So the person that actually invited me into the Cadre wasn't Colonel Ryder, it was Captain Anderson. Though back then he was still Commander Anderson. Was already on the naval track even back then. This was after Torfan, and I had just been cleared by a board of inquiry over my actions down on the moon. I was kind of taken by surprise by the offer, since even though I was officially exonerated, the media circus around me was still going strong. Bad optics recruiting someone the press was calling a war criminal into the Emperor's personal guard and all that. Of course, Anderson set me straight pretty quickly. It's not that His Majesty doesn't care about optics, he does. He needs to have the trust of the people in order to lead properly. But His Majesty also knows that sometimes he needs to make hard decisions, even if they're not popular decisions. And as it turned out, recruiting me wasn't even that unpopular of a decision. Or rather the Cadre itself prodded a few of the outlets to get them to back off, so by the time I was finished with all the surgeries necessary to install the N7 implants, the news cycle had moved on. There are still some people with sticks up their ass and call me the Butcher of Torfan. Frankly, their disapproval is a goddamn compliment.

-Evangeline Shepard, Mandatory Counseling Log 011

Chapter 10

Quid pro quo

Despite its vast size the Citadel was still fairly small in astronomical terms, which resulted in space being something of a premium, especially in the high-class sections like the Presidium. That meant the office Shepard now walked into was downright palatial, at least by shipboard standards. Kind of a given considering whose office it was.

"Colonel Shepard," Pallin rose to greet his guest.

"Executor Pallin," Shepard responded with a wide smile, then regarded the other turian rising. "I see you are already entertaining."

"An old friend, who insisted on meeting you," Pallin said with a slight chuckle. "Colonel, this is Septimus Oraka. I believe the two of you were very briefly acquainted the last time you were aboard the Citadel."

"Indeed we were," Shepard said as understanding dawned upon her. She extended a hand. "I'm glad to see you made it through that alive, General, I believe?"

"Retired," Septimus said as he gave Shepard a firm shake. "And the feeling is mutual. You saved many lives that day on the Citadel, Colonel, my own included. The galaxy would have been a poorer place if that victory came at the cost of your life."

"My, but aren't you the charmer," Shepard said with a playful smile as the three took their seats.

"Septimus here is a frequent patron of the Consort," Pallin said. "One'd hope he'd have learned something from all the time he's spent with her."

Shepard tilted her head aside. "The Consort?"

"You do not know of her?" the executor sounded genuinely surprised. "Sha'ira is famed for the depth of her company and wisdom. Though, seeing the Empire's lack of a formal presence aboard the Citadel until recently, perhaps you may have never had the opportunity to learn of her."

"Probably not," Shepard agreed, glancing over at Septimus. "Though if I recall correctly, her name did come up during our exchange. Something about her perhaps spotting my quarry?"

Septimus nodded. "It was indeed Sha'ira that caught sight of Saren heading towards the Presidium Tower."

"Well, do pass on my own regards for her keen sight," Shepard said.

"I will do so," Septimus said with another bow of his head.

At that moment, a door opened and a few officers came in bearing trays of food. One each was set before the three seated occupants before they retreated to give them privacy once more.

"Are you always waited on hand and foot like this?" Shepard said jokingly.

"It would be an abuse of my privilege to be served like this when I am dining alone," Pallin responded in kind. "But today with such esteemed guests present, it can be justified as a, diplomatic courtesy."

Shepard snorted. "Ah, and since you do have guests to entertain, I suppose you won't need to decline this on account of it being considered a possible bribe?"

From the bag the colonel had brought, Shepard pulled out a bottle of turian brandy. Septimus gave a hearty laugh while Pallin simply smiled.

"I see you are well versed in turian etiquette for guests," the executor said. "Next time I will have to do a better job as a host and ensure you are also similarly provided for."

While raw distilled alcohol was one of those few consumables that did not care about chirality, many actual alcoholic beverages were filled with impurities and the like for flavoring and texture. As such even for drinks one needed to take care from which dispenser one filled a glass with, though Shepard probably could drink the brandy without going into shock if only thanks to her implants. She might still have the runs for a bit though while it was flushed out.

"If you ask real nicely, Admiral Anderson will probably be willing to part with one of his prized whiskey bottles so that you can better entertain levo guests." Shepard inhaled the wafting scent of the steak set before her. "Not that this isn't already pretty high-class itself. Did this come from a C-SEC cafeteria?"

