Shaleena had never seen a real human spacecraft before. They weren't a terribly common sight around the Citadel; they were a new species, and not just in asari terms, either. Up until this point, she wasn't entirely sure they were real; the conspiracy theory that they were just an elaborate hoax by her government to foster better relations between the Citadel species by giving them a common foe, fuelled by the uncanny resemblance of the humans in vids and pictures to brown or pink asari, had seemed quite plausible, and she had decided she would make up her mind the day she got to see one of their spaceships.
Imagine her luck that her first day as docking manager at Citadel traffic control would involve a whole flotilla of them.
There had to be a hundred ships out there, split into two distinct groups. There were some similarities; the ships were cylindrical, unadorned, and streamlined, giving the impression that not a single pound was out of place. While mass reduction was important in spacecraft design, mass effects technology made it a lot less critical than it had been. The humans didn't seem to have gotten the memo, however, as their ships seemed spindly and fragile compared to those of the fleet moving to meet them.
This was especially true of the first group, dully reflective rockets with long, angular fins and collapsible heat radiators. Their smaller craft were like silver darts, long, delicate but deadly needles riding a corona of heat from their oversized fusion engines. The capital ships were huge, multi-section frames, pulled by a quartet of engines at the front. On the amplified cameras she could see winged fighters hanging off them, and oversized primary laser batteries.
The other ships were larger and a little thicker, but equally bizarre. They didn't seem to have a concept of ship classes; every vessel was the same bulky-looking rocket, with a habitation ring, four huge chemical engines, and a frightening array of guns, missile busses, and strange orbs hanging off the front. They shone brightly, reflecting the nebula and the star widow with a mirror finish.
It was quite a display of military might for the sake of delivering an ambassador, but the humans evidently considered it a fairly big deal. Considering their method of arrival to Citadel space, the Council had extended the courtesy of an embassy almost immediately. The problem came on the human side; unlike most space faring races, the humans had political divides that ran deep, deeper than anything in living memory. Even the turian independents had nothing on the oceans of blood that had been exchanged between these two powers. Discovery of alien races had forced the two to work together to defend a human colony, and now to represent their race in galactic politics, but it was a big step for two powers that had spent a hundred a fifty years diametrically opposed to each other.
To be sure, it was something of a shock to the Citadel races, too. As far as galactic politics were concerned, humans hadn't existed until thirty years ago. They had been discovered by the turians attempting to activate a dormant relay, and the turians had taken offense to their existence in their typical fashion. They were in for a shock, however, when the humans unleashed one of the most one-sided instances of ground and space warfare in living memory, drawing the turians into fierce warfare planetside on Shanxi and cutting them to ribbons with their insane technological tricks before their back-up fleets arrived and drove the turians back across the relay. The turians had immediately begun mobilising one of the largest fleets since the Krogan Rebellion to crush the humans, but had been stopped by the Council; to bring war on Citadel space against a foe of unknown power and abilities was unacceptable.
As far as anyone could tell, humans didn't care much for things like physics, technological limits, or common sense, and that made them too dangerous to confront, and too dangerous to ignore. Trying to integrate them into galactic politics was probably the safest move.
In the workstation next to her, Lusixi gripped the side of his console reflexively, deforming the metal beneath his talons. Shaleena was smart enough to not say anything that might set the turian off; he had lost an uncle at the Relay 314 incident, to ships just like these. Their superior had offered him a day off, but he had declined. Turian sense of duty, or looking for a sense of validation in the alien vessels? Shaleena decided it was probably both.
“This is the ANV Sagan, requesting docking instructions.”
“Comrades, the Kiev requests a docking port.”
A VI highlighted optimal paths and docking bays on her haptic console, and outlined the respective vessels for her. The Sagan was one of the large cruisers, and the Kiev was an unassuming ship in the bulkier fleet, completely the same as all the others. She directed the Sagan to one of the ward-tip docking towers and the Kiev to a smaller frigate dock, and the two ships pivoted around to their respective births. The Sagan elegantly pivoted over, the ship coiling like a snake on its central cable, while the Kiev began a long, slow arc towards the docking bay. Around her, other stations processed hundreds of other requests as the human fleet sent shuttles out to the wards and Citadel ships closed the net around the aliens, looking for any hint of betrayal.
Somehow, Shaleena had hoped that seeing a new alien species for the first time would be more dramatic. Instead, it was just more routine work. She felt vaguely disappointed.
Today was going to be a very boring day after all.
Today was going to be a very interesting day.
C-Sec was really breaking out the big guns for this one. What little they knew about humans indicated they were militant in the extreme; their two remaining government bodies had spent more than a century at each other's throats, threatening each other with ever more destructive and powerful weapons and plunging their world into destructive war on multiple occasion. In their aggression, they had assimilated every other nation into one or the other, destroyed a tenth of their inhabitable land with nuclear weapons, and brought about technologies that were terrifying merely to think about. They weren't merely conservative and regimented like the turians or simply bloody-minded like the krogan; they had just scored a divide between themselves so deep it might never be repaired, and it had made them obsessed with military might.
Normally, an ambassador's arrival would barely warrant mention on the Citadel; as the centre of galactic politics, it was essentially routine. However, the humans were insisting on making a big production out of it, so C-Sec had decided to step up and match it. The message would be twofold; appeal to the human's militant nature, and show the humans the Council were no pushovers. C-Sec was the closest thing that the Council had to a military; it was important to show that the Council itself, and not just its individual members, could stand up for themselves.
To that end, a hundred C-Sec officers had been pulled on-duty to meet each ship. When the humans arrived, they would be met with ranks of blue and black, security mechs, riot armour, and escorted to their new embassy by hoverskiffs and tactical armoured carriers. Every boot was polished and every longarm taken out of storage to complete the image.
To be honest, Captain Anahe was unsettled by it all. The salarians had little concept of military bravado; an army was at its best when it was unseen. He had roped Lt. Joram, one of his turian deputies, to set up the welcoming committee, and he couldn't help but feel they had done too good a job. He had expressed worry that the humans would be threatened by the display, but the lieutenant had reassured him of the soundness of the setup.
“As long as we aren't pointing the guns at them, they'll understand this as a sign of respect. It'll show we have pride, confidence in our abilities, and that will tell them we are dangerous.” the burly turian had said, sweeping a claw around the assembly area. “Pulling out all the stops means we respect their abilities, but are not intimidated by them.”
It made a certain sort of sense, starting from the alien's twisted viewpoint. To his mind, a better display of force would be to send the minimum number of officers, and causally inform the visitors about snipers in the rafters, but this would do.
“They are approaching the docking port now!” One of the officers called from the control room. Anahe drew himself up to full height and willed the toughest facial expression he could manage, and he ran his mind quickly over the instructions Joram had given him. Speak clearly, don't turn away, keep your shoulders square, breath naturally. Breath, right, he was forgetting to do that. Better start. Brain needs oxygen. There, much better.
His runaway train of thought was interrupted by the arrival of the human vessel. The huge cylinder slid into the docking bay with a howling roar from its reverse thrusters as it desperately fought to arrest its momentum, its bulk filling Anahe's vision. The habitation modules had retracted back into the hull, but the ship still seemed too large for the port, barely squeezing between the gantries. The humans had transmitted the size of the vessel and the location of its external doors beforehand so that proper docking could be arranged, but numbers on a screen didn't fully encompass the size of the vessel; it wasn't a dreadnought, but it was certainly big for a ship intended to dock in ports like these.
The securing arms reached out hesitantly and attempted to secure the ship in place. As they approached the mirrored surface of the vessel, there was a sound of whining machinery as an invisible force resisted them. Finally, the servos gave way and the arms shuddered to a halt, suspended metres away from the hull of the vessel.
What a positive sign.
For what seemed like an eternity, a hundred C-Sec officers stood at attention before a massive chromed door displaying a red five-pointed star. At last, the door on the side began to slide open with a hiss, dropping into a large ramp. As it lowered, Anahe caught his first glimpse of humans, and let out an involuntary gasp.
Arranged on the ramp, marching down in perfect formation, were a dozen human soldiers. Each was a good head taller than a krogan and about as wide. Rather than the sleek, form-fitting armour used by every other race in the galaxy, the human soldiers wore bulky, pressured suits, mirrored visors, and heavy steel armour painted a dull green. Their heavy footfalls reverberated through the docking bay, each step doing violence to the stillness in the air. Once they reached the end of the ramp, they fanned out, letting their crude rifles (each of which were about the same size and weight of Anahe himself) rest butt-first on the deckplate.
Following up behind the soldiers was a much smaller figure in a long coat, whose chest was covered in shiny pieces of metal. It had a magnificent looking hat on, so Anahe assumed it must be their leader. Once it reached the bottom of the ramp, he stepped forward and raised his hand in a neutral gesture of acknowledgement, praying the translation software would hold up.
“Greetings, human. I am Captain Anahe of Citadel Security Services. Welcome to the Citadel.”
There was a second as their translation software synced, and then the human nodded.
“Well met, comrade. I am Commissar-Commander Shepard.”
Dreadnought docking was always a delicate procedure. It was done at a distance; long docking tubes extending to the ship, shuttles relaying to and fro, cables and mass effect fields holding thousands of tons of ship secure. It was even more difficult with the human vessel; the ship's flexible cable body making watching it dock a bizarre experience. Finally, it managed to shimmy next to the docking arm, which extended out to it and carefully affixed itself, holding the massive vessel in place.
The ship defied scale. Though it was easily the longest ship ever seen in Citadel space, it was definitely not the most massive; the four kilometre-long craft was thin and narrow, and seemed terribly fragile for a vessel designed for war. Affixed to the sides of the ship were a dozen parasite fighters and a number of cargo containers, but other sections had energy weapon turrets or even stranger features. The parts of the ship were unmistakably modular; they could probably change the role of the ship entirely just by switching out the flexible sections. This ship could be a carrier, a massive gun platform, or even a troop hauler with minimum effort.
Captain Vennaxi felt confident in her display. The Council races didn't have nearly as much information about the humans as they would like, considering the species had shredded an entire turian taskforce in two weeks, but what they did know indicated that their technology wasn't nearly as well-integrated into their society as it was in Citadel space. Thus, she had opted to put her mechs, including the two large Ymir mechs rented from the Eclipse Corporation, close to the front. She was confident the humans had nothing like it, and it might shake whatever misconceptions of technological superiority they might have gained from their fluke victory at Relay 314.
She stared at the human vessel out the viewport with contempt. How could something like this have laid the Hierarchy’s finest ships low? It looked like a stiff breeze might snap it in two. It hardly struck her as the laser-spewing death machine the vids made them out to be.
However, as the humans began to make their way down the arm, she couldn't help but notice that the docking arm was shuddering in an unnerving manner. Rhythmically. What were the humans doing in there? She found herself hoping they had managed to screw up opening an airlock and the lot of them would be spaced. Sure, she'd have a lot of paperwork to do, but it'd probably be worth it.
Reluctantly, she pulled herself away from the window to stand in place in front of the doors. It was, after all, her responsibility, however unpleasant, to meet the aliens, and nobody could accuse Captain Vennaxi of dodging her responsibilities. She settled in between the two mechs, reassured by their bulk. While the humans stood slack-jawed at these expressions of technological might, she'd catch them off guard and make them look like fools for the news feeds capturing the occasion.
With a whoosh, the airlock doors slid open, presenting the human emissaries. However, where Vennaxi had expected a procession of humans on foot, there was instead a pair of huge robots. As they stepped out into the open ward, they stood to their full height, at least seven metres all-told, and shuffled off to the side to let the emissaries through.
