A/N: Once again, thank you all so much for your patience. Your comments have been very encouraging. Hope you like this one!


Chapter31: Known Enemies

The waiting was the hardest. Had they access to the webway, it would have been but a single moment to the Collector ship. But here, there was only one vessel for Maeteris to rely upon, and not even a particularly quick one at that. On the other hand, the delay was a necessary one. There was only a small window in which they must arrive, when the Collectors have only just started preparations for their intended ambush, but not before they were finished. Despite that, the waiting chaffed her quite a lot.

She knelt now in a corner of her cabin, her sword laid out across her knees and her runes hovering in lazy arcs in the air before her. Her right thumb was held up before her, a drop of crimson blood beading upon it. A seer's war mask was normally drawn not with blood but by an understanding of the skeins that none save those on the Witch Path could truly comprehend, but that was not going to be enough today. Today she sought only blood, and only the war mask drawn in the manner of Khaine's warriors would be enough.

Closing her eyes, Maeteris let her thoughts drift, to a time when the arts of the seers were still unknown to her, when only the sword and the gun and the fury of Khaine occupied her thoughts. Intoning the verses of an old promise drawn from the depths of her memories, Maeteris raised her hand to her forehead, letting instincts guide her movements, tracing out the rune of the Bloody-Handed One upon her brow. An intense heat followed in the wake of the touch of her thumb, the fiery call of bloodshed pressing in around the cold, patient watchfulness of her psychic war mask.

"Khaine guide my blade," she muttered as the last line of the rune was drawn. "No schemes and artful plans for our foes this day, but blood and death."

She opened her eyes, her mind filled with a calm, lucid detachment, uncluttered by the many emotions that so often clouded her thoughts. Then her gaze landed on M'tarr. The gyrinx was sitting upon her haunches, head tilted curiously as she regarded Maeteris.

"What is Maeteris doing?" she asked politely. "Maeteris feels different."

"It is a war mask," Maeteris explained. "We must control our emotions and memories before joining battle, so that it does not consume us. One must take great care not to be lost in the thrills of battle, or the many woes that it could bring. The war mask shields us from feeling too deeply the horrors of battle, and from remembering them."

"M'tarr does not understand why this is necessary."

"It is a sacrifice that we have had to make," Maeteris told her. She stood in a single motion, sheathing her sword at her side. Then she raised her arm, drawing her runes into slow orbits about her. So garbed, she exited her cabin.

-www-

"A Collector ship, huh?" Zaeed asked as he and Victoria made their way to the elevator to go down to the hangar. "Do you think the new thanix cannons could do anything to it?"

"Maybe, but I don't want to risk a confrontation. We'll just be going in, let EDI, Kasumi, and Tali work on their systems for a bit, then get out."

"That is the problem with field tests, I suppose – the risk of getting shot back at." He paused. "Did Maeteris say what she wants to do? Girl's been all mysterious like. Got me concerned."

"No, only that she has a score to settle. I think she just wants an excuse to kill Collectors. I mean, if the Reapers destroyed Earth, I'd want to do the same."

"I do feel much better with her there. A ship full of Collectors might be too much for me to handle, even for me."

"Always so modest, Zaeed," Victoria drawled.

"Commander," Garrus greeted as he joined them, August by his side. Victoria noticed that the turian was holding a boxy weapon in his arms, which he held out when Victoria drew near.

"What've you got there?" she asked him curiously, taking the weapon and looking it over.

"Something the engineers came up with. Gabby and Ken had something of an inspiration when working on some of the ship's systems, came to me to run some numbers and calibrations. Experimental mass accelerator with a high-explosive armour piercing slug. Figured you might want to field test it."

Victoria took the weapon from him, carefully looking it over. "That sounds… like a formidable weapon."

Garrus hummed. "It's never been practically considered, since a power source small enough would only have enough for, oh, two shots, if that. That is, it was that way until Alliance R&D sent through their compiled schematics for August's lasgun power packs."

"Has that come through already? What about the specs for the gun itself?"

"Tali and the others are still working on that. We should have the first one delivered from the Normandy's fabricators soon."

"Well, that's good to know."

Victoria, however, was frowning when they stepped out into the hangar. "Why did no one tell me that the specifications had arrived?"

"Because we wanted it to be a surprise," Tali said from behind them. "I'm disappointed in you, Vakarian."

Garrus shrugged. "It would have come out anyway."

"You don't know that."

"I know engineers. Always so eager to talk about the latest tech."

"You do the same thing," Tali accused.

"Yes, well, nobody's perfect."

Victoria shook her head, smiling at their exchange. "Well, I can't wait to get my hands on one of them myself."

"I can," Zaeed grumbled. "Goddamned laser guns. What's wrong with bullets?"

"We don't use bullets anymore, Zaeed," Victoria observed lightly. "Not in about a year or ten now."

"You know what I mean. The other thing doesn't sound as snappy."

Victoria grinned at him. "Besides, the laser gun is undeniably more effective."

"Just shoot them more," Zaeed said in an offended tone. "Everything dies just the same if you hold the trigger long enough."

"Good old orkish philosophy," August said.

"Orks have philosophy?" Garrus asked, looking surprised.

