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Zeppo Effect: Fight for the Lost

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This story is No. 2 in the series "Zeppo Effect". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: The Galaxy's Greatest Hero is back from the dead with a small army of the deadliest operatives in the galaxy to take on all comers. They say it's a suicide mission, that it’s certain death. THEY keep forgetting that Shepard has a Zeppo in her corner.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Games > Sci-Fi > Mass Effect Trilogy(Recent Donor)BHRamsayFR1864310,83930386132,19116 Jan 1226 Sep 13No

Interlude: Better Than the Last One

AN -- thanks to Reikson and Drakependragon


Interlude: Better Than the Last One


8
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Ashley Madeline Williams giving a report to the Citadel Council?


She’d have laughed at the idea only a few years ago. Assuming she ever wound up in the presence of the Council, she’d have bet serious creds it’d have been for them to blame her for some mistake or screwup and use her as a scapegoat in the same way that her grandfather had been tossed aside, so long ago.


Of course, that was before she’d met Joan Lisbon Shepard and become one of the misfits that woman had a habit of surrounding herself with.


“…and that’s everything that happened.” Ashley finished. “Shepard’s team bugged out after the Collector Cruiser.”


“Are you sure that’s all that happened?” Anderson asked. Something in the old soldier’s voice made Ashley certain that he already knew a great deal more than he let on.


Buffy was the most likely source, but it wasn’t impossible that Shepard had contacted him on her own terms.


“Her people stopped to help the colonists, distributing samples of the Seeker swarm anti-toxin. Cerberus probably stole it after the Fehl Prime incident.” Ashley shrugged.


Councilor Valern nodded. “We’ve had teams monitoring relay traffic throughout Council space. They’ve been sighted on Illium, getting involved with some kind of disturbance relating to the Eclipse private military concern.”


“The Commander’s choice to return to Asari space is troubling,” Councilor Tevos mused thoughtfully. “What, if anything, do you think they hope to accomplish there, Chief Williams?”


“Maybe the Collectors are expanding their operations.” Anderson supplied.


“Or perhaps the Illusive Man has some hidden agenda?” Councilor Sparatus suggested snidely. “He’s targeted Asari Matriarchs that he considered a threat to humanity before.”


Ashley looked at Anderson briefly before turning back. “My take on the situation hasn’t changed, Councilors,” she said. “I firmly believe that Shepard’s after the Collectors and God help anyone or anything that gets in her way.” she tried to sound sure of her resolve.


The Salarian Councilor picked up on the tiny hesitation, “So you no longer think that the Illusive Man’s involved?” Valern asked.


“I didn’t say that,” Ashley snapped. “The Illusive Man might be using the Collector threat to motivate Shepard. But what’s clear is that she sees Cerberus as the galaxy’s only real opposition to the Collectors, and I’m willing to bet serious creds that he’s convinced her that joining him is the only way that she can fight the Reapers.”


“…and as long as she holds such a belief?” Tevos ventured. “She’ll just ignore anything else as long as the Collectors are the greater threat?”


Ashley nodded. “Pretty much. Hell; in her mind, working with Cerberus is probably a means to an end.”


“Then it’s as we’ve feared,” Sparatus grunted. “The Illusive Man’s using her obsession with the Reapers in order to manipulate her.”


“I think you’re missing the point,” Anderson urged. “The Collectors are representing a clear and present danger to the galaxy. They’re a threat that even the other Citadel races acknowledge.”


“David, nobody here is going to downplay the danger posed by the Collectors,” Tevos tried to sooth him. “I just have to ask; what if the Illusive Man turns the Commander’s considerable talents towards other… less benign… pursuits? What if she’s convinced to act against us someday?”


“Isn’t that a little paranoid?” Anderson snorted. He liked to think that he knew Shepard better than most other people. To a certain extent, he was even right.


Valern blinked slowly. “Recent STG reports from Illium indicate that the Commander has augmented her forces again,” he reported. “She’s made inquires about an Asari Justicar named Samara; perhaps she hopes to recruit her as she has others into her service.”


“A Justicar?” Tevos gaped. “Shepard and her crew are more likely to end up dead, never mind convincing one to work with her.”


“…and it apparently falls to me to remind you all yet againthat there’s a reason WHY you wanted her to be a Spectre.” Anderson grinned. “Shepard does what other people can’t.”


“This isn’t funny, David,” Tevos snapped. “There are some people in Asari society who’ll see the presence of a Justicar on her team as tacit approval of her actions.”


“I’d think that upholding her Spectre status pretty much accomplished that,” the former soldier shot back snidely.


“I doubt that we’ll accomplish anything more this session.” Valern said, cutting across the impending argument.


“All right, we’ll table this discussion for now,” Sparatus added. “We know that Shepard’s focused on the Collectors. No doubt she’ll give us cause to scramble our forces. But, for now, dealing with the Collectors makes even the non-human colonials feel secure.”


“Indeed,” Tevos sighed. “Chief Williams, your assistance in this crisis will not be forgotten.”


“Thank you, Councilors.” Ash said.


The holographic images faded and Anderson sighed.


Ashley exhaled releasing all the tension from her body. “I’ve been in firefights that didn't make me as nervous as talking to those idiots.” she thought to herself.


She looked toward Anderson trying to read the emotions playing across his face. “I told the truth as I see it,” the Ops-Chief grunted. “I don’t know what else I can do.”


