Ria took a swig from a bottle of turian brandy, or at least, as much of one that was possible through a straw. Sorry, emergency induction straw- port, oh nevermind.

She sat slumped on one of the chairs in the ship's lounge area, her gaze distant. It has been a couple hours since they'd departed from the Citadel. With any luck they'd be long gone before the Council found how they'd broken into the archives. Maybe they'd even manage to get actual results by then and they'd forgive the whole incident.

A girl can dream, right? the hopeless voice in her head hadn't let up today, but at least it provided some entertainment.

She took another sip and scowled. Couldn't really go much further without a lead to follow up on, so their best bet was to lay low. However, smart decision or not, it still felt wrong just sitting around and doing nothing like this.

Her musings were cut short as the door behind her opened. Turning, Ria watched as Daron entered. The mercenary scanned the room, stopping as his gaze fell on her. Their eyes met and he nodded in greeting, Ria returning the gesture in kind.

"You want some?" Ria asked, reaching behind table the crew had turned into a makeshift bar. Unlike the Cerberus designed Normandy, the Invisible's starboard crew lounge lacked the more decadent furnishing, fully stocked mini-bar included. That, however, had not stopped a crew effort spearheaded by Tarran to 'correct' the design oversight.

Daron shrugged, taking up position in his customary 'brooding bad boy pose' against the back wall. Honestly, all he needed was a black leather jacket and a speeder-bike to complete the image.

Note to self, buy jacket as prank gift.

Pulling out a small bottle of levo whiskey, Ria lobbed the bottle to Daron as she took her seat in the nearest chair. The mercenary deftly snatched it out of mid air, despite her somewhat poor aim. Didn't even have to use his biotics.

"What's the occasion?" Daron asked. He unscrewed the cap of his drink, but did not make any move to bring it to his mouth.

"Do I need one?" Ria asked. "Wait, don't answer that. That setup was far too easy."

Daron shot her a perplexed look.

"...for a joke. Like, that I have a drinking problem? Like you could say that I… ah, nevermind..." She took another draft, wincing as her throat stung. Setting the bottle down, she sighed. "Long story short, after today's events I just really needed a drink. I mean, we have a stray vorcha I stupidly decided was a good idea to adopt. A vorcha, mind you, that's probably terrorizing poor Kel as we speak by wreaking who knows what chaos on 'his' engine room."

"Creator-Valah is currently attempting to extricate Hishk from the rafters above the drive core," Core suddenly announced, the Geth's voice emanating from nowhere in particular. "When worked up, his vocabulary is quite… colorful."

"Shut up, Core!" Ria shouted, shaking a fist at the disembodied voice. "What part of 'not wanting to deal with this right now' don't you understand? Besides, I thought Laura was dealing with it?"

"You assigned her to 'Krogan wrangling duty', Creator Shepard."

"Then have Tarran deal with it!" Ria's omni-tool flashed, muting the speakers that Core used to communicate with her. Of course, the geth could easily turn them back on within an instant. It was really the thought that counted. "See what I mean?" Ria asked, turning back to Daron.

"Mmh-hmm" Daron hummed, at last taking a drink from his whiskey.

"Still not sure if they're right or not. About this being a terrible idea. Letting Hishk join us, I mean," Ria said, frowning.

"Seems like a very 'Ria' thing to do. Gonna withhold my own judgement,' Daron replied. He took a second swig from the bottle then set it aside, nudging it out of easy reach.

Ria arched an eyebrow. While hidden by her mask, her stare must have been plain enough for the biotic understand.

"Can't drink too much." He shrugged.

"Wow, didn't know you were such a lightweight, Daron," Ria teased, grinning from behind her mask.

Daron rolled his eyes, once again crossing his arms over his chest. "It's my implants. Don't mix well with alcohol." He frowned, shaking his head. "Long story short, hangover is about twice as bad."

Ria's smile faltered."I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. I didn't..." She winced, cursing silently to herself. Way too go, Ria. Remind him about all the reaper junk Cerberus crammed into him. That's the way to make friends.

To her shock, Daron showed no sign off offense. "Its alright. You didn't know," he shrugged again.

Ria blinked, her mind struggling to keep up. Since when was Daron this... chill? "Uhhh, are you feeling alright? Isn't this the part where you're supposed to scowl at me and tell me to go away? For a second you sounded almost understanding."

"Did I, now?" A wry smile tugged at the corners of Daron's lips. "Sounds like little miss goodie-two-shoes over here's been rubbing off on me."

"Ha! Jokes on you, I don't even wear shoes!" Ria laughed, kicking out a foot to show her ankle braces.

