Beams and pulses of varying color filled the open void of space, creating flickers of light or plumes of flame and wreckage in their wake. Such was the visual sight of combat between starships of this level of technical sophistication and capability.
One such ship engaged was the Starship Koenig, even now twisting her way around the wreckage of one enemy to refocus her firepower upon another. A vessel of unique design - similar to the Defiant-class of the United Federation of Planets' Starfleet, itself the basis for the United Alliance of Systems' Trigger-class - the Koenig was made for this work, a dedicated combat vessel that sacrificed comfort, versatility, and cruising range for sheer firepower in as small a hull frame as could be managed.
Her foe was a Z-2500 destroyer starship of the Greater German Reich of Universe S4W8; known colloquially to the rest of the Multiverse as the Nazi German Reich. To the denizens of the Multiverse (and even others in S4W8) the very existence of this nation was a horror, an aberration, virtually a mockery of everything they held sacred. The Reich felt much the same way, leavened with their pride in their uniqueness and the sense that it made them special, and with their fear, indeed terror, in a Multiverse that now sought to eliminate them as well.
The Reich destroyer tried to evade. But it was itself committed to an attack run that its crew would not break off lightly. Even as the amber pulses of the Koenig's powerful pulse phaser cannon battery blew away the Z-2500's rear shields and battered away at her engines and hull, the destroyer finished the work of preparing her own weapons. Torpedoes raced from the launcher built into her bow seconds before the anti-matter that fueled her delicately-maintained reactors was freed by enemy weapons fire. The ship and her crew of a hundred men disappeared in a burst of light and energy.
Their torpedoes continued on, until intercepted by blue-white pulses and ultimately the flickering blue shields of the target of the doomed ship: the Starship Aurora.
The kilometer long ship was big, but the rapier-sharp lines and smooth, sleek shape of her hull gave her a feel of being far more agile than her size and mass suggested. Indeed, while certainly not as nimble as the Koenig, the Aurora was surprisingly agile. Under the expert helmsmanship of her navigation and piloting officer, Lieutenant Commander Nicholas Locarno, and guided by her captain Julia Andreys, the Aurora was even now dodging fire from the looming shape of a Nazi dreadnought, one of the dreaded Aryan-class. Thick, powerful super-disruptor beams lashed out at her. Only one of three actually stuck the ship.
On the bridge Julia felt her ship shudder regardless. At Operations Jarod didn't even turn his head. "Shields still holding at fifty percent."
"Maintain evasive maneuvers and continue fire on the dreadnought," she said in response. Julia's eyes ventured over to the tactical holotank, which was being utilized by Meridina as well in the Gersallian woman's function as First Officer of the ship. The markers there showed the Alliance combat group with the Aurora. Multiple Dorei starbirds, an Alakin warbird, three cruisers from the Federated Stars of Universe L2M1, a carrier battle group from the Kingdom of Avalon from S0T5, and new Alliance-model ships led by her own vessel and the Igasana-class heavy cruiser ASV Rotama. The Discovery-class ships Gagarin, Kitana, and Challenger were also present. Although as star cruisers they did not have the dedicated combat capability of the Rotama and other ships like her, they were still quite capable of combat and demonstrating that capability admirably.
Against the Nazi combat fleet the Alliance ships were facing even this force would have been woefully insufficient. But this was an allied fleet, with contributions from the other ships in the coalition assembled to fight the Reich. Ships from the Slavic Union, the Kerbals, the Dre'kari Community, and the Gl'mulli Directorate were present, as were a number of refitted combat-capable ships of the Federated Commonwealth, Free Worlds League, and Draconis Combine. A squadron of starships from individual clans and tribes of the United Clans of Ys'talla were a new addition, from those pro-Alliance Miqo'te tribes and clans exercising their rights to commit to the Alliance's efforts without requiring their planetary government to join in. Altogether, that gave this combat force equality with the Reich ships they were fighting.
Which was the point of it all, even if Julia wished she had more as the Aurora barely evaded another super-disruptor shot. Her plasma beams played sapphire energy over the flickering red shields of the Reich dreadnought to no effect. They needed more firepower to break its shields.
"What's our countdown?" Julia asked Jarod.
"Ninety seconds until mark," he answered.
She smiled confidently. It wouldn't be long now...
Deeper in the Aurora, over a dozen decks below the bridge and a few dozen meters astern, the Aurora's security office was on standby. From here Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond and Major Gabriel Anders, the chief of security and Marine Commander of Troops respectively, would work to protect the ship from boarding parties or prepare their own.
The two had their assistants with them, as was normal, but they were joined by another. Robert Dale, still officially a Captain in the Stellar Navy, was not in the same action uniform or combat armor as the other two. His own armor, colored blue, was based on the field armor worn by the Gersallian Order of Swenya's field knights. A pulse pistol was holstered on his hip, making him appear poorly-armed compared to the others until one considered he could bat them around the room with a few moments of effort and a matching will. The hard part for him, in fact, would be restraining the power he was using, not simply using it.
Despite his superior rank, however, Robert was not their superior in operation. He had nothing to do with the ship's functioning now, a fact that left him nowhere to go during a combat alert. Working with security simply seemed the best choice for his actual job description: one of the new Paladins, operatives under the command of the Alliance President invested with great authority on missions given by the same.
Had Meridina and Carter Kane, the predecessors of Richmond and Anders, been the ones present, Robert might have at least been in the company of people who knew him more closely. But Anders had never served with him before and Richmond had barely known him. The two seemed determined to focus on their jobs and leave him to his thoughts.
I feel like I should be on the bridge, he mused to himself. It couldn't be helped. Two years of commanding the Aurora made him want to be there. It was ironic given his actions in the past, and why so many admirals thought him unsuited for starship command.
"You get used to it," Richmond said, her Australian accent very refined, to the point it sounded almost like an English accent. Her green eyes met his, on a face of light, almost literally white skin - as white as the Human complexion spectrum permitted, virtually - framed by black hair. "Although I'm sure it's quite a change for you, Captain."
"It is," he admitted.
"Given your tendency to go out into the field instead of staying on the bridge, that's surprising," she pointed out.
To that he chuckled and grinned. "The thought crossed my mind too. God's sense of humor, I suppose."
"And we, the audience, are yet afraid to laugh."
"That's how the saying goes."
And again everyone went silent, waiting for a call from the bridge that might never come.
The ship shook again, bringing the shields further down. But Jarod had another fact to report first, as he finished his ten second countdown. "...three...two...one. Mark."
From the ship's science/sensor station, Caterina Delgado looked up. Her chair seemed larger, if only because her frame was the smallest on the bridge. "Subspace spikes! We have ships jumping in! It's the rest of the fleet!"
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Julia said. She noted with pleasure the arrival of the incoming ships. Markers for them also indicated their identities. The ComStar cruiser Avenging Sword led several lighter ComStar ships, reflecting that organization's first foray into the war. The Clan fleet contingent included a number of cruisers and destroyers of their fleets led by the Snow Raven cruisers Storm Cloud and Avalanche. By far the biggest contingent were ships from the Aururian Imperial Federation of A2M6 that included, much to Julia's delight, the battlecruiser Maya-Mayi under Margrethe von Lohringhoven, her opposite number during the crisis over the Oakland Colony of Phi Perseus.
The command of the force came from the two ships at the center of it, vessels larger than the Aurora that were even now launching their wings of starfighters and larger gunboat vessels: the Battlestars Galactica and Pegasus, sole surviving warships of the Colonies of Kobol.
"First Group, continue engagement," said the voice of Admiral William Adama of the Colonial Navy, speaking from his flagship Galactica. "Second Group, commence attack, priority targets are enemy dreadnought and supporting ships."
The jump-capable allied ships moved into engagement range immediately. Naval PPCs and lasers, phasers, and other weapon types opened up on the Reich force that now found itself outnumbered and facing an attack on a second vector. The enemy ships' formation soon began to disintegrate at the renewed attack.
For her part, the Aurora continued engaging the enemy dreadnought as best as she could, with the assistance of the Challenger. As the two ships poured their plasma beams into the flickering ruby light of the Aryan-class ship's shields, Kerbal bombers raced in at their typical breakneck acceleration, supported by fighters from the Avalonian carrier and, now, by Vipers from the Pegasus. The enemy fighter screens were fully engaged with the Alliance Mongoose starfighters from the Aurora and her Discovery-class cousins; what little remained were swept away by the Avalonian and Colonial fighters. The Kerbal bombers hit hard, focusing on the dreadnought's escorting ships. A Sedan-class cruiser faltered, its disruptors blazing away at the Kitana until the enemy ship succumbed to the attack from the Alliance cruiser.
Behind the Kerbals, Colonial Raptors and the various aerospace fighters of the Clans and ComGuards began their attack runs, shielded by more Vipers and a contingent of Aururian fighters.
With the dreadnought's escorts falling away due to the attack, the Aurora could focus more fire on the big ship. Locarno brought them about and Angel Delgado, Caterina's sister, opened up with the ten bow-facing particle pulse cannons built into the Aurora. Thick sapphire pulses battered away at the enemy shields. From "above", the Maya-Mayi moved in and engaged with her own cannons. Solid lances of gravitons from the weapons built into her bow struck the enemy dreadnought, bypassing its faltering shields entirely and subjecting the Nazi ship to vicious structural stresses that would easily damage internal systems over even a short exposure period. With the Reich ship faltering the Aurora's torpedo launchers opened up, sending the blue-white sparks of solar torpedoes into the ship's hull. They continued the attack run...
Hours later the mood in the Lookout, the Aurora's crew lounge built into the bow of the ship, was one of merriment and excitement. The victory celebration was ongoing to allow the entire crew, all two thousand of them, a chance to attend at some point between watches or shifts. The view outside the window showed the garden world that, appropriately enough, was New Liberty in their home universe. In this universe it was the site of one the early Nazi colonies, New Prussia, which had fallen to an invasion by Alliance and Aururian troops. The orbiting starbase was busily being repaired from Nazi sabotage to serve as an Alliance fleetbase, while in the interim yardships were helping with repairs to the damaged ships.
The Aurora was one of the luckier ships from the battle, with minor physical damage to her systems that wasn't tying down the crew from celebrating the victory and enjoying themselves. The celebration was taking on the air of a victory feast, much like the one undoubtedly being celebrated by the Avalonians. The Lookout's devoted host, Hargert, had an ongoing buffet of foods that the crew most loved, and given the versatility and skill of the old German cook, there was a diversity of choices to be had.
Another victory cake was being brought out when Julia entered the Lookout. Robert watched her enter from the bar with Barnes, Leo, and Angel. All of them kept quiet for the moment while Julia got her share of the dinner. Once this was done she murmured something at Hargert. Moments later a tone sounded over the speakers of the ship's comm system. "Attention, everyone," Julia said, her voice loud and clear here and, Robert suspected, across the ship. "The celebration we're throwing right now isn't just for one battle. We just received the official word. Admiral Maran and his fleet have beaten the main Nazi fleet at Epsilon Indi! The operation is a complete success!"
The Lookout erupted in applause.
"Command's estimating that the enemy's lost over a thousand ships in the operation," Julia continued. "All Nazi fleets around Earth have been routed. The Alliance and our allies are clear to begin the liberation of Earth itself from the Reich!"
The applause erupted again, even more loudly.
"You've all done well!" Julia continued. "And I'm proud of this entire crew. With your efforts and those of the other ships in our fleet and our allies' fleets, the war should soon be over, and we're going to win! I expect everyone to get their share of the victory meal. And I hope it's only the appetizer for the big victory we'll throw when the Reich surrenders!"
The loudest applause yet came, joined by cheering and hooting and other sounds. When it was over everyone settled back into what they were doing.
Robert kept watching Julia for the moment. For all of the awkwardness Robert felt sometimes while he was Captain, Julia clearly fitted the role like a glove. She was, indeed, in her element as a Captain.
"So, what were you doing during the battle?" Tom Barnes asked.
"Huh? Oh." Robert turned to face him. "I was in the security office with Commander Richmond and Major Anders."
"Why'd you pick them?" Angel asked.
Robert shrugged. "I figured I had to be somewhere to contribute. Helping with boarding actions seemed the best bet."
"That must've been new for you," Barnes said. "I mean, not being on the bridge while we were in the thick of it."
Robert nodded in admission. "Yeah, it was. It'll take some getting used to, I think."
"Now you know how I always feel," Leo remarked jovially.
"Just what will you be doing now that you're back?" Barnes considered his glass while asking. A bit of amber fluid - beer, Robert figured - swirled inside. "I mean, you obviously won't be doing Paladin stuff all of the time. It's going to be weird being around and not having anything to do…"
Before Robert could answer, there was a tone over the comms. This time the voice was Meridina. "Captain, we're picking up a distress call on all Alliance bands on the IU radio."
The look on Julia's face was concerned. She looked to the other command officers and Robert, who all approached her as she asked, "Where is it coming from?"
"Universe M4P2. The Dorei colony on Adrana."
"The Batarians?" Jarod suggested.
"No." Meridina had evidently heard them. "According to the distress call, they are being attacked by the Geth."
The assembled officers exchanged puzzled looks at the response. The Geth were barely known in the Alliance; a species of intelligent AI programs created by the Quarians and still occupying that species' homeworld of Rannoch, beyond the Perseus Veil at the far corner of the M4P2 galaxy. They were supposed to be a reclusive race that never interacted with the rest of their copy of the Milky Way. The idea of the Geth launching such a bold attack was shocking. "Meridina, are there any ships that can respond before us, given where we are?"
"Unfortunately not, Captain. Alliance and Systems Alliance patrols in M4P2 are out of position, and much of the fleet is assigned to the follow-up operations against the Reich. Ops has confirmed we could make it in two interuniversal jumps to Adrana, if we hurry."
"Meridina, commence the jumps immediately. Put us on combat alert, Code Red." With that, she left the Lookout with the senior officers.
Most of the crew followed as the electronic klaxons began to blare.
"A Distant Thunder"
The spatial aspect of their last jump kept the Aurora from arriving in the Adrana System, but she was close enough that it wasn't more then ten minutes before the ship, her warp drives pushed to their immense capability, dropped from warp speed near the planet. Adrana was a garden planet settled in the first wave of Alliance colonies in M4P2, most of which were settled by Dorei colonists as part of the fair division of new extrauniversal colonies among Alliance member states.
As the planet loomed on the holo-viewscreen, Julia found herself considering the sad coincidence of their visits; the last time they'd come coincided with the beginning of Batarian attacks on Alliance colonies with the slaver raid on Yamalia. Now Adrana herself had been hit by an attack.
"I'm picking up three vessels in orbit," Caterina said. "Drive signatures are eezo-based, but the output… I've never seen an eezo power system with this capacity before." After a moment Caterina added, "I'm also detecting smaller craft coming from the surface. Landing craft, I think."
"Time to weapons range?" Julia asked.
"I'm already getting locks on them," Angel said. "But our approach vector puts Adrana behind them. Any misses could hit the planet."
"Right. Mister Locarno?"
"Adjusting course now, giving tactical a clear field of fire," Locarno said.
"While you do that, Jarod, put me on." She waited for Jarod to nod. "Attention Geth vessels, this is Captain Julia Andreys of the Alliance Starship Aurora. You have committed an act of aggression against the Alliance. I insist you surrender immediately or we will open fire."
Seconds passed with no reply. "It does not appear they are concerned," said Meridina.
"Lieutenant Delgado, you are clear to fire when ready. Commander, signal the Koenig, commence combat launch."
It took another ten seconds for Locarno's course change to clear Adrana from the field of fire. During this time, the dock built into the rear of the primary hull section opened up. The Koenig backed out of her berth and triggered her own drives, twisting relative to the Aurora so she could make her own course toward the Geth ships.
As the Aurora was still pointed "upward" compared to the perspective of the Geth and the planet, the initial fire was with the ventral-facing plasma banks. Repeated beams of sapphire energy crossed space and sliced into the Geth ships. Their particle barriers were not meant for reflecting energy weapons of this type so the power of the shots primarily acted against the bare hull. The wounds carved into the Geth ships did not spew atmosphere like another ship might, although there was still debris and flame from the impacts.
The Koenig accelerated to combat thrust and opened fire as well, her pulse phasers adding to the damage inflicted on the Geth ships.
The Geth ships seemed more interested in evading than attacking, although for the latter it was soon clear they were pursuing a different approach. "They're launching fighters," said Cat.
"Alpha and Delta Squadrons are launching," Meridina said. "Echo and Fox are on standby to join them."
With their fighters moving to intercept their Geth counterparts Julia was free to observe the effect of their fire on the Geth ships. The first ship was taking the brunt of Angel's focus while the Koenig focused on the second ship. Locarno maneuvered the Aurora to bring the bow weapons to bear. The forward pulse plasma cannons fired. These had more effect on the lead Geth ship. Already slightly damaged, the thick sapphire pulses of the bow cannons blew entire sections out of the lean, bug-headed Geth vessel, which reminded Julia somewhat of a dragonfly if it had no wings or legs. The silver ship's acceleration died down.
"Picking up energy spike," said Cat. "It looks like they're activating their FTL drives."
By that time the first spread of solar torpedoes was already in flight. The spread crashed into the lead Geth ship. This time the shot was undeniably fatal. The explosions broke the Geth ship into pieces.
A few more shots began to hit the second Geth ship, but it was the Koenig that finished them off with her own spread of solar torpedoes.
The third Geth ship, untouched, seemed to blink out of existence with the activation of their FTL drive.
"I'm tracking them in subspace," Cat said. "It looks like they're on course for the mass relay in the G1SV system."
"Pursuit course laid in," Locarno said.
Julia didn't need to glance toward Meridina to know what her XO was thinking. And she already agreed with the sentiment. "No. Have the Koenig pursue. Atreiad is to engage only if he can do so without risking his ship, otherwise just observe until they depart through the G1SV relay. Helping the colony is our priority."
"Aye sir," Locarno replied. "Making standard orbit."
"I am alerting medbay to our situation," Meridina added.
"Securing from battlestations," said Jarod.
Julia nodded and sat back, letting the others implement her orders. Aid had to come first. Then the investigation could begin.
Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 12 May 2643 AST. Captain Julia Andreys recording. We are still investigating the Geth attack on the Dorei colony of Adrana. More importantly, we are rendering all of the aid we can to the planet below.
Commander Atreiad on the Koenig has confirmed the last Geth ship has departed the area through the G1SV Mass Relay. I've ordered Koenig to remain cloaked in G1SV for the time being to monitor any traffic coming through the Relay, just in case the Geth come back with reinforcements.
Julia found herself staring at her report to Defense Command on the attack. Every fact was present, everything told exactly as she knew it, but it still felt off. The lack of knowing just what the Geth were after with the attack was frustrating. Hearing her door chime was welcome just for the distraction. "Come in," she called out.
Meridina was the one who entered, carrying a digital pad. She handed it to Julia. "The governor of Adrana has compiled preliminary statistics on the attack. Currently the death toll is at two hundred and six people, three quarters of them civilians. There are over a thousand wounded as well. The planet's medical infrastructure is overwhelmed."
"Is Leo bringing any of them up here?" Julia started looking over the data pad.
"The critical cases and some of the overflow. I have ensured the St. Johns and the Warri are available for his use." The two names were familiar: the St. Johns had long been the runabout fitted with a medical module, the Warri was a new Ebro-class runabout assigned to the ship that had a multi-mission capability and could thus be fitted for medical work.
"Alright. Command is trying to get response ships out, but for the moment we're the only ones here to tend to this." Julia tapped the pad. "As for the raid investigation itself, doesn't it strike you as odd?"
"The Geth attack. It looks like they only had a raid in mind, but they left entire sections of the colony untouched." Julia put the pad down. "And the things they took were minor pieces of technology and machinery. Nothing like what they might need. If I didn't know better, I'd say the raid was staged." She noticed the look in Meridina's face and knew she wasn't the only one to feel that way.
"Indeed," Meridina confirmed. "And I do have a suspicion as to their target."
"You will note that a number of the casualties were personnel at the excavation site examining what is left of the ancient Adranians," Meridina said.
Julia glanced and noted that. "This would be the dig site with the computers that Zack's mind was linked to when we were last here?"
