Fight for the Lost

Reaper IFF

Location: Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Hawking Eta Cluster / Thorne System / Mnemosyne

"Hey, did you hear where we're going?"

"Everyone's heard. A real, genuine Reaper!"

"Think it's still… y'know?"

"No idea. If it's still alive, I'm glad the cannon's working then. I wonder what it looks like though."

"Probably looks like Sovereign."

"Maybe."

"How big do you think it is?"

"After seeing Sovereign in the news, it's probably big enough to plow down the Destiny Ascension, the Orizaba, and the Everest all at the same time. I know our main gun's powerful, but I wouldn't want bet my life on it."

The crewmen gossiping fell silent when Shepard walked in into the hangar and began stretching. They gave each other tentative looks, but none were brave enough to voice any of their questions or concerns out loud. Instead they shuffled about and talked quietly amongst themselves.

Word of their destination had spread like wildfire. Unfortunately, rumors had followed right alongside. As usual, fanciful or outlandish stories had grown from the scarce details the crew was aware of. Some were about how the Reaper was alive and had taken Sovereign's place as the vanguard of their race and they were tasked with destroying it. Or it was the remains of a Reaper the Illusive Man found and was being completely repurposed as a dreadnought and his own personal flagship.

Shepard had no idea how the crewmen knew, but wasn't terribly surprised. On ship as relatively small as a frigate, things like this were always bound to come out in some form or fashion. Even carriers and dreadnoughts had trouble keeping secrets when people were determined enough to get in the know.

With the cat out of the bag, it was this reason that Garrus walked into the hangar, approached him and started talking about their mission openly. "So we're boarding a Reaper now? Ballsy. Stupid, but ballsy."

"Scared?" Shepard asked as he lied down on the weight bench and started his reps.

"Just curious about how you operate, Shepard. First, we fight the Collectors outside of their own ship on Horizon. Then we fight the Collectors on their own ship amidst the remains of a turian patrol. Now we're fighting something that, in all likelihood, killed all the Cerberus scientists inside its body, or whatever a Reaper is. Finally, the endgame is about hitting the Collectors at their home base, or planet, or something," Garrus listed off before looking Shepard square in the eye. "You're never satisfied with thinking small, are you?"

"I don't like to get bored," Shepard replied with grunt.

"One of these days, you're going to bite off more than you can chew, Shepard," Tali warned as she entered the hangar as well and stood over him.

He grinned. "No confidence in me, Tali? That hurts."

"Don't get me wrong, you're extremely capable. One of the best, if not the best captains I've ever served with," Tali amended.

"We'll be sure not to mention that to the captain of the Neema," Garrus teased.

"But all this escalation can't be good for you," Tali continued over Garrus' comment. She half-heartedly swatted at him, but missed. "Hence, my earlier statement."

"All hands: we are approaching the mass relay. I repeat, all hands: we are approaching the mass relay. Prepare for mass relay jump," EDI announced.

"Well, Tali, on that fateful day, I guess I'll be relying on you guys to bail me out," Shepard said. He seated the barbell and waited for the incoming acceleration/deceleration of mass relay travel.

The other crewmen scurried about and secured any loose equipment around the gym.

"Approaching mass relay," Joker informed. "Jumping in 10… 9… 8… 7…"

Garrus sat down and started stretching. "You're one of my best friends, Shepard, but sometimes, you go and make it really hard to stay your friend."

"That's all too true," Tali agreed.

"Your support is so overwhelming," Shepard said dryly. The ship lurched ever so slightly. "I think I might be getting choked up. Seriously, I think I might shed a tear or two, here."

"Mass relay cleared," Joker reported. "Setting course for Thorne System. ETA: 4 hours."

Tali started copying Garrus' motions and started stretching herself. When Shepard shot her a curious look, she said, "Garrus has been giving me hand-to-hand combat lessons."

"Really?"

"I remember when she actually hit that salarian back on Illium. It was a pretty good punch, but I thought it could be better, so I've helping her out a little," Garrus explained before he stood up and moved to an empty part of the hangar.

"Even Kasumi has been taking the time to teach me a bit," Tali added. "I guess I'm following your example, trying to expand my horizons a bit."

"So how's it going?" Shepard asked.

Tali sighed. "I have a lot to learn. Turian military practices are worlds different than anything I learned with the Migrant Fleet Marines. And human hand-to-hand techniques are nothing like I've ever tried."

"If Kasumi is being too tough on you, it's because she cares. Remember that. If Garrus is being too tough, let me know. I'll be sure to straighten him out," Shepard offered jokingly.

Tali giggled.

"I heard that!"

~o~O~o~

Location: Hawking Eta Cluster / Thorne System / Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Mnemosyne

"Engage stealth systems," Miranda ordered from her position at the command post. "We have no idea what happened to the science team so let's rule out any external threats first."

"Engaging IES Stealth Systems, Executive Lawson," EDI said.

"Begin passive scans of the system. Let's find out if there's anyone else out there but us."

"Aye, aye, ma'am. Scanning system," Matthews acknowledged.

Miranda leaned on the railing and watched the myriad of holo-monitors for anything particularly noteworthy. It was boring and dull, but she didn't let her mind wander. The Collectors could very well know that they needed an IFF to cross the Omega-4 Relay and if they knew about the derelict Reaper, an ambush could be waiting in the wings. After about half an hour, something interesting finally caught her eye. "Hold it. Matthews, run that scan again."

"Aye, aye, ma'am. Scanning… wait. Something's there, I think."

"Identify it," Miranda commanded, "but be careful. We don't want to reveal our position."

"Identifying, stand-by."

The CIC fell quiet. Knowing that they were approaching a Reaper was already on their minds, dead or not. Hearing that a Cerberus team or crew had vanished while examining said Reaper had increased an apprehension that was already there; but now they waited with bated breath for Matthews' report on what might be yet another complication.

"I think… I think it's a ship, ma'am," Matthews' finally said. "I'm picking up latent heat signatures. I think they might be trying to avoid detection."

"Get a positive verification. Mr. Moreau, divert and intercept. And be subtle," she ordered. "Shepard, you're wanted in CIC. We might not be alone here."

~o~O~o~

Location: Hawking Eta Cluster / Thorne System / Mnemosyne / Cerberus Frigate Gravitas

"Report!" Dawn ordered as she stepped into the bridge. Whatever she was being called for, it had better be damned good or heads would roll. She was a half-step away from calling the Illusive Man in the Comm. Room and one of her crewmen frantically called her back to the CIC.

"Ma'am, I think another ship just entered the system!" a crewman shouted.

"What is it? Reinforcements?"

"I don't know. We were tracking the other ship at the time. Our scanners just barely picked up something coming out of FTL at the very edge of the system, but when we tried to zero in to identify, it vanished. We're not picking anything up on our sensors at all now."

"Should we start active scans?" the XO asked.

"No. I don't want to reveal our position. Especially if something just arrived," Dawn said. "Status of the first ship?"

"Gone. It entered the dwarf. We're trying to find it with any of the remaining remote drones, but it's doubtful we'll be able to find it again," another bridge officer reported.

"Damn it. Alright, let's not take chances. Commander, battle stations. I don't want to be caught unawares," Dawn said. "Let's get some decoys ready as well."

Her XO tapped on his console. "All hands: report to general quarters. Battle stations, battle stations."

"Decoy drones prepped for launch!" another crewman reported

"Helm, let's relocate. And try not to let anything out there know where we are," Dawn ordered.

"Aye, aye, ma'am. Relocating."

~o~O~o~

Location: Hawking Eta Cluster / Thorne System / Mnemosyne / Normandy SR-2

"They're moving," Matthews' reported. "But they're being slow about it."

"Trying to run without giving themselves away," Miranda said.

"That's my guess," Shepard agreed. "They suspect we're out here, but don't know for sure. Otherwise, they'd have already tried to jump to FTL."

"Our stealth systems are engaged so our own FTL signature must have given us away," Miranda theorized. "Their sensors must be impressive to work at that distance."

"Have they spotted us yet?" Shepard asked Matthews.

"Negative, sir. We're running silent," Matthews reported. "We're sneaking up on them unawares. LADAR paints the silhouette as a frigate."

"Captain! We just got an IFF ping. It's one of ours; Cerberus frigate, recon vessel," Hadley chimed in.

"Reconnaissance… that would explain why they're equipped with such sophisticated scanners," Miranda explained to Shepard.

"For spying?" Shepard probed.

"Among other tasks."

"Why are they here? Did the Illusive Man send them?"

She shook her head. "I have no idea why they would be operating here. The Illusive Man said nothing about this to me. EDI, can you identify them?"

"Accessing IFF… running search through Cerberus databases…" EDI announced. "Match found. The signature matches the Gravitas, under the command of Captain Elena Dawn."

Shepard glanced at Miranda.

She shook her head and shrugged back. "Never heard of her or worked with anyone by that name."

"Open a channel," Shepard ordered.

"Channel open, Captain," Hadley said.