Daron's mouth twitched, for an instant seeming like he'd break out into a full blown grin. Then, as quickly as it had come, his expression became dour once more. He looked away, fixing his sight on the endless expanse of space that stretched beyond the observation deck.

Following his gaze, Ria stared out into the stars, their twinkling light frigid and distant. She shivered, noticing for the first time how cold it was. Dammit, wasn't alcohol supposed to make you feel warmer?

I miss Rannoch. It's never warm enough on the ship.

Minutes ticked by in silence, the rolling blue glow of the ship's mass effect field casting a ghostly ripple on the room's interior. Ria wrapped herself in her arms, trying to get warm. It wasn't just the temperature that had her freezing like this. But also the looming shadow of the revelations gleaned in the spectre archive. She was afraid. Simple as that.

"I lied before… or rather, didn't tell the whole truth," Ria said at last.

"Huh?" Daron's clothes rustled as he turned to look at her.

"Why I am drinking. Sure, the craziness of today is part of it, but…" Ria shook her head, mustering her courage. "I feel so hopeless. So much has happened, and so far we've done nothing but chase after ghosts. At best we've delayed our foes, but mostly… mostly it feels like we're just playing catchup."

Daron remained silent, but now regarded her with a look that almost seemed…concerned..

"Don't worry about me, I'm not about to give up or go mopping or anything," Ria quickly added. "If anything, I'm trying to keep myself from brooding on it too much. It just sucks, you know?"

She motioned to the window. "When I used to look out there I would see adventure waiting to happen. Now… now I just see darkness. I don't like it."

"Perhaps it was always there. Perhaps not. I'm the wrong person to answer that," Daron said, looking away.

Ria said nothing for several moment. Then she raised her head, peering at him more intently now. "You still holding up after Rothla? I never really got a chance to ask you about that."

Daron grimaced and averted his gaze. He stood rigid for a second, then, releasing his pent up breath nodded his head slowly.

"It reminded you of them, didn't it? I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked."

"No, it's okay. I appreciate your concern. It means… a lot, to know you're worried about me," Daron replied stiffly.

"Oh. No problem then," Ria said lamely. Fumbling for her drink, she took several quick drafts, trying to hide her sudden embarrassment.

"No problem then"? Really, Ria, that was the best answer you had?

"It's still… difficult… to remember. I buried those feeling so long ago… I still don't know where I stand on my past," Daron continued. Then he shook his head. "It's not important. Least not enough to worry you about it."

Ria opened her mouth to respond to what he'd said, then thought better of it, closing her mouth once more. Besides, she had a question of her own bugging her.

"Daron… do you ever feel like we're in way over our heads?" Ria asked. She paused, considering what she said, then laughed. "I mean more than usual. This whole business... it feels like we're blindly flailing in the dark. Reaper tech, the Crucible plans, the Dark forge: that kind of power has fallen into someone's hands and we still don't have the faintest clue who they are."

Daron did not respond for several moments, his gaze on the distant stars far beyond the window. Then he sighed, turning to look at her "You want my honest opinion, Ria? I'm not too worried about any of that. You know why?"

Ria shook her head.

"Because I was there when this dumb kid on her pilgrimage and her band of idiots saved the whole galaxy." Daron smirked, then added, "Track record like that, I'd have to be stupid to bet against her. "

"I had a lot of help..." Ria muttered, shaking her head.

"So has everyone else who's done anything of worth." Daron paused, as if suddenly catching what he was saying. "Dammit, you really have been rubbing off on me," he muttered, scowling.

Ria laughed. She couldn't help herself, the sudden change in his expression was just too much. "Quick, engage maximum brood. Before you feel happy! It's your only chance!" she managed between laughter, shaking her head.

Daron scowled even deeper, an annoyed look in his eyes as he turned away.

Her own laughter subsiding, Ria moved to wipe her eyes. He hand smacked against her mask. Damn, I am drunker than I thought. She pushed her own drink out of reach.

"You know, this has probably started to get a bit old hearing this from me, but you're a good friend, Daron. A far better one then I would have expected when I first met you," Ria said. That… perhaps came out a bit wrong. Stupid, Ria, stupid. "Er, I mean, not to mean any offense by that. I mean… Keelah. Sorry." She groaned, lowering her head against the armrest of the chair.

"It's okay. I… thanks," Daron replied, awkwardly. Perhaps it was some combination of the her current inebriation and projecting her own embarrassment, but she almost could have sworn he'd stuttered a bit there.

Stepping away from the wall, Daron turned to go. "Best get some rest. I'll… check on the situation down in engineering for you."