"Spirits no," Pallin said as he poured for himself and Septimus. "C-SEC doesn't get a big enough budget to enjoy this kind of extravagance on a regular basis."

"Sounds about right," Shepard said, lifting her own glass of nonalcoholic beverage. "To dull brass, who the enlisted only think get gourmet meals while they're on field rations."

"All too true," Septimus said, then took a long swig of his drink. "Damn, is this Noverian brandy?"

"Think so," Shepard said. "My crew hit up the spaceport shops when we were in Port Hanshan. These are some of the surplus that ended up in my possession instead of going with Garrus when he left for some reason."

"And how did you get this past customs?" Pallin said as he looked over the nondescript bottle. "Alcoholic beverages from outside Council space are highly regulated."

Shepard cocked her head aside. "Really? Why's that?"

"Officially, it's to ensure any alcoholic beverages consumed within Council space meet strict safety and quality regulations," Pallin said. "Unofficially, the asari snuck in that particular provision because they have a tight grip on the market, as far as levo consumers go that is, and they have a sizable footprint in dextro sales as well. Some of the biggest purveyors of spirits are based in the Asari Republics, and they don't like competition."

The colonel snorted. "Typical. And as for how I got it through, I got it shipped in through the diplomatic box Admiral Anderson gave me for anything I wanted to bring station-side quickly."

"Hmm, not exactly in the spirit of what those boxes are for," Pallin said. "But I suppose if all you did was smuggle in some brandy, I should be grateful."

"I assure you, everything I brought in were purely personal effects," Shepard said with a wide grin.

"I'm sure," Pallin drawled. "That said, I did promise you a working lunch, and I didn't invite Septimus solely so that he could convey his gratitude."

Shepard looked over at the retired general even as she began cutting away at the steak.

"My understanding, Colonel, is that you are currently investigating the attacks on the outlying human colonies," Septimus said, "and are working under the hypothesis that the responsible party is the Collectors."

"That's right," Shepard said. "Though we've moved a bit beyond it merely being a hypothesis."

"You have proof?" Septimus leaned in.

"Enough to know who we need to go after," Shepard said, "but not enough for the how and where."

As she popped a piece into her mouth, Septimus and Pallin exchanged looks. For some reason the executor dipped his head in a nod.

"You may not have been informed, Colonel," Septimus began, "but after the attack on the Citadel, and in light of the intelligence recovered from Ilos, the Council set up a taskforce to investigate the Keepers and try to unravel the mystery behind them."

The way Septimus was eyeing Shepard, the turian general was clearly insinuating he was read in on the Reaper threat. And so was Pallin, in all likelihood, seeing as the executor was the one that organized this meeting.

"About time," Shepard said after swallowing.

"Quite," Septimus agreed. "The team is composed of mostly salarian and asari researchers, but I am in charge of the overall project."

That saw an eyebrow arch upwards. "You, sir?"

"Well I am retired," Septimus said, "so it was not as if I had any more pressing matters to attend to. And they needed someone to keep the scientists on track. Salarian researchers especially can get rather easily distracted."

"Hmm, good to know," Shepard said. "And? Has your team managed to unearth any Keeper secrets?"

"This is not the first time a concentrated effort has been made to study the Keepers," Septimus did not immediately answer. "Past efforts however almost always resulted in the Keepers resisting further prying of their inner workings by self-destructing, and a fear of losing their services entirely was what prompted the Council to outlaw any further attempts. At this point however, such inconvenience is heavily outweighed by the danger our continued ignorance represents, of not just the Keepers, but the station as a whole."

"No disagreement there," Shepard said.

"The sad truth is, Colonel," Pallin interjected, "there are substantial portions of the Citadel that are effective black boxes, shielded against external scans and protected by what we can only presume to be both active and passive defenses. Past attempts to gain entry only resulted in lost probes or even of people. Anyone that makes it through the initial lockouts, such as by following a Keeper, is never heard of again."

"They prefer it that way," Shepard said, without elaborating on which they she referred to. "Here's a piece of technology that just works, but there's no easy way to figure out the how and the why."

From the nods that Septimus and Pallin gave, there was no need to.

