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Mass Effect: Gathering Storm

Mass Effect: Gathering Storm

by Meluch


Chapters


  • 1. Prologue - A Dream of Old Terrors
  • 2. Chapter One - Reassigned
  • 3. Chapter Two - Explanations and Plans
  • 4. Chapter Three - Hopes and Harsh Reality
  • 5. Chapter Four - The Normandy
  • 6. Chapter Five - Investigations
  • 7. Chapter Six - Preflight Checks
  • 8. Chapter Seven - New Command
  • 9. Chapter Eight - Hidden Threshold
  • 10. Chapter Nine - Eden Prime Part One
  • 11. Chapter Ten - Eden Prime Part Two
  • 12. Chapter Eleven - To the Citadel
  • 13. Chapter Twelve - The More Things Change
  • 14. Chapter Thirteen - This is New
  • 15. Chapter Fourteen-Leads, Allies, Enemies
  • 16. Chapter Fifteen - Things Get Real
  • 17. Chapter Sixteen - Moving Forwards
  • 18. Chapter Seventeen - Yippee Ki-Yay
  • 19. Chapter Eighteen - Tower Defense
  • 20. Chapter Nineteen - Die Hard Another Day
  • 21. Chapter Twenty - One Last Bit
  • 22. Chapter Twenty-One - Welcome to Thessia
  • 23. Chapter Twenty-Two - Therum Heat
  • 24. Chapter Twenty-Three
  • 25. Chapter Twenty-Four - Getting to Know Yo
  • 26. Chapter Twenty-Five - Betrayal Cuts Deep
  • 27. Interlude - Dancing in a Hurricane
  • 28. Chapter Twenty-Six - Winter is Coming
  • 29. Chapter Twenty-Seven - Recovery
  • 30. Chapter Twenty-Eight - Noveria Nights
  • 31. Chapter Twenty-Nine - Earth and Whiskey
  • 32. Chapter Thirty - Peak 15
  • 33. Chapter Thirty-One-Unfortunate Meetings
  • 34. Chapter Thirty-Two - Unfortunate Escape
  • 35. Interlude Two - The Rule of Omega
  • 36. Chapter 33 - Whispers in the Dark
  • 37. Chapter Thirty-Four - Ancient Memories
  • 38. Chapter 35 - All the King's Horses
  • 39. Chapter 36 - Madness in Love
  • 40. Interlude Three - So Well Remembered
  • 41. Chapter 39 - To Feros We All Go
  • 1. Prologue - A Dream of Old Terrors

    Prologue
    Lunar Tower, Royal Castle, Canterlot, Equestria
    April 3, 2183 CE

    "As she read on, her surroundings gradually faded, and soon there lay about her only the mists of dream; the purple, star-strown mists beyond Time, where only gods and dreamers walk." - H.P. Lovecraft

    Over the millennia, Princess Luna had held more than her fair share of names. Her mother may have named her Luna Selene, but it was rare that she was actually ever called by it. Far too often, she was greeted with Princess, Highness, Your Majesty. It had been worse in the centuries before true civilization had grasped its hold into Equestria. She had been the Goddess of the Night, the Watcher of the Dead, Fury of the Moon, Lady of the Night, and many others that she had long forgotten.

    There were only a few titles that she had ever enjoyed. The first was Sister, and it was one that she had born with pride for all of her life. Celestia had been with her through the badlands, through the formation of the world. They had watched as all of their little ponies evolved, had nurtured them, cared for them, and guided them when life became too difficult.

    The second title was Mother. It still was bittersweet nearly one-thousand years later and she tried not to dwell on what could have been. Her brief hour spent as Nightmare Moon had done more to ruin her life than the age before. One simple hour, not even a breath compared to the breadth of time she had walked the earth, but it still caused her pain.

    The third title, and arguably her favorite was the Watcher of Dreams. It was her favorite talent, and it allowed her directly influence the lives of her subjects in ways that she never could as merely their Princess.

    Sitting before her windows, Luna looked out over the lands of Equestria. She could barely see the edge of the western ocean so far away on the horizon. It had been a long time since she had enjoyed the warm beaches of Equestria. Maybe she could take a brief vacation. It would be good to spend some time in the gentle waves, with no other duties aside from raising and lowering the moon.

    Shaking such thoughts from her mind, Luna turned her mind to more important tasks.

    Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and slipped through reality into the world of dreams.

    It had taken her nearly twenty-thousand years from the moment that she had been born to even realize that she had possessed such an ability. A lot of that time was thanks to the fact that there had yet to be ponies who dreamed at the time, and it had only been after they had begun to advance as a species that she had even become aware of her domain, the realm of dreams and fantasy.

    It was not a physical place in any sense of the word. She had tried to explain to her sister before, but she had found that she lacked the words to even begin. The best she was able to come up with was that dreams existed in the in-between, in the cracks between reality and eternity. It was nothing like that, but at the same time, it described it perfectly. The world of dreams only made sense when one was dreaming after all.

    Luna emerged into the world of dreams, remembering for the trillionth time the thousands of senses that came alive whenever she returned. It was like trying to remember how to sing the color yellow. It was unlike any mortal plane, and it was her domain, the largest part of her role as Princess.

    Looking out upon the world, Luna saw (if it could actually be called sight) the familiar massive amorphous ocean spread out before her, filled with a trillion twinkling stars shining in the deep. It was a breathtaking vision, and she stepped out upon the waters, her hoofsteps not making a single ripple on the gentle waves.

    When she had first fallen between the cracks, Luna had been frightened by the ocean. It was dark and black, and the waves crashed so dangerously all around her. She had been so young then, naive, pure. Years and years and years passed, and the ocean became a silent companion, but it wasn't until the stars began to appear that she truly understood just what she was experiencing each night. The stars were the minds of every Equestrian, past, present, and future. As they aged and died, their stars sunk to depths, but they were never truly gone. Luna had spoken with many friends long after they had passed.

    Luna walked across the surface of the ocean, her body only a manifestation of her vast consciousness. As she moved, she gazed through the surface of the ocean, searching for any sign of a darkened star.

    A darkened star was the mind of a dreamer in a nightmare. She had learned that the hard way.

    They stood out, a cancer that only she could heal in the ocean. It was easy to find her first of the night. Luna descended into the sea and reached out a hoof to touch it. The ocean was not water, and it didn't so much as wet her coat. With a million years of familiarity, she expanded herself into the dreamers mind.

    Stepping into another's dream was a simple manner, but it had taken her centuries to learn how. The much harder process had been learning how to interpret dreams themselves.

    Stepping into the dream, Luna frowned when she found herself standing in a Batarian slave camp. She had seen the reports from the Alliance, the secret photos. It was instantly recognizable. The source of the dream was not immediately apparent, and she wondered just which of the survivors it was. The dream itself had become increasingly, worryingly familiar after the rescue of the Equestrian slaves.

    Like the other camps that she had seen, the facility was old, and it had not been maintained at all since its completion. Stone and brick were crumbling away and paint peeled from the walls. It was a thoroughly disgusting place, even viler from its true purpose.

    Walking through the facility, Luna ignored the blurry shapes of armored Batarians going about their business. They had not been there, and they likely never had been, but the dreamer assumed that they should be, so they were. Nightmares could truly be self-defeating, tearing at the innermost fears and terrors that plagued a pony. She took everything in with careful eyes, not wanting to miss a single detail that would end up helping her purpose.

    "Ha! You like it, don't you?"

    Luna paused, hearing the voice clear as day in a dream world that was incredibly muted and grey. She knew instantly that she was hearing the most vibrant part of a memory that the dreamer remembered, and her stomach dropped at what it implied.

    Closing her eyes, Luna spread out her mind and when she opened her eyes again, she was in a completely different place. It was simply a capability of being a dream-walker.

    She took a moment to reorient herself in her new place. In the few seconds that it took for Luna to see what was happening before her, she shattered the dream, revulsion flowing through her.

    "ENOUGH!" Luna shouted, her voice shaking the dream to its very foundation.

    With a blast of magic, Luna disintegrated the memory, washing away the naked Batarian and destroying the facility surrounding them. With a consciousness honed by thousands of millennia's of use, Luna shifted the dream, and they were instantly in an indescribable place of calm and comfort.

    Kneeling down next to white mare that she had rescued from herself, Luna gently nuzzled the mare.

    "Rest. Heal. You are safe here." Luna kept her voice calm and quiet, not wanting to further cause the mare any pain. She placed a hoof on the mare's cutie mark, a musical note that she couldn't recall the name of.

    The mare was too out of it to thank Luna, but that didn't hurt Luna's feeling. The mare settled down, going to sleep as Luna stepped out and disappeared from the dream.

    Luna reemerged back into the world of dreams, standing on top of the ocean. She took a moment to gather herself back together. The nightmares that she dealt with for so long had been benign and even kind compared to what had come after the awakening.

    Slowly, Luna noticed that something was different. Luna could feel it with every fiber of her being, that the dream world was wrong.

    Turning, Luna found a looming dark presence behind her and it was spreading through the ocean like fire over an oil spill, infecting each and every dreaming star, uniting Equestria in a shared dream.

    Biting back the curse that she desperately wanted to shout, Luna felt worry and terror overwhelm her. She did not do well with the unknown, but she didn't have a choice. Luna submerged herself into the darkness, and instantly she was swept up into the shared dream.

    The dream was a wild beast, writhing and roiling in a scary approximation of life. It was a product of Equestria's magic, a warning for all of them to see, Ponies, Griffins, Zebras, all of them alike. A storm was coming, and the very magic of the planet was manifesting itself, trying to warn them all of its imminent arrival.

    The dream itself wasn't a concrete thing. It shifted and spun, and flashes of images were all that Luna could see. She could feel the weight of a billion minds surrounding her, all experiencing the same thing.

    A storm twisted and churned over the horizon, shrouding the entirety of Equestria from beyond, malevolent and evil.

    She watched as Celestia was struck down, powerless to stop the darkness, falling atop her own body.

    Equestria was torn apart, continents shattering as a war embroiled the entire planet.

    Unicorns, Pegasus, and Earth Ponies attacked each other, fighting themselves.

    Dark beings from beyond, ancient horrors from beyond that were coming to consume Equestria, skulking forth from the darkness.

    Luna felt her heart shatter at the last image, a young Alicorn shrouded in shadows, standing against the coming dark.

    Pulling back out of the dream, Luna took a shuddering breath, horrified. That wasn't right. That wasn't how it was supposed be! The prophecy had ended. Damn it, Luna had seen to that...

    "Oh Faust..." Luna muttered. Igniting her horn, she shattered the dream and woke everypony up.

    ###

    Luna emerged from the dream realm, feeling the warmth of her body as her soul settled back into place. Looking around, she saw that all of her guard had collapsed, groggily trying to get back onto their hooves. They had no idea what had happened, but Luna knew in that moment that they were all drawn asleep into the dream. Everypony was.

    Setting her jaw, Luna knew what she had to do. Without Aurora they might all be doomed, but maybe there was another chance.

    Gathering her magic around herself, Luna teleported, burstsing into Celestia's room.

    "Tia!" Luna shouted, feeling like she was a foal again.

    She found Celestia sitting at her desk. She turned to look at Luna, deep bags under her eyes. "Luna... Was..."

    Ducking her head, Celestia struggled to breath. "Was that what I thought it was?"

    Stepping forward, Luna opened the door to Celestia's balcony with her magic. She turned back to her mother, her face grim. "I believe so."

    "Oh, Luna..." Celestia whispered.

    Shaking her head, Luna turned away from Celestia. She was thinking of her daughter, of Princess Aurora, of that horrible night so long ago.

    "The prophecy..." It always came back to the stupid prophecy. Celestia shuddered, hating the power that magic held over all of them.

    "The Elements may be the only things that can save us." Luna ignored the sadness inside of her. She ignored the pain of a lost daughter.

    "Then let us depart." Celestia stood. "The sooner we have him, the safer I think we shall all feel."

    "After you, sister," Luna murmured, her voice small.

    Luna followed after Celestia as she stepped out onto the balcony. Flexing their wings, they jumped into the air, letting their wings do the rest. They sped towards the Evergree Forest.

    The trip took almost no time, or maybe it took all the time in the world. Luna wasn't really paying attention, her mind elsewhere. Celestia landed in front of their old castle, Luna following after her a moment later. The Castle was full of old memories, many of them painful, and nearly every single one jumped to the front of the younger alicorn's mind.

    Luna ducked her head, glancing away in shame at the destruction that she caused. She had forgotten just how terrible it had been.

    Comfortingly, Celestia put a wing over Luna's back. "Come, Luna. Let's get this over with."

    Luna nodded her head. Slowly, they stepped inside their old castle for the first time in nearly a thousand years. The ceiling had long ago disintegrated, a victim to the ravages of time. Surprisingly, a vast majority of the tapestries were still in a wonderful condition.

    Luna and Celestia entered the throne room together. They walked forward to where they had hidden the Elements of Harmony.

    Igniting their magic, the pedestal holding them rose from beneath the floor.

    Seeing it for the first time in so long, Luna and Celestia went pale, hope leaving them.

    "Tia..." Luna shook her head. It couldn't be real.

    "I see it, Luna..." Celestia dropped back onto her haunches, disbelieving.

    Luna took a step forward, putting a hoof out, hoping that her eyes were deceiving her.

    They weren't.

    "The Elements... They're gone."

    2. Chapter One - Reassigned

    Chapter One - Reassigned
    Pony Joe's, Canterlot, Equestria
    April 4, 2183 CE

    It had been nearly thirteen years since Riley Shepard had come to Equestria, and so much had changed since then. The scared little girl that she had been all those years ago would never be able to recognize herself now.

    She was proud of that. She had come such a long way.

    Mindoir had changed everything. If the attack had never happened, Riley was sure that her life would look nothing like it did now. She might have been a ballerina, like she was training to do, or maybe something even more mundane than that.

    Riley couldn't imagine it though. She was a marine through and through, and it had brought her a peace in her life that nothing else had. As a part of the Alliance military, she had a place she belonged. It felt good.

    There was nothing quite like having a place to belong. Humans craved contact, communion with like minded people. Riley was so glad that she had managed to find two such places. The Alliance was good, but it was nothing compared to having a family.

    Leaning back in the booth that she had staked as her own, Riley threw an arm around her youngest sister, pulling the little orange filly closer. She snuggled into Riley's side, enjoying the softness of the human's t-shirt, which proudly proclaimed an advertisement for the latest Daring Do novel: Daring Do and the Eternal Flower.

    She could still feel the occasional judder in the filly's shoulders, remnants of whatever dream it was the night before that woke everypony in the city up screaming. Riley hadn't known what to make of that, and neither had anypony else.

    "I'm just sayin," Rainbow Dash said, sitting on the other side of the booth. She spoke with her mouth full, half a donut on a napkin before her. "There's nothing better than going fast."

    Raising an eyebrow, Riley smirked at her sister's brashness, but she didn't say anything. Instead, she looked to her youngest sister, Scootaloo.

    "But what about tricks?" Scootaloo asked, cocking her head to the side. "That's what a Wonderbolt does, don't they?"

    "Sure, tricks are fine," Rainbow said with a shrug, but her eyes went bright as her mind turned towards flight. She grinned at Scootaloo, a cocky look that made the little filly wiggle in excitement. "But there is nothing like breaking the sound barrier in a straight dive from atmo."

    "Whoa…" Scootaloo's eyes went wide at the thought. Her wings flared in excitement at the thought, buzzing like a bee. She wondered what it felt like, the wind whipping at her face, breaking the bounds of gravity that held so many lesser ponies down. She stared at Rainbow with newfound awe. "So cool."

    "What about you?" Riley ruffled Scootaloo's short purple mane, making the filly sputter in protest as she tried to smooth it back down with her hooves. "We've told you everything we've done, but we still don't know what you've been getting into."

    "Well…" Scootaloo blushed, rubbing the back of her head with a hoof. "Um…"

    "Nothing much?" Riley nodded, understanding. There wasn't exactly a lot to do in Canterlot if you weren't above a certain age.

    "Nope." Scootaloo shook her head. She sighed, rolling a straw back and forth on the table under her hooves. "Just, ya know, school, and teasing, and a bunch of boredom."

    "You don't hang out with any friends?" Rainbow Dash asked. She might not have been the most popular pony in school, but even she still hung out with a few cool unicorns before she had joined the Royal Guard.

    "Don't have any." Scootaloo shrugged, as if that was all she had to say on the matter.

    "What?" Riley smiled sympathetically at her sister. "Why not?"

    "Nopony wants to hang with a blank flank like me," Scootaloo murmured.

    Riley rubbed Scootaloo's back, scratching between her little wings.

    "Well, they aren't worth your time if they can't see what an awesome filly you are!" Rainbow punctuated her statement by stomping on the remains of her donut with her hoof.

    Riley slid the last, non-smashed donut in front of Scootaloo. "Have another donut. It might not be friendship, but they do come close."

    Scootaloo smiled at that, snarfing it down nearly before they could even blink.

    Riley pulled on her jacket, standing up from the booth. "Well, come on. We've still got things to do."

    Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash followed their older sister's lead, clambering off of the booth. All three of them left the pastry shop together, a human woman and two Pegasus. giving a final wave to Pony Joe as they stepped outside.

    They made for an interesting sight, but they paid no mind to any of the looks that they were receiving from the ponies walking past. They had long ago learned how to ignore them.

    "Are you ready, Scoots?" Riley asked.

    "Yep!" She chirped. Scootaloo's wings buzzed and she smiled up at her oldest sister.

    Riley knelt down and Scootaloo jumped up on her shoulders, perching like a proud, neon orange eagle.

    Standing up tall, the three of them started walking down the Canterlot street.

    Canterlot had been a new experience for Riley when she had first come from Mindoir. For the first sixteen years of her life, she had lived in a world surrounded by swaying grass and a slow, leisurely place. After the attack though, and her subsequent adoption by Firefly and Rainbow Prism, her move to Canterlot had been a radical paradigm shift.

    Where once she spent her afternoons laying in fields and dreaming at the clouds, now she was surrounded by the fast paced life of a capital city resident. Nobles, business owners, politicians, ambassadors from far off lands. All of them blended together in a chaotic blend of a fast-paced life-style that Riley had a hard time adjusting to.

    That was years ago though, and Riley had grown, adapted to her circumstances. She couldn't imagine calling anywhere else her home. Joining the Alliance had given her a chance to see the galaxy, and she had yet to find anywhere else that was quite like Canterlot.

    Home was were the heart was after all, and there was nowhere else in the galaxy that held all of her loved ones. She could still remember that day back in the hospital, sitting in the maternity ward waiting room with a nervous Rainbow Dash while they waited for Firefly to give birth to their newest sibling.

    Holding Scootaloo for the first time had wiped away so many of the scars that had still filled her soul. In a very real sense, the filly represented a second chance to protect a baby sister, like she had never been able to with Jane.

    She wouldn't let another sister die.

    It wasn't the time for such dark thoughts, Riley shook her head, focusing her mind back on the present. It was a time for celebration after all. Her own birthday was coming shortly, and Scootaloo's wasn't long after that. She had enough leave saved up for both.

    Today was a time for a present, something that Scootaloo could have to remember them by when they were gone for so long on duty.

    Turning down a side street, Riley, Rainbow, and Scootaloo entered a tailor shop, filled with rolls of cloth and fabric. Stepping up to the main counter, Riley rang the bell on the counter.

    "Hello?" She called out, searching for any sign of life.

    "One moment please," a voice responded from the back room.

    The three sisters waited, looking around the tailoring shop. Pony shaped mannequins were scattered around the room in all sizes, in male and female form. Some were covered in half-completed articles of clothing, and others were bare, slightly creepy with their featureless faces.

    "So, have you figured out what you want?" Rainbow asked, sitting back on her haunches.

    "Yep!" Scootaloo nodded, excited. Her eyes sparkled happily.

    "Well, don't leave us in suspense." Riley laughed, bouncing Scootaloo on her shoulder.

    "It's a surprise!" Scootaloo shook her head, giggling. "If I told you, that would just ruin it."

    "Hello." A blue unicorn with a curly grey mane and a clothespin cutie mark stepped out of his backroom, walking forward to greet the guests with a confident smile on his face. "Welcome! I am Royal Pin. What may I help you with?"

    "This little one needs a jacket." Riley gestured at Scootaloo with his thumb, the filly still perched up on her shoulders.

    "Wonderful!" Royal Pin nodded. He walked over to one of the several measuring tables in his shop. "That is quite a simple matter. If the young miss would hop down here, we can get started."

    Scootaloo hopped down from Riley's shoulder onto the table, flaring her wings a little for stability.

    "All Right then." Royal Pin looked at Scootaloo expectantly. "How do you wish this jacket to look?"

    "It's a secret." She waved Royal Pin closer with a hoof. She leaned over and whispered into his ear, her words punctuated by quiet giggles.

    "Ah yes, I see." Royal Pin smiled at Scootaloo. "I can certainly do that."

    "Great!" Scootaloo chirped, her smile stretching wide on her muzzle.

    "Let me get your measurements and I can get started." Royal Pin lifted a tape measure from a cupboard in his measuring table. "I should have it finished by the end of the week."

    Royal Pin quickly measured Scootaloo for the jacket, his tape measure wrapping around her barrel. She giggled as it scratched her fur, trying to stay still, but she failed badly.

    "What?" Rainbow Dash frowned. "Not even a hint, Scoots?"

    "Nope." Scootaloo shook her head, grinning smugly at her sister.

    "Well…" Rainbow scuffed her hoof on the floor, annoyed. "That's just mean."

    "You're one to talk, Dash." Riley laughed, crossing her arms over her chest.

    "Not cool." Rainbow rolled her eyes. "I'm paying for half the jacket. I should get to know what it is."

    "You'll get over it," Riley said.

    "Doesn't mean I have to like it," Rainbow grumbled, pouting. It was a completely unprofessional look on a Wonderbolt, and it didn't suit the mare at all.

    "Hey, it's her gift." Riley defended Scootaloo, giving a soft glare at Rainbow. "If she wants to surprise us with it, than that's fine."

    Rainbow rolled her eyes, but she didn't put up anymore protest, flimsy though it may have been.

    "I am done here," Royal Pin spoke up. He helped Scootaloo down off of the table to the floor. "Come back on Saturday for the jacket."

    Riley followed Royal Pin up to the register and paid for the jacket. It was a quick transaction, simply flashing her omni-tool over his register.

    "We'll be back on Saturday." Riley nodded her thanks to Royal Pin. Turning to her younger sisters, Riley started walking to the front door. "Let's go. I'm sure Mom and Dad are wondering what's taking us so long."

    Riley, Rainbow Dash, and Scootaloo walked out of the Royal Pin's shop, heading back home. Scootaloo quickly reclaimed her spot on Riley's shoulders, fluffing her wings at the chill breeze that was always present in Canterlot, one of the downsides of the city being built on the side of the tallest mountain on the planet.

    It felt good, a change of pace that Riley absolutely relished. Structure was wonderful, but it only made the times that she was free, better. It was relaxing, just being three sisters, ignoring everything that had set her, them, so far apart from everyone else. It was nice, not having to constantly be on guard.

    She knew that Rainbow Dash was just as pumped as she always was. From the constant brushes of her wing and quick, nervous nuzzles, Riley figured that Scootaloo was just happy to be able to spend some time with her two big sisters.

    The three girls worked their way through the winding streets of Canterlot, making their way back to the Noble District. The houses on their street looked the same as ever, still meticulously maintained.

    Scootaloo jumped down off of Riley's shoulder as they walked up to their house.

    It was two stories tall, with the door set directly in the middle of the house. Eight large windows sat in the walls of both floors, looking out over the street beyond. Tall, spiraling pillars supported a large balcony that also served as the roof of a wrap-around patio. Built from white stone, it very much looked like it would be naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It had been a gift from Princess Celestia, and it held so many memories.

    Scootaloo rushed up the front walk to the front door, pushing it open. Riley and Rainbow Dash followed behind her at a much more sedate pace. They headed inside together.

    "Mom! Dad!" Scootaloo shouted, paying no mind to the fact that she was loud enough to be heard from the next house over. "We're home!"

    "We're in the living room," Firefly's soft voice came from one of the side rooms.

    The three sisters entered the living room and were met with a curious sight. A human marine and a Wonderbolt, each in their respective dress uniforms were sitting on the couch opposite Firefly and Rainbow Prism.

    "These fine gentlemen are here for the two of you." Firefly looked up at her two oldest daughters sadly, a wavering smile on her muzzle.

    Both the Marine and the Wonderbolt stood as Riley and Rainbow entered the room, saluting.

    "Ma'am," the marine, a lieutenant, stepped forward. He held out a sealed letter for Riley to take. "I have orders from command."

    Riley reached out and took the letter, frowning.

    The Wonderbolt stepped forward handing his own letter to Rainbow Dash. He spoke as soon as his mouth was free. "Lieutenant, your orders."

    "I thought we were on leave." Rainbow Dash took the letter, confused.

    "There was a change of plans." The marine straightened his uniform. "This is from the top. You are needed elsewhere immediately."

    Rainbow Dash dropped back onto her haunches and opened the letter. She skimmed over the letter, taking it in as quickly as she could.

    Riley and Rainbow finished reading at the same time. They looked up at the rest of their family, finding sad but accepting faces. They had a job to do after all.

    "Thank you, Lieutenant." Riley saluted the marine, and he saluted back. "Dismissed."

    "Thank you, ma'am." Turning on his heel, the marine left, followed by the Wonderbolt.

    They all stood there for what felt like an eternity. None of them wanted to make the first move.

    Scootaloo was the first to move, hopping up onto the couch next to her mother while Riley and Rainbow took a seat the other couch. They all sat in quiet sadness for a moment before Riley gathered her courage to start talking.

    "I have orders to make all haste to Arcturus Station," Riley said, holding up the letter. "I am to take over as the Executive Officer of an experimental starship."

    "Me too." Rainbow nodded, glaring at her own letter.

    Riley looked at her surprised.

    "The Arcturus thing, not the XO." Seeing her sister's confusion, Rainbow explained further. "I'm not cut out for that type of responsibility."

    "I thought that you had another week." Firefly looked utterly despondent, tears welling in her eyes.

    "Something's come up." Riley shrugged, holding up her orders. They were frustratingly vague.

    "When do you have to leave?" Prism asked, putting his good wing around Scootaloo.

    "I'm supposed to catch an Alliance flight back to the Arcturus Relay tonight." Riley smiled sadly.

    "Same." Rainbow Dash fought the urge to crumple up her orders.

    "Can you at least stay for dinner?" Firefly asked, smiling sadly, her voice hopeful.

    "Yeah." Riley nodded. "We've got the time for that."

    "Well... that's good. One last meal. I guess we don't know when we'll get another." Firefly got up and walked out of the room. Scootaloo rubbed a hoof over her eyes, trying to wipe away her tears as discreetly as possible. Her plans for the week had been put on hold, and she feared how long it would be until she saw them again.

    "Hey…" Riley stood up and moved to sit by Scootaloo, putting an arm around her. "I'm sorry, Scoots."

    "It's not your fault," Scootaloo murmured, shrugging. She didn't meet Riley's or Rainbow's eyes, chewing on her bottom lip.

    "Yeah." Riley scratched between Scootaloo's wings, her favorite place. "Doesn't mean it doesn't suck."

    "Well!" Rainbow got up, throwing a false smile on her face. "Let's not waste our last few hours just sitting around being mopey. Let's go make some memories."

    "Yeah." Scootaloo sniffled, leaning into Riley's side. "That sounds good."

    "Come on." Rainbow Dash stood, stretching her wings.

    The three of them got up and left the living room.

    The rest of the day had passed in what felt like the blink of an eye. Riley and Rainbow had spent the entire time with Scootaloo, making ice-cream and whatever other funny activities passed through the filly's mind. Firefly and Prism were never far away, lingering nearby, not wanting to waste a single minute with their eldest daughters. It was a day that none of them would forget.

    As soon as the sun had set, Firefly and Prism had gathered their children together and shuffled them into a waiting taxi. In less than twenty minutes, the taxi had dropped the entire family off outside of the nicest restaurant in Canterlot, The Sun and the Moon.

    Heading inside, they were quickly ushered to a table in the back, removed from the other diners. They quickly ordered, and had simply sat in silence for thirty minutes, waiting for their food to come.

    Riley and Rainbow's imminent departure hung over all of their heads, and none of them wanted to speak. That would make it real.

    The waiter brought them their meals, setting the plates before them before leaving. They all smelled wonderful, but it simply wasn't enough.

    They all started eating quietly.

    Firefly huffed, getting up from the table. "This is ridiculous!"

    Trotting around the table to hug Rainbow and Riley, Firefly nuzzled both of her older daughters lovingly. "This isn't a goodbye. It's just a farewell for now."

    She smiled at her husband and youngest daughter, a sad but proud mother.

    "We're going to be fine, mom," Riley said, placing a hand on Firefly's shoulder.

    "I know, Riley." Firefly nodded, going back to sit at her spot on the table. "Still, every time…"

    "We'll try not to get stuck in any battles that'll get our names on every news network across the galaxy." Rainbow grinned sheepishly. "Again, I mean."

    "I think we'd all appreciate that," Prism dryly murmured.

    The entire table laughed, but it had the tinge of an uncomfortable truth that none of them were proud of.

    "We'll be safe," Riley repeated, as much to reassure her family as to reassure herself.

    "You better be." Firefly glared at Riley and Rainbow, though it was a humorous look that made both of the girls giggle. "You better be or I'll come to wherever the hell you are and beat some sense into your commanding officers."

    "I'm not sure that David would appreciate that." Riley laughed, taking a sip of her wine.

    That caught both Firefly and Prism's attention.

    "David? David Anderson?" Prism smiled. There was no one else in the galaxy that he would trust more to protect his daughters. "He's your CO?"

    "Yeah. Apparently I'm serving under him." She gestured at Rainbow. "We both are."

    "Cool." Rainbow looked at Riley, her eyes wide. She hadn't know that. "I like David."

    "That's cause he snuck you candy." Rolling her eyes, Riley nudged Rainbow.

    "Seems like as good a reason to like somepony as any." Rainbow shrugged.

    David Anderson was one of the most impressive humans alive in the galaxy. The decorations that he had earned in his time with the N7s were long and extensive, and he had only continued to make an impressive carrier captaining ships with the Navy. None of that included the fact that he had been Riley's original guardian. It was thanks to him that she had ever been placed with Firefly and Rainbow.

    "You would think that," Riley muttered, entirely unimpressed with her sister.

    Rainbow shrugged, eating her meal.

    "So... Arcturus." Prism switched the topic. "What's it like?"

    "It's big." Riley didn't know how else to describe it. Arcturus was the seat of the System Alliance's power, a gleaming beacon of humanities own creativity and industriousness. "Not as big as the Citadel, but still... It's an impressive sight. It's alive, and just stepping onboard you can tell that it's a center of life and politics. I haven't seen anything else quite like it."

    "We'll have to visit sometime." Firefly couldn't help but begin to imagine meeting her daughters on Arcturus when their ship returned to dock. "Do you know where you'll be headed?"

    "No." Riley shook her head. "Even if I did though, it'd still be classified. I couldn't tell you."

    "I hate classified," Firefly muttered, taking a bite of her meal and chewing angrily

    "It's certainly not awesome," Rainbow Dash agreed, nodding.

    "No." Prism took a deep breath, nuzzling his wife's cheek. "It isn't."

    They all fell silent, finishing their meals.

    ###

    The mountain air had only gotten colder by the time that they returned home. Riley had donned her hoody, the red stripe on her right arm a comforting familiarity that she had worked so hard to earn. She rested her rucksack comfortably over her shoulder, holding Rainbow's own much lighter saddle-bags in her other hand. There were perks to being a part of species that barely wore clothing, and light packing was one of them.

    They all stood just outside the front door the house, Firefly, Prism, and Scootaloo trying to avoid looking at the waiting taxi on the street.

    "Stay safe," Firefly said, trotting forward to hug her oldest daughters. She wrapped Rainbow in a hug first before turning to Riley. The human woman knelt down to her level, and Firefly nuzzled against her cheek.

    "We'll be fine, mom." Rainbow nodded, confident in herself and in Riley.

    "Try to call home." Prism followed his wife's lead, and he hugged them both in the opposite order. "Let us know how you're doing."

    "We will we can, dad." Riley hefted her rucksack higher on her shoulder, getting it into a more comfortable position. "I don't know how often we'll be in range of comm-buoys, but we'll try."

    Scootaloo stepped up to them. She didn't really know what to say, but sadness was written across her face as plain as day.

    "I'm sorry we couldn't have all the time that we promised, Scoots." Riley got down on her knees to hug Scootaloo, lifting the filly up.

    "It's alright," Scootaloo murmured, shrugging helplessly.

    "We'll make it up to you." Rainbow Dash said, sure of herself. "Just wait and see."

    "I'll miss you." Scootaloo hugged Rainbow Dash, tears welling in her eyes.

    "We'll miss you too." Riley stood. "Don't forget. Your jacket will be ready on Saturday. You should go with mom and dad to pick it up."

    "I will." Scootaloo sat between her parents, watching her older sisters.

    Riley and Rainbow lingered for a moment. Riley gave a final wave before stepping into the waiting taxi. As soon as they clambered inside, the taxi left, taking them away to their next mission.

    3. Chapter Two - Explanations and Plans

    Chapter Two - Explanations and Plans
    Twilight's Tower, Canterlot, Equestria
    April 4, 2183 CE

    When she had first met Gilda on the Citadel, Twilight would have never been able to guess just how much the young griffin would come to mean to her. Before meeting Gilda, Twilight had been much lonelier, her life shrouded in darkness. In many ways, they healed each other's wounds, and Twilight had never been happier.

    There were problems, Twilight had no illusions about that. Gilda had deep wounds that reached all the way to her soul, and there was a very real chance that she would always have them. Spending twelve years as a slave, witnessing and experiencing horrors that would make even the strongest of ponies break. That Gilda had managed to come through her experience as strong and collected as she had.

    There were some wounds that would never heal, and Khar'shan's slave camps created more than their fair share. If she could, Twilight would jump at the chance to wipe the Batarian facilities from existence. She had more than enough power after all.

    The dream had done nothing to help Gilda. The nearly overwhelming darkness that had crashed upon her had left her a blubbering mess as soon as she had awoken. Before Twilight had managed to restrain her, Gilda had scratched three claw marks down the front of the unicorn's barrel with her razor sharp claws.

    Twilight's cry of pain had thankfully snapped Gilda out of her confusion. The griffin had simply fallen limp, turning away from Twilight, her chest heaving as she struggled to breath.

    "Gilda…" Twilight murmured. She edged forward on the bed, pushing the sheets out of the way until she was spooning her. Twilight wrapped herself as much as possible around the much larger griffin, holding her as her body shook in terror.

    "It's alright, Gilda." Stroking her mane gently, Twilight rocked Gilda back and forth, quietly murmuring to her. "You're safe."

    Gilda was half able to hear her, her eyes wide, her mind in a completely different place.

    "Gilda…" Twilight leaned closer to Gilda's ear, hidden under her feathers. "Can you hear me? You're safe. You're in Canterlot."

    No response.

    "Gilda, please, talk to me." Twilight tried again, nuzzling against Gilda's cheek.

    The griffin didn't respond to her, at least at first. Slowly, her breathing slowed until she had calmed. Gilda turned in Twilight's embrace until they were muzzle to beak.

    "Twilight…" Gilda murmured, her eyes glassy.

    "I'm here, Gilda," Twilight said, a hopeful smile on her face. "You're safe."

    "I can't…" Shaking her head, Gilda buried her head in Twilight's chest. She started to cry, heavy sobs that left her gasping for air, clinging to Twilight for all she was worth. "I don't want to... I can't get the memories out of my head!"

    "I know." Twilight kissed her beak, her voice soft and reassuring. "It's alright. I'm here, and you're safe."

    Gilda pulled away from Twilight so that they were able to look each other in the eye.

    "Twilight…" She whispered.

    "What is, Gilda?" Twilight asked, smiling comfortingly at her.

    "I can't…" Gilda shook her head. She took a deep, shuddering breath. "Please."

    She ducked her head, avoiding Twilight's gaze. Her voice was so quiet that Twilight had to strain to hear her. "Please, use your magic."

    "Use my magic to do what?" Twilight didn't need to ask. She already knew what Gilda meant, and her heart was breaking. She deserved so much more, but circumstances had prevailed over both of them. Nopony, no griffin deserved what she had gone through.

    "Please Twilight…" Gilda begged, burying her face in Twilight's chest. "I just need to sleep. Put me to sleep. Please, put me to sleep."

    Twilight leaned back, studying Gilda carefully, making sure she knew what she was asking her. The griffin was unable to meet her gaze, the muscles along her jaw twitching uncomfortably. She saw what she was looking for, and Twilight nodded reluctantly.

    "Alright," Twilight whispered, kissing her forehead. "Alright, Gilda."

    "Close your eyes." She reached a hoof up, rubbing Gilda's cheek lovingly.

    Gilda hesitated for a moment before shutting her eyes. She took a last shuddering breath, readying herself.

    Igniting her horn, Twilight cast a dreamless sleep spell on Gilda. Celestia had taught the spell to her several years ago, but she had never had an opportunity to use it before now.

    It wasn't fair that Gilda needed such a spell to even get any rest. It wasn't fair that she had to have been subjected to a nightmare so soon after her rescue.

    Twilight held Gilda as the griffin's body slowly relaxed, falling into a dreamless sleep. Leaning forward, Twilight kissed her forehead before sliding out of bed, letting Gilda get her rest.

    Emerging out into her living room, Twilight made her way to her her refrigerator. Her hunger had made itself known and she knew exactly what she was going to have. It was calling to her. Serving herself a slice of quiche that Spike had made the day before, she took it over to the small kitchen table nearby. Sitting down, she started her meal, beginning her day.

    As she chewed, Twilight mulled over her thoughts. Ponies, all species actually, knew the differences between right and wrong. It was a universal constant, and it was the abnormal being that truly felt that wrong was right. Batarians seemed to have been flipped in that regard. They were cruel, harsh beings who believed in slavery as the rule, not the exception.

    A knock at the door startled her out of her thoughts.

    "Who is it?" Twilight called, only half expecting an answer. If it was somepony important, they were already keyed in. If they weren't, she'd deal with them as soon as she finished her breakfast. The dream had rattled her too, and she needed some time of her own to reorient herself.

    The door unlocked and Twilight practically jumped out of her chair when Princess Celestia walked in.

    "Princess!" She exclaimed, giving a short bow of her head.

    "Good morning, Twilight," Celestia said with her own nod, a greeting to her faithful student.

    "Good morning!" Twilight chirped, a sound that was far more cheerful than she actually felt.

    "Please, Twilight," Celestia said, seeing that Twilight was just beginning to eat. She sat down beside the table, the chairs too small for her. "Don't let my presence interrupt your breakfast."

    Smiling gratefully at her mentor, Twilight sat back down at the table, taking a bite another bite of her breakfast. "Is there something you needed to speak to me about, Princess?"

    Celestia was silent for a long moment, appearing as if she was a million miles away. She finally turned her attention to Twilight, nodding, her face expressionless. "There is."

    Celestia settled herself down, frowning. Twilight shuffled uncomfortably on her chair. She had never seen her mentor look so uncomfortable before, and it was more than a bit frightening.

    "Are you alright, Princess?" Twilight asked.

    "I… I have encountered a bit of a problem, Twilight," Celestia admitted, chewing on her lip in a very unprincessly manner. "It would do me a lot of good if I could use you as a sounding board."

    "Of course, Princess!" Twilight felt a jolt of excitement rush through her. She often went to Celestia to try and figure out her problems, the act of explaining her issue to somepony else making her see the issue from another angle.

    "You have grown into a wonderful mare, Twilight." Celestia smiled at her student, pride shining in her eyes. "You are one of a kind."

    "Thank you, Princess." Twilight blushed, taking another bite of her food.

    For a long moment, Celestia didn't say anything, gathering her thoughts together.

    "There are…" When Celestia began to speak, she was uncharacteristically timid. "… things that you do not know about me Twilight. Things that nopony knows. That nopony could ever guess."

    Twilight didn't know what to say to that, instead staying silent, watching her teacher carefully.

    "We are old, Luna and I. Extremely old. We were born before any of the species that walk Equestria had evolved, and we are the last of our kind." Though she was present in the room, Celestia could feel the warmth of the sun shining down on her in the dry desert air, back when her mother was still alive and she controlled the world.

    Celestia drew away from her memories, looking at Twilight's meal. "I am sorry, Twilight. Do you have anything that I could eat. I'm just realizing that I am incredibly hungry."

    "Oh!" Twilight practically jumped out of her seat. "Sure, Princess! That's not a problem."

    Twilight rushed over to the refrigerator, looking inside.

    "What would you like?" She called out, her voice muffled. "I've got... some quiche that Spike made. A salad that I don't... it's growing things… how long has that been in here?"

    "The quiche sounds wonderful, Twilight," Celestia said.

    "Yes, Princess." Twilight threw the salad away while simultaneously cutting a generous slice of Spike's quiche for Celestia. She levitated it in front of the Princess along with a fork.

    "Thank you, Twilight." Taking a bite, Celestia closed her eyes in delight. "It's very good."

    "I'll tell Spike you think so." The little dragon would be overjoyed to learn that his meal had been enjoyed by the Princess.

    Celestia was quiet, enjoying her breakfast. The past twelve hours had proved to be incredibly tiring and she only just now appreciated how much she needed to eat.

    "Luna and I have kept a careful hoof on history," Celestia said as she swallowed her first bite. "We have guided this planet in ways that nopony realizes. In a very real sense, we are the mothers of everyone who has ever been born here."

    Finishing her meal, Celestia magicked her plate over to the sink in Twilight's kitchen.

    "We have defended our little ponies from so many threats. It was what any good mother would do."

    Twilight listened to Celestia's words carefully. Celestia was hinting at a lot of what Twilight had only guessed at before, and she bounced in her chair in excitement.

    "Have you heard of the Elements of Harmony, Twilight?" Celestia searched the unicorn's face for any sign of recognition.

    "No, Princess." Twilight shook her head.

    "I'm not surprised." Celestia chuckled to herself. It had been a long, arduous task keeping everything quiet. It had taken the combined efforts of both Luna and herself to keep the Elements out of the history books. "We kept them a careful secret."

    "What are the Elements of Harmony, Princess?" Twilight asked, leaning forward excitedly.

    Celestia nodded her head, trying to think of the best way to explain the Elements to Twilight. She nodded, her eyes lifting up and to the right. "Do you remember what I have taught you about Equestria's magic? How we are all bound together by powerful forces?"

    "Yes, Princess." Twilight nodded.

    "The Elements of Harmony are a physical manifestation of those forces," Celestia said. "Honesty, kindness, laughter, generosity, loyalty, and magic."

    "A physical manifestation?" That such objects would have been kept from all of Equestria was incredible news. Twilight sat up, intrigued. It was unlike anything she had ever heard of before.

    "Yes." Celestia nodded, smiling at Twilight's excitement. "Luna and I once used them to protect Equestria. I wielded generosity, kindness, and magic. Luna bore the other three."

    "What did they do, Princess?" Twilight wished she had a notebook in front of her. She wanted to get everything down on paper, just in case she forgot something.

    "The Elements of Harmony are the most powerful force to have ever manifested on Equestria." Celestia let her mind turn back to old memories. She turned her head, looking out the window to Equestria beyond. "We only ever used them when circumstances threatened to destroy Equestria. The last time that I almost had to use the Elements was nearly one-thousand years ago."

    "What happened one-thousand years ago?" Twilight asked, unable to hide the eagerness in her voice.

    "There was a…" Celestia paused, glancing down at the table. "There was a prophecy."

    "A prophecy?" Twilight's face scrunched up in confusion. "Prophecies are just children's stories! They're a myth. They don't exist."

    "That isn't exactly the truth." Laughing, Celestia shook her head. "You and the rest of Equestria just experienced one last night."

    "The dream?" Twilight cocked her head in confusion.

    "Yes," Celestia simply said. Sighing, she ducked her head. "It was the same prophecy one-thousand years ago that led to me almost having to use the Elements against her."

    "What" Twilight leaned forward, even more confused. "Why would you have to do that?"

    "The prophecy is immensely personal to my sister." That was an understatement. The prophecy had spelled the death of the first alicorn born in nearly half-a-million years. "I won't reveal anything more, but we managed to work everything out."

    "We left the Elements at the Everfree Castle, hidden." Celestia took a deep breath. "When we made the move to Canterlot... what would become Canterlot, we left them behind. We had thought that there was no safer place for them, hidden in a castle that nopony would ever travel to. Who would dare to venture into the Everfree Forest after all?"

    "That was foolish of us," Celestia murmured, shaking her head. "After the prophecy, Luna and I went to retrieve them."

    "They are gone." Celestia bowed her head.

    "Gone?" Twilight leaned back, startled.

    "The greatest hope we have for whatever darkness is coming are gone." Celestia felt a shiver of fear run down her spine. She had gone through the prophecy more times than she could imagine, investigating every lead that she find, no matter how implausible or remote. Everything that she had discovered had only reinforced her belief. The darkness would not be stopped by her or by Luna. "There are no signs as to where they went or who took them."

    "What darkness?" Twilight asked, searching for context. "What would you need to use the Elements for?"

    "You saw the dream." Celestia stood, walking over to the window. "Something is coming. A storm. The final storm. I can think of no other time where the Elements could be of more use."

    "And they're missing." Twilight was beginning to understand.

    "Yes." Celestia nodded once.

    "That's not good…" Twilight leaned back in her chair, the enormity of what Celestia was admitting to her finally hitting her.

    "That is what I would call an understatement, Twilight," Celestia murmured, laughing darkly.

    Thinking over what Celestia had told her, Twilight couldn't help but get excited. Her eyes lit up and she looked at Celestia proudly. "Princess, would it be okay if I go to the castle? Maybe I can find something that you missed."

    Celestia studied Twilight for a moment before nodding her assent. "I don't have a problem with that, Twilight.

    Twilight resisted the urge to jump up and shout, settling instead to just give a single jubilant cry. "Yes!"

    "I hope that you'll find something that Luna and I missed." Celestia smiled at Twilight's enthusiasm. "I shall send a guard with a map to my castle. The quickest route would be to go through Ponyville. I shall set everything up for you."

    Celestia stood, walking around to the other side of the table to nuzzle Twilight appreciatively. "Thank you for breakfast, Twilight."

    "It wasn't a problem, Princess." Twilight leaned into the Princesses' nuzzle, smiling. "I hope that I can be of help."

    "Are things alright with you and Gilda?" Celestia asked, noticing the griffin's absence.

    "… Yes." Twilight frowned, but nodded. "She was hit hard by the dream... the nightmare, so I cast a sleep spell on her."

    "Other than that?" Celestia asked, grinning coyly at the young unicorn.

    "We're doing good." Twilight blushed, looking away from her teacher. "We're doing very good."

    "I am happy for you. Both of you." Celestia turned and walked back to the door to Twilight's apartment. She gave a final look over her shoulder at Twilight, smiling. "Please, give her my regards when she wakes."

    "I will, Princess," Twilight called after the Princess.

    Princess Celestia left the apartment and made her way out of Twilight's tower, shutting the door behind her.

    ###

    Gilda emerged from Twilight's room, groggy but rested. Whatever spell Twilight had used on her, it had been wonderful to get restful sleep for what felt like the first time in months. She rubbed the ceramic replacement of her beak, the point of contact itching like crazy.

    "Twilight?" Gilda called out.

    "Hey, Gilda." Spike emerged from the kitchen, a spoon stuck in a pint of ice-cream.

    "Spike," Gilda greeted, giving him a short wave. "Have you seen Twilight?"

    "Yeah." Spike nodded, pointing at the door with his spoon. "She's downstairs in the library. I think she's trying to read all of the books."

    "All of the books?" Gilda asked, clacking her beak in amusement.

    "It certainly looks that way," Spike said with a shrug, stuffing a brain freezing amount of ice-cream into his mouth.

    "Alright. Thanks, Spike." Gilda started to walk out of the apartment, but she stopped as she realized something. She turned back around and looked at Spike with narrowed eyes. He suddenly looked a lot guiltier with a spoon sticking out of his mouth.

    "Are you supposed to be eating ice-cream at…" She looked over at the clock on the wall. "Three in the afternoon?"

    "Uh…" Spike blanched, shrinking slightly at her gaze.

    "Didn't think so."

    "I'll…" Spike blushed, embarrassed that he got caught, not so much that he had done anything wrong in the first place. "I'll go put this back."

    "That's a good idea." Turning, Gilda walked out and left the apartment, stepping out into the tower proper.

    When Princess Celestia had first chosen Twilight as her personal student, the filly had moved into the castle on weekdays for her studies. It had only made sense to be able to easily access the filly, so Celestia had simply gifted her one of the castles four towers in the Royal Wing. Over the years, she had filled the tower nearly completely to the brim with books she had purchased with her monthly stipend from the Royal Treasury. The top floor of the tower served as Twilight's and Spike's apartment, the rest of the eight floors serving as her own personal library.

    Twilight tended to spend the vast majority of her time within her library, occasionally taking to exercising with the Guard units on the ground at random times. Since becoming the Princesses personal student, Twilight had unfortunately become one of the most sought after ponies on the planet in more ways than one. The news ponies tried any and every chance to dig up stories about the mysterious mare, and the consequence of their actions had led Twilight Sparkle to be almost as well known as the Princesses themselves.

    Gilda walked down all eight flights of stairs, having to make more than a few rests along the way. Her chest ached and she was incredibly winded. Gilda had to take a long moment to catch her breath. She still suffered from her time as a slave, and it seemed like she couldn't go a single day without being reminded.

    "Twilight?" Gilda called out, coughing to clear her throat. She tried again, stronger this time. "Twilight?"

    There was no response.

    "Twilight? Where are you?" Gilda started walking through the bookshelves. She had no clue where her mare-friend was, but there were only a few places that she enjoyed going all out on her study sprees.

    Emergin out into the dual observation/reading area, Gilda found Twilight. She had cocooned herself within a massive pile of books in front of the massive window that rose up the length of the tower, all the way up through the apartment.

    "Twilight?" Gilda didn't step down the small flight of three stairs, watching the unicorn for any sign of recognition.

    Twilight didn't hear her, too busy reading three books at once.

    "Oh, Twilight…" Gilda murmured, smiling. She stepped down the stairs, taking in everything that Twilight was doing. What is it that she sees in me? Gilda couldn't help but wonder. The unicorn was smarter and stronger and better than her in every single way possible, and Gilda couldn't help but wonder from time to time why Twilight stuck around with her.

    Gilda stepped forward, reaching out a claw to nudge Twilight but she stopped, unsure.

    "Gilda!" Twilight noticed her, blinking at Gilda's sudden appearance in her peripheral vision. She set down all of her books and wrapped Gilda in a big hug. The griffin melted bonelessly into her embrace. "I didn't know you were up."

    "What brought on this reading spree?" Gilda took a step back, looking over some of the books that were piled on the groaning table in front of her.

    "Research!" Twilight did a little happy dance, excited to be able to explain to somepony else what she was doing. That it was Gilda was merely a plus.

    "And what exactly are you researching?" Gilda asked. She was learning how to read, but it was slow going. She still struggled without help. The sheer mass of the books was overwhelming to her.

    "The Everfree Castle," Twilight said. Even though she was a genius, she had never looked down upon Gilda for the gaps in her learning. "I want to know as much as possible before heading out."

    "Why are you going to the Everfree Castle?" Gilda raised an brow, confused.

    "To find the Elements of Harmony!" Twilight crowed triumphantly.

    "The what?" Gilda had never heard of them, but that wasn't surprising. There was a lot she hadn't learned about Equestria, and she was trying to make up for lost time.

    "The Elements of Harmony!" Twilight repeated, settling in for Gilda was sure was going to be a long and headache inducing explanation that she would most likely will only understand every third word.

    "Right." Gilda held up a claw, stopping Twilight. "You can explain later. When are you going?"

    Twilight opened her omni-tool and blushed when she realized the time. "Right now, actually. Will you be alright here?"

    Gilda thought about that for a moment, biting back the 'yes' she almost immediately said. She wanted to be brave. She wanted to show Twilight that she could be brave. She was a griffin after all, and there was nothing that could scare a griffin.

    At least that's what she tried to tell herself.

    "Can I come with you?" Gilda asked, her voice cracking.

    "Come with me?" Twilight leaned back, startled by the question. She shrugged, smiling at Gilda. "Sure. I don't see why not."

    Twilight stood. Using her magic, she sent all of the books in front of her back to their proper places before turning to look at Gilda. "Do you need to get anything? A scarf? Some books? We're going to be spending the night at a hotel in Ponyville before heading to the castle."

    "Nope." Gilda shook her head. She had yet to actually buy anything she had any emotional ties to, and it made traveling a lot easier than she imagined that it should be.

    "Good!" Twilight grinned. "Let's get going."

    AUTHOR'S NOTE:

    Thank you aDarkOne. You have been the single most consistent reviewer on this site.

    4. Chapter Three - Hopes and Harsh Reality

    Chapter Three - Hopes and Harsh Realities

    Constant, Eden Prime, Utopia System, Exodus Cluster

    April 4, 2183

    If there was a paradise in the galaxy, Eden Prime would certainly be a contender. The colonists had learned the lessons of the 21st century, and had turned their garden world into a model of sustainable, organized development. With a growing population of nearly four million humans, Eden Prime had been one of the first planets the Systems Alliance had colonized.

    Eden Prime was the System Alliance's proof that humanity could be a true member of the galactic community.

    Nirali Bhatia hated the planet.

    A Serviceman in the Alliance marines, Nirali had only enlisted for the deferred education plan the Alliance offered. It was the only reason that she had joined, and she would much rather be back on the Citadel with her husband, Samesh, but sometimes dreams took precedence.

    Shuffling back in her bed until she was sitting up against her headboard, Nirali opened her computer, propping it up on her lap. She had been looking forward to making this call for over three months, and the clock on her omni-tool had been counting down the minutes until her allotted time on the orbiting comm-buoy opened up.

    The moment that her omni-tool dinged, Nirali touched the shining 'connect' button flashing on the screen.

    "Establishing connection…" Her computer chirped, speaking with an accented female voice. "Establishing connection…"

    Sighing, Nirali reached down to the side of her bed and lifted the jug beside it. She took a sip from it, a strange mixture of an energy drink, whiskey, and vegetable juice. She grimaced at the taste but drank it anyway. A private during the first years of colonization had created the drink, and it had stuck after the rest of his company realized how effective it was at keeping them awake during long patrols.

    "Come on, you stupid machine," Nirali muttered. "Make the call."

    The door to the barracks smashed open and a trio of her fellow marines swaggered in, arguing loud enough to wake the dead. Nirali recognized them instantly. Tom, Pietro, and Josh, part of her company.

    "No! No! That's bullshit." Tom said.

    "No, it's not!" Pietro shook his head in protest.

    "Whatever." Josh didn't want any part of their argument, but there was nowhere else for him to go when his friends argued. "It doesn't even matter."

    "Shut up, Josh," Pietro said. he was long used to his friends reticence about sports. He turned his attention back to Tom. "The Beijing Dragons are just better! There's no arguing against that."

    "Whatever." Tom rolled his eyes. "They've got nothing on the Broncos—"

    "Guys!" Nirali glared at the three young men, and they flinched under her gaze. She was older than them by a good decade, and they often shied away from her.

    "Oh... Nirali." Tom blushed, rubbing the back of his neck. "We didn't know you were here."

    "Yeah," she said, her voice flat.

    "Establishing connection." Her computer chimed again, capturing the attention of the three young men. They recognized the sound of a computer trying to connect to the comm-buoy and what it must have meant that Nirali had been waiting for her slot for a long time.

    "Oh... sorry," Tom murmured.

    Nirali continued glaring at them.

    "We'll…" Pietro shuffled his feet. "We'll just be going now."

    "Thank you."

    The three men left the barracks as fast as possible, shutting the door behind themselves. Nirali glared at the door for a moment longer before turning her attention back to her computer.

    "Establishing connection…"

    With a frustrated sigh, Nirali took another swig from her jar.

    "Connection established."

    With a smile, Nirali leaned forward as her computer connected to her husband, Samesh, on the Citadel. Samesh Bhatia appeared on the computer screen, and Nirali felt relief for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Eden Prime was a paradise, but without Samesh, it might as well have been hell.

    "Samesh!"

    "It's good to see you again, Nirali." Samesh said, his deep voice sending shivers down her spine. It felt like she was herself again.

    "What are you doing today?" She ran a finger over his image, regretting that he couldn't be with her.

    "I'm just about to get ready for bed, actually."

    "Oh!" Nirali blinked, realizing that she had forgotten the time difference. Now that she looked, she realized he was wearing the pajamas she had bought him for his last birthday. "I'm sorry."

    "No!" Samesh shook his head. "I can't think of anything better than having you be the last conversation I have today."

    "Well, it's night here as well."

    "I know."

    "You always were better with numbers than I was." Nirali blushed, ducking her head.

    "Wait there. I've got something to show you." Samesh disappeared from the video for a moment, rushing off to go and grab something. He was back in moments, sitting back down into his chair with a holopad in hand. "I took some pictures I think you're going to want to see."

    "Oh yeah?" Nirali pushed her hair out of her eyes.

    "What do you think?" Excited, Samesh held up the holopad for her to see. It had a picture of an empty restaurant. It was not a massive space, but Nirali could see the potential it held within. "I spoke with the owner today, and he's looking to sell it for an extremely reasonable price."

    "It's beautiful." Nirali grinned, giddier than she had felt for a long time. Her love for her husband grew just a little bit more.

    "It gets better!" He swiped to a picture of the kitchen. "The last owner left it completely furnished. Everything's top of the line, and it comes with building."

    "I love it."

    "I thought you would." Samesh said, kissing his finger before pressing them to his screen. "I took an inspector by, and he was very impressed."

    They fell silent, just basking in each other's presence, despite the distance that separated them.

    "I want to see it." Nirali said. "Can the owner hold off on selling until I arrive next week?"

    "I already asked. He's willing to wait."

    "That's good—"

    "Connection disabled." Her computer chimed, and Samesh's image disappeared from the screen.

    Nirali blinked in confusion as the computer disconnected from the comm-buoy. Leaning forward, Nirali tried to reconnect, but she didn't have any luck.

    "Connection impossible," her computer said after her third attempt at restarting the machine.

    "Damn it!" Nirali turned off her computer, angry. As much as she wanted to throw it across the room, she didn't. She wouldn't be able to afford a new one.

    Standing up from her bed, Nirali pulled on her jacket and stormed out of the barracks.

    Nirali was stationed near Constant, Eden Prime's largest arcology. It housed almost twenty-thousand colonists, most of whom worked the farms and tended the machines that cultivated the planet.

    The base consisted of pre-fabricated buildings that had been hastily anchored to the bedrock. She ignored the few marines who were lingering outside, making her way to the communications hut. The few marines that noticed her were quick to jump out of her way, sensing her anger.

    Jogging up the short flight of stairs, Nirali smashed open the door and stormed inside.

    "What is this crap?" Nirali stormed over to the large man, Simon, who was sitting at his desk. He was the only occupant of the hut, and he was the only marine in the outpost with the knowledge of how to maintain the uplink between the planet and the orbiting comm buoy.

    "By 'crap' I assume you mean the communication blackout?" Simon spun in his chair to look up at Nirali.

    "Comm blackout?" Nirali frowned. "I thought you had just screwed up and knocked a relay out of the way."

    "Nope." Simon shook his head. "I'm not great, but I'm better than that."

    "You wish." Even as she bantered with him, Nirali's annoyance was already growing. "Who ordered the blackout?"

    Simon opened the orders, a document on his computer, pointing to the signature at the bottom.

    Nirali leaned forward to read it. She looked at Simon, confused. "The governor?"

    "Yep. It was signed by the Commander too." Simon pointed out the second signature underneath the governor's.

    "Alright 212!" Before they could say anything else, both of their radio's crackled to life. "Look alive. I want you all gathered in the courtyard in two minutes. Move it like you mean it. That's an order, straight from the top!"

    Nirali and Simon looked at each other, unsure what to make of that.

    "You heard the woman." Simon stood, pulling on his jacket.

    "Yeah…" The new orders did nothing to curb the annoyance that was turning into anger inside Nirali.

    Together, they left the communications hut.

    Emerging into the night air, they joined the mass of marines leaving the barracks and heading towards the courtyard. Constant towered over them, reaching thousands of feet into the sky.

    Over the course of two minutes, the entirety of the outpost's Marines are gathered in the courtyard, which was lit up by large banks of flood lights.

    Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams and Lieutenant Commander Tasso Hallas stood on the podium overlooking the courtyard, dressed in full combat gear, weapons attached to the hard-points on their armor.

    "Come on people. Move it!" Hallas shouted, his voice loud enough to be heard from the very back of the courtyard.

    The marines fell in line quickly, standing at attention.

    "That's better." Hallas nodded, looking over his command with a critical eye. "Two hours ago, archeologists on the south side of Constant found a Prothean Beacon. We've reported it to the Alliance, and we're under orders to keep it safe until a ship arrives to ferry it to the Citadel."

    Tasso started pacing back and forth on the podium. "Our orders are to keep it safe until then. That means I want all of you suited up, full combat loads."

    Nirali and Simon glanced at each other. Nirali felt a shiver pass through her spine, and she wondered for just a moment if she would ever see Samesh again.

    5. Chapter Four - The Normandy

    Chapter Four - The Normandy
    Arcturus Station, Arcturus Stream
    April 6, 2186

    The flight to Arcturus had taken two days, though that was only because the ship they had boarded from Equestria had to transfer them to a passing carrier group before counting on with its original mission. The SSV Benjamin Davis had carried them the rest of the way to the Arcturus Stream.

    Riley and Rainbow sat in a shuttle that had left from the SSV Benjamin Davis. Riley was wearing her service uniform, and Rainbow was wearing her Wonderbolt's service jacket. Equestrians had realized rather late in the game that they were the only planet where nudity was almost completely standard. Until the sphere had been broken open, clothing had been the exception, not the rule. Once they had learned how uneasy the other species were with that, those who went off world wore simple, modest outfits. The uniforms of all four branches of the Equestrian military had followed that same design.

    "That's it?" Rainbow Dash asked. Through the window of the shuttle, they could both see Arcturus Station.

    Riley glanced out the window, looking at the station. Arcturus had begun construction in 2151, before humanity had made contact with Equestria. With a diameter of five-kilometers, Arcturus Station followed the typical Stanford-Torus design that had been proposed one-hundred seventy six years ago in 1975. It served as the seat of the System Alliance's power, both militarily and politically.

    "Yeah." Riley nodded.

    "I don't like space-stations." Rainbow's wings flared. She didn't like the look of the station and it made her itch.

    Riley didn't say anything.

    "There's never enough room to fly." Rainbow grumbled, scuffing her hoof against the leather of the seat. Thinking about it, Rainbow shrugged. "Well, the Citadel's fine, but that's like... the exception to the rule."

    "Mmm-hmm." Riley acknowledged, though she was only half paying attention to Rainbow.

    "What's the name of the ship?" Rainbow glared at the station. Her own orders had mentioned nothing about that, she realized.

    "I don't know." Riley shrugged.

    "That's a little tacky, isn't it?"

    "I don't know. I guess."

    "They should have at least given us the name."

    "It seems like it's the least they could have done." Rainbow shifted in her seat, uncomfortable in a shuttle made for humans. She didn't really fit, and she could only hope that whatever ship she was assigned to had a seat or two built for an Equestrian's rear.

    "Yeah."

    "It was Scoots birthday." Rainbow bit her lip, annoyed. The military waited for no man, or pony for that matter. Or any race actually. "Yours too. Birthdays. Plural. We were supposed to have two parties."

    "I'm not really one for birthdays," Riley said.

    "I know!" Rainbow exclaimed, pointing her hoof at Riley accusatorially. She turned her full attention on her older sister. "Why is that? Everybody likes birthdays. Even Princess Celestia likes birthdays! With cake and everything."

    "I don't. Never really did." Riley didn't really have an answer beyond that.

    "Why not?"

    "Don't know." She didn't want to think about it. Birthdays were never something that she enjoyed. They made her feel strange inside, and she always tried to get through those days as quickly as possible.

    Rainbow watched as the shuttle went in to land on the station inside of an awaiting hanger bay.

    Shivering, Rainbow stretched as her coat followed the static of the barrier holding the atmosphere inside of the station. With a slight judder, the shuttle landed. The door slid open a moment later and both Riley and Rainbow stepped out, both carrying their bags.

    The arrival dock of the station was massive and full of people. No one lingered about. No one took their time to do anything. Everyone was in a hurry and the fast they got where they were going, the better. They were predominantly all human, but there were enough aliens to be noticeable.

    "It's big." Rainbow took in the station with wide, curious eyes.

    Riley nodded.

    "Commander Shepard."

    Riley and Rainbow turned. When they saw who was behind them, Riley dropped her bag and they both saluted. "Sir!"

    Admiral of the Navies Steven Hackett stood behind them. A legend in the Systems Alliance, he had been around since the beginning. Without him, humanity would have looked incredibly different. In a very real way, he was the power behind the Alliance. Hackett returned their salute.

    "At ease," Hackett said, his voice gruff.

    Riley and Rainbow fell at ease.

    "Walk with me," Hackett said.

    Picking up her bag, Riley and Rainbow followed Hackett as he turned and walked towards the exit to the docks.

    Hackett led Riley, and Rainbow Dash out of the dock and into the heart of the station. Before they knew it, they were walking down a long hallway that ran the outside circumference of the entire station.

    "I'm here to brief you on your assignment, Commander," Hackett said over his shoulder. "You as well, Flying Officer."

    Rainbow perked up a little bit, hearing her rank.

    "In here, please." Hackett stopped in front of a door guarded by a pair of marines.

    Riley and Rainbow Dash entered the room, followed by Hackett.

    The room was small, but it was secure and very well appointed. If Riley had to guess, she would say that it was used by some of the highest level officials in government when they wanted to speak privately.

    "Please, take a seat," Hackett said, setting his cap on the table.

    Riley and Rainbow Dash took a seat at the table. Hackett stayed standing, clasping his hands behind his back.

    "What I am about to tell you is classified Alliance Restricted," Hackett said.

    Riley and Rainbow Dash glanced at each other. Alliance Restricted was the highest level of classification within the Systems Alliance. Neither of them were rated for such a classification, though Riley was close.

    "Understood, sir," Riley said, turning back to face the Admiral.

    "Good." Hackett offered the two of them an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry that we had to cut your briefing short, but this takes precedence. Commander Shepard, you have been assigned to the SSV Normandy as the Executive Officer, under the command of Captain David Anderson. I believe the two of you are familiar."

    "Yes, sir." Riley nods. It wasn't the full truth. To say that they were familiar was an understatement. If circumstances had been different, it was possible that David could have ended up raising her.

    "Good." Hackett nodded, satisfied. "You are also in command of the Normandy's strike team."

    "Yes, sir," Riley said. As an N7 Operator, it was only natural that she would be in charge of any strike team onboard a ship. There were very few who could match that level of proficiency, and she could name all of them on one hand, at least within the Alliance.

    "I want you to understand, Shepard. The Normandy is a massive investment by the Alliance."

    "Why is that, sir?" Riley asked.

    "She's a stealth frigate, first of her class." Crossing his arms, Hackett waited eagerly for their reaction.

    "Stealth?" Riley's eyebrows raised. Stealth in space was extremely difficult, nearly impossible actually. "I thought we had given up on that decades ago."

    "It was." Hackett smirked, leaning forward. "We discovered a way around the problems. Needless to say, that means the Normandy is potentially the deadliest ship in the galaxy. She's fast too. In the hands of the right pilot, she could change the entire course of a battle."

    "We've picked the right pilot." Picking his hat up off the table, Hackett placed it under his arm. "This ship is crewed by the best of the best."

    "Why are you making me the XO then, sir?" Riley sat forward, puzzled. "There have to be more qualified officers than me."

    "Maybe." Hackett shrugged. "I'm not interested in them. I want you."

    "Want me for what?" Riley asked.

    "Even here…" Hackett takes a look around the room. It said a lot that the most powerful man in the military was untrusting of his own station. "We're not completely secure. David will brief you on the Normandy."

    "This couldn't have waited another week?" Riley glanced over at Rainbow, who looked just as confused as she felt.

    "I'm afraid not." Hackett shakes his head, apologetic. "Something has come up that requires immediate action. I apologize. We'll try to make it up to you, but for now, you're needed elsewhere."

    "What about me, sir?" Rainbow asked, wondering about her place. "It doesn't sound like I fit in on this ship."

    "Empress Celestia recommended you for this posting herself." Hackett turned his attention to Rainbow for the first time.

    "The Princess…" Rainbow sat back, more than a little stunned.

    "I agree with her," Hackett said, watching the young Pegasus evenly. "It may be a bit unorthodox, but I don't believe that the Angels of Elysium should be separated."

    Riley and Rainbow looked at each other, before accepting that.

    "Dismissed." Hackett saluted both of them. "Report to the SSV Normandy at Dock A14."

    Riley and Rainbow stood, saluting Hackett. They turned and left the room silently, struggling to take everything in.

    Stepping back out into the hallway, Riley and Rainbow stood there for a moment, forcing those walking down the hall to move around them.

    "Dock A14," Riley murmured. Opening her omni-tool, Riley connected with the station's database. In seconds, she had loaded a map. "It's this way."

    Riley took off walking, Rainbow trailing behind her. They had to step onboard the station's transit system to get to the other side of the ring, and from there it was only a short walk to Dock A14. Civilian traffic had nearly completely disappeared, and they were heavily within the military portion of the station. Almost everyone they passed was wearing a uniform of some kind.

    "Here." Riley stopped in front of an unmarked door. Hidden sensors scanning her, the door slid open letting them in.

    Just on the other side, Riley and Rainbow were stopped at a checkpoint by several marines, fully armed and armored.

    "Hold, ma'am's."

    The marines scanned first Riley, then Rainbow. Their omni-tool's quickly flashed green, letting them through.

    "Go ahead."

    Stepping through, Riley and Rainbow exited through the other side of the military checkpoint, emerging out into the pressurized dock. They both stopped when they saw the ship sitting inside.

    The SSV Normandy. It hung suspended by the docking collar inside the pressurized hanger. She was a sleek ship, some two-hundred meters long, with engines like wings that swept back past its main structure. A large fin sat at the rear of the ship. The entire hull was painted in shades of blue and white, with a thin red stripe running down its entire length. Its name was printed on the front in large white letters: Normandy.

    "She's beautiful." Riley was instantly attracted to the ship, feeling a bond with it that she could't quite explain

    "Yeah." Rainbow nodded, agreeing with her.

    They walked up to the railing and Riley leaned on it, studying the ship. Rainbow had to get up on her hind-legs, resting her fore-legs on the railing.

    "Do you feel that?" Riley asked, studying the ship.

    "Feel what?" Rainbow glanced at Riley.

    "I don't know…" Riley shrugged. "It's kind of like…"

    "It's kind of like we're about to become a part of something…" She chewed her lip, trying to figure out what she was feeling. "Larger than ourselves…"

    Rainbow raised an eyebrow. "Not really, no."

    "So, just me, then."

    "Yep."

    They stared at the ship for another moment. "Let's get onboard."

    "I'm right behind you," Rainbow chirped, dropping back down onto all four of her hooves.

    The two of them passed over the docking ramp, and the airlock to the Normandy slid open, letting them in.

    Riley and Rainbow Dash stepped inside. The main hull slid shut behind them and a blue decontamination light flared to life.

    "Decontamination in progress."

    "That's going to take some getting used to," Rainbow grumbled. She hated waiting.

    6. Chapter Five - Investigations

    Chapter Five - Investigations

    Weary Hoof Hotel, Ponyville, Equestria

    April 5, 2183

    "But Shaeli. We can never be together. I have my duty, and you, you have your people."

    Twilight woke to the sound of some alien program playing quietly on the hotel room's display. Even while she was sleeping, her omni-tool had faithfully been translating every single word spoken. It was easily recognizable from the dual languages playing in her ears, the alien overpowered by the far more familiar Equestrian.

    The introduction of the omni-tool had done wonders for the galactic entertainment industry. Long gone were the days that films and TV shows were poorly dubbed by uncaring voice actors. The universal translator that came standard with every omni-tool could translate in real time and with the speakers own voice.

    Sitting up, Twilight found Gilda sitting on the couch, watching a quarian movie quietly on the display. Twilight recognized the film from her own brief foray into multicultural studies as Fleet and Fotilla. She had found that it actually provided more of what the galaxy thought of quarian culture than of quarian culture itself.

    "Tonight, I'm as free as the dust on the solar wind."

    "Are you alright?" Twilight asked, her voice cracking with grogginess.

    "Oh!" Gilda startled, looking over to find Twilight smiling at her. She blushed, sinking a little deeper into the couch cushions. "I didn't wake you, did I?"

    "Nope." Twilight shook her head, getting out of the bed. "You're fine."

    Coming over to the couch, Twilight nuzzled Gilda lovingly. The griffin leaned into her touch, a slight purr coming from her throat.

    "I'm fine," Gilda murmured. "I just... couldn't sleep."

    "What do you think?" Twilight nodded at the TV.

    "It's some romance." Gilda giggled. "Five-thousand channels, and it's was the only thing worth watching."

    "That good?" Twilight felt no need to go into her own thoughts of the film. If Gilda liked it, that was perfectly fine.

    "Not really." Gilda shook her head, clacking her beak. "It's rather hilarious though."

    "I'm going to take a shower." Standing up from the couch, Twilight giggled as she trotted towards the bathroom. Pausing, she looked over her shoulder and gave Gilda a coy look. "You could come join me…"

    Gilda met Twilight's gaze with her own seductive grin. She nodded, her eyes lighting up. The remnants of her wings fluttering, she leapt off the couch and followed after Twilight. "I'd like that…"

    Together, they headed into the shower.

    ###

    Twilight and Gilda emerged from the Weary Hoof Hotel with a spring in their steps. Breakfast was on their thoughts, and they hoped to find a nice little restaurant to dine at before continuing on their journey.

    Twilight was wearing a pair of over-sized saddle-bags, ready for anything. She had meticulously packed everything that she could imagine needing, from her detective kit to an emergency tent she had pilfered from the Royal Guard barracks.

    Griffins weren't a normal sight in most Equestrian cities, and neither were horrible injuries that left visible marks. As they walked through the center of Ponyville, Gilda shrunk under pitiful looks from the ponies going about their day, and she slunk closer to Twilight's side.

    Seeing their looks, Twilight glared at the ponies, who quickly realized that they had been caught and looked away in shame and embarrassment.

    "Don't pay any attention to them," Twilight said, giving a quick nuzzle to Gilda's cheek.

    "Let's just get to the forest." Gilda clacked her beak, keeping her eyes lowered to the ground, avoiding everypony's gaze. "I'm not hungry."

    Twilight nodded her acceptance, and they passed right on by several restaurants that were just beginning their day. Twilight gave an odd look to a pastry shop that looked like it was completely made out of gingerbread.

    "That's certainly a little tacky." Twilight wondered what pony in their right mind decided to allow the shop to be built.

    "I wonder who'd be crazy enough to work there…" Gilda wasn't sure that she'd want to meet them.

    They paused, a feeling passing through them. Something was supposed to happen, and they weren't quite sure whether or not that was a good thing.

    A minute passed, and nothing happened. Slowly, they continued walking, feeling oddly unfulfilled.

    "Right…" Twilight glanced back at the shop. "That was weird… Let's get to the castle."

    Gilda nodded. They hurried through the rest of Ponyville to the forest that loomed darkly beyond.

    The Everfree Forest was an anomaly to the peaceful planet of Equestria. It was the home to some of the most dangerous creatures and beings to be found across the galaxy, and almost nopony dared to ever venture inside. There was a small path that led to the Everfree Castle that was maintained by the Royal Guard, but very few ever dared to use it.

    Twilight and Gilda followed the map that Princess Celestia gave to Twilight just before they departed. The trees loomed over them, the air heavy with a feeling of dark, ancient things.

    "I don't like this forest," Gilda whispered. She watched the trees warily, her steps quiet and nervous.

    "I don't think anypony does." Twilight spoke softly. There was something about the atmosphere that made you want to go unnoticed by all of the inhabitants. Twilight nudged up against Gilda encouragingly, the contact helping both of them relax, even just a little. "All the books I read yesterday confirmed the stories that I remember mom telling me as a filly."

    "I can see why…" Gilda shivered. She felt eyes watching her.

    "As long as we stick to the path, we'll be fine." Twilight grinned, standing taller, proud of herself. "And don't worry! I'll protect you."

    "I feel much better," Gilda said with a giggle.

    "You should." Twilight nodded once, her eyes closed and her head lifted high.

    Twilight and Gilda emerged from the forest, seeing the hulking skeleton of the Everfree Castle. A large gorge sat between them and the castle, and a rickety looking bridge spanned across it.

    "Well…" Twilight had never imagined the castle would be in such a state of disrepair, even after what Celestia had told her. "That's certainly a sight."

    The castle bore the scars of a horrendous battle. Entire chunks of the castle appeared to have been melted away, the stone cooled in strange formations that almost made the castle look like it was bleeding.

    "Let's get started!" Turning to Gilda, Twilight bounced eagerly. Who knew just what secrets the castle held within that nopony else had seen for a thousand years!

    "Over that?" Gilda eyed the bridge suspiciously.

    "Oh!" Twilight blinked, noticing just how unsafe the bridge looked. "Right. Yes. That doesn't look safe at all."

    Stepping up to the edge of the gorge next to the bridge, Twilight bit her lip. Turning back to face Gilda, she grinned proudly.

    "I can certainly do better!" Turning back to the gorge, Twilight ignited her horn and casts a spell. Forming a solid surface with magic was a rather simple thing to do, but it could be manipulated in thousands of ways. It was only ever limited by imagination. Gilda watched wide-eyed as a magical bridge sprung into existence, purple and see through. "There! You won't find a better bridge in Equestria!"

    "If I die…" Gilda stepped up to the bridge. Putting out a claw, she touched the magical surface. It doesn't so much as give an inch. "I'm going to come back and haunt you."

    "At least we'll still be together." Twilight moved to start across but flinched when she realized how horrible that sounded. She should probably do something to reassure the skittish griffin. Embarrassed, she turned back to Gilda. "Right! It's perfectly safe. I promise."

    "You promise?" Gilda asked.

    Leaning forward, Twilight kissed her. "I promise."

    That was enough for her. Gilda stepped out onto the bridge and started crossing over. She looked back over her shoulder at Twilight. "Well, come on. The day is wasting."

    Twilight giggled, trotting after Gilda. As promised, the bridge held and in no time they were on the other side.

    "I told you there wouldn't be a problem." Twilight trotted to the entrance of the castle.

    Together, they entered the castle. They paused just inside the entrance, the doors having long since rotted away. Twilight's mouth fell open as she truly began to understand just how incredible Celestia really was. She had lived here one-thousand years ago, and she still looked young and beautiful today as she did then.

    "Whoa…" Twilight murmured.

    "What?" Gilda asked, looking over at Twilight, trying to see what she was thinking. She didn't have any luck. "Twilight… What?"

    Twilight didn't answer for a long moment, taking in everything with wide eyes and an open jaw. Finally, she looked over at Gilda. "It's just... It's just hitting me…"

    "What is?"

    "The Princesses…"

    Gilda waited patiently for her marefriend to continue.

    "I've never really understood just how... how powerful they are." Twilight had spent a little over a decade practically living with the Princesses, seeing their every foible and problem. She had lost sight of so much. "How ancient!"

    "This…" She waved a hoof around the castle. "This just drives it home. Princess Celestia has lived more lifetimes than I can really even comprehend, and…"

    She laughed, giggling, amused. There was more of a touch of madness to her voice. "And she chose me! Out of all of the others, she chose me to be her student."

    Gilda wrapped Twilight in a loose hug, holding her as she came to an understanding.

    "I guess I've never really understood…"

    They sat there for a moment before Twilight nodded, ready to get going.

    "Well, let's get started," Twilight said, her voice slightly shaky.

    Lifting her hoof, Twilight activated her omni-tool and set it to record, wanting a record of things that looked like they might be of interest to her. She started walking into the castle, and Gilda followed after her several seconds later.

    As they walked deeper into the castle, the signs of battle became more and more evident.

    "What happened here?" Gilda asked, taking everything in.

    "A battle." Twilight's voice was quiet at that. The conversation that she had with Celestia had weighed heavily on her mind. "A fight between sisters."

    "The Princesses?" Gilda paused, looking at Twilight in amazement.

    "Yes," Twilight murmured. She stopped in front of a large doorway that led to another hall. Two massive tapestries hung on either side of the door. On the right, the cutie mark of Princess Celestia. On the left, the cutie mark of Princess Luna. Twilight's eyes lit up excitedly, her despondence of moments ago forgotten. "Oh! Look at how well preserved these are!"

    "I think I can still…" Twilight darted up to the one with Princess Celestia's mark, recording it with her omni-tool. The fabric was thick and beautifully crafted. It was the work of a master, and Twilight didn't want to miss a thing. "Yes! There is still magic in this castle. That must be what preserved everything. It's the only explanation I can think of."

    Gilda watched Twilight, amused. She let her go and play the scientist for several more minutes before she stepped up and placed a claw on her shoulder. "Twilight, we should get going."

    Twilight looked at Gilda, pouting, but finally relented with a nod. "Yeah."

    She took a final look at the tapestries before continuing on through the doorway.

    Twilight looked back over her shoulder, longing to study the tapestries more. She turned her attention to Gilda, excitement still coursing through her. "Did you see how remarkable those were! They were fascinating examples of post classical Equestrian thread work."

    "They were very nice." Gilda indulged Twilight.

    "I know!" Twilight giggled, excited. There was so much that she could study here, and it was simply overwhelming! She paused as she looked down a doorway they were passing. "Hold up for a minute, Gilda. I want to take a look in here."

    Gilda rolled her eyes, but she followed Twilight through the door into a massive library.

    "Books!" Twilight's eyes widened excitedly. She was a bibliophile through and through. She darted to the bookshelves, giggling like a schoolfilly. "So many books!"

    Using her magic, Twilight lifted the first book she saw off of its shelf. Eyes wide, she was eager to take a look inside the book, the first pony to do so in one-thousand years. The cover had long since lost whatever gold stamping that had marked its name. What it held inside was a complete mystery. It could be a study in ancient Equestrian law, or a book of plays from a forgotten playwright, or maybe it was even the Princesses own journal!

    Opening it, Twilight squealed. The book literally crumbled to dust in her magic and Twilight's excited gaze turned to horror. "What?"

    "But…" She looked over the rest of the library. "But... The books…"

    Twilight looked over to Gilda, a pitifully sad expression on her face, her lower lip sticking out. That expression turned to one of indignation.

    "The books!" She stomped her hoof on the ground. Trotting up to Gilda, she looked her in the eyes with a passion that only a librarian could muster. "Princess Celestia left all the books here to rot!"

    "We should really keep looking for the throne room." Gilda tried to get Twilight back on task.

    "That's criminal!" Twilight didn't even hear Gilda, her anger building inside. "To let all of this knowledge go to waste."

    Taking Twilight by the hoof, Gilda dragged the unicorn out of the library while the mare continued her rant. She paid no mind to the fact that she was being pulled through the Everfree Castle. Nothing would stop Twilight during a good rant.

    "We could have learned so much! There are thousands of books in there. Think of all of the knowledge that we've lost." Twilight pouted. "I am going to have a very stern talking to with Princess Celestia when I get back."

    "I'm sure that'll go very well." Gilda rolled her eyes.

    "You bet it will!" Twilight completely missed the point.

    "I think we're here, Twilight." Gilda stopped dragging Twilight when she found herself in front of what looked to be the Throne Room.

    "What?" That drew Twilight out of her own little world. She looked around, realizing that she didn't recognize where she was. "Where are we? Why aren't we in the library anymore?"

    "I think we're here, Twilight." Gilda rolled her eyes.

    "Oh? Are we?" She saw the door in front of them, somehow managing to have survived the passage of time. "I suppose we are."

    "Let's go in then!" Twilight grinned at Gilda.

    Twilight pushed open the doors to the throne room.

    Twilight and Gilda paused in the doorway of the throne room, taking it all in with wide eyes. It was the most badly damaged part of the castle that they had seen so far.

    "That is incredible." Twilight stepped a hoof into the throne room, but immediately froze as the room went completely dark. The door slammed behind them, forcing Gilda into the room with a yelp.

    "Twilight," Gilda scampered to Twilight's side, the after-image of the unicorn still burned in her vision. She bumped into her, grabbing onto her with a hug. "What's happening? I can't see anything."

    "I don't know!" Twilight ignited her horn and sat back on her haunches. She wrapped Twilight in a hug.

    Out of the darkness, the room suddenly lit up. Tangling webs of neon blue light spread out across the floor, all coming to a point in the center of the room.

    "What is that?"

    "I don't know." Twilight watched with wide eyes. "But I don't think we're in danger."

    From the point in the floor, a pedestal rose up. Twilight recognized it as the holder of the Elements of Harmony. Celestia had added a small drawing of what it looked like with her map.

    "Why not?" Gilda asked, staying behind Twilight.

    "We must have triggered something by stepping into the room. I don't think it's meant to harm us." She wasn't sure, but she felt pretty sure about that.

    Twilight stepped forward towards the pedestal. Her hoofsteps were met by the blue light, seeming to jump up from the floor to meet her. It seemed to be eager, happy even.

    Reaching out a hoof, Twilight touched the pedestal hesitantly, backing up a bit when it chimed, producing a ringing note, perfectly clear and beautiful.

    "Oh, Celestia…" Twilight swore. She took another step back as the pedestal started to spin.

    The top of the pedestal lowered down, petals opening to reveal a journal bound in purple leather. It settled with a quiet, mechanical clunk, the blue light pulsing around it.

    "What is it?" Gilda asked, stepping forward to join Twilight.

    "It's a journal…" Stepping forward, Twilight ignited her magic and lifted the journal off of the pedestal. Opening it, Twilight dropped back onto her haunches in surprise. "What?"

    "What is it?" Gilda peered over Twilight's shoulder, trying to see what was so startling.

    "This doesn't make any sense!" Twilight flipped through the journal, getting more and more confused by what she saw. "This doesn't make any sense."

    "What is it?" Gilda asked, louder.

    "This journal." She held it up for Gilda to see. She scanned over the journal's writing, hoof-written, not printed. Looking back up at Twilight, Gilda shrugged. She didn't see whatever it was that Twilight saw. "What about it?"

    "That's my hoof-writing," Twilight said, her voice shaky.

    "You wrote this?" Gilda looked back at the journal with renewed interest. Now that she knew, she did recognize Twilight's tight and concise writing.

    "Yes!" Twilight cried, more confused than she had ever felt before in her entire life. She shook her head, trotting in place. "No! I've never seen this journal before in my life, but that is clearly my writing. I'd recognize it anywhere."

    "If you didn't write this…" Gilda reached out a claw and touched the journal, as if expecting it to disappear. "Then who did?"

    "I don't know!" Twilight stomped a hoof against the floor, growling in agitation.

    The pedestal started lowering back into the floor, drawing both of their attention at the deep sound of gears crashing against each other. The floor started to shudder, forcing Twilight and Gilda to spread their legs to stay stable.

    "What's happening?" Gilda rushed to Twilight's side. If the castle was going to fall apart, it was better to be with the unicorn who could teleport wherever she wanted.

    "I don't know!" Twilight drew comfort from Gilda.

    The floor started to separate, and the blue light dimmed. Through the ever widening crack in the floor, an even brighter illumination revealed itself. The floor of the entire throne room retracted, revealing an absolutely intricate and beautiful map underneath.

    "That's impossible…" Twilight stared at the map with wide eyes, her jaw dropping. She made the small jump down off of the upper floor to mural beneath, and Gilda followed after. The floor finished completely retracting and the room was now about a foot lower than it was before. "No. That's completely impossible. There is no way…"

    Despite all impossibility, the map was a nearly complete and accurate rendering of the Milky Way galaxy. Tiny mass relays dotted the entire map, and Twilight easily recognized that the Arcturus Relay was in its correct place.

    On the surface of the map, five planets had been rendered in such large detail that the eye couldn't help but be drawn to it. They were so beautifully made that it almost seemed as if Twilight could reach a hoof out and pluck it out of the sky. Thessia. Earth. Tuchanka. Illium. Equestria.

    Beyond the planets, larger than the rest, was the Citadel.

    Twilight stares at the map in confusion and awe.

    Thinking, Twilight opened her omni-tool, pulling up a galaxy map. She compared the locations as best she could before turning to Gilda with wide eyes. "It's accurate. As near as I can tell, it's... completely accurate."

    "What's so important about that?" Gilda asked, trying to understand.

    "One-thousand years ago, whenever this castle was built... somepony made this map before we even knew that there was anything else out there beyond the sun and the moon." Twilight shook her head, dropping back onto her haunches. "The sphere was already in place by then. There's no way that it was outside contact. Somepony on Equestria knew how the galaxy would look nearly two-million years ago."

    Standing, Twilight placed to put a hoof on the Citadel. "That shouldn't be possible. There's no way. It's not just improbable, it's impossible! The time-scale involved is just too vast for anyone to know how the galaxy would turn out!"

    "Then…" Gilda looked at the map with new understanding. "Who did this?"

    "I don't know." Twilight really didn't She didn't know how Celestia could have missed whoever had built this when she was at the castle. Twilight looked over to her journal, still floating next to her in her magic. "These two have to be connected in some way…"

    "Dear Diary," Opening the journal, Twilight started to read. "This is the first entry of of the Journal of Friendship being entered by Twilight Sparkle. Well, Princess Twilight Sparkle, I should say. And hasn't that been making me nervous, feeling so much pressure. The Tree of Harmony had my cutie mark on it, and when we put the Elements of Harmony in the tree, it revealed this mysterious chest with six keyholes. I've started searching, but so far I can't find any information on how to open it or where to find those keys."

    Gilda dropped back to her haunches, listening to what Twilight was saying.

    "But I know it's important and vital to helping me discover who I am as a princess." Twilight continued reading. "Hopefully, reading the Journal of the Two Sisters will help me be less scared of this whole Princess thing. After all, Celestia and Luna became princesses of Equestria and had to tackle really big problems. So if they could do it, then so can I. Right? My friends will also be contributing to the Journal of Friendship so we can learn from one another. And maybe someday, other ponies will read it and learn from out experiences as well. After all, we ponies have some really amazing adventures…"

    Twilight looked up at Gilda, her mouth hanging open. "I don't understand."

    7. Chapter Six - Preflight Checks

    Chapter Six - Preflight Checks
    Bridge, SSV Normandy SR-1, Arcturus Station
    April 6, 2183

    There were times that Flight Lieutenant Jeff "Joker" Moreau truly hated being a part of the Alliance military. Long shifts in the lowest bidder produced chair did nothing for his back and he could already feel an ache that would last for days building at the base of his spine.

    "Adams!" He hit the comm button on his far most left holo-display, glaring at the blinking red lights that kept flashing at him. A second passed, and Joker impatiently waited for a response., drumming his fingers on his leg. The indicators for the Internal Emission Sink were still reading that they were down. "Come on Adams, answer me!"

    The Normandy was the first of her kind, a space ship built for stealth. The Internal Emission Sink was what made that possible. Heat was the single biggest problem that any ship had to deal with, simply from normal flight operations. It made them stick out like a sore thumb against the background temperature of space. The Normandy got around that problem by storing the heat in large lithium heat sinks between the ship's hull and the decks.

    Despite the rather ingenious design, the IES of the Normandy was hampered by the amount of heat that it could store, only three hours at maximum of silent running. If they didn't vent the heat before those three hours were up, the heat sinks would cook the interior of the ship. The answer to the problem came in the form of Equestria's cooling crystals. Theoretically, the crystals would store the heat from the sinks in the form of usable energy and expand the limit from three hours to a near unlimited amount of time.

    Theoretically. In practice, it was a completely different matter.

    He glanced over at Captain Spitfire in the copilot seat to his right. She was busy looking over her own screens, which were of a vastly different layout than his own. Hers were designed for use by a hoofed being, and he couldn't make heads or tails of what she was doing. At least she had managed to get a seat specially designed for her. It looked far more comfortable than his own.

    "How did you manage to get the yard to get you the seat?" Joker glared at Spitfire, flexing his fingers. "I couldn't even get them to install a coffee maker on the bridge. What strings did you have to pull?"

    "I'm cuter than you." Spitfire flashed a grin at him. "I just have to 'look cute' and I can get you humans to do anything I want."

    "You have to teach me how to do that." Joker had known Spitfire since he had been sent to Equestria to cross-train with the Wonderbolts ten years ago. They had become fast friends from the first day of training and had proved time and time again that they simply were better together.

    "I couldn't even if I wanted to. You're just too ugly, it's a sad fact of biology." Spitfire giggled and stuck out her tongue at her.

    "Real funny." Joker rolled his eyes and turned back to his displays. "Adams, stop ignoring me!"

    "Any change?" Lieutenant Gregory Adams voice came through the ships internal communications system.

    "No." Joker leaned forward and glared at his screen. "Are you even doing anything, 'cause I gotta tell ya', it doesn't really seem like it. What are we even keeping you around for? I could do your job. I'd just have Spits kick things and we'd run just as well."

    "Yes, Joker, I'm just sitting on my ass in Engineering on the Alliance's most expensive warship," Adams drawled.

    Joker sighed, glancing over at Spitfire. Meeting his gaze, Spitfire shrugged. She activated her comms.

    "Adams, stop harassing Joker and fix the ship!" She grinned at Joker. "It's my job to drive him up the wall."

    "I'm trying! It's the crystals. They don't play nice with the rest of the tech." Adams protested, his frustration evident through his voice.

    "What about it?" Joker asked.

    "They're on the fritz again. I thought this was supposed to make everything run smoother."

    "They are. What are you doing to it?" Joker hadn't been happy when Octavio Tatum had decided that the ship needed to incorporate more from the Equestrian side of technology. The turian had at best jammed things together in the semblance of order, confident in his own superiority that they would work with a minimum of work.

    "I'm reading the manual, I just don't know what's wrong. I don't like this magitech crap." In reality, it took more than connecting a few wires to get magitech and human technology working together. Adams had been working to fix it since the turian engineer had left the project, and he had yet to make any actual progress.

    "I don't care if you like it or not, Adams," Spitfire chimed in. If she let Joker and Adams really go at it, they would bicker at each other for hours. "Just make it work."

    "It's not working!"

    "Try harder, Adams." Joker leaned back in his seat and immediately regretted it. There was absolutely no cushioning. Maybe he should get a pillow or something. "I'd rather not fly around in a stealth ship that doesn't have any stealth. It leads to a lot of holes in the hull, followed by, you know, explosive decompression."

    "I'm doing the best I can, but I never trained on Equestrian tech." The man truly was working miracles, but even he could only do so much.

    "Will the IES work without it until you figure it out?" Spitfire sighed, rubbing a hoof over her mane. They had spent so long trying everything else that they hadn't bothered to ask the most obvious question.

    There was a pause.

    "It… should."

    "Keep working on the crystals, Adams," Spitfire said, "But I want the IES ready to go with or without the storage crystals."

    "Yeah, I'll get on that," Adams grumbled. He ended the call, and the bridge fell silent.

    "I blame you for all of this," Spitfire said, glaring at Joker.

    "Me?" Joker looked at her incredulously, scoffing. "What did I do?"

    "Yes, you!" Spitfire pointed an accusing hoof at Joker. "You're the one who put my name forward for this."

    "Don't give me that." Joker typed a series of commands directly into the ship's operating system as he noticed a line of code that could lead to the Normandy deciding to vent its atmosphere in the case of a fire. Best to take care of that himself. "You would have volunteered anyway."

    "Yeah…" Spitfire frowned. He was right. "Still, I blame you."

    "Whatever. Blame Joker, it's always his felt."

    "I'm glad you're finally learning." Spitfire giggled, shifting in her seat.

    Joker rolled his eyes, keeping an eye on the numbers coming from Engineering. They kept fluctuating as Adam's tried to work things out.

    Spitfire sat in her seat, chewing on her lip for a minute, listening to Joker's mumbling. She glanced over at him. "I'm not crazy, right?"

    Joker looked over at his friend. A grim smile of sympathy on his face, he reached over and gave her foreleg a sympathetic pat.

    "Not about this, no," he said.

    "Funny."

    "That is my name after all," Joker said, giving her a wry grin. He sobered up, answering her question. "But, no, this isn't a normal shakedown run."

    "I didn't think so," Spitfire murmured. She glanced over her shoulder, making sure that there weren't any turian Spectres lurking behind her. "You ever feel like he's just... watching, ya' know?"

    "It's probably not just a feeling." Joker nodded, feeling the need to look over his shoulder to check for himself. "He's probably in the ducts, watching us now."

    Joker and Spitfire glanced up at the long and thin duct that hung over the entrance to the bridge. It was way to small for even a hanar to slip through.

    "Okay, not the ducts," Joker said with a shrug.

    "You watch too many action movies."

    "Hey!" He pointed an accusing finger at her. "You watch them with me."

    "In protest."

    That wasn't actually the truth. Joker and Spitfire had taken every opportunity to spend time with each other whenever they could. They didn't get a lot of time with each other, but what little they could get, they spent together.

    "That's what they all say," Joker murmured.

    "They?" Spitfire asked, smirking.

    "They." Joker nodded, waving his hands in the air. "You know. They. The nebulous them that always confirm my arguments."

    "The more you say it doesn't make that argument any better."

    "You say that, but they just disagree with you." Joker felt reasonably sure that he had won that argument, and clapped his hands together (carefully, so as not to break anything) before getting back to work.

    "Shut up." Spitfire rolled her eyes.

    "It is weird." Joker glanced over at Spitfire, to see her quietly fuming at him. He bit his lip. "There are too many people here that don't belong. Captain Anderson. The guy could melt down all the medals he's earned and make a life-sized statue of himself."

    "That would be impressive." Spitfire wondered just what that statue would look like. It would be a sight to see, that was for sure.

    "Yeah. You have to wonder who our Executive Officer is going to be."

    "They'd have to be someone impressive. It would fit with everyone else."

    "The Butcher, maybe." Joker really hoped not. The Butcher of Torfan was a man with far too many rumors to his name, and he wasn't someone that Joker ever wanted to serve with. A man who killed women and children indiscriminately and won a medal for it was not ideal command material.

    "No." Spitfire shook her head. "The Captain has too much honor to let someone like that onboard."

    "Yeah, maybe." He shrugged, unconvinced. Glancing at his monitor, his eyes widened. "Speak of the devil."

    He glanced over at Spitfire and spoke along with the Normandy's Virtual Intelligence. "Executive Officer is aboard."

    Both Joker and Spitfire turned to watch as the airlock opened with a familiar hiss. Their eyes went wide when they immediately recognized the two who stepped onboard.

    "The Angels of Elysium," Spitfire whispered under her breath.

    8. Chapter Seven - New Command

    Chapter Seven - New Command

    SSV Normandy SR1, Arcturus Station

    April 6, 2183

    Riley and Rainbow waited inside the Normandy's airlock, eying the decontamination ray as it passed back and forth over their bodies.

    "Decontamination complete," The Normandy's virtual intelligence chirped. "The Executive Officer is aboard."

    The door opposite the wall slid open, and Riley caught her first glimpse of the inside of the stealth frigate. She stepped inside, her stride confident. Rainbow followed behind her, a bit more unconfident than her older sister.

    Just inside and to the left, Riley found the pilot of the ship sitting in his chair, looking up at her. Beside him, in the copilots seat, was a golden yellow pegasus. Her mouth dropped open in surprise at the sight of them, and it was obvious she didn't know that she was speaking. "The Angels of Elysium…"

    It was an unfortunate monicker that had found its way to the pair of sisters after the Skyllian Blitz, when pirates had raided the colony of Elysium. Riley had only been twenty-two at the time, and she was on her first leave since she had joined the Alliance. Elysium had been the perfect destination, and the entire family had planned to celebrate there. It was the unexpected birth of Scootaloo that had called her parents away, but Rainbow Dash had still made the trip. Anything for her sister, after all. It was supposed to be a week of fun, celebrating, and relaxation. It had turned into the single most violent action that the Systems Alliance had been a part of since the Relay 314 incident.

    Elysium's defense force had been the first to fall. The raiders landed fast and quiet, killing everyone inside the compound before they even realized what was happening. The communications network posed no problem at all, and the police went not soon after that. Small weapons and unarmored officers were no match for pirates in full body armor with military grade assault rifles. It was at that moment that the true blitz began. The raiders landed their entire force, ready to make an example of the colony planet. In one minute, Riley and Rainbow had been lounging beside a tropical beach, the next, they were on the run for their lives.

    Marines had a long and cultured history, stretching back all the way too ancient China, when war ships needed to defend themselves from attackers. When humanity had taken to the stars, they had consolidated their disparate militaries into a singular branch, the Alliance Navy. The Navy had of course brought its single most effective combat element with them, and thus the galaxy at large was introduced to the marines.

    Riley had been trained as a marine, and as any such marine would, she took action. With Rainbow Dash by her side, she defended the colony of Elysium from the blitz. When the Alliance Navy arrived thirty-six hours later, they found the colonists preforming sweeping patrols through their streets, led by 2nd Lieutenant Riley Shepard with twelve year old Rainbow Dash acting as her messenger among the the patrols.

    When the total amount of kills had been counted from colony's network of security cameras, Riley had been tallied as taking down over fifty pirates on her own, leading the colonists to bring down even more. She had been awarded the Star of Terra for her efforts and an invitation was extended from the "the Villa" or as it was known to the rest of the military, "N-School."

    The news across the galaxy had talked and debated the event for months afterwards, and it was from those programs that the name "the Angels of Elysium" had come. Riley Shepard and Rainbow Dash had become heroes, and the name stuck.

    Rainbow's eyes widened as she took in the older pegasus, recognizing her from the hundreds of records that she held at the Wonderbolts Academy. Captain Spitfire, the most talented flight officer in nearly one-hundred years.

    "Superior officer on deck!" The pilot shouted, struggling out of his chair with the use of a simple wooden cane.

    Spitfire jumped up, her training showing in her swiftness and grace as she saluted Riley. As soon as he was up on his feet, the pilot joined her in her salute, standing as straight as he could on shaky legs. Riley returned the salute, wanting the man to sit back down before he hurt himself.

    "Please, as you were."

    The pilot struggled back into his seat, and Riley had to resist the urge to help him. She got the feeling that he wouldn't appreciate any such help, and she would rather not have the man in charge of keeping them all out of harm's way angry at her. Instead, she pulled out her letter, showing him the official seal of the Fleet Admiral of the Navies. "Flight Lieutenant, please alert Captain Anderson to my arrival."

    The Alliance military was not an incredibly formal organization, at least not in its day to day operations. Friendships and romances were only inevitable when trapped aboard a starship for months at a time. Still, there were times when formality and tradition was needed, traditions that had been around for centuries were not so easily abandoned. This was one of those times.

    "Yes, ma'am," the pilot nodded, turning his chair back to his holo-displays. With a quick motion, he contacted the Captain's omni-tool directly. "Captain, the new Executive Officer is here."

    "Thank you, Joker," Captain Anderson's gravelly voice responded over the comms. With that complete, Joker shut off the connection. He spun back around to watch, settling into his chair.

    A moment passed, and on the other end of the CIC, the doors on the right side of the galaxy map opened. Captain David Anderson strode through, officers and deck crew jumping out of his way and saluting as he passed. Trailing behind him at a much more leisurely pace was a turian that Riley had never seen before in her life. He wore dark armor with red stripes, his clan paint white, with thick markings on his cheeks and mandibles, with one long streak from his eyes all the way to the back of his longest fringe.

    Riley and Rainbow saluted, waiting patiently as he walked towards them down the length of the Normandy's neck. As soon as he reached them, he saluted back.

    "From Admiral of the Navies Steven Hackett," Riley said, opening her letter to read. "To Lieutenant Commander Riley Shepard, Systems Alliance Navy. You are hereby ordered to proceed aboard the SSV Normandy SR1, there to take upon yourself the duties and responsibilities of Executive Officer."

    She held out the letter for the Captain. He reached out, taking the letter from her and holding it up to read in the dim light of the bridge, looking down at the paper over his nose. Satisfied, he carefully refolded the letter and handed it back to Riley before saluting her again.

    "Welcome aboard, Commander," he said.

    "Thank you, sir."

    Taking out her own letter, Rainbow Dash held it out to Anderson. He took it and unfolded it, reading it over with the same gravitas that he had given the Commander. Tradition might not have demanded such treatment from him for any other officers than his XO, he held the young mare in the highest respect. As soon as he was finished, he saluted her, his face grim. "Welcome aboard, Flying Officer Rainbow Dash."

    "Thank you, sir," Rainbow said, saluting back.

    Behind the Captain, the turian studied Riley intently, his eyes sharp and unblinking. Riley didn't move, didn't make any sign that it bothered her, keeping the cloak of command wrapped around herself, but she had a feeling that the turian could see right through it. His mandibles flared, and he finally looked away. Riley breathed a soft sigh of relief, blinking.

    "Joker, plot a course to Eden prime." Anderson stepped past Riley and Rainbow into the actual bridge, standing between the two pilot's chairs. "I want us to leave as soon as you are finished."

    "Yes, sir," Joker nodded, looking over his shoulder at the Captain.

    Turning back around, Anderson met first Riley's eyes, then Rainbow's. "Shepard, Rainbow, go stow your gear."

    "Yes, sir," they said in unison. Saluting one final time, they walked down the neck of the ship to the door that Anderson had stepped through.

    "Nihlus," Anderson murmured, glancing at the turian. They shared a look.

    "Captain," Nihlus said, giving a short bow of his head before turning and lazily trailing after Riley and Rainbow.

    ###

    Riley and Rainbow stepped down the stairs onto what quickly became apparent as the crew deck. A few crewmembers lingered at a pair of tables beyond the freight elevator, drinking coffee and chatting quietly. Before they could jump up and salute, Riley held a hand out to stop them.

