"That all you got, kid?"

Shepard shot Zaeed glare, fists clenched. She hadn't been called a kid since she'd gone to bloody Rio. He smirked at her in response, a shark's grin, holding the punching bag with one good hand and one still in a brace - though the old bastard insisted he was ready to be back in the field. Jacob put it up over one of the spars of metal that ran across the cargo hold before he'd been wounded. In the background Nayyir Mussa and Halley Bolitho were moving around cargo - and arguing about skyball, their voices echoing off the metal bulkheads. She wouldn't have tagged Cerberus agents for being fans of skyball, but the galaxy was full of surprises.

Her next punch put Zaeed on his ass, the bag thudding back hard enough to send him sprawling.

She crossed her arms and smirked down at him. The skin across her knuckles stung. "That good enough for ya?"

"Not bad," he chuckled and she extended a hand, heaving him to his feet.

"Thanks for the workout," she said and found she meant it. Zaeed didn't talk too much or ask prying questions. He hadn't said anything about her muscle or bone weaves. To him, that was her own business.

"Yeah, yeah." He grabbed his towel and wandered towards the elevator.

She grabbed her water bottle and took a few sips, tilting her head to squint at the grey metal above her head. She'd known plenty of Earthers and colonists who'd found shipboard stressful or even depressing, especially aboard frigates that could stay in space for months at a time. But she'd always felt familiar security when surrounded by metal, the sighs of machinery and hum of a drive core the background noise to life; and whatever others thought, there was a beauty to the sleek utilitarian lines of a ship. And the SR2 was a beautiful ship, even if it still sometimes felt like a ghost.

"You're both wrong," she called out.

Mussa and Bolitho froze. "…Commander?"

"You can't seriously argue that Armali or Messana are either 'team of the decade' when it's one, 2185, and two, Serrice had a three-peat from 2181 to 2184." She'd talked Ash into watching the 2183 Republican Skyball League final, even though Ash had known exactly one of the rules, in return for her sitting through an American football game. Ash had been won over by the chaos, hard tackles and occasional biotic explosion.

The two crewmembers leveled her with equally disgusted expressions and she smiled at them. If there was one thing that united fans of Armali and Messana, it was an abiding hatred of Serrice.

"I can't believe I work for a Serrice fan," Bolitho said, scrunching her face up.

"You're just jealous."

"Jealous of the most insufferable team in the galaxy-" Mussa seemed to realise who he was calling insufferable and his mouth shut with an audible click.

She just rolled her shoulder, lips curved, "Still better than Armali."

"Serrice sucks right now-"

Shepard's omnitool chimed - a new email. Cerberus policy was only to access their encrypted email system off secure terminals, something Shepard felt was a little ironic considering she was certain at least Chambers and Lawson were reading her emails. She frowned. "As much as I'd like to remind you of how Serrice thrashed Armali in 2183, I've gotta go. Have fun with the boxes."

She headed to her cabin - she needed to get changed and reading her emails there meant she didn't have to deal with Chambers.

Shepard breathed in sharply when she saw who'd sent the email.

Shepard,

Please find attached the information you requested. Don't try to pay for it, please.

Liara.

A target. She had a target. Something concrete.

She keyed the ship's intercom. "Commander to bridge."

"Bridge here, boss," Joker sounded thoroughly bored.

"I'm sending through a destination - get us a nav course and off Illium ASAP."

"Aye aye. Anything interesting?"

"Just a ship full of Prothean artifacts."

"Starting a collection?"

"Something like that." She brought up the intel Liara had sent about the target vessel. The MSV Strontium Mule, formerly belonging to ExoGeni Corporation, seized only days ago by the Blue Suns, carrying millions of credits worth of Prothean artifacts from a Traverse digsite. There were plenty of Terminus factions who'd pay the mercs a fortune for them.

But not this time.

Shepard brought up one of the attached images and studied it. "Captain Vorhess, huh?"