"Cerberus frigate Gravitas. Respond to this channel." When Shepard received no answer, he frowned. "Captain Elena Dawn, respond now."

Finally, the holographic image of the Normandy changed as a connection was established. In its place, a pretty and formidable looking woman stared back. She adjusted her Cerberus hat and swept back her short blonde hair before speaking. "I'm Captain Dawn. Who is this? Identify yourself."

"Captain Shepard, Normandy SR-2. Don't bother trying to locate us, Captain, my ship is equipped with stealth technology," Shepard said.

She frowned at his statement and her blue eyes almost imperceptibly glanced to the side, probably silently communicating to her bridge officers. "Shepard… as in the Commander Shepard?"

"One and the same."

"Are you here to apprehend us then, Shepard?" Dawn asked.

Shepard raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. "Why would I do that?"

Dawn blinked once, but let nothing else slip. "You're not here on behalf of either the Alliance or the Council?"

"You don't know anything about me or why I'm here," Shepard stated. It wasn't a question.

"No."

Sighing, he turned to his XO. "Miranda?" he called out and stepped away from the command post. "Stand down from silent running," he ordered to the crew at large.

Miranda took his place. "Hadley, begin standard Cerberus encryptions. I suggest you do the same, Captain Dawn."

Dawn had a look of surprise before schooling her features. She nodded to someone off-camera.

Once communications were secure, Miranda said, "I'm Director Lawson, Lazarus Cell. We're transmitting our IFF to you now."

"IFF information received. Stand-by," Dawn said. She looked off to the side and waited expectantly. Eventually, she nodded and marginally relaxed. "Apologies, Director Lawson. I've actually heard of you. I'm something of a fan of your work… whatever work I've been allowed to know about anyway. We were told that a team would be coming to investigate the site, but the Illusive Man told us nothing else."

"He didn't tell us about your presence here either," Miranda replied. "Mission parameters?"

"Recon and report on some missing scientists in the region. Everything went directly to the top," Dawn answered. "The Illusive Man was very particular about that."

"You've been here long?"

Dawn shook her head. "Not really. A couple of weeks or so."

"You didn't know about Shepard's status or that we'd be coming?"

"All the Illusive Man said was that a team was coming. Avoid detection if possible and maintain our watch to see if anything out of the ordinary happens," Dawn replied. "As for Shepard, we've been doing a lot of deep space recon. Radio silence and extranet activities are kept to a minimum to avoid detection. Needless to say, every time we get shore leave, first thing we do is either get some R & R or catch up on current events. Last I heard, he was dead."

Miranda nodded. "A lot has happened since then, Captain Dawn. Is there anything you can tell us about the site itself?"

"One thing just happened right before you contacted us. In truth, I was about to call the Illusive Man about it."

"What is it?"

"LADAR picked up a geth ship. I'm reasonably sure it didn't detect our presence. We tracked it until it entered Mnemosyne's gravity well," Dawn answered.

"Reinforcements of some sort? Was there a geth presence when you first arrived here?"

"Negative. Only a large dreadnought of some kind, and one our science vessels. No geth. That third ship only arrived a little while before you did. It wasn't very big either. Smaller than my ship, actually. But how much geth can fit inside is anyone's guess. No more than a couple dozen if I had to judge."

"I understand we've lost contact with a Dr. Chandana and his entire science team," Miranda said.

"Yes, ma'am. And the crew as well. Part of our orders was to reestablish contact if at all possible with anyone there. So far, it's been quiet. Way too quiet."

"How many were aboard?"

Dawn frowned. "The Illusive Man didn't say and I didn't ask. For a vessel that size and the amount of attention the boss put into this… I'd expect around 200 or so."

Shepard stepped up. "Can you tell us anything specific about what's inside the dwarf?"

"Besides our science ship and the geth transport, I think it's a dreadnought, but it's larger than any known profiles; around two kilometers long. It's damaged, but what's interesting is that it's still generating a mass effect field, holding it in place above Mnemosyne. A very powerful mass effect field."

"How do you know? And how bad is the damage?" Shepard asked.

Dawn shook her head. "Our orders were long-range recon. The Illusive Man didn't want us anywhere near the site itself. 'Too dangerous,' he said. Unfortunately, that means details are scarce. The distance we've maintained coupled with Mnemosyne's interference means we've barely been able to tell there was anything in there at all. The only reason we know about the strength of the mass effect fields was that once our drones got through the solar winds, it entered the envelope of the wreckage and flew just fine; hardly any trouble at all. If it's damaged, I can tell you that it's definitely built to last."

Shepard nodded and glanced at Miranda.

"Very well, Captain. Report to the Illusive Man. We're going in. Watch our backs for any more reinforcements. Of any kind," Miranda said.

"You mean the geth or the Collectors?" Dawn asked.

Miranda's face betrayed nothing. "If there's anything entering the system, let us know."

"Understood, ma'am. Gravitas out."

Shepard furrowed his brow. "First a derelict Reaper, a missing science team, and now geth. Think the Collectors are coming too?"

Miranda shook her head. "I don't know… actually, what I find interesting is why geth activity has been so scarce. They're agents of the Reapers too, aren't they? So why haven't we seen them working with the Collectors? We've already encountered husks after all and it was the geth that introduced us to that tech."

"They were working for Sovereign," he reminded. "Maybe the other Reapers aren't aware of the geth."

"Or maybe the Collectors got in contact with them. After crippling their ship, they could call for help and establish themselves as agents of the Reapers," she pointed out. "Then they could request repairs or assistance to hunt you down. At the very least, their involvement would complicate matters and impede our progress. It would allow the Collectors to regroup in the meantime."

Shepard sighed. "Can't deny that possibility either."

She shrugged. "We'll find out soon enough."

"Agreed. Joker, resume course," Shepard ordered.

"Aye, aye. Resuming course."

"Gather the rest of the squad and have them meet in the Briefing Room," Shepard said to his XO.

"Understood."

~o~O~o~

Location: Hawking Eta Cluster / Thorne System / Mnemosyne

Access into the Old Machine located.

Optimal entry point necessitates disembarking into zero gravity and utilizing mass effect fields to approach entry point on exterior of construct.

Analyzing residual solar winds within the Old Machine's mass effect fields: 2.139 mph.

Probability of damage to platform: 1.741%

-Acceptable.

Identifying foreign vessel docked with the Old Machine: Classified material originating from Shepard-Commander's reports. Markings indicate pro-human group known as Cerberus.

Probability of hostile action against platform: 98.997%.

-Further analysis pending. Sensors do not detect presence of organics.

Probability of organics utilizing disruption technology to evade detection: 74.167%.

-Cerberus classified as formidable by known organic species. Assassination, infiltration, and subterfuge noted as primary skills utilized to conduct clandestine operations.

Proceed with mission directives?

Consensus achieved. Will proceed with mission directives. Highest priority.

Mission parameters: Engage only if engaged. Do not instigate hostile action.

-If engaged: Lethal force authorized.

Current armaments: Pulse Rifle Unit. Plasma Shotgun Unit. Widow Sniper Rifle Unit.

Probability of mission success: 48.211%.

-Probability subject to change pending further analysis of organic presence within.

Consensus achieved. Current equipment suitable for mission.

Mission to proceed as directed.

Comm buoy located. Uploading backup copy of gestalt programs.

-Uploading… uploading… upload complete.

Archive successfully secured.

Proceeding with mission objectives.

Extraneous Data: Profile Infiltrait0rN7 received 3-day suspension from Galaxy of Fantasy for unsportsmanlike behavior.

-Addendum: Avoid taunting when receiving awards. Recommend researching organic responses to failure –losing- at later date to better interact with organics.

~o~O~o~

Location: Hawking Eta Cluster / Thorne System / Mnemosyne / Normandy SR-2

"Without several more scans, Shepard, I can't permit you to use your biotics," Chakwas asserted. "Remember: the drug is extremely experimental. As in, you are the first to utilize it. I have the utmost confidence in Dr. Solus' abilities, but there are often things we can't completely account for. I don't want to take chances yet."

Shepard nodded as he stood in full armor in the Med Bay. After heading toward his cabin to put on his Kestrel Armor, he traveled down to ask Chakwas what his medical restrictions were and what he should or shouldn't be doing.

"In truth, I'd rather you didn't participate in any missions for the foreseeable future, Shepard, but I know you'd just override me. Just be sure to let Dr. Solus, Executive Lawson, or myself know if you present with any sort of pain you think is not associated with… whatever it is you're about to jump headlong into," she sternly said. "Anything unusual or out of place, you let us know immediately."

"Got it, Doc."

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your friendly and very important helmsman speaking," Joker said in a pleasant, informative tone of voice. "We're about to fly into the gravitational well of a brown dwarf. We're expecting heavy solar winds gusting at around 500 kph so expect heavy turbulence. If anyone needs a barf bag, I'm sure you can find something in the Mess Hall."

"That little prick!" Gardner shouted from his station.

"For any pharmaceutical assistance, please talk to Dr. Chakwas for a hook up."

"Jeff…" Chakwas muttered.