The human ambassador was a man in a simple white jumpsuit, followed by an honour guard of eight soldiers in simple, flexible armoured suits. Each soldier carried a finned carbine of some kind, and their eyes were concealed by glass visors, but all things considered they were fairly conventional-looking troops.
“Ambassador Udina,” the ambassador stated simply. “We're on a bit of a schedule, so can we dispense with the pleasantries and get moving? I don't want to keep the damned communists waiting.”
Vennaxi was quite speechless.
Human Political Situation
For more than two hundred years, humanity has been divided primarily between two large superpowers, who have spent that time alternately making war with one another or preparing to make war against one another. The conflict is so long-running and so widespread it doesn't even have a name; the constant conflict has become entirely normalized in human culture.
The two factions are currently known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Allied Federation of Planets. In theory, the two sides are pitted against one another over economic philosophy, as the Soviets practice communism, a classless economic system without personal capital, and the Allied Federation are free-market capitalist. In reality, however, the gulf is almost entirely cultural; the two sides have extremely similar economic practices with essentially token differences between the two, and the real differences are almost entirely created by a sort of cultural arms race between the two sides. Both sides are so dead-set on opposing the other that they will adopt opposing values of the other just to spite them. This has led to massively diverging technological, cultural, and philosophical differences.
Ironically, there is a certain stability in their opposition. So long as neither side pulls ahead of one another in abilities, there is peace. When one side does gain a significant advantage, however, they tend to immediately launch into war with the other. As a result, there tends to be cycles of war and peace, which are referred to by humans are “Hot War” and “Cold War” periods. The current “Cold War” is the longest yet; it's been more than 75 years since the two sides have mobilized against each other, and more than 40 since a state of open war has been declared. This is primarily due to the inability of either side to gain enough dominance to secure the Charon Relay, forcing them to grudgingly work together in humanity's expansion into the stars.
Above Eden Prime, a shadow lurked in the dark.
With a mind as old as time, and so complex as to be a nation unto itself, the ancient shadow peered across a million miles of void, probing with heat and radio waves and sight and senses beyond mortal comprehension. Its mind hummed, vast thoughts churning over a billion quantum circuits.
When the shadow had reached consensus, it reached out to its followers, the indoctrinated mortals whose tiny minds it could reshape like clay. A suggestion wormed its way into the minds of their leader, one that seemed to him like his own thoughts, and the fool carried the order down to the fools below him, each of whom went through the hollow motions of reconsidering the order, their response already determined and beyond doubt.
The shadow in the dark was surrounded by a halo of light, as a thousand antimatter reaction drives spun to life, and Nazara accompanied his puppets on the first step to this cycle's end.
Commissar-Commander Shepard was midway up the ward to the Presidium when the message reached her. Her data-belt beeped, alerting her to an incoming call, and she motioned for quiet in the transport hold before pulling out the microphone cord. A futile gesture, as the pounding from the machine's legs continued unabated. A tinny voice spoke in her earpiece, the voice of an anonymous radio operator somewhere in the fleet.
“Commissar-Commander, there has been a development. We can't discuss over open channels, but your mission has changed. You will be briefed at the embassy, proceed with haste. Is your team with you?”
Shepard instinctively peered around the hold. Though her comrades were all suited up in their massive Shock Trooper armour, she knew each one at a glance by their posture alone. Starshina Ashley Williams, a fellow American soldier, the best Shock Trooper in the Red Army. Senior Sergeant Yaroslev Tartakovsky, their electromagnetic combat engineering specialist, who could run calculations in his head that would shame your average core mind. Junior Sergeant Shu Qian, computer technician and just about the only human who understood anything about the overly complex quantum and optical computers of alien races. Psion, First Class Oleg Petrovsky, their psychic defence specialist, who was busily monitoring all their thoughts for tampering. The best special-forces team in the galaxy, as far as Shepard was concerned.
“Da, comrade. We're suited up and ready for anything.”
“Good. Get to the embassy with all speed.”
The channel closed with a click, and Shepard flipped to an open channel to address the whole convoy.
“Comrades, our mission has changed. We no longer have the luxury of time. Please inform our C-Sec escort that we will be accelerating to maximum safe speed.”
The rhythmic tempo increased as the legs went into overdrive.
Though they did their best, they couldn't beat the Allies to the embassy. Not only were the Allied machines faster, they also had their pesky time-travel nonsense to deal with; even if the Allies had arrived second, as they probably had, they could just loop back to the past and be there already. Dealing with the causality-challenged Allies was infuriating at the best of times.
What was more surprising was that they were met there by the fleet's commanding officer, Fleet First Comrade Hackett. A glance indicated he had taken a Tiger Shark directly to the Presidium. The First Comrade came out to greet her with a handshake and a worried glance.
“Damn good to see you, Commissar. Everything's going to hell.”
Shepard took the handshake carefully; the powered suit she wore under her greatcoat could crush the bones in his hand with surprising ease.
“I don't usually get called unless it's bad. What's the situation?”
Hackett gestured to the door, but shot a glance at the Shock Troopers.
“Your team stays outside, Shepard. This is above their pay grade. You're free to tell them whatever you want after the meeting, but for now it's all as classified as we can possibly make it.”
Shepard nodded, and gave a hand signal. Her team shuffled off to the transport, and Shepard couldn't help but notice the scuff marks they tracked along the pristine floors. An insectoid Keeper shuffled along just seconds later, spraying a jet from a small bottle which dissolved the marks back to a perfect finish.
Shepard followed Hackett down the hallway to the Embassy's main boardroom, shuffling past functionaries who pressed themselves against the walls to let the military folks through. There were also guards; Soviet and Allied, as was to be expected, but also aliens; Turian Legionnaires in black and grey, Asari Commandos in white and red, and the deep navy and burgundy of Salarian Honour Guard.
“What's with the aliens, Hackett? I thought this we were supposed to have immunity for Council meddling.”
They reached the multi-layer glass doors of the boardroom, and they slid open with a hiss. “Shepard, we have visitors.”
Did they ever.
Inside the board room were six other individuals. Two of them were human, members of the Allies; a man in a white suit and a scowl, and a lantern-jawed Peacekeeper with a rather distinctive haircut. He was a psychic, and powerful too; Shepard felt him probing at the edges of her mind, and she shoved back in the universal psychic signal for “stay out of my brain”. Another was a turian in a set of custom, dark-blue army, a sniper rifle on his back that probably cost more than your average gunship.
The other three were none other than the Citadel Council.
“Finally, the communists arrive. We've been waiting on you.” The suited man sneered. Shepard had the sudden and undiplomatic urge to break his nose, which she channelled instead into a quick psychic probe. Just surface thoughts, not enough to piss off his psychic lackey. She felt a wave of ambition and frustration that washed over her like a tidal wave; how this guy managed to get into a position of power with a mind like this defied her comprehension.
A quick scan of the Council was next. The asari was smart, experienced, compassionate, and old; glancing into her memories was like staring into a deep well, losing yourself in the darkness. She tried to see the good in everyone, but she wasn't naïve; in fact, Shepard thought she might be pushing back against the psychic intrusion, though asari weren't supposed to be properly psychic. The salarian was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions, his mind like a supercomputer and liable to change with little prompting, but analytical in the extreme. It hurt a little to listen to the hum of his mind; there was too much thought going on, too fast.
The turians were hard reads. They had natural tin-foil in the metallic composition of their skin; not complete by any means, but the read was disrupted. The one the corner was a sniper; patient, methodical, and dedicated beyond measure. Everyone and everything was labelled as a potential threat, included his own councilmember. Shepard was reassured by that.
The turian Council member, by contrast, was like a little nugget of mental stability, neurons well-worn by rigid, regimented thought. One of the most well-worn was a deep vein of hate; Shepard probed a little further, and images flooded her subconscious; a proud soldier watching his unit devastated, pulling a dying friend by the collar in a desperate attempt to clear the path of a tank the size of an apartment building, a chill creeping up his spine as a long, snake-like spaceship whirled through his fleet, leaving flames in its wake.
The salarian Council member stepped forward.
“We haven't got time for arguments, so I'm just going to lay the facts on the table. Your colony of Eden Prime came under attack, which is unfortunate, but not our problem. Our problem is the prothean artefacts that have come under threat as a result. Though we can't claim them, the moment pirates or raiders get their hands on it, it becomes our legal jurisdiction and we can claim them if we track it down.”
“Like hell you will.” Hackett growled. As was her duty as commissar, Shepard reached out and squashed the nugget of anger that was threatening to overwhelm the First Comrade's rational brain.
“Indeed. Which is why it's to your benefit to work with us to prevent it from falling into their hands entirely.”
“Though we're a pretty long way off from Eden Prime, we're the closest to a relay right now, which means that we can get there pretty much instantly, relatively speaking. Thus, the special forces assembled here are the best bet for retrieving the artefacts.” The turian sniper spoke up.
Shepard interjected. “Why should that matter? Our fleets should be moving in immediately to deal with the attackers, not waiting around for a special forces team to secure some museum pieces.”
The PK psychic glanced over. “We can still do that. Our special-forces team should be leaving about an hour ago, if we manage to get this sorted out.” He pointed at a green light on his wristcomm. “Actually, I seem to have arrived just a few minutes ago.”
Something broke inside Shepard's brain. Why couldn't the Allies settle for linear time! It's so like the capitalists to twist time itself because it wasn't convenient enough for them.
There was a shocked silence from the other side of a table. Shepard and the psychic glanced over to see all four aliens staring blankly at them, shock written deeply on their inhuman features. The sniper was the first to recover, though it still took him the better part of a minute.
“You humans can time travel?”
The Peacekeeper nodded. “We've been known to dabble.”
Chronotechnology, a Primer
Thought to be impossible science fiction for thousands of years, time travel turned out to be not only possible, but a dizzying array of technologies and techniques with many applications. The Allied Federation of Planets maintains the largest and most advanced array of time travel devices, though the Soviet Union has a smaller number of less-advanced devices used primarily to monitor and counter others.
The most basic form of time travel is called chronoportation; it involves imposing a special framework over the relationship between time and space, allowing for instant transportation between two locations. Though a marvellous and impossible technology by Citadel standards, it is considered fairly crude by the Allied Federation and used sparingly, usually as part of another device. Space folding is their preferred form of teleportation.
Chronolooping is a far more widespread and powerful form of chronotechnology. It is a sort of reverse chronoporter; it imposes the opposite relation between time and space, allowing angular momentum to be transferred into movement through time, usually backward. This device is an extremely mature technology in the Allied Federation, having been invented in practical form more than a hundred and fifty years ago.
Interestingly, the device only forms stable time loops, hence the name. In addition to disproving almost all physics models, this means that you cannot change the past; however, its presence usually allows a more optimal set of events, as you have influenced them from the future already. Allied scientists and chronologians refer to this as retroactive continuity, or retcon for short.
This form of time travel is used widely and casually by the Allies. Each use of the device consumes an amount of power; the larger the objects you are sending back and the farther you are sending them, the greater the penalty. The average civilian device can send a person back a few hours; a military grade personal chronolooper can manage a few days. There are unconfirmed reports that some small cruisers can send themselves back as much as an hour. The vast majority of these devices are employed in petty fashion, to avoid being late for work or to have discussions with oneself as a therapeutic treatment.
Finally, there are “perceptional engines”, a technology that defies even human understanding of physics. When used, it sends a small amount of matter and energy, usually a person, back in time on their own personal timeline, while allowing them to retain knowledge of the events that transpired. How this works is completely unknown; when asked to explain it, human science breaks down into pseudoscientific nonsense about “alternate realities” and “psychic overflow”.
