Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 13

This chapter brought to you by the Master of Evil himself . . .
Chapter 13

     The Kilkenny dropped out of the mass effect field established by the mass amplifier and standard FTL took over, pushing the cruiser through the Hercules system of Attican Beta at a quick pace.
     Admiral Anderson looked at the time on the display in front of him.  They would be entering the Theseus system in a little while. He double checked the ship status reports and then headed off the bridge.  The door to the elevator opened and Anderson stepped in.
     “Main hangar,” he told the transport VI.
     “Acknowledged, Admiral Anderson,” the VI droned.  David laughed on the inside, finding it funny that he was much more comfortable with the cold, indifference of a military interface compared to the overly nice and helpful software now in use on the Citadel.  
     The elevator descended swiftly a few levels before lurching sideways to whisk the admiral halfway across the length of the ship to the central flight deck. It slowed to a stop and Anderson exited onto a busy floor.  Pilots and engineers inspected and worked on the fighters, interceptors, and shuttles that lined the bay.  Some crew members ran parts around the deck while others made minor repairs to bad systems or broken tools.  One of the pilots, hustling across the floor, noticed Anderson and snapped to attention with a salute.  “Admiral on deck!” she hollered.
     Those in earshot turned to make sure it wasn’t another attempted prank by the more senior jokers in the various fighter squads, but then jumped up from the middle of their activities to mirror the pilot.  Anderson waved them off.
     “Cut that bullshit out, crewmen,” he told them in a relaxed tone.  “I’ll let you know when it’s time to salute and be all official.  This is not that time.  As you were.”
     “Sir, yes sir!” the first pilot said and then resumed her dash to a far bay of the hangar.  The rest of the men and women returned to their tasks as well and Anderson continued on to the shuttle area.  He walked up behind an older man who was busy with a data pad showing system scans of the shuttle in front of him on one half and a checklist on the other.  The longtime mechanic rubbed a gray beard with his free hand and let out an impressed puff of air.  Hearing Anderson’s footsteps, he casually turned around and nodded to the familiar face.
     “David Anderson.  It has been a long time, my friend.”
     “Henry Korlov, you old dog.  Pounding away at ships, just like the last time I saw you.”
     “How have you been, Admiral?”
     The admiral smiled and shook the man’s offered hand.  “Good on some days, worse on others.  What about you, Hank?”
     “Ha ha, I know the feeling,” the Russian native said with a heavy accent.  “About the same, more or less.  Glad you pulled me on board, buddy.  Haven’t had the chance to talk with you since I got dragged into this super secret project.  Thanks for that, by the way.  I know you had a hand in that decision.”
     “Might have something to do with being the one in charge of said project,” David chuckled.  “So . . . is that stuff going to work?”
     Hank stepped up to the shuttle and wrapped the hull with his knuckles.  It barely made a sound.  “I don’t see why not.  Great time to test it,” he cracked with a roll of his eyes.  “You know, on an actual mission with only computer models to assure us that it’s good.  It is amazing stuff, though.  I’ll give them that.  I see what they did and I get how it works, but I just can’t imagine how long it would have taken them to develop it, nevermind us.”
     “They didn’t survive through the ages and wipe out who knows how many thousands of races by not having proven armor.  As for how long- who knows?  Who’s to say the Reapers even came up with it in the first place?  Might have stolen it from some species a billion years ago, for all we know.  I just want to be prepared for whatever we face on Logan and I figure that gas giant will be a good real world test.”
     “Still, I’d feel a lot better if you’d sit this one out, my friend.  Not many admirals left and even fewer good ones.  I’d hate to be responsible for losing the man that kept Earth alive.”
     “Quit worrying, Korlov.  Just prep that bird and we’ll take her for a nice easy flight to . . . whatever we find on that planet.”
     With a mock salute, Hank Korlov returned to his checklist.  “Sure thing, Admiral.  You’re the boss.”
     “And don’t you forget it, Chief,” the old soldier said, slapping his friend on the back with a laugh before leaving.

* * * * 

     
     “Don’t rush us in, Mills,” Admiral Anderson told the slightly nervous looking young pilot of the shuttle.  “Just ease us into orbit to start with.”
     “Aye aye, Admiral.”
     “What are we looking at, Kahlee?” Anderson asked from the blonde scientist sitting in the co-pilot seat at the front of the shuttle.
     “Odd readings, that’s for damn sure.  Those signals are definitely there, just very very weak.  If we weren’t looking for them specifically, or knew what to look for thanks to the Inusannon data that Sooltir dug up for us, we’d never see it.  The signal strength must have been magnitudes higher when it was detected by chance all those years ago.”
     “Can we pinpoint it?”
     “I’m already working on it,” Brynn answered from a seat behind Kahlee.  She made some adjustments to the scanning parameters and a red data stream changed to dark orange.  “Barely,” she finally answered.  “We’ll have to go in closer.”
     “Can the shuttle handle that?” asked Major Coats.
     “These things are rated at a thousand standard atmospheres, so yes.  It will handle the planet.  It’s what we find behind those clouds down there that I’m more worried about,” Anderson said.
     Kasumi spoke up,”That surprises me, Admiral, what with that Reaper tech covering this flying box.”
     “Sir?” Coats questioned, looking to Anderson.
     David turned from looking over Kahlee’s shoulder to face his trusted resistance leader.  “It’s true.  This shuttle is a test platform for one of the various pieces of their tech that’s being looked at for wider implementation across the fleet.”
     “Do we really want to start blending Reaper technology with ours?  Look at what Cerberus did to their own people!  No offense Taylor,” he tacked on, looking Jacob’s direction. 
     Jacob shrugged.  “Hey I’m not Cerberus anymore.  I corrected that mistake.”
     “Easy, Major.  We’re not doing any organic-synthetic blending.  Weapons, armor, the militarily prudent.  Hell, it wouldn’t be the first time.  Don’t forget where Thanix Cannons came from.”
     The soldier looked down, conceding the point.
     Next to him, Nahlyon looked up.  “Where did your weapons come from?” she asked.
     “It came from a Reaper named Sovereign that attacked the Citadel a little more than three years ago.  He had indoctrinated the Council’s top Spectre, a snake of a turian named Saren.  That Spectre tried to open the Citadel relay after the Reaper’s signal to the keepers failed, thanks to your scientists from Ilos.  Sovereign brought an armada of geth to destroy the Citadel fleet while Saren worked to transfer control of the station to that damned Reaper.  We took him out and lost a lot of ships in the process.  
     “Every species allowed on the station snatched up whatever bits and pieces of scrap from that ship that they could.  Now is no different.  If humanity stays out of the game for some altruistic notion, we’ll be at the point of a very advanced gun in the not too distant future.  The Alliance isn’t willing to risk that.  That’s half the reason we’re out here now.  Whatever Logan is hiding . . . we think it’s very old and most likely very advanced.  Let’s just hope it’s still intact.  Helmsman, keep her going in.  Slowly.”
     The conversation ended, each of the crew lost in thoughts of the Reaper war, this cycle and the last.  The shuttle moved closer and closer, the swirling clouds of the planet becoming more defined on the ship’s multiple video displays.  The mix of red and brown obscured the view of anything behind the thick puffy formations.  Anderson squinted at the main display that overlaid the signal strength with the actual video of the planet.  He tried willing it to turn green.  Instead, after a long couple of minutes of waiting, it turned bright orange.
     “Closer,” the admiral stated.  “Looks like we’re on the right track.  Take us in a little more and a little faster, Lieutenant Mills.  I don’t feel like sitting in this clown car all day.”
     “Yes sir,” the pilot complied.
     “Clown car?” Sooltir asked.
     “Human expression,” Kahlee said.  “Small area packed absurdly full.”
     “Ah.”
     The shuttle rocked lightly.  “Just a little turbulence.  Not even a drop in the bucket of what we can take,” informed the pilot.  Anderson saw the orange turn yellow and exchanged a questioning glance with Kahlee.
     “Hold this spot and drop down some more,” Anderson said, acting on a hunch.
     “Sir.”
     The shuttle’s elevation indicator steadily lowered.  The so called turbulence increased.  Flashes of blue energy began to punch through the impenetrable clouds around the ship.
     “That is not a natural phenomenon,” Sooltir observed.  
     “Is that . . . an eezo field?” Major Coats asked.
     “Starting too look like one, isn’t it?” Kasumi agreed.
     The signal strength started flashing between yellow and green rapidly.  An alarm went off.  “Sensors say we’ve got . . . something.  High velocity!  Heading right for us!” the pilot yelled.  “Hold on!”
     There was a hard impact and Anderson was thrown off his feet, falling back across Coats and the Protheans.  They caught him and he slid into a seat and grabbed the safety harness for stability.  The shuttle took more hits.  “These things are good!  Adjusting for every move I make!”  Mills shouted.
     “How are we holding up?” the admiral called.
     “Lots of contact.  Shields dipping, but even with all that, hull integrity is still good.”
     “Nice test run, eh Admiral?” Coats asked.
     “That’s one way to put it,” he replied with half a smile.  “Keep going, Mills.”
     The pilot pushed the shuttle deeper into the clouds with the attacks coming even faster and harder.  “Shields can’t recharge at this rate of fire, Admiral.  We’re going to start taking more damage.  This armor should hold . . . as long as they don’t focus on any one spot, I guess.”
      “Understood.  Max out our speed.  I have a feeling . . .”
      The signal went solid green as another round of hits exploded on the front corner of the ship, closest to the pilot.  A section of the console burst open.  Fire and electricity shot directly into Mills’ face.  The pilot screamed in pain and then slumped forward on top of the ruined controls.  
      “Mills!” Kahlee cried, jumping out of her seat.  She checked his pulse while she pulled him from the seat.  “He’s gone, David!”  She pulled his body to the side and went back to her seat to use the co-pilot controls.  “Do we keep going or turn back while we still can?” she asked.
      The admiral looked at his crew.
      “Admiral, perhaps we should consider turning back,” Sooltir suggested.
      “I would stick to the path, Anderson,” Kasumi offered.  “The strongest defenses protect the most important treasures.”
      Anderson glanced to Kahlee and then from the master scientist to the master thief quickly making his decision.  
      “Take us in, Kahlee,” he ordered.  The ship shuddered and warning alarms continued to blare in the small confines of the modified Kodiak.  “I’m willing to bet we’re almost-“
      The shuttle broke through the wall of clouds and into a clear section of the gas giant’s skies.  The attacks ceased and the only sounds were those of the signal trace with a positive lock on its target and the alarms warning about significant damage to the ship.
     “-through,” Anderson finished.  He looked at the video feed.  “Look at that,” he told the others who were getting up from their seats to inspect the strange calm.  “No wind.  No clouds.”
     “And one huge ass asteroid floating in the middle of it all,” Jacob observed.
     The crew studied the images coming in over the video display.  A blue field of energy shimmered every few seconds around the asteroid that easily matched the size of a modest space station.
     “And another unnatural phenomenon,” Brynn added.  “Looks like it’s the source of our signal, too.”
     Anderson leaned towards Kahlee and put a hand on her shoulder.  “Let’s look for an opening,” he whispered.
     The synthetics expert nodded and moved the shuttle in towards the levitating rock.
     “I don’t like it,” Coats said.  “Why did the attacks stop?  Why attack in the first place?”
     “I don’t know,” Anderson answered.  “When we find the source, we might get some answers.  Make a pass around it, Kahlee.  Let’s give it a look.”
     The Kodiak drifted in a lazy loop, scanning the large object from what Sanders hoped was a healthy distance.  Two thirds of the way around, Kahlee swore.  “Holy shit!”  The shuttle coasted to a stop.
     “Jackpot!” Kasumi exclaimed with a smile.
     Tethered to the asteroid by short metal looking tubes were two distinctly different alien crafts.  One was close to the size of the Kilkenny in orbit and it had a second covered walkway extending from its side to the other, much larger, ship.  It was easily twice the size of the largest Reaper.
     “Master!” Nahlyon gasped.  “That ship . . . the smaller one . . . is it . . .?” she trailed off in disbelief.  All eyes turned to the younger Prothean woman.  Sooltir looked at her assistant closed her eyes and nodded with a slow confirmation.
     “Inusannon,” Sooltir said.
     “And the other ship?” Anderson asked.
     Sooltir studied the huge ship for a moment and shook her head.  “I do not know.  I can tell you it is not of Inusannon design.  It does not resemble any style of vessel or architecture they ever described or left notes on that I can recall being found.  I believe we may be looking at something very very old, Admiral.  We must get aboard both of these ships.  Hidden for ages and defended well.  There must be good reason.”
     “And don’t forget that space station,” Jacob said.  Anderson looked over to the former Alliance soldier turned consultant with a questioning expression.  “What?  That’s gotta be what that rock is.  The tunnels to each ship.  That’s no  mining operation, either.  Those ships are docked for something other than some crates of palladium.  I’d look for another docking port and check out that too.”
     “Good points, Taylor,” Anderson agreed.  “We might want to split into a few teams.  We’ll look for a place to dock or land, check things out and then a separate group will search each point of interest here.  Kahlee, take us to the far side of that unidentified ship. I don’t see a dock on this side of the asteroid.  Maybe we’ll find one there.  But let’s send a message to the Kilkenny and let them know our situation.”
     Kahlee shook her head.  “Already tried.  We’re being blocked.  I’m guessing by whatever energy is forming their protective bubble,” she said, indicating the display where both ships and the asteroid could be seen more clearly as the shuttle coasted by them to the far side of the docking area.
     “Great,” David said.  He tapped the display screen to take note of the new object coming into view.  “Looks like we’ve got some luck finally.  Put us in there.”
     A single docking port extended to the emptiness in Logan’s high atmosphere next to the massive unidentified capital ship.  Another lay crushed into the rock surface of what Anderson was beginning to believe really was a space station or research facility of some kind.  How it came to be suspended under the cover of the planet’s shroud he had not guessed yet.  As the ship approached the port, it came alive with a bright yellow light.
     “That looks promising,” Jacob said.  
     “I don’t know,” Coats countered.  “Yellow doesn’t scream safe to me.  Plus, one minute it’s about to turn us to scrap, the next it’s welcoming us?  Why?”
     “I say we go find out,” Kasumi answered, the thief’s eyes wide with anticipation of new and exotic items to procure.
     “We’ll find out when we get in there,” Anderson told them.  “But we’ll go in armed and ready.  Suit up and stay alert.”
     The shuttle came within a few meters of the port’s end and the yellow light extended outwards, surrounding the ship.
     “What is that?” Brynn asked.
     “I think some sort of shield,” Kahlee thought out loud.  “And I’m getting readings of breathable atmosphere from inside it.”
     “Alright.  Open the door and let’s get moving.  But keep your helmets on, people.  Friendly or not, this stuff is old. I don’t want to get spaced if the power suddenly burns out.”
     “Roger that, Admiral,” Coats responded, pulling down his helmet and picking up a weapon.  

