New thing I’m doing

While I continue to work on my writing, I’ve also decided to start doing my own channel on Youtube.  Not sure what elements I’ll be incorporating into it, but, for now, it’s going to be my own video game play through/commentary channel with other sorts of videos to pop up from time to time, I’m sure.  Check it out and be sure to subscribe!
Thanks!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCne7Elzl63-I9TF8szYf1ZQ

Let me apologize….

Well, after much deliberation, it just isn’t happening with this next Mass Effect fan fiction book I was going to write. I think I’ve just lost the love for that story that I once had and have many other original projects/stories that I’d rather be working on. That may break some people’s hearts, but probably not. If you really want to know where I might have been going with that story, hit me up and I can summarize the outline in its current iteration (always changing is the story . . . to paraphrase a famous Jedi master). For now, I’m just leaving it to the side. Clearly I haven’t been working on it at the breakneck speed I was with “New Masters” which I pumped out nearly a chapter a week. ME5, “Desperate Measures” is at three and a half after six months, if that tells you anything.

So yeah, on to original works, now. Hoping I can throw myself into those a lot more.

Unnamed Epic

Prologue

Gray clouds pummeled the combatants on the slippery battleground with cold, wet despair. Gale force winds blew branches of all sizes into the air along side dead and withering leaves. Cold air bit with freezing teeth, tearing at already shredded flesh. The rain ran down the hills, mingling with red blood of a dozen men and flowing against the black blood of their inhuman enemies.

The men that still lived charged their foes, swords raised and dripping with tiny rivers. Their opponents roared and brandished axes equal in size to the humans, half the height of the smallest of the dark creatures. Their tales flicked from side to side, rattling the chain mail armor that sparsely covered them.

The two sides swarmed through the slick trees in the gray of the stormy afternoon until they crashed into each other, metal on metal ringing above dull rolls of thunder. Swords crashed on armor and then found the unprotected sides of the enemy creatures, piercing quickly and without hesitation. Many an ax returned the favor, not worrying about vulnerabilities, favoring brute force to dent and bend and finally break through armor that had long protected against lesser power. Men fell in halves with screams choked in blood that lasted less time then for their bodies to hit and sink into the muddy ground. The creatures fared no better, the quicker swords only made their deaths longer, no less painful or fewer.

The men battled furiously, war cries rising above the din of the storm around them, save for one soul, cowering in the hollow of an ancient tree. He watched, hidden from view, lost in the mayhem, though he could clearly see the carnage playing out before him.

“War God, protect them and lend them your strength to cleanse these hell spawned monsters from the land,” he whispered as he watched the human field leader, pointing his long sword forward, lead another charge.

Time froze. The world held its breath. The winds stopped. The rain ceased. The clouds halted their descent. Both battalions were silent. Confusion swept into the land. Man and beast’s attention was drawn to the peak of a mountain a few miles away, visible through an opening in the forest canopy.

A shimmering light hovered above the rocky point and whirled at great speed. Shafts of white light shot out, escaping the orb sporadically, followed by erratic bolts of lightning. The strange phenomenon grew in size and ferocity with each passing beat of fearful hearts on the lands below.

A bolt of lightning crossed the distance between itself and the warring parties. It blasted the battlefield and the world inhaled. The winds came alive, ten times stronger than before, but in the opposite direction. The rain and clouds went with it. Human and inhuman now ignored each other and sought protection from the unnatural hurricane. Those who found shelter gazed in the direction nature’s wrath had chosen and traced it back to the now blinding light hanging over the mountain.

A second streak of lightning shot down from the light and split the mountain in two with a deafening explosion. A hail of boulders covered the distance between the mountain and the skirmish, crashing down on the battling enemies. The warriors cried out, trying to run. Stony debris rained down on all. Man and demon-creature alike were smashed or flattened, the mountain accomplishing what neither side had yet been able to do.

Those who were not instantly killed by the onslaught fixed their dying eyes on the light that had sent their destruction. As those visions faded to blackness, their last image was of a pulsing light.

The storm reversed course. The world exhaled. Nature returned to its previous state. Clouds came again, along with their companions wind and rain. The blood never washed away completely.

The shimmering orb pulsed greatly once more and then disappeared.

The wind calmed, the rain changed to a drizzle, and the clouds thinned. The sun did not come out. An upturned tree that had survived for a thousand years before that day, curiously bled red.

Writing again . . . so damn painful

03-30-07_00392/18/15

I realize no one has heard from me in a while, but I’m still here.  Don’t you feel so lucky?  Seriously, though,  I’m starting to work on the next Mass Effect book in my fan ficition/alternate ending universe and it is pretty rough to start off.  I meant to get writing a few months ago (okay a year ago, really).  I had replayed the games, revisited my own Mass Effect 4, and it was all fresh in my mind.  Then, as always, life happened and I kept telling myself I would start it tomorrow and tomorrow and another tomorrow.  Four months later (or a year and four months later) I have a prologue and the beginning of chapter one but every step of the way I’m finding I have to pause, go back to what I wrote in “New Masters” and then continue, making sure I’m not creating continuity issues as I go.

My feeling this time is maybe to get a few chapters done at a time before posting them up as, last time, trying to knock out a chapter a week was pretty grueling.  Yeah, I know that a self-imposed deadline, but I also know how bad I am at procrastinating (see the 1 year and 4 months reference above).  The other reason is because I am also working on a screenplay as well as ripping apart an original 500 page fantasy novel and rebooting it (right now) as a series of shorter tales told with each charater or (or group of characters) as the main focus.  There is potentially a video game story that I may be helping a friend with to pile on top.  We’ll see how this multi-tasking goes . . .

More on that fantasy work . . .

This collection of short stories idea, here, is mainly because I had 500 pages with lots of things happening, but when it was done, there was not actually a story there.  There were a series of actions and events that were somewhat connected and leading somewhere, but I just kept thinking to myself “what do I have?”  The answer was “a fantasy world that was pretty fleshed out, but not a good narrative.”  No main character or maybe too many main characters, because that’s how they all felt.  Too many origins to explain, to many “leading up to this” background stories to fill in (and which kept growing and building themselves in my mind), and well, there’s so much that I didn’t feel right about so I had to reimagine how to tell the story.  (Side note: like most creative people, I’m my own worst critic, so that 500 pages might actually be a great first novel to a longer series as intended, but I just . . . I don’t know.  I’ve had it in the works for SO many years that I’ve just started to wonder about the whole damn thing.)

So with a strong foundation, I’m going back and overhauling the idea of how I will tell the story I wanted to in the first place.  Now, this may turn out to be a worse idea than before because I’m trying to do short stories (or more likely novellas) and I have no handle on that medium.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  Hell, the Mass Effect story was just supposed to be a re-write of Mass Effect 3’s terrible ending and it turned into what?  A re-written chapter and then an almost 500 page “what happens next” story.  Shit, what I’m writing now is just supposed to be a quick update (fail).

The screenplay . . .

This one is a contemporary piece that I’m actually writing in hopes of filming myself (with some like minded friends) and I want to pull off a real cold-blooded, dark feel.  Sort of along the lines of maybe Last Man Standing or No Country For Old Men . . . though probably more Last Man Standing because that was fun (though harsh) action flick.  But darker.

I’m always amazed at some of the simpler films that pull off something way beyond their tiny budgets and premises.  One example that always comes to mind is Cube.  If you haven’t seen it, go find it.  Not a 5-star movie, I’ll grant you, but (and this is sort of a spoiler), the entire thing happens in one area.  90 minutes of story in a box.  How?  You’ll have to watch it.  How many people watched The Blair Witch Project?  Kids in the woods and yet I worked the theaters when this was out and it packed the seats for weeks.  Crazy.  Another one I just saw that was actually really good and starred the late Paul Walker (he actually did pretty damn good acting in this, such a shame) is Hours. Again, simple premise, one location, but gripping.  Hell I gave that one 4 out of 5 on Netflix. So yeah, I would love to be able to pull off something that has a tiny budget (basically, no budget) that is still a decent product.  Anyway, my story is crime world related and will no doubt have lots of action and hopefully a little mystery and few moments/twists that may not blow you away, but at least should be somewhat unexpected.

Yeah . . . I’m done.  I guess.

Oh!  The game idea!  Psych!  I’ve got really a bare minimum on that so there’s no point in even putting out any details at this point other than to let you, my readers (all 2 of you), know what all is on my plate and why there may not be quite as fast a release of chapters this go round on Mass Effect.

Not yours truly at all,

-Harbinger50

Mass Effect 4 : New Masters Epilogue

 

  Epilogue

 

 

     Two days later, he still felt numb.  Captain Shepard, the first human Spectre, survivor of the massacre on Akuze, a dozen other battles that should have claimed his life, and one that did, still felt numb.  Two days since Earth had fallen a second time in less than a year to a hostile alien force and Shepard still felt cold, mixed with sickening rage.  It didn’t matter that the yahg had been less destructive than the Reapers, opting to enslave Earth’s population instead of harvesting it.  It didn’t matter that the yahg on Sur’Kesh and in that entire system had been eradicated after Anderson had kept the Alliance fleet in the system and denied an immediate and unplanned attempt to retake Earth.  And it didn’t matter to Shepard that plans were already in the making to reclaim his home world.  

     What mattered was the feeling of failure to protect it once more, to have seen it burn a second time while he could do nothing but watch from a system away.  Shepard wanted something to do, a way to make things right- or at least try to.  

     Instead he sat in a logistical meeting that was only one step in slowly building up to the goal of liberating Earth and keeping her this time.  Anderson stood at the podium of the salarian conference room, laying out the basic plan to his Alliance officers.  The admiral had been picked up by Ashley when Anderson had ordered the mission to Omega put on hiatus to bring the Eden Prime and her crew to Sur’Kesh to regroup what forces he could. Grunt had enjoyed physically restraining the enraged mercenary queen, Aria T’Loak, for the trip to Logan and then Sur’kesh.