"Please observe safety regulations and secure any loose and valuable objects. I might trip and break my legs going to the head and then where would we all be? Trapped in a gas giant that could crush us like a tube of toothpaste and no pilot? Just something to think about. Thank you and enjoy the flight."

Shepard chuckled and shook his head in exasperation. "If he wasn't the best pilot in the Alliance—"

"Self-proclaimed best pilot," Chakwas corrected with a hint of irriation.

"Well, you better get ready, Doc. We're going in," Shepard tactfully reminded.

"Lovely," she said with a roll of her eyes. She turned around and started inspecting her stocks.

"We good to go, Shepard?"

He turned toward the door and saw Jacob and Miranda waiting expectantly for him. "Yeah. Let's go."

"Captain, we're approaching the target coordinates. I wasn't kidding earlier; solar winds are pretty heavy and our mass effect fields aren't enough to protect us fully. Expect this ride to get a little bumpy," Joker informed.

"Alright, I'm on my way to the CIC. EDI, raise the alert," Shepard ordered. He, Miranda, and Jacob shuffled into the lift and ascended to Deck 2. Already, the ship began to shudder from the gale force winds.

"All hands, we are approaching the area of operations. Report to general quarters; I repeat: All hands report to battle stations," EDI said.

As the elevator climbed, a hard round of turbulence nearly rocked everyone off their feet. Shepard fell back against the wall and just managed to catch Miranda as she fell against him.

"Wow," she muttered as the shaking ebbed only slightly. She held onto his arms to balance herself until she was able to stand under her own power.

"Yeah, that's what they all say," Shepard said with a straight face.

Miranda blinked once before narrowing her eyes. She struck him once in the chest and took a step back.

Once the elevator doors opened, Shepard walked out, trying vainly to suppress his smile.

Miranda made to follow suit, but stopped and glared at Jacob, who was trying to stifle his own grin and failing miserably.

Seeing the look on her face, he scurried after Shepard. Miranda shook her head in equal parts exasperation, annoyance, bemusement as she followed at a more sedate pace.

Before all three made it to the Briefing Room, the shaking suddenly stopped and the ship flew as it normally did.

"Just passed the Reaper's mass effect envelope," Joker informed before muttering, "and into the eye of the storm…"

"Unbelievable," Miranda said with a hint of awe. "It's just as Dawn said; it's actually holding back the solar winds and still maintain its altitude against Mnemosyne's gravity well."

"You're not making me feel better about this mission," Jacob groused as they passed through the doors.

"You're worrying way too early, Jacob. We're going to explore the insides of a Reaper. I'm sure this can get worse," Garrus pessimistically said, having only caught Jacob's last statement. He crossed his arms and pretended to look disappointed. "What kind of marine are you?"

"Thanks, cuttlebone," he sarcastically replied, though he smiled to show he wasn't offended. "You're just a fountain of optimism."

"Alright, settle down," Shepard ordered. He walked up to the head of the table and looked to see if he had everyone's attention. "As you no doubt have heard, we're approaching a 37 million-year-old derelict Reaper."

"This mission of yours sucks," Jack couldn't help but comment.

"Think of it as practice," Shepard replied. "If you can't handle this, then you probably can't handle what's coming later. Remember, we're hitting the Collectors at their homeworld. If you can't hack it, just say so."

Jack bared her teeth at the jibe, but didn't refute him.

"Obviously, this isn't a milk run. No simple 'swing by and pick up our package' here," he continued. "Cerberus had already established a presence, but the team assigned to study the Reaper has gone dark."

"Captain, just letting you know; LADAR got a hit off the geth ship. It looks like its holding position above the Reaper," Joker reported.

"Anything else? Movement, troops, anything that stands out?" Shepard asked.

"Nothing on our sensors," Matthews reported.

"I can get the Normandy into position and blow it away with a compliment of torpedoes," Joker said.

"Negative. Just dock with the Cerberus ship and keep an eye on it. See what it does, first," Shepard said after a moment's thought.

"Are you sure about that?" Joker asked uncertainly.

"I want to avoid spelunking inside a Reaper, but if the geth are here to secure the IFF, I don't want to prematurely destroy their ship either. If they aren't here to get the IFF, then I want to know why they're here. Just prepare to disable, not destroy," Shepard answered. "Status of the Reaper and Cerberus ship?"

"Scans of the Cerberus science vessel reveal no new insights. There is no answer to any of our calls and preliminary indications suggest that none of the crewmen are even aboard. I cannot say if they are deceased or merely abroad the Reaper," EDI said. "As for the Reaper itself, it is giving off power signatures in localized areas, but they are far weaker than a ship this size would indicate. The Reaper seems to maintain a mass effect field that has kept it from falling into the failed star, but massive holes have been blasted and melted into parts of the hull and remain unrepaired. The only logical conclusion is that the Reaper 'died' or was at least reduced to minimal functions all this time."

"Then was the geth responsible for the missing crewmen, or was it something else entirely?" Thane asked thoughtfully.

"It's not likely the geth are involved" Shepard said. "They arrived just only before we did. They might be assisting, but we don't know either way. Our mission is to board the Cerberus ship and see if they secured the IFF. Find any logs or clues to identify what happened. Also, we need to access their databases and download everything. Anything they learned about the Reapers could be vital. And finally, secure and rescue any survivors. We'll pass them off to the Gravitas."

"And what about the Reaper itself?" Grunt asked.

"Leave it alone," Shepard answered. "It's been dead for 37 million years. I don't think it'll choose to wake up now."

"Are you certain about that?" Tali asked. She wasn't kidding, since her entire countenance suggested she was looking at the situation gravely. "No offense, but considering your luck…"

"I'm serious," Shepard said. "That wreckage will have all sorts of information on the Reapers. Not to mention the fact that it's definitive proof I can bring the Council to make them acknowledge the Reaper threat is real."

"The Man isn't going to like the idea that you're going to out his secret," Jacob warned.

"I don't give a damn what the Illusive Man cares about," Shepard said. "This is irrefutable evidence. The threat is something bigger than Cerberus and whatever plans the Illusive Man had for it. I'm don't have time to play his little game of 'need-to-know'."

Jacob held up his hands. "Hey, don't shoot the messenger—"

"You have no idea how tempting that is," Jack muttered.

Jacob easily ignored the threat, real or not. "I'm just telling you what might happen. Making sure you're looking at all the angles here."

"I know and I appreciate that," Shepard said. "For now, the mission objectives stand. We're here for the IFF. If there are any Cerberus crewmen alive, we help them too. Help means alive and in one piece, Jack."

Jack rolled her eyes and crossed her arms in annoyance. "Fine. Fucking lucky bastards…"

"Are you sure revealing this site is the best choice?" Miranda suddenly asked.

"Of course the cheerleader has objections," Jack sardonically said with a sneer.

"The Illusive Man sent a science team and something happened. No offense, but their methods leave something to be desired," Shepard replied. "I'm done cleaning up after his messes."

Miranda looked like she wanted to argue, but in the face of the squad, she merely crossed her arms and gave him a look that promised they'd speak about this in the future.

Privately glad that she wasn't going to undermine his authority, he addressed everyone again. "The science team may have recovered the IFF, so we're going to dock with their vessel first and search. The IFF is the priority, but any research they've already done is up for grabs too."

"And if science team failed to retrieve IFF?" Mordin inquired.

"Then look for any mention of the IFF from their databases. We'll need to get it ourselves… inside the Reaper," Shepard said grimly. "We have no idea what to expect, so remember: only the geth are considered hostiles. Anything else requires my say-so."

Everyone shot each other looks before nodding in understanding.

"All hands: stand-by. We're initiating docking procedures. I repeat, we're initiating docking procedures," Joker called out.

Shepard looked around the table and saw everyone was ready. "Get your weapons and let's go."

~o~O~o~

Intrusion routines successful. Presence established within Cerberus data mainframe.

Downloading relevant information on Old Machine.

-Archive incomplete. Information on heretic weapon and location stored in local server within Old Machine. Remote connection not possible.

Locating server… server located.

Consensus achieved. Platform will continue mission.

~o~O~o~

Mission: Secure the Reaper IFF

To pass through the Omega-4 Relay safely, the Normandy will need a Reaper-designed "Identify Friend/Foe" (IFF) device. One of these Reaper IFFs may be found on a derelict Reaper hulk being investigated by Cerberus.

~o~O~o~

Location: Hawking Eta Cluster / Thorne System / Mnemosyne / Derelict Reaper

"Exploring an abandoned area, expecting something mechanical and nasty to jump out at any moment…"

"Destroying it and everything else around it with superior firepower and skill, one synthetic at a time," Tali added as she gripped her shotgun. Her voice had an out-of-character, but not surprising edge to it. Geth made for predictable reactions in quarians.

Garrus chuckled a bit. "Just like old times."

"Interesting. Atmosphere insufficient to sustain basic human respiratory needs. Suggests life support systems offline. Or failed," Mordin said as he scanned the area ahead with his omni-tool.