“I guess we all have our parts to play in this little drama.” Anderson groaned. “For now, I have to suit up.”


“Yeah, I saw Senator Sleazeball hanging around earlier.”


Anderson snorted with disdain but strove to maintain his sense of decorum in the wake of Ashley’s well-timed little shot across the bow. “Senator Phillips is here to help me make nice with the other Council races. Plus, he’s donating some money for biotics to Huerta Memorial hospital.”


Ashley just grunted. “What’s he really want? The man can’t say good morning without lying twice; no wonder he and Udina like hanging out together so much.”


“Nevertheless, be nice and steer clear of him if you can.” Anderson lectured. “I’ll have enough on my hands without him trying to use you for whatever bout of his latest stupidity has really brought him out here.”


“Then why are you putting up with him?” she rolled her eyes.


“…because his stupidity brought Kahlee Sanders to the Citadel,” he grinned, straightening his suit jacket’s collar. “She’s being accompanied by Matriarch Mirani K’Stai, the Asari backer behind that biotic-acceptance movement on Earth; you know, Universal Force?”


“Kahlee Sanders the one that got away?” she kidded half-heartedly.


“More like we never could make it work, not for long,” he sighed. “She has her duties and I have mine. What we do is too important for either of us to give it up. I’m sure you can sympathize.”


She sighed wearily. “Yeah… I wish I didn’t, but I do.”


As she headed to the doorway, though, a thought stopped her. “Do you want me there?”


He perked up. “You have your dress blues?”


Ashley nodded. “You never know when someone will want you to salute in style.”


“Then play it subtle. You… can be subtle, right?” he smirked.


“I learned from the best,” she shot back, grinning. “You might know her. The name pops up from time to time in your status reports.”


Anderson chuckled in spite of himself. “See, this is why I miss Kahlee. She’s maturing. I can’t remember the last time she tried to blow something up.”


“You do realize that you’ve jinxed yourself, right?” Ashley teased, making him palm his forehead in amused exasperation.


The door burst open and a harried-looking Asari came in trying to stop the force of nature that was Westerlund News’ leading purveyor of ambush-style tabloid journalism.

“Councilor Anderson! Councilor Anderson!” the reporter called out. “Khalisah bint Sinan al-Jilani, Westerlund News! Would you mind going on the record about the so-called Shepard Situation?”


“I’m not aware of any situation, Miss al-Jilani.” Anderson shrugged. “She’s on assignment, and it took her to Horizon. Thankfully, she was available to aid the colonists there during their hour of need.”


“Apparently, Chief Williams doesn’t share your rosy outlook on the situation.” Khalisah sneered, activating her omni-tool and prodding a few keys.


Ashley saw that damned vid clip, twitching as her impulsive rant was broadcast for the entire room to hear.


Sorry, Shepard, but I’m an Alliance soldier. That might not mean anything to you, but it sure as Hell means something to me. I’m reporting in about what happened here. We’ll let High Command decide if they believe your story or not.


Whoever had posted that compilation of combat footage from Horizon had done a remarkable job. Once the footage had gone viral, the social networks had blown up. Mankind for one was demanding answers to uncomfortable questions.

Anderson turned a neutral, questioning gaze to Ashley, who just pinched the bridge of her nose in exasperation. Yet another heat-of-the-moment gaffe made infamous by mass/social media. If Ashley hadn’t been who she was, and that also included being one of Shepard’s subordinates as well as General Williams’ granddaughter, then she probably would’ve been demoted for that incident.

We both know that’s a waste of time.” Shepard scoffed in the vid. “If High Command was gonna do anything, they’d have done something when the abductions started two years ago.


But there it was; the public was furious that the Alliance had known about the colony abductions all along. Current public action was basically to bury the Parliament Senators, the Prime Minister, and the Admiralty, under a flurry of howling protests, accusations of incompetence, and demands for protection. All the analysts were predicting a bloodbath during the next general election


Sensing that she’d drawn blood, al-Jilani smiled. “A pretty damning accusation…” she pointed out. “If anyone would know what it’s like to be used by the Alliance, it’d be Ashley Williams… and yet, she doesn’t seem convinced that the Commander has the galaxy’s best interests in mind.”

Prodding her omnitool again, more of the vid-cap played for her audience. How many of the colonists taken today might still be alive if you’d trusted the Alliance, if you’d trusted me?” Ashley snapped in the vid-file. “I’m continuing my investigation. If Cerberus is behind this, then I can promise you that I won’t rest until they pay; crossfire or not. Are we clear?


Crystal,” video-Shepard snapped curtly.


Not entirely an untoward perspective, all things considered. Cerberus had been known for some nasty stunts in the past. These colony abductions didn’t exactly have Cerberus’ MO written all over it, but anything was possible.


As she cut the vid-feed, al-Jilani seemed triumphant. “Councilor Anderson, the people deserve to know the truth.”


“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Ashley snarled, getting in Anderson’s way.


“Williams,” the former Captain began, trying to keep her from making another gaffe that would be fatal to her career. He recognized the line from an old vid-movie that his father had loved to watch.


But the Ops-Chief was beyond caring. To Hell with the Williams family curse; there were worse things at stake than trying to redeem the family name. “No, Anderson,” she gently pushed him back. “High time someone told it like it is.”


