Fight for the Lost

Interlude XV

Location: Hawking Eta Nebula, Thorn System, Cerberus Scouting Vessel Gravitas

"Captain Dawn. Right on time. Your report?"

"We've begun a sweep of the coordinates as ordered, sir. Long range LADAR scans have painted a silhouette within the brown dwarf in this system. Unfortunately, the amount of interference from Mnemosyne makes details sketchy at best," Captain Elena Dawn reported.

She stood at attention before the image of the CEO of Cerberus himself. Maintaining eye contact, she held herself with poise and confidence, even though she had to fight the urge to shuffle in place beneath his eerie gaze and unnatural eyes. Eye contact was one thing, but openly staring was another.

"And our missing cell?" the Illusive Man asked calmly.

"We've sent several communiqués across standard Cerberus encrypted channels, but so far, no word," Dawn answered.

"Nothing at all?"

"Nothing, sir. Complete radio silence. We don't know even know if they're even alive in there." She licked her lips and phrased her next statement carefully to avoid angering her superior. "Given the importance of, um, secrecy, I'm reluctant to use general transmissions to establish contact," she cautiously probed.

Thankfully, he nodded understandingly, much to her relief. She kept her face impassive and professional though.

"I'm glad to hear that you're exercising sound judgment, Captain. What of their ship?"

"We're studying the scans, but whatever is inside Mnemosyne's gravity well is enormous and most likely obscuring scans of any other vessel there, sir. The object is certainly large from what we can gather. Either it's a small space station or a very big dreadnought. If a Cerberus vessel is there, it's either docked with it, or inside it. We're just about to send in a few drones to see if they can penetrate the radiation and solar winds and give us a little more information. As per your orders, we're maintaining extreme distance from the site itself."

The Illusive Man nodded, though he didn't appear happy about the news.

Then again, I don't think I've ever seen him happy.

"Very well, Captain Dawn. Until your next report. If there is anything news worthy, I want to know about it," the Illusive Man ordered. "Immediately."

Dawn snapped to attention and saluted. "Yes, sir."

"Carry on," he said before closing the link.

Leaving the Comm. Room, she walked back into the bridge and issued her orders. "Lieutenant. Send the drones toward that gravitic anomaly in the northern hemisphere. Record everything, no matter how insignificant."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Any response from the cell yet?" Dawn asked.

"No, ma'am. Still nothing," an ensign reported.

"Keep trying. If there's so much as a whisper out there, I want to know about it."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And someone get me a damn cup of coffee!" Dawn ordered.

Her XO nodded and turned to the intercom. "Coffee for the captain! Double-time!"

Dawn sat down in her chair and rubbed her eyes tiredly. She couldn't remember the last time she worked a shift as long as this ever since she was put in command of her own ship. Then again, personal requests from the Illusive Man were about as rare as fertile krogans. That meant a personal touch was needed in just about everything in this mission.

What the hell is out there anyway?

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Boltzmann System, Normandy SR-2, in Orbit Above Bekenstein

"Well, Executive Lawson. All in all, I'd say you're an extremely lucky woman," Chakwas thoughtfully commented.

Miranda turned her head slightly and grimaced. "I think our definitions may differ on that, Doctor."

"A fractured clavicle isn't something you just 'walk off'," Chakwas replied sternly. "Not to mention the bruised ribs and slight dislocation of your right shoulder. Most injuries involving explosives are usually far worse."

"Well, if you put it that way…" Miranda said with a roll of her eyes. "How long will my recovery be?"

"Well, judging from your medical records and our discussions about your, ah, background," Chakwas said, hesitating when her eyes glanced at Shepard laying in the next bed over.

"Its fine, Doctor. The captain knows about my genetic background. Speak frankly, please," Miranda requested.

"Very well," Chakwas acquiesced. "Given the genetic modifications you've undergone coupled with my treatments, I'd tentatively say three days before you're cleared for duty. You're definitely staying overnight right here though, so I can monitor your progress."

Miranda sighed in annoyance, but seemed resigned to her fate. "Very well."

"As for you, Shepard. A few bumps and bruises, nothing you haven't had before on a mission," Chakwas informed, her voice clipped and clinical. "But Executive Lawson's report of your arm worries me. Standard scans aren't picking up anything that would explain it, meaning—"

"—SMART Scanner again?" Shepard finished with a grimace. The nanites was something he wasn't a fan of.

"I'm afraid so. We'll schedule it for tonight," Chakwas said. "I want to talk to Dr. Solus and see if his research has turned up anything. Until then, you're cleared to go. Come back immediately if the pain returns, however. And no more lessons with Samara or any exercises related to biotics. The less you do, the better."

When Chakwas left, Shepard slid out of bed and sat down next to Miranda. "How're you feeling?"

"A little sore here and there. Nothing new and nothing I can't handle," Miranda replied. She smiled up at him. "I promise I won't hold that explosion against you."

Shepard smiled back and reached out to squeeze her hand reassuringly. "I got to go set our next course. Are you…?"

She raised an eyebrow at him and squeezed back, perhaps a bit harder than necessary. "I'm fine, Shepard. I don't need you to dote on me."

He grinned at her. "I was going to ask if you were going to dote on me tonight when I sit back down on that scanner thing again."

"Of course you were," she said, clearly not believing a word he said. "You know, a massage would not be remiss."

"That's awfully nice of you. Won't that exacerbate your injuries though?"

She gave out a long-suffering sigh and squeezed his hand again. He exaggerated his wince for her benefit, earning a smile.

"When you get a chance to come by," he promised quietly. He held her hand a little bit longer before standing up. "I'll check on you later, then?"

"I think it's more accurate to say that I'll be the one checking on you," she replied. She settled back into bed and closed her eyes. "Until then."

Quietly, Shepard left the Med Bay. Past the door, he spotted Jack standing nearby, holding a stack of empty trays. She was staring at him with a penetrating gaze, occasionally glancing into the Med Bay to where Miranda was resting in. "Is there something going on between you and the cheerleader?" she asked, though it almost sounded like an accusation.

"Nope," Shepard lied, keeping his answer simple.

Jack stared at him with an unreadable look before turning away and handing the trays to Rupert. "Here."