    They walked past them, coming to two rows of sleeper pods hanging underneath the bridge of the ship. Being only a frigate, there was not enough room to have actual bunks for the crew. Instead, they slept upright in what amounted to padded coffins, hot-bunking with the rest of the crew to cut down on the amount of needed pods.

    Like all frigates, there was one sleeper pod that was held only for the Executive Officer.

    "Lucky." Rainbow glared half-heartedly at Riley, stowing her saddle-bags in the small locker underneath her pod, that was also marked with the name of her pod mate, Carlton Tucks.

    "Oh, stop complaining," Riley said, rolling her eyes.

    "Yeah, well." Rainbow grumbled under her breath, her wings flaring. "You don't have to smell someone else's sweat all night."

    Riley just laughed, stowing her own bag in the locker under her pod.

    "Commander."

    Riley and Rainbow turned to find a tall, black haired man standing behind them. He had an easy smile on his face, his hair cut short, and he filled out his uniform nicely. As he tilted his head ever so slightly, Riley caught a glimpse of what could only be a bio-amp. The insignia on his collar proclaimed him as a staff lieutenant.

    "Lieutenant…" Riley trailed off, waiting for him to give his name.

    "Kaidan Alenko," he said, laughing as he realized his mistake. He held out his hand to her. "I'm the head of the marine detail, ma'am."

    Taking his hand, Riley gave him a firm shake. "It's good to meet you, Alenko."

    Pointing at his own neck, Alenko blushed. "I uh, I saw you amp when you were passing by. I didn't know the new XO was going to be a biotic."

    "Yeah." Self-consciously, Riley reached up and rubbed a finger over the smooth metal of her bio-amp.

    "L3, right?" Kaidan asked, hoping against hope that his new commander wasn't an ass who would chew him out for asking a simple question. "I don't remember you from Jump Zero, so that'd be my guess."

    "Yeah, that's right. L3." Riley nodded, taking a moment to judge the lieutenant. She couldn't sense any falseness in his personality, and he seemed to just be a kind, soft-spoken man.

    Turning, he pulled down the back of his collar, showing her his amp. "I'm an L2 myself."

    Riley winced, unable to help herself. Kaidan noticed. She knew about the L2 implants. She had taken the time to research everything she could about biotics after the… incident in Twilight's tower. The Biotic Acclimation and Temperance Training Program had produced the most powerful human biotics to date, but the L2 implants that they used had a long history of giving their users medical complications like insanity, mental disabilities, and crippling pain. They had the downside of being unable to upgrade the implants because of how entwined they were with a users nervous system.

    "I'm sorry," Riley apologized.

    "It's alright, ma'am." Kaidan waved her apology away. "I'm used to that look."

    "You shouldn't have to be." Riley knew that Anderson wouldn't let anyone onboard his ship if they weren't competent. That meant that Kaidan had dealt with his demons, or at least had found a way to hide them.

    "The universe isn't always fair," Kaidan said with a shrug. He had come to peace with what had been done to him long ago.

    "No. It's not." Riley frowned. Crossing her arms, Riley glanced past Kaidan to see the turian lingering by the small kitchen opposite the tables. Something about him made her uneasy, and she felt bare without her armor around him. It was only natural, considering who he was, or more accurately, what. Turning back to Kaidan, she narrowed her eyes. "Do you know any reason why their is a Council Spectre onboard?"

    "No." Kaidan took a side-long glance at the turian, nodding his understanding of her question. "Nihlus just showed up yesterday. He's just been kind of… lurking everywhere."

    "Nihlus?" Riley asked.

    "Nihlus Kryik." Kaidan nodded. "That's his name."

    "Strange." Riley shifted on her feet.

    "Yeah."

    ###

    While Riley was having her conversation with the hunky man, she had walked away, waggling her eyebrows at her older sister. Riley had merely rolled her eyes, turning her attention back to her conversation.

    She had nothing else to do, so Rainbow did what she always did on a new command. Explore.

    The crew deck was fairly boring, just like every other ship she had ever stepped foot on. On one side, behind the kitchen, she found a door marked 'Captain's Quarters.' That wasn't interesting. She trotted to the other side and found another door, this one marked med-bay.

    Before she could wander away, the door slid open and Rainbow found that she couldn't just not leave the room unexplored. With wide-eyes, she trotted inside, finding an older human woman sitting in a chair with her legs crossed, reading a hardcover book.

    Hearing the hoofsteps, the woman looked up, smiling when she saw Rainbow standing in the doorway.

    "Hello, there," she said. Her voice was smooth, her accent soft and pleasing.

    "Hi." Rainbow gave her a short little wave. Glancing around the room, she took a few steps further into the room. "You the doctor here?"

    "Yes." She nodded, closing her book after setting a bookmark between the pages. "I'm Dr. Chakwas. Did you need something?"

    "Nah." Rainbow shook her head, settling back on her haunches. "Just exploring. I'm Rainbow Dash."

    "Do you have a rank to go along with that name," Chakwas asked, "Or did you manage to sneak aboard this ship?"

    "Oh!" Rainbow straightened up, snapping into a picture perfect Equestrian salute, her face serious. "Right. Flying Officer Rainbow Dash, ma'am."

    "You don't need to salute me," Chakwas said with a laugh, waving as if to clear the seriousness from the room. "Save that rubbish for someone who cares."

    "Alright…" Rainbow nodded, confused, but not unappreciative. She decided that she liked the doctor.

    "Now," Chakwas said, setting the book down on her desk. "You just came onboard, correct?"

    "Yes, ma'am." Rainbow fluffed her wings, settling them into a more comfortable position.

    "Please, none of that ma'am nonsense either. Call me Karin." She stood, crossing her arms under her breasts. "If you're unable to break your conditioning to do that, at least call me Dr. Chakwas."

    "Alright, ma'am—" Rainbow blushed, trying again. "Dr.— Karin."

    "Better." Karin smirked, her thin lips curving up proudly. Walking over to the nearest exam table, she patted it. "Well, you're here now. We might as well get your exam out of the way."

    "Exam?" Rainbow's eyes widened and she jumped to all fours, backing away ever so slowly.

    "Yes. There's a Spectre onboard," she said, scowling unhappily at that. "Which means that trouble is not far behind. There is every chance that you could end up shot, and I'll be the one having to stitch you back together."

    She gave Rainbow a coy look. "It would be better for everyone involved if I knew where to put everything back into place. Now come on, get up here."

    Gulping, Rainbow slunk over to the table. She hopped up, using her wings to hold herself upright as her knees shook.

    "I will admit," Chakwas said, pulling on a pair of rubber gloves. "You are only the second Equestrian that I have had the pleasure of having in my medical bay."

    "Second?" Rainbow asked, trying to keep the nervous look off her face.

    "Our esteemed copilot was the first." Noticing Rainbow's nervousness, Chakwas laughed. "There's no reason to be so frightened. It's just a simple exam."

    "Yeah, sure," Rainbow muttered to herself, looking longingly at the door. "Next you'll be pulling out the needles and sucking out all of my blood."

    "What was that, dear?" Chakwas asked, looking at her from the corner of her eyes. "I didn't hear you."

    "Nothing!" She blushed, ducking her head.

    "Very well." Stepping forward, Chakwas looked expectantly at the pegasus. "Please spread your legs and extend your wings."

    Slowly and reluctantly, Rainbow did as Chakwas asked her to.

    Taking her stethoscope, Chakwas placed it against Rainbow's chest, listening to first her heart, then her lungs. "You have a strong heart, Flying Officer."

    "Call me Rainbow," she murmured, shifting uneasily on her hooves.

    "It must be wonderful to be able to fly," Chakwas said as she set her stethoscope aside. Pulling out a small device, she placed it against first Rainbow's left eye, then her right, peering past her pupils.

    "Yeah, it is!" Flying was one subject that Rainbow could talk on for hours.

    "Flight has been a dream of humanities since the time we saw the first bird fly," Chakwas said, placing down both her stethoscope and her eye examiner on her desk. "It's why I joined the Alliance. I wanted adventure. I wanted to fly. Spaceships are the closest I could come to that."

    "Adventure?" Rainbow raised an eyebrow, looking at Chakwas like she was crazy. "Aren't you supposed to be a doctor?"

    "What does that have to do with anything?" Laughing, Chakwas shook her head.

    "I just thought that all doctors were, like, eggheads or something." She blanched when she saw Chakwas' face. "Sorry."

    "Eggheads?" With narrowed eyes, Chakwas continued her examination, taking Rainbow's pulse, then her temperature. "No. I may have a PhD, but I'm no egghead."

    "Yeah, I'm starting to see that," Rainbow murmured. She caught sight of the cover of the book Chakwas was reading before she came in. She jumped as Chakwas started to inspect her wings, giggling as the woman ran her hands down both of her sides.

    "Impressive." Chakwas hummed in appreciation. "You take amazing care of them."

    "Well, yeah!" Rainbow snorted, rolling her eyes. "I'm a Wonderbolt after all. I have to keep my wings in top condition."

    "What's that?" Rainbow asked, pointing a hoof at the book."

    "That?" She followed her hoof. "It's just a book I'm reading."

    "I recognize the cover." She did. She had one just like it on her bookshelf at home.

    "You should," Chakwas said, turning her attention back to Rainbow's exam. "It's Equestrian. One of your more popular series, if I'm not mistaken."

    "What's that?" She didn't want to appear too eggheady herself. That would just be bad for her image.

    "Daring Do." Chakwas said the name with such an air of importance that it sent a shiver of excitement down Rainbow's spine. "Captain Spitfire introduced me, and I find them incredibly enjoyable to read."

    "You read Daring Do?"

    "Yes. I'm currently making my way through the third."

    "Daring Do and the Forbidden City of Clouds!" Realizing that she had chirped the last part, Rainbow blushed. "It's my favorite."

    "I'm enjoying it myself. Daring Do is such a well written character. I have to applaud the author for her attention to detail."

    "Author?" Rainbow Dash scrunched up her muzzle in confusion.

    "Yes, the author." At Rainbow's blank star, Chakwas realized that she was going to have to explain further. "The pony who wrote the book."

    "Wrote it?"

    "How else did you think was produced?" Chakwas asked with a giggle.

    "I dunno?" Rainbow shrugged, blushing as embarrassment flushed through her body. "A computer, or something."

    Laughing, Chakwas shook her head. "Lift your tail, please."

    "Lift my tail?" Rainbow Dash looked at Chakwas with sudden suspicion. "What for?"

    "This is an exam, dear."

    9. Chapter Eight - Hidden Threshold

    Chapter Eight - Hidden Threshold
    Everfree Castle, Everfree Forest, Equestria
    April 6, 2183

    Princess Celestia received Twilight's message just before she raised the sun. It was surprisingly brief, considering some of the messages that Twilight had sent her before, which could have been classified as novella, or research papers to be submitted to the proper academics. The message only held five lines.

    Dear Princess Celestia,

    We have found something that we cannot explain at the castle. We need help.

    Your Faithful Student, Twilight Sparkle

    There was very little that Twilight couldn't explain, and Celestia couldn't help but wonder just what had stumped her student. The fact that she was investigating what had happened to the Elements of Harmony only raised her interest. If there was something she couldn't explain, there might be a clue that could lead them to the Elements. Rushing from her tower, Celestia hunted down her sister, finding her leaving her night-court after lowering her moon. As soon as she had learned of the message, they made the only decision that they could. Celestia cancelled her day court, and together, they took flight, making all speed to their old castle.

    It didn't take them long make the journey. Being an immortal alicorn with the power of the universe coursing their bodies granted them speed that could only be matched by the latest in engine technology.

    Landing just outside the entrance to the castle, Celestia could taste the remnants of Twilight's magic in the air behind her, stretching over the gorge. Glancing back, she could see why. The bridge was beyond repair, and her student must have created a solid construct of magic instead of putting her trust in the rickety wooden slats and rotting rope.

    "Sister?"

    Turning back, Celestia found Luna watching her. "Luna?"

    "Shall we go in?" Luna gestured inside the castle with a wing, tilting her head just a bit to the left. "Twilight is waiting."

    "Yes…" Celestia nodded, biting her lip. "Yes. Let's go."

    Together, they entered the castle, retracing the path they had walked three days ago. The castle looked different in the daylight. The sun broke up the shadows, shining through the broken holes and rotted ceiling. It struck home then for Celestia, just how long it had been since that night one-thousand years ago. It had felt like a blink of they eye, but more generations than she could even remember had passed her by.

    Finding their way to the entrance of the throne room, the sister's found a small tent set up just outside the doors. The remnants of a small fire inside of a tiny stone pit still smoldered, coals glowing a dull orange. Smoke wafted from the remains of the logs, and two clean plates were stacked just next to the pit, two cups sitting beside them.

    Seeing a pot of still steaming coffee in the coals of the fire, Luna eyed it thirstily. Lifting it with her magic, she pulled off the lid and gave it a tentative sniff. With a smile, she decided that it was still perfectly good and drinkable. Lifting one of the cups, she surrounded it with a ball of fire hotter than the surface of the sun, cleaning it thoroughly. By the time that she had finished, the cup was glowing white hot and she surrounded it with a ball of ice, the ball practically turning to steam the second it manifested, still contained within Luna's magic. As the cup rapidly cooled, she poured more magic into it, and the steam turned to water, cooling it even further.

    Satisfied, Luna let the ball dissipate and the water dropped to the floor. Lifting the pot of coffee once again, she poured it into her cup. Taking a sip, she noticed the look that Celestia was giving her.

    "What?"

    Celestia didn't say anything.

    "I'm tired!" Luna protested, sniffing haughtily. She pulled the cup close protectively, turning her nose up at her older sister.

    Celestia rolled her eyes but didn't say anything. She walked past the small tent and to the open doors of the throne room beyond. Despite the fact the sun was high in the sky, the room itself was dark. There was a sudden drop of several feet just at the doorway that hadn't been there the night before. Celestia turned, sharing a look with Luna.

    "It certainly explains the letter," Luna murmured, taking a sip of her coffee. "After you, Tia."

    "Twilight?" Celestia called, leaning in through the doorway. "Are you in here?"

    Silence was the only reply.

    Tentatively, Celestia made the step down to the floor below. As Luna stepped down beside her, Celestia pulled from the heart of her sun and she began to glow, illuminating the room around her in a gentle golden glow.

    "Tia…"

    Celestia turned to find Luna staring at the floor with wide eyes. "What are you doing, Luna?"

    "Look." Luna pointed.

    Celestia followed Luna's hoof to find that she was standing on a planet, Earth if she was not mistaken. She stepped back, taking a closer look. It didn't take her long to realize why there had been a drop stepping into the throne room. A map of the entire galaxy was laid out before her, and it was astounding in its complexity.

    "That's new." Luna scuffed a hoof over the Earth, taking a moment to admire its artistry. It had been constructed from finely ground pieces of sapphire and emeralds.

    "Twilight?" Celestia called again, louder this time. Whatever her student had uncovered, it was a much bigger deal then she had first imagined.

    "Over here, Princess!" Twilight called out, poking her head out from around the pedestal that held the Elements of Harmony, waving happily at the two Alicorns. "Isn't it amazing?"

    "It is certainly… something." Celestia and Luna glanced down at the map before starting forward, careful not to drag their hooves so their shoes wouldn't damage it. Coming around the pedestal, they found Twilight sitting on her haunches, scribbling intently in a journal that her brother had given to her on her last birthday. Gilda was sitting a few feet away, watching what looked like a quarian film on her omni-tool. "What… What is all of this, Twilight?"

    "I have no idea!" Twilight shrugged, looking up at Celestia with a grin that was on the edge of manic. She turned back to her journal, trying her best to make a direct copy of the map as best as she possibly could. She gestured at the map with a hoof. "The moment we stepped inside, so much started to happen. The pedestal opened and revealed this!"

    Using her magic, Twilight lifted another journal out of her saddle bag and held it up for the two princesses to see. Celestia took it in her magic, turning it every which way as she looked it over. An eyebrow raising, she passed it over to Luna. "What happened Twi—"

    "I'm not hallucinating, am I?" Luna interrupted her sister, looking at Twilight with wide eyes. The journal was cracked open in front of her, and Celestia had to wonder just what she had read that had surprised her so much.

    "No." Twilight shook her head. "I've been trying to make sense of it all night."

    "She's not lying. She was up most of the night with it," Gilda drawled, nodding, and Celestia noted for the first time how bloodshot the griffin's eyes were, with deep bags underneath. "Kept me up too," she grumbled.

    "Let me see." Celestia took the journal from Luna and began to read. Within moments, she understood her sister's confusion. She couldn't help but read aloud.

    Dear Diary,

    Once again, the Magic of Friendship and the Elements of Harmony have proven to be the solution to the most challenging and horrible threats against Equestria. And while I've been scouring for hints in every book and scroll on where to find the keys to open the chest, it turns out that the clues were right here in the Journal of Friendship!

    I didn't discover this on my own. Discord read our Journal of Friendship and highlighted specific entries. In each of them, my friends faced a difficult choice, but they remained true to themselves and embraced their Element. In turn, this helped another pony make the right choice in her life. Because of this act, each of my friends was then given an object, or key, from the pony whose life they helped change…

    "I see…" Celestia stopped reading when she caught a glimpse of the name at the bottom of the page.

    Princess Twilight Sparkle.

    Celestia blinked. For the first time in a long time, she felt completely and utterly confused. She couldn't think of a single thing to say, trying to take in everything that she had just read.

    "As soon as the journal appeared," Twilight said, continuing. She didn't notice Celestia's flummoxed look. "The floor lit up and opened. The map was right there. It's fascinating!"

    Luna followed Twilight's gaze, giving the map another look. She blinked, looking to Celestia. "I would know if this was a dream…"

    "Are you sure?" Celestia asked, almost begging.

    "Yes."

    "Then…" Celestia looked back down at Twilight.

    "Yes." Jumping up to all four of her hooves, Twilight stood proudly like she was delivering a lecture before the Royal Academy. "As far as I can tell. This shouldn't exist. It should be impossible, but it isn't! I used every spell I could think of, and it's one-hundred percent real."

    "There are still some things that I have yet to teach you, Twilight." It wasn't that Celestia didn't believe Twilight, but she would only be satisfied if she could see it for herself. There were some spells that she had purposefully seen kept from the textbooks, things that were best kept from the rest of Equestria. She let herself fall into her magic, and for the next thirty minutes, she cast a slew of ancient and forgotten spells until the throne room was crackling with energy.

    Celestia blinked, stunned. She looked down at her student, who was staring right back at her with wide eyes and open jaw.

    "You are right, Twilight." She held the journal back out to Twilight, who blinked in surprise at hearing her name.

    "It doesn't make any sense…" Twilight shook her head, gathering her thoughts back together as she took the journal from Celestia, flipping to a page. "Listen to this."

    Dear Diary,

    All I wanted out of today was a nice relaxing day with Cadance. After all, the two times we were together, things hardly went smoothly. Her wedding to my brother? She'd been trapped at the bottom of the castle and was being impersonated by the changeling queen. My visit to the Crystal Empire? King Sombra attacked! Just once I'd like to have a day with Cadance when the of Equestria wasn't hanging in the balance. And I had such a great day planned! What could be better than spending the day with my best friend/sister-in-law combo? That is, until Discord showed up with his "Blue Flu", mucking up all my plans to try and have a nice mellow day with Cadance. And it wasn't bad enough that we had to play nursemaid to his fake illness. He sent us on a wild-goose to the end of Equestria for a remedy and had us battling Tatzlwurm. On the one day when the fate of Equestria wasn't in our hooves! I think it's pretty clear that my visit with Cadance didn't go quite the way I expected. But in the end, I realized that when you're with a good friend, even the most chaotic day can wind up being a great experience that brings you closer.

    Celestia turned and looked at Luna, seeing the confusion she felt mirrored on her sister's face.

    "Changeling… Queen?" Celestia murmured.

    "Discord?" Luna rolled the word around in her mouth, tasting its unfamiliarity.

    "King Sombra is the only one I've heard of," Celestia said.

    "Could the journal be speaking of Penance?" Luna asked, tilting her head. She had never heard of any Discord before in her life.

    "No." Celestia hook her head, frowning. "I don't believe so. His name would not be so casually written."

    "I have a theory!" Twilight shut the journal, setting it back down almost reverently into her saddlebags.

    Both Celestia and Luna turned to look at Twilight, the little unicorn drawing their attention.

    "Please, Twilight," Celestia said, urging her student to continue.

    "The journal," Twilight said, pacing back and forth. Gilda watched her, following her as she turned, "against all impossibilities, seems to have been written by me. Well, me and several other writers."

    "Five other names are repeated over and over again." Twilight lifted up her own journal, more for reference than any sort of need to remind herself. "Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash. From what they've written, it seems like they are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony."

    She blushed, closing her journal. "It's just that… it was never in our universe."

    "Rainbow Dash?" Luna asked, almost incredulous. She had spent more than her fair share of time around the filly during Twilight's childhood, and she had to wonder just what Element the brash Pegasus would bare.

    "Yes." Twilight nodded.

    "Tell me what you're thinking, Twilight," Celestia said, her ears swiveling forward, focusing her entire attention on her student.

    "I believe that this journal has come from another universe!" Twilight stomped a hoof against the floor for effect. "One that is similar to ours, but different all the same. There's no mention of the Dyson Sphere, or of Mass Relays, or even any form of space travel at all! One where Rainbow's family never adopted Riley Shepard and stayed in Cloudsdale. One where Princess Luna was banished to the moon."

    She couldn't help but hop in excitement. "It's a looking glass to what could have been!"

    Celestia and Luna fell silent. When they had left Canterlot, they never would have been able to guess that this would have been the conversation they would end up having.

    "I would like to read the journal for myself," Celestia murmured, settling back onto her haunches.

    "Of course, Princess!" Twilight chirped. She pulled it back out of her saddle bags and floated it over to Celestia. The Princess took it, opening it to the first page and beginning to read. She devoted all of her attention to the old journal.

    "Twilight, what are your thoughts on the map?" Still standing, Luna looked over the galaxy.

    "The map?" For a moment, Twilight looked surprised, but she quickly realized what Luna was asking. She looked down, blushing when she remembered what she was standing on for the first time since the Princesses had arrived. "Right, the map!"

    Almost as if she could read her marefriend's mind, Gilda handed Twilight the sketchbook that she had been using before the Princesses had arrived. Twilight held it up to Luna proudly, showing off to the Princess.

    "I think it's more impressive than the journal, actually." The drawing was truly impressive. Twilight had faithfully laid down every single bit of the map on the sketchbook. "It has to be at least a thousand years old, which would mean it would have to have been laid down at least two-million years ago."

    "That seems like a correct assumption." Luna nodded her head, the mathematics sounding right to her.

    "Right!" Twilight nodded, her hair bobbing along with the movement. "What it doesn't explain is how whomever made it knew the shape of the galaxy."

    "I have been aware of the galaxy for nearly as long as I have been alive." Luna pointed out the flaw in Twilight's argument.

    "Sorry!" Blushing, Twilight shook her head. "That wasn't what I meant."

    "Then what?"

    "Two million years ago, none of the races we know of today existed. The Protheans hadn't built their empire. Thessia was just some world that had yet to have evolved any meaningful form of life, much less the Asari." Twilight trotted past Luna, Gilda trailing after her a few paces behind. Twilight sat down right on Thessia. "Despite that, Thessia is right here! All six of the locations are important to the galaxy at large today. How could anypony have known that?"

    "I see." Frowning, Luna took the map in with new eyes. Sitting back on her haunches, she finished her cup of coffee as Gilda settled down next to Twilight. "That is indeed quite a conundrum."

    "What if someone did know?" Gilda asked softly. It seemed the most obvious answer to her, and she clacked her beak in embarrassment as Luna and Twilight stared at her silently.

    "What?" Twilight blinked.

    "What if someone travelled through time and left this here?" Gilda shuffled her claws, rubbing her thumb up and down her foreclaw.

    Twilight chewed her lip, thinking it over.

    "That would be impossible." Luna was the first to speak. "There are spells that allow a pony to travel through time, but I am afraid that two-million years are beyond all of them."

    Twilight nodded her agreement. "It has to be something else."

    "Twilight."

    Celestia's soft whisper captured the attention of all three of them. They turned to find her staring at the last page of the journal, her eyes focussed.

    "Princess?"

    "Why didn't you mention the note?" Celestia glanced at Twilight for only a moment before her gaze darted back down to the journal.

    "What note?" She hadn't noticed any note when she had pored over the journal.

    Holding up the journal, Celestia showed them the last page, written in scrawled handwriting, different from any of the other entries within it. Trotting to her mentors side, Twilight took a closer look.

    "To the Empress of Equestria, Celestia Sol, and her sister, Princess Luna Selene…" She read aloud.

    Luna's eyebrows rose. "Sister…"

    "I know." Celestia didn't like anything that had happened over the past morning.

    "What?" Gilda asked, staring at the two sisters in confusion.

    "I wasn't the Empress of Equestria at the time this journal would have had to been written," Celestia whispered.

    "Another mystery." Luna didn't like mysteries. They caused so many headaches. For a being who saw events occur at a macro level, things that came along and ruined the plans she so often carefully put into place were too much of a headache.

    "By now, you have most certainly realized that the Elements of Harmony are missing," Twilight continued reading aloud. "I have taken them, for Equestria's own good. Signed…"

    "There's no signature." Sitting back on her haunches, she looked up at Celestia and Luna, confusion written on her face. Her eyes pleaded Celestia to believe her, her legs shaking. She had missed something. How could she have missed something so big? "That wasn't there before."

    "I believe you, Twilight." Celestia reassured the little unicorn. Turning her gaze to the map, she hummed to herself, eying each of the six locations.

    "What are you thinking, sister?" Luna asked, following her gaze.

    "There are six Elements of Harmony," Celestia noted.

    "Ah." Luna nodded, a little embarrassed that she hadn't made the connection earlier. "I see."

    "You don't think…" Twilight caught on, taking in the map with a new appreciation.

    "It seems possible." Celestia stood, readjusting her wings into a more comfortable position. "It certainly would not be outside of the realm of possibility."

    "What?" Gilda felt like the dumb one in the room. "What are you saying?"

    "The map!" Trotting over to her marefriend, Twilight explained. "It must show where the Elements of Harmony are!"

    Celestia and Luna shared a look before turning back to Twilight and Gilda.

    "Twilight," Celestia started. "Would you give Luna and I a moment?"

    "Of course, Princess!" Bowing, Twilight started trotting back towards the entrance of the throne room. "Are you hungry, Gilda? I'm feeling hungry."

    "I could eat," Gilda murmured, following after Twilight.

    ###

    The princesses had been speaking for hours, and Gilda had watched in amusement as Twilight had flagged, struggling to keep her eyes open. After eating lunch, they had crawled back inside their tent and settled down. Twilight had lost her battle about an hour ago, and Gilda had pulled a blanket over both of them as the little unicorn snored, curling around her marefriend.

    The volume on her omni-tool turned down as low as she could get it, Gilda had been watching cartoons ever since Twilight had fallen asleep. She giggled, struggling to keep from guffawing and waking up the unicorn who really needed to work on her sleep habits.

    At the sound of hoofsteps approaching, Gilda shut off her omni-tool and looked up to see Celestia and Luna climbing up out of the throne room.

    "Princesses!" Immediately, she clamped her claws over her beak, looking down at Twilight, hoping against hope that she hadn't woken her up.

    No such luck.

    Groaning, Twilight blinked groggily, struggling to focus on everything surrounding her. The moment that she saw her teacher and her sister, she jumped to her hooves, throwing aside the blanket.

    "I'm awake!" She cried, and the fact that it wasn't slurred was an impressive feat. She blinked, looking at the princesses, then checked her omni-tool. When she realized it was now mid-afternoon, she dropped down to her haunches. "Huh…"

    "I apologize, Twilight," Celestia murmured, nuzzling her confused student. "Our conversation took a little longer than I expected."

    "It's alright." Leaning into the nuzzle, Twilight blushed.

    "Thank you." Standing back to her full height, Celestia composed herself. "I don't believe that others would be as understanding."

    "I'm sure that it was important." Twilight rubbed sleep from her eyes with her hoof, yawning.

    "It was indeed." Luna nodded her head, offering a warm smile to Twilight. Coming around the small fire pit, she took a seat next to them, surprisingly grim. "Celestia told you about the prophecy?"

    "She did." Twilight shrunk a little, embarrassed to know one of the secrets of one of the immortal rulers of Equestria.

    "She didn't tell you every detail," Luna admitted, her head ducking ever so slightly.

    Twilight glanced at Celestia, who nodded in confirmation.

    "I'm sorry, Twilight. It wasn't my place to say." Celestia sat down on the other side of Twilight and Gilda, basking in the warmth of the fire. Twilight edged closer to her teacher, seeking comfort. Gilda just watched on quietly, pulling a bag of cookies from Twilight's saddlebag.

    "It is mine, however," Luna said, putting on a brave face. She took a deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh. She blinked, tired in more ways than one. "And you do need to know."

    She was silent for a moment, staring deep into the flames of the fire. "Starswirl the Bearded was the stallion to make the original prophecy."

    Twilight's eyes lit up at the name (Starswirl was only one of her greatest heroes), but she restrained the questions that threatened to bubble out of her mouth at Celestia's reprimanding look.

    "We have kept a careful hoof on history, and I'm sure that scholars would be horrified if they learned just how much we have kept from being written down," Luna gestured at Celestia. Very few knew just how much they had guided Celestia's creation. "If they knew how many books we had rewritten or destroyed."

    Twilight looked accusingly at Celestia, who wilted a little under her students gaze. She wondered just what had been lost in all of the centuries.

    "I had a daughter once."

    Twilight understood all of the words. I. Had. A. Daughter. Once. She was well-versed in the Equestrian language, and had achieved top scores in all of her classes. Despite all of that, she didn't understand a single thing that Luna had said. Maybe she had aphasia? She didn't feel like she had a stroke, but who was she to make a self-diagnosis.

    "I'm sorry," she managed to choke out, her voice weak. Looking over, she saw Gilda's beak hanging open as she stared at Luna like she had just laid an egg. "Could you repeat that?"

    "I had a daughter once."

    That would be a no on the aphasia then. Or was it? Twilight had to think about that? Did aphasia mean she couldn't speak… she blinked, dropping back to her haunches. She simply let out a whispered, "What…"

    "The prophecy Starswirl made was horrifying." Luna continued onwards, not noticing Twilight's stunned face. "She was so young, barely even a year old, and already her fate seemed to be set in stone."

    "Princess…" Seeing that her marefriend seemed incapable of speech at the moment, Gilda asked the obvious question. "What was the prophecy?"

    Luna was quiet for a long moment, fighting back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. She looked away from them, unable to even look in their direction. Choked up, she began to speak. "Starswirl foresaw a coming darkness, a storm that threatened to destroy all of Equestria. He saw the death of everyone, and he saw that there was only one who could save us all."

    "Your daughter," Twilight murmured, making the connection.

    "Yes," Luna whispered, shame filling her.

    Celestia stood, stepping over the fire to sit next her sister, wrapping a wing over Luna's back comfortingly.

    "I could not accept that." Luna offered Celestia a small, but thankful smile, but ducked her head in shame. "I would not allow my only daughter to perish."

    "You must understand, Twilight," Celestia took over for her sister. Luna had not been completely in the wrong. "Alicorns are the rarest of the four pony races. There have only been six in the entirety of Equestrian history. Each and every one is precious beyond all reckoning."

    "Six alicorns?" Twilight struggled with the math, her mind still racing from what she was learning.

    "Our mother and father." Celestia said, helping Twilight along. "Luna and I. Aurora, Luna's daughter. Cadance."

    "When you live a life that can be measured by the turning of the galaxy, our companionship is something rare, to be treasured above all else." Gathering herself together, Luna continued. "Who better to serve as companions then other immortals. I was foolish."

    She looked around at the scars of the Everfree Castle, wincing at the memories they brought up. "In my desperation to save Aurora, I turned to dark magic to try and stop her fate."

    Twilight and Gilda followed Luna's gaze, understanding just how much power the alicorns wielded in the melted stone that surrounded them.

    "When I said that I almost had to use the Elements one-thousands years ago…" Celestia's voice cracked.

    "What happened?" Her voice soft, Twilight couldn't help but ask the question.

    "I became a creature of evil to try and save my daughter." Luna stood, moving out from under Celestia's wing. She bowed her head, avoiding eye contact with everypony else. "I didn't care if I had to kill everypony to do it. Celestia had no other choice but to stop me. In my own anger, I tried to kill Celestia…"

    Celestia stood, cantering up and nuzzling Luna. "I forgave you long ago for that, Luna…"

    "All that I accomplished was killing my own daughter." Luna turned, meeting Twilight's eyes. "Do you understand, Twilight?"

    "By trying to save your daughter from the prophecy, you accidentally fulfilled it…" Gilda spoke first, stepping close to Twilight. She felt the need for comfort.

    "That is what we believed, at least until three days ago." Seeing that her sister did not have the ability to continue speaking, Celestia took over for her. "It seems that my sister's transformation was not the darkness that Starswirl foretold. You saw the dream. The Elements are our only hope."

    "And they're missing." Twilight glanced over her shoulder at the throne room behind them.

    "Yes." Celestia stood tall, flaring her wings. She took a calming breath, and Luna joined her, though she was much more sullen.

    Twilight and Gilda straightened, sensing that something had changed in the atmosphere of the room. Things had just gotten a whole lot more formal.

    "Twilight, we have no right to ask this of you." Celestia spoke with her princess voice, the same that she had used to make the Council bow to her will. She winced ever so slightly when she saw Twilight's back straighten even further. "You do not deserve the burden of trying to correct our mistakes. Nevertheless, we find that we must ask you a question."

    "Princess Celestia, I'm willing to help in whatever way I can." Twilight tried to be as formal as possible, calling on every single bit of training that she had received from the school.

    Celestia sighed, closing her eyes. "As Empress and Princess of Equestria, I must ask if you are willing to hunt down and retrieve the Elements of Harmony."

    "I…" Looking over at Gilda, overwhelmed by the enormity of what Celestia was asking of her. She saw nothing but encouragement and love from her marefriend. Gulping, Twilight turned back to Celestia, straightening herself like she had seen her brother do so many times before in his duties as part of the Royal Guard. She coughed, clearing her breath. "I am willing, your Imperial Majesty."

    "Very well." Celestia bowed her head, before accepting that Twilight would never change. "On this date, April 6, 2183, let it be known that Empress Celestia Sol the Dawn Bringer, confers upon Lady Twilight Sparkle the rank and duties of Celestial Emissary. She shall speak and act with my authority, and all of the power of Equestria at her back. Let it be known."

    The weight of Celestia's words hit Twilight, and she dropped down prostrate in front of her teacher. What had she just agreed to? What had she just promised to do?

    "Princess, I—" She gulped, a sudden bout of worry and panic filling her. "I won't let you down, Princess."

    "I know that you won't, Twilight." Stepping forward, Celestia nuzzled Twilight, using her wings to pull the unicorn into a tight hug. "There is no way that you could. I'm already so proud of you, my—"

    Her voice hitching, she ducked her head, kissing Twilight's forehead. "I'm already so proud of you, my faithful student."

    Holding out a hoof for Twilight, the unicorn took it and Celestia helped her to her feet.

    "I'm not sending you out unprepared." Celestia tried her best to reassure the unicorn. "You are better than even Starswirl was. You wield magic as naturally as you breathe. I'm giving you my ship, and every resource you could possibly need for this quest, Twilight."

    "Your ship?" Twilight was already too overwhelmed to be surprised even further. "But—"

    "I have no need of it, Twilight. It will serve you far better than it ever did me." If only Twilight could understand just what she saw in her.

    "Thank you, Princess." She couldn't think of anything else to say, and instead leaned forward and nuzzled Celestia's warm chest, just underneath her golden peytral.

    "You are very, very welcome, Twilight." She turned to face Luna for a moment before looking back at the little unicorn, apologetic. "I believe that we must be going now, Twilight. There are things we must prepare for before you depart."

    "I'll be back later this evening, Princess." Twilight trotted back to Gilda, feeling more than a little embarrassed that the griffin had had to sit through all of their conversations.

    "May I ask why?" Celestia asked.

    "The journal mentioned some things that I want to investigate first," Twilight admitted. Ponyville held answers. Whether they were good or bad would only be seen in time.

    "Very well, Twilight. Stay safe." She offered a brief, but warm smile to her before turning back to Luna, who stood on shaky legs. "Are you ready Luna?"

    "Yes, Tia," Luna whispered. She attempted to raise her head and stand proud, but it was too much. Instead, she kept her gaze firmly planted on the ground. Ancient memories were a terrible thing. Time often only allowed reminiscence, and Luna had only added to her guilt and grief of that terrible night.

    Celestia walked up next to her sister, igniting her horn. In a flash of magic, the two alicorns disappeared, leaving Twilight and Gilda alone in the Everfree castle.

    They were silent for a long moment, before Gilda looked at Twilight.

    "Celestial Emi…" She paused, eyes narrowing in frustration as she tried to pronounce the word. "Ema…"

    "Emissary," Twilight murmured.

    "What does that mean?" Gilda had been gone from Equestria for a long time, but she had figured that she had at least been around long enough to know the basics of how her home planet ran. Celestia's proclamation had thrown a rather large kink in that idea.

    Twilight was still for a whole minute, and Gilda wondered if the unicorn had even heard her. When she saw how wide the unicorn's eyes were, she realized why. Twilight was in the middle of a panic attack.

    Creeping forward, eying the unicorn carefully, Gilda settled down next to Twilight. She reached out her claws, pulling her closer, and the unicorn rested her head on Gilda's shoulder. This close, she could feel the unicorn's racing heart, her frenzied breathing.

    "What does that mean?" Gilda asked again, softer this time.

    "It…" Twilight's voice hitched. "It means that I'm now the third most powerful Equestrian in the galaxy."

    "What." Gilda's heart plummeted, and she started to realize just what Twilight had been gifted.

    "Princess Celestia just gave me the right to act and speak in her name." Twilight calmed nearly instantly, though it was a false calm. She had grown well accustomed to putting on a facade in the courts. As much as she wanted to hyperventilate and curl up into a ball, she didn't. She had never asked for any of this! She was a book worm, not an adventurer. "That means that for all intents and purpose, I am an extension of her will. Anything I say might as well have come from the Princess herself!"

    "You'll be fine." Sensing her marefriend's distress, Gilda wrapped her forelegs around her, rocking her gently back and forth. "The Princess trusts you. I trust you."

    They stayed in their embrace for several minutes, drawing comfort from each other. Slowly, they began to be aware of the chirping of birds outside the castle walls, a soft breeze blowing through the forest. There was peace to be found, even in the heart of the Everfree forest.

    "Thank you." Gathering herself together, Twilight straightened, taking a deep breath. Leaning forward, she kissed Gilda.

    "No problem." Gilda nuzzled Twilight's muzzle.

    "We need to go back to Ponyville," Twilight said. "The other Twilight lived in Ponyville with the rest of the Elements of Harmony. If I can talk to them, we might find some sort of clue. We might have a chance to figure out what is happening."

    "Alright." Gilda nodded. She picked up her little saddle bag, wrapping it around her middle. "I'm ready."

    Igniting her horn, Twilight packed up their little camp. Everything that she had transformed earlier, transformed right back into what it had originally been, just a lot of rocks and debris.

    "Let's go." Twilight pulled on her own saddle bags, trotting back towards the entrance of the castle.

    ###

    They made their way back through the Everfree forest and were back in Ponyville in only an hour. There was something different about the forest that neither unicorn nor griffin could quite place. It was almost as if the events that had occurred in the ruins of the castle had changed the forest. What were monsters after all, when time and space itself had been broken before the two oldest beings to live.

    Together, Twilight and Gilda entered the town hall. They ignored all of the trappings of the entrance and made their way to the mayor's office. It was easy to find, clearly marked, Mayor, Mayor Mare.

    Raising her hoof, Twilight knocked on the door.

    "Come in!" A warm, feminine voice called from inside.

    Pushing the door open, Twilight and Gilda stepped into the mayor's office. It was a quaint room, the majority of it taken up by a large desk covered in piles of paperwork, scrolls, and almost buried completely underneath the former, a small hologram emitter. Sitting behind the short desk was presumably the mayor. She was a mid-aged grey earth pony with a scroll for a cutie mark, a pair of half-moon glasses perched on her muzzle.

    "How can I help you?" The Mayor asked, looking at Twilight and Gilda kindly, if slightly removed.

    "My name is Twilight Sparkle." She gestured over at her marefriend. "This is Gilda Blackwing. We're trying to find several mares who we presume are living here."

    "I'm Mayor Mare." Standing, she trotted out from behind her desk. "I certainly hope I can be of help. I know most of the ponies in town."

    Pulling out her own journal from her saddle-bags, she gave a warm smile to the Mayor. She didn't truly need the journal to remember the names, but it was a quirk that Gilda had long since grown used to that Twilight always wanted to be prepared, in the unlikely case that she actually forgot something. "I'm looking for four ponies. Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack."

    "Hmm." Mayor Mare frowned, apologetic. "Applejack is the only of those names that I recognize. She's a young earth pony that owns a farm on the south side of town. Sweet Apple Acres."

    "You don't know any of the others?" Twilight believed her, but it never hurt to double check. Things often revealed themselves if one just pushed themselves a little further.

    "No." Mayor Mare shook her head, smiling apologetically. "I'm sorry."

    "It's alright." Despite the bitter sting of disappointment, Twilight let none of her frustration show on her face. "Thank you. We won't take up anymore of your time."

    Together, Twilight and Gilda left the town hall and stepped back out onto the dirt paved streets of Ponyville.

    "Excuse me!" Twilight called out, flagging down a passing earth pony. "Can you give me directions Sweet Apple Acres?"

    "Sure!" The magenta coated earth pony smiled helpfully. She pointed down the road, towards gently rolling hills to the south. "Follow that road all the way down. You can't miss it."

    "Thank you!"

    "Not a problem." The earth pony continued on her journey.

    "Well, let's go." Twilight and Gilda started trotting down the path. Just as the mare said, they really couldn't miss it. As soon as the hills began, they found that the apple trees began, fenced in neatly. The fence grew steadily larger and more elaborate the further they went, until it eventually turned into an entrance, with a sign proudly proclaiming in great carved letters, Sweet Apple Acres.

    "This is it?" Gilda could only barely read the sign, but she didn't think she was wrong.

    "That's what it says." Twilight took in the farm house and the barn a little ways up the path past the entrance. "Fitting, I suppose, that a pony named Applejack would own an apple farm."

    It only took a few minutes to walk up the path to the farm house. Together, they trotted up the steps onto the porch, and Twilight knocked on the front door. A minute passed, and no one answered.

    Glancing at Gilda, who only offered a shrug, Twilight knocked again.

    "Hello, is anypony there?" Twilight called out. Maybe they were asleep and just didn't want to answer.

    There was still no answer.

    Frowning, Twilight trotted over to the nearest window to peer inside, only to trip over a rocking chair which held the oldest looking pony that she had ever seen, lying limp and unresponsive. Jumping back, Twilight screamed.

    "Ahhh!" She fell back into Gilda's arms, wondering if she had just seen her first dead pony. They both stared at the ancient green mare, hoping against hope that she wasn't dead.

    The mare didn't so much as twitch.

    Gilda and Twilight backed up to the other side of the porch.

    "Is she dead?" Gilda asked, whispering to Twilight.

    "I don't know!" Twilight was just thankful that she hadn't started to rot yet. That would bring nightmares that she simply didn't need.

    Ever so slowly, Twilight crept forward, Gilda following just behind her. Seeing a stick lying on the ground nearby, she grabbed it with her magic. Timidly, she poked the mare.

    The mare simply limped floppily.

    "Maybe?" Twilight shrugged, eyes wide and terrified. "I don't know."

    Twilight poked her again, lifting her head up with the stick then letting it drop.

    With a gurgle, the mare woke up with a startled shout, and Twilight and Gilda screamed in terror.

    "AHHH!"

    "Whoasawhatsayzit?" The mare mumbled, looking around blindly, still half asleep.

    Twilight and Gilda struggled to catch their breath.

    "Applejack, izat you?" The mare asked, squinting as she tried to see just who was in front of her.

    Twilight and Gilda looked at each other in confusion.

    "Uh…" Twilight stammered, glancing at Gilda. "No, ma'am."

    "Applejack," the mare said, lolling about in her rocking chair. The chair creaked on the porch, a constant sound that was just like what Twilight had always imagind farm life would be like. "I've been needin' me a bath, but I just can't run the wash."

    "Um… madam," Twilight said, eying the mare like she could spring out of the chair and attack them at any moment. "Ma'am. Where is Applejack?"

    "Applejack?" The mare asked, frowning.

    "Yes, Applejack. Where is she?" Progress, finally! Twilight bounced happily on her hooves.

    "Who's Applejack?" The mare asked, her face screwing up in confusion. She leaned forward, squinting at the two of them. "Izat you, Pa? Ya' come to take me home?"

    "Uh…" Twilight didn't know what to make of that. "No?"

    "Damn straight!" The mare pounded a forehoof against the armrest of her chair. "I ain't goin'! This is my farm, ya' hear me. I'll die when I'm good and ready."

    The mare's head fell back and she started to snore.

    Cautiously, Twilight and Gilda backed up off of the porch. They didn't want to wake the mare again. They had no clue what just happened, but they didn't want to risk it.

    "What was that?" Gilda asked as soon as they were a safe distance away.

    "I don't have a clue." Twilight shook her head, still processing everything that had just happened. "That doesn't make any sense."

    "What doesn't?" Gilda asked, looking over her shoulder back at the mare on the porch.

    "The Journal said they all lived in Ponyville." Twilight's muzzle scrunched up in confusion. "Everything happened in Ponyville."

    A thought struck Gilda then, and she looked at Twilight in realization. "Dash never moved to Ponyville."

    "Of course!" At that, Twilight's eyes lit up. She kissed Gilda's beak, doing a little celebratory dance. "Rainbow Dash never moved to Ponyville! I forgot. We are living in a different universe after all. It only makes sense that nothing else is the same!"

    She started trotting back down the path towards Ponyville, then paused, lowering her head to the ground.

    "Dammit," Twilight muttered. She looked back forlornly at Gilda, her face grim and annoyed. "They could be anywhere."

    "That doesn't sound like a problem," Gilda observed. Nuzzling under Twilight's chin, Gilda lifted her marefriend's head back up to a proud height. "And you're just the mare to do this mission. You'll figure everything out, and I'll be right beside you."

    "Thank you," Twilight kissed Gilda, taking a breath.

    "You're welcome." Gilda purred, following after Twilight.

    ###

    Twilight Velvet and Night Light were proud of their children. Their oldest son, Shining Armor, had made his name in the Royal Guard and earned his rank as Captain through hard work and careful tending of his subordinates. He had a lovely marefriend, whom they both believed they would be calling her daughter soon.

    Their youngest daughter, Twilight Sparkle, had proved herself even more impressive. Personal student of the Empress of all of Equestria, she had proven herself to be the most powerful unicorn that Equestria had ever seen.

    Despite having such decorated and wonderful children, they loved nothing more than to curl up at night on their couch in their living room, reading their books and watching the news.

    That was where they were now. Curled around each other, Night Light was reading the latest astronomical texts to come from the head of his observatory, a rather interesting paper on the existence dark matter, and the way it moved and acted in the universe. Velvet was reading something far less heady, mid-way through the latest Daring Do novel.

    Quietly, the news played in the background, nothing more than white noise, though they each had an ear swiveled toward the speakers.

    "Empress Celestia proclaimed on her return to the Royal Castle that she has appointed a Celestial Emissary."

    Setting down her book, Velvet turned her attention to the news program, drawing her entire attention.

    "Lady Twilight Sparkle—"

    Night Light looked up as he heard his daughter's name.

    "—Has been given the most power in Equestria, more than any unicorn has ever wielded before in history."

    "Dear…" Night Light cocked his head, staring sightlessly at the holo display. "Did I just…"

    "Hear Twilight's name?" Velvet asked, her voice a mere whisper.

    "Yeah…"

    "Yeah."

    They were silent for a moment.

    "Did we miss something?" Night Light knew that he could be absent minded at times. He had met Velvet after walking into a light post while reading a book after all, but he liked to believe that he wasn't this dense.

    "I think we both did."

    "I'm going to call her."

    "Yeah."

    Getting up off the couch, Night Light shut off the news program, leaving the holo-display on as he also opened his omni-tool. With several quick presses on the haptic display, he called his daughter.

    It rang once before the call was answered. Twilight appeared on the holo-display, replacing the news program. When she saw who had called, she smiled and waved at her parents.

    "Mom! Dad!" She chirped. Shifting her own omni-tool, she revealed that Gilda was sitting next to her. Through the window behind them, Night Light and Velvet could see the side of a mountain rushing by. They were on train, going who knows where.

    "Hello, Mrs. Velvet. Mr. Light." Gilda gave a little wave, her voice quiet.

    "Hello, Gilda." Velvet wasn't cold, but her voice certainly couldn't be confused for welcoming.

    "So, Twilight." Pleasantries out of the way, Night Light moved onto the important matter of the evening. "We just saw an interesting thing on the news."

    "Oh?" Twilight blushed, sinking a little into her seat. "You did?"

    "Mm-Hm." Night Light nodded, his eyes narrowing as he took in the nervous hunch of his daughter's shoulders. "Do you want to explain anything?"

    "Well, I…" Twilight blustered, her cheeks blushing. "Um…"

    "Twilight?" Velvet cocked her head. "What is it?"

    Twilight looked like she wanted to hang up, to run away, but she knew that would only draw her parent's ire. Gulping, she began. "I have a mission I need to complete, and Princess Celestia agrees. She gave me her ship."

    "She gave you her ship?" Night Light blinked. That wasn't normal.

    "What's so important that she practically made you a Princess, Twilight?" Velvet leaned forward, waiting for the answer.

    "I can't say," Twilight squeaked, sinking even lower.

    "It's not that you can't, you won't!" Velvet pointed an accusatory hoof at the screen, and Twilight flinched.

    "I'm sorry, mom, but I really can't." Twilight bit her lip, her expression begging her mother and father to understand. "It's bad enough that I have to do this. If somepony… someone else figured out what I know, things could go badly."

    "Twilight…" Night Light couldn't think of anything to say, so instead he just murmured his daughter's name.

    "I'm sorry, dad." Twilight apologized.

    Night Light sighed, shaking his head. "It's alright, Twily. Just… come and visit when you can."

    "I'm sorry. We're leaving as soon as we get back. I don't know when we'll be in Canterlot again." Wincing, Twilight bit her lip and looked away. She looked off-screen as Gilda leaned over and whispered in her ear. "I'm sorry mom, dad. We've got to go."

    Velvet had so many things that she wanted to say. She wanted to shout and scream. She wanted to demand. She wanted to beg. She did none of those things. Instead, she said, "Stay safe, honey."

    "I will mom." She smiled at Night Light and Velvet. "I love you. I love you too, dad."

    "We love you, Twilight." Night Light answered back.

    Before they could say anything else, the call ended, leaving Velvet and Night Light feeling very unsure of themselves.

    ###

    When the train had arrived at Canterlot, Twilight and Gilda had found a chariot waiting for them, pulled by two of the finest Pegasus guards. They had ferried the two to the Royal Docks, where they had received a wonderous sight of the two fastest ships in the galaxy sitting side by side. Luna's ship, the Night Fury, was dark, proud beast, the opposite to Celestia's ship. Solar One was proud and stately, every bit as regal as her formal owner.

    As always, they were both ready to fly at a moments notice.

    The chariot landed before Solar One, and after a quick word of thanks, Twilight and Gilda trotted up the gangplank to the ship.

    At the top, Commander Honey Dawn waited. A Pegasus, she was a highly decorated member of the Wonderbolts and Twilight had known her for years. Wonderbolts made the best pilots, and Honey Dawn was one of, if not the best.

    "Ma'am!" Honey Dawn saluted Twilight, startling her for a moment.

    Twilight stared at her for a moment, before fumbling and sloppily saluting her back. "Hello. You… You don't have to salute me, Honey Dawn."

    "Yes, ma'am." A little smirk spread over Honey Dawn's lips, and she shook her head.

    "Are we ready to depart?" Twilight asked, marveling for a moment at the fact that the ship was now hers.

    "We always are," Honey Dawn said, a hint of pride in her voice.

    "Well." Twilight nodded, satisfied. "Let's get going then."

    "Of course, ma'am." Honey Dawn said, stepping aside to let Twilight and Gilda onboard. When they passed, Honey Dawn gave another salute. Some ponies were worth respecting after all. As soon as she stepped onboard herself, the airlock slid shut with a final hiss.

    "What is our destination, ma'am?" Honey Dawn asked, waiting patiently for an answer.

    "The Citadel." Honey Dawn didn't have to wait long. "And please, call me Twilight. You never called me ma'am before."

    "The Citadel it is then, ma'am." Honey Dawn grinned, bowing before Twilight, as deep and respectful as she could get. Before Twilight could say anything in protest, she turned and left to go to the bridge.

    "Lousy, no good nag." Twilight grumbled under her back, scowling at the retreating form of Honey Dawn.

    "Where do we go?" Gilda asked. She had been onboard Solar One once before, but she had never been brave enough to venture out from her room. Twilight had been kind enough to stay with her the entire time.

    "Follow me!" Twilight smiled, realized something. The ship was now hers after all.

    With a jaunty step, Twilight led Gilda deeper into Solar One. The ship itself had five decks. It was designed to be able to carry out diplomatic meetings and ferry dignitaries and all their aides and secretaries with them.

    Coming to a set of wide stairs, Twilight led Gilda up to the second deck of the ship. The second deck contained the Princesses private chambers. The entire ship was decorated in sun motifs, made with golden woods, and red and brown stones.

    "Twilight!"

    Startling a little at the shout, Twilight and Gilda turned to find Spike waddling up to them, a little backpack held in his claws. Trotting over to him, Twilight wrapped the little dragon in a warm hug.

    "Spike, you're coming too?"

    "The Princess said you'd need my help!" Spike puffed out his chest proudly.

    "Well," Twilight said. Pulling back, she ruffled his head spines. "Where would I be without my number one assistant?"

    Smiling proudly, Spike continued onward, trying to find his room. As he turned a corner and disappeared out of sight, Twilight and Gilda continued onwards.

    A little bounce in her step, Twilight led Gilda down a long, large hallway. At the end, there was a pair of double doors, a large sun painted across both of them. With a little squeak, Twilight pushed the doors open, revealing the Royal Suite of Solar One.

    Gilda took everything in with wide, curious eyes. The bed was big enough to fit both Celestia and Luna with their wings spread. It was made up with the finest possible sheets and more pillows than could ever be necessary. Sitting on the bed were two identical cases.

    "Huh?" Twilight stepped forward. She pressed the open button on the closest. The case opened with a hiss, revealing a state of the art set of griffin armor.

    "Is that for me?" Gilda asked, letting the doors to the suite swing shut behind her.

    "I think so…" Twilight opened the other case. Inside, it was the same, but the armor was clearly built for a unicorn. She caught site of an elegant note beside the cases, the royal seal of Celestia binding it shut.

    Carefully, Twilight opened it and began to read. It was a letter from Princess Celestia.

    Dearest Twilight Sparkle,

    I regret that I won't be able to help you with your search, but I have the utmost faith in you. I love you as if you were my own, and I want to see no harm come to you, which is why I have had these commissioned for you.

    I pray that you stay safe and find what we need.

    Sincerely,

    Your Most Faithful Teacher,

    Celestia Sol

    "They're from Princess Celestia." Twilight turned to Gilda, smiling.

    Reverently, Twilight folded the letter back up. Taking off her saddle bags, she lifted out the Journal of Friendship and placed the letter between the cover and the rest of the book.

    "Prepare for takeoff." Honey Dawn's voice came over the intercom. "We are heading for the Citadel."

    10. Chapter Nine - Eden Prime Part One

    Chapter Nine - Eden Prime

    SSV Normandy, Arcturus Stream

    April 6, 2183

    "You are cleared, Normandy. Have a safe flight?" The soft voice of the flight control officer rang out from over the speakers on the bridge. It was a toss up to whether or not she was a VI or not, and Riley spent all of a few seconds pondering that from her place on the bridge, between the pilot and copilot seats. Crossing her arms, she turned her gaze away from the near incomprehensible holodisplays before Joker and Spitfire to the rapidly approaching Mass Relay through the windows. She tried to ignore the hairs rising on the back of her neck. Nihlus was lurking just behind her, and he had a prime view of both the bridge and the neck of the ship.

    Hitting the communication button, Joker cut off the connection. Chewing on the inside of his lip, he muttered, "Safe flight my ass."

    "She's just doing her job," Spitfire answered, leaning back in her seat. She didn't enjoy flight operations as much as Joker, but she could match his every move with nearly as much skill. Still, there were times that she missed being an active part of the Wonderbolts flight team. Feeling the air rush over her wings was an experience unlike any other.

    "Yeah." Joker scoffed, rolling his eyes. His fingers flew over his holodisplay with the familiarity that could only come from years of practice. "Telling me where I can and can't fly."

    "Do you need a candy bar?" Spitfire asked, checking over Joker's calculations.

    "What?" Her question caught Joker off-guard, and he turned to look at her, confused. He blinked, having no idea where she was going with that. "What?"

    "Do you need a candy bar?" She repeated.

    Joker stared at her blankly. "I'm confused."

    "You're getting a little cranky. Is your blood sugar low?" She smirked. Joker's eyes widened in surprise as she reached down under her seat and pulled out a candy-bar. "You're starting to act like an ass in front of the Commander."

    Glancing over his shoulder, Joker leaned towards Spitfire. Comically loud, he whispered, "What about the Spectre?"

    "Knock yourself out on that one, buddy." Spitfire laughed, wiggling the candy bar enticingly in from of him. She giggled at the way his eyes followed it. "So do you want it or not?"

    "Well…" Joker shrugged, jutting out his bottom lip to try and look as pitiful as possible. "Yeah."

    "That look really doesn't work for you." Shaking her head, Spitfire tossed the candy bar to Joker, turning her attention back to her holodisplays.

    Joker settled back into his seat, unwrapping his new candy bar in childish glee. "I appreciate it."

    "You should." Spitfire typed in a small course correction. "And you should really pay more attention to your math. You were off by a hundredth of a percent."

    "Nag," Joker muttered, glaring as he took a big bite of the bar.

    "Whiny bitch," Spitfire shot back, regretting for a moment that hooves weren't very good if one wished to make rude gestures at someone.

    Behind them, Riley raised her eyebrows. The pilots were skirting the edge of being out of line, and she was wondering if she'd have to step in. She didn't really have a problem with it, but there was a Spectre listening to them after all.

    "The Arcturus Prime relay is in range." Joker focused, freeing his hands by holding his candy bar in his teeth. "Initiating transmission sequence."

    "We are connected." Spitfire flipped through her screens until she found the right one. She immediately started working through the math. "Calculating transit mass and destination."

    "The relay is hot. Acquiring approach vector." Reaching over, Joker activated the Normandy's internal communications network. "All stations secure for transit."

    The relay grew bigger and bigger in the windows of the bridge. The Mass Relays were marvels of engineering. Not only were they absolutely massive constructs, they had survived countless millennia in the cold void of space. Arguably the single most important construction ever made by the Protheans, they had last for tens of thousands of years. Some had even suggested that they were older than that. Without the relay network, galactic civilization would look incredibly different. In all likelihood, humanity would still be making the journey to the closest star system.

    "The board is green. Approach run has begun." Joker tore his eyes away from his holodisplays for just a moment to find the relay before looking back down. "Hitting the relay in 3… 2… 1…"

    Great white tendrils of electricity reached out from the relay and raced along the hull of the Normandy before grabbing hold. With a massive expenditure of energy, the relay grabbed the frigate and created a mass-free corridor between one of its multiple sister relays, this particular one in the Exodus Cluster. As it had countless times before, and would countless times again, the relay flung the Normandy across space, neatly side-stepping physics and Einstein in one move.

    Making a relay jump always left Riley feeling a little strange, like a thousand needles were crawling up and down her back. She shook the feeling off. Relay jumps were a part of life in the Alliance Navy, and there was no getting around it. You adjusted to it, or you didn't reenlist.

    "Thrusters…" Joker paid no attention to the feeling. As an Alliance pilot, he didn't even notice the transition anymore.

    "Check." Spitfire confirmed. She wiggled uncomfortably, using her wings to try and smooth down the fur of her coat. Relay jumps always left her feeling… fluffy.

    "Navigation?"

    "Check."

    "Internal emissions sinks…" Joker's eyes widened as he took in the holodisplay. "Huh, looks like Adams got it working. Engaged! All systems online. Drift… just under 1500k."

    "1500 is good," Nihlus remarked, startling everyone on the bridge as he spoke. "Your Captain will be pleased."

    Turning, Nihlus turned and walked out of the bridge, leaving Riley, Joker, and Spitfire alone.

    Looking over his shoulder, Joker waited until Nihlus was out of hearing range. Shaking his head, he turned back to his holodisplay. "I hate that guy."

    "No you don't." Spitfire rolled her eyes, sticking her tongue out at him.

    "Yes!" Joker nodded emphatically at her, wishing that he could bang his fist against the armrest. He didn't want a broken hand. That just wouldn't be fun for anyone. "Yes, I do."

    "He gives you a compliment, so you hate him?" Spitfire had learned that the words that so often spilled out of Joker's mouth wasn't always the truth.

    "Hey!" Joker protested, sending a glare at Spitfire. "You remember to zip up your jumpsuit on the way out of the bathroom? That's good. I just jumped us halfway across the galaxy and hit a target the size of a pinhead, so that's incredible!"

    "I don't wear a jumpsuit," Spitfire remarked, chortling to herself. "And you're exaggerating. It wasn't halfway across the galaxy, more like a sixteenth. At the most. I also wouldn't call 1500 kilometers a pinhead. I don't know what world you live in, but we're all here in the real galaxy."

    "Yeah, well…" Joker pouted. He stuck his own tongue out her, copying her move, then realized how absolutely stupid and childish that was and got back to work. "Spectres are trouble. I don't like having him onboard. Call me paranoid."

    "You're doing a pretty good job of that yourself." Spitfire ruffled her wings, then finally settled them down, the static dissipating finally. "The Systems Alliance wasn't alone in building the Normandy. He's here for the same reason I am."

    "Don't remind me," Joker muttered. The fact that Spitfire could be reassigned at any time was not something he enjoyed.

    "There's something else going on," Riley remarked, resting her hands on her hips. "You don't send Spectres on shakedown runs."

    "Joker, status report!" Captain Anderson's voice came over the communication network.

    "Just cleared the mass relay, Captain," Joker reported, straightening out of respect, even if he was just speaking to the Captain over the radio. "Stealth systems engaged. Everything looks solid."

    "Good. Find a comm buoy and link us into the network. I want mission reports relayed back to Alliance brass before we reach Eden Prime." Captain Anderson said.

    "Aye, aye, Captain." Joker glanced over at Spitfire and smirked before proceeding to cross right over the line. "Better brace yourself, sir. I think Nihlus is headed your way."

    "He's already here, Lieutenant." Captain Anderson's voice was flat, though a very subtle hint of anger was present in his voice.

    Joker winced, rubbing his face. Spitfire just rolled her eyes at him, far too used to his problems.

    "Tell Commander Shepard to meet me in the comm room for a debriefing." Captain Anderson said before cutting the transmission.

    Joker glanced over his seat at Riley, wincing when he caught sight of just how unimpressed she looked. "You got that, Commander?"

    "He sounds angry." Riley had to bite back her laugh at how ridiculous the pilot was. "Something must have gone wrong with the mission."

    "The Captain always sounds like that when he's talking to Joker." Spitfire laughed.

    "Haha, laugh it up fuzzy." Joker scowled, clenching his fists.

    Turning, Riley marched down the neck of the Normandy, towards the briefing room hidden behind the galaxy map. She passed by Lieutenant Pressly, who was arguing with someone over the communications network.

    "I told you, I just saw him!" Pressly exclaimed, multitasking as he worked up the mission log. "He marched by like he was on a mission."

    "He's a Spectre. They're always on a mission."

    Riley ignored Pressly, walking right on past them without looking back. She paid little mind to the rest of the crew going about their business. On the other side of the galaxy map, she saw Rainbow and Dr. Chakwas listening to Corporal Richard Jenkins blather on about something. As she strode forward, she was able to make out what he was saying.

    "I grew up on Eden Prime, Doc!" Jenkins practically shouted, gesticulating his hands as he looked over his captive audience. "It's not the kind of place Spectres visit. There's something else Nihlus isn't telling us about the mission."

    He was a reedy young man, a bit too tall, and way too thin. Rainbow thought he looked a bit like a yearling just growing into their legs, and Riley had certainly seen the connection when the Pegasus had pointed it out to her.

    "There's always something they don't tell us about a mission." Rainbow rolled her eyes, her shoulders slumping. She wanted to be anywhere else at the moment. "Ever heard of need to know?"

    "Yeah…" Jenkins rubbed the back of his neck, glancing away from Chakwas and Rainbow.

    "Obviously, you don't need to know." Rainbow pointed a hoof at Jenkins.

    "What do you think Commander?" Jenkins asked as Riley passed them by. "We won't be staying on Eden Prime too long will we? I'm itching for some real action!"

    "I sincerely hope you're kidding, Corporal." Chakwas chimed in, having had enough of just silently letting Jenkins blather on. She had seen too many young men and women eager to prove themselves a 'hero' end up dead before she could even help them. "Your 'real action' usually ends with me patching up crew members in the infirmary."

    "Real action isn't as cool as it sounds." Rainbow glanced down at the ground, her wings drooping ever so slightly. "It's not very cool at all, and I should know."

    "That's not true!" Jenkins shook his head. He had watched all of the videos of the Angels of Elysium, and he wanted that for himself. "You're a hero, and all because of Elysium. Without you and the Commander, we would have lost the colony."

    "You need to calm down, Corporal." Riley spoke softly. She narrowed her eyes at Jenkins. The kid was beginning to touch at things he really should know not to. "A good marine stays cool under pressure."

    "Sorry, Commander." If he had any idea of what was good for him, he would stop talking. He continued on. "But this waiting's killing me! I've never been on a mission like this before. Not one with a Spectre before."

    "And I'd never been on a vacation where marauding pirates decided invasion was the best course of action." Rainbow growled, looking off to the side.

    "Patience, Corporal." Riley sighed, wanting to just walk away. "If you rush into anything, you're going to get yourself killed."

    "Easy for you to say, Commander!" Jenkins stomped a foot, and Riley had never felt worse about the state of the new recruits of the Alliance if he was anything to say about it. "You proved yourself in the Blitz. Everybody knows what you can do. This is my big chance. I need to show the brass what I can do!"

    Straightening her spine, Riley stood tall, wrapping her officer persona tight around herself. She spoke authoritatively. "Calm down, Corporal. That's an order! Don't do something stupid."

    "Yes, ma'am!" At the sound of her voice, Jenkins straightened and snapped to attention, saluting her out of habit.

    Looking down, Riley shared a look with Rainbow. Her little sister rolled her eyes. They were in agreement about that, it seemed. This guy was way too eager.

    "The Captain is waiting for me," Riley said, excusing herself from the conversation.

    "Goodbye, Commander." Chakwas watched longingly as Riley beat a hasty retreat. She wished that she could do the same, but she had standards of decency to maintain.

    "See ya'," Rainbow murmured, waving a hoof goodbye.

    Riley walked past all of them and into the briefing room. As she stepped past the sliding door, she found that only Nihlus was present. Captain Anderson was nowhere to be seen. The turian Spectre had his back turned to her, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched images of Eden Prime taken from what had to be an orbiting satellite on the rooms view screen. Hearing her footsteps, and the the door sliding shut, Nihlus turned. He towered over Riley's rather modest height 5'8" by a whole foot.

    "Commander Shepard." Nihlus flanged voice rumbled strangely in Riley's chest, and he seemed to loom over the entire room. "I was hoping you'd get here first. It gives us a chance to talk."

    "What about?" Riley asked, grinding her teeth.

    "I'm interested in this world we're going to." Nihlus half turned so he could look at both the view screen with pictures of Eden Prime and Riley. "Eden Prime. I've heard it's quite beautiful."

    "They say it's a paradise," Riley said, eying Nihlus carefully. The fact that he was alone in the briefing room and Anderson was nowhere to be found was extremely telling. He wanted her alone, for what reason she couldn't fathom.

    "Yes…" Nihlus nodded, turning fully to face Rainbow. "A paradise. Serene. Tranquil. Safe. Eden Prime has become something of a symbol for your people, hasn't it? Proof that humanity can not only establish colonies across the galaxy, but also protect them. But how safe is it, really?"

    "Do you know something?" The entire conversation with Nihlus was setting Riley on edge, and she had to wonder just what he wanted.

    "Your people are still newcomers, Shepard. The galaxy can be a very dangerous place. Is the Alliance truly ready for this?"

    At the sound of the door opening, they both turned to watch as Captain Anderson walked in. He shared a private look with Riley, filled with warmth and paternal love, which she eagerly returned in her own kind. Nihlus didn't let on that he had noticed the entire thing.

    "I think it's about time we told the Commander what's really going on," Captain Anderson said.

    "Very well." Nihlus nodded at the Captain's decision. "This mission is far more than a simple shakedown run."

    Riley just stared at Nihlus blankly, her posture screaming 'of course it is.' That went without saying.

    "Right." Anderson ignored that, moving the conversation along. "We're making a covert pick-up on Eden Prime. That's why we needed the stealth systems operational."

    "I assume there's a reason I wasn't told about this?" Riley asked, crossing her arms. Need to know could be more annoying than she ever let on.

    "This comes down from the top, Commander, information on a strict need to know basis." Anderson said, stepping past Riley to stand side by side with Nihlus. He glance at the satellite pictures of Eden Prime. "A research team on Eden Prime unearthed a beacon."

    Riley blinked. She hadn't been expecting that. The galaxy practically worshipped the Protheans, searching for any remnant of their once vast and powerful empire. The mass relays and the Citadel were the most obvious of their artifacts, but the ones that were far more valuable were the Beacons. They were the single rarest of all of the paleo-technology that the Protheans had left behind, and that was partly because of how fragile they were compared to the relays. Beacons were what had allowed many of the races of the galaxy to learn the secrets of faster-than-light travel, expanding further into the galaxy than they ever would have been able to on their own. To have found one on a human colony could only mean good things for the Alliance.

    "This is big, Shepard." Anderson smirked. That was an understatement if he had ever heard one. The beacon could catapult the Alliance forward technologically and politically. This mission had to be handled correctly. "Eden Prime doesn't have the facilities to handle something like this. We have been ordered to bring the Beacon back to the Citadel for proper study."

    "Obviously this goes beyond mere human interests, Commander," Nihlus spoke up. "This discovery could affect every species in Council space."

    "It certainly explains your presence," Riley murmured. Of course the Council would want to have their own piece of the action.

    "The Beacon's not the only reason I'm here, Shepard," Nihlus admitted after sharing a look with Anderson.

    "Nihlus wants to see you in action, Commander." David explained further. "He's here to evaluate you."

    Riley shot Anderson a look, her eyes narrowing. Explain, please.

    "You held off an enemy assault during the blitz with your untrained sister," Nihlus said with a chuckle. "You showed not only courage, but also incredible skill and foresight. That's why I put your name forward as a candidate for the Spectres."

    Riley took a step back, her eyes going wide, and she looked to Anderson for explanation.

    "The Alliance has been pushing for this for a long time, Shepard." Anderson smiled apologetically at her, but he certainly didn't relent. "We want a larger role in shaping interstellar policy. We want more of a say with the Citadel Council. The Spectres represent the Council's power and authority. If they accept a human into their ranks, it shows just how far the Alliance has come!"

    "I need to see your skills for myself, Commander," Nihlus explained. "Eden Prime will be the first of several missions together."

    "You'll be in charge of the ground team," Anderson said. "Secure the beacon and get it back to the Normandy. Nihlus will be accompanying you to observe how you operate on the mission."

    "Just give the word, Captain." Riley saluted.

    "We should be getting close to Ede—"

    "Captain!" Joker's voice crackled over the Normandy's communication network. "We've got a problem."

    "What's wrong, Joker?" Anderson asked, listening carefully.

    "Transmission from Eden Prime, sir." As he spoke, Joker took control of the briefing room's view screen from the bridge. "You better see this!"

    "Show us, Joker."

    Together, the three of them turned to face the view screen. A second passed, and the satellite photos of Eden Prime disappeared, replaced by shaky footage from what appeared to be a helmet cam. A team of Alliance marines were shooting at an unseen aggressor on a grassy hill, the marine filming tripping and falling to the ground. The marine struggled to get up, and the footage went wild, the camera bobbing about everywhere.

    "Get down!" A female marine in white and pink armor rushed at the marine, shoving the other marine back down. She got back up to her knees, firing her rifle in short, controlled bursts.

    An explosion sent the entire small squad sprawling to the ground, disorienting the marine with the camera even further.

    "We're under attack!" Another marine rushed at the camera, shouting to be heard over the sounds of battle. "We're taking heavy casualties. I repeat, heavy casualties! We can't— Aargh —eed evac! They came out of nowhere. We need—"

    A line of bullets marched their way up the marine's back, and he dropped to the ground dead, his face twisted in terror.

    A horn sounded from the sky, something that wasn't so much heard as it was felt, and the camera looked up at the sky. It was a crackling, ancient sound that sent shivers down Riley's spine. Following the marine's gaze, the rest of the surviving squad looked up as well, the firefight slowing for a moment.

    Through the clouds, it looked like a massive hand was reaching out for the planet itself, wreathed in red lightning. The horn blared again, and the gunfire began again.

    Before anything else could happen, the video cut to static.

    "Everything cuts out after that," Joker said, switching the display back to satellite photos of Eden Prime. "There's no comm traffic at all. The entire planet is silent. There's nothing."

    "Joker, reverse and hold at 38.5," Anderson said. He took a step closer to the screen, tilting his head. A second passed before Joker did as he asked. The satellite photos disappeared, and the image reverted back to the blank mechanical hand reaching down from the heavens.

    Now that it was paused, Riley could see what it was more clearly. It wasn't a hand at all. It was a ship, and a massive one at that. There was nothing to give it a true sense of scale, but if she had to guess, she would say that it was at least two kilometers in length, maybe more.

    "Status report, Joker," Anderson barked, frowning.

    "Seventeen minutes out, Captain." Joker said. "No other Alliance ships are in the area."

    "Take us in, Joker. Fast and quiet."

    "You got it, Captain."

    "This mission just got a whole lot more complicated," Anderson said, turning to Nihlus, his face grim.

    "A small strike team can move quickly without drawing attention." Nihlus had been on countless more difficult missions, and he already knew how he would tackle it, but he was still there to see Riley in action. "It's our best chance to secure the beacon."

    "Grab your gear, Shepard, and meet us in the cargo hold." Anderson turned to Riley. "Tell Alenko and Jenkins to suit up. You're going in."

    "Sir, Flying Officer Dash would be an asset on this mission," Riley broke in, suggesting to him.

    Anderson thought about it for a moment, before nodding in agreement. "Very well. Tell her too."

    "Yes, sir," Riley saluted. Turning, she walked out of the briefing room, leaving Anderson looking at the image on the screen.

    Striding out into the CIC, Riley found that the conversation she had left between Jenkins, Chakwas, and Rainbow was still going on. From the look of things, Chakwas had been going on a rant for more than a few minutes, and both Jenkins and Rainbow looked like they wanted to escape.

    "I'm sorry, Doctor, but I need these two." Riley smirked at Rainbow's overenthusiastic sigh of relief. "I hope that's not a problem."

    "Oh?" Chakwas blinked, looking over at Riley. "It's not a problem at all, Commander."

    Chakwas turned and left, and Riley turned her attention to Rainbow and Jenkins.

    "Get suited up and meet me in the cargo hold. This just became a combat mission."

    "Combat?" Riley didn't like the way Jenkin's eyes lit up. He bounced on his heels, a giddy smile overtaking his face. "What's happening Commander?"

    "Get suited up first, Corporal." Riley said, trying to keep her voice even and steady. Jenkins didn't need any more encouragement to be too excited. "The Captain will brief us in the cargo hold."

    "Yes, ma'am!" Jenkins snapped to attention, saluting. He rushed off towards the stairs, going for his armor and guns if he knew what was good for him.

    "What's going on?" Rainbow asked as soon as Jenkins was out of earshot.

    "Trouble." That summed it up perfectly. Riley knelt down so she was at eye level with Rainbow.

    "What?" Rainbow backed up a bit, not liking the intense look that Riley was giving her.

    "Stay safe," Riley murmured, keeping her voice low. No one else needed to hear what she had to say. "Mom and Dad would kill me if anything happened to you."

    "Same to you! I'd never hear the end of it." Rainbow scoffed, rolling her eyes. She sat back on her haunches, holding her forelegs up as she batted her eyes and pitched her voice higher. "Oh, Rainbow, why did you let your big sister get shot in the face? Now I'll never have any human grand-babies."

    "Seriously!" Riley punched Rainbow right in the chest, stopping her horrible imitation of Firefly. "Keey an eye out. Everything about this mission is hinky."

    "Hinky?" Rainbow cocked her head, raising an eyebrow.

    "Something bigger than us is going on, and we're getting caught up in it." Riley sighed, running a hand through her hair. Emotions were hard for her sometimes, but she tried her best. Rainbow was a huge part of her life, and going on without her was completely unthinkable. "Just… stay safe."

    "Yeah…" Rainbow met her sister's gaze, nodding once. She looked more than a little confused by her seriousness, but Riley hadn't led her wrong once yet. "I will."

    "Good." Riley stood, taking a deep breath. "Go get your gear."

    Rainbow straightened up, saluting. "Yes, boss ma'am, sister, sir!"

    Before Riley could say anything, Rainbow zipped off in a streak of her namesake. Rolling her eyes, Riley followed after her with a hurried but far more sedate pace.

    She took the stairs down to the crew deck two at a time, walking right past the freight elevator to the line of sleeper pods under the neck of the ship, she saw Rainbow already digging around in her locker under her pod. In the small kitchen area, Kaiden sat at the furthest table finishing up a cup of coffee. She made a beeline straight towards him.

    "Alenko!" She barked, clapping him on the shoulder.

    "Ma'am?" Kaiden stood, watching her carefully.

    "Get suited up. You're on the mission. We're going down to the cargo bay." Without any further explanation, Riley strode past him to her own sleeper pod.

    Kneeling down, she opened her own locker underneath it and pulled out the chest plate of her armor, the N7 badge gleaming up at her. Alliance standard issue for all 'N' operators, her onyx class armor had saved her life more than a few times in the past. It would hopefully do the same this time.

    With an ease that only came from years of experience, Riley started to pull her armor on, attaching it to the hard points of her BDUs.

    "Come on, you stupid piece of—"

    Hearing the grumbled curses behind her, Riley looked over her shoulder to find Rainbow on her back, struggling to tug on the armor on the rear of her leg. With a cry of triumph, she rolled over and jumped up onto all four of her hooves.

    "Having a little trouble there?" Riley asked with a coy smile.

    "Shut up." Rainbow growled and trotted away, shaking her rear leg to try and even out the fit.

    Finishing up, Riley tested the fit of her right gloves, nodding in approval. Smooth motion all the way through. Good.

    Looking over, she saw Kaidan was finished too. Together, the two of them headed after Rainbow. They found her waiting impatiently at the elevator, tapping a forehoof against the ground.

    With a quiet ding, the elevator arrived and the door lowered. Together, the three of them stepped inside, Rainbow pressing the down button with her hoof.

    Ever so slowly, the door raised, and with a soft clunk of machinery, it began to lower.

    They stood there, listening to the quiet whine of gears and hydraulics as the elevator moved at a glacial pace. Rainbow started trotting in place, groaning to herself.

    "This is worse than the airlock!" Rainbow shouted finally, her impatience getting to her.

    Riley just rolled her eyes. Kaidan chuckled, and she looked over to find him shaking his head.

    "What?"

    "That's what I said when I first came onboard." Kaidan laughed.

    With a thunk, the elevator arrived, and though it seemed to take forever the door opened and allowed them out into the cargo bay.

    Riley took a moment to look the cargo bay over. It looked like more than a few ships that she had served on. An M35 Mako infantry fighting vehicle sat just before the bay doors, chained down to the floor. Across from it were the weapon racks. Jenkins was there, finishing up armoring himself. He checked his assault rifle, then slammed the ammo block back into place.

    Walking up, Riley grabbed her standard gear. She was pleased to find that her weapons had been placed onto the racks, and she quickly went through her routine, checking that the barrels were clean, the batteries were charged, and the ammo blocks were full. Sliding her sniper rifle into place on her back, she repeated the process with her assault rifle, then her pistol.

    Rainbow easily slid into her battle harness, built specially for the Wonderbolts. It locked into place on her armor with an easy click.

    Hearing the ding of the elevator, the four of them looked over to find Nihlus and Captain Anderson striding out. Quickly, Riley motioned for them to assemble, standing at ease as the two walked up to them.

    "We're ready to move, Captain." Riley announced, saying to him.

    "Good." Anderson nodded. "Your team's the muscle in this operation, Commander. Go in heavy and head straight for the dig site."

    "What about survivors, Captain?" Kaidan asked, his voice even and respectful.

    "Helping survivors is a secondary objective, lieutenant." Anderson didn't sound happy about that, but there wasn't any other choice. "The beacon's your top priority."

    On the side of the cargo bay door, a red light turned green and with a loud honk, the door began to open. Wind came rushing in, though Riley was barely even able to feel it through her armor.

    "Approaching drop point one." Joker's voice came over Riley's internal suit radio.

    Jenkins looked over in surprise as Nihlus pulled out his shotgun, checking it over. "Nihlus? You're coming with us?"

    "I move faster on my own." Nihlus shook his head, barely giving the Corporal a second glance. Without a further word, Nihlus took a running leap and jumped out of the cargo bay.

    "Nihlus will scout ahead." Anderson said, taking no mind that the turian had just jumped from nearly one-hundred feet up. "He'll feed you status reports throughout the mission; otherwise, I want radio silence."

    "We've got his back, Captain." Riley said, noting from the corner of her eyes that Jenkins was staring after the last spot that he had seen Nihlus, his mouth probably gaping open inside his helmet.

    "The missions yours now, Shepard." Anderson nodded, stepping back as he shielded his eyes from the wind. "Good luck!"

    "Approaching drop point two." Joker's voice rang out again.

    Riley got ready, and she could see that the rest of her squad was doing the same. Through the open cargo bay door, the planet's surface came up to meet them, until they were able to see a large clearing. When they were just twenty feet off the ground, Riley gave the order.

    "Move it people!" Riley shouted into the squad's network. "Come on!"

    Together, they leaped out of the ship. Riley, Kaidan, and Jenkins landed on bent knees, while Rainbow took a far more leisurely flight down. They quickly formed a loose perimeter, searching for any sign of a threat. As soon as they were out of the cargo bay, the Normandy rocketed away, back out of sight and to safety.

    Scanning her rifle across the horizon, Riley looked up at one of the towering arcologies. It was burning, its skeleton bared for the entire world to see.

    Eden Prime had seen better days. The sky was nearly cloudless, but it was tinged red from the fires that burned everywhere. In the distance, towering over the arcologies was the ship. Dark, charred atmosphere circled around its top. It didn't look like a hand, she noted, now that she could see it better. It almost looked aquatic, standing on great claws.

    "It smells like smoke," Kaidan noted, his voice tinged with distaste. "And death."

    "Perimeter secure," Jenkins relayed back.

    Riley stood to her full height, scanning for any sign of the aggressors that the marines were fighting in the video.

    "This place got hit hard, commander. Hostiles are everywhere. Keep your guard up." Nihlus' voice came over the comm network.

    Jumping up into the air, Rainbow Dash hovered effortlessly, the weight of her armor not affecting her in the slightest.

    "Rainbow," Riley said. "You're our eyes in the sky. Get to cloud cover. I want you to see our enemy hours before they see you."

    "Got it!" Rainbow saluted her. She zoomed up, heading towards the nearest cloud.

    As soon as she was gone, Riley turned to face Kaidan and Jenkins. "Let's move. Jenkins, you've got point."

    "Yes, ma'am!" Eager to follow her orders, Jenkins rushed forward. He was shaky, and it was obvious the state of Eden Prime was really getting to him.

    "You alright, Jenkins?" Kaidan asked.

    "I…" Jenkins shook his head to try and clear his thoughts. It didn't work. "I don't know. God, what happened here?"

    "You can work through it later, Jenkins," Riley reassured him. It wasn't the time for emotions though. "I know it sucks, but I need you on your game. Got it, Corporal?"

    "Y-Yes, ma'am." Jenkins nodded, his breathing heavy.

    "Good, keep moving." Riley ordered, shifting her grip on her rifle.

    "Yes, ma'am." Jenkins spoke clearer this time.

    Together, they moved forward, past scurrying native animals and down a small embankment.

    "Oh, god." Jenkins couldn't help but look around at his home, seeing in the distance a burning arcology. "What happened here?"

    They came around a turn to see a large open field. Charred corpses were strewn everywhere, farmers and engineers, men, women, and children alike. Holding her fist up, Riley signaled for Kaidan and Jenkins to hold. Getting down on one knee, she scanned the field before motioning for Jenkins to move forward.

    The butt of his rifle firmly against his shoulder, Jenkins rushed forwards.

    With a whirr of electricity, three hovering drones raced around the bend on the opposite side of the field.

    "Jenkins!" Riley shouted, already firing at the drones. "Get back to cover!"

    Jenkins didn't even have a chance to hear her. Even as the words left Riley's mouth, he was riddled full of bullets, the drones taking full advantage of an easy target.

    "Shit!" Riley ducked back behind one of the large walls of granite, pulling Kaidan down with her. "Shit!"

    The drones kept up a steady wave of fire. Pulling out her sniper rifle, Riley crawled to the edge of the wall and leaned down and around, only to scramble backwards as a wall of gunfire almost took off her face.

    "What the hell are those things?" Kaidan asked, ducking even closer against the wall.

    "I don't have a clue!" Riley looked up, finding the cloud that Rainbow must have grabbed high in the sky. She triggered the radio. "Rainbow, get off your ass and do something!"

    Riley watched as the cloud moved, drifting over the drones. Rainbow opened fire with her battle harness, and in seconds the drones were turned into nothing but scrap and shrapnel.

    "Good work, Rainbow."

    Carefully, Riley stood and crept out of cover. Kaidan was right behind her. They both kept their heads on a constant swivel, looking for any more of the drones as they rushed towards Jenkins' still body.

    "Jenkins?" Riley knelt down next to him as Kaidan stood over the two of them, keeping an eye out. She peeled the armor of his neckpiece away and felt for a pulse.

    Nothing.

    "Dammit," she murmured, looking up and Kaidan and shaking her head. "They ripped right through his shields. He never had a chance."

    "He was young." Kaidan couldn't help but wonder if there was something that he could have done. Could he have pulled the boy back with him?

    Sighing, Riley stood. "We'll see that he receives a proper service once the mission is focused. But I need you focused."

    "Aye, aye, ma'am." Kaidan nodded, his voice grim.

    Trigger her radio, Riley looked up at Rainbow's cloud. "Are you alright, Rainbow?"

    "Yeah." Rainbow kept the communication curt and short.

    "Rainbow…" Riley murmured, biting her lip.

    "I'm fine." The cloud started moving.

    "Alright." Riley sealed Jenkins' armor again. "Keep alert."

    Together, Riley and Kaidan moved forward. They had to leave Jenkins' body behind. They couldn't take him with them, he would simply slow them down.

    Holding up a hand, Riley paused in front of the drones. She picked up the mangled bulk of the closest one. It was a little larger than her chest, built of an extremely light material that wasn't metal, or anything else that Riley had ever seen or touched before. A thick gun hung under the drone, and it was clear why Jenkins didn't stand a chance. The drones were nothing but a floating gun platform, using weapons that were built for nothing but killing as many soldiers as possible.

    "What are they?" Toeing one with his boot, Kaidan eyed the drone for a second before looking back up, keeping his guard up.

    "I don't know." Shrugging, Riley stood. She had seen a lot of things during her time with the Alliance special forces, but these were on a completely different level. From the insides she could see through the bullet holes peppering the drone, she couldn't make heads or tails of what she was looking at. "They don't look like any drones I've ever seen."

    Before they could speculate any further, more of the drones sped around the corner. Riley and Kaidan had their rifles firing, chewing through their surprisingly weak shields in a matter of moments. Engulfed in fire, the drones crashed to the ground and exploded.

    "I've got some burned out buildings here, Shepard." Nihlus said over the radio. "A lot of bodies. I'm going to check it out. I'll try to catch up with you at the dig site."

    "Rainbow." Riley activated her own radio. "Go scout up ahead. Keep me informed."

    Both Kaidan and Riley watched as the cloud Rainbow was hiding behind moved forward, doing as she was ordered.

    "Keep tight." Glancing at Kaidan, Riley took a deep breath before moving forward. He followed close behind her. Passing around the bend, they emerged out into the edge of a wooded forest. Tall trees reached up towards the sky, the closest branch over forty feet above them. The tops of the trees reached up to the burning sky. Through the edge of the forest, they came to an overlook above a long ravine.

    Coming to the top of the overlook, Riley and Kaidan were just in time to watch the marine in white and pink armor from the transmission come rushing up the hill, stumbling as she tried to a help another limping marine along.

    Two black plated mechs came around the bend of the ravine, following after the two marines with surgical precision. The armor that covered them seemed to suck in all of the light, and it was strange just to look at them. Carbon nano-tubes, Riley wondered. It would explain the strange light sucking quality. The heads of the mechs rose up into a singular, glowing eye, focused directly on the marines, and they raised their rifles almost in unison.

    Rushing down the ravine, Riley clenched her fist and sent a singularity to separate the marines from the mechs. The dark energy caught the two mechs, lifting them off the ground and pulling them into an unsteady orbit around the miniature gravity well, leaving them flailing helplessly.

    Pulling out her sniper rifle, Riley sent two shots through the head of each mech soldier, followed by one more each for safety.

    The two marines paused, looking up at their saviors as Riley and Kaidan jumped down the overlook. Seeing just how high above them Riley was in rank, they straightened as much as they could, saluting.

    "Commander!" The marine in white and pink armor said breathlessly. She wasn't a tall a woman, nor was she short. She was average, with a build like a wrestler, emphasized even further by the bulk of her armor. "Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams of the 212. You the one in charge here, ma'am?"

    "I am." Riley glanced at the other marine.

    "Serviceman Nirali Bhatia," she said, clutching her side as she tried to catch her breath. Unlike Ashley, Nirali wasn't an overly active woman. She only barely maintained the Alliance fitness standard for the marines, and she was starting to get too old to be running in full kit. It was only thanks to the servos and gears in her armor that she had been able to make it as long as she had.

    "Are you two okay?" Kaidan asked, pulling out his medkit.

    "A few scrapes and burns, nothing serious." Ashley shook her head. The adrenaline was starting to wear off, the enormity of everything hitting her all at once. "Nirali's shot though, and we were the lucky ones."

    "Let me help, Serviceman," Kaidan said, helping Nirali to the ground.

    "Thank you, sir." Grunting, Nirali clenched her teeth.

    Taking his medigel, Kaidan injected it directly into the bullet holes in Nirali's armor. The woman winced, clutching her side. "Gods, that stings!"

    "What happened here, Chief?" Riley asked, keeping an eye on the other end of the ravine.

    "Oh man…" Ashley tried to catch her breath. "We were patrolling the perimeter when the attack hit. We tried to get off a distress call, but they cut off our communications. Nirali and I managed to get away, and we've been fighting for our lives ever since."

    "Do you know what those things are?" Gesturing down at the scraps of the mechs at the other end of the ravine, Riley looked back at Ashley, hoping for answers.

    Looking down at her injured companion, Ashley and Nirali shared a look. They didn't know if Riley was going to believe. They didn't know if they believed themselves.

    "I…" Ashley bit her lip. "I think they're geth."

    "Geth?" Kaidan blinked. "The geth haven't been seen outside the veil for nearly two-hundred years. Why would they be here now?"

    "They must have come for the beacon!" Ashley pointed back the way they had come. "The dig site is close, just at the other end of the ravine. It might still be there. We didn't really get a chance to look."

    "We could use your help Chief, Serviceman." Riley looked over the two women. "Are you up for that?"

    "Yes, ma'am!" Ashley straightened her back, preparing herself to jump back into the fight. "We're looking for payback."

    "I just want to get out of here alive," Nirali admitted as Kaidan helped her back up to her feet.

    "Stick with us and we'll make sure that happens." Kaidan reassured her.

    Ashley and Nirali followed after the two of them, and they walked in silence for several hundred feet until it became to much for Nirali.

    "We thought this world was safe…" She whispered to herself. "Then the geth showed up. Oh gods! I just want to go home."

    "Quiet, serviceman!" Riley barked, hoping that there weren't any mechs around to take advantage of her.

    "Yes, Commander." Nirali whimpered to herself, clutching her rifle to herself like it was a lifeline.

    Riley in the lead, they headed down the ravine towards where Ashley had said the beacon had been uncovered.

    The dig site itself was easy to see the closer they got. Cranes and diggers were littered across the surface of the ravine, and great mounds of earth were piled high on both sides. Tall work lights had been placed around the site, though they had been shot to pieces.

    Motioning silently, Riley took cover just behind the bend of the ravine, the others following her lead. Peeking around, Riley saw more geth lingering around the dig site. A circular structure had been unearthed, having survived the millennia surprisingly well, but Riley couldn't see whether or not the beacon was there or not.

    "Alright." Riley nodded, pulling herself back into cover. She looked over at the three of them. "Chief, with me. Alenko, Bhatia, keep them suppressed."

    Waiting for their acknowledgement of her plan, her biotics flared blue before she ran out of cover, unloading her assault rifle on the first geth she saw until it overheated. Behind her, she could hear Ashley following after her, taking much more conservative shots with her own rifle.

    With Kaidan and Nirali providing cover, Riley and Ashley charged forward. Punching a fist at a trio of geth standing inside the circular structure, slamming them into the ground so hard their armor shattered.

    "Holy…" Ashely paused, amazed as Riley tore through the last remaining geth with her biotics.

    Chest heaving, Riley caught her breath. Her biotics flared out a moment later. "Clear. Alenko, Bhatia, move forward."

    As Kaidan and Nirali joined them, Riley took a better look at the dig site. The archeologists had uncovered a completely impressive massive stone structure with four large spires rising up from stone circle center. Ashley stepped up to the center.

    "This is the dig site," she said, pointing right at the center. "The beacon was right here. They must have moved it."

    "But who?" Kaidan asked, venting his rifle. "Our side or the geth?"

    "Hard to say," Ashley said with a shrug. "Maybe we'll know more after we check out the research camp."

    "Do you think anyone got out of here alive?" Riley herself wasn't very sure about that matter. It didn't look like the geth were in a hostage taking mood.

    "If they were lucky." Ashley looked as doubtful as Riley felt. She pointed up at the other side of the ravine, towards a hill that the archeologists must have constructed when they were digging the beacon out of the earth. "Maybe they're hiding up in the camp. It's just on the top of this ridge, up the ramps."

    "Right, let's move then." Riley started forward. They all headed up towards the research camp.

    Coming up the ramps, the found twenty large spires rising up into the sky. Nirali gasped when she realized that a body was impaled at the top of each spike. They were too far away to get a clear look at, but they looked dark and charred, and Riley was glad that she had been running her suit on reserve oxygen the entire mission because she did not want to be smelling that.

    The buildings of the research camp had been pushed out of the way to make room for the spikes, knocked onto their sides as easy as if they were sand castles.

    "Oh gods!" Falling to her knees, Nirali clawed off her helmet and vomited, coughing.

    Growling to herself, Riley gestured at the other two marines. Together, they surrounded Nirali, covering her as she fell apart.

    "Serviceman, on your feet!" Riley shouted.

    Shakily, Nirali grabbed her rifle and got back up.

    "Are you good, Bhatia?" Riley asked, scowling.

    "Y-Yes, ma'am," Nirali wiped bits of vomit from her mouth, keeping her eyes firmly away from the spikes and the dead bodies.

    "Change of plans, Shepard." Nihlus' voice crackled over the radio. "There's a small spaceport up ahead. I want to check it out. I'll wait for you there."

    "They hit the camp hard." Ashley murmured, wondering just how many people were dead.

    "What happened here, Williams?" Riley asked.

    "I don't know ma'am." Ashley shrugged, shaking her head. "It didn't look like this when we came through here."

    "Right." Riley nodded, firming her grip on her rifle. "Keep your eyes open, people."

    As she took a step forward, Riley paused as the one by one the spikes began to lower to the ground. The people impaled on the spikes started to struggle.

    "Oh gods!" Nirali cried out. She tried to rush forward to help them, but Riley grabbed her shoulder and held her back. "They're still alive."

    As they watched, the people started to pull themselves off of the spikes, and it was in that moment that Riley realized just how wrong everything about this situation was. Gone was any semblance of a normal human being. Instead, their skin had become ashen grey, with hundreds of machines growing out of their skin, glowing a pale blue.

    As one, all twenty of the creatures turned to look at Riley and her squad. Opening their mouths, they let out an unholy shriek as one and charged at them.

    "Take them down!" Riley shouted.

    As one, Riley, Kaidan, and Ashley opened fire. Nirali hesitated, her rifle dropping. She recognized some of them. Simon was one of them, the remnants of his uniform still clinging to his body.

    The beings seemed to just shrug off the fire, and they reached out to grab them.

    Nirali followed their example when she saw just what they had become.

    Her body flaring blue, Riley let loose a blast of biotics to push the creatures back, for all the good that it did. The creatures were already getting back to their feet. One of them grabbed Ashley, screaming even louder as it grabbed her head and started to squeeze.

    "Shit!" Screaming right back, Ashley beat the husk to the ground. Leveling her rifle with the face of the husk, she opened fire. "What the hell is going on?"

    The husk didn't die.

    Roaring defiantly up at her, the electronics spider-webbed across and under the husks' skin started to glow brighter blue, before it erupted. It sent out a pulse of energy as its body disintegrated, knocking out the squads shields, an EMP.

    The tone of the entire fight changed. These creatures weren't just freaky, they were an actual threat and they had the advantage of numbers.

    Riley and Kaidan went back to back, fighting with their biotics to keep the husks at arms length where they were able to pick away at them with their rifles. Beside them, Ashley picked away at those rushing them from the side.

    None of them noticed a pair of husks coming up behind them. Before any of them could react, they grabbed Nirali and started to drag her towards the spikes.

    "Get off me!" Nirali screamed and shouted, struggling against them. Despite the fact that they were skin and bones, they were far stronger than the middle-aged woman, her futile struggles nothing against them. "Let me go!"

    The husks paid no mind to her, her struggles not even fazing them as they lifted her up into the air above the closest spike.

    "Help!" Nirali screamed, her voice cracking. She wanted to be home. She wanted to be in Samesh's arms. She wished she had never joined the Alliance in the first place.

    "Shit!" Riley shouted when she saw what the husks were about to do to Nirali. "Kaidan! Ashley! Suppressing fire!"

    Charging forward, Riley pushed her way past the grasping hands of the husks, trying her hardest to get to Nirali.

    Before she could get any closer, the husks shover her down as a spike shoved its way through her armor and straight through her stomach. It lifted her up into the sky, and Nirali screamed in pain as she clutched at the spike.

    Riley shot the two husks dead, blowing apart their heads. Before she could even try to get Nirali down, the rest of the husks rushed after her, screeching like banshees.

    "Get them off me!" She cried out, hunkering down. Anger coursed through her, and she berated herself mentally at letting another marine down. It had happened far too many times.

    For a moment, the screams of Akuze filled her mind, but she ruthlessly shoved them back. It wasn't the time. Break down later, girl. You've got a job to do.

    Kaidan and Ashley worked together, using a combination of biotics and gunfire to ever so slowly whittle down the number of husks.

    Seeing her opportunity to end it, Riley took charge. Her own biotics flaring, she tore through the last of the remaining husks. Using the dark energy coursing through her body, she tore off the head of the closest, sending it rocketing at the next hard enough to embed it into the husk's chest. Using the butt of her assault rifle, she beat the last of the husks down, slamming it down again and again until nothing was left but gore and wires.

    Riley stood, her hands shaking from the adrenaline.

    "Help me get her down!" She cried over her shoulder as she rushed to the spike holding Nirali up. Kaidan and Ashley joined her as she started to push. They groaned, and together, they managed to knock the spike over. Nirali coughed, letting out a weak moan. Against all odds, she was still alive.

    "Nirali!" Ashley cried.

    The three of them rushed down the length of the spike to Nirali's side. When they reached her, it became obvious that the spike was the only thing keeping her alive, though blood loss was going to take care of that in a few moments.

    "Oh Celestia." Riley shook her head, every bit of her medical training rushing through her head. She could already see that it wasn't going to do any good. She was beyond help. "Nirali, don't move."

    Opening her omni-tool, she activated her suits radio. "Joker, I need a medical evac now!"

    "P-Please…" Nirali grabbed Riley's hand, blood spilling from her mouth. "T-Tell m… my h-husband… I l-love him."

    "I will, Nirali." Riley murmured, holding her hand, watching as the light started to leave Nirali's eyes. "Just hang on Nirali. Everything's going to be okay."

    Pulling off Nirali's helmet, Riley ran a hand through the woman's hair as comfortingly as she could, humming softly. "It'll be alright. You'll see your husband again. Just look at me, and everything will be alright."

    Breathing out one last time, Nirali died.

    Silence hung over the three of them as they stared down at Nirali's still body.

    "We…" Ashley had never felt so tired before. It wasn't a physical thing, but she felt weary in ways she never had before. "We should get her off of that."

    Riley and Ashley stepped up to Nirali, while Kaidan got down and wrapped his hands around the length of the spike.

    "Ready?" Riley looked at first Ashley, then Kaidan. "Lift!"

    Kaidan lifted the spike, straining against the weight as Ashley and Riley pulled Nirali off. He dropped it down again as Ashley and Riley lowered Nirali down to the ground respectfully.

    "We'll pick her up after the mission," Riley told Ashley, standing up straight.

    Ashley looked like she wanted to put up a fight, balling her hands together into fists so hard that they started to hurt. With a sigh, she relaxed, her head dropping. "Yeah, okay."

    As much as she wanted to, Riley couldn't think of anything to say. Instead, she activated her radio, connecting to the Normandy. "Cancel that, Joker."

    A silence fell upon the camp.

    "H-Hello?"

    Riley, Kaidan, and Ashley looked up to find an aging woman peeking out from the ruined facade of a burned out building. They shifted, half raising their weapons.

    "Humans?" The woman sighed in relief, stepping out a little further from the building. "Thank god!"

    "Hurry! Close the door before they come back!" Another voice, masculine this time piped up from inside the building.

    Glancing back at Kaidan and Ashley, Riley lowered her rifle and approached the building.

    "Don't worry," she said, keeping her voice calm and even. "You're safe."

    "Thank you," the woman said sighing in relief. She leaned against the door frame of the building, shutting her eyes. "I don't… I can't… Everyone else is gone now. It's just us…"

    Riley shifted her weight, taking a step forward. She tried to be as non threatening as possible. "Can we come inside?"

    11. Chapter Ten - Eden Prime Part Two

    Chapter Ten - Eden Prime Part Two

    Constant, Eden Prime, Utopia System, Exodus Cluster

    April 6, 2183

    His rifle raised, Nihlus rushed down the hill towards the spaceport. Like most human colonies, it was a very piecemeal bit of construction. There were still pre-fabricated buildings everywhere, slowly being replaced by more permanent structures as the colonists worked to build their new homes. A large loading dock sat at the bottom of the hill, next to a small train station that looked like it led to the station proper. He kept his rifle raised, his breathing steady, careful as he listened for any sign of movement. He had yet to find anyone in the colony, and it was setting him on edge. Over three million colonists, and he had yet to see a single one.

    That wasn't right.

    Crouching low, he ducked behind the platform of the loading dock, seeing movement above him. Nihlus took a deep breath, steadying himself. Nothing was going right about this mission, and he was going to be having stern words with someone when he got back to the Citadel. Whether it was the Councilors, the head of the STG, or an unlucky bar patron would all be determined in the next few minutes.

    His own little moment of contemplation complete, Nihlus lunged out from behind the cover, rushing up the short flight of stairs in nearly a single bound.

    Reaching the top, Nihlus froze. His mandibles widened in surprise, and he couldn't help himself as he lowered his rifle ever so slightly at just who he saw standing there.

    Saren Arterius, the man who had trained him from the moment he had found him with the 43rd Marine Division, stood with his back turned to him. His armor was unmistakable, but it looked like it had seen a lot of battle since they had last seen each other.

    "Saren?" Did the Council not trust him? Saren was only ever sent for the worst of the worst situations, where survivors were not expected. For him to show up here… it didn't bode well for the human colony.

    Saren turned, and Nihlus took a step back in shock. The older turian looked different. His right arm had been replaced at some point in the last year with a mechanical appendage, covered in pipes and wires. A product from one of Saren's many investments on Noveria, he was sure.

    "Nihlus." Saren nodded his head in greeting, meeting his protege's eyes. He strode forward confidently, almost a foot taller than Nihlus himself.

    "This isn't your mission, Saren." Nihlus couldn't keep his curiosity out of his voice as he stepped forward to greet his mentor, shaking his hand in welcome appreciation. If things were going south, having Saren around would greatly increase his own squad's chances of getting off the planet alive. He lowered his rifle. "What are you doing here?"

    "The Council thought you could use some help on this one," Saren said, stepping forward to place a hand on Nihlus' shoulder. He could feel the younger turian relax ever so slightly at his touch, his breathing becoming a little easier. Perfect

    "I wasn't expecting to find the geth here," Nihlus admitted. He looked past the space-port, at the towering ship beyond. From what little he knew of the machine race, they hadn't advanced much further than the rest of the galaxy. To have been able to create a ship like that implied a lot of things that Nihlus wasn't very comfortable with. He stepped past Saren to get a better look. "This situation's bad."

