The problem of the Ancients Chapter 2

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The problem of the Ancients Chapter 2

Postby Sailor Sedai (Ellf) » Sat Aug 09, 2014 5:09 pm

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The Problem of the Ancients
By Ellf
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Chapter Two: Tier...

Disclaimer: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a creation of Nintendo and Silicon Knights, and Mass Effect is a creation of BioWare, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts.

The horror... the Horrors... Twin abominations against any form of sanity stood down this hallway. Standing at fifteen feet tall, they easily towered over the bravest of Alliance marines. They were misshapen, hulking bipedal creatures, reminding Shepard of the huskified combination of turian and krogan known as the Brute. Only these had a biology that made no sense even as a nightmare. Their skin, green and made of a sinuous substance, and three eyes! They had three visible eyes, and their eyelids were lined with what looked like teeth. What manner of mind could have created such a beast? They weren’t Reaper-born. No. There were no cybernetics, no way to rationalize these... things. They shouldn’t exist! But they did.

Eyes! Rot their eyes...! Their staring sees through your soul like looking through a window... And the lids... festooned with tiny, hook-like teeth... that gape and gnash... It doesn’t make sense... no anatomy would form like that... but it has! Was it natural? How could it be? Oh unholy beast, thou must be killed, lest you corrupt my world! Have at thee! HAVE AT THEE...

Alliance marines fired wildly at the pair of beasts at the end of the hallway, but the creatures seemed to have some sort of barrier on them. With each bullet that struck, a crackle of electricity could be heard, and a vaguely green field appeared, and when a marine worked up the courage to approach and attempt to attack directly, the beasts struck with their arms, sending marines flying. What looked like bolts of green electricity jumped from leg to arm to arm of the creatures, and somehow, they cocked their bodies back on their digitigrade legs and their eyelids flittered as they let out a roar.

The roar chilled Shepard to her bones, but she steeled herself. This was no different from fighting a Banshee.

No different from fighting a huskified Ardat-Yakshi, yeah, there’s a lovely thought.

Shepard knew not to approach. Instead, she signaled to Jones to take a position on the opposite corner of the hallway entrance. Six soldiers remained behind cover further into the hall. Each of them had better weapons than she did, but that wasn’t what she cared about. The barrier. That had to go first. The marines seemed to be firing without regard to which they were firing at. That couldn’t work with big creatures like this. Not with these weapons anyway. Banshees and Brutes had to be taken out via focus fire... or with missiles, but she didn’t have those.

Shepard threw a glance at the fallen bodies. Lovely, there laid the body of the CO, and she couldn’t get close enough to it without being in the line of fire of the Horrors.

Then it happened. One Horror moved. Something that size should not have managed to get any form of speed going, but it charged the nearest grouping of soldiers at speeds that rivaled that of rampaging krogan.

“Fall back!” Shepard called out to the marines. “Get your asses out of its reach, marines!”

The bulk of the marines listened, and five of them managed to make it back to the corner of the hallway with Shepard and Jones. The sixth marine started to run, and while he was out of reach of the Horror’s lengthy arms, something else struck him instead. The second Horror sent out a burst of the green lightning which snaked along the ground toward the marine, and upon striking him, ran up his body, making his own eyes glow green for a second before he collapsed to the ground.

Shepard winced on seeing that, but turned to the marines who managed to make it. The remainder of the marines who did make it weren’t much better off. Physically they were fine, but she could see that the presence of the creatures... affected them. She could see it in their faces, hear it as they shivered. The hall hushed itself to hide its secrets, but she heard it too.

One of the marines seemed to notice that she was the one who ordered them back. He approached her. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing? You could have gotten us all killed! You’re not authorized to give orders!”

Shepard looked at the man impassively. “I’m the woman who just saved your asses... and I’m the woman who’s going to get you all out of here alive.” Another roar echoed down the hallway. “Now down that way is all kinds of hell and death, but if we don’t face it, who will? This is Arcturus Station, seat of the Alliance government, and I will not let those things destroy it. When you signed up, you swore an oath to protect the Alliance from threats and serve its interests. Well, that down there? It’s one hell of a threat.”

“And you intend on us getting out alive?” The marine asked.

“Listen to me and you will. The creatures have some sort of barrier around them, biotic or otherwise, but barriers can be overcome. Focus your fire on one of them, and aim for the eyes. Those are an obvious weak point. Shoot out the eyes, it can’t see, and who knows? Maybe its brain will get destroyed. Focus on the closer one first, then get the second. Stay out of reach, and watch for the lightning. It doesn’t have any ranged weapons that I can see beyond the lightning, so keep mobile.” Shepard ordered. The marine nodded, and his head rolled down onto the floor.

“Ma’am, yes ma’am.” The marine’s voice came from the head on the floor, and his body moved into position.

Shepard shook her head and muttered under her breath. “This isn’t really happening... It isn’t....” And the marine’s head was back on his body.

She took her own position. “Marines, ready! Close target, fire at will!”

Assault rifle fire filled the hallway, but in directed bursts this time. They were going to wear down the barrier of the creature, however large it was. Each bullet bounced, almost consistently causing the barrier to flare up. As Shepard fired her own weapon, she aimed for the eyes. Damn their eyes. The barrier changed color slightly after five seconds of continuous fire from seven weapons and faded completely after another two. The bullets were striking true now, causing the creature to bleed its ichor-like blood. Shepard’s shots found their target in its left and center eyes, while someone else managed to get its third. The Horror fell to the ground with its eyes destroyed, and though it squirmed, it was most definitely dead or dying.

There was something to be said about having a squad of marines with you rather than leading a three-man squad. Upon the downing of the first Horror, without even having to give the order, fire switched to the second. Shepard moved into the hall as they fired, and she joined her own fire to theirs on getting her better angle. She still remained a bit unsteady on her feet, but her aim remained true. Once the second Horror had fallen, Shepard managed to reach the squirming body of the first.

She lowered the muzzle of her gun toward the still-squirming creature’s head and fired four shots point-blank. The squirming stopped, and the body began to disappear. She slowly approached the second and repeated the process.

“There are still invaders on the station, marines! Go find them, and deal with them. Jones... we need to get to...”

Shepard collapsed forward, unconscious.

*************

The forest smelled of freshly fallen rain, though the light remained as dim and omnipresent as ever. The trees reached out toward her, grasping at her with their branches like the hands of all those she had failed to save. Those whom she had failed to protect as was her duty. Shepard had warned everyone about the Reapers, but by the time they listened, it had been too late. The Reapers were there, and she’d barely escaped Earth in time. Many others hadn’t.

There! A glimpse of brown hair. She could save him this time. She would save him this time. She just had to catch up to him. Reach out to him. She ran after the kid. Just needed to get close enough.

“Shepard... Have thought about your current state....” A breath in. “It is alarming...”

Shepard paused in the clearing she was in and turned around. A salarian standing about six inches taller than her dressed in a labcoat had appeared. A smile came to Andrea’s face.

“Mordin... it’s good to see you.” Shepard started... “But... you’re dead.”

“And my soul... such that it is... passed into the Wheel... Yes, yes Shepard. Situation is... troublesome. But talking for you now.” Mordin smiled at her.

“What do you mean?”

“Appear to have traveled back in time. To an alternate universe even. Even are younger... Why?” Mordin asked. “Situation should not exist. Should be dead with me when Crucible fired. Reapers dealt with, Earth safe. It is 2177 again but two Shepards...” Mordin breathed in sharply. “Galaxy will not survive.”

Shepard glared at the salarian. “Be serious.”

“Am serious. Deadly so. Recursion paradox should not let two Commander Shepards exist together. Maybe that’s why he’s male. Do not breed with him... would not be safe.”

Shepard shook her head. “I wasn’t planning on it... though I’m not sure why I’m even in this situation.”

“Familiar with command, but more than Reapers to deal with.” Mordin closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, they glowed a brilliant golden. When he spoke, his voice deepened to a familiar tone. “Shepard. The Reapers were created to protect organic life. The cycles were the most efficient way of saving them. Through your destruction, we were your salvation.”

“No. No...” Shepard shook her head. This wasn’t right. Mordin wouldn’t... Harbinger couldn’t...

“We will save your race from the doom of its own making. You will be our instrument. You will be the savior.”

Shepard shook her head again. This was a dream. It had to be a dream. Mordin couldn’t be here. Harbinger couldn’t be here. It had to be a dream... and all she had to do was wake up. Yes. Wake up from the dream. It wasn’t really happening so she could wake up from it. All she had to do... was

Wake “..up!” Shepard sat up in the bed with her lover.

“Andrea... are you okay?” The soft feminine voice of Liara came from where she lay.

“Just... an odd dream, Liara.” She laid back down and cuddled up to her asari mate. The bed’s feather softness comforted her along with being in her mate’s arms.

“Can you tell me about it?” Liara asked, and Shepard found herself explaining everything that happened to her since the Crucible fired, and as she did so, her eyes roamed the room. Out the window, she could see a lovely tree of Thessian origin, planted so it could get the best possible sunlight. Though, of course, it was nighttime now. The room itself was bigger than her quarters on the Normandy and she could see a few terminals set up nearby.

“... and then I forced myself to wake up... and I did.” Shepard said slowly.

“Yes... I can see how that sort of dream would be odd... Maybe the hall where you found the book had statues of those who had it before you... those who had fallen in their fight.” Liara’s voice started to become a little modulated. “The Tome of Eternal Darkness bears a curse for its wielders... Death is the only option for those who stand against the oncoming tide....”

Shepard blinked and looked at her lover... whose skin had turned from its normal shade of blue to a brilliant green... and her lips peeled back to reveal her rows of teeth. Her fingers elongated into claws which she drove into Shepard’s stomach. Andrea couldn’t help but watch as her lover’s face warped into an amalgam of a banshee and the abomination known as a Horror. An eye opened up on what had been Liara’s cheek as she leaned forward.

“Now, my lover....” The thing that had been Liara began with the modulated voice, but finished in a whisper. “The Darkness... shall be... eternal....”

******************************************

Shepard’s heart nearly beat out of her chest as she shot into wakefulness. Gasping for air, she pat down the front of her body. No holes. None. It was a dream. Just a dream.... Shepard focused on her breathing to calm herself down. God, she hadn’t handled a dream that poorly since around boot camp. Ah, right. Looked like thatpart wasn’t a dream.

She looked around the area. The familiar sight of an infirmary greeted her. Though she had some monitors attached to her, she was happy to find out that the only life support item she had was an IV.

Shepard noted shortly after that she wasn’t alone in the room. The other beds remained curtained off, but she could clearly see an older woman sitting in a chair nearby, watching her. The woman’s hair, though tied back into a bun, was clearly red, and she wore an officer’s uniform identifying her as a Lieutenant Commander in the Alliance Navy. The woman’s facial structure was familiar to Andrea; her cheekbones matched Andrea’s own. Their eyes were even the same color. This woman... Shepard stopped that thought in its tracks. She grew up on Earth, an orphan. She joined the Reds to survive in the streets of Vancouver, and she joined the Alliance on her own. She never had a mother. Never needed one.

“I was waiting for you to wake up.” God, the woman even sounded similar to her. Not the same, obviously, but there were shared tones in the voice. “I don’t know if you know who I am...”

“Lieutenant Commander Hannah Shepard, I suppose. I’m told we’re related, ma’am.” Though she technically was higher ranked going by the point in the timeline she came from, Andrea knew her rank at this point in the timeline would have been Lieutenant at best. Plus, there was no need to be rude.

“Yes. I have also been told of our relation. You would think I would remember giving birth to a daughter, especially one as talented but reckless as you.” Hannah Shepard said with a smirk. Andrea knew that smirk. The woman was teasing her.

“Well, you work with what you have.” Shepard said with a shrug. “Wasn’t really expecting the station to get attacked, but I couldn’t just sit by and let terrorists or whatever take it when I could do something.”

“You took a dead soldier’s gun, amp and omni-tool and proceeded to break your wheelchair using a strenuous biotic technique. I hear you also shorted out the amp using it.” Hannah Shepard said.

“Well, yes... Anderson wouldn’t let me have a gun... and apparently my own amp was fried when they found me.” Shepard started to explain.

“You also gave commands, as a civilian, to a group of marines. You could have endangered their lives and your own.” Hannah said. “However, due to the extenuating circumstances regarding your origins, combined with your performance in a combat situation that you were thrust into, it has been decided that, pending passing the certification tests, you will be instated as an N operative at a rank based upon your age and how well you perform on the certification tests. The highest rank that you could feasibly get is a Staff Lieutenant at an N7 rating.” Hannah Shepard smiled. “Given your genetics and how you seem to have been trained, that should be trivial to you.”

Andrea found herself at a bit of a loss for words. She had hoped to get back into the military, but she hadn’t expected it to happen this soon. “Uh... thank you? How did this get pushed through?”

