Ripples in the Stream

A D&D / Shadowrun / Mass Effect crossover
by Vyrexuviel

Disclaimer: The author of this story does not, in any way, derive any profit from the story. D&D, Shadowrun and Mass Effect are the property of their respective copyright holders. Jorukaia and other unfamiliar characters in this story, however, are mine.


Slavery was, by nature, a problem. In fact, it had many problems. And when it came to quarian slaves, the problem was that few understood how little punishment their fragile systems could take.

By the time those bosh'tet thugs actually figured that out, a third of Lia'Vael's crew had already been sent to the morgue. She had lost her captain, her navigator, and three of the ratings before they finally realized out how delicate Quarian prisoners were. To his credit, Captain Jaer'Vessa did everything he could to take his crew's punishment, up to and including having his back torn to ribbons in place of Lia herself. He hadn't recovered from that, and by the time they finally came to check him, he was already in systemic shock. Eventually they figured out that solitary confinement was worse for quarians than it was for humans, and crammed them into individual cells. She had no idea where the rest of her crew was, if they were even on the same level, or... or still alive, even.

Ancestors, there was nothing in the universe she wanted more than to take every one of her people to the special hiding place she had stumbled on during her shift. Everything always felt so safe and clear then. And these humans had no idea about it. Of course, that was why they paid so much for a crew of quarian slaves. Where else would anyone find better experts on studying and reproducing Geth technology?

Fragile as they were, Quarians were still a tenacious and adaptive people. Centuries of adaptation through hardship never waned even after Tali's shipyard revolutionized their fleet. While they still did not yet possess a means of escape, they had other means of quiet resistance. One crew member who was the most nimble at maneuvering through any crawlspace had overheard some of their captors mention their boss by the name of "Donovan Hock." Another quarian who had brushed with the black market during his Pilgrimage recognized the name as a major arms dealer. That explained why this Hock wanted them to reverse-engineer his stockpile of Geth weaponry, but the source of the stockpile itself still astonished them.

How did this Donovan Hock get his hands on a fully intact Geth cruiser?

"Lia!"

The quarian glanced up from her work. She had just finished extracting enough components from her latest scavenging of the cruiser's interior. As one of the crew's most skilled technicians and most svelte body figures, Lia was able to get into deep and tight spaces that none of the others could. It was also why she was one of the unfortunate few who wasn't given any teams.

"Lia!" The voice of one of her crew called out again. "Lia'Vael, where are you?"

She wormed her way out of the pile of junk and scrapped parts, dragging a section of what looked like a server with her. "Alright alright, I can hear you, Daer'Vanur! I'm busy, not deaf!"

"Lia! Keelah Selai, I wasn't sure if you were still alive!" Daer's strong arms encircled her, holding her tight. He had been important to her, back on the ship, she'd been thinking...

But that was a lost opportunity now.

"Listen, Lia, we don't have much time. The Boss sent a new overseer, after the old one lost so many of us." Daer's voice was soft, quiet, but no less urgent as he held her helmet and gazed into her eyes. "She just had a mandatory meeting in the mess hall, and you missed it. She's a real hardass, brought in some brutal ideas, I.. I don't want to lose you too, Li..."

Lia'Vael glanced at her old friend, terrified out of his wits, and shrugged it off as she turned away. "They can try all they want. They think they're the masters of the galaxy, but they are far from it. Help me get this on the bench, will you?"

Daer blinked at her through his faceplate, nonplussed by her nonchalance "Uhh, sure, but, Li, they're going to be updating suit-programs soon, installing some sort of 'incentiviser' program. I saw them demonstrate it, they didn't even need to touch poor Gar'Vesom, he just keeled over... screaming..."

Lia paused, her dexterous fingers clenching. She grew up hearing the horror stories about how quarians were treated outside the fleet. She had hoped they were just stories, and that the outside races would look past their suits to appreciate good engineering and solid paperwork. But this? "It's horrible, Daer. I know, and I can't stand it. But soon, it won't matter anymore. We don't have to worry, we just need to be patient."

More owlish blinking. "...Doesn't matter? Lia, they're...! You didn't hear that poor boy's screams! I thought you were more determined than anyone to escape, how could you say-"

"It doesn't matter because I've already saved us," Lia grasped his shoulder, whispering urgently. "I'm sorry I haven't been able to tell you, but I found a transmitter deep inside the Geth ship."

Daer's eyes were wide now, a note of uncertain and reluctant hope entering his voice. "Transmitter.. a Geth transmitter? We could... How intact was it, what parts do you need?"

"It's mostly intact, Daer! Still fully functional!" Lia was grinning under her mask. "The Geth build their transmitters tough to help maintain their hive consensus. It's also how they evacuate instead of using escape pods. It took some work, but I managed to quietly reactivate it."

"Keelah Selai, that's the best news I've had in... well, since we got stuck here." Daer hugged her tight and gave a sigh of relief. "Have you figured out how to modulate it? We don't want to draw the Geth here unless we can't help it. Who would be able to pick up their transmissions?"

"For once, we have the Geth themselves to thank for that," Lia muttered through gritted teeth. "The damned machines were being careful during their invasion, they didn't like unwanted parties listening in. The transmitter was designed in a way that it can scan all nearby frequencies without detection and you can choose which ones won't hear your message. It's a little scary how far the machines were advancing.. but that doesn't matter anymore. Don't worry, I knew exactly where to send our message for rescue."

"The Flotilla..." Daer visibly sagged in relief and stroked Lia's upper arm affectionately. "You may have just saved us, Lia. Thanks to Tali'Zorah vas Neema, the Quarian people are stronger than ever. And when we get out of here, we'll deliver this information to the Admir-"

"Hey, suit rats!" A rude voice called. "What do you think you're doing?"

Daer turned as if stung, recoiling from Lia and stammering as the armored human approached, an ugly look in her eye. "N-Nothing, sir, Just i-informing my friend of-"

"Friend?" The man sneered and pulled a small module off his belt. "Don't play dumb. You mean conspirator. You two are coming with me."

"Keelah, no wait, I swear we're juuaaAAAAAAARGGGGHHHH!"


Miranda Lawson was not accustomed to being told to wait.

The Illusive Man was one of the exceedingly few people she respected enough to do so, but it was still unusual. After shutting down the cloning experiments that reminded her too much of her father, she expected to continue Project Gemini's genetic research of the darastrix, but instead had been recalled to Hephaestus Station for a new assignment. What was unusual, however, was that she apparently wasn't the only one meant to participate. And with each hour that passed without their arrival, Miranda's opinion of her soon-to-associates dropped. The past few days had been less than pleasant and not only due to the usual incompetence and inability of others to fall in line. It had been 48 hours of nothing but waiting and re-reading the material and intelligence reports that she already knew by heart. All because she had to wait for other people.

Her eyes swept over the passing Cerberus agent's silhouette; took in the color and condition of his skin; his poor slouching posture and the way he walked, favoring one side slightly over the other — one limb being slightly longer; an accident? Bone break poorly reset? Or the common epigenetic defect from the sigma-2 gene care package? — and the way his hair seemed to be already thinning despite his relative youth told her all she needed to know about him. Poor genetic base and did not take care of himself either. Disappointing in all regards.

She sniffed, the analysis taking less than the blink of an eye before she went back to reading on her omni-tool. Even as he passed, she felt his eyes studying her as well, mostly focused on her shapely derriere. Merely the latest in the line of countless lesser individuals drawn to her artificially-engineered perfection.

The dark glass beside her of the window-wall overlooking the dim M8 star was sufficiently reflective to keep an eye on him even through the feeble sunlight. The way he paced was like a caged animal, as befits a blunt, brute instrument. Even as he paced, she shifted position, and caught a glance of her own reflection.

No brute she, not with her superior genetic profile. Beautiful did not even begin to describe her impossible looks and curvaceous figure. Her slender back was always arched to make her enhanced bosom and derriere present themselves with great authority. Thanks to her engineering, her spine had even been designed so that it was her natural posture. As much as she resented such any design feature that served no other purpose than eye candy, she could not deny the benefits of her genetic architecture. Her superior physique and augmented musculature had made her considerable assets a non-issue, one thing to be grateful for, as she'd heard entirely too many horror stories of the curse of an abundant bust-line.

Miranda was not only physically superior to the vast majority of humanity, but she was also intellectually superior. Or rather, she had the whole package. Be it strength, endurance, agility, reaction time, intelligence quotient, overall health, and life expectancy, she was not only a cut above the rest; she was in a league entirely of her own.

Her eyes followed a pair of scientists engrossed in their own discussion, her mind instantly noting their body language and even, to her bemusement, how neither of them even glanced at her as they walked past. Their children will have his eyes and her ears... The nose is a toss-up.

No, Miranda was definitely not accustomed at having to wait for others. She did not have patience for incompetence.

Her acute senses detected another presence approaching from behind. Just from the sound and clipped rhythm of the footsteps, she already determined it an older male with military training, one with a confidence of significant experience. The man paused, and she felt his calculating gaze of appraisal sweep over her, but not like most drooling idiots...

"Operative Lawson, I presume?"

Miranda identified a mix of British and Russian ancestry in the man's voice as she turned. She immediately took in the white uniform of a flag officer, highly decorated and kept as immaculate as her own attire. Then the corners of her mouth lifted in a small smile as she recanted her earlier frustration. This was someone who had more than earned his place amongst the highest echelons of Cerberus, as well as her own respect.

"General Petrovsky." It was not a question, his identity had been one she'd know of on the periphery of glowing reports submitted for her perusal. As she was to special operations, he was to more military matters, and she had read nothing but good things, even when she had to read between the lines.

The two shook hands, a courtesy of respect Miranda rarely allowed. The brilliance required to successfully hold the line against superior turian forces on Shanxi, to adapt against an enemy humanity never before encountered, spoke of mental acuity and determination that Miranda most appreciated. Men of Petrovsky's caliber were rare, and it was a mark of the Illusive Man's eye for potential to have recruited such a cunning mind and made him the head of Cerberus military matters.