Ria opened her mouth to make a joke about hoping Daron wasn't planning on killing half the crew, but then decided against it. It was in poor taste, not to mention would likely offend the mercenary. Something about that just didn't feel… right, and not because of fear of his reaction. "Thanks, I appreciate that… and for… talking too…"

Daron dipped his head, acknowledging her words. The door slid open with a hiss and Daron left the room, leaving Ria alone with her thoughts once more.

. . . . .

"You have one unopened message, Creator-Shepard," Core announced, his voice cutting through the haze of unconsciousness.

"Uggghhh… five more minutes, Mom…" Ria groaned, rolling over and covering her head with a pillow. Her temple throbbed with even that movement. Everything felt sore and unresponsive. Thinking hurt too much right now, more sleep.

"Message marked as priority. We advise against delaying," Core warned. Then his voice vanished with a faint click as he closed the line.

Grumbling a few choice words aimed at the geth, Ria yanked the pillow from his face, flinging it against the wall. It bounced off her wardrobe and landed on the floor with soft plop. "Keelah, I hate you so much right now…" Groaning again, she dragged herself out of bed and staggered to the bathroom. Her head throbbed painfully in protest, even the dim lighting in her room painting her eyes.

Mistakes were made. She leaned against the sink, fighting the urge to vomit. Alcohol is stupid. Why does it exist. Screw the mission, I'm going to destroy every single drink in the damn galaxy. Rid it of the hangover menace. Then save the world.

Running her hands through her chin-length hair, Ria stared at her reflection. Dark, sunken rings surrounded her pale gold eyes, the corners bloodshot. Not caring if it was fully disinfected or not, she splashed water on her face, then dried it with a towel.

Returning to her chamber proper, Ria stumbled over to her desk, opening her private terminal with a wave of her hand. Reaching out, she prodded the message icon, opening the folder. Amongst the dozen or so new correspondents and unimportant reports she found the message Core had mentioned.

It was from Doctor Leranon, from the looks of it following up on his analysis of the construct they'd recovered from Rothla.


I completed the analysis of the curious fragments you acquired as instructed. The process was not simple and I'd almost given up all prospects of identifying their source before I cross referenced the nano-construction mechanism with known artifacts. This at last yielded results. My earlier assessments proved inaccurate: while no direct examples of technology exists, the method of overriding the host's nervous system is startlingly reminiscent to Reaper technology. Nano constructs merge with host's nerves, block signals, transmit own. Only far less refined. Less elegant. Primitive brute force control over full body conversion. Specifics detailed in the full report of findings has been attached with message.

Concrete answers to origins impossible. Only conjecture. Perhaps example of earlier Reaper technology from a previous cycle, evolving into modern Reaper Tech over eons. Alternatively, could even predate Reapers entirely, their own advancements based upon it.

Will continue to investigate this line of inquiry. Expect correspondence upon any further discoveries.


Dr. Leranon.

Ria reread the message several times, making sure she'd understood it correctly. She swayed, feeling suddenly lightheaded. Gripping the back of her chair, she lowered herself into it. Flashes of those horrible memories: the burning agony as tendrils dug into her skin, the chilling sensation of sinking into an icy void.

If those… things had been related to the Reapers at all… She winced, clutching at her head. If so, she couldn't be sure if she could trust herself. She remembered what she'd told Tarran, how she'd made him promise to come to her if he noticed her acting strangely. Nothing has happened yet. You aren't being controlled.

Yet, retorted the sarcastic voice she'd become all too accustomed too of late.

Shoving it aside she stood from her chair, her legs wobbling. She needed a shower. And then more rest and time to process this.

You're being arrogant. Ignoring the risks like a petulant child, her inner voice warned.

"Shut up," Ria growled, not caring in that moment how crazy she might have seemed talking to herself.

Stepping back into the bathroom she began the long and arduous process of removing her suit, letting the pieces fall to the floor in a small pile.

One other question continued to bother her. From the report it was possible that those things hadn't been Reaper tech then… well there were really two options. Either they were someone's attempts to replicate Reaper tech, or….

Or more terrifyingly, they could have been something much, much older. If that was the case, if those things that had attacked her on Rothla did predate the Reapers, then who'd made them?

Author's Note: Holy crap guys, what was this? Four months since the last one. Yeah, I am kinda the worst. Life has made it very hard to work on this as much as I'd like, and the lack of any concrete news for ME:A has kinda left my motivation to write Mass Effect stuff kinda low. But don't worry, this story is not abandoned, it will continue. The next chapter is already half done, so that should not take as long to come out.