"So I am given to understand," Septimus said. "And in light of such formidable determination to hide the Citadel's secrets, my team has had to be equally determined and innovative to overcome these defenses. In the process, we've managed to successfully tag hundreds of the Keepers and based on their movements create the most complete and detailed map of the station anyone has ever seen, outside of the station's creators, at least."

"And those black box compartments?" Shepard inquired.

"We've managed to get imagery from inside them," Septimus said softly. "Nothing that constitutes any sort of grand revelation, but it's allowing us to refine methods for successfully penetrating deeper and deeper into the Citadel."

Shepard nodded. As far as she could tell, Septimus was being honest about his team's relative progress. They did not have any sort of smoking gun yet, but that the Council was making the effort at all was a good sign that they were taking the Reaper threat seriously. And if they could figure out how to control the mass relay that the Citadel actually was, that opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities, like maybe even a preemptive strike against the Reapers while they hibernated out in dark space. Assuming they could come up with a big enough gun to do the honors.

"You mentioned salarians and asari in your research team," Shepard said, "and you yourself are clearly a representative of the Hierarchy. May I take it then that the Empire does not have formal involvement with the project?"

"You may," Septimus said without any hint of apology. "While relations between the Council and the Empire have warmed considerably as of late, the Empire remains an external polity. As such it would not be appropriate to invite its cooperation on such a sensitive matter at this point in time."

That was understandable enough, seeing as the Citadel was still the political heart of Council space. Even if they were all in it together in the fight against the Reapers, it was not unreasonable for the Council to take some care in how much access they gave the Empire. Besides, it was not as if the Empire was not keeping some secrets of its own.

"But the Empire is close enough to keep us apprised of any major developments," Shepard ventured. "After all, is that not why I am here?"

"To an extent," Septimus said. "The diplomats are still hashing out the exact nature of any exchange, but I thought we could perhaps get the ball rolling on our own."

Technically a marine was not supposed to circumvent the normal diplomatic process that her civilian counterparts engaged in, that sort of overreach tended to result in court martials and the like. But there were times when an officer did find herself in a situation where she could engage in a sort of quid quo pro with servicepeople of other polities, especially when such exchanges touched upon matters of mutual interest. Done well, these sorts of interactions helped open up channels that let those very civilian counterparts make progress in their own processes. Done poorly, there was always a panel that could be assembled.

Shepard held out her hand, activating her omnitool's projector. Out popped a hologram of the insectoid drone that had been recovered from Freedom's Progress.

"We're calling this a Seeker," Shepard said. "It's a biomechanical construct that is equipped with a biotic charge, which we believe allows it to place any target it lands upon into some sort of stasis. All indications are the Collectors release swarms of these things upon unsuspecting colonies, neutralizing any possible resistance before swooping in and, collecting, all of the paralyzed colonists."

"Spirits," Septimus murmured. "And have you found a way to defend against it?"

"We're working on it," Shepard said, turning off the projector. "All the money in the galaxy doesn't do much without the right expertise though, and the sort of expertise I need is rather, specialized."

"I can imagine," Septimus said. "If you would like, I can see if any members of my team possess the right qualifications."

"That's kind of you to offer, General, but I've already gotten some leads via my STG contacts," Shepard said with a slight smile, letting Septimus know that she was not without resources of her own. "I would however be happy to let your team chew on the data themselves, it never hurts to get a second opinion on such matters after all."

"Certainly," Septimus said.

"And it wouldn't hurt if you already have something that might be useful for my mission," Shepard added on nonchalantly.

In all likelihood the Empire would be providing the data Shepard had gathered thus far to the Council races without too much fuss or muss, the Collectors were a threat to everyone after all, and it was to humanity's benefit if the other races ended up better prepared. A particularly cynical person might believe that letting the Council races get weakened facing the Collectors or the Reapers might be to humanity's benefit. That viewpoint was, in Shepard's considered opinion, something only an idiot could take seriously. When the Reapers arrived, they would not discriminate. If the galaxy did not stand together, then they would just end up hanging separately. That being said, there was nothing wrong with wringing a few advantages for her own side in the process. Some payback for her efforts was warranted after all.

The colonel's last remark caused Septimus to blink a few times before chuckling. "At this point much of what we've discovered still tends towards the theoretical and hypothetical side of things. As such, I am limited in what sort of practical assistance I could provide. Fortunately, my friend Pallin here may be able to offer you something more concrete."

Shepard glanced over at the other turian. "So you're both the host and the gift bearer, Executor?"