"A pleasure to meet another rising star of our organization with a resume like yours," the general nodded, his words addressing Miranda as an equal despite the difference in rank. "I've had the privilege of reading your files and accomplishments, including your work on the darastrix's infiltrator drone. Quite impressive for a tactical operations officer of your caliber to also be a leading pioneer in our science division."

She inclined her head slightly at the praise, her smile turning ever so slightly brittle at the tangential reminder of her greatest failure. "I read the reports on the Khan'Riu situation, quite the inspired solution. I think I recognized that retreat-and-envelop maneuver, though only from certain land battles such as Guagamela."

Petrovsky lifted an eyebrow, raising a hand to his chin in piqued interest. "Alexander the Great. You know your history."

"I had good tutors," Miranda nodded. "And a healthy appreciation for the classics."

"Just so," Petrovsky returned the nod. "I wish my own advisers had half your appreciation for history. Not just to understand humanity's cultural heritage, but to recognize the wisdom that made our ancestors into victors."

"Indeed." She shifted, smiling faintly as she flicked off her omni-tool and clasped her hands behind the small of her back. "So very few study history anymore. Ours, or those of the other races."

The door beside Miranda slid open with a hydraulic hiss, forestalling her reply to the general. She didn't even need to turn her eyes to know the new arrival's identity. There was only one man in Cerberus with such skill to test her enhanced hearing. She knew him, knew his training, his profile, most of his life. That did not mean she agreed with his presence.

"Better savor any compliments from her, General. She rarely gives them." Smooth, cultured voice, devoid of the laryngeal defects caused by the usual vices associated with his type. Kai Leng. Nationality, Chinese with a mix of Russia and Slavic. Somewhat obsessive fetish of feudal Japan, as evidenced by his ninjatō. Not precisely a hindrance, but Leng outright dismissed the samurai's Bushido code while heavily favoring the monstrous brutality some samurai would carry out on the orders of their jito or shogun. He effectively ignored their best qualities and favored their worst.

Impressive clandestine record though, from what Miranda could dig up. 63 successful assassinations, higher than a 60% rate of successful silent infiltration.

He paced slowly, nervous energy tightly controlled. Neural acceleration cybernetics prone to causing both a need for physical movement, and sociopathic tendencies. Leng's symptom's were as-yet non-problematic.

For now.

"Operative Leng, if I'm correct," General Petrovsky regarded him quite differently than Miranda, looking over the man's stance. "Where did you train?"

"Brazil." Leng answered. Miranda barely refrained a twitch of annoyance as he addressed the general with more deference than he did her. "At Rio de Janeiro."

"Ahhhh, an N7. Infiltrator class, no doubt." Petrovsky nodded as he glanced between them. "My, this is certainly turning into an exciting gathering with ranking members from different branches of Cerberus."

"And the gathering begins now, sir. The Illusive Man is ready to meet." He turned without sparing Miranda a glance.

The door to the conference chamber opened with a series of soft clanks, and a soft sound of escaping air. Not from a pressure differential, merely from the hydraulic actuators unlocking the dozen or so interlocks between the two massive halves of the door. It swung outward, instead of retracting sideways as normal, the door designed to be a last bastion of defense, as well as to be utterly soundproofed. The backdrop of the office was that of a glowing red giant, plumes of superheated plasma occasionally rising before collapsing back onto the roiling surface.

The view was of course not from an actual window, the bombardment of solar radiation at the distances suggested by the visage would have been decidedly unhealthy. Staring straight at a sun was also generally not advisable. The meticulously crafted projection on the other hand was specially filtered so that one could stare at it for hours on end and not suffer from any eyestrain. It reminded the room's occupant of grandeur that was the wider universe, of how infinitesimally small a mere human was. And also how much change could be effected by the right human, in the right place, at the right time.

Within, not quite in the direct center, was the Illusive Man's own personal chair. The man himself was seated, the thin wisp of smoke from a lit cigarette was clearly visible against the display of the ancient star. A pair of glowing eyes glanced up at the trio as they approached, but the Illusive Man did not rise from his seat. He nodded in greeting, eyes flicking to the side, where a par of similar chairs rose from the seemingly seamless floor. "Miranda. Oleg. Have a seat."

He stung Leng to silence with a single flashing glance, shifting as the other pair took their seats. "I will not be so cliche as to ask you all if you're wondering why I summoned each of you on urgent notice. I will be brief: We're at war. No one wants to admit it but humanity is under attack. Out in the Terminus Systems, someone or something has been abducted entire human colonies."

"боже мой," Petrovsky muttered under his breath. "I had been hearing rumors during my last few operations out there. I suspected it was part of a larger pattern."

"I've heard similar reports, both on public news and less official feeds." Miranda nodded. "It fits into a wider pattern of attacks on human outposts and ships that has been happening in and around the Terminus Systems since the Battle of the Citadel."

"Indeed," The Illusive Man nodded once. With a simple gesture, several holo-screens glided across the room for them to absorb. After several minutes, he spoke again. "So far, Alliance Parliament has passed these attacks as the usual pirate and slaver raids."

"Those political fools," Petrovsky scoffed, gesturing to several images and data-feeds of the colonies. "Pirates and slavers tend to leave smoldering ruins in their wake. They hit hard and messy. Whomever is behind these attacks, they've left no traces at all."

"Not to mention the scavengers," Miranda added as she manipulated another feed. "Every group that arrives on the scene afterward leaves with their cargo bays filled to capacity, stripping the colony clean. Meaning that the kidnappers are taking the colonists but leaving behind all resources, wealth, and tech."

"Hmmmm..." Kai Leng pursed his lips. "No pirate would leave behind so many spoils."

A few more minutes passed as the three continued reading the intel before Petrovsky shook his head. "And the military isn't doing anything about it?"

The Illusive Man took a long inhalation of his cigarette before responding. "Very little, Oleg. Although it seems Councilor Anderson and several Alliance admirals are quarreling with Parliament over the abductions."

The general surprised Miranda with an approving nod. "At least David's not letting it slide."

Leng was just as surprised, even affronted. "You actually approve of that over-the-hill Alliance lap dog? He's soft, much too cooperative with the aliens, and well past-"

"Watch yourself." For the first time, Oleg Petrovsky glared at the former N7 operative, allowing a rare display of contempt from the composed general. "While I held the line back on Shanxi, Anderson and his men led the charge for the Alliance's reinforcements. I fought alongside him and our combined efforts were instrumental to taking Shanxi back from the turians. Much like Bernard Montgomery, Anderson is an outstanding leader and he always earned the respect of his men. I always thought a man of his caliber was wasted on the Alliance military, but as Councilor he never backs down when it comes to humanity's security."

"As I understood it, Field Marshal Montgomery was somewhat notorious for his lack of tact." Miranda gave a faint, purse-lipped smile, glancing at Oleg sidelong. "Thankfully, Anderson is far less prone to flagrant self-aggrandizement Indeed, he seems almost selfless by comparison."

"Enough." The Illusive Man silenced the debate with but a word. "The Terminus Systems are still ultimately beyond both Council and Alliance jurisdiction, even while humanity is up against the greatest threat of our brief existence. Whoever is abducting entire colonies, I believe it's someone working for the Reapers, just as Saren and the Geth aided Sovereign. Even now, they are insidiously taking advantage of the colonies that swore off Council and Alliance protection and chose to reside in the galaxy's most lawless regions."

"They are entitled to their right of independence if they choose," Miranda pursed her lips. "But not when the Reapers are on the march."

"Precisely, Miranda. The Reapers are finally making their next move, and Cerberus must take action."

"One question, sir," Petrovsky spoke, a frown creasing his brow. "Do we have a motive behind their sudden focus on our people? We played a significant role at the Battle of the Citadel, but our forces still arrived from Batarian space with the turian fleets close behind."

"Not to mention it was the Darastrix who single-handedly tore apart Sovereign." Miranda mused. She wondered just how much of the fight she witnessed between the darastrix and the drone was the alien holding back.

"Don't forget about your escaped AI crippling the Geth," Kai Leng coyly whispered under his breath, knowing her enhanced hearing would catch it.

"We're still uncertain on their exact motives," the Illusive Man answered. "I have several theories but I'll need more data to confirm any of them, such as the identity of our mystery abductors. For now, I'm confident the Reapers are assessing the newest major race of the galaxy before expanding their sights to the other races."

There was a heavy pause as he took an especially long breath of smoke, obviously vexed. "Which, unfortunately, has already begun."

Everyone looked up in surprise. The Illusive Man twirled his cigarette once more before he spoke again. "Over the last week, another two colonies have vanished. Asari colonies."

"Asari?" Leng sounded surprised, even through his habitual flattened affect. "Why would they go after asari if they had focused on humans first?"

"Your ears work, but you do not listen," Miranda sighed. "As we just heard, it appears that the Reapers are now expanding their operation to the other Council races. But with the asari, this is going to get complicated fast. Thanks to their long lives, even the average asari citizen likely has better connections than most humans. Which means its only a matter of time before some VIP colonist of theirs goes missing as well. The word soon gets back to Thessia, and before you know it the galaxy's most powerful politicians will be up in arms. Jurisdiction doesn't mean as much when your people are the authors of galactic law."

"Exactly, Miranda. Then the countless abductions will suddenly matter." The Illusive Man frowned before rising to his feet, prompting the others to follow his lead. "War has begun. Humanity will be the first to act, and the actors are nearly assembled. I have called you here because you three are Cerberus' best and brightest, each one the master of their own field. Because before humanity can counter the Reaper's plans, one last outlying matter must be attended to."

The Illusive Man fixed his glowing gaze with each of his three top agents. "Jumpstart Operation Paris."


The Underhive. Dark, smelly, cold. Mostly forgotten and left to rot, and for the most part sealed off from the rest of Omega. The very few access points that hadn't been completely sealed were monitored, though not actively guarded. Little enough traffic passed through that it was all captured on numerous vidfeeds.

So when activity down there had picked up, she'd been one of the first to be informed.