     “The salarians have graciously allowed us to set up a base of operations in Talat for the time being,” the now highest ranking Alliance military commander said.

     “It’s the least we could do,” a recovered Major Kirrahe added, waving off the comment with a new tank grown arm from his seat in the room.  The salarian was, himself, now one of the more senior ranking military leaders in what was left of the salarian forces and acting as representative and advisor to Anderson’s own limited command staff.

     Anderson nodded in thanks and continued.  “I know the situation looks grim.  Hell, it looks as bad as, if not worse than, our war with the Reapers, as far as our numbers go.  But we’re not out of the fight.  There is still hope.”

     “How do you figure that?” Zaeed asked, not concerned with any protocol in a chain of command he was not party to.

     “The yahg are playing at something different than those damned machines.  Forced labor and terrible conditions aside, we have enslaved populations.  They’re not being systematically killed off.  That gives us time to plan and rebuild our strength.  The one kindness Hackett did for us in his insanity was to force the geth to come to Sur’Kesh.  They’ll be instrumental in helping to build up a new fleet . . . if they are willing,” the admiral finished, turning to face Tinman.

     “Of course, Admiral Anderson.”

     “Thank you, Tinman.  The next thing we need to do is something that our salarian friends are renowned for: gather intelligence.  The yahg came out of no where and seem like they still could for one obvious reason: we have no information on them at all.  We need to change that and fast.  I’ll be assigning a team-“

     “Count me in,” Shepard said quickly.  “I’ve had enough sitting around already.  I’m ready to move and so is my crew, Admiral.”

     Anderson looked at Shepard with an appreciative smile.  “I know you are, Captain, but you won’t be doing this alone and gathering intel is not the only thing we need to win this war.  What we need is a decisive advantage.  Right now we do not have that.”

     “That may be something we can help provide,” Master Sooltir Gelten offered.  “What we found at Logan . . . there is no telling what could come of it.”

     “Indeed,” David agreed with the Prothean scientist.  “There are also many other locations I can think of that hold hidden assets the enemy- hopefully- is unaware of.  Unfortunately, those are in in the Sol system, some on Earth, some not.  I mean to reclaim those.  Shepard, you and the Normandy will be spearheading that goal.”

     “Gladly, Admiral.”

     Anderson nodded and went on. “I’ll speak with each team’s leader individually about your assignment specifics.  Needless to say, we have a lot of obstacles in front of us and it won’t be easy.  So everyone get rested, get your ships refueled and restocked, and tell your crews to be ready. Dismissed.”

The crew stood up and headed for the exits. Ashley came up beside Shepard on the way. “And to think, we were worried about our allies all swooping in and taking Earth away from us. Now we need them all to come back, swoop down on Earth, and take her away from the alien bastards that did just that.”

“Funny how things play out, isn’t it?” Shepard asked rhetorically.

“Hmph,” Ashley responded. “So: lather, rinse, repeat, huh?”

“Yeah. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” the captain said as he headed to the Normandy to prepare for whatever Admiral Anderson, his long time friend and mentor, assigned as Shepard’s next mission.

 

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.
     “Shit.”
     “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.”
     “Sir?”
     “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!”
     “Sir?”
     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.”
     “Good.”
     “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.

Mass Effect 4: New Masters – Chapter 15

Chapter 15

     “This . . . is not good,” Garrus said, glancing over the same reports Ashley had received from her fellow Spectres.  “They all left?”
     “All but some of the geth,” she answered.  “And the rachni.  They’ve kept their new home world hidden so the yahg can’t attack them directly.  Leave it to the bugs and flashlights to be the dependable allies,” Ashley added.  Seeing Lazarus standing silently near the rachni on board the Eden Prime, she quickly amended,”No offense, guys.”
      The rachni stood still, only blinking its eyes in response.  Lazarus rotated his single visual sensor Ashley’s direction.  “No offense was taken, Commander Williams.  We understand it is hard for organics to let go of old designations after circumstances have required altered thought processes.”

     “Uh, thanks, Lazarus,” Ashley said, shifting in her seat, uncomfortable with the geth soldier’s stare.
     “But why are they leaving now?” Lanna asked, from a seat across the table in the prototype frigate’s conference room.  “They’ve had the mass amplifiers installed for weeks, some of them.  They could have left at anytime.”
     “Doubt,” Grunt said plainly.  “Without Anderson or Shepard- who trusts the Alliance’s plan?  Shepard’s been the only one holding all the races together.  Without him, they have no faith in anyone but themselves to take care of business.”
     “I’m with Grunt,” Zaeed said.  “No one gives a damn about alliances when their homes are burning.  And like he said: without Shepard, no one believes the war strategy can work.”
     “It’s not like he’s dead!” Cortez nearly shouted from his seat at the table.  “Right?” he asked, looking around the room.  “We don’t believe that . . . do we?” he inquired further, doubt growing in his eyes and his voice faltering.
     “Of course not, Steve,” Tali answered confidently.  “It’s Shepard.  He took on Sovereign, ran us through the suicide mission against the collectors, and he defeated the Reapers.  He wouldn’t allow himself to be killed by a random attack by yahg.  And look at Vega’s report.  It says MIA.  Missing.  Not killed.  They dragged him off.  So he’s still alive.”
     “Yeah, you can’t interrogate my- his dead body,” Ericson said.  Despite having more time since the memory transference from Javik, his thoughts still blurred every so often.  It was happening less, but right now it felt like the group was talking about him and Shepard at the same time, neither of whom he felt were dead.
     “And what about the Admiral?” Wayne asked, silent until now.  He eyed Ashley who turned her gaze downward.
     “I . . . it doesn’t look good.  I’m not even sure what the hell Anderson was doing in the Theseus system.  Still waiting to hear back on that.  Lazarus, has the rachni gotten a report from Hackett on that yet?” Ashley asked the synthetic.
     Lazarus faced the insect alien and emitted an odd series of short, high pitched chirps mixed with cat-like hisses.  After the brief exchange, the rebuilt geth turned back and shook his head, imitating the organic gesture.  “No.”
     “Then we’ll make a detour-“
     “The fuck you will!” Aria barked.  Six pair of ice cold eyes turned to stare her down.  Lazarus and the rachni looked her way with what might have been neutral expressions.  Grunt leaped from his seat and was already halfway across the room with a knife drawn before the chair finished falling to the ground.  The krogan was impossibly fast, even for the mercenary queen’s battle honed reflexes. The knife was at her throat and biting a perfectly controlled depth of millimeters into her blue flesh before she could erect a protective biotic barrier.
     “I’m feeling pretty generous today, so I’ll give you a choice, asari: Do you want your death to be painless or quick?” he growled.
     Ashley jumped up and pulled her gun on Grunt.  “Stand down, Grunt!”
     Garrus lurched to his feet and threw out his hands.   “Whoa!  Easy people!”
     Grunt calmly looked past the turian and addressed the commander.  “Williams, this . . . thing thinks she’s in charge.  Thinks she’s going to tell us what we’re going to do or not do.  Who we’re going to save or not.  I won’t stand for it.”
     Part of Ashley wanted to lower the gun and look the other way.  The small, desperately crying for attention, logical side of her forced the weapon to stay up.  “I can’t argue with you, Grunt.  But as much as I hate to admit it, we’re going to need her to retake Omega.”
     “And why should we do that at all?” the young experimental krogan asked.  “Why give her that power back?  We can keep it in our hands.  With someone the Alliance- or what’s left of the major races- can trust.  She’ll only turn it against us as soon as we take care of Cerberus and the yahg.”
     “And who’s going to run it, krogan?” Aria asked.  “You?”
     “Hadn’t thought that far ahead . . . but I like it.  Thanks for the suggestion, asari.  You may have just earned yourself a third death option.”
     Ashley shook her head. “We need Omega station to fight the yahg in that region of space, Grunt.  You know that.  It’s a key location.  It has resources.  And we sure as hell don’t want to leave that with Cerberus to keep or the yahg to take.  Better to have even a despicable ally holding it than an actual enemy.  And unfortunately, she’s our best chance of getting in past the Cerberus defenses.”
     “Damn straight,” Aria said, albeit a little hesitantly, the knife still breaking skin and Grunt’s breath pulsing on to her face.  “I’ve got a vested interest to help you fight.  That’s my station.  The systems around it bring me the customers that make me money.  The yahg are killing my customers.  Plus, my mercs keep more pirates out of Citadel space than you realize.  It’s a balancing act of raiding them enough to keep them down and not draw the Council’s attention to my station but not over doing it to provoke a full coordinated attack from the pirates on Omega.  Without my leverage and the knowledge of how to use it, Omega falls and the yahg and Cerberus gain new allies to ravage your planets.”
     “But,” Ashley took back control of the conversation,”you are right Grunt.  She’s not in charge and, bitch as she might, I’ll make the decisions on my damn ship,” she said, lowering her weapon.  “We’ll detour to Theseus and scout out Logan.”
     “And Shepard?” he asked, slightly lessening the pressure of the blade on Aria.
     “What about him?” the commander asked with a smile.  “It’s not the first time he’s been declared dead or missing.  The way he keeps doing it, I think it’s some N7 strategy.”
     Grunt chuckled slowly and sheathed his knife, tipping Aria’s already leaning chair past its balancing point.  The crime boss crashed to the floor with an ungraceful flailing of arms and legs.  “You’re right, Williams.  But crazy strategy theory or not, Shepard disappearing is bad.  The fleets leaving . . . splitting up.  It’s bad tactics.  We’ll be fighting ground warfare for years on every planet, now.  And that’s only if we gain some sort of advantage.  Otherwise . . .”
     “Otherwise we’re looking up at yahg masters for a generation, potentially,” Ericson finished the thought.
     “You’re probably right, Grunt,” Ashley agreed.  “And as shitty as it sounds, Ericson, that’s not our problem right now.  Our problem is checking on the wreckage of the Kilkenny and then securing Omega.  The rest will be up to Hackett to figure out.”  She looked at her team around the table and saw the determination in their eyes she had seen so many times under Shepard’s command.  “Maybe I have the knack for this leadership thing after all,” she thought.  Then she addressed her friends again,”We have our plan.  Cortez, make the adjustment to the flight plan and Lazarus, you and the rachni . . . comm specialist send a message back to the fleet to let Hackett know.  Dismissed.”
     The crew left and headed for their own various tasks aboard the Eden Prime.  Ericson offered Aria a hand up which was angrily slapped away by the blue woman as she pulled herself up off the ground.  She stormed out of the room without a look back.  Ashley saw Grunt waiting outside.  As Aria passed by, he waited a few seconds and then moved to shadow her, a task he seemed to enjoy despite its lack of violence.  
     Ericson remained in the room.  
     “Something on your mind, Lieutenant?” Ashley asked the pilot.
     Ericson stared into Ashley’s brown eyes longer than he had meant to.  “I, uh, well, I guess not, Commander.”
     “Call me, Ashley, Ericson.  One thing I picked up from Shepard- in times like the Reaper war and now with the yahg seeming to pick up where they left off, the best units are the ones that are comfortable with each other.  Formalities don’t get us there.”
     “I suppose you’re right . . . Ashley,” Ericson agreed.  His face did little to hide the desire to say more, but he held back, unsure of what exactly to say next.
     “So what is it?” Ashley asked, feeling her heart beat pick up, hoping for a few words that would solidify her hunch.  She wanted to hear confirmation of what she hoped all his sideways glances her way, when he thought she was preoccupied with other matters, hinted at.      
     “It’s going to be a while before we reach Theseus and I heard from Vega you’re a fan of deep conversations with bottles of a certain drink I may have in my possession.”
     Ashley put a hand over her reddening face.  “Oh god.  Did he really tell you about that?”
     Ericson smiled.  “It might have come up.  I promise not to leave you on the floor like that, though,” he joked.
     Ashley moved closer to her second in command and put a light hand on his shoulder with a smile.  “So if not that way, how were you planning to leave me on the floor?”
     Now Ericson’s cheeks reddened and he looked away.  “What I meant was, if you have time and were looking for just a friendly-“
     “Ericson, you bring the bottle and I’ll bring the glasses.”
     “Really?” he asked in surprise.
     “My cabin.  If my ass is getting laid out again it’s going to be on a comfortable bed.  I won’t be getting picked up off a cold floor again.  Thirty minutes, sound good?”
     The flying ace stood a little straighter.  His mood brightened and a sense of confidence returned.  “It sounds perfect, Ashley.”
* * * * 
     Captain Shepard stood at the feet of the out stretched forms of Major Kirrahe, Dianna Allers, and a few more salarians.  
        “These are the ones that will pull through,” Doctor Chakwas assured him.  Shepard nodded.
     Kirrahe’s entire torso was encased in a medical wrap that also included a right shoulder that now extended only to a stump halfway down what was left of the officer’s bicep.  The salarian rested fitfully.  Allers was similarly wrapped, but had managed to keep all of her limbs and was drifting in and out of consciousness.  The other salarians each had their own injuries that were not life threatening, but equally incapacitating.  Had they been in a proper medical facility, they would have been ready and preparing for the coming battle.  In the present circumstances, however, they would be consigned to handling logistics and communications between the teams being assembled to retake Sur’Kesh as they healed at a slower pace. 
     “These won’t be so lucky,” Chakwas whispered, motioning to a handful of Kirrahe’s other men in a separate section of the deserted salarian home the Normandy’s crew was presently camped out in.
     Shepard frowned seeing the toll of the washed out battle from days ago.  “It could’ve been worse,” he said, finding the silver lining.  “We still have a viable command force and, with the freed prisoners from that large concentration camp in Talat, a small army to command,” he thought out loud.  All he needed to do now was contact Joker and see if he, EDI, and Tinman’s team were ready.  Then it would take one quick call to the coalition fleet and the battle for Sur’Kesh would begin.