Khalisah eagerly prodded her hover-cam into action. “Ashley Williams, one of the heroes of the Citadel, is finally breaking the wall of silence that has shrouded the actions of the notorious Commander Shepard,” she said into her cleverly-disguised microphone.


Turning back to Ash, the reporter started off. “Chief Williams, what’s really going on? What big secret is the Alliance Military hiding from the people?”


“The big secret that Anderson won’t tell you is that everything that’s happened as of late is your fault.” Ash sneered, jabbing a finger at al-Jilani. “You, and every other useless fatass who watches this program, are responsible for this mess right now.”


Anderson watched the whole spectacle unfold before him, desperately trying not to display his amusement at how this uppity reporter was being taken to task.


“People like you have the luxury of deluding yourselves into thinking that you’re entitled to a lot of things.” Ashley added. “Spewing your bullshit opinions about something, regardless of the actual facts.”


Crossing her arms and leaning back on her left leg, unconsciously imitating Shepard, Ashley went in for the kill. “You remember that I served aboard the Normandy two years ago, right?” she asked. “I, for one, remember all the bile and venom that you personally spewed, smearing public opinion against the Commander, her crew, and our mission.”


As the Westerlund News reporter desperately tried to regain control of the interview, the now-irritated Ops-Chief cut her off. “Need I remind you that our mission two years ago ended with the Commander being forced to steal her own ship?”


Their escape from lockdown, which wasn’t as daring as the vids and stories all made it seem.


“That she had to break through a full blockade in order to lead an assault on a Geth front practically all by herself?”


Ashley had a full head of steam by now.


“That the whole crew of the Normandy ending up spearheading the Alliance effort to stop an attack that we’d told you all was coming a full six months in advance?”


Ah, there it was; humanity’s critical role in the Battle of the Citadel.


“But no one could’ve foreseen-” al-Jilani tried, but Ash cut her off.


“Bullshit!” Williams snarled. “Shepard saw it coming, and she warned the galaxy about what was coming! I remember you personally insulting her and every member of the Normandy ground team.”


“I was reporting the facts,” al-Jilani pointed out. “Shepard’s a war criminal; that’s a fact. Shepard sacrificed human lives to save an unelected alien council; that’s a fact. She is the one who’s working with terrorists and criminals; that’s a fact.”


“The facts are that the Destiny Ascension is manned by a crew of just over ten thousand Asari who live and serve on that ship! THAT is who Shepard was saving; the fact that the Council just happened to be onboard was sheer serendipity! The fact is that Commander Shepard’s out there right now, convinced that those very same terrorists, criminals, and assassins are the only people willing and able to do anything to stop these damn colony attacks!” Ashley all but shouted.


“Then tell me how working with Cerberus and the Illusive Man fits in!” al-Jilani demanded.


“You ever hear the old Bible story about the Good Samaritan? You think the poor guy whose life he saved really gave a damn about who did the saving?” Anderson barely kept himself from scoffing sympathetically. The analogy was clear, if unspoken.


“Chief Williams, you can’t really lay blame for Joan Shepard’s action on the public and the press; that’s just ridiculous,” the reporter protested.


“I watched people like you tear my grandfather’s life and reputation apart until he died; I’d like to think that I’m entitled to my opinions about the press and the public.” Ash sneered. “Now, here we are, all these years later, and I’m seeing the same smear campaign all over again.”


“But you condemned her publicly.” Al-Jilani whined.


“I don’t like her methods.” Ashley snarled. “Shepard’s scary ruthless. If she believes that the only way to stop a pest infestation in your house is to raze that house to the ground, then she’d do it without a second’s thought. As far as I’m concerned, working with Cerberus is wrong.”


Anderson could certainly agree with her there.


“The Illusive Man can’t be trusted; not now and not ever,” the Ops-Chief hissed darkly. “But I do not, nor will I ever, question her motives. Joan Shepard is many things and she’s definitely the most dangerous woman that I’ve ever met, especially when she’s pissed off. But she’s no traitor.”


Ashley stepped back and took a deep breath. “That said… if Commander Shepard’s gone rogue, it’s because she thinks that we can’t defend ourselves. After what I saw on Horizon, I can’t say that she’s wrong.”


“So… you share Commander Shepard’s belief in these so-called Reapers?” al-Jilani asked, skeptical. “Do you really think a race of mythical machines are responsible for all of the colony attacks...for the Eden Prime War?”


“I know what I think, but if you have a God-fearing bone in your body then you’d better get down on your knees and pray that Shepard’s wrong.” Ashley hissed. “Because, if she’s right, that the Reapers really are behind these attacks… if the Collectors really are working for them… then we’re at war and we’ve been that some time for some time without even knowing about it, or even fighting it!”


That certainly put a damper on al-Jilani, but Ashley wasn’t finished. “To date, Commander Shepard’s been fighting that war without official support. Regardless of her methods, she’s put her life on the line to save billions of lives, so you think about that the next time you tee up one of your little muckraking smear-job pieces on her.” Ashley snarled, finishing her little tirade. “Maybe then you’ll give Shepard the respect she deserves.”


Anderson nodded in approval despite himself. Shepard really had found a good one in Ashley Williams.


She turned and stalked out the door. As it opened, she barged past Buffy, who walked into the room and noticed the reporter still there. Anderson recognized the frosty look in his secretary’s eyes and sighed in resignation.