     Anderson turned from the pilot’s area and headed for the opening shuttle door, his own helmet clicking into place.  “Let’s leave her running, Kahlee.  I don’t want to be waiting on a systems power up if we have to make a quick exit.”
     

* * * * 

     Commander Jack Miller stood next to the Kilkenny’s communications officer, Chuck Little, who sat working to try and find a way to make the cruiser’s signal punch through the interference coming out of the Logan atmosphere to reach Admiral Anderson and his team.
     “So, Chuck, how’s the family doing?”
     Little didn’t look up.  “Doing good, Jack.  I’m so damn lucky to have them all make it through that Reaper hell.  Running from broken building to hole in the ground, day in and day out, living under the Resistance’s watch when they were stretched so thin.  My boy Ronnie . . . he’s found himself a sweet little girlfriend.  Cutest thing and she makes him smile all the time.”
     “It’s nice to see one bright mark come out of the blackness.”
     “I know.  Who’d have thought it?  And my baby girl just turned six and Lynn and I are just hoping that schools get moving again so she gets the education we always wanted for her.  There will be a lot of home schooling, though, I’m sure.  A lot of schools were too close to all the big targets for the Reapers.”
     “Too many teachers are gone, that’s a fact,” Jack said, providing Chuck’s unsaid thought.
     “What about you, buddy?  Monica . . .?”
     “She had a section of a wall fall across her legs during an attack.  Lost one leg completely and the other from the knee down.”
     “Oh, shit.  I’m sorry.”
     “No, it’s okay.  She’s strong.  Nothing but positive thoughts and looking to the future for my beauty.  And the doctors are amazing.  You know that rumor about Commander Shepard having died and getting brought back to life?”
     “Yeah . . . isn’t he Captain now?”
     “Something like that, but it’s besides the point.  Turns out, it’s true.  He was torn to pieces and spaced.  Helmet had sealed, protecting his brain from what I hear.  Point is, he was nothing but chunks and they put him back together.”
     “Didn’t Cerberus do that?” Chuck asked.
     “True, but the project lead on that task turned from Cerberus after helping Shepard defeat the collectors and all their medical breakthroughs came to the Alliance.  They’re growing Monica real legs, from her own DNA.”
     “Thought that was old hat, Jack?”
     “But it will be done in weeks instead of years, and it’s not even a tenth of what it used to cost!”
     “She’ll be as good as new,” Chuck understood, looking up to share an approving smile with his friend.
     “Damn right!” Jack said, beaming.  “Now how’s that communication coming?”
     “Not too good.  I’m getting something back, and it’s from our shuttle, but nothing useful.”
     “Well, at least that means they’re probably still mov-“
     “Commander Miller!” a frantic crewman shouted.
     The commander yanked his head around, feeling his stomach sink.  “What is it, Saj?”
     “I- I-“
     “Spit it out, man!”
     “The Normandy just came out of FTL at our rear!”
     “What?  The Normandy? That can’t be.  They’re at Sur’Kesh.”  
     “Something isn’t right, Jack,” Chuck said.
     “Give me a visual, Saj.”
     The unmistakable outline of the galaxy renowned frigate streaked towards the Kilkenny, a black shadow coming out of the Theseus system’s sun.
     “Sir, I’m reading massive energy spikes!”
     “WHAT?” Chuck yelled.
     “Evasive action!”

* * * * 

     Anderson stood behind the crouching Kasumi Goto as she worked at the outer door of the asteroid’s airlock, the rest of his eight person crew waiting less and less patiently behind him.
     “I seem to remember you being an expert at this, Kasumi,” Jacob said.  Brynn gave the soldier a disapproving push.  Kasumi didn’t turn from her task.
     “I seem to remember you being an idiot,” the thief shot back with a smile.  “But if you’ve suddenly become an expert at never before seen, ancient alien technology, by all means, lend me a hand.  Other wise, please refrain from distracting banter.  This may take a while.”
     The large door flashed yellow and there was a heavy thunk from the seal between the door and floor.  The entire team instinctively stepped back.  When the expected explosion did not materialize, Kasumi looked from the door to Anderson.
     “Or . . . not?”
     The door opened slowly but with little of the noise the admiral expected.  He estimated it was on the order of hundreds of thousands of years old, if the city-ship dwarfing the Inusannon ship was from a cycle prior to that race, as Sooltir conjectured, was any indication.  It was a technical marvel that anything that ancient still worked at all, never mind operated so flawlessly.  As the door receded into the ceiling, the interior passageway was illuminated with more yellow light, the source of which could not be readily determined.
     “Let’s go,” Anderson ordered.
      They made their way down a smooth tunnel that was easily five meters high at the apex, but only two across its widest point.  It extended in front of them with many connecting branches meeting the apparent main hall on both sides.  Kasumi tentatively reached out a hand and touched the nearest section of wall.  Her fingers depressed the material slightly. “Creepy. Feels like flesh.”
      “Fascinating,” Master Gelten said, poking the wall herself.  “This is not Inusannon construction.  At least, not like any we ever recovered or read about.”
     “We should look for a command center and see what we can find out about this place and who left it behind,” Kahlee said.
     “Station Slenthix is a multipurpose facility with no command center and it has not been left behind.  Not exactly.  I am here,” said a voice that caused the Alliance team to raise their weapons, sweeping the immediate area for the owner’s face while continuing to head down the main path into the station.  The voice continued. “You will find your weapons quite useless.  Security measures were enacted upon your unauthorized access to this facility.  Further hostile actions will provoke automated defenses and you will most likely perish.”
     David waved his hand down and everyone lowered their weapons.  “We’re not here for a fight.  We came looking for information.”
     “I know why you are here, Admiral David Anderson.  Though, to speak plainly, you did yourselves no favors arriving in a vessel integrated with the technology of the Rialusans.  The station’s automated defenses nearly destroyed you before my data hacking processes absorbed your Alliance information and determined you not to be an indoctrinated enemy.  I apologize for the death of the one you called Mills.  It is an unfortunate side effect of adapting the enemy’s tools.”
     David bit his tongue, wanting nothing more than to give the speaker a piece of his mind for the killing, but he told himself to let it go for the sake of the mission. “Rialusans?  You mean the Reapers?” 
     “That is what they have come to be known as, yes.”
     “Where are you?  Who and what are you?” he asked.
     “I am accessible from anywhere on this station, my creators’ vessel, and the Inusannon vessel docked here.  That required modification, but I was able to convert an enemy agent and it made the necessary changes.  As for who- I am the caretaker of Slenthix.”
     “Some sort of advanced VI?  Like the one Shepard found on Ilos?” Brynn asked.
     “Not one of ours, that’s for sure,” Nahlyon answered.
     “That is the ‘what’.  I am what your cultures call an artificial intelligence,” the voice answered.  “My creators identified me simply as Caretaker.  You may do the same if you like.”
     “What is this place?” Major Coats asked.
     “This is Station Slenthix.  A multipurpose facility, as I stated before.  However, there are no active parties currently utilizing the station.  You are presently making your way down the main hall of the docking area.  It leads from the many sections of the docking area to a transit system that accesses the rest of the station.  The transit vessel can be found straight ahead.”
     “You mentioned using an enemy agent for modifications.  Are you only a program with a voice for communication?” Kahlee asked.
     “You wish to know if I have a physical form, Kahlee Sanders?”
     “Yeah, I guess I do.”