It was a little odd, Shepard reflected, to take something like time travel for granted. For the Soviet Union it was an inevitable fact of military planning; there was no such thing as a surprise attack, you could be fighting multiple versions of the same enemy at once, and hitting a soldier through his barriers didn't kill him unless you followed up to attack his restored past version. It was frustrating to keep track of, but it was omnipresent. It was somehow refreshing to encounter people for whom time was and had always been a linear thing, clinging to quaint notions of causality. It was also mildly satisfying to watch the three most powerful people in the galaxy struck speechless.
It took a few tries for the PK psychic and the Allied diplomat to explain the concept to the dumbstruck alien onlookers. Shepard couldn't help but be impressed by the patience the psychic had with both his superior and with the Council's lack of understanding. Finally, they managed to get some semblance of comprehension into the Council, and the meeting could proceed.
“If what you say is true, there is hope yet.” The asari Council member spoke slowly, still reeling over the revelation. “You could swoop in and grab the artefacts before they were ever in danger.”
The Allied diplomat nodded. “Indeed. I don't even see why we are still discussing it. Lt. Alenko and his team should be on his way back as we speak.”
The turian Council member shot him a glare. “It's not that simple. If you want to be part of the galactic community, you have to abide by our laws. Nobody gets free reign on prothean artefacts. Agent Vakarian goes with you.”
Udina nodded. “That is acceptable. We'd be happy to cooperate, in the interest of Federation relations with the Council.” He gave Hackett a smug smile. “After all, this find belongs to the galaxy at large, not just to us.”
“Donnel, this is unacceptable! You know we can't allow Allied forces to make off with Prothean artefacts! We have our own treaties, you know!” Shepard felt the impulse inside Hackett's mind to reach for his pistol, and she suppressed it as quickly as she could. Alenko must have felt it too, because he tensed and placed his hand in a cautious position near his holster. Udina was about to violate one of the core treaties that had managed to prevent war for more than forty years.
“I'm afraid that our treaty obligations with the Citadel must come first, Steven. Don't worry, you'll be able to access the information like everyone else, once it becomes declassified. Shouldn't take more than a decade.”
Hackett was fumbling with his data-belt, his thumb hovering about the alert button. If he hit that, everyone in the fleet would know that things were going sour. Shepard wasn't allowed to prevent him from doing so, but if she didn't do something World War Six might break out over some goddamn trinkets.
Vakarian had picked up on the energy in the room, because he pushed himself off the wall and had began pacing behind the Council, one taloned hand on the back of his pistol. The Council themselves were simply watching this unfold; Shepard suspected they desperately wished for a gunfight to break out; if humanity went to war, it would solve all their issues in one go.
The PK psychic looked desperate. He was gripping the back of Udina's chair so hard his power suit was deforming the metal frame, his eyes darting around the room for some way to distract the diplomat from his plan.
For an eternity, the most important awkward silence in human history lingered, before being interrupted by a knock on the door.
The asari Council member didn't miss a beat. She gestured at the door, and it opened with a hiss.
An Alliance communication tech stood with a data tape in his hand.
“Sorry to interrupt, sirs, but we just received a priority transmission from the Normandy. You are going to want to see this.”
Udina nodded, and the tech slid the roll into the screen which dominated one side of the room. After a second, the screen booted up, displaying an Allied eagle on a field of stars. There was a click, and the image changed.
Shepard was thrown for a bit of a loop when she realized she was staring at herself.
The Shepard on the screen gave a little smile and began talking, in Shepard's own voice. It was probably the most confusing event that she had yet witnessed.
“This is Commissar-Commander Shepard aboard the ASV Normandy plus one fifty two, reporting on our mission progress. The crew are operating better than expected since I took command, though appointing Alenko as my XO is helping to smooth things over considerably. The Normandy has just arrived in orbit above Eden Prime; the attackers are just arriving on the far side, but we are under GAP cloak and have not positively identified them yet. They seem to be heading straight to the dig site, so I have given the order to enter atmosphere to drop off a special forces team led by myself and Lt. Alenko, with Agent Vakarian observing. I shall give my next report after we secure the artefact. Shepard out.”
The tape wound down.
There was a feeling close to whiplash in the room, with nobody quite sure what to think. Udina was the first to recover his composure; he croaked a weak response at the Alliance tech.
“Was that transmission legitimate? Did it clear encryption?”
The tech nodded, and Udina sank back into his chair, looking utterly defeated.
The asari Council member gave a small smile. “Well, from what you've told me, you cannot change the past, so these events are set in stone. Commissar-Commander Shepard will be taking control of this ship, the Normandy, with Lt. Alenko as her second-in-command, and they will be proceeding immediately to Eden Prime with Agent Vakarian. Does that sound correct?”
Hackett gave a vaguely affirmative gesture. Udina just lay in his chair and gave a weak sort of groan.
“Excellent, it's settled then.”
The Normandy, it turned out, was a top secret Alliance frigate. A prototype, with the finest stealth technology and the heaviest-duty chronolooper in existence. It was so new it didn't even have a proper commander yet; it was sitting invisible among the Allied fleet, doing a shakedown run.
Shepard chose to accompany Lt. Alenko to the ship in the Allies’ little Thrush transport, letting the rest of her team catch up in the Tiger Shark. After a few minutes to recover, Udina had made it all official and ordered the transfer of command. Of course, the ship itself was still top secret and must remained cloaked, so the Thrush was making the approach on instruments only; as far as Shepard could tell, looking out the front window, they were rapidly approaching a big patch of nothing hanging in space.
She was still in something of a state of shock. Somehow, she was going to be in command of a ship. An Alliance ship. The single most advanced Alliance ship. She had no idea how any of this would work in terms of chains of command, and she had a feeling when she got back that she was in for months, possibly years of political bullshit.
“So, do you have any idea what happened back there?”
Alenko sat at the corner of the shuttle's tiny crew compartment. It was just the two of them; the ship was being flown by wire.
“I think myself from the future sort of tricked everyone into an agreement of some kind? Maybe? I am not good with time travel crap.”
To her surprise, the peacekeeper actually looked sort of amused by that. “I got that impression. It's fortunate that Udina doesn't really get it either. It'd probably be unfortunate if he protested and you ended up in charge of the ship by virtue of taking over his brain or something.”
“I don't really understand, though. I only ended up in charge because I was already in charge, and sent a message to myself confirming I was already in charge so I would be put in charge? Where did the initial impulse to put me in charge come from?”
Alenko shook his head sadly. “You can't look at it like that, you'll go insane. We lock up a few scientists a year who look too deeply into that sort of thing and end up strangling themselves for all eternity or something. Either the impulse was a random event, a quantum hiccup, or in some timeline you managed to negotiate your way onto the ship, sent the message back to make it easier in the past, and in doing so erased that timeline, creating one which was a stable loop.”
Alenko gave the impression that this was extremely elementary knowledge, but Shepard remained quite confused. She was tripping over about a thousand different questions, but she couldn't picture any of them giving a definitive sort of answer, so she changed the subject.
“You seem oddly at ease about this. I would have thought an Allied soldier would be less enthusiastic about some Soviet Commissar taking command of one of their vessels.”
“I'm not exactly big on the whole Red Scare thing, to be honest. I joined up because I wanted to see the stars, not because I had something against communists. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love the Federation and its values, but I don't exactly want to kill you for disagreeing.”
That... was not the answer Shepard was expecting. It was an almost completely foreign line of thought, and it shook her to see it expressed by a capitalist.
“I... suppose I can respect that.”
In 2064, the Soviet Union abolished the concepts of commissioned officers in all branches of military service. All soldiers, from the highest commander to the lowliest private, would be enlisted personal, and they would work their way up the ranks to command positions. A starshina who displayed command talent could be fast-tracked into enlisted command positions, where those who are more suited to traditionally non-commissioned duties would gain responsibilities via seniority and rank-specific decorations.
Of course, officers are officers for a reason; they receive specialized training that experience alone does not convey. Thus, in order to ensure that these enlisted officers would have proper perspective, the Commissariat was retooled as an advisor position, gaining the officer ranks that the regular forces lost. A commissar-lieutenant would advise a Platoon Leader, a commissar-captain a Company Leader, and so forth. Commissar-Commanders, like the Field Commanders of the 20th Century, serve whole operations, ranging from strategic theatres to small special forces teams.
Though they have little power on the tactical level, Commissars are responsible for most of the high-level strategic planning, setting the goals that First Comrades and Comrade Commanders work towards.
In addition, Commissars serve as field psychics, supplementing the Psionic Corps. In order to become a Commissar, one has to demonstrate considerable empathic and emotive telepathic power. This is used primarily to monitor the morale of troops and counter the much more omnipresent, but lower-grade psychics employed by the Allies.
Eden Prime wasn't without defences, of course. When the first of the interlopers ships hit the atmosphere, the guns were already tracking them, warned a half-hour earlier by timeshifted alerts. Swarms of VI controlled missiles rocketed into the upper atmosphere, exploding into hail of shrapnel or detonating into spectacular balls of ionized air, and huge Soviet coilguns slammed sixty pound shells against the invader's shields, each impacting with the force of a freight train.
A few of the ships fell from the skies, shields overwhelmed, trailing coolant and radiation. In response, rays of green light washed back, targeting the gun positions and slagging them. A rain of shielded torpedoes turned bases and population centres to ash with brilliant flashes of light. Teams of soldiers popped into existence from the empty air, spreading panic and cutting defenders off from each other.
Nobody noticed the lone rocket appearing through the mass relay in the brief time before it vanished again under its starry cloak.
Shepard had all their special forces assets assemble in the Normandy's shuttle bay on the way in. She took just enough time to record and send her original message back to the Citadel before joining them. She had asked Alenko what would happen if she didn't record it, and he had just shook his head sadly and explained that it simply didn't work that way.
On one side of the room, her own team had assembled next to their Tiger Shark; an elongated, jet-powered hovercraft loosely descended from 20th century gunships like the Hind and Twinblade. A pair of automated ball turrets mounted under the nose sprayed coilgun fire, while the wings were laden down with dozens of weapons; rocket pods, arc guns, gatling guns, and mass accelerators. Slung under the hull was the spindly form of the eight-legged Mindfang Tank. The machine contained a variety of psychic boosters; it'd keep their soldiers calm and collected and weaken the morale of the enemy, not to mention acting as a psychic artillery piece.
On the other side of the hangar were the Alenko's pathfinders, assembled around their Thrush. The stubby little flier had two sliding doors and a curving tail, and flew almost entirely using element zero. Hanging out of the open doors were a pair of heavy spectrum cannons, which Shepard suspected could carve a superheavy tank in half with little effort. There were five soldiers besides Alenko, four of whom were wearing the standard Peacekeeper gear; finned helmet, jetpack, eye-concealing faceplate, and about six different kinds of temporal devices.
The fifth was dressed all in black, her eyes covered with a hood, and trailing blue ribbons tied around her wrists. Shepard was having a hard time just looking at her; her eyes seemed to slide off every time she glanced over. A shinobi.
Between the two of them was the turian Spectre, who was busying himself adjusting his sniper rifle.
Shepard cleared her throat to get their attention.
“Comrades, I know this is an unusual circumstance. It has been centuries since we have gone to war on the same side. However, the situation is dire enough to warrant it.” She activated the holographic briefing screen, trying to avoid marvelling at it too much. In the Soviet Union, they made do with false-3D projectors.
“This is us, here. We'll be in orbit of Eden Prime in less than ten minutes at our current burn. This is the enemy fleet.”
Hundreds of red dots appeared over the planet. One of them flashed and began to lose position.
One of the Allied soldiers spoke up. “Do we know who they are yet? Alien?”
“That's the thing that worries us the most.” The display zoomed in on one of the red dots, revealing a rather distinct profile. A disk-like hull, slowly rotating, with four long, cylindrical engines behind. A terribly familiar insignia graced its flank; a white circle with three black triangles inside.