"So it would seem," Pallin said dryly. "My understanding, Colonel, is that you are recruiting personnel to assist in the hunt for the Collectors. While you are clearly in need of technical expertise, am I correct in assuming you also would find useful competent soldiers?"

"You are," Shepard answered without any hesitation.

"In that case, I have a candidate that I think you will find welcome at your side, seeing as the two of you fought together before," Pallin said.

Shepard's eyes narrowed. "Garrus?"

The executor nodded.

The colonel's eyes remained narrowed. "You'll have to excuse me, Executor, but isn't Garrus a Spectre now, not C-SEC? Is he even someone you could assign to anything?"

"You are certainly correct that Agent Vakarian is no longer under my command," Pallin said. "At the same time, even after Vakarian was appointed a full Spectre, he has kept C-SEC, and myself, rather more fully appraised of his activities than the Council likely prefers." The turian shook his head in some wonderment. "Indeed he seems more diligent in keeping up with paperwork he no longer needs to file than when he was actually a C-SEC officer."

Shepard chuckled. "Garrus never was one for cutting corners."

"I am beginning to recognize that myself," Pallin said. "Anyway, the point is, while Vakarian is not someone that I can officially assign anymore, he is at least someone whose whereabouts I am kept abreast of. And if you determine that having Vakarian as a member of your squad again would be beneficial to your current mission, I can provide you with his location for you to attempt to recruit him again."

Shepard pursed her lips thoughtfully, then tested the waters.

"I can certainly see how useful having a Council Spectre accompanying me would be."

"I am sure his clearance will come in handy if your hunt takes you into Council space," Pallin responded without any hesitation.

Now that was interesting indeed. It was pretty clear that Garrus being offered as a potential squad mate was done with the consent of the Council, what with how the turian's status as a Spectre was so openly emphasized. The Council almost certainly intended for Garrus to provide a watchful eye on Shepard's activities, to make sure the colonel did not go too far or cross too many lines in her pursuit of the Collectors. And as far as minders went, the Council was clearly counting on Shepard's friendship with the turian to get the colonel to accept his presence even so. Not just their friendship, of course, Garrus was after all a very competent soldier, and the Council was clearly offering to let the turian use his authority to help Shepard as well. Give and take all around, this exchange was.

"I certainly wouldn't mind having Garrus riding shotgun again," Shepard finally said with a playful smirk. "Where would I need to go to let him know he's been, volunteered?"


The smirk disappeared and an eyebrow rose.

"You're joking."

The colonel's reaction was far from unwarranted. If there was a dark mirror of the Citadel out there in the Terminus Systems, it would be Omega. Originally an extremely eezo rich asteroid, the constant flurry of construction that accompanied the efforts of ruthless and exploitive mining interests had resulted in a truly gargantuan habitat fan out from the rocky base. Law and order existed only to the extent that rival gangs managed to assert control over their particular patch of territory. The place certainly did not respect the Council's authority, or that of its chosen agents.

"I am not," Pallin assured her. "Vakarian has been making use of his Spectre status to close out several longstanding C-SEC cases, both those he himself investigated in the past as well as a few his colleagues dealt with. A suspect in a particularly, unpleasant, such case was reported to have reemerged on Omega, prompting Vakarian to set out to try to bring him in."

"Isn't that technically outside of Council jurisdiction?" Shepard asked.

"Technically, yes," Pallin said. "But Omega does not really have any sort of formal governing authority either, aside from whichever gang happens to be the most powerful at any given point in time. As such Vakarian is not likely to ruffle too many feathers by making a collar there, as long as he does it discretely."

It seemed in this case Omega's lawlessness actually worked to Garrus' attention. Time would tell if Shepard could similarly exploit that lack of order when she dropped in for a visit.

"Fair enough." Shepard popped the last bit of steak into her mouth, having made quick work of it despite the running conversation. "And the Collectors are supposed to come from the other side of the Omega-4 Relay. Suppose I'll need to check the place out sometime." The smirk returned. "Should be fun."

The cozy but otherwise comfortable apartment Shepard had been granted for her stay upon the Citadel was supposed to have been swept for bugs and otherwise secured. Shepard did not believe that for a moment, if only because she knew for a fact that the Empire itself would be keeping tabs on her. Which other intelligence agency was able to successfully do the same was a more open question, though seeing as the main purpose for her using the room right now was to get into contact with the one most likely to succeed, the colonel was not terribly worried. The monitor on her console lit up and a familiar looking salarian face appeared with that characteristic wide smile of theirs.