“It helps when you have an Admiral to back you up.” A male voice answered, and an older man dressed in Alliance blues walked in. The bars on his hat marked him as Admiral, and his gray goatee was kept nice and trim. Both women saluted the man upon his entry into the infirmary. Admiral Steven Hackett had Shepard’s respect from the moment she’d heard of him.

“At ease, please. “ As Andrea relaxed, she laid back on the slightly raised bed she was in. “Shepard... Andrea Shepard, your performance had been highly spoken of by those whom you commanded. You seem to have an innate talent for leadership, one that I would like to help grow. Captain Anderson has told me of how he and his crew found you and what you were wearing at the time. I believe there is more to you than what has been assumed, given your age.”

“Sir, you have no idea how right you are.” Shepard began, but Hackett held up a hand.

“Right now, you need to focus on getting better. You will be debriefed by Captain Anderson, Lieutenant Commander Shepard and I when you are cleared for duty by Doctor Chakwas. Your report will be classified and deemed need to know only, but understand that I want a full report, Shepard. I want to know how you came to where Anderson found you, and what you can tell us about your origins.” Hackett ordered.

“How will we be handling my origins here?” Andrea asked. “Since I don’t seem to exist at all...”

Hannah spoke up. “Officially, you’re my niece who was born and raised on Mindoir until it was attacked seven years ago. Your parents, my brother and sister-in-law, were killed in the attack, and we thought you were too. Captain Anderson officially found you in the wreckage of a slaver’s ship that he destroyed.”

“So I’m legally your niece?” This wasn’t altogether a bad thing. She never really had much family outside her crew, and they weren’t here at the moment, despite some dreams. “That’s.... thank you.”

Hannah simply came up and hugged her, as a mother would her child... as Andrea had imagined getting hugged by her own mother. It didn’t take long before she returned the hug. Of course... they were interrupted by the clearing of a throat, Hackett’s.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your bonding moment, but I just wanted to clarify one last thing for Andrea. In the reports Doctor Chakwas gave about you, Shepard, and given the rank you introduced yourself with, standard Alliance time travel protocols do apply.”

Andrea nodded. “Yes, sir, I understand.”

“Good, now I have duties to attend to. We’ll arrange a time for your debrief once Chakwas clears you.” Hackett saluted both Shepards and he left the room.

Hannah released her pseudo-daughter from the hug. “I look forward to hearing about it. I always wanted a daughter, but after Michael’s father passed...”

Andrea nodded. “I understand... completely.” Thane. God, Thane’s death weighed on her for the past three months. Liara was helpful, but that drell would always have a place in her heart. She moved to attempt to get out of bed, only to be pushed back down by the older woman.

“No, you’re not getting out of bed until the doctor says that it’s okay. You overworked yourself during the invasion. You were still in recovery from your vacuum exposure; in addition, you were not consuming the requisite amount of calories for a combat operation given the amount of biotics you were using. You were lucky you didn’t pass out when you broke your wheelchair. Karin will be in shortly after she deals with her other patients. “ Hannah ordered. “I’m not having you hurt yourself further.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Andrea couldn’t help but comply. This was her... something... ordering her. There was so much she wanted to ask: who Michael’s dad was; what he did, what she did.... But none of those questions seemed appropriate at the moment.

Hannah Shepard glanced down at her omni-tool. “I have to go.”

Andrea nodded. “I know...”

“I’ll be seeing you later, Andrea. Count on it.” Hannah walked out of the room, leaving Andrea alone with her thoughts... and the book on the side table. Somehow these days, the Tome of Eternal Darkness was always within reach.

*****************************

During Andrea’s recovery time, a number of marines had come in to check on her. They all wanted to see the “little girl CO” for themselves. Some came in to thank her, and others came in just to satisfy their curiosity. For the most part, the marines were respectful, and those that weren’t were escorted out of the infirmary. Still, during this time, Shepard had time to read the Tome. It was full of arcane writings and magickal secrets, but that wasn’t what stood out to her today.

When I was a child, my great-grandfather used to tell stories about his grandmother being the savior of humanity, about how we should all stand up for what we believe in, to fight those who would destroy it. He told stories of Ancient horrors, Eldritch beings, and creatures from beyond. My parents, of course, dismissed such notions as simply stories. Humanity was alone in the universe, they said. It was impossible for such things to exist. Imagine how their surprise would have been had they survived to see what happened on Shanxi after we opened Relay 314. Imagine my own when I led a small team that found the artifact the turians were looking for. I thought that my great-grandfather was referring to the horrors we saw then. I was once a fool.

After the memorial of Ben Hislop and Eva Coré, the man who was once known as Jack Harper returned to Earth. An alien attempt at genocide of humans was inevitable, he had decided. So he returned to his ancestral home in Rhode Island, in the United North American States.

Harper had inherited the manor from his mother’s side of the family, being the only still-surviving heir to the family fortune; he knew that he could leverage what was there toward funding his new endeavor, his guard against destruction. Humanity needed an army, and an army needed to be funded. Jack Harper wasn’t stupid. The Roivas manor would be a good place to start for the seed money.

The manor had a part-time staff that kept it from falling into disrepair, who kept the original finish up to code and they’d done a wonderful job of keeping it how he remembered it. The front doors of the manor opened up into a lovely foyer which had twin curved staircases leading to the second floor. Jack remembered going there as a child.

Jack tried a light switch, but the lights remained dim. Activating the omni-tool’s light on his right hand, he made his way toward the basement. The circuit breakers were down there. He went down the hall to the right of the staircases, giving only the slightest of glances at the table clock along the way. The hands were stuck at 3:30-something again. He’d have to wind it when he got back up.

Jack opened the door and made his way down the steps to the basement. Darkness permeated through the room below, but Jack had a light. He illuminated the way to the box and flicked the switch. A jolt of electricity came from the wall as lights began to flicker on... A bolt of... something... burst behind a bookcase nearby, knocking it over. It fell hard, cracking a plaster cover on the floor... covering a wooden trapdoor.

Jack’s curiosity piqued, after returning the bookcase to an upright position, he removed the plaster from the trapdoor, exposing it to the lights above. The lights flickered....

“Jaaack....”

He shook his head. He didn’t survive First Contact to let himself be scared by nothing. He opened the door, revealing a spiraling staircase downward. He descended the stairs which led to a cavern opening. He left the light on his omni-tool on to illuminate the way, and he pressed onward.

The opening of the cavern led to a carved staircase along the walls heading down further. The remains of what might have been something human once littered the way down, and Jack instinctively clutched at his sidearm. Something wasn’t quite right here. Still, the corpses, little more than desiccated skeletons at this point remained lying on the floor. He didn’t know what he had expected, but he continued to press onward.

“Come to me.... Jack... Harper...”

The lifeless wind whispered his name as he continued his trek downward and inward. The stairs led to a bridge over a ravine, and Jack gasped upon seeing what was below. A city sprawled out beneath him, architecture molded by hands unknown.

“Come to me...”

The wind whispered again, and Jack continued onward. The massive gate before him was wide open, and it was no trouble to pass through it. The stares of the long dead were on his person as he entered the city, following the main road of the ruins. The road led past blocked entryways and towers lined his vision as he continued straight ahead.

This city... The architecture resembled nothing he’d seen from humans. Was it perhaps Prothean? Something before humanity had risen? If so, how could he use it to the advantage he needed to help humanity take its place among the stars?

“Jack... Harper...”

The wind whispered his name again, but he felt no air on his skin. Perhaps the ruins just creaked, but it didn’t matter. He continued onward, toward the end of the road where he could see an open entrance. He entered the building, undeterred by any fear or angst. He couldn’t very well illuminate the galaxy for humanity if he was afraid to approach.

He entered the building, which led to what looked like an altar of sorts. Three pedestals surrounded the altar, and on each pedestal was a curved glass display case. The cases were coated in dust, but deliberately placed upon the pedestals for whatever reason. The hairs on the back of Jack’s neck stood up as he approached one of the cases... and an arc of static electricity zapped him from the altar.

Jack stumbled into the circle at the center of the pedestals... and suddenly, he found himself elsewhere. The platform he found himself on extended about fifteen meters in every direction, give or take adjustments for corner length, and it was decorated almost ritually. It was almost like he had been transported via relay, but there was no sense of movement. This was true teleportation. If he could figure out how it was done, humanity would definitely have a leg up.

He let his gaze wander the platform, and it fell upon another corpse. This one was better preserved than the others he’d seen, though it still was skeletal and missing its face. It wore the outfit of a Roman Centurion, and it lay propped up against the railing. Next to it, a staff made out of some sort of bone, remarkably preserved, sat upon the ground. Jack reached for it and then swore an oath as he somehow cut his hand on the staff.

Jack stood up, taking the staff with him and gazed upon the city below. A skeletal hand was placed on his shoulder, as the corpse behind him stood up, eyes glowing green. The pair looked out over the city. Pondering.

My family has been the savior of humanity from the dawn of it. Together with the resources granted by Augustus, humanity will be able to take its rightful place as rulers among the stars. The army we will build will be the Cerberus of Charon, guarding against those who would pass through the river Styx. I will Illuminate the threats against humanity and direct this army as necessary. Fear us, oh aliens, for we are humanity. Face us, and you shall surely perish!

**********************************************

Thirty-three... thirty-four... Shepard’s body rose and lowered, levered by her left arm. The goal here was seventy-five on each arm. Once she reached that, she would be at the minimum she felt she needed to be at in order to perform her duties. Of course, given that she had yet to actually be assigned any duties... Well, she ignored that. Andrea wasn’t nearly as fitness obsessed as James, she kept herself good and above PT standards, but she didn’t spend every second of her day working out when on the Normandy.

Now though? Being in an infirmary was boring. Aside from reading the Tome, which was a little bit of a crazy experience, all she had that she could do was browse the extranet and watch some holovision. Of course, she had the occasional visitor, which she highly appreciated, but between those times and when Chakwas came to examine her, she was starting to get antsy.

Chakwas hadn’t cleared her for duty yet, despite Shepard feeling amazing. She felt better than she did even before her first death. For the first time in two years, she felt like a human being, not some potential Cerberus-controlled cyberbeast.

Seventy-four... Seventy-five.... there, that arm was complete. She switched arms and began the count anew. Shepard reviewed the facts as she knew them. Fact One, the Crucible was activated, and she’d chosen to sacrifice herself to save the galaxy from the Reapers. Fact Two, she was now somehow back in 2177, but there seemed to be an additional threat. Was this threat something that had always been there? Were the Reapers created for something more than what the Catalyst let on? Fact Three, despite everything, the Reapers were coming. That much she knew. In six years, Sovereign would attack the Citadel, allied with Saren. In eight, the Collectors would attack human colonies in the Terminus. In nine, the Reapers would begin their Harvest.

This was something she’d have to get across to Admiral Hackett at her debrief. The Reapers were coming, and the Alliance along with the other races of the galaxy needed to be prepared. But now there was something more. The Tome of Eternal Darkness made mention of Ancient evils not seen by those who could only see what they expected. Things unbound by the rules of reality. She’d seen them on the station: the zombies, the horrors. They shouldn’t have been real, but they were. The Darkness was coming, and she needed to be out there to face it.

Shepard had been so focused on her thoughts that she didn’t notice the door opening. Nor did she notice the approaching footsteps of her visitors. She focused deeply on her push-ups and her thoughts.

“Just what exactly do you think you’re doing, young lady?”

Shepard finished up her last two pushups before standing and pulling her gown down so she was more or less decent. Oh. Lovely. It was Hannah and Doctor Chakwas. Her mother’s tone easily was in a proper scolding mode. Of course, that didn’t stop her from gesturing to the ground and commenting, “Push-ups. You know, the thing where you use your arms to raise and lower your body. Great exercise.”

“You know what I meant, you’re not supposed to be doing anything like that without the Doctor’s permission...” Hannah said.

“Luckily for Andrea, I may be here to do just that. When Captain Anderson brought you to my infirmary, you were severely wounded, barely clinging to life. By all rights, given your injuries, you should never have been able to be up and about again, but you are. Right now, all tests indicate you to be a perfectly healthy young woman. The implants you have for your biotics all seem to be functioning properly, and you’ve been on a proper diet for a woman in your position.” Doctor Chakwas paused. “While I would like to try and figure out how you have managed to heal as quickly as you have, it would not be fair to you to keep you like that. Plus, we are not Cerberus. As such, I am able to give you a clean bill of health... and suggest to you a diet that you should stay on. In a normal day, you should be eating three to four thousand calories. Days where you use your biotics intensely, you should double that.”

Andrea Shepard nodded. “I’ll be sure to acquire a set of protein bars. They usually help.” She turned toward her mother. “So, why did you come along?”

“Well, given that Karin was going to discharge you today, I thought that you could use some clothing and a place to stay.” Hannah held up a bag. “You’re welcome to stay with me in my quarters. I have a second bedroom.”