     “And now for you, Captain,” Chakwas said.

     “What?  I’m fine, doc.”
     “You always say so, don’t you, Shepard?  You were imprisoned for two days, most of which you say you were unconscious, and then tortured with an unknown device.  Given the differing levels of medical expertise in this conversation, I’m going to lean toward advice from the actual medical expert,” the doctor said.
     “And that would be . . .?” Shepard joked.
     The senior doctor shook her head and rolled her eyes as she raised her omni-tool arm and ran the diagnostic program.
     “The doctor’s concern is warranted, Shepard, but you may assure her that I have detected no ill effects to your body’s systems,” said a Prothean voice.
     “Good to know, Vendetta,” Shepard replied in thought before looking at the doctor and tapping at his head.  “My Prothean hitchhiker says I’m fine, too, doc.”

     “Does he now?  Is he the medical expert suddenly?” she questioned.

     “You may tell your Doctor Chakwas that I have stored the readings from when she last gave you a clean bill of health, as you say, and have compared that to what your current biological readings are and have found all to be within tolerance levels.”
     “Not that THAT isn’t good to know, but I don’t know if she’s going to take my word that I’m taking your word for that.  It’d be more helpful if you could tell her yourself.”
     “Which is not possible at this time.  However, that is a separate issue I would like to address with you, Captain,” the VI said.
     “It will have to wait for a minute, Vendetta.  Let Chakwas do her thing first.  It’ll be quicker than convincing her of your . . . qualifications,” the captain said, absently wondering about the program’s choice of wording in using ‘like.’
     “Understood.”
     Done with the voice in his head for the moment, Shepard opened his arms to the doctor.  “So, how am I, Doc?”
      “One moment, Captain,” she answered.  A short while and a healthy report later, Shepard headed for the hastily constructed communications room that Miranda, Liara, and Honwol were putting together.
     “Shepard,” Vendetta said.
     “Go ahead, Vendetta.”
     “The collector that questioned you . . . he was altered.”
     “To put it mildly.”
     “I believe he may hold a clue to technology sufficiently advanced enough to extract this consciousness from you’re body.”
     Shepard stopped in his tracks.  “I’m listening.”
     “For a collector to have survived the Crucible’s effects, every piece of Reaper technology would have been required to be removed.”
     “And something would have needed to take its place.”
     “Precisely.”
     “So some other tech as advanced as what the Reapers used?”
     “At least as advanced.  Or possibly live organs were reintroduced through an advanced science along another path.”
     “Okay, so this collector stumbled onto an advanced . . . what?  Some advanced science lab and then un-Reaperized himself?”
     “Data is not sufficient for a conclusive answer, but the indoctrinated would not make that decision on their own.”
     “So someone or something did this to him.”
     “I believe so.”
     “Any competent doctor can clone body parts or even an entire body.  That doesn’t really seem that impressive and doesn’t explain how to get you out of me.”
     “No on the surface, no, but consider this collector’s actions and words.  He is no longer indoctrinated.  He has his own mind again.  A mind he, in all likely hood, never actually had in the first place.”
     “An implanted consciousness?” Shepard questioned the Prothean intelligence.
     “It appears so.  One that was transferred from some other location, technical or biological would just be a matter of adapting a process for one type of electrical input versus another.”
     “So the point of all this theory is . . . that we have to track this guy down and get those answers.”
     “Yes.  You are surprisingly adept at forming conclusions, Shepard.”
     “Thanks,” Shepard said dryly.
     “For a human,” Vendetta added.
     Shepard ignored the comment and resumed his path to the communications setup where he found Miranda, Liara and Honwol, as expected, working to put the finishing touches on a radio that would allow a secure link to the Normandy, among other communications.  The Alliance ship’s systems would act as a signal relay, from that point, for the ground teams.
     “How’s it coming?” he asked.

     Miranda looked up with a smile, moving a fallen strand of hair from in front of her face.  Liara turned to him as well with a smile, though it did not hold the soft warmth as Miranda’s did.  The salarian agent of the Shadow Broker did not look up, continuing to work, unknowingly, next to his boss.