There was a sharp intake of breath.
“That's impossible! It's been centuries!” Petrovsky exclaimed.
“Clearly not impossible, as they are here.” Alenko retorted.
Shepard paced around the display. “It has been a long time, yes. We don't know how their capabilities have evolved since then, but considering the state of Eden Prime, they probably haven't spent the years slacking off.” She indicated to a small location planetside. “This is our drop zone, right on top of the artefact’s last known location. It's also the heaviest concentration of teleportation signals and landing craft, so presumably they are after it too. I don't want to spend more than half an hour on the ground if we can help it.”
The turian made a face that Shepard was fairly sure was quizzical. “Sorry for being out of the loop, but who are these guys? You've met before, I assume.”
Shepard let Alenko answer. If the two of them worked as a team, it would help to put their own troops at ease. “The Atomic Kingdom of China was a human nation back in the 20th century, the first to figure out atomic fission. They raised a clone army and caused a lot of destruction before we forced them off-world. They escaped in sub-luminal craft, but we've never managed to find them since.”
The alien nodded. “What sort of tech base are we looking at? Considerably divergent?”
“Considerably. Last time we fought, they had teleporters, high-powered directed-energy weapons, anti-matter rockets, and heavy shielding. They've probably refined that technology since.”
“Sounds like a good time.”
The Normandy didn't bother entering the atmosphere. Doing so was awkward; it would have to land vertically, and its GAP generator would stand out outside of space. Instead, the two gunships dove out at maximum speed as the Normandy skimmed the upper atmosphere, turning into twin comets from the air friction. They had entered very close to the descending remains of a Chinese vessel which had been de-orbited by ground fire, so hopefully they'd just look like two pieces of debris.
They descended very rapidly, only pulling up at the last possible second. The inside of the Tiger Shark lurched before the inertial dampeners took over, and Shepard just managed to psychically suppress the involuntary reaction that would have caused Williams to vomit inside her helmet. No sooner had they levelled out did the weapons start firing; the air was thick with targets.
“Put us down quickly, pilot!” Shepard ordered, and the gunship pivoted around towards the nearest clearing, the Allied one following close behind. Its doors were already open, and brilliant rainbow-coloured beams were lancing out at any target that presented itself.
Rather than landing, the two vessels hung about fifty feet off the ground as the soldiers dismounted. Such a fall was trivial for Shock Trooper armour, nevermind a Mindfang tank which could jump twice that high with little effort. The Peacekeepers, of course, had their jet packs and could have flown off at any time.
They hit the ground as one, Petrovsky in the Mindfang, which clanked and clattered to its feet seconds after the rest of them. They fanned out immediately, and the two gunships split up and flew off, looking for a safe, out of the way place to wait until extraction or cover fire was needed.
Somewhere overhead, a vast mind felt a disturbance in his plan, and decided to deal with it personally. Its ponderous bulk pivoted with an awful elegance and began its descent into the atmosphere.
A secret Allied project intended as a strategic counterpart to Soviet October-class stealth ships, the Normandy is the single most expensive ship ever built by humans. A hundred and fifty metres tall, with a vertical deck arrangement as standard for human ships, the Normandy is armed with a single high-powered Spectrum gun, making it rather undergunned for a ship of its mass. Its utility is primarily in its drive core and stealth system.
The drive core of the Normandy is massive, twice as large as a ship of a comparable size. Powered by an independent fusion reactor, the Normandy can negate its own mass thousands of times over, allowing it the fastest interstellar speed of any known vessel, almost thirty light-years a day without using any space-warping technology. With careful space-warping, it can achieve nearly a hundred and fifty light-years a day. Unfortunately, it builds a static charge to match, requiring it to discharge its core nearly daily. It can also use its drive to manoeuvre in clever ways or as an offensive weapon.
The Normandy also has an extremely advanced GAP system, which is perfectly calibrated to the ship's profile. To enemy sensors, the Normandy is indistinguishable from the background, and it constantly re-calibrates to match the background radiation. About the only way to detect it is if it passes between the local star and the viewer, and even then it can be lost in solar radiation.
Zaeed Massani didn't ask for much. Food, ammunition, and enough credits in his pockets to buy the few luxuries he afforded himself was all he really desired. For that, he was willing to plunge himself into danger time and time again.
Right about now, however, he was of the opinion that they simply weren't paying him enough.
As far as he was aware, the rest of his century was dead or scattered, leaving him and him alone to defend the priceless prothean artefact, which was currently in a steel crate at his back. Jesse spat another triplicate of bolts, which whirled around the doorframe to smash into the shield of the greenshirt lurking there. One of them must have done the trick, because the cloned soldier slumped over, joining the other corpses in the small pile he had managed to amass in front of the door.
The greenshirts were tough bastards, and brave too. They had appeared in the middle of the Legion camp, the high-pitched electric shriek of their ray-guns announcing their presence. Most of his soldiers hadn't even managed to get their armour on before being scythed down. Zaeed had only managed to survive because of his paranoid insistence on remaining armed and armoured at all times.
Still, it was starting to look a little grim. He had long run out of material to fabricate tech-grenades and projection armour, and Jesse had less than half a magazine worth of bolts left. He had left his gladius buried in the chest of some fancy-looking officer, and the mono-wire projectors and flamethrower on his wrists were both expended. It was probably the fifth-worse situation he had ever been in.
Another two soldiers came around the door, their guns screaming as hot green beams sliced into the metal of the crates, turning the metal into a thick cloud of vapour. Zaeed tagged one soldier's head with his periscope, pointed his gun straight up, and fired at maximum rate, expending fifteen shells in a half a second. They curved gracefully over his barricade, ten shells impacting with the shield simultaneously and overloading it before the remaining shells struck home, detonating inside his targets. The smell of burnt flesh filled the room.
As soon as the bolts went off, Zaeed mantled the barricade, swinging his weapon by the barrel. The shield slowed the blow, but not enough; Zaeed was treated to the shocked face of the clone before the weapon's butt impacted with his face, breaking something with a sick snapping sound. He let Jesse fall and grabbed for one of the ray-guns on the floor, as a dozen more soldiers streamed into the room.
The energy weapon was warm in his hands, and he could feel the barely-contained radiation prickling along his face. The odds were starting to shift back in his favour.
They met their first patrol less than a minute from touchdown. A second version of one of the Peacekeepers, Lieutenant Maeko Matsuo, appeared in a flash of blue light, warning them that a dozen enemy soldiers were approaching from the east. They had spread out into ambush positions; the Peacekeepers, including both Maekos, rocketed up to a nearby ridge, and the Shock Troopers dug in under them, throwing down fortification charges which heaved the earth aside into pre-made dugouts. The shinobi simply vanished.
The enemy soldiers had approached in a five metre spread, their weapons raised. Each soldier was identical, short and stout with predominate cheekbones and pointed ears. They were dressed in simple green tunics with a golden crossbelt, black slacks, and leather boots, and they had a small white and black badge pinned to their chests. By the standards of modern soldiers, they looked woefully under equipped.
Most freakishly, however, were their eyes. They glowed, a hard cyan colour, without pupils. It was unnerving.
They were less than twenty-five metres away when Shepard gave the order to attack. The Shock Troopers rose and fired, their machine guns spitting shells by the dozen. The greenshirts staggered, but their shields held as they dashed for cover behind rocks and trees. Ashley fired her coilgun, and one of them vanished in a haze of blood. (A rock and several trees directly behind the unfortunate clone also exploded)
The return fire was unexpectedly deadly. Verdant beams of energy sawed out, cutting through their cover with surprising ease. Tartakovsky let out a little yelp as one of the beams dug into his shoulder plate, and one of the Peacekeepers simply blew apart into a fine mist from the waist-up. Seconds later, his remains disappeared, replaced with a rather disoriented, but alive, soldier from fifteen seconds ago.
The greenshirts were brave to the point of recklessness. Shepard's team was still getting it's bearings when five of the soldiers charged forward, each wielding a curved blade which crackled with energy. The other soldiers hung back, spraying the ridgetop with rays.
Three of the charging soldiers were felled by incoming fire; one overwhelmed by machine-gun fire, another blown apart by a Peacekeeper proton gun, and the third felled by Shepard herself; she shut off his voluntary nervous system with a thought and watched as his legs turned to jelly and he ploughed into the ground at full force. The remaining two struck home, swinging their bizarre but deadly weapons in wide arcs. Qian's suit lost both hands to a single swipe before the Shock Trooper simply crushed the greenshirt under his bulk. Shepard was faced with the other soldier, who managed to dissipate her shock-pistol's blast before swinging home.
Shepard reached for her own blade, a straight cossack's blade which served as her badge of office. Just like in the 20th century, melee weapons had made something of a comeback; defensive technology had somewhat outstripped offensive technology, leading to fights degrading to melee far more often than was entirely comfortable.
As Shepard pulled the blade from the scabbard, its Iron Curtain system activated, turning the steel into a nigh-invulnerable mass of superheated energy. It caught the edge of the greenshirt's blade, but the strange weapon was well suited to a defensive stance and Shepard found herself pushed off her feet. She attempted to push the soldier off with a blast of psychic force, but her concentration was ruined as the clone pushed the blade deep towards her throat. He was stronger than he had any right to be; Shepard suspected gene-tampering or cybernetics.
Suddenly, the soldier was thrown back against a nearby rock, impacted with a wet smack and went quite still. Agent Vakarian racked the slide on his absurd sniper rifle before giving Shepard a little salute.
When she got back to her feet, she found the remaining soldiers had been compelled into retreat by the Mindfang tank. The shinobi had reappeared with her blade slick with blood, and she had confirmed to them that the enemy had not escaped. She quickly ordered Maeko to loop back to warn them, and rallied the squad together around the Mindfang tank.
“Tartakovsky, comrade, can you still fight?”
The burly tech expert stared at the stumps at the end of his powered arms. “I still have my arc guns, for whatever use they are. And I can hit things with my wrists, I suppose.”
“Any radio traffic I need to hear?”
The burly Russian soldier bit down on one of the helmet controls, and there was a buzzing as the EM pack cut through interference.
“Two signals, sir. A Legion Security contractor who was guarding the artefact, and the local CMC command signal.”
“Patch me to the merc.” Shepard ordered. “This is Commissar-Commander Shepard. What is your status?”
After a brief warble from the electronics, and a gruff voice came through. “My status is goddamn pissed off. We need to discuss my contract.”
“We will have time for your capitalist games later, mercenary. What is the status of the artefact?” Mercenaries were an unfortunate reality in the colonies, because they were as close to a neutral party amoung humans as there was, but it didn't mean anyone actually liked them. The Federation looked down on their methods, while the Soviets had little patience for their cutthroat capitalism.
“Your trinket is safe, but my orders are I don't hand it over to the reds without the boy scouts present as well. So you better have some documentation or you can join the pile of greenshirts I've been building.”
At least he was loyal to his contract, Shepard thought. “I've got Allied soldiers with me as well. We're moving to extract the artefact. What is your current location?”
“The big warehouse at the top of the dig site. The one with half the bloody roof missing and swarming with clones. I'm almost out of party favours, so you'll have to bring your own goddamn entertainment.” The line went dead.
The team moved out immediately. One of the peacekeepers, a massively built soldier named Vega, took point. He was carrying the Peacekeeper's heavy ordinance, a proton pack. Consisting of a nuclear accelerator in a backpack unit connected to a rifle-like emitter, the weapon was like a fire hose of destructive energy. Though normally such a weapon would be kept nearer to the rear of the formation so it would enjoy a wider range of fire, the shields of their enemies were proving a tough nut to crack. It was important they have the means to take out enemy targets on-sight.
