Mass Effect 4: New Masters – Chapter 16

Chapter 16 
    “How in the hell-?”  No, I’m not complaining, but- Okay, I’ll ask later,” Joker said, turning to EDI at his right with disbelieving eyes.  “It’s Admiral Anderson!”
     “Jeff, I am detecting extremely advanced communication processes within the admiral’s signal.”
     “I know EDI, I know.  I see it too.  But, oh, this is bad.  Really, really bad.   He’s getting the same jamming we are.”
     “I detect that the Admiral is in the Theseus system near the planet Logan, Shepard,” EDI informed the captain.  He listened over his secured comm link on the salarian home world, where a raging battle for dominance was underway against the occupying yahg military.
     “I hear you,  EDI.  Patch me through to Anderson.”
     “Right away.”
     “Shepard, what’s the situation on your end?”  Anderson asked.
     “Well, it was good up until about fifteen seconds ago.  Now I’m probably about to get a pissed off yahg fleet dropped into my lap.  Not exactly looking forward to that.  What about you? Heard you were out near Ferros.   What’s that all about?”
     “Looking into old myths and strange signals to fight the good fight.”
     “The more things change . . .” Shepard began the cliché.
     “Don’t I know it.  Joker tells me your communications to Earth are blocked like ours are.  Did you get the call in to the fleet before that started?”
     “Negative.  We were maintaining radio silence until the attack.”
     “Didn’t want to tip them off,” the admiral said in understanding.  “Good move.  But now-“
     “Now we’re screwed,” Shepard finished, locking eyes with a yahg.  A dozen meters away, it was emerging from the smoke of an explosion that shredded its armor and one horn.  Shepard checked his current gun.  The thermal clip was empty.  He reached for a replacement and the yahg charged.
     “Shepard?” Anderson asked.
     “Be with you in just a minute, Admiral.”
     The yahg met Shepard quickly, launching at its human opponent with a frenzied roar and an outstretched fist.  Shepard rolled to the side.  The move avoided the full brunt of the attack, but it still struck a heavy blow to his right shoulder, spinning the marine around.  Shepard lashed out with his omni-tool, the glowing orange blade finding an opening in the yahg’s broken armor and slicing into its exposed torso.  Both combatants fell to the ground but quickly sprang back up.  The yahg grabbed Shepard with one hand and jerked the soldier towards its other hand which was about to meet Shepard’s face with an upward swing.  The first human Spectre didn’t fight it, deciding to instead meet the yahg’s attack with his own fist, still adorned with the flash-manufactured blade shining bright.  The two warriors’ fists slammed together and Shepard heard the crunch of breaking bone before he felt it.  He cried out in pain as the yahg dropped him, doing likewise.
     “Shepard!” he heard David call in his ear.  “Shepard, what’s happening?”  Shepard hit the ground again and shook his head, willing the rush of pain to the back of his consciousness.  He took the seconds the yahg spent roaring and staring at the blood pouring from its mangled hand to awkwardly load a fresh thermal clip into his gun with his broken one.  He quickly fired multiple shots into the beast, knocking it to its back on the crumpled grass on the edge of the salarian airfield.  Shepard walked a good distance away from the fallen enemy and crouched to one knee, sucking in huge gulps of air.
     “Shepard: report.  That’s an order, soldier!” Anderson’s voice called, a frantic note creeping into it.
     Shepard raised a finger to his ear.  “Sorry, sir.  Had to deal with a little distraction.  Damn thing almo-”  
     His words stopped short, shock cutting them off from seeing the yahg climb to its feet once more.
     “What the hell does it take?” the N7 marine asked out loud.  “Admiral, I’ll have to get back to you.”