     “Just about ready, Shepard,” Liara confirmed.  “As soon as our new friend, Honwol here, finishes tying the power into the array, we can contact Joker.”
     “We would not have been delayed by this task if your shuttle had not been captured by the enemy, Captain Shepard,” Honwol said in a disapproving tone.
     “We couldn’t have known the yahg would be so . . . thorough in their retracing of our path after the battle,” Liara countered.                            
     “Indeed, they DO seem to be much more intelligent than anyone assumed,” Honwol conceded.  He then leaned in, whispering conspiratorially,”I have sometimes wondered if my employer was such a creature.  I’ve done research, read reports, a few history lessons, and the bits and pieces of information I’ve put together . . . just between you and me, I think the Shadow Broker is a yahg.  And even he may be a mere puppet under someone else’s direction.  A smart puppet in his own right, but still a puppet of a master with a much larger plan.”
     Liara’s expression masked the inner terror she felt at the agent’s resourcefulness.  She made a mental note to keep better tabs on his activities while she played the conversation out.  “Aren’t you taking a bit of a risk sharing that with us?” she asked.  “How do you know we aren’t agents of the Shadow Broker ourselves, willing to report you?  And what master would the Shadow Broker have?”
     Honwol studied her, Miranda, and Shepard with a serious face that held only a few seconds before he broke into laughter.  “Ha ha ha!  You have quite the wit, Doctor T’Soni.  While I have no doubt the Broker may contact you for information or to try to recruit you when refilling his ranks now that the Reapers are gone, I don’t believe you would join him.  As for Miss Lawson and Captain Shepard . . . the Shadow Broker would not want former Cerberus agents nor someone as high profile as the first human Spectre, as useful as he could be.”
     Liara feigned indignation.  “Why would I turn down someone has powerful as the Shadow Broker if he were to recruit me?”
     Honwol shook his head.  “Doctor T’Soni, while you no doubt have the intelligence he seeks, you are too kind a person to carry out the Broker’s . . . less reputable dealings.  I believe your conscience would be tangled with eternal conflict.”
     “Hmmm . . . I see your point, Honwol.  Thank you for the advice.”
     “Not a problem, Doctor,” he said, closing an electrical panel.  “As to who is directing the Broker’s actions . . . that is something I have run into a wall on.  Only reports of a strange ship in conjunction with very coincidentally timed actions of the Broker are all I have.  They have trailed off lately, but that would make sense with the Reapers, and now the yahg, bringing war,” the salarian said.  He flipped a switch on the rigged up communications equipment and it hummed to life.  “That should do it.  Now if you all will excuse me, I will test this out by checking in with said employer as I am overdue after helping with the escape of my fellow salarian prisoners.”
     “Of course,” Miranda said.  “Shepard, whenever you’re ready.”
     Shepard nodded as Honwol slid past him through the doorway to go place his call in private.  Once he was out of earshot, the marine waved Liara over to him.  “And how exactly does that work out?” he asked, throwing his head in Honwol’s direction.
     “Glyph takes my calls when I am not around.  He has very good improvisational programming if needed, but many of the contacts the agents make are handled through automation already.  Though I probably should send a command to Glyph for the next time Honwol contacts the Broker when I am around to give the illusion that he is speaking live to the Broker when I am within his sight.  He is dangerously intelligent, but arrogantly confident.  He could cause trouble in more ways than one with those traits.”
     “Just don’t get yourself in trouble, Liara,” the captain said.
     “Thanks for caring, Shepard.”
     “Would I ever not?” he asked.
     Liara smiled up at him.  “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
     Shepard smiled back and then held up a finger to his communicator.  “Joker.  It’s Shepard.  You there?”
     “Goddamn it’s good to hear your voice, sir!  We were getting a little worried when we tracked the shuttle’s signal to the center of Talat.  Tried to reach you on the secure channel relayed through it, but that went dead pretty quick.  We couldn’t get through the yahg jamming after that.  I take it things didn’t go as planned?”
     “You know me too well, Joker.”
     “That I do, Captain.  What’s the situation down there?”
     “After a few surprises and delays, the mission is still a go.  We lost a few people, but we can manage with who we have.”
     There was a moment of silence and then Shepard heard a bit of commotion of the link.  “. . . said I’ll ask him.  Hey!  Don’t make me sick EDI on you!”
     “Traynor?” Shepard asked.
     “No, it was Tinman,” Joker shot back sarcastically.  “He’s asking why you let his best friend get captured.  He’s really tight with that Kodiak.”
     “Ha ha,” Shepard deadpanned.
     “Yeah.  Traynor.  She’s been foaming at the mouth ever since she found out Allers was gone . . . she’s not, um-“
     “No.  She’s alive, but not for lack of trying.  It’s a damned good thing I brought Chakwas down with us, otherwise the news wouldn’t have been good.  Yahg opened her up across the chest.  Broken ribs, punctured lung.  Good thing she’s got two.  Missed the heart by millimeters.  And Traynor doesn’t need to know that right now.  Only that Allers is fine.”
     “Shit!  I mean: understood. . . no, she’s fine, Traynor.  Bumps and bruises.  Salarians took the worst of it,” Joker told the communication specialist, not even checking to verify that.  “Is that about it, Captain?” he asked, coming back to the conversation.
     “Yeah, and good guess.  Kirrahe lost an arm but is alive, a handful of his men dead or soon will be and a couple others injured but able to do light work.  You guys ready on your end?”
     “You bet.  Just give us the targets and when the fleet jumps in, these bastards won’t know what hit them.”
     “Copy that.  Wait for my word.  It should be within the day.  We need to organize our new army down here and then we’ll be ready for our three prong attack.”
     “Roger, Captain.  Normandy out.”
     Shepard ended the link and found Miranda watching him and waiting.  “Well?” she asked.  “Everything still good up there?”
     He nodded.  “Sounds like it.”
     “So they’re just waiting for us to do our part down here, huh?”
     “Same as always,” Shepard said with a smile.  “So let’s go get it done, Miss Lawson.”
     “Right behind you, Captain Shepard.”
* * * * 
     “. . . and so this collector is in control of the yahg?” Anderson asked Caretaker.
     “That is correct, Admiral.  This unit . . . I was deceived even though I had my suspicions.  Given my programming, my mission, and the damage dealt to me by the Rialusan herald, there was little I could do.”
     “Understood.  Now that we’ve repaired your communications array, where do we go from here?”
     “I thank you for that assistance, Admiral.  In return, as promised, you will be given those communication designs.  This technology, once implemented, will allow you to contact your allies and arrange for pick up.”
     “Any other help you can provide?” Jacob asked Caretaker, staring down the yellow hologram still bearing Shepard’s likeness.
     The hologram shook its head.  “You are asking about further technological advances.  At the present, I cannot, but-“
     “But?” Nahlyon interjected.
     “-but I am still uploading my logs to my counter-parts in the other galaxies and receiving theirs.  I wish to confirm the Rialusans’ defeat in all known locations before moving forward.”
     “Other galaxies?” Sooltir questioned.  “We never considered that the Reapers were in other galaxies . . . I guess we didn’t have the time to worry about that.”
     “Indeed,” Caretaker said.  “The Prothean empire, as widespread as it was, only dominated this galaxy, one of many.  The current cycle’s rules for leaving deactivated mass relays alone, similarly, has left you isolated from many other species who have suffered at the hands of the Rialusans as you have.  What’s more, had you merely defeated the threat on this front with conventional means in this galaxy, it would have bought you little reprieve.  As the other species in the other galaxies fell, those dormant relays would have been activated and the Rialusan forces in those galaxies would have been diverted here.  Maintaining control of the structure you call the Citadel was a key advantage and prevented an even larger immediate force from invading as this galaxy was deemed the highest of threats.”
     “And rightfully so, it would seem,” Kahlee Sanders mused.
     “Yes, so it would appear . . . communication complete.  All galaxies accounted for.”
     The team held a collective breath.
     “No Rialusans- no Reapers- remain alive.  In every galaxy they have been destroyed, though the losses in many of those galaxies were much higher than in this one.  While the death count was extremely high, the species that survived will all return to sustainable population growth, largely due to the actions of one human.”
     “Shepard,” Anderson stated without question.
     Caretaker nodded.  “The other galaxies had no such force to rally them and no help from previous cycle species as this galaxy has received from the Protheans, the Inusannon, and others.”  Caretaker paused, its countenance hardening in sorrow.  “There are far fewer species in existence in the other galaxies, now.”
     There was another moment of silence as everyone thought of those they knew that had been taken by the Reapers.
     “So what does this confirmation mean?” Brynn Cole asked. 
     “It means that my primary mission has been completed.  Secondary missions have been activated.”
     “Secondary missions?” Anderson asked.  “What secondary missions?”
     “Your original human ship that detected my signal twenty years ago noted many large objects that then retreated.  This was due to the sabotage of the Rialusan herald.”
     “Yes, I was wondering what those were, where they went,” Kasumi said, her interest evident in her voice.
     “Station Slenthix is part of a group of stations with one defensive ship capable of escorting the stations through what you might call . . . extreme FTL.  It was merely the outlier of the stations that you reached.  One of many duplicate facilities that house what the Rialusans believed they had themselves sought to save in a less than ideal fashion.”
     “All of the lost civilizations that the Reapers destroyed?” Nahlyon asked.  “You have them?”
     “We do not have them all.  But we have a great many.  Every species is unique, worth preserving.”
     “And your plan for them is what, exactly?” Anderson wanted to know.
     Caretaker was silent a moment.  “That is under debate.  My fellow caretaker programs are unsure, as am I, as to the answer of that question. We will consult our creators, if possible.  They have been slow to react for a very long time.  We caretaker units have even wondered if we are merely communicating with an even more advanced AI left behind to answer us.  Whatever the case, what we have decided on, until the creators answer our message, is that they cannot be returned to their original home worlds in their original systems.”
     “Why not?” Kasumi asked.
     “If for no other reason than many of their planets are no longer capable of supporting life.  Some have been destroyed.  Others are now home worlds or colonies to this cycle’s species.  Displacing them in exchange for the species that once owned those worlds would be no different than what the Rialusans have done to these species.  We have decided that we shall take them to a safe location that cannot be found until such time as we or the creators have found an appropriate solution.”
     “And what of your stations themselves or the ships docked here?” Kahlee asked.
     Caretaker turned to her and said,”The stations are ours and cannot be left to be exploited by any species.  The ships do not belong to us so it has been deemed within guidelines to leave them to you, but without our aid in understanding.”
     “So that other ship out there isn’t your defensive ship?” Anderson asked.
     “No, it is far too inferior to be of any use in that regard,” Caretaker answered.
     “That’s all well and good,” Jacob started,”but your station, your technology has already been exploited by this collector controlling the yahg.  What are we supposed to do about that?”
     “You are already doing something about that Jacob Taylor, however, the distinct advantages the Rialusan herald gained have been noted and concessions have been deemed within post-Rialusan guidelines.”
     “What concessions?”
     “We cannot give you technology which you are unable to fully comprehend or safely use, but given your current research areas, our predictive algorithms prove you will reach certain conclusions inevitably. Those conclusions we can help you reach on a much shorter timetable if only to offset what the herald has gained access to.  We have already traded our rudimentary communications designs in exchange for your help in repairing our communication link.  We have, in fact, used that to activate our other physical units which are modifying your shuttle’s communication systems with this upgrade as we speak.  There are only two other areas we can provide aid in.”
     “What areas of research are we talking about?” Sooltir asked, the scientist in her demanding the question be asked.
     “Master Sooltir Gelten, you will be most pleased.  Your particular research, that which the Inusannon also wished to gain aid in but were denied during their failing cycle, is one.”
     “Your civilizations often reference it, primitively, as singularity transit.”
     “Say what?” Jacob asked.
     “I believe the simplistic notion your people use is-“
     “Wormholes,” Brynn spouted excitedly.
     Sooltir nodded.
     Caretaker continued.  “You will find that the Inusannon vessel has much information to aid you with that, so the remaining locks we retained on that craft, as well as on the other, have been lifted.  In addition, you will find a single equation now solved that had been left unfinished in their files.  You will have to connect the two sets of data, yours and theirs, but it should take you little time to do that, where as the equation itself would have taken you a few decades.  Given the advantages of the herald, the one you know of as a collector, this will prove to be a military advantage once solved.”
     “And the other,” Anderson asked, feeling the time dragging, imaging the battle with the yahg on Sur’Kesh wearing on without them.
     “Your phenomenon, Captain Shepard, holds a second consciousness within his mind.”
     “He does,” Sooltir confirmed.  “The VI created by Master Paskek Vran.”
     “You already know that it is not a simple VI, Master Gelten,” Caretaker said.
     “I had my suspicions that it was a full AI.”
     “It is even more than that.  It is a hybrid artificial intelligence and actual consciousness.  Your Master Vran merged his own mind with his adaptive artificial intelligence.  We will provide the means of extracting that hybrid consciousness from the captain and your allied geth will doubtlessly be able to provide an artificial body to which it can be transferred until such time as resources can be pooled to grow a new physical body for him, should he desire it.  It will also help the ones you call the virtual aliens, as my records indicate an impasse in those developments.”
     “Something like that . . . if they’re still safe,” the admiral tacked on.
     “My indications are that their ship is still functional.  It was well hidden by your Council.  They are a very clever species we were unable to act to preserve, ourselves, as they were a species whose end was one of this cycle’s that was not brought about by Rialusan activity.”
     “The what?” Jacob asked.
     “Long story,” Anderson said.  “Classified by the Council.”
     “Amazing,” an astonished Sooltir whispered.
     “Yes, and with that, I must say goodbye.”
     “Goodbye?” Kahlee asked.
     “Yes.  I can offer nothing else, and my newly restored communication capability has brought reports showing your team is needed elsewhere.  Things have not gone as your coalition planned and your attention must turn to that.  For my part, I must now fully activate Station Slenthix and the rest of my facilities to carry out the secondary missions I am charged with.”
     Caretaker turned once more to Admiral Anderson and his yellow image changed into a much taller form, an alien that he and his team marveled at.  It’s body and face imparted the sense of a species both dominate and compassionate, at ease under any circumstance, be it the pursuit of knowledge or engaged in war.  “I leave you with a warning, Admiral David Anderson: there are many species that claim to be the first and are powerful in their own right, but any claim to being the best among all is as arrogant, deceitful, and blind as they are impressive.  Those that seek to instill a belief that they are to be treated as your gods, are less than you.  Those that seek to rule through might shall fall to it.  Even my creators, old as they are, mighty as they might be, do not know all, do not claim first-born, do not strike unless stricken, and know that many layers of the universe are yet unexplored by our kind.  Do not search for us.  We do not wish to be found.  We may come to you some day, when you are ready, should you survive until that day.”
     “What do your predictive algorithms say about that?”
     “They . . . are inconclusive.  I . . . am hopeful.”
     Caretaker vanished in a flash and the team found themselves back aboard their shuttle.
     Anderson took in the situation with an instant,”How in the hell?”
     “Incredible,” Brynn said in a muted voice.
     “Status?” David requested.
     Kahlee sat down at the controls and accessed the ship’s sensors.  “The shuttle is at one hundred percent, but. . . David . . .,” she whispered.
     He came closer to her.  “What is it, Kahlee?”
     “The signal is gone,” she answered and then ran another scan as a thought occurred to her.  “Check that: the entire station is gone.”
     “Just like that,” he stated, less than shocked.
     “Looks like.”
     “And the Inusannon and other alien ship?”
     “Still there.  Just sitting.”
     “Okay, we’ll get to those as soon as we can.  First, let’s see if Caretaker’s comm system works.  Cole, get a hold of Admiral Hackett.”
     “On it,” Brynn said from the co-pilot seat.  Her face contorted in frustration after only a few seconds.  “I think- I think we’re being jammed,” she finally said.
     “What?” Anderson asked.  “Damn it!  Pull up long range sensors!  Is that ship back?”
     “Negative, Admiral.  It looks like inbound messages to Earth are being blocked.  Not sure how this system works, but I can see ships, stations, and even ground bases in nearly every other system . . . I guess where we still have them.  Nothing out of the Sol system, though.”
     “‘Not according to plan’ barely covers it,” Anderson commented on Caretaker’s previous remark.  “Tell me, can you see the Normandy?”
     “Checking.  Yes, sir.”
     “Hail them.”
     “Connecting.”
     