Andrea blinked. The last time someone had offered her a place to stay anywhere had been when Anderson offered his place on the Citadel. Before that, she’d mostly stayed on the Normandy or in Alliance barracks, and this was her biological mother. Her mother was offering her the place to stay. “I... I’d like that, thank you...”

“Good. Now get changed soon. We should go.” Hannah handed Andrea the bag of clothes, and Andrea nodded and headed to the bathroom to get changed.

****************************

As Andrea entered her m-Hannah Shepard’s Arcturus apartment, she couldn’t help but make comparisons to the last couple apartments she’d been in. The apartment was smaller than both Anderson’s Citadel apartment and Liara’s Illium apartment. Funny how it took Liara being attacked by the Shadow Broker’s goons for her to even get a chance to see that apartment, but that train of thought led to sadness, best to focus on the now. Hannah’s apartment had only one floor, but it felt... perhaps cozy was the right word. Yes, cozy. The living room furniture was obviously hand-picked, with a bit of a retro feel. The cushions were lined with felt.

In the corner of the living room was a pseudo-fire place. One couldn’t have a real one on a space station, after all, but that wasn’t what drew Andrea’s eye. On the mantle of the fireplace were several pictures. Honest to God, actual printed pictures. One was of a young man in his Dress Blues, at what looked like a graduation ceremony for the N7 program. In fact, there was the N7 being pinned upon him in the next picture over. His head was shaved neatly in a crew-cut fashion, and he only had the semblance of a five-o’clock shadow. This must have been Michael, her counterpart, as Mordin called him in her dream. He wasn’t bad looking, but other than the blood relation between them, she much preferred her partners to be of either the feminine persuasion... or of the green-skinned persuasion.

Hannah must have noticed her staring, because she spoke up then. “Yes, that’s my Michael. I was very proud of him that day when he graduated. He left on his first assignment shortly after... Of course, then the Blitz happened.”

“Oh? How did Michael handle the Blitz?” Andrea remembered the Skyllian Blitz. She’d been on Elysium with her squad when they were attacked. She’d had no choice but to rally them together to fight off the enemy. In the end, they’d declared her a war hero, but she was only doing what she felt was right.

“About as well as anyone else, honestly. Michael has confessed to me that he wished he could have done more during the Blitz, helped more people survive. It’s a sore point for him that he wasn’t able to help.” So Michael didn’t do what she did. There was another difference on top of the fact that he had a mother and well, a penis.

“I see... That’s too bad. I hope he doesn’t end up doing something he regrets later as a result.” Andrea recalled the response to the Blitz two years later. Torfan was brutal, from what she’d heard. She was elsewhere at the time, but the stories that came back from that place...

“Indeed. Now, while you’re here, you’ll be sleeping in the guest room...” Hannah led the way into one of the rooms. “The bathroom’s across the hall, the locked room in the hall is Michael’s, and my room is in the other hallway.”

“I can’t thank you enough for this. I’m not sure where I’d be staying if you hadn’t offered.” Andrea placed the small bag she had on the bed along with the Tome. The book was hers for now, and she’d figure out what she was supposed to do with it later.

“Make yourself at home, and I’ll fix you something to eat. I’m not the greatest of chefs, but I do my best.” Hannah started to head to the kitchen. “Oh, and we’ll be doing the debrief here tomorrow at 0900. Admiral Hackett seemed eager to hear it.”

“Thanks for the heads up. I’ll be sure to be prepared.” As Hannah headed out toward the kitchen, Andrea headed toward the bathroom. She needed a shower. Once inside the bathroom, she stripped down and pulled a towel off the rack. After making sure the water was the right temperature, she stepped inside.

God, this was certainly one thing she missed. Her shower on the Normandy SR-2 was amazing, but the last time she’d been able to use that was the night before.

Corpses... Lumbering rotting cadavers... they are amongst us...

Shepard shook her head as the water beat down on her back.

Anderson’s body climbed to its feet. Its head twitched in an unnatural direction. He was dead, she’d seen him die. And yet... he walked. He lived. Or something inside him did...

“No....” Shepard’s body began to emit a blue aura.

Alenko was dead. His body should have been long gone. It was her fault. Her decision... “Shepard... why didn’t you save me?”

Alenko’s face crawled with glowing blue nanites... His skin initially paled... but then it turned deep blue color... and skin rotted off his bones.... for a while his face remained his own... and then Alenko blew up a second time.


“No! This isn’t.... I....” Shepard clutched at the soap bin, her biotic aura extending further.

A translucent mechanical hand laid itself on her shoulder. “Remember me, Shepard-commander?”

“This... isn’t... really... GAH!” Shepard’s biotics exploded outward... causing the glass of the shower door to shatter. Andrea hunched over, breathing heavily. It wasn’t real. What she saw wasn’t real. She knew it wasn’t real. Why did it feel so real?

“Andrea... are you okay?” Hannah called from outside the bathroom. “I heard the glass breaking...”

“I.... I’m fine... but I had a bit of an accident.... I’ll clean it up...” Andrea looked around the bathroom. The glass shards had embedded themselves into the walls, and very little of it had ended up on the floor. The toilet itself had been torn off the ground, and water was coming up from where it had been. The mirror, surprisingly had survived intact... as had her clothes and the towel. But it looked almost like a bomb had gone off in there. Shit. Her biotics hadn’t been that unstable since she was a teenager. God, imagine if she’d had an amp in. Shepard shivered and carefully began to get dressed after turning off the shower. She also turned the toilet water’s valve to off. No need to flood this worse than it was.

Hannah was right outside the door when Andrea opened the door. “Oh... my God... Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah... But the accident... was my fault... Bit of a lapse in control. This hasn’t happened in a long while.” Andrea sighed. “I’m so sorry about the bathroom.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been meaning to redo it anyway... As long as you’re okay.” Hannah patted Andrea down to look for injuries. Finding none, she stepped back. “Dinner’s just about ready.... pizza. And if you’re up for it, maybe you can tell me a bit about yourself.”

“Yeah... I think I’d like that...” Andrea headed to the dining room and sat at the table.

Hannah stayed behind and looked at the bathroom, shaking her head. “Definitely going to have to keep an eye on that girl. Something’s not right.”

****************************

Admiral Steven Hackett had done a lot in his lifetime. He had started his career as a mere enlisted officer, and now he was Admiral of the Fifth Fleet in the Alliance. He’d seen humanity colonize beyond the Sol Relay. Hell, he’d helped colonize beyond the Sol Relay. He’d fought on Shanxi against the turians, and he’d seen the peace that was negotiated afterward. He’d gone from thinking humans were alone in the universe to planning a possible rendezvous with the asari consort the next time he went to the Citadel. So yes, he’d done a lot and seen more, but never in his lifetime did he expect to ever need to use the time travel protocols.

They were meant to be purely theoretical, established as a thought exercise on what could trigger it. Being the highest ranked officer on Arcturus Station, Hackett was responsible for debriefing the possible time traveler, and he was supposed to determine if she was telling the truth, and what specifics among her story needed to be addressed and how. The information she had could not be released whole-cloth, and if she was who and what she’d claimed, she’d know that. The report also could not be written down, had to be entirely verbal.

He showed up at the front door of Hannah Shepard’s apartment at 0855, by human time reckoning. He was dressed in his full dress uniform, prepared to receive the report. He rang the buzzer and waited.

The door opened, revealing Lt. Commander Shepard, dressed in her own dress uniform. “Admiral, please come in.”

He nodded and stepped into her home. “Thank you, Commander.”

Standing in the living room was the supposed time traveler, Andrea Shepard, dressed in a similar manner to the Lt. Commander, only her dress blues were sans any markings to identify rank. They must have been spare blues that the Lt. Commander had, as they were the tiniest bit too tight on the younger Shepard. Andrea Shepard stood at attention, and he gave her a once over. The girl was young, that much was certain. Physically, she was barely an adult, but from Anderson’s report, she had claimed the rank of Commander, one higher than her biological mother. It was possible, he supposed, that she was a clone of some sort, a half-zygote clone from the Lt. Commander, but he wasn’t certain. She held herself like a soldier, one that was used to command, and one that was used to seeing an Admiral. Still, her eyes are what drew him in. Hackett knew those eyes. He saw them whenever he looked in a mirror. Andrea Shepard had seen things, done things, and he found himself looking forward to her report.

“At ease, Shepard.” He ordered the both of them, not bothering to distinguish. “Commander, according to protocol, you unfortunately need to leave. Captain Anderson is waiting for you at the training grounds.”

Hannah acknowledged with a simple, “Sir.” Then she addressed Andrea. “I’ll see you later.”

After Hannah left, Hackett nodded to the younger Shepard. “Now, we should do this right. Name, Rank, Designation, and Serial Number, please.”

The young woman didn’t even hesitate. “Shepard, Andrea, Commander of the SSV Normandy SR-2, Designation N7 Vanguard.” She then rattled off a serial number from rote memory. Hackett knew there wasn’t even a Normandy SR-1 in service currently, let alone an SR-2, but the way she said it, it wasn’t a lie. Also, a Vanguard, eh? He looked forward to seeing her biotics in action.

“Right. Under Systems Alliance protocol 195511-05, I am treating you as someone who has traveled here from the future. Being that you consider yourself of the Systems Alliance, I am asking for a debrief of important knowledge, along with verifiable claims that can be backed up. For the duration of this debriefing, you will be treated as your stated rank, but understand, Shepard, that afterward we can’t give it to you.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir, I understand.”

“Alright, Shepard, begin your report.” Hackett prepared to listen.

“Well, for me this all started when I was appointed as XO of the Normandy under Captain David Anderson...” Shepard gave her report, summarizing the events of a three year timespan within the space of four hours. She spoke of fantastical things, such as ancient AI ships, known as Reapers, being the first human Spectre, a geth uprising, and the results of a massive war. Hackett interrupted her at points to get clarification, but Shepard’s story was also peppered with names few people knew. Amanda Kenson was one of his friends, but not many people knew that directly. He also latched onto events from her story that were easier to disprove, specifically, the events of Eden Prime.

Eden Prime, one of the first human colonies past the Sol Relay, apparently housed a cache of prothean artifacts. That would be the easiest thing to prove or disprove, as all he would have to do is send her there to find out where. Still, if she was telling the truth, humanity needed to prepare. If the Reapers were coming, the galaxy needed to be ready for them. Then there was the matter of the attack on Arcturus station.
“Shepard, what about the attack here?” Hackett asked.

“Sir, the attackers set off a bomb and then...” Shepard shook her head. “I can’t explain it all that well, other than they somehow brought zombies in. And something that made a Brute look like a puppy.”

“The video only shows the cultists attacking using some sort of advanced weaponry. And they were cultists.” Hackett paused. “Whatever their reasons... there may be more of them out there.”

“Sir?” Shepard looked slightly confused. Frankly, he was as well.

“Let’s revisit that after your certification. Report to Captain Anderson in the training grounds within the hour. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately. “ Hackett ordered, and he smiled at the look of determination that appeared on Shepard’s face. Somehow, he didn’t doubt that she’d pass with flying colors. “Dismissed.”

He let himself out of the apartment and headed to his office. There was some paperwork to prepare, and some rules to bend. Admiral Steven Hackett had a plan.

****************************************

Target up. Charge. Second target nearby. Nova. Third target further away? Two shots from the Predator in her hand. Another target up. Charged to recoup her barrier. Incoming fire. Cartwheel dodge to the right. Shepard’s mock combat part of the certification exam had been going on for the past half hour, and she hadn’t felt the need to stop, save to swap out biotic amps.

Anderson had been observing her from the beginning. The girl was skilled. Normally the certification exams for the N7 were done in groups, with competitions between potential graduates, but Andrea Shepard was handling the simulation like a pro. Combined with the results on her mental aptitude test, there was now no doubt in Anderson’s mind that the girl was qualified as an N7. Now, if only she could stop burning out the biotic amps that she had been lent.

“So how’s the test coming?” Admiral Hackett showed up from behind him, and Anderson considered it a mark of pride that he hadn’t jumped at the admiral’s speech.

“She’s N7 all right. She’s passed all the requirements that N7s normally would have to pass, and you can just see it on her while she’s in combat.” Anderson didn’t know why, but he felt a bit like a proud parent when describing Shepard. Perhaps it was the way the girl looked at him on the Tokyo. From her recent actions, she deserved a lot.

“Yes, I thought she might.” Hackett sounded thoughtful. That worried Anderson a little. Hackett didn’t get to where he was today by making careful decisions. “How long has she been at this one?”

“Thirty minutes or so. She’s had to stop twice due to burning out the biotic amp she had. Repairing the amp took a few minutes.” Anderson shook his head. “Of course with the techniques she’s using, I’m surprised she hasn’t burned it out more.”

“Must be her implants; the amps are designed to interface with L-3 implants, and from Doctor Chakwas’s report, these are more advanced than those. Perhaps even more advanced than the L-4 implants used at Grissom.” Hackett pulled up his omni-tool. “We’ll have to issue her an appropriate one from Serrice. I’ll pay the expense.”