"Thanks, missy," Rupert said. He took the trays from her and placed them in the sink to clean.

Shepard tensed up when Gardner called Jack, 'missy', but to his surprise she nodded back and thanked him for the food. She actually sounded civil, polite; almost friendly even.

"No problem," Rupert replied in his usual gruff tone, though he gave her a kindly nod.

Guess no one can get angry at the cook.

Still, he was a bit off kilter at their informal interaction, but shook his head and jogged after her when she made her way to the lift. "Why do you ask, anyway?" Shepard queried, still on their earlier subject.

"Just saw you cozying up to her," Jack answered.

"She took a hit on that last mission. I was seeing if she needed anything before I left, that's all," he said, keeping his voice even.

Jack smirked back at him. "Good. If there was anything going on between you two, I'd have to question your taste in women."

Wisely, he kept his mouth shut, since he wanted to keep his ship, not to mention his person, intact.

Entering the elevator together, Jack pressed the button for Deck 4. Shepard pressed the button for Deck 2. Since he was the senior officer, the elevator ascended to his destination first, causing her to scowl.

"Just letting you know, I'm setting course for Pragia now," he revealed. "Sorry about the delay."

She stopped scowling and looked up at him in surprise. "Seriously?"

The elevator doors opened. Shepard put his hand on the side to keep them from closing. "I know I put this off a bit long, but things kept popping up. You sure you're ready to do this?"

"I want to go there," Jack said. She tried to sound tough, but it came out like a whisper.

"We should be there in a few days. It's a bit out of the way," Shepard said. He walked out of the elevator and made his way to the galaxy map. Jack fell in step next to him.

Jack snorted in anger. "It was a secret Cerberus laboratory. I'm not fucking surprised."

"So what's the plan? Besides the bomb, I mean. You want to do this alone?" Shepard asked carefully. He started tapping the map to find the right coordinates.

"You'd really let me go by myself?" Jack skeptically asked.

"You'll have Hawthorne and Goldstein take you down in the Kodiak. But they'll be staying with the shuttle though. Other than them, if you want to do this by yourself, I'm not going to push the issue," Shepard said, punching in their new destination. "This trip is favor to you."

"Aye, aye, Captain. Nubian Expanse, Dakka System, Pragia. Coordinates locked. ETA: Three days," Joker reported. "Breaking orbit now."

Turning around, Shepard was about to ask Jack what her answer was, but she wasn't there. The sudden glow of dark energy from behind told him where she was though. Glancing back, he spotted her in the elevator. She looked deep in thought, even as her biotic aura smoldered as if it was reacting to her anticipation, or her memories, just before the doors closed.

Deciding that she needed some space to think and hoping that she'll avoid any property damage, he made his way to the armory to check on his weapons to kill some time. Inside, Jacob was at his station, but instead of doing any maintenance himself, he was leaning on his table, observing the other two occupants inside. Garrus and Grunt were sitting in opposite sides of the room. The both of them were absorbed in their own projects and weren't speaking to each other.

At least they're not fighting.

Garrus was inspecting his new sniper rifle, an M-92 Incisor that he procured back on the Citadel. When Shepard looked over at what Grunt was doing, he was doubly glad that no one was fighting, and extremely glad that Jacob was paying rapt attention.

Grunt was inspecting Wrex's gift to him, the M-920 Cain. Though Shepard would never admit it to anyone, watching the relatively young krogan poke around with a weapon that's nicknamed, 'nuke launcher', on board his ship made him extremely nervous.

Approaching Grunt carefully, Shepard stepped into his line of sight to prevent startling him and cleared his throat. "How're you doing Grunt? We haven't had a lot of time to talk since Tuchanka."

"I was studying the Urdnot Clan history and the traditions I'm expected to know, just as the Shaman instructed I do," Grunt said, turning away from the terminal to regard Shepard respectfully. He had a wide grin on his face. "Urdnot Grunt. I like it. I have a clan. That makes me… it makes want to fight – not just able to!"

Jacob and Garrus' postures became a little apprehensive at that statement.

"And Uvenk! I wanted to disembowel him! To tear out his spine and mount it as a trophy!" Grunt continued enthusiastically, unaware of the alarmed looks behind him.

"But you didn't…" Shepard reminded.

"That's because I'm a warrior now," Grunt said proudly. "And warriors are disciplined soldiers. Uvenk was dead and wasn't worth my time. I get it now – it's part of what I am! It was just delayed because of being tank-bred."

"So what are you now?" Shepard asked.

"I am krogan. I am Grunt of the Urdnot clan," he said promptly. "It's not an outside thing, I know that now. And I know I have a place as a krogan warrior. I like it."

"Good for you," Shepard replied, unsure of what else to say. "I'm glad to see that our trip to Tuchanka helped."

"Our enemies are in trouble, Battlemaster. And we better not run out of targets," Grunt said.

"Considering we're going after their homeworld, I doubt it," Jacob grumbled.

"They're practically lining up," Shepard added.

Unlike Garrus and Jacob, Grunt looked excited. "Everyone gets a turn! Ha! Wouldn't want it any other way!"

"So what brings you to the Armory?" Shepard asked. "You're usually not here unless you're collecting your weapons."

"I'm following your example," Grunt answered. "You're always checking your weapons to make sure you're prepared. The Clan Leader does the same. Plus, he entrusted us with his greatest weapons. It would be an insult to not to care for them ourselves."

"You're being careful, though, right?" Shepard sternly asked.

"Just as you and Wrex instructed," Grunt acknowledged. "After all we've been though; I'm not stupid enough to get us blown up. I have clan and kin now, a name to uphold."

For some reason, Shepard actually did feel a bit better knowing that Grunt was taking his new responsibilities seriously. Whatever the young krogan was studying must've carried quite an impact. "Carry on, then."

Grunt nodded and turned back to the terminal, examining the information about the Cain with single-minded intent.

Shepard cracked open his locker and started prepping his weapons for maintenance.

Garrus and Jacob both shared a quiet sigh of relief and went about their business.

Just another day.