"There were no hull breaches on our scans," Jacob reminded.

"Smart move by the machines to take out the air, but bad news for any humans," Grunt said. "Unless they're suited up, we're going to be looking for corpses instead of survivors."

"That's only if the geth were responsible," Samara reminded. "Neglect could be the cause as well. If the crew was dead."

"Okay, Miranda. You've served on a ship like this before, right?" Shepard asked as they stepped through the airlock and swept the immediate area. Empty.

"Yes," she confirmed.

"Where would the science team secure the IFF and where would the databases be?"

She paused and considered his question carefully. "There's a special burn vault for any object of importance. The idea was that if the ship had suffered catastrophic failure, the vault could, in theory, survive along with anything inside. If someone unauthorized were to try to force their way in however, the vault was also designed to destroy anything and everything within… before exploding."

Kasumi whistled. "Wow, Mr. Illusive doesn't like to share, does he?"

Jack scoffed in distain. "Figures."

"Is it possible for the crew had taken refuge within?" Samara asked.

Miranda shook her head. "Not likely. It's not very big, and usually hermetically sealed. Only the captain of the ship, the chief scientist, and the director of this cell, if it wasn't the chief scientist or captain themselves, would have access."

"Will we be able to get in?" Jacob asked. "Neither of us have clearance of any kind since we're not part of this cell."

"We'll need to get to the bridge. From there, I can override the captain's command and take control of the ship. I should be able to open the vault after that. Again, this is assuming that Chandana succeeded in getting the IFF," Miranda said.

"And their research?" Shepard asked.

She looked down the hall and pointed with her Pulse Rifle. "Servers are deck below us. A lift should be that way. Not too far. We can establish a link with EDI and have her download everything."

"Lead the way," Shepard said tensely as the silence bore down on the group.

Miranda took point and scanned their surroundings warily. Shepard was reminded of the Collector Cruiser. Initial scans revealed nothing and yet, and they were still ambushed by hordes of Collectors and husks. At this point, it was a lesson learned about their enemies: expect anything and everything.

After descending a deck and navigating a few corridors, Miranda stopped in front of a door and tried to enter. "Locked," she announced.

"Tali," Shepard called out.

"On it," the engineer said. She moved toward the display and started her bypass.

"Does this feel wrong to anyone?" Garrus asked.

"No signs of struggle, no blood, and no bodies," Thane said in agreement. "Does a vessel like this only carry scientists?"

Jacob shook his head in the negative. "Security teams are assigned as well. SOP. For the protection of the site and the scientists." At Thane's confused tilt of his head, Jacob added, "Standard Operating Procedure."

"Don't forget rooting out moles and traitors," Miranda pointed out. Her voice had a slight edge to it.

Shepard assumed that she was thinking about Wilson and decided to stay quiet.

"Usually, the more important the site, the better the security," Jacob finished with a side-glance at Miranda.

"That would explain why you were there at the Lazarus Project," Shepard said.

Jacob scowled. "Yeah… fat load of good that did…"

"Add to the fact that there had to be a crew to manage a ship this size and Garrus and Thane are right; the fact that we've seen no evidence of any conflict is troubling," Samara said.

"Trap then?" Mordin asked. "Geth or Collectors already present?"

"Got it," Tali announced. The console flashed from red to green. She hastily stood up and readied her shotgun.

"I don't think so…" Shepard said. "But we shouldn't take chances. Defensive perimeter. Spread out while Miranda, Tali, and I access the databases. Garrus, Jacob, remain here. Once we're done here, we'll get the IFF."

Garrus and Jacob held their positions near the door. The rest of the group spread themselves out and waited at the ends of the hallway near the intersections.

"Open it," Shepard ordered.

Tali opened the door and Garrus and Jacob walked inside carefully. After sweeping the room and seeing nothing suspicious, they called the others in.

Shepard entered next and did a cursory check as well. He waited as patiently as he could while Miranda hurried to the main computer and started typing rapidly.

"EDI? Are you there?" Miranda called.

"Always, Executive Lawson," EDI replied.

"Setting up the link. Stand-by."

"Link established. I am online, Executive Lawson. Mining databanks… unlocking research notes. You should be able to peruse the logs as you please."

"Thank you, EDI," Miranda said. "Now let's see what happened here…"

After typing a few commands, an older, balding, and dark-skinned human man appeared on the monitor. "The airlock into the site itself has been installed at the far end of the holed section. We have already excavated several artifacts and have started sorting and analyzing them now."

"This is Dr. Chandana," Miranda informed.

Dr. Chandana paused to close his eyes and rubbed his forehead in agitation. "The crew is… edgy. I reassure them it's just nerves. A superstitious reaction to what this hulk represents – the corpse of a vast, ancient life-form." He paused again and brought his face closer to the camera. His eyes darted all around him. "Privately, I can't deny the atmosphere. The angles of the walls seem to press down on you. I find myself clenching my teeth."

Miranda moved on to the next relevant log. A different Cerberus scientist popped up on the screen.

"We finished cataloguing specimens A203 to B016. No evidence of active nanotechnology noted. Dr. Chandana believes they would have decayed over the last 37 million years. There's not enough data to support his claim. He asserts that the truth is 'patently obvious'. I am… concerned. Chandana has been staring at the sample for hours. He says he's 'listening' to them."

"This doesn't sound good," Garrus muttered and gave voice to Shepard's sinking feeling as they watched and listened.

"The other logs seem to have corruptions," Tali said. "It'll take time to clean and repair them."

"Forget it. Just see what else you can recover," Shepard ordered.

"I've accessed the security logs. Playing," Miranda said.

A pair of men were sitting at a table talking. They weren't dressed like security or crewmen, which probably meant that they were scientists or researchers.

"You're married? You never mentioned that."

"Katy had management issues. When my brother got married, the best man tried to hit on her. She kicked him down the church steps."

The other man looked confused. "Wh-? Katy's my wife! I must've told you the story."

"No," he said, shooting an uncertain look at his colleague. "I know my wife. I remember – that day was the only time I saw her wear stockings."

"Yeah. The kind with seams up the back. That's what I remember, too…"

"What the hell is this? How can we remember the same thing?"

After the log ended, Shepard shook his head. "Neither one of them were married. No rings."

"They were being indoctrinated," Tali said in horror.

"I can't believe this ancient wreck can still do that," Garrus said disbelievingly.

Miranda said nothing, but her posture was tense. She tapped another button. The same two men were still sitting at the same table, but the time stamp showed that it was three days later.

"Third day with this headache. You'd think Chandana would let me have a few hours off…" one man complained before jerking his head back. "Goddamn!"

The other man turned around to see what his colleague was looking at. "What?"

"That thing that just… that gray thing! It disappeared when I looked straight at it! Came out of the damn wall!"

"I didn't see anything. You should lie down." There was a strange monotone in his voice now.

"I'm telling you, this ship isn't dead! It knows we're inside it!"

"Calm down. Now I'm getting a headache."

"Um… I managed to fix one of the last logs," Tali said hesitantly.

"Play it," Shepard ordered.

This time, a different scientist was being recorded. He looked injured and gas was escaping from a hole in his hardsuit. The environment around him was decidedly alien. He was staring right at the camera, though his eyes were darting back and forth. Ghastly moans could be heard in the background. Occasionally, the screen became grainy and snowy as the feed became corrupted or damaged.

"Husks," Miranda said quietly.

"Chandana said the ship was dead. We trusted him. And he was right… but even a dead god can dream," the scientist said without preamble. "A god – a real god – is a verb. Not some old man with magic powers. It's a force. It warps reality just by being there. It doesn't have to want to. It doesn't have to think about it. It just does," he rambled on. A particularly loud bang reverberated in the background, but the scientist didn't even flinch. He kept speaking, knowing these were his last words. "That's what Chandana didn't get. Not until it was too late. The god's mind is gone, but it still dreams. It knows now. It's tuned into our dream. If I close my eyes, I can feel it. I can feel every one of us."

Abruptly, the scientist jerked his head to the side and raised a pistol. The husk's ghoulish cries could be heard clearly now. He started shooting wildly at them before placing the gun underneath his chin and pulling the trigger.

With that final act, the log ended.

There was a short silence among the squad before Shepard spoke.

"This changes everything," he announced. He tapped into his radio to call the others. "Everyone, we're on a clock. We need to secure that IFF immediately. From this point on, assume everything is hostile. Shoot on sight."

"And the Reaper?" Garrus inquired tensely.

"No," Shepard answered immediately to the unspoken question. "Alright, let's get up to the bridge so Miranda can—"

Anything further he wanted to say was immediately cut off when the deck below them shuddered violently. Everyone was able to keep their footing, but there was a universal sinking feeling that went through their minds.

"Report!" Shepard barked.

"The Reaper just threw up a kinetic barrier! Power level is off the charts! I don't think we can punch through it!" responded Joker.

"So we're trapped? Wonderful," Garrus said while shaking his head.

"And the hits just keep on coming," Jacob muttered.

