Chapter 2, Fight Another Day

A strong grip held his upper arm and pulled him into the cargo bay. The Normandy moved beneath him, already pulling away from the ground before the door had even closed. Shepard looked up to see a familiar face, close cropped hair and tanned skin. He was even larger in combat armor than Shepard was used to seeing him.

"Vega?"

The young soldier smiled in acknowledgement. "Reporting for duty, sir. Welcome aboard."

"Should have known you'd have gotten yourself mixed up in this. The old girl does seem to attract the misfits."

"Never thought I'd be the one on the Normandy swooping in to save you. And I'm not sure how I feel about being called 'old girl'."

He turned rapidly on his heel at the feminine voice. Ashley Williams hadn't changed much except for quite a few promotions since they had first met on Eden Prime, though he noticed her dark hair was loose and long. Maybe she had changed. Horizon had certainly been a surprise, even if she'd apologized after the fact.

"Can't say I expected it either, Ash," he replied neutrally. "Glad to see the Normandy was in good hands."

Ashley arched one dark brow. "Was?"

He held up his tags for a moment before slipping them around his neck. "Seems like the Normandy and I were always destined to see this through together. Only fitting, we both came back from the dead together."

"Well it's... good to have you back. Sir."

"Glad to be back. Now we've got work to do," Shepard said, activating his omni-tool. "Joker?"

The pilot replied immediately. "Shepard! Give me a destination, because we are currently flying in very unfriendly skies."

"Take us out. Head for the relay," the former Spectre ordered sadly.

"Aye aye."

Vega looked shocked, while Ashley maintained only mild surprise. He could tell that she had already done the math as well and come to the same conclusion Anderson had. The battle for Earth had been lost before it began and the real war would begin as the survivors mounted their resistance against the Reaper occupation - a delaying action at best.

"Commander, you can't be serious? What about Admiral Anderson?" the lieutenant demanded.

"Anderson knows what he's doing. We've got a job to do and it isn't one that we can accomplish fighting a losing battle on Earth. Vega, I need you on top of the armory. There isn't going to be an Alliance resupply anytime soon. Tell me what we've got to work with."

"I-"

"Move, soldier!"

The lieutenant snapped a salute and headed away, deeper into the cargo bay. He was about to tell Vega that he was heading the wrong way when Ashley stopped him.

"Armory is down here now, Shepard. The Normandy is an Alliance ship and unlike Cerberus we know where to put all the guns. That place is not right next to the CIC," she said.

"Point. The SR-2 had some amazing design specifications but there were some things that never made any sense. Thanks for stopping me before I made an ass out of myself."

"I'll consider us even for you not mentioning Horizon yet," Ashley replied drolly.

He sighed. "Figured it would be rude, what with you saving my ass."

Motioning for her to follow he headed towards the elevator. In his head Shepard was trying to remember outposts in the Sol system, anywhere that might have survivors if the Reapers hadn't considered them a significant enough threat. Maybe they could get a few more out. Though where they would go he had no idea. Where was safe? How far had the Reapers advanced? How widespread were their forces - or how numerous for that matter?

"Shepard?"

He shook his head and looked over at Ashley, stepping into the lift. "What?"

"I said I'm okay with postponing the awkward talking until later if you are. But seems like you've already moved on anyways."

Any response was interrupted by a synthesized female tone and the appearance of a simple blue hologram. Despite himself he felt a smile tug at his lips.

"Commander Shepard. Admiral Hackett is attempting to contact the Normandy via the quantum entanglement communicator."

"EDI! You're still with us, good. I was afraid the Alliance techs would have tried to yank you out of the Normandy for study, or worse," he said in relief. "Tell Hackett I'm on my way."

"It is good to hear your voice as well, Commander. As I said when you first proposed turning yourself in, I am the Normandy. We cannot be separated. Besides, I have been more than capable of fooling a few Alliance techs."

Ashley was looking back and forth between him and the console in bewilderment. "What the hell?"

"Long story. Ashley, meet EDI. EDI, this is Gunnery - I mean Lieutenant Commander Williams."