"Sitrep." She stalked past the techs at the hastily-installed consoles, filtering data to be sent to her CIC and tactical display.

"Nothing so far." Her new minion was as calm and efficient as she had been for her old boss, turning to give Aria a calm and professional nod. "The Underhive only has a few functional docks left, and both of the ones we're monitoring are in use. One of them is a cargo hauler offloading a shipment, perfectly normal, we've checked, and the contract codes come through clean.. The other has been occupied by a batarian 'merchant' for the past three hours."

The way Jentha's lip curled on the word 'merchant' showed what she thought of the likelihood of the batarian vessel being anything other than a slaver.

"Got us IDs?" She shot a glance over at the techs, one of whom shook her head.

"The freighter is 'Jesska's Child', registered through Nos Astra Starport as a bulk transport vessel. She checks out clean. The batarian vessel is registered as the 'Pillar of Industry', a free merchant, registered out of Khoraz Prime, a system near the Attican Traverse, on the Terminus side."

"Figures." She turned as the door hissed open, nodding to the expected arrival of her right-hand-man. "Our people in position, Grizz?"

The scarred, three-eyed batarian nodded mutely, and tapped his ear before making a gesture to his wrist, where his omnitool was already glowing. Aria nodded, and gestured to the tacmap turning back to Jentha. "And what of our...friends, Jentha?"

At hearing her name from Aria's lips, Jentha snapped to attention and tried to resist blushing. The hardcore mercenary succeeded, though barely, her voice calm and even. "I've committed three squads to the ambush. I— they are at your service, Aria."

"Good girl." The Queen smiled, mentally sending the young woman a jolt of arousal at the praise. Ever since Jentha took out Tarak, the Blue Suns on Omega had found new unity under Jentha's command. And lust was a potent motivator to keep someone loyal.

The professional mercenary gave a courteous nod, though her cheeks colored slightly as she turned her gaze to the datapad she held. "Our squads will be in position momentarily. Will you still be leading the assault, Aria?"

"Of course," Aria firmly nodded. "It's been 400 years since the Batarians brought this many slaves outside Hegemony space. For them to take such a risk while the Citadel fleet is invading Khar'shan? It means someone has made the Hegemony an offer they couldn't refuse."

"Fucking Batarians..." Jentha's voice was a low growl, and this close, Aria could hear the hatred in her voice. "My squads are in position, Aria. What are your orders?"

She noted the way the woman deferred to her, as was right and proper, but more importantly, she noted those who reacted to Jentha's display of servility. The salarian over there was suspiciously studied in his nonchalance, she marked him for later study. A couple of Jentha's own lieutenants clearly didn't like how submissive their boss was being, even to the Queen of Omega. She'd point them out to Jentha later. Oh, interesting, one of her own techs was keeping more than usual attention on her conversation.

Aria smirked. She would allow them their doubts for a few more moments. After all, today would serve more than one purpose. Crushing this new upstart dealing with the Batarians would banish all doubts of who truly ruled Omega. "Have the batarians arrived with their 'cargo'?"

"Thermal signatures have indicated that the hangar bay they're using is fully occupied, Aria." The attentive tech spoke up quickly, a little too quickly.

"Everyone, we're running silent, as of now." Aria ordered with a simple gesture. "Bring them up on screen and zoom in."

The tacmap lit up as the room's lights dimmed. This wasn't for dramatic effect or to give the tactical display better visibility, just that the power connectors were shoddily done and not up to the loads being put on them, so the lights dimmed as the portable display terminal powered up. Ehh, it was Omega, you got used to the shit.

The batarian cruiser was docked at one of the two docking arms that still had atmosphere and power on that side of the Underhive. The long gantry showed diminishing heat signatures now as the occupants of the cruiser were moved down along it and filed into the bay at the base of the gantry. The fact that this operation had gone from 'we just found out about this' to 'ready to storm in from six directions at once' in only three hours from the initial contact report was a goddamn miracle and showcased how her unquestioned authority on Omega had grown over the past year and a half.

Aria caressed the thick leather belt slung on her hips, feeling the familiar shape of her new medallion as it lay clipped to her belt. Later.

"Our troops are stationed here, here and here. We're ready to move on your order, Aria." Jentha pointed out three different locations, one across the gantry from the cargo bay itself, one in a maintenance level above the bay, and one in an auxiliary power station just aft of the bay itself. All three pretty much surrounded the bay and would cut off any station-side egress from the hangar, once the Blue Suns deployed in force.

"Not yet. The buyer has yet to show." Aria narrowed her eyes as she brought up the surveillance feeds with a wave of her hand and began scrutinized the screen. Interesting...

The batarians had packed one side of the bay with slaves, pushing them into position as deep as caution allowed. The slaves were asari and humans, both male and female of the latter. Most were clearly nervous, a few had the tell-tale slack-jawed look of the chipped slaves, but what caught Aria's attention was that the batarian slave masters were more frightened than their slaves. With her supernaturally enhanced instincts and perception, Aria could read their motive and body language as easily as breathing, and what she gleaned from was concerning. The way they were clutching their weapons, urging their stock to be on their best behavior, fearfully glancing in every direction... The batarians had braved smuggling so much cargo past the famed Alliance and Hierarchy militaries, but the mystery buyers chilled them to the bone.

Aria frowned. She had a sneaking suspicion of whom they were meeting, one that was growing with every minute. "Scan their ships for life forms. I want to know how much 'cargo' they intend to sell."

"Scanning, Mistress." Damnit, she would definitely have to have a talk with that tech. "I'm not certain, the heat readings are rather muddled, but if what we can see is accurate, then they have... Dear goddess..."

At Aria's glare, the woman flinched and rapidly fiddled with her display. "...nearly four thousand slaves, Mistress. Roughly split between asari and human."

"Someone's buying in bulk." The Queen of Omega's voice was arctic, her suspicions escalating. She knew the all great powers of the Terminus Systems by heart, and could count on one hand the players who could afford to buy several thousand slaves. She was one of them, and the Shadow Broker had just as little interest in the slave business as she did, other than taking some of the profits. And the Batarians were the ones selling.

Which meant it could only be—

"Boss! The Omega-4 Relay is activating!"

—The Collectors.

"Track whatever ship just came out of that Relay. I want as many eyes on them as I can get." Aria's lip curled in visceral distaste.

She'd seen the Collectors before and immediately disliked them, knew they weren't to be trusted. They traversed freely through a relay that no one ever returned from, within striking distance of Aria's throne and she still knew almost nothing about them. They were old, perhaps ancient. They had been around Omega long before she first arrived, even Patriarch had been wary of them. Few things in the galaxy could unsettle Aria, but the Collectors moved with eerie silence and with purpose they deigned not to share. Rumors and myths spread over the centuries, and even Aria was starting to wonder if they were true.

She would never forget that day long ago when a Collector had deigned to speak with her. It's haunting voice, more ancient and more powerful than any Asari Matriarch, had rocked her to the core.

But that was two hundred years ago. Now she was Queen.

So. The batarians were desperate enough to use her station to sell thousands of humans and asari to the Collectors of all people. Debatably people.

That wasn't good. From what she remembered of them, they only took a few slaves here and there, and they all had to have some exceedingly uncommon trait, usually genetic. "Give me visual on the chattel."

One of her techs blurred into high speed. Salarain, of course. But at least he was efficient, and the feed came up on the hologram pod, in a separate window hovering in front of the tacmap. Efficient, she'd have to remember him. Dolvrin, that was his name.

A sweeping scan over the slaves showed nothing that immediately stood out. The last time she had something akin to this happen, it was three dozen slaves, all human, and all of them with rich dark skin. This time...

She was always amazed by how much visible variation that humans showed off. Wild variances in height, skin-tone, eye and even hair-color, and of course their always slightly freakish 'men' that looked just close enough to asari to be subtly disturbing. And then there were the ones that weren't obviously men or women, which always irritated her, so very close to the asari ideal of perfection, and to miss by just enough to be disturbing in a way that was entirely unlike their obviously-not-right 'men'.

And then there were the asari. Sometimes, Collectors had asked for ardat-yakshi. After the last time something like that happened, she'd banned the mind-murdering bitches from her station, when one of them got lose and had to be hunted down to get rid of her. These, though...

She saw several that were the distinctive pale-blue of purebloods, but none with the malevolent aura that she associated with the Ardat-Yakshi. Asari had far less variance in height than humans, but a few centimeters here or there was usual. Skintone could range from a deep, rich azure, something which caused somewhat ribald jokes when human languages started percolating through the asari, to an almost-black purple, to something more akin to her own more light lavender shade. Every shape and style of her people were addressed here, she saw South-Continent Thessians with their distinct violet tint, to the pale-blue of purebloods, eyes ranging from near-silver blue to a dark purple, and every shade between.

So, the Collectors weren't just buying in bulk anymore, they'd broadened their criteria.

"Wait, does anyone else hear that?" A turian asked as he listened to the sensors, his mandibles flaring in agitation. "Sounds like... chitttering. Like insects."

Aria narrowed her eyes. "They're here."

As if on cue, a swarm of the insectile creatures strode into the cargo bay, clearly an advanced squad. They held weapons, but they were pointed low, and seemed not to care about the batarians suddenly pointing their own motley assortment at them. They turned, heading to one side, as another group of five strode in, more collectors than Aria had ever seen in one place before, splitting and heading left.

"Hmmmm..." She tapped her lips thoughtfully, watching as the insectile creatures began to spread out, and a third group arrived, this one larger, and bringing some sort of personage.

This one was glowing golden, his eyes were a different color, and his armor, or exoskeleton or something was outright luminous. She'd seen one like that before, a long, long time ago, but that was a memory she cared not to revisit. Another place, another name, another face. That one, though...

A faint smile touched the corners of her lips as Aria noted that the camera feeds were starting to go dark. "Get exact tactical data from the cameras, as fast as you can. They're shooting them out."