Meanwhile, Miss al-Jilani was prodding her float-cam’s controls on her datapad. “Check vid; please tell me we got that.” As a response came back on her com-implant, she sighed wearily. “Ugh; bullrushed on my own show,” she groaned. “But damn if it wasn’t worth it.”


She looked up, only to see Anderson leaving. “Councilor Anderson, would you like to comment about what Commander Williams had to say?”


“I thought that she was quite eloquent,” the former Captain said dryly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got other matters to attend to; Miss Summers will show you out.” And with that, the door to his office closed behind him.


Khalisah bint Sinan al-Jilani took a good look at Councilor Anderson’s secretary. Though al-Jilani topped Buffy in height by a good few inches the reporter suddenly felt very, very small under the weight of Buffy Summers’ cool gaze.


“Well, I have to file this report so if you could let me pass-” al-Jilani said, trying to walk past.


Buffy just shook her head. “He said to show you the way out. The door’s not for you today.”


Now, Miss al-Jilani frowned. “But the only other way out of these offices is the balcony.”


Buffy grinned nastily. “So… ready to star in the most watched vidclip on the extranet?”


“You wouldn't dare.” Al-Jilani whimpered, “You touch me and everyone will see it ”


“You kidding me? I'll probably get a fan page by the end of the day.” Buffy hissed and advanced on the reporter.


In the end, Buffy was wrong. The fan page with tribute wall had several candid photos of al-Jilani dangling over the Presidium, including several that had obviously been photoshopped. There was also a lively debate forum and message board that included more than a few slightly disturbing declarations of love. All were active about an hour and a half later. Who would’ve thought that Turians of all people could be so... effusive in their romanticism?


8
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As she moved through the crowded wards, Ashley found herself thinking. Her dress uniform was packed, but Buffy had taken one look at it and declared it so shabby that it wasn’t fit for an Operations-Chief of the Systems Alliance. To that end, she directed Ash to a place on the Wards that guaranteed a dry-cleaning and quick touch-up.


Finally arriving at the apparel ship, she walked up to the Salarian behind the counter and was surprised to see the Spectre that she’d been expecting to run into for hours now.


“Chief Williams? Jondum Bau, Special Tactics and Recon; a pleasure to meet you in person.”


Ash couldn’t help herself. “You work in an apparel shop?”


“No, but I know the owner well enough that they were willing to accept a small donation of credits to take an extended lunch break while we have our little discussion.”


“How’d you even know I was gonna be here?”


“Buffy Summers has spent an inordinate amount of time visiting every apparel shop on the Citadel. Her reputation as a… fashionista, I believe is the word… has become legendary.”


Ash grimaced. “Look, Bau, I’m really uncomfortable talking behind hers and Anderson’s backs. What’s got you so concerned that you couldn’t confront them directly?”


“Shepard.” Bau shrugged. “We both know that there’s more going on than what’s being publicized. Now, there’s that direct action against the Collectors.”


“Fleet Command is stepping up patrols all over human-controlled space.”


“A move that many, including the Batarian Hegemony, view as poorly disguised military buildup in advance of some aggression.”


“I don’t know…” Ash sighed. “She practically begged to take me back to Citadel and I said no.”


“Unfortunate.” Bau observed. “Your accepted presence aboard the Normandy might have made it easier to investigate her; to find out what, if anything, Shepard’s real agenda is.”


Ashley shook her head. “I know why I’m looking in the shadows, but why would a Spectre with access to STG resources turn to me?”


“One of Shepard’s hired specialists is a very capable master thief of my acquaintance.” Bau added. “Her name is Kasumi Goto, and I’ve been after her for years. That’s how I know that she’s occasionally targeted Cerberus for several heists in the past. And yet here she is now… working for Cerberus.”


“You think Shepard offered her something?”


“I’m almost certain of it. Then there’s the matter of Doctor Mordin Solus.”


“A Salarian running with Shepard?” Suddenly, she remembered an older Salarian with salmon-pink skin and a broken horn in scientist garb. “I think I saw him, what’s his story?”


“Mordin Solus is one of the brightest minds in the STG; a legend, really.” Bau replied. “He was the one who dealt with the Krogan adaptation to the genophage.”


Ashley paused at Bau’s frank revelation. “The genophage? As in the sterility plague?”


“A common mistake,” he shook his head. “The genophage isn’t a sterility plague, but rather compensates for the Krogan’s removal from a harsh environment by adjusting their birthrate to pre-contact levels.”


Ashley, a career soldier, could smell a party line when she heard it and said as much. “No offense Bau, but as my great-grandmother used to say; if it looks like bullshit, smells like bullshit, and its sitting in the middle of a cowpatch then there’s no sense in wasting time looking for a duck. Care to try again?” She just crossed her arms and waited expectantly while Bau’s universal translator and contextual databases wrestled with the saying.


Whatever they eventually spit out at him, Bau just shrugged at her cynicism. “The Krogan homeworld Tuchanka has sustained a harsh environment, its flora and fauna evolving for survival of the fittest at any cost. Between the planet’s vicious environment, and the Krogan’s natural penchant for violence, only one in every thousand Krogan ever matured to full adulthood. The genophage simply makes that mortality average a tad more literal.”


“So, instead of a thousand Krogan dying from any one of a thousand things that can happen to a person in their lifetime, they just die in stillbirth.” Ashley summed up his explanation.


