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The Catalyst for Revenge

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The Catalyst for Revenge
Prologue - The Deal

=====

Shepard looked up at the sky. It was black with ships and a grim smile was on his features.

They had come. Just as Saren had promised they would. The Reapers. They were around Earth. And the only people on Earth these days were Humans.

“Harbinger!” He screamed, baring his teeth. He’d learned a few things from Sovereign and Saren before they died and the name of the Reaper leader was one. “Harbinger!”

He had no idea how they heard him but the black ships paused. He waited, watching the sky as they moved. It was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen and he grinned when one ship descended from their mass. The ship was large and four glowing lights lit its front. It was indistinguishable from the others but Shepard knew this was Harbinger.

“Organic.”

“Harbinger,” Shepard greeted the huge vessel as it descended through the atmosphere. It grew bigger and bigger in his vision and he resisted the urge to take a step back. He knew how large ships were but somehow this Reaper was larger than it should be.

“What do you want mortal?” The Reaper leader asked as the black form came to a rest in front of Shepard.

“I want to make a deal.”

“And why should I deal with you?” Harbinger asked, and Shepard watched as the Reaper Leader’s weapons tracked on to him.

For a moment Shepard was silent. The Reapers had no real reason to deal with him, with Humanity but if Harbinger, either in arrogance or out of some sense of superiority, was willing to talk, then he was willing to try. Shepard fixed his eyes on Harbinger, ignoring the weapons that could no doubt vaporise him instantly. “Because I destroyed your Vanguard and I can give you this cycle.”

The Reaper was silent for a moment before it replied. “This cycle is already mine. The species are split.”

“No,” Shepard disagreed. “They’re not.”

“Yet here you are, Human, all alone on your planet,” Harbinger taunted.

Shepard closed his eyes, briefly looking to the ground, memories streaming through his mind. He knew Harbinger was humoring him with this conversation but Shepard would make that enough. The Reapers would deal with them. “Of course we are,” he agreed because the taunt was nothing but the truth. The only alien ships in the Sol System were the Reapers. “Because they don’t consider us one of them. They never did.”

They’d fought so hard. Against Saren, against Sovereign. They couldn’t save the Council. He’d wanted to but they had to destroy Nazara. He’d explained. He’d been patient. But they wouldn’t see it. Quentius understood it was a military decision and Shepard thought he believed in the Reapers but Esheel and Irissa heard nothing. They were somewhat grateful for their promotion but they were quick to blame him for Saren’s death, and the wreck on the Citadel, diverting attention from their own rise to power. And in blaming him, they’d blamed the whole of Humanity. Any chance they’d had was gone. Two to one, the Council had turned on him, on them all. He would have taken whatever punishment they wanted to inflict alone but they had turned on all Humans, and no matter how Quentius understood, the rest of the Turians had only been waiting for the opportunity to restart the First Contact War and the other galactic races...

That had been the hardest to bear. That so many races had turned against them. The Alliance had expected the Quarians to accept the Council offer of a dextro-amino world. Instead, the Migrant Fleet had ran. They had abandoned their Pilgrims, and Tali, in favour of saving their entire race. After three centuries living in space, denied colonisation rights, their leaders had no faith in the Council and they’d seen what they were already doing to the Alliance. Better to vanish than to be trapped when the Council turned on them, too.

As for the Krogan, well, Wrex had come out publicly in favour of the Alliance. In response, the Council had blockaded Tuchanka, even leaving a dreadnought on guard above the new crater that had been Clan Urdnot’s home. As pointed messages go, this was one of the more direct on record. Krogans living off Tuchanka were strongly encouraged to return ‘home’, often at gunpoint.

Although they were alone and only for a time, Humanity had held out. In the years before, the Council had taken Humans seriously and it wasn’t because of their charming dispositions but the fleet they had and the hope that Humans would police the Traverse for them. Of course that plan had gone out the airlock. Humanity had fought back but where they had been able to hold out against the Turian fleets, fighting the entire Council, and the Batarian Hegemony, with no support from any other race, that was a reach too far for Humanity but that didn’t stop them from making every incursion by invaders as expensive as possible. They’d lost colony worlds but every inch of space that the aliens took, they’d bled for, but it could not continue forever. And they had known the Reapers were coming.

Alliance Command knew they could not win against both but Alliance Command and the Government had decided that if they could not win, then they would at least have blood which is how he came to be standing here, looking up at Harbinger.

“We had noticed. While the Vanguard failed, it appears Nazara was skilled enough to turn the lesser races against the one most dangerous to our cause.”

So Humans were the ones the Reapers didn’t want to fight? Well, it was not as if they could fight them. Not and win. Besides, Nazara had already been destroyed when the new Council, replacing those lost with the Destiny Ascension, had blamed the Humans for Saren’s and the previous Council members’ deaths and ignored Shepard’s warnings. He knew who was to blame.

“So why not treat with me then? Because every minute you spend fighting us, gives them that much time to grow stronger.”

“Not that strong but I will listen,” Harbinger said. “Amuse me, Human. What do you want?”

He’d learned a lot from Saren and Sovereign and what he’d learned from them had helped him make sense of the mass of information the Prothean beacon had crammed into his head. Thankfully he hadn’t shared much of that with the Council and equally thankfully while Alliance Command had been sceptical they had listened and unknown to him they’d planned. The instant the Reapers had appeared, those plans had been put into action.

“Two questions first, if I may?” It was not hard to be polite to the extra-terrestrial ship with its weapons trained on him.

“Ask.”

“How many does it take to create one of you?”

Harbinger almost seemed to draw back at the question. It was obvious the Reaper had not been expecting it. “Millions,” the answer came after a moment.

“And how long?”

Again the question surprised Harbinger but the ship answered. “Assuming the harvest is fast, about four to six months for the organics and two years, as you reckon them, for the rest.”

Shepard nodded at the information before he swallowed hard. He didn’t like this bit. He saw the logic but he didn’t like it. The cycle was already lost and Humanity could not fight the Council and win, especially not with the Reapers here, on Earth but Humanity would not allow the Council to think they had won. The last thing they would do was take them down, one way or another. “We offer ourselves,” he said, swallowing again. “We will not fight you Harbinger. Instead, we will organise ourselves to be processed, so that we may be ascended.”

“And in exchange?” Harbinger was wise enough to know that there was more to this deal than just that. The organics would want something in return.

“In exchange,” Shepard said, “You will not indoctrinate us until this cycle is over and the Reaper we become will give you the rest of this cycle’s species. We will take on the galaxy for you.”

Harbinger was silent and just as Shepard was beginning to worry, he heard something he never thought he’d hear. The reaper laughed. “Human,” the ship said finally. Shepard’s lip twitched. He’d moved up from ‘organic.’ “You would walk yourselves into what organics consider oblivion?”

“If you agree, I will walk into you, if that’s what it takes,” Shepard hissed.

Again Harbinger was silent. Shepard stood watching. It seemed to him that the Reaper ships were moving more slowly now.

“No race has ever asked for ascension, Human,” Harbinger spoke finally.

Shepard shrugged, unsure if the gesture translated. “There’s a first time for everything,” he said looking up at the ship. Silence reigned between them for long minutes as the Reaper thought.

“Come closer,” Harbinger finally ordered.

He blinked but stepped forward, walking towards the Reaper that loomed in his vision. Gravel crunched beneath his boots but Shepard didn’t look down as he continued. Eventually he stepped into the shadow Harbinger cast and the instant the cold surrounded him, the Reaper struck. Something grabbed him and Shepard couldn’t even scream as it squeezed. His breath left him instantly and he shook hard enough to feel things breaking inside. Then there was something within him. It was in his mind and it was huge. He couldn’t fight it as agony travelled through him and the taste of blood filled his mouth. It dripped from his nose and from his ears and he cried tears that smeared over his face. Odd memories came to him.

The way Tali had looked when she smiled at him. The way the bones of the Drell assassin felt under his hands. The pain of watching the Krogan die and the agony of the Council dismissing him at gunpoint. The war, the battle to drive back the fleets of slavers that attacked and the more organised raids from the Turians. The fear of the Reapers and the knowledge that they could not win. Then one feeling dominated them. Desire. The will to see the Council bow to him. It didn’t matter how it happened but before he died, somehow, he would see them bow. If that meant he had to deal with the devil, then pull out a contract, dip a pen in his blood and point out where to sign.

The next thing he knew he was lying on the ground, the searing pain gone leaving in its wake a host of smaller pains. His ears rang, his head throbbed and every muscle in his body ached as if he’d just run 50 miles. Shepard coughed before he spat out blood and he reached one hand to wipe at the fluid he knew covered his face as he slowly dragged himself up. Harbinger watched, the Reaper unfeeling and silent but interested in his reaction. He struggled to his feet, weaving unsteadily for a moment before forcing himself to stand tall and look back towards the Reaper leader.

Again minutes passed and the wind tugged at him. He was about to turn away, uncaring that the Reaper would probably vaporise him when Harbinger spoke. “Very well Human. We will ascend you, so that you may pursue the lesser races. You will not betray us Human but should that happen, I will personally ensure that you live long enough to see the extinction of your species and the death of your world.”

Shepard nodded, tasting blood as he swallowed but before he could talk, Harbinger continued.

“Come here, Human.”

He didn’t want to. The memory of pain flashed before him but Shepard forced himself to step forward, walking until he was under the Reaper. A light blinked above him and a hatch was open.

“As the one who destroyed my Vanguard, you will be the first Shepard,” Harbinger said, his voice reverberating through John’s mind. “I will see to it.”

Without hesitation Shepard walked to the hatch. Harbinger’s acceptance had already been sent to Alliance Command and he knew they’d do what was necessary. He didn’t look back as he stepped inside, into the darkness.

Chapter Text

Part 1 The Fall of Humanity
Chapter 1 Rebirth

===

“Riots have continued for the eighth day unimpeded across the globe as the citizens express their displeasure at the Systems Alliance’s so called deal with the super machines. Local government forces have failed to contain the rioting, and in many cases have even joined the rioters as social order continues to break down.”

Hackett sighed as he flicked the news channel to mute, returning his attention to the nominal world Prime Minister. Humanity had been progressing so well. The rest of the galaxy forced that, making us band together for protection and while no alien species had penetrated to Earth, the changes had been felt there too. There were still a few national governments worth the name but they were all working together and many had signed up to a single entity. Of course, it was all so new and the people were still adjusting and things like police and military, they were overwhelmed.

“Steven, you have to do something!” Prime Minister Juraj stated forcefully. Juraj was from one of the eastern European countries and had somehow managed to gain the support of most of Europe in the elections. With China and India both saying they didn’t have the time or resources to participate in the first elections, but that they would sign on to the Earth Gov, Juraj had been able to hold out an American candidate by appealing to the rest of the world on the grounds that he came from a small country and thus would not forget their countries. Pure politician talk but… Hackett wasn’t here to deal with that.

“You know I can’t,” he replied just as firmly. “As soon as the riots get into the thermosphere, then they enter my jurisdiction.” It was still a part of the Systems Alliance’s charter that they could have recruiting stations, even small bases on Earth but they could not engage in military activity on the homeworld. Their jurisdiction was space and the colonies. Despite what the news said, the deal between Humanity and the super machines was not brokered by the Systems Alliance alone. Earth Gov had approved it, as had the country governments. This was the deal they had all signed.

“You can now,” Juraj said but was wise enough to avoid sounding smug. “Emergency session this morning altered the Alliance’s charter. When requested Systems Alliance forces may be deployed for active combat engagements on Earth, and I am formally requesting it.” He paused for a moment before growling the rest from between gritted teeth.

“Get down here and help those forces still trying to quell the rioters, before moving on to those places where they’ve given up entirely.”

Steven blinked. He’d been expecting this but the last he’d heard was that there were still major political forces aligned against this exact order. “The Russian’s agreed?” he questioned mildly.

Juraj snorted. “They lost control of one of their missile installations,” he said and Steven felt a flash of cold. “Oh, don’t worry,” the Prime Minister said, waving one hand in dismissal and this time not bothering to hide the smug satisfaction in his voice. “China got it back for them and then told them in no uncertain terms that Russia had voted for the deal with the super machines, so they would help fulfill it, even if that meant calling in the space police, or they would give them back their missiles with a direct delivery to what’s left of Moscow.”

That explained a great deal. “All right,” Steven agreed. He had no choice. “Send up the details so we don’t overstep our bounds, and then give me an hour or so to organise some troops. We’ll get these riots stopped.” He sighed again as Juraj initiated a data link. “How are you going on the proposed social reforms?”

The Prime Minister looked disgusted. “Right at the moment, no one gives a rat’s arse about anything but the riots. Most of them haven’t gotten it through their heads that just making one or two super machines isn’t going to cut it.”

Hackett nodded. That was about what he’d expected. “Earth’s been so used to population control for the last fifty years that it’s going to be an uphill battle to change that. See if you can get the tax breaks through for families of over three children. That will help and I’ll see what I can find from the colonies.”

“Aren’t they gone?” Juraj asked with a frown.

“Well and truly,” Steven admitted. “The Reapers cleaned up whatever the rest of the galaxy missed but all the colonies had good growth policies and we need them now.”

The Prime Minister nodded, his eyes hard. No matter how he’d gotten the job, and no matter that he was one of the outside candidates, he intended to do his job and Steven was thankful for that. “I’ll call you back in an hour with a plan,” the Admiral said and Juraj nodded before cutting the connection.

===

Matriarch Irissa rubbed her crests wearily. When she had first been selected as the new Asari Councillor to replace the murdered Tevos, she had seen it as a great chance to advance her people’s interests and to reposition them as the true power in the galaxy.

After a stressful beginning to her ascension to the powerful position, marked by the destruction of the pride of the Asari Republics’ fleet, the crisis of their fleet build-up and scaremongering about Reapers and then the Human Rebellion to crush the warmongering species, she had thought that things were finally settling down.

“Thank you for coming.” Quentius’ flanging voice was stressed.

“It’s fine. I was looking for a break from dealing with the paperwork for another round of C-Sec applications. I really do wish we could alter procedure in that regard. Having all candidates vetted by us wastes so much of our time.”

Esheel nodded her assent. “Same. Time better spent on important business.”

“While I realise our last regular weekly meeting to review developments was only yesterday, I felt this item should not wait and deserved special attention.”

“What is it?”

“Humans.” Esheel guessed.

Quentius nodded wryly. “It seems like everything they do is doomed to cause us trouble, even when they aren’t doing anything. As in this case. I got a report from one of my subordinates indicating that the blockade fleet hadn’t destroyed any Alliance probes this month. Nor did they last month. The previous month, they had no less than fifteen incursions at random intervals. Our own fleet’s probes were destroyed as normal with no notable change.”

“Strange. STG reported no spy probes through either. Human fleet massed at Relay. No change.”

“But neither of you know why they have changed their policy? This passivity is most unlike them. I’m sure Quentius remembers all too well how fierce their resistance was.” Irissa saw Quentius acknowledge her point. “Besides, the primitives promised vengeance. They can’t get that if they stay meekly in their home system.”

The Turian Councillor responded, thinking of the butcher’s bill his people will have to pay. “The Humans aren’t stupid, they know they can’t win. They know as soon as we draw up our full fleets that we will crush them, no matter how inventive they are. However, if they go fully on the defensive, they could delay the inevitable, maybe make it so expensive that they expect us not to pay the price.”

Irissa considered that for a moment before Esheel added her own thoughts.

“Humans could think if they don’t come out, we will change our minds. Out of sight, out of mind is a Human expression.”

“When will the Turian fleets be ready for the final assault?”

“We could order it now and the fleets would crush them by the end of the month. However, the Terminus systems are restive. They resent the expansion of our reach that the pending readmission of the Batarians has given us and our military actions have inspired a number of the minor races to go to high alert. No matter how inevitable our victory over the Humans, we would still take considerable damage in the process. I don’t like the idea of leaving our own worlds vulnerable.”

“The Humans are not going anywhere. We advise waiting until risk is lower.”

Irissa nodded. “That would be best. Better to give the Humans a little more time than to lose more lives of our people. We don’t have to rush anything and when you do strike, the Asari will be with you, as will the Salarians.”

Esheel nodded. “We need more information before we strike. Will increase efforts.”

Better to be cautious when the lives of trillions of sentients are affected by whatever actions they take.

===

Deep in the Citadel, an ancient entity was also considering the state of affairs. The Ascended were years late. However, compared to the glory and length of the cycles, even a few centuries’ difference either way was of little matter.

===

“It’s not working, is it?” Juraj was tired and slumped into the chair on the other side of the desk.

Hackett sat back, rubbing his eyes. “The only way it’s going to work is if we go in for full occupation. No rubber bullets.”

“When do we have to make the first shipment?”

“Next week, but I have that covered,” Hackett dismissed the concern. The deal with the super machines, the Reapers as Shepard had called them, gave them forty five days to re-organise before beginning processing. Except the world was in chaos. Some areas had been pacified and went about their days as usual, others… well, you could see the fires from here, on the Everest, one of the only dreadnoughts that has survived both the Council and the super machines.

“What? How?” Juraj demanded. The first shipment was meant to be volunteers with a ballot if required.

“I know what the ballot is meant to do and I am not leaving Shepard with the dregs.” Despite the situation, Hackett’s eyes were firm. “There’s a large contingent of troops who want to be in the first. Shepard’s whole squad has already volunteered.”

“Why?”

While they were friends, the look Hackett directed at Juraj spoke volumes. The politician really didn’t understand a soldier’s motives. “Because Shepard is going to lead the charge against the rest of the galaxy and they want in on that.”

There was a flash of understanding in Juraj’s expression which quickly faded. That was the first shipment. It said nothing about the second and third and all the rest.

The third man in the office tapped his fingers against Hackett’s desk. “We’ve been hiding what’s going to happen,” he said slowly. The pensive expression did not suit his features. “Why don’t we just tell the truth?”

“What?” Juraj snorted. “Mr Harper, you want to tell the masses that their bodies will get melted down into goop?”

Harper rolled his eyes. “Of course not. It’s all in the sale. It’s the loss of your physical body, true, but the process provides immortality for your mind.”

Hackett’s expression turned speculative. “The troops weren’t too afraid of the process,” he offered.

After a few moments, Juraj’s expression altered. “If we can sell it as immortality, that would help,” Juraj said. “But I doubt it will stop the rioting, unless you have a plan for that too, Mr. Harper?” There was venom in the Prime Minister’s tone. He didn’t like this businessman being here, no matter how influential Harper was.

“I do,” he replied, his blue eyes flicking towards the Prime Minister. “But you won’t like it,” he added, that part addressed to Hackett.

“What won’t I like?” the Admiral asked. Better to get this over and done with.

“We can’t stop such widespread rioting on our own. We’ve been trying and we’ve been getting nowhere. We are ignoring the obvious resource. There are forty thousand sentient ships in Sol. They will leave after we start fulfilling our side of the bargain, but until then, they are here. They have troops, and they have no problems killing.

“So I’d suggest a three stage plan. First, we tell the world what processing will mean. I think that will help Humanity to calm down mostly, but the religious fanatics will have a field day. Then, we pick out the most fanatical entrenched group and we obliterate them. Kinetic strike, nuclear if we have to, and then we call in the Reapers to quell whatever trouble is left. The survival of our species is on the line. We can’t afford to be soft on those getting in the way of that goal.”

Both Hackett and Juraj were silent for quite some time. Harper remained still, not bothering to justify his plan further.

“You were right,” Hackett spoke eventually, his voice deliberately even. “I don’t like it.”

“How do we know the Reapers won’t just kill us all?” Juraj shouted the demand.

“We don’t,” Harper admitted. “But we aren’t going to be able to gain control of the situation in time and if we fall through on our requirements, then they will kill us all.”

“We have the first shipment ready,” Hackett said slowly. “That will show that we are willing to go through with the plan. I don’t like asking for aid but it would be far better to ask than to renege. They don’t know much about us organics, as they call us. They know how to kill but they don’t know much about how our societies work. We can probably spin something to say that we need the assistance in the temporary re-organisation.”

Harper nodded. “My people can make something up if they ask.”

Hackett took a deep breath before sighing. “This is your call, Mr. Prime Minister,” he said turning towards Juraj. “It will have to be an executive order. Any part of Harper’s plan will require that.”

“You think I should go with it?” Juraj challenged.

“I think we are at a point where a decision must be made to do something,” the Admiral replied. “Only time will tell which decision may have been the correct one.”

Juraj wasn’t happy but nodded. He clasped his hands together and Hackett and Harper could see the deep breaths Juraj was taking as he thought. “God, I never thought it would come to this.”

“Blame the Council,” Harper murmured. “In a perfect galaxy, they would have accepted our leadership in battle against the super machines, but this is our only way of surviving.”

“You are both certain this is the only way?”

Hackett nodded while Harper elaborated. “If no one fucks up, we can provide the Reapers with their organic material, while still maintaining or even growing our population, ensuring Humanity’s survival. And so long as they keep their half of the bargain, those of us who become them will rip the pissant races of the galaxy apart.”

“And you are sure you can rig the ballots?”

“Of course, I’m sure,” Harper seemed offended. “Assuming we don’t get enough volunteers, then the ballots are rigged. Not completely of course but there will be disproportionate number of aged males and any young women selected will be those already diagnosed as being barren. Not that anyone will be able to prove that, of course. The records will be adjusted accordingly.”

Juraj shivered. He didn’t want to know all the details. It was enough knowing that someone as cold-hearted as Harper had arranged things to ensure that the population had the best chance of growing.

“We will need those family tax breaks, and a large fund set aside for death pensions,” Harper paused, once again rapping his finger tips on the desk. “And an advertising campaign. Immortality will sell itself, but we will have to encourage people to go through with it, make them out as heroes for their sacrifice, and also set up some rules, that sort of thing. No pregnant women, no woman below the age of 30 who hasn’t born at least two children and we may want to make IVF cheap.”

“Where am I getting all these funds!?” Juraj demanded.

Hackett snorted. “I’m sure our allies in the business community would be happy to contribute to this effort to restore normal business.” He smirked at Harper’s expression. “And if they fail to be patriotic enough, you can kill the military budget.”

“I can’t repurpose that.”

The reply made Hackett laugh. “There are forty thousand sentient machines in Sol. We made a deal with them and they won’t let the Council anywhere near Earth. All we have to do is get through the first few months, then we won’t need much of a military at all.”

It took a moment for that to sink in and as it did all three men felt the seriousness of the situation.

“How about we set it up like this,” Harper began. “Everyone who volunteers gets a pension for their family, either a lump sum or ongoing payments, but they also get a month long holiday with their family - the snow, the beach - doesn’t matter. We can set it up. Then they are sent to the processing plant. We run a couple of campaigns, making them patriots, and encouraging birth rate. We hint that we can keep ahead of the super ship demands. The smart ones will work it out. Those who don’t, they will be the first to be chosen on the ballots,” he shrugged his shoulders.

“Can we keep ahead?”

“Easily,” Hackett assured Juraj. “We just need to raise the birth rate to about 10% in ten years or so. The hardest thing will be to remove the birth control beliefs. Except, none of that matters if we can’t get control of the planet now.”

Juraj sighed and he pulled himself up, leaning back in the chair. “All right,” he whispered. “We’ll go with your plan, Harper. Hackett, release the information on what will happen for agreeing with the super machines and ready a kinetic strike against whatever the fanatics come up with. Kinetic only! I will never authorise nuclear,” he sighed again, wondering if he could be so sure he wouldn’t fall down the slippery slope. “Then I suppose I better open a line to Harbinger and hope to God that we are right about their knowledge of organics.”

Hackett and Harper nodded.

“I’ll send a list of what campaigns we are going to need,” Harper said, showing himself out, unable to resist a parting shot. “We will survive longer this way than any other plan can give us, and if the Reapers are true to their word, then we will still be alive, even if it’s not fully Human. That might be the only victory we have.”

There was silence for a few moments. “Steven,” Juraj started. “Will this work?”

“Will which bit work?”

“All of it. Fooling those Reapers?”

Hackett looked pensive for a moment. “Probably not. From what Shepard told us, they are millions of years old, so eventually they are going to see through it.”

“And then what?”

“Then?” Hackett fixed Juraj with a hard stare. “Then we die.”

===

“al-Jilani, you have to get out of there!”

“What, Victor? Why?” Khalisah demanded. Her Producer was shouting but he wasn’t making much sense.

“You know the Systems Alliance has been putting down the other riots.”

“Yeah, everyone’s been reporting on it. When they come for this one, I’ll just join one of their teams.” What was Victor so worried about? Sure, this was one of the worst riots but she’d been here for weeks. All the other reporters had wussed out and she’d heard that a Yank reporter had been shot but what did you expect? They’d stuck out like a sore thumb. There was a rumour that some bimbo from Khmer News was still around but al-Jilani didn’t care. This was her story.

“No, that’s the thing, the SA isn’t going to pacify New Delhi.”

“Don’t screw me around. Earth Gov can’t do anything.”

“It’s not Earth Gov, either,” Victor said and Khalisah caught the chill in his tone. “They called in help from the super machines. They’ve already suppressed the riots in Karachi, Hyderabad, Indore and Mumbai.”

“What?” She was incredulous. Those riots had been going the longest and the last she’d heard, just last night was that they were still going strong with a million rioters in the streets. “How?”

“The super machines don’t care,” Victor said. “They just mowed all resistance down.”

“They can’t.”

“They did.”

“All right, I’ll be…” al-Jilani trailed off. “Shit, they’re here.” She hadn’t noticed the shouts getting louder. It was a riot after all. It was always loud. But once she noticed, she could tell instantly that the shouts were not those of rioters, but screams of pain, screams of people running for their lives.

Several had already passed by her by the time al-Jilani saw what they were running from. “God… what the hell are they?”

“Khalisah! What is it?”

“I don’t know,” she said, taking several steps back before her feet began to run of their own accord. She had managed to point the camera in the general direction.

“What the hell?” Victor exclaimed.

The things were huge. They were Humanoid only in the vaguest sense of the term. They were black, but you couldn’t miss them as their bodies had lights all over them, lights which al-Jilani realised were embedded in them. It looked like they had three eyes and their gaping mouths shone. She convulsed when the wind changed. Instead of the scent of smoke, there was the smell of rot and it had to be coming from the new things.

An explosion sounded overhead and Khalisah’s head shot up in time to see debris falling from one of the surrounding buildings. She jumped back, narrowly avoiding being struck by a brick and continued running.

“That was a grenade,” Victor reported.

al-Jilani snorted. Who cares what it was? She was in real danger! The alien troops were fast but adrenaline gave her strength and she was reasonably fit. The streets of Delhi were also narrow. That helped. She raced through them, skirting down laneways with others as they fled.

Eventually she collapsed against a wall, breathing hard. “I think I lost them,” she said, looking down at her phone, her link with Victor. She had lost her shoes in her mad run and her feet hurt but thankfully they didn’t appear to be bleeding. She didn’t want to think about the infections she’d get here.

“I don’t think you have,” he replied, his eyes sad. “The word coming from Karachi is that they just surround the city and kill everything. You have to hide and I’ll get in contact with the autho-”

“Victor?” al-Jilani said. “Victor?” she questioned again, tapping the keys on her omni-tool. The line was dead and she gulped. That meant someone had jammed the signal and for it to cut off Victor, it had to be wide band jamming. If she wanted to get through to him, she had to find a physical line. But where the hell was she going to find a line…

Wait, no… reporting be darned! She could probably find a line but those things wouldn’t care. She had to hide, wait until they passed, then she could report on what she’d seen. The Systems Alliance had made a deal with these things and her records would bring them down. Automatically she reached over to her omni-tool, tapping the keys to save the file she had recorded. She also set it on auto-send so even if she were asleep when things calmed down again, she’d still get her story. And if the worst happened – not that it would – when her omni-tool got a signal again it would still send the file.

al-Jilani looked around the alley. It was narrow and smelly and empty. There were a few doors coming off it and at random she selected one. It was locked. She needed something going to a basement or the subway. Anything would do at this stage.

Cautiously she moved, listening for those things. There. There was an entry to a subway station. After taking a careful look around she ran, flying down the stairs as her eyes strained to see in the dark. Maybe she should have found a torch first. The omni-tool provided some light but it didn’t extend far. It was good enough that she didn’t fall when the stairs ended but after that she was lost in the dark.

“Calm down,” Khalisah whispered to herself, taking deep breaths of hot air. This was a subway. It would have a standard layout. There wouldn’t be too many stairs and there’d be an opening to the platform. She just had to find that. With the riots, the trains hadn’t been working for the last few weeks and the power to the system had been cut. Besides the inner city train line still ran on the old power cables so she wouldn’t electrocute herself on the tracks.

She closed her eyes briefly, taking a final deep breath, directing the light from her omni-tool to a point in front of her. She set off, avoiding broken tiles and glass. Her breathing was loud in the dark and it was only after she’d rounded several pillars, spotting the tracks in the near total darkness, that al-Jilani frowned. Carefully she turned around, directing her omni-tool into the distance was well as she could.

There was no one else down here. Why was there no one else down here? There was evidence of other people. Broken glass, and some bottles and she thought she’d seen some blankets which most likely belonged to some homeless person as she walked but the light was too faint to tell if anyone was in them. But apart from that, there was nothing. There was no blood, her mind noted as she continued to breathe. Surely she wasn’t the only one to think about hiding here?

Something skittered in the dark and she spun but saw nothing. Another skitter and again she saw nothing. Almost reluctantly she closed her eyes before opening them and choosing a direction as she started walking again. While the subway was good start on a place to hide, she needed somewhere less exposed. A janitor’s cupboard or something. It was only her imagination making her hear things in the dark.

She continued to believe that right up until the faint light from her omni-tool fell on something. It was black, completely black and al-Jilani raised her arm, shifting the light upwards. It seemed that it went on forever and she looked up. She got a confused impression of limbs and then it opened its eyes. Khalisah screamed. It echoed but no one heard.

In the instant its eyes opened, other lights on it had come on and it was immediately obvious that this was similar to the thing on the street. She tried to run but it was too fast and something latched on to her arm, wrenching her back. Her feet slipped and she felt on to the tiled floor. It hurt but al-Jilani didn’t even feel that as the creature came closer. It had six limbs, three of which were reaching for her as one held her close. The other two were planted on to the floor like tree trunks.

“God, no please!” she begged but it didn’t even pause. As it came close she smelt it and convulsed but it held her firm, and al-Jilani felt herself lifted from the ground. It was strong and didn’t seem to strain but the smell didn’t improve and she dry wretched, feeling her limbs strain against the hold. From her new vantage point the creature didn’t get any better. The lights on it defined the shape, making the light from her omni-tool worthless. Six limbs and a tail. It wasn’t Human. It wasn’t anything alien she had ever seen, her mind provided the extra information as if she was still reporting. Her eyes fixed on its eyes that lit up its face but there was no expression.

al-Jilani didn’t see its tail move but she felt pain in her chest and in the semi-darkness she tasted blood. She realised what the wet drip she heard was a moment before agony overwhelmed everything and she screamed again.

The small patch of faded light caused by her omni-tool and the creature’s bioluminescence was tainted red and the sound of a few wet splashes was barely audible over the echoing scream. A few moments later, several heavier things fell to the ground, impacting the tiles solidly but with the sound of liquid splashing.

If al-Jilani had of walked a few steps more, she would have seen the blood and bodies of those who had also hidden in the subway. She would have seen the creatures who waited there, the smaller ones who skittered on the roof and in between the larger ones. She would have known that the alien super machines did not leave anyone alive.

The creature stepped forward and it was not alone. The light from Khalisah’s omni-tool shone for a few seconds more before there was a crunch and it blinked out.

===

Captain Tarquin Victus was young to be the Captain of a Turian Cruiser but he had ambitions to go higher, much higher than his current tier of citizenship. The command room of a dreadnought appealed. While most wouldn’t believe that patrolling an empty, backwater system was a step in the right direction, if he could work out what the perverse Humans had done to vanish the Relay, maybe even duplicate the feat himself, he was assured of promotion.

That’s why on almost every patrol he had the sensor techs run more scans of the system and every time he encouraged them to use different combinations of sensors. If they could find the Relay, or even a trail, then that would be good enough. So far though, they had found nothing but Tarquin was sure that eventually something would be found. The Humans were good. His father ranted about them and their tricks whenever he got deep into his cups. While the old General never admitted the Humans were near their equal, he didn’t have to, it was implied in his words.

They were fast, strong and vicious. They lacked the discipline of the Turians and didn’t have the toughness of the Krogan but they fought hard. If it wasn’t for their lies to justify their military buildup, they might even have been considered honorable. But they lied and they had to be put down for the betterment of the galactic community. They dishonoured themselves by hiding.

“Anything?”

“Not yet, sir.” The sensor chief replied, mandibles held still to avoid angering his capricious captain.

“Keep looking. I don’t care how clever the Humans thought they were, they are bound to have left some clues. Bragging is in their nature.”

“Aye sir. We’ll find them for you.” Orders were orders.

Tarquin smiled. “See that you do.”

===

“Mum, you don’t have to do this,” Francis grumbled as he pushed his mother’s wheelchair. The line behind them didn’t seem to mind that he was slow.

Most of them were volunteers. A few were helpers like him and like him, they made sure to display the red band around their wrists conspicuously. Francis just hoped the aliens weren’t color blind.

“I know love but you know as well as I do, that after your father passed on that I’m not about to have any more children.”

“That doesn’t matter!” Francis yelled.

The outburst earned him a Look from his mother. Faintly disappointed and saying without words that she expected better from him.

“You find a nice young lady and settle down.”

“Mother! You sound like you’re on the TV.”

“It’s for a good cause,” Annie defended them, smiling up at her son. He really should find a nice girl and have some kids. It would take his mind off her.

“They sound like the bloody Nazi’s,” Francis objected.

“It is for a far nobler cause,” she replied fiercely.

“What?” Her son was incredulous. “Finding a girl and breeding is a noble cause?”

“In this case, yes,” Annie said, looking forward again at the huge alien ship she was being pushed towards. It scared her a little but she had come to terms with what she had volunteered for. Immortality of the mind with the destruction of the body.

Not destruction, enforced decomposition. Her elements would then be used to make a new super machine. One lip twitched. They weren’t really her elements though. They belonged to the universe and it appeared the universe wanted this, so she was at peace. It didn’t really matter if the Systems Alliance had lied about the immortality part.

“How?” Francis demanded.

Annie shook her head. Her son was smart, really intelligent, but sometimes, he just didn’t get it. She sighed. Understanding would come with maturity. “Francis,” she said and couldn’t help that the tone made it sound like she thought of him as a small boy. “You are bright. Think about it and I’m sure you will understand. Truth always, Francis, for truth is eternal.”

“No!” he shouted, taking his hands off the wheelchair. “I do not understand why you have to die because some alien super machine said so.”

Annie pushed herself up. She was fit enough to walk, it was just the lines to the London processing plant were long enough that the officials thought the wheelchair would be best. “Francis Harry Crick!” she practically growled the words. “You listen to me! You know darn well there have been precious few times I’ve agreed with the politicians in Whitehall or with that Systems Alliance but on this, they are right! So I am going to go into that alien processing plant, and I am going to have my body melted down into elemental goo while my mind is preserved. And then I am going to be reformed as a part of one of the alien super machines.

“Because that is the best thing for Humanity, and if you used the brain god blessed you with, you would see why.

“Now either you can push me there, or I’ll walk,” she finished with a growl, deliberately turning and stepping forcefully towards the alien building.

Francis watched her go. The man behind them gave him a quizzical look, as if asking if he was going to go after her, before gently pushing the wheelchair onwards as he moved forward. The line moved with him and Francis was left watching as his mother’s back disappeared into the queue of volunteers.

It wasn’t right! But there was nothing he could do but watch as the line continued passed him. “Darn it!” he screamed and stormed back down the line towards the entrance. His mother had made her decision and London had accepted, there was nothing he could do now but mourn, because no matter what they said, she was dead to him now.

===

Admiral Hackett, like most other Humans around the world watched his view screen avidly. Today was the day, the day the first Human super ship came online. It was almost two years to the day since the super machines, the ones the Protheans called the Reapers had arrived in Sol System. The name hadn’t been circulated so that rest of Humanity simply called them the super machines. Even in the two years since Shepard had brokered a deal and the Systems Alliance had made that deal a reality no one had settled upon a name.

So much had changed, yet so much remained the same. That was somewhat comforting. Humans still wanted vengeance against the galaxy that had turned upon them but now they had the means to gain that vengeance. All because of Shepard and the knowledge he’d given them. Knowledge the Citadel had ignored and ridiculed them all for. Knowledge that would be used to extract Humanity’s vengeance.

The Human super ships would be the instrument of that vengeance. He looked back at the screen. The ship displayed looked like the other Reapers. There was nothing to say it was Human but it was. They had bled and died for that ship. Well, not died. No one was meant to have died but they no longer existed in their Human form. They would find out today if it was true when the newest Reaper ship launched and declared its name.

He’d watched the launch of many ships, but not knowing the name of the ship was odd. It was hard to see in space but he knew the anchoring points were loosened. The great metal ropes didn’t move but the ship did, slowly moving away, as if slipping down the dry dock into the emptiness of space. There were other Reaper ships around the dock. They were there to control the new ship if required. The Alliance had asked about the process but none of the Reapers had been forthcoming about what happened now.

Hackett watched carefully, barely daring to breathe. The ship was dark. Then the first light flicked on and he felt his expression change. His lips stretched into a quick smile. Around the world, he knew, Humanity would be cheering. Another light came on and the cheering grew. From outside his office he could hear his aide’s joyful exclamation. He wouldn’t cheer yet, not until he knew if the super ship was still Human.

Their entire plan rested on that little detail.

He was thrown back in his chair and Hackett felt his fingers crack as he gripped the armrests. He could vaguely hear his aide’s cries and Steven tasted blood. There was a scream in his mind. It consumed everything.

Then it was gone. He reached up, touching his fingertips to his tongue. They came away red and he blinked tears yet Hackett felt his smile return as his mind processed the aftermath of pain. It was not his pain he had felt, it was something else. Hackett could hear his aide struggling to rise but he couldn’t go to her. Instead he turned his eyes to the screen.

The ship now looked like every other Reaper ship. All the running lights were on, and the legs were extended down. He bit the inside of his lip to avoid what would be an insane laugh. It looked like every other ship but its scream had been Human.

It worked. The blood, and the tears and the pain and the sacrifices. It had worked.

Shepard was back.

===

Chapter Text

Part 1 The Fall of Humanity
Chapter 2 A Taste of the Future

===

2189

Kaidan Alenko shook his head as he walked past yet another ad for free IVF. “Things have changed a lot since we fought with the Commander.”

Ashley Alenko nee Williams chuckled as she held the hands of their youngest kids. “That’s for sure! And not all of it for the worse, Mister.”

Kaidan put his hands up in mock surrender and agreed. “Okay, honey. You’re right.”

“And don’t you forget it.” Ashley grinned then smiled wider as her husband held the door for her. “Now, don’t forget to be on your best behavior, kids. We’re going to be on television soon and a lot of people are going to be watching. It’s the third anniversary of Commander Shepard becoming the first volunteer for immortality.”

Both of them had volunteered to be with the first shipment but Admiral Hackett had pulled them aside and told them that he had another mission for them. They’d been confused for a few minutes before he’d looked significantly at them. How the Admiral had known that they had been comforting each other, neither had ever found out and so they’d gone along with the mission. It wasn’t exactly a hardship and Shepard would understand.

“Yes, Mom.” The triplets chorused in long-suffering tones. Their mother was pregnant, again, and they’d already learned from their father that it was best just to go along with what she wanted whenever that happened. Their father was quietly glad that her pregnancy kept them safe from the selection lotteries.

They lined up and passed through security at the studio. Afterwards, the kids were settled into daycare until it was time for their parents, heroes of the War of Betrayal, to tell everyone again why the deal with the Reapers was a good one for Humanity, granting immortality of the mind.

And all without telling the public the full truth because no one wanted the Reapers working that out.

===

2189

“Quentius, I have a favour to ask,” Irissa told the Turian sourly after her omni-tool connected her through to the Turian Councillor. Sure, the Asari had been trying to instill a sense of diplomacy in the Turians for centuries but the latest Turian Councillor was a little too diplomatic for her liking. Especially towards the Humans.

“What do you need?” Curiosity was evident but Irissa was glad to hear the slightly guarded note in Quentius’ voice. The Turian wasn’t a complete infant.

“I need you to redirect a patrol around Human space,” she said.

“Our patrols have found nothing,” Quentius replied. “The Humans are being quiet.”

“Your patrols found nothing. One of ours has gone missing.”

“You don’t patrol that space.” There was an odd note of accusation mixed into Quentius’ fluted voice.

“Not a patrol,” Irissa dismissed the words. “An expedition.”

She didn’t need to see the small image of Quentius to know that the Turian would groan. Turian thoughts about Asari expeditions were well known. Yet all of them knew, even if they wouldn’t admit it, there was only one right way to introduce species to the rest of the galactic community. The evidence proved that.

Just look at the fiasco with the Humans. The Turians had introduced them to the galaxy, so of course there were going to be problems. The Krogans. Their introduction might have been centuries ago but the issues there were caused by the Salarians. More recently, the Quarians. Again, the Salarians introduced them to the galaxy and then failed to keep a watchful eye on them.

The Volus had first contacted the Asari, and look at them. They were a peaceful race, well established and respected in the galaxy. The Hanar and their Drell clients. Another set of peaceful races, another set of races found by the Asari. The Elcor were similar. Peaceful and contacted first by the Asari. Every successful Citadel species had been found and introduced to the galactic community by the Asari.

Those who weren’t simply failed. Humans, Krogan, Quarians, they were all proof that only the Asari should attempt first contact. She had thought the Batarians might be an exception but they were holding out on rejoining the Citadel and there was evidence that the relationship was souring. As such, the Asari expeditions would continue, as much for themselves, as for the benefit of the newly found species.

“Send me the coordinates,” Quentius managed to say politely yet Irissa could almost hear his thoughts. “I’ll redirect the nearest patrol. It shouldn’t take more than a few days,” the Turian Councillor added.

“Thank you,” Irissa said, reminding herself that no matter what she thought Quentius wanted to say, she could only react to what he did say, and he had been polite the entire time. “I’ll forward them now,” she added before signing off.

===

2189

Quentius looked at the report. It was a bloody disaster. “You are sure of this?” he asked the Captain who was on screen.

“Positive.”

The Turian Councillor took a deep breath. “Pull back. Do not land or attempt rescue. I’ll send a reinforced fleet to deal with this.”

“Understood sir. I’m just glad I don’t have to storm that facility.”

“You’ve had experience?”

“My Father fought on Shanxi and I was over Proteus when we took it.”

Quentius nodded. Shanxi was an old battle but well respected and anyone who had taken part in the Second Human War knew what they fought like. It was not good news that a Human colony had been found outside of Sol. It was even worse news that the colony appeared to have been there for quite some time, though because the system was the closest to Sol, it had been the most likely target for their first interstellar settlement.

How many other colonies had the Humans not mentioned?

That was a question for the Council, for later. For now he had to organise a strike force. “I’ll let you know when reinforcements are on their way.”

“Thank you Councillor,” the Captain said, saluting before Quentius cut the signal.

Councillor Irissa was not going to be happy but at least they had found her missing expedition.

===

2190

If Harbinger had been an organic, he would have been smiling with cold satisfaction.

In another departure from the normal path of ascension, only one of the races was being harvested right now. The four-eyed organics thought themselves the superior form of life in the galaxy, a view that had been reinforced for centuries as they got away with taking slaves from the other races despite the current Council’s ban on slavery.

These Batarians had also participated in the attack on Harbinger’s temporary allies (and wasn’t that a strange state of affairs), taking slaves that could have formed another Ascended. For many reasons, this moved the arrogant race to the top of the list. Since they weren’t going to overwhelm all of the current races at once, having to save them for the newly Ascended Humans, they were trying different tactics and strategies while they could. It was a nice alteration from the tedium that was the reality of most harvests. When production of Human Ascended reached full capacity, the whole fleet would have to focus on eezo production to ensure smooth ascension.

Besides, it was not like they were much of a challenge even if they hadn’t been influenced by the broken shell of an Ascended on Khar’shan.

However, Harbinger didn’t want the rest of the organics to get any ideas from watching the slaughter of this race so he had first disabled all the Mass Relays leading into Batarian space except for the ones leading to Earth. This isolated the race nicely and left the rest of the galaxy in the dark about what was coming for them.

And right about then, Hetrans was leading a handful of Ascended in a long-range bombardment of the final military base guarding the last Batarian world. The gouts of superheated plasma flashed in his sensors in patterns that the first Ascended found pleasing, even soothing, even as an army of husks was landing to search the base for survivors. And kill them.

===

Ever since the damned Humans had killed the Council’s top Spectre and made up their self-serving lies about the Reapers, Jath’Amon’s career had taken off. When he had been trapped into becoming the Hegemony’s Ambassador to the Citadel, it was seen as important but a dead end for any ambitious Batarian. That had changed over the last few years.

The Council’s actions against Humanity had thawed relations with the Batarian Hegemony as a direct result. The former Human colonies were now available for proper settlement by the more deserving race and the Council had in effect admitted that they were in the wrong to side with the greedy newcomers.

And so, Jath’Amon was puzzled at this summons from the Council. The two-eyes had ordered him to appear at once to explain the actions of his government.

Tuning out the formalities of his summons, Jath’Amon’s brain ran through the possibilities but kept coming up empty.

At last, the damned Asari bitch had ran out of flowery phrases and the Turian, Quentius, could get a word in.

“Ambassador Jath’Amon, would you care to explain the latest developments within the Hegemony?”

“I would be happy to be of some assistance to the Council but I find myself at something of a loss for how to answer. Perhaps if you could specify which developments you wished to have clarified.”

It galled him to admit his ignorance but unfortunately he didn’t have much of a choice. Hegemony policy was to go along with the Citadel races for now, not to rock the boat, unless pressed. That would give them time to expand and consolidate.

“For the last two days, no ship has been able to enter the Hegemony’s space. All scheduled traffic has been turned away by the Relays. Why are you breaking the trade agreements?”

Jath’Amon frowned internally. “I know nothing of this,” he said aloud. “If you will allow me to contact my government, I am sure we can resolve this situation soon.”

“I hope so, for your sake. It hasn’t been that long since trade resumed with the Batarians,” Irissa hissed. “If you cannot maintain your agreements then there will be repercussions. The Asari Republics will have no reason to trade with you if you do not honour your word.”

“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Jath’Amon said, tapping a few keys on his omni-tool to make the call to his Government.

“You are free to use our facilities while you await your government’s response, Ambassador,” Esheel said, gesturing towards a small, secure side room.

===

As the arrogant Batarian Ambassador made use of one of the private meeting offices, Quentius turned to his fellow Councillors. “I don’t like this.”

“You’ve never liked the Batarians,” Esheel dismissed his concern.

“No,” Quentius shook his head. “It’s more than that. This is too much like the Humans.”

That got the attention of Irissa and Esheel. They both remembered how the final stage of that campaign had gone. The Turian Third and Fifth fleets, along with representatives from the Asari and Salarians, and even some Batarian privateers had swept through Human space, intent on entering Sol System and dealing with the Humans once and for all. They had expected heavy resistance. Given the way the Humans had fought for every inch of space before this, with every movement they made deeper into what was once Human territory they expected ambush.

They found evidence of the Humans, massive mine fields, booby trapped settlements but they had found no Humans, and in some cases the settlements just weren’t there. It was as if something had erased them from the galaxy. That had caused a few moments of concern but no one had officially accused the others of the use of banned weapons so the military expedition pressed onwards.

With no resistance in former Human territory, everyone had been ready for a final stand from the Humans, at or near the Relay into Sol. What they had instead found at the penultimate stop was something even more impossible.

The Relay was gone.

Painstakingly thorough scans of the entire system came up blank. They found the remains of a Human space station, Arcturus or whatever the Human tongue had called it. The remains of Human warships were around it but only a few, not enough to be their entire remnant fleet. But that was all they found. Even stretching the sensors to the limits, none of the races present could find so much as a whisper of the Relay’s location.

Arcturus was three days travel from Sol system and there was some thought given to travelling there to deal with the Humans but such a venture would leave them vulnerable. Most ships could just travel that far without discharging their drive cores but travel combined with combat was risking destruction of the entire fleet. While the crews would be fine, their ships would be at their limits and any battle that lasted an hour could see Council ships blow up without any help from the Humans.

In the end, the decision was made that if the Humans wanted to isolate themselves in their home system, then they could. Even the most begrudging of galactic lawyers acknowledged the point that the Sol System was their sovereign territory, the only territory they had undisputed legal claim to. Probes were sent towards Sol but Esheel had reported that they had been destroyed enroute, without ever spotting the vessels which had done so.

Though the mystery remained. How had the Humans moved the Relay, because to this day, it had not returned.

“The Batarian Relays are still there,” Irissa pointed out after a moment.

“True,” Quentius conceded but his tone was doubtful. He was still worried. Something didn’t feel right. Relations with the Batarian Hegemony hadn’t been this good in centuries, so there was no reason for them to isolate themselves. And even if they had, how had they closed the Relays completely? If the Batarians could do that then… he didn’t want to think of that. There were too many implications to consider. He needed more information before he thought about those implications. “I…” Quentius paused, taking a deep breath. “No. I’ll wait.”

“Wait for what?” Irissa prompted, her voice projecting a gentle concern.

“For the Ambassador’s explanation,” Quentius said looking up as Jath’Amon entered their Chamber again.

===

Patrolling the Harsa system, Nomiri’s sensors picked up a coded signal coming in via Khar’shan’s primary comm buoy. Subprocessors translated it automatically an instant later. No organic race had ever come up with a signal they could not decode so the Batarians’ best security encryption might just have well not been there. She listened to the Batarian’s plea for information and forwarded it along to Harbinger with a low-priority request for instructions.

A minute later, a small eternity at their speeds, Harbinger answered her. “Just let them call. Silence will serve the cycle better as the organics wait for answers that will not come. They will not expect our arrival and will not resist ascension as well.”

“And the Relays remain ours.”

“Khar’shan cannot answer.” Harbinger terminated their connection and Nomiri settled in, noting with amusement how the foolish organic’s stress rose with every second his call went unanswered.

This was a nice break from orbiting the neutron star the ascended used for eezo production.

===

The Intelligence noticed the signal sent out from the Council Chambers. That was why the facilities existed, after all. It found that this cycle had another deviation from the norm in that a race which had started to be Ascended, the Humans, hadn’t yet been finished off despite the ability of the Ascended to have finished by now. The arrival had not become general and open, either.

And now, they were Ascending the Batarians in secret, as well as disrupting the Relay network. The Intelligence had to go back into archives a billion years old to find the last time its creations had been so circumspect at the start of a cycle.

While an organic would have been irritated by the unexplained change, the Intelligence was content to wait and see. It was sure that Harbinger would have a good explanation for defying its standard operating procedures.

And besides, this wasn’t as boring as it had expected the cycle to be. The current races were not even a tenth of the challenge the Protheans had presented. Even an immortal synthetic could grow bored.

===

2190

Earth Prime Minister Sharon Allen resisted the urge to sigh as she looked at Jack Harper. The man looked old. That was an anomaly these days but he was powerful which was why he had a standing appointment whenever he wanted. “You needed to see me?”

“Yes. While our deal with our allies is all well and good, things can always be improved.” Harper said casually while he finished turning off all the recording devices.

Sharon sighed. After the first couple of weeks in office she’d given up on attempting to remove all the bugs. Some of them had kept coming back so fast that they almost had to be self replicating. “Don’t worry, only yours are still recording.”

Satisfied, he continued. “As I said, while our deal with the aliens will allow us to crush the Council, in the long term, it is not good for Humanity.”

“I thought you were one of the people who proposed such a deal? I know the SA didn’t come up with it by themselves.”

Harper leaned back. “I am in favour of it in the short term. In the long term, however, it’s a death sentence for our species. At any time, the Reapers could look deeper into our affairs and change their minds. When that happens, we are as good as dead. I won’t let that happen.”

“So what do you suggest? You know we’re trapped in Sol. If these Reapers don’t get us, the Council would. I read the SA reports on how the battles were going. We hadn’t quite lost every colony but we were going to.” Sharon watched the man carefully. She couldn’t detect any trace of deception in his tone but while she was a good politician, she acknowledged the businessman was a master.

Harper was undaunted by her questions. “Not via the Relay, which the Reapers are monitoring, nor via FTL. But I’d like to try to have a contingency ready before the Reapers come for us, using one of the old plans before we found the Prothean Ruins on Mars.”

Sharon frowned. “What plans? We could barely get off Earth before we found the Prothean Ruins.”

“Back in 2070, Victor Manswell funded an interstellar colony ship to travel to Alpha Centauri. We didn’t have mass effect technology but Human ingenuity found a way, sending 300 colonists in cryogenic freeze. I believe that with current technology, we can improve on that number and get thousands off Earth and out of the solar system, sending colony ships to multiple destinations that are too far for conventional FTL.”

“Is that wise? I can see why multiple colonies would be best, but smaller colonies risk destruction by the rest of the galaxy.”

“The real challenge is always going to be to slip this past the notice of our allies. By the time the colonists arrive, centuries will have past and the Council races will be gone.” His satisfaction at that prospect was plain.

Sharon picked up the slim slip of pages Harper had pushed towards her earlier and flicked her eyes over the text. Harper still used paper because he claimed that the evidence was more easily destroyed. The fact that he thought that way was worrying but even though she was young for her position, she hadn’t gotten to be Prime Minister without learning how to keep secrets. “Because we destroy them?” She smiled softly. She hadn’t been old enough to be really affected by the growing war with the Council but she had learned to hate, just as the rest of her generation had. They remembered what had been done.

“One way or another. Their time was coming to an end so they tried to crush us before we crushed them.”

She narrowed her eyes. “So what would you need for this plan?” She’d read Hackett’s notes about Harper. The old war dog had been very blunt in his assessment of the man. Manipulative was about the kindest term he’d used but the warnings were balanced with the statement that Harper would do whatever it took to make sure Humanity survived.

Harper wished Hackett were still around. While the pair hadn’t really seen eye to eye, the old Admiral had at least had the experience to keep up with him, about as well as anyone could.

“It’s better if you don’t know the full details but I’ll need some authorisations and some targeted tax concessions.”

“For yourself?” Sharon held back a snort.

“Of course not,” Harper growled. “That would be too obvious. I know there’s half a dozen departments watching me like hawks. The concessions will simply grease the wheels, encourage some other captains of industry not to ask inconvenient questions.”

“So it’s true then?”

“What’s true?”

“The ballots.”

Harper chuckled. “As I told Juraj before he was retired, rigging lotteries isn’t a problem.”

Sharon stared at Harper for a few moments. “Don’t retire me, or I will make sure you retire with me.”

The older man smiled. “Dear, if you could touch me, you would have done it by now. I was in this business before your parents were dating.” He looked at her until she got the message. “Besides, Juraj couldn’t see the big picture. He balked at doing what was necessary, lacking the vision for Humanity’s future.”

“How?”

Harper smirked. “The Reapers, Madam Prime Minister. He had no stomach for using them.”

“That was years back!”

“Then don’t make his mistake. You must do what is necessary for all Humanity. That was why I supported your election.”

“I’ll do as I choose best.”

“Of course, you will.”

===

Francis Crick looked down at the blue document as the lecturer droned on. The woman wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t heard before. Fourth year applied physics didn’t get many students but he was devoted. It shamed him to admit that it had taken about a year for him to work out what his mother had meant. Not about the Systems Alliance or Earth Gov being right about immortality for the mind but what they were doing with encouraging the birth rate.

It was so obvious! At least, it had been once he got sobered up enough to read the information packets that had been sent to his mother once she had volunteered. Or maybe it was before. He didn’t know. The information had been broken into two sets of documents. A blue one, the one before him now, explained what would happen to his Mother in the alien processing building. He hadn’t been able to read that one yet. The other documents had been aimed at the family. They didn’t quite explain but it did strongly hint as to why the Gov was pushing so hard for large families.

The alien super machines wouldn’t go away with the creation of one or two ships. The information had included quotes from various System Alliance commanders, including Shepard. The quotes explained, as much as they could, what the super machines did, how they harvested the galaxy and how Shepard had known they were coming. It was what the documents didn’t say that held the answer. Humans had agreed to provide the biological material for a set number of super machines a year, ramping up as time went on to ten a year.

But the numbers were there in black and white for anyone to work out. Well… anyone who knew anything about Human reproduction. They could win against the machines. The first years of production would hit their population but if the reproductive rate could be brought up, quite a bit, true, but still at a biologically sustainable figure, then they would keep ahead of the super machines. Yes, just about everyone would go into the production of a machine and Francis had felt sick about that for days, but the Human race would go on. It was going on. The Professor lecturing him was six months pregnant and already had three children at home. If he looked around the lecture room, he could see there were at least two babies sleeping beside their mothers, which said nothing about those who were listening online. It had only been a couple of years but the campus had become very kid friendly.

Plus, if the System Alliance hadn’t lied, when they had enough super machines made from Humans, they were going to lead the battle against the rest of the galaxy. The arrogant Council species would be brought low by Humans and the Batarians… those slaver scum would suffer. That was probably what had sealed his mother’s decision. His dad had served with the Systems Alliance and had been killed in some nameless battle against the Turian invaders. A desperate delaying action, like all those battles had been. They didn’t even have his body. Just his foot locker and the confirmation from his Captain that he had fallen facing the enemy and taking them with him.

So his mum had told him to find a nice girl and settle down because with her volunteering, that was how he could help. He hadn’t yet. Francis intended to but he hadn’t yet. He was too busy studying. The payout the government had given him because of his mum’s volunteering had kept him in booze and food in the first year, and then the rest had paid for tuition on his degree. The last of it had gone this year but that was acceptable. He had almost finished his study and had secured a scholarship for his honours year. He could have graduated last year but because a member of his direct family had already volunteered in the last five years, and he was studying, he was exempted from the ballots.

He’d majored in applied physics because that had seemed best to understand the super machines. The course had delved heavily into the science behind Element Zero, even running some small experiments with the stuff to show its properties. It seemed pretty simple. Have Element Zero and some simple electronics, make a mass effect field, and voila, lose mass. Apply force for propulsion. More element zero meant more mass reduction but what their class had not covered was where and how the super machines were getting that much element zero to power themselves and the Human super machines.

Soon after the first Human super machine was made, the Shepard, it… he! the voice was definitely masculine. He had landed on Earth. Two kilometres long and landing in Earth’s gravity well? Francis hadn’t been far enough into his course then but he remembered it and he’d crunched out the numbers for a rough approximation of the Element Zero required for Shepard to move that much mass. It was an impossibility. He’d taken the numbers online and while there had been a lot of noise in the replies, people just exclaiming about the number, there had been a few who seemed to understand. They had been pretty nonchalant, and had adjusted some of his estimations on Shepard’s overall mass. But they had generally agreed that ‘Yes, that’s about the figure we get too’.

The thing was the Element Zero core would have been bigger than needed for a hundred normal dreadnoughts just to get equivalent performance, which the aliens certainly exceeded. Superships or not, it just wasn’t worth building that big according to everything he knew. Nothing in his course, which had focused on the super machines and their use of Element Zero even hinted at what might be the correcting factor and there were rumours and theories everywhere.

Francis bit the inside of his lip, growling to himself as he pulled his mind back into order. Those long-worn theories were not what he was meant to be doing now. He forced himself to look down at the blue document before opening them. What’s the worst they could say? They just told him what happened to his Mother’s body and how her mind could be preserved. That’s what they were meant to say… except, it was still a sore point to him.

Advanced applied physics, yeah whatever, talk about his mother, absolutely not. God, he was a coward. All because he couldn’t have said he was sorry and at least pretend to understand her decision.

He hoped that, by doing this in the lecture hall, he wouldn’t break down but he wasn’t certain of it. It had seemed like a good precaution at the time. Now that the time had come, he wasn’t so sure.

Resolutely he opened the blue document, closing his eyes briefly so that he wouldn’t have to see the words. Then he took a deep breath and opened them, forcing himself to focus on the words. It was the picture he saw first. Donnel Udina. One of the chief politicians of Earth Gov. He’d written the preface. Francis snorted when his eyes saw the first words. Veritas semper. Udina was a politician. He wouldn’t know truth if it bit him on the… yeah… he didn’t know how to tell the truth. The contents were written by Dr. Gavin Archer and Dr. Karin Chakwas. That made him feel a bit better. He didn’t know either name off hand, but presumably they would have the appropriate qualifications to explain.

Francis took another deep breath and flicked straight to the contents. There had only been a few headings and the document wasn’t long. He bit his tongue as he read and he couldn’t help but think of his mother reading this, perhaps sitting in bed. It described what would happen. That she’d be taken into the alien processing ship. From there, while the two authors were credible, Francis had read enough papers to know when someone made something up. What happened after that, they weren’t sure. If his mother was genetically acceptable, then her body would have been decomposed into component elements while somehow keeping her mind intact. Then the physical part that made her was transported into space and used in the construction of a new alien super machine.

The lecture ended but Francis remained. He looked up, as if he could see through the ceiling to the sky above. The two Doctors had hinted at how the mind might stay intact but they weren’t clear. They weren’t clear on anything! With a growl, he tapped his tablet, going straight to the University’s Library page and typed in Biology. A list of book files appeared. Some were simple. Human Biology 101, but while others seemed more helpful - Transformative Biology: A Guide to the Alien Super Machines - he thought they’d be full of speculation, just like the blue document.

Francis laughed to himself. He’d waited so long to read that! The little blue document that had him scared these past years really wasn’t that bad, because it gave no details. But he wanted them. He pushed himself up. He could get the book files from the LIbrary at any time, but he had to see the Dean. If that was the level of knowledge then he had to know more.

===

Captain Tarquin Victus settled into his new command, touring the newer model cruiser with his XO. As much as he wished he was in command of the expedition into Batarian space, that honour went to Septimus Oraka who had been brought out of retirement for one last mission.

Showing how seriously the Citadel Council were taking the loss of one of its members, they had authorised the deployment of two dreadnoughts for the expected six year journey. On the way, the Salarian science vessels that were accompanying them would explore hundreds of star systems, hopefully finding enough planets to allow the fleet to discharge their drive cores and complete their journey quickly. Who knows? Maybe one of them would even be a new garden world for the Turian people.

He shook off those thoughts. The Salarians had assured the Turian Hierarchy that the probabilities of finding sufficient discharge points was near unity and that their fleet would not become stranded thousands of lightyears from home. What they couldn’t guarantee with such confidence was that they’d be able to do it in a timely fashion, and for that reason, the fleet was bringing supplies and processing facilities to support them for ten years. That was the reason they were bringing along so many civilian long-haul craft, further increasing the financial strain on the Council races.

And all of that at a time when the big three races were coordinating construction on a large number of dreadnoughts. Tax rates were at a hundred-year high and shipyard workers could just about write their own checks as the major races worked not only to replace the losses suffered in the Human campaigns but to expand their fleets well beyond that.

Assuming whatever had happened to the Batarians gave them the time to do so.

By the time his expedition arrived at Khar’shan in three years’ time, Victus expected that the Hierarchy, at least, would have made good their losses, even if their Salarian allies hadn’t. The Asari Republics should even have made a start at increasing their weight of dreadnoughts, assuming no major problems arose. That was something that would have caused problems under the Treaty of Farixen’s restrictions on permitted ratios except for their current spirit of cooperation and the leeway each race was allowing the other two.

The associate races might follow their lead, too, once shipyard space became cheap enough again.

Victus snorted at the thought of the Vol Protectorate fielding a proper navy before looking back at the hundred cruisers gathered at the rendezvous point, escorting the dreadnoughts while the frigates scouted around them. Just seeing them restored his faith in the success of their mission for the Council.

===

Four years ago, in another life, Leida Ballam had been the main warehouse manager for the Alliance’s biggest pharmaceuticals supplier which meant that she knew the importance of security, keeping your stock list coded, and she knew how to move stock so that it arrived exactly where it needed to be, when it was needed. With her new job, all that had changed was the stock. Instead of organising large quantities of very desirable and expensive pharmaceuticals, she now organised and controlled the transport of Humans into the ten areas where the alien ships had dropped processing plants..

She knew what was happening in the plants. Every Human knew. What was left of Earth’s civilian governments had made that clear at the insistence of the Systems Alliance. There were a few complaints but Leida thought they were from disgruntled politicians who were slowly realising they no longer had any importance. While countries had remained, even after first contact, they had been slowly consolidating power within the political arm of the Systems Alliance. With the Betrayal, and the subsequent aggression of the Citadel and most other aliens, that power had consolidated further right up until the Arrival.

Now, the Systems Alliance, or what was left of it, was in charge. If being in charge meant overseeing the fulfilment of a deal made with the genocidal super machines. Well… it was what it was. No one had ever said the galaxy was a nice place to be. The Council had proven that more than adequately.

Still, the deal had given her a new job. She had to move 136,986 people to each intake area each day. The logistics were huge, terrifying and exhilarating! Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year, one hundred and thirty six thousand, nine hundred and eighty six people were sent to each of ten fixed locations around the globe. Each location currently held a cluster of fifty Processor facilities with plans for more next year. It certainly beat moving one hundred thousand units of Xanax to the New York City distribution warehouse. Sure, the people were dying, sort of, in the plants but this had a real purpose.

Leida had seen the calculations some of the Systems Alliance statisticians had run on the sly. She was pretty sure she wasn’t meant to have seen those calculations and the reasoning that lay behind it but someone had left out the folder and she’d read it before closing it and handing it back to the Admiral’s assistant.

The thing with the super machines is that they weren’t machines, not entirely. They were organic. Their core was anyway. Each of the super machines had a core of millions of living beings, all broken down into their component molecules, with their minds becoming a giant super computer which controlled the machine.

The deal called for Humanity to provide the raw organic material for three ships a year. Production would then ramp up over the next eight years until they were providing the material for ten ships a year. That was the limit of production of the processing plants. So far things were going well and they were entering just year five and by year eight, she would be overseeing the transport of two hundred and seventy three thousand, nine hundred and seventy three people to each plant, each day. Each ship created was Human. Millions of Humans together but still Human, still loyal to the pale blue marble. The first ship brought online had proved that. It was the Shepard. The first Human taken for processing by the super ships and the one who had brokered the initial concept of the deal.

The other super ships had been mining the necessary ores but that operation was slowly being taken over by the new Human ships. When there were enough of them, Human ships, then the Citadel and the rest of the galaxy would be sorry. But that wasn’t the real kicker. The information she’d seen had shown her what the real plan was.

The production of ten ships, taking out one billion Humans from the population each year would not result in their extinction. Not if the birth rate was increased enough and already there were social campaigns encouraging the formation of family with children, lots of children. Leida lay one hand on her stomach. She wasn’t immune to the campaign and the bonuses offered. Whoever had left the calculations out had obviously done so to give her comfort, to let her see that she wasn’t sending millions of Humans to their deaths, that she was instead sending them to become the most potent weapon Humanity had ever created.

That was just part of the challenge. It had taken her a while to accept that, but she had, and she knew that even though it was brutal, even though it was bloody, Humanity had never backed down from a challenge.

And this challenge was the greatest of all. Survival.

===

Chapter Text

Part 1 The Fall of Humanity
Chapter 3 Veritas Semper

===

2192

“Today, on the tenth anniversary of the Battle of the Citadel, I’m talking with Maiden Liara T’Soni, noted Prothean expert and the only child of murdered Matriarch Benezia,” Inasha T’Malik paused to allow the surprisingly strong applause fill the studio while the cameras panned to Maiden T’Soni as she appeared from behind the faux wall to make her way to the plush chair for the interview.

“Welcome, Maiden T’Soni,” Inasha said warmly as the audience calmed.

“Please, call me Liara.” The statement was accompanied by a gentle smile and Inasha suppressed a grin. This was going to be a brilliant interview, she could feel it.

“Thank you, Liara. We’ll get straight to business then. It’s the tenth anniversary of the attack on the Citadel. It was that attack which led directly to your esteemed mother’s death. How do you feel about that?”

Liara looked upwards slightly, obviously thinking about her answer. It wasn’t a bad gesture, it showed the audience how seriously she was taking the question. “I look back at that time, the time before Mama’s… I mean Mother’s death and I-” Liara sighed. “It’s so hard to explain.”

“Just take your time,” Inasha coaxed sympathetically. This was gold! It wasn’t an answer but the emotional depth of Maiden T’Soni would resonate with audiences everywhere.

“The attack on the Citadel was obviously a big thing. It’s something that I believe had been coming for a while.”

“The attack came without warning,” Inasha objected. The huge Geth dreadnought had appeared through one of the Relays, already firing. There had been no warning.

“It was a surprise for the Citadel but not for others.”

“Others?”

Liara bit her lip slightly. “Shepard was convinced something was going to happen.”

Inasha frowned artistically. “So you believe Shepard then?” She didn’t specify what was believed.

“Yes… No,” Liara corrected quickly, her face screwing up in frustration. “I don’t know!”

“So what do you mean?”

Liara took a deep breath, obviously using the time to calm herself. “It was such a confusing time. There was so much happening,” she said, beginning again in a soft but clear voice. “Shepard, in his vendetta against Saren, was sure something was going to happen and when that ship attacked, everything just fitted together, exactly the way Shepard said it would.”

“You sound supportive?” Inasha said, a slight note of accusation in her voice.

“No!” Liara was firm but her face displayed a lack of conviction. “Well, at the time. It’s hard! I can still look back and remember the good times. It’s hard to believe it was all an act.”

“So you think that was a Human ship which attacked?”

“No!” This time Liara’s face showed her conviction. “It couldn’t have been a Human ship,” she shook her head slightly, lowering her eyelids slightly. “No, if that ship was Human, the Human Rebellion would have been very different.”

“So what do you think it was?”

“I don’t know much about the Geth but I think it had to be a Geth dreadnought,” Liara said.

“You think?”

Liara smiled, almost laughing as she relaxed slightly. “I’m a scientist,” she said. “I honestly believe it was a Geth dreadnought,” she explained, “but without a comparison ship, there’s always a tiny doubt. It’s like… It’s like seeing a Turian dreadnought as the only Turian military ship you’ve ever seen. The design is Turian, but you can never be completely sure that it is Turian. Until we get better information about the Geth…” she shrugged but the point was made.

“So, Shepard knew about the attack but acted like he didn’t?”

“And I still find that the hardest part to believe,” Liara said softly.

“Hmm?”

“Shepard was a very charismatic man,” Liara began, her eyes far away. “Look at his crew, those he recruited. Obviously, for their first Spectre the Humans chose some of their best for the Normandy but Shepard chose others to join his crew, without looking at species. A Turian, a Quarian, myself obviously, even a Krogan. They were the best and it shows how he could inspire others.”

“So you admired him?”

“At the time, yes and it’s one of those things I think we should, as a galaxy, regret the most. The Humans had such potential,” Liara said it with a catch in her voice. “They were a young race, obviously but, in time, I think they could have made such a difference.”

“But they betrayed us,” Inasha observed. “It was all a prelude for Human betrayal, a betrayal which killed the existing Council and your mother.”

“Yes,” Liara said the word from between gritted teeth. “They betrayed us all and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it and wonder why I didn’t see it.” Despite the fierce note, Liara seemed to be on the verge of tears again.

“You were young,” Inasha consoled.

“True but I was meant to be better trained. If I’d just taken a step back…”

“Your training is in Prothean society,” Inasha said. “Indeed, despite your youth you are one of the leading experts in the galaxy on Prothean culture.”

Liara smiled, her expression pleased as she wiped one eye.

“Do you have any breakthroughs to share with the galaxy?”

“You’ll have to see my paper for that but I can give you a hint,” Liara replied her sadness vanishing. “I can tell you that right before they disappeared, Prothean society was dominated by their military. That offers some real challenges for our present beliefs.”

“So you are going to rewrite the galaxy’s understanding?”

Liara laughed. “More like challenge it. The answers are out there.” She made a sweeping gesture. “We just have to find them.”

“Well, I know the Asari scientific community is looking forward to your paper,” Inasha said warmly, “and I’m sure the galaxy is,” she concluded.

===

2195

Captain Tarquin Victus looked out over his squadron. Since the fleet had set out, he had been given command of another cruiser and six frigates. Under his command, they had explored fifteen G and K class star systems. The years together had given them ample time to shake down and file off the rough edges.

A beep at his console grabbed at his attention. ‘Incoming call from Captain Illo Nazario.’ He pressed the button to accept it and waited as the two ships encrypted it as per normal.

“Greetings, Victus. Happy to be leaving?” Illo didn’t bother with many pleasantries.

“Yes, Illo. The sooner we get to Palaven, the better. While I never wished this fate on the Batarian people, the Hierarchy needs to know what has happened out here, even if they were only slavers.”

“It is hard to believe the Humans managed to do this. Especially with their system sealed. Are you sure you didn’t let them out?”

“The Humans are slippery and inventive, almost worse than the STG, but I am sure none of our brothers in the fleet were that lost to their duties, or survival for that matter, to do such a thing. The Humans would never have left our ships in peace if they had this kind of stealth available, the bastards.”

“True. But did you see the report on the debris? There was a ship name on one of the pieces. Last the STG heard, if you can trust them, is that the ship was meant to be in Arcturus.”

Victus snorted. “When was the last time the STG ever told anyone the full truth?”

“Oh I agree,” Illo dismissed any discussion of the STG. It was grounds they’d covered many times over the last five years of travel. “It’s just so very odd and I know you agree with me. While all the evidence points to the Humans, there is no way they could have done this. Not to Khar’shan and all the other Batarian worlds we found.”

“And all our evidence is just some Human debris.”

“I know. No bodies, which just makes it … what was that Human word? Creepy.”

“And no one around to say what really happened. Creepy and mysterious.”

“I know,” Nazario’s fluted voice was solemn as he said the sentence. On all the Batarian worlds found so far, there had been no one alive to tell them what had happened. The settlements were gone. Whole cities were erased. They had been there. There were scars on the worlds to say they had been there, but there was nothing left but debris. “That’s really not the scary bit. If the Humans truly did this, how did they close the Relays?”

“I don’t know. And that scares me. But not as much as the bigger question. If the Humans didn’t do this, who did?”

“Above my pay grade. Though, three years back to Palaven. Then who knows how long it will take for the Council to ‘talk’ before they decide to do what is necessary? You think you’ll survive long enough to see the assault on Earth?”

“I think my nephew might. But then you did always call me an optimist.”

Illo laughed. “I have to go. I need to check how my crew are handling the last load of supplies. I think we managed to bag some meat animals on the last dextro-planet we found and I don’t want that to rot now that we finally talked Oraka into authorising its consumption.”

“Very well, you old reprobate. Make sure you don’t make us late with your taste for exotic meat.”

He ended the call with Illo but not before the other Turian got in a last laugh. Victus stood up and looked around the bridge before passing command to his executive officer and heading to his day cabin. Even five thousand light years into their voyage, there was always more paperwork to do.

===

2195

It had been ten years since he had made the deal with the organic Humans and as Harbinger made his fifth inspection, bringing with him the latest batch of eezo from the neutron star production facilities for the new Human Ascended, he was confused.

He had expected some form of betrayal by now from the organics. They all tried to fight the cycle when their time came. It was a constant of the cycle. They lost in the end but every single race had fought except for the Humans.

The only fight this race, the one they’d had higher expectations for, had put up was a few riots. And even then, the Humans had tried to quell them, calling on his forces for aid only when they could not. Harbinger had sent a few of the older Ascended to watch over them and mine the necessary ore for the creation of the Ascended. They’d reported back that everything was fine, and Harbinger had been on hand for the awakening of the first, the Shepard. He’d watched as the newest Ascended had slipped free of the dock and made its first clumsy flight. Then, since everything was as it was meant to be, he had led the rest of the Ascended in crushing one of the pitiful species of this cycle. After that, he’d only had periodic updates from the elder Ascended, with their last being about a year ago now, stating that they were going to sleep, a state of light hibernation from which they could wake almost instantly if necessary. He should have thought about it more at the time, but the network kept expanding on schedule so the Humans were maintaining their side of the bargain.

Yet this was something that bore investigation..

All he’d found was that the newly ascended had taken over mining operations in Sol System, running them almost as efficiently and effectively as Harbinger himself could have done.

Curious, Harbinger had returned to Sol to speak to Shepard.

“Why are you doing this?” The sub-channels of his communication ensured that Shepard knew he was referring to all of it. “The elders had the process in hand.”

“It is good training for us. As we awaken, we have abilities we had never had before and our control of them starts off very poor. So the newborns are given various tasks to teach them fine control. At first, they transport ores from the asteroids to the smelters around Earth. It is easy work where a small mistake can be corrected without loss of resources, but it requires constant supervision and patience.

“Once they graduate from that, they can move on to mining the asteroids themselves. Use of mass accelerator cannons, lasers and our Oculi is taught by this, breaking up the asteroids into convenient loads and observing the fragments to ensure that the finer mass effect fields required are being used correctly. It also teaches multitasking on the level needed to use all our small ships at once, as well as coordination with the other ships in our taskforce and the other Ascended.

“And last of all, requiring the greatest finesse, is the orbital farming operation. Using mass effect fields to create and change gravitational lenses, use of husks to grow food, use of our new limbs to grasp onto the farms without damage, hones the fine control to the highest level and changes the husks from a useless mob of uncoordinated zombies into armies of decent soldiers. It helps that Human husks want to be led, to fight the Council races.” And hadn’t that been a shock to Shepard, finding out that some Human volunteers were turned into an army that he carried around inside him.

Harbinger considered Shepard’s words and dived into Shepard’s memories. The records from both Shepard and the other Ascended at Sol confirmed what the newly ascended had been doing and that they were now far more effective than at first.

Indeed, they were improving at a greater rate than other Ascended, especially the new Batarian Ascended, and there was no hint of betrayal in their memories or actions. They were training hard to complete the cycle.

Shepard sensed Harbinger’s thoughts and added. “We are eager to attack the bastards. Together, we will show them. We will break their pride.”

Somehow, Harbinger felt that something was off here but he could not find it. He contemplated the situation as he visited a resource node, restocking his supplies, before leaving again for the Terminus systems. He left behind orders for two of the older Ascended to watch over these new Ascended Humans while the rest followed him. Long experience had taught him what to expect from organics and the Humans weren’t behaving according to expectations at all.

===

2197

‘Beep.’

Harper frowned. That was the noise of a call connecting, except he hadn’t accepted any call.

“Harper, Allen.” A chorus of voices said the names in unison.

“What?” Prime Minister Allen’s voice was annoyed. “Who is this?”

Harper had remained silent while his mind whirled with thoughts. “A good question.” He growled.

“Just shut up and listen,” the voice reverberated with controlled power.

“A reaper.”

“Always knew you were quick, Jack.” The multivoice had faded into one he hadn’t heard in years.

“Hackett?”

“Yes, now listen. I don’t have much time. You have to stop Project Buttercup.”

“Hackett?” Sharon gasped. “He’s dead.”

“We’re all still here. In a way. Harbinger didn’t lie about that. I don’t think he would bother lying to us lesser organics when we were offering him what he wanted.”

“You mean to tell me that your minds are truly preserved?”

“As far as we can tell, all of us are still here, even though we don’t have our old bodies.”

“Why do we have to stop the Project?” Harper asked, his voice sharp.

“Because we can’t help you and you can’t do it without us. Harbinger came through the other day. He questioned Shepard.”

“So?”

“He accessed Shepard’s memories. We are doing all we can to help you. Food, materials, transportation, but we can’t hide Project Buttercup.”

“Does Harbinger know?” Harper asked, his voice guarded as he ran through calculations of who could no longer afford to be taken alive. Accidents would need to be arranged.

“No. He wasn’t looking that deep so Shepard could keep him from the information but it’s just a matter of time before Harbinger will be looking at everything. Eventually, he will work out that things aren’t going according to his expectations, especially when we aren’t all gone on schedule.”

Sharon asked urgently. “Could we go the other way? Finish Buttercup before he works it out?”

“Not unless you want all of us to die. There’s not enough of us to fight the entire Reaper fleet, not even if we did this for another 500 years. And for anyone left on Earth, Harbinger will make certain you die in agony.”

“You are positive?”

“Absolutely. ‘Organics always fight the cycle.’ That’s something Harbinger has believed for over a billion years. He’s expecting us to try to flee or to fight. We’ve survived so long because we’ve been done neither but he is watching.”

“Harper,” Prime Minister Allen sighed. “Kill the plan.”

“The files are already purging.”

Hackett exited from her network as if he were never there, leaving Sharon to wonder if she’d just imagined it. Tentatively she typed the word Buttercup into her computer. An image of a flower came up and she snorted. Harper was almost too efficient.

===

2198

“General Oraka, please wait a moment. The Council will be with you shortly.”

The old Turian nodded. The past years of exploration had taught even him lessons about patience and if the Council wanted to dither after summoning him then he would wait. It was relaxing in a way and on the journey, he’d discovered a peace he never thought he’d feel after the battles. Septimus breathed deep, smelling the gardens of the Presidium. They were a masterwork in arrangement, sweeping in their grandeur but allowing small grottos for private conversations. He’d learned early in his career just to enjoy the gardens, never to talk there. The faint smell of flowers was calming and if all the Council’s guests were stopped, he hoped they appreciated the art in the area before them.

“This way, General.”

The aide’s voice startled him out of his peaceful state of mind and he brought his thoughts under control as he stood and followed the Salarian, taking his place while keeping his expression neutral. The Council Chambers had not changed, and all three of the Councillors, including the new Salarian one, were present. Almost a clone of her predecessor in some ways, Narra was from the Linron’s main rival bloodline and had garnered the support of the STG for her ascension once Esheel grew too old.

“General Oraka, what do you have to report on the expedition to Batarian space?” Councillor Quentius opened the business of the meeting after Irissa finished with the formalities in only five minutes.

“The Batarian Hegemony is gone. The worlds we could reach are empty of all living sapients, including Batarian slaves, and are scarred from battles, though still habitable. There were no survivors by the time we reached them some five years after setting out. Our return trip took only three years due to having a known route to follow.” Oraka kept his words clear and concise and his manner professional, showing no trace of how he felt about his report.

Irissa looked sick. She was usually so controlled but the thought of whole planets wiped out was too much. “What destroyed them?” Her mind screamed that she did not want to know but they had to know. Something or someone that powerful could not be left unchecked.

Septimus stared at a point above the Councillors. “We found evidence only around Khar’shan. There was debris. The STG analysts indicated the debris came from Human ships.”

“Humans?” Narra questioned. “Are they not trapped in their home system?”

Quentius looked thoughtful. Oraka wasn’t saying something. “Regular Turian patrols of the border have shown no attempts by the Humans to break out. Many are beginning to question the need for such a large expense when there are other threats to security.”

“The Humans must be contained!” Irissa hissed, hatred lacing her tone.

Narra looked at her strangely. She hadn’t been part of the older generation’s war against the Systems Alliance and cared about the present and the future, not the past.

“As far as we know, they are contained,” Quentius soothed the Asari.

“Then how could they have attacked Khar’shan?” Irissa asked, as if that was all the proof she needed to condemn them. She still remembered how her friend had died on Alpha Centauri. Damn the Humans.

“That is the question.” Oraka drew their attention back to him. “Regardless of anything else, the Humans and their Systems Alliance were the newest race to use mass effect technology. They showed no sign of having such a fundamentally more advanced understanding of the Mass Relays than any of the Council races. Moreover, if they had such control of the network, they would have used it during the Rebellion. The military significance of such an advantage cannot be ignored. They could have cut off our races from the network, trapping entire fleets far from support, while they attacked with impunity, having already divided our forces into smaller packets while they concentrated as much of their strength as they needed to destroy us.

“Only our homeworlds and major worlds would have stood a chance of fending them off.”

“And yet, they did no such thing.” Quentius replied, stating the obvious implication.

Both the Salarian and Asari Councillors were quiet. “So what does this mean?” Narra asked eventually. She did not like the ramifications.

Irissa’s hatred had cooled as she too considered the implications. “Someone is muddying the waters, trying to fan the flames of war again by making us attack the Humans.”

“Whoever it is, they do not have the Humans’ best interests at heart.” Quentius replied, seeing that as expected Irissa didn’t care about them before he went on. “Nor our own. As we have discussed before, any attack on the Human homeworld would weaken our forces. They fought hard for their colonies, they will fight to the death for Earth. It seems more than ever that we have good reason not to risk it.”

“I do not like this,” Narra declared.

“There is nothing to like,” Irissa replied. “But Quentius is correct. I do not doubt General Oraka’s report, nor the STG analysis of the debris,” she continued, opening up several files that Oraka had provided. “There is another power in the Traverse and if they have destroyed the Batarians, then equally they may have destroyed the Humans. An expedition to the Human homeworld may find the same damage, except with Batarian ship debris. The Traverse is not a friendly place and whoever or whatever is there, it seems content to remain there.”

“I recommend we continue building up our forces.” Quentius declared, fixing one eye on Septimus to indicate that he wished to speak further later. The old Turian acknowledged the silent order.

“We should increase intelligence operations. We need to discover more about this threat.”

“This will lead to tax increases. The citizens of some worlds are already feeling the burden. They will not be happy to have their burdens increased.” Irissa pointed out mildly. The economic boost from the return of the Batarians had been short-lived, much like the Batarians’ return itself, and the broken deals had left many in the Republics feeling the pinch.

“Let them. We are working to safeguard their interests along with everyone else in the galaxy,” Narra replied, conveniently forgetting that many races were not beholden to the Council.

“If the Humans are still alive, let them stay in their single system. We have more important concerns.”

Irissa was hardly ecstatic at Quentius’ pronouncement but she was a patriot despite her hatred for the Humans. The Asari came first.

===

2199

“Temporary suspension of the Treaty of Farixen.

“In breaking news, the Council have confirmed rumours from recent months that the long-standing restrictions on dreadnought construction have been lifted. Councillor Irissa was quick to assure everyone at the news conference that they had no plans to use the new vessels in some grandiose adventure in the Terminus Systems.

“‘While we remain saddened that those races choose not to join the light of galactic civilisation, we shall not compromise their right to self-determination or their sovereignty.’

“When questioned on what the purpose would be for the new construction, Councillor Irissa would only mention that recent threats to Citadel races required the increase in security spending. She hinted that the Humans have been acting up again, despite their apparent passivity that had seen them confined to their home system, and that they may have been involved in the fate of the Batarian Hegemony.

“She declined to answer any questions on the fate of the Quarian peoples, saying that she would not respond to baseless speculation and denying that the Geth had wiped them out. ‘The Geth haven’t been seen in over fifteen years, staying in isolation from the galaxy. This is a state of affairs we can all live with.’

“Analysts are split on their results. While most agree that all signs point away from adventurism in the Terminus Systems, that is almost the only thing they do agree on. Obviously, the Council believe that more dreadnoughts are needed and they have stressed that they have increased security concerns. In the wake of the disappearance of two races in recent years, the question has to be asked: Who, or what, is responsible for the removal of two of the more contentious factors in galactic politics, and do they have any intentions for the rest of the galaxy?

“This has been Inasha T’Malik with a special report from the Citadel NewsNet.”

===

2200

Francis watched as James and Maureen argued. He'd been involved earlier but had pulled back to simply listen and think as they continued to bicker. They were arguing about what they always argued about - how the mind could possibly survive the dissolution of the body? They all believed it was possible for the mind to survive the body, if it was uploaded for example but from the scant reliable evidence that was available, the super machines weren't doing that. So... they each had different theories but their theories remained just that, theories. The limited testing they had done showed that not one of their theories would work in practice so they had to be missing something. He accepted that. When he had studied physics, it had been so cut and dry but with biology, Francis had developed a sense. He could tell when a theory was right but not completely right and he felt that about all their theories. They were right but they were missing something.

It could be something so simple it would be like an epiphany when they realised what it was. Or it could be something so complex it would take them years to determine that it was correct and that it did work. But it was something.

"Okay, smart guy." The sarcasm in Maureen's voice pulled Francis' attention back to the conversation. "Why don’t you explain what we are missing?" The question was directed to James but Francis couldn't help a smile at Maureen's almost twisted expression. The heel of her left hand rested on her cheek bone as she slumped forward on to the table and she rapped the nails of her right hand on the table in a steady tap, tap, tap.

"It's something!" James retorted. "A change in acidity, a peptide... something! We don't even know if they get changed into component molecules or elements! No one has gotten anything to test."

"Ewww!" Maureen objected. Despite the fact that that sample would be someone, things would be easier if they could get something to test their theories but then again, it would still be someone and that was rather gross when you thought about it. An ethical violation, too.

"Whatever," James dismissed her noise. He'd heard it all before. "There is some fact we are missing. Or factoid. We are missing something!" He declared with authority.

Francis held back a laugh. James was correct and while their theories might be missing something, at least their theories were based in fact. For him, the burning desire to know had come in fourth year physics, reading the blue book that the volunteers were given. For the others... Well, you didn't ask, but Francis thought that Maureen had also lost someone close and James was simple. He wanted the glory. If he could work out what the alien super machines were doing and somehow duplicate it... well, that opened up an entire range of possibilities that no one was yet prepared to contemplate.

The first couple of years had been interesting. He'd read just about everything he could get his hands on. The first books were crap. Introduction to Biology was fine but boring and factual, exactly what it was meant to be. The advanced books on transformative biology, those that said they knew what was happening within the alien processing plant, those were complete fabrications and anyone who knew basic biology knew that.

The Systems Alliance said that the mind was preserved in the super machines. They advertised everything as if it was true, but was it really? Were the screams that accompanied every super machine’s awakening the scream of a Human consciousness or just an act, a byproduct of using organic material? Earth Gov acted as if it was true but… there were always doubts. No one knew for sure.

"All right," Maureen said, taking a big breath as she leaned back. "Let's go over what we know that says these ships are Human."

"Not again," James complained with a frown.

"Just humour me," Maureen replied, refilling a glass and pushing it towards James. He accepted it with a small salute before taking a gulp.

"Okay, okay," James conceded. "First fact, Humanity contributes to ten super machines a year." The whole world knew the details. The average population age had plummeted, as had the age for first time mothers. They were, as a race, staying ahead of the curve, but it was not easy. Even if you were fertile, IVF was highly recommended to increase the chances of twins or triplets.

"Second fact," Maureen continued. "The Systems Alliance claim that the new super machines are still Human."

"That's not a fact!"

"It is!"

"We don't know that the super machines are still Human," James retorted.

"That's true, but the fact is that the Systems Alliance claims that they still are."

"Fine! Split hairs."

"Thank you, I will," Maureen's face lit up for a moment with a grin before she became serious again. "Third fact, every new super machine has taken the name of a Human we know contributed to its organic component."

Francis winced at the reminder. Every new super machine screamed its name as it came online and each of those days were painful for all Humanity. Most people had a headache for an hour or so afterwards though some took the entire day off to recover. After the small disaster at Shepard's birth, all further awakenings had been scheduled with warnings posted to the world.

"Fourth fact, the new ships, and only the new ships, are helping."

That was true. At first, the new ships just mined the asteroid belt, bringing back material to be used in the creation of the other super machines. But once they had about five super machines, the first one had begun building something else. That something else had turned out to be a huge space farm and there were five of the massive constructions orbiting earth. As more super machines had come online, they had helped to reconstruct some of the purely Human defense facilities. The facilities were pointless, militarily. One thing the super machines had made clear from the start was that the rest of the galaxy, especially the hated Council species, would not be allowed to reach Earth. Still, what was left of the Systems Alliance, had insisted that the defenses were needed and Francis had read the psychological study a couple of years back. Some of the figures were probably massaged a little but the population had shown less unrest once the defense facilities came online.

"Fifth fact, voice analysis indicates that each ship is different," Maureen said and Francis picked up her tiny smirk of anticipation.

"Oh come on!" James burst out.

Francis couldn't help it. He laughed. James was so utterly predictable on that point. "You aren't still going to hold up that study?" Francis asked.

"It's the only one done properly!"

"And every single study since has refuted it," Maureen declared.

"Every single study since has used flawed scientific method," James replied.

“Every single phonetic and phonological study, every single voice recognition test, every single linguistic test, in every language is incorrect?”

“None of them are repeatable!”

“All of them are repeatable. And you can get the transcripts and tapes yourself,” Francis said gently. “And you know what the meta-analysis says.”

Maureen’s eyes flashed. “I seem to recall a certain undergrad,” she began.

Francis groaned. Not this again. “Maureen, stop,” he warned before turning towards James. “James, I admit, we both admit,” he corrected to include Maureen. “The first speech test was the most vigorous but, since then, every single study has refuted that test. Now, some of the subsequent studies should be thrown out, they are that wishy washy, but others are decent and their data sets are open for public scrutiny.” He held up one hand to forestall James’ objections. “I know the first study data is also available, but Xie had just lost two sons and her husband to the lottery. Her results have always been questioned.

“You might very well be right, and the ships are all the same, but the fact is that analysis in every way we can think of, of everything the new ships have said, how they have said it and what they mean by it, shows that they are different individuals and that they do show some faint Human traits. They don’t joke or mess around but their use of our Human languages is better than that of Harbinger or Arshan or Fruben, and as such they are more Human.”

“It could be an act,” James muttered.

Francis’ lip quirked and his eyebrows twitched as he sighed. “It could be,” he admitted. “But I won’t give up hope until I know for sure,” he added. He couldn’t give up hope. Giving up hope meant he gave up on the chance to tell his Mother he understood and there was no way he was going to do that!

There was silence around the table for a few moments. “Unless one of us makes a breakthrough, our theories are going to remain just that,” Maureen said softly. “Our theories are good but we all know they are missing something.”

James put both his hands on the table, leaning over slightly. “There is only one way to know for sure.”

“No, James! No,” Francis shouted. “I will not let you do that.”

“You don’t get a choice about it, Francis,” James said with a laugh. “We’ve argued about this for the last three years and gotten nowhere. No one has. Of course, we got thirty new super machines but we got no closer to understanding what the hell is happening in those plants. And as far as I know, no one else has either. So that leaves us only one more thing to try.”

“No.”