"And where Caterina, Jarod, and myself nearly perished," Meridina reminded her. "Going by the casualty data, it looks like the Geth directed quite a lot of attention to this place. The casualties were extremely high, indicating that the excavation was swiftly overrun."
"In other words, you think it was the target." Julia frowned. "Why?"
"I am unsure," Meridina admitted. "The computer systems' directing intelligence was only a fragment of an old personality and there was little in the way of advanced technology stored within. Nevertheless, I would like to take a team to investigate what the Geth did there."
Julia nodded. "You've got my approval. See what you can find out."
"I will assemble a team immediately, Captain. May I be dismissed?"
"You are dismissed." Julia watched her go and considered what Meridina had found. Could the answer be that this was all to get at that ancient ruins? And if so… why?
The changes to the dig site in the two years since they'd last visited drew the attention of Meridina, Jarod, and Cat. More tunnels were present and more equipment as well, although some was now badly damaged, including the lift that had to be repaired before they could go down into the main complex. Blue blood spots could be seen from the victims of the Geth attack, although no bodies were evident.
A grim-faced Dorei man of dark blue complexion with purple spots and hair drove the large cart ferrying the team through the underground site. Joining the three who had visited previously were Lieutenant Lucy Lucero, in her ops officer uniform with her tool belt visible and her lightsaber hooked to it, and the newest ops officer on the Aurora, Lieutenant Tra'dur, the Stellar Navy's first Dilgar officer. Red-haired and dun-furred in coloration, her feline eyes took in the entire site. "So you have been here before, Caterina'Delgado?"
"Yeah. Two years ago," Cat said. "It wasn't a fun visit."
"The computer system we are here to examine forcefully linked to Commander Carrey's mind," Meridina explained. "We came to find a way to free him. Unfortunately, there were complications."
"An ancient booby trap that sealed us in, then the guiding intelligence of the computer system deciding to kill us rather than let us free Zack," Cat clarified, frowning. "It tried to gas us. We barely got out."
"Then this is potentially dangerous," Tra'dur noted.
"Maybe, maybe not," Lucy said. "Zack apparently had the computer system upload his mind into the system as well. Basically, a digital copy of himself to keep the intelligence inside company."
"Yes," said Meridina. "In the end, the intelligence's actions were warped by her incomplete upload when her people were wiped out. Most of her personal memories were lost, and all she had were the memories of her people's destruction. Commander Carrey showed great compassion in how he chose to deal with her."
"I would not count on them being intact," the Dorei driver warned. "The attackers inflicted much damage. As you will now see."
The cart came to the end of the tunnel. An open door led the five into a chamber, the same they had seen two years prior. But now the computer hardware showed visible damage. Scars from weapons fire covered nearly every surface of the main cylinder. Meridina and Lucy both suppressed an impulse to shudder; they could feel a lingering sense of hopeless despair and rage and grief that permeated the chamber.
Everyone began scanning, with Jarod and Cat focusing on the table on which someone could lay and interface with the system. "It looks like this part was undamaged," Jarod said. He checked the interface piece, now fully restored by the Dorei archeologists from the rusted state it had been in two years before.
"They were focusing their attack on the computer banks, or what they thought were computer banks," Lucy said, standing over one set of them. "And they definitely took out some of the physical memory bank."
"Tra'dur, can you help me examine the intact code?" Cat asked. "If we can verify the interface is safe, someone can go in and see if the personalities inside survived."
"Of course, Lieutenant." Tra'dur activated her omnitool and joined Cat.
"Curious that the Geth were most concerned with this device," Meridina said. "And they were not here to take it but to destroy it."
"Given the nature of the attack, this was clearly their real objective." Jarod checked another part of the interface. "Are you sure you want to go in? The last time the intelligence inside attacked you."
"I do not think she will do so again," said Meridina. "She has no reason to."
"Unless something happened to the copy of Zack," Cat pointed out. "If she's alone again…"
"Then the rest of you can do what you must to free me," Meridina said. "But I still believe it best if I go."
"Let's make sure it works first," said Lucy, who gave Meridina a concerned look. "If it does, then… I suppose it makes the most sense if you do."
"It does." This was from Tra'dur. "The four of us have the training and knowledge to deal with problems. No insult meant, Commander, but your skills are not the same."
"Indeed they are not, and I do not see your statement as insulting," Meridina assured her. "I await your findings on the matter."
An hour later Meridina was laying on the table, steeling herself for the pain that would accompany the uplink. She felt concern from the others, particularly for Lucy, but allowed no apprehension to form on her expression. "I am ready," she informed them.
"Alright." Jarod nodded to Lucy and Tra'dur. "Initiating the interface."
Meridina watched the device above her come alive with light. A sharp pain filled her head to the point that she could not help but cry out.
The pain ended abruptly. When Meridina could see again, she found herself standing on a field of dirt and grass. Beneath her feet was a square white bag of sorts with chalked lines leading out in two directions from it. A glance around led her to recognize just what she was standing on: a baseball field.
She turned her head and saw two figures standing at the mound. Zack, or rather the uploaded copy of himself in the computer, was wearing a white baseball jersey. Beside him was a woman of pink skin with red hair and bright, purple eyes, clad in what Lucy once called a "sun dress". She nodded at Meridina. "Mindwalker."
Meridina permitted herself some relief. "You are intact? We feared the damage might have harmed you."
"We sensed attackers coming," Zack said. "And we had time to move ourselves into the innermost data drives." He frowned. "It was still a close thing. And we've lost a lot of data capacity to the damage. I'm actually surprised you could come in here."
"Jarod and the others have repaired the interface to permit my entry," Meridina explained.
"Who attacked us?" asked the alien woman, whom Meridina recalled was named Gylao. "Why?"
"We are uncertain. They are called Geth, a machine race…"
An anguished look came over Gylao. "Is it them? Was it our destroyers?"
"I cannot say for certain," Meridina stated. "Yet… perhaps there is a link."
Zack nodded. "I doubt they mind my memories, and they were trying to eliminate our memory banks." He turned to Gylao. "It must be you they wanted."
"But why?" Gylao asked. "All I have are fragments of memories."
"Maybe that's what they're after, then. Those few memories you do have."
Meridina nodded. "You remember your destroyers, correct? Zachary - the Zachary who woke up I should clarify - mentioned that you thought of them as Reapers?"
Gylao shuddered and nodded. "I remember them. Great towering machines. And those of my people they turned into their servants. They showed no mercy. We were wheat before their blades."
"You think they wanted to eliminate Gylao's memories of these 'Reapers'?" Zack asked.
"It is the most likely explanation." Meridina frowned. "Why they would seek this, however, I cannot guess. Although the most obvious reason would be to deprive us of any knowledge about these ancient destroyers. That leads us to disturbing implications." She looked to Gylao. "May I see these memories? I know it asks much of you…"
"I would rather you not," Gylao admitted. "Zachary's memories have been my shelter from that horror..." Zack held her hand more tightly.
Meridina nodded. "Of course. I understand."
"But it may be necessary," Gylao continued. She didn't hide her sadness. "Whatever was in them, it may be important. Through Zachary I have learned much of your Multiverse. If something like this could happen to you, I…"
She said no more. Instead Gylao held a hand up. The baseball field disappeared. Meridina witnessed a cityscape of beautiful, turquoise structures, piles of blackened rubble among them. Flames filled the air.
As horrible as it was, and despite the pain she sensed from Gylao at the images, Meridina forced herself to watch the slaughter of a species.
Seconds passed, or perhaps hours. When it was over Meridina felt warm tears flowing from her eyes. She would see those terrible machines forever in her memories, like great giant beasts that came to devour and annihilate. It was so easy to picture them doing the same thing to Jantarihal, to see the giant things stomping about and leveling the gleaming towers of her homeworld's capital… to see them destroying the Great Temple and Swenya's legacy to her people.
It reinforced her appreciation for, and pity for, Gylao. It was no wonder this last remnant of the ancient Adranians had been so broken when they first encountered her. With nothing but these memories, no intelligence could remain sane.
"Thank you for your help," she said. "I appreciate the sacrifice you've made."
Gylao nodded. Beside her, Zack rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. "How long do you think it will take the Dorei to repair the device?" he asked. "It's a little crowded in here now."
"I will inquire," Meridina promised.
"Thanks." He smiled at her. "Is everything alright for the rest of you? How are Rob and the others?"
"They are well, for the most part. Although there have been difficulties for us. The Multiverse is, as ever, a dangerous place."
"Please let them know I said hello. Including, well, me."
"I will do so." Meridina smiled softly at them. "Take care, Zachary, Gylao."
The image of Meridina and Jarod filled the screen on Julia's desk in her ready office. "We're about done here," Jarod confirmed. "Lucero and Tra'dur are almost finished attaching that data drive to the systems. It won't completely restore the prior capacity, but it should give Zack's data duplicate and the Adranian intelligence inside some more room to stretch, so to speak."
"I've already cleared it with the local authorities," Julia said. "As soon as you're back, we'll have a meeting to go over everything."
"Understood. Jarod out." A moment later the image ended.
Julia went back to her paperwork, at least until the door chime sounded. "Come in," she said. She looked up and watched Robert enter. He was wearing a uniform again, but his rank insignia was missing, and the branch color was silver instead of red with a silver aiguillette, as if he were just an intelligence staff officer now. "That's what you're going for?" she asked. "You're pretending to be staff?"
He chuckled and shrugged. "Well, I figured it fit better than wearing command trim. And rank insignia might give the wrong impression."
"True." Julia set her datapad down while Robert looked over the ready office. The furnishings were the same as when he had used it, but she'd added her own touches with a few mementoes. One of her basketball trophies and several photos were on one stand. A model of the long-lost Kelley was on another. "What can I do for you?"
"I was hoping to discuss an idea I've been considering," he said. "It's about…"
Before he could finish a tone came over the ship intercom. "Bridge to Andreys," said the voice of Lieutenant Sabiha Neyzi, Jarod's number two as operations officer.
"Go ahead," Julia answered.
"We're picking up another distress signal on Alliance bands."
Julia frowned. "From where? Is it the Geth?"
"I'm not sure yet. The distress call is from a Systems Alliance colony. It's Eden Prime."
"Damn. Even using mass relays, we're hours away. We'll never get there in time." Julia shook her head. "Make sure Command knows about it and see if they can vector a ship in to help. Keep me posted."
"Andreys out." Julia tapped a key on her desk to close the intercom channel. She noticed the concerned look on Robert's face. "The timing makes me say it's Geth," she said. "Not to mention the location."
"Yeah. And there's another common factor too. I was on Eden Prime several weeks ago," Robert said. "The Systems Alliance found intact Prothean ruins near their colony site. The excavation is still ongoing."
"The Protheans. They were from about fifty thousand years ago," Julia noted. "They disappeared about two hundred millennia after the Adranians were wiped out."
"Right. So in the span of a day, two worlds with ruins from long-dead cultures are both attacked." Robert shook his head. "I don't buy that's a coincidence."
"Nor do I," Julia agreed. "We'll bring it up with the others when they return."
The command officers of the Aurora and Koenig met in the conference lounge adjacent to the bridge, as they often did. As always Barnes attended alongside Commander Scott. Jarod was joined by Lucy and Tra'dur, given their part in the work in the ruin.
And down at the opposite end of the table was Robert, still in the rankless uniform with silver trim.
There was a peculiar feel to his presence in the room now. He was sitting at the exact opposite end of the table from Julia, taking up the last seat currently available, but it could be easy to imagine he was at the head of the table instead. And for most of those present, he had been in charge for nearly two years, the one directing the conversation as Julia was now doing (at least theoretically given the difference in their command styles).
"The Geth were definitely out to destroy the Adranian computer system," Jarod said. He kept his eyes on Julia. "It's the only case where the damage caused can't be consider collateral damage to the attack."
"So they wanted to eliminate whatever the Adranians left behind," Julia mused. "Why?"
"It may have been to eliminate any records of the unknown enemy who annihilated the Adranians," Meridina said.
"But why would they want to do that?"
Robert's question was a reasonable one, certainly, and just as certainly it was one everyone was already asking themselves. But it didn't change the subtle thrum of tension that now seemed to permeate the room.
"A good question." Julia leveled a quieting look at Robert, who nodded sheepishly and settled back into his seat. "Any ideas?"
Cat spoke up. "Maybe the Geth found something in their region of the galaxy? I mean, like an old ruin or something, and it's of these attackers, and the Geth don't want anyone else to know anything about them?"
Julia nodded once to acknowledge Cat's proposal. "The attack on Eden Prime may have a similar motive, then? Maybe they think the Protheans also left evidence of this same group?"
"It's a possibility, but really, we don't know enough to know for sure," Cat said.
"Could they just be out to destroy evidence of past civilizations?" asked Tra'dur. "Do we have any samples of Geth coding that can give us an idea of their thought processes?"
"No." Julia shook her head. A thought made her frown. "The only thing we have relating to the Geth was that sabotage device that was attached to the Aurora during our failed conference with the Batarians."
"Right." Robert matched her frown. "Could the Batarians be behind this then? Using the Geth as proxies, or maybe manipulating them into attacking us so they have plausible deniability? A way to escalate their attacks without risking their own forces?"
"Maybe they even found a way to control the Geth." This suggestion was from Apley.
Will Atreiad crossed his arms. "These Geth, they're like the Cylons, right?"
"According to our data from the Quarians, there are only partial similarities," Jarod said. "We know the Cylons can network themselves together, but the individual Cylon units are still autonomous. The Geth, however, are operating programs that form a neural net when connected. The more Geth you have operating together, the more intelligent the whole becomes."
"An' th' Quarians dinnae mean for th' Geth t' get that sophisticated," added Scott. "But it was t' late t' shut th' blasted things down."
"So they revolted. Just like the Cylons?"
Barnes nodded. "Right. And the frakkers ended up driving the Quarians off of their homeworld Rannoch, and clear out of their own Goddamned space. The Quarians have been living in space since." A dark, angry look appeared on his features. "And the other races have been treating them like crap too."
A thoughtful expression came to Atreiad's face. Whatever thoughts he had, they went unspoken.
It was nearly Robert who spoke next. But as his mouth opened he sensed Julia with the same thought, the same imminent remark, and he stopped himself. "So far it looks like we have nothing but speculation on the motives of the Geth attack, aside from their target. Am I right?"
She was answered with nods.
"I'll report what we have to Maran. Doctor Gillam, Doctor Epstein, what about the wounded?"
"We've taken over the most critical cases," Leo said. "Right now we're at two hundred and twenty-eight dead and eleven hundred and six wounded, with a hundred critical and major cases being tended to in our medbay. The colony's medical establishment is at full capacity."
"Alright. I'll let the Admiral know. Until I get orders to leave, we'll maintain our current relief efforts. Mister Jarod, Mister Scott, I'll leave technical relief up to you."
"Aye, sir. I have teams standin' by t' help with damage."
"And I have security teams ready to assist with law enforcement officials," offered Lieutenant Commander Phryne Richmond, the ship's Chief of Security. "Should they need the assistance with maintaining law and order."
"I will coordinate all aid with the Governor's staff," Meridina offered. "I will inform you of any such needs."
"Good. Then, unless there's anything else, we're done here." When nobody offered any further matters of discussion, Julia stood. "Alright, everyone, you're all dismissed.
The assembled officers stood and filed out. Julia remained standing where she did until they were gone, at which point she walked along the table until she met Robert. "That was kind of awkward, wasn't it?" she asked.
"Yeah." He met her eyes and sighed. "Old habits, I guess. I'm sorry, I'm not looking to undermine you or assume your responsibilities, even if it looks otherwise."
"I know." Julia crossed her arms. "I guess we're all going to have to get used to this.."
Robert nodded in agreement. "It's an adjustment thing."
"But we'll make it work." A smile crossed Julia's face. She set a hand on Robert's shoulder. "You know I've missed you, Rob. You and Zack."
"I missed you too," he confessed easily. "We've been together… although not in that way…" Robert stopped briefly when Julia chuckled at the clarification. "...for so long that it was hard to not have you to talk to."
"I don't know if I could have gotten used to it," Julia admitted. Her smile didn't fade. "But you're back now, and that's the important part. So, what did you want to ask earlier? When we were in my office?"
"Huh? Oh." Robert quickly recalled it. "Well, I've been back long enough to know that there's an issue with Lucy."
"I wouldn't call it an issue." Julia shrugged. She briefly considered the best way to word what she wanted to say. "It's more of a question. Lucy's role on this ship has become complicated. Honestly, it's been getting that way since you were captain."
Robert nodded in agreement. "I agree. She's an operations officer we frequently use for field combat missions thanks to her abilities."
"Commander Richmond recently asked me to consider re-assigning Lucy to security," Julia revealed. "And I think the idea has merit."
"Maybe a little," Robert conceded. "But I don't think that fits her well."
"And she personally doesn't want it. I asked. But at the same time, she's clearly not a standard operations officer either, and I would rather free up her position in Jarod's department for someone who is more dedicated to the needs of operations." Julia shook her head. "But I don't feel comfortable pushing Lucy into a role she doesn't fit either, and I can't help but think that's what it would be for her to be in security."
"It would also be putting one of our original people under the command of someone who wasn't in the Facility back in the day," Robert pointed out.
Julia frowned. "That's not an important distinction. Honestly, Rob, I'm trying to diminish the feel that we've got a clique on this ship."
"I understand, and maybe I should have done more to do the same," he admitted. "But consider the position it would put you and Richmond in. Lucy has personal connections to both you and Meridina, especially Meridina. How long before those connections make Richmond feel like she's being undermined?"
"A good question."
"I have a solution," Robert said. "Assign her to me."
"Oh?" Her tone indicated Julia's interest, but perhaps a bit of uncertainty as well.
"As a Paladin, I'm authorized to recruit a small number of personnel to directly assist my operations," Robert explained. "Obviously I don't get an entire ship, and my staff has to be small…"
"...but I could use Lucy," he continued. "Soon I'm going to get a personal craft for use in my missions, when they take me away from the Aurora. Lucy can pilot it better than I can. Not to mention how much help she'll be on those missions."
For a moment Julia said nothing. Her expression was intent, showing she was considering it. Robert didn't let himself sense her feelings and waited patiently for her to react. "As things stand, Jarod and I have been wondering where Tra'dur would fit on the crew," she admitted. "If Lucy's permanently assigned to you, it solves that problem. And if we need her for something…"
"Lucy will have standing orders from me to help you and the crew," Robert assured her. "Just as I intend to help if you ever need it."
"Right." Julia smiled softly at that. "I'd expect that from you. Anyway… the idea works for me. You have my blessing."
Robert smiled back. "I'll ask Lucy later and see if she likes the idea. I'll let you know what she says."
"I'm sure she'll say yes," Julia said. "Either way… it was good working this out with you." Her aquamarine eyes twinkled with delight. "I missed this."
"So did I."
"And now I have a question for you," she asked.
Her smile curled on along the left side of her lip. "Are you ever going to get a haircut? Or at least a shave?"
Robert couldn't help himself. He laughed, and Julia laughed too.
It felt good to be home.
Robert's quarters on the Aurora were smaller than the ones he'd enjoyed as Captain, not that he minded as he had plenty of room for personal effects he'd picked up from storage on New Liberty. The quarters were, in fact, second tier VIP quartering on Deck 6, about the same size as those of the command staff and meant for the senior staff of visiting admirals or state officials. If he had any complaint, it was that visiting Julia or anyone else now necessitated a ride in the lift.
For the moment that wasn't his concern. He was seated on the floor beside his bed for pre-sleep meditation. His breathing was controlled and quiet while he focused on the warm energy he felt within himself, the energy around him. The Flow of Life resonated on the ship. He could feel the bright warmth of Meridina's life energies, the intensity of Lucy's, and the quieter energies of the others. Some bright points indicated a few among the two thousand crew who had their own deeper connection to the Flow of Life that could one day be widened. The planet below had even more life on it. Over fifty thousand souls, all but a few Dorei, psionically sensitive and feeling different than Humans of equal number would.
But it wasn't as warm a feeling, and for good reason. He sensed fear, grief, shock, anger, rage. They had been attacked. Their neighbors harmed, even killed. Their sense of security smashed.