"No enemies approaching," Mordin reported from his position in the hallway. "Curious. Trapped, but no ambush…"

"It is disquieting," Thane agreed.

"I can't believe this shit. Trapped inside a fucking Reaper? I want to shoot someone," Jack said.

"As curious as I am about Reapers, I'd rather not be trapped inside of one," Tali said tensely.

"Well, it could be worse. Don't know how, but… I guess it could be full of rats," Kasumi joked, though her voice lacked its usual teasing lilt.

"We'll have to take down the barrier generators from in here," Shepard said and silencing any further comments. "Any idea where they are?"

"At the moment of activation, I detected a heat spike in what is likely the wreck's mass effect core. Sending the coordinates now," EDI helpfully supplied. "Be advised: this core is also maintaining the Reaper's altitude."

"Wait, taking out the core would mean the Reaper falls into Mnemosyne…" Shepard said.

"And if we're still here, we all die," Joker finished. "Yeah, got it."

"No," Shepard asserted. "We need this thing. Find another way."

Garrus shook his head. "We're here for the IFF. Don't make it more than that, Shepard. This thing is a deathtrap. The longer we stay, the worse it'll be. I'm not looking to be anything like Saren."

"That's not going to happen," Shepard shot back. "But we need something to give to the Council. Something that will tell them that the Reaper threat is real!"

"We'll pick something off from the Collectors then!" Garrus argued. "The risks are high enough! Don't make it worse!"

"Whoa, hey. Guys!" Jacob called out.

"We're not taking out the core," Shepard growled. "We can find another way."

"Before we end up like drooling slaves? Or worse?" Garrus countered. He stood his ground. "We need to stick to the mission."

"We need to think about more than that."

"I'm sure that's what the Illusive Man thought too," Garrus snarled.

"Shepard, Garrus! Stop it!" Tali cried out.

"Don't even think about comparing either of us," Shepard said in a low and dangerous voice. "We're nothing alike."

"Oh, yeah? Just how broke up do you think he'll be when he hears about the dead scientists? All he wants is this piece of shit for whatever reason. Admit it, Shepard. These people were just resources, tools, and in his eyes, you're the same," Garrus barked back.

"You don't know what you're—"

"Enough!"

Both men stopped arguing and faced Miranda. She was glaring right through her transparent faceplate, daring either of them to defy her.

"This isn't helping," she snapped. She turned toward Shepard and took a breath. "For what it's worth, Garrus is right. We don't know how long it might take for indoctrination to take effect and I doubt the logs will reveal how long it took to affect the crew stationed here. We don't have the time to research alternate ways out."

"But—" Shepard tried to say.

"Believe me, I know how much and how valuable the information might be in here, but then, so did the science team," Miranda said. "What I'm worried about is that the Reaper just 'suddenly' decided to erect a kinetic barrier? Besides indoctrination, this thing didn't respond to the science team's presence and none of the logs mention any sudden spikes of activity. For all intents and purposes, the Reaper shouldn't be active and yet here we are. Which means this thing may have actually responded to a threat, dead or not. Maybe it's you, maybe the Normandy, who knows? All we can surmise is that the Reaper is somehow actively trying to defend itself and you told me that 'we need to be extra careful'. Or did you forget what happened at the Collector ship that you made a point of reminding me of?"

Shepard gritted his teeth and glared back at her, though, thankfully his helmet hid his expression. After a few tense moments he finally nodded stiffly. "Fine."

She gave a tight nod back in return. "I'm glad to see you're returning to your senses. I hope that outburst was because of your own desires and that nothing was… influencing your command decisions."

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the idea that he might already be falling under the influence of indoctrination all just to preserve the Reaper was a chilling thought. "We'll take out the mass effect core. I'll lead a team into the Reaper. Tali, Jacob, Kasumi, Thane, Jack… and Garrus. You're with me. Miranda, you take Grunt, Samara, and Mordin. Get to the bridge, get control, and get the IFF. Call us if you have it or if it isn't there, and then meet up with us if you can. Otherwise, egress back to the Normandy."

Everyone acknowledged his orders, even Garrus. If their heated exchange bothered him, he didn't show it.

"Joker, we'll need a fast pick-up when the core goes offline. Being crushed in the heart of a brown dwarf is not on today's agenda."

"Um… yeah. I mean, understood."

"If there's any helmsman that can pull us off this thing before it reaches crush depth, it's you. We'll get the IFF, make a sweep for survivors and… recover what data we can. Stand by."

"Aye, aye. Good hunting," Joker acknowledged.

~o~O~o~

"Please stand by. Equalizing pressure with exterior conditions."

As the airlock pressurized, Shepard shuffled in place a bit before turning toward Garrus and talked him over a private radio channel. "Hey, listen. About what happened earlier…"

Garrus shrugged it off. "Don't worry about it. You're under a lot of pressure. I'd worry more if you didn't blow up like that once in a while."

"Still… sorry."

He nodded understandingly. "Dealing with the Council is tough and politics is a pain in the ass. They may have created the Spectres, but they don't want to know what they do. Sticking their heads in the dirt – is that human expression? – is what they're good at."

Shepard chuckled. "It's close enough and yeah, I agree with you 100%."

The nearby terminal beeped, signaling that the depressurization was complete. "Please take caution when exiting and ensure all hardsuits are functioning correctly. Remember, safety is everyone's concern. We have gone five days without a workplace death," the VI chimed.The airlock hissed open.

"Just five? Someone check the computer, cause there's no way in hell Cerberus can't get past one," Jack sarcastically said.

"The last crewman must've died five days ago," Garrus theorized.

Jacob and Thane exited first and looked around. "Ah, hell. We got bodies…"

"Bloody mess is more like it," Jack commented.

The remains of several Cerberus crewmen were laid out haphazardly on the catwalk. It was the first physical sign of them they've seen. From all indications, it looked like they were all beat to death, though given the condition some of the bodies were in, darker surprises were no doubt waiting for them.

"Everyone's dead. I think we've seen this too many times," Garrus muttered. "And not just from Cerberus experiments either."

"Yeah, Saren and the geth accumulated quite the body count too and made plenty of husks from that…" Shepard saw there were at least half a dozen laying just in front of them. Blood trails showed that there were more. "Judging from the marks, they're being dragged. With a crew of 200…"

"Then that's how many husks we can expect to encounter," Thane said.

"Probably. Stay frosty people."

Catwalks and other definite manmade structures were laid out before them; obviously placed there by the Cerberus crewmen as they began digging deep into the Reaper. Tools, trays, and other implements were scattered all over the floor.

It was the first time Shepard had ever seen the inside of a Reaper. And it was nothing like he'd ever imagined. Though everything was decidedly mechanical in origin, it felt as alien as the Collector Cruiser. Dozens of long thick cables, almost resembling the wreck's arteries and veins coiled all around them and extended as far as the eye could see in all directions. A thin gaseous mist of some sort was everywhere, seemingly engulfing them; limiting visibility, and created a tiny feeling of claustrophobia, despite the huge scale of the Reaper corpse.

As the squad moved forward, what little atmosphere inside the Reaper was enough for sound to carry. Unlike the Collector ship, whose dead silence carried its own brand of malice, their footsteps were compounded with sounds of the solar winds buffering against the wreck, metal groaning all around them, and vague, unidentifiable sounds in the distance.

He observed that everything was all set up for a long-term archeological dig. Complete with welders, fuel tanks, cutting lasers, large drills and cranes and other instruments necessary for metal work and excavation. Panels, cables and other parts of the Reaper were littered everywhere. Work lights were placed on the sides, but some were flickering or weren't working at all. The few lights provided simply made the shadows feel much more foreboding and menacing. It almost felt like something would jump out and strike at any moment.

Not to mention the blood…

Long lines of blood, some still wet, but most were dried, paved the catwalk. Judging from some of the patterns, a few people fought back, creating messy smears that showed proof of their futile struggles as they were taken to whatever fate befell them.

Kasumi noted some of the tools and fuels tanks used for creating the walkways as well. Like everything else, they were left behind, scattered ahead. "High pressure tanks. Think our enemies are allergic to having their asses blown off?" she joked in an effort to keep her nervousness at bay.

"Haven't met anyone that isn't," Jacob replied before tilting his head thoughtfully. "Except Shepard, that is. I think it'll just give him indigestion."

"Very funny," Shepard said over Kasumi's giggles.

"There's something ahead," Thane suddenly said.

Everyone raised their weapons in response to his warning and looked around. Nothing stuck out or seemed suspicious or threatening.

"Are you sure you saw something?" Jack asked skeptically after a few silent and eerie minutes.

"Heard, and yes, I'm sure," Thane answered quietly and calmly. His posture was alert and he kept his pistols raised, but the cloudy smoke around them made it difficult to see what got his attention.

Jack made a show of looking around before shook her head. "I don't hear—"

Her sentence was cut off when she accidently kicked some of the flotsam left behind by the Cerberus excavators. Whatever it was, it rolled off the catwalk and down into the depths of the Reaper. It made unnaturally loud clattering sounds as it seemed to hit just about everything on its way down.