She was pleased to see that she'd actually gotten the drop on her hyper-efficient salarian, grinning behind his back as he worked feverishly to update the telemetry being set to the battle-map as one by one, the cameras around the cargo bay were disabled. She wasn't sure if they were actually shooting them, or if they were merely being bypassed and overridden, but the end result was the same. Either way, they'd need to be replaced, if she could be bothered to find the men, equipment and time to do so.

She flicked the now-dark hologram away and focused on the tacmap, giving a grunt as an asari tech called out. "Boss, there's a shuttle coming in, angling for the hangar across the hall from the cargo bay!"

"Got it, keep tabs on it."

"It's large, Ma'am, almost the size of a frigate."

The Queen's eyes narrowed to slits. They thought to try this after she had explicitly barred them from Omega? "Grizz, Jentha. Target the station's guns on that shuttle. Wait three minute, and then reduce it to slag."

"Will do, Aria. Wait, boss? Where are you... going?" Grizz's voice trailed off as the asari's form smoldered with dark energy, more than any other biotic they had seen.

"To remind the Collectors of Omega's one rule."


Again.

The ammo block came out with her touch, springing free in response to a quick set of actions, actions she'd done many thousands of times. She'd sighted the gun, aimed the gun, cleaned the gun, knew hot to modify it, how to maintain it, how and when and why to use certain types of ammo.

But that was all. She'd done this thousands of times, with many different weapons, she knew them all, knew their intricacies and how various models had their own idiosyncrasies She knew armor, both light and medium, how to best use various sets, what their limits were, how to angle against various kinds of fire for the best effect.

But it was all dry, tasteless. Without context.

She'd been trained in how to remain unseen, she'd learned how to pick out leaders among groups, and how to spot hidden leaders that weren't immediately obvious. She'd learned the value of following orders to the letter, and when to blow the mission sky high because something unexpected happened. She'd learned to trust those under her command to do what she ordered, not necessarily what she wanted.

But now, she was given context. A home, a family, people like her who treated her well, had smiling faces, called her by name. Name. Name? Her name? Or another name?

She remembered the ship, landing with a blast of dust as it skidded to a stop, remembered the rage when the four-eyed freaks boiled out, knew instinctively how to defend herself...

And how much it hurt to watch her friends dying to the freaks' weapons. Or worse, watch their eyes go blank as they shoved something into their heads.

She remembered the horror of it, she remembered killing them all. She remembered leaving the freshly-dug graves behind as she turned to watch the new contrails arrowing down from orbit.

She remembered basic training, the repetitive tasks that had to be done perfectly the first time, or the pain would come for... goldbricking. And she remembered the missions to route out the slavers.

She remembered relaxing in her hotel room's private hot tub with a view over the valley below, and seeing horrifically-familiar contrails arrowing down into the town nestled in the valley bellow.

She remembered the shouting and creams of slaves, as they were driven towards her by their uncaring masters. She remembers having to gun them down to avoid their bomb-collars going off in her face. She remembers getting herded back into the shuttle, giggling softly to herself as she gazed down at bloody hands.

She remembered Anderson, a good man, but soft, unwilling to make the hard choice that needed to be made, and causing so many people to suffer as a result. His trust in the aliens made him naive, and easily misled. She remembered others, remembered being sent on one last mission.

She couldn't recall where, she couldn't recall when. Maybe that would come later.

In the mean time she relaxed in the warm, silent darkness, and savored the name. I twas hers, she knew. Maybe. The memories were real, but in them her skin was...different. Lighter. Her eyes were different too, a light yellow. Her hair was different, a dark cloud that floated around her.

Her skin was black, deep ebon black. Her hair was silver, the few times she'd seen it. She didn't know what her eyes looked like, things were foggy here, when she woke to herself. Reality was foggy. The dreams, those were real.

She wanted to dream forever. There, she was different. There, she was somebody.

There, in her dreams, she was Shepard. That felt good. She hoped the dream was real.


Even as anger seethed in her veins, this was, perhaps, her favorite part.

When it comes to leading, and especially ruling, certain standards must be met. Rules established. And when they were broken, a show of force must be made. To mete out punishment, exact dues, and make an example out of the malefactor that would dare to transgress. A show of force appropriate for the rule that was broken. After all, Omega's one rule was more than just a law. It was a warning.

She focused, nodding to Jentha as she gathered her power, directing it not outward, not upward, but downward.

Don't. Fuck. With Aria.

The floor peeled apart like an onion, revealing the rot down below. Tremendous waves of biotic power tore, lifted, and shredded, leaving Aria alone and unscathed, suspended in a cage of her own power.

Horrified shouts and screams, she ignored them. Bullets pinged off her shield as she hung suspended. And then...

She did not fall. She Charged.

She impacted the floor of the hangar like a mass-accelerator round, buckling the floor in a wide crater. Two of the Collectors had been holding their ground beneath her. Now, they slid off her black-purple boots like the slime they were. She rose, turning her gaze towards the batarians, and they fell as if scythed down by her gaze alone. Precise and accurate fire from the fire-team above, firing down through the hole she had torn. She heard Jentha barking orders, her voice cold, calm, crisp. Obedient

Good girl.

She turned back the other way, towards the Collectors, who were faring somewhat better than their counterparts. Three squads of five, and one of those glowing ones at the back. She seethed like plasma, barely constrained by a powerful magnetic field. Fury constrained by willpower alone.

She let lose with a soft, hissing snarl.

Two Collectors exploded, torn violently apart by her torrent of dark energy, shredding them with nano-singularities hurled from her like bullets. She turned, gathering force, and mowed down another three in the second wave, feeling the resurgence of power, even as she dug deeper into her reserves than she ever had before. Not since her Gifts were bestowed.

Goddess, she reveled in this!

"It's the asari bitch!" One of the slavers screamed in panic. "Don't let her near the merchandi- AAAAHH!"

More bullets pattered off her barrier, too little too slow. She ignored the rabble, as was proper and befitting a Queen. She stalked forward, tearing aside the rubble with a sweep of the hand, and blasting out of the crater with a pulse of Power. She wanted to look them in the eyes as she killed them, she wanted to feel their fear as she stole their lives. A fitting tribute to the Pirate Queen.

But much to her irritation, the Collectors never once buckled, even as their numbers were dropping by her hand. They seemed utterly unfazed as they still fought back, almost mechanically. She could see it. It wasn't overconfidence on their part (even if their strange weapons were actually stinging her enhanced barriers) nor could it be resolve through intense training, for there was simply no battle formation or tactics. None of them called out orders; there were no determined shouts or the cries of fear she craved. They didn't even react to their mounting losses. It was as if there were no individuals among them. Even vorcha had stronger reactions in battle than the Collectors did.

If anything, Aria was reminded of the old stories of the rachni swarms, advancing under the directive of a hive mind. Which was unsettling in of itself.

"Boss! New contact incoming! It's a big one!"

Rising from the smoke behind the Collectors, a massive new form emerged. It looked like a colossal beetle, gliding menacingly in a cocoon of its own power. Its gaping mouth was filled with... husks?

Aria blinked. Husks? Like the geth used at the Citadel? But that would mean...

Danger screamed up her spine, and she bolted sideways, not back, never a retreat, only a repositioning, as she slammed into cover behind a shipping crate that the Batarians had brought in to use for barter. A white-hot lance of radiant energy slammed into the floor just behind her biotic field steps, erasing the boot-prints in the solid steel and leaving molten iron in its wake.

Fuck. That was too damned close.

"Jentha, talk to me. Sitrep, girl." She allowed a tiny fraction of power to coil along the comm-frequency and slither into her thrall's ear.

"Unidentified heavy unit, Boss! The techs are reading some unknown form of barriers and... a particle beam? Are you eggheads sure?!" Jentha's voice sounded worried and angry. "Sorry Boss, these are unknown waters for everyone! The Collectors are enigmatic at best! All I can say is avoid the beams! Those will disintegrate you on the spot!"

"Keep up the pressure on the chaff. When my squad gets here send them in." She kept her voice calm even as the particle beam sliced through the corner of the crate, carving off the edge of it with neat, almost surgical precision. Right then...

She waited just long enough, heard the tone of the beam powering down and took that moment to strike. She rolled out of cover, hammering into a Charge, but not before she saw the thing shift, its four luminous eyes zeroing in on her, as her Flare homed in and burst.

She was safely back in cover again as the blast-wave washed over her, flaring her own shields against it as the tidal wave of biotic fury hammered into the thing's unknown shields. Unknown, that was the operative, and concerning word. As such, she kept her head down a moment, and gave a faint smile as the rising whine of the thing's plasma beam cutting into her new cover came shrill and strident. As she expected.

"Biotics work but not enough. Get my heavy weapons team in position. NOW, Jentha!"

"You heard the Boss! Get the missile and grenade launchers out there and light the bastard up!"

Aria grinned to herself behind the slowly-diminishing bulwark of the shipping crate. A moment later, she heard the tell-tale cough and shrill scream as a missile zipped past her to hammer into the grotesque monster's unseemly face.

She rose like a wrathful goddess, turning to send first a lift, then a Warp to capture and annihilate the last two collectors to the right flank, as her heavy squad dropped down behind her and began concentrating fire on the hell-beast.

Her grin vanished, replaced with a grim snarl as it flared once more, and erasing half the squad in one blast. "Goddess damn it! Jentha!"

"I see it, Boss, but we've still got more, including a few gunships!"

"No, pull your men back!" Aria glared at the creature. "I'm sick of these things on my station."

She hammered away the last few Collectors with a sweeping gesture, hurling them to splatter against the bulkhead with a Throw, before turning her attention to the monstrosity front and center. It had killed six of her best already, with three more wounded. Good, she'd missed Irrissa, she liked her.

Her eyes snapped to focus on the behemoth, even as it was gathering energy for another blast. "Not this time, asshole..."

Her Singularity hit it right in its ugly face, popping a few of the husks in there as the artificial black hole tore at its molecular structure, hoovering down the front half of the beast before it detonated with the application of a spectacular Flare, shredding the floor on that side of the hangar bay and leaving the carcass to shudder and twitch. The fact that it could still do that was testament to the unnatural being's insane durability, and even Aria was panting from the exertion.