As the unit moved out, Tartakovsky patched Shepard through to the local Core Mind Collective. A somewhat monotone feminine voice greeted her.
“Commissar-Commander Shepard, welcome to Eden Prime. I wish it could be under better circumstances. I am ED-100, but you can call me EDI for short. I'm an electronic warfare and military design construct operating out of a mobile platform two kilometres east from your position. We haven't met, but I know you through your interactions with MS-186 and MS-2351. I'm currently coordinating defence efforts on this continent, as both local headquarters were destroyed in a series of atomic blasts fifteen minutes ago. As we have had no communication out of system since we sent our distress call 24 minutes before the attack began, I have been attempting to evacuate civilian centrers and pull back soldiers in order to facilitate a future strategy of guerilla resistance. How can I help?”
That, Shepard thought, was how you delivered a status report. “How bad is the overall tactical situation?”
“The Atomic Kingdom has forces primarily deployed their forces in a thousand kilometre radius around the artificial. In this zone, conventional human forces have either been destroyed or are retreating. There has been limited use of fission weapons on bases, but they appear to be keeping these weapons in reserve. Currently, the only organized forces remaining other than yourself are a limited number of Protectorate forms. As there are only fifteen Minds operating in this sector, we are stretched very thin over these forms, but we have the resources to keep up an active resistance for a very long time. Outside of that area, there has been more extensive deployment of orbital artillery by Kingdom forces, but human surface-to-orbit artillery has been more successful, and our ground forces are relatively intact. I am attempting to keep our forces dispersed so as to avoid orbital attention and to evacuate population centres, as historically the Kingdom has not hesitated to target them with weapons of mass destruction. However, without reinforcements, these sectors will soon be lost.” There was very little emotion in the voice, but Shepard thought she could hear sadness behind the words. While EDI didn't seem nearly as melodramatic as other Minds, the situation was clearly hitting her hard.
(Shepard had no idea if EDI's voice was symptomatic of an actual gender identity or just something affected because she liked the sound, but it seemed the safer choice to assume EDI was a she for now.)
“We're just the advanced guard. Reinforcements from the Soviet Revolutionary Fleet and Allied Outer Section Fleet are incoming within three hours. You just have to keep them alive until then. And, if possible, assist in our mission here. We're fairly sure the Kingdom has targeted Eden Prime because of this artefact. If you can help us get it off-world, it might lighten the pressure on our forces.”
“My analysis was similar. I'm already on my way.”
They made good time to the dig site, avoiding patrols and sentries and travelling off roads. The Peacekeepers had adjusted their mass down to nearly half, running in great bounding leaps, footsteps a dozen feet long, while the Shock Troopers were simply crashing through the underbrush as fast as their servos would carry them. Somewhere ahead of them, the shinobi, Kasumi Goto, was keeping the path clear of sentries; every once in a while they would pass by the corpse of some unfortunate clone soldier gutted by her blade.
“I can't help but notice we haven't run into any officers, just the same clone troopers.” Alenko said as they passed another dead soldier, his cyan eyes staring without sight at the evening sky. “I wonder where the non-clones are hiding?”
“If they even have non-clones anymore. It's been quite a while, who knows what has happened.” Shepard noted.
When they reached the hastily-established perimeter, they found that the prefab wall had already been breached, a gaggle of dead technicians lying around a half-assembled prefab turret, each bearing the telltale wounds of a spectrum beam rifle. Shepard was starting to get the hang of this; she sent one of the pathfinders back to the limit of her personal chronolooper's capacitors, and sure enough Private Campbell was waiting for them on the other side of the wall, having used up her breaching charges and a power pack for her spectrum rifle.
They scaled the cliffs to the plateau above the dig site directly, the pathfinders rocketing ahead on their jetpacks and clearing the sentries, leaving the shock troopers to climb with their grappling launchers and winches. The Mindfang clung to the cliffside like an oversized mechanical spider, making it's way carefully up the side.
The prefab warehouse in question was rather obvious; it had certainly been a significant location of mercenary resistance, but it had obviously collapsed, probably about the same time that a Chinese fighter plane had ploughed into the roof. Several dozen greenshirts were starting guard at the entrance, accompanied by a strange, dagger-like tank floating around three large, hoop-like wheels. The wail of ray-guns could be heard inside the facility.
Fortunately, situations like this were exactly what the Mindfang tank was designed for. The attack opened up with a brilliant red blast of psychic energy as the clanking machine unleashed it's fully power, instantly turning a half-a-dozen soldiers to ash and scattering the rest. The tiny special-forces group wasted no time, charging into the fray at full speed.
Alenko seemed to disappear in a flash, having impelled himself like a missile into the nearest group of soldiers, his isospin scattergun punching clean through planar shields and reducing the men behind to mist. The Shock Troopers focused on the infantry, keeping the survivors pinned behind boxes, protected by their iron curtains, while the pathfinders leapt for the enemy tank with their jetpacks, closing the distance with remarkable speed.
Unfortunately, it wasn't fast enough. One of the green strips on the machine's cupola glowed briefly, and fired out a beam of crackling energy that caught a peacekeeper. The soldier simply vanished with a violent crack and a rush of steam, sending another soldier face-first into the ground with the concussion blast.
Petrovsky was keeping Shepard covered with the bulk of his suit, firing bursts from his arc gun into the enemy's cover. One of the clones leaning against a metal box leapt up as the electricity found him, prompting the tech expert to let out a hearty laugh. His mirth was cut short, however, by a rocket from another soldier, which cut through his iron curtain and blasted a two-foot hole in the torso of his suit. Shepard found herself scrambling for cover, while Vakarian took out the rocket-welding clone with a single shot.
In response, Shepard psychically grabbed the mind of one of the soldiers stupid enough to poke his head over the barrier, pushing her way into his mind. She was met not with the typical organic rush of thoughts and feelings, but with a deep and unsettling humming noise. She spent as little tiny there as possible; she identified an explosive on the belt of the soldier, called up the mental instructions on it's activation, and forced the man's finger to close over the detonator. That little knot of soldiers disappeared in a flash of white light, and Shepard was left disoriented behind her improvised cover, the ringing sound still in her mind.
Just as soon as it had started, it was over. Vega had gotten inside the tank's planar shield with his proton gun and burned through the plating into the engine section. The machine shuddered, lost power, and collapsed, it's free-floating wheels rolling off like giant hulu hoops. With the loss of their vehicle, the remaining clones panicked and teleported out.
It took several tries for Shepard to get to her feet. The humming inside her brain refused to subside, an itching inside her skull like an insect trying to escape. She clamped down on the sensation, and finally it began to fade. It didn't disappear, but she pushed it to the back of her mind.
As the team regrouped, Shepard paused to glance at Petrosky's body. Though his suit looked bad, she knew it was even worse on the inside. You didn't get many wounded shock troopers; anything that could go through the suit usually didn't leave much of it's wearer. Not that the pathfinder the tank had hit, Jenkins, was any better off; there was barely more than a scorch on the pavement to mark his passing.
“Is everyone else accounted for?” She asked in a voice that came out rather weaker than she intended.
“Yeah, everyone important is here.” A gruff english accent replied.
Standing in the door of the warehouse was a legionnaire centurion, his armour scuffed and bleeding from a dozen minor wounds, but a defiant look in his eyes.
“You took your goddamn time.”
They moved back into the warehouse, Kaiden on point, stepping over the bodies of at least a dozen greenshirt on the way, guns up for any trouble. Massani had policed some gyrojet ammunition from his fallen comrades, and he was rapidly converting a Chinese ray-gun to omni-gel, gripping components in his armoured gauntlet until the nanites reduced them to mush. With some effort, they pushed open the door of the warehouse's security room (there was an impressive pile of bodies leaning against it) and finally set eyes on the artifact.
It was a black cylinder, sleek and inhuman, recognizably Prothean in design and about the size of a coffin.
“What is it?” Kaiden kneeled down, running an armoured glove over the surface. “Data bank, time capsule...?”
“The hell if I know. I was too busy keeping the greenies off it to do much in the way of speculation. Speaking of which, we should probably get this thing out of here before they come back for it.” The mercenary kicked it derisively. “A lot of good soldiers died protecting this thing, hate to see them drag it off now.”
Kaiden glanced at Shepard before radioing for evac. Technically he should have waited for her order, but the woman was looking more pale and clammy by the second. Whatever had been inside the head of the clone she had attacked, it was doing a number on her; Kaiden was surprised she was still on her feet.
One of the shock troopers picked up the artifact, swinging it over one shoulder and carrying it effortlessly, and they made quick time outside the warehouse to a clearing between buildings. They took position behind whatever they could in a square formation, Shepard leaning noticeably against one of the equipment crates.
The next ten minutes passed agonizingly slowly, everyone too anxious to talk. In the far distance, the cracks and rumbles of orbital artillery rolled through the hills, and flashes filled the horizon as the sunset seemed to stench on endlessly. (they day on Eden Prime was almost three times longer than that of Earth) Burning debris was starting to descend into the atmosphere as satellites and the remains of destroyed Chinese ships deorbited.
“Contact right!” One of the shock troopers yelled, and immediately a half a dozen guns swivelled. A long clone stumbled out from behind the warehouse wall, his arms raised in surrender. One of the shock troopers began to speak in Mandarin, but he was cut off as the greenshirt's skin started to boil, melting away like mercury and reshaping itself into a taller, more feminine figure.
“I apologize for the deception, it was necessary to evade enemy patrols. There is a significant force amassing around this area. I presume you have transportation on the way?” The quicksilver was settling into human facial features, a sculpted hairstyle that framed a face with shallow cheeks and a small, upturned nose, looking for all the world like a stereotypical housewife from a World War Two drama cast in silver. A long, needle-like pistol emerged from her arm, the frame of the weapon settling into place.
“I am EDI-100, in the flesh, so to speak. How can I be of assistance?”
“You have AI, too? Is there any more gross violations of Council Law I should know about?” the turian spectre asked. He hadn't lowered his rifle yet, the absurd weapon still leveled at the Mind's lithe frame.
“Spectre Vakarian, I think I speak for everyone when I say that my status as a synthetic lifeform is not the most pressing issue at the moment.” EDI intoned. The spectre grungingly lowered his rifle.
“Well, I never was much for rules.” He leaned back against the wall, watching intently. “But some rules are in place for a reason.”
“Is there any way to draw off the enemy until our transport arrives?” Kaiden asked.
“I have ceded control of our combat frames to other Minds, but I think I can buy us some time. However, I want to make it clear right now that I am coming with you when you leave. The Protectorate has decided that we will represent our own interests regarding this artefact. Is that acceptable?”
Kaiden glanced at Shepard, who managed a pained nod. “Looks like. Welcome aboard, EDI.”
She gave an appreciative tilt of her head, and got to work. She strode over the wreck of the Chinese tank, placing a hand on it. Silver tendrils spread out, coating the vehicle, and the tank seemed to collapse from the inside, slowly being eaten away by the nanites. Skeletal, humanoid frames began pulling themselves from the remains, limbs holding stocking guns forming seemingly from nothing, yellow domes and glowing optics taking shape. Within three minutes, the tank had disappeared almost entirely, and a dozen mechanical skeletons stood in their place.
“These aggressor platforms will engage the enemy and buy us time while we board the transports. They are rather improvised, but they should manage fo-”
Quite without warning, EDI's head exploded outward in a rain of silver liquid. Everyone scattered, the robotic soldiers wheeling on the spot and charging up the alley, their retrospectrum guns cutting lines of darkness which crossed with the green of Chinese ray-guns.
The whine of energy weapons echoed all around as battle was joined. The enemy were huddled behind tower shields, marching shoulder to shoulder between the warehouses, soldiers behind them popping up to fire brief shots or throw grenades. Kaiden summoned a psychic fist that punched against the shield, sending soldiers spawling, but almost as soon as they fell others too their place.