After what seemed like an eternity, the object had either finally hit the bottom, or it was so far it couldn't be heard anymore. The echoes remained just a little longer before it too, faded away.

"Goddamn it…"Jack whispered, as if she didn't want to add to the volume of noise she inadvertently created.

Thankfully, no one commented on her carelessness.

Suddenly, Shepard tilted his head and glanced around. "I hear something too."

"So do I," Tali agreed. "What is that?"

"Growling," Thane said. "We're being hunted."

"It sounds like it's coming from all around us," Garrus said.

Everyone made a loose ring and watched each other's backs. They tried to locate the origin of the sounds but whatever it was, it didn't readily reveal itself. Only their instincts whispered the dangers to them.

Jack suddenly screamed. As one, everyone whirled on her. Something landed on top of her and was wrapping its limbs around her neck. She unleashed a pulse of biotics that blasted it away.

The husk flew over the catwalk in into the chasm below.

"Contact above us!" Shepard shouted. He looked up and saw the husks were crawling all over the ceiling. He raised his rifle started picking them off.

The husks started attacking in earnest when they were discovered. Groups of them immediately besieged the squad from all directions. A dozen alone were climbing up the catwalk and trying to grasp at their legs.

"We can't fight here!" Jacob said. He viciously kicked the head of one husk that was too close for comfort. "We gotta move!"

"Keep going down the catwalks!" Shepard ordered. He aimed downrange and blew a few more husks away. "Thane, blow the tanks to cover our advance! Go, people, go!"

He and Garrus led the charge deeper into the Reaper. They shot past the husks in a hail of bullets, but more took their place. By now, they were coming from everywhere; the ceilings, floors, holes in the walls, underneath the railings, whatever allowed them to pop out and attack the intruders.

"Alright, alright! I fucking believe you!" Jack shouted at Thane as they made their mad scramble out. She helped him detonate the tanks to discourage pursuit and to avoid being surrounded.

"Miranda, we've encountered hostiles. We're going to push deeper in. Status?" Shepard asked as he led everyone deeper into the Reaper. The catwalks were branching out now, heading into who-knows-what. He hoped that the Cerberus researchers assigned were interested in a Reaper's mass effect core and that they built walkways to it, or they'd be in a world of trouble.

"We're at the bridge. I'm trying to override the captain's command and take control of the ship. So far, there's been… oh, hell. Stand-by!"

Shepard was about to ask Samara, Mordin, or Grunt what the hell was going on when a trio of husks were killed right in front of him. Their heads almost literally exploded.

"Sniper!" Garrus warned.

Shepard stopped at the edge of the opening and checked their rear. The explosion halted the husk's attack for the time being, but it was only a matter of time before they found them again. Already, he could hear their unending moans closing in. He sidled up to the archway and waited. He knew better than to poke his head out though.

"One of the crew that survived?" Garrus asked as he stood next to Shepard.

"Doubtful," Thane replied. "That was a precision shot, not done by your typical rifleman. That is, unless the security team assigned here have backgrounds and years of experience in special operations."

Everyone turned toward Jacob.

"Usually, that's the head of security," Jacob explained. "But I'm actually siding with Krios on this. If the crew was indoctrinated, there's no way anyone is left alive or sane."

"Geth, then," Tali hissed. "Infiltrator, if we're judging from the marksmanship."

"Why shoot the husks, though?" Kasumi asked in confusion.

"She makes a good point," Garrus said. "Maybe it's someone that managed to resist long enough for us to get here."

Shepard nodded and started a broadcast on a general frequency on the radio. The lack of atmosphere inside the Reaper made it impossible for sound to carry the distance. "This is Spectre Agent Shepard! Unidentified shooter, stand down! We're here on a rescue mission!"

His call was answered by silence.

"Jacob, you try. Council Spectres and Cerberus don't mix," Shepard said.

Jacob nodded. "This is Cerberus Operative Jacob Taylor, Lazarus Cell! We're here to help! Answer if you're receiving this call!"

"Still no answer," Tali stated after a few more seconds.

Shepard shook his head. "Fine. We can't stay here pinned down like this. Assume hostile. Garrus: don't miss."

Garrus drew out his sniper rifle and gripped it tightly. He shuffled into position and waited as Shepard tensed.

Sprinting across the archway, Shepard crossed the distance to the other side.

Garrus whirled around after Shepard ran and aimed downrange, waiting for the sniper to take the bait. However, after a few seconds, it was apparent that whoever had taken the shot had already relocated. "I don't see anything," he finally said.

Shepard peeked out as well and took a quick look. "Alright… everyone keep your eyes open. Husks are a pain in the ass and a great distraction. Don't get caught in the open."

Once everyone answered him, he kept moving and tapped into his radio. "Miranda?"

"Samara, here." The justicar sounded as calm as usual, but the background noise was anything but. The cacophony of husks and gunshots were easily heard. "We're under attack. Mordin, Grunt, and I managed to hold off the bulk of the forces while Miranda finally gained control of the ship. She's been locking them out, but they're crawling through every space they can in an effort to overwhelm us."

"And the IFF?"

"Shepard? Miranda, here! Chandana managed to secure the IFF in the burn vault! We're trying to make our way there… Mordin! Contact right!"

"On it!"

Shepard waited edgily as the sounds of combat grew in volume.

"Grunt, use a grenade! Scatter them!" Miranda ordered. "Shepard? We've encountered a slight hiccup and it has nothing to do with the husks or the IFF! Call Joker! He can tell you more! Let's move people, before they regroup! Grunt, clear us a path!"

"Die!"

Shepard frowned and changed frequencies. "Joker? Status report."

"We've ran into a bit of a SNAFU here, Shepard. Some of the zombies were banging away at the airlock. Rolstron and Patel were prepared to engage when one of those humpback husks started going anal on the airlock doors. The blast destroyed the airlock and sent the entire group on a tour of a brown dwarf just a few seconds ago."

"But the airlock is gone," Shepard guessed.

"Along with part of the bulkhead on that side of the ship. Everything's going to hell fast. Whatever you're doing, I'd do it quick!"

"What's your position?" Shepard asked.

"We're nearby, but we have no place to dock. We'll stay close until we can find a way to meet up with you," Joker answered.

"Fuck me…" Jack cursed.

"I knew this was a bad idea…" Tali said uneasily.

"Alright, mount up, people. This thing isn't nearly dead enough for me," Shepard said grimly. He led the squad deeper inside, keeping his eyes open for signs of the mysterious shooter.

"Two Reapers in two years. We're just lining them up and putting them down," Garrus joked. Despite that, his rifle was up and was carefully scanning for any potential sniper nests.

Shepard smirked underneath his helmet. "And just think, we're only getting warmed up."

~o~O~o~

"This is Spectre Agent Shepard! Unidentified shooter, stand down! We're here on a rescue mission!" –Message ends.

-Analyzing. Matching against archived footage.

"The Spectres represent the best of every species in the galaxy. To be asked to join them is an honor." –Recording ends.

Probability of match: 99.899%

-Recommend thorough internal diagnostic check on 589 gestalt programs. Shepard-Commander listed as deactivated.

Unencrypted communications suggested Shepard-Commander continued to function after destruction of the SSV Normandy SR-1.

-Addendum: Unconfirmed reports.

-Addendum: Shepard-Commander was not located on Alchera.

According to unencrypted information hubs, Spectres routinely undertake covert operations. Deception and espionage are employed often.

-Disregard old reports. Inaccurate, unusable.

Consensus achieved. Disregarded. Recompiling information. Operating under assumption Shepard-Commander is functional.

Probability of Shepard-Commander's presence on the Old Machine: 81.042% Shepard-Commander opposes the Old Machines.

-Shepard-Commander affiliated with Systems Alliance and Citadel Council. Both organizations oppose Cerberus.

"This is Cerberus Operative Jacob Taylor, Lazarus Cell! We're here to help! Answer if you're receiving this call!" –Message ends.

Probability that organic is Shepard-Commander: Unknown. Consensus not yet reached. Further data required.

Shepard-Commander's affiliation with Council and Systems Alliance suggests Shepard-Commander opposes Cerberus. Cerberus established presence on Old Machine.

-Addendum: Shepard-Commander opposes Old Machines. Shepard-Commander opposes Cerberus. Presence of both groups in one location necessitates investigation. Data collection inevitable.

Probability Shepard-Commander would assist Cerberus: 3.015%

-Addendum: What is the probability that Shepard-Commander would assist fellow organics, regardless of affiliation?

-Compiling service record.

Probability Shepard-Commander would assist organics: 89.541%

-Data compilation completed.

Probability that organic is Shepard-Commander: 94.139%

Primary objective completed. Shepard-Commander located. Platform to establish contact with Shepard-Commander?

-Negative. Current objectives stand. Information on heretic and Old Machine's machinations takes priority. Platform to continue with current mission.

Consensus achieved. Shepard-Commander is now designated as secondary priority. Primary objective updated.

~o~O~o~

"Wait for it… wait for it…" Shepard said quietly. "Now!"