Anderson nodded and he watched Shepard demolish another ten targets in half the time it would take a normal soldier. Of course, at that point, he saw the sparks fly from her implant port and Shepard clutched her neck again, rubbing medi-gel in to deal with the burn. Anderson stopped the test. There really was no point in continuing anymore; she’d passed with flying colors.

Andrea rubbed her neck again. She kept overdoing it on the biotics. It really shouldn’t have been that hard to keep the amp from burning out, but once she was in combat, she looked for the most efficient way to deal with the threats, and in the case of most foes, a Charge Nova combination was just that. The amp just wasn’t built to handle the energies being put through it when she did that though. Perhaps she should have switched to Singularities instead.

When the targets disappeared, Shepard made her way over to the sim-room’s entrance. The door opened, revealing both Captain Anderson and Admiral Hackett. On seeing the Admiral’s presence, she instinctively stood at attention.

“Sirs, I burned out another biotic amp.” Best to be truthful, even if she hadn’t told Hackett everything during her debrief, she still told the truth then.

“At ease, Shepard.” Hackett said with a smile. “When it was stated that you were found wearing an N7 labeled armor in Anderson’s report, I was uncertain. However, your performance in the attack on the station and in these tests did not disappoint. You are definitely an N7 operative. I would like to make that official.”

Shepard felt pride swell up in her chest. It wasn’t every day that you got to have a second Special Forces graduation, even if this one wasn’t as public as her first one. “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t thank me yet, I’m not done.” Hackett continued. “The contents of your debriefing this morning put you at the rank of Commander prior to the events that had you here. However, due to your lack of service record, and due to your age, I can’t restore that rank to you. I can, however, make it a bit easier for you to re-obtain it. Welcome to the Alliance, First Lieutenant Andrea Shepard, assuming you accept, of course.”

Well, she wasn’t expecting to be a Commander again, not in a place where she functionally didn’t exist, and definitely not in 2177 when she looked like she was younger than twenty. Still, at least she wasn’t starting over from the very bottom. Andrea smiled. “Yes sir, of course I accept.”

“Good, now, we come to your assignment. Due to certain... circumstances, you aren’t getting a regular posting on a ship. If it turns out you are correct, we will need you mobile and able to do what needs to be done. As such, you are being placed under my direct command, Shepard. Unfortunately, I can’t come with you myself on your first assignment. You will be riding along on the SSV Waterloo to Eden Prime, where we will be locating what you reported was there.” Hackett continued. “Remember, while you should obey the commander of the SSV Waterloo, you are not in her chain of command. The Waterloo will be receiving her orders through me, so you will be able to go where I need you. “

That seemed relatively clear and concise. There was just one thing that was nagging at her about this assignment. Even though she was certain they’d find proof that she was telling the truth fairly quick, just one thing seemed off. “Who is commanding the Waterloo, sir?”

“Lieut... Excuse me. Commander Hannah Shepard will be the CO of the Waterloo for its upcoming tour.”

There it was. If Hackett weren’t an admiral, Andrea would describe his grin as shit-eating. “Oh...”

**************************

Andrea made her way through the corridors of Arcturus Station, munching on an energy bar as she did so. After instating her and giving her orders to her, Hackett had given Shepard the rest of the day off to relax. She managed to make N7 again, not that she’d had any doubts about it. N7s don’t doubt that they can get the job done. She’d told the same to James on the Normandy. Sure, she wasn’t a Commander anymore, and she didn’t have her own ship, but considering that Hackett had no real reason to believe her story and up until a few days ago, she didn’t legally exist, being Commander could wait. Warning the galaxy about the Reapers on the other hand... could not.

Eden Prime... The planet where everything began for her... As a direct result of the events there, Shepard earned her SPECTRE status. The beacon had been broken when she used it back then, what would it show her if she used it now? Also, Javik slept somewhere there. Was it possible that there were more protheans than just him? Would it be possible for them to repopulate their species with the population that was sealed somewhere on Eden Prime? Andrea had no clue. When she was last on Eden Prime, Javik’s pod was the only survivor. It had been dug up by the archeologists along with the other prothean artifacts, but Shepard only knew vaguely where to start looking. Hackett was going to base his entire belief of her story on whether they found a prothean cache or not.

Finding Javik would definitely corroborate the story about the Reapers though... and would throw centuries of theories about prothean society out the window. If Shepard could grab Liara prior to heading there, she knew that her... well, this Liara’s mind would be blown. A real live prothean for her to study would be the best courting gift that Shepard could provide. Of course, she was starting over here. Liara hadn’t met her yet, and with the existence of Michael, Liara wouldn’t meet her here ever. At least not until Andrea showed up the way she did. Item one on her agenda. Find an excuse to meet up with Liara. Possibly bringing Javik along.

The others... Garrus... Wrex... Tali... perhaps Michael never would meet them, but if he was who replaced her here, would it be right for her to snipe the friendship there? Garrus Vakarian was one of her best friends, but the Garrus she knew probably thought she was dead. Everyone probably thought she was dead. Well, except the ones who died before she made her own sacrifice.

Andrea shook her head to break that train of thought. It didn’t help to dwell on what she couldn’t change. She needed to focus on what she could, the here and now. As far as she knew, there was no way back. She’d look, but she needed to help the people here. The Reapers were coming.

Andrea was so focused on her thoughts that she barely avoided bumping into a young woman who looked to be the same age as her. She nearly dropped her protein bar while she was at it, but her reflexes helped her catch it.

“Oh, I’m sorry... was a bit lost in my thoughts.” Andrea apologized quickly and did a double take. The dark-haired girl was very familiar.

“It’s not a problem, just be a little more careful next time.” Now Shepard was sure of it. You don’t fight alongside someone for several months and forget them that easily. Of course, the look on her face seemed to be more one of wonder.

“This your first time on Arcturus?” Andrea asked.

“Yeah. I had a bit of leave saved up between my last assignment and my next one, so I decided to check out a place that I could hopefully get assigned to one day. Well, this or a ship.”

“Thought so. The station’s a bit overwhelming the first time you get here, but believe me, it’s got nothing on the Citadel.” Andrea said with a smile.

“Yeah, I’ve seen the holos.” The girl paused. “I’m Ashley.”

“Andrea. How about I show you the best bar on this hunk of metal?” Shepard figured it couldn’t hurt to offer. Besides, Ash had always been a good friend. Even if she had some issues of her own. Of course, who among her crew didn’t?

“Yeah, why not? Better than standing here and gaping at everything.” Ashley grinned, and Andrea joined her. Shepard beckoned the girl to follow her, and they decided to go get drunk.

************************

Andrea slowly opened her eyes. This was not the bed in the Captain’s cabin of the Normandy, nor was it the bed in her apartment on the Citadel. It wasn’t a hospital bed, she also noted as her memory slowly trickled back to her. It didn’t matter; the bed itself was comfy, nice and warm. Andrea snuggled deeper into the bed and into the slightly taller person beside her.

Wait. She was in bed with someone. Andrea moved her hand surreptitiously to pat down her body. Okay then. She had no clothes on, nor did her bed partner. Still, it was nice to snuggle up to... Andrea’s memory of the previous night slowly filtered in to her waking brain.

Ashley and Andrea had gone to the latter’s favorite bar on Arcturus station the previous night. While they hadn’t known Andrea by sight, they easily served the pair of women what they asked for. It helped that the Alliance’s policy on alcohol was “if you’re old enough to serve, you’re old enough to drink.”

The bartender was surprised when neither woman ordered a fruity drink as he expected of girls their age, but he served them their liquor anyway. Andrea had ordered a glass of brandy while Ash drank a scotch and soda. Ash was an eager conversationalist, talking to Andrea about how she decided to join the Alliance, what went on with her first assignment, and the woman even boasted a little about how she was easily the best in her class. Ash couldn’t wait to get her first space assignment, and it bugged Andrea because she knew that if things went the way they did the first time, Ashley would be waiting a good amount of time and go through some major loss before she managed to get it. Andrea swore to herself at that moment, that she’d do right by her former subordinate.

“So, how about you, Andrea? I’ve told you a lot about my family already, what’s yours like?”

Andrea blanched a bit, both from the official story and from the actual one. Her familial situation... “It’s kinda complicated, Ash. Outside the military, I haven’t really had much of a family for the last seven years. My parents were on Mindoir... they resisted and well...”

“I’m sorry.... I didn’t mean to bring up that kind of memory.” Ashley put her hand on Andrea’s arm, offering some comfort.

“Yeah... It’s only recently that I found out I had an Aunt and cousin. Both are career military and officers. Aunt Hannah just made Commander, and I think Michael’s a Second Lieutenant.” Andrea didn’t really like lying to Ash, but the truth would sound far crazier, and she didn’t want to scare off her friend.

“I notice you didn’t include yourself in there. What’s your rank?” Ashley asked with a smile.

“Ah... First Lieutenant... Just promoted today, actually.” Andrea’s cheeks tinged a little pink on saying that.

“And you only waited till now to tell me this? Congratulations, girl. I’m sure you earned it.” Ashley said with a smile. Some dance music came on through the overhead speakers. “You know... I think this deserves a congratulatory dance. Come on, Andrea.”

“I don’t know...” Andrea shook her head, and then finished off her drink.

“Come on, it’ll help get your mind off of things and onto tonight where we can have some fun!” Ashley dragged Andrea out onto the dance floor and started moving to the music.

Andrea started dancing as well. She could feel the rhythm, and she stepped to it. She was just starting to get into it when she heard her dance partner’s snickering. “What?”

“You call that dancing?” Ash’s lips were quirked up in a smirk.

“Uh... yeah, never really got any complaints before.” Shepard said in answer.

“Oh, hell no. Andrea, that is not dancing, that’s a walrus moving across the ice. Who taught you to dance?” Ashley actually managed to look offended. Andrea wasn’t sure whether to feel embarrassed or hurt so she settled on confused.

“Nobody really... Dancing’s supposed to be moving to the music, right? I do that.” Andrea explained.

Ashley nodded as if that fully explained it. “Well, we’re going to get you dancing right tonight. If you’re going to be dancing with me, you’re going to be dancing proper like someone as hot as us should.”

Ashley moved behind Andrea and pressed up against her back. “I’ll try to guide your movements a bit, just go with it.”

Andrea flushed a bit as she felt Ashley’s body press against her and as the slightly taller brunette’s arms slid down her own. “Okay...”

Ashley smiled and guided Andrea forward a little. “Right, first thing, you need to loosen up a bit. Dancing’s more than just bouncing on each leg a little and moving your shoulders. Get your arms above your waist...” Ashley pulled the redhead’s arms up a bit. “Don’t be afraid to touch your hair a bit, you don’t really have much to toss, but bringing your hand over your head like this can work. Then you move your shoulders a little like this...” Ashley moved along with her instruction. “And then work your hips a little...” Ashley slid her hands down to Shepard’s hips and moved them for her. “Then you can step... You put that all together, and it’s a bit of a dance.”

Andrea nodded. “I think I can do it.... Head, shoulders, hips and then step?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry though, I’ll be right here with you.” Ashley said as she continued to guide Andrea’s dancing.

The pair continued dancing for a while, Andrea finally seeming to get it, but Ashley never stopped being close at hand. Ashley even made sure that her guidance looked good, and the Andrea noted that people seemed to stare at the two of them even more when she was being helped. Yeah, she’d gotten stares before with her normal dance, but these ones were different, almost hungrier. Andrea had liked that feeling, and she moved closer with Ashley. The two’s dance moves almost becoming one as they moved in unison, pressed together.

Eventually they returned to their table where a fresh round of drinks was waiting for them. Some of the onlookers had paid for their refills and had them brought out to them. The pair weren’t really interested in anything but talking with each other though. Andrea was far more comfortable around Ashley than anyone else, and Ash was finding the reverse to be true as well. Of course, after they’d been there for a little while, some upstart marine thought to get it into his head that he would challenge the bar to a drinking contest.

Andrea, being an N7, and Ashley, being a Williams, decided to take up that challenge. On their joining, five more men decided to participate as well. Ash and Andrea were easily the only women taking part, and they managed to match the marine shot for shot. They even snuck in two more shots of tequila after the last marine had finished before they declared a mutual win over the men of the bar.

This time it was Andrea who dragged them onto the dance floor, drunk as they both were. The music of the bar pulsed and the pair danced the night away, their bodies intimately close. Andrea didn’t quite remember the interim between that and the bedroom or how they ended up here, but she definitely remembered the duration.

Andrea’s bed partner ran a hand through her hair. Andrea smiled at that, and just snuggled closer to Ashley. She knew that this was probably not going to be a repeat thing, so she figured she’d enjoy it as long as possible. As far as she knew, Ashley was straight, but last night disproved that assumption.