     “I do, but it has been in disrepair for quite some time.  Repairs to that require external resources.  I have no access to such resources.”
     “Couldn’t you have used the same agent to retrieve supplies for you?” Sooltir asked.
     “Master Gelten.  I would like to state, first, that I am glad to see living Protheans come to this station.  I feared your species lost to the Rialusans completely, until recently.  We had had high hopes for your people.  Had you found Slenthix in your cycle, things would have been very different.  As to the converted agent, it was released with a wiped memory of this location after I used it for the Inusannon modifications.  To have it coming and going with supplies would have needlessly endangered this location.  It would have drawn the attention of the Rialusans, the agent’s original masters.”
     A portion of the yellow light concentrated into a human form resembling Anderson.  “For now, I can assume a visual form to facilitate a more natural interaction.
     “How about something different,” the admiral suggested.  “Maybe something representing what your race looked like?”
     “That is not advisable.  I do not wish to reveal information that I was sworn to withhold.”
     “What difference does it make to some long gone race?” Jacob asked.
     “Jacob Taylor, your question is . . . flawed.  And it does not change my answer.  But I will change to another form that is familiar to you since I see you would all be uneasy with your own semblances mirrored.  Your species are not as vain as- or maybe more sensitive than- those I have met in the past.  I do not know which, yet.”
     The yellow figure flashed again and stared back at the crew with a well known face.
     “Shepard?” Nahlyon asked.  “Why choose him?”
     “He is familiar to all in this room.  Your biological readings tell me he is also a welcome presence.  Personally, my analysis of the limited data I have gathered from your shuttle and nearby ships shows that he is a monumental figure in the galaxy.  And please understand that I am saying this from the perspective of one who has witnessed . . . many more of the Rialusans’ harvesting cycles than you can begin to imagine.  This Shepard human is improbably unique.”
     “That he is,” Anderson agreed with a proud smile.  It was a smile that suddenly morphed into a clenched jaw and tense eyes.  “What did you mean by “shuttle and nearby ships”?  Were you counting the fighters in the hangars?”
     “I was counting only active ships in close proximity to this planet.  I detect your modified Kodiak class shuttle, the Alliance cruiser class SSV Kilkenny, and the Normandy SR-2 class frigate just entering the system, designation unknown.”
     “What?  An SR-2 . . . unknown?” Anderson questioned.  “Caretaker, can you take us to a console for a visual?”
     “There is no need for alternate locations,” the yellow Shepard said.  Another formation of yellow light coalesced to the AI’s side and displayed the scene from multiple angles in different windows as it played out.  “Audio is available as well.”
     “Let me hear it,” the admiral said.
     Both video displays of the ships were soon joined with simultaneous, but separate, audio feeds picked up through means even the technical expert Kahlee could not quite understand at first.  It was difficult to tell which sounds were coming from which ship.
     “. . . sure that’s the ship?”
     “. . . Normandy? That can’t be.  They’re at Sur’Kesh.”  
     “I do not make mistakes, Mastoon.”
     Caretaker turned to Anderson.  “Admiral Anderson, your crewman are mistaken. This is not the actual Normandy commanded by Captain Shepard.”
     The admiral looked from screen to screen.  “Can you zoom in and enhance the image of the fake Normandy?  All I see is a shadow because of that damned sun.”  
     “Yes.  Doing so now,” the AI complied.
     The image closed in and a clear visual sharpened in front of Anderson.  Yellow, white, and black markings covered the SR-2 clone.
     “Oh god,” David uttered.
     “Something isn’t right, Jack,” the audio continued.
     Caretaker pointed at the oncoming frigate.  “The incoming signal to this ship is of unknown origin, however, the voice pattern is in our records.  We believe your ship is in danger.”     
     “Sure you don’t.  Guess that fucked up attack on Mars was all part of the master plan then,” came Mastoon’s sarcastic voice from the frigate.
     Brynn looked up to Caretaker.  “We have to warn them!”
     “My outbound communications are presently in disrepair, Brynn Cole.”
     Anderson broke into a dead run back to the shuttle.  “We have to get a message out!”
     A second copy of Caretaker and the displays appeared and floated along next to David as he ran.  “I do not believe you have time, Admiral,” it stated flatly.
     “I’ve got to try!” he countered, cursing as he suddenly realized how much distance he and his team had covered while walking and talking to the AI.
     “Give me a visual, Saj.”
     “Just destroy it and then return to me if you do not want your injuries to be the death of you, human.”
     “Fine.  Fine.  Shanklin, you heard the . . . thing.  Scrap it.”
     “Sir, I’m reading massive energy spikes!”
     David closed in on the docking tunnel back to the Kodiak.
     “With pleasure, Captain.”
     “WHAT?”
     “Evasive action!”
     Anderson’s eyes went wide.  “NO!”  
    

No new chapter this week

Halloween preparations have sucked up a lot of my time not spent working or sleeping this past week and I anticipate the same this coming week.  So, I apologize for those of you who have been here each and every week reading my story.  I promise that chapter 13 is being worked on and that I will try to keep up with my weekly releases moving forward as best I can.  Just realize that there are a few holidays coming up in the next couple months that may cause some delays here or there 😉  Stick with me, though, because this story will come to a conclusion (not sure how many chapters it will end up being) . . . eventually lol.

Thanks for reading and for those of you that might be behind or just starting out, this will be a good chance to play a little catch up.

As always, feedback is appreciated.