And there was something else. An even older sense from the planet. The same emotions, but intensified by despair and hopelessness. And a cold feeling. So cold that Robert actually gulped in realization; this was the feeling of an extinction. The extermination of the Adranians left an imprint in the Flow of Life. Death on a massive scale.
Without thinking about it, Robert felt his connection spread out further through the Flow of Life, a reach impossible to him before his exposure to the Time Vortex in the Doctor's TARDIS. On Gersal and while on the Keyeri he had tested his reach similarly, usually with little difficulty.
But not this time. This time he felt a… wrongness in the Flow of Life. An imprinted coldness that ran within it, detectable only by reaching as far and wide as he could, otherwise that cold would be overwhelmed by the warmth of life.
Robert's heart skipped a beat. This… this was the same remnant cold as he felt on Adrana. A lingering remnant of death, of the destruction of life, that seemed to be permanently woven into the Flow of Life in the M4P2 universe.
What could cause this? That was Robert's thought.
And then they came. The visions. Not in his dreams, as sometimes happened, but in his meditative state. He could see the burning cities. Piles of corpses. Giant, metallic things leveling a city. Crimson beams carving through majestic skylines, through vehicles, through living beings, destroying all. Alien forms covered in ghastly blue circuitry rushing through a crowd, biting and ripping and maiming, beings screaming as metal spikes impaled them…
And that sound. That horrible sound, like the Devil himself blowing a trumpet through an electronic synthesizer. It vibrated within his very soul.
He was standing in the Citadel Tower again, in the chambers of the Citadel Council. Flames and wreckage surrounded him. Robotic figures stood before him, weapons raised…
Not just robotic figures anymore. He knew them now. He'd seen them in the records from the attack on Adrana. "Geth," Robert murmured aloud.
And then there was the figure, standing at the end of the audience platform facing the Council. The cyborg Turian, with those glowing, ghastly blue eyes, the circuitry embedded into his skin. "This is our only hope to survive," he insisted. "We must prove we can serve. Or we will suffer the same fate as all the other species this galaxy has ever known."
"We can fight them!"
Robert thought the sentiment came from him. But he glanced to his side. He was joined by others. But only one he could see. She was in unpowered combat armor, Systems Alliance issue. An N7 was above the right breast of the suit. Her green eyes blazed with defiant will underneath the visor of her combat helmet.
And immediately Robert knew who she was.
His eyes opened. And the name escaped his lips.
The end of her work day saw Julia enjoy a warm, comforting shower. Muscles still tense from an end-of-the-day workout relaxed under the spray of the warm water. She sighed with deep content at the feeling, as if the water wasn't just washing away sweat and a day's worth of dead skin, but the worries that the day's events had brought her. From a victory celebration to a mysterious attack by even more mysterious robots, she thought darkly. Why do I feel like God is amusing Himself at my expense now that I'm the Captain?
A familiar tone sounded, even here in her bathroom. "Bridge to Captain Andreys," stated Lieutenant Takawira, the Gamma shift watch officer on the bridge. His accent still bore the thick tones of the Zimbabwean colony of Nkomo.
I think God just answered me, Julia thought, sighing deeply. She called out "What?" with some ferocity, and lied to herself that it was just to ensure she was heard over the shower.
"Admiral Maran is waiting for you over IU comms, Captain. He says it's urgent."
"I'll be right there. Relay the call to my quarters." Hoping she had rinsed off sufficiently, she left the shower. She wiped off the excess water with a couple of swipes from her towel and immediately pulled on a terry-cloth bathrobe, white in color, that she tied closed. She took a towel for her hair and began wrapping her wet blond locks inside of the white towel while walking to her desk. She sat, double-checked her robe, and satisfied that she met the bare minimum of modesty for speaking to her superior, she tapped a key on the desk control to accept the call.
Admiral Maran appeared on the screen. He was still on the Gersallian flagship, the Kentan, instead of his office in Defense Command, given the lack of a window behind him, much less the skyline of 27th Century Portland that Julia was familiar with. His dark hair had gray at the temples and along the fringes of his trimmed beard. "Captain, good work with your relief of the Adrana Colony," he said. "Governor Tamas has been forthcoming with praise at the aid you've provided."
"Thank you, Admiral."
"I've read the reports from you and your officers on the Geth attack. I admit that it's deeply concerning, especially given the Geth link to the Batarian plot to sabotage and seize the Aurora last year. If the Geth are allied with or controlled by the Batarians, it could trigger a wide-scale interstellar war in M4P2 we cannot afford."
"That's what we're wondering too."
Maran nodded. His expression darkened. "There are other, worse possibilities, however."
That comment surprised Julia. "Oh?" she asked.
"You've heard of the attack on Eden Prime?"
"The Geth caused a lot of damage, including the loss of a Prothean beacon discovered there, at least according to a friendly source on Arcturus Station. If this same source is correct, and if the evidence that the Systems Alliance intends to present is true… we may be dealing with something even worse than a Batarian-Geth alliance."
Only one possibility seemed worse. "The Nazis," Julia hissed. "Is it them? Did they…"
"No. We still have no indication that the Reich is fielding interuniversal jump drives at this time. What we do know is that Captain Anderson of the Normandy is being ordered to the Citadel to present evidence of Spectre involvement in the attack."
Julia's jaw dropped in surprise. "A Spectre did this?"
"That is what Anderson claims." Maran shook his head. "I find it hard to believe the Citadel would sanction a strike against us or against the Systems Alliance, not like this. And definitely not using the Geth. But if they have a rogue on their hands, given the resources a rogue might have access to, and the damage he or she could do even if the Council cuts them off… we need to know one way or the other, Captain. That's why I'm giving you new orders. I want you to depart Adrana immediately and head to the Citadel. Report to Ambassador Atama and be ready to observe what Anderson's evidence is, as well as providing whatever evidence is requested on the Geth attack on Adrana. If we have a rogue Spectre on our hands… we need to be ready."
"Right away, Admiral. We'll depart immediately."
"Just what I wanted to hear. Maran out." His image disappeared.
Julia hit a second key on her table. "Andreys to Bridge. Recall all personnel from Adrana immediately and set a course for System G1SV. Prepare the ship for mass relay travel. We're headed to the Citadel."
The Citadel. The name implied a fortress, a stronghold, and in many ways it fit the colossal space station in the Serpent Nebula. Obscured in a haze of particles and gases, the Citadel often thus had the impression of appearing from parting clouds in majestic triumph. It was altogether fitting imagery for a space station that served as the cornerstone of interstellar law, trade, and diplomacy in the M4P2 Milky Way galaxy.
Such was the site through the windows of the Lookout as the Starship Aurora approached the Citadel for the second time in her career. Crew members who had not been aboard for that visit, who indeed had never seen the place, clustered in the Aurora's crew lounge for a look at the station and its massive arms. Those arms were lit up with pinpricks of light, signifying the presence of the seven million beings that called the colossal space station home. Each made even the Aurora look small, being over forty times longer than the starship.
At one of the tables, Will Atreiad was gawking at the site. The Citadel made even the largest of the Colonies' fleetbases before the Fall seem small. The only structure of greater scope he'd seen was the Ring of Gersal, which wrapped itself around the planet's singular moon. And that had taken the Gersallians centuries of construction and reconstruction to manage.
Beside him Lieutenant Magda Navaez, the Koenig Operations Officer, said, "It is everything I hoped it would be." The other command officers of the Koenig agreed with her remark by nodding.
At a nearby table Dr. Roliri Opani, a Dorei woman of dark teal complexion and purple-colored spotline - the Dorei had spots similar to, but not the same as, the Trill of S5T3 - nodded in agreement with the hushed "It's beautiful" of Tra'dur. Seated with them was Cat and Violeta. Cat nodded as well and said, "Told you it was great."
"Will we be allowed to visit?" Tra'dur asked. "Not that I dare hope to see even a modest percentage of the Citadel in the time we will be alloted…"
"I'll clear it with Jarod," Cat said. "I want to show Vee around the Presidium."
"Might I join you, at least for a time?" Tra'dur asked.
Cat and Violeta exchanged brief looks before they nodded together. "Sure," Violeta said. "We'll be glad to have you along."
"It's too bad it's not purely a port-call," Cat lamented. "I don't think some of the others will get to enjoy the sights as much."
Due to his prior visit to the Citadel, Robert knew precisely where Atama's office was, just across the way from that of Ambassador Donnell Udina of the Systems Alliance. They found the older male Dorei at his desk watching footage from the attack on Adrana. His skin was a pale blue, his spots pale teal, and whitening teal hair was pulled back into a formal ponytail. His face was marked with violet tattoos. He looked to them and nodded. "I am Atama Y'raa Teme, Allied Systems Ambassador to the Citadel," he said formally. His accent was stiff, not from formality but as if he needed to fully elucidate every syllable. "Captain Dale, Captain Andreys, welcome."
They stepped further into the office. "Thank you, Mister Ambassador," Julia said. The two noted the photographs on a table beside his desk. Some showed a man of the same pale blue skin, but with darker purple spots, others women of pale blue skin but with dark teal and pale teal spots as well. All had purple hair that was turning white. "Your family?"
"Yes. We are the Raa hekli." Atama smiled pleasantly. "My fellow heko and heku you see."
"A group marriage?" Robert asked.
"I believe that is your Human English term for it, yes," Atama said. The smile did not change. "It is the way of the people of Omatei."
Neither recognized the name of his nation, but given there were over two hundred identifiable nations among the Dorei, not counting the various nations recognized in their oldest colonies, this was not too surprising.
"I hope your hekli got to come with you," remarked Julia.
"They have. But we have other matters." Atama now frowned and looked back to the frozen image on his holo-viewer, a Geth firing a weapon toward the recorder. "A terrible day for my people. It is not enough that the Batarians seek to make slaves of us. Now these… these machines dare to strike at us."
"We gave what help we could," Julia said apologetically.
"Yes. May the Jani bless you for it." Atama stood. "Ambassador Udina has scheduled a meeting with the Council. Given the Geth attack against Adrana, I have secured our place in the audience to observe the Systems Alliance's evidence on the attacks. You will accompany me."
"Of course, Mister Ambassador," Robert replied.
"Await me in the lobby below, and we will travel together."
The two walked out of the office. As they emerged, they watched the door further down the way open. Both recognized Captain David Anderson as well as his First Officer, Commander Jennifer Shepard. The former was a deep-voiced man with a mocha-toned complexion and dark, military-cut hair. Shepard had the paled bronze complexion she'd had the last time they'd met, during her month aboard the Aurora during the lead-up to the Battle of New Austria and the Gamma Piratus operation. Her hair had the same vibrant, almost fiery color, with the same short-cut style she'd had before.
The real impression was that she was wearing her combat armor, not a uniform, and had her firearms with her. Robert felt a flash of vision in his mind for it was the same armor he had seen her wearing while confronting the cyborg Turian. He sensed Julia's surprise at Shepard being armed for battle here in the Presidium of the Citadel.
"Captain Dale, Captain Andreys." Anderson's deep voice boomed with warmth at speaking to them. He walked up and offered a hand. "It's good to see you. I heard about Adrana. I assume that's why you're here?"
"The Alliance wants to see your evidence about the Geth attack on Eden Prime," Robert said. "Given the timing, it probably involves the attack on Adrana as well."
"We have an eyewitness who identified the killer," Anderson said. "Udina's on his way to the Council now, we're going to join him."
"You go on ahead, Captain," said Shepard. "I'll come with them. I'd like to ask them something."
Anderson nodded. "Just remember, we need you there, Shepard. Your testimony is going to be crucial." He walked on, leaving the three where they were.
"How can we help you, Commander?" Julia asked.
"I'd like to talk to Meridina," said Shepard. "When we're done here. I need her help."
"In what way?" asked Robert.
"The Prothean beacon on New Eden, it did something to my head." Shepard grimaced. "It gave me visions. Machines slaughtering people. But I'm not sure what I was seeing, I was hoping she could help me."
"I'll speak to her on it," Julia said.
"Thank you." Shepard looked at Robert with bemusement. "So… what's with the staff officer uniform now? And the hair?"
Julia flashed Robert a grin. Robert chuckled. "I've had a change of occupation," he said. "And I decided I wanted to try something different for a while. Growing a beard and letting my hair grow out makes me a little harder to recognize."
"Not that much harder!" Julia laughed.
Shepard grinned. "You wouldn't happen to be one of the Alliance's new Paladins, would you?"
Robert nodded. "Guilty as charged."
"You should be careful. No rank insignia means you're not considered in proper military uniform. There are governments that would shoot you over that, the Turians included."
"Given how many Spectres the Turians have fielded? That's rich." Robert shook his head. "Anyway, we'd better get going. Atama will be coming along shortly so we can see what evidence you're showing us."
"I'll see you in the Council Chamber."
Shepard departed at that point, leaving Julia and Robert alone. She flashed a bemused grin his way. "I didn't say it," she reminded him.
"No, you didn't. An amazing show of self-control indeed for the captain of a starship," Robert guffawed.
"Well, Sir Robert, if that's how you're going to be…" Julia winked at him and walked on toward the Embassy lobby area.
Robert couldn't help but chuckle as he followed her. "Good to know being a captain hasn't entirely removed your sense of humor," he called out while following.
For the first time in nearly twenty months, Robert stepped off of the lift of the Citadel Tower and walked onto the level containing the Citadel Council's audience chamber and adjoining facilities, this time with Julia beside him. Ambassador Atama stepped ahead of both to take the lead as they walked their way through the chamber. They passed a male Turian in C-Sec garb at one point, a Systems Alliance admiral at another. A Keeper moved ahead and then around them just before they reached the stairs leading up to the audience platform. Anderson was already motioning to Shepard to follow him.
Atama beckoned the others to join him and followed as well. Udina was already speaking with the three members of the Citadel Council: Valern of the Salarians, Sparatus of the Turians, and Tevos of the Asari. Additionally a hologram was depicting another Turian, toned amber by the projectors.
As the Alliance group approached Udina, the Turian Councillor, Sparatus, directed his attention to them. "And what is the purpose of the Allied Systems in this matter?"
"Adrana has been attacked by Geth, the same as Eden Prime," Atama replied. "The Alliance Government requests to observe whatever evidence has been given by the Systems Alliance on the matter."
"Then your time has been wasted, Ambassador," said the holographic figure. Robert and Julia recognized him: Saren Arterius, the Spectre that escorted Matriarch Benezia to the failed talks with the Batarians. "Just as our time has been wasted by this baseless accusation by Captain Anderson."
"We have an eyewitness, Saren!" Anderson retorted.
"What you have is a single dockworker terrified out of his mind." Saren raised a hand. "But it gives you an excuse to deflect responsibility for the destruction of the beacon and the death of Nihlus Kryik, a personal friend and colleague of mine. It must sting, Anderson, to know that yet again you Humans have proven incapable of assuming the power you hunger for. I'm not surprised you're blaming your failures on me again."
"You arrogant…" Anderson clearly fought for control. Robert sensed old anger and shame, something that had clearly eaten away at the man for years now, decades. His frustration with Saren was palpable.
Saren turned to face the Council. "This is clearly an attempt by the Systems Alliance to excuse Shepard's failure. She has proven incapable as a Spectre candidate, just as I warned."
"I object!" raged Udina. "Saren does not have the authority to…"
At that point Robert lost track of the argument. His eyes were entirely on Saren now. He'd met the Turian once before and found him unsettling. But seeing him again, seeing him in this place that his visions kept bringing him back to… Saren's face.
The visions flashed again. The CItadel Council chamber on fire. Wrecked Geth, dead bodies… and the cyborged Turian. "This is the only way for us to survive," the Turian insisted. "We have to serve."
Robert's mouth went dry. The face… even with the unnatural glow of the blue eyes, the cybernetics grafted onto the skin… it was the same face.
Saren was the Turian from his dreams, his visions.
Robert's attention was jolted back to the meeting once Saren disappeared. "As the matter stands, there is insufficient evidence to your charge again Saren," Tevos was saying.
"Particularly when you consider his long career of protecting Council space from threats," Sparatus added. "I find the accusation being made to be contemptible. A poor attempt to salvage Shepard's status as a candidate for the Spectres."
Valern spoke next. "We will begin our own investigation into this sudden emergence of the Geth, and to their attacks on your colonies. Given the potential threat, we hope the Allied Systems will provide us with data on the attack on Adrana, it may give us more insight into Geth intentions."
"The Alliance is ready to cooperate on the matter," Atama informed them. "After all, our purpose in this galaxy is to assist the Council in maintaining law and order."
"And we are thankful for that," Tevos assured him. "Ambassadors, have a pleasant day."
The moment they were clear of the audience platform, Udina turned to Anderson. "It was a mistake having you present, Captain. Your history with Saren undermines your credibility and taints the evidence."
"That much was clear," said Atama. "Although their outright dismissal of your witness seems immature."
"Saren's one of their best," Udina said. "Of course the Council won't turn on them. Sparatus even agrees with most of his anti-Human attitudes."
"Either way, Saren is a threat to the entire Human race," Anderson insisted. "There's no telling how much damage he'll do with the Geth."
"Maybe there are sources here on the Citadel we can use," Shepard said. "I overheard a C-Sec officer complaining about Saren on the way in."
"If you can find evidence against him, Commander, I will present it to the Council." Udina frowned at Anderson. "But Anderson can't be anywhere near it."
"In the meantime, Ambassador, I would like to discuss a mutual response to the Geth threat," said Atama.
"Of course. This way, Ambassador…"
The two diplomats walked away, leaving the four officers behind. They were quickly joined by two more Systems Alliance personnel, wearing combat armor like Shepard's. "Captains, these are the other members of the team that fought the Geth on New Eden," said Anderson. "Lieutenant Kaiden Alenko and Gunnery Sergeant Ashley Williams."
"Lieutenant. Sergeant, a pleasure." Julia took the lead in greeting them, shaking hands with them in order of rank. Kaidan had a light complexion, partly from space life, with close-cut dark hair and brown eyes. In contrast Ashley's Caucasian complexion had the slight tanning of someone frequently in sunlight, and her eyes were even darker than Kaidan's.
"Captain Andreys. Captain Dale." Alenko's hello was warm and friendly. He spoke English with an accent Robert thought of as Canadian.
"Ma'am, sir." Ashley accepted the handshake. "I take it the Council is letting Saren get away with it?"
"They require more proof, and that's exactly what you're going to get," Anderson said. "But it's best if I'm not around for the investigation."
Shepard noted the frown on her superior's face. "Just what happened between you and Saren?"
"Over twenty years ago, I was Humanity's first candidate for admission to the Spectres," Anderson admitted. "I was assigned to Saren to be evaluated. We ended up on an operation where Saren deliberately went off-mission and caused the deaths of innocent civilians. But he blamed me, insisting that I caused the mission to go bad. The Council believed him." A hard look came to Anderson's face. "That's why I know how much a threat the man is. Saren will do anything to complete his goals. Anything. No matter the bloodshed. Even among the Spectres he's the most ruthless."
Hearing Anderson describe Saren reminded Robert of what President Morgan had said about the Paladins. How they had to not simply protect the Alliance, but to do so without violating what it believed in. Saren seemed the prime candidate for showing why Morgan thought the distinction had to be hammered home.
But more importantly, his visions convinced him Anderson was right.
"I'm going to begin my own investigation," he said.
"Did you get orders?" asked Julia.
"No. But I don't need them. As a Paladin I'm authorized to act independently if the Alliance's security and safety is at stake. And… with Saren, I'm convinced it is."
"What makes you say that?" Alenko asked.
"I have my reasons."
"Those powers you started to use on Gamma Piratus?' Shepard inquired.
"Yes." Robert nodded. "Since my coma, my abilities have intensified." Seeing the confusion in Shepard's comrades, he added, "I've been trained by someone who served in the Gersallian Order of Swenya."
"I've heard weird stuff about them," Ashley said. "Wasn't sure it was true though."
"It is," said Shepard. "I've fought beside one of their Knights before. They're the real deal. But that's for later. I want to go track that C-Sec officer down."
"I'll see if there are any other avenues to take," Robert remarked. "If I can't find anything, I'll be in contact."
"Same here." Shepard extended a hand to him. "Good luck, Captain Dale."
"Good luck, Commander Shepard," he answered back.
