ordered from the opening of the shuttle.

The Combat Drone immediately drew the Collector's attention as it darted back and forth firing its electric shock indiscriminately on the enemy. Kasumi took advantage of the distraction to drag Thane back to the shuttle. To his credit, he only grunted in pain, but remained otherwise remained silent.

"Flammable! Or inflammable. Forget which. Doesn't matter!" Mordin said as he launched his Incinerate tech.

The Scion screeched when it was lit on fire. It targeted the attacking trio with another Shockwave.

"Move!" Miranda said. She, Jacob, and Mordin scattered and managed to avoid the bulk of the attack. She grunted and saw her shields were drained from just a glancing hit. Bloody hell… "My shields are down!"

"We're almost there! Come on!" Jacob said.

"Use your launcher! Bring the Scion down!" Miranda ordered. She tossed a grenade down the hallway after seeing Tali's Combat Drone explode.

"On it!"

"Mordin, back to the shuttle!" she ordered.

"Moving!"

Two Assassins began firing on the two remaining Cerberus operatives. Cursing, Miranda aimed her Pulse Rifle and tried to suppress them, but their range made it difficult to get an accurate shot. The crack of a sniper rifle, however, easily reached the distance and downed one Assassin.

Turning to glance behind, she saw Thane leaning heavily on the side of the shuttle. His Mantis sniper rifle was out and pointed downrange. Despite the pain he must've been in, his shooting was remarkable.

The Scion finally fell after several missile strikes. Jacob stood up and began backpedaling, launching missile after missile at the approaching Collectors. Despite how many they've killed, they continued attacking, ignoring the bodies of their dead. "They're not stopping!"

"It's more than enough! Get to the shuttle!" Miranda ordered. She prepped the last demo charge for 20 seconds and dropped it before sprinting for the Kodiak.

Kasumi pulled Thane's arm over her shoulders and helped him inside. Mordin and Jacob continued their suppressing fire, stopping when Miranda was close to the shuttle.

Just before she entered, she felt a round strike her back and she pitched forward. Mordin caught her before she fell and dragged her past the threshold of the shuttle doors.

"We're in! Go!" Jacob shouted to the pilots. He stood in the doorway, glowing a hazy blue. His Barrier was already flickering, but managed to stop several shots from hitting the others inside the cabin.

"Hang on!" Hawthorne said.

The doors closed, but they could hear the bullets striking against the hull as they took off. A few seconds later, the Kodiak shuddered from the shockwave from the explosion of the demo charge, but it quickly subsided.

Miranda grit her teeth as she slowly shifted her arms and back muscles to ensure everything was working. A sharp stab of pain flared when she rotated her left arm. "What's the damage?" she asked as she sat on the floor.

"Armor intact. Single round. Left shoulder blade. Should be fine," Mordin said. He poked and prodded the area before nodding. He moved on to Thane and started inspecting his leg.

"Status of Spectre team?" Miranda requested. She held back a groan as she tried to shift her back muscles to relieve some of the pain.

"They are currently attempting to reach the extraction point, but are facing heavy resistance. Probability indicates that they will not reach the coordinates in time," EDI said.

"Damn it." Miranda flexed her left arm one more time, suppressing a wince at the pain the action caused and picked up her rifle from the floor. "Hawthorne! Take us to OP-1!"

"Orders were to take you back to the Normandy before making a run for the other team, ma'am," he reminded. "Captain's orders."

"I'm countermanding those orders! We're going to secure the LZ and try to give them a chance!" Miranda commanded with no room for argument. "Get us there. Now!"

Hawthorne fell silent. A few seconds later, the shuttle banked hard. Away from the Normandy. "Aye, aye, ma'am. Heading for OP-1."

She turned to the others inside the cabin. "Anyone that can't or won't help is welcome to stay on the shuttle and return to the Normandy. Anyone that wants to help, come with me."

No one objected.

"Krios? Tali? Are you sure you can do this?"

"I will able to hold the shuttle," Thane assured. He held his rifle confidently. "However, that will be the limit of my assistance."

"I can still fight," Tali added. "Let's get them."

"Approaching OP-1!"