EDI seemed to be taking decapitation fairly well. Her headless body scrambled to it's feet, and the needle pistol fired, everything in the vicinity seeming to drop several octaves into a low, brassy note as a crackling hole in reality torn itself through the air and bit into the enemy defenses. She put a hand against a wall as if to steady herself, and took away a good square foot of material as her head grew back.
“That wasn't pleasant.” She remarked off-handedly.
Behind the advancing wall of shields, Kaiden could see the shapes of Chinese walkers, hundred-foot tall machines striding forward on three long, spindly legs. They let out blasts from their war-horns which shook the ground and rang in their ears like the aftermath of an explosion.
“You'll have to do better than that to scare us!” Massani roared, throwing a tech grenade from his omni-tool which arced over the shield wall and burst into a fireball. Then, a new sound let out, deeper and louder by an order of magnitude. Shepard let out a scream, clawing at her ears and falling to the ground, tangled in her own greatcoat and curling up before mercifully slipping into unconciousness. The pathfinders were sent staggering from the sheer force of the noise.
Then Kaiden saw it. It stood kilometers tall, looming above the landscape like a great sea creature. Dark purple and black, with claws like a great, twisted human hand that torn into the ground with every step. It stepped through an archaeology tower like a child knocking over a stack of blocks, rearing back, and that sound rang out again, the world shaking in response.
“Commissar-Commander? Shepard, can you hear me?”
Shepard came to slowly, feeling first the rhytemic pulse of her temples buffeting her brain before the sensation was displaced by a splitting pain, like somebody was opening up her skull with a power drill.
“Starshina, she's waking up.”
Vision returned in a swirl of colour; the aluminium tones of the Normandy’s interior, with the green-green of shock trooper armour blocking most of it. A woman in a white jumpsuit was leaning over her with some kind of medical device which produced a soothing strumming tone, and her headache was replaced with a creeping numbness.
After a few false starts, Shepard found her voice.
“What happened? Did we finish our mission?”
The woman (presumably a doctor of some kind) was shoved out of the way by Starshina Williams, whose was wearing her shock armour, sans the helmet. Shepard presumed from the fact the air didn't smell like ozone that the doctor had managed to convince her to at least deactivate her magnetic shields, but she certainly hadn't let her guard down.
Shu Qian was there as well, and both armed, their rifles stripped down just to their 12.7mm guns. Presumably, they had been guarding her unconscious form from the allies and watching over the doctor as she worked. Around the room there were at least half a dozen peacekeepers, spectrum rifles and solar guns on hand; undoubtedly to prevent the shock troopers from doing anything stupid either.
“The cargo is safe in the cargo bay; Alenko and Petrovsky are watching over it. There have been some... developments in the last few hours, so everyone is on edge.”
Shepard shot up with a start (and immediately regretted it as a feeling of vertigo flooded in). “Last few hours? How long have I been out?”
There was a confused exchange of looks and varying expressions between the various soldiers and medical techs, each attempting to be the one who didn't have to break the news. Finally, the doctor spoke up.
“It's been almost thirty hours.”
Shepard groaned. “Somebody get me a cup of tea and a uniform, and everyone with a rank worth caring about meet me in the briefing room in five minutes.” There was an awkward sort of shuffle around the room.
“Did I stutter? Get moving!”
Exactly four minutes and fifty-eight seconds later, Shepard took her seat in the Normandy's briefing room, a round chamber just below the bridge and above the computing room. Reels of tape buzzed on the walls and a teletype machine in the corner ran sheets of paper unread into a tray.
Every sound seemed a little too loud to Shepard. She had had headaches before; it was an inevitable side effect of being psychic, but this was different. Like little hooks in her brain, pricking at the corners of her mental defences.
Sitting opposite her was Alenko, dressed in the same white jumpsuit the allies seemed to favour when out of armour, though his retained the little buzzing ring which surrounded his head like a halo. Ashley was presumably representing her shock troopers, and added a reassuring Soviet presence to the room. EDI and the merc, Massani, lounged in chairs nearby. The mysterious shinobi, the turian agent, and a few of the higher-ranking crew of the Normandy filled the remaining seats, including a man in a baseball cap who limped into the room with great difficulty. Everyone looked sleep deprived and worn out, and most were casting their gaze at the floorplates. A sense of gloom hung around everyone's thoughts like a dark cloud.
“Alright, fill me in. What has happened in the last thirty hours?”
Everyone shifted their gaze to Alenko, who spoke slowly, the words pained.
“Once you were out, I assumed control of the team. We were cornered fairly comprehensively, but our gunships managed to get us out before things got any worse and one of your shock troopers left behind an imploder device on the way out, so there isn't much left of the dig site or our attackers.”
Shepard shot a glance at Ashley, who put on her best innocent grin. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, Commissar-Commander.”
“We met back up with the Normandy and went under cloak, and started putting some distance between us and the Atomic Kingdom fleet. But, once we were onboard they seemed to know exactly where they were, because they sent a patrol our way.”
The man in the powered suit chuckled. “For all the good it did them. They had an idea where we were, but they didn't seem to be able to pin it down close enough to fire on us because they held their fire even though they were practically on top of us.”
Alenko nodded and continued. “Eventually our fleet arrived and the patrol broke off. We outnumbered them and we weren't stuck in orbit, so it should have been a turkey shoot. We laid low to protect the cargo and watched the battle. We were really cleaning house at first, but...”
He didn't have to say it, because his feelings on the matter were powerful enough to be read like a billboard. An alien dreadnought, it's scale impossibly vast, coming out of the atmosphere, lances of red light playing across ships and smashing them, leaving Soviet cruisers wide open for the antimatter warheads of the remaining Kingdom ships. It shrugged off coilgun shells and spacewarp darts, magnetic impellers and static arcs, spectrum beams and chrono-bombs, and it ploughed through Allied ships before their chronodisplacers could save them. Space filled with burning ships.
“The fleet was devastated. We didn't stand a chance. Once we were on the back foot, the Kingdom ships beat us to the relay. Maybe a dozen ships jumped to FTL, total? They went right through us. Once they realized they didn't have the artefact, they turned their guns on the planet. Took them maybe four hours.”
An image of Eden Prime flicked to life in the holovision, the once green planet a blackened wasteland under a cloud of dust which choked the skies.
“The moment they were done they destroyed every ship in the fleet too damage to move under it's own power and hit the relay. Furthermore, they seem to have disabled it, because we can't get through and nobody's come through on the other end.”
Shepard sank back into her chair, overwhelmed. The revolutionary fleet, gone. In all likelihood, First Comrade Hackett was dead, along with tens of thousands of others, plus the population of the largest human colony and an entire Allied battle fleet.
“Have their been any survivors?”
Alenko shook his head slowly, pressing a button on his wrist comm to switch the holovision over to a system map. “We combed what was left of the fleet. Antimatter warheads don't leave much left of the target intact. Though, we have identified one civilian ship, Quarian, near one of the Jovian planets, but we're not sure if it's safe to approach, considering our cargo.”
Silence reigned in the room for the better part of a minute as Shepard worked over her options.
“Where is the nearest mass relay?”
One of the Allied personnel tapped over to a map of the galaxy, pointing to a little green dot.
“It's actually Charon relay back in Sol. If we turn the reactor up to full and dial up the spacewarping, we can be there in as little as three months. Probably about twice that, though, as we'll need to discharge our drive and probably refuel. We can skim hydrogen out of gas giants along the way, but that'll probably be a week long stopover each time.”
Shepard nodded. “That's a long trip for us, but an impossible one for the Quarian vessel. If we are going to leave, we are obliged to take them aboard; we can't leave them here with nowhere to go.”
Space Warping 2185 Another of the Allies impossible technologies, Space Warping uses a hitherto unknown quirk of physics to create a material something like synthetic element zero. However, where element zero bypasses conservation of mass by creating or reducing mass in an area, this material, decalithium, instead imposes differences in the spacial relations between objects without actually affecting the objects themselves. Versions of this technology can be used for everything from shrinking or growing an object to vastly decreasing or increasing the relative amount of space dividing two objects, including, for example, creating a ship with greater internal volume than external volume, though this isn't usually done as if the power cuts reality will quickly reassert itself to devistating results.
Extreme versions can create what are in essence wormholes, without the associated singularity, time dilation, or extreme radiation. This can be used to “fool” relativity, creating genuine faster-than-light travel, though it is not as fast or effective as mass-reduction technology. It is primarily used for teleporting objects on it's own, but when combined with element zero technology its uses increase dramatically. Most famously, Allied ships beyond beam range, rather than using conventional railguns, instead use “gravity cannons”, consisting of a small knot of artificially created non-ecludian space with an element-zero singularity in the centre. Within this knot, all outward motion leads back inward, causing the projectile to assume an “orbit”, which is also a straight line, at ever-increasing speed before the knot is collapsed and the projectile released at relativistic speeds.
Tali'Zorah nar Rayya had been mostly concerned with staying alive. A systemwide alert had pinged her system from the early warning systems around the relay a full half an hour before the threat had actually materialized, but the aged FTL engines took so much time to spool up that by the time the green light flickered to life on her console contacts had begun appearing through the relay. At the insistence of her guest, she had instead jumped to Zion, the local massive gas giant, and immediately discharged her drive into it's huge magnet field before placing one of it's many satellites between herself and observers. The human hydrogen processing facilities were already gone, the mobile construction ships having jumped to neighbouring systems within minutes of the alert, leaving Tali's ship floating among the abandoned infrastructure.
Out of her window Tali watched a multi-segment pinwheel station lunch silently through the void, trailing harvesting cables that stretched down into the atmosphere of the gas giant. Humans had almost no attachment to physical resources; they had effectively been a post-scarcity society for nearly two hundred years, even before the discovery of element zero and the mass relays. The Migrant Fleet had to fight tooth and nail for every gram of material in the Migrant Fleet, while at no point living memory had humans ever experienced a production bottleneck. They had generators that handily defied conservation of energy and wide rumours persisted that they could pull apart worlds or force black holes to regurgitate their contents.
Tali couldn't imagine what it was like to live in a society beyond want, and she certainly couldn't understand how even in such a paradise the humans found reason to make war against each other.
A more recognizable human fleet had arrived like a gathering storm just a few hours after the first, a hundred rockets of varying sizes and configurations burning across the stars. There was no negotiation and no hesitation; the newcomers dived into the attackers immediately, bizarre weapons flashing across space that confused Tali's scanners with their impossibility. The battle had resembled a fever vision; the silver-white ships grew and shrunk and distorted across space, teleporting, firing salvos of missiles at targets that didn't exist yet and scoring hits against enemy vessels ten minutes before they were fired. The chromed rockets waded through impacts that would have cracked a moon in half while glowing like a red supergiant, unleashing hundreds of tons of ordinance in seconds, sending arcs of electricity into enemy ships that lit them up from the inside and bursting packets of green liquid which ate through metal hulls. The black and green ships whirled and shifted into impossible shapes, dazzling beams of nuclear force unleashed from thousands of tiny glowing ports across their hulls, gamma radiation on par with the gas giant she was orbiting beamed in tight lasers, craft and their crews disappearing in crackles of green energy and reappearing millions of kilometers distant and somehow in greater numbers than before.
It was impossible for her to follow, but eventually it began to look like the newcomers might be winning; the disk-like ships were decreasing in number noticiably. One of the largest ships, which looked like dozens of flat cylinders suspended between four huge rockets, disappeared in a flash of anti-matter that blackened the exposed side of Eden Prime and glowed brighter than the local star.