"Lieutenant-Colonel Shepard, it is good to see you again, and congratulations on your promotion."

"Thank you, Captain Kirrahe," Shepard said with a smile of her own. "And I'm sure it won't be too long before you get a promotion of your own."

During the hunt for Saren, Shepard had had the pleasure to work with quite a few competent officers from the Council races. Chaleen Kirrahe was one such officer, the commander of a Special Tasks Group company that was sent to investigate the base on Virmire. Despite his company suffering horrendous losses, Kirrahe managed to hold out long enough with an accompanying Blackwatch company for Shepard to arrive and reinforce them. Together, the combined force even managed to survive a brush with Sovereign, and nearly got Saren then and there. At the end of the mission Kirrahe made clear he felt he owed Shepard one for having come to his command's aid. Now, the colonel intended to cash in on that favor.

"One hopes," Kirrahe said with a chuckle, then more somberly. "I heard about what happened, Colonel. My sincerest condolences."

Shepard gave a slight nod. "The thought is appreciated, Captain."

"Well, setting that aside," Kirrahe continued, "I received your inquiries about a competent technical specialist, and as it happens, I do know of someone that would be suitable for the challenges your current mission presents. He's retired STG, but holds qualifications in a wide range of medical fields. Convincing him to assist in your mission should not be terribly difficult either. Getting to him to make the offer on the other hand might be."

"This former operative of yours holed up in some hellhole?" Shepard guessed.

"A particularly nasty one at that," Kirrahe confirmed. "Mordin Solus is the operative's name, and after his retirement Mordin got it into his head to strike out for Omega."

An eyebrow rose. "Really?"

Whether it was coincidence or providence, Shepard did not know. Though it was rather curious so many people of interest seemed drawn to the station.

"Really," Kirrahe said. "Last I heard he had set up a clinic to treat the station's inhabitants, which given the environment is certainly no easy task. Certainly an odd choice for one's retirement."

"Running away from past secrets?" Shepard suggested.

"Possibly," Kirrahe said. "We in the STG all have events and missions we'd prefer to forget. Perhaps Mordin thought he could do some good in that desolate place, he is a superb physician on top of his other skills. And if there is a place in need of a good, honest doctor, I suppose Omega would be it."

"Sounds like a man with a conscience," Shepard said with an approving nod. "Though considering he was STG, he also presumably is willing to do what is necessary to get the job done."

"Very much so," Kirrahe said with the certainty only possible from firsthand experience.

"Good to know," Shepard said with another nod. "Anything else I should know about Dr. Solus before I go knock on his door?"

"Just that he's one tough cloaca. Tough, but still a cloaca. And you can tell him I said as much."

Shepard chuckled. "Well how can I go wrong with a stubborn salarian? They've worked out well enough in the past for me."

Kirrahe gave one of his own in turn. "I'm sending a letter of introduction that will vouch for you, along with a collection of Mordin's publicly published works to help you assess his credentials. I am also forwarding a non-public report he compiled that I think you will find very interesting reading. It was the last report he worked on for the STG before his retirement, after our little adventure on Virmire."

To that Shepard's expression went blank for several seconds. "I hope you won't get into trouble for this, Captain. I'd hate for you to fall too far behind me career wise."

Not that it stopped her from making some light out of the insinuation.

"Trust me, Colonel, I don't intend to," Kirrahe assured her with a smile. "Besides, I'm fairly certain my government will get around to sharing the information with yours soon enough. Let's just call this, expediting your personal access to it."

Shepard nodded. "In that case, my thanks, Captain. For everything."

"You are more than welcome, Colonel. Good luck, and good hunting."

The screen flickered and Kirrahe disappeared. Right on cue, an indicator blinked to mark the files that had been transferred over. Bringing up the attachments, Shepard saw that most of them were academic papers involve genetics and disease. Though, the topics seemed oddly relevant to environments related to the krogan. Perhaps Mordin had some involvement with monitoring of the Genophage's effects. Not that the scientist was ever likely to tell her, so it was at best a minor piece of useless trivia. What drew Shepard's more immediate interest however was the title of the last paper sent. Indoctrination Progression and Mental Degradation.