"Certainly, as long as it involves ways to kill someone."

"What a novel concept," Victoria said. "What have you got against the lasgun, Zaeed? You're sentimental, but even you must see its benefits."

"Who're you calling sentimental?"

Victoria folded her arms. "Uh huh. Want to tell me the story of Jessie again?"

"Jessie?" August asked.

"His first true love," Victoria sighed, placing a melodramatic hand over her heart.

"I don't know that we need to go into that," Zaeed said.

"A truly tragic tale," Victoria continued relentlessly. "It's got it all – a man and his reliable partner, a bond forged in the fires of battle, until the lady rifle had had enough killing and decided to retire. It's very moving."

August looked at Zaeed. "It just stopped firing?"

"Never got her to shoot again, no matter what I did."

"Sounds like her machine spirit needs appeasement."

Zaeed laughed coarsely, but there was a slight hint of speculation in his face. "At any rate, Shepard, this isn't about that."

"Really? Didn't you say she's the best gun you ever owned?"

"Don't think I did."

"You must have."

"It just feels strange, all right? Weird for guns to make nothing more than a few pops and not move when they're shot. Feels wrong, too quiet, too tame."

"That's definitely what an ork would say," August remarked.

"Are you sure you don't have a bit of ork blood in you, Zaeed?" Victoria asked him sweetly.

August made a strangled, choking sound.

"Well, I wouldn't worry too much about it for now," Garrus told them. "Conventional firearms aren't going to go away any time soon."

"How do you figure that?" Victoria asked.

"Oh, not for most units, of course, but for specialist units – snipers and the like. The turians have spent centuries trying to conceal signs of weapons fire – muzzle flash, smoke, and such. Everyone has, even the elcor. Lasers undo all the progress everyone's ever made in that field. It would be easy to identify where a shooter's at."

"Variant's exist for those types of jobs," August told him. "White light, non-visible light. It works very well until someone brings up a set of auspexes." He tapped at the side of his helmet.

"If nothing else, a Mantis or a good shotgun would be useful once ablative armour becomes the norm," Tali observed. Then she looked down at herself. "I'll have to figure out how to put some of that onto my suit, too. Being unarmoured is fine with kinetic barriers, but if barriers become obsolete…" She hummed. "Perhaps a modified tech armour to help disperse the heat."

Then the doors to the elevator opened, and Maeteris stepped out, right on time. Victoria found herself standing a little straighter. No matter how many times she saw Maeteris in her armour, Victoria was sure that she would never not be awed by the ornateness and the sheer fantastic beauty of the suit. But there was something different about the Farseer this time, something that seemed out of place.

Maeteris had her helm tucked under her arm, but there was a steely look to her face that caused an involuntary shudder to run down Victoria's spine. When Maeteris' gaze flickered over them, it was impassive, entirely emotionless. Maeteris was not normally the most expressive of individuals, but this seemed to be beyond even her usual aloofness. She turned, catching August staring at Maeteris. His eyes were alert, on guard. Then he caught Maeteris' gaze and he inclined his head, an unspoken understanding seeming to pass between them. "Are you doing all right?" she asked Maeteris tentatively.

The eldar inclined her head. "We must hurry," she said crisply, her tone level and entirely clinical.

"You heard her, people," Victoria said, climbing into the waiting Kodiak. "Best not give the Collectors waiting."

One after another, they climbed into the waiting Kodiak. Only half the ground team were present – Garrus, August, Zaeed, and, of course, Kasumi and Tali, who were to attempt to retrieve as much data as they could. Victoria had judged that they only really needed two people to defend each woman as they worked. Jack, too, was with them. The others would be staying behind. Should any Collector attempt to board the Normandy, they would not find the ship undefended. Not all of the members of the ground team had been happy at being left behind, of course. Grunt, in particular, had been quite vocal in his objections, but Victoria had put her foot down, and the promise of having free rein of the hangar to wage war upon any adventurous Collector had mollified the young krogan. He now stalked the hangar, looking often towards the closed doors. Even though Victoria's team had not even left, he already had his shotgun in his hand, hefting his hammer idly at his side.

"All right, Goldstein, take us out," Victoria ordered.

With a quiet whine the Kodiak lifted off for the short flight between the intervening distance between the two ships, and soon Goldstein's voice came to them.

"Touching down, Commander."

"Any signs of the Collectors?" Victoria asked.

"Nothing. All appears to be clear. Joker's not detecting any operational systems on the ship, either."

"If it's a trap, it's not a very good one," Victoria remarked.

"Perhaps the ambush is deeper inside the ship," August suggested.

The Kodiak's hatch slid open and they stormed out, fanning out in a wide half-circle, their guns sweeping the area before them. Maeteris was the last to step out, pulling her tall helm over her head. Immediately she began walking. She had not drawn her sword, and her pace was unhurried, but they were purposeful.

The interior of the ship was dim and vast, the uneven, bulbous growths that formed the walls of its corridors curving high overhead to vanish in the deep shadows that what little ruddy light could not reach.

Maeteris made her way deliberately through the ship, seemingly unconcerned by the need for caution, moving as though she knew exactly where to go.

"Let's not fall behind," Victoria muttered, jogging forward to join Maeteris. "Check the corners. Don't want anything jumping out at us."