-Ryan

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 12

 
Chapter 12
     Shepard had moved on from his gang running memories to flashbacks from his early days in the N7 program and the brutal, all environment, survival training.  He remembered how much he hated the constant thick, wet conditions of the South American jungle air.  He shuddered, reliving the sweat dripping down the heavy armor that was purposely left without environmental protection systems intact and the constant barrage of stinging, biting, and sucking insects.  He had preferred the arctic training to the steamy forests and Sur’Kesh was reminding him why all over again.
     “At least the armor has the temp regulators this time,” he told himself as he wiped his exposed forehead, diverting another river of sweat away from its stinging path to his eyes.  “Should have brought the sealed helmet, though,” he told himself.
     The captain of the Normandy and his crew followed Major Kirrahe’s team through one of the dominant jungles of the salarian home world.  They were still kilometers from Talat, having landed out of sensor range, but the quick pace of the salarian STG squad would have them on the outskirts of the city soon.  To Shepard’s surprise, Allers had been true to her word, keeping up with the rest of the pack.  
     Jogging through trees and ducking branches that attempted sneak attacks at his face, even the thunderous Wrex kept pace at Shepard’s side.
     “Hanging in there pretty well, Wrex,” Shepard commented.
     “Krogan are built for the hunt, Shepard.  Strength, sight, smell, speed and endurance are not things we lack.  Personally, I’m impressed with Chakwas.  She’s old by human standards, isn’t she?”
     “I may be older for a human, Wrex, but I’m not hard of hearing at all,” the silver haired woman called over to the krogan.
     “Good job, buddy,” Shepard said, glancing over at his monstrous friend whose scarred face betrayed no clue to the extent of his embarrassment.
     “Sorry, Doc.  No disrespect was intended.”
     “I know, Wrex.  Think nothing of it.  I will take it as the compliment it was meant to be,” she told him.   
     They continued on, Shepard keeping the conversation with Wrex going.  “You ever wonder about the missions we’ve been on?  How quickly they change and how we have to adapt to that on the fly?”
     “Only on the missions with you, Shepard.  That’s what makes them so exciting.  You get assigned to the impossible and your instincts on the battlefield . . . you’re the eye of a hurricane, Shepard.  Everything goes to hell in every direction, but you maintain the calm demeanor of . . . well, I’ve seen no warlord or general to match it, among any species.  That’s why we follow you into that hell.  We trust you to lead us through to the other side of it safely.  Sovereign, the reports of your fight with the collectors, and then the Reapers themselves.  This galaxy has been spinning for billions of years and it finally created the perfect soldier, Shepard.  You.”
     “Jesus Christ, Wrex,” Jack exclaimed from behind,”never knew krogan were such ass kissers.  Need a towel to wipe all the shit off your face?” 
     Wrex turned his head and glared at Jack with a low growl.  The dangerous biotic only laughed in response.
     Shepard shook his head.  “I don’t know about all that, Wrex.  You ask me, I’ve been the luckiest son of a bitch that ever lived.  And died.  And lived again to almost die again.  That luck is going to run out sooner or later.”
     “Come on, Loco, with this squad?” Vega asked from Jack’s side.  “When was the last time you were leading a battalion this big?  It was always three here, four or five there.  Same for you before we met up.  Now you’ve got close to twenty crazy bastards at your command.  These yahg don’t stand a chance.”
     “Damn, what’s with the Shepard love-fest?” Jack asked, rolling her eyes.  “Can we just melt our asses off in silence for a while?”
     Shepard chuckled at Jack’s irritation more because he was as uncomfortable with his two friends’ belief in him as much as she was annoyed by it.  He didn’t say it out loud, but the last time he had been a part of a ground force as large as this one, it had become the legend of Akuze.  Those were not thoughts he wished to dwell on.  He concentrated on the salarian feet in front of him and began counting the steps to occupy his mind.
* * * * 
     Night darkened the already low light conditions of a densely wooded section of the jungle.  Shepard and his resistance team gathered around a central area and munched at rations that ranged from bland to putrid in both taste and smell. 
     Javik sat across the loose circle from Liara, flashing his upper eyes her direction every once in a while as he ate.  Vega sat to his right and leaned over, pointing at the Prothean’s weapon in way of misdirection.  “Just act like I’m talking about your gun.”
     Javik nodded, waiting.
     “So, uh, what’s the deal with you and Liara?  I mean if it’s none of my business just say so, but if you’re trying to keep whatever’s going on . . . on the down-low, well, you’re failing horribly, amigo.”
     Javik picked up his gun, playing along, and pointed at the barrel.  “Clearly.  And as you said, Vega, it is none of your business.  It is a matter that needs no further input from outside interests.”  Javik sat silent for a moment and then added,”But I . . . appreciate the concern.  There is no issue.  There is a choice that needs to be made.  Once I set foot down one path or the other, the rest will fall into place on that . . . battlefront.”
     “Okaaaay,” the marine drew out, trying to understand.  Failing that, he decided it was best to drop the line of questioning as Javik suggested.  “So you ready to face off against some more yahg?”
     Javik smiled, glad to be speaking of something more in his area of expertise and that he was far more comfortable discussing.  “Indeed.  They are a worthy foe.  I am only glad that the Reapers’ plan seemed to have involved leaving these primitives for post-war purposes.  I would not have wanted to face a synthetically enhanced version of this species.  One need look only to the creatures dubbed ‘brutes’ to see what would have paled in comparison to a twisted yahg.”
     “Yeah, that would have been real bad.”
     “The yahg are bad enough as they are,” Shepard said, joining the soldiers.  “Trust me.  Taking on the Shadow Broker was one of the hardest fights against a single individual I can remember.”  Shepard was waved over by Miranda near Liara and moved to join her.  “Duty calls,” he joked.
     “What’s up, boys?” Jack asked, coming to take Shepard’s vacated seat.
     Shepard sat down on a fallen tree next to Miranda and gave her a kiss on the forehead as he descended.  A strong gust of wind found its way through the trees and Shepard wrinkled his nose.
     “What is it?” Miranda asked.
     Shepard looked past her to Liara whose eyes were finding his with a look of alarm.  Before she could open her mouth, Wrex jumped to his feet, snatching up his shotgun.  The rest of the unit took notice, dropping food and drink, whipping out their own weapons. 
     The circle inverted and the guns pointed out into the pitch black of waving tree trunks and large leaves that frustrated the eyes searching for whatever might be lurking behind the cover of foliage.  Nervous faces sighted down gun shafts.  Breaths were trapped in lungs.  Ears strained for the slightest clue to unnatural sounds.  Fingers rubbed anxiously within millimeters of triggers.
     It began to rain.
     Shepard stared through the heavy drops crashing onto the top of his Mantis sniper rifle and splashing into his eyes.  He blinked the water away and peered through the gun’s scope, but saw no heat signatures registering as he panned across the tree line.
     “Does anyone see something?” Major Kirrahe asked.  The responses were quick.
     “No, Major.”
     “Nothing here.”
     More negative responses came in, but Shepard still felt uneasy.  “Something’s wrong,” he thought.  It took a second to register, but when it did, the captain knew the situation was bad.  “Does anyone see anything on their heat sensors?” he called out.  “Anything at all?” he stressed.
     Major Kirrahe came to the same conclusion as the one Shepard had not yet voiced.  “We’re being jammed!”
     “They are above you, Shepard,” a voice informed him.
     Vendetta.  
     “You only come out when things are bad,” Shepard confirmed.
     “Incorrect.  I am here when the situation demands it.”
     The situation demanded it.  Shepard snapped his eyes upwards a moment too late.  Yahg soldiers dropped out of the trees, one of them landing behind the marine as he yelled,”Open fire!”  He spun to face his enemy and saw a large blade rushing towards his face.  He bent backwards and the blade just missed the tip of his nose.  He let himself continue falling back, hit the ground, and rolled to the side as a heavy foot smashed down on his previous location.  He hopped up and pulled his Carnifex handgun from his hip.  He jammed it into the yahg’s stomach and pulled the trigger in rapid succession.  The beast doubled over as its version of stomach and intestines exploded, bursting through the new opening Shepard had provided through the attacker’s back.  The yahg looked up to lock eyes with Shepard with a toothy growl and swiped at him with the razor claws from the hand not trying to retain its innards.  The captain’s free hand came up and his omni-tool formed a deadly blade in a fraction of a second.  He severed the arm and it dropped to the ground as the yahg roared in pain and followed it, crashing to the mud the falling rain was quickly forming.
     Shepard turned to see dozens of yahg fighting up close with his team as well as a few still in the trees taking shots at the combatants below.  He saw two of Kirrahe’s men already on the ground with blood falling from open wounds that looked fatal.  Javik and Wrex were back to back fighting different yahg hand to hand, Wrex’s broken gun smoking on the jungle floor nearby, Javik’s still on his back.  
     Jack was rolling away from a diving enemy with blue energy lighting her body.  She came to a crouching position, whirled to find her target, and then easily lifted it and launched it across the air, yelling,”Liara! Kirrahe!” as the body flew their way.  The two allies, locked in gun fights in close quarters, looked to the sound of their names and then dropped to the ground.  The yahg projectile slammed into two other yahg and brought them to the ground.  The three recovered and jumped back into the fray immediately.
     Miranda came to Shepard’s side.  “This is a hell of a mess, Shepard!”
     “Yeah, tell me about it!” he yelled over the sound of gunfire.  He shot at the crowd of yahg that Jack had just toppled again with a shock wave of biotic power as Wrex dove for another weapon.  “Wrex! Vega!  Shotguns on those three!” the captain yelled, pointing at Jack’s victims as they climbed to their feet once more.  “Liara!  Hold them still!”
     The asari created a mass effect field quickly, holding the three yahg immobilized.  “It won’t last long, Shepard!”
     “It won’t need to!” he told her.  Vega and Wrex unloaded blast after blast into the powerless yahg and then Miranda added her own biotic attack to warp a small portion of space in the middle of the yahg, crushing them with gravitational destruction to finish what the shotguns had started.
     Shepard turned from the coordinated attack to find Javik now teaming with the remaining salarians and Diana Allers, his Prothean particle weapon now being used and slicing into another wall of approaching enemy.  The embedded reporter was firing away with a Locust submachine gun with surprising efficiency.  
     “More are coming, Shepard,” Vendetta informed him.
     “How many?”
     “Too many for your forces to defeat.  I suggest falling back to another location.”
     Normandy’s leader looked at the chaos around him in a single breath.  He saw the dark movement of shadows of the other yahg closing in while everyone in the squad was already engaged in fighting the current throng of adversaries.  The snipers in the trees were still a threat to his grounded comrades as well.  “Agreed,” he thought to the Prothean VI.  
     The sniping yahg were focusing on the salarians who were being protected by a blue barrier from Wrex who was running over to help them.  It wasn’t enough.  The barrier fell under an onslaught of yahg fire and blasts began to rain down around the scattering salarians as they ran for other cover.  Major Kirrahe took a shot to the back as he sought protection.  It took him down and he writhed in pain.
     Shepard aimed for the yahg in the trees and started firing, calling out as he went,”Fall back!  We’ve got more coming in!  Regroup on me!”  Clip after clip fell from his gun as new ones took there place.  The yahg snipers began to fall.  The Spectre allowed himself a smile that promptly ended with a frantic cry from behind.
     “Loco, look out!”  The heavy body of Vega crashed into him from behind. A distant yahg pulled an angled knife out of a cluster of eyes that had enraged the beast who had responded to Vega’s attack with a vicious backhand.  It had sent the tattooed marine flying.  He hit Shepard squarely in the back, dropping him to the ground.  Shepard’s face smacked into a large stone, half buried underground, in the process.  His head racked with pain, and he once more thought about his enclosed helmet as opposed to the open face version he now wore.  He felt busted lips pour blood over the unmoving rock, and flashes of light played across his vision.  He glanced over and saw Vega no better off, lying unconscious with his head at the base of a tree trunk.  
     Powerful hands grasped his ankles and Shepard felt his body being dragged away from the fight.  He reached out with his hands, clawing at anything that might give him a grip to slow the capture, but a kick from an unseen foot ended his struggle.  His vision faded to darkness.  The last thing he saw was Allers fall down, her armor torn open and the white shirt beneath shredded and staining red, with yahg sized slash marks across her chest.
* * * * 
     “So, this Trojan horse idea . . . is it supposed to end with us like this?” Garrus asked calmly from a kneeling position.  His hands were tied behind his back and the muzzle of a gun rested on the back of his head.    
     Ashley looked over from her identical situation. “Not exactly,” she answered.  Ashley turned back and faced a row of mercenaries lining each side of a short rise in steps to a gaudy throne.  The occupant of the orante chair looked down at the prisoners with a concerned expression on her blue face.  
     “Shut the fuck up,” Aria T’Loak said with little emotion.  “And tell me where Shepard is hiding.  It’s not like him to send his people in to danger and not face it himself.”
     “Well, which do you want, Aria, ‘shut the fuck up’ or ‘tell me where Shepard is hiding’?” Zaeed asked from Ashley’s other side.
     Aria motioned to one of her guards who smashed the butt of his gun into Zaeed’s face.
     “You can go with the ‘shut the fuck up’ option, Massani,” Aria answered and then turned back to Ashley.  “Williams can tell me where Shepard is.”
     “He’s not here.”
     “Obviously.  I doubt he would have been dumb enough to drive a Mako right up to my front door.  Hell, he and I were on . . . agreeable terms last time I saw him at that shitty excuse for a club on the Citadel.  He could have just come through the front door.”  Aria looked down at Ashley’s crew in thought.  “But Shepard’s not here.  This isn’t his doing, is it?  No.  This is just Alliance military.  Explains the Mako, but-“
     “Whatever, bitch, we took the Mako from your people,” Ashley spat.  
     Aria stood up, biotic energy glowing at her rising fist.  Then she stopped and the energy dissipated.  “My people?  We don’t have any Makos.  At least not on Earth.”  She looked over to the closest guard.  “What the fuck is going on, Grizz?”  The turian looked as surprised as anyone.  “I don’t know, Aria.”
     “Drop the act, Aria,” Ashley said.  “The Alliance knows you’ve been stealing supplies meant for rebuilding Earth.  Your operation is over.  Kill us and the whole fleet will come down on you.  Give yourself up to me . . . you might just walk out of this alive.”
     Aria gave Ashley an approving look. “You’ve got a pair, Williams.  I should expect that from someone who had Shepard as a mentor.  The fact is, I won’t be turning myself in, because, for once in my life, I’m playing things straight.  At least here on Earth.  Every military in the galaxy is here and I have no intention of pissing that force off.  I don’t want them trailing me all the way back home after I get off this planet.”  The ousted queen of Omega Station pointed to her captives.  “Untie them,” she ordered her guards.
     The five Eden Prime members stood and rubbed at cramping muscles.  Ashley shot Aria an incredulous look.  “What are you playing at, T’Loak?”
     Aria shook her head.  “Like I said, I’ve been taking pains to not fuck with you and your coalition.  If someone’s framing me and mine, I’ll find the son of a bitch and serve him the boiled flesh from his own legs before I kill him and hang his body on display.”
     “So you’re claiming ignorance to repeated attacks and thefts?” Williams asked in disbelief.
     “You’re still alive.  That should be proof enough.” 
     “Then why worry about us coming to find you?  Why send anyone out to capture us?”
     “What are you talking about?  Until I got a call saying a Mako was heading straight for my club, I had been enjoying some of this green drink called . . . what the hell was it, Grizz?”
     “Absinthe, Aria.”
     “Absinthe, minding my own damn business.”
     “Tali, play the recordings,” Ashley requested.
     Tali pulled up the video taken from the dead sniper and the intercepted audio orders after that.  Aria sat down and quietly absorbed it all.  She looked to the turian, Grizz, once again.  “You see that?” she asked.
     “I see it,” he confirmed and walked over to a nearby security surveillance multi-screen setup.  He brought up the club footage and ran it.  “Check the time stamps and the clothes.”
     “Clothes?  All it shows is her face in what we have,” Tali said.
     “But it shows a collar.  Clearly our video shows, at the same time, Aria here and wearing what she’s wearing now.”
     “No collar,” Aria literally pointed out.
     Ashley looked at the two sets of evidence and thought about the situation.  Clearly the two didn’t add up, but which set to believe was up in the air.  She put the burden on Aria.  “Make me believe you,” she instructed the underworld power.
     Aria hesitated and looked at her guards.  “Leave us,” she ordered.
     “Aria, I don’t think-“
     “And you don’t speak, either, unless I require it.  Now go!”
     Grizz led the guards out of Aria’s private suite on the top floor of Omega Earth’s complex.  Once the guards were gone, Aria went to a computer at her desk and opened a holographic projection in the center of the room showing a device that Ashley did not recognize.
     “What is that supposed to be?” she asked.
     “This is what I think is being used to set me up.  You remember that Cerberus overran my station?”
     “Yeah,” Ashley said, rolling her eyes.
     “Such a shame, too,” Garrus added.  “A fine, upstanding business owner like yourself, being run off from that fine establishment by unruly thugs.”
     Aria scowled at Garrus.  “Watch your tone, turian, or I may release scans of you to the general mercenary public with a tidy sum over your head.”
     “Bring it on.  Wouldn’t be the firs-“
     “Garrus, is this really the time?” Tali asked.
     He looked to her and dropped his head.  “I suppose not.”
     “Done?  Good.  This device,” Aria said, walking into the middle of the display cast in life-size detail,”is my edge.  It is how I keep my employees and enemies, often the same group, off balance and guessing.  What you’re looking at is the center piece of an expensive projection system that was set up on Omega.  I stand here,” she motioned to the circular pad with an outer ring of low lying electronics and scanning panels,”and I can be seen in perfect replication, real-time or prerecorded, in hundreds of locations of my choosing through out the station.  And since no one ever touches Aria, no one ever finds out that I’m safely sitting back in my secure quarters or relaxing at the club.  The few who have . . . are dead.