    "Don't worry," Saren spoke, his voice reassuring. "I've got it under control."

    "Nooo!"

    A faint cry grew louder, but before Nihlus could react to it he found himself tackled to the ground.

    A shot rang out.

    A cry of pain.

    Rainbow Dash lay still on Nihlus' chest, blood starting to bubble out from the hole in her armor. Saren stood a few feet away, his pistol raised, a snarl on his face. Grabbing her, Nihlus rolled into cover, even as he struggled to believe what had just happened.

    He fired out from behind the crates he had rolled behind in Saren's general direction. "What in the name of the spirits are you doing, Saren?"

    Everything fell silent, and Nihlus took the chance to let his rifle cool.

    Leaning out from behind the shipping crates, Nihlus cursed to himself when he found that Saren was gone. He wouldn't be seeing him again, not if he didn't want him too. Instead of rushing after him, Nihlus turned his attention to Rainbow Dash.

    "Shepard!" He barked into his radio as he pulled out his medical kit. The Pegasus had been shot, and she was unconscious, all because she had saved his life. "Flying Officer Dash has been shot."

    "What?" Riley's confusion was evident in her voice over the radio, followed quickly by her anger. "Nihlus, what the hell happened?"

    "A colleague of mine, Saren Arterius, showed up and tried to kill me." It had gone just as badly as he had imagined, but in a way he had never predicted. "He's a Spectre."

    "What? Another Spectre? What happened Nihlus? You're not making any sense!"

    "I don't know!" Saren had always seemed the most level headed of all the Spectres that Nihlus knew. He could be cruel, he could be vindictive, but he was always logical. He never did anything without a purpose. "All I know is that Saren is behind this."

    "Are you still at the space port?" Riley asked.

    "Yes." Nihlus injected medi-gel directly through the hole in Rainbow's armor. The Pegasus moaned at the feeling of the needle, but she didn't wake up.

    "I'll be there in a minute." She growled, and Nihlus could sense her frustration through the radio. "Wait for me."

    "I'll be here, Shepard." He cut the radio off, turning his full attention to Rainbow Dash. She was going to be fine, he'd make sure of that.

    ###

    Archeologists Camp, Eden Prime, Utopia System

    Minutes Earlier

    Riley stepped into the burned out building, following after the older woman. Ashley followed after her, while Kaidan stayed just outside, keeping a wary eye out for anyone or anything approaching them. Now that they were inside, Riley saw the man who must have been nervously hiding behind the older woman. He was just beginning to bald, his dark hair shaved close to his head. His eyes darted everywhere but Riley and Ashley.

    "You're Dr. Warren!" Ashley said, recognizing the woman for the first time. The building didn't have any working lights, and the light that was leaking in came from the open door. Riley was surprised that Ashley was even able to make out who the woman was. "You were in charge of the excavation!"

    "Do you know what happened to beacon?" Riley asked. If she knew, then maybe they could salvage this mission. Losing two marines was already too much.

    "It was moved to the spaceport this morning." Holding her left arm, Dr. Warren sighed and sat down on an overturned crate. She gestured at the man beside her. "Manuel and I stayed behind to help pack up the camp. When the attack came, the marines held off those mechs long enough for us to hide." Guilt and sadness overtaking her, Dr. Warren took her head in her hands. When she spoke again, her voice was full of regret and shame. "They gave their lives to save us."

    "No one is safe!" Manuel started to pace back and forth, wringing his hands together with his gaze firmly planted on the floor before him. His hands shook ever so slightly. "The age of humanity is ended. Soon, only ruin and corpses will remain."

    "What's wrong with him?" Riley asked, looking to Dr. Warren for help. He paid no mind to her question, continuing on back and forth, back and forth.

    "He's always been a little unstable," Dr. Warren said, watching her colleague with a sad frown. "Genius and madness are just two sides of the same coin, but ever since we unearthed the beacon…"

    "The dreamer has awoken!" Manuel shouted, grabbing his head. "The stars are right. World to world will be plucked from the sky, and nothing you do will stop it!"

    Staring at him for a moment, Riley raised an eyebrow. She had bigger things to deal with. Riley glanced over her shoulder at Ashley. "Williams, can you take us to the airport?"

    "Yes, ma'am." With a quick nod, Ashley lifted her rifle.

    "Good. Let's move." Riley and Ashley started to leave the burned out building, but Manuel darted forward and grabbed the Commander's shoulders.

    "You have to listen!" He begged, his eyes wide and wild. "They know who you are. Find them, or the fires will burn. Find them!"

    "Manuel!" Dr. Warren jumped up and pulled Manuel off of Riley. She offered an apologetic look to the two women. "I'm really sorry. He's perfectly safe, but we lost his meds in the attack."

    "Right…" Narrowing her eyes, Riley watched Manuel as she backed away slowly. There was something about him that creeped her out, and she just wanted to get as far away from him as quickly as possible. Following after Ashley, they left the building.

    "Shepard!" The radios crackled to life, and Nihlus' worried voice came over. "Flying Officer Dash has been shot."

    "What?" That wasn't supposed to happen. Worry flooded Riley, and all of the horrible situations that could have happened ran through her mind. She couldn't help but shout back into the radio, anger building inside her. "Nihlus, what the hell happened?"

    "A colleague of mine, Saren Arterius, showed up and tried to kill me. He's a Spectre."

    "What?" Another Spectre? What was happening. First the geth, and now this? "Another Spectre? What happened Nihlus, you're not making any sense!"

    "I don't know! All I know is that Saren is behind this."

    "Are you still at the space port?" Riley asked, frowning.

    "Yes," was Nihlus simple answer.

    "We'll be there in a minute. Wait for us!" Riley ordered, motioning for Kaidan and Ashley to start moving.

    "I'll be here, Shepard."

    The communications ended.

    "Shit." Shaking her head, Riley started to run. "Come on."

    It only took a few minutes for them to reach the space-port, coming to the top of a hill overlooking the entire complex. Broken geth bodies were strewn everywhere (Nihlus' work, Riley assumed), along with more of those husk creatures.

    Rushing down the hill, Nihlus met them at the stairs up to the loading dock. "Shepard."

    "Nihlus." Riley glared at him.

    Before she could say anything, a horn blared. It shook the earth, seeming to rattle their very souls.

    Looking up, the four of them watched as the massive ship beyond the spaceport lifted off the ground, flying back up to space.

    "Look at the size of it!" Ashley shouted, wondering at how the ship even managed to work. The amount of element zero needed to keep it from tearing itself to shreds the moment it even started to move.

    "It must be Saren's ship," Nihlus said as the ship left their sight.

    "Where's Rainbow?" Her glare unabated, Riley tapped her foot impatiently.

    "She's over here." Nihlus led Riley, Ashley, and Kaidan behind the large shipping crate that he had dragged her behind. Sure enough, Rainbow Dash was lying on her back, a small inflatable pillow under her head. She was drifting in and out of consciousness, her eyes wide and her breathing heavy.

    "Hey… you," Rainbow slurred as she looked over at Riley, a dopey grin on her face when she caught sight of her sister. Riley immediately realized that her little sister was probably up to her eyeballs in drugs. "You pretty… sister."

    "Oh Celestia." Riley massaged her forehead. "Mom's going to kill me."

    "That's not very nice," Rainbow reached out a hoof towards Riley, squinting as if she was trying to focus on something a mile away. Her lower lip quivered, and tears filled her eyes. "Mom shouldn't kill you… I'd miss you."

    "Wasn't being literal there, Dash." Shaking her head, Riley turned to Ashley and Kaidan, blushing at her little sister's words. Kaidan looked like he was trying not to outright laugh, while Ashley was looking anywhere but them, not sure how to take it.

    "Wha… Whaz' literal…" Rainbow started to snore, a little pouty sound that was completely out of character with her tough pony persona.

    "Only you, Dash." Riley rolled her eyes. She looked at Nihlus, an eyebrow raised. "What drugs did you give her?"

    "Morphine." Nihlus shrugged.

    Before she could do anything else, there was a noise from behind a fallen stack of cargo crates. The four awake warriors were instantly on guard, raising their rifles and pointing them in the direction of the noise.

    "Come out where we can see you!" Nihlus called out, his voice even and steady.

    A second passed in silence, and they grew tense, fingers hovering over triggers.

    A cough. "Wait!"

    A pair of hands raised out from behind the crates, followed by the dock worker they belonged too, peering terrified out from his cover. "Don't— Don't shoot! I'm one of you! I'm human."

    "Why were you hiding?" Watching the dock worker carefully, Riley's voice was hard, a rod of iron backing her up.

    "Why aren't you dead like the others?" Nihlus narrowed his eyes, watching the worker curiously.

    "I…" The worker choked back a sob. "I'm sorry. I was hiding from those creatures. My name's Powell, and I saw everything that happened." He cupped a hand over his mouth, doubling over as he struggled to keep himself together. "Oh god! He just tried to kill you!"

    "Did you see where he went?" Nihlus asked, taking a step forward.

    "He jumped on the cargo train and headed over to the other platform." Powell pointed towards the train, leaning forward against the crates. His eyes widened in realization. "He's probably going after the beacon!"

    Shaking his head, Powell sunk down to the ground until just his head was visible over the top of the crates. "I knew that beacon was trouble. Everything's gone to hell since we found it. First that damn ship showed up, and then the attack. They killed everyone. Everyone! If I hadn't been behind the creates, I'd be dead too!"

    "How come you're the only who survived?" Riley asked the question that was niggling at the back of all of their minds. "Why didn't anyone else try to hide with you?"

    "They never had a chance." Powell hung his head, having to speak through his sobs. "I… I was already behind the crates when the attack started."

    "Wait a minute." Kaidan eyed Powell like the scum he was. "You were hiding behind the crates before the attack?"

    "I… sometimes I need a nap to get through my shift," Powell admitted, hiccuping around his tears. "I sneak off behind the crates to grab some shut-eye where the supervisor can't find me."

    "You survived because you were lazy?" Ashley shouted in outrage, rushing forward to attack him. Kaidan grabbed her, holding her back.

    "Forget him, Ashley," Kaidan said. "He's not worth it."

    "Yeah…" Ashley glared, but relented. "You're right."

    "We need to find that beacon before it's too late," Riley said, turning to Nihlus.

    "The cargo train, that's where the other turian went," Powell said, pointing. He tried to push himself up but failed. Instead, he started to crawl away. "I… I can't stay here. I need to get away from all this."

    "Alenko," Nihlus said, turning his attention to Kaidan. "Stay with Flying Officer Dash. Make sure nothing happens to her."

    "Yes, sir." With a salute, Kaidan settled down next to Rainbow, his back against the shipping crate. Neither the geth or the husks were going to get to her, not when he was watching over her.

    "Shepard." He turned to Ashley, pausing when he realized he didn't know her name. "… Marine, follow me. We're going after Saren."

    Together, the three of them headed towards the cargo train.

    "Hey!"

    Kaidan blinked in surprise as Rainbow woke up again, looking up at him with accusing eyes. "Yes?"

    "When did you get a mustache?" Squinting her eyes, Rainbow leaned forward.

    "What?"

    "Your mustache escaped."

    "I've never had a mustache."

    "Ish' okay mustache man. I shall help you retrieve your mustac…" Once again, she passed out, much to Kaidan's relief.

    ###

    Riley, Nihlus, and Ashley jogged down the stairs towards the cargo train just in time to be shot at by a squad of geth who had stayed behind.

    They scattered, opening fire on the geth as they rushed for cover. The three of them hid behind whatever was available, keeping up a constant hail of bullets heading down towards the geth.

    "Shepard, cover me!" Seeing his opportunity, Nihlus took it. He rolled out of cover and rushed down the length of the station, shooting a geth soldier dead with a shot right through its optics.

    Riley and Ashley covered Nihlus, peppering the areas around the turian with as much gunfire as they could.

    Riley grumbled, catching sight of an opportunity. With wonderful precision, she shot at a pile of several high-pressure canisters. They ignited and exploded, shredding several of the geth standing nearby. The two women took the chance to rush forward and join Nihlus on the lower level before the geth could push forward again. "I'm really beginning to hate the geth."

    "It took you this long?" Nihlus asked, laughing.

    Ignoring him, Riley rushed out of cover, firing at the lone remaining geth. It towered over her, a good twelve feet tall, but that didn't stop her. Ducking under its massive gun, Riley leaped up with a roar. Grabbing its arm, she scrambled up the geth's armor plates until she was clinging to its back.

    Pulling out a massive combat knife, she slammed it through the geth's neck. The massive mech immediately started jerking, sparks flying everywhere. Grabbing the hilt of her knife, she jerked the blade around the inside of the neck, trying to destroy as much of its electronics as possible.

    With a pitiful chirp of electronic noise, the geth fell to its knees, giving out. Riley rode it all the way down.

    "Right," Ashley said as she and Nihlus came out from behind the cover. She stared at Ashley with wide eyes, more than a little terrified by the woman. "Remind me to never get on your bad side."

    "Ah." Riley shook her head, snapping her fingers. "I'm a very cuddly woman."

    The fact that she was covered in the coolant of the dead geth, dripping its white blood, did everything to bely her words.

    "No time to stop," Nihlus broke in. He pushed past them to step onto the sole train remaining at the station. "We need to keep moving."

    Riley and Ashley joined him, and with a short button push the train started, racing towards the other end of the spaceport. In less than a minute, the train had travelled the mile that separated the cargo port from the space port proper. Together, they rushed up the stairs to the main level, and across the tracks they watched as a group of geth lowered a large, multi-ton bomb to the ground.

    "They're trying to destroy the spaceport!" Nihlus realized, hoping against hope that the bomb wasn't nuclear.

    "Well, we better stop them then," Riley retorted, rolling her eyes.

    Together, they rushed across the bridge above the tracks to get to the other side. The geth saw them and immediately moved to stop them.

    Unlike the last fight, there weren't very many geth left. They fought sloppy, their gunfire going wild more often than not, much unlike the scarily precise shots that were flying towards them during the beginning of the mission. It didn't take Riley, Nihlus, and Ashley much time at all to destroy them.

    They stopped in front of the bomb, staring down at it.

    "I'm good," Nihlus said with a rumble, "but I have no clue how to disarm a…"

    His eyes widened when he realized just what type of bomb he was looking at. It was much, much worse than the nuclear device he was fearing. "That's salarian made! It's powerful enough to make this continent unlivable for the next one-hundred thousand years."

    "I'm a marine, not a bomb-tech," Riley said, shaking her head.

    "Let me try." Cracking her knuckles, Ashley stepped forward.

    "You know how to disarm this?" Nihlus asked. Just what did they teach marines in the Alliance.

    "Whether I do or not, does it matter?" Ashley didn't see much point in telling them that she dabbled around with electronics. "We're dead if I don't try."

    "Fair enough." Nihlus nodded, stepping aside.

    "Try not to breathe funny." Pulling off her helmet and gloves, Ashley got down on her knees and began to dismantle the panel in front of her.

    Nihlus and Riley took a collective step backwards, away from Ashley and the bomb. Turning around, they keep a watch for any lingering geth or husks that might be trying to sneak up on them. If Ashley failed… it didn't really matter which way they were facing.

    A minute passed down. All three of them could feel an invisible timer ticking down, the time left completely unknown.

    "So…" Nihlus drawled, bouncing uneasily on his feet. "How's it going?"

    "We're not dead yet, are we?" Ashley laughed, shaking her head.

    Glancing at Riley, Nihlus frowned and gestured with his head at Ashley. "Where did you find her?"

    "She found us."

    "Hmm." Nihlus hummed.

    "I… I think I got it." Standing, Ashley backed away from the bomb, holding her hands up.

    "You think?" Riley asked, feeling decidedly unhappy with that answer.

    "We'll know in a few minutes either way," Ashley said with a shrug.

    "You are extremely comforting, Williams."

    "I try, ma'am." Ashley shot a toothy grin at Riley, picking up her rifle from the ground.

    "Let's find the beacon, if Saren hasn't already taken off with it," Nihlus said, wanting to get as far away from the bomb as possible, disarmed or not.

    "We better hope not." That would not look good on Riley's report.

    The three of them moved forward.

    It wasn't hard to find the beacon. It was just behind the wall, sitting overlooking a plateau where the ungodly ship used to rest. A massive burn scarred the earth, caused by the ship Riley couldn't help but think. The arcologies were on the brink of collapsing in on themselves. The ship had caused massive damage that would take decades for the colony to recover from.

    Riley, Nihlus, and Ashley walked forward, taking in the beacon. It glowed a sickly, unholy looking green, seeming to pulse every so often though not in any predictable way. The three of them slowed as they neared it. The beacon pulsed again, and they could feel something in the air, a strange weight that they couldn't quite place their fingers on.

    Pausing for a moment, Riley activated the radio. "Normandy, the beacon is secure, but we have casualties. We need immediate evac."

    Nihlus started walking towards the beacon, drawn towards it. It almost seemed to him as if there was a faint voice calling to him, speaking a language he had never heard before.

    "This is amazing!" Ashley followed behind Nihlus, noticing none of his awe at the beacon. "Actual working Prothean technology. Unbelievable! It wasn't doing anything like that when they dug it up. Something must have activated it…"

    She shook her head, marveling at just how amazing the protheans had been. "It's been under out feet the whole time… God, you have to wonder what else is buried down there."

    "Roger that, Normandy." Riley ended talking with Spitfire. "Standing by."

    Leaning forward, the beacon called to Nihlus and he obeyed. It pulsed, and it started to drag the turian forward into its clutching glow.

    "Nihlus!" Noticing the turians problem, Riley pushed past Ashley and ran towards him. Grabbing him, she was pulled up into the air with him. The power of the beacon was almost too much for her, but with a great cry, she twisted her muscles and tossed the Spectre out of the way. The beacon pulsed angrily, wrapping her in its power and lifting her higher. She struggled uselessly, too weak to fight against the might of the protheans.

    "Shepard!" Ashley cried, but her voice sounded faint to Riley, like she was submerged in water.

    With a brilliant pulse, the beacon smashed through Riley's head, pulling her consciousness away from her body.

    Silence.

    Darkness surrounded her. Looking up, Riley found the Citadel hanging above her, the ward arms burning.

    Protheans died by the billions around her, screaming in terror as their flesh wilted from their bodies.

    Billions and Trillions of stars disappeared from the night sky, until all that was left was darkness.

    The Mass Relays were all that were left, silently spinning in the forever void.

    The ship, surrounded by flame, reached out for her.

    A ROAR shook her to her very core as the ocean crashed over her, pulling her into the deep and the cold.

    Everything went black…

    12. Chapter Eleven - To the Citadel

    Chapter Eleven - To The Citadel

    Solar One, Arcturus Relay, Arcturus Stream

    April 8, 2183

    There were some perks that came along with being the head pilot of Princess Celestia's ships. The one that Honey Dawn loved the most was her own stateroom, which she shared with the rest of her tiny herd. She had met Carmel Breeze when she was just entering flight school with the wonderbolts, and the two mares had hit it off nearly instantly. Carmel lived down the road from the flight school, the ships the Wonderbolts practiced with being far too heavy for their main facility in Cloudsdale to support, and the two of them often spent time in Carmel's apartment. Carmel Breeze lived for cooking, and she loved to show off every new skill she learned from her own school to Honey. It was only a matter of time really until they both realized that they had feelings for each other and they both fell hooves over head in love with each other.

    Carmel Breeze was the one who had actually met Lucky Arrow. Honey Dawn had been training with the Wonderbolts at the time, getting her certification in zero-gravity training. An enthusiastic engineer, Lucky Arrow was a young stallion working for one of the many shipyard startups that had sprung up around Canterlot. He spent his mornings working at one of the tables that Carmel waitressed at, and the two had hit it off. As soon as Honey Dawn had returned, she found herself just as enamored with the brilliant stallion as Carmel was. It was only natural that they offered him a place in their little herd.

    They grew together, rising through their own respective careers, until a Royal Emissary approached them with an offer. At the bequest of Princess Celestia, the Alicorn had offered the small herd positions on her newly constructed ship. They had jumped at such an opportunity, and they hadn't had a need to regret it since.

    It was moments like this where they were as close as they possibly could be, limbs tangled around each other in bed, that the wonders of working together on the same ship. Honey Dawn, and Carmel Breeze sandwiched Lucky Arrow, relaxing in the warm afterglow of their love. They had spent their years on the ship slowly making their suite as much their own as possible. The larger bed, the sturdy and expensive furniture, and the little trinkets and souvenirs gathered from across the galaxy made the large suit their own.

    "Mmm…" Honey Dawn practically purred, fluttering her wings. "That was good."

    "That it was." Lucky Arrow agreed, rubbing a hoof up and down her foreleg. He wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to be a Pegasus. Wings seemed so useful, and they had so much potential in everyday life, and that wasn't even including how much fun they could be in the bedroom. Still, he had a horn, so it wasn't all bad.

    "I love you." Nuzzling forward, Carmel Breeze kissed Lucky Arrow with a lingering hint of the passion they had just experienced. Pushing herself up on her forehooves, she leaned over Lucky Arrow to kiss Honey. The Pegasus eagerly rose up to meet her, and they giggled into each other's mouths. "And I love you too."

    Falling back into her place on Lucky Arrow's right side, she let out a contented sigh, wiggling up against him for warmth. They were a happy herd, madly in love, with the best jobs in the galaxy. It couldn't get any better than this.

    The moment was ruined when Lucky's stomach rumbled hungrily. He looked sheepishly at Carmel. "What's on the menu for breakfast?"

    "Oh Celestia…" Carmel frowned, struggling to remember as hormones as dopamine still fogged her mind. She put her hooves to her temples, massaging to try and clear her head. "I believe it's… Huevos Rancheros… maybe. Don't take my word for it."

    "Sounds wonderful." Lucky Arrow grinned. Any type of food sounded wonderful, and the fact that it was coming from Carmel's marvelous hooves made it even better. Leaning over, he kissed her tenderly. "And I'm sure that you'll make it taste divine, just like you always do."

    They lapsed into silence, just enjoying each others company.

    "What time is it?" Honey Dawn asked, thoughts of beginning the day starting to run through her head. She didn't want to get out of bed, but she wasn't going to have a choice. That was what happened when you were a helmsman of Celestia's private ship, now her young protege's.

    Carmel Breeze looked over at the clock on her side of the bed. She groaned when she saw it, rolling her eyes. "Too damn early. We all need to get up soon."

    All three of them groaned. Getting out of bed was literally the last thing on their minds, especially after such a great wake up. Two hours of bliss and happiness, and now it was time to get to work… well, maybe they could wait a few more minutes.

    "What do you think of Twilight Sparkle," Lucky Arrow asked after a moment of silence.

    "Why do you ask?" Honey Dawn looked over at Lucky Arrow, an eyebrow raised.

    "Just curious, I guess." Lucky shrugged, running a hoof up and down Honey's foreleg. "It's a lot of pressure to put on a pony, especially one as young as her."

    "The Princesses certainly don't seem to think so," Carmel noted, taking a giant yawn. "Who are we to say otherwise?"

    "Whatever." Honey Dawn rolled out of bed. She stretched, spreading her wings out wide, sighing in relief at the cracking of her bones as she did so, settling them back against her side. "I'm feeling way too sticky. I'm going to take a shower. If you want to join me…"

    She trotted towards the shower, shooting the two of them a sultry look over her shoulder. "I certainly wouldn't complain."

    Lucky Arrow and Carmel Breeze looked at each other and grinned before rolling out of bed and following after their wife.

    Sometimes the perks of being at the top meant you could show up a little late to your shift.

    ###

    Twilight Sparkle and Gilda lay in the massive bed of the Royal Suite. Twilight could honestly say that she had never had a better night's sleep, and she had to wonder why her own mattress in her tower didn't even come close to the comfort that was afforded Celestia.

    Gilda was still asleep, and Twilight just watched her, an easy smile on her muzzle. It wasn't often that Gilda had a chance to be at peace since her return to Equestria, and Twilight treasured every moment that it happened. They were precious, and sadly few in occurrence.

    Glancing over at the clock, the little timepiece lit up when it sensed her gaze, the only light in the dark room. It was definitely past time that they get up, and Twilight regretted that she would have to wake up her marefriend from her rest. Still, they had important things to do and prepare for. Leaning forward, she nuzzled Gilda's cheek, trailing soft kisses up and down her neck.

    "Gilda…" Twilight whispered, hoping to bring the griffin to a slow awakening. "Gilda, it's time to wake up."

    "No…" Gilda groaned, clacking her beak. With a claw, she pushed Twilight away and then rolled over, covering her face with her claws.

    "Come on!" Twilight giggled. She crawled over Gilda's side, burrowing between Gilda's forelegs until they were beak to muzzle. "We need to get ready. We're going to be at the Citadel soon."

    "The Citadel can buck itself," she mumbled, her eyes bleary as she looked at Twilight. "I wanna' sleep."

    Laughing, Twilight rolled out of Gilda's grasp and out of bed. Igniting her horn, she lifted Gilda off the mattress. Immediately, the griffin squawked in alarm, her eyes shooting open in panic as she flew through through air behind Twilight.

    "Oh, you're fine," Twilight said, rolling her eyes. "Stop being such a chick. It's time to wake up."

    "I was sleeping." Realizing what was happening, Gilda crossed her forelegs and let her hindlegs drag behind her, glaring at Twilight.

    "And now you aren't!" Twilight chirped, humming happily to herself.

    "Yeah, and who's fault is that?" Gilda yawned, rolling her neck. "You couldn't at least have given me a better wake up call?"

    "I tried." Twilight shrugged, setting Gilda tenderly down on the floor on all four of her legs, only canceling her magic when she was sure that the griffin was ready. "Then you ignored me, so I had to take desperate measures."

    "I don't like your desperate measures." Gilda refused to meet Twilight's eyes as the smaller pony trotted to her side, kissing her cheek.

    "I never said you were supposed to," she said with a tiny giggle.

    Gilda just groaned. She stomped over to the dresser. Opening it with one of her claws, she pulled out a baggy green hoody with a printed picture of Daring Do, merchandising from the upcoming first film. Needless to say, both Gilda and Twilight were wildly looking forward to it. Twilight had taken Gilda through the entire book series, and they were both fans.

    Pulling the hoody on, she pulled the hoody over her head, reveling for a moment in the fact that she could wear whatever she wanted without the approval of a master.

    "It's too early." She glared at Twilight. "I need coffee."

    "Then you're in luck!" Twilight turned the lights of the room on, and she regretted it instantly, squinting her eyes at the sudden brightness. Gilda hissed, covering her eyes with a claw. "The kitchen should be open by now."

    "Good." Gilda grunted, blindly making her way towards the doors on three legs. She stomped out of the room, glowering at Twilight's giggles as struggled with the door, still covering her eyes. Somehow, they managed to make it to the dining room, which thankfully was nowhere near as bright as their bedroom had been.

    Gilda slumped down into a seat at the table closest to the kitchen. The dining room had been built to hold far more people, with all of the room that the Princess needed to throw parties for all of the dignitaries and VIPs of wherever she was visiting. Needless to say, the dining room was not fulfilling its purpose at the moment, with only Gilda and Twilight present for their meals.

    As Twilight trotted after Gilda, taking her seat next to her, a young unicorn mare, Tiny Berry, burst from the kitchen and trotted up to the table. She had a perky and cheery smile on her face. The moment that Gilda saw her, she groaned and dropped her head down onto the table.

    "Good morning!" Tiny Berry chirped, almost sound like a gryphon herself. She had been serving the entire crew their meals, and was quickly becoming a constant presence on the ship. Her enthusiasm was infectious, at least for most.

    Gilda was completely immune.

    "Good morning, Berry." Twilight greeted. "What's on the menu today?"

    "Carmel Breeze is making a wonderful Huervos Rancheros for breakfast." She did a little trot in place, ending the little flourish of her forehoof.

    "That sounds good." Twilight was eager to eat, her belly beginning to protest hungrily as Tiny Berry filled two cups with ice cold water and set them before the two of them.

    Gilda just grumbled into the table.

    "I'm sorry, Ms. Blackwing," Tiny Berry said. "I didn't quite hear you."

    Gilda rolled her head over so she could look at Berry without lifting her head up. "Bring me two."

    "I can most certainly do that!" Tiny Berry hopped away back to the kitchen, humming to herself.

    "She's too damn cheerful." Gilda grumbled, her eyes half-lidded. "I need coffee."

    "You're too grumpy." Taking a sip of water, Twilight bumped Gilda's shoulder with her hoof.

    "Never!" Gilda protested, shaking a claw at Twilight. She pushed up the sleeves of her hoody, playing with the drawstring.

    Sitting there, they lapsed into silence for a moment. Gilda rolled the drawstring around one of her claws idly, looking up to find Twilight chewing on her lip, looking conflicted over something.

    Opening her mouth, Twilight started to say something but it died in her throat. She choked, coughing and taking a deep gulp of her water to sooth her throat. Blushing, she looked at Gilda and gave her an embarrassed smile, her ears flat against her head.

    "You alright there?"

    "Yeah," Twilight coughed out. She beat her chest with her hoof for a moment until she was better. She was silent for several long moments, before trying again. "How…"

    She snapped her mouth shut, chewing on her lip.

    "What?" Gilda asked, ready to move the conversation along.

    "It's nothing," Twilight said blushing, shaking her head.

    "What?" She rolled her eyes. She had noticed that this was something that Twilight did sometimes. She would get too flustered and just try to move past whatever it was that she wanted to ask. You had to sometimes just push a little harder for her to spit out what she had wanted to ask. "Come on. Ask your question."

    Twilight sighed, scowling, before scooching her chair closer to Gilda's. She put a hoof on one of Gilda's claws, meeting her gaze. Taking a deep breath, she asked her question. "Are you alright with returning to the Citadel?"

    Gilda ducked her head. It was a valid question. The last time that she had been on the Citadel, she had gone through one of the most emotionally trying times in her life. She tapped her claws against the table nervously.

    "I'm… I'm fine." She shrugged, not really sure whether she believed that or not.

    "It's okay if you're not Gilda." Twilight reassured her. "It's a big step. You don't ever have to step out of the ship if you don't want to."

    "I'm fine." Taking a deep breath, Gilda sat up, resting her head on Twilight's shoulder. "I'll be fine."

    "Are you sure?"

    "Yeah." Gilda gave a short nod. "Like ya' said. It's a big step." She nuzzled against Twilight, letting herself relax. "It's a step I need to take. I need to do this if I'm ever going to be okay with myself."

    "I'll be there with you the entire time," Twilight murmured, trying her best to reassure her.

    "Thanks." Gilda clacked her beak and sat up straight in her own chair. "I… I don't know what I'd do without you."

    "You'd be strong, and you'd be just fine." Twilight gave a confident nod of her head before finishing off the rest of her water. "You're a strong griffin, and you're the one who's making the choices to get better. Your parents are proud of you. Celestia is proud of you."

    Twilight leaned forward and laid a kiss on Gilda's beak. "And I'm proud of you! You're going to show the galaxy what you can do."

    Tiny Berry burst out from the kitchen, Spike following after her with a plate full of food in his claws. Tiny Berry bounced over to them, two plates floating after her in her magic.

    "Hey Twilight!" Spike waved with his free hand, speaking around a mouthful of food. He slid into a seat next to Gilda, gorging himself on his breakfast as Tiny Berry set her two plates in front of Twilight and Gilda.

    "Good morning, Spike." Twilight gave him a little wave. "How did you sleep?"

    "Like a…" He paused, his face scrunching up in distaste at what he realized he almost said.

    "You are a baby dragon, Spike. No shame there." Twilight giggled.

    "Enjoy" She chirped.

    "Thank you," Twilight said.

    "Yeah, thanks." Gilda mumbled, already picking up her fork with a claw to start eating.

    Tiny Berry gave a satisfied nod before bouncing away, humming to herself.

    "This is Colonel Honey Dawn." The hidden speakers in the dining room rang out clearly. "We are just about to make the jump through the Arcturus Relay. We'll be docking at the Citadel in about an hour."

    "Brace for jump." Little Hoof's voice came from the speakers. One of Solar One's copilots, he had served with Honey Dawn for the five years since his graduation from the Wonderbolt's academy. "5… 4… 3… 2… 1. Mark."

    There was an ever so slight judder throughout the entirety of the ship, barely noticeable to anyone who wasn't specifically paying attention to it. Twilight noticed it, and nodded to herself in appreciation of the smooth flight. Some pilots were nowhere near as good.

    "We are now in the Serpent Nebula." Honey Dawn said.

    ###

    Presidium, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    Ponies were among the shortest of all of the Citadel races, a trait that they shared with the much less adept Volus. Unlike the volus, ponies were highly adaptable with talents that included far more than banking. The ability to breath oxygen was also a plus. The volus breathed an ammonia mixture that required them to wear specialized suits outside of their few worlds.

    None of this was going through Sweetie Belle's mind as she trotted after her sister, looking around wide eyed at the Presidium surrounding her. All of the other races towered over her, and all she really had was an amazing view of everyone's knees. She had to crane her head back to see anything, while also keeping her sister's bobbing violet tail and elegant dress in view. She had a feeling that getting lost here was not the best idea, and she would be ground for at least a week! Being stuck in their hotel room for that long was sure to make her go mad. She slipped between a tall turian's legs, squeaking an apology over her shoulder, as she struggled to keep up with her sister's excited trot.

    "Here we are, Sweetie Belle."

    Before Sweetie could react, she found her muzzle bumping right into her sister's rear and she plopped backwards onto the ground. "We're here?"

    Turning to address her little sister, Rarity paused when she found her sitting on the ground. With her magic, she lifted her off the ground and set her on all four of her hooves. "What are you doing the ground, Sweetie? You're going to ruin your dress."

    "Yeah." Sweetie rolled her eyes, glaring back at the monstrosity that Rarity had forced her to wear. Who needed clothes anyway? It's not like she had to wear anything on Equestria, but that didn't matter to Rarity. Whenever they traveled off of Equestria, Rarity insisted that they wear clothes. "That would be such a shame."

    "I'm glad you recognize that, Sweetie Belle," Rarity said, completely missing the sarcasm in her sister's voice. "Now come along. We don't want to keep the Ambassador waiting."

    Sweeping her little sister along after her, Rarity entered the Equestrian Embassy with the same flair that she always exuded. She was definitely a vision with a gleaming white coat and a shining purple mane, curled just so, a deceptively simple dress completing her look.

    "Miss Rarity, welcome." From behind his desk, the Ambassador's secretary stood. He recognized her from the scheduled visitor list. "We've been expecting you."

    "Thank you." Sweetie Belle watched as Rarity deigned to give the secretary a small smile, bowing her head in that way she did whenever she wanted to wrap somepony around her hooves. "I'm only glad to help the Ambassador."

    "Please, go on in." The secretary pressed a hidden button on his desk, unlocking the door behind him that led inside to the Embassy proper. He bowed his head to Rarity, winking at Sweetie Belle. "Ambassador Blueblood is waiting inside."

    "Thank you very much." Glancing down at Sweetie Belle, Rarity found her taking in the impressive Royal Guards lining the entrance in their golden armor and polished battle harnesses. Best to get her out here as fast as possible. "Come, Sweetie Belle. We must not keep a gentle stallion waiting."

    Rolling her eyes, Sweetie Belle followed after Rarity. She took one last look over her shoulder at the guards. Their armor looked far cooler to wear than Rarity's stupid dresses, and she could just imagine herself in a gleaming set, standing proudly while millions cheered for her.

    Her dreams of being a hero quickly disappeared as Sweetie Belle followed Rarity deeper into the embassy and the guards passed out of her sight. The little filly had to instead turn her attention to other things. A few ponies were lingering in the hall, but none of them were of any interest to Sweetie. They were dressed in the same boring clothes that Rarity loved so much. The Embassy itself was not much better.

    Much like the rest of the Presidium, the Embassy was made of the same strange materials as the rest of the Citadel, extremely hard to classify and work with. The keepers however, crafted the material with ease. It wasn't uncommon for new buildings to appear overnight, or for offices to be completely remodeled while the workers were absent. It had even happened a few times to the Equestrian Embassy.

    Rarity led Sweetie Belle to a large office door at the end of the hall, which was simply marked: Ambassador Blueblood. As they walked up to it, sensors hidden in the walls caught their movement, scanned their identification, queried the logs, and as soon as the query came back positive, the door slid open. The entire process took less than a second to occur, and they didn't notice.

    "Miss Rarity!" Blueblood was waiting in his office, just to the side of his office. A warm smile on his face, he gave a welcoming bow as the door to his office opened and Rarity and Sweetie Belle entered. "I can't thank you enough for coming to do this."

    "Please, think nothing of it, Ambassador." Rarity smiled demurely, giving a little half curtsey to the tall, handsome stallion. "I am always glad to be of help to Equestria."

    "Really, Miss Rarity," Blueblood said. "You are far too kind."

    Rarity waved away his thanks, a humble but proud look on her face.

    "And who is this?" Blueblood accepted Rarity's desire to move on, and instead turned his attention to the little white filly standing next to her. He offered her a smile, and she gave one right back.

    "I'm Sweetie Belle!" She chirped, her voice cracking in the most adorable way. The enthusiasm with which she introduced herself made her curled mane bounce right along with her movement.

    "Well, hello Sweetie Belle." He laughed. It was so rare to find such enthusiasm and innocence with the beings that he spent so much of his time around. It was refreshing, and he gave her a little bow in thanks. "I'm Ambassador Blueblood."

    "What's an A-Ambassadoor?" Sweetie Belle's muzzle scrunched as she tried out the unfamiliar word.

    "Ambassador, Sweetie Belle," Rarity corrected. Sweetie wasn't able to resist the urge to glare at her and her prim and proper voice. She was going to figure it out all on her own. There wasn't any need for Rarity to correct her. She was a smart filly, after all.

    "It means that I'm Equestria's representative on the Citadel," Blueblood said, stepping in before sibling rivalry could explode in his office.

    "Repra…" Sweetie's muzzle scrunched again and she dropped back onto her haunches. What was it with big words she didn't know all attacking her at once today? "Repra…"

    "Representative." Rarity said, apparently unaffected by Sweetie's earlier glare. "It means that he is—"

    "It means that I speak for the Princesses in front of the Councilors." Blueblood interrupted Rarity.

    "Oh." Sweetie Belle had already grown bored of the conversation. She wanted to go back out into the Presidium and explore! It was far more interesting out there.

    "Are you hungry, Sweetie Belle?" Noticing the wanderlust in the filly's eyes, Blueblood took action.

    "A little." Sweetie shrugged.

    "There is a rather marvelous cake in the kitchens. One of my secretaries had a birthday yesterday, and there's still some leftover." Glancing at Rarity first to make sure that it was okay, Blueblood offered another option to filly, instead of making her wait for the two of them to be done. "If you want, my assistant could get you a slice."

    "Really?" Perking up, Sweetie Belle turned to Rarity. "Can I, Rarity?"

    "Only one slice, Sweetie Belle." Rarity turned a warning eye to her sister, making sure the exuberant filly was listening. "You don't want to ruin your appetite."

    "Daisy, could you come to my office please?" Opening his omni-tool, Blueblood called for his assistant. He laughed as Sweetie Belle started to hop eagerly on her hooves.

    It only took a moment for Daisy to enter Blueblood's office. A young earth pony mare, she was dressed in a simple business suit. "Ambassador."

    "Daisy, could you please take Sweetie Belle here to the kitchen and get her a piece of the birthday cake?"

    "Certainly, Ambassador." She stepped aside to let Sweetie Belle out through the door. Sweetie eagerly trotted out of Blueblood's office, and Daisy shut the door behind her as soon as she had left.

    "Well let's not waste any time. I'm sure that you're very busy." Rarity activated her scanning tool on her omni-tool. That little feature had made her life so much easier after the moment she had learned how to use it. Being able to perfectly size a pony had allowed her to create daring outfits that clung to ponies like a second coat. "Now, do you have any ideas for how you would like this to look, Ambassador?"

    "I have a few thoughts, but I'm willing to let you work your magic." He smirked, his tone even a little teasing. "I'm sure you won't disappoint."

    "I think that you'll be quite pleased." Rarity adjusted her mane, strutting forward proudly. "All eyes will be on you when you wear this, I can guarantee that."

    She didn't quite snort in pride, but it was the same effect. She knew her talent, and had a confident ease that went along with it. Lifting her hoof and bringing her omni-tool up to Blueblood's chest level, Rarity held very still. "Please hold still, Ambassador. This will only take a moment."

    Like she said, it did only take a moment.

    "Fancy Pants said you were the finest seamstress in Equestria," Blueblood said as he watched Rarity check over the scan.

    "Really?" She looked up at him in surprise.

    "Yes, he did." It amused Blueblood that Rarity seemed to have no concept of how much of a rising star she was. She was shining so bright that it had caught even his notice. "When I learned that you were going to be visiting the Citadel, I couldn't help but see if you were open for a commission."

    "Well!" She blushed, hiding demurely behind her mane, but she couldn't hide the excited twinkle in her eye. "I am glad that I could be of service."

    "I'm sure that whatever you create will stand out. How could it not?"

    "We can't have Equestria shown up by any of the other races." She sniffed, lifting her muzzle just enough to let Blueblood know what she thought of that idea.

    Before Blueblood could respond, a soft chime came from Blueblood's omni-tool. Looking down, he answered the call. "Golden? What is it?"

    "There is a Twilight Sparkle to see you, Ambassador," one of Blueblood's secretaries (presumably this Golden) said.

    Rarity's eyes widened, the name instantly familiar to her. How could it not be? The personal student to the Empress of Equestria. That mare was going places, and it appeared her first stop was Blueblood's office.

    "Huh, she's early." Blueblood shrugged, sparing a glance at Rarity. "Please, Golden, send her in. Call for Elelia. I need her here as soon as possible."

    "Yes sir." Golden ended the call.

    The office fell silent, and Rarity stared at Blueblood. It was against everything she believed in as a proper mare to pry into Blueblood's affairs, but she was pony enough to admit that she had a problem with gossip. She shuffled closer to him, biting her lip as she tried to keep from blurting out every question that passed through her mind.

    "Go ahead and ask." Rolling his eyes, Blueblood laughed and shook his head. "You look like you're about to explode."

    "Twilight Sparkle?" It would be bad for her image if she bounced for joy at the excitement she was feeling. Keep it cool Rarity, don't let the Ambassador know the extent of your madness. "What is she doing here?"

    "She has immediate business with the Citadel Archives," Blueblood admitted, retaking his seat behind his desk. "For what, I wasn't made aware. It has to be important though."

    "It seems that being the personal student to Empress Celestia certainly opens doors." What she wouldn't give to have that type of notability. Who knows, judging by Blueblood's own admission, she could be well on her way.

    "You haven't heard?" Blueblood's eyes widened and he smirked, realizing that he knew something that Rarity had yet to discover.

    "Heard what?" She had been out of touch for several days, working on her latest inspiration. Did she miss something important?

    "Celestia named Twilight as her Celestial Emissary." Blueblood said it with such finality that Rarity knew it meant something important.

    "What does that mean, exactly?" She had never heard that title before, and that was a rarity in and of itself. Rarity had spent weeks at the Ponyville library when she was a filly reading about all of the noble houses, and she had managed to give herself a practical education in the workings of the Equestrian government, as confusing as it could be at times.

    "It means that the Princesses decided that Twilight had every reason to be granted the authority of Celestia herself." That was no small feat. Equestria, on both the national and planetary level, had ponies to manage the day to day running of the government (or governments, as it was on a planetary scale), but whatever Celestia said was law. The amount of power that the Empress had vested into a mare that was still on the verge of adulthood was simply staggering. Twilight Sparkle had the power to start wars and command armies.

    It must be an awful weight, Rarity thought. She knew that she would never be able to do the same. "I must confess that I've been out of contact for the past week. This is certainly news for me."

    "It was news to a lot of us."

    Before he could say anything else, the door to his office slid open and Twilight Sparkle entered, followed by a taller, heavily scarred griffin chick. Rarity was instantly struck by how… plain Twilight was. As the Princesses student, she had been expecting a mare with perfectly styled mane and clothing from the finest tailors across the galaxy. It would only be fitting after all, there were rumors that Celestia thought of Twilight as her daughter.

    Twilight fit none of Rarity's expectations. Instead, she was dressed in a simple dress, made of plain yellow fabric and a slightly dirty pair of saddle bags were wrapped around her waist. Her mane looked as if it had been cut as simply and efficiently as possible, into a style that probably required no major work in the morning.

    The griffin behind her was a surprise. Beneath the scars, Rarity saw a great beauty that was just waiting for the right hoof to come along and coax it out. That beauty however, was being hidden (or possibly ignored), and the griffin had chosen to wear one of those horrid hooded sweatshirts that humans seemed so fond of, with a colorfully printed pony stenciled onto its chest. The sweatshirt hid her wings, though there was something about the impression of them under the fabric that didn't look quite right. The griffin was also wearing a pair of hosts to protect her own modesty, but it appeared that she cared just as little as Twilight did about her appearance.

    Before Rarity could find it in herself to be disappointed (this is the student that the Empress chose?), she caught sight of Twilight's eyes. It was in that moment she understood. Twilight Sparkle was an exceptional mare, and it showed in every step she took. She may not care about fashion, but Rarity had a feeling that she wouldn't want to go hoof to hoof with her over any matter without the expectation of losing horribly.

    Rarity's entire observation took less then a second, and when Blueblood bowed, she followed his lead. She caught sight of a surprised look in Twilight's eyes, and realized that the mare was probably startled to find anypony else with Blueblood.

    "Oh, Ambassador, I didn't know you were already busy." The sheer embarrassment in her voice was one of the most adorable things that Rarity had ever heard, and she had a feeling that she would have an easy time befriending the mare if the opportunity ever arose.

    "It's no problem at all." Blueblood gestured at Rarity, making introductions. "I was just getting fitting me for a new outfit. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, I believe that we were just finishing up."

    Twilight offered a kind, but distant smile to Rarity. She was obviously eager to get to her business, whatever that may be. Blueblood looked over at the griffin and winced as he immediately realized a problem.

    "Elli is coming to take you to the Archives," Blueblood said, frowning, "But I was only able to get access for you, Twilight."

    "Oh?" Twilight's muzzle scrunched up in thought as she glanced over at the griffin. "Are you alright staying at the embassy?"

    "Yeah." The griffin shrugged. It was obvious that she wasn't thrilled with the prospect, but she wasn't going to voice any complaints.

    "That is perfectly alright—"

    "I would be more than willing to show you around the Citadel as you wait." It took Rarity a moment to realize that she had spoken, and another moment after that to realize what she had offered. The next moment she took to think about it, and realized that she had no problem with what her mouth had offered without her permission. The griffin obviously meant a lot to Twilight, and sparing her from a few hours of boredom was simply the generous thing to do. "It would be far more exciting than waiting here for what I am sure is going to be hours."

    Both Twilight and the griffin looked surprised at Rarity's offer, neither having paid much attention to her despite her placement in the room. They both looked to Blueblood, hoping that he would be able to tell whether or not it was a good idea.

    "Miss Belle is an upstanding young mare." He had nothing else to offer.

    Twilight glanced at the griffin, who shuffled her claws on the floor for a moment before meeting Rarity's gaze and giving a brisk nod.

    "Yeah," the griffin said. Rarity was surprised for just a moment at the huskiness of her voice. She looked away as quickly as possible, pretending to be interested in the shelves of books that lined Blueblood's office. "Okay."

    "Wonderful!" Rarity nodded, a warm smile on her face. The griffin may be standoffish, but she would receive nothing but friendliness from her.

    "When you're finished, please meet me back at my ship," Twilight said. Rarity had to keep herself from bursting in excitement at being addressed directly by her. "Gilda knows the way."

    "Let me just collect my little sister and we can get going." Rarity kept her surprise at Twilight's admission to owning a personal ship off her face. It was no small deal, especially considering the cost of upkeep for even the smallest eezo drive core. Obviously being Celestia's personal student came with quite a few perks.

    Rarity turned and left, trotting out of Blueblood's office. Gilda glanced at Twilight before following after her, and the door shut, leaving Twilight and Blueblood alone in his office.

    "The last time we saw each other," Blueblood leapt off his chair, walking around the desk to stand next to Twilight, "I don't think either of us was picturing you being my boss six months later."

    "I'm not your boss." She rolled her eyes, scoffing at him.

    "Technically, yes. Yes you are."

    "Well…" Blushing, Twilight scuffed a hoof against the floor. She had known Blueblood for quite a long time, having spent a large majority of her life living in the Royal Castle. In many ways he was almost like another big brother.

    Almost.

    "There's no need to be embarrassed, Twilight."

    "Right, well." Twilight straightened up, taking a deep breath. She had a job to do after all. She wasn't just on the Citadel to visit. "Who's Elelia?"

    "She's an archeologist with the Archives, fairly low level, but you won't find anyone more knowledgable than her in the archives." Blueblood had spoken to her after Councilor Tevos had granted Twilight access to the archive, and he had quite enjoyed the Asari. She was knowledgable, but extremely shy, much like Twilight herself.

    "That's good." Twilight nodded, pleased. "Hopefully she can help.

    "What exactly are you looking for, if that's something I can ask." He walked back around to his chair, sitting down.

    "It's classified," She said with a small wince. "I'm sorry."

    "Hmm." Blueblood nodded. Important then. "I hope you find what you are looking for."

    "Thank you."

    "Ambassador, Dr. Elelia has arrived." Golden's voice chimed over Blueblood's omni-tool, startling Twilight at its sudden noise.

    "Very good. Thank you, Golden. We'll come out to meet her." Blueblood walked up to the door to his office, and it slid open for him. He held out a hoof, motioning for Twilight to walk out before him. "Please, after you ma'am."

    "Yes, sir." Golden cut off the communication.

    Together, they left his office and walked down the hall towards the entrance of the Embassy. They exited out into the main lobby to find a tall and thin Asari standing near Golden's desk, rocking back and forth on her heels with her hands clasped nervously at her waist. She was nowhere near as beautiful as the majority of her kind, and her back was ever so slightly hunched, as if she spent a lot of time leaning over a desk. Her wide eyes curiously took in everything, looking everywhere. Dressed in a simple coat and pants with comfortable shoes, it was obvious that she was dressed to spend time in a slightly chilled place.

    "Elelia," Blueblood greeted, trotting up to her.

    "Ambassador, hi!" Elelia gave a small wave, biting her lip as she looked at Twilight curiously.

    "Elelia, this is Twilight Sparkle," Blueblood said, gesturing at the mare.

    "Your highness." Elelia bowed to Twilight, stumbling over her words. She was unfamiliar with all of the workings of Equestria's government, and hoped that she wasn't saying anything that could counted as an offense.

    "Please, just call me Twilight." Twilight knew that it was an appropriate title, but that didn't matter. To her, only the Princesses deserved such an honor.

    "Oh, um…" Elelia blushed, embarrassed. "Of course… Twilight."

    "Well then, why don't we get started!" Twilight gave the Asari a warm grin, wanting to let her know that there were no hard feelings between them.

    "Yes, Twilight." Elelia gestured towards the entrance to the Embassy. "I have an aircar waiting outside. I'm ready to go immediately to the archives."

    "I'll follow you, then." Twilight turned to Blueblood, trotting forward to give him a quick hug. "Thank you, Blueblood."

    "Of course, Twilight Sparkle." He returned the hug. "Anything for you."

    Twilight followed Elelia out of the Embassy, and just like the Asari had said, there was an aircar waiting outside for them. The engine was still idling, and they climbed in. As soon as the door shut, the aircar lifted up and joined the plethora of other vehicles above the Presidium lake speeding around the massive inner ring.

    Twilight was bouncing in her seat, unable to contain her excitement. Getting permission to enter the Citadel Archives was no small feat. There some that waited lifetimes for such a chance, only to pass before permission ever came. The Archives themselves held the combined knowledge of all of the Council species, their histories, recovered artifacts, and other bits of interest. It held the most complete knowledge base of the Prothean race in the entire galaxy, and it was jealously guarded. The caretakers of the Archives often fell away from their past connections with their family and friends, burying themselves completely into their work.

    The flight seemed to take forever for Twilight. In reality, it only took a few minutes. Elelia was silent, tapping her fingers nervously against her leg, taking the occasional glance over at Twilight before looking away just as quickly. It was entirely possible that she had never seen a pony in her life before being contacted by Ambassador Blueblood.

    Thankfully, before the flight could grow awkward, the aircar came to land in front of the heavily guarded entrance of the Archives. The Archives themselves were actually hidden deeper inside the ring of the Presidium, with only a single story building on the surface that acted as an entrance and a choke point.

    Elelia led Twilight through the entrance, and she saw that the doors were half a foot thick. Glancing up, she saw a much larger, heavily armored door that would come slamming down in the case of an attack. Everywhere that she looked, Twilight saw evidence of a building built to defend any type of attack. It made sense. The Council obviously wanted to protect their repository of knowledge as carefully as they possibly could.

    "Right this way, please," A turian C-Sec officer said as they walked up towards the first checkpoint. He ushered them through a large scanner, and both Elelia and Twilight came up clean. The C-Sec officer waved them through. "Thank you. You're clear to go."

    "Welcome to the Citadel Archives," Elelia said, smiling down at Twilight.

    Elelia led Twilight out of the C-Sec check point and into the Archives proper. Twilight's eyes went wide when she saw the sheer amount of work that was going on, especially so close to the surface levels of the Archive. Dozens of people were going about their business, studying little pieces that the archives had recently collected, the little unimportant pieces.

    Twilight rubber necked at every table as Elelia led her past them. She saw Asari fertility artifacts, prothean data discs, ancient scrolled salarian breeding contracts, and some things that she couldn't even begin to name. It boggled her mind when she realized that this wasn't even the impressive stuff. Those were probably hidden deep within the archives.

    "Was that…" Twilight's excitement grew as she caught a glimpse of what looked like an early first attempt at turian armor. It looked ancient, and Twilight wondered how old it was. "Is that…"

    "No!" Twilight shook her head. She was getting access to bigger, more important things and it wasn't worth wasting her time looking at trinkets. "Right. Now what I'm here for."

    Elelia giggled at Twilight's enthusiasm before gesturing towards an elevator at the back of the room. "The Archive access I've scheduled for you is down another level."

    "I can't wait!" Twilight chirped. She followed Elelia inside, and watched as the Asari typed in a code into the hard-light keypad on the side of the elevator. Moments later, Twilight felt her stomach drop as the elevator sped downwards.

    ###

    Presidium, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    Gilda followed after the mare and the little filly, down the walkways of the Presidium. They were garnering looks from all of the other races who were going about their day. Lawyers, politicians, millionaires, billionaires, and even the occasional trillionaire stopped and stared at the two ponies and the griffin as they passed. They obviously weren't a common sight on the Citadel.

    "Pay no mind to them, dear," the older mare said, noticing Gilda's uncomfortableness with the situation. "They are only looking because they are jealous."

    "Jealous?" Gilda's face crunched up in confusion.

    "Of course!" The mare flipped her violet curled mane out of the way in as dramatic a way as possible. "Why wouldn't they be? We are young, we are beautiful, and the galaxy is our diamond to just reach out and take for our own."

    Gilda stumbled at mare's words, quickly catching herself. Beautiful? She didn't believe that for a moment, not with all of her scars. Gilda pushed past those thoughts and realized something. "I… uh… I just realized I never got your name."

    "Oh." The mare blinked, realizing that Gilda was speaking the truth. Her little sister stopped next to her. "How terribly rude of me. I am Rarity Belle, and this is my little sister, Sweetie Belle."

    "I'm Gilda Blackwing." She wasn't quite sure whether or not she should put out a claw to shake their hooves or not, and instead did nothing. That turned out to be the right thing as Rarity trotted up to the railing overlooking the Presidium lake.

    "What do you think of the Presidium, Gilda?" Rarity asked, admiring the sculptures that lined the center of the lake.

    "It's big." Gilda looked around, following the curve of the Presidium up until it disappeared out of view. "Loud."

    "I think it's marvelous." She reared up, supporting her forehooves on the railing. "It has a subtle beauty that I cannot help but admire."

    "It's just boring," Sweetie Belle whispered, falling back next to Gilda and sticking out her tongue.

    Gilda couldn't help but giggle with the filly.

    "What was that, Sweetie Belle?" Rarity cast an unamused but long suffering glance at Sweetie Belle, who instantly gave her older sister the largest, toothiest smile that Gilda had ever seen.

    "Nothing!" She chirped innocently.

    "Of course." Rarity dropped back down onto all four of her hooves before leading them to an overlook that sat over the lake, near a fountain and a large statue of a Mass Relay, which had apparently been left behind by the protheans.

    "Seems like a stupid thing to make a statute of," Gilda remarked, staring at the Relay.

    "What?" Rarity scoffed, turning away from her own admiration to look Gilda in the eye. "No! Sometimes finding the beauty in the everyday allows us to see things from a new perspective. This is a beautiful piece of work, and its sculptor was obviously a master. They wanted to capture the most powerful part of their culture and I believe that they succeeded."

    "Sure." Gilda glanced down at Sweetie Belle and saw that the filly looked as incredulous as she felt.

    "I'm glad that you agree!"

    Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes, dropping back onto her haunches. "Ugh! I'm bored. Let's do something fun, Rarity. Neither of us just wants to sit and stare at stupid statues."

    "Honestly, Sweetie Belle." Rarity didn't at all sound surprised by Sweetie Belle's statement, and Gilda figured that it was probably a common occurrence between the two.

    "Please?" Pleading, Sweetie Belle turned the widest, most adorable eyes at Rarity. She tried to make herself look as cute as possible, and she succeeded.

    Gilda found herself instantly within her grasp, and she knew she wouldn't be able to deny the adorable filly anything. Sweetie Belle had perfected weaponized cuteness.

    "A lady never begs, Sweetie Belle," Rarity said, completely unaffected. She had long ago built up a resistance.

    "Who says I want to be a lady?" Sweetie Belle grumbled to herself, pouting.

    "Very well." Rarity relented. "Did you have anything in mind?"

    "Huh…" Sweetie had to think for a moment, tapping a little hoof against her chin as she squinted and looked up to the right. In its own way, her adorableness was even higher when she wasn't actively trying to manipulate anypony to her will.

    "Is there anything that you would like to do?" Rarity turned her attention to Gilda. "You are our guest after all."

    "I…" Gilda froze, put on the spot, a slight blush on her cheeks. "I don't really know anything about the Citadel."

    "There's no reason to be embarrassed by that, darling," Rarity said.

    Gilda just shrugged, unconvinced.

    "Is there anything that you absolutely, positively do not want to do?" Rarity asked, wanting to make sure that they didn't do anything that Gilda was uncomfortable with.

    Gilda shook her head. She was up for pretty much anything.

    "Very well then." Rarity turned back to Sweetie Belle. "Sweetie Belle? Did you come up with anything?"

    Sweetie Belle perked up, an idea coming to her. "We should go to a concert!"

    "I don't know if there are any concerts right now, Sweetie Belle." Sweetie Belle lowered her head, crestfallen, her lips quivering in disappointment. Rarity blanched, quickly coming up with a much smaller idea. "But, we may be able to find a restaurant with live music."

    "That'd work." Perking up, Sweetie Belle nodded, a smile once again on her face.

    "There we go. It's a plan then." Opening her omni-tool, Rarity preformed a quick search for any restaurants of clubs that would work. She found one nearly instantly, and it wasn't very far away either. "Here's one. Purgatory. It's all the rage right now, and it has live music."

    "Cool!" Sweetie Belle hopped up to all four of her hooves, a grin spreading across her muzzle. "Let's go!"

    Immediately, she started trotting off up the stairs back to the main level of the walkway. She was about to step out amongst the crowd, but stopped, looking back at Rarity and Gilda with a blush.

    "Where are we going?" She asked, her voice squeaking.

    "This way, Sweetie Belle," Rarity said, trotting off in the opposite direction from where Sweetie Belle was going.

    "Oh." Sweetie Belle rushed forward to catch up to Rarity and Gilda as they made their way through the crowds, following the directions her omni-tool chirped out every so often.

    The walk to Purgatory was thankfully fairly short, because the looks that Gilda was getting were causing the griffin to pull further and further into her shell. By the time they got there, she was practically hiding behind Rarity, never mind the fact that it didn't work at all. She was far bigger than the unicorn, and the entire effect looked rather ridiculous.

    Purgatory turned out to be partially hidden between two larger buildings, and at first glance it was just a simple door in the wall with a sign over it proclaiming its name in flashing neon lights. Rarity eyed the establishment with cautious eyes and a nervous ball in the pit of her stomach. She knew that such places existed, and while she didn't have any problems with them personally, she wasn't sure whether or not Sweetie Belle was ready to be introduced to them.

    Together, the three of them entered Purgatory, the door sliding open before them. The entrance led into a vestibule that Rarity realized acted as a sound dampener. As soon as they had passed through the first door, they became immediately aware of a deep, rythmic thumping pulsing through the air. They could feel it deep in their chests, and Gilda found a deeply hidden part of her reaching out for it. It was almost as if something inside her waking up, a primal side that she had forgotten from the chains and the whips.

    Passing through the vestibule, they entered into the main room of Purgatory, and Rarity found herself more than little taken aback, realizing that it was quite a bit more than she had imagined it was. On an upper floor, a rather large crowd writhed in beat with the music, dancing in a wild, unrestrained way that went counter to her entire being.

    Glancing down at Sweetie Belle, Rarity found the filly bending her knees in time with the music. She looked back over the club and realized despite the sheer wildness of the music and the strobing lights, there was nothing too out there. Sharing a look with Gilda, they wordlessly agreed to give the place a try.

    "Well..." Rarity pushed down her inner critic and instead turned her thoughts to Sweetie Belle. Despite their similarities, the filly had her own passions that didn't always match up hers, preferring wilder, dirtier activities than her more cultured older sister. "Why don't we find a table?"

    The club turned out to be a free for all, find your own seating type of place. Unlike the clubs that Rarity was more familiar with on Equestria and abroad, the Citadel worked and breathed around the clock. There was always a large group of people who were awake and searching for a good time, and the space-station had long ago adapted itself to that mindset. It was the rare restaurant or bar that ever closed its doors, instead keeping staff on around the clock.

    The Citadel never closed after all.

    Still, Purgatory wasn't incredibly crowded, the time fitting neatly between half of the station's sleep cycle, and the other half between their lunch hour and dinner, but despite that it was still fairly full. They were able to find a table fairly quickly, and it lowered to suit their height as they approached. Rarity admired the technology for a moment, marveling at just how the Citadel had had adapted itself to the lives of dozens of disparate alien races.

    "Now, how are we supposed to order?" Rarity searched the club for any sign of waiters or staff, but despite a few bartenders, there weren't any visible staff-members wandering about. Instead, the center of the table buzzed to life with a holographic menu that they could order directly from. Viewing it, Rarity nodded in appreciation. "Ah! That's simple."

    It only took a couple of minutes to place their orders, Rarity getting a rum and coke, Sweetie Belle an order of vegetarian nachos, and Gilda a side of hot wings (she had a fondness for spicy food that could only be attributed to her diet while stuck in Batarian space).

    "Look!" Sweetie Belle cried, pointing her hoof up at a stage that was rising between the large dance floor above them and the lower floor meant for mingling and conversations. "Over there!"

    Rarity and Gilda followed Sweetie Belle's pointing hoof to find a white mare setting up on the stage. She had a mechanical leg, with a short and shockingly blue neon mane. A grey earth pony mare was helping her.

    "What luck." Maybe this would be something more than she was expecting. Outside of Equestria, running across other ponies, even other Equestrians, was rather rare. To find two of them in less than an hour was simply good luck. Obviously whomever owned the club had excellent taste in musicians.

    The grey mare finished helping the other set up fairly quickly, giving the white mare a passionate kiss before trotting down the stage and over to the bar. On the way, she spotted Rarity and her little group and blinked.

    "Hello!" With a surprised but welcoming smile, she trotted over to greet them. The mare spoke with a cultured accent, reminiscent of one humanities. "We certainly weren't expecting to see any other Equestrians here."

    "We were just showing Gilda here around the Citadel on the Ambassador's behalf." Rarity introduced Gilda first before putting a hoof to her own chest. "My name is Rarity, and this is my little sister Sweetie Belle."

    "I'm Octavia Melody-" She pointed up at the mare on the stage, who was just finishing setting up her turn tables. "-and that's my wife, Vinyl Scratch."

    Octavia noticed Gilda, and saw her scars. It was clear that she had questions to ask, but she was far too polite to just come out and ask them. Instead, she turned to Rarity. "The ambassador? How is he doing?"

    "Ambassador Blueblood is doing quite well," Rarity said. If she didn't travel so often, she could see herself trying to start a relationship with him. Alas, they both had their work and the galaxy stopped for nopony.

    "That's good to hear. He has been extremely helpful the past few months." Octavia nodded in satisfaction. She sent a glance to Vinyl, who waved timidly from the stage, offering Octavia a shaky smile. "Without him, I'm sure that Vinyl wouldn't be doing half as well as she is now."

    "Would you like to join us?" Rarity offered, gesturing at an open spot at the table with her hoof. "We came here for the music, and it's wonderful to see that Equestrian's have such a large presence on the Citadel."

    "I have to admit that I'm a little nervous." Octavia took Rarity's offer, sitting on her haunches between Gilda and Sweetie Belle. "This is her first time performing since her rescue."

    Gilda perked up a little at that, paying more of a mind to Octavia. There were only a few things that ponies could mean when they spoke of arescue.

    "Music was always Vinyl's favorite thing." Octavia proudly watched her wife for a moment longer before turning her attention to her newly met acquaintances. "I'm proud that she's finally gathered together the courage."

    "What type of music does she play?" Sweetie Belle asked, having to lean a little high to comfortably see over the top of the table.

    "Trotstep." Octavia's nose wrinkled ever so slightly at that. "It's not my personal favorite, but Vinyl is the best of the best."

    "Cool!" Sweetie Belle nodded before turning her full attention to Vinyl.

    Rarity's ears folded back and she gave a weak smile, and Octavia laughed.

    "Oh, I completely understand." She waved away any attempt at apology that Rarity might have attempted. "It's not the most cultured form of music out there, but Vinyl has a way of touching everypony, everybody that listens to her."

    "What's... Trotstep?" Gilda had never heard of it before, which wasn't a surprise in and of itself. She had a few vague memories of her parents listening to what they called 'classic rock,' but she had no real experience aside from that. When Twilight had burst into a harmony song a week after they had both returned to Equestria. It had freaked her out until her marefriend had been able to explain the sudden song and dance.

    "Something that can only be experienced, not explained, I'm afraid." Octavia offered an apologetic smile to the griffin.

    Gilda didn't at all know how to take that, so she didn't say anything, instead watching Vinyl carefully. There was something about her that was extremely familiar, but she couldn't quite put her claw on it.

    Up on the stage, Vinyl took a deep breath before beginning to play. It was loud. It was primal, and it caught the attention of everyone in the club at once as a simple drum beat bounced along. Asari, turian, salarian, human, it didn't matter who they were, they all began to get caught up in the energy that Vinyl exuded.

    "H-Hey there, Purgatory!" Vinyl cried out into a microphone that hung from the side of her head. Her voice shook nervously. "I'm DJPon3, and I'll be your host for the evening."

    Pushing a hoof over her turn table, a tone started to rise, a feeling of unfulfillment rising right along with it. As it got higher and higher, Vinyl seemed to straighten, becoming braver with each passing second.

    With a wide grin, she dropped a pair of magenta sunglasses over her eyes. "Let's party."

    She drops the beat, and the house lights dropped with it, a laser show flaring to life.

    "Yeah!" Sweetie Belle jumped up, cheering. Her voice was too quiet to be heard over the music, the pulsing and pounding seeming to crush all other sound waves before their might, but the gist of it was clear enough. "I love this!"

    It was loud. It was uncultured. It was everything that Rarity despised about the common culture. Whatever had happened to the quiet elegance of Marezart, or Beethoofen? When had it stopped being fashionable to like intelligence and thought provoking music?

    Something was making her chair shake and Rarity looked over to make sure that Sweetie Belle wasn't kicking it in her excitement. The filly could be extremely rambunctious at times.

    Sweetie Belle wasn't doing it. Looking down, Rarity found that it was her. She was tapping her hoof right along with the beat. Before she even realized what was happening, she found herself being sucked right into the experience like everyone else, and not only that but she was enjoying it.

    Gilda was drawn into another world entirely. The pulsing beat drew at the primal part of her mind, and for the first time in a long time, she felt strong. She felt like the predator that she used to be. Like the warriors her father used to tell her of before she went to bed, back before the attack on Ponyville.

    She remembered what it meant to be a griffin.

    "I see that you've found it."

    Octavia's voice seemed to cut right through the music, or maybe the music had such a respect for the mare that it didn't dare play over her.

    "Found what?" Gilda glanced at her, not quite sure what she was talking about.

    "It. That's what Vinyl calls all of this." Octavia waved a hoof around at the club. Her gaze never left the DJ, who was getting more and more into the act, performing as if life had never tried to crush her spirit. "You've got the same look she gets when she plays."

    Gilda didn't have anything to say to that, withdrawing a bit back into herself.

    Octavia fell silent for a moment, a debate raging inside her head. She finally came to a decision, looking back up at Gilda and meeting her eyes. "Can I ask you a bit of a... sensitive question?"

    Gilda studied Octavia for a moment, before giving a terse nod.

    "Were you..." Octavia bit her lip, rethinking the wisdom of her line of questioning before simply plowing ahead. "Were you one of..."

    "Yeah." Gilda knew what she meant.

    "Vinyl was too."

    "Oh." Gilda looked up at Vinyl with new eyes. Now that she knew what to look for, she realized that there was a cleverly hidden stump of a horn on her head. She used to be a unicorn.

    "She looks good," Gilda said, turning back to Octavia.

    "I think so too." Octavia agreed with her, smiling proudly at her wife. She had come so far since her rescue, and she was only getting better. Life had never been so good.

    Rarity watched the entire exchange, and she smiled. She didn't hear what they had said, but she knew almost instinctively that something really wonderful had come from it, and she settled down, wrapping a hoof around a Sweetie Belle who was swaying with the beat.

    Despite its own name, Purgatory seemed to be helping Gilda move on.

    ###

    Citadel Archives, Presidium, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    Twilight sat slouched in front of her access point to the archives. She had absolutely no idea where she was in reference to public part of the Presidium Ring, but that didn't matter.

    Empty cups of coffee were strewn about on the table in front of her, and her mane had become frazzled and her eyes bloodshot over the hours she had spent searching. She stared intently at several large displays, surfing through unimaginable amounts of information in her quest to find any reference of the Elements of Harmony.

    At her own table next to her, Elelia was much the same way. She was slouching in her chair, nursing a cup of tea.

    "Buck it!" Twilight groaned, dropping her head down onto the desk in front of her. It hit with a solid thunk. She sat up straight, her spine cracking, and looked at Elelia in annoyance. "There's nothing here."

    "We knew that the first time you searched through the archives." The Asari had quickly learned that Twilight was far more driven than the usual guests who visited the archives.

    "We might have missed something! It never hurts to be thorough."

    "Except when it does," Elelia muttered to herself, stretching. She was going to need a massage before she was going to be able to feel right again.

    "I'm sorry for wasting your time." Blushing, Twilight jumped out of her chair, wincing a little at her own pain. The archive access shut down immediately as soon as it sensed she was gone.

    "No, I was glad to be of help." Elelia stood, struggling to straighten out her poor spine.

    Checking her omni-tool, she winced when she saw the time. "I should really be getting back."

    "Very well." Elelia led Twilight back to the entrance of the archives, and Twilight called for an aircar with her omni-tool, ready to head back to Solar One.

    Elelia waited for her to leave before accessing her omni-tool and making a call.

    It rang once. Twice.

    "She's gone," Elelia said the moment the call was picked up.

    "Meet me in front of the Dilinaga Concert Hall in thirty minutes."

    Flagging down her own aircar, it took nearly thirty minutes to make the journey from the Presidium to the Tayseri Ward. Elelia arrived outside the Concert Hall, stepping out of her aircar. She looked around, nervous, wringing her hands together.

    As soon as she saw an older Asari waiting for her, standing calmly with her hands behind her back, Elelia jogged forward to meet her.

    "Do you have it?" The matron asked, studying Elelia with violet eyes. She made Elelia nervous.

    "Everything." Elelia held out a small data-chip for the matron to take, glancing around to make sure no one was looking. "She was searching for hours."

    "You are doing the matriarch's proud." The matron murmured, holding out a credit chit for Elelia. "That's the agreed amount. I am glad that this relationship is baring so much fruit."

    Seeing just how much was on the chit, Elelia's eyes went wide and she bowed thankfully to the matron. "Thank you! Goddess! Thank you, so much."

    "If there's anything else, please don't be afraid to call me." Turning, the matron strode away, leaving Elelia in front of the concert hall.

    As soon as she was out of sight of Elelia, the matron activated her omni-tool and made a call. Unlike Elelia, she made it through an encrypted line, bouncing it across three separate planet's communication networks to shake off any potential listeners.

    "Speak," A male voice said as the call connected.

    "I'm uploading the information now." The matron connected the data chip to her omni-tool and began the exchange.

    "Good work, Lilium," the man said as the information began to appear before him. "You're doing Cerberus proud."

    Hope pulls off her omni-tool and crushes it underneath her heel before walking to the nearest aircar.

    ###

    Twilight returned to Solar One with heavy steps and her head held low. She stepped onboard, finding Honey Dawn, Fancy Steps, and Little Hoof working on flight maintenance on the bridge.

    "How was your mission, Twilight?" Honey Dawn asked, noticing their onlooker.

    Twilight just scowled.

    "That good?" Honey Dawn winced in sympathy.

    "Don't even get me started," Twilight said with a growl.

    "Gilda and her guests are in the dining room." Honey Dawn pointed down to the heart of the ship.

    "Thanks." Twilight nodded her thanks before turning and stomping off. She walked down the length of the ship.

    Entering the Dining Room, Twilight found Gilda, Rarity, and Sweetie Belle at one of the closest tables, chatting with Tiny Berry.

    Seeing Twilight coming, Tiny Berry gave her a smile.

    "Can I get you anything, Twilight?" Tiny Berry chirped. "You look hungry!"

    Twilight slumped down at the table, letting her head drop down onto the table. She was about to say no, but her stomach growled in protest. "Ugh. Fine. Whatever's in the kitchen."

    "Chef's surprise!" Tiny Berry hopped in excitement. "You're adventurous."

    Tiny Berry bounced back to the kitchen, leaving them alone.

    "No luck?" Gilda asked as soon as Tiny Berry was gone.

    "Nothing." She scowled, looking over to the side. "Not even a hint."

    She sat up, looking blearily at Gilda. "The largest collected archive of information anywhere in the galaxy, and I couldn't so much as find a clue."

    "It certainly sounds as if you had a rough day." Rarity stood, urging Sweetie Belle to do the same. She bowed gratefully to Twilight and Gilda. "We'll get out of your mane and leave the two of you in peace."

    "Come along, Sweetie Belle," She said, looking down at her sister. "Let's return to the hotel."

    Rarity and Sweetie Belle left the dining room.

    "Did you have a good time at least?" Twilight asked, turning her attention to Gilda.

    "Yeah." Gilda nods. "They were nice."

    Twilight scrunched up her muzzle. "I... I just realized I never got her name."

    "Rarity." Gilda laughed, shaking her head.

    Twilight blinked once. Twice. "Rarity?"

    "Yeah." Gilda nodded. "Why?"

    "She's one of the ponies the journal mentions!" Before Gilda could respond, Twilight jumped out of her chair and rushed after Rarity.

    Rarity and Sweetie Belle were waiting just outside the ship's gangplank, outside the elevator to return them back to the Citadel.

    "Wait!" Twilight cried, rushing up to them at a gallop.

    "You're Rarity?" Twilight asked, half breathless, her eyes wide.

    "Yes." Rarity perked up a little when she realized that Twilight knew her name. "I am Rarity. You've heard of me?"

    "Were you born in Ponyville?" With wide eyes and an even wider grin, Twilight leaned closer to Rarity.

    "Yes..." Rarity was taken aback by this, a little surprised that Twilight knew that. "Why do you ask?"

    "You got your cutie mark after seeing a rainbow explosion in the sky, didn't you?"

    "How do you know that?" Narrowing her eyes, Rarity took a step to the side so she was between Twilight and Sweetie Belle.

    "Yes!" Twilight gave a shout of excitement, bouncing up and down. She blushed when she saw the look that Rarity was giving her. "Sorry."

    Blushing, she bit her lip. "Will you be on the Citadel much longer?"

    "Yes..." Rarity nodded slowly, not quite sure how to take the Princesses' student. "I'm here for a fashion show later this week. Why do you ask?"

    "Nothing." She shook her head. "No reason."

    Twilight started to back away. "Sorry. I've gotta go. Bye!"

    Without another word, Twilight galloped back to the safety of Solar One.

    Rarity and Sweetie Belle stared after her, not quite sure what had just happened.

    "She's weird," Sweetie Belle said, tilting her head to the side. She looked up at Rarity. "I like her!"

    13. Chapter Twelve - The More Things Change

    Chapter Twelve - The More Things Change

    Med Bay, SSV Normandy, Exodus Cluster

    April 7, 2183

    "Ow."

    Riley woke up with a groan, a massive headache throbbing behind her eyes. Blinking against the dim lights above her, Riley tried to focus on the dark spots dancing across her vision, but failed. For just a moment, she could have sworn that she saw the barren branches of skeletal trees waving over her. As soon as she tried to focus on that, they disappeared.

    "Doctor?" A feminine voice chimed off somewhere to her right. "Doctor Chakwas! I think she's waking up."

    Squeezing her eyes shut, Riley sat up, cradling her head in her hands. Her headache flared like a rusty nail poking through her brain before settling down a second later to a manageable hum.

    "You had us worried there, Commander." Dr. Chakwas said as she stood from her desk in the corner. She walked over to Riley with soft steps, an annoyed look on her face. "How are you feeling?"

    "Like I got kicked in the face by a krogan," Riley said with a groan, wincing as her own voice made her head throb. "A blood-raging krogan high on cocaine."

    "That sounds about right," Chakwas agreed drolly. Opening her omni-tool, she ran a scan on Riley, taking careful care to focus on her brain. "Do you remember what I was saying about having to patch up crew members in the infirmary, Commander?"

    "Yeah…" Riley blushed, remembering the conversation. "How long was I out?"

    "About fifteen hours." Chakwas shut down her omni-tool, apparently pleased with what she saw. "Something happened down there with the beacon, from what I've been told."

    "It was the turian's fault!"

    Looking over, Riley found Ashley sitting on a chair next to her bed. She had obviously been sitting there for a long time, an empty cup of coffee clutched in her hands. Dark bags were under her eyes, and she leaned forward intently. "Some sort of security field activated when he approached. You pushed him out of the way."

    "Actually, we don't even know if that's what set it off." Chakwas shot a warning look at Ashley. Turning back to Riley, she frowned. "Unfortunately, we'll never get the chance to find out."

    "The beacon exploded!" Ashley stood from her chair, a strange, passionate look on her face. "A system overload maybe. The blast knocked you out cold. We had to carry you back to the ship."

    "I appreciate it." Riley nodded, giving her a small smile while squinting her eyes. She looked back over at Dr. Chakwas. "What about Rainbow?"

    Chakwas gestured towards the other bed. Following her pointing, Riley looked over her shoulder to see Rainbow Dash smiling weakly at her from under her covers. She also appeared to be wearing her favorite pair of Daring Do pajamas, which threw Riley off for a moment.

    "Yo." Rainbow waved a tired hoof.

    "Didn't I tell you to stay safe?" She distinctly remembered telling Rainbow not to get shot. The pegasus simply could not listen for the life of her.

    "Being safe is for wusses." Rainbow scoffed, lifting her muzzle up into the air proudly.

    "You say that now," Riley said, shaking her head. Lifting her eyebrows, she gave Rainbow a pointed look. "Just wait until mom hears about this."

    "What, this?" Rainbow looked down at her bandages, just barely visible under her pajamas. "It's just a flesh wound. Nothing serious."

    "Yeah." Riley snorted, laughing at Rainbow's denial. "You remember after Akuze?"

    "Right…" Rainbow winced. "Save me?"

    Firefly had gone crazy after Riley had been put on medical leave after Akuze. She hadn't let Riley leave her bed for a month, and she hadn't been satisfied until Riley had agreed to go through sessions with Alliance therapists. That year had been absolute hell, and it wasn't anything that she ever wanted to repeat.

    "You're going to have to bribe me." Just because she didn't want to have her mother going all controlling on her again didn't mean that it wouldn't be hilarious to watch Rainbow go through the same.

    "My first edition Daring Do collection," Rainbow said with absolute conviction.

    "I've got one of those too." Looking at her little sister with a straight face, Riley giggled on the inside.

    "Darn it." Scowling, Rainbow looked away for a moment before turning back to Riley. She fell back against her bed, tired. "I'll think of something, and I'll get back to you!"

    "I'm going to go get the Captain." Ignoring that entire conversation, Ashley beat a retreat to the door.

    "Physically, you're fine." Chakwas continued with her explanation to Riley, ignoring everything that had happened in the last minute. "But I detected some unusual brain activity, abnormal beta waves. I also noticed an increase in your rapid eye movement, signs typically associated with intense dreaming."

    "I don't know if I'd call them dreams." Riley slid around on her bed so her leg were dangling off the edge. "I… I saw… I'm not sure what I saw. Death. Destruction. Nothing's really clear."

    "Hmm." Eyebrows lifting, Chakwas looked down and started typing on her omni-tool. "I better add this to my report. It may—"

    The door to the med-bay slid open, and the two women and the mare looked over to find Captain Anderson striding in, an intense look on his face. His fists were clenched, and there was a deep frown set into his face. He walked right up to Riley's bedside. Almost unnoticed behind him was Nihlus, following after him.

    "Oh, Captain Anderson." Chakwas nodded in greeting before turning back to her omni-tool.

    "That was quite the blow you took, Shepard," Anderson said, concern tinging his voice despite the angry look on his face. "How are you feeling?"

    "I'm fine, Captain." Riley nodded in assurance to him. I'm okay, David. You can stop worrying.

    "I'm sure, Commander." David smiled, the anger easing from his face. I'm glad, Riley. Stop trying to jump at trouble. You make your parents and I worry every time you're hurt. He turned to Chakwas, crossing his arms. "Doctor, how's our XO holding up?"

    "All the readings look normal." Chakwas finally looked up from omni-tool, giving Anderson a terse smile. "I'd say the Commander's going to be fine."

    "I'm glad to hear that." Anderson fully relaxed at hearing that, the muscles in his shoulders and neck untensing.

    "We need to speak with Commander in private," Nihlus said, stepping forward, his arms crossed over his chest. He gave Chakwas a pointed look.

    "Of course." Though she spoke softly, Riley noticed that there was a hint of warning in her voice. Forcing the Doctor from her domain did not seem like a good idea.

    "Should I…" Rainbow squirmed in her bed, wincing as she jostled her wound. She pointed a hoof at the door. "Uh…"

    Anderson and Nihlus looked over to see Rainbow looking at them with wide eyes and a worried look. She really didn't want to get out of bed. She looked like she was about to climb off her bed and limp out of the room, though she obviously didn't want to.

    "No." Anderson motioned for her to just lie back down, rolling his eyes. "Just remember everything spoken of here is classified."

    "Yes, sir." Rainbow saluted weakly before pulling her covers up to the edge of her muzzle.

    "Good." Nodding in satisfaction, Anderson turned his full attention back to Riley.

    "I've never seen anything like what happened down there, Commander," Nihlus said, stepping forward to Riley's bedside. His mandibles shuffled as his voice flanged with his sub-vocals. "The beacon hit you hard."

    "Are you sure you're okay, Shepard?" Anderson asked, concerned.

    "I was too slow." Ducking her head, Riley cradled her forehead in her hands. Horrible guilt joined her headache and she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. Cracking an eye open, she found the closest trash can, just in case. "I don't like marines dying under my command."

    "The corporal wasn't your fault," Nihlus reassured her. He had seen and done far worse in his time as a Spectre. "I've review all of the combat footage. You did an excellent job."

    "That didn't help Nirali." Riley grimaced, remembering the expression on Nirali's face just before she had been impaled on the geth spike.

    Anderson and Nihlus shared a look with each other, a silent conversation happening right in front of her, before Anderson stepped forward.

    "I won't lie to you, Shepard." Sighing, Anderson massaged the bridge of his nose. It was only something that Riley had seen him do when things were about to take a turn for the worst. "Things are bad. The beacon was destroyed and the geth have decided that now was the best time to reappear. The Council's going to want answers."

    "You won't be alone." Nihlus spoke to both Anderson and Riley at the same time. "No one was expecting this mission to be so difficult, including me. I've already made my report, and I'll be standing behind you."

    "We both will be, Commander. You have the Alliance's full support, and that includes the Admiralty." Anderson turned away, picking up a book that was just sitting on Chakwas' desk. He held it, turning it over in his hands, using it as something to occupy his hands. "That's not why we're here. It's Saren, the other turian."

    "Damn bastard shot me," Rainbow grumbled quietly from her bed.

    Remembering that she was there, Nihlus turned to look at Rainbow, giving a small bow to her. "Thank you, Flying Officer. You saved my life."

    "It's not a problem." Rainbow waved a hoof at him, as if to deflect his thanks. She immediately regretted it as she jostled her wound. "Ow."

    "Please, don't hurt yourself."

    "Yeah." Rainbow settled back into her bed and shut her eyes, taking short, shallow breaths. She really had to stop forgetting that she'd been shot. "I'm just going to… close my eyes, ya' know."

    Watching her for a moment, Nihlus decided that he didn't want to bother with that and turned back to Riley. "Saren's a Spectre, the best of us. He was with Blackwatch before he was selected for the Spectres. He trained me. For him to try and murder me…"

    "He's gone rogue, Shepard." Anderson practically growled that out, composing himself before continuing. "Saren's dangerous, and he hates humans."

    "He hates humans?" Riley asked. That really wasn't good. "Why?"

    "He thinks we're growing too fast, taking over the galaxy," Anderson explained, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly. "A lot of races think that way. Most of them don't do anything about it."

    "That's not completely accurate," Nihlus said, breaking into the conversation. He might have been angry with Saren, but there was no reason to demonize him. "He witnessed the death of brother on Shanxi, and he's disliked humanity ever since."

    "This isn't normal, not for him." Nihlus started pacing, clasping his hands behind his back. "Saren hates humanity, but he has never let his emotions rule him. If he's allied himself with the geth, there must be something else going on."

    "It has to have something to do with the beacon. It's a shame it was destroyed." Anderson frowned. "We've gathered up the shards, but it doesn't look good. It could have helped us figure out what he was after."

    "Just before I…" Riley bit her lip, rubbing her right hand and massaging the pad of her thumb. Her headache flared up again. "Just before I lost consciousness, I saw something."

    "What did you see, Shepard?" Anderson asked.

    "Some kind of vision." Shaking her head, Riley tried to figure out how to explain what she had seen. "It was a lot, but I remember the feelings. Fear. There was so much fear. The sky was being torn apart. I saw synthetics, and they were slaughtering everyone. Butchering them."

    "We need to report this to the Council, Shepard." Punching his fist into his other hand, righteous fire burned in Anderson's eyes.

    Before he could do anything rash, Nihlus laughed, shaking his head. Riley and Anderson looked over at him, waiting for an explanation.

    "This would be the single worst mistake that you could possibly make." Nihlus started chuckling again, his mandibles flaring in mirth.

    "Why?" Anderson's brow furrowed and he took a step forward, challenging the Spectre. "This is proof!"

    "No." Nihlus shook his head, standing up straight. They needed to understand. The Council worked in a certain way, and it was never good to challenge them if you wanted to get something done. "As much as Saren hates humanity, you have your own past with him. It would be seen as nothing more than an attempt to tarnish his reputation. My statement will be more than enough to get him removed from the Spectres."

    Anderson looked like he wanted to argue, but he couldn't fight Nihlus' point.

    "We don't know what information was stored in that beacon," Nihlus continued. "Lost prothean technology, blueprints for some ancient weapon of mass destruction? Whatever it was, Saren has it now. There is no way that the Council will let him get away with this."

    "We'll find some way to take him down," Riley said. She wasn't sure if she was reassuring Anderson, or herself.

    "I want you with me when I go before the Council, Shepard." Nihlus nodded, running a hand over his fringe.

    "Yes, sir," Riley managed to say. She was more than a little startled, but she wasn't going to tell him no. "Definitely."

    "I'll contact the Ambassador." Anderson was already working through what he needed to do. "He'll want to see us as soon as we reach the Citadel. We should be getting close."

    "I'm going to watch from the bridge." Standing from her bed, Riley paused for a moment to see if her headache was going to smack her down. When it didn't, she smiled in appreciation. She left the med-bay, and Anderson followed after her as she went. Nihlus lingered for a moment, waiting until the door slid closed.

    "I know you aren't sleeping," he murmured, glancing over at Rainbow.

    "Yeah, I am." Rainbow cracked an eye open, looking at Nihlus in a complete contradiction of both her words and the context of the statement.

    Nihlus just stared at her, unamused.

    "How could you tell?" Rainbow asked, scoffing and opening her other eye.

    "I know things," Nilhus deadpanned, settling his mandibles against his cheeks.

    "That's not an answer." Pushing her blanket down, Rainbow's eyes widened when she realized she was wearing her favorite Daring Do pajamas in front of the deadly, rich Spectre. She pulled the blanket back up to her chin as quickly as she possibly could, blushing.

    "No, it's not." Nihlus shook his head, ignoring Rainbow's embarrassment. He instead put a hand on her shoulder. "Thank you."

    "You already said that," Rainbow noted, pointing the tip of her hoof from under her cover at him.

    "I know." Nihlus shrugged, crossing his arms. "You deserve every bit of thanks I can give you."

    "Right." Rainbow chewed on her lip, glancing to the side. "Don't worry. We're cool."

    "Cool." Nihlus tried the word out.

    "It doesn't really work for you." Rainbow giggled, shaking her head. "You probably shouldn't say it again."

    "Yes." Nihlus agreed with her. Done with the conversation, Nihlus turned and left the med-bay, leaving Rainbow alone. Pushing her blanket down again, she tapped out a tiny beat on the mattress.

    "Right," she said to herself. "Now I'm just lying here, talking to myself… wonderful."

    ###

    Stepping out of the med-bay, Riley found Kaidan and Ashley sitting at one of the tables in the small dining area of the ship. They were speaking in hushed voices, Kaidan picking at the remains of a meal. Seeing her emerge, they stood, saluting.

    "Commander." Kaidan greeted, smiling in relief to see her up and about.

    "Ma'am." Ashley followed Kaidan's lead.

    Riley waved them back down into their seats. Gingerly, she slid into a chair next to Ashley, wincing a little as her joints creaked.

    "I'm glad you're okay, Commander," Kaidan said. He finally pushed his plate away, having scraped away every single last bit of food from its surface. "The crew could use some good news after what happened to Jenkins."

    "He shouldn't have died." Riley grimaced. She really didn't want to think about what had happened. "We should have moved faster."

    "How are you holding up?" Riley turned to Ashley, remembering that she had lost a lot of people too.

    "Nirali was good people." Ashley ducked her head, staring down at the table. Folding her hands together, she twisted her thumbs together. "She mothered everyone. Her contract was ending this week and she was going to join her husband on the Citadel. She was going to open a restaurant and invite us all to its opening. She didn't deserve this…"

    "We'll make sure she receives the highest honors," Riley murmured, nodding in understanding. "We'll make sure that they all do."

    "It's not enough." Ashley shrugged, straightening up.

    "It never is," Riley agreed with her. Her squad on Akuze had still to receive their full honors, and she fought as hard and as often as she could for them whenever she had a moment to send another letter to the Admiralty.

    "I just feel so guilty over what happened." Ashley rubbed her palm over the smooth surface of the table. "If Jenkins was still alive, I wouldn't be here."

    "You're a good marine, Chief," Kaidan reassured her, patting her shoulder in a gesture that was not at all useful, but the meaning was clear.

    "He's right, Williams." Riley agreed with Kaidan. "You belong on the Normandy."

    "Thanks Lieutenant." Ashley nodded her head in thanks to both of them. She straightened, leaning back in her chair. "Thank you, Commander, that means a lot from you. I've never met anyone who was awarded the Star of Terra."

    "I was just in the right place at the right time." Riley shrugged. If you could call being stuck on a colony and having to fight off waves of batarian raiders lucky…

    "It wasn't just being in the right place, Commander." Ashley leaned forward, passion in her eyes. "No one else could have stood up to an entire pirate company."

    "Rainbow helped." Riley blushed. She never did well with praise of any kind, at least not the kind that didn't come from the brass.

    "Yeah, but she wouldn't have been able to do anything if you weren't there to guide her!" Ashley had seen the vids. She'd watched them with her little sisters when they had a sleepover with their friends.

    "Face it, Commander, you're a hero." Kaidan shook his head, laughing.

    "Things were pretty rough down there. How are you holding up?" Riley moved the conversation onward, wanting to talk about something else. Being the senior officer meant she could do things like that.

    "I've seen friends die before," Ashley said, catching the hint. "It comes with being a marine, but to see my whole unit wiped out…"

    "We couldn't have finished the mission without you, Williams," Riley said.

    "Thanks Commander." Ashley looked like she had to resist saluting again, her shoulders hunching over nervously. "I have to admit, I was a little worried about being assigned to the Normandy by the Captain. It's nice when someone makes you feel welcome."

    "I think you're going to fit in her just fine, Williams." Leaning back in her seat, Riley winced as the aches in her side flared for just a moment before fading into a dull throb. It wasn't the best feeling in the world, but it was light enough that Riley could handle it. Smiling, she threw an arm over the back of her chair. "Have either of you been to the Citadel before?"

    "No," Ashley said, shaking her head.

    "Neither have I, Commander." Kaidan looked more than a little eager about being able to step foot on the center of galactic civilization.

    "Well, you both are certainly in for a surprise," Riley said with a laugh.

    "Why's that Commander?" Ashley sounded both worried and intrigued.

    "You ever been to New York?" Amused, Riley watched the expressions on their faces.

    "Yeah." Ashley, said, and Kaidan nodded too.

    "Well, the Citadel makes New York look like the Mars colony," Riley leaned forward. "Take all of the weirdos and the creeps, give them millions of credits, freedom to walk all over any laws that are inconvenient, and you've got the Citadel."

    "Mars colony?" Brow furrowing, Ashley looked over at Kaidan. "We have a colony on Mars?"

    "Exactly." Riley laughed at the realization on Ashley's face.

    "We're approaching the Relay." Joker's voice rang out over the intercoms. "Brace for jump."

    "I'm going to go watch." Gingerly, Riley stood up out of her chair. "You can come if you want."

    She headed for the stairs, not looking back over her shoulder as she heard Kaidan and Ashley's chairs screeched backwards. Before Riley could take the first step, the ship juddered underneath her as the Relay grabbed it and shot it across the galaxy. Hearing a scuffle behind her, she looked back to find Kaidan with his hand on Ashley's back, keeping her from falling over.

    "First relay jump?" Riley asked.

    "No, ma'am." Ashley shook her head, sounding more than a little sick. "It's been awhile though."

    "Don't throw up on the floor of my ship, Williams." Turning, Riley jogged up the stairs and onto the command deck of the Normandy. The three of them walked the length of the ships neck, stepping onto the bridge.

    "Good timing, Commander," Joker said, glancing over his shoulder at them. He nodded in greeting, tipping his hat to them. "I was just about to bring us into the Citadel. You might like seeing all that taxpayer money at work."

    "It better be damn impressive," Ashley muttered, crossing her arms.

    "You'd hope so, wouldn't you." Spitfire nodded in agreement with Ashley's statement. No one enjoyed the extra drain on their bank accounts that came along with being a member of a Citadel race.

    Through the transparent steel of the bridge, they watched the purple nebula of the Widow system speed by. For a few minutes, all that they could see where the clouds. It almost seemed as if every particle glowed, though they were just reflecting the light of the Widow deeper in.

    Out of the clouds, the engines of hundreds of civilian ships emerged, waiting to dock with the Citadel. It wasn't uncommon for civilians to wait days to be able to get off their ships. Open docking bays were a rare commodity, and often cost more credits than most could afford. Because of that one matter, the Citadel often only attracted those who could afford the heavy fees.

    The Normandy being an Alliance ship, she was able to skip past all of that. As soon as the Systems Alliance opened an embassy on the Citadel, they were granted an entire dock, with enough room to house almost all of the First Fleet.

    Rolling the Normandy, Joker grinned as he gave his audience the best possible view of the Citadel as it emerged from behind the clouds. It was partly hidden within the nebula, one of its massive ward arms peeking right through, before the entire thing disappeared again as the Normandy flew onwards. Moments later, the clouds parted and the ward arms peeked through again, before they disappeared just as quickly.

    "Stop teasing us, Joker." Kaidan slapped the back of the pilot's seat, his frustration growing.

    "Fine." Grumbling, Joker made the Normandy dive, and it emerged out from the nebula moments later. Riley, Kaidan, and Ashley gasped in awe as the Citadel was revealed in all of its glory, its five ward arms opened welcomingly like a delicate flower. The moment seemed to last for an eternity, but like all things it could not last forever. With a flaring of its engines, the Normandy descended down towards the Citadel.

    Within its arms, hundreds of ships seemed to linger about like grouper fish surrounding a shark. The Normandy passed by all them, sliding around them effortlessly. Before they could blink, they passed under the lone Asari dreadnaught, and Ashley's jaw went slack.

    "Look at the size of that monster!" She cried, rushing forward to press her face against the window.

    "That's the Destiny Ascension," Kaidan said, recognizing it. "It's the flagship of the Citadel fleet."

    "Yeah, well, size isn't everything," Joker grumbled, scoffing at the ship. He waggled the Normandy's wings, as if to show off his own ship's nimble speed as they passed right under one of the behemoths four arms, getting a clear sigh of one of its massive guns. The weapon was almost three times larger than the Normandy itself.

    Sitting next to him, Spitfire snorted, having to hold a hoof over her mouth to keep from outright guffawing.

    "Why so touchy, Joker?" Kaidan smirked, sharing an amused look with Spitfire.

    "I'm just saying." Looking up at Kaidan, Joker narrowed his eyes at him, willing to fight to protect his ship's dignity. "It's not the size. It's how you use it!"

    "Look at that." Ashley ignored the conversation behind her between the two males, too focused on the impressive lines the dreadnaught cut through space. "That gun could rip through the barriers of any ship in the Alliance fleet."

    "It's a good thing its on our side then." Turning away from Joker, Kaidan moved to stand next to Ashley, looking up at the Destiny Ascension.

    "Citadel Control, this is the SSV Normandy requesting permission to land," Joker said into the Normandy's communications.

    "Stand by for clearance, Normandy." Citadel Control replied nearly instantly, before going quiet just as fast.

    A moment passed, and the Normandy sped by a pair of turian dreadnoughts holding station over the Presidium tower, ready to defend against any possible attack that could threaten the Councilors.

    "Clearance granted, Normandy." Citadel Control responded finally. "You may begin your approach. Transferring you to an Alliance operator."

    "Roger that, Citadel Control. Normandy out." Joker deftly kept the Normandy from a civilian ship that seemed to be erratically flying towards one of the ward arm docks.

    "Hello there, Normandy," a soft feminine voice spoke over the comms. "This is Alliance control. Welcome to the Citadel. Dock 422 has cleared for your use. I'm transmitting coordinates to you now."

    "Roger that, Alliance Control. Thanks for the welcome." Joker looked over at Spitfire.

    "Receiving coordinates now." Spitfire nodded to Joker, pushing over the coordinates to him.

    They brought the ship in to land. Smoothly, the ship slid into the Alliance docking bay. Massive clamps slid into place, grabbing the Normandy and keeping it from floating away.

    "Shepard, Alenko, Williams, with us."

    Turning, the three of them found Nihlus and Anderson walking up the neck of the Normandy to stand in front of the airlock.

    "Yes, sir." Riley fell into step with the two of them, Ashley and Kaidan following her.

    The airlock cycled open, and together they all stepped in. As soon as the inner door closed, the decontamination cycle began. The Council had made decontamination a mandatory part of all ships after an Asari plague had managed to wipe out nearly three-thousand before they were able to put a stop to it. All Council races were mandated to include the feature as soon as they joined. There was nothing that they could do but wait for it finish.

    After just a minute, the outer airlock opened and the group stepped out of the Normandy, entering the Alliance docks. At the end of the gangplank, Ambassador Donnel Udina and several aides waited impatiently.

    "Ambassador," Anderson called out, striding up the humans ambassador.

    "Do you know how much of a shit storm this is going to be, Captain?" Udina ignored Anderson's greeting, starting right with the yelling.

    "We have a bit of an idea, yes," Nihlus said flatly, having absolutely no patience for the Ambassador.

    "The Council wants to see all of you, now," Udina said, scowling. His voice was filled with frustration. Gesturing over his shoulder, he pointed out a row of several waiting aircars. "We need to get going."

    Anderson, Nihlus, and Udina climbed into the first car, leaving Riley, Ashley, and Kaidan to take the second, and the aides the last one. The cars took off flying as soon as the doors closed.

    Ashley peered out her window, trying to take all of the views in as they skimmed above the outside of one of the ward arms. Massive towers rose up, like reaching fingers. She was more than a little disappointed that she couldn't see the interior of the wards. Now that she was her though, she realized that it made sense that a ceiling kept the atmosphere down in the lowest levels, the skyscrapers rising up above it.

    "Did anyone else think that we'd have more time before we met with the Council," Kaidan asked, leaning back in his seat.

    "I'm more surprised at the margin of error that the Ambassador seems comfortable with." Riley wondered what Udina would have done if the Normandy had been delayed in any way. She couldn't imagine that it had been easy to get a live meeting with the Council.

    The three aircars neared the Presidium and they fell in line with precision that could only come from trained pilots or virtual intelligences. They rushed through a series of small barriers, holding the atmosphere back from rushing out into space. From there, it only took a little less than a minute to arrive at the elevator that rose up to the Council chambers at the top.

    As they all clambered out of the cars, Udina turned to his aides. "Go back to the embassy. I'll be back as soon as we're done here."

    The aides left wordlessly as the rest of them entered the elevator. It started rising up as soon as the door slid shut, moving almost as fast as the aircar had been moving.

    Ashley shuffled uncomfortably from her position behind Nihlus, looking pointedly everywhere but the much taller turian.

    "Nihlus," Udina said, completely oblivious to Ashley's uncomfortableness. "Thank you for our help on Eden Prime. I shudder to think what would have happened if you hadn't been around."

    "I was just doing my job, Ambassador." Nihlus glanced down at Udina, looking rather ambivalent about the entire thing.

    "Still, that doesn't lessen your help." Udina nodded in thanks to the Spectre. "Thank you anyways."

    "You're… welcome, Ambassador." Nihlus shifted and clasped his hands behind his back, side glancing at Udina before turning his gaze firmly to the elevator door.

    He did it not a moment too soon, as the elevator arrived. The door slid open to reveal the Citadel chambers, and Riley was barely able to stop herself from gasping in surprise. Even though she had seen the rest of the Citadel, the chambers were on a completely different level. The Presidium might have been the showpiece for the power of the Citadel, but the chambers that the Councillors inhabited were even grander. Cherry trees blossomed in carefully tended gardens, the latest of a series of displays that showcased the most beautiful plants from every council world. The trees were lit up by hidden lights, adding an otherworldly appearance to the entire chamber.

    The chamber themselves was built in a roughly diamond like shape, with long legs leading down to the elevator. The entire room ended in a point, all paths leading directly to the podium that the Council used to preside over the galaxy. The chambers were lit up almost solely by the light of the star behind the Citadel, softened by the serpent nebula between them. Riley figured that it probably backlit the Councilors, adding to their own godlike power.

    "Would you look at that?" Ashley murmured, staring with wide-eyes. She had never seen anything like it, having been raised on Earth and living on colonies after joining the Alliance. "I wonder how much it costs to maintain all of this?"

    "I don't really want to think about it," Kaidan said, shaking his head. His taxes were too high, and he didn't really want to consider how much of his money had gone into maintaining the chambers.

    "I think we can safely say it's more than all of our pay, combined," Riley said with a laugh, shaking her head.

    Together, they all entered the Council chambers, Nihlus, Udina, and Anderson leading them up the stairs towards a large fountain near the center. Ashley looked around at the towering ceiling of the chamber, estimating it to be about a thousand feet above her head. She was walking just far enough behind the much higher ranking men to not be heard.

    "You know what?" She glanced over at Kaidan. "I'd buy a nice couch."

    "A couch?" Kaidan looked at her, confused. Riley shared his look and waited for the woman to continue.

    "You know." Ashley gestured around at the chambers. "If I had this type of cash."

    "A couch." Riley blinked. It certainly wasn't the most ambitious dream that she had ever heard of. At least she never had to worry about Ashley being consumed by her own ambitions and betraying her.

    "Yeah." Ashley shrugged, not at all offended by their lack of understanding. "What good is being rich and famous if you can't find any place to sit down?"

    "A couch…" Even if Ashley wasn't ever going to rebel, Riley wondered why she didn't set her sights just a little higher.

    "It'd be a comfortable couch," Ashley offered, giving an unapologetic shrug.

    "Right…" Riley glanced at Kaidan, who simply chuckled and shook his head. "It's good to know you have ambitions, Williams."

    The conversation over, Riley stepped faster, following after Nihlus, David, and Udina. As they came up the flight of stairs, the group was met with a pair of turians, one in a set of grey C-Sec armor and the other in a finely tailored suit. Riley recognized the turian in the suit, Executor Pallin, the head of Citadel-Security.

    "Saren's hiding something!" The armor turian protested, mandibles flaring in frustration. "Give me some more time. Stall them."

    "Stall the Council?" Pallin almost laughed in the other turians face, shaking his head. "Don't be ridiculous! Your investigation is over, Garrus. Accept that. If you know what's good for you, you'll drop it."

    "Are you threatening me?" The turian, Garrus, sounded surprised and wary, taking a cautious step back.