They came to a door and Maeteris stopped before it, her head tilting contemplatively.

"Something wrong?" Victoria asked her.

"Half a dozen Collectors bustling around," the Farseer said. "Like so many insects."

Victoria moved immediately, taking up a position to the side of the door, followed quickly by all the others – all except Maeteris. The Farseer stood for a long moment before the door. Then she raised her arm before her, flicking her hand in a negligent gesture. With a deafening rend of tearing metal the door burst open, taking with it a good portion of the bulkhead that Victoria and the others were taking cover behind. The dozen Collectors in the suddenly exposed room beyond threw themselves this way and that, or pressed themselves to the floors and the walls, all trying to avoid the pieces of debris that the air was suddenly filled with. Maeteris flicked her hand again, and the Collectors were hurled against the walls. When they hit the floor again, their mangled bodies were limp and lifeless.

Another squad of Collectors came through the door at the opposite end of the room, stopping in their tracks as they looked first at Victoria and her squad, and then at their dead comrades. As one, they reached for their rifles.

With a ringing shout Jack leapt forward, her biotics propelling her into the midst of the Collectors, a corona of blue energy projected before her. She struck like a battering ram, the sheer force of her impact throwing the Collectors to the ground. The Collectors began thrashing about, wisps of smoke pouring out of the gaps in their armour, the edges there starting to blacken as tongues of purple flame curled up from the inside.

Victoria looked quickly about, but there were no enemies left.

"Everyone good?" she asked shortly.

"Better than they are," Garrus said, prodding one of the dead Collectors with a foot.

Jack rejoined them, and she was scowling deeply. "That's not what I wanted to do."

"What did you want to do?" Victoria asked curiously.

"Something a lot more spectacular."

"Well, they're dead anyway, so what difference does it make?"

But Jack's expression was exasperated. "What am I doing wrong, Maeteris?"

The Farseer cast her a steady look. "You have not heeded what I have said."

"Thanks for the advice," Jack drawled. "It was very helpful."

"Heavy weapons," August observed kicking one of the corpses over. "Looks like they were moving it somewhere."

"Seems we caught them in the middle of something," Garrus observed blandly. "I wonder what it could be that they would need heavy weapons for."

"I certainly hope we aren't interrupting," August replied solemnly.

"Least we know their ambush is not yet ready," Zaeed said. "That's good."

"Which hopefully also means that their systems haven't yet been locked down," Victoria said.

They came across more groups of Collectors as they advanced through the ship. They were small, easily disposed of, and all carrying heavy equipment of some sort. The corridors themselves were numerous, but Maeteris led them onward confidently, until they came at last to a bulkhead which doors looked different from those they had passed before.

Maeteris stopped before the door, gesturing wordlessly at it. "One of that which you must find is beyond. Make haste. I could not do what I came for until you have taken what you must."

"Well, let's get it open," Kasumi said briskly, appearing at Victoria's side and activating her omnitool. After a while, she frowned. "Interesting. Seems this is a laboratory of some sort." She turned to Maeteris. "What do we need from a lab?"

"Why ask of that which you will soon possess?" Maeteris replied.

Kasumi sighed, tapping a couple of times on her omnitool, and the door slid open a second later.

The room beyond was small and bare. In one corner of the room was a pile of corpses, all bearing the mark of some mutilation or dissection. The bodies towards the bottom of the pile were already beginning to decompose. As closely as Victoria could tell, the dead were all human.

"Interesting décor," Zaeed observed. "Why would the Collectors just leave them lying around?"

"Must have been used for testing," Garrus told him. "I'd say these subjects didn't pass."

Kasumi shuddered, turning her back on the gruesome scene.

Wordlessly, August approached the pile, kneeling before it and making a strange sign before him with his fist. Victoria could hear him muttering, his voice too low for her to make out individual words, but the cadence of a prayer was not lost upon her. After a moment he stood.

"Let's move out," he said, his voice flat with anger. "There is nothing more we could do here."

Victoria nodded, casting a final glance at the corpses before leading the way onward, and soon they came across more evidence of further testing. Medical equipment and screens hung above row upon row of cradles and pods. Tali went immediately to one of them, omnitool already activated.

"I'm going to need EDI's help on this one," she muttered after a while. "There's too much data here for me to sift through."

"Send it over," Victoria instructed.

"Receiving," EDI said after a while. "There is data here of Collector DNA, as well as that of most of the major powers of the galaxy. It seems that they were looking for baseline genetic comparisons between themselves and humanity."

"What are they looking for? Similarities?"

"It would be difficult to formulate a hypothesis on their intent without more data." She paused. "Interesting."

"What's so interesting?"

"A quad-strand genetic structure identical to traces collected from ancient ruins. Only one species is known to have this structure – the Protheans."

"Coincidence, perhaps?" Tali asked, though her tone did not sound very hopeful.

"The Collectors' genes show distinct signs of extensive genetic rewrite," EDI offered. "Similar to the differences between humans and the husks you encountered before."

Victoria shook her head. "All right, so now we know what the Collectors really are. Not that the information would really help us at this time. EDI, do you think you can locate an access point to the ship's mainframe? I wonder if there's anything else that we could learn."

