“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.