    "No." With a sigh, Pallin put a hand on Garrus' shoulder. "Saren's a Spectre. Just… be careful, Vakarian. I don't want your father coming after me. That's the last thing I need."

    Pallin left Garrus, walking further into the chambers. Garrus watched his retreating form, his shoulder's slumped in defeat. With a sigh, he hung his head until he caught sight of Nihlus, standing to the right of Udina.

    "Spectre Kryik!" He straightened, almost saluting before he realized that he wasn't a part of the turian military anymore.

    "Detective," Nihlus greeted.

    "I'm Garrus Vakarian," he introduced himself, admiration shining in his eyes. "I'm trying to build a case against Spectre Arterius. I've tried, but no one will listen to me. Is there anything you can do to help?"

    "I can assure you, Vakarian, Saren is going to be brought to Justice." Nihlus nodded, grim.

    "What?" Garrus blinked, surprised. He cocked his head in a manner that reminded Riley of a bird.

    "Watch the proceedings, Vakarian. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."

    Garrus stepped out of their way, watching the group carefully. He blinked again as he noticed Riley. Something told him that he had seen her before, but he couldn't remember from where.

    Going up another flight of stairs, they emerged out onto the main level of the chambers. People lingered about, all from the biggest of the Council races. Some of them conversed on benches that were evenly scattered around the chambers. Military officials from almost every race stood stiffly on the edges of the room, out of place in their starched uniforms decorated in livery and ribbons. Others lingered near large pillars that held up the second level, overlooking the rest of the chamber. They were there for the sole purpose of allowing more of an audience witness important Council decisions.

    Near one of the pillars, Riley glimpsed a salarian standing by a four legged buggy looking alien, shiftily working on his omni-tool. It took her a moment to place the alien. Keepers they were called, she remembered. They had been there when the Asari had first discovered the Citadel, and despite all attempts at contact they had proved to be little more than mindless caretakers of the space station. As time had gone on, they had eventually decided to leave the Keepers alone and let them do their self-ordained task. As even more time passed, the Council (after it had been formed) had ruled that to interfere with the keepers was a punishable offense.

    It certainly looked to Riley like the salarian was 'interfering' with that Keeper, whatever that meant.

    Nihlus ignored everything happening in the chambers, heading for the massive flight of stairs at the other side. He strode up them, taking them two at a time, all the way up to the podium where the Council held their meetings. The rest of them followed after him, taking the steps at a much more normal rate.

    The innermost part of the Council chambers were built to emphasize the power of the Council as much as possible. The platform that they stood on was higher than the platform that all those who came before them. A pair of trees bloomed on either side of their podium, the most well cared for in the entire chamber.

    Stepping onto the platform, Nihlus held his hands behind his back as he looked up at the three Councilors. Tevos T'Kalas stood in the center, her hands clasped gently in front of her waist. The Councilor for the Asari Republics, Tevos was the oldest lived Council member, having seen more of her colleagues come and go than most could ever fathom. Sparatus Adratus stood to Tevos' right, his mandibles firmly held against his face, a very stern look. He had a long a storied history within the turian military, and it was only natural that he had been offered the Council seat. Valern Wajii was both the youngest and (in the terms of his species) the oldest member of the Council. From a society that was matriarchal, Valern had risen through the Dalatrasses houses until they couldn't push him away any more and instead placed him as far away from them as they could. That the Salarian's Council seat had been the only position of high enough rank for him had been a misfortunate happening.

    Udina followed just behind Nihlus, Anderson sticking close to his side. Behind them, Riley waited at the edge of the platform, never quite stepping up with the rest of them. Ashley and Kaidan flanked her, looking overwhelmed by the amount of wealth arrayed before them. By comparison, the Systems Alliance only had the Arcturus Station. Only now that they had stepped foot onboard the Citadel, they both realized that Arcturus could docked within the closed arms of the wards with room to put another five from end to end.

    A hologram of Saren appeared to the right of the Councilors, the left of the platform. He towered over the rest of the chamber, his image reaching almost all the way to the top of the ceiling. He looked smug, leaning his weight on his right leg, his arms crossed.

    "These are worrying charges, Spectre Kryik," Tevos said, starting the meeting. Her lips were thin, and she watched Nihlus carefully. "You must understand our disbelief."

    "They are more than just charges, Councilors." Nihlus glared up at Saren for a moment before turning his full attention to the Councilors. Opening his omni-tool, Nihlus transmitted all of the data he had collected on Eden Prime, including both his and Rainbow Dash's suit recordings, to the Councilors. He had kept it from his official report, waiting until he was standing in front of the Councilors to do it. It was entirely possible that Saren had his own agents within the aides and secretaries of the Council, and they would certainly mess with any information against their master.

    "On Eden Prime, Saren brought the geth," Nihlus said, watching as the Councilors began to review the data. They had long ago become accustomed to reading while listening. "He destroyed the beacon, and he tried to murder me. If it weren't for Flying Officer Dash, I'd be dead."

    The Councilors reached their conclusions one by one, and Saren growled in anger, the data having been relayed to him as well.

    "It's a forgery!" He protested, his mandibles flickering as he glared down at Nihlus. "I'm on Illium. Nihlus is obviously trying to frame me."

    "To what end?" Valern looked up at the image of Saren, squinting his large, inquisitive eyes.

    "I wouldn't know. You'd have to ask Nihlus. That doesn't matter." Saren growled, the speakers relaying his voice vibrating the air with his subharmonics. He turned to look at three Councilors. "Councilors, you know me. I've faithfully served you for decades. I wouldn't do this."

    "Yet you also have a history of rash actions and violent outbursts." Valern frowned, crossing his arms. He blinked owlishly.

    "It doesn't matter." Saren scowled, his eyes squinting ever so slightly at Valern. "The archivists will tell us whether the data is real or not."

    Tevos glanced at Valern, and then Sparatus before looking up at the hologram. "Saren, you are ordered to return to the Citadel for immediate questioning."

    Saren froze, his face going blank. He looked down at the Councilors and bowed. "As you wish, Councilors."

    Before anyone could say anything else, Saren's hologram disappeared.

    Before anyone could say anything else, Saren's hologram disappeared.

    "He's not going to do that, is he?" Ashley whispered, leaning over to Kaidan. She didn't at all look convinced.

    "I'd be surprised if he did," Kaidan whispered back.

    "Yeah…" Ashley nodded, straightening back up. "I didn't think so."

    Now that Saren was gone, the Council turned their attention to Nihlus.

    "You have never lied to us before, Nihlus." Tevos sighed. It was plain on her face that she didn't want to believe anything, but knew that she need to. "We will still have the archives go over your date, but at the very least, I believe you."

    "The evidence is irrefutable," Sparatus agreed, rubbing the plates of his forehead. "We'll strip Saren of his Spectre status."

    "All efforts will be made to bring him in to answer for his crimes." Valern sounded the most level headed of the Councilors, having already processed the information that their most effective agent had betrayed them.

    "Nihlus." Tevos straightened, taking a breath. When she let it out, it was as if nothing had happened to her. "We can't send our fleets after Saren. It could trigger a war with the Terminus Systems."

    "We're sending you into the Traverse after Saren." Sparatus was the last to gather himself back together. In all likelihood, he would be having several long, intense conversations with the Hierarchy over the consequences of Saren's betrayal. "He's a fugitive from justice, so you are authorized to use any means necessary to apprehend or eliminate him."

    Nihlus nodded in understanding to the Councilors before glancing back at Riley. Firming himself, he met the Councilors' gaze. "Commander Shepard performed admirably on Eden Prime."

    The Councilors were silent for a moment, glancing at each other.

    "What are you saying, Nihlus?" Sparatus finally asked.

    "I am recommending her for the Spectres." Nihlus stood tall. It was a bit premature, but he could already see that she deserved. To spend anymore time watching her would be a waste for both of them. "She would be a great asset on the search for Saren."

    "Are you sure, Kryik?" Valern cocked his head, paying careful attention to every word that Nihlus spoke.

    "I am." Nihlus nodded, assure of himself and his own observations.

    "Very well."

    The Councilors glanced at each other as an aide hidden away in a control room several levels away quickly threw together the voting program and projecting it onto the thin consoles before the three of them. Silently, they cast their votes with a simple check of a box. Within moments, the results had come back and the answer was shown to all three of them. They glanced at each other again before turning their attention to the woman standing at the back of the platform.

    Riley could only blink in surprise at the whole proceeding. She could hear Ashley and Kaidan shuffling at the suddenness of the entire thing. This was not at all how she had expected her day to be going. She could only imagine the conversation that she would have to have with her parents over this.

    It probably wouldn't be pretty.

    "Commander Shepard, step forward," Tevos said, her voice almost amused.

    Riley looked to Anderson, and he nodded in reassurance, smiling at her in congratulations. She stepped up next to Nihlus, standing at attention, trying to put out the best of humanity.

    "It is the decision of the Council that you be granted all the power and privileges of the of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance branch of the Citadel." Tevos spoke plainly and clearly, her voice carrying every bit of the power and gravitas that only a seven-hundred year old Asari could convey.

    "Spectres are not trained, but chosen." Valern took over for Tevos, his voice thin and reedy compared to hers. "Individuals forged in the fire of service and battle; those whose actions elevate them above the rank and file."

    "Spectres are an ideal, a symbol." Tevos began again. "The embodiment of courage, determination, and self-reliance. They are the right hand of the Council, instruments of our will."

    "Spectres bear a great burden," Sparatus spoke for the first time. He didn't look fully happy about what was happening, but he wasn't going to go against the others. "They are protectors of galactic peace, both our first and last line of defense. The safety of the galaxy is theirs to uphold."

    "You are the first human Spectre, Commander Shepard." Tevos finished up the speech. "This is a great accomplishment for you and your entire species."

    "I am honored, Councilors," Riley said, bowing her head.

    "You will assist Spectre Kryik in his mission," Valern ordered, his voice growing bigger than the size of his species.

    "This meeting of the Council is adjourned." Tevos bowed her head, and just as suddenly as everything had happened, it was over. The Councilors were gone and the podium was empty.

    Ignoring all of that, Nihlus turned to Riley. He bowed his head, his mandibles flaring in acknowledgement of her achievement. "Congratulations, Shepard. You deserve this."

    "Congratulations, Commander." His voice full of pride, Anderson walked up to Riley. He shook her hand, but in his eyes, she could see that he wanted nothing more than to hug her. That would be something for later, when they were alone.

    "I'm sure you will do humanity proud." Udina was already on his omni-tool, flipping through what looked like hundreds of messages. "There's a lot of work ahead of us. You'll need a ship, a crew, supplies…"

    Blinking, Udina turned to Anderson. "Captain, come with me. I'll need your help to set all of this up."

    "And you need to come with me, Shepard." Nihlus stepped up to Riley, putting one of his hands on his shoulder.

    "Alright." Riley glanced at Ashley and Kaidan. "You two should head back to the Normandy."

    "Congratulations, Commander," Ashley murmured, admiration burning in her eyes as she looked at Riley.

    "Thank you, Williams," Riley said, nodding to her.

    Before she could say anything else, Nihlus led her out of the Council chambers.

    ###

    Almost all races (save the Volus) had ended up imagining some type of hero that could work outside of the law by the time that they emerged out into space to join the rest of the galaxy. It seemed to be one of those things that happened sooner or later in a race's evolution. Humanity had James Bond. Equestria had Daring Do. The turians had Caius Orosis, a rogue general who took down his legion after they betrayed him and the Hierarchy. The salarians simply leaked the stories of their Special Tasks Group, several generations removed of course. The Asari had the Justicar, who were both common characters in their entertainment and an actual order who all maidens dreamed of being (or oftentimes bedding).

    It was only inevitable that the SpecTRes emerge after the formation of the Council. It was after the murder of the current Council at the beginning of the Krogan Rebellions that it was decided an extralegal force was needed, with the authority to do whatever they needed to to preserve galactic peace. In a very real way, the Spectres had a direct lineage with all of the heroes of the races that joined the Citadel.

    It was that thought that sat in the pit of Riley's stomach, an uncomfortable feeling that made her wonder if this was all just a dream.

    The cramp in her hand let her know that it wasn't. Who knew that becoming a Spectre would require so much paperwork? Actual paperwork, instead of just a holopad. That was an extreme rarity with the majority of all Citadel cultures, save for Equestria, which was still undergoing a cultural revolution from its reawakening.

    After nearly an hour of signing her name again and again on countless documents, Nihlus brought her to awaiting aircar. They flew in silence through the ring of the Presidium, until finally the aircar descended and landed in front of a small, nondescript office building that sat nestled between the Asari and Salarian embassies. It was near featureless, with no windows or signage of any kind.

    "I'm about to show you one of the most heavily guarded places in the entire galaxy." Nihlus grinned with his mandibles, striding towards the only door in the building.

    A few feet behind him, Riley took in the building. It looked completely unremarkable, but that didn't mean anything, especially with what Nihlus had just told her.

    Nihlus led her up to the front door, which opened without a prompt from either of them. Riley glanced at Nihlus, but he didn't seem at all surprised or worried by that development. He stepped inside, and she followed behind him. Crossing the threshold, she found herself in what looked like a small waiting room. A few chairs lined the walls, which were decorated with several paintings from what looked like Asari artists.

    "What is this?" Riley asked, unsure.

    "The first line of defense." Nihlus walked up to a small desk at the other side of the room, opposite the front door. Carefully, he placed his hand down on the surface of the table, and winced as it took a blood sample, scanned his DNA, and ran his finger prints.

    A soft ding sounded in the room and Nihlus stood up straight, massaging his palm where the needle had taken his blood. He stepped aside, gesturing for Riley to step up next to him.

    "Place your hand there," he said, pointing at the spot on the table.

    "What this for?" Riley asked as she followed his instructions. The process repeated itself, and she didn't so much as flinch when the needle jabbed into her palm.

    "It's your first time coming through here," Nihlus said, crossing his arms. "So right now it's just inserting you into the system."

    The system was apparently satisfied, because a hidden door behind the table slid open, revealing a long, narrow hallway. The door itself looked like it was three feet thick, and clearly designed to repel a major assault.

    "No one is allowed any further without being in the system." Stepping through the door, Nihlus waited for Riley to follow after him. "There are a bunch of nasty surprises waiting for anyone who tries."

    "Huh…" Riley glanced back as the door slid shut behind them, locking with a solid thunk.

    Ignoring that, Nihlus led her down the long hall, which branched off at the end into another long hallway that ran parallel with the front of the building. The halls were incredibly narrow, barely enough room to walk single file either direction, and Riley guessed that it was probably another hidden defense feature. It would be far too easy to turn these halls into a funneling point, killing anybody who had gotten through the front door and using their bodies to block any movement forward.

    Nihlus led her down the right hall, and it led to what appeared to be a dead end. He placed his hand on a spot a little more than halfway up the wall, and once again, he was scanned and tested and another door opened. He stepped in.

    As soon as Nihlus was through the door, Riley blinked in amazement at what she saw before her.

    The room housed one of the biggest, most well-stocked armories that she had ever seen before in her life. There wasn't a single piece of equipment that could be considered sub-standard, or even mid-range. She didn't even recognize some of the items that lined the racks.

    "Oh yes…" Stepping into the room, Riley felt a wide grin growing on her face. She did nothing to try and hide it from Nihlus.

    "You have the appreciation, I see," Nihlus said, laughing. He held out his arms, seeming to encompass the entire room as he did so. "There are definitely benefits to becoming a Spectre."

    Walking over to the nearest rack, Nihlus lifted up a matte black assault rifle, unfolding it into its full sized version. It was sleek and slim, unlike the standard M8 Avenger the Systems Alliance issued to every new marine. "As a Spectre, you get access to the best weapons and prototypes from the finest armorers across the galaxy. This is the M447, a prototype assault rifle from Hyland-Sorah."

    "What don't they make?" Riley's eyebrows raised and she took the rifle from Nihlus almost reverently, testing its weight against her shoulder. The rifle felt like a work of art, like nothing she had ever seen before. It was light, yet it felt strong, like it wouldn't break if dropped from any height.

    "Excuse me?" Nihlus asked, not quite understanding.

    "Sorry." Riley blushed, ducking her head ever so slightly. "I was just thinking of their slogan."

    "We get the best toys." Nihlus nodded, not really understanding, but he didn't care enough to dig any deeper there.

    Riley collapsed the rifle, holding it back out for Nihlus to take.

    "Do you like it?" Nihlus asked, holding his hand up.

    "I want to see how she fires first, but yeah." Riley looked at the rifle, almost hungrily.

    "You like it, it's yours."

    Riley looked down at the rifle with new appreciation, then at the rest of the armory.

    "We're here to outfit you." Shifting his weight onto one of his legs, Nihlus chuckled.

    "I thought Spectres outfitted themselves." Raising an eyebrow, Riley cradled the rifle in her arm, just like Gunny Ellison had taught her. "I thought the Council didn't support us financially."

    "We do, and they don't," Nihlus said, nodding at her points. He gestured at the racks of weapons surrounding them. "But there is nothing worse than having a new recruit die in the first month. We set all of this up for ourselves. The Council has no involvement with any of this. We tend to fend for ourselves, but it always helps to have a place that we can retreat to, in case the worst ever happens."

    "Huh." Riley hadn't been expecting the Spectres to be so practical.

    "Step up here." Walking over to line of fabricators at the back of the room, Nihlus pointed at the closest to them.

    Handing him the rifle, Riley did as he asked. With a quick press of a button, the fabricator started, measuring every imaginable part of her with state of the art scanners. Through her clothes, gathering every single possible measurement of her body. With a quiet whine, the machine turned itself off.

    "You can step off now." Behind a large grouping of holo-displays, Nihlus was typing quickly on a keyboard.

    "Custom armor fabrication?" Riley asked as she walked over to join him behind the holodisplays. A 3D recreation of her body had appeared on the screens, sheathed in a simple suit of armor.

    "Another experiment from Hyland-Sorah." Nihlus nodded. "It really only works for humans and asari, but I've heard good things."

    Before Riley could start working on her armor, the door to the armory slid open. They both turned just in time to see an asari and a salarian enter.

    "Tela." Nihlus recognized both of them, nodding in greeting. "Jondum."

    "Nihlus." Tela sauntered up to them, resting a hand on her hip as she look over Riley. She looked her up and down before holding out a hand to shake. "You must be Commander Shepard. I'm Tela Vasir. Welcome to the Spectres."

    "It's good to meet you." Riley shook Tela's hand.

    "This is Jondum Bau, STG." Tela motioned for Jondum to come forward, and he also shook Riley's hand, an easy grin on his face.

    "Tela's one of the oldest Spectres working for the Council," Nihlus explained. Tela grinned cockily at that. "She's trained more than a few of us.

    Out of the corner of her eye, Riley saw Tela's mouth turn downwards just for a second before settling back into a look of careful neutrality.

    "Saren?" Riley asked, her voice low.

    "Yes." Tela nodded once. Glancing at Nihlus, she held his gaze for a moment. "Can I speak to you in private?"

    Studying her face, Nihlus nodded. She led him into a side office that Riley hadn't noticed before, leaving her and Jondum alone.

    "So…" Riley nodded appreciatively. "STG?"

    "Yes." Jondum grinned widely, nodding almost too fast for her to see. "Wonderful organization. Hope to join the Spectres soon."

    "Huh." She didn't really have anything else to say to that.

    ###

    Tela pulled Nihlus into the side office, slamming the door shut, leaving Riley and Jondum alone. Grabbing Nihlus, she shoved him against the closest wall before wrapping herself around him, kissing him as deeply as she could. He wrapped his arms around her, and after the kiss ended a glorious three minutes later, they relaxed against each other. Tela rested her head against his shoulder, taking a deep breath of his scent. She had always loved that about him. He smelled of gun oil, sandalwood, and something she had never been able to identify, and closing her eyes, she thanked the goddess that she had another chance to hold him in her arms.

    "Goddess…" She murmured. "When I heard…"

    "I'm fine." Nihlus did his best to reassure her. "I survived."

    "You did." Taking a breath, Tela took a step back after kissing Nihlus' forehead. Shutting her eyes, she let out that breath and felt all of the emotions that had plagued her since she had learned about Eden Prime leave her body. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have that."

    "You don't have to put up the mask around me, Tela." Nihlus laughed, his mandibles fluttering. He put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes shining with admiration.

    "What if they had seen that?" Tela gestured over her shoulder back outside. It would have been completely unprofessional.

    "Shepard wouldn't care." Nihlus shrugged. Tela had always tried to keep herself professional around those that hadn't been able to worm their way through the cracks in her mask. "And Jondum probably already knows."

    "You're probably right…" Tela shook her head, realizing the truth of his statement.

    "You should know better by now that I'm always right." Leaning back against the wall, Nihlus crossed his arms over his chest.

    Tela scoffed, shaking her head.

    A moment passed, the levity of moments before fading away, and Tela pulled Nihlus close again.

    "I've lost too many friends," she said with a quiet voice, steel hidden within them. "Too many lovers… Saren is going to pay for even trying to take you from me."

    "Don't do anything rash, Tela." Nihlus knew Tela would do whatever she wanted, but maybe he could be the voice of reason.

    "You can't tell me what to do." She narrowed her eyes, watching him carefully.

    "No." Nihlus agreed with her. "Take it as a suggestion at best."

    "As you wish." With a sigh, Tela nodded and pursed her lips.

    Nihlus turned to step out of the office, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He glanced back at her, shifting when he noticed the shift in her posture.

    "I'm not leaving until tomorrow." She let her voice trailed off at the end.

    "You know where I live." Nihlus had to look away to keep from laughing. For all the years that he had known her, she had never been able to pull off the seductive asari like the rest of her race. She was too much the Huntress to ever be able to do that.

    "It's a date, then."

    ###

    SSV Normandy, Docking Bay 422, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    There was nothing quite so boring as being confined to a bed in a med-bay. There was nothing to do, nothing to read (her omni-tool was left in her locker and she wouldn't be able to get it until Riley returned), and no matter what she did she couldn't find it in herself to fall asleep. Looking over, Rainbow looked at Karin. She was sitting at her desk with a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose, reading her book. Every so often, she would flip the page, her eyes scanning over the text.

    The door to the med-bay opened, and they both looked over. Rainbow couldn't quite help the little squeak of surprise when she found Twilight Sparkle and Gilda standing there, Twilight with a happy little smile on her muzzle and Gilda a slightly nervous stance as her eyes darted about, almost like she was expecting someone to tell her she wasn't supposed to be there.

    "Can I help you?" Chakwas asked, taking off her glasses and setting her book down. She stood, looking down at the two Equestrians in her doorway.

    "We're here to see Rainbow Dash!" Twilight chirped, trotting in. Gilda followed after her at a much more sedate pace.

    "And you were just allowed to walk onto the Alliance's most secure warship to do so?" Raising an eyebrow, Chakwas gave the pony a chance to explain.

    "Yep!" Twilight beamed, not quite catching Chakwas' subtle demand for more information. That woman held an iron fist over her patients, and she was doing quite a bit to protect them, including kicking the third most important Equestrian out of her med-bay if she wasn't supposed to be there.

    "She's asking why the Captain let you onboard, Twi," Rainbow said, rolling her eyes.

    "Oh!" Twilight blushed, ducking her head ever so slightly. She looked up at Chakwas, smiling apologetically. "I'm Twilight Sparkle. I've known Rainbow nearly my entire life."

    "She's the third most powerful pony in the galaxy." Gilda rolled her eyes. Twilight hadn't answered the question and she wasn't sure whether her marefriend had actually understood the question.

    "Really?" Chakwas raised her eyebrows. She activated her omni-tool. "Let me just check that. Pressly, did you allow a Twilight Sparkle onboard?"

    "Yes." Pressly answered with a short voice.

    "Thank you, Pressly." Closing her omni-tool, she gave a much friendlier smile to Twilight and Gilda. "I apologize."

    Looking over at Rainbow, Chakwas eyed her patient for any sign of distress. "Would you like some privacy?"

    "I don't really care," Rainbow said, shrugging.

    "I'll just go get some coffee." Chakwas left them alone, stepping between Gilda and Twilight and out of the med-bay. The door slid shut behind her, leaving the three Equestrians alone.

    "Hey guys." Rainbow waved as Twilight and Gilda trotted up her bed. She sat up to greet them, wincing as she readjusted around the pillows to support her back. She hoof bumped Gilda, nodding at the quiet griffin. "G."

    "We heard you were on the Citadel and that you were shot." Twilight explained, looking Rainbow over. She raised an eyebrow at her rather ridiculous pajamas, and Rainbow just shrugged.

    "Yeah." She liked her pajamas, regulations be damned. "I can't really recommend it. It sucked."

    "What happened?" Gilda giggled. "I thought you were too awesome to get shot?"

    "I saved someone's life!" Rainbow Dash blustered, scuffing. She crossed her hooves, glaring at her.

    "I dunno Dash…" Gilda snickered, poking the pegasus with one of her claws. "That doesn't really sound that awesome to me. Does that sound awesome to you, Twilight?"

    "Not really no." Twilight couldn't help but giggle at Rainbow's wounded look.

    Rainbow glared at both of them for a moment, but none of them could hold it for very long. Within seconds they started giggling. It was a good moment, and Rainbow was glad that they had decided to come and visit her (though she was wondering just how they had managed to talk themselves onto the Normandy).

    "What are you two doing on the Citadel?" Rainbow asked, moving onto bigger things. "I thought you guys were on Equestria."

    Twilight glanced at Gilda, who urged her on to explain everything to their closest friend.

    "Right." Twilight nodded. "Princess Celestia asked me to search for the Elements of Harmony."

    "The what?" Rainbow had literally never heard of whatever it was that Twilight had just said.

    "They're a physical manifestations of the magic and harmony that holds Equestria together!" Twilight stomped her hoof for emphasis, wondering not for the first time what was wrong with Equestria's educational system.

    Rainbow looked at Gilda for an explanation.

    "They're cool magic weapons."

    "Got it." Rainbow nodded and looked back at Twilight, waiting for her to continue.

    "That's not all that they are!" Twilight growled, scrunching up her muzzle in frustration.

    "Seems pretty straightforward to me."

    Dropping back onto her haunches, Twilight crossed her forelegs in annoyance. She grumbled to herself, too quiet to hear.

    "Don't pay any attention to her," Gilda said, waving a claw in her direction. "She gets grumpy when she can't go full egghead."

    "Never go full egghead, Twilight," Rainbow said, looking over at Twilight.

    Twilight just rolled her eyes, continuing to grumble to herself.

    Ignoring her, Rainbow turned her attention to Gilda. "What's up with you, G? You look like you're doing better."

    "I'm doing good." Surprisingly, Gilda did feel like she was doing better. It had been almost five moths since she had last seen Dash, and she knew that she hadn't been so hot then. "If it weren't for Twilight and Princess Celestia, I'd still be a gibbering wreck."

    "Looks like she's rubbing off on you." Rainbow laughed, covering her mouth with a hoof. "Gibbering."

    Gilda blushed, and Rainbow laughed again, looking between her and Twilight. "Maybe in more ways than one."

    "Rainbow Dash!" Twilight cried out, blushing at her friend's insinuation.

    "Oh Celestia, too much." Rainbow cackled and giggled, clutching her barrel until the laughter actually started to hurt. She winced, tears gathering in her eyes. "Too much!"

    "Only you'd hurt yourself making a sex joke, Dash." Rolling her eyes, Gilda leaned against the bed.

    "Oh, shut up." Rainbow crossed her forehooves.

    "How long does the doctor say you're going to be out for?" Twilight asked, hoping to move the conversation along.

    "Another week." Rainbow scolded at them, her good mood disappearing at the reminder of her situation.

    "That's not so bad." Twilight smiled.

    "Yeah, easy for you to say." Rolling her eyes, Rainbow scoffed. "I'm bored out of my mind."

    "You have your omni-tool don't you?" Twilight asked, trying to offer a suggestion.

    "No. It's stuck in my locker." She shrugged. "It doesn't matter anyway. I want to get moving. My hooves itch. My wings itch. These sheets itch."

    "Read a book, Dash." Gilda offered.

    "Are you betraying me, G?" Rainbow scoffed at her, faking hurt with a hoof over her heart. "Have you joined the legion of eggheads?"

    "I'm dating the biggest of them all." Gilda shrugged, unapologetic. "It's certified, notarized, and everything."

    "Hey!" Twilight pushed Gilda, only half offended.

    "I'm glad you guys are here." Smiling, Rainbow Dash wondered what she had done to deserve such good friends.

    "What type of friends would we be if we didn't come and visit you?" Twilight fell silent for a moment. She looked down at her saddle bag, and the journal she knew was within it.

    "Rainbow…" Twilight stammered, wondering how she was supposed to ask Rainbow her question. "Have you ever…"

    "Spit it out, Twi." Rainbow had grown used to Twilight's ways long ago. Sometimes you just needed to push her along.

    "What…" Twilight sighed, before firming herself up and trying again. "What would you say if I told you that I found a journal that both you and I have written in, about events that have never happened."

    "I'd say that you're crazy." Rainbow raised an eyebrow.

    Taking the journal out of her saddle bag with her magic, Twilight set it gently on Rainbow's bed.

    "What's this?" Rainbow poked it with a hoof.

    "A journal I found that both you and I wrote in, about events that never happened." Twilight explained, an eager look on her face.

    "Huh…" Rainbow stared at it for a moment before opening it with her hoof. Almost instantly she found a journal entry in her own familiar, sloppy hoof-writing. "That's definitely new."

    "Tell me something I don't know." Twilight nodded in in excitement.

    "Why are you trying to find these artifacts of harmony?" Rainbow asked, looking up at Twilight.

    "Elements, Rainbow, not artifacts." Twilight corrected her almost without a conscious thought. "And Princess Celestia believes that we need them to stop something bad from happening."

    "Why does she think that?" Something bad?

    "The dream."

    It took Rainbow a moment to understand what Twilight was talking about.

    "The dream…" She tapped a hoof against her chin. "I thought I'd just had something funky to eat."

    "All of Equestria has a shared nightmare, and you think you just had some bad salad dressing?" Gilda laughed, shaking her head in amusement. "Only you, Dash."

    "So I don't always pay attention when I should," Rainbow did her best to defend herself, "but I get the gist of things!"

    Twilight rolled her eyes.

    "Where'd it come from?" Rainbow pointed at the journal with her hoof.

    "Under the throne room of the Princesses' old castle," Twilight explained, going into her teaching mode. "Somepony took the Elements, but they left clues on where to find them."

    "Clues?"

    "The Citadel was the first one!" Jumping up to all four of her hooves, Twilight practically danced in excitement. "We're here, but there's no sign of the Elements."

    "Right…" Rainbow looked at the two of them. "Well, good luck with that."

    ###

    Nihlus' Apartment, Presidium, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    As a Spectre, Nihlus didn't get much of a chance to settle down. He was on the move so often that he didn't have much in the way of physical possessions. Despite all of that, he kept an apartment for himself on the Presidium. He could more than afford it, and it was nice to have a place to relax whenever he was on the Citadel. It was kept constantly clean by the C-Sec cleaning crew that came by every other week.

    Entering his apartment, Nihlus dropped his bag just inside his door, taking a moment to look around. Everything was just where he had left it, all the way down to the incredibly expensive painting of Armali that Tela had given to him last time she was here.

    Walking to his kitchen, he opened his refrigerator. The C-Sec cleaning crew always restocked the apartment with fresh food when they dropped by, on the off-chance that he made an appearance.

    Popping his beer open, he took a long drink. Closing his eyes, he enjoyed himself for a moment. There were so few times that he was able to just relax. It was good sometimes to just pretend like he had a normal life, like he wasn't shot at what felt like every other day.

    Walking into his bedroom, Nihlus started to pull off his armor. The chest piece came first, and he set it gently into its slot in the wall next to his bed. That armor had saved his life more times than he was willing to count, and he made sure that it was always carefully tended to. He did the same with the rest of his armor before throwing on his casual clothes, making sure that it was something nice that Tela would appreciate. He hadn't seen her for months, and he was looking forward to tonight.

    Finishing off his beer, Nihlus headed back to his kitchen, where he pulled out a bottle of Thessian honey wine for Tela and a bottle of Palaven brandy for himself.

    The knock at the door pulled him away from doing anything else.

    Walking over, Nihlus opened the door. Tela was on the other side, dressed in smooth clothes that showed off all of her curves in just the right way. She had never been one for doing anything that wasn't entirely practical.

    "Spirits Tela." They embraced, touching their foreheads together in a turian kiss. They were bondmates, though they had so few chances to see each other. It wasn't exactly a secret, but they never broadcasted it to anyone who didn't ask. So far, no one had. "I've missed you."

    Laughing, Tela stepped around him and into his apartment. He shut the door and followed after her. In the kitchen, she found the bottle of wine and looked back at him, her eyebrows raising as she turned to look at Nihlus.

    "I see you're bringing out the good stuff." She studied the label for a moment before looking back up at him. "From the T'Goni vineyards… God, this was bottled the year I was born."

    Popping the bottle open, she poured herself a glass. Taking a sip, she savored it.

    "I think it's deserved," Nihlus said, leaning against the wall, watching her every move.

    "You're certainly right about that." With a wink, Tela sauntered forward and kissed him on the cheek, never letting go of glass. "Happy anniversary."

    Chuckling, Nihlus poured himself a tumbler of brandy before pulling Tela into the living room. Together, they settled down onto one of his couches that looked out over the rest of the Presidium. They rested in silence for several minutes, just enjoying their alcohol and each other. When two people who spent so much of their time fighting and killing, it was good to just sit in silence sometimes.

    "So…" Tela finally broke the silence. "A human?"

    "Yes." Nihlus nodded, rubbing her shoulder.

    "Huh…" Tela chewed on that for a moment. It wasn't the craziest thing she had ever heard. That had been when someone had suggested a hanar Spectre. "She any good?"

    "She has the spark, if that's what you're asking." Spectres weren't trained, they were chosen. Either you had what it took to be one of the Council's best agents or you didn't, it was as simple as that.

    Boom!

    It took Tela a moment to understand what had happened. She heard the breaking of glass, the splattering of fluids, and the rush of a bullet. She didn't immediately feel any pain, which was a good thing.

    She didn't feel Nihlus pulling her down off the couch in response to the gunfire. Instead, she pulled him down with her. "Shit! Nihlus, did you see anything?"

    There wasn't any reply from her bondmate.

    Looking over, Tela found the most horrific sight waiting for her. Nihlus was completely still, the back of his head missing and his blue blood draining out onto the floor between them. That shot had never been meant for her. Someone had just assassinated him.

    Someone had just assassinated Nihlus.

    The next thing that Tela felt was boiling rage. It built up in her chest until it was too great to withhold anymore and she screamed. Leaping up, she pushed herself over the couch and ran towards the window. With a roar, she pulled back her fist and ignited her biotics, punching through the bullet proof glass, right where the bullet had smashed through.

    Tela landed on one of the boardwalks above the Presidium lake in a shower of glass and shimmering biotics. Civilians screamed in terror as she pulled her handgun from the back of her waistband and started firing shots at the distant figure across the way.

    She glared as the figure tried to flee.

    "Oh no you don't!" Tela growled under her breath. She started running towards the edge of the boardwalk, crouching down and punching at the ground with both of her fists. Biotically, she blasted herself across the Presidium lake all the way to an overlook on the other side with restaurants and shops. She ignored the cries of terror and surprise at her sudden appearance, taking off running. She was already plotting it all out inside her head. There were only two places where the assassin could flee, one if the assassin was trying to escape into the wards.

    She knew what she needed to do.

    Tela rushed onto a walkway, one of the many keeper tunnels and incredibly out of bound for the public. Taking a deep breath, she stopped, firming her brow and preparing.

    She didn't have to wait long.

    A figure rushed out at the other end of the walkway, a turian female cradling a broken arm. Before she could react, Tela had already fired.

    Bang, bang, bang!

    The turian dropped to the ground with a cry, a folded up sniper rifle rolling out other hands.

    Stalking forward, Tela kicked the turian over onto her back. She couldn't resist the need to punch her in the face, knocking the assassin out cold. As much as she wanted to, she restrained herself from killing the assassin.

    Taking a breath, Tela tried her best to keep herself from crying.

    Kneeling down, Tela pulled the turians omni-tool off her wrist. Opening it, she started a cursory look over.

    One file immediately stood out.

    From: Senka Wright

    To: Vatia Ramlin

    Target Information - Operation Level 9009

    SPECTRE Nihlus Kryik.

    Terminate with Extreme Prejudice.

    Message End.

    The rage that had burned inside her died out almost instantly. Tela had a suspicion where the message had come from, and it definitely was not good.

    14. Chapter Thirteen - This is New

    Chapter Thirteen - This is New…

    Kithoi Ward, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    April 11, 2183

    The Citadel was a wonderful, glorious place. The heart of galactic civilization, it attracted millions of visitors every year. It was a place that fortunes were won, and also lost. It wasn't unheard of for people to lose everything there, left homeless and alone. It had only been a matter of time until the shelters had been built across all of the wards. They were built for those who had no way to leave to find shelter. Sometimes an act of kindness was as simple as offering someone a place to rest their head.

    Twilight and Gilda stood outside the Kithoi Ward's shelter, staring up at it incredulously.

    "Are you sure this is the right place?" Gilda cocked her head, staring at the welcoming, if slightly run down, building.

    Twilight checked her omni-tool, comparing the address to the one that Blueblood had sent them, just to make sure. Just like she had thought, the addresses matched perfectly. Twilight looked at Gilda and nodded. "It's the right place."

    "Alright…" Gilda didn't sound at all convinced. From what she had seen of Rarity, she couldn't imagine the prissy mare spending any of her time in such a dirty place as the shelter. She shrugged, unwilling to argue the point and just wanting to get in and out as fast as possible.

    Together, they entered the shelter, passing around classless turians, exiled salarians, and krogan who wouldn't stand a fly's chance in hell in a battle.

    The shelter was a contradiction in and of itself. It was a place for the unfortunate souls of the galaxy to find refuge, but it was located in the single most prosperous place in the Milky Way. Beings who owned entire star systems frequented themselves on the station, but despite the immense amount of wealth that moved through daily, poverty still existed.

    The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. That was simply the way the galaxy seemed to work, no matter which planet you fled to or how many new races you met. Those with power tended to guard it closely.

    It was an unfortunate truth.

    The inside of the shelter was filled to the brim with aliens, most of them waiting in line for food, cheap plastic trays in their hands. Serving all of them warm bowls of soup was Rarity, careful to make sure that everyone walked away with a smile. She served from two pots, careful to keep the ladles separate for the dextro and levo races. Her mane was tied back in a loose bun, managing to look fabulous even in her apron and hair net.

    Glancing at Gilda, Twilight was only met by a shrug. She had never imagined the mare would actually want to spend her time around anyone unfashionable. Together, they walked towards Rarity, just in time to watch Sweetie Belle trot out from the kitchen with a big pot on her back, labeled dextro in several different languages. She switched it out with the empty one that Rarity had just finished with before returning to the kitchen, humming to herself the entire way.

    Noticing Twilight and Gilda's approach, Rarity looked over to her supervisor, an Asari Matriarch in much the same garb as her, an apron tied around her clothes.

    "T'Reos," Rarity called out, her voice rising above the din of voices. "I'm taking my break."

    "Got it, Rarity." T'Reos nodded, waving her away even as she poured a bowl for a twitchy looking Salarian.

    Rarity stepped aside and Sweetie Belle practically rushed forward to take her place as she returned from the kitchen, squeakily serving the next turian in line.

    Seeing that her sister had everything in hoof, Rarity motioned for Twilight and Gilda to follow her over to a quiet corner near the back of the shelter. She recognized that Twilight was obviously there for her and probably wished for some semblance of privacy.

    "What can I help you, Emissary Sparkle?" Rarity asked after they were all seated around a small table. She kept her voice soft and respectful, not wishing to offend Twilight in anyway. After she had left Twilight's ship, she had returned to her hotel room and looked up everything about the unicorn. After nearly two hours of reading over everything publicly available, she knew just how important Twilight and her position to Equestria actually were.

    "We need to speak with you, actually." Twilight glanced around at everyone in the shelter, wilting a little before turning back to Rarity. "We need to speak with you somewhere a bit more private. This conversation isn't something that should be spoken of too freely."

    Rarity blinked, the only sign of her surprise. "Why do you need me? I am just a fashion designer."

    "You are far more important than you could imagine." Twilight smiled. Rarity would never even be able to begin to guess how her very existence had managed to catch the attention of so many important ponies. She was going to have to take a deeper look at the journal as soon as she returned to the ship.

    Rarity was silent for several long moments before she nodded, hesitant. "Alright… I am done volunteering in another hour. We could get lunch and you can explain to me why you need to speak to me."

    "That sounds good." Twilight glanced at Gilda, who nodded in agreement. "We'll be waiting."

    "There's a small diner called The Lighthouse on the Presidium. It should give us the privacy we need." Rarity knew the place quite well. Fancy Pants had recommended it to her before she had left Equestria and it had indeed proved to be a delightful place.

    "We'll meet you there, then," Twilight said as she stood from the table.

    Rarity trotted away from them, getting back to her work. She watched the retreating forms of Twilight and Gilda as they left the shelter, disappearing beneath of the throng of people.

    ###

    The Lighthouse, Presidium, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    Twilight and Gilda sat at a large corner table on a patio that overlooked the Presidium lake. They had a completely unobstructed view the entirety of the Presidium in both directions, and almost directly across from them, rising out of the middle of the lake, was the prothean statue of the Mass Relay. It towered over them by a good one-hundred feet, still nowhere close to touching the 'sky' of the Presidium.

    They both sat sipping at cups of tea, waiting for Rarity to arrive. They had the patio completely to themselves, the other tables having been cleared away by the wait staff as soon as Twilight had given the manager the look that so many other politicians used. They were to have the utmost privacy, and Twilight was willing to pay for that. Gilda had been more than a little uneasy about that, but Twilight had watched both Celestia and Luna do it plenty of times before. Speaking privately to one of the supposed Element Bearers was more than worth the comparatively paltry sum she was paying the restaurant.

    As soon as they had taken a seat at their table, Twilight had set up a small device she had found onboard Solar One. It jammed all nearby recording devices and scrambled their voices from a certain distance away. Nobody was going to be able to listen in on them.

    "Gods!" Gilda cursed, her eyes widening as she looked up from reading her omni-tool.

    "What?" Twilight looked up from reading her menu, startled by Gilda's sudden exclamation. "What is it?"

    "That Spectre that Dash saved was assassinated." Gilda clacked her beak, having been able to piece that much together from her own rather elementary reading abilities.

    "Celestia!" Twilight cursed, rocking back in her seat, confused and startled. "Really?"

    "Yeah…" Gilda nodded. "I wonder what Dash is feeling like… saving a dude, just for him to die later. That has to suck."

    "We should send her a message after this."

    "Yeah."

    Before Twilight could say anything else, her gaze slipped past Gilda to the statue of the Relay behind her. Gilda continued talking, but Twilight didn't hear any of her words, all noise seeming to fall away to silence. Twilight's gaze lingered on the statue, its inner rings seeming to start to spin. A deep thrum rushed and resonated through her body, shaking her all the way to her soul. It almost felt like she was being pulled towards it.

    "I must say, you've certainly picked the best spot in the entire restaurant."

    Twilight jerked her gaze away from the Relay, surprised at the sudden voice cutting through her trance. Turning, she was just in time to see Rarity and Sweetie Belle approaching their table. Sweetie Belle was looking around at the rest of the empty patio, amazed at the fact that Twilight had paid for the entire thing for their private use.

    "Hello, Rarity," Twilight said, managing not to stumble over herself. A shiver passed down her spine and she felt eyes on the back of her head but she didn't turn to look.

    "Emissary Sparkle." Rarity greeted. "Gilda."

    "Please, call me Twilight." Despite the fact it was indeed her title, Twilight felt no particular need to remind ponies of it every moment.

    "If you insist." Rarity sounded uneasy about that for just a moment, but quickly brushed it away. She pulled out a seat with her magic for Sweetie Belle, waiting for the filly to get situated before taking a seat of her own. "You certainly didn't have to clear out the restaurant for us."

    "It's pretty cool though!" Sweetie put her forehooves on the table, her voice squeaking. She looked at her sister, almost accusingly. "Why don't you do this, Rarity?"

    "Well, it's quite expensive, Sweetie Belle." Rarity blushed.

    "I really did have to," Twilight explained, ignoring Rarity's embarrassment. "What we have to talk about is a matter of Equestrian security. Privacy is needed, and cost isn't an issue here."

    "I see." Rarity didn't see at all, but she was willing to wait and see what Twilight would say.

    "This is part of the reason why we're here?" Looking back to her saddle-bags, Twilight pulled the Journal out and set it down on the table before Rarity.

    "A book?" Sweetie Belle cocked her head staring at it, confused.

    "A journal, actually." Twilight gently corrected the filly.

    "What is so important about that journal that you needed to come to me?" Something big was happening, Rarity could see that. What she couldn't see was how she was in anyway involved.

    Twilight didn't answer Rarity verbally. Instead, she flipped the journal open until she found the right page, then held it out for Rarity to read.

    Glancing at Twilight for a long moment, Rarity glanced down and started to read.

    Twilight and Gilda watched as Rarity's eyes grew wider and wider the further down the page she got. It was a fairly typical reaction they were beginning to understand.

    "H-How?" Rarity looked up at them, astounded and more than a little afraid. She had never seen that journal before in her life, but there it was as clear as day, her hoof writing. She could recognize it anywhere.

    "We don't know." Twilight shut the journal, placing it on the table. "We found the journal in the Everfree Castle after the Dream."

    Both Rarity and Sweetie Belle flinched at the mention of the dream. It had hit both of them hard, and it was only after reconnecting with the outside world after meeting with Blueblood that they realized it was a galaxy wide thing.

    "We were searching for a group of six artifacts called the Elements of Harmony, to use them against the coming darkness that the dream prophesied," Twilight explained. She glanced over at Gilda. "The Elements are gone. In their place, we found the journal and a map of the galaxy as it stands today, with six location for us to travel to."

    "And the Citadel was the first of these locations." Rarity nodded in understanding, wondering just what situation she had found herself in.

    "Yes." Nodding, Twilight leaned forward. "I've already searched the Citadel Archives for any hint of the Elements, but there was nothing there."

    Twilight took a deep breath, steadying herself. She gathered her courage to say what she needed to say next. "I'm wondering now if I wasn't sent on my quest to find the Elements, but their Bearers instead. Without even looking, we ran right into you, the Bearer of Generosity."

    "I-I see…" Rarity didn't know what to say to that.

    "It almost seems like fate."

    "Almost…" Rarity blinked, straightening up. Her mind raced, and the next question practically jumped at her. "What is it you want from me?"

    "Uh… Well." Twilight hadn't been expecting that. She hadn't fully thought all of her plan through, hoping to be able to just run on luck. "I guess I would hope that you would be willing to come with us. For the good of Equestria and the rest of the galaxy."

    "A lady certainly enjoys to learn that she is wanted." Rarity was definitely flattered by that, but she didn't look convinced. She turned her attention to Sweetie Belle, the filly smiling up at her big sister. "It is a big commitment."

    "It is." Twilight agreed. "I don't know how long this is going to take, or where we are going to be led by the end of all of it."

    "Way to sell yourself there, Twilight," Gilda muttered, rolling her eyes at her marefriend.

    "Oh, hush." Twilight waved a hoof at Gilda, ignoring the comment.

    Sweetie Belle giggled at the two of them, rocking back in her seat.

    "As much as I would like to say yes, I do have other things that I must consider first." Rarity rubbed a hoof down Sweetie Belle's back, smiling at her lovingly. "I am all that she has. We look after each other."

    "That's right!" Sweetie Belle chirped, jumping to all four of her hooves on her chair. "Sometimes Rarity forgets to eat if she gets working too hard."

    "Sweetie Belle!" Rarity gasped, scandalized.

    "What?" Confused, she turned to her big sister. "It's true."

    "There are some things that we keep secret. You wouldn't want everypony to know that you still sleep with your blanket, do you?" Turning her muzzle up in triumph, Rarity couldn't help the little grin that came over her.

    "Rarity!" Sweetie Belle gasped this time, stomping her hoof.

    "See." Ignoring her little sister, Rarity turned back to look at Twilight and Gilda. "That right there is why I can't just drop everything and come with you."

    Twilight and Gilda glanced at each other, not sure whether they should laugh or keep silent and be uncomfortable by that exchange."

    "I apologize that both of you had to see that," Rarity said, blushing even harder. She straightened her mane, sitting up straight with a sniff as she pretended that hadn't just happened. "You must see though that it would be difficult to travel."

    "Is there anyone else that could look after her?" Twilight asked, desperate. She missed Gilda's warning glance. "The future of everything might hinge on this."

    As one, Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Gilda winced.

    "Our parents died in the raid on Ponyville," Rarity explained, her voice quiet all of a sudden. "I've been looking after Sweetie Belle ever since."

    "I'm sorry." Twilight wilted, shrinking in her seat. "I didn't mean to be insensitive."

    "It's alright." Waving Twilight's apology away, Rarity offered her a smile. "You didn't know."

    Twilight was quiet for a moment, subdued. It took her another moment past that to gather her courage again to speak.

    "I can't help but think that you need to be with us," she explained, trying her hardest to make Rarity understand. "We'll work around anything as long as you come with us."

    It was Rarity's turn to be silent, studying Twilight, who anxiously waited for her answer.

    "I would have to know that Sweetie Belle would be safe no matter what." Rarity finally said.

    "Of course!" Twilight nodded enthusiastically. "We're using one of the best ships that Equestria has ever made. She'll be perfectly safe onboard Solar One."

    "I…" Rarity sighed, taking a long look at Sweetie Belle. "Alright."

    "Yes!" Twilight bounced in her seat before darting forward to hug Rarity, startling the unicorn. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"

    "You are welcome, dear." Rarity awkwardly patted Twilight on the back with one of her hooves. Thankfully, they separated before anything could get too awkward.

    Before Twilight could say anything else, a thrum passed through her chest, and she caught sight of the Relay statue from the corner of her eyes.

    Turning in her seat, she looked over and stared at the Mass Relay with new eyes. The others at the table all stared at her, wondering what she was doing.

    "Twilight." Gilda tried to get through to her.

    Twilight didn't answer her.

    "Is everything alright?" Gilda tried again, louder this time. "Twilight? Can you hear me?"

    Twilight climbed down out of her chair, walking up to the edge of the patio. Jumping up, she put her forelegs up on the railing, staring completely mesmerized at the statue. Gilda followed her, getting up and standing next to her.

    "Twilight, what are you doing?" Gilda poked Twilight's shoulder. "We're in the middle of something."

    Before Gilda could try anything more drastic, Twilight reared back and jumped! She didn't hear the surprised shouts from Gilda, Rarity, and Sweetie Belle as she plummeted into the chilled waters of the Presidium lake.

    She sunk below the surface before she started paddling with all four of her hooves, straight towards the Relay. The thrumming grew more and more intense the closer she got, and it was almost like an incoherent voice was speaking to her in a thousand dead language.

    Reaching out, Twilight touched one of her hooves against the cool metal of the Relay. It pulsed, and it was at that moment that Twilight noticed something sticking out from underneath the ring connection. With a hoof, she reached out and touched it.

    Septira had known for a long time that this day had been coming. It was inevitable after all. They had been systematically harvesting every planet in the mighty Prothean empire, and now it was Illuvstar's turn. The bunkers had been filled for days, a hope of hiding from the mighty Reapers, but those of enough importance knew the truth.

    Nothing stopped them.

    Nothing could stop them.

    They were the end of everything, their march relentless. What was fifty-thousands years of civilization against that? How could the Empire stand up against the might of horrors beyond all mortal comprehension. How could they fight against the terrible secrets that dark space had harbored for so long.

    Bunkers meant nothing to those would could wait in dark space for untold millennia, who could turn loved against each other, mothers against child, who controlled the very stars themselves.

    There was no hope against that.

    High above Illuvstar, dark storm clouds roiled angrily, great flashes of red flight flaring in the atmosphere. She was the only one around to watch as the burning remnants of the Empire's fleet fell through the clouds, the last line of defense wiped away with absolutely no trouble.

    Following behind the debris, they descended from the sky, towering black ships like twisted creatures from the deep sea, radiating malevolence and ancient rage. Even dozens of miles away, watching as they descended upon the city in the worlds last hour of daylight, Septira could feel the force of their presence. They made her skin crawl and she clenched all four of her eyes shut in sadness.

    It was over. The dream was over, and nothing would ever be right again.

    Reaching up, Septira ran the blue pad of her finger over the shimmering jewel of her necklace. The others needed to know what she had seen. The orbiting ships had surely been destroyed and she was the only one outside to witness it.

    Turning on her heel, Septira ran back through the open bunker door behind her. Tears welling in her eyes, sobs struggled out of her mouth as she pushed past soldiers and civilians alike.

    "They have found us!" Septira was surprised that she was even able to speak, much less scream the warning. "They have found us!"

    At the realization of what she meant danced on those she had passed, both civilian and solider, they either took of running in one of two directions. They either followed her deeper into the bunker, or they ran to the surface, grim as they clutched their beam rifles, ready to face whatever fait awaited them.

    Even as the crowds descended into a panicked horde, her only thought was to reach the five most important beings in her entire life. With them, she could face anything. With them, she would gladly go to her death, for that was life without them?

    They were family. That was all there was to it.

    "They have found us!" Septira called out again.

    Septira slammed into the frame of the doorway that led into the first large antechamber of the bunker as her momentum doesn't allow her to make the turn at her speed. Hundreds of Protheans loitered about, clumping together into family groups as they fearfully sensed the change in the air, despite not knowing of the arrival.

    Entering the bunker, Septira pushed her way through the crowd, searching the massive room in panic for the five most important people in her life.

    "Cana!" Septira called out for her mate. The crowd parted for her, recognizing her as one of the artifact bearers. "Cana!"

    "Septira!"

    Turning, Septira found her wife rushing towards her, her violet eyes shining with equal amounts of relief and worry. They met in the middle of the room, and Septira felt a heavy weight lift off her shoulders in her wife's embrace. Together, the could do anything.

    Pulling back but keeping her arms around Cana's shoulders, Septira took a moment to study her face for what might have been the last time.

    Cana was a dark violet, her two eyes a shade or two darker than that. They always seemed to glow with an inner beauty that Septira found entrancing. Cana's scalp crest elegantly flowed to the back of her head, coming to the gentle point like the rest of her race. She stood shorter than Septira, but that was normal. There were not many that could match the height of a pure daughter of the Empire.

    It had been a miracle that the two had even managed to fall in love together. Septira was as high above the class of Cana's birth as a sun in the sky of a planet. Still, when she had first laid her eyes on Cana, she had known deep in her heart that they were never to be parted. It was destiny.

    The Artifacts certainly agreed.

    The artifacts were an enigma. They defied every belief that the Empire had held before their discovery, and every attempt by the scientists to explain them had fallen dreadfully short. They had no clue why they had seemed to have lasted eons untold without any sign of wear, surviving through the Great Extinctions themselves without even a mark to show for it.

    The six Artifacts had been found before Septira had even been born. Archeologists had found them in the ruins of an ancient temple of the Inusannon, the race who had preceded the Protheans before they had all disappeared fifty-thousand years ago. They had been found sitting on their altar, the room perfectly preserved around them. The rest of the temple had long ago practically crumbled to dust, but the Artifact room was untouched by the ravages of time.

    It wasn't until they had tested the age of the Artifacts that the reality of their strange existence was fully understood. They were more than two hundred million years old, ancient by all reckoning, yet they looked like they had just been finished by a master jeweler only minutes ago. Their gold fittings shine brilliantly and ignored all attempts to tarnish them. The jewels at the center of each of the six necklaces were unclassifiable, so rare that none like them had ever been found before, and had yet to be found since.

    Despite the fact that the jewels were exactly identical on a molecular level, they were all as different as night and day. Red, Orange, Violet, Pink, Blue, and Magenta. No one had been able to explain where they had come from, only that they had seemed to have been present in the records of every race that had preceded them.

    A year after they had met, Septira and Cana had been visiting a museum together. Thousands had flocked to the sight to see the remains of the once powerful Insuannon race. It had just so happened that a clerical error had occurred, otherwise the six Artifacts would never have been on display. They never would have reacted to Septira's and Cana's presence. They never would have broken through the display case that could withstand fire from a dreadnought with no issue.

    They never would have realized just what the Artifacts were.

    The moment that pink and violet attached to their necks, it had felt like the entire universe had opened up to them. It had felt like everything for once in their lives made perfect, wonderful, beautiful sense. They could see the order of things, the harmony of how each and every part of the cosmos fit together, from the smallest quark to the largest galactic super-clusters.

    Of course, the Artifacts could never be so discrete as to give them a reality changing vision without making sure that everyone within a fifty mile radius knew as well. That would have been too subtle.

    The Artifacts didn't do subtle, they had since come to learn.

    When the vision had faded away and lowered them back to the ground (having decided to be showy and levitate the two women for the whole museum to see), they had been met by the barrels of what must have been one hundred beam rifles and the Emperor's own legion.

    It took the scientists and the researchers half a year to figure out what the Artifacts, and all that they had ever fully agreed upon was that they were powerful. Powerful enough to change the very face of reality, with the right encouragement.

    Those who wore the Artifacts knew the truth. They represented everything good and pure universe, and as each of the other four Artifacts chose their bearer, the others could feel themselves growing more complete. Going to the museum had been no accident, not on a cosmic scale. It was fate that Septira and Cana would jumpstart the Artifacts, giving the first Rays of hope in a war that was only just beginning to be understood.

    Yoske was the next chosen as a bearer. One of the researchers studying the effects of the Artifacts, he had been brought in by the institutes. The moment he had stepped into the room with the Artifacts and Septira and Cana (for it had proven impossible to separate them) the red gem on one of the necklaces lit up and attached itself to his neck before giving him the same vision the other two bearers had experienced.

    Suddenly, where the scientists had only two to study, they had three.

    The other three were chosen nearly all at once. Yoske proved to be a quiet but humorous man, a member of one of the greater families in the Empire. He had taken more to science than he had to politics and unlike most, had received his families full support in his endeavors. Septira and Cana both were surprised at how easy he slipped into the role of friend, and how fierce he was to ensure that he never spent much time from their side.

    Where the Artifacts stood for everything good and pure, the Reapers were their diametric opposites. They were fueled on hatred and rage, on deep and ancient evils with minds that corrupted and destroyed.

    As the Artifacts chose their final bearers, the reports started to roll in. Whole systems went dark and Relays disappeared.

    "They found us!"

    All of a sudden, Twilight found herself back under the lake. She was on the Presidium, that's right. What had just happened?

    With her magic, Twilight reached out and pulled the little object free from the statue, just as hands reached through the water and grabbed her by the barrel.

    The next thing that Twilight knew, she was lying on the floor of a tiny skiff coughing water out of her lungs, two C-Sec officers standing above her.

    "You're not supposed to go into the lake, ma'am," one of the officers, a turian, said.

    Twilight shivered, thought it wasn't because of the cold. Ancient terror filled her and she tried her best not to fall apart, hiding the object away from the officers. Whatever she was doing worked, because they didn't notice it in her forehooves.

    "I-I'm sorry," she finally managed to say. "I fell in."

    "We'll take you back, ma'am," the officer said. "Try not to lean so far over the edge next time."

    As they started the diff back towards the hidden dock, Twilight chanced a look at the object in her hooves. She blinked in surprise at what she saw.

    In her forehooves lay a perfectly preserved artifact, obviously Prothean in design.

    15. Chapter Fourteen-Leads, Allies, Enemies

    AUTHOR'S NOTE: To HumanCreeper and your review. My answer is "No."

    Chapter Fourteen - Leads, Allies, and Enemies

    C-SEC Viewing Room, Presidium, Citadel

    April 9, 2183

    Galactic civilization was a fragile thing. It needed to be carefully tended and watched after, like a mother with her children. Tevos liked to think that in many ways, she was the mother the galaxy needed in so many ways. She, more than even the Matriarch's on Thessia, had watched the shape of the galaxy as it had changed and evolved over her centuries as Councilor. There was very little that ever could surprise her, but this… this came close.

    Standing next to her fellow Councilors, Tevos had her arms crossed under her breasts as she looked down through the viewing window the C-Sec interrogation room. From the minute that she had been notified of Kryik's assassination, she knew that nothing was ever going to be the same again. If shadow organizations were becoming brave enough to take down Spectres, something had gone horribly wrong.

    The girl tied down to the medical bed in the room below looked harmless. Turians could never actually be considered that, but with two destroyed kneecaps and a shattered arm, she wouldn't be a threat to anyone anytime soon. The only reason she had been able to assassinate Kryik was thanks to the highly illegal M-98 Widow anti-materiel rifle that she had used, which C-SEC had recovered from the scene almost as soon as they had arrived. It was no surprise that her arm had been shattered. That weapon had never been designed to be fired by anyone who wasn't a krogan or wearing power armor. How she had even managed to get that beast of a rifle past customs was something that she would have to personally oversee the investigation of.

    Aside from the few machines that were connected to the girl without a name, there was nothing else in the interrogation room. The walls were seamless, and the single light in the room was set flush into the ceiling, which also acted as the one-way mirror. The interrogation rooms of C-SEC had been designed to be as utterly boring and unremarkable as possible, and to make the person inside as uncomfortable and unsettled as possible.

    The shifting of feet in armor behind her reminded Tevos that they weren't alone in the viewing room. Riley Shepard stood a respectful few feet to the side, with a clear view of the room below. The woman stood straight and tall, her eyes rarely blinking as she stared down at the girl. She represented the last action that Nihlus ever made in his official capacity as Spectre, and her own Spectreship would hold because of it. She would be an agent of the Council to please the humans. They were such an impatient race, wanting so much so soon. Humans had no capacity in them to wait, grasping at every opportunity that came before them.

    In all truth, it was humanities allies, the Equestrians, who should have been receiving the honor of a Spectre first, but the Empress did not desire it. They knew the meaning of patience, and Tevos knew that it was Equestria that represented the single greatest threat the Asari Republics had ever known. It wasn't a threat of war or extinction, but of culture. Asari were slow to move, too scattered to ever be able to make quick changes to the way they acted as a race. The Matriarchs were too set into their ways, and those who had dreams and visions had been pushed to the fringes of society.

    Next to Riley, Tela Vasir paced back and forth next to her, a barely restrained tower of rage. On the other side of them was Executor Pallin, his mandibles twitching in aggravation every few moments.

    "Have we figured out who she is?" Tevos asked, looking at Sparatus and Pallin expectantly.

    "She's not appearing in any of the databases." Pallin did not sound happy with that, his voice barely concealing his frustration. "I've contacted her supposed clan and they claim to have no knowledge of her."

    "She's too young to be a civilian." Sparatus' mandibles stretched out in a frown, and he hummed.

    Turian society was simple to understand, but at the same time it was incredibly complicated to outsiders. At the age of fifteen, every turian was drafted into the military. At the completion of their required term, they either continued with the military or took jobs with public service in mind. It was extremely rare to ever find a turian that had defected, and it was definitely appearing that the girl below had done so.

    "I had noticed," Pallin said with a nod.

    Tevos took another look at the girl. She was young, having not yet fully grown into her carapace, which was an attractive mottled grey and black color. Her fringe was short, which was common for females of the turian race. Her clan paint heralded her as coming from Menae, but that had proved to be a lie. She should have been serving onboard of a ship, not assassinating Spectres. With a sigh, Tevos turned to look at Tela.

    "You were in a relationship with Kryik," she said. It wasn't so much a question, but a statement.

    At that, Tela froze in her pacing, turning her gaze on Tevos defiantly. Her jaw worked for a moment before she nodded. "Yes."

    "Capturing her alive was commendable," Tevos said, nodding in appreciation. Relationships weren't forbidden for their Spectres, though this was the first time to her knowledge that two of them had joined together. It was unfortunate that it had to end in such a way. "I imagine you weren't feeling quite so generous."

    "No," Tela said simply.

    "We will deal with that matter later," Sparatus said. He had his own feelings on the matter, but he was smart enough to recognize that there were more important things to deal with. "Right now, we have the assassin firmly in our grasp."

    "Indeed." Valern spoke up for the first time. He had been silent since he had first arrived, observing everything with attentive eyes.

    "I'm guessing by speaking up that you have an idea?" Pallin asked, looking at Valern. It wasn't any surprise. The salarian had plans within plans, and it wasn't often that anyone actually wanted to know what he was up to.

    Valern met Pallin's gaze with a wry smile on his face. He nodded once. "Yes."

    Tevos had a feeling that this was going to be one of those times.

    ###

    The girl lay unconscious on her bed, half in a coma. The drugs that were coursing through her body took care of that, the machines connected to her humming with life as they continued the slow pump of sedatives through her veins. That changed a moment later as orders came from the room above, the machines pumping the girl full of stimulants.

    Almost instantly, she flew awake, her eyes shooting open as adrenaline filled her body. Her heart raced in her chest and she took a great gasping breath of air. Something was wrong.

    Something was wrong!

    She could feel it down to her very core, that nothing was as it should be. The pain hit her a moment later, like a dull knife cutting through her carapace. Moaning, she lifted her head and looked down at the rest of her body. In horror, she realized the depth of the wrongness that filled her.

    "You've made some very poor choices."

    The girl startled, having to strain to look over her shoulder. She was just in time to see a spindly salarian step out from the shadows of the room, his arms crossed behind his back as he stared down at her with impassive eyes. He was dressed in a simple Special Tasks Group officers uniform, lacking any insignia or identification. Slowly, he started to circle the bed, never letting his gaze wander from her, rarely blinking.

    "What is your name?" The salarian asked, his voice quiet.

    The girl was stunned for a moment, and her addled mind slowed her understanding of the question. Her name. What was her name? Finally, she flared her mandibles, glaring at the salarian.

    "Vatia Ramlin," she responded finally, her voice shaking.

    "I'm afraid that's not your name." The salarian tsked, shaking his head. A deep frown covered his face as he held up a small device with a series of buttons on its surface for her to see. With a look of utter sympathy, he looked directly into her eyes as he pressed the button at the center.

    PAIN!

    The girl felt nothing but white hot pain tearing at her body. She screamed, every muscle in her body clenching in protest, contorting her remaining limbs. She had never felt anything like it before in her life. Getting shot by the asari was nothing in comparison to this!

    As suddenly as it started, the pain disappeared.

    "That was a lie. Your name is not Vatia Ramlin." The salarian blinked his bulbous eyes, regarding her emotionlessly, like he hadn't just tortured her. "Every time you tell me a lie, I press another one of these buttons. You don't want that."

    The salarian resumed his pacing, as if there was nothing wrong. "Let's start again. My name is Dabak Rehe. What is your name?"

    "A-Atonia Sabetius," the girl managed to choke out around her tongue, gasping for air.

    "Better." Dabak nodded, pleased. He smiled at her, almost fatherly. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

    Antoia let out a relieved breath, relaxing.

    "Next question." Dabak watched her carefully. "Who do you work for?"

    "S-Senka Wright."

    Dabak sighed before he pressed another button on the device, and Antoia screamed.

    ###

    Riley watched the interrogation below, not fully sure how she was able to keep her outward appearance so impassive. Inside, she was revolting against herself, her gut churning in protest at what she was watching happening in the interrogation below. She was an N, the best of the best. She had gone through SERE training the same as the rest of her brothers and sisters, and she had come out the other side a stronger woman. This though seemed a step too far.

    "This bothers you, Shepard."

    Turning, Riley found Tevos watching her.

    Riley gave a small nod.

    "No real harm comes to the subject." Valern spoke up, not turning away from watching the interrogation. He was absolutely unmoved by the pain the turian girl was being put through. "All in her head. Device works by direct access to brain. Makes body believe bad things are happening. Nothing further from the truth."

    Riley had no response to that.

    "She's just a kid." Tela had stopped pacing, staring down at the girl. "She'll be talking in no time, and then we get to work, Shepard."

    Looking over at Tela, Riley nodded. She might not have felt that the Council's current action was justified, but she understood the need to step outside of the law. Tela turned, stepping up to Riley until they were eye to eye.

    "Nihlus thought you had the spark," Tela said, her voice emotionless. "Don't prove him wrong."

    "Antois Sabetius…" Working on his omni-tool, Pallin made a connection, his mandibles flaring in triumph. "I've got it. Antoia Sabetius, born on Taetrus. Her family has been searching for her ever since her disappearance two years ago."

    "A runaway?" Valern asked, glancing at Pallin from the corner of his eyes.

    "Maybe." Pallin frowned, skimming through the information on his omni-tool. He expanded his search, and what he found made his eyes widen in surprise. "There are a surprisingly large amount of disappearances on Taetrus."

    "What are you suggesting?" Sparatus asked.

    "It could be recruitment," Pallin suggested, shutting off his omni-tool. "Not disappearances."

    "We'll have to check that out." Sparatus was a turian to the very core of his being, and he despised those of his race that shirked their duty to the Hierarchy.

    "She's saying something," Tevos said, studying there interrogation room below. Nearly as one, they all turned their attention on the girl.

    "Fist!" She cried out, sobbing it out. "Speak to Fist!"

    "She's making that up." Sparatus scoffed, turning away in disinterest.

    "No," Pallin interrupted, shaking his head. He activated his omni-tool, searching through his records. "She's not. Fist is a small night-club owner on the wards. He's under investigation for ties to the Shadow Broker."

    Out of the corner of her eye, Riley watched as Tela tensed ever so slightly. Her jaw set into a deep frown, and her eyes narrowed angrily.

    "Spectres." Sparatus and the other two Councilors turned to face Riley and Tela. "I want you to bring this 'Fist' in for questioning."

    "Yes, Councilor." Tela sounded eager, ready to get moving. Riley nodded her agreement. Together, the two of them left the interrogation room, leaving the Councilors to continue to watch the interrogation.

    ###

    Stepping out from the viewing room, Riley took a deep breath as the stress slipped away from her. They stood in a dim hallway, lined with unmarked doors, part of C-SEC's hidden backrooms were most of the true policing took place. Tela led Riley out of the interrogation side of C-SEC. They walked in silence for a minute until Riley felt the need to say something.

    "I'm sorry about Nihlus," she murmured.

    "He was a Spectre." Tela glanced back at her, a guarded expression on her face. She studied Riley's face for a moment, making the human shift uncomfortably. Finally, she looked away and continued walking. "It happens to all of us, eventually."

    "That doesn't mean we have to like it." Riley kept close behind Tela.

    "No."

    They exited out into one of the main hubs of C-SEC. Officers and Detectives mingled about, some working hard while others were on break. All around were citizens, some of them in processing for arrest, others waiting to announce their complaints.

    The two Spectres ignored all of them, everyone jumping out of their way at the sight of such heavily armored women. They exited C-SEC, heading directly to Tela's waiting aircar.

    Together, they climbed in and Tela keyed in the destination into the car's computer. Pallin had forwarded her the last known location of Fist: his nightclub, Chora's Den. The aircar set up the route and took off as soon as it had completed all of that.

    Riley waited for a moment, looking out the windows at the Presidium as they sped through the air.

    "You had…" Riley bit her lip, before turning to look at Tela. "Something with Nihlus. Even I could see that."

    "Why are you pushing this?" Tela sighed, leaning back in her chair.

    "I'm sorry." Riley pursed her lips, watching Tela carefully. The asari was still for a moment, before she shifted uncomfortably.

    "There's no reason to be ashamed of asking questions," she managed to finally say. Tela turned to look at Riley, watching her with piercing eyes.

    "No." Riley shook her head, wanting Tela to understand her. "I meant that I'm sorry Nihlus died."

    Silent, Tela bowed her head before she began to nod. "Me too…" She murmured.

    They rode in silence for a minutes. They passed out of the Presidium and exited out into space, where they began heading towards the Bachjret Ward. Even from this distance, Riley could see the glimmering form of the Celestial Temple in the distance. She couldn't help but snort, shaking her head. Celestia might have been a god, but she had never asked for any form of worship. She had nurtured and guided Equestria from the very beginning, and all she wanted was for her ponies to be happy.

    Next to her, Tela pulled her pistol from her hip's magnetic clamp. She began checking it over, though she knew it was in perfect working order. Still, you didn't live as long as her without taking any precautions.

    "Be on guard for anything," Tela warned, looking at Riley. "Whatever you do, keep your kinetic barrier on."

    Tela snorted, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. "We don't need another dead Spectre today."

    "This isn't my first rodeo." Riley pulled out her own pistol, checking it over.

    "Rodeo…" Tela rolled the word over in her mouth, looking at Riley in confusion.

    "It's a human thing," Riley said, rolling her eyes. A moment later, her eyes widened when she realized just what it was that she'd said. A second after that, Riley couldn't help but chuckle as she imagined herself jumping on Rainbow's back and riding her until one or the other gave out. She rubbed the bridge of her nose, laughing. "Oh Celestia, I'm going to Tartarus for that."

    Still laughing, Riley activated her omni-tool and connected with the Normandy. "Joker, tell Kaidan and Ashley to suit up and meet me at a bar named Chora's Den. I want them their yesterday."

    "Roger that, Commander," Joker responded through the omni-tool.

    Tela looked at Riley, but she didn't say anything about the matter.

    "What?" Riley just shrugged, not feeling at all ashamed of wanting marines to back her up. Going it alone seemed a bad way for a Spectre to operate. "Backup is never a bad thing."

    "I didn't say anything." Tela held up a hand, looking back at her pistol.

    "You were thinking it."

    Tela just snorted at that, shaking her head as she began to chuckle.

    The aircar began to descend, passing through one of the many entrances into the lower levels of the Bachjret Ward. It took another minute to fly through the labyrinth of flight corridors until it pulled off and settled down into a parking space near Chora's Den. The doors slid open and the two Spectres stepped out. They were the most dangerous beings around, and they paid no mind to any of the rough looking crowd that lingered outside of the bar. The guns that they carried were more than enough to warn anyone from trying anything.

    "It certainly doesn't look like much." Riley looked up at the sign of Chora's Den, raising an eyebrow.

    "The worst places never do," Tela agreed. She took in the flickering neon lights proclaiming the bars name.

    "Yeah," Riley agreed. She looked over at Tela. "So, how do you want to handle this?"

    "Well handle this carefully. Delicately."

    "What does that mean, then?" Delicate was fine and good, but Riley had the feeling that the grenade launcher on Tela's back was not just for show.

    "We go in and we ask politely." Tela shrugged, shifting her weight onto one of her legs. "When we're refused, we kill everyone who resists."

    Riley blinked at that. It certainly wasn't how she would do anything. Still, she would follow Tela's lead. She held out a hand, motioning for Tela to go ahead of her. "After you then, Spectre Vasir."

    Tela stalked forward, pushing past a pair of krogan who were talking in front of the door. They were about to make a move for her, only to stop when they saw the emblem on her shoulder. They recognized the symbol of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, and they wanted nothing to do with that.

    Together, Tela and Riley entered the bar, two huntresses on the march, on a mission none could stop. They were instantly noticed, and everyone inside had their eyes on them.

    Tela ignored all of that, striding up to the bar. Her hips swayed dangerously as she walked forward, regarding the bartender with dangerous eyes. Leaning forward, she took all of her attention. "Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. We need to speak with your boss."

    Before the bartender could respond, a manager stepped up next to Tela, doing his best not to look threatening.

    "Fist isn't here," the manger said, his voice deferential. "He's been gone for a day now. None of us can reach him."

    Tela regarded the manager for a long moment, looking the turian up and down before sniffing and turning away. "Take us to his office."

    The manager hesitated, gulping.

    "We're going in there one way or the other," Tela warned him, resting a hand on the butt of her pistol. "Whether you're still alive or not doesn't matter to me."

    The manager nodded, gesturing towards a narrow hallway at the back. "This way, please! Right this way."

    Tela and Riley followed after the turian, making sure to keep watch over the other's blind spots. Just because no one had been foolish enough yet to try and stop them didn't mean that someone wouldn't be.

    The manager led them into Fist's office, which was located through a hallway in the back. Stepping inside, they found that everything was right where Fist had left it whenever he had been there last. The office looked typical for such an establishment, with a large desk sitting on a pedestal in the back, looking over low-set circular couches which sat around tall poles that went from floor to ceiling.

    "Leave us," Tela said, looking at the manager with cold eyes.

    Nodding, the manager scurried out of the office, leaving Tela and Riley alone.

    Tela waited for the door to close before she walked straight up to Fist's desk. She pointed at a bookshelf that sat across the room. "Search that, Shepard. We're looking for any sign of who Fist was working with, or who he hired."

    "Yeah." Nodding, Riley started going through the shelves. Pulling the books off the shelf, she flipped through the pages. If she found nothing, she tossed it aside and took the next one.

    She grabbed a thick, leather bound book from its shelf. Down the side, it was labelled in gold: Mein Kampf. She lifted it from the shelf, eying it with disgust even as she flipped through the pages. She stopped when found a thin data disc hidden between the pages. Grabbing it, Riley held it up. "I've got something."

    "Me too." Tela's face was incredibly grim, anger boiling behind her eyes. "Nihlus was Fist's last contract for the Shadow Broker."

    "The Shadow Broker?" Riley asked, raising an eyebrow.

    "He's an information broker," Tela explained, nodding. "The most successful in the galaxy. If you have a secret, chances are that the Shadow Broker knows it."

    "And he ordered a hit on a Spectre?" Just what had she found herself in? "That doesn't seem like something an information broker would do."

    "He's not a typical broker," Tela said with a shrug.

    "I can see that."

    Riley inserted the data disc into her omni-tool and blinked in surprise when she only found a single file written on it. Opening it, she looked up at Tela. "It's a hit order for one Detective Garrus Vakarian."

    "Who's it from?"

    "It's not from someone else," Riley explained. "Fist ordered it."

    "You should follow that up," Tela said, nodding. "I'll take this."

    "Alright." She gestured at the computer that Tela was looking over. "I should get a copy of that."

    "There." Tela typed a few buttons and connected the computer to Riley's omni-tool. "It's in your inbox."

    "How did you get my address?" Riley blinked in surprise as she found it indeed was in her omni-tools inbox.

    "That's for me to know…" Shrugging, Tela got back to work.

    "Extremely helpful there, Vasir." Nodding Riley, started walking towards the door.

    "I try, Shepard."

    ###

    Walking back out into the main bar, Riley found Kaidan and Ashley loitering near the entrance, arguing with the manager. They were dressed in their combat armor, and Riley had to wonder whether or not the manager had a death wish. He seemed to have a habit of arguing with heavily armed soldiers. She marched right past him, motioning for them to follow her.

    "With me, marines," Riley called out. They fell in step with her, ignoring the manager's protests as they exited the bar together.

    Outside of Chora's Den, Riley led Ashley and Kaidan to the side.

    "What's going on, Commander?" Ashley asked, eager to please.

    "We're searching for a C-SEC detective, Garrus Vakarian."

    "That turian from the Council Chambers?" Kaidan asked.

    "Yeah." Riley nodded, realizing that that was indeed who she was looking for. "Him."

    Activating her omni-tool, Riley made a call to the Systems Alliance embassy.

    "Commander?" Captain Anderson spoke over the omni-tool.

    "Anderson," Riley greeted. "I need to find a C-SEC detective by the name of Garrus Vakarian."

    "Vakarian?" Anderson asked, sounding surprised. "That's an important name, Shepard."

    "A hit has been called on him by a thug on the wards," Riley explained. "I need to get to him first."

    "Give me a moment, Shepard."

    Kaidan and Ashley shuffled quietly beside Riley as she waited for Anderson to whatever it was that he needed to do. A minute passed, then another before he spoke again.

    "Shepard, I've got something."

    "Captain." Riley let him know she was still listening.

    "According to Executor Pallin, Detective Vakarian's last report said that he was headed to a med-clinic on the Bachjret ward. I'm forwarding you the location now."

    Moments later, Riley's omni-tool dinged as she received it. "Thank you, Captain."

    "Try not to cause too much damage, Shepard."

    "No promises," Riley said with a laugh.

    Ending the call, Riley turned to Ashley and Kaidan. "Let's go."

    ###

    Sitting in Fist's chair, Tela activated her omni-tool. She set up a secure call to her contact with the Shadow Broker with calm efficiency as she fiddled with a small statue that was on Fist's desk.

    "Speak."

    "I have an inquiry." Tela pursed her lips, frowning.

    Her contact on the other side was silent, waiting for her to continue.

    "An assassination order was placed on Spectre Nihlus Kryik."

    "Yes."

    "Was the hit placed by the Shadow Broker?" Tela narrowed her eyes, waiting for the answer.

    The other end was silent before it disconnected.

    Clenching her fist so hard that the statue in her hand shattered, Tela growled.

    This wouldn't go unanswered.

    16. Chapter Fifteen - Things Get Real

    Chapter Fifteen - No Time for Caution

    Bachjret Ward, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    April 9, 2183

    Riley wrinkled her nose as the stomach turning stench of rotting food wafted past her nose. The Citadel, for all of its wonders and technology, was still a closed environment and sometimes environments clashed, especially in the wards were the keepers keepers did their best to keep the atmosphere functioning, if not in perfect order.

    She had to strain to hear the soft footsteps of Kaidan and Ashley as they followed behind her, and she was glad that she was working with a competent squad this time. Eden Prime had been a prime example as to why it was never a good idea to let a rookie come along on a combat mission with an N7 operator. Jenkins had been just a kid, and he'd never deserved to die so young.

    No one ever did. The galaxy wasn't fair, but Riley hoped that as a Spectre she would be able to make it even a little bit of a safer place.

    "Keep tight," Riley murmured as they came to a corner. The hospital was beyond, and she had no idea what to expect. Kaidan and Ashley paused behind her as she peeked out around the corner. She was just in time to see a group of mercenaries in unmarked, mix and matched armor slipping through the front door of the hospital. The building wasn't very large, and Riley guessed that there couldn't be very many people inside, but the situation was horrible despite that. Two of the mercenaries, rookies from the look of their weapons, took guard outside the entrance of the hospital, trying to look as unnoticeable as possible.

    "I count ten mercenaries." Riley said to the two of them waiting behind her. "Ashley, you're with me. Kaidan, you're on our six. We go in fast. Don't give them any time to react."

    "Roger that, ma'am." Ashley nodded, drawing her rifle.

    "There are two guards out front. Drop them as fast as possible." As soon as she saw their acknowledgment, Riley started counting down, holding her hand up to signal them forward.

    As one, they rushed around the corner, running at the entrance of the hospital. Before the two mercenaries could react, Riley had already let loose three rounds, which drilled through the cheap shields of the closest guard's armor and exploded out the back of his head. Kaidan and Ashley double teamed the other, his chest pockmarked with holes as he dropped to the ground.

    Almost before the last body hit the floor, the three of them had stacked up outside the hospital's entrance.

    "Good work," Riley said, nodding. "We're in on my mark."

    Even as she said it, Riley felt a gentle calm roll over her, a familiar feeling that left her refreshed and ready for anything. She was one of the most highly trained operators that the Alliance had ever produced. Every N7 was, and their numbers were few. 'To Sustain.' That was the the motto of every N. They preformed the tasks that no one else could, so that the Alliance could survive. As an N7, the best of the best, she had done things that left her sleepless at night, all for the betterment of humanity.

    This was not one of those moments. Mercenaries who thought they could attack a hospital… well, getting rid of them was a favor to the universe.

    With a nod, Riley gave the order even as she was surging forward, her leg muscles aided by her armor. The door didn't stand a chance against that force, crumpling like cardboard even as it tore from rails.

    She could practically feel Ashley behind her as she rushed through the now open doorway, her rifle raised as she scanned the room for targets. Everything seemed to move at a glacial pace, and it was easy to take stock of the small squad that had lingered in the entrance. There were five of them total, and they were just beginning to turn in reaction to the door being blown inward.

    "Hey!" The leader of the mercenaries shouted, his voice breaking through the slowness. He was the one wearing the heaviest armor, with a relatively decent rifle in his hands, though he was too slow in raising it. "This business is-"

    Before he could finish his sentence, Riley shut him up with a shot through his forehead, her Spectre grade rifle slicing through his shields like they weren't even there.

    Even as his body was falling to the ground, Riley and Ashley made short work of the other four mercs. Just because you could afford a suit of armor and a weapon didn't mean that you were a decent soldier. Alliance training was some of the best in the galaxy, and there was no mercenary group alive that could match them.

    "Alenko!" As soon as the last body hit the floor, Riley shouted to Kaidan outside, still guarding the door. She wasn't even winded, and the fight had been a bit of a let down. It hadn't even been a real fight, more like shooting fish in a barrel. "No comes through these doors alive, got it?"

    "Aye-aye, ma'am." Kaidan confirmed, turning so he had a view of both sides of the door.

    "Good." With a nod, Riley glanced at Ashley. The other woman had her rifle at the ready, keeping a watch on the rest of the hospital. "With me, Williams."

    Together, they headed further into the hospital in their search for Garrus Vakarian.

    ###

    "You were sloppy, Vakarian."

    This is not how Garrus had planned for his day to go. Being held at gunpoint by five cut-rate mercenaries from an outfit that he'd never even heard of was more than a little embarrassing. He rolled his eyes as the leader sauntered forward with an arrogant swagger, his pistol held loosely in his hand. It was of krogan make, definitely illegal on the Citadel. His shields would barely even be a problem for that weapon, and he wasn't planning on getting shot with it.

    That wouldn't be fun. Not at all.

    "Who are you, exactly?" Garrus asked, cocking his head to the side. His omni-tool set to record, if he managed to get out of this he would hopefully have a record of everything that was happening. "You do know that your pistol is illegal, right?"

    "What?" The leader blinked, not having expected that question. Normally, whenever he did this type of thing, people were far more intimidated.

    "Your pistol. It's illegal. You really shouldn't have that on the Citadel." Shifting his weight back onto one of his legs, Garrus put his hands on his hips. "Really though, I'm flattered that someone thinks I'm important enough for a hit squad. I'm obviously doing something right. It really is nice that I'm being noticed."

    "Ah!" The leader growled, not at all amused by Garrus. He lifted his pistol, aiming it right between the turian's eyes. "Don't move! You pull your gun and I'm putting you down for good."

    "You were planning on doing that anyway." Garrus murmured, holding his hands up as he rolled his eyes.

    "You pissed off the wrong man." Shaking his head, the leader growled and narrowed his eyes. "This is what you get for-"

    "Excuse me?"

    At the sound of the feminine voice, everyone in the room turned to look at the two women in the doorway of the hospital room, assault rifles leveled on the mercenaries.

    Before anyone of the mercenaries had a chance to react, Garrus was moving, his talons digging into the ground as he powerful legs propelled him forward.

    WHAM!

    He slammed into the leader, wrestling the pistol from the man's hand while drawing his own.

    Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

    Four shots, two from each pistol, and the four mercenaries behind the leader dropped dead. Marksmanship like that came from lots of practice and fifteen years serving in first the turian military, and then Citadel Security. Only the leader was left alive, and Garrus leveled both pistols on him as he glanced at the women from the corner of his eyes.

    "Perfect timing, Shepard." His mandibles flared in a grin, nodding to her in welcoming. "Couldn't have gotten out of this without you. Keep an eye on him, will you?"

    Before he even heard an answer, Garrus was stepping around the leader, walking over to a large cabinet in the back of the room. He knocked on the door four times. "Dr. Michel, it's safe. You can come out now."

    There was a moment of silence, and then the cabinet door opened. A young, terrified human woman exited, meeting Garrus' eyes. Looking past him, she turned green and fell back against the doors. Leaning over, she threw up. Garrus rubbed her back comfortingly.

    "Thank you," the woman, Dr. Michel murmured, taking a lab coat off of a coat rack next to the cabinet and using it wipe her mouth off. "Thank you, Detective Vakarian. You saved my life."

    "It was my pleasure, Doctor," Garrus said, turning to look back at Riley and the other woman, before turning his attention to the mercenary leader. "In what world did you decide that coming after a C-SEC detective was good idea? You're either an idiot, or someone's paying you a lot of money."

    "I'd bet it's a little from column a, a little from column b." Riley stepped into the room, acknowledging Dr. Michel's presence with a nod. "The world where these wahoos were hired to assassinate you by a third rate bar owner."

    Garrus blinked.

    Ashley blinked.

    Dr. Michel sunk into her chair.

    "Third rate bar owner?" Garrus asked, blinking again.

    "Wahoos, ma'am?" When she had met the Angels of Elysium, Ashley had always thought they would be a dignified sort. She was quickly having that image changed.

    "Best I could come up with on the spot." Shrugging, Riley blushed. There were times that her Equestrian upbringing was incredibly clear.

    His eyes widening as he made the connection, Garrus nodded. "Let me guess. Fist."

    Riley's nod confirmed everything.

    "It's certainly not surprising." Sighing, Garrus dropped both pistols onto the magnetic holsters on his armor.

    "Why do you say that?" Riley asked.

    "My investigation into Saren led me right to Fist." Garrus started to pace the room, crossing his arms over his chest. "I know he had something to do with Kryik's death."

    Riley and Ashley shared a look before turning back to Garrus.

    "You figured that out on your own?" Riley asked, looking down at the mercenary leader.

    "It wasn't really that hard." Garrus shrugged, pulling out a pair of handcuffs from a slot in his armor. Putting a hand on the leader's shoulder, he pushed the man to the ground. Activating his omni-tool, Garrus made a call to the local C-SEC department as he started cuffing him. "This is Detective Vakarian. I'm at Dr. Michel's clinic on the Bachjret ward. I've got one arrest and four dead. Immediate assistance is required."

    Ending the call, Garrus stood, seeing Dr. Michel biting her lip nervously. "Are you alright, Doctor?"

    "You have to go?" The woman sounded worried, glancing down at the bodies and the cuffed man. She was a doctor, not the police.

    "We can protect you, doctor." Riley reassured Dr. Michel, holstering her rifle on her back. "No one is going to hurt you."

    "No!" Dr. Michel rolled her eyes, shaking her head as she turned to face Garrus. "I mean... you have to go. Fist wasn't just after you, Garrus. That's why I called you here. There wasn't anytime to explain before those thugs broke in."

    "Not just after me?" Garrus took a step closer to the doctor. "Who else?"

    "A quarian," Dr. Michel said, leaning back against the wall, overwhelmed.

    "What quarian?" Riley asked. This was the first time that Riley had heard about any quarian.

    "A few days ago, a quarian came by my office," Dr. Michel started to explain, rubbing her forehead to try and ease the headache that was doubtlessly building in her head. "She'd been shot, but she wouldn't tell me who did it. I could tell she was scared, probably on the run. She asked me about the Shadow Broker. She wanted to trade information in exchange for a safe place to hide. I..."

    Dr. Michel winced, biting her lip. "I made a mistake. I put her in contact with Fist. He's an agent for the Shadow Broker."

    "How did you know that?" Garrus stepped forward, his eyes wide in surprise. It wasn't common knowledge and it was something he had only managed to learn a few days ago himself.

    "A lot of people come through here." Dr. Michel winced again, looking incredibly embarrassed. She shrugged. "I hear things."

    "I'll have to speak to you about that later..." Garrus murmured. He turned to Riley, grinning proudly. "I have a theory, Shepard. I think Saren and the Shadow Broker are working together."

    "What makes you think that?" Any new information would be great. It felt like they were working blind, and any help would be amazing.

    "It's the only thing that makes sense." Garrus waved his hands, dismissing that point. "It doesn't matter anyway, not right now. Fist made them angry. He's been slipping information to other brokers."

    "Fist betrayed the Shadow Broker? Dr. Michel blinked in surprise. She might have just been a doctor, but the Broker wasn't just anyone. "That's insane, even for him!"

    "I'm not sure he knows that they know yet." Fist wasn't exactly the brightest bulb around.

    "Try saying that fives time fast," Ashley murmured to herself, snickering.

    "That quarian must have something Saren wants. Something worth crossing the Broker to get." Riley turned to look at Dr. Michel. "Did the quarian mention anything about Saren, or the geth?"

    "She did!" Dr. Michel nodded, standing up straight after catching her bearing. "The information she wants to trade. She said it had something to do with the geth."

    "Any information on how Saren is connected with the geth can only help. The Council will want to hear what she knows."

    "This is your show Shepard, but I want to bring Saren down as much as you do." Garrus glanced down and shuffled his feet, almost nervously. It was an interesting look for the turian, especially because the species never looked nervous. It went against everything in their predator nature. Looking back up, he met Riley's gaze. "I'm coming with you."

    Riley shared a look with Ashley. The marine didn't at look convinced, but she wasn't the Spectre here.

    "Alright." Riley nodded, turning back to the turian. "Welcome aboard, Garrus."

    "I don't want to leave you alone with him, Doctor," Garrus said, looking down at the merc leader on the floor, before looking back up at Dr. Michel, "but we really need to get going."

    "He won't be a problem." Dr. Michel looked completely unworried. Pulling a hypo-injector from her desk, Dr. Michel jabbed it into the merc leaders neck, pumping him full of sedatives before he could even whimper in protest.

    "Remind me to never get on your nerves, Doctor." Garrus chuckled, shaking his head.

    Together, Riley, Ashley, and Garrus left the hospital room. They passed by the bodies that they had left in the entrance, and Garrus barely even glanced at them.

    Kaidan looked back as Riley and Ashley emerged, Garrus behind them.

    "Commander," he greeted, turning his gaze back to the streets.

    "This is Garrus Vakarian, Kaidan," Riley said, gesturing at their new teammate. "He's going to be helping us."

    The two men nodded at each other.

    "Detective." Kaidan didn't at all sound surprised that he was tagging along.

    "Lieutenant." Glancing at Kaidan's collar, Garrus returned the greeting.

    Ashley looked at him in surprise, having to stop from taking a step back. Eyes narrowed, she asked him a question. "You know Alliance ranks? That doesn't seem like a very turian thing to do."

    "It's a hobby." Garrus shrugged, his mandibles fluttering in embarrassment.

    Before anything else could be said, Riley pulled her shotgun from her back, stiffening as she looked past Kaidan's shoulder. "We've got company."

    As one, the rest of them turned to look and see what had Riley so nervous.

    At the sight of an approaching Krogan, they followed her lead and drew their weapons.

    The fact that a krogan was coming to them was more than a bit of a surprise. It wasn't often that they left Tuchanka, and those that did tended be the meanest, deadliest creatures you could come across. Destruction typically followed in their footsteps, and they were deeply wary of outsiders. The Rachni Wars and their subsequent betrayal by the turians had left their mark on the krogans, and that hadn't changed in the past two thousand years. They lived with the mindset of exiles, and they were far more isolationist than even the quarians.

    To the average krogan, the galaxy was something to be mistrusted. Tuchanka was home.

    Tuchanka was safe.

    At over seven feet tall, the Krogan was wearing heavily scarred dark red armor, with an even darker crest. He ignored the weapons pointed at him, walking right up to Riley.

    "You Commander Shepard?" His voice was heavy and thick, rumbling in his throat.

    "Who wants to know?" Riley aimed her weapon directly at Wrex's right eye, hoping that it would be enough to reach his brain. It wouldn't kill him, but it would hopefully wound him bad enough to give them enough time to take him out for good.

    "I'm Urdnot Wrex." He didn't even flinch. "You're after Fist."

    Riley didn't confirm that one way or another, keeping a careful eye on the krogan. There was no way she could intimidate him, but there was a chance she could be fast enough to keep her squad alive if he decided to attack.

    "I know who you are, Shepard." Wrex spoke, his voice rumbling so deeply that Riley could feel it in her chest. "You're the first human Spectre. That's not a small accomplishment."

    "What are you getting at?" This entire situation was putting Riley on edge.

    "You're after Fist." Wrex crossed his arms, studying the Spectre. She was in no way intimidating to him, and he had probably killed worse before breakfast. "And so am I. We should work together."

    Riley glanced at Kaidan and Ashley, rolling her eyes. "It seems people are tripping over themselves to help us today. Don't get used to it, this isn't normal."

    "Aye aye, ma'am." Kaidan's voice held a hint of amusement.

    "Already knew that one, Commander." Ashley rolled her eyes, never taking her finger away from her shotgun's trigger.

    "Why are you looking for Fist?" Turning back to Wrex, Riley watched him carefully.

    "The Shadow Broker wants him dead." He said it so calmly, like it was as unextraordinary as the fact that he varren burgers for breakfast. "I'm being paid a not inconsiderable amount of money to make sure he gets that way."

    Riley contemplated that for a moment, before nodding. Having a krogan would only make the entire thing go quickly. "As long as you don't kill him until we're done with him, than I have no problem with that."

    "Glad to know you're not an idiot." Wrex nodded, holding out his hand. "Not like some Spectres I've met. You've got a good head on your shoulders."

    Riley raised an eyebrow in a silent question.

    Catching her need for an explanation, Wrex elaborated. "Saren."

    "Yeah." Shaking her head, Riley couldn't help the laugh that escaped her lips. "That explains it."

    Wrex laughed, a booming sound that was more felt than heard. "I think I'm going to like you, Shepard!"

    "Fist is after a quarian with information on Saren. We need to find her before he does." Slowly, Riley put away her shotgun, letting the magnets on her back take hold of it. She straightened up, trusting that Wrex wouldn't just rip her head off. Trusting was always the first step in friendships.

    "It sounds like you have a plan. You lead, and I'll follow, Shepard." Wrex almost sounded bored.

    After a moment of hesitation, the others followed Riley's lead, stowing their weapons.

    Turning to Garrus, Riley had an idea. "Quarians aren't common on the Citadel, are they?"

    "No." Garrus shook his head, confirming Riley's thoughts. "Customs would have taken their time with them."

    "Do you have access to those records?"

    "No. That's a different department."

    Pursing her lips, Riley nodded. "Use my Spectre code. We need to find her."

    "You've got it, Shepard." Turning away, Garrus started working on his omni-tool, making the needed calls.

    Riley turned to Wrex, shifting her weight onto one of her legs, crossing her arms under her breasts. "Do you have any idea where Fist is? We've already checked Chora's Den, and he hasn't been seen for a day."

    "That's not surprising." Wrex chortled in amusement, shaking his head. He leaned against the wall of the hospital, putting one of his legs over the other. "Fist is a coward. He isn't man enough to face his own death. I do know one thing. A man named Harkin is helping him."

    Garrus looked up in surprise. "Did you say Harkin?"

    "Yeah."Wrex meet Garrus' gaze. "You know him?"

    "I've met him a few times." Garrus kept his gaze split between his omni-tool and the team, working as he talked. "He's C-SEC. The first human to be accepted, actually. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he was doing illegal work on the side."

    "So we need to find Harkin to find Fist?" Riley asked, glad that a way forward was presenting itself.

    "That sounds about right," Wrex said, nodding in confirmation.

    "I've got the records, Shepard." Garrus held up his arm, his mandibles widening in a grin.

    "Good." She strode up to him, all business. "Show me."

    With a quick press of the haptic display, Garrus turned the image on the omni-tool around so Riley could see it.

    "There are only three quarians on the Citadel right now," Garrus explained as Riley read his omni-tool. "Legally at least. Two of them are male."

    Garrus shifted the two records of the males off his omni-tool. They weren't relevant to their investigation. That left only one. The file simply read: Tali'Zorah Nar Rayya.

    "Tali'Zorah Nar Rayya." Garrus opened the file for Riley to read. "She's seventeen years old. Came to the Citadel on a turian transport ship. She disappeared as soon as she was released from customs."

    "Until she showed up here." That girl probably wasn't having a very good time. Riley gestured over her shoulder at the hospital behind them. "We need to find Fist first. We find him, we find her."

    "Right, Shepard." Wiping away the files on his omni-tool, Garrus made a call. "Detective Vakarian here. I need to speak with Officer Harkin. Send me his location."

    Garrus' omni-tool let out a small beep a moment later, having received Harkin's location. He laughed when he saw it.

    "What?" Riley asked, watching the turian carefully.

    "He's at Chora's Den."

    "Figures." Riley rolled her eyes, rubbing the bridge of her nose. That bar was nothing but bad news.

    ###

    Shadow Broker Safe House, Tayseri Ward, Citadel

    No one knew for sure how big the shadow organization that the Shadow Broker ran actually was. It was known that the Broker could uncover almost any secret, but no one but the Broker knew how big his organization was.

    If the Broker was even a he. One could never know. The Broker never met with anyone in person after all.

    The Broker kept all of his agents compartmentalized. None of them knew how many other agents there were, or where they operated. They did know that the Broker would send them coordinates to safe houses every so often, when they became too high-profile, or needed back up on a particular mission.

    Jalari T'Daus was proud to run one such house. She had been running it for nearly two hundred years, and she was proud that she was able to keep it in such a good state. No agent had ever died under her watch.

    Sitting at the kitchen table of the safe house, she sipped at a cup of tea, appreciating the delicate flavors that played across her tongue. There were a few other agents lingering around, and they had another month to go before the Broker needed them out. Two turians, a male and a female, brother and sister, were sitting on couches in the other room, chatting quietly, though it wasn't quiet enough for Jalari to listen in on.

    "Any word from Antonia?" The male asked. Jalari never bothered to learn their names. It wasn't a good idea in their business. They knew her simply as mother, and she only ever knew them by their Broker designations.

    "No," the female responded, shaking her head.

    Draining the rest of her tea, Jalari set her cup in the dish washer before walking into the living room to join the turians.

    "She made her hit." Jalari settled down on one of the couches across from the turians, crossing her leg. "If she doesn't show up by tomorrow, we'll look for her. Until then, we do nothi-"

    An explosion ripped the door from its hinge and blew Jalari off the couch. Everything seemed to slow, and as she was in mid-air, Jalari looked to see what was happening. Coming through the corona of the biotic explosion was an extremely familiar asari. She had colloborated with her more than a few times on missions for the Broker.

    Tela Vasir roared as she leapt into the safehouse, her biotics rippling across her skin even as she had a pistol raised.

    Her gun fired, and the male turian's head snapped back. Blue blood splatters across the female turian and the walls behind them as chunks of his carapace ripped away, followed by grey pieces of brain matter.

    Tela charged forward, grabbing the female turian by the throat. With an expert application of force, she squeezed, crushing it, then threw the body at Jalari.

    All of this happened within two seconds, and before Jalari could fully process what happened, Tela had her knee planted in the middle of her chest, knocking whatever breath she had left out of her lungs.

    "Vasir!" Jalari croaked, struggling to breath. "What the hell are you doing? The Broker will kill you for this!"

    "I didn't give you permission to talk." Tela lodged her other knee over Jalari's throat. Grabbing Jalari's face by the cheeks, Tela forces the younger asari to look at her. "When you decided that it was a good idea to kill Spectre Kryik, did it ever cross your mind that I'd come after you."

    "NO!" She would be shaking her head furiously if was able to move. As it was, she managed to draw in enough breath to scream.

    "Well." Tela scoffed, lowering her head until she was almost nose to nose with her. "Here I am. You really should have thought that through."

    "The Shadow Broker would have kill-"

    "The Shadow Broker isn't here right now." Rolling her eyes, Tela eased up ever so slightly on Jalari's throat, allowing her to take a deep, gasping breath. "I am. Who do you think is the one you need to worry about right now?"

    Jalari didn't answer, looking up at Tela with a mixture of fear and anger.

    "I asked you a question!"

    "You!" Tears welled in Jalari's eyes, and she knew in that moment that her mother had been right. She could have done so much more with her life.

    "That's fucking right!" Tela roared, spittle flying from her mouth in her rage. "I've already taken down your incompetent little assassin."

    "You're betraying the Shadow Broker! You won't get away with this."

    "I already am, and I'm not going to stop. I'm going to bring him down, and there's nothing you can do about that." Tela leaned down once again, her breath coming in harsh pants. "I haven't killed you because of your mother. I am giving you one chance, and one chance only. You'll work with me, or I'll send your mother a lovely bouquet with a note telling her how sorry I am that you had to die."

    Jabari struggled to breathe, but there was no choice in her mind. "Alright!"

    "Say it."

    "Alright!" Jalari hated herself. She hated the choices she had made. She hated that it had to come to this. "I'll work for you!"

    As soon as she had said that, Tela stood, getting off of Jalari. The younger asari took in deep gulps of air, rubbing her neck.

    "Good choice. Let's get started."

    ###

    Chora's Den, Wards, Citadel, The Serpent Nebula

    Entering Chora's Den for the second time in nearly as many hours, Riley, Ashley, Kaidan, Garrus, and Wrex made for an interesting sight. To see humans, a krogan, and a turian all together without any complaints was not normal. When the manager caught sight them, especially the krogan behind them, he decided it was best to not even bother with them.

    "Do you see Harkin?" Riley asked, looking up at Garrus. She had no idea what he looked like, and the turian was the only one who had ever actually met the man.

    Garrus scanned the crowd and easily find him near the back, an asari dancer giving him a lap dance. He pointed with a talon. "There."

    "I can see he's doing great things for humanities reputation." Ashley practically growled, scowling at the man.

    "He could do better." Wrex shrugged, completely missing her point. "She's a little homely. I've seen better looking turians."

    Ashley just stares after the krogan for a moment before shaking her head and entrenching her own personal philosophy even further.

    Together, they all walked to Harkin's table. Riley's glare at the dancer made the maiden blush, and she scurried away as fast as she possibly could.

    "Hey!" Annoyed at his entertainment having run away, Harkin turned to berate Riley. "I was watching that."

    Riley ignored him, taking a seat dramatically across from Harkin, crossing her legs casually as she leaned back as comfortably as she could. "Officer Harkin, you've been making a lot of bad mistakes."

    "Who the hell are you?" Harkin glared at Riley, scowling. "If you don't move along, I'm gonna have to arrest you."

    "Commander Riley Shepard. Special Tactics and Reconnaissance." Riley stared at Harkin, completely unimpressed. He shifted uncomfortably at that. "I would say that it's a pleasure to meet you, but..." Riley shook her head. "You make people disappear, don't you Harkin? It's your thing."

    "I don't need any of this shit. I'm outta here." Harkin moved to stand, but Wrex put a hand on his shoulder and shoved him back down into his seat. Gulping, Harkin looks up at the krogan before turning his attention to Riley.

    "You make people disappear, don't you Harkin," Riley repeated, her eyes half lidded.

    "So what if I do?" Harkin glared up at Garrus, knowing that the turian was the only one who could have betrayed him.