"There's a mainframe terminal a little ways up ahead," Kasumi said.

"Are you are?"

"Please, remember whom you're talking to."

"Right, sorry. Lead the way, then."

Cautiously, they made their way through the laboratories deeper into the ship, and though they encountered signs of hasty movement, they faced no further resistance.

"Commander," EDI's voice came over the comms. "I am trying to break into the Collector systems, but they are activating cyberwarfare measures of their own."

"Would that be a problem?"

"Normally, it would be difficult to access their systems and beat them off both at once."

"Normally?"

"The encryption from Captain Gallardi's OSD is proving to be very robust."

"Good. Keep me updated."

They continued on through the ship, until eventually they came to an archway that looked out over a great cavern which floor was lost to the shadows far below. A single walkway spanned across the chasm, and two more stretched high overhead against either side.

"That's a goddamn kill box," Zaeed muttered as he observed the room. "Collectors could be hiding out anywhere in there."

"We don't have much choice," Victoria muttered. "All right, try to get across as quickly as you can."

There was a series of affirmative nods and murmurs. Then, looking briefly to either side to check that everyone was ready, she made a curt gesture.

"Go!"

They thundered out of the hallway and onto the bridge. It was only when they were halfway across that the Collectors moved, squads of the aliens sticking their heads out over the side of the walkway, rifles in their hands. August, who had been watching the upper walkways closely, immediately activated his jetpack. Jack followed him in a trail of biotic energy, and the both of them vanished over the edge of the walkway on the left. Maeteris did the same, descending on the walkway to their right, and a moment later a dozen Collectors went flying out over the edge of the walkway to vanish soundlessly into the depths of the chasm far below. One of them got its feet under it, bug-like wings catching itself in mid-air, only to crumple as Garrus put a clean shot through its head between one stride and the next.

Then Victoria was at the end of the bridge. As soon as she was past the door there she turned, rifle already shouldered, aiming at the walkway that August and Jack had disappeared over. There was movement, a Collector doubling over from a blow to its abdomen, the blade of August's sword sticking out of its back.

"Go!" she heard the Captain shout, and soon Jack was sprinting past him. The young woman leapt, biotic energy directing her towards the central bridge and cushioning her fall. August took to the air, lasgun firing at the surviving Collectors.

Then the doors before Victoria began to close.

"EDI!" Victoria barked.

"Already on it, Commander," the AI's voice came to her, even as the doors halted and reversed their movement. "The Collectors are trying to lock me out, but not having to fight the Collectors is making this a lot easier. I will try to clear a path for you to the mainframe Kasumi had indicated."

August and Maeteris were the last to move through the door. Victoria swept her rifle over the walkway one final time, but there was no more movement. She turned, seeing August already leading them from the front.

"Take this next right," Kasumi said from the shadows.

August nodded curtly, stopping briefly at the turn she had indicated and stuck his head out in a quick, darting motion. A hail of weapons fire met him, his kinetic barriers soaking up what few stray shots found his head. August's hand dipped immediately to his pistol.

"Heavy weapon emplacement," he informed them curtly, before squeezing the trigger of his pistol. He counted a few moments then leant out of cover for no more than a fraction of a second, arm extended, and the high-pitched hiss of the pistol filled the air as he fired. Then there was the sound of a sizzling detonation.

"Neutralised." August poked his head out again. "Clear."

Their progress after that was slower. Though they came upon no further resistance, the need for caution nonetheless impeded their advance. Maeteris, who had been following along behind them, began to press quickly and eagerly on ahead, even moving past August. Spurred onward by Maeteris' increasingly obvious impatience, Victoria concluded that there were no further ambushes about, and she gestured for them to pick up the pace.

Maeteris had stopped before a sealed door, prompting them into cover with a single look.

"Here they make their stand," she declared, drawing her sword. She raised her arm, levelling the tip of the sword at the door. With a blast of pure force she tore the door apart. Squads of Collectors were arrayed in the vast chamber beyond, some hunkering down behind solid half-walls, others taking cover upon levitating platforms further back in the chamber.

With a battle shout in the melodic eldar tongue Maeteris charged. One moment she was standing before the door, and the next she was among the Collectors directly ahead, her sword trailing purplish energy through the air as it cleaved head from shoulders and split torsos apart. The Collectors attacked her in turn with a hail of fire, not seeming to care if they hit the few of their comrades left around Maeteris. Victoria was not sure if it was the suddenness of the Farseer's charge, but the Collectors appeared to not have regained their bearings, and all their shots went wide, not a single one so much as making contact with Maeteris.

A mote of white fire surrounded the Farseer as she fought, and then, with a sudden rush of air, it coalesced into a figure that stood as tall as Maeteris, guttering flames mimicking the folds of her flowing robes all about her. The fiery figure flew in a blaze of white at one group of Collectors on their flank. Heedless of the shots directed its way, it moved from one Collector to another, striking out with a blade of white flame. The Collectors did not appear to be harmed, not so much as a rend in their armour nor even scorch marks, but each stiffened as soon as the blade passed through them before collapsing to the ground, like so many puppets with their strings suddenly severed.