"We hold the LZ and surrounding area. If Shepard calls for reinforcements, we'll assist as best we can," Miranda said. "Let's do this."

-oOo-

Spectre Team

Time to Detonation: 42 minutes

"Sniper, up high on the right!" Shepard warned.

"I got him!" Garrus aimed his Viper and took a moment to steady his aim and pulled the trigger. "Scoped and dropped!"

Another explosion of machinery forced Shepard to duck back down. The room they were fighting through was littered with pipes, consoles, and monitors. Stray fire destroyed the equipment around them and some tended to react violently.

Thus far, they've been able to kill every Collector in their way quickly before Harbinger could reappear with liberal use of biotics and his M-490 Blackstorm. Much of the enemy forces were trapped in other areas of the ship thanks to EDI running interference with some of their systems. She was unable to penetrate their more critical areas, such stopping the shipwide power up procedures or their weapons systems, though she was able to slow everything down and buy them precious time.

Somewhere in the room, Jack screamed. Engaging his Tactical Cloak, Shepard ran from cover and up a short ramp to see her splayed on the ground. She was moaning and barely moving when he arrived. A few Collectors popped out of cover to finish her off.

Throwing his arm out in an upward arc, tiny balls of dark energy manifested along a line through the Collector ranks just before detonating. The explosions stopped their attack and a few went down in a mess of crushed limbs.

His Cloak fading away, Shepard grabbed Jack's arm and dragged her out of danger while simultaneously blind-firing his HMWA. "Grunt! Clear the rabble!"

"On it!" The large krogan ran up the ramp and started tearing his way through the Collectors before any other surprises popped up.

"Are you alright?" Shepard said as he ran his omni-tool over the ex-con. Her armor took some serious hits and was scorched as if she was struck by a grenade. Her left arm and a one of her ribs were broken. Quickly, he applied medi-gel to ease the pain and help her get back on her feet as carefully, but quickly as he could.

"I'm fine," she snarled, obviously trying to avoid looking weak. "Some kind of red husk attacked me. It fucking blew up in my face!"

"It blew up?" Shepard repeated as he quickly finished the first aid.

"Yeah," Jack grunted out. She cradled her left arm against her chest and hissed at the pain. "Just what we needed: suicide bombing zombies."

"All clear!" Garrus reported.

"We should hurry," Samara stressed. "I can hear more coming."

"I got them all over here," Grunt called out.

"Let's go." Grasping her right arm, Shepard pulled Jack to her feet and retrieved her shotgun for her.

Taking her Scimitar back, she put the weapon in its place on its harness at the small of her back and drew her pistol instead.

"How much time do we have?" Samara asked as they started down the maze of hallways and chambers.

He took a quick glance at his chrono. "35 minutes and counting. Gotta keep moving. We don't want to be here when the explosions go off." He led the way, occasionally guided by EDI's instructions. They were making poor time; constant attacks from the Collectors, as well as their ever growing list of injuries, all compounded by the fact that they had to be deep inside the ship to get what they needed.

Leaping down from a tall ledge, he jogged lightly into the next room. Hissing quietly in pain from his cracked ribs, he surveyed the room quickly. It was another large chamber. The white organic sacs were glowing faintly, providing a little bit of light. Large support beams were placed haphazardly to hold up the ceiling. The metal framework of the ship could be seen, jutting up from the organic portions of the floor. Across the way, two large doors were seen, though both were locked.

"EDI?"

"I am opening a door on the far side of the room," she said.

The team made a beeline for the door only to stop dead in their tracks.

A small throng of husks were charging through the open door, including the new red ones that attacked Jack. What really caught their attention was the Praetorian that was hovering toward them.

"Take cover!" Shepard ordered. He unleashed Shockwave to take care of the husks, noting that the red ones did blow up in a visceral display of gore. Hiding behind one of the columns, he winced when he heard the Praetorian's beam attack strike against his cover. His luck took a turn for the worst when he heard the sounds of flapping wings. "Incoming Collectors!"

"I see them!" Samara said. "On the right, coming from above!"

Taking a quick peek, he saw only a pair of Drones. Unfortunately, he also saw that the door had closed during their retreat. "EDI, we got a problem here!"