The door to the bedroom opened at that moment, surprising both Andrea and Ashley into full wakefulness. Hannah Shepard, dressed in her full uniform, stood at the doorway.

“I just wanted to remind you that the Waterloo’s boarding call is at 1200 hours.” Hannah made sure to look directly at Andrea when she said this. Did she not notice? “So I suggest you finish getting ready within the next hour or so, so that you can claim a good bunk.”

“Y-yes ma’am.” The station couldn’t just swallow her up here. No, that would be too easy.

“Private Williams, could you please make sure my niece eats properly before she boards the ship? There won’t be a proper meal until dinnertime.” Oh. She knew about Ashley? Wait, how did she know about Ashley?

“Yes, Commander.” How did Ash sound more confident than she did? She was Commander Shepard for crying out loud. Sure, she was nude, but she’d faced down Sovereign, she’d faced down Harbinger, taken down a total of five full-sized Reapers, and stared down a Leviathan. Why couldn’t she be confident before this woman?

“Good. Remember, Andrea, 1200 hours. It’s 0730 right now...” Hannah turned and left the room, letting the door close behind her.

Andrea buried her head under a pillow to hide that her face had almost turned the same shade as her hair. “Gah...”

Ashley patted Andrea on the back comfortingly. “Well, that could have gone worse...”

“How?” Shepard’s voice was muffled from under the pillow.

“She could have shot me.” Ashley said as a joke. “Look, Andrea, she’s your Aunt, not your mother, and yeah, it’s embarrassing, but she obviously means well.”

Andrea lowered the pillow and turned toward Ash. The Ashley she knew was definitely a bit more jaded than this one, but she guessed this was more the older sister coming out. She hadn’t seen any of that side of Ashley from this perspective before; usually it came from when Ashley was talking with Tali. “Yeah... I suppose you’re right.”

“One thing you’ll learn about me, girlfriend, is that on family matters, I’m always right.” Ashley grinned. “See, I used to do the same thing to my sisters when they brought home boys... of course, I never caught them like this, but the principle is the same.”

“Embarrass the hell out of them?” Andrea hazarded a guess.

“Definitely.” Why hadn’t she noticed how cute Ash was when she grinned like that before? Well, she had, but it was mostly directed at James. They’d made a cute... pairing? Well, perhaps it’d have been something that developed into them being a couple, but... Reapers. “Now last night...”

“We were drunk... but it was...” Andrea paused. She didn’t want to come on too strong, and well, she wasn’t sure she really wanted to go beyond friends with Ash. Last night was something she hadn’t expected to happen, but it wasn’t really something she regretted.

“It was nice, yeah... Fun too. Once you learned to dance properly.” Ash gave Andrea a bit of a playful shove. “But beyond that... I don’t want you to think this is something I normally do.”

“Pick up women in space stations, get taken to a bar by them, teach them to dance and seduce them like the sexy latina you are?” Andrea teased. “If that were common, I’d advise everyone to hang out on space stations.”

“No! I mean... I don’t normally have...” Ashley seemed to struggle to get the words out.

“One night stands?” Shepard hazarded a guess, and then she offered a couple more. “Sex with women? Sex on the first date?”

“Any of them... all of them... Last night wasn’t my first time like that, but it isn’t something I do for just anyone. Andrea, even drunk, I wouldn’t normally have done that... You’re special.” Ashley explained. “You’re easy to talk to, you seem to understand me, hell, it’s like you already know me. I could see us being good friends... possibly even more than that...”

“But..?” Andrea respected Ashley Williams far too much to leave it at that. The woman would be a Spectre one day, and while Shepard had never considered her a romantic prospect before, not with Liara or Thane in the picture, she never doubted the woman’s loyalty nor her friendship. Not even when Ashley doubted her own.

“I’m about to go on assignment in the middle of nowhere, and you’re about to leave on your own assignment. Starting anything now beyond a friendship would be setting it up for failure. I’m not saying that there won’t be a repeat of what happened this time when we see each other again, but I don’t want to guarantee it.”

Andrea nodded. “I understand.”

“And there’s regs to think about too. We’re both military; you’re an officer, I’m enlisted. I’m not under your command, but...” Ashley trailed off.

“But you could be.” Andrea nodded. That was one reason she never got with Kaidan. It wasn’t the reason that she’d decided that he should be the one to detonate the bomb on Virmire... God, that decision still haunted her.

“Yeah. So doing anything after this time would be stupid.” Ashley said in explanation.

“I guess so...” Andrea wasn’t disappointed. She knew that she and Ash couldn’t be an item. Besides, there were Liara and Thane to think about... Both of whom didn’t know her from Eve at this point...

“Good thing this time isn’t quite finished yet...” Ashley said as she brought herself in for a kiss. “We’ve got a few hours... let’s make the most of them...”


*********************

After some morning activity to get the pair awake and then cleaning up... and then cleaning up again, Andrea and Ashley managed to find themselves dressed and in the living room of the apartment. Well, to be perfectly honest, Ashley was in the kitchen while Andrea was finishing packing her things for her deployment. She made sure to pack something comfortable that wasn’t against regulations for her time on the ship, and she was certain that her... Commander would set her up with a good hardsuit for ground missions.

Whatever Ash was cooking in the kitchen smelled delicious. Andrea could pick out the smells of bacon, eggs, and some sort of cooking cheese dish. Whatever it was, she couldn’t wait to try it. She’d always loved trying new things; it came from her time in the Reds, when she wasn’t sure what the next meal would be so she had to settle on whatever she could get with her crew. Still, she wasn’t a part of the Reds here, nor was Michael for that matter, and that meant that there was little to no chance of any of their representatives bothering her for whatever reason, even if she became famous again. The fame was never the goal though. The goal was always doing what she could to keep people safe, to keep her loved ones safe. Andrea was a good soldier, but she was better as a Spectre when she had more freedom.

“Thinking deep thoughts?” Ashley’s voice interrupted her a bit.

“Little bit. Thinking about the upcoming assignment they have me on.” Andrea answered.

“Oh? I didn’t quite get to ask you about that last night. Where do they have you heading?” Ashley asked.

“Eden Prime. I’m supposed to keep watch over a dig site of some kind there.” Andrea didn’t elaborate too much. As much as she wanted to read Ash in on all of this, and as trustworthy as she was, she was still a young private who hadn’t been in the military long. There was a thing called OPSEC, and Andrea knew how to adhere to it.

“Huh, wonder what they could find on that planet. As nice as it is, it wasn’t occupied when we found it, right?” Ash was definitely smart. She probably could puzzle it out. “So your job is the dig site, not working with the 212th then?”

“I expect I’ll help a bit with the planetary exploration, but my orders come from elsewhere. Even the CO of the Waterloo isn’t in my chain of command.” Shepard shrugged. “Though that probably is more to prevent nepotism accusations.”

“Your aunt’s the CO, then?” Ashley flipped what she was making in the pan to the other side and Andrea nodded. Ashley continued, “Given what happened this morning, she seems nice.”

Andrea blushed at the recent memory. That wasn’t an experience she would soon forget. She’d never had a mother to walk in on her before, but now she did. Given how short a time she’d known the woman, Andrea wouldn’t have thought that it would be as embarrassing as it was to be walked in on by her, but it was a testament to just how accepting the woman had been that it happened as it did. Something like that might have been how Liara would have felt if Aethyta had walked in on the two of them. Well, her or Benezia if Benezia had still been alive rather than the indoctrinated person she was at the end of her life.

“Yeah... She’s been pretty good since we found out. She’s the one who suggested I stay here rather than the barracks. “

“Well...” Ashley flipped the pan one more time before laying out the food on some serving plates and grabbing some other plates to go with them. “She’s your family. Family’s important, and she seems to realize that. Even if she’s deployed as often as my Dad was, I’m pretty sure that she did a good job raising her son too. “

Andrea nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ve seen some pictures of Michael, but I haven’t gotten the chance to meet him yet. He’s deployed elsewhere at the moment.”

Ashley brought the plates over to the table, and Andrea took a look. Damn, it looked great. Ash had prepared eggs, bacon, rice and beans, and some sort of flat pastry that was the wrong color to be a pancake but smelled delicious. “Breakfast is ready... and given your biotics, you get three quarters of it.”

Andrea blinked. “I didn’t me-“

“I know. But it’s kind of hard to miss the port for your amp when you’re seeing as much of someone as I did last night. Biotics need more food than nonbiotics. You burn more energy, so eat up.” Ashley punctuated this by placing a large portion of the food on Andrea’s plate before scooping the rest onto hers.

“Smells great... what is it?” Andrea asked.

“Traditional Colombian breakfast, just like my grandma used to make. Arepa con huevos, arroz y frijoles, and bacon, of course. In case your translator didn’t quite catch that, it’s rice, beans, eggs, bacon, and arepas. The arepa is what makes the meal great.”

Andrea, having already started as she listened, swallowed and nodded in agreement. “Definitely tastes good.”

“Glad you like it.” Ashley started her own. The pair made light conversation as they both continued eating their breakfast, but once it was finished, it was time for the two of them to go. They cleaned up the mess Ashley made and gathered their things.

Ashley hugged Andrea at the doorway. “Whatever happens on your deployment, we’re going to have to do something when we see each other again. Good luck, Andrea.”

“You too, Ash. Don’t get disillusioned with the brass either. Some might be bigoted assholes, but enough aren’t that I’m sure you’ll end up where you belong. You’ll earn it.” Andrea then kissed the taller girl on the cheek. “I’ll keep in touch.”

“Looking forward to it.”

******************

At 10:45, Andrea stood at the docking bay that housed the SSV Waterloo. From her vantage point, she could see engineers working on the exterior, doing the last of the refueling operations that the frigate needed, and she noted, with a small amount of glee, some people loading up an M35 Mako into the cargo hold. She was definitely going to badger her m-aunt into letting her drive that. The ship’s slender body took up about as much room in the dock as the Normandy SR-1, but little differences stood out. The wings of the Waterloo attached much closer than those of the Normandy, and the body itself resembled a missile in its shape, albeit a decently wide one. Shepard estimated the ship at one hundred fifty meters, bow to stern, and the top of the ship was about twelve meters from the ground, ten from the bottom.

Andrea shouldered her bag and prepared to head on in. Of course, the moment she entered the airlock, she heard a female voice cry out, “Wait!”

Andrea held off on pressing the activation button as a quartet of servicemen ran up to join her. All four of them were in shipboard BDUs that identified their rank, unit and last name. Of course, her own BDUs did the same. She looked them over, Ops Chief Fujiota, a red-haired Japanese woman, Private Second Class McCormick, a blonde Caucasian man, Gunnery Chief Smith, a dark-skinned woman, and someone she recognized, Private Jones.

“Thanks for holding the door, ma’am.” Fujiota saluted her. “Lieutenant... Shepard, yes? Thank you for what you did during the attack, ma’am.”

“At ease. Jones here did as much as I did, and he didn’t pass out from biotic overuse.” Shepard smiled and pressed the button.

“Yes, but you were the reason the others rallied... I’ve heard the stories, ma’am. I look forward to serving with you.” Fujiota bowed slightly as the outer door closed.

Andrea nodded, “Same here.”

Once the inner door opened, Andrea made her way inside, flanked by the others. The SSV Waterloo was a typical Alliance frigate, from what Andrea could tell. Closer to the bow, Commander Hannah Shepard was standing in the CIC, doing a pre-launch check. Toward the back was the elevator to the various other decks, which is where Shepard made her way now. She’d examine the CIC later. Once in the elevator, she pressed the button for the Crew Quarters Deck, where she assumed she’d have assigned placement.

Luckily, the Waterloo’s elevator moved at a speed faster than watching paint dry, and it merely took fifteen seconds to change decks rather than the thirty to forty-five it took on the Normandy. The men swiftly walked toward their crew quarters once the elevator doors opened up while Fujiota and Smith leisurely made their way toward theirs. Andrea paused to let them pass and brought up her omni-tool, linking up with the ship’s intranet.

Oftentimes on ships like this, bunks were assigned. You couldn’t go in and just claim a bunk, especially if your CO needed you for something. She checked for where she would be bunking and found herself directed toward the guest’s quarters. Andrea had seen guest quarters on some ships before. The Normandy SR-2’s quarters were especially nice and adapted for various species. This wasn’t all that different from her quarters on the SR-1. The single bed was a bit smaller, but it looked like the closet was around the same size.

Sitting on the bed was a small package with a data-pad laying on it. Andrea laid her gear down next to the bed and picked up the data-pad, activating it.

I noticed your problem with biotic amps. This should help.
-Hackett

Andrea raised an eyebrow and opened the package. Under the brown box was another one with labeling in an asari script. It took her translator a second to process it: Armali Council’s Prodigy Model VII. Admiral Hackett got her a new biotic amp? Okay, she’d planned on purchasing one herself, but this worked well. She opened the box and pulled out the piece of hardware, making sure not to touch the interface ports directly as she removed the sterile-guard. Andrea used her free hand to remove the amp that was currently in her and plugged the new one in. A blue glow surrounded her for a second as she lifted the box to eye level. Yes, this wasn’t bad at all. The true test would be when she started doing her recent tactics of nova and charge. From what she remembered, the Armali Council tended to design good things. They were usually in direct competition with the Serrice Council for the best technology. The Savant line tended to be a little better, but the Prodigy line was pretty good too.