     “I used this scanner to record myself every day and then the software did the rest.  It would detect empty areas that would soon be high traffic, pop up my image, and then shut off the image when things cleared out.  Nothing like a boss that seems to be everywhere, all the time, to keep the dumbasses in line.”
     “And this connects to Cerberus how, exactly?” Ericson asked.
     Aria took note of the unknown member of Ashley’s team with a discerning look.  “Who’s your hot boy-toy, Williams?  He’s . . . got a familiar . . . aura about him?”
     Ericson barely contained a blush, not only from being associated to Williams in a loosely romantic way, but because the asari crime boss who had no doubt been all over the galaxy and seen more than he could ever hope to, seemed to find him attractive.  He looked Aria in the eyes and said,”Just a pilot who carries a gun and a lot of grudges.”
     “Cute,” Aria said.  “Well, Pilot, Cerberus overrunning my station would no doubt lead them to find all of my hidden toys.  My guess is that one of them made their way here before Shepard destroyed the mass relays, and brought that with them.  Most likely, whoever the soon to be dead son of a bitch is, they are manipulating the prerecorded images and voice to pose as me and issue commands to the hundreds of mercs roaming around Earth.”
     Aria walked back over to her computer and turned off the projection.
     “Seems a lot like the quantum entanglement communicator,” Tali commented.
     Aria nodded.  “Similar, but vastly less expensive.  Where the Alliance dropped huge sums of money on their quantum pairings, I needed only projectors on a space station and a perfect quality projection of me.  That level of realism is only a fraction of the cost.”
     Ashley looked at her crew.  There were nods that said without words,”It’s possible,” to shrugs that told her,”There’s no telling.”  She went with her gut, despite its sometimes shoddy record.  “Okay, Aria.  I’ll play along with this idea right now.  How would we find whatever Cerberus agent is using this?”
     The asari thought for a moment and then answered,”Whoever it is would have to be relatively close.  Not so much for range purposes- all they’d have to do is project to a video communication link- but they’d have to be watching me somehow.  Know when I’m not in certain places at certain times so that they could step in without being noticed.”
     “Or you have a traitor in your organization.”
     “No shit.  They’re mercenaries.  They’re all traitors for the right amount of money.  But they would still have to report to someone and that someone would be trapped in this system and probably not hiding out on another planet.  Supply ships to their hideout would be pretty telling.”
     “I’ll give you that.  So, how do we find them?”
     “That’s easy.  The device gives off a very specific form of radiation that is not easily detected and even harder to reproduce.  And it’s also deadly to anyone but me.  Amazing what those devious little salarians can come up with under the right motivation, so the joke is on whoever is using this.  They just may not know for a few months.  A year if they’re lucky or have good doctors.”
     “You can track that radiation?” Ericson asked, ignoring the rest of the asari’s statement.
     “I can transmit the radiation signature to your ship.  You’ll no doubt be equipped with the sensors to find it.”
     Ashley nodded and activated her omni-tool, connecting a link from the asari’s computer to the Eden Prime.  Aria pressed a touch point on her computer.  “Sent.”
     “How long till we have a target?” Garrus inquired.
     “Long enough for us to get back to your ship.”
     “‘Us’?” Ashley asked.
     “Don’t think I’m going to let you track that down by yourself,” Aria stated. “That’s my property and whoever is behind this is putting my life at risk by pitting me against everyone on- or off- Earth.  I plan to take back what belongs to me and personally end whoever that is.”
     Commander Williams looked at the blue alien.  “I’ll make some arrangements.”
     “And I’ll want my own people in on this.”
     “Don’t push it.  You’ll be the only one on my ship.”
     “How about when the fighting starts?  You want all your precious coalition allies to die at Cerberus hands?  It would be to your benefit and I’ll be able to see who’s left on Earth that I can still-“
     “Trust?” Ashley asked in disbelief.
     “Use,” the asari corrected her.
     “Done.  I’ll contact you when we’re ready to bring you on board.  You provide orders to your people from there.  None of them will be allowed on the Eden Prime.”
     “Fine.  Now get the hell out of my club.  I’ll have Grizz smuggle you out the back, in two separate groups and in different clothes.  We’ll stage a little execution and whoever is watching will never know you’re still alive . . . hopefully.”
     “Not a bad idea,” Ashley admitted.  “I’ll send word to the Alliance to play along.  So when a few garrisons of troops show up, tell you’re people not to freak out.”
     “No promises, but it makes sense.”
* * * * 
     “Aria was right . . . I guess,” Steve Cortez told Ashley as she came to the bridge.  “The Eden Prime’s sensors picked up that radiation signature easily and close to Chicago . . . relatively speaking,” he said, using air quotes with his hands around his last two words.  He pointed to a display showing a map.  “At least it’s still in the States.”
     “North Carolina?” the commander asked incredulously.  “Who the hell would go hideout there?”
     “Well, it wasn’t hit as hard as a lot of other places with major cities,” Cortez answered.
     “Probably because the Reapers looked at it and thought they already had,” Ashley cracked.
     “Aww, come on.  That’s not nice,” complained Ericson, joining Ashley and Cortez.  “It’s not that bad.”
     “You from there?” Cortez inquired.
     “Nah, I’m from Virginia, but my grandpa lived down there near the capital.  Used to go visit for a lot of holidays before he passed.  Glad he wasn’t around to see this.  And it’s not as bad an area as the news vids make it out to be.  Honest.”
     “Anyway,” Ashley steered the conversation,”we’ve tracked Aria’s device to a location west of the capital.  Ready to go run through some old stomping grounds, Ericson?”
     “Sure am, Commander,” he assured her with a salute and smile.     
     “Well, go gather your Locos squad and hit space.  If this person is Cerberus I want him- her, whatever.  If they run, I don’t want them getting far.  We need to find out where they’ve been diverting all the stolen supplies.”
     “Understood, Commander,” Ericson said and headed for the elevator to go down to the hangar.
     Ashley watched the pilot go, letting her eyes linger on him just a bit too long to escape Steve’s notice.
     “Following in Shepard’s footsteps, there, Ash?”
     “What are you talking about, Steve?”
     “Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe a penchant for a little . . . involvement with those under your command?”
     “Ha ha.  Jealous?” she joked with the pilot.
     “Of that?  If he wasn’t as obvious as you about his interest, I’d say yes, but it’s pretty clear what that pilot’s destination is,” he said with a smile at Ashely.
     Her face scrunched in confusion.  “What?”
     Cortez rolled his eyes and shook his head and gave the commander a blank stare.
     “Really?” Ashely asked.
     “Commander, I’m not going to say that you’d have to be blind to not see it . . . but I don’t know how to finish this sentence,” Cortez joked.
     “Uh, huh,” Ashely shot Steve a stern look.  “Nice talking with you, Steve.”
     “Anytime, Commander.”
     “I have to go,” she stated.
     She made her way to the room where she preferred to think Aria was being held, not so much staying as a guest.  The room was where the Normandy’s observation room was located, but the SR-1B had split that into two rooms.  The left door opened to a small weight room which had apparently been added after an anonymous email suggestion, that Ashley had no doubt was from Vega, had come to Alliance designers.  The room was currently taken over by Grunt who felt more at home in the middle of the cold steel weights and sparse furniture.  The door to the right, where the commander found Aria waiting at a desk with multiple displays open with various information on them, was supposed to be the XO’s room.  Since Ashley had yet to name that position, it was as good a spot to keep an eye on the criminal as any. 
     The second human Spectre had asked Grunt to keep an ear open for anything suspicious coming from his “neighbor’s” room.  She had also told Zaeed, Lanna, and Garrus to rotate watches from the mess hall a short distance away.
     “You’ve finally found it.”  Aria was not asking.
     Ashley nodded.  “Took longer than we expected, but yes, we have.  I’ve sent you the coordinates.  Get your people ready.  We’re hitting them as soon as we can.”
     “The sooner the better,” Aria said.  “Those Alliance idiots around my club are fucking up my revenue stream.”
     “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about that,” the brunette soldier flatly stated, underscoring the obvious lie.  “You’ve got until we get down there to have your mercs join the fight if you want to protect your little machine.  Otherwise . . . I can’t make any promises,” Ashley said with an icy smile.
* * * * 
     Garrus crouched on the roof of an abandoned warehouse, watching a handful of targets a floor lower in a building across the street.  Through his gun’s sight he could clearly see armored Cerberus agents, minus their helmets, standing around a table and discussing something.  Outside, the scene was different.  Guards patrolling around the building on foot wore armor depicting the marks of each of the major mercenary groups.  Eclipse, Blue Suns, and Blood Pack members all appeared to be working together to guard the same stronghold.  
     “What’ve you got, Garrus?” Ashley asked over his comm-link.  The turian touched his ear and replied.
     “Definitely got Cerberus inside.  Aria’s theory is holding up, so far.”
     “How many?” she called up from her position in a small grove of landscaped trees in what had been intended, at one time, as an oasis of nature in the desert of a warehouse and business district.
     “Inside I’ve got five visible.  Guessing more than that, though.  These are probably the shot callers.  Outside, counted fifteen making rounds.  With Aria’s people, we should be in good shape.”
     “Alright.  We’re a go, then.  Garrus, I figure you’ve got two shots before they clear out of sight.”
     “Give me some credit, Ash.  I’ll go with three shots.”
     “Whatever.  When the fun starts, you keep us up to date on the movements.  Ericson, your Locos ready?” Ashley asked the pilot who was also linked in.
     “Affirmative,” the lieutenant answered.
     “Good.  Garrus: on your shot.”
     “Acknowledged.”  Garrus aimed with his higher position taken into account.  He lined up his cross-hairs with two Cerberus agents standing across from each other, their bodies lining up nicely for the expert sharp-shooter.  He smiled and gently pulled the gun’s trigger.  
     Glass shattered imperceptibly before one man grabbed at his exploding throat and the one across from him clutched at his chest.
     “Everyone, go!” Ashley ordered.
     Zaeed looked over from his place at Ashley’s side.  “Allow me,” he said with a grin, lobbing a grenade into a group of the enemy coming out of a ground floor door to find their attacker.  The new forces came wearing Cerberus colors.  Ashley guessed that it meant they were either completely surprised or that they only had a limited number of mercenary suits to play out their charade.  She preferred to go with the former as she opened fire on the combatants with her assault rifle.   The first few went down quickly, the last one calling out something to others inside as he died.
     LOKI mechs were the next victims to march out of the door.  Ashley smiled and radioed to her quarian friend.  “Tali, if you please.”
     “Already on it, Commander,” the tech savvy woman answered from cover a little closer to the battle.  Her omni-tool came to life and she called up her hacking programs.  A few of the mechs froze for a second and then turned back, facing their own side and firing away.  
     More fighters came out of the building from other locations, converging on the unknown force decimating their number.  Grunt was waiting on one such unfortunate group.  He rushed from behind an overturned dumpster, a shotgun in each hand pouring death onto the panicking men.  The last of his thermal clips falling to the pavement as he ran, Grunt threw one gun to the side and launched himself into the air, swinging his remaining gun in a downward blow, crushing one foe with it while his body descended heavily on two more.  Ashley could hear his laughter as the enemy piled on top of him only to be tossed back easily.
     A cold and calculating Lazarus waited on the opposite side of the Cerberus base, using his superior hacking ability to take over other mech units still inside the facility.  He overrode their optics and took stock of the situation inside.  “Commander Williams, I have overridden units inside the Cerberus base.”
     “What can you tell me, Lazarus?”
     “Three more squads of LOKI mechs and a squad of FENRIS mechs are coming on-line.  Twenty-three more organics are arming themselves and preparing to come outside.  This unit is taking fire.  Overriding alternate.  Processing.”
     Ashely continued her assault and pointed to Aria without looking.  “Your turn, Omega station,” she said.
     Aria nodded and made the call.  “Alright you sorry bastards, go show these impostors what real mercs are capable of!  Bonuses to the top two kill counts!”
     Three waves of mercenaries crashed into the streets, taking on the Cerberus forces at point blank range.  Gunfire erupted, filling the air with ceaseless explosions.  Bodies began piling on the ground with the clatter of falling weapons and armored dead hitting the cold slabs of road.
     “New mech acquired, Commander Williams,” Lazarus came back.  “YMIR model now under control.”
     “Oh shit,” Garrus said, jumping down next to Ashley.  
     “Thought I told you to stay high and watch for us.”
     “Nothing to see.  Window’s been blocked.  Everything else is street level.”
     “Great.  Lazarus, how many of those YMIR’s do they have?”
     “Three.  Not counting this one.  Attempting to lessen their numbers.  Please wait.”
     Ashley leveled another two Cerberus soldiers and then heard the sound of detonating rockets from within the base accompanied by screams and then followed by the explosion of a section of the street-facing wall across from the Alliance commander.
     “Goddamn!” Zaeed exclaimed.  “That didn’t come from a YMIR mech.”
     “Correct, Zaeed Massani,” Lazarus said.  “We- I- the mech currently under my control is being attacked by an Atlas mech.  This unit will not last much-“
     Ashley looked through the new opening in the base, where the smoke of the destruction was just clearing, and saw the hulking form of the ATLAS smash a YMIR with a wave of one heavy arm, sending it careening into a collection of the small attack dog mechs.
     “-longer,” Lazarus finished.  “Rerouting.  Error.  Access has been jammed.  Engaging enemy manually.”
     “Great,” Garrus said.  “There goes one advantage,” he said, sniping at the enemy, standing next to Ashley. 
     “Good thing we have another.”
     “And we’re going to need it,” Aria added, pointing to the Atlas mech storming out of the building in a direct line for their location among the trees.
     “Damnit!  Alright, Locos, bring it!” Ashley ordered.  “Everyone else: clear out!  The big guns are coming!”
     “You heard the woman, mercs!” Aria added.  “Get your asses out of sight!”
     The roar of three ships deafened the urban battlefield and a maelstrom of mass accelerated fire hammered down on Cerberus, its remaining forces beginning to scatter.  The operator of the Atlas did not change course.  Nor did a sole individual chasing after the Atlas, screaming hysterically.
     “Please!  Don’t leave me!  I can still help you!  We’re all Cerberus!  Please, Mastoon!  Take me with you!”
     The top half of the Atlas spun while the legs churned ever forward.  The rocket launching arm lowered, pointing at the trailing figure.  The man never had a chance.  A point-blank attack scattered his body in a hundred directions, most of the bits descending as burned chunks.
     “Mastoon?” Aria asked, looking to Ashley and Garrus.
     “Heard that name on the Citadel,” Zaeed said.  “When that sorry bunch was trying to take over the place and smashed into it with the damned boarding darts.  And here he comes,” Zaeed warned uselessly.  He and the rest of the team dove aside as the mech thundered through their position and continued on, ignoring them completely as it headed for the warehouse Garrus had been positioned atop earlier.
     “Garrus, did you happen to check that building?” Ashley asked.
     “Didn’t see a need to . . . it’s abandoned?” he finished in a questioning tone, watching the mech go.
     Zaeed pulled another grenade as Ashley switched to her Blackstorm.  His grenade exploded on impact, but only manged to throw the mech off balance.  It quickly recovered.  
     Ashley aimed her weapon and pulled the trigger.  A small sphere projectile blasted out of the heavy gun and streaked towards the Atlas.  The weapon’s gravitational effect, which had earned it the nickname “black hole gun,” pulled Mastoon’s mech unit backwards for the briefest moment before the small singularity destabilized with a powerful detonation.  The force sent the mech flying through the air and crashing through a wall of it’s intended destination.  
     Confident in the result, Ashley calmly walked over to the downed combatant’s landing spot a hundred meters away.  It was only as she got closer that she saw Mastoon limping away from the shattered glass canopy of the mech unit.
     “Son of a bitch!” she swore, yanking up her pistol and shooting as the man made his way up the ramp to a ship hiding in the large warehouse.  Most of the shots bounced harmlessly off the hull of the craft.  One found the left leg of Mastoon and he yelled in pain.  Ashley climbed past the destroyed mech and raced towards the Cerberus agent.
     “You’re too late, Alliance!” he laughed through his pain.  The ramp lifted up with a hydraulic hiss and Ashley saw two figures come and drag Mastoon further into the ship as the hatch sealed close.  She heard large engines roar to life.
     “Aw crap,” she muttered in realization.  She turned and saw Garrus and Zaeed climbing in after her.  “Everybody back!” she warned, waving her arms desperately.
     The engines burst to life and the enclosed thrust lifted Ashely off the floor and slammed her into a nearby wall.  The ship lifted up through the retracting roof and blasted off, leaving a streaking trail cut through the night sky.  The commander took note of the ship’s design as it fled from sight.  She stood up, rubbing at sore ribs and called over the comm.  “Locos, take it down!”
     “Trying to, Commander!” came the quick voice of Wayne Murphy.
     Ashley heard the sound of the hybrid fighters and Hayes’ custom ship firing into the night followed by a long string of curses from the female pilot’s frustration.
     “It’s gone, Ash,” Ericson informed.  “And we won’t be catching that ship.”
     “Yeah, I don’t expect you would.  Cortez?”
     “They’re already out on FTL, Commander.  Sorry.”
     “Trajectory?”
     “The relay.”
     “Anyone want to guess whether they’ve managed to snag a mass amplifier?” Eden Prime’s commander asked, clenching her fist in anger at her failure.  There was no response.
     “Would have been nice for Cerberus to tell us they’d built another one of those,” Zaeed said.
     “Yeah,” Garrus agreed.
     “Alright, team.  Let’s mop up what’s left of these guys down here and salvage whatever data and equipment we can from these two buildings.  T’Loak, go find your . . . thing,” Ashley said, seeing the asari’s finger to her lips.  Aria gave a small bow of thanks and then turned to head for the main base.  She stopped after a few steps and then looked at Ashley in question.
     “What?” the commander asked.
     “What is a mass amplifier?”