"A temporary setback on Firewall 3217. Rerouting commands through Firewall 7164."

Leaning out of cover again, he blanched when he saw the Praetorian was flying directly at him. "Make it fast!" Trading his assault rifle for his shotgun, he touched on his biotics and used Charge to appear on top of the giant husk. He aimed at the same area he shot at the Praetorian back on Horizon and tried to create a hole again.

The Praetorian unexpectedly banked hard to the left, nearly dislodging him. Jack appeared next to him using her own Charge. They started shooting when all of a sudden, the husk stopped moving and dropped hard to the ground. An explosion of energy rippled from its underside, but the impact was enough to dislodge both humans from its back.

Shepard grunted with the force, but his pain was nothing compared to Jack's broken bones. She screamed the moment she hit the ground and couldn't get back up.

Scrambling to his feet, he bodily picked up the petite woman and carried her to safety while the Praetorian hovered back to its normal altitude.

"Scratch one!"

"Enemy down."

The Praetorian turned toward Garrus and Samara. They just downed the two drones before Harbinger could possess either one. Its twin beams fired directly at them. Samara neatly dodged the attack, but Garrus lacked similar agility. He ducked behind a column, but the attack tore through and caused the structure to buckle. Debris rained down on the turian and buried him.

"Garrus!" Shepard shouted. "Grunt! Samara! Distract that thing! Jack, take care of the husks!"

Several missiles streaked toward the husk, striking against its Barrier, but not doing any real appreciable damage. The Praetorian turned to engage the biggest threats, ignoring Shepard for the time being.

Letting Jack mow down the husks with Shockwave from behind her cover, he dashed across the room and stopped at the pile of rubble. He started levitating everything he could, clearing enough to free his friend. "Garrus? !"

"Oww…" he groaned out.

Checking him, Shepard saw one of his feet was bent at an unnatural angle. Definitely broken.

"Shit. I don't really feel too good right now…"

Looking around, he saw Grunt throw his empty missile launcher at the Praetorian. It did nothing, of course. Samara levitated everything in the room that was loose and was throwing it all at the tank-like husk, causing more of a distraction than any real damage.

"I have successfully opened a door on the opposite wall. I will keep it open as long as I can," EDI said.

"We'll make a run for it," Shepard replied. He turned to Garrus. "Can you move?"

"Do I have a choice?" he ground out slowly. He took stock of his injuries. "Ankle's definitely broken. I might have some busted ribs too."

"We'll need to Cloak and get to the door."

"I'll make it," Garrus resolutely said.

"Grunt, Samara, keep holding that thing's attention! I'm taking Garrus to the door!"

"Understood." – "I got this!"

"What about me?" Jack asked from her hiding spot.

"You stay put. I'll come get you myself," Shepard promised. "Let's go."

Both men Cloaked and dragged/limped as fast as they could. Grunt had run up a ramp and was firing nonstop from the high ground. Samara utilized Warp, damaging the Praetorian's Barrier. Grunts attacks were far less of a threat, so the husk focused its particle beams on the nimble justicar.

"Almost there," Garrus gasped out. He was breathing heavy from the throbbing in his leg and chest.

"Almost," Shepard agreed, trying to bolster his friend's confidence.

They cleared the threshold, allowing Shepard to place him behind the frame of the doorway.

"Ah! Damn it!" Garrus shouted.

"Sorry. Cover us from here, alright?"

"I got your back."

Racing back into the chamber, he spotted Grunt and Samara taking turns in annoying the Praetorian and hiding from its attacks. Sidling up to Jack, Shepard readied his sniper rifle and used Warp to get its attention.

"What are you doing? !" Jack asked when the Praetorian turned toward them.

"You two, make for the door while we distract it! Go!" Shepard said.

"We? !"

Shepard threw out another Warp before firing away with his HMWSR. Grunt and Samara saw their chance and made a break for it.

"That thing is coming," Jack growled out. She used Warp as well, but even her biotic powers weren't strong enough to tear down the tank-like husk's Barrier.

"Let them escape! Once they're clear, we'll use Charge to cross the distance and run like hell!"

Twin energy beams gouged the surrounding pseudo-organic and metal defilades they were hiding behind.