The four personnel from the Normandy went on to the lift, leaving Robert and Julia. "Just how are you going to investigate a black ops legend like Saren?" Julia asked. Memories of the time they'd had Saren aboard the Aurora entered her mind. "Thinking back, we were so busy watching the Batarians that Saren could have been the one to plant that Geth device without being noticed. I would have brought it up if I thought it would do any good."
"Right. The Citadel Council's not going to turn on their best operative unless we have concrete proof against him. Something really incriminating." Robert lowered his head in thought.
"Maybe Intelligence has something on Saren?" Julia asked.
"Maybe, maybe not. If Jarod's not busy, ask him if he can find anything in the database." Robert's thoughts gave way to his feelings, specifically the Flow of Life and the energy linking them. He knew there was more to it, that it was itself alive in some ways… and now he knew that in this galaxy, it was somehow tainted, or wounded, by mass death. He could sense it here, just a little whisper…
"What are you going to do in the meantime?" asked Julia.
Robert didn't answer right away. He felt the energy around him and the pull within it. Realization came to him; he knew where he had to go. "I'm going to meet someone who might know who I should talk to," he said. "Ask Lucy if she can be ready to meet me when I call."
"You haven't talked to her yet, have you? About a reassignment?"
"No. I will, but for now this is an ad hoc assignment. Just in case Shepard's C-Sec contact doesn't pan out, I'd like options." Robert checked his omnitool. "I'll stay in touch."
"You'd better," Julia said. "You just got back."
"I know." He accepted a brief hug from her. "I'll be careful."
"Good." Julia ended the hug and tapped her omnitool. "Andreys to Aurora, one to beam up." After a few seconds she flashed away.
Once she was gone, Robert walked on toward the destination he had in mind.
Cat couldn't help herself. Seeing Tra'dur's wide-eyed, boggled expression at the Presidium made her giggle. "Incredible, isn't it?" she asked.
"Beyond words," Tra'dur insisted. "This is a true marvel of the Multiverse. We have missed so much in our forced exile…"
They walked along a footbridge linking the two sides of the Presidium, taking them over the waterway that spanned the section. With just point three Gs of gravity moving along was easy, but they were too busy enjoying the sights to hurry through them.
"Seven million beings live on the station," Caterina continued. "Mostly in the wards. I only visited the Presidium last time though."
"You lacked the time to do otherwise?" Tra'dur asked.
"Yeah. And I was shyer back then. I mean, I'm still a little shy, but not as bad…"
"You've come a long way, my sweet Cat," said Violeta with a smile tinged with sadness. She reached out and took Cat's hand, pulling her close enough to cuddle a little. Caterina accepted it without protest, simply a little sigh knowing she wouldn't be enjoying this for long.
They might have walked together in this fashion if not for a growl of "Can't you Humans show any public decency?!" A Turian approached. "I should report you to C-Sec!"
"For what?!" demanded Violeta.
"Like you have to ask," he retorted. "You Humans always behave like everything in the galaxy belongs to you. No respect for others." Without offering more remarks, he continued on, nodding politely to Tra'dur.
"What a jerk," Cat muttered.
Continuing on, they found that most people were looking toward them if just to look at Tra'dur. Finally the Dilgar woman asked, "It is odd, but I get the feeling they value my presence more than yours."
"Humans aren't always liked in this universe," Violeta explained. "Humanity fought a war with the Turians at the establishment of contact."
"More like the Turians attacked a Human colony because Humanity re-activated a mass relay that Council law said shouldn't have been turned on. Or something." Cat shrugged. "I mean, I think the local Humans are being a bit pushy too or something, so it makes the other species jealous of Humans getting so much prominence so quickly."
"Having the Alliance around doesn't help. Since we have a Human plurality in population, I mean."
"Yeah. But I can understand that." Cat shrugged. "I mean, Humanity being the most common species in the Multiverse is weird and a little unsettling for most species. The Citadel species are probably worried that we're going to take over or something… and ooh, here's the Krogan Memorial." She looked up at the statue of a Krogan. "They built it to thank the Krogan for destroying the Rachni."
"This was the conflict that the Krogan were uplifted to fight, correct?" Tra'dur inquired.
"From what I read, yes."
After answering Tra'dur, Cat turned her head and saw Violeta walking over to the railing overlooking the lake. Once glance toward Tra'dur was enough to signal to the Dilgar that they wanted a moment. While Tra'dur stayed back, Cat walked over to join Violeta. "So, this is probably our last shore leave together," Cat said.
"It's been almost a year," Violeta murmured quietly. "I mean, for me anyway."
Cat nodded. Her time with the Doctor had thrown her calendar out of sync with the others, so to speak, and things like anniversaries were something she had to re-adjust to keep them straight. She put the numbers together in her head. "Two days," she said. "Two days until our first anniversary. Well, if you consider Paris as the start…"
Violeta smiled sadly at that. "The first time we made love. I think that works as an anniversary."
Cat blushed slightly. She set her hands on the rail in front of them. "It was a magical night."
"Yes." Violeta took Cat's hand with her own. Tears were forming in her purple eyes. "Cat… oh Cat, I'm sorry."
Caterina turned her head slightly. The tears in Violeta's eyes were a surprise. "You don't have anything to be sorry for," she insisted. "I mean… I think we both knew this wasn't going to last forever?" Despite her intent, Cat could not put conviction in her words. "It hurts. I just… I guess this is life?" She put her other hand on Violeta's shoulder. "I mean, I'm not the first girlfriend you'll have to leave, right?"
"The others made it easy," Violeta said. "We weren't compatible in the end. And… and maybe you and I wouldn't have lasted either, but this isn't the same thing."
"You'd have to give up the career you want if you stayed on the Aurora."
"Yeah." Violeta sniffled and smiled bitterly. "I… I want to rise in the ranks. I want to prove I can do this, the same as you do. Oh God, I can say that even now. When it would be so easy to just…" She drew in a sigh. "In the end I'd probably be moved on anyway, you know. Even if I say no now, they'll eventually want to bring in someone who shows promise while finding another ship that could use me, even if I don't have promotions. Or if I'm not needed."
"I know some Human militaries act like that, but the Alliance isn't just Humans. I'm sure you could…" Cat stopped herself and shook her head. The little flicker of hope she'd felt went away. "I'm sorry. You're not going to."
"No." Violeta shook her head. "I've… this is my chance, really. And I thought long and hard about it…"
"Yeah." Cat sighed. "If we could make it work anyway…"
"Maybe we will? I don't know." Violeta shook her head. "But either way…" She let the sentence hang unanswered. Cat, for her part, did the same. They kept looking out at the water together.
Nearby, just out of easy earshot, Tra'dur turned away from them. She knew what they would be discussing and felt somewhat awkward to even be nearby.
Her eyes focused on one of the insectoid Keepers that maintained the Citadel. She watched the creature shuffle by wordlessly. A Salarian coming from the opposite direction distinctly ran his active omnitool over the Keeper, which seemed to ignore the movement. Tra'dur was somewhat new to the devices herself, but she was pretty sure the Salarian had just done something and stepped to the side to intercept him. "Excuse me," she said. "What were you just doing?"
"What? Oh, nothing," the Salarian insisted. "Just moving on, doing my business."
"It looked like you were trying to scan one of those things," said Tra'dur. "Isn't that illegal?"
"As long as we don't interfere with them, it isn't," the Salarian replied. "I'm just getting some harmless scans. Say, you're one of the species in the Alliance, right? The Multiversal Allied Systems?"
"I am a Dilgar, and we are potential members, yes," said Tra'dur. "Why do you ask?"
"My name's Chorban. And I could use your help on my research project."
"I am Lieutenant Tra'dur of the Alliance Starship Aurora," she answered. "And… I am listening."
Robert walked with purpose across the bridge spanning the width of the Presidium. Whatever route Shepard was taking for her investigation, he could sense the best place to start his own.
Twenty months before, during the Aurora's first visit to the Citadel, Caterina had passed on to him a crucial message from one of the most respected figures on the station: an Asari named Sha'ira, known as "the Consort". Looking back at his encounter with her, he now understood just where she got her ability to win the confidence of so many people; she, too, had a connection to the Flow of Life, to the force within it, that guided her. Before it led her to give him an object that turned out to be a Darglan command disc, one that allowed him to ensure the destruction of the Facility on Gamma Piratus before Nazi forces could claim it. He hoped that she might be able to help again.
He arrived at the entrance to the Consort's offices. An Asari maiden was at the entrance, wearing the almost-risque banded suits that showed skin while providing sufficient cover for all of those bits that society expected to keep covered. "Nelyna, right?" he asked.
"Yes." She looked him over. "I'm afraid I… oh, wait, I do remember you. You are Captain Robert Dale of the Aurora."
"I was," he answered. "And I still have that rank, though I have no ship now."
"Well, if you wish to talk to the Consort about it, I might be able to squeeze you into her schedule in a week or so…" Nelyna looked over the listing. "You look like you have had quite the change to your life, sir."
"You could say that," he said. Given the grown out facial hair and the neck-length hair he continued to sport, Robert wasn't surprised at the observation. "But I have other matters I think the Consort can help me with, and I really need to see her without delay."
"I understand that, Captain, I really do," said Nelyna, who was rather obviously reading from a script in her head for such insistence. "But many have need for the Consort's time, and she must be fair…"
From within the structure Robert could feel a shift of energy. He knew it was Sha'ira, and he was just as certain Sha'ira felt him. It was no surprise when her voice called out from within. "Let Captain Dale in, Nelyna. His cause is urgent."
"Right away ma'am." Nelyna nodded to him. "The Consort awaits you, Captain."
"Thank you," he answered politely. "I'm sorry if my request causes you any trouble."
Nelyna smiled gently at him. "It is no trouble, but I thank you for the consideration."
Robert walked on. Inside the Consort's subordinates, young Human and Asari in similar suits to Nelyna's, were comforting various clientele of all species. One Human woman, with a rich mocha complexion, was quietly reassuring a Hanar who was suffering a crisis of faith. A lavender-colored Asari was tending to another Asari of blue coloring who was grieving for a Human wife who just died. Robert couldn't help but know their problems, for here there were no barriers to prevent his senses from picking up on the raw emotions.
Past these sights was the room where Sha'ira received her guests. She was standing, waiting for him to enter, and beckoned him to a seat. "It has been quite a while, Captain," she observed. "I see you have changed in the last twenty of your months."
"A lot has changed," Robert answered. "Including me, yes."
"Before, the power I sensed within you slumbered still. Now it is beyond anything it might have been before." Sha'ira put her hands together. "But I sense there is pain in the story of how it came to be for you. There is a loss in your heart." Once he was seated Sha'ira touched his arm gently. "I am sorry about your child."
Robert forced a breath down. For months he had adjusted to the non-existence of the son he'd had in the Flow of Life's dreamworld. "You're very astute," he observed.
"And you grow moreso as well," Sha'ira answered. "But I sense your purpose is not to seek my help with your loss. You are here because of the attacks."
"A Turian named Saren Arterius is behind them," Robert insisted. "I've seen it. Through my abilities, the visions of possibilities I get from them. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"
The Consort nodded. "Yes. As I once told you, Captain, I too am a dreamer, and I sometimes dream of terrible things."
"I can understand why." He frowned. "I feel… an old sense of death here. Not just here on the Citadel, but in this entire galaxy. And you feel it as well?"
"I think Saren is connected to something bigger," Robert said. "Udina and Anderson see this as an anti-Human campaign. But the attack on Adrana… it didn't accomplish anything that would help with something like that. There's another agenda here."
"I am familiar with Saren Arterius," the Consort said. "He is a ruthless man. Be cautious with him."
"I intend to be. But I need evidence against him."
Sha'ira nodded. "I may be of some help there." She quietly tapped at an omnitool. "While I wait for a reply, I would like to discuss your plight."
"Yes. I can sense the unease in you. The power you wield… it is almost too much for you."
Robert didn't react at first. Finally he nodded. "I struggle with it. Especially with fine control. Too much is riding on me to do otherwise."
"That is true. But you are still disappointed in yourself, even though you should not be. Have you not aided your friend?"
"A little, I guess."
"More than a little, I think. And now you have come back to your vessel, though you no longer command it."
"It's Julia's ship now," Robert said. "And… I don't want to make her feel like I'm trying to take it back."
"I see." Sha'ira reached over and took his hand. "You love her very much."
To that Robert nodded. "I always have."
"And you do not want to hurt her. But you also want to be home." Sha'ira shook her head. "These things are not in conflict, though you feel they are."
"I commanded the ship before, and I'm still officially a Captain," Robert said. "Two Captains on a ship, it's… it can be confusing. I don't want people to start looking to me when they should still be looking to her."
"I didn't think about that when I made the choice," he continued. "I just wanted to be back where I belonged. With the others. For years, we've had each others' backs. We've been looking out for each other. I wanted to go back to that."
"And you wished to be with those you love," Sha'ira pointed out. "Even now, Captain Dale, I can feel the loss inside of you. Those whom you have loved who no longer live. That pain could overwhelm if you did not have the others."
There was no denying the truth in that. "Yep," he admitted.
"I do not say this to cause you pain. Merely to show you that you have reason for the choice you made. And I believe you were right to return to your ship, whatever issues that return may have caused." Sha'ira checked something on her omnitool. "Indeed, I believe remaining with your loved ones may be the most important choice you may ever make."
"Does your sense of what is to come tell you that?" Robert asked. "I mean, the visions you have with your gift?"
"Somewhat, yes. But I would believe so anyway." Sha'ira smiled gently at him. "I have learned many lessons in my time, Captain. And one of them is that we are always made stronger by remaining true to those whom we love and cherish." She seemed to check her omnitool again. "As for your other concern, I have contacted an associate who has confirmed a possible avenue for your investigation into these attackers."
Pleased to have the business at hand brought back into the conversation, Robert nodded once. "Thank you for your help. What can you tell me?"
"I can tell you very little," Sha'ira replied. "But Barla Von will be of much greater assistance. You will find him in his office in the Financial District further down the Presidium. I will relay the exact coordinates."
"He is a volus trader working for the Shadow Broker. He is thus quite dangerous, but also quite reasonable." Sha'ira stood, prompting Robert to do the same. "He should be able to help you, Captain. And he is expecting you."
"I see." Robert considered that. He felt a vague sense of imminent danger already and resolved to make a stop first. "I'll go see him after changing into something a little more appropriate for the situation, then."
"Please do," Sha'ira said. "I look forward to your next visit."
"I do too," he answered, with some genuine belief behind the politeness of returning such a pleasant sentiment. "Take care, ma'am." Robert activated his omnitool. "Dale to Aurora, one to beam up."
The transporter whisked him away a moment later.
Lucy was already preparing to go to the Citadel when she got the call to armor up and meet Robert in Transporter Station 2. A Human man was on duty when she arrived, in blue robe and purple armor with her lightsaber affixed to the belt.
Robert entered several moments later. He was clad in a similar set of armor, but colored blue, and the brown robes were not a usual color among the Gersallians. A pulse pistol was holstered on his hip. Lucy imagined he might have a backup holstered at the small of his back as well. "It's a set of traveling robes Mastrash Ledosh gave to me before I left Gersal," he said to her. "I'm sorry if I interrupted anything."
"I was going to check up on a Quarian sanctuary Meridina and I visited the last time we were here," Lucy admitted.
"I wouldn't have called you if I didn't need the backup. But there's no telling the danger we could run into, even on the Citadel," Robert remarked. "Saren's been an active Spectre for decades. If he realizes we're hunting for dirt on him, he might have agents that could attack us."
"Right." Lucy sighed. "Well, at least it's not security duty. I'm still waiting to see if Richmond convinces Julia to transfer me." Immediately she sensed Robert's thoughts shift. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
"I will, when we have time. For now, let's go meet this Barla Von."
They beamed as close to the Financial District as possible, given the Citadel's new transporter-inhibitor fields. Barla Von wasn't hard to locate. Officially he worked as a data manager for a Volus-chartered bank on the Citadel, providing the necessary information on galactic conditions for the bankers and managers to make decisions on bank business.
Unofficially, according to both Sha'ira and a report from Alliance Intelligence, Barla Von worked for the Shadow Broker.
Nobody knew who or what the Shadow Broker was, or if they did, they said nothing about it. Generally speaking the Broker was referred to in the masculine, reportedly because the Broker addressed others with what most species considered a male voice, electronically altered to be unrecognizable. From wherever the Broker lived, the Broker managed an intelligence network that spanned the entire M4P2 galaxy and, perhaps, beyond it now. Alliance Intelligence warned against dealings with the Broker without authorization from the Defense Staff.
Of course, as a Paladin, such authorization came pre-approved for Robert.
Barla Von looked up from his desk the moment Robert and Lucy entered. "Ah. Captain Dale, Lieutenant Lucero." Von sucked in air after each sentence, an audible sound. "I have been expecting you."
Lucy gave him a look. "I'm assuming Sha'ira called ahead?" Robert asked.
"She did, as a courtesy," confirmed the Volus. "But it merely confirmed what I already expected. You are here to investigate Saren Arterius' connection to the Geth, and the attacks upon Adrana and Eden Prime."
"Did she share that with you too?"
"No. I am already aware of the accusation. The Broker has been keeping an eye on Saren for some time." Barla Von put his hands together. "He is aware that Saren is no longer working for the Citadel Council."
"I'm guessing he doesn't care to inform the Citadel, then?"
"The Broker is not loyal to the Citadel Council, obviously, and they would not heed him anyway. All he would accomplish was jeopardizing his contacts within Saren's organization." Barla Von gestured toward Robert. "But that is for another time. You may be running short of such time if you want to prove Saren's guilt." Yet again Barla Von stopped to suck in air.
"What do you know?" asked Robert. "And how much will this cost me?"
"I know something you need, and it will cost you nothing," said Von. "Saren's actions are against the interests of the Broker. I have been instructed to assist in discrediting Saren in the eyes of the Council. Sending one of the Alliance's new Paladin agents to deal with this problem will meet the Broker's desires quite nicely."
Robert crossed his arms. "Given his reputation, I'm surprised he wouldn't want to insist on a quid pro quo, especially given the amount of information a Paladin can access."
Barla Von waved his hand dismissively. "The Shadow Broker has enough agents in the Alliance, there is no information you would give us that we don't know already."
Robert felt Lucy's incredulity at the claim, a mirror of his own. But there was nothing but certainty in Barla Von on the matter. "I'm in no hurry to sell Alliance secrets, even in exchange for information I need on this, so I'll take your word for it."
"Understandable. You would not want to give Admiral Davies and Minister Hawthorne further cause to push for your removal. They have already insisted President Morgan revoke your membership in the Paladins as it is."
Again there was that damnable certainty. Robert felt a prick of cold nervousness on his spine. While there was to be transparency and oversight of the Paladins at the high levels of government, much about their organization remained classified. How would the Broker know for certain about such debates?
Because if he knows anything about how those men feel about me, about people with mental powers and metaphysical abilities, it would be obvious, argued a part of his mind. Stop being paranoid. And yet… yet…
"Either way, the Broker does not seek compensation from you, Captain," Barla Von continued.
"Oh?" Lucy spoke up. "He's going to help out of the kindness of his heart? Or hearts?"
"Hardly. Rather, he has an interest in this matter. Treachery that must be punished. Saren has bought away one of our people. A man named Fist, currently the owner of a club in the Wards. Chora's Den."
"I think it was listed on the 'enter on your own risk' list of the businesses," Robert observed.
"Yes. Fist's clientele can be dangerous, as he can be as well. Especially now that he has betrayed the Broker. And he knows the Broker is aware of his treachery. Be careful, he will be heavily guarded."
"And we'll find evidence linking him to Saren and Saren to the Geth?"
"No. Fist won't have that," said Barla Von. "But he knows someone who can connect Saren to the attacks. A Quarian approached him with the evidence, believing him to still be in the Broker's employ. Undoubtedly he will betray this Quarian to Saren's agents without your intervention. Regardless of your gifts, getting to Fist won't be easy. However, I know of a way for you to get assistance."
"Oh?" Robert asked.
"The Broker has already hired a bounty hunter to deal with Fist for his treachery. C-Sec is holding him currently, but I have already ensured he will not be arrested. If you go now, you should arrive at the C-Sec station closest to Chora's Den as the bounty hunter is being released. I recommend you work together to get Fist."