But no more.

"Right," the asari queen sighed. "Irrissa, we're finished here. Get the wounded out. It's time-"

ASARI.

Aria stiffened as a rare surge of fear trickled through her. That voice! A terrible cold went down her spine even as she spun around with a furious snarl, swinging her fist with more biotic power than ever.

A tremendous bright flash from the impact shook the room. It faded a second later, only to reveal the source had been a clawed hand that snatched Aria's wrist, stopping her still. Before her stood a single Collector, an aura of flames that burned around it, glowing lines all across its body from within, coursing with ancient power. And the same deep, guttural voice Aria had heard from them long ago. Mightier than any Matriarch, a voice that made everything it said sound like an imperial fact of reality itself, inevitable and unstoppable.

YOUR PITIFUL RESISTANCE IS ENDED.

Aria's eyes flared with desperation as she struggled against the Collector's grip. What was this?! Her magical strength was greater than most krogan, but this felt like she was wrestling with a dreadnought!

I WILL SHOW YOU TRUE POWER.

She wasn't able to move or block as the Collector raised its other hand, mirroring her own attempted attack, slamming into her chest.

For a moment, she knew nothing. nothing but pain. Her head ached, sound was muted, she rolled slowly first onto hands and knees, and saw...

Blood. Asari blood. Her blood...

A muffled thunder drew her attention. She watched as Irrissa's lifeless body was hurled away, torn apart by a flying disk of dark energy. Her lips worked soundlessly as she stared up into Aria's eyes, her severed head seeming to struggle to voice one last plea. Her vision still hazy with black spots, she could just make out the distorted form of the glowing Collector tossing aside the other half of Irrissa's body. Through the smoke, it turned and slowly advanced towards her. Its eyes were almost blinding in the haze, glowing with that horrible sickly yellow.

ASARI; RELIANCE UPON ALIEN SPECIES FOR REPRODUCTION SHOWS GENETIC WEAKNESS. YOU DO NOT YET COMPREHEND YOUR PLACE.

Pain was etched all over Aria's face. What the fuck was she dealing with here? How did the Collectors possess this kind of power? Wait... the husks. Just like the geth had used when they worked for... oh no. Goddess, no. This Collector, this thing... it was a Reaper. A Goddess-damned Reaper!

WE ARE THE HARBINGER OF YOUR ASCENDANCE.

She slowly rose to her feet, having to brace her clenched fist against her knee as pain flared up her back like a hot knife through butter. So, this was what Jorukaia had been warning her about? What she gave her enchanted boons and the demands to mobilize the Terminus for? Then this was the time she would deliver, to meet the threat looming over the horizon. She gritted her blood-slicked teeth, glaring at the glowing-eyed freak with all the defiance she could muster.

Even staring Death in the face, she was still Queen.

"Not today, asshole." She was proud of that moment. The line, so precisely delivered, the flick of a finger clenched on her hip, right over the medallion that was so precious to her. The way her over-fueled Flare caught the unsuspecting 'Harbinger' square in the face and hurled him back. Or... Knocked him back. Shoved him back a pace or two. Or half...

That was impossible! She had poured nearly all of her remaining reserves into that Flare, enough to turn a reinforced Mako to scrap! And it had merely staggered from that attack, its shields absorbing the damage with little trouble, almost appearing inexhaustible. But how?!

THIS IS WHAT YOU FACE. THE AUGMENTATIONS OF THE DARASTRIX CHANGE NOTHING.

Aw, hell.

"Jentha," Aria gritted her teeth through the pain. "Get your gunships over here and rain everything on this bastard."

"Boss, I-"

"Now! Prove your worth, damnit!"

"Aria, the gunships are GONE! More Collector heavies, they came out of nowhere!"

The asari's eyes widened as two more of those massive beetle things flew in through the atmospheric shields and landed behind Harbinger, eyes crackling with energy to be unleashed. Harbinger raised its fist, glowing with sinister golden flames.

"Boss, everything's down! We can't make it to you!"

AND NOW YOU STAND ALONE, ASARI.

...Oh, goddess, she was so fucked... She had been too overconfident with her new power, even her heightened intellect was convinced she was invincible. But now, she had nothing left... she had no more cards to play.

Nothing.

A line of light crossed in front of her vision, no thicker than a fingertip, but brighter than a stadium light. It only lasted for a splinter of an instant, but black afterimages danced in her vision for seconds after the thunderous twin detonations sent a spray of disintegrating metallic glitter flying. Both of the giant ugly things had somehow been blown apart by a single blast.

Even Harbinger took pause, glancing back as two of its most major units had suddenly been taken out in an instant. And before it even finished turning its over-sized head, another blast tore right through its torso. The bolt took him right below the shoulder, and continued with a laser-straight line straight through and out the other side. Somewhere in the middle, something dramatic happened, and Harbinger's chest exploded outwards in a spray of molten fragments, several of which pattered to a stop against Aria's boots. It keeled over backwards, the luminous fire coating it flickering and fading out, the eyes going lifeless and dark as it lay, with a huge hole where it chest had been, the internal organs either pulped, cooked, or explosively disassembled.

...What. The. Fuck?

"Archangel," spoke a voice from behind Aria. "Why do you insist on waiting till the last minute? No, don't give me that, it already looks 'awesome', stop being so redundant!"

A familiar Turian female strode out from the smoke, weapon in hand.

Even as it lay dying, Harbinger's powerful voice still boomed from the Collector's shredded body.

THIS SHELL IS ONLY A VEHICLE. YOU MERELY DELAY THE INEVITABLE. THE EXPERIMENTS WILL CONTINUE. YOUR WORLDS WILL BECOME OUR LABORATORIES.

"Oh, do shut up." The turian unloaded a Carnifex into the Collector's head, silencing it at last, Incendiary Ammo burning the corpse away. She let out a sigh and then spoke into her comm. "Notify the rest of the team, take care of the wounded and the prisoners. Tell them to scavenge whatever they can. We're moving out."

Her orders given, Nyreen Kandros finally turned back to the asari. "Aria. We need to talk."


The shuttle rocked, the winds making it howl as they roared across the skies. The elite of his clan, following the convoy of tomkahs down below, sheltering his warriors as they approached the perimeter.

Wrex eyed the map one last time, then flicked off his omnitool. Now wasn't the time for tactics and strategy. Now it was time to Be Krogan.

"BROTHERS!" His voice boomed through the big, boxy shuttle, drawing the six squads of his finest warriors to their feet. Discipline was good, and this group was more than any other. "Tonight we show Tuchanka why we have earned its respect! Tonight we show Clan Tayleth we must not stand alone!"

"Tonight, we show them the folly of their acts!" Every last one of his elite knew the danger that Clan Tayleth posed, not only to Clan Urdnot, but to all the clans. "Tonight, we visit retribution for their folly!"

Roars of approval from his men, and Zres gave a wide grin. "TONIGHT, WE HAVE NOT COME TO FIGHT!"

At the silence that followed this, he gave a thump over the large button, and listened as the emergency exit hatch slammed open. "We are Clan Urdnot! We don't fight!"

He turned away, confident of their sizzling blood. "We Win."

And with those words, Wrex led the charge, hurtling out of the exit and into a free-fall plummet. They were still half a click above their target, the rest of his squads descending on grav-chutes, their black-and-red-trimmed armor making them nearly invisible in the Tuchankan night.

Wrex? He eschewed such pleasantries.

He fell like a stone, his broad feet ripped at by the passing wind as he steadied himself. Clan Tayleth's holdings were well-defended, including the best AA-guns Tuchanka had to offer. Which was why the shuttle had been high and quiet enough not to alert them of their descending doom. His lips twisted as he shifted slightly, letting the wind shove him sideways towards where the Broker's intel showed was a weak patch in the roof.

Time to give new meaning to a Krogan air drop.

Wrex smashed through the roof like an artillery shell, gun blazing before the smoke and dust of his entrance had cleared. The bright hammering thunder of the Warlord's Last Retort was the signal, and his still-descending troops opened up, picking off sentries and gunners, exposed to the inside of their fortifications.

Perfectly timed. he heard the throaty roar of tomkah engines just as the few manned guns opened up, sending rockets slashing at his troop-transports. But Urdnot had planned for this.

They'd sent half the clan this time, not merely what they could spare. They'd left the clan holdings barren, everything they could pack up and move strapped onto a tomkah. They traveled in three waves. Half the clan sent on ahead, the females and children in the center, and half the clan as rearguards, in case one of the other clans tried to pick them off while they were vulnerable.

Now, that first half were slamming into Tayleth's defenses like a tidal wave, their jury-rigged mobile rocket launchers haphazardly bolted onto roofs and side-panels sending a blizzard of fire out to harry the few guns that were responding to their present. Six rockets hammered into the gate, blowing a hole with their upgraded thermal-lance warheads, and they were through the outer defenses.

Wrex grinned widely as he watched all this on his HUD's map, part of his mind keeping command of the greater battle, even as he fought like he never had before. He had disrupted Ethylene's defenses enough for his forces to move in while he charged right for the command center to cut off the head. Before long, he was face-to-face with Vorak Tayleth, Chieftain of Clan Tayleth. Oh, and his honor guard, that too.

"Wha-who... Urdnot Wrex? How did you get... gah, rip him to shreds!"

The Chief of Clan Tayleth was a monster of a brute, half a head taller than him, and with a hump so large he looked ready to topple over. His legs were like terran tree-trunks, wide, thick and immovable, and his armor was the best that Wrex had ever seen.

Too bad his gun didn't given a shit what armor you wore.

The Chief was already down on one knee, right arm torn to bloody rags and still oozing blood from his shattered shoulder by the time Wrex finished murdering his honor guard. He had to admit, the six guards were good, he'd had to tank more than he would have liked on his shields, but his own weapon made quick work of them.

Splattered with orange blood that glowed like fire in the lamp-pack's light he stomped forwards, listening to the sounds of battle outside, and the calls for the Chief over his foe's omnitool. "Stand up."