~o~O~o~

Location: Normandy SR-2, En Route to Nubian Expanse Nebula, Dakka System, Pragia

Kasumi drew her legs close to her chest and bowed her head. Occasionally, she would involuntarily sniffle, though she tried her best to stifle it.

She was sitting alone in her room, curled up on the couch. Normally, she'd either be staring out at the stars or reading one of her books, but now all she could think of was the choice that was given to her.

Keiji's last message continued to repeat in her head, even without the assistance of her graybox.

"Destroy these files."

She couldn't though. It was all that was left of him, but it was also his last request. If she kept the memories, would it be because of him or because of her own needs? Was she honoring the man he was? Or was she being selfish in not wanting to let go?

She loved him and she wanted something to remember him by, but he said that she didn't need his graybox to do that. Was it a desire to protect her? Help her move on? Could she even destroy her last remaining link to him?

She wasn't sure if she was that strong.

She spent most of her life acquiring the most valuable artifacts the galaxy could offer. She treated them with the reverence and respect they deserved. But now, to destroy the thing she prized most, it was too much to even think about.

"Destroy these files."

I don't know if I can do it, Keiji…

But he asked her to.

I just don't know what to do…

Less than a day ago, everything seemed so simple. Sneak into a party and steal the graybox, kill Hock if the opportunity presented itself, with the help of Miranda and—

Shepard!

She snapped her head up when the idea struck her.

She remembered that Jacob had asked for Shepard's help regarding his bastard of a 'father'. Despite the dire circumstances, Shepard somehow found a way to create the best outcome possible when it seemed like there was none to be had. Jacob seemed to benefit from it. He stood taller, prouder, more focused and intense than before.

Not to mention the other members of their squad. Grunt benefited from Shepard's presence and had found a new home and clan. Mordin's assistant was rescued. Even their recent stop at the Citadel had a profound impact on Garrus. If she had to bet, Shepard probably had something to do with his sudden good cheer as well, not to mention the resolution of tension between him and Tali.

And then there's Thane…

Hopping off the couch, she left her room and hurried to the next door over. Inside the Life Support Plant, Thane was sitting at his desk. His back was to her and his attention was directed at a datapad. As she approached however, he put down the datapad and raised his head. "Something you need, Kasumi? Perhaps you would like to spar?"

"Wow. Most people don't ever hear my footsteps," Kasumi said, clearly impressed with the assassin's skill. "But then again, the Normandy runs so quietly that I'm not used to hearing my own footsteps either."

"To be honest, I almost didn't hear you, which limited the number of people it could have been when the door opened. However, there seems to an… urgency? In your footfalls I could detect."

"I wanted to ask you something," she said, her voice sounding serious for once. "Is this a bad time?"

"Not at all. I was experiencing some… difficulties, composing a message. A distraction would be welcome," he said and gestured to the seat across from him.

She accepted the invitation and sat down. "Is the message to your son?"

"Yes," he said simply and didn't elaborate further.

"Did Shep help you with that? Your son, I mean. I heard some rumors around the Citadel while I was there. About a drell and some politician. And drell are pretty uncommon. Oh, but don't worry, I didn't spread any around, rumors I mean," she babbled before falling silent under Thane's gaze.

He studied her, not cautiously, just attempting to judge her intentions, though there was a ghost of a smile on his lips. "He did," Thane replied, answering her first question succinctly.

She would be the first to admit that she tended to be a bit gossipy, but pressing on what was most definitely a very private issue was making her feel a bit guilty. Particularly since she was obviously treading on a very personal, maybe even painful topic and especially since she was undergoing a similar problem herself.

Still, if Shep managed to help someone as capable and self-reliant as Thane, then he would definitely be the one Kasumi could talk to about Keiji's final request. "I'm sorry if I'm being a bit nosy, but… did he help a lot?"

"Yes, he did. I owe my son's life to him," Thane answered. "Is there a reason you ask?"

"I managed to get my partner's graybox back. There was a last message inside addressed to me. With a final request," Kasumi confessed quietly. "I'm having trouble with, um, reconciling."

"And you wished to know if Shepard would be able help with this?" Thane asked intuitively.

She nodded, lowering her hood to hide her face a bit more.

"I don't know if this helps, but I've found Shepard to be a very decisive individual. Even more so when the choices presented have no clear definition of right and wrong. If that is such a case with you, I cannot say if you will accept his answer, only that he'll try to make the best one," Thane explained.

She nodded again and stood up. "Thanks for taking the time to talk. I'll let you get back to your message. And, um… whatever's going on with your son, I hope everything is fine."

"It is now, but I thank you for your concern," he said courteously. "Whatever happens, I hope you find peace as well."

"Thanks."

Back inside the confines of her room, Kasumi paced with a nervous energy. She knew she was being a coward, asking Shepard to choose for her. But he was a man of action, capable of making the hard decisions. Most importantly, he could look at this situation as a neutral party, free of the emotional turmoil she felt right now. Coupled with his record, there was probably no one better to talk to on this ship.

"Um… EDI? Where's Shepard?" Kasumi asked.

"Captain Shepard has just entered his cabin, Ms. Goto," EDI informed.

Thanking the AI, she left the Portside Observation Room and made her way to Shep's cabin. Once outside his door, instead of bypassing it like she did before, she pressed the holographic panel in the middle to announce her presence.

"Enter," Shepard called out.

The door opened and she hesitantly walked in. Shepard was sitting at his table, working on his terminal. He swiveled his chair and greeted her with a friendly look.

"Kasumi. What can I do for you? Is everything alright?" he asked.

"I… I need some advice. You're the best person I know for this kind of thing," she said.

He stood up and walked into the main room of his cabin. He sat down on the leather chair and gestured that she sit down on the sofa across from him. "Make yourself comfortable."

She accepted his invitation and settled in, though she was far from comfortable. "I, um, is Miranda doing okay?"

"Fine. Just a few days and she'll up and about in no time," Shepard replied. He leaned back in his seat and patiently waited for her to speak her mind.

Kasumi was grateful for his understanding, but Keiji's words were eating her up from the inside. Taking a deep breath, she decided to stop stalling and get to the crux of the matter. "It's about Keiji's graybox."