As Shepard browsed through the paper, it became pretty clear that it was compiled based off of examination of the STG operatives taken prisoner by Saren's forces on Virmire. All save one had become irreparably damaged neurologically as a consequence of the indoctrination experimentation carried out on them, and for many the only real reprieve from that fate was euthanasia. The only survivor that had his mind intact was the control subject, though the report also made clear the stress the soldier suffered had rendered him permanently unfit for continued service. Seeing his fellow soldiers slowly lose their minds and not being able to help would do that.

Alongside the recovered bodies, the STG had conducted autopsies of the euthanized soldiers to examine in more detail the structural changes that occurred in the brains of their fallen comrades, mapping those changes back to the psychological state exhibited by those survivors that were kept alive long enough to complete detailed interviews and evaluations. The final conclusion made by Mordin was, not good. As far as the scientist could see, there was no feasible way to reverse either the physical or psychological effects of Indoctrination. There were a few recommendations for how to block out Indoctrination from secondary transmitters like the brains of already Indoctrinated subjects, but nothing that could provide long-term protection against a primary transmitter like a Reaper. Indeed Mordin was rather vehement in his closing statements about the vileness of what had been done to his fellow operatives, as well as his insistence that any examples of the technology that did this be destroyed immediately and thoroughly.

Shepard closed the file and leaned back contemplatively in her seat. She was pretty certain ONI had already scarfed down the contents of Kirrahe's message, and the analysts would doubtlessly find the technical details of that last report fascinating. Shepard's own attention however was drawn to the subtle messages being conveyed. That Kirrahe was willing to give her the report at all was almost certainly because he was explicitly authorized to do so, perhaps at Valern's direction. It was further indication that the salarian government supported, unofficially at least, Shepard's objective of hunting down the Collectors and ending the threat they represented. That was the big picture message. The small picture one was arguably more pertinent to Shepard's immediate needs.

If Mordin really had been one of the researchers that examined the repatriated STG operatives, he likely was also read in on the Reaper threat itself. That meant he would probably believe Shepard if she claimed that by going after the Collectors, she was also going after the Reapers. A not inconsiderable point, seeing as most rationale people would find the entire notion of genocidal AI that swept the galaxy clean every fifty thousand years absurd. And if he believed her about the threat the Reapers represented, he would likely be more willing to sign on with her, despite her nominal patrons.

She would still need to go and recruit him, seeing as even if Kirrahe had given her a location and a letter of introduction, he had not given her a means to actually get in touch with Mordin. But that was fine. She already had one errand to run at Omega, so this was very much a two birds with one stone situation. And who knows, maybe when there she'd managed to bag a third bird as well.

"Omega, huh?" Jacob remarked. "Well, we were always gonna have to go there eventually, what with the relay being there."

"Quite," Shepard said. "Though having to actually dock at the station comes with its own set of complexities." She looked over at Miranda. "So am I going to be constantly shooting opportunistic bounty hunters?"

"No," Miranda stated. "Cerberus has paid off Omega's current reigning authority for safe passage through the region. That's not the same as guaranteeing no one will come after us, but any that does, we'll have free reign to deal with however we want."

The three were once more gathered in the Normandy's conference room, discussing the leads Shepard had obtained on the Citadel. The reactions of the two Cerberus operatives to the nature of those leads were quite the study in contrast. Jacob seemed glad to have something to go on, and hardly seemed fazed by the notion of working with a Council Spectre or a retired STG operative. Miranda on the other hand was more wary, especially of the former. Perhaps the woman feared Garrus' presence would allow Shepard to create a trusted inner cadre that excluded her or Jacob, further weakening the admittedly already tenuous control Cerberus had on the colonel. If so, then Miranda was not merely being paranoid, as Shepard intended to do just that.

What Miranda did not seem to realize, not yet at least, was that the formation of this cadre was in and of itself merely a means to an end, not the end itself. For nothing precluded Miranda or Jacob from joining this inner circle, provided they could demonstrate their own loyalty and utility to Shepard. Jacob was already drifting in that direction, his experience as a marine naturally inclining him to place trust in a commanding authority that proved itself worthy of it. Miranda was more naturally suspicious because of her wetwork background, and the fact that she was being made to answer to someone else instead of being the one calling the shots certainly ground her gears, but if Shepard could break through that stubborn pride, then the two could easily become fast friends as well as trusted squad mates. And if that happened, it was hoped that the closing distance between Shepard and the others would be matched by a growing distance between them and Cerberus. One could hope at least.