Then, in the wake of that explosion had come the worst vessel yet. It looked like no other vessel, like a living thing which moved without visible engines. Her scanners indicated it had more element zero it in than all the other vessels present combined, and it seemed to crackle with barely contained energies. It lifted a finger lazily towards one of the human ships, and a beam of force lanced out, cutting it in half in an instant.
It was over in minutes.
The Normandy blazed a silent trail across the system, the lingering emissions of it's Minofusukī torch hidden by the swirling inky blackness of it's GAP generator. Space twisted and distorted, and with a jump the Normandy travelled a million kilometers in a tunnel of distorted space. Were there any observers, they would have seen a half a second of the Normandy pulled like a string across space before regular proportions reasserted themselves.
They snapped into place next to a tiny vessel which clung to a low orbit around a tiny moon. The Quarian ship was once an Asari patrol fighter, the sort that had been in vogue two hundred years prior before relaxation of regulation on VI controlled patrol drones made personal scout craft obsolete. It once resembled a long dart, the centre bulging around a supersized element zero core and terminating in oversized ion engine baffles and long spikes for heat dissolution. The craft barely cleared fifteen meters end to end, with a cramped crew compartment where two observers would spend weeks at a time loitering in remote systems, observing for signs of pirates or insurgents. Over the years new parts had been added in a haphazard fashion; cylindrical housing for superconducting loops to facilitate longer FTL trips, mountings for inflatable gold foil hydrogen tanks, and most recently a crude-looking accelerator weapon of indeterminate origin which jutted out from the nose.
“Hail them.” Shepard ordered, and a few minutes later a voice came over the speakers. The translation computers assigned it a young, feminine sound, with a strange inflection to the words.
“This is Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Nearby, the Normandy's helmsman gave an amused snort. “I think she's got that backward, seeing as we're the one in the billion-euro cruiser and she's got the space shitwagon.”
“Joker, shut up.” Alenko muttered.
“This is Commissar-Commander Shepard, Acting Captain of the Normandy. The Utopia Relay has been disabled and we would like to offer you passage to Sol, seeing as your vessel is rather under-equipped for the journey.”
The line cut for a few seconds on the other end before crackling back to life. “That would be excellent. There is myself and one more passenger, can you take us both?”
Shepard glanced over to Lieutenant Pressly, the highest ranking astronaut on the vessel and her effective XO for space-side affairs. “Honestly Commander we could probably take her whole fighter along on one of the snub fighter pylons if she ditched the hydrogen tanks. It's about the same size as an FX-111 Fournier and the lock is a universal magnet.”
Shepard nodded. The telemetry from Citadel-style sensors would probably be very useful for breaking down the events of the battle.
“Welcome aboard, Tali'Zorah. XO Pressly will be relaying you docking orders in a moment.”
Allied Space Fighters 2185 Space fighters have been out of style for centuries in Citadel space, used for little more than anti-pirate work and precision ordinance. With VI controlled missile buses banned by Council treaty, this means that 50 meter corvettes are about the minimum size for effective space combat vessels.
However, the Allied Federation of Planets has a very different philosophy. In the 20th century, the Allies made huge strides in spaceplane technology using fusion torches, beginning with the Achilles, a superpowered fighter plane which was effortlessly transorbital and impressively overgunned. Though cripplingly expensive to build and operate, descendants of these fighters remained in existence as response forces alongside more conventional fighters until human proliferation into space, when element zero and massive resources from neighbouring systems allowed them to become economical to build en-mass.
The current standard is the recently introduced FX-111, which shares a roughly similar profile to it's ancestors. A long cylindrical hull with a pair of heat-dissipating “wings”, ending in a fusion torch. Each of these space superiority fighters costs about as much as a Citadel frigate to manufacture, but they are armed with compatible weapon systems (in the case of the FX-111, six spectrum cannons, swarm missile racks, and a collider cannon) with a focus on short-term missions using GAP-based stealthed and time travel systems. The single pilot is cushioned in a cocoon of breathable liquid and inertial dampeners, and the parasite fighter clings to the side of larger vessels for long-range transportation. When battle is joined, the fighter detaches and joins the battle. A common tactic is for damaged or expended fighters to loop back to before the battle begins and rejoin it's parent vessel for repairs or rearming, which also allows the pilot to warn himself of future dangers.
Tali'Zorah shifted uncomfortably in her seat. It was an old Asari model, like the rest of the vessel, and like everything else it was held together with adhesives and muttered prayers. It had once been a comfortable and laid-back design, perfectly suited to spending long hours on observation, but the material had long lost it's springiness, becoming a vaguely firm mass of compressed synthetics and metal framework which felt a bit like resting against a pile of scrap metal.
She glanced over to the co-pilot's seat, which was currently unoccupied. Her guest was even more unsatisfied with the lumpy plastic of the co-pilot's seat than she had been, and while retrofitting the vessel had made a point of unbolting the seat and replacing it with a stitched leather armchair that Tali guess had to be some form of antique.
A beeping lavender light on her console pulled Tali back to reality, as the Normandy activated it's docking signal. In the space in front of the tiny scout, a small window seemed to open in space as the docking pylon, and nothing else, revealed itself from inside the GAP field.
Normally, the larger vessel would slave the computers of the docking vessel to it and guide it in automatically, but human computers typically failed to interface with Citadel technology at the best of times, nevermind when that technology was centuries old. In Tali's youth, a series of extranet memes had popped up when it was revealed that human delegations had actually brought reels of magnetic tape and bundles of punch cards with them so they could share data with the Citadel.
So Tali was forced to dock manually, easing her scout towards the pylon on tiny bursts of the RCS system and mass effect manipulation. It was delicate, frustrating work, and Tali was ill-suited to it, but after several false starts she managed to get the underside docking port roughly alinged with the clamp on the docking port.
Quite suddenly, the pylon disappeared, and a black starry canvas seemed to stretch across the viewport. Her instruments immediately began wailing from the sudden loss of information, prompting her to power down the entire console after futilely hunting for a mute button. Making her way to the centre of the vessel, she tentatively cracked the outer airlock door open, confirming the airtight seal of the docking pylon, before cycling the air.
“So, we've docked, then?” The voice, heavily distorted, came from behind Tali quite unexpectedly, and she involuntarily sat bolt upright.
“Keelah!” Tali whirled about, coming face to face (so to speak) with her guest. Like Tali, she was wearing a sealed suit; a concession to maintaining a relatively sterile environment inside the vessel, for Tali's sake. The suit seemed to Tali an extravagance, all blackened metal plates, silver and gold trimmings, and a steel mask that hid the face entirely save a narrow vision slit. Portions of the suit functioned like a cloak, pulled over bulky metal plates and what looked like chainmail sections. At the hip was, of all things, a sword, a long straight blade and jutting hilt, as well as a long, heavy metal pistol with a revolving chamber of some kind. Despite looking distinctly bulky, the suit moved completely silently, without even footsteps to mark it's passage.
Tali was sure this sort of insanity was of a distinctly human sort, but knew no details of her guest beyond that. Except that they were rich enough that curiosity wasn't warranted. Tali could probably return the fleet with a brand-new bulk frieghter, given how much she was being paid.
“Yes, we're docked. Didn't anyone every teach you not to sneak up on people?”
The helmeted face glanced down, somehow delivering an expression of utter condescension. “Quite the opposite.”
The Normandy's side of the airlock popped open with a clean hiss, contrasted with the shuddering action of the ancient actuators of Tali's vessel, and on the other side were the reception party; a woman in a long green coat, a long and jagged scar running horizontally across her face under the brim of a peaked cap, flanked on one side by a lantern-jawed Allied officer with a halo of buzzing, faintly glowing material, and on the other by a stocky and strong-looking woman in pair of green overalls. The middle figure raised out a hand for the strange human handshake gesture, and Tali accepted tentatively (other species all seemed very big on personal contact, which was rare amoung Quarians.)
“Welcome aboard the Normandy.” The woman seemed vaguely puzzled by Tali, staring at her like something was gravely wrong. Tali figured that perhaps she had simply never seen a Quarian before. “I'm Commissar-Commander Shepard, and these are Lensman First-Class Kaiden Alenko, Starshina Ashley Williams, and Lieutenant Pressley, Chief Astronaut.”
“Tali'Zorah nar Rayya, ma'am.” Tali returned, unsure exactly how much shaking she should be doing with her hands. All the contractors she had worked with did it differently, and all of them had their own expectations of how it should be returned. A terrible fear crossed her mind that perhaps she had committed some sort of awful offence with her handshaking skills, and now the crazy violent humans were going to test a gun on her that would shoot small, angry rodents whose bite would compress her into a tiny Tali-cube which would fly off into space as a warning to all other socially awkward Quarians...
It was then she realized she was still gripping uncertainly onto Shepard's hand, and she pulled her hand back, probably too quickly. “T-thank you for picking us up. Our vessel has... seen better days, and isn't really suited for longer-term travel. We were planning on waiting it out until somebody repaired the relay.”
Kaiden spoke up. “Our engineers took a look at the relay on our way past. It's gone dormant and isn't responding to any transponder frequencies; we're locked out entirely. It's just like the Omega-4 relay; no coordinates, just a big busy signal.”
Tali had seen the Omega-4 relay once, as a child, when the Migrant Fleet had passed through the system. It wasn't that you couldn't go through, because every year a couple of daredevils got together a ship and some like-minded folks, and then they disappeared forever onto the other side, never to return. Without two-way communication with the relay, there was no way to regulate your exit; you might come out a million miles off course, or only half your vessel would decelerate, or some other awful fate would befall you.
“So, we're heading to Sol, then? That's a long ways off. I think it might be a record trip, actually.”
“Our conservative estimate is six to eight months. We're going to load up on hydrogen for the reactor, then up the spacewarping and book it the old fashioned way. I'm told this ship can do a hundred and fifty light-years a day, if we really push it, but we probably can't keep that up for long.”
Tali found that figure a little hard to believe, considering most of the Migrant fleet puttered along at barely five, but she had seen enough incredible things today that she was willing to accept another.
“If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know. I've got certifications for Federation fusion and tacyon reactor maintenance.” Tali offered, tapping her omni-tool. Sure, the certifications were... slightly less than legitimate, but the knowledge wasn't. For all their convoluted technology, much of human engineering was actually very elegant, in it's own way. Hard wearing and reliant on bulky electronics, but much more straightforward than one might expect for it.
Shepard nodded, gesturing for them to follow her into the craft. The small procession made their way around a circular hallway, while Pressley rattled off something of a tour for the passengers.
“There are twelve decks, arranged vertically. Engineering takes up the bottom four, computing on five and six, medical and docking on seven, crew decks are eight and nine, command is ten and weapons fill out the rest.”
Tali glanced through one of the open hatches which led, via latter, to the deck below. Computing was a large, open room filled top-to-book with either shelves or computer boxes. Tali couldn't help but notice people everywhere; a nostalgic part of her brain reminded her it was not unlike a Quarian ship. Everywhere she looked were knots of crew members in white and blue, and a rare few in green, scurrying about the halls, fussing over banks of blinking lights and rotating tape, passing thick codebooks (on actual, physical paper!) or working on strange devices.
“Tali, I understand Quarians need a sterile environment for their quarters. If you like, we can set you up with a spot inside the medical bay; there are clean rooms there, for quarantining purposes. As for your guest... I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name.”
The figure in black shook their head. “My apologies. You can call me Solheim.” The distorted voice echoed. “I'll be content to bunk in the scout, if there are no objections.”
Pressley glanced at Shepard, who nodded briefly. “That would be fine with us. I'll have a schedule of meal times and events brought to you, though, so you don't miss anything.” The figure nodded and trod off.