"I wanted to talk to you about that," Shepard said. "But I thought you might want some privacy first. Take a little time and all that."

Kasumi smiled in appreciation. "Thank you. Um… look, Shepard—"

He raised an eyebrow when she used his full name, rather than her usual irreverent nickname, but made no comment.

"—when I accessed Keiji's graybox, an automated message from him played. It's… it's complicated to explain. I think it's better to show you," Kasumi said.

"Are you sure?" Shepard asked. "I mean, if the message was for you, then it's personal, right?"

"It is, but I don't mind," Kasumi said quickly. "I need some advice, but you won't know how you can help unless you get a bit of information."

"If you're sure…"

"I'm sure."

"Okay," Shepard said. "How do we do this?"

"I can transmit the message to your omni-tool. Just let me access it," Kasumi said. Her interface visor appeared as she tapped into her graybox and activated Keiji's last words.

As before, she was found herself in her artificial construct. A dark, digital world, lit only by the main rings of light beneath her feet. Occasionally, webs of light would appear as she held her connection with this particular area of her graybox.

As before, Keiji's image stood in front of her. At her presence, he started speaking. "Kasumi. If you're seeing this, it's because I'm dead. The information I found is all here."

His right hand pointed toward a row of cyan squares, stretching as far as she could perceive. It was the total accumulation of his memories and hidden within was the information he died for. Having played his message before, several times, she just bowed her head and let everything continue.

"It's big, Kasumi. If the Council ever got wind of this… the Alliance could be implicated," Keiji gravely said. "Kasumi, I… I encrypted the information to keep it safe. And I uploaded the encryption key to your graybox, so no one could get the whole package."

Hearing his voice again, she clenched her fists and hoped that her physical self wasn't crying. She knew what was coming next and tried to shut it out, but this was a place where she absorbed everything with her mind, not her senses. Every word was crisp and clear and added to her anguish.

"But if I'm dead and if anyone knows about this… then I've made you a target, my love. I'm so, so sorry."

Keiji…

"I know you, Kasumi. You'll want to keep these memories forever. But you don't need some neural implant to know I'll always be with you. Please, Kasumi. Destroy these files. There's nothing more I can do to protect you," Keiji pleaded.

She closed her eyes and felt a single tear go down her cheek.

"Goodbye, Kasumi. I love you."

She took a shuddering breath and kept her eyes tightly shut to prevent any more tears from falling again. Deactivating her graybox, she took a moment to regain her composure before turning toward Shepard.

He looked deep in thought, absorbing everything he watched and heard. Eventually, he sighed and looked up at her. "Have you talked to Jacob about this?"

She shook her head. "This is something… I really don't want to approach him with this. I mean, I like him, and I trust him and all, but this is… I wanted to talk to someone neutral. He'll base his decision on what will make me happy, but that's not what I want. I want to know what the right choice is. I heard that this was one of your more admirable qualities. Do I honor Keiji's last request or do I ignore it and keep everything? I don't want to put you on the spot, but…"

She released that she was beginning to ramble and fell silent.

"You can't separate the information from the memories, I'm guessing," Shepard stated. It wasn't a question.

She shook her head in the negative. "No. Keiji's a master at encrypting files. Add that on top of graybox technology and it's probably impossible. He laced the information into his memories like it's a part of it now. You can't get one without experiencing the other."

Shepard nodded and considered the choice that she presented to him.

The choice she couldn't make.

After a few silent, and tense, minutes, he finally looked up. "I think… I think you should keep it."

"Really?" Kasumi asked, unable to hide the hope in her voice.

"Keiji only wants you to destroy it because of what it contains and how dangerous that knowledge might be," Shepard explained patiently. "Unfortunately, we don't know what it contains. If the information he found out was one of a kind and that his graybox was the only copy left, I'd recommend destroying it."

Kasumi nodded, still unsure of where he was going with this.

"But if that information is as important as he says it is, then I really doubt that whatever he took is really that rare," Shepard continued. "There's always more clues, more information, more trails, all leading back to what he found. If you destroy it, there's no guarantee that the information is gone. And there's also no way for anyone to know that you destroyed the information to begin with. Or any reason for them to believe you if you actually did."

"Which means destroying the graybox might not accomplish anything," Kasumi said in realization.

"Except losing the last piece of someone you cared about," Shepard finished. "I hate to bring this up, but I think it's already too late. The moment he was compromised, he already made you a target. Now you have to be ready to live with the consequences."

She wiped away her tears and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I am. I'll stay off the grid. No one will know I exist," she said, thinking quickly about her next move. "I think I want this…"

Shepard held up a hand. "Hold on. You might have to do that, you might not. It really depends on what he found," he said. "I'll be honest, I'm really curious as to what it is. Can you decrypt it and find out?"

Kasumi nodded. "Yes, but it'll take a while. Like I said, I'd have to shift through a lifetime of memories to do it and we're kind of busy saving the galaxy."

Shepard nodded. "Well, if this really does turn out to be a suicide mission, then I guess this conversation about keeping the graybox or not is academic, isn't it?"

She had to laugh at that. "Good point, Shep."

He leaned forward in his seat and looked at her sympathetically. "Are you sure you're alright? About everything, I mean."

"Yeah. Now that I have Keiji's graybox," she answered softly. "Are you sure you want to know what he found?"

"Whatever it is, I really doubt humanity is the only one with skeletons in their closet," Shepard said. "Dig deep enough and I'm sure we'll find something on the other Council races too. I just want to know to avoid any nasty surprises."

Kasumi smiled and stood up. Shepard stood up as well and was prepared to walk her to the door, but she surprised him by closing the distance and giving him the tightest hug she could manage. "Thanks, Shepard," she whispered.

Shepard returned her hug with a light embrace of his own before pulling her away. "Just remember, they're memories now. Try not to forget that he wanted you to live in present and for the future, okay? Both Jacob and I would really worry if you weren't sneaking around my ship and picking up the latest gossip."

She gave him a watery smile and nodded. "No worries there, Shep. I need to do something to distract myself after all. Not much call for thievery aboard a warship."

~o~O~o~

"Justicar Samara?"

Samara took a deep breath as she held on to her meditative trance. Without turning her head, she addressed the AI situated in the corner of the room. "Yes?"