Jacob and Jack attack simultaneously. Jacob's ML-99 struck the Scion, while Jack's shockwave scattered the husks and detonated a few more volatile tanks.

"It's still alive! Or dead! Or whatever the hell it is!" Jack warned. The Scion had staggered, but was still lumbering forward. More husks joined it, including the new brand of husks, Abominations.

"Thane, bring the Abominations down!" Shepard ordered. He used his HMWSR and targeted the Scion and assisted Jacob.

Thane calmly used his M-92 Mantis and shot each red husk one after another.

The resulting explosions from the suicidal enemies allowed the ranks of husks to thin out more, offering only a moment of respite.

Shepard dove to the side and just barely avoided the Scion's crystalline Shockwave. "Goddamn it!"

Jacob fired one last salvo and crowed in victory when the Scion finally when down. The sac on his arm burst open, spilling gelatinous goo all over the place.

"There's no end to them!" Kasumi shouted.

Shepard stood up and narrowed his eyes. Just past the smoke, he thought he saw something familiar. "Fuck. Garrus, is that what I think it is?"

Garrus used his M-29 Incisor to better see. "Dragon's Teeth. Lots of them. Hell, we just ran into the damn husk production area!"

"Tali! We need that door open!" Shepard shouted. He pulled out his HMWSG as the husks regrouped and closed in again. "I'd rather be as far as possible from the weird alien impaling devices!"

Tali worked her bypass as quickly as possible. "I'm almost there!"

"Work faster!" Jack demanded. Her shotgun boomed over and over again as she tried to keep the husks from overwhelming their meager position. Occasionally, she used bursts of biotics to stem the tide. "Motherfucking cock suckers! Just stay dead!"

"This has over 10 nodes to bypass!" Tali said hotly without even turning around. "I'd like to see if you can do better!"

"Focus, people!" Shepard ordered.

"We're not going to be able to hold this position!" Garrus warned.

"Watch out! Praetorian!" Jacob shouted in alarm.

Shit…

The tank-like husk descended at the back of the room. Its duel beam weapons fired indiscriminately on the group, forcing them to take cover and allow the husks to charge once again.

"I need 10 seconds!" Shepard called out. He put his shotgun down and pulled out his newest weapon.

"Just 10? Why not ask for a fucking hour!" Jack shouted back. Still, she and others got up and started attacking anew.

Wrex, I hope this thing works the way you said it works.

The M-920 Cain expanded open. Its weight was certainly hefty, but nothing Shepard couldn't handle. He propped it on top of the crate he used as cover and pointed the barrel toward the end of the large room, and hoped that the explosion wouldn't reach them. He set the yield to low power and pushed the button begin the Cain's charging sequence. Unlike the M-490 Blackstorm, the Cain felt like it was taking forever, even as husks, Abominations, and the Praetorian bore down on them

"I'm in!" Tali shouted exuberantly. "Let's go everyone!"

Finally, the heavy weapon beeped once, signaling it was ready to fire. The trefoil sign on the side pulsed dangerously.

"Clear the blast zone! Fire in the hole!" Shepard warned.

Everyone scrambled for the door while Shepard held his ground. He pulled the trigger, released a glowing projectile of some sort, and ran like hell toward the doors. He barely crossed the threshold when a bright, white light illuminated everything, almost painfully. The roar of the explosion soon followed before it was cut off when the door shut behind him and locked.

"Holy shit," Jack said in amazement. The floor shook a bit from the power of the Cain before subsiding. "That thing is…"

"Yeah," Shepard agreed breathlessly.

"You got some damn good friends, Shepard," Jacob praised.

The group shared a small laugh before getting up.

"Tali, do what you can to seal the doors. Okay, everyone, no time to rest. We still got a ways to go."

Everyone took stock of their situation. Thermal clips, grenades, power cells, and injuries were checked and accounted for.

"Shepard, what's your status?"

"We've pushed deeper into the Reaper, but we have no idea how far we are from the core," Shepard reported. "You?"

"We got the IFF and let the burn vault take care of any husks. We're trying to make our way to you," Miranda answered. "I also managed to download the current schematics the excavators drew up. I'm uploading it to you now."

"Getting to us might be a bit hard. We kinda blew up some of the catwalks the Cerberus team created."

"You're assuming we're using conventional methods," Miranda said. She sounded a bit out of breath.

"Where are you?" Shepard asked.

"We're outside. We blew out part of the hull to evade the husks and now we're walking on the surface of the ship and onto the Reaper. We're coming in from where the geth entered now. The wind isn't too bad, actually. Lovely view as well."

"Watch yourself," Shepard cautioned.

"Always. Miranda out."

"That's… that's actually a pretty good idea," Kasumi mumbled.

"Why the hell didn't you think of that?" Jack asked.

"Because we're after the research," Shepard replied. He gestured at the room they just entered. "And here are the computers."

Several terminals lined the walls. They were active and functioning. It was readily apparent that Cerberus had established a presence here as their main point of focus. Large tanks, generators, and other implements were everywhere, allowing for some preliminary work to be done before whatever they found could be sent to the main science ship. The room was bathed in a deep orange, coming in from the gaping holes on hull of the Reaper, and allowing light from both the system's star Thorne, and Mnemosyne to shine in. Occasionally, lightning would crackle among the gasses in the distance, just past the mass effect field. Truth be told, the view really was nice, far better than the dark cramped areas they were in moments ago.

"The scientists must've been trying to gauge the power of the mass effect fields the Reaper uses to keep itself in orbit," Tali said.

"That might mean that they have a setup at the Reaper's core as well," Jacob added.

"We should be able to get there," Shepard said. He was looking at the schematics Miranda sent him. "I think we have a way. Let's…"

"More enemies," Thane interrupted.

Shepard turned around and cursed. "Don't hit the terminals. Let's put them down!"

~o~O~o~

Analyzing targets: Organics

Identifying:

-One turian

-One drell

-Four humanoids. Two males, human. Two females. Possible human or asari. No further data available.

-One Creator

Cerberus markings identified. Raising alert status.

-Addendum: Other human has been identified as Shepard-Commander. Cerberus operative designated as Jacob-Taylor

-Note: Cerberus operative working with non-human organics.

Warning: Creator in danger. Intervene?

Superior tactical position allows for assistance and contact with Shepard-Commander. Secondary objective would be met.

Probability for successful reprisal should meeting be hostile: 5.098%

Consensus achieved. Platform to render assistance.

~o~O~o~

Shepard grit his teeth as more husks crawled onto the landing they were fighting on. Thankfully, the amount of husks seemed to be much less than the numbers they were fighting at moments ago.

"Shepard, behind you!" Tali cried out.

A husk had somehow gotten behind him. He was about to ram the butt of his rifle into its head when the crack of sniper rifle blew it away.

"That sniper is back!" Garrus shouted. "I see him! Downrange, 100 meters!"

Shepard ran and slid behind some pipes. The others did the same, but the sniper continued shooting. One husk after another fell dead to its incredible accuracy.

When all the husks in the area were down, a radio signal over general frequencies was heard.

"Shepard-Commander."

Shepard blinked at the odd mechanical sounding voice and equally odd title, but didn't leave his cover. "Who are you? Identify yourself."

"We are geth."

"That's impossible," Tali whispered.

"Contact with Shepard-Commander has been established. However, we must proceed with current mission directives," the geth said. The radio signal cut off.

"Wait!" Shepard protested. The geth didn't answer.

Shepard cloaked and stood up with his own sniper rifle ready. Looking down the scope, he barely spotted the geth just as it walked along some pipes, far too high to climb after.

"Our sniper and beneficiary was a geth," Thane said curiously.

Garrus stood up and looked around. "Since when do geth talk to organics? Hell, since when have they ever helped organics?"

"It's shouldn't be able to talk. A single geth has no more intelligence than a varren," Tali argued.

Shepard knew that that info came from the geth data he gave to Tali. "Unless they're evolving," he reminded.

"It sounded like it wanted to talk to you," Kasumi observed. "It said: 'contact established'."

"Maybe it wants to kill you?" Jack guessed. "You're not exactly known for making friends with synthetics."

"Why talk then? Why not just shoot?" Shepard muttered, more to himself than to Jack.

"Shepard? Miranda, here. What was that last transmission?"

"Exactly as it sounded. We saw a geth here. It talked to me. Even helped us."

"Really?" She sounded intrigued and disbelieving at the same time.

"Where are you?" Shepard asked.

"Above you. About 50 meters."

The group turned to see Miranda's team standing on some catwalks just ahead. Mordin cheerfully waved at them.

"Okay," Shepard said, pleased that no one was hurt and that the team was back together again. "We'll find out about that geth soon enough. We need to take out the core, quickly."

"Say we do destroy the core, we got a plan to get out of here, Shepard?" Jack asked.

"Run like hell. Sound simple, I know, but reality can be a bitch sometimes. -Hope you're up for a fantastic run-for-your-life."

"You're a sick asshole, y'know that?"