* * * * 
     “Joker.”
     “Go ahead, Captain.”
     “We’re in position down here.  What about you?”
     “Targets are locked.  Waiting on your signal.”
     “Then go.  Now.  And as soon as the relay is clear, send the signal to the fleet.  Can’t afford to tip our hand, so hopefully the fleet has been holding through all our delays.”
     “No shit, Captain.  Tinman and crew are on their way.  You’ve got three minutes and counting.”
     “Copy that.”
     “You guys are clear, right?  I don’t want any of those clouds kicking up in a few minutes to be one of your teams.”
     “We’re good, Joker.  Moving out in ninety seconds.”
     “Roger that.”
* * * * 
     
     “Shepard out.”
     Shepard silenced his radio contact with the Normandy and looked at the virtual watch on his omni-tool.  The seconds ticked by at a painfully slow pace and the Spectre found himself holding his breath.  A minute and half later, he signaled his team to move forward.  They swept out in a spread formation from their hidden position at the edge of a tree line only a short sprint away from the perimeter of a minor shipyard.  The area was dominated by small cruisers, frigates and fighter craft from the yahg fleet, but the base’s contingent of salarian ships still sat off to one side.
     “James: Rocket launcher on those fueling tanks!” Shepard ordered, pointing out a central station surrounded by a contingent of the larger ships.  “Javik: Grenade on that squad!  The rest of you, pick your targets and let’s take this air field!  And remember: keep the salarian ships safe!”  Jack, Vega, Liara, Wrex, and Miranda followed Shepard as he initiated the attack.  An incinerating blast, launched from his omni-tool, seared into the face of a yahg battalion leader just turning to see what had tripped the proximity alarms.  The alien warrior fell to his knees with an anguished wail, clawing at the flames melting the flesh off his face.  His soldiers scattered, some diving for cover, some running headlong into a hail of gunfire.  The others returned fire in an uncoordinated attack.
     “Just like the files say: pack mentality,” Shepard realized.  “And every pack needs an alpha wolf,” he thought.  He switched on the secured link to his team.  “Take out their commanders first!”  The Normandy crew acknowledged the directive and the yahg forces were soon a sad, chaotic mess of unchecked defenders.  
     Shepard ducked behind a power generator and connected to the other team leaders who were conducting simultaneous attacks on other such facilities across Sur’Kesh.  “Get ready for it,” he broadcast.  They replied in the affirmative and Shepard switched to Joker’s channel.  “Status?”
     
* * * * 
     “Got ’em just where we want ’em, Captain,” Joker replied, a delighted grin on his face.  His hand flew rapidly from control to control, panel to panel, at the Normandy’s helm, piloting the warship around yahg ships and firing bursts of energy that exploded at calculated distances to overwhelm the enemies’ sensors.  “Tinman.  Confirm.”
     “Confirmed, Joker.  Ordinance has remained undetected.  Impact in three seconds.  Targets cannot counter.  Suggest pulling back to safe distance,” the geth prime responded.
     “Acknowledged.  You get that, Shepard?”
     “Copy that, Joker.”
     The Normandy broke off the attack and as the blinding barrage cleared, it was instantly replaced by a massive field of asteroids guided by a sphere shaped eezo field formed by three rocket propelled generators.  Guarding this collection of devices was Tinman.  His geth compatriots directed separate swarms towards the larger targets on Sur’Kesh.  
     Tinman joined the Normandy in retreating to a safe distance as the generators switched off, unleashing a hurtling wall of rock that smashed into an unprepared yahg fleet of capital ships.  The salvo, extracted by the geth’s quick work in the Pranas system’s asteroid belt, bombarded the yahg armada, ripping the dangerous ships apart in a multi-explosion display that lit up the star speckled blackness of space around the system’s mass relay.  
     “And now just to make sure,” Joker commented, firing a wave of Javelin missiles into the fray.  The Normandy’s last battering of munitions finished the job.  The final asteroids were reduced to nothing more than dust upon impact with the enemy.  Dying yahg ships became nothing more than jagged and twisted fragments of metal, twirling and colliding in the silent vacuum of the universe.  Joker radioed to Shepard back on Sur’Kesh.  “Target’s destroyed, Captain.  The relay is clear of the enemy!”
     “Nice work.  It did a hell of a lot down here, too.  I can see those clouds of destruction you were mentioning for miles.  Send the signal to the fleet, Joker.  And make it quick!  We need to nail what’s left of their fleet before they can get the remaining heavies off the ground to come after us.”
     “On it,” the pilot assured his commanding officer.  He turned and nodded to EDI who did the same before engaging the QEC comm system.
     “Normandy to Coalition fleet, this is Joker-“
     “Jeff!” EDI cut him off abruptly.
     “EDI, we need to contact-“
     “We can’t.”
     “What?” Joker cried.
     “The signal to the Sol system is being blocked!”
   