"Grrrrggghh..." Vorak Tayleth growled in defiance. "Shiagur's red bones... shortest damn fight of my life. Guess the stories about you and Jurdon are true."

"Urdnot doesn't fight. We win." Wrex was proud of that line, he'd done a lot of skull-hammering to get it through his tribe that the point of the fight isn't the bloodshed, it's to make the other bastard kneel. "Stand. Or do you prefer to die on your knees?"

"Fuck, Wrex... I had such plans!" Vorak Tayleth grunted as he tried to stand, his left shin a bloody mess from where Wrex's initial shots had torn the leg nearly clean off. "Why'd you have to get involved? Can't stand anyone but you bringing glory to their clan? To Tuchanka?"

"No, you idiot. I'm cleaning up your mess." Wrex rapped the Chieftain's crest with his barrel, watching as Vorak fell to his knee again with a snarl of pain. "Your buddy Valterus slipped up. Got himself caught, and he's squealing like a nathak pup about your big dreadnought. The Council's already on their way."

"What?!" Tayleth's head snapped up. "That little...!"

"Still talking here.." Wrex hit him again. "Listening now? Good. In two days, the CDEM will be here in force, led by a Spectre and a bunch of damn salarians. I'm here to save your clan's ass by accepting your 'insistent offer' to join my alliance. And you do want to join me, right?"

The other krogan fell silent as he contemplated carefully.

"I have a son, Wrex." He finally answered slowly. "My first child in four hundred years. You promise to leave our females and children alone?"

"Those who do not fight are free of my blade. I shed no blood that does not spill mine." It was an old krogan oath, one between honored enemies, and the Chief of Clan Tayleth's head snapped up as Wrex murmured the old catechism "I will take them into my clan and give them all the protection I can offer them."

"Hehe... You're a better krogan than your father, Urdnot Wrex. I can see that much." The old warlord nodded. "So be it. And I suppose there's honor in allying with a rising legend. And having fought him too, even if he beat your ass into the ground."

"There is no disgrace in losing to a superior foe." Wrex suppressed a growl of satisfaction as a message from his elites came through. The charges were set, and most of the turrets were in their hands. Clan Tayleth was about to become a non-entity. "Do you yield, Chief of your Clan? Or do you demand a warrior's death?"

"I yield." The former chieftain of Clan Tayleth bowed his head and gave a low pained grunt as he shifted and sat heavily on a piece of rubble. "But you better have good ryncol."

"Oh, we've got more than that." Wrex holstered his weapon, the start of his legend, and grasped Vorak's hand. "I've got an opening for my chief engineer."


After two years as the newest member of the Council, Anderson had learned many things.

For example, he had learned to stop being surprised when the Salarian Union knew about his reports on galactic affairs before he even presented them. The STG prided itself on being three steps ahead of everyone else, and even knowing the enemy's move before the enemy did. Hell, he suspected they knew what his secretary's nephew had for breakfast.

So when the salarians called for an emergency meeting of the Council, it could only mean that something had truly caught them off-guard.

As Anderson and the other Councilors walked into a briefing room specially designed for secrecy, seeing that Valern's pallor was almost white as snow, he knew it was anything but good news.

Tevos and Sparatus clearly shared the same sentiment as the three sat down at the table, watching the rigid Valern with wary eyes. They had never seen the Salarian Councilor like this.

"I... I thank you for coming on such short notice." Valern quietly spoke. It was only thanks to Anderson's N7 training that he spotted the tremble in Valern's fingers. He could feel it in his gut. Something was terribly wrong.

"What is it, Valern?" Tevos's concerned tone was tinged with a note of worry as she took her place, her sleek, teal-blue dress quite fetching today as she smoothed it into place as she and the other councilors took their seats. "What's wrong?"

"I received new information from my government just over an hour ago." The salarian's eyes looked jittery, hyper-alert. "Before I begin, I must remind everyone here that this conversation must be classified top-secret at the highest level. It cannot be made public knowledge and is only to be shared with the leaders of our respective governments. I cannot stress this enough, Councilors."

This was serious. Beyond serious. Whatever it was, this was about to shape galactic history.

Sparatus spoke up, his voice grave. "So noted. Proceed."

"Very well then," Valern nodded as he typed several keys on the table, summoning a rotating holo-image of a turian soldier. "Two years ago, former C-Sec detective Garrus Vakarian joined with our then-Captain Anderson in the hunt for Saren Arterius. He was commended for playing a substantial role during the Battle of the Citadel, especially after obtaining a powerful rifle of advanced yet unknown design which he used to single-handedly eliminate multiple Geth siege walkers."

The image shifted, showing a turian with an oddly large sniper rifle. It was both extremely long, almost as long as the M-98 Widow that had recently been in trials, though where they had gotten the idea for such an overpowered weapon was anyone's guess. The gun nuts moved in mysterious ways.

The weapon had a comically large muzzle, and its fat barrel ended in a pair of back-slanting exhaust ports, clear sign that this was no mere mass accelerator. The huge, book-sized detachable box magazine might have been mistaken (in bad light) for an ammo block, and the bullpup configuration had it nestling up against the turian's armored shoulder. The oversized optical scope gleamed in the hologram, as if watching even those who saw it at this remove, and made Anderson shiver slightly in remembrance of the last time he stared down a sniper's scope.

"After the battle, Vakarian soon disappeared and took the unknown rifle with him." Valern continued. "A team of STG analysts was dispatched to locate him and the weapon."

Anderson mentally grimaced. He had nothing but the highest respect for Castis' son, but even he had to approve of the search. He saw that weapon take out a Geth Colossus with a single shot. No respectable military in the universe would allow a soldier as disgruntled as Garrus Vakarian to resign and then take a loaded bazooka like some free souvenir.

"As everyone here knows, Vakarian stayed underground for several months until he later resurfaced on Omega, apparently having assembled a vigilante group against Omega's rampant criminal elements."

Valern was answered by a trio of nods. The Council had been aware of Vakarian's activities on Omega for almost a year. As he was outside Citadel jurisdiction and was admittedly having quite an impact against the heart of many criminal operations that affected Citadel space, he Council had been happy to leave him be. Especially as it also presented a special opportunity to keep Aria T'Loak in check.

The asari Queen of Omega had been rapidly growing in power and influence over the last two years, and it didn't take a genius for C-Sec and the STG to figure out how. Many reports had come in of the Darastrix having visited Aria in her frigate-sized dragon form and in broad daylight, and then disappearing somewhere for a private conversation. The very next day, Aria T'Loak suddenly began expanding her control over the Terminus' criminal operations at an alarming rate. Her influence, intelligence, charisma, and even her already prestigious biotic power seemed to have multiplied tenfold.

The Council wanted to know why the darastrix had decided to enable and empower a ruthless criminal empire adjacent to Citadel borders, but for someone that publicly boasted she had nothing to hide, Joru was notably difficult to contact.

To discreetly counter Aria T'Loak's growing power, the STG had taken a greater interest in Garrus Vakarian's vigilante operations as 'Archangel'. His advanced weapon combined with his tactical brilliance and technical expertise had proven resoundingly effective against Omega's crime lords. Especially with a very capable team he had scavenged together, including a Nyreen Kandros with deep knowledge of Omega's schematics and Aria's operations. And much to the STG's delight, a semi-retired operative and explosives expert of theirs had found his way onto Archangel's team. After reaching out to their former agent with the offer of providing covert funding and intelligence, Archangel's successes skyrocketed.

The Council easily understood and approved the proposal. The STG wasn't alone in such tactics. Alliance Intelligence, Turian Blackwatch, and even asari commandos. It was a favorite tactic for special forces and intelligence communities across the galaxy to discreetly support and even train the local insurgents of rogue and hostile nations.

Anderson glanced at Tevos from the corner of his eye. For reasons she declined to share, the asari councilor seemed quietly yet firmly displeased with establishing preemptive measures against Aria T'Loak, such as funding vigilantes within the asari queen's domain . But even Tevos admitted that the Council could not ignore a rapidly growing criminal empire, and thus added her vote of approval. Albeit with the caveat that Aria T'Loak wasn't to be provoked unless the asari queen actively brought direct harm to the Citadel races.

"We remain aware, Councilor Valern, but why have you brought us here?" Anderson reminded his colleague. "What's gotten you so nervous? Has there been some sort of development?"

The salarian councilor's lips pressed thin, then deactivated the projection of Vakarian's image and sighed heavily. "Three weeks ago, we followed a batarian freighter that escaped from Hegemony space, carrying several thousand of their remaining slaves. All human and asari. After tracking the freighter to Omega, we deduced the batarians were hoping to sell these slaves to obtain new weapons for the Hegemony and sent a tip to Archangel's group of the convoy's arrival and likely purpose."

Valern paused. "As it turned out, the batarians intended to sell their slaves to the Collectors."

There was a shift in the room. Tevos turned grim at the name, Sparatus' mandibles flared slightly, while Anderson was only confused.

"Collectors?" The human Councilor asked. "I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with this group."

"Not a group, Anderson, an entire race." Sparatus sighed. "One that I barely know of myself. Mostly rumors and ghost stories from the Terminus. Most have never heard of them, let alone even believe they actually exist."

"They're an insectile, reclusive race." Tevos's quiet murmur seemed to only add to the tension "Bipedal, and possessed of extremely advanced technology. Some of the best bio-engineering advancements have been made studying Collector technology, which seems to be at least partly organic."

"The STG has always gone to great lengths for the past two thousand years to retrieve any such samples for analysis." Valern explained. "Which is difficult as they rarely ever make an appearance, and only to 'purchase' people from slavers and mercenaries. But during this meeting, the Collectors..."

"They were picking up a cargo of at least four thousand slaves. Mostly human, with a large minority of asari." Tevos seamed to recite from memory, her voice glacial as Valern's mouth shut with an audible click. "They deployed a full squad, and were engaged by Aria's forces. Aria herself lead the charge."

Sparatus spun around in his seat. "Tevos? You knew of this as we—?"