“If the genophage is doing its job, then most don’t even make it to stillbirth, never mind past conception.” Bau clarified. “That is… until recently. The Krogan had begun adapting to the genophage, but we only noticed this trend after a visible upswing in viable births was recorded in our biannual surveillance census of Tuchanka.”


Absently tapping at his omnitool, he added, “All of our statistical projections indicated that their numbers could grow large enough to let them become a threat to the galaxy again, perhaps taking only a century to accomplish this feat.”


“I'm going to venture the guess you all decided to fix the problem?” Ashley commented dryly.


Bau smiled slightly. “Doctor Solus headed up an STG taskforce that created a new and more efficient version of the genophage, taking only months. Then he led the entire taskforce into making a covert insertion to Tuchanka in order to introduce the new genophage to the Krogan genome.” The Salarian explained.


“Are you people insane?” Ashley nearly exploded. “Doing it once was bad enough, and now you’re saying that you sterilized them again? You do know that if any other species had done something like that to anyone else, you people would call it a war crime, right?”


Bau just shook his head. “You’re human, Miss Williams. Your people appeared on the galactic stage less than thirty years ago now. The Rachni wars, or the Krogan rebellions that followed, were unlike any conflict that the Citadel races had ever encountered. Ever. It’s been over a thousand years, but our people are still traumatized by these two wars in many ways.”


“They saved the damn galaxy and all they wanted in return were some worlds to colonize.”


“You’re judging all Krogan by the example of Urdnot Wrex.” Bau lectured her, shaking his head. “Admirable, I suppose, but he and his clan are outliers amongst their own species by representing the closest thing to civilization on the Krogan social spectrum.”


Bau looked coldly at the Wards beyond the shop, as if seeing the galaxy beyond. “They are a violent people because they live on a violent world. They value the ability to fight and conquer because everyday life on Tuchanka is a battle for survival.”


Ashley couldn’t find any way to argue with him.


“I’ve been to Tuchanka, Operations Chief.” Bau murmured. “I’ve seen what they did to their own planet. Had we allowed it, they would’ve done that to every last one of their own colony worlds before moving on to others. Perhaps even Earth..”


“How do you even know that’s how things would’ve worked out?”


“Really, Operations-Chief, we’re Salarians.” Bau snapped irritably. “Do you really think that we used the genophage as our first resort? The taskforce chose to deploy the modification only after endless arguments and debates, postulating numerous scenarios, and running countless simulations through our computers. Doctor Solus himself said that our choices at the time were simple; genophage or genocide.”


“So you destroyed an entire culture because some computer told you to do it?”


Bau had never thought that the human penchant for broad-spectrum generalization in a summary could be so annoying. “That same computer also told us that aiding the Quarians against the Geth would only lead to greater chaos than it would solve.” Huh. A Salarian explanation for why the Citadel races had abandoned the Quarians after the Geth Rebellion.


“That same computer also warned us that letting the Turians continue their war with your people after the Relay 314 incident would only plunge the galaxy into perpetual war and brushfire conflicts.” Now that was something that she’d never heard before; a new reason for Asari intervention. Still, she felt a little vindicated at Bau’s words, that the Salarian government had feared that humanity could’ve given the Turians more than just a bloody nose if the First Contact War had lasted longer.


“You see the Krogan as a broken species and blame the genophage. Understandable, all things considered.” Bau acknowledged her perspective. “But what you don’t understand is that the Krogan are violent thugs of their own volition. That decision is actually what made the genophage necessary for galactic peace.”


Ashley sighed, unable to deny Bau’s assertions. “I… I think that… maybe I understand. But is that why you’re so worried about Shepard’s connections to Cerberus?”


He nodded. “In part, yes. That’s why I was hoping that I could get your help,” the Salarian Spectre replied. “The STG are concerned about Kahlee Sanders as of late. Is Councilor Anderson aware of her contacts, or her travel companion?”


Ashley just shrugged, not knowing the answer. “Anderson seems to like her, but I doubt it goes much beyond that.”


Bau shook his head. “I was in STG before I was chosen to be a Spectre. That experience has taught me one thing above all others; there are very few real coincidences out there, if at all. There’s always a deeper meaning behind everything; you just have to know where to look, and you’ll find it.”


“Then who else could you be worried about? The Asari she's travelling with?”


“Mirani K’Stai is both influential and politically active within the Asari government.” Bau shrugged. “She was a major proponent of Humanity having a larger role in galactic politics, and rumor has it that she was aiming for the next Human Spectre candidate to be a biotic drawn from amongst this year’s crop of Grissom Academy graduates.”


“Well, Sanders runs a pretty popular ship.” Ashley shrugged. “Grissom Academy’s swimming in Alliance military funding. In return, R-and-D gets first crack at anything her wonder-kids crank out.”


“Sanders herself has been suspiciously active in several major clandestine operations ever since now-Councilor Anderson went on his Spectre-trial mission with Saren Arterius over twenty years ago.” Bau added, which made her eyebrows rise.


She’d never heard about this part of Anderson’s history, and she was intrigued. “She’s also raised red flags because she's been targeted by Cerberus in the past. Something to do with the Ascension Project fiasco, I believe.”


“I heard about that,” she recalled aloud. “Cerberus was trying to kidnap a kid; some kind of super-biotic, right?”