"If we survive that long…" Shepard mumbled out loud.

"If I die, Shepard, I'm haunting you!" Jack screamed.

"EDI, get ready to close that door…" Shepard watched the Praetorian carefully. "Go, Jack! Now!"

Standing up, she vanished with a crack of displaced atmosphere.

Shepard followed seconds after. "Close it! Close it!" he ordered frantically when he appeared past the doorway.

The Praetorian turned around when it realized that everyone was on the other side of the room. It powered up its weaponry before the doors finally closed. The sounds of the particle beams striking the metal could be heard.

"We need to go," Shepard said. He checked his chrono and cursed. "20 minutes left."

"Fuck. Are we gonna make it?" Jack asked.

"We'll damn well try. Grunt, pick Garrus up and haul him with us. Samara, you're on point with me. Jack, hold our rear. Let's move people!"

"Shepard –" Garrus started to say.

"Shut up, Garrus. I'm not leaving anyone behind. Just pick up your damn weapon and let Grunt drag your ass back to the Normandy," Shepard ordered with finality.

Garrus chuckled a bit before groaning. "Ah, damn…"

Grunt picked him up and slung him over his shoulder and ignoring the gasp of pain.

Shepard and Samara led the way down the corridor. Thankfully, it was devoid of enemies, though everyone knew that would change soon.

Their hope was renewed when Grunt pointed at an opening in the floor. "Hey, down there. That where we came in?"

Shepard looked down to see the Collector test subject below. Hard to believe that was almost two hours ago

"We must be getting close to the end," Samara said.

"17 minutes. Let's go!"

The team continued their mad dash through the ship. Peeling around a corner, Shepard and Samara stopped in their tracks when they saw several Collectors fly in from a hole in the ceiling. "Company!" Shepard shouted.

Ducking behind some organic structure, its purpose something he couldn't even begin to guess, he immediately started shooting. It was a fruitless exercise. There was a long ramp leading upwards, giving the Collectors the high ground, organic protrusions above allowed them cover, and the opening on the upper left had husks pouring in.

Grunt put Garrus down at the hallway and ran into the fray, shooting at anything that moved. Some Assassins targeted him with their beam weapons, cutting his charge short and forcing him to duck back down.

"We won't make it!" Samara said as everyone exchanged fire.

"I WILL DIRECT THIS PERSONALLY."

Fuck me…

"He's here!" Samara tossed her Singularity at Harbinger while Shepard pulled out his Blackstorm.

Harbinger detonated the Singularity with its Warp. What was different though was that the sphere of fiery energy continued traveling down toward them, untouched by the detonation of the Singularity.

The event even took Samara by surprise. The attack struck her dead center and blew her back. She impacted against the wall with a sickening crunch and hit the ground limply. Her moaning indicated that she was still alive at least.

"ASARI; RELIANCE UPON ALIEN SPECIES FOR REPRODUCTOIN SHOWS GENETIC WEAKNESS."

"Coming from the bastards that need to harvest other species!" Shepard defiantly shouted back. He popped out of cover with his Blackstorm fully charged. Firing his own black hole, the gravity-well travelled up the ramp, pulling husks, Collectors, and whatever else stood in its away. Harbinger clutched a railing and dug in its heels, resisting the pull, even when it travelled only a few meters away from it. Its Barrier rippled like water, stretching toward the moving singularity.

The black hole stopped at the top of the ramp, drawing in all the foes and crushing several of them before detonating, killing the rest.

Harbinger was dislodged from its position from the massive explosion. It flew forward, down the ramp and landed roughly, face first into the ground. It tried to stand up before Grunt mounted it and gripped the sides of its head. Roaring, the krogan started twisting the head left and right, looking to either snap the neck or separate head and body completely.

"Yeah! Rip that fucking bastard's head off!" Jack cheered.

Amazingly, Harbinger continued to its feet, actually picking Grunt up. Grunt kept trying however, roaring and shouting with effort. Harbinger started flailing, trying to dislodge the massive krogan that was piggyback riding him. It stopped struggling and suddenly backpedaled with unbelievable speed, slamming Grunt against a wall with incredible force.

This time, Grunt roared in pain when his leg broke under the impact and he fell off. Landing on his back, he pulled out his shotgun and started shooting at point blank range.