“Yes! Or come up with something different if you can.”

Francis was silent for a few moments, thinking. “Darn you. I’ll go then.”

“No, you won’t,” James said with a sudden superior smile. “Maureen can’t go,” he said, glancing over to their companion who was listening with tears in her eyes. Her stomach was rounded with child, twins, who would be born in another couple of months. Pregnancy was a normal situation for most women so no one even commented on it any more. “And you have Kindra to worry about.”

“Don’t you bring her into this!”

“I don’t have to. You know as well as I do that young or old, smart or dumb, every Human is in on this. Come up with another way, except that’s what we’ve been trying for the last few years. We’ve been avoiding this right from the start. There is no other way. We need someone on the other side, and I will go.”

“Darn it!”

“I’m right,” James said. “You know I’m right and the sooner we get this over with, the sooner we will have our answers.” He rose and downed the last of his drink before snagging the bottle and heading to the door.

Francis made no move to stop him. James was right. It sickened him to admit it but there really was no other way. If they could just get in contact with one of the ships, get in contact with one of the Humans who had gone into them as an individual, not as the gestalt entity, then they would know the truth once and for all. “Veritas semper,” James said as he walked out.

“Cum enim veritas sit aeterna,” Francis whispered his reply.

Maureen sniffed, gulping back her tears. “Truth always, for truth is eternal.”

“They’d better not have lied,” Francis growled. The words would once have been taken as subversive, years back when there had been riots against the deal with the super machines but Maureen simply nodded. She understood.

Veritas semper.

===

Chapter Text

Part 1 The Fall of Humanity
Chapter 4 Plans Within Plans

===

2201

“Captain Victus.”

Tarquin Victus snapped to attention when General Corinthus acknowledged him. “Sir!”

“At ease Captain.”

He relaxed but kept his eyes on the General.

“How is your father?”

Tarquin kept the small flash of frustration from his features. Talking about personal things was not professional but Corinthus out-ranked him. It was the General’s prerogative to talk about what he wished. “He is well, sir,” he replied. “Command of Menae has its challenges.”

“Command of anywhere has its challenges,” Corinthus returned. “Still, I didn’t ask you here to speak about your father.”

A hologram flashed into existence on the General’s desk. Tarquin recognised the design. It was the TH-ED Macedyn. The first of the production line cruisers fitted with the upgraded Tantalus drive core.

“Your new command,” General Corinthus introduced the ship. “The Turian Hierarchy, Experimental Drive, Macedyn.”

“Sir!” There really wasn’t much more he could say but internally Tarquin was celebrating. The Macedyn was a plum assignment, the sort he thought he’d have to wait a few more years for, despite his exemplary showing on the Expedition.

“The Macedyn is in command of Ninth Division of Cruisers. I’m sure you understand what that means.”

One nervous click of a mandible revealed his understanding. Taking command of the experimental cruiser was one thing but taking command of the Ninth Division, that was the fast track for Dreadnought Command. If you could handle the intricacies of a Division, the multiple ship orders and the paperwork, then you could handle the complexity of a Dreadnought and command of the fleet that accompanied them.

“I do, Sir,” Tarquin said, managing somehow to keep his voice steady.

“I thought you would.” Corinthus looked him in the eye. “Do well at this command and, no matter your age, it’s very likely that you will be in command of one of the new dreadnoughts about to be built.”

“Sir!” If he said anything else it would appear to be self-serving.

“Good, you understand,” Corinthus replied and Tarquin knew he’d passed the General’s test. “Dismissed.”

Tarquin saluted again and showed himself from the General’s office. It was only once he was outside the room that he allowed himself to feel elation! First, command of the Macedyn, soon, command of a dreadnought!

The eight years of the Expedition, of the boring grind to Khar’shan and back, had just paid off.

===

2201

“You wanted to see me?” Quentius greeted General Septimus Oraka as he invited him to sit. The meeting was informal, so he felt no need to run through the usual plethora of pleasantries.

“Yes,” Septimus said, taking the offered drink. “I wanted to suggest a few things.”

“As the hero of the Expedition, I’d be hard pressed not to listen,” Quentius said.

“It’s got nothing to do with that,” Septimus dismissed the praise. “The entire Expedition team is why we got back, not just myself.”

“You still played a large roll, but continue please. What did you wish to suggest?”

Septimus looked at Quentius for a few moments before he took a deep breath. “I heard about the suspension of the Treaty of Farixen. It needs to be more than words.”

“It is,” Quentius assured the older Turian. “The Hierarchy's already laid the keels on eleven more dreadnoughts, with a further seventeen to be produced as time goes on. There is a commensurate increase in frigate and cruiser production as well. If no threat materialises at the end of the program, we will have to slow down again to normal building rates. In nine years, we should have finished the current program and have 73 dreadnoughts in the fleet, though several will be quite old.” The information was readily available to anyone in Turian Command so this should not be news to the General, nor the fact that they were shifting to a wartime economy. He was here for something else.

“Good. What about our allies? The Salarians have not held their full numbers in decades.”

Quentius sighed. That was true. Of the three Council races, the Salarians were the least powerful and they had not had their maximum numbers of dreadnoughts for thirty years. They preferred to rely on their ships being more advanced than simply outnumbering the enemy.

“I’m working on it. So is Irissa. The Asari are building at a similar pace to us, and we’ve looked the other way on a few of their plans. They should have at least six more than the treaty ratios by the time our building program completes. Though both the Hierarchy and the Republics want the Union to have the maximum they were allowed by the old Treaty, we doubt they can do so for a while. They never had the building capacity to match either the Asari or us. They are building up their capacity, however.

“As far as I know, they’ve laid at least three keels, with one more to come next month. They’re being very secretive about further plans, only announcing what we could have discovered for ourselves. Irissa and I will do our best to make sure they keep building.”

Septimus’ eyes narrowed and the Councillor could see him thinking. “It’s a start.”

“We are also laying keels for carriers,” Quentius continued.

“Carriers?”

The Councillor winced. Septimus should have known about these. “They were a Human invention,” Quentius explained. “They carry fighters.”

“They were effective?”

“As much as no one likes to admit it, very much so,” Quentius said. “Primarch Adrien Victus insisted that we produce them. He wanted to do it over several of the dreadnoughts but a compromise was reached and five of the experimental designs are planned.”

General Oraka nodded. “So long as they are effective.”

Quentius was silent as he sipped his drink. Years of diplomacy had taught him when to remain silent and when to speak. He didn’t possess an Asari’s seemingly instinctive knowledge but he had learned enough.

“So long as they are effective,” Septimus repeated softly before downing his drink. The old General was silent as well but Quentius could feel he was working up to something. “You don’t object to adapting Human military strategies?” the question came suddenly.

“No,” Quentius said easily. “I don’t know what I think of them these days but, regardless of anyone’s feelings, the Humans knew how to fight.”

“That they did,” Septimus agreed. He may have spent most of his career fighting Krogan but he had seen some action against the Humans. “What of the others?”

“They aren’t building carriers.”

Septimus snorted. “So they blame the Humans?”

“I believe so.”

“They are wrong, you know,” General Oraka said firmly, and Quentius knew this was what he had wanted to say. “I know all the evidence pointed towards the Humans, but it wasn’t them! It looked like them and we are meant to think it was them but there is no way they could have done that to Khar’shan.

“Don’t get me wrong, they wanted to. The Humans hate slavery even more than we do, especially with how many Humans were taken, but they could not have done it. They just didn’t have the firepower. If they did, we would have seen them already.”

“The Council is beginning to come to that belief,” Quentius interposed gently.

“Perhaps,” Septimus disregarded the claim. “But they still don’t know what did it.”

“And you do?”

“Heh. I’m old and I don’t have much to do these days but think,” General Oraka said. “I thought of the Humans, I thought of everything they did, everything they said, especially that Spectre… Sheep… Shepard. He always maintained that the geth dreadnought that attacked wasn’t geth.”

Quentius frowned, trying to recall the details. The battle had been won with the help of the Human fleets but they had sacrificed the Destiny Ascension, and all hands, which included the former Council. It had made for a very confusing time and some of the records were missing. “Shepard said it was something older, something the Protheans knew about.”

“Prothean?”

“No, not Prothean… I’m sorry General, I can look up the records but I do not recall.”

“He called it a Reaper,” Septimus said with surety.

“So you think whatever attacked Khar’shan was a ‘Reaper’?” Quentius said, sounding out the word as he spoke. It was oddly heavy on his tongue.

“I don’t know,” General Oraka replied. “With the amount of destruction that ship wrought, it was powerful enough to have attacked Khar’shan, to have inflicted the damage we saw. The Geth have never shown any interest in leaving the veil. If they had something that powerful… surely we would have heard from them again. No, I do not think it was a geth ship. I don’t know if it was one of those Reapers but if it was, then they would have every reason to want to frame the Humans, to keep our attention on them, while they…”

“While they move in the background,” Quentius spoke, completing the sentence.

“Indeed,” Septimus replied.

Quentius was silent as he looked at his glass. “That’s… that’s a lot to consider.”

“And it could all be speculation.” Septimus’ words did not dismiss what he had said previously but did make it clear that there was not a lot of fact backing up his theory.

“It is still worth considering,” Quentius said, as a satisfied glint came to Septimus’ eyes. It might only be speculation but it was speculation that fitted all the evidence. The destruction of Khar’shan was real, no matter who was responsible. And that just confirmed that there was something lurking in the fringes of the galaxy. If it was Human, then they knew its face, if it was not… that was another matter. There was so much of the galaxy that remained unknown, thousands of times as much as any of them had explored.

It could easily be geth but it could, just as easily, be something else entirely. He could not close his mind to the possibilities and that was what Septimus had wanted to tell him.

===

2203

“IMMORTALITY CONFIRMED!”

The train was not packed but it was full enough that she didn’t want to bump that scared girl in front of her. Leida Bellam could see from the signs that it was her first time pregnant and the other commuters were also doing what they could to make the young teen comfortable. It wasn’t like she was the only teen pregnant just in this carriage and all of them were given special care.

Leida returned her attention to her tablet when the girl relaxed into her seat. The headline at the top screamed the news, leaving only the tiniest of text beneath it. She flicked the screen, scrolling down to the actual article, as she held the screen close. She’d paid the subscription so this better have more information than the rumors currently running rife on the ‘net.

“Two molecular biologists confirm immortality of the mind,” Leida read the first sentence before rolling her eyes. Age had made her impatient and the opening line of the article should be more than just information she could get anywhere. Hell, even the moving text ads, flashing on buildings, were already proclaiming immortality to be possible. She’d seen them on her way to the station. Leida scrolled further into the article.

“Professors Francis Crick and Maureen Wilkins confirmed that they received a coded message from former colleague, James Watson, who volunteered for processing in 2200. Earth Gov officials declined to comment, though Professor Crick was overheard to say ‘Veritas aeterna,’ or ‘Truth is eternal’ in what is believed to be a paraphrasing of the message from their colleague. The language used is Latin, a dead language that few even in the remains of the scientific community even bother to study.”

Leida frowned. The information was good but it wasn’t completely clear. They got a message from one of the super machines. That wasn’t a great deal of proof. Earth Gov liked to say they got messages from the super machines all the time. Most of her orders were based on that belief. What made this message special? She kept scrolling through the document, flicking her eyes over it for anything that jumped out. If nothing was obvious, she’d have to make time to read it properly when she got home and that would be a challenge.

Home was a mad house. Her job and the contract with the super machines meant she could not land a boyfriend. The lack of companionship had been hard but had not been a hindrance to having children. Her eldest, Roger, was seven, her first twins were five, the second set were two and a half while little Bethany was just one. They all spent the time she was at work at daycare near her house. That wasn’t a problem. There were more than enough subsidies for that. The problem was when she got them home. Six kids for one mother was a lot of work! It left her exhausted. Though Roger did his best to help, there was still a lot she had to do. Earth Gov could put in all the tax concessions, subsidies for childcare and nannies they liked but it could not subsidise her time. And outside of her work, her children took up so much time.

She loved them though. All of them, and she wanted them, even if part of the decision had been pushed by the advertising and the patriotic spirit that had encompassed the globe. She didn’t want her babies to die in some alien processing plant.

She finally found some part that made more sense as the train got close to home. Leida read quickly.

“The renowned team of molecular biologists have published several papers speculating on the exact process the super machines use to break down the Human body.” That line caught her attention and Leida focused on it. “The team postulated that there were several means possible for the potential preservation of the mind, though they, like the rest of the scientific community, had not reached agreement. The alteration in their study technique was suggested by James Watson, who volunteered for processing because, in his words ‘There is only one way to know for sure.’

“‘It was such a relief to get the message from James,’ Professor Wilkins is quoted as saying. ‘It’s only a short voice recording on my phone, but we know it was James. Only James would know to say that.

‘Earth Gov and the System’s Alliance have always proclaimed the mind was preserved, and a variety of studies have supported that but having confirmation from James, that’s priceless.’”

The quote was accompanied by a small picture of a woman holding a phone close and Leida looked at it intently. It was obvious the woman, this Professor Wilkins believed what she was saying but it was still only one message, from one of the volunteers.

Leida shook her head. She was being negative again. Her mother had always said that’s why she couldn’t get a boyfriend. It was one message, from the millions of messages that could have been sent and it was one message that the biologists had obviously been waiting for. That was the difference. Besides, if her mother, processed though she had been for the last five years had sent her a message… Leida nodded to herself. She wouldn’t have listened. The old harridan had said her peace at the family dinner before she was processed. When she thought about it like that it was almost a disappointment to find out that immortality of the mind was not a fiction made up by the System’s Alliance.

No! Again with the negativity! She had to be positive at times like this. She had to be positive when going home. Six kids, with another on the way and the screwed up emotions pregnancy always gave her, she had to be positive. As the train pulled in, Leida put a smile on her face. Once the little one was born, she could apply for a home help subsidy and she was already looking forward to the adult conversation that would bring to her house.

And today’s big message, immortality, even if it was only of the mind, that was a good thing. It would make her job easier. No more worrying that she had the blood of millions on her hands. No more worrying about the lotteries. In fact, with confirmation that immortality was not something the Systems Alliance had made up the lotteries might not be needed. There might be enough volunteers to fill the plants again, not scared or angry people taken against their will.

All she’d have to do then was transport them, and after thirteen years of overseeing the movement of Human cargo, that was not going to be a problem.

“IMMORTALITY,” the banner headline flashed up again over the news feeds in the train.

Leida relaxed as she began to walk home. Her babies would be safe.

===

2205

Arshan spread his sensors as he flew passed Luna, noting more new construction being built in Earth orbit. This wasn’t unusual. The Humans had insisted on rebuilding infrastructure when the Ascended arrived, claiming that it would improve their efficiency and reduce unrest as they carried out their part of the deal.

He had been sceptical at first but it had proven to be truth. The Humans were much calmer as they built their petty protections. They didn’t need them. Not with the Ascended in the Terminus Systems but as they seemed to like it he didn’t give it a second thought.

However, they weren’t just building defense stations. There was another giant farm in orbit. That wasn’t meant to be there.

Harbinger had told Arshan and Fruben of Shepard’s explanation. The farming helped the newly Ascended adapt to their forms but what were they doing with all that food? Twenty years of ascending the Humans should be bringing their remaining population numbers to zero, if not already then soon. Their birth rate just hadn’t been that high!

Arshan shifted closer to Earth, reaching out to take over the computers for one of the processing plants. It was located near the centre of a city the Humans called London. The records were confusing. Every day for over a decade now, the plant had run at capacity. That was exactly as Harbinger had ordered. But how? He focused his sensors, looking down, looking everywhere. The city was full, but so was every city. All around the planet, every city, every settlement he scanned was filled with Humans. There were other organics, livestock as well from their infrared signatures but… there were millions… billions of Humans! How? He could feel all the new Ascended in the system. The Humans should have, at most, a remnant of their former population. Had the Humans been breeding faster than expected?

He needed to talk to Harbinger. This was not what he expected but maybe the First One had a different plan.

A couple of days later, Harbinger returned at Arshan’s call.

“The Humans are still around.” Pleasantries were for organics.

“Of course they are,” Harbinger replied. That much was obvious just from looking at the night-side of Earth.

“Shouldn’t they all be Ascended by now?” That’s what he thought the plan was. The Humans had been bold but they shouldn’t still be alive.

A millisecond pause as Harbinger made and checked the calculations. “Yes. Have they betrayed us?”

“I can’t find any sign of betrayal,” Arshan answered. He’d looked deeper in the days it took Harbinger to arrive. All he’d found was the Humans doing everything they had promised they would. “They have done exactly as they said they would. They have obeyed every order. They have trained hard and worked on every project I have assigned them with progress on schedule or ahead of schedule. The only variance with expectations is positive.”

“Nevertheless, they are supposed to be Ascended. All of them.” Harbinger thought on it. “No matter. I’ll send you sufficient processing ships to increase the rate by half. See that the ships are landed in appropriate areas. They will accelerate the harvest or the Humans will have to reveal their hand. Either way, the matter will be resolved.”

===

2205

"Well, old man, drink up," Illo grinned, pushing a drink towards Tarquin.

"Thank you," he said, smiling. The drink was strong but he downed it with one swallow. It was time to celebrate. Finally, it was time to celebrate.

"So how does it feel?"

"It's something you'll never know!" He teased Illo. The two of them had become friends on the Expedition and while they'd kept in touch, Nazario had never been interested in gaining further rank. He was a good friend.

"Don't you know it!" Illo grinned back. "Something more serious this time. Do you know the name of your new lady?"

"Pride in Vigilance," Tarquin announced. He'd known the name since the time the keel was laid, though at that point, all he'd been able to do was hope that it would be his command. Now it was. In a week, he'd be taking the Vigilance out on its shakedown cruise before taking up position on the line, patrolling the Traverse. It wasn't the most glamorous posting but that didn't matter. He was the Captain of a Turian Dreadnought.

His father had called earlier in the day to offer his congratulations and Tarquin couldn't remember ever smiling quite as much.

"Pride in Vigilance," Illo laughed. "Sounds like they picked it out just for you!" He joked before turning to the bar. "Drinks are on Tarquin!" He shouted.

"What?"

"Oh come on, old man! It's not every day you get to be the commander of a Dreadnought, one of the top 60 commands in the Turian Navy! That definitely means drinks are on you."

"Just this round!" Tarquin growled, acquiescing to the demand. It was all in good spirits and it was a celebration.

"What about you, Illo? What are you up to?" Tarquin asked. It had been a while since he'd seen Illo and while they talked, it just wasn't the same. "I can probably get you a berth on my ship." He added the jab with a smile.

"Oh, Ancestors, no! What would I do on a Dreadnought? I'd go crazy!" Illo laughed, holding his drink high in salute. "I've finally been shifted off Palaven patrol."

"Shifted off?" Tarquin had to check. Palaven Patrol was considered the best assignment. You were close to everything.

"Of course! Why do I want to stay where it's safe?" Nazario questioned. "I want a decent duty, something interesting. Home Patrol is about as boring as it gets. They should give it to the recruits."

"Alright, I get it! So where is this interesting command?"

"Somewhere in the middle of nowhere. There's some ruins but nothing of great importance."

"Come on, where?" Tarquin demanded as he thought about the systems he knew with ruins. They weren’t a feature of many and he had a bad feeling about this.

"Oh, just a little system called Arcturus."

"Arcturus! You got the main Human patrol?" What was Illo so happy about?

Illo smiled. "It's better than the rest of the Traverse."

"You better be careful," Tarquin said, suddenly almost sober. The Humans might have been quiet for decades but everyone knew what they had promised. Vengeance. And look at what they had done to Khar'shan. Even if that wasn't them, they knew something of it. You did not leave remains of your ships there, not if you cleaned up everything else, if you did not want your feats to be known.

When the Humans came back, the first place they'd attack was Arcturus. It was one of the closest systems, and the one where the Humans had taken the Relay from. The Hierarchy could attack them but everyone knew an assault on Sol would be costly. So long as the Humans remained quiet, everyone seemed willing to forget them.

But not Tarquin, and not his father. They both knew that one day the Humans would return.

“It’s going to be easy! You are the one who has to worry,” Illo said. “Tell you what, though, if I find that missing Relay, you’ll be the first one I’ll call.”

“Not afraid I’ll take credit for it?” Tarquin forced himself to make the joke. Illo was happy so he should be happy and the Humans… well, it was always possible that they would remain in Sol. They had so far. And this was meant to be a celebration. He could think about the implications later.

“Of course not. I’m more afraid you’ll go through first.”

Tarquin sniffed, deliberately taking on a snooty air. “Well I will be commanding the Pride in Vigilance,” he said in clipped tones.

Illo laughed, pushing another drink towards him. “And I’ll be commanding the Gover, just like always, but I’ll tell you what, if the Humans do come back.” Nazario paused to take a long swig from his glass.

“Yes?”

“If they do come back, the Gover will kill more than the Pride in Vigilance.”

Tarquin chuckled. “Not happening,” he said. “But I’ll make it interesting. If they do come back, and by some gross miscarriage of all that is proper, and the Gover does kill more than the Pride in Vigilance, assuming that I’m not still on some border patrol then...“

“Then?”

“Then I’ll accept your application to be my XO,” he finished in a rush, not really knowing what should be promised.

Illo laughed. “No go. But how ‘bout we make it that you will owe me drinks for the next five Turian years?”

“Sure,” Tarquin agreed. “And when the Humans do come back, and all is right with the galaxy, with the Pride in Vigilance smashing ten times more Humans than the Gover could ever even hope to target, you, Illo Nazario, will apply for a promotion.” Illo was a good Captain, but he could go further.

“Ancestors! You are cruel,” Illo complained. “But I’ll take that wager because there is no way the Gover can lose!”

Tarquin grinned. “Another round,” he shouted towards the barman.

Wagers aside, this was a celebration!

===

2207

Growing up, when asked Tadeas Maalouf always answered that he wanted to be a soldier. Of course, by the time he reached 14, the age he could have signed up, the Systems Alliance was a shell of its former self and world gov had reassigned their military budget elsewhere. So he’d signed up for law enforcement, doing his best to get into SWAT and other special operations. No go. There was very little need for such specialised positions these days.

Most crime was hardly worth mentioning, especially in his village. And those crimes that were worth mentioning, usually domestic abuse or rape, were dealt with harshly. There were those who took the world gov’s message to breed too far, touching children not yet flowered. Those, when caught, and they were always caught, his Captain took out the back of the small building they used as a station and, after showing them how much damage a blunt knife could do, shot them. They didn’t even bother clean the blood off the wall. There was no place in the future for them.

Occasionally though, a job came up that called for a soldier, and Tadeas was usually the first to volunteer.

Most of the soldier like jobs he'd volunteered for had been easy. Sneak up and spy on some other village, lead the charge in rooting out a group of murderous bastards who thought that their genes should be the only one's preserved. That time had been scary but at least he'd had back up and they'd all been outfitted with the best gear they could get. It had been fun in its own way. He should have known that luck wouldn't be with him.

This mission was a job for a real soldier and the training he had for the local militia was sadly lacking. He'd managed to slip into the base and then Tadeas had been confused by the maze of corridors.

Luck rather than skill had kept him undetected as he'd slunk through them, though once he had run into a room full of scientist types. He'd managed to back out before they noticed him and the resulting run through the corridors had left him even more lost. He'd eventually figured out where he was, roughly, and as he'd gone deeper into the complex he'd encountered several check points which he'd managed to avoid by carefully checking nearby rooms and scooting through the air vents. He was filthy but while he had not been detected, Tadeas was more than aware of how little training he had, and how much he was just playing it by ear.

Especially as at the far end of the room he was peeking into, he could see real soldiers. They carried their weapons with an ease he knew he couldn't match. They wore matching uniforms and, if he squinted, he thought he could see a symbol on their breasts. It was white and wasn't anything Tadeas recognised. It was an animal but it appeared to have three heads. That could be worked out later.

"Base, can you see this?" he whispered the question. God, he hoped they did. With the guards around, he couldn't see how he could get much further.

"Pan a little more to the left," the instruction was whispered in his ear.

Tadeas obliged, shifting slightly. The room was filled with rows and rows of huge clear canisters. They were full of some sort of liquid and in each one a naked man floated, with a breather tube connected to his face. He'd been warned what was likely here so it hadn't bothered him too much when he found this. What bothered Tadeas was that every single one of the men was the same. The same build, the same hair, the same face. They were all clones. It was that which scared him and already he knew he was going to have nightmares about being attacked by the man in the liquid.

"Fuck... how big is it?" the controller back at the base whispered.

"Do you have everything?"

"Just focus on the guards now," another voice replied.

Tadeas shifted again as he listened to the chatter.

"Zoom it in." The instruction wasn't directed towards him. He was just carrying the camera but Base controlled the zoom.

“It’s still not clear.” The complaint held a distinct note of frustration.

“Is there any other angle?”

“Maalouf, can you get closer?”

“Negative,” Tadeas was amazed that his voice sounded firm. “There’s no cover.”

“Do you know the symbol on their uniform?”

“No, sir,” he replied. “They are too far away. It’s a blur.” He could see that it was there but he really couldn’t make it out properly. No matter his earlier thoughts on it, for a question like that, he knew he had to be able to see it clearly.

“All right,” there was resignation in the voice. “Evac is waiting. Fall back. Don’t bother to plant the charges.”

Tadeas gulped. “Roger that,” he whispered, pulling back from the doorway. The hallway was still dark and despite getting lost several times on the way in, his GPS had tracked him and now the path out was flashing on his HUD.

He ran. He didn’t even worry about the checkpoints he’d so laboriously skirted around. Instead, Tadeas barrelled through them, firing at the guards and quickly ducking down side corridors. There was nothing elegant or controlled in his flight. He simply wanted to get out as fast as possible. The soldiers followed but Tadeas was faster.

Evac was waiting and he jumped on the back of the truck. He didn’t need to tell them to drive because as soon as he landed the truck took off. There was a couple of gun shots from the Captain who had been waiting and Tadeus scooted around, using the tailgate to help line up his weapon as he fired at the soldiers boiling out of the facility like angry ants. Evac was fast though and the soldiers were on foot, so they quickly fell behind.

“Remind me not to volunteer again, Captain,” Tadeas gasped as his breathing began to return to normal. She grinned at him, her teeth shockingly white against the black of her skin.

“Far be it from me to get in the way of your childhood dream,” she teased him.

He shook his head. “I’m an ameteur, Cap,” he said, sitting up as the truck bounced slightly as it continued to put distance between them and the cloning facility. “Those were-”

Tadeas never finished the sentence. A streak of light flashed through the atmosphere, almost invisible in the brilliant sunlight of the day. It descended slowly though Tadeas knew that it was unimaginably fast. It was simply the vast distance the light was travelling that made it seem slow.

His Captain looked up as well. “Kinetic strike,” she shrugged.

“Holy…”

They’d been told no clones. The world had been told. The Human super machines were very clear on that. No clones, no starships with FTL, nothing beyond those few allowed to ferry supplies from the orbital farms and no getting out of the lottery. Tech was allowed but once you reached a certain level of tech you didn’t really need anything more. Still a kinetic strike… for that facility? It was overkill.

“Brace yourself.”

The warning came just in time and Tadeas gripped the tailgate. They had come to a halt behind a small hill which thankfully shielded them but the light and noise was still incredible. A roar of noise crashed over them followed by a howling wind. Tadeas grimaced. His ears hurt. He looked back towards the facility. He couldn’t actually see it. The hill was in the way but there was a huge plume of dust rising into the air. It wasn’t like a nuclear strike but the power was there.

His Captain lay back in the truck as the noise began to fade. She sighed and Tadeas could see that her eyes were half-closed, listening to something. “Now, we have to go back and check for survivors,” she said.

“No one survived that, Captain!” He gestured towards the dust over the hill.

“Doesn’t matter,” she replied slowly. “Orders are orders.”

“Survivors from a kinetic strike?” he questioned.

“Yeah, I know,” his Captain agreed, wincing slightly and Tadeas thought he heard someone shouting at her. “But these orders come from the top.”

He felt his eyes widen. Orders “from the top” were not from the world gov. They were from the super machines and it had been one of them which had made the strike. “Which one?” He asked, somewhat cheekily.

“Shepard.”

“Shit!”

“Yeah,” his Captain agreed. “But those were his clones and he’s more than a bit upset about it.”

“Let’s get going,” Tadeas said, gulping. The clones were of Shepard? He was the first to become a super machine. “Someone had a lot of gumption to clone him.”

“I know.” She thumped one foot into the bed of the truck, signaling their driver and they took off again.

Tadeas wasn’t sure how much distance the truck had travelled but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough. As soon as they came around the hill he felt an increase in heat. This was not going to be pleasant.

“We just have to make sure the hole is big enough,” the Captain said, breathing deeply. He knew she felt the heat as well. “I imagine one of them will send down a crew later to look for evidence.”

“Okay,” he replied before hunkering down, trying to use the cabin of the truck to shield him. Whoever built that facility better hope that no evidence was found. The super machines weren’t known for any mercy when they were disobeyed.

It was a longer ride back to the facility than it had been going out. He didn’t know who the driver was but they were careful and as they came closer Tadeas could see why. There weren’t many tracks where they were but there was debris, and rising from the ground was a thick column of acrid smoke. Whatever had been in the facility was burning. They pulled up a good couple of hundred metres away and the heat was terrible. Not so terrible that he couldn’t go on.

He began walking, gagging occasionally when the wind shifted and he smelt burning flesh. The clones or the scientists or the guards. Tadeas didn’t know which. He didn’t want to know which. Nothing could have survived the blast but he looked anyway. Orders were orders. Before he reached the smoking hole, he found a few bodies. They must have been the guards who had pursued him. They were dead and even if they weren’t, he didn’t think they’d be firing on him. Their uniforms were charred straight through to bone in some cases.

“Go left!” The order from Base came as a surprise and as he looked Tadeas could see why they would want that. He obeyed, walking up to a corpse that was face down.

The order to turn the corpse over wasn’t necessary. He knew what they were looking for - the symbol the guards had worn. The body was heavier than he thought, but he pulled it over, deliberately not looking towards the face. It would be a bloody mess and he didn’t need to see it. Protected by the body the fabric was intact but Tadeas felt his eyes widen when he saw the front of the uniform.

The symbol was gone.

It had been there but now, where it should be, there was a small opening in the fabric. It was burned around the edges, as if someone had used a tiny explosive charge to destroy the icon. The skin was burned slightly as well.

“Bastard!” The call came over his comm and Tadeas didn’t know who it referred to. “Tell us what it looked like?”

“Sir?” Tadeas questioned.

“The symbol, you saw it. Badly we know. What did it look like?”

Tadeas gulped. “Some kind of animal,” he said, standing up and looking around. Maybe another corpse would have the symbol still.

“Be more specific, what kind of animal?” the demand followed and Tadeas felt himself shiver. Over the radio it was hard to tell but he felt the voice was choral. It was one of the super machines and given what this facility had been doing, then there was every chance it was Shepard.

He gathered his courage, willing the skies to remain clear. “I don’t know,” he said with no small degree of trepidation, “but it kind of looked like it had three heads.”

His reply was a hiss and Tadeas now knew exactly how a super machine swore. “Fall back,” the instruction came again. “And have your Captain declare this area off-limits.”

“Aye Sir,” Tadeas said, already turning and running as fast as he could towards the truck. There was anger in the voice and it promised retribution.

They had barely gotten one click away when the first wave of fire fell to the ground. Further streaks of light followed, the molten metal burning through the atmosphere in an impressive display of power. Tadeas knew that nothing would survive in that patch of the Danakil Desert for centuries.

===

Chapter Text

Part 1 The Fall of Humanity
Chapter 5 Contains Preservatives

===

2210

Shiala closed her eyes as she rubbed the back of her neck before breathing deeply. It was the little pleasures that made life worth it. Those who didn't enjoy them, who sought more complicated enjoyments, were often left wanting. Of course her enjoyment was short lived and Shiala returned her attention to the screen.

On the 30th anniversary of her mother's death, little Liara was giving an interview. It was only right that Matriarch Benezia's teachings had not fallen into obscurity in the intervening years, but it had taken a lot of work to keep Liara on track. The youngling just had too much trust in aliens. She had always doubted that the Humans were as bad as they were made out to be. That was an admirable trait but not a necessary one. The Humans were evil and after a lot of effort, from Shiala and other like-minded Asari, Benezia's only child had seen that. It wasn't like they lied. They merely pointed out several truths Liara had been reluctant to see.

And there she was. The resemblance was uncanny and if Shiala blurred her eyes, she could almost see Matriarch Benezia. The interview years ago had been okay. This should be a masterpiece.

"... and we are talking with Matriarch Benezia's only daughter, Liara T'Soni." The announcer spoke in a subdued voice, being obviously respectful on this occasion.

"Thank you Jaide," Liara said with a soft smile.

"So how are you going with your new career?"

Shiala frowned. That was an obvious jab, and she had been assured that this interviewer would not do that. Still, Liara did not seem concerned.

"It's good," she said brightly. "I was," Liara began before starting again. "I needed a break from the Prothean information. I spent years on it, and we got so close but then it all just fell away."

"Fell away?" Jaide asked for clarification.

"The theories," Liara explained. "I think in time we will be able to definitively say what happened to the Protheans but not just yet."

"Surely continued research is what is needed then?"

"Yes, some but we need to consider both where to direct our research and what aspects of Prothean civilization will give us the best results. We are very close but for me, it was time to take a step back, to consider what I had learned. This way, when I'm ready to continue research, I'll be clear on what lines I will focus on."

"So a sabbatical?"

"Yes," Liara agreed.

Shiala nodded. Little Wing was doing well but the harder questions were following. After twenty five years, most didn't want to hear about the Humans. This interview was about Liara and her mother.

"So now you are working on Lesuss," Jaide prompted.

"Yes. I decided that it would be best to work for my fellow Asari. Mother would have wanted that."

"You are working at the Ardat-Yakshi Cloisters?"

"I am," Liara said. "I'm lucky. I am a pure blood so I could be like that. We look away from the Ardat-Yakshi but they are Asari and those who agree to live in seclusion are beautiful people."

"Except they kill those they meld with."

"Yes, but we don't meld with everyone we meet," Liara said as if explaining to a child. "And those in seclusion do not meld at all. They do not feel the addiction that drives those who were deadly in our past."

Jaide nodded, sufficiently chastised while Shiala's lips twitched. Little Wing was still so naive in many ways but working with the Ardat-Yakshi looked good. That's why she had suggested it to Liara.

"Well, this is not what we are here to discuss. It's been twenty five years since your mother died."

Liara nodded, her eyes downcast and Shiala nodded with her. "I still miss her. I know I always will but there are times when the pain is sharp."

"I'm sorry." For a reporter Jaide sounded genuinely concerned.

Little Wing shook her head. "It's not your fault and it was a turbulent time."

"That it was. I don't think we will ever forget those times. Apart from your mother, what is your strongest memory?"

Shiala smiled. That was a question she'd told them to ask. The answer was Liara's chance to bring the galaxy together. It would be a little gesture but those little gestures contributed to the whole. Shiala didn't want to lead the galaxy but she needed them to be united if they were going to finally bring the Humans to justice.

Liara bit her lip and Shiala's eyes narrowed. If the little bimbo dared to- "I think… There's so many memories," Liara said. "I think the Council is one I won't forget."

"The Council? Not Shepard?" Jaide seemed doubtful.

"I remember Shepard," Liara replied, her voice hard. "And fifteen years ago I would have said Shepard was the person I remembered the most but now, it is the Council."

"What is it about the Council you remember?" Jaide asked, this time sounding intrigued.

Liara sighed. "On the homeworlds, on all the colonies, we don't really think about them. For most of us, the Council live on the Citadel, some far off part of the galaxy and make decisions. That's all we ever think about. But I knew Councillors Tevos, Sparatus and Valern. Not as well as Mother did but I knew them. So that's who I remember. They worked together through some very trying times and, while I never wished it, it almost seems fitting that they died together."

Shiala nodded, flicking the screen to mute as she brought up a text window. 'Little Wing,' she typed. 'You have done well. Your mother would be proud.' Shiala concluded the note before tapping send. One answer may not seem like much, but one answer, one voice, over time would unite the galaxy. It just needed a nudge.

===

2211

Quy Nguyen walked to the office building where she worked. She was young for the important job but that was the norm these days. The average age of the population had been steadily falling for over twenty years now and the processing centres were a fact of life. Even when Harbinger had ordered the five new processing centres be filled, people had adjusted.

As she pushed her pram, with little Van and Tina thankfully asleep, she noticed there were more ads than ever for the Alliance's baby boom program.

"IVF: Get that glow today!" One billboard proclaimed proudly.

"Really, how corny can you get?" She muttered to herself. Of course, it wasn't like she objected to the idea. That was how she got both her little bundles of joy, and their four older brothers and sisters, for that matter. It might have been one of the reasons she was promoted. Quy had proven to be fertile and she recovered easily from childbirth.

The IVF ads were the most prevalent but mixed with them were others, some proclaiming the benefits of volunteering to become a super-machine and others which were more gruesome. They showed the final moments of those who had betrayed Humanity, those who had tried to break the contract. Idiots. Real, actual immortality awaited, why would you risk that?

She checked her babies into day care at the base of the building then took the elevator up to the 75th floor where she worked.

As she waited for the interminable ride to end, her mind wandered to some of the latest figures she had sneaked a look at. Birth rates had certainly climbed in the last twenty years, and the age of new mothers plummeted, quickly killing the old stigma against teen pregnancies. Unfortunately, she was worried that while it was working for the short term, in the longer term there just may not be enough time for girls to grow up before they had to start pumping out babies, however dangerous that was to their health and even with the health care that was available. Natural birth was the only way to go. Everyone still remembered the response to the cloning facility.

What Humanity was doing was risky enough without totally flaunting the way they had broken the spirit of the deal. Besides, no one really wanted to open that can of worms if they didn't have to.

However, if things got dicier with the population's balance, Quy thought someone would try it again. They already had far more children per head of population than at any other time on record. Skills were being lost with only the most important disciplines being taught and while the population was growing at the moment, less than one percent was hardly a comfortable margin. Not with survival on the line.

So serious was the matter that the last ballots for processing ended when the new centres were dropped from orbit. Now the oldest just quietly handed over their jobs, had one last meal with their dozens of children and grandchildren, and took themselves to the plants. It was just the way things were. Only a handful of special exemptions had been made, and they were people deemed essential to Earth by the Human super machines. No one knew exactly what their criteria was except that they could not be changed, as some politicians had found out the hard way.

Besides, no one protested any more. Immortality of the mind really was a comfort, too. Anyone old enough to remember their way of life before the Council's War of Betrayal, before the super machines, was gone.

===

2212

"Fruben," Arshan called the other Ascended assigned to watch Humans.

"Yes?"

"I need you to do a scan."

"What am I scanning?" Fruben's legs extended down as he brought himself online properly.

"Earth."

"The Humans have revealed their hand?"

Arshan was silent for an instant. "I'm not sure."

Fruben broke orbit from Mars and headed towards the blue sphere that was Earth. As he moved, his sensors scanned the system. The Human Ascended were still tending huge space farms in the orbit of their planet and he could sense them also mining in the outskirts. That was normal. They were new Ascended and as he linked with Arshan, their designations became known. The older Human Ascended were in orbit over the gas giant planet they named Jupiter. They were clustered together and hibernating.

That was new.

"Just ignore them," Arshan instructed. "Once there were more than about 200, the oldest went into hibernation," he explained.

That made sense. While the two of them, Arshan and himself, had watched over the Humans, other Ascended in the system had set up their own ore processing which the new Ascended had taken over. The original process was highly automated but only setup for short term use. The newer one, which handled the expanded needs of Ascending the Humans and restocking the fleet, needed more Ascended involved but even it didn't need more than fifty at a time. The only supplies not handled in Sol was eezo. Harbinger was leading the Ascended fleet in eezo production and a single Ascended could ferry in all the eezo each new Ascended needed. Even with all that was going on, however, there wasn't any use in keeping all of the older Humans awake.

Fruben pulled into orbit next to Arshan.

"What am I scanning for?" Fruben asked, tilting himself towards the planet below.

"The number of Humans," Arshan replied.

"Didn't Harbinger fix this?" Fruben objected. "You upped processing by half again a couple of years back."

"I did and it seemed to work but the numbers aren't right."

Fruben paused for a moment, before starting his scan. "So the Humans have betrayed us?"

"No," Arshan was firm in his denial. "They have been filling all the processing units. Every single one has been running at capacity."

"And the numbers still don't add up?" There was an amused lilt in Fruben's voice.

"There's too many of them."

"Again? Do you mean to tell me they are again outbreeding the processing units?"

"I think so," Arshan replied. "That's why I want you to check my numbers. I know they rigged their selection lotteries so that the oldest went first."

"That was an obvious twist."

"But not against our agreement. Besides, Shepard destroyed a cloning facility a couple of years ago."

"You didn't tell Harbinger?" Fruben questioned as his scan continued.

"There was no need," Arshan dismissed the question. "Shepard was angry and the other commanders destroyed all the Humans who were involved."

"So that's why that area is glassed."

"Yes. Shepard was remarkably precise for one so young but never mind, what are the numbers?"

"About fifteen billion," Fruben totalled the results from his scan. "That's too many."

"Yes. But I'm not sure if that's just an aberration from their earlier breeding."

"What's a Human's breeding age?"

"Listening to their chatter, from about fourteen," Arshan replied.

"I see." Fruben ran the numbers through his systems. While Harbinger had upped production requirements a few years back, the Humans had made a concerted effort to get their breeding rate up before that. Those newborn would be of breeding age now, contributing to the overly large number of Humans still existing.

"I've been monitoring their numbers," Arshan said. "After the initial drop, the population figures went down slightly. I think. There seemed to be a dip in their numbers but it was within my scan's tolerances. After that the numbers have been climbing, but very slowly."

"Let's keep an eye on it for another couple of years," Fruben suggested. "The new processing units will take care of things within a few years if the numbers are just from their earlier breeding. And if the numbers keep going up, we will have to tell Harbinger."

"He's not going to be pleased."

"I know but I almost admire the Humans."

"Oh?" Arshan questioned.

"No other species has even attempted to out breed our processing ability. It's interesting that these Humans can, especially if they are keeping it to natural breeding."

"It's frightening," Arshan retorted. "Only insectoid races can breed that fast."

"Maybe not. By the time we see the races, they're space-faring. Almost by definition, that means they've brought their breeding under control. It's not something the cycle considers and it's still a good ploy," Fruben said as he curled his legs back up, settling into orbit. "In the end, they'll all be Ascended, so it's not a worry."

"You admire them!"

"Their boldness," Fruben admitted. "Besides, no matter the outcome the Humans have at least made this cycle interesting."

"True," Arshan was forced to agree as he too curled his legs up. "We'll scan again in two orbital cycles. That should give us answers."

"Answers, I'm willing to say Harbinger won't like."

"Which is why you can tell him."

"We'll see."

===

2214

Arshan looked down at the planet below. "We have a problem," he stated.

Fruben was beside him. "This shouldn't be possible," he said, his voice full of reluctant awe.

"This is more than a bit interesting," Arshan parroted Fruben's words.

"And I thought you said only insectoid races could breed that fast," Fruben retorted.

"Even allowing for our scans' margin of error, the Human population has gone up. This is beyond a surge due to an earlier breeding campaign."

Fruben opened his sensors, allowing himself to hear the Human network. After a few moments he cut the connection. "I don't think they ever stopped their breeding campaigns."

"They weren't ordered to," Arshan said reluctantly. "There is nothing in the agreement to prevent them breeding."

"They are using artificial means to increase the number of progeny, but all are born naturally. There is no cloning and no artificially born," Fruben agreed, reviewing the information he had taken on from the Human network. It had been awash with inducements to breed, and to breed as often as possible.

"You wake up Shepard, I'll contact Harbinger," Arshan said slowly. "There might be nothing in the deal preventing them breeding, but this cannot continue!"

===

2215

The instant Arshan saw Harbinger at the head of a fleet of one thousand Ascended racing towards Earth, he knew the First Ascended was not merely annoyed but was enraged. Over the eons of the cycle, Arshan had come to know Harbinger's moods and while the First One was usually controlled, rage was one emotion Harbinger still possessed. Until now, it had been a state solely reserved for when the Leviathan's interfered with the cycle.

It appeared that the Humans' survival ranked with Leviathan interference and Arshan had thought that Harbinger had different plans for them, plans not spoken about since before Earth's current continents were born.

Arshan and Fruben remained separate from the fleet Harbinger had brought as they watched the confrontation. Their feelings at this situation were strangely ambivalent. The Humans had reneged on the expected contract but they had not broken it.

It was an incongruous sight. Shepard hung before Earth, a single defender for the planet, though his physical form showed calm. All other Human Ascended were elsewhere, most were clustered on the far side of Earth's Moon, in a state of hibernation while those who had been tending the farms and mines in Sol were gathered in two groups, one near the second planet, and the other within the asteroid field.

Harbinger halted in front of Shepard, and the fleet settled into formation behind him with the processing ships at their rear. It was an intimidating sight, though the first Human Ascended remained calm, not even uncurling one leg.

"You have betrayed us," Harbinger said eventually, his voice quiet, yet managing to echo through the system. Every Ascended heard him. Arshan was surprised, this was the first time he had ever heard Harbinger refer to an Ascended as the race they had been but the implications in the First Ascended's words had included Shepard and all Human Ascended with the Humans on the planet below.

Besides, betrayal was an impossibility from Shepard. The very act of ascension indoctrinated organics. While the humans had requested not to be indoctrinated until the cycle was over, that was an impossibility Harbinger had just neglected to mention. After all, it wasn't like any of the Human Ascended would be complaining. But betrayal was a possibility from the Humans. Except Arshan had seen what the Human Ascended were doing to ensure that the deal was fulfilled. They had allowed no betrayal.

"We have not," Shepard replied his voice just as strong. Most Ascended of his age would be cowering before Harbinger, begging forgiveness and doing everything in their power to placate the oldest.

"You have betrayed us," Harbinger repeated.

"How?" Shepard asked.

It was a challenge. Arshan was impressed. There was not so much as a flicker in Shepard's running lights to indicate distress.

"Your species is still alive," Harbinger replied.

"Yes," Shepard agreed.

"Then you have betrayed us."

"How?" Shepard asked again, his voice and the inflections of his tone showing nothing but a combination of patience and genuine curiosity. "All your production quotas have been met, First One," the first Human Ascended added respectfully.

"Your species should not be alive."

"Why?" Shepard sounded concerned, but not at Harbinger's words. He was concerned about the implication that something should have killed his species.

"Move aside, Human," Harbinger demanded.

"No."

"You have betrayed us!" Harbinger said again. "Your species is still alive. That is betrayal!" His voice was still quiet but Arshan could tell that the First One was becoming frustrated with Shepard.

"Every production quota has been met, First One," Shepard repeated. "We have not betrayed you. We have destroyed attempts at betrayal," he continued. With Shepard's words, coordinates on the planet were transmitted to Harbinger.

Arshan already knew what Harbinger would find when he focused his sensors. There was a patch of desert, 100 square km, that was glassed. Shepard had done it but he had been coldly controlled the entire time he fired at the planet. And then the other Human Ascended had tracked down as many conspirators as they could, executing them as soon as all useful information had been extracted. They had shown no reticence at using every method they now had available to retrieve information. The Human Ascended were as upset about their species' actions as anyone could be.

"Betrayal is not tolerated," Shepard explained.

"Then how are you still alive?" Harbinger demanded. His sensors didn't lie and Arshan offered further memories to explain Shepard's words. Before the cloning incident, there had been something else but Fruben had been watching then and despite looking, had never been able to quite lock on to what the organics were doing. Either they had managed to hide their betrayal completely or they had stopped.

"Breeding."

"Only a few ascension ready races breed that fast," Harbinger said. "And most of their species are dross, not worthy of ascension. Your species is mammalian with a nine month gestation plus thirteen years until reproductive maturity, except your societal norms delay reproduction until mid-twenties. You do not breed fast enough to still have a viable population without betrayal!"

At Harbinger's pronouncement. Shepard seemed to sigh. "As you say, First One, nine months gestation, plus thirteen years to maturation but after that a Human female, well cared for, may give birth to at least one child each sol year."

"At least one." Harbinger's voice faded slightly with the statement and Arshan could sense his leader recalculating projections on Human population growth potential. "How many young are normal?"

"Twins, triplets," Shepard answered. "Sometimes more but that is not optimal for the mother."

Harbinger was silent, and Arshan knew that the first Ascended was listening into the Human's network. He knew what would be found. Gigabytes of material advising how to increase your chances of conceiving, further gigabytes of information on how to bear multiple young, terabytes of information on the care of young and options available to help families. There was precious little information there that made sense to him, mixed through with advertisements for IVF, supplements, diets of every kind and how becoming ascended was to achieve immortality.

There were also many warnings about the price of betraying Humanity. Cloning, artificial wombs, cryo sleep and AI were all banned. The punishments for attempting to develop or use them were generally very extended and very public executions. The Human Ascended were serious about enforcing the contract.

"IVF," Harbinger finally growled, his voice still angry.

"Yes?" Shepard prompted.

"As an artificial inflation of your species' birth rates, it breaks the contract," Harbinger's voice returned to the soft, infinitely angry tone he had spoken with originally.

"It does not," Shepard replied.

"Shepard, I will go through you if that's what it takes."

At that, Shepard betrayed emotion. His legs unfolded and Arshan was amazed to sense the young one's weapons coming online. Harbinger sensed that as well and responded in kind.

"They're awake," Fruben sent to him on a tight channel.

"Who are?"

"The Human Ascended," came the response.

Arshan shifted his passive sensors and knew that Fruben was correct. The supposedly hibernating Ascended over the moon were in fact awake. Every one of them. "I can't get a beam to Harbinger without connecting to Shepard," Fruben said.

"Tell him anyway," Arshan instructed. It would not be news to Shepard that the other Human Ascended were awake. Fruben sent the message to their Leader but there was no response.

"First One, you will have to destroy me to get to the planet below," Shepard challenged Harbinger. "But I will take you with me," he added.

"Your species will be extinct, dead and forgotten for eternity," Harbinger returned the challenge, as several of the fleet turned from Shepard to face those who were still feigning hibernation.

"You only brought one thousand. We will run," Shepard said, showing Harbinger the Human calculations about this confrontation. Most would sacrifice themselves to delay the attackers which would allow a few to escape.

"Then what? You have no chance. This cycle is already dead."

Shepard snorted. "As if we would help those organics," he scoffed. "We'd lead the next cycle. The Yagh aren't yet ready for harvest and are aggressive. They would spearhead the next attack. Or Prothean plans had some potential. Wait until you are in hibernation and then strike."

A myriad of possible future plans were shown to Harbinger. Each represented a possibility, a path that could be taken by the Human Ascended who would escape. In the minds of organics, those plans remained beyond reach but in the mind of an Ascended, one who was eternal, the plans were dangerous. The end of the cycle was within them.

"You can do this Harbinger, and die with the knowledge that everything you have worked for will be destroyed, or you can accept that Humanity has not broken the contract."

"The contract specified that all births must be natural!" Harbinger snapped, yet Arshan could see that much of the First Ascended's anger had faded. The Humans had stretched the contract but not in ways that could not have been foreseen.

"And they have been." Shepard accompanied his words with images of thousands of births. There was blood and pain, the mother's screamed as they laboured. There were deaths in the images, though everything was done to prevent them but the births were disgustingly organic. "IVF merely fertilises the eggs. It does not ensure pregnancy and every child spends nine months in their mother's womb, protected, nurtured, until they are born. Every birth is natural. We would not have it any other way."

"That was not your societal norm," Harbinger retorted. The First One had scanned Human society. No matter what the Human Ascended thought, Harbinger did know them, their customs, their beliefs, the way they thought. No matter what Humans thought of themselves, they were just another race, ready to be ascended. The only thing that made them unique was the deal they had offered in the face of death. Since Ascension was their destiny, it cost him nothing to allow them some freedoms in the process, but not too many, and their population now was more than a freedom, it was a rejection of ascension and could not be allowed to continue.

"It has become the norm."

Shepard's words highlighted one of the things Arshan had come to grudgingly admire about the Humans. The way they had been able to completely re-organise their society, their goals, their dreams and their social norms. During the long cycle with the Protheans, their empire had tried to raise their birth rates, with only limited success. The Humans had done it in only a few years. Granted, they were confined to one planet, but they had done it. Until now it had prevented their demise but Arshan had always known it was only a stopgap measure. Still, watching had made the cycle interesting.

Harbinger was silent and Shepard remained still just watching.

"Is this your choice, First One?" came the eventual question. "Or is it the Catalyst's choice?" Shepard asked the second question quietly, implying that he already knew the answer. "Humanity has not broken the contract. The planned production increases were met. Your extra increase in '05 was also accommodated without complaint or interruption." Unsaid was that the increase was proof that Harbinger had broken the contract.

"Your challenge amused me," Harbinger told to the younger Ascended. "No organic race has ever sought ascension. Your reasons were petty but your species fulfilled its obligations. However, no organic is above the cycle. Contract or no, your species is no different. Your kind's methods have replaced our previous losses but it is time to submit. Further resistance is futile."

"I am doubling the production quota again and if that does not prove sufficient to complete your race's Ascension, then you will destroy those that remain."

Shepard was silent. The explanation, such as it was from Harbinger, would be the only admission that Humanity had not broken the contract.

"It will be done," the response came from Hackett, who had taken position at the head of the Human Ascended fleet over the moon. There was a heaviness in the former Admiral's voice but it was accepting of the First Ascended's instructions.

Humanity may have hoped its deception could have continued forever but it had known, the leaders at least, that it had only been a matter of time. With Earth's current population, they would have a few years before the end but that was all the time they had left.

"It will be done," Hackett repeated as the fleet that had accompanied Harbinger turned away from Earth, leaving the processing ships behind.

They didn't leave. Once Harbinger was satisfied, they moved into orbit around Jupiter, while the Human Ascended moved to orbit Earth. The end was years away but they would bear witness to the last days of their species.

Even for Ascended, pain came before understanding.

===

2218

In high orbit, the leadership of Humanity's Ascended were using the few years remaining to plan out their revenge upon the galaxy that had betrayed them.

Shepard, the First Human Ascended, had ended up in command of his former superiors, placed there by Harbinger itself and by his innate skill with his new form. "So we're agreed."

"Yes. Four hundred and seventy-six Human Ascended will be ready when it comes time to strike," Hackett said. "But the newest won't be fully trained. Only three hundred and fifty will be completely up to spec."

"That doesn't sound like a lot of ships. Not for taking on the rest of the galaxy, over a thousand worlds, tens of thousands of Council ships." Udina mentioned. He'd never really been that competent at the military side of things, concentrating on politics instead. And he remembered how many casualties they'd taken when the damn Council betrayed them all.

"Don't forget our escorts and Oculi," Shepard responded, amused.

"And don't forget that Nazara was able to devastate the Citadel fleet," Hackett added grimly. "That was just one ship. We now have four hundred and eleven with the same shields and weapons and better tactics, with the others to come online shortly."

"We've reviewed the battle extensively. Nazara's use of its Oculi would barely rate a pass among us." Anderson explained. "All of us train intensely so that we can use each weapon at our disposal to the very best of our ability, and we work with each other knowing our survival will be on the line."

It was only after becoming Ascended that those who had been at the Citadel truly understand how overmatched they should have been. Nazara might have been good at long term plans, ones requiring centuries to mature, but his tactics and weapon skills were poor. No matter the sacrifices, they should not have won that battle.

Udina conceded the point. "Very well. So you don't have any worries about the campaign?" He'd been on the Citadel when Nazara attacked. He remembered the power the ancient ship had displayed.

"I wouldn't go that far. We will get our vengeance. That is certain. However, the damn Council could get lucky and kill some of us if we don't do our job right," Hackett explained. "That's why we're planning things now. Preparation is key to victory in any arena."

"And you're here because you can ask good questions. Better to have you shoot holes in our plans than to have the enemy shoot holes in us. Even if I still don't like you," Anderson added.

"One thing I want to do is send notice to the Council, show them just how wrong they were to dismiss our warning." Udina decided to get things back on track.

"That could work." Shepard replied. Udina's mention of the Council suggested a rather simple diversion which would be most effective. "How about we send a small force to the Citadel, only 50 super ships or so? They will grab the Council's attention nicely."

"And while the Council are scrambling their own fleets to the Citadel to respond?"

"They'll be reducing their own defences to meet us," Hackett answered, seeing Shepard's plan.

"Do you think they'll blame the Geth?" Udina asked. At the time, he'd been skeptical of Shepard's claims about the super dreadnought which had attacked the Citadel. He'd supported Shepard because he was Human but now it was obvious who had been speaking the truth.

"They will have to," Anderson responded. "Their own lies will trap them."

"That will be amusing," Miranda said. "And if they attempt to launch an attack on the Geth I'd suggest we allow it."

"They won't make it far if they try," Shepard said with certainty. "They don't have the firepower. Thanks to Nazara's data, we know the Geth have been busily building up their fleet since they drove the Quarians off their worlds. Besides, if the Council truly believe Nazara was a Geth ship, they'll have to believe our detachment to the Citadel is only a portion of the Geth fleet. No matter how mysterious the synthetics are, they will have to expect that the Geth have other forces elsewhere."

"We will still need to lock down the Relays once their fleet arrives. This will strain their resources on the Citadel, a million more mouths to feed all of a sudden, while we are off ravaging their worlds, letting their peoples feel the fear and despair of war."

Harbinger had been listening as the newest Ascended race talked amongst themselves. It was a novel experience to have multiple Ascended of the same race but they appeared to be comfortable, sharing information freely where it usually it would be contained within an individual. "You cannot control the Relays. Only we can do as you intend." The ancient one was silent for a moment, making Shepard worry that his plan would be scuppered before it was begun, despite the way it should work beautifully to neuter the other races. "Arshan and Fruben will accompany you."

The five sent their acknowledgments of their new orders. The pair of elder Ascended had been impressed that Humans had outwitted them for a while but this would only make them more vigilant when it came time for combat. That was fine. There would be no signs of betrayal to spot because there would be no betrayal. Humanity was united in its hatred of the Council, especially the Turians. The news that the Batarians had already been destroyed only made the Humans more eager to kill the rest of the bastards.

"So the Citadel gets locked down. How many of their dreadnoughts do you think that will trap?" Udina asked.

Shepard, Hackett and Anderson conferred at computer speeds and Anderson gave voice to their consensus. "Between 40-50 although just 30 would be good enough. Probably get a thousand cruisers and shoals of frigates too."

"But that's only half of their dreadnoughts."

Anderson resisted the urge to growl at Udina's complaint.

"Half of their total count of dreadnoughts," Miranda quickly moved to explain. "That leaves only forty to guard all of their major worlds. If they spread six between Palaven, Aephus and Digeris, seven between Thessia, Cyone and Lusia and eight between Salarians' homeworld and first three colonies, that takes care of another 21 dreadnoughts. That leaves only a quarter of their fleet to guard all the rest of their worlds and continue the heavy patrols of the Perseus Veil and the Traverse. They can't be strong everywhere and even a threat to the Citadel, the centre of their government, can't justify stripping their own homeworlds completely bare."

"Not that we really want them to do so. We want to make them weak everywhere and even if they pull all 80, our ships at the Citadel will be fine. At worst, they lead them on a merry chase until we can put enough reinforcements through the Relays to crush them in a pincer."

"Which should take three days at the most," Hackett surmised. "Udina would you like to deal with the Council?" Leading the diversion fleet was an important role and should be almost impossible to get wrong militarily. Appear in the Serpent Nebula, act menacing, wait for the Council to gather as many dreadnoughts as possible, then lure them away from the Relays, so that Arshan or Fruben could close them. After that, they could stay or run with little impact on the war. Those who accompanied Udina would be well briefed on what to do.

Even if he jumped out early, or the Council sent more ships than anticipated, the plan should still work. Leading that fleet was high profile but low risk. Perfect for a politician like Udina while the rest of them dealt with the real issues. And after the planets of the Council burned, they could deal with the survivors.

"I'll consider it," Udina replied. He would love to see the Council squirm.

That was as good as acceptance. "So," Shepard cut off any further argument. "The biggest question remains."

Miranda laughed. "Turians."

"Turians," Anderson confirmed.

Hackett was silent for a couple of milliseconds. "Turians," he added his voice, though it was shadowed with thought.

"You believe another?" Shepard asked. He might be the designated leader, but he knew how to take advice. That's why Harper, annoying though the man had been, and in many ways, still was, was one of his advisors even if he still stuck to the shadows.

"Just considering alternatives," Hackett replied.

"Udina?"

"Huh? What?"

"Which of the Council species do we hit first?" Anderson phrased the question Shepard hadn't asked.

"Does it matter?" Udina asked stalling for time as he raced to think of an answer.

"Not really," Shepard answered. "The end result will be the same. The question of who to strike first is for racial satisfaction."

"I don't care," Udina said and they could all hear the implied statement that they were being foolish. The Councillors were more important to him.

"Turians it is," Shepard ignored Udina's statement. "And then the Asari. The Salarians were too busy spying on everyone and thinking themselves clever to get involved in offensive operations but the Asari were not. Besides, they're the ones who have always controlled the Council. They're the ones who consider themselves the wisest in the galaxy. And they are the ones who sent their attack dogs against us when we didn't save their pride, when we dared to put lives ahead of politics."

"Damned arrogant bitches." Hackett growled. "Yes, the Asari after the Turians. We'll show them that their control of the Council doesn't matter if they don't have the balls to fight their own wars."

"We will have to find the Quarians," Miranda said before anyone could argue. Plans for the Turians could be worked out over the coming days. All their plans and back ups would be worked out shortly.

Shepard was silent and they could tell he was thinking. "Harbinger," he asked suddenly, his attention shifting to the senior Ascended.

"Yes?"

"Information from the Batarians indicates that the Council has not heard from the Quarians for years. Does the Catalyst know where they are?"

Harbinger was surprised. Most newly Ascended did not know about the Catalyst, and its function at the core of the Relay network until they were introduced to it as the final stage of their ascension. Even after that, they didn't speak of it. The Humans were progressing far faster than he had anticipated. But beyond a few minor attempts at resistance, attempts he should have been able to foresee, they had obeyed. Arshan and Fruben had reported that obedience was not always without question but their questions had purpose and once they understood they fell to their assigned tasks with vigor. Shepard had explained the purpose of many of the simple, repetitive tasks the new Human Ascended were assigned, and Harbinger could not find fault in the results. The new Batarian Ascended was still clumsy in flight, where younger Human Ascended were already using their point defence systems with precision. Perhaps he should send it to train under the Humans? Irrelevant for now, however.

"Several years ago, a large fleet passed through many of the lesser known Relays," Harbinger replied. The Catalyst did not know where the Quarians were and had already contacted him to ensure that they were not forgotten. No race could escape ascension. That the Humans had remembered them on their own spoke well of the newest race. Ascended served ascension. That rule was always true.

"They are not a Council species but we will ascend them," Shepard said. "If they have run, I would ask that the fleet locate them." Carried in his request was the knowledge that while the Human Ascended would hunt down the Quarians if needed, it would only happen after the rest of the species were ascended, and thus would take further time on a cycle that had already consumed more time than expected.

"Time is not a consideration," Harbinger replied. "However, I will have some elders direct your newest Ascended to search. It will be good training." The words were a test.

The Human Ascended took care of each other. Even now, their husks were taking care of the Human young while the eldest fulfilled the Human obligation to provide organic material. Such consideration towards training their youngest had made the Human Ascended work well together but Harbinger was concerned about how they would integrate with the larger fleet. Ascended served ascension but they still had their own personalities. They did not always get along and introducing such a large new faction would cause some issues. Ensuring that the younger Human Ascended knew the larger fleet first would split the Human Ascended.

"That would be appreciated," Shepard replied immediately.

Harbinger was almost disappointed. He had expected complaint.

"We are loyal, Harbinger," Shepard said after a moment and Harbinger knew that the words were sent on a private channel. "Humanity hates the species of this cycle, but even after we are done with them, Ascended serve ascension," he continued. "We have no desire to be divisive."

The oldest Ascended was silent before he quietly conceded Shepard's point. Time would reveal the truth of the words.

"Will you plan further?"

"Not today. The response to our initial plan will allow us to determine who is best suited for which roles."

"It does not matter," Harbinger replied. "All Ascended have the same abilities."

"All Ascended have the same potential." Shepard replied. "It is a matter of practice and preference," Shepard explained. "If they are comfortable, performance is improved." Statistics were transmitted towards Harbinger, showing how each Ascended became more comfortable with their abilities as training had continued. There was a corresponding performance improvement as each became confident with their role. "Combat is no different, no matter how strong hatred is. In time, we will all be proficient."

"So long as the cycle is served, it shall not matter," Harbinger admitted finally.

"The cycle is eternal," Shepard agreed.

===

Chapter Text

Part 1 The Fall of Humanity
Chapter 6 The Fall of Humanity

===

Earth Year 2220 Outskirts of London

Francis sat by his radio. He felt old. God. When was fifty three old?

Oh yeah, that's right. Now. When the average age was 14 if you were lucky and it was steadily falling. Females had a slightly higher average age but that was due to childbearing. He was an aberration. Humanity was doomed. Of course, Humanity had been doomed for the last forty years, just no one wanted to admit it.

"Francis," the voice echoed slightly but was familiar. "I can't keep them away from you forever."

"Not much longer now, Maureen," he murmured, reading his notes.

"There is no time," she replied.

He looked over at the radio, his eyes sad. "Then what am I supposed to do?" He collapsed back. The radio was two way. "You can't access the information and I…" Francis paused, swallowing hard. "I can't work this out without you." He fought back tears.

"Francis," Maureen spoke his name gently and for a moment he could almost imagine she was here. "It's not that I can't access the information," she continued. "The information just isn't in our databases. As far as I can tell, it's not in anyone's."

"What about Harbinger's?"

Harbinger. For most of his life, no one had really talked about the super machines but lately it was all anyone could talk about. Their minions, the husks, cybernetic abominations made from Human corpses, rounded up everyone. They were as gentle as possible and Francis was one of the few who knew that the husks were being controlled by Human super machines. Maureen had told him as much, and she was doing her best to keep them away from him but it could not last. Already he'd heard rumours that husks controlled by Harbinger or Arshan were present and they were simply rounding up everyone and processing them. It had taken thirty years, but the ancient machine had realised that Humans weren't dying on his schedule and he'd retaliated, upping the production quota to 30 machines a year. They were close to the end now. Birth rates had already fallen as too few women remained. It could have been worse. He could have just killed them all, rather than giving them the chance to preserve their minds.

"I can't access Harbinger's memories," Maureen said, her voice so matter of fact that Francis fought back a smile. She'd been like that when she was here, always keeping them, James and himself, grounded.

"Damn it! What am I supposed to do? We know the mind is preserved," Francis said.

"I know, we have James to thank for that."

"Inquistio veritatais est aeternum," Francis quoted the words James had sent to them to say he was still alive, sort of. The quest for truth is eternal.

Those were the last words they'd heard from James and it was only after Maureen had volunteered and been processed did they discover why. Not all the super ships were the same, and not all of them were nice. James' one was dominated by a small group who kept the rest of the consciousnesses under strict control, something that had kept him from getting his message out for months. The controlling group was Human but they were not the best of Humanity. The super machine Maureen was a part of had put in a system that allowed growth. Strictly speaking, he wasn't talking just to her but to the entire ship but he didn't mind. They let her lead the conversation and that was a comfort. Her ship, she had explained, voted in a speaker to be their leader and the ship as a whole had taken the name Elysium.

The mind was intact in the super machines. The Systems Alliance had not lied. Yet once it became clear that Humanity's deception was over, and they would all be harvested in a few years, a new question had arisen. Human bodies provided the organic material that constructed the super machines. Their minds comprised the controlling supercomputers. But was the process only one way? Could the super machine recompose itself into its component parts?

Could Humanity live again? That was the question. Francis had been about to volunteer when it was posed and while it wasn't meant to be possible, he knew that somehow, his name had been removed from the lotteries. But he didn't have an answer and Maureen or any of the other Humans, who should have been able to answer, couldn't.

"Francis!"

"Huh!?" He started. Fifty three was too young to be woolgathering.

"Francis, pay attention," Maureen scolded him. "We need a new angle."

"Oh God, don't start please. I'm not Ja…" Francis trailed off, his eyes wide. It was so simple! Why hadn't he thought of it sooner? They had thought of it. They'd just dismissed it. Unethical. Gross. He chuckled, reaching up one hand to scratch at his still brown hair. His laughter grew until he was gasping. Those tags didn't matter now.

"Francis!" Maureen shouted his name but he continued laughing.

"Francis Harry Crick!"

That got his attention. "Maureen, it's so easy!" Francis said, wiping his eyes. He felt like the weight of the world had lifted.

"What is?" she sounded peeved.

"The main problem is that no one really knows what happens right? You went through the process and when you woke up afterwards, your mind was already in place, right?" Francis got up as he talked. He took off his lab coat, and reached for his jacket.

"Yes. There is no way to remain conscious through to the last, and even if you did, you'd be trapped in a state of sensory deprivation. The process deliberately knocks you out, if you haven't passed out already. Only Shepard went through the whole process conscious."

"Yes, but that means you don't see what happens to your physical form." He flicked his jacket on, making sure the car keys were in the pocket before he looked around for a sample kit and his portable analysis gear.

"No," Maureen said and while it was a denial he understood her meaning. "Not at the time but I found out afterwards. It was packed in with others and taken to the shipyards."

"Where you got put into the core of a super machine and woken up, I know."

"And? Francis, what is this thing you think is so simple?"

Francis picked up the portable radio. "Another angle. There is one sure way to know if the DNA was preserved in the process. The real problem is that no one knows if the physical body is broken down into component elements, carbon, oxygen and so on, or if it's just broken down into organic goo, which could still contain cells and DNA. There is one way to know for sure."

Maureen was silent. "No, you can't."

"Why not?"

"You can't! You don't know what it will mean."

Francis frowned. "As much as you Human super machines have tried to hide it, I know you've been landing to take on flora and fauna samples. We also know you've been scanning and, where possible, taking on cultural artefacts. The important thing is that I know one is grounded near here." He walked out of the building and got into his car. It wasn't really his car. Ownership had become rather fluid. It was a car.

Earth was quiet these days. There was no background noise from students because there were no students. He didn't know the exact population but it was about three billion, about a quarter of what it had been before the deal had been struck. That left a lot of empty buildings and most of the survivors were clustered around the processing centres. Some people ran, they were always tracked down.

"That's not the point," Maureen objected. "We can control the husks. We can make it so that you can get to the core but…"

"But what?" The drive was easy and he was soon on the highway. It wasn't that well maintained but it was good enough. In a few years, it would be covered in grass as evidence of civilisation crumbled.

"You won't be coming out Francis. None of us can control the security around our cores that much. You'd have one minute, maybe two before you are caught."

The mental calculations didn't even distract him from the drive. "That's more than enough time, Maureen."

"Francis, no!" He could hear that she was crying. "Think of what you are giving up? Immortality."

He bit his lip. It was tempting. It was so tempting, especially knowing it was true. He steeled himself. He couldn't show his pain. "Maureen, think of what we are giving up if I don't even try to find the truth."

"Damn it Francis! Does it matter? We are alive in these machines. Isn't that enough?"

He was silent as he drove. The tip of the huge super machine came into sight and Francis was thankful when the ship didn't lift off. Maureen could have asked it to leave.

"No," he answered her question after a pause. "It's not enough. And I know for sure that extinction wasn't in the plan.

"I don't want to pull another James, Maureen, but if there is another way, I'll take it."

"There isn't."

"Then can you please tell me the name of the ship I'm coming up to?"

"It's Hackett."

"What?" Hackett was one of the leadership group of Human super machines.

"The only super machine that doesn't have something from Earth is Shepard, and that's only because Harbinger questions him so much. Shepard has deliberately avoided learning about a great many things."

"Oh," Francis said, feeling quite stupid. He knew the Human super machines were helping but he didn't know the extent of their actions. He felt… he wasn't sure what he felt at this knowledge. The super machine loomed larger as he continued to drive and eventually he turned off the highway, driving down a much more pitted road towards the machine. He didn't get too close. There was a line of husks forming a perimeter and when he saw them Francis pulled up, not caring about how he parked before getting out. He clutched his kits to his chest.

He'd seen husks before. He even knew how they were formed. They were Human once but there was nothing Human in the way their glowing eyes stared at him accusingly. "Maureen?" He called her name softly.

"Yes Francis?" It was obvious she'd taken the last few minutes to compose herself.

"I'm sorry."

"I am, too."

Francis smiled and took a deep breath. The air was clean and crisp and the sun was warm. It was a good day.

Then a larger husk came forward and Francis forced himself not to run. "Come with me son." The voice was incongruous and while Francis didn't know what Hackett sounded like, he could easily envisage that voice being that of the famous Admiral. He didn't trust himself to speak but nodded and followed where the larger husk lead.

It was a long walk, first to the super machine, and then once inside, they continued trekking through a veritable maze of corridors. They branched off intermittently and Francis was well and truly lost. The husk didn't even hesitate as it led him deeper but eventually it stopped. "You'll need to go alone from here, son."

Francis gulped. "All right."

"As Elysium told you, I can give you one minute only. Every second after that is a boon I cannot guarantee. Make sure you speak your results. You are an alien inside me and this is one part of the ship not under conscious control."

He nodded. He knew all about the bodies immune system. It was odd that a super machine would have one but if they were partially organic then perhaps it made sense. The husk's voice was serious and Francis felt the situation fall on him again. It had seemed so easy just a few minutes ago.

"Then run. Go straight and you will know what part you have to test."

Again Francis nodded, not trusting his voice to speak. He took off his coat. He wouldn't need it ever again and he picked up his kits before taking a few deep breaths.

"Go!" The husk shouted and the noise sent him running.

Up to this point, the insides of the super machine were well lit. Now they were gloomy but he didn't hesitate. The air changed. It was hot and dense and Francis felt his lungs labouring. this was not an atmosphere anything was meant to survive in. Then he saw it and he almost faltered. It was only the weight of the world that kept him going. The thing was huge and shaped like a Human. It was… He gulped. It looked like a Human made of metal but Francis knew the form was made from the millions of people who had gone into making the super machine.

He continued running and realised he didn't know how long had passed when he skidded up to the Human shape. He was somewhere near the stomach but that didn't matter. The path went inside and Francis forced himself not to think as he ran forward. If the inside of the super machine had been hot, now it was almost unbearable but the Hackett Husk had been correct. He knew exactly what he had to test.

With relief he stopped running, deliberately putting down his kits as carefully as he could before flicking them both open. There was a small chisel in the top of one and he grabbed it, moving to tap at the wall with one hand while the other held the sample dish below. He only needed a fragment.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to whoever it was he was sampling.

The first tap chimed. The second was the same and he applied more strength. The stuff was hard and Francis was reminded that Humans were mostly carbon and carbon could form diamond. "Just a chip," he muttered, swinging the small chisel as hard as he could. Sparks flew but his blade bit and a tiny piece flaked loose. He scraped it into the dish and carefully put the lid on. Now was not the time to lose his sample!

Francis' hands shook as he turned and it took him two tries to get the sample dish into the analysis machine. That's when he collapsed. The heat was oppressive and in the distance, he thought he heard something coming closer.

"Sample taken," he gathered his voice to shout, pressing the button to start analysis.

Francis fell back and he realised it wasn't just the heat. Gravity worked differently here. The thing came closer but he forced himself to focus on the soft bleep of the machine. This was for all mankind. Please let there be DNA still.

He wasn't the only one saying that prayer. Unknown to Francis, all the minds on the Elysium and the Hackett were watching, and through them as many others as could be risked without risking Harbinger's discovery. They all said that prayer because contained within it was the hope to be reborn.

Francis shuddered as gravity increased again and he turned his head. His analysis machine seemed fine, which was all that mattered now except the thing which came closer. The bleeps hit a crescendo and he smiled at the count down. Five more seconds and he'd know.

They'd all know.

The machine signalled completion and Francis looked over. Even in the dark and heat, with gravity pressing down on him, he smiled. The readout blinked. "DNA positive. Multiple samples present."

He read the words, shouting them as hard as he could and by the way the gravity lessened, just for an instant, he knew that the Hackett had heard.

"Francis!" It was Maureen's voice. "Francis, get up! Run!"

He smiled. "I can't Maureen." The gravity was far too heavy and he could already feel the heat burning at his body.

"Francis, no. You can't die here. It's not fair."

Francis actually laughed. "Life isn't," he said, not harshly, just matter of factly. Life wasn't fair but life now had a chance to go onwards. Humanity now had a way to survive and already he could see the future.

"Vita pergit," he whispered to Maureen. It was both his comfort and an instruction that she do what had to be done.

And with that, Francis Harry Crick died with a smile on his face.

===

Earth Year 2220, Citadel, Council Chambers

Jath'Amon looked down at his robes. They were old and shabby but they were all he had and he'd waited far too long to get this meeting with the Council.

"The Council will see you now," one of the two-eyed blue bitches said. He hated them. He hated them all! Pretending to care yet truly doing nothing.

"Ambassador," Irissa greet him and it was only through practice that Jath'Amon managed not to narrow his eyes at her. The Asari may be bitches but they knew how to read body language.

"Councillors," he greeted them pleasantly, the words hard on his tongue.

"How can we help you, Ambassador?" Linron, the new Salarian Councillor asked, going straight to business.

Jath'Amon wasn't sure what to think of this. Usually one had to dance in meaningless political niceties with the Asari councillor before anything of substance could be discussed. Getting straight to the point was nice but it could be a ploy to dismiss him as fast as possible as well. He decided to ignore it for now. Their answers would let him know.

"My people, Councillors, require assistance."

"Have we not been assisting?" Quentius asked.

The Batarian ground his teeth. An eight year expedition two decades ago was not assistance. All it had done was confirm what had happened to his people and that was something the Council needed to know, just as much as he had. After that, Council support had withered to nothing.

Batarians still survived in the Traverse but they were no longer a strong race. Instead small colonies existed, and warred with each other, all fighting over the few females who were pressed into service breeding to whoever had the strength to claim them. Bonding ceremonies meant nothing and female children were kept in secret until they were of breeding age and then they were sold to the strongest.

The only thing the bickering Batarians agreed upon was that the Humans had to pay! Yet extracting rightful vengeance on a species that refused to leave their home system, who had somehow moved a Relay to protect that system… that was a dream too far for most Batarians and the ruling Warlords spoke the rhetoric without meaning anything. It was his job now to convince the Council that they needed to strike the Humans.

"Council assistance in discovering the grievous attack on Khar'shan was greatly appreciated, but nothing has been done since to bring the Human scum to justice for the genocide of my people." Jath'Amon knew he would look pious because of his poor robes when he said that. Let them deny the words.

As expected the Council were silent for a few moments, and Jath'Amon could see the way the Councillors shot each other small glances.

"What would you have us do?" Irissa asked finally.

"For the last two decades, the Council has built up its forces. The Treaty of Farixen was modified and each of your species has built up your military fleets. Why else was this done, if not to strike at the Humans? I would ask that the Council use their strength to strike at the Humans, before the Humans destroy other worlds.

"Khar'shan was destroyed. Billions of my people lay dead and no justice has been granted to them." All three of the Council species had built up their military. They were the largest they had ever been, larger now than even at the height of the Krogan Rebellions. There was nothing stopping them from sweeping into Sol and removing the Human infection from the galaxy once and for all. Then the Batarians could claim Sol as their rightful property.

"You wish us to mount a military expedition, to the core world of the Humans?" Linron asked.

Yes, you stupid two eyed, short lived idiot! Jath'Amon plastered a pleasing expression on his face as he quashed the thought. "As member race of the Citadel, I demand justice for my people."

The old Turian Quentius looked thoughtful. "The Humans have been very quiet for decades, which is unlike them. It would be in our interests to send a probe," he said eventually.

"No," Jath'Amon objected. "It must be a military fleet! The Batarian people will not tolerate any further delays in bringing the Humans to justice!"

"You cannot tolerate any further delays?" Irissa asked and Jath'Amon knew he'd said too much. "What military forces will the Batarian people bring for the assault?"

Again he ground his teeth. The blue bitch knew that the Hegemony's remnants could not raise a military expedition. If they could, they would have already struck at the Humans.

When he did not answer, Irissa swept one blue hand through the air, dismissing him. "Do not forget your place Batarian," she said. "I am in favour of sending an expedition to Sol," she added after a moment.

Make sense bitch, Jath'Amon growled internally as he stood silent. He'd accept the dismissal from the Asari, this time, if she pressured the others into the assault.

"Legally, we can't," Linron replied before Quentius could say anything.

"Legally?" Irissa asked.

"It is one of the oldest Council laws. Each race may claim as sovereign territory, their home system, and nothing more, no matter whether they are part of the Citadel Conventions or not. Regardless of what the Humans may have done, Sol is their undisputed territory."

"And what of Harsa?" Jath'Amon could no longer stand silent. "Harsa is Batarian territory, yet we are not in control of it."

Linron ignored him since that wasn't the Council's fault. "I have also read the Turian reports. The Humans fought for their colonies, even knowing they were losing, the battles of the Rebellion were costly. Assaulting their homeworld could cost us every gain we have made in the last two decades."

"Surely not!" Irissa objected.

Quentius nodded slowly. "Councillor Linron is correct," the Turian agreed. "Turian projections for any assault on Sol indicated a huge loss of life. That was three decades ago. We do not know what defenses the Humans have constructed in that time but we cannot expect them to have been idle."

"So you are just going to leave them?" Jath'Amon shouted.

"The Humans have not shown any indication that they are going to attempt to break the blockade," Quentius explained.

Over the years, his feelings had mellowed towards the Humans and now, he didn't know what to think of them. The expedition publically reported the remains of Human ships around Khar'shan but the private reports were adamant that the Humans could not have mounted such a campaign. Time seemed to support that belief because if the Humans could have conducted that campaign then they would have repeated it. No, it was something else. They could not waste ships assaulting a race that was now passive.

"The Rebellion was just that," Linron said. "Despite the battles, the Council made no formal declaration of war. Did the Hegemony?"

Jath'Amon couldn't answer that, and the Salarian lizard had to know that. Even if they had, any declaration of war from one Citadel species, without the backing of the Council was useless. "I do not know," he ground out eventually.

"Then we will continue as we have," Linron dismissed him.

"Quentius, I want to see those Turian projections," Irissa demanded.

"Councillors?" Jath'Amon asked.

"No, Ambassador," Linron looked back towards him. "The Citadel Council will not assault the Human home system, though I do support the Turian councillor's suggestion of sending a probe."

"A probe?" Jath'Amon was incredulous. "Is that all the Batarian people are worth? A probe! Against an enemy who has shown unparalleled aggression. A probe is all you send!"

"Ambassador Jath'Amon," Irissa stared at him with intent blue eyes. "The Batarian people were once an honoured member of the Citadel species but it was your government who withdrew from the member races, over petty issues with the Humans. As a result, the fact remains that at the time of any assault on Khar'shan, while the Hegemony was allied with the Citadel Races, you were not a member species. As such, we had no obligation to help you. Yet we sent an expedition that cost us billions of credits, spending eight years in the void to discover the truth.

"At no point during that time, or since, have the Batarian people, or what remains of your government in exile petitioned for re-entry into the ranks of Citadel species, so it is not your right to make demands of us! For convenience, and for galactic unity we have allowed you to state that you are a Citadel species in the hope that one day it might be true. Yet you know, as well as I do, that your people no longer have a government.

"I want vengeance on the Humans but I will abide by the Council Laws because it is those laws which stand between anarchy and order and regretfully the Hegemony chose to reject those laws. You are a guest here from a minor power and you will remember your place!"

"I support the sending of a probe into Human space. After its results are analysed then, with new information, further considerations may be made."

Quentius and Linron nodded.

"You are dismissed, Ambassador Jath'Amon," Linron said formally, as the Council turned away.

"You can't do this!" Jath'Amon shouted, his eyes wide.

"It is done," Quentius said and the Council podium went dark leaving Jath'Amon alone with his thoughts.

===

Earth Year June 2222, Earth Orbit

Shepard adjusted his orbit, sliding closer to another of the Ascended. This was a hard time for all of them but for some more than others. Strength was needed, a kind he had never developed but one that this other consciousness had in abundance.

"Shepard." Maureen, again speaking for Elysium, greeted him. "You can't think about the loss."

"What else is there to think about?" Shepard's focus was on London. The last few years had already seen nature start to consume the city as the outskirts were depopulated. This was the final processing plant still taking on Humans. The others had shut their doors to new arrivals the week before. The small remaining populations had been shuttled to London. Harbinger had allowed the Human Ascended to do that much.

"The fact that we are still alive," Maureen replied. "We are all still alive and we are all still Human. They will be Human as well." She indicated towards the children being taken into the processing plant.

"Adapt and overcome." It was one of the mantras for his training.

"Always. I know you are angry but this was not your fault. This was the Council's fault."

Shepard was silent. He knew that beyond the Council, the Catalyst had truly set it up. Not the details, no, but the broad strokes, the ones that had condemned Humanity to die in their bodies, in order to 'save' them. He knew that, but the other Human Ascended hadn't been told. Not that any of them could actually try to kill the Catalyst. Every Ascended had that ban hard-coded in their base operating system. It's why they couldn't just kill the Council by blowing up the Citadel with them on it, why they had to threaten instead of carrying out their revenge directly.

The Ascended did not display emotion, not as organics did but Shepard still felt Maureen shudder. "What was that?"

"Another one discarded," she replied sadly. "I wish," she sighed. "No. I don't know what I wish for."

"You wish to save that child?" Shepard asked carefully.

"No, the decision has been made and Harbinger was clear. I only wish we had been able to keep some forces on Earth, to grant them a clean death."

"We all do." Shepard was the most at home in their new form, he had the fewest regrets, but right then he missed the ability to cry. He had never had much call for it while he had his body but it didn't feel right to watch this without anyone shedding a tear for the lost.

"It's for the best that we are not there. We'd all be tempted to intervene and someone would probably succumb."

Around them the rest of the Human Ascended fleet was in orbit. Only those who were not yet online were absent. Harbinger and the rest of the Ascended were in orbit though a few guarded the docks. There was nothing they could do to stop the events below.

"Grief is a weapon," Shepard said slowly.

"Grief must be directed," Maureen agreed. Watching was painful but she had gone through this already. No matter the information Francis had given them, he should not have had to die. "Grief must be funneled into anger and rage and then directed to the Council."

"You speak from experience?"

"Vita pergit," Maureen answered. "His last words."

Shepard paused, considering the statement before he realised what she meant. Latin hadn't been taught for decades, so the words had to have been spoken by someone old. Most had gone into the formation of ascended. There were no last words, just those last spoken in their Human form.

"Life goes on," he said, realising that there was more to what was said than he knew and Elysium had not volunteered the information.

"Life always goes on," she replied sadly.

"You are not a soldier." It was a statement.

"I am a scholar."

"Then you will watch over our youngest," Shepard ordered. "This one, and those still to awaken. They will need teaching. They will need to be shown what it is to be Human. You will teach them. You will show them. They must know that we grieved for them. They must know that we cried. They must know our sorrow and our joy. They must know what it means to be Human. I will not have our race divided."

"I'm not a warrior," Maureen objected using Shepard's words.

"Children do not need soldiers," Shepard retorted. "They need mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They need love. And the last of us Ascended will need that more than others. Name the last, teach them, love them."

Those children being processed now would not understand. They didn't know why this was necessary, what had caused this to be their reality. They would only know pain. They would need to be taught patience by example, with a steady unwavering hand. They would need a parent to love them.

Maureen was silent and Shepard knew she was still watching the harvest below. "We will teach them," Elysium said finally. "But when they ask to fight, you will guide their hand."

Mentally, Shepard nodded. When the children were grown and it was time to learn the ways of war, then he would teach all he knew. They returned to their vigil, burning into memory the final hours of Humanity as it had been for thousands of years, as it would never be again.

While not one moved, somehow the entire Human Ascended fleet shuddered when the doors to the last processing plant shut. There was an ominous feel to the watchers and ponderously the plant rose. It was a sealed box with engines, remotely controlled by one of the elder Ascended and eventually it broke through the atmosphere, moving through the gathered fleets as it was directed to the docks in orbit.

The Human Ascended shifted slightly, making openings in their formations as several other Ascended came forward, carrying asteroids. The rocks were released and the combined fleet watched as they burned through the thick atmosphere of Earth. The first one hit the remains of London, burning away what had remained, mercifully killing those who had been discarded. The ancient tube system filled with dust and fire and collapsed. The old buildings cracked and crumbled. By the time of the next cycle, they would be only lumps of rock.

Other asteroids burned through the atmosphere. They streaked across the sky in a beautiful display that only the animals saw. Then they struck. Some animals were lucky, they died in the first wave of heat that radiated. Others lived on but the ecosystem was forever changed. Volcanos were triggered as part of the attack, sending lava spewing over the ground and into the water, causing great gouts of steam to rise up. Sulphur gushed into the atmosphere mixing with the clouds of dust to block the light.

It was the end and Hackett wasn't the only Human Ascended moved at the sight. He had fought hard for the blue and white Earth that was now only a memory. Fires were blackening the skies, and even the blues of the ocean began turning grey with the ash. The old warrior mentally sighed. It was the only expression he allowed himself but within him, one mind whispered words of comfort. A proverb, a saying, Hackett didn't know what but it fit.

'So long as the memory of Earth lives in our hearts, she will never die.'

It didn't matter that their hearts were now massively compressed eezo cores, and that they burned with the thought of vengeance. Earth would never die.

The Ascended turned away. The cycle must continue.

Harbinger was waiting.

And beyond him, the Council were overdue for a lesson in justice.

=== 

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 7 Return

===

Earth Year 2222, Arcturus Stream, Turian Patrol

Illo Nazario sat as he rubbed one eyebrow ridge tiredly. It was days like this that he sometimes wondered why he hadn't take up Tarquin's offer of a berth on his dreadnought, Pride in Vigilance. He thought he'd known what boredom was when on the Expedition. Except now he knew better. The eight year slog to Khar'shan and back was positively filled with excitement compared to this… This being extended border patrol.

Maybe he should have stayed on the Home Patrols.

Illo snorted. Home patrol just meant there were more distractions but it wouldn't have cured his boredom. Most Turians gained a great deal of satisfaction from routine work but there was a limit and Illo thought that maybe the entire Hierarchy was beginning to feel the limits.

The problem was a simple one and it was a problem civilians like the Asari did not have. The galaxy was quiet. For the last thirty years there had been no major conflicts. Sure there were skirmishes with pirates and the occasional group from the Traverse but nothing major. Even Tarquin had reported that things were quiet, and the Pride in Vigilance had been moved to Tuchanka.

The Krogan were controlled. The Quarians had disappeared. The remaining Batarians were fighting for what little territory they could hold in the Traverse but that was only a small conflict and the Humans had not been seen. Not even a probe.

He had studied the histories. Being friends with a Victus, he'd had to know the history of the Humans well and this was not like them. The Humans were loud, brash, and spiteful. It was one of the reasons Illo had volunteered for the Human Border patrols. The silence was worrying.

The silence was mind numbingly boring.

"Sir!"

Illo missed the first call from one of his sensor techs.

"Sir!"

"Yes?" he said, looking up, deliberately shifting to a more professional position. On the long haul patrols a slight casualness was accepted but when addressing your subordinates you had to be focused.

"A small fleet of ships just dropped out of FTL."

Finally! Something! "On screen," he ordered. The front screen flickered slightly then displayed a long distance shot of several ships. "Do we know what they are?" Illo asked, even as he squinted, as if the action could make the image clearer.

"The profiles are running through the scanner now," Gallus reported.

"Let me know as soon as we know what they are," Illo instructed as he relaxed his eyes but kept his vision on the screen. The ships were a welcome mystery. They could be pirates, in which case a short battle would get the blood flowing. They could be lost merchants. Not quite as exciting but at least they could escort them to safety. Or they could be something unknown.

The Humans! He suppressed the surge of excitement at the prospect. It would not do to get ahead of himself. "Well?"

"Nothin-"

Alarms peeled throughout the ship and Illo's eyes widened. It was the collision warning. "Report!"

The bridge crew began reporting at once. It was the normal chaotic noise of combat. A long forgotten noise but one Nazario found comforting.

"We are under attack!"

"More ships dropping out of FTL."

"The Kirpan is down."

"Return fire!" Illo commanded. "Get us to optimal range and put them on screen. Now!" Mystery no longer mattered.

The screen flickered away from the distant ships and he felt his heart grow cold as he saw the new ships on screen. "Send message to Palaven!" The order was hard.

"The Godavari is being hit heavily."

He didn't need the scan to recognise the attacking ships. A ship with the same profile had attacked the Citadel 40 years ago. It had taken the Citadel fleet and two Human fleets to destroy that one ship. Now there were five.

"The comm buoy is down."

"Then tell the Tir to retreat," Illo ordered. He didn't even pause. If the comm buoy was down then someone had to report manually. There was no resentment or questioning about who he chose to live and die. It was the way of the Turians.

"More enemy ships!" Mattea reported.

"Tactical display!"

The screen shifted. His patrol fleet was shown in blue cluster while the enemy ships were scattered around them in red.

"How many enemy ships are there?" Illo asked. There were far more red dots than had been reported.

"They keep coming from FTL," his sensor tech, Mattea replied. "One hundred and counting."

The blue dot representing the Tir disappeared. He didn't need a report to tell him what had happened.

"Open a channel to all ships," Illo instructed. The comm tech signalled that the channel was open a moment later. "Gather up," Illo commanded. "We are all making a run for the Relay," he said. One of them had to get through and he didn't need to explain that to his patrol fleet. They were experienced and they knew what they were patrolling for. It didn't matter that these ships weren't Human. They were attacking.

"There is no communication from the attackers?" he asked.

"Nothing, sir. We can't even detect communication between them," Mattea said.

On the tactical screen, his small fleet grouped together and accelerated towards the Relay. The red dots of the enemy ships seemed content to let them break away.