“Yes… and Sanders’ staff at Grissom is also interesting.” Bau hummed, feeling speculative as he pored through his thoughts. “Apparently, she’s being escorted here to the Citadel by one Doctor Ioan Keiran, whose expertise lies in human-machine interface relating to biotics.”


“What’s so odd about him?”


“His file is suspiciously thin, to say the least.” Bau grunted. “Sanders might not be aware of this, but several of the companies listed in Keiran’s work history are companies that are known to be Cerberus fronts.”


“Wait, so you think this guy’s a Cerberus agent?”


“Indeed.” Bau nodded. “I believe that he was placed at the Academy deliberately, but we don’t know why. That, and I don’t know how Cerberus is connected to this case at all.”


“Why?”


“You don’t know?” At Ashley shaking her head, he just shrugged. “Mirani K’Stai was mentored by Matriarch Tilia Eraza, who all but raised her as her own daughter. But the two of them had a falling out after the First Contact War, and they never saw each other again.”


That other name twigged something in her memory. “Why do I know that name?”


“Eraza was a major force in Asari politics, until her biotics suddenly stopped working only four years ago.” Bau refreshed her memory. “She committed suicide shortly afterwards, unable to endure the humiliation of… not being Asari, as her suicide note said. Cerberus released a brief statement after the story of her suicide broke, claiming credit for destroying her biotic abilities.”


Ashley frowned. “Why?”


“She was a biotic supremacist, declaring that Asari stood at the top and that Humans were little better than pets. Mirani's views are considerably more moderate in comparison.” Bau shrugged. “In any case, Cerberus took exception to Eraza’s words, arranging for her to lose her biotics in retaliation and indirectly causing her death when she killed herself.”


Ashley was surprised at the truth as Bau chuckled at the look on her face. “Ever since that incident, the Asari Matriarchate has been extremely careful to not make another anti-human gaffe, if only because they still haven’t figured out how exactly Matriarch Eraza lost her biotics.”


“So what do you want?”


“Your help.” Bau shrugged. “I think that you want to do great things; that you want to be a force for change in the galaxy. That’s why you joined Shepard on the first Normandy, why you want to expose Cerberus’ true agenda. I want to help you, too. In return, you can help me.”


“Help you do what, exactly?”


“I need to find out, once and for all, if Joan Shepard really has gone rogue.” Bau said flatly, his voice allowing no argument. “If she’s innocent as you seem to want to believe, then it’s long past time she had help fighting and dealing with the Reaper threat. But...if she has gone rogue, then I’ll need someone who knows how she operates, how she thinks, so they can help me stop her.”


Ashley shuddered at the thought. Shepard was the latest in a long line of Vampire Slayers, and her strength and physical prowess might be comparable to Buffy Summers herself.


But even if they weren’t…


Well, a hundred and fifty-plus years of vampire slaying certainly made Buffy Summers a formidable fighter.


What, then, did you become with those powers and whatever skills that had allowed Joan to survive Torfan and the hundred other Hells that the crew of the Normandy had walked through?


Shepard’s skills with Buffy’s powers… a match made in Hell.


But Ashley Williams was a marine, trained to see Hell as just another battleground.


Finally, she said, “I’ll help you, Bau, but we’re after the truth. No offense, but if you’re looking to cook up some lie for the Council…”


“As ironic as I would find it using you to do what was done to your grandfather thirty years ago, my goal is the truth and I will follow it wherever it leads.” Bau shrugged.


“So where do we start?”


“You come back in a few hours and pick up your uniform.”


“But this place does thirty minutes or free service.”


“The owners do, yes.” Bau sighed. “But I’m a trained intelligence operative with expertise in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Forgive me if that training has left me with something of a gap in matters relating to dry cleaning, never mind the other jobs.”


Williams quirked an eyebrow as she handed her dress blues over to him. “You may not know it, but you and Shepard? You’d get along swimmingly.”


“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Bau grunted.


8
9
8


Later, as she strode through the crowd near the transport hub, she could hear someone complaining about some ‘damn human’ that caught her attention.


“Okay, Crystal Blue Persuasion,” a male voice replied. “I know we like to think of you as the John of the band, but maybe a touch less attitude, okay, sweetie?”


“Lorne… travel restrictions. I mean, really. Travel restrictions!” the voice whined.


“Yeah, Lorne,” another female voice chimed in. “How are we supposed to tour if we can’t even get off the Citadel?”


“I’m working on it, Paul.” Lorne shot back, soothing. “In the meantime, you might want to try being a little more upbeat and cheery. You know, like the real Paul was?”


Ashley took in the scene before her. Two Asari, dressed in the clingy, full-length gowns that seemed universal to their species.


‘…and occasionally despised by those of us not lucky enough to be born with a body metabolism that lets you maintain a four-percent body fat content and an ass that you can bounce quarters off of,’ an inner voice added.


The sight of Asari wasn’t that unusual, but their companion was really drawing the odd double-take and occasional stare. Tall and thin, with coiffed graying hair shot through his green-skinned head, he had bright and friendly red eyes that shone with warm intelligence and matched the two small horns protruding from his forehead near his hairline.


“Can I help?” Ashley asked, looking curiously at the green-skinned alien.


Excuse me, we were having a private discussion,” one of the Asari snapped.


“Really? You were yelling loud enough that the whole damn Promenade could hear you whining, so I thought that maybe you were trying to get someone’s attention.” Ashley snorted. “Now do you want help or are you going to keep bitching and whining?”