     The yahg rashly charged at Shepard again, snatching a broken rifle up with its good hand and flailing it wildly as it closed in on him.  Shepard fired at the yahg with every step it took, the damaged chunks of flesh flying this way or that, only serving to enrage it all the more.  The captain back peddled, tossing his twice emptied handgun to the side and reaching for the shotgun waiting on his back.  He fired an incinerating discharge from his omni-tool as a delay, but the blast barely slowed the yahg down. The yahg recovered from the searing pain and brought down its bludgeon in a hammering blow just as Shepard brought his heavy weapon up to meet the creature.  The yahg’s attack hit the gun and staggered Shepard with a blow downward that crushed the gun down with it on top of the same shoulder as his broken hand.  Shepard clenched his teeth and went down.  The yahg stood over him and raised the makeshift club again.  
     Shepard suddenly found himself focusing intently and time seemed to slow down.  He saw, again, the crumbling armor of his enemy and the exposed ride side of the yahg’s body.  He smiled and time resumed its normal pace.  The rifle came down, but Shepard was already rolling to the side and rising quickly.  He jammed the tip of his shotgun into the bleeding side of the yahg and their eyes locked one last time.  The largest pair of the alien’s eyes went wide.  Shepard pulled the trigger.  The rounds of ammunition ripped through the enemy’s body, punching a hole through and once whole internal organs exited in a exploding shower of chunks and fluids from the opposite side.  
The yahg swung towards Shepard.  The movement not only caught Shepard off guard, but also carried the weight of the dying yahg with it, flopping its large body on top of a very surprised Spectre.  They both went down.  Shepard’s head hit the ground and he was buried under hundreds of pounds of now dead weight.  The crushing force made breathing a struggle.  The marine concentrated on alleviating the burning in his lungs, but his gasps for air became more and more labored.  His eyelids became heavy and then the last rays of salarian light faded to black.
     The light returned with a rush of humid air that his body lurched with spasms to control as Shepard’s vision focused on blurry figures rolling a giant lump off from on top of him.  His sight cleared, his breathing became regular, and the familiar figures of Javik and James solidified with helping hands reaching down to pull him up.
     “Captain, are you injured?” Javik inquired, handing his human comrade the shotgun that had fallen to his side.
     The Spectre took stock of his injuries while reloading his weapon. “Nothing serious.”
     “Good, then let’s get back into the fray, Loco,” Vega suggested.
     Shepard nodded and his two squad members ran back to the airfield to support the rest of the Normandy crew and salarian strike force.
     “Shepard!” called a voice from his ear.
     “Anderson? Still with me?”
     “That’s what I should be asking you, Captain.  Doesn’t sound like things are going according to plan anymore.  You need to fall back before what’s left of the yahg fleet gets to you!”
     “There’s got to be some other way!” Shepard replied.  “We’ve done our damage and there’s no where left to hide if we run now.”
     “I don’t see any good options, son. Do you?”
     Shepard paused, resolving the disparity of the victory he was seeing on the ground and the defeat he knew was impending with a reorganized yahg fleet.  They were no doubt pulling together in the skies at one of the lesser shipyards they had captured on Sur’Kesh, preparing to strike back.  
     “Not yet.”
* * * * 
     Aboard a massive capital ship, hiding in a system thought lost to conventional travel many cycles ago and unknown to the current one, the former Reaper herald sat in his private quarters watching the reports come in from the planet he had fled a short time ago.  
     “You humans are very resourceful,” he commented to no one in particular.  “But you will not win Sur’Kesh without your fleet.”  The Collector looked at the array of controls on the display in front of him and tapped a single button with a malicious smile.  “Now, leap into the fire that will consume you,” he whispered.
* * * * 
     Joker piloted the Normandy towards Sur’Kesh, leaving the decimated yahg fleet floating dead around the Annos Basin mass relay.   Traynor stood to the side of his controls.  She had come up to work furiously with EDI to counter the signal that was jamming communication with the Alliance fleet.  They waited for the Normandy’s all clear call to join the fight to free the salarian home world.
     “We’ve got to hack their comm subroutines.  No one’s programming is perfect,” Traynor said.
     “An intelligent idea, Specialist Traynor,” EDI agreed.  “Doing so- wait.”
     “What is it?” Admiral Anderson asked, still in communication with the Normandy and Shepard.