"Hello Lieutenant Commander, it is good to be able to speak freely. Hopefully we can converse further at a later date. In the meantime could you please show Shepard to the war room as I believe he is not familiar with the changes to my layout," the AI responded. "Commander, we have cleared Earth's upper atmosphere and the Normandy's stealth systems appear to be functioning against the Reapers. We will be able to make the jump to FTL within the next five minutes."

"Understood, EDI. Thanks."

"There's been an AI on this ship the entire time and I didn't know it? I can't believe this," the soldier sighed, throwing up her hands.

"Things change, Ash. In our case a lot of things."

She nodded as the doors opened onto the CIC, stepping out and heading to the right. "That's for sure. Come on, through here. Most of the Normandy was left untouched when you turned her over, but some modifications were made to bring her more in-line with a standard Navy ship, that ridiculous armory placement for example."

"What's this about a war room, though?"

"Originally Anderson had intended to use the Normandy as a mobile command ship for when the invasion began. She has the best electronic countermeasures and stealth systems of any ship in the fleet, not to mention being fast, durable, and armed to the teeth. No military would ever spend the kind of money Cerberus did on a single ship like this... but since they did, he figured why not use it?"

"And here Admiral Mikhailovich thought the original Normandy was an 'over engineered boon-doggle'," Shepard said, following Ashley through the set of doors that had once led to Mordin's lab.

Things had certainly changed in this part of the Normandy. Instead of a small storage space there was a security checkpoint, two marines snapping to attention as they entered. Stepping through a scanner much like the ones he had encountered on the Citadel he heard a few faint beeps and one less pleasant sound. One of the marines hastily slapped a control and nodded.

"Sorry sir, it's just going off because of your cybernetics," she apologized hastily.

He waved it off. "Not your fault. As you were."

What had been Mordin's lab had become the newest briefing room, with the same table as before he noted. A final set of doors opened into a circular room that he realized must occupy the void above the core. At its center was a console displaying the galaxy map, and terminals ringed the room, all filled with data. Ashley led him to the back of the room where yet another addition had been made. This room was barely bigger than his quarters on the first Normandy but he recognized the holo-transmitters and displays.

"Mostly untouched, huh?"

Ashley shrugged. "What Anderson wants, Anderson gets."

"Patching Hackett in now, Commander," EDI's voice said over the intercom.

There was a burst of visual static, blue electric snow that slowly coalesced into the form of Admiral Steven Hackett. He was a familiar face, lined with years of responsibility but his eyes still showed the iron will of a man in his prime, undeterred by the gray that had overtaken his hair. The image jerked and sputtered, however, a testament to current conditions.

"Shepard! Good - see you back - action!" the admiral said, cutting in and out.

"Sir. What's our status?"

"Not good, C-," another burst of static nearly completely pixellated the man's image before snapping back into focus. "Overwhelming force. They - hard, everywhere! Second Fleet is gone."

"Dammit!" he cursed, slamming his fist into the console. "They're already on Earth, sir. We just got out."

"I'm rally - Fleet, Commander. Falling back to -. Have a mission for you," Hackett said. "Prothean research facilities on Mars, Dr - said they found something. Anything that can help us beat these - damn things is vital. Will contact you soon, Commander. Hackett out."

Shepard nodded, even as the connection cut out. Mars? All this time and now they found something? Either way, Hackett was right. If there was something it could be their best chance at stopping the Reapers. And the Normandy was one of the few ships in the galaxy that could get in and out even if there were enemy forces present. Time to stop waiting, then, and start fighting.

He opened his omni-tool. "Joker, get us to Mars. We've got work to do."

"Aye aye, sir."


Shepard slapped a thermal clip into the rifle before stowing at his back. He flexed his hands in the standard issue armor and shifted in place. Between six months stuck in a room and the custom armor he'd worn for most of his time aboard the Normandy it felt... stiff. Unfamiliar. He'd get used to it once the bullets started flying, he figured. Turning towards the young marine behind him in the shuttle he opened the squad comm frequency.

"Vega, you've never worked with me before. This isn't standard military operations. Small team, we move fast, we hit hard. We do not call targets or ask permission. We get the job done, we go home. You do what I tell you, when I tell you. If you've got a problem you bring it up after the mission."

The lieutenant nodded curtly. "Yes, sir."