    "Well Harkin." Riley leaned forward dangerously. "I need you to make someone reappear."

    "That's not how it works." Harkin shook his head, glaring daggers at Riley.

    "You're being stubborn." Riley shook her head, tsking at the older man. She gestured up at Wrex, who grinned wickedly, showing off tech that would have no problem chewing through Harkin's skull. "You don't want to upset my friend, here. He doesn't it like when idiots get stubborn."

    With a sigh, Harkin relented. "Who do you want?"

    "Fist."

    Harkin leaned back in his chair, intimidated. He was in the very definition of a rock and a hard place, between a mob boss and a Spectre. "Are you crazy? He'd kill me!"

    "Not if my friend kills him first." With a shrug, Riley waited to see what Harkin would say.

    "I'd tell her if I were you." Wrex leaned close to Harkin. Close enough that the man could smell what the krogan had for breakfast.

    Despite the krogan and the woman with no laws, Harkin still had to think about it for a second before he relented, slumping into his seat. "Alright... alright."

    Sighing, he leaned forward. He held out a data disc for Riley to take. "Here. He's holed up in a building in the Tayseri ward. That has the address and everything."

    "Thank you very much, Harkin." Standing, Riley nodded thankfully to the C-SEC officer.

    "Don't make me come back here." Almost faster than the eye could see, Wrex slammed his fist into Harkin's stomach, and the human crumpled, coughing violently.

    Riley just eyed Wrex. He shrugged in response, not caring at her judgement.

    "What? He made me angry."

    Shaking her head, Riley turned away. Setting the data disc into her omni tool, she opened the sole file and found the address within moments. Looking up at the rest of her team, Riley motioned towards the door. "Let's get going."

    Together, they left the bar. The manager watched them go without making a comment, relieved that their visit hadn't resulted in a single death.

    Before all of them were even out the door, a slim woman with vaguely asian features rushed up to them, waving excitedly.

    "Commander Shepard!" She shouted, breathless, a smile spreading across her face.

    Riley didn't respond at her right away, glancing her over as she waited for her to continue. She didn't have to wait long.

    "I'm Emily Wong," she introduced herself. "I'm an investigative journalist with the Alliance News Network. Could I have a moment of your time?"

    "What do you need?" Riley paused, giving Emily a deeper look.

    "I'm doing a story about corruption and organized crime and the Citadel, but I've been stone walled everywhere I've gone." Her eyes were filled with such hope that it made Riley curious about what she was wanting. "I was hoping that you could share anything you find in your own investigation."

    "How do you know that I'm going to uncover anything you need." Crossing her arms, she tilted her head to the side ever so slightly.

    Emily Wong just looked at her. Really? "If anyone is going to be digging up anything that I could use, it's the hero of Elysium."

    Riley nodded in understanding. For a moment, she debated something in her head for a moment before opening her omni-tool. In moments, she forged a data disc and held it up for Emily to see. "This is a copy of a computer that I've come across in my own investigations. I think you'll find the contents... interesting."

    Riley handed it over to Emily, who took it like it was the most precious thing she had ever seen.

    "Thank you, Commander!" Emily looked like she wanted to start dancing in excitement before remembering who she was standing in front of, and did her best to compose herself. "This will help more than you know."

    "Glad I could be of help."

    Before Riley could say anything else, Emily Wong rushed away, towards a waiting aircar.

    As soon as Emily was gone, Ashley spoke up. "Are you sure that was a wise idea, ma'am?"

    "Anything that helps bring down the darker elements on the Citadel is something that I support." Riley glanced back at Ashley, meeting her brown eyes with her own. Riley shakes her head. If the crime on the Citadel was more curtailed, than there never would have been a market for Equestrian slaves. If she had been any slower that night on Equestria so long ago... it could have been Twilight, or even Rainbow that was sold like a piece of property.

    Feeling a lot less happy than she had been a moment before, Riley led her crew over to the waiting aircar service. They had to take two with how many people they now had with them. Riley climbed into the first car with Garrus and Wrex, Ashley and Kaidan taking the second one.

    As soon as they took off, Riley turned in her seat so she could see both of her new teammates. "So, Garrus... you don't seem like typical C-SEC."

    "No. I uh..." Garrus rubbed the back of his fringe, laughing uncomfortably. "I guess not, Commander. You certainly agree with my father there."

    "I thought it was the 'turian way' to always follow orders." She held up her fingers to do finger quotes. "I was always told it was embedded in your DNA."

    "We all know the wonderful things that leads to." Wrex rolled his eyes, snorting.

    "I've never been a great turian." Garrus ignored Wrex, meeting Riley's gaze. He shrugged, more than a little embarrassed. "I don't like red-tape. That's gotten me in trouble more than a few times."

    "No one does." Wrex laughed, shaking his head. "How long did your species spend going through the paperwork before you decided to neuter mine? I'm surprised it took you so little time."

    Both Riley and Garrus gave the massive krogan a look. It really wouldn't be a good idea to piss him off, especially now that they were in a confined space.

    "What about you, Wrex?" Riley finally asked, turning her attention to Wrex. He met her gaze evenly, completely unashamed. "What did you do before you fell into our happy little band of misfits?"

    Wrex shifted in his seat, scratching an itch while he shrugged. "I'm a krogan. That should really be enough."

    "So..." Riley drawled, hoping she wasn't making a mistake. "A mercenary then."

    "Yeah." He grinned at the two of them, the three scars on his face looking grittier than ever before. His entire body was covered in scars, a history of battles and fights that were probably older than both Riley and Garrus combined. "You couldn't tell just from my pretty face?"

    "It is very... distinct look," Riley agreed, hesitant. The krogan was a completely unknown factor. At this point, he could be either one of the best allies she had ever made, or one of the worst mistakes. It could go either way.

    "I'm glad you can appreciate it." Wrex nodded, pleased, before he started to pick at a thin scratch on his armor.

    The three of them settled into an uncomfortable silence for the rest of the ride, and Riley and Garrus shared a look.

    17. Chapter Sixteen - Moving Forwards

    Chapter Sixteen - Moving Onwards

    Solar One, The Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    April 9, 2183

    "Whatchya doin'?" The chirp of a voice over an omni tool cut through the darkness surrounding Twilight Sparkle's mind.

    She woke with a groan, a small throb behind her eyes making the entire process far more painful than it had any right to be. It took her a moment to gather her thoughts together, and as she did that, she came to the realization that she was lying under the covers of her bed on Solar One. Looking over, she found Gilda laying next to her, watching one of the cartoon shows that she had come to love since coming to Equestria. They had been a wonderful find for her, and they helped keep the nightmares at bay.

    When the griffin started to giggle, half trying to muffle herself to keep from waking Twilight, the unicorn couldn't hold her silence anymore and nuzzled close to Gilda's side.

    "That's cute," she murmured, resting her head on the pillow next to Gilda's. The griffin startled, turning over to look at her marefriend.

    "Twilight!" Show forgotten, she grabbed Twilight's forehooves. "You're awake! How are you feeling? Do you have a headache? Are you feeling sick? Do you need anything? I could go get you some tea, or maybe soup. Soup might be better. Do you want soup?"

    Twilight blinked at Gilda, confused, her headache throbbing as if to remind her she had absolutely no clue what was going on. She looked around at their room, her brow scrunching up before she turned to look back at Gilda. "What's happening? How'd we get back here? What... what's happening?"

    "What do you remember, Twi?" Gilda sat up, concerned, looking down at Twilight with gentle eyes.

    "I remember..." Twilight blinked, struggling to recall... anything. Her eyes went wide when she remembered. "Oh Celestia, I remember..."

    "What do you remember, Twi?" Gilda asked again, her voice gentle.

    "You're not going to believe me." She wasn't sure if she believed herself.

    "I don't know." Gilda shrugged, lying down so she was beak to muzzle with Twilight. "After everything we've seen so far, I think I'm pretty open to the strange and unbelievable."

    "This though..." Twilight wasn't at all convinced by that.

    "What? What's so unbelievable about you jumping from a balcony into a lake, being fished out of said lake by C-SEC and then passing out. What's so unbelievable about that?"

    Twilight could only give Gilda a look.

    Of course it's unbelievable, just like everything else that had been happening to them.

    "Alright then." Gilda booped Twilight on the muzzle, making her scrunch up her muzzle. "Shoot."

    "I wasn't just jumping into a lake." Looking down, Twilight frowned when she saw that she had been clutching the object she had found under the relay statue. She held it up for Gilda to see. "I found this."

    "Where'd you get that?" Flaring her wings in surprise, Gilda blinked in surprise, clacking her beak.

    "Under the statue of the Mass Relay," Twilight explained, turning it over in her hoof. It was prothean in design, just like she had thought. It wasn't very large, only a little bigger than the bottom of her hoof, and rectangular in appearance. It almost looked like it was designed to slot together with other pieces.

    "No." Gilda shook her head, pointing at the artifact. "I mean where'd you get that?" She leaned closer, peering at it as if she had never seen it before. "You didn't have it with you when we brought you back to the ship."

    "Then how do I have it with me now?" Twilight looked down at the artifact as a pulse of light spread across its surface, following the array of lines on its surface. She focused on the artifact, wondering how that could have happened.

    "What did you just do, Twi?" Her voice was wobbly as she spoke. Gilda tensed, her eyes focusing as she stared at Twilight's hoof in surprise.

    "What do you mean?" Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow.

    "Where'd you make it go?" Cocking her head, Gilda looked around, the feathers on the top of her head raising.

    "Go?" There was no end to Twilight's confusion. She held up the artifact, raising an eyebrow at Gilda. "It's right here."

    "How'd you do that?" Gilda blinked in surprise, as if seeing the artifact for the first time. She reached a claw out to touch it, but hesitated and drew it back, unsure of herself.

    "How'd I do what?" Gilda was making absolutely no sense. Twilight might have blacked out, but it seemed like Gilda was the one with a head injury.

    "How'd you make it disappear?"

    "Disappear? What in Equestria are you talking about Gilda? You're not making any sense."

    "That... thing disappeared, then it just reappeared!" Gilda pointed at the artifact, looking at it like it was one of Twilight's experiments that tended to explode if toyed with. "What happened? What did you do?"

    "I didn't do anything!" Twilight waved her hoof, wondering just what was wrong with Gilda.

    "Do it again." Leaning closer, Gilda stared at the artifact, her rear wiggling, as if she was ready to pounce.

    "I don't even know what happened in the first place!" Twilight huffed, more than a little frustrated. "Can we get back to the important issue?"

    "You made that thing disappear. I'd say that's important."

    "Gilda!" Twilight rolled her eyes. "Focus!"

    "Alright..." Gilda straightened, trying to get back into the right frame of mind. She blinked several times, focusing on Twilight. "We can deal with the disappearing thingy later... Okay. Go ahead."

    "Alright." Taking a breath, Twilight centered herself before beginning to explain. "I jumped into the lake and I found this. When I touched it, I saw... Something strange."

    "Okay." Gilda was trying her best to be a supportive marefriend, no matter how much she wanted to try and figure out what was up with the artifact. "What did you see?"

    "I think it was a vision... a memory, maybe." Shaking her head, Twilight frowned, trying to recall what had happened perfectly. Twilight's brow scrunched up, and she looked at Gilda, her eyes burning intensely. "I think I saw the Elements of Harmony."

    "What?" Gilda perked up, finally focusing on the moment. "Where?"

    "I don't know, but I think the protheans had them..." Frowning, Twilight looked back down at the artifact.

    "The protheans..." Gilda cocked her head, following Twilight's gaze.

    "I know what I saw."

    "I didn't say I didn't believe you," Gilda protested.

    "Oh..." Twilight didn't have a response to that. "Well... The protheans somehow had the elements, and they were in a war with something that was wiping them out..." Frowning, she whispered to herself. "... A coming darkness..."

    "What did you say?" Gilda asked, not quite hearing.

    "The dream!" Twilight took Gilda's claw in her hoof. "It was the dream!"

    "The dream?"

    "The dream!" Twilight stomped a hoof on the bed. "We all saw it. Celestia said it herself. A storm is coming and we're trying to find the elements to fight it. What if the protheans experienced the same thing?"

    "A... storm?" Gilda raised an eyebrow, not following Twilight's logic.

    "Well... It's not actually a storm. It's obviously symbolism." Twilight had to stop herself from jumping up in excitement. It would make her headache even more unbearable.

    "Obviously." Gilda nodded her head sarcastically.

    "Oh Celestia, I think I know what the map means!" Twilight scrambled out of bed, her eyes open wide.

    "What?" Gilda stared after Twilight before her brain kicked into gear and she followed after Twilight. "Wait! Twi, you really shouldn't be getting out of bed."

    "I feel fine." Waving a hoof, Twilight kept going towards the door.

    "Really! Tiny Berry said you needed to take it easy."

    That made Twilight pause. She looked back at Gilda, confused. "Tiny Berry?"

    "Yeah. Apparently as well as the time she spends working in the kitchen, she's also the ship's doctor."

    "Huh..." Twilight blinked before shaking her head. "Whatever."

    "I'm fine." Twilight winced at the ache in her legs, but she pushed it off. "There are more important things to do than bed rest."

    Gilda rolled her eyes, knowing that there was nothing she could say to make Twilight stop. They both left the room, emerges into the ship proper. Twilight started to trot towards the comm room, only to trip and fall.

    "Ow!"

    At the surprising young, squeaky voice, Twilight looked down, finding herself sprawled over a dazed looking Sweetie Belle.

    "Oh..." She blinked owlishly. "I'm sorry... Didn't see you... Huh?"

    "They came onboard after you passed out." Gilda walked up to the two of them. Leaning down, she pulled Sweetie Belle out from under Twilight and set her on all four of her hooves. "Remember, Twi? That's why we were meeting with them before you-"

    "Before you jumped into a lake!" Sweetie Belle hopped, smiling as wide as she possibly could. "It was funny."

    "Ah..." Twilight blushed, getting to her hooves. "Right. Sorry."

    "Why?" Sweetie dropped back onto her haunches. "It was funny."

    Twilight blushed even harder, her ears laying flat against her head.

    "Sweetie Belle?"

    They all turned to look as Rarity emerged from around the corner.

    "Sweetie Belle! There you are." She cried dramatically, trotting over to join them, taking in the situation. Rarity winced when she saw what must have happened. "Sweetie Belle! What did I tell you about bothering Ms. Sparkle?"

    "She's not a bother," Twilight assured her, rubbing a hoof on the top of Sweetie Belle's head, making the filly giggle.

    Rarity didn't quite know how to take that. She had for so long built up the elite of Equestria in her mind that she wasn't quite sure how to take the idea that Twilight just wanted to be treated as a normal mare.

    "Please forgive me, darling." Rarity pulled Sweetie Belle closer to herself.

    "It's fine." Twilight rolled her eyes. Politely, but urgently, Twilight excused herself from the situation and trotted to the bridge, an awkward smile on her muzzle as she sidled past Rarity.

    Gilda and Rarity shared a glance, before looking after Twilight's retreating form.

    "She looks determined," Rarity murmured.

    "You get used to it." Gilda shrugged.

    "Really?" Rarity raised an eyebrow.

    "No." Shaking her head, Gilda followed after Rarity.

    "Oh." Rarity blinked.

    ###

    "Isn't your anniversary coming up?"

    Honey Dawn looked up from her maintenance of the ship's systems to find Little Hoof, one of her copilots, inquisitively looking at her. "What?"

    "Your anniversary?" Little Hoof had a small blush on his face, wondering if he had misheard something.

    "No..." Shaking her head, Honey Dawn did her best to let Little Hoof have his dignity. "That's next week."

    "Oh."

    Thankfully, at that moment the door to the bridge slid open and they turned to find Twilight entering.

    "Ma'am!" Honey Dawn saluted jokingly, but faltered when she saw the look of determination on Twilight's face.

    "Commander, I'm ready to leave." Her voice was completely serious, and she had the look of a leader.

    "Two crew members are still on the Citadel, but I'll order them to return." Honey blinked, but nodded in understanding. Straightening, she watched Twilight, falling easily into her role as Captain of the ship. She looked at Twilight expectantly. "What's our destination, ma'am?"

    "Thessia." Twilight nodded to herself, satisfied. "I know what we're supposed to do."

    "I'll start logging the flight plans immediately." Honey Dawn nodded, glancing at her copilots.

    "Good." Twilight sagged ever so slightly as the moment passed, and Honey Dawn could see the excited child in the unicorn again. "I want to leave as soon as everypony is onboard."

    "Yes, ma'am." Even as she was speaking, Honey Dawn could hear Little Hoof and Fancy Steps, her other copilot, getting started on preparations.

    "Alright then..." Twilight nodded, then paused, not really sure what to do next. "I'll be... I don't know."

    Turning, Twilight left without another word, and the three pilots all shared a look.

    Honey Dawn started giggling, shaking her head. "That filly hasn't changed a bit."

    ###

    The door to the bridge sliding shut behind her, Twilight loitered just in the entrance, not really sure what to do next. She was so confident a moment ago, but now she wondered just what was happening.

    What had she gotten herself caught up in?

    "You okay there, Twi?" Gilda asked as she, Rarity, and Sweetie Belle caught up to her.

    "Yeah." Twilight shrugged, looking up at her marefriend.

    "You sure?" Gilda nuzzled up against Twilight's side, placing a wing comfortingly over the unicorn's back. "You don't look too fine to me."

    "I'm fine, Gilda." The words didn't even sound convincing to her own ears. She looked over to Rarity and Sweetie Belle, offering them a shaky smile. "We're heading to Thessia. I hope that it isn't too inconvenient for you."

    "Thessia? You mean the home to the best fashion designers from across the galaxy?" Rarity blinked in surprise, an excitement growing in her chest. She almost swooned, having to keep from drooling at the thought. "Why on Equestria would that be an inconvenience. You are in fact, doing me a favor. I've been saving up for such a trip for years!"

    "Well..." Twilight glanced at Gilda, who shrugged, before turning back to Rarity. "Good. We should be leaving soon."

    "Come along, Sweetie Belle." Rarity looks down at Sweetie Belle. "Let's get out of our hosts' mane."

    Rarity led Sweetie Belle away from Twilight and Gilda, back towards their room.

    As soon as they were gone, Gilda turned to Twilight.

    "What are you thinking?" She asked, setting her wings back against her sides.

    "The map." Twilight frowned, sitting back on her haunches.

    "What about it?"

    "It wasn't showing us where to find the Elements." Twilight chewed on her lip, staring down at the floor, following the patterns in the wood with her eyes. "There's more going on here then I ever imagined, and we're caught up in something bigger than either of us."

    "I couldn't imagine being anywhere else." Gilda sidled up close to Twilight, nuzzling her cheek.

    "Me neither." Twilight kissed the side of Gilda's beak, thankful, and not for the first time, that she wasn't alone.

    "What do you think we're going to find?" Gilda asked, glad that her feather's helped to hide her blush.

    Twilight had to think about that for a moment.

    "I think... I think we're supposed to find more of these." Twilight held up the artifact. A moment later, she blinked in confusion when she couldn't remember how she managed to bring it with her after leaving their room.

    "Do you think they're safe?" Gilda asked, pointing a talon at the artifact, seeming to take its appearance a lot better than Twilight was.

    "I don't know." Twilight shrugged, and she turned the artifact over in her forehooves. It hummed with an otherworldly power. "I don't even really know what it is."

    "Hey, don't worry." Gilda put a foreleg around Twilight's shoulder. "We'll figure it out together."

    "You're just saying that." Even as she said that, Twilight leaned back into Gilda's touch.

    "Yeah... I'm not really great at this comforting bullshit."

    "You don't say." Giggling, Twilight enjoyed feeling the strong heartbeat of the griffin through her back.

    "Don't be an ass," Gilda scoffed.

    "Hey!" Twilight gasped, taken aback in a completely joking manner. "I'm not a donkey!"

    "Maybe not, but you can be an ass."

    "You watch too many human shows."

    "Meh." Gilda simply said, shrugging.

    18. Chapter Seventeen - Yippee Ki-Yay

    Chapter Seventeen - Yippee Ki-Yay

    Tilican Tower, Bachjret Wards, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    April 9, 2183

    It was the soft snoring of the warm body next to her that woke Octavia. It was a welcome sound, one she relished hearing every day. After ten years of an empty bed and teetering on the edge of alcoholism, having her wife next to her every morning was a miracle that she was never going to take for granted. Whether it was the gods, the spirits, Athame, or Faust herself, Octavia had her wife, she had no problems, and life was good.

    The first few moments after waking were some of the best in Octavia's mind. They added an otherworldly flare to everything she laid her eyes upon. Whenever she looked at Vinyl, it was as if there was a halo of golden light around the mare. She could stare at her for hours and hours. She did stare at her for hours and hours sometimes, and it creeped Vinyl out to no end. Everything about the little mare was miraculous to Octavia. Where so many others had broken, Vinyl had done her best to grow, never letting what had happened to her define her.

    On her bedside table, a soft chime sounded, and Octavia rolled over to glance at it. In soft blue, easy on the eyes, a small message alerted her to the fact that the weekly deliveries were ready for her to pick up at the front desk. It was easier to have her groceries shipped to the tower than it was to buy everything her self and drag it back in an aircar.

    Sliding out of bed with a groan, Octavia stood, yawning. She grimaced at the taste in her mouth, and she could only imagine the smell, but it wasn't bad enough for her to wash up entirely. She could do that after grabbing the deliveries downstairs.

    Trotting over to the mirror that sat across from the bed, she lazily fixed her mane just enough to be presentable before throwing on a simple covering. While nudity was apparently normal on Equestria, it was considered rude in the rest of the galaxy. It simply wasn't worth the hassle.

    Vinyl grumbled, rolling over in her bed as she searched for the now missing warmth of her wife's body. Waking slowly, she blinked as she tried to clear her vision, looking at Octavia.

    "Tavi…" She murmured, her voice slurring tiredly.

    "I'm just going to pick up the groceries, Vinyl," Octavia explained, trotting over to the side of the bed to give Vinyl a quick nuzzle. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

    "Mmm…" Vinyl tried to nuzzle back, but she was too tired to put any effort into it. With another groan, she rolled back over, pulling a pillow over her head and promptly fell back to sleep.

    Octavia giggled at the sight, pulling the covers up over Vinyl's shoulders as she shook her head. As soon as she was satisfied the unicorn was warm and comfortable, she turned and trotted out of her room, leaving the apartment.

    Over the years since moving to the Citadel and taking up residence in Tilican Tower, Octavia had ended up purchasing the entire top floor of the building. As such, the elevator was right outside her front door. It made things easier, not having to work her way through a labyrinth of halls with her cello on her back.

    The elevator arrived rather quickly, thanks to the fact that it was rather early in the morning, and the ride down was only interrupted once by a salarian resident on a lower floor who was heading into work early.

    Exiting the elevator as soon as it hit the main floor, Octavia paid no mind to the rest of the people in the entrance of the tower, only barely noticing as the salarian brushed past her and power walked towards the entrance.

    Taking her own leisurely pace, Octavia walked up to the holding desk, smiling in greeting to the asari working there.

    "Hello, Amessra," Octavia greeted, jumping up so her forehooves were resting on the relatively low desk.

    "Madame Octavia, good morning." Amessra, a matron, bowed her head to Octavia with a nervous smile on her face. Octavia blinked. In all of her years at Tilican tower, Amessra had worked there behind the holding desk. She had never seen the sari look so nervous in all of that time.

    "I'm here to pick up my groceries."

    "Of course!" Amassra's voice was strained, and she spoke through her teeth, almost hissing.

    Typing on her holo-display, Amessra made sure that Octavia was getting everything she needs. As robotic arms started piling a cart full of her supplies, Amessra leaned forward ever so slightly, looking Octavia in the eyes. She spoke in a whisper, and Octavia had to strain to hear her.

    "Madame Octavia, you should go back to your room. If you have any plans for today, I would suggest you cancel them."

    Amasser glanced away from Octavia, and the pony followed her gaze to see a group of turians and salarians standing to the side.

    "Don't look!"

    Octavia jerked her head away at the sound of Amessra's panic, looking up at the asari with a raised eyebrow.

    "Please, Madame Octavia," Amessra begged, her voice desperate. "Go back to your room. Lock the door. Barricade it in any way you can. Don't come out until you run out of food."

    "What's going on, Amessra? Why are you acting so strange."

    "Bad things are happening, Madame." Despite her panic, Amessra kept the nervous smile on her face. "Please, go—"

    "Hey!" A loud male voice broke the relative morning silence.

    Amessra winced, standing up straight even as she kept her head bowed. She gave Octavia an apologetic look, but didn't say anything else.

    Giving one last lingering look to Amessra, Octavia turned to see an angry, jittery looking man striding towards them. He was dressed in an expensive set of armor, completely out of place in the residential tower. The man pointed right at her, his face angry.

    "Hey, what are you doing?" He turned to look at the group of turians and salarians. "Why isn't she with the others?"

    "She just came in." Amessra broke in, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear her.

    "Don't lie to me!" The man shouted. Striding forward, he grabbed Amessra's face, forcing her look up at him. She whimpered in fright, but he ignored that. "I don't like people who lie to me."

    Pulling her out from behind the counter, the man threw her to the ground. Looking at the group of salarians and turians, he pointed at Amessra and Octavia.

    "You lot, take these two to join the others!" Shaking his head, he ran a hand through his hair. "Don't make me have to micromanage things. Get it done right the first time!"

    As a pair of turians rushed to obey the man, Octavia looked up at Amessra in panic.

    "What's happening?" She cried out in confusion.

    "No talking!" The taller turian shouted at her, his voice gruff. Leaning down, he grabbed Octavia up off the floor without a single problem, hefting her over his shoulder. He ignored her startled cries and started walking away.

    From her view up on his shoulder, Octavia watched as the other turian grabbed Amessra by her shoulders and started pulling her after the two of them. The asari seemed to just crumple in on herself, allowing the turian to drag her along without any problems.

    Out of the corner of her eye, Octavia caught sight of two krogan dragging a small quarian between them towards the elevators.

    Before Octavia could even think of trying to escape, the turians had taken her and Amessra away from the tower's entrance and into the staff hallways. All the better to keep them away from prying eyes she supposed.

    The turians dragged them through a pair of large doors, and even deeper into the innards of the tower. They took them deeper and deeper through so many twists and bends that Octavia wasn't sure that she'd even be able to find her way back.

    After what seemed like several minutes, they came to a door guarded by two brogans and a salarian in sleek black armor.

    "Two more for the lot," the turian carrying Octavia said.

    The black armored salarian nodded, and motioned to the krogan. They opened the door, looking over Octavia and Amessra with cold eyes. The salarian held up a hand to stop the two turians. Quickly and efficiently he checked over the two women and took every piece of technology they have, dropping their omni-tools and Amessra's data pad into a pile next to the door.

    At the salarian's nod, the two turians tossed Amessra and Octavia into the dark room without any ceremony and slammed the doors shut behind them.

    Octavia blinked as her eyes searched for any sign of light, but that was simply in vain. The room was completely dark. Her ears however picked up on the breathing of a large amount of people.

    "Hello?" She asked, nervousness coursing through her body.

    "Octavia?" A familiar voice spoke from the darkness. "They got you too?"

    "F-Fidelis? W-What's happening?" Octavia couldn't see the tower's doorman, but she could sense the turian's presence nearby.

    "Is Vinyl with you?" Fidelis asked.

    "What? No! She's still—" Octavia stopped when she felt a hand on her muzzle.

    "I don't need to know," Fidelis said, interrupting. "They could be listening."

    "What's happening?" She asked instead.

    "Someone's taken over the entire tower... Almost the entire tower... We're all here." Fidelis didn't sound at all convincing.

    ###

    The flight to the tower only took twenty minutes. Awkward conversation was the order of the day, and Riley, Garrus, and Wrex certainly did their best to fill their quotas. It was with much thankfulness that they finally arrived, the two aircars landing in front of Tilican Tower. As soon as the doors slid open, Riley and her crew all clambered out, thankful to finally get to the action.

    "Who…" Riley leaned back, looking up at the tower. She wasn't quite sure how she was supposed to take it. "Who the hell could afford to live in a place like this?"

    "A lot of people who have more money in their wallets than you or I make in a year." Garrus shrugged. He'd never had to go inside such of a tower in his time with C-SEC, thanks to their normally judicious self policing and high standards on choosing their residents.

    "Meh. I've seen nicer." Wrex seemed completely unimpressed. He actually looked a little hungry, if Riley had to put a word to him.

    "I can't really see how you could get nicer than this…" Kaidan looked at Wrex unbelievingly.

    "Yeah, well…" Wrex shrugged, scratching under his arm. He looked at them, almost bored. "You haven't seen nice until you've seen a palace fortress on a privately owned planet with enough firepower to shoot down a dreadnought on the edge of the system."

    "It made a big boom." Wrex chuckled, grinning.

    Everyone turned to look at Wrex, a little creeped out at how entirely nonplussed he was.

    "Boom?" Riley asked, raising an eyebrow.

    "Boom." Miming an explosion with his hands, Wrex nodded.

    "Right…" Shaking her head, Riley looked at the rest of her squad. "Moving right along… Our goal is to find Tali'Zorah. We don't know the situation inside—"

    An entire floor of the tower exploded, handily interrupting her and throwing all of them but Wrex to the ground.

    Getting back to their feet, they drew their weapons.

    "I think the situation is pretty self-evident ma'am." Ashley triple checked that the ammo block in her rifle was tuned to armor piercing.

    "Yeah, well, laugh it up, buttercup." Scowling, Riley looked at the rest of them. "We go in as a team. Garrus, Wrex, this is your chance to prove yourselves."

    "Yeah, because a turian isn't going to try and show up a human, is he?" Ashley snorted, rolling her eyes.

    "You're going to be the smartass, aren't you?" Riley looked at Ashley carefully.

    "It sorta just slips out, ma'am." She looked entirely unrepentant.

    Rolling her eyes, Riley turned back to Wrex, Kaidan, and Garrus. "Right. Let's go say hello then."

    "Hold up, Shepard." Reaching into a pouch in his armor, Wrex pulled out a large marker. If Riley had bothered to look any closer, she would have seen the logo for Hyland-Sorah's children's art set stamped on its side. "Hold out your arm."

    "What are you doing?" The idea of a krogan with a thing for coloring was something that Riley wasn't even sure how to begin to process.

    Wrex just uncapped the marker and stared at Riley. After nearly thirty seconds, she relented and held out her arm.

    "I swear to Celestia," she murmured, watching him carefully. "If you draw a penis I will shoot you in the face."

    Wrex laughed but didn't say anything to comfort her fear, instead making a well practiced glyph in an out of the way spot on her armor. It looked like scribbles to anyone who didn't know what it meant.

    Once he was done, he turned to the rest of them, holding his marker up. "You're all next."

    "Are you going to explain why you're suddenly in the mood to color?" Kaidan asked as Wrex grabbed his arm and started to make another glyph on the underside of his bicep.

    "Don't really feel like it."

    "Okay." What else could you say to an eight foot tall alien holding a magic marker.

    ###

    Vinyl awoke to the tower rocking, an explosion ringing through her ears. She fell right out of her bed, screaming in terror.

    "TAVI!" She cried out, fear for her wife filling her mind. Was Octavia okay? Was she hurt?

    Nothing. Octavia didn't reply, and everything seemed to have fallen eerily silent after such a loud explosion.

    "Tavi…" Vinyl whimpered out, curling in on herself.

    Still nothing.

    After a moment, Vinyl stood on shaky legs, taking a deep breath before crawling towards the door. Opening it, she peeked her head out and looked out into the hallway. No signs of Octavia.

    Tentatively, Vinyl left the bedroom and headed into the main living area of the penthouse. Smoke billowed out into space on the outside of the windows, blocking most of the Serpent Nebula from her view.

    Aside from the smoke, nothing else seemed out of place. Everything seemed unearthly silent after such a loud explosion.

    "Tavi, are you out here?" Vinyl's voice was barely louder than a whisper, but it felt unnaturally loud to her ears.

    She peeked into the kitchen, and then into Octavia's practice room. Her wife wasn't there, and after looking in the few other rooms, Vinyl finally had no other choice than to acknowledge what she already knew to be true.

    Octavia wasn't there and Vinyl was on her own in the apartment.

    A knock at the door, heavy and insistent, pulled her from her thoughts. Vinyl froze, staring at it with wide eyes.

    More knocking drew Vinyl back to reality.

    Crouching down so low her belly almost touched the floor, Vinyl crept towards the door. She activated the video feed and cowered even further into herself when she saw that it was a trio of two turians and a salarian in heavy armor with weapons outside her door.

    One of the turians knocked again, before shouting.

    "This is your last chance before we break down the door!"

    Whimpering, Vinyl backed away, her belly close to touching the floor. Her prosthetic leg started twitching, going wild.

    The two turians started beating on the door, trying to break it down.

    They rammed it once!

    TWICE!

    THRI-

    BANG! BANG BANG!

    Everything fell silent again.

    Vinyl cracked an eye open, seeing that the door had bent inwards from the force of the turians.

    A moment of silence...

    Three knocks on the door.

    Vinyl winced, backing away. The turians were still there.

    "Hello?" A feminine voice shouted through the door. "Is anyone there?"

    Vinyl didn't respond.

    "It's... It's Caesia Tibrius... Fidelis is my husband." A pause, just for a moment, then the voice started again. "If anyone's in there... You're safe now. Don't worry about it."

    Standing, Vinyl tentatively made her way to the door. She hesitated before pressing one of the buttons on the panel. It protested for a moment, but it finally opened revealing an aging turian woman dressed simply in loose pants and a shirt. It took her a moment, but Vinyl finally recognized her as Caesia Tiberius, wife of Fidelis, the doorman.

    She looked down at Vinyl, a pistol held comfortably in her hand, and what passed for a smile crossed her face, her mandibles flaring.

    "You're Octavia's wife, aren't you?" Cause asked, looking down at Vinyl.

    "Y-Yeah…" Vinyl managed to croak out.

    "Is she with you?" Caesia asked, glancing past Vinyl into the apartment beyond.

    "She…" Vinyl shook her head. "She went down to get the groceries a while ago."

    "Damn it." Caesia sighed, hanging her head. "Fidelis was on duty, and I haven't been able to raise him on his omni-tool. Something is going down here. There are patrols roaming the tower."

    Looking around at the penthouse around them, Caesia frowned when she saw the smoke billowing beyond the windows. Looking back at Vinyl, she spoke again. "You aren't safe here."

    "I don't really have anywhere else to go."

    Looking down at the bodies, Caesia sighed. She stepped over to the smaller turian, unbuckling his shield belt from his armor before placing it around her own waist. "There's nothing for it then, is there? Come with me... I'll at least be able to keep an eye on you."

    Caesia paused, looking down at Vinyl who was still shaking ever so slightly as adrenaline pumped through her body from the explosion.

    "That explosion you heard… sorry about that. I didn't mean to frighten anyone."

    "What?" Vinyl's brow scrunched up in confusion.

    "A bunch of mercenaries were wanting to take me captive. I…" Caesia glanced away, picking up the salarian's rifle. "I dissuaded them of that notion."

    "Oh…" Was all that Vinyl managed to say.

    ###

    Tali'Zorah nar Rayya was not having a good month. All of her life, she had been told that great things were expected of her. It was always said in a hopeful manner, but Tali knew that there was a lot riding on her success. She couldn't just return to the fleet with a shuttle, or some other normal gift. She was the daughter of Rael'Zorah after all, and that meant much. She had much to prove, and nothing but a fleet changing gift would be enough.

    Of course, with her luck, that meant that she had ended up stumbling across geth patrols and entangled in a conspiracy involving the Shadow Broker, his agents, and a rogue Spectre. This really hadn't been what she was hoping for.

    Hanging from between two krogan who had done little else than grunt at her since she had been captured in the alleyway, Tali didn't have any time to appreciate the decor of the building she had been dragged into. If she had, she would have noticed that her suit was leaving oil stains across the floor and her embroidered hood clashed with the more understated decorations.

    In the elevator that the krogan dragged her into, Tali caught glimpses of rare, stained wood before the doors were opening again and they dragged out into a hallway. Before she could even process any of that, the krogan had dragged her into a penthouse and tossed her onto the floor.

    "Stupid bosh'tets," Tali grumbled to herself as she pushed herself up off the floor. Looking around, she found that she had been dragged into quite possibly the nicest looking room she had ever seen. An angry human was pacing back and forth in front of her, before a long line of windows, his omni-tool flashing as he waited for it to connect.

    "Come on." He let loose a string of expletives that her translator simply refused to turn into Qua'lish. "Work you stupid piece of shit. Connect!"

    So caught up was he in his frustration that he barely even noticed Tali. He was far too gone in his panic attack. Instead, he motioned for the krogan to back away, ignoring Tali as he continued his pacing.

    "Please hold for the Shadow Broker." The omni-tool chimed unhelpfully.

    "I have been!" The man shouted, pulling his omni-tool off and shaking it violently. "JUST WORK!"

    "That's quite the temper you have. Is that any way to speak to the man you work for?" The sudden sound of a new voice, scrambled beyond all recognition, startled the man, making him jump in surprise.

    "Don't give me that shit!" The man shouted, struggling to place his omni-tool back onto his arm. "Spectres are after me! They're trying to kill me."

    "That's what happens when you make terrible decisions."

    "Are you going to help me or not?" The man asked, sounding about as frustrated as Tali had ever heard someone get.

    "I think... Not." The voice almost sounded smug. It was hard to tell through all of the voice disguising.

    "WHAT?!" The man shouted, his eyes bugging out in a mixture of anger and thinly hidden terror.

    "You were sloppy." The voice continued, not at all caring about the man's temper tantrum. "Left too many trails. I don't mind my agents doing a bit of business on the side, but that business threatens my operations…"

    "I was doing no such thing!"

    Tali was surprised that the man didn't stomp his foot. The whine in his voice was quickly draining away her fear of him.

    "Then where did this hit order for Garrus Vakarian come from?" As if to drive its point home, the voice took control of the man's omni-tool and posted the simple assassination order.

    "Well, I—" The man blushed, of all things, struggling to think of anything to say.

    "I've rescinded it already. If anyone had actually managed to follow through on it, it would have been a disaster."

    "He's just a detective! Who would've cared?" The man waved his arms, his legs trembling as if he wished he could run away and hide.

    "His father. Tulius Vakarian would have called in everything to make sure the one who murdered his son was brought to justice. Your sloppiness could have been traced back to me."

    "But—" Wide eyed, the man tried to protest.

    "You're on your own, Fist." The communication ended, and as if to add insult to injury, a complex series of commands made the man's omni-tool delete everything on its flash drive, leaving the man staring wide-eyed at his now useless omni-tool.

    "Shit!" Pulling off his omni-tool, he threw it as far away as he could. Turning, he kicked the window, but the solid material didn't so much as give.

    "Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit Shit!" The man kicked the window again and again, until his anger seemed to bleed away. He paused, trying to collect himself before finally turning his attention to Tali.

    "Well…" He stared at her for a moment, breathing deeply. "What am I going to do with you now?"

    Tali gulped, wishing suddenly that she was back with the geth.

    19. Chapter Eighteen - Tower Defense

    Chapter Eighteen - Tower Defense

    Tilican Tower, Bachjret Wards, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    April 9, 2183

    "Hey! You can't come in here."

    Riley was the first one to enter the tower, her rifle drawn but held loosely in her hands, as none threateningly as possible. Garrus and Wrex were the next behind her, cutting an imposing figure to frame her with. Kaidan and Ashley were just after them, taking up the rear, nearly unnoticeable behind the first three. Together, they all looked over at the group of turians and salarians standing around what looked like the front desk, dressed in C-SEC uniforms.

    "We're in the middle of C-SEC operations." A turian strode towards them, pointing at the door behind them.

    "Show me your badge." Raising an eyebrow, Riley gave the turian a once over, completely unimpressed.

    "I don't have to do anything! You're obstructing a C-SEC operation." The turian glared, getting angry. "If you don't leave now, I'll have to arrest all of you."

    Riley looked over her shoulder at Garrus, who shook his head as he rolled his eyes.

    Raising their guns, Riley and Garrus opened fire. Wrex joined in moments later with a booming laugh to match his even louder shotgun blasts. In moments, the group of turians and salarians were dead, their light armor having been torn to shreds by military grade weapons and heavily regulated ammunition modifications allowed to very few on the Citadel.

    As Wrex fired one last shot into the face of the turian that had first approached them while standing over his dead body, Riley turned to find Ashley and Kaidan looking at the three of them in utter disbelief.

    "What the hell?" Ashley managed to croak out, looking unsure as to whether she should just shoot Riley herself.

    Kaidan couldn't even say a word.

    "They weren't C-SEC." Garrus didn't say anything else, stepping over the body of the turian to go behind the main desk. Grabbing one of the data pads from behind the desk, he rejoined them as he flipped through what little information it contained, trying to bring himself as much up to speed on the tower as he could.

    "Oh…"

    Stepping over the bodies, Riley walked to the elevator. She looked back at the rest of her crew when she saw that only Wrex had followed her. "Are you coming, or are we going to have to do this on your own?"

    "Sounds like a good idea to me," Wrex said, pushing past Riley to press the up button.

    The three of them rushed to catch up to Riley and Wrex.

    It took nearly a minute before the elevator dinged and doors slid open. They clambered inside, the doors sliding shut moments later.

    "This tower's a dead spot," Garrus commented as he opened his omni-tool, trying to connect to the C-SEC network. "We're being jammed."

    "And isn't that just wonderful!" Riley crossed her arms. "I guess we'll have to do all of this ourselves. The horror."

    "Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Shepard." Garrus closed his omni-tool.

    Wrex shifted on his feet, adjusting his armor. "I knew they weren't C-SEC."

    "Yeah, go ahead and brag about it why don't you?" Ashley scowled at the back of the krogan's hump, crossing her arms.

    "I already did!" He laughed.

    ###

    The last thirty minutes had passed by in a near blur for Vinyl, and the next thing she knew she was that she was hugging a wall as tightly as she could, Caesia standing over her with her assault rifle held tightly in her hands. The voices of more mercenaries echoed out from just outside of the apartment that Caesia had broken into to hide.

    Looking away from Caesia, Vinyl looked around at the apartment. The furniture was torn almost completely to pieces, and there was a large blood stain in the carpet near the bedroom. The occupants had obviously gotten in a struggle trying to not get get dragged from their home.

    Vinyl looked back up, watching as Caesia fiddled with her gun, flipping through the mods that the last owner had installed before settling on a fairly standard armor piercing set. Looking down at Vinyl, she raised a gloved talon to her mouth, making sure that Vinyl knew to be absolutely silent. The little mare nodded in understanding.

    "We've already been through here. We have other floors we should be checking." The voice sounded rough and gravelly, a turian if Vinyl had been forced to guess.

    "I've just got a feeling," Another voice answered, smoother and higher pitched, most likely a salarian.

    "Whatever." The first voice spoke again, tiredly resigned to acquiescing to the second. "Just make it quick."

    Caesia steadied herself, letting out her breath as she raised her rifle as there was fumbling outside the door. Vinyl clenched her eyes shut, her ears flattening themselves back against her skull as she made herself into as small of a target as possible. She barely managed to keep herself from whimpering, remembering Caesia's words.

    The door slid open finally, and someone stepped inside. Someone else was just a few steps behind them. They were quiet now, moving with a purpose and trying their best to not let anyone who could have been inside know they were there.

    It obviously had never occurred to them that anyone inside could have heard them from the hallway.

    There was a moment of silence, and Vinyl practically felt each second as it slithered on past. She curled up even tighter against the wall, a fore hoof against her mouth keeping her whimper from escaping out into the wild.

    BANG! BANG!

    The silence was broken as Caesia fired off two shots. Even with her ears so tight against her head, Vinyl's hearing started ringing. She stayed curled up, at least until a hand on her shoulder made her jerk back in terror.

    Opening her eyes though, she let out a sigh of relief when she saw that it was simply Caesia. The old turian woman had gotten down on her knees before her, her mandibles flaring comfortingly.

    "It's okay, Vinyl," Caesia reassured her. "Everything's fine. Please though, just keep your eyes shut. You don't need to see this. I'll carry you out."

    Vinyl jerked her head in a nod before she closed her eyes again, letting Caesia pick her up. Her ears swiveled on her head, but she couldn't hear anything other than Caesia's steady breath. The door slid shut behind them, and Caesia set her down.

    "You can open your eyes now."

    Doing so, Vinyl found that they were out in the hallway. She glanced back at the door, but Caesia gently turned her face back so she was looking at her with a single talon.

    "Don't think about that. Just focus on us getting out of here and everything will be fine."

    "I... I want Tavi." The whimper finally escaped Vinyl, and she felt her fake leg start to twitch again.

    "I'm sure she's fine." Standing, Caesia kept her voice calm and even. "My husband is probably with her. He'll be making a fool of himself, drawing all the attention to himself to keep everyone else safe. He's a fool like that… it's why I fell in love with him."

    Vinyl didn't really believe her. She just wanted to hold Octavia and go back to sleep, pretend that all of this was a dream.

    "Everything is going to be alright, I promise you that." Caesia said, seeing her disbelief. She lowered herself down onto one knee in front of Vinyl, resting her talon's on one of her shoulders. "First, I need you to be brave. If you listen to everything I tell you to do, we'll both get out of this safe and sound."

    Vinyl nodded her understanding.

    "Good girl." Caesia motioned towards the stairs, massaging one of her talons. "Now come on. We need to get moving. Someone's going to start missing those boy's eventually, and we don't want to be anywhere near here when they find them."

    ###

    Riley, and her squad took the elevator to nearly the top of the tower. After Wrex's laughs, the rest of the ride had been in silence.

    "It's so quiet," Ashley murmured.

    "Fist has probably rounded up all the residents and put them somewhere he can keep an eye on them." Riley took in the apartment doors that lined the halls.

    "Yeah." Wrex snorted, nodding. "Sounds about right."

    They walked down the hall, but before they could reach the end Riley held up her hand, signaling them to stop. They all did so.

    Looking at Wrex, she motioned for the krogan to break down the nearest door on the right.

    Stepping forward, Wrex did so happily.

    Riley followed Wrex into the room, gun at the ready, but all she found were two of Fist's mercs dead on the ground.

    "So." Lifting her rifle, Riley looked at Wrex, then back at the the rest of her squad in the doorway. "There's another player here."

    One of the mercenaries omni-tools chirps to life.

    "Eldon. Eldon, why aren't you answering?"

    Kneeling down, Riley pulled the omni-tool off of the dead man's wrist and activated it, answering the call. "Hello, Fist."

    There was a moment of silence on the other end of the call before the man answered. "Who is this?"

    Grinning, Riley looked at Ashley before growling into the omni-tool. "You don't know me, Fist. You don't know who I am. You will by the time I'm done with you."

    "What did you do Eldon?" Fist asked, his voice icy.

    "I made him beg, then I slit his throat."

    "You bitch!" Fist shouted.

    "You have made some very powerful people angry, Fist. That wasn't a smart move." She had to keep herself from snorting in laughter, glancing at Ashley. "I'm coming for you."

    "I'll kill you!" Screaming, they could all hear as Fist started breaking things on the other end of the line.

    "No." Deadly serious this time, Riley shook her head. "I don't think you will."

    Dropping the omni tool, Riley crushed it beneath her heel. She looked up the rest of her squad to find Ashley, Kaidan, and Garrus looking at her in confusion.

    "You slit his throat?" Ashley asked, tilting her head as she stared at her Commander. She wondered just what type of person her Commander was. It was a pretty ridiculous story to even try and sell, but somehow, Fist had bought it.

    "That was a little over the top, wasn't it ma'am?" Kaidan almost sounded like he wanted to reprimand her, but had thought better of it.

    "Fist is a fool." Riley explained. "He thinks he's more important than he really is. A little theatrics will push him over the edge. It'll make him slip up, make even dumber mistakes."

    "Not like he hasn't made enough of those." Scoffing, Wrex almost seemed annoyed by that. When he had joined Riley, he had been hoping for a challenge.

    "I don't enjoy putting myself in harms way." Garrus said, disagreeing with the krogan.

    Wrex snorted, looking at Garrus funnily. "And you decided it was a good idea to join a Spectre hunting down a different Spectre?"

    "I like seeing justice served more than I don't like people shooting at me." Garrus shrugged.

    Wrex was silent for a moment before he nodded. "Fair enough."

    ###

    Thankfully, the mercenaries that roamed the hallway seemed to be making good use of the elevators, leaving the stairways relatively free and clear for Vinyl and Caesia to use. Together, they made their way to the recreational floor, hoping that it would be free and safe enough to try and call for help.

    Coming out from one of the side entrances, Caesia and Vinyl entered the recreational floor, and they were immediately met by the sound of voices in one of the nearby rooms. Grabbing Vinyl, Caesia darted to a greeting desk just across from the door. Sliding underneath it, she set Vinyl down, kneeling in front of her.

    "Wait here, Vinyl." Caesia smiled apologetically to Vinyl, shaking her head. "Don't make any sounds. I'll be right back. I want to see what's happening around here."

    "A-Alright." Vinyl nodded, hesitant, her ears flattening back against her head.

    Caesia purred reassuringly from the back of her throat before turning and sneaking away.

    Vinyl just sits down, her breath coming in ragged pants. She is scared out of her mind, but she knows that she needs to stay quiet or someone might find him.

    Crawling backwards, deeper into the shadows of the desk, Vinyl waited for Caesia to return. Her omni-tool on its dimmest setting, she watched as first a minute passed, then another.

    Directly across from the greeting desk, the elevator chimed. Vinyl froze, putting a forehoof over her mouth to keep from making any noise. She was still for a moment, but something in her gut was telling her that if she didn't move she was going to end up getting captured, or worse.

    Without another thought, Vinyl bolted, disappearing down a side hallway just in time to hear a large amount of feet exiting the elevator. Peering around the corner of the hall, Vinyl watched as a large group of Fist's mercenaries escorted what looked to be all of the residents of Tilican Towers past the greeting desk and into the recreational floor.

    Her eyes widened and a hoof went to her mouth when she saw Octavia slung over Fidelis' shoulders, blood clumping and clotting over one of her eyes. As much as she wanted to run out and join her wife, her experiences with the Batarians had made it so that she would rather die than ever become a captive again. Octavia would have to hold on a little longer until she could find a way to sneak her free.

    Vinyl watched as the large group went past, her neighbors surrounded on all sides by armed mercenaries and thugs. As soon as they disappeared deeper into the recreational floor, Vinyl backed up and started creeping down the hallway she'd ducked into.

    She stepped carefully, taking extra care not to let her hooves make any sound on the tiled floor.

    Around a bend in the hall, Vinyl found that the hallway forked into two ways. She waited, staring for a long moment, wondering just which way to take. Which would take her to safety and back to Caesia. Caesia was her only hope to get her wife back from those thugs.

    Vinyl finally decided to take the right hallway, using the same slow walk that she had been using.

    Going down the hallway, Vinyl paused when she heard voices up ahead behind large bulky doors. She ducked into another room across the hall when those doors started to open, hiding behind another desk as she heard footsteps in the hall, which slowly grew fainter as the owner of the voices got further and further away.

    As soon as they were gone and Vinyl couldn't hear them anymore, Vinyl crept out from behind the desk and cracked the door open. She first looked up the hall, then down. No one was there.

    Satisfied, she crept out of the room and towards the doors that she knew the voices must have just come from. Putting an ear up against the door, Vinyl listened for any signs of life. She didn't hear anything for a long moment.

    She was about to continue on when she heard a very familiar sound that sent shivers down her spine.

    A quiet nicker echoed in the room behind the doors, and it cut right to Vinyl's heart.

    Vinyl paused, one of her forehooves raised to take her in the opposite direction, but something inside her stopped her, keeping her from running. She whimpered, frustrated at herself, but she couldn't bear to get herself to just walk away.

    Millions of thoughts ran through her mind, but only one ended up mattering.

    That was one of the most familiar sounds she had ever known. It was a sound that she had heard nearly constantly for almost ten years, and it was even one that she herself had made on the rare occasion that she wasn't too tired or hurt during her captivity with the Batarians. It was a sound that the ponies had ended up making to comfort one another. A sound that they had made to try and let them all know that they weren't alone.

    With a sigh of frustration (she found that her body simply wouldn't let her walk away), Vinyl pushed open the door and stepped inside.

    The room turned out to be a supply room, and Vinyl hesitated inside the doorway. Looking around, she was immediately met by the sight of nearly one-hundred crates, stacked at least five high all over the room.

    Creeping forward, Vinyl headed to the nearest. At the front of those crates, there was a single slit to allow air in. Peering inside, Vinyl was met by the sight of a barely conscious mare inside, half starving.

    Backing away, Vinyl looked at all of the crates with a feeling of such sadness and disgust in her stomach. It roiled and churned inside of her, making her feel like she wanted to throw up. She nickered softly, and the mare inside the crate raised her head, repeating the sound, staring with sightless eyes in Vinyl's general direction.

    "I'm sorry," Vinyl managed to whimper out, backing away. "I'm so sorry."

    As fast as she could, Vinyl ran from the room, bursting out into the hallway. She didn't stop going until she reached the other end, and as soon as she was around the corner, she dropped back against the wall and tried to catch her breath.

    That was a mistake on her part, a horrible mistake.

    All of the emotions and thoughts and fears that she had thought she had overcome boiled up, rising to the surface inside of her mind and she couldn't stop the tears from coming. She choked, trying to keep from making any noises, but she had a feeling that she wasn't at all succeeding on that end.

    "Spirits, Vinyl!" Caesia's voice whispered from behind her.

    Looking over, Vinyl found the aging turian approaching. Before she could even begin to think about propriety or dignity, she threw herself at the old turian woman and hugged her as hard as she possibly could, the tears bursting free.

    "Shh…" Surprised, Caesia hugged her back, rubbing up and down the ponies spine. "It's okay. Everything's okay. Everything's okay."

    "No!" Vinyl shook her head, sobbing. "No, it's not!"

    Caesia held her for a little longer, rubbing Vinyl's back. "Come. We should go."

    Vinyl made absolutely no indication that she was in any type of position to start moving. Caesia picked Vinyl up and she carried her down the hallway.

    ###

    Riley and her crew moved down the hall, weapons at the ready. They had travelled up several more floors, clearing them as they went.

    Holding up a fist, the group found the nearest cover and fell completely silent.

    They waited for a moment, looking for any sign of what Riley heard.

    They didn't have to wait long.

    Around the corner, a heavily armored krogan and several of Fist's mercenaries came tromping forward, sure of their power and strength. They looked completely unconcerned. Nothing could take them. They were the meanest, baddest soldiers around. There was no one who could stand against them.

    They really should have known better.

    Popping out from their cover, Riley and her squad took down everyone but the krogan. Wrex charged forward, tackling him to the ground. The krogan was simply no match for Urdnot Wrex.

    "Stop struggling," Riley said as she strode forward, followed by the others.

    The krogan just grunted, slamming his crest into Wrex's. Wrex slammed right on back, dazing the krogan with the much harder head-butt.

    "You see," Riley said, clucking her tongue as she shook her head. "You should have listened."

    Kneeling down, Riley placed the barrel of her shotgun against the krogan's head. "Behave, or I shoot you were you won't regenerate. It'll hurt, then you'll die."

    The krogan slowly stopped struggling, glaring up at Riley with mottled green eyes.

    "Good boy." Riley nodded, happy in how quickly he had folded. "Now. I have some questions and you're going to answer, got it?"

    "Fine!" The krogan grunted, growling angrily.

    "First question. Where is Fist?"

    "Who?" The krogan asked, not moving a single muscle.

    "Wrong answer." Grabbing the Krogan's crest, Wrex lifted it up and slammed it down against the ground once, twice, three times!

    "I'll ask you again." Riley kept her voice kind, making no sign that she was letting her own krogan beat the hell out of him. "Where is Fist? Whatever he's paying you, it can't be enough for this."

    "The third level from the top!" The krogan practically shouted.

    "How many men does he have?"

    The krogan growled, eying first Wrex, then Garrus, then Kaidan and Ashley, trying to figure some way out of the situation.

    "You really don't want me to ask again." Riley glared down at him, placing her shotgun right down under his left eye.

    "Fine, you bitch." The krogan growled unhappily. "Thirty!"

    "Thank you for your cooperation. It was very appreciated." Riley shot the Krogan in the head. Once! Twice! Three times. The krogan's body falls still.

    "Alright." Standing, Riley pointed towards the stairs. "You heard the man. Let's get going."

    Following after Riley, the squad went rushing up the stairs. Looking up at the next six levels Ashley groaned to herself.

    "I hate stairs."

    "Let your armor deal with it, Williams," Riley said, shouting over her shoulder. "You're a marine, bitch on your time."

    "Aye aye, ma'am," Ashley replied with a grunt.

    Wrex passed by her, taking the stairs three at a time. "Shepard, I'm going to want lunch after this is done. All this killing is making me hungry."

    Ashley didn't complain again for the rest of the six flights of stairs, and a minute later they emerged out onto the fourth floor from the top.

    "Uh…" Ashley glanced at the number next to the door. "Aren't we on the wrong floor, ma'am?"

    "Nope." Opening her omni-tool, Riley pulled up a scanning feature, searching for the loudest point coming from the ceiling above them, holding her hand up as high as she could.

    "What are you doing, Commander?" Kaidan asked, his voice having the sound of long suffering.

    "Listening."

    "For what, ma'am?"

    "Noise…" Riley looked at him, scowling. "You aren't helping Alenko. Don't make me order you to shut up."

    Ignoring Kaidan's blink of confusion, Riley continued her scanning, walking into a different room. The others followed her.

    Riley finally grinned as her omni-tool started beeping, looking up at the ceiling. Looking over at Wrex, she motions for him to come over.

    "Come on and give me a boost."

    "What?" Wrex blinked, cocking his head at her.

    "Just hold still." Riley just rolled her eyes and walked up to him.

    Before Wrex could even comment or protest, Riley clambered up him until she was standing on his shoulders. Rather than get angry or try to throw her off, Wrex just let her do it.

    "What are you doing, Shepard?"

    "Using you like a krogan ladder."

    Wrex blinked, then blinked again. "Just so we're both clear on the matter."

    "Glad we're both on the same page." Riley looked over to the rest of her squad, holding her hand out. "Alright, everyone pass over their grenades."

    20. Chapter Nineteen - Die Hard Another Day

    Chapter Nineteen - Die Hard Another Day

    Tilican Tower, Bachjret Wards, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    April 9, 2183

    For all of his threats and bluster, Fist had quickly revealed himself to be rather impotent. For all of the thugs that he had hired, he was wary of them and kept them at a distance. Tali wondered if he was too squeamish to try and get any sort of information out of her (not that she was complaining).

    It certainly made Fist's entire operation, and his foolish plan of taking over one of the richest towers on the Citadel look as ill-thought out as possible. When Tali had pressed him on the matter, Fist had murmured something about hostages and escaping the Citadel on an untraceable shuttle to a waiting smuggler ship.

    Tali was still wondering on where any of that sounded like a good idea to the man.

    She had been sitting on the wood floor of the apartment for nearly thirty minutes now, and even through the light padding of her suit, her rear was going numb. She rested most of her weight on one three fingered hand, tapping her thumb to her two fingers with her other.

    From behind the safety of her helmet's visor, she watched as Fist paced back and forth, trying to figure out what to do. She imagined that his mind must be racing, scrambling to try and come up with any plan where he got out of this situation alive.

    She also didn't imagine that he was anywhere close to succeeding in his endeavor.

    He was probably going to be like this for awhile. It made her regret that the krogan that had dragged her through the tower had managed to find her backup, backup omni-tool. An opportunity would have to present itself before she would have a chance of getting free.

    Luckily, she was good at waiting.

    The fact that her suit had its own plumbing system had nothing to do with that. Nothing at all. Tali would back that claim up all the way to her grave.

    Fist was just starting on another turn, and what promised to be more muttering to himself and angry ranting when all of a sudden the floor exploded.

    Her stomach was in her throat, and Tali was suddenly falling. She screamed in terror, a small part of her in the back of her mind thankful for her suit's system because she may or may not have peed herself a little.

    Hitting the ground with a solid oomph, the air was knocked right out of Tali's lungs and it fogged up her visor.

    "Agh!" Flailing her arms, she searched for any purchase in her now sightless world, quickly finding what was either the floor, or a wall. It turned out to be the latter, and she used it to pull herself up, stumbling a bit over the pieces of rubble that used to comprise the ceiling she was sitting on just moments before.

    "Stupid! I should have gotten the anti-condensation mod, but nooo." Waving her hands dramatically, Tali scowled to herself before crossing her arms over her chest. "That signed Daring Do poster was obviously the better purchase."

    Thankfully, her visor had started to clear and Tali made a mental note (underlined, italicized, and filed under extremely important) to purchase an upgrade for her visor the moment she could scrounge up enough credits. No more stupid impulse buys because she was a tourist on the greatest space-station ever constructed.

    That would be childish, after all.

    Her visor clearing the rest of the way, Tali found herself looking at two human woman, a human man, a turian in C-SEC armor, and the largest, meanest krogan that she had ever seen, all just beyond the rubble of the explosion. Fist was still struggling to catch his breath, much dustier than he had been a minute ago, coughing up a storm.

    Stepping out onto the rubble, the krogan grabbed Fist in one hand and lifted him up off the ground. He punched him in the face before tossing him to the ground again.

    One of the human woman, with red hair and sleek armor, stepped over Fist, looking Tali up and down.

    "Tali'Zorah?" She asked, her voice incredibly smooth.

    "That…" Tali blinked, realizing that she was still a little disoriented from the explosion, looking at the human woman who spoke to her, a red stripe running up the armor of her right arm. It meant something, she was sure of it, but she just wasn't sure what. "Tali. That is my name. Yes."

    "Right. Good." The woman nodded, a relieved smile spreading across her face. "I'm glad you aren't injured. I'm Commander Riley Shepard, Alliance Navy and Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. We're here to rescue you."

    "I…" The words all made logical sense to Tali, but her mind struggled to wrap around them. Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. Spectres. Why would a Spectre come and rescue her? Quarians did their best to keep their heads down. To have a Spectre aware of her enough to mount a rescue operation was… troubling. "What?"

    "You have information on Saren Arterius, don't you?" The woman, Riley, asked. She looked a little concerned, her head tilting ever so slightly to the side in a gesture Tali was sure none of the woman's species would have recognized. It spoke of a sudden worry, that what she had been counting on wasn't actually the truth.

    "How did you know that?" Tali asked, assuaging Riley's fears.

    "The Shadow Broker tipped us off." Riley's shoulder's relaxed and she let go of the tension that had been building in her body, but Tali wasn't paying any attention to that.

    "The Shadow Broker?" Tali was stunned. That didn't make any sense. "He was trying to kill me! Why would he give up any information that would save me?"

    "I think that he wanted Fist dead more than you," the turian spoke up, stepping forward.

    Tali nodded, acknowledging his words even as she looked over at the krogan. She found that he was almost lazily watching their conversation, one of his feet firmly planted on Fist's chest, keeping the man from running away.

    "Never trusted the Broker myself," he rumbled, his voice so deep Tali could feel it in her chest. "Figured it was the best way to live longer."

    "You certainly have a unique outlook on the galaxy." The other woman piped up, her tone speaking of long suffering, or maybe the beginning of long suffering. "You must be a riot to spend time around."

    "I've caused a few riots, if that counts." The krogan shrugged, either completely missing the point or simply not caring. Probably the latter.

    "You can't do this to me!" Fist protested, struggling under the krogan's foot.

    "Quiet." The krogan rumbled, applying enough of his weight to make Fist gasp for air.

    "You put out the hit order on Garrus Vakarian." Riley turned her attention from Tali to Fist, glaring down at the former agent of the Shadow Broker. "Why?"

    "What?" Fist managed to wheeze out, desperate for air. "What are you talking about? You're crazy, bitch. You won't get away with this! I'll have so many lawyers on you, you'll wish you'd never been born."

    "Spectre." Tapping the insignia on her left shoulder, she gave a little shrug. What can you do? "I can get away with pretty much anything."

    "More than that." The krogan grunted, laughing to himself. He didn't bother to share whatever had made him laugh with everyone else.

    Only half listening to Riley questioning Fist, Tali carefully checked her suit over for any damage. Being a Quarian was such an inconvenience most of the time.

    After the failed war against the geth, Quarians had been forced from their planet, wandering the stars in the largest fleet the galaxy had ever seen. After hundreds of years, their sanitized and isolated way of life had left their immune systems virtually non-existant. If there was so much as a cut in her suit, there was a very real danger that Tali would end up dying a horrible death gasping for air, all because her immune system couldn't handle any simple disease that other race's bodies pointed and laughed at.

    Thankfully, she had escaped unscathed, and as soon as she was satisfied that there was nothing that could lead to a horribly infectious disease and dying a painful, horrible death, she turned her attention back to the conversation.

    "I'll ask you again." Riley was now standing over Fist, looking straight down at him. "Why did you put out a hit order on Garrus Vakarian?"

    "It wasn't personal!" Fist protested, weakly punching the krogan's leg. Fist looked over at the turian, pleading with him with wide, desperate eyes. "You were poking around in places you had no right to! I had to do something."

    The turian, Garrus apparently, simply folded his arms over his chest, flexing his mandibles slowly. Fist would receive no mercy from him.

    "Explain, Fist." Getting down on one knee, Riley gave him an icy stare. "You really don't want to test my patience."

    "The Broker was bringing to much attention to me." Fist took a deep breath of air as the krogan let up a little. "I-I needed to get all of the eyes focused away from me."

    "Nihlus. You wanted to kill Garrus because of Nihlus." Standing, Riley shook her head, disgusted.

    "Partly." Fist admitted, almost begging. He was standing on a knife's edge, and everything he said would determine the way the next few moments of his life would go. "You were the only one in C-SEC trying to get anything done. With you gone, it would have been easy to shift the blame away from me."

    "That's definitely not going to happen, Fist." Garrus gave that small chortle that passed for a laugh for turians.

    "Do you need anything else from him?" The krogan cocked his shotgun, looking at Riley. "Or can I blow his head off now?"

    "Call off your men, Fist. Do something right before you die." Riley pleaded with Fist. For what reason, Tali wasn't able to say. He was scum, and he didn't deserve mercy, not from Riley. Not from anyone. "The people who live here have nothing to do with this."

    Fist's face twisted in anger. "Fuck yo—"

    BOOM!

    Fists' head exploded in a shower of skull, grey matter, and blood. Leaning down, the krogan pulled Fist's omni-tool off the corpses wrist and tossed it to Riley, saying, "He's an idiot. Anything he knows will be on there. He never expected not having the opportunity to wipe it before someone got their hands on him."

    "How do you know that?" Riley glared at him, but Tali could tell that it was only half-hearted. Fist's death was no real loss to her.

    "It's connected to the extranet. Wasn't too hard to hack into." The krogan shuddered suddenly, looking away even as he shook his head. "He writes down everything."

    "But—"

    "Everything." The krogan placed his shotgun on his back magnetic holster. "I know more about that man than I ever wanted to."

    After staring at him for a moment, Riley decided to move right along, turning to Tali. "You have information on Saren. I'd like to hear what you have."

    Tali studied Riley for a moment before nodding, opening her omni-tool. With a few quick taps, she navigated through her omni-tool's operating system, pulling up her records.

    "It's a little garbled," Tali explained, looking up at Riley and the rest of her squad.

    "That's fine. As long as it's usable." Riley nodded for her to continue. "Go on."

    Without saying anything else, Tali pressed play. Her omni-tool's speakers flared to life, a low level of static filling the room. A deep voice, unmistakably Spectre Saren Arterius, began to speak.

    "Eden Prime was a major victory! The beacon has brought us one step closer to finding the Conduit."

    Riley smiled, nodding appreciatively. Before she could say anything though, the recording continued and a female voice spoke, cultured and refined.

    "And one step closer to the return of the Reapers."

    "Someone else is working with Saren. That's… worrying." Riley cocked her head, pleased but confused all at the same time. "How did you get this recording?"

    "I took it from a geth's memory core." Tali's luck might not have been great, but she was proud that she could salvage something out of any situation she found herself in. She was an engineer, and that meant she could make the world around her bend to her will as long as she had the right tools and equipment. "I tracked it for days before it separated from its squad."

    "Impressive." Garrus actually sounded like he meant it, not something she was used to from turians.

    "This is exactly what I've been looking for." Riley smiled, nodding. "The Council needs to hear this. Would you be willing to come with me and present this before them?"

    "You want me to go before the Council?" Tali froze, wondering if she had just misheard Riley. She was amazed that she didn't stutter at all, and that she wasn't stuttering or making a fool of herself.

    "You found it, you should get the credit for it." The way she spoke, it didn't sound like she thought it was at all odd for a Quarian to go before the Council.

    "I-It would be my pleasure, Commander!" She couldn't keep herself from squeaking the last word, and she was glad that her blush was hidden behind her visor.

    "Alright. Good." Riley smiled her one more time before turning to face the rest of her squad. "The job's not over people. We still have to take down the rest of the mercenaries in this tower. The people living here had nothing to do with this."

    Opening Fist's omni-tool, Riley poked through it for a moment before grinning and pulling up a surprising feature. "Looks like Fist liked to know where all of his men were."

    On the omni-tool was a map of the tower, with dots representing every single one of Fist's mercenaries.

    "Huh." The krogan grunted, tilting his head. "Convenient."

    "Isn't it?" Riley didn't look at all like she was bothered by that fact.

    "It looks like most of the mercy are grouped together on this floor," Garrus said, pointing at the map. "They're probably keeping the hostages there."

    "We're going to have to do this carefully," the human man finally spoke up. "We don't want any civilian casualties."

    "You're no fun." The krogan grunted, rolling his eyes.

    "Alright people. Let's get moving." Riley pointed at the stairwell. "I have a plan!"

    ###

    Recreational Floor, Tilican Towers, Citadel

    Caesia and Vinyl had found themselves hiding in a storage closet, surrounded by cleaning chemicals that made Vinyl's nose burn.

    On the ground, Vinyl paced back and forth agitatedly, snorting every so often. The room was only five feet wide, but Vinyl did her best to make use of every inch of it. She was incredibly conflicted, and she didn't know what to do. She hadn't even been able to tell Caesia what had happened after she had stopped crying, and she had been pacing ever since.

    Watching Vinyl, Caesia frowned, wondering what her next step was going to be. She was good, but without any armor, even she would have a lot of trouble going up against at least forty mercenaries. That didn't bring into the account that she was the woman she used to be. Age affected everyone from the mightiest king to the lowliest peasant.

    "What's wrong?" Turning away from her own problems, Caesia focused on Vinyl instead.

    "They're slavers." Vinyl snorted, shaking her head as she started the next loop of her pacing, kicking aside a bottle of bleach.

    "What?" Caesia focused more on Vinyl, deadly serious. "How do you know that?"

    Vinyl stopped, looking up at Caesia with distant eyes. "I saw them… They've got ponies in cages in some storage room down there."

    Vinyl pointed with her hoof in the rooms general direction, disgust crawling through her belly. She was supposed to be safe. The Citadel was supposed to be safe! To have that sickness crawling through here… it left her feeling sick.

    "Fist is involved in the slave trade…" Caesia blinked, surprised. "I wouldn't have guessed."

    Vinyl started pacing again. Caesia's eyes couldn't help but go to Vinyl's mechanical leg, understanding flowing through her.

    "You were…" Caesia let her sentence trail off, not sure if it was the time or place to be speaking of that.

    Vinyl paused, letting her gaze drop to the floor. "… Yeah."

    "I see…" Caesia did see. She understood, and it changed everything. "They won't get away with it, I promise you, Vinyl."

    "Why not?" Her voice cracking, Vinyl dropped back onto her haunches, starting to hyper-ventilate. "They've got guns and hostages and C-SEC is just going to cave to any of their demands."

    "I'll think of something," Caesia said, promising her.

    All of a sudden, there was a bunch of racket from above them. Caesia and Vinyl hugged the walls and Caesia pointed her rifle up at the vent that suddenly looked a whole lot more threatening than it had just minutes before.

    Before they could even think of finding a new room to hide in, the vent cover popped right off and a krogan fell out. He landed on the floor with a CRASH, grunting in pain.

    "Ow." He muttered, rubbing his crest.

    With lightning fast reflexes, Caesia had the barrel of her rifle placed at the base of the krogan's skull, above the first vertebrae of his spinal chord. "You move, I shoot out your eyes and move on to the rest.

    "I wouldn't do that if I was you." A feminine voice piped up from above them.

    Caesia glanced up to find the barrels of three assault rifles pointing down at her from the vent. Slowly, she raised her hands, setting the rifle down to the side.

    "Careful now."

    Two humans, a male and a female jumped down from the vent, followed by a turian, a small quarian, and finally the woman who had first spoken. The storage closet was now packed to the brim, with almost no room to move.

    "Alright. I think we were all expecting for the vent to come out somewhere else. That was my bad. I think we took a wrong turn back there somewhere."

    "Krogan aren't built for vent crawling, Shepard." The krogan growled.

    "It is nice and cozy in here, Shepard. I feel very close to you right now."

    "Who are you people?" Caesia glared at them, unable to feel at all threatened as she felt the heartbeats of three separate people.

    "Commander Riley Shepard, Spectre."

    "A human Spectre?" Caesia frowned. She obviously needed to pay more attention to the news.

    "It's a new thing," Riley said with a shrug.

    "It's not everyday that a new human Spectre crawls out of the vents." Rolling her eyes, Caesia didn't let on how unsurprising that entire statement was to her. Spectres. They were all the same. "Why are you interested in a simple hostage situation? This seems a little below a Spectre's attention."

    "Fist had her." Riley pointed at the quarian. "I wanted her. Fist is dead, and now she's a part of my squad."

    "That sounds about right." Caesia shrugged. Whether the story was true or not didn't matter to her.

    "I think the right question to ask at the moment is, who are you two?" Riley looked first at Caesia, then at Vinyl, who's blue shock of mane was the only visible part of her amongst the much taller beings surrounding her.

    "Caesia Tibrius. I live in the tower with my husband. He has a job as the door man, and he's one of the hostages."

    "I-I'm Vinyl Scratch." Vinyl eyed all of them, their guns, and their armor nervously, but managed to speak around the lump in her throat. "I live on the top floor with my wife. She's also one of the…"

    Riley nodded in understanding. "Well, good news for the two of you, we're here to help you out."

    "I'd like my husband alive at the end of all of this." Caesia snorted, shaking her head as she crossed her arms.

    "You trying to say something?" Her eyes narrowing, Riley leaned forward, ready to defend herself if necessary.

    "Civilian casualties have a tendency to skyrocket when Spectres get involved." Caesia tilted her head, looking away, but not at all ashamed. "He's rather handsome without a hole in his head."

    "You have a lot of experience dealing with Spectres?" Riley snorted, looking Caesia over.

    "Yeah. I do." She didn't so much as flinch under Riley's gaze.

    Riley stared at the aging turian woman, then glanced at Garrus who only shrugged, then looked back to Caesia. "Whatever. I don't have any intention of letting anyone die today."\

    "Except for all those mercs we've shot." The krogan piped up from his position on the floor, from where he had yet to get up, mostly thanks to lack of room.

    "I don't have any intention of letting anyone die who doesn't deserve it. That good enough for you?" Riley met Caesia's gaze, not backing down.

    "I'll keep an eye on you regardless, Spectre."

    "Fair enough." Turning away from her, Riley opened her omni-tool and pulled up a map of the current floor. "It looks like they've got everyone congregated here. There are forty of them, six of us—"

    "Seven," Caesia interrupted.

    Riley looked at Caesia, who didn't at all flinch under her look. Riley got the feeling that the woman had seen and done far worse. A Spectre was the least of her worries.

    "I can hold my own," Caesia finally said.

    "Alright…" She turned back to her squad. "There's forty of them and seven of us."

    She pointed at the room where Vinyl had found the slaves, making the mare's eyes widen in recognition.

    "It looks like there's another fifteen in here." "They're keeping slaves in there," Vinyl said, speaking up from between Riley and Caesia.

    "Slaves?" Glancing down at her, Riley studied the little mare.

    "Yeah." Vinyl's voice did more than enough to convince all of them.

    "Why am I not surprised." The turian crossed his arms

    "Cause you're not as dumb as you look," the krogan piped up from the floor.

    The turian glared down at him.

    "What?" The shrug in his voice was obvious. "It was a compliment. You're not getting anymore from me."

    ###

    "How long are they going to keep us here?" Leaning closer to Fidelis, Octavia whispered into his ear.

    The past two hours had been some of the most stressful and worrying in her entire life, matched only by those first days after Vinyl's abduction all those years ago. After being dragged down into one of the tower's vast storage rooms in its basement, and they had been left there for an hour. Alone in the dark, Octavia was glad that Fidelis was with her. He had been the only thing that had kept her from falling apart in the dark from her fear over where Vinyl was, and what might have been happening to her.

    After an hour (at least it felt like an hour, there wasn't anyway they could have known for sure), thugs had entered the room with bright lights and herded all of the residents of the tower up to the recreational floor, in one of the larger gathering rooms across from the pool. Thankfully there was a clock on the wall this time, and Octavia was able to watch as another hour ticked by.

    Octavia and Fidelis were sitting next to each other near the center of the room, surrounded by the rest of the inhabitants of the tower. Most of them were cowering in fear at the sight of the mercenaries, indignant and powerless to do anything about their situation. Out of everybody, Fidelis had the bravest face. He was using his body to shield Octavia from the view of as many of thugs as possible.

    "Possibly for quite a length of time," Fidelis whispered back, his lips barely moving as he spoke. He was careful not to make any sudden movements and draw attention to himself and Octavia. "We can only hope that C-SEC takes care of all of this in a timely fashion."

    "You don't even sound worried!" Octavia shivered, looking towards a group of thugs over Fidelis' shoulder. They were a motley bunch, and they looked like they could go off at any moment and do something crazy. "Aren't you concerned about your wife?"

    "She can take care herself." Fidelis shrugged, sounding completely unconcerned.

    "She's your wife!" The only thing keeping Octavia from running to try and find Vinyl for herself was the fact that it would draw way too much attention to herself and they would start searching the entire tower for the two of them. It simply wasn't worth it. She had to trust that Vinyl knew how to keep herself safe. "Why aren't you more worried about this? I can't stop thinking about Vinyl."

    "She's retired Blackwatch." Fidelis snorted, eying the thugs with a barely hidden look of disdain. "She's faced deadlier things then these mercenaries before breakfast."

    "What?" Scrunching up her muzzle, Octavia rolled the new word around in her mind. "Blackwatch?"

    "I'm not surprised you wouldn't have heard of them. We like to keep our Special Operations quiet." We meaning turians. Equestrians still struggled to understand their incredibly militaristic society. "I'm only telling you this so you'll stop worrying so much. One way or another, we'll be out of this soon."

    "No talking!" A thug kicked Fidelis, knocking the wind out of his chest, waving his gun in the air threateningly.

    Octavia rubbed circles on Fidelis' back as he struggled to regain his breath, supporting himself with his hands. She nickered softly in the back of her throat.

    Finally catching her breath, he straightened back up, nodding to her thankfully, patting one of her foorehooves. Taking a few more moments to make sure his breath was steady, he turned his attention on the thugs, watching them closer.

    Through narrow eyes, he watched as the thugs started to get more and more agitated, trying to contact someone with their omni-tools, but to no avail.

    Something was up.

    Looking around, Fidelis was just barely able to hear the clink of metal as something rolled into the rather large room, and that was only because he was focused in that direction thanks to the thugs. It gave him the millisecond he needed to save his vision.

    Grabbing Octavia, he shoved her face against his chest and covered her with his body, ignoring her startled yelp. Slamming his eyes shut, he tucked his head into his chest, but even that wasn't enough to stop him from being blinded by a brilliant white FLASH that exploded through the room.

    Even through his ringing ears, Fidelis was able to hear as gunfire erupted all around them, and the hostages screamed, cowering lower to the floor as they hoped against hopes to not get hit. Fidelis ignored them, making sure that Octavia was completely shielded by his body. She was going to come out of this alive, even if it was the last thing he did.

    The firefight seemed to go on for an eternity, but it only lasted for several minutes. The gunfire slowly petered out, and Fidelis lifted his head cautiously. What he found made him smile, as he found that every thug was on the floor dead, or close to death.

    From the various entrances to the room, Fidelis watched as three humans, a krogan, a turian, and Caesia emerged. Scrambling to his feet, he hobbled over to Caesia, wrapping her in a big hug.

    "Thank the spirits you're alright." He closed his eyes in relief, feeling her strong heart beat against his chest.

    "I wasn't the one being held hostage. Why were you afraid for me?" Caesia rolled her eyes.

    "Maybe so." Fidelis pulled back, shrugging. "But you're far too reckless."

    "Oh please, this was nothing." Caesia pulled him back into a shorter hug before turning towards the door.

    "It's safe now," Caesia shouted. "You can come out now."

    Fidelis watched as Vinyl trotted out from behind the corner, peeking out first to make sure it actually was safe. The moment she saw Octavia blinking confusedly on the ground, she galloped to her wife and tackled her to the ground, wrapping her in the biggest hug that she possibly can.

    "Tavi!" Vinyl cried.

    "Vinyl?" Octavia latched onto her wife, a huge smile growing on her muzzle despite the fact that she still couldn't see anything. "You're alright? Thank Celestia!"

    They nuzzled each other, happy that their parting wouldn't be for another ten years.

    "Who's that?" Fidelis asked, nodding his head towards the rather motley squad that Caesia had entered the room together.

    "Commander Shepard," Caesia said. "Human Spectre."

    "Ah…"

    ###

    "We're dead!"

    The moment that gunfire had erupted several rooms over, the ten remaining mercenaries had barricaded themselves into their storage room to the best of their abilities. They had moved the cages around, turning them into cover as best as they were able to.

    "We're dead. We're all going to die!"

    "Quiet!" Another mercenary hissed through his teeth. "We'll get out of this, but we just have to be careful. Follow my lead and none of us will die."

    Settling down, the only sound in the room came from the soft breathing of the merchandise from inside their cages, too tired to care what was happening anymore.

    Silence.

    The sound of footsteps, faint outside.

    The mercenaries tightened their grips on their guns, nervousness flowing through their veins. They all wanted to get out of this alive, and they were willing to do anything to make sure that they get through this.

    Anything.

    The door opened... at least whoever was on the other side of the door tried to open it. It was still blockaded after all.

    A gun barrel poked through what little holes were there in the blockade, and it opened fire. The mercenaries fired back.

    Though none of the mercenaries noticed it, their panic and desperation too great, the lone gun barrel was aiming directly up at the ceiling to keep from hitting any of the slaves. The mercenaries fired back.

    None of them noticed as work torches began to cut through the wall behind them.

    The wall falling inwards, a flash-bang bounced into the center of the mercenaries, and it exploded in a fury of light and noise. The ponies in the cages screamed in terror, a cacophony of noise and light.

    Before the mercenaries could even think about regaining their vision, Riley and squad stormed in.

    It was over in seconds. The mercenaries were dead and none of the slaves had so much as been grazed in the firefight.

    Success.

    Cause that's how Spectres rolls.

    "It's clear!" Riley shouted back through the hole in the wall.

    A moment passed, and then Vinyl entered the room, followed by Octavia a few steps behind her. Vinyl did her best to ignore the bodies, stepping up to the nearest cage.

    Inside, she found a pale blue teenaged pegasus mare, her eyes glassy and her gaze distant. Vinyl nickered softly, and the mare responded almost automatically. The mare was in no state to communicate with anypony.

    "It's going to be alright." Vinyl tried her best to reassure her. "You're safe now."

    Octavia watched her wife as she tried to comfort all of the slaves, marveling at just how far Vinyl had come. She barely even noticed as Riley stepped up next to her.

    "She's a strong mare."

    The sudden voice surprised Octavia, making her jump nearly a foot into the air.

    Catching her breath, Octavia looked up at Riley, smiling weakly. "I know. I'm so proud of her.

    "I can see that." Riley looked over at Vinyl. "She's lucky to have you."

    "No. I'm the lucky one. She's my miracle." Smiling widely, Octavia trotted over to her wife to help her begin freeing the slaves.

    21. Chapter Twenty - One Last Bit

    Chapter Twenty - One Last Bit

    Tilican Towers, Bachjret Ward, Citadel

    April 9, 2183

    The shadow of Tilican Towers draped over the front of the tower's entrance. It seemed as if at least half of C-SECs officers were surrounding the tower, keeping back the onlooking crowds as other officers escorted out the few surviving mercenaries left from Fist's invasion of the tower, as well as the most injured of the residents.

    Ignoring all of the C-SEC checkpoints and shouting reporters behind the cordon, Riley led her new team towards a waiting shuttle. Tali hung close to both Riley and Garrus, unable to hide her nervousness over having so many cameras pointed at her. She wished either Ashley or Kaidan were there to add a few extra bodies to her shields, but they had decided to stay behind and help C-SEC finish clearing the tower.

    There was no way that she was going to try and hide behind Wrex. She had the feeling he'd push her out in front of him just for a chuckle.

    "Commander Shepard." A female voice managed to shout over the crowd, catching Riley's ear.

    Pausing, Riley turned to find a tall asari standing a few feet away behind the C-SEC police line. She was dressed in obviously expensive clothes, but they were understated and stood out far less than some of the cheaper outfits of others in the crowd. Out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed that Garrus had straightened. He recognized the asari, Riley realized.

    "You know her?" Riley asked, leaning over to speak with the turian.

    "I know of her." Garrus kept shifting his gaze between Riley and the asari, as if he was flustered to even have to explain who she was. He managed regardless. "That's Consort Sha'ira. She's well known on the Presidium. I'd see what she wants if I were you."

    Riley studied him for a moment, weighing her decision before nodding and turning to walk over to Sha'ira.

    "Consort." Riley greeted her, hoping she was using an appropriate honorific. None of her nervousness played out on her face though.

    "Thank you, Commander," Sha'ira said, gratefulness in her voice. She relaxed ever so slightly. "Thank you for speaking to me."

    "Was there something that you needed?" No matter how important this Sha'ira was, Riley didn't really have the time to hang around and wait for her.

    "I wish to thank you, Commander." Sha'ira smiled, a dangerously welcoming thing that made Riley feel both at ease and ready to fight for her life. This was someone who knew how to wild power, and that made her even warier that she somehow knew her name. "You helped to save the lives of two ponies close to me."

    "Vinyl Scratch and her wife." She didn't even have to guess. There had been no other ponies that she had seen in the tower.

    "Yes." Sha'ira nodded, pleased that she wouldn't have to explain anything. She clasped her hands at her waist, her shoulders held high and proud. "Octavia has worked for me for some time, and I would like to think that we're friends. She called me about this as soon as her omni-tool was returned."

    "Ah." Riley couldn't think of anything else to say, instead choosing to wait for Sha'ira to explain.

    Sha'ira studied Riley for a moment, looking her over. It made Riley shift uncomfortably on her feet, not quite sure how to take that extended look.

    "I wish to give you a gift, Commander." Sha'ira finally said, thankfully meeting Riley's eyes with her own.

    "I was just doing my job." Holding up a hand, Riley shook her head. "No gifts are necessary."

    "It's a gift of words, Commander." Laughing softly, Sha'ira took a step forward. It was a sultry move, one only a predator or a seductress could pull off smoothly.

    Riley met Sha'ira's gaze for a moment, before nodding. "Alright."

    "I wish to give you an affirmation of who you are, and who you will become." Sha'ira's voice was like silk, slipping through Riley's mind. Something deep inside of her rang out, the words striking true. "I see the sadness behind your eyes, and it tells a story that makes me want to weep. Such pain and loss, but it drives you, makes you strong. You never hide your strength, and it serves you well, terrifies your foes. Few dare to stand against you. This may be who you are, but it is not who you will become. It only forms the basis for your future greatness. Remember these words when doubt descends, Commander."

    Riley was silent, taking the words in. It felt like her feet were held to the floor and she struggled to remember how to breathe, how to move, before finally she gave a thankful nod of her head.

    "T-Thank you, Consort." Her voice cracked for an instant, but she didn't blush. How could she be embarrassed before someone who had seemingly glanced at her depths and been unafraid?

    "No. Thank you, Commander." Sha'ira broke her gaze from Riley's, ending the moment. Instead, she looked up at the tower, smiling softly. "Those two have had difficult lives. They have many years ahead of them, and you have made it possible for them to spend them together."

    Riley nodded again, starting to step away. "Please, excuse me. I have to be going."

    "Thus is the life of a Spectre." Sha'ira did not seem at all offended by Riley's bowing out. "One more thing before you go, Commander."

    Riley paused mid-step.

    "I believe that this would be worth more in your hands than mine." Holding out her right hand, Sha'ira revealed that she had been holding a small trinket. She offered it out for Riley to take.

    "What is it?" Riley eyed the trinket, wondering why it glinted so strangely in the light of the nebula. She took it, turning it over in her hand.

    "A small mystery. I have never learned its use or purpose, but I sense that it is time for me to pass it on."

    Riley nodded a final thanks, but she couldn't think of anything else to say to the Consort. Stepping backwards for a few feet, she finally turned on her heel and continued on towards the C-SEC shuttle, her crew following after her.

    ###

    Private Council Chambers, Presidium Tower, Citadel

    Tela met Riley outside of the Council chambers, and together with Tali, they entered.

    The private Council chambers were a place that few people had ever set their eyes on. No cameras had ever been allowed inside, nor had any recordings ever escaped from within it. When the asari and the salarians had first founded the Council, they knew that the Councilors would need a space to speak privately and in comfort. To that end, the private chambers had been built beneath main chambers. A well-maintained garden, it was one of the few places that the Councilors could find peace on the Citadel.

    Following the small, rocky path, Riley found the three Councilors waiting for them near a small bubbling pond filled with slow moving fish.

    "Spectres." Septum was the first to notice them, turning to speak with them. "You certainly have been busy."

    "Yes, well, people do just love to get in our ways." Tela drawled, shifting her weight onto one foot and crossing her arms. "Foolish of them."

    "Yes…" Septimus did not sound anywhere near as enthused about violence as Tela did. "I hope that all the trouble you've caused was worth it."

    "I would say so." Tela glanced at Riley, shifting her weight onto her other leg and rested a hand on her opposite hip. She smiled, looking back at the Council. "I can't speak for what Spectre Shepard has uncovered, but I found that the Shadow Broker was behind the assassination order on Spectre Kyrik."

    All three Councilor's eyes widened at that.

    "He dares?" Her voice was ice, her eyes narrow, fingers twitching at the thought of the broker making such an ambitious move against the Council.

    "So it would seem." Tela's face set into a frown, grim.

    "I know that you have heavily relied on the Shadow Broker's information on your missions, and I can only imagine that this comes as a surprise." Valern's large eyes studied Tela, taking careful note of her reaction to his words. It was an entirely salarian gesture, and it tended to make other races feel nervous under such intense scrutiny.

    "It's one betrayal that I'm going to make the Broker regret." Tela growled, but she didn't react in a negative way to Valern's look.

    "It looks like you've decided your next mission, Vasir." Septimus nodded, pleased. "Please keep us apprised."

    "As always, Councilors." After a respectful bow, Tela turned and left, stepping around Tali.

    As soon as she was gone, the Councilors turned to Riley and Tali.

    "Shepard. I thought we asked you to bring in Fist?" Septimus' mandibles flare in a frown. He crossed his arms and tilted his head, eying her carefully. "Why am I hearing that he's listed among the casualties?"

    "Fist was nothing but a pawn." Gesturing over her shoulder at Tali, Riley grinned. "I found something better."

    Looking back at Tali, Riley motioned for her to come forward and put an arm around the quarian's shoulder. "This is Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. Tell them what you told me, Tali."

    Tali gulped nervously, looking at the Councillors as she shuffled nervously on her feet, wringing her hands together. "I-I recovered a recording from a g-geth platform."

    At Tali's proclamation, Valern looked like he wanted to inquire about it and pick Tali's brain, but Tevos held up a hand to stop him.

    "Later, Valern," she said, shooting him a look.

    He nodded, biting his tongue.

    "Continue, Tali'Zorah," Tevos said, turning back to Riley and the quarian.

    "Tell them what you found, Tali." Riley urged the quarian to continue on.

    "Right. Yes." Tali nodded to herself, gathering her courage before turning to look at the Councilors. For a moment, she wondered what it would feel like to kill the three of them with her shotgun. The Council was the source of so much of her people's suffering, and to finally end them would see her name listed among the heroes of her people.

    And it would also likely start a war that would end her people just as quickly. Right. Focus on other things Tali. Don't daydream in front of the heads of all galactic government.

    "During my travels, I began hearing reports of geth moving through space. Since they drove my people into exile, the geth have never ventured beyond the Veil. I was curious. I managed to track a patrol of geth to an uncharted world, and I waited for one to become separated from its unit. I disabled it and removed its memory core."

    "Impossible!" Valern shook his head, his eyes wider than normal in protest at what he was hearing. "The geth fry their memory cores when they are disabled. Its a defense mechanism that none of our agents have been able to get around."

    Instead of arguing with her fellow Councilor, Tevos instead asked, "How did you manage to preserve the memory core?"

    "My people created the geth." When she was growing up, her father had made sure that she had read every manual on the geth that their ancestors had brought with them so long ago. He had made equally sure that she kept up to date on every new report on the geth that trickled in from the exploration teams. "If you're quick, careful, and lucky, small caches of data can sometimes be saved. Most of the core was wiped clean, but I salvaged something from its audio banks."

    Tali opened her omni-tool and played the recording she managed to save.

    "Eden Prime was a major victory! The beacon has brought us one step closer to finding the Conduit." Saren's voice came through loud and clear through Tali's upgraded omni-tool speakers. It was instantly recognizable to all three of the Councilors.

    "And one step closer to the return of the Reapers." The second voice began to speak, feminine and stately.

    Tevos paled instantly at the sound of the woman's voice, staring at the omni-tool with terrible recognition. When she spoke, her voice was nearly a whisper. "I recognize the other voice."

    She turned to look at Valern, and then Sparatus before hanging her head, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "That was Matriarch Benezia."

    Tevos sighed, straightening. She took a breath before she began to explain. "She's a High Priestess of the Athame Doctrine. For her to be working with Saren... it will be a major blow to our society. She is highly respected and millions look up to her. If she is truly working with Saren, she will be a formidable enemy."

    "I'm more interested in these Reapers." Valern spoke, completely ignoring Tevos' worry. "What do we know about them?"

    "Only what I extracted from the geth's memory core." Which wasn't much. Still, it was enough to make her wonder just what had gone wrong with the geth's programming in the three hundred years since their creation. "The Reapers were an ancient race of machines that wiped out the Protheans, and then they vanished."

    "The geth believe the Reapers are gods, and Saren is their prophet for their return." Riley was careful not to reveal everything that she had seen in the beacon. There was absolutely no reason to let the Council believe she might be crazy. For all she knew, she might be. "Saren believes that the Conduit is the key to bringing them back, or at least he's made the geth believe that. Whatever his real goals are, only Saren knows."

    "Do we even know what this Conduit is?" Valern asked, tilting his head.

    "It doesn't appear on any database that I know about." Riley shrugged. "It doesn't matter anyway. Saren wants to use it for some purpose. He's shown that he is an enemy to Citadel space. That's bad enough."

    "Listen to what you're saying!" Septimus growled deep in his throat, looking back at the other two Councilors, hoping that they saw just how insane all of that sounded. "Saren wants to bring back the machines that wiped out all life in the galaxy? Impossible. It has to be. Where did these Reapers go? Why did they vanish? How come we've found no trace of their existence? If they were real, we'd have found something."

    "I don't have the answers, and it doesn't really matter." Riley coasted right on past all of Septimus' issues. He didn't have to believe, as long as he supported stopping Saren. "Whether the Reapers exist or not isn't the issue. Saren is using them to rally the geth to his cause."

    Riley didn't mention that she had seen the Reapers. Riley didn't mention that she had seen the destruction of the galaxy. Riley didn't say that she believed.

    "Saren is a rogue agent on the run for his life." Thankfully, Septimus moved right on past the issue. He agreed, and that's all that mattered. "He no longer has the rights or the resources of the Spectres. We've stripped him of that position. Our fleets cannot track down a single man."

    "You, however, can, Commander." Tevos nodded to Riley. "He is a fugitive from justice, and you are authorized to use any means necessary to find and apprehend him."

    "I will find him." Grinning, Riley nodded back, confident in her own abilities.

    "Then this meeting of the Council is adjourned." Tevos spoke.

    Riley bowed, leaving the Councilors. Tali lingered for a moment before following after her.

    Together, the two of them stepped out of the Council Chambers. Wrex and Garrus were waiting for them just outside, neither of them speaking to the other. They both were eying an Aide, obviously from the human embassy, a young woman standing across from the two of them. She shuffled her feet nervously, not at all doing well with the attention.

    Riley couldn't help but think that she obviously hadn't been working at the embassy very long, to be so unsettled by just a krogan and turian who hadn't even said a word.

    It never even occurred to her that the Aide was nervous to meet her.

    "Commander Shepard," the woman said, stepping forward, wringing her hands together nervously. "Councilor Udina would like to speak to you right away."

    "Of course." Riley nodded, understanding.

    Riley turned to look at Garrus, Wrex, and Tali. They straightened under her attention. "The three of you should get everything in order. We're going to leave as soon as I get all of the details squared away."

    "Got it, Shepard." Opening his omni-tool, he sent her his apartment's address. "We can meet at my place."

    "Sounds like a plan, then." Riley smiled at Garrus. "You've just volunteered yourself to be in charge, Vakarian."

    Garrus glanced at Wrex, who just grinned as widely as possible. Before he could protest what he had just offered, he found that Riley was already following after the Aide.

    ###

    The trip to the Alliance Embassy was quick, taking only a few minutes. They didn't bother to take a shuttle, instead walking the paltry five minutes from the bottom of the Presidium tower to the entrance of the Embassy. From there, the Aide peeled away and left Riley to head into the office on her own.

    Riley entered Udina's office without pausing to knock. She already knew that they were waiting for her. To make him wait any longer would be rude.

    The door slid open and she found Udina and Anderson speaking quietly near the large desk the looked out towards the view of the Presidium lake. They both stopped talking, straightening up when they noticed her.

    "I've got big news for you, Shepard." Dina looked pleased in his own way. Riley had known him long enough to see that the perpetual frown on his face could be considered by some stretch of the imagination a smile. "Captain Anderson is stepping down as commanding officer of the Normandy. The ship is yours now, by order of Admiral Hackett."

    "She's quick and quiet, and you've already met the crew." Anderson spoke up before Riley could even think to protest, cutting off any problems she might bring up. "She's the perfect ship for a Spectre. Treat her well, and she'll do the same for you."

    "I…" Riley blinked, stunned. This wasn't what she had been expecting when the Aide had told her that Udina wanted to speak to her. This wasn't what she had expected when she had been given her orders back on Equestria. "I will, Captain."

    "I know you will, Commander." Anderson smiled, a look with a dozen different meanings that Riley struggled to decipher, before it all too quickly disappeared from his face.

    Riley stared at him for a moment, unsure of what to say or do, before she finally made up her mind. "I want the truth, sir. Why are you stepping down?"

    "You need your own ship, and the Normandy is the best that we have." It was a simple explanation, but it made sense, no matter how wrong it sounded to Riley. "A Spectre can't answer to anyone but the Council, and, well, I've been thinking about moving on with my career."

    "Come clean with me, Anderson." Squinting her eyes, Riley frowned and tilted her head. "You owe me that much."

    Anderson sighed, but he doesn't disagree with her. It took him a moment, but he finally decided to elaborate. "I was in your shoes twenty years ago, Riley. They were considering me for recruitment into the Spectres."

    "You've… never mentioned that." He hadn't. In all the years that he had known her, Riley had only ever thought he was just the System Alliance's most well decorated N7 Operative. She had no idea that he could have been more. He could have been in her shoes, but something had stopped him.

    "What was I supposed to say? 'I could've been a Spectre but I blew it?' I failed, and it's not something I'm particularly proud of." Anderson shrugged, glancing down at the floor. It was one of the first times that Riley had ever seen the man even remotely uncomfortable. "I had my shot and it came and went. Now you have a chance to make up for my mistakes."

    "I won't let you down, sir." Even as Riley said it out loud, she made the promise to herself that no matter what it took, she would make his trust in her worth it.

    "There's no way you could that, Riley." He said her name, making sure she knew just how much he believed in her.

    Udina coughed. They really did need to get this conversation moving along and the conversation that Anderson and Riley needed to have was one they could have later, in private.

    "Right." Anderson ducked his head, glancing down at the floor. It was time to move things along, and Riley had a mission to do. He straightened up. "Saren's gone. Don't even try to find him. He has too many connections, too many holes to hide in. Luckily, we know what he's after."

    "The Conduit." Noun. A person or organization that acts as a channel for the transmission of something.

    "He's got the geth scouring the Traverse looking for clues to its location." Anderson leaned back against Udina's desk, crossing his arms over his chest.

    "We've been receiving reports of geth in the Feros system shortly before our colony there dropped out of contact, and there have been sightings around Noveria." Holding a holopad, Udina flipped through several reports, sending them through a private channel to Riley's omni-tool, her eyes only.

    "Find out what Saren was after on Feros and Noveria. Maybe you can figure out where the "Conduit is before he does." Find the Conduit. Fin Saren. That was the plan.

    Riley paused for a moment, looking at first Anderson, and then Udina. She knew that it sounded insane, but she knew it was the truth. "I don't think Saren is the problem. I think he's just a symptom. I think that the Reapers are the real threat."

    "I'm with the Council on this I'm afraid, Shepard. I'm not sure that they even exist." Udina waved his hand, dismissing the thought. "It doesn't matter anyway. If you stop Saren, you stop everything that he's planning to unleash, including these 'reapers,' whatever they are."

    "You can count on me." Riley nodded, before turning and saluting Anderson. "I'll stop him."

    "Before you go, Shepard," Udina said, stopping her. He transferred one last file to Riley, much larger than the rest. "We have one more lead, Shepard. Matriarch Benezia, the other voice on that recording? She has a daughter, an archeologist who specializes in the Protheans. We don't know if she's involved but it might be a good idea to try and find her. See what she knows. Her name is Dr. Liara T'Soni. Alliance Intelligence places her last location as an archeological dig in one of the uncharted worlds in the Artemis Tau cluster."

    "I'll start there." A feeling welled up inside her at the mention of the planet's name. Something unknown, yet familiar at the same time. Familiar like the hug of her mother, or a sloppy kiss from her youngest sister. It felt right.

    "You're in charge here, Commander. You can run this mission your way. We have complete confidence in you." Anderson smiled, proud and melancholic at the same time.

    "Yes." Udina agreed with Anderson, already looking like he was getting ready to move onto his next meeting. "There was a reason we put you forward for Spectrehood, Commander. You won't let us down."

    "You're dismissed, Commander." Standing up straight, Anderson saluted her back, before holding out his hand for her to shake. "Good luck."

    Taking his well worn hand in her own, Riley smiled ever so briefly at the man she had known for what felt like her entire life.

    ###

    Minutes later, though it felt like hours, Riley found herself entering the embassy bar, trying to process through all of her emotions. The Normandy was hers. She had been an Executive Officer of a ship for all of three days before suddenly finding herself in command.

    That had to be a record of some kind.

    Slumping down onto a stool at the bar a few feet away from an Indian man who has obviously been there for awhile, she rested her head in her hands.

    "What's your poison?" The bartender, a human, asked her as he stepped up beside her.

    "Scotch on the rocks," she replied, barely even paying attention.

    The Bartender nodded, going to make her drink.

    A moment of silence fell upon her for a moment, but it didn't last. It couldn't. The sound of soft sobs broke through the silence and Riley glanced over at the Indian man, watching as he downed his glass, tears streaming down his face. He choked on the drink, breaking out in a coughing fit.

    "Hey, are you okay?" She asked him, concerned.

    The man struggled to bring his coughing under control, shaking his head. The coughing finally slowed and he managed to take a shuddering breath.

    "Are you alright?" Riley asked again, moving several stools closer to the man.

    "No…" The man sighed, his back arching as he huddled in on himself. His voice was quiet, pained. "No, I'm not."

    Riley watched him, concerned. She didn't say anything, waiting for him to continue on his own, if he was even going to.

    "I…" The man sighed, confused, hurt, agitated, all at the same time. "I don't even know what I'm doing. I feel... numb."

    He turned and met Riley's gaze, a horrible look on his face, full of pain and regret. A look that spoke of searching for answers. "What are you supposed to do? There aren't any rules for something like this."

    "What happened?" Riley asked softly, watching the man, watching as his hands trembled as he gripped at his glass.

    "My wife... She died."

    There. It was out there, and even with his pain, just saying it outlaid made him feel just a little bit better.

    "I'm sorry." Riley managed to say.

    They fell silent, but Riley could see that Samesh had to talk about it. He's said it for the first time, and now he can't stop.

    "What was her name?" Riley finally asked, moving closer.

    "Nirali Bhatia. She was a marine with the 212 on Eden Prime."

    Riley froze, staring at Samesh with new understanding. Nirali. Gods, no wonder he was in such a state. "I'm sorry…"

    Standing, she finally made the final step and took the stool right next to his. Placing a hand on his shoulder, she didn't speak until she had his attention. "I'm Commander Shepard. I was on Eden Prime. I was with your wife when she… died."

    "Did she…" The man bit his lip, unsure, looking at her with new eyes. "Was she… No… I don't think I want to know."

    "She only thought of getting back home to you." Riley did her best to reassure him, to comfort him. "She loved you very much."

    The bartender arrived with Riley's drink, placing it in front of her before going about his business. Samesh and Riley fell silent, subdued. Riley sipped at her glass.

    "That's not the only thing that's wrong, is it?" Riley asked, staring at him, sensing that he still had more to say.

    "No." The man shook his head, frowning. "I've requested that Nirali's body be returned to me for cremation, but the military has refused me."

    "Did they give you a reason?" The Alliance, for all of its advancement in every realm of humanity, still had flaws that had plagued its race since the beginning. Bureaucracy and a seemingly never ending need for secrecy was one of them.