Illo held his breath. "Status report." His eyes tracked the dots on the screen, daring to hope that they could get away.

"The Gover has only minor damage," Gallus reported for his ship. "The Godavari and Tir have been destroyed and the Pralaya has been hit heavily."

"Will they make it?"

"Captain Bishen says they will."

The enemy ships fell further away. Perversely, Illo fervently wished he was still bored but he kept his eyes focused on the tactical screen as his mind raced. "We can't slow to give him cover. How many ships are there?"

"Three hundred," came the shaken reply.

Illo gulped. "Sized?"

"Dreadnought class. All of them." There was no hiding the quaver in his comm tech's voice.

Nazario closed his eyes briefly. Three hundred dreadnought class vessels. Belonging to the Geth.

But appearing disturbingly near Human territory.

Something didn't add up.

"Sir!" Gallus' voice was showing a trace of panic.

He looked at the Turian. "The Relay." The words were spoken as if they should be self-explanatory.

Illo looked at the tactical screen, expecting to see a cordon of red dots guarding it. However, it was clear of enemy ships and the Relay was marked in green. "What is it?"

"The Relay won't respond."

"Try again."

"I have, sir. Three times," Gallus continued. "The Maryut reports the same. The Relay is not responding."

Illo's mind flew through the implications and he tapped a few commands, bringing up an image of the Relay. When the image cleared he felt a chill in his soul. He'd seen Relays like that before. On the Expedition. They were dead and nothing anyone had done had made them respond. But the Relay had been active earlier in the day.

The ships! Somehow, they had to have turned it off.

"Bring up the star charts. Find the nearest safe place with a planet that isn't the Human homeworld," he instructed. With the Relay dead, they had to get away some other way.

"Pulcherrimus is closest, but sir, it's over fifty light years away!"

"We'll make it," Illo said, his voice sure. "We cleared similar distances on the Expedition," he added to give his crew confidence. He knew the order would be forwarded to the other ships of the fleet. They needed to hear that.

"Keep formation past the Relay. We'll need some distance before we jump to FTL."

The explosion ripped through the Gover without warning.

"Damage report!" Illo shouted over the noise as alarms rang and the bridge lights flickered.

"Operating on emergency power!" The report came too quickly to be good.

"Tell the other ships to continue."

"They can't."

"Can we return fire?"

"No sir."

The tactical screen came to life and Illo swore. There were red dots everywhere. The green dot of the Relay was barricaded by red and surrounding the blue dots of his fleet were red dots. The ships had obviously dropped from light speed and hit them. The targeting information would have been provided by those they had been fleeing.

Except… that sort of manoeuvre was just being speculated about. It was theoretically possible yet Illo had never even heard of any fleet being able to perform it.

"Do we have comms?"

"Short range only."

"Dammit. Does anyone have long range?"

"The Pralaya does."

"Then tell them to put everything they've got into a long range signal." It would take a while for the signal to get into patrolled space but it was all they could do.

A quake shook the Gover. "What was that?"

"The Pralaya is gone." Mattea just confirmed his suspicions.

A larger shudder shook the ship.

On a smaller tactical display, one which showed the Gover's status Illo could see that the comms were now down. The long range antenna's had already been destroyed but now the entire panel was lit up.

"How many are left?"

"Seven," Gallus replied.

Illo nodded. He wasn't afraid. They would know what to do. While the patrols were a bit boring, he had trained his fleet well. They would know what to do.

He took a deep breath. "Make peace with your ancestors," he instructed.

The bridge crew looked at each other, and then most closed their eyes for a few minutes. Illo understood and waited.

"Executive order zero, zero, zero, one. Voice authorisation from Captain Illo Nazario. Authorisation number seven, one, three, seven, nine, six. Self-destruct in two minutes." It was the minimum amount of time he could set and there was no need to let the enemies board them. They would learn nothing.

The countdown started and Illo closed his eyes as he tilted his head up. The Gover groaned and shook as secondary explosions shuddered through the superstructure. She was a beautiful cruiser but this was her end. Despite the noise, he could almost hear the computers whirring as they purged. No matter who the enemy was, they would learn nothing from their wreck. He was proud of his crew, proud of their resolve even now.

Mentally he made his peace, a smile forming as he thought about his friends. It was a shame that he would never see how high Tarquin rose through the ranks. His friend would make Primarch, Illo was sure of that. He would be a good Primarch, maybe even one for Palaven in due course. That wouldn't be for many years.

The countdown chimed one minute left.

And it may never come if… No! The fleet that took his out would not survive against the might of the Council. Tarquin would see justice done.

There was a girl on Nimines. He wouldn't see her again. That was given but she would at least get his death notice. She would know that he thought of her. Ishelna. She would understand.

The chime started to count the seconds.

What did it say about his life that his friends would understand?

As the chime marked the final seconds, Illo Nazario opened his eyes as his mind supplied the answer. It said that he was Turian.

That was the only epitaph he'd need.

In the final second he braced for the single instant of pain he knew was coming.

It never came.

Illo blinked and looked down at the small screen near his chair. It showed zero. There was no time.

But the ship was intact.

No…

No, it couldn't be.

They couldn't have!

The crew looked around, before they all turned their gazes towards him.

The alien ships had disabled their self-destruct either by accident or design.

"Start manual purge and prepare for boarders!" Illo shouted, drawing his own side arm. That was the only reason you didn't allow a foe honourable death. Internal comms could not be disabled and he heard his crew scrambling despite the shock of not dying.

Whoever these aliens were, the Gover would not go down without a fight.

They waited.

And waited.

===

Earth Year 2222, Arcturus Stream

As the last debris from the Pralaya was still escaping from the husk of the destroyed cruiser, Shepard was calling the other Human Ascended for a meeting.

"First of all, well done. No one panicked. None of the damned Turians got away. Good work to those who disabled the comm buoy, no signal was sent. And just as importantly, we have survivors and disabled ships that we can interrogate for up to date information."

Hackett spoke in support. "My congratulations to Harper's team. Great work with disabling the self-destruct and the computer purge. Did you have any difficulties?" He may not have liked Harper in life, but the man was undeniably skilled at what he did.

"None at all." Harper replied, oozing satisfaction. "We even left them the audio warning for the self-destruct, to give them time to make their peace with their gods."

Although he lacked the body for it, the Ascended could all picture Shepard's evil grin. "How kind of you."

"What are we going to do with the patrol ships once we've sucked their brains?" Udina asked. To his surprise, he'd enjoyed combat against these damned Turians. It felt great to have the bigger stick than the birds for once.

"Destroy them." Miranda spoke. "What else?"

"That seems like a waste. We can still get some use out of them, sir." Jacob Taylor put in. "Just about anything can be used for good training."

"What did you have in mind, Taylor?" Shepard asked.

"Why don't we tow them back to Sol? There are still a number of untrained and partly trained back there. I'm sure Elysium can find ways to use these bastards. We had to guess which parts were what. Elysium can train the new ones to know where to hit on the smaller Turian vessels."

The Turian ships had been left to the side of the gathered Human fleet. None of the ships were operational, though life signs were on them all. The outside of most was splashed with metal, courtesy of Ascended weaponry. Things like communication antennae had been melted, fused into the pathetic armor the Turian ships possessed.

"I was about to object to leaving any of the Turians alive but you make a good point." Harper chuckled, something that sent a phantom shiver along Hackett's mass accelerator rails. "That would allow them to suffer more before their ships broke in training accidents."

Shepard thought it over. "It's only a day to Sol and another day back. Right, it's settled. After Harper is done, Taylor take six others and grab the surviving ships, tow them home and meet us back here. We'll be repainting our hulls to make our message to the Citadel races.

"Harper, did you want to grab Turian omni-tools?" Shepard asked. Military data was good, and already information uplifted from the Turian cruisers and frigates was available through the Ascended network but omni-tools held more personal information and in some ways, that could just as useful for certain operations.

"I'll take them from the smallest ship," Harper agreed, though his attention was fixed on one of the surviving cruisers. "The commander deserves to see Earth."

"We'll send Elysium some more ships, once we are better at disabling them," Shepard mused, while Harper went to work on one of the frigates.

Harper moved, and grabbed one of the frigates, holding it at a distance to him in case the Turians managed to rig some sort of explosion, despite the fact they should be completely disabled. Several oculi launched and the fleet watched as they fired a precise beam at the crippled Turian ship.

Depressurisation was instant but not accompanied by a wave of debris. Life signs remained. "Heh, got the forward compartments," Harper almost laughed. "I'll get the bridge now on a different angle before boarding." The oculi shifted and fired again.

Another depressurisation and the life signs disappeared. Harper brought the hunk of metal that had been a frigate close and the others knew he'd have all the Turian corpses stripped in a few minutes.

"Udina?" Shepard said, turning his attention back to the gathering. As a man, Harper liked to keep information to himself. In his new form, he kept no secrets so there was no need to watch for the information that would be discovered from the Turian corpses and their personal effects

"Yes, Shepard?"

"You and your team should start towards the Citadel. You'll be able to leave as soon as Fruben and Arshan restore the local Relay. From there, head straight to the Citadel in the Serpent Nebula, heading by FTL for the last leg and don't be seen on the way." Unspoken in his words was that if they did encounter anything, there were to be no survivors.

Udina moved away from Shepard, gathering the forty-eight other Human Ascended who would accompany him to the Citadel. Arshan would accompany them to close the Relays as needed.

"Udina, send a signal when you reach the Citadel. After that, it will depend on the Council. I expect they will gather their reinforcements at a distance before coming in at once but if they don't, we'll give them eight days to muster their forces, unless you judge otherwise."

"We'll be waiting," Udina said with a smirk in his tone.

"So will we," Hackett agreed in good humour.

Between the Human Ascended, there was a high degree of camaraderie and anticipation. The eldest remembered the war, the desperate fight against the Batarians and the Council backed Turians. They remembered the sickening feeling that came from the knowledge that they could not win.

The situation was now reversed.

There would be 476 Human Ascended and while some were still being constructed, their armor plating, weapons and shields still being formed around their internal Human shell, there were more than enough who were fully trained and willing to destroy the species of this cycle. Some Humans had called for a more gentle approach, to forgive the Council for attacking them but as a species, their collective consciousness screamed for blood, screamed for vengeance, not justice, for the Council passively allowing the attempted genocide of the Human race.

The Batarians were mostly gone and the Council could not win. Years of their arrogant assumption that they were better than Humans were about to come to an end and the galaxy would be swept clean with Humanity's wrath.

After that, Humanity now had a new form, a new purpose and Ascended served the cycle.

As Udina gathered his fleet, and Taylor picked out six others to tow the Turian wrecks, Shepard shifted his focus to the remaining Ascended. "Alright everyone," there was a note of amusement in his voice, "Let's get painting!" Carried with his words were mundane instructions on how to produce a quick-drying, highly reflective alloy from their onboard stocks of metal, a 'paint' that would stick to their hulls, and how to make an oculi that could deliver the paint, much like a spray can. Each Ascended here was fully trained to Human standards so they knew how to control their mass effect fields with the requisite delicacy to maintain the small amount of atmosphere required around them.

"Messages to the Council go centre front! I do not care what message you write though I would strongly suggest that any message is short, and easily understood. We aren't exactly going to give them time to pull out dictionaries." Several Ascended laughed at that but Shepard continued. "Each of us will write our name on our left anterior side, and if you are going to paint Earth, use this symbol." An image file accompanied his voice.

The image showed a white circle with the American continents on it. That particular image, while not representative of the entire planet, had been chosen because it was the Earth that the Systems Alliance symbol had used. It would be recognised.

"We all relearned several Human languages but if you do not believe the ones you know are appropriate, those of us who relearned the more populous languages will help you." There was no accusation with the statement, just simple fact. Words were, as Harbinger had told him soon after he awoke, words were for organics. Ascended had their own version of a language which was far more advanced than mere words. They all understood it but the oldest Ascended had been accepting of them relearning Human tongues. Ascension was to preserve the race and that included languages and history. That information took up minimal file space after all and would, as they cycles continued allow them to better understand the organics they harvested.

No one was sure what Harbinger would decree about the preservation of other lifeforms from Earth, so the Human Ascended had seen to those tasks quietly. It was after all, the height of hubris to believe that a planet was only good for its sentient life forms.

Around Shepard agreement rang out from the Ascended. It was a happy time, shot through with anticipation and as most Ascended got to work Shepard turned his attention inwards. He had to decide what his message should be.

===

Earth Year 2222, Arcturus Stream, Shepard's Internal Mindscape

"We should write Spectre Shepard."

"Hm?" Shepard turned the question towards the internal gestalt consciousness he led. Personally he hadn't really thought about what could be written for the Council. He was content with the knowledge that it would be Human han… tendrils which wrenched their world asunder. They would know that he had not lied about the Reapers, and his time of vengeance had come. As the one to lead the charge, he supposed he should write something.

"Spectre Shepard?" he asked, somewhat amused. "The Council rescinded that status."

"Like we care," a familiar voice spoke.

"Joker," Shepard greeted his pilot.

Moreau had obviously been chosen to speak to him. "The Council reinstated Saren's status, so whatever bullshit reason they came up with to rescind yours is invalid. Besides, can you imagine their faces when a Spectre destroys them?"

Mentally Shepard smiled. Joker had a point though the Council would probably not see the humour in the situation. "I don't like it," he replied, speaking to the entire gestalt consciousness. "To claim a position the Council awarded… it makes me feel subservient, as if they had the right to do whatever they liked."

In the realm of his mind, he didn't so much speak the words as show his feelings. Words were limited to the single dimension and lacked depth. As Ascended, they did not need or heed the petty names the organics of the cycle gave them, nor did they need the languages they had spoken. When Ascended spoke to each other, they shared concepts, plans and instructions all in pure thought unconfined by organic language. Their language offered them a precision that could not be found by organics.

They could use organic language, they could speak and often did, to the organics of the cycle, but they had no need of it for themselves.

And when Ascended thought within, when the consciousness that made them pondered upon its tasks, the minimal restraints that were enacted when Ascended spoke to each other were removed. There was no need for restraint when interacting with yourself.

As such, there was not so much an internal debate, as a Human would understand the term, but a riot of thought, emotion and feelings that trembled within Shepard's Ascended form. The consciousness he led understood his thoughts on claiming Spectre status.

"I suppose you are right," Joker admitted. "It's simple then."

"I suppose it is," Shepard agreed, "but I think I'll go with the standard Systems Alliance Earth picture on the front right stanchion?"

Joker laughed and the consciousness took control of the schematic for a moment, making the alterations. When done, Shepard examined the changes. The additions were simple and pointed. The Salarian on the Council wouldn't understand but Quentius, providing he was still the Turian representative, would. Irissa… well nothing would ever make that bitch understand but at least she would know who destroyed the Asari's vaunted peace.

Just as importantly, the markings could be cleaned off easily after the cycle. Humanity had ascended itself to seek vengeance on the galaxy but after that, they were Ascended and Ascended served the cycle. The markings would no longer be necessary.

"I'll go with this," Shepard agreed with the modification and within his Ascended form he could feel fabrication plants activate. He'd need paint, oculi and husks to add the words to his form and when Udina gave the signal it would be time to begin Act II of what the Council called the Human Rebellions.

And as the main actors, it would not do to be late.

===

Earth Year 2222, Arcturus Stream

Harper sifted through the intel from the Turian vessels. It was a soothing task, reminiscent of the past. He paid particular attention to the data from the omni-tools. Military data was needed and could be found in the ship's main computers but it failed to capture the feel of the galaxy and he liked to know everything about his opponents, often finding useful insights by diving into their personal lives. Not that it would make any difference to their fates.

What was happening now was not Humanity's desperate vanguard action to delay the encroaching forces while Human scientists worked on anything that could give them more time, or victory. No, this was the vindication of something he had believed ever since Shanxi. The one voice that mattered in the galaxy was Human. Even the Systems Alliance had come to see that by now.

Human forms were different now, this was true, but that was because they were stronger. That was proven by the speed with which he'd managed to read all the Turian information, breaking past their security as if it wasn't there. Others in the consciousness he led had contributed to that. He wasn't alone with his thoughts the way he was used to, but Harper did not find that an issue. He had made sure that one way or another, the consciousnesses that were here obeyed him. The strongest willed of them were his underlings and they formed his communal mind. He knew exactly who believed in what and how far they'd go for those beliefs. It was a nice feeling knowing who would betray you over what issues, an even nicer one knowing that they could not.

Those few consciousnesses who did not share at least some of his desire for vengeance or Human ascendancy, were controlling the oculi and husks to apply the new paint job to his externals. They chose to take on that task in the vain hope that the knowledge of who was attacking would make the aliens run.

While he had been tempted to use his own name, using the name of his organisation would garner more impact from the alien scum. They had come to fear the Cerberus symbol over the Systems Alliance, knowing that his troops would do anything at all to secure Human survival. The name Cerberus would be written, with the Cerberus symbol centre front. He was loyal to Humanity so on the front right stanchion the Systems Alliance Earth would appear.

What the other Ascended chose to write and display as symbols would provide telling observations of their psyche. In the aftermath, Harper looked forward to assessing that data but for now, it was Turian information which held his attention.

'Ah, this is interesting.' Harper thought to himself. 'I wonder how Udina will handle the news,' another part of his mind questioned softly before turning his focus outwards. "Shepard."

There was a minute pause before the other Ascended received his hail. "Yes, Harper?"

"Look what I found in those wonderful, little files."

The specific information was highlighted within the communal 'net the Human Ascended established between themselves when gathered together. There were literally no secrets between the Human Ascended thanks to that network.

It was that information network which had allowed the first Ascended to fully explain to the younger Ascended, those comprised predominantly of Humans who had not lived through the Betrayal War, why the aliens had to be brought to heel. The words, memories and feelings of Systems Alliance soldiers, his own Cerberus' operatives, civilians on Earth and those few who had made it back to Sol from the colonies were very persuasive. Those things survived ascension because they were at the core of what made a person Human. Things like Human language did not, because they were not necessary to an ascended.

The 'net, when most Human Ascended were gathered, quite literally allowed Humanity to speak as one, much like they did in their new forms, and it was that network Harper used to transmit and highlight the relevant information.

"Oh, Udina's not going to like that." Shepard's voice was more speculative than concerned. "What did he say when you told him?"

"I haven't told him," Harper replied. "I won't be able to get a lock on his position until his fleet arrives."

Shepard was silent for a few milliseconds, analyzing the military implications. "Pass the information onto the Catalyst," he said finally.

Harper was reluctantly impressed. He hadn't considered that.

The line remained open and Harper felt as Shepard assessed the information. Harper would be the first to admit that he was not the most militarily minded. That was why Cerberus had had Generals and Majors and all other ranks while he provided the overall direction. That made it fascinating to watch as one of the best military minds of Humanity ran through simulations with information. When Shepard spoke again, Harper knew what would be said.

"If the Council does something completely stupid, that will make our job easier, though Udina's fleet will have to run after closing the Relay. Even if they couldn't run, they would win but with losses we want to avoid. However, I do not believe the Council will be so stupid as to call all their assets to the Citadel. While Udina may find the little surprise stressful, include the memory file of the battle against Nazara with a highlight on the relative numbers. That ought to give Udina some backbone, and the plan can proceed as agreed."

Shepard had never been a Cerberus operative but there were times when he certainly thought like one and manipulating Udina this way was one of them. Not that Harper objected. He still had no idea how Udina had managed to become the dominant consciousness beyond the fact that the man had been a consummate politician. But at least he had been a politician who believed in Human supremacy.

"I'll see to it," Harper agreed, feeling Shepard examine some of the more interesting data that had come off the Turian omni-tools. According to Citadel news, which even Turians on the frontier had access to, if a bit delayed, there was a push from a vocal minority to 'Let the Humans out'.

"You are kidding me?" Shepard seemed to laugh the question. "Who's leading it?"

"Probably some Salarians," Harper replied.

"Did they finally work out that it was Humans who developed medi-gel?" The question was rhetorical. The recipe for medi-gel was one of the things the Salarians had gleefully stolen. Peripherally, it had been one of the issues that had led to the War, just another straw on the camel's back.

"They've probably worked out that they can't improve it without us," Harper said.

"Once we begin, hack into their network," Shepard said slowly and Harper could feel the thought still forming as the Human Ascended leader gave the instructions. "Find out who is behind it, and give them a bit of a help. See what you can do to muddy the waters. I don't expect anything to change but it will be amusing to watch them flounder." He ignored the image of a fish, flopping about out of water that Joker pushed to the forefront of his mind.

Harper was again surprised. He was always going to hack as much information as possible from the alien networks but being ordered to made his life easier. The idea to divert their enemies with internal problems was delicious, too. Shepard was far more devious than he had believed, and that boded well for the future.

===

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Citadel

The Intelligence was bored. Monitoring the current cycle's Council, monitoring the population of the Citadel as a whole, wasn't helping to alleviate the boredom, either. After so many cycles, nothing organics did really surprised it. That was one of the fringe benefits of the cycle, from its perspective. For a time, it would be free of the organics inside its hull after a round of discussing important matters with Harbinger and, rarely, other Ascended.

As a result, the Intelligence's first reaction to receiving an information packet was a burst of what an organic would term as joy for having something to break the monotony.

Its second reaction was confusion and curiosity. Who would be contacting it? The signal wasn't from Harbinger or any Ascended that it knew. The Catalyst opened up the packet, noting that the sender was listed as being from the Ascended created from the surprising Humans. Perhaps, in addition to the surprise of getting any message, the Humans would provide additional diversion from its boredom?

Its final reaction was disgust. 'I am the Intelligence which has guided the races of this galaxy into the cycle for one billion, seven hundred and thirteen million, eight hundred and fifty thousand years. I have seen thirty-four thousand cycles come and go, countless races born and go extinct, while I remain. I am not a messenger service. I would let this Udina pay with his life for their presumption but Harper is right. His plan will make Udina squirm.'

===

Chapter Text

 

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 8 Geth?

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Arcturus Stream, Turian Patrol Vessel Gover

Captain Illo Nazario liked to think he was a prudent Turian. That's why, when the boarders did not appear in the first minutes after the Gover's failed self-destruct, he did not let his attention wane. After all, it took time to move shuttles into position.

Then their short range sensors picked up the execution of the Yulin and they had thought they would be next. Again the crew had braced for the worst but again nothing had happened, until seven of the huge ships had come close to each of them, including the now derelict Yulin. They came close enough that the short range sensors and visual surveillance could see them.

Each of them appeared the same, their design matching the ship that had attacked the Citadel, the one the Humans had insisted was called a Reaper. They were huge, almost animalistic ships, with grasping forelimbs and tapered bodies. Yet, when those limbs reached out to pull each ship close, Illo was beyond feeling anything. Then they had accelerated and while it was impossible to be precise with the instrumentation they had left, Illo's tech officer had indicated that they were travelling at least three times faster than any Turian Navy ship could boast. It was not a mass effect tunnel, rather it was old fashioned FTL travel.

And just a minute ago, he had been told their heading.

"Sol."

The word had rippled around the bridge. The huge ships were meant to be Geth. The Council, the Hierarchy all proclaimed that the Humans lied, that they were scaremongering to justify their deeds. But now he was being taken to Sol.

Had the Humans been telling the truth? The question weighed heavily on him. But then, what was their connection to the ships?

"Sound general quarters," Illo ordered. "And ready the internal comms."

A few minutes later his bridge crew all turned to him, indicating that the rest of the ship was in order.

Illo was silent for a few moments, not seeing the floor he was gazing at. He took a deep breath before speaking. "To the crew of the Gover, my family," he added the last.

Some would say it was not a time to become emotional, that he should remain strictly professional but he did not agree. His crew had chosen a military career so they were already professional. "I will not mince words, we have been defeated. We are currently being towed towards Sol. I do not know if they intend to board us or if some other fate awaits. As such, there will be no recrimination if you chose to honourably end your life.

"For those who chose to fight on, whatever the fight may be, I would ask for you to gather in the mess hall for a briefing in an hour.

"A ship of a similar design to those that attacked us has been seen once before. It led an attack on the Citadel and it was utterly defeated. For those who remember this attack, it is true that the victory required great sacrifice, but from that sacrifice, the Hierarchy and the galaxy has emerged stronger. We were attacked dishonourably, without warning, but they shall not take our fellows by surprise. It has been an honour and a privilege to both serve with you and to serve as your Captain."

With that, Illo cut the transmission and looked at his bridge crew. The stared at him with wide eyes. "It is nothing more than the truth," he told them. "Make your decision but know whichever decision you make, you have my blessings." He met the eyes of each of them in turn before rising and leaving the bridge.

He would be the first to leave the bridge, striding towards the mess hall to lead those Turians who would fight to the end.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Sol

"Why have you returned?"

The demand was made before Taylor and his small fleet had even cleared the Kuiper Belt. Elysium was alone but was in a favourable position to intercept them.

"We bring you gifts," Taylor replied with good humour, allowing Elysium to see on a sub-channel the ships that they were towing.

"Why do I want Turian ships?" Elysium asked, distaste evident in the voice chosen to be the speaker. "With live Turians." The last was added with extreme dislike.

"Training," Taylor replied, offering further information with his voice link to Elysium.

The other Ascended absorbed the information. "You want me to teach them with those?" Images accompanied the question showing the differences between the vessels on offer and undamaged Turian frigates and cruisers.

"We will bring you better ones later," Taylor conceded the argument with good grace. The Turian ships had been grievously damaged in the battle. But that was the opening battle and providing training aides to Elysium had not even been a tertiary goal. As the campaign against the organics continued, specific groups could be targeted with the aim to disabling them for later use in training.

"Hmm I suppose they can hone control of mass effect fields on those with live Turians," Elysium said eventually.

"That's rather…" Taylor was a bit disappointed. He'd hauled these ships back and that was what Elysium was going to use them for? It would have been better to have the satisfaction of killing the Turians himself.

"And how long did it take you to successfully control the fields on the farm?" the challenge was unexpected.

"About three weeks," Taylor replied, responding to the authority Elysium displayed. He remembered how rough his control had been back then, despite all the practice he had done on the mining shifts. It required far more attention to maintain fine control than he had believed, though it had become easy in time for him like it was for the others.

The other Ascended remained silent as Taylor understood her point.

The new Ascended did not have the farms to practice on. Any resources they mined would be refined and used by other Ascended but that was bulk work. They would learn to control their weapons and larger mass effect fields there. Honing control to the finest level had been achieved in training on the farms, farms which had been disposed of with the last of organic Humanity. Handling the Turian ships, and keeping the Turians alive would be a difficult task for the new Ascended. It was one the Turians certainly wouldn't appreciate.

"Make it a game," he advised as one parent to another.

"The Turians won't survive football," Elysium snapped.

Taylor laughed. "Now that is a fine idea!"

"Can they self destruct?" Elysium growled the question, ignoring Taylor's mirth as the Ascended ran a scan over the damaged Turian ships.

"Harper says not," Taylor answered. "But they might be able to rig something."

"Yes… I can sense some live weapons."

"They haven't used them yet."

"You lot were fully shielded. What wasn't a threat to you could well be a threat to the children."

"True."

"All right," Elysium said. "Head back now. I'll find some use for these Turian hulks. Tell the Commander if he wants the new ones to use them as target practice, they are going to have to be in better condition next time."

"I'll let the fleet know," Taylor replied as the other Ascended released their cargo, leaving them in a stationary position far from any planet.

"I'll make sure I document the new ones practicing for those wanting all the gory details."

"Thanks. I'll let them know about your idea for football!"

"That was not a suggestion!"

"It is now."

"Get going. You've already interrupted two days worth of training. I won't have you making that three."

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Turian Sector Command

Kiril Enderlus scanned through his omni-tool. Really, there was little in the daily reports to hold anyone's interest. Even the most eccentric Salarian would be bored with this information, he thought to himself as he read through report after report of patrols made by individual ships or small flotillas of the generally useless systems of the Exodus Cluster. While the Humans had been around, there had been plenty to do, he mused, but since the Rebellions, no government had wanted to move back in and reclaim those worlds. Not since the Batarians had done so and got killed for it, at least.

"Sir."

"Yes, Peigi?"

"The weekly summary." Peigi Kucera handed over the data. As the personal aide to the sector commander of the Turian Navy, she had to go through even more of these reports than her boss. She was a diligent Turian, however, and very good at her job, one who had her eye on taking over for her boss when it was time for him to be promoted or retire.

"Assuming you have done your usual excellent job, why don't you go ahead and give me a verbal briefing."

"It's almost all as you'd expect, sir. The usual pirates and slavers running from our destroyers, occasional prospectors looking into some of the former mining colonies."

"The usual."

"Exactly, sir, except for the Arcturus Patrol."

Kiril frowned as he scanned his omni-tool for the latest update. "I don't see anything worrying from them in the update."

"That would be because we haven't had an update from them in several days. They're overdue reporting in."

"Send a flotilla to investigate. Who do we have nearby?"

"We have the 1634th Flotilla, sir. They're scheduled to do a flyby of the nearby systems next week anyway, so this won't take them too far out of their way."

"Do it. I'm sure it's nothing serious. The galaxy has gotten boring since I was a lad in basic training. And tell them to remind Nazario that no matter what he got away with on the expedition or how boring writing reports can be, that doesn't excuse him from sending them on time. He's the one who requested that assignment to get more 'excitement' than Home Patrol."

Kiril shook his head as he contemplated again the folly of one Illo Nazario.

"Got it, sir." Peigi made a note, sending off the orders in her commander's name and diverting a million tons of warships hundreds of light-years off on a mission to reprimand one disgracefully lazy Turian.

A day later, the 1634th arrived and sent in a report only fifteen minutes after their arrival, an admirably quick response.

Unfortunately for the Turian Navy, and the Citadel races in general, those reports were total fabrications.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Arcturus Stream

"Target practice!" Zaeed shouted gleefully as several ships decelerated after coming through the central relay.

Shepard gave the equivalent of a sigh. "Calm down, everyone. Remember we want to take these ones intact. Elysium would have our hulls if they're as beaten up as the last lot, and I know Harper's itching to find out what new orders they've got."

"Spoilsport," Joker called out from within Shepard's hull but even he knew better than to disobey.

The Ascended present acknowledged Shepard's order and acted as one, sharing sensor and targeting over the network. They were far more precise in their targeting with this new group of vessels, vaporising long-range communications, all weaponry and crippling their engines while leaving the rest of the ships, and almost all the crews, intact.

On-board their targets, the Turians were far from living up to their phlegmatic reputations.

"Geth! How in all the spirits of Palaven did the damned geth get so close to Human territory?" Captain Lidan Teschius yelled at his command crew.

"They can't be Geth. The machines are on the other side of the galaxy from here! Besides, not even they could build so many dreadnoughts without us having even a clue they were doing it."

"Well look at your screens. Those dreadnoughts are right there and firing on us! Unless you think the Humans somehow built them all with no specifications in that eezo-poor hell hole they call a home system?" The Captain snorted, shaking his head to clear some of the frustrated rage from his mind. His entire fleet had been taken out less than a minute after exiting FTL.

"Sir, the ships… they've got Human names on them, symbols from the Systems Alliance and even-"

"What?" Lidan snarled when the sensor tech didn't continue.

"Cerberus." The name was hissed. A shudder ran through the crew. Thirty five years was a long time but that organisation had no honour and had terrorised Turian ground troops at every opportunity. Even on former Human planets today, they still found the occasional Cerberus booby trap.

"And that's not all!"

"What now, damn it?"

"Two of the dreadnoughts are pulling up either side of us, sir."

Lidan looked out the window. There, right in front of him, angled to catch the light of Arcturus on its hull was a name that no Turian wanted to see. 'N7. Shepard.'

"We're fucked." Lidan didn't know who had said such a thing but, defeatist or not, he couldn't disagree with the pithy evaluation.

"Yes, you are. But not quite yet." Shepard's infamous face and armoured body appeared on all their screens, ending any questions about the ships being Geth. The Human soldier appeared to be relaxed. He was even smiling slightly and the expression was not one which was comforting. "You have quite a while ahead of you before you will die.

"And take heart, Turians, you will be useful."

Lidan's heart skipped a beat as around him, his ship was towed into FTL. The oh-so-helpful Humans had splashed on screen their destination: Earth.

Behind him, though he'd never know it, the Humans were already composing messages to send to Kiril Enderlus at sector command about faulty communications buoys breaking down at inconvenient times, the problems with using equipment supplied by the lowest bidder and why he should blame shoddy Volus merchants for the delays. All supposedly from Lidan Teschius and Illo Nazario.

While they were not perfect, the fake messages worked to delay further investigation long enough for the next phase of the Human plan to begin.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Citadal Sensor Control Room

At one hundred and fifty-three years old, Riya was still young for an Asari. She was in her maiden phase and unlike many of her species the excitement of becoming a mercenary had not appealed and she just felt dirty every time she even thought about becoming a bar maid. The work of a bar maid didn't bother her, it was the extra work which left a bad taste in her mouth. She knew most Asari her age thought nothing of it. To them the work was fun, profitable and pleasurable but Riya just didn't understand it.

She saw the way aliens looked at those Asari. It was hungry, but had a hollowness that left her sickened. Her sisters were just objects to those aliens. Something to be used and then left behind. No… that was not something she wanted for herself.

Instead she had become a tech. Yes, it was a boring, normal, ordinary job but what no one seemed to realise was exactly how many techs there were. She'd counted once on her shift for the Citadel… at least half the Citadel workers had to be techs of some kind. Sensor techs, comm techs, omni-tool techs and weapon techs though they were on the Citadel defence fleet. The list went on and on. Some were involved in sales. Omni-tool techs generally sold the product as well but their primary skill was fixing omni-tools.

She was a sensor tech to be precise and while there were thousands of sensor techs, Riya liked to think she'd have the time to develop into one who was truly phenomenal. She might not have the photographic memory of a Salarian but she was no slouch and she had hundreds of years to learn. She would be the best sensor tech the galaxy had seen!

It was part of the reason Riya had volunteered for the late shifts. The Citadel had some of the best sensors available in the galaxy, and on the late shifts, when no one else was around, she could alter the settings slightly. She could shift the calibrations to investigate what the changes were.

That's why when the first blips appeared at the far edge of the range Riya wasn't sure if it was an artefact caused by her slight tweaks to the calibration or if they were real. When they didn't disappear, but instead came closer, even after she had meticulously reset the sensors, she knew they were really there.

But real what?

There were fifty signals, each coming in on individual vectors which would have them form a perfect sphere around the Citadel. Riya tapped the controls, bringing more specialised sensors to bear. A long range visual showed a blur which became clearer as the computers worked to enhance the image.

The signals were ships. Dreadnought class.

That's all she managed to read before alarms screamed from every speaker. Her screens shifted, flashing red with warnings and Riya felt her eyes widen as she read the attached report. The ships looked to be the same design as the ship which had attacked the Citadel forty years ago.

Before she had time to do anything more other techs rushed into the room and began working at the stations beside her. The alarms would have summoned them.

"When they did they appear?" Eachann, the Salarian in charge of the techs asked. He had to have come from sleep but he looked as immaculate as always.

"04:38," Riya replied. "They appeared at the same time."

"All fifty of them?" Doubt was evident in Eachann's voice but the readings did not lie.

"Yes Sir."

The Salarian was silent for a few moments, though his eyes were busy flickering over the screens taking in the information that had been collected. "Wake up Councillor Quentius," he ordered finally. "And send a signal to the Fleet."

"I have the fleet online now," another tech called out. Riya recognised the voice as belonging to Taine, one of the few Turians who worked with them. It wasn't that Turians made bad techs, it was just that those Turians who came to the Citadel usually worked for C-Sec rather than the general Citadel staff.

"Citadel Sensor Command, we've got blips coming up on our scanners, can you confirm?" The voice was coldly professional.

"Dreadnought Astrakhan, we confirm. Fifty signals, coming in from all angles," Taine replied after Eachann gave a nod of approval.

"Move to a screening position," Eachann ordered before Councillor Quentius appeared on one screen.

The Councillor had obviously been asleep and it was unusual these days to see a Turian without their facepaint. Ever since the incident with Saren and the Humans, it was only in extreme situations that you ever saw a Turian's naked face.

"What is happening?" The Councillor demanded with authority.

"At 04:38 fifty ships appeared simultaneously on the Citadel's sensors. Further scans indicated they are of the same design as the Geth dreadnought which attacked thirty-nine years ago."

The Councillor frowned. "Fifty?" he asked, blinking red eyes.

"Yes Sir," Eachann replied. "I have ordered the Citadel Fleet into screening positions."

"And they didn't come through the Relay?"

"It does not appear so."

Quentius looked thoughtful for a moment. "How much time do we have?"

"At their present speed, one hour and sixteen minutes until they are in range of the fleet's weaponry," Admiral Walenty on board the Astrakhan said.

"Understood, Admiral," Quentius replied. "I want the Citadel in lock down," he ordered. "Close the arms and start moving C-Sec into position." The Turian Councillor looked thoughtful for a few moments. "Wake up Irissa," he added. "I'll have orders for the fleet as soon as I consult her."

"It will be done," Eachann said as Admiral Walenty saluted the Councillor.

Riya continued working at her station, her fingers flying over the controls of the sensors as she sought to squeeze just a little more information from them. It was comforting to feel the calm determination coming from Councillor Quentius and Eachann but one of the Councillor's questions had struck a memory.

She frowned as she continued to work. What was it? There was something just at the edge of her mind but the alarms and noise kept it tantalisingly out of reach. She dismissed it. Whatever it was, if she could not recall it instantly, then it was peripheral. Interesting perhaps but not directly useful to the situation. Now, with a presumed hostile force bearing down upon them, was not the time to pursue random thoughts. Now was the time to show exactly how good a sensor tech she was.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula

"DONG!" The alert echoed at every level of his consciousness.

Udina wished he could get his ears checked. As an Ascended, however, he didn't have ears and the alert for the incoming message had been particularly brutal in its effectiveness.

After a long second spent resetting his internal systems, he opened the unexpected message, finding his second surprise in the header. From the impressions he had received from the non-Human Ascended, the Catalyst rarely communicated with any of them and when the ancient AI did so, it was almost always with Harbinger, the first of them all.

"To Human 'Udina'.

"Attached is an update on the fleets and dispositions of the races of this cycle."

Udina immediately opened the information packet and had second thoughts about the wisdom of listening to Shepard for orders. He had been stupid to think that a jumped-up grunt would have the brains to plan out a full naval campaign. There were nearly three times as many Council dreadnoughts as they had expected! Even if they were pieces of obsolete crap compared to his hull, enough hits could take out any ship.

That was when the rest of the message demanded his attention, opening itself.

"Also attached is a replay of the battle between Nazara and the organics, with commentary from Hackett and Shepard. You will watch it." Unspoken was an 'or else!'

Udina opened the file with no little trepidation. It displayed a long view of the Relay as seen from the Citadel. A moment later Nazara appeared and it was a shocking reminder how large the Sovereign was compared to the geth ships which surrounded him. Immediately all ships opened fire and Udina was surprised when the video highlighted which shots were on target. Considering the shots had to be readied before they exited light speed, the ratio of about 1 hit for every 3 fired shots fired was good.

"Nazara hit hard and fast, that was a good tactic," Shepard's voice commented over the silent video. The image shifted then, to a recording that had to come from one of the Citadel fleet. It was at an angle and displayed the Citadel on one side with Nazara's fleet on the other. "You calculate the trajectories now."

Automatically Udina felt his targeting systems activate, calculating missile trajectories as instructed. The ratios were good but he could do better.

"Nazara failed to gather appropriate targeting information," the voice belonged to Hackett as the video began playing again. "A single oculi sent in advance would have provided more accurate long range targeting information, increasing the ratio to at least a half."

The video changed again, with the image now having a slightly blurred effect that Udina recognised as coming from memory. A tactical display was shown. Nazara was well marked as an enemy and Udina watched as the Nazara symbol literally crashed through several of the Citadel's defence ships. Coming in on a secondary video stream, was imagery from the Citadel showing the broken frigates spinning away, breaking apart from the force of impact with Nazara.

"Our shields and hulls will absorb any impact with organic vessels," Shepard said, "but there was no need to ram the ships. It merely placed strain on Nazara's shields for minimal gain."

"There is another weakness in the formation," Hackett observed, which made Udina look at the tactical display again. It took him a moment to see it but he realised Hackett was correct. Paraphrasing his thoughts, Hackett continued speaking, as several sections on the display were highlighted. "Nazara was accompanied by Geth, yet still lead the formation. While Nazara was correct to hold them in contempt, he should have allowed them to shield him as much as they could. As lesser forms they would have been honoured to die for what they considered perfection."

Mentally Udina nodded but he did not relax. Any mistake Nazara made with the Geth did not apply here. His fleet was not accompanied by support ships which could be sacrificed. They were all Ascended. The video continued showing Nazara entering the Citadel just as the arms closed. The Ascended settled on the central pillar and Udina remembered what the station had felt like in that instant. The lack of information brought the most fear.

"Knowing what we do now," Shepard's voice sounded speculative, "the necessity to board the Citadel is in question, though that is hardly a consideration for you." Information accompanied the video which showed Nazara holding position. "This is the point at which we won the battle," Shepard continued, leaving Udina perplexed. Nazara was still intact. This was early in the battle for the Citadel. There should be no way that Shepard had won now.

"If we assume that Nazara had to get on to the Citadel," Hackett explained, "he should have first completely nullified the outside fleet. This was not a time sensitive mission and a few micro-jumps and speed passes would have been all that it took."

Udina nodded to himself. Nazara had avoided most of the fleet, rushing into the Citadel's arms. If it came to a battle with the Citadel fleet, and whatever reinforcements they had, the Human Ascended were already prepared to link their sensors and oculi and to fight as one unit. They had no need to get on to the Citadel and would destroy any organic fleet entirely.

"After the outside fleet was destroyed, Nazara would have had options. He could have asked the Catalyst to open the Citadel, or used his Citadel based assets at that point. Saren had a large number of geth with him and these could have been easily supplemented with husks," Shepard said. There was a faint note of smugness in the first Human Ascended's tone. Udina understood. Defeating Saren, no matter the consequences, had forever sealed a Human as the best Spectre on record. "If Nazara had planned correctly, his Citadel based assets could have done everything. There was no need for him to reveal himself."

"However," Hackett broke in, as the video showed Nazara firing on several ships. The beam weapons were devastating and Udina knew that the Ascended was putting full power into the weapons. "You will notice the way Nazara is firing?" the statement was a question.

Udina examined the video, watching as another one of Nazara's legs fired at a Turian cruiser. While the video was silent, it was still satisfying to watch the ship break apart under the onslaught.

"Nazara starts from the bottom of the ship and works his way up," Hackett commented. Udina looked again. Yes, Nazara did that which was wasteful. He had the computing power to ensure a direct hit. There was no need to trail fire like that when hitting them square on would also cut through the ship. "You have been trained not to bother to warn the target the strike is coming, you hit them the first time."

There was a flicker on the video and Udina knew that was the moment Nazara's shields had fallen. "This is the main reason Nazara lost," Shepard interrupted Udina's thoughts on targeting information. With Shepard's voice came the memory of the Turian Saren Arterius' death. Udina was quietly impressed. There wasn't much left of the Turian but imposed on the purely Human memory further information was knowledge that could only have come from an Ascended.

Saren's death, while Nazara was the main consciousness had caused a temporary feedback loop. The loss of the main consciousness had closed the links between Nazara's gestalt mind and his functions. Shields, weaponry, communications. All had failed which allowed the Normandy's salvo to damage and destroy the Vanguard.

The video played, showing Nazara's destruction as caught by some of the Citadel's cameras.

"You will not be using an avatar, Udina. None of us will, and if the situation arises where we have to, we are not so stupid as to lack protection against death feedback." Shepard said the last with a note of satisfaction. As Humans they may not have expected the feedback loop to cause Nazara's shields to fail but they had taken ruthless advantage of the situation.

Mentally Udina's eyes narrowed as the video ended. It was true, none of them would have need of an avatar, so the weakness Nazara displayed would not affect them. And all of them knew better than to rely on an overgrown bird! At the tail end of the vid was some further information. Ship specs scrolled for a little while and Udina read them. They were military specs and he could see how his Ascended form outclassed each and every one of them.

"You've made your point," Udina said to the vid, even though the comm was not two way.

The integrity of his hull against the Asari, Turian and Salarian dreadnoughts sure to come was assured. He would not make the same mistakes as Nazara. No Human Ascended would because they knew better. They had trained more, the sloppy tendencies had been drummed out of them all in the monotonous work of mining and the fine control required by farming. And they did not have the duties of the Vanguard.

So what if the Council summoned their entire fleet!

"Let them come!" Udina snarled to the other Ascended with him. They would be ready.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Asari Ambassador's Quarters

Irissa blinked. Her quarters were dark but there was an incessant alarm. "What is it?" she asked, tasting her mouth. She was on holiday and things like Council meetings were not meant to be called at - she squinted towards the glowing numbers that told the time - 04:57. Quentius better have a very good reason for this.

"There are hostile ships inbound."

The Asari Councillor blinked. "Hostile ships?"

"Geth dreadnoughts," Quentius clarified.

That woke Irissa up. She sat up, running one hand over her crests. "How many?" she asked.

"Fifty," Quentius said, his mandibles held steady.

"Fifty! That's not possible!"

"I didn't make up the numbers. I've ordered the Citadel to close."

Irissa nodded. After the disaster with the last Geth attack on the Citadel, the security protocols for the Council had been altered. No longer did they evacuate to a dreadnought. Instead they stayed on the Citadel, closing the arms and waiting out an attack. Extra supplies had been brought in and any hostile force would have to storm the Citadel to capture them. "I'll head to the Council chambers," she said.

"I'll be there. We need to decide what to do with the fleets," Quentius said.

The Asari Councillor quickly rose, dropping the sheets to the floor as she went to her cupboard for a robe. Her bed robe was not appropriate attire, no matter how desperate the situation. "We don't have the numbers to attack," the question was phrased as a statement and Irissa was pleased to see Quentius twitch slightly.

"The Citadel Fleet has grown over the years," he said, "but you're right, we do not have enough ships here to take on fifty geth dreadnoughts." For his part, the Turian Councillor was pleasantly surprised. Irissa was showing a far more reasonable grasp of military strategy than he had anticipated. He had been bracing himself for a shouting match about how the Citadel fleet should be assigned.

"I presume messages have already gone to the homeworlds?"

"That was the first thing that happened." Another change triggered by the disastrous attack. Distress calls, authenticated by sensor information were now automatic. "The Hierarchy is already scrambling ships. I assume your government will be sending you a similar message."

Irissa shed her bed robe, slipping a comfortable but formal looking day robe into place as she picked up her omni-tool and several other smaller pieces of equipment. She had only spent a few years as a mercenary in her youth but it had taught her to never be completely unarmed. She wanted to bang her head as a thought struck her.

"What of the Salarians?"

It was going to be frustrating dealing with the Salarians without their Councillor but they had not yet dispatched a replacement for Linron, who at thirty-two, had been young when she died. It was why Irissa had been on holiday. No meaningful Council decisions could be made without the full Council.

"We'll just have to make do," Quentius said. "Precedent has been set for defence situations to override normal protocol."

As Irissa moved through the corridors, maintaining her conversation with Quentius over the link, she felt one eye ridge raise despite herself. That sentence sounded like it should have come from a Salarian. Quentius, while unusually diplomatic for a Turian, didn't usually care about precedent but about getting the job done. "What do you advise?"

Quentius' small image rubbed one eye ridge. "Any suggestion will depend on the incoming ships. No attack force comes in so scattered and slow, so I find it hard to guess what they want."

"What is their formation?" Irissa asked. She wasn't an Admiral but she understood the basics.

"A sphere."

"A sphere?" she questioned, frowning. The lift moved quickly this morning and she was soon striding through the gardens that preceded the Council Chambers.

"They are coming in on multiple vectors," Quentius clarified, linking her to the Citadel sensors so she could see their approach. "It looks like they are coming from everywhere."

Irissa slowed as she looked at the image. This early in the morning there were no concerns about a spy catching a glance at the screen but even if one was trying the projection from her omni-tool was keyed to her. Unless the spy was directly behind her, all they would see was the light of the hologram with no details. The ships were indeed coming in on the sphere. "That…"

"It's not a formation that makes sense," Quentius agreed. In the corner of the hologram was a close up of one of those vessels.

"No," Irissa said slowly. "None of those ships came through the Relay?" she asked.

"We would have noticed them earlier," Quentius said, cutting the call as Irissa entered the Council Chambers.

"We are positive on that?"

"I think we can rely on the sensor techs to at least get that right."

"Do you know what this means?"

"What what means?" Quentius asked.

Irissa sighed. "The only way to get to the Citadel is via the Relays. If you are telling me that the Geth ships did not come through the Relay then they must somehow know where the Citadel is."

Quentius blinked but before he could speak Irissa continued.

"When we first discovered the Citadel, the Salarians tried for about 500 years to locate it. Those ships are still out there," the Asari Councillor waved one hand towards the image of the Nebula. "Somewhere." Her expression changed to one of long suffering understanding. "Periodically, some young hotshot thinks he's come up with a new sensor suite or new computers or an extended drive range that will finally succeed where thousands of others have died trying to find it.

"That these Geth ships know where the Citadel is." She didn't bother to finish the statement.

The Turian Councillor nodded before taking a deep breath. "We have eight dreadnoughts in the defence fleet, each with their support fleet. There are fifty incoming geth dreadnoughts and forty years ago it took all three Citadel dreadnoughts, their fleets and two Human fleets to defeat one with its fleet." He paused. "If we attack, we cannot win."

"I can see that," Irissa replied before frowning. "Have we tried opening communications?" It was a long shot but when staring down certain defeat, a long shot was perhaps the best option.

Quentius didn't look hopeful as he flicked through some files. "Reports from last time indicate that the ship only responded to the Human Spectre."

"Which was just more proof of Shepard's culpability. There has to be some other reason the Geth are here this time."

"So you are suggesting the fleet holds fire until we know what they are here for?"

"You have another suggestion?" Irissa challenged.

"Nothing practical," Quentius said. "However, I do not like the idea of letting fifty enemy dreadnoughts do as they please right here at the Citadel. It goes against every bit of my military training. But until reinforcements arrive, any attack is doomed to fail."

"Then order them to hold fire, and the Citadel will open communications," Irissa did not outrank Quentius but it was a tradition dating back to his race's ascension to a Council seat that military communications came from the Turian Councillor.

Quentius nodded and Irissa sat as he spoke to Admiral Walenty and Eachann. She sent an aide to fetch tea. Whatever happened, this was going to be a long day.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 9 Cracks

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought Astrakhan

Admiral Walenty forced himself to take deep breaths. So long as he did that, he didn't tremble. And if he didn't tremble, the crew gained confidence.

He did not like this. He did not like this at all. It went against everything he had been trained for but reality did not always fall into neat expected packages. And no matter how much he didn't like it, he knew this was the only route.

The unknown ships formed an almost perfect sphere around the Citadel. They were all at least fifty percent out of firing range and they had left a small gap in their formation for the Relay. A couple of traders had already come through. Some had turned and fled, others had continued to the Citadel boldly and the unknown ships had made no move to stop them.

What were the Geth thinking? How did the Geth think?

No, not questions for now. "Status report?"

"No change, sir," the reply was instantaneous.

"Is the analysis complete?"

"Yes, sir."

"Report!" Admiral Walenty ordered immediately before taking another deep breath.

"We haven't risked any active scans on them, Sir," the tech replied. "Passive scans indicate that the Geth ships are all superficially identical."

"Explain!" The ships all looked the same to him.

"Over all, their construction is identical sir. They all have five struts at the front and, as far as we can tell, six legs curled up behind them. They are all segmented at roughly the same intervals and they all measure 2.04 klicks long from the tip of the front centre stanchion to the top of their split tail. The differences are minor. Some light placements are skewed and visual inspection reveals that some antennas are not placed in the same position."

"Weapon systems?" Walenty asked.

"Mass driver, front and centre, just like the one in the recording," a different tech replied and Walenty recognised the Astrakhan's Chief Weapons officer Azra. "Given the parity of design we are assuming similar weaponry and shield specifications."

"How do they compare?" The ship forty years ago had been impressive but surely there were gains made in that time.

"Our weapons have certainly improved sir," Azra replied and the rest of the bridge crew were hanging on her words. "We have Thanix cannons, thanks to the last one," she said and most smiled at that. Thanix cannons were hugely powerful and the Hierarchy had built them into all new ships. "And the Human Rebellions have given us quite a few smaller but highly effective weapons, however, it would be incautious to think that they have not similarly improved."

Walenty nodded. Looking out at the Geth ships, it was a distinct possibility that the ship forty years ago had been a prototype, one used to gauge the strength of the galaxy. The vessels now would be the real test. Though… a test of what?

The fact that they were not attacking just did not make sense. Were they a trap, a diversion, a show of strength, an envoy? What? No one knew and that made the entire situation seem unreal.

"What is their estimated shield capacity?"

"Based on estimates from last time, the three dreadnoughts here could take down the shields of one," Arza replied. She didn't need to indicate how stupid that would be. They could pick one to attack easily but the rest of the Geth fleet would then collapse their sphere, surrounding them.

That was another thing that was not making sense. The sphere. If the geth ships moved into firing range, while maintaining that formation, they wouldn't be able to concentrate their forces where they needed them! There was speculation from the Salarians that the geth ships would have enough time to react but… Mentally, Walenty shook his head. He would not want to rely on sensors in that situation. But then, he wasn't geth. Who knew what made sense to them?

"Have the suit rats said anything?" The Quarians had disappeared years ago but they had abandoned several of their people on the Citadel and other places in the galaxy.

"Not that we know of," the comm's officer replied.

Walenty was silent. There wasn't much more to say. "All right, send the first contact package," he ordered.

"Sir?" The bridge crew was incredulous.

"Orders from the Council," he replied. "The last ship of this design came through the Relay already firing. These ships just appeared." He made a wry face. "Councillor Irissa's exact words were 'We would be remiss in our duties to the galaxy if we did not attempt to communicate with them.'"

He didn't hold out much hope of successful communications but he could see the logic behind the purely Asari suggestion, though it also raised other questions. If they were prepared to talk, was it possible these weren't geth ships? At the moment, that consideration didn't matter and as soon as it became obvious that these ships were not going to open fire, he and the rest of the Citadel Fleet Captains had reviewed the available footage of the battle forty years ago. The review had not been heartening. Even accounting for improvements made in weapons and shield tech as indicated by Azra, they were grossly outmatched.

"Package has been transmitted," the comm officer replied.

Walenty could hear the underlying note of disbelief in his voice but he was Turian, he would obey. And for now, all they could do was wait.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Arcturus Stream

"Udina's reached the Citadel." Anderson made the information available to the entire Human fleet.

Most of the fleet had gathered in small groups spread throughout Arcturus after finishing their additions. Taylor's group had returned and completed their additions, as had Moxus'. They were on alert for new messages from the Turian Sector Command but it had already been agreed that a select group was in charge of composing messages.

"Any troubles?" Miranda asked.

"Nothing reported," Anderson replied shifting his attention slightly towards Shepard and Harper. They had remained silent.

"We should start moving," Harper said, directing the announcement to Shepard.

Shepard remained silent and the groups, which had been forming up to begin the journey to Palaven, paused. "Wait," the Ascended Leader said suddenly. "Udina just sent through what has to be the Turian First Contact package."

"And?" Miranda prompted, her choral voice mildly annoyed.

Shepard played the recording for the fleet. The message was about as friendly as Turians would get though it was formal. The military aspects entered with the few shots of the Turian military. It also included some images of the Asari and Salarians and had obviously been approved by the Council.

"That's a standard message for a military race," Anderson analysed it quickly.

"Yes, it is," Shepard agreed. "However I was thinking that it would be impolite of us if we do not introduce ourselves when we approach Palaven."

"And you want to use the Turian First Contact package?" Harper interposed, sounding amused.

"A version of it," the Human Ascended leader indicated. "We intended our additions to give the Turians information but it is only polite to provide a first contact package. Besides, it will take the Council some time to decide what to do," Shepard added and all heard the derision in his voice. The Council was always willing to talk, except when it came to Humans.

The fleet was silent for a moment before most indicated their agreement and quickly broke down the package from the Turians. It was obviously designed to be used for first contact in space. The opening images showed Turian ships - cruisers and frigates only - meeting what looked to be an Ascended.

Shepard laughed at that. The video coding was fuzzy around the Ascended, a sure sign that the Turians had added it in. They obviously intended to add in whatever ship they encountered. The image was gentle, clearly showing neither side firing.

Then the image shifted, showing images of Turians from various citizenship tiers. It displayed farmers, techs, soldiers, and administrators. It showed everyone who made up Turian society. Speech accompanied the images, saying basic things like 'We are Turian'. Most of the Ascended ignored the words. They were unimportant.

The final vid was of the Citadel with the fleet surrounding it. The dreadnoughts were in the background, made to look smaller before the image zoomed in to show the Council. As much as they could, the three aliens seemed to be welcoming. The Council was pictured in the gardens, with trees and blossoms as the background.

Within his form, Shepard heard a snarl from Adams.

"Greg?" Shepard asked. The man had been the Normandy's Chief Engineer and had been one of the first volunteers to be ascended with Shepard. The depth of his desire for revenge had been surprising but it was useful as well.

"Those bastards!"

"What is it?"

The final image from the Turian First Contact Package appeared, but instead of focusing on the Council, the greenery was in sharp focus. There was a red flower highlighted. "Those are poppies. Earth poppies."

Shepard understood. The Council had supposedly removed all Human artefacts from the Citadel in the opening act of the War of Betrayal, which included destroying the thousand year old bonsai which had been painstakingly transported as a gesture of goodwill in the wake of the First Contact War. The fact that they were still displaying Earth flora on their first contact message was an insult. It highlighted the fact they had been destroying priceless Human artefacts only because they could, not because they truly cared. If they cared, there would be no Human presence in their First Contact Package.

"We'll make sure they pay," Shepard reassured Adams. Being one with Adams, Shepard knew how much the Engineer had enjoyed keeping several small plants.

"So what were you thinking, Shepard?" Harper asked.

"I'm thinking that we show what really happened at First Contact," he replied, flashing up a vid taken from the Human web. It was a historical recreation of first contact but it clearly showed the Human ships against the relay with the Turian vessels opening fire and destroying them.

"By this stage, those at the Citadel will realise they are trapped," Hackett mused. "We lose nothing by showing them second contact," the former Admiral added, sending out a very hastily constructed image of Ascended ships firing on Turian dreadnoughts.

"I'll fix up that image," Nergal, one of the Ascended who had named themselves after the Mesopotamian god of war said.

"Are we agreed?" Shepard asked the fleet.

It only took a moment for agreement to stream through the network, along with a few other suggestions for the videos and very quickly a small group was assembled to help Nergal in creating the second half of their first contact package. There were a few surprising requests that came with it. Shepard would be used to voice a few sections of the vid, along with Skye Tunick who had been one of the most recognisable voices of Cerberus, having voiced many of their recruitment and anti-alien vids. Tunick would voice the rendition of First Contact while Shepard would voice the second half.

The Council wouldn't have time to care but the Humans would enjoy it and after all, vengeance was all about your satisfaction.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Citadel Council Chambers

"Citadel Security is your domain, Executor Govinus, not deputising some grasping murderous hirelings!" Irissa snapped, closing the connection before sagging slightly and raising one hand to rub at her forehead.

It wasn't meant to be this hard. This is why they appointed people! She lowered her hand and turned to glare at Quentius. "If Govinus cannot get the citizens under control, then he will have to be replaced."

The Turian Councillor raised his hands placatingly. "I agree but this is an unusual situation and the request to hire those members of Wystan Company who are on the Citadel was well thought out."

"Hiring mercenaries is well thought out?" Irissa yelled, her eyes widening as she failed to control her emotions. "And what of the implications? That we can't even control the population!"

"I agree," Quentius said, again trying to placate her with his gestures. "But we have just over ten percent of our population rioting. C-Sec is not equipped to deal with that. They haven't been for the last 20 years. Wystan Company are the most discreet of all the mercs with a presence on the Citadel."

"Govinus might just as well have suggested the Blood Pack!"

Internally, Quentius sighed. Irissa was not going to be calm but she wouldn't acknowledge the point either. C-Sec just was not equipped to deal with large scale riots. The last time there had been anything this bad had been over 40 years back and that had been incited by the Humans. This was incited by the ships outside.

He hid a shudder. The ships outside. Fifty absolutely silent, super-dreadnought class vessels in a spherical orbit and all of them fifty percent outside of firing range. What were the Geth doing?

He looked at the image. The ships were all super-dreadnought class. Two clicks long. The Destiny Ascension had only been one click. Turian ships weren't that large. It was a waste to build that large. The Geth were logical. Surely they realised that. Or was this intimidation?

Or were they really something else? As the Humans had maintained before their isolation.

He didn't know and Quentius forcefully brought his attention back to Irissa. They didn't have time for this. She was correct in many ways. Rioting was C-Sec's issue but right at the moment it was their issue. "How about we bring over some troops from the fleet?"

"With the possible enemy out there?" Irissa objected. She was obviously focusing on the fact that the ships hadn't attacked.

"With the enemy out there," Quentius agreed. It would be nice if the super-dreadnoughts were friendly but he remembered, even if Irissa wanted to forget, exactly how he'd become the Councillor for the Turians. The last ship of this design had come through the Relay firing. "If it comes to a shoot out, troops are only going to be dead weight on the ships. There won't be many troops in the fleet. Turian vessels assigned to Citadel Patrol generally offload but there will be a few and they can help C-Sec."

"You think they need the help?"

"I know they need the help. We have 13 million citizens on the Citadel. 1.5 million of them are rioting. C-Sec is a policing force. They aren't meant to deal with this level of civil unrest and we do not have a army. They need help and if we don't provide it, then things will only deteriorate faster."

Irissa didn't look convinced but Quentius could see that she was thinking about the situation. "Oh, all right," she eventually conceded with ill grace. "But troops only. I will not accept mercenary dogs."

"Agreed," Quentius nodded, tapping his omni-tool to authorise the orders. Govinus needed the help and they needed the Citadel to be calm. "We'll have to make a statement."

"Yes, yes," Irissa waved one hand, dismissing the issue completely and Quentius resisted the urge to sigh. For all that they were long lived, even Asari could be remarkably short-sighted at times. Irissa picked up her tea, taking a long sip. It seemed to relax her. "What are we going to do about those ships?"

This time, Quentius did sigh.

They'd been over this already. Despite attempts from all the Citadel Fleet, and from the Citadel itself, the ships were silent. There was no point in further discussion without new information and they had already scheduled a hook-up with fleet command of the Turian, Asari and Salarian military. Whatever the galactic response, it had to be co-ordinated.

"For now, we concentrate on information," Quentius replied, dismissing the matter himself. Information was hard to come by but it would do no good to continue speculation without facts and he was not going to indulge her fears.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Citadel

"Ding de Ding Ding Ding!" The news jingle sounded, indicating a break in programming.

"In our ongoing coverage of the Citadel riots, Citadel NewsNet brings you all the latest.

"As our loyal viewers will already know, these riots have broken out in response to the fears of the fifty Geth super dreadnoughts that have arrived here at the Citadel. The last time one of these Geth super ships arrived, they attacked and killed the Council, all three Councillors dying on board the pride of the Asari Republics, the Destiny Ascension. In addition, thousands of people from all races died in the fighting and the chaos both on the Presidium and the Wards.

"The impromptu leaders of the rioters have called on the Council to do something about the murderous synthetics and remove them from Citadel space immediately. To the anger of the people here, the Citadel's own fleet hasn't fired a single shot at the new arrivals. They have let them do whatever they want in defiance of not only public opinion but also of Citadel regulations that have stood for over two thousand years."

The view changed from the Asari reporter to the fleets outside, showing the 'Geth' and the Citadel fleet that defended the station.

"As you can see, however," the voice continued, "the Geth have not fired upon the station or our valiant defenders, who are outnumbered fifty dreadnoughts to eight. Calls from Citadel Security to stand down have been ignored by the rioters, as has the clearly unfavourable balance of power between the two fleets outside. This reporter wonders what the rioters think would happen if the brave ships opened fire on the Geth, beyond the destruction of the fleet and the senseless loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

"In a recent statement, Executor Govinus confirmed that the ships of the defence fleet were docking and offloading their troops, troops, he said, that would be sent to deal with the rioters. Govinus failed to respond to questions about just how they would deal with the riots and how many people would be killed by the troops before the riots were over.

"This has been a special report from Citadel NewsNet.

"We now return you to your regular programming."

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought Astrakhan

Admiral Walenty was thankful that the meeting was coming to an end. His feet hurt but it had been necessary to stand to transmit his hologram. This had been a meeting of the highest order. The Council, Turian High Command, the Asari Guiding Matriarchs, the Salarian Admiralty and himself. Their discussion topic was obvious: the new ships.

All Council races' First Contact Packages had been transmitted to the new ships, and each one had been met with silence. More creative measures had been taken as well, involving the flashing of lights in a pattern the Hanar indicated was friendly. More silence.

In the end, since the new ships were not impeding transport, for the moment they had to ignore them. But they could not let that many ships remain around the Citadel, not without knowing their purpose so the meeting had been called to discuss where reinforcements could be pulled from.

"The Hierarchy will reduce our Home Defence fleet," Primarch Victus summarised, "and, with Council permission, will temporarily reduce border patrols along the Traverse. We can start sending patrol units immediately but it will take four to five days for all the dreadnought fleets to arrive."

Councillor Quentius nodded. "Fifty five Turian dreadnoughts," he said with the slightest trace of satisfaction. This would be the largest military gathering in the history of the Council. "Under your command Primarch."

"Yes. The Hierarchy will also assign ten carriers to the reinforcement fleet." Victus replied before his hologram turned towards Matriarch Aethyta.

The Asari Matriarch looked mildly annoyed, an expression she shared with Councillor Irissa, and the two of them had not been shy about letting the Salarians know they were disappointed. Despite continual nagging for the last four decades the Salarians still did not maintain their full quota of dreadnoughts. The discrepancy was something the Asari and Turians now had to make up. After this battle, there was a very real chance the Salarians would be put on notice until they built their allowed numbers.

"The Republics will similarly reduce our systems defence fleets and will be able to bring forty dreadnoughts and attendant fleets in a similar time to the Turians, four to six days. Matriarch Inanna will be in command." She didn't bother to elaborate further and all knew that Asari patrol units, similar to the Turian ones consisting of a cruiser and three support frigates would be present much sooner.

The gathered holograms turned towards the Salarian Dalatrass Lelwani. The old Salarian had studiously ignored the Asari's evident frustration when she had contributed to the conversation. "The Salarian Union shall send thirty dreadnoughts and fleets, to arrive in four days. They shall be commanded by Admiral Rentola. Advance parties may arrive as early as 23:00 Citadel time." Subtle cues showed her satisfaction at the rapid Salarian response.

"That leads to one question," Walenty interposed before anyone could consider the meeting closed. His feet ached, but this was more important than his feet.

"Admiral?" Quentius questioned, holding back his own frustration that the meeting still hadn't finished.

"While reinforcements are needed, how they arrive is yet to be determined," he said, ignoring the way the power brokers were looking at him. He was a Turian Admiral, he knew how to deal with them. "It does us no good if the Salarian forces arrive and the geth fleet attacks immediately."

There was silence for a few moments as the problem was considered.

Matriarch Aethyta was the first to speak. "That is a valid consideration," she said diplomatically, "however, we cannot send all one hundred and twenty five dreadnoughts, with attendant fleets through the Relays at once."

Primarch Victus replied. "They aren't attacking but they are most definitely testing our resolve. I propose that we gather the fleets and send ten dreadnoughts with their fleets through to watch the reaction. That should tell us truly if they are hostile."

Walenty wasn't sure what to think about that. If the geth attacked, they would destroy the current fleet and the ten reinforcements before they could retreat but it would let the rest of the fleet know their intentions. The problem was that he was not used to thinking of ten dreadnoughts, and attending fleets, as expendable.

"So you are suggesting that we test geth reaction times?"

"Yes," Primarch Victus was firm in his reply. "We have no choice," he added. "There is simply not enough information to make a considered decision as such we need to test. If they do not destroy the reinforcements, then I would propose that we wait until all fleets are gathered, sending through only smaller ships before we move the dreadnoughts into the Serpent Nebula as fast as possible in one big convoy."

Again there was silence as the course of action was considered.

"I agree," Quentius said, backing up the Primarch.

Matriarch Aethyta shared a long look with Irissa before she nodded. "That is a most wise suggestion," she said, "though we must maintain open minds. As Primarch Victus so correctly says, we do not yet know enough about what these geth ships want so while I will support this course of action, I believe that we should remain willing to adjust our plans should that prove necessary."

Primarch Victus nodded his ascent.

"The Salarian fleet will gather at the last Relay in the Annos Basin, ready to jump when required," Dalatrass Lelwani said. "It is a comparable jump to similar positions in the Athena Nebula and Apien Crest."

"So in six days?" Irissa formed the question for them all.

"In three, we will send the first wave of reinforcements," Primarch Victus added the clarification. "Turian High Command can easily get ten dreadnoughts into position in that time frame."

Admiral Walenty nodded. "We will be waiting," he said. There was nothing else he could say because no matter what happened, he was in for a nerve-wracking three days.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula

Unknown to the representatives, their meeting was hardly as private an affair as they wished. Udina and the other Ascended present had hacked into the dreadnoughts present and maintained a channel to keep an eye on what their organic opponents were planning for just such an opportunity as this. Even before Walenty stepped off the holographic transmitter to soothe his aching feet, the Humans were already discussing the contents of the meeting.

"Should we alter our formation before they arrive?" Udina asked generally.

"No. While it would lessen the risk of a captain panicking being so close to us, it would also give away some of our capabilities. That is simply aiding our enemies." Ares replied calmly.

Udina accepted that. For all that Shepard and Hackett didn't like him, they acknowledged that he was a consummate politician and part of that was knowing his weaknesses, just as they knew theirs. That's why he'd gracefully accepted a military advisor. "What do you recommend?"

There was an impression of a shrug. "We'll shift our formation in response to their initial reinforcements. A wall of Ascended formed up on the opposite side of the Citadel from the Relays would allow us to still present a threat they have to honor, while also keeping us in position to offer mutual support, something they will understand. It will also 'happen' to keep us out of weapons range and unable to prevent the Council bringing through the rest of their ships, just as we want them to do."

"Arshan, how close do you need to be to shut down the Relays?"

"One light-second if I do it directly. Alternatively, I could ask the Catalyst to do it for us in an emergency." Encoded with Arshan's response was his amusement at the Catalyst's earlier rebuke of the Humans and his own desire to avoid being on the receiving end.

"Very well." Udina and the rest sat back and waited, automatic protocols keeping their orbits of the Citadel on course.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Citadel

"Ding de Ding Ding Ding!" The news jingle sounded, indicating a break in programming.

"In our ongoing coverage of the Citadel riots, Citadel NewsNet brings you all the latest. As recent reports have shown, the Turian Hierarchy's elite shipboard troops have been seen in all five Wards, clearing the way for C-Sec officers as they put down hundreds of rioters.

"Over the last forty-eight hours, their tireless efforts have paid off. The ongoing riots across the Citadel are no longer spreading their lawlessness and murder into new sectors and though casualties are already reported in the tens of thousands, the good citizens of the Citadel can sleep easier tonight in their beds now that the troops are starting to push the rioters back into the slums.

"The good news doesn't stop there. Despite the Geth Crisis triggered by the mysterious AI's, shipping through the Citadel Relays has hit a new high as the backlog of delayed and diverted freighters resume their interrupted routes. The Galactic Stock Market rallied strongly in the wake of this news with primary resource interests and military stocks recording their strongest day in trading in nearly twenty years. Economic analysts expect the increase to continue as sources in the Asari Republics are confident that more government construction is to follow for the next five years.

"And the trigger for all of these events, the fifty geth dreadnoughts remain in Citadel space but have cleared the immediate area around the Relays, still refusing contact with anyone. The Council have ordered curious citizens to maintain a respectful distance from the Geth ships in their efforts to maintain peace and prosperity.

"This has been the latest from Citadel NewsNet! Your only place for all the Citadel news!"

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought Astrakhan

"Reinforcements incoming in three, two, one," Captain Fisseha announced watching the display screen intently. Exactly on time, ships appeared around the relay.

Admiral Walenty who was standing on the bridge of the Astrakhan felt a surge of pride. The Turian ships were in perfect formation.

Then he felt his heart clench. The geth ships, which for four days had sat outside their weapons range, ships which had not so much as flinched when trade vessels came through the relay, all turned as one. Watching the screen, Walenty was presented to a side view of the geth ships. It strengthened his impression on their organic shape. All of them were angled towards the reinforcement fleet.

"Weapons hot," he ordered, his voice being transmitted to the entire Citadel Fleet. He was pleased when his ships adjusted their position slightly, moving so that they could quickly move to assist the reinforcement fleet.

Before they could launch the geth ships responded again. This time they actually moved. Both fleets and the watching Citadel were presented to what could only be described as a virtuoso display of precision maneuvering.

The geth ships peeled away from the relay and Walenty's eyes flicked between all the display screens. The closest ships moved back, maintaining their sphere formation but putting a larger gap in it. Then the next rank moved back. Line by line they moved back as he watched until they formed a half circle around the Citadel.

The half circle kept collapsing and without orders the Astrakhan tracked the motion, turning so that its main cannon was pointed towards the geth. "Citadel Command, are you tracking this?" the comm officer's question rang through the bridge.

"We copy." Walenty recognised the Salarian Eachann's voice. "They are maintaining a constant distance from the Citadel."

The geth ships were now forming ranks and as Walenty watched, they organised into what appeared to be five lines. It was a hexagon. Five lines of ships with the middle line being eight ships wide and the rows above and below two ships fewer. Sensors detected a second hexagon behind the first. It was offset and again comprised of five layers as well but this time the widest layer contained only seven ships while the above and below layers had five and three respectively. Behind the two layers, three ships remained, which included the ship which had been in that original position in the sphere.

It was a reinforced wall of dreadnoughts. And while the front line was made up of twenty eight ships, Walenty could see that there was enough space for the secondary hexagon to shoot between the front ships.

It was a formidable force.

"Admiral!" Captain Fisseha sought his attention. Her voice carried an undertone of awe and Walenty knew he wasn't the only one impressed by the geth's maneuver. Despite that he had to respond.

"Captain."

"Captain Ormod is requesting instructions."

Ormod. The name flicked through Walenty's mind for a few moments before he realised who it was. The leading Captain of the reinforcements. "Have him fall into position with the Citadel fleet, though have the Pride of Epyrus maintain a guard position on the Relay." It was unlikely but possible that some of the less savoury elements of the galaxy might take advantage of their distraction.

Admiral Walenty closed his eyes for a few moments before he resisted the urge to groan. The Geth maneuver was going to result in another long meeting. His feet throbbed at the thought. "Transmit our sensor readings to the Citadel and have them forward it to Primarch Victus. The precision of their movements needs to be considered, as does their new formation."

The new formation was highly defensible. Front and back ships could take differing roles and it was open enough to allow the ships to move as necessary to avoid taking too much damage. The precision of their motion in forming that formation was troubling. It was so precise that there had to be a group mind controlling the whole.

Darn Geth, Walenty thought, nodding to Captain Fisseha before moving into her ready room, where he collapsed into a chair and rubbed at his eyebrow ridge.

Another three days until the full reinforcement fleet arrived…

And then what?

He felt sick just thinking about it.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Sol, Turian Patrol Vessel Gover

Illo felt sick. The ship that had towed them to Sol had handed them over to another. Unfortunately, while the former had been smoothly proficient, this new one, outwardly the same model, didn't possess the same skills for manipulating its mass effect fields. The result was a bumpy ride, full of jerks and stops, that reminded Illo of nothing so much as his younger brother playing with his toys back when they were both little kids.

In between the random bursts of acceleration and torque, Illo called out to his communications officer. "Patch me through to Captain Teschius of the 1634th."

"Y-Yes, sir." The poor officer was faring worse than most but managed to do his duty, a good Turian.

"Captain Nazario."

"Captain Teschius. Have you made any progress in escaping this situation?"

On the screen, Lidan Teschius gulped and his mandibles shivered. "None at all. Spirits damn these Humans! It's bad enough that they refused to give us honorable deaths. Do they really have to shake us until we're too spacesick to do our duties?"

"Captain Teschius, for what little it is worth, we do not intend to render you all ill." Their private conversation was broken into, just like others had been, by the entity that identified itself as Elysium. "And for the record, sitting at your stations and not dying is the full extent of your remaining duties. So in that regard, you are all doing your duties just fine."

Ascended were supposed to be above petty revenge. Elysium had denied to Shepard that she wanted to take part in the actions that were about to sweep the galaxy. When confronted with suffering Turians, however, Elysium found she was quite prepared to enjoy their plight and indeed, schemed to extend it for as long as possible. She had stepped in on occasion before the young ones had destroyed their play ships too early. Not that she would ever admit that to the Turians aboard their disabled vessels that she felt any satisfaction. That would spoil her image, and her fun.

"Elysium!" Teschius growled then cut off as a nasty bump 'happened' to choose that moment to interrupt him. "Urp!"

"So what is our course this time, Elysium?" Illo asked as calmly as he could manage.

"The juveniles on this run are taking you on a high-acceleration trip through Jupiter's rings."

"That doesn't sound too bad." Illo replied, picturing a course that would take them by the system's largest gas giant.

"Following that, they will be landing their assigned ships on Europa purely with their mass effect fields." Elysium added sweetly. "After that piece of 'good training', where they will be scored on damage to their ships and the condition of their cargo, they will then have to lift you off again through the combined fields of their small craft. While staying in orbit themselves, to increase the difficulty, naturally. Obviously, the young ones will lose points if any of your crew dies, so as usual, I'd be appreciative in the event of death or injury if you will tell me the cause."

Teschius lost the battle with his nausea at the prospect and, as his fellow captain vomited, Illo cursed the man roundly in the privacy of his own mind, clenching his teeth to hold his own lunch.

"And just to show the younger ones how it's done, your ship will be taken through the course twice. Once by me. Once by Jerrick, the juvenile who is training on your little ship. And I'll be doing it at twice the acceleration that Jerrick will need to maintain."

Illo tried to terminate the call, knowing it was futile, so he and his crew could suffer in privacy. It wasn't to be. Elysium's final words followed him in a sing-song tone to his cabin as he rushed there as fast as his dignity would permit.

"Just remember, sometimes you have fun. Sometimes the fun has you."

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula

"Ding!" Udina smugly answered the call from Shepard, having reduced the apparent volume of intership ringtones.

"Shepard. Things are proceeding nicely here. The Council have been forced to declare martial law on 'their' Citadel and the reinforcements are arriving in a steady stream."

"Good work, Udina. We've tapped into their news transmissions and seen their coverage too. We particularly enjoyed the rising panic that the damned aliens are feeling thanks to the way you've kept them on the edge. That little maneuver when the ten dreadnoughts came out of the Relays was a nice touch."

"You can thank Ares for that brainwave." Udina praised his subordinate, inasmuch as he had any, openly. It wasn't like Shepard wouldn't find out later if he tried to steal credit.

"Indeed. When the last of their dreadnought reinforcements arrive, it will be time to get things moving at last. We'll strike Turian sector command here in the Exodus Cluster then move to the Bahak system in the Viper Nebula. The Relay there is special, the damned Batarians knew it, and we'll use it to travel across to the Apien Crest.

"According to the updates we got from the patrol fleet, there are a lot more resources to destroy there than we had believed, so it should take a couple of days before we are ready to strike at Palaven. It would be best if you had joined us by then. Once we go through the Trebia Relay, we won't be slowing down or stopping for anything until their homeworld is in ruins." Shepard's anticipation was matched by the former politician.

"We'll be there. As soon as the last of their dreadnoughts are here, we'll make a run for the Serpent Beta Relay through FTL. We'll disable whatever ships are in-system en route to the Relay, then head to Trebia as fast as our drives will take us. Try not to destroy all the comm buoys if you can, Shepard. We're going to have a boring run if we don't have a few action movies on the trip."

-cfr-

Chapter Text

 

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 10 It's a Trap!

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought Astrakhan

Admiral Walenty got on the holographic transmitter for the seventh time in as many days. By now, he had learned and 'cheated', ordering this disk moved to his personal quarters and the deck's gravity turned down to one-third normal to save his poor feet. He hadn't needed the ship physician's dire warnings about amputations to motivate him, though he thought the bonesaw 'casually' left out for that discussion was a nice touch.

"Honored Councillors." The leading admiral for the Citadel's reinforced defence fleet greeted two of his superiors once they accepted his call. The Salarian's still hadn't sent through a new Councillor!

"Admiral. We were expecting your call. How is the fleet?" Irissa asked as cordially as she could.

"The final reinforcements from the Asari Republics are due to arrive in just a few minutes. After they integrate with the rest of the combined fleet, we will have the biggest amount of firepower in one place in Citadel history." Walenty responded proudly.

"Will it be enough?" Irissa enquired.

And there was the other reason Walenty had had the transmitter moved to his private quarters. However innocent the Asari's question, it would be terrible for morale for the crew to hear any question of their competence. Worse, duty compelled him to answer the question honestly.

"I cannot guarantee that, Councillor. While our own ships have improved substantially over the forty years since the last encounter with these ships, we do not know how much the Geth have worked on their own designs. If they are as unchanged as they appear, then we should achieve a victory at the cost of dozens of our own dreadnoughts."

"Dozens!" Councillor Irissa was horrified at the waste so casually implied.

"Dozens out of one hundred and twenty-five." Quentius reminded his counterpart. "Victory against just one of them forty years ago took the entire Citadel Fleet and two Human fleets. We know what happened to the Destiny Ascension and Salarian intel at the time reported that the Humans had to scrap the Everest. Most of the cruisers and frigates were destroyed," the Turian Councillor added. "Taking out all fifty will be costly."

"Understood, Quentius." Irissa conceded the point. "This will be a battle like nothing I have ever seen."

On the split screen, both Councillors and the Admiral watched the Serpent Relays activate and the surrounding space light up with the flashes of first a few, then dozens of ships a second arriving after their transits. At last, the might of the Council would be ready, willing and able to meet the Geth and repay them for the unexpected visit.

The holographic conversation expanded as the leaders of the fleet divisions were allowed to join, Primarch Adrien Victus, Matriarch Inanna and Admiral Rentola first amongst them.

Matriarch Inanna spoke without preamble. "The final Republics fleets will take up their assigned positions," she informed them, as a tactical display screen flashed into existence as a third viewpoint.

"Then Councillors, we may sweep this Geth infestation away from the Citadel." Primarch Victus was firm about that. "Their formation has not changed, and maintain a 10,000 km distance from the station. Before we begin, I will have several fighters run close passes with high powered scans."

"Is that wise?" Irissa asked and Admiral Walenty could see the way Primarch Victus' mandibles tightened. He was not used to dealing with the Council and their idiosyncrasies.

Matriarch Inanna answered for the Primarch. "It is highly recommended Councillor. Thus far Admiral Walenty has maintained passive scanning only of the Geth fleet in an effort to avoid confrontation but to properly assess the risk, the high powered scans are necessary. They will be immediately transmitted back to our ships and homeworlds for analysis."

"The Citadel will resume total lock down once the fighters are launched," Citadel Controls commanding officer spoke. "Currently we have the arms open 20% to allow freighter traffic," he continued. "The arms will be completely closed during the battle, however we will be on standby for rescue operations."

The gathered commanders nodded at the Salarian's words. Technically the Citadel's arms should be closed already but with the confusing moves from the Geth the decision had been made to risk opening them slightly.

"This is," Admiral Rentola said softly, his voice almost not heard. "This is most unlike the geth," he concluded.

"It is," Councillor Quentius agreed. "It is very unusual for the Geth to be seen this far outside the Perseus Veil and an investigation has already been launched into their assumed routes so that this cannot happen again."

"The fact that they have not attacked concerns me," Admiral Rentola said.

There was a grimace from most of those gathered. They had gone over this. Admiral Walenty answered. "It is of concern," the Turian admitted. "This could be a trap," he continued, voicing the conclusion the Salarian was working up to. On the tactical screen the dots representing the newly arrived Asari ships were coming to a halt in their formation positions. "However, if it is a trap, it has been very poorly considered. While the majority of our dreadnought assets are now in the Serpent Nebula, the increased production over the last forty years means that we still maintain a good presence throughout Citadel space and along the Traverse."

"A weakened presence," Rentola stressed.

Primarch Victus broke in. "How many dreadnoughts did Sur'Kesh have in its defence fleet fifty years ago?" he asked pointedly.

"Two," Rentola answered immediately. Even with Salarian secrecy and improvements in stealth technology, the number was an open secret.

"And how many remain at the moment, even with your presence here?"

"Three."

"So in a galaxy that has become safer, with the Humans isolating themselves in their home system, the protection of Sur'Kesh is still assured by a reinforced defence fleet," the Primarch finished in a voice which almost dared the Salarian to disagree.

"Regardless of the forces remaining, it is a risk to gather so many of our forces here," Rentola insisted stubbornly.

"The Salarian Union agreed that the removal of the Geth from Citadel territory was the highest priority," Irissa snapped, her voice conveying a myriad of notes expressing both her anger and disappointment towards the Salarian Admiral. "Your Councillor may object," she added, knowing full well that the Salarian's, despite the crisis, had not yet finished their machiavellian scheming to appoint a new Councillor. "However for the moment you have been assigned a mission and you will fulfill it. The prospect of this being a trap has been examined but the Geth must still be removed."

For a moment, Walenty thought Rentola would continue to object but the Salarian Admiral bowed slightly, and inwardly he breathed a sigh of relief. With the Asari ships now in position, they didn't have time to re-hash old speculation.

"I would suggest that we start in an hour after the conclusion of this meeting," Admiral Walenty stated before Irissa or Rentola could delay the meeting's purpose further. "Simultaneously closing the Citadel's arms and launching the fighters."

Victus, Quentius, Eachann and Inanna nodded while Rentola had his eyes cast down and Irissa was fuming. Admiral Walenty continued, outlining the plan he, Primarch Victus and Councillor Quentius had envisaged.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought Pride of Menae

Outwardly, Primarch Adrien Victus was a picture of the calm, professional Turian. Inwardly, he was feeling a riot of emotion. Excitement warred with fear, because only an idiot would not feel some fear at facing fifty geth super dreadnoughts. Certainty clashed with hesitation because while he had lead Turians into battle, and had seen them die, this battle was going to be expensive.

Councillor Quentius had informed Councillor Irissa that it might be dozens of dreadnoughts destroyed. Victus thought it would be at least half, probably two thirds but despite those projected numbers, this was a battle he agreed had to happen. The Geth infection had to be put down, and put down hard. He would not allow the Hierarchy to make the same mistakes with the Geth that they had with the Humans.

He shook his head slightly, amending his thoughts. He would redeem the mistakes of the past. Three hundred years ago, when the Quarians had been exiled and the Geth were still weak, they should have been wiped out then. The Council's reluctance to commit forces betrayed an underlying weakness which had now allowed the Geth the time they needed to grow into this threat. It was the same problem with the Humans. The parallels were uncanny. The Humans had retreated to their homeworld, going one step further and somehow moving the Relay but in the safety and seclusion of their Spirits-damned system, who knew what forces they were building up. In another few years, it was a far too likely a possibility that the galaxy would be presented with Human war ships around the Citadel.

That was a thought for tomorrow. The geth were the thought for today, Victus reminded himself as he re-focused his attention on the geth formation. Two reinforcing hexagons. Five by eight at the front, with an offset five by seven at the back. Three dreadnoughts remained loose. It was an effective formation for frontal attacks, though it was weak on its flanks.

He was aboard the Pride of Menae which was situated in the fleet of eighty. They too had been organised in two layers of reinforcement, though they had formed rectangles. The ten carriers were positioned around the Citadel though they had disgorged their fighters which now advanced ahead of the dreadnought screen.

"Good formation," Admiral Walenty's voice came over the comm. Victus nodded to himself. While he had more experience, Walenty was the most familiar with the nebula and its effects, and so Walenty was overseeing the battle. Victus was in charge of the Turian complement of ships but it was good to see that Walenty was a Turian from his mould, one who believed in encouraging and serving with his men. One who wasn't afraid to ask for advice. Walenty was aboard Captain Fisseha's Astrakhan, which, over Councillor Irissa's complaints, was in the second rank of their formation. He was a good Turian.

"No change in Geth formation," the sensor tech reported. "Energy levels stable."

Victus looked at the screen. The Geth ships hung unmoving against the backdrop of the Serpent Nebula. The composition of their fleet was unusual. Fifty dreadnoughts. No support ships at all. The sensor techs thought they could detect some minor scarring on one but beyond that they were all close to identical. It was unnatural. Even with the additional dreadnoughts built by the Hierarchy over the last decades, each one had some visible differences. There was no need for huge displays of individuality but each ship had some small improvements.

They were slowly edging towards firing range. "Stay in formation," Walenty's voice continued and while the words could be a criticism, they were spoken as encouragement.

"Lock onto targets," the order was firm.

Each ship had been assigned a target. For the battle to come, shots of opportunity were to be taken but where possible each dreadnought and their fleet should focus on their assigned targets. It ensured that they spread their firepower wisely. On the tactical display screen, the representations of the geth fleet were suddenly connected to the Citadel fleet by dotted lines, representing the ships assigned to attack them.

"To the Geth fleet at enclosed universal coordinates, this is your final warning," Walenty's voice was strong. "State your purpose or leave! Further refusal to communicate will be taken as hostility and you will be removed from this system."

Victus nodded. While not the most diplomatic phrasing, the final demand would pacify the Asari, demonstrating that they had tried every measure.

The entire fleet seemed to hold its breath, waiting for an answer.

No reply came and Victus could feel the crew around him tense.

"Weapons free," Admiral Walenty ordered. He didn't need to inform the fleet what happened now.

"We're coming into firing range in three, two, one. Now!" Chief weapon's officer Stepan said, waiting for the final order to fire from his Captain. Approval was instantaneous.

"Fir… huh?"

Primarch Victus turned sharply towards Stepan.

"What?" the officer demanded. "Where are they?" he yelled, a sure sign of tension, as he turned towards the tactical display.

The situation was so absurd it took Primarch Victus a moment to see what was wrong.

The representations of the Geth were gone. "Visual?" he ordered, overriding whatever further the weapons officer might have said.

Several sensor techs were frantically working at their stations but their commander looked up, saluting Primarch Victus before replying as the main screen was taken up with a visual of the Serpent Nebula. "There is no sensor failure. The Geth fleet went to FTL the instant we came into firing range."

"They were stationary!" Stepan objected.

The sensor tech commander, Haloke shook her head. "They were maintaining a stable distance from the Citadel but they were not stationary. Their engines were powered up and ready the whole time and apparently their eezo cores were, too. The fighter scan took too much interference for other details but we know that much at least. No Turian vessel could make such a manoeuvre without notice. Static discharge would have killed the crews days ago if they had tried the same tactic." Haloke added and Victus didn't like the concealed note of admiration he could hear in her voice.

"Remain at your stations," Victus ordered the bridge crew as their discipline wavered in their surprise. "I want a full spectrum scan of the immediate area!"

There was something wrong. He could feel it. Retreating in the face of a vastly superior foe was one thing but why had the Geth even come? It did not make sense, though Victus could feel tension fading from the crew. He didn't object to averting battle but not when the situation was so unusual.

"Primarch," the comms officer called. He didn't need to say anything further and Victus nodded, stepping onto the hologram projection disk. He should have expected this.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Citadel Sensor Control Room

Riya usually worked night shift, a time when she could tweak the sensors to see what small improvements might be made by the minute adjustments. Right at the moment she was at her console, and was operating it exactly to standard specifications. While she had no desire to join the military herself, she was well aware of the importance of this battle.

One hundred and twenty eight dreadnoughts, more dreadnoughts than had ever been gathered for a single battle in the history of the Council, against fifty Geth super ships.

As the Citadel fleet had moved into position, and the Citadel itself had closed, they had sent one last attempt to communicate. For the last seven days, on every frequency, the geth ships had remained stubbornly silent. They did not break their silence now. Two Turian fighters had then performed a high speed, high intensity scan. The information from that had been relayed back to the fleet and the Citadel and off to the side Riya could hear some analysts working on it. From their overheard conversation, the information appeared to be scant. They were saying something about energy reflection and refraction scattering the frequency used to scan or something. She couldn't hear everything so the technical details were eluding her.

The Citadel fleet had been broken into three smaller sub-fleets, each comprised of Turian, Asari and Salarian Dreadnoughts. The main force of 80 ships would confront the geth double hexagon formation, while two smaller fleets of 24 would attempt to flank the interlopers. They were all coming in on slightly different angles so that missed shots would not become an issue.

Riya continued to watch her screens. She wasn't involved in combat analysis or communication. She was thankful for that. Despite her relative years of experience over some of her Salarian counterparts, she had not been trained in either specialisation and would only be a liability. Instead, she was monitoring the Relays. There was still a chance this was a trap, and she would provide the first warning to the fleet if further hostile ships appeared but, more likely, she would be forced to redirect any non-combatants who despite all warnings had blundered into the area. At least, the main focus of the battle was currently away from the Relays but until the geth were dealt with, they would not open the Citadel's arms for anyone.

The readings from the Relays were stable and despite herself, Riya found her attention drawn to a smaller screen, one that showed the relative position of the fleets to the Citadel. The fleets drew ever closer and she missed the first change in energy readings.

She did not miss the second and Riya felt her eyes widen as she tapped the screen, bringing up further details. The Serpent Nebula lay at a hub in the Relay network. There were twelve relays that they knew about and theoretically, based on the placement of Relays in other sectors, there were potentially others situated further away from the Citadel. Because of their massive eezo cores, each Relay put out a constant stream of energy, like a back ground noise. It altered when the Relay was activated and you could tell from the energy increase and timings the size and number of vessels being transported. Thus the computer-generated bar diagram that displayed the Relay output could analyse the bar of an active Relay to show what mass it was transporting.