"I'm not going to assassinate someone," Robert answered. "And I'm not going to willingly enable it either."
"I leave that for you to settle with our man," Barla Von replied. "I, for one, care little whether Fist actually dies or is simply ruined. Either outcome will serve as the object lesson desired by my employer. Now, Captain, I suggest you hurry. Whatever else you may feel about the Broker, Saren is our common enemy, and he must be stopped."
"I'll agree with you on that," Robert replied. He nodded. "Thank you for your help."
"Of course." Barla Von placed his hands together again, as if in thought. He spoke again as Robert turned away."And should you ever need information, keep the Broker in mind. He will certainly be easier to repay than a man like Sidney Hank."
Lucy gave Robert a curious look. Robert frowned at the remark. "I'll keep that in mind, Mister Von," Robert answered coldly, after which he went straight for the door.
The message came while Julia was filing her report on the evidence Captain Anderson presented to the Council on Saren. Meridina arrived a few minutes later, stepping out of the bridge and into Julia's bridge office. "Captain, you wanted to see me?"
"I've received an invitation for both of us that I'm inclined to accept," Julia explained. "But I figured I would get your input before I signaled our acceptance."
"I see." Meridina nodded. "This invitation is?" she then asked in her usual lilting accent.
"It's from Matriarch Lidanya, the commanding officer of the Destiny Ascension," Julia explained. "We're being invited for a tour later today."
"Ah? Quite the honor, I imagine."
"Given we're talking about the Asari flagship, one of the Multiverse's most advanced and powerful dreadnoughts?" Julia grinned. "That's what I figured too."
"I will be pleased to join you," Meridina said. "I look forward to comparing the Destiny Ascension to the Kentan."
Julia nodded. She'd been aboard the Kentan a couple of times herself; the dreadnought-carrier was the largest ship in the Alliance, the flagship of the Gersallian Interdependency and Admiral Maran's usual choice for his personal flagship. Even before its refit with Darglan technology, it was one of the most advanced starships in the entire Multiverse and a direct competitor with the Destiny Ascension.
Julia mentally brushed those musings aside and typed a quick response to Lidanya's invitation, signaling her grateful acceptance. Moments later she received a confirmation, including an authorization code for the shuttle flight and a recommended time. Julia quickly signaled an affirmative. "Jarod or Neyzi can watch the bridge while we're done. Not that I expect any problems here. Between us, the Ascension, and the Turian squadrons covering the Citadel, even the Geth would have to think twice about attacking."
"And that discounts the ability of the various Citadel species to rapidly shift reinforcements through the mass relay network." Meridina frowned slightly. "Although given their fleet commitments to S4W8 and to other security needs in this galaxy, the ability of the Council species to react immediately to attack has been reduced."
"Good point." Julia crossed her arms in her seat. "My big worry isn't an attack on the Citadel. Or even the war. It's what's coming after we beat the Nazis."
"You are concerned about our post-war standing with the Citadel?"
"I'm sure I'm not the only one," Julia said. "It was clear early on that they don't quite know what to do with us. We're as much a threat as we are an ally, and we're way too large and powerful to simply be folded into the Council. Given how long they've effectively ruled the Milky Way, they can't like that."
"I suspect not," Meridina agreed. "And there will be the question of territorial disagreements in the former Reich worlds. The Turian wish to annex worlds they take is one that will be opposed by other parts of the Coalition."
"It's a shame to think that we could end up with tensions," Julia said. "We've worked together well since they got into the war. Maybe it was an alliance of convenience, but even then, we have too much to loose by falling into conflict."
"Hopefully our superiors and the Council will agree with you." Meridina slipped into a seat. "If I may bring up a delicate topic…?"
"When Robert returned to us at New Liberty, everyone seemed quite pleased, you included. But it is clear that there is some… discomfort on his presence."
A small, sad sigh was Julia's initial response. "I suppose you could say that, yes." Julia glanced over to one of her photos, showing her and Robert at the county fair when they were preteens. "It's awkward for him. I mean, for two years he was the captain of the ship, and I was his second-in-command. Now I'm in charge and he's… well, two years of habit can be hard to break. I think he's torn between contributing and feeling like he's undermining me if he takes the lead."
"I can understand the concern," Meridina said. She smiled slightly. "You have also evinced a certain… inclination to behaving as you did while you were First Officer, even though those responsibilities are mine."
"That's just Tom being frustrated that I'm still 'mother hen'ing him and the others," Julia said in a droll tone. "I can't help that part, I suppose."
"Just as Robert cannot help his inclination to want to lead," Meridina noted.
"Even though he's not as comfortable as a leader," Julia said.
"Not in the same fashion you are, yes," Meridina agreed. "But there is more than one type of leadership. You are more comfortable with the kind expected of a starship captain. Robert is better suited for a less formal organization."
"You mean these Paladins."
"Yes. They are more… flexible, it seems. They fit his approach the best."
"I probably teased him a little too much about the job title." Julia smiled thinly. "It does fit his 'White Knight' complex pretty well, doesn't it?"
"I admit, I am still somewhat uncertain about Human terms. I understand the term 'Knight' serves as the preferred translation for a swevyra'se, for instance, but at the same time your own history files show that medieval knights were little more than armed feudal nobility who sustained their readiness for war through legal control of land and attached work forces. No swevyra'se would ever conceive of such a thing."
"Historical reality and mythology, fairy tales, don't always add up," Julia noted. "Ask most people what they think a Knight is, and they'll think up King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, or a character from a fairy tale. Fairy tale knights, the good ones or 'white knights', are supposed to be brave champions of justice who fight to protect the innocent."
"Much as Swenya's Code requires," Meridina noted. "And an apt description for your purpose in the years before the Alliance."
"Yeah. And Paladins are… well, I think there were historical ones too, but it's also another term for what a white knight is." Julia chuckled. "I wonder if that's why President Morgan picked the name. I can't see him wanting to just emulate the Spectres, they've got too much freedom to do horrible things. But making people into 'Paladins' to encourage them to do good things and not just the necessary…"
"Such names and titles can have power, yes. Although when you speak of Robert having a 'complex'..."
"Rob has the most irritating compulsion to be the good guy that it makes me want to swat him on the head," Julia said. "When it doesn't make me love him to death."
"It is an admirable quality."
"Not when he's starving himself and not getting enough sleep because he wants to rescue more people," Julia said. "You weren't there for our early days operating the Facility. We had to scrub down his office because he started to personally reek."
Meridina gave her a confused look. "What do you mean?"
"He wasn't being hygienic," Julia clarified. "As in he wasn't bathing or showering. He wasn't eating. He wasn't sleeping. He was in full 'good guy complex' mode and all he cared about was finding more people to help. I had to force him to take time off in the end. And that was only after the Kelley had to be put into the dock for three days of necessary maintenance work." She chuckled. "He got better over time, at least."
"I see." Meridina recognized what Julia meant, and how it could have been frustrating to her. She recalled the training in her Order including insistence on self-care and the realization that no swevyra'se could "save everything".
"Either way, I'd better verify my report got filed." Julia put her hands back on her desk and activated her control. "I'll see you in the main shuttle bay in forty-five minutes?"
"Agreed. I shall reserve our shuttle now. Permission to be dismissed, Captain?"
"Permission granted," replied Julia.
A trip back to the Embassy led Robert and Lucy to the lift to the C-Sec offices. They stepped into the lift and Robert activated it with a press of his hand to the plate. As the lift began moving through the tube, an automated system began playing a newscaster reporting on the Geth attacks.
"You have something on your mind other than this case," Lucy said to him. "And it involves me. You might as well talk to me, Rob."
"Alright. I suppose this lift ride will be long enough." Robert looked to her. "I hear you're being considered for transfer to security."
"Richmond wants it. I don't." Lucy shook her head. "I don't mind working with her, but the job doesn't interest me. I think it's too limiting."
"But you're not satisfied with operations anymore, either?"
"I can't say I ever was, but it fit my skills the best so I just went with it. But now…" Lucy shrugged. "Well, I suppose it still fits the best. But what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that I want to offer you a place under my command," Robert replied.
Lucy gave him a look. "What?"
"The Paladins are allowed to bring in a few people to be in their command," Robert explained. "And as potential recruits for being Paladins in their own right."
"And you want me?"
"It would probably fit you better than what you've got now," Robert pointed out. "I mean, your piloting and engineering expertise will come in handy when they finish building our new personal craft. And your personal combat skills are better than mine, especially if we run into enemies with life force powers and the weapons to compliment them."
"I don't want to become a secret agent, Robert," Lucy said, and in a harsh tone. "That's not what we're supposed to be. We're supposed to be open with what we are, we're supposed to inspire people to be better. What you're talking about is the kind of crap that Saren and his ilk do."
"I know, and I agree," Robert replied. "But we're not… we're not supposed to be Spectres, Lucy. President Morgan was clear on that. We need to stick to a moral code. And I think you'll help me do that."
"Yeah." He shook his head. "I'm not blind to the risks of this kind of work. It's easy to make terrible choices, do terrible things, and justify it as 'necessary'. Maybe some of the other Paladins will fall into that trap. I don't want to be one of them, though. Why else do you think I came back to the Aurora when I had to pick my base of operations?" He focused his eyes, and his thoughts, on her, allowing her to easily sense what he was feeling.
Lucy responded by crossing her arms and looking thoughtful. "I'll have to think about it," she said. "Later."
By this time the lift's transparent window was displaying the sight of the center of a C-Sec facility. Another lift linked to the various docks for visiting starships. Figures in C-Sec blue were everywhere, moving to and fro while they were on business.
Near the entrance to the officers area, three C-Sec guards were facing a Krogan in red armor. "I don't want to hear about you coming near Fist again," the lead C-Sec man stated to the Krogan. "Or you go right back into a cell, and I don't care how many friends you have calling, you won't be coming out for a good long while."
"Here's our guy," Robert murmured while the Krogan exchanged barbs with the departing officers. "I'm not sure I like the thought of working with him. Not if he's going to assassinate Fist." Robert approached and waited for the C-Sec members to move on. The moment the Krogan turned, his red eyes swept over them.
Robert expected many possible reactions, good and bad. He didn't expect the feeling of recollection from the Krogan, however. Nor did he from Lucy, who smiled wryly and said, "Hey there, Wrex. Getting into trouble again?"
A low cackle came from the Krogan. "Lucero. I didn't expect to see you again so soon." He looked at Robert. "Here with your boyfriend?"
Lucy laughed out loud at that. "He's not my type," she said, extending her hand. "Robert, this is Urdnot Wrex. Wrex, Captain Robert Dale, formerly Captain of the Aurora, and now…"
"A special agent working for the Alliance," Robert finished for her. He offered a hand and half-expected to have it crushed, but Wrex kept his grip just shy of such pressure.
"Wrex was on Tira," Lucy explained. "He helped us stop the Brakiri and the others from committing genocide against the Dilgar."
"Thank you for helping my friends, Mister Urdnot," Robert said.
Wrex snorted. "None of that 'Mister Urdnot' crap. 'Battlemaster' if you have to be formal."
"Your choice, Battlemaster."
"Once you get to know him, Robert drops the formality," Lucy said. "So, you're after Fist too?"
"I am. What do you want with him?" asked Wrex.
"He can lead us to evidence about the real culprit behind the recent Geth attacks," Robert said. "But we need to know more about what's protecting him."
"More than a dozen armed mercenaries and thugs," said Wrex. "I could blast through them, but it takes time. He'll run before I get to him."
"Well, you'll have us to cut through to him," said Lucy. "He won't have time."
"But don't kill him," Robert said. "We need him to find the Quarian with the evidence we need."
"I'll let him live long enough to answer," said Wrex. "But I've got a job to do."
"I'm not in this to assassinate someone," Robert insisted. "This is something bigger than one crook betraying another."
Wrex rumbled with what sounded like a chuckle. "Be careful what you say about the Broker. He destroys people when they annoy him."
Robert crossed his arms.
"Let's just get to Fist first," Lucy said. "Alright?" Sensing Robert was still unhappy, she looked to Wrex and asked, "A moment?"
"Sure. But we'd better hurry, Fist may already be planning to run."
"Just a moment." Lucy took Robert by the arm and led him away. "You're being a hardass about this," she grumbled at him once they were out of earshot.
Robert gave her a bemused look. "This, from the woman who was griping at me about becoming no better than Saren? He's talking about killing Fist in cold blood, Lucy. And he's going to. I can sense it."
"Yeah, me too. But…"
"But what?" Robert frowned at her. "You can't tell me you're on board for something like that. Even if Fist is scum, just killing him…"
"I don't want to just kill him, Robert. But given our situation, working with Wrex may be our only way to make sure we get him," Lucy insisted. "And I'm willing to give Wrex a pass on this."
"Because of Tira?"
"Yeah." The bronze complexion of her face paled at the memory. "Tira. He… they were butchering babies, Rob. You didn't see it. I… I did, and so did he, and we both reacted the same way. He turned on the Brakiri to stop their mercs from killing more of those babies. He risked his life to help us save Tira. And maybe I'm not comfortable with him just killing Fist, but I guess I'm willing to give him a pass on it because of that. And we could use his help."
Robert hadn't seen Tira, true. But he could see the image in his head now, courtesy of Lucy's memories of that reconnaissance-turned-raid, and his face paled as well. "I'm sorry," he said to her. "We've all seen a lot of horrible things, but that…" He drew in a sigh. "Alright. Let him know he can go with us. I'm going to call Shepard and see what she's found."
Lucy nodded and walked back into C-Sec. Robert watched her round the corner and hoped he wouldn't regret it. There was something to say for Wrex's honesty, at least; he wasn't pretending he wouldn't kill Fist if given the chance.
Still… I am not going to become an assassin, or help it along. That's not what we're supposed to be doing. If I open that door even a little…
Robert let the thought go and activated his omnitool. After several moments Shepard's face appeared on it. The image behind her included something like a biobed. "Shepard here. Go ahead."
"Dale here. I've found that there's a Quarian on the Citadel somewhere with evidence against Saren. But they trusted the wrong person and are getting sold out to Saren."
"I've heard the same. Some guy named Fist who runs Chora's Den. Officer Vakarian and I are going to go have a discussion with him. Interested?"
"Definitely, but from what I've found out, you'd better be ready for a fight. The Shadow Broker sent a bounty hunter after Fist for turning on him. So he's got at least a dozen guns protecting him."
"Yeah, and we've got the hunter on our side. A Krogan Battlemaster named Urdnot Wrex."
A small smile crossed Shepard's face. "And he's going to be joining us too? It almost makes me feel sorry for Fist and his people. We'll meet you near the Den."
"We'll be there as quickly as we can," Robert said. "Dale out." He lowered his arm and turned his head, allowing him to see Lucy round the corner with Wrex. "Shepard and some friends will be waiting for us near the Den," he said. "Let's get going."
There was a guilty look on Cat's face when they stepped off of the lift that brought the three down to Tayseri Ward. A fun tour of the Citadel was now a work project, and one that could get them in trouble. But the chance to learn more about the Keepers was too much to pass up for Cat. As always, Violeta seemed to be taking it in stride, and they were still holding hands when they walked out into the concourse. The lifts from the Presidium came together here, with a C-Sec security station and some shops before one got to the streets and pathways of the Ward proper. Beyond the window ahead they could see the massive Destiny Ascension loitering near the Citadel. Nearby the Aurora was in her station-keeping position, angled so they saw her belly angled to port.
Swiftly their attention was elsewhere. A Keeper walked by quietly and Cat swiftly scanned it. The initial results were interesting. The Keepers had a low-level data stream connecting them to systems on the Citadel, and additionally seemed to be more like biological drones than independent creatures, complete with heavy cyberization. There was still more to analyze, however…
Cat turned her head to face the voice calling out to her. An older Human man with graying, buzz-cut hair and blue eyes walked up. He was in the blue uniform of C-Sec. "Just what do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
Cat almost asked what he meant, but she stopped. She followed his eyes and noted he was directing his gaze on Tra'dur, who's hand and omnitool were hovering over another Keeper walking by.
"Pardon, sir?" Tra'dur asked.
"That's against Citadel laws," he said. "You don't mess with the Keepers."
"Oh?" Tra'dur blinked. "I apologize, then. I was only scanning, I had no idea…"
The man sighed. "Didn't you read the visitors' booklet? It's listed near the top of the list of 'things you shouldn't do'."
"Wait." Tra'dur briefly glimpsed toward Cat and Violeta before returning her gaze to the C-Sec officer. "Those were laws?"
"What made you think they were anything but?"
"Well, the wording… perhaps it was a translation error, but I thought it was merely a list of things it was suggested not to do? I had no idea it was an item of law. I do apologize, Officer…"
"Bailey," the man replied. "Now, run that by me again."
Tra'dur had the C-Sec man's full attention, allowing Cat to slip beside him and approach the Keeper Tra'dur tried to scan. She glanced back toward Officer Bailey just to have her eyes run over Violeta. She nodded and put a finger over her (to Cat, very kissable) lips, signaling Cat to remain quiet and keep going. Cat followed the Keeper until it rounded a corner and approached a control console of some sort, which it used all four limbs to operate. Cat activated her omnitool and began scanning.
After several seconds Violeta got her attention by stroking Cat's neck and hair with her hand. Cat enjoyed the touch of Violeta's skin on her own, even something light like this, and glanced to see her shaking her head now. Cat immediately pulled her arm away from the Keeper. Her omnitool disappeared from sight.
Tra'dur stepped around the corner, joined by Bailey. "Do me and yourselves a favor," he said to them. "Help your friend go over the visitor booklet and make sure she recognizes what she's not supposed to do, alright?"
"Uh, yessir," Cat pledged. "We'll do that."
"Good. Don't want you ladies to get into trouble over these damn bugs. Some of the others will actually haul you in over this, just to make the point." And with his point made, Bailey stepped away.
Once he was out of earshot, Tra'dur asked, "Did you get the scan?"
"I did," Cat replied.
"We might want to stop," Violeta remarked. She gave Cat a concerned look. "I believe him when he says some of the others might arrest us."
"I shall do the scans, then," said Tra'dur. "It was I who made the deal with Chorban. I never realized how serious they took the matter… but there are only a few scans left and it would seem like a waste of time…"
"It would be," Cat agreed. She took Violeta's hand again and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you, Vee, for the help, and don't worry. Just a couple more scans and we're done, then… then we can go to lunch or something. Enjoy some of the local cooking. Maybe rent a skycar and fly it to a good view…"
"Very good ideas." Violeta grinned at her. "But you're paying. It's the least you can do given this."
"Oh, of course."
With the arrangement made, they continued on into Tayseri Ward.
The Citadel, being a metropolis in space, had more restaurants, bars, and eateries than a visitor could ever see. Tom Barnes, Leo, Locarno, and Angel opted for an open-air bistro in the Presidium, about a quarter of the ring down from the Embassy. Their meals, in various stages of completion, were arrayed around the table, as were the steins or glasses of drink they had. Angel took a small drink of what the bartender called Serrice Ice Brandy and decided she liked the taste. "I guess the Asari make good booze too," she said. "Not as good as the wine I had last time I was here."
"You mean when you and Rob tried to have a date here on the Citadel?" asked Barnes. "The one J-man interrupted?"
"I'd think that was a punching offense," Leo joked.
Angel shot him a playful glare. "He didn't seem to know, and I believed that. And it was important." She sighed. "Besides, we got to finish the meal at least."
"That's good to hear," said Locarno. He looked around. "I didn't get to see much of the Citadel last time."
"Too much paperwork to do," said Locarno. "And I've been Earth Spacedock before, and a few other Starbases in the Federation. I didn't think the Citadel would be that special."
"But it is, right?" asked Barnes.
"It's certainly unique," Locarno agreed.
Leo watched Angel as she looked away from them. Her eyes gazed into the distance as she quietly took another drink. "Now that Robert's not the Captain, maybe the two of you…"
"No," she said.
The others looked at her. "Oh?" asked Barnes. "Because usually…"
"I know what I usually do. And I'm stopping it." Angel considered her glass. "Robert and I… we don't work."
"Given how often the two of you get back together…"
"That's why I know it won't work." Angel turned back to them and set the glass on the table. "Trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result… that's a definition for insanity."