She supposed she should feel something when studying the batarian's face. He'd been one of the few survivors from the Blue Suns squad that had handed her over to the Shadowbroker. But she didn't. He was just another face.

"Commander," EDI's voice brought her, blinking, out of her own thoughts, "Please be advised; there is currently a disturbance between XO Lawson and crew member Jack in the XO's cabin."

Shepard groaned and heaved herself to her feet. "I'm on my way."

"...I will smear the walls with you, bitch!"

Shepard burst through the door, deflecting a thrown chair with a hasty biotic field. Miranda and Jack were in each other's faces, both wreathed in flickering, snapping biotic energy. The aggressive fields made Shepard's teeth reverberate.

"Enough!" She shouted, pitching her voice the same way she did on the battlefield, "Are you trying to tear a hole in the bulkheads?"

"She stormed in here and accosted me-" Miranda began hotly.

Jack whirled, her teeth bared, "The cheerleader won't admit that what Cerberus did to me was wrong!"

"It wasn't Cerberus, not really. But clearly you were a mistake."

Jesus.

"Screw you. Maybe it's time I show you what they did to me-"

Shepard bodied her way between the two women - not flaring yet since she was trying to defuse, not set off a fight. "Enough. Miranda - Jack's right to be angry. What happened to her was wrong."

"She's unstable," Miranda snapped back, "she's going to jeopardize the mission."

"You'll stay apart from each other on the ship and do as I order in the field and that'll be the end of it," Shepard cut her off. "Jack?"

"Yeah fine. Whatever, boss lady." Mollified, the biotic slunk out the door, hands shoved into her pockets.

When the door sealed behind her with a hiss, Shepard focused on Miranda - who'd already retaken her seat, her expression an icy mask.

"Miranda-"

"I have work to do, Commander," she said coolly, "if you want small talk, I'm sure Jack will oblige you."

"Come on, Miranda," Shepard crossed her arms, "If I had said anything to contradict her she'd never trust me again. And we're walking into the unknown here - we need her. I can reason with you."

She met Miranda's blue eyes with a raised, challenging chin.

"You were just...thinking of the mission?" Miranda raised one eyebrow. "I know how you feel about Cerberus."

"I've put that behind me," Shepard said, keeping her expression vaguely irritated. "I have my political differences with you and your boss, but I am dedicated to this mission. I could've gone back to the Alliance with Williams, but I stayed because I could do more here."

That was a risk to bring up, but it had an element of truth. Miranda studied her for a long moment, face impassive, and Shepard wondered in that moment if she'd see the manipulation for what it was.

Then Miranda leant back in her chair. "I should've known you were focused on the mission. Thanks for clearing that up."

Shepard nodded sharply. "We good?"

"Yes," Miranda acquiesced.

"Good. I'm having Joker set a course for the Omega Nebula. Liara got back to me, and the Strontium Mule is there. We'll have to board her."

"Agreed. I'll make sure we're prepared."

"I'll leave you to it." When the door shut behind her, Shepard let out a long breath and then shook her head. Commanding the SR2 sometimes felt like walking a tight rope.

Mission planning would make her feel better.


Ashley dropped her sea bag on the bed. The bedroom was otherwise blank, traffic flashing past the window in streaks of light, other skyscrapers visible in jutting metal and neon. It was always night on the Citadel's Wards, and the Citadel never slept.

The Office of Special Tactics subsidised the housing of candidates undergoing training, albeit on the Wards and not the expensive Presidium, where most of the Spectre offices and training facilities were.

Ash supposed she should go buy groceries or something to make the apartment slightly less empty and sad, but instead she flopped onto the bed after the bag and stared at the ceiling.

Last time she'd been stationed on the Citadel, she'd been living out of the Alliance barracks with dwindling numbers of Normandy survivors, as they slowly but surely broke the crew up. This wasn't the same, but the memories still tasted bitter.

A knock on the door roused her and with a groan she heaved herself up, running a hand through her mussed ponytail and walked through the empty apartment. When she pulled the door open, Spectre Saen Maetok was on the otherwise, carrying two steaming cups.