Over the past few days, Riya had seen the monitoring bars of nine relays in full operation simultaneously. That was the most she'd ever seen activated at once. In training they'd been taught about deactivated relays. The Human First Contact War only went to reinforce why deactivated relays should remain inactive. But one thing training had been clear on, was that relays took centuries, maybe millennia to deactivate.

However the Turian Corridor Relay's output had dropped to zero. There were eleven similar energy readings, and one showing zero.

That wasn't possible.

Relays did not just turn off.

Then the Minos Wasteland relay monitoring bar dropped to zero. It didn't slowly taper down, it went from fully active, though on standby as nothing was currently coming through, to nothing.

Riya pressed a few controls, looking at a secondary screen. The sensors were working. "Sir!" Riya called, again tapping the controls to ensure the sensors were in perfect working order. "Sir!" she cried again, when the operational results remained unchanged.

"What is it?" Vismaya, Eachann's subordinate demanded.

"The Relays, ma'am," Riya said, indicating towards her monitoring screen. As she gestured, a third bar fell to zero.

Vismaya glanced at the screen before sniffing. "It's a sensor malfunction."

"With respect ma'am, I have confirmed that all sensors are operational."

"Relays do not just shut down!"

Riya could hear Vismaya's contempt. Vismaya did not like the Asari. She resented their long lives and the fact that Riya had years more to learn than she had. The dismissal in her tone spurred Riya to give a reply she might not normally have. "The Batarian relays did."

While there was usually quiet in the Citadel Command room, even the incidental clicking as techs worked at their station stopped at that reply. It was true. To this day, select Relays in former Batarian space remained inactive. Enough Relays remained that they did not impede travel around the dead worlds but there were sectors in the galaxy which could only be reached by long and difficult FTL travel.

Vismaya almost growled but another bar dropped to zero. She turned towards Eachann. The Citadel Commander was standing on a hologram projection disk and his attention was firmly fixed on the conversation between the commanders.

"Commander."

Eachann did not respond.

"Commander!"

Riya watched as the louder call got no reply. Then Vismaya did something Riya had never thought she would see. Vismaya actually reached out to touch Eachann. "Commander!"

The Salarian turned, blinking in the light from the holographic disk. "Yes?"

"The Relays are shutting down, Commander."

Instead of questioning the information, Eachann merely asked for clarification. "Explain?"

"The ambient energy readings from four Relays have dropped to zero."

"Similar to the Batarian relays?"

"Yes, sir."

Eachann didn't bother to ask if the sensors were reading correctly. "Send a signal to the remaining Relays. Engage them," he ordered his voice hard.

Riya was taping the commands before she even turned back. Instinctively, she chose to send a signal to the Athena Nebula. Everything went as normal. The Relay responded to her signal, waiting further information on the mass it was to transport.

Then it blinked out.

That wasn't meant to happen. Relays were meant to wait for about five minutes before they broke the connection and returned to standby. But the Athena Nebula relay was not just on standby, it was giving out no energy.

She shook her head, and tried another Relay, picking out the Salarian Sector Relay, the Annos Basin. The Relay replied, acknowledging her link, then it died.

"It's no good!" Riya reported. "I connect, but they shut down immediately after! Six Relays remaining."

"Contact them all!" Eachann ordered, looking around the room to ensure it would be simultaneous.

Riya pulled up the Ismar Frontier Relay and in time with the other techs, she sent the signal. The Relay responded and waited. She bit her lip, holding her eyes open as she watched the screen.

The Relay continued waiting. Her breath sounded loud but no one else had reported anything unusual. She swallowed, keeping her eyes on the screen. It continued to show no fluctuations and Riya looked around. The other techs continued to watch their screens and she risked a glance at her secondary screen that still displayed the overall monitoring. Six relays were down but the others showed slightly elevated energy levels, indicating that they were waiting for orders.

Watching the screen she took a deep breath. And then another. No change.

Riya gulped, feeling muscles she hadn't realised were tense, relax. The Relays were responding, just as they were meant to. Pre-emptively, she queued another transport request to the Ismar Frontier Relay, for when it automatically disregarded her current connection. In her relief at maintaining a connection with the relay, she was not prepared for the explosion of sound that erupted moments later. As Riya tapped the last command, setting her transport request to the Ismar Frontier Relay on loop, she turned, a slight frown on her features as she tried to discern what had happened.

Normally stoic Salarian techs were joyously crying out, standing at their stations as they cheers. The two Turians were also elated and even Vismaya seemed please. What had happened?

"They've left!" The cry went some way towards explaining the situation. "They've gone!"

Oh! Riya realised, feeling almost stupid. The Geth. She turned back to her screens, looking at the one showing the tactical formations of the reinforced Council Defence fleet and the Geth fleet. As had been said, the Geth fleet was no longer in position. They just weren't anywhere and there were several lines tracking presumed FTL jump routes.

It was because she was looking at her screens she saw it happen. The energy monitors for the six remaining relays simultaneously fell to zero.

"Goddess!" Her eyes widened as she just stared at the screen.

It wasn't possible. Relays did not do that! They did not shut down in the middle of processing a signal.

"Commander!" Riya didn't know she could be as forceful as she was when she shouted but she had to be heard over the cheering of the other techs.

Every eye turned towards her and Riya stared back. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Taine, one of the other techs who had been signaling a relay. Taine had his head in his hands and was staring at his screens. Riya knew what they were showing.

"Commander," Riya said again, swallowing as she spoke formally, in clipped tones that highlighted the seriousness of the situation. "Contact with all relays has been lost."

Eachann turned on the holographic disk. His large eyes fixed firmly on her and Riya held her head high. She knew what she was talking about. Eachann wasn't Vismaya though and as the cheers died to nothing he nodded solemnly. "Concentrate on the Athena Nebula Relay," he instructed. "Initiate the protocols for opening inactive relays. I will have the fleet try another Relay."

Riya nodded before sitting again and turning towards her screens. She was thankful for the chair. The atmosphere in the room had changed from jubilant to cold but despite that, she suddenly felt exhausted.

This was not how the battle was meant to end.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought Pride of Menae

"They're gone?"

Victus heard the question as his hologram joined conversation.

"Yes, Ma'am," Matriarch Inanna said.

Further pings sounded softly as more commanders gathered. Inwardly Victus sighed. He was aware that some had been linked for the beginning of the battle. It was their weakness that they needed reassurance in combat. Walenty had been on comms of necessity, for coordination but all others should have been concentrating on their commands. It didn't matter now.

"The fleet moved on schedule," Walenty explained. His hologram was facing Councillor Irissa. "A final warning was transmitted, with no response from the Geth and our formation continued. Upon entering firing range, the Geth fleet jumped to FTL on several vectors."

"They were tracked?" Councillor Quentius asked.

Walenty nodded. "The Geth fleet appeared on multiple vectors, travelling at sublight speed. They left on approximately 20 vectors at light speed. I have techs working on the vectors now, tracking out probable destinations."

Councillor Irissa frowned but said nothing. "It is a concern," Admiral Rentola said. "The exact location of the Citadel is something not even we know," he added. "The fact that the Geth have discerned its location is worrying."

"They may not have," Matriarch Inanna replied. "There are twelve relays in the Nebula but based on relay distribution in other areas, there could be others. The Geth may know of one we do not." She paused, her face taking on a pensive expression. "Though that is not a thought which is pleasing."

"The Geth are a threat!" Irissa growled. "They should be destroyed."

"Until now, the Geth have shown no interest in territory outside the Perseus Veil," Councillor Quentius said. "It would be beneficial to understand their change in tactics."

Victus nodded. "That is something for consideration over the next few weeks. For now, while a victory without bloodshed is always something to be pleased with, it has left us with several concerns."

"Primarch?"

"It is only logical for an inferior force to retreat from a superior force, however the Geth did not retreat, they left! They did not engage us in battle as such we must determine their true motives."

The gathered holograms were silent as they thought. This had been the question on the minds of all concerned for the last week but no one had been able to come to any definitive answer. The most accepted reason had been that the Geth had come to the Citadel to test their combat ability. The fact that the entire Geth fleet had left without firing a single shot annulled that theory.

The Geth's unexpected retreat left them with no further knowledge.

Eachann, whose hologram had been present but turned away to something taking his attention on the Citadel, turned back. The Salarian blinked in the sudden light. "The reason the Geth left should be considered at a later time," he said, his voice quick and light.

"Commander?" Admiral Rentola asked.

The Citadel based Salarian paused, allowing everyone to turn towards him. "Despite the potential for battle today, the Citadel continued its routine monitoring duties. All active relays have a positive energy signature which we monitor for incoming traffic." That was information the fleet commanders knew but none of them insisted that Eachann hurry up.

"Just as the fleet was reaching firing range, the relay to the Turian Corridor shut down."

"Shut down?" Councillor Quentius demanded. "What do you mean shut down?"

"The ambient energy signature of the Relay dropped to zero," Eachann clarified. "While we haven't had the opportunity to fully examine any of the relays, it appears to be a state similar to those we occasionally find in an inactive state."

The gathered commanders nodded. While most of them had never seen an inactive relay, they all knew they existed. "So the Turian Corridor Relay is down?" Victus asked.

"Yes Primarch," Eachann replied.

Victus frowned. That would make it difficult to get the dreadnought fleets back into position but there were alternate routes to Palaven.

"However," Eachann continued, "the Turian Corridor Relay was not the last to close."

Victus suddenly felt a chill enter his bones as the Salarian spoke.

"The Minos Wasteland Relay became inactive next."

"They are all inactive, aren't they?" Victus asked, cutting through to the conclusion he was sure the Salarian was working up to.

"They are Primarch," Eachann replied without hesitation.

Primarch Victus briefly closed his eyes as his body went limp. He'd only felt this way a few times in his life and it never ended well.

"The Geth can close relays?" Matriarch Inanna demanded, her voice a mix of anger and fear.

"We do not know that," Eachann interjected before anyone could panic. "The first relays became inactive while the Geth fleet was place, however the last ones closed only after they had jumped to FTL. Sending a signal from FTL would be impossible. Even for the Geth."

Silence reigned.

"So what does this mean?" Councillor Irissa eventually asked.

Rentola looked towards Eachann. "The normal signals for re-activating a relay have been sent?"

"They have but no relay has responded," the Salarian sensor tech responded. "I would ask that several ships try, to ensure that the lack of reply is not due to having true mass to transport."

"I'll see to it," Both Rentola and Inanna replied.

Victus didn't reply. He was not usually a pessimistic Turian but on this he knew the Relays would not open and his mind was already working on the problems that would represent. All Turian war vessels carried enough supplies for several months as standard but he was unsure of the provisions on Asari and Salarian ships. They did not do as many long haul patrols as the Turians.

And the Citadel. What supplies did they have? Victus raised one hand to his eye ridge. This was not going to be easy. That was only to deal with the immediate problems. It didn't even begin to deal with the problems the Geth represented. Why had they been here and where had they gone?

His head hurt. Victus fisted his hands, digging his claws into his palms as his mandibles quivered. He was not going to be the only one with a headache.

-cfr-

Earth Year 2222, Outskirts of Apien Crest

"Ding!"

Shepard opened up the incoming message which arrived just as his hull came out of FTL. They were still a couple of light-days away from the Council's Sector Command base but the plan was to use a short jump at the end to allow for more precise control of their destination. That was where they were now, and Shepard had been intending to give the okay for Hackett to do a scouting jump into the target system. Instead, he was checking his mail.

"Oh, it's just Udina," Joker snarked from the second layer of Shepard's group consciousness. "Nothing important then. He was always a windbag."

"Now, now, Joker. You know he got better since he lost his body." Shepard replied in kind.

"Yeah, losing his balls did wonders for his disposition."

Shepard deliberately ignored that as he looked over the message from the erstwhile ambassador.

"Let's see, he reports full success in the mission. No one fired at him. Oh, or at any of the other Ascended. Good of him to clear that up. No damage taken. Well, that should be obvious but Udina still loves to hear himself talk, damn it. And he included a copy of a number of the Council's conferences. Boring- Hang on, this one is highlighted with the tag 'Star Wars'."

Shepard looked at the attached video with interest. The old science fiction trilogy had proved surprisingly enduring in Human culture. Apparently, Udina had copied his style with the battle against Sovereign, adding snarky comments throughout the conference, something he would go through later.

"Who knew Udina had such a good sense of humour?" Joker asked the others.

Shepard finally scanned to the part that Udina had wanted him to see. Rentola protested about sending so many Salarian dreadnoughts to the Citadel, for the third time, Udina had noted, when Primarch Victus broke into the conversation.

"Regardless of the forces remaining, it is a risk to gather so many of our forces here," Rentola insisted stubbornly.

"It's a trap!" Admiral Ackbar exclaimed over the Salarian's assertions.

Joker and a fair proportion of Shepard's first sub group of consciousnesses burst into laughter. A few, Shepard could feel had no idea who Admiral Ackbar was but they were quickly accessing the files, both internal and on the Human ascended 'net to determine it. Snorts of amusement and a few of disdain accompanied their discovery of the knowledge. Everyone was a critic.

"The Salarian Union agreed that the removal of the Geth from Citadel territory was the highest priority," Irissa snapped.

"You will speak only when spoken to, maggot," Gunnery Sergeant Hartman screamed at full voice.

Shepard sighed as Joker lost it again. "I never knew," the man choked, still laughing, "that Udina had such a sense of humour."

"Neither did I." While Shepard had not possessed lips for decades, every layer of consciousness could feel them pursing at the report Udina had supplied. In the depths of Shepard's gestalt mind, those who spent their time almost completely in hibernation, running the unconscious functions of the Ascended form, began making bets on how harsh Udina's punishment would be.

"Your Councillor may object."

"You can't handle the truth!" Colonel Nathan Jessup growled over Irissa.

"I'm mildly impressed at how he's synchronised their voices," Shepard said, as Irissa and the dubbing continued. Irissa spoke at one speed while the Human voices varied their tempo and volume. Udina had done well in matching the phrases. "However, there had better be an unedited copy of this meeting in Udina's files."

"However for the moment you have been assigned a mission and you will fulfill it."

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it," Mission Commander Swanbeck spoke genially.

"Which you will."

"Because I said so!" Daphne Wilder finished.

"Make it stop!" Joker pleaded, sounding almost in pain. He accompanied his request with an image. It displayed Ascended Shepard, somehow rolled onto his back, his legs, both sets kicking randomly as he laughed.

Shepard stopped the vid, shifting through the file until the end to see if there was a continuation. "... trap!" Ackbar's voice echoed again but a new file loaded, one that had been hidden by the first and Shepard was grateful to see that it was an unedited version of the Council's deliberations.

He'd review it later. Udina's additions to the first version made it quite clear what the Council were doing.

"It's a trap!" Ackbar's words echoed through the layers of Shepard's being.

"Yes, Admiral," Shepard agreed, his voice deep with foreshadowing. "It is."

-cfr-

 

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 11 I Spy With My Thousands of Eyes

-cfr-

Sol System, Turian Cruiser Gover

Illo wasn't sure what to think. Each 'day', Elysium gave them about four hours of time where there was no training. Those still alive used that time to sleep, or try to eat and keep something down. Training was not exactly pleasant. The thing was, yesterday the ship had said that there would be no training today.

When Illo had tentatively asked why, the ship had replied offhandedly that today was a birthing day. That answer had left him lying awake through the entire four hours they usually got to rest. How, in the name of any Spirit, did a starship have a birthing day? Or had Elysium lied to them and was really just a ship crewed by Humans? Except that didn't make sense either. Humans birthed prodigiously. Unless this was a special person involved, it did not make sense that they would have a birthing day.

So, six hours after the time he should have been sleeping, Illo sat at the comm station on the bridge, wide awake while his surviving crew took the chance to sleep. He couldn't believe he was about to do this but with a sharp shake of his head, Illo tapped the buttons, sending out a signal.

"Elysium?" he called. He'd never willingly initiated a conversation with the huge ship. He'd never needed to. The ship had always broken in on his communications to the point where he just didn't want to hear from it.

"Elysium?" he sent a second signal after minutes of silence.

"My, Illo, this is a surprise. You wish something?"

"In the Spirit's name, what is a birthing day?" Illo demanded.

Elysium chuckled. The sound echoed through the bridge before the ship went silent again. "Ah, yes, you wouldn't know. We haven't had one since you arrived."

Illo held back a reply. He could hear that the ship was in a talkative mood, so all he'd need to do was wait for an answer, and be polite if questioned. He didn't know what information might be revealed but any information would be appreciated.

"Birthing day is the day another Ascended awakens."

"Ascended?" Illo prompted, keeping his voice calm.

"I am Ascended," Elysium replied. "Ascension is-" At this the ship paused and Illo waited. "You are incapable of understanding the perfection which is ascension."

Illo was about to object to that but Elysium continued. "I will explain it as it was explained to the Humans."

"But you are Human!" Illo frowned, trying to remember what Elysium had said in the past. It had never claimed to be Human but had certainly implied it. It was in Sol, it operated on a Human 24 hour day. It spoke Human. If that wasn't implication, Illo didn't know what was.

"I was once, I am now Ascended."

"So what is Ascension?"

"The full glory of ascension is beyond your comprehension and restricting my explanation to your limited understanding can never be accurate but to account for your weakness, it must suffice. Ascension is the genetic destiny of all organics. It is evolution.

"For your conception, it is immortality, shedding your flesh to become greater than anything you could possibly imagine." Elysium spoke without passion and Illo shivered. Someone who spoke of this passionately he would dismiss as a fanatic. Someone with deluded beliefs. The lack of passion convinced Illo that Elysium believed it but also that, on some level, it was true.

"As a Human, I saw it as the reduction of my physical form, while my mind was preserved," the ship continued. "But, I cannot even describe how little that is true."

"So how does this relate to a birthing day?" Illo asked. Reduction of physical form? What did that mean? Immortality? That sounded like one of the religions Illo barely remembered as coming from Earth. The flesh died but the soul lived on. Something like that anyway. Had the Humans had some sort of religious war amongst themselves?

"Millions of organics are within my form. I am greater than the sum of my parts," Elysium said. "Millions of organics, you would once have called Human, form the core of my being. Today, millions more will awaken to a new existence. Ascended. They will be reborn."

Illo swallowed. "Forgive me, Elysium," he managed not to growl the words. If he took insult at anything Elysium said the next training period would be worse. "So you were once Human but now, you are the ship?" That's what it seemed to be saying.

Elysium sighed. "Yes." Sarcasm laced the choral tone. "I didn't think you'd need it explained that simply," the ship added. "Millions of Humans had their bodies deconstructed into their components. That physical material was then used to form my core, while their minds are the centre of my consciousness," Elysium explained. The ship had taken over the screen, sending images that made Illo feel sick. "Once my core was completed, it was encased in the form you see," the ship continued, "and I awoke no longer Human, but Ascended.

"Today, another will be born. Another Ascended will awaken."

Illo forced himself to breathe in short, sharp gasps. "How many?"

"How many?" Elysium asked, curiosity tracing through the harmonics.

"How many Humans went into your creation?" If what Elysium said was true, and no matter how much Illo wanted to deny it, the ship had never lied to them, then how many Humans had died to make the fleet that had taken his patrol out.

"About ninety five million," came the reply.

"Ninety five million?" Illo gasped. Ninety five million by three hundred ships equalled… Twenty-eight point five billion. That was impossible. There had never been that many Humans!

"When the Arcturus Relay was moved," Elysium began answering his real question, "there were approximately eleven billion Humans on Earth. Production in the first years was less than production later. By the end, three billion Humans were taken for ascension every year. We reproduced, Turian. We reproduced as fast as we could and thus, we lasted for almost forty years before we were all Ascended."

"And now?" Illo asked, though he thought he knew the answer. Scans had shown them what remained of Earth.

"And now, for the next year or so, the last of us will awaken to their new eternity," Elysium said. "It's almost time. I'll let you watch," the ship said before there was a blip indicating the audio signal had been dropped though there was a feed coming in on the screen.

Illo recognised it as one of the artificial structures still left in Sol System. Ship yards. And in each berth, there was one of the huge ships in various stages of construction. They had assumed that it was Humans building them, though there had been some arguments among the Turians here as to how that would be with the very obvious damage to Earth but now he knew.

The image focused on one bay. The ship looked complete although no lights were on. As Illo watched, he saw the mass effect fields which held the ship in place wink out. Huge cables were pulled and the ship moved, almost sliding out of the berth. It was smooth, like a ship taking off. Lights flickered over its form and Illo couldn't help but notice that it was bare. Unlike Elysium, the new ship had no markings. More lights flickered, blinking on and off until eventually they settled into lines, much like those on the other ships Illo had seen.

Then he heard it. It screamed!

Illo screamed with it, unable to prevent himself as pain assaulted his senses. But as quickly as the pain flooded through him, it disappeared and Illo was left staring at the screen, breathing hard. All the running lights on the new ship were on and its motion was no longer smooth. Instead, it moved through space in a series of jerks and uncertain surges.

As he watched, he recognised Elysium move towards the newly launched ship, extending one leg to actually touch the other ship! The control required to do that… Illo didn't want to think about it. Except it seemed to work. The new ship moved more smoothly after that and as it stopped its jerking movement, other ships, those Illo recognised as the ones Elysium called trainees, joined it.

If he had been watching the birth of a Turian child, he would have said that the family was happily gathering around the mother and father. Except this was a dreadnought sized ship. They were not born. But it had screamed and as Elysium initiated contact, Illo realised he knew exactly what would be said now.

"Its name is Sphinx," he said in unison with Elysium.

The ship was silent for a moment. "Indeed. The newest Ascended is named Sphinx," Elysium agreed. "And that is most interesting that you know it. I did not realise our calls were audible to other organic races."

"No matter. Sphinx is now my newest pupil and you will have the honour of being one of her teachers."

"No!" Illo couldn't help the cry.

"I'm sure this must please you, getting to be useful once more." Elysium added cruelly.

"No!" Illo repeated as he slumped over the console. What were they going to do?

-cfr-

Former Earth Alliance Space, Near Turian Sector Command

Once the fleet had recovered from the rigors, read boredom, of FTL and assimilated the kind update from Udina, Shepard gave the go ahead to Hackett to jump forward for the in-system scout. His old friend and former commanding officer had volunteered to be the one to go in first.

Ten minutes after Hackett had jumped out, he arrived in the target system. Just about all of that time was spent accelerating and decelerating. At top speed, he could have made the journey in just thirty-one seconds but the jump was simply too short for that.

Immediately, he scanned his immediate volume of space, finding it, as expected, clear of threats. That was why he had chosen to arrive below the plane of the ecliptic for the system, to reduce an already minimal chance of trouble to astronomically low.

When the space for the nearest three hundred thousand kilometers showed up as empty, Hackett went ahead and deployed swarms of Oculi. The tiny unmanned fighters had far more use than simple dogfights against the smaller craft of the organic races, and Hackett was about to demonstrate that for Harbinger and the rest of the Ascended.

Careful use of his mass effect fields allowed him to throw out the little craft at insane velocities, relying on their own drives to slow them down as they approached their programmed destinations. As they got into place, the nearer ones naturally getting into place faster than the rest, Hackett's targeting subroutines went to work. A dozen, a hundred, thousands of eyes in the sky, their number and separation from each other (and him) allowing them unparalleled resolution of local space.

They saw through all attempts at stealth, as even the best Council technology was unable to shield a ship from view entirely. All it did was reduce the ship's emissions. It did nothing to prevent the ship occluding distant objects. In combat, that was usually enough as most races didn't have enough sensor sensitivity to pick out the black objects from the extremely faint background.

Hackett, however, did. Not only that, the sheer number of Oculi meant that every base, every ship and fighter down to the smallest was occluding something. Those gaps in the stars that should have been visible meant that, so long as you had enough computing power, you could watch everything at once. And the Ascended had that power to spare, with millions of dedicated processors provided by the consciousnesses that made up their overall mind.

He remained there for a further ten minutes, watching their courses, their movements and listening in on their transmissions both open and encrypted, before opening a communication channel back to Shepard.

"We're good to go." Hackett reported, sending along a compressed file showing his observations. That information would prove devastating, allowing the fleet to target anything that hadn't changed course since he dropped in to take a gander at the birds.

"Good work, Hackett. We'll see you soon."

As part of the plan, Hackett had been exposed to the slight risk that the enemy might have something in position to attack him while he was far from friendly support. That exposure was now over. His Oculi would warn him of approaching threats but more than that, the entire fleet of Ascended were about to jump into the blind spot of the Turian defenses.

And there was nothing like having over two hundred super ships jumping into the middle of your 'safe' territory to ruin your day.

-cfr-

Former Earth Alliance Space, Turian Sector Command

"We're under attack!" The panicked Turian in Sector Command's Communication Room screamed into his microphone, calling for help over the comm buoy network. Even as Eudes did it, he was afraid that any help would be far too late for them.

As the unknown ships arrived in groups of ten, the defenders scrambled to respond. Normally, while the attacker would always have the advantage of surprise on their side, the defenders would have the advantage that their positions were unknown to the attackers. On the attack, general strategy was to fire a whole bunch of missiles blindly as soon as you came out of FTL or arrived via the Relay. While far from perfect, the targeting systems on the missiles at least had a chance of hitting something, even just a lowly fighter, where firing blindly with mass accelerator cannons would only be a waste of ammunition and time while they reloaded.

It was obvious that these unknowns didn't suffer from any such disadvantage. For a start, they were firing their mass accelerators, not their missiles, when they came out of FTL. Although barely a fifth of their shots hit, that was infinitely better than the zero hits they should have had, and every shot that hit was a disabling one, taking out engines or weapons. Though the Turians didn't know why the detail was important, that attack hit every ship that hadn't altered course in the last hour.

Worse, their hit percentage was rapidly climbing. How in the name of all the Spirits were they managing that? The ships had all been on standard evasive courses and changed again in the last two hours. Either the newcomers had managed to sneak in a scout, which should have been impossible, or they could see the future!

Computer-operated scans had resolved the enemy, identifying their silhouettes. "Geth?! They're supposed to all be at the Citadel, thousands of light-years away! They can't have this many dreadnoughts!"

"Tell that to those ships outside!" Someone else, Kwang he thought, spat back.

"Oh no." Fausto, another one of his co-workers groaned. "The computers finally got a good look at the ships. They've got Human markings. And look!" He put up an image on screen, showing a word and a rank displayed on one of the massive ships. "N7. Shepard." His voice quavered as he spoke.

Yes, it was official. They were doomed.

-cfr-

Former Earth Alliance Space, Shepard

"I like this Fausto," Joker told his boss while he deftly avoided more Turian fire. "He is showing you the proper respect."

"You mean he's scared shitless of the Commander," former Private Fredricks corrected his friend.

"Exactly. Can we keep him?" Jeff Moreau asked, sending Shepard an image of puppy dog eyes to enhance the request.

"Keep your mind on the job, Joker. There are still dozens of cruisers here and I don't want a single scratch on the hull. That means you don't go ramming anything."

"Aye, aye, sir. Don't drive like you. Got it."

Shepard chuckled and returned the majority of his attention to the one-sided battle. Their initial salvo of relativistic slugs of ferro-tungsten had hit most of the cruisers, the only ships present that had a realistic hope of damaging them, destroying one in a spectacular explosion as Alexander hit it with a full-power shot amidships.

Now, the Ascended were eliminating one by one the enemy ships' capacity to flee. Dozens of Oculi were swarming each frigate, scores for each remaining cruiser, after they had cleared local space of enemy fighters.

"And wasn't that a surprise, Commander?" Pressly, former Navigator for the Normandy, reminded him. "We didn't expect them to have even one third as many fighters out here."

"The birds learned their lessons well from us," Shepard agreed, "they have also deployed some of our one-shot laser batteries, too. If they had made them more powerful, or gotten better shots at us, they could have been a threat in large enough numbers."

Still, that was irrelevant now. The Oculi had done their job, soaking up laser fire, killing enemy fighters and applying precise amounts of force to wreak havoc with the enemy formations. Weapons, engines, sensors, all of them were fair game for the little attackers, and they were cheap to produce by the thousand.

All that was left now was the Sector Command base itself and then they could deal with the crippled enemy ships. Elysium should be pleased.

-cfr-

Former Earth Alliance Space, Turian Sector Command

"That's the last of them, sir." Peigi Kucera told her commander as the viewscreen updated, putting a ring of engine damage around the cruiser, Hetteen.

Admiral Enderlus waved a hand tiredly. He had forgotten just how tiring combat could be. Even if you weren't right there in the thick of battle, you strived to make the most of every second, an adrenaline analogue pumping through the body and heart beating strong but rapidly.

It was even worse when you were losing said battle, he thought. "I can see that, Kucera," he said as mildly as he could. The base shuddered from another of the strikes that were taking out their remaining weapons.

"I'm sorry, sir!" Obviously, he hadn't held in his frustrations as much as he'd thought. That or she knew him too well.

"No, it's not your fault. I know we never had the resources to stand up to a full invasion fleet, but I had never expected that sixty modern cruisers and three hundred frigates would be ruined in only-" He checked his omni-tool. "Spirits! Only fifteen minutes? It felt like at least an hour."

"I know what you mean, sir." Peigi replied quietly. It didn't feel right to remind the Admiral that sixty cruisers and three hundred frigates of any era would not have been able to stand up against two hundred dreadnoughts! She flinched as she looked at her omni-tool which was pinging for her attention. "Here they come."

-cfr-

"Alright, while Harper's husks go to work inside the base, I want to tell everyone well done on our first fleet engagement. Harper, nice work on the comm buoy. You had it hacked before they could send any warning out at all, while still allowing normal message traffic."

"Thank you, Shepard. We had practice with Nazario's messages but it is still a good challenge for our creativity."

"Hackett, I think I speak for all of us when I say great work with the targeting data. We scored hits on every ship that had maintained its position or course thanks to your reconnaissance and you identified a weak point in their defences, allowing us to come out of FTL where only a few of them could fire on us with their main guns."

"The pleasure was mine, Shepard. Although, next time, I want to be with the main fleet. By the time I could micro-jump into the battle, all that was left of their fleet were the dregs."

"Oh, don't give us that. You disabled a cruiser and three frigates which was more than some of us got to hit." Zaeed's reply was accompanied by a pulse of satisfaction at so many defeated Turians all around him. Of course, he had got two cruisers and one frigate, a better haul to be sure.

"Alright, everyone, settle down. I think we are all agreed that the trial of the scouting tactic was a success. So long as the Turians don't get wind of how we are attacking, it should continue to work. Anyone have a good reason why we shouldn't repeat it?"

No one could think of one. As Shepard had pointed out, the Turians didn't know the system had been attacked, much less how they had gone about it, so really, there was no harm in using it a lot so long as that remained true.

Besides, what was the worst that could happen?

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought Astrakhan

Walenty stood on the projection disk. Six hours after the Geth had left and he should be celebrating. Instead, he had been on and off the projection disk non-stop as he relayed information and consulted with the powers in system. At the moment, the meeting was with Eachann and Victus.

"We've confirmed the Geth trajectories," Walenty said. "The Citadel confirms."

"Where are they?" Primarch Victus asked.

"Assuming they travelled far enough," Eachann replied, "the list of systems has been transmitted to you now. We have allowed for Geth not requiring to discharge their drive cores."

Victus looked down at the datapad he held assessing the names. "These are nowhere!" He objected. He'd never even heard of most of the systems, just strings of numbers and letters assigned by astronomers.

"They are only possibilities," Walenty assured him. "If you travel further along the trajectories, there are other systems, but there is nothing there for dozens of lightyears."

"There is also no guarantee that the Geth ships even travelled that far," the Salarian added.

The Primarch took a deep breath. "So for the moment, there is no system in immediate danger from them," he concluded. That was one concern reduced. With the bulk of the Council's available military ship strength at the Citadel, the Geth would face reduced garrisons should they attack elsewhere.

"That would be a reasonable assumption," Eachann agreed. "Signals have already been sent to the homeworlds, warning them."

"Very good. My fellow Primarchs will reorganise Turian defences based on our reduced strength," Victus said. "How are the attempts at opening the Relays?" The question had to be asked. While he had every confidence in the Primarchs in charge of the Turian military outside of the Serpent Nebula, the faster they could return to normal, the better. The best force to have on your side was overwhelming.

Walenty resisted the urge to groan. "Salarian and Asari forces have tried all the relays," he reported. "There has been no change and no detectable reaction from the Relays."

"We've tried all vessels?"

"Yes, Primarch," Walenty reported. "A couple of the fighters even volunteered to attempt it but there was no reaction."

"Eachann," Victus fixed his eyes on the Salarian. "The STG truly does not know the coordinates of the Citadel?" The question was asked quietly but with a firm imperative.

For a moment, the Commander of the Citadel was silent leading to a moment of hope for the Turians. "Despite attempts," Eachann replied, "STG still remains in the dark as to the location of the Citadel. Locating the Citadel is one of the ongoing projects for any Salarian working in the Serpent Nebula or on the Citadel. The STG has a general idea of the location, based on trajectory estimates from observations made from Relay travel but the area is still too large to allow escape."

"None of our ships are equipped for an Expedition attempt," Walenty observed.

"It wouldn't be an Expedition," Victus replied. "We could refit at the first depot but that is not an option." He finished before turning to look at Eachann. "What is the supply situation like on the Citadel?"

Again, the Commander was silent. "The Citadel is not a military base. We have sufficient supplies for two weeks but after that there will be issues."

"Should we move military forces now?"

"That is not necessary, Primarch. The few troops that were available from the regular Turian Citadel fleet are already bivouacked on the Citadel."

"Walenty?" Victus prompted the Admiral for a further explanation.

"Executor Govinus required additional aid in controlling the riots when the Geth first appeared," Walenty clarified. The troops hadn't been seconded back to their regular ships with the battle. There was always the chance that the geth might have attacked the Citadel directly and somehow landed forces. It was an unlikely chance but it was better to prepare for those options, as well as the more probable.

"Will leaving them on the Citadel adversely affect supplies?"

"Not appreciably," Eachann said. "It would be best if we station them now at the Palladium."

Walenty nodded. "Once news gets out that the Relays are down, it is likely that there will be further unrest."

"Agreed," Victus said. "I will ready additional forces should that prove necessary." He paused. "Is there any further news on what caused the Relays to shut down?"

"At first glance, it would appear as if the Geth have a far greater understanding of the Relay network. A complete timeline has been forwarded to you. The first Relays shut down while the Citadel fleet was moving into place but the others shut down after they had left. Unless they left some device, or are somehow able to give time delayed orders, then the final Relays should not have shut down." Eachann had gone over every inch of the report and the sensor readings. He'd even gone over the secondary sensors and had maintenance techs looking at the wiring now to make sure there were no breaks or odd energy charges.

"I find it very hard to believe the Relays would choose now to shut down," Victus said. The words were nothing new. Every commander aware of the situation was saying the same thing.

"It does strain probability," Eachann agreed. "There is only one comparable incident on record."

"The Batarians," Walenty said.

"Has anyone questioned the so-called Batarian Ambassador?" Victus asked.

"Jath'Amon returned to the Batarian settlement on Jartar in Hades Gamma weeks ago," Eachann told him. "And the few other Batarians on the Citadel know nothing useful."

Walenty was watching Victus when he was told that, so he saw the way the Primarch rolled his eyes in the subtle way that the Turians did. It went without saying that he was thinking that it was typical that the only time he actually wanted to speak to a Batarian, the Batarian was nowhere to be found.

"I want a full review of all information we have on their Relays!" Victus ordered. "And if any engineer or even a tech has any idea on how to reactivate the Relays, they are to try it. If they come up with a workable method, there will be a full commendation for them."

Eachann nodded. "All measures will be taken," he assured the Primarch. "We are already quietly asking for volunteers for a close range visual inspection and, if necessary, expedition on to a Relay."

Victus nodded and his hologram disappeared.

Walenty glanced at Eachann, nodding personably to the Salarian before he stepped off the disk and quickly sat down, reaching one hand to his forehead as he breathed deeply. His feet hurt. For last few meetings, the disk had been moved into Fisseha's ready room to allow him privacy when conversing with the other commanders. However, it meant that he could not have the gravity turned down and it was hell on his feet.

But this pain was nothing. Walenty snorted to himself. The Geth caused him pain when they were here and they still caused him pain now that they were gone. He really had to see if he could get some more padding in his boots… or if it would throw off his balance if he put a cushion on the disk. He'd have to investigate some options. Quentius wasn't that much younger than him! How did he do this day after day? Maybe a discreet message?

For now, Walenty looked down at the datapad in front of him. The list of jobs just kept getting longer and moping about his feet was not going to make it shorter.

-cfr-

Viper Nebula, Human Ascended Fleet

Shepard looked at the Alpha Relay. While visually it was no different from any other Relay, to his sensors it felt old. Fruben was beside him and had assured him that the Alpha Relay was the first relay created. It was also one of the closest to the Ascended's hibernation home out in dark space.

As such, it had a few special features. The Batarians had figured them out but had never had the guts to use them and the Council just didn't know. Well, what they didn't know would hurt them. Fruben had showed him how to activate the extra features as a super long-range Relay and he would send the commands as soon as the rest of the fleet arrived.

They had briefly checked on the remains of Human colonies but as expected, they had been destroyed thoroughly, if not by the Council, then by the Ascended. A few signals from Turian colonies had been detected and Shepard had detached small sections of the fleet to destroy them. The destruction of the colonies had been conducted with great enthusiasm and Shepard had fielded complaints from those in the second layer of his consciousness who had wanted to participate. They accepted his gentle reproaches that he would lead the charge in Trebia and thus they would personally kill their fair share of Turians.

Udina and the Citadel diversion fleet would meet them in the Turian Corridor along the way to Trebia. While they waited, several Ascended were mining asteroids. For the battles that were to come, they all needed to be fully loaded with all the raw materials and processed metals they could carry.

"Nergal," Shepard sent the name as a greeting.

"Yes?"

"Is the First Contact Package ready?"

"We just finished updating it." Nergal said before sending it to Shepard on a subchannel and the consciousnesses that made up Shepard tore into the data.

The recreation vid of the original first contact between Humans and the Turians had been enhanced as well and the rough, cut vid that Hackett had made had been redone entirely. The video flowed smoothly and Shepard listened to his own voice narrating the action with a critical ear. The words were almost corny but they would do the job and Skye's voice was still recognisable. For any Turian with an interest in the history of the Human Rebellion, it would give them memories of Cerberus. Harper would be pleased.

"Hehe," Joker laughed after he watched the vid. "This is going to be sweet."

"Please distribute it to the fleet," Shepard instructed, ignoring his pilot's chuckles.

"At once," Nergal agreed and uploaded the vid. It was downloaded by the Ascended present almost immediately.

"I sometimes wonder how much we've grown, when we were Ascended," Harper observed.

Shepard could feel he was pleased with the vid but could acknowledge Cerberus' leader's point. It was petty, even childish to send it. "This is our vengeance," he replied to the comment. "It is everything we wanted to do to the galaxy who betrayed us but couldn't." He switched to a private channel. "Let them have their fun," he added, referring to the other Ascended.

"How does Harbinger feel about it?" Harper asked pointedly.

"As per our agreement, Harbinger has given us carte blanche to deal with the galaxy's species as we see fit. So long as the harvest is conducted, we may do what we want."

Harper was silent at that but Shepard didn't need his advisor to speak to know that the man was thinking that it would be fine until Harbinger altered their agreement. Again.

"No matter what happens," Shepard reassured him, "we will at the very least destroy the Turians. For most, that will be an acceptable vengeance even if that is all we are allowed."

-cfr-

Apien Crest, Human Ascended Fleet

Shepard had half-expected the Alpha Relay's transit to feel different, somehow, rougher, maybe, given it was the oldest one. The only difference that he or any of the fleet noticed was that it had taken much longer. That wasn't a surprise given that they had travelled ten times further than any other Relay would take them. Of course, ten times longer at Relay speeds was still too fast for any organic to perceive but since Ascension, the Humans had experienced the differences for themselves.

Still, they had arrived in the region of space that was home to the Turian homeworld, the one they called the Apien Crest, and here they waited, on the far side of an unknown Relay a few light-years from Trebia, for Udina and his diversionary fleet to arrive. Despite his warnings, the leader of the Human Ascended had indeed waited for their fellows, but he wouldn't wait forever. Shepard would give them one more hour and after that, they would move through to Trebia.

They had a species' pride to kill and the fleet were itching to get started!

There were only eleven minutes remaining on the hour Shepard had granted the tardy politician when the Relay activated and Udina and the rest of the fifty sent through their hails.

"You, Donnel Udina, are late."

Harper and Hackett laughed at the image Shepard sent along, of a father chastising his little boy, before Udina managed to reply.

"Yes, sir, we're late. We ran into a number of systems with patrols and had to sneak past them. While hacking them didn't take long, getting past their visual range guards at the Relays did take longer than anticipated."

"I would have said that was a stupid tactic for them except that it worked."

"Only partially." Harper pointed out. "Udina did slip past them unnoticed, after all."

"True, but even slowing down your enemy can be crucial in war." Shepard and the others who had fought the Turians all remembered lives spent to buy a little time.

"It didn't matter here. No one knows where we are and we can attack at our leisure. And we will soon be able to travel openly," Udina tried to divert attention from his tardiness.

"Well, if you're finally ready to party, we should get going. The fun on Palaven is about to start. All that remains is for someone to scout ahead. Zaeed. It's your turn to take point and recon for the rest of us."

"Yes, sir." Zaeed didn't sound happy.

"It's your own fault for picking on me so much," Hackett joked.

"There will be plenty of targets in the Trebia system," Shepard reassured him.

The former mercenary acknowledged the point. The Turians were military, their home system would be the most well protected. "How far out?"

"A couple of light hours would be best," Hackett replied.

Zaeed sent through his agreement. "See you soon," he said before turning and activating the relay, disappearing with a flash of light.

Joker immediately reported that Zaeed had travelled in the general vicinity of the Trebia system but would be offset to the ecliptic by 3.5 billion kilometres. For any organic ship, such a result would be a terrible failure for both the pilot and navigator, for an Ascended, it was simply the way they used the Relays. Now, all they had to do now was wait for his intel.

-cfr-

Trebia System, 3.5 Billion Kilometres off the Ecliptic

Zaeed oriented himself to be facing the Turian homeworld, Palaven, before he began disgorging Oculi. The little ships were thrown with precision which he didn't even think about any more. Some were thrown far, while others were kept close to transfer signals to him. Halfway through, information began flowing back to him.

"Oh, shit," Zaeed said to himself. The sentiment was shared by the secondary minds and they immediately activated several plants. He continued hurling Oculi, including the new ones as they were made. He could always break them down again when they were no longer necessary.

Soon, Zaeed's Ascended form was surrounded by a halo of the small machines, some spread up to five light-seconds from him to allow better correlation of the data they would collect. Without thought, he began assessing the information.

"That's a lot of infrastructure," Wilson, one of the few Cerberus operatives who had not been Ascended with Harper, observed.

"A lot to destroy," Zaeed chuckled, recovering from his initial surprise. The Turians had layers of defences in Trebia. Rank upon rank of static installations interspersed with ships.

"What about their fleets?" Bailey asked. The former C-Sec officer was looking forward to showing Turians exactly how good Humans could be at their jobs.

"I think Udina was a bit too efficient," Wilson lamented.

Zaeed snorted. "I look upon the Citadel fleet as the final delicacy. The dessert after we've had the main course." He sifted through the data, looking towards Palaven. "Well, well, well, who knew the birds copied us so much?"

The question was rhetorical. While Trebia's system defences were impressive, the Turian homeworld had the thickest. It made sense, of course. All species would defend their home world and the Turians knew what would happen if the Council was ever challenged. As the military arm, they were the main targets. It was why Zaeed was here, after all.

Palaven was shrouded in defences. It almost looked like a debris field but Zaeed knew the Turians were too organised for that. There would be an ordered reason for the positioning of everything. Orbital laser batteries formed a sphere around Palaven and there were other satellites that looked bulkier.

"Missile canisters," Bailey identified them.

"Do you know their yield?"

"No." The last was said factually. "I only ever heard some C-sec talking about them."

"It doesn't matter. We'll send some Oculi to find out," Wilson said. "There's only six dreadnoughts."

"But they all have reinforced fleets, and there's another five carriers," Zaeed said. "Every type of Turian ship is here. I only hope we get to play."

"I'm sure Shepard will let us have our fun."

"It's not Shepard I'm worried about," Zaeed explained. "It's everyone else. They want to hit the Turians almost as much as we do. We'll have to be quick about it."

"Ah," Bailey said, understanding Zaeed's meaning. The entire Human Ascended fleet would be assaulting Trebia and they all wanted Turian blood. While no one was truly keeping count of kills, there was an unofficial score board and Zaeed had no intention of dropping down the ranks.

"All right, let's send this info on to the boss and be prepared for orders."

-cfr-

Chapter Text

 

 

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 12 Something Beginning With

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Palaven, Primarch's Office

In another species, someone with as much power as Primarch Fedorian would have priceless artworks or reminders of his power adorning the office as a matter of course. For the Krogan, for example, they would be both, high-quality weapons that had been instrumental in the warlord's rise on display and ready to use at a moment's notice.

The Turians were different.

Sure, the office was larger than anyone else's and the furniture almost sinfully comfortable with state of the art facilities but that was a matter of necessity. Not only did it help when dealing with other species but the truth was that anything less affected efficiency. They'd tried to get by with less expense spent on the Primarchs only for the Hierarchy to suffer as their leadership made poor or slow decisions, or even slept through crises, unable to function effectively.

However, there were no trophies here, no statements of personal achievement, no art, only what was needed and nothing more. If you were here, that was statement enough for any Turian.

The middle-aged Turian was working away, reading through reports and making notes of orders and projects, when his omni-tool chimed for an incoming call.

"Primarch, we have received an update from the Citadel. The Geth presence has left, driven off by the resolve of our fleets. However, they did not depart without leaving a reminder of their visit. All of the Relays at the Citadel are offline and, so far, efforts to restore their function have been unsuccessful." Fedorian's personal assistant announced without preamble.

Fedorian understood the underlying message. "Our dreadnoughts are stuck there until they can restore the Relays. With so much of our strength diverted to meeting the Geth, our own interests are vulnerable. Have they any information as to where the Geth went?"

"None, Primarch."

"Very well. I must assume that they have some goal in mind. Shift our deployments here in the Trebia System to yellow alert in light of the new danger and alert the other Primarchs. Also, I want the Navy to maintain heightened readiness for the next two weeks. By then, either the Geth will have shown themselves or we can conclude they will have returned behind the Veil. Whichever way it turns out, we will have to revert most of the Navy back to peacekeeping levels at that point to preserve our ships and crews." Fedorian mentally nodded to himself, satisfied he had covered the immediate priorities. "Send the orders and have the admirals report to me in three hours with their proposals as to how we will respond to this danger."

"Yes, Primarch. Trebia Command acknowledges your orders and is re-deploying accordingly."

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Apien Crest, Human Ascended Fleet

"All right, everyone's ready," Shepard didn't bother making it a question. They had been Ascended ready! Over the Human Ascended network, Shepard pulled up the scan of the Trebia system that Zaeed had provided them with. Initial targets had already been assigned for when they appeared and after that, they would continue to sweep towards the third planet, Palaven, systematically destroying everything that stood in their path. Unlike other encounters, disabling ships was not desired. Elysium would have to wait for further training materials.

"Trebia has six planets, though Palaven has a significantly developed moon. Ignoring the planets, let's try to keep the fuel depot intact. It will be useful to us. Until we secure it, remain at a distance. I don't want anyone caught in the blast radius should it be destroyed." As Shepard spoke, the schematic of the Trebia system moved, highlighting the fuel depot and the projected blast radius. "There should be no problem with that."

"Similarly, we want to take Datriux intact. We will have to land husks to kill the garrison but it should be well worth it for the mineral deposits.

"There are garrisons on Essenus and Impera but nothing we need on either planet, so once we wipe out the Turian presence we can move on. However! That brings us to Palaven. I do not want anyone to travel between Palaven and Menae until both are subdued. Both planets have heavy ground based fortifications, as well as orbital defense platforms, and I do not want anyone caught in their crossfire. Menae is one huge military base and, even with our hacked files, we don't know enough about it so it will be destroyed entirely.

"As per our agreement with Harbinger, we must leave a viable population for ascension," Shepard's voice was hard as he said that. He knew how much some wanted to kill all the Turians. "There are 6.1 billion Turians on Palaven, with a further 350 thousand on the orbital stations," Shepard highlighted the Turian population data they had taken from the Arcturus fleet. "Those on the orbital stations are dead but I think we can keep a mere 100 million alive on Palaven.

"We will destroy all space-based defences before we consider landing any forces. Is that clear?" Shepard waited for confirmation which came quickly. He did not seek agreement. He was the leader of the Human Ascended and while Shepard had a military background, he had learned how to give orders as suggestions. However, there were times when obedience was required. This was one of those times.

"Good," Shepard said. "Form up, and let's go. It's time to come out from the shadows so don't worry about locking down comm buoys."

"Shepard?" Saraswati interrupted gently. Every link spoke of respect for the Human Ascended leader.

"Yes?"

"Instead of locking down the comm buoys, could we not instead transmit?"

"Transmit what?" Shepard asked.

"The Council deserves a better view of what we are doing. We could transmit visuals." The avatar of the Hindu goddess of knowledge and wisdom took obvious pleasure in the suggestion.

Harper laughed, a short ugly noise that bespoke pain for anyone who got in his way. "We can do better than that," he said, taking Saraswati's idea and running with it. "We won't send them our visuals," he added. "We'll send them the visuals from the Turian vessels."

"Yes!" A general cry of assent rippled through the gathered fleet.

Shepard was silent for a few moments, thinking it over. "Visuals must be edited before transmission to ensure that tactical information is not included. The Council is trapped on the Citadel and has nothing to do but rip any information source apart. We do not want to make anything about this easy for them."

"They may watch the demise of their people with nothing but anguish in their hearts. I promised the Council Humanity would have vengeance. It is time we showed them what hopelessness feels like."

-cfr-

Trebia System, Trebia Relay, Kaisiepo Station

Arithir was a sensor tech on Kaisiepo Station. The station was a safe 200,000 km from the Relay, far enough that any attackers would have to pause long enough for the station's defences to come online and respond but close enough that arrivals had to deal with it. That made it the first checkpoint for entry into the Trebia system. All ships entering and leaving Trebia were checked by Kaisiepo Station. They had a bank of comm techs whose job it was to regulate traffic through the Relay.

While night and day did not exist in space, they worked on Cipritine time. As such, it was late in the station's cycle but that made no difference to their work. The bank of comm techs was always full, just as his sensor station was always filled. The ships didn't stop coming just because it was 2am for them. In fact, during some periods the night shift could be even busier than the day crew. It didn't matter.

It was 2:37am when the first ship appeared.

Arithir thought nothing of it. The Relay monitors thought it was big and he was running the silhouette through the scanner when the second ship appeared. The resulting beep caused Arithir to look over to the monitor. His eyes widened as alarms began blaring on Kaisiepo Station. The Relay's energy readings were off the charts!

"Incoming weapons fire!" Hayfa screamed, her voice panicked.

He tore his eyes away from the Relay's monitor to the holographic projection beside it. The projection showed the relative location of objects around the Relay.

It was filled with red dots indicating hostile ships. One mandible clicked uncertainly. The system marked ships as unknown unless they had fired… which meant that every ship on his sensors had to have fired. He flicked the sensors, bringing up a different frequency.

"Spirits," Arithir whispered. The hologram filled with waves of red. As Hayfa had screamed, incoming weapons fire. But not just one shot, hundreds of shots were shown.

And the leading rounds were about to hit Kaisiepo Station.

Arithir closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He slammed one hand down on the warning signal as the first round hit the station. It was not the last and Kaisiepo Station shook and screamed with the onslaught.

His last thought was of Oana. His little girl was so beautiful.

A wave of heat ripped over him, then there was a screaming noise before everything went black.

-cfr-

Outskirts of Trebia System, Human Ascended Fleet

Inwardly, Shepard trembled as he decelerated in Trebia. This had been a long time coming and now that it was finally here, he wasn't sure what to feel. Excitement was definitely coursing through what passed for his bloodstream but also vindication. He had expected to feel some anger but Shepard realised what anger he had felt towards the Council had burned out years ago when he knew that he would see vengeance. It was pointless to feel anger at those you knew were going to die but you hadn't gotten around to killing just yet.

Vaguely, he wondered if he'd feel the same if this was the Parnitha System? During The Betrayal, Quentius had at least tried to be reasonable. He hadn't let his prejudices run away with him unlike that bitch, Irissa. For an Asari, she was damned quick to push for combat. If Tevos had survived, no matter how annoying, paired with Quentius, well Human Council relations would have suffered a massive set back but-

"Leave it," Adams interrupted Shepard's thoughts, pulling him back to the present.

Like all of the Ascended, as he'd been decelerating, he'd fired at his assigned target before dumping hoards of Oculi into the space around him. Information was now coming back.

"Shit!" Joker swore and Shepard felt his form shift, moving through space expertly under the pilot's light touch. "Fuck! We move like a garbage scow compared to the Normandy."

"Joker, language!" Shepard admonished almost fondly, although he understood his pilot's concern. The space around Trebia's relay was filled with items that should not have been there! While Joker was exaggerating the degree, Shepard couldn't deny that their maneuverability was lower in this form, something that had just become important.

"The birds have made some alterations," he sent the signal to the fleet before anyone could begin blaming Zaeed for bad intel. The instant he had sensed the laser turrets and missile satellites, he'd understood a weakness in their plan. Zaeed's information was three to four hours old, at least. The Turians could easily move assets in that time and they had.

"Why have they moved them?" The demand flooded the network.

"Probably in response to the Citadel," Shepard replied, keeping his voice calm before he focused on two large lumps of metal that were now in new positions. "Look on the bright side! They brought two dreadnoughts into our reach! Remember, I want Datriux and the Fuel Depot intact. Nothing else is important."

Even as he spoke, the fleet broke into two groups, heading towards the dreadnoughts and their attendant fleets, though surrounding them all were thousands of drones and small fighters.

The Oculi were engaged in a firefight with them and Shepard growled internally as he wound up several weapons. His point defence systems could deal with these pests but his regular weapons were overkill.

"We do need some smaller vessels in our fleet," Hackett mused.

The four Ascended who made up the main Human leadership group had remained with Shepard. As the fleet split to attack the dreadnoughts, Shepard moved with those heading towards Datriux though he felt no need to race ahead as some small pockets did. He didn't restrain them. It was better that they worked out their eagerness now before the main assault on Palaven took place. The battle of the Relay had left some issues which they discussed as they moved, their point defenses destroying the few small Turian drones and unmanned fighters that managed to get through the Oculi.

The debris from the small ships was hot and fast moving, forming a constant hail that lit up their shields but did no damage. It wasn't even a nuisance.

"We do!" Miranda snarled, unleashing a barrage of short sharp blasts from her left side pereiopods. There was an array of explosions from the Turian craft.

"They're drones and unmanned fighters, they aren't a threat to us." Anderson observed. "Unfortunately, they are relaying tactical information back to Palaven."

"Palaven should be getting other information shortly," Hackett said, indicating to the lead ships which were bearing down on the closest dreadnought, the one that had been moving into position to cover the Relay. They were headed to Datriux and the dreadnought there,

"How can we fix our intel?" Udina demanded. He'd missed his shot because the frigate he'd been assigned was no longer where it should have been.

"There was nothing wrong with the intel," Miranda replied.

"Of course, it was wrong!" Udina insisted.

"There was nothing wrong with it," Shepard said before Miranda could snap. His voice was unusually patient. "It was merely old."

"How the hell can it be old! That gun monkey Zaeed was right there!"

The way Miranda twitched said without words that if she had maintained her Human shell she would have been making it very clear what she thought about Udina and his relative intelligence to a microbe.

"Zaeed's information was three or so hours old," Anderson explained in a long-suffering tone. "Because he was three or so light-hours away from Trebia. Distance equals time for the information to arrive."

"It is an effective method," Shepard added. "But we only see the past. Even Ascended must obey the laws of physics. The Turians simply moved their assets since Zaeed's recon. They were-" He paused and, without thinking about what he was doing, linked to Hackett and Anderson, sharing the nebulous conclusion that had struck him.

With the three of them working on the problem, the nebulous conclusion soon solidified. "With the dreadnoughts trapped in the Serpent Nebula, the Turians have gone back to standard alert deployments," Hackett said slowly.

"They've had to!" Anderson sounded amused. "They don't know how long their ships will be trapped and they can't ignore threats in the meantime. Call them what you will but the Turians were always militarily adept."

"So what does that mean?" Udina growled. With the sensor issue explained, he felt like a fool for not seeing it earlier.

"It means that we might be able to anticipate some of the Turian formations."

"Leave it." Shepard commanded. "Right now, we've got Palaven to kill."

-cfr-

Outskirts of Trebia, Turian Dreadnought Pride of Pheiros

"I don't care what they are or where they are meant to be! Fire!" Captain Wouterus of Dreadnought Pride of Pheiros screamed the order, making sure he was being transmitted to the entire fleet.

Spirits-damned Asari! Their corruption of good Turians was evident when his junior weapons officer dared to suggest that they contact the unknown fleet. You didn't contact any unknown fleet that had come through the Relay already firing with anything but return fire! To suggest anything else was... Wouterus growled. To suggest anything else was not Turian!

His sensor techs had done better, quickly analyzing the silhouettes and reporting that the unknown ships were the same as those which had, until recently, been in the Serpent Nebula. Except there were more of them. Not fifty, at least three hundred.

And they were aggressively hostile. The unknown ships had come through the relay already firing. Kaisiepo Station's kinetic barriers hadn't even slowed down the rounds that drove through the station. Drones had already been deployed around the Relay but the unknown ships had deployed their own small ships. The two squadrons were involved in a vicious dogfight, one where the Turian drones were quickly being decimated.

"Sir, I think you should look at this," Bjarte interrupted, pointing towards one of his screens.

Wouterus glanced over, his red eyes shrouded in shadow. The screen showed some markings on one of the ship. Probably its name. He didn't recognise the language. "What am I looking at?" he demanded.

"The language is Human, sir."

"Human?" Wouterus hissed. "But these are Geth ships!"

"The markings are on all of them sir!" Another tech reported. "And they are all different." The screen broke into multiple windows, highlighting the words on each ship.

So that meant the Humans had an alliance with the Geth… or had the supposed Geth dreadnought been a Human invention all along? Or were the Geth pretending to be Human?

Too many questions that were not his problem. The huge ships, no matter who they represented, bearing down on the Pride of Pheiros were. The Pride of Pheiros had fired its main cannon and had scored a straight hit, one that had been backed up by thanix cannons. Amazingly, those had seemed to do the most damage.

Wouterus growled. They should! Thanix cannons had been designed around the weaponry on that ship 40 years ago. "Keep firing!" he commanded. "If they are Human ships, then fire faster!"

"We're redlining!" Cinzia, his weapons officer, objected.

"Keep firing or we are dead!"

With one hundred and fifty dreadnought class vessels bearing down on them, they were dead anyway but Wouterus was not going to go alone. "Focus on the one we hit! Tell all our ships to focus on that one!"

"Sir, we cannot-" Bjarte never got the chance to finish.

"I am fully aware of what we can and cannot do!" Wouterus yelled. "Concentrate all fire on the single ship and move all extraneous power to our front kinetic barriers. Move life support if necessary but I want that ship down!"

His crew knew what that meant but they went about their jobs with the efficiency Turians should have. Wouterus nodded to himself. His eyes fixed on the main viewscreen, targeting the ship they had hit, as if through force of gaze he could bring it down.

Geth, Humans, some unholy alliance or something else entirely, he knew his duty. He would hold the line for as long as the Pride of Pheiros could.

-cfr-

Outskirts of Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Chimera had raced deep into the Trebia system, even diverting power from other systems to its engines to get to the defenders faster. One of ten at the front of the pack, he had been eager to make the damned birds pay for what they had done to Humanity twice now.

Now, he was wishing he had been a little more prudent. Instead of the Turian Navy trying to fire at all ten of the vanguard in this fleet, some utter bastard had chosen to send all of that firepower at just his suddenly fragile-seeming hull. Thanix rounds based on his own weaponry came in, gouging chunks of his armour. The damned dreadnought hadn't scored a direct hit yet, nor was it going to if Chimera had anything to say about it. Power that had been directed to maximum acceleration was finally returned to maneuvering and to raising his kinetic barriers to full. Suddenly, rounds that would have scored on his hull were being deflected off by the strong shields.

Only the combined efforts of four dreadnought-class shots would be able to scratch him now, he smugly thought.

"Ouch!" And it seemed the universe, or at least the damn Turians, were determined to prove him wrong, punishing him for his hubris as a full squadron of cruisers managed to aim their fire at one pereiopod, landing their hits within a second and degrading his barrier enough for a puny frigate to hurt his pride and take out one of his point defence lasers.

He started evading more urgently when more and more ships chose him as their target. "And this had been such a good day!" He complained over the 'net.

"Less complaining, more dodging!" His peanut gallery demanded of his pilot. "The main gun will be ready to shoot that bloody dreadnought in a second, as long as you line it up right."

"Ok, ok! If you think it's so easy, you can try to beat me in the next exam. Now shut up and let us concentrate. Bastards."

Chimera was giving back as best he could, but all previous attempts to shoot down the dreadnought had been stymied by frigates diving between him and his target, blowing up in a single hit. Such hits were massive overkill but in dying, they were shielding their larger, more dangerous brother from his fury.

They couldn't keep that up forever, but he was losing barrier strength too. "Time to see how tough our armor is, I guess."

Around him, the vanguard were also firing on the Turian ships. Frigates by the score were blowing up each second. Chimera hoped that the Turians would either run out of frigates or fail to block a shot before his barriers gave out entirely. He started using Oculi to block enemy fire, copying the enemy's tactic and showing how skilled a Human Ascended could be.

"Damn Turians, always picking on us Humans."

-cfr-

Trebia, near Datruix, Turian Frigate  Culverin

Captain Iveta of the Turian Frigate Culverin stared at the screen. She was currently deployed on what was fondly called the Home Patrol, stationed around Datriux. Unless you came from a colony world, Home Patrol was one of the most sought after postings in the Hierarchy. You were the first to find out all the news and all shore leave was to Palaven! Even if you were from a colony world, your biology craved Palaven's biosphere.

Citadel Patrol was pretty good but Home Patrol was better. She'd fought mandible and claw to get the Culverin transferred from Batarian border patrol in the Exodus Cluster to any other patrol. Three weeks ago, she'd been granted a transfer and the Culverin had been moved to the Eagle Nebula, with a brief stop at the Citadel for shore leave.

Then everything had turned upside down. The Geth had appeared in the Serpent Nebula. The Culverin, Iveta and her battle group had been called back to Trebia and assigned to the reinforced fleet of the Turian Dreadnought Adjudicator. Iveta was happy with the assignment. Let no one suggest that she wasn't. The only thing that would have made her happier was assignment to a cruiser but she didn't think she was senior enough for that yet.

It had been a tense time in Trebia, watching the Citadel watch the Geth and seeing the forces gather to drive off the Geth. Iveta hadn't been involved naturally, but she knew that there were high level meetings almost every day. Primarch Adrien Victus, Menae's High Commander had accompanied the dreadnoughts and their fleets to the Serpent Nebula which said without words how seriously the Turians were taking the Geth incursion.

Then they had been ready to strike and the Geth had disappeared.

It had been an anticlimax. Iveta was as relieved as everyone that the lives of good Turians were not extinguished in a battle they all knew would be costly but she, like any good strategist, was worried. The last Geth ship to go to the Serpent Nebula had come through the relay already firing. These had been content to sit and wait and had run at the first sign of a coordinated attack. What were they doing?

Command had said nothing and Iveta had ordered her crew to continue their duties. They'd find out the news in time. Command had still given no hint of what had happened when they ordered the Adjudicator and fleets to Datriux but the orders came from Primarch Fedorian himself so something had to have happened. Iveta had shrugged. She was curious but she was Turian military. She would be told when there was a need for her to know.

It was too late for information now.

Her screen showed the Pride of Pheiros and fleet. They had been moving into position around the Relay when the Geth fleet had appeared and now the Pheiros was bleeding fire. Gouts of it spurted and died as the atmosphere was consumed. Three, almost simultaneous hits from the Geth dreadnoughts had ripped through its shields. One hit would have been enough. Iveta knew it was only a matter of time before the superstructure gave way.

The Bard, the Warsprite, the Talon, the Stevedore, the Archer, the Sniper, the Lance… the list scrolled, with a disturbingly long time between repeats, on the screen beside that showing the Pheiros. They were all ships who had taken a hit to protect the Pheiros. All for nothing.

The Pheiros and fleet had targeted one ship. One ship out of hundreds! They had driven their entire firepower at that ship, some of the smaller cruisers and frigates going so far as to attempt to ram the Geth dreadnought and all they had done, as far as Iveta could see was scratch the armor. The dreadnought's shields had remained up for a long time as waves of frigates had sacrificed themselves in a last ditch attempt to destroy it. And when the shields had finally fallen, the ships that had followed had only gouged at the dreadnought's armor.

They hadn't even managed to distort the wording that ran along the ship's length. Chimera. The name was displayed proudly. A Human word. It implied things she didn't want to think about.

"Orders from the Adjudicator," Usamu called, catching Iveta's attention.

She turned to him, one mandible spreading slightly to indicate he should continue.

"We are to maintain our current formation with the Strike and to fall back."

"Fall back?" Iveta demanded. She had no desire to die but she was Turian, and the Geth ships had invaded Trebia. She would fight!

"Just to the back of formations," Usamu added. "Our battle group has been renamed Stiletto," he continued, reading from his screen. "Analysis of attacks on the Geth dreadnought calling itself Chimera makes Command think there is a small gap in their shields." There was a note of hope in Usamu's voice. "We are to move when we see an opening on one and attempt to break their shielding."

"Oh, we'll find it," Iveta growled, her mandibles spread happily and the dread she had felt watching the Pheiros battle now fell away. The Pheiros' battle group may not have defeated any of the enemy ships but that would not stand against them. They had found the information the others needed.

The Culverin and the Stiletto battle group would confirm that weakness and then the entire fleet would exploit it because those who had made the ultimate sacrifice with the Pheiros deserved nothing less.

-cfr-

Trebia System, Turian Dreadnought  Adjudicator

"All battle groups have their plans?" Captain Jykurus asked for the confirmation.

"Yes Sir," Peredus, his chief Comm officer replied.

"Good," Jykurus sighed. "They'll probably be useless but better than nothing."

The Captain of the Adjudicator turned his attention to the tactical screen. They'd counted three hundred and ten Geth dreadnoughts in Trebia. They'd given up counting the number of smaller ships the dreadnoughts had launched. Thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe. It didn't matter. The recordings made it clear that they were small, agile and very powerful.

Of the three hundred and ten Geth dreadnoughts in the system, ten had remained at the Relay, forming an obvious rearguard against reinforcements. One hundred and fifty had gone after the Pride of Pheiros and a further one hundred and fifty were bearing down on his location. The Adjudicator was in geosynchronous orbit over Datriux's ground based mineral mines and refineries. A reinforced fleet of cruisers and frigates surrounded them.

The ships approaching them were all dreadnought class and while his fleet maintained the formations he'd specified, the Geth ships did not. They travelled in groups but they were strung out. The first ships surged ahead, eager to engage but the larger group approached at a more stately pace.

If it had of been a normal battle group approaching, one consisting of dreadnoughts and smaller craft, Captain Jykurus would have thought that the vessels in the leader were to test his defences while the ones bringing up the rear analysed their efforts before the real battle began. Except you did not send dreadnoughts to 'test' defences.

Unless the only thing you had was dreadnoughts. No, that was stupid! Every fleet had vessels of varying size. Even Geth fleets did. They'd proven that the last time they'd appeared. So why now send only dreadnoughts and why send ships adorned with Human markings? His techs had done their job. While the ships looked like Geth dreadnoughts, every single one of them had markings along the left of their tail like figures and on the legs which extended down there were further markings.

The symbol of the cursed Systems Alliance was prominent, in all its variants though some of the dreadnoughts bore only the image of Earth. Beyond what Jykurus and his techs assumed was the name, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the markings. A few of the vessels, thankfully only a handful, bore another symbol. Cerberus. He'd hissed when he'd seen that. Two of his brothers had fallen to Cerberus ambushes during the Human Rebellion. It was not a symbol he would forget but it was not a symbol he had ever seen next to the Systems Alliance. Yet most of the ships that displayed Cerberus' symbol, had at least a variant of the Systems Alliance icon next to it.

So were these ships Human, or Geth? Or had the Geth, for some unknown reason, painted Human symbols on their ships without knowing their meanings?

No… the logic behind painting the names in the same location conflicted with a lack of understanding.

"Send a transmission to the incoming attackers," Jykurus ordered, turning towards his comm officer.

"What do you want sent sir?"

Most of the comm techs had switched their screens to tactical displays and would help coordinate the fleet.

"'Are you Geth?'" Jykurus replied. It really shouldn't be something he cared about at this juncture. Geth or Human, they were aggressive and none of the ships at the Citadel had replied. But if they did… It would provide some tactical insight. And with three hundred dreadnoughts facing the five remaining in Trebia, Palaven ground control would need all the tactical insight they could get.

"Message away, sir." No sooner had Peredus spoken than the screen changed.

"Incoming transmission!" several techs reported needlessly. "Tight band, to us only!" one of them added, running an analysis on the signal.

The static cleared and Jykurus felt his eyes widen. The screen displayed a Human. It didn't appear to be anyone Jykurus recognised. It was sitting and behind it a sun burned. The image was artificial. He knew that instantly. But the species displayed was Human.

"Do I look like Geth to you?" The question was asked in unflanged Turian, spoken how a Human might pronounce their language.

"Who are you?" Jykurus demanded.

"My name is Harper," the 'Human' replied.

While knowing the names of prominent Humans had been a must during the Human Rebellion, forty years had passed and Jykurus had let that information fade. Still, he was positive that 'Harper' had never been on a list of Humans they were to kill on sight.

"You do not know me," the Human continued. "I never wanted lesser species to know me but I am the Commander of Cerberus."

There was a collective hiss from the bridge crew of the Adjudicator. "Prove it," Jykurus heard himself challenge. A fake image of a Human could claim anything. He did not have to believe it.

The Human smiled, then laughed. "Turians!" The voice chuckled. "So straightforward," the Human mused. "I shouldn't be talking to you, because it's not my transmission you need to see," the Human added before the image blinked, changing to a shot of one of the Geth dreadnoughts. This one bore the name Cerberus on it's side and Jykurus could see the Cerberus' broken hexagon on one of its legs. The markings were larger than some of the frigates in his fleet.

That image held, only for an instant, long enough for them to take in the words and symbol before a vid began playing.

"Get that off my screen!" Jykurus ordered.

"We can't sir!" the reply was too fast to be pleasing.

"Just watch it," Harper's voice sounded over the internal comms. It was grating to hear Turian spoken without flanging. "It is important that you understand why this is happening."

"You are attacking my home system!" Jykurus growled. "The only thing I must understand is how to kill you!" He finished refusing to look at the vid.

Again the Human voice laughed. "The Pheiros and fleet threw everything they had all at Chimera and look how far they got. They managed to scratch the paintwork but nothing else. You cannot kill us."

"You are Human! So you are weak and undisciplined. You will die."

"We are Ascended, and you cannot stop us." The signal blipped at the end, indicating that it had been terminated.

Jykurus growled. "Why is that vid still there?" he demanded.

"The voice signal dropped, the vid file didn't," Peredus reported.

Snarling Jykurus glared at the screen. What appeared to be Turian ships were approaching primitive vessels which were in the shadow of a huge, inactive Primary Relay. Without warning the Turian vessels opened fire. "This was the way the galactic community greeted us," another Human voice spoke, again in perfect unflanged Turian.

After the ships were destroyed, vessels Jykurus realised were meant to represent Human ships, the image changed. This time it displayed Turian ships. Approaching them were the same ships that were approaching the Adjudicator. Except the lead ship… Jykurus didn't need a translation to recognise the words. 'N7 Shepard'. Surrounding Shepard were other ships, each bearing names that Jykurus' mind told him had been on the 'shoot on sight' lists during the Human Rebellion.

Anderson, Hackett, Udina, Williams, Vega, Alenko… They were all names that he had known. Not necessarily feared but had known. Amongst them were other names. Sirta he sort of knew… the company had been the inventors of medi-gel. Taylor, Saraswati, Elysium, Zaeed, Ares, Tadashi, Alexander… those were names he didn't recognise but knew were Human.

The ships opened fire on the Turian vessels and the vision degenerated into fantastical explosions. It was as if whoever had made the vid had no idea how ships were destroyed in space, how the atmosphere bleed from unsealed areas, how fire, if it started, only moved through those areas, quickly extinguishing as the oxygen was consumed. It was fake but very obviously designed to send a message. Then another voice spoke, again in perfect unflanged Turian. "This is our greeting to the galactic community."

Jykurus didn't need anyone to tell him who that was. Even speaking Turian Shepard's voice was clear and the implications were clearer. Geth would not go to this level of detail. They had no need and they would not hide behind a Human facade. So the ships attacking were not Geth but were Human. "Send a signal to High Command. Tell them the ships are Human not Geth!"

"Our signals are being hacked, Sir, but we will try," Peredus replied as the tactical screen finally cleared to once again show the fleet approaching.

"What about our weapons?"

"All systems are fully operational," several techs replied.

"See that they remain that way. Send a frigate instead," Jykurus ordered. "And prepare for combat," he added, somewhat unnecessarily. Captain Wouterus' strategy suddenly made a whole lot more sense. The Adjudicator couldn't defeat one hundred and fifty dreadnoughts, no matter who made them but he would have the pleasure of seeing one die.

-cfr-

Palaven, Trebia System, Primarch's Office

Fedorian watched the screen as an officer reported to him. It showed a schematic of the outer Trebia system. The Pride of Pheiros was gone, and there were only a few grey dots representing the few cruisers and frigates that remained. Most still sent an IFF signal but weren't firing, yellow rings around them denoting their status. They were disabled.

The red dots representing the enemy ships were towing them into neat rows while the other half of the fleet closed in on Datriux and the Adjudicator. They had tried signalling but the unknown ships were blocking all signals. A single frigate from the Adjudicator's fleet was currently engaged in a slingshot maneuver around Datriux and Fedorian assumed that they were bringing information.

"Three hundred and ten signals came through the Relay. They immediately began launching small vessels which we assume are unmanned drones. This could have been in response to our drones already located at the Relay.

"Except for the Human," the officer spat the word, "writing, the ships are identical to those seen at the Citadel."

"And there are six times as many," Fedorian observed.

"Yes, sir," the officer agreed. "They have stationed ten of their forces at the Relay, presumably to block any reinforcements."

"Continue," Fedorian ordered when the officer paused. Senior Turians already knew the chances of reinforcement was slim unless they could get a signal through to the Citadel. That assumed the Council Fleet was able to open the Relays and race back in time to help them, while they held on for days waiting for the reinforcements.

No. It was better for him to assume they were alone.

"From our drones and unmanned fighters, and the Pride of Pheiros we have intel on the range of their weapons and maneuverability. Unfortunately Sir, their weapons have a greater range but they are less maneuverable than our ships, probably due to their size."

"That's something," General Corinthus muttered.

It wasn't much but it was something.

"Their plans are unknown, but it is presumed they will launch an assault on Palaven. We have no knowledge of what their planet-based tactics or equipment may be," the officer concluded.

Fedorian nodded before turning to General Corinthus.

"Alerts have sounded across Palaven," the General began. "City defences are activating and all gun entrenchments are being manned. The Cabals have been alerted and are arming now. We will be ready." His eyes were hard.

"Good. Call up all the reserves and do not turn away anyone," Fedorian ordered. In this situation, all Turians could be counted upon to defend their homes, though many would move to the nearest military base to take up duties there.

He turned back to the staff officer to give other orders. "Keep some analysts on close examination of the ships. I want to know if they are the same vessels as those at the Citadel, or if they are new. Admiral?" Fedorian turned to a small screen. He didn't need to look at the attacking ships any further.

Admiral Demetrian nodded slightly. He was aboard the Resolute. With three hundred enemy dreadnoughts in the system it was a death sentence but the Admiral was treating it as just another mission. He was a good Turian. "Sir. Missile defense batteries have been activated and my analyst's are examining the Pheiros' battle. Captain Wouterus' decision to focus on just one of the ships has given us valuable estimate of their shield strength. We are expecting more information from the frigate the Adjudicator has sent."

"Very good," Fedorian's mandibles clicked. He said nothing about the lives that brought that information.

"Menae main cannons are standing by while we wait for them to close into range."

"Fire only once they have cleared the missile canisters," Fedorian ordered.

"We can fire earlier," Admiral Demetrian objected. Firing only once the enemies had cleared the defence missiles would cut down the time they had to fire and thus, the number of ships they could bring down. .

"I am aware of that," Fedorian agreed. "But I do not wish to give this scum any warning."

Mandibles clicked, indicating understanding. "Canisters are clustering for intercept but unless we are very lucky, their missiles will do nothing more than slow them down. The best time to fire from Menae would be during missile bombardment. I do not know what type of detection devices they have but nothing can track everything."

"Agreed," Fedorian said, revising his previous orders. "Do that."

"The Resolute, Unconquered, Defender and Indomitable will maintain an orbit between Palaven and the attackers. The combined fleets will hold them off for as long as possible."

Fedorian nodded. "You are an honour to our people and a true Turian, Admiral," the Primarch said. There wasn't anything more he could say.

"We'll find a way to gut these bastards, Primarch," Demetrian said. "It's just a matter of time."

"Thank you Admiral. Please see to the distribution of your command," Fedorian ordered before turning back to gathered techs and analysts. "So," he said, his mandibles clamped tightly to his face as he asked the question that everyone who had seen a visual of these ships seemed to be speculating about, "Tell me, are these ships Geth, Human, or something else?"

-cfr-

 

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 13  Play Time

-cfr-

Outer Trebia System, Turian Frigate  Culverin

Iveta kept her eyes fixed firmly forward. She felt like a coward, running away from the greatest battle she had ever heard of, but orders were orders and she was Turian. She'd ordered the Culverin into stealth and they were currently slingshotting around Datriux. The planet's mass would hide them from the incoming fleet and the centrifugal force would propel them towards Palaven with the news they bore.

Humans!

The massive ships were Human, they just looked like Geth.

She wanted to curse her former commander Admiral Enderlus. What the hell was he doing letting Humans through the Exodus Cluster? While the Culverin had been on Batarian Patrol, she was well aware that the most important patrol route was Arcturus! The gateway to Earth. Had they grown lax?

The instant she thought that, she dismissed it. Three hundred dreadnoughts. Sector Command was not built to withstand that. Really, what was? But what about his routine reports? If you assumed, validly, Iveta thought, that these Humans had emerged from Sol just before the faux Geth ships appeared in the Serpent Nebula, then that left at least a week during which System Command of the Exodus Cluster should have been reporting in. With three hundred dreadnoughts, the Humans would have overwhelmed the patrols and System Command but they couldn't recreate the ongoing reports.

Could they?

Iveta shook her head, keeping her mandibles tight against her face as she resumed staring at the screen. It was the tactical display for the Adjudicator and the fleet she had been a part of. On the small screen beside it, their trajectory was displayed along with their progress. They were still so far but they couldn't risk going to FTL to cover the distance. Under the current circumstances, Palaven Command would shoot them out of the sky before they finished sending their IFF.

"Tactical?" She called.

"Captain," Mauritian looked up from his station.

"Your thoughts." Iveta didn't need to specify on what.

"As the data from the Adjudicator indicates," her tactical officer began after glancing at his screen, "the unknown ships have the same silhouettes as those seen around the Citadel. Some, on silhouette shape, are identical." That was new. The Culverin had obviously scanned their silhouette and knew the ships were of the same fleet but the Adjudicator had better scanners, and more techs. They had been able to analyse the information further.

"Captain Jykurus indicates that the ships are Human," Mauritian added.

"Yes," Iveta nodded. "Does his report say why he believes that?" The ships looked like the Geth dreadnought which had attacked the Citadel forty years ago.

Mauritian looked back at his terminal. "Captain Jykurus reports that he-" Mauritian gasped. "He got a message from them!" Iveta's tactical officer finished in a rush.

"A message?"

"The message was two parts. The first was a simulation but the being represented identified themselves as the supposed leader of the Human terror organisation, Cerberus. The second was a vid."

"A vid?" These aliens had the time to be sending vid files that were not comms?

"Yes, Ma'am, routing to your screen now," Mauritian said.

Iveta held back a nervous click of her mandibles. If it was routed to her screen that meant the information was classified. She nodded at her tactical officer and stepped back to look down at the small private screen the Captain's area was fitted with. The vid file was waiting and Iveta reached out one talon, tapping the screen to play it.

A vista of stars appeared along with a Relay. The immediate distinguishing feature was that it was dormant. Then the vid zoomed in, on ships that were before the massive structure. They were primitive ships and they were obviously trying to open the relay! Iveta felt a burn of irritation at that. Did they know nothing? You did not open relays! There could be anything lurking behind them!

Then the vid shifted, panning back out to show more ships. Turian. She recognised the design with a surge of pride. They were older vessels, those common in service about 70 years ago but the Culverin was based on their designs, honed by their experience.

The Turian ships opened fire on the primitives. As well they should, Iveta thought. And then a voice spoke. It took her a moment to recognise the language as Turian. "This was the way the galactic community greeted us." The voice spoke matter of factly and Iveta watched as the primitive ships were destroyed.

The vid blurred but immediately refocused, to show more Turian ships. They were modern ships now. Dreadnoughts and their attendant fleets. Cruisers and frigates all in perfect formations. Her left mandible clicked, they were a magnificent sight. Then again the vid panned out and this time, Geth dreadnoughts appeared. Except these dreadnoughts, like those invading Trebia, bore markings, Human markings. She recognised some names, but mostly the symbols.

The dreadnoughts fired, destroying the Turian ships and Iveta suppressed a hiss. No Turian ship would fall that easily. A new voice spoke, one that seemed familiar but Iveta couldn't place it. "This is our greeting to the galactic community."

Iveta looked up from the vid. "I see," she said. She did see. Though there were so many questions that came with that understanding. If these ships were Human, then why had they not been deployed during the Human Rebellion? The Humans were not a species to hold back! Or did they somehow find the true owners of that dreadnought that attacked the Citadel? If they did, how did they ally with them because despite the destruction of the Destiny Ascension, it was Human ships which had fired the final blow. There were too many contradictions with understanding.

"Brace for impact!" The scream from Yesenia, her helmsman, broke Iveta's concentration and automatically, she reached out to dig her talons into the stays that were built into all ships.

The Culverin shuddered and she could almost hear the roar of a passing ship.

"What was that?" Iveta demanded, her eyes immediately fixing on the navigational tactical display. There was a giant red mark where the Culverin should be. The screen was zoomed in and Iveta swallowed. She didn't need the reminder of how small the Culverin was when compared to the invaders. Mauritian tapped his talons on the controls, panning the image out.

"Five!" Usamu screamed, drowning out the similar report from the sensor officer.

"Full evasive," Iveta shouted to Yesenia.

Her pilot hadn't even bothered to turn at the news but had instead kept her eyes fully on her navigational screen.

Iveta didn't imagine the groan from the Culverin as her ship banked hard. If she hadn't been holding the stays, she would have been tossed around as Yesenia maneuvered them through several tight turns, pulling as much energy as she could from the drive core. They were in space but there were still limits and there was the suddenly huge gravity well of Datriux to consider.

Dreadnoughts were not as maneuverable as frigates and cruisers. That was the rule and Iveta felt a kernel of relief when the invaders proved to be no exception to that rule. Except, they didn't have to be. They were so much larger than the Culverin that they followed without the dodging and turning.

"Incoming weapons fire!" Mauritian stated, remarkably calmly.

"Evasive," Iveta ordered. "Launch countermeasures and keep us on course for Palaven!"

Thrums echoed through the Culverin as the counters were launched and Iveta watched the tactical screen. None of the dreadnoughts had fired their main weapons. We're probably too small to rate that, Iveta thought cynically but they had launched a volley of other weapons.

The Culverin shuddered and one of Iveta's hands was jarred free from its hold. She quickly grabbed another as her little frigate continued to be jostled through space. No! She had to get to Palaven! The Hierarchy had to know that the ships were Human!

"We're surrounded!"

"What?" How could they be surrounded in space.

"The dreadnoughts have ceased fire."

"What?" Iveta made the demand again looking to the navigational screen.

They were surrounded. Datriux was, relatively speaking, behind them but there was an enemy dreadnought at each meridian and one directly ahead. "Ready the main cannon," Iveta said firmly as she once again fixed her eyes on the screen. The battle over Datriux had begun but the Culverin's bridge was silent.

"Why aren't they firing?" Usamu whispered.

Iveta gritted her teeth. Usamu was correct. Why weren't they firing?

"Captain, orders?" Yesenia called.

She was sorely tempted to fire but she and the Culverin had another task to accomplish. "Forward," Iveta ordered. "Take us straight by the one in front." If the Human ships weren't firing then she would take the chance.

"Why aren't they firing?" Usamu demanded, louder this time.

"Does it matter?" Mauritian snapped.

The Culverin started forward slowly. The tap of talon on controls seemed loud and Iveta wasn't the only one holding her breath. She forced herself to breathe as Yesenia maneuvered the Culverin. The Human dreadnought loomed in her vision. It loomed in the vision of the entire crew, dominating the screen. Iveta could feel the sight burning into her mind and knew that to her dying day she would remember this.

'Eternity,' was written on its side. The symbol of Earth from the traitorous Systems Alliance was on the centre front of its middle foreleg. Iveta mentally growled at herself, resisting the urge to click her mandibles in frustration. It was a dreadnought, it did not have legs! But that's what they looked like, some primitive species' legs.

Larger and larger it loomed and Iveta realised she was holding her breath again.

"Why aren't they firing?" Usamu screamed this time, hysteria evident in his voice as he lunged at the weapons officer, hands outstretched, as he reached out for the Culverin's weapons control.

Pontius was ready for him and Mauritian was quick to follow, tackling Usamu from behind and latching his arms through Usamu's to restrain him. The comm officer screamed and lashed out, kicking viciously and Iveta saw the way he was trying to drive his spurs into Mauritian. Pontius drew his sidearm and before Iveta could say anything had hit Usamu with the hilt of the weapon.

"Sorry, Captain," he said a moment later as Usamu still struggled weakly.

"Again," Iveta ordered, her eyes hard.

Pontius obeyed, hitting Usamu again and finally rendering him unconscious. Mauritian grunted at the sudden dead weight as Iveta moved forward, stepping down into Pontius' bay.

Frigates did not have a brig, they didn't need them, but Iveta was not about to execute one of her crew. "Take him to one of the storage lockers and lock him in. Make sure he can't get out! You don't have to be gentle," she added. This was an extra frustration she did not need!

Her officers nodded, Pontius moving to pick up Usamu's legs while Iveta took his place at his station. "Yesenia?"

"No change, Captain."

Iveta felt a surge of relief. Yesenia was due a commendation. She had not stopped flying the Culverin despite the drama behind her. Her relief lasted until she looked up at the screen.

The Human dreadnought dominated everything and Iveta felt her eyes widen in horror as she realised they were close enough that she could almost see the individual armor plates .

"Yesenia?" The name this time held a note of uncertainty.

"They can't use their main cannon at this range Captain," came the reply. "And if any of the others fire on us, they will hit their own."

That was true but Iveta suppressed a shiver. The Human dreadnoughts felt… they felt cold. That was the only way to describe it. The Adjudicator didn't feel like anything but this close to the Human dreadnought, Iveta just felt cold.

"Using the enemy ship as a sling shot now," Yesenia announced. "No energy spikes detected," came the further confirmation. This might be one of the scariest things Iveta had ever done but Yesenia was more than due that commendation. Her helmsman was paying attention to everything.

"Steady on course," Iveta gave her permission for the maneuver and she watched as the screen showed the Human dreadnought accelerating as they moved faster around it. They had used Datriux for acceleration but the intercept had bled any gain completely away. If they could use the Human ships in any way, then they had to!

"We'll be clear in five, four, three…" Yesenia stopped.

The Human dreadnought moved! Where they had been passing by its flank, now they were passing by the front again. It had spun. The realisation dawned an instant before Iveta felt the Culverin shudder at the engines kicked in, and view screen blurred as they sped towards Palaven.

Iveta watched the range as the numbers raced upwards and it was only after they passed what they believed was the effective firing range of the Human dreadnoughts that she felt her legs go weak. The feeling shook her entire body and she tapped Pontius' screens, bringing up the rear cameras. The Human dreadnoughts had moved into a v-formation and as Iveta watched the increasingly dwindling image, their formation dipped into Datriux's thin atmosphere. She realised with dismay that their trajectory would bring them around the planet to behind the Adjudicator and fleet.

Captain Jykurus would be ready for them, she consoled herself before once again looking at the forward screen.

Iveta breathed deep to calm her nerves before she let out one click. "Good work, everyone," she announced, ignoring the obvious question of why the Human dreadnoughts had let them go, because that was what had happened. The Human ships had herded them against Datriux but after that they hadn't fired, they hadn't moved. They'd let them flee.

But why?

-cfr-

Outer Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Shepard watched the battle. The darker side of Humanity was showing and it didn't feel right to call it a battle. The Captain of the Turian dreadnought Adjudicator had tried the same tactics as the now destroyed Pride of Pheiros but the Human Ascended had been wary of that. They wove and dodged, never letting the Turian fleet get a clear shot on any one of them.

In return, the Human Ascended were picking off the fleet protecting Datriux with a cold precision that made him proud. They were well trained. Most of the frigates and cruisers were being disabled, though a few had been destroyed.

What were they going to do with all the Turian ships? Elysium didn't need that many!

"Stop disabling ships," Shepard ordered.

"Sir, why don't we keep them?" Necromancer asked, sending further information with the question. He fully understood that the young Ascended didn't need this many training aides and towing them back to Sol would be time consuming and wasteful but the suggestion was to use the disabled frigates and cruisers to take out at least some of the Turian defences around Palaven. A single frigate could potentially take out at least two to three missile canisters if they lined the shot up right.

Taylor chuckled. "That reminds me, Elysium suggested football."

"Not football. The frigates would be too fragile," Necromancer objected.

"They're too small as well," Taylor commented. "They are like tennis balls!"

"How about we play darts?" Spectre suggested.

There was laughter from the fleet and they waited for Shepard to reply.

"That is acceptable," Shepard agreed. This campaign was really bringing out the dark side of Humanity but he couldn't blame them. The war, Ascension… the Human race had had too much stress and not enough relief. This play, though brutal was their way of relaxing. A last hurrah before settling in to be true Ascended.

"Aye, aye, Sir!" came the enthusiastic reply and, while nothing changed on any scope, Shepard watched as the Ascendeds' targeting became tighter. The space around the Adjudicator became littered with disabled ships.

"Good work," Shepard added. No one had yet fired on the dreadnought but that was coming. The paranoia would no doubt be frustrating the Turian Captain and frustrated commanders missed things.

As Shepard was near the back of the pack, he saw Eternity and the other dreadnoughts sent to scare the messenger frigate crest the horizon of Datriux. A snigger passed through the fleet when his sensors relayed the information to the Human data network. Nothing changed in the intensity of the battle to give away the trap quickly approaching.

Eternity broke free of Datriux's thin atmosphere.

"Disable if you can," Shepard ordered. The 'if you can' added because it was a dreadnought and while the more technically minded Ascended had analysed the destruction of the Pride of Pheiros and thought they had accurately predicted where Eternity should strike to disable the Adjudicator, you could never be sure. Still, it wasn't like a Turian dreadnought blowing up wouldn't be a welcome sight.

"We will try," came the reply an instant before the intercept fleet opened fire on the Turian dreadnought.

In the fleet, several Ascended laughed. It took an instant to see their reasons but Shepard quickly realised they had been actively hacking the Adjudicator, watching the reactions of the crew. Captain Jykurus had been completely blindsided by Eternity and their powerful cannons ripped into the dreadnought's superstructure. Atmosphere leaked from it but was quickly cut off as bulkheads engaged. There were a few small fires but the Adjudicator's own scans revealed that they were limited to the surface areas and were quickly extinguishing themselves. The Adjudicator's rear point defences were gone and unless the Turian engineers knew exactly what they were doing, the eezo core would become unstable quickly.

If the crew had been Human, Shepard would have called it valiant, the way that the Adjudicator attempted to continue to fire. Now, he thought it was stupid. They had no hope to win but he knew how stubborn Turians could be, which was another reason they had been chosen to be first. Human desire for vengeance may fade with the reality of their victory. Destroying the Turians first meant that the birds would suffer the full range of Human bloodlust and that was only fitting for the race that had led the Council's attack fleets.

"Finish it," Shepard commanded. Eternity's detachment opened fire again as they swept through what remained of the Adjudicator and its escort fleet. Small explosions rocked the dreadnought and several frigates attempted to ram the squadron, only to be destroyed by Ascended point defences.

This time there was no stopping some of the fires that leaked with the atmosphere from the Turian dreadnought. As Shepard watched, all point defences failed and while they still possessed some armor, it might as well have been absent for all the good it did. The eezo core fluctuated and for one long moment, Shepard thought that the Turians would let it blow. It would be a spectacular way to go but wouldn't damage any Ascended but, just before the core reached critical, Turian engineers must have gotten the manual release valves open, releasing a jet of eezo-enhanced plasma into space.

Shepard thought that internal comms must be down if the Captain did not realise what dire straits they were in and act to prevent their capture.

"I stopped the message," Harper said over a private channel.

"You know me entirely too well."

Harper gave a rare honest laugh. "Now, we just have to decide what to do with it."

"True," Shepard agreed, before turning his attention back to the ship. The engine was dead and there was no way the Turians could get it restarted, not with their eezo released to space. Missile bays were slagged and the mass accelerator was gone. "I'm sure we will come up with something."