Astonishingly, its Barrier failed from the simple attack. However, despite the next series of shot impacting against its armor, it appeared unbothered.

"KROGAN; STERILISED RACE, POTENTIAL WASTED."

It paused when it felt a barrel pressed up against the back of its head.

Shepard turned his face away instinctively from the mess of gore when Harbinger's head burst from the explosive rounds shot from his HMWSR. "Grunt? You okay?"

Grunt only nodded and stood up carefully, hopping on one leg as he did so.

"Samara's okay. I think she's going to feel it tomorrow though," Garrus reported. He had crawled from his hiding spot and managed to rouse the justicar to consciousness.

"Yes. I will be fine," she breathed out. "Although it would be in our best interests to leave immediately."

Shepard checked his chrono. Nine minutes left.

Shit…

"How the hell are we going to do this?" Jack asked. "We got two guys that can't walk here."

"Samara will support Garrus. I'll do the same with Grunt. You take point and use Shockwave on anything coming at us," Shepard directed.

"And if Harbinger makes another appearance?" Garrus asked slowly.

"Then we're fucked," Shepard bluntly said. He was unwilling to lie about their meager chances now.

"Uh, Captain? Hate to rush you, but those weapons are about to come online," Joker reported nervously. "Might want to double-time it. You know, so we can leave before they blow the Normandy in half."

He tapped into his radio. "Normandy, this is Spectre team. We might not make it to the shuttle. Take off now. We'll try to get to the shuttle and regroup at the mass relay."

"Are you sure?" Joker asked worriedly.

Shepard took one of Grunt's arms and supported some of his massive weight. His entire chest felt like it was filled with fire as his ribs throbbed. Sucking in a breath, he waited for Samara to do the same. Once ready, the group trudged on, moving even slower than ever. "We still have the other half of the squad onboard. If we don't make it, they can still finish the mission. Get going!"

"Spectre team, this is Cerberus team. We're at OP-1 and have secured the LZ. Jacob and I will begin clearing a path toward you."

"Wait. Miranda? !"

"You can reprimand me later. According to EDI, you're almost to OP-1. Get moving!"

Mentally thanking her for disobeying his orders, Shepard picked up the pace. His breathing was getting better since his ribs were already healing from his implants. Grunt growled softly at the thought of being someone slowing them down, but held his shotgun ready all the same. Samara was breathing heavily, but stood tall and firm. She had a slight limp in her gait, but she never wavered despite the pain she must've been in. Garrus limped along with her, his assault rifle held loosely in one arm.

Jack led the way, pausing at corners to take a peek before rushing onward. Soon, they heard ghastly moans coming down the hall.

"Son of a bitch!" Jack screamed out in fury. "I'll kill you!" A series of biotic explosions roared down the hallway, easily scattering and stopping the husk charge. Many had their legs blown out from underneath, rendering them useless.

Letting go of Grunt, Shepard took out his HMWSG and started firing round after round at the husks when they closed the distance. His shotgun tore a path through their enemies allowing them to push forward quickly. The second he had a breather, he glanced at this chrono. Five minutes.

"Scion!" Jack shouted.

Shepard pulled Grunt down behind cover and waited as the crystalline Shockwave impacted heavily against their barrier. Standing back up, he gathered his energies and put all of his focus into Throw. Taking a deep breath, his biotics manifested into a blazing fire around him just as he thrust out both arms.

A wave of energy streaked toward the lumbering Scion and the shambling husks. All of them were blown back by the biotic attack and slammed into the walls, ceiling, floor, or each other. The husks were no longer a threat, but the Scion was still 'alive' and struggling to get to its feet.

A salvo of missiles coming around the far corner ended that final threat.

Miranda, Jacob, and Kasumi rounded the corner to see the besieged Spectre team.

"Did you miss us?" Kasumi quipped.

"Get Garrus and Grunt," Shepard ordered. "The rest of us can still run."

"Three minutes until detonation," EDI warned.

"We're out of time, Captain! We have to go!" Joker stressed.

"You heard him! Let's go!" Miranda shouted. She knelt down and helped Jacob support Grunt while Kasumi did the same for Garrus. "Move!"