Shepard finished setting her room up appropriately and headed out to explore the ship. This was the one thing she liked to do when in a new place: explore and familiarize herself with her surroundings and the people there. The first stop, of course, would be the CIC to check in with her moth-aunt. Even if she wasn’t directly under her command, she needed to do something on the ship.

After going up the elevator and then heading toward the bow, Shepard couldn’t help but notice how empty the ship felt without being able to talk to EDI. While she didn’t find herself talking to the ship as if it were a person, she almost wished it were. Still, this was the Waterloo, not the Normandy, the trip up the bow to the CIC proved that. How one was supposed to be able to address the entire crew from up here, she wasn’t sure, but she bet that the Commander knew.

As she approached the CIC, Hannah Shepard was looking at her terminal. She cleared her throat to get her attention. The older woman turned her attention from the terminal toward Andrea and smiled. “Andrea, I’m glad to see you made it on time. I was worried that perhaps you might be tempted to dally a little longer like your cousin occasionally does.”

Well. Shoot. Why did she come up here again? It wasn’t to blush the way she was, she was sure of that. She was thirty-one yea... actually, no she wasn’t. Not anymore anyway. “I think punctuality is appropriate for duty, ma’am.”

“Now if only Michael could learn that all the time.” Hannah shook her head. “So how are you finding your quarters?”

“They’re nice. I wasn’t really expecting solo quarters here, though.” Andrea answered.

“Well, as you’re not really under my command, you shouldn’t be in with those under it.” Hannah said. “And this way you’re closer to my cabin if it’s necessary.”

Andrea nodded. She hadn’t had too many nightmares recently, but the ones she did have were worse than on the Normandy. “So, why did Admiral Hackett put me here?” She left the “with you” part of her question unsaid, but she was certain that Hannah heard it.

“Honestly, why he did it is mostly on him. Admiral Hackett’s mind is something that is a bit of a mystery to me, but I asked him if he could find a way that the two of us could spend some time together during deployment. Plus, the Admiral trusts my judgment about as much as he does Anderson’s.” Hannah smiled.

So it was partially to keep an eye on her, partially because she was the woman’s biological daughter. Andrea supposed that made sense. “So, why the Waterloo? Why not some other ship or something?”

“You tell me. Admiral Hackett ordered us to Eden Prime and we’re actually going to be there supporting the 212th while something’s going on... and we’re supposed to be able to transport some cargo. My best guess is that the Waterloo was chosen specifically because it’s a frigate, and taking one frigate out of rotation hurts the navy less than if it were a cruiser, dreadnought or carrier.” Hannah pursed her lips. “I don’t like being out of the loop on the specifics of the mission, but given the protocols you reported under, I understand.”

“I’m sorry, and I would tell you if I thought it would help, but there are too many ears on the ship.” Andrea glanced around. “And if the information got out, something could go wrong.”

Hannah nodded. “Like I said, I understand. I don’t like it, but I understand.”

“So, I met some of the NCOs on the way in, who’s who on the ship?” Knowing who she should talk to about things was important. It’s not that the others on the ship weren’t important, but very few of them expected to talk with her.

“Let’s see here... the XO of the ship is Staff Lieutenant RJ Kinsey, his specialty is in engineering, so you’ll often find him down with the other engineers of the ship. Our navigator over there is Second Lieutenant Carlos Vasquez. He apparently got top marks on star charting and navigation drills. Our medical officer is Operations Chief Tetsuko Fujiota. She really should be commissioned, but she chose to stay NCO. Then we have Gunnery Chief Jane Smith, demolitions expert. She likes the Mako a bit. We also have Gunnery Chief Daniel Alba. He’s our requisitions officer. He’ll make sure that we have the gear we need.” Hannah pulled up her omni-tool to check. “Then we also have several enlisted and civilian staff, but I’m not fully familiar with all of them.”

Shepard noted that there weren’t any female commissioned officers other than herself and Hannah on this ship. She guessed that the female NCOs shared the officers’ quarters for that gender then. There was one more thing she needed to ask. “Since I’ll be on this ship for a while, is there anything specifically that you need me to do?”

Hannah shook her head. “I’m actually pretty sure that Admiral Hackett left you some orders in your inbox. You should work on those while you have the chance.”

Andrea nodded. “I should go.”

“Right, talk to you later.” Hannah waved her off and Andrea headed off to introduce herself to more people. Wait, why hadn’t her mother introduced the pilot?

******************

This was both the third time and the first time that Andrea had come to Eden Prime. Both prior times had been under circumstances that no soldier would ever want to visit the garden planet. The very first time, she had been on what was supposed to be a simple courier run picking up the Prothean beacon that had been found here. Unfortunately, when they’d gotten there, the colony was already under attack by geth controlled by Saren and his Reaper master, Sovereign... or Nazara as the geth preferred to call it. Her first time on Eden Prime was a life-shaping event. By comparison, finding a live Prothean the second time was simply business.

However, this was the first time that Andrea would have the chance to check out the arcologies of the planet. The beacon had been stored on a landing pad on the surface, and the closest she’d come to where anyone actually lived was a scientific encampment made out of prefabricated housing. According to the codex, 3.6 million people lived on Eden Prime at the moment, belonging to several different corporations which used the surface for gardening purposes while they lived above it. From what she understood, that was where they were going to go to meet the archaeologists, and then once the area was defined, they were going to be staying in, surprise, surprise, prefabricated housing on the surface nearby.

Looking out the window of her quarters, she could see the planet as they approached. A garden world like Eden Prime was mostly lush green plants and beautiful oceans. From this distance, it was pretty much impossible to make out the arcologies that towered over the surface. Of course, the pilot, who always seemed to be busy this trip every time she tried to meet him, managed to guide the ship down into the atmosphere with ease. Upon entering the atmosphere of Eden Prime, Andrea felt the subtle shift from artificial to natural gravity and stood up to get a better look.

The pilot directed their ship to the Alliance spaceport near the Hahne-Kedar arcology, and Shepard started to get dressed. She needed to make a good impression on these archaeologists so she called to mind various things Liara had told her about beliefs on Prothean culture... Unfortunately, that was mostly overwritten in her mind by what she’d seen and heard from Javik.

Still, she had a vague idea of where they needed to start looking for the Beacon. She’d spent most of the trip here going over continental maps and thinking on her memories of the last times she was here.

“Lieutenant Shepard, please report to the bridge for briefing. Lieutenant Shepard, please report to the bridge for briefing.” The VI of this ship had a female voice, but there was no real inflection to it, no emotion. EDI hadn’t even been created yet; Shepard wondered if the VI that was EDI’s predecessor had even been programmed yet, but then she shook her head. Andrea made sure her uniform was straight and headed out to the bridge.

As she approached the bridge, she could hear arguing from up front, where the pilot’s chair was.

“... and I’m telling you, that the only way this bird is going to set down on the surface is at a slow clip, it has to coast to a stop.”

“I’m telling you I can do it, Lieutenant, just have to set her down gently. The eezo cores can handle it, and all you have to do is pull up slowly at the right moment, and you can land this baby on a dime.” Well, that voice was familiar.

“And if you’re wrong, the ship rattles apart and more than just your bones break, Moreau. No, we land the way we’re supposed to.” Andrea made her way up to the pilot’s area of the bridge to get a better look at the two arguing men. One was a tall Germanic blond, standing next to the chair, while the other... was a young brunette man with the ghost of a beard growing in on him. Both wore flight uniforms befitting their ranks, the blond a Flight Lieutenant, and the brunette a Flight Chief. Andrea had to do a double take because she knew she recognized the brunette.

“And if I’m right, which I am, by the way, the ship lands without a scratch and she sets down sitting pretty.” Andrea approached closer at this point.

“Joker?” The word left her mouth before she could stop it. Both pilots turned to her. Well, to be accurate, the blond physically did so, while the brunette adjusted something on the console.

“Done and done. Please, no applause, we’re only landing in the arcology landing bay. Save it for when I do something truly impressive.” And now, the brunette turned toward her... in the pilot chair. “Lieutenant, I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“No, I don’t think the two of you have. Nor have I met her, vision of radiance that she is.” Andrea just raised an eyebrow at him. “Forgive my somewhat boorish subordinate, I am Flight Lieutenant Thaddeus Sitwell, and this is Flight Chief Jeff-“

“Joker.”

“Moreau. We’re the pilot and co-pilot team for the Waterloo.” The blond grinned. She already didn’t like him much. “And you are?”

“First Lieutenant Andrea Shepard.” Andrea answered quickly.

“Well good, now we’ve all been introduced, I can get back to telling the Flight Lieutenant how wrong he is about landing protocol. Assuming he can take his eyes off you for a few seconds.” Joker said with a grin. “Of course, given he was losing the argument, I can see why he’d want a distraction.”

“I was not.” The blond looked affronted.

“Dude, you were pulling rank on me when you knew I was right. I could land the ship like that. You’ve seen my record.” Joker confidently stated. “Of course, I’d much prefer a better ship, but the Waterloo works well enough for what she is.”

Andrea shook her head. “I guess I’ll leave you two to it then. Have a briefing to go to.”

“See you later, Shepard.” Joker waved before turning back. As she headed toward the CIC, she heard one last thing. “Oh, by the way, Flight Lieutenant Sitwell, that was the Commander’s niece you were ogling.”

“What?” Andrea snickered as she made her way to the CIC.

“Well, you certainly took your time. Enjoy your detour?” Well... at least her mom looked like she was more amused than anything else.

“Heard them arguing, they always like that?” Andrea asked.

“This is the first time I’ve worked with Moreau, but from his records, he is highly skilled. His disability is what has kept him from flying much more than a shuttle before this. As for Sitwell, he’s a good pilot, but he has a bit of a roving eye. Anyway, we should get to the briefing.” Andrea stood up a little straighter at that. It wouldn’t look good on her mother if she didn’t act the proper soldier, even if she wasn’t under her command technically. “Admiral Hackett has contacted an archeological team and put them under an NDA for the duration of their dig. You will be meeting with them and directing them on the area in which they’re going to be looking for... whatever it is that Hackett wants them looking for. We’re going to be stationed here and supporting the 212th with exploration security while the dig’s going on, and you along with the two privates who will be assigned under your command will be doing some exploration to try and help tease out this spot that Hackett thinks you know.”

“How will we be doing the exploration?” Andrea asked.

“As Eden Prime is a big world, and we’ll need to keep in radio contact during your exploration, you and your team will be using the Mako provided for this mission. I assume you know how to drive one?” Hannah looked sharply at Andrea.

“Yes, I definitely do, ma’am.” Andrea was an excellent driver. She never did anything with the Mako that wasn’t supposed to happen. Well, then again, she did drive it into a Mass Relay on Ilos, and there was that dream she had about the Mako tumbling through the air. It was definitely a dream. The Mako was not equipped with flight capability. “Who will be assigned to my team?”

“I believe you’ve met them both already. Private First Class Martin Jones and Private Second Class Kenneth McCormick will both be joining you on your exploration trips daily.” Hannah glanced to the airlock door. “The archeology team should be coming onboard in a few minutes. We’ll be adjourning to the conference room opposite the elevator once they’re here.”

Andrea nodded. It was a similar call to one she would make. If this were the Normandy, she’d know that it was more or less safe from spy intrusion, and she suspected that Hannah knew the same for her own ship. Of course, it was entirely possible that Cerberus or the Shadow Broker had some agents here, but that was a risk she’d have to take. If she played the Javik thing close to her chest, she was certain that when she found the Prothean, it wouldn’t get interrupted by agents from either organization.

The airlock doors opened, revealing a sandy-haired man and a blonde woman. Clearly both were civilians from the way they dressed, and if Andrea had to guess, she’d say that they were both archaeologists. After all, both had the fedora that was almost standard to all vids, the man wore sturdy cargo pants and a sleevless pocketed denim vest. The woman, on the other hand wore a pair of really short shorts and a tank top, which while attractive, Andrea had no clue how useful they’d be on a dig. Slung over her shoulder was a bandoleer with pockets along with a bag which she assumed had gear she needed in them. Both clearly had omni-tools on their wrists, and the woman had a tactile glove on her right hand while the man probably had the implants. They flashed some ID and at that point, Hannah and Andrea made their way to the conference room, the archaeologists directed there not long after.

Once they had retreated to the conference room, the archaeologists introduced themselves. The man was Jonas Lindsey, and the woman was his partner, Haley Jackson. Both had already been on the colony when Hackett contacted them about a potential dig site for ancient alien artifacts, and they’d leapt at the chance at finding them to study. Even if most races had written histories longer than humanity’s, there were always records of protheans to study and even artifacts from several asari generations back that were interesting. Of course, this being a human world, humans had first dibs.