"Guess this isn't a good time to bring up... the other stuff?" Ashley asked, readying her own assault rifle.

"Not particularly. We've had our issues, Ashley. Only thing that matters right now is if that's going to keep you from following my lead in a fight."

She shook her head. "I might not be clear on everything that went down, but I know better than to second guess you in a fight. Let's just pretend it's the old days, I'll make them angry, you pop them like a can of Tupari."

"Sounds like a plan, Lieutenant Commander," Shepard said with a small smirk.

"Never going to let me live down the officer thing after all the crap I talked on the SR1 are you?"

"That's a big negative, LC."

There were a few minutes of silence as the shuttle cut through the martian atmosphere, occasionally buffeted by the strong winds. There had been no Reaper presence detected on the planet - apparently Mars had been completely bypassed in favor of hitting Earth directly. Not surprising considering there was minimal military presence now and barely enough people to even be considered an outpost.

"We're almost at the drop point. No response from the outpost at all, I'm not even getting residual chatter," the pilot said. "I'll set you down by the entrance and be on standby if you need an evac."

"Thanks..." he trailed off.

"Cortez, sir. Steve Cortez."

"Well, I appreciate it, Cortez. But from what EDI could tell all of the evac shuttles are still on site. We'll use those to extract. I want you doing fly overs. Tell us if you see anything or pick up any survivors."

"Understood, sir."

The shuttle finally stopped, hovering in place for a moment before the doors opened to the vista of the Martian surface. Rocky red plains spread as far as the eye could see, finally terminating at rough peaks in the distance. Even through his helmet he could hear the howl of the wind. Jumping from the shuttle he felt it too, a strong buffet that made him sway slightly with its force. On the horizon was a dark wall of roiling sand, appearing to move with sluggishly across the plain.

"Holy crap," Vega exclaimed.

"Sandstorm. It'll be here within the hour and once it hits you won't be able to get so much as a radio burst out of this place," Ashley said. "Hell I'm already getting static on local comms. We get more than a few hundred meters from each other and it'll get messy even with the Normandy to boost the signal."

"Guess we have our time limit, then. Let's move."

The trio moved at a light jog through the upper part of the outpost, finding nothing at all of note. Rovers like the old Mako and even more ancient Grizzly models sat unused, supply crates left resting on pallets. Shepard once again scanned the radio frequencies but still picked up nothing. Something was definitely not right.

Ashley echoed his thoughts. "Maybe they evacuated?"

"The Reapers hit Earth before we even knew what happened. How would they have evacuated the entire facility in that amount of time?"

Speculation ended when the unmistakable crack of a mass accelerator weapon being fired overpowered the sound of rushing wind. It was quickly followed by more. Then it was just the wind once more. He motioned them forward, pulling the sniper rifle from his back and keeping low. It was a much lighter weapon than his old Widow, the Viper being more of a marksman rifle than a true sniper rifle. But it would have to do.

He saw movement ahead and slid into cover, back against a heavy metal container. When Shepard glanced around the corner he quickly found a new level of confusion. Soldiers in heavy, military grade armor were standing over the bodies of what could only be Alliance security from their uniforms. The insignia on the armor of the soldiers was unmistakable. Cerberus.

"What the hell is Cerberus doing here? And why would they be attacking us? What the hell ever happened to 'humanity first?" Williams hissed.

"No idea, but I've got a pretty good idea about why everything went silent," Shepard replied, taking another quick look.

Their armor might actually be heavier than the old Cerberus issue stuff that the SR2 had been stocked with after his resurrection thanks to Project Lazarus. Most of them were carrying Mattock heavy rifles, an older model but reliable and accurate. A few more had what he could only assume were SMGs, but they weren't any model he was familiar with. Whereas the Illusive Man seemed to have been restricted to a few black ops teams and mercenaries in the past, this looked more like a private army. Where the hell had he gotten one of those in the space of six months?

"Explains why no one is answering... they can't," James whispered. "I only see a few transports, though. This was a secure facility, it should have taken an army to get in."

Ashley glanced at him. "It means they had help from someone inside. What are we going to do?"

"What we came here to do in the first place," he responded coolly. "Flank right."