Everyone made a mad dash for the end as quickly as they were able. The shuttle came into view, a welcome sight after everything they'd endured.

"Take off, Joker. We're at the shuttle!" Shepard gasped out.

"Roger that!"

Mordin, Thane and Tali were waiting for them. Bodies of husks littered the way, but there was nothing else to worry about.

"Two minutes until detonation."

Except for that.

Everyone piled into the shuttle chaotically. Shouts, grunts, and curses of pain filled the cabin, but they endured their discomfort.

The doors closed and the shuttle took off. "Hang on, everyone!" Goldstein advised. "We are outta here!"

The shuttle raced away from the Collector ship and into the black. "Joker, ever try a Barnyard Swallow?" Hawthorne asked.

"Always wanted to!"

"We need a fast dock and even faster exit. Setting course for the mass relay. Pick us up!"

"One minute until detonation."

"Almost in position, Hawthorne. Let me know when you're ready!"

"Five seconds… 4… 3… 2… 1! Do it!"

-oOo-

The Kodiak pushed itself at top speed toward the mass relay. The Normandy flew in from above, positioning herself so that the shuttle was lined up with the open hanger at her belly.

"All hands: clear the hangar! I repeat! All hands: clear the hanger. Now!" Joker ordered. "The Kodiak is coming in hot!"

All crewmen inside docking bay rushed to the stairs and out of the way in an orderly fashion. Within 30 seconds, the hangar was empty of personnel and clear for their insane maneuver.

The frigate easily outpaced the shuttle and scooped it into the hangar. The shuttle applied counter thrust to kill its speed and landed roughly on the floor of the hangar. A horrible metallic screeching sound was created as the Kodiak slid along the floor before impacting lightly against the back wall.

"Yeah! Shuttle retrieved!" Joker shouted victoriously. "Strap yourselves in people! We're gonna make them work it this time!"

The Collector vessel turned around and fired one shot from its bow toward the nimble frigate. The Normandy banked low and to the right to avoid the shot.

"Detonation in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…" EDI counted down before pausing. "Detonation confirmed."

Throughout one side of the cruiser, explosions ripped through the hull of the Collector ship. Its main gun immediately stopped charging and went dim. The main propulsion ceased functioning. Smoke wafted from the damaged areas in thick, noxious plumes. The vessel started floating erratically, pushed off course by the multitude of blasts and carried on only by its momentum.

"Yeah! Suck on that you bastards!" Joker crowed triumphantly before engaging the FTL drives.

Her course set, the Normandy accelerated to FTL and vanished, well out of range of her crippled foe.

-oOo-

*ENCRYPTED*

Gathered vital intel regarding Collectors and Omega-4 Relay.

With Shepard's escape, Harbinger knows our true capabilities and will have to adopt new tactics. Will have to be careful, as Harbinger's information network may rival Cerberus or Shadow Broker's.

Also appears impossible to block his ability to possess minions.

EDI's work was exceptional, however, proving the value of shackled AI.

-oOo-

Author's notes:

Okay! Another story arc finished!

First off, 400+ reviews! Yeah! You guys are awesome! I never would have thought I would make that much when I first started. I was looking at half that at the most. Its things like that which tells me that I have to finish this fic!

A Firefly/Serenity reference here. Review if you spot it.

Also, I've put up my first vid on YouTube:

.com/watch?v=0GkeRRitoG0

Basically a Mass Effect 2 Trailer. Check it out if you got the time. Just be sure to delete the space front of the ".com" since doesn't allow multiple symbols to be put next to each other. Or just go to my profile and click the link there.

I've just downloaded and played the new DLC, Lair of the Shadow Broker. There are a few things I will need to update in my previous chapters. Nothing significant, but noteworthy to me. Also, a few things in the next few chapters will change now. So again, this is a novelization. If you have not played the new DLC, spoiler warnings apply now. For those that have played the new DLC, all similarities were purely coincidental and in context, completely unintentional and undesired. (You know what I'm talking about if you go back to chapters 21-25)

Continue to review. I love to hear from everyone.

Edit: Credit to Dhamon45 for pointing out a tiny mistake I should've seen.

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