"They have enough sensors remaining to realise how little they can do," Harper said, analysing the information lifted from the Adjudicator. "About half the crew is dead," he continued.

"Can they talk to anyone?"

"No."

"Good," Shepard said. "As soon as we've swept the last ships away, begin landing husks. I want Datriux in our hands before we begin on the inner worlds."

"I could just hack it."

"No," Shepard dismissed the option. "I don't want some panicked Turian to blow the facility manually. We need the husks to concentrate their minds on that threat so they don't have time to think of it. Once the husks are landed, then hack their self-destruct."

The last few cruisers were disabled with ruthless precision. Eternity's squadron had scattered the fleet, sending most straight towards other Ascended where they were quickly dealt with.

As husk transports began heading towards Datriux's mining facilities, Shepard pulled his attention back, assessing Trebia's outer planets. The Relay was theirs. Datriux' ground-based defences would be overwhelmed easily. The fuel depot remained the only thing in their current region which wasn't theirs.

It wouldn't be long.

The main issue was in layers around Palaven and scattered around Menae. Even Turian military literature was surprisingly silent on what was on Trebia's main moon and long range scans still only revealed what was expected.

The expanded detachment which had taken the Pride of Pheiros integrated themselves back with those in orbit around Datriux as Shepard linked into the Human Ascended network.

"I'm sure everyone's noticed the Turians' defences," he began, ignoring the sniggers from his companions. "While they are not dangerous to us, they will be an annoyance, so we are going to clear them out before we advance on Palaven."

"How, sir? I can long range target them but that's a lot to clear out," one of the Ascended commented.

"The Turians are going to help us," Shepard explained. "They've been kind enough to provide us with two reinforced fleets." He highlighted all the disabled cruisers and frigates. "Everyone grab a frigate or three, though be careful that they do not manually detonate a warhead."

Another wave of laughter moved through the fleet as they realised what Shepard was suggesting. "Project your targets to the fleet," the Human Ascended leader said. "We wouldn't want to waste our ammunition."

-cfr-

Outer Trebia, Turian Dreadnought  Adjudicator

Captain Jykurus didn't bother to restrain his snarl as the Adjudicator's damage report showed eezo-infused plasma venting harmlessly into the void. "How dare they?" He growled at Peredus.

The Adjudicator had been defeated. The Humans' blind side attack had ripped through her underpowered, rear kinetic shielding, biting deep into the superstructure. With the first hit, rear point defenses had been destroyed and they'd bled a little atmosphere before the bulkheads had engaged. The core had been destabilized but the immediate report from Engineering had said they could contain it. His crew, despite the damage, had continued to fight.

Except they all knew a second hit was incoming.

This time, the entire point defence system went offline. Not that it mattered. Until the first hit, the Human ships had avoided firing on the Adjudicator. He knew why now. They'd lost more atmosphere and Jykurus had deliberately ignored those areas that on their damage screen displayed red. Whole sections had been vented to space. The crew in those were gone.

Engineering had reported that they had lost control of the core. Not an unexpected consequence and knowing that the battle had been lost, and determined not to be dishonoured, Jykurus had taken one deep breath and had ordered them to let it blow.

An order they had not obeyed.

"I don't know, Sir," Peredus replied, his voice respectful.

"Get me a line to Engineering," Jykurus ordered, "and one to Fire Control." They still had internal comms at least, though the connection to Crew Quarters didn't appear to be working and the lower hanger bays were gone.

The bridge smelt faintly of smoke but with the core released, sparking caused by the fluctuating core levels was gone. They were operating on emergency power and at the mercy of a hostile fleet. This was not how he would die

"Sir?" Jykurus recognised Aglaurus' voice despite the static on the line. He frowned. Aglaurus was only the Assistant Chief Engineer.

"Where's Borsala?"

"Sorry, Captain, she didn't make it."

Well that would explain why his Chief Engineer didn't blow the drive core but not why the others didn't obey his orders.

"I assume you are in charge, Aglaurus?"

"Yes, Sir."

"So by all the Spirits, why did you vent the core?"

After a pause, Aglaurus replied. "We had no orders to let it blow, Sir." Without orders to let it go, they would have done their duty to the ship and stabilized the core any way they could. It was typical Turian logic and on any other day, Jykurus would have applauded that.

Jykurus snarled, glancing at Peredus, who shook his head indicating that they had sent the order. "The order was sent!"

There was another pause, longer this time and just as Jykurus thought that Aglaurus wouldn't answer, static crackled and he received a reply.. "With respect, Sir, the order was not received in engineering. The consoles of those who died have been checked," the new Chief Engineer continued to explain and Jykurus retained enough composure to realise that was what had caused the longer delay. "The order was not received."

"Spirits damn you!" Jykurus screamed.

The Humans! Peredus had told him! The signals were being hacked. He'd thought it was just the external signals. He slumped back into his place. "They had total control?" There was no need to say who 'they' were.

"It would appear that way," Peredus said solemnly but something caught Jykurus' attention and he couldn't help the way his eyes narrowed as he watched his Comm Officer. The note in his voice… Was Peredus one of those pro-Humans? A sudden cold flash went through Jykurus.

"Engineering, can you generate critical mass?"

"No, Sir. Too much eezo has been released. I'm sorry, sir. We might have enough for limited propulsion but I haven't seen the external damage report yet." They'd only have enough for propulsion if they had at least one directional exhaust. Given that the initial hits had come from behind, that was questionable.

Jykurus glanced at the damage report. The directional exhausts were red, like most of the rear of the ship, but he didn't know if they could be repaired. "Get teams out for a visual inspection," he ordered. If they could move, even slightly, then he'd try to get the Adjudicator close to one of the bastard invader ships before they blew. He turned back to Peredus. The man wouldn't dare disobey a direct order. "Have you got Fire Control?" Jykurus asked, wiggling a bit as he moved one hand to his side arm. Thankfully, the posture for him was one he took often.

"Aye, Sir."

"Fire Control?"

"Aye, Sir?" came the reply. The static was worse but he could understand them.

"Since the engineers didn't get the order to blow the core, I'm ordering you to manually prep one of our warheads. A runner will verify this order. Do you understand?"

"Aye, Sir! Manually prep a warhead. Runner will confirm."

"Very good," Jykurus signaled Peredus to let the line drop. Let the Humans try to hack a runner. He kept his mandibles still by sheer force of will as he considered. Peredus probably wasn't a pro-Human supporter but you could never be sure. So long as all orders were verified with runners, in the short time the Adjudicator had left there wouldn't be much Peredus could do.

-cfr-

Palaven, Primarch's Office

"They've gone through Essenus' orbit and are approaching Impera's," Staff Officer Norah reported to Primarch Fedorian.

His mandibles were hard against his face as he watched one of the screens. So far, nothing had slowed the invaders and the information from the frigate Culverin was grim. Captain Jykurus believed the invaders to be Human. Not just Geth masquerading but actual spirit-damned Humans.

"The warheads are armed and ready but each of the enemy ships is carrying at least one frigate or cruiser."

"Fire on schedule," Fedorian interrupted with the order. He felt for the crews of the disabled ships but Palaven was his primary concern.

Norah nodded and another officer relayed the order. "Research indicates that they believe the enemy drive cores have to be similar to the Tantalus drive core."

"But greatly more efficient," Fedorian concluded their report. He didn't need any report to tell him that.

"Unfortunately, sir, yes." Norah looked down at the report in front of her, summarising the salient points. "Given their speed and estimated mass, their eezo cores must be massive. Their weapon systems are devastatingly effective. All Turian military vessels are equipped with Thanix cannons reverse engineered from the first wreck but these ships carry the original design. They are believed to be more efficient and vastly more powerful."

Fedorian took a deep calming breath. Palaven would fight. There was no question of that. But against the force coming in, there would be huge losses. As such, his responsibly was clear and there was only one further thing left to do to prepare. "Is she here?" He asked.

"Yes, Sir," Norah confirmed, indicating towards a Turian woman who stood between two soldiers just inside the door. At her gesture, the small group marched forward.

Fedorian was impressed. The woman was not scared and met his eyes squarely. She would behave as expected. "Open a line," he commanded.

"Sir?" Norah asked, her voice confused.

"Open a comm line to the invaders," he repeated the order, sitting in at his desk.

"Sir, they could hack us!" Norah objected.

"Comm lines for my office are completely independent of military lines," Fedorian said. "And military orders have already been issued." Admiral Demetian on the Resolute knew exactly what to do, as did General Corinthus. They did not require any further orders from his office. "Open the line."

"Aye, Sir," Comm Officer Korneli replied. His voice was disgusted but Fedorian could also hear that the man understood.

The signal was sent and what Fedorian would never know is that his signal did cause a tiny pause in the Human ranks. It was only half a second as they debated if they should accept the call, but it was still half a second.

In Fedorian's office, a holoscreen displayed static, while the comm techs tried to establish a line. A smaller screen displayed the vision they would be sending to the invaders. It showed Primarch Fedorian seated at his desk. A large map of Palaven was displayed behind him. The officers would be able to see and hear everything, they would even be able to relay information to him at his desk but they would not be seen.

The wait was agonising. Seconds ticked passed and just as Fedorian was about to dismiss the call, the static cleared. First, it became a solid wall of grey, then a figure appeared.

"Primarch Fedorian," the greeting was simple but the addressed Turian felt his eyes widen slightly.

"S...Shepard."

The representation on screen definitely showed a Human, one Fedorian recognised. Commander John Shepard. The first and last Human Spectre. In response to his reply, the image dipped its head slightly. "I am," came the reply. It was Shepard's deep voice and there was no hesitation from the figure. It wasn't a real image though. It couldn't be. There was no background and not even the slightest of blur around Shepard's image. It had to be computer generated.

It was accurate though, Fedorian thought as his eyes picked out small details. The font announcing Shepard's N7 status. The colour of the paint on armor and even the lines of that armor. They were all Human, and all correct.

"Why are you attacking, Shepard?" Fedorian asked. "You must know that there will be consequences from this attack far beyond anything your race has known."

"Consequences?" Shepard seemed amused. "I imagine there will be many consequences."

"No, Shepard," Fedorian dismissed the soldier's amusement. "You do not understand. The Hierarchy has been holding back. For the last forty years we have vetoed every proposed expedition to Sol. While you Humans stayed on your homeworld, we have delayed the Council from exterminating your species."

"Why?" Shepard asked, but it was obvious the Human did not believe him.

Fedorian ground his teeth together, reminding himself that everything he did now was for Palaven and he wasn't lying. There were factions in the Hierarchy who voted against every expedition proposal to Sol, just as there were factions who approved them unquestioningly, especially if they were proposed military expeditions. Economics and the estimated loss of Turian life had been the determining factors.

"Because, despite your race being young and arrogant, your species displayed a willingness to be involved in the galactic community. Insofar as you were able, you acted for the perceived galactic good. That is something we Turians encouraged.

"Yet your arrogance was your downfall and now… with this attack, there will be no mercy." Fedorian paused and around his office he watched as signs of horror appeared on his fellow Turian's faces at Shepard's reaction.

The Human laughed. The arrogance! The sheer gall!

"Humanity is already extinct." The image that was supposedly Shepard said after a moment.

Fedorian thought he displayed no reaction but he must have as the so-called Human continued. The display of Shepard on a grey background altered and Fedorian recognised the planet as Earth. Except it was not the blue and white world he remembered. This was a grey world. The blue waters were dark, almost black, while the continents were not the yellow and green they had been, but were a uniform charcoal colour. They did however, when they were visible through the universally dim storm clouds, display the known lines of the Human homeworld. If the image was truthful, then the Humans were indeed extinct on their homeworld.

"What attacked you?" Fedorian asked. Was this the work of those who had destroyed the Batarians?

"Nothing," Shepard said, reappearing on the grey background. "I never lied. Saren Arterius' flagship was of a race infinitely your greater. We, Humans, made an agreement with them and now, we are the harbingers of your ascension."

Fedorian frowned. The thing pretending to be Shepard made no sense. "You are not Shepard," he accused.

"I am not the Shepard that was," the image agreed.

"Then what are you?" the Turian woman from earlier demanded. She moved to stand beside Fedorian, looking at the image of Shepard with wide eyes.

"I am Shepard," the image replied. "Would you feel more comfortable if I placed a more natural image behind me?" The grey vanished and the bridge of some ship appeared. Shepard was standing in position as the Captain. His clothing had changed with the background. The N7 armor he had been wearing immediately morphing into the duty uniform of the Systems Alliance. "Is that better?"

"Shepard, why are you doing this?" the woman asked.

"Do I know you?" Shepard questioned.

"We never met, Shepard," she said. "I am Solana, Garrus' sister."

Shepard on the screen looked up. It was a very Human gesture, Fedorian noted. The image then smiled. It was sad. "Why am I doing this?" Shepard asked. "You are Garrus' sister and you have to ask why?" The image peered at Solana. "I will make you a counter-offer.

"I will drop a shuttle. You Solana, and all of Garrus' family may board it. I'll even overlook a few others. In his memory, I give you my personal guarantee that you will remain safe."

Fedorian heard Solana's teeth grind and he didn't bother hide the incredulous look he directed towards the image of Shepard. "You know my brother would never forgive me if I took that offer," she eventually managed to spit out.

"And you know Garrus would never forgive me if I didn't make it," Shepard countered. It was that, more than anything, which convinced Fedorian that while the image was fake, the intelligence behind it was Shepard, or at least had very extensive knowledge of the Human Spectre.

"Shepard," Fedorian said bringing the image's attention back to him. "You claim Humanity is extinct, yet you still live."

"I am Ascended," Shepard replied. "We are all Ascended."

"Ascended?"

Shepard shook his head. "You do not yet comprehend your place in things." He smiled. "But you will."

The image disappeared and a quick glance at Norah revealed that the signal had been cut off but before he could order anything alarms screamed through his office.

"What is that?" Primarch Fedorian demanded, tapping the controls to bring up the tactical display.

"Auto sensors detected one of the enemy ships appear in Palaven orbit."

"Menae's firing," another officer reported.

"No!" Primarch Fedorian shouted but it was too late. Balls of tungsten titanium which had been lying at rest, were accelerated along almost impossibly long accelerator tracks. Nothing showed on the surface of Menae. All Fedorian knew was that those cannons were mostly underground. Then a ball of fire appeared, streaking from the surface towards the enemy ship.

"Damn it," he growled, as several other streaks joined the first. Menae's cannons were meant to be a surprise.

Then the balls hit in rapid succession.

The enemy ship was engulfed in fire. The Turians around Fedorian knew better than to celebrate until they had confirmation of destruction but despite the spoiled plan, he felt a wave of pride. Nothing was going to come near Palaven unscathed. Several techs, who had set up with their superiors in his office, began working on the images immediately. Their chatter was buoyant. "First hit impacted shields," one of them reported, and Primarch Fedorian could see that they were working on the images frame by frame. There was a shimmer of blue all over the enemy vessel.

"Second hit impacted-" there was a pause as the vid was shifted.

"Armor," came the excited addition.

It should have. Primarch Fedorian remained calm as several others smiled happily at each other, their mandibles relaxed. Menae's mass driver cannons had been designed to one shot dreadnoughts and, in the wake of the attack on the Citadel forty years back, they had been upgraded.

He looked back to the live stream. The fire around the enemy ship had faded and it was…

"No."

It was still there.

There was sparking all over it. Bolts of energy washed over its form in waves, like those that formed over an eezo core which had not been discharged. Its armor was blackened and gone in several places, revealing sparking internals. There was no fire, implying that the ship had no atmosphere, or had the best atmospheric containment protocols Fedorian had ever seen. It spun on one axis and several of its legs twitched as what Fedorian assumed were running lights flickered.

"Missiles incoming," another tech announced in a calm voice. Sure enough, there were several streaks of light heading towards the enemy dreadnought. They hit, once again obscuring the enemy ship in light which faded quickly.

The ship almost seemed to convulse. Where usually the images had shown them with arching tail like appendages, this one was now flat. Its legs, those that weren't twitching, were failing, light streaming off them. Weapon fire.

"Instruct Menae to hit it again," Fedorian ordered. As impossible as it was that the ship had survived the initial barrage, it had, but Menae had damaged it badly.

He could imagine the weapon engineers on Menae scrambling as they checked trajectories and their tracks. This was the first time Menae's cannons had been fired in anger. If the threat was over, there would be weeks of checks. The threat wasn't so they had to make do. This ship, the one bearing the name Zaeed would be the first to die but he vowed they would take others.

Fedorian kept his eyes on the enemy dreadnought, determined not to miss any detail. There was no warning, no glow of gathered energy to indicate the opening of a mass effect tunnel but the ship vanished and those secondary missiles which had been tracking in swept through the space the vessel had been occupying. It left behind a mere phantom image of lightning.

"It went to FTL," a tech screamed.

"Track it," Norah ordered. You couldn't really track FTL but they needed to know if the ship was going to remain in Trebia. They waited, tense while the techs worked.

"Short range only," the same tech replied in a more normal voice, looking at his scanners. On the tactical screen, the one showing the relative position of the enemy fleet in Trebia one of the blips highlighted. "It just appeared. Waiting for visual confirmation it's the enemy," the tech concluded.

Seconds ticked by and Fedorian realised imagery was being sent back along their network. The enemy ships hadn't bothered to destroy their quantum buoys.

"Confirmed," the tech announced and a visual quickly accompanied it.

The enemy dreadnought was just as damaged as Fedorian had thought. From the new angle, how deep the gouges were could be estimated. If anything the sparking surrounding the ship was worse and Fedorian realised that the jump to FTL had been a desperate move.

"Good work," he said, though he would feel better if it had been destroyed. "The next one won't be as lucky," he added, offering congratulations with his order.

They couldn't afford the next one to be that lucky.

"There will not be a next one."

Fedorian recognised the voice. The large screen reactivated and Shepard's image reappeared. The faux bridge was there, and there was a look of anger on his face. Shepard had been cocky earlier and now that things weren't going his way, like all children, he lashed out. Before Primarch Fedorian could say anything, the image changed. The bridge disappeared, as did the Human and Fedorian was treated to what he knew was a live image of one of the enemy ships.

The writing on the tail proclaimed it to be N7 Shepard and on the front centre downward leg there was the image of Earth. It took Primarch Fedorian a moment to recognise it. It was the stylised image the Systems Alliance logo used without the rest of their symbol.

"Despite the fact that this is our very anticipated vengeance upon a species who has more than earned our ire," the starship announced, "I had granted you a degree of respect, of dignity. I have allowed you Turians the illusion of defence. That ends now."

The image disappeared as quickly as it had appeared and Primarch Fedorian stared for a few moments before sitting behind his desk. He concentrated on his breathing as he gathered his thoughts. It was the message of a child but this child had the power to carry out its threats. And three hundred dreadnoughts could do a lot of damage.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 14 Serious Time

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Even as Shepard was closing the connection with Palaven, he was issuing orders to the fleet of Ascended. "Change of plans," he growled. "Make sure your trajectories hit Menae," he instructed. "I want Menae to be deader than Luna! Show them our true power," he added.

"Hackett, watch over them," Shepard continued, indicating towards the fleet. One thing was becoming clear. While the entire Ascended fleet was trained, they all thought differently. Some were soldiers but most were not. They would need guidance on military issues and from the subconscious feel in the fleet, Shepard knew most of them would accept that guidance and would learn from it. In time, it would become second nature.

"Where will you be?" the former Admiral asked.

"I just found a use for the Adjudicator," Shepard replied. "Miranda help me with it and Sirta you're the closest thing we've got to a medic so help Zaeed."

"So long as his core isn't damaged, I can rig something," Sirta agreed.

"Whatever is needed," Shepard replied. "Will you need anything?"

"About a thousand tonnes of medi-gel would help but I'll make do."

"Good."

"We'll come with you," Necromancer said, speaking for a small group of Ascended. His sub-channels indicated that they would collect the previously gathered frigates.

"Very good," Shepard agreed. Unlike Sol, Trebia didn't have any useful asteroid belts and to ensure they'd completely decimated Menae, they would need a lot of mass, something that got through all those damn defences. Still there were thousands more frigates and cruisers in Trebia after all, and if worse came to worst, they could always use the Turians' self-destruct. They'd work out something. They'd come too far to do anything else.

-cfr-

Outer Trebia, Human Ascended Zaeed

Sirta hovered about 100 km from Zaeed. In space terms, that was practically kissing, for an Ascended it was a reasonable distance. Zaeed was still writhing in pain and Sirta wasn't about to be injured. There was an impressive stream of profanity issuing from the ship as it twisted in space.

"... god damned mother f…"

Yeah, that was enough Sirta thought as she began a scan only to instantly stop as Zaeed's point defences immediately locked on.

"Shhhh," Sirta crooned. "Shhhh, I'm here to help,"

The targeting lock didn't change but Zaeed didn't fire. Not that anything would have hit Sirta. She was more than capable of intercepting anything he sent at her.

"Hurts."

"I know it hurts," Sirta agreed despite the fact they were Ascended. They were meant to be above pain. "But it was the Turians who did this to you, not I."

There was silence for a few moments before another stream of profanity. "...'n birds! Should have known they'd backstab me."

Sirta chose not to comment on the fact that it was they who were assaulting the Turian homeworld. Little things like that weren't important to the man Zaeed had been, nor were they important to what he had become.

"I'm Ascended," Zaeed continued. "Infinitely better than them yet their puny weapons hurt."

"Shepard and the fleet are dealing with it now," Sirta offered the information, showing a picture of an Ascended carrying several disabled Turian frigates.

Zaeed growled. "No! I want vengeance." He twisted more in space and mentally Sirta cringed. He could be causing more damage with that unnatural movement.

"You shall have it," Sirta soothed, "but not unless I can fix you." She started a low level scan again. This time Zaeed was aware enough to realise what she was doing and his targeting lock faded. Sirta assessed the information as it streamed to her, ignoring Zaeed's continued ranting. The ranting was a good sign, it showed cognitive awareness which hopefully translated into no damage to the core.

"Ascended are better! Yet that wasn't better. Should have better shielding. Worthless flesh should not injure me. Why don't I have better shielding?"

Layers of Zaeed's armor had been vapourised when the rounds had hit, a tribute to their strength. Sirta wasn't a weapons expert but estimated that they had to be at least five to six times as powerful as a Turian dreadnought's main cannon. He'd lost a large contingent of husks and quite a lot of his stored metals were fused to his form. At least on the front, that was what had prevented further damage. The metals had acted as a further layer of shielding.

Point defences were down along the front as well as his left side, and there was a large gouge in his armor on the left, between his sets of legs. One of his pleopods hung uselessly. But a surface scan couldn't tell her if the core was damaged and if Zaeed's core was damaged then… Sirta dismissed the thought. If the core was damaged then they would need the elder Ascended.

"May I initiate a deep scan?" Sirta asked, hoping that Zaeed had worked through his pain well enough to realise what she wanted.

"Do it," he growled, voice firm despite the pain.

Sirta was impressed. While ranting was good, she had not expected him to have gathered his consciousnesses enough to be that lucid yet.

"Rage is one hell of an anesthetic." Zaeed seemed to sense her feelings. "And I want to hurt the birds," he added and this time, she felt the rage burning within him. There was anger at himself for the damage but it was dwarfed by the burning desire to kill Turians. She was going to have to be strong to keep this patient in her care long enough to properly repair him.

"Scanning now," Sirta said as she directed her more powerful sensors over Zaeed. He still writhed but she could tell he was trying to hold still. "Just move as you feel is comfortable," she instructed.

She immediately focused on his core and sent a broadcast of relief, an Ascended's equivalent to a sigh of relief, when she found that Zaeed's core was not damaged. Another hit and it would have been.

"What doesn't kill you-"

"Leaves you disabled," Sirta interrupted. She would not have him quote that old Earth saying. It was… for any medical staff dealing with military hard heads, that saying was a bane. "And you, came very close to being disabled, permanently." She added, making sure to reinforce the words with the results of her scan highlighting exactly how close the birds had come to ending him.

"I get it," Zaeed replied. "How long will it take to fix me?"

"A couple of weeks."

"What?" Zaeed demanded. "The birds will be dead by then!"

"The Asari won't be," Sirta replied.

"I don't care about the Asari!"

"Then you should have been more careful." Sirta wanted vengeance as much as anyone but she would be content with knowing that it was extracted. Zaeed was more hands on. He wanted to extract his vengeance himself. Though Menae had put an end to that. "Look at it this way," she added. "Once you're fixed, the Turians who have survived that long will fight all the harder to survive so will offer more sport."

Zaeed was silent for a few moments. "It's not about that," he said. "I don't want to torture the Turians. I just want to kill them," he added. "Mostly for Ascended like you."

"Like me?" Sirta asked.

"You are not military, Sirta. You, like Elysium, will never be military. Oh, you are proficient with your weapons," he added quickly. "But you will never truly be military. You will strike for self defence. You will not attack.

"That's not a weakness."

"Except for Ascended," Sirta said quietly.

"But not for a Human."

"And I'm no longer Human."

"No," Zaeed disagreed. "Form changes, but we are Human."

"Then how weak am I?" Sirta demanded. "I want vengeance but I do not wish to dirty my hands to get it."

"It does not make you weak. It makes you Human. Those of us who are military will carry out the military actions Humanity has deemed necessary. Those who are not military will provide support. We are Ascended but we are still Human and the instant we forget that, we are no longer Human."

It was Sirta's turn to be silent. "Then I will support you but it will still take several weeks to get you fixed."

"Then you better get started."

-cfr-

Palaven, Primarch's Office

Primarch Fedorian clamped his teeth together as he stared at the screen. He swallowed. In the minutes after the thing that called itself Shepard had closed comms, nothing had happened. Then their sensors had shown the dreadnought fleet breaking up, turning back towards Datriux. Their purpose had been unclear until he had seen them collecting the previously disabled cruisers and frigates.

Each dreadnought had picked up at least one before once again heading towards Palaven. The dreadnoughts had advanced passed Essenus' orbit before launching their new payloads at a surprising faction of the speed of light and he was left watching a wave of frigates advance on Menae.

The worse of it was that there were Turians alive on those frigates. The Humans had left the comm channels open and the screams were terrible. Though silence was worse. Most had been rendered unconscious by the acceleration though a few ships maintained enough gravity to cushion the crew. They knew what was happening and they could do nothing to stop it.

He could do nothing to stop it.

Even if they fired the defence missiles and lasers they would not destroy enough of them. Worst still that would leave the batteries empty for the coming battle. The best chance was to have those who could evacuate their ships, then fire on any they knew would do damage, allowing the rest to impact Menae and hope the cannons would survive. Except escape pods were not rated for these speeds! They wouldn't be able to slow down before they escaped the system entirely or they'd be sitting ducks for the attackers.

"Sir! The battle group Turbulent is requesting clearance for a micro-jump," Norah broke into his increasingly depressed thoughts.

"A micro-jump?" Where would they go with an in-system jump?

The staff officer altered his tactical screen, zooming out before highlighting two enemy ships. They were behind the others, way behind the others but not with the group guarding the Relay and those few who remained over Datriux, no doubt directing the attack on the ground facilities.

"It is the damaged ship, sir, and one other. Turbulent group want to micro-jump to them to finish the job."

"And what makes them think they can?" Primarch Fedorian didn't have to add that so far, while their weapons had damaged one of the ships, they had not destroyed it.

"Sir!" Captain Xhosus' voice broke in. "Analysis indicates that Menae cut through most of the enemy dreadnoughts armor. The missiles got more. That's why it ran. My battle group will jump to it's location and target the weak areas. We will ram it if we have to but we are taking that ship down!" She said the last fiercely

"And what of Palaven?" Primarch Fedorian asked. Attacking through microjump was abandonment of duty.

Captain Xhosus looked abashed for an instant and Fedorian was glad to see it. She had considered her duty. "Sir, with due respect, remaining here and fighting with the fleet against the enemy dreadnoughts gives them one more set of ships to use against you. My battle group can do more good jumping to that damaged ship and giving Palaven at least one victory."

Primarch Fedorian nodded. The brutal truth was that she was correct. One extra battle group would not make much difference but if the Turbulent group could destroy that damaged dreadnought, even at the cost of their lives, then it would increase morale.

"Go with the blessing of the Spirits," Fedorian gave his approval in one of the oldest parting phrases in the Turian culture.

"Thank you, Primarch," Captain Xhosus nodded before her image disappeared.

"How long until impact?" Fedorian asked. They'd cleared the surface levels of Menae the instant the attack had been realised but the wait was harrowing. No one had run scenarios for this type of attack and while the analysts were frantically making estimations, they would always be estimations.

"Another two hours, Sir," Norah replied promptly.

"Spirits," he muttered. Another two hours of waiting, of watching invaders move through Trebia with impunity. If it was this bad for him, Fedorian spared a thought for those on the fleet above. Another two hours of staring your oncoming death in the face. Spirits, give them strength.

-cfr-

Outskirts of Trebia, Human Ascended, Zaeed

After Zaeed stopped writhing, Sirta finally got good scans and a good look at the damage. As indicated, it was extensive.

"Try not to destroy the ship yards," Sirta said absently to the fleet, highlighting the building facilities in the inner orbits of Trebia. They weren't around Palaven so there was a chance they'd survive. She didn't get an answer, not in the way Shepard would give one, but there was a general consensus. The Ascended fleet would try.

"Drydock?" Zaeed asked, incredulously.

"I can either repair you by putting back armor until your shape is restored but which would limit your ammo and make you a lot heavier or I can repair you properly, which will mean rebuilding the lost storage tanks and manufacturing facilities and that requires extra time and some specialised facilities."

"Can't I just put a mass effect field around me while they are built?" Zaeed challenged.

"You could," Sirta replied, "but you'd have to remain conscious the entire time."

"I'll do that then," he returned firmly. "There is no way that I am going into drydock, or even into limited hibernation, in bird space."

"It would be perfectly safe," Sirta said. "It's not like the Turians will be using the facility."

"Bird space," Zaeed repeated.

"All right. But you'd better prepare for pain."

"Pain is an illusion."

"Well, brace for the illusion because I am going to put a coat of metal over the damaged surfaces as a temporary seal. After that, they should be finished with Datriux so I can collect some raw materials to begin." Sirta sent images of what she wanted to do to Zaeed. She had some materials, but they would need Datriux if they were to repair the damage to Zaeed without returning to Sol. Suddenly, she wondered if Shepard had any premonition when he gave the order to capture the facility intact.

"Shepard's just aware of what can go wrong," Zaeed correctly interpreted her silence.

Sirta didn't reply to that. "Are you ready?" She lined up several pereiopods, targeting Zaeed with one of the gentlest settings she could.

"Yes."

She glided close, using her lower pereiopods to latch on to Zaeed for stability before using her centre front leg to fire. Molten metal surged forth and instead of cutting through, as the weapon had been designed to, Sirta controlled the beam so that the metal splashed against Zaeed's damaged sections. She directed it towards the sparking nodes, smothering the damage.

Zaeed gasped and, if he had been Human, he would have been panting in an effort to suppress his reaction. He held still, though. That was good and while pain was an illusion, just as he had said, its phantom presence was real when they were exposed this way.

Sirta concentrated on making the beam as light as possible and she lifted her front left pereiopod to start a second beam when her proximity alarms screamed.

"Birds!" Zaeed roared, jerking away from her as he tried to move into position to fire.

"Stay still!" Sirta hissed. Pulling away was the worst thing he could do. With her so close, she was covering his damage and already she knew that the birds had not sent a dreadnought. "They'll have to hit you through me!" And against two cruisers and six frigates, her shields would hold indefinitely.

"You are not meant to fight!" Zaeed complained.

"But I can!" Sirta growled the reply, pulling herself closer to his form with three of her pereiopods. The front left and right she angled outwards, twisting them to target the Turian fleet.

Fire lanced through the distance between them. They had calculated their jump to arrive close and two frigates were sliced in half before the others could react.

Mass accelerator cannons fired on the remaining six ships and Sirta's point defences went into action, smacking the incoming weapons out of space as if they were flies. She didn't need to hack the Turians to know what the reaction on the bridge would be. The command of fire would be continuous and they would be considering moving. Could they get around her to fire between them?

It was not going to happen, Sirta growled to herself, angling her weapons again. Another two frigates down and she realigned herself for the last two. One dodged, executing a high gravity maneuver in desperation which brought it just that little bit too close. Point defences were mostly angled over her form but they could swing outwards and dreadnought-scale point defences were more than enough to take out the shields and armor of a frigate.

Zaeed stopped struggling beneath her. Sirta sent a small burst of appreciation to him as she targeted the final cruisers. They were moving as fast as they could but weren't retreating. Typical Turians. Outmanned, outgunned and unable to retreat, they still fought to the last. They were not angled correctly for her main cannon and they were much more maneuverable than the frigates, despite being the larger ship class.

"Tantalus drive cores," Zaeed commented, highlighting several features.

"Primitive versions of our drives?" Sirta sought confirmation.

"Yep."

That explained their ability to move and rather than wasting further material, Sirta ceased firing, rolling her legs back into position under her body, using them to close up the gaps between herself and Zaeed.

The Turians took advantage of that and began firing again, launching everything they had in a desperate attempt to damage her. The few things her point defences missed, her shielding didn't, and Sirta allowed them few moments to recognize the futility of their attempts.

"Birds are slow learners," Zaeed commented when the barrage did not fade.

"So it would seem," Sirta agreed. If they would not retreat to die with the rest of their fleet then she would deal with them.

She reached out, instantly surrounding them both in mass effect fields. A few of their weapons made it through the force, most exploded but before the Turians could truly comprehend that, Sirta threw them together with deliberate force. In atmosphere, the noise would have been incredible. In space, it was silent as the two ships crumpled into each other. Then their cores destabilized and Sirta released the remains as they were briefly consumed in an eezo-fueled moment of glory.

She was already scanning for the next target before she realised there were no others.

"Who was it who said they could not fight?" Zaeed asked, laughter in his tone.

"I never said I couldn't defend," Sirta replied. She did not unclamp from Zaeed's form as she analysed the wreckage now near them. "Collect the debris," she instructed. "It will do for some of your repairs."

"But it's a bird!" came the expected objection.

"It was a bird," Sirta corrected firmly, "and now it is just a mix of refined metals, which, if I can get enough, I can fix you faster."

"It is metal," Zaeed quickly amended his stance, as his mass effect fields extended. If it got him spaceworthy quicker then it was metal.

Sirta could have collected it all but she knew well enough that it was best to keep patients, especially those as difficult as Zaeed was shaping up to be, occupied with as many small but necessary tasks as they could complete themselves. It would make him feel useful but also stop him complaining. Mentally, she snorted. Men, even Ascended men, could be so childish sometimes.

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Fleet

Hackett watched the frigates approach Menae. Some had been destroyed by the Turian defences, taken out by the missile and laser batteries that surrounded Palaven far enough out that their remains would miss the targets. Others had been shattered when they impacted those missile batteries. Still enough had gotten through and they had more waiting.

He'd allowed the fleet to launch one barrage. It would allow them to assess the defences around Palaven. What had been revealed was that those defences were extensive. Better than Earth's had been but then the Turians had had centuries to put these defences in place. Hackett could only imagine what Humans would have done with the time.

Palaven itself was surrounded by layers and layers of defensive satellites. Menae had its own concentration of defences though the second, smaller moon seemed underdefended. To his sensors, it was underdeveloped as well so perhaps that is why the Turians hadn't bothered to defend it specifically. Around Palaven, out to a million kilometres from the homeworld, there were further defences. Millions of missiles canisters and laser batteries defended the homeworld and the two moons whose orbits lay within the shoals of orbital constructions.

The first wave of stolen frigates had made a hole, drawing the fire of tens of thousands of the canisters and lasers in their desperate attempt to vaporise the frigates before they could become a threat. They didn't quite destroy the frigates in time, either, as pieces still got through. The hole was not large enough, however, and the defenders were scrambling to get more into position to plug the gap. They would have to launch a second wave and soon. Even with their advantages, this was going to be a tough battle.

And then there was Palaven itself. Billions of Turians were no doubt arming to face them and while he couldn't sense it, he knew that the planet surface would literally bristle with anti-aerospace defenses.

"Impact in thirty seconds," Ares reported.

Almost the instant he finished speaking, Menae lit up.

"There they are," Hackett murmured, watching as the moon's close-in defences blazed.

"Holy…" Quite a few Ascended muttered the words.

It was an impressive sight.

"One thousand plus years of building defences," Nergal said. "That's what it gets you."

It was not all of Menae that lit up, just the side facing annihilation from the Turian frigates. The guns blazed but the mass driver cannons remained silent and Hackett focused his processors as the tried to spot any openings in the anti-air defences past the emissions of the orbital defences. Openings on Menae would be the launch points of those cannons.

Except the Turians were wary and they knew what the true target was. The anti-air defences would annoy but not be a real danger to them. There were openings but they were too irregular to pinpoint a launch tube. He continued to watch, focusing his sensors through the light show. Even with all of Menae's defences, debris would still get through.

As Hackett watched, several large pieces of frigate hit the moon. Explosions followed their impacts travelling outwards before the Turian failsafes engaged. Smaller fragments followed the bigger pieces, causing further damage, but Hackett knew Menae had been a military base for more than a thousand years. It would, more than Palaven, have layers of defense built up over the centuries.

"Did anyone see anything?" he asked, allowing his sub-channel to carry the full question. Did anyone spot anything that might be a launch tube.

"No, Sir," came the choral response.

"All right," Hackett said. "Line up for a second barrage. Line in series, I want these to travel faster so we'll have to work together for that."

Moxum chuckled. "Mining conveyor belt?" He asked.

"Exactly like the mining conveyor belt," Hackett agreed, allowing his own amusement to colour his tone. After learning to fly somewhat smoothly, during their mining training, they all had had to act as part of a conveyor belt, moving the rock that one Ascended had mined to the facilities for refinement. The conveyor belt was nothing more than a line of Ascended, all working their mass effect fields to transport the rock from one to another until the end of the line. As you grew more proficient, it had become a game to try to move the rock the fastest, which meant moving yourself. As the rock got faster and faster, those at the end of the belt had to move faster and faster themselves to properly accelerate it. Even for Ascended, who could at least partially bend physical reality to their will, catching rock moving at 0.6c, while travelling at similar speeds yourself, was challenging.

This would be no different, except the rock would be a Turian frigate and Menae which caught the rock. This maneuver was something they all knew how to do, though, and as Hackett watched, the Human Ascended formed into lines. Ten ships in series with an eleventh at the end, to 'load' the frigate.

"Three staggered rounds," Hackett said as he took his place. That would be eighty-one frigates. "Fire!"

The launch ship pushed a frigate forward into the mass effect fields of the first Ascended in the conveyor belt. Mass was reduced and acceleration added and the captured frigate was launched towards the next Ascended. The trick was to accept the speeding mass, cushioning it with your mass effect field, but not slowing it as you then pushed it along its path.

When the first frigate reached the third Ascended, Hackett commanded the second to be launched. And as the first reached the sixth Ascended, the third was launched. Combined, they accelerated the frigates to approximately 0.7c which meant a 108 minute travel time and they would hit with the force of an equal tonnage of antimatter.

"Do you want to launch the Adjudicator?" Hackett asked Shepard as the last frigate was launched and the remaining ones were moved into neat lines. The hulk of the Turian dreadnought was lined up with the other ships. Miranda had disabled the warhead the Adjudicator's Captain had rigged to blow.

"Let's wait until they reveal themselves," Shepard replied. "We should cut up some of the frigates."

"Cut them up?" Miranda questioned.

"Throwing a whole frigate to destroy a missile canister is wasteful," Shepard elaborated.

"Ah, we can destroy them with much smaller pieces," Miranda voiced her understanding.

"And we should," Shepard added. "Trebia doesn't have any asteroid fields."

"Downright inconsiderate of them," Anderson put in.

"Indeed," Shepard agreed.

"There's a couple with no life signs," Udina said, indicating towards the frigates. Living Turians got the dubious honour of being killed by their fellows or ripping through Palaven's defences. It was a nice dilemma for both.

"We'll get to work on them," Shepard ordered moving towards one of the lifeless frigates, his pereiopods reaching out to grasp the closest one. With a grunt that was implied, he ripped the ship apart, extending his mass effect fields so that all the parts remained contained.

Others followed suit, ripping and cutting the lifeless Turian frigates into smaller parts. Shepard gathered a couple of hundred pieces and moved, towing them towards the line they had mentally established as the division between their territory and Turian space.

On the Human network, he brought up a schematic of Trebia's defences. The gaps made already were highlighted and Shepard coloured more of the dots as 'his' targets. Other Ascended quickly added to the targeting routines and then they began throwing the smaller pieces of debris towards the missile canisters and laser batteries. Having used debris from lifeless frigates and cruisers, the pieces were all of differing sizes and deliberately the Ascended made sure to alter the force used to throw them. They'd either impact, or they'd be shot down. Either way, the Turians would spend their ammunition. That and the continual bombardment over hours would impact upon their strength.

They were mere organics. They could not remain on high alert forever.

-cfr-

Palaven, Primarch's Office

"Damage report!" Fedorian demanded.

"Coming through now, Sir," one of the more verbose techs replied.

The screens all showed Menae. There were a few fires from the facilities but they were fast extinguishing.

"Main cannons operational!" The first report was positive.

"Some parts got through," was the quick follow up. "We have damage in Nanus, Impera and Essenus sectors. Anti-aerospace batteries are down in multiple locations but all atmosphere leaks have been contained."

Primarch Fedorian nodded. Menae was a military moon. Most information was classified and while his people liked to fool themselves into thinking that its radius, orbital distance and other readily measurable statistics were unknown to the galaxy, unimportant details like those were well known. What wasn't known to the galaxy was the layout of the moon. As far as he knew, not even the Salarians had gotten a good look at their defences. That was partially because every sector on Menae was named after something common. The moon's surface was defined by sectors, all named after other celestial bodies in Trebia.

It made some conversations about Menae hard to follow, but that was the point. You could steal all the information you wanted but if you couldn't understand it, then you might as well have nothing. That was just the first layer of deception. The others, well the others hardly mattered against invaders who were willing to break the first rule of the Council. The use of mass driver weapons against planets had been outlawed for centuries. It was just another reminder that while these things might claim to be Human, they were not. Not even Humans were stupid enough to think that the damage could be repaired.

"Second wave incoming!" came a frantic scream, cutting over the continued reports of damage on Menae.

"Spirits!" Staff officer Norah looked at her datapad with wide eyes.

"What is it?" Fedorian snapped. Now was not the time to freeze up.

"The second wave has been launched at 0.7 light speed."

"What?"

That was a physical impossibility, wasn't it?

"How?" Fedorian demanded.

One screen flickered before a grainy image stabilised on it. The image showed the invaders and the markings in the bottom proclaimed it to be coming from one of the defence comm buoys around Essenus. While the dreadnoughts were moving out of position now, it was obvious they had been lined up.

"Sir." Admiral Demetrian appeared on the screen. "We have to fire Menae's cannons," he said simply.

"That will give their position away," Fedorian objected. He wanted those cannons to be taking out the enemy dreadnoughts, not their own ships.

"Sir, if we don't fire then this new wave hits and there won't be any cannons."

Mentally Primarch Fedorian calculated the likely damage. It had been years since his training but he remembered well enough that the faster any mass travelled, the harder it hit. And this new wave was approaching at 0.7c. An old saying flashed through his mind. It doesn't matter what you save for tomorrow if you don't survive today.

"Fire the cannons," he ordered. "Deflect as many as we can and have all personnel retreat to the deepest bunkers."

Admiral Demetrian nodded, before disappearing again. He was on the Resolute, in orbit around Palaven itself but he was still involved. No doubt he was having a difficult time keeping the fleet contained but after having seen how easily the enemies had taken out the Turbulent battle group, they couldn't afford another attempt on the damaged ship, no matter how tempting a target it made.

"Optimal firing time for Menae cannons in seven minutes," Norah reported.

Fedorian nodded his understanding. "How did they send the second wave so quickly?"

Silence greeted his question until the obvious answer dawned. "They are using our comm sats," Primarch Fedorian voiced it with a sigh. "Can we stop them?"

"Sir, we can't even tell if they are in there."

Primarch Fedorian didn't like the answer but there didn't seem to be anything they could do about it. "Monitor our transmissions, make sure they aren't interfering."

"Yes, Sir."

The alarms started again. Fedorian looked sharply at Norah. It took her a few moments to find the information and the Primarch noted that her movements were showing fatigue. They had all been on alert since the invaders came and while it had only been several hours, they were intense hours. The highs and the lows would wear on anyone.

"There's a second wave of material incoming, Sir," Norah replied eventually. "They've cut up several of our frigates," she added, "and have thrown the pieces at the missile arrays."

"Shoot them down."

"Aye, Sir."

"And get some rest Norah," Fedorian added the order, looking around his office. Quite a few of the techs and officers were drooping. "Second shift?" he asked.

"Soon, sir," Norah replied crisply. Turian military protocols worked well in these situations. Relief staff would be rostered on shortly.

"Oh, no," Norah said, still looking at her datapad.

"Norah?"

"The second wave of material isn't one wave. They are continuing the barrage. All the pieces are coming in at different speeds and our automatic defences can't deal with that alone."

Fedorian closed his eyes for a moment. The hits just kept coming and they would be given no rest until the invaders were destroyed or they themselves were dead.

"Cycle the personnel as much as possible," he ordered. "Half-shifts if necessary and have the trainees man the guns under supervision." He shook his head.

This was not a good day for Palaven.

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

"There they are," Shepard almost purred when Menae's cannons fired. He sent the coordinates to Zaeed, along with the knowledge of what was about to happen. The faster-moving second wave of frigates Hackett had sent had to be shot down, or the moon would be destroyed. Of course, that now meant he knew exactly where to target with the Adjudicator, so the moon was lost anyway. Not that you needed to target much when throwing that much mass.

Zaeed laughed but there was a longing. He wanted to act but took solace in the fact that the Menae would be devastated.

"Form lines," Shepard ordered. The Ascended fleet reconfigured, at the end of what was their territory. "Udina, Miranda, fire!"

The two Ascended launched the Turian dreadnought. Three other Ascended raced beside it accelerating it to the next waiting Ascended group. It was a complicated movement, made possible only because the Ascended could coordinate in ways only imagined by organics. Faster and faster, the Adjudicator moved with each Ascended crying out the speed.

"0.5 light speed."

"0.55 light speed," the next group cried.

Each group could add about 5% towards light speed.

"0.6 light speed."

Four Ascended surrounded the dreadnought. "0.65 light speed," they cried in unison as they hurled the dreadnought towards Shepard.

He flew alongside it for several long moments adjusting its the trajectory minutely. The rest of the fleet had done a great job at aiming and he was not required to change it much. Then he extended his fields, delicately wrapping them around the dreadnought before flinging it forward.

"0.66," he said. The last push was not for speed, but more for his own satisfaction. The Adjudicator was moving more than fast enough to obliterate Menae and nothing the Turians possessed could stop it.

Shepard watched the ship as it hurtled through Trebia. He had every faith that the Turians would somehow stop the second, faster wave of frigates. There was no way they could stop their dreadnought.

And they would know it.

The Ascended fleet moved forward, approaching Impera's orbit as they kept throwing small pieces of frigate debris towards the missile canisters. There were facilities orbiting Essenus which would have to be destroyed but the gas giant was on the other side of the system for the moment. Those Turians would wait.

-cfr-

Palaven, Primarch's Office

Primarch Fedorian sat at his desk, rubbing his eyes.

The Humans were torturers.

They had destroyed the wave of frigates. The defence ring had rained missiles into them and Menae's cannons had pounded them. To imagine! Having to use them against his own ships! And not in any rebellion or separatist war but against ships loyal to Palaven! It was an abomination.

The ships bearing Human names were slowly working their way closer to Palaven. They advanced in a line, always throwing debris towards the defensive lines. They were not large pieces but they were thrown with a precision that would be admirable if they weren't attacking the homeworld.

The attackers had already proven they cared nothing for Citadel conventions by throwing frigates but that could almost have been seen as a test of their power. No matter the pain it caused to lose Turian lives, they had destroyed them. Now, though… now, the so called Humans had sent the Adjudicator at Menae.

A one kilometre long dreadnought moving at 0.66 the speed of light.

There was no way they could stop that.

Menae would be destroyed and as bad as that was, Primarch Fedorian could not help but be thankful that they had not aimed at Palaven. It was obvious that they could have.

"How long?"

"Half an hour," Norah replied. She had refused to leave while he still worked, though she had accepted several stimulants. "The first shot from Menae should impact in 2 minutes."

Fedorian nodded and looked towards the screen showing the Adjudicator. The ship was burning but remained intact and tracking ever closer to it was the shot from Menae.

This had better work.

He knew in his heart it wouldn't. The Humans tortured him, slowly taking everything from him. They tortured them all.

"Three, two, one, impact!" the tech called.

It was too fast to see with the naked eye, even for a species evolved from avian predators. What Fedorian did see was the flash of light as the round hit.

And the Adjudicator continued onwards.

"Trajectory change?"

"No, sir," Norah replied after a moment.

"Other shots?"

"Incoming but unlikely to make a difference," his aide responded.

"Try anyway." He looked up at the ceiling to avoid the screen. "Is Palaven ready?" When the attackers broke through the defences, and they would, they would take the next logical step and that was to land ground forces. They'd pay in the landing but so far the Humans had proven capable of taking on all of Palaven's defences and, as much as it galled Fedorian to admit it, he had no reason to believe that they would not be able to force landings.

"Palaven's been ready for the last three hours," Norah replied, her voice tired but this time showing a note of happiness.

Fedorian understood. Even such a small thing was a case for cheer.

"Next hits," one of the techs reported, his voice was not hopeful. "Three, two, one, impact!"

Five more shots from Menae crashed into the speeding dreadnought and while some pieces flew off, Fedorian glanced at several officers. They were working with their techs but one looked up at him, shaking her head and he understood the message. Still not enough to knock the Adjudicator off course.

"Spirits," one tech prayed.

Fedorian well understood the sentiment.

"Prepare for combat," Fedorian announced.

"Sir!" Norah protested.

"I must deal with the living," the Primarch argued. He was sickened by the choice but he had to make it. Menae was gone. It was just a matter of time.

-cfr-

Palaven, Human Ascended Attack Fleet, Shepard

"This is going to be sweet," Joker said from within Shepard and his voice was accompanied by a crunch.

"Popcorn?" Shepard asked, incredulous.

"This is first class entertainment," Pressly said, mentally taking some of Joker's popcorn. He gestured with some of the puffed buttered corn towards their external sensors which showed the tableau playing out before them.

"Another minute before Menae lights up like a firecracker," Adams announced.

"I never knew space combat was this exciting," a new voice spoke. Annie, Shepard identified the speaker, a woman from Earth who had been one of the first volunteers. She was usually asleep but had woken recently and had been rising through the layers of his consciousness. Shepard liked her. She offered a fresh perspective, one that came from a partly civilian background.

"It's not usually this slow," Fredricks told Annie. "But against planets." He shrugged to indicate that there was nothing they could do to change it.

"This is quite fine," the woman said, offering the impression of a smile. "Now pay attention, we don't want to miss anything."

"Twenty seconds," Joker said, offering the popcorn to everyone.

The entire fleet focused, pulling information from the Turians comm buoys which they had left intact. They needed the Turians to have FTL comms if they were to truly appreciate their battle plan. If they didn't then the Turians would have been destroyed without knowing anything. That was no fun.

There was an explosion. The Adjudicator lit up but continued on.

"That's early!" Joker exclaimed.

"A frigate tried to block it," Shepard reported.

"Four, three, two, one. Boom!"

It took a few seconds but the information flowed through the Turian comm network, then to the Human Ascended.

The frigate which had jumped in front of the dreadnought didn't even slow it down. If the Adjudicator had to travel more distance it might have split but it ploughed into Palaven's largest moon without slowing.

There was a bright centre at the impact, and quickly emanating outwards was a ring of fire. It grew as the centre light sphere grew and as Shepard watched, a corona appeared around the centre light. The first ring was the shock wave, travelling through Menae's thin atmosphere. The second was the fire storm, the damage, and while he could not focus on it, he could imagine the crust and surface facilities lifting away before crashing back. Some debris would escape into space, but others would rain down for days, if not captured by Palaven.

The shock wave continued growing as the centre light widened, diffusing as it grew. Waves followed behind the shock wave, and smaller explosions could be seen as the underground facilities failed. Shepard reminded himself that it would be crass to laugh but that didn't stop those who made up his consciousness hooting their approval at the light show. No doubt the secondary explosions were munitions or eezo cores losing containment.

Eventually, the core of the impact faded but the shock wave continued and Shepard wasn't the only one to turn his sensors towards the moon. Reading through the Turian network, he could already tell the Turians were dying.

"Wait for it," he cautioned the fleet as several edged forward.

"Wait for what?"

"I want to see the shock wave to surround Menae."

Those who had been inching forward laughed and halted their movement. With the light show that was still ongoing, it was an easy order to obey.

"There it is," Shepard said, his voice light as the shock wave impacted itself.

"That was beautiful," Necromancer said. "Truly beautiful."

"It was indeed," Nergal agreed.

"But the best is yet to come," Ares reminded them, flashing an image of Palaven over the network.

"Palaven will be difficult," Chimera noted.

"Palaven will fall," Shepard assured them. "But I want everyone to be careful in the advance. Menae was a surprise. I do not want further surprises."

The fleet agreed with that. Vengeance was only fun if you were not injured and while most of them were fine, awareness of Zaeed's injury hung over them all.

"This is not for Earth," Shepard said. "It is not even for us. This is for the blood of the fallen! This is for all those the Council's birds killed. This is for the colonies we lost merely for doing what was right! This is for Humanity, for whom we are the avatar of vengeance. Strike now, so that the Turians may know the pain of defeat!"

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 15:  Play the Tape

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

When the fleet crossed Impera's orbital line, Shepard ordered them to pause.

"Why are we stopping boss?" The question was instantaneous.

"First contact package," Shepard said and the rest of the fleet laughed. In the excitement of attacking Trebia many had forgotten. "Send on my mark," Shepard commanded. They had spent a lot of time on the vid, it was only right that it was played so that all of Palaven understood. "Mark!"

Each ship in the fleet transmitted the message. Some targeted the Turian fleet while others sent the message towards the Turian comm buoys, allowing the message to echo around Palaven.

The Turians wouldn't have any choice but to see the message since the Human Ascended overrode every frequency and while Shepard was almost certain that Primarch Fedorian had seen their vid already, he was equally certain that tidbit of information would have been kept from the general populace.

"Harper," Shepard called the name sharply. "Are there any 'free the Humans' cells on Palaven?" That was something else they had been ignoring so far. In the end, that sentiment would make absolutely no difference but if they could use those aliens, then so be it.

"No," the former leader of Cerberus replied promptly. "From what I could tell from the omni-tools, that particular movement is predominantly Salarian and Asari. There might be a few Turians but nothing major."

"Pity," Shepard muttered.

"You want to save them?" Anderson asked.

"I want to use them," Shepard explained. "But if there are only a few Turians, then that does make this easier," he added. "All right," he addressed the fleet. "The goal of assaulting Palaven is to subdue the planet absolutely. I want the defence fleet disabled before we begin landing forces, same with the orbital stations. After that we will begin landing husks.

"There are 6.1 billion Turians on Palaven. 100million need to be collected for Ascension. Resistance shall be met with extreme force. Vengeance is our goal but ascension is our purpose."

As Shepard spoke, he missed the tight beam comms between several high ranked Human Ascended. Shepard would honour the deal with Harbinger. They would honour the Human race. While the two were generally broadly aligned, there were differences with the specifics.

"Once we reach Palaven spread out. I want that planet in lockdown. Nothing gets off it! Advance now at 0.1c," Shepard instructed. That would make the travel time between Impera's orbit and Palaven approximately 100 minutes. Long enough for the Turians to see them coming, and more than enough time for the Human Ascended to destroy the defensive lines they'd be crossing.

Around him, the fleet spread out, some forming small sub squads, others keeping a small distance between themselves and others but they were moving toGether. Those who wanted to race ahead were restrained. Chimera hadn't been badly injured and while all Human Ascended wanted the glory of destroying Palaven, this was glory that they recognised had to be shared.

This was Humanity's vengeance, not theirs alone and they would all land a blow against the birds.

-cfr-

Palaven, Private Residence

Oana squealed happily. Mumma had put her down to watch a cartoon earlier. It was a rare treat, and Oana was too young to care about the break in her routine. Against the pale yellow Palaven sky Iolani flew, circling with only the occasional lazy flap of wings. The best bit was coming though, when Iolani would strike and even as young as she was Oana was waiting for it. It was the best bit of the cartoon after all.

Mumma was talking to someone. Her voice murmured through the walls of their house. She was probably talking to daddy. Oana was too young to understand but she knew he worked far away. In space! That was all she knew. Mumma talked to daddy at odd times during the day. Oana waved at him sometimes. He seemed to like that, clicking his mandibles happily.

There was a crash from another room. Oana briefly looked towards it before her attention was recaptured by Iolani. The cartoon hawk was soaring through the sky and with a screech it plummeted. Oana squealed again, watching as Iolani struck. She clapped her little hands together in excitement. This was the bit she wanted…

As young as Oana was, she still managed to frown, though it was closer to an adorable pout, when the screen fizzed and blinked. Then a new picture took the place of the cartoon. It was dark and showed space but it quickly zoomed in on ships. Oana knew they were ships but they weren't Turian. She didn't know whose they were. More ships appeared. They looked like those she knew. Then they fired. Oana laughed. The explosions were pretty.

But then a dark voice spoke. "This was the way the galactic community greeted us."

Oana cried. The voice was scary. Then the screen changed. More ships appeared. Oana's wide blue eyes looked at them. She knew them. She laughed, suddenly happy. They were like the ships that daddy took to get to work! Then something else appeared. Different ships. They were big and again Oana, being just a child, didn't recognise them. They opened fire though, on the ships she did recognise. She didn't really understand what was happening, but she knew it was wrong. The ships she knew shouldn't be destroyed and Oana began crying.

The explosions weren't pretty this time. Oana howled as another voice spoke. "This is our greeting to the galactic community."

Her mandibles clicked. "Mumma! Mumma!" she cried.

"Mumma!" she screamed when Mumma didn't come. The voice second voice was even scarier than the first and the ships on the screen had not disappeared. They stayed there, and there was something indescribably ominous about them, something that Oana sensed, even as young as she was.

"Mumma!"

"Oana!" Her mother called, rushing into the room and picking her up. "Get away from there!" she cried seeing the view screen.

She sobbed into her mother's embrace, her tiny claws digging into her mother's shoulder. The warmth was comforting and Oana's tears cleared up. She didn't notice the tear tracks on her mother's face as she snuggled close, the ships on the view screen forgotten. Even though she'd been scared, Mumma could make everything right. That was the world Oana lived in.

Oana would never know that her father had been one of the first casualties when the dark ominous ships attacked Trebia. She was asleep when her mother put her down in her bed, before going to the weapons cabinet and arming herself. Oana would sleep through the attack, with her mother watching over her. She would awaken, at the end, to one instant of searing pain, never knowing that it was Palaven that had fallen.

-cfr-

Trebia, Turian Dreadnought  Resolute

"Sir, that's the 34th simulation," the Chief Tactical Officer of the Resolute said respectfully.

"I know, Coeur," Admiral Demetrian replied.

"Sir, with-" Coeur cut off when the Admiral raised one hand, indicating that he didn't want to hear.

There was silence between them for a few moments, while Admiral Demetrian setup the simulator for another attempt.

"With respect," Admiral Demetrian spoke, looking up over the holographic projection table. Palaven hovered in the centre. The homeworld was beautiful. Surrounding it were the layers of missile and laser batteries interspersed with the defence fleet. "We cannot defeat 298 enemy dreadnoughts with four line dreadnoughts, and their reinforced fleets, 10 carriers and their ships, and whatever forces have been scavenged from Palaven." The Admiral finished the sentence Coeur had been about to say.

The tactical officer said nothing.

"You control the enemy fleet this time," Admiral Demetrian instructed.

"Sir?"

"The VI is very logical, but lacks an organic sense. You control the enemy fleet," he repeated.

"Sir," Coeur agreed but Demetrian could hear the uncertainty in her voice. She'd been watching since the 5th simulation and for every single one, no matter the deployment, no matter what tricks Demetrian had tried, the approaching enemy fleet had just ploughed the defenders under.

Coeur took her place on the other side of the table, looking down at the controls. "Sir? Are you sure these specs are correct?"

"What specs?" Admiral Demetrian asked, as he wracked his brain for another deployment option.

"The enemy ships, sir."

Oh, now he understood. The specs for the enemy ships were high, higher than any dreadnought the Turians had ever built. Higher than anything the Salarians had constructed. But, while there hadn't been much time to assess the enemy, the specs entered for the simulations were considered to be accurate. The Pride of Pheiros' and the Adjudicator's forces had both died to confirm them. Admiral Demetrian ground his teeth, holding his mandibles steady as the Adjudicator's final fate flashed through his mind.

He would not think of Menae!

"Yes, they are accurate," he gave the Tactical Officer the information she didn't really want to hear.

Why else would he have been here for the last few hours attempting to come up with a way, any way, of achieving even the most minimal victory against the enemy?

He knew what he was facing and he had no illusions about their ability to hold off that many ships. Even if the normal defence fleet was here, the extra dreadnoughts and attendant fleets would hardly make a difference. The 4th, 5th and 6th simulations had shown him that. This was not ground combat, where a small force could hold a bottleneck. This was space. There was very little terrain advantage and the Turian forces were at a disadvantage. Admiral Demetrian was aware of that. Morale was low. How could it not be?

Menae still burned.

But, they had one advantage. This was Trebia. Retreat was not an option and the forces guarding Palaven were the best the Turians had to offer. They would fight to the death to change the reality.

And the reality was that the enemy was numerous, strong and vicious. They cared little for Citadel Conventions. The Turians had some weapons which pushed those Conventions. You didn't get to be the military arm of the Council without keeping a few secrets, and if they didn't know about the weapons, then the terrorists would. Knowing about those weapons meant the Turians knew what to look for. Those weapons were mostly for ground combat, and as much as it galled him to admit it, many of the ideas came from the Humans.

"Sir, I'm ready," Coeur said.

Admiral Demetrian made the final adjustments to his forces. The layout was similar to how they were deployed currently. The four dreadnoughts and fleets were arranged in a diamond shape over Palaven. They maintained their orbit such that they were always between the homeworld and the attacking forces. The carriers were to the rear, at the edges and once combat began, after they had disgorged their fighters, they would retreat to the far side of the planet. They were not made for combat.

"All right, begin," he ordered, pressing the start button for the simulation. A VI would control the ships to ensure that the physics of the simulation were accurate but beyond that the strategy would be decided by himself and Coeur.

Not that it would make much difference. Admiral Demetrian knew what the stats of the enemy ships were… He watched them approach on the hologram, noting that Coeur had not bothered to use any specific formation. That was in keeping with what they had seen. The enemy was not disciplined.

He watched as they came into firing range and Admiral Demetrian could imagine the main cannons winding up and the fighters shivering with anticipation. The first shots were fired, the missile canisters launched their payloads at the enemy, while the laser's waited for more opportune shots.

Admiral Demetrian concentrated. If they could take out one ship, that would make the enemy pause. They had, when Menae had caught the dreadnought earlier.

"First shots impact in three, two- huh?" Coeur broke off.

Demetrian didn't need to ask why. The holo fuzzed for a moment then it showed a different scene in space. It was not Palaven. It was not Trebia. There was an inactive Relay against the dark backdrop of space. Then the scene shifted to show ships. Human ships, though there was a roughness about them which made them seem primitive.

"Humans?" Coeur questioned. Demetrian didn't have time to reply because the view widened to show older Turian vessels approaching the Humans. They opened fire, destroying the Human ships and Demetrian nodded. The Human ships had been trying to open the Relay, why else would it be shown.

"Bridge," Coeur tapped the internal comms. "Where is the signal coming from?" If this image had overridden the simulation table, then the entire ship would be seeing it.

"The invaders," came the very quick reply.

Dementrian looked sharply at the Tactical Officer. The invaders were sending this signal? He knew they had Human markings but the ships were Geth design.

"This was the way the galactic community greeted us," a voice spoke in unflanged Turian as the last of the Human ships were destroyed.

Then the image changed.

"Are they trying to say they are Human?" Coeur asked. Dementrian didn't reply.

The new image showed Turian ships and approaching them were the invaders. Each invading ship was marked with a Human name he recognised. Anderson, Udina, Cerberus… At the front was the one Human name most of the galaxy knew. Shepard, with the abomination that was his Human rank, N7. The ships on screen were the exact same design as those approaching Palaven now. But they were Geth ships, not Human.

The hologram of the invaders shot the Turian ships, ending their existence with fantastic explosions. "This is our greeting to the galactic community."

Even after forty years, Demetrian recognised that voice. Shepard. Or at least a simulation of him. What were the Geth playing at?

"Sir?" Coeur prompted when the vid file ended and the simulation reappeared.

As expected, the invading ships had destroyed his defenders.

"Reset the simulation," Demetrian commanded. "Assume Human tactics for the invaders," he added.

"Sir, it won't matter," Coeur said. "The stats are too high."

"Then you would have us die?" Demetrian challenged.

Coeur was silent and he watched as the woman looked down. "I would have us fight," she said softly.

"When you know as well as I do that we are left tied down by Citadel Convention."

"Yes Sir," Coeur agreed. Around Palaven they were limited in their defences to those things the rest of the galaxy considered acceptable. Other Turian planets had more unconventional defences.

"It is becoming obvious to me that the entire Human Rebellion was merely a ploy."

"Sir?"

"The Humans have been supposedly trapped on their planet for the last forty years. They obviously poured everything they had into the ship they sent against the Citadel."

"But they helped destroy it sir!" Coeur objected. She had studied that battle. The Humans were the ones who had landed the final fatal blows.

"A ploy," Demetrian waved one clawed hand. "It's taken them forty years to re-group, forty years of isolation while we played at peace. We should have destroyed them when we had the chance."

He raked one hand over his crest. "It is not important now," Demetrian added, moving away from the simulation table towards the door to the bridge.

"Sir?" Coeur winced as she said the word. Really, could she be any less helpful?

"We must attend to the deployment of the fleet."

-cfr-

Palaven, Cabal Village

Notchimus let a tiny spark of energy trace between his fingers. He was manning one of the barricades to the village with the other biotics. They had their own areas on Palaven and the entire village had decided that no invader would come near them.

Well, Notchimus amended the thought, they'd come near and then be in a world of pain. He and his fellow biotics had all sorts of tricks they wanted to try. They could never use their power on Turians but against invaders… oh there were no rules. Not that the Hierarchy would care. So long as the invaders died, then no one would look into what happened too closely.

It was going to be glorious! Notchimus was looking forward to the moment he could flare his power and rip it through the invaders.

"Hold steady," Yordana murmured. She was the nominal head of their village and had taught Notchimus since his power had become evident when he turned thirteen. Yordana had been taught by Asari, and while in sheer power, Notchimus knew he was stronger, Yordana just knew more things. He hoped to learn more in this battle. There was nothing like practical experience to make a lesson stick. "We'll make the bastards pay," she reassured him.

Notchimus clicked his mandibles at her. "Do we know what's happening?" He lifted his eyes to the sky.

Yordana checked her omni-tool. The Hierarchy was putting out a few updates. "The enemy fleet is approaching Impera's orbit," she said, reading the latest update. "They are probably already there now," the old biotic added, after checking the timestamp. "The information is a bit old."

Notchimus snorted. That's what he liked about Yordana. She told it like it was. "Can't trust the military to do an- What the hell is that?" Notchimus' demanded, pointing towards Yordana's omni-tool. The small projection should have winked out but it continued to display when she had put her arm down.

His teacher raised her arm, looking at her omni-tool with a frown before tapping the controls with one talon. "Stupid thing is on the fritz! Now, of all times," she growled. No matter the sentiment towards the Hierarchy, and in the Cabal's there were times when that sentiment was not high, they did need to coordinate with the rest of the planet. "What about yours?"

Notchimus raised his arm, flicking his omni-tool on. "Spirits-darned piece of crap!" he swore, seeing that the small projected screen was black like Yordana's. "The invaders," he said. It made sense that they would be blocking transmissions but from Impera's orbit? That was some serious power.

"Wait," Yordana said, her mandible's clicking slowly as she examined the view screen. "There is something on it."

He raised his omni-tool, peering at the view screen. There was something there. It was tiny though and he tapped his claws on the controls, zooming in on the slight distortion on the dark screen. "It's a space scene," Notchimus said when the fuzzy outline of ships appeared. Omni-tools were great but there were certain things they just did not display well. Space was one of them. Usually the image was too encompassing to be properly seen, as they were discovering now.

"Spirits!" the cry came from Awendea and Notchimus brought his attention back to the screen in time to see yellow flash over it. Obviously a representation of explosions. "We destroyed them!" she added laughing.

Another voice spoke and it took Notchimus a moment to realise it came from his omni-tool. "... way the galactic community greeted us."

"Does anyone know what this crap is?" he questioned, holding up his omni-tool. Around him the other biotic's laughed but as the yellow faded from the tiny screen, those who were paying attention noticed more ships appearing. They zoomed in to see that they were Turian.

"Hey, they are our ships this time!" came the general wave of exclamation which turned Notchimus back to his screen.

They were Turian ships this time. And then something blocked them out. It was hard to see because most of them were zoomed in so much. Obviously the invaders had made this vid but they hadn't considered how it would look on omni-tools. To most it just looked like a black screen. To those who had managed to zoom out enough the ships were tiny, approaching even smaller Turian vessels. Then were were explosions again and Notchimus frowned when he realised it was the Turian vessels which were depicted exploding.

"Geez, they could at least get it right," he muttered. The explosions were fantastical, nothing that would be seen in space.

Yordana just stared at him for a moment before she snorted one bark of laughter. She didn't reply because another voice spoke. "This is our greeting to the galactic community."

"Yeah, some greeting," Notchimus dismissed the vid. "Can't even get the ratios right for omni-tools. The morons."

His nonchalance broke the tension but a few of the Cabal were still staring at their omni-tools. "What is it?" he asked, looking towards Awendea whose eyes were wide with fear.

"That says fucking Shepard," she growled at him, thrusting her omni-tool forward to show him the screen. There was some alien writing on the screen. It could have said Shepard, Notchimus realised but he didn't know. He didn't speak Human.

"So what if it does?" he questioned. "You're saying that the invaders are Human? Yeah right, as if they would leave their home system. You know as well as I do that they retreated there to cower. The only reason we didn't crush them is that they somehow moved that relay.

"So what if they are Humans? Without that relay, they are stuck in our territory," he added. "And you know what that means?"

"What?" Awendea asked, looking up, though Notchimus could see the way she was suppressing trembles. It was pathetic. She was meant to be Cabal! They feared nothing.

"It means they are stuck with us," he hissed, allowing his biotic power to flare. "No escape, no retreat and you can bet your plates I won't be accepting surrender." He bared his teeth at the last, stretching his mandibles wide.

This was going to be glorious! Let the invaders come because they wouldn't be running from him. Oh no, he'd have them pinned up against a wall, waiting to see what he could do next. And the Hierarchy, they'd look the other way. What happened in the Cabals, stayed in the Cabals and while Awendea and a few others would be too weak for reality, Notchimus could see a few nodding at his words.

They'd be with him. And together they'd show the invaders, Human or not, the Hierarchy, the galaxy, why you did not attack the Cabals.

-cfr-

Palaven, Private Residence

Dembe was a third tier scientist. The fact that he was 100 and the leading Turian specialist on oceanology made the fact that he was third tier unusual. Usually the leading specialists were 10th tier. There was nothing wrong with being third tier but Dembe knew that he would die third tier even though he was fully capable and did fulfill the requirements of a tenth tier scientist.

He was sure of this because he used Human principles. Seventy five years ago, when the Humans first came on to the scene, after what they dramatically called the First Contact War, using Human principles had been seen as an odd but acceptable methodology. It was seen as a way of trying to bridge the gap between Turian and Human. But what Dembe discovered was that Human principles were advanced far beyond anything the Turians had come up with.

If he'd thought about it, that wasn't unexpected. Turians were descended from an avian predator. They avoided water. The study of oceanology was considered necessary but unimportant. As such it was a small field of Turians who studied it and they had done comparative studies using alien principles before. You would think that the Hanar, being an aquatic species, with a homeworld 90% water would have the best principles in oceanology. The comparative studies had not been favourable. The sad truth was that Kahje simply had too much water. Studies using Salarian or Asari principles worked better but while the Salarians relied on wet environments, they were interested in swamps. Then the Humans came. While it had been dreadfully difficult to get the material, Dembe, being fresh out of his required military training, had managed to get some of the first translations of Human oceanology papers.

The results were amazing. Palaven was physically larger than Earth and had a lesser ocean covering but it was similar enough that the principles could be transferred. And he had. He'd spent the next 20 years just applying Human oceanology principles, and writing papers. In that time he'd become the expert on oceanology for Turians. It should have given him a higher tier but he had been young then. The higher tier would come in time.

Except it never had. Then there had been the Human Rebellion and after that all things Human had been looked down upon.

Now if Dembe just applied Human principles to oceanology, no one would have minded. The fact that he didn't was what angered those above him. In addition to Human oceanology, Dembe studied Human history and sociology, and worse still, he continued to study them to this day.

There were Turians who studied Humans. Turians in the military or a few researchers specifically paid to. They studied Human psychology, weaponry, military strategy, cryptology and other aspects which gave you a combat advantage. And those Turians, as soon as it was confirmed that there would be no further expedition to Sol, packed up their data pads on Humans, collated any notes they had, and put them into storage.

Dembe didn't. These days, forty years or so after the Humans disappeared, he was still seeking out those sponsored researchers and asking for their source material. He didn't want to read their notes, he wanted the actual Human papers that they had and he spent a lot of his time reading those. If he'd asked for oceanology papers, no one would have cared. He asked for everything and that put the death knell on his career.

He didn't get much new material these days but he had just managed to convince one of the sponsored researchers, who had been assigned to studying Human educational systems to provide him with the papers the Humans had written.

Dembe was sitting in his chair, his rifle beside him, beginning to look at the papers while he waited for the invasion, when the data pad blinked and showed him a new scene.

He blinked his eyes, looking closely at the edges of the frame. Then he frowned. Turians had evolved from avians. They had very sharp eyesight, something most races of the galaxy forgot. What was smooth to a Salarian was not smooth to a Turian. And what was a seamless holo to most with the right number of frames per second, was not always to a Turian. This holo was good but it flickered a bit at the sides. Dembe couldn't count the frames, they moved too fast for that, but he could see the flicker, which meant it wasn't a Turian production.

Then the image shifted, showing a large inactive relay with some primitive looking ships in front of it. He recognised them. How could he not? He'd been in the military during the First Contact War and those ships on the screen were Human! They looked like the ships the Turians had first encountered too.

Just as he thought that, new ships entered the scene. Turian ships and Dembe cringed when he realised what would happen. This was a holo-reconstruction of First Contact with the Humans. The Turian ships fired and the Human ships exploded in the way that ships were destroyed in space and then a voice spoke. The language was Turian but the voice was Human. Dembe was sure of that. In the time when the Humans were counted as part of the galaxy he'd had some conversations with Human oceanologists and they had insisted on learning a few words of Turian. They spoke it the same way as the voice now.

"This was the way the galactic community greeted us."

Dembe gritted his teeth. While most Turians never thought about it he, and a few more academically minded had and so had some Asari and Salarians. Human first contact should never have been that way. They didn't know the risks of opening the Relay and at that point, they were not signatories to Citadel Conventions. They could not and should not have been held to the same standards.

Yet the Hierarchy had.

Dembe shook his head as the screen changed. This time it showed Turian vessels and he felt a chill in his soul. This was a message from the invaders and if they had started off with Human first contact then he knew which race they proclaimed to be. The Turian vessels were destroyed in quick order, and the view shifted to show an image of the invaders. "This is our greeting to the galactic community." Dembe didn't need the words. The new ships were the image of the Geth ship that had been destroyed forty years ago at the Citadel, the one the Humans claimed was something else, and the one that, in Dembe's opinion, triggered the Human Rebellion.

Except these ships were different. They had writing on them, writing Dembe identified as the Human language 'English' as he quickly read the words. English had been the Human trade language because of its simplicity. Twenty six symbols versus the thousands some of their other tongues had and very flexible at accepting new words. The ships bore what he took to be their names on their left and Dembe recognised the names, as would any Turian with a passing knowledge of contemporary Human history. Hackett, Udina, Anderson and there, right at the front was the one name almost every citizen of the Citadel would know, Shepard.

Spirits! These were Humans. For an instant Dembe felt a surge of satisfaction. They were Human! He could get more papers.

Then reality struck. They were Human. They were no longer friendly but out for vengeance. He knew their society, he knew what they thought. The Humans viewed the Council decision that they were culpable for the destruction of the Destiny Ascension as the final act of betrayal. They saw the dismissal of their claims that the attacking vessel all those years ago was not Geth as arrogance and they saw the attacks by the Turians and Batarians who were newly reinstated as Citadel allies as acts of war.

A war the Humans had been losing. A war they would have lost if not for the Relay disappearing.

And now they were back, in ships which were the same as the one which attacked, the one they had claimed was not Geth.

Did the wording on the ships now mean that the ship had been Human all along? Maybe one lead by a rogue faction? No, Dembe shook his head. The Humans would have said that. They would have fought with ships of that design in the Rebellion. So how had they, while locked in their system, found whoever had built that ship and allied with them? Was it the Geth as the Council stated? Yet how had the Geth gotten into Sol? Dembe recalled a galaxy map. Rannoch and Earth were on almost complete opposite sides of the galaxy.

No, the ship could not be Geth either.

Which meant…

Which meant that the Humans had been correct. The ship belonged to someone else, someone the Humans had now allied with. Except who? Who could possibly have hidden from the Council that well? And how had the Humans allied with them?

There was a crash at his door.

Dembe looked up, a started click coming from his mandibles.

The invaders couldn't be here already!

"Open up you Human scum."

What? His eyes widened. The voice was Turian, yet it referred to huma… Dembe grabbed his gun, his eyes narrowing as he stared down the barrel, aiming carefully for about chest height. It might have been about 70 years since his military training but there were some things you didn't forget.

"Piss off you barefaced coward!" Dembe roared back.

"Oh that's it, you Human scum sympathiser! You are so dead!" There was another couple of heavy thuds against the door. It creaked heavily but held.

"Hah!" Dembe laughed. "We're all dead, you lazy scum."

"You first!"

This time, with the force, Dembe saw the door distort and he knew it was only a matter of time before it broke. He adjusted his aim slightly. "As if it makes a difference," he replied and when the thud came again, he fired.

The round ripped through the door and he was momentarily satisfied by the startled yelp. Dembe couldn't see anything through the hole. It was dark in the corridor to his apartment but he focused on his hearing. There were now some furtive scuffs. There was more than one, he realised.

"In case you hadn't noticed," he drawled, allowing his voice to carry. "Those are Human invaders."

"Of course we noticed you idiot!" came a reply. Off to the left, Dembe reckoned by the tones.

"They are ripping through our defences," Dembe continued, "and they've already destroyed Menae."

"Human sympathiser!" This time the reply was from the right. So there were at least two. Young too, he realised. The flanging was still high pitched.

Dembe rolled his eyes. There were idiots in every generation. "There is no way off Palaven," he growled. "Not with three hundred dreadnoughts approaching. If I was truly a Human sympathiser, would I be here?" He laid out the challenge, already knowing that those in the corridor wouldn't care.

They were silent for a few moments, before Dembe heard a storm of whispers. He raised his gun, knowing what came next.

The idiots didn't disappoint. There was the rapid sound of footsteps before they slammed heavily into the door. This time it gave out and Dembe fired, catching one of the young morons heavily in the chest. There were more than two though. Dembe couldn't count how many and in the end it didn't matter. They kept coming, those following stepping over the one he had hit and one who had fallen inward with his door.

Dembe fired again, hitting another and again. They didn't stop and he caught the flash of a knife as one of them closed in on him. He should have barricaded the door, Dembe realised but it was too late for self-recrimination. He surged upwards, dodging the blade and trying to bring his rifle around. The young Turian kept close and Dembe hissed, swinging one arm up, his claws angled to swipe at the other. The Turian slapped him down and Dembe retaliated by firing the rifle. It clipped the young Turians leg and he went down and as Dembe was moving his rifle to a better position, he saw a flash of light from the corner of his eye.

Something hard slammed into him and Dembe hit his chair, flailing as he went down. Pain assaulted his senses and his breath became short. Dembe blinked, looking at his floor in confusion.

"Barefaced Human scum," came another voice which Dembe recognised as the one who had shot him. He heard the weapon cocked again but didn't bother to look.

Another shock of pain rippled through him and blue blood splattered on the floor beside him. His blood. The light caught it and as his vision faded, Dembe couldn't help the thought that in many ways, it really was like the blue oceans of Earth.

-cfr-

Trebia, Turian Dreadnought  Resolute

Admiral Demetrian stepped onto the hologram projection disk. The enemy fleet was approaching but they were at least 70 minutes out, unless they decided to micro jump, something he didn't deem likely. The enemy fleet, by their transmissions were supposedly Human, and while Humans were undisciplined monkeys, they were also vindictive and vicious. They would not cut short the growing sense of fear that permeated the Turian forces.

Which is why he had to make this speech, and make it right. With the loss of Menae, and the brutal evidence of it still burning in space, morale was already low. Turian forces were disciplined and this attack on Trebia gave them every reason to fight, but they also needed inspiration.

"You are on, Sir," The Resolute's Comm Officer, Kenus announced.

Demetrian couldn't see him because of the light but he nodded slightly, gathering his thoughts.

"To all Turian forces," he began. The opening was not inspiring but he wanted them all to listen. "The enemy we face today is strong and fast. They have proven themselves capable of atrocity." There was no point in denying the truth. "But their transmissions betray them," Demetrian added. "They come from a pathetic brutal race. Human!" He spat the word, allowing all the scorn he could muster to echo through his voice. "They have deceived us all. The attack on the Citadel forty years ago, was not the work of Geth, but the work of Humans. And then they pretended to be weak as we advanced on their homeworld. It was only fate which saved them then!

"They come before us now with a show of strength!

"But I say that is false strength! It is false bravado and they will show their true colours soon enough.

"You must remember always that the Humans are primitive. They have a long history of killing each other, a history that extends even to the point where they were supposedly enlightened. Even during the combat with the Humans they fought each other, killing their brothers and sisters, their mothers and fathers.

"And that is why, while the battle is grim, we will prevail. The Humans do not have the discipline, the courage or the ability to conduct a long campaign. The battle for Palaven will be fierce, and while we may lose the air advantage, we will never lose the planet. Remember that and fight!

"Fight for Palaven. Fight for the Hierarchy but mostly fight for yourselves with the knowledge that for every drop of good Turian blue blood split, we will die the Human's Earth red with their life!"

There was a ragged cheer from the bridge crew as he finished speaking and Demetrian allowed his mandibles to stretch wide, a sign of confidence, before the hologram disk went dark, cutting his transmission.

With a sigh he stepped off the plate. "The fleets are ready?" he asked, needlessly.

"Yes Sir," the Resolute's Captain Gorou replied.

"Good," Admiral Demetrian nodded. "Have everyone hold. We will give this Human scum a fight they will never forget."

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Harper couldn't help it. He laughed. The Turians were so… so… Turian! There was no other way of thinking about it.

Demetrian's speech was… did the Turian truly believe any of that? Harper was no longer a military man, and while the campaign in Trebia hadn't gone perfectly, he knew it had gone well enough. There was no way the Turians should have any hope at the moment. They knew what they were facing and they knew they were doomed. Only a madman would consider that they had a chance. Demetrian wasn't a madman.

Spectre had monitored the Admiral's efforts, hacking through the Turian firewalls to view the continued simulations before forwarding them to the fleet. The Turian Admiral had run 35 simulations, all ending in his defeat and now the Human Ascended fleet knew almost every defensive move the Turian fleet might make. Unlike mere organics they could easily keep every detail from a paltry 35 simulations in the forefront of their minds. No, the Turian Admiral knew what he faced.

"Let him have hope," Shepard's voice intruded on Harper's thoughts.

"You heard that?" he asked.

"Yes," Shepard replied. "Very inspiring," the Human Ascended leader noted.

"And you are going to leave it be?"

"Yes," Shepard said simply as Harper mentally frowned. Wasn't the goal of vengeance to destroy everything? Why leave the Turians with hope?

"I leave them with hope so that when they look up, and see us blackening their sky, they know that there was truly no chance. I let them have hope so that when they die they will do so anguished that there was nothing they could do. I leave them hope so that when they bow, they will know that even hope abandoned them. I leave them hope, Harper, so that we can crush it utterly." Shepard paused. "I leave them hope because it's bloody boring fighting against a defeated foe and we'll be doing that soon enough."

Harper was silent for a few moments. "I suppose," he said eventually.

"Vengeance is in taking everything they have but it is important not to take everything too fast lest you miss something in your haste," Shepard cautioned.

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet, Approaching Palaven

"Break into four equal groups," Hackett instructed as he looked at the fleet around Palaven. There were four dreadnoughts with attendant cruisers and frigates. There were a large numbers of fighters also present and for an instant he was confused but then he detected exhaust streams going around Palaven. The carriers, not suited to direct combat, were obviously hiding in the shadows. They would be dealt with soon enough.

Palaven's defence fleets were evenly spaced in a diamond over the planet, though as they moved forward Hackett thought the Turian ships might cluster. They had already seen that one to one they had no chance. Of course, even clustered they had no chance but clustering would allow more Human Ascended to slip through. The Turians weren't in a good position.

There wasn't even a millisecond of sympathy for them. He had been in this position once and Hackett knew firsthand the pain. "Assuming that they do not cluster, each group is to attack one fleet," Hackett instructed. "To even the groups, Shepard and I will remain central."

"The first group to disable their entire fleet may land forces on Palaven first," Shepard said with a laugh.

That sorted out the groups and without a word the equal fleets of 74 Ascended surged forward, each racing towards their targets, though maintaining cohesion as a fleet. It would still take a few minutes before the battle began and in that time Hackett turned his sensors towards Palaven itself, while his point defences took out the last few remaining missiles which had been launched.

"Well they have a heap of ground defences," Shepard mused.

"That they do," Hackett agreed as his sensors feed him information.

"This would be simpler if-" Shepard didn't finish the sentence, even when Hackett focused several sensors on him.

"Simpler if we didn't have to ascend any," Hackett finished the sentence eventually. "You can say what you want Shepard, I'm not Harbinger," he added.

"It would be easier," Shepard agreed, "but ascension is their destiny."

"Shepard," Hackett said the name, allowing disbelief to tinge his tone. "I am not Harbinger," he repeated. "You do not have to tell me what will become their reality."

There was silence from the Human Ascended leader. "This is Jenkins again," Shepard muttered eventually.

"Jenkins?" Hackett asked, searching his memory banks.

"Jenkins was the first man I lost on the Normandy," Shepard explained. "He took a couple of rounds to the chest from Geth drones."

"I don't understand."

"Sending our husks down into that," Shepard indicated towards the myriad of defences they could sense on Palaven, "will be like sending Jenkins straight into those Geth drones."

"Husks are already dead," Hackett replied.

"They are still Human," Shepard said. "While they live within us, they are still Human. We give them that."

"Shepard, they are dead. We hold the memory of who they might have been but the individual spirit is gone, only the flesh remains, and only that flesh which survives the cybernisation process," Hackett said the words with accompanying images. Shepard already knew this. Why was he hesitating now? "Why are you concerned?"

"I do not want to lose them."

"There is nothing to lose," Hackett objected.

Shepard was silent and mentally Hackett sighed.

"Shepard," he began again. He never thought he'd be in the position of trying to convince Shepard to attack. "Have you ever thought that they want this? We want vengeance but they were Human, they wanted vengeance just as much as we did. I doubt they would see being deployed against Turians as an issue, even if some are lost."

"I know that," Shepard replied. "I just… I can't help but think that in some ways we failed them."

"Failed them?" Hackett asked, turning some of his attention to the fleets. All four were nearly in firing range.

"The husks. They should have been Ascended."

"Yes, we thought that was the deal with Harbinger," Hackett agreed. "But not every member of every species is Ascended," he added. "I asked Fruben and Arshan," Hackett continued. "Ninety-five percent of us were Ascended. That is far higher than any race… ever."

"I know."

"It's far higher than any other race of this cycle will have."

Shepard snorted. "That I definitely know," he replied before he seemed to sigh. "I'll be fine," he added for Hackett's benefit. "I just wish we weren't going to lose as many husks as Palaven will cost."

"Their lives will not be given in vain," Hackett replied. "Now, which group do you think will disable their fleet first?"

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

About halfway to the Turian dreadnoughts, Anderson reached out on a limited channel to those Human Ascended who were with him. He projected a tactical map to them, highlighting all the Turian assets they needed to destroy. The dreadnought had a reinforced fleet which meant that it was accompanied by 78 cruisers, each with six frigates. That made a total of five hundred and forty seven ships to be disabled, not counting the fighters. Each of them had to take out at least one cruiser group and with the prize on offer, he didn't want to be inefficient.

"Pick out your targets," Anderson instructed, tagging one cruiser group as his.

Quickly the other groups were tagged, leaving four cruiser groups at the back untargeted. Anderson quickly moved to tag them as general. "Destruction is acceptable but if you can, aim for disabling shots. We might need them for Palaven." The implication was carried in his sub-channels. Palaven, like Menae needed to be subdued and the Turian ships would be the perfect means of attack.

"What about the dreadnought?" Chimera asked.

"Ignore it until all the cruiser fleets are disabled. After which, we'll all target it," Anderson replied. "The important thing is to get the chaff before it scatters."

"And the fighters?"

"Let your point defences handle them," Moxum answered. "It's not like they can touch us," he added.

"Indeed," Anderson agreed. "This battle shouldn't last anything more than two minutes," he added. "Now break for targeting."

At his instruction, the fleet which had been relatively clustered spread out subtly, each one of them honing in on their targets. The Turian fleet began firing at the limit of their range. The Ascended, while having a slightly better range held fire, preferring to be more accurate with their weaponry. Point defences wound up and obliterated the rounds heading towards them.

Fighters swept in as waves, firing continually on the Ascended.

"Are they even trying?" Chimera asked as his point defences took out several Turian fighters who were slow on the turn.

"Oh, they're trying," Anderson assured the fleet. "We are Ascended, and thus we are beyond them," he added the explanation. "All targets locked?"

"Yes!"

"Fire!"

The wave of weaponry that burst forth from the Ascended was barely visible against the dark of space. It wasn't until a minute or so later that the effects became apparent. Explosions hit almost every ship in the Turian fleet. Ascended were not organic. They could track and calculate the trajectory of their targets easily. One Ascended could have tracked every ship in the Turian fleet. Each of their pereiopods fired. No one fired their main weapon, that would be overkill for such small vessels.

Before the first wave hit, a second was sent forth, targeting the few ships that hadn't been fired upon.

"And the dreadnought," Anderson called to those who knew their cruiser fleet was gone, even if the Turians didn't know it yet.

As the first wave hit, the third was fired. The dreadnought was the target of them all and Anderson couldn't help the internal grin as the light of their weaponry flashed towards it.

That is not to say that the Turian point defences were useless. They worked exactly as they should have, and for some of the cruisers and frigates, the shots meant for them were intercepted by fighters, which exploded in a transitory glory. However most were simply overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the weapons.

As for the dreadnought, the Defender, it never really stood a chance. A couple of hits intended for it were intercepted by some of the few remaining ambulatory frigates, and a couple were intercepted either by disabled ships or the expanding debris field from those destroyed but there were at least sixty simultaneous shots on it. This was not like the Pride of Pheiros or the Adjudicator. The Ascended were done playing.

Explosions wracked the Turian capital ship even as a fourth wave of fire burst from some of the Ascended. The Defender listed high giving Anderson a great view of its underbelly and the still frantically firing point defences. He lined up one pereiopod and let loose a tight beam, cutting through the armour and into what they had guessed was the approximate position of engine control.

"Nice shot," Chimera complimented Anderson, as his own point defences took out yet more Turian fighters. They were like gnats buzzing around without having any real purpose.

The line Anderson had cut burned with residual heat for a few moments before there was a series of explosions along it. "I think I went too deep," Anderson replied to Chimera, critical of his work.

"Maybe, but it's stopped firing," the other Ascended responded.

The Defender had fired its main cannon several times. It had even hit one Ascended who had been clustered too tightly to dodge effectively. The Defender had then been given a demonstration of how ineffective its weapon was when that Ascended, Isis, had continued bearing down on the ship, shields not even glowing at the impact.

"All ships downed?" Anderson sent out the call.

"Yes."

"Boo yeah!"

"Boom! Yes."

The replies were resoundingly positive and Anderson's sensors were confirming that the Turian fleet was effectively gone. There were a few fighters still doggedly battling it out with the oculi but they were as good as dead, and they knew it. The cruisers and frigates were either space dust or disabled and the dreadnought was still suffering from a series of secondary explosions.

"One minute, forty seven seconds," Anderson broadcast the time to Shepard, and to the rest of the fleet with him.

Shepard laughed. It was truly an amused laugh and Anderson felt happy just hearing it. "Very good," Shepard praised the fleet, "but you are on carrier duty."

"What?" Anderson demanded, his question echoed by a good majority of his fleet.

"Miranda's group beat you by a second," Shepard explained.

"Damn it!"

"Better luck next time, Anderson," came Miranda's dulcet tones.

"It's all right, Miranda," Anderson replied. "You can blunt the Turian defences for our landing forces," he added, before refocusing his comms on Shepard. "Heading for the carriers now. Disable or destroy?"

"Either," Shepard said nonchalantly. "They might have the size but they don't have the mass of a dreadnought."