He stood and shouldered his rifle, the crosshairs dropping over the nearest of the soldiers. They didn't even notice him until his finger squeezed the trigger, the shot taking the man in the side of the head. There was a moment of hesitation before the Cerberus troops sprung into action, going for their guns and diving for cover. No special forces veterans, that response had been too delayed. More idealists, working for the wrong people for the right reasons? How many Kens, Jacobs, and Gabbys put on that armor?

The thought was pushed aside. Jacob would never have executed unarmed men. Professional soldiers or not, they had made their choice. A head popped up to scan the area. Shepard's rifle bucked against his shoulder once more and the trooper's head snapped backwards as he collapsed. Two more fell under a withering hail of weapons fire from Ashley and Vega, so intent in looking in his direction they had missed the simple flanking maneuver.

"I thought we'd taken care of security!" he heard one of the panicked soldiers blurt.

"Shut up! Fall back to the elevator!" another barked, this one with far more authority in his voice.

"Ashley, cut them off."

The only response he got was another set of screams as fire exploded between the soldiers and their fall back position. One of the troopers had been disabled by the blast itself while the others tried to go back the way they came. Shepard was already moving, rifle stowed at his back and pistol drawn, sliding behind the same crates their opponents had been using as cover moments before.

"Shit! Behind-"

Two quick shots from his pistol cut off warning. The man staggered backwards, gun tumbling from hands that grasped at the blood pouring from his chest. It seemed Cerberus' new armor was heavy, but didn't come standard with shields. He could almost hear the Illusive Man's cultured, cool response. 'Acceptable losses'. One of the remaining three managed to turn in time to get off a shot that went wide, gouging the cover he was using before flying backwards from the burst of dark energy Shepard sent flying his way. He landed a dozen meters away, crumpled like a doll.

A single burst from James' rifle cut the others down. He could hear the frown in the younger man's voice when he spoke. "What the hell? Did Cerberus send its B team or something?"

"You always leave the green ones to guard what you've already taken. Less chance of them getting into trouble that way," Ashley replied, pushing one of the bodies over with her foot and looking at him. "When did you become a biotic?"

"Long story, one that we don't time have for. We need to get whatever data they have here and get out. Something tells me we aren't going to find survivors."

Moving into the elevator Shepard activated his omni-tool, overriding the controls and triggering the system to lower them into the main facility. He could almost feel Ashley watching him, and when he turned his suspicions were confirmed as the newly minted lieutenant commander had fixed him with a stare.

"I have to know, Shepard."

He sighed. "Know what?"

"If you had any idea that this would happen. All that time with Cerberus and they didn't tell you about this?"

"How many times do I have to tell you, Ashley? I fought with Cerberus, not for Cerberus. And any mutually beneficial relationship ended when I blew the Collector base to hell. I've been stuck in a god damn detention center for the last six months. I haven't even been able to speak with my friends, much less the Illusive Man!"

Vega came to his defense. "He's right, LC. They've had Shepard under lock down, hasn't been able to get so much as a vid call. Hell, the only people that ever even visited were me and Anderson."

Ashley shook her head. "It's just hard. All the stuff we saw Cerberus do. I know I was out of line on Horizon but at the same time... how do we know they didn't get their claws into you some other way? Control you with all the crap they put in you to bring you back?"

"After all we went through hunting down Saren I thought you'd have known me better than that, Ash," he said tiredly. "If I knew what Cerberus was up to I'd be happy to tell you. The Illusive Man was a son of a bitch, but he always seemed to be dedicated to fighting the Reapers. I don't know why he'd hit us now."

"Either way I shouldn't have brought it up now. Sorry," she said.

"Yeah, this is definitely the most chatty spec ops team I've ever seen," Vega added.

"You'll find the Normandy to be a... unique experience, James."

"Figured as much."

The elevator hummed along with aching slowness. Shepard glanced between the two of them, one that still probably saw him him as a title and a reputation, the other that he was starting to think might never actually trust him again. In the end it was her problem to deal with. And Vega's would change in time, they always did once the shine wore off. The young marine had been one of the few friendly faces during his incarceration. Anderson had assigned him as Shepard's guard when he turned over the Normandy and he'd stuck around ever since.