"Williams. I brought you coffee."

Ash blinked. "Uh. Okay. Come in?"

The salarians strode past her, big dark eyes scanning the tiny kitchen and lounge room, empty but for a couple of boxes. "Not a fan of furniture, Williams?"

Ash frowned, "I haven't gone shopping yet, sue me."

"Coffee?" Maetok raised the cup, "black, one sugar."

"You know my coffee?" She felt a little lost in this conversation already. Maybe that was the point.

"In this line of work, being observant is vital," she replied, "especially when it comes to those you plan to work with."

"I don't get it," Ash took the cup and took a tentative sip, "it's not like we...got along."

The Spectre smiled slightly, "I was pushing you, Williams. A Spectre with no spine is far from useful."

"You tried to get me to leave my team," Ash pointed out, scowling. Pushing her on politics and mission planning was one thing - nearly abandoning her Marines was another thing.

"I did," Maetok said steadily and there wasn't a trace of guilt on her face, "this mission comes first, always. You took a risk out of sentiment."

"I did my duty as their officer." Her jaw clenched.

"You're afraid of what happened on Eden Prime," the words were pitiless, "of being responsible for their deaths."

Ash set her coffee down on the counter carefully, breathed out. Don't lose your temper. "If you expect me to be your little clone, you're going to be disappointed."

"I don't need you to be me, so long as you remember what's important. We stand on the precipice of a great and terrible war. We need Spectres who know the truth and make the necessary choices."

"You make it sound like there are Spectres that don't know 'the truth'," Ashley observed. The heat of her anger beat a tattoo behind her sternum.

"There are," Maetok interlocked long, skinny fingers, "there are those in the Office who believe that Emilia Shepard is a liar or delusional."

Ash had thrown a few punches at people like that in the year after Alchera. "They should make friends with Westerlund News."

"Your association with Shepard will make some in the Office suspicious of you."

"So, watch my temper?" Ash gave her a wry smile, "Learnt my lesson there."

"Good. Spectre training is more informal than you'll be used to. We'll work together on my cases, and there are courses on investigative techniques, alien cultural studies and Office procedures - how to access our intelligence networks and logistics, that sort of thing. I will send you the appropriate information, but completing those courses is your responsibility. I won't be holding your hand."

All things no one had bothered to tell Shepard before throwing the Normandy into the pursuit of Saren. "Understood. No combat training?"

"You're an Alliance special forces operative. Your combat training should be sufficient."

"Right." Sufficient? Had Maetok ever given someone an unqualified compliment in her life?

"I'll see you on Monday, 8am at the main office. We have a lot to discuss."

Nonplussed, Ash watched the Spectre leave. Her coffee had gone lukewarm.


Kal examined the body. The Blue Sun had been shot in the chest with a shotgun, blood almost obscuring the chevrons of a sergeant on his shoulder. He lay sprawled in the middle of the Strontium Mule's mess hall, the bulkheads pitted and marked with weapons fire.

And none of the Normandy crew had killed him.

"Blue Suns killing each other, just what I like to see," Zaeed's voice was a low, satisfied growl.

Kal grabbed the dead man's wrist and began to move the fingers. Rigor mortis hadn't set in yet.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Demanded Jack, crouching beside him. Shepard had moved to watch the far hatch, Zaeed by her side.

He ignored her, concentrating. Then the dead man's omnitool popped up and Kal quickly skimmed his latest messages.

"There's been a mutiny, ma'am. Sergeant Boortis and his men are trying to seize the cargo," Kal called over to Shepard.

"Good job, Reegar," she replied, "if they're fighting each other, all the better for us - but I do want Vorhess alive, so let's move quickly."

The way towards the bridge consisted of two long metal walkways with a drop to the decks below between. Shepard took Zaeed along one, and Kal found himself behind Jack on the other side.