"You have an incoming call. Doctor Liara T'Soni requests that you speak with her. It is a matter of utmost urgency," EDI informed.

The sphere of dark energy that coalesced between her hands faded away. Her eyes returned to their normal pattern as she stood up. "Thank you."

"I have informed Captain Shepard and he has cleared you to use the Comm. Room, Justicar Samara. Logging you out."

She walked toward the elevator and nearly collided into her student as he got off.

"Whoops. Sorry, Samara," Shepard apologized.

"Of course, Shepard," Samara said.

"Did EDI pass on her message?"

"She did." Sidestepping around him, she entered the elevator and rode it up one deck. Going through the Lab, she entered the Comm. Room to see Liara's image waiting for her. "Greetings, Liara. Have you any news?"

Liara nodded confidently. "It appears that Mirata, or rather, Morinth, has indeed taken refuge within Omega. Unfortunately, my contacts were unable to follow her, so I have no idea where on Omega she may be hiding. I do know that she has not left. Yet."

"I see," Samara said thoughtfully. "Since she was unable to mate with anyone on Illium, she must be in need of a new victim now."

"I could have my people continue to look for her…" Liara offered.

"No. That might scare her and force her to flee. Please, just watch the spaceports and see if she charters a ship off of Omega. I will look for her, personally," Samara requested.

"I don't know if you're aware, but Omega is the antithesis of the Citadel," Liara warned. "It's the home to the worst collection of sapient species in the galaxy."

"I still have an obligation, an oath, to Shepard," Samara said. "So long as I am bound by that oath, his Code is mine. Mirata will not know this and that is my advantage."

"Of course," Liara agreed with a slight nod. There was something telling in her eyes though.

"Ah," Samara said in realization. "This is why you said that I should ask Captain Shepard for help."

"Your Code can be your strength as much as your weakness," Liara said knowingly. "Shepard taught me that during our final confrontation with Saren."

"Truly?"

"It's a complicated story. To put simply, Shepard somehow managed to convince Saren of how… misguided, his actions were, to turn his own convictions against him," Liara explained shortly. "Now, about Morinth: If you wish for more information, I suggest you speak to Aria T'Loak. Very little happens on Omega without her knowledge and an Ardat-Yakshi is of note, especially to her."

"Thank you," Samara said with a grateful nod of her head. She allowed a small smile to touch her lips. "And thank you for your advice."

Unlike Samara, Liara smiled fully. "Best of luck to you. And please make sure Shepard comes back alive."

"I have given my word to you. It will be done," Samara intoned.

~o~O~o~

"Damn," Chakwas cursed. It was unusual from the normally straight-laced and formal woman.

Shepard sighed and resisted the urge to turn his head to see what she was seeing. "Bad news?"

"The nodules are growing. Almost all of them, it seems. The ones in your right arm are the worst, although it seems like the ones in your left thigh have also increased in size," Chakwas muttered as she intently stared at the hologram.

"Yes," Mordin agreed as he typed away on the nearby terminal. "Growth does seem linear however. But still growing quickly."

Miranda was standing nearby, her eyes narrowing as she considered the problem before her. Chakwas had long since given up telling her to return to bed and allowed the Lazarus Director to participate actively. "What about your research, Professor? Anything?"

"Oh, yes. Fascinating. Had to utilize STG and medical clearance to gain access," Mordin replied without looking up. "Experiments conducted on early biotic and non-biotic salarians."

"What experiments?" Shepard asked, involuntarily lifting his head to speak to Mordin.

Miranda put her hand on his forehead and forced him back down in his chair. "Stay," she commanded sharply.

Shepard rolled his eyes. "Woof."

"Experiments were to determine if possible to artificially introduce element zero into nervous system and grant biotic abilities into non-biotics," Mordin answered.

Miranda turned to him questioningly. "I assume the project was a bust or there would be a greater population of biotic salarian STGs."

"Yes. Project failed spectacularly," Mordin said. "Tumors, insanity, some cases of allergic reaction. Mostly runaway element zero nodule growths."

"Like me," Shepard said.

"Quite."

"And? What did they do about it?" Chakwas asked.

"Some research to correct problems and continue project. Preliminary results appeared favorable, but whole project was abandoned and scrapped before further work could be done. Casualty list growing too high."

"Is there anything we can use to help Shepard?" Miranda asked, sounding slightly impatient and worried.

Mordin shrugged. "Don't know. Cure was intended for salarians. Still not finished. Looking into it now. Finish, repurpose, adapt for human use."

"At least there's some good news. Now how about the bad? How long do I have before this becomes a major problem?" Shepard asked.

"We're still calculating the rate of growth, Shepard," Chakwas said. "One more set of points in a few days should do it. But judging from the sizes here, more phantom pains will occur in your arm and most likely your left leg as well."

"And how long until you may have some news about a cure?" Miranda asked Mordin.

Again, Mordin shrugged. "Unsure. Will try my best. Owe Shepard that much. Abandoning all other projects now. Including Collectors."

"Whoa, wait a minute," Shepard said. "What was that last part? The Collectors?"

"Oh, yes. Just side project. Nothing important," Mordin said dismissively.

Miranda raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure about that? Any knowledge we can glean from the Collectors might be helpful."

"Just studying Prothean-Collector connection. Examining technology, charting Reaper species modification. Fall of Protheans," Mordin said.

"And what did you find?" Miranda asked.

"Up, Shepard. The scan is complete," Chakwas ordered. She deactivated the SMART Scanner and inputted all the data into his medical records.

Shepard clambered out of the chair hastily so he could offer Mordin his full attention.

"Early stages similar to indoctrination. Can guess captured Protheans lost intelligence over several cloned generations. Cybernetic augmentation widespread afterward," Mordin lectured before looking thoughtful. "As Protheans failed, Reapers added tech to compensate. Mental capacity almost gone, replaced by overworked sensory input, transfers. Transmitting data to masters."

"I'm not seeing the big picture here," Shepard admitted. "Does knowing how the Protheans fell tell us anything useful about how to stop the Collectors? Or the Reapers?"