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 11

Chapter 11
 
 
     “Sanders, bring those over here, on the double!” ordered a stern faced man used to those around him jumping to carry out his directives.  A blonde haired woman rolled her blue eyes, lazily rose from her seat and followed the command, though only because she would have done it anyway.  She dropped the requested items into a hot sink full of other, similar items, with a splash.
     “Great!  Now I’ve got water and soap dripping down the front of my clothes.  Thanks a lot,” David Anderson said with a sour look Kahlee’s direction as he stepped back from the breakfast dishes he had been washing.
     “That’s what you get, Anderson,” she said pointedly.  “You know I don’t take orders in my own house.”
     “In our house, Kahlee,” he corrected with a soft smile.  “You know I was only kidding.”
     “And you know I’m just showing you the result of that joke,” she replied in an innocently sweet voice.  “I’ve told you a hundred times to leave-“
     “Yeah, yeah, I know.  ‘Leave the Admiral at the door.’  I remember,” Anderson laughed, shaking his wet hands off and grabbing a nearby towel to hopelessly dab at the soapy solution that had already darkened his clothes at his midsection.  “Damn, they do say you lose control when you get old.”
     “Ha ha.  Let’s hope you haven’t reached that stage already.  Come on, old guy, we’ve got reports waiting back at the table,” Kahlee reminded him.
     Anderson looked past Kahlee to the old, handmade, wooden table he had dragged around with him since having it handed down to him from his grandparents, decades ago.  The morning sun was just beginning to spill onto the screens of a pair of data pads lying on the polished table top.  The light of the rising star crept through a pane of recently installed glass in the main window of a wall that was only halfway finished itself.  
     He and Kahlee had been making short work of building the home with a few hired hands and old war buddies of Anderson’s, all equipped with the infinitely helpful omni-tools.  It was a modest building on a hill that looked out across to the edge of nearby London, separated from the city by a healthy distance with nothing but rolling hills covered in tall grass that became an ocean of ripples with every gust of wind.
     Anderson enjoyed the view, but he remembered the sprawling cityscape that once stood in the area.  He marveled at how nature had easily retaken the ground that had been completely wiped clean of any structure by the Reapers.  It would be a very long time before that distance was ever filled in that fashion again.  David felt slightly guilty at thinking that he was taking pleasure in a result of the near total destruction of humanity.  He tried to believe those around him who kept telling him he deserved it for being the one man left on Earth that held everything together while Shepard had united a galaxy to save her.  
     The admiral finished the dishes and left them to dry while he joined Kahlee back at the table to sift through the endless messages and updates on the various secret projects Hackett had him overseeing.  Most of them had to do with adapting Reaper technology left by the hulking remains not vaporized by the Crucible’s deadly shock wave of energy.  
     The latest project added to his plate, however, left Anderson’s conscience pleasantly without conflict: the two Protheans’ work had been resumed from their own cycle.  If all went as planned, soon the Alliance and its allies would no longer need the mass relays or be tied to their long established routes using the mass amplifier technology acquired from the yahg.  The Protheans had unlocked the secrets to the relays, but were not content to stay subservient to Reaper technology that left their routes easily predicted by enemies.  
     In that aim, Sooltir and her younger assistant were developing completely new systems that would revolutionize space travel.  The caveat was that the power required would have to come from reverse engineering the Reaper’s Sovereign-class ship power sources if they wanted to use the new designs in their lifetime.  That was something Anderson could live with.