"You're a quiet one," Jack said suddenly, shooting him a quick suspicious glare, "I don't like it."

He huffed out a breath of air, "I don't say anything I don't need to."

"You hiding something? Why else would you be on a fuckin' suicide mission?"

"I'm a Marine," he said simply, "and the fleet expects me to keep Tali'Zorah safe."

"Right," Jack scoffed.

The door at the far end of the walkway burst open and three Blue Suns leant around the doorframe and filled the compartment with gunfire. Metal sparked around Kal as his shields took a battering. Where they were there was no cover - there was no other choice but to fire back.

He raised his rifle and squeezed off a burst, as in front of him Jack was encased in angry, roiling purple light. One of the mercenaries screamed as the tendrils of a biotic field wrapped around his chest and pulled him up - and over the guard rails of the walkways. He screamed all the way down.

The combined fire from the rest of them flooded the doorway and the surviving mercenaries ducked back.

Shepard and Jack met at the doorway, Kal and Zaeed following close behind. The steel deck was splattered with blood, but the mercs had disappeared further up the corridor.

The squad channel hummed in his ear with Operative Lawson's voice. "Alpha, Bravo, over."

"Bravo, Alpha copies," Shepard replied as they crept up the brightly lit, blood smeared corridor. Kal swung his rifle to cover a door as they passed, his breath fast inside his helmet.

"Alpha, Bravo. Ran into Sergeant Boortis, but he and his men are dealt with. No casualties. I estimate we'll reach the engineering control room within five minutes, over."

"Copy that. We're assaulting the bridge, over."

"Roger that. Bravo out."

"That should be the bridge according to the schematics, ma'am," Kal told Shepard, glancing at his omnitool.

Shepard nodded, face concealed behind her faceplate, shotgun butt against her shoulder and a flash bang grenade in one hand. "Stack up. Remember - I want Vorhess alive."

Kal reached into his webbing and pulled out a tech grenade, arming it with a few quick movement. "Set."

"EDI, get that door open," Shepard ordered.

The door slid open. The bridge was a hexagonal compartment, consoles arranged in blocks around the edges, illuminated by stark light. The low drone of a warning siren was blotted out by the sound of first Shepard's and then Kal's grenades going off. The air filled with a cacophony of voices and weapons fire.

His shields flashed around him as he barreled into the room after Jack's biotic-wreathed form, rifle raised. A mercenary appeared before him, a blocky male encased in blue and white armour - human, not Shepard's target.

The Sun's shotgun blast missed by fractions over Reegar's left shoulder, close enough to light up his shields again. Kal fired a burst with only metres of steel deck between them, popping his shields - and the man died with Zaeed's bullet in his throat.

"Enough! Stand down, I surrender!" the batarian's voice was a respectable bellow considering his predicament. Shepard had gone straight for her prey, and now his left arm was hanging limply at his side and he was facing down the muzzle of her shotgun.

The surviving bodyguards - all two of them - lowered their rifles and then dropped them at Shepard's sharp order. Kal stepped forward and grabbed the rifle of the one closest to him, slinging it over his shoulder, before quickly and efficiently stripping the woman of her sidearm, combat knife and omnitool.

"Up against the wall," Zaeed ordered gruffly, "hands where we can see them."

Shepard pushed Vorhess to join his guards. Reegar kept his rifle trained on them as Zaeed ziptied their hands behind their backs - just in case they tried anything. You could never rule out pure idiocy.

"Netcall, Alpha. Bridge secured, over."

"Alpha, Bravo. Acknowledged. Engineering is under control, over."

"Very good. Start sweeping the ship. Alpha out." Shepard turned to Kal. "Reegar, you and Jack take the prisoners back to the ship and guard them. I'm going to sort things out here and then I'll be there."

"Yes ma'am," he agreed.

"And Reegar?"

He paused, "Ma'am?"

"Make sure to separate Captain Vorhess from his men if you don't mind."

"Of course, ma'am." he agreed.