"Agreed," said Leo.
"So I'm done. I mean, I'll still be friends with Rob. He's a good man, as annoying as his hero complex makes him at times." The others smiled and Barnes outright laughed. Angel grinned as well. "And I'll remember that it was fun at times. But I'm tired of replaying the past. So I'm going to do something new."
"I understand. And good luck with that. Finding a boyfriend willing to accept that you can beat him up can be hard," Leo joked.
Angel shot him another playful glare. "Keep it up, Leo. I can still punch you."
"But then who would treat your wounds the next time you lose to the Captain in the ring?" Leo asked drolly.
"You have subordinates," Angel retorted. "Besides, I win three out of five of those."
"Not by my count.."
"Whatever your choice about romance, that's not what I'm worried about." Leo folded his hands on the table. "You've been restless lately, Angel."
"I know," she admitted. "It's just… with my decision on Robert made, and with Cat spreading her wings, a part of me wonders why I'm here…"
"I always thought it was because you enjoyed blowing crap up," Barnes remarked.
"A perk," Angel admitted. "Especially when it's Nazis. But…" She looked to her glass again. "I wonder if it's enough. When I was on my own a few months ago, while the Aurora was in drydock, it was… it was interesting. I saw more of the Multiverse. And it needs people like us back out there, doing good. Not just staying on our fancy-pants starship surveying planets and playing nice with corrupt jerks and their lackeys."
"I'm not sure that works as well as this," Leo said. "Even if you had a ship like the scouts to use…"
"It's just a thought," Angel said dismissively. "And I already know you're going to bring up Hawk and his merry band of brain-damaged assholes."
"I didn't think it necessary."
"And it's off anyway," Barnes protested. "We were never that bad."
"You could have ended up that way." Locarno shook his head. "They didn't have anyone to tell them not to overuse the brain infusers."
"It's not just the infusers, though," Barnes insisted. "Hawk and his people were already fraking assholes. Their Facility just makes them worse."
"You don't know that," said Angel. "It's possible they meant well."
"I'm sure they meant real damn well when they bombed the crap out of Earth C1P2," Barnes guffawed. "Did you know there's still a crapload of wars going on there? Anna was telling us about it when she got back from her leave."
"Not a surprise." Leo looked at the miserable expression on Angel's face. "We're here for you, though. No matter what you decide."
"Yeah," Angel murmured. "I know."
Shepard and Kaidan were waiting when Robert approached with Lucy and Wrex. In their company was a Turian in a blue C-Sec field uniform. "Glad you made it," Shepard said. "We're going to need the help."
Robert nodded. He sensed the ready tension ahead. The door to Chora's Den wasn't far, up a walkway over one of the empty spaces in the Ward, and there were armed men there waiting. "A direct assault could get dicey."
"I'll get you to the door," Wrex said.
Robert nodded before noticing Shepard's team was short one. "Where's Sergeant Williams?"
"Back at a clinic watching a friend of Vakarian's." Shepard nodded at the Turian. "This is Garrus Vakarian of C-Sec. He's been investigating Saren."
"With little luck, I'm afraid," said Garrus. "I'm hoping to find a breakthrough in the case through Fist."
"We all are," said Robert. He reached into his robe and pulled out his pulse pistol. "Commander, Battlemaster, if you want to do the honors?"
"I'll go with them," Lucy said. "You three watch our backs."
The six went for the door, the first three with shotguns out - or lightsaber, in Lucy's case - while the latter three had pistols ready. Shepard held up a hand with all five digits extended out. She pulled in her thumb first as she counted down, clenching her hand into a fist as she did. Robert drew in a breath and focused on the energies around him. The familiar sense of imminent danger sharpened his senses. Adrenaline began to work its way into his body.
Once Shepard's hand formed a fist, she hit the door switch. The door to Chora's Den opened, a dim crimson light spilling out from the inside.
The gunfire began a moment later.
The roar of gunfire filled the dark spaces and hot pink neon highlighting of Chora's Den. Armed figures at the bar and elsewhere poured fire into the space of the opened door.
Robert imagined Shepard would step back and let Lucy do the honors of getting in. Instead he watched, and felt, the energy gather around Shepard. In a flash of biotic power Shepard rocketed forward to slam into the bartender. The Human male's gun fell loose from the impact. Shepard brought the butt of her shotgun and slapped it into his face. The bartender screamed in tandem with the cracking sound of his nose being broken.
Lucy and Wrex went in next. Wrex's shotgun came out and barked. A merc went down. Lucy's blade of shining sapphire light came alive with an electronic snap and hiss. The lightsaber became a blur from the speed at which she was moving it, intercepting shots. Robert came up behind her and opened fire. Pulse shots struck a Turian merc several times in the chest, sending her down. Robert's next shot hit another Human male while Lucy, ready to use any opening she found, threw a bolt of invisible force that sent an enemy gunner flying into a wall.
A gunman came up from their left. A blast of blood and brain matter put an end to him. Robert felt a bit of appreciation at Garrus for his aim, even if he regretted the death. Kaidan fired a series of shots as well, sending another of the mercs back to cover.
Shepard was finished with the bartender. Next was a gunman standing on the platform above the bar area, on what looked to be a dancer stage. Shepard's arm flung out and biotic energy flew out. It struck the gunman directly. Instead of causing him to fall back, however, the force pulled him off the stage. He hit the ground in front of Shepard, who kicked him in the face and knocked him unconscious.
Again Wrex's shotgun roared, and again a merc fell. Kaidan and Garrus fired repeated pistol shots from the cover of one of the tables. Their suppressive fire forced another pair of the mercs into cover. Robert's shot, with his aim aided directly by his abilities and training, struck one of them, putting him down.
There was another burst of biotic power and light. Shepard was charging again, this time clearing the bar and slamming into one of the mercs moving out of cover. The impact threw her foe into the wall with enough force to knock him out. She pivoted on one foot and fired a shotgun blast point-blank into a second opponent, killing him instantly.
This bold attack might have exposed Shepard to too much danger, so far ahead of allies, but Lucy was quick to come to her aid. Her lightsaber cut right through the rifle of her first foe, then lopped the arms off a second to disarm them. Robert fired a shot that hit a remaining merc in the forehead. Lucy, freed from attack in that corner, turned and sent a wave of invisible force at the mercs still behind cover and exchanging shots with Garrus and Kaidan. They cried out in the second before they slammed into the wall. Robert tracked their movement and fired a couple of stun bolts that took them out of the fight as well.
For a moment it seemed the last merc was down. But now the door behind them opened again, and more armed men appeared. Everyone took cover from the resulting gunfire. "Fist must have called in every favor he has," Garrus called out. "He's going to run!"
Robert and Shepard shared a look. "Lucy, can you stay and help Alenko and Vakarian?" he asked her.
Lucy nodded. "Yeah. We'll keep them off your back."
"Good," said Shepard. She nodded to Wrex. "Let's go introduce ourselves to Fist."
The Destiny Ascension was a beautiful ship, Julia thought. The coloring reminded her a little of the Orsala, the religious caste-crewed Minbari War Cruiser she had visited briefly during the Tira crisis. But there was a utilitarian element to the Destiny Ascension's internal design that the religious Minbari lacked, a case of form with function instead of just one or the other that the Asari had worked to perfect in their designs.
Matriarch Lidanya's tour was not over-long. Her ship was much larger than the Aurora, and Julia knew from experience that a day-long tour wouldn't be enough to see everything of potential interest on her ship. The same applied here. Yet the lavender-complexioned Asari, with her face markings of brilliant pinkish-red, clearly had pride in her command. Given her ship was one of the largest and most advanced starships in the Multiverse, this pride was understandable. Indeed, the tour ran long enough that Julia and Meridina would be having another pilot fly their shuttle back while they beamed directly to the Presidium for necessary meetings involving Ambassador Atama.
"I hope you have enjoyed your tour, Captain, Commander," said Lidanya.
"It has been quite the experience, Matriarch," Meridina assured her. "We are grateful for the chance."
"If you have the opportunity, Matriarch, I would love to reciprocate," Julia added.
"I will get back to you on that." There was a warmth in the Asari's voice that made her sound closer to Julia's age, surprising since she was, from Julia's perspective and that of Julia's Earth, old enough that she could have traveled with Christopher Columbus or even Marco Polo. "In these past two years, my people have been blessed by the opportunities your Alliance has given us. Our maidens who once had only a galaxy to explore now range the Multiverse, and alien species we might not have imagined are now visiting Thessia."
"I would like to visit one day myself," said Julia. "Your homeworld has a reputation in the Alliance for beauty."
"We have worked hard to keep Thessia a garden for the benefit of the galaxy." Lidanya led them onto the control bridge, where other Asari officers in uniform were conducting standard operations. "Personally, I would love to visit Gersal and Doreia and Alakis. Or one of your Earths that has not been turned into a planet of mega-cities."
"Ah." Julia nodded. She'd seen images of M4P2 Earth, and how so much of the planet's surface was now marred by megacities to support a massive population not yet dispersing to the colonies. "A diplomatic tour of the Ascension would work wonders for relations, I would think."
"It is an idea," Lidanya agreed. She looked at them carefully. "My people have many varied opinions on matters, Captain, Commander. But for the most part, we always value diplomacy and good relations with other species. It is my personal fear that once the war with the Reich ends, the Allied Systems' relations with the Citadel will start to decline."
"I've worried about the same," Julia admitted.
"It is natural, I suppose," Lidanya lamented. "Your Alliance is too powerful to be admitted as an equal to the Council or to be held strictly to its decisions. Even more than the Terminus Systems or the Batarians, you are a potential threat to the Citadel's system of interstellar law and order. And that might make some people treat you as an actual threat when they shouldn't."
"The Alliance has enough space to expand to in other universes, so there is little prospect of tensions over regions of influence," opined Meridina. "But it would be foolish to overlook the simple fear that can arise from old certainties being swept away. This I can say from harsh experience."
Lidanya nodded. "The attack on your Senate last year. Yes."
"Matriarch, whatever the Council feels about the Alliance, what do your people feel about us?" Julia asked. "The Council was founded in part by the Asari, after all, and it embodies Asari principles of negotiation and collective security. I can see your people being afraid that the Alliance will undermine your creation."
"There are those who agree with the anti-Alliance faction among the Turians," Lidanya said. "But from the debates on the extranet, and the votes, I think it's clear most Asari are willing to give the Allied Systems the benefit of the doubt for right now. You've signed the Treaty of Farixen, after all, and worked with the Council on many issues."
"Hopefully that view will prevail among the Salarians and Turians as well."
After Meridina's remark Julia checked the time on her omnitool. "We'd better get over to the Presidium," she said. "Ambassador Atama is expecting us."
"The transporter room is this way," said Lidanya. "We adapted it from a secondary meeting room on this deck…"
The pair of mercs guarding the entrance to the rear storage areas were ready when Robert, Shepard, and Wrex came. It just didn't do them any good.
The three of them moved like a single mind even without the aid of Robert's ability to connect their minds. Wrex drew their fire and Shepard knocked them down with a biotic shockwave. Robert got both with shots from his pulse pistol before they could get back up.
They approached the door. Robert already sensed what was on the other side. "Don't shoot," he urged as soon as the door opened.
Wrex and Shepard still had their shotguns up, although they heeded his request.
There were armed beings on the other side. But they weren't fighters, not with the terror and fear Robert felt within them. They were the dancers, the waitresses, the workers. All had mass effect sidearms of some kind or another and, he suspected, most had little idea how to point them right. Only a few actually tried.
"Stop! Stop or we'll shoot!"
Robert felt hesitation in Wrex, but just hesitation. He'd pull the trigger soon if the guns didn't go down. It was Shepard who actually lowered her gun slightly. "We're not here to hurt you," she said. "We're here for Fist."
"Mister Fist is our boss, he gave us jobs we needed," a Human man answered. "We're not going to just let you hurt him."
"We're here to get questions answered, not hurt him," Shepard insisted. Robert sensed the skepticism in the others and was certain Shepard knew about it too. "Fist is just using you. He's willing to let you die if he can get away."
For a moment it seemed like one would protest, but he didn't. Robert could sense they were turning it over in their minds. Sure, he'd given some of them jobs, even let them earn extra on the side. But he wasn't out here, was he? He was in his office, putting stuff together to run.
That same consideration was on Robert's mind. They had to act now to catch him. He wondered about pressing his will against their will, mental manipulation as Meridina often did. He'd tried it a few times, even if he disliked the idea of violating minds…
"Listen, there's a firefight going on behind us," Shepard said. "So just stay here and stay down, I don't want any of you getting hurt."
"Wh-why should we trust you?" another asked.
"Because if we wanted to hurt you, you'd be dead already," Wrex remarked.
All eyes turned to the Krogan. Given the flicker of fear Robert felt, there was no doubt about how right he was. A moment later the weapons were all lowered.
"Thank you." With that simple response, Shepard moved through the parting workers. None dared to stop her. They didn't try Wrex either. Robert went through them with no issues, not even a hint of hostility. Relief seemed to be their primary emotion. Relief… and realization that Fist had intended for them to be his human shields.
They found the far door labeled "Office". A quick scan verified the life form within. He nodded to the others, who did a countdown before opening the door. They walked in without problems. Across the way from them was another door, still unopen, leading to rear access ways. To the left was the main office, with a section of wall hiding them for the moment from sight.
Normal sight, anyway.
Within moments all three were ready to turn the corner. Wrex started and immediately pulled back.
The gun turrets opened up a few moments later.
Julia entered Ambassador Atama's office, where Udina and Anderson were already seated at a table near Atama's desk. "Ambassadors. Captain."
"Come in, Captain," said the Dorei man. He gestured to another seat. "I am pleased you have made it. This way the report on our discussion will be more readily provided to the President."
"Oh?" Julia accepted the seat. "What is it?"
"The Geth attack and the prospect of a rogue Spectre directing them has ramifications for our security," Udina replied. "For starters, it is unlikely the Systems Alliance can provide the agreed upon units for your military's push on Earth in the S4W8 universe."
Julia didn't allow a frown to form on her face, but she knew her look was at least pensive. "That's going to require a lot of changes to our plans, I'm sure. While I'm not familiar with the particulars, Admiral Maran's made it clear we'll need every unit we can get if we want to take Earth before the Reich can recover."
"That's understandable, Captain, and we're not making this decision lightly, I assure you," said Udina. "But we have to care for our colonies too."
"There's no telling where Saren will attack next," Anderson said. "Or how. Millions of lives could be lost if the Geth hit a big colony like Elysium. Or even Earth itself…"
"Would the Geth have a fleet large enough to manage such an attack?" Even as Julia asked that question she realized the answer; nobody knew. The Geth were, to everyone else, one big unknown. Even the Quarians only had slight inklings of their capabilities. Given the centuries since the Morning War, the Geth could have built up quite the fleet with the resources of the solar systems beyond the Perseus Veil.
And since they don't require food or atmosphere or any kind of amenity that our ships have, even our most spartan ones… any ships they do have will be enormously capable.
That somber calculation was still in Julia's mind when the tones came over the omnitools of the two Ambassadors. Each excused themselves and walked away.
"I wish I could have been there," Anderson said.
"At Epsilon Indi. Or any of the other battles that supported Maran's main effort," said Anderson. "I heard Sixth Fleet was involved…"
"Yes. At Epsilon Eridani, fighting alongside our Eighth Fleet and the League of Democratic Worlds' Second Fleet. It was one of the larger flank battles, from what Arik - Captain Shaham on the Enterprise - said. Your ships helped them hold the system."
"And now we'll have to pull them out to deal with Saren." Anderson smacked his fist on the table. "Damn. And when we're so close to taking Earth."
Julia had no reply to that, given how right he was. Saren's timing was horrendous, not that he cared she was sure. "He struck me as reflexively anti-Human during his brief visit to the Aurora last year," she noted.
"He despises us," Anderson said. "He's always been upset that the Council stepped in and restrained the Turian military after Shanxi. He thinks we should have been reduced to a protectorate of the Hierarchy."
Julia considered asking about Shanxi, the site of the First Contact War between Humanity and the Turian Hierarchy, but she was prevented by the return of the Ambassadors. "I suppose we each got the same message?" Udina asked Atama.
Atama frowned and nodded. "Yes. This will be quite difficult for our efforts."
Udina looked to her and Anderson. "Captain Dale and Commander Shepard have been identified as part of a firefight currently happening in the Wards, at a bar called Chora's Den. Now we have to run interference with C-Sec until we find out what's going on."
"I'm certain the Commander has good reason for whatever she's doing."
"If she and Robert are both involved, this may be linked to the Saren investigation," Julia pointed out.
"And for their sakes, I hope it is," Udina said. "And I hope they get us the smoking gun we need. Otherwise they may be the ones who end up in a cell instead of Saren."
The turret fire was quickly joined by a barking gun. Robert was able to glance just long enough to see the man huddled at the desk behind cover. He pulled back before one of the turrets opened up again. Sparks flew from where the sand grain-sized rounds, propelled by mass effect fields to deadly velocities, were striking and slowly decaying the material.
"Do you think your abilities can handle the turrets for us?" asked Shepard.
"I can try," he offered. "Give me a moment." When he saw Shepard nod, Robert lowered himself to one knee and concentrated. He reached within himself and felt out for the turrets. He could sense them, bits of metal and ceramics, and worked on getting them to turn.
Using these powers was, as always, reliant on a tricky frame of mind. He had to think of it happening, imagine it, but not force it in his mind. His will, connected to the universe, was causing it, but not so much from active thought and willpower as it was a general sense that this is what is happening. The turrets were twisting. There was no doubt that this is what they should be doing, there could be no doubt, for doubting it was happening meant it would not. The connection required certainty.
The weapons fire changed direction as the turrets turned away from the entranceway to the office. A cry of frustration and surprise came from the desk. Fist was frantically trying to take control of his guns back.
Shepard and Wrex sprung into action. Wrex went for the turrets. His shotgun boomed repeatedly from his shots, each a direct hit on the guns until they broke down from the damage. Shepard, meanwhile, threw a bolt of biotic force that blew Fist into the air and toward them. He let out a curse as he hit the ground. Shepard and Wrex covered him with their firearms immediately. Shepard kicked his gun away from his hand. "Alright, Fist," she said, "start talking."
"I got nothin' to say to you," he insisted.
Robert followed them into the office. It was furnished, certainly, but dark and very impersonal. "Where's the Quarian?" he asked. "The one you're betraying to Saren?"
"I pay good protection," the man protested. "When C-Sec gets here…"
"When C-Sec gets here, they'll find a fellow officer pinned down and under fire," Sheppard finished for him. "So I wouldn't count on whoever you've been bribing to help. Especially when everyone's finding out you turned on the Shadow Broker."
"Let me kill him," said Wrex. "He's not going to cooperate anyway."
Fist's face went white. Robert sensed his terror and said, "Cooperate and you live."
For a moment Fist was weighing his options. Robert sensed the calculation of whether or not he could evade any reprisal by Saren, the need to run, losing everything he'd built in his years on the Citadel, versus the certainty of the very big shotgun in Wrex's hands. Finally he sighed. "She wanted a personal meeting with the Shadow Broker."
"That doesn't happen," Wrex said. "The Broker doesn't do personal meetings."
"She doesn't know that. I told her I'd set it up. But Saren's men will be the ones she runs into." Fist activated his omnitool and tapped several keys. "Here. These are the coordinates. The meet's going down in a few minutes."
Robert and Shepard received the coordinates from Fist through their omnitools. "That's not far from here," Shepard said. "It's the back alley connecting to the lift to the Presidium. If we hurry we can make it."
"Is he telling the truth?" asked Wrex.
Robert nodded. "He is. I can sense it."
The moment Wrex said that word Robert sensed his intent and cursed himself for not paying more attention to the Krogan. He raised a hand toward Wrex to intervene, but before he could act Wrex's shotgun thundered. Fist's head exploded in a mess of blood and gray matter that splattered the back wall.
Robert's other hand shot up. His pulse pistol now pointed at Wrex's head. Wrex, in turn, swiveled toward him with his shotgun ready. "I told you I'd kill him," said the Krogan.
"That was unnecessary!" Robert shouted. "You didn't have to!"