"Good," Shepard said. "So what is the current situation with the station anyway? Aria still queen bee?"

As the unofficial dark heart of the Terminus Systems, Omega was of considerable strategic interest to the Terran Empire, if only as a threat to be assessed. The consummate officer that she was, Shepard naturally kept abreast of these sorts of potential threats. While this provided her with more than a bit of passing familiarity with Omega's general power structure, that was not the same as having kept up to date on the very latest intelligence developments.

"The Pirate Queen is indeed still in control," Miranda said, "though there are indications some of the other factions are getting restive. There's nothing to suggest that Aria is in danger of being unseated, but we should still take some precautions as a matter of course."

Shepard nodded. The risk of betrayal from Aria was likely manageable, so long as they did not go out of their way to annoy or offend the asari pirate. The biggest danger then were any factions prepared to be overly belligerent against Aria's syndicate, or if her rivals managed to get organized enough to kick off a coup attempt while Shepard and her own crew were on-station. Their best bet was to get in and out as quickly as possible. Hopefully Garrus and Mordin would not be too difficult to locate.

"What is the current situation on the station then?" Shepard asked.

"Presently, aside from Aria herself, three mercenary companies form the second-tier of authority on the station," Miranda began. "The Blood Pack, Blue Suns, and Eclipse each control about an equal amount of territory compared to each other, and collectively they might even rival Aria's organization."

"I wonder if the Blue Suns operation on Omega is how they fund some of their other operations," Shepard said idly.

"Possibly," Miranda said. "If nothing else, the wealth that the Blue Suns derive from their eezo operations on Omega certainly helps explain their standing as one of the largest mercenary corps around. Indeed the same could be said of the Blood Pack and Eclipse."

"Haven't run into Eclipse much in the past," Shepard said.

"Likely because outside of the Terminus Systems, they operate primarily in Council space," Miranda said, seemingly with a ready answer for everything. "They haven't tried expanding into terran regions. Anyway, as far as Omega goes, all three merc companies are fierce rivals against each other, and Aria, and even if they could set aside their differences long enough to make a play against her, it's not likely such an alliance would last long even if they succeeded. Everyone knows this, including the mercs themselves, which is why they probably haven't bothered to even try."

"So long as they keep playing coil until after we're done with our mission," Shepard said.

"Quite," Miranda agreed. "In addition the above however, Omega is also home to the escrow agency that manages most of the bounties posted for various persons of interest across the galaxy, yourself included. The escrow agency isn't allowed to collect on those bounties itself, officially, but we should still steer clear of them."

"Of course," Shepard drawled.

"That being said," Miranda continued, "Omega being what it is, it also tends to attract some of the more competent mercenaries in the business. We might be able to supplement our current pool of manpower with an additional recruit or two there."

"I don't know, Miranda," Jacob said warily. "Considering the stakes, do we really want to be trusting someone working just for a paycheck."

"Can we afford to be too picky?" Miranda countered. "Considering the mission parameters, we may have to accept certain compromises to find people who possess other specific qualities. Besides, I'm sure the colonel won't have any difficulty keeping them in line."

Jacob glanced over to see how Shepard would react to the backhanded compliment, but the colonel only shrugged.

"If we're hiring outside contractors, they need to be proper professionals," Shepard said, "not some jackbooted bully who's overcompensating with the size of his gun."

"I think we can probably find someone up to your standards, Colonel," Miranda said.

"It's your boss' dime," Shepard said, apparently leaving it to Miranda's discretion and moving on from the topic. "Once we arrive, our first objective will be to find Garrus and Mordin. I'll also want to take a look at the Omega-4 relay itself, get a few scans and maybe drop a few probes, assuming they won't just get swept up by local scavengers."

"The stealth on our probes should be adequate to keep them hidden," Miranda said. "And if they are discovered, well, we've arguably learned something about the technical capabilities of the local scavengers."

"Fine," Shepard said. "I presume there won't be any problems taking weapons onto the station?"

"It'd be more unusual if we tried to board without being armed," Miranda said. "So long as the right people are paid off, nobody of import is likely to care."