With Garrus and August providing covering fire from their positions behind the door, Victoria and the others moved through and fanned out, shooting back at the Collectors.

A large silhouette caught Victoria's attention, and she glanced towards it. A couple of Praetorians emerged from the shadows of the chamber's walls to either side, converging upon Maeteris. One of them came to a stop in the air some distance from her, its eyes glowing a bright purple, and twin particle beams streaked out towards Maeteris. She held her arm out, palm facing outwards, dispersing the energy in shimmering plane of purplish light about her.

Capitalising upon the distraction, the second Praetorian lunged with a sudden burst of speed at the Farseer. She turned to it, almost in annoyance, making a rotating motion with her free hand. The Praetorian struggled as it was lifted up into the air, legs thrashing about but unable to find purchase.

There was the whine of another engine, and a trio of platforms came into view. Victoria counted at least two dozen Collectors and she bit back a curse. With Maeteris so occupied with the Praetorians, she would not be able to defend herself. The others were already firing upon the Collectors and Victoria joined in, but the enemy had good cover and the weight of numbers, and every second that passed brought them closer.

There was a flash of blue, and the Praetorians were thrown back by an unseen force emanating from Maeteris. Blue lightning crackled between her outstretched fingers and spilled from her visor. Maeteris straightened, spreading her arms out to either side of her, and she began rising into the air until she was a few feet above the ground, the space beneath her alive with angry bolts of lightning. A phantom wind picked up, until in seconds a gale had built up, howling all around her. The Collectors were plucked off their feet, tossed this way and that in the raging winds. So strong was the gale that some of the Collectors were torn apart, and even the Praetorians were lifted up by the currents, their flight machinery unable to wrest control back from the winds.

Then the lightning struck. Crackling bolts materialised out of thin air, and Collectors began falling to the ground, chitinous armour blackening where they were struck. Even the Praetorians were not spared, smouldering white holes appearing in their metallic husks. The wind and the lightning picked up in size and ferocity, until Victoria was forced to hunker down behind her cover. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the storm died down.

The long moments that followed was deafening in its silence, and it was truly silent. Cautiously, Victoria stuck her head out of her cover, just enough so that she could peer out over it. The Collectors were dead, broken bodies lying strewn here and there, wisps of smoke still rising into the air. The Praetorians lay on their sides, lifeless and unmoving. Victoria sucked in a sharp breath, somewhat awed by the sheer destructive power that had just been displayed. August was the first to move, stepping out of cover and sweeping his rifle around to ensure that the place was clear.

"Keelah," Victoria heard Tali mutter from behind her. She looked around at the others, noting similar expressions of awe in their postures.

"No time to gawk, people," she said, snapping herself out of her own amazement. "Kasumi, command systems?"

"Just a little bit over there, down that corridor."

"All right. Tali, Kasumi. See what you can dig up. Help them out, would you, EDI? Don't be afraid to really comb through every file." She glanced at Maeteris. "We are in no rush. The Collectors are not getting rid of us any time soon."

Maeteris shook her head once. "We shall part here."

"What are you going to do?"

Maeteris looked gravely back at her. "Only the will of the Blody-Handed One. Go now, do what you must in turn." Without another word, she turned to leave.

"All right. We'll return to the Normandy once we're done here. We'll wait for you."

Maeteris inclined her head, then she was gone.

"The girl talks a big game," Zaeed grunted as they began digging in and making preparations for a Collector counter attack.

"She can sure back it up, though," Garrus observed.

"She's also not a girl," Victoria said. "We've been over this."

"Yeah, yeah," Zaeed dismissed her words. "Kinda hard to remember that, looking at her."

Victoria shook her head. "How are we doing on the systems?"

"Still working on it," Kasumi said. "Fortunately, the security's really shoddy. Seems the Collectors weren't expecting anyone to make it here." Then she whistled. "Well, hello there."

"What is it?"

"Seems I found the credit stash that the Collectors were using to buy their slaves."

"That's not why we're here, Kasumi."

"Doesn't it help our cause? After all, it's not as though I need the credits."

"No, you just want it."

Kasumi's expression grew pained. "I am so misunderstood. Would you rather the Collectors have all of these credits to buy more human slaves, Shep?"

"Well, no," Victoria floundered. "I didn't say that."

"Then I'm helping save lives, aren't I?"

"I suppose."

"After all, I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm just here to benefit myself," Kasumi said contritely.

"All right, Kasumi."

"This is what I'm good at, after all. You save people by shooting Collectors in the face, I do the same by taking away their funds."

"Don't belabour the point, Kasumi," Victoria sighed. "Just do what you have to do."

Zaeed, Garrus, and August were working to set up explosives around the perimeter and piling up Collector corpses here and there. When Victoria moved closer to them, the scarred mercenary looked up at her.

"Say, I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but don't you think it's a bad idea for Maeteris to show her powers so openly? The more the Reapers don't know about what she could do, the better."

"Do you want to be the one to tell her what to do?"

"Something tells me that she wants them to know," August told him.

"How do you figure that?"

"The eldar are usually subtle, preferring subterfuge and misdirection, and their farseers are better at this than most of their kind. If they display their might so openly, it's because something has gone very wrong, or because they want what they could do to be know – and Maeteris looks too much to be in control for the first possibility."