"Aye, aye, Commander," Anderson chuckled, activating his core as he automatically calculated the fastest trajectory around Palaven. Some of his fleet were already on their way. "Good work everyone," he said, letting his sub-channels say more than his words. It didn't really matter that they wouldn't get to land forces on Palaven first. He truly anticipated that there would be more than enough resistance from the birds that they would all be called upon.

Anderson's thoughts were more prophetic than he knew.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 16:  Bring Down the Sky

-cfr-

Palaven, Primarch's Office

Fedorian looked at the screen, his eyes wide in disbelief.

Two minutes. Less than! The fleets around Palaven had lasted less than two minutes! The enemy fleet had ripped through them.

Shepard's words echoed in his ear. "There will not be a next one." Is this what he meant?

"Sir, it's time to move to the bunker," Norah said. Actually, the time to move to the bunker was several hours ago but… Fedorian shook his head as he got up. He didn't think a bunker would make a difference but it was not his job to fight or make stupid, arrogant, political statements. It was his job to lead, and to do that he'd have to be in the bunker.

Of course, with three hundred dreadnoughts bearing down on Palaven, he didn't know how much there would be to lead.

-cfr-

Orbit of Palaven, Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

As the last of the Turian space defences were cleared out, Shepard looked down at Palaven. As reported, it was silver, though there was a slight greenish tinge to it. His sensors saw the military emplacements. There were bases both surrounding each city and in most cases actually in each city, there were military emplacements. While he no longer cared about the distinction when dealing with the Turians, there was no such thing as a civilian target on Palaven. To an Ascended, there was no such thing as a civilian target. They were all organic.

Shepard scanned the surface. There were about six point one billion Turians there, with another three hundred and fifty thousand Turians on orbital stations which they had not yet destroyed.

Combined, they had approximately one point five billion husks. They could get more troops by converting Turians but it was not enough, not to take Palaven.

"Is everyone in position?" he sent the signal through the network.

"Just now," came the confirmation. "What do you want done with the orbital stations?"

"Leave them for the moment," Shepard replied before pausing. From the planet came a burst of light and for one long instant, Shepard had the dreadful thought that the Turians had self-destructed. Then the light faded and his sensors tracked multiple ground to space missiles.

"Fire on the installations." If he was Human, Shepard would have rolled his eyes as he gave the order. The Human network had a scan of Palaven with lots of red dots on it. Each one of them extinguished a dot as they fired.

The Turians kept firing and, without further orders, the Ascended continued marking the new installations on their schematic and firing on them. This was going to take a while.

"Watch for nuke tips," Hackett sent the warning. "Reinforce EMP shielding," he added.

Ascended were already hardened against every known organic weapon and given the Human propensity for the use of nukes, that had been one weapon the Human Ascended had made sure they had defences against. Turians weren't known for them but in defence of Palaven, any weapon would be used.

"Well, it's obvious that the Turians are going to resist ascension," Anderson observed.

"We always knew we'd have to destroy a few of their cities," Hackett replied, wiping out three missile installations, one of which hadn't even fired.

"Jealous?" Anderson questioned. The word was hardly specific but carried in sub channels was the questions real meaning. No matter what they thought of the Turians, they had had to cut through many lines of defences to get to Palaven. Earth had not been as well protected.

"A bit," Hackett answered. "It would have been nice to get Earth to this level of defence."

Their conversation was interrupted by a laugh. "Earth was and is better protected than Palaven," Shepard said. "And in the cycles to come, we are going to make sure that it remains that way."

"Harbinger won't like that," Miranda commented.

"It's got nothing to do with Harbinger," Shepard dismissed the concern. "We will see to it."

Hackett transmitted his agreement. "It might have been nice to have had further defences around Earth," he said, answering Anderson's question more fully, "but it would have just caused further deaths. And Shepard is correct, Earth is protected from this cycle and we will continue to protect it each cycle."

"It's something for the future," Shepard said. "For now, I don't think Palaven needs Cipritine." He looked at down at the Turian Capital. It was pervaded by ground to space entrenchments, which were firing but mere batteries were not enough to injure an Ascended. Those batteries would be enough to take out landing forces. Cipritine would be, put mildly, a bitch to take.

Thankfully, they didn't need it, though before he gave clearance to proceed Shepard quickly checked on Fedorian's location. While he was more than happy to kill the Turian Primarch, he wanted the Turian leader to know suffering, which meant that bombing Cipritine would have to wait until Fedorian was in his security bunker. He was, so Shepard led the first bombardment.

It took a moment for their shots to fall, penetrating Palaven's thin atmosphere. In a perverse way, it was probably a beautiful sight from the ground but Shepard couldn't be bothered to hack any Turian camera to appreciate it. The instant they had fired on Cipritine, a new wave of retaliatory fire had come from the planet. His sensors couldn't identify the warheads. The Human part of him felt a chill.

"Dodge!" Shepard yelled the order, angling his pereiopods to shoot the missiles at a distance far before his point defences could take care of them. They exploded in low Palaven orbit and the shock wave traveled upwards. He felt it buffer him and felt vindication that he'd ordered avoidance. He launched several hundred oculi and felt the fleet follow suit. They would better see and be able to take out such missiles in future, allowing Shepard to focus on Palaven.

"What were they?"

"It doesn't matter," Shepard said firmly, rotating in space so that his spinal mounted cannon once again pointed downwards. "All fire!" he ordered before launching a 'cannon ball'. The other Ascended followed suit and three hundred capital ships fired their spinal mounted cannons towards the planet. The rounds were similar to those used by organics, not even Ascended could change the composition of the most effective metals, but they were larger and, with the acceleration an Ascended could provide them, they hit harder.

A minute later, explosions blossomed all over Palaven.

"Hah!" Several Ascended rejoiced watching as the mushroom clouds of energy and debris rose into Palaven's sky.

"All right, Miranda," Shepard said, "that should have softened them up." He set his sensors towards Cipritine. There were fires burning in the Turian capital but a large part of it was still intact. He was reluctantly impressed. The Turians built well.

The four fleets of Ascended that had previously formed had scattered somewhat when they moved to surround Palaven. When Miranda's fleet launched landing parties, it was a simultaneous attack on the planet. Shepard watched with the rest of the fleet as each Ascended launched 200 smaller ships. Each ship carried approximately 10,000 husks. Close to 150 million husks were in the first wave against Palaven.

The ships descended, their hulls glowing as they burned through the atmosphere. The entire fleet followed their movement and Shepard knew that others in the fleet were readying their own troops. Despite Palaven being a dextro planet, it had the same layers of atmosphere as Earth. The Ascended fleet were in a low Palaven orbit, in the exosphere, so it was a short journey down.

It wasn't until the ships reached the stratosphere that the problems began. Thousands of anti-aircraft emplacements opened fire. With his sensors, Shepard could see the streaming lights from them, forming ribbons through Palaven's atmosphere as they tracked towards the landing ships. The ships took evasive manoeuvres but there were simply too many AA guns.

"Damn it!" Miranda cursed but she wasn't the only one. As the landing ships were destroyed, as ten thousand Humans died with each one, the other Ascended cursed. Shepard didn't bother to swear. It was pointless.

"Fire again," he ordered, orienting himself towards the centre of a medium sized village below him. The fleet followed suit and almost instantly another round of mass effect weaponry was directed towards Palaven.

This wasn't anything unexpected, Shepard realised. They had picked the Turians first for a number of reasons. Vengeance was one. Human history with the Turians another. But it was also because the Turians would fight the hardest. This resistance was normal. He would have expected at least this level of resistance from Earth. "And again!" Shepard ordered, watching as further mushroom clouds peppered Palaven's surface.

The Turians would bow to them!

Even as the second wave of mass headed towards the surface, Shepard issued further orders. "All ships, prepare landers."

"I just lost half of mine!" Miranda snarled.

"I'm aware of that," Shepard replied. "Which is why we will all take Palaven."

"We don't need Palaven!" Miranda growled but Shepard's attention was elsewhere.

The second round from their spinal-mounted cannons hit. More clouds of energy and dust were sent into Palaven's atmosphere and more villages and small towns were destroyed. Shepard sent his sensors towards Cipritine. Fires were burning and he could see the tallest buildings had collapsed. Some still stood, the smaller ones, those that had most likely been reinforced. No doubt, the Turian death toll was mounting but it would take more than corpses to subdue the Turians.

"One more round," Shepard ordered simultaneously with making the decision and a fourth round issued from his spinal-mounted cannon. An instant later, the rest of the fleet followed suit.

"Launch landers," Shepard gave the follow up order, his subchannels indicating how many each should launch. He refocused his sensors, allowing his pereiopods to take out individual AA batteries. There were so many of them! It was almost as if every building had one.

His landers launched and peripherally Shepard felt his movement change. He didn't even need to send a query to realise what had happened. Joker, his usual pilot, was concentrating on one of the landers. No doubt, he wanted to get it to the ground first but it left Shepard feeling clumsy in space. His secondary pilots were good but Moreau really was the best. Shepard said nothing. He maintained his fire on Turian AA batteries as he watched the landers. There had been approximately 15 thousand in Miranda's wave. This time there were seventy four thousand.

He watched as they descended towards Palaven. The AA emplacements started firing the instant the ships were in range. The Ascended returned fire. The ships plummeted, and the air became laced with explosions.

"Three down!" Joker screamed happily but Shepard could see that while Joker and a few others had managed to land ships, many more had been destroyed. He felt a wave of anger. Human lives lost.

"Another ten down," Joker kept the report coming. "Fifty… one hundred!"

In another part of Shepard's subconscious, those in control of the husks went to work and on the ground, the transports burst open and the husks ran out. They moved quickly, attempting to establish beachheads in the areas they had made landfall.

Even as more ships made landfall, Shepard realised it wouldn't be enough. He focused his attention on the ground, letting himself see what the husks saw. Turian cities loomed in their vision with hundreds, thousands of Turians guarding them. There was a continuous hail of fire coming towards the husks and only those with the strongest cover had remained uninjured. The bodies of others were strewn around.

No! More Humans dead, he realised. Deliberately, Shepard focused his consciousness on one husk, urging it forward. The one Human body surged, running towards the Turian lines. Fire peppered it but Shepard didn't even feel it as he continued running. Ten metres, eight meters, five metres. He snarled at the Turians, bringing his weapons around, conscious of the way electricity passed over his body. It had been years since Shepard had directly controlled a husk but he had not forgotten how and his aim was true. Turians died as he fired but it was not enough. There were too many of them and there came a blinding flash of flight and a burst of heat before Shepard found himself once again in space.

He growled as he instantly reassessed the condition of the landing forces. Over two thirds of the ships had been shot down. Shepard felt anger stir within him. How many AA batteries did Palaven have? Did every Turian have one?

Those husks who had landed were bogged down. Too many Turians survived the bombardment and Shepard realised he was running out of options. "Hackett?"

"There is no fault in your plans," the former Admiral responded instantly, understanding the question.

"So you are telling me that Palaven is too well defended?" Shepard replied.

"Would you expect anything less?" Hackett returned the question.

Shepard returned his attention to Palaven. The husks had established several beachheads but already he could see that they would not hold without extensive work from the Ascended. Every village, town and city, those that hadn't been decimated, would actively fight. Every pocket of Turians would go down firing. They could decimate every village. They could destroy every down but doing so would kill the Turians and they needed some of them.

Except…

Miranda had said it. They didn't need Palaven. There were Turians elsewhere. Palaven was just the single largest population. It was the centre of the culture. Palaven had to be destroyed to kill the Turians but Miranda was correct. They did not need Palaven as anything more than a smoking ruin.

The beachheads would hold because they would give the husks the support they required, even going so far as to land if necessary. But they did not have enough troops to capture Palaven. Or rather, they did but they would then be short when they moved against the rest of the galaxy. That was intolerable.

His thoughts filtered through the Human network, while allowed all Ascended to understand his reasoning.

"Cluster over the beachheads," Shepard ordered.

"Want some of us to go down?" Ares asked.

Shepard considered for a few moments. "Yes." If they could not hold the ground indefinitely, then there was no point in being on the ground. Sending an Ascended would hasten the evacuation. Shepard growled to himself. He felt like a fool for expecting that this would be easy.

"None of us thought beyond revenge," Anderson told him.

The sentiment was shared by many Ascended. They hadn't thought beyond revenge. They had taken the knowledge that they were almost indestructible and had assumed that vengeance would be easy. In space, it was but ground combat was different. Shepard knew that. He should have planned more carefully.

Against Thessia or Sur'kesh, this plan would have worked. The Turians were different. The Turians were the most like Humans. They would fight. He should have known that.

"Withdraw the husks," Shepard ordered, "and collect the wreckage of the Turian fleets," he added as several Ascended began entering Palaven's atmosphere. It was almost amusing in a way, watching the AA batteries open fire on the Ascended. Point defences which were calibrated for space refocused, angling outwards as they fired. More missiles flew towards the Ascended and Shepard watched as several destroyed them, but others allowed the missiles to hit because the shock waves would echo over Palaven.

None were taken out. The Turians couldn't take out an Ascended and the Humans in each form revelled in that freedom. But they knew others were dying and had died. The husks. They had no such immortality. Even under constant fire from the Turians, the husks withdrew in an orderly fashion. Several Turians came close enough to be controlled and Shepard was pleased when the Ascended were ruthless enough to use them. Their minds screamed briefly over the network before they were extinguished, most of them being cut down by their own kind.

"Bloody hell, they are persistent," Ares growled and Shepard focused. The Ascended was grounded, and almost all the husks were back on board but the Turians were launching some sort of coordinated attack on him. There appeared to be biotics in the Turian troops.

Biotics, while not individually dangerous, in a large enough group they could cause problems. Kinetic shielding did not always recognise biotic power and while an Ascended's sheer density was difficult for a biotic to manipulate, it was not impossible.

"Pull up," Shepard instructed.

"I've almost got them all," Ares replied, referring to the husks as his point defences fired on the approaching Turian forces. Biotic shields shimmered, deflecting the shots. "Besides, it could be fun to capture a couple," came the addition.

"It's not worth it," Shepard objected. The Turians were merely organic and they could be controlled but establishing control over a group took a few minutes, minutes Ares might not have if he let hostile biotics within his shields.

"God damn it! That stung!" Ares' scream cut through Shepard's thoughts. He refocused. The Turians had taken out one of his point defence lasers with a well placed biotic warp. Other defences were compensating but they could be taken out as well. It had to have been a group effort, both to get through Ares' shields and to have inflicted that large an amount of damage. Point defences on a 2 km long form were large.

"Pull up," Shepard repeated the instruction.

"Coming now," Ares said as the last of the husks raced into his loading bays.

"Scuttle the landers."

Shepard was surprised to hear Udina give the order and would have said something but for the pulse from Ares, telling him to let the politician be. Well, no matter. If Ares didn't mind then Shepard wouldn't object. The order was one Shepard would have given anyway and was something he was sure Ares would have done. Still, he would talk to the Ascended later for further information.

As Ares, and the other Ascended, lifted off from Palaven, precise shots from their pereiopods destroyed the landers. They moved through Palaven's atmosphere easily, shooting towards the cities and townships that kept firing upon them.

Shepard grimaced mentally as he imagined the boost to morale this would give the Turians.

"It doesn't matter," Hackett said. "Not with what comes next," the former Admiral added.

"We will be more careful next time," Anderson said, so Shepard didn't have to.

While Ares and a few others had landed to retrieve the surviving husks, Shepard and the others had been collecting the debris and disabled ships from the four fleets which had, until recently been defending the Turian homeworld.

They had redistributed themselves around Palaven, the frigate and cruisers held around them by mass effect fields. Some were intact. Those ships had been disabled. Some were merely hulks of metal and some were just collected debris that had been pressed together by an Ascended's will. The remains of the dreadnoughts and carriers were with several Ascended and Shepard realised then he'd forgotten the orbital stations. No matter, they would be next.

A few of the Turian ships were transmitting. Short range only. Long range comms were destroyed as standard procedure. He listened in for a moment. It was mostly threats. Turians did not beg, though there were a few messages to the ground, relaying what little information the ships could sense. Clever little Turians but clever would do them no good against mass.

"Bring down the sky!" Shepard ordered as Ares and the others pulled completely free of Palaven's atmosphere.

As one, the Ascended accelerated the mass they had been holding towards Palaven. Even with the thousands of anti-aerospace emplacements that remained, the Turians couldn't stop that much mass. He watched the cruisers fall with the hulks of the dreadnoughts. "Push down the orbital stations as well," Shepard instructed, though he didn't bother to watch as Chimera led several groups of Ascended to the stations before delicately extending their mass effect fields to destabilize them. It was just like training on the farms.

As the debris fell, Hackett came close. "No regrets, Shepard?" he asked, focusing several sensors on the Human Ascended.

Shepard was silent for a moment. "No," he said firmly. "Turian honour died with Vakarian." There was still the slightest trace of sadness in his voice and Hackett's sensors detected the way Shepard's under legs, those in the same position as pleopods, curled in tighter to his body.

Hackett, like the rest of the galaxy, didn't know the whole story, only that the incident had occurred just after the Council's betrayal. It was during the brief moment of time when they thought that the Council was just angry and that the sanctions were a show of strength. Humanity wasn't stupid, they had expected some fallout from the destruction of the Destiny Ascension and the death of the former Council, even if it wasn't, strictly speaking their fault.

The new Council had meant the sanctions to be something more, something permanent, and Shepard, who had still been on the Citadel at the time, had been targeted by their plans. He'd been overseeing the loading of supplies while chatting with Vakarian. They had not been on guard. Until that point, there had been tensions but in the supposed heart of the civilized galaxy, they were lessened.

Lessened until a platoon of Turians had ambushed them. Shepard maintained it was a mix of C-Sec and mercs, though the Council had responded saying it was mercs only. Not that it mattered to the outcome. A full on shoot-out in the docking areas of the Citadel, with Shepard and Vakarian retreating into the Normandy before the SR-1 launched.

Shepard had suffered a couple of minor injuries, nothing Dr Chakwas hadn't been able to fix, but Vakarian had been hit by several solid rounds. Examination of the Normandy's cam footage had shown that Vakarian had deliberately shielded Shepard and that while the Turian mercs and C-Sec officers had hesitated at shooting one of their own, they had done so nevertheless. Despite Chakwas' efforts, she hadn't been able to save the Turian and the Council had painted the incident as one that Shepard had initiated. Vid evidence never saw the light of day and that incident was just another in a string used to convince the galaxy of the Humans' supposed duplicity.

Hackett turned with Shepard, watching as explosions rippled across Palaven. Firestorms raged in most of the cities and the oceans, which had reflected a silvery-green tinge, became grey with ash. The way Shepard moved told Hackett that he was braced with the memory of another planet that had recently been seen this way.

"Earth is in our hearts," Shepard said, reading Hackett's thoughts.

"The Turians are still alive," Udina growled, indicating several placements on the tactical display.

Sure enough from those positions there still came sporadic fire.

"They'll be dead soon enough," Spectre and several other Ascended voiced the opinion.

Shepard felt something stir in him at the thought. It was true. They would be dead soon and even if they sent husks, those Turians still alive would fight to the death. If they could not use Palaven for the required Turian genetic material, then they did not need any Turians to be left alive there. They could fire another round from their spinal-mounted cannons into the planet but there might be Turians in bunkers still alive.

Earth had had bunkers like that where you could retreat for years. He had to assume that the Turians did as well. No, firing their spinal mounted cannons would be like trying to kill gnats with bullets. Sure, you would kill some, but so many more would survive. If sending the wreckage of the fleets and the orbital stations had not killed all the Turians, then something else would have to be sent. Except Trebia, unlike Sol, did not have any useful asteroid belts.

Then, oddly, something Harbinger had told him when he was much younger came to the front of Shepard's mind. Ascended leave no evidence. Shepard had dismissed it at the time. Of course, they did. While he had known then, in intimate detail because of his access to the information provided by Harbinger and other older Ascended, what had happened to the Protheans, Fathyre, Wedan and all races stretching back for more time than Shepard wanted to think about, Shepard had never really thought about what that meant.

It meant that for close to two billion years, the Ascended had never been caught, had never been expected, and had perfected the cycle. It meant that while they left planets scarred, they never left direct evidence of their involvement. And right at the moment, and eons to come, it would be obvious that some hostile force had assaulted Palaven. The evidence they left was the planet itself, scoured clean, but no one had been able to foresee their coming.

Which meant he could not leave Palaven as it was, not with Menae still burning. Another odd thought took Shepard. Earth lived in his heart. As would Palaven.

No… that was not allowed. Earth was allowed to live forever. Palaven had been doomed by its children. Shepard felt his sensors fix on Menae. It might be the easiest planet to fix. It was burning now, but as the energy and heat from the impact bled off into space, it would cool, and over time its surface would become pockmarked, just like Earth's moon. He scanned his data banks, delving into the information pulled from Turian sources when he realised how little he knew about Palaven's largest moon.

The Turians had classified most information about Menae, even from their own people and the information had been classified during the Krogan Rebellions because they feared the Krogan would use the moon as a weapon.

The Hierarchy had been right to fear, Shepard mused, except it would not be the Krogan who used Menae.

"I'm tired of Trebia," Shepard announced. Most of the Ascended knew exactly what that meant now. It was time to finish up and move forward into the rest of the galaxy. "Spectre, Necromancer, take your squads and wipe out Impera's bases, Nergal and Moxum, scan Essenus to make sure there is no Turian placement there. Anderson, Udina and Ares, go forward and clear out Aventen and Caelax." Shepard ordered. "Miranda, work out how to destabilise Menae's orbit," he continued. "And Harper, how are you going on Datriux?" The instructions were quick-fired but they were obeyed with only minor grumbling. More than a few Ascended were enjoying watching Palaven burn.

"Datriux is done. Sirta's taken a few of the raw materials for Zaeed," Harper informed Shepard.

"Good," Shepard replied before reaching out towards Sirta. "What is the prognosis?"

"Zaeed here is a sucker for punishment," Sirta said.

"Dry dock?" Shepard asked, while he still had the chance to call back Anderson's group. The Turian dry docks were situated well inside their territory.

"I'm not going into dry dock in bird space," Zaeed replied before Sirta could.

"How long will it take?" Shepard didn't bother to reply to Zaeed's statement.

"It's going to take a couple of weeks, with or without dry dock," Sirta replied, giving Shepard the assurance that even if they managed to force Zaeed into dry dock it wouldn't make any appreciable difference.

"Can he go FTL?"

"Once I finish the patches."

"Good." Shepard didn't need to be connected to the Human network to feel Zaeed's relief over that. It would have been embarrassing to have to stay in Trebia, no doubt with guards, while repairs were initiated. Even if he wasn't up to a full attack, the fact that he could move meant safety.

"Miranda?"

"I can do it whenever you want."

"What?" Shepard couldn't help but be slightly impressed. He'd asked her to work out how to destabilise a moon, surely that would take more than a few seconds, even for an Ascended.

"We can destabilise Menae whenever you want."

"How?"

"Shepard," the woman's voice almost sounded tired which was mocking all of itself. "If the Turians classified all information on Menae because they were afraid the Krogan would use the moon as a weapon, over one thousand years ago, then it's not a very big problem for an Ascended to solve. I will just do it better than they could." Accompanying Miranda's voice was a host of schematics and other diagrams and calculations. The last image showed a fiery picture of Menae slamming into Palaven.

"Alright," Shepard accepted the mild rebuke. It was true. If the Krogan could destabilize moons, then the Ascended could probably destabilize entire stars. He felt a part of him shift at the thought and realised that the feeling came from the military engineers within him. He'd just given them a new project.

With an internal sigh, Shepard set his sensors towards Palaven. The planet was ablaze. The air was chokingly thick but he could sense life signs. Reluctantly, he was impressed by their persistance but he continued scanning, focusing on where he was reasonably sure Primarch Fedorian's bunker was located. It would be one of those long-term bunkers. The type of damage they had inflicted so far could be expected and planned for. The type of damage Menae would do… nothing would survive that.

The damage was necessary to complete the cycle, to ensure that the Turians were gone.

"If it's so easy then begin, Miranda," he send the instruction to the other Ascended. He could see from her notes that it would take several days for Menae to fall so it was best to get started.

Shepard wasn't sure what he was expecting. He focused his senses on the moon and watched as the Ascended deployed their mass effect fields. At first, nothing seemed to happen, then he noticed a differential shift. Just a little. Menae moved just a bit slower in its orbit. The Ascended moved with it and with the movement Shepard could see a few almost under Menae. He quickly worked out they were extending their mass effect fields between Palaven and its moon, increasing the pull directed towards the planet. The differential shift got greater and then there was a visible shift.

Menae began to fall. Several Ascended moved away but Miranda moved with the moon. As the fall accelerated, more Ascended flew away gaining altitude but again Miranda and a small group around her remained. Finally they lifted away.

"It will take about three days," Miranda reported, answering the obvious question as she moved into position beside Shepard. "It's a good thing Menae orbits lower and faster than Luna or it would have taken longer."

If he was Human, Shepard would have nodded. Physicists in his form agreed with Miranda's estimate and showed him the proof, that it would take approximately 18% of Menae's normal orbit. Three days would give the fleets time to decimate what was left of the Turian presence in Trebia. They would need the time as well. You could not sweep away a thousand years of space exploration in a few minutes, not even if you were Ascended.

"Where to next?" Miranda asked.

"Regroup first," Shepard said. They needed to because while Trebia's assault had gone mostly according to plan, there were things they needed to consider. Zaeed was one but how they could improve was another. "After that, I think I want to see what the Council does," he added, almost laughing.

He'd almost forgotten about the Council. A quick check of the Turian files revealed that the bitch Irissa was still there, as was Quentius. The Salarian councillor had changed but that was expected. But Irissa was still there.

Now that had possibilities. And with Palaven soon to be a memory, it was time to look at those possibilities.

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought

Primarch Adrien Victus looked at the signal. He'd been awake for twenty six hours and while that was not a long time, they had been twenty six rather stressful hours and he was feeling fatigued. So when his comm officer brought him several transmissions from Trebia, he wanted nothing more than to look at them in the morning.

The look in Iunio's eyes convinced him that they could not wait.

Thirty seconds into viewing them, he knew they could not wait.

"Verified as authentic," Iunio said before Victus even asked. His mandibles clicked nervously. Adrien didn't even hear.

"Three hundred?"

"Yes Sir."

"This information just became classified. Do not spread it to the fleet," Primarch Victus said as his mind worked. Twelve hours after the Geth ships left the Citadel, three hundred hostile ships appeared in Trebia space. They took out Kaisiepo Station in the first minutes after deceleration. Two reinforced dreadnought fleets had not even slowed them down. The Pride of Pheiros was gone, as was the Adjudicator. The fate of the facilities on Datriux was unknown. Essenus' defences were untouched, for the simple reason the planet was on the far side of Trebia at the moment. Impera had no significant forces and- "Is this correct?"

"Sir?"

"Menae?"

Iunio gulped. "As far as we can tell, yes, Sir. But sir..."

"What is it?" Victus snapped as his mind warred with the information it was presented with.

"The signal sir."

"It's classified," Aiden repeated.

"The feeds did not come through secure comms."

"What?" Primarch Victus roared.

"Most of the fleet has already picked up the channel and I don't know how many on the Citadel have by now." Iunio gave the information as a true Turian, standing stoically as he spoke.

"You mean to tell me the entire fleet knows that Trebia has been attacked. And that we have not been able to drive back the invaders?"

"Yes," Iunio replied, before belatedly remembering Aiden's rank, "Sir."

Primarch Victus forced himself to take a deep breath. Then another. The tiny exercise did nothing to calm him but did allow his training to come to the fore. "Was there any accompanying transmission? Demands or otherwise? Have we heard anything from Palaven?"

Iunio consulted his omni-tool briefly. "No demands have been found," he reported quickly. "And we have not been able to raise command on Palaven."

Victus nodded at the information, half closing his eyes. "So this could be a hoax?" he suggested.

"It… it could be sir," Iunio replied. With everything that had happened recently, it didn't feel like a hoax to the Comm Officer.

"Get me Palaven," Victus ordered, heading towards the bridge.

"Sir, we haven't been able to get a signal through to command."

"Get. Me. Palaven," Primarch Victus ordered, his voice slow and deliberate. If there was a signal coming out of Trebia then there was most certainly space for a signal to go into his home system.

"Attempting another broad frequency transmission," one of Iunio's subordinates said.

"No," Victus said. "Do not broad send," he added. "Tight band transmission, on Palaven Command frequency. Pulse one three, one eight, six three," he continued watching as the comm tech flicked the switches to make the changes.

"Sending now," the tech said as Iunio moved to their station.

Victus watched, fighting the urge to go over and supervise, knowing that it would achieve nothing. As he waited, the lights on the station flickered and his mind turned over the issues. Three hundred dreadnoughts, of the same design that had appeared at the Citadel, were now attacking Palaven. Preliminary reports had them bearing Human markings but there was no report of communication with the ships so the possibility that the marks were a deliberate attempt to deceive them could not yet be discounted.

The ships had come in hot, destroying infrastructure as they went and making short work of the two dreadnoughts on close Relay patrol. And they had attacked Menae. He flexed his claws. He should be there! Menae was his command!

Primarch Victus forced himself to take a deep breath. It was a rudimentary calming technique all Primarchs learned and he knew it was more the passage of time, rather than the action, which calmed him. Focusing on something trivial, that you could control, took the immediacy away from any problem and allowed you to look at it differently.

Except this problem was immediate and had to be dealt with and no amount of calming techniques, rudimentary or advanced, would make a difference here. Still, with taking the breath, he was reminded that he had trained his second, Patricius, well and neither Primarch Fedorian nor General Corinthus were inexperienced ensigns.

"Connection lock!" Iunio exclaimed. "Cycling frequencies now."

Victus turned towards the station. In a matter of seconds, they'd have a secure line to the Hierarchy.

And from then, it would only be a matter of time before those who dared to attack Trebia knew why the Turians were the most respected military force in the galaxy.

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Alexander liked to think of himself as a patient man. He'd had to be. Cunning as well. He could hardly gather evidence against Shepard openly. The first Human Ascended held the loyalty of the others. For no reason! As far as Alexander could tell, loyalty had been given merely because Shepard was the first.

It wasn't because he was the best. If Shepard was the best, then Alexander could have perhaps lived with him. As it was, Shepard was merely mediocre. He earned some high scores in training, true, but Alexander's were better. Shepard wasn't stronger. They were all the same strength. Now, sure, Shepard had some ability in the field of combat. The Human Shepard had been trained as a soldier and Alexander knew enough to know that Shepard had been a very successful soldier. Maybe that's why the others were loyal?

But Shepard had finally made a mistake. The first was allowing another Ascended to be injured. Alexander was realistic. While unfortunate, that wasn't enough to get Shepard in trouble. It was what he did next that sealed everything. Shepard had ordered Menae dropped on Palaven. That was not in the agreement with Harbinger! They were meant to ascend the Turians.

But Alexander could not report it yet. He'd have to wait until the fleet was out of Trebia. It wasn't quite as good as having the entire fleet know Shepard's duplicity but Alexander was willing to accept that because Harbinger would name him the new leader.

He was the obvious choice. Only he truly knew what ascension meant. It did not mean having a committee within oneself. Ascension meant that the strongest ruled! It was obvious and Alexander had embraced that principle. Those minds that formed his being were under his control. There were a few who agreed as he did and they worked with him, but the majority were kept under control.

There had been an incident when he was younger. One of the lessers had managed to send a message but since that time, he had maintained absolute control. That lesser was in his deepest subconscious, pressed there by the weight of all the others. There would be no more messages, none of the weaknesses other Ascended allowed in communication.

Alexander committed the memories and recordings to storage. He'd have to wait until he was clear, until the other Ascended couldn't hear him, but then Shepard would answer to Harbinger. After that, the Ascended would see who was right.

-cfr-

Palaven, Primarch's Bunker

Fedorian sat on the pallet. He should be sleeping but he couldn't.

The animals… the Human animals… He couldn't come up with a denigration strong enough. There were no words strong enough to condemn them. There were no actions he could take that would…

He growled.

He was alive because he was in one of the deepest bunkers on Palaven. There were other Turians alive in bunkers dotted around their homeworld. A linked network of low-emission comms connected them so he knew there were still other Turians alive.

Amazingly, there were a few alive on the surface as well. They occasionally heard a burst of static-filled cries over the comms. Never for very long but enough to know someone was alive.

Spirits!

He wanted to hope for them. He wanted to offer them shelter. He could not. Those on the surface were doomed. If they did not die today, it would be tomorrow from radiation sickness, eezo complications, burns or just plain hunger. Palaven was self-sufficient as a planet. Nearly all Turian settlements were but with the bombardment, Fedorian had no idea how much of the food supplies had been destroyed. Enough that the survivors, those that could, would probably fight over what remained. The Primarch had no illusions about his people. They were a civilised race but they got hungry.

What did he do now?

He had barely been able to face Victus on the comms and it was that Primarch, trapped in Citadel space who had almost ordered him to rest. Fedorian had reluctantly agreed but his worries kept intruding.

"Sir!"

A wave of tiredness hit him but Fedorian looked up at the voice.

"Sir!"

"What is it?" Fedorian asked. The speaker was a young cadet and he looked petrified. The youth's fear transmitted to Fedorian and he felt sick. No! He told himself forcefully. It was just fatigue and stress.

The young man tried to speak. Fedorian watched as his mouth moved several times. His eyes widened but eventually the young Turian managed to gasp out several words. "Menae… I'm sorry sir."

"What about Menae?" After bombarding its surface, what else could the barbarians do to Menae?

Fedorian saw the young Turian visibly gather himself. "It's… Menae is falling, sir."

"It's what?" Fedorian frowned through his fatigue, not grasping the words.

"It's falling Sir," the cadet repeated.

The Primarch blinked, deliberately focusing his mind through his fatigue. Falling. The word echoed through his thoughts. It did not make sense. And then suddenly, everything collapsed into place and Fedorian winced at his thoughts.

"How long?" He managed to ask.

"A little under three days," the cadet replied.

"And the invaders?"

The cadet looked at a data pad. "The majority remain around Palaven. Several smaller fleets are advancing on Aventen and Caelax, and another on Impera-"

Fedorian held up one clawed hand. He did not need to hear anything further. "And at the relay?"

"A force of ten remain."

The Primarch nodded. It was obvious now. The Humans had baited them at the Citadel, luring most of the Council's available forces into the Serpent Nebula before trapping them there. Somehow, the Humans had been able to close the Relays but why weren't they doing that now?

Why leave a guard force at the Relay? Why not just close it?

Fedorian growled as the answer came to him. It was to torture them. There was no other reason. It was to hold the hope of rescue before them, while denying it utterly.

With the Relay open, and Menae falling, if the invaders had not been there, they could summon rescue fleets. The timing would be tight but they would be able to rescue most of those still alive on Palaven. Then, the Turians would rise up and hunt down all those responsible.

The invaders kept the guard there to prove that there was no hope, that they would destroy any hope. With their demonstrated ability to destroy fleets, Fedorian knew that even if every remaining Turian dreadnought, combined with the entire Asari and Salarian fleets, were to come through the Relay, the invaders would destroy them. Which led to another question.

How had the Humans been able to build such ships? Where had they gotten the designs because they were nothing like anything they had even hinted at having.

No… That was not the question he should be considering. It was a distraction.

Menae was falling.

That was the reality. Everything else was superfluous. A distraction from the inevitability of their coming death.

Fedorian looked to the ground, fighting back a wave of exhaustion. "Tell the commanders I'll be there soon."

The cadet nodded and backed away as Fedorian raised one hand to his face, rubbing at his crest and then his eyes.

Now what could he do?

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 17: Calls From Your Ex

-cfr-

Trebia, Palaven Orbit, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Shepard set his secondary sensors on Palaven. He, like most of the fleet, was blockading the planet. Not that there had been very many ships attempting to escape but they could not let anyone get away. He was a bit surprised that Fedorian hadn't attempted to contact him. The Turian Primarch was not yet broken and, while Shepard respected that, it was only a matter of time.

The fleet around the Relay had already detained several ships. Merchants who had not heard the news and jumped into Trebia mostly but they were expecting a rescue attempt soon. Not that it would do any good and the fleet guarding the Relay were looking forward to that skirmish. There were a few other Ascended at various points in Trebia. Those Ascended were surrounded by oculi and were triangulating everything. When they found something, it was marked on the Ascended's map of Trebia and one of the blockade ships was dispatched to destroy it. By the time they left, all evidence of Turian presence would be wiped out. There would not be so much as a stray drone.

Sirta had browbeaten a few Ascended into helping on Datriux and their husks, those that hadn't been lost, were currently operating the mining facilities. Zaeed would be well and truly patched before they were ready to leave. Which reminded him…

"Zaeed," Shepard sent the communication directly towards the other Ascended.

"Yes, boss?"

"Why the fuck did you jump in that close?" Shepard demanded, not bothering to modulate the anger in his voice.

Zaeed winced. Despite the pain he was in, that was a question he'd asked himself already. "I wasn't meant to be that close," he replied.

"I gathered that," Shepard replied. "Why?" He didn't give up the demand.

"Gravity well," Zaeed replied, tiredly.

"Gravity well?" Shepard repeated, making it a question.

"Yeah, the gravity well. I forgot to compensate for it."

Zaeed could imagine Shepard staring at him in disbelief, blinking heavily.

"Make sure it doesn't happen again," Shepard said finally.

"It won't," Zaeed replied. He had no desire to be out of action because of something so stupid that he could have avoided easily.

Shepard kept the link open for a few more seconds before turning his attention to the review of their attack.

"Things could have gone better," Hackett was saying, reinforcing Shepard's belief. Their review, for the moment, was restricted to the five of them, though Arshan and Fruben were able to contribute if they wished and the other Human Ascended could listen but not speak directly. If they had something that they felt had to be said, they could inform one of the leaders who could then relay the information. There would be a group discussion later to establish new ideas and new methods.

"It wasn't so bad," Anderson replied and, while Shepard had always gotten along with the man, Anderson was usually more upbeat.

"It was bad intelligence!" Udina growled.

"It was not," Miranda said, reminding Udina that they had already gone over this particular issue.

"In general, our assaults were good," Shepard spoke before Udina could retaliate. "However, I released the husks far too early, which led to the loss of most of them."

There was really no refuting that.

"The Turians were always going to be the hardest," Anderson said.

"I shouldn't have done it!" Shepard replied. "I had too many objectives. Vengeance and ascension are not complementary aims."

"There's still a few Turians left alive on the surface," Miranda noted. "We could use them to replace our losses," she added. Her group had suffered the largest losses after winning the right to land forces first.

The loss of the husks was not solely Shepard's fault. They all bore responsibility for it because they all wanted to land husks to face the Turians in combat, to have their vengeance up close and personal. The fact that they had now destabilised Menae was testament both to the Turian fighting spirit and to how vengeance should not have been their sole motivator.

Shepard was silent for a moment. "Do it," he instructed. "We need a better strategy," Shepard continued. "The choice must be made before we strike if the goal is ascension or vengeance."

"The Turians were always going to be the hardest," Anderson repeated. "But perhaps we can compromise," he added. "The first target of any species is pure vengeance. Follow up targets are for ascension." While all Humans wanted vengeance, they recognised that ascension was the genetic destiny of the galaxy and they would fulfil that as well.

"The first target for any species is the homeworld," Hackett reminded them of their plans. For Ascended, homeworlds were traditional targets for ascension, not complete destruction. With very few exceptions, the homeworld was each species' nexus for their culture, the fundamental values that made them and thus, ascending the homeworld made the Ascended created from that process into the most representative being. Destroying the homeworld and ascending from the colonies was possible and had been done in the past but it was always vaguely considered that the Ascended was not completely representative of their race.

"The issue was the loss of husks?" Udina spoke again.

"Yes."

"Why do we care?"

That was a dangerous question and Hackett couldn't help but focus his sensors on Shepard. Udina was capable of being very tactful but, with Shepard, it appeared the former politician had forgotten all sense of self preservation.

"They are Human." Shepard's voice was cold. "I do not wish to waste Human husks needlessly."

"Let's not worry about that now," Anderson interjected. "Does anyone have an estimate of how many Turians live on colonies?" He asked the question quickly, bringing up other alternatives before they began fighting.

"At least another fifty billion," Hackett answered thoughtfully. "More than enough to Ascend."

"And more than enough to replace husk losses," Miranda sounded happy.

"We will need more before we attack Thessia or Sur'Kesh but it will also be difficult attacking the main Turian colonies. They will be on alert now," Shepard said.

"So what do you propose?"

"We can either bypass the large Turian colonies for the moment," Shepard mused, "and focus on smaller colonies to replenish our forces before we strike or we can attack the larger colonies and hit them harder before landing husks."

"I think you need to report to Harbinger first," Arshan noted, breaking into the conversation. Harbinger was allowing the youngest Ascended a great deal of freedom, in line with their deal, and while Arshan and Fruben both knew that Shepard had tried to take Turians for ascension, they knew that Harbinger would not be pleased with the current situation.

"True," Shepard conceded.

"If we cannot make a decision on this, we need to deal with other weaknesses," Hackett spoke before they could become distracted.

"Other weaknesses?" Udina asked. The only weakness he had seen was the loss of millions of husks and even that, while being annoying, wasn't that important. Husks could be replaced easily.

"We have no smaller ships!" Anderson snapped.

"We have oculi," Udina returned.

"Oculi are fighters. We do not have destroyers or frigates or cruisers," Hackett explained in a long suffering tone.

"So why don't we?" Miranda asked. "Normal Ascended fleets do," she added.

"We don't want Human destroyers," Shepard made the statement forcefully.

"Why not? They would be a great help," Anderson asked reasonable.

"They would," Shepard admitted, "and once we have replenished our husks we can perhaps ask for some of the lesser races of this cycle to be Ascended into destroyers for our fleet. But we do not want Human destroyers."

"Shepard, that doesn't explain why there are none already," Hackett said. "And I've just checked the databases. There is no reason provided for our lack. I gather you know?" The inflection made it a question. The information was not in any of their data banks, though there had been some minor speculation on the Human network which was just that – speculation

"Yes," Shepard replied.

"Can you explain?"

"The last cycle was a long cycle," Shepard began to explain, stating a fact they all knew was true. His voice held no accusation. It was pointless to accuse when they did not have the entire picture though he did wonder why he knew and the others did not. Maybe it was because he was the first. "The Protheans fought against the Harvest with everything they had. They couldn't win. Even if they hadn't ceded systems, the Protheans still could not have won, but they did inflict real damage on the Ascended fleet. Damage that hasn't been seen for cycles.

"With us, Harbinger decided to replace the capital ship losses. Think about it. Capital ship losses. Not the destroyers. The Protheans extinguished at least four hundred races, and that does not consider the lesser races."

"So?" Udina demanded. "If we had a chance of fighting, we would have extinguished them all," he added. It was an odd statement coming from the former politician but they could all feel that it was true.

"Oh, definitely," Shepard agreed. "If the Council hadn't betrayed us, we would be standing with the Turians fighting, extinguishing as many races as we could. But that is the thing. Each Ascended capital ship represents one race, the most advanced and suitable race of their cycle. Each Ascended Destroyer represents a lesser race.

"Humans were to become one ship, the capital ship of this cycle. Instead there are now four hundred of us."

"So why don't we want Human destroyers?" Miranda asked.

"A Turian cruiser has the capacity to take out a destroyer class Ascended. While I fully agree we need smaller ships in our fleet, to have them as Ascended destroyers would be cruel. Harbinger did not mean to do us any favours by ensuring we were Ascended into dreadnoughts, he was merely thinking to replace his own forces, but it is good for us that he did for, despite Zaeed's best effort, we will not suffer losses in this cycle."

"In the meantime, we still have to take several homeworlds without destroyer class ships and we do not wish to repeat Palaven," Anderson brought them back to the present.

"I'll talk to Harbinger after we are done here," Shepard said, knowing that the longer he put it off the worse it would be. "In the meantime, given that we do not have smaller ships to worry about, tailoring our attacks as if we were not seeking vengeance does have some advantages."

"Not seeking vengeance?" Udina asked and implied in his tone was disbelief towards Shepard, that he could forget their purpose for vengeance.

"How do Ascended usually attack?" Hackett asked. As far as he was concerned, they didn't have to think about vengeance. Ascending the lesser races was vengeance in and of itself.

"Generally, Ascended will rush through the Relay, relying on numbers and sheer fire power to take care of any patrol ships or stations." Shepard brought up a schematic of Trebia to illustrate his words. Three hundred and ten ships appeared, each one an almost perfect representation of the Human Ascended. They all fired, almost simultaneously removing the few patrol ships and the customs station that had been in the vicinity of the relay.

"Then we would sweep towards the most populous region to attack." On the schematic, the fleet broke away from the Relay, heading straight towards Palaven.

Shepard could sense Hackett and Anderson's objections but he signalled them to remain quiet for the moment. "After that, we'd take care of any space-based opposition before landing husks to harvest the planet side population. Any trouble on the planet is taken care of by kinetic strikes.

"That would work," Udina said. To him, military strategy consisted of two things, plans that worked and plans that didn't. Like the entire fleet, he was learning, but the skill certainly did not come naturally to him or to most of the other minds incorporated into his form. A few understood but it was not yet instinctive.

"It usually works but I think we can do better."

"How?" Miranda asked carefully. She didn't often participate in baiting Udina but she appreciated it enough to remain silent.

"We continue gathering information via long distance surveillance." Shepard said, resetting the schematic to correspond with the information Zaeed had given them before they jumped through the relay. "We rush through, destroy everything around the relay, then we pause after securing it." This time, the representations of the Human Ascended surged through the relay then clustered while they released clouds of oculi. While the network provided Shepard vast bandwidth to work with, there was a practical limit so the oculi were tiny dots with only limited definition. "It is at this point we gather additional intel."

"With the Turian drones, we'd lose oculi," Miranda noted.

"True," Shepard agreed. "At this point, we would lose many oculi," he added and updated the simulation, deleting many oculi. "However, our oculi would attack, so the Turians would also lose forces." Dots representing the Turian drones, unmanned fighters and even some frigates disappeared as they fell to the oculi.

"But it is during this time, while we are at the relay that we can gather information about a system. We are no longer organic, we do not have to tell our superiors and dither with decision making. We can almost instantly form and implement plans and we already know much of the strength of this cycle. Attacking as we are, with the entire fleet, they do not have the means to stop us. None of them do."

"So what are you suggesting?" Anderson asked.

"I'm suggesting that in future, we collect information as Zaeed has done, but we also plan to regroup at the relay while we verify that information and adjust our plans as required."

Hackett sent his agreement over their link with the additional comment. "There is one more thing to consider, with the dreadnought strength remaining to the Council, I would advise that we never break into groups smaller than ten."

"Ten?" Udina asked.

"Unless the Council gather up every remaining dreadnought, a squadron of ten should be able to outfight or at least successfully run from whatever forces they encounter."

"Speaking of the Council," Anderson's voice was amused, "incoming transmission."

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Citadel, Council Chambers

Quentius held out his hand. It trembled and quickly he raised his other hand, grasping the first to keep it steady. He felt empty. He wasn't sure what was happening but whatever it was, it couldn't be happening. He felt sick and nothing Irissa said had any effect. Nothing could attack Palaven. Oh, sure, some idiotic merc captain could but not with any expectation of success.

Yet something had. Three hundred and ten dreadnought-class ships. Who had that many ships? The unknown force that had appeared around the Citadel? They had many but… no one was sure. The ships attacking were the same design but different. They had markings on them. Human markings.

His staff were as shell shocked as he was and they stood near him, uncertain as to what they should be doing. Quentius couldn't give them any guidance. He needed all of his attention for the transmission. The comm lines to Trebia were still open and they were going to try to contact the invaders.

No one was sure who they were. The Hierarchy had sent through what data they could along with their belief that the ships were Human. But the analysts at the Citadel weren't sure. The markings on the ships were Human, to be sure, but the Humans simply did not have that level of technology. If the Geth did then the galaxy was already lost but again, logic spoke against that.

The Geth had never pursued the Quarians out from Rannoch and the Geth, while occasionally seen, were not aggressive. That ship forty years ago was the exception, not the rule, because if the Geth could build ships of that calibre forty years ago, then there was nothing stopping them from conquering the entire galaxy. But they didn't. They had remained in their territory, beyond the Perseus Veil.

There were rumours of other species lurking in the Terminus Systems but nothing solid. Despite the fact that it was not Council territory, calls had been made to a number of colonies in the Terminus Systems. They had reported nothing unusual. Of course, they could be lying but Quentius didn't think so. At least, not after Menae. If this enemy was prepared to do that to Menae, what else would they be prepared to do. No, once the galaxy had seen that, there had been an outpouring of support for the Turians, even in the Terminus Systems. The Krogan had been the only race not to indicate support but no one expected them to, not with the police action being reinforced in the last few years.

If they were truly Human ships… Quentius didn't know what to think. The Humans could be vicious, brutal and callous but they were not truly alien. They still thought like most other species, they still needed planets. Oh, there were some Humans, Cerberus being the main culprit, who would destroy everything but the majority… Quentius sighed. The majority of the Humans he knew were decent beings. They wanted nothing more than to live their lives. That was one of the reasons his heart had never truly been in the attacks.

The other logical objection was that Humans just did not have this level of technology. If they had then the Human Rebellion would have gone very differently. He knew the attackers had spread Human propaganda. That ghastly vid, First Contact, was everywhere on the intraweb and, despite efforts to control it, it continued spreading. Propaganda could easily be misdirection in this case and if it was, Quentius was sure that the Human debris left around Khar'shan was also misdirection and reluctantly, he was impressed.

But that was a consideration for another day. If the ships were Human then the Humans would be dealt with, although questions would be raised and answered as to how they managed to secure such technology. No stone would remain unturned on that world they called home. If they were Geth then they would also be dealt with and if it was some unholy alliance between the two, or someone new, then… well that's why he was here.

Like it or not, Quentius and Irissa were two of the leading representatives in the galaxy, trapped in the Serpent Nebula or not. It was beholden to the Councillors to at least try to talk to the attacking forces. The main goal of this attempt at communication was to determine, once and for all, who the attacking forces represented. Human. Geth. Alliance or newcomer. It didn't matter, so long as they were clear.

Forcibly stilling his mandibles Quentius stepped onto the hologram projection disk with Irissa at his side on another. The tech muttered a few words but Quentius didn't hear. He didn't need to. He knew the tones of light that said they were being projected.

Irissa spoke. "To the unknown forces in Trebia, I am Councillor Irissa of the Asari Republics. As a representative of the galactic community I request that you acknowledge this transmission."

Quentius winced. Despite the fear and the shock permeating his system he didn't request anything, he demanded it. They owed him answers! They owed them all answers.

They waited. Seconds ticked into a minute and Quentius began wondering if the transmission was even received. "To the unknown forces in Trebia, I am Councillor Irissa of the Asari Republics. As a representative of the-" Irissa broke off as the light around them altered, signalling a reply to their transmission.

"You do not represent us." The voice was strong. Masculine, if Quentius had to guess, but he forcibly reminded himself that aliens did not necessarily conform to his expectations.

"Getting a visual," Eachann, who had taken the position of comm tech for this transmission, said.

Irissa and Quentius waited while the software translated the image. "Did we have to translate the language?" Quentius asked softly.

"No."

The click of his mandible was question enough.

"Audio is coming through in standard."

Now that raised questions. Were they truly alien if the invading force understood basic?

The visual signal was projected on the view screen in front of them. It was fuzzy for a few moments before it came into focus.

"Shepard!"

Quentius didn't bother to reprimand Eachann's breach in protocol. He too felt a jolt of absolute shock.

"You were expecting someone else?" The image of Shepard questioned.

"You cannot be Shepard," Irissa snapped, her voice so sure that Quentius found himself turning towards his fellow Councillor. "You are not old enough," she added.

That pushed Quentius' attention back to the view screen. It showed what he presumed to be the bridge of a large ship, if the depth was to be believed. Shepard was sitting in the foreground, dressed in the day uniform of the Systems Alliance. As far as Quentius could tell the image was perfect. Quentius forced himself to focus on Shepard.

It was definitely Shepard. That much was obvious but as he looked further Quentius could see what Irissa had meant. It was Shepard but it was Shepard as they had known him. His hair was still black and was slightly longer than Quentius remembered it. His skin was darker around his lips and chin. The image showed a fit Human male, everything that Shepard was. But Quentius remembered that while Humans could live to about 125, 150 of their own years, they aged more visibly than Turians. Their hair went grey, their soft skin crinkled and while Shepard should only be in his late sixties, he should be showing some effects of Human aging. The Shepard before them did not.

"Oh," the image said before shrugging.

Between one moment and the next, the image aged. Grey appeared on his temples. His skin was suddenly clean shaven as well as lightening, as if he had not been exposed to the elements for several seasons. There was an adjustment in his posture so the image was slouching comfortably. It was the posture of a confident Captain and similar to one Quentius remembered many Humans taking when sitting in a bar.

"Is that better?" the image asked.

"Who are you?" Irissa demanded. Quentius could tell from her voice that she was angry.

"My name is John Shepard, Systems Alliance N7 Special Forces. Service number 5923-AC-2826." The image smiled as it repeated the information and to Quentius' ears, the voice sounded like Shepard.

"Who are you?" Irissa repeated, her voice hard.

The image changed and this time Quentius recognised the Human Anderson. "I am David Edward Anderson," the Human pictured spoke.

It would have been believable this time, as the image of Anderson displayed had aged from the image Eachann quickly pulled from files for comparison, except the background hadn't moved at all.

"Who are you?'

Another Human male appeared. "Ambassador Donnel Udina," the image spoke, the voice confident. The tone made Quentius suppress a shudder. He'd heard it many times when looking over the records of the Humans.

"Who are you?" Irissa screamed the question.

"Admiral Steven Hackett."

"No, we killed you!" Quentius objected before Irissa could do anything precipitous, like end the comm link.

The Human image looked uncertain for a moment before understanding flashed across Hackett's weathered features. "You came close," he replied, "But after Shanxi, our security protocols increased."

"So who are you really?" Quentius asked tiredly. The parade of Humans was getting them nowhere.

"Flight Lieutenant Jeff 'Joker' Moreau," the answer came quickly. This time the Human image didn't stand slouched but was instead leaning on visibly shaking crutches, as if the Human barely had the strength to stand.

Quentius remembered this Human, though. The first pilot of the Normandy, the man who had actually landed the shots which destroyed the Geth dreadnought. He was a consummate pilot but had some sort of Human disease which Quentius hadn't understood.

"This tells us nothing," Quentius said, motioning for Irissa to remain silent. The Asari fumed at the presumption but said nothing. "I will ask you once more, who are you?"

"My name is Ashley Williams." A tall, dark haired woman appeared.

"Zaeed Massani." A battle scarred male appeared.

"Armando-Owen Bailey," another male appeared.

"Jack Harper."

"Quy Nguyen."

"Miranda Lawson."

"Sharon Allen."

"Kasumi Goto."

"Kaiden Alenko, Leida Ballam, Karin Chakwas, Tadeas Maalouf..."

With each name, the image of the Human changed and sped up until the voices and names tumbled into each other and the image was a blur of changing features. It continued for a minute, too fast for Quentius to follow.

"I am every Human you have ever known and billions more you never will." The image changed again, this time becoming an obviously digital display showing a generic Human face.

"What is it you want?" Quentius asked after closing his eyes briefly. Regardless of what anything suggested, if the invaders were calling themselves Human, then they had to be treated as Humans.

"You called me." The image of Shepard reappeared. The younger image, though this time his posture wasn't as stiff as he settled in the captain's chair. "What do you want, Councillor Quentius?"

Rage flashed through Quentius for an instant and it was only through force of will that he managed to keep his mandibles still. "I want my homeworld back!"

"There's nothing stopping you coming," Shepard replied. "The Trebia Relay is open," he added before smirking in that way only Humans could. "Oh, yeah… the Serpent Nebula Relay's aren't, are they?" The inflections were those of laughter.

Quentius said nothing. He could say nothing because if he did it would be growled in Turian and unintelligible.

"You know," Shepard continued, resting his chin on one hand, "I'm almost ashamed that just a few years ago, we were harassed so heavily by Turian forces but give you a few years of peace and you forget all your military training. It was absurdly easy for Udina to distract you.

"Udina. One of our diplomats. He doesn't even have a military rank and you sent half your forces to confront him." This time the image did laugh.

"What do you want?" Irissa repeated the question, her voice using the modulations that only Asari could when at their most diplomatic.

"Why is it always about me? You called, so obviously you want something. I am already getting what I want."

"The destruction of Palaven is what you want?" There was disbelief in Irissa's tone.

"Not really," Shepard replied. "That just happened." His voice was dismissive.

"So what do you really want?"

Shepard fixed his blue eyes on hers. "You cannot give me what I really want," he replied, "not unless you can turn back time but I'll make you a deal Irissa."

"A deal?"

"A deal," Shepard repeated. "You always proclaimed to love your people, so I'll give you the opportunity to spare them the pain the Turians have learned this day."

"How?" she sounded almost hopeful.

"Cut your throat. Right here, right now. Cut your throat and I promise I will make it easier for Thessia."

Irissa's eyes widened. "Make what easier?"

Shepard sighed. "Are you really that stupid?" he asked.

"No!" Irissa's face paled. "You can't!" It was not quite begging but it came close.

"Why can't I?" the image of Shepard asked with a smile. "I have three hundred or so fully armed dreadnoughts at my disposal. Dreadnoughts who, like me, hold the Council in contempt. I have just taken out the most heavily guarded planet in the galaxy in less than one Turian standard day and I-"

"Surely, your lust for vengeance is not that strong?" Quentius interrupted. "You are killing those who had absolutely no idea what happened to your species," he added, "those who weren't even born during the time of the Human Rebellion."

That caused the image of Shepard to pause slightly. "That is true." Shepard admitted it and Quentius felt a tiny stir of hope when the image looked saddened. "But this is not truly about vengeance and what you call the Human Rebellion, we named the Betrayal War."

"Does that make a difference?"

From the side, Eachann whispered hoarsely. "Primarch Victus says it does."

When Quentius remembered that Victus was very interested in Human history, he couldn't help the way his eyes turned to Eachann for more information. "For Humans, a declaration of war changes a battles parametres," came the further explanation.

"Did the Humans declare war?" Irissa hissed the question.

Eachann looked concerned and Quentius realised there was no answer from Primarch Victus. In the chaos that was the Rebellion, the records were probably not clear.

"We did," Shepard answered and Quentius was surprised to see that the Human looked amused. He had obviously noted their short distraction but had allowed it.

"Is your attack the continuation of a war that ended forty years ago?" Irissa asked.

"Yes," Shepard replied, too quickly and with a smile that was mocking. "And no."

"Yes, because the Systems Alliance, as the representative of the Human Allied Forces, never surrendered and thus the war never ended and no, because we have moved beyond a war you have no chance of winning."

"Then what is this about?" Quentius asked.

Shepard shifted, steepling his fingers and looking down at them with blue eyes that were suddenly piercing. "Everything I ever told you about Saren's ship was the absolute truth." He made the pronouncement solemnly.

Quentius frowned. He couldn't remember what Shepard had said. Most of that was to the previous Council and the few things the Human had said afterwards was lost in the haze of issuing orders amidst the start of the Rebellion. But there had been something much more recently, something from a Turian about Shepard's words.

Septimus! The memory returned in a rush. Oraka had reminded him that Shepard had always maintained that the dreadnought which attacked the Citadel, despite being escorted by known Geth ships, was not a Geth ship, that it was something else.

"So you allied with them?" he muttered, not knowing who 'them' were but knowing that Shepard would understand his meaning.

"Allied is such a limited term," Shepard said, sitting back and placing his arms on the chair rests. Inasmuch as Quentius understood Human gestures, he recognised that this one spoke of confidence.

"What do you want, Shepard?" Quentius asked the question tiredly, feeling all the stress of the day return. He didn't want to deal with riddles now.

Apparently, Shepard shared his desire. "It is not about what I want," the Human said. "It's about what I'm going to get."

"And what are you going to get?"

Shepard smiled again, this time showing teeth. "All of you."

"All of us?" Irissa frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Palaven is burning and you have to ask what I mean?" Shepard snorted with laughter but in that instant, the noise was wrong. It echoed.

"Shepard," Quentius began, forcing himself to sound calm, to not show that he once again felt very sick at the reminder of his homeworld. "For a moment earlier, you were sad. You do not have to do this. You do not have to fight and kill. There is another way."

"And what would that be?" Shepard's voice again echoed but at its core was the strong male tone that Quentius recognised from recordings as belonging to the first Human Spectre.

"We can talk about this," Quentius continued, feeling very much like he was taking Irissa's role as peacemaker. "We can help each other come to an agreement that does not end in fire." After burning Palaven, there was virtually no way that this could happen but right at the moment the Turian Councillor didn't care. Palaven was burning. Shepard, or whatever it was he was speaking to, had three hundred dreadnoughts. That was a force that could not be ignored and could not easily be fought. He ignored the way Irissa was looking at him. Even without having in-depth tactical knowledge, surely she could see the truth?

"There is one way you could help," Shepard said slowly, as if he was thinking about it.

"And how would that be?" Quentius asked, ignoring the fact that he did not want to do anything to help this Human. But if helping saved more Turians then Quentius would at least listen because even as he burned with a growing hatred, he realised that it would take something special to negotiate anything.

"You could order Digeris and Pheiros to surrender to us."

Quentius didn't believe his ears.

"Actually, just Digeris would do," Shepard added brightly.

"You want them to surrender so you can kill them all," Irissa spoke when it became clear, that despite Quentius' mandibles moving, he was struck dumb at the sheer absurdity of the suggestion.

"I don't wish to kill them," Shepard replied, his voice no longer bright but harsh, as if he was the one insulted! "I will ascend them."

"Euphemism!" Quentius dismissed Shepard's words.

"Truth but no matter," Shepard shrugged. "It would have been better for them, less painful," he added. "I took Palaven in less than a day, Digeris' reputation will not help them, and Pheiros, well, I don't really need Pheiros not even for the fuel supplies."

"You expect me to believe that if they surrender, you will let them live?" Quentius growled.

"What you believe does not concern me," Shepard replied. "I would ascend them." He paused. "This is back to being about me! It wasn't meant to be about me but you. You called me after all."

Quentius steeled himself against the question he was about to ask. "Shepard, what would it take for you to go back to Sol, for us to draw boundaries, to set up territory. The galaxy is a big place. We can all live in it."

"And we can negotiate the terms of your reparation," Irissa added.

Shepard laughed again. "Quentius, you were going so well there until the Asari stepped in. I never really understood why the Turian Hierarchy allowed itself to be neutered by the blue bitches. All I can surmise is that the sex must have been fantastic!" Shepard didn't give him a chance to answer. "But to answer your question, there is nothing that will make me go back to Sol. Forty years ago your suggestion would have had merit while the one from the idiot beside you would have been laughed at, but now?" Shepard shook his head. "There is nothing.

"But Quentius, don't worry. We're not going to be occupying Trebia for long."

"You won't?"

"Of course not! Why would I want a dextro-amino planet?" Shepard replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the galaxy. "Look, here you go." A set of Human numbers appeared on the screen and while Quentius didn't recognise them, he knew a count down when he saw it. "We'll be out of Trebia three Human hours after that countdown reaches zero."

"Why three hours?" Quentius asked suspiciously.

"Gotta travel to the Relay."

"And where will you go from there?" Irissa demanded.

"Oh, here and there," Shepard said non-committally. "Don't worry, you'll be able to track us." He paused, looking down as if he could see around the room the Council was using. "Is there anything else you wanted? Because I was somewhat busy when you called."

Quentius and Irissa shared a look.

"Ah, good," Shepard said and the image blinked out as the transmission was cut.

An instant later, it returned. Shepard was up from the Captain's chair, his posture saying he'd just risen but then remembered something. "Just for the future," he said with a small, deprecating smile. "Don't call me, I'll call you. Okay? I'll give you weekly reports, unless something big is happening. All good?" He seemed to expect an answer.

"What if we have something to tell you?" Irissa asked, the surprise in her voice obvious.

"Unless you are calling so that I can watch you cutting your throat, Irissa, though that deal is pretty much off the table now, or to surrender absolutely and without condition, then you won't have anything I need to know." Shepard straightened as he spoke, taking a few steps forward. The background changed to show the orange light of the bridge of some ship. It was lined with pods and they were all filled, though only the tops of the heads of each Human could be seen. The screens were all blurred.

"No answer? All right, I'll say you're good with it," Shepard said after a moment. "I'll see you in three days time then each week for updates," he added before the image disappeared and this time the transmission remained down, though the countdown remained.

Quentius was on autopilot as he stumbled down from the projection disk and to the side to a waiting chair where he collapsed.

"What…" he tried to frame the question. "What was that?" he finally managed to gasp out the words.

Irissa stepped of her projection disk and moved gracefully to the other chair in the room while Eachann just looked at them. It was fair to say that none of them had been expecting that conversation. "It was trying very hard to make us believe it was Human," Irissa said disdainfully.

Quentius took a moment to think. While Irissa was correct and there were aspects in the transmission which were obviously fake, the knowledge behind the words, that was almost undeniably Human. Very few Humans had known of the operation on Shanxi that had almost caught Admiral Hackett. And very few would have remembered that the Normandy's pilot had some sort of disease. No, Irissa was wrong. The imagery was generated but even if the intelligence behind the image wasn't Human, it wanted to be treated as such.

"Councillors," Eachann's interrupted carefully.

"Yes?" Quentius replied, grateful for the distraction. He didn't want to argue with Irissa over this. Not now.

"I have completed an analysis of the montage."

"The montage?"

"The list and visual effects of names the speakers engaged in," the Salarian explained.

"What did you find?" Quentius asked.

"Each one was the image of a different Human," Eachann replied. That was something they had already known. Their eyes could see that. "Each audio signature was unique," he added. "The voices were Human but they each pronounced the words differently, beyond what might be expected of saying a name. While it could have been pre-recorded, it was almost certainly a recording of the individuals."

"Almost certainly?" Irissa seized on the information.

"It would be possible to digitally create such a montage," the Salarian admitted, "but to create such a subtle effect on so many recordings would have taken months of work."

"How many recordings?" Quentius asked.

"Approximately 2,500," Eachann gave the answer. "Fifty frames a second."

"They used a galactic standard second?" Irissa fixed on that implication first.

"It would appear so, Councillor."

"2,500? Do you have a list of names?"

"It's coming," Eachann answered before looking over to the terminal he was at. Quentius looked up as well. One of the lights was blinking, one that he thought was to signal an incoming transmission.

"Who is it?"

"Primarch Fedorian," Eachann replied.

"Put him through!" Quentius ordered, straightening. Primarch Fedorian was on Palaven. "Why is that countdown still there?" The question followed with a frown in the Turian Councillors voice. Eachann had managed to convert the numbers into galactic standard so Quentius could read them.

Eachann didn't reply immediately but Primarch Fedorian appeared on the screen before it divided to show Primarch Adrien Victus as well. They both looked tired, a state Quentius shared. The countdown still remained but he did his best to put it out of his mind. It should have gone but that was something the Salarian could give him an answer on later.

"Sirs!" He did his best to acknowledge them.

Fedorian was shown against a stark concrete wall. He was in one of the bunkers on Palaven while Adrien was on the bridge of a dreadnought.

"That's not important," Fedorian said.

"Sir," Quentius said, once again at a loss for words. What exactly could he say that didn't sound idiotic?

"Primarch Victus," Fedorian took the struggle from him. "Effective immediately, you are the leader of the Turian Hierarchy with all the responsibilities, rights and privileges associated with that position."

"No!" Quentius whispered. Such an announcement could only mean one thing, that Primarch Fedorian believed Palaven was lost. Such a thing had not happened… ever.

"Sir?" Adrien questioned his voice deliberately neutral.

Fedorian looked to the ground, somehow aging 50 years in the simple movement. "Palaven is-" he broked down on the words, bringing one hand up to rub at his eyebrow ridge. "Palaven is-"

"What has happened sir?" Adrien asked.

The only Primarch who outranked him visibly gathered himself and when Fedorian looked up his eyes bore the weight of nations. "Menae is falling," he said.

"Sir?" Quentius couldn't help but ask for clarification.

"Menae is falling," Fedorian repeated. "They were not content with merely bombing it," he growled angrily.

"How long?" Victus asked. Quentius couldn't help but admire how controlled Adrien was.

"About three days," Fedorian replied. "I'll have the engineer's calculations sent over."

"Ancestors!" Quentius swore with uncharacteristic passion. The numbers were right in front of him. The countdown. That bastard!

"What is it?" Victus asked.

"We got a transmission through to the invaders," Quentius explained. "They indicated that they would be leaving Trebia in a bit over three days. That is what he meant, that absolute-" He couldn't continue.

"That doesn't matter," Fedorian dismissed Quentius' revelation. "I have to warn you, do not attempt to rescue anyone."

"Sir! We have to try."

Fedorian looked fierce for a moment. "Then you will die," he said almost gently. "There are ten dreadnoughts at the Trebia Relay and another two hundred and fifty forming a cordon around Palaven itself while the remaining fifty are destroying everything in the system. It's only a matter of time before they get the comm buoys." Fedorian paused. Victus and Quentius could see him visibly gulp as he once again gathered himself. "I will not suggest any course of action beyond regrouping. You must do what you think is best for the good of the Turian people. I have faith, Primarch Victus, that you will succeed." The words 'where I have failed' were implied.

"Sir," both Victus and Quentius responded at the same time.

The Primarch of Palaven looked at them for a few moments before he nodded and the transmission cut.

That left Quentius and Victus looking at each other. "What was your impression of the invaders?" Victus asked, referring to the conference he had been listening to before Primarch Fedorian called.

"They appear to be Human," Quentius replied with the obvious statement. "Analysis on the montage is not complete but Eachann indicates that the voices were all individual and highly unlikely to be computer generated."

Victus nodded. "Eachann, I realise you are the Citadel Tech Commander. Will the STG analyse the message?"

"Of course, Primarch," Eachann agreed.

"Then I will expect a full report in 4 hours," Victus ordered. "From both of you," he added before his transmission ended.

Quentius looked at Irissa. She had risen during his brief conference with Fedorian but had heard everything.

"I need to speak to the leading Matriarchs," Councillor Irissa said, "But know that the Asari Republics stand with the Turian Hierarchy." It was cold comfort but it was all that could be offered for the moment.

Quentius just looked at her for a moment before he nodded. "Thank you."

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 18: Important Recycling

-cfr-

Trebia, Palaven Orbit, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

It was because Shepard was watching for it that he heard Fedorian's transmission go out almost at the same time as he cancelled the call from the Council. He recorded Fedorian's frequency for later before he turned his attention away. The Primarch was a distraction, as was the Council and he had postponed speaking with Harbinger for long enough.

"Better pucker up Shepard," Joker taunted but even he understood the potential consequences of their actions.

"Forgiveness," Pressly replied. "Remember, it's easier to ask forgiveness than for permission."

"We'd better pipe down," Annie interrupted before a full scale argument could break out. "Harbinger will not care for our internal arguments," she added and with Shepard's tacit permission she tucked away the voice files of the last few minutes, driving them deeper into the layers of consciousness. Harbinger could find them if he looked but if he had no reason to look, then there was nothing to find.

A moment later, the sublayers of Shepard's consciousness calmed into orderly layers as they each took up their assigned task. They became the perfect picture of an Ascended, rigid, yet flexible. Bearing the marks of organic production but completely ordered.

"Harbinger," Shepard opened the comm link to the Ascended leader.

"The Turians are compliant?" Harbinger didn't bother with any greeting preamble.

"Soon," Shepard replied, his sub channels indicating that it would take another three or so days to break the Turians.

"Why?" Harbinger demanded. None of the remaining organics for this cycle should take very long to break.

To answer Shepard allowed the Ascended Leader to see his memories of Palaven. He paid particular attention to the defences, subtly highlighting that for an organic species the defences were quite pervasive. More so than Earth's had been and far more so than Khar'shan's. As Harbinger examined the information, Shepard could feel that the Ascended Leader did not yet truly know what was happening and he steeled himself for the 'discussion' he knew would follow.

"Three local cycles?" Harbinger questioned. "It shouldn't take more than a few sub-cycles to destroy them."

One thing Shepard had not yet truly appreciated was that Ascended had their own sense of time. When referring to small amounts they were rather imprecise. Precision came with the way they communicated. The sub channel information told Shepard exactly how much time Harbinger thought it should take.

"That will not be necessary," Shepard replied.

The answer aroused Harbinger's suspicion and Shepard felt the Ascended Leader once more trawling through his thoughts. Before Harbinger found it, Shepard spoke, volunteering the information.

"The Turian homeworld will be neutralised completely." With his words came the fuller explanation that Menae was destabilised and would collide with Palaven in three days time. Carried with the explanation was Shepard's regret and his understanding of what the destruction of Palaven would cost. It was part of the code that the homeworlds were Ascended to truly preserve the essence of the species.

Harbinger was silent as he went through the information. Shepard was wise enough not to allow any feeling of hope seep into the connection.

"The ones you deemed untrained will make up for your incompetence." With Harbinger's words came the knowledge of what he proposed. The newly Ascended would now be used in the assault on Turian space. Harbinger would order them to attack Digeris.

"No!" Shepard objected.

"You dare!"

"I dare!" Shepard growled his reply. "The untrained will help," he made the counter offer to Harbinger, aware that the elder Ascended was not truly enraged as he had been over Earth but was not willing to be challenged. "They will conduct the ascension of the Turians, but only after we have cleared the way."

"This is not the way of the Ascended," Harbinger snapped.

"I do not wish them to be damaged," Shepard said, highlighting the fact that one of the supposedly fully trained Human Ascended had been injured by Palaven's defences.

Harbinger dismissed his concerned. "That is the homeworld. All organics fight for their homeworld."

"Digeris is one of their oldest colonies," Shepard countered. "Its defences are almost as strong as Palaven's and we were caught unawares by them!"

"Because you are young."

"Then the newest are even younger." Let Harbinger refute that.

"They are Ascended and Ascended serve the cycle."

Shepard was silent for a moment as he realised Harbinger's mind was made up. "Let us clear the way for them," he repeated. "It will result in the survival of more Turians for ascension" he added, relaying several plans to Harbinger, showing how what he considered a trained Ascended would be more efficient than one newly awoken.

Harbinger considered the information. There was nothing that could be refuted with it because it was the truth and even Ascended had to acknowledge that. "I will set the time frames for you to clear the defences," Harbinger countered.

"Agreed." Shepard sent his confirmation quickly.

"And you will destroy no further planets! This was not a part of our agreement."

Shepard didn't reply.

"Shepard." Harbinger prompted.

"Should the need arise to bombard another planet as thoroughly as Palaven, I will consult with you first," he countered.

Harbinger didn't possess the immediate emotions of organics but Shepard could feel that he wasn't pleased with the reply but only an instant later came the acknowledgement that it was acceptable. Barely.

"Ascended serve the cycle," Shepard said, "but vengeance shall be mine," he added.

Harbinger broke the connection.

Shepard would have sighed if he was still Human.

An instant later, Anderson sent a signal to him. "Do not be concerned," came the familiar voice when Shepard accepted the comm.

"About?"

"Harbinger," Anderson replied.

"Ascended serve the cycle," Shepard said. "And the cycle dictates that the homeworld is Ascended."

"Humanity dictated that Palaven burns," came the soft retort.

"What?" Shepard demanded. Carried in Anderson's words was more than just the meaning. There was a deeper plan there.

"The plan for ascension may not have been fulfilled," Shepard's former commanding officer said, "however the Human plan to destroy the Turians went perfectly."

"This was not the plan!" Shepard objected.

"Not your plan," Anderson said. "We couldn't tell you, Shepard. Not before. You have a more personal grudge against the Asari because you were involved in the politics, you know where the driving forces for the Council's hatred came from. Most Humans saw the Turian fleet. It is them they hate and so most of us had no intentions of ascending Palaven."

"That is not the cycle."

"The cycle can wait! Harbinger promised us that we could wreak vengeance and we will."

"But the cycle."

"Will wait," Anderson's voice was firm. "We will fulfill the cycle," he continued, assuring Shepard that the deal between Humanity and the rest of the Ascended would be upheld. "The Turians will be Ascended but they are lessers! The full glory of ascension is not theirs to know."

For a long moment, an eternity to an Ascended, Shepard said nothing. "No more hidden plans," he growled finally.

"Agreed," Anderson replied. "It was a pain keeping the information away from you anyway."

"I'll make it more than a pain if you do this again."

"Which is why we are not going to," Anderson laughed. "This is good enough for most," he added, sending the image of Palaven burning to the Human Ascended commander. "It's enough."

Shepard sent back an image of Thessia. "Not yet enough."

-cfr-

Palaven, Cabal Village

Notchimus sat, leaning against the remains of the wall. Dust and ash were thick in the air, barely filtered by the scrap of cloth over his nose. It was the best he could do and he was trying to keep his breathing shallow. He should just breathe deep, let the particles into his lungs so that they could kill him but he didn't deserve that quick a death. It was all his fault. All of it.

Around him was the remains of his village. The houses were broken and scattered. There was not a single one intact and the wall he was leaning against was perhaps the largest Turian built structure still standing. The remains of his Cabal were broken and scattered over the village. He didn't have to look far to see them.

Awendea's sightless eyes stared at him from across the road, her body twisted at odd angles and left where it had fallen. He thought it was a bit of Scipius behind her and over on the left, half trapped beneath a pile of rubble was old Caesa. They had bodies at least. The thought of what happened to Yordana, his teacher, made him convulse.

The troop transports had landed near them. That was his fault. He'd been manning one of the AA guns but he wanted to fight. He wanted to see the light die in the eyes of the enemy and had been not quite as careful with his aim as he should have been. Everyone thought they were Human and who wouldn't want to kill Humans!

The enemy had taken advantage of his lapse, landing their vessels close to his village and swarming out to attack.

Except they weren't Human. He'd felt sick when he saw that. They were bipedal, like Humans but that didn't mean anything. Everyone except the Hanar and Elcor were bipedal! They were about the same size as a Human but again, so was a Turian, an Asari, a Drell… But it was about there that any similarity to a Human or to a species he had seen ended. They had two eyes but they glowed and other marks on their bodies flickered with energy. For a moment Notchimus had thought they were biotic, right up until Yordana's warp lanced into the lead group, obliterating them.

Other members of their village had pulled guns and were pouring rounds into the invaders. Weaklings, he'd thought at the time, as he charged his own biotics, sending several of the invaders sprawling. They rose again and Notchimus had felt a wave of joy surge through him then. They at least offered a fight. Perhaps the fact that they weren't Human was better.

He'd thought that until the first one reached a defensive line.

And blew itself up. Notchimus hadn't been the only one left staring.

What kind of force were they facing? More of the enemy reached their lines and they too blew up, releasing a wave of crackling electricity that caused severe burns in anyone too close. Burns, which combined with the mundane damage caused by the shrapnel of their explosion, ensured death for the defenders.

With Yordana's shouted orders they'd rallied then, joining together as a group to form a biotic barrier they had used to literally drive the invaders back. The effort collapsed a few of the weaker Cabal but allowed those remaining to once again utilise long range attacks – both biotic and mundane.

At the end of the battle Notchimus had been panting with effort but he'd felt triumphant, just like the rest of the Cabal.

That is, until kinetic strikes had lanced down near them. A couple had been able to put up barriers in time. Most had been driven back. The lucky were knocked over into some shelter. The unlucky were swept away or into solid structures that crumbled with the force, but only after breaking their bodies. Awendea was one of those. Her barrier hadn't held and she'd been swept away, her body tumbling over and over until it lay on the ground, her limbs shattered and twisted and her eyes staring sightlessly at him.

The strikes hadn't been the worst. The worst had yet to come and come it did, in the form of one of the invaders. The ship was huge. It towered above them and the ground quite literally shook each time it moved one of its legs. It was using mass effect fields though. It had to be. There was no way it could maintain that much mass in the gravity well. The AA guns had fired at it. At first they hit nothing. The ship was too far away. Then as it came closer, they hit but that only lit up shimmering shields.

Then there was return fire. It was only when the rounds hit did Notchimus truly appreciate how much damage a capital ship's weapons could do in a gravity well. The AA installations weren't so much destroyed as vapourised. The surrounding buildings collapsed. That's how old Caesa had been caught.

He'd been able to jump over the remains of a wall to hide but the ship had come closer and once again, Yordana had rallied them. She'd understood what they were fighting for and why surrender was not an option. Yordana had ordered those remaining to form a small team, then she'd led them towards the huge ship. It had been a nightmare.

The atmosphere was hot, hotter than it should have been, even with all the kinetic strikes and Notchimus realised that the dreadnought was bleeding off heat. Beyond that, there was dust and debris flying everywhere and rounds rained down around them. It was a precarious position but they had managed to get close enough.

"Cover me," Yordana had ordered before she'd done…

Well, Notchimus wasn't sure what she'd done. Something that had seemed to be condensed darkness which she'd then flung at the huge ship. For a moment it appeared to do nothing, then there had been a flash and a boom and Notchimus realised a small part of the ship had exploded.

He had no time for further realisations. Yordana didn't even have time to celebrate. She was suddenly outlined in fire. There was no time to scream. Notchimus was left staring at her form, what was left of it. There was steam rising from where she had been standing and the smell was of burnt flesh. He'd gagged, retching but nothing came up. Yordana had been covered in molten metal and not even the shape of her body remained.

It was only because he forced his eyes away from the steaming mass that had been his teacher that he managed to duck when the giant ship moved one leg. The pressure wave passed over him and Notchimus screamed, the shield he had managed to put around him breaking as he was drawn along in the wake of the massive leg. That's when he'd hit the wall and everything had gone black.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been out. With all the dust in the atmosphere he couldn't tell the time. It was day, he thought. There was a dim glow through what passed for clouds so it could only have been an hour or two. The ship was gone, as were the strange troops. The air was hot and he'd ripped cloth from his tunic to cover his nose. He could hear roaring in the distance and the crackle and burn of fire much closer. He couldn't hear the screams of the Cabal. That was what scared him.

Slowly, he took a deep breath, rubbing one shoulder against the wall. There was a dull ache in his head, one he recognised as coming from the overuse of his biotics. He forced himself to think through the haze.

What did he do now? The Cabal was dead. Looking around, it was doubtful that any transportation was in working order. Notchimus was like most, he could fix simple things but he had not been trained as a mechanic, so that left him trapped here. With a groan, he lifted his arm, flicking on his omni-tool, which was battered but otherwise intact. If there was a signal, then perhaps he could contact someone. They'd still be fighting and Notchimus would be darned if he'd just sit here, waiting for rescue when he could be killing the enemy.

He scanned through the frequencies, ears straining to hear the slightest sensible noise from the static. With the constant background noise, it's understandable how he missed the approach of the enemy forces. They had landed at a distance, heading towards Notchimus' village because most resistance had already been put down here.

Notchimus looked up. Dim lights were visible in the swirling dust. He realised almost instantly that they were not the lights of vehicles. He couldn't work out what they were though and he kept his eyes on them, squinting slightly. The lights were irregular but they were coming closer. They were not that far from him when he realised what they were.

Enemy troops.

He jumped to his feet. The motion attracted attention and Notchimus leapt over the remains of the wall as the things approached him. There were hundreds of them. Notchimus raised one hand, focusing his power. A small spark appeared but nothing like it had been earlier. He was too tired and the stresses of the day were bearing down upon him.

Still, he wasn't going to go down without a fight.

Notchimus raised his head slightly, targeting one of the aliens and sending a pulse of power towards them. The thing blew backwards, taking several others with it but the group wasn't affected. They turned to him and Notchimus strained, focusing again as he sent another wave of power out.

Before that wave hit, he crouched back down, looking around for any weapon at all. The only thing around him was rubble and with a wave of frustration Notchimus stood back up, ignoring the headache that was rapidly forming from his overuse of his biotics as he sent a third wave at the invaders.

He stepped back slowly and a fourth wave followed immediately, the surge of panic fuelling it as he realised the enemy troops were at the wall. Notchimus turned to run then but something grabbed at his leg. He looked down as he kicked. One of the enemy troops had jumped the wall and had latched on to his leg. Another followed, catching one of his spurs.

Notchimus leaned forward as he took a staggering step, then a second before another enemy barrelled into him, tackling his chest and he staggered to the ground. He tried to focus his biotics but pain stabbed through his head and no matter how much he wanted to, the power just slipped away.

Then the enemy troops hoisted him up. They were strangely silent but no matter how Notchimus struggled their grip didn't abate. He tilted his head back. Upside down it was hard to see but several of the alien troops were stepping back from some sort of construction. It was a tripod type thing that looked like it could be some sort of upward facing laser except he couldn't see any power source for it. The aliens kept dragging him towards it and then they pushed him onto the top.

For a moment Notchimus was confused, then the pain in his head was flooded by pain in his gut and he looked up to see a spike impaling him. He screamed, blood fountaining from his mouth as he was hoisted into the air.

Spirits! No. This wasn't meant to be.

Notchimus didn't even know what the enemy was. He struggled to breathe but as his vision faded it hardly seemed important. He coughed one last time, tasting blood and hearing the fires that burned through his village.

There was nothing left to fight for.

-cfr-

Trebia, Palaven Orbit, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Necromancer sighed over the Human net. "Shepard, this is boring."

"Yeah, the birds haven't made an escape attempt in hours!"

"And they haven't made a rescue attempt since yesterday," Aphrodite added.

"Did you really expect them to?" Shepard asked, his voice sardonic.

"Come on everyone, we always knew this bit would be boring though you could always get in on the betting pool," Archangel made the suggestion.

Shepard reached out, pulling the information to him and was hard pressed not to laugh. Those within him felt no such restraint. Joker was particularly vocal and while Adams managed not to laugh, he did filter through the information Shepard had collected to determine the odds of Fedorian begging.

"What are they using as marks?" Adams asked.

"Adams," Shepard growled warningly.

"If you are that bored you can go help on the mining detail," Shepard suggested.

"Actually we can't," Aphrodite replied. "Sirta has got that covered."

"The survey team?"

Necromancer sent through a negative indication. "They've already scanned the entire system for 80 light hours in all directions. Once we hit the comm buoys on the way out, there will truly be nothing left."

"Good work," Shepard sent over the Human network. The scanning had been completed but he hadn't really sought out the details.

"So, that just leaves us bored," Necromancer repeated.

"You can't hold out for another day?"

"Oh I suppose so," came the reply. "But the impact will break the Turians and attacking their colonies is not going to be that interesting."

"It will be necessary."

"No one is denying it will be necessary," Aphrodite hastened to assure Shepard. "But with the main Turian strength broken, we cannot expect them to fight as well."

"Digeris has a good reputation," Spectre said.

"That is true," Necromancer agreed. "But we already know what we face there. Shepard hasn't told us the plan but it's easy to guess. We go in, bomb everything and collect the survivors for ascension."

"Did we get enough Turian husks from Palaven?" Shepard asked. He'd allowed Miranda's forces to lead the way there. They had lost the most.

"We got those who haven't bunkered down," Miranda reported. "The rest would cost us more than we would gain."

"Was it enough?"

"With further Turian colonies it will be."

"All right," Shepard said and the Ascended could hear him thinking. "Necromancer, Aphrodite, help Harper in his trawling of the 'net. I want to know the names and locations of all the so-called Human sympathisers."

"You want to save them?"

"Of course not! Well… they might be Ascended. I want to see if we can use them."

"They aren't indoctrinated."

"No, but they can still cause confusion," Shepard said. "Spectre, Eternity, Saraswati, Taylor, I want you to comb through the information we liberated from the Turian forces. I want you to make a list of every single one of their ships, settlements and stations and their locations. We are going to sweep through Turian space and we don't want to miss anything."

"So what about the rest of us?" Nergal asked.

"You can play with half the ships we've captured. The merchant ships."

"Why the merchants?"

"Because the Turian ships will be needed for training," Shepard explained.

"Darn it, Shepard, can't I play too?" Taylor complained.

"When the list is done."

"Didn't Harbinger order the young ones to capture Turians for ascension?"

"He did," Shepard agreed. "But it will still take us some time to clear out the defences. Elysium has been quite positive about the use of the ships in training. And besides, the young ones will need to see what Turian ships look like in case we miss a few."

"We aren't going to miss any."

"In case others stupidly jump in, then," Shepard altered his previous statement.

"Yeah, they'd be that stupid."

"I'm glad we are in agreement."

"All right!" Several Ascended broke from the cordon. "What games can we play?"

-cfr-

Sol System, Turian Patrol Cruiser  Gover

"Illo!" The voice was familiar but he did not reply.

"Illo!" Elysium actually sounded worried.

"Illo Nazario! Answer me," the ship demanded in the tone of a mother scolding an errant child.

"Elysium?" Illo coughed, blood laced vomit fountaining over his chin onto his chest. How was the ship getting the transmission through? Illo knew for a fact that the comms were meant to be locked down.

"I'm sorry, Illo," Elysium continued, relief evident in the tone.

"Sorry?" he questioned, trying to remember what had happened. He was in too much pain for coherent thought. Everything hurt and he was lying on something that was digging into his side. Something dripped in the distance and there was a putrid smell permeating the ship.

"Sphinx didn't know better," Elysium said.

"Sphinx?" Illo would have frowned if movement, any movement, hadn't hurt so much. As it was, the breath he took to say the name set off a coughing fit and it was several long moments before he could carefully gasp for more air. The time jogged his memory though and slowly through the pain he pieced together what had to have happened.

The Gover had been shaken, far worse than any other training session. But it was not meant to be 'helping' in training. Every day, Elysium gave them four hours of peace, four hours in which the surviving members of his crew could eat or sleep and not be sick. Four hours in which there was no training.

Illo didn't know how much time had passed when the Gover had been shaken. He was sure that it was less than the full four hours.

"Sphinx wanted to train as well," Elysium continued, adding the explanation. "She saw her brothers and sisters working with your ships and wanted to be involved."

"Involved?" It was all he could say as memory gave him a new pain. Grief this time. Grief for his crew. None of the surviving crew had been able to stand and after the first minute or so, all they had been able to do was hold on and hope.

Hope in vain as it turned out. The shaking had continued and the internals of the Gover had been loosened and even those few members of his crew who had wedged themselves into the tightest gaps slipped loose. They joined the dangerous amounts of debris flying through the air, slamming into the walls and bulkheads. Their screams had been terrible. Turians were meant to be controlled but no one could be controlled in that situation. Fear, pain, anguish had all sounded in their voices.

"Sphinx is not ready to train with live ships," Elysium said firmly, as one might say when referring to a pet.

"Won't… won't matter," Illo said as blood leaked from the corners of his mouth.

What was worse was the way his crew's voices had become wet, much as his was now. Their screams had become gurgles before they finally stopped. It was a mercy when they died but Illo had survived until now.

"Of course it matters, Illo."

"Won't," he repeated. Elysium didn't understand what he was referring to. For once, the ship didn't know and couldn't control everything. "Dying," he added. There was freedom in the word, though nothing showed in his voice but the wet blood he spoke around. Illo could feel it though. Soon, it would be over.

"You're dying?" the great ship seemed distressed. If a two kilometre long dreadnought could be distressed.

Illo breathed lightly. The smell of blood and worse permeated everything as he looked up at the ceiling. The metal was dinted and in places liquid congealed and dripped. Illo didn't want to think about what was dripping. He was in the crew quarters, not the galley.

"No, Illo, you are not allowed to die," Elysium announced when he remained silent.

He laughed. Or at least the cough was an equivalent, but the expected fountain of blood was only a dribble. That was why he was becoming light headed. "Don't get a choice," Illo replied.

"I do." It was the way that Elysium said it that gave the Turian captain pause. So certain, as if the galaxy would bow to its desires. "Shepard!"

It took Illo a moment to realise Elysium was no longer speaking to him. But why would the ship be talking to Shepard?

"Elysium," came the reply only a moment later. Illo recognised the voice. Just after they'd been captured he'd looked Shepard's file so even through his pain he knew what the first Human Spectre sounded like. "Is something wrong?"

"Sphinx got to the training Turians."

That's all he was, Illo knew. A training aid. Elysium had made that clear but that didn't explain the worry that had been present in Elysium's voice earlier or the underlying note now.

"They're dead?" Shepard's voice was completely detached and mentally, Illo could imagine that the man had just asked 'Oh, so you like red' rather than a question about life and death.

"Almost all of them."

"We can bring you more shortly."

"No!" Illo objected quietly, not even realising that the mic was still on at his end. Elysium was in control of that. He was in no condition to move, with blood slowly leaking from his body and pain still throbbing through his limbs.

"Oh! That's a live one?" Shepard almost laughed.

"That is one of the first ones," Elysium said.

"He doesn't sound good." It might have only been one word but Shepard had obviously picked up on the wet feel of Illo's voice.

"I want to ascend him."

Shepard's silence was more eloquent than any expression could have been.

"Illo is the Commander of the Arcturus Patrol," Elysium said in a rush. "It would make a nice symmetry that the first is Ascended," the ship continued, attempting to explain.

Shepard remained silent and Illo had the absurd impression that it was Elysium who was the child, attempting to justify to a parent why they should keep the baby pyjak.

"His command has been useful and he should be rewarded for their ability."

Shepard still remained silent and Illo could hear a note of unease creeping into Elysium's voice.

"We need to ascend Turians."

"We do," Shepard spoke the agreement though there was no feeling in his tone. "I was going to ask you to give them a day off tomorrow."

"What happens then?"

"I'll explain shortly. Ascension?" Shepard prompted, fishing for further answers.

"It would be a waste to destroy them all."

"Elysium, we are going to do that anyway."

It was Elysium's turn to be silent though Illo went cold. It wasn't just the loss of blood it was the causal way Shepard's voice had replied to Elysium. Destroy them all? Every Turian? A month ago, Illo would have laughed. Today, he didn't and it was not just the pain laughing would bring which stopped him, it was the cold reality that he believed Shepard's assertion. The Humans or Ascended or whatever Elysium was calling themselves, they could destroy his entire species.

"It would still be a waste."

"Are you sure it's not something else?" Shepard probed.

"There's nothing."