"The batarians were wiped out, but the Collectors put up a fight. Evidently they deployed some sort of bio-organic heavy troops, which were able to drove Aria's forces back." She paused for just long enough for the silence to grow palpable, before finally meeting Valern's wide eyes. "That is when Archangel engaged the Collectors, is it not?"

"...Yes." A nonplussed Valern answered. "Our agent reports that the Collector's leader defeated Aria with ease and was about to eliminate her before Archangel intervened."

The asari bowed her head slightly at that, fidgeting a little with her robe.

Anderson subtly shook his head as he remembered another lesson as Councilor. The salarians had some of the best spies in the galaxy, true, but the asari had connections everywhere.

"Moving on... Archangel and our agent with him managed to arrange a rendezvous with one of our ships to return the slaves home. But... that's not why I've called this emergency meeting."

A pregnant pause took the room as Valern gathered himself. He was visibly unsettled.

"Among the slaves, our agent managed to send no less than five intact Collector cadavers. Allowing us to perform our first official autopsy and study of Collector physiology."

"And?" Sparatus seemed quite interested, leaning forward and lacing his talons together. "What did you find?"

"First, we took them to Aeghor Station..."

"Aeghor?" Sparatus asked. "So this is what that whole mobilization scare was about?"

Aeghor Station was a prominent research Outstation, orbiting freely about the galactic core outside the reach of any star, along border between salarian and asari space.

Valern proceeded to give a quick explanation. The cadavers arrived at a prominent salarian research station with excited doctors and xenobiologists eager to make the first study of Collector physiology in medical history. Even a renowned Dr. Mordin Solus was given temporary leave from a special assignment to conduct the study. But three days later, the scientists found something that put the entire station into lock-down. All comms were sealed and no one was allowed to leave. Within hours, the salarians deployed two entire fleets to guard the station, their first overt military blockade in three centuries.

Whatever they had found, the salarians were frantic to keep it under wraps as they ran a fine comb and triple-checked even the smallest detail. And eventually, the dalatrasses released their findings to Councilor Valern with the authorization to share it with the rest of the Council.

"Our scientists ran intense genome sequence analyses." Valern slowly spoke, his large dark eyes those of a man who had had his foundation shaken. "The results were so shocking that countless other tests between samples from all five bodies were performed to verify the findings. But the results were always the same. There was no error. We found a quad-strand genetic structure that is unique to only one race... the Protheans."

Tevos's shocked gasp was covered by a hand raised to her mouth, her eyes large, and Sparatus almost lunged from his seat in surprise. Anderson merely felt numb, as the information took time to process. "So, wait..."

"Yes, Councilors," Valern nodded almost numbly. "And there is no mistake. The finest minds of my people have run every test imaginable, even a few they invented just for this. There is no mistake; the Collectors are Prothean."

"I..." Tevos' hand had moved to hold her forehead. "I can fully understand why this information cannot be made public. It would change everything as we know it. History, technology... oh Goddess, the Hanar Illuminacy would fall into chaos..."

"Not to mention the military disparity." Sparatus' dual-tone rumble was more felt than heard, his eyes distant as he folded his talons together. "My people don't place much emphasis on ancient civilizations, but we have often considered how the Protheans must have possessed an impressive military to maintain order across the entire galaxy. I can only imagine the advantage an additional fifty millenia of weapons development would have given them."

"That's certainly a worrying thought." Anderson nodded grimly, already feeling a headache coming on. Two years ago, he, the darastrix and the Normandy crew had been chasing leads of the Protheans in their quest to stop Saren. The things he learned back then had changed everything, and now yet another revelation had come to knock him on his ass. "Alright, we'll have to leave most of this to our scientists and philosophers. But if the Protheans are truly still out there, I suspect our immediate priority is to determine their plans, their motive."

"Exactly, Councilor Anderson, and at least now we know where to look." Valern was fiddling with his omni-tool for more data. "All we have now are a few cadavers, but my people often specialize in learning about a species by looking at their science and technology. Sadly, what we have found is most disturbing."

"You still have our undivided attention, Valern." Tevos smiled.

"Well," Valern shifted, both in discomfort and intrigue. "The most pertinent point is that they might no longer to be said to technically be Prothean."

"Oh, wonderful." Anderson's head dropped into his palm. "Now it's going to get complicated."

No one disagreed.

"The only remaining similarity to the few traces of True-Prothean DNA samples we have on-file are the quad-helix structure and 66% of the base-pairs used in the structure itself." Valern gestured, and a 3D holographic display of a Collector materialized, hovering before the Councilors. Valern stood up and began to circle the table as he carefully explained the matter to his peers. "The genetic structure is fundamentally different from all other samples of Prothean-like genetic material we have so far discovered. It is actually much simpler than the samples we have managed to fully map."

"Simpler?" Tevos's tone held a soft note of concern as Valern flicked a finger and changed the display.

"Yes. As you can see, the Protheans had 63 chromosome quartets." The initial 'cell' diagram zoomed in to show a sequence of clustered strands. "The Collector DNA samples only contained forty seven. Where the missing genetic material went, we do not know, but, there are more worrying concerns."

"More worrying than the sudden rewriting of an entire species' genetic code?" Anderson was feeling nauseous and wasn't quite sure why. All of this was far above his technical level.

"Indeed." The display focused in on one of the chromosomes clusters, a sweeping scan translating it to alphanumeric gibberish as Valern continued. "We have evidence that the Collectors were subjected to incredibly fine gene-splicing and genetic modification, in addition to the reduction in their genome size. Suffice to say, this goes far beyond even the most radical violations of the Council's laws on genetic modification. Whatever did this has done so without any sense of regard or preservation for the Prothean race."

The salarian Councilor highlighted multiple points of the Collector's holo-display. "All reproductive organs removed, a distinct lack of any digestive system, and the absence of many other crucial functions to properly continue the species. Traces were found of repetitive cloning over many generations, but all the inevitable genetic breakdowns from excessive cloning were merely bypassed with cybernetic implants to compensate instead to repair. The most disturbing discovery, however, is how all neural functions have been rewired with sensory input transfer structures. A system which can only be described as forwarding sensory data to a remote location, and receiving instructions from the same."

A horrified silence retook the chamber. Sparatus' mandibles were hanging wide open in an undignified manner while Tevos' blue complexion turned nearly white. Anderson was the first to find his voice. "God help us all... then the Protheans are truly dead. Nothing left but empty, hollow corpses."

"And their remains are being treated as nothing but cheap mechs!" Sparatus growled, his talons furiously digging into the table. Anderson wasn't surprised; when it came to desecration of the dead, not even the human race reacted as widely severe as the Turians did. A militaristic society as dignified as theirs treated the fallen with the highest respect. "The Citadel, the relays, even element zero! Our society as we know it owes the Protheans everything! And this is what has been done to them?!"

"Was this... some reaction to a dwindling population, or in response to whatever catastrophe caused them to vanish?" Tevos's tone held a bewildered note that was somehow even more terrifying than the revelations of the Collectors' origins.

"Unlikely." Valern immediately countered. "Extremely unlikely. Whatever happened to the Protheans long ago, this far exceeds any reasonable response to preserve the species, no matter how extreme the circumstances. There is nothing left of them to rebuild. Something chose to remake the Protheans into a pseudo-insectoid race like the Rachni, with drones and servants answering to a greater intelligence. Furthermore, fifty-thousand years is much too long, more than enough time for any society to rebuild. Whoever is in control of them has made no attempts to do so and is clearly quite content with this 'system' as it is."

"I agree, Valern." Sparatus nodded. "This seems to me more like a self-absorbed group saw an opportunity to seize power entirely for themselves. Purely to indulge themselves at the expense of their people's survival."

"Or as retribution." The others glanced at him at Anderson's musing words, making him frown. "We don't know what the Prothean society was like. It's entirely possible they had a civil war. Or possibly something happened with the Relays, isolating them into pockets of inhabited worlds that only later recombined."

"Valern, how long ago were those genetic modifications made, is it possible to tell?" He met the oily-black eyes of the salarian councilor with a worried stare of his own.

Councilor Valern blinked before digging back into omni-tool in search. Anderson knew what was truly responsible for the Protheans, and knew he needed to find a plausible link. For this, he was counting on the salarians, being salarians, to have analyzed the crap out of this discovery.

"Hmmmm…" Valern hummed. "It was difficult. But once we determined the extent of the modifications, we immediately tried to trace the progenitor generation, much much like analyzing the age rings inside a tree. So far, we've narrowed the start of the cloning down to within several centuries after the Protheans' disappearance."

"Ahh." Anderson turned to give Sparatus a knowing stare, watching the tension build in his primary opponent. "So, if we can assume that they didn't do this to themselves..."

"Yes, it's extremely improbable. As described, this process irreparably cripples their ability to properly continue as a species." Valern blinked his large, black eyes, his features stern and grave, even for a salarian. "It's only goal is to preserve and augment their motor functions, akin to mechanical automatons with no conscious will."

"Then the only logical conclusion, is that the protheans were conquered." Anderson turned to glare at Sparatus, who lifted his head from where he'd been resting his chin on his hands. "Conquered. At the height of their power. Conquered, by an outside force to be used as biological drones. Conquered by a force of sufficient power and expertise to repurpose an entire species into nothing more than vat-grown, cybernetic servitors, biological mechs who-"

"Enough, Councilor Anderson." Sparatus snapped, "I know what you're doing; the Turian Hierarchy will not entertain the Darastrix's beliefs after what she did. Both Primarch Fedorian and Palaven Command are still just as furious that she's not been held responsible for her actions!"

Anderson mentally winced. It was easy to forget that Sparatus had grown adept at spotting any of his efforts regarding the Reapers.

"My people have often speculated over the possibility of the Protheans having been destroyed by a superior military power," the turian continued. "But with this new evidence, that no longer makes sense. How is it we manage to find the scant traces of the Protheans but nothing of a conquering empire to take over? Explain how this Reaper theory fits that!"