Finally they reached bottom, stepping into the loading area of the research facility. The trio fanned out, covering the area but finding no Cerberus welcoming party. They had definitely not been expecting any real opposition, even if most of their soldiers were fairly green no commander would have left his rear so unprotected otherwise. A strange rumbling sound caught his attention, distant at first but growing louder. He snapped his aim upwards.

A vent exploded in shimmered blue light and went flying across the room, immediately followed by a lighter streak of Asari blue diving out of it. A burst of weapons fire came after, slicing through the space the asari had recently occupied. The woman rolled and twisted perfectly to her feet in a single fluid motion. Shepard's eyes widened in surprise but he didn't have time to say anything.

Two Cerberus soldiers came charging out of the large vent after her just in time to leap right into a swirling singularity, flailing in the air. There was a brief burst of weapons fire and both men went limp, falling to the floor as the field dissipated. Vega raised his rifle to cover the newcomer but Shepard slapped it down.

"She's with us, Lieutenant."

The asari turned, her expression immediately changing from a look of anger to a far more natural smile. "Shepard! Thank the goddess you're alive!"

She had quickly crossed the distance between them and threw her arms around his neck in a hug that he returned as best he could with a gun in one hand. Her next words spoken far more quietly.

"I am... so sorry about Earth. They moved so quickly even I didn't have the time to warn anyone."

"It's alright. You're not the one responsible for this mess. What are you doing here, though?"

"Anyone want to explain to the new guy what the hell is going on here?" Vega interrupted.

The asari flushed slightly and stepped away, composure returning immediately as she inclined her head at Vega. "Dr. Liara T'soni. And at the moment what's going on here is a Cerberus invasion."

"Why are you here though? Shouldn't you be... you know, on a certain very stormy planet?" Shepard asked.

"A... very long story, but I am here researching the Prothean archives. Didn't Admiral Hackett tell you?"

He shook his head. "The connection was barely holding up, it probably got cut off. The long stories will have to wait for later. We've got the mother of all sandstorms coming in and I doubt the Reapers will leave Mars alone for long. Hackett said you might have found something?"

"Many things. One of which is a device that the Protheans believed could stop the Reapers. But we need to get to the archives, and quickly," Liara added. "Cerberus knows what we've found and I suspect the Illusive Man wants it."

Ashley chuckled darkly. "Something powerful enough to deal with the Reapers? You'd better believe Cerberus wants it. And doesn't want anyone else to have it."

"Indeed, which is why we have to get the data first."

Snapping a fresh thermal clip into his gun Shepard smirked. "Then let's go screw up Cerberus' plans. It'll be just like old times."


Cerberus had been considerably less well equipped in the 'good old days' Shepard thought, biotically lifting a trooper off his feet just in time for Liara to hit him with a push from the opposite direction, the explosive interaction of the two fields sending the unlucky soldier smashing into a wall at extreme speed. A few feet away Ashley cracked the last of their opposition with the butt of her rifle and sent him tumbling over the railing.

He'd sent Vega back to commandeer one Cerberus' assault shuttles to extract with while he'd pushed forward with Ashley and Liara. Already he'd learned that Cerberus had changed drastically even from the barely palatable brand of 'at any cost' extremism that Shepard had become familiar with. It had been one of the newest researchers, Dr. Eva Core, that had been Cerberus' agent. She had ruthlessly vented the atmosphere in most of the facility while also disabling internal security, letting the strike force take the Alliance soldiers completely by surprise.

"Just through here," Liara said, gesturing at the heavy doors at the end of the hall.

Ashley nodded in relief. "About time, we're cutting it close."

"Don't we always," he replied drolly.

"True. I still can't believe what Cerberus is doing to their own people... what ever happened to helping the human race?" the soldier asked, popping the mask on another of the dead soldiers. "Every one of them..."

The man's face was a nightmare. Blue-black lines of synthetic material stretched out from his now lifeless eyes, skin pale and drawn, lips blue. Tiny reflective flickers could be seen in his skin and more lines traced their way farther back into the helmet beyond what could be seen. It was all too eerily reminiscent of Saren... or a husk.