Andrea explained where they would be digging, using a combination of maps she’d generated from her omni-tool and memories that she’d been shared from the artifacts she’d interacted with. While both archaeologists were understandably skeptical, the areas in question were areas they had planned on looking when they managed to get funding available. Of course, they’d had a wider area of study than Andrea had narrowed it down to, but that was mostly due to them not knowing a whole lot other than what was discovered when setting up the farms on the surface.

After explaining to the archaeologists where they should start to look, the dig was planned. Luckily they’d had express channels for funding already set up, so the dig itself was able to start within the week, rather than waiting the several months it usually took. Of course, the first place they looked didn’t quite reveal much, but there was evidence of ruins there that led credence to Andrea’s claims. So the search area was widened a bit. After helping to set up the dig further, there really wasn’t much else for Andrea or the other soldiers to do other than keep watch.

The newly expanded dig had been going on for a little over a week and a half before Andrea had started to get antsy. As interesting as archaeology was made in movies, sitting around and watching others dig, getting excited over every little thing they found was boring when the archaeologist wasn’t the asari you were sort of dating. Then, at least, there were certain perks to being nearby when she discovered something. Ultimately, though, Shepard felt the need to explore, and she decided to bring it up that morning at breakfast with her mother.

“Aunt Hannah, I think I’ll start the exploration with the Mako today. I’m getting a little stir-crazy with just watching them dig all day.” Andrea said. The two of them had been getting together for meals for the past week, but both had different duties during the day.

“I was wondering when you were going to get around to that. The Mako’s fueled up when you’re ready to use it. Just be sure to take your team along.” Her mother was smirking. Why was she smirking? “Also, we managed to find a hardsuit in your size; it’s in the locker near the Mako. Sorry it’s not quite as advanced as the armor that Anderson found you in, but it’s what we have.”

Andrea nodded, calling up her omni-tool to ping Jones and McCormick. “I’m sure it will be fine. It’s not like we really expect any combat out here, but better safe than sorry. I’ll be sure to check in every few hours.”

“Good luck. Hope you aren’t too bored out there.” Hannah said as Andrea stood.

“I’ll be driving a Mako. That’s hardly boring.” Andrea smirked and headed out of the prefab toward the hangar. Upon her arrival, she quickly identified Jones and McCormick though they were already dressed in their hardsuits. Andrea had to blink a couple times because McCormick’s was... well, rather loud. Somehow he’d gotten one that was bright orange, not really a model she recognized at all. Maybe he customized it somehow, but orange was definitely not a color she’d expected to see. For some reason he was also wearing his helmet with it already.

They both saluted her as she approached, and Jones even made sure to call her “Ma’am.” While protocol was nice and all, she needed to get them a little less stiff. Too much adherence to protocol could lead to them burning out before their time.

“At ease. I’m going to go change into my hardsuit, make sure the Mako’s ready for driving.” She eyed the pair.

“Yes ma’am. Ken and I will make sure.” Jones nodded to McCormick who then made some muttered comment about the Mako, but she didn’t quite catch all of it.

“Something wrong with your helmet’s microphone, McCormick?” Andrea asked. The orange-clad private shook his head. “You should speak a bit louder then, if your mic’s not picking it up properly.”

“McCormick’s accent’s a bit thick, and he tends to mumble. It’s something that got him in trouble a few times in boot, but you get used to it after a while. He’s not that hard to understand when you know what to listen for.” Jones said.

Andrea sighed. “Right. Anyway, I’ll be back.”

Shepard made her way to the locker her mother had told her about near the Mako. When she popped it open, she narrowed her eyes and let out a low groan. It had to be that armor. Well, that explained why her mother was smirking for certain. Ultimately, the Sirta-manufactured armor was definitely something she’d prefer not to wear, not only because pink just wasn’t her color, but because it didn’t allow her the best flexibility for her biotics. She’d gotten to try on some commando armor one time and it was like wearing armored silk. Still, a hardsuit was necessary for Mako travel, so she’d put it on. If anyone complained or made fun of her, she’d make sure to get them their own set of Phoenix armor. After all, pink was more a manly color, and she could just picture Garrus and Wrex in this. The thought almost had her giggling. She grabbed the hardsuit and moved to a semi-private area to don it.

Once everything was in place, she headed back toward the Mako. Luckily for them, neither Jones nor McCormick said anything about the color. She’d left the helmet off, as she didn’t think there was any real need for it at the moment.

“Right, let’s get going. Hop in, boys and scoot over; I’m driving.” Once both the privates were inside the Mako, she boarded it herself. Oh, sweet Mako, how she missed it. The Normandy SR-2 never had a Mako, and the Hammerhead didn’t really compare. Sure, the Hammerhead was far more maneuverable with its hover capabilities, but it felt so flimsy at times, almost like it was made of paper. The Mako could take a beating and keep on going.

“So, which of you is on repair duty?” Andrea asked. “Because engineering is far from my specialty.”

“I’m a trained engineer, but repairs shouldn’t be needed, right? It’s not like we’re doing anything dangerous.”

“Never know. Eden Prime still has some unexplored areas, which is where we’re headed. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” Andrea said with a smirk. McCormick muttered something about how his navigation would be... something then. “Don’t worry about it, McCormick. You can be on turret duty if we need it.”

“Woo hoo!”

“Glad you’re happy. Let’s go!” Andrea shouted with her own bit of glee as she started up the Mako and drove out of the parking bay. It didn’t take her long to reach the Mako’s top speed, the vehicle barely bumping as the side wheels rolled over some rocks in the way. Unlike most of the planets that Andrea had explored with the Mako prior to this point, Eden Prime was mostly flatlands. The area that she was headed toward was beyond the farmlands that were under the arcologies, untouched thus far by the corporations that made Eden Prime their home. She kept up the top speed, even when turning the vehicle, drifting a bit on the grass. After pulling that maneuver, Jones turned in his seat toward her.

“Who taught you to drive?” Jones was almost accusatory.

“The Mako? My first CO. Driving overall? That would be a former friend of mine from Earth.” She turned again, jumping the Mako a bit to give it a sharper turn. It was definitely around here somewhere. While the area was mostly flatland, she was quickly approaching one of the mountain ranges, which she knew matched it in some way.

“All due respect, ma’am, but I think you need to be retrained!” Jones grabbed onto his seat.

As Shepard sharply turned again, she quoted someone very dear to her. “Why is it that whenever someone says ‘with all due respect,’ they really mean ‘kiss my ass’?”

McCormick gave an eloquent “Iunno” sound and then muttered something to Jones that sounded both like an insult and something fairly vulgar. Andrea just focused on her driving.

They’d been driving at speed for about a half hour when Shepard felt it. The ground shook slightly, and Andrea cut the throttle. Something felt off about this to her. The ground shook again and she glanced to Jones and McCormick. “McCormick, get on the turret. I may need you shooting in a second.”

Without asking any questions, the orange-suited man climbed into the gunner seat. This wasn’t supposed to be needed, but Andrea activated the kinetic barriers of the Mako.

“What do you think is out there, ma’am?” Jones asked.

“I don’t know. I hope it isn’t what I think it could be...” The ground shook again, and it started to part, bulging upward. “McCormick, there!”

Shepard put the Mako in reverse, flipping to the rear camera on her view. There was no way she was getting these two near enough for the Maw to do more than spit.

The ground shook again and bulged upward behind them. The ground ahead split, bits of it falling down somewhere. Shepard attempted to gain some more traction, flipping switches and turning levers inside the Mako... and then the ground just wasn’t there. She kept them aloft as long as she could, clamoring for the nearest bit of solid ground, but the eezo generator inside the Mako could only hold them up for so long. So she immediately tried to get a look at where they would be falling, to find the best possible place to land. Unfortunately, the cavern below had a good distance between where they were and the ground, so she did her best to control where the Mako would land before the eezo generator gave out and they started falling.

Once the generator failed, she immediately flared her biotics, placing a lift field under the Mako to slow it down to a safe speed. If she could keep this up long enough, they’d land safely, or the generator would get back and the boosters would be useable again. Unfortunately, she had never done a field as wide as this one before, but she knew that in order to keep those under her command safe, she would have to put every ounce of effort into it. Andrea strained, her amp clearly straining with her, but unlike the other amps she’d used before, this one held... longer than Andrea could. The mental strain was too much and she blacked out about 40 meters into the fall.

*****************

Wind blew through the forest tonight, the branches reaching, stretching toward her as she stood in the clearing. They grasped at her like the claws of a banshee, never quite reaching and the trees whispered her name.

“Andrea...” they whispered, voices carrying on the breeze urging her onward. She stepped forward, into the wind. A glimpse of movement, a child she’d failed... she would get there this time. She ran forward, chasing the mirage, moving slowly... so slowly. She was running at top speed, but the woods barely moved beside her.

“Andrea...” the voices whispered again, more urgent... “Shepard...”

She came upon a large tree. A body, human, was tied to it. Armor, jagged and cracked coated in blood, adorned the human, who was unmistakably female, an N7 emblazoned on the shoulder. She approached the likely dead body and carefully poked at it. The helmet fell off, revealing her own face, cut, bloody and broken. Dead. This was her corpse.

“No... I’m not dead. I’m not.” Shepard tried to reassure herself.

The body’s eyes suddenly opened, revealing deep black pools. The head turned toward her, and in her own voice, the corpse said, “The Darkness is coming...”

Andrea’s eyes shot open. Standing over her was McCormick, and she could hear him muttering her name. Or maybe he was saying it; the man’s voice was so faint, even with his helmet’s speaker right near her. The light coming from his omni-tool illuminated the area around her, and she could see that she wasn’t in the Mako anymore.

“Lieutenant!” McCormick’s voice actually came out clear that time, and then he ruined it by muttering about her being awake. How he managed to call over to Jones at the same tone and have Jones actually hear him was beyond her.

She climbed to her feet and took a look around. About three meters away was the Mako, looking... well, if she had to be honest, the Mako actually looked pretty fine. She wasn’t sure it would be able to run with its wheels cracked the way they were, but other than that, it wasn’t that bad off.

“Lieutenant, glad to see you’re awake.” Jones stepped out the back of the Mako and over to her.

“Glad to be awake... where the hell are we?” Andrea looked around the area. The only light around came from the omni-tools of the two privates and the Mako’s headlights. She was deeply considering putting on her helmet to get a good look around with night vision, but for now, she could already tell that this was no ordinary cavern. The walls, though vegetation had started to come through, were obviously either metal or some sort of composite material. The walls were too well formed to be anything natural.

“No clue, Lieutenant, but I’m not so sure what happened was a cave-in.” Jones pointed upward. No light shone down from the surface. “We’re a good distance down, but something that size should still leave a hole wide enough for us to have some natural light. We’re lucky the Mako’s electronics are still working, even though its eezo generator’s shot.”

“Lovely. Can you get anyone on the radio?” Shepard looked again. There seemed to be a way that this cave continued down that way. Definitely didn’t look like there was a way out any other way.

“I’ve tried, but when I try to call out, all I get is static. Luckily the helmet radios seem to be working fine.” Ah, that explained how he heard McCormick.

“Right, keep at it. I’m going to get my helmet and take McCormick for exploration. I want you staying here at the Mako getting the Commander online. Also, if you can get the generator working again, that’d work well.” Andrea knew what she needed to do.

“Aye, ma’am. Your helmet’s where you left it in the Mako, as are the weapons.”

Andrea nodded and went in to retrieve them. She put her helmet on and lowered the visor, syncing it with her omni-tool. While she didn’t have an accurate map of this place just yet, exploring would help her map it out. Night vision on the helmet would help her see, and the Storm VII she attached to her belt along with the Predator pistol would certainly help with any trouble she ran into along the way. Shepard also slung a carry bag over her back. She didn’t want to just leave the Tome where someone could find it.

Stepping out of the Mako, Shepard gestured to McCormick, who already had his weapons on him. “Come on, Private, let’s get you some exploration done. Stay with me, and follow my lead. I don’t know what we’ll run into down here, but I don’t want to take any chances.” She then tapped her helmet. “Jones, I’m testing radio contact.”

“Read you loud and clear, Lieutenant.” Jones’s voice came over the helmet radio, and Shepard waved to the Mako.

“Right, let’s see what we have here...” Andrea led McCormick down the opening. As she passed the threshold, a familiar flash of memory passed through her mind. The Collectors were out in force as this facility was being prepared for use. There were many casualties... Too many. Only a few would survive, and it was important that one did.

“Lieutenant!” McCormick’s voice broke her out of her memory. He then muttered something about her eyes going green for a second and lights turning on.