"Secure anything on these terminals. According the schematics, we're not far from the core. Hopefully, we have enough numbers to get through the husks now. Let's hurry."

~o~O~o~

"Contact!" Jacob warned.

Abominations and husks were killed in droves as the squad pushed forward to their destination. With team back together, the numbers the husks had become far less a threat. Even Scions were falling, thanks to the combined efforts of Jack and Samara's incredible biotics.

"Done with this terminal!" Kasumi reported.

"Me too!" Tali announced. "That's it, we've gotten them all!"

"Let's go, then. The door is right there," Shepard said. His sniper rifle bucked slightly and the Scion he was targeting fell dead.

He waited until Tali's Combat Drone exploded and cleared the remaining husks in the way before pushing forward.

Upon reaching the door, Shepard paused and cocked his head.

"What is it?" Miranda asked.

"Gunfire. Inside."

"The geth again?" Garrus asked.

"Maybe."

The squad readied themselves. The moment the door opened, they spotted the geth working at a terminal Cerberus had connected in the room. It was interfacing with it with one hand, while using a strange tri-barreled shotgun with the other and blasting dozens of husks back.

What interested Shepard the most was that the geth was wearing last generation N7 armor over its chest, though there was still a gaping hole there. The armor itself look liked it'd seen better days too.

In the distance, the Reaper's mass effect core could be seen inside the massive room. Powerful arcs of electricity danced around the metal sphere, almost as if there were a lightning storm centered on it. The core itself was almost unbelievably large, bigger than he had imagined.

"Take out the husks!" Shepard ordered.

"What about the geth? !" Tali demanded.

"Leave it!"

"What? !"

The rest of the team went into action. The greatest of concentration of husks were already inside the room. There was little doubt the Reaper tried to make this area the highest priority for its survival and would send every husk to defend it.

The geth dropped its shotgun and used both hands to interface with terminal. Even when the husks closed in.

Shepard blasted his way toward the geth. What he intended to do when he caught up to it, he had no idea.

Whatever it was doing, it finished because it turned away from the terminal and tried to run.

An Abomination dropped from the ceiling and landed right on top of the geth though, causing it to fall down. The red husk moaned once before exploding.

Mordin assisted Shepard's attack and the both of them ran up to the smoking body. Amazingly, it looked to be in one piece.

"Drag it back!" Shepard ordered over the sounds of gunfire. Husks continued their attack, even as the bodies piled up.

"Understood!" Mordin acknowledged. He grabbed an arm and dragged the geth away.

"Grunt! Get up here!" Shepard ordered.

"I'm coming!" Grunt shouted. He physically rammed his way through any husk in his way. Their clumsy attacks did little to stop him. He easily shrugged off any swings and swipes that did hit him and retaliated with his own powerful blows or shots from his M-300 Claymore. He lumbered up to Shepard and awaited his orders.

Underneath his helmet, Shepard couldn't help but smile. "Break out the Cain." He pointed down at the core at the other end of the room.

Grunt nodded and hastily pulled out his own heavy weapon.

"Max power!" Shepard said as he provided covering fire for the krogan. Scions were coming now, dropping from the ceiling. Their legs broke on landing, but the still tried to use their biotics to protect the Reaper.

"Got it!" Grunt rumbled. The Cain started whining as it powered up.

"Everyone, eyes away from the core! Shepard warned. He shot up two more husks and kneeled down, facing away from the imminent blast.

"It's charged!" Grunt reported.

"Take out the core! Fire in the hole!" Shepard shouted.

Once again, blinding white light was all that could be seen. Hot gasses and rapidly expanded air washed over the squad. Husks were blown off their feet, lacking the coordination and self-preservation to protect themselves.

Shepard blinked as his vision returned to normal. Looking at the core, he finally spotted the mushroom cloud Wrex had described. It was floating over the remains of the core.

Grunt laughed manically. "This thing is great! Is there something else for me to shoot? !"

Moments later, the deck beneath them shook violently. The husks all lost their footing and fell to the ground once again. The squad barely stood on their own feet, but still kept their weapons trained on the enemy. Thankfully, it seemed like the reanimated corpses lacked the finesse to stay upright, but were still single-mindedly set on attacking the intruders. They crawled along the ground, still groaning and moaning.

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

"Shepard! Want something done with this geth? It's still intact!" Garrus said.

"Just leave it!" Tali argued. "You know what they are! If it gets into the Normandy's computers…"

"We should take it!" Miranda said. "We can't waste an opportunity like this!"

"No one has ever recovered one intact…" Shepard said.

"That's true, but…" Tali said before grunting. The deck continued to shudder violently. "I'm not sure it's worth the risk."

"This isn't a debate!" Shepard said with finality. Husks were literally crawling out of the walls now. Some were falling from the ceiling. It seemed like everywhere they turned, more husks were lumbering toward them in a suicidal charge. "Pick that thing up, Grunt!"

"On it!" He bent over and easily slung the geth over his shoulder. He also managed to retrieve the geth shotgun as well.

"Let's clear a path!"

"We got a problem here!" Kasumi called out.

"Damn, that's strong!" Jacob yelled.

"What's wrong now?" Shepard demanded.

"No mass effect field! We're feeling the full force of the dwarf! The winds are too strong! There's no way we can leave without getting blown away!" Kasumi reported frantically.

"Joker! We need a pick up! Track our signals and extend the Normandy's mass effect fields!"

"We're right next to you! Extending mass effect fields!" Joker assured. "Hang on, folks!"

"Winds dying down!" Jacob said. "Let's move people!"

"Open the portside airlock! We'll jump for it!" Shepard ordered.

"Opening the portside airlock, Captain," Hadley acknowledged.

"Everyone! Suppressing fire!"

"Suppressing fire! Roger!"

The Normandy was tantalizingly close. She held her position only a dozen meters away.

"Grunt, toss that thing inside!"

Grunt heaved the geth through the air. It flew the distance and crumpled against the inner airlock door.

"Kasumi, Tali. Go!" Shepard said. Husks continued to hound their every step.

The two women leapt after the geth and landed inside the Normandy.

"Garrus, Thane. You're up! Cover us from the airlock when you get there!"

Both snipers cleared the distance and readied their rifles.

"Mordin, Samara, Miranda, Jacob! Go, go, go!"

Grunt helped Shepard hold off their relentless foes while the last of the squad made a leap toward the safety of the ship.

"Time to go, Grunt!"

The krogan threw the last of his grenades and ran for it. Shepard followed on his heels and jumped. There was a moment of weightlessness until they finally reached the crowded airlock and felt the influence of the Normandy's artificial gravity.

"We're clear! Go!"

The outer door closed and plunged the group into darkness. The lights activated and decontamination procedures started up while the pressure equalized.

Everyone shared a sigh of relief as the Normandy sped away from the wreck.

They were safe.

~o~O~o~

*ENCYPTED*

Reaper IFF successfully secured.

Loss of Cerberus team on Reaper vessel unfortunate, but unsurprising. Will use team's health records for comparisons against husks encountered on Reaper for possible insight into indoctrination and husk conversation process.

Loss of Reaper site was disastrous. Must locate other sources to gain knowledge and intelligence on Reapers.

Geth presence unexpected. Will wait and see what Shepard will do before committing to any action.

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

And another major story arc is done.

I hope I didn't put anyone off by the Garrus/Shepard argument. One reviewer, MEFanAllDaWay, was observant to note that I made the squad kinda like a family. Like any family, there's bound to be the occasional dysfunction. I suppose I wanted to illustrate that even Shepard can be wrong in a minor sense. It's not really done in-game since it's your decisions that propel the game forward, but there's no 'human error' sort of mistakes because trying to write and play that in the game would be a pain.

Besides, I just watched Star Trek: First Contact (again) and the Worf/Picard argument stuck in my mind.

As for the husks, in ME 1, they were given an idiotic defense boost on higher difficulties that made the effort of killing them last into whole minutes. In ME 2, they're given armor and shields (on zombies? WTH). To mitigate this, I wanted the whole thing to play out like Left for Dead 1/2. Hordes and hordes of zombies coming down with almost no end, all interspaced with the occasional 'special' zombie for good measure.

That's what I'm hoping to see in ME 3.

Another movie reference. Serenity (Yeah, it's my favorite. Best damn lines in any sci-fi I've ever seen)

Elevator scene was a reference to NCIS.

Finally, Legion. I don't think I'll be writing from his POV as often as the others during his loyalty mission. I will reference it, but unlike other characters, he's all about probabilities, numbers, and of course, consensus between his thousand individual programs. Truth be told, a couple of things stand out for me during his parts in this fic. He's a machine, which means he should be thinking in binary or something, 0's and 1's. Not a very good basis for a fic though. Second, everything he thinks is at the 'speed of light', which means he done thinking faster than anyone's done reading his sections.

Makes it hard to write, I think. Although other authors do it extremely well.

As an interesting note, thecardinal, pointed out that my word count actually exceeds Lord of the Rings. I didn't really think I'd do that when I first started…

As always, review please!

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