* * * * 
     Shepard listened to the exchange between Joker and EDI play out, still linked in over his direct channel to the Normandy.  A sick feeling grew heavy in the pit of his stomach and his head dropped to his chest.
     “Son of bitch!”

Mass Effect 4: New Masters, Chapter 14

Chapter 14

     Captain Mark Mastoon sat in his desk chair, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shattered leg.  “Damn Alliance bitch,” he cursed as he looked down at the makeshift splint that the Cerberus leader had whipped together.  “Need to find a doctor on my next trip back to Omega,” he told himself.
     “Mastoon, the ship is destroyed?” asked a dark face with yellow eyes.  The inquiry came from the captain’s private terminal in his quarters aboard the Retribution, an exact duplicate of the Normandy SR-2 frigate.  Mastoon had spent a considerable amount of the funds he had stolen from Cerberus, after escaping during his failed coup, to build it.  Now the Retribution was the flagship for the terrorist organization he had assumed control of after the death of the Illusive Man at Shepard’s hands.  The group had been devastated by the Alliance attack months ago, and with its leader gone, it had been an easy void to fill for the opportunistic Mastoon.  However, with Cerberus funds and resources wrecked, he knew he would have to use the alien races.  He would play one off of the other to weaken them all while humanity, and Cerberus, rebuilt.

     One such alien stared up at him from his terminal’s screen, questioning the captain from an unknown location, hiding in safety while it directed a wide spread military campaign.  
     “Yes, the Kilkenny is no more.  But I still don’t understand what was so important about one random ship orbiting a gas giant.”
     “I do not need to explain my reasons to you, human.  You attack the targets I desire and I provide you with the advanced technology you desire.”
     “I know the deal, collector.  Now tell me where to pick up the next package.”
     “Also, there has been a setback in the Arghos Rho sector that needs your attention.  I will send you the details.”
     “I’ll check it out as soon as I get the location for the next package,” Mastoon said, irritated with the creature.
     “Transmitting data location and the Arghos Rho information now.”
     “These are the medical advances I asked for?”
     “It is.  Do you suddenly doubt me, Mastoon?” the guiding hand of the yahg asked.
     “Nothing sudden about it.  I don’t trust any alien.”
     “So you keep saying, but here you and I are.”
     “Mastoon out,” the Retribution’s captain stated, mashing the communicator’s off button to cut short the conversation.
     Mastoon stood carefully and limped to the elevator, taking it down to the command level where he was approached by his subordinate, Shanklin.  The younger man handed a report to the captain.  Mastoon read over it and a small smile cracked through the pained grimace of his face.
     “Shouldn’t we report that to the collector?” Shanklin asked.
     “Why in the hell would we do that?  He gave us specific orders and we followed them.  This . . . this we’ll keep an eye on and see what comes of it.”
     “Understood, sir,” the man said.
     Mastoon entered new information into the data pad and handed it back.  “We’ll go pick this up and then head to Arghos Rho.  Let’s get moving.”
* * * * 
     
     “Sir?”
     A hand gently nudged his shoulder.  A thick hazy fog blurred his vision as he blinked heavy eye lids.  The old officer lifted his head up from his desk, the interactive surface still displaying positions of yahg forces across the static image of the ubiquitous galaxy map that was standard on every space faring ship.
     “What . . . what is it, Serviceman?”
     There was a pause as Taggart looked down at the report in her hands.  The hesitation in the reliably confident young woman was worrisome to the Alliance leader as his eyes focused on her.  “It’s the Kilkenny . . . Admiral, she’s gone.”
     Hackett sat up, a pounding headache throbbing in his skull.  “What?”
     “Report from one of the Rachni.  The last communication from their . . . person on the cruiser says ‘our brother sang his last song.  The choir of the Kilkenny has been silenced.  It cries silent in our ears, warning of unexpected betrayal’. The transmission ends there.”
     “What about the Kilkenny’s TRB?  What did that data tell us?”
     Taggart eyed the admiral with a concerned expression.  “Sir, without the mass relays, we have no real-time feedback on any ship not equipped with a QEC.  The Termination Report Burst would have no way of reaching us in our lifetime.”
     Hackett shook his head.  “Of course.  You’re right, Natalie.  Just shaking off the sleep.”  He took in his desk with a sweep of his arm.  “Up too late burning the midnight oil, again.”
     “Of course, Admiral,” the young woman said, unconvinced.
     “Dismissed, Taggart.”
     The communication specialist did not leave.
     “Oh for love of . . . there’s more bad news, isn’t there?”
     “Page two, Admiral.”
     Hackett scanned the report from Sur’Kesh that Lieutenant Vega had sent back.  “Fucking hell.  Shepard MIA . . . Kirrahe critically wounded . . .  Allers . . . three more salarians.  Jesus.  Anything else?” he asked looking up pleadingly.
     “No, Admiral Hackett,” Taggart answered quietly, as disheartened by the news as her superior was.
     “Then return to your post, officer . . . and let me know the second you hear anything else out of Sur’Kesh.  Our campaign hinges on taking that planet.”
     “Sir,” Natalie said, then turned and left quietly.
     Hackett looked down to his right and saw the broken shards of glass from the bottle he had dropped after finishing it before passing out at some point in the early morning hours.  He grimaced at the hangover still racking his brain and pulled out his pills as he looked once more to the somber report.  He slammed his fist on the desk.
     “Damn it, David!”
* * * * 
     Jeluna S’Fara sat in a sparse room aboard the Destiny Ascension monitoring communications throughout the coalition fleet gathered around Earth.  The reports were beginning to trickle in and the news those reports brought was sowing doubt and unrest among the fleet captains and too many of the admirals for the Spectre’s comfort.  Shepard had been captured on Sur’Kesh, Admiral Anderson’s cruiser destroyed by an unknown attacker and Jeluna’s own sources told her of Admiral Hackett’s increasing seclusion.  The asari had followed a paper trail of receipts through aliases and third parties moving shipments of addictive pain killers and strong alcoholic beverages that all ended up aboard the admiral’s flagship.
     “Not good,” S’Fara thought to herself.
     Blue lights came alive along the walls of the Destiny Ascension, the typical signal that the dreadnought was about to go through a mass relay.  With only one relay known to be working, it was now assumed as the sign that the mass amplifier was about to be engaged to serve the same function.
     “That is definitely not good,” Jeluna said aloud.  She could already guess what was happening as her fleet tracking software showed all modified asari warships going blue as well.  The Spectre quickly forwarded the report with a brief message to Admiral Hackett, the Normandy AI, EDI, and the only human Spectre she knew was still alive, on board the Eden Prime. 
     “Goddess, I hope Ashley gets this.  Everything may come to rest on her shoulders the way things stand now.”
     The Destiny Ascension headed at full speed towards the Charon relay.
* * * * 
     James waved back the salarian coming up behind him. 
     “Are you sure this plan will work, Lieutenant Vega?” Honwol asked.
     “Keep quiet,” James whispered.  “Yahg,” he added, pointing around the corner of the building.  The salarian nodded in understanding and lowered his gun to one side and pulled a glowing knife from a hidden pocket of his armor.  He tapped a button on his wrist and suddenly vanished.
     “Just give me a moment, Lieutenant,” the salarian requested in a hushed voice.
     The marine held his assault rifle at the ready, his body leaning up against the outer wall of a building on the edge of the salarian capital city of Talat.  A pair of yahg walked down an alley between that building and the next one over, on an apparent patrol.  Their path was about to bring them right past Vega and the surviving members of the team sent to spearhead Sur’Kesh’s retaking who had not been left behind with Chakwas tending to their wounds.  Behind the cloaked Honwol waited Jack, Miranda, Wrex, Javik and Liara, followed by another Sur’Kesh native.
     Vega held up an empty hand, signaling the Shadow Broker’s cloaked operative to wait.  The yahg came closer with the harsh, choppy inflections of their native language echoing between the buildings.  Suddenly, they both stopped in mid-sentence, their heads swiveling, their noses in the air.
     “Shit!” Vega hissed.  He dropped his arm forward and felt a breeze on his face as the invisible salarian rushed around the corner.  Vega watched for a sign, some way of tracking his comrade, but the cloak was complete.  The first yahg was caught only somewhat by surprise, lifting an arm up to try and block the incoming attack.  He was too slow.  The tip of the salarian’s blade was just long enough to reach past the defending arm and reach the monster’s throat.  Dark colored blood leaked downwards and the yahg grabbed at the open wound.     
     The other yahg, recovered from the surprise of the assault, grabbed Honwol without hesitation and flung the small alien through the air.
     “Damn!” Vega yelled, rushing into the alley.  “They can see us cloaked!”  He managed to barely make it, throwing his body in the path of where he thought the salarian was flailing helplessly towards a deadly crash with the sharp end of an exposed and broken piece of conduit from a demolished building nearby. “Liara!  Stop these bastards!” Vega shouted a breath before an unseen body slammed into him.
     “On it!” she replied.  A biotic glow sprang into place, encompassing the two yahg in an inescapable stasis field.  Wrex walked up to them, picked up the salarian’s dropped knife and plunged it deep into their throats and then dragged it downwards until he was sure he had hit something vital.
     “Really?” Vega asked, climbing to his feet and helping the now uncloaked salarian up as well.
     “Hey, do you know where their heart is?  I don’t.  Didn’t take the time to study them during the fighting on Mars.” 
     “Alright, alright,” he conceded.  “Let’s keep moving.  We need to find out where Shepard is being held and break him out.  No telling what they’ve done with him for the last couple days.”
     “The way they broke off the attack after they . . . after they took him,” Miranda said, choking up,”he was clearly their true target.  There must be a reason.”
     Liara put a hand on Miranda’s back.  “He’ll be okay, Miranda.  They probably intended to question him for our battle plans.  But you know the Captain.  He won’t give in.”
     “That’s what worries me.  If you’re useless, they don’t need to keep you around.”
     “We shall rescue Shepard, Miranda Lawson,” Javik assured her.
     “Damn straight,” Vega said.
     “And my enslaved people,” the recovering Honwol reminded the lieutenant, the now ranking Alliance soldier leading the team in Shepard’s absence.
     “Yeah yeah, I know the plan.  I came up with it, remember?”
     “Of course, Lieutenant.  I will lead you to the concentration camp that I scouted out yesterday.  These yahg were part of the garrison at that location.  This chance encounter will improve our odds of success.”
     “Yeah, since it just taught us we don’t have cloaking on our side anymore.”
     “Those eight eyes had to be good for seeing something,” Jack said, joining the conversation.
     “These yahg are most impressive predators,” Javik added.”
     “Impressive or not, that would have been bad to find out at the camp,” James replied.  He patted the salarian on his shoulder.  “Lead the way, Frisbee.”
     Honwol gave Vega an inquisitive look and said,”Frisbee?” 
          