"Such a charming place," Shepard said with a roll of her eyes, then flashed a fierce grin. "And it sounds like just the sort of place to break in our new squad mate."

Despite officially being on leave, Shepard's reputation combined with a little string-pulling by Anderson saw the colonel allowed to make use of a secured holding cell aboard one of the carriers assigned to Tenth Fleet. With her in the cell was the transferred over tank, within which slumbered Okeer's 'perfect' krogan. With the rest of her business aboard the Citadel concluded, it was time to decant him. Just to be safe, while Shepard herself was alone in the holding cell, close to a platoon of marines were standing by outside just in the case.

"Let's crack it open, EDI," Shepard ordered.

"Flushing tank," EDI confirmed.

Inside, as the liquid drained away, the krogan himself was lowered as the buoyancy disappeared. The tank popped open, ejecting the krogan unceremoniously out onto his knees. He was a big boy, despite being so young, relatively speaking, that his forehead plate had yet to fuse. Coughing, the krogan cleared the nutrient bath from his lungs. Even as he rose, his eyes flickered as he got his bearings. It did not take long for those eyes to focus on Shepard. With a roar, the krogan charged.

The thud that sounded was rather dull, at least initially. The crashing came moments later as the krogan was sent flying back by the blue biotic field. The shock of being tossed around like this saw the krogan sit there for a few moments, blinking at Shepard. The colonel placed a hand on her still holstered pistol.

"Got it out of your system, or do I have to actually get serious?"

The krogan rose, this time regarding Shepard with far greater wariness.

"Human," the krogan said. "Female. Stronger than you look."

"Appearances are deceiving," Shepard responded. "Are you as worthy as you look?"

"Worthy? Worthy of what? I am trained, I know things. But the tank, Okeer couldn't implant connection. His words are hollow, his judgment hollow." The krogan looked away in thought. "Mere words. Warlord, legacy, grunt…grunt. 'Grunt.' It has no meaning. It'll do."

"Do?" Shepard said.

"My name," the krogan said with a growl. "I have no mission, no purpose. My name should also lack meaning."

Shepard tilted her head. "Okeer seemed to think you would blaze a trail for your people. That you would be an exemplar of their very best."

"I feel nothing for Okeer's clan or his enemies," the self-named Grunt sneered. "That imprint failed. He failed. His reason is not mine, and I have no reason. Not yet at least."

This was certainly taking an interesting turn. It seemed while the krogan was not some blank slate, he did not possess the sort of fanatical drive that Okeer likely wanted instilled. That, could work.

"If you have no reason or cause, then why not join mine?" the colonel invited. "The enemies I face will be many and powerful and will be sure to test your mettle."

"Oh?" Grunt said. "And who would you be?"

"Evangeline Shepard," the colonel introduced herself. "Don't suppose Okeer taught you that name in his imprints?"

"Shepard, Shepard," Grunt murmured, then his eyes lit up. "Okeer taught me the names of many warriors that he felt were worthwhile to know. Yours is amongst them. The only living human name he bothered teaching me."

"I suppose I should take that as a compliment," Shepard said. "So? What say you?"

"Hmm, you certainly have no shortage of enemies that would challenge you," Grunt said with a wide, toothy grin. "I accept."

"Glad to have you with us, Grunt," Shepard said, flashing a fierce one of her own. "I'll expect you to pull your weight when we get stuck in."

"Oh, you won't need to worry about that," Grunt said with a low chuckle.

End of Chapter 10

I just needed to get this out of my head. Once we get to Omega things will get more exciting, but there's still at least two or so development scenes I need to get out beforehand. Though I'm sure quite a few of you enjoy the back and forth maneuvering as well.

I pulled Kirrahe's first name from Mordin's ME Foundation comic, even though that comic made a complete hash of what we thought to be the updated Genophage drop mission. So I took probably the only useful bit of information from that comic, a name I could reuse.

I mentioned in Duty that it's the House of Plantagenet that is the ruling imperial family, and I also noted that the Emperor Charles' titles included King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Normandy, and Ireland. That was enough for several other readers to date the time of divergence to before the Hundred Years' War and postulate a much stronger, unified Britain going into the industrial era. I also noted a few things in relation to why Geneva is the imperial capital instead of London, so bits and pieces of the timeline divergence are there. Otherwise I'm intentionally withholding other information so that I can adjust and change them as the need arises as they become relevant to the actual plot.