Mordin shook his head. "Not yet. More useful as motivation. Effects on Protheans more than indoctrination, body modification." Now he looked disgusted rather than thoughtful. "No self-preservation instinct. Old injuries not healed. No reproduction, just cloning. Technology overriding biology, not augmenting. No art, no culture—"

"You make them sound like husks," Miranda noted.

"Yes… Yes! Closer to husks than slaves!" Mordin exclaimed. He sniffed in distain. "Tools for Reapers. Protheans dead. Collectors just final insult. Must be destroyed."

"You're getting rather worked up, Doctor," Chakwas observed as she started cleaning up. "While it's all horrific, I'm not sure I see why the Collector's fate bothers you so much."

"Disrupts socio-technological balance! All scientific advancement due to intelligence overcoming, compensating for limitations!" Mordin said, accepting her question as a lively debate. "Can't carry a load, so invent wheel. Can't catch food, so invent spear. Limitations! No limitations, no advancement. No advancement, culture stagnates!"

All three humans stared as he started pacing back and forth, still lecturing about the downfall of the Protheans he theorized and melding with it with the scientific ethical concerns.

Shepard privately thought that Mordin was subtly referring to his genophage work and Maelon's obsession thereafter.

"Works other way, too. Advancement before culture is ready is disastrous. Saw it with krogan. Uplifted by salarians. Disastrous. Our fault," Mordin said and confirming Shepard's thoughts.

"While all this is fascinating, I didn't think you needed further motivation for this mission," Miranda commented.

"I don't. Simply enjoyed challenge. Saw necessity of attack on Collectors after plague on Omega. Their work, my people," Mordin replied with a smile. "Hard to care about two armies. One wins, one loses. Always work to do after. Now have more context. See what Collectors truly are."

"I see…"

"Wasn't looking for other work. Don't mean to imply that. That's why abandoning further research to help now. Won't let you down," Mordin hastily added as he nodded to Shepard.

Shepard nodded back before he slipped his shirt over his head. "You mentioned that the Collectors had no art," he commented behind his garment. After pulling his head through and straightening himself out, he said, "I had no idea you cared about that kind of thing."

Mordin shrugged modestly. "Personal interest negligible. Sang a little. Multispecies productions for cultural exploration. Gilbert and Sullivan. Always had me do the patter songs."

"Really?" Chakwas asked interestedly.

"Oh, yes. Cultural artistic expression reflects philosophical interest in growth, perspective, observation, interpretation," Mordin explained, unaware of the fact that his audience was more interested in his personal experience rather than his lecture. "Suspect you won't see any art in Collector base. Culturally dead. Tools for Reapers. Worse than the geth."

"I'm sorry, Professor," Chakwas said, holding her hands up to stop the fast speaking salarian. "While that was an important observation, I believe I speak for all of us here when I ask: You actually performed Gilbert and Sullivan?"

Shepard and Miranda turned to him expectantly.

Mordin nodded.

"Perhaps a quick recital? I'd love to hear it," Chakwas requested.

Mordin cocked his head to the side, considering the idea before nodding. He closed his eyes and took a breath:

"I am the very model of a scientist salarian, I've studied species turian, asari, and batarian. I'm quite good at genetics (as a subset of biology) because I am an expert (which I know is a tautology).

"I'm also quite familiar, too, with matters dealing medicine. I'll diagnose and treat the galaxy's most sickly quarian. I've cured most deadly plagues that brought populations to their knees – to their knees… bees, sees, fees… got it! And I've learned to eradicate a synthetic fatal disease!

"My xenoscience studies range from urban to agrarian on Tuchanka, Illium, Omega, and those far more alien. In short, in matters of turian, asari, and batarian, I am the very model of a scientist salarian!

"I know numerous details of several species' chemistry. From elcor to the volus, from evolution to anatomy. Krogan reproduction and the dextro-amino acid strains, of which turians and quarians are from, their cells, organs, bones, and veins.

"Humans are unique with their wide array of gene diversity. My research of Collector technology will shake the foundations of society. About being's reaction to stress my knowledge remains precise. Those seeking support in intercourse, I can offer my advice!

"This vast supply of knowledge covers every living sapient. My brilliant, hardened mind is virtually omniscient! In short, in matters turian, asari, and batarian, I am the very model of a scientist salarian!

"Beyond scientific expertise, I've also skills in combat. Killed krogan once with farm equipment and dropped him just like that. One probably wouldn't tell from exterior appearance, but I'm quite familiar in subjects involving ordnance!

"Though I've no trouble eliminating those I see as dangerous, I can't deny the things I do are considered to be heartless. Ethics and morals in the past have proven somewhat conflicted – conflicted, that's tricky… how about… But know it's for learning, growth, not death, for which I am addicted!

"With my military past, I'll put a bullet in your head with ease. I've disposed of ruffians almost as frequently as disease. But still, in matters with turian, asari, and batarian, I—am—the—very—model—of—a—scientist—salarian!"

His head was tilted back and his arms were spread when he finished. He relaxed and faced his audience, clearing his throat a little as he did so.

Chakwas raised her hands and clapped, followed by Shepard, and lastly, Miranda, though her injuries prevented from doing little more than polite applause before dropping her arms.

"Bravo!" Chakwas cheered.

"That was pretty good, Mordin," Shepard said. "Bravo."

"Mmm, yes. It was very entertaining," Miranda agreed.

Mordin accepted the ovation with slight bow and big grin. "Proud to be here. Thank you."

~o~O~o~

Samara waited patiently in the Common Area for Shepard to finish his business within the Medical Bay. The windows were opaque, preventing her from seeing what was happening, but from the shadows, she could tell that there was a lot of movement inside.

During the wait, she carefully considered what to say and how best to convince him. She told him that her mission would not conflict with his, but in light of the opportunity that presented itself…

A chance like this may not come for another hundred years. If ever.

After 10 more minutes, the windows of the Medical Bay changed back to normal. Mordin left first. He greeted her politely before exiting to the elevator and presumably the lab. Miranda was almost being physically pushed to get back in bed by Dr. Chakwas. Shepard had paused at the doorway, chatting with both women inside before leaving.