"The galaxy's a better place without him." Wrex's red eyes met Robert's without flinching. "I fulfill my contracts, Human."
"You didn't on Tira," Robert retorted.
"The Shadow Broker didn't ask me to stand back and watch infants being murdered. He's not that stupid."
"Both of you, stand down!" Shepard shouted, standing between them. It was her eyes, blazing emeralds that seemed to come straight from Robert's visions, that now locked on his own. "Captain, we don't have time for this. That Quarian's going to get killed if we don't move."
There was no arguing the point. Robert knew she was right. He lowered his weapon, but the frown didn't leave his face. "Right," he agreed. "I'm following your lead, Commander."
"Still with you, Commander," Wrex said. "I'm seeing this through to the end."
Shepard led them out of the office and back to the bar. The sound of gunfire had them ready for a fight. This proved premature when it ended just as they emerged. Lucy's lightsaber buzzed in the air from where she was holding it on a merc clutching the stump of his lost arm with his surviving hand. Nearby Garrus and Kaidan were standing from cover. "How did it go?" Kaidan asked.
"The Quarian's in danger," said Shepard. "We've got to keep going."
"Go on ahead, all of you," said Garrus. "C-Sec should be here soon. I'll handle them."
He was answered with a nod. The five ran on into the Ward.
The sight of the Citadel's great wards dominated the dock terminal window. The officers of the Koenig command crew stared out at the sight, the glistening jewels of lights from the high rise structures of the Wards and the large ships. The Aurora was plainly visible, as was the Destiny Ascension, both representing differing, but elegant, starship aesthetics. Will marveled at the difference from the more utilitarian designs of the Colonies of Kobol.
"I'm glad we got to visit this time," said Apley. "It's quite a sight."
"Yeah." Magda leaned against the railing. Beyond was open space between the deck and the window, with more docking terminals below. The edge of a Turian transport docked to the Citadel was visible just outside and below them. "A good way to make up for the leave time we lost. I can't believe we missed the parade this year."
"I wish I could have seen it," said Will. The Koenig had been detached from the Aurora the night before the New Liberty Colony's 5th Anniversary Parade, her presence needed with the allied fleet in the attack on the Reich colony Gottschee-of-the-Stars, a preliminary to Maran's main attack at Epsilon Indi and the various supporting actions.
"They were using a Koenig float this year," remarked Lt. Karen Derbely, the Chief Engineer. "And we didn't even get to sit on it. So unfair."
"Well, there's always next year," Apley pointed out.
Will nodded. He wondered if he would even be on the Koenig the following year. If Commander Carrey ever returned to active duty, Admiral Maran would probably be predisposed to returning him to his command. And Will, honestly, could not fault him for wanting to be back, as much as he enjoyed the honor of sitting in Carrey's chair.
"Gottschee was quite a fight," Apley said. He looked to Will. "And for your first in command, pretty epic."
"Yes it was," Will agreed. "I thank the Lords we came through it okay. What would they have said about me if the Koenig was lost in my first combat mission as her CO?" He smiled thinly. "'Over-his-head Colonial officer gets original Facility ship destroyed in first battle'."
"There wasn't a chance of that, Will," Magda insisted. "I know Zack left big shoes to fill, but he was a rookie starting out too."
"Actually, as blasphemous as it is to say it, you're better than he was starting out," Apley remarked.
"True," Sherlily added.
"Blasphemy!" Magda shrieked playfully. "I can't believe you're saying that!" Even as she spoke, Will's cheeks turned red.
"Sad but true," Derbely agreed. "Of course, you Facility types don't want to hear it, but you were pretty rough starting out. Why else do you think Command assigned us to the Koenig?"
Magda glowered toward her, still playful in her look… but perhaps not quite as much as before. "Hopefully I'll improve just as Commander Carrey did," Will said, recognizing that some old delicate feelings were being prodded. "Whatever his skills starting out, he's become a legend in the attacker community for a reason."
"Well, unless you're one of the really hardass types," Sherlily noted. "Some of them still see him as an amateur. You hear instead about Imra on the Heermann, Tasker on the Upholder…"
"To hell with those elitist jerks," grumbled Derbely. "We can outfly them all!"
"That we can," Will agreed, smiling, and thankful yet again for the opportunity this command provided him. He thought briefly on what might come in his future, if there would be other commands, bigger ones. If he might one day command a Battlestar or an equivalent in the Alliance fleet.
One day, perhaps. But for now, he was commanding the Koenig, and that was more than enough for him.
The five ran as quickly as they could through the dim halls of the internal sections of the Ward. The light around them turned red as they approached the back alley Fist had identified. Robert sensed the life forms ahead. Fist hadn't betrayed them. It made Urdnot Wrex's execution of the man all the more galling.
But that was for later concerns. Right now, they had to save the Quarian. Robert recognized the style of environmental suit as he and Shepard finished ascending a walkway, giving them a direct view of several figures in combat suits watching the Quarian. One approached her.
"Where's the Shadow Broker?" the Quarian asked, her voice possessing an electronic timbre from her suit. Despite said timbre, or perhaps because of it, Robert found he recognized the voice.
"Where's the data?" asked the assassin.
Before the Quarian could reply, Robert called out to her by the name he remembered. "Tali'Zorah, look out! It's a trap!" It was an instinctive reaction, a need to warn her before Saren's men could get closer to her.
Of course, this led to guns being pulled. Lucy and Shepard leveled looks of some irritation at Robert.
It was the only reaction they had time to give before the blast filled the alley.
The origin of the blast was, surprisingly enough, from Tali herself. Her arm came up and an object left it, after which she ran for cover behind crates left in the alleyway. The explosive that went off didn't actually harm any of her would-be killers, but it contribute to the general chaos of the moment.
With the force within him guiding his aim, Robert's pistol came up and tracked the Turian closest to Tali. He fired off a shot, a bright blue spark of light that hit the Turian in the shoulder. Return fire from the others forced him to duck behind cover.
There was a surge of energy around them. A warped sense in the air… Robert felt it and knew it was biotic power being unleashed. Shepard's, to be precise. Wreathed in the purplish blue light of dark matter, Shepard shot forward and slammed into another of the mercs. Her shotgun swept over and blasted through the large helmet of a Salarian shooter. She slipped back into cover under the protective fire of Wrex and Kaidan, firing from cover themselves. Robert contributed with an aimed shot that grazed the leg of a Human assailant. This stopped said attacker long enough for Tali, wielding a Predator pistol, to squeeze off her own shot that brought him down.
At this point, only ten or so seconds of firefight had been waged, and the two sides were mismatched; despite their losses so far the mercs were pressing ahead with numbers. Grenades would be used, Robert sensed; they were devoted to fulfilling Saren's orders of killing Tali.
Unfortunately for them, those ten seconds had been more than enough time for Lucy to get into position.
She'd jumped over head to a catwalk along the upper reaches of the alley, allowing her to move further in while the gun battle kept the mercs' attention. Now she landed among them with a wave of power that knocked several of them over. Her lightsaber flashed to life, snap-hiss, a sapphire blur in the air. A limb flew and a scream from another Salarian filled the alley. Lucy turned, deflected a shot from another merc, and sent a wave of force into that shooter that sent him and a second one flying into the alley wall.
Lucy's arrival in their midst completely disrupted the mercs' attention. Alone, she had a chance of beating them before being overwhelmed. But she wasn't alone, and more than that, she had Shepard's help. Even without the same gifts Robert and Lucy shared, Shepard understood Lucy's tactic completely. She threw out a blast wave of biotic power that sent another pair of mercs flying, exploiting the distraction Lucy's maneuver created. Her shotgun barked once, twice, and both mercs were down.
Wrex charged in, shotgun blasting away, as if any return fire mattered nothing to him. Which, given the robust nature of Krogan physiology and Wrex's defenses, was inherently justifiable.
Given the nature of the battle Robert felt free to disengage. He went to Tali and knelt beside her. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, I am alright," she said in accented English. The twin points of light in her face mask seemed to focus on Robert. "Wait, I know you. You are the Captain of the Aurora."
"Former Captain," Robert corrected. "So… you're the Quarian we're looking for? You've got the evidence about Saren and the Geth?"
"I do," she confirmed. "Saren's agents have been trying to kill me for days over it."
"Well, we can protect you," he promised. The growing silence around them seemed sufficient proof off that. Shepard approached. "They're all down?"
"Every one of them." Shepard nodded at Tali. "I thought I recognized you. It's good to see you're alright. Do you still have the evidence?"
"I do. It's a recording I retrieved from a Geth scout."
"We'd better get this to Udina and Atama." Robert stood up. The fight was over; most of the mercs were dead or incapacitated. Lucy and Wrex were disarming the survivors while Kaidan approached them. "Are you okay with joining us at the Embassies?"
"They don't allow Quarians there, normally," Tali said. "I tried to approach, but they kept me out and threatened to call C-Sec."
Robert and Shepard exchanged frowns. All of this effort might have been avoided if not for the casual anti-Quarian bigotry of the Citadel. "They'll make an exception this time," Shepard promised. "You're with us now."
Meridina, Julia, and Captain Anderson were waiting with the ambassadors at Udina's office when Robert and the others arrived. "This had better be good," Udina growled. "Three shootouts in the Wards, all attributable to you two. The Council will have our balls in a sling if you don't have something to show for it."
Shepard nodded to Tali, who activated her omnitool. "I recovered this audio-file from a Geth memory core I found on the Galactic Rim." She hit a key and allowed audio to play.
"Finding the beacon on Eden Prime was a major victory," the recording began.
"That's Saren's voice!" Anderson proclaimed, prompting Tali to briefly pause the playback.
"There's more," Tali said. When she had silence, she resumed playing the file.
"The Systems Alliance defenders will never expect something like the Geth. And the loss of the beacon will be humiliating to them. It will buy us time to put together the other pieces we need to find the Conduit."
"And the ruins on Adrana?" The speaker sounded female. Robert thought he'd heard the voice before, and he sensed the same sentiment from Julia and Meridina. "We went to great lengths to discover the extent of the Dorei defenses."
"I am aware of your efforts, and I applaud them. The ruins on Adrana must be dealt with, yes. Any fragment of data left by the ancient Adranians might help our enemies. By attacking both worlds at once, we can ensure their reaction is divided and uncertain. And the attack on the Reich Fleet in S4W8 will provide the perfect opportunity." Saren went silent for a moment. "Finally, after all of these years, everything is falling into place. With the information in the beacon we will be able to find the Conduit."
"And with it, ensure the return of the Reapers."
Meridina visibly started at the term, and it did not go unnoticed. Udina barely seemed to notice, however, as he was more interested in the recording. "It is authentic? Saren will not be able to claim it a forgery?"
"The data is unmistakably Geth," Tali insisted. "Any analysis will show the data couldn't be faked."
"I'm quite sure the Council will put that to the test," Udina remarked. "But we'll make use of it regardless."
"What do they mean by Reapers?" asked Kaidan.
"Nothing," said Udina. "Perhaps a ruse of some sort for Saren to keep his control over them. Commander, Captain, thank you for retrieving this information. The Council will have to disavow Saren now, no matter what his original orders were. I'm going to present this evidence to the Council immediately. Ambassador Atama, as the evidence proves Saren plotted the attack on Adrana, would you like to join me?"
"I would," answered the Dorei. "This matter must be dealt with." He looked to Robert. "I will call when you are needed."
"I'll be waiting," he answered.
After the two diplomats left, Shepard looked at Meridina. "Meridina, that recording, what made you react to it?"
With all attention on her, Meridina answered. "I made contact with the intelligence inside the Adranian computers. The last surviving echo off that long-dead species has little in the way of memories, and almost all are of the extinction of her people. I saw the images of that terrible slaughter and the enemies that committed them."
"Going by the recording, Saren doesn't want us to learn anything about what happened," Robert noted.
"You say you saw visions of the Adranians being attacked." Shepard directed her attention at Meridina. "The beacon on Eden Prime showed me something like that. And Saren tried to destroy it by blowing up the colony after he left."
"You were given visions as well?"
"Images. But I can't make sense of them."
Meridina nodded. "I can link our minds together, Commander, if you are willing. There may be a deeper connection."
Shepard drew in a breath and nodded. "Alright. Whenever you're ready."
"Bring the visions to the surface of your thoughts. This will only take a moment…" Meridina stepped up to Shepard and focused her mind. She felt Shepard's thoughts. A resistance that was instinctive, but which gave way much as skin before a probing needle. Shepard's thoughts were ordered, disciplined. The thoughts of a tried soldier.
And then the images began. The Prothean beacon's imagery was not complete, perhaps due to Shepard's brain not having the means to understand their alien thoughts or languages. But nevertheless the images came, one by one, showing the killing, the slaughter. The machines showed no mercy, ripping and tearing the flesh of their enemies. Leaving butchered victims that numbered in the thousands… millions.
Meridina ended the connection. Shepard blinked and rubbed at her head. "Well?" she asked.
"There are similarities, yes," said Meridina. "I cannot be completely sure, but if I am correct, the Adranians and the Protheans encountered the same force of destruction. The aliens that the Adranians knew as Reapers."
"So the same force wiped out two species two hundred thousand years apart?" Robert asked.
"I believe so."
"That doesn't sound good," said Alenko. "What could this force be?"
"I don't know," Meridina admitted.
"But it's clear Saren is interested in them." Shepard shook her head. "For whatever reason. And whatever he's up to, it's a danger to all of us."
"Yes it is," Robert agreed. He felt a deep sense of foreboding at the subject. Not just foreboding… warning. Focusing on his powers didn't alleviate it either. If anything… it made those feelings worse.
He thought back to that sense he'd gotten, that feel of a constant stain of death in the Flow of Life.
"We should get to the Citadel Tower," said Julia, noticing Robert's look. "Udina and Atama may need us."
After their trip to Tayneri Ward, Cat, Vee, and Tra'dur returned to the Presidium. Cat took Violeta off to see if they could say hello to someone called the Consort, leaving Tra'dur to meet with Chorban. The Salarian slipped up beside her while Tra'dur was looking at the Krogan Memorial. "You've finished?" he asked.
"We have." Tra'dur tapped at her new, Stellar Navy-issued omnitool. This transferred the scans to Chorban. It was a complete transfer, leaving nothing on her system. She couldn't risk C-Sec finding the data and causing her, and her new crew, trouble. "What do you hope to accomplish?"
"By understanding the Keepers, we might be able to understand more about the Protheans. About what kind of society they had. Why they left the Keepers as they are. It may even tell us more about the Keepers themselves." The Salarian's eyes blinked in a way that seemed to reinforce his species' amphibian origins. "This kind of study work is centuries overdue. But there is always concern because the Keepers destroy themselves if analyzed too closely, so if we learned too much, all the Keepers might shut down. And without the Keepers, the Citadel might not function anywhere as well as it does. Another mystery about them that needs to be solved, and one I intend to solve. Your contribution will be noted, in name if you want."
Tra'dur leveled a look at him. "Why would I not want credit due to me?"
"It may make further trips to the Citadel difficult if our work with the Keepers is considered dangerous."
It was a reasonable point. That it conflicted with Tra'dur's burning desire to be published in the Multiverse, to be seen as a scientist, was beside the point. "I desire my due share of credit," she insisted.
"I'll note your contribution then, Lieutenant Tra'dur." Chorban noted something on his omnitool. "I took a few minutes to research your species."
"Oh?" Tra'dur wondered where he was going with this.
"I won't hold it against you, being a Dilgar. You clearly have evolved socially away from the behaviors you evinced in the wars against other species. And honestly, the Multiverse can use more non-Humans. Not that I am as suspicious of Humans as others of my species are. I simply want to avoid their numbers swamping us in the end."
"It is a reasonable worry," Tra'dur granted him. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Cat and Violeta approaching. "My friends are returning, so if you have nothing else to ask?"
"No. Good luck with your work, Lieutenant. Goodbye."
Tra'dur watched him walk away quietly. "So, was that…?" Cat's voice prompted her to turn and face the young science officer.
"Yes," she answered simply. She looked back up at the Krogan Memorial. "It is… strange to be here. To learn so much."
"In what way?" asked Violeta.
"I remember meeting those two Krogan on Tira, Wrex and Drack. I wasn't sure we could trust them at first, not until they proved themselves in the fight for the gate controls. If only I had known about their species' history, I might have known better." A dark look came to her face. When Cat and Violeta had no response to it, said look dissipated. A small smile settled. "I really must thank you for bringing me with you. This is an amazing place, truly."
To that Caterina nodded in agreement. "I'm glad you enjoyed it," she said.
"And there is still so much to learn about it. These Keepers, for instance. They run all of the critical systems, it seems, and with little regard for the rest of us. But why are they so secretive? Why do they not communicate? Are they truly mindless?" Tra'dur sighed a little. "Now I wish I had insisted Chorban let me keep the scan data. The chance to figure out what we're looking at with them…"
She let the sentence trail off at the look of bemusement on Cat's face. Cat quietly activated her omnitool and displayed a list of files. Scan results, to be precise. "I won't tell if you won't," she said, much to Violeta's amusement.
Tra'dur nodded. "You have my complete confidence, Caterina'Delgado," she answered.
Robert and the others stood toward the rear of the audience platform with Ambassador Atama, allowing Udina and Shepard to be the ones directly addressing the Council. There was clear aggravation on Sparatus' face as the evidence was shared and, more importantly, as their own experts verified the authenticity of the recording. "There you have it," said Udina, his voice betraying none of the feeling of smug satisfaction Robert sensed in him. "The proof you need."
"The evidence is clear," Tevos agreed. "Saren has betrayed us. He is responsible for the attacks and is conspiring against the Council."
"We are revoking his Spectre status and issuing an order for his arrest or destruction," Sparatus confirmed.
"And not just Saren." Robert stepped up to join Udina and Shepard. "The other voice on the recording, I recognize it."
"So do I." Robert could sense Tevos' bewilderment. "Matriarch Benezia. A powerful, respected leader among my people, with many followers. I don't know why she would throw in with Saren, but she's a formidable ally for him."
"I wonder about their mention of the Reapers, and the Conduit Saren speaks of," said Valern. "What is Saren's plan here? He is not one to embark on an operation without a clear idea of what he can accomplish."
"The recording speaks for itself," Shepard said. "He's looking to bring them back."
"Why, though?" Tevos asked.
"The Reapers are a race of machines that destroyed the Protheans fifty thousand years ago. And the Adranians two hundred thousand years before that," Shepard answered. "There's no telling how much power Saren might wield if he finds a way to activate them, or use their technology."
"Preposterous," Sparatus declared. "You seriously expect me to believe Saren is going to willingly bring back a race that has wiped out galactic civilization at least twice? What's in it for him? How could he expect to survive?"
Robert felt a voice in his head, in his memories. "We must serve if we are to survive." "Maybe he thinks he's saving the galaxy by helping them," he said. "If he thinks they're coming back anyway, by helping them he hopes to gain their favor."
"I wouldn't put too much stock in Saren's claims," Valern said. "The Reapers are a myth, a discredited theory on the fate of the Protheans. For Saren they're a means to control the Geth for whatever his true purpose is."
"No. They're real," Shepard insisted. "The beacon the Protheans left behind showed them, what they did."
"The Adranian computer intelligence we found also remembered the extermination of their species by machines," Robert added.
"An intelligence that your own reports indicate was incomplete and half-mad because of it," Sparatus retorted. "And we have no way of knowing what the Prothean beacon was made to show us. It might have been an entertainment fiction the Protheans left behind for all we know, much like your species' own apocalypse fantasies."
"Are you willing to risk being wrong?" Shepard asked. "We're talking about a threat to civilization, not just a single rogue Spectre. If Saren actually finds a way to bring the Reapers back, our entire galaxy, even the Multiverse itself, could be destroyed."
"Or he may be planning to use their technology for his own benefit," Meridina offered, sensing that Shepard's argument was not swaying them.
"Whatever Saren's purpose, his threat will be easily neutralized," Sparatus said. "He's been stripped of his Spectre status. He's a wanted man in Citadel space, deprived of all of his legitimate channels of supply, and on the run."
"That's not good enough!" Udina insisted. "You know he's hiding in the Traverse. Send in your fleet!"
"A fleet isn't the right tool to find one man," Tevos said.