     “We have an open window to the fleet!” Traynor announced, looking at the data over EDI’s shoulder.  “But-“
     “Sending the signal,” Joker said, hitting the comm display.
     “NO!” EDI and Traynor cried in unison.
     Joker looked up, shock and growing terror in his eyes.  A green message blinked from the terminal that read,”Transmission complete.”
     “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” Anderson demanded.
     “I sent the signal to the fleet?” Joker said in a questioning tone and expression turned his synthetic lover’s way.
     EDI exchanged a sorrowful look with Traynor before facing Joker with a sympathetic pout.  “Joker…”
     “What?” he asked.
* * * * 
     “We don’t know how it happened, sir!” a yahg soldier told the general on his display screen.  The angry visage hissed back.
     “Well fix it!  I don’t want another message to get through!  Do you understand me, you pitiful wretch?”
     “I understand.”
     “What did they send?  Who did they communicate with?”
     “The signal seems to have gone through to the Charon Relay, to the human fleet.”
     “This will be the death of us! If that fleet comes through to Sur’Kesh, our depleted forces will stand no chance of holding this planet, never mind the system!”
     “That is . . . an accurate representation,” the yahg agreed.
* * * *
     From his control panel, half a galaxy away, the collector listened to the yahg exchange and subtly tapped the same communication control he had moments before. 
* * * * 
     “What?” Joker asked again.  “That was the plan, wasn’t it?”
     “We didn’t break through the jamming, Jeff,” EDI told him.
     “You said we had an open window!”
     “But we didn’t open it!” Traynor countered.
     A light flashed at EDI’s console.  She didn’t need to look at it.  “And now the jamming is back.”
     “What?” Joker asked once more.
     “Goddamnit!” Anderson swore from from the Normandy’s speakers. “It’s a trap!”
     “How?” Joker questioned.  “Once the fleet gets here, these yahg will be toast.”
     “Not for your team, Joker.  For Earth!  She’ll be defenseless!”
     “Only if they send something like the whole fleet.  That wasn’t part of the plan.  Besides, it would take a crazy person to do that . . . right?”
     “Jeff, Admiral Hackett has not been himself, lately,” EDI informed the pilot.  “That much is clear from the reports Spectre S’Fara sent.”
     “But the yahg are tied down in every other system already!  They couldn’t possibly have a big enough fleet to send any more to Earth!”
     “Joker, barely two months ago we didn’t even think the yahg were capable of space flight.  We have no idea what their numbers are.  You have to take the Normandy and jump back to the Sol system.  You have have to stop the fleets from coming through!”
     “Are you crazy? Uh- with all due respect, Admiral!  Shepard and the rest are sitting ducks on Sur’Kesh.  We need the fleets or we’ll lose Sur’Kesh and everyone down there!”
     “And if we lose Earth, Joker?” came Shepard’s voice, now.  
     Jeff stared blankly through the translucent control screen in front of him in silence except for the grinding of his teeth.  “But, Captain-“
     “Damn it, Joker, go!  We’ve been in worse situations before.  We’ll survive long enough for you to go stop a worse loss than Sur’Kesh.  The major races go as Earth goes.  Let’s see to it that that doesn’t happen on our watch.”
     “You mean ‘again’?” Joker answered sarcastically.  “Fine.  Going.  Let’s just hope we’re not too late.  I don’t want to miss them in relay travel.”
     “Dear god!” Anderson exclaimed.  “I hadn’t thought of that!  The Fifth Fleet was already waiting at the Charon relay!  They’ll already be coming and the other fleets wouldn’t be lagging too far behind.”  There was a moment of silence from the admiral.  “Joker . . . keep going to Sur’Kesh.  Help Tinman and the geth keep the yahg off Shepard until help arrives.  We’re already too late if Hackett sent them all.  Keep open communication and whoever shows up first will tell us our fate.”
     Joker looked over at EDI again and found her already nodding in confirmation of Anderson’s words.  He raised the palm of his hand to his forehead, slowly dragging it down his face and then clenching it into a fist when it reached the end.