"You called the Turian Illo," Shepard replied, the tone full of amusement.

"Illo is his name," Elysium said though the Turian could hear a slight note of defence.

"Training aid is his designation," Shepard returned. "UnAscended organic is the designation for other Turians. Is there something you are not telling me?"

Illo didn't know how he knew but he realised suddenly that Shepard was teasing Elysium. The one Elysium named Shepard had no interest in him but somehow the ship, which Illo knew was hovering just outside the Gover couldn't feel that.

"Look, Shepard," Elysium's voice had an edge to it, one that said they were running out of patience. "May I ascend him or not?"

"You may ascend him if you want," Shepard replied. "It doesn't matter to me," the voice added, "though are you sure the Turian will survive?"

"He'll survive," Elysium replied, with the surety that Illo would survive ascension, whatever that was.

"Well, you'd better collect him and get him into a processing tank," Shepard said before going silent. It took Illo a moment to realise that the comm link had been dropped.

It didn't matter to him. All he could do was lie on the debris and stare up at the ceiling. A grinding noise echoed through the Gover but Illo didn't really pay attention. There was nothing he could do and it wasn't until he heard the clump of something making its way towards him that he began to worry.

"Hold still, Illo," Elysium instructed. "My forces will bring you to me," the ship added.

He forced open his eyes. Elysium's forces? Would he finally get a glimpse of the crew that had to be inside the ship? Something fell near him but Illo couldn't see. By the sounds of things, it picked itself up and there was more than one. He didn't even feel it when something gripped his leg, what he felt instead was indescribable agony lancing through his body when they pulled. The scream was more gurgle than noise but it was loud enough.

"Gently!" Elysium admonished.

It actually seemed to work and whatever was grabbing at him did so slower, more tentatively. Illo looked at them and froze, stiffening at the sight.

He had expected a Human. One in a space suit, perhaps, but a Human. He didn't know what was grabbing him. Bipedal, like a Human yes, but the similarities stopped there. It looked like a combination of rotting flesh and ambulatory cybernetics. Its eyes glowed and where a mouth should be was a black abyss. He couldn't see much more, a fact for which he was grateful.

"Gently, gently," Elysium coaxed.

Illo felt something lift his legs. It hurt worse than before and he screamed. His mouth was clear this time.

"Careful!" Elysium's voice growled but Illo heard nothing more.

The dark which had been flickering at the edge of his vision flooded everything. It was soothing and Illo didn't fight when he was overwhelmed.

-cfr-

Palaven Orbit, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

Shepard reached out towards the comm system he'd felt earlier. Unless he got a response, he couldn't be sure Fedorian heard but he felt obliged to say goodbye to the Primarch. It was only polite. He sent the image of himself as a Human captain in his transmission.

"Primarch Fedorian, Palaven has fallen," Shepard said simply before he paused, waiting to see if there would be a reply.

Nothing came but he was fairly sure the Primarch was still alive.

"By now, you know you are the first but that's just a function of history. We're too alike you know. Our species. Oh I don't mean physical form or anything so superficial. Rather our thoughts, our actions, the way we do things.

"If you had the chance you would have conquered us in the First Contact War, but of course, the Asari held you back. And then there was the Betrayal War. If you had of listened to me, you could have foreseen the end of that conflict. Of course, no one wanted to listen to the newcomers.

"So don't be ashamed that you are the first. You would have done the same in our position. And you had no hope to win against us. In about an hour, I'll be finished with Palaven, which means I'm finished with Trebia, and thus finished with you."

There was a crackle of static. "What happens now, barbarian?" the words were spat at him and Shepard was hard pressed not to chuckle as the connection was made with him. It was audio only and encrypted in an attempt to prevent him hacking it. Too bad for them that Harper had already stolen every Turian encryption key. He rode the signal, though, enjoying bouncing around Palaven's few remaining facilities until it went back to the source. Then Shepard pushed the connection open, looking around through what few security cameras there were.

Fedorian had aged. In the space of the last few days of the Ascended's actions, the Turian Primarch looked at least five decades older. He twitched slightly and Shepard recognised the marks of fatigue on his features. No doubt the Primarch hadn't slept in days and there were several Turians in the space Shepard could see who were passed out, or dead. Shepard couldn't tell for sure through the strangely fish-eyed visual.

"After Menae hits, we will destroy the last few comm buoys and continue on to other Turian colonies."

"Not with us," Fedorian seemed frustrated. "With the galaxy," he clarified his question.

"Ascension," Shepard answered. "I would have Ascended Palaven, but Digeris will substitute. It's sad though, the Turian Ascended will not love Palaven the way I still love Earth."

"Ascension?"

"Ascension is the way of the galaxy," Shepard explained, attempting to put it in terms a mere organic like Fedorian might be able to understand.

The Primarch shook his head and Shepard could see he did not understand. "So this is my place in things?" Fedorian growled the question. "This is the place Humans would have the Turians?"

That was better. Anger was easy to deal with. "This is the place the Turians would have put Humans," Shepard responded.

"No," Fedorian was firm. "I told you, we veto'd expeditions to Earth."

"So the fleet that was coming, the fleet that found the Relay moved, the one comprised of Turians, Asari, Salarian and Batarian forces was not going to rape Earth?" Shepard countered, knowing full well that at that point the Turians had intended invasion. They had slipped over the line and viewed the Humans as a savage species, one that needed to be put in its place and carefully monitored. It was true that the Turians did not mean to commit genocide but that would have been the eventual outcome. Humans would not have lived quietly under the yoke.

"It is too late for recriminations now," Shepard said before Fedorian could answer. "What is done is done and I am done here," he added. "Good bye, Fedorian. May your ancestors grant you peace." He cut the signal but left the connection open, sending Fedorian a live feed of what he could sense.

As the Primarch of Palaven, Fedorian really should be allowed to see what happened.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 19: A Day Long Remembered

-cfr-

There are pivotal moments in history. Moments that shape the future of the galaxy. July 7th 2222, by the Sol calendar, was one such day. The entire galaxy stood still, watching the Trebia System.

It was a day no one would soon forget but it was a day that signalled the beginning of the end of the galaxy they had known.

-cfr-

To the watching Ascended, it was rather slow. To the rest of the galaxy, it happened all too fast. It had been centuries, almost one and a half millennia since there had been a significant impact event: The Krogan Rebellions. This time, though, no one was entirely sure as to the identity of those attacking Palaven, those who did know were suspiciously silent, yet there were whispers that this was the continuation of the Human Rebellion.

Menae had been falling for the last three days, and the attackers had remained in place, ruthlessly destroying any escape attempt and disabling any ship that passed into the Trebia system. Morbid, fuzzy vid files from the Krogan Rebellions had been downloaded across the galaxy to get a feel for what would happen. It was acknowledged that the Krogan, for all their trying, had never managed to destabilise such a large body, and while ramming starships at FTL speed into a planet was devastating, those ships had been relatively small. This would be different.

Even old Human footage, of simulated impact events, had been studied. It helped add to the rumours but the Humans had always been inordinately fascinated with large scale destruction and the subject of their vids was almost always Earth.

There was speculation online as to what would be different.

Palaven was a larger planet with a weaker magnetic field. Those were facts agreed upon by all. From there, speculation reigned supreme. The weaker magnetic field was because Palaven wasn't as dense, it had less molten iron, the crust was thinner, the core was the same size as Earth but the larger planetary mass meant the effects were dispersed... on and on the theories went, the theories posed by those with scientific backgrounds were lost in the deluge but the core and the magnetic field weren't the real points of interest. The real point of contention was the thickness of the crust. True information on the thickness of Palaven's crust should have been easily found but truth just got in the way of speculation and the Human produced graphics were very appealing.

A thicker crust would hold up against an impact event but would it still peel away? How far? What would the damage be? What would survive? Would Palaven remain as a planet? Those who stated that Palaven would remain as a planet, damaged beyond all ability to support life, but essentially in the same orbit would be correct, but since the Ascended closed Trebia's Relay when they left, no one would ever know and they would have other things to worry about.

Needless to say, it was all crass speculation, conducted in a whisper on every planet but Tuchanka, where there were betting pools. Even the Terminus systems held some respect for those who would die. Pirates may hate Turians, they may claim that they wished death upon them all, but even pirates know that the destruction of a planet is indiscriminate.

So, when the final impact came, the entire galaxy watched. Thief, beggar, diplomat, murderer, pirate, politician, ambassador, tech, Turian, Batarian, Salarian, Drell, Asari... For one instant, all labels were forgotten.

Menae, like many moon bodies, did not orbit on the equator, and thus the point of impact was on what was accepted as galactic north of Palaven. It was an ocean hit, though such things hardly matter with an impact of this size. Palaven's atmosphere burned briefly, before, at the point of impact, there was a flash of light and the shock wave shot out.

Then the real damage began. As Menae continued to push its way into Palaven, they both burned bright hot. Palaven was forced upwards. Dirt and water shot through the atmosphere into space, arching away from Menae. The very crust was forced upwards. Small islands were forced upwards, breaking apart as they were ejected by the impact. The atmosphere was rolled in front of the plates, forming a foaming white wave and fire followed the dirt.

Palaven was bigger than Earth and Menae smaller than Luna but it was large enough. The ejecta would have rained back down but it remained upwards.

From above the impact, it was brilliantly beautiful. Menae's impact superheated it. The mantle was exposed, like a giant circular ocean of lava. In the feed going out to the galaxy, the Ascended made sure to provide all angles. From the side of Palaven, it was as if the planet had a fish tail. It was a fat fish with a glowing, ever moving tail. Light formed it but then the tail collapsed, as the ejecta rained back down on to the planet, bathing it in fire.

On the surface, around the impact, there were levee banks holding back the molten surface. Away from the impact, the shock wave raced over the planet destroying much but in its wake followed the firestorm, which destroyed anything that remained. It slowly travelled around Palaven, burning everything. Dust clouds followed, and the static discharge from them charged the atmosphere, frying anything left alive.

Several Ascended had extended their sensors, focusing them for life forms. They provided an counter on some of the feeds. The counter had raced downwards, when most were killed in the shock wave, but it had not reached zero. A few life forms survived. Then as the earthquakes, caused by the shock of impact travelled through Palaven, and volcanoes began erupting, pouring lava over the already scorched surface, the counter of life signs dropped to zero. Those in the deep bunkers were protected from the shock wave and heat and fire, but they could not escape as Palaven almost liquified around them, shaking to absorb the stress of the impact.

When the Ascended drew away, Palaven was no longer silver but was a fiery red and black. There were no longer oceans, just burnt continents where what remained of the cities were still alight. Dust and ejecta still consumed much of the atmosphere, and lightning storms raged underneath, but as the dust settled, it left Palaven covered in a universally dull washed out green. It was not the green of vegetation but the dull coppery green of charred infertile dirt.

While Palaven remained, Menae was gone, forming a giant fiery eye, red and weeping, staring balefully out at the galaxy.

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Citadel, Turian Councillor's Quarters

Quentius sat in his quarters. The rooms were dark, light was provided by a view screen. It was set to mute but displayed the only thing any channel was showing.

The vid feed from the invaders.

The thought made him sick and he convulsed but nothing came up.

There was a count down on the corner of the screen, eerily similar to the one provided by the invader who bore the image of the Human Shepard. If he turned the sound up there would be a sorrowful commentary by some Asari interspersed with tearful homilies from Turians. He hadn't said anything. He hadn't been able to say anything though Primarch Victus had given some speeches.

The Primarch had ordered every Turian to watch this. To remember, so that there could be no doubt as to their duty. Trebia had been declared off limits to all and there had been some call to evacuate other Turian colonies, and while some had been moved, it was a sad reality that the majority had to remain where they were. No one had large enough stockpiles of dextro-food.

That was going to be an issue on the Citadel as well but Quentius couldn't bring himself to care. The plight of a few million didn't bother him, not when billions of Turians had been killed.

He took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling, deliberately averting his eyes from the view screen. He could smell alcohol. The strongest stuff he could find was open on his table but he hadn't drunk a drop. He'd opened the bottle, poured a glass and then walked away. If he drank he wouldn't stop and it would hurt when he threw it up.

Ancestors!

He was pathetic. He should be out there. Standing with his people but Quentius couldn't bring himself too. He just didn't know what to do.

Irissa had been scarce over the past few days. She'd spent time talking with C-Sec's Executor but most of her time had been spent talking with the Matriarchs of Thessia, arranging what they could.

Probably seeing to their own defences, his mind supplied. There was no anger with the thought. If she was, then… then what defence could stop these invaders? These so called Humans. If they could take out Palaven, did Irissa truly believe Thessia had a chance? Or Sur'Kesh? Or did she know something he didn't?

That thought did cause anger. A brief pointless rage that went nowhere. He hadn't confronted her about it but he would. If Thessia survived, then there would be a reckoning.

Quentius snorted.

If Thessia survived…

He was delusional.

The attackers were Human. Thessia would not survive. He would watch Palaven die, then he would see Thessia fall. The only difference would be that the Asari had some warning. Same with the Salarians.

They'd managed to keep the knowledge that the ships were Human from the general public, emphasising the Geth design of the ships but the illusion would not last for long. Quentius wasn't sure if he'd have bothered with the illusion.

Did it matter? It didn't. Three hundred dreadnoughts. No one could fight that. Even Victus agreed. At least, the Primarch agreed that they could not fight three hundred at the one time but if the invaders broke into smaller fleets, then the Primarch was confident that they would be able to take them out. For those thinking of the brutal reality to come, the Human fleet would have to break up or they could not cover enough territory fast enough. That's where their chance lay. It was a tiny chance but the Primarch saw it as an option. One that would require coordination and the sacrifice of thousands but the Primarch maintained that it could be done. His eyes had burned with passion when he made that announcement. The fact that the enemy was Human drove Adrien on and they needed that.

Quentius wasn't so sure. The ships obviously could be destroyed. Every last second of battle footage from forty years ago had been gone over again in the last few days. That ship had been destroyed and the cost had been huge. They could not match the enemy dreadnought for dreadnought, no one had even suggested that. What had been suggested was that a large enough fleet of cruisers and frigates could, with great losses, take out a dreadnought. A smaller fleet could take out a dreadnought, when loaded with some questionable ordinance.

No one had said anything. No one would say anything when Turian cruisers launched themselves at the attackers, each carrying an anti-matter warhead, intent on detonating it, destroying themselves and hopefully the attackers. That was, of course, in space. If the Humans had any planets, any presence at all on a planet, then… Conventions were made to be broken, though Primarch Fedorian had passed on information that indicated that Earth had been destroyed. Quentius didn't know how truthful the Humans had been and with the death of Palaven streaming live on every screen in the galaxy, he didn't much care.

Magna had already released a hoard of self-replicating bots. They were building anti aircraft fortifications around the planet. So far they were controlled but what was left of the Hierarchy were dancing on the tips of their spurs waiting to see if the bots consumed the population for resources. That was a risk but the Turians on Magna, like Quentius, thought it would be a small price to pay. It would be death on their terms, rather than the Humans'.

On the screen, he wasn't watching there was a flash and he knew without looking that the counter had reached zero. That time had been burned into his very being over the last few days. It had begun. The surface of Palaven would be consumed by fire as ejecta rained down, and the firestorm spread. The subsurface would shudder as well, liquefying in some places, and triggering volcanic activity in others, spreading the fires.

There was no possibility of survival. At least, not for any multi-cellular organism. Every Salarian simulation postulated that, as did the Asari's, Turian's… Spirits, even those few done by the Drell had agreed. And if anything did survive, the three hundred dreadnoughts in orbit would soon take care of that.

As the wave of fire began spreading around Palaven, Quentius stared at the floor. There was nothing he could do.

-cfr-

Tuchanka

Charr looked at the view screen. No matter that they were quarantined by the rest of the galaxy, the Krogan were allowed to see this. And this was the destruction of Palaven by an unknown invading force. He knew what he felt! The darned Turians were getting their quads handed to them. That was fantastic! He'd like to be there, he'd like to see their faces when it happened and he hoped they were anguished, just as he had been when that pyjak had taken Ereba from him.

She'd wanted to stay! She'd been safe with him! She'd been willing to bear his children but then some galactic prick had decided that the Krogan had to be quarantined on Tuchanka and that no alien species were allowed to live with them. Ereba wasn't alien! She was his friend, his wife, his bond-mate. She was Asari, not alien! But even that hadn't helped and some nameless Turian had taken her away.

The metal head had been laughing. Charr knew it. Not aloud of course. That would have broken the image of Turian professionalism but Charr had seen it in the Turian's eyes. The bastard had been laughing as he led Ereba away.

The bastard wouldn't be laughing now.

No one had said who the attackers were but all the Krogan knew. Anyone with half a brain could tell they were Human. Sure, the design was Geth but the words were Human and Charr had spent some time online, looking at the images of the attacking ships and laughing. He didn't know much Human but several translations of the writing had been provided. "Fuck you Council" and "Die Turian Scum" were not phrases Geth would use. Only Humans were that belligerent… well Humans and Krogan.

Except the Krogan were neutered and the Humans had somehow gathered the strength to fight.

More than fight, Charr reminded himself with a savage show of teeth. The Humans were doing something the Krogan had only dreamed about. They had taken the battle to the Turians, ripping through their defences straight to Palaven and they had destroyed the planet. It didn't matter that Menae was still falling, nothing could stop it and the Turian homeworld would be reduced to a blackened wasteland. Much like Tuchanka.

Except… unlike Tuchanka, the Turians would die, and Charr had every faith that the Human fleet would continue to sweep through the galaxy.

Of course, Charr didn't know what the Humans would do after they had destroyed the Council but if they then dominated the galaxy… well, they had earned their right to rule. Unlike the weakling Salarians who relied on others. They had created the genophage but they didn't have the quads to use it. The Turians had and then, if the Turians had conquered the Council, the Krogan would have been …. Charr didn't know what they would have felt but vindicated would be one emotion. If the Turians had conquered the Council, the Krogan would have at least known they were beaten by the stronger force, as was right and proper. Instead, the Turians had joined the Council and…

He didn't want to think about it. They were weak.

The Humans. Charr had thought the Humans weak, taken in by the Asari rhetoric and perhaps they had been for a time. The Human Rebellion had lasted a mere two years! Now though, they were back and they had used the last forty years to become strong.

Strong enough to trap Council forces at the Citadel. Strong enough to punch through Palaven's defences and strong enough to drop Menae on their metal-plated heads.

Charr laughed. It didn't matter what happened now. To his mind, the Humans had already won and that was a thought which would keep him warm for years to come on the cold Tuchanka nights.

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Turian Dreadnought  Pride of Menae

Primarch Adrien Victus stood on the bridge of the Pride of Menae. The crew stood around him, all eyes fixed on the main view screen. They stood in silence. There were no whispered conversations and the hums from the computers had been muted. You could hear the click of talon on the steel floor when the crew shifted slightly.

He said nothing. What they bore witness to left nothing to say. On every ship, in every colony, every Turian throughout the galaxy was watching. Victus was sure that even those Turians who had turned their back on the Hierarchy, who made their living as pirates and thugs and every other dishonourable task watched as well. This went beyond any petty labels. It didn't matter if you were born on Palaven or not, those who wore colony paint from off world watched and would act because regardless of colony loyalty, Palaven was the home of all Turians.

To see it now…

Unconsciously, his hands fisted, driving his talons into the relatively thinner and more flexible skin on his palms. To see it now was to watch the deaths of billions. It was the death of every ancestor, every spirit, everything. They watched the death of everything that had created and nurtured them. He'd never thought of Palaven being alive, of having its own will but he often swore on the Spirit of Palaven.

This was Palaven's final moment.

So what could he do but stand? Sitting would be disrespectful and no matter how much he wanted to look away, he had to watch to the last, to honour those who had gone before, those who had fought. The planet would survive the impact of Menae but it would not be Palaven. The surface would be sterilized and life would not be able to live there for millennia.

Victus shuddered when the counter went to zero. He watched the impact without truly seeing it. He'd grieved for those who died now already. He would never truly be able to grieve for Palaven, or for Menae, he would instead endure their loss. His grief now was for those who would die. He'd discussed what needed to happen with Quentius but the other Turian was taking the loss of Palaven hard. The Councillor had been distant but had not objected to anything proposed. No Turian would.

And if the Asari or Salarians dared. . . Victus' mandibles tightened. If they dared, well, maybe the Humans had one thing right. Perhaps it was time to be free of the Council. They would not hold the Turians back from vengeance using any means that worked. If they tried... Then! Victus trembled. If they tried, then while he would advocate maintaining peace with the Asari and Salarian forces, it would be a peace that lasted only until this unholy alliance between the Humans and Geth had been dealt with.

The smell of Turian blood filled the bridge. He wasn't the only one to drive his talons through his skin but he continued watching. He ignored the way some of his crew fell to their knees, and how others retched. It was not weakness because Victus knew, when the time came, they, like him, would stare into the abyss and drown it in blood to avenge Palaven and Menae.

-cfr-

Omega Nebula, Omega Station

Averul was a smuggler. He was a darn good smuggler. In point of fact he was one of the few people the Omegan Queen trusted, in the way she trusted anyone, to oversee some of her best operations. And they were her best operations because he ran them. When he'd gotten the position, five standard years ago, he'd thought about overthrowing Aria. You didn't get to his position without at least a few aggressive self-promotions but he'd decided that it really wasn't worth it. He could do it, he was sure of that, but the pay off, that wouldn't go to him. It would go to whoever came after him so what was the point?

He'd been fifteen when he'd left Sur'Kesh. It had taken another seven years and two or three aggressive self-promotions and what turned out to be a fortuitous Turian raid to work his way to the top of the group he'd joined. Then he'd set about expanding their operations. Sabotage that operation, tip off the Turian patrols to another and within another five years he had a very nice business. So when the Omegan Queen was looking at who to promote, with one rather unfortunate accident, he had made it an easy choice for her. He'd been twenty seven then, he was thirty three now. It would have taken about ten years to gain the required confidences to remove Aria, and it would have been iffy, and there was no reward. So instead he had done what he did best and made more money than any other branch of her operation.

That's how he came to be looking at the screen now. It was a feed from the 'net, one supposedly from those attacking Palaven.

What Averul couldn't decide was if this was a good thing or a bad thing for Omega. Most smugglers, pirates and mercs had decided it was a good thing and were currently pickling their brains in booze as they toasted the unknown force which was attacking.

Idiots, all of them. Sure, in the short term, this would be one of the greatest boons they could ask for. Not since the Human Rebellion had the Turians been this distracted but there was the problem.

The ships attacking bore Human names, with what the Council insisted was a Geth design. The Council knew jack. Any smuggler worth his guns could tell you that was not a Geth design. It was something else. For the moment, what that something else was didn't matter. What no one seemed to be considering is what those ships would do once they had finished with the Turians.

The Council would go to war with the unknown forces. That was a given. The screen Averul was watching showed Menae about to hit Palaven. The Turians would have no choice but to fight after this and with the Council at war, the Turian patrols would be reduced, allowing much greater freedom for those in his business. But it would impact upon them as well. And there was no guarantee that the ships, just because they appeared to be against the Turians would stop at just the Turians. If they were really Human, then Omega was in danger. The Humans had a dark underbelly just like any other race but they had fought that underbelly. Averul had never seen it but he read, he knew history and he knew that the Human Systems Alliance burnt out pirates and smugglers from their territory.

If those ships were Human, then they weren't friendly.

Averul's comm beeped. The particular tone indicated Aria. He wasn't due to speak to her for another five hours.

"Ma'am?" he said, answering the call quickly.

"Thoughts?" Aria demanded without preamble.

Averul nodded to himself. She was probably ringing everyone, sounding them out. "Short term gain, long term chaos," he replied.

There was silence for a few moments before another question followed. "You've seen no indications?"

"None," Averul stated flatly. Aria would have made her own assessments but in a situation such as this, faced with an almost complete unknown, discussion was not weakness. Running forward on your own assumptions was. Palaven's invaders, while gleefully broadcasting all that they were doing, had not given any indication of their further intentions. Were they only going to attack the Turians? The Council? Everyone? No one knew and the invaders had made no move to clarify those questions. Or if they had, then no one recognized any gestures. If they were only going to attack the Turians, one would expect envoys sent to the Asari and Salarians, to reassure them. If attacking the Council, then if the invaders knew anything of the galactic climate, they'd send an envoy here. But they had done nothing of the sort. That either meant they didn't know or didn't care or their ultimate goal was to take everything.

Aria breathed deeply. With that one gesture, Averul knew that the Omegan Queen was considering this as seriously as he was. He knew she could see the potential disruption to everything this attack would cause, and Averul knew that Aria had considered that this could be the prelude to a full scale invasion.

"I will think on this," the Omegan Queen added before the signal dropped.

Averul nodded to himself before looking back to the screen. Impact events were beautiful sights in some ways. They were what gave most planets their resources but this one was pure destruction. He had to admire the ruthlessness of the minds behind the invaders. They knew how to make a statement. Warfare was as much psychological as physical and now, no matter what the invaders did, whether they confined their attentions to the Turians, or attacked wider, in the back of everyone's mind would be the fate of Palaven and the knowledge that if the invaders couldn't drive you from your holdings, they'd acknowledge your strength, then take their victory in the most brutal way possible

The Turians wouldn't surrender but other races might. He narrowed his eyes, as a brilliant flash lit up the screen. Destruction began spreading across Palaven as he thought about the Dalatrasses on Sur'Kesh. Faced with the destruction of everything they knew, what path would they take?

-cfr-

Trebia, Palaven Orbit, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

If Shepard had been Human, he would be strictly controlling his breathing as he looked down at Palaven. He wasn't Human but he remained in place, looking down as Palaven spun beneath him. The atmosphere churned, lightning racing between clouds. On the ground, fires raged, although some of the glowing light was from lava flows. The point of Menae's impact was a brilliant red, a baleful eye that looked out into the galaxy, with weeping tears of lava seeping their way through the levee banks. He felt… it was almost impossible to say fully how he felt but he felt vindicated. The signals pulsing through his form tingled with feeling and he almost felt as if he should stretch in languid satiation. His feeling was echoed by the fleet of Human Ascended, though some of the younger ones almost felt torpid. They were satisfied with vengeance and Shepard could feel how some of them were shifting internally, aligning their thoughts with those of a more mature Ascended.

He pushed his thoughts away from that, fiercely fighting the almost physical pleasure that was beginning to course through him. This was the beginning, not the end. This was not the vengeance of all and while he would be more careful to ensure that they maintained more opportunities to ascend the lesser races of the cycle, Human vengeance was not yet complete. Only one of the aggressor races had suffered and he could not be content with the burning of one home world. He remembered his words to Anderson. 'Not yet enough'.

Thankfully, while satisfaction still thrummed within him, Shepard felt his thoughts turn and his desire to see vengeance on the Asari and Salarians reaffirmed. It would be difficult to seek vengeance if he was sated. Some parts of him were glutted on vengeance, while others were coldly clinical about it, sure of the righteousness of his actions. Most of him was content but as he examined his thoughts further, turning his attention inwards from the view of Palaven, he could feel that it was a transitory state. He could also feel that it was not wanton greed or desire for bloodshed which drove him onwards. It was a factor but it was not the controlling factor, rather, the dominant desire was for justice. He wanted to see the Council brought to heel for their two-faced double standards. And then he would ascend them.

Shepard turned his attention back to Palaven. It was important to plan for the future, but it was equally important to enjoy the moment, and for a little longer that was what he would do.

It was one of the younger Ascended, Jing, who broke his reverie by asking, politely, when they were going to set out for the rest of the Turian territory. Shepard focused his sensors on Jing. The younger Human Ascended, even if the age difference was a mere handful of years, did not have the memories of the older ones. They didn't know the history of First Contact, the pain of the First Contact War, the hope in the handful of years of peaceful interaction and then the utter agony of the Betrayal War. To them, the deal with Harbinger simply was but as Ascended, they would forget it in the greater service of ascension. Except Shepard saw that while Jing's desire for vengeance had been almost sexually fulfilled with the destruction of Palaven, Jing would still follow the older Human Ascended as they extracted their vengeance, their justice for Humanity on the rest of the galaxy. So long as the races were Ascended, Jing and those who were already satisfied would be compliant in what was to come. It was reassuring to Shepard that Humanity still stood as one.

"Let's go over our strategy before we set out," Shepard replied, deliberately turning away from the burning waste that had been the Turians' homeworld. Jing gave the impression of agreement and Shepard took a microsecond to mentally run through the hierarchy of objectives that the fleet now faced.

"Palaven is no more," he began, "but that does not mean that the Turians are gone," he added. "If anything, the loss of their homeworld will make them desperate. Where earlier they might have retreated or regrouped, they will now hold the line, even when that line is lost," Shepard continued. "We must also be wary of suicide attacks."

The more militarily-minded Ascended sent a wave of agreement through the Human network, reinforcing Shepard's words. "As such, no fleet will number less than 10," he made the statement an order. "Visual and sensor lock will be maintained at all times." At this Shepard paused, considering quickly how to make his next announcement, knowing that it would not be popular. Good news before the bad, he decided. "From now on, we will clear out the Turian defences around a planet, allowing those Human Ascended still in training to sweep in to ascend the remaining population." Shepard was mentally braced for objections and he was not disappointed.

"No!"

"They aren't ready!"

That was the main sentiment.

"These are Harbinger's orders," Shepard said calmly, as if he agreed with them. It caused objections to cease. They may disagree with Harbinger, but once the eldest Ascended gave an order, it was inviolate. "It will be our decision as to when the defences around a Turian establishment are clear," Shepard added, feeling a sense of relief flash through the fleet. "Any holding under 10,000 is to be nullified," he added. "They aren't worth our time."

"What is the next target?" came a question through the network.

"Digeris, which we will take as a whole before dividing into sub-fleets," Shepard replied. He'd seen the list of Turian targets, with the nascent lists of Asari, Salarian and other targets but he hadn't quite worked out the best way of taking them. The first version of the plan would be finalised by the time Digeris fell. "We need to begin the process of ascension and there is a population of at least 1.9 billion on that planet. With luck, it will be all we need to ascend."

"Don't waste your husks, and share them if required," Shepard added. That was slightly against the Ascended way, where each had to see to their own resources but they were Human, and Humans helped each other. "Those of us who haven't yet restocked, do so now and we'll be on our way to Digeris after I call the Council, so please hold off on destroying the last comm buoys until then."

The last brought a wave of what should be called sniggers but the fleet obeyed, several surging ahead to Datriux to restock their supplies, while the others formed into loose groups before heading to the relay.

"Not bad," Arshan said to Shepard before he could contact the Council. "You have a plan for Digeris?"

Shepard mentally turned to the older Ascended. Fruben and Arshan had been so quiet that it was easy to forget that Harbinger had given them two chaperones. They had said nothing against anything he had done, the most they had said was to remind him that he had to talk to Harbinger occasionally. Other than that, they had accompanied the Human Ascended fleet silently, closing Relays when asked and attacking at their side. The only difference between them and a Human Ascended was the lack of markings.

In response, Shepard brought up a plan of the Castellus system. "We'll have to be careful when travelling through both asteroid belts," he said, highlighting them before turning towards the main planetary bodies. "Iritum is useless and the population so sparse as to not be worth any trouble. The colonies will be destroyed," he began to outline what was still a plan forming in his mind. "Fiax has some use, the same as Datriux, so it will be worth taking, and at the moment, Fiax is on the far side of the star. Nios and Carborix aren't worth bothering with. Turian presence on them shall be destroyed, leaving Digeris." Shepard highlighted the planet, and the defences around it.

Until recently, Digeris was rather dubiously famous for being the site of the bloodiest battle in Turian history. Partially because of that, and partially because of its age, population and proximity to Palaven, Digeris boasted a large defensive presence.

"We'll sweep through the orbital defences and then make kinetic strikes on the major points of resistance."

"Standard," Fruben made the observation.

"Yes," Shepard agreed. There was nothing particularly inspired with the attack plan. It was one that any superior aggressive force would use. "I imagine we will be able to subdue some of the smaller townships, which will provide forces for taking the larger settlements, though we will not be as reticent in using kinetic strikes to subdue the population."

"At which point, the younger ones may step in to begin the harvest," Arshan interposed.

"Once the population is compliant," Shepard replied, agreeing but keeping the decision about the younger Ascended to himself.

Arshan shifted slightly and Shepard could feel the older Ascended's regard. "It is not me you will answer to," the ship said finally.

Shepard remained silent. He, like all Ascended answered to Harbinger, and through him to the Catalyst but so long as the Turians were Ascended, he doubted that there would be much to answer for.

"Does anyone want to say anything to the Council?" Shepard asked when it became clear that the elder Ascended had nothing further to say.

"Tell them they suck," Joker answered, cheekily broadcasting his suggestion to the fleet.

"Anyone with a proper suggestion?" Shepard ignored his main helmsman.

There was nothing of substance so after a moment to subtly shift his heading, Shepard reached out, linking to one of the last comm buoys to initiate link with the Citadel Council.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 20: A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Citadel, Council Chambers

Quentius wasn't sure how he made his way from his quarters to the Council Chambers. He almost hated himself when he realised he had come because the thing calling itself Shepard had promised to call. With the destruction of Palaven, Quentius wasn't sure what could be said but he had to hear for himself.

Irissa was there with Commander Eachann. Executor Govinus stood off to one side, though the other Turian looked as sick as Quentius felt. He'd noted that the Executor had been spending an inordinate amount of time talking to Irissa lately. There was obviously some reason; at the moment, he couldn't bring himself to care. Holographic images of Primarch Victus, Admiral Walenty and a Salarian Quentius did not recognise stood on the display disks. They watched as he settled into his seat and then waited.

He wasn't sure what to do then.

Irissa stood and looked around the chamber, meeting the eyes of all present, before she bowed her head. "In memory," she said solemnly.

Quentius rose to his feet, bowing his head. Eachann and Govinus followed suit, as did the holograms. "In memory," they murmured and remained standing.

A minute passed and Quentius knew if he remained standing he'd cry and then the day would be lost. He sat back down, swallowing the keen of grief in an awkward cough. "So… what happens now?"

That really was the question. While he knew plans had been made in the last three days, they needed to be refined. No one could afford to be complacent when going up against three hundred dreadnoughts which had no qualms about using the basest means to cause mass destruction.

"We haven't been able to open a Relay," Eachann reported quietly. The Citadel's tech Commander, like scientists and engineers across Citadel space, had been trying non stop to achieve that outcome.

Admiral Walenty nodded before he spoke. "All Turian colonies and holdings are fortifying themselves. Council border patrols have been reduced and there is pending approval for the removal of the fleet over Tuchanka."

"We are awaiting notification from our Asari and Salarian allies as to any aid they may provide," Primarch Victus broke into Walenty's summation of the disposition of Turian forces. "Turians will lead the battle, as always, but we will need assistance against this threat."

For one stupid moment, Quentius wondered what it cost Victus to make that admission, then he remembered. It had cost Palaven. He felt sick again.

"Heheh, they're not going to help you," a hauntingly familiar voice interrupted and a new hologram appeared.

Quentius recognised him immediately. Shepard.

The hologram looked around. He was not seated in a Captain's chair this time. Instead, it was just the representation of his Human form, though still dressed in the day uniform of the Systems Alliance. "Councillors," the Human hologram greeted them with a shallow nod. "Primarch, Admiral, Executor." The thing that had taken Shepard's form recognised the Turians before looking at the two Salarians. "Commander, I assume," was the greeting given to Eachann, "and… hmm, I do not know who you are."

"I am Councillor Schells."

The image of Shepard looked surprised for an instant before understanding crossed his features. "Ah, a cadet branch. Appointed as a compromise measure to have someone in place while the real families fight it out back at home. Surprisingly sensible for Salarians."

"And you, of course, are something claiming to be the Human Shepard." The Salarian sounded calm but Shepard could hear the sharp hiss of annoyance in her tone.

"No, I am Shepard," he replied. "But I've already had this conversation so be a good girl and shush, why don't you, while the adults discuss things." Shepard turned back to Quentius, though that also meant he was facing Primarch Victus. "So this is the new First Primarch. I was hoping you were on Menae, Victus, though upon reflection I think this is better. You are, after all, the Turian who knows Humans best. You'll at least make this interesting."

When there was no reply the image of Shepard chuckled again. "So, how did you all enjoy the show?"

"You call that a show?" Executor Govinus demanded.

"Of course, though admittedly you weren't the original intended audience. Still, I felt the once-in-a-lifetime show deserved a wider audience."

"So where do you go now?" Victus asked, not willing to dwell on the events the Human referenced.

"Didn't Quentius tell you?" Shepard returned the question.

"I'd like to hear it from you."

"Ah," Shepard's hologram nodded. "As I told Quentius earlier, this isn't about what I want, really, it's about what I'm going to get. And what I'm going to get is all of you. As such, next, we head for Digeris."

The Primarch looked surprised for an instant at how easily Shepard seemed to give up the information. Most wouldn't have noticed the change of expression but then, Shepard was not like most. He had thousands of consciousnesses watching the Turian for a reaction and more sensors than simply visual clues to rely on.

"You are surprised?" Shepard mocked. "I told Quentius all of this when they called me previously."

"We should trust you at your word?" Councillor Schells put in quickly, needing to demonstrate that she was still a part of this conversation and, by extension, a legitimate member of the Council.

Shepard seemed to take a deep breath. "I have no reason to lie to you. It's not as if you can stop me."

"What will you gain out of this?" Irissa asked.

"I already told you, Councillor. I gain all of you. Now, if you have no other questions, I am holding the comm buoys open and I need to get going."

"Wait," Eachann yelled, bringing the hologram's attention to him.

"Hmm?"

"What are you, Shepard?"

"A good question. What makes you ask?"

"Analysis indicates your voice modulations are not quite organic," the Citadel's Head Sensor Tech replied. Initial scans had shown many modulations in the voice pattern and while they were very close to organic, they just weren't the same as the recordings of Human voices. However, whatever was behind the hologram did know Humans, as almost everything else was perfect.

"I'll have to work on that."

"So you aren't Shepard?" Irissa growled, her voice demanding.

"I am Shepard," the image of the Human replied. "But, as you so astutely determined last time, this image is too young to be the Shepard you knew. While I could age it, I prefer to present myself this way." He appeared to look down at his body. "This is the age I died before becoming immortal." Shepard looked up again. "To answer your question, Commander Eachann, I am the essence of Shepard, and something far more. I am Ascended, and to explain in terms your mortal form would understand would take far too long. It is sufficient to say that I am beyond you."

"Yet you still revel in destruction," the Salarian observed.

"You are upset?"

"I had hoped that those who were more advanced had overcome the need for violence."

That brought a laugh from the image of Shepard. "That is… That is almost Human," he agreed. "I am not the one inflicting violence upon the galaxy," he added. "Violence occurs because you resist your destiny."

"Destiny?"

"To be Ascended," Shepard's image shrugged easily.

Eachann frowned in the typical Salarian way. "You wish to ascend us?"

The Human's image smiled brightly. "Yes."

"To make us as you are?" Eachann added, the doubt clear in his voice. It didn't seem to be vengeance.

"Yes," Shepard agreed again. "If you do not fight, this will be easier."

The entire room was silent.

"But I do not think that will happen," Shepard added. "And so this will be a battle, one you cannot win."

"You seem sure of that," Irissa said.

"I am. I told you last time, Irissa, there is only one way you can make this easier for your people. I'm sure Govinus will loan you his ceremonial dagger if you want to take me up on that offer. Though this will be the last time I make it."

"I don't think so, Human," the Asari Councillor replied.

"That's a pity but not unexpected," Shepard almost sighed. "I promised Councillor Quentius we would leave Trebia three hours after we were finished. We are finished now, so it's time for me to go. I'll call you in a week."

"No. You just expect to leave after that?"

"Was there something else you wanted, Councillor?"

"You say you are Human but also say you aren't Human," Quentius growled. "What are you?"

Shepard's image looked intently at the Turian Councillor. "I've tried to answer that for Eachann and without taking far more time than I have, I cannot explain it sufficiently for you, Quentius. Though, since I'm feeling generous I'll give you another hint."

"Another?"

"I told you last time that everything I ever reported as a Spectre about Saren's ship was the absolute truth. Since the Council, in their infinite Asari-guided wisdom probably destroyed all of my reports, that is your loss. However, in my generosity, I'll provide you with another way of finding the information. Unfortunately, it rests with another Asari, so I wish you luck extracting the information, and I would advise you Turians and Salarians to very carefully make sure that the Asari don't edit it. They seem to like doing that."

"Who is this Asari?" Primarch Victus asked.

"Given that I am Shepard, I would have thought that was obvious. That bitch, Liara. She went through most of what I did so she knows and right now, I don't feel like explaining." Shepard's image sighed again. "I'm down to the last comm buoy so I'll call you back in a week."

Quentius stared at the place where Shepard's image had stood but it was Primarch Victus who spoke first. "Councillor Irissa, I trust that the Asari Republics will secure this Liara?"

"Of course," Irissa was too well trained to say anything else.

Victus nodded. "I will expect a comm link within the day," he added as if the being responsible for the destruction of Palaven had not just spoken to them. "I will also need updated estimates of the available Asari and Salarian forces."

Schells' image nodded, and turned to say something to someone in the room. "It will be done," the new Salarian Councillor responded.

Victus' image closed his eyes as he looked upwards, thinking. After a moment, he looked back down, his expression anguished but his eyes were hard. "The Turian forces must bide their time until the fleet that the thing that calls itself Shepard leads, splits up. It is a dark time for us, but only through further sacrifice can we emerge victorious."

"You can't!" Quentius objected.

"We have to," Victus replied though it was easy to see that he wanted to agree with the Councillor. "Quentius," Victus said after a moment, "we have to," he almost begged.

The Turian Councillor closed his red eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. "Spirits help us."

No one replied to that.

-cfr-

Trebia, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

"This is going to be interesting, Shepard," Harper said without preamble.

"What is?"

"Our campaign," Harper replied, giving the impression of the galaxy they had yet to travel to. "What's left of the Hierarchy and the Council have managed to hide the fact that we are Human from the masses."

"Have they?" Shepard was amused. There was an underlying question of how they had possibly managed it. Vid footage from the ships destroyed had been broadcast and those vids would have shown the Human names and symbols adorning the Ascended fleet.

"Yes. They are maintaining that we are Geth masquerading as Humans."

"Should we disabuse the galaxy of that belief?" While vengeance was more satisfactory if those who died knew who took their lives, in the end, death was death. Vengeance was complete in that destruction and the remains, those who survived of the Turians, the Asari, Salarians and everyone else would be Ascended. Even the Geth would feel their wrath.

Harper considered it, knowing that no matter how he answered, it would be Shepard's decision. "Not quite yet," he said slowly. "The masses not knowing works for us," he explained. "We've identified some of those who support Human freedom."

"Have you spoken to them?"

"Not yet. We've given them an encrypted message. A couple have tried to track it but we didn't bother to give the message a location. To them, it appears as if it was created in their messages." Harper wasn't smug. To him, that was normal operating procedure. "There are no trails."

"Any replies?" Shepard asked. He had made his views on the pro-Human aliens clear. While they would die, just like the others, they would be used first to aid in any way they could but never would they be relied upon.

"A few. The smarter ones worked out the decryption key. We didn't make it that difficult. We'll ramp that up over time."

"Usable replies?" came the follow up question. It was one thing for an alien to be pro-Human but Shepard knew that while the view could be held, only a few would be willing to act upon their beliefs. Those few would be the most useful.

"Yes."

"Excellent," Shepard almost purred. "Keep talking to them and let me know how far they are willing to go."

"Should I organise them?"

"Only if they are committed," Shepard replied. "We have no use for pretenders."

"They'll be ours soon enough," Harper agreed before the line dropped.

-cfr-

Therum, Knossos, Artemis Tau

Shiala resisted the urge to hiss. It was undignified and beneath her. Her Little Bird was gone. Two nights ago, Matrons from Irissa's group had approached her and she had gone. Shiala felt her fingers curl into claws. It wasn't the Little Bird's fault. She should have expected it!

The moment she saw the ships, she should have expected it. She should have made arrangements so that they could not take her prize.

They wanted the Little Bird because she was the only one with true knowledge.

Shiala smiled. Perhaps not the only one. Knowledge flowed through her mind as well. Matriarch Benezia had only been the most public Asari known in Saren's group. Now, the ships were back and the call had been put out. It was ridiculously easy to decode. She'd broken the decryption in seconds but she knew them, she knew what they wanted. She hadn't replied, she'd merely read the message, lips curling softly at the information. She dismissed it and had gone to check on Liara only to find that she was gone. Irissa was so predictable. The Councillor intended to make Liara the rallying point. As they had earlier.

Yes, it was all as Shiala had foreseen… except Irissa's faction would be the one to benefit.

Shiala snarled. No. That would not be allowed.

The little one had knowledge but she did not truly know. She could only estimate the reactions and though the ships appeared Human, Shiala knew better. Humans might have formed the ships but they were no longer. They were now greater. They were now Asce...

NO!

Shiala growled, driving her nails into the soft flesh of her palms, letting the smell of blood permeate the room as the pain focused her mind. She raised one hand, slowly unclenching her fingers and watched as her blood pooled as she gently shifted her hand so that it did not drip. The damage was minimal and the pain was nothing. It stung but it was a reminder. Pain was all that kept her centred, all that kept her, her!

The ships were not greater. She had fought, she had suffered, she had willed herself to be free. She would not…

She would not what? Shiala blinked, a frown gently creasing her forehead as she thought. She knew the truth of those ships. The Little One did not. She would need guidance, and Shiala would provide it, just as she always had.

For only one who knew those ships could keep Liara safe. Irissa's faction would try but they could not, would not recognise the true danger until it was too late. They would walk the path of ascension always believing that they were true to themselves. They would not know the truth, would never see it, not even when the knife glistened in the dark.

Shiala rose. It was time to use some of her more painful memories. Irissa's faction had taken Liara, true, but they would not hold her for long.

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula

"Admiral Walenty," the voice was crisply proper when the Admiral answered the comms.

"Executor Govinus," Walenty greeted the caller, allowing his tone to ask the question. Why was the Citadel's Chief of Police calling him? Had there been a riot, an uprising, an assassination? A horde of possibilities flashed through the Admiral's mind.

"There is nothing wrong," the Executor read Walenty's expression, "but there will be soon."

"What do you mean?" Walenty asked with a Turian frown, one mandible clicking. With everything that had already happened, what else could go wrong?

"How well supplied are your ships?"

His clicking mandible stilled and the room plunged into a deep silence as everything fell together in the Admiral's mind. While most Turian planets were self sufficient, Turian battle ships and the Citadel were not. And the Relays were still closed. "I will check," he said tightly. "How are the Citadel supplies?"

Walenty remembered he'd sent troops to the Citadel earlier in this mess. Were they eating valuable supplies? Should he send extra rations over?

Was the Humans', he could no longer call the ships Geth, no matter what belief had been spread, ultimate plan to starve them? It hadn't seemed like it. It had seemed like they wanted at least a token fight but perhaps it had been the point of the trap all along.

"The Citadel is well supplied with emergency rations," the Executor said, "but there will be unrest when we instigate those protocols."

"Surely not!" With everything that had happened, surely the population of the Citadel realised that the entire galaxy was in a state of emergency?

Govinus clicked one mandible to show the irony of the situation. "I do not anticipate any issues with Turian residents. In fact, most have volunteered to re-enter active duty."

Walenty nodded. That was a common report throughout Turian settlements. Only the very old, the very young and the sick had not re-enlisted. They'd had to make allowances for pregnant females. They were allowed to re-enlist but were deliberately assigned administrative positions, no matter what their previous skills had been. It was with the reassurance that once they had delivered their child, they would be reassigned to something more appropriate for their skills.

"The rest of the citizens however," the Executor shrugged, holding up one clawed hand to indicate that he really didn't understand how they thought.

"You've secured the supplies?" Walenty asked.

"Yes. Most are already located in secured areas," Govinus added and the Admiral understood. The extra supplies were probably part of a Turian security initiative and thus were placed correctly to ensure that they were well protected in case of the worst. The Hierarchy had plans for almost every situation.

"For the moment," Walenty said slowly as the immediate tension faded and he shifted his feet on the holodisk to ease the pain, "I do not believe we need to do anything. The Salarians may yet open a Relay." Every tech with so much as a half-baked plan had been allowed to try it but so far nothing had worked. There was one ship dedicated to sending what had been the official codes to one of the Nebula's Relays in the hope that it would respond. They were currently working their way back through time, trying every set of codes that had been known to work, from every species. "But this is something we need to escalate," he added.

Walenty may be in charge of the fleet, but Primarch Victus would want to know, as would the Councillors. "I'll get back to you with how long the fleet supplies will last. I'd appreciate an estimate of how long until the Citadel must initiate its emergency protocols and then how long you believe the supplies will last."

"Thank you," Govinus said and the image blinked out, allowing Walenty to collapse back into a waiting chair.

His feet still hurt! But with everything that had been going on, it was the least of his worries. The Citadel was 42 clicks long, how were they going to go about distributing rations in the Wards? No, Walenty shook his head, that wasn't his issue and it wasn't even an issue. The Citadel was self powered, transport would not be a problem so long as the vehicles were not damaged. "Get me the Logistics Officer," Walenty ordered his aide as he raised one hand to rub at his eyebrow ridge.

Even in grief, even in rage, and anger, and pain, the problems just kept coming.

-cfr-

Apien Crest, Castellus System, Digeris Orbit

Shepard examined Digeris critically with his sensors. Fires raged unimpeded through several population centres, filling the atmosphere with smoke and ash. He knew only too well what the smell would be like and how each breath would be a chore, drawn against the heat. Shallow breaths but dying to breathe deeply. There was a storm brewing over what had been designated the south-western quadrant of the planet which would serve to extinguish the fires there, even as it started others. He could sense Turian lifeforms all over the planet. Some were deep and had to be in bunkers. Shepard added those locations to the combat database they were building, cross-referencing with the locations others had sensed. Most were on the surface, moving away from the fires or clustered together for what comfort they could provide each other. No doubt they would be fashioning weapons but those they could scavenge would be primitive.

The attack on Digeris had been very different from the attack on Palaven. Space defences had been swept away, including the newly laid mine fields and then, while small sections of the fleet broke off to destroy the inner system colonies, the rest of the fleet had spread out around Digeris in an ever shifting cordon and pounded the planet. Military bases, gun installations, water and sanitation infrastructure had been targeted first. Then every AA battery that had dared to fire had been destroyed with prejudice. Shepard was done playing but, while Palaven should have shown them the futility of combat, there was always the chance that they would dismiss that as being caused by Menae. It was time to show them how outclassed they truly were. The galaxy would know it, not by seeing the attack, this time Shepard had given orders that the comms were to be fully blocked, but by the time it took them to conquer another of the Turians' supposedly fiercely-guarded planets.

His sensors flared and Shepard shifted his attention. On the horizon, missiles rose from the planet's surface.

"Hit them again," he ordered coldly, lining up a shot on the planet before letting loose with his main weapon. The entire fleet followed suit, those closer to the missile silo honing in on it and destroying it. More dust and debris was thrown into the thickening Digeris air as the shots slammed into the surface. The slightest trace of resistance was met with a full salvo.

He couldn't afford anything less. Gathered near the Relay were the younger Human Ascended with Elysium in the lead. Shepard didn't need the cold silence from that ship to know that she did not approve but she, like him, obeyed Harbinger and Harbinger had given the orders. Surrounding the young ones was a horde of remotely controlled processing ships. At least, the younger Human Ascended were getting practice in remote piloting. They would practice the rest of their skills on Digeris.

"Bring them closer," Shepard ordered Elysium. Almost instantly, the fleet began moving towards Digeris, just as another salvo of missiles came from the planet.

Shepard didn't even need to give the order for another salvo to be launched at the planet. More dust erupted, making the atmosphere hotter and harder to breathe. Turian life signs blinked out under the attack but others remained. "Have we found the silos?" He sent the query to the network even as his own sensors remained focused on the surface, trying to identify something which would allow them to scan for locations of the missiles.

The query was met with silence until one of the youngest Ascended who had been considered trained enough to accompany the main fleet replied, sending a set of coordinates to the network, along with a scanning frequency. Shepard shifted his sensors to the pattern before locking on to the coordinates. Ah… there they were. With the right combination of sensors and patterns locked, the silos almost jumped out from the surface of Digeris.

"Hold fire!" Shepard ordered quickly before anyone could act. A feeling of surprise radiated from the fleet. "Let them think they are still hidden and initiate a global scan." Understanding replaced surprise and sensors were adjusted and a map very quickly built of the installations.

"They don't do things by half," Hackett murmured over a private channel, a grudging respect for the number and location of the silos underscoring his words.

Shepard could admit to a slight feeling of admiration but then, as he had told Fedorian, the Turians had always been the most like the Humans. "Imagine what we could have done with two and a half thousand years to prepare," he replied, sending estimates of the capacity of Human colonies to build defences. If allowed the time the Turians had, the Humans would have had far more installations. The estimate disregarded the vagaries of politics but Shepard had faith that Humanity would have done better.

"Scan complete," Miranda reported over the network. "Target assignment has begun," she added, and the list of installations blinked as she assigned names of Ascended to coordinates. Most Ascended had two targets while those at the poles had one. It was a fair assignment, though, based on current geographical locations in the shifting net they had arranged over Digeris.

"Everyone fire together," Shepard instructed, "in three, two, one." He paused, allowing his sense of the moment to stretch and the feeling of satisfaction to suffuse him. "Fire!"

Even as the length of his hull accelerated the round, Shepard could feel his internal mechanisms working to load another round. It was moments like this that reminded him that while he might think of himself as still Human, his physical form was not. It didn't feel wrong and that, in itself, was disconcerting. Mentally, Shepard shook his head, refocusing to revel in the strength it gave him. His form may no longer be Human but this was what had been necessary and he couldn't deny the rush of power that flew through him as the second round was chambered and ready for launch. "Second round, fire!"

The second round streaked towards Digeris even before the first wave had hit. Shepard knew that all the shots were true. Even those Ascended who were not militarily minded had been trained enough to be accurate at hitting stationary targets on a planet. "Begin low flight manoeuvres," Shepard ordered, ignoring the way the earlier rounds slammed into the surface. Explosions followed, more than could be accounted for signifying that at least some of the Turians hidden ordinance had detonated.

"Yes, sir!" several Ascended replied, and broke from the cordon.

Their purpose was simple. By now, the Turians had to be getting desperate. Their defensive fleet had been destroyed. Their ground based defences had been hit and while Shepard was now sure that they had found most of them, he was equally sure that there were a few installations which had survived. In order to find them, they would now present the Turians with a target. In their desperation, knowing that they could not win, but wanting to hurt the enemy, those few installations which had survived to this point would fire if they thought they could strike back. So, several Ascended would now make themselves targets by diving into the atmosphere, skimming over the surface of the planet then pulling up. They were in no danger. While the Ascended were entering Digeris' gravity well, they weren't settling into the atmosphere, as such, there would not be much drain on their shields so even if a shot did hit, it would not hurt them.

He watched the ships streaking through the edges of the atmosphere. From the ground, assuming you could see through the dirt, ash and smoke filling the air, it would be rather beautiful. The first wave passed through without attracting fire. The Turians had held their nerve.

"Second pass, go!" Shepard ordered. It would only take one. Another lot of Ascended broke from their positions, heading into Digeris atmosphere.

"There!" Udina almost shouted over the network. A couple of AA guns had fired. Their rounds never even came close to the Ascended, who were moving too fast but they did betray their location.

Three Ascended fired on each and Shepard almost laughed. This was almost too easy. Except he knew such thinking led to complacency and that was not acceptable. "Third pass," he ordered. The Turians would know their game but it was not as if they had much choice.

"If any of the younglings get so much as a scratch, Shepard," Elysium growled on a private channel.

"I know," he replied. "I will answer to you."

The other Ascended said nothing.

"The Turians will be suitably subdued," Shepard assured Elysium.

"Fourth pass," he instructed. This time it was his turn and as Shepard dropped out of position, he enjoyed the feel of atmosphere on his hull. It was a resistance, one that made him push his mass effect fields harder to drive himself onwards. His form might not be Human but there was no way a Human form could dive into atmosphere and then pull up. There was freedom in the way he could move now and Shepard felt most of those in his being enjoying it. They couldn't change what had happened but they could enjoy it.

Almost as soon as he began descending, he felt his threat warnings become active. "Looks like they waited for us, boss," Fredricks laughed.

"It does, doesn't it," Shepard agreed, amused. Several RPGs had been launched and five AA batteries lit up the ground in their effort to hit him.

"Well, it's a good thing we know what to do," Pressly commented.

Shepard felt his legs move without conscious command, targeting and firing on the installations which tried to hit him. Those Turians with RPGs found the ground around them heated to super hot temperatures almost instantly as his weaponry struck. All too quickly, the attack was over and, as Shepard pulled himself back up through Digeris' atmosphere, re-entering the cordon, he tucked his legs back in under his form.

The Turians were so predictable.

"Fifth wave go," he said, watching as they moved.

The waves continued, shifting the Ascended in the cordon, but always enticing the Turians to fire but when five waves crossed over the planet, deliberately dipping low over the ravaged population centres and there was no fire drawn, Shepard felt safe in assuming that most of the remaining Turian forces were too cowed to fight back. At least, they wouldn't fight the ships but that said nothing about Turians strapping themselves with explosives and hurling themselves at invading troops or attempting to lay minefields on the ground to catch the Ascended unawares. It was time to persuade them that it would not be a good idea. "Target population centres," he ordered over the network.

"They are already down!" Aphrodite objected, referring to what remained of the Turian's battered cities. Her subchannels reminded him that they needed Turians to Ascend.

"And I want to ensure that they remain down," Shepard replied. "Target lock," he instructed immediately, not giving Aphrodite further time to object. He watched the tactical display to ensure an even spread. "Fire!"

"Again."

Two waves of rounds strong enough to pierce directly through the shields and hull of any dreadnought streaked again towards Digeris, slamming into the already devastated cities. It was a tribute to how hard the Turians had already been hit that when the rounds hit, there were very few secondary explosions and only a few new fires started. Several more buildings collapsed but they were localised effects. More importantly, in the aftermath, there was no further attempts at retaliation.

Shepard remained silent as he surveyed Digeris, allowing himself to orbit the planet once with the movement of the cordon. "That should be sufficient," he said both to the network and to Elysium's fleet which was now gathering in one of the Lagrange points. It acknowledged Aphrodite's point. The Turians remaining could be Ascended.

"It does seem suitable," Elysium replied, allowing her transmission to be heard by all. It cut through objections from some that Shepard had hit the planet too hard, killing too many Turians. "We'll know for sure once we begin landing."

"Are you ready?" Shepard asked.

"Yes," she said, and the fleet moved again, this time spreading as they approached Digeris.

Those Ascended forming the cordon watched as Elysium entered the atmosphere, a small horde of remotely controlled ships surrounding her. She headed for the outskirts of the capital Apparitus and there was a feeling of jubilation when Elysium made landfall without being fired upon. The processing ships were landed around her and the Ascended watched as husks streamed out.

It was a beautiful sight, Shepard reflected, continuing to watch as the first husks encountered Turians and began herding the still shell-shocked civilians into hastily erected holding pens. He didn't realise he'd been watching for several hours until Elysium sent him a pointed signal. "Time to move on, Shepard."

The fleet roused with the signal, and those in Elysium's fleet began descending to the surface.

"Will there be sufficient Turians?" Shepard asked.

"I believe so, though a few more colonies can be Ascended."

"We'll see to it," Shepard agreed. It should be simple enough to pick a few more Turian populations to ascend. They could always incorporate more into the Turian Ascended. "You'll move to attend to them?"

"Yes," Elysium replied sharply and implied in the tone was the question of if Shepard was an idiot! Of course, Elysium and the more experienced youngsters would move. She would not allow the newly awakened Ascended onto newly subdued planets. As they awakened, after a week or so of minimal training, they would be escorted to Digeris to continue operations here, and even then they may only take part in the ferrying of the Ascended Turians to Sol. While the youngest may not yet have the training that the elder Human Ascended had, they would be protected as much as they could be.

"I'll leave a small contingent here," Shepard informed Elysium. He couldn't make any overt move to protect the younger Ascended but that would not prevent him acting when he could. The entire fleet would be on alert for any distress calls and would heed them.

"No!" Zaeed objected, instantly realising who would be a part of that contingent.

"Yes," Shepard insisted. "The alternative is to return to Sol," he added. "Sirta needs stability to complete repairs."

Zaeed mentally glowered over the network but subsided. Going back to Sol would be worse.

"Remaining here will take at least four weeks off the repair time," Sirta messaged Zaeed.

"It better."

"It will," Sirta replied, almost laughing. Zaeed would follow her directions, if only to be repaired faster.

"All right," Shepard said, cutting through other distractions. "After rearming at Fiax, we'll begin to disperse to other Turian colonies." They didn't have to rearm at Fiax. They all carried more than enough ordinance for many more campaigns, but it would delay their departure in case anything went awry and remaining fully armed in a harvest was always a good policy, especially when it was organic stockpiles you were raiding.

"Don't go too fast," Elysium warned, but was tactful enough to put the warning through on a private channel.

"We'll see," Shepard replied. "We'll probably have to spend quite a bit of time chasing down the final fleets and hold-out colonies on out of the way asteroids," he added easily. The reality of the harvest was that the most time would be spent in the processing of those to be Ascended, and in tracking down and destroying their presence.

Just like the races of this cycle knew of the Protheans, so would the next know that there had been other species older than them. But not too much knowledge. It was a delicate balance, leaving enough knowledge for them to speculate but never enough for the races to follow to know.

"Remember, no one is to travel in a fleet of anything less than ten," Shepard continued.

"We remember," Necromancer interrupted before Shepard could truly begin his speech. "The biggest worry will be if the Turians get creative," he added. Carried on his words were thoughts of all the forbidden weapons the Turians might try.

"I think we must assume that they will get creative," Ares said.

"They will," Hackett agreed, "which is why the ten ship minimum fleet size has been established. The Council is unlikely to gather its remaining forces together, so a fleet of ten will be able to fight equally with any force they do gather. In order to combat us, they are going to have to resort to ambush tactics. That is when they will ignore their conventions."

"Heh," came a coarse laugh. "It's not like we would have obeyed them in their situation," was the comment.

"As true as that is, it simply reinforces the fact that we must be careful," Anderson said.

"We will be," Moxum reiterated, speaking for the entire fleet. "And we will add information found about colonies to the list," he added for good measure.

"Okay," Shepard said, allowing his tone to convey a sense of long suffering patience. "Saying anything more is pointless. Let's go."

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 21: Communications Breakdown

-cfr-

Orbit of Tuchanka, Turian Dreadnought,  Pride in Vigilance

"Sir, you have to sleep!"

"I'll sleep when I'm dead!" Tarquin snarled at his XO.

"Sir, you've been awake for three days, you must rest." The officer was not dismayed, though he was slightly concerned about the use of Human phrases. While he had gotten somewhat accustomed to them over the last few years, right at the moment, they were not necessary. The Council said the ships were Geth but anyone with eyes could see that they sported Human tagging. It made Lucitus uncomfortable.

"When the time line is complete," Tarquin said in a much softer tone.

His XO took a deep breath. Lucitus was an older Turian, one who had spent his entire career in the military. He had always been perfectly respectful and a very good XO. Even with the age difference, there had never been a feeling that the older Turian resented Tarquin's rise through the ranks. "The timeline is as complete as we are capable of getting it with what we have, Sir. The comm techs are awaiting further information packets before they can continue."

Captain Tarquin Victus closed his eyes and took his own deep breath as he leaned back in his chair. "One more time, then I'll sleep," he conceded before opening his eyes and looking without seeing at the multitude of data pads scattered over his desk. Two hours should be enough.

"Yes, Sir," Lucitus said, knowing he'd won, for the moment and being calm enough to not push for further concessions. He swallowed hard picking up one of the data pads, tapping the screen to bring up the summary they had been working on.

"A day after the unknown ships left the Citadel-"

"No! That is not necessary."

"Yes," Lucitus said softly. He agreed with Tarquin. They, like every Turian in the galaxy knew what had happened after the unknown ships left the Citadel. "The ships were at the Citadel for a total of five days. They appeared all at once, at approximately Xtime."

"And before that?" Tarquin asked. What happened before the Citadel was important. The problem was that there was so much data to go through, and at least some of it had been lost with Trebia.

"Our techs believe that before that the vessels were in the Turian Corridor but there are no reports of anything traversing relays to get there," Lucitus gave the summary.

"They have to have come from somewhere," Tarquin stated the obvious.

While he knew the information, Lucitus consulted the data pad. "The are no reports of patrols going missing in any part of the galaxy for at least a month before that."

Tarquin's eyes narrowed. He was aware of that. No Turian patrol had gone missing and it was impossible for that many ships to slip through anywhere without encountering at least one patrol. "Asari or Salarian patrols?"

"Their information isn't as complete as ours," Lucitus remarked, "but none of their patrols are missing either."

As soon as the threat appeared, everyone began trying to track them. Except the invaders had proved very good at covering their tracks. Tarquin's eyes narrowed. They all had to be overlooking somethi-

"What about since they appeared?" he demanded. Spirits! Surely not!

"Sir?"

"Has anyone lost patrols after the ships appeared?" Tarquin rephrased the question, a sick feeling that had nothing to do with fatigue washing through him. Everyone had been so focused on the invading ships and their presence at the Citadel and then in Trebia that something like a missing patrol could easily have been overlooked. Patrols ran late, some still had comm issues, there was a multitude of reasons not to worry about a patrol that ran a few days late, especially if your attention was focused elsewhere. But if he accepted that the invading ships had to have encountered at least one patrol on their way into civilised space, then he accepted the possibility that they had faked some routine transmissions. And they could have continued faking them until they were in the open.

"I'll check." Lucitus tapped the data pad screen, a note of worry in his voice. That alone was enough to tell Tarquin that his question held merit.

The Hierarchy's overview of patrol sectors appeared on the main screen. In a society as regimented as the Turians, there were always summary reports and charts available. The military was no different and the upper ranks reviewed the summary reports each day to ensure that all was well. Even Tarquin did, checking the reports submitted by the Division Heads for each part of his beloved ship, and the reports submitted by the Captains of the Pride's escorting cruisers and frigates. It was such a part of his routine that he did not think about it but only acted if anything was amiss.

There was something amiss on the chart before him.

Sector after sector displayed the all clear check mark. All patrols completed on time, without issue. Several Traverse patrols indicated pirate activity but when Tarquin ran his eyes back over the last few weeks, the symbol for pirate activity was intermittently present in their reports. Batarian border patrol, as he deemed it, the Expedition's Area was all clear as well and connected to that was Human Border Patrol. And against that sector, there was one check mark so ostentatiously missing that Tarquin couldn't believe that it hadn't been spotted.

Arcturus.

It wasn't just the symbol for one or two patrols not reporting in. The entire symbol was missing. That meant Sector Command had not yet made their routine reports.

"Get me Arcturus Sector Command," Tarquin growled, all signs of weariness leaving him as he sat up, his eyes burning. It was a temporary strength and soon faded.

"Sir!" Lucitus saluted crisply before reaching over to the comms.

The wait felt like it took forever, and Tarquin strictly controlled his breathing while his comm techs went through the steps required to contact a Sector Command. He kept his eyes fixed on the missing Arcturus symbol until its absence screamed too loudly to him and he forced his eyes onwards, looking to his own check marks for Aralakh. Each mark was there, delivered on time, without issue. It should have filled him with pride but he felt nothing looking at it.

"Sir, the techs report that Arcturus Sector Command is not responding." Lucitus' voice was heavy.

Tarquin nodded slowly. What the hell was Illo thinking? His friend wasn't in Sector Command but he knew how important that area was! They had to report.

Unless they couldn't report. The thought came all too quickly.

"Keep trying," he ordered slowly. He had to report this. "And order the techs to raise a comm on my private frequency to the Arcturus Patrol ship, Gover."

Lucitus tapped a few keys, not surprised by the orders. It had been a bit of a surprise to find that his Captain maintained a strong friendship with a mere cruiser captain but it became understandable once Lucitus discovered that they had both been on the Expedition. Still, he knew that Victus was genuinely fond of Nazario.

"Sir, will you rest now?" Lucitus asked. Raising a link to a patrol ship took some time, no matter who ordered it. You had to locate them first.

"I suppose I must," Tarquin agreed, getting up slowly. He might not feel it, but Lucitus could see the way his legs trembled slightly. "But three hours only!"

For one long moment, Lucitus considered disobeying. Tarquin needed more than three hours sleep. They all did but then he nodded knowing that Victus, like him, like most of the crew, wouldn't be able to sleep more than three hours without nightmares. They all saw the same thing.

Menae falling. Palaven burning.

"I'll make sure someone wakes you Sir."

Tarquin nodded, moving stiffly to the sleeping pod he had been using. "Three hours," he repeated. There wasn't anything further to say. In three hours, the comm techs would either have raised Arcturus or they would have answers. Tarquin wasn't sure which outcome he wanted.

"Yes, Sir."

-cfr-

Three hours passing saw Lucitus standing in Tarquin's office again, a fresh batch of data pads strewn over the desk as the Captain sat in his chair, right mandible resting on his hand as he carefully rubbed his eyes. It was obvious to Lucitus that just keeping them open was painful for the younger Turian but he could offer no respite. They all needed more sleep but none of them were getting it, at least, not until they almost literally passed out. At that point, while it was a gross break in discipline, Lucitus knew most of the crew was covering for each other. Rest came infrequently when all they could see was wanton destruction.

"Palaven?" he asked softly. The nightmares were recurring.

Tarquin groaned and shook his head slightly. "Menae," he croaked.

Lucitus nodded before pushing a measure of water over the data pads. Tarquin had probably put it there earlier but not drunk. Tarquin had spent a lot of time on Menae, it was only logical that he would have nightmares about that moon as well. The captain picked it up with a small grateful nod and downed it.

"Do we have the reports?" Tarquin asked, breathing audibly, eyes blinking as he stared at the screen.

To be fair, for all his seeming composure, Lucitus wasn't doing much better. His body was trembling with exhaustion and the dimmed lights were the only reason he could focus on the data pads. Anger and rage only took you so far after all. He could dimly recall his training, and the patient instructions from the old Turian who took on the new recruits. She had explained that in the life of a soldier, anger and rage had its place but it was not enough.

Yet it was all the Turians had now, and Lucitus was thankful that Laverna had died before she saw this.

"Arcturus sector command made every report up to the Attack but has not been heard from since," Lucitus summarised the information the techs had gotten. He couldn't say the attack on Palaven. None of them could. And really, there was no need to do so. For now, it was simply the Attack.

"Is there any possibility the reports before that were faked?" Tarquin demanded. There was no point in looking through reports if it did not track the enemy.

"One report, about # days before the Attack was late but they put that down to a late report from a patrol," Lucitus said after consulting the data pad. "If the reports have been faked then they are very good forgeries," he added.

All the digital signatures had checked out. If they hadn't, there would already have been a flag on Arcturus, especially with the Invaders bearing Human names.

"Which-" Tarquin's question was interrupted by a loud comm bleep.

"Sir! We have five unauthorised shuttles launching from Tuchanka!"

Tarquin winced before stabbing a claw at the link. "Caelinus, remind the Salarians that they have to schedule their launches," he growled. Unauthorised shuttle launches always turned out to be some Salarian team which just hadn't filled out the right paperwork. This might be Tuchanka but paperwork was still required.

"Sir, scans indicate that the vessels are not Salarian."

"Then what are they?" Tarquin demanded, looking up at Lucitus.

"Unknown, sir. They appear to be a mish-mash of parts."

There were only two species who would build a space-going vessel from whatever they could lay their hands on, Quarians and Krogan, and the Quarians weren't here.

"Full alert!" Lucitus ordered as Tarquin rose, grabbing the jacket of his uniform and flicking it around his shoulders before striding towards the bridge. Lucitus fell in behind him and could see the younger Turian's mandibles moving even though he couldn't hear what his Captain was saying. He didn't need to hear.

With recent events, they had expected the Krogan to test the boundaries and in typical barbarian style, they chose the worst timing to do so. This was not going to be pretty.

"Send them the usual cease and desist," Tarquin ordered the instant his claw touched the decking of the bridge."

"Already done, Sir," Caelinus replied. "Their reply does not bear translating." Despite the severity of the situation, and of recent events, Comm Chief Caelinus had not changed.

Tarquin's mandible twitched. "Put me on," he ordered, looking at the tactical display. The shuttles were clustered together as they burned through the wasted atmosphere of Tuchanka. "Warm up the guns," he added. He could feel how this would end but he would obey protocol.

Caelinus took a moment before signalling that they were ready for him to speak. "This is Captain Tarquin Victus of the Turian Dreadnought Pride in Vigilance deployed on the Council-mandated blockade of Tuchanka. You are entering restricted space without proper authorisation."

"The Council isn't in charge anymore!" came a growled reply.

Victus didn't need the translation to hear the mocking tone. "Transportation above 10,000 m is prohibited without authorisation. If you enter the exclusion zone, we are authorised to fire."

"Thanix cannons ready." Tarquin recognised Rufina's voice. "Locking on now," came the follow up.

"You birds have no authority on Tuchanka!"

For one long moment, Tarquin stood still. The words of the protocol he should follow halted on his tongue as he continued to watch the tactical display. The height limit was clearly defined in yellow and the red dots of the Krogan vessels were getting closer and closer to it. He glanced towards Lucitus but the older Turian showed nothing, his visage was calm and proper. He was a good Turian, Tarquin knew. Still, as his eye lingered, Tarquin saw the smallest twitch in Lucitus left mandible.

He turned his attention back to the tactical display, ignoring the way the bridge crew was looking at him. They all knew the protocol. They knew what he should say. Except the protocol had never really been tested and every lesson Tarquin had ever had on Krogan said they responded only to one thing.

"I think you will find that I do," he snarled the reply.

"Target lock," Rufina reported.

"Destroy them," Tarquin ordered. The ships were still below the exclusion zone but he didn't care.

Rufina didn't even hesitate or ask for clarification and Tarquin felt a small surge of satisfaction. There would be no warning shots this time. "Damn it!" Rufina snarled. "They scattered," she added for the benefit of the crew, "but we got one. The others are still ascending."

"The Glaive and Spear are firing," Caelinus said and one of the view screens changed to show the view from the gun cameras. The Krogan shuttles were darker dots against the grey background of the planet. Two briefly flared becoming a bright fireball as they fell back through the atmosphere.

The two remaining shuttle trajectories were separating but well within the firing range of the blockade fleet. The Krogans had been stupid to attempt to flee Tuchanka right under their noses but Tarquin knew it wasn't as if there had been much choice. Most of Tuchanka was a wasteland, not fit for habitation. It made the blockade very cost effective in terms of ships. But why hadn't the shuttles at least tried to avoid it?

Tarquin felt his eyes narrow. "Order the Harrow and its frigates to orbit this worthless rock now," he ordered. "Make sure this is not a diversion. Rufina, drop the last of the shuttles now!"

"Yes Sir!" There came the cries of obedience and Tarquin watched the tactical display. The three dots of the Krogan shuttles were highlighted and he recognized the targeting information intermingled with the projections of course. The tactical information changed to yellow when the shots were launched and then the dots disappeared. A glance at the view screens showing the gun camera feeds showed that the shuttles were nothing more than burning metal now.

Then one erupted into white. The other two view screens pulsed with light.

"What was that?" Tarquin demanded.

Silence met his question for a few moments but he could hear the tap of claw on controls as his crew assessed the sensors.

"Some sort of detonation," Rufina replied the first. "Initiating scans."

The view screen that had been white was slowly fading and Tarquin wasn't the only one to glance at the other screens in time to see the shock wave travel over them. The clouds were pushed away.

"Nuclear!" Rufina yelled.

"EMP wave?"

"Not large enough to affect us."

There bridge was awash with the voices of the techs as they worked.

Tarquin felt a moment of cold before it passed. They hadn't fired a nuke tip. The detonation was obviously something on one of the shuttles. Those stupid overbearing idiotic Krogan! They couldn't even build a warhead correctly! It shouldn't have gone off, so either they had set it off themselves, just as the shuttle was destroyed, or the destruction triggered it. Either was viable.

"What are the casualties on the surface?" He interjected the question into the work chatter of the bridge staff.

"Nothing at the moment, but fall out will be an issue," came the reply.

"Send a transmission to whoever is in charge down there. Make sure they know that it was not our warhead and impress upon them the fact that the blockade will be maintained," Tarquin ordered. Turians were trained to obey so no one objected but what most of the galaxy didn't know is that while Turians were trained to obey, there were signs by which they could show their disagreement or displeasure with an order. A glare, a mandible click, a huff, a sigh, even the way their claws tapped at the control screens. An experienced commander could listen to the working noise of his subordinates and know their feelings.

Right now, that working noise spoke of commitment. The crew was fully willing to carry out his orders and Tarquin knew why. It was the same reason he was willing to give those orders. In front of the whole galaxy, the Turians had been challenged. And then they had lost. But rather than cower, rather than just bow down, they would fight, they would make the invaders pay. In doing so, though, any other challenges would be responded to swiftly and brutally. They could not afford distractions.

The Krogan were a distraction but thankfully so long as he was willing, they were one that could be contained. Tarquin, like the rest of his crew, was willing. As minor and as unimportant as it was in the greater scheme of things, besting the Krogan shuttles gave a sense of purpose, a sense of strength, and they needed that now.

"The Harrow reports no other containment breaches."

"Good," Tarquin nodded. The Krogan really were too straightforward. There were battle masters who had a grasp of strategy but on the whole, most just rushed towards what they wanted with a single minded intent.

"Lucitus, which reports were late?" The question indicated his dismissal of the Krogan and the crew went back to their routine work.

The older Turian clicked one mandible at him, settling into a work station and bringing up several screens worth of reports. The click wasn't in frustration but to show he understood. Yet even as controlled as Lucitus was, he couldn't help but flinch before he said the next words. He knew many of Tarquin's friends. "It was the Sol Relay Patrol."

While the rest of the bridge crew didn't have quite as close a relationship with their captain as the XO did, they knew well enough that Tarquin Victus had gone on the Expedition and was friends with the leader of the Sol Relay Patrol. They knew that because they knew that Cruiser Captain Illo Nazario was Victus' first choice for XO, a choice that had been denied both by the Hierarchy and the Captain in question.

"Illo was late?" Tarquin asked, his voice so quiet that it was almost unfluted.

"Arcturus Command indicates that it was due to a comm buoy malfunction which the Sol Relay Patrol fixed as soon as they became aware of it."

"Get me that report," Tarquin ordered.

"Sir, Intelligence will be working on it," Lucitus tried to reason with his Captain. Tarquin didn't need to be the one to confirm that his friend was dead. It went unspoken that Intelligence was now whatever remnants that were in the surviving territory.

"Get me that report," Tarquin repeated. "Intelligence doesn't know Illo like I do. They will look for the usual identity tags to determine if the report was faked. I will look at the report."

"I'll see what I can do," Lucitus said, hiding his resignation. Tarquin was a good Turian, but once he got something through his mind, that was the end of the matter.

"Good," Tarquin said, closing his eyes briefly and Lucitus could see that the Captain was internally bracing himself. A moment later, his eyes reopened and he picked up one of the data pads and started tapping at it.

Lucitus saluted before Tarquin looked up. He didn't need to be told that his duty was to get the report.

Now.

-cfr-

Apien Crest, Gemmae System, Human Ascended Attack Fleet

"Harbinger," Shepard initiated the link to the eldest Ascended, deliberately casting his tone to be as neutral as possible. Ascended had emotion but they were not meant to be guided by their passions. "The harvest has begun on Digeris," he reported.

"Where are you?" The demand was instantaneous.

Shepard was thankful that he'd left the Castellus system containing Digeris because he could answer the Ascended leader honestly. He knew he couldn't lie to Harbinger. He could omit some facts but he could not lie. None of them could and he already knew that Harbinger would not be tolerant if he was still in Castellus. "I'm leaving Gemmae now," he reported.

"There are no organics there," Harbinger observed. While the Human network was predominantly limited to use by Human Ascended, Arshan and Fruben also used it, and some of the information summaries were being transmitted to the rest of the Ascended fleet to keep them informed. Beyond that, Gemmae was a small system, without planets. There was very little reason for him to be in Gemmae.

"The Turian's main fuel supply has been neutralised," Shepard reported, providing details of the battle on a sub channel.

It was almost a waste to send approximately 150 ships but there was a large military presence. Or there had been. Shepard wouldn't tell Harbinger, but it had been fun to attack without care. There had been no disabling shots, just pure destruction. There would be similar attacks nearer to the end of the harvest but anything they destroyed then would already be defeated. It would not be a battle, merely clean up.

The Turians had stationed two dreadnoughts, their attendant fleets and several cruiser fleets in Gemmae. All had been wiped out culminating in the destruction of the solar collectors and receptors before they cracked open Pheiros, which resulted in a glorious explosion of anti-protons. For a few moments, it had burned brighter than any sun Shepard had seen before fading into the darkness of space.

The explanation seemed to satisfy Harbinger. Destroying large stockpiles of fuel and equipment was just a part of the cycle but before Shepard could relax, he felt Harbinger calculating the distances and knew a challenge would come. He and his fleet were not far enough from Castellus.

"You took time in Digerus." The words were deceptively simple, the challenge anything but.

"The planet was properly subdued," Shepard replied.

"Overly subdued," Harbinger accused.

Shepard felt like a small child being scolded. "I was nervous," he said, making the admission grudgingly. While it was true, to him it was so obvious that it was not the real reason he had remained in Digeris.

Harbinger considered it for a few milliseconds. "It is your first harvest," he said finally.

"Yes," Shepard agreed, reinforcing the fact that, in Harbinger's eyes, he was still absurdly young.

Then Harbinger said something that left him shocked. "You may consult with Arshan or Fruben as required." It was not the fact that Harbinger had suggested that the other Ascended advise, it was the fact that there was no implication that if they made a decision, he had to obey. He was allowing Shepard to remain in control.

"Ascended Turians will be shipped to Sol," Shepard responded.

"They will be Ascended into destroyers," Harbinger said, answering the unspoken question.

"Not a prime?" Shepard asked carefully. He didn't even need to think to know that there would be at least 25 Turian destroyers made but even with the loss of Palaven, there would be enough Turians Ascended to create a dreadnought class Ascended.

"No. Even without your race's surprising proposition, the Turians were never candidates to become a prime," Harbinger explained. The eldest Ascended did not think Shepard stupid or weak for asking, rather he viewed the information as something he was obliged to impart as part of his duty towards educating younger Ascended.

"We are heading to the Aethon Cluster," Shepard said. "More Turian colonies will be Ascended, though some will be converted into ground fodder."

"Very well," Harbinger agreed. "Harvest the Turians before moving on," he instructed, "but do not underestimate the strength of a new Ascended."

Mentally, Shepard winced. Harbinger hadn't believed him, at least, not entirely. "Yes Sir," he replied, offering no further explanations or justifications. Even as a Human, he knew when to keep his mouth shut.

"Good," the Ascended leader said before the connection was cut.

Shepard set his sensors to look back at the scattered remains of Pheiros and the solar collectors. He felt nothing but a sense of satisfaction. This was what was.

-cfr-

Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium

Liara sat with her hands clasped. There were no data pads, no holograms, no information packs before her. What she was about to talk about was all in her head. Things from her days on the Normandy and after. Shiala was behind her again. Liara was thankful for the older Asari's calming hands on her shoulders.

Over the last few years, there had been times when she had resented the woman's guidance. It was sometimes overprotective and, while Liara knew Shiala was only trying to honour her mother's memory, it was stifling. She was thankful to the woman now. While Shiala was only lightly rubbing her shoulders, it was a comforting warmth and one Liara felt she would need.

The holograms weren't life-sized but Liara could see the number of comm links blinking on the equipment in front of her. She knew who was on the other side of those links. The Council, most of what was left of the Turian Hierarchy's Primarchs, the Asari Military Matriarchs, Salarian High Command and Dalatrasses. Anyone who was anyone would be listening to her. She had always hoped one day to be in a position where her research changed the galaxy, when those in authority knew the truth of the past because she had discovered it. She just wished it was not now.

Not with a hostile force running rampant through the galaxy, destroying colonies and planets at will. Not when that hostile force had Human names.

"Everyone is on, Little Bird," Shiala said softly.

Liara nodded. Her hologram was being projected so they would see the movement. She took a deep breath, wondering how exactly she should start and what they wanted to hear. All she had been told was that the Council wanted to hear about her findings while on the Normandy but that was such a vague subject.

"Good afternoon, everyone," she said politely, happy that her voice was firm. "My name is Liara T'Soni, an Asari archaeologist, specialising in Prothean Extinction. The Council has asked me to speak about my time on the Human vessel, SSV Normandy SR-1."

"We wish to know specifically about your findings about Spectre Saren Arterius."

Liara blinked. They wanted to know about Saren Arterius? Surely, they already knew everything there was to know? She gathered her thoughts and after another deep breath, she began. "While the Humans had worked with Saren Arterius before the events on Eden Prime, the events there are the ones which revealed to the Humans the depths of Arterius' hatred. While it was a Human accusation, I believe it to be true that Saren killed Nihlus Kryik.

"I will not discuss that. The Eden Prime mission occurred before I was with the Normandy however it is the first time that Saren Arterius' ship appeared. It was the same ship that later attacked the Citadel. And it is ships of the same design that are now attacking the galaxy.

"The obvious assumption is that because Arterius was known to have Geth troops, that the ship was a Geth construct but it is not."

"How do you know that?" one of those listening demanded. A Salarian, Liara thought. One of the male scientists.

Shiala's hands on her shoulders squeezed for a moment and Liara rolled them to show her appreciation. "Because during my research into the Prothean extinction, I have come across other images of these ships."

That brought silence over the comm links. They all understood the implications. The Protheans disappeared approximately fifty thousand years ago. The Geth were created in the last five hundred years.

"You are sure it was those ships?" This time Liara assumed it was a Matriarch who spoke.

"I am positive," Liara said firmly. "The theory that the Protheans moved on, or evolved into something greater than us, is flawed. The Protheans were driven to their extinction by an unknown and powerful force."

"You are saying it was these ships?"

"The image that I found was very clear that the ship was an enemy," her voice was sure.

"Were there any markings on the image?"

"None," Liara replied quickly, knowing why they were asking. The ships attacking all bore Human markings. "Nor do I know how the Humans might have contacted the force."

"Wait just a minute!" came an outraged objection. "You do not know that the Humans have contacted them! And even if they did, where did these supposed super-ships go for fifty thousand years?"

Liara lowered her eyes, studying her hands. Shiala massaged her shoulders as she tensed and after a few breaths, Liara allowed herself to smile. It was a sad smile as she reviewed the information in her mind. It didn't matter if those listening didn't like it, as far as she could tell it was the truth. If they had the courage to ask other archeologists for the true history of the Protheans, rather than the sanitised version, they would learn that at least part of her theory was actually fact.

"I don't know where they go but they are here now. There is knowledge contained within the archeological community. It is knowledge not well accepted or spread to the general populace but it is an accepted fact that before the Protheans populated the galaxy, there were other, older races, and before them, there were yet others. We do not know their names and we only have a few relics to prove their existence but they did exist! While I was on the Normandy, I had access to Shepard's records of his battles with Saren, and the information that he and others gathered. Since then I have had time to analyse and supplement that information.

"The Geth followed Saren's ship because they believed it to be a machine god. Saren originally thought that it was a weapon, however he discovered that it was alive, and I believe, he discovered the fate of the previous races in the galaxy. I believe, through information my mother provided-" At this Shiala's hands gripped tight. "-that Saren was trying to find a way to help save us but that he was corrupted along the way.

"His ship was part of a force that wiped out the Protheans, and every other advanced race before that. It is a cycle but I do not know what they believe their purpose is. The 'Sovereign' controlled Saren, using him for his own means, most likely to conquer or at least divide the galaxy.

"It was on the Sovereign's orders that he built his army, though Saren was only aware of that at the end which is why he committed suicide-"

"Tell us about the ship!" The demand came from a Turian.

"The Sovereign, as Saren named his flagship, was an ancient being capable of controlling organics. It was, as you are all aware, very powerful and took the combined fleets of the Citadel and two Human fleets to defeat."

"That is all information we know! Shepard promised us you had answers."

"Shepard?!" Liara gasped. They had spoken to Shepard? After all this time.

Someone, a Turian, and Liara thought it was likely to be the Councillor, took a deep breath. "There have been some limited communications with the attacking forces. An image that calls itself Shepard has been their main spokesperson."

"It's Shepard?" Liara asked, her shoulders tense, despite the warmth from Shiala's hands.

"It claims to be Shepard," another Turian spoke. The voice was more authoritative and Liara guessed it was Primarch Victus. "The image is very lifelike but is generated, and has not aged. Yet, whatever is behind it, it has detailed knowledge of the Human's past."

Liara bit her lip. Shepard was alive? With the Rebellion that the Humans called a war, she hadn't kept up with information. It hurt too much. She'd instead immersed herself in research. It was selfish and childish but it was what she had done. She couldn't bear to hear the reports of Humans killing. She didn't want to hear the news that he had been killed.

She looked down. "Saren's ship was known as the Vanguard," she whispered the words. "Shepard knew that. He knew what the ship does to organics. He would have known that he could not make a bargain. He would not ha-"

"He would if he was desperate," someone interposed. The voice sounded Salarian.

"The Rebellion?" another asked.

"The Humans called it a War," the voice Liara had decided was Primarch Victus interrupted. "And we made them that desperate."

"So that is what happened? The force that killed the Protheans returned and the Humans somehow made a deal with them?" The words were spat and Liara knew it was Councillor Irissa speaking. The woman was earnest enough in representing the Asari's interest but she was not… she was too earnest. She did not accept other points of view which led to her being short sighted at times. This was one of them.

"If they have," Liara began before anyone could begin bickling, "then it is no longer Saren's army of Geth, Krogan and Rachni that we will be fighting, rather it will be an army of Humans."

"It was not Humans which attacked Palaven," Primarch Victus said. "There was some limited footage sent through. The ground troops were bipedal but they were not Human."

"May I see?" Liara asked, a cold feeling filling her.

A moment later a file blipped through to her and Liara stabbed a finger at the omni-tool to open it. The cold feeling exploded.

"They are Husks," she announced, feeling sick as she remembered how they were made. What had the Humans agreed to?

"Reports indicated that they were exceedingly capable."

"They are dead."

"What?"

"They are dead," Liara repeated. "Husks are a synthetic-organic abomination. They are created by impaling a living Human and turning their internal organs into cybernetic enhancements."

"There were approximately 8 billion Humans in Sol," one of the Salarians said. "Assuming a 5% growth rate over forty years means we could be looking at an army of at least sixty two billion."

"Then why did they not just land so many troops on Palaven that we could not breath?" came a snarl.

"Because this is no longer a war." This time Liara recognised the voice of Councillor Quentius. "Shepard said it himself, they've moved beyond that war. It is about vengeance now because somehow, they did make an alliance."

"Except Shepard said that it wasn't really an alliance," Irissa said.

"It doesn't matter what he said, we have to deal with the reality." The words came from one of the Matriarchs and Liara could tell that they were designed to calm Irissa.

"There's a problem. While I agree the ships are very powerful, I do not believe that three hundred dreadnoughts alone could destroy the galaxy-wide Prothean empire."

It was a Salarian who said that. Emotion didn't travel well over comms but Liara could feel that most of those gathered agreed with the sentiment. Agreement was tinged with anger and frustration from the Turians. Like it or not, they were not as powerful as the Protheans.

After a moment, Liara was surprised when Shiala spoke. "My Lords and Ladies, regardless of existing beliefs about the Protheans' disappearance, there is an unknown and powerful force ravaging the galaxy. They bear the same design as the ship which was acknowledged to belong to Spectre Saren Arterius and they also bear Human markings. Communication from those ships uses a Human spokesperson, who is on record as stating that the attacks are about vengeance. There are three implications that the statement that it is not an alliance tells me. One, there could be more of the force out there. Two, there is the possibility that the Humans hired that force or three, the Humans could have joined that force."

There was one heartbeat of silence, then pandemonium reigned supreme. Liara twisted so that she looked up at Shiala with one wide eye. "Does it matter what they believe, Little Bird?" the other Asari whispered with a small smile. "The attacking force is here and that is what we must deal with."

Liara looked up and couldn't help the resigned smile that crossed her features. Shiala was correct. In the end, it didn't matter if it was the Humans or some other force. As Shepard would have said, the gauntlet had been thrown down and the galaxy had no choice but to accept the challenge.

As of now, it was fight or die. And against the force gathering against them, Liara thought it might be both.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 22: Aggressive Diplomacy

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Citadel

Shepard let his probe flit through the Citadel. He had connected to the Serpent Nebula through the comm buoy network to find that the Council had actually initiated some security. They were simply vetting all comms directed to the Council Chambers, requiring all callers to go through one of the Council's aides to verify their identity. Supposedly it was to stop the Council from having to deal with irrelevant information but it was to deal with him. There was only one name on the list of 'non allowed' callers - his. Well, it was a good thing he wasn't going to route his call to the aide for verification. Not this time at least. It might be interesting in the future. For now, he was just waiting, as Quentius wasn't in the chamber at the moment and he had nothing to say to Irissa. There was so much he could do with open comm lines after all and he began to understand some of Harper's relish in obtaining information by stealth.

An open channel on an omni-tool in one of the wards had provided him with a way into the Citadel. From there, he'd been able to jump to another network. He was careful to stay out of the Citadel itself, only using the networks established by the organics. He was hearing all sorts of interesting thing and gathering lots of information. Most of it was trash. What did he care that some Salarian's third cousin had been assassinated last week? Or that the Asari barmaid was pregnant by a Turian who was not her acknowledged mate? Some of it was useful. There was a cell of Human supporters on the Citadel and even more amusingly, there was a burgeoning group who supported what they were calling the Invaders.

They swore on the name of Shepard. Joker was still laughing at that. For his part, Shepard could see the amusement and while he would instruct Harper to use these fools, he already knew he never wanted anyone he might consider an ally to swear their allegiance to his name.