* * * * 
     Ashley stood on the CIC deck of the SSV Eden Prime, waiting to reach the next shut down relay to continue their path to Omega Station to dislodge Cerberus from their new headquarters.  The light on the terminal near the galaxy map began to blink, indicating a new message.  She walked over and pulled up her messages.  There was one from the Spectre Jeluna S’Fara.  Ashley began to read the short comment accompanying the asari fleet movement report.  Before she could get a sick feeling in her stomach over what conclusion her brain was fighting to show to, another message came in from the Turian Spectre Danlar Cidran.  Then there was a third message from Jondum.  Then another.  And another.
     “All the Spectres . . . ” she said.  They were all reporting the same thing from each of the non-human fleets.  “Son of a . . .”
* * * * 
     “. . . bitch!” Hackett finished his thought after reading the Spectre reports coming in from Ashley.  From his ship’s position, orbiting above Earth, Admiral Hackett could see from his window the tiny reflections of light disappear one by one.  “And I thought losing a Spectre and an Admiral was a bad day . . .”
     
* * * *

     Kahlee steered the Kodiak through the silent wreckage of the Kilkenny.  The shuttle sensors scanned for signs of life, but every passing second brought all on board closer to accepting reality.
     “Anything?” Anderson asked earnestly. 
     Kahlee shook her head.
     “God damn it!  Where the hell did they come from?  How did they know we were even here?”
     “I’d like to know when Cerberus built a second Normandy,” Kasumi said.  “Would have been helpful against the collectors and Reapers.”
     “You ever hear about it while you were with them?” Coats asked Jacob.
     Jacob shook his head.  “No.”
     “What about this guy, Mastoon?  Ever run into him when you were part of that group?” Brynn asked.
     “Heard of him?  Yeah.  Never met him, though.  He was gone before I joined up.  They said he was just the latest in a line of overly ambitious fools.  Thought he had outsmarted the Illusive Man and attempted a coup.  He managed to survive the resulting battle, but ended up retreating into the Terminus System and was never heard from again.  Guess we assumed he’d learned his lesson.”
     “Well I’d guess that he maintained some sort of contact within the organization,” Anderson said.  “Someone must have fed him the designs for the SR-2.”
     “Agreed,” Jacob said.
     “This is all interesting,” Nahlyon began,”but it does not help our situation.  We now have only this shuttle which does not have the mass amplifier we need to return to your Earth.”
     “That’s another thing,” Coats said.  “How did this second Normandy get out here at all?  The only ships that have one of those were either retrofitted by our coalition . . . or created by the yahg.”
     “Think this Mastoon might have made a deal with them?” Anderson asked.
     Coats shrugged.  “How else can you explain it?”
     “True,” Anderson said.  “But Nahlyon is right.  We’re stranded unless we figure something out.  Without our Rachni ally on the Kilkenny, we’ve got no way to send out a distress call that will be heard in a thousand years.”