"All right, but what's the benefit in her display, then?"

"Trying to understand the motives of the eldar is an exercise in futility, but it could be that she wants the Reapers to know the threat that the eldar still pose, even now." He shrugged. "When it comes to the eldar, pride is usually a good place to start in understanding their actions."

"Commander?" Joker said then. "You might want to be quick down there."

"What's going on?"

"Collectors are sending out fighter drones, trying to get into the hangar. Haven't seen any troops yet though."

"They're a little busy at the moment. Any chance the fighters could be repelled?"

"By the crew? Likely, but I'm not too confident about the damage to the Normandy. Things would be much better if I could get the drones out into open space away from the Collector ship."

"All right, take the Normandy out for a spin, then. Shake them off."

"If we do that, you'll be stranded here. I'm not sure how long this will take."

"Do it, Joker. We can hold out here for some time."

"Aye, Commander. Taking her out. I'll let you know when we're done."

-www-

Maeteris worked her way quickly through the hallways of the ship, driving the Collectors before her. The aliens did not rout, for fear was not an emotion they knew, but nonetheless they ebbed and returned, engaging and retreating as they tried in vain to halt her advance. In another state of mind, Maeteris would have taken some amount of satisfaction from the death that she sowed, but, filtered as it was through her war mask, she felt only the need to spill more of their blood.

The Collector ship was not as large as the vessels that Maeteris knew, and its complement of troops was smaller even than eldar vessels. Yet, as she made her way through the warren-like corridors, it seemed that the Collectors were intent on placing every warrior they had between her and her objective. It was not unexpected; Maeteris had not been attempting to hide her destination from the Collectors. They had not all gathered yet, however, still hurrying as they were from other parts of the vessel. Maeteris felt their presence all around her, unthinking minds silent in all but the most rudimentary of ways. Others stood before her, husks and warrior-drones both, as though intending to impede her progress. It did not matter much to Maeteris. Collector or husk, now or later, their dooms would come all the same.

The door to the bridge soon came into view. Maeteris moved eagerly towards it, blasting it apart with a thrust of her blade. The bridge was a circular room, walls lined with arrays of crude displays and controls. In the centre stood a raised platform, a holographic map upon it and ringed by more controls. There was only one Collector left in the room, this one larger than the others. Maeteris levelled her sword at it, lifting it up into the air. She flicked her free hand, and one of the runes orbiting her floated gently out towards the door behind her, attaching to the frame, and a shimmering field of force flared into life over the doorway, sealing it off.

The Collector was apprehensive – not scared, for this creature's mind was so twisted from what it originally was that it could no longer feel fear. It twitched helplessly, bug-like eyes fixed upon Maeteris as she drew closer. Maeteris brought her sword down, slamming the Collector back down upon one of the consoles. She drew closer, reached her hand out, touching her fingertips to its chitinous forehead and submerging her thoughts into its consciousness.

The Collector's mind was defenceless and easy to navigate. It had few ideas of its own, and was unclouded by idle thoughts. It would be so easy to obliterate it now, but this was little more than a drone. She wormed her way deeper, until she found the thread that she was looking for, a faint muddy flicker of light within the skeins, dangling like a thread from the back of the Collector's mind, leading off into the distance. Within the thread she sensed commands given by a mind that was more independent than the Collector before her. She followed the link through the web of the skeins, but it was not a Reaper at the other end as she had expected, merely another pawn – a greater pawn, but one nonetheless.

Maeteris drew in a deep breath as a number of realisations came to her. The Collectors, it seemed, did not receive their commands directly from the Reapers, but rather through a single, controlling form. Maeteris felt that form within the skeins now, and though she could attempt to kill it now, she knew that it needed to be alive. Without it, the link to the Reapers was lost. Retreating from the Collector's mind, she raised her sword. It was not anger, for no rage could be so clinical. Rather, the deliberate intent to kill came to Maeteris, and Maeteris did just so, burying the blade into the Collector up to the hilt, piercing through to the console beneath it.

When that was done, Maeteris straightened, plucking her rune from the doorframe as she walked out of the room at a quick pace. Victoria and the others were almost done, it was quite some distance to the engine room, and Maeteris did not want to stay on this ugly vessel any longer than she had to.

-www-

"Found anything?" Victoria asked, sidling up to Kasumi and Tali.

"Many interesting things," Kasumi replied.

"Chiefly, data that might help us navigate the Omega 4 relay," Tali added, "and data relating to this ship. Encryptions, codes, IFF signals."

"I suspect they may be of some use in navigating the relay," EDI informed.

"We're almost done," Tali said. "I think we've picked through all the data that is available here, now."

"Good. Let me know when you're done. How's the drone problem coming along, EDI?"

"There is some slight complication," the AI replied. "This ship appears to hold a larger complement of drones than we had initially anticipated."

"It's no problem," Joker interrupted confidently. "It'll just take slightly more time, that's all."

"Don't take any more risks than you have to, Joker."

"Yeah, yeah."

Victoria shook her head. "Well, don't have too much fun. Everything's quiet here, so we'll be making our way out soon. Tali'll be sending you coordinates for the nearest location you can pick us up at."