     He glanced over a report from Brynn Cole, working through a pregnancy to study just that, under Kahlee’s supervision.  The ex-Cerberus scientist had accompanied Jacob Taylor to join in the final battle against the Reapers despite his objections.  She had argued that either humanity would win and need help to rebuild, or they would lose and no where in the galaxy would be safe.  Taylor had given in, much to the benefit of the Alliance.

     Brynn and Kahlee had become fast friends in the brief time they already had spent teamed up for the research.  The duo had plenty to keep them busy.  Not only were there tons of dead Reapers that had crashed down to Earth, but the Alliance had also retrieved Cronos Station’s own adapted human Reaper power source.  The work was basically done for them already, but no Cerberus data on that conversion had been left intact.  The fleeing members of the terrorist organization had wiped their database as their final act of defiance in the battle in the Anadius System.  Brynn’s goal was to learn their methods so that it could be repeated across the fleet, Kahlee helping with her engineering expertise.  

     Anderson looked across the table.  Kahlee brushed her blonde hair away from in front of her blue eyes and looked up from the data pad in front her her.  Their eyes connected and they shared a tender smile, both thinking of the journey down the long winding road their relationship had taken. 
     The moment was interrupted by a hanging display screen coming to life on a nearby wall.  Sooltir Gelten’s face appeared on the monitor.
     “Admiral Anderson, I hope this is not an inconvenient time.”
     David tore his eyes away from Kahlee’s and turned to Sooltir’s image.  “Not at all, Master Gelten.  We were just starting to go over the latest reports.  Do you have something to add to yours?”
     “Not yet, but I have stumbled across a bit of information in my study of the Ilos database copy from Mars cross referenced from your Alliance records.”
     “Don’t you ever sleep?” Kahlee asked.  “That’s what you were doing when I left last night.”

     “Protheans are used to going without a lot of sleep.  We lived in a constant state of alertness, always waiting for the next unexpected Reaper attack.”

     “I know the feeling,” Anderson said.
     “So I’ve read.”
     “What did you find?” Kahlee asked.