"No, but it will keep the Geth from attacking any more of our colonies!"
"Sending a fleet into the Traverse could spark full-scale interstellar war with the Terminus Systems," Valern retorted. "With the war against the Reich drawing away portions of our fleets, we cannot afford to provoke the Terminus states into launching another one."
Udina looked ready to protest. Atama stepped up and shook his head. "They have a point, Ambassador," he remarked. "And while the Allied Systems would also welcome increased Citadel fleet presence to assist against the Geth, we recognize it as a political impossibility in the current environment."
"And are you willing to let Saren's Geth kill more of your people, Ambassador Atama?" Udina asked harshly. "Because that is what is going to happen, Reapers or no Reapers."
"Send me in."
All eyes turned to Shepard.
"I can take down Saren," Shepard explained. "I'm an N7 of the Systems Alliance Marines, Saren is the kind of threat I've been training my entire career to face. Give me the support and resources of the Council and I can hunt him down in the Traverse without causing a war."
"I know what you're aiming for, Shepard, and it's too early!" There was an urgency in Sparatus' voice. "Your species isn't ready!"
"It is an elegant solution," Tevos pointed out.
"Exactly. It gets the Ambassador his Human Spectre and lets the Council show it's taking charge in dealing with Saren without causing a war," Shepard said.
"Indeed." Valern nodded. "I call for a vote."
Sparatus glared at his colleagues, but there was no dissuading Valern and Telos. Wordlessly she tapped at her control board, after which the others did as well. "Commander Shepard, please step forward."
For a moment Shepard turned to Anderson, her commander, her mentor. A very slight smile formed on the older man's face as he nodded at her. Shepard stepped forward, Udina moving away to give her space. And as she did so, Robert sensed the energy in the chamber. More and more people were coming over to observe the proceedings, called over by the initial observers as it was realized what the Council was debating doing… what it was about to do.
"Commander Jennifer Shepard, it is the decision of the Council that you be invested with the powers and responsibilities of the Spectres," Councillor Tevos declared.
The crowd was now watching with rapt attention.
"Spectres are not trained, they are chosen…"
As Valern and the other Councillors expounded upon what being a Spectre meant, and what they represented to the galaxy, Robert and the others watched quietly. This was history in the making, every bit as important as the history they had already made themselves. Commander Shepard would be the first of M4P2 Humanity to stand as a defender of the Citadel and the interstellar peace it embodied. Given how brief her branch of Humanity's time in space was, it was a meteoric rise. There was danger in it, the danger of other races concerned with what it meant for Humanity's increase in influence, coupled as it was with the knowledge that Humanity was indeed the most common species of the Multiverse. Shepard would face scrutiny beyond what any Spectre had ever known before. Her decisions would be argued, debated, and used against her, and many would be eagerly awaiting the first inkling of unworthiness for her position.
As far as Robert was concerned, they would wait in vain. He'd had the opportunity to work with Shepard and to fight at her side. He knew full well that her training of his crew, and her leadership and skill in the Facility at Gamma Piratus, had been crucial to defeating the SS there. As far as he was concerned, this was long overdue.
When the Council was finished and adjourned, everyone gathered to congratulate the newest Spectre. "I'm proud of you," Anderson assured her.
"Thank you sir."
"Anderson." Udina gestured away from the platform. "We have matters to discuss. The Commander's mission, in particular."
"Of course. Captain, everyone…"
After they stepped away, with Atama as well, Julia beat Robert in extending her hand, which Shepard took. "You'll do great," Julia said.
"Thank you for the vote of confidence."
"I wonder what they'll do for assigning you a ship," Robert wondered aloud. "I chose the Aurora as my base of operations, but I'm still waiting for the personal ship when I'm on missions away from her."
"We'll need something to chase Saren." The remark was from Sergeant Williams. She and Kaidan saluted to Shepard. "And congratulations, ma'am. Please tell me you're bringing me along. I want to make sure my comrades in the 2-1-2 are heard from when we take that son of a bitch down."
"You'll be there, Williams. And you, Alenko. I'm just not sure where yet."
"Udina's arranging something, I'm sure," Robert said. "In the meantime, I have a report to file with Maran. Let me know what you find out?"
"Of course," Shepard answered.
Robert and Julia sat quietly in her ready office until the signal came from the bridge. With a press of a key Admiral Maran appeared on the display of her office comp. "Captains, I've gone over your report on the situation." Maran's expression was somber. "My congratulations on your success in proving Saren's duplicity. Even without Council support he is a severe threat. If he still had that support as a Spectre, moving against him would have precipitated a political crisis between the Alliance and the Citadel Council."
"Will you be sending me to go after him?" Robert asked.
"That was our thought. Actually, given the situation, President Morgan wants the Aurora herself participating in the hunt for Saren."
"We're high profile," Julia noted. "It'll be hard to go unnoticed."
"Agreed. Which is why you will be cooperating with Commander Shepard. I've already spoken to Admiral Hackett on the matter."
"So she's getting a ship?" Robert asked.
"That's being arranged right now. I leave it to you to decide on the best way to cooperate on the matter of finding Saren and stopping whatever he's planning."
"We'll need leads," Julia said. "Even counting for everything being on the relay network, the Traverse is an enormous section of space. There are literally hundreds of planets, moons, or stations that he could be hiding on."
"You don't know the half of it, Captain," Maran said. "General Hatcher's report on Saren Arterius has been eye-opening. With his Spectre status to back him, Saren has amassed a literal fortune to finance his operations. He owns, in way or another, several corporations, including Binary Helix, a research corporation chartered on Noveria."
"Noveria? I've heard of that world." Robert frowned. "There are a lot of reports of unethical experimentation by the corporations there."
"Yes. It is going to take some time to see into Binary Helix's operations there. Among other reports of holdings belonging to Saren, safehouses and redoubts… Intelligence is devoting as many resources as it can manage to the effort, but it may take time to get you information you can use. And we know that Matriarch Benezia has a daughter, named Liara T'Soni, who is a xenoarchaeologist who specializes in the Protheans. There may be a link there as well."
"We'll look into it," Robert said. "Anything else, sir?"
"Not at the moment. Good hunting, Captains. I'm leaving this investigation with you two." Maran reached forward and tapped a control, disappearing from their screen.
"Well, it looks like you're getting thrown in the deep end for your first official mission as a Paladin," Julia remarked. She grinned slightly. "It's only fair, given what my first mission was like."
"At least diplomacy was a possibility for you," Robert retorted. He was grinning regardless. "We should have Jarod get Conference Room 1 ready, I guess. I'll invite Shepard and her team over." He was answered with a nod.
The command crews of the Koenig and Aurora took up some of the seats in the Conference room. Several more were taken up by Commander Shepard and her current team. Sergeant Williams and Lieutenant Alenko had been expected; that they were joined by Wrex, Garrus, and Tali was less-expected. Three more officers joined Shepard: Lieutenant Pressley, Navigator on the Normandy, the Normandy's medical officer Doctor Chakwas, and Engineer Adams.
"I've been given command of the Normandy for this mission," Shepard explained. "Udina intervened with Admiral Hackett directly, and he agreed."
"Congratulations," Julia said. "Welcome to the club."
Shepard smiled slightly at that, but the look on her face wasn't amused. "It feels wrong," she confessed. "This was supposed to be Captain Anderson's ship. Now they're assigning him to Udina until another command is opened up."
"You will do him proud, I think," Meridina offered, feeling Shepard's mixed feelings, specifically her pain and the sense she had helped betray her mentor. "Do not doubt that."
Shepard nodded once in gratitude.
"So… where do we begin?" Tali asked. "We're supposed to find Saren, but it's such a big galaxy."
"We've been given some intel on Saren's movements and Geth sightings," Pressley offered. He gave an uncomfortable look toward Tali. Robert sensed he was not happy with her presence, nor those of the other aliens in Shepard's team. "I'll have courses ready for us as soon as we figure out which targets we're going for."
"There's also Matriarch Benezia's daughter, Doctor T'Soni," Shepard pointed out. "I hear she's an expert on the Protheans. If Saren's after more beacons, she may be helping him, intentionally or otherwise."
"Or she may be a target," Garrus pointed out. "Either way, I think finding Doctor T'Soni should be our priority."
"We're still waiting to hear from her academic contacts on possible sites she's working on," Jarod reported. With a tap of a key he brought up known dig sites. Many were on the fringe of the galaxy. And some were dangerously close to either Terminus space, or the Batarian-controlled clusters. "It's a lot of space to cover."
"Since so much of it is close to Batarian space, we might need power more than stealth," Julia said. "We can direct our efforts into finding Doctor T'Soni. And the Aurora has the scientific equipment to examine any Prothean finds she may have uncovered."
"Then we'll focus on the Geth sightings," Shepard said. "And I already have a list of Saren's known supply dumps in the Traverse, we'll hit those while we're out there."
"And what if we run into more Geth ships than we can handle?" Ashley asked.
Robert turned his head toward Julia. "Why don't we have the Koenig on patrol with us?" he asked. "Have Za-" He caught himself. "...have Atreiad move back and forth between the Aurora and Normandy to support whichever ship needs it."
"A good idea," Julia agreed. "Consider it done."
"We'll be ready to launch whenever you give the order," said Will.
"Are there any other matters to consider?"
For a moment nobody replied to Shepard, since the matter seemed to be decided. Meridina was the first to notice Robert was deep in thought. "Captain Dale?" she asked.
"Just having a thought," he said. Seeing attention his way, he directed his eyes toward Shepard. "I was thinking that to make sure we keep in communication on the investigation, having someone on the Normandy who can access Alliance communications and intelligence is going to be vital. So if it's okay with you, Shepard, I'd like to join you on the Normandy."
Those on the Aurora crew looked toward him with surprise.
Shepard, for her part, nodded. "We'll be glad to have you. Report to Dock 33 and I'll have you assigned a bunk and work space."
"I'll get my things as soon as we finish." Robert glanced toward Julia. "Is there anything else?"
"No," she answered, her tone reserved, very reserved. With a look that was both thoughtful and, he thought, more than a little hurt, she nodded. "We're done here. Everyone, you're dismissed. I want all crew recalled from liberty and the ship ready for departure within the hour."
The orders given, everyone departed the conference room.
Robert felt Julia's approach nearly a minute before she was pressing the door chime on his quarters. He looked up from the duffel bag full of belongings he was bringing with him and said, "Come in."
She walked into the door and faced him. "You never said you were planning this," she remarked, almost accusingly. "That you intended to go with Shepard."
"I wasn't sure I was going to do it, not until the meeting," Robert confided. "I…" He looked at her stony expression and sighed. "I guess I didn't want to leave."
"Did you? Or is this because you're having trouble fitting back in with the Aurora?"
There was a subtle accusation in the voice, and some pain. Robert closed his eyes and lowered his head for a minute. "You know, the whole time I was in Umintamil, I kept trying to think of ways I could come back to the Aurora. The only reason I didn't try when I finally left was because I hadn't figured out how I could justify living on the ship. Now… now I realized how short-sighted and selfish I was."
"It wasn't selfish," Julia chided him. "You missed us. It's why I can't understand why you want to leave again…"
"It was short-sighted to not think about how it might affect you, Julie," Robert pointed out. "To have me around, trying to get involved in things… I mean, that was always going to cause problems unless I did it right. And I haven't been. I should be following your lead, not trying to take it."
"As much as you hate to admit it, Rob, you find it pretty easy to take charge sometimes," Julia reminded him. "So it was no surprise you did it here."
"But I shouldn't have. And that's where I made my mistake."
"And this is what… apology for it? You messed up your big return so you're just going to leave again?" There was a raw hurt in Julia's voice that surprised her, a pain in her heart that she hadn't expected. "Did you ever think that whatever the problems we've had getting you fitted in here, this is where you belong? With us? With the people you love?" She took his hand and looked deeply into his green eyes. "With me, Robby?"
He responded with a smile and the shake of his head. "I don't doubt I belong here. I… maybe I'm just overthinking it. And this isn't a goodbye, Julie. This is just me doing what we have to in order to stop Saren. I… I can sense that I need to be working with Shepard on this one. Just for this mission. I'm not trying to avoid the problems of moving in. As soon as we've dealt with Saren, I'm coming back to the Aurora. This ship is my home, and I don't want to be gone long."
The passion and heat in his voice did its magic. Julia didn't doubt his intention. "Promise me you're coming back?"
He grinned and nodded. "I'm coming back."
And with that, they hugged.
The Aurora beamed him back to the Citadel. Lifts brought him to the dock in question, not far from the C-Sec office where he and Lucy met Wrex. The Normandy was waiting in her berth, held to it by circular magnetic clamps attached to what looked like wings or nacelles.
The Normandy was small, in the same size category as the Koenig, shaped almost like a 20th Century passenger jet aircraft with her long body and stabilizer fins. She looked like she was atmospheric, in fact. White was the primary hull color, with black along the side of the body and wings and thinners strip of red. The designation SR-1 on the wing was joined with the name written in white on the main black strip: NORMANDY in block letters.
Anderson and Shepard were waiting for him, Anderson in his formal uniform and Shepard in the blue duty uniform of the Systems Alliance. Robert had opted to stay out of uniform this time; he was in his blue-colored Gersallian armor and a set of brown Gersallian field robes. "Captain, Commander." He walked up to them. "Seeing us off?"
"Yes." Anderson nodded. "She's got a good crew, Shepard. They'll treat you well."
"I'm sorry it had to be this way."
"Don't be. This is your mission, your time, not mine," Anderson insisted. "I don't have any regrets."
"They'll find you another ship, right?" Robert asked.
"In time, perhaps. But the truth is…" Anderson shook his head. "The damn truth is, I've been doing this for too long. Normandy was probably going to be my final command as it was, and I'd either make admiral or find myself ashore. Well, the former isn't so likely now. But don't mind that." He faced Shepard again. "This is the mission you were born for, Commander. Go out there and make us proud."
"Yes sir," Shepard said. Her voice wavered slightly from emotion. Anderson was passing her the torch, and she recognized how much that meant.
He stepped away at that point, leaving Shepard with Robert. "Ready?" he asked.
Despite her feelings, there was no hesitation in her voice. "Yes."
"Permission to come aboard, Commander?"
"Granted." Shepard smiled and nodded. "Follow me."
They stepped into the Normandy through the dock. They had to wait for a decontamination system to run its course before the airlock green-lit their entry. The ship's operating VI acknowledged their arrival. "Commander Shepard is aboard. XO Pressly is relieved."
"You've never had to put up with that," Shepard remarked. "This way." She turned to her left, leading Robert into what was more of a cockpit than a control bridge. Alenko was seated in a side station beside the central one, where another figure was. Said occupant turned, revealing a Caucasian Human with a beard, in Systems Alliance duty blue with a baseball cap reading "SR-1". "Captain Robert Dale, this is Flight Lieutenant Jeff Moreau, one of the best pilots in the Systems Alliance. We all call him Joker."
"Joker, then?" Robert nodded and offered a hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"I'll pass on the handshake," Joker said. "I've got Vrolik's Syndrome, brittle bone disease. I'd rather not have the broken hand. Had that happen from a handshake once and let me tell you, it's no fun at all."
Robert answered with a single nod and a reply. "I'd say not."
With the introduction finished, Shepard got down to business. "Joker, it's time to go. Get our final launch clearance."
"Aye Commander." Joker turned in his seat and began the procedure.
"All stations reporting in," said Alenko. "Everything is good to go."
"And the team?"
"Aboard and assigned to bunks." Alenko eyed Robert. "They don't use the same sleeping bunks in your Alliance, do they?"
"Not on the ships I've worked on," Robert admitted. "But I know what you're talking about. I'll be fine. Not much different from the sleeping bags when my Grandpa Robert and Uncle Jim would take us camping in the White Mountains."
"I thought you were from Kansas?" asked Shepard.
"Yeah, but my Mom's family is from Massachusetts," Robert replied. "We visited in the summer while I was growing up."
"We have final launch clearance," Joker said. "Ready to go."
"Take us out," Shepard ordered. "We're heading to the Traverse. We'll start our search in the Hades Gamma Cluster."
"Right. Docking clamps releasing…"
On the screen the Citadel dock receded. Robert felt a thrum through the deck as the Normandy pulled out of the berth and turned to face the open space between the Citadel arms. They flew past the Destiny Ascension and toward the Aurora, already on her way to the Relay as well. He watched the ship, his home, grow large and then fall to the side.
It wasn't goodbye, not for good. He'd be back to her. Just as he promised.
The Aurora command crew were at their bridge stations watching the holo-viewer as the Normandy approached the Relay. The massive structure was lit up blue, a circle around its eezo core spinning about from the energies contained in the device. As the Normandy came up beside the core energy in the form of lightning crackled, connecting the core to the Normandy. A corridor of massless space opened up and the Normandy shot through it.
"I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of seeing that," Caterina confessed from the science station.
"It's certainly an interesting sight," Locarno agreed. He looked back at the others. "Do we have a final destination in mind?"
"There are a number of potential Prothean sites along the outer arm and the border space of the Traverse," Jarod noted. "I'm still waiting to hear from Asari authorities on where Dr. T'Soni reported she would be digging, but going by her prior reports and works, the Maroon Sea and Artemis Tau are our best choices."
"Then we'll start with the first cluster we can reach by relay and work out from there," Julia replied. "Mister Locarno, chart us a course through the relay system."
"This will be quite the difficult mission," Meridina noted. "Saren Arterius is a skilled agent, and the Geth are a foe unlike any we have faced before."
"True." Julia nodded. Her expression hardened into a determined look. "But he's a threat to this galaxy, probably to the entire Multiverse. We have to stop him, and we're going to." She nodded at Locarno. "Helm, take us out, best speed."
"Aye aye, ma'am," Locarno answered, directing to the Aurora toward the Widow Mass Relay.
The video played again at the touch of a key. In the darkness of his command room, Saren Arterius watched the Council declare him a renegade. He watched as they yet again yielded to the impertinence of the Humans. As they elevated a Human to the same status they had just stripped from him.
Fools. They had no idea what was coming.
For all he had done for them, all he was yet doing to save the galaxy, that he was to be repaid like this, to be condemned to be hunted down like a varren by the Humans of this universe and the others… it was too much. Saren let out a shout of rage and slammed his hand on the controls hard enough to smash them. The image blinked out.
"Our agents on the Citadel have confirmed that Shepard has departed," said Matriarch Benezia, in a calm, level tone. As if she had not just been denounced herself. "It will be difficult to track the Normandy due to its stealth systems. However, the Aurora will be far easier to locate. Shall we order the Geth to pursue and destroy her?"
Saren was ready to say yes. He remembered the last failed attempt to eliminate the Alliance vessel. If they were assigned to the hunt, so much the better. Get rid of the Aurora and he could focus on Shepard…
The voice sounded in Saren's brain more than anything, a droning replete with ancient power. The voice of Sovereign, his ship, the vanguard of the Reapers and their invasion of the galaxy.
"While the removal of the Darglan vessel at an early stage would have been a benefit, now it is of little consequence," Sovereign stated. "The Geth are better employed to finishing the work necessary to locate the Conduit. Nothing must interfere with that task, not even an attack upon our enemies."
"If we do not stop them first, they will interfere," Saren pointed out. "We should attack first. Draw Shepard out and destroy her and all of her allies, keep them from-..."
Before he could finish, Sovereign's voice thundered once more. "You will do as I instruct, Saren, if you wish your species to survive the coming cycle!"
Saren silenced himself. That was, indeed, the entire point of his actions. The Turians, the Citadel Council they upheld… he had to save them. He had to prove they could serve!
"Let Shepard and the inheritors of the Darglan do as they please, it matters nothing," Sovereign continued. "They are too late to stop you from locating the Conduit, Saren. Concentrate upon that task and that task alone. Once the cycle begins, you will not regret proving your worth."
"Yes, Sovereign," Saren answered quietly. "It will be as you have said. The Conduit will be ours. The door will be opened. The cycle…" For a moment, just a moment, Saren stopped himself, as if he couldn't quite finish what he was thinking. But the thought finally, inevitably came. "...the cycle will be fulfilled."
"And your species spared, as no others shall be, so long as you serve," Sovereign finished for him, even as it continued its quiet course through the stars.