"Just makes it clear that Cerberus won't be an ally in this war. I warned the Illusive Man about the risk of Reaper technology. That it couldn't be controlled."

Liara opened the console and began to access the archive. Almost as soon as she did, however, one of the holographic displays nearby shimmered to life. The scanner pulsed once and a far less welcome familiar face appeared with his piercing eyes and silver hair. As always there was a cigarette held between two fingers.

"Shepard. I should have known."

"Illusive Man..." Liara muttered. "Now we know why Cerberus is here."

"You know nothing, T'soni. The Protheans left us this data, with a wealth of information... that's been squandered by petty bureaucrats and fools."

The former Spectre fixed the hologram with a glare. "What do you want?"

"What I've always wanted. The data in these archives holds the key to ending the Reaper threat."

"By doing what? Turning your people in monsters? Doing the Reapers' job for them?"

"Not made into monsters. Improved. Faster, stronger... that's what separates us, Shepard. You see a chance to destroy the Reapers; I see the chance to harness that power. To push humanity to the next step of our evolution."

"The Reapers aren't a means to an end! They are the end!" Shepard yelled.

"To you, maybe. You can't defeat the Reapers - they're too powerful, too numerous."

"Not alone, but I can fight them. And with help I can beat them," he said. "Give me access to your resources, you have men, ships... technology far ahead of the Alliance standard. Work with me and we can stop this cycle."

The ghost of a smile appeared on the Illusive Man's lips. "I believe you would do better than most, Shepard. But the odds aren't in your favor. And in the end I don't want the Reapers destroyed, not when we can use their power to assure humanity's place in the galaxy."

"No. With that data I intend to rid the galaxy of these machines once and for all. No more cycles. No more greater powers pulling the strings, deciding who lives and who dies!"

"Your vision is pathetically limited. As a tool you were a useful one; you stopped the Collectors. You even destroyed the Alpha Relay, something I never thought you'd do. I'm proud of you for making that choice. But I won't have your single-mindedness get in my way. Do not interfere with my plans, Shepard. I won't warn you again."

He snarled. "Go to hell."

The transmission cut out, leaving them alone once more in the archive room. Liara spoke up suddenly, sounding frantic.

"Shepard! The data!"

"What about it?" he asked.

"It's not here. It's... it's being erased. Someone on the inside... go, right side, terminal room! Hurry!"

They were already running, turning and dashing into the next room before finally sliding to a stop with weapons raised. In the room a single woman with short, dark hair stood at a terminal unmoving.

"Stop! Step away... slowly," Shepard ordered.

There was a brief pause. And then she moved with blinding speed, flipping backward and catching him with a kick to the chest that sent him flying into the wall behind him. Liara and Ashley both opened fire but the woman moved with amazing grace, while the few rounds that managed to strike her stopped dead as her shields flashed to life. Before they could get a proper aim she had taken off running down the corridor.

"What in the hell?" Ashley barked.

"That was Dr. Core! The Cerberus spy. She must have the data, we cannot let her escape!" Liara replied. "She already erased everything from the mainframe, she has the only copy!"

Shepard groaned and pushed himself to his feet, wincing. She had hit him hard enough that he'd have bruises under the armor tomorrow. Not to mention she was somehow hiding military grade kinetic shields under a science uniform. That was one hell of a spy. He didn't give it further thought, however, as they bolted after the fleeing traitor. Even going all out they were barely keeping up, though, with Dr. Core bounding over obstacles like an olympic runner.

"Come on, we can't lose her!" he yelled, opening his comms. "Vega! Do you copy?"

"Loud and clear, Commander."

"Lock onto my signal, we need evac and support now! We're pursuing a Cerberus infiltrator, she cannot be allowed to escape."

"Understood, on my way," the marine replied.

It wasn't long until they found themselves outside. The winds were howling, thick red dust making it increasingly harder to see into the distance as the storm bore down on the facility. Core leapt up a maintenance ladder, barely touching the steps as she made her way onto the roof. A Kodiak shuttle painted white and black streaked overhead. He watched as it slowed and turned, coming in for a landing while he pulled himself up the ladder.