Samara stood straighter and caught his eye. In the end, she decided to be straightforward and to-the-point, as was her usual way. With the oath she swore, he could always choose to ignore her request and she could do little about it.

"Is something up, Samara? You're looking a little more serious than usual," Shepard said.

"There is a matter of great urgency I would like to speak to you about," she said.

"Do you want to talk in private?"

She nodded. "Yes, please. I would like that very much."

He gestured that she lead the way back to her quarters. However, before they could leave, Garrus sauntered up to him.

"Shepard!"

"What's up, Garrus?" Shepard asked. Samara patiently waited.

"Just letting you know that we managed to retract the cannon manually, but we're still working on repairs," Garrus reported.

"Any idea what's wrong?"

"Not yet," Garrus answered.

Something in the turian's demeanor gave him away because Shepard smirked. "So it was your fault, then? Has Tali bragged about it yet?"

"Oh, shut up," Garrus grumbled. "It'll be fixed within the next 24 hours, but since it's retracted, we can go through the mass relay now. I already let Joker know."

"Okay. Get to work and call on whoever you need help," Shepard said.

Garrus nodded to both of them and walked back into the main battery.

"Shall we?" Shepard asked Samara once they were alone again.

"Please."

Once back in the Starboard Observation Lounge, she walked toward the window and watched the kaleidoscope of colors and lights generated from FTL travel.

"So what's wrong?" Shepard asked.

"I must ask for your help. That is not easy for me," Samara confessed.

"I can imagine," Shepard commented. "I'll do whatever I can to help."

She didn't turn around, though she could see his reflection in the window clearly enough. "When we met on Illium, do you remember what I was doing?"

"You were looking for a fugitive. An… 'Ardat-Yakshi', I think it was…"

"Thanks to your friend, Liara T'Soni, I have located her; she has been going by the name 'Morinth'. According to Liara, she has taken refuge in a place called Omega," Samara revealed. "I would like to apprehend her before she disappears again."

Shepard walked close enough that he was at arm's length away behind her right shoulder. "Hold on, how important is this?"

"Killing her has been my focus for 400 years," Samara answered honestly and brutally. "It is the most important thing in my life and the reason I became a justicar."

His reflection became pensive at her words. "I asked you once if your mission would impact mine. You didn't want to tell me the details and I didn't press the issue, but now…"

"I will tell you everything, if it would mean securing your help," Samara said. "I know where she is – right now. In a month, she may be gone. This is the best opportunity I've ever had."

"Best opportunity?" Shepard repeated, keenly picking up on her thoughts.

She almost smiled at his intuition. "There were times where she would use my own Code against me to facilitate her escape. I have heard of Omega's less-than-reputable environs. I would be compelled to stop any injustice before me. Either I would be killed in the attempt or she will escape in the chaos. What she doesn't know is that I swore an oath to you – to do whatever you wish of me."

"I could go to Omega, you would follow, and I can order you not to follow your Code there. Just focus on her," Shepard translated. "If I choose to go after her myself, that is."

"Correct. This is my chance to use her overconfidence against her."

"What can you tell me about Morinth?"

"As you know, she is an Ardat-Yakshi, a term from a long dead asari dialect. It means—"

"—'demon of the night winds'. I remember," Shepard finished.

"That is mythology. She is simply a very dangerous woman who kills without mercy," Samara explained, keeping her back to him. It was almost a moment of weakness, not in asking for him for help, difficult as it is, but the thoughts of her children and what she was forced to become and what she must do. Looking at her reflection, she marveled at how much physical resemblance she had with Mirata now.

"I still don't understand what an Ardat-Yakshi is," Shepard said, stepping closer, but not quite able to see her face. "I remember the Eclipse on Illium were frightened, though."

"Ardat-Yakshis suffer from a rare genetic disorder. When they mate with you, there is no gentle melding of nervous systems," Samara answered. "They overpower yours, burn it out, hemorrhage your brain. You end up a mindless shell, and soon after, you are dead."

"There doesn't seem to be any references to it. I checked," Shepard said. "Why isn't this ever mentioned in asari literature or even in their art if it has some mythos?"

"When we were primitive, there was much fascination with Ardat-Yakshi. Some cultures worshipped them as gods of destruction," Samara explained quietly. "Now the asari have a place in the galaxy and they don't wish this defect to be widely known." She sighed and turned her head away from him slightly. "As far as I know, only three exist today. Two chose a life of seclusion. The third ran."

"Morinth."

"She ran and I am sworn to kill her."

"So what does 'seclusion' mean, exactly?"

"It is a place where they can stay in comfort and not harm others or come to harm themselves. Since the condition manifests with maturity, when one is diagnosed, that is the only choice offered," Samara answered.

"Besides death."

"Yes."

"If they run, you hunt them down?" Shepard asked quietly.

"If they refuse, it shows their addiction to the ecstasy from killing their mates. There is no redemption for such people," Samara stated, her voice tinged with a bit of hardness.

"Addiction? They want to kill?"

"Not just kill. That is merely the result, horrifying as it is. They want to mate and gain power from it. You see, each encounter gives the Ardat-Yakshi strength. The effect is narcotic; the more they do it, the more they need to do it. Remember how adaptive we are. If Morinth does not want to be cured, she won't be. She will never stop. She can't."

"Wait, wait. 'Each encounter gives the Ardet-Yakshi strength'? Does that mean—?"

This time, Samara turned her head to look Shepard in the eye; to stress her next words so that he'll understand the danger. "Each time Morinth kills, she becomes stronger, smarter, and faster. And she's been doing this for 400 years. She confuses her victims, twists their feelings. They will do anything for her favor."

"Did she run because she wanted freedom or because she wanted to kill?" Shepard asked, meeting her stare evenly.

"When she fled, she proved her addiction. She is not taking a great moral stand – she simply wants to keep killing," Samara answered. "Make no mistake, Shepard; she is a tragic figure, not a sympathetic one."

"Alright, I think I think I understand the situation now," Shepard said. "I have a course set, though. What are the chances that she'll kill again? Should I divert?"

"As I understand it, there is an asari there that rules all of Omega," Samara said.

"Aria T'Loak," Shepard said.