    "I don't know." The man shrugged, and Riley had never before seen someone so helpless. "All I know is that they've declared her body of the System's Alliance Navy, and refuse to return her to me."

    "Nirali… there's no reason for this." Riley shook her head, leaning back and realizing at that moment she was still wearing her armor. She pushed that thought away, standing up and placing a hand on the man's shoulder. "I'll help you, Mr. Bhatia. Who have you been talking to?"

    "The man in charge of my case is Mr. Bosker. When I last saw him, he was still at his office in the embassy." The man sighed. "I just… I just want to give my wife a proper funeral and the respect she deserves."

    Riley finished off her drink and paid her tab. "Stay here. This shouldn't take long. I'll come back as soon as I'm done."

    Riley left the bar, and the man stayed behind, not so much as looking over his shoulder to watch her go.

    ###

    Michael Bosker had graduated from college in Canada and moved to the Citadel as fast as he could buy a ticket. He had found a job at the embassy, and though he started out with so much enthusiasm, the years had taken their toll on him. He was never going to be able to change the galaxy, not with a low-level desk job with little room for improvement.

    Michael sat in his office, eating lunch while half looking over a datapad, reading the latest novel from Drew Karpyshyn, his favorite. He had been reading his novels from the moment he stepped off the ship and onto the Citadel. Sometimes it felt like it was the only thing keeping him sane.

    In the middle of his reading, a light flared on his desk and he looked up at his door. Someone was outside.

    "Come in," he called out, setting down his datapad.

    The door slid open and the single most recognizable human in the galaxy, Commander Shepard, walked through his door.

    Bosker scoffed, coughing and spitting chunks of his sandwich all over his desk. He scrambled out of his chair in surprise, trying to gather together what was left of his dignity, though he failed quite miserably.

    "Commander Shepard!" Bosker was glad that his voice didn't squeak, for what it was worth. Still, it was something. "My goodness. Is there something I can do to assist you? Your activities made for quite a briefing in the diplomatic corps."

    "I'm here about Nirali Bhatia's body." Shepard took a seat in front of Bosker's desk, eying him like a wolf hunting a rabbit.

    "Ah… Mr. Bhatia." Bosker winced, taking his seat again, leaning back as if to get as far away from her as possible, suddenly aware of just what situation he was in. "A good man in an understandably frustrating position. I wish I could help him. Serviceman Nirali Bhatia died on Eden Prime, as Mr. Bhatia no doubt told you."

    "I know." Shepard stared icily at him, making him gulp at the amount of attention that was being focused on him. "I was with her when she died."

    :H-Her wounds are inconsistent with any type of weapon damage we've seen before." Bosker's throat felt dry, and he felt the sudden urge to cough, though he managed to push it down. "That is why her body is being held."

    "You think that her body might be dangerous? Is she contaminated?" There was a flicker of interest in her eyes, but Bosker had a feeling that she wasn't truly interested.

    "No, Commander. Nirali Bhatia is not dangerous." There was no way he was getting out of this conversation following the orders the Alliance had given him. Still, he could at least try for all the good it would do. "Her body is, in fact, extremely valuable to the Alliance. The tests we are conducting may lead to better defenses against geth attacks. Respectfully, Serviceman Bhatia may save more lives in death than she did in life."

    Shepard stared at him silently for a long moment, making him shift even more. It felt like there were needles in his seat.

    "I understand what you're trying to do." Shepard leaned forward, not at all impressed by his argument.

    For a moment, Bosker thought he might have swayed her to understand him. "I'm glad to hear that, Commande—"

    "I didn't finish."

    Bosker snapped his mouth shut, paling.

    "I understand what you're trying to do," Shepard continued, never raising her voice, but it sounded like she was booming from every corner of his office. "But holding her body goes against everything that the Alliance stands for."

    "Commander, you of all people should understand how far we must go to protect humanity." Bosker was practically pleading, but he knew deep down that he had already lost this argument.

    "Don't try and lecture me about protecting humanity. I'm out there everyday fighting to stop shit like this." Shepard stood, towering over Bosker's desk.

    "A-All right, Commander! You win." Bosker gulped, wanting to get out from under Shepard's icy glare. "It was hard enough refusing Mr. Bhatia. I'm not going to risk an incident by refusing you. Tell Samesh that he can have her body. I'll go see to the arrangements myself."

    ###

    Normandy Infirmary, Alliance Docks, Citadel

    Rainbow looked up at Chakwas, staring at her as the older woman slowly checked over her omni-tool. It was if the woman was deliberately taunting her.

    "Well?" She asked when couldn't wait anymore.

    "Impatient, are we?" Chakras didn't even so much as look at her.

    Rainbow groaned, falling back into her bed.

    Chakwas ignored her and kept looking over her omni-tool.

    Rainbow groaned again, slamming a pillow over her face.

    "And…" Chakwas closed her omni-tool with a flourish, finally looking at Rainbow. "You are free to go, Rainbow Dash."

    "Yes!" Rainbow punched her hoof into the air, leaping off the bed and to the floor.

    She scampered towards the door, barely even remembering to put on her uniform first before rushing out into the public areas of the ship.

    "Try not to get yourself shot again." Chakras called after her, hoping that one of her charges would finally listen to her.

    "Sure!" Rainbow shouted back over her shoulder as the door s were sliding shut behind her.

    It wasn't a very realistic hope.

    Rainbow paused for a moment outside of the infirmary, taking a deep old breath of freedom. She had been lying still for far too long. She needed to move, to fly, and being cooped up in a bed was not good for her mental health.

    "Hey there, Skittles."

    Hearing the male voice just to the side, Rainbow froze, her eyes narrowing. She snorted out a breath of hot air before turning to look. She found Joker and Spitfire sitting and eating what appeared to be lunch, Joker smiling and looking right at her.

    "Finally free from the doc?" Joker asked, spooning a heap of noodles into his mouth.

    Rainbow just glared at him. She really wasn't not in the mood. She got shot saving someone who just ended up dying anyway. She didn't really feel like joking.

    Sniffing, Rainbow trotted away without saying anything. She'd make her annoyance known in subtler ways.

    "Yeesh," Joker said, looking at Spitfire. "Touchy much?"

    "You can be an asshole sometimes, you know that?" Spitfire just rolled her eyes, focusing on her own meal.

    "What?" Joker stared at her, but she didn't elaborate any further. "What?!"

    ###

    Riley found that Mr. Bhatia was still at the bar when she returned, though he was now picking at a small plate of an asari snack food. It didn't actually look like he had eaten anything.

    He looked up when Riley sat down next to him, easing onto the stool next to him.

    "Hello, Commander," he murmured.

    "Please," Riley said, her voice soft. "Call me Riley."

    "Any word?" He asked, not really believing that she could do anything, though he was grateful for the effort.

    "I reminded Mr. Bosker what we're fighting for." Riley smiled and rubbed his arm encouragingly. "Your wife is coming home."

    Mr. Bhatia was silent for a long moment, staring at her as he struggled to comprehend her words. A sob broke itself free from his throat.

    "Oh gods!" He slumped forward, spilling his plate of food, stress slipping away from his body and leaving him lighter than before. "Thank you, Comma— Riley."

    "Bosker should be contacting you to deal with all of the arrangements." Riley wrote her number on a napkin and slid it over to him. "If he doesn't… Give me a call. Nirali deserves a proper place to rest."

    "I…" Tears started to well in his eyes, and he carefully folded the napkin up and placed it in his pocket. "I need to begin my preparations."

    "If you need anything… I'm not going to be around, but my superior officer, Captain Anderson will be." Riley knew David well enough to speak for him on the matter. The man had a heart large enough to encompass the galaxy. "If you need anything, get in contact with him at the Embassy. Tell him that I asked him to help you in anyway he could."

    "You are a wonderful woman, Riley. I'm not happy, but this brings me peace. Goodbye, Riley." With those final words, Mr. Bhatia stood and left the bar.

    Sometime later, Riley followed him out.

    ###

    The last few days had been an absolute whirlwind for Garrus Vakarian. It had all started when the Executor himself had ordered him to open an investigation into Saren Arterius, bouncing up several levels of security clearances. That investigation turned out to be rather pointless as Saren himself had outed himself with his foolish attack on Eden Prime and attempted assassination of Nihlus. Life had seemingly fallen back into a routine for him, until he got a call from Doctor Michel.

    Everything had become a blur after that. Somehow, it had ended up with him bringing everyone back to his apartment. He was still trying to figure out how that had happened.

    A knock at the door drew him out of his thoughts. Standing from his stool next to Tali in the kitchen, Garrus answered it, finding Ashley and Kaidan standing on his doorstep.

    "Lieutenant. Gunnery Chief." He stepped aside, gesturing for the two to enter. "Please, come in."

    "Welcome to Casa de Vakarian," Wrex said, emerging from Garrus' poor bathroom. Garrus suddenly felt glad that he had a cleaning service and that he would be absent from his apartment for the next few weeks to months.

    Ashley did a double take at Wrex, blinking in confusion. "Sabes español?"

    "Un poco." Wrex held his thumb and finger close together. Just a little.

    "Huh." She stared at the krogan, not at all sure how to take that. A krogan that spoke Spanish. That was a first.

    Garrus closed the door behind the two of them and stepped further into his apartment. It wasn't much, but it was a little nicer than he should have been able to afford with a simple detective's salary. He had his younger sister, Solana, to thank for that. She had a knack for playing the stock market, and she tended to toss tips his way. It helped that he could afford actual art for his walls to impress anyone who might drop by and visit.

    Not that that happened often.

    "I uh, don't have anything for Levo's," The single biggest problem in Citadel space boiled down at the end to be about food. If you looked deep enough, a lot of the biggest issues that affected society all came down to what food species could eat. It had tangled roots in colony development all the way to the yearly budget for the Citadel Defense Fleet. It wasn't helpful that only turians and quarians were only able to eat dextro protein food. On the Citadel, accidentally eating from the wrong plate could mean a death sentence if you weren't paying attention. "But I've got some delivery numbers if you're hungry for anything. There's a pizza place just down the street that caters for both."

    "Fine with me." Wrex rumbled. Krogan were known to eat pretty much anything that had been once alive, or sometimes was even still squirming.

    "I'm not hungry." Ashley's face screwed up a little, unable to completely hide her distaste at the thought of sharing a meal with a turian.

    "I'm not a picky eater. I could go for pizza." It had been awhile since Kaidan had been able to have a slice. Military rations were nutritious, but a tasty meal they were not.

    "Tali. What about you?"

    Turning around, they all looked into the kitchen to see Tali sitting on a stool, a straw sticking out of the front of her mask. She couldn't speak, her speakers deactivated, but she gave a thumbs up as a response.

    "Alright. Pizza it is then."

    Garrus made the call on his omni-tool while the rest of them all moved to his living room. They lingered around the couches, none of them taking seats except Wrex, who dropped down with a sigh of relief. Tali still couldn't speak, busy drinking a sterilized sports drink through a complicated straw apparatus (which she would later argue emphatically that it wasn't a 'curly' straw, whatever that was).

    "How did an alien even manage to learn Spanish?" Ashley finally asked Wrex, staring at him with confusion.

    "You pick things up when you're a mercenary who's smart enough to get well-paying, boring jobs for several decades at a time." Wrex shrugged, not at all fazed by Ashley's untrusting look. Opening a pouch on his belt, he pulled out a well-worn datapad, wiggling it in the air. "Lots of time for reading."

    "A well-read krogan." Garrus joined them in the living room, easing down into his favorite seat. "That's not something you see everyday."

    "All thanks to you turians." The way that Wrex said that was without any anger, just simply stating a fact.

    Garrus shifted in his seat, but before he could say anything in response, Kaidan stepped in.

    "So, Tali, how are you finding the Citadel?"

    Tali panicked, the straw still stopping her from speaking. She struggled for a moment, pulling it out of her mask and reactivating her speakers so fast that she started coughing.

    "It's… nice!" She managed to say, once again giving a thumbs up.

    "Are you okay?" Kaidan asked, looking unsure as to whether he should help her, and confused about what such help would entail.

    Tali waved him off, nodding, gathering herself together. Catching her breath, she managed to say, "It's very nice. A little cold, but the amount of people that this station can support is simply mind-boggling. The entire Flotilla could live on this station and never run into another Quarian if they didn't want to."

    "It's certainly rather roomy." Garrus acknowledged. It sometimes made his job hell when he had to track down a suspect. There were so many places to hide that it was easy to slip around the station almost completely unnoticed.

    "I wouldn't be able to live here." Ashley crossed her arms, looking unhappy at the prospect.

    "I don't know, Chief." Shrugging, Kaidan leaned back against one of the couches. "The food, the night life, the Citadel is the center of the all galactic life. I might move here when I retire."

    "Don't know how you'd be able to stand it, sir."

    "Careful, Chief." Kaidan frowned, catching the undertones of racism that Ashley was throwing off without even an attempt to disguise it.

    "I don't know what you're talking about, sir." Ashley put on her most innocent face, looking at Kaidan with wide eyes.

    A knock at the door kept the two of them from going at it.

    Standing, Garrus sauntered over to answer it. Opening it, he found Riley standing in the entrance, rocking back and forth on her heels.

    "Commander!" Garrus straightened, looking like he was almost ready to salute in that strange turian way, only to think better of it and stop himself.

    "Please, just call me Riley. None of that Commander or Shepard crap. I have a name my parents graced me with, and I think it's perfectly nice." She looked at Kaidan and Ashley, her eyes narrowing. "That doesn't apply to you two."

    "Of course not, Commander." They were in the military after all. Some propriety had to be observed.

    "Yes, ma'am." Kaidan nodded without complaint.

    Riley looked around at them before clapping her hands and rubbing them together. "Are you all ready to go?"

    "Just ordered pizza." Wrex was looking forward to it.

    "What type?" Intrigued, Riley leaned forward.

    "Pepperoni for you Levos, Armali for Tali and I." Garrus quickly offered.

    "Right…" Riley stepped inside, kicking the door shut behind her. "We'll leave after the pizza then."

    ###

    Being a pilot wasn't all fun and games. Actually, most of it was preforming mind-boggling math problems in your head while under intense pressure and trying to jump halfway across the galaxy. Quite a lot of her time as a pilot was spent working on flight plans and practicing maneuvers. As she often was, Spitfire was working at her station, her head bouncing along in time to music that was playing on the speakers, just quietly enough not to bother anyone further back on the ship.

    She hummed along with the latest album from Lady Sweat, tapping her back hooves against her seat.

    "God, this again?"

    Spitfire glanced over her shoulder to find Joker hobbling onto the bridge, using a hand on the back of his chair to help himself take his seat.

    "What?" She turned her music off, swiveling her chair to face him. "I like them."

    "Yeah, well…" Joker eased himself into his seat, only to jump as a massive horn sounded off.

    With a shout, he fell right out of his chair and smacked onto the ground.

    "Shit!" He cursed, wincing in pain.

    "Joker!" Hopping out of her seat, Spitfire hovered over him, waiting to see how hurt he was. "Are you okay?"

    Joker groaned, rolling over. Looking under his seat, he rolled his eyes when he found that there' was an air horn taped around the base of his seat.

    "I'm fine." Glaring, he bit his lip. A prank then. Yeah, he could roll with that.

    "Commanding Officer onboard. Executive Officer is relieved." The Normandy's VI chimed, speaking over every speaker on the ship.

    Both Joker and Spitfire turned to look as the airlock cycled open.

    The door slid open and Riley stepped inside, followed by Ashley and Kaidan, then a turian, and then a quarian (a quarian?), and the largest krogan that Joker had ever seen in his life.

    Riley paused when she saw Joker lying on the ground, looking up at her. She opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. "You alright there, Lieutenant?"

    "Just peachy, ma'am." He gave her a thumbs up, tightening his hat down on his head.

    "Alright then…" She glanced up at Spitfire, to find her hoof firmly planted in her face. "Please inform Rainbow Dash to meet us in the briefing room."

    "Yes, Commander." Spitfire nodded.

    Turning away, Riley led everyone past the bridge and towards the briefing room.

    As soon as they were out of earshot, Joker rested his head back on the floor. "That was fun."

    "Flying Officer Dash, to the briefing room." Ignoring him, Spitfire activated her omni-tool and connected to the Normandy's intercom system. "And don't think I don't know that you messed with the pilot's chair."

    "I'm going to get her back." Joker just moaned, frowning.

    "Yeah…" Spitfire slid back into her seat, getting back to work. "I'll help."

    ###

    Entering the briefing room, Riley was just in time for Rainbow to walk in with her.

    "Did you have anything to do with my pilot being on the floor back there?" Pointing over her shoulder, Riley looked down at her little sister with an accusatory look.

    "What?" Rainbow put on her most innocent expression. "I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

    "I don't believe you." Riley shook her head.

    "Well, I can't help you with that." Shrugging with her wings, Rainbow glanced back at the group following after Riley.

    Eying Rainbow for a moment, Riley finally shook her head and gestured away. "Just take a seat."

    "Welcome to the Normandy." Riley moved to stand in front of the console at the back of the room. She turned, watching as the rest of them took their seats, crossing her arms and leaning back. "Our mission is to bring the ex-Spectre Saren Arterius in for prosecution for the crimes he committed on Eden Prime."

    Everyone was listening to her, all of their attention on her.

    "We have three leads," Riley continued. "Alliance Intelligence has received reports of geth on the colony planet Feros, and we've received reports of the same from Noveria."

    "Noveria?" Wrex grunted, shaking his head. "That'll be a bitch to get onto."

    "Glad I packed my weiner warmer." He looked over at Ashley, a shit eating grin on his face.

    Ashley rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, avoiding looking at the krogan.

    "First though, we're heading to Therum. Saren is in cahoots with an asari matriarch by the name of Benezia T'Soni. Her daughter is part of an archeological dig, and we're going to see what she knows."

    "Commander, there's a call for you." Joker's voice interrupted over the intercom.

    "Take a message Joker, we're in the middle of something." Sighing, Riley made a note to have a talk with him about the appropriate times to give her messages. When she was giving a briefing was obviously not the correct time.

    "Aye, aye, ma'a—" Joker's voice cut out for a moment, before coming right back. "Oh shit!"

    The holodisplay behind Riley flickered to life, and a larger than life image of Firefly appeared.

    "Riley? Rainbow?" Firefly leaned closer in the image, searching. "Are you there?"

    "Mom?" Rainbow went pale, her voice squeaking.

    Riley turned, finding her mother looking at everyone in the briefing room. She could only sigh in response, moving her mental note to talk to Joker much further up on her list.

    "Riley, Rainbow?" Firefly asked again, before catching sight of her children, smiling and waving in greeting.

    "We'll talk about this later, Joker." Riley face palmed

    "Shit!" Joker swore. "Uh, I mean yes ma'am."

    He cut off his feed to the briefing room as quickly as he possibly could.

    "Mom, we're in the middle of something." Looking up at her mother's image on the display behind her, she smiled in greeting while hoping her blush wasn't too obvious. "I can call you back in a few minutes."

    "Nonsense!" Firefly waved a hoof, pushing away her daughter's concerns. "We haven't heard from you since you left!"

    "I'm not going to be able to stop you, am I?"

    "Nope!" Firefly chirped before turning to look around at the rest of the room. "Now don't be rude, introduce me."

    "Right." Riley rolled her eyes but did as her mother said. "This is my mother, Firefly. Everyone, my mother. Mom, everyone else."

    "Hey." Wrex was the only one to wave back in greeting.

    "You look like a nice boy. What's your name?"

    "Urdnot Wrex, ma'am."

    "You take care of my daughters, you hear me, or else you're going to have to talk with me." Pointing her hoof at him, Firefly squinted, trying her best to look threatening.

    "Shouldn't be a problem." Wrex shrugged. He'd been through worse.

    "Is that Riley and Rainbow?" A younger voice chirped from off camera.

    "It is." Firefly spoke to the voice, waving its owner over. "Come say hello."

    "Hello!"Scootaloo jumped in front of the camera, waving excitedly.

    Ashley squirmed, realizing that Riley had one of the cutest little sisters she'd ever seen. None of her own little sisters would even be able to compete.

    "Hello." No one could resist not answering the little filly.

    "Hey squirt." Rainbow waved.

    "Scoots." Riley glanced at Rainbow, nodding her head towards the holodisplay. "You deal with this. I'm going to get us underway."

    'Why are you dropping all this on me?" Her head drooping ever so slightly, Rainbow scowled.

    "Cause I'm older, and I'm the Commander, Flying Officer."

    "Right…" Rolling her eyes, Rainbow straightened up and saluted lazily. "Yes, ma'am."

    Before Rainbow could get any ideas, Riley left the briefing room, breathing a sigh of relief.

    "That wasn't so bad," she muttered to herself. "Could've gone worse."

    Quickly walking the length of the Normandy's neck, Riley stepped onto the bridge, and Joker glanced over his shoulder at her. He had managed to get himself back into his chair and some point and was now hard at work.

    "I heard what happened to Captain Anderson." He frowned, glancing at her one more time before turning back to his displays. "Guy survives a hundred battles and then gets taken down by backroom politics. Just… watch your back, Commander. Things go bad on this mission, you're next on the chopping block."

    "Captain Anderson should be the one in charge. It's like I'm stealing the ship from him."

    "Yeah, the Captain got screwed." Joker shrugged. That was Alliance Navy politics for you. "But it's not like you could've stopped it. Nobody's blaming you. Everyone on this ship is behind you, Commander. One hundred percent."

    "The intercom's open." Spitfire spoke up. "If you've got anything you want to say to the crew, now's the time."

    Riley opened up her omni-tool, connecting to the ship's intercom. She cleared her throat before beginning to speak.

    "This is Commander Shepard speaking. We have our orders: find Saren before he finds the Conduit. I won't lie to you, crew. This mission isn't going to be easy. For too long our species has stood apart from the others. Not it's time for us to step up and do our part for the rest of the galaxy! Time to show them what humans are made of, and we won't do it alone! It's only together that we will succeed. Our enemy knows we're coming. When we go into the traverse, Saren's followers will be waiting for us, but we'll be ready for them too. Humanity needs to do this. Not just for our own sake, but for the sake of every other species in Citadel Space. Saren must be stopped, and I promise you all, we will stop him!"

    As she shut down her omni-tool, Joker nodded and closed the intercom. "Well said, Commander. The Captain would be proud."

    "Captain Anderson gave up everything so I could have this chance. We can't fail."

    "Yes, ma'am!" Joker and Spitfire said emphatically.

    "Take us to Therum."

    22. Chapter Twenty-One - Welcome to Thessia

    Chapter Twenty-One - Welcome to Thessia

    Parnitha System, Athena Nebula, Milky Way Galaxy

    April 11, 2183

    The journey to Thessia had taken almost two days, thanks to the speed of Solar One's faster than light drive. Traveling across the galaxy was a an almost unsurmountable problem even for the superior Equestrian tech that was the envy of the galaxy. Maybe in a few more centuries that would become a non-issue, but for now, journeys still took time.

    Thanks to the Mass Relays, the upper limits of FTL were a non-issue. Still, it took time to travel too and from planets within the range of any Relay.

    They were headed for the island of Armali, and its well regarded University of Armali. If anyplace was going to have any reference to the Elements of Harmony, that would be it.

    Honey Dawn had taken Solar One at a leisurely pace, having no true need to push the engines, and the ship was rapidly approaching Thessia.

    Twilight, Gilda, Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Spike had joined the crew on the bridge for the return back to real-space. The ship had been designed in just such a way that the bridge had the best view, with a three-hundred and sixty degree holo-display built into the surface of the walls. It had been added more as a gimmick to impress visiting dignitaries than it was actually functional for the pilots. Visual range was practically useless in a spaceship, and their displays provided much more useful information.

    At the moment, the front half of the ship was wreathed blue, thanks to doppler shift, the faint shimmering of stars just barely visible beyond. If one were to turn their head and look towards the door leading to the rest of the ship, they would find the back half of the ship wreathed a bloody red.

    It was a sight that Twilight never tired of, and one that her companions were staring in awe at. She had grown up with Celestia after all, and had spent more than her fair share of time on her teacher's former ship.

    Smiling at her audience's quiet wonder, Honey Dawn glanced first to the right at Little Hoof, and then to her left at Fancy Steps, making sure they were ready. They were both completely focused at the task at hand and sent green confirmation lights to her console. Nodding to herself, Honey Dawn spoke out loud for her audience's benefit.

    "Transitioning to real space in three… two… one."

    All at once, Solar One shifted back into real space, the stars twinkling back into view. Thessia sat directly in front of Solar One, the sun just beginning to peak over its farthest horizon. It was a glimmering vision of blue and green, dotted with islands and larger continents, gentle rolling clouds checkered across the sky.

    Thessia itself didn't have any moons. It was one of the factors that scientists figured had led the Asari to be so successful. Without the violent tides that other planets experienced, the face of Thessia would have been extremely different, never allowing for the generous life-spans of the asari, and their mastery over biotics. Element Zero tended to be found in shallow pools near the beaches, which any tidal force would have obliterated and carried straight back out to sea.

    "There it is, Sweetie Belle," Rarity said, barely keeping a squeal from erupting. "The fashion center of the galaxy!"

    "Well." Twilight couldn't help herself. She had read to many books and spent too much time around ponies who had given her her way not to. She stood up straight, almost pushing up a pair of non existent glasses on her muzzle, a force of habit from her time lecturing at the Academy. "Actually Thessia is much more known for being the center of technological advancement, at least historically. They've found themselves usurped from that position in the past few decades."

    "This is Thessia Air Control to Solar One." The feminine voice that echoed from the hidden speakers on the bridge interrupted Twilight before she could continue any further.

    "Roger that, Air Control, this is Solar One." Honey Dawn answered quickly and neatly, slowing the ship even further as they approached the atmosphere.

    "We've been expecting you. We received your flight plans several days ago."

    A set of coordinates appeared on Honey Dawn's screen, uploaded from the planet below, and the computer quickly gave her a map of Thessia with a waypoint to reflect that, blinking over the large island nation of Armali.

    "Armali has a docking slip waiting for you. They'll guide you in. Welcome to Thessia, Solar One."

    "Thank you, Thessia flight control." As soon as she finished, the line was cut and Armali's waiting Air Control took over.

    "What's so important about Thessia?" Stepping closer to Twilight, Sweetie Belle was sure to put on her cutest, most curious face. The unicorn had quickly become her new hero after jumping into the Citadel lake, and that had only been cemented during the few short days on the flight over. Any excuse to speak to her was a good one in Sweetie Belle's book.

    Twilight turned to look at Sweetie Belle, completely ready to launch herself into a long lecture about the Asari and their importance to the galaxy at large. She had already been interrupted once. It wouldn't happen again!

    "The asari were the first out of all of the races to achieve spaceflight," Twilight said, sitting on her haunches. She waved her forehooves in the air as if to demonstrate a ship launching from a planet. "And they found the Citadel over two-thousand years ago. They founded the Citadel Council together with the salarians after they had joined them. Nothing would be the way it is right now if the Asari didn't exist."

    "Didn't you just learn about this?" Rarity raised an eyebrow, looking at Sweetie Belle with a look of confusion.

    "Uh…" Sweetie Belle looked around, her eyes shifty. Her sister was to never know of her hero-worship (crush) on Twilight. It would be the end of her. She had to be firm, convincing, misleading.

    Instead, all she was able to say was a rather unconvincing, "No?"

    Rarity just stared at her, waiting for her little sister to break. Sweetie started to sweat metaphorical bullets.

    "Maybe?" She squeaked after nearly thirty seconds, practically on the floor trying to get away from Rarity's piercing eyes.

    She finally slumped, groaning. "Yes." She hung her head, blushing.

    Triumphant, Rarity looked up at Twilight, Gilda, and Spike to explain. "Sweetie Belle is going through an advanced study course, corresponding with teachers back on Equestria. Only the best education for my little marshmallow."

    "Rarity!" If it was even possible, Sweetie Belle's blush grew darker. She wanted to crawl into a hole and die, or at least run from the bridge and hide under her bed. Her sister calling her 'marshmallow' in front of Twilight? It was the Worst. Possible. Thing! "Don't call me that."

    "Oh, don't be embarrassed Sweetie Belle." Picking Sweetie Belle up from her place on the floor, Rarity wrapped her in a big hug. "Never be embarrassed of your family."

    Sweetie Belle just scowled, looking anywhere but her sister.

    "We're entering the atmosphere in three, two, one," Honey Dawn said over her shoulder, not having noticed any of the world ending drama that had taken place just behind her seat.

    The ship juddered every so slightly as Solar One entered Thessia's atmosphere, and red hot flames licked at the hull of the ship. Solar One easily shrugged the heat away, her ablative armor having been designed to take multiple shots from the strongest of dreadnoughts. On the inside, it would have been practically unnoticeable if you didn't even know it was happening.

    The flames receded after thirty seconds, and Solar One was suddenly flying over a pristine turquoise ocean. Twilight, Gilda, Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Spike found themselves looking down past their hooves. It was almost as if they were flying through the air, supported on a pane of glass.

    For a single moment, Sweetie Belle could have sworn that she saw a whale beneath the waves, but just as quickly as she had seen it, it disappeared.

    They flew over a long series of islands, each pristinely populated at the perfect levels, in harmony with the planet.

    Thessia held a modest population of only five and half billion, and that number rarely ever wavered more than a few points in either direction. With lives measured in centuries and millennia, it was easy to take the long view and asari self-regulated their population naturally. It was simply the way they evolved. If there was no more room or food for another being, other species were forced to either find a way to support them, or to abort the fetus.

    The asari could simply choose not to get pregnant. It was a plus of their biology.

    It as also a plus that a single asari could bring the entire species back from the brink of extinction if needed.

    Asari were a truly wondrous, remarkable race.

    The island of Armali rose up out of the ocean, volcanic rock and soft beaches formed by millions of years and careful tending by its residents. Solar One circled the island once, twice, three times before coming in for a landing at the largest of the two space ports, on the east edge of the city, on a small cliff overlooking the ocean.

    Gently, Solar One came in for a landing. After the massive landing gears supported its weight, Honey Dawn shut the engines off and the background hum, a nearly silent companion that followed you wherever you went on the ship, disappeared.

    Turning in her seat, Honey Dawn smiled at her audience. "Welcome to Armali."

    "Thank you, Honey Dawn." Twilight nodded, compartmentalizing her wonder at the approach she had just witnessed as she prepared herself for the work that she needed to do. "I don't know how long we're going to be here, but I want to be ready to go at a moments notice if we have to."

    "Of course." Honey Dawn nodded. That was what she was planning to do anyway. It was good that Twilight had more than just a basic understanding of how to run a diplomatic ship. It meant that there was less she needed to learn by the end of the cruise.

    Twilight led her group out and off of the bridge, to the airlock just behind its neck. Like all ships, it was built on the left side.

    The airlock cycled open in seconds after it had scanned and cleaned them of any diseases that might have been clinging to their clothes or coats. It was the single most effective way of keeping diseases from spreading across worlds. Twilight and Gilda were the first to step out onto the waiting platform, followed by Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Spike, trotting down the stairs to meet a small delegation of asari waiting at the bottom.

    "Welcome, Celestial Emissary Twilight Sparkle, to Armali." The lead asari in the middle spread her arms, her mouth open in a wide smile. She was dressed in a sleek dress, made of a light, thin material, perfect for the warm, humid climate of Thessia. "We are pleased to welcome you to our wonderful city-nation."

    "Thank you…" Twilight trailed off, waiting for the asari to give her name.

    "I am Diplomat Eshair T'Vedo." She acquiesced Twilight, bowing her head ever so slightly in greeting. "When we learned that you were coming, I was briefed to help you in whatever way you needed."

    "I need to look through your Universities Archives." The University of Armali was one of the most prestigious schools in the galaxy, with few being its peer. Its libraries held resources from every known planet, and it was well-funded by the government of Armali. Those libraries were well guarded by the University, and only the students, faculty, and a select few from the rest of the galaxy were allowed access. Even fewer were allowed to explore the entirety of the archives without any restrictions. As one of the highest members of the Equestrian government, Twilight had been granted that access. "I am in the middle of a research mission, and it has lead me here."

    "Of course, Emissary." Eshair glanced at the rest of the group. While Twilight had permission, she was the only one.

    Twilight glanced back at her group, noticing Gilda's eyes staring up in the sky, following the flight of a bird, not at all looking forward to waiting around for one of her study sessions to wrap up. Thankfull, Twilight had already come up with an idea on the flight from the Citadel. She turned back to look at Eshair.

    "While I am in the archives, would it be possible for my friends to be given a tour of Armali? I know that they would enjoy it." Twilight knew that she wouldn't say no. Armani would do anything to accommodate her, the same way that Equestria would bend over backwards for any important asari diplomat.

    It was still the polite thing to ask.

    "That would not be any problem." She gestured over at one of the asari's standing behind her, a young maiden by the looks of her. She didn't have any facial tattoos yet, and her eyes were wide and clear, inquisitive as they tried to take everything in of the rarely seen Equestrians. She wore a much more conservative outfit than Eshair, clothed in purples and oranges.

    "Nyari would be happy to show anyone who wishes the wonders of Armali."

    Nyari bowed in agreement. Rarity had to keep herself from squealing from happiness. Exploring the streets and shops was exactly what she had been hoping to do.

    "That is wonderful." She gave a quick nuzzle to Gilda, before turning her attention back to Eshair. "If it's not too much trouble, I would like to start right away."

    "Right this way, Emissary." Eshair gestured towards a waiting aircar.

    ###

    There were few criminals in the galaxy as feared or respected as Pluto Fire. He had erupted into the galaxie's awareness the year after the Relay 314 incident, smashing aside competitors and taking over the businesses of those less skilled than him.

    In five short years, he had become the single largest runner of organized crime in the entire galaxy. It was a record that he still held, and he hadn't kept his hooves clean during that time. He had bloodied himself to keep what he had built.

    In the years since his take over, Pluto Fire had taken to traveling the galaxy under the guise of legitimate means, keeping an eye on his holdings and overseeing his business.

    It was simply a fortunate accident that had placed Pluto Fire on Thessia at the same time that Kai Leng had needs of his services.

    Setting up a meeting had been fairly simple, and hours within his landing, he had found himself sitting in a chair outside of Pluto's penthouse. He stared at the opposite wall, paying no mind to the turian and the batarian standing guard in front of the door. Beside him, he could hear Hope tapping a beat against her leg. One of the Illusive Man's most trusted agents, it was only natural that she accompany him on his mission. Two had better chances than one, after all, and few were as good at slipping through undetected as her.

    She was disguised as an asari, a perfect disguise for a woman such as her. It would take more than a passive scan to see that she wasn't in fact an asari.

    After nearly thirty minutes of waiting, the doors to the penthouse opened, and a well dressed asari stepped out.

    "Pluto will see you now," she said, stepping aside to let the two of them through.

    With smooth motions, Kai Leng stood and stepped pas the asari, hearing Hope following behind him quietly. As soon as they were inside, the doors closed and locked with a definite click.

    Kai Leng took a moment to survey the room he found himself in. Several guards in tailored, thousand dollar bullet proof suits, were standing around the perimeter of the room, keeping careful watch. Professional, they were probably ex-special forces. Kai Leng easily picked out the weapons that they were wearing under their suits. They made for an interesting, motley bunch, comprised of humans, turians, batarians, and a few asari.

    Kai Leng dismissed them as unimportant and not a threat, instead following the asari through the penthouse and into a large dining room through a door off to the side.

    Together, Kai Leng and Hope entered the dining room. It was surrounded on three sides with floor to ceiling windows, offering beautiful views of Armali from every angle. The island of Armali was a mountainous place, surrounding a single central peak that rose taller than Everest into the sky. The skyscrapers of the nation rose up from the mountains sides, creating a unique stepped effect.

    Kai Leng only paid that view a brief look, instead turning to look at the pony seated at the head of the table, eating a simple asari breakfast of fish and a rice like substance. Few had ever seen him before, and even fewer lived to tell the tale.

    "Thank you for allowing my companion and I to meet you, Pluto Fire." Giving a polite bow, Kai Leng offered his respects.

    Pluto Fire was a grey maned earth pony with golden eyes that matched his coat, dressed in a fine suit which hid his cutie mark. A small, grey goatee hung from his chin, finely trimmed. With a finely manicured hoof, he motioned for them to take a seat at his table.

    "Please, join me for breakfast." His voice was smooth, hiding the danger that his presence held.

    "Thank you for your generosity." With another bow of his head, Kai Leng gracefully took the seat that Pluto offered, just to his right. It was easy to stay in Pluto's good graces. All you had to do was give him respect, and make sure you did as you promised.

    As he sat, he noticed that Hope hesitated for just a moment before following his lead, taking the seat next to him.

    From a hidden door, a human woman emerged pushing a tray covered in breakfast foods. She paused next to Kai Leng and Hope, gesturing with her hand towards the food.

    "Sir? Ma'am?" She asked. "What would you like for breakfast?"

    "What he's having is perfectly fine with me." Kai Leng guessed that Pluto would be eating the best meal that there was to offer, and he was always open to trying something new.

    The woman bowed in understanding, turning her attention to Hope.

    "I'm fine," Hope said, waving her head.

    Kai Leng frowned, displeased, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly. Pluto didn't so much as blink, instead calmly chewing his last bite.

    "Please forgive my companion," He said, bowing his head to Pluto. To refuse an offered meal was certainly not respecting the stallion.

    Pluto stayed quiet, watching Kai Leng through half lidded eyes.

    "Leave." Kai Leng didn't bother to look back at Hope.

    "Wha—"

    "Don't make me repeat myself." His voice grew colder, a hint of his anger within.

    Hope was still for a moment, before she stood and left the room, her steps just a little bit too heavy, but still too light to be considered storming out. As soon as she was gone, Kai Leng bowed his head again to Pluto, deeper this time.

    "Please forgive me," he said, not begging, but apologetic. "I did not school her enough in what was appropriate."

    "It is behind us." Waving a hoof, Pluto took another bite of his food.

    "Thank you."

    Returning from the kitchen, the woman laid a plate out in front of Kai Leng, the same meal that Pluto was eating. It was still warm, steaming ever so slightly, a beautiful aroma wafting up to his nose. Respectfully, Kai Leng took a bite of his meal, closing his eyes in appreciation.

    "It's wonderful," he said after he swallowed his bite.

    "I'm glad you agree. I make sure to have it whenever I have the opportunity to visit Thessia."

    "I can see why."

    They were quiet for a few moments, taking the occasional bite, enjoying their meal. Kai Leng waited patiently for Pluto to start, willing to wait however long it took. He was good at waiting.

    Pluto finally paused, taking a drink before turning his full attention on Kai Leng.

    "You have come a long way to meet with me," he said, eyeing the man with his large eyes.

    "It was a fortunate accident that you happened to be in a position to help me." While Kai Leng had indeed sought him out, it was important to let him know that he wasn't the reason he was on Thessia.

    Pluto was silent, waiting for Kai Leng to explain.

    "You know who I work for." It wasn't a question. To have allowed Kai Leng to meet with him, Pluto knew that he was an agent for Cerberus.

    "Yes." Pluto laughed, shaking his head. The skin around his eyes crinkled ever so slightly. "It was easy to figure out. Your name brings up very interesting flags from everyone I spoke to."

    "I'm not surprised." Cerberus wasn't a common name, not yet, but it certainly wasn't hidden from everyone.

    "I wouldn't imagine you would be." Pluto took another bite, chewing slowly. Swallowing, he leaned forward. "Let's get down to business."

    "If you wish." Kai Leng wiped his mouth with his napkin, folding it neatly before setting it back on the table. "I have been ordered by my employer to figure out why the Empress is… bucking the status quo, so to speak."

    "The Celestial Emissary." Of course Pluto knew. It wasn't often that the Empress made such drastic moves, tending to let things happen the long way, her plans lasting centuries.

    Kai Leng nodded. "She is searching for something, and she's turning a lot of heads doing so. The Elements of Harmony."

    "What are you asking of me?" Pluto leaned back in his seat, suddenly paying a whole lot more attention.

    "For your organizations help. My employer is willing to pay you a very large sum for your help in… arranging a meeting between myself and the Emissary."

    "I assume you are implying by any means necessary."

    "You would be correct in that assumption." Kai Leng nodded, carefully keeping Pluto's gaze.

    "Very well. Let's talk numbers."

    ###

    It had only been a few hours since they had landed, and Nyari had already shown Gilda, Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Spike through some of the more colorful districts of Armali. She had shown them the historic fountains and statues, the oldest building, and much to Rarity's relief, they were finally heading to the designer district.

    The city was truly a wonderful place, with over five million permanent inhabitants, and towering hotels that when filled, swelled that population to ten million. The buildings all followed a similar design philosophy, and they all blended together into a single cohesive whole.

    Rarity's eyes couldn't help but go particularly wide when Nyari finally them down into the fashion district. Down the wide street, shops lined both sides. Some of the largest names in fashion were represented there, the true homes of fashion designers with household names.

    These were the shops where dreams were made.

    "Sweet Celestia, I could live here for the rest of my life!" She cried, tears welling in the corners of her eyes.

    "Great." Sweetie Belle glared at Nyari. "Now we're never going to leave. I wanted to go to the beach."

    Spike wasn't at all frustrated, tagging around behind Rarity, hoping to get noticed in anyway. He was awestruck by her beauty, and it made him very foolish at times. It had simply taken the two day flight from the Citadel to Thessia for his crush to fully embed itself in his mind.

    "Not much for fashion, are you kid?" Gilda stuck close by Sweetie Belle.

    "Blech," was Sweetie Belle's finely crafted response. She shook her head, tugging at her uncomfortable dress. Rarity had made it for her, and while it looked wonderful on her (even Sweetie Belle was willing to admit that), it wasn't the most comfortable thing to wear. She looked enviously at Gilda's rather chill hoody and simply skirt. "It's Rarity's thing."

    "Well, what do you like to do then?"

    They both paused when Rarity squealed, easily heard from anywhere on the street, and she darted inside a store. Sweetie Belle facehoofed, but she wasn't at all surprised by her older sister's actions.

    Nyari followed after Rarity and Spike, and Gilda and Sweetie Belle followed after her at much more unenthused pace.

    "I don't know." Sweetie Belle answered Gilda's question, shrugging. She glanced back at her covered flank, and frowned at her lack of a cutie mark. "I still haven't figured it out ye—"

    Before she could finish her sentence, Sweetie Belle yelped as Gilda grabbed her and rolled out of the way of a gaggle of asari girls as they stormed on pass, a flurry of revealing clothing and laughter.

    "Hey!" Gilda shouted after them, scowling. "Watch where you're going."

    The group of asari paused, looking back to find Gilda glaring at them. A few of them blushed, a few more of them scampered away, but a small few approached her and Sweetie Belle.

    "We're sorry," the lead girl said, smiling apologetically. "We didn't see you."

    "It's fine." Clacking her beak, Gilda shook her head, letting her anger drain away. "Just don't do it again."

    She took a good look at them, realizing that even though they were just children, in all likelihood they were all probably older than her by a few decades.

    "What's got all of you in a rush?" Gilda asked, tilting her head to the side.

    "You mean you haven't heard?" One of the other asari asked her, disbelieving that someone couldn't know.

    "Heard what?" Sweetie Belle asked, hanging in Gilda's forearms.

    "It's only the best thing to happen to Armali in forever!" A third asari squealed, bouncing excitedly in place.

    "You're not really being helpful." Before Gidla could inquire any further, another voice interrupted her.

    "Girls! Quite bothering them and get moving." An older asari, a matron most likely, came forward, herding them away. "We have places to be."

    Before Gilda and Sweetie Belle had a chance to get any answers from them, the girls were gone, their caretaker chasing after them. Sweetie was still dangling from Gilda's forelegs, and the two of them stared after the group of asari.

    "What just happened?" Sweetie Belle asked after a long minute, feeling very confused at just what had happened.

    "I have no idea." Shaking her head, Gilda stared at the spot where the asari girls had stood just a moment before.

    "Sweetie Belle!" Rarity called from behind them, excitement filling her voice. "You simply must come here! I've found a beautiful fabric that would look absolutely marvelous on you."

    Sweetie Belle sighed at hearing her sister and wiggled free from Gilda's grasp, dropping down onto all four of her hooves.

    "Wonderful," she said, sarcastic.

    Together, filly and griffin headed towards the store Rarity had already buried herself deep inside again.

    ###

    Twilight and Eshair met up with Gilda, Rarity, Sweetie Belle, Nyari, and Spike at a restaurant overlooking the ocean for dinner. After nearly nine hours of working, and searching, and running into dead end after dead end, Twilight was tired and feeling more discouraged than she had for a while.

    The sun was just starting to make its way below the horizon, casting mile long rays of light across the ocean.

    "Twilight!" Seeing them approaching their table, Rarity started to gush. She was surrounded by shopping bags on all sides, and she had a slightly crazed look in her eyes. "You missed an absolutely marvelous time today. I don't believe that I've had such a time to indulge myself in… well, it must be years."

    "I bet you had a much better time than us." Sweetie Belle was scowling at a large portion of those bags, which Rarity must have bought for her. She was not happy about that.

    "Sweetie Belle!" Rarity looked offended that somepony might not have had a good time

    "What?" Sweetie Belle looked just as offended that her sister was too obsessed with fashion. "It's true. All we did was look at dresses, and look at fabric to make dresses, and then look at even more dresses."

    "And it was a marvelous time." She placed a careful hoof on the table in emphasis.

    "For you, maybe." Sweetie Belle muttered, pushing a roll around her plate.

    Gilda just took a drink from her glass, staying out of the argument.

    Twilight took a seat next to Gilda, sharing a quick nuzzle with her before slumping down in her seat, tired and frustrated. Looking up as a waitress stepped up next to her, she just nodded.

    "Just a water please, and whatever she's having." She gestured at Gilda.

    "Of course." Making a note on her omni-tool, the waitress walked off.

    "How was your searching, Twilight?" Rarity asked, looking at Twilight indulgently.

    "Useless." Waving her hooves in the air, Twilight scowled. "Absolutely no information on the Elements of Harmony. Nothing. No mentions of a prothean artifact. No mention of why the map has Thessia on it. It was just as pointless as searching on the Citadel."

    Twilight let her face drop down on the table, rolling it ever so slightly until she could see every pony at the table. She sighed, disheartened. "Maybe I'm just looking for the wrong things, the wrong places."

    "You'll figure it out, just like you did on the Citadel." Gilda rubbed her back encouragingly, using her talons to her advantage, making Twilight practically purr in pleasure. "Who knows. Maybe what you're looking for isn't in any archives or libraries."

    Twilight just groaned, half in annoyance, and half in happiness at Gilda's back rub.

    "There's no reason to look so down, darling." Rarity eyed Sweetie Belle's roll for a moment before looking away, resisting temptation. "We're on one of the best islands of this world, we're young, and we have money. We should enjoy tonight, and you can get back to looking tomorrow. I'm sure that there's something we can do tonight."

    Twilight looked like she was about to protest, but a look from Gilda stopped her.

    "There is a festival tonight, if you're looking for fun." Eshair spoke up, looking up from her own menu. "As an ambassador on Thessia, I can guarantee all of you tickets."

    "Festival?" Rarity perked up, her ears swiveling to face Eshair. "What type of festival?"

    "Music and Dance." Eshair couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. She was looking forward to it. "You came at a marvelous time. It has been the talk of the planet for months, and it all starts tonight. Our hotels are filled to the brim with maidens and matrons who have travelled here for just the occasion."

    "I like dancing!" Sweetie Belle chirped, perking up. She might not have been able to go swimming today, but dancing would certainly make things better.

    Spike nodded along in agreement. He buffed his claws on his scales, smiling. "I've got a few moves I've been waiting to test out for the right occasion."

    "That certainly sounds exciting," Rarity said, looking at Eshair to give more information.

    "It's a travelling festival." Near explained further. "The largest in all of the galaxy."

    "What do you say, Twilight?" Rarity asked, a hint of pleading in her voice. "That sounds like a good way to spend our evening, doesn't it?"

    "A bit of dancing does sound fun." Twilight admitted. She sighed, sitting up and running a hoof over her mane.

    She looked over at Gilda, who just shrugged. She was pretty indifferent about the whole ordeal.

    "I don't dance, but I'll go for the drinking." Alcohol was the drink of the gods. That was all Gilda had to say about the matter.

    "Alright." Twilight relented. "It sounds like a plan then."

    "Wonderful!" Eshair clapped her hands together, smiling. She giggled a little, excited that she wouldn't have to miss the party of the century because she was working with a stick in the mud diplomat.

    ###

    On the other side of the restaurant, Kai Leng and Hope Lillium, still in her her asari make-up, sat waiting for their own dinners. He was dressed in an expensive suit, his hair pulled back in a neat top-knot, and he wore a pair of thousand dollar sunglasses.

    Hope was dressed in a simple asari outfit, pearls sewn throughout its fabric. She was listening to Twilight and her table with a microphone she had placed on a pole near there table as she walked by on her way to the restroom.

    "They're going to the festival, tonight." Looking at Kai Leng, Hope scowled ever so slightly at him. "Do you want to make your move there?"

    Kai Leng just leveled his gaze on her, making her feel uncomfortable.

    "No," he said, crossing his legs. "Too many witnesses. We'll wait."

    "But—"

    "Are you really arguing with me?" She had already caused one too many problems today. There was no need for any more.

    Hope shifted in her seat.

    "There's no reason to act now. We can wait until the time is right."

    ###

    The 'festival' that Eshair had spoken of was not just a little island carnival. As Nyari had said, it was indeed a traveling festival, going from planet to planet with its blend of music and entertainment. It promised to be a week of revelry and happiness for Armali.

    The entire festival was being hosted in a makeshift stadium, built for more than eight hundred thousand inhabitants, on one of the larger beaches on Armali. Stacks of speakers hundreds of feet high lined the perimeter, with enough lights to make night day. A stage large enough to fit the entirety of Solar One sat opposite from the ocean, with even more speakers and lights.

    Platforms in the ocean hosted even more lights and served as makeshift dive platforms for even more audience members.

    Night having fallen almost completely, the stadium was almost half full, and even more were still streaming in.

    In the VIP entrance, Eshair, Nyari, Twilight, Gilda, Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Spike were being ushered past the hour long lines that the rest of the audience had to wait through.

    "It's so loud!" Twilight shouted rather redundantly. She was standing shoulder to shoulder with Gilda.

    "What?" Gilda shouted back, having completely missed what Twilight had said.

    "It's so loud!" Twilight shouted even louder, to absolutely no effect.

    Gilda shrugged, pointing at her ears with one of her talons. She's a griffin. She didn't have the best ears in the galaxy. Twilight just rolled her eyes and wrapped her griffin in a quick hug. It didn't even matter.

    In front of them, Sweetie Belle was bouncing up and down next to Rarity, speaking to both her and Spike, though neither of them could hear her, which very well might have been a good thing considering she was probably reaching into the damaging registers of pony hearing.

    Hearing the thumping of the music beyond, Rarity wondered just what she had gotten herself into. It wasn't at all what she was expecting when she had heard music festival. Still, it was on the world that brought the best fashion designers across the galaxy together, so she promised to giving it a try.

    Entering the stadium, they all look over what awaited them. Hundreds of thousands of asari were already waiting, with a few others from the other races dotted about, chatting, drinking, eating, all of them ready to have a good time. Together, their voices were a dull roar, barely heard over the music. They had never seen quite so many beings together at the same time.

    Eisha led them past the rest of the crowd, to a VIP area near and above the front with a perfect view of the stage. There were a few Matriarchs lingering around, not many but a few, with their retinues surrounding them and chatting excitedly. A few rich billionaires were among their number from every race, a trillionaire or two as well, and their groupies.

    Twilight and her group fit right in (even if Twilight didn't feel she did).

    It was a little quieter in the VIP area, but before they had a chance to speak to each other, everything went dark and the audience went quiet. Almost everyone had entered, and those who hadn't had made the bad choice to arrive late. It was time to start.

    "In the beginning, there was… The Party!" A feminine voice roared across the audience, laughing excitedly.

    A double flare of lights, striking in beat with drums that shook everyone to their core!

    Darkness again.

    "The Party saw the darkness, and it knew it couldn't last."

    A mile high hologram appeared, an anthropomorphized artistic rendition of "The Party", an Asari, made especially for Thessia.

    The crowd went wild, cheering!

    A beat emerged from the speakers, felt in everyone's chest.

    Nodding along, the hologram started to do the robot.

    "For the Party. Never. Stops!"

    The hologram disappeared, replaced by thousands of lights flaring off in time with music as it flared to life!

    The crowd started to undulate in time with it, until everything stopped, and the lights spotlight the center of the stage were two ponies stood, one pink, and one grey.

    "This is Smile!" The pink pony cried out, holding a microphone in one of her hooves. "Welcome to. Party!"

    She held the microphone over to the grey pony, who finished the festival name.

    "Rock." She said in the dullest term possible.

    "Part Rock! Let's get this staaaaaaaaaarted!"

    The beat dropped, and everyone went wild!

    Twilight stared at the stage, realizing that she'd just found Pinkie Pie.

    A thousand cannons with confetti fired into the crowd.

    23. Chapter Twenty-Two - Therum Heat

    Chapter Twenty-Two - Therum Heat

    SSV Normandy, Artemis Tau Cluster

    April 11, 2183

    The dark forest stretched up to the smoky sky, skeletal, eery, dangerous. Red lightning raced through the clouds, angry and vengeful.

    In the middle of a small clearing, surrounded on all sides by tall trees stood Riley. It took her a moment to gather her wits about her. Looking down, she found that she was dressed in her armor, but all of her weapons were missing. Something about this was familiar to her, but she couldn't put a finger on what it was.

    "Hello?" She called out, feeling completely at peace even as the oppressive feeling of death and decay surrounded her, pushing down on her.

    "You need to come with me, Shepard." Nihlus' voice echoed through the forest, seeming to come from both everywhere and nowhere at once.

    "Nhilus?" Riley spun, looking around the forest for Nihlus. "Nhilus? Where are you?"

    "Over here." The voice echoed from the left.

    Turning, Riley followed the sound of the voice, through the trees, up a hill, and over increasingly rocky terrain. Before she knew it, she had started to climb and found herself hanging from the side a sheer cliff face, desperately struggling to stay alive. Harsh winds struck at her, threatening to pull her right from the cliff face.

    "Nihlus! Help me!" Riley cried out.

    She was met with nothing but silence.

    Riley struggled to hold on, but slowly and surely, she started to climb again. There was no other choice.

    Even as she made progress though, thunder and lightning broke the sky, letting loose a flood of rain that soaked through her armor, plastering her hair to her scalp, freezing her to the bone. The cliff became slippery and icy, but somehow, Riley managed. There was no other choice.

    She climbed higher and higher, until she couldn't see the forest below her anymore, surrounded by the angry, roiling clouds.

    Nearing the top, Riley slipped, dangling by one hand, only barely managing to catch herself.

    "Help!" Riley called out, desperate.

    "There is no help for you."

    A deep voice rumbled out from above her, breaking the roiling clouds.

    A hand reached out and caught her just before she let go. It lifted her up effortlessly, holding her in the air by a single hand.

    "No one is coming to your aid. You are alone." Lifting her up higher, her savior revealed herself. A faceless figure, dressed immaculately, glaring at her.

    Riley struggled against the figure's grip, but it was a futile gesture. She could no more break free of him than a planet could choose to stop orbiting its sun.

    "The time has come at last for our plans to be set into motion." The figure held her up even higher, before dropping her and catching her by her neck. He started to squeeze. "A storm is gathering, to cleanse the galaxy of its filth, and you shall be our instrument."

    "Never!" Riley managed to choke out, struggling to breath.

    "You do not have a choice." The figure simply let go, and Riley fell.

    She fell, and she fell, and she fell.

    Screaming, Riley hit the surface of a freezing ocean, sinking deeper and deeper. She couldn't breathe.

    ###

    Riley woke, gasping for breath, struggling against her sheets. She wondered for a moment who was screaming, before realizing much to her embarrassment that it was her.

    It took her a moment, but she calmed when she realized where she was, slumping bonelessly back into her bed. Catching her breath, she glanced over at the only light source in the room, a gentle glowing holo-display that simply proclaimed the time as 3:40 AM.

    Riley tried to catch her breath, slowly coming to realize how soaked with sweat her bed was.

    Looking at the clock with a glare, she decided to roll out of bed, shedding her pajamas for a set of simple work out clothes. She wasn't going to be able to get anymore sleep. Might as well do something productive with her newfound time.

    As she left her room, a shiver ran down her spine. Just for a second, she felt the crushing weight of a cold ocean bearing down on her shoulders.

    ###

    Riley emerged from the freight elevator of the Normandy onto the hanger deck. She looked around and found much to her pleasure that it was just as empty as the crew deck was. Everyone was either asleep or on duty in the CIC. Thank Celestia for C-Shift.

    It was absolutely perfect. She didn't want company. Not right now.

    The sudden clink of dumb bells made her realize that her initial thought must have been wrong. Someone else was here. Not so perfect than.

    Stepping into the small workout room, Riley found Garrus setting his barbells back into their right place. He looked up when he heard her enter. He straightened, saluting in that strange Turian way.

    "Commander!" He relaxed after she saluted back.

    "Please, just call me Riley." She wasn't going to be alone, apparently, but there was worse company she could have when she was trying to be alone. "You're not Alliance military."

    "Alright then, Riley." Garrus nodded, perfectly alright with that.

    Getting on the treadmill, Riley started to run. There was nothing better to get horrific thoughts and memories out of her head than exercising to the point of exhaustion. Garrus joined her on the other.

    "I have to thank you, Riley." Garrus said.

    "What for?" She asked, shaking her head.

    "For bringing me on board." Garrus was silent for a moment, settling into a nice speed. "I knew working with a Spectre would be better than life at C-SEC. You don't have to deal with any of the red-tape that job so awful."

    "So, you joined my mission because you didn't want to do anymore paperwork?" Riley glanced at him, settling into a comfortable running speed.

    "I guess..." If Garrus could blush, he would. Instead, his mandibles flared and he looked away, a little embarrassed. "That would be yes."

    "At least you're honest about it." Riley shrugged. That was about the best she could hope for. Riley took a breath, moving the speed up on her treadmill. "Have you worked with a Spectre before?"

    "Well, no, but I know what they're like." Garrus took a deep breath, what passing for a Turian smile filling his face. "Spectres make their own rules. You're free to handle things your way. At C-Sec, you're buried by rules. The damn bureaucrats are always on your back."

    "Rules are usually there for a reason." She had dealt with naivety before. It had been awhile, but she knew she would have to beat that out of his head, and fast. "Stopping complete anarchy and civilization degrading into a mad wasteland. That type of thing."

    "Maybe. But sometimes it feels like the rules are the only thing there to stop me from doing my work. If I'm trying to take down a suspect, it shouldn't matter how I do it, as long as it gets done. But C-SEC wants it done their way. Protocol and procedure come first. That's why I left."

    "So you just quit because you didn't like the way they did things?" Riley resisted the urge to face palm.

    "Technically..." Garrus glanced over at her, waving his hand in a so-so manner. "I'm just on extended leave, and there's more to it than that. It didn't start out so bad, but as I rose the ranks I got saddled with more and more red tape. C-SECs handling of Saren was typical. I just couldn't take it anymore."

    "I hope you made the right choice. I'd hate for you to regret it later." Riley sped up her treadmill.

    "Well, that's sort of why I teamed up with you. It's a chance for me to get off the Citadel, see how things are done outside of C-SEC." Garrus sounded excited. "Either way, I plan to make the most of this. And without C-SEC headquarters looking over my shoulder, well, maybe I can get the job done for a change."

    "If getting the job done means endangering innocent people, then no. We get the job done right, not fast. Got it?" Riley made sure she made eye contact with him, wanting him to get her point.

    "I wasn't trying to..." Garrus did a little embarrassed look away, catching her point. "I mean… I… Yes, I understand, Commander."

    ###

    Rainbow Dash had been trying to get back to sleep for what felt like hours. Her wound was itching, the pod felt too cramped after several days of sleeping in the med bay under the watchful eye of Dr. Chakwas, she was too hot, and when she turned on the air conditioning inside her sleeper pod, she felt like she was freezing.

    It was time to admit it. She wasn't getting anymore sleep, and what little she had had was fitful and not very restful.

    "Ah, buck it," Rainbow muttered, scowling. Leaning over, she typed in the commands to raise the pod from its sleeping position. As it started to rise up, she used her wings to control her slide down to the bottom. The sound proof lid to the pod slid up and out of the way, letting her step out. Even as she jumped the small distance to the floor, Rainbow grumbled the entire way. "Stupid sleeping pod. Stupid body, won't let me get comfortable. Grr."

    Rainbow paused, realizing that she had said the 'grr'' aloud, quickly checking to make sure no one had seen her. Relived to find herself alone, she shook her head and checked her omni-tool.

    4:00 a.m. it blinked back. Way too early, even for a Pegasus like herself.

    Still, there was nothing she could do for it. Grumbling under her breath, she made the short trip to the kitchen to get breakfast.

    Taking the short flight of steps onto the main crew deck, she started tifling through the cabinets. As she did so, Rainbow stretched first one wing then the other, moaning a little as her muscles loosened up and her bones cracked. It was about as much a morning ritual as she had ever had.

    Finding a vegetarian MRE hidden at the back of the first box, she grabbed it with her teeth and brought it to the table. There would be a warm breakfast later in the day, but for now she was hungry and no one else was up, much less the cook.

    As she made the turn to go sit at one of the tables (the closest of course), she found herself bouncing to the floor after her muzzle ran right into someone's legs.

    Looking up, she found the new Quarian standing over her, looking down embarrassedly down at her. At least she took it as embarrassment. Rainbow couldn't actually tell because of the mask.

    "I'm sorry!" The Quarian stammered, "I didn't see you there. Are you hurt? Did I hurt you? Are you okay? Let me help you up."

    Without any thoughts or propriety or further embarrassment, the Quarian picked Rainbow up by her barrel, jerking, as if surprised at how light the Pegasus was. She shook it off quickly though, setting Rainbow on all four of her hooves.

    "Who are you?" Rainbow asked, deciding to ignore the indignity of what just happened and pretend the last few seconds never occurred. The blush on her cheeks let her know that she wasn't fully successful.

    "My name is Tali," the Quarian said, nodding her head as if in affirmation. "Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. Captain Shepard brought me onboard to help search for Saren. I promise that I'm not spying. I'm here to help."

    "Okay..." Rainbow just raised an eyebrow. "Sure."

    Not quite sure what to make of her rambling, Rainbow stepped around Tali and trotted over to the table. Tali just stood there, not quite sure whether she had been brushed off or not.

    Sitting down, Rainbow looked back at her. "Are you going to get something to eat, or are you just wandering the ship at four in the morning?"

    Tali shuffled on her feet for a moment before going to the cupboards. It took her a minute, but she finally found a box of turian rations, sealed and purified. Thankful, she took it and brought it over to the table, sitting down across from Rainbow.

    Starting their meals, they both quietly sat there, not quite sure what to do with the other. The only sound was the crinkling of plastic containers as they both struggled to open their breakfast.

    "It's Commander," Rainbow finally said after the silence grew unbearably long.

    "I'm sorry?" Tali tilted her head a little, missing what Rainbow was saying.

    "Shepard is a Commander, not a Captain." Rainbow explained, taking a bite of the blandest tofu she had ever eaten. The Systems Alliance didn't make their rations with flavor or enjoyment in mind, and definitely not for a herbivore species. She made a mental note to stock up on some palatable food when the next time she had a chance.

    "I don't understand." Tali gave up wrestling with her own rations for a moment. "She is in control of the Normandy, isn't she?"

    "Yeah." Rainbow nodded, swallowing down another dull bite.

    "Then that makes her the Captain." The way Tali said it made it sound like it was the most obvious thing in the galaxy.

    "No. She's got another rank to go before she'll be Captain." Gesturing with her hoof, Rainbow shrugged. "It's a military thing."

    "Oh…"

    Rainbow took another bite of her meal. "You're up kind of early. You know you don't need to be up for like… another few hours."

    "I couldn't sleep." Tali ducked her head, more than a little embarrassed.

    "Huh…" Rainbow could relate to that. She was having the same problem after all. "Why not?"

    "This ship…" Tali hunched her shoulders ever so slightly, drawing into herself. "It's too quiet."

    "Too quiet?" Rainbow raised an eyebrow, wondering if she was being serious or not. She scowled, glancing off towards the sleeper pods. "Are you kidding? I had to dial up the sound proofing on my sleeping pod before I could even fall asleep. It's way too loud."

    "Too loud?" Tali almost sounded outraged at that. "Are you joking with me?"

    "Uh... No?" Rainbow leaned back a little, surprised at Tali's depth of feeling over the matter.

    "Back on the Flotilla, if a ship was this quiet, it would mean that something had gone horribly wrong and we were probably all about to die." Tali's voice was full of emotion, and it wasn't too hard to figure that she was speaking of things she had actually experienced. "It's unsettling. Unnatural."

    "Yeah, okay…" Rainbow didn't feel like saying much of anything else.

    "This ship is amazing, though." As if she realized how crazy she had sounded just a moment ago, Tali tactfully switched the conversation. "I've never seen a drive core like that one before. I can't believe you were able to fit it into a ship this small! And don't even get me started on the Equestrian cooling crystals."

    "Well, I didn't put it in myself. The Normandy's a prototype." The Normandy was indeed a marvel of engineering, but Rainbow preferred her own wings to sitting still inside of a machine that moved faster than her. It seemed unnatural to the Pegasus.

    "I'm starting to understand why the humans have been so successful. I had no idea Alliance vessels were so advanced." There were practically stars in Tali's eyes.

    "Yeah, well, you should see an Equestrian built one!" She might not like spaceships, but she still had pride in her homeworld after all.

    "I would love too!" Tali leaned forward, practically bouncing in her seat. "I've heard rumors of how beautiful they are, but I would give anything to crawl through an engine."

    "Crawl through an engine? That's definitely commitment." A commitment that Rainbow would never indulge in.

    Tali sighed, her happiness over her situation crashing down over her. "A month ago, I was patching a makeshift fuel line into a converted tug ship in the flotilla. Now, I'm sitting on board one of the most advanced vessels in Citadel space."

    "I'm sorry," Tali paused, realizing that she didn't get Rainbow's name. "I didn't get your name."

    "I'm Rainbow Dash." She stuck out her hoof for Tali to shake. "Fastest pegasus ever born, and youngest Wonderbolt ever recruited."

    Tali blinked at the Pegasus' ego, but took her hoof with her three-fingered hand anyway, giving it a firm shake. "It's good to meet you."

    "Hey, likewise." Rainbow took a big bite of her food, smiling around it and generally being pretty oblivious about how that looked.

    ###

    Covering a large yawn with his fist, Joker hobbled down the neck of the Normandy to the bridge, leaning heavily on his cane. Somewhere behind him, Spitfire was trailing after him, balancing two large cups of coffee on her wings, one for her and one for him.

    "Alright, boys and girls, we've got it from here," Joker said, his voice an octave deeper than normal from too little sleep.

    In the seats, the two c-shift pilots relinquished the controls, standing out of the chairs and getting out of the way.

    "And hey, look at that!" Joker muttered to himself as the two pilots walked the way they came from. "They didn't crash my ship."

    Stopping, one of the pilots turned to face Joker, standing a good foot over the other man, a deep scowl set on his face. "What a surprise, I'm not breaking every bone in your body."

    "Knock it off." Spitfire spoke up, falling back into her drill instructor days. She narrowed her eyes at the two. "Joker, keep your more wonderful tendencies to yourself. You, get off my bridge."

    Both Joker and the C-Shift pilot held up their hands, not wanting to piss off the suddenly much more dangerous looking Pegasus. A tense second passed, and then it was over. The two C-Shift pilots left the bridge, and Joker and Spitfire took their seats.

    Joker did a cursory run over of the crewman's flight report, a scowl on his face. He got into the grove of things, pressing the button that got his seat back into all of his prefigurations.

    "Bunch of jackasses," he murmured, only half pleased by what he was seeing. He could have done it better.

    "You don't help any." Spitfire shot back at him, not even bothering to look at him.

    "Yeah, well, they mess up my chair." He knew he didn't have a leg to stand on (sometimes literally), but he was angry anyway.

    Pressing another button on his console, Joker shifted the entire ship into day watch lighting, and activated the comms. "Crew of the Normandy, be advised that it is now 7:00am. C-Watch is relieved. A-Watch will now take their positions. Commander Shepard, we're approaching Therum. We'll be entering the atmosphere within the hour."

    "I've got a good feeling about this one." Joker looks over at Spitfire, who had just finished resetting her seat to her specifications. She didn't have to do much, being the only one on the ship who could use her ship (as Rainbow Dash wasn't a pilot).

    "Hmm?" Spitfire didn't actually catch his question, distracted.

    "I've got a good feeling." He repeated.

    "You see," Spitfire said, scowling. "That right there… That's what's going to screw us over."

    "What?" Glancing at her, Joker frowned. "All I said was that I had a good feeling."

    "Yeah, and how often does the universe pander to your expectations?"

    " Yeah, well, shut up."

    "Of course." Spitfire rolled her eyes, turning back to her work. It had become a common part of her job to wrangle Joker and his various moods.

    "Ground team, grab your kit and meet in the hanger in thirty." Commander Shepard's voice rang through the ship through the intercoms.

    "God…" A wry look passed over Joker's face, and a little laugh passed through his lips. "I'm not going to be getting that thought out of my head."

    "What?" Spitfire wasn't sure whether she wanted to or not.

    "The Commander in her armor." He rolled his head to look at her, grinning. He waved his hands in an hourglass shape. "All the right curves in all the right places."

    "Real classy there, Joker." Spitfire snorted, shaking her head.

    ###

    Riley couldn't have been happier as she finished putting on her armor. It was one of the first times she was going to be using it in actual combat, and she was still having to get used to how light it felt, and the way it moved. Like her old armor, it had the red and white stripe, but instead of the N7 insignia, the Spectre badge sat above her right breast.

    "That's some expensive armor you have there, Shepard."

    Riley glanced back to see Wrex finishing what passed as a 'breakfast' for a Krogan, sitting on a pile of crates. For anyone else, it would mean eating five helpings of what passed as eggs and sausage from the kitchen, chasing it down with a gallon and a half of powdered orange juice.

    "The perks of Spectrehood…" She tilted her head, staring at Wrex in awe. "How in Tartarus are you eating all of that?"

    "Simple. Like this." Lifting up his last plate, he simply poured it into his mouth and swallowed without chewing. "I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing that."

    "Heh." Laughing, Wrex stood. He grabbed his guns from the pallet below him and attached them to the mag-points on his armor. He plodded over and leaned against the Mako, which shifted ever so slightly under his weight. "I'm ready. Where are the rest of you?"

    "You sleep in your armor. Of course you're ready." Riley rolled her eyes, pulling out and looking over her sniper rifle.

    "It's not my fault the rest of you ever decide to get out of the only thing that makes it so you aren't all walking fleshy meat-bags." He said it so matter of factly that Riley had no choice but to be impressed by his bull headedness.

    "You are… incredibly charming." Shaking her head, she collapsed her sniper rifle and placed it onto the mag clamp on her back.

    "Not surprised you think that, Shepard." He grinned at her, an unsettling look. "It's my snappy wit."

    Thankfully, the elevator arriving keeps the two of them from continuing that conversation.

    Riley looked over, a little desperately, hoping to see someone that could get her out of the entire conversation. Thankfully, it turned out that Tali and Rainbow were there, Rainbow's ears flicked back as she listened to the Quarian yammer on about the Normandy.

    The two sisters brightened when they saw each other. At that moment, they were both hoping the exact same thing, that the other would get them out of their conversation.

    "Thank Celestia!" Riley muttered to herself.

    "What, you don't like talking to Wrex?" Wrex asked, speaking of himself in the third person.

    "Rainbow. Miss Zorah." Riley just pretended she didn't hear that and walked forward to greet the two of them. "Glad you could join us."

    Tali ducked her head at her name. "Please, call me Tali."

    "Of course, Tali." Nodding in understanding, Riley smiled.

    Rainbow just scampered on over to the Mako, standing on the other side of Wrex, using him as a barrier between her and Tali.

    "That elevator is slower than mom in the morning," she grumbled, the levels of her grumpiness rising.

    Riley just rolled her eyes, shifting her helmet to under her other arm.

    "I could take a look at it after we get back." Tali offered, wringing her hands together.

    "If you want to." Shrugging, Riley didn't try to push anything onto the young Quarian. "It's not part of your job."

    "It wouldn't be a problem." Tali did her best to reassure them.

    "Alright." Shrugging, Riley turned away.

    The elevator arrived again, having gone back up for more. Garrus, Kaidan, and Ashley exited this time, joining the rest of them by the Mako.

    It was time for a briefing.

    "Alright. This is where we're at." Riley stared at her team, who had formed a semi-circle around them. "We are currently arriving in orbit above Therum. Our mission is to retrieve Dr. Liara T'Soni and figure out what she knows about her mother's actions."

    "Question, ma'am?" Ashley asked, raising an eyebrow.

    "Aggressively, if necessary." Riley pursed her lips. It wasn't something she liked, but it was necessary. It was in her job description after all. "We do not know where she stands with the Matriarch. What she knows might be the key in capturing Benezia."

    She leveled her gaze on them. "If she is combative, non-lethal options only, but I'm not afraid to have to carry her back to the ship."

    "Any info on her combat skills?" Garrus asked, wondering just how hard this supposedly simple mission was going to turn into. Asari with a firm grasp on their biotics were not someone you'd want to mess around with. When you were unsure of their loyalties, that just made things a whole lot more tense then they had to be.

    "She's an archeologist, but she spent several decades being personally tutored by her mother's commandos." Riley had spent the last few days pouring over what Citadel intelligence had managed to gather about Liara T'Soni. "Expect her to be highly trained, and we'll be happily disappointed if she isn't."

    "Are you expecting a fight, ma'am?" Ashley twitched her fingers over the butt of her pistol.

    "I'm not expecting anything. We're walking into this pretty blind. We don't know anything about the situation on the ground. Communication with Therum is spotty at best, and the only real intel is from the Alliance cruiser that drops by every few months for a resupply to the colony near the north pole." As an N7 Operator, Riley had worked with worse. Not often, but she'd worked with worse. "T'Soni's dig site is about as far away from there that you can get, and information is even spottier. Her team only shows up every six months, and she's nearly never with them. Citadel Analysts have drawn up a psych profile on her."

    "She's a nervous little girl who is shy to the extreme and too smart for her own good, and prefers to keep to herself after being burned too often." Finishing, Wrex leaned back and crossed his arms.

    Everyone just stared at him, silence falling over the hanger.

    " Pretty much, yeah." Riley nodded.

    Moving right along.

    "It's too hot for Normandy to make a landing, not that there's a stable surface large enough to accommodate her anyway. We're going to be doing a mako drop."

    Collectively, Ashley, Kaidan, and Garrus groaned. Wrex simply didn't care. Tali had no idea what a mako drop was and she raised a hand.

    "Commander?" Tali asked.

    "You don't need to raise your hand, Tali," Riley said, a small laugh escaping her lips.

    "What's a mako drop?" Tali lowered her hand.

    "We all pile into this tin can and strap ourselves in." Ashley sighed and patted the mako behind them. She then pointed at the hanger door behind them. "Joker opens the hanger door and does a flyby of the landing zone. The Commander drives right out of the hanger, and we drop."

    "Oh…" If she wasn't wearing a mask, it would have been very obvious that she had gone completely pale.

    She suddenly didn't look so sure of her place aboard the Normandy.

    "Don't worry, Tali." Riley did her best to reassure the girl. "This is standard procedure. We do it all the time."

    " Turians too." Garrus shook his head, crossing his arms. "Regrettably. And mandatorily."

    "You're all a bunch of scaredy cats." Rainbow snorted, all too amused at her land bound comrades. "I could do this in my sleep without the ship, or the mako!"

    "Don't tempt me." Riley eyed her, unimpressed. "I'll make you do it, just to see it."

    Rainbow rolled her eyes and busied herself with fitting her helmet on instead. No sense in tempting her older sister any further.

    [i]"Hitting the drop point in two minutes, Commander."[/i] Joker's voice rang through the Normandy's intercom in the hanger.

    "Roger that Joker." Riley said, activating her omni-tool comms. "Alright. You heard the man. Everyone in the death brick."

    "Death brick?" Tali's voice cracked, and she stared at the mako with much more trepidation.

    "Don't ask." Kaidan shook his head, sighing before he pulled his own helmet on.

    Garrus hit the opening button for the mako and they all clambered inside. Wrex, Kaidan, Ashley, Garrus, Rainbow, Tali, and Riley all in such a tight place made for a tight squeeze, just barely under the limit for how many the tank/troop carrier could hold. Maybe.

    Possibly.

    No sense in telling Tali that.

    "Cozy." Wrex wiggled in his too small seat, trying and failing to get comfortable while adjusting the straps across his bulk.

    In the driver's seat, Riley started the engines. Next to her, Kaidan shut the rear entrance hatch with the press of a button, sealing the mako and pressurizing the atmosphere.

    "We are good to go, ma'am." Kaidan said, checking over his monitors. "All lights are green, and jump jets are good."

    "Good work, Lt." Nodding, Riley glanced over her shoulder and looked at Ashley. "Williams, you take the gun. I'm not expecting any resistance, but just in case let's not let anyone catch us with our pants down, flapping in the breeze."

    "Aye aye, ma'am." Ashley pulled a slim, mechanical arm down from in-between her seat and Tali's, unfolding it until a small bar sat suspended in front of her. A holographic display and haptic interface appeared before her, projected from the bar, slaving themselves to her suits sensors and helmet's heads up display. "Good to go."

    "Get ready to jump," Joker's voice rang in the mako. "In five… four… three… two… one… drop!"

    A short acceleration of the mako, and they're in free fall.

    Tali simply shrieked as her stomach dropped from under her, grabbing onto her harness like her life depended on it, which to her, it very well might have seemed that way. She didn't notice that no one else shared her panic, though they all looked uncomfortable, shifting in their seats.

    Wrex looked like he could take a nap.

    Or eat lunch.

    Or both. He wasn't picky.

    "Brace yourselves." Riley said, as calm as anyone could be. "Hitting jump jets… now."

    The massive acceleration downwards halted, just for a moment giving a sense of weightlessness before it was replaced by a much more gradual descent.

    Tali's scream slowly petered out until it died, just as the wheels gently touched down on the ground.

    "And we're down." Riley turned in her seat and made a bow. "Welcome to Therum everyone. It is currently a balmy fifty-nine degrees celsius, or 138 degrees fahrenheit for you heathens from North America."

    Riley started driving, even as Ashley leaned forward what little she could in her harness.

    "I resent that, ma'am!" Ashley called out.

    "Resent it all you want, you're still wrong." Riley shook her head, taking the mako over a short hill.

    "You can respectfully bite my ass, ma'am." Ashley shot back.

    "Don't make me drive this brick into the lava, Chief." An empty threat, but it never hurt to try and strike the fear of god into her subordinates. "I will. You don't want to test me."

    "I'm hot enough already, ma'am. I'm not greedy."

    "Sure!" Rainbow just snorted, laughing behind her helmet. She ignored what she assumed was the glare that Ashley sent her.

    "Cut the chatter." Shouting, Riley dimmed the interior lights. "I'm reading surface contacts. Williams, be on alert."

    Her seriousness cut right through the humor, and they all fell back onto their professionalism.

    Tali still had a death grip on her harness from before the fall. "Oh Keelah, I think I'm going to be sick. To all the ancestors and any other bosh'tets out there who might be listening, I swear that I will never jump out of another perfectly good spaceship my entire life. Just let me survive this."

    "As the new kid on the block, Tali," Riley called over her shoulder, trying to be as comfortable as possible. "You're going to be in the safest place of all, right in the back. You stick behind Wrex at all times, use him as a bullet sponge if you need to."

    "That is possibly the most degrading job I've ever been given." Wrex rumbled, wondering whether or not anyone was even going to be listening to him.

    "I can do that." Tali breathed out, relieved.

    "Good!" Riley nodded, focussing on her driving, while also speaking over her shoulder to a Quarian who had never received any actual training for military operations. "We don't have time to train you on squad tactics, but stick to Wrex like a rather cute and shapely parasite. Normally, we wouldn't do something like this, taking a civilian into a potential combat zone, but there simply isn't anything for it. You're a quarian, and as such, you have the best chance of getting us through whatever the prothean ruins might throw at us. We can't be held up a computer problem, especially if we're being shot at."

    "I-I can do that." Tali nodded again, even though Riley couldn't see her.

    "Good."

    They rounded a corner in a mako.

    "Geth!" Kaidan shouted, hitting the jump jets to avoid the sudden flurry of shots from two Geth armatures, protecting the pass to the ruins.

    "I see them," Ashley said as calmly as she could be.

    Using the controls in front of her seat, Ashley took control of the top cannon and FIRED!

    One of the two geth armatures was knocked off balance, falling backwards, trying futilely to get its balance back, into a slowly encroaching river of lava.

    "One down." Riley said, narrowing her eyes.

    Before Ashley had the chance to take another shot, Riley RAMMED the front of the mako into the second armature. It crumpled underneath the tank's wheels and Riley just kept on driving, crushing it underneath its wheels.

    "And that," Riley said turning in her seat to look over her shoulder at her team. "Ladies, gentleman, assorted aliens, and pony, is how you do it."

    "You do know that you're going to have to realign all of the axles after that little stunt, right?" Garrus asked, more than a little incredulously. "They weren't made for running over machines."

    "And it sounds like you just volunteered!" Riley sounded far too happy for the amount of work that she just foisted on the poor, unwitting Turian.

    "Wait, what?" Garrus blinked.

    "Yeah, I heard it too." Wrex nodded in sympathy with Garrus.

    "Congratulations, Garrus. You're in charge of Mako maintenance." Riley continued driving, ignoring the surprise behind her.

    Garrus blinked, scowling, then slouched down ever so slightly.

    "She does that." Rainbow told him, nodding in sympathy.

    "And you're helping him, Rainbow." Riley called over her shoulder.

    "Dammit." Rainbow followed Garrus in slouching in her seat.

    Ashley opened up with the turret again, at a grouping of geth platforms in the distance. The tank round knocked them down like bowling pins, tearing the smaller ones to scrap metal and just forcing the larger ones to the ground.

    "I think I can now safely say that this has been upgraded to a combat situation." Riley just kept right on driving, ignoring the geth.

    "I think we got that." Kaidan chimed in.

    "Are you sassing me, Alenko?" Riley just gave him a side glance.

    "No, ma'am." Kaidan shook his head.

    "Cause it sounds like you're sassing me, Lt." Riley glanced at him. "Are you sassing me?"

    "I would never dream of doing that, ma'am." Kaidan nodded, bitting his lower lip.

    "Yeah…" Narrowing her eyes, she glared at him. "Do you want me to give you Garrus' job?"

    "I already have a job. I'm not qualified on repair." He shook his head.

    "All excellent reasons to keep in mind if you want to keep sassing it up in here." The mako bounced, the shocks not good enough to fully buffer the cabin.

    "Yes, ma'am." Laughing, Kaidan nodded.

    Riley sent the Mako flying over a small hill, hitting the jump jets to leap over a cliff wall. They landed on the other side, tires squealing for a moment before catching the ground and going on.

    "The dig site is just ahead," Kaidan said, looking over the map.

    Sure enough, through the front view-screens of the Mako, signs of the archeology team are everywhere. Pallets of supplies, vehicles, habitation, everything you'd need to support a long term team living far away from civilization. The camp was deserted, and all of its supplies upended and searched through.

    Their forward progress was halted by a cliff face with a narrow opening, and there was no other choice but for Riley to bring the Mako to a complete stop.

    "It's through there?" Kaidan asked,

    "Yep." Nodding, she unbuckled her harness. Riley stood and turned to face her team. "It looks like we're walk from here. Helmets on people. I don't want anyone whining of heat exhaustion, so keep your air conditioning on and drink plenty of fluids."

    Kaidan, Ashley, Wrex, and Garrus sealed their helmets. Riley, Rainbow, and of course Tali already had them on and sealed.

    Riley opened the back of the tank, and a wave of heat came rolling into the mako. Thankfully, they barely even felt it thanks to their armor. They all piled out, Tali coming out last and sticking behind Wrex, just like she had been told.

    Taking the lead, Riley stepped through the thin opening in the cliff face. Her team followed behind her, and she could hear Wrex grumbling to himself as he struggled through the narrow opening.

    "Keep your eyes open." Riley murmured. "This is the perfect place for an ambush."

    Affirmative confirmation lights blink in her helmet from Kaidan, Ashley, Rainbow, and Garrus.

    "The ambush will be up ahead." Wrex said, unfolding his shotgun.

    "I agree, but keep a look out anyways. Keep radio silence for now." Together, they continued forward, and they were on the look out for any attack… not that they'd see any coming.

    The enemy was the geth. They could hide anywhere, and they can wait perfectly still. In all likelihood, they won't even see their attackers before it happens.

    The attack didn't come, not right away, and it grated on everyones nerves even if they didn't show it. They are wondering just what is happening.

    The narrow pass opened up into a small twisting valley that led to the dig sit above.

    The moment they emerged out, they were met by a hail of coordinated gunfire.

    "Fall back!" Riley called out, laying down a cover of gunfire from her assault rifle. "Get into cover!"

    They did so, using small outcroppings of rock to get themselves out of the geth firing lines.

    "Alenko, use your biotics." Riley ordered, firing blindly. "Push them back, make an opening!"

    "Aye aye, ma'am."

    Popping out of cover, Kaidan threw a singularity at a large gathering of geth. Riley followed him, popping up as well, throwing a singularity of her own at a smaller group.

    The next few moments were a confused and violent and deadly. Tali cowered behind Wrex, following him wherever he went as she typed furiously on her omni-tool. In what felt like no time at all, she had managed to hack part of the geth's network, inserting a virus of her own making.

    As she had hoped, the geth started to open fire on each other, IFF tags switched and disabled.

    In the confusion, Riley and her team managed to sweep up the last remaining stragglers.

    Stepping over the body of one of the geth, Riley looked at the camp that had been set up just beyond. It didn't belong to dig site, and that was obvious just by looking at it. It wasn't permanent. It was designed to be set up quickly and only last for a short stay. No long term hauls here.

    "What's wrong with this picture?" Riley asked over her shoulder.

    Everyone stopped, focusing on the camp, trying to see what Riley was talking about. When they didn't get it fast enough, Riley spoke up.

    "Why have the geth set up a camp?" She pointed at the two tents and the small stack of boxes. "Why do the geth need food? Why do they need water?"

    "The geth aren't working on their own." Garrus caught it first. He would have got it if he wasn't so distracted. He was C-Sec Detective after all, and he was good. Very good.

    "Exactly." Riley stepped forward, keeping a careful eye out for any booby-traps. "The question is, who would help the geth?"

    "It's Krogan." Wrex rumbled, already knowing the answer. "One, maybe two."

    Riley nodded in agreement. "Keep your eyes sharp, people. There are going to be more ambushes ahead."

    "How do you know that?" Tali asked, wondering just what they were seeing.

    "It's what I'd do if I knew a heavily armored squad was coming to try and take my objective." Riley shrugged, before continuing on.

    Together, they moved forward, though much more slowly and cautiously than before.

    24. Chapter Twenty-Three

    Chapter Twenty-Three - The Party of the Century

    Armali Republic, Thessia, Parnitha System

    April 12, 2183

    When Twilight woke, it felt like a railroad spike was being driven through her brain, starting just behind her eyes. It was quite possibly the worst headache that she had ever experienced, on a whole other order of magnitude compared to the few others she had suffered in her life. If she had had the mental capacity at the moment to form such a thought, she would have made the decision that she would lead a happy life if she never had to experience such a thing again. That would come later however, when the hangover from the night before disappeared and she had managed to drink nearly two gallons of water.

    As the pain of the headache began to dull just a bit, enough for her to start to think, Twilight realized that her back was in the middle of kicking her about with a killer cramp to match the throbbing.

    Groaning, she tried to stretch the cramp out.

    Twilight quickly found that she couldn't.

    "What…" Speaking, Twilight found that her mouth tasted like ash, and the distinct taste of vomit still lingered on her tongue. A thoroughly unpleasant thing to wake up to, she decided.

    Instead of stretching, Twilight tried to sit up this time, but once again found that she couldn't move.

    Groaning, she strained, trying to break free from whatever was holding her hostage.

    It didn't work. She didn't move so much as an inch.

    Twilight was so stunned by her predicament that she couldn't do anything for nearly a full minute. She forget about her headache, and doing her best to ignore the foul taste in her mouth, she called out, "Help!"

    A second passed, and then a furtive, "Hello?" answered her.

    "Tiny Berry?" Twilight thought she recognized the voice, but she wasn't sure. Her head still hurt too much for deep and pondering thoughts.

    "Twilight? Is that you?" The voice that was probably Tiny Berry asked.

    "Tiny Berry, help!" Twilight cried, on the verge of falling into a panic attack. Only the fact that she appeared to be near familiar and friendly ponies kept her from going over the edge. "I'm stuck, and I don't know where I am."

    A moment passed, enough time for Twilight to start to wonder what was going on, but then much to her relief, Tiny Berry's head appeared above her. The small pony giggled at the sight she saw in front of her.

    "What are you doing in there?" Tiny Berry asked, giggling the entire time.

    "What?" Scowling, Twilight's question was more of a veiled demand. "Where am I?"

    "My mixing bowl!" She clapped her hooves together, an excited (and if Twilight was honest, slightly terrifying) look on her face. "I could bake you into a Twilight cake."

    "As wonderful as that cake would surely be, I don't think my marefriend would appreciate that." The deeper, gravelly voice of Gilda was a welcomed relief after the confusion that came from Twilight waking up with only Tiny Berry to help her.

    Tiny Berry turned and waved to Gilda, who was still maddeningly out of Twilight's view. "Hey, Gilda!"

    "Help me get her out of there." Gilda didn't sound at all worried, which helped Twilight start to calm down from own instincts cry to panic. "Grab the other side of the bowl. Make sure it doesn't fall too hard."

    Before Twilight had a chance to process any of that, the mixing bowl she had made her bed tipped over, bouncing against the floor in a way that sent tremors through her entire body. She found herself with a wonderful view of the kitchen floor, and now she could only see Gilda's and Tiny Berry's feet.

    "Wait, what?" Twilight murmured, and she shook her head as much as she was able to, everything still bouncing around inside her brain.

    All of a sudden, Gilda's talons were coming right at her and Twilight squeaked in surprise. Grabbing her forelegs, Gilda pulled Twilight out of the mixing bowl, the unicorn's body resisting for a moment before giving in with a pop.

    "Oof!" Tumbling out of the bowl, Twilight lay sprawled out on the ground. She looked around, dazed, before catching Gilda's eyes. "What was I doing in a mixing bowl?"

    "You got really drunk last night." Gilda lifted her mare friend up onto all four of her hooves, using the stump of one of her wings to steady the unicorn. "I had to carry you back to the ship, and when I tried to get you back into bed you ran away and climbed in that. We tried to coax you out for an hour, but we finally just decided to leave you. It was easier."

    "I don't remember..." Twilight groaned, her back cracking as she stretched.

    "Yeah. That's not really a surprise." Gilda snorted, shaking her head. "You kind of were out of it once you had your second... Whatever the hell it was. Some weird Asari drink. I don't remember it's name. I think you ended up crowdsurfing at one point. I don't really remember. It's all really fuzzy."

    Tiny Berry started humming as she started making breakfast in the background, having completely moved on from the conversation.

    "I remember..." Twilight scrunched up her muzzle, trying to access memories that very well might not be there anymore. The dangers of alcohol... she'd have to write a paper for Celestia. On second thought, maybe not... "Pink…"

    "Oh Celestia!" Her eyes widened as she remembered, clapping a hoof to her forehead. "We found Pinkie Pie!"

    ###

    On a different floor of the ship, Sweetie Belle woke up much more pleasantly than Twilight did. Cracking a wide yawn, she stretched all of her legs out and shuffled out from under her seats before rolling out of bed, landing on the floor with a hard OMPH. She took a moment to gather herself together, throwing on a simple hoody and skirt, much like she had seen Gilda wearing a few days earlier, before trotting to the door and stepping outside.

    The hallway was still dimly lit, on nighttime lighting, but a quick check of her omni-tool confirmed that it was indeed nearly nine in the morning.

    Sweetie Belle made the short trip across the hall to Rarity's room, humming the entire way and skipping along in time with the beat. She knocked on the door, but didn't hear anything in response.

    "Rarity?" Sweetie Belle asked, after a moment passed.

    Still nothing.

    Frowning, Sweetie Belle pushed her way into the room, finding the door still cracked open. She nudged it open the rest of the way with her hoof, stepping inside.

    The room was nearly pitch black, especially compared to the hallway outside. Sweetie Belle used the touchpad next to the door to turn on the lights, eager to greet her sister (though admittedly a large part of her was more eager to annoy her) and then get breakfast.

    A chorus of groans from under the covers made Sweetie Belle tilt her head in confusion. "Rarity? Are you up?"

    "Sweetie..." Rarity broke into a coughing fit, though she still didn't emerge from underneath the covers. "Sweetie Belle? What are you doing up at this unholy hour? Go back to bed."

    Little sisters are good at two things, being cute, and using that cuteness to reign down hell on their older siblings. Rarity was hidden under some suspiciously lumpy covers, and Sweetie Belle was finding herself growing more and more curious.

    "It's nine." Sweetie Belle shot back. Rarity usually liked to wake up at six, to get an early start on the day.

    "What?" Rarity sounded confused. Tired and confused. And hungover. Tired, confused, and hungover. Never a good combination. It tended to make the unicorn grumpy.

    "It's breakfast time." Edging closer to the bed, Sweetie Belle decided that there were far too many lumps under the covers to be just Rarity under there.

    "Oh…" It didn't sound like she fully understood what Sweetie Belle had said.

    The covers shifted just enough for Rarity to peek out and glance at the bedside clock. Indeed, it read 9:01 A.M. "So it is."

    There was more moaning from under the sheets, too much to have come from just Rarity.

    "What..." Sweetie Belle stepped even closer, until she was almost touching the bed with her nose. "Rarity? What's going on?"

    Rarity popped her head up from under the covers, her mane a mess and her eyes blurry, a sheepish smile on her muzzle. She blushed, the red distinct against her snow white fur, glancing back under the covers. "Um... Sweetie Belle."

    "My head…"

    Sweetie Belle squeaked in surprise and jumped back, eyes wide, as an Asari sat up in bed, the covers falling off her to reveal that she was completely naked, tits out.

    Rarity could do nothing but blush, sinking down into her bed.

    She blushed even harder as a second Asari sat up, just as naked as the first one.

    "I need something to eat."

    Sweetie Belle just backed out of the room, deciding that she had had enough of whatever it was her sister was getting into.

    "Oh dear…" Rarity shook her head as the door closed behind Sweetie Belle.

    "Mmm..." One of the Asari wrapped an arm around Rarity's shoulder, pulling her close. "I think I could do with a snack before breakfast."

    "Oh my!" Thoughts of her embarrassment and her sister began to flee from her mind, as the Asari pulled her back under the covers.

    As the moans inside Rarity's room started to get louder, Sweetie Belle continued backing down the hallway. She shook her head, promising to herself to forget everything she's just seen.

    "Hey Sweetie Belle."

    Sweetie Belle jumped, squeaking in surprise, startled. She turned to find Spike exiting his own room, his scales shining after a good wash.

    "Is Rarity awake yet?" He asked, bright eyed and bushy tailed, metaphorically speaking.

    "Uh..." Sweetie Belle blinked, staring at Spike. "Yes! I mean no... I've got to go."

    Before he could ask anything, Sweetie Belle ran away, leaving a very confused Spike standing in the hallway staring after her.

    "Huh..." He blinked, shaking his head. "Okay…"

    Spike lingered there for a moment before shrugging and walking away towards the kitchen. It was early and this baby dragon needed breakfast.

    ###

    Spike entered the dining room to find that Twilight and Gilda were already there. They hadn't been in their room when he had gone to check on them, and he was glad that his suspicions were correct. As he waddled over to sit down next to them, Gilda placed a mug of steaming tea in front of Twilight, who looked like death warmed over.

    A table over, Honey Dawn and her small herd sat eating a light breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries, murmuring quietly amongst themselves.

    "Jeez, Twilight, what happened to you?" Spike asked, settling into his place opposite Twilight.

    "She slept in a mixing bowl all night." Gilda couldn't keep the laugh from her voice, though she was careful in rubbing Twilight's back as comfortingly as she could.

    "Why'd you do that?" Tilting his head, Spike wondered not for the first time what it was that made adults so strange.

    "I don't want to talk about it." Twilight just groaned, dropping her head against the table, though she immediately regretted that decision.

    "Whatever." Spike shrugged, not at all affected by that. He shared a look with Gilda, whose shoulders shook silently in laughter.

    At that moment, Tiny Berry entered the room, coming bearing food and drinks carefully balanced on her back, at least for Twilight and Gilda. Spike realized that he hadn't been there for when they had placed their orders.

    "Waffles!" Twilight cried out as Tiny Berry slid a plate in front of her. She was about to act very unladylike and just scarf them down, but she managed to restrain herself, instead smiling at Tiny Berry. She was the Celestial Emissary after all, and that meant she had a certain dignity she should uphold. Coughing, she straightened in her seat, smiling at the little pony. "Thank you, Tiny Berry."

    "You're welcome!" Tiny Berry bounced away, leaving the three of them alone after she set Gilda's plate in front of her.

    Twilight kept up a careful smile until Tiny Berry disappeared back into the kitchen. As soon as the doors stopped swinging, Twilight gave up all pretenses and started scarfing down her waffles. Gilda and Spike watched her devour them in less than a minute, amazed.

    "Gods…" Gilda blinked as her mare friend licked her plate clean. "Twilight, did you even take a breath doing that?"

    "Doing what?" Twilight asked, sitting up, her muzzle smeared with whipped cream and bits of chewed strawberry.

    "… Never mind." Gilda started on her own plate of eggs and a muffin, though at a much more sedate pace.

    "Okay." Shrugging, Twilight downed her glass of water. As soon as she set it back down on the table, she nodded. "Alright, we've got some work to do."

    "With what?" Gilda remembered that it wasn't polite to talk with her beak full, instead waiting to ask the question until after she swallowed.

    "With Pinkie Pie!" Stomping a hoof on the table for emphasis, Twilight grinned. "We found her."

    "Yeah, we established that already." Using her muffin, Gilda scrapped some of her eggs off the plate and used it as an improvised eating utensil.

    Twilight stares at Gilda for a moment, blinking, before shaking her head.

    "We found her," she repeated, as if that was all she needed to say.

    "Yeah." They had gone over this already. Apparently the night before had been harder on Twilight than she had thought.

    "We need to speak with her." Twilight spoke slowly, as if trying to explain something to a small child.

    "Obviously." Gilda wondered if Twilight just needed to take a nap. She wasn't thinking as quickly as she normally did.

    Twilight paused again, the wind having been taken out of her sails. "Obviously... Yeah."

    She sighed, slumping down. Taking a breath, she continued. "Do we know where she is staying?"

    "Not a clue." Gilda shrugged. She wasn't the griffin to ask in a normal situation. She had just woken up half an hour ago, so she was working at even less than normal capacity.

    "Then that's our first order of business." Twilight was glad that she had a plan now. She always worked better with a plan. "It's no coincidence that we keep running into the Element Bearers on the planets the map had on it."

    "You've said that already." Finishing her plate, Gilda focused her entire attention on Twilight.

    "Have I?" Squinting, Twilight looked at Gilda.

    "Pretty sure, yeah." Gilda had never seen Twilight look like this. The unicorn's eyes were completely bloodshot.

    "Well…" Twilight coughed, clearing her throat in embarrassment. "The point still stands."

    "Sure." Best to just agree with her.

    "Alright then…" Twilight tapped her hooves nervously on the table. "I guess we should get on that, then."

    "Twilight." Honey Dawn coughed from across the way, catching their attention.

    "Hmm?" Glancing over her shoulder, Twilight looked more than a little surprised to find that they weren't alone in the dining room. She looked over Honey Dawn and her herd in confusion. "What is it?"

    "I know where Pinkie Pie is staying?" Honey Dawn smiled smugly. She loved it when she knew more than smarter ponies in the room.

    "What?" That drew all three of them up for a pause, and Twilight tilted her head in confusion. "How do you know that?"

    "The three of us ended up at the hotel she was staying after the party last night." Honey Dawn pointed at Carmel Breeze and Lucky Arrow. "We were turned away by her guards and hotel security."

    "How do you know she was staying there." Twilight couldn't imagine that there was an engraved sign announcing where Pinkie Pie was staying.

    "There are only two groups of Equestrians in Armali right now. I checked." One of the perks of being a pilot in such a high position as her own was that she could look up pretty much whatever she wanted without anyone asking why. "There's just us, and Smile Inc."

    "That's a bit lucky." Gilda snorted, shaking her head.

    "You checked?" Blinking in surprise, Twilight looked at Honey Dawn in a whole new light.

    "We were curious." Carmel Breeze shrugged, not at all embarrassed by admitting that. She was a chronic snoop, and she was not ashamed about that.

    "They're staying at the Asyrion." Honey Dawn piped up, draining down the last dregs of her coffee.

    Gilda was quiet for a moment, trying to see if the name at all rang any bells, before she finally shrugged. "Is that supposed to mean something, because I'm getting a blank."

    "It's only one of the most famous hotels in the galaxy." Lucky Arrow chimed in as helpfully as he could.

    Gilda thought even longer about the matter, then shrugged again. "Still got nothing."

    "It doesn't matter. You don't have to have heard about it." Honey Dawn smiled, slightly patronizingly. "You'll find Pinkie Pie there. Plus everyone she's traveling with."

    "Traveling with?" Twilight would never drink again. She would swear that upon Celestia when she got a chance.

    "Smile. Look it up."

    Twilight did so. Opening her omni-tool, Twilight did a quick search of SMILE. In half a second, she got over five million hits on her search, with more coming in by the second. Scrolling through the first page, she picked the most promising looking link. The main extranet site for SMILE Incorporated.

    After reading for nearly a minute, she looked up at Gilda, completely confused. "How did I not know about this?"

    "Know about what?" Gilda had no idea what Twilight was talking about.

    "SMILE. It's one of the most visible Equestrian organizations in the galaxy." Scrolling through the pages, Twilight had to admit that she was a little impressed. "It's pretty much a traveling party that never stops. Its mission statement is to put a smile on every face in the galaxy. They've been to Earth, Palaven, Sur'kesh, Illium, the list goes on and on, and they've been doing it for years."

    "Why's it so important?" It all sounded very nice, but Gilda didn't really see how it mattered.

    "Pinkie Pie is CEO of SMILE Inc." When Twilight had first started reading the Journal of Friendship, she had started to expect that she would find all of the Element Bearers in jobs and places in life similar to what she read about. With Rarity, that had proven to be true, but Pinkie Pie was obviously proving to be an exception. A fairly massive one at that. "Her father runs the Board of Directors, and her sisters make up the majority shareholders. It's kind of a big deal."

    "I need to talk to her right away." Twilight stood, jumping down out of her chair.

    "If she's so important, why do you think they'd even let you in to see her." It seemed a pretty obvious question to Gilda. Famous people never dealt with the riffraff.

    "Because her importance begins and ends with her company." Twilight smiled, doing a proud little trot in place. "I've got the backing of the Empress in every matter, and I speak for her."

    "Yeah…" To be honest, Gilda had kind of forgotten about that. Her girlfriend certainly didn't act like the third most powerful Equestrian in the galaxy. "I guess that'd do it."

    "Alright then. Let's go!" Twilight laughed, forgetting her tiredness as she trotted towards the hall leading to the exit of Solar One.

    Sighing, Gilda grabbed the rest of her muffin from her own plate, then followed after Twilight at a much more sedate place, eating with half lidded eyes. Spike sighed, then followed after them, resigning himself to the fact that he wouldn't be getting breakfast today.

    Not at all paying any attention to the grumbles of the two following behind her, Twilight entered the hallway, followed moments later by Gilda and Spike. She stopped when she found herself suddenly in the path of two of the most scantily clothed Asari she had seen since arriving on Thessia.

    Twilight blinked.

    The Asari blinked.

    Spike's stomach rumbled.

    "Uh…" Twilight tilted her head, then glanced back at Rarity, who was following behind the Asari, a furious blush on her muzzle. She was trying to act as normal as possible, though she wasn't doing that very well.

    "Please, excuse us, Twilight." She was only barely put together, her mane tied up in a simple, but elegant bun. Obviously, she hadn't had enough time to get her curls the way she would normally like them. "We weren't expecting to run into... you."

    "I do think we've overstayed our welcome, sister," the Asari on the right said, glancing at the other, before down at Rarity. "Thank you, Rarity, for the wonderful night."

    Leaning down, she kissed Rarity full on the lips.

    "Call us if you're ever on Thessia again." The second Asari said, following her sister's lead, taking her own turn to kiss Rarity. "Last night was... wonderful. I won't ever forget it."

    Together, the two Asari left the ship, giggling the entire way as they kept throwing glances back at Rarity.

    Twilight blinked, and Rarity blushed even harder and avoided making eye contact with anyone.

    "Right. Let's never speak of this again." Twilight made sure to not look at Rarity.

    "Speak of what?" Giggling, then instantly thinking better of it, Rarity ducked her head, wishing she could just melt into the floor.

    "We've found Pinkie Pie." The best thing to do would be to move on and get onto more important matters. Twilight was good at burying unwanted thoughts and dreams underneath facts and books and plans. Organization to save the day once again! "We're going to go and meet with her, if you want to come."

    "That sounds marvelous, darling…" Rarity looked Twilight over, and she realized something for the first time. "Though, maybe you want to put clothes on first?"

    ###

    After taking a not inconsiderable amount of time to freshen up and get dressed before going to meet with Pinkie Pie (Twilight had realized just how horrible she smelled and had washed her coat twice with magic to make sure she was actually clean), they were finally on their way. They decided to walk the entire way, instead of taking an aircar. Armali was an island nation, and it was possible to walk its entire circumference in just a little under a full day, or twenty-six hours (Thessia's day lasting a little over twenty-seven hours).