"Got it, Commander. I'll have Goldstein spin up the shuttle as soon as I've mopped up the rest of these things."

They were halfway back to the designated pickup point when a rumbling shudder ran suddenly through the length of the ship. The already dim lights flickered, for a moment going out.

Victoria looked up in alarm. "What was that?"

"Whatever it is, I think we have outstayed our welcome here," August suggested. "Let's move, quickly."

As Joker had said she would be, Goldstein was waiting for them, and with the shuttle, surprisingly, was Maeteris.

"Did you get everything you wanted?" Victoria asked her as they approached and began piling into the shuttle.

"Almost."

"Almost?"

Maeteris did not reply as she stepped into the Kodiak. Victoria followed her, and soon they were returning to the Normandy. They were barely halfway there when there was a bright flash behind them. Victoria turned, looking into a nearby screen that was linked to the shuttle's rear cameras. A series of detonations was erupting throughout the length of the Collector vessel, blowing out chunks of the ship's outer hull.

"What did you do?" Victoria asked Maeteris.

"Primitive engines so easily fall apart. So many things to go wrong, and fate is whimsical indeed. Improbability can so quickly become certainty given enough encouragement."

Victoria returned her gaze to the screen, just in time for the engines at the rear of the ship to erupt in a great ball of expanding fire. Slowly and silently, the ship shook itself apart, until it was little more than a field of drifting debris against the blackness of space.

Victoria let out a deep breath, leaning back in her seat. "That's one down, at least. Now, if we could do the same to all the other Collector ships, things would be much easier. You know, August, I think there may be some merit to the boarding tactics you've spoken of so much."

"It usually does work," the big man muttered. "And with small and relatively unarmored ships like these, even if boarding attempts get repelled, you're likely to do enough damage to take a ship out of a fight."

"It is one way to get past kinetic barriers, I suppose. As long as you can convince enough suicidal people to shuttle over, that is."

The Normandy, Victoria saw as they drew closer, had fared rather well. Apart from a few minor scorches in various places on its hull, there was, fortunately, not much other discernible damage that Victoria could see.

"No need to wait around," Victoria told Joker as Goldstein set the shuttle down and the hangar doors closed. "There's nothing left for us here."

"Got it, Commander. I'll get us to the nearest relay."

"I'm going to take a look through some of the data that we pulled from the ship," Tali said, already making her way to the elevator. "There might be useful things in there."

"That might not be a bad idea. Let me know if you find anything."

"Look over the files I marked first," Kasumi told her. "I saw something about IFFs when I was glancing over the data. EDI pulled something along those lines, too, but I'll leave all that up to the both of you. I'm going to be in my room if you need me."

"Commander," EDI said then, "Yeoman Kelly's asked me to inform you that the Illusive Man is on the line."

"Really?" Victoria sighed. "Not even a moment for me to clean up? Fine. I'll take it in the comms room."

The Illusive Man, as he always did, sat placidly in his chair, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.

"Commander," he said briskly. "Your trip into the Collector ship was successful, I trust?"

"I see that you've already heard about that."

"Information is my weapon. Incidentally, that is why I raised the issue. There are very few people who gather information faster than I do, and none of them should be on your ship."

"Evidently, that is not the case."

"Indeed. It is not a situation that I often find myself in. That said, I'm glad that the alien is on humanity's side for now. I suggest you have a plan for her. Few enemies are as dangerous as those who understand the power of information."

"Maeteris is not a threat," Victoria told him confidently and firmly.

"Everything is potentially a threat, Commander, whenever power is involved."

Victoria folded her arms before her. "What do you want me to do, then?"

"Nothing, Commander. That is my concern."

"This isn't just an issue about information, is it? There are other information brokers in the galaxy. Why the fixation on Maeteris? Is her visions really the concern here, or are you afraid of her other powers?"

"Lightning does not change the tide of wars in the space age, Commander. Her information-gathering channels are vastly different. Effortless, efficient. She sieves through piles of false and misleading data in the same amount of time it takes our most potent VIs to do the same, and she can draw accurate predictions of events with little to no supporting data, as we have all learnt from your trip to Horizon. That makes a very potent asset, Commander, the sort that can win galactic wars and dictate political movement and galactic opinion, the sort that could prop up and topple states."

"Maeteris is not going to appreciate being referred to as an asset, and I am inclined to agree with her."

"We are all assets, Shepard." There was a pause as the Illusive Man took a long drag of his cigarette. "Which side of humanity that asset falls on depends entirely upon your actions. Keep that in mind."

"Well, right now she's firmly on the side of anyone who's fighting the Reapers."

"And what of the periods after? If she ever gives more assistance to any power over a human one, then humanity is doomed, whether or not she actively works against us. That must not be allowed to happen."

"I don't know that 'allow' is the right word for this," Victoria remarked. "And I am not going to have much luck chaining her to the wall. If you would take some advice, all of these preemptive measures would only turn her against us sooner."

"I'll take that into consideration, Commander. One more thing. I understand that you have been given the manufacturing specifications for the new laser rifles. I trust that you understand the burden placed on you that possession of this new technology brings."

"It is always humanity against everyone else with you, isn't it?"