The moment they were out of sight, everyone turned back at Tali. “So, whose tall, dark and mysterious?” Ashley asked, and Tali suddenly realized that she had been left alone among a gang of aliens who, as far as anyone could tell, were both psychotic and, for all intents and purposes, magical.
“I'm not entirely sure. I'm just flying for them. Their employers are paying me in enough tech and credits to fulfill my pilgrimage several times over, and they've assured me that we're doing nothing illegal.” Tali offered weakly. It was sad, really, that she didn't have more after more than a month stuck with her guest in a tiny metal box. “The upgrades on the ship are theirs.”
“Well, probably human. Could be an asari or batarian, but that eye-slit looks binocular and I don't think I've met an asari who would be caught dead in something like that. Who knows, probably criminal or black-ops.” Shepard offered.
“Black ops. How many criminals carry swords? Only question is, yours or ours?” Kaiden asked thoughtfully.
Shepard shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe ask Zaeed about it; might be a merc. It'd explain the retro getup. I won't be happy until we get them with their helmet off at some point so I can take root around in their brain a bit. Ash, make sure somebody is guarding that airlock 24/7 until we know more.”
As they approached the elevator door, there was a harsh buzz, and a red light flashed on the door. Pressley looked up at the camera, annoyed. “Door, we haven't got time for this. Open up.”
A high pitched, accented voice buzzed out of one of the speakers. “She's new! I don't like opening doors for new people!”
Pressley sighed. “Door, she's clearly under escort. Do I have to call Adams up here?” There was a whoosh as the elevator popped open. “Thank you, finally. I swear she has a screw loose or something. Like this with everybody not in an Alliance uniform...”
Tali was already running back to her ship.
Shepard stepped into the elevator with a grumble. “I'm going to talk to our merc. Deal with our guests until then.” The door shut with a whoosh as the small elevator capsule rotated away from the door. As it zipped down, Shepard poked at her new wristcomm experimentally. Pressley had assured her it was synced with the ship's systems, but the interface was still new to her. After a few minutes of trial and error she managed to get the print-out system mounted in the elevator wall working.
Zaeed had taken up residence on the second-to-last deck, next to the maintaince airlock. In flight, the room was used for fabrication; a bank of nanolathes against the wall could spit out replacement parts, small arms and other common items. The merc had wasted no time, pulling several of the material blocks from storage and, using his omni-tool, melting them down into the omni-gel slurry preferred by Citadel tech. He had unfolded his backpack into his own lathe, which had, in the past few hours, spat out a modular worktable, a set of gunsmithing tools, and about a dozen replacement parts for his armour and weapon.
Shepard nearly tripped on the soldier's beat up old helmet as she came through the hatch, the dented silver helm bouncing along the floor with a series of muffled clangs. The old merc barely looked up from his work.
“Sorry 'bout the mess. Greenshirts did a real number on my gear. Haven't seen Jesse this bad in quite a while. Bent the frame a little on that last one's skull, I think...”
The little bullpup lay on the table, stripped to it's core components. It was an unholy mesh of human engineering and alien science; a mass accelerator forcing each round out the barrel as the motor kicked in, a soviet-style blowback system with a distinctly Allied spectrum rangefinger shining down the barrel. A mass of wires ran from the scope to the magazine, and then up into Zaeed's wrist, where it interfaced with his omni-tool. His other hand glide over the weapon with care, a small omni-stylus massaging bent and broken material back to it's original shape.
Shepard lay a freshly printed photograph on the worktable, the ink not even dry. “Zaeed, can you identify this uniform?”
Zaeed took only a brief glance at the black-and-white photo before tapping a few keys on his omni-tool. A video screen popped up, a montague of footage featuring figuring in black armour and grey trenchcoats scurrying down alleys, loitering outside of doors, a few blurry shots of them engaged in a gunfight with some Blood Pack types. Shepard couldn't help but notice some prominent religious symbols; mostly crosses and priestly collars but more than a few crescent moons or six-pointed stars.
“Yeah, I know them. Terminus merc outfit, best we could tell. Would call 'em small time, but we've seen their lot throw around money like it was nothing. We suspected they might be dedicated to bodyguarding, assassination and investigation, because we see a few in Omega every few weeks, always on the go somewhere, but they don't tend to stir up too much trouble so we mostly leave 'em alone. Got into a barfight with one of them once, though. That's how I got this.” He indicated to a knot of scar tissue lining his jaw.
“Do you know what's with the crusader getup?” Shepard asked, staring at the video. It had changed to show a presumably younger Zaeed (looking no less weathered, but missing a few scars) getting his face punched in by one of the mysterious figures, who was wearing what looked like an oversized gauntlet emblazoned with a swooping eagle.
“Not a bloody clue. Never really considered it. Us mercs are a nostalgic bunch anyway, still pining for the good ol' Roman Empire or walking around dressed like Samurai. The idea of a bunch of blokes in knight shit and religious getup wasn't really anything special. Nice and distinct, though.”
Shepard watched as some nondescript Batarian merc was nearly sawn in half by the force of one of the revolvers, the welder firing one in each hand like an action movie star. “I'm going to put you into the rotation for guard duty outside of the shuttle. Have you wear Federation gear, pose as an ex-merc. See if you can't strike up a conversation.”
Zaeed nodded. “Alright, but I'll be billing you for hazard pay every second I'm in boy scout getup. There is something distinctly wrong with a man my age wearing a skintight suit.”
Shepard raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Hazard pay?”
“A few bucks extra for putting your ass out on the line? You don't think I'm doing this for free, do you? Every minute I'm on this ship is a minute I'm not accepting a job somewhere else. I have my bottom line to consider.”
Shepard made a thoughtful face. “Yes, you're right. I forgot about your capitalist games, I should have considered that. I'll tell you what, you drop off your invoice, and I'll see about charging you room and board.”
Zaeed gave what could possibly be interpreted as a smile, by one who was feeling rather generous. “Point taken. Wasn't expecting that from a commie. Gotta wonder how you made commissar with an attitude like that.”
“Clearly I just didn't understand how much fun as a member of the bourgeoisie, or I'd never have signed on.” Shepard kicked aside another wayward piece of armour on her way out. “And get this place cleaned up, or I'll have you evicted!”
Though considerably smaller, once would be hard pressed to even notice that this fleet had fought a battle. Most blows had been absorbed by shielding, never even touching the hull. Those that had been damaged had only been lightly so; the ones which were limping or disabled were abandoned and destroyed. Even then, that surface damanged had disappeared completely in the last two days, automated duplicator arrays recycling damaged plate into fresh ones, reconstituting worn surfaces into a mirror-smooth finish.
Still, the balance of the fleet was wrong. The traditional flagship was gone, it's antimatter core overloaded in low orbit above Eden Prime as it attempted to stabilize itself, battered with time-displaced missiles until the shields had failed and it's aluminium skin had been pierced by Soviet coilguns. It had taken the better part of a continent with it when it went, not to mention several enemy ships and most of it's escorts, but it's absence was noticeable, a hole in the fleet which could not be filled by any lesser vessel.
Instead, it was filled with one far greater.
The dread machine which lay at the center of the fleet was of obviously alien design, from it's mottled purple hull to the menacing glow of it's running lights. In contrast to the bright points of light from the antimatter engines of it's escort, it glide silently through space as though compelled by nothing more than it's own will. The core command, the puppets who believed they controlled the strings, had teleported out of their failing flagship in it's final moments, leaving thousands of others to die without a thought, and now they congregated in this great vessel, in a room which it allowed to exist for this purpose. They saw themselves as powerful, but their minds had been bent to another purpose so easily that they had not even noticed, never mind resisted.
Those same few minds now sat and argued, a petty and meaningless exchange of words and blame over what had occurred. The great machine thought it somewhat amusing that these thralls would bicker; it was reminded of the way it's own mind formed consensus from billions of sub-processes, each of which an intellect beyond the understanding of these few. This squabble was a pale imitation, those considering themselves old and wise, for they had lived a few centuries, exchanging words inside a mind which had endured for aeons.
That great mind was now analysing what it had seen, processing the experience, savouring the challenge. The last cycle had been fierce, but they had fallen for the trap more completely than could be expected, their entire civilization collapsed overnight. It had been the work of but a few hundred years to exterminate them all... or so they thought.
It had not been so simple. A handful had escaped. Some, frozen in time to rebuild their empire, were of no consequence; though the discovery by the species of this cycle had made for a good diversionary attack. Nor was it the ones which Harbringer had claimed, the husks it had converted into an army under it's direct control, rather than the control of the consensus. There were dark rumours muttered that the Oldest of the Old Ones had his own schemes with those, but it was of no consequence. The cycles would continue as they always did. That pattern was not easily broken.
The ones that interested Sovereign were different. Somehow, they had struck after their race was already dead, and severed Sovereign from the Citadel. This cycle should have ended two centuries ago, not long after the first machine intelligences had arrived, but there had been a complication. It had to find out how this was done, so it could not be done again.
It was merely good fortune that the organics had survived this long. Sovereign had scoured the galaxy, moving between stars without need of the mass relays, looking for a solution. It knew sabotage, it knew that that last cycle were determined enough and clever enough to manage it, and it knew that, for all it's power, it could not win on it's own. To fly into the guns of the fleet around the Citadel on it's own would be suicide, and it's kin would be trapped in dark space for ten thousand more years, until the fail-safe triggered and they took the Alpha Relay to investigate. By then, there was no telling what sort of power the organics, or more likely, the synthetics who will have replaced them, could wield.
Instead, Sovereign had gone seeking thralls. It had considered, at first, the synthetics, the so-called “Geth”; the irony would be great, and they were undoubtedly effective warriors. But then a new race arrived, one with powers not seen in hundreds of cycles, weapons which might actually threaten the oncoming storm. The last time they had fought a cycle on a near-equal footing, when they had waited too long and the synthetics had taken over near completely, it had cost them tens of thousands of years and hundreds of his kin to defeat them. The tenacious intelligences they had battled had fired mass accelerators across star systems which carved holes through planets, crushed stars into supernovas to disrupt the relays, converted gas giants into intelligences to plan their war and used time and space itself as a weapon. They had even made progress on a device which Harbringer had said could have severed them from the Consensus, destroyed the perfect harmony from which they drew strength.
Sovereign had dipped into the pocket universe whose transient state allowed him perfect recall of nearly a billion years of existence, reliving those moments when their absolute superiority had been challenged. There was something there, a nameless feeling that a less being might call terror, and the Old Machine had no intent of experiencing it again. This cycle must end, before it was too late.
Then, a stroke of luck. A splinter group of the newcomers, puttering along in slower than light ships, with a colony anchored around a star. Isolated from humanity for hundreds of years but no less powerful for it, with technologies which it had never before witnessed. But for their mastery of science they had abandoned their will and their drive, the anger which once fuelled them drained and given way to an apathy, their population ageing without replacement.
Sovereign had given them new purpose, and they had given him a fleet and an army which would let him take the Citadel and match the newcomers on equal footing. And above the world called Eden Prime, one of their agents had slipped in, under the chaos and misdirection, and he had found the artefact of the last cycle, the beacon of the Protheans which was to tell their reawakening fellows the good news, how the Old Machines had been foiled. His mind filled with ancient knowledge, that agent had understood immediately, how it was done, and he had spoken the name of the lost planet of Ilos, where the deed was carried out.
The agent was a rarity. It had the willpower to resist indoctrination, but it had allowed it willingly, submitting itself to the cause of the Old Machines. In exchange, Sovereign had allowed the man to keep his sanity and his will, and was now going to reward him in a more concrete way. He could feel the man moving through the passages towards the core, towards the bickering fools who had outlived their purpose. It's sensors could feel the sword being drawn, detect the pinpricks of exotic radiation from it's blade, and bask in the blood of the fallen as the weapon did it's deadly work.