     “What about Feros?  It’s close by,” Jacob suggested.
     “But they would have the same problems.  No real-time communications with the fleet and no mass amps,” Kahlee countered.
     “We could search the ships at Slenthix,” Brynn offered.  “They might have advanced communication systems that could reach back to Admiral Hackett.”
        “Good thinking, Cole,” Anderson acknowledged.  He took a long last look at the wreckage.  “May they rest in peace . . . take us back to the station, Kahlee.  Let’s see if we can send for help.”
        Back on the station, Caretaker greeted the crew at the entrance to the docks.  “You have my condolences, Admiral David Anderson.  The loss of one’s crew and ship is never easy on those left behind, especially on their leader.  It is something I have been witness to on many occasions.  Only the truly worthless are unaffected.  What’s more, my assessment of your situation is very dire. You are stranded on an alien station, hidden to any passing ship and with no sustenance or communications.  The nearby planet of Feros could provide food, but little else.”
     “I don’t suppose there’s any help you can offer us with any of that, is there?” David asked.
     The yellow human-shaped interface paused.  “Considering possibilities,” Caretaker said. “Options exist given available physical presence and materials.”
     “What possibilities are those?” Sooltir asked.
     “Communication, for one.  My systems require repair to components damaged when the last visitor to Station Slenthix attacked upon being locked out of our systems.  While destroying many large structures nearby that were redundant, the truly detrimental loss was to  components of my main communication relay.  Repair to these components would be mutually beneficial.”
     “In what way?” Kahlee asked.
     “I have been out of contact with . . . others for twenty years.  Since your arrival, having accessed data available through your ships, I have learned new information that significantly affects my original purpose.”
     Jacob walked over, crossing his arms.  “Which is?”
     “Monitoring Rialusan activity and providing assistance to their enemies, when possible, without allowing the technology of our station or our ship to be discovered.  Had they captured our stations, our ships, our scientific knowledge, the balance of power in this universe would have been drastically altered in their favor.”
     “In their favor?” Nahlyon exclaimed.  “They’ve destroyed countless species and dominated for millions and millions of years!  How is the ‘balance of power’ not already in the Reapers’ favor?”
     “And who is this ‘we’ you keep referring to?” Brynn asked.
     “I refer to those my people left behind.  I was not the only caretaker left to watch after the evolution of this tiny section of the universe, though I am one of the few left.  The Rialusan were relentless in pursuit of my people, but they are not nearly as advanced as they like to believe.  However, they did adapt to our safety measures, causing us to enact our failsafe policies, a few of which you have seen the results.”
     “The destroyed planets?” Sooltir asked.
     Caretaker nodded.  “Yes.  My fellow AIs were close to being captured and that is unacceptable.  Keeping our people out of danger is our prime concern.  Self destruction is preferable to giving the Rialusan any further advantages or information of our species.”
     “What species created you?” Anderson asked.  “What happened to them?”
     “Further questions of my creators may not be answered at this time.  Please consider repairing my long range communications array as destruction of the Rialusans may result in more available information.”
     Anderson was getting tired of running in what he knew was going to be a circular conversation at this point.  The AI was not going to answer anything useful until its requested repairs were made.  “So what do we need to fix, where is it, and what materials will we need?”
     “I will transfer the information to your omni-tool devices.  You will find the components, locations, and needed parts in the data.  I will know when you have completed the task.  I thank you in advance for your help in this matter, Admiral.  You will find that this action will further your goals as well.  To repair this technology it has been deemed appropriate and safe to transfer knowledge of our communications systems.”
     “I guess that’s something.  What about repairing your physical body?”
     “Further action on that will depend on information gathered after restoration of full communications.”
     Anderson motioned to his crew as he walked away from the yellow Shepard.  “I think I prefer the ones I can shoot,” he thought.  His human and Prothean team gathered around him, awaiting instructions.  “Alright, people, check your omni-tools.
     Anderson brought up his omni-tool display and looked at the needed items.  “Okay, some of this we can pull from the shuttle, but the rest we’ll need to pull from what’s on hand here.  We’ll split into three teams.  Team 1 will go to that mother ship out there.  Team 2 will take the Inusannon ship.  Team 3 will search the station itself.  Keep your eyes open for what we need and anything else we can easily scan or maybe take with us.  We don’t have time to spare covering every square inch while the yahg are tearing us to pieces.  Once we get back to the fleet, we’ll send a research team out to do things properly and we’ll gain untold advances, from the looks of it.  But those will only come if we can make it back to Earth, so that’s the priority.  Let’s go.”
* * * * 
     “Captain Shepard.”
     Shepard’s eyes opened to the sound of his voice.  He felt his bare body lying on a cold metal table.
     “Well this is familiar,” he thought, remembering waking up similarly aboard a Cerberus station with a beautiful brunette looking down on him in brief moments of consciousness after two years of lifeless dark.  He remembered a cold table, but a warm smile, a smile he desperately wished he was seeing right now.  He tried to sit up, but biting metal clamps at his neck, wrists, and ankles stopped him.
     “Prepare yourself, Shepard.  He is coming back.”
     “Who’s coming back, Vendetta?” the captured Spectre asked.
     “The true enemy.  Further study to determine the exact nature of the individual is required.”
     The captain picked up on the implication.  “It’s not the yahg?”
     He was answered only with,”He comes,” and then Vendetta was silent.
     Shepard used his peripheral vision as best he could to take in his surroundings.  The room was small, dark, and had a single small window high in the wall, almost near the ceiling.  A rising sun’s light was just starting to slip over the bottom edge of the window frame.  He could not see the door into the room which stood in the wall at the head of his tabletop prison.
     The door hissed open and Shepard strained to see the newcomer.
     “The great Commander Shepard,” said a voice with an alien tone that Shepard recognized immediately.
     “It’s Captain, now, actually.  I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of making your acquaintance.”
     A small cold object touched Shepard’s head and sharp jolts of electricity blasted through his body.  “There is no pleasure to be had, Captain,” his attacker stated flatly.
     Shepard clenched his fists and his jaw, holding in the cry begging to come out.  The surge stopped and his heart pounded furiously.  He fought to bring his body under control through the torture techniques he had to dust off from the recesses of his mind.  “Thought I knew all of your kind in this cycle,” he said, spitting the words out between heavy breaths.
     “My kind, Shepard?  What kind is that?”
     “You think just because you’re out of my sight I can’t tell you’re Prothean?”
     The unseen collector laughed.  “You presume and honor me, Shepard.  If only I were one of that pinnacle of the cosmic imperative, that greatness.”  
     The collector walked around the table, into Shepard’s view.  The marine’s brow furrowed in question.  “You’re . . . a collector?  I thought all of the Reaper ground forces were destroyed by the Crucible.”
     “Only those infused with Reaper technology were killed off.”
     “But collectors were exactly that.  Mordin proved it.”
     “Yes, a very intelligent salarian.  But what if, somehow, the Reaper parts were to be removed?  What would happen then?”
     Shepard looked at the collector harder after that comment.  He did notice slight differences from the other collectors he had wiped out by destroying their base beyond the Omega 4 Relay.  He had initially chalked it up to never spending too much time studying the enemy while gunning them down, but now he saw more similarities with Javik than his former Terminus System foes.  “I’m no medical expert, but my understanding is that most organics die without internal organs.”
     “Your sarcasm is noted, but you’re words are true enough.  I, luckily, was given an alternative to death when I came across a hidden treasure of the galaxy. It is because of that discovery that I stand here before you, now, not quite Prothean, but not exactly the mindless collector, either.”
     “You gonna bore me with your autobiography or are you going to tell me what it is you want from me?” Shepard demanded.  
     “From you?  I have what I want from you, Spectre.”
     “Really, because I don’t remember you questioning me or doing much more than tickling me with your little noisemaker, there.”
     The collector’s reply was another shock from his hand held device.  Shepard’s body arched upwards and shook at a blurring speed, but no outburst made it’s way to his lips.
     “What I want, human, is to see you and your allies crushed under my army.  Then you will be allowed to survive, in small numbers, long enough to witness the rebirth of an empire.  Then you will die.”
     “A yahg empire?  With you in charge?”
     “The yahg are a necessary evil.  A mere tool to be used.  I will usher in the return of the Prothean Empire, but I will not rule it.  I need to simply reignite the embers that were left behind by my former masters.  Advanced, powerful, dominating: all words that describe the Reapers.  Do you want to know what word does not describe them, Captain?”
     “I get the sneaking suspicion you’re going to tell me.”
     “The word is ‘perfect’.  They missed things, intentionally or not, I do not care, and at this point, it no longer matters.  Their failures were my opening.  And my chance finding will be the path to this cycle’s subjugation to a power not seen in fifty thousand years.”
     Shepard made it a point to let the torturer see his eyes rolling.  “Typical. A maniacal enemy with a twist of insanity and an impossible goal not based in reality.  Why do they always have to find me?” he wondered aloud.  
     He almost smiled as another searing flood of pain wracked his body.
     “You do not disappoint, Shepard.  But you also do not comprehend.  You see your limited piece of the puzzle, as you humans say, but I see it all.  You do not see the plan I set in motion and have worked tirelessly on for centuries.  It is now coming to fruition in perfect order.”
     “Infest every planet with yahg.  Good plan.  And then bring back a dead empire with what? Three Protheans, two of which would rather tear each others’ throats out than make up?  You’ve got it all figured out.  It’s genius.  Don’t know why I didn’t see it before.”
     “Your attempts at provoking me with mockery grow tiresome, Shepard.”
     “And you’re putting me to sleep with the master plan, here, jackass.  Why don’t you just keep spilling all of your brilliance on the floor to I can pick up the grand design and how we all play into it, exactly.”
     “You take me for a common fool?  You believe I am revealing too much by accident?  Shepard, what I am giving you are the final words you will ever hear.  I figured you deserved to die knowing that you have been a key component of my victory.”
     “So you had the yahg attack my team, drag me off, and bring me here- instead of just killing me- so that you could tell me that and then kill me?  Really?  You could use a class or two in time management or handling priorities.”
     The collector ignored him.  “By defeating the Reapers, you eliminated the single most difficult obstacle in my way.  You will be written about in the history records of the Protheans to come and you will be remembered as a great figure, despite being on the opposing side.”
     “I’m flattered.  Really, but could you just get this over with?  I haven’t had to put up with this much talking since my second high school girlfriend.”
     The collector raised the device in front of his face and studied it for a moment in thought.  He then looked down at Shepard with an almost sad look on his face.  He lowered the device next to the captain’s head.  
     “As you wi-“
     The wall near Shepard’s feet exploded with a concussive blast that threw debris everywhere and knocked the collector to the ground.  He quickly rolled over, pushed himself up, and ran out of the room, back through the door he had entered from.  It closed behind him and Shepard was left with light pouring through the shattered wall, the rays of the sun creating a myriad of shafts streaking through the settling dust.  
     A figure stepped into the light with a gun shoved forward, scanning for enemies.  Dark, medium length hair whipped over shoulders as the clearly human female searched the area quickly.  Convinced, for the moment, that the premises was safe, she lowered her gun and stepped into a clear line of sight.  The warm smile Shepard had yearned for greeted his eyes.
     “Again, Shepard?  What is it with you and me and you on a table?  Project Lazarus, after the victory on the Citadel, and now this.”
     “I thought women liked a little reliability in their men,” Shepard joked.
     “Uh huh,” Miranda said, shaking her head.  “Let me get you out of those restraints.”
     “You sure?” her incapacitated lover asked with a wink.
     “Really?  How can you think of that at a time like this?” the biotic asked as she found the release button and freed the Normandy’s leader.
     Shepard sat up, ignoring his pain, and pulled Miranda into a kiss.  “I think about it every time I see your beautiful face, Miranda.”
     She smiled and touched his face with her free hand.
     “Damn, Loco, put some clothes on man!  What were they doing to you in here?” Vega said loudly as he suddenly stepped into view.  He held up his hands, an assault rifle smoking in one of them, and said,”Nevermind.  I don’t think I want to know.  Let’s get him out of here, Ice,” he told Miranda.  “Or it’ll be hell to get back out of here.  Even with the yahg chasing after Liara and Javik leading that prisoner uprising.”
     “Ice?” Shepard asked, accepting Miranda’s help getting up from the table.      
     “Yeah, man,” James confirmed. “That woman, under pressure and in the middle of battle- nerves of steel.  Nothing gets to her . . . and she’s always wearing white.”
     “Of course,” Shepard said.  He looked around the room and saw his equipment shoved into a corner, piled haphazardly.  He walked over to his belongings, bent over to pick it up, and heard another friendly voice.
     “I can die a happy girl, now,” Jack said.  “That ass is just as nice as I thought,” she added with a laugh.  
     Shepard stood and turned around with the upper body armor in his hands.  “Ever heard of a little privacy, Jack?” he asked.
     “Sure I have, Shepard.  Never respected it, but I’ve heard of it,” she replied with a wink.
     Vega shot Jack a dirty look, as did Miranda.  Jack ignored Miranda and just waved off James.  “What?  Don’t get all high and mighty with me now.  Just admiring the view.  You think I haven’t noticed you admiring asses other mine, Meat head?”  Jack glanced over at Miranda and then back to Vega and both crew members turned away with red cheeks.  “Exactly.  As long as I’m the one you come to see at night . . . I won’t have to kill you.”
     Shepard laughed weakly and shook his head, still drained from the effects of the torture device.  After a few shaky minutes, with a little help from Miranda, he was back in his black and red armor and checking his guns. 
     “How did you all get here so quickly?  And where exactly is here, anyway?”
     Vega looked from Jack to Miranda and then to Shepard.
     “What?” the captain asked.
     “They brought you straight to Talat, but Loco, how long do you think it’s been since you were captured?”
     The marine got the impression his answer was about to be wrong.  “A day, maybe?  They knocked me out in the fight and I woke up here maybe an hour ago.  It can’t have been that long.”   
     “Try two days, Shepard,” Miranda said.
     “What?”
     “It’s true,” Jack said.  “Took us a while to regroup and then it took more time while Meat head worked this crazy rescue idea into the original plan.”
     Shepard turned to Vega.  “You got me out of this, James?”
     “Ah, it was nothing, Captain.  Plus we gained that extra help along the way.”
     “Really?”
     “Yeah.  But we can talk about it later.  Our resistance forces taking on the yahg need a leader.  You.  So we need to move.”
     “Resistance forces?  The prisoners?”
     Miranda nodded.  “Yes.  One raided barracks later and prisoners become quite a well trained fighting force against a surprised enemy.”
     “I can imagine,” Shepard said.
     “Just glad they didn’t torture the plans out of you sir,” Vega said, half joking.
     “Pretty hard to do that when they never even asked me any questions.”
     “What?” It was Miranda’s turn to question.  “They had you for two days and never asked you anything?”
     Shepard shook his head.  “I just woke up, remember?  Some collector came in and decided to give away his whole plan because he was about to kill me.  Luckily you all showed up just in time.”
     “Collector?” Jack asked.  “Thought they were wiped out with the Reapers.”
     “Yeah, well, this one is different, and I gather that he’s the only one like him, but we can talk about it when there’s a better time.”
     “True, Loco,” Vega said.  “We need to get back to the operations base we set up before the path we cleared closes back up.”
     “Lead the way, Lieutenant,” Shepard told Vega.
     “You got it, Captain.”
     

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!”