"The aliens will always hold their interests above humanity's. We must do the same. For once, the politicians in the Alliance have the same idea. If the Alliance wanted the other powers to have the weapons, they wouldn't be holding it so closely to their chests. The same goes for new military hardware all across the galaxy. The turians have their thanix cannons, the asari their silaris armour. You yourself had only recently needed to use your Spectre clearance to get your hands on the specs for those. And then there's all the other weapon systems projects everyone is working on. The Krysae, the Acolyte project. The salarians have some new smart explosive we haven't even been able to find the name of. All these weapons are being field-tested as we speak. I don't demand they share those technologies with us. Everyone needs new weapon projects to stay ahead of the competition."

"And so you're saying that we should not share the laser weapon specs either."

"I'm saying that we finally have chips in the game. Don't be so quick to squander them."

Victoria nodded. "I'll take that into consideration."

-www-

The Illusive Man sighed as he terminated the call, snuffing out his cigarette and taking a long sip from his glass. He had anticipated that the Commander was going to be a problem before the Lazarus Project had been ordered. Her idealism was simply based upon unrealistic perceptions of galactic politics. But this new alien, this eldar, had thrown even the most pessimistic of his predictions awry. Though her goals may align for the moment with theirs, the alien was both an enigma and unpredictable. He ran his thumb along the rim of his glass. Some time soon, she will have to be removed from the equation that she had so suddenly upsetted. From the reports he had read, the alien was not always friendly towards humanity, and the threat of her harming humanity if it suited her interests was high. The Illusive Man refused to take that chance.

Stifling an exasperated sigh, he tapped a couple of times upon a nearby computer, and a few moments later the holographic figure of a dark-haired man flickered into view.

"The timetable's been moved up," the Illusive Man said, cutting past any pleasantries. "Gather a few agents and start making preparations. You've read Lawson's files on the eldar, so take precautions. This would not be an easy target, if that eventuality ever occurs."

"I know what to do."

The Illusive Man nodded. "Good. Humanity's position in the galaxy and its survival is at stake. You have got a blank cheque on this one. Tact and subtlety are key, Kai Leng. Don't engage unless you have to. Good luck."

He terminated the call with a curt jab of his finger, taking another long drink from his glass. They had to be very careful here. Shepard, of course, was right about one thing. A mistake could provoke the alien into moving against Cerberus, or even humanity as a whole. For the first time in a long while, the Illusive Man found that he was lost for ideas. How was one supposed to plan for a foe with powers such as hers? That question gnawed heavily upon him. Humanity was already in a precarious situation, and should there be more aliens with such abilities, humanity's grip on galactic power would be tenuous indeed.

A flicker of movement at the edge of his vision caught his eye and the Illusive Man turned. A figure stood there, half-concealed in shadows – no, not just any figure, he soon realised. It was the eldar Maeteris. The Illusive Man straightened, an easy half-smile coming to his lips.

"Well, speak of the devil. How nice of you to pay a visit."

The eldar glanced at him for a moment before looking dismissively away, her eyes studying the room around him. The Illusive Man took the opportunity to study her in kind. The videos and photographic evidence of the alien had not done her true nature justice. On the surface she looked quite human, but there was an odd symmetry to her face that was unsettling, a smooth, unblemished perfection to her complexion that seemed more appropriate on a marble statue than a living being. Each movement that she took was just too fast, too precise, the turning of her head almost seeming like the movement of some demonic character from the many vintage thrillers of humanity's past.

"No one shows up here without having something to say," he finally remarked, tired of the silence.

The eldar turned, fixing him with a piercing gaze. "It was time that we met."

"Indeed." The Illusive Man's mind was racing. He had not been expecting this visit; by all accounts, the eldar was reclusive. But this could be an opportunity to learn something of her. After all, information was a key weapon.

Even as the thought crossed his mind, the eldar tilted her head. "Do you fancy yourself wise enough for that?"

"Information is power. I appreciate at least that much."

The eldar laughed, the tinkling sound somehow mocking. "Information only begets power."

"I don't see the difference."

The eldar smiled. "I come bearing a proposal. There is something I require, something that I am unable to reach from my place on the Commander's vessel. In return for your assistance, I will lend my aid in achieving your dreams."

The Illusive Man narrowed his eyes at her. Was she referring to helping humans ascend above the other aliens? Why would she help with this? Was it a trap, or was there some greater dislike that she held for the other aliens that no one yet knew about? Did she really think him so naïve to fall for such an obvious ruse? And yet, the proposal appealed greatly to him.

"I have read the reports, Maeteris. You are not looking for a partnership but a pawn. Humanity will not be made pawns."

The eldar nodded. "Yes," she said, not even attempting to lie. "And yet, few are offered the services of a farseer. You will be a pawn, but you will be the most useful – and is that not worth moving closer to the dominance that you seek?"

The Illusive Man swirled his drink around in his glass, trying to appear nonchalant.

Maeteris raised her right hand, holding up a glowing blue ornament in the shape of an unfamiliar rune.

"You will need this, should you make a decision. You will know what to do with it – eventually. Even a child would."

Then, before he could reply, the figure of Maeteris abruptly vanished, leaving the glowing ornament behind to clatter softly onto the floor.