     “Aye aye, Admiral,” he whispered.
* * * *
     Admiral Hackett slumped in the chair at his desk, spinning an empty bottle on the table top.  A voice came alive from the desk’s built in display.
     “Sir!  Looks like the Normandy broke through that jamming for a only a second, but it was long enough.  Message just came in.  They say the mission is a go!”
     “Bout damn time,” Hackett growled.  “Send the fleet.”
     “Which one sir?  Fifth, Third, and Sixth Fleets standing by, as are the rachni and geth contingents.
     “Send them all.”
     “The Fourth fleet will stay behind for defense.  The yahg are too busy everywhere else to bother sending any sizable force against Earth.  We’ll be fine.  We need Sur’Kesh to win this war.  Without our coalition fleet, we’ll have to use our own ships to fill in the gaps.  Send the fleets.”
     “Yes sir.  Order sent and acknowledged.”  There was a pause before the Alliance officer spoke again.  “The geth are questioning the logic of your orders, Admiral Hackett.  They say it is not advisable to leave Earth so unprotected.”
     “Tell the flashlights to mind there own damn business!”
     Hackett collected his wandering thoughts sluggishly and then responded,”Captain, tell our geth allies that they are either part of our solution or part of our problem.  If they don’t want to help us, they can find their own way home . . . like all the other races did.”
     “Yes, Admiral.”
     “Will you be leading the charge, Admiral?”
     “No.  Someone in authority needs to stay here on Earth.  Call up Mikhailovich and tell him he’s in charge on my ship, now.”
     “Yes sir.”
     A short while later, Hackett watched the ship movements with a slight smile as they all disappeared at the coordinates for the Sol system relay, even the geth.  “Well done, Hackett, you old dog.  Still got some moves left, huh?” he asked in rhetorical self congratulation.  He was pleased with his improvisational strategy and poured a celebratory drink from a new bottle of liquor that he pulled from his growing reserves, out of sight, under his desk.  
* * * * 
     “The Alliance fleet has left the Sol system, Reaper herald,” the yahg general informed.  “The geth and rachni forces have gone as well.”
     “Ah, Hackett, I must thank your predictive arrogance.  Though, the geth and rachni are surprising.  Leave it to a primitive . . .” the collector commented.  “General, take your fleet to Earth.  Once the attack begins, unblock communications so that they know it has fallen to us.  Make sure the path is clear for when I arrive.”
     “It will be done.”
* * * * 
     “Admiral Mikhailovich, we are about to exit the mass effect corridor, sir.”
     The grizzled Alliance officer rose from his chair, setting down the book he had been reading, and headed for the door of his room.  “Very good, Commander.  I’m coming to the bridge.  As soon as we enter the Annos Basin, we’ll clean up any yahg forces left at the relay and then head for Sur’Kesh to support Shepard and the ground team.”
     “Yes, sir.”
     Mikhailovich walked down the hall from his room to the command center aboard the SSV Gettysburg, a carrier dreadnought and the flagship of the Fifth Fleet.  It wasn’t as close as Hackett’s empty quarters, but Mikhailovich had grown to like the extra distance since coming on board after his own ship had been lost in the Reaper War.  It gave him a few extra seconds of time to think before entering the mayhem of the command deck.
     “Exiting relay transit now,” the commander announced as the admiral passed through the doorway on to the bridge.
     “Commander Griffin, what’ve we got?”
     “No contacts at the relay, Admiral, just debris so far.”
     “Looks like our boys did their job.  Take us to Sur-“
     “Sir!  We’re getting an urgent message from . . . from Admiral Anderson?”
     “How the hell?” Mikhailovich wondered out loud.  “Put it on screen!”
     “Boris, that you leading the Fifth Fleet now?” Anderson asked from the main bridge display.  “Where’s Hackett?”
     “He stayed behind on Earth.  David, what are you doing out here?  Thought you were heading up some project at Logan.”