     “There is an old report from a scan of the planet your cycle calls ‘Logan.’  Large objects reported in the gas giant that seemed to vanish as ships drew closer.  That account and the scanned emissions recorded from the planet at that time match a similar record from our time from a different planet we called Shanthow, also many years prior to the Reapers, that we similarly ignored.”
     “You think there’s something worth checking out?” Anderson asked.
     “Our scientists of the time did not.  We were too busy expanding our empire, apparently, to be bothered with such half-way interesting mysteries.  Then the Reapers came with war.  In addition, I have checked, and that planet has sense been utterly destroyed, by Reapers or natural events, I do not know.  I would doubt anything would be found in the asteroid belt left behind.”
     “I sense a ‘however’ coming,” Kahlee interjected.
     “Very perceptive, Ms. Sanders.  The ‘however’ is that Prothean records from a point even more distant in our past show that the Inusannon records that had been reconstructed had a similar story of a different planet from either Logan or Shanthow, named Bonevent, before their harvesting at the enemy’s hands.  They show an order sent to a nearby military vessel to check on the signal and then there is nothing.  And, again, that planet is now only so much space debris near the Terminus systems.”
     “What do you mean ‘nothing?’  Nothing came of their investigation?” Kahlee asked.
     “There are no subsequent reports on it at all.  Granted, we did not find nearly as many records left behind intact from the Inusannon as you did from us.  What we did find, what was clearly set aside and protected for future species to find and aid their fight against the Reapers, included that report.  They did not do that by accident, and yet it would appear any follow up to this was suspiciously left out.”
     “And why do you suppose that is?” Anderson asked, looking from Sooltir’s projection to Kahlee’s face with a knowing look.
     “Ilos?” Kahlee asked.
     “Exactly,” Anderson said.
     “I believe your insinuation is correct, Admiral.  Like our scientists, the Inusannon may have protected their most important discovery to keep it safe from the Reapers by erasing any evidence of it.”
     “Sounds like we need to get a ship out there and quick.  Especially if these planets end up destroyed.  I’ll go meet with Hackett and get somebody out there as soon as possible.”
     “I and Nahlyon would like to accompany whoever is sent, Admiral . . . if that’s not too much trouble.”
     “I’m sure it can be arranged,” Anderson said.  “I’ll keep you in the loop.  Anderson out.”
     The screen went off and Anderson looked to Kahlee whose eyes were alive with excitement.  David started to shake his head.  “Oh no.  I know that look.”
     “I’m going too.”
     The admiral looked at the woman he knew he would spend the rest of his life with and thought about it.  “Well, Shepard’s off at Sur’Kesh and Williams is hunting Aria T’Loak . . . and I’m tired of being stuck ground side,” he said, warming up to the idea.
     “I’m not sure where you’re going with this,” Kahlee said, her voice mired in sarcasm.
     “Possibly no where,” Anderson admitted.  “Truthfully, it’ll be Hackett’s call.  I’ll go talk to him,” he said, standing up from the table.
     Kahlee rose also and closed the small distance between them.  She slid a hand behind his neck and pulled him to her.  She kissed him gently, pulled away, and looked into his face. “Hurry back.  And let’s try not to make it ‘just like old times’ okay?”
     “Yeah, that’s not part of plan, that’s for sure.”
     Anderson turned, seeing images of Saren Arterius and his trail of destruction left decades ago.
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     Hackett knew he should probably go see the ship’s doctor about the headaches, but there was too much going on to waste time on such a trivial problem.  
     “Besides,” he thought,”I’ve still got plenty of pills left.  Just need Shepard to make it through Sur’Kesh alive and that will ease the pressure.  Thing’s will domino from a victory there.  Williams will take care of the damned mercs and we’ll only have the rebuilding left to concentrate on . . . as long as nothing else comes up.”
     Anderson came through the fleet admiral’s door.  Hackett dropped his head and blindly reached for his pills.
     “Admiral,” Anderson said, saluting.
     “What can I do for you, David?”
     “Just received some intel from Gelten that I believe needs to be looked into.”
     “I’m listening.”
     “A cross-cycle pattern that has always appeared long before the Reapers arrive to harvest the galaxy.  We detected it on Logan twenty years ago.  The Protheans detected it on Shanthow, and even before them, the Inusannon saw it on Bonevent.”
     “Different names for the same planet?”
     “I wish.  Each of the other two are planets that have been obliterated.  Cause unknown.  Whatever was detected has either moved from planet to planet for over a hundred thousand years or more than one of whatever it is was left behind that long ago.  Either way-“
     “Either way it points at something advanced that survived three Reaper cycles in some way.  Tell your people good work, Anderson.  Who are you sending.”
     “This is where I ask for a small favor, sir,” David said, pausing to figure out how to word the request.  “I was fighting the ground war from day one of the Reaper invasion and now I’ve been on the ground helping to rebuild Earth.  I’m getting stir crazy.  I need to feel space- hear a ship’s engine again.”
     “You want to head up the team to investigate Logan?” Hackett asked, a little surprised.
     “Yes sir.”     
     “Kahlee’s going, isn’t she?” the superior asked with a smile.
     “Yes she is.”
     “Alright, Anderson.  I can spare you for a while.  I’ll even justify it and put it under the purview of your operations.  It may not be Reaper tech, hell, it could turn out that it is Reaper tech.  Either way, if it’s advanced tech of any kind, there’s bound to be benefits to the Alliance from finding it.   And if it’s some planet killer . . . we need to know sooner rather than later.  But be quick about it.  Knowing Shepard, coalition forces will be gathering for liberating Sur’Kesh in short order.”
     “Understood, Admiral,” Anderson said with a salute and then turned and left.
      Hackett, still sitting at his desk, poured a few doses of his pain medication onto the flat, touch sensitive display top.  He reached inside a refrigerated drawer and pulled out a chilled bottle of bourbon and a frosted glass.  He washed the pills down with a double shot of amber liquid and his eyes glazed over in a stupor with images of some new alien threat, washing across the galaxy, eradicating planets without end.
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     Major Coats sat in a shuttle on its way to an Alliance cruiser that had recently been repaired and upgraded with the new mass amplifier technology.  The cruiser waited patiently for the passengers of the small ship, which included Anderson’s main team fresh out of their mission briefing.  Coats stared across at Jacob Taylor and Brynn Cole.  Next to them sat the two female Protheans he had heard were found on Mars.  On the expert sniper’s side of the ship sat Anderson, Sanders, and a hooded figure named Kasumi who he was told was an expert in her field of study.  What that was Coats had not been told and he figured that meant he didn’t need to know.
     The longtime ground commando had never been aboard any large Alliance vessel and seeing the cruiser loom into view was an impressive sight.  Having seen the Normandy up close, Coats was struck by how much larger the cruiser class ship was compared to a frigate.  The cruiser was nearly twice the length of the Normandy’s second incarnation.  A massive main gun was the most notable design feature, rising from in between the swept down halves of the ship’s hull that also formed the wings and ran the entire distance from bow to stern.
     “The SSV Kilkenny,” Anderson said.  “It’s a baby as far as its years in the fleet, but it’s a veteran in terms of service and distinction.  It was commissioned five years ago but saw its first real action against Sovereign in the Battle of the Citadel.  It played an instrumental role in keeping Earth hanging on through the Reaper invasion.  Multiple supply drops to those of us in the Resistance and dozens of hit and run attacks against Reaper forces just as they were getting too close to us.”
     “And they’re just letting us come in and take over?” Jacob asked.
     Anderson shook his head.  “In the final attack, Harbinger delivered a critical blow to the Kilkenny’s bridge.  The ship survived, but the command staff were killed instantly and a large portion of the rest of the ship was exposed to vacuum.  Ninety percent of the crew were spaced,” Anderson said with a heavy heart.  “Captain O’Neill was a good friend.”
     Kahlee put a soft hand on the admiral’s knee and gave a squeeze.  Anderson patted her hand with a weak smile as the shuttle approached the sizable hangar with a full compliment of fighters and interceptors.  “I’ll be taking over command for now.  A full crew has been assembled to keep her running.  Once we land, everyone stow whatever gear you brought and get comfortable.  We’ll leave for the Theseus system as soon as the Kilkenny’s systems checks are completed.”
     The crew nodded and Coats patted the titanium case that housed his personal collection of firearms, the only thing he needed.
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     “Commander Williams, we have a fix on Aria T’Loak,” Cortez announced.
     “That didn’t take long,” Ashley thought.  “Thanks, Steve,” she replied looking out at the stars from her new room in the commanding officer’s cabin.  “What hell hole is she hiding in?”
     “Not so much hiding, but it is definitely a hell hole . . . now, anyway.  She’s in Chicago.”
     “Of course she is,” the commander said, looking down from the SSV Eden Prime in orbit around Earth.  She told herself she could almost pick out which devastated scorch mark the once major city of North America was.  “Figures she would try to rebuild a crime syndicate in a city synonymous with the word mafia.  But not hiding?”
     “Not in the least. She’s opened up a club already.  Think she’s trying to get into franchising.  It’s called Omega Earth.”
     “Seriously?  After the shit she’s been up to?”
     “Yeah, seems a little ballsy,” the pilot agreed.
     “Well, I don’t think we’re gonna be taking the Eden Prime into Chicago, so prep a shuttle and I’ll take a team in to bring her down.”
     “I’ll send the word out, Commander.  Need a pilot?”
     “Thanks, but Ericson will take the shuttle.  No sense wasting your skills on something that mundane.  You take care of my baby.”
     “Yes ma’am.”
     Down in the hangar, a few minutes later, Ashley picked up an assortment of guns and attached them to her armor.  She joined Garrus, Tali, Zaeed, and Ericson who was getting more and more comfortable outside of the cockpit.  Lanna, Wayne, Lazarus, and Grunt were staying behind but were on alert in case reinforcements were needed.  The Alliance’s newest commander liked having an ace up her sleeve.
     “Gotta be careful, Ash,” Garrus warned.  “I went up against these thugs on Omega.  It can get ugly fast.”
     “Are you worried, Vakarian?” Tali goaded the turian.
     “What?  Archangel?  Scared of the mercenaries that made his name?  Not hardly, Tali,” he answered.      
     “Who’s worried.  We learned under the best,” Ashley said.  “And now we’ve got his clone in training coming with us,” she added, indicating Ericson.
     “Oh, so now I’m a clone of the greatest hero in all of recorded, and probably unrecorded, history? . . . I think I can live with that,” Ericson said with a smile.
     “Alright, big shots, you all done thumping your chests?  I’m ready for action,” Zaeed said.
     “Ericson, take the controls and let’s get to Chicago,” Ashley ordered.  The crew found their seats aboard the shuttle and the door slid closed.  The engines roared to life, the hangar bay door opened, and the Kodiak coasted leisurely out into the cold black.  Seconds later, the craft was feeling toasty, cutting through the Earth’s atmosphere.
     The crew landed shortly, just outside of the scene of carnage left to be called Chicago.  A full moon played a theater of shadows in every direction.  
     “Well, isn’t that just great: I forgot my night-light,” Garrus joked.
     “Nice,” Ericson said, flipping on the light on the scope of his gun.
     “Turn that thing off, Ericson!” Ashley hissed.  “You want to announce our arrival to every merc scout in the mile between here and the club?”
     Ericson looked at the commander, at a loss for words.  “But . . . I . . . we need to see our way there, right?”
     “You’ve got a helmet, right?” she mocked.
     “Uh, yeah . . .”
     Ashley stared the pilot down until he made the connection.
     “Oh!  Night vision.  Sorry.  Just a clone in training, remember?”
     “Definitely not the clone yet.  Memories of experience are one thing, Ericson.  Actual experience is another.”
     “Apparently,” he said, donning his helmet and tapping the visor a few times to activate the night vision.  Instantly, the helmet’s sensors picked up the available light, processed the surrounding environment, and Ericson was looking at a simulated daylight view of the night shrouded area around him.
     He focused on a thin shaft of red light that was swiftly tracking towards the team from an elevated position, originating from a decimated skyscraper a short distance away.  “Sniper! Two o’clock high!” he warned.
     “Get to cover!” Ashley ordered, lurching forward to find a burned out crashed fighter as a spot in the cracked pavement next to her feet exploded into shrapnel.
     The team broke into action, scattering in a line and checking their positions for any other nearby enemies.  Two sniper lasers raced up from the ground, locking in on the gunman and two shots thundered through the chilly air of the windy night.  Two holes exploded in the attacker’s chest and he fell forward, dead long before his plummeting body shattered on the ground ten stories below.
     “Got him!” Ashley and Garrus called out simultaneously.
     “Any other contacts?” Tali asked, peaking around a fallen wall.
     “Negative,” Zaeed answered.
     “I’ve got nothing,” Ericson added.
     Ashley checked the sensor feed to her omni-tool.  No red dots showed on her display either.  “I think we’re clear,” she said, standing up.  She glanced around and then jogged over to the body, keeping her head on the swivel as she went.  
     The team gathered back around her as she examined the bloody armor of a crushed body.  “Blue Suns.  Turian . . . I think,” she said.  “Tali, see if you can pull anything from that omni-tool.”
     “On it,” she said, leaning down to hack into the device.  A minute later her cracking software pulled up several video communications.  She played the most recent.  A turian face popped up.  “Shuttle touched down a couple blocks away.”
     “Who is it?” asked a perturbed asari.
     “Well, look who we’ve got ‘ere,” Zaeed commented.  “The blue queen bitch herself.”
     The recording continued.  “Don’t know, Aria.  Human male, looks like a merc, but not one of ours.  A turian . . . in purple armor that looks awfully familiar. Quarian . . . and human male and female in Alliance colors, just like the shuttle.”
     “Keep them busy until I can send someone to round them up.  I don’t want them making it to the club.  Bad for business, but so is killing Alliance.”
     “Understood, boss.”
     The recording ended.
     “Well, it’s official: Aria knows we’re here, now,” Garrus said.  
     “Sneaking up on them just got a little bit trickier,” Tali said, voicing the sentiment everyone felt.
     “It would be rude to keep them waiting,” Ashley said raising her own Black Widow sniper rifle with a smirk.  “We’ll keep to the back streets and close to the buildings.  No need to make it easy by strolling out in the open down the main strip.”
     The Eden Prime’s crew nodded and followed Commander Williams.  Ashley waved Tali over as the team navigated through debris strewn alleys.  “Yes, Commander?”
     “Commander?  Really, Tali?  I’m still regular old Ash.  Besides, you’re an admiral.  If anyone should be addressing anyone by rank it should be me addressing you, not the other way around.”
     “Sorry, Ashley.  Just wanted to show proper respect for someone new to command.  I know I would have appreciated it.”
     “I do, Tali, thanks, but I’ve never been one for titles.  Right now, I need you to do something.”
     “What is it?”
     “You’re good with all the decryption and code cracking tech stuff.  Can you tap into the mercs’ comm-links, real-time?”
     “I’ll get on it,” the quarian complied, lifting her arm with her omni-tool springing to life.  “There’s a few different channels open, but this one is coming from nearby.  I’ll link us all in.”
     “Good.”
     There was a brief blip of static on the audio channel before Tali’s program adjusted for the encrypted signal and voices came through.
     “. . . gone.  Whoever it was got him clean.  Two shots to the chest if that’s which part of him I’m even looking at,” said one voice.
     “Great.  They’re probably heading for Aria” said another.

     “Probably.”

     “That is not going to happen.  Am I understood.  I don’t want whoever they are bothering her.  Comb the streets until you find them.  Then bring them to me.”
     “That’s just great,” Garrus said.  “At least we’ll be able to stay ahead of them as long as they keep talking.”

     “And maintain radio silence from here on,” said the second voice.

     “Just had to say it, didn’t you?” Tali asked.
     “Let’s keep going,” Ashley said, not looking back.  “Keep your eyes open, though.  I don’t want to get caught-“
     The crashing sound of a speeding vehicle rushed up from behind Ashley and her comrades, its lights locked in on them.  They turned and watched a Mako roll into view.  “-with our pants down,” she finished the sentence.

        The doors to the tank opened and a handful of mercenaries filed out, heavy weapons drawn.  They closed in on their prey, stepping to within inches, confident in their numbers and superior fire power from the Mako.  It was confidence not based in reality.

     “You three: lower your weapons.  Now!” the lead thug commanded.
     “Three?” Ashley wondered, almost asking it out loud before she caught herself.  The commander looked to her left and right as she lowered her weapon to the ground.  No one was to her left.  Garrus and Tali were dropping their weapons to her right.  “Where the hell-?”
     Shots rang out from behind the mercenaries.  Two of them were flash frozen by cryo rounds from Ericson’s Mattock rifle before they could even turn around.  A third was caught in mid spin by another freezing shot.  At the same time, a concussive shot from Zaeed’s Viper smashed into the unfortunate soul, shattering his frozen body with explosive force.  The last two men managed to complete their turn only to leave them exposed to a lightning strike from behind by a knife wielding Garrus.  The mercenaries were dead without having fired a shot.
     Ericson and Zaeed rejoined the team, stepping over the dead as they came.  Zaeed walked over to the two frozen mercenaries and casually knocked them over, the members of the Blue Suns powerless to stop the fall that broke their bodies on the ground.  Zaeed looked up at the Mako.  “Looks like everything just got a bit easier,” he said with a twisted smile.
     “Where in the hell did you guys disappear to?” Ashley asked, confused.
     “Knew they’d be close real quick after hitting that scout at the L-Z.  Heard ’em coming while you all were chit chattin’ away.  Decided to surprise them while they surprised you,” Zaeed answered.
     “And you?” Williams questioned Ericson.
     He simply shrugged and pointed at Zaeed.  “I just followed him.”
     “At least someone was payin’ attention,” the rough soldier said.  “But I’ve got a question: where’d the knife come from, Vakarian?”
     Garrus looked at the infamous mercenary in shock.  “What?  Doesn’t everybody carry one in a concealed boot pocket at all times?” he asked innocently.
     “Okay okay, before more of this ‘chit chatting’ gets us caught a second time, let’s take Zaeed’s suggestion,” Ashley said.  “Everyone in the Mako.  A little Trojan Horse action might just be what we need.”
     “Trojan horse?” Garrus asked.
     “I’ll explain it later,” Ashley promised.
 
 
* * * * 
 
 
     “So, this Trojan horse idea . . . is it supposed to end with us like this?” Garrus asked calmly from a kneeling position.  His hands were tied behind his back and the muzzle of a gun rested on the back of his head.    
     Ashley looked over from her identical situation. “Not exactly,” she answered.