It took fifteen minutes to navigate back to the airlock, passing Vakarian's team who'd been tasked with holding the airlock, and put the bodyguards in the brig proper and Vorhess in the security office, where he could be watched by Reegar and the Cerberus security officer 'Burt'.

Burt was a balding human male in his early thirties who spent much of his time eyeing Kasumi and speaking loudly about his opinions on guns. Usually to the amusement or annoyance of the ground team.

"Not so brave now, are ya blink?" Burt crossed his arms in a way he probably thought was 'badass', smirking down at the seated and restrained mercenary officer.

"I wouldn't be so smug if I were you," Vorhess said haughtily, "I don't what outfit you're with, but you've made a big mistake. The Blue Suns aren't forgiving."

Zaeed chuckled, a low and cruel sound, "Yeah, especially not of company grade officers who get a previous unit wiped and then lose control of their unit so badly there's a fuckin' mutiny."

"You're alive because of us," Reegar observed, "maybe you should thank us."

Vorhess erupted into a stream of expletives, struggling against his ties, teeth bared - only to cut off when the door opened to reveal Commander Shepard, still in her hardsuit but with her helmet off, dark hair slick to her skull with perspiration and cybernetic scars gleaming sullenly.

"That's not very nice language," she observed, setting her helmet down on Operative Taylor's desk - still cluttered with the wounded man's datapads. "Operative Burt, please go assist Mr Vakarian with airlock security."

The man's expression was one of abject disappointment, but he went. Kal thought he could feel the collective intelligence of the room rising as he disappeared through the door.

"You're some kind of clone or something," Vorhess said with a surprisingly steady voice.

Shepard's expression was one of cold amusement. "Is that right?"

"All we got from Alchera was charred meat," he shot back, shrinking back as Shepard suddenly loomed over him, her jaw clenched.

"We're going to be having a nice, long chat about what you know of the Blue Suns' dealing with the Collectors," she continued calmly.

Vorhess gulped audibly.


"Well," Shepard observed, "you weren't lying when you said it was a big one."

After securing the ship, Miranda, Tali and Garrus had started to search the cargo hold - and they found one hell of a Prothean artifact. It was a large sphere, larger than the four of them combined, made of silver-grey metal that cast their expressions back at them. The Blue Suns had done a haphazard job of securing it in the hold with rope crisscrossing its surface.

"What is it?" Miranda asked, circling around it.

"It looks like the orb on Eletania," Garrus observed, studying the object with a sharp blue gaze.

"Yeah," Shepard agreed, and took a step forward. The orb shuddered and began to hum, struggling into the air. The ropes snapped away like writhing snakes, forcing Tali to jump back.

The hum was familiar, like the voice of someone you loved calling from another room.

Shepard sighed audibly.

"It wasn't doing that before," Miranda had backed up, "how do we shut it down?"

"It's responding to me. Or well," Shepard shrugged, "to the Cipher."

Lawson's next glance was intrigued. "It thinks you're Prothean."

"Yup," she said, popping the word, and walked forward, glaring at the orb. The whispers curled around her, tugged on something deep inside her chest. Something that was a part of her, something that was utterly alien.

"Shepard, what are you-"

Shepard placed her hand flat on the vibrating metal skin of the Prothean orb, and the piqued voice of her XO cut off abruptly. Her vision shattered into shards of black and red and orange.

Teeth at her throat. Blue-glowing eyes in a familiar face. There is blood on her hands and it is hers and not hers - her life is flooding out of her, streaming down her red-armoured chest. Around her everything she has ever loved is burning.

All that's left is the corrosive of vengeance. There is a weapon in her hands and it discharges -

The one she loves is dead at her feet by her own hands. Shepard falls half across her, hands tangling in dark hair as she cradles a broken skull. The warmth in those whiskey-brown eyes has burnt out, leaving only cold blue.

No, not her. Stop.

The dark claws at her vision. The sky is thick with machines like locusts and when she tilts her head back she can see the red light coming to meet her.