     “One of many and still classified.  We’ll talk about that later, if we can, but that’s where I am.  The Normandy is relaying for me.”
     “How are-“
     “Mikhailovich, I need to know who Hackett sent to Sur’Kesh!”
     The admiral of the Gettysburg shot a concerned look to his commander that he saw reflected back.  “Third, Fifth, and Sixth Fleets, Anderson.  Without the turians, asari, or quarians, he had to do something to make this mission a success.”
     “Thank god.  That leaves what’s left of the Fourth, along with the geth and rachni protecting Earth.”  Anderson audibly sighed in relief.  “Thought the old man had-“
     “Um, Admiral, the rachni and geth are coming as well,” Mikhailovich stated.
     “What?!  That damned fool!  That leaves Earth too vulnerable!  She’s a sitting duck!”
     “The yahg couldn’t-“
     “Couldn’t what, Boris?  Couldn’t have space flight?  Couldn’t have a massive fleet we knew nothing about?  Couldn’t simultaneously attack every major system?  Couldn’t hold one more fleet back for when our allies have abandoned us and then send it straight for Earth when we leave her wide open to attack?”
     Boris felt his stomach tie itself in knots.  “Jesus, David!  I never- Commander, turn us around!  Head straight back for Earth!”
     “On it, Admiral!”
     “Let’s hope I’m just paranoid,” Anderson said.  “I just have a bad-“
     Static cut the admiral’s communication off and his face was replaced by eight steely eyes and the sharp teeth of a triangular mouth.
* * * * 
     Shepard watched as Anderson’s signal sputtered and was overtaken from a terminal at the now allied controlled airfield on Sur’Kesh.  Miranda, James, Liara and Wrex stood around him.  The yahg spoke.
     “Human warriors, we are the mighty yahg.  You, who united this galaxy to defeat the Reapers, who were the one thing standing in defiance of annihilation across many systems, shall now come to know us by another name: Master.”
     The yahg’s face was replaced by a video feed from space.  The picture showed the pale blue dot, clouds floating above green and brown continents, that was humanity’s home.  As Shepard watched, hundreds of yahg ships closed in on that blue orb.  A myriad of explosions marked the end of what had been the Fourth Fleet.
* * * * 
     Admiral Steven Hackett stood gripping the edge of his desk so tightly that he felt his fingernails starting to tear from his fingers.  The image of Earth hovered above a half empty bottle on the desk and was being surrounded by red dots as the green ones disappeared from existence.  The ship readouts confirmed the invading fleet as the yahg.  
     “But where did they come from?” he cried at the holographic display.  “We had eyes on the relay! Nothing came through there!”  
     The representation of Earth, and the space immediately surrounding it, gave no reply.  As the last of the Fourth Fleet perished, the red dots slowly gathered, forming a coasting wall of red aimed at the Alliance headquarters in London.  They came to a stop directly over the city and waited.  The fire from ground based weapons was already echoing into Hackett’s quarters while his clouded mind wrestled with the reality facing it.  “What . . . what’re they waiting for?” he slurred.
     A new red dot entered on the fringe of the admiral’s display, much larger than any other ship represented.  Hackett glanced over at the profile that popped up, scrolling the design and power readings from the new ship to the right of Earth’s image.  Hackett’s jaw dropped open and he collapsed into his chair.  “The planet-killer,” he whispered as the doors to his office opened with Natalie Taggart running in, gasping for breath.
     “Admiral!  The yahg have wiped out the Fourth Fleet!  They’re preparing to strike London!  What do we do?” she demanded.
     The admiral reached into his desk drawer, fumbling past the glass bottles, until he found something else hard and cold.  He raised the object to the side of his head and pressed the soothing frigid tip against his pounding temple.
     “We burn,” he said quietly, a tear falling from his eye.  “We burn . . .”
     As a horrified Taggart stood frozen in shock, Steven Hackett pulled the trigger of an old revolver handed down in his family through seven generations and a new shade of red joined the war map on the admiral’s desk.