John pouted. “Ever since your people gained a seat on the Council, there’s been a hundred new travel restrictions set up. Where you can go, with how much… it’s insane! I actually miss when our people ran things.”


“So do I,” Ashley snorted. “Those humans guarding you and The Citadel would be a Hell of a lot more useful keeping pirates and the Collectors at bay.” The incongruity of Asari with male human names just kept sticking at her, frustrating her and making her a little cranky.


“But no, we’re stuck protecting your sorry asses after the Geth attack two years ago,” she added, feeling vicious. “You remember? Eight human ships got blown to Hell and gone saving the Destiny Ascension and the rest of the damn Citadel Fleet, all so your blue ass could sit here bitching about humans two years later instead of winding up as Reaper chow.”


“Sorry, we meant no offense,” the Asari named Paul sighed. “My friend’s just upset because we ended up on a watchlist somehow.”


“A watchlist?”


“A travel advisory?” their alien companion explained. “I’m guessing it might have to do with someone’s less-than-professional behavior during a shuttle ride or three.”


“Hey, I’m tired of drunk humans grabbing my ass and asking if they can embrace eternity all the time.” John snapped.


“I’ll give you that one,” Ash snorted. “Men need a cold shower that lasts from twelve to twenty-five.”


Both Asari giggled. “That’s clever, human.” John snickered.


“I thought so when my see-oh told ME that joke.” Ashley chortled. “Of course, Joan Shepard lecturing anyone about being oversexed is pretty damn ridiculous.”


Both Asari gaped at her. “You KNOW Commander Shepard?” Paul asked reverently. “Have you ever met her bondmate Liara T’Soni? She’s supposed to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful Asari on Illium.”


“I heard that pureblood bitch is a crime boss.” John sneered. “She could almost give Aria T’Loak a run for her money.”


“You might want to be careful when you run your mouth off, kid,” Ashley snapped, defending her old teammate. “Liara T’Soni is a friend, and she’s one of the most awesome people I know.”


“So you do know both of them?”


“…and here is where the embarrassing gushing should stop,” their companion soothed, butting in. He extended a green hand to her. “Hi! Krevlornswath; friends call me Lorne.”


Lorne proceeded to introduce his two companions, who turned out to be in the Asari Beatles tribute band Michelle MaBelle. “This is Paul, our rhythm guitarist and pianist, and this grouchy charmer is John. She plays piano and lead guitar. Ringo and George are still up at the Darkstar Bar, I think.”


Ashley snorted in spite of herself. “An Asari Beatles tribute band?”


“Wildest thing!” Lorne bubbled enthusiastically. “Apparently, there’s something about the tonal qualities of Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics and music that translates well across the galaxy! Salarians, Turians, even other Asari; they all love it! I found our girls here, got them together, and boom! The rest is history.”


“We’re on our way to Earth for a concert that Lorne says is very important.” Paul finally explained. “Something about history… the Sullivan Theatre?”


“The Ed Sullivan Theatre, cupcake.” Lorne chided. “…and, yes, it’s very important.”


Ashley gaped at him. “You mean that they don’t know about-”


Lorne hushed her. “Someone has a little problem with being superstitious and gets stage fright.” He jerked his head at John. “I figure… the less she knows about… you know what… the better she’ll feel after it’s all over.”


Ashley prodded her omnitool. “Hold on, I’ll be right back.”


She left Lorne and the two Asari alone and strode through the transport terminal up to the customs desk. Leaning over the counter, she said plainly, “I’d like you to lift a travel restriction on the Asari in Michelle MaBelle, please? They’re on a watch list.”


The customs agent just shook her head. “Sorry, ma’am, that’s not procedure.”


“Well, why are they on the list in the first place?”


“Revealing why someone’s on a watch list could compromise ongoing investigations,” the customs agent answered, sounding bored.


“You know, lady, if you hate your job so much that you can’t be bothered to do it, then that’s your problem,” the Ops-Chief growled. “But real people with real problems would like you to get off your ass and give a damn.”


“Excuse me?”


“Why did these people end up on a watch list? Don’t feed me some bureaucratic bullshit.”


“They were flagged as… possible Geth infiltrators.”


“Geth infiltrators.” Ashley deadpanned. “You saw a travel advisory about four Asari in a rock band being Geth infiltrators, and that made sense to you?”


“Well, you can never be too careful,” the customs agent protested. “I mean, they got aboard the station last time, didn’t they?”


Ash just rolled her eyes. “Lady, the Geth got aboard last time by going through that big honkin’ mass relay statue in the Presidium that’s actually a fully-functional mass relay.”


She couldn’t help but wonder what idiot in charge had seen too much old sci-fi vids about robot rebellions. “If the Geth wanted to infiltrate the Citadel, they’d use a computer virus or something. You know, since that’s what Geth really are; a computer program?”


“What?”


“Geth are software inside a mobile platform.” Ash sighed, hating to have to clarify herself to a bureaucratic drone. “The big giant robots with flashlight heads are like cars or shuttles with the Geth piloting them,” she explained. “The fact that you don’t know something like this is kind of scary… and more than a little ridiculous.”


The customs agent flushed. “Look, it’s not my fault. I’m just doing my job, okay?” she snapped, punching a few keys.


A minute or two later, she added, “There. I’ve flagged their case for review. That should let them travel in the meantime.”


“What does review mean?”