He fired as best he could while chasing her but the pistol rounds simply impacted her barriers with each shot, not even slowing her down. The shuttle door opened, letting her leap inside. His companions let loose with their own bursts of fire but it merely peppered the side of the small craft with scars and scratches.

"Dammit!"

Before he could begin to lament their failure, though, another shuttle appeared, Alliance blue and moving at combat speed. Shepard was confused for a moment before he figured it out, just in time to grab Liara and Ashley, yanking them back. The shuttle slammed into the Cerberus craft with a deafening boom, skipping off the top and spinning once before righting itself shakily. Vega certainly wasn't one for half measures.

The Cerberus ship fared far worse, the impact sending it crashing straight into the side of the facility and rolling across the roof, engulfed in flames for a moment before the lack of oxygen snuffed them out. He helped up Liara, while Ashley was already moving towards the shuttle.

"I'll see if the data survived, I don't think anyone could have survived that crash," she shouted back.

"Alright! Vega, land that thing before it falls out of the sky!"

"Working on it, sir!"

The shuttle came to a rough landing on the roof behind them, grinding to a halt. He waved at Vega, shooting a quick message to Cortez for a pick up. Then behind him he heard a strange thud. And then another. And another. He turned just as he heard the sound of tearing metal and watched the door of the Cerberus ship fly off, narrowly missing Ashley in the process. Out of the smoldering wreck stepped a female form, covered in ash and with glowing blue eyes.

"Goddess! It's not a spy... it's a machine," Liara gasped. "That's why she was so strong."

Ashley raised her weapon and fired even as the synthetic charged, getting off three rounds that struck it right in its center of mass, but the impacts barely slowed it. An attempt to bring the pistol down on the machine's head ended with a strangled cry of pain as it grabbed the soldier's wrist, yanking it away and then wrapping it's other hand around Ashley's neck, lifting her off her feet.

"No!" he roared, dashing forward.

But the Cerberus machine was holding Ashley between them and he couldn't get a clear shot. The thing that had been posing as Dr. Core seemed to pause, letting go of its captive's wrist and letting the gun fall away, reaching up to touch the side of its head. The machine nodded once and spun, hurling the soldier straight at the downed shuttle with bone shattering force. Ashley hit the metal with a thud, collapsing forward, even as the synthetic spy stalked forward to finish the job.

Shepard fired, emptying the magazine of the Predator into the thing's back. The shields that must have just come back online absorbed most of the fire but it was enough to get the machine's attention. It looked at him with dispassionate eyes and began to run straight for him, leaping the last few feet. Unfortunately her 'combat programming' hadn't even been updated to include Cerberus' last pet project.

He caught the overhand blow that would have broken another man's arm and yanked forward, slamming the synthetic into the ground. It kicked upwards but he was ready for the speed this time, pulling back just enough to avoid the blow before renewing his own assault. The sniper grabbed her wrist, much in the same way she had Ashley's, and spun her around.

"You're not the only one that's not the standard model," Shepard growled, yanking the knife from his belt and jamming it into the base of the machine's neck, just above the shoulders. There was a small spark... and then it dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

Shepard took a few deep breaths before letting go of the machine and running to Ashley's fallen form, already on his comm.

"I need an evac now and prep the medbay! We've got a soldier down!"

Liara was already there. "Shepard is she..."

He knelt beside her, opening his omni-tool and scanning her armor. It had injected emergency medigel and locked the armor joints to prevent possible spinal damage. The sensors showed a pulse, but it was weak and he could see blood leaking from her mouth behind her helmet.

"Still alive. Get James, get any medigel he has in the shuttle. Go!" he barked.

The asari nodded, running for the damaged Alliance craft while the sensor continued to pulse with weak, irregular beats. Shepard whispered, even if there was no one to hear.

"Come on, Ash. I don't care if you trust me or not but you're not going go out like this... you're a fighter. The galaxy is all screwed up, us Normandy types have to stick together. Stay with me..."

Overhead he saw the blue flash of the Normandy's shuttle and he gingerly lifted the fallen soldier. Moving her was a risk that he had to take. There was no help left on Mars, probably not even in the entire Sol system. He ground his teeth in frustration, his voice a strained hiss.

"Don't you die on me, Williams. That's an order."