    Twilight was too focused on her current mission to enjoy the sights, but the others were taking every opportunity to do the typical tourist walk and gawk. Instead, she listened intently to her omni-tool as it spat out directions to her every so often. Rarity oohed and awed over the fashions she saw on the passing Asari, Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes at her sister and looked longingly at the arcades they passed. Spike was too preoccupied with keeping up with the rest of the group to do any gawking, and Gilda's gaze was only really caught by some of the more exotic and tasty looking food that happened to cross her gaze.

    "Your destination is directly ahead," Twilight's omni-tool chirped, rather unhelpfully because indeed, just as the omni-tool said, the Asyrion was directly ahead of them. It was a tall hotel, one of the tallest on the island, all gleaming glass and white steel, a stunning example of Asari architecture.

    Just like Honey Dawn said, there were Equestrians outside, obviously body guards, doing their best to blend in and not draw any attention. It was a job that they were never going to do very well at, simply because of the nature of who they were.

    "Alright." Taking a deep breath, Twilight straightened up. She took a moment to tighten her saddle-bags before taking a deep breath and walking to the front doors. The body-guards eyed her, but there was no reason for them to stop her or anyone she was with. They don't really have that authority anyway, not when it's daylight hours and there aren't an army of drunken people trying to get back home.

    The large glass doors were three times taller than Twilight was long, built to awe and inspire anyone coming inside. None of that even passed through Twilight's mind as she walked right up to the front desk, nodding to the smiling asari behind it.

    "Excuse me," Twilight said with a smile, doing her best to be as charming as possible. "I need to meet with Pinkie Pie. Could I please ask her room number?"

    "She is not meeting with anyone at this time." The desk worker said, not glancing up from her work on her data pad. The smile was ever present, but that didn't mean she would grace everyone who walked through the door with her attention.

    "If you could please call up to her room, let her know that the Celestial Emissary is here, and has urgent business to discuss with her." Twilight used the voice that she had heard Celestia so often when she was by her side over the long years at the castle. It was a voice that was kind and caring, but demanded attention. Everypony sat up and took notice when she spoke.

    The Asari looked up and met Twilight's gaze for the first time. She studied Twilight for a moment before nodding and making the call, something passing between the two of them of the seriousness of her request.

    A moment passed, and then another. The Asari made furtive glances at Twilight while speaking quietly on her omni-tool to whoever was on the other end of the line.

    Finally, the call ended, and the Asari turned back to Twilight with a smile that was much more genuine and gracious at Twilight. "She will meet with you. Floor one-hundred."

    "Which room?" The Asari was being helpful, but that wasn't enough for Twilight.

    "You misunderstand me." The smile turned a little patronizing, and the Asari tilted her head just so. "Smile Incorporated has rented the top ten floors of our hotel. Floor one-hundred has been converted for Ms. Pinkie Pie's sole use."

    Twilight blinked in surprise at that, but got over that quickly and nodded. "Thank you."

    "You are very welcome." The Asari was already getting back to her work, typing furiously on her datapad.

    Walking past the front desk, Twilight and her group headed towards the elevators. There were ten of them, and they were surrounded by polished stone from the bottom of surrounding ocean.

    Not at all noticing the beauty and craftsmanship of the design, Twilight and the rest of the group entered the elevator.

    As the doors closed, Rarity couldn't restrain the little squeal that escaped her, barely able to keep herself from bouncing excitedly on all four of her hooves. "This is marvelous."

    "I know!" Twilight was just as excited, but it couldn't have been over more different reasons if they tried. "We're on the right track."

    "That isn't what I meant." Rarity darted close to one of the walls, rubbing it gently with a hoof. She eyed it with the look of somepony who was close to the edge of madness. "Look at the detail work in the wood. The stain, the artistry. It is wonderful."

    Everyone stared at her, not quite believing what she was saying.

    "Yeah…" Ruffling what little feathers she had left on her wings, Gilda rolled her eyes. "The elevator is… great."

    "This whole hotel is a work of art." Not at all catching Gilda's sarcasm, Rarity continued rubbing the wall. "It is a shining beacon of why the Asari lead the galaxy in culture and innovation!"

    "Ugh." Sweetie Belle sighed and rolled her eyes. "No one cares, Rarity."

    "Sweetie Belle!" Forgetting her amazement at the elevator, Rarity turned to look at her sister, too shocked to fully react to what was just said to her. "That was rude and uncalled for. A lady doesn't act like that."

    Sweetie Belle mocked her sister under her breath, making faces, yelping when Rarity pulled her to the side of the elevator to talk to her.

    "Anymore of this, and you're grounded Sweetie Belle," Rarity whispered, though it was pretty much just shouting and not at all private. "Honestly, what has gotten into you?"

    "What hasn't gotten into you?" Sweetie snapped right back at her sister.

    "Sweetie Belle!" Rarity recoiled as if Sweetie Belle had struck her. "I never!"

    Twilight coughed, and both sisters looked over to find her, Gilda, and Spike looking at them wide-eyed. "There might be a…."

    "A better time for this." Rarity coughed, straightening both her and Sweetie Belle's clothing with her magic. "Yes."

    "Definitely." Coughing again, she glanced away in embarrassment. "Forgive me. That was terribly rude."

    The elevator dinged at its arrival, and the doors slid open. They'd arrived, and it was time to make history.

    ###

    Stepping out onto the one-hundredth floor, Twilight and her group found themselves in a small, drab entrance way, guarded by more Equestrians. This time, they had full authority to do whatever it took to protect their client.

    "Welcome, Celestial Emissary Twilight Sparkle." A dark grey pony with a flat purple mane approached them, wearing a simple blue frock. She spoke softly, in a very monotone voice that made it difficult to fully focus on her words. "Why do you wish to meet with my sister?"

    "It is a private matter." Twilight blinked at the flat tone the question was asked, but quickly firmed herself and straightened up on all four of her hooves, flicking her tail confidently. She was important, and she would make sure that others realized that. Whatever she said and did reflected itself back on Celestia. "But it has to do with matters deeply connected to Equestria's national security."

    The pony stared at them, before nodding. "Please, follow me."

    The pony led them through the doors of the entrance into a vast room, much more colorful and lively than the entrance. A few supports were visible, and they had been decorated, but otherwise, the entire floor had been emptied of all rooms, in essence making the entire floor one massive room.

    The room had been covered in a rainbow of pillows and blankets and surprisingly, confetti. Music was blaring from unseen speakers, and someone was singing along with it further inside the cavernous room.

    "This way." The pony said, caring not at all for the amazement that the others were experiencing.

    The pony led them even further into the room, until they came to a kitchen that had been set up (pony sized, of course), and none other than Pinkie Pie was darting between five different things, singing at the top of her lungs.

    "Pinkie Pie," the pony said, sitting back on her haunches.

    Pinkie didn't notice her voice, which wasn't surprising as she was busy pulling a cake out of the oven before darting over to the sink and washing a big bowl of asari fruit.

    "Pinkie Pie." The pony repeated, not at all frazzled by the fact she hadn't been heard.

    Still no recognition. The pink pony twirled around the center island and started frosting a row of cupcakes, belting out the song louder than before.

    "Pinkie Pie."

    Pinkie screeched to a halt, turning on a single hoof to look over at them. She gasped, her eyes going dramatically wide.

    "I haven't seen any of you before!" She practically crowed. She darted up to them, nose to nose with Twilight, making the unicorn rock back a little in surprise.

    "Um…" Twilight leaned back a little. "Hello."

    "Who are you? Why are you here?" Pinkie railed off the questions too fast for Twilight to even answer. "Would you like some cake? I've just pulled it from the oven."

    "I'd like cake." Sweetie Belle raised a hoof, suddenly much more hopeful than she had been a moment ago.

    "Well!" Pinkie turned to face her, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "Too bad, because the cake is a lie!"

    Before Sweetie could respond (it was taking her a moment, the confusion was real) Pinkie started laughing, but she was the only one who got the joke.

    "Uh…" Coughing into her hoof, Twilight wondered just what she had gotten herself into. "Right."

    "Heh." Taking a moment to catch her breath, Pinkie Pie smiled back in fond remembrance of her joke. "That was funny."

    Shaking her head, Pinkie hopped back into her kitchen, getting back to what she was doing. Calling back over her shoulder, she asked, "So, what are all of you here for?"

    "We're here to meet you?" It wasn't supposed to be a question, but Twilight was experiencing far too much confusion for that to matter.

    "Me?" Raising an eyebrow, scratched her chin even as she spun her cake on its spinner, frosting it with a deep chocolate. "Really? I think there are a whole lot more interesting people than me here."

    "Maybe, but you're the pony we're interested in."

    "Why?" The question was perfectly reasonable, but it drew Twilight up for a pause.

    Twilight glanced back at her saddle-bag, and she realized that she wasn't quite sure what to say. Pinkie wasn't at all what she was expecting, but maybe she'd believe the story.

    "Who are you, anyway?" Pinkie Pie focused all of her attention on Twilight, realizing something. "You're not with us. I don't recognize you. That means you're on your own, and you're important enough to not be turned away at the door."

    Pinkie Pie squinted, leaning over one of the counters to look at them. "And you have a griffin with you. That's not a sight you see even on Equestria very often."

    "I'm-" Before Twilight could answer, the pony who had escorted them in had interrupted them.

    "She is the Celestial Emissary, Pinkie Pie."

    "Oh..." Pinkie stopped at that, dropping back onto her haunches. She looked genuinely surprised. "I wasn't expecting that."

    "So," Pinkie drawled as she walked back out from the kitchen to meet them. "You're like, the third princess."

    "I'd be more like the fourth," Twilight said, wondering not for the first time why nopony seemed to remember Princess Cadence. "But I'm not actually a Princess. I just speak for one."

    "Uh-huh." She tilted her head, then tilted it a little bit more, until it was almost uncomfortable to look at her. "Why are you here, then? What does the Celestial Emissary want with little old Pinkie Pie?"

    "Wait..." Pinkie's eyes widened, and she stopped, realizing something. "We have a third princess?"

    "Yeah, Princess Cadance." Gilda rather unhelpfully said.

    Thinking for a moment, Pinkie finally shook her head. "… Never heard of her. What does the Celestial Emissary want with me?"

    "I'm actually here to talk with you." Twilight admitted, wondering just what part of the universe had conspired to bring Pinkie Pie into her life.

    "You're doing that already, silly. What else do you want?" Pinkie Pie leaned forward, smiling, waiting for an answer.

    "I…" Twilight glanced at the pony who had just been standing beside them awkwardly the entire conversation. "It... uh... it might be best if we speak alone."

    "We are alone." The smile never left Pinkie Pie's face.

    " I mean…" She gestured her head at the pony next to them, trying to be as discrete as she could.

    "Oh, that's my sister Maud." Pinkie waved her hoof in amusement. "Don't worry about her. Nothing you say will leave her lips."

    "Alright." Twilight hesitated for a moment, then finally decided to trust Pinkie.

    Opening her saddle-bag, Twilight pulled out the journal of friendship, holding it up for Pinkie Pie to see. "We found this journal underneath the floor of the old castle in the Everfree Forest. It had been there for a long, long time."

    She floated it over to Pinkie Pie, setting it gently on top of a clean space on the counter. "Before we do anything else, you should really take a look at it."

    Pinkie glanced at Twilight for a moment, before cracking open the journal and starting to read. She read for several minutes, and every pony waited patiently for her to finish, the only sound coming from the oven ticking over as it cooled, and the flipping of pages.

    Pinkie set the book down after reading it for nearly fifteen minutes. She was a lot more serious than she was before she started reading.

    " What is this?" Pinkie asked, looking up at Twilight. She wasn't sure what it was that she had just read, but it had certainly caught her attention.

    "Both Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna independently verified its age and authenticity." It was really the only thing that Twilight could say.

    "Well, I wasn't expecting this when I woke this morning." Pinkie Pie sat back on her haunches, chewing on her bottom lip.

    She thought for a moment, and then she thought some more. Finally, she looked at Twilight.

    "Why did you come to me?" Pinkie Pie asked.

    "We're trying to find the Elements of Harmony," Twilight explained. She shifted to a more comfortable position before continuing. "There was a map underneath the floor of the castle, and it brought us here. We haven't found the Elements, not yet, but Rarity was on the Citadel, and you are on Thessia, just like the map showed us."

    Silence filled the room. Their whole purpose for coming to her was now out in the open.

    "I see," Pinkie Pie finally said.

    She was silent for another minute.

    "What do you want?"

    "I need to find the rest of the Element Bearers, and I was hoping that you could join me." There it was. Twilight could do nothing more until she heard Pinkie's answer.

    "Oh…" Pinkie and Maud shared a look, and a thousand different meanings passed between them in that look. "I don't think that's going to work. I can't join you."

    25. Chapter Twenty-Four - Getting to Know Yo

    Chapter Twenty-Four - Getting to Know You

    Therum, Knossos System

    April 11, 2183

    Therum was not a kind planet. It was a scorched ball of rock that was just a bit too close to the sun for comfort for the majority of species in the galaxy, but archeologists were not normal. They were willing to brave environments that no sane person would get anywhere near, all to dig around in the dirt for any Prothean artifacts. Therum just happened to have one of the larger groupings that anyone had found. There had yet to be any beacons discovered, but what had been found had lead to small, but significant advances in technology.

    Liara T'Soni couldn't have been happier to leave her mother's clutches and escape to the planet as soon as she had graduated from the University of Serrice. She had been there ever since, and she hadn't spoken to her mother ever since.

    In other words, it was nice.

    At least, it had been nice until the machines had invaded, killed the rest of her archeology team, and she'd stranded herself in one of the holding cells to keep the same from happening to her. There might have been a Krogan there somewhere, but she wasn't sure. Her memory was getting… spotty.

    Surprisingly, it was the boredom that was getting to her most. Liara had thought in the first day that it would have been the hunger or the thirst, but that had proved not to be the case. The first day she'd been too scared and full of adrenaline to be bored, but after that, she'd lost all sense of time. She'd bet that it had been maybe six or seven days since then, and she knew that she was getting close to the end.

    After the adrenaline had worn off, Liara had spent the next three days or so just staring at the mass effect field that was keeping her suspended in… whatever the hell this room was. The shimmering patterns had mesmerized her more than she'd ever be willing to admit if she survived. It was at that point that the most embarrassing thing about the entire situation reared its ugly head.

    Simply put, she had no choice but to relieve herself where she was suspended. It only took another day to get over the smell.

    Whatever day it was, it didn't even matter to her anymore. She had at most another day, maybe two, and then she'd become part of the dig as a more permanent addition.

    "Little Wing, why do you fight against me?"

    That voice…

    Struggling to focus, Liara looked up to find her mother standing before her, flanked by two of those damn machines. It took her a moment to even make the connection that her mother was there.

    "What…" She licked her chapped lips. She sighed, feeling more tired than she ever had before. "Why are you doing this?"

    "You always were such a rebellious child." Benezia looked at her like one might view the exhibits at a museum. It made Liara feel unsettled, and she had to look away from her mother's piercing eyes. "Always pushing at the boundaries and leaning on the rules. You never were content to just follow the path set before you. Look where your actions have brought you now."

    Liara was too tired to fight. Too tired to argue.

    "You will submit." Her eyes narrowing, Benezia pursed her lips. "You will join me."

    Liara wanted to cry, but she had no tears left to waste.

    An explosion above drew their attention, and Liara wondered for a moment whether she was hallucinating it. It wouldn't be the first incident.

    "Someone is fighting you," Liara said, glancing at her mother. She said it as a fact, with no gloating involved. There was no reason to gloat. Her mother never travelled without her commandos, and Liara had seen them training many times when she still lived on Thessia. She wasn't going to bet on anyone if they were against the commandos.

    "They will fail." Benezia tightly smiled, clasping her hands behind her back. She had a vaguely smug look on her face. "Your fate is already sealed. Even now, the Geth are coming to retrieve you."

    "I'd rather die." Liara was surprised to realize that, that was the truth. What was wrong with her that she would rather die than return to her mother's clutches?

    "You will never get the chance." Benezia sniffed, turning her nose up ever so slightly.

    Gunfire, violent, and constant. It slowly trickled away, before falling completely silent. Benezia smirked, proud in her victory. "Your 'savior' has already perished. It is only a matter of time until we get through the barrier, and then you will come with me."

    Liara had nothing to say. What could she say? Her mother was always right, after all.

    The next thing she knew, Liara winced at the screeching of gears and metal scraping against metal.

    Blessed silence.

    Footsteps on the scaffolding above. Liara tried to peer up, but that was a futile attempt. The bubble held her completely immobile. A minute passed, and her mother had wandered off somewhere else, leaving her alone. She cherished every moment of the quiet. A bit of peace before she rejoined Athame sounded nice to her.

    Before she could ponder that thought any further, Liara could only blink when a group of nearly every common alien in Citadel Space walks into her view. Human, Equestrian, Turian, Quarian, and a Krogan.

    Obviously, she was hallucinating. "Oh... Well, this isn't good."

    "Liara T'Soni?" One of the humans asked, a female, if Liara wasn't mistaken.

    "I didn't think I was at the hallucination stage yet…" Liara mumbled, frowning. A shiver passed up her spine, and she had the sudden urge to itch the small of her back.

    "Liara," The human repeated.

    "How long have I been in here?" Frowning, Liara chewed on her bottom lip, trying to puzzle it out. "I thought it was only six days…"

    "Liara."

    "Has it actually been that long?" Liara scrunched up her nose, wondering if her math was correct. Being underground, there was no way to watch the movement of the sun. It was an infuriating thing.

    "Liara!" The human shouted, and Liara focused her attention fully on her for the first time. Meeting the human's eyes, she frowned as something ran through her, a shock of recognition. Her heart jumped just a little, and she felt scared, though she could think of no reason why.

    "I'm Commander Riley Shepard, a Council Spectre," the human, Riley apparently, said, with no concern for the world shattering feelings that were filling Liara. "I'm here to take you into protective custody."

    Liara blinked.

    Riley stared at her.

    Liara blinked again.

    "There aren't any human Spectres," was the only thing that Liara could think to say.

    "It's a recent development," Riley said, half scowling. She glanced away, but looked back to meet Liara's eyes quickly. "But it doesn't matter. Are you working with Benezia T'Soni?"

    Liara blinked again, totally out of it. A wave of dizziness overcame her, and black spots filled her vision.

    Riley looked Liara up and down, and the young Asari suddenly felt embarrassed by the state of her cleanliness. Well… the lack of, at least. She must have been such a sight. If she wasn't on the verge of oblivion, she was sure that she would have thrown up at the sight of herself.

    "How do we get you out of here?" Riley asked, a tone of long suffering filling her voice.

    "What does it matter?" Her tone was as good as a shrug. Liara looked away from her vision. "You're just a hallucination anyway."

    Riley turned to look at the rest of her squad. Though she wasn't talking to Liara, the Asari still listened in to what she was saying. "Right, she's not going to be any help. We'll have to find out own way to get her out."

    Riley and her squad walked out of Liara's view, leaving the young Asari on her own once again.

    Liara was silent for a moment, staring at where her hallucination used to be. "Huh…" She unfocused, staring at nothingness. It was just a hallucination after all. It was just better to get back to her own thoughts, and the regrets and dreams she would never fulfill.

    Silence. Blessed silence.

    The gunfire started again, and Liara flinched at the sound. It went on for what seemed like forever, until a massive explosion ended it all. It shook the ruins so hard that Liara's bubble was jostled by the movement. She cried out in surprise, eyes wide, unable to look around and see what was happening.

    Silence again. For once, Liara wasn't content to let her hallucinations ramble through her mind, but she was powerless to do anything about it.

    Small tremors started to shake the world around her, the ruin destabilizing. Death by starvation and dehydration was one thing, but being crushed too death… it was not something that she ever wanted to experience. The ruins were unlucky enough to sit above several magma tubes, and before the attack, the archeology team had had several close calls with almost awakening the volcano.

    She could do nothing else but whimper, terrified for her eventual fate.

    "T'Soni."

    "Who's there?" Liara asked, startling at the unexpected voice, trying to look over her shoulder to see who had spoken to her, but failed miserably. "How did you get past the barrier?"

    "I just spoke to you, T'Soni." The voice, Riley, if Liara wasn't mistaken, said. "I'm Commander Shepard, Spectre."

    So she was right.

    "How did you get past the barrier?" Even as the question passed her lips, Liara wondered just why she was asking that. There were so many other pressing things that needed to addressed. The foremost in her mind being, 'by the goddess, you're real?'

    "Mining laser," Riley answered, still behind her and out of view.

    More tremors shook the dig site.

    "Probably not the smartest idea," a new voice spoke up, feminine as well, at least to the best of Liara's understanding.

    "This is a strange hallucination." Swallowing, Liara regretted doing that instantly. She had no saliva in her mouth, and it felt like sandpaper rubbing violently down her throat. "I must be nearing the end."

    "I didn't think it would be like this…" She frowned.

    "Liara, focus." Riley's voice cut through the din of confusion in Liara's mind. "How do we get you out of here?"

    "On the panel there," Liara managed to point with her finger, curling the rest of her hand into a fist, one of the few movements she could make, at the control panel. "One of the buttons should release me. Not that it will do anything. I don't know why my mind is being so cruel to myself."

    "She's crazy," the other voice spoke up again. She sounded annoyed, like the very effort of being in this situation was a boredom to her. "We should just leave her. She's not going to be any help. Again."

    "I'll decide that, Rainbow," Riley said, firm. She shut up the other voice without a problem.

    Riley stepped into Liara's peripheral vision and started fiddling with the console. She was really nothing more than a blob, but it was one of the most welcome sights that Liara had seen in the past week. A flickering holo display flared to life and Riley pressed the largest button.

    Liara screamed at the sudden return of gravity on her body, and she plummeted to the ground. She hit the floor hard, and the air was forced out of her lungs. Before she could even catch her breath, she vomited all over Riley's shoes, mostly just bile.

    To her embarrassment, she started to pass out.

    Just before she blacked out completely, she felt the pressure of a being far vaster than her encompassing her mind, and a sense of the cold deep.

    Then nothing.

    ###

    Riley pulled off her helmet, taking a deep breath of the cool, recycled air of the Normandy. Her armor had a personal climate system, but no amount of technology was going to keep out the heat of an exploding volcano.

    "That was a little too close Commander. Ten more seconds and we would've been swimming in molten sulphur." Joker's voice rang out over the ship's intercom. "The Normandy isn't equipped to land in exploding volcanoes. They tend to fry our sensors and melt our hull. Just for future reference."

    The sound of something solid hitting flesh echoed over the intercom, and Riley snickered to herself, picturing what just happened.

    "Please forgive my partner. He means you're welcome," Spitfire said over the intercom. Her annoyance was as plain as the day for everyone to hear.

    Behind her, the rest of her team was following Riley's example as she stripped out of her armor to her body suit underneath, everyone except for Wrex, who had Liara slung over his shoulders.

    "Where do you want sleeping beauty, Shepard?" He grumbled, glancing at her. The Asari's slight weight was nothing to him, but he would like the chance to get something to eat. It was a little difficult to grab food with someone on his shoulders.

    "The infirmary." Riley glanced back at him, before nodding at him to follow her. "We'll let Dr. Chakwas deal with her."

    "Works for me." Wrex shrugged, shifting Liara's weight as she started to slide from his shoulder.

    They left the others behind to secure the Mako as the doors to the elevator slid closed. With a push of a button, Riley started the elevators laborious journey up to the crew deck.

    "Sweet Celestia!" Within ten seconds, she was already growing bored. "I'm going to make someone pimp this damn thing out."

    Wrex said nothing. He just shifted Liara's weight on his shoulders again. She was deceptively slippery on his armor.

    Riley thought for a moment, staring at Liara's face. The Asari was young, without any of the facial tattoos that others of her species often gathered over the course of their long lives. It was more than a little adorable how she had a pair of what appeared to be eyebrows above her eyes, but closer inspection just revealed them to be natural coloration in her skin. Her skin was a pale blue, finely scaled, but how much of that was because of her ordeal, and how much of it was her normal look was something that Riley didn't know.

    "Do you think it was a bad idea to bring her onboard?" Riley asked, turning her attention to Wrex.

    "She is the daughter of one of the most powerful matriarchs on Thessia, who by all accounts is loyal to Saren and whatever cause it is he's decided to follow." Wrex grunted, thinking it over. "It's a little crazy, yeah."

    Wrex bounced Liara on his shoulder until the Asari's face was turned as if she was looking at Riley. "On the other hand, she's barely out of her teenage years with almost no social skills to speak of, and from the looks of it, the geth weren't too happy with her refusal to come with them."

    He paused, meeting Riley's gaze. "Whatever happens, I'd say you should talk to her first. She's young and naive. It won't take long to find where her loyalties lie."

    "You say that like it's easy." Rolling her eyes, Riley crossed her arm under her breasts.

    "It will be." Wrex sounded completely confident. "I've had to deal with little pyjaks like her before."

    "You know I'm going to blame you if this all goes wrong, don't you?"

    "I've had worse." Wrex shrugged, not at all worried.

    Riley snorts, shaking her head and rolling her eyes.

    Liara snorted, startling Riley, and she dry heaved all over the front of Wrex's armor. Nothing came out (the by product of having eaten nothing in the past week), and she blinked blearily, struggling to shade her eyes against the 'blinding' light of the elevator.

    "What…" She groaned, feeling queasy again already.

    "Dr. T'Soni, are you alright?" Riley was careful to keep her voice quiet. She didn't know whether Liara had a headache or not, but she knew how she felt after not eating for a few days. Loud noises were never good.

    "I don't... What…" She blinked, squinting her eyes as she tried to focus on Riley. "Where am I? What's happening?"

    "You're safe, Doctor." Riley smiled, trying to be a friendly and comforting as possible. "You're on an Alliance ship and we're taking you to the infirmary."

    "Infirmary?" She rolled the word over in her mouth, like she'd never heard it before. "Alliance ship?"

    "You're safe, Doctor," Riley said, stepping closer, meeting Liara's crystal blue eyes with her own. "And you're in shock. Just stay with me and everything will be alright."

    "Who…Who are you?" Liara asked. She wasn't able to see much more than blurs.

    "I'm Commander Shepard. I was leading the team that rescued you from the ruins."

    Liara whimpered, a chill passing through her. She remembered the cool nights on Thessia, and she reached out instinctively, placing a hand on Riley's shoulder. Where was her mother? Where were her comforting words, the warmth of her embrace. Her mind sitting on the edge of consciousness and unconsciousness, she reached out for childhood comfort, and melded!

    Her sleep wasn't peaceful, but she was resting like only those who had been exhausted beyond human capacity could. A deep, dreamless sleep—

    Gunfire!

    I see the moon,

    The moon sees me.

    God bless the moon,

    and God bless me.

    She screamed as she was pulled from her bed, grabbing hands stripping her naked and dragging her through the darkness. Before she could even think to react, a biotic restraint was slapped around her neck, and she growled in anger.

    Before she could gather her wits, she was lifted from the ground and tossed into a dark room. The smell hit her first. The stench of death and blood and rotting meat. Blood filled her mouth as she tried to scramble up on the slippery floor, struggling to get any traction as she felt stringy meat dragging over her.

    I see the stars,

    The stars see me.

    God bless the stars,

    and God bless me.

    This is what death tasted like. There were things you did not talk about in "N" school.

    Her leg couldn't stop bouncing, a cold cup of coffee in her hands. They had been waiting for hours, and there hadn't been so much as an update from any of the doctors or nurses. Beside her, Rainbow was preening one of her wings, busy work.

    The piercing cry of a newborn echoed from through the closed doors. Somehow, she just knew.

    She jumped out of her chair, Rainbow following suite. They both watched the doors, waiting. Sure enough, her father emerged, still dressed in his scrubs, a triumphant, proud smile on his face.

    I see the world,

    The world sees me.

    God bless the world,

    And God bless me.

    The small, orange pegasus filly cradled in her hands gave a quiet coo, and she felt her heart melt. Running her fingers through the short purple mane, the filly nuzzled closer to her chest, an ear listening to the gentle thump of her heart.

    Baby sister. She would protect her with her life. No one would ever make her cry.

    She lay motionless on the top of a steepled church, a strange thing to find on a colony planet. Elysium had a surprisingly large religious gathering. It wasn't important, but she was thankful for the buildings design. It had already saved her more than a few times.

    The butt of her sniper rifle was tight against her shoulder.

    She took a deep breath.

    "This group is alone," Rainbow said, her voice crackling through the comms they had managed to scrounge up.

    She glanced up at a lone cloud loitering over the town several hundred feet into the air. The raiders hadn't even thought to suspect mother nature might work against them.

    "Roger that," she responded, voice just a whisper.

    She let out all the air in her lungs, relaxing.

    She fired!

    Through the scope, she watched as one of the raider's heads burst like a melon, the bullet continuing down through him and through the chest of the turian behind him.

    She sat at the kitchen table, a pile of waffles sitting defiantly in front of her. She watched her mother and father, flirting near the stove. Next to her, Rainbow was pulling seconds onto her plate, pouring even more syrup over them.

    I know an angel

    Watches over me.

    God bless the angels,

    And God bless me.

    Silence.

    Darkness surrounded her. Looking up, she found the Citadel hanging above her, the ward arms burning. Protheans died by the billions around her, screaming in terror as their flesh stripped itself from their bodies.

    Billions and trillions of stars disappeared from the night sky, until all that was left was darkness. The Mass Relays were all that were left, silently spinning in the forever void.

    A ship, massive and unsettling, like a great creature of the deep, reached out for her with the great arms under its hull.

    A ROAR shook her to her very core as the ocean crashed over her, pulling her into the deep and the cold, and the dark.

    Everything turned to black…

    Riley jerked back as the meld ended, her heart pounding as she stared at Liara in confusion and a whole bunch of other emotions that she didn't quite understand.

    Liara managed to look up at her with wide, admiring eyes, her mouth open as if she wanted to speak, but before she could, she fell unconscious again.

    Riley looked to Wrex for any idea of what just happened, struggling to get her breathing back under control.

    "A meld." He helpfully supplied. "It's an Asari thing. They can merge their nervous systems or something like that."

    "Huh…" She looked at Liara cautiously, not at all comfortable with the idea of having someone else rooting through her mind. "Can they…"

    "What, control your mind?" Wrex laughed, shaking his head. "No. That'd be magic."

    "And that wasn't?" Riley asked disbelieving, pointing at Liara.

    "It's science." Wrex shrugged. He sounded far too comfortable with what had just happened. Damn krogan. "Weird science, but science all the same."

    "Right, freaky brain magic is science," Riley said more to herself than to Wrex.

    "Just be on the lookout for if your brain starts to ooze out your ears."

    "That happens?" She asked, suddenly feeling a lot less comfortable with herself than she did a moment ago.

    "What do I know?" Wrex shrugged. "I'm just a krogan."

    "Real comforting there, Wrex." Riley scowled at him. If looks could kill… He'd probably just have a bad sunburn.

    Wrex just laughed as the doors finally opened to the crew deck.

    "Dear god!" Riley exclaimed, raising her hands in disbelief. "Whoever designed this thing deserves to get shot!"

    Relieved, Riley and Wrex stepped out onto the crew deck, taking a left to go to the infirmary.

    Dr. Chakwas looked up from her book and pulled off her reading glasses as the three of them entered, looking them over with slightly judgmental eyes.

    "Commander." Chakwas greeted, sounding both welcoming and long suffering at the same time. She stood, walking over to look at Liara. "Is this the good doctor?"

    "Say hello to Doctor Liara T'Soni, Doctor Chakwas." Riley set her hands on her hips, stepping aside so Wrex could lumber further into the infirmary.

    He set Liara down on the closest med-bay to Chakwas, and the Doctor walked over to start examining her.

    "She was stuck without food and water for at least a few days." Riley watched as Chakwas fired up her omni-tool and started scanning the Asari.

    "Should I use restraints?" Chakwas asked, looking at Riley. She might have been a doctor, but the Normandy was an Alliance vessel. Some of the patients she had to treat required a… different level of care.

    Riley had to think about that for a moment, before shaking her head. Whatever that meld was… she somehow just knew that Liara wasn't going to be a problem. "She's not going to be able to hurt a fly for awhile... And she's not a threat to us."

    Chakwas studied her, before nodding in understanding. "Yes, Commander."

    "Let me know if she wakes up. I need to speak with her as soon as possible."

    "Of course, Commander." Chakwas nodded in understanding, but she was already turning her attention fully to her new patient.

    Riley lingered for a moment, before turning and leaving the infirmary.

    They were just in time to see the rest of the ground team emerge from the elevator, having had time to change into their regular clothing. A bead of sweat made its way down Riley's back, and she remembered that she was still wearing her under suit. Changing into real clothes would have to take a back seat until after the mission debriefing.

    "Briefing room." Together, they headed up the stairs to the CIC, heading into the briefing room.

    Riley was the last to enter, strolling to the front of the room, past all of the others seated in the chairs around her.

    "What's up with the Asari?" Rainbow spoke up, stretching her neck and then her wings, before adjusting the fit of her uniform.

    "She's an innocent." Riley didn't even have to guess Rainbow's response. She knew exactly what it was going to be.

    "And how do you know that?" Rainbow Dash scoffed, confirming Riley's knowledge of her.

    "The sins of the mother aren't the sins of her children." Leaning back against the railing at the back of the room, Riley crossed her arms, staring down her little sister.

    Rainbow looked skeptical, but she didn't argue any further.

    "Any thoughts from the mission?" Riley asked, turning her attention to the rest of her team.

    "What does Saren want with the Doctor?" Kaidan leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands. "Do you think she knows something about the conduit?"

    "I'll have to ask her when she wakes up." It was a good question. "I think we can safely assume that Saren is interested in what she might know about the Protheans."

    "Seems a pretty safe bet," Wrex said, his voice a deep rumble.

    "Saren knew you used the beacon on Eden Prime," Garrus spoke up. He leaned back in his seat, one of his legs casually crossed over the other. He massaged the spine of his leg, rubbing out the aches from his armor. "It makes sense that he would go after Dr. T'Soni if he had as little understanding of it as you do. He probably thought she could help him."

    "I agree." Riley nodded. It was good to know her team was on the ball.

    A ding on the console behind them alerted them to a call coming through from Joker.

    "The mission reports are filed, Commander. Do you want me to patch you through to the Council? We're approaching a Comm Buoy."

    "You're dismissed." Riley looked at the rest of her crew, before turning to face the holo-display. "Patch me through, Joker."

    As the rest of the crew left the briefing room to get food, a hot shower, and rest, Joker patched Riley through to the Citadel Council. The holograms at the front of the room flickered to life, before showing the Council logo, spinning slowly in midair.

    "Please hold for the Council." A soft voice spoke, feminine. Riley had a feeling she'd be getting very familiar to hearing it now that she was a Spectre.

    Thankfully, the hold signal lasted only for a few moments, and the logo was replaced by an aide to the council, an asari.

    "Spectre Shepard," she greeted, nodding to Riley.

    Riley nodded right back, but she didn't say anything.

    "Patching you through to the Council, Spectre."

    "Thank you."

    The Council logo appeared again, and Riley wondered at why the aide was even needed. It seemed a bit redundant to her. She sighed, shuffling on her feet as she waited.

    With another quiet ding, the logo was replaced by the three Councilors.

    "Spectre Shepard, we just got your reports," Councilor Tevos said, calmly meeting Riley's gaze. "I understand that you've brought Dr. T'Soni onboard?"

    "I assume you're taking the necessary security precautions?" Of course Sparatus was concerned about mission security. It was practically in his job description as a Turian.

    "Dr. T'Soni is on our side." Riley didn't have to prove herself or how she ran her mission to anyone, but it wouldn't hurt to keep the Council informed. "The geth were trying to kill her."

    "Benezia would never allow Saren to kill her daughter." Tevos frowned, confused by that information. "They've never had a particularly close relationship, but she would protect her to any end."

    "Maybe she doesn't know," Valern suggested, rubbing his chin.

    "Or maybe you don't know her as well as you think you do, Tevos." Sparatus shot a glare at the Asari councilor. "We never expected that she could be a traitor."

    "At least the mission was a success." Valern interjected before an argument could erupt, probably a frequent thing considering the speed at which he spoke. Riley got the feeling that he played the mediator to Sparatus' and Tevos' more explosive personalities.

    "If you call a success the utter destruction of an important prothean ruin. Not a shining start to your career, Spectre Shepard." Sparatus was such a cheery fellow.

    "The geth were crawling all over the ruins. We were all lucky to make it out alive." Sparatus didn't intimidate her at all. He might have been powerful, but he was all posturing.

    "Of course, Spectre. The mission must always take priority." Valern nodded, understanding. He shot a glare at Sparatus. Both of them knew that other Spectres frequently caused more collateral damage on their missions. What reason was their to call out Riley?

    "We have new information for you, Shepard. Matriarch Benezia was spotted traveling to Noveria, and she has yet to leave." Thankfully, Tevos moved on from the argument.

    "Thank you for the information, Councilor." Riley nodded.

    "Good luck, Spectre." Tevos gave a nod.

    "Remember, Shepard. We're all watching you." Sparatus couldn't resist a final parting comment.

    The Council disappeared from the holograms, leaving Riley alone in the briefing room. She scowled at the spot where Sparatus was standing moments before.

    "What an ass," she muttered, before taking a deep breath and letting all her bad feelings disappear.

    Opening her omni-tool, Riley opened a channel to Joker. "Joker, set a course for Noveria."

    "Aye-aye, Commander."

    26. Chapter Twenty-Five - Betrayal Cuts Deep

    Chapter Twenty-Five - Betrayal Cuts Deep

    Armali Republic, Thessia, Parnitha System

    April 12, 2183

    It was a miracle that Twilight didn't ignite anything on fire as she left the hotel. Her mind felt fuzzy, and it was actually a little difficult to focus on anything as she stomped her way out the front door.

    Outside, she glanced up at the tower as Gilda, Spike, Rarity, and Sweetie Belle followed after her at a much more sedate pace. She ignored them, instead choosing to sigh and hang her head, scowling as she grumbled under her breath, trotting away from the tower.

    Behind her, Gilda and Rarity shared a look. The meeting had not gone at all to plan, and Twilight was obviously taking it extremely personally. They trotted forward to catch up with her.

    "Now, darling, there's no reason to take this so hard," Rarity said, trying to lift her fellow unicorn's mood.

    "Yes, there is." Twilight didn't even bother to look at her, her scowl deepening. She stomped her hoof in punctuation, storming her way between a giggling Asari and her Turian bond mate. The two stared after her, offended and confused by the short mass of anger that had just passed them by.

    Gilda and Rarity rushed to follow after her, Spike and Sweetie Belle on their heels. Gilda offered an apologetic smile to the bond mates.

    "Please excuse her. She's not having a very good day."

    Before they could hear a response, they were already well down the street and out of earshot, not that they would hear anything. The couple was still trying to figure out what had just happened.

    Twilight came to a sudden stop in the middle of the street, ignoring the crowds around her. The others barely managed to keep from bowling her over, practically skidding to a stop.

    "What are we going to do now?" Twilight asked, not particularly searching for an answer from them. "I'm supposed to find all of the Element Bearers... And the Elements, wherever they're hiding."

    "You don't know that for sure, darling. What if…" Rarity trailed off, wondering if it was such a wise idea to utter what she had just thought of.

    "What if what?" Twilight apparently wasn't going to give her a choice in answering.

    Taking a breath, Rarity decided she might as well say it. It didn't matter if it would complicate things, it still needed to be said. "What if things aren't going to happen the same here? You said yourself that there are already differences, and how couldn't there be? This other Equestria never achieved space travel, at least not in our alternates timeline. Us being here is the biggest clue that things are different."

    Twilight scowled even deeper, but didn't disagree.

    "What if this 'reality' is unique?" Rarity continued, getting into a groove. "What if, say, Sweetie Belle is the Element of Laughter, not Pinkie Pie."

    "Sweetie Belle?" Twilight raised an eyebrow at that, ignoring the squeak of indignation from the filly.

    "It's just an example," Rarity said, waving Twilight's disbelief away with an elegantly maintained forehoof. "What if the Bearers are those you'd never suspect."

    Twilight just started walking again instead of answering right away, though this time at a much slower pace. The others easily kept pace with her.

    "That can't be... " Twilight frowned, mulling Rarity's suggestion over in her head. "That's not… But it makes too much sense!"

    "So did the fact that we used to be alone in the universe." Rarity countered, walking in step with Twilight. She gestured around at the multitude of Asari surrounding them. "Look where we are now. Things change, and it's not a bad thing. Maybe we just have to accept that in this instance."

    "Yeah." Gilda snorted at that, rolling her eyes. Whatever changes there might be in this universe, she was sure that being a slave of the Batarians for twelve years wasn't for the better. "Whatever."

    "I am sorry, dear," Rarity said, catching Gilda's unspoken meaning nearly immediately. "I didn't mean to imply that all changes have been for the good, and that pain hasn't resulted from any of it, but you have to see that the vast majority of changes our society has undergone in the past few decades have been overwhelmingly positive. There has never been a more prosperous time in all of Equestrian history!'

    "If what you're saying is true…" Twilight shook her head, stepping around a pair of giggling Asari children. "That would mean that we're back to square one. How am I supposed to do what Celestia asked of me when I don't even know what it is that I'm supposed to do?"

    Before any of the others could even attempt to answer her, Twilight simply turned and started wandering, though at a much more sedate pace than before. She slowly wound her way up through the streets of Armali, unknowingly making her way towards a large temple that sat at the top of the mountain that was the spine of the great city.

    It took nearly an hour, and none of the others tried to speak to Twilight, either seeing that she was deep in thought, or because they simply had nothing to say. They passed by shops that sold exotic wares, and there were more than a few times that Rarity ducked inside for a minutes, to emerge with small bags she carried in her magic. It was a simple matter to catch up with the rest of the group at the pace they were going at.

    Twilight finally just stopped when she found herself standing just outside the entrance of the Temple of Athame. She looked up, staring at the elegantly simple architecture. It was unlike any building that could be found on Equestria, having been constructed from a blend of ancient stonework and modern materials more often found in dreadnought construction than in buildings. Despite that, the entire building gave off the feeling of quiet worship, and deep reverence.

    So engrossed was she in looking over the building that she didn't notice as a Priestess stepped up to her, her hands clasped before her as she smiled down at Twilight.

    "Welcome child," the Priestess greeted, her voice soft. She was slender, a perfect example of her race, with dark blue skin and piercing eyes. "What brings you to the Temple of Athame?"

    It surprised Twilight how unsurprised she was by the Priestess sneaking up on her. She shook her head in response, shrugging as her ears flicked back on her head. "I'm just… wandering. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

    "Athame always has a welcome place for those who wander," the Priestess said, gesturing towards the Temple. "Please, come join me for a cup of tea. Your friends are welcome to join."

    "That sounds wonderful." Twilight glanced back to see her friends standing a few feet away, politely out of earshot of the conversation. She gestured with a hoof for them to follow after after her as she joined the Priestess in entering the temple. "Thank you."

    The entrance to the Temple of Athame was a tall arch that looked like it would let as many as forty ponies standing side to side to enter all at the same time. The entrance led directly to a large atrium with a statue of Athame herself at the other end, her arms held open in welcome.

    None of them could take their eyes off the towering statues and priceless relics that tastefully lined the walls as the Priestess lead Twilight through the atrium.

    "This is amazing!" Twilight said, staring up at a statue that towered nearly thirty feet over her. "There must be so much knowledge here."

    "We do have one of the best repositories of knowledge anywhere on Thessia." The Priestess nodded and smiled at Twilight's exuberance.

    "I can imagine!" Twilight really could. She couldn't help the drool that filled her mouth at the idea of getting her hooves on whatever passed for a library in the temple.

    The Priestess lead Twilight down a side hallway, and they passed room after room, until they exited out into a large, but far more private meeting area. Turning around, the Priestess gestured for the others to follow her in. "Athame welcomes you to her home."

    "Who, exactly, is Athame?" Twilight asked, sitting as the Priestess offered them seats around a low table near a window overlooking the ocean.

    "Athame watches over us all." The Priestess lowered herself down to the tables level, sitting on her knees, her hands folded properly in her lap. "She raised us from the sea and gave us the gift of civilization. She is the maiden. She is the matron. She is the matriarch."

    "What do you mean?" Rarity tilted her head, flicking an ear back, the other kept firmly pointed at the Priestess. "Maiden? Matron? Matriarch?"

    "They are the three stages of an Asari's life," the Priestess explained. It wasn't often that she got to interact with anyone who wasn't an Asari. By her own reckoning, it had been nearly fifty years since she'd even spoken to a Turian, much less a human. Aliens weren't common at the Temple, and she very rarely ventured away from its walls. "We begin life as a maiden. We explore, we experiment, we fail, we learn, and when it is time, we transition into the matron stage of our lives. We settle down from our adventures and the urge to have children of our own becomes prevalent."

    "And what about the Matriarch?" Twilight asked, wanting to fill her mind with as much knowledge as she possibly could.

    "When an Asari has grown old enough, seen enough of the galaxy, we begin to gain followings of maidens and matrons who seek us out for our wisdom and understanding."

    "And what are you?" Gilda asked, tilting her head to the side. The Priestess didn't look like she was an ancient crone, but then, Gilda didn't have much luck with aliens.

    "I am still in the matron stage of my life," the Priestess said indulgently, smiling, "and becoming a Matriarch is still centuries away for me."

    Out from a hidden side-door, an Asari maiden stepped out with a tray of tea cups balanced in her hands. She glided across the floor, kneeling down to set the tray on the table in front of them. Standing gracefully, she backed away and disappeared back into the depths of the room.

    The Priestess reached out and started to pour the tea. "I can see that something is bothering you. There is no pressure here, but I am willing to lend an ear."

    Twilight didn't look at all convinced by her, but Gilda reached over, putting a reassuring claw on her forehoof.

    "Twilight…" Gilda said, catching Twilight's gaze.

    It took her a moment, but Twilight finally sighed, nodding. She looked up at the Priestess, meeting her cool blue eyes. "Do you recognize me?"

    "I do, Emissary." The Priestess took a sip from her teacup, hiding her smile.

    "Well... " Twilight nodded, grumbling under her breath. "That makes things easier."

    "Princess Celestia asked me to search out five very important ponies." Twilight took a breath, then nodded at Rarity. "I've already found one of them, Rarity, and I thought that I had found another, but she refused to join me."

    "I see." The Priestess set down her teacup, focusing entirely on Twilight. "Are you sure that she is who you are looking for?"

    "I am." Twilight nodded. How couldn't she be? She had a journal with all the answers in it. There wasn't any way to be more sure if a gypsy pony told her exactly what she needed to do.

    "Really?" The Priestess asked, raising what passed as an eyebrow for the Asari race.

    "Yes."

    The Priestess gave a small, unreadable smile, but didn't give an answer.

    Sweetie Belle sipped at the tea, but gagged immediately, spitting it back into the cup. A bright red blush covered Rarity's face.

    "Sweetie Belle!" She exclaimed, giving an apologetic look to Rarity. "That was rude!"

    "It was gross!" Sweetie Belle exclaimed vehemently.

    The Priestess laughed, a sound like bells. "The innocence of a child is something that adults should cherish. Speaking honestly is a wonderful gift that so few choose."

    "Still... " Rarity glared at Sweetie Belle, who looked singularly unrepentant. "Tact can be just as big a gift."

    "You are not wrong," the Priestess said, laughing.

    Rarity just sipped at her tea, pretending that Sweetie Belle didn't perform an awful faux pas in front of one of the most important Asari that she had ever met.

    "If she's not who I'm looking for…" Twilight sighed, staring deep into her tea. No answers were immediately available. "Then I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

    "The problems that confront us in life are often just the beginning of a new adventure." The Priestess finished off her tea, managing to look as serene as possible.

    Twilight just mulled that over, picking up her tea with her magic, taking a long sip. What else was she supposed to do?

    ###

    They left the Temple nearly an hour later, after a wonderfully relaxing conversation with the Priestess. Twilight had to admit that the tea left her feeling a lot better than before she'd stumbled upon the Temple. She didn't have any answers, but that wasn't particularly a bad thing.

    Together, they walked back down the mountain at a much more sedate pace. They had stayed for far longer than they thought they were going to, but it was worth it.

    "What now, Twilight?" Rarity asked, just to the left and a little behind Twilight.

    "I don't know." Pausing, Twilight took a deep breath of the evening air. "But I know we'll find out together."

    She smiled, letting out her breath. "Let's go. We're here on one of the most beautiful islands on Thessia. We should have some fun."

    "I like the sound of that," Gilda said, grinning. She trotted forward, wrapping a foreleg around Twilight and pulling her close.

    "I could go for some nachos." Spike piped up from the back of the group, his stomach growling. Tea was good and all, but he was hungry, and in the need for some serious food.

    "I don't think they have 'nachos' here," Rarity said, her distaste at the idea of nachos practically rolling from her lips. "But food certainly sounds good."

    "Sounds like a plan!" Twilight nodded, grinning.

    ###

    Much to Rarity's surprise, they actually found a shop that served nachos. It was too bad that they weren't actually very good. It was run by a maiden who had run across the dish on a trip to Earth, and she was still experimenting with the actual recipe.

    Feeling much better and pleasantly full, Twilight and their group walked over a bridge through the famed fountain garden of Armali. It was renowned the galaxy over for its breathtaking water shows and tastefully kept flower gardens.

    The fountain garden of Armali was constructed on a small lake at the bottom of the mountain, with an intricate walkway just a few inches off the water, providing wonderful views of the fountains.

    "Oh Celestia, look at those fountains! They are breathtaking." Rarity stared at the fountains with wide, glistening eyes, almost moved to tears.

    "Yeah." Everyone but Gilda eyed them with admiration, and the griffin just rolled her eyes. "Great. Wonderful."

    Jumping up, Gilda rested her forelegs on the railing, resting her beak in her claws. "Those nachos were… bleh. We should get something better for dinner."

    "We will, but it's good to admire the sights sometimes." Twilight got up next to her, wrapping her marefriend in a loose hug. The griffin had the tendency to get a little grumpy if she couldn't eat, just another symptom of her bad years.

    "Yeah, alright." Gilda just rolled her eyes, though she did lean into Twilight's grasp. She indulged Twilight, turning to look at the nearest fountain. "Oh. Ah. Such wondrous beauty mine eyes can barely behold."

    Twilight just rolled her eyes, dropping back down onto all fours.

    "There you are!"

    Jumping in surprise, Twilight and the rest of her friends turned to find Pinkie Pie and Maud walking up behind them. Maud was still dressed in her simple frock, and Pinkie Pie was wearing a bright blue shirt and a yellow skirt, a small saddlebag strapped around her middle.

    "We've been looking everywhere for you!" Pinkie exclaimed, trotting up to them, her tail swishing exuberantly.

    "Oh…" Surprised, Twilight blinked in confusion at seeing Pinkie so unexpectedly. "Why?"

    "I've been feeling really bad about not being able to say yes to your mission." Even as they got closer, Maud hung back at the edge of their little group. Pinkie paid that no mind, ignoring all ideas of personal space as she got right in Twilight's face. "I've been feeling really bad about not being able to say yes to our mission."

    "It's alright," Twilight said, waving a hoof as if she was clearing the air. "I should've been expecting it really. I was being a bit… naive."

    "I'm sorry I can't be anymore help, it's just…" Pinkie smiled a little morosely. "I can't leave Smile. I'm helping so many people and ponies remember how to be happy, and it's important." She glanced down, scuffing her hoof against the bridge, biting her lip. "The galaxy can be so cruel, but sometimes all you need is someone to help you remember what happiness feels like."

    "I really do understand, Pinkie Pie." She smiled at the smaller pink pony. "I'm not mad at you."

    "Oh, good!" Pinkie sighed, relieved that no one was mad at her. "I was worried." Sitting back on her flanks, Pinkie Pie smiled at them, a wide grin that almost shone with relief. "I don't like causing anypony to frown."

    "Thank you for being nice about this, Pinkie Pie. You certainly didn't need to be." Twilight spoke the truth. She could only imagine what would have happened if Pinkie was more like one of the nobles that she spent so much time around in Canterlot.

    "I'm never mean!" Pinkie scoffed, offended at the very idea.

    Already bored of the conversation, Gilda just started looking around. She noticed Maud, whose head was tilted to the side, a deep frown on her face with her ears swiveled both to the same side. For some reason that she couldn't fully explain to herself, Gilda placed herself on the other side of Twilight, keeping herself between the water and her marefriend.

    The same way that Maud was doing with Pinkie, Gilda noticed.

    Turning, she tried to see whatever it was that caught Maud's attention, but she didn't have any luck with that.

    "I'd like it if you'd come and share dinner with us at least," Twilight said, completely oblivious to Gilda's annoyance. "There's no reason we can't still be friends."

    "That sounds-" Before Pinkie could even finish her sentence, she grunted as Twilight tackled her to the ground, pulling her under the bottom railing and into the water as the statue behind them exploded in a burst of flame!

    For some reason, all that Twilight could hear was Sweetie Belle's scream. Moments later, Gilda trampled her. Adrenaline pumped through the griffin, and the urge to protect her mate overwhelmed her. Attack all who'd harm the nest!

    Gilda roared, an ear shattering sound that made her pride well in her chest, and for the first time since she'd been rescued, she felt strong, like a griffin should.

    Claws out and ready to tear and rend, she reared up as squad of ponies in matte black armor leaped from the water, guns blazing. Their helmets concealed their identities, and even their tails were hidden. No chance of identifying them from even their mane colors.

    Gilda tried to lunge forward, but a tight wrapping of magenta magic surrounded her, holding her in place. Even as the ponies opened fire on her, an impenetrable shield surrounded them, turning away the gunfire as easily as a dreadnought swatted down asteroids.

    Swiveling in Twilight's magic hold, Gilda found that Twilight was standing over Sweetie Belle protectively, casting the strongest shield she'd ever created. Her muzzle was scrunched up in anger, and more than a little confusion.

    Nearly as one, the attacking ponies struck the shield, hooves raised up to batter it to pieces. They're surprised when they bounce off it, far stronger than they ever believed it could be. As the student of Princess Celestia herself, it really shouldn't have come as a surprise.

    Taking a deep breath, Twilight screamed, and then she simply pushed. The shield flared, then exploded outward, throwing the attacking ponies away from the bridge and back into the water. She slumped, suddenly feeling extremely tired.

    Even as Twilight tried to catch her breath, Gilda looked up and caught sight of two unmarked shuttles racing towards them.

    "Run!" Gilda shouted, growling deep in her chest. This wasn't at all how she imagined her day going when she had woken up.

    Grabbing Sweetie Belle with her magic, Twilight took off running, followed by the rest of her friends. None of them noticed that Pinkie Maud weren't on the bridge.

    Running as fast as their legs could carry them, Twilight and company raced to the exit of the fountain garden, only to find that it was blocked off by an advancing mass of ponies in the same black armor. Two of the ponies, smaller than the others but dressed in far more elaborate and expensive armor, stepped forward.

    "You will come with us," the one on the right said, her voice a dull monotone.

    "What in the name of Celestia do you think you're doing?" Twilight glared at them, ignoring the very real niggling of fear that filled her mind. "Do you know who I am?"

    "Of course, Emissary," the one on the left said, in the same monotone. "If you don't come with us, we'll kill your companions."

    "We'll start with the foal."

    Rarity shrieked in protest, screaming, putting herself in front of Sweetie Belle. She would give her life to protect her sister from these freaks. "You'll have to go through me first!"

    "And me!" Twilight stomped a hoof, her horn glowing with sparking magenta colored magic.

    "Very well." The one on the left said, shrugging.

    Together, the two of them ran forward, directly at Twilight. Before she could even raise a shield, they struck first! Their hooves slammed into Twilight's face, driving the unicorn to the ground, unconscious from the first blow.

    Gilda screeched in anger, leaping at the two ponies to protect Twilight.

    There was a sudden bloom of pain in her chest, followed a half second later by the dull sound of a gunshot. The griffin hit the ground with a thud, and blackness engulfed her vision.

    ###

    Pinkie shivered as she pulled herself out of the water, groaning as she struck the side of her head to try and clear her ears of the water that managed to fill them. She managed to look very much like a dying fish. Unlike Pinkie, Maud gracefully leaped up onto the bridge, standing guard over her little sister while the younger mare coughed out what seemed to be at least a gallon of water.

    "Ugh…" Pinkie rubbed her eyes with her hooves, trying to clear her vision of the spots filling her vision. "What was that?"

    Maud didn't answer, staying silent. She kept careful watch for any more attacks, her head on a constant swivel.

    "Why would anyone try to…" Pushing herself onto all four of her hooves, Pinkie look at Maud with desperate eyes. Maud could almost see pieces of her innocence peeling away. "Try to attack us?"

    Maud still didn't say anything, though a small frown crossed her face.

    "That's like, the opposite of what's supposed to happen!" Pinkie continued, speaking as if Maud had answered her. In many ways, she had. Pinkie knew her big sister like the bottom of her hoof, and Maud wasn't exactly the chatty type. She had long grown used to having what her sister was saying without her saying a single word.

    "I do not know." Maud's answer was surprising from the simple fact that she actually spoke, not so much what she actually said.

    "We have to go find Twilight and her friends." Pinkie frowned, tapping her chin with her hoof as she thought deep thoughts and tried to figure out a pan. She wasn't very good with plans. She was more the do it on the fly type.

    "I do not think that is a good idea, Pinkie Pie." Maud knew her little sister just as well as Pinkie knew her. When Pinkie started to plan, chaos entered the picture and all of her abilities to see things as they happened just disappeared. No one reacted predictably around Pinkie Pie.

    "I won't leave any friend hanging when they're in danger." Pinkie turned to look at Maud, a serious expression on her face. "No come on, Maud. We've got a unicorn to save!"

    Maud frowned but didn't say anything as Pinkie took off running down the bridge the way they came. She just followed Pinkie as she tried her best to catch up to the unmarked shuttles, just lifting off from the entrance of the fountain garden. Their own shuttle was still on the street, and Pinkie kept keen eyes on the shuttle. She wasn't going to lose her new friends. Not now.

    ###

    Consciousness did not come easily to Twilight, nor did it come without consequence. She had never had a worse headache, not even when she stayed up for a week straight studying for a test that Celestia was going to give to her.

    After getting over the fact that she was in pain, she quickly came to the realization that she was blindfolded and held suspended in the air, thick straps around her four legs and around her barrel. She felt the tell tale itch of a magic suppressor wrapped tightly around her horn, and she could only whimper in fear.

    She could hear everything happening around her, and she figured that she was probably somewhere empty and unused, with walls made of bricks and extremely echoey. She could smell thick layers of dust everywhere, and the smell of soap and… she had no other way to really describe the smell other than clean.

    "Welcome back, Twilight," a quiet voice spoke out from in front of her, male, maybe thirty years in age.

    "What…" Twilight groaned, shaking her head as she wished her headache would just curl up and die. "Where…"

    "You've turned some heads, Twilight," the voice continued, unbearably smug. "My boss decided he had a pressing need to understand what it is that had you leaving Equestria so quickly."

    "That's not any of your business," Twilight mumbled, trying to sound braver than she really did.

    It didn't work.

    "No." The man laughed. "It's not. Yet, here we are."

    "Who are you?" Twilight struggled against her bonds, trying to ignite the magical suppressor around her horn. No luck.

    "My name is Kai Leng." He paced his way around Twilight, taking slow, careful steps.

    Twilight's ears swiveled around as the sound of hoof steps neared her.

    "As we agreed, a private 'conversation' with Twilight Sparkle," a new voice spoke, also male, but far older than this Kai Leng.

    "You have my thanks." Kai Leng turned to greet the other voice, his shoes squeaking on the smooth floor.

    "And your credits," the other voice laughed, a purely equine sound that drove Twilight to confusion.

    "Of course. Cerberus honors its debts."

    "Why are you doing this?" Twilight asked, her voice desperate.

    "I love Equestria, Emissary," the pony said, almost apologetic, but not enough to do anything, "but I love money more. You are simply a means to an end."

    "You won't get away this!" Twilight shouted, but in her heart she didn't believe it. This was bad. This was really bad.

    "I have before, and I will again." The pony laughed as he left the room. Twilight just whimpered, realizing that she'd been left alone with Kai Leng.

    ###

    Whatever the ponies had used to knock her out had worn off fairly quickly… at least Rarity believed that it was quickly. She had heard footsteps in the hall outside her cell as she returned to consciousness. She didn't have any chance to try and figure out a way to escape when she saw Gilda breathing laboriously on the ground next to her, the fur on her chest matted with blood.

    The magic suppressor on her horn was certainly worrying, but she had bigger problems than that. Gilda could very well be bleeding out, and both Sweetie Belle and Spike were still unconscious on the floor. First things first, keep Gilda alive.

    Even as she lifted Gilda into her lap, Rarity felt a surge of relief flow through her when she saw Sweetie Belle and Spike start to stir. They were alive. That was good. Great even! Everyone was alive…

    Twilight. Where was Twilight?

    Gilda started to stir in her forelegs, and Rarity felt a surge of relief pass through her. At least the griffin was still alive. Twilight would have to protect herself, because at the moment, they were all helpless in what amounted to a cage, and Gilda could very well be on the doorstep of death.

    "Come on, Gilda, you're doing fine." Rarity whispered to her, running a hoof over the feathers on the top of the griffin's head. Her breathing was coming in wheezy gulps, the wound in her chest bubbling with every breath. That was bad, really bad, Rarity figured.

    "Twilight…" Gilda wheezed, her eyes struggling to open, failing spectacularly.

    "Twilight is fine." Rarity lied, hating herself for having to do so, even while she was cooing comforting noises to the trembling griffin. "Just stay with us, Gilda."

    "... 'm tired…" Gilda mumbled, clacking her beak softly.

    "I know, darling," Rarity said comfortingly. "But you can't go to sleep. You have to wait until Twilight comes for us. She'll come for us."

    "Mmm…" Whether she was making a noise of acknowledgment, or simply just too out of it to have actually heard what Rarity said was something only she knew.

    Standing on shaky legs, Sweetie Belle made her way over to her sister, looking at Rarity worriedly. She stepped over Spike's body, even as she took in Gilda's still form. "Is she going to be okay?"

    "I don't know, Sweetie Belle," Rarity said with a frown, meeting Sweetie Belle's gaze.

    "Are…" Sweetie Belle looked around at the cell they found themselves in, shrinking in on herself. "Are we going to be okay?"

    Rarity didn't know how to answer that.

    She didn't know that answer herself.

    ###

    Pinkie and Maud had managed to follow the shuttles to a secure building deep in the warehouse district of Armali. They had flown just on past, landing in a small parking lane then trotted back to the secure building. There was no obvious signs of security, but Pinkie knew better than to take that at face value.

    "This is very fishy." Pinkie stared at the building from behind one of the empty shuttles. Fishy. Why would a situation be fishy? They weren't near an ocean… well, yes, they were, but there weren't any fish nearby. That statement didn't make any sense. Brain, take a note! Strike fishy from the Pinkie lexicon.

    "This isn't our problem, Pinkie," Maud said simply, watching her sister.

    "Yes." Pinkie squinted, looking over at Maud in confusion. "It is."

    "No." Maud shook her head, scowling on the inside. "It is not."

    "They're our friends!" Pinkie stomped her hoof, scowling. This wasn't like Maud. She was always ready to help someone if they really needed it. It might not show on the outside, but Pinkie had seen her go out of her way more than enough times helping somepony, or somealien, as the case may be. This was different.

    "You met them today," Maud said flatly. "You know nothing about them."

    "I know that they're on an important quest," Pinkie said, as serious as a Pinkie could be. "And I know that they trusted me enough to tell me what they're looking for."

    "You met them today." Maud didn't so much as flinch at Pinkie's glare. She'd seen worse, and Pinkie didn't pull of threatening very well.

    "That. Doesn't. Matter." Pinkie stomped her hoof with each word, doing her best to prove to Maud just how much this mattered.

    "It does."

    "What's wrong with you?" Pinkie asked, looking at Maud strangely. This was turning out to be maybe the eleventh weirdest day that Pinkie had ever had, and her sister certainly wasn't helping any. "A pony should always be willing to help another pony."

    Maud stayed silent, staring at Pinkie with unblinking eyes.

    Pinkie waited for a second, before shaking her head in disgust. "I'm going to help them. You can come with me, or not, but I'm going to help them."

    Maud frowned, taking several deep, measured breaths, before nodding in understanding. "Very well, Pinkie Pie."

    Pinkie nodded, satisfied, before turning and heading towards the entrance of the building, creeping along a low wall that managed to hide them from the windows of the building. The wonderful thing about Asari architecture was that they often added artistic flares to their buildings, and those flares weren't always the best for security.

    The lone door in the building didn't look very well secured, and Pinkie eyed it with anger in her heart. That door was between her and her friends, and it was going to have to come down.

    "Step back!" Pinkie exclaimed, turning to look at Maud. "I'll break this down!"

    Spinning around with confidence that was perhaps a bit too optimistic for her, Pinkie struck at the door with her rear legs.

    The door didn't break.

    Pinkie bounced off the door, landing on the ground with a heavy, "Oof!"

    Sitting on the ground for a long moment, Pinkie cycled her legs in the air. Rolling over, Pinkie got up to try it again, only for Maud to put a hoof out to stop her. Pinkie could only watch, tilting her head in confusion as she watched Maud stepped forward.

    Activating the door controls, Maud opened up her omni-tool, starting to hack into the door. Pinkie could only watch, becoming more and more confused.

    Before Pinkie could even ask just what Maud was doing, the door slid open and Maud stepped inside. Turning, she met Pinkies confusamazed stare.

    "Maud…" Pinkie tilted her head, looking at her sister in a new light. "When did you learn how to do that?"

    "Do what?"

    Before Pinkie could demand a further, detailed answer, Maud turned and headed inside. Pinkie had no choice but to follow after her, wondering just how well she actually knew her older sister.

    Following her sister's hoofsteps, Pinkie entered the building. For being the lair of kidnappers, Pinkie thought it remarkable how clean and unassuming the inside was. The walls and floors were clean, though heavily used, and it was well lit.

    Catching up to her sister, Pinkie opened her mouth to ask a question, but Maud reached over and closed it again with her hoof. Before Pinkie could protest, Maud leaned close and whispered, "Later."

    Pinkie kept her mouth shut when Maud pulled her hoof away, and together, silently, they headed further in.

    While clean and well kept, the building quickly proved to be a labyrinth of corridors and hallways. Whoever built it had obviously not cared at all for the ease of transportation within it. Obviously a warehouse, Pinkie was confused that there weren't any readily obvious storage areas. These were just the offices, that much was clear, but where were the workers? Much like the Citadel, Thessia never slept.

    Well, that wasn't completely true. Thessia rarely slept.

    Despite her questions, Pinkie appreciated the decorating that whoever owned the building had done. The walls were painted a soothing, sunny yellow. It was simple psychology to try and keep the workers happy in the windowless hallways, and the pictures of Thessia's oceans were hung on the walls for the same purpose.

    Maud held up a hoof at the sound of a footsteps echoing through the empty halls. Grabbing Pinkie before she could protest, Maud pulled her to the closest door and dragged her inside. Pinkie was surprised at her sister's strength, but rightly remained silent, though Maud put a hoof over her mouth to ensure that she didn't make any noise.

    In the shadows of the doorway, the two of them watched as a pony in the same matte black armor trotted by, oblivious to their presence. He walked right down the hall, looking neither to his right nor his left, until he turned a corner.

    Pinkie relaxed, though Maud stayed alert, ready to move at a moment's notice.

    "We need to leave," Maud said, keeping her gaze on the hallway.

    "No!" Pinkie frowned, shaking her head. It actually stung personally that Maud was putting up so much of a fight in doing the right thing. "I don't know what's wrong with you, Maud, but I don't leave my friends hanging. I thought you didn't either, but… you're proving me wrong today."

    Maud pursed her lips, staring at Pinkie. A big decision was playing out behind her eyes, that was obvious to Pinkie, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out what it was. Maud certainly wasn't helping with that, keeping her own counsel.

    After what felt like an eternity, Maud sighed, nodding her head. "Very well."

    Stepping forward, she put a hoof on Pinkie's shoulder. For a moment, it looked like she wanted to say something, but no matter how hard she tried she couldn't force it out. Finally, she just hung her head, and stepped out of the room.

    Following after her sister, Pinkie relaxed ever so slightly when she realized that they were alone. That didn't feel right though. She frowned, biting her lip and narrowing her eyes. Even as Maud started back down the hall, Pinkie's eyes widened as she realized what it was that she was feeling. The familiar twitching of her body shook their way through her, and she had to stop herself from gasping.

    "Someone's coming!" Pinkie whisper shouted after Maud.

    "Stay behind me." Maud whispered back, and together, they hugged the walls, easing forward to hide behind a pair of support pillars built directly into the walls. Pinkie seemed to merge into the shadows, though she would never be able to explain how, and her bright pink coat certainly didn't seem like it would help with stealthy movements. Maud just became perfectly still, not even blinking.

    A moment passed, and just like Pinkie had predicted, an Asari glided around the corner, her hips swinging ever so subtly, and every movement she made simply oozed sensuality. She was dressed in white armor, the high quality obvious to even Pinkie's eyes. There was only a single symbol painted on it, above the Asari's left breast. A diamond, with two arms raising from the bottom, hugging the form of the diamond.

    She stopped when she saw Maud, standing still in the shadows.

    She wasn't hidden well enough.

    "Hold it right there!" Pinkie leapt out from her cover, an uncharacteristic (and rather unthreatening) growl rumbling in her throat. Balancing on her back legs, Pinkie raised her forehooves up in a vague approximation of kung-fu. "Don't take another step!"

    Accepting what had just happened without complaint, Maud stepped out from her inadequate hiding spot to face the Asari.

    "I wasn't expecting to see you here," the Asari said to Maud, an unamused expression on her face. "I thought you would be… elsewhere."

    Maud didn't respond to that, just staring at the Asari.

    Sensing that something was wrong, the Asari tilted her head, staring at Maud with cold eyes. "What is going on?"

    "We're here to rescue my friends!" Pinkie didn't stop her growling, though it didn't do anything to intimidate the Asari.

    The Asari narrowed her eyes, ignoring Pinkie in favor of watching Maud unblinkingly. She tilted her head, frowning. "Ms. Fire?"

    Maud closed her eyes as Pinkie looked to her, then back at the Asari, confusion plain on her face.

    "Ms. Fire?" Pinkie scrunched her muzzle at that, ears swivelling in confusion. "What…" She gathered her resolve and her conviction, jabbing a hoof accusingly at the Asari. "No more distractions! Take us to my friends, or suffer the wrath of Pinkamena Diane Pie!"

    The Asari laughed, looking incredulously down at the neon pink pony. In a word, threatening she was not. She looked back at Maud, amused. "She doesn't know, does she?"

    Maud stayed silent, grinding her teeth.

    It was enough of a confirmation for the Asari, who couldn't help the deep belly laughter that came over her. "Oh, this is rich! I thought…" she struggled to catch her breath. "Oh, god, I thought-"

    "Maud?" Pinkie glanced at her sister, who was completely unamused. "What is she talking about?"

    "Later, Pinkie." For once, the frustration that Maud was feeling was obvious in her voice, and it made Pinkie take a step back in surprise.

    The Asari stopped laughing, glaring at the two of them. "That was cute." Now, you both are going to come with me, and I'm going to let your fath-"

    Before the Asari could continue, Maud lunged forward, pushing herself into the air with surprisingly strong back legs, her forehooves pulled back to attack!

    Pinkie could only watch in shock as Maud struck the Asari with her hooves. It was unlike anything that she had ever seen before, a dance of death between two surprisingly equal opponents, a dance of death.

    Grabbing Maud by her forelegs, the Asari lifted her up off of her and slammed her against the wall, cracking the wall itself. Using the Asari herself and the wall as leverage, Maud drove her powerful back legs into the Asari's stomach, hard enough to knock her across the hall into the opposite wall.

    Maud dropped to the ground, landing on all four of her hooves, watching the Asari as she stood straight, stretching her arms with a grin.

    Pinkie saw something that she couldn't explain, and she tilted her head to get a better look. Catching Pinkie's confused look, the Asari reached up and touched her forehead, wincing when her fingers came in contact with a long flap of pale blue flesh… no, not flesh. There wasn't any blood, at least not enough for the size of the wound, and what there was, was not the rich blue of an Asari. Under the 'wound' was a shock of dark hair.

    The Asari wasn't at all what she appeared to be.

    Neither was Maud.

    Pinkie had never seen this side of her older sister, and frankly, she wasn't sure that she liked it. If she had been keeping this much hidden from her, what else was Maud keeping from her? Pinkie wasn't sure, and she didn't know if she wanted to find out.

    Before Pinkie could even finish her thought, Maud and the Not-Asari were attacking each other again, a deadly dance of hooves and fists. They were both impressive, clearly highly trained in their respective martial arts. The Not-Asari flowed around Maud's attacks, like she was water. Maud struggled to land a single blow, the initial surprise of her attack gone.

    The fight continued on, and Pinkie had to leap out of their way more than a few times to avoid blows that should have broken bones. The two of them were impressive, but as the fight dragged on, it slowly became more and more apparent that Maud had the upper hoof. She was just ever so slightly better than the Not-Asari.

    The Not-Asari managed to push Maud away from her with a great shout, delivering a swift high-kick down onto the pony's head, before turning and running away.

    Pinkie didn't even wait a second after that, galloping forward to make sure Maud was alright.

    "Maud!" She shouted, lifting Maud's head up to check that she was still… whatever it was that doctor's checked for when you got a head injury.

    "I am fine, Pinkie Pie," Maud mumbled, shaking Pinkie off of her.

    "What was that?" Pinkie demanded, feeling more scared than she had in a long time. Never mind that she had already survived an explosion that day. Explosions were merely a part of her life, after all. She had her trademarked Party Cannons at every show she put on, so it was nothing she couldn't handle.

    Seeing her sister fight an Asari who wasn't what she appeared to be… that was something else entirely. "Where did you learn to do… all of that?!"

    "All of what?" Maud asked, her voice surprisingly flat for having just sustained a possible head injury.

    "All of-" Pinkie scoffed, trailing off, staring at Maud like she was crazy. Who knows, maybe she was going crazy herself. "Whatever that was!"

    Maud stayed frustratingly silent.

    Pinkie stared at her expectantly, and when Maud didn't answer, she stomped her hooves in frustration. "What's wrong with you? You've been acting strange ever since Twilight came and visited."

    Maud still stayed silent.

    "Why aren't you answering me?" Pinkie practically begged, her frustration boiling over to join with her fear and confusion.

    Maud pursed her lips, mulling over just what she should say in her mind. "I… I cannot say, Pinkie Pie."

    "Can't…" Pinkie asked, narrowing her eyes. "Or won't?"

    Tellingly, Maud stayed silent.

    "Maud…" Pinkie begged, her eyes wide, showing all of the hurt that she was feeling.

    "We should leave." Of everything she could have said, that was the absolutely worst thing.

    "No!" Pinkie's frustration turned to anger, and she shook her head. "Stop saying that! That's a whole bunch of…" She simply trailed off, losing the fire that had boiled over in her chest just moments ago. She was confused, and far more hurt than she could even express. "I've already said what I'm going to do. You can… do whatever you want. I don't care anymore."

    Turning away, Pinkie started walking the way that the Not-Asari had come from.

    Behind her, Maud frowned, watching her sister's retreating form. It took her a moment, but with a sigh, she started trotting after her little sister.

    ###

    She didn't have any clue how much time passed, and Rarity hadn't let go of Gilda since she had first woken up. The griffin had been drifting in and out of consciousness since then, and Rarity was getting more and more worried by that as the minutes ticked on past. She didn't know how much longer they could hold out. The only thing keeping her from falling into a complete panic was the rise and fall of the griffin's barrel.

    With one foreleg around Gilda, keeping her supported, she had her other leg wrapped around Sweetie Belle, the filly having buried herself in her side. The poor thing was shaking in fear, though she had long since run out of tears.

    The worst part of this entire experience was the lack of soundproofing in their cell. They could hear every scream that Twilight made. She was nearby, but from the way the awful sound echoed, there were at least several rooms between them.

    In front of the cell door, Spike paced back and forth, his face set in a scowl. He was practically snorting smoke, his anger more than perfectly clear for all to see. Every stomp he made was full of his rage, and Rarity could have sworn she had seen a few of the tiles actually crack under his feet.

    If there was ever a look of someone willing to pick a fight, he was embodying it perfectly.

    "Come on!" Spike shouted, his voice somehow full of the fire that was brewing in his belly. "I dare you come on in here! I'll burn all of you to ash!"

    It was certainly impressive. If Rarity was one of the guards, she'd have opened the cell-door and let the little dragon get on his merry way.

    Sadly, she was not one of the guards, and none of them were paying any particular attention to him. For all she knew, there wasn't even anyone outside to hear them?

    Taking a deep, gulping breath, Spike reared his head back before opening his maw and letting loose a jet of brilliant green flame. A quirk of Equestrian biology, a dragon's flame was much like a unicorn's magic. Their flame matched their 'soul,' and Spike's was a brilliant green. It burned at nearly 3000 degrees celsius and could melt steel.

    It did absolutely nothing against the super-composite material that made up their cell. It was almost like the bars ate the heat, making his efforts as pointless as someone trying to dig through concrete with their hooves.

    "Spike," Rarity said, covering Sweetie's eyes. There wasn't any reason that she needed to see Spike's anger (and it was truly a fearful thing). Honestly, Rarity had no desire to see it herself.

    Letting the flame drizzle out to nothing, Spike caught his breath before rearing back and trying again, his tail whipping back and forth.

    "Spike!" Rarity shouted this time, letting her frustration at the situation be known.

    "What?!" He roared, spinning around to face them, his face twisted down in an ugly visage of fury.

    Rarity pulled Sweetie Belle closer when she peeked, seeing Spike looking more like the beast most Equestrians believed them to be than she'd ever seen him before.

    "Calm down, Spike." Her voice was chastising, and she was simply not taking any more shit today.

    "Calm down?" Spike punched the cell wall, achieving nothing else but breaking his knuckles. "Calm down?! They're torturing Twilight, and you want me to calm down?"

    "Yes!" Rarity leveled a glare at him, and he actually took a step back in surprise. He had never seen Rarity level such a look at him. "You're scaring us."

    Spike stopped his shouting, his chest heaving as he huffed deep breaths of air. Gilda was thankfully unconscious for the entire confrontation. She probably would have punched Spike in the face if she was awake for making the whole situation worse.

    Or she might have helped him.

    Rarity could never be quite sure with the griffin.

    "They're hurting her…" Spike was much quieter now, his voice despondent.

    "I know, Spike." Rarity did know. Every time Twilight's scream echoed in her ears, she could swear that she smelled the burning of fur and the cold night air from that horrible night in Ponyville so long ago. "I know."

    They all lapsed into silence, the only sound Sweetie Belle's quiet crying against Rarity's shoulder. There was nothing else to say, and there was nothing they could do but wait.

    Minutes turned into an hour, and Twilight's screaming grew louder and more hoarse, followed by long bouts of echoing sobs. Spike kept pacing in front of the door, and he scowled at each scream. Sweetie Belle fell back into an uneasy sleep, her crying having exhausted herself.

    Finally, there were noises from the cell door, and Rarity and Spike straightened. Sweetie Belle stirred at Rarity's movement. Whoever, or whatever was going to come through that door, in all likelihood it wasn't going to be any good.

    They certainly weren't expecting Pinkie and Maud to be there as the door slid open.

    "Pinkie Pie!" Sweetie Belle squeaked, pulling free from her sister's embrace. A friendly face was definitely welcome right now.

    "What were you three doing in here?" Pinkie asked, tilting her head as she studied the four of them behind the door of the cage. "This'll just take a moment. We'll have you out of there in a jiffy!"

    Pinkie turned to look at Maud, pointing at the cell door just inside the room. "Use your funky secret knowledge on that door, Maud."

    Not at all moved by their plight, Maud stepped forward to the door and opened her omni-tool, easily smashing through the comparatively simple security on the door and working her way through the sub-systems.

    "No!" Spike stomped in front of the cell door, and he ignored the fact that the tiles underneath his claws didn't shatter from fear of his wrath. It was an indignity that he'd have to let stand. "It's not okay! They're hurting Twilight."

    Pinkie blanched ever so slightly, but the look was gone from her face by the time that Sweetie pulled back ever so slightly, looking up to see what had made the older pony shudder. Pinkie smiled at Spike, "And we'll stop them. Turns out Maud is like a ninja, and she's been keeping that from me."

    Tellingly, Maud didn't say a word in protest.

    "Do you have any medigel?" Rarity asked before anypony could say anything else. She rubbed a hoof over the wild feathers that seemed to stick up in every which direction on the top of Gilda's head. "She was shot."

    "No!" What she was referring to wasn't immediately clear, though Rarity had a good feeling that it wasn't medi-gel. Her expression held rage (a foreign emotion for Pinkie, Rarity was sure), and she looked at Gilda with a quiet tenderness that rang true with her supposed element. "Why?"

    "She was trying to protect Twilight." Rarity rolled her eyes at that. Of the couple, Twilight was the more dangerous. She had lived with Princess Celestia for almost her entire life, and had been taught by the greatest teachers on the entire planet, not to mention the Princesses themselves. Griffins were strong, but there wasn't much they could do with just their claws that a regular unicorn couldn't do tenfold with their magic. Twilight… she was in a league all her own. That she'd been captured… "They shot her when she tried to attack them."

    Gently letting go of Sweetie, Pinkie leaned back on her haunches and reached into her saddlebag. She came back up a moment later with a tiny little packet of medigel in her mouth, the type you would slather over a paper cut. Rarity took it anyway, tearing it open and rubbing all over Gilda's wound. It was barely even enough to even seep into the wound, but it would have to do.

    "There," Maud said, speaking up from her place next to the door. With a quiet click, the door unlocked and they were free.

    Immediately, Sweetie Belle rushed out, and the pink mare took the surprise hug from the filly as well as anyone could, wrapping her forelegs around her and rocking her back and forth.

    "Hey, it's okay!" Pinkie did her best to comfort the shaking filly.

    Even as Pinkie was holding Sweetie Belle, Spike rushed out, running to the door. Before he could make it out of the room, Pinkie grabbed him with her hoof, holding him back.

    "Whoa!" She struggled to hold onto him, surprised by his strength. "Hold on for a moment there."

    "I have to save Twilight!" Spike growled, belching emerald flames as he twisted in Pinkie Pie's grasp, trying to free himself.

    "Rushing off on your own isn't going to help you any." Pinkie wasn't a soldier, nor was she a great tactician, but she could see the strings of logic that governed the universe.

    Spike resisted for a long minute, but he relented when Pinkie didn't let go, somehow able to keep her grip on the impossibly strong dragon. For such a little fella, he must have been entirely muscle. He relented, unable to free himself from the surprisingly strong mare. "We need to save her," he whispered, letting her hold him.

    "And we're going to," Pinkie said, reassuring him, rubbing up and down his scaled back. "But we're not going to do it without any planning. That's more likely to get us all killed than it is to rescue Twilight."

    "I need to get these two out of here." Piping in, Rarity nodded her head at both Gilda and Sweetie Belle. There was no way that she was going to let Sweetie Belle get involved in a rescue attempt against their kidnappers, no matter how much of a crush the filly had on Twilight.

    "I'm going with you!" Spike pointed at Pinkie Pie, his eyes dangerously narrow slits.

    "It could be dangerous." Pinkie warned him.

    "I. Don't. Care." Spike snorted flames. "Twilight is my sister, and I'm doing this with or without you."

    Pinkie studied him for a long moment before nodding. Despite her next words, her voice was deadly serious. "Oki-doki loki."

    Rarity struggled to lift Gilda onto her back, but once the griffin was there and she was comfortable that she wouldn't dislodge easily, she managed to get onto all of her hooves with very little problem. Ponies were deceptively strong after all, much to the surprise of the rest of the galaxy. Looking down at Sweetie Belle, she nuzzled her sister as carefully as she could. "Stay behind me, Sweetie Belle."

    "There's a stairway at the end of the hall." Pointing with her hoof, Pinkie pointed to the right. "Take a right at the bottom, and then another right, and then you'll get to the exit. Our shuttle is parked nearby. Wait for us there."

    "Thank you, Pinkie." Rarity nodded.

    "No problemo!"

    Only slightly straining under the weight of the much larger griffin, Rarity led Sweetie Belle out of the cell and into the hall. She made no complaint at the weight of Gilda like she normally would. This wasn't a normal situation, and there was no call for normality. Abnormality was the name of this game, and it would help keep them alive.

    As soon as they were gone, Spike turned to Pinkie. He crossed his arms over his chest. "What do we do now?"

    "Now?" Pinkie narrowed her eyes. "We save Twilight."

    ###

    She wasn't sure when she stopped screaming, but it slowly came to her when she realized she was taking in deep, panting breaths. Tears streamed down her muzzle, her blindfold soaked by her crying and uncomfortable against her fur.

    Somewhere in the back of her mind, she idly noted that even breathing hurt. Twilight let out a choked sob, her throat feeling like it was being strangled by a thousand razor blades.

    "You are putting up far too much of a fight for so little information, Ms. Sparkle." Kai Leng sounded amused, but there was a hint of frustration hidden in his tone. He had not been expecting… whatever this was to take so long.

    Twilight didn't have the energy to answer. She felt dirty. He had touched her, with more than just his tools of torture. He let his hands linger on her, scratching her ear, rubbing her back, treating her like an animal. She felt dirty, blood thick in her coat, too fresh to have even started clotting.

    "Is your mission really worth this much?" Kai Leng asked, leaning close to whisper in her ear.

    Twilight flinched when she felt his hand on her muzzle, petting the fine fur there the wrong direction. She whimpered as a finger traced her throat.

    "You're learning." Pausing, Kai Leng chuckled.

    "Please…" Twilight felt the urge to throw up, but she'd already emptied her stomach nearly half an hour ago. The putrid stench still stung her nose. "Please, stop.

    "Twilight." She could imagine him shaking his head at her. "Twilight, Twilight, Twilight. All you have to do is tell me what I want to know."

    She just whimpered.

    The sudden feeling of his fingers running through her mane made Twilight jerk back in surprise, trying to pull away from the surprise contact. The fingers curled into a fist, and he yanked hard on her mane, pulling her head back, his other hand going for exposed throat.

    "You really need to learn, Twilight." Kai Leng was practically breathing into her ear he was so close. "You are not in control here."

    Helpless in his grasp, Twilight didn't have the energy to care as warm liquid ran down her back leg, dripping to the ground. She simply begged. "Please…"

    Kai Leng released her, pushing her head down as he walked away. His boots barely made any noise on the floor, but she definitely recognized the sound of him pouring water, followed by him drinking deeply.

    A simple glass of water had never sounded so appealing as it had right at that moment. Twilight didn't dare ask though. She had no idea what he would do to her for even asked.

    "That's good." Smacking his lips, Kai Leng set down the glass. It rattled for a second, the force making it roll back and forth before settling. "Nothing quite like a nice glass of water."

    Twilight shivered in her bonds, her hooves twitching in the open air.

    "What?" A laugh, harsh and grating to Twilight's ears. "You'd like some?"

    At the sound of pouring water, Twilight dared to hope for a moment. He walked back over to her, and Twilight couldn't help but open her mouth in hopeful excitement. The only thing on her mind was the cool taste of water in her mouth.

    "Whatever you may think of me…" Before Twilight could even think of being worried, Kai Leng pulled her head back, his hand gripping her jaw and forcing it open. Without any further preamble, he poured the glass into her mouth.

    She couldn't breath!

    Releasing her, Kai Leng stepped away as she choked, sputtering the water out all over her mouth and the floor below.

    Whatever water she might have been able to swallow, it wasn't a relief. Her throat burned, and her lungs felt as if they'd been dunked in acid. She coughed and coughed and coughed, struggling to catch her breath, panic welling in her chest. She felt sick, and idly she wondered if this is what her last minutes alive were going to feel like.

    "That was refreshing, wasn't it?" Kai Leng laughed. He dragged a chair up next to Twilight, and it's flimsy metal creaked as he settled his weight heavily down onto it. "Come now, Ms. Sparkle. There's no reason to make this so difficult."

    "E-even if I tell you what you want…" Twilight was surprised she was able to even get out that much. She spoke in a small, weak voice, every word trembling out of her mouth. "You're just going to hurt me anyway."

    "At least you're as smart as everyone says," Kai Leng said with a laugh. He patted her cheek, and Twilight just barely managed to keep herself from flinching. She got hurt when she flinched.

    Twilight couldn't help the next words out of her mouth, and she instantly regretted them. "You're a bastard." She immediately flinched. That was the absolute worst thing she could have said.

    Instead of pain, Twilight was met by laughter. "That wasn't a very nice thing to say. Where's that vaunted Equestrian kindness I've heard so much about?"

    Twilight just stayed silent. It was the safest thing for her to do. She was surprised to realize that deep in her heart of hearts, she had found hate. For once in her life, she wished for someone to die, and for as much pain as physically possible to be visited upon him.

    Before Twilight could follow that train of thought any further, the door burst open!

    "Let go of Twilight, you fiend!"

    Pinkie Pie's voice was a surprise, and a surge of relief shot through Twilight.

    "Twilight!"

    Spike's voice turned that relief to horror. What was he doing here?

    ###

    The door bursting open was something that Kai Leng had not planned for. He did not let his surprise show on his face, instead turning calmly to face the intruders. Obviously, Hope Lilium would need a bit of… encouragement to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again. It was simply unacceptable.

    The intruders weren't what he had expected. He wasn't met by the Equestrian Royal Guard, or even any of Armali's police force. Instead, a pink earth pony and Twilight's baby dragon companion stood in the doorway.

    Not exactly a threat.

    Obviously, Hope would need more encouragement than he had expected. This was sloppy.

    When the slate grey pony with the deep purple mane walked in, Kai Leng's annoyance turned to confusion, and then white hot rage. It burned deep in his chest, quiet and unseen, but the pony instantly recognized his mood.

    "What is going on here?" His voice had grown icily quiet, and his gaze never turned from the slate grey pony. Her appearance was a surprise, and it was worrisome in the extreme.

    "We're rescuing Twilight," the pink pony said, completely oblivious that Kai Leng's question had not even been remotely addressed to her. "And there's nothing you could about it!"

    "Miss Pie-"

    Before Kai Leng could even finish his sentence, Pluto Fire stepped into the doorway, behind the intruders. A deep frown was set on his face, and his displeasure was clear for all to see.

    "What is the meaning of this?" He asked.

    The pink pony froze, her ears flicking backwards at the sudden new voice, one she recognized with complete familiarity. She turned, and her eyes grew wide at the sight of Pluto Fire. "D-Daddy?"

    Pluto Fire froze, recognizing the pink pony for the first time. Kai Leng could see it behind his eyes as carefully kept plans decades in the making crumbled to pieces before Pluto. The ploy was over.

    Kai Leng felt a little righteous pleasure at that. He would have smiled if he was in any other situation.

    "Pinkie Pie…" Pluto frowned, stomping a hoof nervously on the ground. He glanced at the slate grey pony, giving her a harsh glare that made her flick her ears back in embarrassment.

    Oh yes, Kai Leng could work this to his advantage.

    "What?" Pinkie Pie asked (and Kai Leng struggled for a moment to remember where he had heard that name before). "W-What are you doing here, daddy?"

    "Oh god!" Kai Leng couldn't help but start laughing, and he grinned as he saw Twilight flinch in her bonds behind him. Her blood had yet to start congealing, and it still lazily dripped its way down her coat. "Oh this is just wonderful!"

    Leaning back against the wall, he crossed his arms over his chest and grinned at the four Equestrians. He looked at Pluto, smiling. Pinkie Pie. He made the connection, and suddenly understood. He didn't know everything, but he could guess. "She didn't know?"

    "Know what?" Pinkie Pie glanced at him, keeping half of her attention on him, and the other half on her father. She looked at him, her hooves twitching in nervous anxiety. "Why are you helping him, daddy?"

    Pluto Fire shifted on his hooves, Kai Leng could crow at his discomfort.

    "Are you helping him?" Pinkie Pie continued. "Did you… Did you help kidnap Twilight? What…" A more pitiful face hadn't been seen on Pinkie Pie her entire life. "What's happening here?"

    "Yes." Kai Leng spoke up, reminding them that he was still present in the room. "Please tell us what's going on, Pluto."

    "Pluto?" Pinkie Pie cocked her head at that, looking at her father in complete confusion. "What is going on? Your name is Igneous Rock..."

    That was interesting. Kai Leng made a note of that, but didn't comment. He might as well let this play out. It could bring a lot of new information to Cerberus, and that was always a good thing.

    "Is this why you helped make Smile?" Pinkie's voice was so quiet that Kai Leng had to strain to hear it.

    Pluto Fire's… no, Igneous Rock's, silence was not a very good sign.

    "You…" Pinkie shook her head even as she spoke, wishing against everything that this was just a bad dream. "You're just using me, aren't you?"

    "Pinkie," Igneous said, his voice somehow calm despite the obvious emotion roiling through him. "I think you should leave and let me take care of this-"

    "No!" Pinkie stomped a hoof against the ground, snorting in anger. "I am going to rescue Twilight, and then, and then, and then…" She sat back on her haunches with a huff. What was she going to do? She shook her head, her ears tight against her skull. "You used me."

    Igneous only hesitated for a second. "Yes."

    "This is all wonderfully touching," Kai Leng said, standing up straight. "But I'm in the middle of something at the moment."

    "Do. Not. Push. Me." Igneous turned his gaze on Kai Leng, and the full weight of his personality pushed against the Cerberus Operator. Unconsciously, Kai Leng shifted back ever so slightly. "You would not like the results, Cerberus."

    "Do I even know you?" Pinkie asked her father, ignoring the staring contest he and Kai Leng were having. "Has everything been a lie? What is it that you're even doing?" She thought for a moment, and it slowly started to come to her. "Oh… oh! That… that's smart. Mean and horrible, and I can't believe that you'd do that to me, but that's smart!"

    "Pinkie, you should leave." Igneous did not like the way this conversation was going.

    Pinkie didn't stop. She didn't even acknowledge that her father had spoken. "Smile is just a front, isn't it? It's the only thing that makes sense. You were the one who suggested it…" Her puffy pink mane deflated (and Kai Leng had to wonder just how that worked) as she realized the true depths of her family's betrayal. "You were the one set up all the shows. You… It was all a sham."

    She stomped closer to her father, muzzle scrunched in anger. "What are you hiding?" She pointed a hoof at Twilight and Kai Leng, who was watching the proceedings with an amused smirk on his face. "Who is this? Why did you give the Celestial Emissary to him? What are you thinking? Who else was in on this? Marble? Limestone? Mom?"

    Pinkie froze, realization striking her. Turning, she looked at the slate grey pony (and Kai Leng could not for the life of him think of her name), dawning horror coming over her.

    "Maud?" Pinkie's voice was practically completely silent.

    Maud didn't say anything, her expression flat. She never looked away from Pinkie's gaze, calmly meeting her betrayal.

    "Maud?" The pain in Pinkie's voice was clear. "Did you know about this?"

    "We should take Twilight and leave." Maud didn't answer Pinkie's question, doing her best to divert her attention. "This isn't the place for this conversation."

    Kai Leng pulled his M6 Carnifex pistol from his hip, the heavy gun unfolding in his hand even as he aimed it in Maud's general direction. "I would like to remind you that I paid for this meeting, and I'm not letting her go until I learn what I need to know."

    "Let. Her. Go." From behind Pinkie Pie, the dragon stepped forward, drawing in a deep breath as he leaped at Kai Leng. He exhaled, and a roar of fire leapt from his mouth.

    Kai Leng stumbled back in surprise. He had not been expecting that.

    Before he could gather himself back together, the dragon was rushing him, claws extended as he slashed through the straps holding Twilight suspended in the air. She dropped bonelessly to the ground, and with surprising strength, he pulled her forelegs over his shoulders and ran from the room before anyone could stop him. Twilight's body left a bloody trail behind him.

    "Damn lizard!" Kai Leng swore, getting back to his feet. He rushed to run after the dragon, but Maud leapt at him, forcing him back with her forelegs firmly planted against his chest.

    "Pinkie," Igneous said, frowning, "Leave. We can talk about this later, but now is not the time."

    Pinkie looked like she wanted to protest, but she had to gulp in fear at her father's stern expression. She had never seen him look so cold, and without a second thought she rushed after the dragon to help him with his burden.

    Kai Leng could do nothing to stop her, as all of a sudden he was deflecting a flurry of deadly attacks from Maud, who was using her smaller form to great advantage. She danced around him, using her forelegs like battering rams to wear down his defenses.

    He tried his best to level his hand-cannon at her, but every chance he got close, she struck his arm away and the whole dance would begin again.

    "Enough!"

    Igneous practically roared, and Kai Leng was surprised when he found himself obeying Igneous Rock's command.

    Maud backed away, never breaking her gaze with Kai Leng as he struggled his way back to his feet, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of his fist.

    "What is the meaning of this?" Kai Leng asked, following Maud's example, never turning his attention from her.

    "You can consider this the end of my organization's relationship with Cerberus." Igneous Rock did not have a single bit of amusement in his voice. He was deadly serious. "Leave. Now."

    Kai Leng straightened, smoothing out the wrinkles on his shirt. He idly regretted the fact that he hadn't worn his armor, but there wasn't anything he could do about that. None of what had happened in the last five minutes had been expected, and he had not planned for it. "The Illusive Man will not forgive this slight."

    Pushing past Maud, Kai Leng left, and Maud and Igneous Rock found themselves alone in the room.

    Distastefully looking at the blood that had pooled underneath where Twilight had been suspended, Maud looked to her father.

    "She is not going to accept what we do." It was as much a statement as it was a warning. Maud loved her father, and she trusted him, but she loved Pinkie more. She would not allow her little sister to be drawn into a life she had no business being a part of.

    "No." Luckily, her father agreed with her. Igneous had to think for a moment, plans emerging in his mind. "Stay with her."

    "I already was going to."

    Before he could even respond, Maud left him alone and followed after Pinkie.

    ###

    As soon as she had exited the building, Rarity had found Pinkie's shuttle and had taken off immediately. She was not going to let Gilda die on her watch, and she wasn't going to let Sweetie Belle get taken again.

    The flight back to Solar One was completely silent, save for Sweetie Belle's quiet sobbing in the seat next to Rarity. She ignored the requests from Armali flight control to turn away and landed directly in front of the gangway leading to the Equestrian ship.

    Rushing through the ship was a blur, and the next thing Rarity knew she was bursting into the med-bay with Gilda on her back and Sweetie Belle hot on her heels.

    "Help!" Rarity shouted, her eyes landing squarely on the Doctor. "She needs help. She was shot!"

    The Doctor looked up from his desk, startled from his omni-tool game. Seeing Gilda on Rarity's back, he scrambled out of his chair, an air of professionalism falling over him.

    "Get her on the bed," he said, nodding towards the closest bed to the door, already starting to wash his hooves and gather the supplies he'd need.

    Rarity gently lifted Gilda off her back with her magic, gently setting the griffin onto the bed the Doctor had pointed out. Task complete, she stepped back to make room, pulling Sweetie Belle close with a foreleg. She hugged her little sister, as much to calm her as to draw comfort for herself.

    The Doctor started scanning Gilda with his magic and the bed's state of the art medical scanner, ignoring his audience as he quietly figured out just how serious Gilda's wounds actually were.

    "Thank Celestia." He sighed in relief.

    "What is it, Doctor?" Rarity asked, her heart pounding so hard in her chest it felt like her ribs were going to break.

    "She's going to be fine." The Doctor didn't even bother to look at her. "The bullets missed all her major organs. She's extremely lucky. It could have been a lot worse."

    "Are you sure?" Rarity looked at Gilda and her blood stained fur, unconvinced. "She's been fading in and out of consciousness since it happened."

    "That's more the blood loss than anything else." The Doctor explained even as he got to work. "I can have that fixed up right quick."

    Even as he started to set up Gilda's bed to mend her wound and replenish her blood, the doors to the med bay slid open again. All three of them glanced to look and Rarity gasped in surprise as Spike dragged an unconscious Twilight Sparkle inside.

    At least, Rarity thought it was Twilight… She couldn't tell from all the blood and wounds covering the unicorn's body.

    In her forelegs, Sweetie screamed at the sight of her crush in such a horrible state. Her purple coat was stained almost completely black with thickening blood, and she looked like she was on death's door.

    "Help!" Spike shouted, and the Doctor sprung to action.

    ###

    The life of a Princess was one of seemingly endless meetings and laws that it all became a blur. It was good that Celestia was so skilled a politician that she could practically do it in her sleep, because there were times that she couldn't remember what meeting she had just attended. Most of those times came when she was speaking with any of the Canterlot nobles.

    Thankfully, the opening of the sphere had made her life far more interesting than it had ever been for the past few centuries. The Turian ambassador sitting across from her was a wonderful conversationalist, though she couldn't for the life of her remember his name. He was the fourth ambassador in a month. Apparently the turians couldn't settle on who they wanted representing themselves to her.

    She couldn't help but hope that this one would last. He had a quick wit that she didn't encounter often.

    Before she could say anything about the the trade details he had just proposed, an aide appeared from behind her and whispered in her ear.

    "You have an urgent call, Princess."

    Celestia nodded in understanding before turning her attention to the Turian delegation. "Please, excuse me, ambassador. A matter has arisen that requires my personal attention."

    "Of course, Empress," the Ambassador said, giving what passed for a turian smile, flaring his mandibles.

    Nodding her thanks, Celestia left the room, following her aide out of the conference room and into the bustling hallway of the Royal Castle. Ever since opening the sphere, the castle had become a far more busy place. Hiring had gone off the charts, and the castle, despite its massive size, was filled almost to overflowing with the new ponies.

    Just outside the conference room, Solar Ace was waiting for her, a thoughtful expression on his face.

    "What is it, Solar?" Celestia asked, falling in step with him as he led her towards her private day chambers.

    "It's Commander Honey Dawn, Princess." They took a turn down a smaller hallway, less bustling than the larger thoroughfares. "She's on the line with urgent news for your ears only."

    Celestia nodded in understanding, wondering just what Honey Dawn could have that was important enough to call her. She'd spent a lot of time with the pilot while she was touring the galaxy after the sphere first opened. She was a loyal member of the Royal Guard, and she wouldn't rather have anyone around to help protect her loyal student.

    Solar Ace peeled away as Celestia opened the doors to her private chambers with her magic. Striding inside, she shut the doors behind her, sitting on her haunches in front of her desk. Activating her console, she answered the call.

    "Hello?" Celestia asked.

    "Hello?" Honey Dawn's voice came through nice and clear, though she wasn't looking at the monitor, distracted by something off to the side. "This is Commander Honey Dawn. Have you found Princess Celestia yet? I have important information for her ears only."

    "Dawn?" Celestia asked, a spike of worry filling her mind.

    Honey Dawn looked up at the sound of the familiar voice, her eyes widening in surprise. "Princess!" She sighed in relief. She straightened up, coming to what was practically a parade rest.

    "What's wrong, Dawn?" Celestia asked, surprised at how calm she was able to keep her voice. Something was wrong, and she knew it.

    Honey Dawn pursed her lips, hesitant, but unwilling to make her Princess wait. "It's… It's Twilight, Princess."

    "What's wrong." That little niggling of panic bloomed into full blown fear and terror.

    ###

    For how long Rarity had watched the Doctor work, she couldn't say. Sometime between when she had brought Gilda inside and Spike arriving with Twilight, she had been moved outside to the viewing area. She couldn't remember when it had happened, but she couldn't find the energy to care. At some point, Lucky Arrow and Tiny Berry had joined her and Sweetie Belle in their vigilance.

    They could do nothing else but watch as the Doctor frantically worked to save Twilight's and Gilda's lives.

    The quiet ding of the elevator opening drew all of their attention, breaking the spell of silence. They watched as Pinkie and Maud stepped out, and Rarity idly noticed that the party pony looked absolutely defeated. Her mane fell flat down her face, her tail dragging on the floor, and she trudged over to them, sitting heavily down on her haunches. She let her saddle bags drop to the floor, bulging to overflowing.

    Rarity glanced away, meeting Tiny Berry's gaze, and the smaller earth pony shrugged. She turned back to Pinkie, biting her lip as Maud sat next to Pinkie. "Is… Is everything alright darling?"

    It took Pinkie a long minute, and when she answered, her voice was quiet. "... No."

    Pinkie said nothing else after that, watching as the Doctor used his magic to deftly pull tiny shards of glass from the bottom of Twilight's hooves.

    Maud watched her for a moment, before looking at Rarity. "We are coming with you."

    Rarity snorted, shaking her head. "I'm afraid that I am not okay with that. You hurt Twilight, and I don't want you anywhere near my little sister or I, much less on this ship."

    "You are not in charge here." It was an idle observation on Maud's part, but she was correct. Rarity did not have the authority to kick them out. "Twilight Sparkle will decide the matter."

    Rarity pursed her lips, but she knew Maud had dug to the heart of the matter. With no other course of action, they all turn back to watch the desperate surgery.

    ###

    Arayda T'Dorian loved working at the dock. Her mother had pulled strings with her friends to make sure her daughter received a job, and Arayda had done everything since then to make sure she never regretted doing that. At a time when most other maidens were out shaking their naked asses in clubs or fighting as mercenaries, Arayda felt like she had made the much more mature choice to lock down a steady, safe job close to him.

    Her job was simple, but she enjoyed it all the same. She simply greeted the ships that came in to land, helping them through customs in whatever way she could.

    It wasn't a particularly exciting job, and the hours were often long, but she enjoyed seeing the faces of those who had traveled the galaxy (though she could never imagine doing something so unsafe herself). It let her experience the thrill of danger without ever having to have the threat of death hang over her head.

    She never expected to see her boss, Matron D'Ysene, tripping over her own feet as she ran up to meet her. Her eyes were wide, and it was obvious that she had run all way from the office to the maiden. A small army of customs officers and officials were rushing after her, looking just as panicked as the Matron.