“If they don’t piss anyone off or cause any problems, we’ll both be dead and gone by the time their file comes around for review again. If they play their cards right, they’ll be in the matriarch stage before anyone bothers them about this again.”


Ashley nodded, returning to Lorne and his charges. “You’re good to go,” she reported to them. “Just stay under the radar and you should be fine for a long time.”


“Are you kidding me?” John demanded. “One random stranger talks to them and that’s it?”


“Well, it helps that I’ve fought my share of Geth before.” Ash shrugged.


“John, that’s Gunnery Chief Williams,” Paul gushed. “She served with Commander Shepard, they say that she’s gonna be the next human Spectre.”


“Well, they say a lot of things,” Ashley sighed. “But, you know, I figured that I’d help out a little. Like the old song says, ‘Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.’” She was a little off-tune, but it was nothing to write home about.


Behind her, Lorne winced. “Girls?” he piped up, catching their attention. “I have to chat with the lovely Chief Williams alone for a second. Get the others and get ready to leave; I’ll catch up with you later.”


The green-skinned anagogic demon waited until the two Asari were gone before turning on Ashley. “Okay, did Buffy or Xander send you to find me?”


“No, and how do you know them?”


“It’s complicated.” Lorne shrugged. “Well, actually, it’s not all THAT complicated,” he amended. “I guess it just feels complicated.”


“Ohh-kay… and that, in no way, answered my question.” Ashley shot back.


“It’s not supposed to, honey-buns, it comes with the territory.” Lorne shrugged. “A vague answer, ethereal knowledge… vague’s the new black. Well… the old black, depending on how you see things.”


“Okay, you’re making less sense than Xander and Buffy and that’s saying something,” the third-gen soldier groaned, wanting to slap her forehead in exasperation.


Lorne sighed loudly, running a hand through his hair. “Okay, let’s try this; I know that you’re mad at Xander for leaving you behind. Thing is, though, he saved you.”


At her mystified look, he gestured around them vaguely. “You’ve got pull and influence that you wouldn’t have gotten if you’d followed them on their current crusade,” he explained.


When she seemed skeptical, he added, “I know it hurts; believe me, I do. But you’ve gotta accept that there actually is a plan sometimes. And I mean a real plan, not those crazy and insecure stunts that Xander and the rest of his Looney Toons gang cook up.”


“How do you know all that? I mean… I guess you’re right, but how…?”


“There’s music out there, honey-buns,” the anagogic demon lectured her sagely. “The universe is made of it, and Xander’s witchy friend kinda hooked him up with the rhythm section.”


She perked up at this oblique mention of Xander, his immortality, and Willow. “You know what he is? What they all are?”


“Definitely.” Lorne nodded. “You don’t know it yet, but you’re part of something so much bigger than you’ve ever imagined that you’d ever become a part of.”


“I never wanted to be part of anything.” Ash shook her head. “I just wanted to be a good soldier, and maybe get people to remember my grandfather a little better.”


The green-skinned demon sighed. “Well, kid, the bad news is that you’re gonna get what you want.”


“How is that bad news?”


“Honey, if hanging out with Shepard hasn’t shown you that getting exactly what you wish for can be a very bad thing, then you have been very, very lucky.”


One look at the serious expression on Lorne’s face and Ash had to concede his point.


“Look, Ashley. I’m gonna tell you something that might help.” Lorne sighed. He really needed a drink right about now. “Granted, it might not, but pay attention anyway. You might have a hard time believing in Shepard or Xander. But you know, deep down, that there’s nothing that woman wouldn’t do for the people that she cares about.”


She snorted in spite of herself. “I hear that. It’s kinda scary how dangerous that woman can be when you mess with things she cares about.”


“Scary, yes.” Lorne nodded. “But understandable… relatable. It’s why you still respect her.”


Ashley turned away, looking at nothing in particular. “All the respect in the galaxy won’t really matter if everyone’s scared shitless of her.”


“Trust me, honey-buns, I know what it’s like to be around someone with a scary level of devotion to their friends and loved ones.”


“So what am I supposed to do?”


“Don’t let her forget that all her love means nothing if she pushes away the people she loves.”


“What?”


“Just think about what I said.” Lorne chided. “She loves her friends, and that’s a good thing, but when you love your friends so much that you do things that scare them or drive them away… what have you really accomplished?”


Ash blinked at the sagely words of wisdom. “Thanks… Lorne, was it?”


“Just doing my part to preserve the harmony of the galaxy, sweetie,” the anagogic Pylean shrugged, moving towards a nearby staircase.


“Yeah, well, the Reapers seem Hellbent on screwing with that universal harmony.” Ashley grumbled to herself.


Lorne stopped in his tracks, turning about to face her. “Actually, honey-buns, the Reapers have their own part to play in the band,” he said quietly.


At her bemused glance, he added, “They haven’t been playing very well lately, but they were part of the music.” Turning back to the stairs, he said, “Look, I’ve got a band to manage.”


Ashley watched him leave. “Should I tell Buffy or Xander that I met you? Give them a message?”


Lorne paused, not looking back. “Yeah…” he said finally, hesitantly. “Tell Buffy that Angel forgave her. Tell her that he wanted her to be happy.”


“How’d you know that was bothering her?”


“I just know these things, honey-buns,” Lorne shrugged, reaching the staircase by that point. “Girl seriously needs to lay off the sad songs.”
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