She looked around as ancient lights began to flicker on, and what looked like an ancient console blinked. One would think that, as old as this was, Millennia of dust would coat the console, but somehow it was only lightly dusted, easily brushed off. Shepard looked at the console’s display, and while the words weren’t in any language her translator recognized, she could identify it as Prothean. She placed a hand on the console and text began to appear.

>Facility VI Victory online. Prothean user detected

Shepard blinked. She hadn’t expected that bit. Perhaps something about her pinged as Prothean. Who knew? “Let’s see here... What’s the status of the facility?”

McCormick muttered something that sounded vaguely like “it’s beat to shit,” but she paid it no mind in favor of the upcoming text. It sounded like he had no clue what she was reading.

>Preservation facility active. Warning. Power supplies at ten percent. Four stasis pods remain active. Power reroute from Pod 03 in two solar cycles. Warning. Facility structure compromised. Non-Prothean life-forms detected. Indoctrination levels... at 0%.

Non-Prothean life-forms? Did Victory mean McCormick? Four pods? When she’d come here in 2186, there had only been the one pod containing Javik. Maybe with four, there would be the chance that the Prothean race could be revived. Imagine how that would look for humanity. No indoctrination levels was a good thing. It meant that her own fears about being indoctrinated were negligible, and that there weren’t any Reaper forces already here lying in wait. She could relax.

“Send a map of the facility to my omni-tool, Victory... we’ll go wake up the four.”

>Sending map now.

McCormick looked to her and muttered something about not understanding what she was dealing with.

“It’s a long story, McCormick... But it looks like there might be four active stasis pods here. If we can crack them open, we might have four actual Protheans to talk to.” Andrea smirked. This time she didn’t have to wait for Cerberus to do the digging.

“Awesome.” Once again, McCormick’s vocabulary seemed to be rather monosyllabic when he wasn’t muttering.

“Indeed. Let’s go see if we can find them. I’ve got the map of this place... and maybe we’ll be able to find a way out.” Shepard led the way further down the bunker’s entrance when she heard something strange, almost like electricity sparking across a wire. She turned her head back to check where the sound came from, and then she blinked. A translucent wall of green energy had formed between where she and McCormick were standing and the entrance.

McCormick ran up to the wall and tried to push against it with the tip of his gun. The wall sparked, sending a shock of green electricity over the Private’s kinetic barrier. Whatever it was, it didn’t look like they could pass through it. Luckily McCormick looked okay. He muttered something about not going back that way as he approached Shepard’s side, and she had to agree.

“Guess we push on.” Neither Shepard nor McCormick were tech focused, and she couldn’t see anywhere to slap the omni-gel; so there was no way they could get around it. Plus, it obviously was some sort of Prothean Tech. This meant that, like for the force field that once held Liara on Therum, there was probably some sort of off switch further inside the bunker.

“Shepard to Jones.” Andrea figured she should let the other Private know what happened.

“This is Jones, reading you loud and clear, Lieutenant.” He sounded somewhat chipper.

“Seems the structure nearby was a Prothean bunker of some sort. According to the VI, there are four Protheans in some sort of stasis further in. McCormick and I are going to go see if we can recover whatever’s there.”

“Wait... Protheans in stasis? You mean that there might be live Protheans here?” Jones sounded about as incredulous as she felt. Four of them alive... she was only expecting Javik. How the hell did Cerberus gum that one up last time?

“Yeah. We also seem to have tripped some sort of sealing mechanism... so don’t try to come in after us. Hopefully there will be something further in that can disable it. If not, I want you to get that Mako cannon working.” Shepard knew it was best to have a backup plan. “We’ll blast our way out if we have to.”

“Aye, ma’am. Anything else?”

“Keep trying to contact the Waterloo. They probably won’t be looking for us yet, but if you can boost the signal somehow, they’ll find us once they start.” Andrea ordered. “McCormick and I are headed further in, Shepard out.”

For something that was close to fifty thousand years old, the facility was truly well preserved. Especially when she considered that the place had not only been attacked by Reaper Forces, but it had also been subject to a self-induced neutron purge. The bodies of the Collectors, husked versions of the Protheans, were nowhere to be seen, and despite some bits of corrosion, there was little damage. Well, there was little damage up until this point. The way forward was blocked by some sort of cave-in from the wall.

McCormick cursed and looked around. “Lieutenant!” He pointed to where the cave-in likely originated with his omni-tool’s light, revealing a cavern beyond.

Shepard took a look herself, and while the cavern didn’t appear on the map of the facility, it seemed like it was their only way forward at this point. Unless she wanted to severely strain herself by biotically moving the rubble, they were going to have to chance the cavern.

Andrea led the way into the cavern, getting a first look around. A pile of rubble led the way down to a hewn stone platform. Carefully, she made her way down the pile followed shortly by McCormick. Once on the stone platform, she got a good look at the walls. This was no natural cavern. The walls, like the ground she now stood on, were hewn, and a mural decorated them.

She couldn’t tell what the mural depicted with night vision on, so she switched to regular vision and aimed her light at it. The mural depicted, from left to right, a group of... something, bowing down in reverence before a thing that looked vaguely reaper-like, but wasn’t metal. A Leviathan perhaps? Then something came... with greater power. A green light shone through or maybe a green energy... and the Leviathan was destroyed... They gave sacrifices to their new god. Or maybe they did something else... the mural got more erratic towards the end. This wasn’t Prothean. Liara would have a field day here. This... She didn’t know.

Shepard turned her night vision back on and turned off the light. “Come on, let’s get moving.”

She and McCormick made their way across the platform, down what seemed to be a corridor. It surprised her that this place, whatever it was, was this well preserved if it dated back as far as she thought it did. Not even the Prothean complex, which compared to this place was young, stood the test of time that the mural on the wall out there did.

Wait... was that sounds of movement? Shepard held up her hand and stopped, indicating that McCormick should stop too. When he did so, Andrea listened. Step, step-step. Step, step-step. Whatever it was, the noise it made as it moved was abnormal. Giving the hand signal for slow forward movement, she drew her pistol and approached the sound.

As she reached the end of the corridor, she saw into an open room, with a stone door opposite the entrance. There, in the middle of the room, pacing the width, were three small creatures, barely the size of a cocker spaniel. The creatures had three legs, some sort of rib-like structure alongside an almost visible spine that curled up into a scorpion-like tail. None of the creatures had any visible eyes, but they paced.

“The hell are those things?” Oh, now McCormick chose to be loud. All three creatures stopped in place and began to chitter loudly. The chittering echoed through the chamber, getting louder and louder and one by one the creatures started glowing. Shepard smacked McCormick upside the head and shushed him.

She slowly approached, careful as she got there. Shepard aimed with her pistol at one of them, when she felt she had a good angle... and squeezed. She wasn’t going to let this be like another Shifty Cow incident. Her bullet struck true, driving into the creature and causing it to fall over. She let out a slight breath of relief.

“Nice shot!” McCormick called over. And the damn chittering got louder. The creature nearest her started to glow a bright green, and she didn’t like that. So she aimed at it and pulled the trigger again. But before the bullet left the gun, the creature sent out a wave of green energy, catching her in it. As the world faded around her, Shepard thought on how she was going to retrain McCormick for appropriateness in situations.

Shepard blinked when she realized she was definitely alive, and she hadn’t blacked out as had been annoyingly common these past few weeks. She also realized she had no clue where she was. Once again, she appeared to be standing on a platform floating over nothing. She looked over the edge, and she could see nothing but grey. A cloud floating over what might have been a planet’s surface, but it was unrecognizable from where she was at. There were other platforms here too. As she looked out, she could see four other ones. Three had glowing altars of some sort on them, while the fourth had stairs leading up to what looked like the ruins of a gazebo. None of the platforms were even close enough to attempt to jump to, and there were no viable targets for her to biotic charge on any of them. Ahead of her on the platform she was on was a circle of light that kept cycling between colors every few seconds. It went red to green to blue to purple, and she could see similar circles on other platforms, though they didn’t cycle.

Shepard activated her radio. “Shepard to Jones or McCormick. Come in...”

Static. Wherever here was, it wasn’t in range of the radio. She needed to find her own way out. Once again, the only way to go at this point seemed to be forward, and there really was nobody around to call her stupid for trying something like this. The circle switched from green to blue. She’d seemed to have been teleported here by that creature. Perhaps she could get back by some sort of teleportation. The circle switched again from blue to purple. She had no clue what the colors meant, but going ahead had to be better than standing around and doing nothing. Shepard stepped onto the circle, and she felt a tugging sensation as she was transported to the platform with the half a gazebo.

“Well, that worked. “ She wasn’t sure whether to hope she was dreaming or hope she was awake as she climbed the steps into the gazebo. The ground at the center had a rune etched on it, a rune that matched the one on the cover of her book. She stepped onto it, and purple circles rose around her, transporting her back to the room she disappeared from.

Immediately, Shepard shot the third creature once she saw it. No way was she going back to... wherever that was.

“There are worlds beyond this one, worlds as we’ve never seen... nor can we... Our eyes do not open far enough... Try it... Try holding your eyes open... You can try holding them open as much as you want, but you’ll never see... never ever see... The world beyond the veil... The Veil of Reality... It’s there to protect us, from them: The Ancients... the Darkness... that... which... we... CANNOT... understand. Nor should we... Welcome the oblivion of ignorance! For to have knowledge... is to be DAMNED!”

“Lieutenant!” McCormick muttered something about her being alive. He didn’t seem to know where she had gone, and was afraid that she’d be gone forever. At least, that’s what she thought he muttered. He could have muttered something nasty and she wouldn’t be certain.

“Yeah, I’m back, McCormick. No clue where the hell I was. If we run into those things again, we should pick them off from afar.” Shepard shook her head. That was far too strange. Those creatures... they couldn’t really exist... but they did. There was no logical explanation for them the way there was for husks. “We should press on. Hopefully we’ll find those Protheans and they can help us get out of here.”

Across the room was definitely a door of some sort. The stone was a different color from that surrounding it and she could see where it would be pushed inwards. She could not, however, see how to activate it. There was no visible button, nor was there any sort of technological interface to slap omni-gel on. The door simply had an inverted triangle on it and the double boxed green rune that was used on the mural outside.

“McCormick, can you make any sense out of this?” Andrea stood aside for a second as the Private came over to examine it. He tried to push on the door, kicked it twice, and then stepped away shaking his head. “Right then, stand back.”

Andrea took hold of her biotics, going through the mnemonic motions to activate a lift field. She attempted to apply it to the door, to reduce its mass and move it, but the door refused to budge. Either the door was well wedged into place and was never getting open, or there was another way to open it.

“Lieutenant, your bag.” McCormick’s warning came just a tad too late as the Tome of Eternal Darkness fell down out of her pack, opening to a page. McCormick muttered something about his translator glitching when he looked at the page, but Shepard could read it just fine. The page was simply titled, “Magick,” and Shepard raised an eyebrow. Still, those cultists that attacked Arcturus had used something to revive those bodies, and they definitely weren’t using Dragon’s Teeth. What if... it was some sort of magick?

“McCormick, why don’t you look around the walls or something for a lever or a switch. There has to be some way to open this door.” McCormick nodded and she bent down to retrieve the book. She looked over the page, trying to figure out just what this “magick” was. It seemed simple enough to do. She would read a small incantation that involved the spell’s runes, and something would happen. Of course, she really didn’t expect anything to happen at all regarding this. Magic wasn’t real, even if it was spelled with a k at the end. Still, there seemed to be no other rational way to open the door. Even biotics failed to budge it.

“This is probably going to be stupid, but I’m going to do it.” She ran one finger along the book to the spell that seemed like it might help if magick were real. Maybe the thing was invisible. Then she’d have to reveal it. “By Xel’lotath, reveal yourself.”

Weird incantation, but when three runes appeared on the ground near her, she couldn’t deny that something had happened. Each one was read off in what sounded like a parody of her own voice.

Narokath. Redgormor. Xel’lotath.

“What the shit?” McCormick’s eloquent voice verified that she wasn’t seeing things herself. The runes really did appear on the ground, lighting up in sequence with them being read, and then her vision was tinged with green. Night vision had evolved from the 20th century to include more colors than just green, so it wasn’t just the night vision that caused it, and as she looked at the door, she could see, right where the triangle had been, a pull handle.

Reaching to grab the pull handle, Andrea felt she had to respond to McCormick. “I have no clue, but the book says it’s magick. With a K.” Pulling the handle out and turning it before pushing it back in, she continued. “I can’t deny its results... it revealed the way to open this door...” The door rose, revealing the room beyond it. “And now we’re one step closer to...”

Shepard trailed off as the torches lining the walls of the next room began to light and she could see the contents. The floor was littered haphazardly with corpses. It was littered haphazardly with flayed corpses. It was littered haphazardly with flayed Prothean corpses.
********************

Author’s Notes:
This chapter was originally intended to be about the length of the previous chapter, but it just kept growing. The original stop point was going to be about two or three scenes later than this one, but this seemed to be a natural ending point for the chapter.
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