When Shepard came back to herself she was gasping, her chest tight and she was on her hands and knees. The orb had shrunk down to a seemingly benign basketball size in front of her.

"Shepard!" Garrus darted forward, his clawed hand coming down on her shoulder.

"I fucking hate the Protheans," she snarled, biting down on the cold terror lodged in her rib cage until she felt something closer to familiar, comforting anger. Ash was fine. Ash was fine, and it was just Prothean bullshit. Liara had once explained it as her brain trying to make sense of the Prothean messages and memories, but honestly? They could get fucked.

"Are you alright? Do you require medical attention?"

"Careful, Lawson," Shepard cracked a smile, "someone might think you care about me."

Miranda raised one eyebrow, unimpressed, "Well, at least your brain isn't completely scrambled."

"I'm fine," she shook off Garrus' hand, "Just disconcerting to access a Prothean device, even with the Cipher."

The first time on Eden Prime had felt like her mind was being torn apart.

She got up, holding the now inert Prothean orb gingerly. It was far lighter than it should've been. "We need to decide what to do with the Strontium Mule. We can probably sell her on Omega or something once we strip out the artifacts. Normally I'd return her to her owner, but ExoGeni can get fucked."

"The Illusive Man has asked that the ship be handed over to Cerberus," Miranda broke in, "he'll send funding to cover what we would've gotten for selling her."

Shepard's first instinct was no. But she had to pick her battles, and arguing about a freighter wasn't one that was worth it. "Fine. But I'm keeping the paper weight."

"What is it even?" Tali asked, her tone and body language concerned, "another beacon?"

"No," Shepard turned it over. It was cool and smooth to the touch, like an oversized marble. "It's an archive. The one on Eletania stored research data. This one had a warning, but there's probably other stuff on there. I'll have to try and sort through it, see if there's anything relevant to our mission or the Reapers."

"Doctor T'Soni might be able to help - she helped you with the beacon messages, didn't she?" Miranda suggested.

Shepard didn't look at her. "I'll consider it."

She wouldn't.

"Doctor Chakwas says you need to stop by the medbay so she can do some scans," Tali announced, checking her omnitool. When Shepard glared at her, her body language was unrepetant, shoulders squared, "What? Someone has to let her know when you insist on being a bosh'tet!"

"Traitor," she grumbled, and turned to go. No use trying to hide from Karin Chakwas. "Finish loading the cargo onto the Normandy, then we'll discuss where we're dropping the ship off."

The sooner she got it over with, the sooner she could find a bottle from Kasumi's stash and blot out the memory of husk blue eyes.


CODEX ENTRY

Systems Alliance Special Operations Command (SASOC):

SASOC (pronounced 'Say-So') is the Alliance's unified special operations command, collequilly known as 'N Command' after the MVC of its operators. N-operators come from all branches of Alliance military, and they operate under their own command. This means the special forces are not under the command of the Marine Corps or the Navy. This allows the special forces to be utilized most effectively to accomplish their unconventional goals.

Since the SASOC recruits from both branches, they also follow both rank structures. Since the special forces are not Marines, Marine recruits are given the choice to retain their Marine rank and be promoted according to the Marine rank structure, or have their rank be replaced by the naval counterpart. Sailors or soldiers joining are not given the same choice, however, but are forced to retain their rank.

There are several kinds of special forces soldier, ranging from N1 to N7. Each step has different responsibilities, and each level needs every other level to function most effectively. N7s may be the cream of the crop of the special forces, but they need the N1s and N2s as much as vice versa. Due to the small size of special operations units, they aren't designed for long conventional firefights.

N7 operators handle all the high priority missions for the Alliance. They are very small, tight knit units formed by experienced N-operators. Military regulations generally forbid confirming the identities of N7 operators or taking footage or holos of them with name tapes on uniforms or their faces uncovered.

N7s operate in units of two to twelve operators called teams. The unit they belong to has gone through various name changes designed to obscure its strength, location and purpose.