Anderson grimaced. He had him there, and the former N7 knew how 'they magically erased all evidence' was a very weak argument. But he had to do something; this discovery was the mother of all lucky breaks, and he had to seize it before it was dismissed and delegated to run-of-the-mill historians.

Imagine his surprise when Valern came to his defense.

"Several experts made comparison studies to another source of data, Sparatus." Both men cut their gaze to the Salaran, who looked like he had smelled something foul. "The, ahh, 'Husks'."

Anderson's eyes widened as the salarian bit off each syllable as if it pained him. "Husks, manufactured using organic remains, cybernetcally altered and augmented, given rudimentary control networks, piloted by rudimentary VI systems with Seek-IF/F code and attack routines. Nothing left of the individual they once wore."

"Similar in methodology to what was done to the Protheans..." Tevos's voice came with a reluctant sigh.

Anderson might be on a very different battlefield now than the one he had signed up for war upon, but he could still spot a strategic and tactical objective and opportunity. He sat back in his chair, his voice grim. "That sounds like the thinking of a machine to me. Cold, heartless, ruthless, the utilization of every last scrap of resources for the maximal effect. And a mind of malice and cruelty to use our own dead against us for both cannon fodder and terror tactics. I wonder where the Geth learned it from..."

"On that, Anderson, we can agree." Sparatus glared at the Collector's image, his earlier outrage at such desecration returning. "So, the Protheans had their own Geth problem, did they? A rebellion of machines, and now some group of AIs is ruling over their remains in some isolated kingdom somewhere? Unacceptable."

Anderson began to open his mouth but the ice-shiver that ran up his back at Tevos's glacial glare made his teeth click together The Asari councilor gave a faint, almost imperceptible nod before turning to Sparatus and continuing in a silky-smooth tone that replaced the ice in his brittle spine with uncomfortable warmth. The woman wasn't even speaking to him, and, damnit, she was at least eight times his age! Besides, he had...

"The pertinent matter is that the Collectors are here, Sparatus. And they are not friendly." Tevos shot the hologram a cool stare, her elegant features pensive as she shifted in her seat. "Regardless of their masters, they are purchasing our citizens, in numbers never before seen. I would not be surprised, given the way our species have spread out, that we begin receiving reports of entire colonies going dark."

"Human colonies, mayhaps." Sparatus's tone was grudging, grumbling under his dual-toned breath. "The way your people spread out, Anderson, it's a wonder they haven't had more trouble with pirates and slavers before now."

"We've had more than our fair share, Sparatus. That's one of the reasons we wanted Citadel protection." Their eyes met, flint meeting steel hard enough for sparks to fly.

"Regardless of what masters they may serve, they are taking vast numbers of slaves from the batarians. Our citizens, Sparatus, and many other souls across the Terminus. And Goddess have mercy for whatever they are doing to them."

Sparatus grew quiet, returning his stony gaze to the Collector's image, thinking of those same modifications being done to Turians, humans, and many others. "What do we know about the people they've been taking?"

Anderson's eyes widened slightly as he realized what Tevos was doing. 'Oh, you sly, clever little...'

"What few records we have on the Collectors over the millenia all say they take their prisoners beyond the Omega-4 Relay." Valern flicked a finger and the hologram shifted, showing a tactical map of the Omega system. "A relay infamous for how no ship that ventures beyond it ever returns."

"So, these prisoners are never seen again?" The turian councilor asked.

Valern nodded in agreement, his thin lips set in a hard line.

Sparatus growled. "Then something must be done about them."

"On that, Sparatus, we wholeheartedly agree." Anderson could barely keep his relief and elation at the slim victory under control. Taking a tired breath he glanced away from the turian's suspicious stare, eyeing the tactical map. "The question then becomes one of strategy and politics. What can we do about it, and what are we able to do about it, given the political and military constraints?"

"Limited data available," Valern frowned. "The Collectors have never been sighted outside the Terminus. Whatever's controlling them has clearly been careful to stay outside our jurisdiction. Invisible and with free reign. Not to mention the Omega-4 relay is firmly in Aria T'Loak's territory, lying next to her throne. So for that matter, all in favor of dedicating more STG resources to Vakarian's vigilante group?"

"Aye."

Sparatus sounded resigned next to Anderson's more forceful response. After a moment Valern nodded his assent.

All three of them turned at Tevos's soft sigh, but under their scrutiny, the asari raised her hand as well. "Let it be recorded that the vote was unanimous. And let us pray that Aria is forgiving of the transgression, considering its cause."

"Ah yes, the 'Queen of Omega'," Sparatus said, miming quotation marks and apparently not seeing the slightly pained expression Tevos's face.

"The Turian Hierarchy doesn't care about whatever entitlements that self-absorbed crime lords like to adorn themselves with," he finished with a negligent wave of his hand. "Back to more important matters, appointing a group of insurgents as watchdogs isn't enough. We need to do more on our own end."

"... Agreed," Tevos lifted her mild glare off her compatriot. "For matters of this scale, we should not sit and wait until the evidence is delivered to us. We should start working from another angle."

The asari tapped a few keys at her terminal, most likely to bring some other information on the holo-display. "Instead of blindly rushing forward searching everywhere, I suggest we go back and review the clues we have dismissed before."

She finished typing and when Anderson looked at the display he saw the dossier of an asari he didn't recognize.

"Dr. Liara T'Soni, daughter of Matriarch T'Soni, who was captured by Saren and retrieved on Virmire. She's been away from the public spotlight since then due to... health issues, but even before her abduction, the Doctor was known among the scientific circles of my people for her somewhat unorthodox ideas concerning the Protheans. She once hypothesized that Protheans did not disappear due to disease or a natural disaster because there was no evidence of that, as if someone deliberately deleted the information. The same Dr. T'Soni said about the Inusanon, of whom we have only a few writings from Prothean sources on." Tevos squirmed in her chair again, pointedly not-noticing Anderson's instinctive glance. "Her last hypothesis was that there might be a certain pattern in the disappearances of the ancient civilizations. In our hubris, we dismissed her theories, considering them to be nothing but fantasies of an overly excited maiden. Now it seems that we failed to see what a young mind considered to be painfully obvious."

Tevos sighed and continued. "Thus, I suggest that we form a group of investigators that would revise her theory as well other similar theories that were proposed in the past but dismissed for various reasons. Employing Dr. T'Soni might be a good idea as well – her studies of the Protheans and her experiences as a prisoner of Saren might prove useful."

Valern scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Not the most effective approach, because many of those theories will be nothing but baseless speculations, but see no other viable alternative. I will immediately request the STG to perform thorough search among the STG archives, as I'm certain our own scientist also had alternative theories of Protheans disappearance but were dismissed due to the lack of evidence. I'm afraid it will take time. My people believe in hard facts or at least plausible theories. As such, we have no dedicated experts in this unorthodox field."

"I might be able to help there." Anderson ignored Sparatus's stare as he leaned forwards, rapidly keying his console. "I was made aware of a group of individuals who had recently been co-opted into Alliance Command's research division. A Dr. Garret Bryson, and his daughter Amanda. They were both working on theories regarding the prothean disappearance that seemed at least superficially similar to those of Dr. T'Soni. Dr. Bryson and his daughter lead Taskforce Aurora, a taskforce dedicated to investigating ancient history, archaeology, and conspiracy theories."

Sparatus leveled a stare at Anderson. "More Reaper theories, I presume?"

"Marginally," Anderson admitted. "But while they investigate several ancient theories, their chief mandate is the Leviathan of Dis."

The Salarian perked up, his already wide eyes gleaming with interest. "Interesting. Not aware of any new data on Leviathan. Theorizing off old data? Possible, but insufficient for new conclusions."

"While we're definitely interested in the 'enormous organic-looking dreadnought' the batarians made off with, it's not the central priority," Anderson elaborated. "Dr. Bryson isn't interested in the Leviathan itself but in whatever killed it."

Sparatus gave a pleased sound, his mandibles actually flaring in a smile as he sat up straighter. "Ahh, yes, that would indeed be a more profitable line of research."

"Exactly. And Reaper or not, finding what destroyed an ancient enormous dreadnought would definitely prove useful." Anderson continued, "But more relevant to our discussion, such an unique investigation has already demonstrated that Dr. Bryson and his taskforce are experienced experts at investigating the obscure. Since we are unofficially reopening the question of what became of the Protheans, then I propose Dr. Bryson's team could be used as a core of our project."

"Seconded." At Sparatus's wide stare, Valern merely blinked. "Anderson has made a valid point. The Alliance already has a team dedicated to unearthing esoteric secrets, it would be foolish in the extreme not to avail ourselves of their utility."

"I must still state my own concerns," Sparatus interjected. "I'm on-board with a dedicated taskforce investigating the Prothean/Collector issue and whatever's controlling them, but I refuse to permit any flights of fancy into the Reapers or any other such lunacy. Having a group of fringe conspiracy scientists in the same room can all too easily devolve into nonsense and egregious misuse of resources."

"If working with the humans gets us the answers we need, Sparatus, then we shall work with them. Have your own team doing cross-checks if you must, but we shall step forward along this line of reasoning." Tevos's low tone brooked no further argument, silencing the turian's objection. "Those in favor of forming a multi-species task force centered on Project Aurora?"

Anderson's hand joined hers, a sense of relief and exultation welling in him as Valern gave his usual taciturn nod of approval.

All three of them turned to stare at Sparatus until the turian councilor grumbled his own agreement. "Very well. But I insist we have a parallel team rechecking the data with an eye to finding fault in it."

"Agreed." That was Valern, who met Anderson's betrayed gaze. "Trust, but verify. We will endeavor to cooperate as much as possible with Project Aurora, while at the same time running a parallel investigation to recheck any faulty assumptions. Standard scientific rigor will not be enough for this mission. We must be sure."

"Then it is settled," Tevos concluded. "Taskforce Aurora is to become an inter-species project for our finest scientists, researchers, and specialists."

"I will inform Admiral Hackett," Anderson smiled. "I'm certain that Dr. Bryson will be delighted to find out that his project is about to become something greater."