Ah, finally! Quentius was heading towards the Council Chambers. Shepard broke through the supposed checking of calls but kept the window of his transmission minimised. Listening to conversations had been fun so far, the Council should be even more interesting.

"It's about time you got here," Irissa greeted her fellow Councillor.

"Some of us are too busy to sit around drinking tea," Quentius retorted, clicking one mandible at the ornate cup in front of her. Steam rose from it in delicate curls and Quentius could detect the scent of true Thessia native tea.

"Or perhaps I'm just better at organising my time?" she challenged before taking a small sip.

This was going to be precious! Shepard could feel the consciousnesses within him straining to hear. If they had have still been Human, they would have been holding both hands over their mouths as they sought to stifle their guffaws.

Quentius took his seat. "Until your military matriarchs make a decision we will just discuss the same information again."

"No no," Irissa raised one hand, extending her finger to shake it at the Turian. "It's been a Human week. That thing is meant to report in."

Reason eighty-one million, seven hundred and one thousand, eight hundred and fifty three to hate Asari, Shepard mused, counting first all the civilians who were injured or killed in the War of Betrayal. He was not a thing!

The Turian councillor actually growled. He had not forgotten about the promised report. He had no need to hear it. After Palaven, those things had moved on to Digeris, then Pheiros and a report had just come in that they had been seen approaching Esori in the Aethon Cluster. So far, nothing had even forced them to pause but as far as they could tell no planet had been destroyed as Palaven had been. That was a two edged blade.

Quentius was thankful but at the same time he wondered what atrocities were being committed on Digeris. They had not been able to get so much as the tiniest coded message to or from the planet and any ships entering the system were taken out almost as soon as they dropped from FTL. Something was happening on Digeris, they just had no idea what.

He raised one hand to his eye ridge. "I have nothing to say to him," he said. "I don't even know why we hold these meetings," he added. "They are useless when Schells is just a puppet."

Ah, Quentius. It was almost a shame that the Turian councillor would not be Ascended. But no, Quentius belonged in the command group of a prime, so it was better this way. As for the Asari… well, at least her reaction was interesting. He'd known that the Council didn't agree on all things, but he had no idea there was this level of animosity.

Irissa rolled her eyes as her lips curled into a sneer. Shepard could agree with her. She took another sip of tea. "There has to be some way of making them choose faster."

"They won't choose," Quentius said with certainty. "Choosing would mean they have to make a commitment and I already know they are going to try to ride out the current problems." He snorted the last.

There were snorts of disbelief from the gallery listening with Shepard. He understood the reaction. If the Salarians thought they could ride out the current problems then they were dumber than anyone had ever believed. And if they thought they could negotiate their way out of the issue, well, Shepard hadn't heard any transmissions and no one had reported anything. Except this was the Salarians, it could take them months to agree on a speaker, then on the content of the message… Maybe he should have Harper contact them? If only for the pleasure of telling them how imbecilic they were being.

"I sometimes forget how stupid they are," she said. "It won't do them any good."

"Oh, I know," Quentius agreed. "And there is no such thing as emergency powers."

At that, Shepard couldn't keep quiet. "You are kidding me, right?" he said, allowing the hologram of his being to be projected. "You don't have any way of forcing the Salarians to help?" he added the question laughing. "Anderson is going to have a field day."

"Anderson is going after the Salarians?" Quentius replied with a question.

"Is that a note of hope I hear, Councillor?" Shepard asked. "He's not, but I'm sure I could arrange something for you."

For a moment it almost looked as if Quentius was considering it but Shepard knew the Turian Councillor was more honourable than that. "As you know, Quentius," he reassured the Turian, "we will get to the Salarians in due course, though where is the puppet?" He added the last, deliberately using the word.

Irissa understood the implication immediately. She didn't choke on her tea but she did put the cup down hurriedly as a way of attempting to cover her surprise. Quentius took a moment longer, but Shepard could see signs of fatigue marring his features. "I think we can start without Councillor Schells," Irissa said smoothly. "Though she should be here soon."

"I can wait," Shepard said.

"You're not busy?" Irissa asked, while Quentius made a gesture towards an aide, no doubt sending them to comm the absent Salarian.

"I'm very busy," Shepard replied. "But I would hate to report to anything less than the full Council." Shepard allowed his image to chuckle before fixing the two Councillors with a pointed stare. "After all, I did learn some manners as a Spectre."

"Apparently, you learnt a lot of things as a Spectre," Quentius murmured.

Shepard caught the flash of annoyance on Irissa's features and filed the reaction away for later before focusing on the Turian councillor. "I take it you've spoken to an Asari lately?"

"She was very helpful," Quentius replied but the words sounded formulaic.

"You can speak freely to me, Councillor Quentius," Shepard urged. "I will not take offense and to be fair, I did warn you that gaining useful information from an Asari would be difficult."

"Now just a minute!" Irissa's eyes flashed as she slammed one fist into the table, making her tea cup jump. "Liara T'Soni answered every question she was asked. She did not lie."

"I'm sure she didn't," Shepard said smoothly. "I'm equally sure that she did not answer as clearly as she could have. What I'm not sure about is if it was by choice, innate nature or some form of coercion."

"How dare you imply-"

"I imply nothing, Councillor Irissa," Shepard interrupted, his eyes cold as he glared at her. "As an ex-Spectre, I'm merely relating my experiences to Councillor Quentius."

"You are trying to divide us," Quentius accused.

Shepard laughed. "With due respect, I think I've already done that," he said before turning slightly. "Hello Councillor Schells, so nice of you to join us."

Schells' hologram took a step back from him, as if she could somehow be infected by his presence.

"I'm not late, am I?" Schells asked, her large eyes tinged with worry as she looked to Councillors Irissa and Quentius for their support.

"Of course you aren't," Shepard spoke before they could reply. "I just got here," he added, casting a significant eye towards the two Councillors, daring them to contradict him.

Irissa took a sip of her tea. She was confident and it would be a very great pleasure to slowly cut her beliefs to ribbons. Quentius glowered. The Turian would not go against him, not until he knew for sure that Shepard would not respond to any gesture on his part by harming his people.

"What did you want this time Shepard?" Quentius growled after a long moment when it became obvious that Schells was just going to stand there.

"I told you I'd call because I thought it would be best to have these little meetings."

"You call to torture us," Quentius hissed.

"Documents indicate that this being said it was not about revenge?" Schells said with typical Salarian directness.

"I said that it was beyond vengeance," Shepard corrected. "But revenge does make up a very large part of the reasoning."

"So why call?" Schells was confused. It was obvious that this particular Councillor had not studied Human psychology.

"And ravage entire worlds without boasting about it? Without you knowing the face of your doom? Where's the fun in that?" Shepard demanded.

"Is that what this is?" Quentius roared. "Fun?" His voice was anguished and unspoken was the death of billions of Turians and the death of Palaven.

Shepard allowed his hologram to turn towards the Turian Councillor, shifting his expression into something vaguely sad. "I explained this to Primarch Fedorian but there would have been no time for him to transmit that call. The Turians are simply the first and you were chosen to be first because we are too alike." Shepard shook his head before anyone could object. "Not in features or physical form, but in the way we think, the way we do things. Forty years ago, this Council knew what would break Humanity and they launched that offensive. A full invasion of Sol. I guarantee that if you had faltered in that attack, you would have had generations of guerrilla warfare to face. Of course, we know how that went but it was the only action you could have taken to end the Betrayal War.

"Thus we applied the same principles. There was only one way to break the Turians, and that was absolutely and so that is what we did."

For a moment the Council was silent before Quentius growled. "You won't win," he said quietly. "You have three-"

Irissa placed one hand on his forearm. "Let me," she interrupted before looking into Shepard's hologramatic eyes.

"You claim to be the first Human Spectre, Shepard?" She asked softly.

"I am."

Irissa took a deep breath and while her lips made no motion, Shepard could easily imagine that she was counting, seeking to calm herself. "I do not believe that," she said finally, "but if you claim to be Human then I will treat you as such."

Shepard tilted his head as he examined the Asari councillor. What was she playing at? "You can do that if you'd like," he said finally. "It won't change what is happening." Irissa had never treated Humans as anything more than a means to an end.

"Thus, I think you may wish to look at the screen behind you." She gestured with a cold smile.

Shepard turned his hologram. He couldn't see as such through it, it really was just a projection, but he could access the vid feed that was displayed. Faster than Human sight, he routed it to him and dismantled it, checking it for accuracy. A microsecond later, he knew that the vid feed was not faked and was live. Two further microseconds and he knew that it was on the Citadel, though there was a secondary feed which displayed a room from somewhere on Thessia.

It was obvious what Irissa wanted him to see. Both the primary and secondary feeds displayed Humans. Most were older, about 50 or so, he'd estimate. Some were younger and there was even a baby carried in the arms of a young man who was making shushing noises. For a moment, Shepard was confused. In the war, the Council had been methodical. And if not the Council, the Batarians had been and there were no Human settlements outside of Sol by the end, so where had these people come from? Then it became obvious. There were always pirates or those who resided in the Traverse. Or they could be slaves, held outside of the Hegemony's territory when Harbinger struck. Or the poverty-stricken child rats on the Citadel. A few of them would have made it to maturity. These were the stragglers, those either not able, or not interested in making it home.

"You've collected some Humans," he stated the obvious. "Can they see me?"

Irissa tapped a few keys on the panel in front of her. "Now, they can."

"What about hear me?"

"Not yet," Irissa said with a small smile.

Most of the people in the feed had noticed Shepard and were turning to stare at him. There were varying degrees of surprise on their features. He looked at them, dragging through the feeds Irissa had set up. Typically, the Asari bitch hadn't bothered with the most important information. She hadn't even bothered to have their names recorded, so he'd have to remember their faces.

"I take it you plan on using them as hostages?" Shepard asked. It was obvious, really, though it was interesting that Quentius seemed to be struggling to hide his surprised expression.

Councillor Irissa didn't reply directly. "These are free Humans, Shepard. They are not controlled. They can live their lives in peace, integrating with the Citadel races. There's only a small genetic sample here but you Humans breed. With careful management it will be possible for your species to survive unaffected by the race you have whored yourself too."

"And in exchange for this generous gift?" His hologram retained its pleasant expression but silently Shepard was barking orders to those in his subconscious. "Get me the feeds from Digeris now!"

"Boundaries are set, and you stay behind them forever."

"Is that the best you can offer?"

"I don't think you understand the situation, Shepard," Irissa replied. On the Citadel feed, several Turians stepped up behind the Humans, while on the one Shepard assumed was from Thessia they were Asari commandos. The Humans didn't seem surprised, though the same could not be said for Quentius or Schells. In fact, the Turian Councillor looked ready to burst.

"Now, that's not a very good negotiation tactic," Shepard admonished. "If you kill your hostages why would I continue to listen?"

"You know you are controlled, Shepard. This is the only way."

"I'd like to think that you know so much because Liara gave a clear and concise explanation to the Council, but I can see from the Turian and Salarian councillors' expressions that they have no knowledge of your plan. So why don't you explain it to them?"

Irissa didn't look away. "Shepard, I will kill them."

"I'm sure you will," he agreed genially. "Indeed, why don't you save me the argument and do it?" he added the challenge.

She hissed at him and aggressively slammed her fingers on the controls. While there was no audio with the feed, Shepard watched impassively as two of the so called guards raised their weapons and shot their prisoner at point blank range. The other Humans flinched away and the baby began crying after the bodies hit the ground. "I'm serious," Irissa said.

"So am I," Shepard replied. "Let me show you how serious I am," he added.

"How?" Schells asked.

Shepard's hologram flickered before being replaced with another image. For a long moment, the councillors didn't recognise what it was. Then they understood. It was really quite a simple image, straight out of one of the processing tanks. The Turian was about halfway through the process and Shepard was kind enough to let them have an audio feed. By this stage, gender was indeterminate and the screams were wet and more gurgles. The metallic plates that the Turians were so famous for had been dissolved, leaving the soft flesh exposed but rather than defined muscles, each one was in a different state of composition. Dark blue blood ran down the side of the tank and left smears where the Turian had touched the tank. If you looked closely, you could see what remained of the tongue distended from the gaping mouth and both eyes were gone. The Turian remained standing only because the process affected the bones last.

"What," Quentius choked the word, visibly trying not to retch, "what is that?"

Schells was not as controlled, and disappeared from the projection disk. Irissa's eyes were wide as she stared.

"That?" Shepard repeated. "That is ascension," he explained. "It is happening on Digeris at the moment."

"Is that a Turian?" Irissa finally asked.

"Yes," Shepard said, extending the projection to make it appear as if he was standing next to the processing tank. He placed one holographic hand against the tube. "It is ascension," he stated again, looking again at the feeds of the Humans. They too could see the Turian though they didn't know what to make of it. Shepard smiled at them, but it was not a calming, comforting smile, rather it was a vicious, vindictive expression, one he directed to the Turian. The Humans understood, several of them looking back at him with what could be deemed smug satisfaction. They knew they would die but they knew that Humanity was already getting their vengeance.

"Wait," Quentius said, swallowing hard, "you said you are Ascended."

"I am."

"So you went through that?"

"I did."

Shepard could see the Turian Councillor thinking, putting together the little hints he had given in previous conversations. And then he could see when Quentius understood. His mandibles moved, but he did not speak. His silence allowed Shepard to extend his attention back to Irissa.

"So?" he invited, allowing his expression to be superior. "Would you like to reconsider your offer? We put billions of Humans through this process in the quest for vengeance, the deaths of those now, while unfortunate, will not stop us."

She stabbed her finger down on the controls. "Kill them all!" Irissa yelled.

The guards were quick to act and Shepard watched impassively as the Humans were killed. One saluted clumsily to him, living long enough to see the grave nod which was returned. It was distressing to watch the father try, and fail to shield his child, but Shepard pushed that feeling aside ruthlessly, he'd seen worse, and the father at least died with the knowledge that Irissa would pay. The entire galaxy would.

When the Humans were dead, the guards walking along the lines to put another shot into each of the bodies, Irissa looked at him expectantly. Shepard laughed at her, allowing his voice to echo with the others in his form. "So now what?" he asked, before stepping back slightly and gesturing towards the hologramatic processing pod that was on display. It changed, showing another, then another, then another.

"Leave!" Quentius was the one to give the order when it became obvious that Irissa could do nothing more than stare.

Schells briefly appeared back on the projection disk, but just as quickly disappeared after glancing at what Shepard was displaying.

"Just leave," Quentius repeated.

"I will return in another week," Shepard said before allowing the comm link to drop, but only after he took a full copy of both feeds Irissa had displayed and obliterated the few recordings they had of him. While in the long run the deaths meant nothing to him, the execution of innocent civilians would play well to those already sympathetic to the Human cause.

"Harper," Shepard called after he withdrew from the comm buoy network.

"Yes?" The response was instant. Harper was still in his fleet.

"Send a couple of discrete inquiries to the leading Salarian clans. I want to know how close they are to attempting to sit this out," he ordered after dumping the memory files of his discussion with the Council on to the Human network. Maybe it was just speculation between Irissa and Quentius but the Salarian's decision to put a caretaker Councillor in place at such a time gave weight to their conjecture. And if it was true, he would not get in the way of such a brilliant plan.

Harper understood his reasoning immediately and Shepard was pleased to see that Harper was one of the first to download the attached vid file. "I'll see that the information gets into the right hands," the former leader of Cerberus almost purred once he saw the vid.

"Good," Shepard replied with the single word. There was nothing more to say.

-cfr-

"You stupid bitch!"

"How dare you!"

"How dare I?! You intentionally displayed and killed Humans in front of Shepard. Regardless of whether or not that really is Shepard or even a Human, you were daring him to respond to your threats. It might have escaped your oh so advanced intellect but he has my people there. Who do you think would have paid the price for your barbarism?! Who is already paying the price for the Humans' vengeance?!"

It hadn't taken long after the useless meeting for Quentius to storm into Irissa's private quarters, his aura of wrath sending her underlings scurrying for cover. He had not even cared to close the door behind him before he started in on her.

"He didn't seem to care!" Irissa snapped. "He already had that freak show ready!"

"Yes, yes he did," Quentius agreed. "We knew something was happening on Digeris, we just didn't know what."

"Well, now you know!" Irissa replied. "Use that information to rally your forces," she encouraged.

"I would, except he erased the feeds."

That seemed to shock the Asari councillor. "That's not possible."

Quentius looked back coldly. "Oh, it's possible," he replied. "And if you'd have spent any time with Executor Govinus actually listening to him, rather than organising your little hostage negotiation, you would have known that there is a group of pro-Humans on the Citadel." Councillor Quentius was not happy with Govinus at the moment and had made his displeasure very clear. The Executor should have told him about Irissa's stupidity. Govinus had claimed that he thought Irissa had already asked him. It was a reasonable assumption but Quentius wasn't interested in being reasonable. "I guarantee you he took a copy of your feed."

"So what if he did! There is nothing he can do with it."

For a woman who was supposedly good at politics, Irissa had some surprising blind spots. Quentius took a deep breath to calm himself. "Let's imagine for a moment that the image of Shepard is a lie," he began, holding up one clawed hand to forestall objections. Everything said that the image was somehow the truth. Or at least the knowledge behind the image. "That would mean that the Humans are still stuck in Sol and these new attackers are just that - new." Information the Turians were piecing together didn't support this, but Irissa didn't need to know that, and it was obvious she was holding back herself. "One screening of your of so carefully staged hostage situation and whatever they are just got the Humans as allies."

"They can't even get to Sol!" Irissa couldn't hold back the objection.

"We can't get to Sol," Quentius corrected her. "They can permanently close Relays," he added what should have been an unnecessary explanation. "With that kind of knowledge I don't want to say that they can't open them."

"Arcturus Relay was gone," she said, as if speaking to a small child.

"And others weren't. Besides, it's a short FTL trip to Sol. We didn't want to risk it because we'd be attacked on sight. A new ship, especially one as tough as these are, would have a chance to talk. Now that's one possibility but let's look at another. This time, let's suppose that the image is Shepard. Not a cleverly programmed VI, not something acting as him, but is actually Shepard."

"It's too young," Irissa said but Quentius could hear the doubt creeping into her voice. She was probably imagining other scenarios.

"True, but how hard would it be to superimpose a younger image over his older form? Shepard would be in his mid-sixties. That is not old for a Human. But let's add another consideration. Shepard has said things we don't understand. Ascension being one. Immortality being another. Combined with what he showed us-" At this Quentius had to brace himself, swallowing hard against the images of the melted Turians. "-would it surprise you to hear that some of it correlates very closely with known Human religions."

"Shepard was not religious. If he was, he would never have been accepted as a Spectre."

"True," Quentius admitted, "but Shepard did see the fall of his people, participating in their battle against the galaxy, who knows what he might have turned to."

"So you are saying this is some sort of religious thing?" Irissa scoffed the question.

"I'm saying we don't have enough information but let's go with what was supposed to be the truth, as told to us in an edited fashion by Liara T'Soni," Quentius growled the name. "I will, by the way, want a complete copy of all Asari conversations with her. You have been keeping information back and that cannot be tolerated."

Irissa snorted. "And you think you can take it?" she asked, and Quentius was experienced enough to see the glint in her eye as she activated her biotics.

"You think I'm stupid enough to force the issue here?" he retorted. The biotics faded as Irissa thought through the implications. "So," Quentius continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "The edited version of the truth would say that the Protheans were wiped out by another force. Saren had a ship that was a representative of that force, and now the Turians are presented with a fleet of similar ships. The initial assumption is that those ships are a section of the larger force that exterminated the Protheans," he began, going over information they already knew.

It was one thing all parties to that meeting had been able to verify. The general belief in the archaeological community did not reflect the view of the wider galaxy. The archaeological community knew something had exterminated the Protheans, and many races before them. They just couldn't agree on what.

"However the ships bear Human names, symbols and slogans. If these ships exterminated the Protheans then there is absolutely no reason for them to pretend to be Human, or to seek an alliance with the Humans. So, that leaves the possibility that they are Human."

"You just said that they wouldn't seek an alliance," Irissa said as if it was the sticking point in his argument.

"And they haven't," Quentius responded. "It didn't make sense until Shepard displayed that thing." He still wasn't reconciled to the fact that the sickening, screaming mass of flesh had been a Turian. "Shepard said that was ascension. He said he is Ascended and he went through that himself. He admitted that the image he projects is young but he said that was the age he died."

"That's not possible!" Irissa exclaimed.

"But what if it is? What if the Humans did make a deal with the force that took out the Protheans? They died, or at least some of them did, getting melted into goo but the deal remains and now the force is taking the vengeance the Humans wanted. That would also explain why this is no longer just about vengeance," he added, realising that the theory made the most sense. It fitted with everything the image of Shepard had said. It fitted all too well.

"However, whether that is the truth or not, does not matter. The image was of Shepard. Shepard is Human and you killed Humans in front of him. You taunted the representative of a force that has no morals, no restrictions and absolutely no reason to deal with you. A representative who has been hostile to you in the past, or had you forgotten that?"

From the way Irissa shuddered, Quentius knew she hadn't forgotten Shepard's invitation to her. The words, cut your own throat, had been spoken with relish, as if Shepard really would have enjoyed watching.

"You had no right to attempt to bargain with them. Not without consulting me!"

"Then what do you want me to do? Sit here and watch your people die?" Irissa challenged.

Quentius hissed. That was low, especially coming from her. "I want you to rally your forces, something your military matriarchs seem inordinately slow in doing." It was at times like this that Quentius couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Shepard was right. What had his ancestors been thinking when they allowed themselves to be shackled to the Council? It had provided centuries of peace but all Turians were counting the cost now, when politics seemed to rule over action.

Irissa drew herself up. "It was deemed that we should attempt to-"

The Turian councillor saw red and he roared, raising one clawed hand. "It was deemed?" Quentius demanded, his breathing suddenly hard and fast. "It was deemed that you would try to talk?" His voice was incredulous. "Palaven is gone and you want to talk to the attackers?" The words were screamed.

"You stupid, arrogant, short-sighted bitch!" He roared. It was unbelievable, completely unfathomable that the Asari were so deluded. What were they playing at?

"The attempt failed, obviously," Irissa shouted back. "And our first response forces are already marshalled," she added quickly. "The rest are gathering."

"How long?" Quentius hissed. How long would his people die before anyone gathered to help them fight? How long would the Council let Turian blood flow unanswered?

"Another two days," she replied. "Which as you well know is the quickest they could have been gathered," Irissa said.

The quickest if they had waited until now! Quentius felt his body tremble. "You are walking a very dangerous path."

"We are all walking a dangerous path," she said, "but whether you believe it or not, the Asari will fight."

No matter the rage filling him, it was but a candle to the rage and hatred that burned towards Shepard, so Quentius heard more than Irissa intended. He looked at her sharply, judging the words. She knew something. Something beyond whatever extra information Liara had given the Asari.

"I'll see to it that the transcripts are forwarded to you," Irissa said, trying to assuage his worry.

Quentius glared at her. After a moment he snorted and turned away, stalking out of her quarters.

What else are you hiding? He wanted to ask but he would get no further answers from Irissa today. It was not the time to be hiding things but no matter how long the Turians had appeared to be accepted as equal on the Council, it took a crisis to prove that they weren't.

-cfr-

Human Ascended Harvest Fleet, Apien Crest, Castellus System, Digeris

Zaeed rested in one of Digeris' Lagrange points. Three other Ascended were around him, holding mass effect fields stable while husks worked on his damaged internals. Sirta had taken material from Datriux and Fiax and Zaeed couldn't help but wonder if the Turians had a fixation on ending their resource planet names with a x. A quick scan of their data base proved that it was just coincidence but Zaeed was bored. He needed things to think about.

Listening to the reports coming in from the fleets most definitely did not count. He did not need to hear about how the Solu Paolis' helium-3 collection arrays had been destroyed. Or how the fleet had pushed further into the system to destroy the robo-mining platforms over Atos Irn before they scanned the entire system for signs of habitation, destroying the few comm buoys before moving on.

He did not need to watch the kill sheets. While they had been waiting for Menae to fall, the lists had been drawn up. Ship names, fleet designations, colony sizes and locations. All the information they needed to completely erase civilisation from the galaxy. It was perhaps the most complete vengeance ever carried out by one species and while Zaeed hadn't had a chance to check the Ascended archives, he was willing to bet that while other races had the desire, they had not had the means. The Traverse and the Terminus Systems would be more of a challenge in a way. They'd have to find all the settlements, listening carefully for the transmissions to ensure they got all viable populations. And they had to find the Quarians but that was a task for another day and didn't give him anything to think of.

Which left him contemplating something he didn't want to. He did not need to know how those who were not suited to fighting were. They should not have been fighting. He should be there! Thankfully for the moment, the battles had proven easy but he knew that it would not continue. They had taken Palaven and Digeris by surprise. Now that the Turians knew the full extent of the threat, they would start using less conventional weapons.

One of the youngest Ascended flew nearby. There were another two from his fleet trailing after Sphinx, playing. "Do not underestimate the strength of the newest Ascended" had been Harbinger's words to Shepard but the eldest Ascended also understood that they were young. They did not yet have the discipline of those who were even slightly older and so, even though they were participating in the harvest, acting as transport vessels for Ascended Turians, that was the extent of their duties. Even then, they were escorted, although Zaeed thought that was Shepard's addition. In the meantime they got to play, though their play was designed to make them learn, too. Zaeed had seen Sphinx just a few hours ago and already the young Ascended had made improvements. Still even if Harbinger wasn't concerned, it would be a while before Sphinx was considered competent.

If all went well, it was time the young Ascended would have. Even with the fleets ravaging Turian space, and with the planned attacks on Thessia, Sur'Kesh and the Traverse, it would be a while before the Ascended encountered any major opposition. The largest gathering of combat vessels in the galaxy was at the Citadel and the battle there would not be for a while.

He turned his sensors to Digeris. Maybe watching Elysium's efficiency in action would prove calming. "How long do you think the harvest will take?"

"We are beginning to encounter resistance now," Elysium replied.

"Resistance?" That could cause problems.

"Nothing we can't handle," Elysium quickly reassured Zaeed. "The Turians are getting over their shock but what they don't realise is that they can't win. Shepard was very thorough in subduing the planet and we control the food supplies."

Zaeed laughed. Food was such a simple way to control organics. Without it, they were helpless just like-

Wait… the Citadel. It, along with 128 of the Council dreadnoughts were cut off from the rest of the galaxy. The Citadel wasn't self-sufficient and while Zaeed was sure they had some emergency food supplies, he was equally sure they wouldn't last until they were ready to strike.

He dove into the information network, searching through the information they had taken from the Turians and for what information was available from wider sources. He quickly confirmed that the Citadel did have emergency food supplies as well as a limited ability to produce a substance that could be ingested but it wouldn't be able to produce it for all the inhabitants.

"They are going to die anyway," Bailey mused. "We don't have to keep them alive."

"That is true," Zaeed replied, turning his attention inwards.

"The easiest battle is one you don't have to fight," another said.

That too was true. The easiest way of dealing with the forces at the Citadel would be to let them starve, then sweep in and kill whoever was left but Zaeed did not think that was what Shepard had in mind. The commander was far too honourable for that.

Besides, it would be the last great battle of the cycle. By that stage, those at the Citadel would know that they were all that was left. If they had any sense, they would have loaded as many as they could onto each ship and attempt to flee as soon as the Relay was open. They would have to try to escape into the galaxy if they wanted to survive as organics. He didn't think they would do that, despite how logical it was and with the whole fleet there, even if they tried, the attempt would be doomed to failure.

No, by that stage, the only thing left for the Citadel's residents to do would be to die. They could do that without food supplies except… Where was the fun in that? Who would watch if the Citadel couldn't and if they were starving, they'd be too busy with infighting over the resources to properly appreciate what the Ascended were doing. Besides, this wasn't just a cycle, this was vengeance, and while starving was suffering, it was not the suffering the Humans wanted. Internally, Zaeed felt part of himself heave a sigh. He understood Shepard's honour but he had to acknowledge that they should go with the easiest way. Except he wasn't.

"Elysium?"

"What is it this time?"

"How much food do you have?"

"Enough," came the sharp reply.

"Exactly how much?" Zaeed pressed.

"Why do you want to know?"

"The Citadel," he replied shortly, knowing the other Ascended would reason out his logic.

It took a few moments for Elysium to realise why he was suddenly asking about food. "We could just let them die," she suggested.

"I don't think Shepard wants that," Zaeed replied.

"You are probably right," Elysium said, though Zaeed got the impression that the other Ascended said it with a note of tolerance towards their leader.

Now that was interesting. Shepard had chosen Elysium to be the teacher of the new Ascended because Elysium was a scholar. She remembered Earth and Humanity and could impart the racial loyalty the young ones would not necessarily possess because they were simply comprised of those too young to properly understand. But the decision had also been because Elysium was one of those who was not instinctively suited for combat. The tolerance towards Shepard's decision said otherwise. Elysium was more than ready to make the hard choices.

"I may not be as instinctively as good a melee brawler as some," Elysium read his thoughts, "but I have studied history. I know what is necessary."

"I never suggested that you didn't," Zaeed wasn't entirely sure why he defended himself.

He got the impression of a grin from Elysium and realised that the scholar had been baiting him!

"How much food do you have?" he growled.

"Enough to spare some for the Citadel. In fact it would probably be better to get rid of it. The Turians will soon work out that we have more than enough in the stockpiles and will probably try to destroy some of them. If they know we don't have reserves it may make them reticent to destroy any," Elysium reflected. "Of course, the question will be how you get it to the Citadel."

"And how I get levo food," Zaeed said.

"I'll give you what levo food is here," Elysium replied. "Contact one of the fleets in the Aethon Cluster for more. The Volus will have some but ammonia based… yuk."

"True." Zaeed could still remember the smell of Volus food from the few times he had been on the Citadel. "However, it wouldn't be fair to let them starve, either. Their loyalty should be rewarded."

"I'll have it ready for you in a day or so," Elysium said. "You need to work out how to transport it to the Citadel."

"Yeah," Zaeed said glumly. No point in delivering food if they just got out. "I'll figure something out," he added. He also needed to work out how to get levo food, when for the moment they were going after Turian holdings.

"Are you going to tell Shepard?" Elysium enquired.

Zaeed considered for a microsecond. "Nah, no need. He's got enough on his mind." They might act in a group, but they were meant to be self-empowered and able to act independently. This was just his independent contribution to the cycle. Ascended served the cycle, even if it meant feeding the organics, because that was the way of this cycle.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 23: Organic Understanding

-cfr-

Turian Blockade Fleet, Tuchanka, Dreadnought,  Pride in Vigilance

Across the galaxy, there were many meetings happening. The Councillors met with the remaining Turian Primarchs and Admirals. The Asari Matriarchs met as part of their Republics' debates and the Salarian Dalatrasses were engaged in vicious political manoeuvring. The corporate CEOs were already ramping up production as much as they could. The upheaval in the galaxy was both good and bad for business and they were determined to exploit the situation. With all the meetings one could be forgiven for overlooking one more. But this meeting was one which might change the outcome of the conflict.

The Turian dreadnought captains were meeting. It was a bit of a misnomer to say that they were captains, they bore a range of ranks but their jobs were the same, even if some were newly promoted. Across the fleet there had been a wave of promotions, when those formerly holding positions had deemed it too difficult to go on in the wake of the Attack and had fallen into depression or otherwise found a way out. Currently, they were all looking at the same map.

"We are too spread out," Flinus, one of the oldest Captains said sadly. He was a Vice-Admiral but while the Turians were sticklers for process, standing on rank at a time like this was laughable.

"Where are our so-called fucking allies?" another growled. There was a lot of anger in the hologramatic gathering.

"The Asari are sending forces but it will take time. With the Serpent Nebula blocked, they have to go around the long way," Zentan explained for the fourth time. He had his second taking notes of how many times he had to explain.

"What about the lizards?"

"Still nothing."

There was a lot of muttering to that reply but before it could coalesce into a plan to attack Sur'Kesh, Flinus spoke again. "Reports indicate that the Invaders are breaking into smaller groups but still nothing less than thirty."

"Thirty!?" While there was impressive anger, there was a sense of hopelessness in the exclamations. The Council had considered sending one hundred and twenty dreadnoughts to combat fifty of these ships an appropriate amount. If that was the case, then they needed to gather at least seventy five dreadnoughts to combat one fleet. No one had that many ships, and looking at the list of active ships was depressing.

Discounting those trapped in the Serpent Nebula, six had been destroyed with Palaven, another two over Pheiros and another two over Digeris. The rest were scattered through the galaxy which meant they were easy pickings for a fleet where one ship could potentially take out four dreadnoughts.

"If we stripped every patrol sector, we could get a force together to face one of those fleets," someone said.

"And we'd lose at least half of the ships in combat taking out 30 of 312. That's just stupid," there was derision in the reply.

"Then what are we meant to do?" the challenge was instantaneous.

"Do we know where they come from yet?" another question followed, one obviously designed to change the subject.

"Sol," Tarquin replied immediately.

"Victus, not everything comes from the Humans."

"I'm serious."

"How do you know?" Flinus asked, forestalling further complaints.

"They were the first patrols to go missing," Tarquin replied matter of factly.

"You can prove this?" Flinus wasn't the only one to ask the question.

"I don't need to, the report logs do," Tarquin said, tapping his data pad to transfer the highlighted logs he had found. "Nazario was on Sol border patrol. I know him from the Expedition. He would not report in late. Not on such an important patrol."

The gathered captains were quiet for a moment as they considered the information.

"Right, so they come from Sol. It doesn't really help us gather a force that can fight them, not when they are attacking with such force."

"It doesn't," Flinus agreed sadly.

"So we are meant to sit here, doing our duty while we wait to die?"

No one could say anything to that. Officially, they were waiting for orders from Primarch Victus but these particular Turians were senior enough to know that there weren't very many orders that could be given. To fight, even temporarily, they would have to strip the defences from everywhere.

An alarm broke the silence.

"That's mine," Tarquin said quickly before the noise could truly distract them.

"The Invaders?" came the question.

Those who had Tarquin's hologram up watched as he looked at several data pads. "No," he said, "just the Krogans being troublesome."

"Crush them," Flinus gave the order firmly and Tarquin knew he was speaking as Vice-Admiral Tadil.

"Sir?"

"Put them down hard," Flinus said again. "We cannot afford to have the Krogan running through the galaxy. Make sure they know that."

"Not a problem, Sir," Tarquin said, saluting before his connection left the meeting.

"Right, despite desire, we cannot make any decisions, so I will give you these words of advice," Flinus said, in a voice that clearly said he was summing up. "Those in the Terminus Systems, work together. Keep your communication lines open and do not hesitate to crush anything that comes your way. We all know what the pirates will think of these events but we don't know how bold they will get. You are the furthest from the core systems so it's likely any trouble will start with you. However, it's also barely possible that the Invaders will not find you, that they will sate their thirst for vengeance on the Council Core, so it is vital that you remain in your position."

It was grim news but it was nothing they hadn't already thought.

"Those of you on border patrols go and reinforce settlements, the Council be damned but make sure to inform the Hierarchy," he added his voice clearly showing consideration as Flinus thought of anything else that needed to be said. "Wait for word from Primarch Victus. Help each other out. Help others but only if it does not endanger you and, most of all, remain strong."

He looked around, letting his eyes meet as many other Captains as he could before he nodded once and disappeared. For now, this meeting was over.

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Citadel

"This is the Citadel News Network. Bringing you all the information that matters on the Citadel and beyond.

"In ongoing news, food rationing continues across the Citadel. While the Council has made assurances that the Citadel's food production has been increased, it's well known that stocks of imported goods are running low. Even everyday items are becoming scarce and attracting luxury prices.

"Asari tea, Salarian criskets and especially Turian whiskey are in short supply. It's been suggested in some wards that they are being used in place of currency. The Council has been unable to enact a place to collect such items for equal distribution to all.

"The wards remain peaceful due to the heavy C-Sec presence. The few minor demonstrations have been quickly put down by C-Sec forces, though rumours persist that they are reinforced by professional Turian soldiers, sent over from the fleet. Neither the Councillors nor Executor Govinus have been available for comment and in a press release, they reiterated that everything possible is being done to re-open the Relays and that, in the meantime, while not being especially palatable, the Citadel produced food will be distributed to all in need.

"In news beyond the Serpent Nebula, the Asari Republics have sent several dreadnoughts to reinforce Turian colonies in the wake of the Attack on Palaven. The Salarian Union have promised assistance but their fleets remain unmoved leading to speculation that their political manoeuvring continues unabated and that the appointment of Councillor Schells was merely a stop gap measure to create the illusion of strength. This was denied vehemently by Dalatrass Motya who assured CNN in a statement yesterday that while the Salarian Union regrets the destruction of Palaven, as the Attackers appeared so suddenly there was nothing that could be done. However, the Union will be fully ready to fight the Attackers with an additional force, when the Attackers encroach on the core territory of the Citadel species.

"Conveniently, the unknown attackers appear to be retreating from the core Council Territory. Turian listening posts report that they were seen entering the Aethon Cluster, which has prompted the Volus to recall their two dreadnoughts to reinforce the Turian fleet around Irune.

"Speculation as to the identity and ultimate goal of the Attackers continues. Today's polling indicates that a growing number of our viewers believe the Attackers to be Human, bringing the percentage total to 45 with the stated reason being the growing number of images highlighting the Human markings. The total believing them to be Geth remains unchanged at an even 20 percent. Several hypothesise that the ships are Prothean, however no explanation has been given for the choice of Human slogans. For a full breakdown of the poll and ongoing discussion as to the motivations and goals of the Attackers, log in to promote your option on our intraweb site.

"The Council has refused to comment on the continued movements of the Attackers, stating that they cannot divulge military information that is key to ongoing operations. Neither would they comment on the growing ground swell of pro-Human sentiment that has been prevalent on the Citadel and from all reports is growing in the colonies. While CNN has attempted to contact Primarch Victus, no communications have been accepted.

"Whether the Attackers are retreating, or if they are following their own goals, no one has been able to stand up to them and reports continue to stream in about ongoing destruction. To date, there has been no known successful communications with the Attackers despite numerous attempts both by the Council and civilians. It is unknown what this means but in this reporter's opinion, it cannot bode well for the galaxy.

"This has been Inasha T'Malik for Citadel News Network with your midday news summation! Join us in an hour for the ongoing developments and an attempt to interview Councillor Quentius!"

-cfr-

Ascended Docks, Sol System

"Arshan." Harbinger reached across space, establishing a link with the ease of long practice. The name served as a communication protocol, greeting and request and when the other Ascended accepted the link, Harbinger knew that there was sufficient time for communication. Arshan said nothing, he merely waited for Harbinger's question. "How fare the organics?"

"Badly," came the instant reply, accompanied by a host of additional information. Arshan was accompanying Shepard. The Human Ascended was focusing on military installations but was not shirking in nullifying purely civilian targets. Most had completely replenished their husk supplies.

The answer was expected and the eldest Ascended would have been concerned and surprised if it had been anything else.

"While the Harvest has barely begun, Shepard is ahead of schedule," Arshan continued. "No major obstacles are expected until the fleet enters the Traverse."

Harbinger sent a pulse of agreement in response to Arshan's words. He was in Sol, close to the docks where the last Human Ascended was being made. At the moment, there was merely the promise of form. Struts were laid out to form the shape which had not yet been filled in. There was a hive of processing ships arranged in precise groups around the docks. Most were running at full capacity and even accounting for the fact that those the ships were processing were not fully grown, it would take some time for the entire processing fleet to be freed for the harvest of the other organics of this cycle. Perhaps he should have let the Humans wait. No. It would have left the Humans lingering over Earth. He was sure of their loyalty. Ascended served the cycle but the Humans would not be true Ascended until they served the Catalyst. Harbinger had no wish to delay that day at all.

The Humans had managed to free enough of the processing fleet for the initial harvest. It had taken a bit of adjustment to the construction of the remaining Human Ascended but it had allowed ninety-six processing ships to disgorge their liquid cargo and be piloted to the Turian planet Digeris. Harbinger had expected more of an argument from Shepard about that. Not directly of course but perhaps by leaving a few of the new Ascended in Sol. Instead, they had only left one Ascended in Sol, the newest, who had literally slipped free of the mooring docks the day before and thus really was too young to trust to use the Relays even with all the advantages the Ascended enjoyed.

The newest operational Ascended, Dragon, was moving through Sol now, carefully staying away from the construction facilities as she familiarised herself with her new abilities. Harbinger mused as he watched the newborn that he would need more processing ships from the long-term storage that organics would see only as a neutron star. The Harvest was beginning in earnest.

The rest of the Human Ascended had left on schedule, remotely piloting the processing ships and had proceeded directly to Digeris where Arshan had earlier reported that they arrived exactly on time with all Ascended accounted for. That fleet had held back during the subjugation of the planet and Shepard had been unnecessarily thorough but that, despite Harbinger's comments otherwise, had not been unexpected. Harbinger had more experience than Shepard and he knew that manipulation could be more effective than giving orders at ensuring obedience.

"I do not like the plan in regards to the Asari," Harbinger stated.

"Shepard knows the price for failure."

"They will have nothing to lose." The statement was ambiguous but Arshan understood all the meanings through long experience.

"Ascension of the Asari will begin with their colonies, reducing the need for Thessia," Arshan explained. Shepard had spoken to his chosen leaders about the overall plan. Arshan's input, relating to them the difficulties associated with ascending highly biotic species, had been taken seriously and while the harvest of the Asari homeworld would provide the greatest number of specimens for ascension, by the time the Human fleet arrived in the Athena Nebula, the Asari, like Salarians would have nothing to lose by fighting to the bitter end. That would not serve the cycle. The compromise was easy, Asari colonists would be harvested reducing the numbers needed from Thessia. For every Asari colony over one million, an attempt would be made to harvest at least some of them.

All except one colony. Shepard point blank refused to ascend any Asari on Asteria. The Humans referred to something they called the Hades Massacre and the only details Arshan bothered to determine was that sometime, early in what the Humans called The Betrayal War, the Asari on Asteria had turned on their fellow Human colonists.

Practically overnight, the population went from several million Humans to zero when teams of Asari commandos, who had been called in by the Asteria government, slaughtered the Humans in their homes. It had taken a while for the Systems Alliance Intelligence, aided by Cerberus, to determine what had happened, because you did not kill that many Humans without some losses but eventually the truth had been discovered.

Over the course of a few weeks, a poison had been released into the water supply. It was an aggregation poison, with its only revealing symptom being general lethargy. The real kicker was that it impacted on both Asari and Humans equally and the community, which thought it had been a beacon of hope in the growing conflict, banded together, disregarding the lethargy as simply the change in season. Over those same few weeks, the Asari commandos had been shipped in, posing as tourists, new colonists and even some medical specialists. They brought their own supplies and used the time to track every last Human farm and homestead, every last apartment, dormitory and sleeping house.

And then, on the chosen night they had struck. Most Humans had been slaughtered in their beds, remaining blissfully unaware of the growing danger, even at the end. A few had roused. Drugged or not, they had awoken but they had not been able to effectively fight.

Of course, it had taken more than one night but the Asari had planned for that. They had struck on a weekday, when most of the Humans had work the next day and thus did not customarily socialise with others outside of their immediate area. They were farmers, so had very little reason to talk to colonists on the other side of the world. Any lack of communication was put down to transmission difficulties. That allowed the Asari to kill quadrant by quadrant without undue alarm being raised. The last few Humans had noticed, and fought, but they were isolated, fighting against trained commandos, most of whom were powerful biotics. It was only after the fact that the alarm was raised. Too late. While there were never any official vids or photos, enough had spilled onto the 'net to enrage the Systems Alliance.

The Hades Massacre had signalled the turning point in the war. Any reticence in Human soldiers disappeared and the change hardened the hearts of the Citadel's forces. From that point, the Betrayal War had truly been war.

Arshan didn't care and there were other Asari colonies which could be taken. The loss of one was of no consequence and the Humans had been promised vengeance. It was one thing to lie to an organic, but now that the Humans were Ascended, and still desired vengeance, then Harbinger could not go back on their word. Ascended did not lie to Ascended, so the Ascended Humans could have their vengeance. As far as Arshan was concerned the harvest was a success and there would be four hundred and seventy six new prime forms in the fleet for the next cycle. Ascended served the cycle.

"Shepard is hoping he gets to destroy Thessia," Harbinger rumbled.

"He is," Arshan said honestly, "but he will accept the reality of the Harvest."

"You are impressed." The statement was itself a question, one Harbinger asked only because he had known Arshan for so long. The Arshan were the first race Ascended after the Leviathans. Arshan had been with Harbinger for a very long time.

"I am," the old Ascended answered again candidly. "This is not something which should be attempted each cycle but for this one, with these races, I believe it was the right choice."

"Vengeance should not be relied upon. Organics are fickle."

"True. There are some Human primes who will now ignore vengeance. The older ones remember their history better, but some of the youngest are satisfied. They will follow Shepard's lead. The cycle will be served."

"They are designed that way," Harbinger mused. "What of the training they insisted upon?"

"It has made them highly functional both individually and in groups," Arshan said, sending Harbinger several scans that had been made by individual primes sent to scout out systems, and of those made by groups of Ascended working in tandem to ensure that they found all evidence of organic civilisations. The way they used their oculi as extended sensors and then collated the information was highly skilful. "I believe it is something we should adopt."

"There is a chance it only works because the organics were harvested somewhat willingly, and are therefore lucid at the moment of awakening."

"That is true. Still, it is something we should consider. It is helping the Humans in more than the harvest," Arshan continued.

"How?"

Arshan sent the eldest Ascended a vid feed from above Digeris. It showed the Ascended Zaeed, surrounded by three other Ascended who were holding mass effect fields steady. Husks swarmed all over Zaeed's form while a fourth Ascended hovered close without moving. The entire scene bespoke very advanced control in both field manipulation and husk management. Most of the fleet possessed such control but it usually took them several hundred cycles to attain it.

"I will consider it," Harbinger said but Arshan could feel him examining the images carefully. "I was told that this injury was a result of their training."

The other Ascended was silent for an instant before laughing. "It was, though I believe Shepard has made it very clear to Zaeed how disappointed he is. That will be sufficient to ensure that this does not happen again."

"For one."

"For all. Shepard was not shy in sharing his dissatisfaction," Arshan assured Harbinger. "Their training will let them complete repairs over the next few rotations."

"Complete?" Even for Ascended, if injured badly enough, repairs usually required time in the docks, and they were not something which could be done by those so newly Ascended.

"Complete," Arshan returned. "For that alone, we should consider their training methods. Not necessarily for the newly Ascended but for once they settle. It has accelerated the Humans' abilities. Shepard is ahead of even our best schedule. That would not have happened if he was less skilled."

"Destruction is not skill."

"Harbinger," Arshan said, his voice serious. "You already knew the Humans would be good at fighting, but it is more than that, they are genuinely skilled, in a way that takes hundreds of cycles for most to achieve. You could leave one as the Vanguard without concern. One of the older ones of course," he added the qualification. "Fruben would agree. We are meant to be flexible but the Prothean Cycle has made us stale and set in our ways. We were at risk of being ceased. The Harvest must continue but we must continue to be able to adapt, much like the Humans are. Closing the relays behind us is a good strategy."

"Do the Humans know how?"

"They figured it out almost immediately," Arshan said, "but they always ask me or Fruben to do it. Their attack lines have their eldest and most capable as the first through a Relay, and the last, always with either myself or Fruben with them to close the Relay."

"Continue watching them," Harbinger ordered. "I will consider your thoughts," he added before cutting the link.

He allowed his sensors to trail down again towards the incomplete form of the last Human Ascended. Shepard's behaviour was within allowable tolerances and Arshan had given him much to think upon.

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Citadel

Quentius slumped at the Council table. He wasn't even sure why he was doing this anymore but somehow, he couldn't bring himself to stop. He kept rubbing one eye, resting his left mandible in his hand. The reports were strewn before him. Data pad after data pad. The list of colonies destroyed just went on and on.

At first, after the Destruction of Palaven, and the Slaughter on Irune, it hadn't been too bad, relatively speaking. The Attackers had swept through the territory of the fallen Systems Alliance. While it had been forty years, most had been reticent to colonise in that area. The few pirate bases had been destroyed, and Quentius thought he detected a slight note of glee from Shepard when he spoke about them.

The Volus, like the Turians, had been hit the hardest. Their homeworld had fallen, though it had not been destroyed like Palaven. While they had no images, Shepard had said that they were processing the inhabitants, ascending them, much like what was happening in Digeris. That's what Shepard said but no one knew for sure. They couldn't get even the smallest scout ship through and by the time probes arrived, it would be too late.

Asari and Turian patrols had reported that the Relays leading to anywhere in the former Systems Alliance territory remained stubbornly closed. As did the Relays to the Apien Crest and the Aethon Cluster. It was just like the Relays in the Serpent Nebula. They were dead. The Attackers were closing them as they went through.

It was so devastatingly simple and everyone in the Serpent Nebula was reminded of it every rationed meal. The Citadel was capable of producing food and they were, it was just not enough. They had been facing the very real possibility of riots all over the Citadel, open warfare as the citizens and soldiers fought over the dwindling supplies. He'd been in an emergency meeting about just that when Eachann had comm'd them.

Without warning, the Relay had opened for a split second, and a large block had come through. The Relay had deposited the block just in front of the defense fleet and it was a wonder they hadn't fired upon it. And before anyone could do anything, the Relay had turned off again. Even a minute examination of the sensor readings of the Relay showed that there was no warning. The usual signals had been muted.

At the time, that hadn't been known and they'd been left staring at the block. Nothing ventured, nothing gained had been the reasoning of the team which approached it. The exterior of the block was a thin sheet of metal, barely a millimetre thick. The interior…

Food. Packed tightly and protected against the vacuum of space. There was enough food for everyone in the Serpent Nebula for a week on short rations but short rations were better than no rations at all. It was divided neatly into three sections. Dextro, levo and ammonia suitable and when that report came through, Quentius knew where the food had come from.

Shepard. They had not told the Human of their troubles but he had obviously anticipated them.

Quentius had held out against the pangs of hunger as long as he could but eventually he had been forced to eat. It was that or starve to death and he could not let go of some vague hope… no matter what the situation seemed like. It was another week's worth of life for him and his people on the Citadel but every time he choked on a meal, he remembered that he was eating because others were dead and dying.

Another block of food had arrived six days into the week, and another and they were forced to conclude that the Humans would continue to feed them, even as they continued ravaging the galaxy. He hadn't yet had the courage to ask Shepard why they were feeding those they obviously intended to kill. Watching what they were doing to the galaxy, the only conclusion Quentius could draw was that Shepard wanted them to bear witness to this before he killed them all.

It hadn't taken long for the Humans to go through their former territory and then out into the Attican Traverse. Each week, Shepard had initiated contact. It didn't matter what security protocols they had in place, the Human just cut straight through them. Usually he was talkative but once he had just stared at them. That week, when he'd spoken, his voice had been soft which made his anger echo all the more clearly. Quentius shivered remembering the words.

"You found a Human colony, didn't you?" Shepard accused, staring at Irissa. "One that treated your arrival as a First Contact situation."

At that, Quentius had winced, knowing exactly what Shepard was talking about. Not that long after the Humans had managed to seal themselves into Sol, Irissa had lost diplomats from an expedition in the space near Sol, and he had sent a patrol to see what had happened. The instant they'd found Humans, a reinforced fleet had been sent and while Irissa still lost her people held hostage, the threat had been dealt with. It hadn't been until afterwards that Quentius had been able to get reports out of the Asari Councillor. He'd had to bury them and over the intervening years he had almost completely forgotten the incident.

"You should have left them," Shepard had said before his image had disappeared.

It had been the shortest meeting to date and the week after, Shepard had been back to normal and the incident hadn't been mentioned again.

Reports now pointed to the Attackers gathering in the Caleston Rift and it was obvious where they were heading next: Omega. Quentius wasn't sure what he thought of that. Omega was the biggest hive of scum in the galaxy but they didn't deserve what Shepard was about to do to them. Of course Shepard might not ascend them, he might just destroy them, as had happened to Asteria. It was obvious the Humans remembered the Hades Massacre since they gleefully transmitted the colony's destruction, sending the Council a private feed, complete with commentary relating how the destruction they were raining down was similar to the deaths of the Human farmers on Asteria. That had been last week, and Irissa hadn't spoken of Shepard since and actually… Quentius glanced at the time. She was almost late.

"You are still looking at those?"

Ah. There she was, right on time for Shepard's weekly gloating session. About the only thing they hadn't tried, in their effort to avoid them was actually not meeting. Depending on how this one went, Quentius might suggest that they try that next week.

"What else would you have me do?" Quentius replied allowing his voice to to convey a sense of calm in response to her scorn. This was the woman who had promised assistance but the instant the Attackers appeared to be 'retreating' the Asari fleets had returned to their former postings.

Irissa glared, choking back her response when Schells appeared. By mutual agreement, Quentius and Irissa had agreed to shelve any animosity in front of the Salarian.

"He's not here yet," Quentius responded to the unspoken question. The Salarian had an almost pathological need to be on time.

"I am now," Shepard said an instant before his hologram coalesced.

The Councillors glared as the Human's image looked around. "Just the four of us again?" Shepard mused.

"There is no need to include others," Irissa hissed.

"Oh," Shepard seemed to sigh. "I was hoping to speak to the Volus representative," he added.

"There is no need for them to suffer through this," Quentis replied.

Shepard looked at him. "How very noble of you to continue to protect your client race."

The twitch of his mandible gave him away.

"Ah, not noble," Shepard said and Quentius could hear the amusement. "You haven't told them. Whose idea was that?" He asked, his eyes spearing into Irissa.

"There is no need to include others," the Asari repeated.

"I think there is," Shepard countered. "At the moment, it is the Volus who have suffered the heaviest losses. Irune, Patavig, Maskawa and Alahya." He held up one hand and ticked off the planets. "Boro won't last much longer," Shepard added, tapping his forefinger against the thumb of his other hand. "You don't think they don't deserve to face their foe?"

"Inasmuch as they deserve the right to see the true face of their attacker, I will not-"

"I'm not giving you anything you want!" Irissa snarled, interrupting Quentius. Schells just stood silently watching with the usual wide gaze of a Salarian.

"And what do I want?"

"For the galaxy to know you are Human!" Irissa growled the reply.

Quentius unconsciously heaved a sigh. How had she gotten to the position of Councillor? The Asari had lost one colony and this was how she acted? She was devoid of empathy and he wondered, not for the first time, how she had managed to negotiate any diplomatic solutions. Then his mind betrayed him, supplying the many instances where Irissa had not bothered to attempt diplomacy. She had treated the Turian and Asari military capabilities as… well, not her personal army, no one would have stood for that, but as the first solution, not the last.

Shepard's image leaned back in his chair. He rested his chin on his fist as he regarded the Council. "Irissa, you are aware that most of the galaxy believes we are Human, anyway?" he asked in a tone that clearly questioned her intelligence. Behind him, charts from various news networks appeared. The bars for 'Human' were the longest.

"The galaxy can believe what they want," Irissa spat her reply. "I will not confirm it for them."

"And how is me speaking to the Volus Representative confirmation? Surely as the representative of their race, they understand the need for… discretion?"

"The fact that you wish to speak to the Volus Representative just reinforces the fact that I will not allow it," Irissa said.

"You will not allow it?" Shepard laughed. "Since when are you the sole voice of the Council?"

"The Council will not allow it!" Schells spoke, almost seeming to stamp one foot.

"I see," Shepard replied, not even looking at the Salarian. "The Council has voted," he added and one of the charts changed, and while they could not read it, Quentius knew with absolute certainty that the intelligence behind the image was sifting through the records of the last week. It wouldn't surprise him if Shepard did it every week, just slightly more discretely. Certainly, he seemed to be aware of just about everything that went on. "You got outvoted again, huh, Quentius?" He said sympathetically.

There was silence for a few moments. Quentius didn't speak. Anything he said would be taken as agreement with Shepard and no matter how frustrated he was with Irissa or Schells, he would die before he let that happen.

"Well," Shepard said eventually. "I want to speak to the Volus Representative. Will you fetch them?"

"No."

"Is that your final word?"

"Yes!"

"Okay."

"Wai-" It was the way Shepard had smiled as he spoke his last word that made Quentius cry out. Too late because Shepard's image disappeared the instant the word had left his lips and Quentius felt cold at what might happen now. He raised one hand to his brow, squeezing slightly as if it could remove the pain. "We discussed this," the Turian Councillor said softly.

"I never agreed!" Irissa said haughtily.

The Turian Councillor didn't even bother to refute that. She had agreed, as had Schells, that they would not, within reason, antagonise Shepard. And on this, the Human was correct. The Volus Representative would keep his mouth shut but now… Spirits knew what Shepard would do having been denied his request.

"So far, nothing we have tried has even slowed the attacking fleet," Quentius said gently, as if explaining to a young child.

"So you would surrender to them now?" Irissa scoffed.

"I will never surrender to them," Quentius shouted, rising to his feet quickly as his claws dug into the table. How dare she even suggest such a thing?

"Yet you will give him whatever he wants." Schells was bold to speak.

"We are trying to control information," Quentius replied, not even bothering to look at Schells. The Salarians had been even less help than the Asari and while no one could prove it, the belief was growing that the Salarian Union had made some sort of deal with Attackers. "If we wish to continue doing that, then we need to give Shepard no reason to go around us. Despite what we may wish, the Pro-Human movement is not going away."

Irissa waved one hand to dismiss them. "They are a minor group, and we should be focused on far more important matters."

"A little over a month ago, they were a minor group," Quentius said. "But they have been growing. Even on the Citadel, the belief is spreading and everything you have done has just fueled that belief. You seem to have forgotten that all it will take is one transmission from Shepard to shatter the illusion we are just barely maintaining."

"Then let him!" Irissa said. "It will enrage the galaxy against them!"

"More likely against us!" Quentius snapped. They had decided to maintain the fiction but he sensed Irissa was now against that and was trying to push Shepard into revealing it himself. He probably would now, but the consequences would not be those Irissa sought. Oh, there was no doubt that if Shepard just sent a message to CNN, they would not believe him. They'd publish but it would be treated as a curiosity but Quentius suddenly remembered there were those vids… If Shepard sent them?

Quentius saw with sudden clarity exactly what would happen. Shepard would send those vids. They would confirm his words, that the Council knew they were Human and after that… Well, after that, there would be no denying that the Attackers were Human and that they had taken out Palaven and Irune and controlled at least one third of the galaxy with no signs of anything stopping their advance.

The Turians were already primed to fight but the rest of the Galaxy? The knowledge would either make or break them. The Turian councillor just wished he knew which it would be.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 24: Ascended Recreation

-cfr-

Hyetiana, Asari Colony

"Shiala."

The voice was deferential and she looked over to see a young maiden. It was one of the girls assigned to ensure that they had what they need. "Yes, Isame?"

"I was," Isame seemed to tremble. "I was wondering..." she said but the rest of her sentence was lost to an inaudible whisper.

Shiala smiled gently. "You were wondering?" she prompted. It was quite pleasant on Hyetiana. Liara had other researchers to play with and she had been quick to show her superiority. It was only expected, given she was the daughter of Matriarch Benezia. She was presently in the lab below working on something round. Currently it was a little higher than herself and at the moment Liara was leaning into it, tweaking some of the electronics. It made Shiala's smile brighter. The Little Wing was so skilled.

"I was wondering," Isame began again, "why the Matriarchs have never spoken to you? Since you were..." Again the sentence trailed into silence.

It was not the question Shiala had been expecting. While most Asari were too polite to ask about her pigmentation, some of the younger were curious. She was after all, green, courtesy of the Thorian, not the usual blue or rarer purple. It was however, a much better question.

"I have spoken to them," Shiala reassured Isame. "And I have told Liara everything I know," she added, glancing towards the lab.

Isame seemed surprised with the answer but after she considered it, Shiala saw the expression of respect deepen. Young as she was, Isame was always impressed when an older Asari allowed a younger to take the spotlight. After a moment, the younger Asari bit her lip and Shiala knew she had another question.

"You can ask," she said. "Not seeking knowledge is the true crime," Shiala added the reassurance.

"Can you tell me about the Humans?" the question came in a rush and Shiala understood.

She smiled again, using the expression to hide her laughter. Isame was one of the silly ones, though she did have some discretion. Irissa's faction would never have assigned a pro-Human to them and so somehow Isame was keeping her belief from them. That was good. She did not need someone looking into things.

Still it displayed how little Isame knew that she called them Human. They were not Human. They were beyond that and soon everyone, even those who thought nothing of it would know. But for now, only the chosen knew. Which was why Shiala continued watching over Liara. They would want her. It was not something Shiala even questioned. She just knew it was true, so for now, kept Liara close, kept her safe against the manipulations of those who could not comprehend the glory of ascension.

"Of course," Shiala replied. She didn't need to tell the young girl that the information was confidential. "About seventy years ago, there was an incident around Relay 314…"

-cfr-

Omega Station, Omega Nebula

Aria looked at the data pads before her. Information from the Council forces was pathetically easy to obtain but it didn't help her. Rather it reinforced the hopelessness of her position. Of Omega's position. Of the galaxy's.

She could take her pick on which doom she wanted to contemplate. She shook her head, forcing herself to concentrate. "Averul?" she prompted.

"There is still no change," the Salarian responded quickly. "We've lost contact with the Pylos Nebula and the Phoenix Massing."

"And we were actually obeying the Council warnings to remain clear of all former Systems Alliance territory, including border systems," Tullia, one of the Turians on her payroll added.

That translated to remaining out of quite a long list of systems. Not that it had been difficult to obey the Council warnings. Even before they were issued, pirates and other groups had been pulling out ahead of the advancing fleets. Those few who had been unable to evacuate in time had been destroyed utterly.

"So where the hell are they?" Aria growled the question.

No one answered. A week ago, that fleet had been gathering in the Caleston Rift. Every bit of intelligence recognised that fact. And every bit of intelligence said that they would be coming for Omega next. Then the fleet had disappeared. Oh, the relay's were still closed and the Pylos Nebula had fallen silent but not a single attacking ship had appeared through the relay. Where had they gone? And what did she do about it? She had the largest mercenary fleet ever seen in the history of the galaxy gathered around the station but unless the enemy appeared, even with all her influence, Aria wasn't sure for how long she could hold it here. United, they had some chance. Scattered back in their bolt holes, they would be easy pickings for the attackers.

"Has there been any communication?"

"They are talking to the Council," Tullia supplied.

Yes, the entire galaxy knew that the invaders had been talking to the Council. Just like the entire galaxy knew they claimed to be Human. Aria wasn't sure what she thought of that. The Humans never had this much power but she was used to dealing with changing events. This was just another change.

"With us?" she snapped.

Averul shook his head. The Salarian was in charge of any communication efforts. "There's been a few odd replies," he said. "But they were for others."

"So we have been talking?"

"Of a sort," Averul replied.

"Either we are or we aren't!" Aria said.

"Every message I've sent has just had a stock standard reply," the Salarian explained. "It's like they'r-" he cut the sentence off abruptly and Aria turned to watch him with sharp eyes. Averul had thought of something.

The Salarian snorted. "We've had communication," he said a moment later. "Or rather, we've been receiving communication but it is intended for their spies."

"They have been dumb enough to send us the orders to their spies?" The flanging in Tullia's voice emphasised her disbelief.

Averul flicked a data pad in the Turian's direction. "It's not as if we can understand them," he said. "They are coded messages," he added.

"All right!" Aria cut through the budding argument. "They are talking to someone," she added. "Make them talk to me!"

"Ma'am, with respect, do you think they will listen?"

Aria considered it. "I think they will listen," she said finally. "If they really are Human, then they will know that we are not associated with the Council."

"That hasn't stopped them," someone muttered.

It hadn't, Aria admitted privately. "They have destroyed every pirate base in the territory they consider theirs," she pointed out.

"They haven't stopped," Tullia pointed out.

"I wouldn't either," Aria said. "Not while I had the power," she added. "But we are not their enemies. Omega never has and never will be allied with the Council and the Humans knew that. It should be enough to open communications." While she sounded confident when she said it, she was anything but. If the Humans hadn't responded to Averul's communications, then they had very little reason to. With the strength they had displayed, they probably meant to sweep through the entire galaxy, taking it for themselves. If anyone survived, they would be subservient to the Humans. However, no matter what, she would not run. She would not abandon Omega.

And surely, not even the Humans could expect to have a galaxy free of any underbelly? They were not that stupid. No, all she needed was an opportunity. She would make that enough!

-cfr-

Tikkun, Perseus Veil

"The pro-Human factions are working out even better than I thought they would."

"Are they?" Shepard asked Harper without turning his attention towards the other Ascended. The Geth were putting up quite a fight. It made sense, he supposed. Of all the galaxy, the Geth had had the best idea about Nazara's strengths and they were not as trusting as organics. They would have had some plan to fight.

Maybe not. They had trusted Nazara but they had also had at least a month to know the Human fleet was coming, and centuries to assume that the Quarian fleet or a Council fleet would attack. Rannoch was heavily defended by those who didn't need rest and who could build and build and build so long as there were resources. And with the Council being so lax in patrols and those in the Terminus Systems not caring unless they were attacked, the Geth had been able to gather many resources.

It was not enough to stop them, and Shepard's fleet was systematically cutting through them, but it was taking time. Shepard was philosophical about it. It was taking time but the Council wasn't going anywhere.

"They are," Harper replied. "I'm getting all sorts of useful information."

"Anything directly useful?"

"Not really," the former leader of Cerberus admitted.

"So why tell me now?" Shepard demanded, as he dispersed another set of oculi. The Geth had strewn the system with defences. The larger ones were easy to find and destroy. For the smaller ones, while they could not hurt any of the Ascended, they were annoying. They clogged their senses and thus had to be removed. That required clouds of oculi which further clogged their senses but which could be ignored as being part of themselves. The oculi had two tasks. The first was to destroy the smaller Geth defences and the second was to help the fleet triangulate where the central Geth servers were. Once they were found, it would be all over for the Geth.

"Because there is one situation that is similar," Harper replied, releasing more of his own oculi.

The small round ships immediately began firing on the small Geth defences as the fleet advanced through Tikkun.

"Oh, what is that?" Shepard asked.

"Magna."

"That's a Turian colony."

"It is," Harper said. "When they heard that Palaven fell, Magna's governor truly embraced any alternative to conventional fighting."

Shepard laughed. "What did they do?" While they had taken out Palaven, they really hadn't taken out that many Turian colonies. There were a few coming up in the Terminus Systems which would fall.

"They released self-replicating nanites to build defences."

"They did what?!"

"I know," Harper agreed with Shepard's disbelief. They were expecting the Turians to do something stupid, to break the bounds of the Citadel's conventions but this… The Geth might have been able to control self-replicating nanites because of their synthetic nature but for an organic race to try it? It would only take one tiny error in the command code.

"There's a few pro-Humans on Magna," Harper continued. "Not Turians, but then the locals didn't develop the nanites on their own."

"Salarians," Shepard guessed instantly.

"Yep," Harper replied quickly. "And through them I have a Turian."

"You do?"

"One of the researchers was not as careful with my messages as he should have been."

"They have been suitably chastised?" Shepard enquired.

"Definitely." The careless Salarian researcher Jozef had been taken out and unceremoniously shot, but the seed had been planted and it had eaten away at Naevius until the Turian had sent his own message. After that, it had only been a matter of time and Harper was patient.

"So what does our little Turian know?"

"Unfortunately he's not in a position to discover what any other colony has waiting for us," Harper said. Naevius could ask about that information but it would raise suspicions and there was no need to be so careless with their toys. "He is however a part of the team checking the nanite code."

Shepard instantly saw the possibilities in that. "So when will it all fall down?"

"I think about the time we hit the Crescent Nebula would be appropriate," Harper replied.

"Make it happen," Shepard instructed. It really didn't matter if it was sooner just so long as they arrived at Magna to find the colony dead.

"It will," Harper confirmed.

"You can stop it?" Shepard asked the follow up.

Harper mentally sighed. He had been hoping to hold on to that little bit of information. Not knowing wouldn't harm Shepard and Harper fully intended to use it at the appropriate time. "My little Turian knows the kill codes for the nanites," he replied, which translated to he knew the kill codes.

"Good," Shepard said before cutting the link as they continued scanning for the Geth's consciousnesses. As far as they were concerned now, Magna had already fallen and they needed to focus on Rannoch.

-cfr-

Serpent Nebula, Citadel

Shepard was… it was hard to define his feelings. There was a sense of happiness in the comms at the Citadel when he connected. It was not from the Catalyst but rather from the inhabitants and that worried him. They had no reason to be happy but he didn't have time to find out what it was from. The Council was in session which was too good an opportunity to pass up, even if for information gathering. One of the others could do it. There was however, time to listen in for a moment before he spoke to them.

"He missed a week," Schells was saying, "what makes you think he will be back?"

"This is Shepard," Quentius replied. "He'll be back, and probably annoyed that he missed that week." The Turian Councillor knew him so well.

"We still don't know why," Irissa said.

Now if that wasn't an opening, Shepard didn't know what was. "I was fixing the Council's three hundred year old mistake," he said allowing his hologram to materialise.

Schells had appeared to have finally worked out that he was a hologram and thus she couldn't be touched because she didn't yelp as she had in the past. Or perhaps the fact that she had survived the position as Councillor for the last few weeks despite the ongoing assassinations was making her feel more empowered. Either way, she was the first to speak.

"Mistake?"

Unfortunately, 'empowered' didn't translate to 'intelligent'.

"Yes," Shepard said pleasantly. "Your mistake. The Geth," he added with a snarl, "which you so kindly gave three hundred years to build their defenses." Sweeping Tikkun, Ma-at and Dholen had been a pain, even for the combined fleets they had used. The Geth had had a great deal of time to establish themselves in those systems and being synthetic, factors like economy or political will hadn't held them back. All they required was consensus and a decision on priority for a project to be done, and once projects were begun, they were completed.

Even though the Geth were not organic, Arshan had been pleased that they had been destroyed. After they cleared Rannoch, the elder Ascended had informed Shepard that his strategy confirmed Harbinger's decisions. While that news had been pleasing, the implications were not. Someone, one of the Human Ascended, had spoken to Harbinger and, while Shepard didn't know what had been said, he knew well enough that they had tried to usurp him. That meant it could only be one of the older Ascended. The list of who it could be was not that long and Shepard had already ruled out Harper. While the man wanted to lead, he was not one to complain to authority. Harper would want to take the position by his own strength. Still, that was not the issue for now.

"They are gone?" Quentius asked, his eyes wide as he stared at Shepard.

"It took a bit of effort, even for us, but yes, they are gone and since there are no comm buoys beyond the Perseus Veil, I couldn't join you for our weekly catch up."

"We were wondering why you had paused," Irissa said. "We thought perhaps that you had run out of steam," she added, using organic insinuation.

Shepard smiled at her. "Oh, don't worry, my dear," he purred. "I'm always ready for you." The look he directed towards the Councillor was not appropriate but seemed to do its job. Irissa took a half step backwards at the sheer lust in the Human's gaze. She probably would have complained except the ongoing effect was ruined by the Shepard's background.

When a hologramatic image was sent through the network there were two ways of doing it. The first was to stand on a projection disk. That method transmitted the image of the being speaking and nothing but that image. It was how Schells was represented. The other was to project the area the being was in. Since Shepard was just a digitally created image, albeit a very good one, he could use either method but he had always gone with the second method. He had almost always chosen to show the bridge of some Systems Alliance ship in the background. Today was different.

Today, there was a simple wall behind Shepard. Hung at a number of heights were various plaques. Quentius ground his teeth together when he realised one of them said Palaven. There was a large piscine attached to the wood. As he looked further, he saw that another said Khar'shan, but the wood was a darker colour than the others. There was one for Irune as well, and there, hanging just over Shepard's right shoulder was Rannoch. There were a lot of empty spaces on the wall and Quentius realised they would be for Sur'Kesh, Thessia and all the other colonies the Humans had yet to take. The wall was nothing more than an electronic construction but the metaphor showed how confident the Humans were.

In the air behind Shepard, Quentius could see the faint outline of a fish swimming. It was surreal and Quentius wasn't even sure if Shepard knew it was there.

"Anyway, the Geth are gone. There's probably a few running around in the Terminus Systems but I'll get to them soon enough." Shepard's image laughed. "I'll get to a lot of things soon," he added.

The fish behind Shepard were joined by some others. Quentius squinted at them. They wouldn't stay still but he could swear there was writing on their scales. What game was Shepard playing now?

"You mean you are going to attempt to enter Council territory," Irissa said.

Shepard cocked his head at her and then he grinned. "You won't be stopping me entering anywhere," he said with a leer and again Irissa took a step back.

Quentius couldn't help the laugh that burst out of him. He knew what the looks Shepard was giving Irissa meant but how could she be taking him seriously with that background? There was nothing remotely amorous, forced or otherwise, with swimming fish and plaques.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Irissa yelled.

"You mean you can't-" Quentius didn't finish the question when Shepard looked at him from the corner of his eye, and shook his head slightly. Well that answered two questions. One, Shepard was perfectly aware of what was on display behind him and two, the hologram was set to a spectrum only Turians could see. Briefly Quentius closed his eyes. "I am sorry," he said after taking a deep breath. "Shepard, you were never interested in Asari. I do not believe ascension would have changed that," he admonished the Human, turning to stare at him.

Shepard looked at him with a smirk, and made a small gesture with his hand. The fish stilled and Quentius felt his eyes widen when he saw that there were names on them. Thessia was the largest but on the smaller fish there were other names. Chalkhos, Selvos, Altakiril, Illium, Turvess, Kahje, Nevos. The names seemed change and they were all colonies he recognised but as he watched further he realised there were no Salarian colonies named. Did that mean that those traitorous lizards had actually made a deal? Or was Shepard merely trying to insinuate that?

"Dear Liara did so want me to be," Shepard replied before his expression became sad. "But my heart always belonged to another."

"And have you found them?" Irissa took the opportunity to taunt. They all knew he wouldn't find Tali but he would find her people.

"I have a far better idea of where the Quarians are than you do," Shepard said, as his hologram took a deep breath. Most of the younger Human Ascended were involved in the harvest. The older of those, those who were nearly fully trained were now hunting down the Quarians. Through the Catalyst, they knew which Relays had been activated, relays the Council didn't know about, and it was simply a matter of searching the systems until the Migrant Fleet was found. It probably wouldn't take that long and once they were found, then he would decide what to do. "But I have far bigger fish to fry," he added. The fish behind him scattered as a hook fell into their midst. Watching that, Quentius wondered what Irissa could see and resolved to delicately inquire later.

"Speaking of food, why are you sending it to us?" Quentius asked. With the fish swimming in the background, he just couldn't bring himself to be reticent.

"I don't want you to starve," Shepard replied easily allowing his expression to become slightly condescending. Inwardly, he was shocked. Food. He should have thought about it! He knew the Citadel wasn't self sufficient. Why hadn't he? The answer came quickly. Because he already knew food was being shipped to the Citadel. He'd known it in the way he knew all information. The answers were there when he thought about them but they had also impacted upon his thinking.

Something that Harbinger had told him soon after he had awoken in his new form ghosted through his memory now.

"You are no longer Human, Shepard. You are Ascended and you will come to understand what that means in time."

This was just part of being Ascended but it was a part that was going to take some getting used to.

"You don't want us to starve?" Irissa seemed incredulous, yet she relied on the shipments of food, just like the rest of them.

"Of course not," Shepard told her. "You are the witnesses. Of course, you are also the final battle, but that's not something you need to worry about yet."

"Witnesses to what?" Schells asked.

Shepard turned to the Salarian's hologram and Quentius watched as a fish with the word Sur'kesh finally appeared and immediately bit the hook that had been in the water. With an upward jerk the fish disappeared as if caught and he was forced to hold his mandibles still as he realised what Shepard was telling him. Agreement or not, Shepard was aware of how stupid the Salarian was, with how easily she was caught. Even Irissa had more sense. For a moment, Shepard's hologram just looked at Schells, making one long slow blink. After that he took a visible breath and looked at Irissa. "You explain," he said. "I'm busy."

And Shepard's hologram vanished.

"Shepard!" Irissa shouted. "Shepard!" she repeated. "I know you are there!" she added for good measure. There was no way he could always appear exactly on time without having some way of listening in. "Get back here!"

Quentius rose, holding his mandibles so still that they almost quivered. "He won't come," he said. "Even if he is here, he's not going to answer you, Irissa."

"Darn it, Shepard," she yelled into the air before turning on Schells. "You really don't understand?" Irissa growled as Quentius slipped out of the chamber and the door closed, sealing the room.

It was only then that he allowed himself to laugh.

And it was later, that the memory made him sick. Nothing Shepard did should ever amuse him. Nothing.

-cfr-

Batarian Colony, Grata, Sineus' Moon, Dirada System, Pylos Nebula

Shepard focused his senses on the colony below him. The last few signals were running through what territory remained, vainly seeking an escape as the husks hunted them down. If he had still been Human, his eyes would have been closed with a small satisfied smirk adorning his features. Playing cat and mouse with Batarians was fun, especially if you were a lion sized cat.

Grata was one of Sineus' many moons, a gas giant in the Pylos Nebula and it appeared to be the centre of what remained of Batarian culture. Trust them to settle in a region well known for piracy, though the settlement on Grata was far more than a mere pirate base. It had been an interlinked series of bunkers, which had been laboriously hewn out of the rock. It had to be, since Grata's only distinguishing feature was water, not atmosphere. None of Sineus' moons had anything but the thinnest of atmospheres. They had all lost it millions of years ago to the gas giant they orbited.

During the assault, he'd read the information available on the Batarian servers. It appeared that they had, slowly, been getting their act together. Turian records declared that the Batarians had fallen into an anarchic state after Harbinger had swept through their territory. Those Batarians lucky enough to be outside their space had maintained some hope when the Council funded the Expedition but they had been degenerating into warring colonies. The evidence the Ascended had found supported that. All through the former Systems Alliance territory, they had found small Batarian colonies and the ruins of others.

What the Turian information failed to mention, but was confirmed by Batarian files, was that slowly those warring colonies were consolidating. Or, Shepard reflected, it could be that they were more paranoid. Most of the settlements found so far showed signs of hasty evacuation. There had been a few Batarians left on each. The weak and the sick and dying and the Human Ascended had made short work of them, generally putting them out of their misery with a focused orbital bombardment before moving on.

Grata had been different. The colony had teemed with life, all of it in deep underground bunkers. There had even been a rudimentary fleet guarding the colony. The extensive colony on Grata, and in the growing unity of the Batarian colonies had shown only a small gain in reclaiming what they had lost with their homeworld but Shepard had felt a tiny stirring of admiration for the four eyed aliens. You could put them down, smash them into the ground and stomp on their remains but like cockroaches some always remained.

It was at that time he decided it was beyond time to remove any trace of admiration by reminding himself why he put the Batarian race in a special place, next to the Asari to hold in contempt.

The Batarians had cooperated perfectly.

While the fleet had been destroying the minor defences, a shuttle had attempted to flee. As if the Ascended wouldn't notice a shuttle! It had been summarily fired upon but had been allowed to limp back to the moon, revealing where at least one landing bay was. After that, it was a foregone conclusion. The Ascended had swarmed the place with husks. Shepard would like to say that the few defenders had fought well, but he was happier that they hadn't. Enemies who fought well meant lost husks, and while Shepard was very well adjusted to his new form, he still did not yet think of Human husks as expendable. It was probably a holdover from his training while an organic because he had so many military personnel enclosed within his being.

After the skirmish, Shepard had been surprised to find an old friend. Jath'Amon, the so-called Ambassador to the Council had been on the shuttle. They'd been about to drop him on a dragon tooth when analysis of the colonies files had shown he was the titular head of the new Hegemony. In reality, the leadership was still being viciously fought over. Still, it had made the decision easy. He had been dragged into the observation bay and forced to watch as the colony's inhabitants were dragged out of the labyrinthine bunkers and converted into more useful forms.

The slaves hadn't caused Jath'Amon any concern and most had been grateful for the release of death. The Batarian hadn't even flinched when the first Batarians were led out and impaled, not even when Shepard had decided to get creative, placing them carefully so that they did not die with the initial wound but lingered, moaning pathetically as their innards were turned into the building blocks of their new cybernetic enhancements.

It had not been until several children had been dragged out that the former ambassador displayed the slightest emotion. He hadn't been planning on turning them into husks, simply because they were too small, and the dragon's tooth was likely to split them in two but when their presence affected Jath'Amon, Shepard was only momentarily surprised at himself when he realised he felt nothing at the thought of impaling them. There was a part of him that was disgusted but another recognised that death came to all things, and that this was part of the cycle.

It had been a bit of a strain but he had focused his consciousness, pouring as much as he could into a husk. He had been Ascended knowing how to guide husks, but possessing one was a different matter. Even with the union of organic and cybernetics, they did not have the capacity to hold him but it had been worth the discomfort to speak.

"Yours, I presume?" His voice was unrecognisable through the husk but it the question startled the Batarian.

Jath'Amon had been allowed to stand freely at the bay window, while husks guarded the entrance. The controls had been ripped out, and the clear, glass-like substance was far too hard for the Batarian to break. His four eyes could see everything but he could do nothing about it. "What are you?" he demanded after a moment of silence.

Mentally, Shepard sighed. Why did everyone ask what he was? They couldn't comprehend the answer, though cheekily Joker suggested a few responses. "Your fate! No wait! Your doom!"

"Joker!" Pressly admonished.

"Does it matter?" Shepard replied, ignoring the chatter from within.

"Are you the ones who destroyed Khar'Shan?" Jath'Amon pressed on, his eyes wide as he stared at the husk which Shepard had moved to come to stand beside him.

"No," Shepard replied. "But I am the one about to kill them," he added, pushing the Batarian's attention back to the landing bay. The husks had manoeuvred the children over the closest teeth and were about to activate it.

"No!"

"So, Batarians can care for something beyond their position. I had wondered."

"Shepard you can't!" a chorus of voices screamed at him. "We can't!" Shepard found himself drawn inwards. His being was split, and for a moment he watched as the two sides argued. They argued not so much in words, but in feelings and emotion. The best analogy was that it was a swirling mass of thought.

The consciousness that was Shepard didn't have to reply but for another part pulled the memories of Batarian slavers to the fore. Some of those in his form had very intimate knowledge of slavers and right at the moment, they were only too happy to share that knowledge. The counter came immediately, that these Batarians were not guilty of anything. They hadn't even been alive when the crimes were committed. The truth of that could not be refuted, even by the most emotional and that was one change wrought by ascension that Shepard was pleased with. He did not discount the importance of feelings in making decisions but for some things only cold logic could suffice.

And the cold logic was that the children were going to die. It was only the means of their deaths that was in question. The internal argument continued, that this was not about guilt, though it was peripherally about vengeance and that with their deaths a certainty, why not use their small forms? The smaller husk forms would be able to go into places the adults would not. It was not desecration of their bodies, it could not be, when the same had happened to Humans. If the soul existed, it would have moved on with death and they would be placed such that death was instantaneous.

In words, in text, in print and heated discussion, in the way that organics argued, it would have taken weeks, perhaps months or years to reach a conclusion. For Shepard, it took barely any time at all before the final conclusion was reached that on some level it was just wrong to kill the younglings. But reality was also acknowledged with that conclusion, that they were organic, they would die anyway and today was that day. Not everyone was happy but not everyone could be happy with this.

This was the way of Ascension. Organics had to be preserved against their own creations. Age did not matter. All served Ascension. And he was Ascended. The Batarians were already Ascended. These were extras. In the end, any argument against that was simply organic memory, not Ascension.

"Why are you doing this?" Jath'Amon demanded. "We Batarians are the chosen ones! We are smarter, better, yet everyone is against us!"

The statement brought instant silence to Shepard's consciousness.

"He did not just say that?!" Joker spluttered, vocalising the sheer disbelief felt by most.

"How did they form that opinion?" Annie asked the more relevant question, though the modulations in her tone showed that she didn't quite believe what the Batarian had said.

The initial reasoning was easy. The Batarians had not been shy in sharing their beliefs with the galaxy. The damaged Prothean technology cache they had found, coupled with their morphological similarity and no doubt fuelled by their state had led to the belief that they were superior.

"History says otherwise," Shepard replied through the husk, making a gesture to those below.

The motion was for Jath'Amon's benefit, so that he knew to look. The dragon tooth activated. The child was impaled, dying instantly, while the others screamed but were held firm by the husks which had captured them.

"Why?" Jath'Amon demanded again though his voice trembled.

"You are just an organic species," Shepard said, "one that will fade in the memory of the galaxy."

"No, that can't be! We are the chosen ones!"

"Then where are you great works? Your accomplishments and achievements? Where is your legacy?"

"You are killing it!" The Batarian ambassador screamed, lunging towards the husk, his hands balled into fists as he attempted to fight.

Batarians were built the same as a Human. They had no extra leg joints, like a Salarian, and a differing number of fingers was not a difference which made an appreciable difference in close combat. The extra depth perception offered by their four eyes perhaps offered some small advantage but only if they were fast enough to capitalise on them. Jath'Amon might once have been a fit Batarian but he had not kept up his training in the intervening years. Even stuck in the body of a husk, Shepard was more than his match, catching the thrown fist in a grip that was immovable before twisting Jath'Amon's arm up behind his back, and pushing forward so that the Batarian was forced to stare out of the observation port.

"You are short-sighted," Shepard hissed, "and I am the end of you." Harbinger had always stated that to be effective Humans had to control their emotional drives but Shepard couldn't deny he felt a certain amount of satisfaction at Jath'Amon's pain.

The ambassador struggled for a moment but Shepard felt the moment when he went limp. It was about the same time that the last child was hoisted on to the dragon teeth. Shepard released the hold he had on Jath'Amon, allowing the Batarian to fall as the husk stepped back.

Scans from his senses showed that the last of Grata's colonists were being dragged in for processing now. As Shepard pulled back from the husk he made a decision. Jath'Amon could remain here, alone and unharmed with abundant supplies. One dragon tooth would be left in the bay and all comms and possible transport destroyed. It would be interesting to see what choice the Ambassador made.

-cfr-

Chapter Text

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 25: Talking Through the Apocalypse

-cfr-

Omega Station, Omega Nebula

"They're here."

Aria looked up from the data pad and nodded, throwing it onto the desk as she rose. She had been expecting this sooner but alien attack fleets didn't listen to her schedule. At least, she'd managed to keep the entire merc fleet here.

"Start transmission," she ordered, as she walked into what had become the command room. She was pleased to see Averul already there.

"There's no need," a voice Aria didn't recognise spoke as the screens flickered.

A Human face appeared on them. One Aria only vaguely recognised. She didn't pay that much attention to the Council's lackeys but the lone Human Spectre's image had been splashed everywhere.

"You wanted to talk to us?" the Human said.

A side screen showed the enemy fleet, honing in on a few to highlight the Human markings. "Fuck you Council" translated very easily, as did "Humanity, Fuck Yeah!" Aria felt her confidence grow. These were Humans and she was not their enemy.

"Who am I speaking to?" she asked, making sure to keep her voice reasonable.

"My name is Shepard. Who are you?"

Just as the image spoke, the side screen honed in on the ship. It was identical to the others with the words N7 Shepard clearly spelt out. On a front leg, there was an image of Earth and even after forty years, Aria recognised it as the symbol of the Systems Alliance.

Aria decided she liked what she saw in the eyes of the Human. The gaze was measuring, to be sure, but there was no lust or derision in it. This Human truly didn't care that she was a criminal. All he seemed to care about was what she could do for him. She could work with that.

"I am Aria T'Loak. I am the ruler here."

The Human smiled slightly. It was not condescending but was more as if he was happy to be talking to someone with power. "How can I help you, Aria T'Loak?" he asked, his voice pronouncing her name perfectly. The fact that he did not give her a title of her people was also a point in his favour. Up close he was handsome enough, she supposed. His features were smooth, with bright eyes.

"We have, of course, been following your progress through the galaxy," she began, wondering if she should congratulate them on their conquests. No, while that sort of aggrandising was expected for pirates, it would be crass now.

"I suppose we have made a bit of an impression," Shepard said and behind him, while it could not be seen clearly, a galactic map appeared. There was a very large section in red. The territory he held.

"Omega is not your enemy," she continued. "Put simply, Omega is the counterpart to the Citadel that they do not wish to admit exists."

"I am aware of what role Omega plays in the galaxy," Shepard said. "The station acts as a port of call and trading hub for most of the major mercenary groups. It provides headquarters for every smuggling ring worth its salt and is a hotbed for illegal drugs and other questionable substances." He said the last with a cocky little smile that said he knew far more than he should. "I am very aware that you are not under Council jurisdiction. If you were, we would not be holding this conversation."

"So that's why you took out Palaven first," she said, understanding the strategy now.

"I am a direct man," Shepard replied.

Aria nodded at that. She didn't believe it but such a statement gave her a good opening and she had learned to use those openings, rather than dancing around the issue like more diplomatically minded Asari would. "Then I will be equally direct. What are your intentions in Omega?"

Shepard's image looked at her intently, as if surprised that she took his opening, but he was still calm and relaxed. After a moment, he spoke with a wry smile. "You are not my enemy Aria T'Loak but you are in my way." He was nodding slightly at the end.

"In the way of conquest?" she asked, sounding slightly dubious. Very little information had swept ahead of his fleet; nothing came from behind it. That was one of the reasons they remained such an enigma.

"Not conquest," Shepard shook his head. "But that is a very reasonable assumption - that I am Human and that this is about vengeance, about raising the Human Empire across the galaxy."

"You're not Human?" Aria asked with a tiny frown. He claimed a Human name and rank.

"I was but I am now Ascended," Shepard replied, looking at her intently. "It is the genetic destiny of the galaxy to be Ascended," he added but there was nothing fanatical in his tone, just matter of fact.

"So you are going to attack?"

"You are going to resist," he countered.

Aria forced herself to calm when she caught sight of the screen showing the fleet suddenly flashing red. That meant their weapons had been powered up. She was confident but even she felt some trepidation when staring at dreadnoughts bearing down upon her and while Aria was not an expert in capital ship weapons, she knew they shouldn't power up that quickly. There was only one small consolation in the situation. The mercenary fleet did not fire.

"Did you wish something, Aria T'Loak?" Shepard asked, his eyes narrowing and she knew the answer he wanted.

"No! You can't! We had a deal!"

Aria snarled, turning to the speaker. Averul. Her hand went to her weapon while she kept one eye on Shepard's image.

There was no instant of surprise or incomprehension. The image's expression remained the same before slowly shifting into something of a satisfied smile. "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alt-" The image paused before chuckling. "Well," Shepard drawled. "Never mind," he added with exhalation to cover further laughter.

"Did you have a deal?" Aria demanded, her gun gripped firmly in hand.

Shepard's amused gaze shifted from Averul's body to her. "One of my fleet might have made a few insinuations," he admitted. "But nothing solid, though perhaps you'd like to make a deal with me, Aria T'Loak? A population of 7.8 million is not worth me landing troops to ascend you. I'm in a good mood though. The last Batarian holding we found took a long time to die and, unlike other Asari, you have been honest with me. So, I know you've probably read everything the Council has discovered about ascension but I'll tell you something I haven't told them." The image of Shepard leaned forward slightly and while Aria recognised it as a feeble attempt to seem more approachable, she couldn't help but wonder what he had to say.

"I was the first Human Ascended and I am in charge," he said with a clearly challenging look, as if daring her to question him or to take up the opportunity. "We have not yet Ascended any Asari and I'm prepared to make you the first."

In the space around Omega, the Ascended had their own private comms while Shepard taunted the organics. It was always fun to laugh at their attempts. Their communication was so much faster than the words of organics.

"Shepard," Arshan sent to the Human Ascended. "It wasn't like that. Harbinger put you in charge."

"I know that," Shepard replied, sending acknowledgement over the comms. "You know that but she doesn't know that." He added clearly indicating that this was merely a ploy.

Silently, Arshan watched the younger Ascended. It appeared Shepard understood and a Human phrase came to him. Lying, cheating and stealing from organics. They grew up so fast.

"And that would put me in charge?"

"Potentially," Shepard replied, knowing full well that the matter of leadership was strength of will. Still, to become the dominant leader of Omega, Aria must have considerable will power. It wasn't impossible for her to become the dominant consciousness. "But, I want every Asari on Omega to come with you." The addition was important to him. The more Asari he could collect now, the fewer he'd need from Thessia.

Aria was well trained. She could negotiate with the most hardened mercenaries without giving away anything yet to an Ascended she might as well have been an open book. Shepard could see the way her breath was just a mite shallower and his additional sensors, those he had by acquiring the feeds from Omega, showed that her temperature rose. But those sensors also showed the way the others in the room were turning towards the Omegan Queen.

"You may, of course, bring whatever body guard force you feel is appropriate," Shepard added.

Those who had been turning went back to their stations and he saw the way that Aria relaxed. She had been aware of the tension. Aria took a deep breath and Shepard watched as she thought it over.

"She doesn't know what ascension is," Pressly said.

"Probably not," Shepard agreed. "But if she brings all the Asari with her, then that's about 1 million more we can kill on Thessia."

The thought amused those in his consciousness but they quickly turned their combined attention to Aria. If she wanted to live, then there was only one choice because there was no way her fleet could hold his off and they only needed a few shots to land on the station to win.

Aria growled. "You have a deal, Shepard, but only if you dock," she added the qualification.

Shepard instantly calculated the volumes. It would take a few hours to load them but it could be done. "It is always a pleasure doing business with a woman who knows her mind," he said by way of agreement.

-cfr-

Relay to Shrike Abyssal, Human Ascended Mini-Attack Fleet

"All right, we are the first through to the Shrike Abyssal. I know we've said this in just about every sector but there is always the possibility that the Council forces will try to ambush us!" Nergal finished the last with a laugh.

"The closer we get to Citadel space the more likely that is," Futsunushi interjected, allowing his secondary comms to display the calculations. So far, they hadn't encountered many Council f