"Yes. If Morinth is caught, I'm am sure Aria will have her killed without mercy, but is that a chance you're willing to take?" Samara asked. Though her voice was calm and collected, her gaze was expectant. "To have Morinth claim another innocent life?"

To her surprise, Shepard sighed and rubbed his face as he thought about the question. He appeared conflicted with something. "Where we're going, it's important to Jack, something she needs to face right now. I just told her that we're going there. I promised her we'd go there."

"And if Morinth claims a life?" Samara questioned, curious as to how strong the human was in regarding the harshness of reality.

Again, Shepard rubbed his eyes and sighed. "I was given a mission to accomplish and I won't fail. Look, I need to trust all of you and the only way I can do that is if you're committed to my mission as much as I am. If I brush Jack off, she might not trust me again. She's had a hard life, almost where betrayal is the rule, not the exception. If any part of the mission depends on her being focused and she can't trust my command…"

"Then we all might suffer," Samara said.

Shepard finally raised his head and looked at her. She was so used to seeing compassion, decency, and confidence in his eyes ever since they've been traveling together. Now, there was a cold, detached, almost emotionless look in his blue orbs as he stared her down. The sight almost made her look away, but centuries of experience was on her side, allowing her to gamely meet his gaze.

"If something happens, then it happens. I have a responsibility to everyone on my ship. This is something I learned a long time ago: I can't save everyone. As callous as this is going to sound, if she kills someone, so be it. She's been doing it for 400 years already, well before my time," Shepard said stonily. "And I'll probably never really know how many she's killed. If Aria is watching, Morinth will need to be careful. Either she'll take her time, or she'll limit her… victims, to avoid attention."

Samara didn't turn away or speak against him. She continued to hold his gaze unwaveringly. Privately, she thought that he would've made an excellent justicar, given his ability to adhere to his own code, to judge a situation dispassionately, and still make a choice. No doubt it was those qualities which allowed him entry into the Spectres.

"We'll try to finish our business quickly and make our way to Omega after," Shepard said decisively. "I'm sorry." He turned and walked away.

Samara didn't know why, but something now compelled her to speak again. To confess the truth. All of it. "There is one thing more: this creature, this… monster…" she called out before hesitating.

She turned her head to face the window again. The reflection showed that Shepard stopped a few steps away from the door.

"She is my daughter."

With the truth out in the open, Samara turned around and faced him fully as he approached her again.

"You said this is genetic. How many children do you have?" Shepard asked, though he sounded sure of the answer.

"Three," Samara answered. "And three Ardat-Yakshi are in existence today. It is as it sounds."

Some of the hardness left Shepard eyes as he reconsidered the ramifications of what he was just told.

When she spoke, there was a hint of pride in voice and sorrow in her body language. "Morinth was always the wild one – she was happy and free. But selfish."

"I think understand your motivations bit more now," Shepard said quietly. "I… It can't be easy to talk about."

Samara had the distinct impression that he was going to apologize for her loss, but reversed his words at the last minute. Privately she was grateful for his tact. Pity was something she had little patience for, especially when she did not deserve it. Duty was all she had now. "My daughter's condition is my fault. The lives she took are my punishment. And my redemption lies in killing her."

"How did all of this happen?" Shepard asked.

Samara tilted her head, calmly considering the question. She couldn't remember the last time she talked to anyone about this, let alone a human. "I spent my youth on the move, adventuring. I killed people, mated with them, or just danced the night away. I learned so much, experienced so much. And then my matron days came. I could finally sit back, bask, and enjoy my family. But in one moment, it was all taken away."

Shepard nodded and silently urged her to continue.

She barely noticed him now. She was looking out the window, but staring at the memories that drove her, haunted her, constantly. "I sat in a med lab while a nearsighted doctor droned at me. And I learned that nothing was as I thought it would be. I gave up all that I possessed. I own nothing, claim nothing. All my knowledge will die with me. Now my purpose is to destroy my own child."

It was fate she had resigned herself to. Interestingly, after Samara finished telling her tale, the weight she carried felt a bit lighter, just a bit more tolerable. She was actually a bit surprised that she revealed so much about herself after spending so much time alone. She almost smiled, but didn't.

"Those moments change you," Shepard said understandingly. He wasn't looking at her. It appeared that he was looking at himself, her story spurring his own self-reflection.

"And I've hundreds of years left to live with that," Samara replied. If I live that long. "I say too much. Forgive me."

Her sudden statement shook him out of his reverie and he nodded.

"Help me find my long lost daughter. And kill her." As always, it hurt to say it, but her voice was firm and unyielding in her purpose. The pain was just another part of her punishment that she learned to endure. She knew that the day she succeeded in her mission would bring about an anguish that would pale in comparison to the last four centuries.

"We'll find her," Shepard assured.

As he walked away and as she sat down in her lotus position to begin mediating, Samara said, "Thank you, Shepard. There are no words to express what this means to me."

He didn't reply. He silently left her to her thoughts as the doors hissed closed behind him.

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

Kasumi's poll results:

Keep – 87

Destroy – 42

Cliffhanger – 39

So, keep the graybox won. What the information was, I don't have the first clue and I'm not writing about it. Better to keep speculation to ourselves anyway (Until we get a hint of what it is). All I wanted to do was cover the reasons why Kasumi would want to ask Shepard (and not Jacob) about whether she should keep the graybox or not. And put in additional reasons why she should.

Mordin's song! This new, extended version was just posted on the BioWare forums just as I was typing this chapter. Talk about fortuitous! I want to give Slidell505 a big thank you for letting me take about 90% of his song and modify it a bit.

I don't exactly know why I wrote Samara's loyalty mission the way I did. I think I wanted to establish a 'timeline' of sorts. Give a reason why Nef (story notwithstanding) is dead and why Shepard would have a 'dangerous' side to him that Morinth would be attracted to. If she just arrived on Omega, she'll establish herself (Apartment and such), hunt, and kill. Gotta give her time to do all that, I guess. I actually have no idea where I'm going with this part.

New poll up. Just interested in hearing your opinions. I'll take it down after Jack's LM.

Make me happy and review! I type faster when I'm happy!

l

V

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