    "What's happening?" Arayda asked as D'Ysene tried to catch her breath. Her crest was flush with blood, trying to cool her down. "Is something wrong?"

    D'Ysene laughed, half choking as she was bent over her knees. "Only an unexpected visit from the Empress of Equestria!"

    "What?" Arayda cocked her head to the side, not quite sure whether she had heard that or not.

    "The Empress-"

    Before the Matron could even finish her sentence, the roar of engines made all of them look up.

    A sleek black ship descended through the atmosphere, looking like the sharks that swam through Thessia's oceans, all sleek lines pulling back towards the engines, bigger than any that Arayda had ever seen on a ship its size. It had to be fast, and just for a moment, Arayda shivered at the sight of it. Darkness had touched the ship, and called it home.

    "The Night's Fury," D'Ysene murmured as the ship settled down in its landing cradle.

    The Empress had arrived.

    It took only a minute for the nervous Asari to get the gangway up to the Night's Fury's airlock for the passengers to disembark, and nearly as soon as it was in place, the airlock cycled open.

    Arayda couldn't help but take a step back in fear as the Empress exited the ship. Her mane roiled angrily in the solar wind, her eyes glowing pure white. Spreading her great wings, the Empress leapt into the sky and took flight with a burst of flames towards Solar One across the space port.

    Arayda and D'Ysene glanced at each other, wondering what the hell had just happened.

    ###

    Gilda had woken several hours ago to learn that she had been unconscious for nearly a day. She was surprised to learn that she had been rescued, but she wasn't exactly disappointed at that fact.

    She was still awake now, hours later, even if just barely. She had kept a careful eye on Twilight in the next bed over ever since. Never mind that her other eye was watching her favorite show on her omni-tool. She was safe. Twilight was safe. She knew that didn't have to be as attentive as she would have to be anywhere else, and her insticts agreed. Solar One was a fortress, and no one could breach its hull without a warning.

    Solar One had been on high alert ever since they had been rescued, and the airlock wasn't opening for anyone. Twilight had been damaged practically from head to hooves, and those bandages had already had to be changed once by the Doctor.

    Gilda glanced away from her omni-tool as the door opened, only to fall from her bed in surprise with a squawk of terror at what she saw.

    A wave of intense heat passed into the room, before it abated just as quickly as Celestia entered, her eyes still glowing white, her mane practically burning plasma of a furious sun.

    At the sight of Twilight alive and on the bed, Celestia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes again, they were back to their normal color, and her mane calmed, once again becoming a gentle aurora.

    Her breathing calming down, Celestia stepped over to Twilight's bedside, leaning down and gently nuzzling the little unicorn.

    Gilda struggled back into her bed, pulling her covers back over herself. Celestia didn't even notice that she was in the room.

    "Oh Twilight," Celestia murmured, looking down at her student with sad eyes.

    Gilda couldn't help but feel like she was watching an intensely personal moment, and that she should be anywhere else but there.

    As if she sensed Celestia's presence, Twilight stirred with a groan. Celestia sat back on her haunches, watching carefully, though she was still tall enough even sitting to tower over the bed and look down at Twilight as she slowly emerged back into consciousness.

    "Ugh…" Twilight groaned. She blinked, her eyes fluttering open. She found herself unable to focus on anything in the room, just seeing a great white mass taking up the majority of her vision. "Wha…"

    "Twilight."

    "Princess?" Twilight's muzzle scrunched in confusion. "Wha… I don't…"

    She tried to sit up, but immediately regretted that with a hiss of pain. Celestia gently hummed to her, resting a soft hoof on Twilight's forehead.

    "Rest, Twilight." Celestia murmured, smiling sadly. "You're still recovering."

    "Recovering?" Twilight did her best not to move, feeling strangely sluggish, like her head was full of cotton. Her voice was scratchy, and it felt like she hadn't spoken in years. "From what?"

    "You don't remember?" Gilda spoke up, wanting them to know that she was in the room.

    "Gilda?" Twilight turned to look at Gilda (though it wasn't like she could actually see her), even as Celestia startled at the new voice, realizing that they weren't alone.

    "Yeah." Gilda waved a claw at them. "I'm here, Twi."

    "Are you okay?" Twilight asked, wishing she could see clearly the state that her marefriend was in.

    "I'm fine," Gilda said even as she rubbed the bandages over her chest, ignoring the twinge of pain.

    "Goo-" Before she could finish, Twilight broke into a coughing fit. Tears welled in her eyes as it felt like she was tearing her throat to pieces. Celestia hummed again, rubbing her hoof on Twilight's chest to try and ease her pain.

    Minutes later, after the fit had disappeared and she had caught her breath, Twilight asked the one question that mattered. "What happened?"

    "You don't remember?" Celestia asked, worried.

    "No…" If she could have, Twilight would have shook her head. She didn't. "Why are you here?"

    "You were hurt." Celestia kept her voice quiet and calm, not wanting to cause Twilight anymore pain. "Tortured by a sadistic madman. I came as soon as I learned what had happened."

    Twilight winced as a memory of hot pain through her hoof emerged in her mind. It was too much for her to take and she whimpered, drawing herself deeper into the covers on her bed, but that just jostled her wounds and she cried out, tears falling.

    "It's okay, Twilight," Celestia whispered, rubbing Twilight's chest. "You're safe. You're back on the ship. I'm going to bring you back to the castle, and everything will be okay.

    "N-No!" Through her pain, Twilight shook her head, determined despite her feat. She grit her teeth as the wave of pain built, then thankfully, dissipated, leaving her tired but relieved. "No, Princess."

    "Twilight?" Celestia pulled her head back, surprised.

    "I want to continue," was all Twilight said, her determination clear.

    "It's too dangerous." Celestia shook her head, looking down in confusion at Twilight. "I never should have given you this task. All of this… it's because I was…"

    "I want to continue, Princess." Twilight said again, managing to sound far more put together than she was.

    Celestia fell silent, looking at Twilight with sad eyes. Gilda looked between her marefriend and the Princess. She could see the debate raging behind Celestia's eyes.

    "It's too dangerous." Celestia sounded desperate.

    "It's worth it."

    Celestia winced at Twilight's word, as if struck. "You could die!"

    "If I give up now..." Twilight put a hoof on Celestia's looking up at her teacher. "I'm just showing the rest of the galaxy how weak I am. How weak Equestria is. I won't give in to fear."

    Celestia fell silent, and Gilda had never seen her look so heartbroken. She hung her head, lowering it down close to Twilight. "There is nothing I can do to convince you?"

    "No." Twilight shook her head, bracing herself before sitting up and nuzzling Celestia.

    Celestia sighed, but could do nothing else but accept Twilight's answer. She took a deep breath. "I want you wearing your armor whenever you're off the ship. Both of you." She made sure she looked at Gilda when she said that. The griffin blushed, her wound twinging. "I love you, Twilight. I don't want anything to happen to you."

    "I love you too, Princess." Twilight smiled at Celestia. "I promise we'll be more careful."

    She fell silent for a long moment, biting her lip. She took a breath before speaking. "Princess… I've failed you."

    "No, Twilight, never-" Celestia tried to say, but Twilight interrupted her.

    "Yes, I did!" Twilight insisted. "I couldn't convince Pinkie Pie to come with us."

    Gilda coughed, drawing both of their attentions. With their attention, Gilda pointed a claw at the viewing window, and they both looked out to see Pinkie sitting with Sweetie Belle.

    "What?" Twilight blinked in surprise.

    "She decided to come with us," Gilda explained. "Nowhere else to go."

    "Oh…" Was all Twilight could think to say.

    27. Interlude - Dancing in a Hurricane

    Interlude One - Dancing in a Hurricane

    Presidium, Citadel, Serpent Nebula

    April 12, 2183

    Nihlus had died four days ago.

    That hadn't really been a surprise. Spectres didn't die peaceful deaths, and Nihlus had not been an exception. C-Sec was still cleaning the blood stains from his apartment when Tela had visited yesterday to see to his belongings. She had taken the things he had loved and taken them to her ship, with… the rest of the remainders of her past loves.

    She had her ship, and she had nothing else. She took her home with her wherever she went. It was easier that way.

    But…

    Nihlus had died four days ago.

    She had thought he was like all the rest. Not in a bad way or anything, but she had had many lovers before. All of them were special, but even after they left her (or died), she found that it was easy to move on.

    Not the same with Nihlus. There was something about him, in the way that he looked at her, the way he held her, the way… simply the way he was. There was something with him that none of her other lovers had possessed. Maybe his soul was richer, or something equally intangible like that, because he was singularly amazing.

    Or at least, he had been, before one of the Shadow Broker's assassins blew his brains out in front of her.

    Nihlus had died four days ago, and she wasn't sure she would ever be okay again.

    Tela stalked her way through the crowds of the Presidium, and she felt a slight grin tug at her lips as everyone leapt out of her way. No one was going to be crazy enough to deal with a Spectre on a mission, especially not when her biotics roiled around her, as if searching for someone to strike dead.

    The fact that she was wearing her full body armor certainly didn't help matters. Nor did the weapons attached to the hard points on armor.

    She was going to speak with Barla Von, and it wasn't going to be a friendly chat.

    She would never be friendly with an agent of the Shadow Broker again. The only reason she wasn't going to break down the door was her past friendship the volus. He would get a chance to explain himself before she just blew his head off.

    She tapped her fingers against the grip of her custom made handgun, making a young turian couple practically fall over themselves at the sight of her scowl.

    The funeral for Nihlus had been a quiet affair, and Tela hadn't shed a single tear. She was an Asari, and even though she knew that she would never find another like him, that wasn't her way. She would mourn him in her own way. As long as she was alive, he would live on within her.

    It was the best that she could do… she wasn't the perfect asari. Her mother had never liked her, and the feeling was mutual. She hated that despite the love she felt for him, there was nothing she could to show the galaxy what a beautiful, wonderful soul he was.

    Aside from getting justice for his killer.

    Stopping in front of Barla Von's office, Tela took a breath, making sure she was just out of the range of the security cameras that covered every angle of the door.

    The moment she was calm, Tela stepped into the cameras' sight. Looking up at the obvious one hanging down from just above the doorway, Tela scowled at it.

    "Let me in, Von," Tela urged, the venom clear in her voice.

    Nothing happened for a long moment, and Tela wondered whether she'd have to break down the door on her own. She didn't particularly wish to do that, but it wasn't something she was adverse to.

    Before she could ignite her biotics for real and kick down the door, Von's office unlocked with a quiet ding, and the doors slid open. Tela looked back up at the camera, nodding. "Thank you."

    Tela just stepped inside into Barla Von's financial advisor office. It was a psuedo front for his real job, even if it just so happened to be something that he was extraordinarily good at. He could make vast amounts of money disappear into what seemed like thin air, and then make that money quadruple in size, all without ever letting C-Sec or the Citadel tax services get a whiff of any true amount he was dealing with.

    His office was surprisingly small, and that was the way it was meant to be. It had been designed down to the last centimeter to make people ignore everything strange about Barla Von. A volus banker. What could have been more regular than a volus banker.

    A volus banker who just so happened to be a billionaire, thanks to his multitude of investments and clients (not to mention his… side business).

    Despite his wealth, the office was simply four walls, a desk, and a row of secure computers behind him that he used to manage his network of assets.

    Tela ignored all of that, focusing instead on Barla Von. She stopped just inches away from the desk, staring down at the volus with a harsh expression.

    "Agent Vasir, you have my condolences on-" Barla Von paused as he took a shuddering breath, so common among his species. They had to wear the suit for a reason after all, and it wasn't because of weak immune systems. Being the only ammonia breathing species among the Citadel races was… inconvenient. The volus made do. Everyone else had just learned to make do with their strange speaking pattern. "-Agent Kryik's death. I know the two of you were… close."

    "Barla Von." Tela pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. She had known him for quite some time, and had even taken advantage of his services in her duties as a Spectre. It wasn't pleasant having to confront him now, but it was necessary. "I can't tell you how much I didn't want to have this meeting."

    "I can-" Barla Von took another shuddering breath, "-imagine."

    The volus were always so hard to read. They used their suits to their advantage, and unlike the quarians, they had never turned to using gestures to project their feelings. It was a plus, especially for the real job that Barla Von held. You couldn't tell what someone else was thinking when they were stiffly hidden behind a pressure suit and you couldn't even see their eyes.

    Tela just stared at him for a long moment before elegantly lowering herself down onto one of the two seats placed before the desk. She ignored how they were meant to make their occupant feel small and uncomfortable and instead crossed one leg primly over the other, getting comfortable in a way only predators could.

    "Yes," was all she simply said. She didn't elaborate any further, just continuing to stare at him.

    Unsurprisingly, Barla Von was the first to break. He shifted uncomfortably in his suit, a nearly unseen movement, but one that Tela picked up easily. It was his only tell, and it had taken her nearly ten years to even recognize it.

    "I have some questions," Tela said, pursing her lips.

    "I wouldn't expect anything less." Barla Von placed his hands on his desk, waiting for her to reveal her reason for being there. His time was money, but for Tela, he'd make an exception.

    "No. You wouldn't." She leaned forward ever so slightly, and met his gaze as best she could. It was hard to tell with the thick glass covering the eyes of his suit. She knew he got the message though. "Answer me truthfully. Do not lie to me. Do not twist the truth to fit your needs. I want to know everything."

    "Of course."

    "Did you have anything to do with Nihlus' death?" Straight to the point. There was no reason to dance around what she needed to ask. If he had been at all responsible…

    "No." Despite the voice codifier in his suit, Barla Von spoke simply and clearly, leaving no doubt in Tela's mind that he was telling the truth. "I would have warned you if the order came through my network."

    As well as being an investment banker, Barla Von held down a much more lucrative position as an agent of the Shadow Broker. It was how he had made most of his wealth.

    There was really only one explanation for the situation then. It was not what she wanted to hear, either. "The Shadow Broker has another agent on the Citadel."

    "So it would seem," Barla Von confirmed. "I have been unable to find them. My own guess would be that they were here only temporarily." He paused as he took another breath, before continuing. "Whatever traces they might have left behind, they are long gone by now."

    "That would be too convenient, wouldn't it?" Tela sighed, frustration building inside her.

    "Convenience is what I am here for." Barla Von took another breath. "Alas. In this matter, I find myself unable to help you."

    Tela had already figured that. She moved on to the next important question she had. "Why Nihlus?"

    "I have been unable to gather any answers on that." If a volus could look confused, Barla Von certainly did. "It is too… sloppy. He had already given his testimony to the Council, so killing him to silence him was pointless."

    "I already figured that out on my own." While it was good to hear that Barla Von didn't have anything to do with Nihlus' death, he was been frustratingly unhelpful. It wasn't his fault, but still. "Tell me something that I don't know."

    "Saren and the Shadow Broker are working together."

    That made Tela pause. She hadn't been expecting that. "What makes you say that?"

    "There is nothing… concrete... in the data." Another breath. "But the signs are there if you know where to look." He shook his head. "Despite what the Council may believe, Saren isn't the leader they believe him to be."

    "Someone else is pulling his strings." Tela concluded, frowning. This had just gone from complicated to Spectre levels of confusing. Deep shit was the name of the game, and it was where Tela thrived.

    "Indeed."

    "Who?" That was really the only question that she could ask.

    "That is the worrisome part," Barla Von admitted. "There is nothing out there to even suggest where to begin to look. Whoever is controlling this little play..." He took a breath. "They are buried so far in the dark that there isn't even a hint of their existence."

    Tela found herself frowning at that. That was not what she liked to hear. A creature of the darkness herself, she hated the idea that there might be something bigger than her lurking where she couldn't see them. "Thank you. I am… relieved that it wasn't you."

    "Friends are a valuable commodity in my business." He spoke the truth there. Information brokers were by necessity lonesome beings, and those they could interact with where usually deadly on a different level than the rest of the galaxy. Trust was… hard to come by. "I do not waste them."

    Tela thought for a moment, before deciding on a different avenue of attack. "Why is the Shadow Broker working with Saren?"

    "That is the question of the hour, isn't it?" Barla Von laughed as he took a breath. "The Broker has managed to keep this alliance in the dark, and that isn't an easy thing to do. Unlike other matters though, I have proof of their partnership."

    "Tell me."

    "It began nearly twelve years ago." Barla Von's words had a weight to them that made Tela sit up and take notice. She leaned forward, intrigued.

    "Are you saying…"

    "If you are think of the Equestrian raid, you would be correct."

    "The Shadow Broker was behind that?" Tela didn't like the sound of that. It was outside of the Broker's usual operations, and it was something that could end his organization if it ever got it. Information was all well and good, but when a goddess that could fling stars about like marbles was after you…

    "Surprising, I know, but all the signs point back to there. The raid happened a week after they cemented their partnership. The only conclusion is that the two events were connected." Barla Von laughed, a dark sound that reflected his mood. Events were spiralling out of his control at a speed he could barely even keep up with. It… wasn't good for business.

    "I see." Opening her omni-tool, Tela flipped through the secure Spectre files. She stopped when she found what she was looking for and flipped the image around so that Barla Von could get a clear view of it; a picture of one of the brands found on the rescued Equestrian slaves.

    "Who is this?" She asked. She wasn't talking about the pony, either.

    "Ah. That is something I can help with." Opening his computer, Barla Von started his search through his vast network, his computers starting to whine behind him as they processed billions of pieces of information a second.

    It didn't take long for him to make the connection. There wasn't much that happened on the Citadel that he didn't know about. "That particular brand belongs to a Batarian warlord by the name of Icobius Dhargerk. He has extensive dealings with the Turian underworld here on the Citadel."

    "I find myself in the need to have a conversation with him." When Tela had a conversation with someone, it usually ended with someone dead, and a whole of property damage.

    "That would take a miracle!" Barla Von actually laughed at that. "He hasn't left Khar'shan in nearly thirty years. All of his business is conducted through third-parties."

    Khar'shan, homeworld of the Batarians. Ever since they had closed their embassy on the Citadel, their worlds had been under a self imposed exile. It was impossible to get anywhere near their systems unless you were a newly captured slave.

    "Where can I find one of these… third parties?"

    "You should be able to guess."

    Tela sighed in understanding, a headache starting to grow between her eyes. Wonderful. "Omega."

    "Yes." With several quick taps on his keyboard, Barla Von forwarded the information Tela needed to her omni-tool. She needed to speak with a turian by the name of Rupia Sabers on Omega, a low ranking member in the Blue Suns.

    "Thank you." Tela nodded, standing.

    "It was my pleasure, Agent Vasir."

    Tela turned to leave, but hesitated just before she reached the door. She looked back over her shoulder at him. "I am… glad that it wasn't you."

    "Stay safe, Tela," Barla Von called after her.

    "You too."

    Without any more formality, Tela left Barla Von alone.

    ###

    When you were one of the leaders of the galaxy, you had to take your comfort where you could get it. For Tevos, that often involved coming home from her work at an absurdly late hour and taking a bubble bath for as long as she could bear to keep herself awake. This particular night (morning… whatever. Time really held no meaning on the Citadel) she chose to relax in her tub with a particularly wonderful vintage of Serrice Ice Brandy.

    Even as she relaxed, she couldn't help but read over reports that had been sent to her from Asari intelligence agencies. She had put it off for most of the day, and now it was encroaching on her own personal time.

    Still, the music playing softly in the background made it all seem… okay. Nevermind the fact that she didn't recognize any of the songs, or that she hadn't for the past two-centuries. It was still relaxing.

    A quiet chime cut the music off, and Tevos scowled. She sat there for a moment before deciding that whoever was at her door wasn't going to go away.

    With a groan, she set down her reports and rose out of her bath, wrapping a terry cloth robe around herself and stepping into a pair of fuzzy slippers. Striding out of her bathroom, she went to see who was at her door.

    Checking her security monitors, Tevos had to roll her eyes when she saw who it was. Her C-Sec detail knew that Tela was always welcome, and had let her through.

    With a sigh, she let the door open and Tela stormed in without any preamble.

    "Saren Arterius has sunk to further depths than any of us had imagined." Tela turned to look at Tevos from inside the apartment.

    "Yes, please, come in Agent Vasir," Tevos said with a sigh.

    Tela ignored Tevos' annoyance, turning to face the Councilor. "Arterius and the Shadow Broker are working together, and they have been for a long time. Longer than is good for any of us."

    "Truly?" Tela's statement made Tevos freeze, and the Councilor studied the Spectre.

    "I wouldn't joke about this."

    "That is… troublesome." Tevos frowned, plans already starting to form in her mind. This was something that needed to be dealt with immediately.

    "Shepard is hunting down Arterius." Tela had already thought this through. "I will strike from the other side and investigate the Broker."

    "Spectres aren't given their authority to get vengeance," Tevos said warningly.

    "This isn't about vengeance." Tela snorted, shaking her head. "The Shadow Broker is a far more dangerous threat than a rogue Spectre."

    "It is about vengeance."

    Tela sighed, looking away from Tevos and refusing to meet her gaze.

    "Maybe so," she admitted, "But it is still something that needs to be done."

    "What is your plan?" Tevos asked with a sigh.

    "The Shadow Broker has ties with the slave trade. I feel that the answer to why is heavily tied to why he is working with Arterius."

    "Very well." Ignoring the fact that she was standing before one of her best Spectres in a neon green bathrobe with smiling froggy faces stitched into it, Tevos straightened and gathered her Councilor persona around herself. "Agent Vasir, you are to track down the Shadow Broker and remove him from the galaxy. He is too big a threat to galactic security to live and let lie."

    "Thank you, Councilor." Giving a quick bow of her head, Tela turned and left.

    Alone in her apartment once again, Tevos sighed, then shed her froggy robe. She strode back to her bathtub, wondering if it had gotten cold enough that she'd need to drain some water to add more heat.

    Whatever. She simply submerged herself in the tub and wished the galaxy away.

    28. Chapter Twenty-Six - Winter is Coming

    Chapter Twenty-Six - Winter is Coming

    On Route to Noveria

    April 14, 2183

    Waking slowly, Liara tried to remember what she had eaten for dinner the night before. She hadn't had nightmares since she was fifty years old and had to sleep in her mother's bed. Whatever it was, she wanted to make sure she didn't eat it again. They weren't fun.

    Groaning, Liara enjoyed waking slowly, wondering why her cot felt more comfortable than normal. When she usually woke up, she spent five minutes or so cursing whoever had built her expedition cot. Sitting up, she stretched her arms, scrunching her eyes closed even tighter. Stretching her body even further into a position she was sure looked painful but felt oh so very good, Liara smacked her dry lips together, realizing her sudden craving for a cool glass of water.

    That would have to stay a craving though. Cool and Therum didn't really go together. Lukewarm water would have to do.

    "Mmm…" Liara still hadn't bothered to open her eyes, turning her nose towards the direction of an absolutely wondrous smell. "What's for breakfast, Zarah?"

    Zarah didn't respond right away, which wasn't normal for her. Usually Liara was one of the first awake, but Zarah was always the first. She was the sole human on the team, and she always made breakfast. It was simply something that she'd done since she first joined the dig a year ago. No one had asked her to do it, but it happened nonetheless.

    Zarah not being there obviously meant that she had overslept and that meant…

    Liara gasped, horrified and embarrassed. She had overslept, and the rest of the team hadn't bothered to wake her up. They had gone to the dig site without her!

    Again.

    This was becoming an annoying pattern.

    She didn't give any thought to the fact that the last time this had happened was almost fifteen years ago.

    Harrumphing, Liara crossed her arms over her chest and opened her eyes.

    Swinging her legs over the edge of her cot… Liara froze, something niggling at the back of her mind. Her cot wasn't this far off the ground.

    Was the rest of the crew playing a prank on her? They hadn't before, but the other asari at her college had taken every chance they could to pull one over on her.

    "Zarah?" Liara called out, frowning, rubbing her eyes. "Brent? This isn't funny!"

    There wasn't a response, not even quiet snickers of people hiding and watching for her reactions. Whatever they had done to her, moving her cot obviously wasn't the full prank.

    Might as well see how far they wanted to go with her.

    Rubbing her eyes again, Liara cracked them open for the first time and was immediately met by absolute blurriness. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear it away, and when she pulled her hands away from her eyes, she froze.

    "This…" She stared around the room she found herself in. "This isn't the camp…"

    lIt struck Liara all at once, almost a physical blow. Gunfire, blood, and death! Geth streaming out of entrances into the dig that they hadn't even found yet, slaughtering her… well, she guessed she could call them friends. All of her friends murdered in front of her, and getting stuck in the Prothean stasis bubble for at least a week…

    And then… And then being rescued by the humans. Well, the humans, the turian, the quarian, the krogan, and the equestrian.

    Huh…

    Her mind raced, and she came to the only conclusion that made sense.

    The geth had captured her. They had used holograms to convince her to help them get her out, and she'd fallen right for it.

    "No!" Hugging her blanket around herself, Liara rolled herself right off the bed. Hitting the floor with an oomph, she rolled under her bed and pulled the blanket over her head, hiding as best as she could, never mind that the geth would never, ever, ever be fooled by that (much less anyone else).

    Peeking out from inside the blanket, Liara quickly came to the conclusion that there weren't any geth present in the room. There was however an older human woman with black hair that was starting to go grey, a pair of reading glasses perched delicately on her nose. She was still holding the book she was reading up, though she wasn't paying any attention to it, instead just staring at Liara, unblinking.

    Pushing out a hand out from her blankets, Liara gave a small wave and a weak smile. "Hello."

    "Good morning, Dr. T'Soni," the woman said, her voice holding a pleasing accent that Liara honestly wouldn't mind hearing more often. "I'm glad to see you're awake."

    "Yes." Liara blinked owlishly, still hidden in her blankets. "Good morning. Hello." She cocked her head to the side, looking at the woman with wide eyes. "Where am I? Who are you?"

    "I'm Dr. Karin Chakwas," the woman said, smiling at Liara in amusement, "And you're aboard the Alliance ship, Normandy."

    "Nor-man-dy." Liara tested the word out, her translator having been unable to make heads or tails of it. She couldn't say why, but she liked the name. It felt right.

    "How are you feeling, Dr. T'Soni?" Chakwas asked, setting her book down and getting up from her desk. She walked calmly over to Liara and lowered herself down gracefully.

    "I'm…" In comparison, Liara was hunched over uncomfortably under the medical bed, looking up at the woman. She couldn't help but start rocking back and forth, her eyes unfocusing ever so slightly. "I'm fine."

    "I don't think so." Chakwas spoke firmly, but she wasn't unkind.

    "Hm?" Liara tilted her head to the side, unable to look away from the woman.

    "You were severely dehydrated, and malnourished too." Chakwas smiled at Liara, doing her best to look as unthreatening as possible. "If you were human, frankly, you would have died days ago."

    It was a little known fact that Asari retained water far better than humans. It was a product of their aquatic origins, or at least that's what the scientists believed. Unlike other species though, asari were far more vulnerable to physical attacks than any human.

    "Oh," was all Liara found she could say. She smacked her lips together, starting to take stock of her body's needs. "I do feel thirsty."

    "That is to be expected." Chakwas nodded, pulling out a slim medical device that Liara didn't recognize. The doctor held it up for her to see. "Is it alright if I scan you, Dr. T'Soni?"

    "Please," Liara said softly. "Call me Liara."

    "Hmm?" Chakwas looked up from where she was looking at her medical device, before a dawn of understanding came over her. "Ah, yes, of course Liara."

    She held up the scanner again, smiling. "May I?"

    Waiting a moment, Liara nodded.

    Without waiting for a moment longer, she started scanning Liara, while also making a call on her omni-tool. "Commander."

    ###

    It was a little known fact that Riley was an incredibly strange sleeper. She could manage to catch a few minutes of sleep wherever she went. That had been incredibly helpful during her 'N' training.

    At the moment, she was sprawled out on her bed, snoring as she dreamed of Donut Joe's, and her last visit with her little sisters. If she was awake, she'd feel an urge for a raised donut with chocolate icing and sprinkles. Her sheets were tangled around her, and she was absolutely naked.

    "Mm… No, I want the fuzzy elephant…" Mumbling into her pillow, the muscles down her back twitched, and she jerked in her sleep. "Don't take him, mommy…"

    Snorting, Riley rolled over and managed to get herself even further tangled in her sheets, even as she scratched herself, smacking her lips together.

    "Commander." Riley's omni-tool chirped and Chakwas' voice filled the room.

    Riley snorted again, struggling against her sheets, just starting to rise out of her slumber.

    "Commander." Chakwas tried again, sounding a little annoyed.

    Riley rolled over again, murmuring in discomfort at the unwanted noise.

    "Commander, Dr. T'Soni is awake." Chakwas tried a different angle of attack.

    Once again rolling over, her arm managed to fling itself out and she hit the answer button on her omni-tool, just in time for the microphone to pick up a rather impressive snore.

    A moment of silence on Dr. Chakwas' end greeted her.

    "But, apparently you aren't…" Chakwas sighed, more than a little frustrated about that. She tried again. "Commander? Commander. Commander."

    "Who is the Commander?" Liara asked Chakwas, sounding as curious as any multiple doctorate holder could.

    At the new voice, Riley started to wake up. She groaned, trying to stretch, only to find that her limbs were held in place by her sheets.

    "Wha…" She managed to murmur out. She struggled, grunting in annoyance, only to stop when she noticed her omni-tool was active, and stuck on transmit. "Uh… hello?"

    "Commander?" Chakwas' voice was full of long suffering, but Riley could swear she heard a bit of amusement in the older woman. "Are you awake now?"

    "Doctor?" Shepard frowned, confused. She might have been able to fall asleep anytime, anywhere, but waking up had always proven to be more difficult. "What's happening? Why did you wake me up?"

    "Doctor T'Soni is awake," Chakwas simply said.

    "Oh!" That was obviously a good enough reason to be woken up. "I'll be there in a minute."

    In what took an embarrassingly long time for an N7 agent, Shepard managed to untangle herself from her sheets and stumbled to her door.

    Hitting the green button in the center, the door cycled open and Shepard stepped out of her room, hiding a yawn behind her fist. She was thankful that the med-bay was just right across from her room. It was fairly early, and the A-crew was still in the middle of eating breakfast.

    Still yawning, Riley was just in time to trip over Rainbow Dash, who was in the middle of talking to Wrex in the kitchen as he spooned what looked like a second helping of eggs and hash browns onto his plate.

    "Sorry," she mumbled, still a little out of it.

    Riley just kept on walking as soon as she caught her balance, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She didn't notice Rainbow and Wrex staring after her, both of them focused on one particular part of her.

    "Uh…" Rainbow held a hoof up, then lowered it, her ears flicking back as she tried to keep from snickering. "Riley?"

    "Later, Rainbow," Riley called over her shoulder. "Busy now."

    Riley walked past two engineers, who couldn't help but stare at her, before looking away as quickly as possible, averting their eyes.

    "Shepard, your ass is hanging out and you're giving me a show I normally have to pay money for." It took Wrex's voice to cut through the haze still surrounding Riley's thoughts.

    Riley froze, then looked down at herself, before hanging her head. Turning around, she marched right back into her room, not bothering to explain herself to any of the crew still in the galley.

    ###

    As the door shut behind Shepard, Wrex and Rainbow looked at each other, neither quite believing what they just saw. Rainbow's muzzle scrunched up as she tried to stop herself from laughing, but it was a futile effort, and she devolved into a fit of giggles, flopping off her hooves and onto the floor. Wrex laughed along in his slow Morgan way, something that was more felt than heard.

    "Oh Celestia!" Rainbow managed to moan while trying to catch her breath. She was giggling so hard that it actually was starting to hurt her sides. "That was priceless!"

    "Heh." Wrex grinned, letting that image sink into his long term memory. When you had a potentially unlimited lifetime, you had to pick and choose the memories you really wanted to save. Short term memory for krogan lasted for decades, but long term was forever. "Does Shepard often walk around without any clothes on?"

    "It's not..." Managing to roll back over and climb into all four of her hooves, Rainbow did her best to catch her breath. "It's not uncommon, I'd guess you say. Mostly when when she forgets that she isn't wearing anything."

    "Huh..." Wrex nodded, as a thought occurred to him. "I wouldn't have taken her for a sleeps in the nude type."

    "Yeah..." Rainbow tried her best to unmess her mane with a hoof, unintentionally making it even wilder than before. "It was a little awkward for her when she realized we all pretty much walk around naked back on Equestria, and the only thing she's ever gotten really comfortable with is sleeping naked."

    Rainbow scratched at her shirt, glaring at it with a look of hate. Damn galactic morals demanding that she wear 'clothes' to keep from offending anybodies poor sensibilities. Who cared how many laws said you had to be dressed for public outings when the damn stuff always itched to Canterlot and back.

    "I don't have that problem." Wrex really didn't. No one cares what the half ton krogan wore. That had really come in handy on more than a few occasions.

    Rainbow looked Wrex up and down, raising an eyebrow. "Dude, you're a big giant frog with enough natural armor to stop a shotgun. It's hard to tell if you're even wearing armor or not."

    "Want to know a secret?" Wrex asked, his lips pulled back in a grotesque smile that made Rainbow ever so slightly nervous. If she hadn't spent so much time around Riley and seen her canine teeth, Rainbow was sure she would be entertaining thoughts of bolting (never that she'd admit to being afraid).

    Instead, Rainbow leaned closer, carefully schooling all the fear from her face as she tried to look as intrigued as possible. "What?"

    "Once, I went a month on the Citadel without anyone noticing I was buck ass naked." Wrex's grin managed to grow wider than Rainbow ever thought possible. "All my armor got blown off by mercs."

    Rainbow blinked slowly, processing what Wrex had just told her. She clapped a hoof over her mouth, but she couldn't help but start laughing, great big guffaws. "Nobody noticed?" She asked between breaths.

    "Nope." Wrex shook his head, the grin never leaving his face. "I even got a compliment from a turian about how stylish my 'armor' looked."

    "Oh!" Rainbow punched his leg with his hoof, struggling to breath in between her laughing. Wrex didn't even feel it. "Oh! Stop talking! I can't breathe."

    Wrex laughed at that.

    Neither of them realized that they made quite the sight standing together. A seven and half foot tall krogan and a pony that was dog sized. A big dog, yes, but still dog sized.

    Well, Wrex knew. He just didn't care.

    They both turned to look as Shepard stepped out of her room again, this time (thankfully) fully dressed. She was doing her best to act like nothing happened, though Rainbow and Wrex were making it hard for her with their constant laughter.

    ###

    Chakwas looked up as the med-bay doors opened, setting down her book as Shepard walked in. She wondered for a moment at the slight blush on the younger woman's face, but didn't pay it any further thought. After quick nods of greeting to each other, they both turned their attentions to Liara.

    The asari was sitting on her medical bed, her legs crossed under her, working her way through a plate of waffles that sat on her lap.

    Liara paused when she felt eyes watching her, fork halfway to her mouth. Even as she took the bite, she looked up and saw Shepard staring at her. Her face erupted in a soft violet blush, and her cheeks bulged ever so slightly.

    Swallowing her bite, she gave small, tentative wave. "Um... Hello."

    "Hello, Dr. T'Soni," Shepard said, having to keep herself from laughing at the sight.

    "Captain, yes!" Coughing, Liara set down her plate of waffles, realizing that she was speaking with the Captain of the ship. She leaps out of bed, tossing her waffles to the floor, sloppily saluting. "Hello, sir, ma'am… yes."

    At that rather enthusiastic greeting, Shepard just blinked. How on Earth (or Equestria for that matter) was she supposed to respond to that?

    She also payed no thought to just how adorable that was.

    "You can just call me Riley." Shepard nodded at Liara, who was blushing even harder than before. "Or Shepard, if that's too informal."

    "Right." Liara ducked her head. "Yes. Riley. That's a nice name."

    Shepard and Chakwas shared a look, though neither of them knew they were thinking the exact same thing. She's one odd girl.

    Shepard turned back to face Liara, who was still holding the salute.

    "You, uh… you don't have to do that."

    "What?" Liara tilted her head to the side, blinking owlishly.

    "You're not military. You don't have to hold with any of our formalities." Shepard grinned. "Even if you were, you aren't in the Alliance."

    "Oh…" Liara let her hand drop, awkwardly clasping her hands in front of her on her lap. "Alright."

    "Alright," Shepard said, happy to have that taken care of. She was human, sure, but she had spent a considerable amount of years being raised in Equestria. The human military loved their formalities, but her time with Equestria's services had taught her the beauty of informal (but professional) relationships.

    "Please, call me Liara then." She rubbed her arm, glancing off and to the side, the blush having never left her cheeks.

    "Alright, Liara." Leaning back against the bed next to Liara, Shepard crossed her arms under her breasts. "I'm Commander Riley Shepard, Council Spectre. Do you remember what happened on Therum?"

    Liara's expression darkened, and Shepard knew at that moment that she did.

    "Yes…" Liara looked at Shepard, but it was as if she was a thousand miles away, staring right through her. She was remembering, her voice hesitant as she straightened it all out in her head. "You saved my life, and not just from the volcano. I can never thank you enough for that. Those geth would have taken me to Saren, or just…"

    She gulped, her eyes focusing back on reality as she realized just how much danger she had been in. "Just... killed me."

    "Do you know what Saren wanted with you?" In her time since coming back from Therum, Shepard had thought of her own theories, but she wanted her what Liara thought.

    "No. I'd only ever heard his name in passing when I spoke with mother." Liara was trying her best to remember things that had to have happened a long time ago, at least from Shepard's perspective. "I know that she has been meeting with him for the past few years."

    "I see." Glancing at Chakwas, Shepard bit her lip. "Have you ever heard of something called the Conduit?"

    "The Conduit?" Liara looked up at that word, recognition written all across her face. She practically vibrated with excitement, but managed to get that under control in just a second or two. She bit her lip, embarrassed, glancing away from Shepard. "I only know that it's connected to the Prothean Extinction."

    "That's my real area of expertise," Liara explained, her voice becoming more confident as they ventured into topics of discussion she was more familiar with. "I got my doctorate in Prothean studies. I've spent the past fifty years trying to figure out what happened to them!"

    The more Liara spoke, the more excited she got. Shepard watched as she practically vibrated on her bed, unable to contain herself. It made Shepard… happy, and she found that she wanted to hear more.

    "Why?" Shepard asked, giving a little half smile.

    "The Prothean extinction means everything!" Liara gesticulated wildly with her hands, grinning from ear to ear. Her teeth were brilliantly white, obviously obsessively taken care of. "They were powerful, and their empire spanned across the entire galaxy. For them to vanish practically overnight…"

    Liara looked off into the distance, the passion of her studies obvious on her expression. "To figure out why, it would be the single greatest thing that I could ever do with my life."

    "Fifty years?" Shepard had known that Liara was older than her, but to actually hear it for herself... "How old are you?"

    "I hate to admit it, but I'm only one-hundred and six."

    "Only." Chakwas snorts, rolling her eyes. "I hope I look half as good as you at that age."

    Chakwas wasn't just joking, either. When humanity spread into space, a mass of technological advancements had followed with them. Now, with all the gene mods that were available to humans, the average person had a chance of at least seeing their way to two-hundred.

    "A century may seem like a long time to a short lived species like yours, but among other Asari, I am barely more than a child." Liara did her best to explain, with a voice that spoke of long suffering and familiar resentment. She blushed and looked away. "It's why my research hasn't received the attention it deserves. Other Asari scholars dismiss my theories because of my age."

    Shepard and Chakwas shared another look. That right there was probably the reason why Saren wanted Liara.

    "Have you turned up anything interesting?" Shepard asked, curious. She had to know, either way.

    "What is interesting is what I haven't found. There is remarkably little evidence that the Protheans even existed, and there's even less that might explain why they disappeared. It's almost like someone did not want the mystery solved. It's like someone came along after the Protheans were gone and cleansed the galaxy of all the clues." Liara started to get even more excited than she had been before when she was explaining all of that. "The incredible part is, according to my research, the Protheans weren't the first galactic civilization to mysteriously vanish. The... cycle, I suppose you could call it, began long before them."

    "I thought you said there wasn't any evidence."

    "I have been working on this for fifty years. I've tracked down every scrap and shred of evidence. When you look at everything together, a picture starts to emerge. Just what that picture is though…" She shook her head, biting her lip, frustration evident in the slump of her limbs and frown. "It's difficult to see it from the right angle. It's like I can just catch a glimpse, and it's on the tip of my tongue, but then it's gone as fast as it came. I'm not even comfortable letting myself speculate on the truth, because the evidence... it's thin. I can never point at any one thing, and I fear that no one else would even see it. It has been fifty years…"

    "If the Protheans weren't the first, who came before them?" Shepard tried not to dwell on the fact that if Liara was right (and she knew deep down that she was), it meant that all recorded galactic history was suspect.

    "I don't know." Liara shrugged, looking befuddled. "There is barely any evidence for the Protheans, and there's even less on those that came before. I can't even prove that they existed, but I know I'm right."

    "I believe you," Shepard said, giving Liara an encouraging look.

    "The galaxy is built on a cycle of extinction. Each time a great civilization rises up and expands, it is suddenly and violently cast down until only sparse ruins remain." It was debatable whether Liara had even heard Shepard's encouragement. "The Protheans rose up from a single world until their empire spanned the galaxy. They were only able to do this by climbing on top of the remains of those who came before them. The Citadel, the Mass Relays, they are simply technologies based on those who came before them. And then, like all the forgotten civilizations before them, the Protheans disappeared. I have dedicated my life to figuring out why."

    Shepard sighed, knowing what she needed to do, deciding to just tell Liara what she knew. If she was going to be staying on the Normandy (and at this point the asari had no choice, it was protective custody for T'Soni) she needed to know everything. "They were wiped out by a race of sentient machines. The Protheans called them Reapers."

    "The Reapers?" Liara's face scrunched up in confusion, testing the word on her tongue. "I've never heard of… How do you know this? What evidence do you have?"

    "There was a damaged Prothean Beacon on Eden Prime," Shepard explained, trying to be as helpful as possible. "It burned a vision into my brain, and I'm still trying to sort out what it all means."

    "A beacon?" Liara's eyes went wide, and then they unfocused.

    Shepard was a little surprised that Liara didn't start drooling at the idea.

    "That makes sense!" Liara nodded, talking more to herself than anyone else in the room. "But... the beacons weren't meant to interact with human physiology. I'm surprised you were able to make any sense of it at all."

    "It's just a bunch of random images and ideas. Not exactly the height of communication." Shepard shrugged, sad to disappoint the too adorable for her own good asari.

    Liara opened her mouth to ask something, but then closed it again, thinking better of herself.

    She repeated this again, and Shepard sighed. "You can ask whatever you want, Liara. No one is going to make fun of you here."

    Liara nodded, pursing her lips, before doing as Shepard asked.

    "With your permission, I would like to try something, Riley. You were touched by the beacon. The visions are locked away in your mind. I might be able to help you." Liara looked so hopeful that it honestly made Shepard ache a little.

    "What do you have in mind?" Shepard had a feeling she knew what Liara was going to ask.

    "I can join my consciousness with yours. Maybe my knowledge of the Protheans will help clarify your vision." Liara looked embarrassed to even be suggesting it, but there was an eagerness that she couldn't hide.

    Shepard glanced at Chakwas, who shrugged, before turning back to Liara. She'd already melded with her once without any seemingly ill effects. What was one more time?

    She wasn't sure that Liara remembered doing that though.

    "It's worth a shot." Shepard shrugged, uncrossing her arms.

    Liara nodded, easing herself off the bed and stepping close to Shepard. She put her hands on Shepard's temples, taking slow, deep breaths. "Relax your mind, Riley, and Embrace Eternity!"

    The last thing Shepard saw were Liara's eyes going completely black.

    ###

    A tall tree stood in the center of a well groomed park, and a little asari girl sat at its base, a little plastic shovel clutched tightly in her hand. She scooped another bit of dirt out of her hole. She'd obviously been at it for quite some time, and there was a surprisingly sizable stack of dirt sitting next to her.

    Around her, older asari kept passing by her, staring at her and whispering about her, but no one bothered to step in and stop her or even to ask her what she was doing.

    "Liara!" A horrified voice shouted out, and Liara looked up, smiling as she watched her mother storm towards her. Her yellow dress whipped around her ankles, reflecting her mood.

    "Mother, I'm digging for-" Before Liara could explain any further, Benezia grabbed the little shovel out of Liara's hands and pulled her roughly up and out of the dirt. "What in the name of Athame are you doing? Digging in the park…"

    Benezia's voice faded away, as did the park, until all that remained were Liara's tears.

    Full grown, Liara sat near the front of her classroom, studiously taking down notes as the professor lectured on. She did her best to ignore the giggles and the pointing coming from across the room, directed right at her.

    Instead, she buried her head in her data pad, and pretended that she couldn't hear them.

    Who cared that she was a pure born? She wasn't an Ardat Yakshi.

    Still, the words and their stares hurt. She can pretend like they don't, but inside, she's falling apart.

    Her mother has been pulling away, and Liara finds that she's on her own more and more. She has to rely on herself for help, because no one else will.

    Liara cuddled close to her mother in the big master bedroom. Benezia softly sang to her, the words long forgotten, but the feelings always remained. Peace and love and contentment radiated deep in Liara as she snuggled closer to Benezia's side.

    Benezia runs her hand gently over Liara's crest, massaging it gently. It had been aching as it set into place, and she hadn't felt so good in a long time.

    Liara had never quite felt so happy as she had during that moment.

    "This isn't what you want!"

    "How would you know?" Liara shouted back, her voice hoarse. "You haven't even spoken to me for a year? What do you know about anything?"

    "Asari from across the galaxy come to ask me what I know." Benezia spoke with all the depth and understanding of an Asari matriarch. "You must understand, Little Wing-"

    "No! I'm not- I'm not-" Growling, Liara struggled to find her words. "I'm not some matron seeking to understand the secrets of the galaxy, bowing to your every wish and need. I'm your daughter, and I just wish…"

    Liara trailed off, and the harshness of Benezia's face softened ever so slightly.

    "What Little Wing? What do you wish?" Her mother asked, tilting her head to the side.

    "I just wish you could support me. I wish you enjoyed what I love. I wish you would…" Liara choked back a sob.

    "I do love you, Little Wing." Benezia stepped forward, wrapping Liara in a warm hug. "I love you more than you could ever know."

    Liara sighed, resting her head on Benezia's shoulder.

    "I love you, and you must understand, I know what's best for you." Benezia continued speaking.

    Liara clenched her eyes shut tight, and pulled out of Benezia's embrace. "I'm sorry, mother."

    Liara pulled free from her mother's embrace and walked away.

    She could feel her mother's gaze firmly on her back the entire time.

    ###

    With a gasp, Liara pulled away from Shepard, blinking. A hand went to her head, and she stumbled, feeling weaker than she had just moments before. Luckily, Shepard managed to catch her before she could fall.

    "You okay there?" Shepard asked.

    "I'm…" Breathless, Liara settled back on the bed with Shepard's help. "Oh… my head."

    Coming up behind her, Chakwas gave her a quick dose of painkillers. The asari didn't even notice.

    "That…" She looked up at Shepard, studying her face. "That wasn't what I was expecting."

    "I'm sorry we didn't get to see what you wanted." Shepard apologized, feeling bad.

    "What?" Liara looked up at Shepard in confusion.

    "I'm… sorry?" Shepard watched Liara, confused.

    "What for?" Liara scrunched her nose up, raising a delicate eyebrow.

    "We didn't get to see the... vision." Even in her confusion, Shepard wondered just what they were actually called. Asari didn't have eyebrows, yet Liara had those two identical marks above each of her eyes.

    Weird.

    Liara was looking at Shepard like she was talking nonsense. It was probably a good thing that she couldn't hear her thoughts. That would have probably given her a cause for concern.

    "I saw…" Liara said, oblivious to Shepard's thoughts. "I saw death, and destruction... what did you see?"

    "Uh… nothing." Shepard blushed, looking away.

    Liara studied her for a moment longer, then decides it wasn't worth it to try and figure out what was up with Shepard.

    "I need to... I need to…" Falling back onto her bed, Liara collapsed into the fetal position, starting to snore, a soft sound that fit the agonizingly dorky expression on her face.

    Shepard and Chakwas shared a look. Liara was simply too much, asleep on the bed.

    "Keep an eye on her." Shepard managed to say, shaking her head as she walked out of the room.

    "Of course, Commander," Chakwas called after her, her voice soft.

    ###

    When she had left the fleet, Tali'Zorah had never imagined that she would find herself onboard the most advanced ship that had possibly ever been constructed. For months, she had struggled to find even the most basic bits of human respect, but now…

    Now, she was deep within the bowels of the Normandy's engines, studying the wondrous mix of human, turian, and equestrian technology. She was trusted to be doing that, and she was welcomed. It was a strange feeling to be trusted so completely, but it was one she could get used to.

    She noted that the Equestrian side of the ship hadn't fully been integrated yet, but it was obvious that everyone had been hard at work on it.

    Tali took note of everything, drinking it all in as only a quarian could. She already saw so many ways that she could improve things, and in turn, hopefully help improve the flotilla when she returned from her pilgrimage.

    "Tali?"

    The sudden volume of her omni-tool surprised her, and she banged her head on the ceiling of the narrow access tube. Cursing in quarian, she activated her omni-tool and opened the comms.

    Tali bangs her head on the top of the duct in surprise, cursing in quarian.

    "What?" She growled out, wishing she could rub the bruise she was sure was forming. That was the only problem with being confined in a suit. You could never get at your bruises to rub them like you'd want.

    "You okay there?" Tali recognized the voice as belonging to Garrus. She had spoken to the turian a few times, and while she wouldn't call him a friend (at least not yet), she would say he was an acquaintance who could become more.

    "I'm fine." Tali started her way back to the regular part of the engine room and the exit of the access tube. It was going to take her a little bit she realized, recognizing where she was. She'd gone pretty far into the depths of the engine.

    "Right, well…" Garrus coughed, embarrassed.

    "Do you need something?" Tali scowled behind her mask. One of the few good things about wearing the suit was that she could hide her emotions so easily. Not that there was anyone around to see that at the moment.

    "I just wanted to make sure you were doing alright."

    That drew Tali up for a pause. He wanted to make sure she was alright? That certainly wasn't very turian of him.

    "I'm…" She scowled, confused. She didn't like being confused. "What are you after, Vakarian?"

    "What?" Now he sounded confused.

    Wonderful. This conversation was turning into nothing but a whole bunch of confusion. That's exactly Tali wanted.

    "No one worries about a quarian, especially not a turian." Might as well do her best to clear away any confusion. "Why are you speaking to me?"

    Garrus was silent for a long moment. Tali didn't know how to take that, so she focuses on getting back to the main part of the engine room.

    "I just wanted to see if you were doing alright," Garrus finally said after a long while. "You're pretty far from home, and it has to be a little lonely for you."

    Tali was silent, coming turning a corner. "Right… I…"

    "I'm sorry." Garrus sounded embarrassed. "I can talk to you late-"

    "Wait!" Tali practically shouted, surprising herself with the intensity of her voice.

    The line didn't close, so Garrus was obviously still listening.

    "I'm sorry." Tali said, continuing her trek out of the access tubes. "I'm not used to anyone caring about my well being."

    "That must be hard for you."

    "I'm a quarian. I am used to hardship. It doesn't mean I have to be a bosh'tet about it."

    "I'm sorry. I think my translator glitched there. Bosh'tet?"

    "It's…" Tali blushed behind her helmet. She didn't feel any particular need to translate it for him. "It doesn't matter. I was being an idiot."

    "You're not an idiot." Garrus spoke so softly that she had to wonder for a moment whether she actually heard him or not.

    Tali didn't know how to take that, but she was coming close to the entrance of the ducts. Hopefully she could put this embarrassing conversation behind her as soon as she was out.

    Sure enough, when Tali emerged from the engines, she found Garrus standing there. He had a hand held out to help her up. She stared at it for a moment before taking it, and he pulled her out and effortlessly to her feet.

    "Having fun, I see." There was a smile in his voice, but not his face. Mandibles and all that.

    "What?" Tali was a little too stunned for her mind to be working one-hundred percent.

    "Crawling around inside an engine, I mean." Garrus shuffled awkwardly on his feet, rubbing the back of his head.

    "Oh... yes."

    A moment of silence. Awkward. Racial tensions were such a weird thing to deal with.

    "So... um... do you need anything?" If he could blush, Tali was sure that Garrus would be bright… whatever color a turian would turn. "I could... spirits, this is awkward."

    Garrus gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "Uh... I should... I should go. Let me know if you need anything."

    Garrus turned and left the engine room as fast as he could, and Tali just watched him go. She was blushing the entire time.

    ###

    Spitfire trotted her way up the neck of the Normandy towards the bridge, her wings extended, a cup of coffee balanced on each. She didn't spill so much as a single drop.

    Stepping onto the bridge, she expertly set one of the cups in the cup holder next to Joker's chair. It wasn't a standard feature, and it was easily detachable for any surprise inspections. You couldn't work for twelve hours straight without having some form of liquid easily accessible. It made those shifts more bearable.

    Setting her cup in her cup holder, she jumped up into her seat. The seat hummed ever so softly as it lifted up to its correct height, molding itself around her as it brought her closer to her haptic display controls.

    "Thanks," Joker mumbled, taking the cup and taking a sip of coffee. He instantly grimaced, looking like he wanted to spit it out, but liquids and experimental prototype ships didn't exactly mix. With no desire to hurt his beloved ship, he swallowed, though Spitfire was sure he was doing it under extreme protest. He turned to her, his face scrunched up in disgust. "Ugh? Pumpkin?"

    "It's all they had," Spitfire said, shrugging with her wings.

    "Ugh." Despite the scrunching of his face and his utter disgust, Joker continued to drink his coffee. Beggars couldn't be choosers after all, not in their seventh hour of working. Pumpkin spice or not, coffee was coffee and he need to stay awake. "Who the hell puts pumpkin spice coffee on a Navy ship? That's like… against all the rules."

    "You don't need to drink it if you don't like it." Spitfire chimed in from her chair as she looked over their fuel consumption. Well below expected levels. Good.

    "No, no, I'm fine… Dammit." Joker shook his head, setting his coffee back in the cup-holder as several screens notified him they were closing in on their destination. He activated the comms. "Commander, we're about to enter the Pax system."

    A moment later, the comms crackled back to life, and Shepard spoke. "Copy that, Joker. I'm on my way to the bridge."

    As the comms turned off, Joker took another sip of his coffee. "This is just… This is just awful. Whoever came up with this deserves to, I don't know, watch something overbearingly cute until they go insane."

    "I think it's kind of nice." Spitfire shrugged, taking a sip of her own coffee.

    "You would."

    "What's that supposed to mean?" Spitfire glared at him through narrow eyes.

    "Well, you're Equestrian." He said that as if it explained everything. To most humans, it probably did.

    "And?" Spitfire was notably not human, and thus didn't understand what Joker was talking about.

    "That just means you like, live on sugar and spice and everything nice." Joker said those ridiculous words so matter of factly that Spitfire couldn't help but blink at him.

    Spitfire stared at him, wondering if he could be anymore of an idiot. She blinked at that. What was she even thinking? Of course he could be. This was Joker, after all.

    Notably, Joker had continued on speaking after she'd gotten all introspective. "You'd just eat donuts and cupcakes for every meal if they were there."

    "Only if I wanted to look like you." Spitfire glared at him. Equestrians processed sugar better than any race out there, but they still got fat, just like everyone else. You didn't become lean muscle and sleek physique like her by gorging yourself on donuts and cupcakes everyday.

    "Oh!" Joker looked at her, only half surprised by the burn. "Ouch, that burns."

    Before either of them could say anything else, Shepard walked onto the bridge, standing between Joker's and Spitfire's chairs. They were all business in front of the Commander.

    "We're about a minute out, Commander," Joker said over his shoulder.

    Shepard nodded, staring at the shifting blue of FTL out the front viewscreen even as she stole Joker's coffee cup and took a sip. She nods in appreciation. "Not bad."

    Spitfire grinned, glancing at Joker. "The Commander knows a good cup of coffee when she sees it."

    "Yeah, well." Joker scoffed, rolling his eyes. "Shepard isn't normal."

    "Do you want to repeat that, Flight Lieutenant?"

    Joker's eyes went wide when he realized just what it was that he just said. "Uh…"

    "He means no, ma'am." Spitfire spoke up, glancing at Shepard.

    "That's what I figured." Shepard shared a small grin with Spitfire.

    "Exiting FTL now, ma'am." Spitfire said as she turned her full attention to her controls, noting fro the corner of her vision that Joker was doing the same.

    Even as Spitfire said that, the Normandy reverted back to normal space with a soft rumble, and they were immediately met with the sight of Noveria in the distance, its sun just peeking out from behind the far horizon.

    Notably, Noveria was surrounded by a blockade of large, blocky ships.

    "I'm getting multiple contacts here." Joker frowned, looking over just what the sensors were telling him. His eyes went wide when he realized just what he was seeing. "Commander, sensors are reading approximately one-hundred ships."

    "Take us silent, Joker." Crossing her arms, Shepard stared at Noveria, wondering if this was going to turn into another Eden Prime.

    "Aye-aye, ma'am." With a few quick presses on his haptic display, the Normandy disappeared from all sensors as the heat sinks took over from normal running, making the Normandy as cool as the background of space. As soon as that was done, he looked over the new reports the sensors were feeding him. "Most of the ships are frigate class, but there are a few big ones."

    "Is that a…" Shepard squinted at one of the ships in the distance, wondering if she could believe what her eyes were telling her.

    "A dreadnought?" Joker shrugged, biting his lip. "The sensors are reading it as an old turian dreadnought."

    "Is Noveria under a pirate attack?" Shepard couldn't see any signs of a battle raging. The ships seemed to just be maintaining their orbits, and there were no tell tale flashes of explosive decompression or gardian laser flashes. Not a pirate attack then. Way to well organized for that.

    "We're getting a hail, ma'am." Spitfire looked up at Shepard as she and Joker turned to look at her. The Normandy was running silent. There shouldn't be a ship in the galaxy that could track them. To be getting a message...

    "We're getting a hail?" Joker looked like he was offended.

    "It's more of a broad message pointed in our general direction." Spitfire explained. That was a relief. No one had figured out a way to track the Normandy through space.

    "Let's hear it." Shepard put her hands on her hips, biting her lower lip.

    With a few presses on her controls, Spitfire played the message.

    "To the Alliance ship that somehow just turned invisible."

    "At least they're being polite." Joker laughed, grinning.

    "We are currently performing takeover operations of the Noveria Development Corporation. We are encountering heavy, armed resistance."

    "They're being very free with their information." Brow furrowed, Spitfire tilted her head. This wasn't normal.

    "Hyland-Sorah has no reason to piss off the Alliance. We buy a big percent of their products." Shepard looked to Joker. "Open up the channel."

    Joker did as ordered, turning to nod at Shepard when he finished.

    "This is Spectre Riley Shepard on the SSV Normandy." Shepard spoke with a clear voice that rang with command. "I have business on Noveria."

    A second passed.

    "Copy that, Spectre. You are cleared to land. We're sending coordinates now."

    Sure enough, coordinates appeared on Joker's computer.

    "Please do not deviate from the course. We do not have full control of Noveria's defenses yet."

    "Copy that." Joker cut the channel, grimacing. "Heavy resistance. Always fun."

    "Take us in, Joker." Shepard rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache coming on. "Yeah, this is what I wanted to deal with today," she muttered to herself.

    29. Chapter Twenty-Seven - Recovery

    Chapter Twenty-Seven - Recovery

    Solar One, Armali, Thessia

    April 12, 2183

    Princess Celestia Sol was immortal in every sense of the word. That didn't mean she couldn't die, but it would never be for such a mundane reason as old age.

    When you lived as long as Celestia, you had all the time in the universe to learn how to do things. It led to amazing insights that she still built upon every day. When she had passed her first thousandth birthday, she had come to the realization that ponies often fit within narrow boxes, and it was easy to tell their thoughts and feelings and actions after just a short time with them. It was the rare few who ever managed to surprise her, and those she cherished, for they were what added the flavor to life.

    That isn't to say that Celestia didn't love all of her little ponies, nor that she didn't understand that they all had hopes and dreams and fears all of their own. It just meant that she could often predict what they would do better than they could themselves.

    Twilight Sparkle just so happened to be one of those rare few, just like Starswirl before her, and a few others before him. There weren't many of them, and she always treasured them.

    It was surprising then, that Celestia met another rare pony in the form of Maud Pie. It was rare in the fact that actions the mare had taken had directly led to Twilight having been captured and tortured at the hands of a sadistic mad man.

    It was not a position Celestia had ever imagined she would be in.

    If she was careful, it would be a situation she would never be in again.

    Celestia had sat unmoving behind her desk in her office on Solar One for nearly an hour, unblinking, staring across at Maud, who was standing, having refused a seat. They hadn't said a word the entire time.

    Maid was the first to blink, and with that Celestia smiled. She won.

    "Smile Incorporated," Celestia said, her voice even and calm despite the emotions that raged and boiled within her.

    "What about it?" Maud spoke with a monotone voice, and it actually surprised Celestia at the dullness of it.

    "Was it always a front?" Celestia asked, managing to keep the surprise out of her voice.

    "Yes." Maud didn't elaborate further. Whether that was because she was intentionally being frustrating, or because she legally couldn't say anything more, Celestia didn't know.

    Time to try a different avenue of attack.

    "I should place you and your sister under arrest for treason against the crown." Digging deep into the side of her that conquered the Griffins, Celestia let the fire of hate build in her chest.

    "Pinkie Pie knew nothing about the true purpose of Smile. She is innocent." Maud's sudden elaboration let Celestia know that she'd struck a nerve.

    "No," Celestia continued pushing. "I rather think that she is not. Knowing or not, she is still heavily connected to one of the largest crime families Equestria, not to mention the galaxy, has ever seen. She'll be lucky is she doesn't spend the next fifty years in prison."

    "You are trying to coerce me into giving you information. It will not work." Despite Maud's words, Celestia was not convinced.

    "I don't think you understand the position you're in." Celestia hummed, a hint of flame building behind her eyes.

    "My father took direct actions that lead to the capture of the Celestial Emissary, whereupon we handed her over to the organization known as Cerberus, and their agent, Kai Leng, who tortured Twilight Sparkle to his own ends." Her entire explanation was matter of fact, with no attempts to hide or lessen her own participation in the matter.

    If she wasn't responsible for so much pain and anger, Celestia could have respected Maud for her honesty.

    As it was, she didn't care.

    "So you do get it." Celestia's eyes narrowed. "Yet you're not begging for your life."

    Pushing away from her desk, Celestia stood to her full height. She absolutely towered over Maud, who was already small for an earth pony. Spreading her wings, she let her rage shine through! Her eyes went pure white, glowing with the power of her sun, and her mane ignited into an inferno. When she spoke, her voice was that of a legion.

    "I could strike you down where you stand and no one would so much as reprimand me. I could hunt down and destroy your family, and I would be congratulated." The thick carpet made by the best weavers in Saddle Arabia burned under Celestia's hooves, and for once, Maud gave a true reaction. She shifted, ever so slightly backwards. "Do not think for a single moment that your life, and the lives of all those you hold dear are in my hooves. I will not hesitate to end you. Now answer me! Why should I leave you alive?"

    "Because you need my sister, and I have sworn my life to protect her above all else." Despite any fear that she may or may not have, Maud kept her voice steady, even as she kept a wary eye on the Empress.

    "Why?" Celestia snorted, curls of smoke wafting from her nose.

    "That is not important." Maud was indeed a rare pony. To stand before Celestia's rage and not so much as flinch...

    "I rather think it is." Celestia would not be moved. She would see her star burn out before she ever let more harm come to Twilight Sparkle.

    "All that matters is that Pinkie Pie is free and alive. I will give my life if that is what is required of me to ensure that."

    Celestia watched as one of Maud's back leg started to shiver. Unflinching as she might be, the instinct to run to safety was something she couldn't escape.

    "You are certainly devoted." Celestia let her voice return to normal, and felt her eyes dim ever so slightly.

    "My father demanded nothing less." Maud's back leg stopped shaking, and she visibly calmed herself.

    "A cruel man, your father."

    "Yes. He loved us all." Maud did not disagree, but she was quick to point out his better qualities.

    "But not equally, it would seem." Celestia had no qualms pushing somepony to their breaking point. She knew that she was close, with Maud.

    Maud didn't answer, but her slow blink was enough.

    "He certainly plays favorites, if he is willing to keep Pinkie 'untainted' by the true happenings if your family. Did he wish to damn you all, but keep her pure?" Pinkie Pie was the key to understanding Maud, Celestia deduced.

    "You don't know what you are talking about." The waver in Maud's voice was indicative of how panicked she was feeling.

    "I rather think I do." Celestia snorted again, smoke tickling the edges of her nostrils. "I am older than Equestria itself, and I have seen and done things you would never believe. Do not tell what I do and do not know."

    Celestia stared down at Maud.

    "You are a small mare, prone to violence and cruelty, though you may not see yourself as cruel. You don't take any pleasure in your actions, be they good or bad. You are simply a body without a soul, wandering through life without a compass."

    Maud stayed silent. She wasn't vulnerable to many souls, and to have Celestia peel back her walls so effortlessly and see the true pony within unsettled her to the extreme.

    "Yet you choose to care for your little sister." Celestia took her seat again, putting them at much more of an even setting, though she still say taller than the earth pony.

    "She is all that matters." There was a hint of resignation in Maud's voice.

    "Yes. You've said that." Celestia frowned, thinking. This was not what she had imagined herself doing when she had given Twilight her task. "You have yet to give me a reason to keep you alive."

    "You will make up your own mind. I can do nothing to change that."

    Celestia didn't like that answer.

    ###

    Sparkle House, Canterlot, Equestria

    April 12, 2183

    Night Light was a simple stallion. Though he may have been a minor part of the aristocracy, he didn't believe that he was better than anypony else. He loved his wife, and he loved his children, and that's all there was to it.

    When his little Sparkle had been born, he had never expected that she would end up being entangled in the lives of the most powerful ponies to have ever existed. He had never expected that she would spend months at a time at the Royal Castle, learning spells he had never even dreamed of, under the careful tutelage of Princess Celestia herself. He had never expected that she would become one of the most powerful ponies herself.

    He had never expected that it would lead her to such danger.

    Night Light stared through Princess Luna, his mind a thousand miles away. She had come to tell the news in person. "Twilight Sparkle was captured and tortured."

    How was he supposed to react to that? What was he supposed to say? What was he supposed to do? No answers were quick to jump to mind.

    He vaguely heard the sound of his wife's voice next to him.

    "Is it always going to be like this?" Velvet asked, and Night Light found himself agreeing. Was this what it meant to have a loved one trying to do good? That they would just inevitably bring themselves to danger and harm?

    Night Light didn't like it one bit.

    He didn't even move when Velvet threw her forelegs around him, clinging to him fearfully. He couldn't stop wondering whether or not one of these days, it would be Celestia herself sitting in his living room telling him that his beautiful little Sparkle was dead.

    "It shouldn't." Luna's voice cut through the haze, and Night Light understood the unspoken meaning.

    It shouldn't be, but it is. They can't do anything to change the galaxy.

    ###

    Solar One, Armali, Thessia

    April 14, 2183

    Twilight stirred, leaving Luna's peaceful domain, only to find herself returning to reality, and the pain that accompanied it. It took her a moment to see past the fog of agony that seemed to ooze from her bones to realize that she wasn't alone in her bed.

    Blinking away the haze, Twilight turned to find that Gilda had ditched her own bed and climbed into hers. At the moment, the griffin was chirping in her sleep, her legs paddling the air in soft, gentle motions.

    Even as Twilight giggled to herself, she realized that Gilda's movement must have woken her.

    Leaning over, Twilight tried to lay a kiss on Gildas forehead, but found herself immediately regretting that when her neck burst into pain and she remembered just what had happened to put her in the med-bay.

    Wincing and hissing in pain, Twilight gingerly settled herself back into her bed, her eyes screwed shut as she tried to ride out the wave.

    The murmuring and groaning from Gilda made her wince. She'd woken the griffin up.

    "Huh… blech." Gilda clacked her beak, stretching her forelegs out and straight into the air before relaxing back into the bed. She turned, looking at Twilight, who was staring at her. They both blinked at the same moment. "Oh, you're awake."

    "Don't sound so excited about it." Twilight was surprised for a moment at how weak and scratchy her voice sounded. She did her best to ignore it, not wanting to think on its reason.

    "You should be sleeping." Gilda's voice was almost a whisper, and Twilight appreciated it. The headache that was slowly making itself known was in no mood for loud noises.

    "I've been sleeping for…" Twilight lifted her hoof to check her omni-tool, only to find that the little device wasn't there. Binking, she found that it was sitting on the doctor's desk a few feet away, but in her current situation, that was practically an insurmountable distance.

    Instead, she turned her attention to the small holo-clock hung above the doctor's desk. 10:00 am, April 14. She'd been asleep for practically two whole days!

    "Oh," was all she found she could say.

    "Yeah." Gilda giggled, nuzzling Twilight as gently as she possibly could, so as not to hurt her marefriend. "Oh."

    "Where…" Twilight's brain sluggishly tried to catch up on her situation, to little success. Everything just felt so fuzzy. "What's been happening?"

    "We're still on Thessia," Gilda patiently explained. Tiny Berry had explained to her some of the potential side effects Twilight could possibly go through after having so much trauma to her head, and a little confusion was the least of things. "Celestia left yesterday."

    "Oh." Twilight's face fell in disappointment. Despite the circumstances, she wished she'd been able to spend more time with Celestia. Seeing her for only a few minutes while conscious hadn't been what she'd call quality time. The Princess was a busy pony though, and she completely understood why she couldn't spend days on Thessia just waiting by Twilight's bed until she got better. She had an entire planet to run after all.

    "She left a letter for you, for when you woke up." Turning. Gilda reached over to the small bedside table, wincing as she jostled her chest, but ignoring it as best she could as she passed a tightly wrapped scroll for Twilight to read.

    Breaking the seal and unwrapping, Twilight started to read.

    Dear Twilight,

    It is unfortunate that you will not come back with me to Equestria, where I can protect you with everything at my disposal, but I respect your wishes. I regret that I must leave before you wake again, but I am sure that you are in the best hooves possible.

    When I gave you your mission to find the Elements of Harmony, I had no idea that it would bring you to such danger. The galaxy is a dark place, both you and I know that, but I never expected that the darkness would ever touch you.

    I beg you Twilight, please take every precaution necessary to protect yourself, Gilda, and everypony aboard. Let the ship explode, if that's what you must do, but please, come back to me alive. No cost is too high for your safe return.

    Do whatever it takes to stay safe.

    Your loving teacher and friend,

    Celestia

    P.S. I have decided to allow both Maud Pie and Pinkie Pie to stay with you, if that's what you so choose. The ultimate decision is up to you, but Maud Pie and I have come to an... understanding.

    It appears that Pinkie Pie is completely innocent in this matter. You are free to do what you will. I will not blame you if you do not wish to keep her around.

    Twilight set the letter down on the bed, contemplative.

    Next to her, Gilda waited for Twilight to speak. She hadn't had a chance to read the letter yet, and she had no idea what Princess Celestia had left for Twilight.

    After seeing Twilight's nod of permission, Gilda picked up the letter and started to read. She had to quietly sound out some of the words as she went, but Twilight was proud to note that she was getting better at reading.

    It took her nearly five minutes, but when she finished, she turned her attention back to Twilight. "What are you going to do?"

    "I don't know," Twilight answered with a shrug. What was she supposed to do. None of her books ever prepared her for this.

    ###

    Carmel Breeze loved her job. It wasn't often that a pony like her managed to work not only for the Princess, but by the very nature of what she did, have quality time with her herd every day, whenever she wanted. She had fed some of the most important beings in the galaxy, but she was starting to wonder if she wouldn't be most proud of her time spent working for Twilight. That mare was doing something important, and she had a feeling these would be the days she would tell her grand foals about… when she and Honey Dawn ever got around to having foals of their own that is.

    Humming happily to herself, she hopped into her kitchen, pausing, but not surprised when she found Pinkie Pie at the center island, slowly mixing together batter in a bowl.

    "Hello!" Carmel chirped out. She hadn't had a chance to meet the earth pony yet, but she had heard how she had been betrayed by her entire family. She couldn't imagine how she'd act if her herd betrayed her.

    Pinkie Pie glanced back at Carmel Breeze, but didn't give much of a reaction other than a wake smile. "Hello." She turned back to her mixing.

    Carmel Breeze hopped up next to her, having to grab her stool to get up to the level to see what Pinkie was doing. "Cupcakes or regular cake?"

    "Hmm?" Pinkie Pie blinked, looking at Carmel Breeze like she was seeing her for the first time. There wasn't even a hint of understanding in her eyes.

    "You're either making cupcakes or a big ol' fluffy cake." Undeterred, Carmel smiled at Pinkie. "Which is it?"

    "Oh." Pinkie slowed her mixing to almost a glacial pace. "A cake."

    "What type?" Carmel Breeze loved cake, and she loved baking cake even more. From the looks of it, Pinkie was either making red velvet, or cherry.

    Pinkie Pie looked at Carmel Breeze, just staring at her for a long moment. Carmel Breeze stared right back, smiling, paying no mind to how others would feel uncomfortable under Pinkie's gaze.

    "I want to be alone right now." Pinkie finally said, her voice flat.

    "No you don't!" Carmel shook her head.

    "Yes I do." Pinkie Pie stared at Carmel like she was crazy. It wasn't the first time that Carmel had ever gotten such a look, and as such, she was used to it.

    "Nuh uh." Carmel shook her head.

    "Uh huh." Pinkie refuted, putting a little growl into her voice.

    "No you don't." Tilting her head to the side, Carmel squinted at Pinkie. "Why are you lying?"

    "I'm not…" Pinkie didn't even have the energy to protest, and she ducked her head, stopping her stirring. She sighed, scuffing a hoof against the floor. "It's... Uh... I…"

    She scowled, unable to spit out what she actually wanted to say. It obviously frustrated her, and she couldn't find the right words.

    Her mouth opening and closing a few times, Pinkie finally managed to say, "I don't know who I am anymore."

    "You don't?" Carmel scrunched up her muzzle in confusion. "You're Pinkie Pie. Did you get a concussion? Memory loss is a bad sign. Do you need to see a doctor?"

    "That's not…" Pinkie sighed, frustrated. "No, I don't have a concussion."

    "Oh." Carmel Breeze frowned, confused. "Why don't you know who you are then?"

    "I know that I'm Pinkamena Diane Pie." Pinkie's ears folded back against her head, and she sighed. "I don't what that even means anymore though. Everything about my life so far has been a lie. My family is a…" She struggled to find the right words. "They're awful, horrible, despicable ponies. They've ruined who knows how many lives, and they used me to make sure they could do it all in secret."

    "That does sound pretty awful." Carmel agreed, nodding her head. "But why does that mean you don't know who you are?"

    "It just... It…" Scowling, Pinkie crossed her forelegs. "It just does."

    "What's your favorite food?" Carmel asked.

    Blinking, Pinkie tried to catch up with the sudden change in conversation. "... Cupcakes."

    "What's your favorite thing to do?" Grinning, Carmel waited for Pinkie to answer.

    "To bring a smile to somepony's face." Pinkie squinted at Carmel.

    "It sounds like you know who you are. I think you're real problem is that you don't know who anyone else is."

    Pinkie Pie didn't look at all convinced.

    "It's a pretty big distinction." Carmel explained, speaking clearly, making sure that Pinkie wouldn't miss a single word. "It means that you can be sure of yourself. Not trusting yourself is a bad, bad thing. It makes you miserable, and that's bad for a pony who likes to make smiles."

    "But what am I supposed to do now?" Pinkie sounded lost, and Carmel's heart went out to her.

    "Twilight came to speak with you. She wants you on her mission. It seems like a pretty clear plan going forward. If I were you, I'd certainly thank Celestia that a path had laid itself out so cleanly." Carmel did have the tendency to see through to the heart of the matter in her herd. It extended to other ponies too, apparently.

    "Huh…" Pinkie had to actually think about that.

    The kitchen doors opened, surprising both Pinkie and Carmel, and Honey Dawn walked in. Carmel and Honey Dawn shared a quick smile, but Pinkie Pie straightened when she saw her, nervous.

    "The Emissary wants to speak with you," Honey Dawn said to Pinkie.

    "I'll finish up your cake, Pinkie." Carmel assured her. "Go figure out your future. It'll be done when you get back."

    It was obvious that Pinkie Pie didn't want to go, but she didn't have a choice. Hooves heavy, she followed Honey Dawn out of the kitchen.

    ###

    When she had decided to join Twilight on her mission, Rarity had thought it would be a nice chance to see the galaxy, meeting with the most important people across the galaxy. Instead, all she and her sister had gotten was a good dose of trauma and a reminder of that night so long ago in Ponyville.

    Sitting on her bed in her cabin, Rarity idly flipped through an asari fashion magazine she'd picked up the other day, keeping half an eye on Spike and Sweetie Belle at the foot of her bed. They both had their attention glued on the holo-screen across from the bed, showing the latest big blockbuster movie (though which one, Rarity couldn't even begin to guess).

    Rarity harrumphed, keeping her vision firmly planted on the door, letting go of any pretense of pretending to read her magazine. She couldn't be reading when she knew that just a few yards away, that awful Maud Pie was sitting in her locked room, waiting for Twilight to decide her fate onboard Solar One.

    She would never let her guard down, especially not when she had her little sister to protect. She wouldn't let her be taken again.

    Never again.

    Rarity shut her magazine with a huff, unable to read, and leapt gracefully off the bed. She instead sat down between Spike and Sweetie Belle. It was best not to dwell on such awful matters.

    "What did you say this movie was called, Sweetie Belle?" Rarity asked after a moment, staring at the screen as a rather buxom asari pulled an oversized rifle from somewhere she really didn't want to question.

    "It's…." Sweetie Belle scrunched up her muzzle, realizing she didn't have a clue about what they were watching. She blushed when she realized that she hadn't been paying attention to anything for the last hour, looking up at her older sister, shrugging. "I don't know."

    "Oh." Rarity frowned, looking at Spike. "Spike? Do you know?"

    Rarity found that Spike was looking off into the distance with a thousand yard stare, and she sighed. Turning on her omni-tool, she shut off the holo-screen.

    "Spike." Rarity reached out and put a hoof on Spike's shoulder, and the little dragon snapped out of it, focusing on her.

    "Huh?" He blinked in confusion.

    "You weren't watching the movie, were you?" Rarity asked.

    "Uh…" Spike shook his head "No."

    "Are you two alright?" Rarity nodded in understanding.

    Rarity took a step back so she could see them both, chewing her lip carefully. She didn't know why she hadn't realized it sooner. All three of them were in shock.

    Spike and Sweetie Belle don't say anything, both of them staring down at the ground. In trying to protect them physically, Rarity realized that she'd forgotten that all three of them endured a lot mental trauma as well from their experience.

    Sweetie Belle was the first to break, tears falling down her muzzle as she burst out crying. She lunged at Rarity, who caught her with ease, cradling her against her barrel comfortingly.

    "It's alright, Sweetie Belle," Rarity murmured softly. "You're safe here. Nopony is going to hurt you. I'll make sure of that."

    Looking over, she saw Spike was still sitting there, stubbornly refusing to look at either of them.

    Holding out one of her forelegs, Rarity gestured for him to come join them.

    Spike paused, the muscles in his jaw tensing, before he reluctantly, he did so. Rarity caught him with ease, and he leaned into Rarity's side. She could feel his breath coming in hitching gulps. Whispering quiet words of comfort, she soothingly rubbed his back with her hoof, murmuring to both Sweetie and Spike. "It's alright. Twilight and Gilda will be fine. We're all safe. Nothing will hurt us."

    Rarity wasn't so sure of that, but she would never let them know that.

    Maud Pie was still on the ship, after all.

    Pushing that thought from her mind, they all grieved for the loss of their innocence.

    ###

    Twilight and Gilda both turned from their quiet conversation as the door to the med bay opened and Honey Dawn walked in, followed by a morose Pinkie Pie. Both Twilight and Gilda couldn't help but think that there was something wrong with that look on her, but neither would ever voice the thought.

    "Honey Dawn!" Twilight greeted the Wonderbolt with a smile. "Could you chart a course to Earth, please. Time waits for no mare, and please, take us out as soon as you're finished."

    "Yes, Twilight," Honey Dawn said, not bothering to tease her by calling her ma'am. With a quick nod, she turned and left the room.

    The door shut closed with an ominous finality.

    Pinkie Pie didn't so much as flinch. She stood on straight, unshaking legs, staring at Twilight with sad eyes. It didn't help that when she looked at Twilight, she saw the truth of her family's betrayal.

    Twilight was practically bandaged from muzzle to hoof, with only a few sparse spots of her violet coat poking through. Some of the bandages were just starting to soak through, and they'd probably need to be changed in an hour or so. Congealing blood was still leaking, and Pinkie wondered whether Kai Leng had used something… extra… when he'd tortured her. Whatever Kai Leng used, it had made it particularly difficult to close all of her wounds. It was going to take some time, and a lot of patience until Twilight was back to one-hundred percent.

    "Come closer, Pinkie," Twilight said, breaking the spell on Pinkie.

    Pinkie obligingly stepped closer. She ignored Gilda, who was staring at her with hawk eyes, watching every movement carefully. The griffins muscles were primed, and she was definitely ready to leap into action at a moment's notice to protect Twilight, no matter how bad her own injuries were.

    Pinkie could appreciate that kind of loyalty.

    She wished someone had that kind of loyalty for her.

    No one did. There was no one that she could trust, her own family had proved that to her with their actions.

    Even during that revelation, she never broke free from Twilight's gaze.

    "You really knew nothing." Twilight didn't ask. She'd already realized it for herself.

    Pinkie Pie didn't say a word, instead, she just stared down at the floor.

    "That is…" Twilight's mouth gaped for a moment, and she sighed. "That's awful."

    "What are you going to do with me?" Pinkie asked, ignoring Twilight's pity.

    "I don't know." It was a struggle for Twilight to say what she wanted to say next, for more reasons than one. Twilight was afraid, and she didn't ever want to get hurt like that again. "You're dangerous to be around. Your family…"

    "I know." Pinkie bowed her head, accepting. "I'll pack my stuff, and Maud and I'll leave as soon as I'm done. I'm sorry. None of this... This wasn't supposed to happen."

    "I wasn't saying I was kicking you off my ship." Twilight practically shouted, panicked.

    "Then what?" Pinkie asked, a little surprised at Twilight's level of adamance.

    "What else did you miss?" Twilight asked, shifting the conversation. "How could you never even suspect?"

    "There weren't any clues." There really weren't. Her family was kind, and loving, and they always smiled. They had been like that ever since Pinkie had discovered her cutie mark back on the rock farm. "It was all parties, and smiles, and Smile, and then, this. I thought we were doing good. I was just too stupid to see that we were evil the entire time. I won't make that mistake again."

    "What about your sister?" Twilight asked. Pinkie didn't bother telling her that she had three sisters.

    "She won't leave." Pinkie instead informed Twilight.

    "What do you want to do with her then?"

    Pinkie was silent for a long moment, before she just shrugged. "Do what you want. I don't care."

    Pinkie and Twilight stare at each other for a little longer, before Twilight just nodded.

    "Okay. Go talk to Tiny Berry. She'll get you a room, and you can stay there."

    "Are we done?" Pinkie asked, feeling tired.

    "Yeah."

    Before Twilight could even say anything else, Pinkie turned around and walked out of the room. The door shut behind her with a loud click.

    "Are you sure that's a good idea?" Gilda asked as soon as she was gone.

    "I don't know." Twilight shrugged, burrowing deeper into her bed. "It's what I need to do, but no, I don't know if it's a good idea."

    "There seems to be a lot of that going around."

    "Yeah." Shutting her eyes, Twilight nuzzled into her marefriend's side and tried to get back to sleep.

    ###

    Honey Dawn, Little Hoof, and Fancy Steps sat at their chairs on the bridge of Solar One, prepping the ship for its journey to Earth. It was promising to be an easy flight, which was best, considering what they had just gone through.

    None of them were talking, the events on Thessia striking home to show just how dangerous this mission was shaping up to be.

    The flight path had already been prepared, and they'd received the green light from Thessia's flight control nearly as soon as they'd placed it. Starting the engines, they began the launch checklist.

    Time to leave.

    ###

    Pinkie Pie sat on her bed as the ship started to rumble ever so slightly. They were leaving Thessia, and she couldn't say that she wasn't glad.

    Talking to Tiny Berry had resulted in her getting a room on the lowest deck, under the engine core. She'd been given one of the smaller, less opulent rooms on Solar One, designed for the aides of foreign dignitaries. Not much luxury there.

    Pinkie found herself glad about that, even though she knew Tiny Berry was trying to snub her. She didn't deserve luxury, not after what her family had done.

    Even as they were taking off, Pinkie's omni-tool chimed, and she saw that she had a new message waiting for her.

    She opened it, and found a letter waiting for her.

    Dear Pinkamena,

    I am sorry that we had to part under such difficult times.

    I have transferred complete ownership of Smile Incorporated to you.

    Regards,

    Father.

    Pinkie's omni-tool chimed again, and she looked, and sure enough, she found that every single one of the shares out there, and she outright owned Smile Inc. and all of its several million credits worth of assets.

    With a few more presses of her omni-tool, she put it all up for sale.

    30. Chapter Twenty-Eight - Noveria Nights

    Chapter Twenty-Eight - Noveria Nights

    Noveria, Pax System, Horsehead Nebula

    April 15, 2183

    The Normandy was a bit of a conundrum for anyone familiar with Alliance ships. Standard Alliance operating procedure had a dedicated armory on the ship, with an entire team to maintain, and outfit the ship's entire crew with weapons and armor at a moments notice.

    Unlike all other Alliance ships, the Normandy had a small set of weapons and armor, kept in the hanger of the Normandy, with a single crewmember assigned to tend to them, on a part time basis. His other job, as Requisitions Officer, often saw him spending long hours on the extranet, tracking down the supplies the Normandy would need and arranging for them to all be sent to the correct place.

    After coming on board, Ashley had taken over the job from the Requisitions Officer, and she'd been meticulously trying to catch up on all of the work that had gone unattended since the Normandy's launch. It was a bigger job than normal, especially when you considered that no one on the Normandy was working with standard gear.

    On top of working with the normal stores of equipment that largely went unused, the entire ground team had weapons and armor that needed to be maintained. Shepard's SPECTRE armor alone had taken nearly a week and cutting through more red tape than she ever thought she'd see to even figure out how parts of it worked.

    There had been a minor kerfuffle when Garrus had learned that the Alliance had others maintain gear, and had challenged Ashley to what he had termed a 'calibrations showdown.'

    It was much to his surprise when she won the armor, pistol, handgun, and shotgun challenges, but he had at least been able to keep his head tall with his perfect score on the sniper rifles.

    All of that work was for a good reason, though. When a mission came up, everything needed to be working in absolutely perfect order.

    As Shepard pulled on her armor, feeling the servos powering up with their quiet power, giving her strength beyond even the strongest man. Stretching, she looked around the hanger to see the rest of her squad following her lead.

    Wrex was already dressed in his armor, but that was because he never actually took it off. He was leaning on the Mako, idly checking his shotgun over. He actually looked impressed with the work Ashley had done to it. Somehow, she had added another two shots before it overheated.

    As always, Rainbow was struggling to pull the legs of her armor on, grunting to herself, completely oblivious to the snickers from Kaidan behind her.

    Next to her, Tali was trying to figure out whether it was worth it to pull a chest plate on over her containment suit. It was either too tight of a fit, or too loose of one, thanks to the odd ways her suit sat on her frame, not to mention that quarian bone structure was just a bit off from human. Normandy didn't stock alien armor, at least not yet. Shepard would make sure that that was rectified as soon as possible.

    Before Shepard could finish locking up her armor, the elevator door opened and she watched Liara step out. The asari looked nervous, wringing her hands together, but there was a determination behind her eyes that burned bright.

    Finishing bolting her chest piece in place, Shepard turned towards her, greeting her with a smile. "Hey, Liara."

    "You're going after my mother." There was a slight waver in Liara's voice, but she did her best to hide it. Taking a deep breath, she met Shepard's eyes, unblinking and firm. "I want to be there."

    Shepard fell still, keeping Liara's gaze for what felt like an eternity to the Asari. Piercing, the look made Liara shift uncomfortably in her shoes, wondering if she'd perhaps pushed a bit too far. She felt laid bare, as if Riley was seeing everything that made her, her, and she wondered how she must appear to her.

    Before Liara could ponder any further, Shepard looked away and the moment was broken. She took a deep breath, her legs shaking a little unsteadily from the intensity of the emotions that still rocked through her.

    Glancing back at the rest of her squad, Shepard chewed on her lip. Looking back at Liara, she took her by her shoulder and led her a little ways a way, to be as private as they could be in the rather echoey hanger. There was no reason any of the others needed to hear what she had to say.

    "Liara," Shepard said, her voice soft, with a surprising amount of tenderness considering what she said next, "You know I may have no other choice but to shoot Benezia."

    "Yes… I…" Liara nodded, swallowing the frog in her throat as she tried her best appear brave. She wasn't completely successful. "I know. I have to be there regardless."

    "Okay." Turning, Shepard caught Ashley's attention with a short wave, motioning her over. As she came up to them, Shepard said, "Get Liara outfitted in a suit of light armor. She's coming with us."

    Immediately, Ashley looked like she wanted to protest, her brow screwing up in something resembling anger, but the look on Shepard's face made her pause. Shutting her mouth, she frowned, turning to Liara. She studied the Asari for a moment before sighing and motioning for her to follow. "Come on."

    Without even checking to see if Liara was following her, Ashley stormed across the hanger to the lockers. Liara had to jog to keep up with the marine, and the sudden bloom of nervousness in her chest didn't help matters any.

    "You have any weapons training, Doctor?" Ashley asked as she opened one of the larger lockers that kept the stock hardsuits for the entire Normandy crew, looking through the various boxes.

    "Excuse me?" Liara looked at Ashley, blinking owlishly in confusion at the sudden topic shift.

    "Weapons training." Ashley repeated, glancing at her before going back to her searching. "Have you had any, doc?"

    "Oh." Liara nodded once, glad she caught up with what Ashley was asking. The surprised look on her face made Liara feel just a smudge of smug happiness. "Yes, I have. My mother made sure that I had basic weapon training when I was in college."

    "Yeah?" Ashley sounded skeptical as she dismissed several boxes of armor for reasons beyond Liara's understanding. "How long did that last?"

    "Twenty years! I know it's not a lot..." Liara paused when she noticed the look that Ashley was giving her.

    Ashley pauses, staring at Liara like she's just grown another head and a spiked tail.

    "Twenty years..." Ashley paused, staring at Liara like she'd just grown another head and a spiked tail, declaring herself lord of all pasta. "Doing what?"

    "Most of it was biotic training, but her commandos made sure I was able to use any weapon I could ever find myself with." Those were long days, and Liara felt her muscles twinge in memory of the bruises and aches from those long hours of work and exercise.

    "You're just just full of surprises, aren't you doc?" Ashley laughed, a harsh sound, shaking her head as she pulled a crate of light armor in Liara's basic body type out, dropping it on the table next to the lockers. "It's self adjusting, so you just need to put it on and I'll set it for you."

    "Thank you." Stepping up to the box, Liara started to unlatch it, revealing the alliance standard armor within.

    "Yeah, don't mention it." Ashley narrowed her eyes, making sure Liara was getting her point. "Really, don't mention it."

    Without saying anything else, Ashley turned and walked away. Liara just stared after her, holding the breastplate of her new armor.

    ###

    As the Normandy's hanger door lowered, a wave of frigid air swept into the heated ship, and Shepard could almost believe that she saw it happen. Her face stung, but she marveled for a moment at how warm her new armor kept the rest of her armor.

    Walking down the hanger, Shepard heard her squad following after her, their footsteps loud enough to cut through the howling wind outside the hanger almost two-hundred feet away.

    Liara wondered how Riley could look so confident walking into the unknown. Even she knew about Noveria, and she had heard the rumors about what happened on the planet. Some people disappeared, never to be heard from again, if they pissed off the wrong person. It didn't sound like a place she wanted to spend anymore time than she needed to.

    Oh mother, what are you doing here? Liara wondered, worry filling her.

    Before she could dwell any longer on her dour thoughts, Liara finally noticed the cold. Almost as one, she watched as the entire group collectively shivered as the freezing air hits them with a physical force.

    The cold made it all the more clear to Liara just how strange the weight of her armor felt on her shoulders. It took a moment, but her armor started to warm up, getting her from freezing to death to just moderately chilled and in need of a blanket.

    "You bring us to the nicest places, Shepard." Wrex laughed, shaking his head. Liara wondered whether or not he even felt the cold.

    "If you don't like it, you can wait on the ship." Shepard didn't even look back over her shoulder at him, distracted.

    "I wasn't saying I don't like it." Resting a hand on the butt of his handgun, he stretched his other arm.

    "Uh huh."

    Liara wasn't even sure whether or not Riley had actually heard what Wrex had said.

    As the hanger door started to close behind them, Shepard led her group down the path towards the entrance into the main structure. From the looks of it, everything had been built into the side of a mountain, as much a shield against the cold as it had a defensive purpose.

    When they were nearing the entrance, the doors opened and a group of soldiers, all of them human, wearing Hyland-Sorah armor trooped out. Their weapons were holstered, and they all had their helmets on, to ward off the cold as much as possible.

    "Spectre, we weren't expecting to see one of you here," the lead soldier said, greeting them.

    "What's going on here?" Shepard asked, hoping against hopes that her nose wasn't running. That would just be embarrassing, and she couldn't feel her face. "Why is there a fleet blockading the planet?"

    "We're supposed to take you to see the boss," the soldier explained, gesturing back at the entrance. "She has all the answers you're looking for."

    "Lead the way." Shepard wasn't happy about needing to wait, but she was more than willing to head inside and get back into the warm. "Before we all freeze to death."

    ###

    The snow whipping against her window was beautiful in its own way, and Alice Vale had spent a good portion of her free time staring out at the stark beauty of Noveria, or at least what little of it she could see through the storm. Though it looked violent enough to kill a man in minutes, the storm didn't make so much as a noise in her rather large office, all thanks to the wonders of 22nd century engineering.

    Instead of the storm, Also Sprach Zarathustra rang mightily in her office, which was in and of itself sound-proofed from the rest of the building, which her secretary probably loved. It was a wonder to stand there, a warm mug of hot chocolate (with just a hint of peppermint) cradled in her hands, and stand against the very fury of an entire world unaffected.

    Deep lines of worry were carved into her face, and she wondered during her nights if they were the beginning of permanent marks. She promised herself that she'd take a vacation after this whole debacle was finished. She deserved it after all the stress that the NDC had given her.

    "Ms. Vale, the Spectre is here to see you." The intercom broke the silence in her office, and Alice drew herself back into the real world. With a quick flick on her omni-tool, her music went silent.

    "Send them in, please," Alice replied, turning away from her window and stepping up to her desk.

    As she set her mug down on her desk, the doors to her office slid open on silent hinges and Alice watched dumbfounded as what appeared to be an entire menagerie of aliens walked into her office. Alice couldn't help it as her eyebrows made their way north, both surprised and amused at the turn of events.

    "Hello, I'm Director Alice Vale…" Standing, Alice nodded politely at the woman in the most expensive armor. She stood with an air of dignity and self-assurance around herself that she could be no one else. "Spectre... Did you bring your entire crew with you, or do you just get lonely?"

    The Spectre paused for a moment, looking back at her crew. A pegasus (and wasn't she a strange sight to see anywhere outside of Equestria) with a shockingly rainbow mane shrugged back at her, the rather impressive specimen of a krogan laughed, and the most nervous asari Alice had ever seen hid behind him. The two human marines, a man and a woman, were as professional as was to be expected of the Alliance, backs stiff and arms respectfully held at their sides. The turian next to them stood in a picture perfect example of Hierarchy parade rest, while the quarian was eying Alice's holo-display with a level of interest that hinted at her desire to take it apart and put it back to together as many times as possible.

    "They come in handy when I find something that I want dead." The Spectre shrugged, not at all apologetic. "I'm Riley Shepard, Council Spectre, and my squad is simply too numerous to introduce."

    "Fair enough." Alice looked over all of them. "I'd offer you seats, but my office wasn't built for an invading army."

    "We'll be out of your hair as soon as we can." Shepard smiled, in a way that said she wouldn't be leaving before she had every single thing she wanted taken care of.

    "No, please, take all the time you need." Alice was only being half-sarcastic. A satisfied Spectre was better for all parties concerned, and would be far better than having her keep showing up multiple times, distracting her and everyone she worked with. "I'm only leading a massive campaign against the Noveria Development Corporation."

    "Why?" Shepard looked genuinely curious, a strange feat in and of itself. Spectres usually only cared about their own mission.

    "Because Hyland-Sorah outright bought the planet from underneath them." Alice smiled, standing respectfully. It was only polite when she was unable to offer them any seats of her own. "We could really use a research facility without any Council oversight."

    "That's lovely, from what I hear." Shepard would know, better than most.

    "You'd know, Spectre." Spectres might not have any laws, but they answered directly to the Council themselves. That couldn't be any fun.

    "Do you always bring an army when you're taking control of a business?" Shepard asked, pointing up at the ceiling. Alice knew immediately that she was referring to the fleet up in orbit.

    "No." Alice took another sip of her hot chocolate, loving that the mug kept it at a constant, perfect temperature. "That came after the NDC decided it was a good idea to shoot our ship out from orbit. Not all of those ships up there are ours, anyway. There are... other matters that must be taken into account that we were not made aware of."

    "So, you bought this place sight unseen, and whoever sold it you decided at the last minute that they'd rather not, sorry, and then opened fire on you?" She actually laughed, a sound that Alice found especially pleasant.

    "It's a bit more complicated than that, I'm afraid." Shrugging, Alice stepped out from behind her desk, walking back to her window. The snow was falling even thicker than before, if that was at all possible.

    "Please, enlighten me."

    "The NDC did sell us the planet, and for a fair price-"

    Before Alice could finish her sentence, the quarian interrupted her, "I don't even want to ask how much." Even with her translator working perfectly, Alice wondered at what the quarian's actual language sounded like, it was so heavily accented.

    "A mere fifty trillion credits." Alice kept her voice flat and her face emotionless.

    The room went deathly quiet.

    "Mere…" the asari squeaked, her eyes almost comically wide.

    "Whoa." The Pegasus sounded impressed, but Alice got the distinct impression that she didn't actually care about money beyond having her basic needs and desires taken care of.

    "Heh." The krogan gave a guttural laugh, but nothing beyond that, staring at one of the larger pieces of artwork on her wall, a Monet, if she remembered correctly. He looked strangely moved, considering the reputation of most of his race.

    "How do you even get that much money…" The female marine murmured, her brow scrunched in confusion the first sign of any personality from the otherwise professional woman.

    "I could get a really nice sniper rifle for that." The turian sounded appreciative, but his wish was definitely not surprising.

    "I could buy a new fleet for that." The quarian nudged the turian in response, as if wondering at his lack of imagination.

    "I'd give it to charity." The male marine spoke up, showing that he had just as nice a personality to go along with his charming looks.

    Everyone paused, looking at the man, and a rather impressive blush spread across his face.

    "What?" He shifted uncomfortably under all of the attention, and Alice had to restrain a giggle. He looked positively embarrassed. "I thought we were doing a thing…"

    "As I was saying, things did not go as expected." Alice mercifully drew everyone's attention back to her. A man that pretty deserved a little kindness.

    "What happened?" Shepard asked curiously, just as willing to move on from her subordinate's embarrassment.

    "The old administrator is right at the heart of all of this." Alice hated that bastard, Anoleis. He perfectly fit the stereotype of the businessman salarian. Hands in as many pies as possible, with those pies hidden and buried in so many petabytes of data that it would take years to figure out everything that he was up to. "Whether he is too stupid to realize he has no options, or he's doing something so illegal even the NDC would balk at it... who knows. It doesn't matter. He's in charge of the resistance."

    "If you have all those ships, why haven't you wrapped all this up by now?" The female marine asked, her brow furrowed in thought.

    "It's not that easy." Alice had actually contemplated that idea in the first few days of the siege, but her engineers and scientists had quickly talked her out of it, not to mention her superiors. "There's a lot of stuff that's on this planet that wouldn't react well to orbital bombardment, and there's some things that we don't to destroy. They've already built all of the facilities here. No reason to destroy them. It would take far too much work to start from scratch."

    "Fifty trillion credits and rebuilding a few buildings is 'too much work?'" The krogan laughed again at that, drawing his attention away from the Monet to Alice. She blinked at the fierce intelligence behind his eyes.

    "It took nearly two decades to set up the original facilities." Her engineers had explained it to her at length how hard it would be to construct new facilities, and it had given her a headache when she'd considered it all. "We don't want to wait that amount of time. The cold can be a real bitch."

    "Even I don't like the cold, and I'm in a suit that regulates my body temperature," the quarian spoke up from next to the turian. It seemed like she immediately thought better of it, because she slunk behind the turian, drawing inwards on herself to make herself as small as possible.

    "You travel with a very motley crew, Shepard," Alice said, a laugh in her voice. The quarian was cute enough to make her just want to grab her up in a hug and never let go. She would never admit that aloud to anyone, ever, it simply wasn't befitting a woman her age and in her position.

    "We all kind of found each other." Shepard glanced at her crew, smirking. "It seems to be working so far."

    "I don't doubt it." Finishing her hot chocolate off, Alice made a note to herself to send her compliments to the chef. She'd have to try some more of his twists on classics, because the hot chocolate was wonderful. "What's your reason to be on Noveria?"

    "I'm looking for an asari matriarch by the name of Benezia T'Soni. She was last seen on this planet, and I need to have a little chat with her."

    "T'Soni, huh?" Of all the things she was expecting, this was not one of them. Alice opened her omni-tool, flipping through her files and connecting to the server.

    "She would have come on a small frigate, with a retinue of commandos and acolytes," the asari spoke up, and Alice wondered how she'd gotten involved. She had to be connected to the matriarch in some way, but she couldn't imagine what.

    "Yeah," Alice said, nodding as she found what she was looking for. "It's in the records, before we showed up."

    "Before?" Shepard raised an eyebrow.

    "We managed to get a local copy from this facilities servers before they could be deleted," Alice explained. It had been quite an accomplishment for them to get even that much, to her embarrassment. "This was our landing zone, but we've unable to push any further."

    "Why not?"

    "This blizzard." Pointing at the window, Alice looked over at the storm. In a long stream of everything going absolutely wrong, the storm rolling in had been the absolute worst. "It's been hitting us hard for the past week and this facility is right on the edge. If anyone heads further in, they're on their own. We can't provide overwatch from orbit, and we can't fly in this, so it's ground transportation the entire way."

    "T'Soni is at Peak 15." Alice smiled apologetically as she pulled up a map above her desk. She helpfully pointed out their destination, apologetic. It was a hell of a long way away. "We're all the way over here, at the Grand Lodge. It's nothing else but a place for the scientists and businessmen to relax for a week or so before getting back to work."

    "Huh…" The pegasus' wings slumped low for just a moment, but she didn't let them ever touch the floor. "Well, shit."

    "That's almost one-hundred miles." Stepping closer, Shepard estimated the distance with a degree of accuracy that surprised Alice, though she didn't know why. It was probably standard training for the Alliance.

    "Yep." Alice confirmed Shepard's guess. "It also seems to be the source of all of our troubles."

    "What do you mean?" Shepard asked.

    "Before we even landed, we received a warning beacon from the surface." Alice turned away from the window, walking over to lean against her desk. She crossed her arms, frowning. Everything about Noveria was just wrong. "It said that containment had been breached, and that all travel on Noveria had been grounded."

    "You obviously didn't listen to it."

    "We thought it was merely a ploy." Everyone had, from the comms operators all the way up to her senior staff. "I've been getting reports though…"

    "What type of reports?" Shepard sounded resigned, as if it was all just another normal day at the office for her.

    It probably was.

    "The type that make me wonder if it was actually an attempt to save us." Alice knew for a fact that Anoleis wasn't behind the warning. He was too much of a bastard for that, but one of the scientists at Peak 15… who knows, maybe one of them grew a heart.

    "What do you mean?" The asari asked, her voice filled with a natural curiosity that only a researcher could hold.

    "There have been…" Alice tried to search for the right word. "Disappearances, for lack of a better word, amongst our patrols. Sometimes, they just never make it back. We'll find their vehicles, and sometimes their weapons, but never them. There's never any blood, or even a sign of a fight. It's like they simply vanished."

    "Spooky." The pegasus snorted.

    "Quite." Alice wasn't looking at the pegasus, instead looking past her at the krogan, his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. It was a far cry from the wonder he showed a moment ago at the painting.

    "Disappearances or not, I need to get to Peak 15." Shepard didn't even sound resigned at the amount of work she was probably going to have to go through.

    "Of course, Spectre." Alice nodded understandingly. "We can't escort you, or even fly you there, but we can give you one of our Grizzly's."

    The M29 Grizzly was standard gear for any Alliance colony, or really any human colony. With enough room for fifteen fully kitted marines, and supplies for up to three days, the Grizzly was the armored beast you wanted with you if you were going into combat.

    "That'll do fine. Thank you, Ms. Vale." Shepard nodded in thanks.

    "Director Vale, actually," Alice corrected her. It wasn't a big thing, but she worked hard for her job, and she deserved recognition for that.

    "Director then." Shepard smiled in apology.

    "I'll have the Grizzly prepared." Alice said, straightening up. "It'll be a few day journey, and I really don't envy you, venturing out into that storm."

    "Yeah, neither do I." Sighing, Shepard rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Thank you for your time."

    "You're welcome." Glancing back out at the storm, and the already darkening sky, Alice frowned. "It might be best if you wait until morning. The drive will be bad enough as it is. I'm more than willing to put your entire crew up in our hotel for the night."

    "Thank you, Director. That's a very generous offer."

    "You're welcome." Stepping forward, Alice shook Shepard's hand.

    As they all left her office, Alice turned back to her window and the howling storm beyond. Strange tidings were on the horizon, and Alice didn't like it one bit